Friday, September 19, 2014

Argentina's Adolescent Peso

Throughout Latin America, the quinceañera is a rite of passage that marks a stage in the passage from girlhood to adulthood. It’s a celebration marking the onset of adolescence, at least in the social sense – 15-year-old girls are ready to date, and it’s often an elaborate (and expensive) acknowledgment of that fact by her family.
Argentina arrived at a similar sort of landmark Wednesday when, for the first time, the so-called Dólar Blue reached 15 pesos (the official dollar stands at 8.43 pesos, a breach of 78 percent). The Argentine government blames this on speculative attacks, rather than its own erratic economic policies and, even less credibly, on US Judge Thomas Griesa for the technical default on its foreign debt.

For foreign visitors, as the Southern Hemisphere’s high season approaches, this promises to make Argentina a cheaper destination but, as I’ve written before, dealing with the informal exchange system can be complex for those who don’t know their way around. It also means, as I’ve noted, carrying a walletful of banknotes to make your purchases – at the blue market rate, the 100-peso note (Argentina’s largest) is worth less than US$7.

Chile Cheaper Too?
Meanwhile, across the Andes, there’s no black market for the Chilean peso but, in recent weeks, the currency has also been declining. Since I submitted the manuscript for the upcoming fourth edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia early this year, the rate has fallen from 550 to almost 600, so Chile is also likely to be cheaper.

Unlike in Argentina, though, there’s no sense of panic on the part of Chilean government officials, who oversee a stable economy, honor their debts, and understand the ups and downs currency markets. Nor do Chile operators worry – much of their income is in dollars, but their expenses are in pesos, so its decline actually benefits them.
Visitors from overseas, meanwhile, can conveniently use Chilean ATMs without paying a penalty to do so and, when they leave the country, they can exchange their leftover pesos with only a minor loss. I might add that BancoEstado ATMs do not collect a commission on foreign users.

In Argentina, though, it’s nearly impossible to turn your remaining pesos back into dollars or any other foreign currency, so plan wisely – try not to change more than you need - and spend whatever Argentine currency remains. Odds are that, even if you plan to return fairly soon, those Argentine pesos will be worth less (if not necessarily worthless).

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Farewell to Soda; Plus, Buenos Aires in California

Argentine rock musician Gustavo Cerati, founder of the power trio Soda Stereo, died last week in Buenos Aires after a four-year coma. Larry Rohter, the New York Times South America bureau chief during much of the musician’s career, wrote Cerati’s obituary for the paper. The clip below shows him on stage with Shakira in the Argentine capital.
Except for tango, and the occasional folk musician such as the late Mercedes Sosa, Argentine music has had relatively little influence beyond the South American continent. Even the major figures of rock nacional, such as the brilliant but erratic Charly García, haven’t had a great impact in the English-speaking world, though Soda did record one album in New York.

I’ve seen García live, as well as Fito Páez and David Lebón, and listened to quite a few other Argentine rock musicians – I particularly enjoy the Dylanish León Gieco – but I never managed work up any interest in Cerati or Soda Stereo. Even my Argentine wife can’t recall anything memorable, and her sister’s husband – who still owns a CD shop and often provides me music – never saw fit to even mention Cerati to me.

I don’t want to belittle Cerati, but my only real memory comes from a visit to the northwestern city of Tucumán when Soda Stereo was playing there. To promote the concert, a sponsoring tobacco company was passing out free cigarettes on the central Plaza 9 de Julio – ironically (or appropriately) enough for Cerati, whose three packs a day habit undoubtedly contributed to the stroke that put him in a coma at age 51. Argentina's tobacco laws have since changed, for the better, but I don't know whether or not this type of promotion is still legal.

Buenos Aires Live! In Saratoga (California)
Next Monday night at 7 p.m., at the Saratoga Community Library (in Silicon Valley, near San Jose), I will present a digital slide lecture on travel to Buenos Aires. There will be ample time for questions and answers, and my Moon Handbooks to the Argentine capital, Argentina, Chile and Patagonia will also be available at (slightly) discounted prices.



