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).

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Writing from Renca

In 1979, when I first met Marializ Maldonado’s late father Manuel in the northern Andean Chilean village of Putre, he and most of the family were living in the port city of Iquique. Although they owned a house in the greater Santiago municipality of Renca (pictured below), he took a job in Iquique because duty-free customs preferences there made it possible to buy an automobile and Manuel, from a working-class background, this was an opportunity too great to pass up.
Some years earlier, he told me, he had visited New York for a labor union workshop and, walking down the street, he realized that the stipend in his pocket would have enabled him to buy a used car there. Thus, while his eldest son Víctor and daughter Marializ attended university in Santiago, Manuel, his wife and younger son stayed in Iquique to make the car a reality. Internal customs regulations prohibited taking it out of the northern region for more than two months a year.

I stayed with the family in Iquique and, when I arrived in Santiago, I stayed in the Renca house with Víctor and Marializ and got to know the city for the first time. Their part of Renca, though, was not a central neighborhood – rather, it was a población, a district where the government had built blocks of small and virtually identical semi-detached houses for working-class people. Getting downtown require taking a roundabout bus or taxi colectivo, as Chileans call the route taxis that serve most of their cities.

I have spent the past several days in Renca, a part of the city that few tourists every see, and will be here until Saturday the 29th. In December, when I purchased my new (used) car from a woman in the upscale eastern borough of Vitacura, I think she was a little startled when we had to come here to fetch some documents I had forgotten. She probably thought a foreigner who could afford her SUV would be staying far closer to her own neighborhood.
In reality, though, this part of Renca is an orderly place. Nearly all the houses are well-kept, several have added a second story, and there are other signs of prosperity – as single-vehicle carports cannot accommodate a second vehicle, there are often blocked sidewalks.

I have the house to myself, as Marializ appears to be reuniting with her ex-husband, and there are many things I like. The interior, including kitchen, bath and electricity, is far superior to what it was thirty-some years ago, and I love the mature grapevine that shades the carport. There’ve been few distractions as I’ve finished up maps and photographs for the upcoming fourth edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia. It’s surprisingly quiet here, though the freeway is just a couple blocks away and there are occasional outbursts from barking dogs.
That said, I wouldn’t idealize it. The houses’ gardens feel microscopically small, the landscaping in the public plaza across the street could be better (though it’s not dirty), and graffiti cover the walls of its community center (pictured above). There are broken trash bags on some blocks. What bothers me most, though, is that there are few services within easy walking distance – there are small neighborhood markets here, but they barely have any fresh produce – and there are no restaurants whatsoever.
Getting downtown is not difficult, as a single Transantiago bus takes me there in ten minutes or so, but getting back is a bit less direct, usually involving a combination of Metro and Transantiago, or a taxi. The Santiago Metro is a superb urban transportation system, but there is no station within easy walking distance of here. In consequence, I feel a bit isolated.

That said, I find Renca considerably more impressive than it was when I first stayed here, and that’s a reflection of the country that Chile has become in the interim.
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