Sunday, May 11, 2008

Three chance encounters

what with the whole brouhaha over getting a taxi home last weekend, i forgot to mention our chance encounter on the ferry back from uruguay. to set the scene: it's the end of a long weekend, so the ferry is "chockers" (as our recent new-zealand acquaintances terry and paul might say). worse, the ferry's running late. everybody's keen to disembark, so polite queuing has been abandoned in favour of a full-on mill near the pedestrian doors. mo and i are holding our own, plus what we bought en route (in my defense, the grime of the city has been murder on my skin, and those cosmetics were duty free!) -- anyway, there we are, standing hot and tired with half of buenos aires, when all of a sudden someone says, "hola! hello! remember me? how was your trip to uruguay?" i look at mo and mo looks at me, our eyebrows rise collectively, and we turn to the source of the voice.

standing in the mob is one of my two favorite BA bloggers, the woman who owns the delightful shop atipica on the corner of el salvador and scalabrini ortiz. she is absolutely lovely in person, and enviably accomplished. to give you a sense of her accomplishments, her blog is quadrilingual. most days i can hardly manage english, and you've heard about my spanish (let's just say i've successfully mimed 'lighting a cigarette' and 'blowing my nose' on a recent trip to the mercado in order to buy a box of matches and some kleenex -- it was so bad people in line behind me were in on the game of charades); meanwhile, nancy-dalila is writing away in english, french, spanish and portuguese.

we visited her shop on our first full day in BA. atipica is full of artisanal treats and i highly recommend it; i'm especially fond of the jewelry. we mentioned we were going to spend the weekend in uruguay, which she was too. so -- synchronicity, serendipity, and a good memory for faces (on her side), and we have encounter number one.

encounter number two was also blogosphere-related. mo and i have reached that point in the trip where we are starting to feel sad about coming home. this, we know, is also the point at which we are least suited to each other. when i feel the end approaching, i want to speed up and pack in as much as possible. mo, on the other hand, pulls her energies in closer. solution? let's do something completely different, like take a side trip to iguazu falls.

while we could plan such a trip ourselves, time is feeling short, so i emailed my other favorite BA blogger, sandra gutrejde suarez, who runs the blog "my buenos aires travel guide." generously full of information, her site has been my go-to for tips on fun things to do while we're here. it's just an ethical thing for me, then, to put business her way first. imagine my surprise to get an email back from her saying, "i have to tell you, i know who you are." turns out she was curious about some of the traffic coming to her site from mine, so started reading my blog, and we have all sorts of things in common!

the third chance encounter was not so pleasant. mo and i spent the day at the famous san telmo street fair. around 4pm i saw again a woman i'd seen earlier at the cafe where we had lunch. i noticed her walking down the street rubbing her pregnant belly. she saw me looking, i looked away, she kept walking for a bit, then returned to sit at the next table. she was back to back with me, and really dug her chair back into mine sitting down, which was irritating because there were other free tables at the cafe. being stubborn and entirely unsentimental about pregnancy, i wasn't giving any ground. as the chair-grinding went on and seemingly on, i thought, geez, she's not that big, how much space does she need? mo could see my annoyance and worried i was going to get into it with her. she beat a retreat to the washroom, hoisting her shoulder bag onto the chair opposite me, where it would be safe.

within a couple minutes, our pregnant friend -- let's call her la embarazada -- got up and left, squeezing her way between the ice cream machine and the street. that's odd, i thought, she didn't even wait for a menu. wait a second: i looked down at the arm of my chair, where my purse was hanging. the zipper was gaping wide open. where my wallet had been, a hole.

you always wonder what you'll do in such situations. well, i leapt up and chased her down, freebasing adrenalin. la embarazada was heading around the corner from chile onto balcarce when i caught up to her and said, "excuse me, but --"

