After teaching the annual crisis-management course at Georgetown in late July, on August 1 I hopped on a flight to Dallas/Fort Worth, then on to Buenos Aires for my 11th appearance at the South American Business Forum, a student conference organized by students at ITBA, Argentina’s best technological university. I’ve been with SABF almost from the start, and I’m invested in its success. Landed in winter, sunny skies and just above freezing. Tomás, a SABF organizer from the late aughts, volunteered to pick us up at the airport: Adriano, a native of Bolivia who grew up and now studies in Germany; a speaker from Peking University and her aged mother; and your scribe. It was good to catch up with Tomás, who after a few years with the airline LATAM in Chile had started a business supplying ingredients to the growing numbers of craft breweries in Argentina. My kind of guy!
The 2018 SABF organizers felt compelled to change things, so instead of the simple hotel we had used for years (and where we had become friends with Sergio at the front desk), we were at another place, and from the start the vibe at the Viasui was bad. While waiting for my room, met up with long friend and other stalwart SABF supporter, Rick Dow. Headed out for lunch, then a short nap. At five, we ambled across downtown to the old SABF campus for a “tea” with the participants. They were really fired up, and we had the first of many great conversations – with Chris from Canada, Marcella from Brazil, Lucas from Argentina, and many more. Rick and I headed to dinner with former conference organizers, and ended the evening, late, with our traditional cheerleading to the 19 organizers of the 2018 event.
A short night. And the food poisoning that had caused gut problems (no clinical detail needed) earlier in the week recurred, but the show must go on, so suited up and headed out. In the past, the day 1 plenary session was a short walk a few blocks to the auditorium of an insurance company, but this time we hopped on buses and lurched through early rush-hour traffic a few miles southwest to an auditorium in Buenos Aires’ stunning new city hall, designed by Norman Foster. Candidly, the first day plenary talks were hugely disappointing, save for a wonderful presentation by Jen, head of a foundation that enables people to make prosthetic hands using 3D printers, and Felix, an expert on risk assessment at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development. But the conversations during breaks and lunch were great. Rick and I met a wonderful Argentine businessperson, Jaime Feeney, whose conference-organizer niece invited him to help with mentoring sessions; Jaime, whose Boston banker-grandfather took a job in Argentina in the 1930s, had, like Rick and me, done a lot of interesting jobs in his life, and he had the Irish gift of gab, sure – as well as a twinkle in his eye. At the end of a long day, we rode buses back to the hotel, then on to a simple Italian restaurant for dinner and more chats with students.
Saturday morning Rick and I made our own way to the second venue, a newer ITBA “campus” not far from city hall, stopping for breakfast at a pleasant old-school café behind Teatro Colon, the main performing-arts hall. High point that day was a workshop from a Finnish schoolteacher, who explained the keys to Finland’s world-leading educational system. She was fun and impressive. Every year, I am responsible for closing comments, so spent most of Saturday afternoon with my laptop. From 4:50 until 6:00, Rick and I (and lots of others, including Jaime) did mentoring sessions with five or six students, always good to connect in a small group. Kids are eager to learn about career and life, and that may have been the most useful part of the conference.
Back on the bus to the hotel, changed clothes, and Rick and I headed out for a long and fine steak dinner, bottle of Malbec, and lots of conversation. The portions were huge, and although Argentines don’t request boxes for leftovers, Rick and I did, because we knew that one of the many hungry people that are sadly common on city streets would appreciate the food. It took awhile, but we spotted our target, a young mother with two little girls. Then she disappeared from view, so I gave the bag to a young man, who spotted the mom and kids and selflessly passed it to them.
Just heartbreaking, though not as sad as the homeless woman we saw earlier in the evening, who was yelling at and pulling the hair of her daughter; Buenos Aires is a place where social dysfunction is right in front of you.
Sunday morning, on buses back out to the new ITBA campus. I spent time polishing my speech, then lunch, then we ambled a few blocks back to city hall for the last presentations, a panel discussion from SABF alumni, and another disappointing speech by a so-called expert. Then it was my turn to stand and deliver, and it went well. Hugs and last words (including a delightful short chat with Jaime’s sister Alicia), then out the door. For some odd reason, there was no SABF bus back to the hotel, so Rick and I walked across Parque Patricios to a busy street and a taxi. The park was jumping on a sunny Sunday afternoon; kids dribbling soccer balls with their dads and uncles, lots of people walking dogs, picnickers, and in the northeast corner people dancing the Zamba, a traditional South American dance with indigenous roots in Peru and Bolivia, with a live band. It was a wonderful scene.
Back at the hotel, I changed clothes, zipped out to buy three jars of dulce de leche, the carmelized-milk “jam” that is a total fave, and my customary souvenir from Argentina. At 7:45, United Airlines’ country directyor and long friend Christoff Poppe and his UAL colleague Ary picked up Rick and me, and we rode to the Gran Parilla del Plata, a great traditional restaurant in the historic San Telmo district (we ate there in 2016, and it was great). A superb meal, and even better conversation.
