Surprise to Buenos Aires, Argentina
The beginnings of this story
began long before her birthday in the middle of November. And it would be less than chivalrous to
disclose which birthday this was, so I’ll just begin with the moment I was just
thinking about different things to do for her birthday. A message came across the Internet to my desk
about great deals in Buenos Aires. Marcy
loves to travel as much as I do and neither of us had ever been to Argentina. I checked out the value of the dollar against
their currency. Argentina was in the
midst of an inflationary period that was disastrous to the Argentineans. If I toured there with Marcy we’d introduce
the more stable dollar into the economy and get some great deals too. After all, the only thing Marcy likes better
than travel is shopping and Buenos Aires is being described as a shopper’s
paradise. Other cities I considered were
Lisbon in Portugal, Berlin in Germany, Dublin, Ireland, and Jerusalem. These are wonderful cities but when I looked
closely at what the dollar could get Buenos Aires was clearly the best bargain
for us. When considering weather
conditions at the time we’d travel, around the middle of November, Buenos Aires
was the easy winner. The cost of a
flight and distance in miles and time were all too close to be important
Over a month before her actual
birth date I began to put the pieces together.
I talked with Marcy’s very close friend Karen, who said she thought
Marcy would prefer to be with her friends instead. I thought about that, but bought the tickets
an hour after she and I spoke. I shopped
the Internet to find a great hotel at a good price. The brutal devaluation of the Argentine Peso
meant that many businesses offered prices in US Dollars, not Pesos. In February of 2002 the Argentine Peso was
equivalent to one US dollar. Black
market traders had the peso valued less and the government decided to allow the
Argentine Peso to float freely. Instead
of stabilizing as they had hoped, the value sunk further and further until now,
the Peso can be easily traded at a rate of 3.54 Peso to one dollar. There are other countries that have made
their currency, which had long history of losing value as a simple part of
At the time I started locking
everything in was about two weeks after we spent a weeklong retreat at a
Mexican winery just east of Ensenada in Baja California.
I bought two roundtrip tickets
for $420 each. I booked a five star
hotel The Claridge for $90 per night.
There are several neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. This was not in the super deluxe part
At these prices I thought, it
isn’t too much more expensive than if I arranged a weekend in San
Francisco. At the time the cheapest
flight to San Francisco from Los Angeles or Burbank Airport was $125 each round
trip. Then a five star hotel would cost
$190 per night by my Internet search. So
over a five day period that means the cost are almost equal, however the flight
to San Francisco would be much less than the seventeen hours we’ll spend in the
Now that I had bought the tickets
and made the reservations the next part was to keep the secret. I only told Natalie, a co-worker and close
friend, Karen, her close friend, Sue & Steve my brother and sister-in-law,
and Ross, her brother. Even with them, I
held back until ten days before we were to fly. I realized that hearing a secret is not a
gift; it is a burden for those that hold them.
Karen, I feared, was the weak link, because she is very close with
Marcy. I needed to tell her because I
needed someone to pack clothes for Marcy, so I had to rely the most on
her. Above all else Marcy and Karen have
a profound loyalty to each other. I
also called David Wood at the insurance office in which she worked. Although she is a senior vice president of a
national insurance corporation and could leave when she wanted, I thought her
boss should know too. I told him only
the briefest of details.
November 14, 2002 Thursday.
Marcy drove to the office ten miles away leaving the house, as usual at
6 a.m. At 7:30 a.m. Karen came over and
I told her to pack what she thinks should be packed for Marcy. I had no clue what she needed. Karen filled a suitcase with whatever she
thought Marcy wanted.
At 8 a.m. I left the house and
arrived at Marcy’s office a few minutes later.
I went to the third floor and asked the receptionist to give Marcy an
envelope containing her passport and two round-trip tickets to Buenos Aires
leaving in two and a half hours. The
receptionist was to let her know I am waiting for her in the lobby.
I could hear a lot of commotion
going on, and then Marcy showed up looking surprised, amazed, and
confused. Several people who were told
of my plan now as it was revealed crowded around Marcy with big smiles and
laughter. We had a couple of hours to
get to LAX about thirty minutes away.
We parked and walked into the Tom
Bradley International Terminal headed to Lan Chile Airline. During all of this Marcy talked in superlatives
of her surprise and wanted to know the entire story about how I was able to put
it all together.
I rented a small luggage cart for
two dollars to get our luggage into the terminal and to park in a nearby
parking lot costs ten dollars a day. I
left Marcy with the luggage in the terminal while I went to park the car.
