Friday, May 30, 2008

Branding Che

At this week's Cannes Film Festival, the main event was US director Steven Soderbergh's two-part biography of Ernesto "Che" Guevara. The first part, tentatively titled "The Argentine," deals with his role in the Cuban revolution, which took power in 1959, while the second ("The Guerrilla") covers his failed attempt to foment revolution in Bolivia, which led to his execution in 1967 and, ironically, made him an icon. Puerto Rican actor Benicio del Toro plays the role of Guevara in the four-hour-plus epic.

Its length, and slow-moving narrative, led film critic John Powers to call it “almost unreleasable in its current form in any country in the world,” while the New York Times's A.O. Scott wrote that Guevara's "brutal role in turning a revolutionary movement into a dictatorship goes virtually unmentioned" and that Del Toro's romanticized portrayal of Guevara was "naïve and incomplete, at worst sentimental and dishonest. More to the point, perhaps, it is not very interesting."

Predictably, perhaps, the Argentine press had a different take. In the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, Diego Lere suggested that
"the film may lack emotion and dramatic force..but Soderbergh certainly manages to make the life of an iconic personality, difficult to relate on film, credible. It's a 'Che' that takes the personality from the poster and returns him to the sphere of a revolutionary's daily labor." In La Nación, Diego Batlle wrote that it was "well narrated and carefully produced, avoiding historical errors and the artistic license of so many Hollywood biopics." In all likelihood, then, the full epic will find at least a niche audience in Buenos Aires if not elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Che made a reappearance on the streets of Buenos Aires the other day as a four-meter statue en route to his legal birthplace in the city of Rosario (Jon Lee Anderson, a consultant to Soderbergh whose biography of the revolutionary is the gold standard in Che studies, says the birth was registered in Rosario but actually took place in the province of Misiones). The statue takes its cue from Alberto Korda's famous photograph of Che, which appears on Cuban currency and in many other places.

Argentines, of course, have tried to make Che into a tourist attraction, especially in the Córdoba province town of Alta Gracia where he spent his formative years. One of his former homes (despite elite family connections, the financially struggling Guevaras always rented) is now the Museo Ernesto Che Guevara, which focuses on Che's youth; when I attended the Feria Internacional de Turismo in Buenos Aires a couple years ago, Alta Gracia used a Che impersonator to staff its booth (see the photo to the right).

Of course, that's not so different from what Soderbergh publicity people did to promote the movie. In a break between the two halves, they passed out bags of sandwiches, mineral water, and other goodies that included Kit Kat Bars (produced by the multinational Nestlé, which Guevara would have despised). According to Clarín, this came to be called "McChe," while La Nación dubbed it "Che's happy meal."

Following up, Ben Ehrenreich has a new article on Che's status as a style icon in The Los Angeles Times, and the separation of the man from the image - according to one cyclist on Venice Beach, Che was "the guy who invented those mojitos." Even Argentina isn't immune to that, though; last year, in the Misiones town of Puerto Iguazú, I saw a twenty-something with a Che/Korda tee-shirt that read "I don't know who he is, but I know he's fashionable."

Monday, May 26, 2008

True Confessions? The Real LP Guidebook Scandal

About a month ago, the publication of Thomas Kohnstamm’s Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, a purported exposé of the Lonely Planet guidebook empire and his own experience of it, ignited a firestorm of outrage among both publishers and readers. Even assuming he wrote truthfully of everything he did, though, Kohnstamm's self-indulgent analysis of the guidebook industry was flagrantly superficial. Moreover, almost everyone who responded with indignation to his hype got it mostly or nearly all wrong.

What is the scandal here, and whose is it? To summarize the story, Kohnstamm claims to have been so underpaid by LP that he had to resort to plagiarizing, soliciting freebies, and even selling drugs, to be able to update an LP guidebook (he has apparently never done one from scratch, but few if any current LP “authors” have; in reality, it would be more accurate to call them “updaters” of varying backgrounds and abilities).

Kohnstamm is correct that guidebook writers are often badly underpaid, but his account of his own LP experience lacks context. His first LP title, so far as I can determine, was the sixth edition of LP’s Brazil, which came out in 2005; the field research would have been done the year before. Working as a freelancer for a company founded in 1973, his knowledge of its origins and previous author policies is limited, to say the least. LP, meanwhile, has gone into damage control mode to counter Kohnstamm's assertions.

