“South America is going to be the most difficult leg of the entire journey” is what I always believed before we began the world trip. I hardly knew anyone who had been to South America, it is too far, no one speaks English there, in famous for drugs and militancy issues in many parts; all in all, it was going to be a challenging experience for us. After shipping our vehicle from Cape Town to Buenos Aires, we went back to India to apply for visas for Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia – the 6 countries that we would be driving through as part of the Leg 4 of The Great Indian World Trip.
After spending a few weeks in India, we were ready to fly to Argentina to start Leg 4. Our vehicle had already reached the port in Buenos Aires and was sitting there for 2 weeks. We couldn’t go before because we were struggling to raise money to fund our trip in South America. Every day that the car was sitting at the port, we were being penalized 100 USD per day. We managed to raise just enough money to buy our tickets and survive for 15 days in South America.
“Let’s go and start the journey. We have reached so far, something will surely come our way and help us complete our trip just like we have completed Asia, Australia and Africa.” Sanjay said.
My eyes opened when the Pilot announced that we are about to land in Buenos Aires. We smoothly touched the ground of Latin America and the excitement finally kicked in. A region that was completely new for us. It was unknown, unexplored, a bit daunting, complicated because of language barriers and no known faces, we were going to be on our own. We would be driving through remote, barren and desolate terrains. This would be the real test for us as travelers, as drivers, as globe trotters! Armed with 3 English to Spanish translation books, a couple of tutorial cds and some apps on our phones, we disembarked and reached the immigration counter.
“Good morning” I said with a smile to the gorgeous looking woman at the immigration counter.
“Hola, Passaporta” she asked
I skipped through my translation book and somehow managed to answer her questions about why we were here and where we were headed to. A loud thump of her stamp on my passport was proof enough that I had spoken the words she wanted to hear. We collected our bags, booked a taxi and reached our hostel in an area called Palermo that had been pre-booked for us by Ravi, a young 26 year old Indian IT professional living in Buenos Aires, who contacted us through facebook. He was the only Indian we knew in Argentina and he answered our numerous questions about sim cards, food, language, money, weather, clothing etc etc.
As the taxi drove out of the airport, I rolled down the window and soaked in the Latino air. Tango, brightly colored homes, gorgeous people, Argentine Steak, Spanish, wines, glaciers etc. were all crossing my mind. Driving through Latin America was going to be some experience. I had been most excited about this part of the journey, even more than driving through Australia or Africa. Finally, we were here and I was absolutely thrilled. A 36 hour journey from Delhi to Buenos Aires can get you tired and sleep may come naturally. But not in our case. We reached the hostel, threw in our bags on the bunker beds, took a bath in the shared bathrooms at the end of the hallway and met Ravi, who came to show us around the city.
“I have taken a day off, my office think I am sick. But I am very excited to meet you guys and want to spend as much time as I can with all of you while you are in Buenos Aires” he said. I had also written to the Indian Embassy requesting for a meeting with our Ambassador. I received an email from the Argentina Tourism Board who invited us to their office for a meeting.
Our first stop was the shipping agents’ office in the city. Our vehicle was already at the port and we had to get it cleared to avoid paying the huge daily penalty. We took the ‘Subte’ – the underground metro line and reached the agents’ office. Nobody in the office could speak English but having Ravi with us was a huge relief. He too wasn’t fluent in Spanish but could at least make them understand.
“Tushar, passoporte, car registracion, licensia” Daniel, our shipping agent asked. We handed over all the documents and after studying them, he told me that I will have to go to the customs’ office with Nora, an old lady who works in his office. Nora arrived and greeted me with a kiss on my cheek. I was a bit puzzled by the gesture.
“In Argentina, everyone greets each other by a kiss on the cheek. Even men kiss each other to greet. It is also normal to greet strangers with a kiss.” Ravi explained
“So you are telling me that you kiss men every day at work?” I asked him
“Umm, not me, I try not to kiss the men and just get away with a hand shake” he laughed
I went to the customs’ office with Nora and got all the formalities done. It took a couple of hours after which she explained that we will be able to get the vehicle cleared the following day. That was a huge relief because till now whenever we got our vehicle cleared from a port, it always took at least a week.” We were back by late afternoon and were free to explore the city. Ravi took us to the city ‘centro’ where a huge monument known as the ‘Obelisk’ dominated the main road.
“This is the national icon of Argentina. Also, the street on which you are standing is known as 9 de Julio which is the widest avenue in the world” Ravi told us. We sat in an open restaurant near the Obelisk and tried ‘Quilmes’, the local beer. Next couple of hours was spent in observing people walking by, smelling the steak being cooked in restaurants around us, noticing people kissing each other cheek to cheek everywhere, Latino music playing in various pubs and restaurants. The overall atmosphere of Argentina had a laid back, fun, positive and a happy vibe. After a couple of drinks, exhaustion finally kicked in and we decided to call it a day. My mind was already overworked after flipping through pages of translation guides, language converter apps and having worked hard to speak Spanish words. We took a cab back to the hostel and crashed in bed.
Our next morning in Argentina started with a visit to the port for vehicle clearance. Our shipping agents’ were already waiting for us. I donned a yellow jacket and walked into the port where a truck was parked with a container on top in which I had locked our vehicle in Cape Town. I recognized the container and couldn’t hold my excitement.
