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.

Friday, November 2, 2018

A California Tango?

California has a long and illustrious history of contacts with Chile, about which I’ve regularly written, but its relations with Argentina have been less conspicuous. Perhaps the most infamous episode was an invasion by the Franco-Argentine privateer Hipólito Bouchard, who occupied the Presidio of Monterey for six days in 1818, when the area was still under Spanish rule.
The sheet music for La Reina, Francisca Carrillo Vallejo's tango
Last week, though, I found a new and somewhat enigmatic connection when I accompanied a Buenos Aires visitor to the Oakland Museum of California. There I found, behind a vitrine in the Gallery of California History, the sheet music to “La Reina,” described as a California tango by Francisca Carrillo Vallejo. Published in 1925, when Carlos Gardel was at his peak, the song probably reflects the early 20th-century globalization of this distinctively Argentine music and dance.
General Mariano Vallejo, grandfather of the tango composer
There is scant online information about this piece of music, but the museum's Program Administrator Eileen Hansen informed me that the author was the granddaughter of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, a Californio who spent his life under Spanish, Mexican, and US governments. Ironically enough, Vallejo (born 1807, d. 1890) would have been a boy in Monterey when Bouchard occupied the Presidio. Unfortunately, Ms. Harris could not access the sheet music from the vitrine on short notice, so I’ve been unable to see the lyrics.
This house on San Francisco's Filbert Street was the home address for the song's publisher.
From the limited genealogical information available, I’ve not been able to determine Francisca’s exact lineage, but there were three Vallejo sons who might have been her father (there were also several Vallejo daughters, but their children would have had different surnames). The señorita depicted on the sheet music would appear more appropriate to a Mexican ranchera than an Argentine tango but, coming from an apparently Anglo publisher—Dudley and Barrett—that stereotype is perhaps unsurprising.

I look forward to reading the lyrics, eventually, and learning more about this topic.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Neruda & His Daughter

This mosaic in Santiago's Bellavista neighborhood suggests the reverence in which Chileans hold Pablo Neruda.
As a Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda is revered in Chile—even by many who abhorred his outspoken Communist politics. His literary and political fame, though, overshadowed what was often a messy personal life, a topic that Dutch poet Hagar Peeters tackles in her first novel, Malva, named for the handicapped daughter that Neruda neglected during her short lifetime.
Malva is Dutch poet Hagar Peeters' first novel.
Born in Madrid in 1934 to Neruda and his first wife Marijke Antonieta Hagenaar Vogelzang (known as Maruca), whom he met while serving in a diplomatic post in the Dutch East Indies, Malva Marina Trinidad del Carmen Reyes suffered from hydrocephalus. She died in 1942, spending most of her life with a foster family in the Netherlands after Neruda ignored her and her mother took what jobs she could after their 1936 divorce. Half that time was during the Nazi occupation of Holland, when birth defects denoted genetic inferiority at best.

Peeters tells Malva’s story through a sort of magical realism, with Neruda’s daughter as an omniscient post-mortem observer who, in the afterlife, acquaints herself with the children of other creative fathers who neglected their offspring: James Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter Lucia, Arthur Miller’s son Daniel (born with Down syndrome), and, oddly, Günter Grass’s fictional dwarf Oskar Matzerath of his novel The Tin Drum.
After the 1973 coup, the Chilean military vandalized Neruda's Santiago home, which is now a museum.
Neruda may have been a neglectful parent, but there’s a bit of autobiography in Peeters’ account, as her own father spent extended periods in South America during the tumultuous 1970s (Neruda died, and may have been murdered, less than two weeks after the military coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende in 1973). Born in 1972, Peeters acknowledges using her father’s diaries in reconstructing Neruda’s last days (as told by Malva). The account of Neruda’s funeral, in the house vandalized by the military, is especially eloquent.

