Monday, May 23, 2022

Mayhem Among the Moai? It's Fiction, Fortunately.

A few weeks ago, while walking the dog, I rifled through a nearby Little Free Library and stumbled upon an intriguing title by the late Lyn Hamilton, a Toronto-based author of archaeological mysteries. The Moai Murders, as you might guess, is not about the destruction of iconic statues on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), but rather about events at a fictional “Rapa Nui Moai Congress,” where academic disagreements appear to escalate into mayhem. I enjoy whodunits, so I took it home and have finally finished it.

The Moai Murders is one of a series of archaeological mysteries.

Hamilton’s protagonist, Lara McClintoch, is a Canadian antiques dealer who chances upon violent death everywhere she goes (there are 11 books in the series, in destinations including Mexico, Perú, Italy and China as well). According to her website, Hamilton made a point of doing fieldwork in the destinations she wrote about, and traveled to Rapa Nui in 2004.

 

Lara is an archaeological amateur, and that’s apparent from her (and Hamilton’s) infatuation with Thor Heyerdahl, whose legacy there is more notoriety than scholarship (Heyerdahl proved it was possible to raft from South America to Rapa Nui, but not that it happened that way; the overwhelming consensus is that the island was settled from the Western Pacific rather than the continent to the east). Could bitter differences of opinion result in multiple deaths at the Congress, however?  

Do not embrace the moai at Abu Tongariki (or elsewhere).

I’m not going to offer any plot spoilers, but I will quote the late Georgia Lee, founder of the Rapa Nui Journal (for which I have written in a somewhat more academic vein) to the effect that “The Moai Murders would be a good book to take along on the flight home from a visit to Rapa Nui; the reading time is just about the same as the flight time” (back to Santiago, at least). I will note, however, that Lara’s friend and companion Moira’s impulse to embrace a moai would probably, at present, be enough to get you expelled from the island, and that the Rapanui people—as Georgia Lee emphasizes—are barely noticeable in the book.

Flights have resumed to Rapa Nui's Aeropuerto Mataveri, but restrictions remain and schedules could change.

For my part, though I’ve been to Rapa Nui half a dozen times or so, I haven’t visited since 2012. Because I’m not presently writing a guidebook to Chile, I’m not likely to return any time soon but I will note that, in the hopefully waning days of the pandemic, flights from the mainland have resumed. The island has been highly dependent on the tourist economy and, while there’s only one weekly flight at this time, there will be two or three per week after August 1st. These will be subject to restrictions, including vaccination records, PCR tests and other requirements. These requirements could also change, depending on public health developments.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Purgatory 2.0? EZE to DFW (and, Fortunately, Beyond)

Early last week, anticipating our flight back to California (via Dallas), we rose early and went to the closest location of CentraLab, a private medical testing company in Buenos Aires. To return to the US, being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is still insufficient to return; it requires either a PCR or an antigen test the day before flying. It’s worth noting that this is not a 24-hour requirement; our flight was scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday evening, but any time on Thursday would have been acceptable.

Results of the antigen test (with personal info edited out)

The obligatory attestation...

We were hoping to be able to schedule the tests there, but that location did not handle COVID testing. Rather, they said, we would have to schedule an appointment online for a different venue—but one that was still only a US$2 cab ride from our apartment. If our appointment hadn’t been at 8:45 a.m., we’d have walked there but, as it was, we got there shortly after 8 and they saw us almost immediately. In just two hours we received the results and could relax. After filling out the obligatory attestation for US immigration, we finished our last full day with an Italian dinner, with my brother-in-law and his wife, at Trattoria Olivetti (its walls decorated with typewriters), just across the street from our place.

The exterior of Olivetti
And the interior...

The next afternoon, getting to the airport was a bit more complex than we anticipated. Leaving the apartment, we immediately caught a cab to the central Terminal Madero in the expectation of catching a Tienda León remise (livery car) to Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini (aka Ezeiza). Because there were two of us, this would be only marginally more expensive than taking the bus, but on arrival we learned that there were no longer any remises operating at the site. The only option was the bus, for which we would have to wait nearly an hour, so we opted for catching another taxi in the street, for which we paid Ar$6000 including tolls.


