Monday, April 21, 2014

Valparaíso Cleans Up, Seeks Relief

The flames have subsided, but Valparaíso will be sweeping out the ashes for a while more. According to the most recent figures, the April 12th fire that started on the city’s outskirts destroyed some 2,500 homes and left more than 11,000 Chileans homeless (aerial photo by NASA).
It’s not totally clear what started the fire, but the Chilean police claim to have located the focal point at Fundo Los Perales, an agricultural property adjoining the Vertedero Los Molles, a municipal trash dump. According to their account, sparks ignited by two electrocuted birds were the cause, though that explanation sounds incomplete at best.

Still, disaster relief is the important issue here. While autumn weather is normally mild in this Mediterranean climate and little or no rain is forecast the rest of the month, the rainy season is approaching – this makes relief more urgent than in the recent earthquake in Iquique (where it almost never rains) or the massive February 2010 quake (which gave authorities more late summer leeway).
A couple days ago, I received an email from my friend Janak Jani, owner of the Hostal Luna Sonrisa hostel/B&B on Valparaíso’s Cerro Alegre, who filled in details on some issues I previously mentioned – for instance, the fact that many of the fire victims lived in precarious conditions (photo above by Gobierno de Chile). I’ll take the liberty of quoting from his note, which amplifies my own description of the fire zone and points out complexities in the relief effort. I have made minor edits:

“Although the authorities have set up shelters for victims and donations of food and clothes have come in from all over the country, only some of those affected are receiving aid. Many of those who live(d) right at the top of the town had built on common land to which they have no title. They are refusing to leave the burned-out remains of their homes as they fear tha,t if they do, then their land could be taken by someone else. These people (numbering in the thousands) are sleeping in unsanitary conditions with no shelter and little if any means to prepare food. So far no official help has arrived for them.”

Janak notes that he’s working with a local organization, the Centro Cultural Trafón“to provide direct aid to those that need it most” with Chile. For non-Chilean residents, he’s also accepting direct donations to purchase “food, medical supplies, tents, mattresses, blankets, sleeping bags, pots and pans, flash-lights, tools etc.” I wouldn’t normally solicit money on this blog but, given my trust in Janak and the worthiness of the cause, I’ll include his information here.

Janak is British, and those with Sterling accounts can transfer money to his Barclays account:

Sort Code 20-17-19
Account No. 50110523
Account Holder: JD Jani

Those without Sterling accounts can donate to his Paypal account,

Monday, April 14, 2014

Valparaíso's Burning...

Recently, I wrote in this blog, visiting Valparaíso feels like heading home to California but, recent days have shown, that’s not always a good thing. In October 1991, returning from a weekend hiking in the Sierra Nevada, I arrived in the East Bay to the sight of smoke and flames from what became known as the Oakland firestorm, which killed 25 people and destroyed nearly 4,000 homes.
Something similar happened in Chile over the weekend, and it deserves some explanation for its similarities and differences with California. Starting Saturday afternoon, a major conflagration began in the hills behind Valparaíso (in the distance in this 2012 photograph) and has spread to claim a dozen lives and some 2,000 dwellings. The president of Chile’s firefighters has already called it “the largest and most serious in all of the Chilean history,” and it hasn’t yet died down completely.

Valparaíso, like coastal California, owes its vulnerability to geography but also to history and culture. With a comparable Mediterranean climate of wet winters and dry summers, Chile is also susceptible to wildfires in early autumn, when the hillsides are dry after months without rain. I’ve not yet read an explanation of precisely how the fire began, but it appears to have begun in the zone where precarious housing is infringing on woodlands on the city’s margins. As the fire spread to wooden houses, it’s worsened as it reaches the gas cylinders that most residents use for heating and cooking (Valpo does not have an integrated natural gas distribution system, so most people get their gas by regular deliveries). The cylinders explode, destroying houses and spreading the flames.

