Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Malbec World Day

Today, April 17th, is officially Malbec World Day, marking the date in 1853 when President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento established the foundation for Argentina’s wine industry by designating a French agricultural expert to import new vines from Europe. Among the varietals imported was Malbec which, a decade later, nearly disappeared in France after a Phylloxera aphid outbreak.
Argentina's 19th-century president, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, gets the ultimate credit for  Malbec World Day.
In Phylloxera-free Argentina, though, Malbec has flourished. Since the 1990s, it’s become an icon of the industry, but it's also present in California, Chile, and some other parts of the world. While it’s still relatively rare in Europe, last year we managed to find it in Bruges (cinematic reference too tempting), and couldn’t resist sampling it.
Last year, in Bruges, we found this French Malbec on a restaurant wine list.
Malbec’s always on hand in our household, but this World Malbec Day has a poignant aspect. On March 8th, as I was traveling in Chile, our beloved Alaskan malamute Malbec—nearly 15 years old—had to be euthanized.
This is our first World Malbec Day without this 2004 vintage.
Having returned home, I still expect to see him in one or another of his customary resting places when I get out of bed in the morning, and as I walk around the house during the day. On this Malbec World Day, we’ll raise a glass to him this evening, and encourage all his admirers to do so. He left a lasting imprint (pawprint) here.
Before Malbec died, the attending vet made us a pawprint.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Chile's Highway Hazards

I consider myself a prudent driver and somehow, in Argentina, I’ve managed to avoid any road accidents—an impressive record given the recklessness of so many Argentine motorists, a topic on which I’ve written at some length.
My long-ago confrontation with Buses Don Carlos on the Carretera Austral. At that time, the narrow road had steep edges, so almost everyone drove down the middle.
I’ve been less fortunate in Chile, though I generally consider it a safer place to drive. Once, on the Carretera Austral, I had a blind-curve bus confrontation that effectively demolished my own car and left me with broken ribs. A few years later, on the same route, I rolled a rented SUV when a tire blew on rough gravel (at that time, in 2001, almost the entire route was rough gravel), but I managed to avoid injury.
Not the SUV that I rolled.
Nothing quite so serious has happened since, though I later lost another car when I loaned it to a Santiago friend and an uninsured driver blasted through a stop sign, forcing her into a sidewalk telephone pole. She, fortunately, was uninjured and my own insurance company reimbursed me for the damage. That enabled me to buy my current vehicle, a Suzuki Grand Nomade with far lower mileage, so in that sense I actually came out ahead.
My current car on the southern segment of the Carretera Austral, almost none of which is yet paved.
On my current trip, there’s been nothing to match those occurrences, but other issues have manifested themselves. For one, Chile’s prosperity has meant a burgeoning fleet of modern automobiles—most notably SUVs—apparently owned by people with a great sense of self-entitlement (Yes, my own car’s an SUV, but I like to think I’m more considerate and I have pragmatic reasons for owning it). Many appear to be people from urban areas—probably Santiago—who think they can drive as fast on gravel as they can on a freeway.

That’s significant because a couple weeks, as I drove at a reasonable speed on a remaining gravel stretch of the Carretera Austral, south of Villa Cerro Castillo, one of these jerks passed me at high speed and threw a rock that hit my windshield. At first, the sound seemed worse than the actual damage but, in the following days, a crack appeared that’s now progressed almost all the way across the dash.
The windshield's due for replacement on Monday.
It doesn’t really affect my driving, because the crack does not obstruct my view of the road. When, however, the car next receives its annual revision técnica inspection, it would not pass and, therefore, I’ll now have to replace the windshield in Santiago. This will cost money and time that I’d prefer to devote to other parts of my trip, which ends on April 14th.

Another lesser issue was more easily but oddly solved. One of my tires was clearly losing air and, before leaving Puerto Varas for a nine-hour freeway drive to Talca, we pumped up the pressure (Anecdotally, it’s interesting that, even in these metric countries, the default option for measuring tire pressure is pounds per square inch). I thought a nail or broken glass would be the culprit but, on Thursday, the local Firestone store found no such thing—instead, apparently, air was leaking from a loose seal on the tire. It’s not a big deal like the windshield—remounting the tire cost only about US$5—but it’s a reminder that bad roads (like much of the Carretera Austral) can cause unanticipated problems.