That was more than the Ar$3820 (US$35.32) I had paid for a remise from the airport a month earlier because, lacking sufficient Argentine cash, I had to use my US credit card. In this later instance, though, I paid with “blue dollar” pesos which made the cost US$34.31 for the two of us (had we taken the first taxi all the way from our apartment, it would’ve been cheaper yet).


Arriving at Ezeiza, we found a fairly long line for our American Airlines flight to DFW, where we would have a four-hour layover before connecting to San Francisco, but we got through immigration and security quickly—or did we? While I used to enjoy flying, I’ve grown to loathe airports but I have appreciated the fact that, in Buenos Aires, we don’t have to remove our shoes and all the electronics from our carry-ons.

This guy's 2008 visit to Buenos Aires didn't go over well.

I spoke too soon, though—when we lined up to board the flight, I found myself randomly (?) singled out for a secondary check that did involve removing my shoes and my electronics, and even inspecting my iPad for, apparently, traces of explosives. For this I blame the individual in the photo above who, until 2017, was the worst president in my country’s history. He and others of his party have done lasting damage both domestically and internationally.

We didn't get much flight information...

Last month’s flight from DFW to Argentina was, without question, my worst experience ever in the air, and one I didn’t care to repeat. Here, though, my initial impression was positive as the Boeing 787 sported a great-looking touch screen for entertainment, but that didn’t last long. For some time, according to the electronic in-flight map on which I normally enjoy watching the plane’s progress, we never left the ground and the hour never changed from 7:53 p.m—“distance to destination 0 km, time to destination 0 minutes.” Eventually a rotating globe appeared, but it soon showed us off the coast of West Africa, approaching the Ivory Coast port of Abidjan!


That, of course, did not inspire confidence, and things got worse as it became apparent that the overhead reading lights did not work in any section of the plane, and to read my paperback novel I had to hold my phone’s flashlight with the book in my lap. Meanwhile, the in-flight food offerings were so unappetizing that I consumed nothing but water. Mercifully, I managed to fall asleep for about a third of the ten-hour ordeal and, when we arrived in Dallas, we passed quickly through immigration and customs, with not even a perfunctory look at our baggage.


So, this flight wasn’t quite so bad as the previous one but, that said, we were now in COVID-friendly Texas where, despite the ongoing mask mandate in airports, at least a third of all passengers couldn’t be bothered about spreading a potentially deadly disease. Fasting to avoid contributing even a penny to this dysfunctional state, we waited at our gate only to learn that a last minute change would require us to sprint more than a mile through the sprawling terminal. Texas is the new Purgatory, and it was a relief to board a flight to the comfort and safety of California.

 

 

 

 

Monday, April 11, 2022

Blue Dollars, or Dollar Blues? Managing Money in Argentina

What is a cueva? In Spanish it’s literally a cave and some of them, like the Cueva de las Manos in southern Argentine Patagonia, are major archaeological sites and tourist attractions. But there are caves of a different sort in Buenos Aires and other Argentine cities, and any savvy traveler will get to know them because they are places to change money at an advantageous rate—unlike the traditional casa de cambio (exchange house).

A traditional exchange house in the Patagonian city of San Carlos de Bariloche

When I last visited the coastal Patagonia city of Puerto Madryn, this auto glass dealer gave the best rates for US dollars.

That’s because banks and exchange houses can only change at the official legal rate, which is barely more than half the informal but nevertheless tolerated “blue dollar” rate. In present-day Argentina, using your credit card or withdrawing cash from an ATM means, in effect, doubling the price of everything you may purchase. For the latest rates, there’s a smartphone app called “Dólar Blue Hoy,” which is available on both the App Store and Google Play.

Today's rates on the Dólar Blue app


Walking down Calle Florida, the downtown pedestrian street that’s traditionally the city’s retail hub, you’ll hear a constant chorus of “cambio, cambio” from arbolitos (street changers, known as “little trees” because they’re planted on the sidewalk). In the 1980s, when hyper-inflation was rife here, we used to change travelers’ checks (remember those?) at desks in otherwise vacant office buildings and, though we never got cheated, we never felt really comfortable with it. Today we trust our neighborhood cuevas in Palermo, but might make inquiries before visiting one in another part of the city.