The Lonely Planet Story (Unofficial Version)
When Lonely Planet first appeared on the scene, it was an idealistic company that, in lieu of babying its readers through well-trod destinations in Europe, showed them how to get Across Asia on the Cheap for an ostensibly more authentic experience. As it expanded, it hired committed regional specialists who knew the destinations about which they wrote, and paid them well, with author copyright and royalty contracts that made them partners rather than mere freelance associates. I know several former LP authors who pulled in six-figure annual incomes from their royalties, all the while building the foundation for a remarkable publishing success story.

As an LP author, I was also a regional specialist, with advanced degrees in geography from Berkeley. I was never so fortunate as those other specialists, as by the time I began the first edition of Argentina, Uruguay & Paraguay (1992), the company was moving to a fee-based author compensation system (had I known more about this, I might still have been able to negotiate a royalty contract, but author copyright was never an option for me).

Nevertheless, I worked ten years with LP, producing multiple editions of titles that also included Chile & Easter Island, Buenos Aires (my original idea, and for several years LP’s best-selling city guide), Santiago de Chile (also my original idea), Baja California, South America on a Shoestring, and The Rocky Mountain States. The latter two were collaborations with other authors.

While I might have done better if I knew then what I know now, I have no complaints about my financial arrangements with LP. They usually provided a sufficient advance to pay expenses, paid the remainder of the fee promptly when the manuscript was finished, and even gave bonuses for good work delivered on time. In one case, they even provided an extra-contractual supplementary fee when prices rose suddenly and dramatically in Argentina, the destination I was then covering.

My Editor, Right or Wrong
I lived close to LP's Oakland office, where most of my books were edited, and genuinely enjoyed my visits with editors and other staffers. Toward the end of the 1990s, however, a rapid and perhaps reckless expansion brought major changes, with increasing bureaucratic interference (sometimes dictating content from Melbourne), exacerbated by rapid personnel turnover and the hiring of marginally capable editors.

One anecdote is particularly revealing. As I was visiting the Oakland office one day in the late 1990s, a senior editor whom I greatly respected told me that a visiting staffer from Melbourne was reviewing possible covers for the Santiago book, and that I might have a look at what he was doing. Four of the five cover mockups included a photograph of a stunning church which, however, I had never seen despite 20 years’ familiarity with Chile. Visiting the online archive where he found the shots, I learned it was Santiago de Compostela’s Catedral del Apóstol, begun in 1075 and finished in 1128 - more than 400 years before Spain, under Pedro de Valdivia, founded what is now Chile’s capital.

Such glitches were not unusual in my later years with LP. Not only did it not occur to the growing bureaucracy to consult with its in-the-field experts to avoid such blunders, but they also trained inexperienced editors to direct torturously minute and often pointless queries to authors (“Hotel X also cost US$20 in the last edition, didn’t the price change? ad infinitum). In one instance, where I had written that Argentine actor Federico Luppi “plays the lead in Mexican director’s Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos (1992), an offbeat science-fiction gangster film, and in US director John Sayles’s Men with Guns (1997), an allegorical exploration of political violence in Latin America,” a particularly clueless editor queried me whether I meant Luppi had appeared in both films.

That reminds me of the humorist Dr Science who, when asked if he used a fact checker, replied "I used to, but when she asked for a raise, I had to let her go. It's hard to find an intern who will work an eighty hour week for minimum wage. The ones who will aren't exactly the sharpest pencils in the case." Yet good editing is essential, and I had plenty of editors who didn’t go around fixin’ what wasn’t broke, but focused on serious matters such as plagiarism and suggested changes that brought out the author's meaning; even then, they sometimes missed things that authors, sooner or later, would discover. In one instance, several years after I completely rewrote (rather than simply updated) the second edition of LP’s Chile, I discovered that the original author had plagiarized Jan Morris in describing a southern Chilean city, and I immediately changed the text to give her attribution in a book that had appeared under my name. Having inadvertently plagiarized Jan, I was fortunate enough to meet her soon after and apologize for the mistake, which she graciously accepted.

In fact, Kohnstamm backtracked on the plagiarism issue, and on this I think he’s credible - most if not all guidebook writers use a variety of sources to confirm their information. If, for instance, a telephone call to Hotel X goes unanswered, it’s perfectly acceptable to check the number in another guidebook (if, of course, you can then confirm it independently). In-house editors have access to the same books - at one time, LP and Moon reciprocally exchanged new titles for their respective libraries, and appropriately used them to double-check authors’ research.

