On Tuesday, August 4, I flew up to JFK, then down to Buenos Aires, to a wet winter, and to my eighth appearance at the South American Business Forum, a student conference organized by young volunteers from Argentina’s premier tech school, the Instituto Tecnológico de Buenos Aires, ITBA. Konstantinos, a SABF volunteer, met me at the airport and we headed into town. He was an interesting guy, Argentine mother and Greek father, both living in Greece. He lived with his Argentine grandmother near downtown and worked at an electroplating company (lots of ITBA students have jobs like that). It was a long ride, and we had a good yak. First stop was to pick up longtime pal Rick Dow, who has joined me as a SABF stalwart. Rick arrived a day earlier and was staying at an Airbnb in Palermo. When we parked the car and I stepped out and onto the curb, it immediately felt familiar, almost like home. Buenos Aires is like that.
Konstantinos dropped us at Sottovoce, a fancy Italian restaurant near the center, and 20 minutes later we were reunited with United Airlines’ country director, Christoff Poppe, who I met some years back when lecturing at Northwestern University. We had dinner with Christoff in 2014, and the lunch was much the same: lots of good discussion about the U.S. and Argentina, politics in both places (Argentina would hold a presidential primary three days hence), and of course the airline business. Sr. Poppe is a great window on Argentina. After a splendid pasta lunch, Rick and I ambled to the hotel – this year we were at a rather fancy Sheraton, not the Waldorf, where the students stay.
At 7:30, we hopped the subway back to Palermo, looking in a café for Rick’s misplaced jacket (turned out he left it in the Airbnb, and the host kindly delivered it the next day), then a taxi to Miramar, one of the capital’s many bares notables, historic drinking and eating places. I had dined there several years earlier, an outstanding traditional place. Martín Siniawski, his pal and business partner Juan Trouilh (who first invited me down, when I met him in New York in 2005), and M’s sweetheart Valería Luna, joined us for a nice dinner, a lot of laughs, and fine conversation. By tradition, the last task that night, at 11:00, was to deliver a cheer to the 2015 SABF organizers at the Waldorf. It was a long, good day.
It was pelting rain Thursday morning (the weather was mostly bad the whole time), so Rick and I hopped in a cab for the four blocks to the conference opening venue. High point in the first-day plenaries was an Argentine economist Agustín Etchebarne, who used the very clever website www.Gapminder.org to make some optimistic points about global economic development. As is often the case, some of the best learning happens away from official sessions, and that day it was dinner with Oscar from Mexico, Rebecca from Brazil, and Ignacio and Facundo from Argentina.
Day two, Friday, is always breakouts, and the morning highlight was Rick’s preso that nailed the conference theme of inclusion. It should have been a plenary for the entire conference. He is engaging and thought-provoking guy, and has been for the nearly 30 years I’ve known him. Had a nice lunch with Jonathan from Zimbabwe and Tatyana from Russia, whose life trajectory was changed after she won a scholarship from the U.S. State Department to attend an American high school – it was in Honolulu, and her Asian-American classmates got her interested in Chinese, which she now studies. She was just back from a year in Taiwan. Once in awhile, the State Department gets it right, and they did with her. During dessert, I shifted down the table and chatted with Isabella Martinez from Chicago, who had attended the 2012 SABF and was so inspired that she formed a NGO called Netwings, which, among other good works, provided funds for four students to attend the 2015 SABF. Rick and I attended an interesting afternoon session with a woman who described her career, with lessons along the way. We left early, me to the fitness center and the hotel room to get a start on my closing remarks for the next day.
Rick and I ambled down the street to El Establo, a familiar bar and restaurant, for a beer and some snacks before dinner. We were having a nice time when in walked Rich, a worn-out old guy from Tucson. Let’s just say we were face-to-face with an extreme sex tourist. It was a rare moment when Talking to Strangers was really not very uplifting. And there was more . . .
We walked across to the student hotel. Oscar had brought a fine bottle of tequila, perhaps the best-known export of his native Jalisco, bought some lemons (“I couldn’t find any limes”), and produced three shot glasses. Tatyana had never tasted tequila, but deadpanned, “I’m Russian, I think I can do this.” It was a fun moment. The entire group ambled a few blocks to the student party, but the early vibe did not seem good, so Rick and I peeled off, heading to Al Carbon, a reliable steak place, for a nice meal and some laughs.
