On Wednesday, May 18, I hopped on the Silver Bird to Buenos Aires, to give a couple of talks and attend a meeting of the board of the South American Business Forum (SABF), the student-organized event that I join each August. About 45 minutes before landing, I started to chat with my seatmate, Mariana, and was immediately reminded that my Talking to Strangers reconnaissance could start earlier in a flight – she was a really interesting person, an Argentine economics graduate with an MBA from Harvard, now working in several different areas. We exchanged business cards and vowed to keep in touch.
The plane was about an hour late. There was a huge line to clear Argentine customs, which meant that there were cheaters trying to cut the line. A burly Russian troublemaker attempted, and the crowd around me spoke up (his wife or girlfriend headed to her rightful place at the end of the queue). One especially energetic young man, much smaller, got in his face, then got justice by summoning the airport police. We did not see our comrade again. I was muttering about civility. Once through, I met my long SABF friend Martin Siniawski and another pal, and we headed into the city.
The morning evaporated, and at noon met Nestor Sanchez, a new host from the Instituto Tecnologico de Buenos Aires (ITBA, the host institution of SABF). Nestor was director of the graduate management program at the school, and organizer of an executive conference where I would be speaking the next day. The session was the first of a series of joint sessions organized with the Universidad de San Andres, and to build attention they arranged for a journalist from the biggest daily paper, Clarín, to interview me. Isabel the writer seemed focused on safety issues, and ten minutes into the interview the sad reason surfaced: a small Argentine airline, Sol, had lost a Saab 340 the night before, in the south of the country.
After the session, Nestor took me to a splendid lunch in a restaurant called A/222, high atop a building with a clear and wonderful view of the former port, Puerto Madero. From four to six the SABF board of trustees met. I’m the only non-Argentine on the panel. From seven to ten, I delivered a talk on leadership to current and former SABF organizers. The plan was to grab pizza, but I headed back to the hotel and hit the pillow. It was a long day.
Was up early the next day, Friday, to meet Nestor and head to the conference. They were pleased with the turnout, about 50, including some CEOs and other high-ranking executives of Argentine companies. The presentation was entitled “Managing in Permanent Crisis,” and focused on what we learned at American Airlines in the first decade of this millennium. Lively questions and an engaged audience. I really wanted to give them a good show to launch the speaker series, and I think it worked out well.
Things slowed down by 12:30. I said goodbye to Nestor, walked to the hotel, changed clothes, worked a bit of e-mail, and headed out. I had been in Argentina for almost 30 hours, and had not bought Argentina pesos. I didn’t need much, so asked about the hotel’s rate, about eight percent lower, no problem. But the desk clerk opened the cash drawer, she didn’t have the peso equivalent of $60. She apologized profusely, and I was nonplussed. Onward, up the street and into a bank that flashed a good exchange rate on a sign in red pixels. Waited ten minutes in a queue, only to be told of a $100 minimum. Onward to an ATM, to find that they wanted the equivalent of $4.
I am stubborn about stuff like that, so I continued to a currency exchange; they demanded my passport, which was back in my hotel-room safe. The touts on Calle Florida crying out “Cambio, cambio” (money exchange) suddenly seemed like a viable option. I told a smiling fellow, in Spanish, that I did not have my passport. He replied with the equivalent of “no problem,” and took off through a throng on the busy shopping street. I hustled to keep up, we turned down a side street, and into a travel agency. He flashed the exchange rate on a calculator, 4 pesos to the dollar (the official rate that day was 4.12 – ya gotta admire the efficiency of his market), and in less than a minute the transaction was done. He got a piece of the spread, the market cleared, and I felt way better than doing business with a bank!
At three I met Martín and two colleagues in the offices of his Internet radio start-up called Streema (www.streema.com). It was fun to see what I dubbed the “global headquarters,” about 100 square feet of sublet space above Calle Florida, three or four computers, and fast broadband connections. We bantered a bit, and I sat down at a counter and worked away for two hours, to help our start-up company.
