Carey Get Out Your Cane

February 24th, 2009 3:35 pm by ray

Everyone ought to travel with the words to Ozymandias in his wallet, but I am thinking, for the home stretch, (stretch is a bad phrasing when you fly economy) I should add the words to that touching Joni Mitchell song on “Blue”:

The wind is in from Africa
Last night I couldn’t sleep
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here Carey
But it’s really not my home

Dave did not mention in his last post, but after he had finished the “museum” circuit and a long lunch in Colonia, he was ready to LEAVE but the earlier ferry was full and we had to stand by our tickets. He is a vigorous traveler and I don’t think you will ever see him on the beach at Club Med unless there is something really important to do there. I was always a restless hitchhiker myself, but Dave beats all.

The lunch in Colonia was made considerably interesting by running into an American who lives everywhere, mostly France, and is apparently one of the Foremost Authorities on Chinese Astrology. She had been living in Buenos Aires for a while and comes to Colonia to refresh her tourist visa. I expect half of Colonia’s traffic is people renewing their Argentine visas for 90 days. It can be done indefinitely. Colonia’s small town museum scene does not disturb her. Museums, she said, I have lived most of my life in Europe, I don’t need museums.

They really were silly museums. Coalinga has more stuff in its museum than Colonia has in all of them put together. The silliest one of all is the “archive”, which consists of two glass cases filled with bits of broken bottles, and a couple of shelves of of books, closed, that you aren’t permitted to touch. So you look at their institutional bindings: Municipal court records, 1853-1854.

The astrologer said that we were lucky to have found the restaurant we were in.

Wednesday we took our bike ride along the barren industrial shore and saw one big lizard and some ducks. And a condom wrapper. It was the wrong time of day. I went back to San Telmo in the afternoon to buy a brass mortar and pestle because my suitcase didn’t weigh enough yet. We spent the afternoon packing and even went around the corner to buy a souvenir mate cup for $18 because there were some air molecules left in the pack. Then we got in a taxi and made him turn on his meter. For some reason the last couple of days we’ve been getting taxis who want to leave their meters off.

We left Argentina at 2330 Hrs on a long flight for a place which really is home, Dave’s mother’s house in Denver. It is my privilege, in trip planning, that we have enough time and money not to have to make long connecting flights. I am so unimpressed by 36 hour transits to the Seychelles or anywhere you shouldn’t even bother to go if you don’t have the time to make a leisurely time getting there. However, there aren’t any easy flights to Argentina. They are all overnight, and I connected us through Miami to Denver after a two hour layover (which is really foolish in its own right, considering that we had to come through immigration and our bags weren’t checked through). The first plane was early and there weren’t any delays. Connecting out of Miami after a night on an airplane is still probably more pleasant than staying in Miami. We got to Denver and Dave’s mother was pleased to see us and three hours later she was pleased to see Dave’s sister and her family and if she ever became not pleased she didn’t let on, even though it’s a considerable strain for her to deform her routine (which is already deformed by age and doctors) to accommodate kids.

Annika appears to have liked the dress we got her in Urumqi, even though the sequins were all ending up on the carpet. To Quinn we gave a Gauchito Gil t-shirt, which I could see getting banned by his school on the grounds of overly specific religious sentiment and gang colors (it’s bright red.)

On Saturday Jill and her crew flew home, and on Sunday morning we flew home. A storm was coming the other direction and it was bumpy. Boris met us at Oakland Airport and we stopped to buy food at Sigona’s (Dave and Boris went to El Grullense for tacos) and then we were actually home. I thought on the drive up how pretty Highway 84 is in the fog, and how this would be a nice drive to a hotel even if we didn’t live here.

The house is as we left it. The pin machine even sets the same pins rocking as when we left.

And so, Inshallah, until next time, hasta, ciao, bis später, zai jian.

Maybe I’ll go to Amsterdam
Or maybe I’ll go to Rome
And rent me a grand piano and put some flowers round my room
But let’s not talk about fare-thee-wells now
The night is a starry dome.
And they’re playing that scratchy rock and roll
Beneath the Matala moon

Matala is a real place, by the way. I found it on Google Maps. It’s on the south coast of Crete and I expect it is overrun by 60-year-old businessmen who wonder if they missed something and so rent a condo and go to the Starbucks in the Mermaid Cafe.

It’s better this way. Joni Mitchell gave an interview to the Rolling Stone in 1971 in which she mentions among many other things, that the owner of the Mermaid Cafe was arrested and tortured by the Greek authorities (Greece was under military rule at the time) for hosting so many hippies and decadents.

At least Greece didn’t send them to Morocco to be tortured. What? You really expected Obama to end the policy of indefinite detention of Afghanis without charge, and the kidnapping of individuals to send to foreign prisons to prevent their cases being ever heard of by the lapdog courts and press in this country? Silly you. I bet you thought he was going to take back a few of the trillion dollars that were stolen by bankers and brokers and redistribute it to the people from whom it was taken, too.

See you in an appliance carton under the bridge. Inshallah.

Museo Cerrado

February 18th, 2009 3:19 am by Dave

Now we’re spending a few more days sightseeing in Buenos Aires.  On Sunday, first we went to the La Boca neighborhood to see an art museum.  It turned out that it is a small museum that was between exhibitions (Marcel Duchamp had just closed).  So there was nothing to see.  The guidebook points out areas in the La Boca area which are not regarded as safe for tourists to visit.  But it does have one extremely touristed area, kept well fed by a nonstop line of tour buses, where corrugated metal houses are brightly painted, souvenirs are sold, and everything is tango.  It’s a few blocks from the stadium where the Boca Juniors play soccer.  We went to another interesting museum of an artist who made paintings of boats and piers, and was credited with creating the extremely touristed street.

From there we went to the San Telmo area where there is a Sunday antique market.  There’s also a modern art museum, which the book thought might have reopened after major renovations, but it hadn’t.  The Sunday event is basically a swap meet located in the middle of an antique shopping district, with many shops selling more junk than I can imagine anyone ever buying.  On Sundays a plaza is taken over by people setting up little booths selling their old stuff.  We found some drawer pulls we may put in the kitchen.  There’s also another interesting museum where the construction work for someone’s house encountered  remnants of the eighteenth-century uses of that property.  They decided to make it a museum and event space where all of the bricks and cisterns and canals and arches and windows from the 1700s and 1800s are exhibited in their original locations, with modern floors and structural support.  The tour was very interesting.

Monday we went out to rent bikes and ride around the ecological reserve next to the intensely-redeveloped port area.  We found that it was closed on Mondays.  Sigh.  On the way back to the hotel we stopped at another promising restaurant, Resto, to make dinner reservations.  They told us they didn’t serve dinner on Mondays, but we stayed for lunch, and it was delightful.  Then we walked around the Recoleta cemetery, which is packed with mausoleums where several presidents and authors and politicians are buried, including Evita.  From there we found a modern art museum which was open (on a Monday!), the Museo de Arte Latinoamerica de Buenos Aires (MALBA).  It had a good collection of twentieth-century art, reflecting the evolution of art in Europe over the century, but all made by Latin American artists.

Colonia is a town in Uruguay just across the bay from Buenos Aires, one hour by catamaran.  It has a World Heritage listed Historic Downtown area, with several museums.  We went there on Tuesday, being careful to avoid Monday, because that’s when museums are closed.  As it turned out, these particular museums are all open on Monday, but two of them are closed on Tuesday.  Oh well — we’ve already seen whale skeletons in Antarctica.  We went to the four museums which were open — all of them were quite tiny.  Portuguese furnishings of the 1800s, native artifacts, and tile.  We also climbed the lighthouse, and spent a couple hours in a park writing postcards (Ray, mostly).

Extremes of Temperateness

February 18th, 2009 3:17 am by Dave

We left Posadas and headed up towards Iguazu Falls.  A few km out of Posadas, we stopped and checked out the World Heritage Jesuit Ruins on the Argentine side.  They are not nearly as well-restored as the Paraguay ruins.  But two of them, Santa Ana and Loreto, supplied guides who were both quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic.  Loreto in particular looked like it had hardly been excavated at all — it was basically several labeled rocks in the jungle.  Fortunately the guide was as familiar with facts of the jungle (names of butterflies and plants) as with the facts of the ruins, and as a bonus she spoke fairly good English.

As we continued to drive in Misiones province, the countryside got much more intensively green.  Whenever we crossed something called an “arroyo” (creek), it had tons of water in it.  (Elsewhere even a “rio” might be dry.)  There were people selling pineapples and mangos everywhere.

We got to Puerto Iguazu, and considered what to do the following day.  We’d been told, by the guidebook and by the German tourists who’d done this a few days earlier, that Brazil lets you not get off the bus at customs, in effect not officially entering the country, as long as you aren’t spending the night or going further than necessary to see the falls.  But the lady at the hotel evangelized the Argentine side.  Since we only had one day anyway, we just went there.

There is basically no good place to see Iguazu Falls.  On the Argentine side, you can get right next to every part of the falls, but you can’t get a “big picture”.  From Brazil, and perhaps from the Sheraton in the Argentina park, there’s an island blocking part of the falls.  (There are good views of parts of the falls from the island).  The place you could see the whole thing is most likely in a helicopter, which would be exciting, but the natural sound of the falls would be completely obscured by the blades.

Another disappointment was that the “nature trail” was closed for maintenance.  We found another road and walked around on it for awhile, but didn’t see much nature (we did see some deer and jaguar prints, and a couple birds).  We saw some nature while walking around to see the falls:  a toucan flying in the parking lot, several dozen coati asking for handouts (and others just doing their business gathering food in the forest naturally — one would climb up a tree and shake, and several others would eat what fell).  Coati are basically jungle raccoons.  There were also a few groups of plush-crested jays, which have dramatic light blue eyebrows, but like jays everywhere are basically trash birds.  There were also a few lizards, a cuis which is basically a tailless rat, and some tortoises in the water.

We realized that on this trip we have traveled from just above the Antarctic Circle to just below the Tropic of Capricorn.  But it was time to head back towards Buenos Aires and then home.

We retraced our route for about 500 km, and then continued down Ruta 14.  For about the next 400 km, they’re turning it into a four-lane road, though almost none of it is yet.  Fortunately, there were few construction-related dirt stretches.  We stopped in Concordia, where we had kind of a hard time finding a hotel — perhaps lots of porteños (people from Buenos Aires) were stopping there on the way up to the falls for the weekend).  The next day we visited Parque National El Palmar, which had an original small forest of palm trees, and made it back to Buenos Aires where we returned the car.  I think it will benefit from an oil change and a wheel alignment, after our 7000 miles in seven weeks.

The Internet pointed out some good places to eat, and one that looked good, Pura Tierra, accepted our reservation.  It was Valentine’s Day, so there was a set menu.  But everything we had was wonderful (and somewhat sweet to fit the day).

