This was it. We had finally touched down in Argentina, our first introduction to South America. I was thirteen, traveling with my parents and my two little brothers for a three-year term of missionary service. According to our tickets, we were to spend the night in Buenos Aires in a hotel (included in the ticket price) before catching our connecting flight to Bolivia. Jetlagged after a twelve-hour flight from Auckland, New Zealand, to Buenos Aires, we staggered onto the airport bus along with all the other people catching connecting flights. It had grown dark, as the flight had been delayed, and the lights of Buenos Aires revealed buildings, boulevards and sidewalk hoardings.
The bus pulled up outside the hotel and we all started looking around for our cabin baggage. The bus driver got out and spoke to the person at the door of the hotel. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a problem. A helpful Uruguayan businessman in the bus explained to those of us with only elementary Spanish what was going on: thanks to that delayed flight, the hotel didn’t have enough rooms free for all of us, but the hotel receptionist had helpfully given the driver the address of another hotel not that far away that would be happy to oblige.
We relaxed in our seats as the driver took his place again and drove confidently to the address the receptionist had given him, talking continuously down the CB radio to some unknown person. It seemed to take quite a while to get to this second hotel, but I wasn’t worried – I was too busy looking out the window as Buenos Aires rolled past.
It wasn’t until we passed a particular wall covered in hoardings advertising (I think) a particular brand of yoghurt for the third time that I realised something was not quite right. Soon, it became obvious that the hotel receptionist had given the driver the address of a non-existent hotel.
The bus roared back the way it came to the original hotel, where the red-haired driver gave the receptionist a ferocious earful of very angry Spanish punctuated by lively gesticulations. At this point, the helpful Uruguayan got to his feet and turned to address the rest of the passengers in the bus. “Welcome to South America,” he said. “We are ashamed of it. This is not our country, but we are still ashamed of it.”
By this stage – it must have been about ten o’clock at night, although jet lag meant that we were all fully awake – most of us in the bus were rather fed up. The hotel only had two suites free, but we were happy enough for the men to take one suite while the women took another (the Uruguayan continued to explain the situation to us). I ended up with my mother and my two brothers in a smallish room, passing what was left of the night dozing trying to understand a couple of comics in Spanish (an Asterix and a Lucky Luke) that my mother had managed to pick up at a late-night bookshop near the hotel.
They still have those comics, thirty-plus years on. Even now, a glance at the stamp on the inside front cover with the name on the bookshop reminds me of that first night, our welcome to South America.