Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Returning Gum to Argentina

How I Returned a Piece of Gum.

About a hundred years ago one of the most powerful and highly developed countries in the world was Argentina. It was a magnet for immigrants and entrepreneurs from all over the world. Most of the population was from Europe, and it was melting into an exotic neo-European nationality along the same lines as the United States. Huge Old World-style cities were built near the South Pole, and a babble of many languages was heard on the streets of the newly built nation. Every nationality, race and ethnicity was found on the streets of Buenos Aires which looked very much like those of Madrid or Paris.

Argentinean tourists ploughed the waves of world oceans as first class passengers and were welcomed as members of a privileged and successful country in every port they went. “He is an Argentinean”, people would say, which was the same as saying- “he has got a lot of dough and is an aristocrat”.

The country welcomed millions of newcomers from all over the world and was very much set to become a superpower. Well, maybe “superpower” is too loud a word, but it was to become something like Germany or Australia. A fully functioning modern society and an economic powerhouse.

Then, because of many factors that I would not go into now, the country slow slid into a “Third World” status while still preserving its great all-European cultural charm. However, it was forgotten by the world and relegated to the status of a has been nation.

I remember that, as a kid, in a distant port in a faraway land, I once saw a ship full of Argentines dock in, and a crowd of extremely well-to-do looking people descend from it. They were walking around confidently and I looked at them with eyes full of envy. Wow! I wish I could be like that. Rich like them! Traveling around the world!

One Argentine approached me, and, while looking at me with a condescending smile, gave me a stick of gum which I accepted most gratefully. As he walked away I looked at him wistfully. Here I was, just a poor kid and there he was- a rich Argentine.

Little did I know then, that thirty years later I would be flying into Buenos Aires with wads full of Middle East petro-dollars after Argentina had lost its status and went into a head spin of poverty and debt. I must admit that I was gloating now, and I even tried to suppress my condescending smile as I saw the sad faces of the many Argentinean people walking forlornly down the streets. Unemployment was high, salaries even lower than in Mexico and the Argentinean cruise ships carrying rich tourists around the world were pretty much history. I almost felt like saying- “Aha, now you are poor, and I am the one who is rich. But, I think, I owe you something, if you can remember. How about a piece of gum?”

So, here I was in the center of Buenos Aires, pockets bursting with money, a wallet full of debit cards with tens of thousands of dollars in their accounts, staying at excellent hotels and marveling at just how cheap everything now was. The formerly powerful peso was now three-to-the dollar and a meal for 17 pesos was almost nothing for my budget. I was looking for a piece of gum, though I needed to pay the country back.

Actually, I was searching for a ‘stick’ of gum but, hey, they only had “pillow”-shaped gum. But what the heck, that would do and I bought it. Then there were also all these young boys, who were about my age when I saw that rich Argentine on a cruise. One asked me for a “moneda”, a coin. I was happy to give him a handful of coins. Then I smiled at him patronizingly ( of course!) and gave him a piece of gum. “Here, Argentina, we are now even”.

Next, onto a high-class restaurant. That’s really where I wanted to be now. I found a place where only the local super rich, the flowers of Buenos Aires society could afford to dine. Ladies in furs, men in flannel overcoats.

Some of my ancestors immigrated to Bs Aires at the turn of the last century when the country yet held so much promise. I wonder if any of their descendants could make it economically and could dine there now and be in the midst of all these aristocrats whose coats and furs were handled by an immaculately dressed blond hostess.

But there I was in their midst, somewhat ill-dressed but with pockets full of cash. I had a meal for some sixty dollars which was now more than a weeks’ wages for an average Porteno ( a Buenos Aires resident) and left a generous tip. I felt like I had “arrived”. And I did not need to become a millionaire in New York to feel it. How long would it take there , anyway? A generation or two of my time? Nah, I know of a better way. All I need is a trip to this fallen economy to fully redeem myself. Yes, it was schadenfreude, pure and simple, and I enjoyed every second of it. You gotta problem with that?

I took taxis everywhere, went to clubs and shopped like a rich Saudi prince does on Rodeo drive in Beverly Hills. It was all in Argentine pesos and very, very cheap for someone full of Middle East oil dollars. Not bad for a lazy bum like me.

Yet, I was not about to continue my dark gloatings. After all, it was only fun for a while.
After the “sweet revenge” was savored and enjoyed, I did realize that my money was helping the local economy and that I was, in fact, contributing to this country by just my being there. I also started making local friends and telling them the funny story about a rich Argentinean who had once given me a piece of gum and how I have finally paid back the “debt”.

I was also telling the local people about life in the US and in the Middle- and Far East , and how there were opportunities there because, maybe, somebody there was doing things right. I even gave some unsolicited advice on how to better run the local economy and how to better compete on the world markets and surprisingly, I wasn’t brushed off. I also wished in my heart and prayed to see this wonderful melting pot country glorious and prosperous again. My prayer also was really sincere because, while it does not become anyone to be poor, it especially does not suit the Argentines to be like that; and guess what, just a year and half later, the economy improved and life has become better for all people there. Maybe, my prayer did work.

You know, it makes one feel good to be a rich tourist in a developing country. It feels double good to be a tourist in a country that has fallen from its greatness and is temporarily undergoing a painful upheaval. Doing something, no matter how insignificant for a nation that has lost its former glory and your making even a tiny
contribution to help them regain their ex-greatness will leave a sweet residue of accomplishment in your heart.

So, look at the map and see if there is any country that has faltered and is hanging on the edge of abyss. Maybe, you could head there and help out? Just a little bit?

I can’t wait to see those Argentinean cruise liners in world ports again soon. And maybe, when I see one, I will just sit somewhere near the gangplank and watch the tourists descend from their luxury boats. Hey, maybe one of them will give me a piece of gum again. And I will say’ Thank you!” This time with no envy but with a happy smile on my face.

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