I’ll Leave The Lights On For You

February 18th, 2009 3:14 am by Dave

Every country has a slightly different approach to the enforcement of vehicle traffic laws.  The most authoritarian I’ve seen must be Australia, where drivers have been conditioned to drive no more than 5 km over the limit by pervasive and effective use of radar cameras, and to watch their drinking by random breathalyzer stops.  Many other countries post signs announcing radar cameras, but if drivers keep going 140 kph by them, you know that either the fines aren’t serious, or that they don’t work.  I think my credit card got charged $10 or something from a speed camera in South Africa in 2002.

The US isn’t quite so automated, but there are lots of hidden police and highway patrolmen with a thick sheaf of laws they can follow you in their high-speed vehicles and pull you over for violating.

Other countries seem more relaxed, and many of them seem to have particular fetishes they care about a lot.  For example, in Spain, no one seems to care how fast you drive on the freeways, but if you pass on the right, you’re screwed.  In 1997, it was $175 on the spot.

The style in Argentina (outside of Buenos Aires) is different.  Most grids of streets in small towns are uncontrolled intersections, and whoever didn’t get there first has to yield to whoever did.  Or who’s going faster.  Or who has a more expensive or indestructible car.  There didn’t seem to be many accidents, but there did seem to be several near-accidents.  There aren’t police in high-powered cars to pull you over (they mostly seem to have rickety small trucks).  Instead, there are numerous checkpoints where they’ll stop you maybe one time out of twenty, and see your license and registration, and ask where you’re going.

Because of this, there doesn’t seem to be enforcement of speed laws.  And the speed signs are a giant example of crying wolf — do they actually expect you to slow to 60 kph and then to 40 kph before every intersection?  Or to slow to 20 kph anywhere there might have been construction or might be in the future?  And how long are these signs in effect?  There are so many overly low speed limit signs that no one pays attention to any of them.  Lane markings for passing are a little too conservative, and they are treated as suggestions as well.  But there is one law that policemen standing there are in a perfect situation to enforce:  the law that requires that you drive with your headlights on at all times on the open road.

This was pointed out at one stop, when I learned it for the first time, and I was reminded gently at another stop.  But at yet another point in Mendoza, the policeman wanted to give me a US$100 ticket.  (Do Argentineans pay in dollars?)  This is where complete and utter uncomprehension of the Spanish language came in handy — he realized that he wasn’t going to be able to tell me how to pay the fine, and gave up and let me go.

But I’ve been very careful with the lights ever since.

We’ve Got To Stop Meeting Like This

February 18th, 2009 3:12 am by Dave

Argentina is a vast country, the eighth-largest in the world.  We drive long distances between the various tourist attractions, sometimes one or two days.

Yet Tourist Argentina, at least outside of Buenos Aires, is a very small place.  In two months, we’ve counted six instances where we’ve run into tourists in completely different places from when we met them originally.  And we’re not very outgoing — imagine if we were.

Fond Memories

February 18th, 2009 3:10 am by Dave

Those were the days.  Back in 2009, we had such a great time driving around Argentina with our GPS.  It had maps of the entire country, and generally would tell us not only what roads to take, but as we approached each turn it would let us know exactly how far away we were.  It knew where the nearest gas station was, and where there was food and ATMs.

Of course, that’s all over now.  Now that we’re in the post-satellite days, and the night skies have Iridium flashes not from reflection but from explosions as ever-smaller pieces of space debris collide with each other.  And the US military had such sweet dreams of space war, and now all those plans are ruined.

Glad I switched back to cable TV.

Inicio Zona Urbana Jesus

February 11th, 2009 4:22 am by Dave

Even though my step-nephew works for Rick Steves (which only covers Europe anyway), Lonely Planet is one of our favorite travel guides. I like it because of its consistent inclusion of maps even of very small places — I miss that whenever we’re using some other guide. Its original guides were all named “<Name of Country> On A Shoestring”, and would tell hippies how to travel through various places, meet locals, and spend hardly anything. As time went on, it dropped the “shoestring” designation, and listed expensive hotels and foodie restaurants along with all the hostels and street stands. Using Elvis terminology, we refer to these two eras as “young Lonely Planet” and “fat Lonely Planet”.

Today we went on a “young Lonely Planet” visit to a couple beautiful ruins of Jesuit missions in Paraguay, using its detailed instructions. We did this because we couldn’t take our car into Paraguay. (We had originally planned to go to Asunción, but ended up at Laguna de Iberá.) (And the lines to get cars out of Argentina were quite long, so maybe it was a good idea after all.) First, we boarded the international bus, which picks you up in Posadas, drops you off to exit Argentina; when you’ve gotten your passport stamped, you might end up on the same bus, or the next one. The process is repeated entering Paraguay, and then you get off wherever you want in Encarnacion, which in our case was the bus terminal. The next step was to find a bus to Trinidad — ours went about halfway there and stopped running. They fidgeted with the engine, and got it going another km or two, but ultimately it looked grim. Ray texted some Romanian friends to find the mission’s GPS coordinates so we could decide whether to get out and walk. What ended up happening was that we just got on another company’s bus which stopped where ours had broken down. We got the impression that this happens a lot. We were dropped off at the entrance to the ruins, and walked half a mile or so to the site. Ray imagined the transit tribulations in terms of Stations of the Cross, which you see a lot of when church-hopping: “The Bus Stalls For The Second Time.”

The Jesuits conducted a 150-year experiment of evangelizing Catholicism to the Guarani Indians in this area. The book says they protected them from becoming enslaved, didn’t make them speak Spanish, and allowed them to continue their traditions other than polygamy and cannibalism. Ray is not so sure:

This was accomplished by placing them into Strategic Hamlets, excuse me, Reducciones. There they were persuaded to give up their belief systems and obey the Pope. In return for this, they got the benefit of not being killed. There were also Africans brought in, who were slaves, but they were treated better than other slaves in the area. What the Jesuits thought of as humane treatment must be a matter of speculation, since the museum at Jesus Maria displays a number of barbed wire flails which they used on themselves as part of what was considered normal behavior. God knows what they did to people they were mad at.

Ultimately Spain wanted the resources of the area, and put an end to the experiment, which is illustrated in the film “The Mission” which we conveniently have with us. We saw ruins of two mission sites in Paraguay, Trinidad and Jesus de Tavarangüe, which have been somewhat reconstructed, and parts of which have survived. But the most stunning aspect is the whole setting of this beautiful dark red stone set against rich green vegetation and a beautiful blue sky with big billowing white clouds. We took several pictures, but no camera we have can capture it. I can’t wait for floating point pixels.

At the first mission, we met a German couple, and shared a taxi with them to the second mission, as instructed by Lonely Planet. After returning to Encarnacion, we used up our Paraguayan currency at a local cafe with them. It was kind of like meeting ourselves — two guys who have been together for a long time, who somewhat obsessively share food. One of them takes photos of sugar packets. That is cool.

It was a long wait for the bus. Two kids selling bags of limes to cars stopped at a red light goofed off ostentatiously to attract attention. The trip back was a lot faster than the trip out. It was raining when we got off the bus in Posadas, so we got to use the umbrellas we’d been carrying around all day after all. We need better umbrellas for traveling. We’re still using the ones we bought in Japan in a sudden downpour, which have sharp ends. Every time we swing the pack we almost blind somebody.

Today we get a free car wash — the storms continue. We’ll head up to Iguazu Falls, and perhaps sneak into Brazil for an hour or two for the best view of them.


February 11th, 2009 4:19 am by Dave

On our entire trip through Argentina, there have been many shrines along the road.  Many are the conventional variety, memorializing someone who wiped out on that curve or hit a cow or something.  Or Mary, or St. Sebastian.  They are often in the shape of a small house — many remind me of a doghouse.

But probably half the shrines are decorated in red flags and red paint, and are dedicated to Gauchito Gil, the Argentine hero of travelers.  Some are small, and many are quite large.  But none is as large as just outside of Mercedes, a small town northeast of Santa Fe.  Gil is buried there, along with his head, and the museum and concrete shrines covered with metal dedications are entirely surrounded by a large collection of souvenir stands.  Wanting to wish ourselves luck on our future travels, we made good use of them.

Mercedes is where a not-great-but-passable dirt road begins to go to Colonia Pelligrini, a small village in the Laguna del Iberá Reserve, located on the lake itself.  As we began to drive on the dirt road about 6:45 (sunset was at 8:45, and we just barely made it) we immediately realized we were on an evening game drive.  We passed an endless series of large trucks which must have been dropping some kind of seeds on the ground, because the entire 120 km of the road surface was super-popular with all kinds of birds.  Sure, there were lots of doves, but there were many flocks of monk parakeets, and many, many others.  We didn’t really have time to stop to identify each one, though we looked up as many as we could without stopping.  We spotted a large black and white iguana, and several giant rats called capybaras wallowing in puddles by the roadside.  There were also several spotted nothura, flightless birds the size of guinea fowl which our book said “crosses roads unhurriedly” — I had to try not to hit them.

We reached Colonia Pelligrini and investigated the various posadas which offered lodging, full board, and excursions.  The first one was full, but the second one had room.  Posada Aguapé was a little expensive but we determined that it was still less than our safari in Botswana in 2001, so we decided to stay.  The hostess showed us to our room, pointing out the nine-inch-diameter frogs called Cucurú hanging out on the lawn.  As we arrived it was dinnertime, which, among other things, included as much deliciously roasted lamb as we could eat.  We drank half a bottle of wine, and saved the rest for the next night — it turned out to be a budget brand from the same winery we’d drunk the great bottle from a few nights earlier.

At breakfast, we saw many birds hanging around the dining patio, including a few giant wood-rails which we’d seen on the road the night before, several hornero, and really cute red-crested cardinals — they all took care of any crumbs which might fall from the tables.  Afterwards, we had the most delightful three hour boat ride.  The guide poled away from the dock through the reeds, motored over to the ranger station so they could count us, and then headed up into a creek which empties the laguna.  As we approached the shore, he turned off the motor, and poled silently.  There were dozens of capybaras, many caiman, and lots and lots of different birds.  Jacanas, egrets, several kinds of herons, tiny brightly colored birds.  There was a variety of vulture called a Southern Screamer we decided was a particularly ugly bird — the black ring around their neck made them seem goth.  There were many of them standing around.  The most exotic bird we saw was a jabiru, a very large white stork with an enormous black head above a reddish neck.    At one point we got off the boat and walked on the shore, which turned out not to be solid land but rather a “floating mat of vegetation”.  The root systems of the plants had trapped soil, and become an island.  It was strange to jump up and down on it — it would bounce quite a bit.  As we returned to the posada, we saw a somewhat distant deer.

The afternoon was a pleasant siesta opportunity.  The evening excursion was a little dumb — it started out in the visitor center with a video in Spanish.  Finally we took a short walk on the “howler monkey path”, and we actually saw about three monkeys climbing around in the trees.  There were also tons of epiphytes in all shapes sprouting from and hanging from the trees.

