Mar 2013

Blog, South America

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Dirty Money, Clean Getaway

It shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did to realize that I was not sitting face to face with a stock broker, as I had been told, but with a boss in a money laundering ring.  After five months of selling illegal currency on Argentina’s black market I should have been less naïve, but clearly I was no more than a stable boy in this rodeo.

The building was nondescript, sandwiched between skyscrapers in downtown Buenos Aires, its windows mirrored and unmarked.  The blank hallway on the fourth floor was punctuated by nothing more than a green button on one wall.  The heavy deadbolt let out a metallic clunk, and we entered the office.

A deflated-looking receptionist sat on a flimsy chair behind a bare desk.  The meeting room where we waited for the money launderer contained a cheap desk, four chairs, and a telephone.  There wasn’t a computer in the whole building and what furniture there was seemed rented and cheap; the place could be evacuated in no time flat if the cops showed up.

We handed the man our stack of US dollars, and he handed us a bigger stack of Argentine pesos.  And just like that we saved ,411, or 35%, on the shipping container in which Nacho and two motorcycles would travel from Buenos Aires to Malaysia.

When it comes to beauty, Argentina comes up aces.  We are envious of its mountains.  We are envious of its rivers, streams, and its lakes.  We are envious of its gorgeous women and its handsome men with their slender bodies, perfect faces, olive skin, and long, dark, voluptuous hair.  But when it comes to its economy, Argentina is in shambles, swirling faster and faster into an uncontrollable toilet dive.  For this, we are not envious.

A few years ago, Argentina enjoyed a prosperous economy.  Its currency was tied to the US dollar, trading one to one.  The Argentine people vacationed to “cheap” places like Europe and the USA.  Then, in a series of botched economic moves, Argentina devalued its currency, inflation became rampant, the government went through a bond default, and the people’s bank accounts instantly vaporized.  With unbridled  inflation, the people began rebuilding their savings in US dollars; by keeping their savings in pesos, they would effectively lose ten, twenty, thirty percent per year due to inflation.

Then, in 2011, the government made it illegal to obtain US dollars in Argentina.  This, of course, gave rise to a black market for US currency.  When we arrived in Argentina five months ago, the official exchange rate between the peso and dollar was 4.7 to one.  Since we had US dollars with us, we were in a position to sell our dollars on the black market to Argentine people who needed them.  We made our first sale at 5.875 pesos to one dollar, effectively reducing the price of everything we would buy in Argentina by 25%.  We would make a sale every week to keep up with inflation.

Sitting in the money launderer’s bleak office in Buenos Aires five months later, we would make our last trade at 7.5 pesos to one dollar, while the official rate had only risen to 4.9.  In five months, the peso had inflated 28%.

Over the course of our stay in Argentina, we would save over $2,000 by selling our dollars to ice cream shop owners, parking lot attendants, auto parts dealers, and money launderers.  To use an ATM was to throw perfectly good money in the trash.  The rivers and streams are pristine, the lakes and mountains are awe inspiring, the women and men are steamy hot, but there is no hope for Argentina’s economy.

A few weeks prior to arriving in Buenos Aires, we had been in El Chalten, the town at the base of Mount Fitz Roy.  While eating breakfast one morning, someone knocked on our door.  It was Kevin, a Canadian motorcyclist who reads our blog; he recognized Nacho and came over to say hello.  We got to talking, and learned that he and his riding partner, Jan, were also nearing the end of their trip South.

“So what are you doing next?”, he asked.

“Once we get to Buenos Aires we’ll ship Nacho to Malaysia, and then drive from there to Europe,” I said.  He considered it for a moment, and then pitched an idea.

“Mind if we come along to Malaysia?”

And just like that, Nacho would have two BMW motorcycles to use as padding in the shipping container for the long crossing to Malaysia.

When we reached Buenos Aires, the four of us rented an apartment in the San Telmo neighborhood.  It would serve as our basecamp while we drove around town for shipping broker meetings, customs visits, container loading, and meeting with money launderers.  While we were at it, we decided we might as well see what the city had to offer, and to our delight Buenos Aires turned out to be totally excellent.

Day after day we explored the city.  In la Boca we admired the urban art and street performers,  in San Telmo we explored the antique market and sampled restaurants, we found an extensive beer cave in Microcentro, and explored the most elaborate graveyard on the planet in Recoleta.

On the very last day before loading our shipping container, I decided that Nacho needed some tender loving care.  I cleaned our air filter and swapped out our water pump, which was on its last legs.  Last, I wanted to give Nacho a bath so that he would be shiny for the new continent.  First impressions.  I filled a couple of buckets with water, grabbed some dish soap, and went down to the street, where Nacho awaited.

I cleaned up the front, side, and back of the van, and then moved to the last side, which faced the street.  I set the bottle of soap on our folding chairs and went to work.  A few seconds later I came back around, and found my soap in the planter, and our folding chairs missing.

Some rat bastard had stolen our weather-beaten, dry-rotted, faded, rickety folding chairs right in front of my eyes!  He would have had to lug them a half a block before he’d be out of my sight, but I never saw a thing.  I asked the bystanders at the bus stop, but they didn’t see anything either.  All I could do was shake my head.  Why couldn’t people just earn money the honest way, like the money launderer?

Finally, after 24,000 miles of driving through 14 countries over the course of 13 months, we drove Nacho one final time to the port.  In our attempt at driving in a westward course around the world, we had finished the first year of driving over 3,000 miles East of where we started.  We clearly had a lot of work to do.

As we came to a stop inside of the shipping container, I glanced at the odometer; it read 299,999 miles.  The very first order of business when we open the shipping container in Malaysia will be to roll this puppy over to 300k.  Sounds like a good omen to the start of a new adventure.

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