In Oakland, too, the fire started in areas where houses have invaded the woodlands, but in this case it was sociologically inverse – unlike in Valpo, many of the Oakland’s wealthiest residents had built their houses in areas surrounded by eucalyptus and other fire-prone species. Fast-growing eucalyptus, native to Australia, is a plague in both California and Chile because it reproduces rapidly and leaves litter that can quickly turn the trees themselves into torches. California and Chile also share the problem of rugged terrain and narrow winding streets that make it difficult for firefighters to reach the affected areas. In Chile, the coastal range is even steeper than it is in California.

Since the 1991 firestorm, newly built houses in the Oakland Hills must conform to fire codes that require a certain clearance from vegetation and prohibit wood-shingled roofs, which are certainly a move in the right direction. On Valparaíso’s hilly outskirts, though, there’s been virtually no control over the informal, spontaneous construction of dwellings that are potential firetraps and, at best, kindling for big blazes.

In Chile, there’s an additional problem – except for the brigades employed by the national forest service Conaf, there are no professional firefighters. Though there is a national firefighters’ organization in Bomberos de Chile, even Santiago - a city of more than five million - relies on volunteer firefighters of varying abilities. Over the past several decades, I’ve visited many Chilean fire stations, which are notable because they traditionally have very good restaurants. I am not being sarcastic about that, but I would suggest that, if Chile can have a professional police force in its Carabineros, it’s also capable of training and supporting professional firefighters except in the smallest localities.

On the bright side, the Valparaíso fire has not affected the city’s historic core, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site (pictured the aerial photograph above). Until the flames are out, though, and displaced residents relocated – it’s hard to imagine an immediate rebuild - the situation will disrupt the tourist trade, an important contributor to the local economy.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Silly Symbolism? Argentina's New Banknote et al.

Not so long ago, I remarked that Argentina needs to create new banknotes because the country’s galloping inflation had made dealing with cash so unwieldy – with the largest denomination at 100 pesos (less than US$10), the volume  of bills is stressing the capacity of our wallets and, as far as I know, even ATM machines (though I have not used an Argentine ATM for quite some time). Bills of 200 or even 500 pesos would be a relief to overstuffed wallets.
Last week, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner finally announced a new banknote, but it was not what the country needed. Instead of printing larger bills – which would have been a tacit acknowledgment of the inflation problem – her government chose to introduce a new 50-peso banknote with a map of the Falkland Islands. Even worse, she made the announcement on the 32nd anniversary of the Dirty War dictatorship’s foolish invasion of the Islands, despite the fact that her administration (and her late husband Néstor’s) have made a point of condemning the murderous military’s human rights abuses.

The hypocrisy did not pass unnoticed. While Argentines may be virtually unanimous in their opinion that the Islands should be Argentine, some were vocally upset that the government commemorated their claim on a date linked to the dictatorship. Hernán Lombardi, cultural secretary of the city of Buenos Aires, unleashed a series of bitter tweets, including the statement that “Celebrating April 2nd as a holiday follows a logic that could end in a monument to [General Leopoldo]Galtieri. Not in my name!” Independent journalist Uki Goñi, who has written eloquently on human rights issues, tweeted that “It would be beautiful to celebrate the Malvinas on another day not the anniversary of April 2, 1982,” linking to a YouTube video of the masses applauding Galtieri on the Plaza de Mayo (see below).
In fairness, the national government was not the only one to engage in silly symbolism last week. The Buenos Aires city council, in a similar measure, voted to rename the block-long street of Inglaterra (“England,” in the barrio of Agronomía) as “2 de Abril,” after the date of the invasion. Apparently, few in the neighborhood agreed with the change, but those opposed were reluctant to speak out publicly.
Perhaps it’s too much to expect Argentine politicians to abandon grand (or petty) symbolic gestures, Even if they can’t do so entirely, a good model to follow might be the postage stamp (pictured above) issued to commemorate the 1829 establishment of the “Political and Military Command of the Malvinas Islands” by the United Provinces of the River Plate (a precarious precursor of modern Argentina). Commander Louis Vernet, a German Huguenot businessman who had settled in the Islands some years earlier, was primarily interested in commercial sealing.