It would have been nice to stay there several more days — it looked like they had several other excursions which would have been interesting.  Alas, we had other plans and moved on.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t move on directly — the road from Pelligrini to Posadas is sand, and had been giving even four-wheel-drive vehicles problems in the recent days.  Also, it rained the night before we left.  So we retraced our path to Mercedes, and ended up driving an extra 250 km on a nice paved road.

Corkage in Cordoba

February 7th, 2009 4:49 am by ray

We’d been staying in such a nice place that we were reluctant to leave, but finally got on the road to Cordoba around 1 pm or so.  We drove past lots of sunflowers, through a little town famous for green onyx (but which didn’t seem to offer any for sale), and through a seemingly endless string of foothill resorts.  Finally we left them behind going on a very pretty road over a pass.  If we’d stayed on the main road, we would have gone to a reputedly very glitzy town with lots of over-the-top casinos.  As it was, we ended up going over another hill past an observatory, like getting to San Jose via Mt. Hamilton, and we arrived in Cordoba around 10 pm.  Except it was really 11 pm because we were in the eastern time zone.  By midnight, all we could find was a few empanadas and ice cream cones, which were welcome after the 9-hour drive, thought we were still a little full from the night before.

We got up late, and our plan to go on an 11 am tour was derailed by a parade downtown featuring scantily clad young girls, a drag queen, and lots and lots of drummers.  They ended up drumming inside the city building, making the tourist information unavailable — when we found out where the tourist information department had set up a government in exile, all they said by way of explanation was that the parade was a neighborhood parade traditionally, and now they wanted to have their parade downtown but weren’t allowed to, and it turned into a protest instead.

The guidebook’s suggestions weren’t working well.  The Museum of Memory was closed, as was the domestic chapel of the Jesuit seminary.  Others had made slight changes to their hours of operation so that they were closed for the day by the time we got there.  We did get to the World Heritage site, a Jesuit university and church which had a really good English-language tour.  It was the first tour ever in which we’d heard someone say that a building was constructed by African slaves.

There were many cute facts about the room where students had their oral exams for their PhD, including that they got ridden around town on a mule if they passed, and had rotten fruit thrown at them if they failed.  The room itself had been largely destroyed in 1918 during a student revolt.  This was a replica.  When the students in 1968 occupied the Sorbonne, they shouted slogans in the memory of the 1918 revolt.

It will certainly be time for college revolts again soon, and I hope that the slogans shouted will not be in the format of Hey.  Hey.  Ho.  Ho.  If there is one thing the North needs to learn from southern revolutions, it is not that people in berets look good on t-shirts, it is that not all explanations of political philosophy need to begin with “1-2-3-4” or even be in four four time.  The drummers in the march on the tourist office were polyrhythmic, even though they only had the drums of an ordinary high school marching band.  And any revolution, as Rosa Luxemburg will tell you, needs drag queens and six year old dancers in g-strings shaking their booty, unless perhaps they are demonstrations against the inappropriate sexualization of very young children.

There was a large library of books from the 16th century and before.  And there was a very beautiful church, made several hundred kilometers away in Misiones (where we’re headed soon) and moved piece by piece down the Parana river and across the land to Cordoba.  Just like Ikea, some assembly required.

At one point the tour guide came to describe a small piece of furniture which was characteristic of Argentinean offices and homes through the 19th century.  It is called a “bargueño” and this one looked like a small card catalog with a closing front mounted on modestly curved desk legs.

The tour guide, Maria Celeste, was of college age and the other four people on the tour were approximately the same.  The tour guide motioned to the cabinet and said: think of this like a computer.  Each one of these drawers is a file, and in this one [the prelate] stored letters from Spain, and in this one correspondence with the estancias, and so forth.

Later, after the tour had ended, I attempted to explain to Maria Celeste’s work mate, a bit older, how I found it ironic that filing cabinets were now described in terms of computers, after the User Interface guys had been so clever as to designate the contents of tracks and cylinders as “files” to facilitate understanding.

For dinner we took the bottle of Angelica we’d bought, and checked out two nice restaurants a block apart.  One, La Nieta ‘e La Plancha, had a “creative” menu and a terrace, and the other, El Arrabal normally had tango shows and was very traditional.  The “creative” one had goat and rabbit and looked promising, but as soon as I pulled the bottle out of the pack the lady freaked out and seemed like she’d never heard of “corkage”.  We walked out slowly, giving her a chance to chase after us.  Apparently the opportunity to sell us her own wine was more important to her than the opportunity to sell us a meal at all.  We went down the street to the tango restaurant, which was also initially negative about the idea.  But after they looked at the label, they said “wow, that’s really great wine” and offered to open it for 10 pesos ($3).  And great it was.  Their traditional menu went with it well.  The gnocchi in sweetbread cream sauce surprisingly paired better with our malbec than the lamb raviolones in malbec sauce, whose malbec was not as deep as the one we’d brought.  And Argentina doesn’t produce any wines that don’t complement beef.

In the morning we went to the Jesuit crypt in town.  Another underground treasure recently discovered by telephone workers.  It was actually kind of dumb because the Jesuits were banished before they actually buried anyone in it.  What’s so special about a crypt without coffins or bones?

On the way out of town, we visited one of five Jesuit estancias in the area.  And why would a World Heritage Jesuit ranch museum forbid cameras?  Maybe because some cameras have flash and most tourists are too stupid to know how to turn off the flash.  If you know how to turn it off, it’s a dumb policy.  We went to Estancia de Jesus Maria and just looked at what was there.

Then we drove about five hours to Santa Fe, where we are now.  On the way, outside of Devoto, was a cemetery with several large family mausoleums, right in the middle of nowhere.  It looked like a small city.  We took lots of pictures.

In Santa Fe, we went to an old restaurant which serves you various river fish.  Large portions of several different kinds.  No vegetables, no dessert, just fish and drinks.  It wasn’t billed as all-you-can-eat, but they probably would have kept on bringing more if we’d asked.

The next week is in northeastern Argentina.  We’re just about to start a long drive to Reserva Provencial Estero del Ibera, a good place to see capybaras and birds.  Then we’ll spend a day or two seeing more Jesuit missions (rent “The Mission” to see what they were about).  Then we’ll visit Iguazu Falls on the Brazil border.

Time to get on the road.

Dan Timis 1954-2009

February 7th, 2009 4:38 am by ray

When Ulysses ventured out he had no news of home, which might have proved a distraction.  The times are not like that any more.  Thus, after returning in the early morning hours from the restaurant “1884” in a bodega which burned down two months ago (but the restaurant was saved, giving a surreal entry experience in the parking lot in the middle of the night) we could get email from Jarrell saying that Dan Timis, our friend of nearly twenty years, had died.

This changes the experience of the trip.  Now I look at the road side, which has changed from desert to pasture, and think of all the dead people I know.  I think of the 90,000 people who died yesterday that I don’t know.  I wonder why we care.  The penguins don’t care.  A mother penguin defends her chick, or her egg, for  only as long as the battle is in doubt.  If a skua definitively seizes the penguin chick and the mother can’t get it back alive, the mother loses interest.  The chick can be pecked apart and eaten alive, screaming, and the rest of the colony takes no notice.  Dan Timis’s mother wont be feeling so Buddhist just now.  I think we humans have more to learn from the experience of each other than the penguins do, and there is an advantage to our not letting go.  It really hurts that I will never hear his voice again (unless he left a message on our home voice mail in January).  You’d have to be pretty into penguins to not mind hearing the voice of one.

It Was Wine. We Drank It.

February 7th, 2009 4:34 am by Dave

We had a great time wine tasting in Mendoza and could easily go back there several times in the future.

Many roads in the area have been transplanted directly from the south of France — they are lined with large old plane trees.  It’s a welcome change from the wide open spaces that we’ve found in most of Argentina and I’m sure the immigrants who planted them thought so too.

The Argentine government in the mid-19th century encouraged immigration from other countries because they made a decision to make the country be less Spanish.

On our second full day in the Mendoza area, we drove to the Uco valley, about 50 km away, and visited two wineries.  The first one was Andeluna, a venture founded by Mr. Lay of Frito fame.  70% of their wine is exported to the US, and I hope to see it there.  But the wine was completely upstaged by the winery lunch, featuring five courses paired with various glasses.  The lunch was served by the chef, Pedro del Rio, who explained in a very detailed way everything that went into each of the dishes.  It was all very creative and tasty, but was much more interesting knowing some of the choices that were made for each ingredient.  The wines were fine, especially the last one, Passionata or something like that.  This visit was followed by a short drive to the Salentein winery, where a wine we’d had at Cueva de las Manos was from.  Many wines in Mendoza are good, but it seems that winery visits are actually all about the architecture.  Salentein had a large very modern building, with a nice art gallery where we hung out while sobering up for the drive back to Mendoza.  That night, we had a snack at a restaurant near our hotel where Sr. del Rio moonlights, tasting a few more of his creations.

The third day was like the second, but was spent closer to town.  Lunch was at the Ruca Malen winery, and wasn’t nearly as noteworthy as the day before.  A visit to Catena Zapata winery followed, which won the grandiose movie set prize for our visit with its Mayan pyramid building.  Apparently they started the architecture rivalry, building their creation in 1983.   It could have been a 1930’s era Los Angeles gas station, expanded with a pantograph.

We tasted a couple Malbecs, and bought a recommended $60 bottle, Catena Vinas “Angelica Lot 18 Malbec”, only sold at the winery, to drink at some point later.  We had room for dinner, and went to 1884 Francis Mallmann, a nice restaurant where we sat outdoors near their clay oven and barbeque, feasting on large portions of kid goat and beef.  It was located in the same building as a winery which had had a large fire two months earlier.

Like we said earlier, if you come to Mendoza, and you ought to, make sure to stay at Casa Glebinias.  It is a wonderful little hotel and it lacks nothing.

Lakes and Rocks

February 2nd, 2009 6:36 am by Dave

We left Bariloche after buying chocolate which ultimately melted since we aren’t in Antarctica any more, and drove to the small town of Villa La Angostura, which has only one street of touristiness. The book remarked on the consistency of Bariloche’s architecture, which is said to resemble Switzerland, but you can’t see it behind the North Face logos. Bariloche has all the charm of Ciudad Juarez with a bunch of Swiss postcards pasted on the front of the buildings. We did detect Swissitude in Villa La Angostura, though — everything was the same color and roof shape, and had Ripcurl logos. Angostura is the start of the Ruta de Siete Lagos, a road which goes by seven lakes. We probably saw more like ten or eleven, but whatever. It is an increasingly popular drive, which has caused it to be the one thing worse than a gravel road: it is now a road under construction. Perhaps they will pave it all the way. But as they do road construction, the nice old gravel roads are replaced with even nicer new gravel you can’t drive on, presumably the base of a future paved road, with a horrible little parallel detour road you have to drive on instead.

