Thursday, July 17, 2014

Live from Montreal! South America Talk Radio

Tomorrow July 18th, at 10:30 a.m. EDT, I will appear on CJAD's Tommy Schnurmacher show out of Montreal. The general topic will be southernmost South America, to include Argentina, Chile (including Easter Island), Buenos Aires and Patagonia. The program will be streamed live at www.cjad.com, and will later be available as a podcast.

In Argentina, the broadcast/streaming hour will be 11:30 a.m.; in Chile, 10:30 a.m. except on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), where it will be 8:30 a.m.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Antarctica with Foresight (and Fram)

Recently, I wrote about my experiences in the Antarctic and the sub-Arctic, calculating the latitudinal extremes I had traveled in my lifetime – probably putting me in the one percent in a sense, but not nearly so great as Norway’s Roald Amundsen (pictured above), the daring leader of the first party to reach the South Pole, in 1911. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ll never get so far as Amundsen’s Fram (pictured below in an Antarctic diorama), the wooden ship which probably reached farther north (85°57') and farther south (78°41') than any other vessel of its kind. Ironically, Fram (“Forward” in Norwegian, pictured below in a museum diorama) was built of tropical hardwoods from South America.
Nearly three decades ago, during a year in the Falkland Islands on a Fulbright-Hays grant, I spent much of the winter with documents from the local government archives, to which I had unparalleled access – honorary archivist Sydney Miller would just loan me the key, and I could peruse volumes of official correspondence at home at my leisure. Just about anywhere else in the world, that would be considered highly irregular, and access today is not nearly so liberal.

That wasn’t my only reading material on long winter nights, though – the Islands’ capital of Stanley also had a small but admirable public library that provided plenty of background material and a specialist collection of books on local and regional history, including Antarctica. There I borrowed Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth, a comparative account of Antarctic polar expeditions by Amundsen and the famous Englishman Robert Falcon Scott. Huntford's was the first book to really arouse my interest in the white continent.

Before reading Huntford, I barely knew Amundsen’s name, even though he reached the South Pole before Scott and, unlike Scott, Amundsen made it back alive. Huntford brilliantly contrasted Amundsen’s meticulous preparation and detailed planning with Scott’s reckless improvisation. This was a controversial book that enraged Scott’s admirers in England, who considered him a tragic hero, while Huntford painted him as a disorganized romantic fortunate to reach the Pole - let alone expect to get his crew back safely.

Amundsen, in contrast to Scott, served a long Arctic apprenticeship under his countryman Fridtjof Nansen, and also spent winters living with the Canadian Inuit before tackling the Northwest Passage (n.b.: the “London” cited in the next to last link is in Ontario, Canada, rather than England). Amundsen was a skilled cross-country skier, traversing Antarctica more easily and rapidly than Scott’s inefficient man-hauling, and also made ample use of dogs. Nansen and Amundsen considered man-hauling “futile toil” that burned valuable calories and probably contributed to Scott’s failure.

An aside: on his way south Amundsen, who had disguised his departure for the south because he did not want to alert other explorers, nearly ran out of money in Buenos Aires: “The Fram Expedition was apparently not very popular at that time, and our cash balance amounted to about forty pesos (£3 10s)…” With help from Norwegian immigrant and diplomat Pedro Christophersen, he managed to arrange delivery of fuel and other supplies – perhaps suggesting that Amundsen was not quite so well-organized as Huntford insists.
On my recent trip to Scandinavia, I had the pleasure to visit Oslo’s Frammuseet (website in English), which preserves the vessel built for Nansen’s Arctic expedition of 1983-96 and used for Amundsen’s Antarctic effort (1910-1912, when they wintered aboard). Now enclosed in a protective building, at the peninsula of Bygdøy, Fram actually allows visitors to board and explore her – not comparable to reaching the South Pole, obviously, but enough to help imagine what it might have been like to spend an Antarctic winter aboard.
That said, Fram was more spacious than I expected, as the photograph of the kitchen below might suggest. Still, spending an entire winter in close quarters with 18 other men in Antarctica’s total darkness must have been a challenge.
It’s worth adding that the Frammuseet is not merely an expression of Norwegian hero-worship. It also offers a simply eloquent approach toward today’s global warming crisis as shown by the decline of polar pack ice: “When such bright surfaces change to water, soil or vegetation there is a strong feed-back, as these absorb much more solar radiation than snow and ice. Thus the land and the sea heat up.”