I met Marcy and we walked to the
Lan Chile check-in line. Marcy couldn’t
resist telling the ticket agent the story of how she arrived here today. The ticket agent loved the story. Because of heightened security in place
because of a terrorist attack a few months ago that destroyed the Trade Towers
in New York City. I was called to the
counter to identify our luggage just as other passengers before me had to
do. While I did that Marcy found the
bathroom before we were to board. The
plane took off on schedule then landed in Lima, Peru to have some passengers
leave and others board. We stayed
seated. In a few minutes we were
airborne for another hour and this time we had to deplane in Santiago de
Chile. After an hour we caught the
connecting flight to Buenos Aires and went through Customs. The practice of waving some people forward or
having people just walk into the middle of a line was common. And unpleasant for us because we followed
what we thought, were the rules. We were
not moving because of the jostling and jockeying. I grabbed Marcy’s hand and pulled her forward
with the luggage. The wait took over an
hour to move past Customs and have our passport stamped. After passing that point we found our
luggage on the carousel and had to exit past another Customs official but this
line only cost a tolerable ten minutes.
Now that we were finished with
the airport process we walked outside and saw a driver sent by the hotel
holding a sign that read Mr. & Mrs. Mike Richards. Carlos introduced himself to us and picked up
both bags. They were already on a cart
so his job was easier. We stepped
outside the building and felt the warm Sun and balmy breeze. Carlos put the luggage in a Ford Escort and
we sat in the new car. Because it was
Marcy’s birthday I had requested a limousine and paid for one.
November 15, 2002 Buenos Aires When we arrived at the hotel it was 2 p.m.
The traffic in the afternoon hours was already quite animated. We checked into a pleasant looking hotel and
were assigned a pleasant room, not large by any stretch of the imagination, but
pleasant and clean. Because I felt the
size was too small for our comfort, I asked for a different room and they
complied. The new room had a clear view
of the city from the window. All
television was in Spanish and no CNN. I
walked around the hotel while Marcy changed so we could go out and look around
outside the hotel. There was a
restaurant in the hotel that was fairly busy at 2p.m. when many are
I talked with the
English-speaking concierge who said they could arrange a wonderful bus tour
that would pick us up in a few minutes if we wanted to go it would cost forty
dollars each. I paid the money. And, in just a few minutes, a bus with twenty
English-speaking tourist already on board, stopped in front of our hotel and
beckoned us to board. We sat towards
the rear of an old bus on a lumpy seat that straddled one of the rear
wheels. We could feel almost every
bump. The poor air-conditioning added to
our displeasure. But, to the driver’s
credit, we never were actually tossed out of our seat when the tires met a bump
or pocket in the roadway. We anxiously
awaited the next stop so we could stand up, get off the bus, and look around at
the distinctly different neighborhoods.
We drove by many important sites
throughout the city. It would have been
useful to have a travel guide with us because the noise over the antiquated
speaker system in the bus crackled and the tones mixed with city noises from
Throughout the world tour groups
are generally directed into shops and toward services that have ‘arrangements’
with the tour guide or his company.
This tour was no different. Tee
shirts had the word “Argentina” written on it in indelible pen. There were small trinkets imported from Korea
or China being sold as memoirs.
Everything from plastic combs to wooden bowls was hawked to the
tourists. Some vendors would follow our
bus and be out in front ready to sell their wares. When we were on our own we would find some
authentic items, but it was difficult to escape the ‘protective’ control of our
bus guide, even for a few moments.
The tour finished after four
hours. We had a good idea of where we
wanted to stay and focus our time. After
all, this was a gift to Marcy and she loves to shop so right here in the
Microcentro which has Calle Florida a great street for shopping. It isn’t as fancy as the Recoleto district
but Marcy likes to shop at Nordstrom-style shops.
After we walked around the hotel
a bit we chose the hotel restaurant to have a small meal. Argentina is a great city for beefeaters so
we both ordered steak. That is what this
city restaurant food consistently scores its highest marks. Accompanying the steak was papas frittes
(French fries), and a very small green salad.
We bought a bottle of Argentine wine, a Malbec. Malbec is very popular throughout Argentina
and it is a black, mellow grape variety
originally grown in the Loire Valley in France.
For dessert we were served a thick whipped cream loaded with fresh
berries and covered with a brittle layer of caramelized sugar. The food and meals are a particularly great
bargain in Buenos Aires.
