Counterfeits and Catacombs

Over the last couple of months in the third world, I have encountered a lot of differences in daily life. Take, for example, the ritual checking of every single piece of cash money before acceptance. My money has often been subject to a rigorous inspection, and even the smallest blemish is a reason to request a new bill from me (as though I were a bank with enough to spare!). Now, I have picked up the same habit. I received at least $60 worth of counterfeit bills in change and from an ATM of HSBC’s. Of course, after an hour with HSBC’s management, I didn’t get anywhere. But I tried. They are entirely convinced that their system of ATM loading is utterly counterfeit-proof and they don’t believe me. Still, I know there is no logical way possible that those bills did not come from their ATM (cajera automatic). Everyone I have talked to about it says “ATM?” when I tell them I got counterfeit bills a.k.a. “falsos”.

In case you go to Argentina, falsos are made of lesser quality paper (not the official linen-like paper), have a few pieces of Mylar in them to emulate the holographic strip in real bills but without denomination holograms, serial numbers may be the same from bill to bill, and the watermark looks totally unclear. The hair on the portraits is smudged and not individually delineated, and the number on the money (e.g. “100” on the one hundred peso bill) looks flat when it should be iridescent. They look like what they are: bad photocopies. Now I check every bill I get (like the natives). Sad, but true. Apparently getting bad bills from cab drivers and restaurants is standard, because how else can they get rid of them?

Tom was really saddened by the counterfeiting as it put a big blemish on what to him was otherwise a perfect place – I think he was ready to move! I am not too surprised, but I am disappointed. My sense of righteousness was irritated because this sort of thing is bad for every person in Argentina, not just me. That’s why I was willing to spend an hour arguing with HSBC bank, making it clear that no matter what they said, it was impossible for the bills to have come from anywhere else, and they had a problem they needed to look into, period. If enough people of integrity make a stink, and keep making a stink, it might help. I was finally allowed to write a letter of complaint to the HSBC general manager which might (or might not) help me get some of my money back from my bank. I find myself yet again impressed with USAA credit union: I emailed them about what happened and they credited me $50 until they can decide one way or another whether they can work things out with HSBC. With enough documentation, perhaps there is hope.

For our “farewell BA” dinner, we went to a lovely place next to the coast, at the Puerta Madera. Wow, they had big steaks. I took a picture of the rib eye – I just had to. And the flan was tasty too, but this time we shared it. It is good we are leaving in a way because we have both gained three or four pounds.

On to Peru! We left for Lima at dark o’clock (4:15 AM) and got through the airport with no hassle, no problems, and arrived in Peru about five hours later. We landed near a slum, and the contrast to Buenos Aires was significant. It doesn’t rain in Lima to speak of, so most of the buildings don’t have roofs – people keep building stories and hoping to finish one day, it seems. On the up side, I saw many billboards and election slogans promising clean water, and asking the populace to take care of their environment and water. As our plane descended, I read the customs form and deduced from the Spanish that I was allowed only one camera and 10 rolls of film. Ha! I have a bit more than that. I went to declare my excess goods at the customs house. Fortunately, between my business card and the fact that my second camera is a 1937 Rolleiflex with low commercial value, I was not taxed. Can you believe they tax you on your own stuff if it exceeds “reasonable” personal property? I think that takes a lot of cajones. Of course, California taxes residents on goods bought on vacation in other countries, so it’s not a new idea.

Our tour company had a driver waiting for us. After a nap, we went out on a tour of the old city, on a bus with a bunch of other tourists. It’s the first time on this whole trip that I have been on a tour bus. And actually, it was a good thing to do. We were tired, we would have probably ignored Lima, and we would have missed out. Instead, we saw the old center of town, an ancient (~1500 year old) pyramid of the Lima people, the church and monastery of San Francisco (St. Francis) and its catacombs where over 25,000 bodies were buried from the mid 1500s until 1823 when they were closed. Unfortunately, photography in the catacombs was forbidden and I am sorry about that. It was very creepy, which you should have seen. This cathedral has stood for almost 500 years through several major earthquakes. It is believed that is in part due to the many holy people buried underneath, but also due to its structure. There are three stories of basements/crypts to steady the building, and there are five large, ten-meter-deep wells in the foundation to help offload pressure from earthquakes. It was not comfortable being in the bowels of such an ancient building with thousands of skeletons for company in earthquake territory, despite the proven history of the church.

Another thing we would not have learned about without the tour is La Dia del Pisco. I should first tell you that Pisco is the local Peruvian grappa (about 90 proof), and the main drink made with it is the Pisco Sour, which is pretty good. Peruvian Independence day is July 28th, and on the 27th is La Dia del Pisco. The fountain in the main plaza, across from the President’s home, is run entirely with Pisco that day. It’s free. People show up with cups and get as drunk as they want from a large fountain full of booze. Can you imagine? They were prepping the pipeworks with a distillery when we were there.

At the end of our tour, we asked to be dropped at the local mall by the sea near our hotel, and we had dinner by the Pacific Ocean, on a cliff. It was very pretty, and a nice end to a good day in Lima. Tomorrow, the high altitude of Cusco!

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