Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Fishing the Amazon? There's an App for That

Since I began writing for guidebooks in the late 1980s, I have focused on the area known as the Southern Cone for its shape on the map of South America. It includes Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, parts of Brazil and the Falkland Islands, but I’ve always retained an interest in the rest of the continent and other parts of the Americas. Though my experience in the Caribbean is limited to Trinidad, I have traveled in every South American country except Venezuela, and in every Central American except Belize (which unfortunately refused my Argentine wife entry for lack of a visa) and Panama (though I have changed planes there en route to South America).

In the course of my professional life, I’ve worked mostly with print media, and I still feel most comfortable with traditional guidebooks. That said, I’ve produced my own apps to Argentina and Chile (please refer to the ads in the sidebar) and, in the course of maintaining my interests in the rest of the region, I’ve tried to keep up with other developments in the field. Today I’ll bring one of those to your attention.

Fish Amazon
Nearly four decades ago, I first visited the Amazon Basin on a backpack trip through Ecuador, when I rode a dugout canoe down the Río Napo. Since then I’ve been briefly to the Brazilian Amazon, but do not fancy myself an expert on the area, nor am I a fisherman (though fly-fishing is important in the lakes district of Argentine and Chilean Patagonia, and a few other areas in those countries), but I do eat fish.

Once, in response to charges that he was not a musician, a rock critic asked rhetorically whether “You gotta play guitar to know how to buy records?” While I may not be a fisherman, I like to eat fish and, for that reason, I enjoyed looking through Larry Larsen’s Fish Amazon (link goes to iTunes; also available in Android version), since his knowledge of natural history seems to match his love of fishing. From my point of view, I also found it useful because many of the same fish species inhabit the River Plate drainage, where they can be found on the grills of restaurants along the Paraná and Uruguay rivers in Argentina and Uruguay.
According to Larsen, in an email he sent me recently, “The peacock bass (tucunare) are very small in the Paraná but the suribim (“shovelnose catfish,” pictured above, photo under Creative Commons license) and piranha are very large (30 pounds and much more, and four to five pounds, respectively). Payara, jacunda, trieda, red-tail catfish, pacú (“pigfish”) and the others are in there in relatively large sizes as well.” I don’t know all of these species by their Portuguese common names, but I am familiar with the surubí (as it’s called in Spanish) and pacú.

Not so long ago, the Buenos Aires restaurant Jangada specialized in grilled river fish but, unfortunately, it has closed. Close to my apartment in Palermo, though, diners can still sample pacú and occasional other options at Nemo, which serves mostly seafood. Visitors to the city of Santa Fe, however, will find a much wider selection at El Quincho de Chiquito, which specializes in products of the Paraná.

While I don’t fish myself, two locations along the Paraná come highly recommended for those who wish to test its sediment-laden waters. One of those is Paso de la Patria, about 35 km east of the provincial capital of Corrientes, and the other is Goya, about 220 km south of Corrientes.

Friday, July 26, 2013

León Ferrari, a Fond Farewell

Two Argentines from Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio and León Ferrari, are in the news this week, but for different reasons. Bergoglio is drawing international headlines for his travels through Brazil, while Ferrari is the subject of obituaries, but the two men are inextricably linked.

Bergoglio, a relatively spry 76-year-old better known as Pope Francis, is touring South America's largest and most populous country in hopes of reinvigorating Roman Catholicism where it’s fading fast, despite having the largest nominal adherence in the western hemisphere. Even given the difficulty of obtaining foreign currency in Argentina, many Argentine Catholics are making pilgrimages to their northern neighbor to view the first South American pope.
Ferrari, who died in Buenos Aires yesterday at the age of 92, is a good example of why the church is struggling. His father built churches and painted their frescos in Italy and Buenos Aires for a living, but the son assaulted religious hypocrisy with gusto – his prize-winning masterwork La Civilización Occidental y Cristiana (Western and Christian Civilization, pictured above) began as an almost topical protest against the Vietnam War in 1965, but in the interim it’s become an enduringly eloquent statement about the contradictions of political and ecclesiastical power.
So powerful was Ferrari’s work that in 2004, when the Centro Cultural Recoleta hosted a retrospective of his portfolio, the then Cardinal Bergoglio filed a lawsuit against it and protesting Catholics vandalized some of the exhibits; after a brief closure, it reopened to record-breaking attendance. As the photograph above shows, the lines outside were long - the exhibit rooms could not accommodate everybody at the same time.