The road ends at charming San Martin de los Andes, a town which seemed to deliver all the promises the book made about Bariloche: good food and consistent architecture. The hostel we checked out had a room available, but no WiFi, so we decided it would be nicer overall to drive back about five kilometers and camp next to the lake, coming into town for dinner. It was a perfect camping spot: not too loud (though fairly full), not too windy (though a steady breeze brought perhaps a little too much campfire smoke through the tent), the perfect summer temperature, billions of stars, and a beautiful lake to wake up to in the morning. Dinner at El Meson included some nice smoked squid as an amuse-bouche, a plate of prosciutto and some smoked eggplant bruschetta, an enormous piece of lamb infused with a mint sauce, and a trout with garlic and more prosciutto. There was definitely no room for dessert, or even a blob of melted chocolate.

There is much made of Bariloche’s chocolate but I think they have been surpassed by Trader Joe’s and others. 72% cacao is still called Amarga (i.e. unsweetened) and any California chocolate eater would think of that as practically a Mars Bar nowadays.

From there we had two days to get to Mendoza, where we are now, and the placement of towns on the road isn’t very good. We could go to Chos Malal or to Malargue, but either choice meant one very long day of driving and one more relaxed one. We ended up in Chos Malal, doing the more relaxed day first. The road there wasn’t particularly noteworthy, but at least it was almost entirely paved. There’s not much in Chos Malal — it used to be the provincial capital of Neuquen, but it isn’t much of anything anymore. It’s a place where kids who get born there figure out how to leave when they get old enough. It has history, but it doesn’t really have a present. What it did have is goat on the menu — a cute restaurant served it to us. Unfortunately, we were the only ones there. (But that isn’t a definitive identifier of business, since we are asleep by the time most Argentines go out, even in villages.)

As we left Chos Malal, we discovered that it was on the skirt of a very large volcano which we got better views of as we continued. The road had a couple 50 km unpaved patches as it crossed this volcano country, and there were some pretty scenic spots, including little black lava flows like Craters of the Moon, and a place where we could look down and see the Rio Grande go between two black lava cliffs that were perhaps 20 meters high and 2 meters apart. From there things started getting much greener and flatter. We decided to turn a nine-hour day of driving into a thirteen-hour one by going through the incredibly cute Canon de Atuel, a little canyon just as sculptured and colorful as the Grand Canyon but much smaller, containing three dams and accompanying hydroelectric plants. We were constantly stopping in the canyon to take pictures of cute rocks and plants, which accounted for half the delay; the other half was caused by the bottom end of the canyon being a huge rafting resort for San Rafael, and it being Saturday: once the road stopped being twisty and dirt, it started being crowded. We ended up driving the last two hours to Mendoza in the dark, but the last half hour of that was on something we hadn’t seen since Buenos Aires: a freeway! No more having to pass trucks or other slow vehicles! We found our hotel, and got directions to the nearest restaurants. Even though it was 11:30 at this point, getting into a restaurant wouldn’t be a problem — it’s opening time. The hotel had just recovered from a power outage, and the nearest restaurants seemed to still be affected by it. Going a little further and being tired and cranky, we found a bar with bar food which took forever to get served because it was crowded not only with the bar crowd but all the people from nearby houses without power. Fortunately we were mostly done before the loud music started, two guys and a sequencer.

Argentine schedules are imprinted at a young age. At one in the morning there were a lot of kids in the bar, running around and being the way people are who are 6 or 8 years old, but not sleeping or cranky or anything.

What a hotel it is — Casa Glebinias, Hotel Rural. It’s a gated estate with a main house where the host lives, and four or five other little structures around a yard, each with a downstairs and an upstairs unit. Breakfasts are huge and include fresh-squeezed juice, and they just sneak them into your suite around 8:30. (We told them not to give us so much.) The bathroom is comparable in size to some other rooms we’ve stayed in — its cutest feature is that its large round mirror is glued to its translucent large window. (We’ll take a picture.) The host is a retired ice core analyst who has spent a lot of time in Antarctica and at various glaciers nearby — his family has lots of overly friendly dogs.

We drove into Mendoza on Sunday. On the way I asked the GPS to find restaurant 1884 by its address, and it took us to a vacant lot. There has been quite a lot of that lately.

Mendoza is the Napa of the Napa Valley. It has a downtown where many people stay and where there are several restaurants. We’re staying out of town, but we did go to a great little tasting room, The Vines Of Mendoza, downtown yesterday where we tried a flight of five wines. (They have about ten flights to choose from, at prices from $30 to $175 US, plus lots of wines by the glass). They have a brochure listing the most interesting wineries to visit, and the best restaurants to go to. (They also have an online wine store with a subscription feature, and a huge vineyard they’re carving up into 3 to 8 acre chunks and selling to people who want their own little Argentine private label wine.)

The tasting room is black with a TV set. Our hostess did not seem inclined to turn it off so we sat with our backs to it and faced the courtyard. She is from Mexico City, came to Mendoza and fell in love with the place, she said, and so moved here five years ago to continue her studies to become a sommelier. I think she will be very successful. She also said that she had no intention of speaking like an Argentine, and she pronounces “llo” or “yo” as “yo” rather than “sho” as in Buenos Aires or “zho” in Mendoza.

The wines that The Vines of Mendoza are proudest of seem to be much more French and Tannic than the ones I like best. Somebody needs to tell them to stop hiring Dogbert (rhymes with Colbert) and trust the grapes to taste like themselves. The pinot noir they served us smelled like the imported veneer aisle of Southern Lumber in San Jose, which is quite a coup, actually, and not unpleasant, but has anybody ever tasted a pinot noir grape? What are they like?

After our wine tasting we walked through a museum under the Plaza and sat and recovered from the wine and watched all the people performing their civilization.

A match between Boca Jr. and Rio Plata was scheduled for the evening in the stadium so we got offered beer and called Papa Noel on the sidewalks at nightfall by a lot of happy guys. But since one does not take a vacation from one’s self, I still have no use for a futbol game and we had dinner at Azafran instead. It was the usual perfect. About 9:30 PM the waiter stopped seating people on the sidewalk. He knew that at 11 PM the crowds would be coming back down the street in even more vigorous a mood, and the tourists might not want to deal with that level of cultural immersion.

The whole thing is quite like a hurricane. East of Plaza Independencia is a very nice section of town, and many of the grand houses had private guardhouses of a temporary look to them, as if they had been hired for the evening to supplement the fences and barred windows that mark a culture of steep economic derivatives (in the calculus sense, not the side bet on Wall Street sense).

We could spend weeks here, but we’ll have to limit ourselves to two more days’ worth of gavage before it’s time to move on. I hate being full and being drunk, which happens far too soon in the process. I want to be in some Greek myth where you are condemned to eat and drink and be perpetually sated yet hungry, and high yet sober

The Road Is Deep And Wide

January 29th, 2009 6:17 am by ray

We left El Calafate and set out on Ruta 40. (On the way out of town, we stopped at the airport to pick up the papers to take the car into Chile, but the agent wasn’t there even though a flight was arriving. And he didn’t answer any of the posted phone numbers.)

Ruta 40 is famous for its not being paved in the southern portion. We’d hoped to take a side trip to El Chalten and do a little hiking, and the road there was mostly paved, but after a stretch of gravel and some more considered calculation we realized that there wouldn’t be time to drive there and get to our next reserved stay at Estancia Cueva de las Manos, let alone do any hiking.

After Tres Lagos the road became gravel for a long time. Lots and lots of gravel. Lots of flat land with nothing on it, so the road could be quite wide. And it went on for miles. Ocassionally we’d stop and be impressed by how windy it was out there.

We encountered one 55-km stretch of pavement which seemed like a dream or a mirage, but then the gravel returned.

We got gas at a tiny place called Bajo Caracoles, which is where everyone buys gas who is taking Route 40. Not only are stations rare, but it’s not unusual to come to one that is out of gas, or out of your particular kind of gas. The truck was there filling up the gas station when we arrived. The operation was about as sophisticated as fueling a chainsaw, just a big hose and a big funnel.

The price for gas is fixed by the government in Patagonia at 2.192 pesos per liter. There is a small general store there that surprisingly doesn’t charge a huge amount for water. They have all sorts of food-like substances there, too, none really edible. You can buy 80 grams of Lay’s Potato Chips for 6.50 Argentine pesos. For people who are reading this a year from now, this is a high price. Since we arrived, the peso has slid from 3.30 to 3.50 to the dollar; gold has gone from $800 to $900 US dollars per ounce, and it’s very difficult to give any shorthand impressions of prices to anyone who doesn’t have today’s newspaper in hand and the OANDA currency converter open on his browser.

After Bajo Caracoles, the scenery got more interesting, tne hills higher, the canyons deeper and eventually more colorful. Even the road became more colorful. In places where it had been cut directly through red and yellow sandstone, it was red and yellow in stripes. Bright red and yellow and pink. There was a shrine to Mary in blue and white with some Santa Claus figurines on the roof, beside which someone had planted a tree which must have been watered daily despite its appearing to be in the middle of nowhere; and an arroyo of columnar basalt had a red shrine to Gauchito Gil (shrines are as rare as gas stations on the hard core part of RN40) and also a ram skull painted magenta off to the side.

The hills are full of caves painted with the outlines of hands. Archaeologists make up stories describing what these hands (also guanacos, pumas, stick figures, ostrich-prints, but overwhelmingly left hands) meant to their creators. What is really known is that 8000 years before Banksy, humans were making stencil graffiti. The process appears to have been blowing air through a bone filled with paint with mineral pigment. This process can be duplicated and it has been, but the results fade after about 30 years. It’s not known what substances must be mixed with rock dust to make the hands last eight thousand years.

UNESCO skimmed off the most artistically dense and accessible several of the caves and enclosed them for a World Heritage Site. The folks at Estancia Cueva de las Manos will drive you on a 4×4 for a long day trip and hike to others on their 100,000 hectare ranch. They will also feed you — some government agency hooks up kids going through culinary or hotel management school with estancias hosting tourists in the summer, and the results are delicious. They also hooked up a young American woman studying Spanish to work there, and she was our 4×4 driver and guide to their large cave. Their cave didn’t have quite as many hands as the official site, but it was a much nicer experience not to be rushed by the one-hour tours, and not to have a fence in the way.

After spending a day and a half looking at hand paintings, we drove the rest of the officially unpaved part of Ruta 40. Now it’s only frequent road reconstruction which gets us back onto the gravel.

Yesterday (1/28) we drove to Alerce National Park. An Alerce is like a sequoia. We only saw one of them since they are way away in the back country and would have required a day long boat ride (all the nearby ones having been logged) but there are a number of other species including a native bamboo with a solid core, the usual Southern Hemisphere beech suspects, an incense cedar which is sort of like those in California — the Andes near Esquel are sort of like the Eastern Cascades just generally, which is not surprising since they are the same mountains on the same landmass. The most special thing on this day out of all others, is that a legume of some kind that looks like broom, was at the moment releasing its seeds. Imagine a locust-like seed pod 4-6 cm in length which has dried out completely. As the last bit of water leaves the slightly twisted pod, there is nothing to hold it together and the pod snaps open, scattering seeds all over. As we walked down the trail, hundreds of little clicks followed us.

They also have daisies that climb trees in vines. Orange ones, and white ones. Traveling is rad.

