Friday, February 15, 2019

Summer in the City? Not Quite Yet

Spring training has only just begun, but this morning I expected to be in the summer heat of Santiago, where it’s presently 88° F (31° C), but it was not to be. At 7:30 a.m. yesterday, I took a ride share (which shall remain anonymous) on my wife’s account, and arrived at San Francisco International Airport shortly after 8 a.m. for an Alaska Airlines flight that would connect to Los Angeles for a non-stop to Chile.
Santiago can (must) wait for my arrival.
Or so I thought. The night before, Alaska had denied me an online check-in because of the international code-share flight, and I spent an hour waiting in line only to learn that all flights to LAX had been canceled because of heavy rain (in both cities). In fairness, the clerk at the Alaska counter made every effort to find me an alternative flight, including a COPA route that would have left at 12:30 a.m. this morning and, after changing planes in Panamá, would have arrived in the Chilean capital at 8 p.m. this evening.

I have no complaint about Alaska’s service and suggestion, but it didn’t appeal to me—partly because it would have messed with my already fragile biological clock. Still, if like many travelers these days I had purchased my tickets online, I might have faced a daunting process of trying to contact LATAM (my carrier on the flight from LAX to SCL) and revise my plans for another day.

For this flight, though, I had trusted my itinerary to Analía Rupar-Przebieda of Eureka Travel in Southern California. She had already saved me the time-consuming process of searching for and purchasing the international flight, and had gotten me on the non-stop from Los Angeles instead of the route that stops in Lima, with a possible layover to change planes, and had also gotten me the best possible price.

Instead of re-doing it all myself, I managed to phone Analía, an Argentine whom I had met at one of my book talks at the late lamented Distant Lands in Pasadena. Then, within about five minutes, she phoned me back with the same itinerary rescheduled for Sunday, saving me time and, probably, aggravation. Then I was able to return home and rest rather than navigate an automated phone system to change my dates.

Unfortunately, that does mean I’ll have lost three days off a scheduled two-month trip. And it’ll delay my departure for the south because I also have some vehicle paperwork to do in Santiago, but I can live with it.

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Monday, February 11, 2019

Justice Delayed for Víctor Jara (A Film Review)

This Thursday I fly from California to Chile, changing winter—last week we even had snow on our backyard deck in Oakland—for summer. It’s been hot in Santiago and, when I arrive on Friday, the predicted high is 91° F (33° C).
The year after I took this photograph, in 2015 in Santiago's Barrio Brasil, the cultural center known as the Galpón Víctor Jara closed because of a dispute with the landlord.
Not precisely in preparation, I just viewed director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt’s “Massacre in the Stadium,” a documentary about the murder of Chile’s legendary folksinger Víctor Jara in the aftermath of the 1973 military coup that overthrew constitutional president Salvador Allende. It is presently streaming on Netflix.

A bit longer than an hour, Perlmutt’s film begins with Jara’s personal background and stock footage of the coup led by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, whose troops herded thousands of political prisoners in Ñuñoa’s Estadio Chile (an enclosed facility that that now bears Jara’s name; it is not the adjacent gigantic soccer stadium).

The film continues with interviews, including one with former Army Lieutenant Pedro Barrientos—Jara’s presumptive killer—but a supposed eyewitness later recants his testimony. Nevertheless, supported by subsequent testimony from several conscripts who were present in the stadium, Jara’s widow Joan (a British national) and the Center for Justice and Accountability persist with a civil suit in Florida against Barrientos (who is now a US citizen through marriage).

Barrientos submits to a lie detector test–his own condition for being interviewed–but there’s an unspoken implication that he has been coached to make the test unreliable. Nevertheless, Joan Jara and her daughters won a US$28 million judgment in compensatory and punitive damages.

Meanwhile, eight Chilean officers have since been imprisoned for Jara’s murder, but the film does not mention that Chilean prosecutors have indicted Barrientos (or not), nor does it suggest he could be extradited. However, a mid-2018 article in The Guardian, cited at the previous link, says that US is considering extradition.

In my opinion, one of the film’s strengths is that it avoids name-calling and political polemic to present the evidence, even though Perlmutt may subtly suggest that Barrientos has sidestepped the polygraph judgment. For anyone interested in Chile and this controversial period, it’s well worth seeing.

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Saturday, February 2, 2019

Carnaval sem Cachaça?

