Don Reddick
The Travelogues

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Buenos Aires, Argentina

Beware of the poorer countries. I've heard the spectrum of complaints about the danger in Latin America. The police are the enemy and will routinely shake you down. Cab drivers will cheat you if they can, and if you are unfortunate enough, yours may rob you. In a bar you should pay for your drinks one at a time, or a surprise may greet you at the end of the evening when you get your bill. In Mexico City for my first time, I asked a hotel helper what the customary tip was for carrying my bag to my room. "Oh," the enterprising young man calculated, "about twenty dollars." In Brazil a friend's hotel room was burglarized, and when he called the police they shook him down. Another co-worker was shaken down at the airport by the exit police. I was saddened but not surprised to read in my home town newspaper of an elderly couple who had been robbed in Buenos Aires by their cabbie, and when they went to the police station were assessed a fee "to conduct the investigation." But never have I personally seen such effort to fleece the gringos as I saw in Argentina today.

It was my very first trip to Argentina and I was excited. I was advised by some fellow workers to frequent the cordoned-off streets "to the left of the Panamericano Hotel facing the obelisk," where a maze of walking shops and restaurants, thronged with a mass of humanity, line the thin corridors. It did seem a nice place, a nice time of year on December 8th, mid summer in the lower hemisphere, and about seventy-five degrees fahrenheit.

Street Scene - Buenos Aires, Agentina
Street Scene - Buenos Aires, Agentina
I enjoyed my stroll, appraising the various leather goods Argentina is famous for, though I did not feel the prices were bargains. I sniffed the aroma of the narrow streets, a mixture of freshly baked bread, newly baked queso y jamon empanadas, and a strong smell of coffee mixed with the hovering, leaden pollution which permeate most large South American cities. I was hungry but decided to wait before eating, attempting to adjust to the three hour time difference from Boston. Instead I'll stop for a beer.

Una cerveza, por favor...

"Come in, come in!" the man exhorted, and I allowed myself to be taken down a flight of stairs and into a darkened nightclub. Once seated I saw nothing for a few moments until my eyes adjusted. I saw I was the only one there. A woman realized I spoke English and summoned another to speak to me, take my order.

"What do you like?" she asked.

"Deseo una cerveza fria, por favor."

Now get this straight - that's all I asked for . One cold beer. This is what I got: the woman slaps her hands sharply, then sits down next to me. After a moment of small talk, during which I realized more was sold here than beer, my una cerveza and her bottle of Champaign arrive. "No, no, no," I protested at the Champaign, but the server smiled and opened them both. "No!" I said again, and then drank my beer. When I was finished I asked for my bill, and it was promptly delivered.

It was for $330.

An argument ensued - I would not pay it. Funny thing was, I thought it was for $30 and wouldn't pay that; when I realized it was for THREE HUNDRED and thirty, I laughed. The woman was joined by another woman, and then the man who brought me in. He was about six-foot-four, with an almost comical, mean face. Another man came up from behind the bar. The man sitting next to me began firing a staccato of angry Spanish I could not begin to comprehend.

I shook my head.

The woman who had sat with me became alarmed, saying over and over, "He will quarrel if you do not pay."

I said no.

He punched me in the stomach.

My comprehension of Spanish increased dramatically.

I said no.

He punched me in the stomach.

I said no. I blurted that it was ridiculous, that they were robbers, that I thought $330 a bit steep for una cerveza.

He punched me in the stomach.

They began screaming in unison, a torrent of Spanish in the darkened room, my exit barred by the big man, his women at his side, reinforcements against the bar. They shook the bill at me. I still argued, but in truth my heart was sinking. All I could envision was stab wounds, broken glasses, and an appointment with the Argentine police. Who would they believe, the Spanish speaking bar owner or some wise-guy gringo? I asked them to leave me alone for a moment, to think. To my astonishment, they nodded and retreated across the room.

Sitting alone, I looked around. I couldn't even see the door. The headline flashed in my mind: "Local Man Found Dead in Argentina." But before I could make any rational plan, the onslaught returned. "You must pay! You must pay!" the woman shouted as the men fired words from contorted, angry faces. I decided I would throw a twenty dollar bill on the table, and try to escape. I got my wallet half way out when one of the women lunged across the table and grabbed it, then handed it to the big man. And with complete and utter mortification, I watched as they took every last dollar I had.

Outside I stood in shock: one hour into a two week stay and I've got no money. I rushed back to my hotel, and urgently sought the manager for advice.

"Ah," he nodded sympathetically. "We have many complaints as this." A fellow American from St. Louis I had met earlier overheard me, approached and said, "They got you too?" I asked the manager if the policia could do anything for me. He shook his head earnestly. He does not believe so. Why not, how can they allow this to go on in broad daylight, in a licensed, open establishment in downtown Buenos Aires? He asks if I have a receipt for the money. Of course not! He shrugs. Then, when I cast him the eye which truly asks the truth, he combs his fingers together and moves them in and out.

"These people and the policia..." is all he says, and I comprendo. He is good enough to advance me $200 against my American Express card. He tries to say something to show how sorry he is.

"When I in New York, I no go to your clubs, either," he says.

"At least in New York," I snap, "they have the decency to kill you for your $300, not try to tell you it's what the beer cost."

The man smiles sadly and shrugs once again.

"I am sorry for Argentina."