After our walk through the bamboo and beech and broom forest, we got back into the car and drove to Bariloche. Failed to spot Butch Cassidy’s house from the road. Lonely Planet says it’s there, near km 21 (which is not actually marked) 8 km north of Cholila, but as part of their residual hip image, they adamantly refuse to include any more information in their guide than was available to 13th century sailors: verbal descriptions.

Hello, Lonely Planet! It’s 2009! GPS has been public since the Clinton Administration! I know you want us to get chummy with natives in bars and be personally guided by guys with dreads and Che t-shirts to your cool sites, but lat-long is all that is required.

Bariloche is a total hole. It is the next step in the progression Ushuaia-Calafate-Esquel-El Bolson, as tourist towns march on their inevitable Hertzsprung-Russell path toward the doom of malldom.

I’m not including the lat-long of the private sites on the Estancia because I don’t want to contribute to the stuffed animal store, the pizza cafe, the chocolateria, and the Gap/North Face/Benetton outlet soon enough to arrive in the pretty little canyon. Here’s the location of Cafe Lo De Garcia instead.

Now it’s time to get some chocolate that this “town” is “famous” for (one of the intimate chocolate stores is called Del Turista and fills a city block) and get back on the road and drive past some awesome mountain scenery.

How We Saw Torrey Pines

January 24th, 2009 8:20 am by Dave

Previously on, we were never granted permission to take our car into Chile until it was way too late, according to our unalterable schedule. This meant that we would never see the famous Torres del Paine, in Chile’s most famous national park.

Instead we came to El Calafate.

Yesterday we went on a walk.  We finally got started around 2 pm, after a leisurely morning.  It was similar in distance to a walk up Windy Hill and back — a distance of about six miles round trip.  We’re guessing Windy Hill has an average slope of about ten percent, rising maybe 1500 feet.  But this walk rose over 1000 meters, meaning the average slope was twenty percent.  I’m really glad I found a walking stick to ease my way back down.

It was a simple walk to the top of a hill, and though it was raining a little as we drove to the trailhead, it was delightfully clear once we started walking.  There were clouds which were reflected in the parts of the lakes below which weren’t rippling.  We had considered just walking for two hours, seeing how far we got, and then coming down, but a fellow on his way down from the hill  said, “You won’t believe, the weather is perfectly clear, I thought I was looking at Mt. Fitzroy and then I said, wait, that’s in the wrong direction!”

Once we made it to the top of the hill, we were rewarded with a very distant view of the place we’d hoped to go:  Torres del Paine.  Here are some pixels from a zoomed-in shot Ray took of them:


It was like walking up Mt. Hamilton to see Half Dome, though I expect there are more clear days in Southern Patagonia than in the Central Valley.  We also could see the previous day’s glacier the whole way up, and several more glaciers further south once we got to the top.

This walk was supposed to take four hours, but it took us almost six.  We found many fascinating plants and birds (and one guanaco) on the walk, and Ray took lots of pictures.

It seems like we’re taking today off, but tomorrow promises to be a busy day, driving several hundred kilometers, and hopefully walking a few more.

How Did It Get To Be Friday?

January 23rd, 2009 6:57 am by Dave

1. Ushuaia Does Not Have An Architectural Review Board

In Ushuaia we were unable to get bus tickets out of town for the next day (and air tickets were kind of pricey during the week) but we left the following day. On the last day in Ushuaia, we did a Quirky Architecture tour around town, taking pictures of the dozens of ways corrugated metal can be used as a residential building material, and the many design sensibilities that have been used in this rapidly expanding tourist town. In the afternoon, I took it easy and recovered from my cold while Ray went on a quick hike along the coast in the local national park, looking at shell mounds and woodpeckers and stuff.

(Ray here) The shell mounds are all that is left of the Yamana civilization, unless you count street names. I don’t know that their purpose was ever explained to the Europeans. Now they they are covered in beachy scrub grasses and moss, grazed upon by untended horses, squatted on by Skuas who are annoyed there aren’t penguin chicks around to rip apart and eat. They put so much more effort into building those mounds than we put into blogs, and they were all deleted anyway.

I did not allow myself enough time for the 10 kilometer hike from where the shuttle bus leaves you off to where the shuttle bus picks you up. Therefore, I was limited in my ability to frame pictures and bracket exposures and reflect upon the passage of civilizations. (The Yamanas, of course, are not entirely gone, any more than A-we-ni-shan and Mush-ka-dence disappeared when they married my grandfathers. Most of them did die, mostly of measles, a few from sport hunting by Europeans. Their language is gone. Their particular Vision Quests are gone, photos of which will remind you of the Annie Liebowitz photo of Keith Haring, who is also lost to a plague.) Fortunately, when you go to a lot of World Heritage Sites and other, unbranded, ruins, you get pretty quick at reflecting on the passage of civilizations. I don’t know that I’ve had my life pass before my eyes — hey, what happens when Alzheimer’s patients die? — but I can pass Rameses’s life before my eyes in 14 lines. Did you know that Ozymandias was the result of a contest, like Esquire Magazine’s contest for the first thing for man to say on the moon? There is a runner-up Ozymandias, too.

The woodpecker had a black head and a red bill. I only saw it, in my rush, because three girls were watching it off the side of the trail. This is the market solution to game watching. The place is also overrun with European rabbits but the native fox population is increasing.

2. Back to Laguanacazul

Tuesday started with a 4 AM alarm, and continued with a 5 AM bus ride that took about 13 hours going to Rio Gallegos. Of those 13 hours, at least 5 were spent in the four border crossings (leaving Argentina, entering Chile, leaving Chile, and reentering Argentina). Entering Chile was especially time-consuming because two riders on our bus smuggled some apples which upset the agricultural people one hour’s worth. Another half-hour involved crossing the Strait of Magellan on a very businesslike ferry which we basically drove right on to and which then left right away. By 6:30 we were back at the hotel in Rio Gallegos where we’d left the car, which was right where we left it. And it started. And the tent was still in the trunk. And by 8:30 we were back at Laguanacazul.

I swear. It is so my favorite restaurant of the trip. Not because all the food is perfect — the salmon was overdone and its sauce was too sweet. (But all of the food is creative and uses Patagonian ingredients extensively.) The attitude of its young (25) chef is its secret: hardly anyone orders from menus — he usually suggests some daily special, often something different for each table. Again we asked for “a glass of white and a glass of red” and we got tastes with refills of three very nice wines. Instead of wines by the glass being the most generic “house” wine possible, it’s like “hey, have a taste of this really great wine I’ve found”. Another red dessert wine also showed up at the end of the meal. Fortunately we were walking back to the hotel.

3. No Torrey Pines This Trip

In the morning we checked once again on our car’s permission papers to go outside Argentina, which Alamo/National appeared to have spaced out. If we’d gotten them, perhaps we would have driven into Chile to go hiking in Torres del Paine National Park, though with our other delays we’d pretty much run out of time anyway. We’ll just have to come back sometime. We just drove across to El Calafate, one night before our non-cancellable three-night reservation at a nice little hotel (TripAdvisor’s favorite in town).

4. Get Your CrampOn, or, Waiting for the Rupture

The reason tourists come to El Calafate is to see Perito Moreno Glacier, a 15-mile long glacier which is formed from large amounts of snowfall coming through a gap in the Andes (much like the Golden Gate forms large amounts of fog in San Francisco). It is remarkable for being a glacier which is not receding, perhaps because the area in which snow accumulates is so much larger than the area in which the ice can melt. The middle part of the glacier moves between 1 and 3 meters a day, and sitting beneath the face of it one hears a loud explosion every several minutes as some tower collapses into Lago Argentina. Most of the time part of its face sits against a peninsula, separating the lake into two sections, but there have been some dramatic ruptures in the past.

We went on the “Minitrekking” excursion which was similar to what we’d done in New Zealand, walking around on the ice for an hour and a half or so. (We weren’t eligible to go on the “Big Ice” excursion, a strenuous all-day trip including four hours on the ice with, they admitted, little time to stop for photos. The age limit for that trip was 45.) The walk was made even more charming by the fact that Diego, our guide, spoke English with an accent that was eerily similar to that of our friend Justin’s Swedish friend David. But he had no fetish for the letter “F”. Diego had lived four months in Lake Tahoe, skiing.

Our Antarctica parkas from Lindblad Expeditions give us huge street cred on glaciers. Three people, two guides and a tourist, asked if we’d been there. Mais oui. And you thought we were too old to stumble around on your pathetic little neve.

After we’d gotten back to the “hut” for lunch, we witnessed a large tower of ice collapsing into the lake. Later in the afternoon we spent time up on the viewpoint of the glacier, and heard many collapses without seeing anything — they all seemed to be in the area near where we’d been walking earlier.

El Calafate has many fancy restaurants, and we’re making the most of them because the next several days will probably be pretty basic foodwise. Last night the highlight was the confit lamb at Casimiro Bagua, cooked for two days. It was amazingly soft and tasty. The other items on the tasting menu were all quite nice but the lamb really stood out.


January 18th, 2009 7:15 pm by ray

There are a lot of policemen on the streets here.  One always seems in sight.  But their attitude toward crime verges on Zen.  When we discovered our car had been broken into in Trelew on New Year’s Eve, a policewoman was right on the block.  She told us that one couldn’t file a police report, it was a holiday.

This evening in Ushuaia, a view from a different angle.  I found a watch on the street, still ticking, but the wristband broken.  I suspect a crime.  It was not hard to find two policemen, who shrugged and handed me back the watch.  The watch is distinctive.  Given sufficient resources, lost and found could move into the 21st century.  I have just visited a couple of lame lost and found sites on Google and there isn’t a Craigslist Ushuaia.

Back On Land

January 18th, 2009 6:22 pm by Dave

As we said earlier, we’re back.  The rest of the trip continued more or less as it started out, but with a little more surge in the ocean on the way back — people were definitely tossed around a lot more.  The “fin stabilizer” was turned off briefly for repairs during one of the most surgy times, amplifying the effect of the tossing around.

We could give you a play-by-play listing of everywhere we went and everything we saw each day on the trip, but apparently there was one of the staff doing exactly that, so that we don’t have to.  You can go to here to see the report for the first day of the trip — click on “Next” for each successive day.

There was a videographer who made a DVD record of the trip, which was available for the sum of $65 for the first copy for each cabin.  We kind of flinched at the price, but he promised that it would have some footage taken by the undersea expert of her encounter with a leopard seal, which was a little scary for her, but quite exciting to watch.  She used her camera to separate herself from this curious 10-foot animal with its mouth open and its sharp teeth prominently displayed.  So we got one.  I’ll check for the leopard seal as soon as I can.