Bring big Bens to the cueva.

At present, Argentina's largest banknote is 1000 pesos (about US$5).


While you may arrive here with a money belt packed with Ben Franklins, you’ll need wallet space for many more bills in a country whose largest denomination is presently 1000 pesos (roughly US$5). Be aware that, at most cuevas, hundreds are the notes of choice (though fifties are usually acceptable), and they’ll have to be in mint condition. Twenties are often unwelcome, but today the Western Union branch down the block from us changed $100 worth at just a slightly lower rate.

The closest cueva to our apartment is this Western Union office (your mileage may vary).


Your blue dollars can't buy one of our sofas.

In a few places, your blue dollar is not welcome, as this sign outside a furniture outlet in the Retiro neighborhood suggests (of course, one could change money elsewhere before making a purchase). Recently, when we visited the exceptional Museo de La Plata in Buenos Aires Province, we found it did not accept cash and we had to pay the admission fee by credit card at the official rate (given that the fee was just AR$300 per person, this was hardly a budget breaker).

Your cash is no good at the Museo de La Plata.

That’s the current scenario, but how long will it last? By November, when the next tourist season rolls around, and given the uncertainties of war in Europe and the lingering pandemic, it’s hard to speculate. One recent report suggests that the breech between the official and informal exchange may diminish over the next year-plus, but there has also speculation about dollarization of the Argentine economy. That’s something that failed in the 1990s under former President Carlos Menem and it’s certainly not gonna happen under current Peronist President Alberto Fernández. Elections are due to take place in October of 2023, though.

 

Post-Mortem Update

Since I first published this entry, I have learned that Buenos Aire's iconic Cementerio de la Recoleta has just instituted an admission charge of AR$1400 for foreign visitors, though it remains free of charge for Argentines. Like the Museo de La Plata (cited above), they do not accept cash, so it will now cost roughly US$12.50 at the official exchange rate. Visitors can pay online in advance or via QR code or credit card at the main gate.


Thursday, March 24, 2022

Pedaling the Pampas

The Plusmar bus line crosses the Pampas from Retiro to Olavarría.

After I spent a week adapting to a five-hour time change and recovering from the hangover of perhaps the most miserable flight of my life, my wife arrived in Buenos Aires and, after a couple more days, we took the bus to her hometown of Olavarría for the first family reunion since the pandemic struck. Leaving our Palermo apartment early, we caught a 7 a.m. bus that, in the morning rush hour, took more than two hours just to get beyond the city limits. After that, it was another four hours across the interminably flat Pampas in comfortable conditions—many of Argentina’s long-distance buses have seating comparable to business class on an airplane.

The Olavarría terminal early in the morning.

Rodolfo tends his rabbits at the chacra.

After María Laura’s sister Estela picked us up at the Olavarría terminal, most of that day and the next consisted of lunches and extended family dinners with her and her brother Rodolfo, at whose house we stayed. On the Friday, though, we rose early and, after a quick breakfast, we climbed aboard borrowed bicycles for a ride to Rodolfo’s countryside chacra, where he raises rabbits, chickens (and eggs), sheep, and even a few pigs. It’s about 12 miles (20 km) outside town but, despite the endlessly flat terrain, the ride proved more strenuous than I anticipated.

There were few landmarks along the route, but this roadhouse on the paved highway was one.


Estela and María Laura at the gate to the chacra.

Accustomed to the hills of the Oakland and Berkeley, which can be steeply challenging, I expected this ride to be a breeze—and in a sense it was, as gusty headwinds slowed our progress over the bumpy sand and gravel backroads (mostly used by farm traffic). Because of those conditions, my average speed was probably lower than most of my usual rides, which usually include downhill segments that allow for coasting at higher speeds. Only one short segment was along a paved highway, where we used the firm grassy shoulder to avoid speeding trucks and SUVs.