Took a short nap and at 7:15 walked south, past Casa Rosada, Argentina’s White House, and onto Subway Line E, riding five stops west. Ambled a couple of blocks to Miramar, a traditional and simple neighborhood restaurant that qualified as one of many bares notables (no translation needed!). The place opened for dinner at eight, and as I waited, I snapped a couple of pictures that were emblematic of the unselfconscious oldness that makes Buenos Aires so endearing – like you’re six or seven decades in the past (Anteojos, literally “before the eyes,” are glasses):
An older waiter stepped outside to clear a stray Scotch bottle from the step. I leaned over and picked it up. He thanked me. I replied, in his language, that I was waiting until Miramar opened, ten minutes hence, and he welcomed me inside, found a choice table by an open window, and brought a menu. I ordered a bottle of Quilmes Stout and perused the daily specials. An SABF pal, Juan Trouilh, and I had visited Miramar a couple of years earlier, and although we were too early for dinner, a kindly young fellow invited us inside for a view of a totally old-school place. Of course it had not changed. According to a 2009 article in The New York Times, Miramar was still owned by the Ramos family, who opened it in 1948 as an almacén, or small grocery.
The waiter spoke a bit of English, because he had worked in San Antonio, Texas, and Seattle in 1977-78. He brought a second bottle of stout (cerveza negra, literally black beer), and made a remarkable and ugly transition from not liking black black beer to not liking black people. I replied in Spanish that I had many black friends, thinking that would send him away, but no. I did manage to turn the discussion toward an order of morrones¸ sweet red peppers with lots of garlic, followed by a main course of rabbit stew, savory and piquant, with potatoes, peas, and onions. The place started to fill up about nine. Notwithstanding the waiter’s ignorant comments, it was a splendid meal.
On the way home, I stopped to snap a picture of the splendid 18th century cabildo, the offices of Spain in that part of the New World.
The walk north to the hotel, on the street called Reconquista, was grim: I passed a lot of homeless people, including a young boy under a blanket in a supermarket cart, and people picking through rubbish to find recyclable materials. Buenos Aires can be a grim place.
I was up before seven on Saturday morning, and up two floors to the gym, which had a great view of the old harbor and the River Plate estuary. Rode hard for a half-hour, then down to the room and breakfast. At ten I met a former SABF organizer, Julieta Rodriguez, and we ambled up Avenida Cordóba for a coffee and to catch up. She graduated from ITBA 18 months ago, and joined Kraft Foods in their logistics group. She was super-enthusiastic about her job, and I asked a lot of questions about it. An hour later, Elisa, another SABF alumna, picked me up at the hotel, and we headed out to suburban San Isidro (stopping to pick up Martin and another fellow on the way), to a typical Argentine weekend activity – an asado, or barbecue. The host, Juan Pedro, was another ITBA alum. He was renting a very comfortable townhouse from his parents. It was a perfect autumn day, blue skies, breeze, and about 65º. It was nice to be away from the crowded center, in a place with trees and plenty of colorful fall foliage.
The asado was for the team organizing the 2011 SABF, as well as organizers from previous years. It was great to see old pals, like Alberto, Yvonne, and Agustín, and I was reminded of a thought from two days earlier – ITBA graduates people who succeed, and succeed well. It was a pleasure to spend the afternoon with them, yakking about their new jobs, my new gig with Intelligent Avionics, and a range of other topics. We enjoyed the simple meal of barbecued beef (grass-fed Argentine meat, so flavorful), sliced onions and tomatoes, and some beer. I played the first game of foosball (table football) in at least 25 years; I was terrible back then, but somehow improved, and Pablo and I nearly won!
A bit past four, Elisa drove me across town to the airport, I jumped through a lot of hoops (leaving Argentina is not fast), and flew home. Landed Sunday morning at six and was walking MacKenzie by eight. A fast trip to the Southern Hemisphere: two nights on planes, two nights in hotels.