I seem to have caught a cold on the ship — I didn’t use the hand sanitizer constantly as I should have.  Maybe I’ll feel up to hiking in a national park nearby Ushuaia tomorrow, or maybe we’ll just rest.  The opportunity to do something tomorrow arose because bus tickets out of here turn out not to be available until Tuesday, so we have to spend an extra day.  (We could have flown out, but it’s pretty expensive, even though it leaves at 9:45 and is an hour flight, compared with leaving at 5 AM and being a 12-hour ride, 6 hours of driving and 6 hours of clearing customs and immigration into Chile and out again).  It does give us an opportunity to go to our favorite Ushuaia and Rio Gallegos restaurants instead of only being there the nights they’re closed.

Despite Ushuaia’s intense touristiness, it’s actually a pretty nice place.  The museum we stopped by today was incredibly deep, soaking up three hours easily.  It’s called the “maritime museum”, and it has several exhibits about historical ships, mostly ones which explored Antarctica.  There are dozens of beautifully built models, many by a particular Ukranian model-maker who it was nice to see credited.  But it’s really the “prison museum”.  Ushuaia, like Australia, was a penal colony for many years (1902 to 1947 or so).  All of the exhibits in all the wings of the museum are in the former prison cells.  There are exhibits of prison life, of famous prisoners, of other famous prisons in the world, etc.  One wing is an art gallery.  One wing is entirely empty, and is just an unheated unimproved hallway giving a little idea of what it might have been like to be there.  Outside, between two of the wings, stood the remains of the “prisoner train” that transported prisoners into the nearby forest to cut down trees, and transported the wood back into town.

Quote of the Day

January 18th, 2009 8:08 am by ray

“I don’t expect them to care, but I do expect them to pretend to care.”

–Jean, a fellow traveler on the Antarctica cruise.  Lindblad or LAN Chile lost her luggage at the beginning of the trip.  Rachel, Lindblad’s expedition assistant, seemed to spend more time batting the blame about than in solving the problems that this commonplace mishap causes in Antarctica particularly.  Although the Endeavour has waterproof boots aboard, they don’t stock such items as thermal underwear, even though lost luggage happens on most tours.

We happened to be talking about this because our large green suitcase went missing between the boat and the dock.  It showed up later at the airport and was delivered to a restaurant, where we retrieved it.

But we’re back from Antarctica.  Jean had to depend on the kindness of strangers for her fundamental survival outfitting.  Dave said “at least she wouldn’t have to do laundry when she gets home”.

“Pretending to care” sounds like the basis of a Dogbert motivational poster.

Antarctica, Part 1

January 14th, 2009 8:41 am by Dave

We’re about two-thirds through our trip to the Antarctic Peninsula now, not including crossing Drake’s Passage.  We had thought we might get through the whole thing without connecting to the Internet — we don’t need it for checking for global catastrophe because an 8-small-page version of the New York Times is strewn around the lounge every day, including the Sunday crossword puzzle. But Ray’s cousin needed it for five minutes, and he’s sharing his 30-minute minimum purchase.

The weather has been mostly very good, and the seas have been mostly very smooth.  Much caution was given about Drake’s Passage being rough, and one of the staff members seemed quite disappointed that it wasn’t.  Hopefully he’ll remain disappointed on the return.  Today it was a little stormy, with some rain and some swells while we were out in a Zodiac photographing icebergs, and a leopard seal who was lounging on one.  The temperatures are somewhat higher than most places in America at this time, typically in the 30s.  The sky is always cloudy, though occasionally the sun finds a hole through them to shine on something for an interesting picture.

Since arriving at the peninsula, things have gotten quite busy.  A typical day starts at 3:30 am when the sun comes up.  We make sure the blinds are closed and continue sleeping.  At 7 the friendly voice of the expedition director comes on the speakers everywhere and tells us what is happening in the morning.  A buffet breakfast starts about then, but sometimes there is something interesting happening, like scenery or a whale, to get bundled up to come out on deck to see.  Shortly after breakfast there is usually a shore excursion, usually walking around to see penguins or up to a more distant view spot.  For this we put on the uninflated life vests which are stored in our room, and also waterproof boots and pants, since the landing is usually in a few inches of water.  We get in a Zodiac for the short shuttle to shore, put the vest in a bin, and walk around.  We’ve walked on sand, gravel, dirt, rocks, and snow — each place is different.  We come back, have a buffet lunch, and then there is another shore excursion in the afternoon.  When we return from that there is happy hour in the lounge, a recap of the day’s events with little presentations from the staff, and dinner, which is usually picking one of two or three appetizers and main courses.   Sometimes we hang out in the lounge after dinner, but usually we’re pretty tired and go to sleep when the sun sets around 11:30 P.M. It doesn’t really get dark — last night we identified a cape petrel flying by the porthole at 1 AM in the middle of the night.

The staff includes:

  • Bud, the expedition leader, who decides what we are doing next.  He has a pretty good idea of everything we’re doing for the entire six days, but weather and ice conditions can vary widely, so he never announces anything more than a day at a time, and never promises anything.  He and the ship’s captain often stop or slow down when whales are spotted, and we go up on deck and watch them.  Some humpbacks have been the most photogenic, occasionally lifting their flukes out of the water for a deep dive.  No whales have entirely breached the surface, but they’re fun to watch anyway.  We’ve seen fin whales and orcas as well.
  • Karen, the chief naturalist, who tells us what birds and animals we’re seeing, and how we can tell them apart.
  • Jason, the geologist, who has given a great presentation about tectonic plates, and has promised to give one about ice.
  • Bob, the photographic expert, who along with taking lots of pictures helps people figure out how to use their cameras and gives advice about shooting in this environment.
  • Boyd Matson, host of Wild Chronicles on PBS, a production of the National Geographic Channel.  He’s here with his son, who is so tall that he has to stoop almost everywhere he goes on the ship.
  • Stefan, a Swede who has been coming to Antarctica for a long time and seems unique on the entire ship in his preference for film over digital — he has taken awesome pictures and will autograph his book of pictures for sale in the gift shop.  He has lots of interesting stories.  For example, if you would like to see what our ship looks like, set your TiVo to record a Discovery Channel program called “Freak Waves”.  About 8 or 10 years ago, a wave blew out most of the windows in the ship, and everyone aboard (including a Discovery Channel camera crew) thought they were goners.  Fortunately that didn’t happen.
  • Lisa, an undersea specialist, who dives into the icy waters with a video camera and shows us what she’s found.
  • Steve and Melissa, who work for the Oceanites project, who count penguins to track their populations.  Both Steve and my brother-in-law are population biologists living in Bozeman, but Steve hasn’t heard of him.  There must be lots of them.

We’ve seen some large colonies of the three types of penguins on the peninsula:  Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap.  It’s not likely we’ll see any others, except if an individual is lost for some reason.  Most of the emperor penguins Antarctica is famous for live much further south (and west) along the Ross Sea.  Wherever there are penguins, there are skuas which prey on their young and their eggs.  We haven’t been buzzed by skuas here like we were in Puerto Deseado, perhaps because we’re far away from their own nests.

The last day and a half has been dominated by a visit to the Palmer Station, a US research station.  Normally there are only twelve visits a year from cruise ships, but because two of the staff had parents onboard our ship, we were invited for an “extra” visit.  There doesn’t seem to be much happening there right now — there are eight scientists (including a visual artist and a composer) and about 23 supporting staff; usually there are a few more scientists.  The staff work for seven months at a time, overlapping slightly with their replacement for the other half of the year.  They’re all employed by Raytheon, the Antarctic equivalent of Blackwater.  They have a nice Internet connection, phones which are local to Denver, and a hot tub (officially for “hydrotherapy for divers”).  Like our visit to Pitcairn, we walked around the station for an hour, mostly at their gift shop and lounge — we weren’t invited to see any labs.  And they were all invited to spend today with us on the ship, getting a day off and a free ride to the islands we visited today.  The composer is three weeks into her six-week visit, and is recording penguin sounds and other natural sounds to use in a composition she’ll further develop when she gets back.  I played her a few of the rough recordings of things I’ve made since I’ve been on the trip.

This part of the trip has not been without its own technical difficulties.  This afternoon instead of going on shore we, like most people, went on a Zodiac cruise around some icebergs.  It was a little stormy, and between the rain and the splashes into the boat from the rough seas, our waterproof gear was challenged.  The waterproof pants I rented turned out to have a split seam in the rear end, and the cheap waterproof gloves we bought before leaving turned out to be more cheap than waterproof.  But the parkas which were issued as part of the trip have done a great job keeping us warm and dry, and I’m looking forward to removing their warm linings and using them as raincoats in California and England and other rainy places.  My new small camera was in the pocket of the waterproof pants — they got a little moist and stopped working.  After a night of drying out, it seems to be operational again — we’ll see how good the pictures are.  And I’ll be much more careful.

Ray went to the bridge after we all got back to the ship and reports that the wind speed when we got out of the Lemaire Channel was around 45 knots, blowing horizontal snow.  It’s died down since then and the ride is smooth as we navigate through the Gerlache Strait.

There’s quite a variety of guests on board, including an 8-year-old.  Most everyone is American, but there are a couple Japanese guys who booked a week ago, some folks from Vancouver, and a few from Germany and Ecuador.  We’ve met several of them at mealtime — we were talking to some at dinner and Ray realized that one woman was on the Fairsea in 1977 when he went to see his first eclipse.  Small world.  Another gentleman was talking about his job as a Six-Sigma consultant, about process quality, etc., and Ray and I both independently realized he could have simply said “I’m Dogbert”.  This guy has taken the best photo I’ve seen on the ship, a penguin mid-jump.

This is an awesomely beautiful place, and we’ve been keeping warm and well, learning a lot, and having a wildlife experience similar to that of the Galapagos (except that there is much less wildlife here to experience).  We have two more days of hard expeditioning, two days of relaxed returning, and then we’ll be back in Argentina to resume our road trip.  And then we’ll have time to check our e-mail.

Technical Difficulties, continued

January 7th, 2009 7:11 am by ray

The Lindblad tour people had a day of activities planned for everyone who flew here from Chile but the VOR at the Ushuaia airport broke two days ago and it isn´t fixed yet (though they expect it will be fixed this afternoon).  So all flights to and from Ushuaia are being diverted to Rio Grande, about four hours away by bus.

Instead of meeting at 11:30 and going on a catamaran cruise of the channel, we’ll hang around the B&B and get picked up at 4:45 when their bus arrives.  And another guest has a power adapter, so we can recharge our computer once, today.

On Monday we went on a really nice walk up to the town glacier.  I suspect it used to be much larger.  On the way back, we found another cute town trail through the woods, with a golf-ball-sized fungus all over the place called “Indian bread”.

Monday afternoon we discovered the list of stuff we were supposed to have brought, and spent most of Tuesday walking around obtaining it.  We were able to rent waterproof boots and pants, so we don’t have to cart them all over Argentina, and have them sit in our closets when we get home never being used.  But it will be nice to have them when getting out of a Zodiac into icy water.

As we rented the waterproof stuff, a kid from Houston walked into the shop who had just gotten off the Endeavor, and assured us that we’re going to have a great trip.  We’ll let you know how it goes, perhaps via satellite from the boat, or for sure when we get back here a week from Sunday.