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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Parque Nacional Patagonia, an Update

The former Parque Patagonia is now, officially, "Parque Nacional Patagonia."
Just over two years ago, when I had last visited Parque Patagonia—now officially Parque Nacional Patagonia—the park’s new Centro de Visitantes (Visitor Center) was work-in-progress. Two weeks ago, when I revisited, the center had opened and I finally had a chance to appraise it.
Under construction two years ago, the visitor center is now open to the public.
To start, the center displays all the sophistication and attention to detail that’s typical of all the Tompkins Conservation projects in Argentina and Chile, with no expense spared. Indeed, it would be hard to think of a comparable project, in such a remote area, anywhere in the world. Clearly, both craftsmanship and technological sophistication have gone into the finished product.
The old woolshed at Valle Chacabuco, before it became part of a national park.
When I first heard of the project, I thought the foundation should preserve at least one of the original metal-clad buildings as an in situ museum that would represent the sheep-farming tradition here, but those buildings are gone now. What’s replaced them is a cluster of contemporary buildings with certain rustic style elements, including carved stone façades and wooden details—some of which mimic earlier structures in the region.

Central diorama of the Parque Nacional Patagonia landscape
Overpopulation is the central theme of "The Predicament."
The Centro, which is bilingual in Spanish and English, consists of four exhibit halls surrounding a central diorama that offers an aerial view the park’s jagged landscape. The first focuses on population and, in my opinion, oversimplifies that issue—"The Predicament”—as  the overwhelming instigator of environmental degradation. The displays themselves, though, depict a persuasively vivid correlation between rising population and the decline of wild species.
The "Nature" hall explains the park's ecosystems and their characteristic species.
The "Culture" hall chronicles the region's evolving human occupation.
The second hall categorizes the region’s natural environments—steppes, forests, mountains and wetlands—and fauna, with life-size models of iconic wildlife including guanacos (plenty of living specimens on the lawns outside), pumas, huemuls (Andean deer) and rheas. The third, entitled “Culture,” traces the human impact from pre-Columbian times to the arrival of European settlers (with an intriguing hologram presentation of the pioneer Lucas Bridges, in English with Spanish subtitles) and the gaucho heritage.
Pioneer sheep farmer Lucas Bridges appears in hologram form.
The fourth and last exhibition, entitled “Why Parque Nacional Patagonia?,” is an exhortation to activism, with a plethora of protest signs and a compact surround-sound theater with a short film on “Facing the Abyss.” In terms of the museum’s ethos, that’s pretty self-explanatory, but it’s also something that’s going to change.
Pessimism appear to be the default option.
The suggested response to that pessimism is activism.
That’s because, at the end of April, the park’s ownership will devolve from Tompkins Conservation to the Chilean state, under the Corporación Nacional Forestal (Conaf), which administers Chile’s national parks. According to a career Conaf official with whom I spoke recently, such overt official activism is unlikely.
Private concessionaires will take over the Lodge at Valle Chacabuco and other services.
On a broader scale, Conaf may lack sufficient resources to maintain such a complex of facilities—the center and museum itself, the Lodge at Valle Chacabuco, the Rincón Gaucho restaurant and bar, and the Puma Verde handicraft shop, along with support facilities, at least in the manner the Tompkins group would. Next month will begin a period of transition in which concessionaires should take charge of those, and I hear that foreign bidders may be in the running. This is also true of Parque Nacional Pumalín Douglas Tompkins, the Tompkins’s first project in Patagonia, though its installations are not quite so elaborate.

As part of Chile’s ambitious Ruta de los Parques, it will all be worth watching.

