Friday, July 29, 2011

Skinny Houses & Luxury Landmarks

Earlier this month, New York’s narrowest house – a mid-19th century construction in Manhattan that’s only 2.4 meters (less than eight feet) wide - went on the market for US$4.3 million. By that measure, Buenos Aires’s Casa Mínima, in the colonial barrio of San Telmo, is a mansion that sprawls across its 2.5-meter facade on the cobbled colonial alleyway of Pasaje San Lorenzo (dating from 2008, the photograph above includes the adjacent building, which has a normal frontage).

Dating from the early 19th century, the Casa Mínima is no longer a residence and is not for sale (the photograph above dates from the 1930s). An improbable legend says it was a manumission gift from a slaveholder to his former chattel, but it now belongs to businessman Jorge Eckstein. Eckstein has made it part of El Zanjón de Granados, an events center that sits atop a warren of colonial tunnels (pictured below) that are now open for tours.

For anyone who wants an idea of what it might be like to live in such small quarters, and can’t afford Manhattan prices, a tour of the Casa Mínima offers an alternative budget option. The house’s narrow entrance leads onto a slightly wider patio (pictured below) where the former kitchen sits and a wall-hugging staircase leads to an even narrower bedroom, which features a street-side balcony directly above the exterior doorway.

And Now for Something Completely Different

About 2-1/2 years ago, I wrote about Lord Alain Levenfiche’s attempt to sell his 14th floor apartment in Retiro’s Edificio Kavanagh, the landmark building that will celebrate its 75th anniversary this year. According to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, Levenfiche has upset his consortium neighbors, who value their privacy highly, by gutting the historic interior for a remodel and renting it out for meetings and events – “turning it into a tacky nightclub,” according to one resident. Strangers come and go at all hours.

Overlooking Plaza San Martín, the apartment, once occupied by the building’s original owner, Corina Kavanagh, remains on the market. Levenfiche has lowered the price to just US$4.5 million – making it just a tad more expensive than the narrowest house in Manhattan. Unfortunately, unlike the Casa Mínima, the Kavanagh is not open for tours; unless we decide to make an offer, neither you nor I are likely ever to see its interior.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Torture Tours, Part 3? The Esmeralda Anchors at San Francisco

According to many reliable sources, the handsome Chilean barquentine Esmeralda - the world’s second tallest and second longest sailing ship – became a floating torture center in the aftermath of the 1973 coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende. Internationally, the most notorious case was the disappearance of Anglo-Chilean priest Michael Woodward, whose remains have never been located despite a signed death certificate by a naval hospital physician.

Nearly a score of officers are presently under arrest in the case, which is moving slowly through the Chilean courts, but the navy has never acknowledged responsibility. Like its Argentine counterpart, it was the most hardline of Chile’s armed forces, even if no single individual had the high profile of army General Augusto Pinochet. Its motto continues to be vencer o morir (conquer or die).

Because of that history, the Esmeralda, which serves as a training vessel for naval cadets, often gets an unpleasant reception when it at ports around the world. In fact, on its current tour six-month voyage, its initial North American stop at San Diego drew a small protest. When I went with my Argentine wife (whose sister-in-law was a possible victim of their navy) to see the ship last Saturday at San Francisco’s Pier 27, though, there were long lines but no demonstrators.

There were, of course, security checks in which my small backpack had to stay behind but my wife’s large purse did not. The Chilean crew was courteous and hospitable (only a handful of its more than 350 personnel were present), but the visit itself had two shortcomings: it was limited to the tall ship’s main deck – the interior was off-limits - and there was no historical information whatsoever. There was nothing even about the ship’s origins in Spanish shipyards in 1946, nor its acquisition by the Chileans to offset debts dating from the Spanish Civil War. Unless you already know, you wouldn’t appreciate that the condor on the bowsprit is one symbol, along with the huemul (Andean deer) of Chile‘s coat of arms.

Nobody, of course, expected to find anything about the Esmeralda’s unsavory past under the dictatorship, especially given the judicial investigations currently underway. At the same time, there are indicators that the navy has moved, however slowly, from its traditional conservatism – one of 28 women on board, 22-year-old Francisca Lema is the first female officer to serve on board a Chilean vessel. Until recently, women in the navy were limited to shore duty.

