Shoplifting in Argentina and Other Adventures

There comes a point in every 10-hour flight when you realize yes, that baby IS going to scream for the entire 6000 miles. For me, that point was “somewhere over Ecuador.”

Day 1: DFWTF?

As a frequent traveler and a major nerd, I subscribe to multiple web services for automatically tracking my travel plans (highly recommend TripIt.com, by the way). I get regular text messages on the day of the flight with helpful information like “Your flight is currently ON TIME, scheduled for departure at 12:35 p.m. from gate C19.” But when my phone starts dinging on flight day like it’s Christmas in front of the local TJ Maxx, it’s never good news.

It was not good news.

The message said “AA flight 1006 PDX to DFW is currently DELAYED until 1:55 p.m. You are likely to miss your connection. Tap here for alternate flights.”

Under “Alternate flights,” it proposed a route of Portland – Dallas – Los Angeles – Miami – Buenos Aires, arriving approximately 19 hours later than scheduled. I’m not a geographer by profession, but that struck me as a twee bit indirect. I’m surprised they didn’t throw in stops in Iceland and Cape Town.

So I hauled off to the airport and started tracking the delayed inbound aircraft, which would ultimately be my outbound flight. And it became pretty clear that the timing was going to be very, very tight. Doing the math, it looked like IF the flight landed in Portland as estimated, and IF they got the passengers off and the new passengers on quickly and IF there was a big tailwind heading south as they had announced, and IF I could get from terminal A to terminal D in Dallas quickly, I would probably make my flight with about 30 minutes to spare.

And so began the next four hours of nail biting.

By the time we took off from Portland the 30 minute window was down to 20 minutes, pending this magical promised tailwind. I pictured Disney’s Aladdin gently pushing the aircraft from behind. With three hours to kill on the plane, I carefully studied the layout of the DFW airport at the back of the in-flight magazine and game-planned my run from the gate to the Skytrain to the next terminal.

We touched down at 7:12 p.m., 23 minutes before the flight to Argentina would depart. It was going to be very close.

Fun fact: Did you know that the Dallas-Fort Worth airport terminal is in New Hampshire? I didn’t either, but after we landed we taxied for what I estimate to be 2,700 miles. By the time we reached gate A31 in Nashua it was 7:22. Thirteen minutes to make my flight.

Another interesting tidbit: Every airline has a research department where they study the most efficient way to load passengers onto an airplane. United uses a back-to-front methodology, whereas Continental favors a window-middle-aisle strategy. American chunks the plane into different sections and Southwest finds that self-selection is fastest. But you know what none of them have? A LABORATORY WHERE THEY FIGURE OUT THE MOST EFFICIENT WAY TO GET PASSENGERS OFF OF A PLANE!!!

And let’s just say that this flight was particularly inefficient in the disembarking procedure. It’s as if they were throwing a party with a free open bar and nobody wanted to leave. “Hey, we just spent three hours together in a cramped tube hurtling through the sky. Wouldn’t this be a good time to stop and have a conversation while standing in the middle of the aisle?”

I am a frequent traveler, and I cannot remember a flight that was this slow to unload. I was in row 12 and I think the people in rows 20 and higher are probably still in the plane.

I would like to propose a new method of de-planing that goes in this order:

  1. People with only one small carry-on bag who are desperately rushing to catch the only daily flight to the far reaches of South America.
  2. Everybody else on the airplane, but especially the people who are too stupid to figure out how to get their giant, hard-sided four-wheeled, 600-pound rollerbags out of the overhead compartment.

The vast majority of the passengers were utterly baffled by their bag in the overhead compartment. How did that get in there? Can it be removed? How can I tell my bag from your bag? Perhaps we should all stop and consider whether we can ever truly know the position of any bag in the universe.

In some cases it took upwards of four people, an engineering survey and a Congressional oversight committee hearing to remove a bag.

7:33 p.m.

Even after exiting the plane, the people walking up the ramp to the terminal were strolling — no, lollygagging — three abreast as if to say “We have never been on an airport jetway this exciting and we intend to savor the moment!”

I burst into the terminal at 7:34. I sprinted for the Skytrain.

Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.

Skytrain arrived. I jumped on. It started moving. Terminal B. Doors open. Doors stay open a long time. Doors stay open long enough for the entire population of New Hampshire to board, were they all at the airport simultaneously. Doors close. Train chugs along. Terminal D. Doors open.

I leap off of the Skytrain. Race down the escalator. Run to the gate.

“Buenos Aires!” I shout.

“It’s gone,” says the gate agent, in a tone of voice that says “You should have been here an hour ago.”

Harrumph.

Back in the old days, gate agents used to have the flexibility to hold an outgoing flight if they knew that an inbound flight was slightly delayed. Today, such things are controlled by a master control center that balances the cost of delays with the cost of flying faster and burning more fuel. I was an actuarial casualty.

