On a Saturday evening in the central Sierras of Argentina, I learned the hard way a couple of things: that I should beware the moment when I feel relaxed – at least, in a large city with which I’m unfamiliar – and that I was the easiest pickpocketing mark on the face of the planet.
I’d been in the city of Córdoba, in the province of the same name, only a few hours when I got hit. Not hit, but bumped into – a sure sign that one’s wallet has been stolen, but I was paying so little attention, I hardly noticed when it happened. It embarrasses me to think about how obvious it was and how oblivious I was, but it was the first time I’d had my wallet stolen. I’ve lost the thing plenty of times in the U.S., but I managed to leave it in malls and on buses; no one here has ever taken it from me directly.
It’s not as if I were unaware of the danger. TripAdvisor.com and every blog written by expats in Buenos Aires goes into great detail about the varieties of personal theft in the city. I’ve read about purse snatchers who do the limbo and practically contort themselves into pretzel shapes to steal women’s pocketbooks; motochorros who ride tandem on scooters and motorcycles, slicing straps, grabbing bags, and zooming off; and the infamous mustard/ bird feces/ unidentified glop ploy, in which an individual or a pair of thieves squirts goop on your clothes, makes a fuss helping to wipe you off, and steals your wallet or camera while you’re distracted. My Argentine/ Uruguayo friend here has told me about his friend who visited last fall from Buenos Aires and wrapped her purse strap 50 ways around her restaurant chair so it wouldn’t be stolen, although the odds of this happening in our sleepy little New England town are less than zilch. Last May when my university study tour was in Buenos Aires, a classmate foiled the bird crap scheme by carrying a wallet attached to his belt loop by a chain, and another classmate had her wallet lifted on the subway when she was carrying it in a messenger bag without a secure closure – the thief lifted the flap, took the wallet, and got off at the next stop. Fortunately, her camera and passport weren’t stolen.
So of course I felt like an idiot when I returned to the hostel where I was staying in Córdoba and realized that that person who’d bumped into my backpack had not been clumsy, but an effective pickpocket. And then I was embarrassed when I approached the front desk to ask for help and burst into tears. I was already at a low ebb – I’d been tired and depressed before leaving for vacation, I’d screwed up my schedule by missing my flight from New York to Buenos Aires, and my blood sugar had been alarmingly low for at least three days, as I’d had a hard time finding adequate vegetarian protein once I’d polished off my food from home.
Fortunately, staying in a hostel turned out to be a lifesaver, or at least a sanity preserver. The entire place rallied. One of the employees, Andrés, a sweet young Columbian, cooked me vegetarian milanesas for dinner and began looking for the address of the nearest police station so I could report the theft. A young Argentine guest told me he’d worked for the multinational bank that issued one of my credit cards; he got onto one of the guest computers to look up the international toll-free phone number, which I’d been unable to find on the website. A 29-year-old German woman who was fluent in English and Spanish talked with me calmly, and I finally sat down to dinner with a table of folks, including Andrés, the hostel owner/manager, and a couple of guests from Argentina and the U.S.
The physical, logistical problem was solved relatively quickly, with several calls to those toll-free numbers and a few emails to friends and family. My ex-partner would wire me cash via Western Union, and my father agreed to call my credit union as soon as their office opened on Monday. I had about 10 pesos in coins and some snacks in my room; breakfast was included in the room price, and the hostel staff cooked dinner each night, so my meals were covered until I paid my bill at checkout. I realized quickly that I was fine – physically unharmed, with my passport and all my other possessions, plus many resources. When I posted on Facebook about what had happened, at least three friends in the States offered to wire me money if I needed it.
But the emotional fallout lasted far longer, because I thought that the missed airline flight and stolen wallet symbolized my “stupidity,” the word I kept aiming at myself in Spanish and English. As always, I was harder on myself than anyone else was (and I would ever be with anyone else). Failing to secure my billfold turned into a symbol of overall incompetence mostly because I’d been seriously considering moving to Argentina. How could I ever live here for even a year to teach English if I couldn’t do the simplest things, like finding enough to eat and hanging on to my wallet?, I thought. What the hell was I going to do with my life? I couldn’t deal with even the tamest country in Latin America, the one that most reminded me of the U.S.! I was a middle-aged fool, thinking I could survive by myself here!
I finally calmed down when I began to take “survival” seriously, which meant breaking one of my iron-clad rules at home: I ate meat. It was not tasty meat, but it had protein. I told myself that the veggie police were 5000 miles away in Western Mass, and I forced down a chicken-and-cheese-product milanesa. It was bland and inoffensive, and it stabilized my blood sugar level so I could stop emotionally beating myself to a pulp, sleep through the night, walk to the Western Union office the next morning, and get on my bus to Mendoza, where I had a hostel reservation for Monday night. Sometimes meat is not murder; it is triage.
I spent the Sunday after the theft walking in unyielding sun until my feet were blistered, attempting to find the police station. At first it struck me as curious that none of the hostel employees had any idea where it was located. If a guest in a U.S. hostel had their wallet stolen, wouldn’t the manager call the police so a report could be filed? Then I thought, “You’ve studied the dictatorship and the 2001 economic crisis for more than a year. You know no one’s going to call the cops!” I’d heard from the daily news and from individual Argentines that police officers were woefully underpaid, and some were as corrupt and trigger-happy as cops in poor neighborhoods in the U.S. It’s not unusual for cops to shoot unarmed young people in either country, and far too many of those arrested are abused, even tortured, at police stations all over Argentina. And I’m sure there isn’t a hostel manager or owner in the world who’s happy to see the police show up at their establishment.
