This week I’d like to continue sharing stories about some of my travels, this time to the huge South American nation of Argentina.
How did I end up in Argentina, you may well ask. Well, in the good old days, when newspapers were still newspapers, with seven-days-a week home delivery, deadlines that allowed for late-breaking news and thick editions chock full of advertising, there was such a thing as the “press junket.”
A press junket — an all-paid trip for travel writers — was sponsored by a US state or city, or a foreign country, along with the appropriate airlines, hotels, restaurants and other attractions. In exchange for which, the travel writers would pen stories about their host country and its amenities. Naturally, the hosts hoped that all the stories would be favorable but in actuality the writers were free to tell what they really thought of the country and its tourist facilities.
Back in the 1970s, the New Orleans Times-Picayune was receiving so many offers for press junkets that the travel writer couldn’t handle them all so he began distributing them to regular beat reporters. In 1979, I was offered a trip to Argentina.
Argentines like to think of themselves of being set apart from other Latin American countries. They call their lovely capital of Buenos Aires the “Paris of South America” and think of themselves of more European than simply Hispanic. Their percentage of immigrants of German and Italian ancestry is in fact much greater than that of other countries of the region.
Argentina had outlasted the cruel dictatorship of Juan Peron in the 1950s and ’60s but after failed attempts at democracy, was under a strict military rule in 1979 and this created a violent leftist opposition.
Troops armed with automatic weapons were on every street corner in downtown Buenos Aires and there was an overall feeling of repression. It was the second day, I believe, that I was in country when I heard a terrific explosion while in my hotel room. It turns out that just a few blocks away, the opposition had killed the country’s minister of utilities with a car bomb. This was clearly a nation in crisis.
When I returned to New Orleans I left none of this out of my story, which I doubt made any reader eager to jump on an airplane and fly to Argentina. Also at that time, the US dollar was weak against the Argentine currency. For example, a whisky highball in a Buenos Aires lounge was the equivalent of about $5, quite expensive for 39 years ago, and a McDonald’s hamburger was about $3.50 at a time when it’s twin back in the states probably cost about $1.50, if that much.
By the way, the same bunch of military officers who ran the country at that time were responsible for the ill-advised invasion of the British-ruled Falkland Islands in 1982, three years after my visit. The islands were retaken by British forces under the resolute leadership of Margaret Thatcher after a brief but bloody little war.
And yet Argentina has so much to offer the visitor, by way of natural scenery, culture and history, along with a dynamic, intelligent people, fertile land and abundant natural resources.
So, what about my trip? Because of space limitations and the fact that I wanted to give you some background on this fascinating country, this column will be written in two parts and I will tell you all about what I saw and did in next week’s offering.