Most visitors to the Esmeralda used their time snapping photos of themselves and their families, along with the crew. At the same time, the crew commercialized the visit by selling bottles of Chilean wine (from the decent but unexceptional Misiones de Rengo label) and bottled pisco sours (definitely inferior to fresh mixed).

The Esmeralda’s next stops are Victoria, British Columbia (August 1-5); Vancouver, British Columbia (August 6-10); and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (August 30-September 3). In Canada, according to the CBC, there are likely to be protests.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Coming Soon: Buenos Aires in San Mateo County

The new fourth edition of Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires came out in February, when I was still in South America unable to do any in-person promotion and publicity. Over the next two months, though, a mini-road trip will take me from my Oakland home all the way across the Bay to deepest San Mateo County for series of four digital slide lectures on the Argentine capital and its surroundings, including coastal Uruguay.

Originally the San Mateo County Library, which is hosting the events, suggested a “Paris of the South” theme that I’ve always tried to debunk, as I consider New York City a better analogue than Paris for Buenos Aires. Consequently, we agreed to change the title to “Buenos Aires: The Gotham of South America,” but they’ve been a little lax in uploading the material to their web site: there a photoshopped couple is tango-ing away in front of Puerto Madero’s Puente de la Mujer, a graceful pedestrian bridge that also appears on the book’s cover and below, under the originally proposed, but highly misleading title.

Even so, I hope Peninsula readers will be able to make it to the events, which begin at 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon, August 13, in the library’s San Carlos Branch. The following Saturday afternoon August 20, also at 2 p.m., I will be at the Atherton Branch and then at 7 p.m. Thursday evening, August 30, at the Belmont Branch. The final event will take place at 1 p.m. Thursday afternoon, September 29, at the Millbrae Branch. There will be ample time for questions.

Copies of the Buenos Aires title, as well as my other titles on Argentina and Chile, will be on sale at these events. I am hoping we may be able to offer a raffle for a flight to and from Buenos Aires or another destination of the winner’s choice in the Southern Cone countries.

The raffle remains to be confirmed but, if it does take place, it will not be limited to attendees of the San Mateo County events. From mid-October to early November, I will be holding another dozen events to promote the new third edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, whose attendees would also be eligible for the drawing. There will be a couple more events in San Mateo County (Belmont and Half Moon Bay), but also elsewhere in California (Berkeley, Concord, Fremont, San Jose, Saratoga, San Francisco and Pasadena) and beyond (Bellingham and Seattle, Washington; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Vancouver, British Columbia). For these events, copies of the new title will be on sale; watch this space for more details.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Hostel Hazards? Lessons from Valparaíso

More than two years ago, I wrote about the boom in Southern Cone hostels, which have made it possible for young people to visit Argentina, Chile and Uruguay on a budget, without sacrificing comfort and reliability. More than just a cheap bunk, today’s hostels offer a wide array of services, including meals, tours and of course companions with whom to share the experience. Today’s hostels even have comfortable private rooms, suitable for couples and older travelers, that are often better than two-star hotels. One good example is the Le Grand Hostel, pictured above, in the Argentine city of Córdoba. Another is the El Viajero Hostel Suites (pictured below) in Colonia, Uruguay.

That said, it’s worth pointing out that not all hostels are the same and, in fact, some are notoriously unsafe. That’s not because of theft or violence – the former can occur anywhere, and the gorefest movie Hostel was fortunately only fiction – but because some hostels don’t meet national or municipal guidelines, not to mention permission, for accommodations. Seeing the success of quality hostels that have opened over the past decade, some operators have taken shortcuts, or ignored maintenance, in a manner that has endangered their guests.

This came into focus last month when US exchange student Hannah Kaplan, of Illinois, fell into the street when a second-story guardrail gave way at the Valparaíso hostel where she was staying. The resulting head injury left her unconscious for weeks but, fortunately, she has recovered to the point where her family was able to take her home.