Andrés had given me the sub-station address on Saturday night and I’d walked the 10 blocks or so in the dark, only to find it closed, with a sign on the door saying it had moved to Calle Chile near the arts center. I was exhausted and figured that waiting until Sunday to file my report wouldn’t make a bit of difference. My trip was beginning to feel cursed, but I felt better on Sunday morning after some coffee, cornflakes, and medialunas at the hostel. I walked to Calle Chile and searched both sides of the street several times before I gave up and stopped into a kiosko – the Argentine equivalent of the bodega or convenience store – to ask directions. The pleasant clerk and his girlfriend were enjoying a quiet Sunday, and neither of them had the foggiest idea where the station was. She guessed that it was probably on Calle Chile extension, so I set off again, only to end up walking in circles on the periphery of Parque Sarmiento, the largest park in Córdoba, designed by French-born landscape architect Carlos Thays, the Frederick Law Olmstead of Argentina.
At this point my brain was melting, so I returned to the kiosko to do something else I almost never do at home: buy and drink a Coke. In the U.S. I’d rather drink battery acid, but when I’m on the road, Coca Cola is a known quantity, and when we were children, my mother used to give my brother and me Coke syrup when we had upset stomachs. I drank more Coke in my first two weeks in Argentina than I drink in 10 years in the U.S. Fortified with caramel coloring and sugar water, I crossed Parque Sarmiento’s southern end and looked for someone else to give me directions. Outside one of the museums, the Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes Emilio Caraffa, a pair of young security guards chatted with each other. I kept questioning them until I understood the directions – turn right past the lake? How many blocks?
Once I knew I was in the right neighborhood, I relaxed a bit and tried to enjoy my stroll through the park. Hundreds of folks were enjoying a beautiful weekend – according to Andrés, the first in months with a tolerable humidity level. Kids ran and played, adults spread picnics on blankets, and ducks swam in the phosphate-polluted, neon-green water that reminded me of city park ponds in Columbus, Ohio. I wandered into cul-de-sacs and onto a couple of islands, then decided I’d better get serious about finding the police station, or I’d be paddling around with the waterfowl when night fell. A few more blocks east, a right past a couple of restaurants, past the Greek amphitheater, which offered a gorgeous view overlooking the city but was closed for repairs. The road curved around, and my heart sank – where the hell was this place? But the buildings all had that official government look, so I kept going. Finally, there it was, the comisaría of my dreams. I’d never thought I’d be so happy to see a police station.
I entered and gave my little spiel to the two bored-looking cops at the desk inside. One pointed me “arriba” to the second floor and told me to knock on the door. Thank the goddess – the upstairs was air conditioned! A kind clerk in a sweater typed up my theft report extremely rapidly on her computer. When I said I’d been estupida to not guard my wallet more carefully, she responded, “No, it happens everywhere” and we chatted a bit. In 15 or 20 minutes of telling the story and responding to her questions, I needed only four words of English, and I emerged with a photocopy of my official police report and a self-mocking attitude: “Gosh, I sure am glad I’ve spent the last 13 months studying the language like a madwoman so I could file an entire police report in Spanish!”
I was, in fact, proud of myself – although using my Spanish to find the police station and file a robbery report was not what I’d had in mind when I returned to language classes last year. Oh well. In my day job I’m an administrative assistant for a foundation, and I decided to consider the theft a generous private donation to an individual. I hoped the thief was using the money to feed and clothe his or her several children, and that it wasn’t just a college student taking his friends out for a drunken night on the town – although given the neighborhood where it was stolen, the latter was probably the case.
The next day I picked up the pesos at Western Union and thought the theft episode was over. But I had a couple of hours at the station waiting for my bus to Mendoza, and as I wheeled my suitcase from the small supermarket toward a bench to eat lunch, a pair of security guards stopped me.
“Excuse me, señora, did you lose an ID card?” the younger man asked in Spanish.
I looked puzzled as I thought about the wallet theft. “No…”
The older guard added, “De Ohio.”
Now I was really confused. “Yes,” I replied, “but my wallet was stolen two days ago, downtown…”
The younger man said that I looked like the picture on the card. As this was an ugly photo on a 10-year-old, expired driver’s ID, I wasn’t sure whether to feel insulted, but he certainly had a sharp eye. I’m sure standing around the Córdoba bus station is not the most exciting job, though. He carried my suitcase downstairs to the security desk, where I told the clerk the wallet story yet again while she returned the one item I could not have cared less about – I’d brought it only as a backup picture ID in case my passport was lost or stolen.
I’d seen Santiago Mitre’s Argentine independent film El estudiante three nights before in Rosario. In a key sequence, the protagonist has to defend a fellow student at the University of Buenos Aires who steals funds from a student organization treasury to take a bus to his hometown during a family emergency. Now I surmised that I’d made someone very happy by enabling him or her to visit family and/or friends in another part of the province or the country. I still hope it was a good trip.