-- at which point there was another man there yelling a whole lot of stuff including "policia, policia." la embarazada turned impassively to me and shrugged her shoulders, the international sign for 'i have no idea what you're talking about.' i'll give her this, she was a master of diffidence. her eyes didn't move and her color didn't change. but i was enraged. "oh," i said, "i think you do have an idea what i'm talking about. i think you have my wallet!" even while i'm acting like some sort of loca hothead paisan out here on balcarce, i'm acutely and uncomfortably aware that i've left mo's bag unattended at the cafe. is this woman working an angle with someone else? is this guy part of it? no, wait, probably not, because now he's spitting "fuck you, fuck you, fuck you" at her. i realize he's a fellow customer from the cafe. two on one, la embarazada gives up, opens her hand where, behind her black cell phone, is my black wallet. i grab it and say, "and my camera, too, please." i turn to the man and say, "she stole my camera as well." this startles her. "no," she says, in this tiny voice, "no...." the good samaritan speaks roughly to her in spanish. "no!," she says again, more urgently, adding what can only be, "i didn't take the camera." i'm still worried about getting back to mo's bag. i look again in my purse, realize the camera is in fact still there. i open my wallet and there is my cash and, more importantly, my visa card. what kind of amateur thief is she? or, wait: it's all been a bit too easy, hasn't it. i'm sure mo's bag has been picked up in the diversion.

i sprint back to the cafe. the bag is there. i'm post-adrenalin shaking. the servers and the other guests are all talking about it. mo comes out of the bathroom, quizzical. "hi!," i say, "you missed all the drama." "uh oh," she says, "did you and that woman get into it?"

the good samaritan comes back and tells the story from his perspective. he'd seen a couple of italian chicas get badly ripped off last week, passports and all, so he was nervous when he saw me hang my purse on the arm of my chair. (did you get that? the arm of my chair. not the back. talk about cojones!) anyway, he closed his eyes "to take the sun," as he put it, and when he opened them it was to see la embarazada making her way between ice cream cart and street. "i say to myself, 'why? why would she go that way?'" and then he figured it out, just about exactly the same time i wondered why she would leave the cafe without even getting a menu. unnoticed in my haste, the two of us accosted her independently, yet simultaneously. senor, i'm sure you are not reading this, but un otro vez muchas, muchas gracias.

afterward, my overwhelming sense was .... well, indignation. i fancy myself a savvy traveler. i always have more than one credit card, but never in the same bag. i don't walk about the streets with my passport or my backup credit card, i always keep some cash separate from my wallet, and i stay aware of my surroundings, especially at a street fair. how dare this woman mark me for a punk?

the entire restaurant was sympathetic and abuzz for a bit, but eventually you just move on. our sandwiches arrived, other tables' coffees were delivered, and we tried to put this bit of unpleasantness behind us. after all, nothing lost.

but when i ran into la embarazada back on avenida defensa later that afternoon, i was gob-smacked and angry all over again. "well, look who it is," i said. mo expected marcia or, i don't know, maybe the owner of atipica. but no, it was my arch-enemy, la embarazada. i marched right up to her and -- well, and acted like an idiot.

in retrospect, i can see there are several things i could have done to make my point. i could have taken her picture. i should certainly have alerted the omnipresent police officers to the fact that she was a pickpocket; two of them were standing ten feet away from us. however, as usual, my language skills weren't up to the moment. the only insulting thing i know how to say in spanish is "puta," which means whore. given the fact that she was pregnant, denouncing her loudly in the streets as a whore seemed somehow suspicious and unremarkable, at the same time. not to mention anti-feminist.

instead, i marched right up to her and said, "so, still wandering the streets hoping to rip someone off?" same impassive face, the eyes that don't move. "what, you don't remember me? oh, i think you do." etc. it was stupid and knee-jerk and not even all that satisfying. because in spite of how wronged i felt, i still have a big enough world view to compare her life to mine. having my wallet stolen would ruin my day, no doubt. canceling a credit card is always annoying, and i am not so rich that i wouldn't miss the three hundred pesos in cash. but at the end of the day, three hundred pesos means so much more to her than to me that overall the whole encounter just makes me feel sort of sad.

not even buying a new handbag really helps. though it is snazzy. and very, very secure.

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