In the aftermath of the accident, the Santiago daily La Tercera learned that the El Yoyo Hostel had been operating without the appropriate municipal license since 2008 and, consequently, there had been no safety inspections that might have saved Kaplan and her family the physical and psychological pain of a life-threatening injury that will still require significant rehabilitation. According to the online Santiago Times, the official government tourism agency Sernatur’s registry includes only 68 hostels that comply with its voluntary regulations, while the website Hostel World shows 272 in operation. In about a year, such registration will be obligatory.

El Yoyo has closed, but too late for Hannah Kaplan. That said, there remain plenty of good, reliable hostels throughout the Southern Cone countries. Hostelling International Argentina, Hostelling International Chile, and Hostelling International Uruguay are dependable affiliates of Hostelling International, though the Chilean and Uruguayan branches have relatively small rosters.

Even in Chile, though, there are networks of loosely affiliated independent hostels such as the excellent Backpackers Chile. If in doubt, consult with local tourist offices who, in general, scrupulously avoid recommending unlicensed places. If at all possible, avoid the aggressive touts who often meet arriving buses with offers of accommodations.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Airbridge to the Archipelago: Chiloé Gets an Airport

For the scenic archipelago of Chiloé, communications with the Chilean mainland have long been an issue. Only a few years ago, the government shelved plans for a grandiose toll bridge across the Canal de Chacao, which connects the main island with the mainland via continuous ferry shuttles from the port of Pargua. According to the online Santiago Times, though, the first commercial flights are due to begin in 2012 to Mocopulli, about 20 km north of the city of Castro via Ruta 5, the insular segment of the Panamericana, the Pan-American Highway.

Castro is a central point on the Isla Grande, the big island, but it’s presently three hours away from the nearest commercial airport at Puerto Montt by bus, which includes a half-hour ferry crossing. Still, just finding a suitable site for a jet runway had to be a challenge on its rolling if not quite mountainous topography.

When the flights begin, attractions like Castro’s own palafitos (houses on stilts, pictured at top), Parque Nacional Chiloé, the picturesque bayside towns of Chonchi and Dalcahue, and the wilds of Parque Tantauco (pictured immediately above) will be easier to fit into brief itineraries. Chiloé is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its shingled churches and chapels built by Jesuit missionaries in late colonial times; those are scattered around the archipelago, which includes dozens of other inhabited islands. The one pictured below is a church at the village of Tenaún, presently undergoing a major restoration of which only the facade is complete; note the scaffolding on both sides.

According to the earliest reports, LAN Airlines will fly thrice weekly from Santiago, at least in summer, and Sky Airline may follow suit. Still, with a population of only about 40,000 in and around the city, plus another 100,000 or so scattered around the rest of the archipelago, it seems likely that some flights may land in Puerto Montt before continuing to Castro.

There has been speculation that, eventually, some flights might continue to the southern Patagonian city of Punta Arenas, where many Chilotes (as natives of the archipelago are known) work because of Chiloé’s traditional poverty and high unemployment. If so, this would also benefit the tourism industry, because Punta Arenas is the traditional gateway to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Chile’s single most famous attraction.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

River Plate's Soccer Socrates

Earlier this month, I wrote about the demotion of Club Atlético River Plate to the second division of Argentine soccer - a descent so stunning that it that it devastated the team’s devoted fans. For something comparable in North America, you’d have to imagine the New York Yankees finishing last in the American League East and then being consigned to the AAA International League.

Two of my nephews in Buenos Aires are dedicated River fans, but neither of them would go ballistic at the team’s relegation – it might have disappointed them, but they’ll recover quickly. Certainly they’ll avoid the reactions of superfan Santiago “El Tano” Pasman, whose family videoed him watching River’s debacle against Belgrano de Córdoba in their living room and then uploaded the footage to Youtube, where it went viral (my friend Nicolás Kugler, who recently helped update the pending third edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, forwarded the link to me). Its title translated into English as “Reactions of a Peaceful Man,” the video has been seen nearly five million times.

