Some souvenirs are harder to take home than others

First published in Sunday Times, in The Accidental Tourist column

Photo: Piet Grobler (Sunday Times)

Moving a portrait of the Madonna out of Argentina is an adventure in its own right, writes Anna-Karien Otto

During our stay in Buenos Aires, we were determined not to be typical tourists. We wanted to really get to know the place. We ended up staying almost six months, walking the length and breadth of the city, tentatively learning Spanish and eating and living among the locals. Of course, as any seasoned traveller knows, quirks don’t go away while you’re in a foreign country – they only get worse! And so it was that our keen appreciation for (or unbridled obsession with) church fêtes and junk shops got completely out of hand.

So much so, in fact, that when we were packing up, in addition to the antique silver, a few bottles of wine won at a church tombola and vintage clothes from the 1930s, we had to fit in a brass bicycle pump, a rather reprehensible twin-fox fur stole complete with glass eyes and a giant stone rosary. Yet the most troublesome of all this motley crew was undoubtedly the Madonna. She had been acquired after only one month in the “Paris of the South”. When J, my partner, brought her back from his latest scouting trip, all I could do was languish in bed and gaze at her in admiration. Undeniably kitsch, she was a large painting of a beautiful, young, dark-haired Madonna reposing in an olive grove and swathed in white cotton, holding a very blonde baby Jesus. Mother and child gaze benignly at you and, if you look closely, you see the faint vestige of her halo.

On the day of our departure, we got up extra early, dragged our overstuffed bags and bundles down the stairs and waited in the hallway for the taxi. When our landlady came to say goodbye, she gazed admiringly at the Madonna and pronounced: “¡Qué Hermosa!” (How beautiful!) J suggested I give it to her, to say thank you – and also to save us a great deal of trouble. With a twinge of guilt, I said no. I wanted to keep her. When the cab pulled up, just like that, it started bucketing down. We squeezed into the tiny vehicle, with the Madonna uncomfortably wedged against J’s knees. We had barely caught a glimpse of the airport terminus when the little car broke down. Gesticulating wildly, the driver kept trying to re-start the engine but to no avail. After the battery had drawn its last breath, he phoned airport security to send a shuttle. We piled our interminable belongings onto a golf cart and, hanging on for dear life, drenched to the bone, we arrived at the terminus with moments to spare.

We sprinted to join a long queue, only to discover that it was for the wrong airline! When we finally reached the end of the right queue, we were duly informed that, although the luggage was not overweight, we were only allowed four pieces. The Madonna had to be somehow strapped onto one of our two giant bags. So we rushed her off to be cling-wrapped. But the wrapping guy cheerily said it would cost us double, seeing as it was two items. What? Without a word, J turned on his heels and marched back to the boarding counter. The final blow came when a young, fresh-faced official informed us that we now had to pay $90 (around R600 at the time) and the police had to check her out first because she might be a holy relic. It was at this precise moment that J lost what little patience he had left. Now, it is important to note that the Argentines are a quiet lot. They are not like the Italians or even the Brazilians. They do not understand excessive gestures. So when we erupted into a full-blown argument, they couldn’t believe it. I will never forget the look of consternation on the young airport official’s face when I cried: “Take it, you can take it, I give it to you as a gift!” and thrust it into his hands. After all that, even I was somewhat relieved to be free of the intractable Madonna.

But back at Cape Town airport, as we waited at the conveyor belt for our suitcases, there she appeared, wrapped in a cellophane shroud, leading the procession of luggage… our eternal Madonna.


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