Friday, September 5, 2014

Oh My Dog! Canine Companionship and the Road

Having spent so much of my life on the road, I found it’s influenced my life at home in some unexpected ways. I always loved dogs, for instance, but frequent travel is not always conducive to caring for pets, but somehow I’ve managed to do it. I grew up with dogs and, though my parents’ preference was chihuahuas, I preferred larger breeds.
Occasionally, the two subjects come together – in Buenos Aires, the presence of dogs is unavoidable, and there’s a whole industry of paseaperros (professional dog walkers, pictured above) for apartment dwellers. Some years ago, I wrote a magazine piece on dog walkers who shuttled their clients’ pets to the Atlantic beach resort of Mar del Plata for families without their own vehicles (as pictured below).
All the dogs of my adulthood have been rescues, even before that word became fashionable. I grew to admire Alaskan malamutes when one of my Berkeley housemates had one and, when visiting my parents in Seattle, I adopted a four-month-old puppy from the animal shelter there – luckily, just ahead of a couple who would have chosen the same animal.
After adopting, I faced the question of what to name him, and I didn’t want to settle for a trite name like “King” or “Spot” or the like. At the time, I spoke German well and had traveled in that country, so I chose “Bronski” after the main character in Günter Grass’s satirical novel The Tin Drum – even though this Bronski (pictured above) rarely barked, let alone shattered glass with high-pitched shrieks. Still, it was a name – and a remarkable dog - that nobody ever forgot.
Bronski, sadly, died a few months before I married my Argentine wife, who liked dogs but leaned toward a golden retriever (I like goldens, but they’re a little too needy for my taste). Instead, I managed to contact a breeder with a purebred malamute that, unfortunately from her point of view, suffered from a genetic defect that made him unshowable.  We named him “Clouseau,” after the character Peter Sellers made so memorable in the Pink Panther movies – his gaze perhaps suggests the character’s cluelessness – and Clouseau (pictured above) was always amusing, even when he shredded a large stuffed pillow that left the living room covered in foam. After that early puppy trauma, though, he was an exemplary companion, especially when our toddler daughter would drop food on the floor.
After Clouseau died, I used Malamute Rescue to find the dog who became “Gardel” (pictured above) whom we named after the legendary Argentine tango singer who died in a Colombian plane crash in 1935. Gardel is still the voice of tango, and his devotees insist that “Gardel sings better every day.” For our part, we always claimed that “Gardel barks better every day” even though he, like most malamutes, was rarely vocal. In personality, though, he was more needy than suave - something of golden retriever trapped in a malamute’s body.
With Gardel nearing the end, my wife found and adopted an Akita at the Berkeley Animal Shelter, whom we named “Sandro” after the rock singer and balladeer who was Argentina’s counterpart to Elvis. Sandro (pictured above) was a placid animal who, unlike his Argentine namesake, was a low-key presence in the household even as he aged surprisingly rapidly – perhaps he was older than we originally thought.

As Sandro declined, we again resorted to Malamute Rescue and found a young adult whose family was expecting a new baby and decided they couldn’t devote the time he deserved to him. They instead kept the family pug, more of a house dog, and we drove with the dog who became “Malbec” (pictured above). He is now ten years old and, like his namesake Argentine wine, aging smoothly.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Why Did You Come To Casablanca, Courtney? For the Grapes

At the end of March, shortly before returning to California, I made a brief trip from Santiago to Valparaíso and, en route, had the good fortune to meet Courtney Kingston (pictured above) – also a California resident – and visit her family’s Kingston Family Vineyards (pictured below). Because the visit was necessarily brief – though I did get a chance to sample the produce before I caught the local bus to Valparaíso – she agreed to an email interview that follows.
WBB: Please tell me something of your family history – as I recall, you have longstanding connections in Chile, but you are a California resident now spending an extended period in Santiago. How much time do you normally spend here each year?

CK: My great-grandfather, Carl John Kingston was a mining engineer who came to Chile in the early 1900s from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan – which used to be copper country in the US  As a result of a mining investment gone bad, he acquired as collateral what’s now our farm in the Casablanca Valley.  So my grandfather, my father, and all their siblings were born and raised in the same farmhouse that our family here continues to take care of.

Typically my family and I live in Northern California, near San Francisco, Stanford University, and wine country.  I come down to Chile every couple of months, as well as lead the distribution of our wines, primarily in the US, Canada, UK and Brazil.  But in 2014 my husband, our three daughters and I are living in Santiago, which allows me to be more hands-on at the winery, and also for our three daughters to attend school through the Chilean school year.
WBB: What is your annual production, and what percentage is exported? On such a large property, what acreage is devoted to wine, and what else does the farm produce? Is any of that exported?

CK: Throughout our family’s history here we’ve been farmers of dairy and beef cattle and various crops, and beginning in the late 1990s we began growing grapes as well.  Today we sell 90% of our grapes to other Chilean wineries, but we make about 2000-3000 cases per year of our own Kingston Family wine.  That’s a very small amount for a winery, which allows us to make it by hand.