Our route from Olavarría to El Aromo and back

In the end, our route covered 21.96 miles (35.3 km), according to the Strava app that I use for cycling. What startled me a bit is that the Health app on my phone recorded this as the equivalent of walking 20.3 miles (32.7 km), which is one indicator of the fatigue levels we all felt on returning to town and the calm waters of the Arroyo Tapalqué, part of a pleasant greenbelt just outside Rodolfo’s front door. After dismounting, though, it was siesta time.

The ride ended at Rodolfo's house in town, alongside the Arroyo Tapalqué greenbelt.


Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Is Purgatory Real? SFO to DFW to EZE on American Airlines

I’m not Catholic—in fact, I’m an atheist—but after completing my first flight in two years, I think I finally understand the concept of Purgatory. Early Sunday morning I started the initial leg of an odyssey that took me from San Francisco to Dallas Fort Worth to Buenos Aires and, except at the very beginning and the very end, it was a disagreeable experience that I felt might never end.

First the good—after my wife dropped me off at SFO, the counter attendant who did my check-in was a simpático Uruguayan who did his best to promote his homeland, though it’s unlikely I’ll cross the Río de la Plata to Montevideo or any other port in the Banda Oriental on this trip. After checking my vaccination card and PCR test (no more than 72 hours prior to departure for Argentina), he also snagged me aisle seats for both legs of the journey (In theory I still prefer window seats to enjoy the landscape from 35,000 feet, but my prolonged recovery from last year’s ankle surgery has made ease of access more important than it used to be).


Things quickly deteriorated from there and that, of course, meant security theater from the so-called “Department of Homeland Security.” On my body scan, they saw things they didn’t like—one of which was a money belt that included the US cash I was carrying to Argentina because the official exchange rate is so disadvantageous. That was fairly easy to explain, but they also detected a “suspicious” elastic knee support I was wearing because of recent soreness and, even worse, a support sock apparently set off their metal detectors (I’ve been wearing one ever since my surgery, and it contains trace amounts of copper). In both cases I rolled up my trousers to invite a direct inspection, but the individual who detained me felt obliged to call in a superior who eventually authorized me to continue.

SFO to DFW left on time from Gate B23.

At DFW, prominent signs didn't necessarily mean compliance.

Gathering my belongings and putting my shoes back on, I proceeded to the gate and, surprise of surprises, the flight to DFW (Dallas Fort Worth) left on time and even arrived a few minutes early, with no anti-masker incidents on board. Immediately I noticed, though, that in COVID-friendly Texas many people were disregarding CDC masking regulations despite numerous posted signs. At SFO, mask compliance appeared to be 100 percent, while at DFW I would estimate that some 30 percent were ignoring the regulations in one way or another. The worst case that I observed was a 60-something porteño loudmouth on his phone at a charging station; when I gently suggested he should use his mask, he went ballistic.

The loudest scofflaw was an Argentine shouting into his cell phone.

DFW recently made No. 8 on a list of the country’s ten-worst airports. That’s partly because of frequent delays and, indeed, our departure for Buenos Aires was more than two hours after the scheduled time. It got worse, though, as the gritón mentioned above was just one seat away and, for most of the flight, couldn’t be bothered to wear his mask. He was not the only one, though, and even some of the flight attendants couldn’t be bothered on a plane that was nearly full. There was also one of the worst shrieking toddlers ever to keep me from even attempting to sleep.

AA 997 left more than two hours late from Gate D36.

I passed on both dinner and breakfast—life’s too short to dine on airplane food, and I eaten had a decent prosciutto sandwich while waiting for takeoff. I did sample a glass of a Pinot Grigio on board (American has been one of the last airlines to resume alcoholic beverage service), but it was almost undrinkable. My only regret is that I hadn’t realized that my video screen included a window-seat view camera which, though not so good as an actual window seat, at least provides a rough view of the landscapes below.

Unfortunately, I only discovered the window-seat camera view shortly before we landed in Buenos Aires.

Immigration was fairly quick and efficient at Ezeiza.