Purging the Authors
Yet the cumulative result of LP’s pedantic editorial meddling was to alienate the experienced authors who gave LP its credibility (my own frustration led me to challenge the “Luppi” editor with “What part of and don’t you understand?"). What had been a congenial and collaborative environment soon became confrontational.

But this may have been part of a strategy to rid the roster of authors whose royalties were too substantial; in fact, they soon demanded that authors who were copyright holders would sell those copyrights to the publisher. Reluctantly, the authors did so, and those who continued to work for LP took de facto pay cuts that I would estimate at 70 percent. Eventually, nearly all of them left for other opportunities.

In my own case, LP had no need to buy out copyright, which I never had, but most of my contracts contained a clause that granted me first refusal rights to update my titles. Thus when LP declared their intention to cut me loose because I was “difficult to work with” - a phrase many other authors became acquainted with - I had to take legal action to force their compliance. My attorney says I can say we won, but a confidentiality agreement prohibits my disclosing anything more.

Meanwhile, author bios of editors and other staff at Melbourne, Oakland and elsewhere soon began to appear on the introductory pages of LP guidebooks. What was most notable was how few of these parachutists had any regional expertise - for LP, which prided itself on knowledgeable authors, destinations appear to have become interchangeable. This year your assignment might be Morocco, next year Moscow, the year after Mongolia - whether or not your background qualified you for any of them.

This, then, was the backstory that Kohnstamm is seemingly unaware of and the publisher has no need to mention. In fact, I expect that most LP updaters do their best with their limited financial resources, knowledge, and skills. Still, many destinations are beyond their capabilities, and turnover is high; the publisher, meanwhile, can dismiss Kohnstamm as a “rogue author.”

Freebies, Ethics & Pragmatism
When authors had six-figure incomes, of course, they had no need to seek out freebies even if they were so inclined (having spent nearly 20 years in the guidebook business, I can assure you that it’s not so common as you might think, for what it’s worth). Yet LP has a particularly hypocritical policy on the issue: on the inside front cover of every book, a disclaimer states that “Lonely Planet writers do not accept discounts or payments in exchange for positive coverage of any sort.”

In fact, I think this is largely self-enforcing: one former LP author I know, who still writes for another series, is so adamant about not taking freebies that he goes to extremes to remain anonymous - in fact, he will deny his identity if someone asks him about it.

Yet LP’s disclaimer leaves a black hole big enough to absorb an entire independent guidebook publisher, so much so that the company’s publisher Piers Pickard found it necessary to declare that the company policy is "no freebies -- period." If that’s the indeed the case, they should at least change the disclaimer to reflect that policy, but even the most vigilant Melbourne bureaucracy will find it hard to monitor.

LP is far from the only hypocrite in the travel writing field (of which guidebook writing is a subfield). In April, New York Times Travel Editor Stuart Emmrich proclaimed an equally rigid posture toward freelance writers, essentially excluding anyone who had ever taken any sort of freebie from writing for his section. Yet much of the travel content on the Times’s website comes from the Frommer’s series, whose freebies policy is “Allowed if no quid pro quo” - which sounds like a variant of LP’s ambiguous guidelines.

I’m going to acknowledge that I have taken freebies. In 1991, as I was researching the first edition of LP’s Argentina, Uruguay & Paraguay title, my wife, a friend and I had an outstanding dinner in the Patagonian town of Los Antiguos, and I resolved to include the restaurant in the book (especially as it was pretty much the only place in town). The following morning, as we returned for breakfast, we met the owner, complimented him on the food, and stated our intention to include the restaurant. Flattered, he said the breakfast was on him and, though in reality we had no intention of soliciting a freebie, it would have been rude to refuse.

Generally, in fact, I prefer anonymity but, a couple years ago, I wanted to visit Hostería Helsingfors in Argentina’s Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Helsingfors, though, lies at the end of a 73-km dirt road and, needless to say, does not expect (or accept) drop-ins at what is an exclusive eight-room lodge. Thus I phoned its Buenos Aires office to ask if I might pay a brief visit to look around as I was leaving the town of El Calafate to head north on Ruta Nacional 40 (Argentina’s loneliest highway), and they agreed. Otherwise, I could not have seen Helsingfors, which deserved inclusion in my book.