The agent gave me some options for getting to Buenos Aires. One involved spending the night in the Dallas Airport and flying through Miami at 5 a.m. Another involved flying out in an hour and spending the night in the Miami airport. I opted for:

(c) Have American Airlines put me up in a hotel with some free food vouchers and take the same flight the next night. I figured it would be the less grueling of the three options.

American was actually quite accommodating about putting me up for free. The guy standing next to me at the gate didn’t have it so lucky. He had missed the flight and was trying to convince the agent that he should be able to take another flight. She was grilling him like Perry Mason as to why he had missed the flight. His story, as best I could follow it, involved helping a friend fix a truck, not wearing a watch, losing track of time and unexpected traffic. Translation: stoned.

Days 2-3: Long Night’s Journey Into Day

I highly recommend the Hawthorn Suites DFW, especially if you are the kind of traveler who enjoys having a kitchen in your hotel room and were thoughtful enough to travel with a full set of dishes, cooking utensils and a nearby grocery store in your carry-on luggage. If for some reasons you have neglected to carry any of those things, the Hawthorn Suites “kitchen” is approximately as functional as the ones in the remodeling section of Home Depot.

The nearest walkable restaurant is a Whataburger 3/10ths of a mile away (for anyone who enjoys dining at an establishment that openly calls into question the provenance of the food in its own name). Not being a big fan of the Whataburger, or its sister establishment Holycrapisthisahotdog, I opted to walk a freezing mile to the Marriott to spend my $12 American Airlines dinner coupon on a club salad. I had packed for South America, not a one-mile walk on a cold Dallas night in February.

The next day I luxuriated in the “suite” until my negotiated late checkout of 1 p.m., then caught the shuttle back to the airport where I had six hours to kill until my flight. Two free meals at TGI Friday’s later (Whatasalad), we boarded the giant American Airlines 777 and we were off to Buenos Aires!

The woman sitting next to me had a baby in her arms and was traveling with two other small children and a regular-sized husband. My Spanish isn’t great, but in our conversation I got the gist of what she was saying, which was “What the hell was I thinking having three children?!?”

As soon as we took off the baby started to scream, and bless its giant lungs it continued to scream, unabated, until we landed in Buenos Aires 10 hours later. I attempted to drown it out with podcasts, music and “sleeping,” but none were particularly successful. On the bright side, the baby drifted off to sleep right about when we were landing, so I’m sure they had a very pleasant drive home from the airport.

The highlight of the flight was getting up to stretch my legs and seeing the sunrise out the window as we flew over the Andes near Santiago, Chile. That was amazingly spectacular. The entire last hour of the flight was lovely.

I should add that the plane emptied out efficiently.

It took almost two hours to get through the customs and immigration lines in the airport. Then another hour to get to my apartment by taxi (we were delayed by “random deployed railroad crossing barrier despite lack of train”). I was met by my AirBnB landlord, a charming Canadian gentleman who showed me around the place, gave me some maps to the city and then departed. I took a quick walk around the neighborhood to get my bearings, found a bank with a cash machine to withdraw some pesos and stopped into a grocery store for some food. The rest of the day was a blur of trying to stay awake long enough to go to bed. It was Monday night. I left Portland on Saturday morning.

Day 4: Settling In

Tuesday I had a lot of work coming up in the afternoon (i.e. daytime in the USA), so in the morning I went out for a run. It’s about a mile from my apartment in the Palermo Hollywood district of Buenos Aires to the extensive Palermo park system. It was raining, but it was a warm rain, so I didn’t mind. I spent almost 90 minutes out running and walking and getting a feel for the area. At the end of my run it started raining heavily, so I ducked back into the apartment, a bit wet but well exercised. The rest of the day was spent working with the door open, listening to the rain on the patio.

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Day 5: Are you Ready For Some Fútbol?

On my Tuesday run I had passed by the Jumbo, a giant grocery store, home improvement center and mall (“Jumbo” is Spanish for “Target”). I walked the mile over there in the morning and loaded up on a few food items that my local grocery doesn’t have. I also picked up a pair of soccer shinguards, because I was planning to play soccer at night.

You may be asking why I didn’t just bring my own soccer shinguards, since I have two pairs of them (guards, not shins) at home. The answer is that I am mildly obsessed with traveling light. Hadas would laugh at the word “mildly,” but then we have differing philosophies on travel. I believe that travel is best experienced by seeing the world with only the few small things you can carry on your back. Hadas believes that travel is best experienced by bringing the contents of your home. In fairness, I am here for three weeks with three shirts to choose from, whereas she would be able to do a costume change after every production number.

Anyway, I have one backpack-style carry-on bag and I do everything in my power to keep it light. True story, I bought a special travel shaver that takes two AA batteries, just so I could leave the AA batteries out and buy them at my destination.