Once we deplaned on Monday morning, things got better. Immigration lines weren’t long, and the official who processed me asked only to see my declaración jurada (affidavit) for evidence of vaccination and other info (it’s obligatory to fill out the declaration 48 hours prior to departure for Argentina). I quickly showed him the PDF on my phone, and then he put the first stamp in my brand-new passport. I then went to the office of Transfer Express for a cab, for which I had to pay the official exchange rate via credit card because I fell just short of enough Argentine pesos acquired at the so-called “blue rate” on my last visit.

A glass partition separated me from my Venezuelan driver, but didn't inhibit conversation.

Traffic into town wasn’t bad, and my cabbie was an agreeable Venezuelan with whom I could talk baseball—a pleasant coda to perhaps the worst flight I’ve ever endured—despite the glass partition that now minimizes driver-passenger contact in the pandemic world. At home in our Palermo apartment, after a refreshing nap to make up for lost sleep, I enjoyed a plate of spinach gnocchi at Bella Italia Café, just down the block, before retiring for the night.

I ended the day with a plate of spinach gnocchi at Bella Italia.

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Thursday, February 24, 2022

Post-WWII Argentina - Fact or (Detective) Fiction?

In my previous post, I reviewed one of my favorite streaming series with a link to southernmost South America but, while I’ve been unable to travel there (spoiler—I’m scheduled to fly to Buenos Aires on March 6th), I haven’t been purely a video couch potato. I’ve also been reading and, while I love detective stories, I’ve been doing it in a way that has more content than just potboilers.

In A Quiet Flame, German detective Bernie Gunther investigates a possible serial killer in Argentina.

Over most of the last year, I’ve been recovering from ankle surgery that requires me to do rehabilitation exercises three times daily, followed by elevating the joint to reduce the swelling for 15 minutes at a time. I use that time to read and, recently, I read the late Philip Kerr’s novel The One from the Other, in which Bernie Gunther—a former Berlin detective and anti-Nazi drafted into the Schutzstaffel (SS) during WWII—tries to track down war criminals and finds himself unjustly incriminated. Kerr’s plotline is so complex that I won’t go into more detail here, except to add that, in the end, Bernie has to flee to South America in the company of some pretty notorious “comrades.”

In real life and the novel, the Giovanna C carried both refugees and war criminals from Italy to Argentina.

That, of course, aroused my interest—especially so when the edition I read included the first chapter of A Quiet Flame, which describes Bernie’s 1950 arrival in Buenos Aires on the steamship Giovanna C in the awkward company of two notorious Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann. As in Germany, Gunther doesn’t hesitate to make fun of his companions, and Kerr gives provides him dialogue no less acerbic than Raymond Chandler gave Philip Marlowe and Dashiel Hammett gave Sam Spade. In one case, Bernie remarks that he repels an opponent with a punch that he compares to legendary Argentine boxer Luis Ángel Firpo.

Bernie Gunther claims to pack a punch like the legendary Argentine heavyweight Luis Ángel Firpo, who once knocked Jack Dempsey onto the canvas (Firpo now resides in Recoleta Cemetery).

Like his companions, Bernie arrives under an alias but, in a meeting with then-President Juan Domingo Perón (and Perón's poodles), he has to reveal his true identity and, under pressure, he’s persuaded—forced, rather—to investigate a murder and another disappearance with links to a German-speaking community in Buenos Aires and the northern province of Tucumán (with additional links to a cold case he failed to solve in pre-war Germany).


Unlike Marlowe and Spade, Gunther had worked as a private detective when employment under the Nazi regime became untenable—a situation that may well have contemporary parallels (He had also served in Ukraine, for what that's worth). Parenthetically, Bernie manages to make some blatantly sexist comments about Evita Perón’s appearance, but also sympathizes with the health problems that killed her just a few years later.

Bernie's investigation leads him to a sinister site in the subtropical sierras of Tucumán Province.

More significantly, Bernie learns of the notorious Directive 11, by which the Argentine government denied Jewish refugees entry into the country. Through him, Kerr speculates as to the existence of a Directive 12, which would have established a concentration camp in Tucumán’s subtropical forests.