As it happened, the on-site manager invited me to stay the night so I could take a hike in a nearby sector of the national park that I had never visited before, but the sagging single bed, in a no-frills bunkhouse room that I shared with one of Helsingfors’s guides, was no elite option. My pragmatic decision to spend the night did mean that I could speak candidly with several paying guests before continuing on my way the next morning, and I think the book is better for it.

The Bottom Line
Oftentimes, when new acquaintances learn what I do for a living, they ask me how to go about choosing a guidebook. It may be self-serving, but I tell them to look for a book that has continuity, from an identifiable author who has returned time and again to the destination. An outdated book by such an individual is likely to be more useful than an update by four rookies or, worse yet, unidentified contributors. The real scandal is that so few of us are left.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Airplanes & Ashes in Argentine Patagonia

In response to a comment on the previous entry, about flight cancellations in Argentine Patagonia, I wrote to Patrick Smith, a commercial airline pilot and author of Ask the Pilot, about the effect of volcanic ash on airplanes. Patrick is also the air travel columnist for

His reply to my question was the following:

"Volcanic ash can be very troublesome and occasionally dangerous to commercial airliners. It can scour up a plane's exterior, turn windshields opaque, and cause serious engine damage. A British Airways 747 once lost all four of its engines after an ash encounter over Indonesia. (Three of the engines were eventually re-started and the plane diverted safely to Jakarta.) A KLM 747 suffered a similar incident flying over Alaska. Ash is invisible to a plane's radar, making it hard to detect and avoid, particularly at night."

"Nine volcanic ash advisory centers (VAAC), positioned around the world, issue regular updates on ash plumes (position, severity, etc.) for commercial flights. The VAAC for South America is headquartered in Buenos Aires."

Presumably the Buenos Aires VAAC is well situated to make the call on flights into Patagonia, but there are no active warnings posted on its website.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ash, Rain, Snow, & Southern Cone Skiing

As Volcán Chaitén continued to smolder, heavy rains from a Pacific front cleared enough yesterday that an overflight could observe the formation of a new dome that could threaten the town of Chaitén. Already, of course, much of the town is under water, with perhaps 120 houses destroyed, and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet's government has suggested that it will be at least three months before inhabitants can return (if ever; permanent relocation is a real possibility). Flood waters have undercut the bridge at El Amarillo, southeast of town, so that Chaitén is unreachable by road, but most pets have now been evacuated.

With the approach of winter, storms have brought heavy rains and winds throughout the Chilean heartland as well, knocking over many trees in Santiago and causing floods and storm tides. But there have been benefits as well: some of the country's depleted hydroelectric reservoirs have started to refill and Andean ski resorts such as El Colorado, barely an hour from downtown Santiago, may open by month's end.

There may be ski season complications in Argentine Patagonia, though. According to Diego Allolio in Bariloche, "the situation is fragile because there are no flights" due to continued ashfall, and some hotels are laying off staff. In his ski blog, though, David Owen of Powderquest says that all trips are still go, even if they may have shift some days from Esquel's La Hoya Ski Resort to Chapelco at San Martín de los Andes, which has been unaffected by the ashfall from Chaitén.

At Trevelin, just south of Esquel, Charly Moreno of the Casaverde Hostel writes that "we're in between ashes and snow, and need to wear masks and be cautious with the vehicles," but that the water supply comes from deep wells and is fine.

All of Argentine Patagonia, though, remains vulnerable to interrupted flight schedules and, on top of that, Aerolíneas Argentinas fares have risen more than a third in the past month. Even if schedules resume, getting to the slopes will cost lots more.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Historical Demolition in San Telmo

Anyone who's been to Buenos Aires in the past few years realizes that the city's undergone a construction boom, with high-rise towers replacing traditional low-rise buildings in many parts of the city. This is nothing new - 50 years ago, in our Palermo neighborhood near the zoo and botanical gardens, most buildings were handsome palacetes, like the one in this photograph taken from our balcony (at ground level, it's now a fine café and the upper floors are undergoing restoration; note the sleek new apartments to its right, though). Our own apartment is part of a nine-story building that dates from 1976 and, though it has some nice touches such as parquet floors, its exterior is unremarkable.

In 1976, Argentina's vicious military dictatorship would have made it impossible to mount any public opposition to demolition of the city's architectural heritage, but that's no longer the case. Yesterday, for instance, the Buenos Aires daily Clarín reported the unauthorized demolition of the former residence of Pedro Benoit, the architect who planned the city of La Plata, capital of Buenos Aires province. The demolition went ahead despite protests by a citizens' group called Basta de Demoler (roughly translatable as "No More Demolitions"), as municipal inspectors claimed to have no authority to stop it.

