Archive for February, 2009

Carey Get Out Your Cane

February 24th, 2009 3:35 pm by ray from here

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 from here

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 from here

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 from here

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 from here

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 from here

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 from here

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.

Birdspotting

February 11th, 2009 4:19 am by Dave from here

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 from here

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 from here

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 from here

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 from here

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