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Leo the professional

I rang the hostel’s doorbell and waited for someone to come downstairs and let me in. For security reasons, very few buildings have buzzers in Buenos Aires. A few minutes later I met Camilo, the owner, who I’d spoken with by email over the last weeks. He showed me his hostel, an L shaped apartment on the second floor. The walls were bright red, orange, and blue, and several people were sitting around and talking.

Hablas Español?”

Si, mas o menos.”

Dale, perfecto.”

I had just landed my first “job” in Buenos Aires: volunteering a few hours a week in exchange for accommodation. I’d come south to Argentina after graduating from university, and was hoping to improve my Spanish and find new adventures. Working for acomodation was a great way to discover the city and save money while I looked for a more permanent job.

Uncharacteristically, my mother, “the cautious one,” was 100% in favor of my vague plans. It was my father, the one who was most like me—right down to the corny sense of humor I inherited from him, and the petulant anger we both felt we things don’t go our way—who was opposed.

He pushed every button he could to convince me to stay in the US. I would be wasting my time, he said; South America is dangerous, and besides, how would I afford to live there anyway? My father had never been the over-protective type, and his attempts to change my mind were surprising. He even found me a job teaching French in California through a friend of his. When I turned it down, his disappointment crushed me. I left New York for good in June, did as much traveling as my budget would allow, and arrived in Buenos Aires a couple of months later. 

My hostel was full of characters. Angela, my roommate and the place's administrator, was a Colombian Suicide Girl covered in tattoos. In addition to her and Camilo, there were also other volunteers: Susan and Harry, a British couple in their late twenties, and Leo, who was from Brazil.

Susan and Harry had been traveling in South America for almost two years; they’d volunteered their way from Panama to Patagonia and crisscrossed the continent in so many different directions that their itinerary looked like a child’s scribble.

Leo had been all over the world. He owned a hookah bar in London and spoke Arabic as well as Brazilian Portuguese, English and Spanish. The guests loved Leo. He was gigantic, short and wide as Santa Claus. He traveled light but carried his hookah pipe with him everywhere; while he lived there our hostel constantly smelled of sweet, cloying hookah smoke.

He also knew how to get things done. A friend of his sold discounted iPhones—an impossible-to-find commodity in Argentina—and he arranged to have one shipped for Angela. He organized a helicopter ride for a few of his favorite guests at a very reasonable price; he bought festival tickets online for Angela and I.

Leo had arrived a few days before I had. Together the five of us discovered the Argentine pleasure of asados and red wine. I learned from Susan and Harry where the best milongas to dance tango were. Angela helped us improve our Spanish every day, and Leo knew all of the best VIP spots in town.

I felt at home, and even my father seemed to relax.

“You know,” he said to me one evening over Skype, “I’m always asking you when you’re coming home. But when I talk to anyone about you, I always say ‘man, I wish I had done that at her age.’”

Whatever “that” was, it seemed he had accepted, and was even proud that I was doing it. It was difficult to admit to myself that this mattered to me, but I felt relieved and even a little validated.

In late August, Angela and Leo had birthdays the same week. We pooled our resources and got them cakes and small presents: sweet smelling soap for Angela, who loved anything scented, and incense for Leo. The box said the incense was supposed to “Attract Money;” it seemed like a good fit for someone who was constantly talking about his business ventures.

He roared with laughter when he opened the tissue paper wrapping. “I already have money. Couldn’t you find me incense to attract love instead?”

That night Leo cooked for the entire hostel and bought us all drinks afterwards at Kika, his favorite nightclub. When I bought him a drink in return, he seemed touched.

“Before we were colleagues, but now I know you are my friend.”

“Of course we’re friends, Leo. Happy birthday.”

The next day, I walked in on Leo, Susan and Harry talking in the reception area.

“What’s this I hear about cheap flights, Leo?” Susan asked.

He smiled. “I have miles on my credit card, they are about to expire. They will be wasted, do you want to use them?”

We were all astonished at his generosity, but he brushed it off. The only thing we would have to pay for was the tax, which was as low as fifty dollars on some transatlantic flights.

It was too good to be true. But how could it not be? Leo was our friend. We had lived and worked together for the better part of a month. We had shared secrets and philosophical discussions over cherry flavored hookah smoke.

Sitting at the slow and outdated row of computers, we took turns choosing flights and contacting broke family and friends, offering them the chance to come visit us.

Susan, one of the toughest, cheekiest people I knew, cried. Angela planned a trip to visit her family in Colombia with her daughter, something she hadn’t been able to do in a year.

Early the next morning I had brought 100 dollars downstairs with me and offered to pay Leo. He didn’t seem to want it and insisted I could pay him later, then finally accepted.

That afternoon I went to my room to take a short nap, and was interrupted a few minutes later. Camilo, the hostel’s owner, was at the door.

“Have you seen Leo?” he asked in Spanish.

“Not since this morning. Why?”

“There are no flights; he’s a thief. We’ve changed all the key codes, but if Leo comes here, don’t let him in and call me immediately.”

“What??”

“It’s all online. This isn’t his first time.”

He left without explaining further.

Still drowsy, I sat down in front of my computer and typed Leo’s full name into the search bar.

Most of the results were in Portuguese, but the first one in English read “Rio con artist sought by police.” There were even pictures. I couldn’t believe it, but the pieces fell together quickly. There was no helicopter ride, no festival tickets, no flights. I scrolled through the pages and pages of stories people told about Leo, stories that creepily mirrored the last few weeks of my life. 

People are more trusting when they’re traveling. They meet new people and have new experiences everyday; they open themselves to others. Travelers fear getting pickpocketed or even mugged, but assume that once back in their hostel, with lockers to safely store their possessions, they are safe. It didn’t occur to us that our trust would be exploited.

As for Leo himself, he walked out early that afternoon and never came back. He took his hookah pipe with him, and left behind a few dirty shirts and his birthday present, the incense that attracted money. By the end of the day he had blocked us all on Facebook and disappeared, apparently for good.

Many people who’ve heard the story since have shared feelings along the lines of “I never would have fallen for that.” Fair enough; we have all kicked ourselves repeatedly for being so stupid. But hey, as my father would say, hindsight is 20/20.

Leo was a professional. According to what I read online, he has been doing his “job,” since at least 2010. His routine was pitch perfect, and he knew exactly when to push and when to fall back, how to obscure the contradicting aspects of his story so that no one asked too many questions. More than anything else, he was charming, and loud, and social, and we genuinely wanted to be around him. When we talk about him now we still wonder exactly what aspects of his personality were faked.

I didn’t tell my father about Leo, mostly because I didn’t want him to worry about me. But a large part of me was also concerned that his response would oscillate somewhere between “how could you have been so stupid” and “I told you so.” He might even have asked me to come home.

And no matter how many Leos are out there, that wasn't going to happen.

 

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