Crazy drivers as cultural exemplars?

So I’m now at the Argentina Tango Hotel in downtown for the program orientation. There are about 20 other students here, but most of them are doing just language study for 3 months, instead of language study and academic courses for 5 (which is what I’m doing). Most of them are from the UC’s too, since the UC Education Abroad Program just opened this offering for spanish language study.

We had a quick welcome introduction yesterday followed by helado (ice cream) at this big fancy mall on the Calle Florida which is a major tourist trap. It’s a beautiful place, but far too much like orange county for my taste. The ice cream was good at least.

Later on we walked over to the actual Expanish school for a tour and some lunch. It, like most things in this city, is in a beautiful building with one of those antique elevators that are basically just metal cages, but beautiful ones at that. So we got to see the classrooms but we won’t actually be taking our intensive spanish course there, we’ll be taking classes at Universidad de Belgrano. It was a nice visit anyway with food and even a short live performance by a traditional tango band.

Today we had our long orientation with program directors and activities coordinators and all of the lovely people who have calmed a lot of my fears about surviving this city. One woman who spoke was a friend of one of the directors who came to speak about acclimating to the Porteño life and embracing the differences and difficulties we’ll face. She had some great anecdotes and advice about how the most uncomfortable and difficult moments will be the most valuable. She also had an interesting take on crazy South American driving as a microcosm of the larger culture.

Essentially, those of us from the US tend to see traffic and driving in Latin America as absolute chaos and suicidal madness, and yet accidents are comparatively rare, so how does it work? Her take was that people driving in Buenos Aires and other major Latin American cities are actually “driving together” in the sense that they are continually aware of and communicating with their surrounding drivers and so each near-collision move is really something of an improvised coordination between all involved. The US presents the opposite scenario with most people driving “individually” in that there are concerned primarily with their own direction and expect all others to follow the external organization patterns of traffic laws. Thus when someone makes a mistake, say on the freeway, all hell breaks loose and you get a 7 car pile up. So essentially the emphasis here is adaptation, as opposed to following the rules to the T like in the US.

She also had some great advice about dealing with the culture shock of coming from an environment where time efficiency is essential to a place where time is fluid and something to be renegotiated whenever necessary.

The standards of a high quality of life here are so different from what we aspire to in the US, but I think it’ll be refreshing at the very least.


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