It was nighttime so we walked back to the hotel just a short distance
away. Marcy checked her medicines and
realized that she was missing some medication she needed. She called her doctor back in Los Angeles but
she couldn’t reach him. The pharmacies
here close soon so it was important that I act quickly. I had Marcy write down clearly what she
needed on a piece of paper, I put a twenty-dollar bill with it and handed it to
the pharmacist. He nodded, disappeared
in back then came out with a small brown bottle that he handed to me. Marcy gave a sigh of relief to have the
medicine in her hand.
November 16, 2002
I opened my eyes at 5 a.m. local
time, that’s like 1 a.m. back in Los Angeles.
The Sun is already bright and warm.
It crept into our room around the opaque drapes and lit the floor and
cast stripes on the walls. Marcy is
still sound asleep. She’ll need her
energy today because this is our shopping day.
Today is her birthday. Hanging on
the door was the morning newspaper.
Sadly, I couldn’t read it because it was in Spanish. I could make out some details but not many.
When Marcy was ready we ate a
light breakfast then walked a block to Calle Florida to be there when the shops
begin to open. Since today is Saturday
most stores will be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
She remarked that she likes these shops better than the fancy ones in
Recoleta because those shops have stores in Beverly Hills and she could see
them any time. These hundred or so
shops, along Calle Florida, are Buenos Aires specialties. Items she bought were several cashmere
sweaters, expensive children’s’ clothing, and special leather products like
carpincho made from the large rodent only found around this region. We bought four leather jackets for $600.
Marcy filled two large shopping
bags and was just starting up. I took
the two bags back to the hotel while she continued to shop. So far I bought a carpincho jacket too, but
nothing else. I did want to buy a
poncho, a bolo like the gauchos use to bring down cattle. They have used the bolo for over two hundred years. There are articles created by fine silver
craftsmen like a special cup and spoon for tea, or knives. I was interested in going to San Telmo
district where street vendors set up cardtables and put their wares on it, some
genuine antiques can be found mixed in with the useless and valueless articles.
I had a few moments to relax at
the hotel before heading back to meet Marcy.
I stopped at an Internet café where the going rate for DSL service was a
Peso for thirty minutes of use, so that translates to about sixty cents for an
hour on the computer.
We went back to the hotel to rest
up. Hours later, we dressed for dinner
and caught a cab. The custom here is to
eat late at night, usually around 10 p.m.
We were seated quickly next to a young couple with a small two-year-old
girl and her older sister. The girl was
obviously sick with a wet cough spewing sputum in all directions from mouth and
nose. She was uncomfortable and began to
sob quietly at first, but that got no attention from either of the
parents. The volume was ratcheting up
gradually by the little girl. After
twenty minutes the situation was intolerable for us and we asked to move away
from them. The girl’s sister watched her
sibling with intense interest while sucking her thumb. Even at a distance and imbibing three glasses
of red Malbec was not enough to drown out the child’s cries. I enjoyed a delicious steak, two inches thick
and very large in circumference served with the ubiquitous fries. They would
spice it up with a dose of paprika to spice the potatoes.
Buenos Aires was more like part
of Spain than of South America. There
were few people who ‘looked Hispanic.’ I was told that those who do look
Hispanic generally hold lower prestigious jobs than those than look ‘European.’
Down the social chain, I was told, are
the Indians who hold the lowest jobs like garbage collector, street sweeper, or
beggars. The character of Buenos Aries
reminded me, in a pleasant way, of Chicago.
In the southern hemisphere
weather seasons are the opposite of those in the northern hemisphere. November is a great month because warm
temperatures are usually expected.
Today, the temperature is up into the 80s. The humidity has been quite high too,
especially when we visited the Recoleta.
November 17, 2002 We enjoyed a light breakfast in the
hotel. Today we hope to visit the famous street market of San Telmo after we go
through the Recoleto. In San Telmo we
expect to see tango demonstrations in several of the restaurants and bars. The hotel called a taxi for us that pulled
up in five minutes. They warned us to
not use any taxi service, just this one because some of them will cheat
tourists. I disregarded their words of
caution because I expect they just wanted us to use the services of a certain
company. Once in the cab the driver
cruised past several demonstrations. The
people were not happy. The angry
demonstrators were protesting the free-fall of the Peso, causing thousands of
them to lose the ability to survive economically. Some of the demonstrators
have been calling for the Communist Party to come in and take over the
The cab driver stopped at the
edge of a broad walkway leading into the Recoleta Cemetery where Eve Peron is
buried. There were many famous
Argentineans buried here and the statuary is impressive. She was a prostitute
who married the Presidente and became popular with the people. She was the second wife of Juan Peron. He married her after he left his wife for
her then, on her deathbed promised that she’d be buried in that cemetery
because the wealthy had rejected her in life.