I visit Brazil only infrequently these days but, when I've done so it’s usually the border town of Foz do Iguaçu because it’s been part of my beat when writing guidebooks about Argentina. After foreigners see the Argentine side of the famous falls, they almost always cross the Tancredo Neves bridge to see them from the Brazilian side.
The Brazilian side of the Cataratas do Iguaçu (Iguazú Falls)
I once took an intensive summer course in Portuguese—the equivalent of a full year at university level—but it’s only my fourth-best language after English, Spanish and German. Brazilians have been remarkably patient when I lapse into Spanish cognates, though I don’t always understand their responses.
In Buenos Aires, Carnaval is a decentralized neighborhood phenomenon.
Montevideo's Museo del Carnaval depicts the origins of Uruguay's tradition.
I’ve traveled a bit in northern Brazil—Porto VelhoManausSalvador (Bahia) and Belém—but know the megacities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro only through their airports. That means I’ve missed the signature event of Brazilian Carnaval, though I’ve seen its counterpart in Argentina (where it’s experienced a neighborhood-oriented revival) and Uruguay (where it’s seriously under-appreciated by foreigners).
Moqueca de peixe is a flavorful fish dish.
I enjoy Brazilian food—particularly moqueca de peixe—and really appreciate the refreshing cachaça-based cocktail known as the caipirinha, made of cane liquor, lime and sugar. Brazilians themselves, though, probably consume far larger amounts of beer, especially during Carnaval.
Care for a caipirinha, Mr Mayor?
That is, unless Rio mayor Marcelo Crivella has his way. Somehow, Brazil’s liveliest party town elected this evangelical bishop to its highest office in 2017, and he has just asked that cariocas (Rio residents) refrain from drinking alcohol during Carnaval celebrations. He also embraces creationism, and objects to homosexuality and abortion rights.

If Mayor Crivella truly trusts in what he preaches, though, perhaps he could just pray that his constituents refrain from drinking during the festivities. Then again, his for-profit Universal Church of the Kingdom of God may well take a cut from alcohol sales.

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Monday, January 21, 2019

Betrayed by Rita Hayworth? Or Hollywood? (A Film Review, of Sorts)

While I’ve always enjoyed movies, it’s not an obsession so that, on occasion, something comes to my attention that I hadn’t noticed (or only barely knew of) before. That was the case on Saturday night, when our local PBS station showed director Charles Vidor’s Gilda, the film that made Rita Hayworth a star.
Filmed in late 1945 and released in 1946, Gilda is a noirish drama that aroused my interest because its ostensible setting is Buenos Aires, where small-time gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) becomes the right-hand man of corrupt casino owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready), newly married to the stunning Gilda (Hayworth) who—unbeknownst to Mundson—has an ambivalent history with his new employee.
Palermo's Hipódromo offers casino slots today, but probably not in the 1940s.
I won’t comment further on the plot, because I want to focus on the movie’s presentation of Argentina and its capital. In the first instance, it’s worth noting that, when Mundson first invites Farrell to his casino, he provides him a “key” because casinos were not legal in the city. This rings true because that’s still the case—there are casinos in the provincial suburbs, but not in the capital except for the floating Casino Buenos Aires (two vessels docked at Puerto Madero) and some slot machines in the Hipódromo Argentino de Palermo, where betting on horse races is legal (I doubt that the Hipódromo had slots in 1945). Other than that, there are only a few bingo parlors.
As the Hotel Centenario, the Palacio Vera was an ostensible location in Gilda (photo by Julieta Sol Narganes, Creative Commons)
Most of the film’s action takes place in building interiors—there’s a brief soundtrack moment of tango and a nod to Carnaval—with almost nothing to suggest the streetscapes of Argentina’s capital (so far as I can tell, the entire film was shot in Hollywood in just three months). One ostensible location is the Hotel Centenario, which then occupied the Palacio Vera, an Art Nouveau structure on the central Avenida de Mayo that dates from 1910. Again, though, the movie does not even offer an image of the building's exterior.

