Ever since I have been in South America, I have been wrestling with how to deal with unexpected surprises. It seems like the last three months have been full of them most resulting from communication break down and in our case not being able to speak Spanish. A good example of this happened just this past week when Hubby and I visited Tigre, a suburb of Buenos Aires or BA as the ex-pats call it.
Tigre is a suburb to the north of Buenos Aires on the Rio de la Plata and is a great place to visit if you are looking for an escape from the daily hubbub and noise of the city. The best way to reach it is to take a leisurely, hour-long train ride on the Le Mitre line from the Retiro train station in the city centre.
It was a perfect autumn day, not too hot with clear skies and lots of sun. The ride didn’t provide much in the way of scenery except to reveal how those in this part of the BA suburbs live. The homes are more stately, high rises are fewer, and occasional glimpses of the Rio de la Plata were visible in the distance. The huge Rio de la Plata is the river or gulf (it is called both) which forms a boundary between Uruguay and Argentina and runs into the Atlantic. However, our journey was in no way boring since we did get serenaded by a quartet of singers who managed to grab our attention with traditional Spanish songs along with some modern-day rap.
As we have found since we have been in BA, it’s common to be entertained by all kinds of talent on the trains and subways and to even do some shopping. At certain times of the day, when not too crowded, vendors selling everything from soup to nuts ply the cars and make surprisingly good sales. For the passengers it’s a convenient way to shop and pick up any little item they may need. The nice thing about this marketing scheme is that the vendors don’t pressure the passengers to buy. They run up and down the aisles chanting their spiels or even leaving a sample with each person which they will return to in a few minutes. You simply pass it back if you don’t want it or quickly hand over the money. It’s done effortlessly and with no hassle.
Upon arriving in Tigre exactly one hour later, we quickly headed in the general direction of the Fruit Market and the area where the weekend market is held. Unfortunately, in the middle of the week there are only a handful of shops and restaurants open so the place was quite deserted. However, there are always some who stay open for those of us who venture out to avoid the weekend crowds. We quickly sought out a little restaurant right on the river which had empanadas (the South American version of our sandwich which is a meat, chicken, or vegetable filling wrapped in a kind of dough like pastry) which I had decided I wanted for my lunch.
What a treat to eat our lunch near the water in the autumn sunlight. Yes, it’s autumn here in this part of the world and probably one of the best times to be here since the days are cooling down to a comfortable 25 degrees. They are also getting shorter which seems odd to us since we are thinking spring and feel they should be getting longer. Oh well, the reversal of the seasons is just another little adjustment we have to deal with here in BA.
After our leisurely, but unfortunately not too tasty lunch, we started out on an exploration of the stores that were open. On the way to the river front, we had spied an interesting looking panderia (bakery) with a huge array of Argentinian baked goodies so decided we would pick up a few items for next morning’s breakfast. Hubby saw they were advertising mate, an Argentine caffeine drink which they claim is better than green tea. Since President Obama had sampled the tea when he was visiting here last week, Hubby was curious as to what we had been missing so put in an order to the young chap behind the counter.
He brought the tea in a special clay pot with a metal straw attached to the side, a large electric kettle, and a full bag of tea. I thought this was rather strange but didn’t say anything since there have been many things about Argentina customs we have found a bit strange, such as maps that appear to be upside down, too much salt in just about all the restaurant food, and far too many dogs.
We both agreed that the mate was too bitter for our tastes even though it’s supposed to have many health properties and that would be the last time we ever ordered it. After drinking as much as we could so as not to offend our waiter, we asked for our bill. When he presented it to us, we nearly fell off our chairs. The grand total was 150 pesos which in Canadian dollars was $13.50! There had to be a mistake! We had heard about how popular the drink was and its wondrous health benefits but at this cost? Was it this magical? Perhaps if he threw in the whole bag along with the pot then this would justify the price. And if all the health benefits were true, then maybe we were getting our money’s worth? There was room here for some negotiation, or so I thought. Maybe he could lower his price to something more reasonable? The problem was how to communicate this to him when he said, “No Ingles” and we said, “No hablas Espanol”. He bombarded us by speaking rapidly in Spanish which he knew we didn’t understand pretending that he had no idea what we were talking about. Obviously we were at a stalemate. Should we give him something for his service and if so how much, or should we just walk away? Yes, this thought had actually occurred to us. However, being nice Canadians we couldn’t do this so very reluctantly gave in to his demand and paid the bill.
We sat for a while at our side-walk table still in a state of shock. This incident had left a bad taste in our mouths. I could see that Hubby’s shock was rapidly turning into a fury at his conclusion that he had been taken. Meanwhile, I tried to drink some more mate to not only get our money’s worth but to try to get the effect of some of those health benefits. I was right, however, as Hubby went into action by first yelling at our culprit or hapless waiter (at this point I wasn’t sure what he was) and then enlisting the help of anyone near by. The first person he nabbed was an older woman who smiled and greeted us in French as she walked by our table. He related what had happened and asked her whether this was a fair price. She seemed aghast at what we had paid and intimated that it really shouldn’t have cost anything as it was more a service to visitors to acquaint them to the wonderful benefits of mate tea. Another young man appeared who spoke fairly good English who said the same thing, but it was obvious that neither of them wanted to get involved in this dispute as they gradually faded into the background. Not inclined to give up easily when it comes to money, Hubby again enlisted a group of about five more people who approached the scene.
One of the group, a woman who spoke very good English and immediately understood what had happened to this couple of unsuspecting tourists, undertook the task of making Hubby’s wishes be known that all he wanted was half his money back or he would get the police involved. Oh dear, at this point I really began to wonder how this would unfold. Would this final ultimatum work? Against the wishes of her friends and possibly family, as we didn’t have a clue who these people were, she barged into the bakery to confront our culprit. Within seconds she came back not with half the money but all of it, handed it to Hubby, and told us to leave quickly. Surprised by this sudden turn of events, we thanked her profusely to which she immediately grabbed us both with a strong embrace planting many kisses on our cheeks before her friends grabbed her to lead her away.
We were left shaking our heads in disbelief at what had just happened. We really didn’t know what to make of it all other than to surmise that the young scoundrel had tried to make a few extra bucks off some naive tourists who spoke no Spanish. On the other hand, we realized once again that as a tourist you always have to be vigilant in a country with a different culture. Argentina and Canada share many similarities in lifestyle and culture making it very comfortable so it’s easy to become complacent. Everyone we have met has bent over backwards to help us with directions, to translate to others when we are having difficulties, and to warn us about watching our personal belongings when in public places. On this particular day we simply weren’t prepared for this unexpected incident. There is also no doubt in my mind that if we had the language skills our outcome would have been less stressful.
Thankfully the remainder of our day passed with no further surprises. To complete it before heading back to the city, we decided to take a relaxing boat trip up the Rio to see ‘some nature’ – the sales pitch used by the boat operators. A huge catamaran took us past the beautiful estates of the wealthy who have sought out Tigre as their place of escape from the big city. An extra bonus for us was to meet two delightful sisters from England whom we instantly connected with because we all were dying to have a good conversation in English. This is one of the most rewarding aspects of travel in a foreign country. Perhaps more so when we are beginning to feel the first pangs of travel fatigue and miss having our own language all around us.
So again, as has happened so many times on this South American trip, challenges have arisen quickly and unexpectedly only to be followed by something positive and uplifting. This is the thing about travel. You never know what to expect. All we can say is that it certainly isn’t boring – not for a minute!