Tuesday, April 29, 2008

How much does that book cost?

Last Thursday, April 24, was the first day of the 34th Feria del Libro, Buenos Aires's wildly popular annual book fair, where hundreds of publishers promote thousands of new books and hundreds of thousands of Porteños browse the offerings over two weeks. Occupying more than 45,000 square meters of display space in the Palermo fairgrounds, it's one of the city's signature events, with personal appearances by authors from throughout the Spanish-speaking world and beyond. The biggest English-speaking names this year are novelist/journalist Tom Wolfe and social critic Naomi Klein, who has also made a documentary film about grassroots responses to Argentina's economic and political meltdown of 2002. The fair will continue until May 12 (the photo above is from last year's event).

In marginally related news, the governor of Salta province has demanded that the publisher responsible for a school atlas that shows the Falkland Islands (Malvinas to Argentines) under British control reprint the 30,000 books rather than cover the offending map with an adhesive overlay. If, as was reported earlier, the total cost of the books was US$2.3 million, this means that the provincial school system paid about US$77 per copy. The provincial education minister lost her job over the atlas scandal but, if those statistics are correct, she deserved it even more if she, or someone else in her department, really laid out that kind of money for such a small run of a fifth-grade text.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Mapping Gaffes

In 1997, the Argentine province of Chubut published a tourist brochure that, because of a cartographic error, showed the town of Los Antiguos, in neighboring Santa Cruz province, as part of Chile (Los Antiguos is only a few kilometers from the border). Responding to protests from the Santa Cruz legislature, Chubut recalled tens of thousands of maps at a cost of roughly US$100,000.

Something similar happened last week when the northern province of Salta distributed a fifth-grade atlas that shows the British-governed Falkland Islands, which Argentina claims as the Malvinas, under their English language nomenclature. According to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, the publisher in question - whose editorial director is a former university rector in Salta - defended the book, saying the entire map of the South American continent (see the pertinent section in the illustration above) appears in English. They could, he suggested, add an addendum to show students that this is "how the Anglo-Saxon world sees us."

Apparently, however, the book was never approved by the Instituto Geográfico Militar, the government agency that zealously defends Argentina's borders from dangers such as guidebooks that might make similar "mistakes" - no matter the language in which they appear. Not unique to Argentina, this is a legacy of the era when the military were responsible for mapping the borders of the newly independent South American countries, and many disputes have lingered into the recent past. In 1978, for instance, Argentina and Chile nearly went to war over three small islands in the Beagle Channel of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago.

Placing explanatory stickers on the offending map would be the simplest solution. If that's not acceptable, the cash-starved province may have to dump US$2.3 million worth of atlases into the recycling bin.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Island Hopping in the South Atlantic

In the mid-1980s, when I spent a year in the Falkland Islands, there were almost no tourists and very few roads of any sort. Even on the two big islands, East and West Falkland, the main means of transportation was the ten-seater Norman-Britten Islander, pictured here landing on a dirt airstrip at Saunders Island. Today, though both main islands have pretty good roads, the Islander remains essential for reaching outlying islands that contain some of the South Atlantic's best wildlife sites.

Over the past several years, the Islands have become popular for their concentrations of penguins, albatrosses, cormorants, elephant seals, sea lions, fur seals, and other fauna. Most visitors arrive by cruise ships - when I was in Stanley last December 7, several ships with more than 4,000 passengers (more than double Stanley's population) were anchored in the outer harbor of Port William (they're too big to enter Stanley's sheltered inner harbor). Many of the visitors, though not all, came ashore to be shuttled to wildlife sites such as Bluff Cove, whose large gentoo penguin colony is easy to reach on a day trip before returning to the ship.

Not to disparage Bluff Cove, but the handful of visitors who fly in for a week or two from the Patagonian city of Punta Arenas, Chile, see the islands more throughly and intimately. They have the option of overnighting at wildlife lodges at fauna-rich sites such as Sea Lion Island and Carcass Island, among others, that are accessible primarily by Islander aircraft (smaller cruise ships do visit Carcass, but only briefly). Until recently, though, tourist traffic has not been a high priority for the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS), which exists primarily for the benefit of local residents.

