Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Streets and Roads: Southern Cone Oddities

Today's digest consists of observations on streets and roads in Argentina and Chile.

Welcome to Danger!

Is it dangerous to travel in the Southern Cone countries? Well, in the process of updating the current edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, I’ve driven about 1,700 kilometers since leaving Santiago on December 8th. In the course of doing so, I occasionally encounter delays for road works that, almost invariably, warn drivers of the hazards ahead: “Peligro a 100 M” (Danger 100 Meters) is the common phrase.

So pervasive are these signs, in fact, that there’s a joke about them. As a driver proceeds down the road, he spots a series of them: “Peligro a 500 M,” “Peligro a 200 M,” “Peligro a 100 M” and, finally, “¡Bienvenidos a Peligro!” (“Welcome to Danger!).

WiFi v. Toilets
From La Serena in the north to Puerto Montt in the south, Copec gas stations along Ruta 5, Chile’s segment of the Panamerican Highway, are not only places to stop for fuel but also to use the facilities and check email. With no password protection, Entel’s Internet services are free but, at the same time, Copec charges its clients 250 pesos (about US$0.50) to use the toilets. What this says about Chilean priorities, I’m not quite sure.

The Politics of Names
Nearly thirty years ago, when I first lived in Buenos Aires, it was in the central Congreso district where my in-laws had a small apartment on a street named Cangallo, after a Peruvian locality that played a key role in the South American wars of independence. Until 2002, when we bought an apartment in Palermo, we continued to stay there whenever we were in Buenos Aires.

In 1984, though, we found that we no longer lived on Cangallo, which had borne that name for more than a century. After the return to democracy in 1983, the street name miraculously became “Teniente General Juan Domingo Perón” (the caudillo’s diehard admirers almost always refer to him by his military rank rather than as president, despite the fact that he was elected to the office three times). During the military dictatorship of 1976-83, of course, Perón’s name was anathema but, under the civilian government of Raúl Alfonsín (a Radical rather than a Peronist), the city was free to honor the memory of the man who, for better or worse, transformed Argentina’s political culture (for what it’s worth, despite their misleading name, Argentina’s Radicals are a middle-of-the-road party).

In reality, changes in street names are commonplace with almost every change of government in Argentina, and often at other times - if there’s a political point to be made. The most recent example is the renaming of the main avenue of the Patagonian city of Río Gallegos - on Saturday, the Avenida General Roca, originally named for the 19th-century military commander who defeated (some would say slaughtered) the Patagonian Mapuche, became “Avenida Dr. Néstor C. Kirchner,” after the former president who died of a massive heart attack in October.

Kirchner, a former Gallegos resident and governor of Santa Cruz province before defeating two-term president Carlos Menem to win a long-shot race in 2003, is certainly the highest-profile public figure ever to emerge onto the national scene from Argentine Patagonia, so the honor is not undeserved. At the same time, as a guidebook writer, these changes present me a challenge - as I and my friend Nicolás Kugler update the current edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, we’ll have to change every address on the main drag in our coverage of the city, and on the map that accompanies it.

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