Though the Brooklyn-born Hayworth herself was a Hispanic woman (her father was a Spaniard), she does not play one in this movie. At one point she flees to Montevideo, across the river, but again the only scenes of Uruguay’s capital are interiors.
Argentina Brunetti was one of two Argentines with bit parts in Gilda.
The Hungarian-born Vidor introduces the theme of Argentina’s World War II dark side in the person of two German mining cartel members who frequent the casino. The ostensible Argentines are few, including a police detective played by the Maltese actor Joseph Calleia and another policeman played by Manhattan-born Gerald Mohr, and a washroom attendant played by the Ukrainian Steven Geray. Two Argentines play bit parts: the Buenos Aires-born Argentina Brunetti, who appeared in many Hollywood movies in the 1950s and 1960s, and Jack del Río, best known as the fourth husband of pop singer Peggy Lee.
The late Argentine novelist was a movie geek.
That’s not to dismiss Gilda as a film, but I suspect it could have been even better had it been filmed on location (a remake might be interesting). Who knows, could that be one reason that the late Manuel Puig titled his first novel Betrayed by Rita Hayworth?

Gilda is available on several streaming services.

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Airport Scrabble? SFO to LAX to SCL to PHD(?)

Over the weekend, the New York Times Magazine published an amusing column on airport codes as literature, and it coincides with a southbound trip I’ll be making to from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Santiago de Chile and beyond next month. The rest of the trip from Chile’s capital will be mostly overland, with an exact itinerary to be determined.
Outside the international terminal at SCL
Flying used to be a pleasure but today, for the most part, it’s an experience to be endured. On my upcoming trip, though, I at least have the benefit of an overnight non-stop from LAX to SCL, though a potential LIM (Lima) stopover would at least have offered the option of a pisco sour (which, however, will be abundant if rather different in Chile). Still, I can’t help but put in a word for favorite airline and, by extension, my all-time favorite airport code.
On the tarmac at Stanley
The FIGAS pilot checks with the passengers.
That would be the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS), which connects the Islands’ capital of Stanley with outlying airports and settlements. In fact, there’s only one other true airport, Mount Pleasant Airport (MPN), where intercontinental flights arrive from the United Kingdom (via Ascension Island) and South America (via Chile and, occasionally, Argentina). The other destinations have grass airstrips which serve relatively small settlements and some single-family farms.
The Royal Air Force manages Mount Pleasant Airport, which explains - at least in part - its utilitarian aspect.
In the mid-1980s, when I spent a year-plus in the Islands under a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship, I had the opportunity to visit many of those outer destinations, occasionally by sea—hitching a lift on the vessel that gathered the wool clip—but also by air. In fact, the introductory chapter of my dissertation was a round-the-Islands itinerary in the form of a FIGAS flight, with observations on their natural and cultural landscape.
A FIGAS flight arrives at Carcass Island, in the archipelago's northwestern corner.
While my own itinerary was an amalgam of flights that I had actually done, I recently learned that visitors to the Falklands can do this in the form of a “round-robin flight” that depends on seat availability—if a given day’s flights are not full, it’s possible to arrange the trip for £55 (East and West islands only) to £88 (including outer islands). In fact I have done this de facto, without paying any premium, because the day’s itinerary just worked out that way (FIGAS itineraries depend on individual demand for any given day).
Island settlements have grass airstrips, such as this one at Port Howard. The flowering bushes surrounding it are gorse.
Most visitors to the Islands are cruise ship passengers, for whom this not really an alternative, but for land-based passengers it’s something I’d highly recommend. Given that there are only weekly flights to the Islands from Chile, there’s no guarantee it’ll be possible to arrange it on short notice, but it’s worth consideration.
Port Howard settlement from the air
Referring to the beginning of this post, I'll return to the theme of my all-time favorite airport code, which is Port Howard’s “PHD,” as depicted among others in the photograph here.
FIGAS airport codes, including Port Howard at the lower left.
Missing Malbec?
Leaving California at this time, even for a relatively short two-month trip, is bittersweet—an epiphany that came to me as I read an article in the Buenos Aires daily La Nación about a Mar del Plata family that located its missing Alaskan malamute after six years, thanks to a Facebook page that they had persistently maintained. Chornyk had been stolen but then found—now 16 years old—in the western Buenos Aires suburb of Caseros, nearly 400 km to the north.
Chornyk disappeared six years ago from the beach resort of Mar del Plata.
This strikes home because my own beloved malamute Malbec is approaching his 15th birthday and, for a dog his size, that’s elderly. He still has a healthy appetite and surprising strength and stamina, but he’s increasingly arthritic—walking around our block, which is about half a mile in distance, is pretty much his limit. At his advanced age, there’s always a chance he won’t be here when I get back, but Chornyk’s longevity at least gives me cause for optimism.
In his retirement, Malbec no longer participates in backyard squirrel patrol.
An Addendum
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Sunday, December 16, 2018

Operation Finale - a Film Review

In my youth, it was a stereotype that South America—especially Argentina—was crawling with Nazis in the aftermath of World War II. That wasn’t entirely false, given the presence of monsters like Josef Mengele in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil—but it was also self-serving when the United States itself allowed many Nazis and their collaborators into North America after the war.