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Sunday, March 10, 2019

Another Ferry Tale, from Hornopirén

Many times I’ve driven Chile’s Carretera Austral, but it’s been some time since I began at its official starting point in the city of Puerto Montt. On Tuesday, though, I chose to take the shortest leg of roughly 100 kilometers to the port of Hornopirén, where I would catch the Wednesday ferry to Caleta Gonzalo—or so I thought, as I’ll explain below.
The port of Hornopirén
Leaving Puerto Montt, it’s a smoothly paved two-lane road until Caleta La Arena, where the steep headlands still necessitate a ferry crossing to Caleta Puelche, where the road continues to Hornopirén. At the moment, though, this latter segment is one big construction project, with slow single-lane traffic, until within about 20 km of the town.

Once in town, I found a room at a funky hotel which, however, was reasonably comfortable and had better WiFi than I’d had in purportedly posh Puerto Varas the previous couple days. I’d purchased my Caleta Gonzalo ferry tickets online, but had to report to the local Somarco office to get them printed out.

There’s not a lot to do in Hornopirén other than wait for the ferry, but I found the pleasantly surprising Cafetería Rincón Piedra Lobo down the block for an ave palta (chicken breast and avocado sandwich) on homemade bread, plus a calafate sour for a nightcap. Later at night, though, it started pouring rain and, the next morning, I learned our departure was tentatively moved from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Even if that change had happened, it would’ve been inconvenient because the Ruta Bimodal itinerary I’d booked is a ferry shuttle, with two separate crossings linked by ten-km gravel road. This would have meant a very late arrival at my planned destination of Chaitén where, I learned, the storm had left the town without electricity. There were also rumors of trees fallen onto the gravel road from Caleta Gonzalo through Parque Nacional Pumalín Douglas Tompkins.
Hospitable Hotel Hornopirén is about as good as basic gets.
That meant another night in Hornopirén, where I moved to the gracious (and slightly cheaper) Hotel Hornopirén, where my room was smaller but far cozier. During the night, though, heavy rains still pounded the sheet metal roof (typical of this area), and I worried there might be another postponement.
Boarding the Capitán Andrade at Hornopirén
At first light, the clouds still hung low over the mountains, but the movement of ships in the harbor showed that the navy had lifted the port closure. And, as it happened, the Capitán Andrade—a spacious ferry with comfortable seating for passengers and small cafeteria with empanadas, sandwiches and kuchen—sailed on time up the lengthy Fiordo Comau. From the ramp at the hamlet of Leptepu, all the vehicles (and bus passengers) rode the 10 kilometers to Fiordo Largo, where we boarded the Andrade’s twin ferry Hornopirén for a shuttle to Caleta Gonzalo.
A view along the Fiordo Comau
I wasn’t sure what to expect here, especially since I’d received a friend’s alarming Twitter message about floods, the park’s evacuation, and conditions in Chaitén, but those turned out to be mistaken. But for a few potholes, the road was fine and, when I got to Chaitén, all was back to normal (though a crew was restoring some power lines). After a brief stop to purchase a ferry ticket to Chiloé on the 19th, I was on my way to La Junta’s Hotel Espacio y Tiempo for a restful evening.
My modest quarters at Hotel Espacio y Tiempo
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Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Haitian Connection?

In 1978, when I first visited Chile, the default choice for coffee junkies was semi-soluble Nescafé, and that’s still common here. It didn’t bother me personally, because I don’t drink coffee—how can something that smells so wonderful taste so awful?—but my fellow travelers often searched desperately for espresso or even a freshly brewed cup from grounds.
Café Haití was Santiago's original café con piernas, but more drinkable than Nescafé.
At that time, just about the only place to do so was Santiago’s Café Haití, a chain of standup coffee bars that was notorious for its café con piernas ("coffee with legs"), served by attractive young women in micro-skirts and other form-fitting clothing. The clientele was overwhelming male (and machista) but, on occasion, female clients couldn’t resist what appeared to be the best available caffeine fix. My own wife, given her Italo-Argentine background, reluctantly became one of them.
Taken last year, this screenshot summarizes the size of Chile's immigrant communities.
Why the chain’s founder chose that specific name is unclear—the source of his coffee seems likeliest to have been Brazil or Colombia—but in recent years Chile has become the country of choice for emigrants from the impoverished Caribbean country, and Haitians are a visible presence in the capital and elsewhere. For what it’s worth, Chile was the second country in the Americas to abolish slavery, after Haiti itself.
Caleta Camarones is an historically Afro-Chilean community.
Even though I have a background in colonial Latin American history, I’d never seen much evidence of the Afro-Chilean heritage. The only precise location I can identify is the coastal village of Caleta Camarones, midway between the Atacama desert cities of Arica and Iquique, whose four-time mayor Sonia Salgado once stated that “Our ancestors arrived here together with the conquerors.”
My Haitian immigrant waiter at Ostras Azócar
The Haitian presence is something different, though, and it’s increasing. The first Haitian I ever encountered personally was a waiter at the classic seafood restaurant Ostras Azócar, who told me more than a decade ago that he learned his fluent Spanish through listening to radio broadcasts from the neighboring Dominican Republic. He now has a family here.

