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Good Airs and Fair Winds

My first visit to Buenos Aires, Argentina

Now this is the story all about how
My seasons got flipped, turned upside down...

This past week, I went to Buenos Aires, Argentina - for "work".

Last fall, I heard about a company called Grabr through a Facebook group for job postings (Albert’s List).

Grabr is a start-up that connects international buyers with travelers headed their way. Locals seeking rare or hard-to-acquire items from another country set up “Grab requests” through the website, and travelers headed there can submit bids to courier the requested items for a negotiated fee. Once an offer has been accepted, the traveler and purchaser designate a date and public location to deliver the item; no money changes hands, since all funds are pre-paid through the Grabr website.

If you live in Portugal and want to buy a rare US-based comic book, for example, you might not want to spend $50 shipping to acquire it. Or maybe you simply can't even find a copy of it, or anyone willing to buy and ship it for you. Grabr helps you find someone who's headed your way and willing to buy the book for you for a fee you negotiate together. Kinda like Priceline, just for someone's luggage space.

I definitely had my hesitations starting out, and my friends voice their fair share of concerns and jokes to me as well. Was I going to become a drug mule? :D How did I know I wasn’t going to be kidnapped or killed?

Ultimately, I felt comfortable traveling for Grabr after monitoring the company for almost a full year before I signed up to deliver any Grabs. Within that timeframe, the company has raised several million in funding and has been covered in TechCrunch and other tech news several times. Of more personal relevance, I heard from a handful of fellow solo female travelers who had couriered items for Grabr in the past, and all assured me that they had safe, uneventful experiences traveling for the company. Always good to know!

If you have a trip overseas booked, and would like to make some extra cash to offset your travel expenses, you can bid on grabs requested by locals at your travel destination.

Once I booked my flight, I bid on items through the website that looked worth my while. I chose high-priced items with small physical size (Roku express, etc.) to maximize my luggage space, and placed my bids at ~20-50% of the item value. My bid amount covered shipping, taxes, potential customs and duties, and whatever I felt my services were worth (minimum suggested fee is $5 USD). I was also able to see what other travelers have bid for their services. For instance, most iPhone 7 grab requests will have a few offers from $50-150 USD; the person requesting the iPhone has the option of choosing which bid they want. Obviously, the lowest-price bid will most likely win out, but additional factors may play a role in the decision as well - whether or not a traveler has previous reviews, or the date by which the item will be delivered, for instance.

Since I didn't log on to Grabr until a week or two before my departure date, I chose to only bid on products available via Amazon Prime, with free 2-day shipping that would almost guarantee items arrived on my doorstep before I flew out. Once it arrived, I usually removed the item from its packaging (for packing efficiency) and stowed it away into my suitcase. As a thoughtful touch, I brought a number of reusable shopping bags from home to help everyone carry their purchases, especially if they had ordered bulky items and/or needed to take public transportation to get to me.

One of the most time-consuming parts of the process was responding to messages and inquiries from potential travelers. A lot of people using Grabr on the other end are understandingly wary about how the service works. Not speaking Spanish was a bit of a pain, but Google Translate did a great job of getting the point across. I put in some good customer service attitude, explained to the best of my ability in simple terms, and walked them through the process.

A day or two before I departed, I messaged everyone, asking them to meet me in the lobby of my hotel within a 3-hour timeframe. Since I was only in Buenos Aires for two nights, I chose to give myself enough time to reach the hotel and grab lunch before meeting people that same afternoon, so I would have my evening and the following day free to explore the city. I also gave them the option of meeting me on my last day, a few hours before I headed back to the airport. This gave me plenty of time to sightsee a little bit on the day in between.

I also shared my contact information with my recipients via WhatsApp, although the Grabr app has pretty robust messaging and worked very well for the same purpose. Argentina loves WhatsApp, though, so I just wanted to make sure communication was as easy for the locals as possible. Of course, by now we'd messaged back and forth at least a dozen times, and I felt comfortable/safe with each individual as we began to get to know each other a little bit better. It still felt strange, and I still brought a "Craigslist"-level of caution into our interactions, but I began to relax as I thought of the dozens of times I've had safe interactions while traveling elsewhere.

 

US travelers to Argentina have a two-suitcase allowance of 50 pounds each, and American citizens don’t need a visa to enter.

Customs and immigration was no more difficult than in most other countries I’ve visited. I did notice that almost everyone else on the flight with me had a good amount of luggage with them – with some interesting stuff like a full quilt set and a surfboard – so I felt like baggage claim took longer than usual.