For South America, the best account of this history may be Uki Goñi’s The Real Odessa, which details the manner in which the government of Juan Domingo Perón—colluding with the Vatican in so-called “ratlines”—admitted escapees from European justice immediately after the war. If many such stories are prone to exaggeration and even fabrication—a cottage industry of “Hitler in Argentina” publishing still exists—there’s concrete truth in the tales of individuals such as Mengele, Erich Priebke, and especially Adolf Eichmann.
This selection of titles at the 2016 Buenos Aires book fair suggests the worst of "Nazis in Argentina"  publishing.
Eichmann, of course, made international headlines when Israel tried, convicted and executed him for crimes against humanity in the early 1960s. His story has recently reached the big screen in director Chris Weitz’s Operation Finale, about the Nazi functionary’s capture and abduction by Israeli agents in the “Zona Norte” sector of Buenos Aires suburbs. It’s also available for streaming, for a charge (below is a trailer; I watched on iTunes).
As an Obersturmbahnführer (Lieutenant colonel) during the war, Eichmann organized Jewish deportations to various death camps but, after the war, he evaded capture and eventually reached Argentina with false documents. There, living under the pseudonym “Ricardo Klement” in the northwestern suburb of San Fernando, he kept a low profile.

Played by Ben Kingsley, Eichmann is a creature of habit and, after the Israelis stake out his home and observe his commuting routine—taking the same bus at the same time every day—they manage to spirit him away to an apparently nearby safe house (Weitz filmed in the western suburb of Hurlingham, but I’ve no idea where the actual house was).

First denying his identity, Eichmann presents himself as a simple bookkeeper and family man before eventually, under interrogation, admitting who he is. Even then, he refuses to sign an Israeli-drafted agreement to stand trial in Israel, spurring arguments among his captors about forcing him to do so. Eventually, though, Israeli agent Peter Malkin (portrayed by the Guatemalan-American actor Oscar Isaac) persuades Eichmann to sign, with a promise that he will again be able to see his wife and family.

It’s worth stressing here that, for all the espionage and skullduggery, this is not an action thriller, but rather a psychological drama. After signing, Eichmann delivers a snarling justification of his role in the Holocaust, but there remains the task of spiriting him aboard an El Al jet to return to Israel—a task which, despite some apparent over-dramatization here, goes off without a hitch.

The following year Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem and, after he exhausted his appeals, the Israelis executed him by hanging in mid-1962. Before his execution, though, the Israelis honored Eichmann’s request to see his wife.

Monday, December 3, 2018

G-20? The Buenos Aires Aftermath (With a Nod to FDR)

In early 2016, on the occasion of President Barack Obama’s trip to Buenos Aires, I wrote a short summary of US presidents’ visits to Argentina. It started with Theodore Roosevelt (an ex-president at the time of his visit) and continued with Dwight D. Eisenhower, the recently deceased George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Now, for better or worse (evidence suggests the latter), it’s time for an update.
More than a few Argentines thought little of George W. Bush.
Over the weekend, as almost everybody knows, Donald Trump traveled to Argentina’s capital for the annual G-20 summit of the world’s leading economies, at the Centro Costa Salguero (not far from our apartment in Palermo). With concerns about security, the Argentine government declared Friday a holiday and encouraged people to leave town for a long weekend. Trains and subways were shut down for the duration and, from all accounts, the city felt like a ghost town.
Trump's own punctuation, subconsciously at least, undermines his legitimacy.
In an interview today, Argentine president Mauricio Macri revealed that Trump didn’t even want to attend and, from his apparent disinterest in diplomacy, he couldn’t wait to get out. In fact, when Trump was supposed to join the other heads of state for a photo, he marched right past Macri and off the stage (though he eventually rejoined). He did assent to most of the conference’s outcomes with the notable exception of the Paris agreements on climate change, where his denial of the issues makes the US a pariah on the most critical environmental crisis of these times. Ironically enough, in a tweet he issued today, he appears to have doubts about his own legitimacy.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the streets of Buenos Aires, 1936
When I wrote the previous article, I was unaware that Franklin D. Roosevelt—arguably the greatest president ever—had visited the Argentine capital in 1936, on an extended cruise through the Americas (at the time, there was no Air Force One to jet the chief executive overseas). Roosevelt spent only three days in Buenos Aires, from November 30 to December 2, addressing the Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace. One of his goals was to encourage a front of opposition to encroaching European fascism. The text of his speech is online at the FDR Presidential Library.