The building, though, was not the only victim: The entire wall facing Avenida Independencia was covered with the landmark mural Carnaval de Antaño (Carnival of Yesteryear), one of few public nods to the Afro-Argentine population that was so notable and numerous in Argentina's early republic (a detail of the mural appears to the right). According to historian George Reid Andrews, successive censuses that systematically undercounted that population, followed by massive European immigration, soon meant that Afro-Argentines were "forgotten, but not gone."

The artists who painted the Carnaval mural, which won a prize from the city in 1990, came out in force to reproduce their work on the sidewalk near the demolished building, but the damage to the city's historic core and memory will be permanent.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Uruguayan Wheels

For most of the 20th century, Uruguay had a limited industrial base that never included automobiles, which were invariably imported at great expense. One result of this, still visible on the streets of Montevideo, Colonia, and other Uruguayan cities, was the survival of antique autos known as cachilas, about which I wrote an earlier post. Because of foreign collectors, these mobile tourist attractions are gradually disappearing from Uruguayan streets, roads and highways, though many remain in private local collections and museums open to the public.

Soon, though, cachilas will no longer be Uruguay's only automotive export. Last year, a Chinese-Argentine-Uruguayan consortium began production of Tiggo vans, which are already on the street in Montevideo. Within a month, the first units will be crossing the River Plate to take their chances in Argentine traffic.

Friday, May 16, 2008

We Are About to Land in...Puerto Natales

Earlier this year, two Chilean airlines began flights into Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park. These first limited landings may be just the beginning: according to an item in Mercopress, the regional government of Magallanes wants to make it a destination airport for tourist travel into southern Chilean Patagonia. This would mean an expansion to make the now modest airfield suitable for more frequent landings, including nighttime operations. Chile's flagship airline LAN would in all likelihood have the most services, even if Sky Airline and Air Comet continue.

In the recent past, the need to transport passengers overland from the Punta Arenas airport to Puerto Natales (three hours), and then to the park (another two hours), hasn't seemed to deter visitors - in the calendar year 2007, Paine received more than 125,000 visitors. Authorities, though, may be looking to the example of Argentina's nearby El Calafate, whose airport has largely superseded the coastal city of Río Gallegos and contributed to a boom in hotel construction, restaurants, travel agencies, and other tourist-oriented services.

While its population is considerably larger than that of El Calafate, Puerto Natales is a backpacker's Mecca that's only recently started to acquire a critical mass of boutique hotels such as Indigo Patagonia (whose rooftop spa, with views to Last Hope Sound, is pictured to the right), Hotel Altiplánico del Sur, and Hotel Remota (pictured below, on the northern outskirts of town). More are likely to follow, as they have in El Calafate; even if not everyone is enthusiastic about the prospect, it's probably better than building more accommodations in the park.

More flights into Puerto Natales would also simplify connections for trips such as the Skorpios cruises among the nearby Patagonian fjords, and the Navimag ferries to Puerto Montt. In all likelihood, Natales would be a stopover en route to or from Punta Arenas, with flights continuing to Puerto Montt and Santiago.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Comparative Disasters

I don't often link to editorial items, but this cartoon puts Chaitén and the rest of the world in context.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

No Sour Grapes Here

Chileans and Peruvians argue over whether the strong brandy known as pisco, usually distilled from Muscatel grapes, is of Chilean or Peruvian origins. In my opinion, it's a sterile argument: both produce very fine but slightly different versions of the beverage, and their signature pisco sour cocktails are also slightly different (Chile's best are tart, thanks to limes from the Atacama desert oasis of Pica; the Peruvian version has a stronger dash of Angostura bitters). Commonly served in a champagne glass, the frothy pisco sour is addictively tasty, and visitors to Chile and Peru often carry home bottles of pisco in lieu of wine (the bottle to the right is Chilean pisco, from the Elqui valley about 500 km north of Santiago).

Peru, of course, has a port named Pisco and the word is probably of Quechua origins. Chile, meanwhile, has marketed its pisco more aggressively and effectively ever since 1936, when the town of La Unión renamed itself Pisco Elqui, after the irrigated desert valley in which its vines are cultivated, in the present-day administrative region of Coquimbo. In Chile, Coquimbo (capital La Serena, the coastal gateway to the Elqui valley) and Atacama (immediately north, capital Copiapó) are the only two regions allowed to claim the name pisco for their brandy.

