Letter from South America

by Russell Cobb


My wife was running out of makeup. “You should wait and get it in Buenos Aires,” I told her. “It’s the Paris of Latin America.”

“We should get a new stroller for our trip,” she said. We were taking our 2-year-old on a jaunt through South America—four countries in one month— cashing in a travel prize I had won.

“We should,” I agreed. “The people in Buenos Aires are going to have really hip strollers.”

Days later, I was talking up Buenos Aires again. “We should find a cool apartment and just chill for a while. It’s, like, the Brooklyn or Austin of South America. Not a ton to see, but lots of cool shops and restaurants. A really trendy place.”

I don’t think she needed convincing when it came to the coolness factor of Buenos Aires. Still, I kept on about it, telling her how stylish and cosmopolitan the place was. Maybe I was protesting too much. I’d moved to Buenos Aires fresh out of college in the late 1990s, and Paris it wasn’t. The country had been propped up by a corrupt government that sold off everything from the airport to street signs. Everyone was up to their eyeballs in debt. The city had a reputation for having the most psychiatrists per capita in the entire world. Shortly after I came back to the U.S., the whole country essentially declared bankruptcy.

“Why did you move here?” a director of an English-language school in the city had asked when I went to apply for a job. The economy—as usual—was in crisis. Descendants of Spanish and Italian emigrés were queuing up at the embassy, trying to claim the nationality their forebears left behind.

I didn’t really know why I moved there. I still don’t know. It seemed like an interesting place. A place populated by European immigrants where I could escape the gringo label that dogged me on my travels through Mexico. I was a huge Jorge Luis Borges fan and thought that his native city might work its magic on me.

I struggled through seven months, getting paid under the table and surviving in a place where surviving was an end unto itself. At the time, it seemed to me that the city wasn’t so much the Paris of Latin America as it was a bargain-basement, second-hand metropolis, a cheap and tawdry place that had been worn out by 1970s military dictatorships and then discarded into the give-away pile of capital cities.

The people—porteños, in the local vernacular—made Parisians seem downright jolly. The entire population seemed to pass the time complaining, cheating, or throwing up their hands about what a malcontent, corrupt country they lived in. I spent most of my time in my decaying, French-looking apartment reading crime novels and sipping maté, biding my time for my next move.

So why was I so keen on going back 14 years later? Most of the friends I had made in Argentina moved out when the country went broke in 2002. When the Argentine peso lost 90 percent of its value early in the millennium, lots of foreigners started moving in, buying up cheap real estate and partying all night. Dinner at the best restaurants—including a bottle of wine—was running at about $5 a person, I was told. But that wasn’t us anymore. We were thirty-somethings with a toddler. If we were up in the wee hours, it wasn’t going to be to a party.

I guess I wanted to go back and see that I had been right all along, that Buenos Aires was the place to be. That I had been ahead of my time. I also wanted my $5 steak dinner, accompanied by a good Malbec.

While we were in Quito in early June, a volcano erupted in Chile. The winds blew a cloud of ash eastward, over most of Argentina, and the airports in the country were shut down. Quito itself is surrounded by volcanoes, one of which covered the city in ash in 1999. This was one of the things—along with kidnappings, muggings, and earthquakes—that had prevented me from really looking forward to the Ecuador and Peru segments of the trip.

If we weren’t robbed in Quito (which we weren’t), we might be in Lima, another city the U.S. State Department cautions its citizens to avoid. The first few days, I stepped around the city very lightly, on guard against anything that might be a prelude to an attack. Our expensive camera stayed tucked down in our stroller in a plastic bag. We bought cheap rings and left our real wedding bands back home.

After a few days, I started to chill out. I met a designer and shopkeeper named Rafael who had learned English at OU. He loved Oklahoma, but there were a few things he never quite understood and he wondered if I could clarify. What was it with these huge pick-up trucks? Why did no one ever walk anywhere? Was the mullet still in fashion? With Rafael at our side, we felt protected and at peace. I talked to a bookstore owner in Quito who told me horror stories of Americans being drugged and robbed or raped, but didn’t think we had much to worry about.

“Just don’t make yourselves a target,” he said, “and you’ll be fine.”

We won’t have to worry about any of this stuff in Buenos Aires, I told my wife. There, we could walk around as if we were at home, snapping photos and blending in as two more olive-skinned Argentines.