I see many Haitians in the Renca neighborhood where I’m staying at present and, at best I can tell, most of them are speaking Haitian Creole (I certainly don’t recognize it as standard French, of which my knowledge is admittedly limited). At a downtown Santiago gas station, I recently had a conversational exchange with a Haitian janitor whose Spanish was likewise limited but was clearly making an effort to communicate.
Haitian options are becoming part of Santiago's fast-food scene.
Most Haitians appear to occupy menial jobs, but there are some indications of entrepreneurship as well. Not far from my Renca accommodations, there’s a sandwich shop that offers Haitian dishes alongside the standard completos (hot dogs) and churrascos (grilled beef). That suggests, at least, a hopeful foothold in the dominant Chilean culture, though there’s certainly been some anti-immigrant sentiment here. I’ve not yet sampled the food there, and it’s unlikely ever to match the impact Peruvian cuisine has had.

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Friday, February 15, 2019

Summer in the City? Not Quite Yet

Spring training has only just begun, but this morning I expected to be in the summer heat of Santiago, where it’s presently 88° F (31° C), but it was not to be. At 7:30 a.m. yesterday, I took a ride share (which shall remain anonymous) on my wife’s account, and arrived at San Francisco International Airport shortly after 8 a.m. for an Alaska Airlines flight that would connect to Los Angeles for a non-stop to Chile.
Santiago can (must) wait for my arrival.
Or so I thought. The night before, Alaska had denied me an online check-in because of the international code-share flight, and I spent an hour waiting in line only to learn that all flights to LAX had been canceled because of heavy rain (in both cities). In fairness, the clerk at the Alaska counter made every effort to find me an alternative flight, including a COPA route that would have left at 12:30 a.m. this morning and, after changing planes in Panamá, would have arrived in the Chilean capital at 8 p.m. this evening.

I have no complaint about Alaska’s service and suggestion, but it didn’t appeal to me—partly because it would have messed with my already fragile biological clock. Still, if like many travelers these days I had purchased my tickets online, I might have faced a daunting process of trying to contact LATAM (my carrier on the flight from LAX to SCL) and revise my plans for another day.

For this flight, though, I had trusted my itinerary to Analía Rupar-Przebieda of Eureka Travel in Southern California. She had already saved me the time-consuming process of searching for and purchasing the international flight, and had gotten me on the non-stop from Los Angeles instead of the route that stops in Lima, with a possible layover to change planes, and had also gotten me the best possible price.

Instead of re-doing it all myself, I managed to phone Analía, an Argentine whom I had met at one of my book talks at the late lamented Distant Lands in Pasadena. Then, within about five minutes, she phoned me back with the same itinerary rescheduled for Sunday, saving me time and, probably, aggravation. Then I was able to return home and rest rather than navigate an automated phone system to change my dates.

Unfortunately, that does mean I’ll have lost three days off a scheduled two-month trip. And it’ll delay my departure for the south because I also have some vehicle paperwork to do in Santiago, but I can live with it.