It’s noteworthy that, in 1961, local authorities changed the name of Calle Guanacache, in the northern barrio of Belgrano, to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The current White House occupant, who’s succeeded in making the rest of the world share the skepticism that many Argentines always do of US presidents, is unlikely ever to achieve any such recognition.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Ghost Towns of Patagonia? A Review of "False Calm"

When the great Charles Darwin looked back on his travels, he displayed a surprising affection for Patagonia’s endless plains: “"In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes; yet these plains are pronounced by all wretched and useless.  They can be described only by negative characters; without habitations, without water, without mountains, they support merely a few dwarf plants.  Why then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm a hold on my memory?  I can scarcely analyse these feelings; but it must be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination."
A crossroads on the Patagonian steppe
Darwin’s focus was natural history, but he also observed Patagonia’s peoples and cultural landscapes, as he did in his description of the ruins of “Port Desire” (now known as Puerto Deseado): “It was formerly attempted to make a settlement here; but it quite failed from the want of water in the summer, and the Indians in the winter. — The buildings were begun in very good style, and remain a proof of the strong hand of old Spain.” He thought the area almost uninhabitable, though, “As the fate of all the Spanish establishments on the coast of Patagonia, with the exception of the Río Negro, has been miserable.”
María Sonia Cristoff—herself a Patagonian native—might agree with Darwin, but for different reasons. When I first saw False Calm – A Journey Through the Ghost Towns of Patagonia, the subtitle suggested something very different from what I then read about, an area I’d gotten to know pretty intimately over the course nearly 40 years. I had to check the Spanish version—“Un recorrido por pueblos fantasma de la Patagonia”—to clarify exactly what she meant. That wasn’t enough, though, as she wasn’t writing about abandoned settlements like remote Cabo Raso or the old Frigorífico Swift company town near Puerto San Julián, both of which I had visited regularly if not frequently.
Cabo Raso is a genuine ghost town on the coast of Chubut province
The Frigorífico Swift, on the outskirts of Puerto San Julián, is an industrial ghost town.
Cristoff, though, is not interested in nostalgia-laced curiosities in a region renowned for its wildlife and wild Andean backcountry. Rather, she focuses on what I would describe as semi-urban backwaters on the Patagonian steppe that begins just inland from the Atlantic and extends well beyond the limits of Darwin’s vision at Puerto Deseado, and I might call her experience a "stay" rather than a "journey."
Las Heras, one of Cristoff's "ghost towns," survives on fossil fuels.
Personally, I might also call her destinations "backwaters" instead of "ghost towns," and Cristoff is more an ethnographic participant observer of life in settlements like Cañadon Seco (population roughly 900), which is only 14 kilometers from the coastal oil town of Caleta Olivia (population 80,000 or so, which I know fairly well). Except for the inland oil town of Las Heras (population 23,000, which I’ve visited once), most other settlements are so far off the beaten track that I struggled to find them on road maps that showed only gravel tracks in the area.
Cristoff's hometown of Trelew is more prosperous than the towns she writes about.
She gets to know her destinations through residents who seem stuck where they are or, on occasion, are returnees (escapees?) on brief visits to their former homes. Her stories often tell us the darker side of small communities that we know exist but may prefer to overlook. These absorbing but taxing tales almost completely ignore prosperous places like Trelew—the author’s hometown—and nearby Puerto Madryn, which have flourished with the tourist trade, wool, and industries such as aluminum.

That said, this is a worthy counterpoint to Patagonia’s romantic image, as seen from afar or on brief sightseeing tours. I know the translator Katherine Silver slightly and, while I might still quibble with the term “ghost town” in English, it’s perhaps metaphorically appropriate to places whose inhabitants are wraiths even to their fellow citizens who pass through their communities. At the end of the day, the title “False Calm” implies aspects of Patagonian life that short-term visitors are likely to miss but are nevertheless important.
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