Chile will take its marketing to the next level tomorrow, as Pisco Elqui will host the first Día Nacional del Pisco (National Pisco Day). It's as good an excuse as any to indulge yourself in one of the great pleasures of any visit to Chile - the standard welcome drink at every hotel in the country.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ash on Demand: Natural, Political and Economic Disasters

Even as Volcán Chaitén continues to burble, and ash turns to mud in the rain, it's getting harder and harder to say what the real disaster is. By any reasonable standard, Chilean emergency services did an exemplary job of evacuating the town of Chaitén and, though there have been some complaints from evacuees over their inability to return for their possessions and especially their pets, the only fatality was a 92-year-old woman who suffered a heart attack during the evacuation. At that age, she might have died in any event.

Chaitén's latest problem is a flood on the Río Blanco that has left more than a meter and a half of volcanic mud and other debris in parts of town. What has happened, apparently, is that tree trunks and other flotsam have formed a debris dam at the Avenida Carrera Pinto bridge that leads to the southbound Carretera Austral (Southern Highway); the water has backed up behind it and then spread onto the floodplain. With only a handful of emergency workers available in what is clearly a dangerous situation, there's not the manpower to do much about ensuing property damage. It's been suggested that the town might have to be relocated.

At the same time, some politicians from the conservative UDI party have started to scapegoat the government and environmental philanthropist Doug Tompkins over the issue of building an interior road through the Parque Pumalín reserve. Tompkins has not opposed building a road to connect Puerto Montt to Chaitén, but has suggested that a coastal route, with a couple short ferry connections (such as the one that now crosses the Estero de Reloncaví southeast of Puerto Montt) , would be better than a road through Pumalín's impossibly rugged interior. It would also be far cheaper, but their primary goal seems to expropriation of a foreigner's property (though in fact Pumalín now belongs to a legally constituted Chilean foundation) rather than a road per se.

Even if an interior route were built it would, by my calculations, be no shorter than 350 km and, over such mountainous terrain, it would take at least seven hours for emergency vehicles to arrive from Puerto Montt. From the port of Quellón, across the Gulf of Corcovado on the island of Chiloé, the ferry crossing to Chaitén takes five hours on the rustbucket Alejandrina. In reality, it would be more efficient to improve the ferry system - a single ferry can carry deliver more relief supplies (including vehicles) faster than a flotilla of trucks that, in the case of Chaitén, could easily be blocked by floods (or even lava flows) in this sopping midlatitude rainforest.

In reality, nationalism trumps pragmatism in the political debate. Former President Ricardo Lagos, though, injected an element of common sense when he labeled the interior alternative as impractical "big words," even as he admitted it might eventually be built.

In the interim, ash continues to carry across the border into Argentina, covering large segments of Los Alerces National Park, on top of a major fire it suffered last summer. Up to two million sheep that graze the Patagonian steppe may be vulnerable because the ash is covering their pasture, according to Mercopress. Airborne ash has restricted flights from Buenos Aires to Argentine Patagonia.

Meanwhile, some Argentine "entrepreneurs" are seeing Chaitén's eruption as an opportunity. On Mercado Libre, the country's counterpart to eBay, several sellers have put fallen ashes up for auction.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

From Fire to Ice

Having completed the evacuation of Chaitén, Chilean authorities are unwilling to say when - if ever - its residents might be able to return to the volcano-threatened port on the Carretera Austral (Southern Highway). One government geologist has speculated that a worst-case "Pompeii scenario" is not out of the question and, if that happens, Chaitén could literally be history. Hot ash and pyroclastic flows could set the town on fire and, with no one around fight the blazes, nothing more than foundations might remain.

The volcano has already expelled two cubic kilometers of ash, but the prevailing westerlies have carried most of the material west and southwest, as the accompanying image suggests. A friend from the Argentine provincial capital of Neuquén wrote me that ash reached there Wednesday and it's carrying east into southern Buenos Aires province. Because of the ash clouds, Argentine airlines have postponed flights into the affected areas and, for one night at least, American Airlines postponed departures out of Buenos Aires back to the United States.

