Getting Robbed in Buenos Aires

It’s a numbers game: you spend enough time in poorer countries where petty crime is common, and it’s going to happen to you. No matter how vigilant you are, there’s only so much you can do against determined criminals.

Granted, what happened to me today could have been stopped had I been a bit more on guard and scrupulous, so I don’t mean to write off my own failings as a statistical inevitability. Still, this is the context in which I’m viewing the incident, if only to make myself feel better (and because it’s true).

I arrived at the Buenos Aires bus station after a really long bus ride. A 28 hour bus ride. It wasn’t supposed to be that long, but various delays, border control issues, and a malfunctioning bus turned it into an adventure. I don’t mind long bus or plane rides as I can get through a bunch of reading, and this trip was no different. But still, I emerged out of the bus exhausted, dehydrated, and needing to go to the bathroom. So I was more vulnerable at the outset. I walked down into the taxi area to take a taxi to the apartment where I would spend my final night in South America.

At the taxi area where I waited there were few taxis coming, and many of us waiting. A couple cabs came and the others got in them, but after those there were none in sight.

So I walked into the next area of taxis, where more were stopping. One gentleman came up and asked if I needed a taxi. I said yes. So he stood out in the street to try to hail me one. Then another driver who was already parked came over and asked if I needed a cab. At first I was unsure – why was he just parked there? Why wouldn’t he drive up and pick up all the other waiting passengers? His cab looked legit, except that it didn’t have a phone number on the top. But some cabs have the number, some don’t. I said yes and followed him to the car.

The guy who was supposed to hail me one followed me to the car, offered to put my bags in the car, but I declined, knowing he would want a tip if I let him. He still asked for a tip, and I said no.

The driver asked where I was going and I gave him the neighborhood and cross streets. He acknowledged the cross streets and started driving. He was older (in his 60’s or 70’s) and friendly. Not too friendly – not enough to cause suspicion – but friendly. He noted how beautiful a day it was. He made small talk.

Then he asked if the route he was going to take worked for me. I said it was fine. Again, it put me at ease – he made sure I was OK with the route.

We arrived at the intersection where I said to drop me off. The meter, which worked and ran the whole time, said 23 pesos. I gave him a 20 peso bill and a 10 peso bill. He looked at the 20 peso bill and said (in Spanish of course – the whole thing has been in Spanish) that it was no good. It was fraudulent. That I had to go to the bank and change it.

If I didn’t know anything, I would have resisted this explanation and insisted that he take it. But I had heard that ATMs in Argentina sometimes spit out fraudulent bills and that taxi drivers sometimes do not accept bad bills. So it struck me as plausible, even though I’m not able to distinguish good from bad bills.

So I showed him a different 20, he said no good. Then a different 10. No good. All in a friendly voice. At this point cars were honking at us to move so we crossed the street. I showed him more bills. All were bad he said, except for the one 20. Cars honking again – we had to move.

The moves proved physically a bit disorienting.

At this point I began wondering what would happen if he didn’t think any of my pesos were legit. Would I just leave the cab and not pay? Give him the pesos, real or fake, and then leave? Would he force me to go to an ATM and get new pesos?

I then showed him my three 100 peso bills and asked if any of them were ok. He looked at them. No, no, no.

Then he moved quickly. He looked again at the bills, handed me a 2, then a 10, asked for the 20, etc, explaining that some of the bills were legit but not all. It all happened quickly. He then handed me folded bills again and stuffed them in my hand and said “this will be ok.” As I began to open the bills to see what he gave me back, he said urgently, “Watch your bills! A child will try to steal them! Watch your money!”

He then reached over and opened the taxi door. Now I was getting concerned. If someone were trying to steal my money, why would he be opening the door to let them? I clutched my bags (I had all my luggage).

He then said more urgently, watch your cash, watch your cash, be careful, right now be careful, ushering me out the door. I took one look at the folded bills, the 20 was on top, and the 10 underneath it. I clutched my bags. At this point I figured something strange was going on, but due to the language barrier, physical disorientation, lack of free hands with my luggage, and cars honking around us, I didn’t have the frame of mind to go through each of the bills he returned to me. I was more concerned that he might try to drive off with my bags, or that the child he pointed to (the non-existent child) was about to steal my wallet. I got out of the cab, looking around suspiciously, grabbing my bags, and he drove off.

At the apartment I went through my bills. He had stolen several hundred pesos, replacing the 100s with 2’s.

Could have been worse. It could have been violent. Could have stolen my passport or computer or other luggage. But still, this hurts, gives me a sour taste about Buenos Aires, and makes me all the more distrustful of third world taxi drivers.

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