The Other Argentina
On a recent Friday, Puerto Limon Hostel where I reside in Buenos Aires got a phone call asking if I was a resident there. They asked for my passport number and said they had received a small package addressed to me from the U.S. The package contained a replacement hearing aid from the Audibel hearing aid organization in Florida. As part of my warranty on their product, they had agreed to replace the hearing aid I had lost, and put on the bill of lading a value of $2 because zero was not acceptable. The following Monday, a Fed Ex driver stopped by the Hostel, not to deliver the package, but to drop off two pages of confusing instructions, in Spanish, about how to pay customs charges of U.S. $121 and an additional AR $250 for my free package. I had heard horror stories about package delivery in Argentina, but being the eternal optimist, I was ready to find out for myself. I do not visit a country to become its critic, and after five months of residence here, I loved Buenos Aires and learned more every day. I even entertained notions of using this experience to deepen my understanding of how customs worked, and how the values were determined.
So I set about with one of the receptionists here, who tried to translate the written instructions. Eventually she gave up and called the local Fed Ex office. They explained what I would owe, which I thought was ridiculous. After all, a comparable hearing aid was simply not available in Argentina, and why would they punish a handicapped person (not being able to hear IS a handicap) by making a replacement as difficult and as expensive as possible? It’s not as if they could repair or replace it from an Argentine provider. The following is what happened next to me and Erika, my assistant and interpreter, who was helping me on her precious day off work:
- The Fed Ex office instructs us to proceed to a specific Customs Office (A) to fill out forms. Once we had those completed forms in hand, I would go to the Airport to pick up my hearing aid package. The round trip taxi expense would be US $70. The alternative was to take the bus, which was six hours. Delivery to your location is out of the question. The only thing that can be hand delivered to your location is written instructions why you have to travel to the airport and what you have to pay.
- When we got to Customs (A) we were told they were not the correct office, and we should go to Office B, about ten blocks away.
- Office B was quite large. It had a seating area for about 200 people. There were 23 windows at which one could presumably conduct business. Only window 23 was staffed, by an aging, white-haired man who looked like he was about to expire of boredom. There was no one else in this entire office except the greeter, who had disappeared. Cheered by our presence, our bureaucrat asked for my ID, then produced two forms, and he carefully hand stamped each one of them with four different rubber stamps. He did this very slowly, methodically, with a precision and dignity worthy of the Magna Carta, and then asked me to print my name and email on each of them, as well as sign them. He then directed us to a computer at a nearby table and told us what website to go to and enter my ID number. It would not accept my ID number, after numerous tries. Erika asks the greeter, who had returned to his barren post what to do and he said the system was malfunctioning. He had no other suggestions. Apparently they directed everyone to the computer that wasn’t functioning, and then patiently waited for them to announce that it wasn’t working.
- We went down the street, located an Internet cafe and accessed the Customs website there, and tried to enter my package number. The website would not accept my package number. We called Fed Ex and were instructed to go to the airport ($70) to get the number. We called a Customs phone number to find out if this is true, do we really have to go to the airport just to get the package number so we could fill out this form, and were told they couldn’t help us unless we were a company. We hung up and called Customs again, got another employee who told us, “to be perfectly honest, you aren’t going to get your package, you are wasting your time.” We then called a company that specializes in representing people with Customs issues, and when we told him our story, he said “I’ll be glad to take your money, beginning with AR $5,000 but you aren’t ever going to get your package.”
- We call Fed Ex back, and tell them our story and that we decided to return it to the sender as undeliverable. She says, that’s wise, there’s no way you could get your package. We had two questions we chose not to ask: Why didn’t you tell us that in the first place? And, how do you people make any money if you can’t deliver your packages? I had a third question, which it also wasn’t worth asking: If you could drive all the way to my hostel to deliver two pieces of paper, why not bring the hearing aid with you on the same trip?