This may soon change. Sean Minto, the new FIGAS general manager, wants to double the number of tourist flights to increase revenues (tourists are not eligible for the subsidized fares that local taxpayers have). If that's the case, more visitors may be enjoying the South Atlantic wildlife, as well as aerial views of the Islands' spectacular shoreline from the Islander. For the time being, though, their numbers will continue to be limited by Argentina's refusal to allow more than a single weekly commercial flight from Punta Arenas, even though LAN Airlines (which needs permission to cross Argentine airspace) would like to increase frequencies. The only other option is an expensive Royal Air Force charter from Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire, via Ascension Island.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Blowing Smoke in Buenos Aires

No, this is not another anti-tobacco screed - rather, smoke has risen to the top of Argentine politics in an unexpected way. For the past week or so, fires in the Paraná delta, set to encourage new pasture growth, have gotten out of control.

Ever since the Pleistocene, of course, humans have used fire to clear brush and rank grasses to encourage game and livestock or prepare land for cultivation. These current fires, though, may have contributed to fatal accidents on the freeway between Buenos Aires and the Paraná river port city of Rosario. They have certainly delayed flights out of Aeroparque, Buenos Aires's domestic airport, and bus departures into and through some of the affected areas. In the stagnant autumn air, the city itself is suffering from settling smoke that has carried elsewhere in Buenos Aires province and also into Entre Ríos and Santa Fe provinces, and even Uruguay.

For weeks now, Argentine farmers and the federal government have been arguing over rising export duties on soybeans; over the past several years, as the government has limited (and occasionally prohibited) beef exports to keep domestic prices low, many farmers have increased their soy acreage at the expense of livestock. This has led to beef shortages and, combined with the new soy duties, farmer-led roadblocks that left urban supermarket shelves nearly empty - some stylish restaurants even had to restrict their menus - and brought rising prices. The fires may represent an effort to improve marginal pasturelands for grazing - however untimely and inadvisable that may be.

The government, meanwhile, has strongly implied that farmers have set fires as a form of political and economic sabotage and has issued search warrants for some properties - even though, as the Buenos Aires Herald points out, much of the public may blame the government for tardiness in responding to the fires. A lack of rain in this normally humid climate has certainly intensified the crisis but, as so often happens in Argentine politics, the default option is a conspiracy theory.

In the interim, air travel in and out of Buenos Aires remains subject to delays. On the ground, because of diminished visibility, police are enforcing slow traffic zones - an overdue measure in a country where reckless driving often seems to be a national sport and enforcement is normally risible.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Not Two Weeks in Philadelphia

While I've been busy with income taxes and contemplating new entries on the fire-induced smog of Buenos Aires and the Lonely Planet guidebook controversy, it's come to my notice that my own publisher (Moon Handbooks) is giving away several copies of the new edition of my Argentina title in a third-party contest.

While I'd like to think that's reason enough to enter the contest, I'm only second prize - the first is a week's accommodation in new boutique hotels in and around Buenos Aires. Full disclosure: I have no connection with the loose alliance of hotels in question, and have visited only San Antonio de Areco's Patio de Moreno (anonymously, and I did not stay there). The contest implies no commercial endorsement on my part, though I thought the San Antonio hotel was nicely done.

For non-native English speakers, an explanation of the headline above: The late actor and comedian W.C. Fields is widely known for disparaging his Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, birthplace. One joke commonly attributed to him is a contest in which first prize is a week in Philadelphia; the second prize, two weeks in Philadelphia. There appears to be no documentation that he ever really said this, however.

Meanwhile, I'll get to the other topics in the next few days.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Sandro to Leave the Building?

It's been more than 30 years since Elvis Presley died in Memphis, but his Argentine counterpart survives in Buenos Aires - barely. According to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, Roberto Sánchez (popularly known as Sandro) is awaiting heart-and-lung transplants at age 63.

In the 1960s, Sandro electrified Argentina's popular music scene in much the same way Elvis did a decade earlier in the United States. In fact, Sandro mimicked Elvis at times and even covered some of his songs--such as a Spanish-language version of "Devil in Disguise"--but he developed his own style to become a rock en español icon. Internationally, he was popular enough to sell out New York's Madison Square Garden in the 1970s, and several Argentine acts, as well as Mexico's Molotov and Colombia's Aterciopelados, paid him tribute in the 1999 recording whose cover appears above. He also appeared in many (largely forgettable) movies.

Suffering from emphysema, Sandro can no longer sing and talks only with difficulty. From his house in the Buenos Aires province suburb of Banfield, surrounded by oxygen tanks, he now counsels young Argentines that "there is no return" from his drug of choice - tobacco - and says he can only wait his turn on the transplant list. Meanwhile, last Friday, the provincial Senate approved a law to restrict smoking in public places - far too late for the pioneer of Argentine rock and his three-packs-a-day habit. Even as New York's Roswell Park Cancer Institute, in a research project conducted for the World Health Organization, recommended a blanket ban on tobacco in all Buenos Aires province restaurants and bars, public health is such a low priority for the Chamber of Deputies that it has no plans to even debate the measure. Coincidentally or not, the provincial capital city of La Plata, where the legislature meets, has almost no tobacco restrictions.