“Can you please open the container?” I requested the driver
“Momento” he signaled for me to wait. We were all waiting for the customer officer to arrive and inspect the car before he would clear it. He arrived, the gates of the container opened and I saw the first glimpse of Forrest in South America. It looked just like we had shipped it from Cape Town. Familiarity, home and the most important member of our journey was staring at me. It seemed like the car was waiting for us to clear it from a strange port.
“We are here, you will be back with us in no time” is what I felt like saying to it.
“Declaracion” the custom officer asked me pointing at the bags in the boot and on the roof of the car. I figured that he was asking if we had declared the goods inside the bags. We had not. I tried to explain to him that there was nothing of much value in those bags. Some camping gear, utensils, books and tools. He kept shaking his head and walked out of the container. Nora, our agent went to speak to her in private. She didn’t look happy and came to explain what had happened. I couldn’t understand a word of what she said so she called up her office to make Martin, her English speaking boss to talk to me.
“Here is the thing Tushar. The custom officer is saying that you have not declared the goods inside the car. He will not clear your car until you pay him some money. He wants 1700 USD”
“What? The total value of those goods is not even worth 500 USD” I said in shock
“Well, I understand, but these people wouldn’t listen, if they don’t clear your vehicle, you will have to continue paying the storage penalty till you don’t pay him and get it out. I suggest you make him an offer and let’s see what he says” he said
“Fine, please offer him 500 USD” Sanjay and I discussed and made that offer. It seemed like we didn’t have much of a choice anyways. We had heard of horror stories about corrupt custom officers’ in South America but were not prepared to be asked for such an outrageous amount. The agent called back and said that the custom officer will not accept anything less than 1200 USD. The agent himself had charged us a bomb for his clearance services. We had to pay 2500 USD as clearing agents’ fee and another 2000 USD for storage penalty. So 4500 USD had gone just in clearing the vehicle out of the port. Now we had to pay another 1200 USD as bribe to custom officers. We had struggled a lot to arrange money for this leg and to see it all go away in hands’ of corrupt custom officers was very upsetting for us. However, we had to deal with the situation, go with the flow and put it behind us. We paid the money, got the vehicle cleared but didn’t feel any excitement. We were hardly left with any money. More than half of our money had gone in simply getting the car out of the port. In the beginning itself, we had to pay such a huge bribe, who knows what we would be dealing with when we cross various borders in South America?
We took the car, drove back to our hostel and parked it in a secure paid parking nearby. We felt cheated, knew it was unfair, but then we had to convince ourselves by telling each other that we are on a difficult journey, if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it. We remained positive and focused on completing the journey successfully.
The following day, we met Mr Khatua, the Indian Ambassador to Argentina. A very jovial, sharp, athletic and warm person, he invited us for lunch at his residence. A lavish apartment on the 40th floor of a luxury building, his living room overlooked a race course, behind which you could see the airport with a very clear view of the runway. Behind the airport was the ocean. My jaw dropped when I walked into his living room.
“Umm, wow. Sir, this view? Umm, wow.” Is all I could manage. He just smiled and said,
His cook prepared an elaborate Indian meal for us and after overeating we thanked His Excellency. He also instructed his chauffer, Pablo to show us around the city. We went to an area called La Boca, where we saw the famous oddly colored South American buildings. The story is that this area, being by the docks was used by new immigrants. The colors were used from discarded paint from the ships they arrived on. El Caminito, whose name is derived from a Tango song, is the most famous street with colourful houses in this area. You can see tango dancers here and even take a photo or dance with them for a small fee.
“Look into my eyes and don’t smile” said a gorgeous tango dancer when I asked her to teach me some Tango steps. Wearing a silky one piece dress with a slit from her thigh down, she wrapped her perfectly toned leg around my waist. “Hold me firmly and don’t let go” she said to me very seriously. I was a bit embarrassed but Sanjay and Prasad were having a good laugh at my cost. I ‘Tangoed’ with her for a few minutes and enjoyed every bit of it.
“I think my visit to Argentina is complete now. I have nothing more to experience” I laughed.
Our last evening was spent watching a Tango show at the high end Tango Porteno theatre in the heart of the city. The tickets were given complimentary by the Argentine Tourism Board and we also managed to meet Juan Fibbre, the owner of the theatre company. A very flamboyant man, he looked like a star straight out of the set of a Hollywood movie. Wearing a leather jacket, fine long white hair, sunglasses inside the theatre, a scarf around his neck, leather pants, he is one of the most important figures in the Argentine Tango industry.
“I own the largest Tango dancing company in the world. I have 3 theatres in Argentina and 1 in New York.” He told us. After meeting him, we took our seats and the show began. It was a spectacular performance, what struck me most was the intensity and the passion with which the partners look into each others’ eyes while dancing. At many times, the couple would continue dancing all around the stage with their eyes closed. Their bodies moved in sync with each other, hands and feet moving passionately and with perfect timing, a Tango show in Argentina should definitely be on the top of your to do list if you are visiting Argentina!
The last evening ended in style, we went back to the hostel and packed up to begin our long journey through Latin America. I went to sleep with a small prayer wishing to have a successful passage through a region about which we didn’t have much knowledge. Despite a few hiccups at the customs, our time spent in Buenos Aires was absolutely fantastic. I was excited, happy but also worried about being able to survive here on our meagre budget. But the travel bug, the hunger to explore, the desire to meet new people was enough to keep all of us driven. Once we hit the road, everything will be taken care of, with these thoughts…sleep came easily.