The museum website also shows a cautionary statement from Amundsen, perhaps directed at Scott: "Victory awaits him, who has everything in order - luck we call it. Defeat is definitely due for him, who has neglected to take the necessary precautions - bad luck we call it." That might also serve as a warning in the current climate crisis.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Beyond Cold Storage? Preserving Bories

Long before the town of Puerto Natales became a ferry terminal for Chile’s northern fjords and the gateway to Torres del Paine, tiny Puerto Bories was one of Chilean Patagonia’s economic powerhouses. A century ago, when Paine’s granite needles symbolized little more than the presence of pasture to graze sheep, the frigorífico (meat freezer) at Bories became the processing point for wool and lamb exports that helped provide prosperity for southernmost Argentina and Chile.
Built by the Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia’s most powerful 20th-century institution, Bories was a post-Victorian industrial architecture landmark that became a national historical monument a few years after it closed operations in 1993. After weathering in the wind and rain for another decade-plus, it’s now reopened as part of The Singular Patagonia, a luxury hotel that’s preserved the original installations as a museum open to the public.
Approached through the former woolshed, which now serves as a parking garage, The Singular has recycled parts of the historic structure into a spacious bar and restaurant while preserving the boiler room, engine room and even a steam locomotive in their original configuration – even though they’re no longer operative. Hotel guests, in fact, pass through those rooms en route to their sleeping quarters.
The hotel proper makes use of the existing framework to create a luminous structure whose spacious rooms offer panoramic views of the wharf on Seno Última Esperanza (Last Hope Sound), where vessels from the estancias dropped off the sheep and others picked up the wool and lamb that the plant produced.

Given limited time, I was unable to either stay or eat at The Singular, but the facilities certainly aroused my interest. Nature and its landscapes may be the main reason for taking a Patagonia vacation, but detours to historic sites like Puerto Bories definitely enrich the experience.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Jodorowsky's Tocopilla: Surrealism in the Atacama

To an outsider’s eyes, Chile’s northerly Atacama desert looks surreal so, on one level, it seems almost logical that the country’s most notorious surrealist – filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky – would come from that region. In fact, Jodorowsky hails from the mining port of Tocopilla (pictured above, where I have spent a few nights over the years), and most of his recent autobiographical film The Dance of Reality, which I saw last Saturday night, takes place there.
As Jodorowsky portrays Tocopilla, it didn’t look much different during his 1930s boyhood than it does today, with houses of Douglas fir on streets that hug the contours of the hills or descend steeply to the port. It wasn’t a romantic boyhood, though, with a politically obsessive and abusive father, and a mother who rejected her son. The ending implies he’s come to terms with that, but throughout the film he provides a wildly visual narrative of a sensitive and non-conformist youth in a conservative society (which he abandoned for Paris as a young adult). It’s worth mentioning that certain scenes are not for the squeamish.
Still, his portrait of Tocopilla rings true in many ways – in its portrayal of mine workers, the slums they live in, and especially the fire department (in Chile, all city fire departments are important social institutions that consist exclusively of volunteers). I was a little disappointed, though, by two of Jodorowsky's omissions: both the Tocopilla Golf Club, a short distance south of town, and the Tocopilla baseball field - this is true sandlot ball - qualify as surrealistic by my standards (the US presence in the mining industry began baseball here, and the community team has often been national champion in what, admittedly, is a niche sport).

Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly recommend the film; the trailer at top, narrated by Jodorowsky himself in English, provides a good introduction. Someday soon I’ll have to watch his psychedelic masterpiece El Topo, a fixture at midnight movies for decades after its 1970 release.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Default Blue(s)? An Exchange Rate Update

Preparing a new edition of any guidebook involves challenges, and one of them is to present exchange rates and prices accurately. My upcoming fourth edition of Patagonia covers three countries, but Argentina is the most challenging to predict because of its volatile politics and economy. During the research period, its peso fell from six to eight-plus per US dollar, but that’s not nearly the whole story.
Argentina’s made front-page news recently, after having failed to persuade the US Supreme Court that its plans to pay debt from its 2001 bond default and 2005 restructuring conformed to the New York State laws under which much of that debt was contracted. As of mid-2014, it was still unclear whether the country was again facing default that might result in another peso collapse.

Given its foreign debt problems, due partly to limited foreign currency reserves, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government instituted a series of patchwork measures to stem the flow of dollars, which Argentines often use to preserve their savings in the face of inflation and a depreciating peso. One of these was the cepo cambiario (“currency clamp”), which has made it difficult or impossible to purchase foreign currency – even for overseas travel, where Argentines must use credit cards with purchases subject to a punitive tax.

That’s led to an active black market for the so-called “blue dollar,” which has traded for upwards of 12 pesos despite some fluctuations. At that rate, Argentina is a relatively inexpensive country for foreign visitors, but for those who don’t know their way around, there’s a certain risk in changing at so-called cuevas (“caves”) in Buenos Aires and elsewhere. Some cambios (formal exchange houses) have been paying the blue rate, but real estate brokers may be another option. A few businesses, most notably some hotels and restaurants, may accept cash dollars at a premium rate.

Of course, using the “parallel” market also entails the risk of carrying substantial amounts of US cash (Euros and other currencies are not popular). Some purchasers will only accept 50- and 100-dollar notes at the blue rate. For current Buenos Aires rates, check the website Dólar Blue or see the widget on the column to the right; rates are usually lower in the provinces. Prices for the new edition were calculated at the official rate, but are vulnerable to dramatic changes.


During the research period, Chilean exchange rates versus the dollar slipped from roughly 520 pesos per dollar to the 550 range, and have fluctuated only slightly. There is no black market and, barring unforeseen circumstances, both exchange rates and prices should remain relatively stable. The Falkland Islands pound, at par with British Sterling, is likely to remain the most stable of the bunch.
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