Pasman, a 52-year-old businessman in the Buenos Aires province suburb of Bella Vista, seems ready to wreak violence on the television as River starts badly and gets worse. He rails against players, coaches and even advertisers in a torrent of emotional obscenities that viewers of the video posted above have to guess at if they don’t understand colloquial Argentine Spanish. In reality, El Tano’s tone leaves little doubt about the meaning, but those who really want an idea of what specific words and phrases mean can go to the English-subtitled version here (note: because of the subtitles, seeing this version may require signing in to Google). Not all the translations are equally accurate, but you’ll get the gist.

I don’t know Pasman, obviously, but it’s interesting to speculate on his background. His surname sounds Jewish, and Argentina has one of the world’s largest Jewish communities outside of Israel. His nickname, though, means “The Italian” - “Tano” is short for Napolitano or Neapolitan, as most Argentines refers to Italians. On the other hand, many Argentines can trace their ancestry to Croatia, where the island of Pasman sits off the Dalmatian coast – an area with historic links with Italy across the Adriatic Sea.

Whatever his origins, Pasman has certainly had his moment of fame and, perhaps, seeing his video may persuade hyper-serious sports fans to consider how they look to others. For his part, El Tano considers himself a reserved person – in an interview with the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, Pasman insisted that “I’m a quiet kind of guy” whose daily routine consists of “working, going to the gym, playing soccer and having a morning coffee with my friends.” Of course, that kind of guy isn’t nearly so entertaining to watch.

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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Post-Puyehue: the Southern Ski Season

It’s winter in Argentina and Chile, and that means ski season has begun on both sides of the Andes. That said, last month’s eruption of Volcán Puyehue has complicated matters on the Argentine side in particular. With that in mind, I asked David Owen (pictured below, in Argentina), who operates PowderQuest Tours and lives in Pucón, for an update on this season’s snow and skiing in the two Southern Cone countries. The photographs that accompany this post are his.

WBB: In general, what are the conditions on the Argentine side? Is it a matter of snow v. ash, or is there no snow?

David Owen: So far snow has been below normal on both sides of the Andes due to La Niña [climatic conditions]. In Argentina, Chapelco and Las Leñas are open, but with a thin snowpack. The good news is that La Nina apparently is tapering off, and the forecast for precipitation is showing a return to normal. Let's hope this happens quickly.

WBB: Which ski areas are most affected by the ashfall?

David Owen: Cerro Bayo [Villa la Angostura] has seen the worst of it. Cerro Catedral and Chapelco have seen much less ashfall.

WBB: Are the problems on the Argentine side a matter of logistics, i.e. airports and flights, or is it the ski areas themselves? What about ancillary services (hotels, restaurants)?

David Owen: Hotels and restaurants should be operating fine. Their visitor numbers are down 80 percent in June, but they are opening for the ski season. For Cerro Bayo and the town of Villa La Angostura, the problems are both deep ash and logistics. It is a huge mess over there. The Bariloche airport remains closed with a range of rumors that it could open as early as next week or as late as October.

As for Catedral and Bariloche, the issue is more logistics of getting there. I visited the ski area and it had much less ash than the city, and the resort claims they will operate normally. The main issue is the ash on the ground and the winds. When the Patagonian winds pick up, ash and sand gets everywhere including your eyes and lungs. I was there for two days and was ready to leave. I think IF you can get there, AND you can stay at the resort base, it would not be such a bad experience, but staying in downtown Bariloche would not be a very enjoyable experience.

WBB: How would you compare Villa la Angostura and Bariloche v. Chapelco? It sounds to me as if the prevailing winds pushed most of the ash east/southeast from Puyehue.

David Owen: Villa la Angostura got the worst of it. There was close to a foot of ash on the road when I drove over there and everything is covered. Bariloche received much less but nonetheless, when the winds pick up, it causes issues. Chapelco (open for skiing) received much less than Bariloche and the town of San Martin de Los Andes just a dusting.

WBB: Is there skiing at Esquel (admittedly harder to reach than Bariloche without flights)?

David Owen: They plan on operating normally once they have enough snow. I also read that there have been some flights going into Esquel.

WBB: Is Las Leñas, in Argentina’s Mendoza province, open? I presume it would be less vulnerable to the ashfall.