From the Ezeiza International Airport (EZE), it took me about an hour to get from the airport to the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, where I was staying. Uber is the cheapest option for efficient transportation, since I didn’t feel like wrangling 100 pounds of luggage on a public bus when I’d just have to transfer at the main station anyway. I paid about $21 USD for a one-way ride from the airport during non-rush hour time, and ~$28 USD for a ride back from the city to the airport during evening rush hour. I’d definitely suggest leaving very early for the airport if you need to travel during high-traffic times, because 1) Uber surge pricing is still pretty real (I was originally quoted 3x my incoming rate) and 2) it can easily take an extra 30-45 minutes to navigate through traffic.

I’ve been on hundreds of flights since I was little bitty. So of course - because Murphy’s Law - I couldn’t find my passport right before departure. I moved a week ago, and I knew which storage pouch the passport and other important documents were in, but the pouch itself had been rearranged into another spot for safekeeping. I got really lucky, and found the passport with about 45 minutes to spare before leaving for the airport. Cutting it way too close!

My flight itself was totally easy and uneventful. One great thing about United’s recent customer service issues is that their flights are much less packed. For my long flight to Houston, I had a whole row to myself and then after that, I had an empty seat next to my flight row buddy – so nice.

I'm more used to the Boeing 777-300s that fly between the West Coast and Taiwan, which have 4-to-a-row middle seats; by contrast, my 777-200 with its 3-to-a-row middle seats felt like automatic luxury. Granted, I’m not all that picky about my travel accommodations, because sacrificing a little bit of comfort for cheap/free/awards travel is totally the name of my game.

I also loved the flight itinerary, both for departure and arrival, I left in the evenings and arrived bright and early in the morning, just in time to start my day. This was one of the first times where I’ve slept for the majority of a 10+-hour flight. I think the fact that we just went straight south, instead of crossing 10 time zones as I usually do on my international trips, had a lot to do with that.

I stayed at the Palermitano Hotel - a small boutique hotel in Palermo, one of the nicest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, with bright sunshine and tons of colorful street art. I'd highly recommend this location for first-time visitors to the city, because the staff were very courteous and everyone spoke pretty fluent English. They did look slightly askance at my constant exchanges in the lobby, but were very supportive and curious once I explained how Grabr works.

The hotel is host to one of the best restaurants in town, but - spoiler alert - Sipan is NOT cheap. I didn't realize the pisco sour I ordered at my hotel bar was $16 USD. Instead, I opted to walk around a little bit, relying on Yelp and Eater to point me in the direction of local chorizo sandwiches (Chori), an intriguing Jewish-Argentine fusion restaurant; and good ol' Argentinean steak.

One of my bigger surprises was that Argentineans eat dinner super late!!!! And stay up way late too! I arrived at Mishiguene Fayer around 7 pm my first night in Buenos Aires, and nobody else arrived to dine until I left around 8:15 pm. And since I was in Argentina, I wanted to visit a tango club to watch some lovely, lively dancing. I Googled some nearby recommendations, and the local tip was to "arrive around 1:30 am if you want a good view, but the real dancing doesn't truly warm up until about 3 am." Good golly, I'm not the night owl I thought I was.

My very lovely, very empty restaurant where I apparently fall in the "early dining" category.

Apparently there are a LOT of dog-walkers in Palermo. I came across a guy with over a dozen dogs on leashes, patiently waiting outside an apartment complex for yet another one to be brought out to him. Then a little later on during my walk, I passed a park just positively swarming with well-behaved dogs, all separately tethered to leashes fastened to tree branches, all barking their heads off.

While I did fine without cash for most of the trip, it was hard to get around without cash once you left technology (Uber, Yelp-reviewed restaurants). Once I ran into a need for cash, it felt like I kept needing it... and there seemed to be less ATMs around than I would have expected, somehow. (I'm told that there were some fraud issues with scammers stealing debit card numbers using hidden video cameras, so most stand-alone ATMs were taken off the streets as a stop-gap measure. However, I wasn't able to confirm this theory. Regardless, most of the banks had ATMs and my Charles Schwab debit card worked well for me. I highly recommend this card to international travelers, since Schwab refunds any ATM transaction fee, anywhere in the world. This way, I never have to stop in to my bank to pick up local currency before I travel - so convenient!)

The ATM situation led me to one of my other discoveries - everyone local was unfailingly kind to me; I never felt unsafe despite my lack of Spanish-speaking skills. Once, a very nice guy who'd just ended a waitering shift somewhere handed me 50 pesos to help me pay my cover for the tango club because I couldn't find a working ATM anywhere nearby. "Just get me next time," he sweetly urged before smiling and heading along his merry way.

So - that's how my first visit to my fifth continent went!! (I started in North America, went to Asia early on, visited Europe in my teens, Australia in my 20s, and now South America in my 30s. Just have Africa and Antartica left)

Wanna travel with Grabr? Fill out this form and let me know - I'll refer you. No, I don't get any bonuses for sharing the love.

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