Before I landed in Argentina I was warned about crime, but even if nobody had said a word, a few hours in Buenos Aires would tell the story. All doors and windows have heavy bars or wooden or metal shutters. Shops, from the high-end china store to the cheese shop and the laundry, have a buzzer to let customers in. Nobody, including the building’s janitor, has a key to my daughter’s apartment. She must go downstairs to let visitors in the front door and later to escort them out again. In my Hoboken apartment, I have often held the door open for someone entering at the same time as I was, but would not allow a stranger to follow me through an Argentine door.
I was chided when I held my cellphone above my head to take a photograph—it would be so easy for someone to rip the phone from my hand and run, or drive, off. Motorbike crime is pernicious; an English tourist was killed by a motorbike robber just the other day. Cellphones are the prey, and they are handled carefully in public.
Cheek by wealthier jowls are “villas,” (pronounced “vishas”), desperately poor neighborhoods. You could easily wander into one. And there are homeless people, too, though they’re not as visible and pervasive as in New York. They often sleep on mattresses, which they carry around. It’s not unusual to find a person asleep on a mattress in a doorway. Unlike in America, the homeless receive free health care, though their teeth could use some attention. If a poor person can manage to get there, all education through university is free, including to foreigners. It’s hard to compare poverty and desperation though.
Given the required vigilance, I was dismayed when I dropped my change purse containing two credit cards, about $60 of combined pesos and dollars, and my New Jersey driver’s license in a taxi. When my husband said, “Call the taxi lost and found” my daughter and I concluded that such a thing was vanishingly unlikely to exist in Buenos Aires. Even if the individual driver wanted to find me again, how would he know which of his fares had left the purse behind? When I discovered my loss, I spent the first fifteen minutes near tears, then cancelled the credit cards and resigned myself to a lost morning at the Department of Motor Vehicles when I got home. As the day progressed, I rationalized; there had been no violence, I wasn’t impoverished, my trip was not compromised, and my passport was safe. Still, I castigated myself for my carelessness, and tried to reject the “what ifs.”
When the downstairs doorbell rang the next afternoon, my daughter answered through the intercom. Her eyes were wide when she turned to me. “It’s the taxi driver!” she said. “He has your purse!” We went downstairs and the jovial driver, a middle-aged man, said he’d been passing by and recognized the building. The janitor was standing out front and when he asked about the “Americans, an older woman and a younger woman from New York,” the janitor told him which apartment we were in.
I rushed downstairs, thanked him profusely, and gave him a twenty dollar bill (dollars are precious in Argentina these days). After he left, I opened the purse to check: driver’s license, two credit cards, but no cash.
Who had taken the dollars and pesos? The person who found the purse in the cab and then handed it to the driver? The driver’s wife or child who investigated the contents when the driver brought the purse home? If the driver himself took the money and also the twenty dollar reward, was he acting on what he considered to be a fair, though un-negotiated exchange? I’ll never know, but on this Christmas day, I’m glowing with newfound faith in the goodness of my fellow human beings, no matter where I roam.