David Owen: Las Leñas is open, and like the Chile ski resorts, has not been affected by ashfall.

WBB: You told me you've moved all programs to the Chilean side. Will there be accommodations shortages because skiers will be coming to Chile instead of Argentina? If so, will this drive up prices? Will skiers have to stay farther away than usual, e.g. in the city of Chillán, rather than Las Trancas valley, for the Nevados de Chillán ski area?

David Owen: We moved all programs to Chile and Las Leñas after my visit to Bariloche last month. There will certainly be shortages in lodging, especially for July and early August and people doing late bookings might expect to stay further away from the resorts due to high demand. We have not seen prices go up at all.

WBB: Are flights into Santiago from North America operating normally?

David Owen: So far yes, flights are operating normally. There have been a few days with delays and cancellations, but more in Buenos Aires. Flights to southern Chile (Temuco and Valdivia) have been seeing cancellations when there is a wind direction switch to the west and north.

Update from Esquel
David briefly mentions Esquel above, but my friend Jorge Miglioli of Hostería Canela provided some additional information on the city, and its Cerro La Hoya ski area, from a few days ago:

“Fortunately we had no ashfall here. So far, we had a nice snowfall a few days ago but need another one to get La Hoya in prime condition. Today Esquel had TWO flights (an unheard of event) because one was bringing in Brazilians to Bariloche. They made the rest of the trip by bus, and it seems this season they will be doing this frequently (Neuquen airport is too far away, and the road is not as scenic and I believe there is still a lot of ash in some places).”

“If we are cut off from the north via airplane, we still have all those people from Comodoro Rivadavia, Trelew, etc. who used to travel by land to ski in Bariloche or Chapelco and maybe prefer to stay at our rather modest (in comparison) ski station instead.”

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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Torture Tours, Part 2

I try not to dwell on it but, from time to time, I’ve written about my Southern Cone experiences during the military dictatorships of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the efforts to memorialize their victims. As Argentina and Chile come to terms with that heritage, there are numerous reminders of those sad years, even if most of them are relatively inconspicuous (such as the headquarters of Santiago’s Constramet metal workers union, which simply displays a plaque(pictured above) with the names of some 60 members who "disappeared" under General Augusto Pinochet’s regime). A couple of Chilean memorials, though, are more outspokenly eloquent.

Parque por la Paz

Perhaps the most subtly eloquent memorial to the dictatorship’s victims, the Parque por la Paz (Park for Peace) occupies the grounds of the former Villa Grimaldi, the principal torture center for the Directorio de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), General Manuel Contreras’s ruthless intelligence service (Contreras is now serving a life sentence). Before it closed, more than 200 political prisoners (whose names appear in the memorial above) died at the isolated mansion in suburban Peñalolén, and many more were interrogated and tortured.

In the regime’s final days, the military bulldozed nearly every building to destroy evidence, but the nonprofit Fundación Parque por la Paz has transformed the property into a pilgrimage site that commemorates the victims without any overt political posturing. It has permanently locked the original streetside gates, by which prisoners entered the grounds, with a declaration that they are “never to be opened again.”

The Parque por la Paz is open every day, with guided tours available on most. From Metro Plaza Egaña (Línea 4), Transantiago buses 513 y D09 pass nearby. La Bicicleta Verde is the only operator offering alternative “Human Rights Legacy” tours that take in Parque por la Paz, the Cementerio General, and some other sights.

Museo de la Memoria y de los Derechos Humanos

More central, and more comprehensive than Villa Grimaldi, the glistening new Museo de la Memoria is a three-story monument whose glass exterior and reflecting pool establishes transparency as an architectural and cultural value. Its interior exhibits vividly document the abuses of the Pinochet years and the slow return to democracy.

On the ground level, the museum starts innocuously enough in displaying the written accounts of human rights violations, such as the Rettig Report, that began to appear in the aftermath of the regime. The powerful visual material begins with huge wall photos of the bloody coup against President Salvador Allende, along with live footage of the events on multiple screens (the English subtitles are sometimes misleading) and samples of the front pages of Santiago dailies (whose incendiary coverage was truly disgraceful).