The day before we were supposed to leave Lima for Buenos Aires, the vol- cano erupted again. Airports were shut down in Argentina. We shrugged our shoulders and went back to La Mar, a restaurant that might have the world’s freshest ceviche and smoothest cocktails. I ordered a second pisco sour—this one with coca leaves—during my lunch.

When flights were cancelled a second day, I felt despondent. The nasty grey mist that hangs over Lima in June started to resemble the state of our psyches. On day three, the Argentine Civil Aviation Authority threw up its hands and left decisions to individual airlines. Ours, LAN, decided to fly, but, for some reason, cancelled our specific flight. When it looked like our flight might be cancelled for a fourth day, we went to the airport and begged them to get us on a flight out of Lima.

“How about Santiago?” I asked at the ticket counter. “Can’t you reroute us through there?”

Three hours later, we were on a flight to Santiago. We spent a lovely day in Chile before we finally found a plane to Buenos Aires. The immigration officer in Argentina shuffled through our papers without even looking to see if they matched the passports. He didn’t so much as glance at our kid. Everyone seemed annoyed at something. Our taxi driver smoked Lucky Strikes as we watched a crumbling city come into view.

Our apartment had been described as a “French beaux-arts building” and, indeed, it might make a good setting for a post-apocalyptic movie about Paris. Plaster chips from a moldy wall fell into the hallway. The spiral staircase was crumbling in places. We walked in and I sought out the terrace, a place I imagined myself sipping espresso while watching the beautiful people make their promenade. The terrace was a coffin-sized area that opened onto an airshaft where other people hung their laundry.

The landlord’s representative wanted an extra $300 deposit. In cash, now. “I sent a $200 check two weeks ago,” I said. “I don’t know anything about that,” she said. “We require $300 in case you break something.”

Sure enough, it was buried in the lease, but the owners hadn’t mentioned it. The manager, Sandra, had nicotine-stained teeth and fizzled, dyed, platinum hair. She looked beaten down by a country that recently went through three presidents in a single year. We gave her the money, plus what we owed for the five nights we would be there.

Then, she wanted the rent money for the five nights we’d been stuck in Lima and Santiago.

“But the airport was closed. There was a volcano.”

“You’ll have to take that up with the landlords.”

The landlords wanted the money because, in their view, they had held the apartment for us and not rented it out to other foreigners. I pointed out that it might have been hard to rent to other tourists with the airport closed. Things got heated. We threatened to leave the next day.

In the meantime, we wandered about the city looking for bargains. Everything had become terribly expensive. Inflation had been 30 percent the previous year, as several people took pains to point out, and no one, especially the government, knew what to do to keep prices down. The neighborhood we chose—“Palermo Soho,” they called it—was full of trendy, boutique-y shops, but no one was in them. In shop after shop, we were the only customers, and we were completely ignored. Was it the infamous Argentine arrogance or the simple knowledge that with a crappy economy and high prices, no one was likely to buy anything?

My wife’s cousin had been one of the many foreigners to move to Buenos Aires after the financial collapse. He had done well, starting a juice bar and now running a sports bar that seemed to cater to North Americans. At brunch, he told me that the whole country was bordering on chaos. No one pays taxes. No one trusts the police. It was impossible to use credit cards because no one trusted the banks. Even the currency’s real value seemed to be in doubt. Each time I handed someone a bill worth more than $2, the person held it up to the light and inspected it. Some businesses preferred American dollars, but, with so much counterfeit currency going around, that was in doubt, too.

At some point, someone gave me change in American dollars and I felt a papery bill that, on close inspection, looked a little too green in the green parts and too white in the white parts. I quickly passed it on to a taxi driver. This was the country that used to be the South American promised land, a place whose per capita income was on par with Canada in the 1920s. Now, it seemed on the verge of anarchy.

We were happy to be moving on to Brazil, but first we needed to get our security deposit back. An apartment manager came to inspect the place and forked over $100. I told him we had paid $300 in cash on the first day. The manager shrugged his shoulders.

“That’s what I was told to give you,” he said. “Take it up with them.”

“Where are they?” I asked.

“In Miami,” he said.

My wife never got her makeup, but I got my steak, a juicy, tender, half pound of grass-fed Argentine bife grilled right in front of me at a place called Don Julio’s. When the final bill came, I could barely muster the courage to convert the total from pesos into dollars. I didn’t have to think for too long, though. Don Julio’s was the only place I visited in Buenos Aires that took plastic. I whipped out the Visa and savored the last drops of my Malbec.