Second true story: I went the first four days of my trip without shaving because I didn’t know how to say “AA batteries” in Spanish.

So I left the soccer shinguards at home, figuring I could pick up a cheap pair when I got here. And sure enough, at the Jumbo they had soccer shinguards and I bought a pair. There was a weird-looking buckle on the strap that looked like it would be awfully uncomfortable, but I would worry about that later.

After a good day’s work it was time to go play soccer! There’s an organization down here called Buenos Aires Fútbol Amigos that organizes pick-up soccer games for locals and expats. I’d signed up for a 7 p.m. game and was getting ready to head out in the rain to play. Meanwhile, I was loading my soccer gear into my backpack when I finally got around to inspecting the shinguards.

So it turns out, the uncomfortable-looking “buckle” was actually an anti-theft device. It brought so many things into focus. For instance, on leaving the Jumbo an alarm had gone off when I passed through the exit. But being that this is Argentina and nobody looked askance or pointed a rifle at me I figured that maybe it was just a sound that notified the store that people were exiting. In fact, the same alarm sounded a few minutes later when I passed into and out of a sporting goods store in the mall, so I was pretty sure that this was just the “Customer has entered or exited!” sound. They really needed to learn to make it sound like less of an alarm.

But no, it turns out that it was an anti-theft device that the cashier at the Jumbo had neglected to remove. And one of the hallmarks of an anti-theft device is that they’re designed to be very, very difficult to remove.

I can report that they are, in fact, very, very difficult to remove.

After 30 minutes with various implements discovered in the apartment (corkscrew, serrated kitchen knife, profanity) I managed to stabscrewpry the device off of my shinguard. I have gained a new appreciation for safecrackers, and if they ever film Ocean’s 14, they should totally have the plot involve removing a plastic anti-theft device from the elastic straps of a $10 pair of shinguards. Raise the stakes, baby!

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The bus system in Buenos Aires is complicated. There are over 150 different bus routes, all operated by a variety of different companies. It’s so complicated, in fact, that there’s an entire book that explains all the routes. It’s called the “Guia T” (pronounced like “guillotine”) and once you’ve learned how to read it you’re no more than 17 steps away from easily finding your way from point A to point B. There’s also a website, which is 1,000 times simpler to use, except for the fact that some of the bus lines have multiple routes, and the website simply says “Some of the buses on this route may not take you where you want to go.”

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On the brighter side, the buses have standardized on a rechargeable card system, ending years of massive coin shortages since everyone hoarded coins to use on the bus. It used to be impossible to get change. Now you just tell the driver where you’re going, hold the card up to a box, and it auto-magically deducts the right amount, which is about 34 cents per ride.

I caught the jam-packed bus 140 towards the soccer place, but since it was jam-packed I couldn’t see what streets we were passing. I finally got off when I figured I was pretty close, and it turned out I had only missed by about a mile. After a 20 minute walk through greater Palermo I arrived at the soccer facility. It’s a small building with two artificial turf fields, each about the size of a small basketball court, surrounded by concrete walls and with a fabric roof. There was water dripping through many holes in the roof, and just before we kicked off an entire corner of the roof gave way, pouring gallons of water onto the field. I made a mental note not to play right fullback.

The game was fun. It was a mix of locals and expats, with chatter equally divided between Spanish and English. Despite not having played soccer in a couple years, I was able to hold my own. Had a few nice assists, scored a couple goals. Didn’t get kicked in the face. I’d describe the gameplay as competitive, but not cutthroat. Everyone was clearly out to have fun, and the quality of passing was a step up from what I would expect in a game back home.

After the game, my legs a bit wobbly, I stood in the rain for 15 minutes until the return bus came. Being dark, rainy and steamy (the bus, but me as well), I was pretty sure I was going to miss my stop and end up in Uruguay, but at the last moment I noticed a giant billboard for The Killers (appearing in Buenos Aires March 30th) which I recognized from the taxi ride on day one, so I hopped off the bus and walked the two blocks to the apartment for a shower, dinner and sleep.

6 responses to “Shoplifting in Argentina and Other Adventures

  1. John M

    My dad used to always travel in the smoking section, back in the days when planes had such things, because the smoking section was a giant child-free zone. Yeah, it smelled terrible but at least he could sleep.

  2. Craig Lyon

    As per usual Mr. B, gold! Love your adventures. Waiting for the entire population of New Hampshire to board. Love it!

  3. Diana Conway

    Loved the description of your plane experience. Was I really thinking of going back to Peru someday soon? Well, I just got my passport renewed, so maybe.

    Diana Mom

  4. Polly-Beth

    With my frequent flights, I am oftne perplexed as I watch folks cram their steamer trunks in the overhead compartments. I enjoyed your descriptions and details of your travel….

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