Catching Up

January 4th, 2009 4:00 pm by Dave

We’re in Ushuaia now, staying in one place for three nights for the first time since Buenos Aires. The cruise doesn’t leave until Wednesday, so we can sit around and use the Internet (though not with our own computer since it doesn’t get recharged until then), walk to the local glacier, shop for cheap binoculars, and sleep.

Ushuaia is gorgeous. It’s like Switzerland. Everything we’ve seen so far in Argentina has been almost perfectly flat, except for some small mesas near the petrified wood. Here there’s a large sea inlet and snow-capped peaks on all sides. The town itself is pretty much all souvenir shops and restaurants, and tourists awaiting their cruises. At least we don’t feel quite as out of place.

At some point Ray will likely make several detailed posts with various insightful comments using his notes and stuff he’s already written. But for now, I’ll try to recap what’s happened since our last post. Things have been very closed in the last two weeks — eight out of twelve days have been holidays or weekends.

Probably the highlight of our walking around Buenos Aires was the Museo Xul Solar, an Argentine artist. He made many very colorful paintings, many based on his own versions of astrological symbols, Tarot cards, and other spiritual themes of his own design. He was pals with Jorge Luis Borges.

In Tandil, three hours south of Buenos Aires, we bought several varieties of the local cheese and a salami which it turned out we had to chow down before entering Patagonia due to agricultural quarantining.

In Bahia Blanca, three more hours south, we stopped at the local modern art museum where we met a very friendly artist. He mentioned many places we should go on our trip, and one of them was Balneario El Condor, which is home to a large cliffside parrot colony, and close to a sea lion colony. From there a gravel road continues 140 km or so along the coast, past extensive wild beaches that had very few visitors. We stopped occasionally, and saw treats like a black-necked swan swimming in the ocean, and a desert tortoise on the road.

We spent a night in Puerto Madryn, a dingy little town serving as the gateway to Peninsula Valdes. The next day we entered the peninsula, which has 200 km of gravel roads connecting a few points where you can watch wildlife, including sea lions and elephant seals from a distance. At another point you are just across a little fence from a colony of Magellanic penguins. And along the road, especially late in the day, we saw several guanacos, some rheas, a couple desert foxes, and several Patagonian hares, which look more like dogs. (They have really cute half-black butts.) At one point Ray got out of the car to photograph some cute grass, and a Guardafauna (or in this case guardaflora) truck stopped and said we shouldn’t even stop on the road, let alone get out of the car. It seemed a little hardcore. We set up the tent in the completely packed municipal campground, after having a somewhat fancy dinner at a nearby hotel.

The next day we drove to Trelew, having decided that the Chilean visa for the car just wasn’t going to happen. We took the computer to a cafe with WiFi and weird pizza to make flight reservations jumping the puddle from Rio Gallegos across the Chile portion to Ushuaia, and it was when we got back to the car that we discovered the breakin. It took a few days to formulate the strategies for replacing the power adapter, but it looks like we might end up with two replacements. Nearby, in Gaiman, we saw a whimsical little park full of art made out of trash (flowers made from bottles and cans, etc.) which was quite cute but we were annoyed by the theft and the extremely pervasive mosquitoes, and it was hard to enjoy it. Several hours of driving got us to the kind of ugly oil town of Comodoro Rividavia, where we spent New Year’s Eve, having the cold pizza leftovers for dinner because everything was closed.

Ray suggested going to Puerto Deseado, which wasn’t part of the original plan, but it sounded interesting. We got there in time to go on a boat ride up an estuary. We passed two kinds of dolphins, cruised by cliffside colonies of three different kinds of cormorants, and walked onto an island with 20000 Magellanic penguins. This was thoroughly enjoyable, as was dinner at a restaurant someone directed us to that was open on New Year’s Day. But the real highlight was another boat ride the next day, a six-hour tour taking us to an island featuring not only Magellanic penguins and sea lions, but also a large colony of rockhopper penguins, which are totally punk, with spiky fur on their heads, long yellow eyebrows, and red eyes. Unfortunately, the island also had a large population of skuas which enjoyed flying directly at us. The tour ended early enough that we were able to drive a few hundred km, including 50 km on another gravel road, to get us to a petrified wood monument before it closed. It was quite impressive, featuring many massive trees as much as three meters in diameter, which had become several beautiful colors of stone. We went to the nearby campground, whose delightful elderly hosts made meat and spaghetti for us, and suggested that we roll out our bags in the wind-free dining room instead of in the tent. It was an incredibly long but memorable day.

From there we drove 600 km or so to Rio Gallegos, stopping in Puerto San Julian for some breakfast, blogging, and shopping. Need a sink stopper and can’t speak Spanish? Ask them where their bathroom is, and then show them what you want. The challenge in Rio Gallegos was finding a place we could park the car for two weeks. A fairly nice hotel offered to host it, and hopefully it will be there when we return. There was an intriguing-sounding restaurant there, Laguanacazul, which was as creative as any we’ve been to in San Francisco, with a Patagonian chef and ingredients. The waiter was super-nice, refilling our wine by the glass (all of which was quite good), and giving us some dessert wine with the huge chocolate torte. We’ll try really hard to go back there when we return, even though it seems it will be on a Monday, the day they’re closed. The next morning (i.e. this morning), we went to the airport, which appeared to have one flight, going south to Ushuaia, and then north all the way to Buenos Aires. A surprising number of people got off the plane with us in Ushuaia.

And so now we’re somewhat up to date. We’ll see what happens on the cruise, and perhaps we’ll post from the ship. Otherwise we’ll just save stuff on the nicely charged computer, and post it all when we get back.

Technical Difficulties

January 3rd, 2009 6:02 am by Dave

Sorry it´s been such a long time since we´ve posted, and that it´s going to be a long time before we post again. 

We´ve generally been having a pretty great time, checking out Buenos Aires, and a good part of the Argentine coast including colonies of parrots, three kinds of cormorants, two kinds of penguins, Southern sea lions, and elephant seals.  The roads have plenty of guanacos (pretty antelopes) and rheas (little ostriches) and various other birds.  We also saw a beautiful petrified wood forest.

Not all has been perfect.  We were assured weeks ago by a US agent of Alamo/National that the car would come with permissions to drive into Chile and Paraguay.  It didn´t, and we´ve been trying to get that permission to reach us before the border.  Because of the interminable holiday season, it seems that won´t happen, and we´ll fly to Ushuaia from Rio Gallegos instead.

And things have been even more dodgy since our car was broken into in Trelew, and a few random things stolen from the interior.  The most annoying thing taken was the power adapter to the computer, without which it has been impossible to save pictures from the cameras and track logs from the GPS, and to post certain long thoughts about Buenos Aires which have already been written offline.  A few other items taken included our binoculars, a Camelbak, and the cigarette lighter AC inverter, but these are less crucial or more easily replaced.

There is hope.  Ray´s cousin bought a new AC adapter in an Apple Store in Key West yesterday, and will bring it to us on Wednesday as the cruise begins.  So we only have to get through the next four days without the computer.   (Until then, we can communicate with the iPhone wherever there´s WiFi, which is lots of places.)

But as the cruise begins, the connectivity ends.  There is super-expensive Internet on the boat, which we will use quite sparingly if at all.  So there won´t be much more news soon, but we´re doing fine, and mostly having a great time.

Have a happy New Year!

It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas

December 25th, 2008 10:14 am by ray

Christmas in Buenos Aires does not look like a Currier and Ives painting (or Thomas Kinkade, for those of you born since 1910).  That much you can derive from considerations of geography.  So the fact that the Rip Curl and Ronjon stores were having a Christmas Sale seemed predictable.  What I hadn’t imagined occurred at midnight, when the whole city lit up sonically with firecrackers.  We were at that moment walking home from the Only Restaurant Open On Christmas Eve via the Great Big Flower Which Is Only Left Open on Christmas Eve, and we were in the concrete canyons of stores and apartments.  A barrage of firecrackers echoes down the streets, but you see very little since most of the people are on the rooftops.  Some Roman candles arch overhead ten stories up, and florals explode in small patches of visible sky, but mostly it’s the cherry bomb in the culvert reverberation and the crackle of ladyfingers.  Children appeared on the balconies to call us Papa Noel.

The Ronjons of Buenos Aires advertise their Christmas sales in English.  Lots of Merry Christmas and Happy New Year signs in the downtown area, more even than Feliz Navidad or the faux-tolerant perversion of that, Felices Fiestas.  American culture is malignant.

One of the persistent myths of the guidebooks is that the people you meet are really flattered if you try to speak their language even a few words etc. etc.  If this was true ever, it’s gone out of style.  Like everyone in California, I know quite a few words of Spanish: Manteca, Merced, Coalinga…   I can understand a radio ad if I’ve heard the English version before, and I can string together a sentence if I have the time and patience of a Cerebral Palsy victim.  Well, nobody is interested in my internal struggles with multicultural self-image.  After three words, they ask if I speak English, the same as they would ask any Russian or Brazilian or Japanese, and the conversation goes from there.  Maybe this will change in the rural areas.

The television in the breakfast room of the Prince Hotel is showing a sequence of user submitted Christmas videos about twenty seconds long, of people from all over the viewing audience saying Feliz Navidad to the whole world.  It’s mostly children but every demographic is represented, by age, race, disability, anyone who has a friend with a video recorder, which is just about everybody.  I asked my friend Susan once if there was a cultural bias among photographic images in the mid-19th century, in favor of people who were wealthy enough to own cameras.  Susan said that there wasn’t.  Everybody had his picture taken, rich or poor.

Christmas in Buenos Aires

Speaking of pictures, here we are in front of the Obelisk Christmas Tree.  Merry Christmas to all!

(The picture above was edited in and posted from the Republica Salon, which is open and has free WiFi and they had a cheaper Christmas dinner last night but we didn’t know about it, with tango nonetheless.  It is the universal experience of traveling, finding out what you missed later.  Klaatu was no doubt kicking himself for having missed some epic Chess Records session that would have been the place to be, in 1951, on Earth.)

It’s the least com-pe-tent night … of the year

December 25th, 2008 9:39 am by ray

You can imagine the employment history of the wait staff who have to work Christmas Eve, and the business model of the restaurants that choose to stay open. I attempted to jigger the trip schedule, but given the desiderata of ProTools 8 shipping at an unknown date, and intending to drive from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia and arrive before January 6 — well, we had to be newly arrived here on Christmas Eve.

La Retirada, in Palermo SoHo, is part of a small chain of tourist establishments and has a Christmas Dinner for Tourists at Loose Ends, for $190 Argentine (about $60 US, per person). This includes wine and bottled water, with indefinite refills. We’ll be pretty lucky if it’s the worst meal we have this trip, but the Argentinians were better off staying home and I hope the waiters have better luck drawing straws next year. (There were only two of them.) The food was better than the Olive Garden, but not so good as a Monday Night Without Cyndi place, let alone Monday Night With Cyndi. I have a restaurant category in my mind, of places where they take a good deal of care with the main course, but the vegetables are the same no matter what you order. The pork and gravy, and sirloin steak both came with the same grilled eggplants, in the instant case. The eggplants weren’t done correctly, either. Eggplants are difficult and should be left off the menu if you’re short-handed and the world is full of summer squashes.

