Friday, January 15, 2010

A Really Bad Day in Argentina

Tuesday was a really bad day in Argentina. At least for me. I mean REALLY bad.

The sad, the absurd, and the scary between breakfast and dinner.

It really made me want to get on a plane and go home. Here's how the day unfolded.

9 A.M. The Sad Part: A Dead Dog in My Garden

Shortly after breakfast, Roberto came in from the garden: "Honey, I have some bad news. Tonto died. I don't know when, maybe a day ago. He's behind the trees in the back of the garden."

Tonto is our neighbor's really dumb mutt. Roberto noticed last week that Tonto's leg had a terrible injury, that he had perhaps even been run over by a car. He called the owners, who live next door, and at receiving no answer, left a dire note, "Your dog needs urgent medical attention; we are concerned he may die." A couple days went by, and no action. I left an urgent call for advice on a veterinarian's phone, but no one called back. Severe thunderstorms kept us inside most days until Tuesday. I felt terrible that this poor animal died alone, in pain, and possibly with no more refuge than a bush during pelting rain. Poor Tonto! May he rest in peace in Canine Heaven, with all the big beef bones he ever wished for!

11 A.M.: The Absurd Scenario. A Customs Official, My Books, and the Iraqis

There is a dark secret in Argentina to which few are privy. It is the Borgian Institute for Petty Officials, where lowly government staffers learn surprising techniques
 to wrest any vestige of personal control we may have. I think of it as a kind of Zero Tolerance for Uppity Citizens who go so far as to think that government should be of the people, for the people, and by the people.

First the usual stupid delay at the Post Office: My daughter kindly sent me three small books before Christmas, and so with great anticipation, I kept a daily vigil for the letter carrier (who comes about once a month). Last Wednesday, I found a small note in my mailbox saying he came by during the one day I was not home all week! So I hurried into town, expecting to pick up my books. Nope, I was handed a larger note saying to come back on a Tuesday or Thursday morning when the customs office would be open. "Why not leave this second note instead of the first one to keep folks from making two trips?" I asked. I got a scowl and a repetition of the instruction to come back Tuesday or Thursday.

Tuesday morning I handed the slip to the agent at the customs window. The 60ish burly guy fumbled around in the office the size of a typical US bathroom, finally locating the standard Amazon box. He quizzed me and upon verifying that the books were in English, he said they would only be permitted if they had been printed in a Spanish-speaking country. Of course they were not (how many are?!!), and I protested that this was unbelievable. "Your country does incredible things too--just ask those poor Iraqis," he replied smilessly. Suddenly my Argentine husband showed up, and when I explained what was happening, he duly expressed outrage and demanded to know what law prohibited free entry of books. "One from the Ministry of Culture. Look it up on the Internet," said our petty official, seemingly perturbed, avoiding Roberto's gaze. He then handed the books over, slowly, adding that another agent might not have been so generous. We stalked out.

Later my friends and readers of the BA Expat Forum clued me in: The guy was clearly asking for a bribe as I was a US American! Their tips for future incidents: take a cattle prod, record the conversation, get the refusal in writing, hint that I am connected to very powerful people and his job could now be in jeopardy, or send an Argentinan to pick up the package (and I admit that something shifted when Roberto appeared). Ya gotta laugh here. . . or you'll hurt yourself banging your head against the wall. Then again, you could just pay the bribe and be done with it. . . you know, "when in Rome. . . "

5 pm: The Really Scary Part: Armed and Dangerous, and Dead?

After collecting my books and my wits, Roberto and I sought a little sanity and a cup of coffee at the nearby Cafe Augustus, where I bumped into Marisa, Tonto's owner. She was meeting someone, so she later stopped by my house. Over another cup of coffee, she dropped the bombshell--they had not been home for a month. Her son had been surprised by intruder at their home in early December and barely escaped as the burglar shot twice at him as he fled. Her husband had been similarly accosted two weeks before. So they are selling the house, having left a housesitter in charge (and said housesitter paid scant attention to poor Tonto, alas). Marisa assumed that I knew all this via the small-town grapevine, forgetting that as a foreigner, I am scarcely acquainted with it. She was smiling the whole time she related the dreadful account--because all's well that ends well. She is delighted that the family will soon be living in a well-guarded development in a nearby big city, which is what she has yearned for years.

I am NOT smiling. Each night I now close the shutters and bar my bedroom window and lie awake wondering who might be out there. (I mentioned this to a young woman today, who sighed and she said she has been mugged FOUR times in this town; one mugger stole her motorcycle, and when she spotted him later on the street, the police were not at all interested). That Police Station photo you see at the top? After standing empty for months, the structure was vandalized. Eventually it was demolished. Why pretend?

Meanwhile, it seems that the perpetrator that shot at my neighbor might have been the notorious NM. . . and if so, he is no longer a threat. He was killed when his companion in a later heist accidently shot him. Is that poetic justice? If so, it is sure swifter than any justice in Argentina.

Final Note: I am not making this up. I swear on a stack of the Complete Works of Sarmiento! In fact, I left out more sad, absurd, and scary details so you and I both can enjoy a little peace of mind.


Tina said...

O dio mio, it sounds like it really was a bad day in Argentina! :-(

S. said...

I am so sorry about your bad day (poor Tonto!). That sounds very frustrating and more than a little scary.

Gayle said...

Gracias, amigas! A little compassion goes a long way!

Nice and Easy Antiques said...

Hi Gayle, sorry about your bad day! When living in Argentina, specially in a house, you have to take LOTS of precautions. It used to be extremely safe but the world has changed! Take care!

Beatrice M said...

Ghah! Sorry for your horrible day. That's really too bad about Tonto and all the stress. I'm glad you were able to get your books. Hopefully they can help take you mind off things for a bit.

Gareth said...

Oh man that does sound like a bad day. It's crazy to think that both policemen and public officials alike are so accustomed to working on bribes. I have heard similar stories where police officers will turn the other way on simple $100 pay offs... esta loco!

Anyway, great stuff. I was wondering if you also wanted to blog roll. I'm new to BA (and the blog world).

Best Regards,

Gareth L.

Katie said...

I hope the intervening weeks have dulled the memory of that truly awful day. When it rains, it pours! Sending you a virtual hug from Necochea.