Compare that to New York City's current approach under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Reversal of Fortune

A couple months ago, UCLA economist Sebastián Edwards (a Chilean) recommended that the Chilean government take measures to reverse the peso's strength against the falling dollar. In the interim, though, the dollar continued falling, from nearly 500 to just above 430 pesos. The expensive peso has been threatening Chilean exports other than copper, for which demand and prices continue high; it's particularly affected the incoming travel and tourism sector, which earns dollars but has to pay salaries and other expenses in pesos.

As of Thursday, though, Chile's central bank announced its intention to increase its dollar reserves by purchasing US$8 billion between now and December; with the first purchase of US$50 million on Friday, the dollar rebounded to nearly 450 pesos. Manipulating the exchange rate through currency purchases is a tricky matter - especially for a relatively small economy such as Chile's - but if the trend continues the dollar could recover to Edwards's suggested equilibrium of 535 to 545 pesos. That would be just in time to make the country more affordable for the peak southern summer season.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Flower from Chile

In her novel Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende vividly relates the historical connections between Chile and California - especially between Valparaíso and San Francisco - and the role that Chileans and other immigrants played in the California Gold Rush. One theme she overlooks, though, is the similarities between the natural environment of the two countries - make no mistake, California is a country in almost every sense of the word - and the way in which contacts between them have affected the landscape.

That came to mind yesterday when the San Francisco Chronicle's Wednesday Garden section published an article on the copihue, a climbing vine whose reddish blossom is Chile's national flower. Known here as the Chilean bellflower, it first came to Berkeley's University of California Botanical Garden through Elbert Reed, who worked at the El Vergel nursery near the Chilean city of Angol in the early 20th century. Oddly, the Chronicle article claims that the nursery, which I last visited a couple years ago, is now defunct, but its website runs into late 2007.

It's worth adding that the the movement of flora between Chile and California is not a one-way process. In the austral spring, from September on, the California poppy - the state's own official flower - carpets Chile's Mediterranean hillsides just as it does in the northern hemisphere after California's winter rains cease in March or so.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities' Taxis

Stateside, I can count the number of taxis I've taken in my life on one hand, as I've almost always had access to an automobile and lived in places where taxis were relatively uncommon; even without a car, it would hardly ever occur to me to take a cab, as I work at home and live close to the Bay Area's BART subway system and AC Transit buses.

In Buenos Aires and Santiago, though, I take taxis with some frequency because it's often the easiest way to get around and, in Buenos Aires especially, it's still very cheap. In Santiago, given the appreciating Chilean peso, it's considerably more expensive but with limited time, on an assignment last week, I took several cabs around town.

It's a journalists' (and travel writers') convention to seek out taxi drivers' opinions on almost everything except, apparently, transportation, but I like to talk with drivers about their jobs. In both cities, conspicuous black-and-yellow vehicles are the norm, but there the comparisons nearly end.

In the highly regulated Buenos Aires market, where fares are low and drivers consistently work 12-hour shifts, the consensus is that only those who own their cabs can make any sort of living at it; even then, only the fact that many if not most cabs run on price-controlled natural gas, rather than gasoline, makes them at all profitable. It's not uncommon to see long lines of cabs at service stations with natural gas pumps (as depicted in the photo above), but periodic shortages could become more acute this winter as cooking and heating needs raise demand. Drivers negotiated a fare increase with authorities a couple months ago and if it takes effect by winter's beginning, rates and wages could rise, but a switch to gasoline (most engines can use both fuels) could erode any increase in income for the drivers.

In Santiago, though, bottlenecks in the so far ineffectual Transantiago public transportation reform have led to overcrowding on both slow-moving buses and the far more efficient Metro. It's a positive sign that bicycle commuters are more common than in the past, but at the same time more and more suburbanites are using their cars to get to work despite vehicle restrictions that will soon take effect to control air pollution in the city's stagnant autumn air.

All this works to the advantage of Santiago cabbies since, as one told me last week, the prosperous city "has lots of people with money who can afford to take taxis" and avoid the overcrowded public buses and trains. While it may be a good time to be a cab driver in Santiago, passengers there still can't, to my knowledge, take a TV-equipped taxi to amuse themselves with cartoons while stuck in traffic--as they can in Buenos Aires.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Remote Perspective

Over the past five months, while traveling in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and the Falkland Islands, I've accumulated far more information than I've been able to incorporate in either my Moon Handbooks (the new editions of Buenos Aires and Patagonia are now being edited) or in this blog. As always, on arriving home in California, I've got lots of paperwork to catch up on (especially with income taxes coming due), answering queries from editors, and working on magazine pieces. Some other new projects have also come up, having to do with Argentina and Chile in particular, that I can't yet comment on, but there'll be plenty to read here in the coming months for those planning trips to the Southern Cone.