I’ve read in the guidebooks that the Argentinians don’t fetishize tender beef the way Americans do, or Japanese. A Japanese diner would not recognize this version of Argentinian Beef. A Japanese person would use it as building material.

But: there was no Christmas music. Rock !! The loudspeaker might not have played “Mr. Hankey” but it didn’t play Little Drummer Boy, either. (They did play a Spanish cover of Twist and Shout).

On reflection, I think this has been a Little Drummer Boy-free Holiday Season. I count my life truly well spent if I can go through the whole of Christmas without hearing Little Drummer Boy. You should make the effort, too.

Feliz Navidad

December 25th, 2008 9:33 am by ray

We flew from Denver to Atlanta on Sunday night to see Dave’s cousin Muriel, whom we hadn’t seen in ten years and three kids. I thought it would be disconcerting, to take off on a runway passing the half-burned shell of a Continental Airlines 737 that had gone off the runway the night before, but I think that runway is not in use. I wonder if they cover the plane with a sheet, as if it were a corpse?

Our flight arrived a few minutes ahead of schedule on Sunday night after a clear flight behind a cold front. We flew right over Wichita and Memphis, actually north of them so I had a good view out the right side of the plane, although the GPS didn’t have enough satellites to track after about Kansas. But nobody told me to put it away. I was sort of hiding the box. My flyer profiles on Travelocity and Expedia show I want a window seat.

Renting the car was an odd experience. The National guy said that we could go out to the lot and pick any car we wanted from the section marked “Compact”. The first car we picked, a blue fluid level warning light came on immediately so we switched to a Kia Rondo which is actually closer to a van but nobody said anything when we exited the airport. (They tried to charge us for an upgrade when we gave it back, but Dave said no.)

We drove directly to our Motel Studio 6 in Duluth, Georgia, which is a super place. $51, taxes included, gets you a room with a kitchenette.

The next day we met Muriel and her husband Carlos and their children Anthony, Johnny, and Andrew. They live in the New New South: the Korean grocery is called Supermercado La Fiesta. It’s Obama country all over, except for some conservative military families of Mexican origin. Muriel teaches Spanish reading and writing to native Spanish speakers who only know English orthography, and Spanish to native English speakers.

“After about two days, the students always ask me: ‘Who are you? Who are you? Where do you come from, how did you come to be here, white blonde Kansas girl teaching Spanish to African Americans and Vietnamese?'”

She sounds like a dream teacher. For her lesson on reflexive verbs, which largely relate to personal care, she darkened the classroom, entered in her pajamas, and when an alarm clock went off, she went through a whole routine of getting up in the morning, while reciting the whole litany of what she was doing. Even had her hair wet when she re-entered the room after a “shower” and used a hair dryer.

She told us how she could tell the difference between English speakers who had cheated by having native speakers do their homework, and those who had cheated by using Google Translate.

Muriel can’t teach using Lotería cards because “Negrito” is offensive. Even Obama’s Georgia is not quite over itself, yet.

Anthony is the coolest kid. He has been diagnosed borderline autistic, which is the diagnosis to have, in 2008. If Tycho Brahe or Évariste Galois were kids today, they would totally be on Risperdal. The whole family took a walk around the lake to feed stale bread to los gansos, the flock of aggressive geese who could profit from a pony hit of Ritalin themselves. We looked at the funny little vertical ice crystals which form under pebbles and sand on freezing nights. On the way back I remembered to turn on my GPS to plot my track home. After we had been in the house about five minutes, Anthony announced to Muriel that he was “going for a walk with Ray and the GPS”.

So we did that. Anthony held the GPS and made a waypoint called “Anthony”. Muriel probably will think that we bonded, but he bonded with the machine. He is no dummy.

That night, we all got in the car to go see the local instance of Christmas Tree Lane. When we got off the freeway, we were probably five miles from it and the traffic was simply not moving. It took 20 minutes to get across the freeway after turning left at the top of the diamond interchange. It was plainly not going to happen, so we got back on the freeway in the other direction and Anthony started crying and screaming it wasn’t fair. In 2008 this counts as a diagnostic element.  Of course Muriel would rather he not cry and scream, but it’s important to keep a sense of justice alive for as long as you can.

And so to Buenos Aires. We flew on Delta to Miami in the afternoon of December 23, and after a four hour layover, including a “meal” in a “hotel” “restaurant” at MIA (about like the Olive Garden at twice the price, i.e. frozen microwaved portion controlled TV dinners in decent surroundings), on to Buenos Aires on the red eye. Since it’s a LAN flight, i.e. Chilean, they can fly over Cuba. Also, I noticed on the departure screens that there are direct flights to Cuba on some Continental subsidiary. Who gets to do that? Is Obama going to put a halt to this madness, or was part of his deal for not having Florida stolen from him like it was stolen from Gore, that he continues this infantile national refusal to acknowledge the government of Cuba which is older than he is?

We arrived in summer.

Not Quite Christmas

December 25th, 2008 9:23 am by Dave

We have largely given up on the tradition of visiting with family at Christmastime. Instead, we’ve been having “Christmas in February”, where my sister and her family and Ray and I converge at my mother’s house sometime around her birthday in February. This year, since we have a trip which goes from December to February, we’re stopping in Denver coming and going. We passed through just before Christmas, and we’ll come back a few weeks after her birthday, but that’s how it happened to make the trip come out right. My mother has been having health problems recently, and we are trying to see her as often as we can.

It was also an opportunity to go to Boulder and see our friend Mike and his relatively new wife Cynthia, my high-school friend Dave, and Ray’s college friend Louis, who works in a book recycling operation and always finds some great gems that people have thrown away. This time he gave Ray a set of slang flash cards training vocabulary items like “aiight”, “beef”, “mad”.

Mostly we sat around the house with my mom, which in itself is quite enjoyable. It gave us an opportunity to rest up for the hard work that will undoubtedly occupy the rest of this trip.

Youth is wasted on the poor.

December 25th, 2008 9:03 am by ray

Winter arrived this morning before dawn and with it a great ominous sadness.  This whole trip seems like an anachronism, a ritzy Jazz Age speakeasy in a cold Depression night.  When we booked the Antarctica cruise it seemed like history might work out all right somehow, but everyone has always known that this could never be true.

I drove six and a half hours to see my friend David in prison in Texas on Saturday morning, and back on Saturday night.  He tells many stories, which saves me the trouble of watching TV shows involving buff guys who live and use swear words in cells the size of conference rooms.

My rental car and I were searched upon entering the Dalhart facility, which hadn’t happened the last time I visited, in June.  Apparently sometime during the summer, a cell phone was discovered on Death Row and someone alleged that threatening calls had been made from it.

“The guards came into the day room and said, ‘Statewide lockdown.  Everyone to your cells.’  Twelve days!  The guards hate it.  They actually have to work, doing everything the inmates usually do.  Making sandwiches,” said David.

David gets in trouble only for the things that prisoners constantly get in trouble for: fighting and name-calling and objecting.  The fighting doesn’t happen so much up in Dalhart, because it is a prison tending toward the nonviolent and old.  Lots of drug and sex offenders.  Before he came to Dalhart, he was getting jumped occasionally.    When he talks about the prisons near Houston and San Antonio he says “Down South”, just like somebody from Massachusetts talking about Texas.

“There’s a lot more fighting down south.”

When there is a fight, the participants get written up for the offense regardless of who started it.

He hasn’t had any major cases lately.  The distinction between a major and a minor appears to be, that a minor case can result in some loss of privilege such as commissary or recreation,  while a major case is all of that, plus it will show up on your record at your next parole hearing.  A “minor” does not affect your release date.  There can be a prison mock court to determine what happened, if the warden cares to hold one.

Even a Major is not visible to the criminal justice system from the outside.  He told the story of a guy who is 35 days from release, having served “all days” (I think that was the expression) and refused the order of a new guard, a woman just immigrated from Nigeria, to stop sitting on his coat.

Apparently there is a rule that you can’t sit on your coat.  I was told by the guard to place my hat on the chair when I went to the vending machines.  They are ungodly concerned about contraband going back and forth.

Anyway, the prisoner talked back to the guard, and she said that he assaulted her when he stood up, which the 30 other people in the day room denied.  My friend in telling this story implied that they would all deny it anyway; but the important thing was that they all told the same story when questioned.  The case was eventually dropped, but the illustrative point was that even if he’d had to serve his last thirty five days in solitary, there wasn’t anything the prison could do to delay his release even if it was a major, because it wasn’t a parole release, it was the end of his sentence.

We had just watched “Persepolis” on DVD in Denver Thursday night, the cartoon story of a girl growing up in revolutionary Iran.  The parallels were striking, between being a woman in Iran and a man in a minimum security prison camp in the far reaches of Texas: a life completely hemmed in and defined by the mood of mostly young and mostly inexperienced men who vary unpredictably in temperament from mean to intermittently sympathetic, and in intelligence from stupid to capable.

David is sad about growing old in prison but he recognizes that he has health care, such as it is, which nobody else in his family or in the families of the other inmates has, and realizes that if he were outside, his situation would be on the very edge of physical survival.

It’s incorrect to say that the people in Dalhart never had a chance,  but it would have taken more effort for them to rise above their destiny than most of us have put in.  It is possible in America to rise from the poor classes to the middle classes or higher, but it costs you your childhood.  All the years when the other kids are hanging and dating and playing football, a poor kid has to be striving by any means necessary, to have any real chance of not dying poor.  Everything you hear about the magic of Being Young is really the magic of being Young and Rich, or having at least some money, or not caring if you ever do, or having no hope of changing your situation.

It was pretty watching the sun rise and set in New Mexico.  The weather was clear and cold.  Freezing and windy in Texas, and well below freezing and still, in Denver.

An Economic Stimulus Package

December 11th, 2008 7:16 pm by Dave

Ray’s cousin Johnny announced his intention a couple years ago to go on a National Geographic cruise to Antarctica, and that seemed like a completely sufficient reason for us to go as well. We originally considered doing it last January, but it was already sold out by the time we got around to it. And we haven’t ever been to Argentina, which is a rather large country. We’ll drive from Buenos Aires (where we’ll be on Christmas) down the coast to Ushuaia, where we join the cruise. After the cruise, we’ll drive up along the Andes, taste Malbec wine in Mendoza, go see Iguazu Falls, and return to Buenos Aires. It’s kind of an expensive trip during these uncertain economic times — at least we’ll save on our heating bills (and Palo Alto restaurants). It’ll be summer down there, but in Antarctica, and the Andes, even though it will be light much of the day and night, it will still be cold — the cruise includes a souvenir parka.

This time we’ll be doing some camping as well as staying in hotels, since we’ll be in several national parks in Argentina (and a piece of the southern end of Chile). It remains to be seen what Internet connections there’ll be, but we’ll do our best to let you know how things go.