An ex naval officer heads to Argentina to make peace with his former enemies but they won’t let him be a scruffy traveler in peace.
I arrived in Buenos Aires on a chilly September morning in 2000 after a grueling 2-day journey from my home in St Vincent and the Grenadines, via Trinidad and Caracas.
On landing in Caracas early in the morning, and in transit, I went to pass through Immigration so that I could then reclaim my luggage and check in for my Aerolineas flight to Argentina.
“UK passport holders do NOT need a visa,” I’d been told by the Embassy.
But the Immigration officer at Maiquetia Airport had other ideas. He flung my passport back at me and told me to go away. “What about my bags and getting my boarding pass for my flight to BA?” I pleaded. But he was not to be moved and just mumbled “No visa!”
Eight hours later, as last boarding was being called for my flight, and having spent most of the day wondering if I was going to end up spending the next 20 years in limbo in the in-transit lounge, I handed my passport and tickets to a gentleman who assured me that he would be able to obtain my bags and boarding pass. It was only after I had handed him the documents that I realised that I had very stupidly omitted to ask his name or to verify if he really was an airline employee. But the fates were smiling upon me, for minutes before the aircraft pulled away from the ramp, he arrived with confirmation that my bags had been checked and with my passport and boarding pass in his hand. I heaved a sigh of relief.
I was on my way to meet an old friend. An old friend whom I had never met other than in cyberspace, and whom I had, as a former submariner, blasted out of the southern ocean with one ton of torpedoes some 18 years previously during an unfortunate skirmish in the vicinity of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands.
“Coco” was waiting for me at the airport and we embraced like old chums and returned to his home in Martinez on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. His wife, Martha, had prepared an enormous breakfast for me at the start of a 3-week visit that was filled with emotion, wine and warmth.
Being well disposed towards decent wines, I had, of course, planned on visiting Mendoza and thought it would be a good opportunity to travel across the Pampas by bus, savouring the countryside and the local people. Coco was shocked – officers are not supposed to travel by bus, a first-class seat on an aircraft being regarded as more befitting. But I would have none of it and insisted on travelling by bus and so he accompanied me to the bus station, a somewhat pained expression on his face as he waved farewell when the bus pulled away.
Before I had left, he’d excitedly told me that an old pal of his happened to be the Brigadier General commanding the 8th Andean Mountain Infantry Brigade. “He will take good care of you,” said Coco, “and I’ve arranged for you to stay with him”. Suppressing a curse, I thanked him for the arrangements and as the bus neared Mendoza a feeling of trepidation set in. The journey had taken close to 30 hours, I was dressed in an old pullover and a tatty pair of jeans, and had two days’ growth of stubble about the face.
The bus arrived in Mendoza and I was mortified to see what appeared to be half a battalion of Argentinean troops in full dress uniform loitering about the terminal. Most of them were armed, and a number of black limousines were parked adjacent to the terminal. I hid behind a concrete column and smoked three cigarettes in quick succession, deciding that the only way to escape would be to slink away un-noticed. But then I wondered how I would explain to Coco my rebuttal of his hospitality and so took the plunge and strode up to a heavily-medalled young Captain who clicked his heels and saluted when I introduced myself.
With one other vehicle in escort, I was driven to the “Casino Officiales” in the heart of Mendoza. I was not quite sure why I was being taken to a Casino but on arrival it became apparent that this was in fact an Officer’s Club with comfortable accommodations ($50 per night) and a decent restaurant and bar. I was shown to my room, where I showered and and shaved and then had lunch with my host. Citing overwhelming fatigue from the long journey, I then excused myself and drank a large quantity of Malbec in a nearby house of refreshment.
The following morning, I was roused from my slumbers at around 7.00 a.m. and informed that “the transport” would be leaving at 8 sharp. The young Captain sat at the wheel of a minivan, and with an armed Corporal in the back, we set off according to the schedule printed on a document which he handed to me, grandiosely entitled “Official Visit to the 8th Mountain Infantry Brigade by Malvinas Veteran Lieutenant Narendra Sethia (Retired)”. I had a very bad feeling.
Our first stop was at a shopping complex. I thought this peculiar, but my escorts walked me through the mall, pointing out the various stores, possibly reasoning that I had probably never seen a shopping mall in the lower Caribbean where I lived.
After this exciting interlude, we returned to the minivan and set off again, this time en route to something much more up my street – a small winery in the centre of town. Whilst en route, I had an opportunity to peruse the official programme that the Captain glanced at from time to time, and was horrified to see that, alongside the time of 1200, was an annotation indicating that I was to “meet Commanding Officer … and address the assembled men…”. I gulped.
My Spanish is just about passable but not necessarily intelligible and I sensed that an ordeal was in the offing, thankful only that, prior to the “meeting”, I would have the opportunity to prepare myself with suitable nourishment.
The winery was excellent and the “tasting” was prolonged and fulfilling. At 11.30 a.m. we departed en route to the General’s office, my fears somewhat allayed, rehearsing over and over in my head what I planned to say when I “addressed the troops”.
The General was a stern man with a large black moustache. He spoke in a rapid and voluble dialect of which I could understand barely one sentence, and he regularly wagged his finger at me. From time I nodded and said “Si, Senor, de acuerdo…”.. I caught snippets … “Military …. Honour …. Malvinas …. Duty….”.
The meeting over, I was taken to an ante-chamber which had around 30 soldiers assembled, all seated in anticipation of the forthcoming address by this “veteran”. Nervously, I took to the podium and thought that a nice way of opening the address would be to thank the Argentines for their overwhelming hospitality which, throughout my stay in the country, was indeed overwhelming, if not embarrassing.
“Gentlemen,” I said in my best Spanish, “It is an honour to be here and I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the extraordinary, almost embarrassing hospitality the people of Argentina have showed me during my visit…”
The entire audience erupted with laughter and at least 3 solders fell to the ground, clutching their stomachs in hysterics. I checked my trousers to make sure my flies were still done up but could find no rational cause for the outburst. Until, amidst the road of laughter which continued, the young Captain leaned across to me and whispered:
“I think you meant embarrassante rather than embarrassado….”.
I am of a dark complexion and rarely blush but must confess that on this occasion I did – quite considerably.
[Editor’s note: embarrasado in Spanish means ‘pregnant’]