We were sitting by the side of the road, in a remote part of Argentina. Time passed. And then, more time passed. An hour. Two hours. Three hours.
What were we waiting for? We didn’t know. But when people with guns tell you to wait, you tend to listen.
The tale of our recent vacation has no particular financial point…or lesson…to it. We pass it along as it happened in the same spirit with which we take a trip with no particular destination in mind – knowing that we don’t necessarily end up where we expected to go…but always arrive where we ought to be.
Eventually, the forces of law and order had had enough themselves. We awoke from a brief nap and found they had gone.
“What happened to the police?” we asked.
“Did they say anything?”
“No, they just left.”
We figured we might as well leave too. Along with the fellow from the other car, we crowded into our one still-operative truck and drove to the local police headquarters to give ourselves up.
The young policewoman smiled. She was hoping that she had seen the last of us.
“Look, you have to settle this on your own,” she said. “Otherwise, we have to fill out a lot of reports…then, you’ll have to go to court in Salta…and then, you’ll have to get lawyers.”
This seemed perfectly reasonable to your editor. He was prepared to pay the damages – which didn’t look like much anyway.
“I recognize that it was mostly our fault,” we explained. “I’m happy to pay for it.”
“No…no…” protested the other driver. “I don’t have any way to get my car fixed. And I’m stuck up here…it’s 1,600 kilometers from Buenos Aires. What am I supposed to do?”
“Why don’t you just change the tire and drive off…get an estimate for the damage…and I’ll pay it?”
“No…no…you’re a foreigner. You might just go back to Europe. And I don’t know if my car is drivable. Besides, my wife was injured…this is a serious matter.”
“Okay, then…we’ll start the process for a formal accident report,” said the woman, throwing up her hands. “Juan…please type up a report for us. Get statements from both of these men…and then type up the report from the recriminalistas.”
Juan was already at the typewriter. He seemed like an earnest young man, with a serious look on his face. But the machine he was working on was not a computer. Not even an electric typewriter. It was an antique worthy of a flea market – a Remington manual typewriter, of the sort that disappeared from newsrooms in America 50 years ago. And Juan appeared to have just begun taking typing lessons that very morning. Kachunk…he pressed one key. A few second later, down came another…kachunk. At his present rate, it would take him approximately until dinnertime to type our names. For a full report, we could see ourselves waiting until Easter.
Kachunk…ay Chihuahua…Juan made a mistake. The paper came out of the typewriter. A white goo was applied. Then, Juan blew on the goo for a minute or two and put the paper back in the typewriter.
“Maybe we better settle this between us,” we suggested.
“Well, the only way I can think of to settle up would be for you to buy my car…for what it was worth before you ran into it.”
We thought about that for a moment. The logic of it seemed correct.
“Okay, that seems fair.”
“It was worth about 26,000 pesos.”
We took him at his word. It seemed believable. But it was 4 PM on New Year’s Eve. And we were in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, in the foothills of the Andes. Even in the best of circumstances, it is almost impossible to get your hands on a substantial sum of money in Argentina. The ATM machines allow you only take out 300 pesos at a go. That’s only about $100. And when you try to transfer large amounts of money into the country, you have to go through a “money broker” in Buenos Aires, who undertakes a complicated transaction involving buying bonds in Miami in order to sell them in Buenos Aires. You show up in his office and he hands you a large wad of cash.
In fact, when we left for Salta in the first place, your editor carried 35,000 pesos. He had a lump in his pocket worthy of a handgun. But it was the simplest way to pay the salaries on the ranch; we just carried cash from the money broker. People tend to keep cash on hand, because the banking system is unreliable. During the crisis in 2002, for example, dollar deposits were forcibly converted to pesos and then the peso was allowed to fall to a third of its previous value. And even if you had money in the bank, it did you no good, because the government forbade the banks from giving it back to you.
Your poor editor had already handed over the 35,000 pesos to Francisco. He had no cash to buy the car. What to do?
A deal was struck…we would meet in the town square of Cafayate two days hence (after the banks had reopened)…we would deliver him the 26,000 pesos. He would deliver title to the car.
But as they used to say in the foothills of the Appalachians…
…that is, ‘God willing and the creeks don’t rise.’
And the creeks did rise.
More to come…