According to Peeters, in fact, “Any resemblances between Neruda and my father, Maruca and my mother, and Malva and myself are entirely and mischievously deliberate.” In the end, there's an ambivalent admiration for them all.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Backroads Lakes of Chile

Chile’s Benjamín Subercaseaux famously described his country’s territory as “a crazy geography,” just as British author Sara Wheeler recounted her experiences there in Travels in a Thin Country between the Pacific Ocean and the high Andes. For much of the country’s history, travel has been a unidirectional venture, with few alternatives by sea, train or road—rather different from Argentina, where there’ve been multiple routes suitable for road trips.
Lago Llanquihue at Puerto Varas, the southern starting point for this road trip.
This occurred to late last year, when a New York reader wrote me about an upcoming literary trip to Chile—his book club takes it on the road—and asked me for recommendations for a trip between Puerto Varas and Pucón that would avoid the Ruta 5 freeway, the quickest (but least interesting) route between the two resorts.
New highway signs mark the Red Interlagos.
Not so long ago, that wouldn’t have been possible but, in recent years, the Chilean government has linked and improved a series of roughly parallel easterly roads that provide a more scenic alternative along the lakes of the Andean front range. The Red Interlagos stretches from the town of Inspector Fernández, north of Temuco, south to the village of Puelo, southeast of Puerto Montt. I recommended an itinerary to my client and, when I next returned to Chile, I decided to follow the route—more or less—myself. It bears mention that the Interlagos is not a single highway, but a network of interconnected routes that pass through smaller towns and villages, not all of which are resorts, so there are multiple options.
Roadside frontage of the Hotel Awa
My client started in Puerto Varas and so did I, spending a couple nights in the new design Hotel Awa, a multi-story concrete, glass and girder structure on the city’s eastern outskirts. With views over Lago Llanquihue to the perfect cone of Volcán Osorno, it’s the area’s most technologically sophisticated hotel, but with rustic touches such as hiding the TV in an old steamer trunk at the foot of the bed. At night, I dined on truffled pork loin, complemented by a barley-based risotto from its own vegetable garden and garnished with a hazelnut sauce.
Grounds of the Museo Colonial Alemán, Frutillar
From Llanquihue’s south shore, there are two ways north, on the west side via Frutillar or the longer east side route via Ensenada. At the former, there’s the remarkable Teatro del Lago and the outstanding Museo Colonial Alemán, a tribute to German colonists that reminds me of in situ museums in Scandinavia.
A cycling event on the easterly route along Lago Llanquihue, beneath Volcán Osorno 
Puerto Octay, on Lago Llanquihue's north shore
I chose the longer route, which offers a detour up to the volcano’s ski area, which is open for hikers in summer, and then proceeded to picturesque Puerto Octay, a small north shore town with a metal-clad church and turreted houses that evoke Mitteleuropa. On Octay’s outskirts, my choice for the night is Hostal Zapato Amarillo, a Swiss-Chilean B&B with sod-roofed cabins, personalized attention, and fine dinners.
Hostal Zapato Amarillo is a cluster of sod-roofed guest rooms just outside Puerto Octay.
Hotel Termas de Puyehue is one of Patagonia's grand hotels.
For my client, though, I recommended continuing to Hotel Termas de Puyehue, a classic grand hotel at Parque Nacional Puyehue, about an hour north of Octay on the highway that runs from Villa La Angostura to Osorno. For visitors coming from Argentina, this sprawling hot springs hotel, with nearby hiking trails, makes an ideal overnight or multi-day stay in what may be the closest analogue to Bariloche’s Hotel Llao Llao. Along this highway, there’s still abundant evidence of the 2012 Puyehue-Cordón Caulle eruption that covered much of the area in ash.
Volcanic ash still covers parts of the shoulders along the highway between Argentina and Chile.
North of Entre Lagos, parts of the route are still unpaved but being improved.
I didn’t stay at the Puyehue this time, instead heading north through the town of Entre Lagos toward Lago Ranco, a lesser visited destination in the heart of Mapuche country. Along this segment, the Interlagos road signs say “Norpatagonia,” and, on a gravel surface with signs of improvement, muddy potholes splashed water onto my windshield. As I approached the south shore town of Lago Ranco, I could spot Isla Huapi, an offshore island inhabited almost exclusively by Mapuches.
The route around Lago Ranco is completely paved.
Here, in an area far more popular with Chileans than foreigners, I stopped for a sandwich before continuing east along a smooth paved road with plenty of scenic overlooks. The last time I had visited, a cable barge was the only means of crossing the Río Nilahue, but now modern bridges ease the route around the densely forested east side to the north shore town of Futrono. Here, almost opposite San Martín de los Andes, I spent the night at the Cabañas Nórdicas, a cluster of spacious and seemingly Scandinavian structures on a bluff overlooking the lake.
Sunset over Lago Ranco from my accommodations at Futrono
North of Futrono, the route’s a bit better trod, approaching the Ruta 5 town of Los Lagos but then veering northeast to Panguipulli, the entry point to a “Siete Lagos” route that resembles Argentina’s in Río Negro and Neuquén. Panguipulli fancies itself the "City of Roses" for its gardens at the east end of its namesake lake, but the area’s big attraction is its hot springs resorts. My client raved about the Zen-inspired Termas Geométricas—an isolated canyon of waterfalls, creeks and naturally heated pools linked by boardwalks near Coñaripe that’s open for day visits only—in the shadow of the fuming Volcán Villarrica.
The Termas Geométricas is a secluded hot springs venue south of Pucón.
Volcán Villarrica, as seen from Pucón, on the opposite side of Termas Geométricas
After a leisurely day at the Termas Geométricas, nearby accommodations options include the
Termas de Coñaripe—a hot springs hotel in its own right—and the town of Lican Ray, with its black sand beaches at Lago Calafquén. Termas Geométricas, though, gets many day-trippers from Pucón, the uber-resort city that’s just over the hill (mountains, that is) on Lago Villarrica. There, the place to stay is the hillside Hotel Antumalal, a Bauhaus-inspired masterpiece that, arguably, set the stage for Varas’s Awa. Still, there are many cheaper but still outstanding options here, and great hiking in spots like Parque Nacional VillarricaParque Nacional Huerquehue, and the Santuario Cañi, a private conservation effort aimed at protecting the area’s Araucaria forests.
Queen Elizabeth II and other big names have stayed at Pucón's Hotel Antumalal.
At Parque Nacional Huerquehue, the Sendero Quinchol leads to dense upland forests of Araucarias and southern beeches.
For visitors from Argentina, it’s easy to return by the Paso Mamuil Malal to Junín de los Andes and thence to Buenos Aires or back to Bariloche. The road goes on forever.