At the same time, it’s perhaps worth noting that the obverse of the new banknote contains an image of the gaucho Antonio Rivero, who murdered five holdover employees from Vernet’s settlement after the British assumed control in 1832. Some Argentine sources have tried to portray Rivero as a political folk hero against the British, but it’s likelier his grudges stemmed from management maltreatment.

Meanwhile, Argentines will continue to wait for larger banknotes to conduct their daily business, as the new 50-peso bill is barely worth US$5.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Background-Plus on Chile's Latest Earthquakes

A few weeks ago, as I sat at my desk outside the central Chilean city of Talca, a low rumble passed through the ground – in area that suffered dramatic damage in the monumental earthquake of 2010. It was brief and, as a resident of Northern California, this tremor didn’t especially disturb me. Over the next couple weeks, though, I read about frequent seismic activity in northernmost Chile, in and around the port city of Iquique (pictured below) and, last Tuesday, a big one struck.
According to the US Geological Survey, the April 1 event measured 8.2 on the Richter scale, with its epicenter 59 km northwest of Iquique. This would put it almost directly opposite the semi-ghost town of Pisagua (pictured below), an erstwhile nitrate port that also, infamously, served as a de facto prison camp in the early days of the Pinochet dictatorship. Both Pisagua and Iquique occupy wave-cut terraces that are vulnerable to seismic seawaves, and reports say that a two-meter tsunami hit Iquique’s harbor, destroying numerous small fishing boats.
There are also cracked pavement on local streets and landslides in desert canyons that have blocked roads, but only a handful of deaths – the Atacama desert, unlike the Chilean heartland south of Santiago, is thinly populated and the quality of construction is relatively high. There are few adobe buildings in Iquique, as much of its historic downtown (pictured below) consists of wooden structures built of Douglas fir imported from the United States in the 19th century. Those structures are often more flexible than adobes, though they’re more vulnerable to fires.

I haven’t visited the area for almost two years but, given my long experience there, I expect the recovery to be much quicker than that of the 2010 event. Aftershocks continue, including a powerful 7.6 on Tuesday that was closer to Iquique.  Still, as the photograph below of the 1868 tsunami that struck the more northerly city of Arica shows, it could have been a lot worse.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Valparaíso Feels Like Home

Tomorrow night (early Saturday morning, actually), I’ll be on a plane from Santiago to Lima en route to California, and will reach my Oakland home sometime Saturday afternoon. Yesterday, though, I got a preview of home as I rode from Santiago to Valparaíso via the Casablanca valley.
It’s only a couple hours from Santiago to Valparaíso, but the camanchaca that penetrates the coast range here is virtually identical to the coastal fog that often covers San Francisco and usually invades the East Bay throughout the summer (and occasionally at other seasons). I arrived at Casablanca with a lift from Courtney Kingston, a Portola Valley resident whose family has long owned property here and, over the past two decades, has created Viña Kingston (pictured above), an innovative winery that was among the first to plant red wine grapes – most notably Pinot Noir and Syrah – in this cool coastal climate. Courtney (pictured below) had also purchased a copy of my Moon Handbooks Chile and, she says, looks forward to using it as a guide to the rest of the calendar year she’ll be spending here with her husband Andy Pflaum and their three children.
California winemaker Byron Kosuge, a contributor to the project (not here at present), compares the area to the Southern California wine district around Santa María. After a quick tour and tasting, which included a visiting writer from Outside magazine, Andy dropped me off at a bus shelter along the highway, where I caught a shared taxi to Valpo and another taxi to the Hotel Palacio Astoreca, where I am spending two nights.

The Astoreca (pictured above) is a renovated Cerro Alegre mansion that, most recently, served as an arts school before becoming a luxury hotel acknowledged by Relais & Chateaux. It’s almost adjacent to Valparaíso’s recently reopened Museo de Bellas Artes de Valparaíso, in the landmark Palacio Baburizza (pictured below).
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be writing more about Kingston, the Astoreca and the Baburizza but, given my limited time here, I just want to get out and see more of Chile’s most distinctive city, even if the fog never lifts on Cerro Alegre (pictured below).
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