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Monday, February 11, 2019

Justice Delayed for Víctor Jara (A Film Review)

This Thursday I fly from California to Chile, changing winter—last week we even had snow on our backyard deck in Oakland—for summer. It’s been hot in Santiago and, when I arrive on Friday, the predicted high is 91° F (33° C).
The year after I took this photograph, in 2015 in Santiago's Barrio Brasil, the cultural center known as the Galpón Víctor Jara closed because of a dispute with the landlord.
Not precisely in preparation, I just viewed director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt’s “Massacre in the Stadium,” a documentary about the murder of Chile’s legendary folksinger Víctor Jara in the aftermath of the 1973 military coup that overthrew constitutional president Salvador Allende. It is presently streaming on Netflix.

A bit longer than an hour, Perlmutt’s film begins with Jara’s personal background and stock footage of the coup led by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, whose troops herded thousands of political prisoners in Ñuñoa’s Estadio Chile (an enclosed facility that that now bears Jara’s name; it is not the adjacent gigantic soccer stadium).

The film continues with interviews, including one with former Army Lieutenant Pedro Barrientos—Jara’s presumptive killer—but a supposed eyewitness later recants his testimony. Nevertheless, supported by subsequent testimony from several conscripts who were present in the stadium, Jara’s widow Joan (a British national) and the Center for Justice and Accountability persist with a civil suit in Florida against Barrientos (who is now a US citizen through marriage).

Barrientos submits to a lie detector test–his own condition for being interviewed–but there’s an unspoken implication that he has been coached to make the test unreliable. Nevertheless, Joan Jara and her daughters won a US$28 million judgment in compensatory and punitive damages.

Meanwhile, eight Chilean officers have since been imprisoned for Jara’s murder, but the film does not mention that Chilean prosecutors have indicted Barrientos (or not), nor does it suggest he could be extradited. However, a mid-2018 article in The Guardian, cited at the previous link, says that US is considering extradition.

In my opinion, one of the film’s strengths is that it avoids name-calling and political polemic to present the evidence, even though Perlmutt may subtly suggest that Barrientos has sidestepped the polygraph judgment. For anyone interested in Chile and this controversial period, it’s well worth seeing.

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Saturday, February 2, 2019

Carnaval sem Cachaça?

I visit Brazil only infrequently these days but, when I've done so it’s usually the border town of Foz do Iguaçu because it’s been part of my beat when writing guidebooks about Argentina. After foreigners see the Argentine side of the famous falls, they almost always cross the Tancredo Neves bridge to see them from the Brazilian side.
The Brazilian side of the Cataratas do Iguaçu (Iguazú Falls)
I once took an intensive summer course in Portuguese—the equivalent of a full year at university level—but it’s only my fourth-best language after English, Spanish and German. Brazilians have been remarkably patient when I lapse into Spanish cognates, though I don’t always understand their responses.
In Buenos Aires, Carnaval is a decentralized neighborhood phenomenon.
Montevideo's Museo del Carnaval depicts the origins of Uruguay's tradition.
I’ve traveled a bit in northern Brazil—Porto VelhoManausSalvador (Bahia) and Belém—but know the megacities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro only through their airports. That means I’ve missed the signature event of Brazilian Carnaval, though I’ve seen its counterpart in Argentina (where it’s experienced a neighborhood-oriented revival) and Uruguay (where it’s seriously under-appreciated by foreigners).
Moqueca de peixe is a flavorful fish dish.
I enjoy Brazilian food—particularly moqueca de peixe—and really appreciate the refreshing cachaça-based cocktail known as the caipirinha, made of cane liquor, lime and sugar. Brazilians themselves, though, probably consume far larger amounts of beer, especially during Carnaval.
Care for a caipirinha, Mr Mayor?
That is, unless Rio mayor Marcelo Crivella has his way. Somehow, Brazil’s liveliest party town elected this evangelical bishop to its highest office in 2017, and he has just asked that cariocas (Rio residents) refrain from drinking alcohol during Carnaval celebrations. He also embraces creationism, and objects to homosexuality and abortion rights.

If Mayor Crivella truly trusts in what he preaches, though, perhaps he could just pray that his constituents refrain from drinking during the festivities. Then again, his for-profit Universal Church of the Kingdom of God may well take a cut from alcohol sales.

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