Friday, September 21, 2018

At the Awa

Some seven decades ago, the Hotel Antumalal broke the mold of classic Chilean “Lakes District” hotels with a Bauhaus-style structure on a hill overlooking Lago Villarrica, on the western outskirts of Pucón. In the interim, it’s become a landmark that’s drawn famous clientele including Queen Elizabeth II, King Leopold of Belgium, Barry Goldwater and Jimmy Stewart (and me?).
Pucón's Hotel Antumalal introduced Bauhaus-style architecture into Chile's lakes region.
In fact, I’ve stayed several times at the Antumalal, most recently in March. A few days later, though, I had the pleasure of spending two nights at the recently opened Hotel Awa, whose bold contemporary design comparably contrasts with the Mitteleuropa style of nearby Puerto Varas’s emblematic architecture. The Awa occupies a similar lakeside setting to the Antumalal, but its multi-story concrete, glass and girder exterior is more conspicuous—perhaps, in part, because the Antumalal’s had so many decades to cultivate its elaborate gardens.
Hotel Awa, as seen from the lakeshore
View of Lago Lago Llanquihue, when I finally got the curtains to rise
While the Awa’s exterior is imposing, its interior is cozy, with regional woods and other local decorative touches, but also large picture windows looking onto Lago Llanquihue. The rooms are also contemporary, with more electrical outlets than I’ve ever seen despite rustic touches that include hiding the flat-screen TV—accessed by opening the lid of a leather trunk. For me, the room’s most confusing aspect was the remote control that raised and lowered the curtains—I never quite got it right, and I recommended that the manager leave written instructions for using it.
An old steamer trunk hides the flat-screen TV at the foot of the bed.
While the Awa is happy to entertain overnight guests with bed and breakfast, it also offers excursions in the area and all-inclusive packages, including meals in its restaurant. On my first full day, when it was pouring rain in a Marine West Coast climate that resembles the Pacific Northwest—“Awa” means water in Mapudungun—I took a guided hike to Laguna Cayutué, on the southern edge of Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales. The trail, through dense Andean forest, often resembled a stream, so it took extra effort to avoid muddying boots and clothing and, at the end of the day, I returned soaked.
The weather doesn't always cooperate with hikes in the area.
Diners at the Awa's restaurant
The truffled pork loin ended the day more than satisfactorily.
So, I decided to take a soak in the spacious Jacuzzi before descending to the Awa’s restaurant for a truffled pork loin complemented by a barley-based risotto from its own vegetable garden and garnished with a hazelnut sauce. And, of course, there were a pisco sour and a glass of Carménère to accompany the main course, before a white and dark chocolate parfait. The next morning, I awoke to clearer weather with views across Lago Llanquihue—after I somehow managed to raise the curtains.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Argentina's Heroic Forger