Meanwhile, I'll close with a link to an interview on Buenos Aires I did with Christine Delsol of the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine late last year. It covers some of the city's less obvious highlights, such as the improbable surf/punk/indie music scene at the Congreso neighborhood's Club Unione e Benevolenza (a typical bill is pictured to the right).

Friday, April 4, 2008

Heavy Metal(s) in Chile

Part of what I do, as a guidebook writer, is to visit and review hotels which, in reality, can be one of the most tedious tasks imaginable. There's a mistaken impression, though, that hotels shower guidebook writers with presidential suites and extravagant freebies in order to get the best possible coverage; in reality, freebies of any sort are a rarity--especially given that there's rarely space for more than a paragraph or two in a comprehensive guidebook to a country or even a city. Ethics aside, the effort it takes to get freebies, even if you're so inclined, is rarely worth it.

Thus, when I spent most of the last week in Santiago de Chile, I stayed at an inexpensive hostel (though I splurged on a private room) and spent parts of several days inspecting luxury hotels such as the copper-faced Santiago Marriott. As I sat in the Marriott's lobby, awaiting a public relations person who would show me around, I couldn't help but notice a short, scrawny man, dressed in black from head to toe, with straight black shoulder length hair and tattoos from his wrists to the armpits of his sleeveless shirt. He was, it seemed, an atypical Marriott client, but after PR arrived I quickly forgot him.

Reading the Santiago daily La Tercera the next morning I figured out what I'd seen and what I'd missed. According to the paper, Ozzy Osbourne was staying at the Marriott and that same night he packed 20,000 metalheads (this being Chile, I'm tempted to say "copperheads") into the Estadio Nacional's Pista Atlética. Ozzy, though, is bulky rather than scrawny, and I had seen his bass player Rob "Blasko" Nicholson.

Not so many years ago, Chile was a backwater for international acts of all sorts, but nowadays its prosperity has made it an almost essential stopover for foreign artists on world tours (Bob Dylan played the city recently and Rod Stewart is due shortly). Despite Chile's durable cultural conservatism, the country's youthful metal fans and other subcultures are conspicuous on Santiago's streets and elsewhere (one enthusiastic attendee interviewed by the daily El Mercurio had taken an all-night bus from the southern city of Concepción).

In a country whose traditional wealth (and presently strong peso) derives from the mining sector, there's a sort of symmetry at work here. Copper, after all, is a heavy metal.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Protests, Pickets, and Argentine Tourism

For the last couple weeks, the biggest news in Argentina has been farmer protests that have blocked highways in parts of the country, mostly in Buenos Aires province. Their gripe, and it comes from both large corporate landholders and smallholders, is over an almost confiscatory 44 percent tax on soy exports decreed by the federal government, which has taken similar measures in the past with beef exports. The farmers briefly lifted their roadblocks last week, but have resumed them until at least tomorrow despite government objections.

Such protest tactics are common in Argentina, but the government's objections are curious, in the sense that for more than a year it has countenanced a blockade of the highway from Gualeguaychú to the Uruguayan border, essentially ceding control of immigration and customs to opponents of a Finnish-financed pulp mill on the other side of the river. The populist government, though, has allied itself with those pickets while its domestic cheap food policies have encouraged farmers to focus on export earnings. The result has been shortages and rising domestic prices even before the current rash of roadblocks (ironically enough the government's policy has, in some ways, united both the left and right in pot-banging protests on Buenos Aires's Plaza de Mayo, and led it to encourage counter-demonstrations). There's a good summary of the crisis at Latin Business Chronicle.

For the travel and tourism industry, this has several possible repercussions. With food shortages, some restaurants have had to cut their menu offerings, and prices are likely to rise rapidly. Fuel shortages, a topic about which I wrote earlier, could combine with roadblocks to complicate overland transportation and put pressure on already overburdened domestic air routes. It's fortunate, in a sense, that the summer travel and tourism peak is past, but there's plenty to do before July's winter holidays. If not, enjoying off-season attractions such as Iguazú Falls, the scenic canyon country of northwestern Argentina, and the whales of Patagonia's Península Valdés--all of which attract ample numbers of foreigners--could be complicated.
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