I had the good fortune to meet Ferrari in his Retiro apartment shortly thereafter, and he was amused by the controversy. Before I left, he gave me a booklet of his poems which, unfortunately, I seem to have misplaced, but I’ll be looking for it again today. Even if I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Bergoglio one-on-one, I’m not sure I’d bother, but I’ll always be glad to have met a gracious, good-humored and unassuming artist like León Ferrari. Given his beliefs (or lack of them, in this case), “Adios” is certainly not an appropriate salutation, but he deserves to be remembered and respected for his contributions to Argentine and global art and culture.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Risks of Soccer in La Boca

More than once, in presenting Buenos Aires to audiences in my digital slide talks, I’ve been asked about the issue of safety. Personally, I feel that Buenos Aires is safer than many if not most places in the United States, and my facetious reply is that “There are no drive-by shootings in Buenos Aires.” Firearms, while not absent, are much harder to come by in Argentina than they are in the US.
That doesn’t mean that random violence does not exist, a fact that became obvious early this week when two fans died in a shootout of opposing factions of hooligan gangs of the Boca Juniors soccer team. In fact, this happened not in La Boca itself, but at the Bajo Flores stadium of San Lorenzo, in what was supposed to be a “friendly” match (ironically enough, that’s a term used in both Spanish and English to describe an exhibition that has no effect on league standings, though fans and players obviously take it seriously). The game was suspended, and will probably be replayed next week – with no fans present.
I’m not a soccer fan and, as I’ve indicated before, I’m not particularly interested in viewing a sport where hooligan gangs are a public health hazard. Boca’s hooligan gang is known as “La Doce” (the twelfth man, so-called because of the presumed advantage their fanaticism provides to the 11 players on the field). I have, however, visited the Boca Juniors museum in the bowels of the Bombonera (pictured above), the stadium where the team plays its home games, and found it a valuable experience for understanding the role of soccer in Argentina as a whole and the barrio of La Boca in particular.
That said, the museum has one major shortcoming. While it provides exhaustive coverage of the franchise’s illustrious on-field history and the players who have worn its blue and gold colors (as indicated in the photo above), and does a pretty good job of stresses its ties to the barrio, it omits any mention whatsoever of the notorious barras bravas (which are in reality soccer mafias) that make attending a match potentially risky. When I asked museum staff about the topic, their response was evasive – suggesting that they themselves are fearful of what La Doce might do if there were any criticism of the hooligans.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Is Chilean Politics Depressing? Leave It to the Women, Then

Argentines have a reputation for navel-gazing, and I’ve often written about the obsession with psychoanalysis in Buenos Aires. That’s not nearly so conspicuous in Chile, but it became front-page material this past week when rightist presidential candidate Pablo Longueira, who won a close primary election for the Alianza por Chile coalition of current president Sebastián Piñera, abruptly resigned from the race because of “depression.” The combative Longueira’s resignation is just one more negative in a topsy-turvy year for the conservative right in Chilean politics.
The Alianza, which consists of Longueira’s hard-right Unión Democrática Independiente (UDI, Independent Democratic Union) and Piñera’s more temperate Renovación Nacional (RN, National Renewal) thus found itself without a candidate even as the November 17 election was less than four months away. RN candidate Andrés Allamand, who lost narrowly to Longueira in the primary, seems reluctant to re-enter the race now that the UDI’s Evelyn Matthei (pictured above) has done so (Chile’s constitution prohibits immediate re-election of the president, so Piñera is not eligible).
Matthei, who is Piñera’s labor minister, would take on ex-president Michelle Bachelet (pictured above), who is the candidate for the Concertación para la Democracia (Consensus for Democracy), which groups several centrist and left-of-center parties (Bachelet herself is a Socialist). In a region known for its machismo, it looks as if two women will be the major candidates in the upcoming election.

That’s not the only unusual aspect to the matchup, though. Oddly, the fathers of both candidates were air force generals in 1973, when the military junta led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew constitutional president Salvador Allende. Bachelet’s father Alberto, though, was an Allende loyalist who later died in prison, from heart disease, after being tortured. Matthei’s father Fernando, on the other hand, supported the Pinochet coup and later served as part of the junta that governed Chile from 1973 to 1990.

Ms. Matthei, whose chances of defeating Ms. Bachelet are next to nil, has surprisingly progressive views on abortion and same-sex marriage (at least in the context of a socially conservative country), though Bachelet is probably more outspoken on those topics. Matthei, though, is an unrepentant spokeswoman for economic privilege, as an article in the satirical weekly The Clinic recently suggested.

