Saturday #20: Hello, Dragoman

Dragoman: [drag-uh-muh n] noun, plural dragomans, dragomen.

1) An interpreter, translator, and official guide between Turkish, Arabic, and Persian-speaking countries of the Middle East and European embassies, consulates, vice-consulates and trading posts.

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Amedee Jaubert (left) was Napoleon’s “favourite orientalist adviser and dragoman,” writes noted scholar and author Alastair Hamilton (no relation) in Friends and rivals in the East: Studies in Anglo-Dutch relations in the Levant from the seventeenth to early nineteenth century.

For the record, I didn’t actually read that book, although it sounds like a thriller. And I probably won’t read it anytime soon, although there should be plenty of time to read over the next three weeks. I leave tomorrow (Monday) on a 19-day adventure with a company called Dragoman Overland. I will spend parts of 19 days riding in a “truck” between Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. Saturday #20 was spent getting to know the group of 20 international travelers with whom I’ll share this experience.

I checked out of my San Telmo hostel on Saturday morning, picked up my laundry and some new Ziploc bags (big splurge, I know), and made my way to the pre-arranged meeting spot. The entire group of 18 (plus driver/mechanic and group leader) then checked into the Hotel Splendid for the evening. Was it clean and safe? Yes. “Splendid” it was not.

The first person that I noticed in the hotel lobby turned out to be my pre-assigned roommate. I feel very lucky to be paired with James, a brilliant 32-year-old criminal lawyer from the UK. I’m confident that he can talk us out of any situations that might arise.

There was a mandatory group meeting at 6:00 p.m. at which we were paired with our roommates, informed of the trip rules, and assigned specific duties for the duration of the trip.

In addition to the cost of the trip (very reasonable), each person chips in $840 US that goes into the “kitty”. The cash is held by the group leader but it is our money and we have some say in how it is spent (rice and beans vs. steak and lobster, etc.). I will get to eat about six meals before it will be my turn to shop and cook for the group. That should be interesting.

After forking over the cash, providing proof of health insurance and confirming passport numbers, we headed out for dinner and later the first social event of the trip. Our hotel is located a half block from Avenida 9 de Julio, which according to Wikipedia is “the widest avenue in the world,” so it wasn’t hard to find a sidewalk café.

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The selection of beer is rather limited in Argentina but they make up for this by offering the few beers that are available in half a dozen different sizes. To keep things simple, we each ordered a one-liter bottle of Quilmes. And like every waiter I’ve encountered in the last two weeks, this guy was amazed that we each wanted our own bottle as opposed to opening one bottle and sharing it. I suppose we could have done that, and kept the other beers in the fridge, but it’s so hard to flag down a waiter at these bustling bars that we went ahead and opened all 8 bottles at once. People stared. Soon, the police arrived.

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We later learned that the presence of the police, firemen, ambulance and paramedics had nothing to do with our beer drinking habits but rather a subway evacuation that was about to take place a few meters away. Firemen (bomberos) entered the subway and a half hour later about 100 riders emerged, looking none too pleased at the situation. No doubt they had to walk through the tunnel before exiting at the end of our table. I was mildly concerned they might think the beer was set out for them but it wasn’t an issue.

First impressions of the Dragoman group are really good. I’ll have more to report once we’re actually on the road but blogging requires wi-fi access and who knows when that will be available? If I was traveling in the Marco Polo era, I could simply ask the Dragoman and he’d have the answer in any one of four or five languages. These days I rely on Google and Google Translate but that obviously requires Internet access.

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