I got up early Saturday to finish my talk. We headed to the small ITBA campus, to yak with people, including Linnea from Minnesota (a student at Penn) and some SABF-organizer alumni who were still fully committed to the project. Just before lunch we listened to a fine motivational talk from Juan Baptista Segonds of Rugby sin Fronteras (Rugby without Borders), a NGO that organizes rugby matches to promote inclusion, peace, and amity. It was inspiring. After a stand-up lunch of empanadas in the main foyer of the school, it was time for me to stand and deliver, to again present the conference closing remarks. They went well. Rick and I hung around as we did in previous years, answering last questions, hugging youngsters and posing for pics, then walked back to the hotel, stopping at a grocery to buy two big tubs of dulce de leche, the milk caramel I dearly love. It’s a great souvenir of Argentina.
At seven we met Josué, another SABF organizer-alum, for a beer. We sad outside on Avenida Cordoba and yakked fast, mostly learning about his plans to apply to four MBA programs in the U.S.: Harvard, MIT, Chicago, and Stanford. Needless to say, he’s a bright fellow. At eight, we hopped in a cab back to Palermo. Rick had done some online research and found one of Buenos Aires’ best pizzerias, Siamo nel Forno (literally, “We are in the oven”). A letter on the desks in our hotel rooms explained that because the next day was election day the law prohibited sale of alcohol after eight, so Rick brought the wine he received as a speaker’s gift. Either the letter was wrong or the pizza people ignored the law, because the other patrons were tippling. We shared a couple of great pizzas and a salad.
Next stop, as the previous year, was La Catedral, a neighborhood tango club in an old, high-ceilinged warehouse (hence the churchy name). Sadly, there was no live orchestra, but Rick and I were transfixed, watching tango lessons on the dance floor. Check and done, we hopped back in a cab and were back before midnight.
We had a slow start Sunday morning. I rode 12 miles in the fitness center and packed up, then Rick and I ambled northwest, through the fancy Recoleta neighborhood, to the city’s main art museum. Closed for election day. So we hopped in a taxi and headed back to the center, to Café Tortoni, an old-school coffeehouse that seems largely unchanged in a century. Just before one, we headed back out to Palermo and met Martín, Vale, and Juan for lunch in their neighborhood steak joint, a really small place (fewer than 20 seats). Either the no-booze-on-election-day rule didn’t apply to restaurants or the owner didn’t care, because we enjoyed a glass of Malbec and shared some seriously good food: for starters, morcilla (blood sausage), another sausage, sweetbreads, and fried cheese; and main courses of smoked ribs, steak, and roast pork. Yum. A 2.5 hour lunch.
When we headed out, it was raining lightly. We headed to Martín’s and Vale’s highrise apartment to sample Terma, a herb-infused soft drink that Vale’s company is rebranding (a curious flavor, but I liked it). Juan drove us back to the hotel.
The first inkling of trouble started at 5:50. The car that was supposed to take us to the airport showed up 20 minutes late, and dropped us not by the runways, but a mile from our hotel at a downtown bus station. No explanation in English, so we assumed that the SABF organizers intended us to take the bus out to the airport. We were waiting 10 minutes for a very incapable clerk to sell two bus tickets (literally the slowest guy on the planet), when Rick spotted a black taxi outside. In no time we were in it, zooming toward the runway. There was no traffic, and we were there quickly, but still a bit too close for comfort. Gave Rick a hug and he peeled off.
I was returning indirectly, via DFW, to ride American’s new 787. Brand-new airplane, 169 total flight hours, and on the way to the takeoff runway it broke. Hydraulic pump issue. We headed back to the terminal, but lightning had closed the ramp, so it took awhile for mechanics to get on board. They were getting it fixed when the pilots calculated that they would run out of allowable duty time, mandated by the U.S. FAA, so the flight canceled. “Come back tomorrow” was the onboard message.
Eager to find AA’s passenger service helpers, I sped through Customs, forgetting that I had checked a bag. Oops. Re-entering was not easy, but after several attempts to get past the rent-a-cops, I found a door leading to the Customs offices. Unlocked, good. Walked in, saying “Hola” loudly. No response. Kept walking, good. Soon I was back in the claim area, grabbed my suitcase, and headed back out. American did not have a good handle on how to get 200 people to hotels, but eventually (after meeting the captain and others former comrades) I got a voucher and hopped on a bus back downtown, to the crew hotel, the fancy Intercontinental. It was raining hard, and the bus windows leaked, but we got there.
