The first thing I noticed was the stares. Late one January evening in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as summer held the city in a hot and sweaty grip, I walked through a gantlet of outdoor cafés and was caught in a cross fire of quick sidelong glances. I was scrutinized over pizza amid the babble of Restaurante Piola, appraised by a sea of eyes beneath the thumping disco lights of Divino Buenos Aires, and at 4:30 a.m., my verve and pesos lost to the city's unrelenting nightlife, I returned to my hotel to meet the conspicuous gaze of a suddenly-not-so-sleepy desk clerk. The stares came not simply because I chose to wear a hat in a society where head gear is a definite fashion faux pas. The stares came because I am blacka fact that attracted attention the moment I arrived at the airport. (Tired and bleary-eyed after the nine-hour all-nighter from Miami, I was confronted outside customs by a crowd of Argentines who stared, unabashed, as if Scotty had just beamed me down from the starship U.S.S. Enterprise.)
Unlike in other South American countries, blacks in Argentina are as rare a sight as Mormons in South Central L.A., as improbable as snow in Pago Pago or rain in the Sahara. Of the nearly 37 million people who populate what is often referred to as the "Europe of South America," 97 percent are of white European origin. The remaining 3 percent are either indigenous, or mestizo (a mixed race of indigenous peoples and Europeans). Lost and officially unaccounted for are a few thousand blacks, descendants of slaves who by some accounts made up nearly 50 percent of the rural population in the late 1700s. Due to high mortality rates, migration, the decline of the slave trade after 1806, and a successful campaign aimed at whitening the country with European immigrants while eradicating nonwhites in the process, the black Argentine population receded to its present state of near invisibility.
So there I was, the next day, a black North American waiting for a doorman to hail a cab in front of the Intercontinental Hotel on Moreno Street, when suddenly two female pedestrians stopped, turned, and stared, giving me a double dose of what I began to regard as the "Argentinian eyeball." But these were not stares of repugnance, not the narrow-eyed lasers aimed by narrow-minded people, scorching the skin and quickening the heartbeat of any African American strolling the wrong neighborhood of my hometown of Chicago. These were, rather, prolonged looks of fascination. Unblinking acknowledgments of contrast by curious locals.
The women rushed over to greet me. They spoke in rapid bursts of Spanish, posing questions that were quickly lost in a labyrinth of rolled r's and conjugated verbs. "They would like you to pose with them for a photograph," the doorman said. Upon hearing the translation, I exploded with laughter. The two women looked at each other, hesitated, then laughed along with me. When a camera materialized I began to wonder if this was a setup for Candid Camera. These fashionably dressed, Pentax-wielding Argentine beauties carried on as if they'd just met Denzel Washington. What a difference a nine-hour flight makes.
Flattering as it was, a pessimist might raise a wary eyebrow. My ethnicity, he would argue, was being singled out, mocked, carnivalized by two women who live in a country where, according to my outdated Lonely Planet Guide to South America, "non-Europeans have generally been unwelcome." Back home, as is the case with many young African-American men, I have been eyeballed by department store security guards, pulled over unnecessarily by suspicious cops, and stared at as if I were an alien in my own country.
But globe-trottingwhich has given me the opportunity to see myself apart from the negative images projected upon mehas made me somewhat of an eternal optimist. Had I never left the South Side of Chicago, perhaps I would not have taken so kindly to a couple of white foreigners who stuck a camera in my face and asked for a smile.
Having traveled to more than 100 destinations in some 40 countries since my first overseas trip in 1982, I've come to realize that being different (whether you're a black among whites, a gringo among Hispanics, or a giant among pygmies) is almost always cause for a double take. And in being different, one might possibly pique the ire of a local bigot. On more than one occasion, my skin color has provoked racial slurs that were decipherable only by a traveling companion who translated the comment. But more often than not, being different has been the catalyst for acts of kindness and inclusion whenever I've traveled abroad.
Once, while sitting at a bar in French Polynesia, I shared drinks with a middle-aged couple from Sydney who frankly admitted that I was the first black American they'd met. After learning I was headed next to Australia and was looking for a place to stay, they presented me with the keys to their unoccupied Sydney apartment. Was this affirmative action for travelers? Some might call it that. I call it foreign hospitality, though it was so much more than that. In this all-too-real world of dangers actual and imagined, this world where good people are often ostracized on the basis of creed and color, this kindness was a restorative act of humanity.
I have been coddled by paternal Italians, sheltered by benevolent Swedes, fattened by small Indonesian families, and protected from encroaching assailants by big, brawny Aussies who kicked butt without bothering to take names. And although I am occasionally mistaken for every African-American celebrity from Samuel L. Jackson to Michael Jordan, though presumptions are made about my prowess on the basketball court as well as the dance floor, I've learned to surreptitiously roll my eyes while I roll with the punches. It's the acts of kinship, not the blunders, that frame my traveler's constitution.
As for the Argentine women who asked for a photo, I acquiesced wholeheartedly. The camera flashed. Elaborate poses were concocted, held, and repositioned as black-and-white images were etched onto color film. After a volley of "gracias," a language-locked silence fell between us. Then suddenly, as if strafed by two Argentine attack planes, my face was riddled with rapid-fire, double-cheeked kisses.
"Tú eres bonito!"
Startled by the vociferousness of her own hastily delivered good-bye, one of my admirers giggled and then stared at me. Something passed between us. Something sweet and pure and prophetic. Something I chose not to spoil with a mundane request for her telephone number. Besides, face-to-face communication had proved difficult if not impossible. Attempting to converse on the telephone would be nothing more than an exercise in futility. Instead, I watched silently as she retreated with her friend. "Tú eres bonito!" they said in unison. "You are beautiful!"
As my taxi leapt onto an avenue as wide and congested as the Champs-Élysées, as I marveled at the grand 19th-century buildings, the cafés, the poise and chatter of designer-dressed pedestrians, as I inhaled the glittering cityscape in one trembling breath, I caught an aromatic whiff of excitement. The anxiety of being differentof being a stranger in yet another strange landdissolved like a sprinkling of sugar in a cup of cafécito.
I was beautiful, after all. And so was Buenos Aires.
Elliott Neal Hester, a resident of Miami Beach, Florida, has traveled the world for the past 16 years as a commercial airline flight attendant. A former travel columnist for salon.com, his first book, Plane Insanity, will be published in November.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.