One of the things I am enjoying about hostel life is that this place is a beehive of cross-pollination. What is heard here is unfiltered by teams of experts who determine what the public should or shouldn’t hear, or the politically correct interpretation that should be given to events or ideas under discussion. In a month’s time I have lost count of how many countries have been represented here, but I suspect it is close to two dozen or more. I am sometimes amused (and alternatively annoyed) when someone asks what are Argentines like, or what do they think of Americans, as if there is an Argentine mind or an American character. It is a common enough practice, but the following are excerpts from very individual (and sharp) minds culled from the noisy life of Puerto Limon hostel in San Telmo barrio of Buenos Aires. And they have opinions and experiences you may not have heard on CNN.
Are Argentines Passive?
Take Jorgia, for example, a former staffer pictured here, who went on to a teaching job somewhere. Jorgia is from Bahia, Brazil and when she completes her education here she intends to return to Brazil. Her mother tongue is Portuguese, but she also speaks Spanish and impeccably fluent English. She was a quick student as a child and she has adapted well here from all appearances. Jorgia says she gets a little homesick and she doesn’t like certain behaviors she considers common among Argentines. She feels they are too passive and gave as an example when riding on a city bus if the driver fails to stop at a scheduled location, indifferent to the people who have been standing patiently in line for the bus to stop, Jorgia says the people on the bus will say nothing, while back in her Brazilian community everyone on the bus would be yelling at the bus driver to stop; hey, didn’t you see the line back there?! The passengers wouldn’t let the bus driver get away with skipping a stop.
I asked Rick, an American here some seven or eight years what he thought about that, he said yes and no. Yes, Argentines can seem passive at times, but in past decades people who were too loud-spoken had a tendency to disappear, and that leaves an indelible memory in the minds of the public. Sometimes you can sense a need to lower one’s voice and a desire to remain anonymous when in uncertain company.
He was of course referring to the Dirty War, from 1974 to 1983, waged by the military against the forces of Marxism in Argentina. As many as 30,000 dissidents were tortured or ‘disappeared’ during the campaign, and it is considered politically incorrect to refer to it as a War, which would imply conflict between equal sides. There is a public monument to those who vanished during those years, just a few blocks from this hostel.
However there are exceptions to this alleged passivity or reticence on the part of Argentinians. They are prone to lively demonstrations, and on one occasion Rick observed a bus driver refused to let a man and woman board his bus, and the husband leaned up against the front of the bus, with arms and feet spread out, so that the driver would have to literally run over him to advance up the street. There was a lot of yelling and screaming between the man and the driver, and a crowd gathered and traffic was stopped in all directions, and there was more yelling and screaming, and then five or six of the police arrived and there was a lot of negotiating and yelling and arguing that went on about an hour. Finally the bus driver let the couple on his bus and departed. Rick said a lot of the people in the crowd were angry and calling the bus driver uncomplimentary names. That kind of activism is about as local as it gets.
The Impact of History on Business Behavior
I had a somewhat related conversation with a local Argentinian real estate entrepreneur, a well-educated, articulate executive with global perspectives. He remarked that Argentinian businessmen, including notably those in the hospitality industry, are not particularly oriented to customer satisfaction as a strategy for building client loyalty and return business. They are, in his opinion, more oriented to milking existing business for every penny of profit in a very short-term mindset and are reluctant to reinvest profits back into their businesses.. He believes this practice is also a product of Argentine history, generally marked by national instability and lurching from crisis to crisis. After a while the population and the business community develop a crisis mentality, meaning if times are good this year, hoard it rather than invest because there’s no telling what new crises will develop next year. A lack of confidence in their own national institutions and leadership turns them into short-term opportunists. He says he can understand the mentality but he cannot excuse it, because it is very counter-productive business-wise and makes for poor judgments. Customers (and travelers) don’t come back, and that of course, becomes the next crisis. He thinks Argentinians are spoiled by political promises of free stuff far beyond the capacity of the country to pay for it. It buys votes and temporary power but also creates the next round of dissatisfaction and turmoil.
Medical Malpractice Colombian Style.
One of my recent roommates, a young doctor named Felipe, in a lengthy heart-to-heart about his career choice to go into medicine in his native country of Colombia, explained to me the dangers of his profession when practiced in the back country of Colombia. Felipe described the ten years of higher education he had already invested in becoming a doctor, somewhat similar to the career path of an American medical student through residency, fellowship, and Board Certification. In Colombia however, before you become a full-fledged doctor qualified to open a practice, you must give a year of your formation in the ‘outback’ of the country, in remote villages and small towns. The problem is that if a patient being attended to by a physician suffers, gets worse, or dies, whether his fault or not, he is occasionally murdered by the villagers in retaliation.
Felipe says several of his medical colleagues met an untimely end in this manner, and that he is fortunate that he has not been assigned to the rural areas, but to Bogota, where such practices don’t happen. I asked him about police protection or from the military, and he said they don’t care and look the other way. I’ll write more about Felipe’s story and refreshing attitudes toward the practice of medicine later. A book on American medical malpractice I have co-authored with neurosurgeon Dr. Lawrence Schlachter hits the bookstore shelves this coming January. Maybe Felipe should come to North America to talk with his fellow medical students who are stressed beyond belief. He is very sincere and has a strong heartfelt passion for the healing profession, but his comments and experiences make the North American practice of malpractice litigation to settle differences about the quality of health care seem remarkably benign by comparison.
Felipe is in Buenos Aires seeking to advance his prospects of beginning his private practice in about six months. He says he will make less money here than in Colombia, but doctors here who work in rural areas don’t fear for their lives. He plans to spend his life in family practice; he wants to care for all generations of families in his care. He says there is considerable range of competence among physicians, and he has already worked with some where he makes most of the important decisions because he lacks confidence in the judgments of some of his peers. He says he once had an unhappy outcome with a patient, and it resulted in depression and tears (his and presumably others) and it left him determined to master his profession and become an exceptional physician that patients sought out because of his reputation. He says one negative experience totally changed his life. Felipe is 29 years old. I think he will make a wonderful doctor. He loves children and loves to help them, but it is unbearably sad when you know they are terminally ill and you are limited in what you can do for them.
Mexican Anahi Javiera, a resident here who is something of an expert on the global production/import/export of honey, came to Argentina because as the largest exporter of high quality honey in the world, it is the epicenter of the industry she loves . She explains that honey can come from a single large tree if the hives are placed below the tree or nearby, and that honey takes on distinct characteristics from its source. As a well-thought-out career move she is positioning herself closer to the action. As an intellectual metaphor, the cross-pollination of cultures and ideas going on in Puerto Limon is certainly not single sourced, which is precisely what gives it its complexity and interest. It is a seedbed of personal growth and innovation for those seeking it.
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