- Fed Ex was very cheerful about returning our package, and put us on hold while they did the paperwork. They proudly announced my hearing aid would be back in Florida in about ten days.
- The question everyone wants to know the answer to is, could you have gotten this done with a bribe? The sad truth is, we never met anyone who knew enough for a bribe to produce any kind of tangible benefit. Everyone was nice. No one had a clue.
The mind-numbing Kafkaesque incompetence and disorganization and dull but cheerful acceptance of the status quo could have been very frustrating, but Erika and I decided we were on the movie set of a science fiction story about a planet inhabited only by zombies and made a game out of the day, and then stopped for something Argentina does occasionally get right: a steak and beer.
Argentina has achieved the final end result of decades of bad ideas and misguided public policy: total loss of faith in her institutions, universities overflowing with passionate Argentine rhetoric about social theories, ubiquitous framed photos of Che Guevara, but a desperate lack of knowledge about how to get anything done. This debacle took decades to develop, and it will take time to fix. The question is whether Argentines have the will to deny themselves in the present long enough to restore sanity and stability. A month ago I took a walking tour conducted by an Argentine firebrand with half an understanding of basic economics, whose major concern was that entrance to football games was no longer going to be free. Bread and circuses. Quick and painless fixes. Merchants and industries that don’t invest in their tomorrows because their tomorrows are very much in doubt.
John adds the following comment: This wasn’t about tariffs, although they are punitive to ordinary citizens. What I found most amazing was not what you had to pay, but that it simply wasn’t physically possible for the government to get a small package from the airport to the recipient, who was willing to pay the tariff. Nobody knew how to make it happen. It was just easier to send it back and everyone was kind of relieved when I decided to do that. Even if I went to the airport to pick it up and pay the tariff, they couldn’t give it to me.
Then I think about that incredible waterworks building and I think, look what they could do a hundred years ago, and look at what they can’t do now. With or without my hearing aid, I’m irrelevant, but look at how they strangle their own country commercially.
Travel and Business Writer
John is an international travel writer, He writes regularly for the Scandinavian Press and is the author of a ghostwritten book, Malpractice, available at Amazon. His web site is www.johnbechtelwriter.com.
Editor’s Note: John has given you a very good practical description of what we have been saying here. As much as we love Argentina, we have explained before our sadness that this beautiful country was once a first world country, in competition with the United States. As this writer points out the water building from the 1800s, we observe that the beautiful architecture testifies to her past. But Argentina was turned into a third world country by a socialist regime that knew how to manipulate the people with promises of free stuff. But there is never enough of other people’s money for all that free stuff so they start printing extra money and then you have inflation. And then in an attempt to control the inflation they mandate price controls and you have shortages . As one man once said, if you put a politician in charge of the desert, there would soon be a shortage of sand.
As we have reported before, most things that you bring to Argentina need to be either shipped in the window after you get citizenship when you can bring in household goods duty free (but not all, you need to talk to an agent). Or else bring it with you and have other things you want ready so that when your friends and relatives come to see you they can bring your stuff in an extra suitcase. Your editor has ordered seven books by mail over the years we have been here–and we received one. We don’t find this same utter incompetence in Uruguay or Chile. But we have learned to live with it Our dear resident writer is just now going through his initiation. Fortunately he did manage to get his hearing aid after it was returned to the States. Today he’s good to go! He hears just fine.
We know that we have some aspiring travel writers here. You know you don’t have to travel to be a travel writer. A person could find enough things to write about here in Buenos Aires to stay busy. Or in just about any other location. Even cities in the United States are travel destinations for someone. But we do also know writers who travel, even to Europe. We ourselves have taken several courses in writing and we decided to offer some here. Check this out if you’re interested. You only live once. If you think you’d like it why not try it. We only offer here things that we think can help our subscribers to increase income And if you do undertake it and would like some help, let us know. We’ve been there and done that and love to see people succeed. Which is partly why we send this newsletter.
Until next week . . .