We export about 90 percent of our production to the US and Canada, with the balance going primarily to the UK, Brazil and Chile.  We’re unusual as a Chilean winery in that, also having a base in the US, we can offer our US clients the ability to buy from our website or to receive regular shipments of Kingston wine via our Old Corral Club.

WBB: Just inland from the port of Valparaíso, Casablanca’s climate resembles that of coastal California. What California wine region would be the closest comparison? To what degree do you rely on irrigation?

CK: Byron Kosuge from Napa, California, has been out consulting winemaker since we began at Kingston. He works with vineyards up and down the California coast, and says
western Casablanca reminds him most of California’s Santa Rita Hills on the south-central coast [near Santa Barbara] – both in terms of topography, and in how the cool coastal breezes bring alternating fog and sunshine to our vineyards. Overall, Chile is like California with the “volume turned up.” Instead of the Sierra Nevada, we’ve got the Andes; instead of driving three hours from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe to ski, in Chile you could ski Portillo and swim in the Pacific (in a wetsuit, no doubt) on the same day.

In terms of water for our grapes, we do drip irrigation – little drips from a hose running across the top of the vines – which allows us to give the minimum amount of water that the grapes can get by on. Not only is this more sustainable and economical, but also the best wine grapes typically come when you don’t provide them with too much water.

WBB: What varietals do best in Casablanca? Am I correct that you are one of the few Casablanca wineries focusing on reds, particularly Syrah? What other varietals (and blends) do you produce?

CK: Casablanca has traditionally been best known for its white varietals.  We do make Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, but we also were among the pioneers making reds – specifically, Syrah and Pinot Noir.  We’re known in Casablanca --especially where Kingston is at the western end of the Casablanca Valley – as having a cool climate.  Twenty years ago, many people thought that meant you couldn’t make great reds in Casablanca, but in fact we and other producers here have shown that cool climate Syrah and Pinot noir can be remarkable (if challenging to make!)

WBB: Who controls the Chilean wine industry? Is the Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes a response to the big producers? How many of you are there, and where are you? Would you say you’re less conventional than big producers like Concha y Toro?

CK: The vast majority of wine produced in Chile is by a handful of major producers, but from our perspective at Kingston Family, we don’t feel affected or limited by that in any way.  The central challenge we have, like any small business, is creating awareness among wine lovers about what we’re doing making our small lots of wine here in our corner of Casablanca Chile.  So by teaming up with about 20 other artisan winemakers here in Chile – via MOVI, the Movement of Independent Winemakers – we’re able to amplify the message to the market about the innovative wines coming from so many interesting boutique winemakers in Chile.

WBB: Are you open for tours and tasting? One thing that’s always caught my attention is that Chilean winery visits are expensive – more so than in California and much more so than in Argentina (particularly Mendoza). Why won't or can’t Chilean wineries have free or low-cost tours and tasting?

Yes, we host several tours each week, by appointment only (we’re only now finally getting a sign up at the entrance to our vineyard – until now, visitors had to hunt to find us).  We also do lunches for visitors on our terraza overlooking the Casablanca Valley, and for larger groups we cater candlelit dinners in our barrel room.  In the first 6 months of this year, we had visitors from 21 countries, the majority coming from the United States, followed by Germany, UK, Chile and Brazil.

At Kingston, we have a fee for our tasting and tours that allows us to provide a personalized 90-minute tour and tasting for each visitor, and we open fresh bottles for each visit.  And for many visitors, we rebate their fee if they purchase wines during their visit, or if they join our Old Corral Club.  And frankly as a boutique winery, providing a free or low-cost tour & tasting largely attracts people who have a low inclination to buy higher-end wines.  (Incidentally, even the biggest wineries in California typically have tasting fees of US$15 to US$40 these days.)

WBB: Is there anything I’ve overlooked that you would like to add? 

CK: Here are a couple of suggested topics, based on what many visitors ask us….

1) What changes in wine and tourism has Kingston Family Vineyards seen in the past decade in Chile?

The greatest two changes for us have been the growing awareness globally about the availability of very high quality wines from Chile – we’re no longer known simply for high-volume ‘value’ wines – and the growth in overseas travelers for whom coming to Casablanca wineries is a key part of their Chile travel plans.  We think these are great signs for Chile in general, and artisan wineries in particular.

2) What is the role of social media today for a winery in Chile?