In addition, the material here includes a site-by-site catalogue of detainment camps and torture centers with video links, while the second floor covers demands for accountability of the missing, with a computer database of individual cases. A separate exhibit deals with the influence of popular culture, stressing the contributions of folk music peñas and the works of arpilleras (quilters) as indicators of resistance. The third floor is open for special exhibits, such as late 2010’s account of Spanish refugees in Chile after Francisco Franco’s forces defeated the Republicans in that country’s civil war.

The Museo de la Memoria is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except Mon. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. It has its own access to the Metro Quinta Normal station (Línea 5).

A Personal Note: Maru Sanllorenti
Some months ago, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, forensic scientists identified the remains of María Eugenia Sanllorenti, my brother-in-law’s first wife, who “disappeared” from the university city of La Plata at the hands of still unknown individuals in 1976, during Argentina’s “Dirty War.” I never knew “Maru,” who died before I married into the family, but anyone who reads Spanish well can learn about her from the court testimony of her mother, Eva Fanjul de Sanllorenti, in the year 2000. Eva will soon be giving her daughter a formal burial.

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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Ash, Ants, Frost & Soccer

Today’s topics include the lingering effects of Volcán Puyehue, the weather, Argentine soccer, and Argentine ants, some of which overlap.

Puyehue Update: Buenos Aires & Chile
Buenos Aires almost never gets cold and snowy but, yesterday at least, it was cold and ashy - once again, the fallout from Chile’s Volcán Puyehue postponed all flights from the international airport at Ezeiza and the city airport Aeroparque. Flights resumed early this morning, but the cold wave continues. According to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, nighttime temperatures will fall below freezing, and low readings will continues throughout the week.

Meanwhile, from the Chilean city of Puerto Varas, Franz Schirmer informs me that, while the highway to Argentina remains closed, the scenic and slightly more southerly bus-boat-bus Cruce Andino (pictured above, at Petrohué) to San Carlos de Bariloche remains open, with discount prices. The problem is that, with Bariloche’s airport closed because of Puyehue’s ashfall, there’s no easy way to get out of Bariloche. The ash has played havoc with Bariloche’s ski season, a topic on which I’ll have more next week, but the ski area at Volcán Osorno (pictured below), overlooking Franz’s Petrohué Lodge, is open for business. Osorno, fortunately, has not erupted since 1869.

River Plate Demoted
No, the Río de la Plata hasn’t gotten any shorter - at roughly 4,900 km it’s still the world’s eighth-longest river and, on the South American continent, second only to the Amazon. It’s almost equally shocking, though, that the Club Atlético River Plate, one of Argentina’s iconic soccer teams, suffered such a terrible season that it’s flowed downstream to Division B of the Asociación de Fútbol Argentina - roughly comparable to demoting the New York Yankees to the Class AAA International League.

Argentine soccer, of course, is plagued with violence, and River fans were not happy, with many incidents leading up to and after the demotion (occasioned by their tying a playoff game with Belgrano of Córdoba, which earned promotion). According to The Guardian, many deplorable incidents occurred in the course of River’s descent, including intimidation of a referee and firebombing of the house of one of River’s directors (damage was minimal, and nobody was hurt). Only yesterday, after a telephone warning, police evacuated the AFA’s downtown headquarters as they removed a bomb from an adjacent downtown bar.

The Ant Wars
About a year ago, I wrote about the historic invasion of Argentine ants, which spread across the United States by rail from the port of New Orleans, and now form colossal colonies that stretch the length of California. I can see them in my Oakland backyard any day but, fortunately, they’ve stayed out of the house recently.

In most parts of the state, Argentine ants have overwhelmed native ants, but Stanford biology professor Deborah Gordon and a group of her undergrads have learned that at least one species is fighting back: the California winter ant, so called because it stays active in cold weather, confronts individual invaders with a poison that literally stops them dead - in lab tests, a single drop had a 79 percent kill rate. Unfortunately, according to Gordon, the Argentine ants benefit from disturbed (i.e. urban) environments with sheltered winter quarters, and still outnumber the natives by far.

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