My head hit the pillow at 2:10 Monday morning. I was up six hours later, showered and down to a fancy buffet breakfast. When I’m at home on Mondays (to be out of the way of Florencia and Angela, who clean our house), I always head to Starbucks to work for 90 minutes, then to the public library. So it fit that I’d head to Starbucks, if not a local library. I spotted one in Palermo, the agreeable neighborhood we had visited several times that trip, and it would deliver an added benefit of another ride on the subway. So I dropped my bag at the hotel front door and walked north to Linea D, then west to Palermo.
The Starbucks was in an agreeable small shopping mall, Distrito Arcos, built on former industrial land adjacent to a railway line. I asked the barista if they accepted Visa prepaid, adding that my flight the night before had canceled, so I had no pesos. She said yes, poured me a large coffee, and I took my place in “the corner office,” literally. It felt familiar, and I got to work, pounding through a consulting assignment in no time. In a final show of Argentina’s over-the-top hospitality, the barista brought me a little cappuccino topped with whipped cream; on the cup she had written, “Good luck with your next plain.” So sweet! I immediately hopped up, stepped behind the counter, said thanks in her language and mine, and gave her a hug. “I thought you might be nervous about your flight,” she said, and I replied, “well, I travel a lot, and am used to these things.”
I had sliced through my work quickly, and saw that I had time to walk a mile or so to the offices of Streema, Martín’s and Juan’s company. It was still raining, though lightly, and I set off, down Avenida Paraguay. The offices were in a modern, concrete building and the place looked exactly like a start-up. I said hello to a couple of the people I had met in the past, and we sat down to yet another steak (I cut it in half, insisting they refrigerate the remainder for someone staying late). We had a nice yak, I brought them up to date on the flight saga, and at 1:30 I hopped in a cab back to the hotel. Martín fronted the pesos for the fare.
The lobby was full of cranky passengers, although they looked well rested. The same bus from the night before rolled up. I was among the last to board, and the luggage hold was full, so I hauled it up and to the back row. Off we went, until the bus broke down six miles from the airport. By that point, everyone was shrugging rather than mad. The driver failed to fix it, and an hour later two smaller replacement buses arrived, but not before an officious toll-road cop harassed a passenger for taking a photo of the replacement bus. I quietly growled at him. Tinhorns are everywhere.
It took two hours to travel 18 miles. In the terminal, the lines were enormous, and it took an hour to check in. People were beyond cranky. I was just glad to be headed home. Hopped on the repaired 787, ate and slept a bit, changed planes in DFW, and headed east. I was happy when I looked out the 737 window and saw the Great Falls of the Potomac River to the right, then the Watergate apartments to the left. I was home.
Three days later, way before sunrise, I drove to Dulles Airport and flew north to New York Kennedy, arriving at 7:45. Ambled through the jetBlue terminal, then onto the Airtrain to Jamaica (the Queens neighborhood, not the island nation!). At Terminal 8, two familiar faces boarded, American Airlines crewmembers who had served me ten days earlier enroute to Argentina. A true small-world moment (since then, they had been down and back twice). We chatted a bit. At Jamaica I hopped on the E train and rode it to the end of the line at the World Trade Center. Ascending to the street, I could see the new (budget- and time-overrunning) station designed by Santiago Calatrava (I’m no longer enthralled with superstar architects, and projects like that are one reason). Walked south to Cortlandt St. and into a seminar for ocean shippers and shiplines – my newest consulting client is trying to bring pricing reform to that mode, and my job is to help convince both the supply and the demand sides that airline-style dynamic pricing makes sense. I listened to a couple of speakers, offered my own remarks, answered some questions, ate lunch, and peeled off. As a Transport Geek, I like learning about a new mode.
Rode the subway under the East River to the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn to meet my young friend and mentee Emily Sheppard, daughter of my dear friend Jack, who died in 1993. We had a smoothies and a good yak, and I hopped on the F and A trains out to Queens, then onto the Q10 bus to Kennedy and a short flight home.