Social media has become increasingly key for us in connecting with wine lovers and friends of Kingston Family.  Before, we could really only communicate with our friends and followers a couple times per year via email, but with social media we can provide more-frequent but less-intrusive updates to them, as well as receive feedback and answer questions that people have.  To date, most of that interaction has taken place via Twitter (@kingstonwine), but also a lot of our guests post photos of their visits on Facebook and Instagram. 

With that said, the majority of high-end wine buyers today are in their 40s or older, whereas the most active social media users are younger than that, so we expect to see the importance of social media continue to increase in coming years. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Torture Tours, Part Five: The Letter

In my last post, I wrote about the appearance of Estela de Carlotto’s grandson in my wife’s hometown of Olavarría, which is probably getting more press attention than any time in living memory. The topic has also come up in my household again because my cousin Elisa Rodríguez, who works as a freelance guide in El Calafate, wants to present the topic to her English-speaking clients.
Elisa, who speaks English well but can be a little timid in doing so, asked me to translate an open letter Carlotto addressed to her newly recovered grandson on his 18th birthday in 1996. The Carlottos lived in the Buenos Aires provincial capital of La Plata (pictured above), one of Argentina's major educational centers.
I’m not a professional translator and, though I handle both Spanish and English well, I am more comfortable translating into my native English. In any event, here is the letter:
“Today is your 18th birthday, and I wish to tell you some things and express some sentiments you may not know. Your grandparents belonged to a generation that lent a unique and special value to every event in our lives. The birth of a grandchild was one of those events: baptism (or not), the first baby steps, first communion (or not), the first baby tooth, kindergarten, the white school uniform, and the request “Grandma, teach me the multiplication tables.” These are transcendent moments.
But on your 18th birthday, this goes beyond unique and special like all those others that we have been unable to spend together. That’s because they took you from the arms of your mother Laura just hours after your birth in a military hospital, where she was handcuffed in custody, in order to steal you away, cunningly and furtively, to an uncertain future.
At the beautiful and idealistic age of 18, Guido, you are growing up with another name. It’s not your father and mother, but rather your kidnappers, who are celebrating your coming adulthood. What they don’t understand is that, without knowing it, in your heart and mind you carry all the lullabies and songs that Laura whispered to you in the solitude of her captivity, as you shifted in her womb. And you will awake one day knowing how much she loved you and we all love you.
And one day you will ask, “Where can I find them?” And you will seek similarities in your mother’s face and you will discover that you like opera, classical music or jazz (how old-fashioned!) just as your grandparents do.  You will listen to Sui Generis or Almendra or Pappo, feeling them as deeply in yourself as Laura did. One day you will awake, dear grandson, from this nightmare and be born again to liberate yourself.
I am looking for you. I am waiting. With all my love.
Your grandmother,

Estela”

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Uproar in Olavarría?

My wife’s hometown of Olavarría (pictured below), in the middle of the Pampas of Buenos Aires Province, is historically a cow-town that’s also prospered thanks to a cement plant that exploited some of Argentina’s largest quarries. In recent days, though, it’s drawn international attention because a young man, raised by a couple in the countryside, turned out to be the grandson of the high-profile president of the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo), formed to rescue the children of their own disappeared children from Argentina’s 1976-83 Dirty War.
Earlier this year, on learning that he was "adopted," Ignacio Hurban took a DNA test that determined he  was Estela de Carlotto’s grandson Guido Montoya Carlotto. I won’t go into the usual details of the story, which has been covered extensively in English as well as Spanish, but I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective that I’ve gleaned in conversations with my wife, from a local’s viewpoint. This is a sensitive topic in her family because her brother’s first wife disappeared barely a month after their son’s birth, and I will decline to include any names that are not already widely known (though I will add that my nephew, despite losing his mother shortly after his birth, has grown up to be a remarkably well-adjusted young man).
Many children of the disappeared ended up in military families – to be raised by their parents’ assassins – as depicted in the Oscar-winning film The Official Story (ceremony above, emceed by the late Robin Williams, who mispronounces the surname of Argentine actress Norma Aleandro). Ignacio Hurban’s adoptive parents, though, were a modest couple who worked on a well-known landowner’s cattle ranch. That’s raised questions as to whether the landowner himself was in league with the military murderers, and the potential culpability of the local physician who signed off on a falsified birth certificate.

In related news, in September Olavarría will be the site of the trial of four military men accused of kidnapping and torturing political activists at nearby Monte Peloni, one of the dictatorship's documented detention centers. The landowner, who died a few months ago, had connections to those four.
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