Up early Monday morning, out the door, onto the Subte (subway) and bus to the airport. Rather than flying home, as in 2016 I headed across the Andes to Santiago for a quick talk at Universidad Católica. I was flying standby on LATAM, but managed to snag one of the last chairs, giving me the opportunity to do my “standby dance,” fist pumps, and lots of woo-hoos (needless to say, people were staring). Arrived in Chile just past noon, then to a “maybe-the-USA-is-not-so-smart” moment: at the airport foreign exchange desk (I normally don’t use them because they’re ripoffs in the U.S. and most of Europe, but these were fair rates), the agent rejected one of my $5 bills because it was torn. Chile, like many countries, now uses polymer banknotes, which don’t tear and are nearly impossible to forge. Sigh.
Hopped on the bus to the Pajaritos station of the fabulous Santiago Metro (clean, punctual, and frequent trains), then east to Santa Lucia station, not far from downtown. My Airbnb was 100 feet from the station, and friendly host Katherine allowed early check-in, which enabled a tonic, two-hour nap. Zzzzzzzzzzzz.
Up about five, worked a bit, and at seven hopped back on the Metro, out into the fancy suburbs. It looked so prosperous, and so different from Buenos Aires. At 7:45 met a longtime Argentina friend Josué, for dinner and a good catch up. Lots of changes in his young life in the past year: earned a Harvard MBA (with top marks), became a father, and relocated back to South America, rejoining Boston Consulting Group. We had pizza and salad, lots of laughs, and good conversation. Back to the Metro, home, and a long sleep.
Tuesday was the first day in a week that was not busy-busy. Made a cup of instant coffee in the apartment, headed down from the 22nd floor for yogurt and pastry, back home for breakfast, admiring the great view. Only drawback, and small at that, was no wi-fi in the apartment, but good signal in a common room on the second floor, so headed down there to do some work and bring this journal up to date.
At noon I met Josué again, and needed him: for the first time in nearly 50 years of overseas travel, I needed to see a doctor. Eight days earlier, two days before I left on the trip, I got flu-like symptoms that I later self-diagnosed (correctly, we believe) as food poisoning from raw oysters I ate in the U.S. before flying south. I was sort-of okay when I left, and not taking the trip was not a possibility (I’m a “the show must go on” teacher). I felt okay except for intestinal cramps and, well, you know what else. But it wasn’t going away, and I needed meds. So Monday night I booked an appointment with a doctor at Clinica Alemana, a huge private institution.
Chile has a free health service for everyone, but people who can afford them use private services. The clinic was a marvel of efficiency. After registration and $93 for the visit, Dr. Claudio Feres ushered us into his office. We got the problem laid out briskly (he winced when Josué translated “raw oysters”), he examined me, and was reasonably sure that I had an intestinal infection. He wanted to do lab work, but I was leaving the next day, so he prescribed antibiotics and anti-poop meds, and off I went. The guy was about my age, and exuded professionalism. We filled the Rx, my pal peeled off, and I headed back to the apartment. Wandered over to the original campus of my host school, Universidad Católica, had a sandwich in the sunny courtyard, and home for a nap.
Worked a bit, and at five walked a couple of blocks to the UC business school, meeting my long host Andrés Ibañez. From six to seven delivered a lecture to MBA students, then peeled off, onto a packed rush-hour Metro train, then a taxi to the apartment of other long friends, Felipe and Constanza Recart. I had not seen them for six years, and it was great to catch up with them and their two kids, Simon (almost seven) and Laura (four). Cota was expecting a third child in January. She prepared a delicious dinner of Chilean salmon, risotto, and salad, and we had a great chat. Hugged goodbyes, walked a block to the bus, then the Metro, and home.
Wednesday was a real “day off,” and I had a good plan: day trip by bus to the historic (founded 1541) port city of Valparaíso, 60 miles west, then back to the airport for the flight north ( had been there a couple of times, most recently in 2011). Hopped the Metro back to Pajaritos on the western edge of the city, bought a $8 round-trip from my favorite long-distance bus line, Turbus (had fun with the ticket lady, practicing my Spanish and she her few words of English; “come back anytime,” she said proudly), and hopped on the 9:20 trip. Rolled up and down ridges, across the Casablanca Valley in a Mediterranean landscape that looked a lot like California. Along the way, roadside shrines that marked traffic deaths varied from tiny to elaborate, often decorated with little cars (and in one case a rusty toy bus, yikes).
Dropped down to the Pacific Ocean, left my suitcase at the station, and set off on foot to the Metro, west to the port, then up Artilleria, one of the funiculars that climb the many hills of the city (several were closed for renovation). The Transport Geek was in heaven, riding the rickety (but totally safe) cars. Walked down that hill, then on to the Cordillera funicular. On my way to the next ride, El Peral, I heard shouts and saw TV cameras in front of a courthouse, so I headed over: the people appeared to have won a victory against the national Ministry of Education over the rights of hearing-impaired kids to receive instruction. Hooray!
Rode up El Peral to admire the wildly Art Nouveau Palacio Baburizza (1916), built by a businessman but now a museum, then tucked into an excellent fish lunch on the terrace of Resturante El Peral. Wandered the city a bit more, then hopped on the last T-Geek ride of the day, a trolleybus from the 1950s. Back to the bus station, back to Santiago, and onto the Silver Bird north to Texas, and northeast to Washington.