One could argue, of course, that Aerolíneas Argentinas often fails to fly in any event, and last week Spain's Marsans group agreed to sell most of the troubled company back to Argentine interests. The Argentine government will acquire about 20 percent of the shares, but most will be in the hands of as yet unidentified local interests. Whether any of this will improve services is open to question.

Meanwhile, Vicki Lansen writes from Futaleufú, which was mostly evacuated earlier this week, that she and her husband have decided to remain for the time being; the bank has reopened, and the Río Futaleufú appears to be running clear, with no evidence of fish kills, but the water supply is suspect. She adds that "Roving bands of young men with long, home-made roof sweepers are menacing the town. Random acts of kindness, fellowship and senses of humor are rampant."

Farther south, on the Argentine side of the Andes, it was announced that the town of El Calafate, gateway to the famous Moreno Glacier, will soon have its own glaciology museum, the Museo de Hielo. Apparently, however, this 2,000-square-meter project will be a privately funded facility that has nothing to do directly with President Cristina Fernández and her husband, ex-President Néstor, who own property in town and habitually spend weekends there.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Fallout from Chaitén

As Volcán Chaitén continues to smolder, the Chilean government has completed the evacuation of its namesake port. Nicholas La Penna of Chaitur sent me the photo of the initial evacuation, which took place last Saturday, on the Navimag ferry Evangelistas, which was diverted from its southbound itinerary to the Patagonian tourist town of Puerto Natales.

Even as the evacuation ends and Chaitén emits massive clouds of ash (the photograph here also comes from Nicholas La Penna), there are conflicting reports over whether lava flows might breach the crater and descend the Río Blanco into town. The best report I have read is an interview with vulcanologist Alfredo Lahsen in the Santiago daily La Tercera, in which he says that the viscous lava would likely advance no more than five or ten meters per hour. In such a case, it would take at least 40 days to reach the town. A more serious danger, suggests Lahsen, would be forest fires in this lushly wooded area.

There is also a good English language summary of current conditions at Mercopress, in which a Chilean government geologist says any lava flow is unlikely to reach Chaitén, but that hot ash and volcanic bombs could. This could be disastrous in a town whose structures are almost all built of wood - and with no one there to fight any fires.

Meanwhile, Carolina Morgado of the Parque Pumalín conservation project writes me that they have withdrawn all park personnel from the El Amarillo area, which lies directly in the route of the ashfall, but the rest of the park remains fully staffed. The conservative Santiago daily El Mercurio, meanwhile, implies that the eruption indicates an urgent need to complete the Carretera Austral from Hornopirén to Chaitén, as there is no continuous overland connection from mainland Chile except via Argentina.

Such a road is controversial because it would pass through the rugged terrain of Pumalín's almost untouched forests, and the park's founder Douglas Tompkins has been haggling for years with the government over an appropriate route that would minimize environmental damage. That's not all that's at stake, however, as private interests hoping to build massive hydroelectric dams in the southern Aisén region would want to use any such route to run thousands of km of transmission lines to energy-starved Santiago and the copper mines of northern Chile. Such lines would, of course, impact the landscape even more, and be vulnerable to events such as the current eruption. The current event has also proved the limited usefulness of motor vehicles in such emergencies, as many had to be abandoned because their electrical systems failed because of the ashfall.

Meanwhile, in Futaleufú, buses have taken most remaining residents across the border into Argentina, and will soon cross the border into Chile via the Cardenal Samoré pass, north of the city of Bariloche (a friend there, by the way, writes me that there is a big ash cloud to the south/southeast). From Futaleufú, Vicki Lansen writes that rain has reduced the four inches of ash to a "clay slurry." The Buenos Aires daily Clarín reports that ash clouds have passed over the southern Buenos Aires province beach resorts of Mar del Plata and Necochea.

In fact, it seems that the government and private response to the emergency has been remarkably effective, and it's hard to imagine that a winding mountain road through almost impossibly steep terrain on the Chilean side of the border would have improved it. What would help is an improved ferry system - it was good fortune that ferries were in port and nearby when the event began - and better integration with Argentine Patagonia.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Evacuation of Chaitén and Futaleufú

Since my previous entry, I've had word from residents in Chaitén and Futaleufú about conditions in the aftermath of last Friday's eruption, which continues. According to Nicholas La Penna, of the Chaitur travel agency in Chaitén, it was fortunate that the ferry Alejandrina, which links Chaitén to the mainland city of Puerto Montt, was in port at the time, so the town's evacuation went smoothly; they had help from the Puerto Edén, which was diverted from its more southerly Patagonian route, and naval vessels. About 4,000 evacuees went either to Puerto Montt or to Quellón, on the island of Chiloé.

