05/19/2011 05:53 pm ET | Updated Jul 19, 2011

Ripped Off and Appreciating It

BUENOS AIRES -- Buenos Aires resembles a South American Paris filled with gregarious people, large avenues and cafes where at least once a day, every day, especially if you're a traveling American, someone will try to rip you off. And so you learn.

Maria is the maid at the hostel in Buenos Aires where I am staying and I can not pronounce her last name but she says it's okay because she has trouble with my name as well. She has dark hair and dark eyes like most here; not the strong features of the many Indian people but a softer look, rather Italian. She is about forty going on sixty and has a thirteen-year-old daughter that she brings with her to work. She washes dishes in the common kitchen area while her daughter sits downstairs and watches television. The mother smiles. The child does not. She only watches the screen indifferently or checks her Facebook account, emotion never flickering across her pretty face. Status updates are very different for her.

I spend a half hour drinking wine with Maria as she washes dishes. She speaks limited English and I speak limited Spanish but she is able to tell me that, "Buenos Aires is good place to visit. Pero, 'mierda' -- entiendes? -- a shit place to live." I tell Maria about the first five minutes in the city, when the cab driver from the airport took me for $150 on a $50 ride. I tell her about the waiter at Terrazas de los Andes, an upscale restaurant in Puerto Madero with large glass windows overlooking the glinting apartment complexes hovering over the port and how the waiter says they don't have the wine I want and instead brings me one similarly priced which, as it turns out, 'similarly' meant twice as expensive. The manager finally tells me they do, in fact, have the wine I originally wanted and I tell Maria about the food stand on the Avenida de Mayo, mere yards from the Presidential Palace balcony where Evita Peron stood decades before and where a water costs twice the price it did the day before. Inflation, I suppose.

Maria laughs. She says this is a regular occurrence. Got to be on your toes. She repeats, "It's a shit place to live," and tells me not to tell anyone and thanks me for the wine and says it helps her sleep. She sleeps now on the street and says it's been that way since her husband left.

I want to give her money. Tell her that tonight she will sleep in a hotel. But I don't have any. The cab driver took it and all I can offer is some of my wine that in New York would cost thirty bucks and down here costs about five. She smiles again as her daughter comes up and complains that they need to leave right now, a grimaced curl at the end of her thin lips. Ahora.

"This is the sad time," Maria says still smiling, "muy triste."

I search my pockets for something to give her. Then I see her daughter pull out an expensive cell phone and an iPod and I notice her nice shoes for the first time. Maybe it's from the father. Maybe it's not that expensive. Heck, I've seen homeless people in New York jabbering on the phone like day traders and people living in trailer parks driving tinted window SUVs with twenty-inch rims. But, maybe it's not that way at all. Maybe it's different in Buenos Aires. I can't know because I do not live in that world, with those types of decisions and I pull my empty hand out of my pocket and wish them luck. Bueno Suerte.

Maybe I should have learned the language better. Maybe I should have taken more precautions. Maybe I should have learned more about Buenos Aires before jumping on the seventeen-hour journey here. I understand that Americans may be ignorant of other cultures, deaf to the language and blind to their problems but what we are -- more than any other country -- is efficient, safe and reliable. And so, you realize when you leave and so you will appreciate much more when you get back home.