With Matthei's nomination, the self-destruction of Chile’s already discredited far right will probably continue. The unfortunate aspect is that her campaign will probably contribute to polarization in the country’s politics, and that is potentially depressing. Perhaps that’s why Longueira backed down, but it’s likelier that his depression came from the fact that he was already doomed to lose, badly.

Those of you headed to Chile until mid-November will get to see the campaigns in action. If nobody gets a majority (there are some minor party candidates), there will be a mid-December runoff, but probably Matthei herself will be surprised if Bachelet does not win in the first round.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Wintertime Blues? More on Argentina’s Dollar Dilemma; Plus, Moon Chile Plays Los Altos

In temperate southernmost South America, the peak summer vacation season is January and February, though in reality it begins a bit earlier when school lets out in mid-December. In the northern hemisphere, of course, mid-December marks the beginning of our winter holidays, but the Southern Cone countries also have their winter holidays – in Argentina, most people take them around the country’s independence day of July 9, when schools take a break and families can head out of town or even out of the country.
When I wrote the other day about the spike in Argentina’s “blue dollar” exchange rate, I unfortunately neglected to mention that, with the winter holidays in full swing, increased demand for overseas travel has undoubtedly been a contributor. With few Argentines able to obtain dollars at the official rate due to the “currency clamp,” they have resorted to the informal market to be able to travel to Uruguay, Chile and even farther afield.

For some time now, I have included a “Currency Converter” widget on this blog, but it is useless for the unofficial Argentine market. Thus, with the fluctuating exchange rate in mind, I have also decided to install the “Dólar Blue” widget, provided by the Buenos Aires daily Ámbito Financiero, here. For those planning travel to Argentina, this will provide a dynamically updated way to stay apprised of the latest developments (I could think of no more ironically appropriate visual to accompany this than the Blue Cheer version of Eddie Cochran's classic "Summertime Blues," above).

Moon Handbooks Chile, in Los Altos
Tomorrow – Wednesday, July 17, at 7 p.m., to be precise – I will offer a digital slide presentation on travel in Chile at Santa Clara County’s Los Altos Library (13 S. San Antonio Road, tel. 650/948-7683). Coverage will also include the Chilean Pacific Islands of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and Juan Fernández (Robinson Crusoe), as well as southernmost Argentina (Tierra del Fuego and the vicinity of El Calafate) that appear in the book. I will also be prepared to answer questions about Argentina and Buenos Aires. The presentation is free of charge, but books will be available for purchase.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Exchange Rate Update: Argentina's "Blue Dollar" Rising Again

As always, the Buenos Aires foreign exchange market is unpredictable. Not so long ago, the so-called “blue dollar” had risen above ten pesos even as the official rate was barely over five, but that changed when the government of president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, desperate to pay off international loans, announced a program to encourage repatriation of overseas capital. The informal peso plunged below eight per dollar as investors and speculators apparently took a wait-and-see attitude toward the new Certificado de Depósito para Inversión (Cedin, or Certificate of Deposit for Investment).
Purchasing Cedin certificates would allow Argentines to bring dollars into the country with no questions asked – leading many critics to call it a blanqueo de capitales (an officially approved form of money laundering). The money in question could then be used to invest in real estate (where, traditionally, the currency of preference is the US dollar) or energy (where the government has expropriated foreign companies). After several years, they would ostensibly be redeemable for genuine dollars from the country’s Banco Central (pictured below), which controls monetary policy.
There’s been plenty of skepticism about the Cedin – one article in Bloomberg News carried the sarcastic headline “Give Us Your Real Dollars for Our Fake Dollars” – but the short-term effect was to depress the dollar until the law actually came into effect. Now it has done so, and the arrival of overseas capital appears to have been slower than the government had hoped. As a consequence, apparently, the “blue rate” peso has once again faded, having closed at 8.35 to the dollar on Friday.

The existence of multiple exchange rates is an unfortunate and unnecessary consequence of the Argentine government’s inept macroeconomic policies. The trend, though, appears to be upward again, and this will affect the cost of travel and tourism services in a complex manner. For those able to obtain dollars at the "blue" rate, though, travel will be cheaper.

Moon Handbooks Chile, in Los Altos
In just a few days – Wednesday, July 17, at 7 p.m., to be precise – I will offer a digital slide presentation on travel in Chile at Santa Clara County’s Los Altos Library (13 S. San Antonio Road, tel. 650/948-7683). Coverage will also include the Chilean Pacific Islands of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and Juan Fernández (Robinson Crusoe), as well as southernmost Argentina (Tierra del Fuego and the vicinity of El Calafate) that appear in the book. I will also be prepared to answer questions about Argentina and Buenos Aires. The presentation is free of charge, but books will be available for purchase.
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