From the boat, according to Nicholas, the view was stunning: "As we left Chaiten late in the afternoon, the scale of the event became clearer, the town in a shower of ash, hazy, the whole northern section, smokey and the gigantic column of volcanic ash growing, then another eruption of fresh material, darker and denser. Later from the ship, when night fell, we saw the volcano become a lightning light show. I counted at one point an average of 45 seconds between flashes of lights, most of them white, a few were red/orange." Contrast that with the clear skies in the photograph above, taken just outside Chaitén last summer.

Futaleufú, being more isolated (three hours by road from Chaitén but barely an hour from the Argentine city of Esquel), has had a more difficult evacuation, but buses are due to take several hundred residents to Puerto Montt via Argentina. Meanwhile, according to Vicki Lansen, who lives there, "we had three days of darkness, almost four inches of ash, and water contamination ... being cut off from the rest of Chile, lack of supplemental animal feed is devastating ... This morning a drizzle of rain and the sky is clearing of floating ash. We are out helping neighbors clear awnings, roofs and sidewalks. Everyone left in Futa is pitching in and getting things cleared up."

Meanwhile, across the border in Argentina, flights into the airport at Esquel have been halted until the skies clear, and authorities are recommending that residents leave their homes only when necessary. School has been suspended there and in nearby Trevelin and other communities.

If there's a silver lining in this cloud of ash, it's that the eruption is taking place at the beginning of winter, and that the frequent rains should wash much of the ash away. Livestock will suffer, but the tourist industry, on which Chaitén and Futaleufú increasingly depend, will have several months to recover - the season does not really start until October and doesn't get into full swing until December or even January. How long the evacuation will last is open to question, though - when Volcán Hudson blew in August 1991, it continued into October - but with luck rafters and kayakers will be descending the mighty "Fu" later this year.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Ash Falling on Alerces

In August 1991, Chilean Patagonia's 1,935-meter Volcán Hudson spewed an ashfall of more than five cubic kilometers that carried into the South Atlantic Ocean and even across the Pacific to Australia. In the immediate area, around the Aisén region town of Chile Chico and its Argentine neighbor Los Antiguos, more than 1.5 meters of ash accumulated in some spots. It fouled the water, ruined crops, killed livestock that could not reach forage, and drowned forests of southern beech such as the one depicted here along the Río Murta.

Farther north in Chilean Patagonia, where the narrow endemic alerce (false larch) is the signature tree species, a similar event is forcing at least a partial evacuation of the port of Chaitén (population about 4,000). According to the Smithsonian Institution's Global Volcanism Program, the town's namesake volcano, an 1,122-meter peak only about ten km away on the edge of the Parque Pumalín conservation project, is spewing plumes of ash up to 55,000 feet above sea level. Fortunately there is no snow on the volcano - because the peak drains toward the town of Chaitén, there would be serious flood danger. The caldera, though, does have two small lakes that could drain if the caldera were breached.

Again according to the Smithsonian, Chaitén's last known eruption was 7,420 B.C., plus or minus 75 years, so this was unexpected. Early reports, in fact, were that the eruption came from snow-covered Michimahuida, pictured here; an eruption on Michimahuida - the last was in 1835 - could cause major snowmelt and flooding.

Meanwhile, the prevailing westerlies are carrying ash toward the town of Futaleufú, Chile's whitewater rafting capital, and across the border into the Argentine city of Esquel (which canceled school classes yesterday), east of Los Alerces National Park. According to one Internet newsgroup report, some Futaleufú residents were wakened repeatedly by tremors during the night, and went outside to find the town covered by what appeared to be snow but, on closer inspection, was ash. There are photos of the town online at the Chile forum All Chile.

UPDATE: As of early Saturday evening, Chilean time, Chris Spelius of the Expediciones Chile kayaking and rafting company tells me that his wife is trapped in their Futaleufú house with the windows taped, without water and with diminishing food supplies. According to Chris, "No vehicles are moving as the volcano dust conducts electricity and ruins the alternators. There are about 50 vehicles abandoned on the road between Chaiten and Futaleufú ... " The border crossing to Argentina is open, but "but no one wants to take a vehicle since most vehicles do not last 30 miles in the dust."
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