 

According to a 2009 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Kerr (who died in 2018) decided against visiting Argentina because “I thought about it and decided that what I wanted was a historic picture, rather than the Argentina of today.” In my opinion, though, even allowing for poetic license, this novel would have benefitted from a visit to the country. In one instance, for example, Kerr appears to confuse the Argentine capital’s central shopping district of Florida with a neighborhood in the town of Vicente López, in the city’s northern suburbs—where the Nazi refugees had a safe house and Eichmann later resided for many years. Through Bernie, he's also unnecessarily harsh on a Tucumán he never saw (though it's clearly a different place today). At the very least, the publisher should have hired a proofreader familiar with Argentina—the airport city of Ezeiza, a southern Buenos Aires suburb, is consistently misspelled “Ezeira.”

Uki Goñi's book details the Perón government's complicity with the Nazis. 

At the risk of being labeled a pedant, I’ll still recommend both these novels and others by Kerr, who manages to convey the complexities of surviving in an authoritarian or even totalitarian ambience while still seeking truth and justice—even for a flawed figure like Bernie Gunther. What I'd really like to see is somebody turn all 14 novels into a streaming series.


In the course of writing A Quiet Flame, the novelist relied on Uki Goñi’s The Real Odessa, an historical account of the Nazi presence in post-war Argentina, including documentation of the Perón government’s complicity (Full disclosure: Goñi is a personal acquaintance).

 

Addendum

Another personal acquaintance of mine, the late geographer Dan Gade, had direct contact with another ex-Nazi, the SS officer and ethnobotanist Heinz Brücher, but it was only after Brücher’s murder in 1991 that Gade unearthed the extent of Brücher’s role in WWII and continued adherence to Nazi ideology. Questioning the impartiality of Brücher’s South American research—he also worked in Paraguay—Gade’s article might suggest that Goñi’s extensive and incisive research was only a starting point for a continued assessment of the post-war German presence.

 

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Sunday, January 30, 2022

"Good Behavior," Argentine Style? (A Streaming Review)

Since March of 2020, when I fled Argentina and Chile with the onslaught of the COVID-19 virus, I’ve been not quite housebound, but have only managed scattered day trips in the Bay Area and the couple short road trips to California’s Central Coast and the Sonoma/Mendocino County shorelines. Like many others, I’ve spent more time than I might care to admit in front of the TV screen, streaming whodunits and other dramas before retiring early enough to let me walk the dog at daybreak. I've avoided travel shows, because they remind me of what I can’t do until the pandemic recedes (very tentatively, my wife and I plan to return to Buenos Aires in early March for a month).

Meanwhile, in the course of exploring streaming services, I stumbled across an oddball series, a sort of black comedy, set in North Carolina but with links to Argentina. In Good Behavior, which first showed on TNT in 2016 and 2017, English actress Michelle Dockery plays the role of Letty Raines, a resourceful thief and scammer with addiction issues, who’s out on parole and trying to regain custody of her pre-teen son. This rather differs from Dockery’s role as the aristocratic Lady Mary Talbot in the PBS historical series Downton Abbey (disclaimer: I am not a fan of British costume dramas, and have not watched more than a few minutes of that one, to which my wife is addicted).

 

Shortly after her release from prison, Letty stumbles upon a contract killing and does her utmost to stop it (albeit unsuccessfully). In the process, she becomes involved with Javier Pereira (Juan Diego Botto), an Argentine hitman with a conscience of sorts (Botto is in fact an Argentine who spent part of his youth in the US). The Pereira character is also a chef who sometimes works in the Argentine-style parrilla (grill restaurant) owned by his sister Ava (played by Botto’s real-life sister María in a sort of meta-role).

This Javier, in Oakland, is not a contract killer.

Javier is not a Hannibal Lecter wannabe, but he does have issues with his father Oscar (played by the Argentine-American Daniel Faraldo), who has a dark past of his own. There’s an additional complication in Ava’s ex-boyfriend Teo (played by Canadian actor Juan Riedinger), but there’s plenty of comic relief as well.