Several of the monuments were two stories tall. People spared little expense to memorialize
the departed. There was no grass or open
areas, only narrow “streets” that criss-crossed like a well-planned necropolis.
After exiting the cemetery the
street was lined with vendors who used a wooden box to hold their crafts. They had items for sale like earrings,
amulets, and charms. There were fortune-tellers,
palm-readers, antique sellers and faux antique sellers. Each of these merchants elbowed their way to
a section of curbside space and struggled to defend each millimeter of
space. Police diligently patrolled this
area because disputes would often break out with the winner being some other
fellow just waiting for the police to force combatants both to vacate this
We continued our walk through the
Recoleta. Fancy stores were closed
because today is Sunday. We felt like a
walk and just window-shop. Unlike other
areas of town we didn’t find the sideway endangered with loose tiles or dog
poo. As soon as I waived my finger in
the air a cab pulled up for us. As long
as it looked like a regular cab with a name and phone number painted on the
side I felt that was good enough to consider it legitimate. He drove us to the Design Center where there
would be fashionable goods to buy.
Although I read that there was a
large Jewish community in Buenos Aires we saw no Jewish communities other than
one synagogue as we drove along the freeway.
We did follow one man who was wearing a yarmulke into the Design
Center. Here we did find modern and high
fashion home furnishings. I liked a lamp
that I saw. Despite the fact that the
lamp stood four feet tall and was wired for 220 volts, I bought it. There wasn’t a way to disassemble the lamp
for shipping but the clean style and the oiled skin used for the shade begged
me to complete the purchase. I examined the
lamp again to see how I could either ship it or bring it back on the flight. I called the airline and was told that I’d
have to pay a special charge of $120 to bring that home. I called DHL a delivery service that ships
around the world. They wanted $180
US. I’ll have to solve this problem
We walked out to have lunch at
Cabana Las Lilas, a very popular restaurant.
It wasn’t fancy, but enjoyable just the same. Marcy had spaghetti bolognaise; it was
unremarkable. I had four small beef
empanadas and I finished whatever Marcy left on her plate. For dessert we had Dolce de Leche that is a
popular flavor like a caramelized syrup ribbons through a soft vanilla ice
cream, and served in a wide glass dish.
Marcy decided that there were so many wonderful things
here she had to buy something.
Ultimately she settled on a box of candles. Candles.
“Marcy,” I said, “Why do you need to buy heavy candles here?” “Because these candles can’t be found in
America. These are really unique!” And she bought twenty pounds of candles that
had colorful leaves in the wax. DHL
wanted $70 to ship the candles.
We could pack the candles, but
the lamp was too big.
We brought our items back to the
hotel and tried to cool down. It was 85
F and high humidity at 7 p.m. Marcy
loved those candles.
The streets were filled with
strolling people. Remember, this is
mid-week at 10:30 p.m. I know that this
may not sound so unusual but for me, living in Los Angeles, to my eyes it was.
We needed to pack for our journey
home tomorrow and the flight of over forty-three hundred miles home. We were hungry after a busy day with much
walking. We decided to eat early at
Cabana Las Lillas. It was a pleasant
leisurely dinner with a bottle of Malbec to accompany the steaks.
November 18, 2002
We woke late. Although the Sun shows itself early at this
latitude, the heavy curtains struggle to hold back the light. The stores were expected to open at 9 a.m.
today and Marcy prayed for ninety minutes of heavy-duty shopping time. She woke and dressed as quickly as a
fireman. She knew this opportunity wouldn’t
be repeated soon so she had to act expeditiously She had an hour of shopping
time to use and she enjoyed every minute of it.
The taxi driver loaded our
luggage and we gently twisted the floor lamp to fit, crossways into the cab of
the car. All of the other purchases,
including the candles fit nicely into our luggage that intentional was larger
than what we needed to come here.
At the airport I was prepared to
cut the lamp in half then get a new rod when we are in Los Angeles. The stewardess said that the lamp can go
simply as luggage at no additional charge, if I would carry the lampshade as
though it were a hat. That done we had
just to wait a number of hours till we were home after a three hour stop-over
in Santiago de Chile.
Reflections of Buenos Aires
The Argentineans, especially the
Portenos as people of Buenos Aires call themselves, are a hospitable
people. Life is much like it would be in
Western Europe except for the declining Peso.
The people are fashion conscious and they are race conscious. Don’t expect to lose weight while you are
They have wonderful food,
delicious wines beyond Malbec, and a colorful history. I think almost anyone from North America
would certainly feel at home here.
Anti-American sentiment is on the rise and is a factor someone should
consider before independent travel to BA.