 

Unfortunately, TNT cancelled the show after two seasons, but it remains available on Hulu (no endorsement here, but there are 30-day free trials).


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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Mendocino is Cooler Than Buenos Aires (Literally)

At the end of last month, I wrote that my wife and I had postponed a planned trip to Buenos Aires because of the spread of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus there. In addition, our route would have taken us through COVID-friendly Texas and, given the frequency of flight cancellations by American Airlines, it was possible we might have had an unwelcome delay of a day or more in Dallas/Fort Worth.

Mapping the heat wave, from Argentina's Servicio Meteorológico (in degrees C)

Very tentatively, we’re hoping to try again in March, but early January provided us yet another reason to justify our decision—a brutal heat wave that struck the Argentine capital and much of the rest of the country. In summer, of course, we would expect warm and even hot temperatures, but last week the mercury soared to 106° F (41° C) in the city and, in the north-central city of Córdoba, it reached 108.5° F (42.5° C). The western desert city of San Juan was a near-furnace at 111° F (44° C).

 

A few years ago, we reluctantly installed air-conditioning in our Palermo apartment, but we’ve never used it during our time there—our idea was that it would appeal to short-term rentals. Even that mightn’t have mitigated this heat wave, though, as there were power outages in much of the city. Global warming, anybody?

A typical landscape at Sea Ranch (note the houses in the background)

The town of Gualala (as seen from Sea Ranch)

With that in mind, we took a mini-vacation with our daughter, her boyfriend, and our two dogs, up the Sonoma County coast to Sea Ranch—an ostensibly eco-friendly development that I’m personally ambivalent about. The scenery resembles coastal Chile, the night skies sparkle, and there’s almost total silence except for occasional gobbles from wild turkeys outside your windows and waves crashing on the beach. Still, I find the supposedly cutting-edge architecture monotonous and the absence of any urban amenities bothersome—there’s no alternative to the automobile for transportation to the town of Gualala, some miles north, for essential shopping. In effect, Sea Ranch is a de facto “gated community” even though the State of California requires obligatory coastal access for non-residents.

The village of Mendocino, as seen from the nearby headlands
Some Mendocino water towers have been repurposed for residential use.

We spent four nights in a short-term rental house, arriving on a Friday afternoon and leaving the following Tuesday morning. Two full days is about my limit there but, given the late Friday arrival, Saturday and Sunday were dedicated to extended dog walks on the coastal trails (significantly cooler than Buenos Aires). On the Monday, though, we escaped north to the truly picturesque seaside town of Mendocino (population 855), where we walked along the coastal cliffs and explored its quaint architecture, including numerous water towers—some of them since converted to housing.


In popular culture, Mendocino has been a location for numerous films and TV series, but I recall it best for the 1968 hit song “Mendocino” by the Sir Douglas Quintet (Texas transplants to California whose producer chose the name to try to capitalize on the Beatles-inspired “British invasion” craze; the above video is a version by Sahm's later band, the Texas Tornados). Interestingly, my wife knew the song even before we met, as it was also a big hit in Argentina; though neither she nor her friends really understood the lyrics except for the title, they could dance to it.


Even more interestingly, the group leader Doug Sahm (born in San Antonio) was of German extraction and, I recently learned, Michael Holm (above) recorded a German-language version that became a chart-topper in then West Germany the following year. Does this explain the fact that the German real-estate firm Engel & Völkers maintains an office in Mendocino, and that all its window listings there are bilingual in English and German? Perhaps it does, as the comments on Holm's YouTube video include one by a German whose wife insisted he take her to visit there (German used to be my second language, but it’s now a distant third to Spanish and I couldn’t catch much of Helm’s lyrics).

 

Mendocino seems idyllic, but it’s not immune to the rest of the country’s problems. Almost everyone we saw in town was masked up but, not that long ago, the anti-vax owner of Fiddleheads Café posted notices that he would collect a surcharge for any client wearing a mask, and an additional charge for anyone who bragged about being vaccinated. He’s since gone out of business, but might still be welcome in Texas (in fairness, the state has great food and music despite its COVID-friendly politics).

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