Late last year, I briefly noted the publication of Sarah Kaminsky’s Adolfo Kaminsky, A Forger’s Life, the tale of her father’s service in the French Resistance of World War II. That interested me, partly because Kaminsky is an Argentine, and partly because the Resistance provided forged identification that helped my 94-year-old uncle, who lives in Los Angeles, escape the Nazis after being shot down over France in November of 1943. His own account of traveling across France and into Switzerland is positively cinematic.
The English and Spanish-language versions of Kaminsky's story
I received a copy of Kaminsky’s book from the US publisher but, on my recent trip to Buenos Aires, I purchased a copy of the Spanish-language edition Adolfo Kaminsky El Falsificador, primarily because it includes a prologue about Kaminsky’s boyhood in the Argentine capital. Though he spent only five years there before his parents returned to Europe, he offers surprisingly vivid memories of a free-range boyhood in an immigrant neighborhood that sounds like the edge of Barrio Norte (he mentions living on Calle Ecuador, apparently near Avenida Córdoba, but is not more specific than that). 
The intersection of Ecuador and Paraguay is roughly where the Kaminskys lived in Buenos Aires.
Kaminsky’s mother, born in Tbilisi, married his Russian-born father in Paris during World War I. Given the disorder in Europe, heightened by the Bolshevik Revolution, the family had moved to Buenos Aires, where Adolfo was born in 1925. Interestingly, when the family returned to France, what struck him was the contrast with Buenos Aires, the noise from the cars, trams and trucks that crowded Parisian streets—“It was so different from Calle Ecuador!” In the ensuing century, Buenos Aires has more than caught up.

The return to Europe didn’t go as expected because the French would not grant the family immediate residence, and they spent two years in Turkey waiting for permission to return. The lack of papers, Kaminsky implies, may have inspired his interest in falsifying documents: “Nothing destined me to become a forger but, however, those papers that my family needed when I was a child were going to govern my life.”

Only 14 when World War II broke out, Kaminsky (and his Jewish family) survived the earliest years of the German occupation because of their nationality—Argentina remained a neutral country until nearly the end of the conflict. Adolfo, meanwhile, had acquired skills in printing, dyeing and photography that allowed him to produce passports and other papers that saved as many as 3,000 Jews from the Nazis.

Eventually, the Kaminskys themselves had to scatter and hide—with the help of Adolfo’s bogus documents—but after the liberation of Paris he provided Allied forces with new forgeries that helped them infiltrate German lines. After the war, he assisted European Jews in reaching Palestine—though he deplored Zionism—and then helped figures in the Algerian independence movement move between North Africa and Europe. He prided himself in never charging for his services—everything was pro bono for causes that he either supported or saw as a better alternative to the status quo.

Kaminsky did his last forgery in 1971 and lived in Algeria for a decade, marrying a Tuareg woman, before finally returning to France in the early 1990s. His daughter’s persistent inquiry into her father’s murky history eventually resulted in this book, presented as a memoir from a hero who, accustomed to staying in the background, refrained from boastfulness.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Lands of Fire and Ice

In California, this summer’s been a hot one and, perhaps, the worst wildfire season in our history. Here in Oakland, our worst was the 1991 firestorm—which came close enough to our Rockridge residence that my wife and daughter stayed with friends—but this year’s events have occurred mostly in rural wildlands and we’ve only seen occasional ashfall from them.
Until last Friday, I'd never seen Argentine plates in California.
Coincidentally, though, I received a reminder of another “land of fire” when, walking the dog last Friday, I turned the corner to see a Citroën Xsara Picasso with Argentine plates—the first such plates I’ve ever seen in California—that was decorated with a map of the Americas and the legend “Todo por América, Ushuaia – Alaska.” When I stopped to speak with them, the owners were a bit surprised to hear someone speaking (more or less) Argentine Spanish, but I invited Eduardo Ybarra and Emilia Florencio (and their Australian shepherd Ona) around the corner to meet my (Argentine) wife.
Emilia sips yerba mate, with Eduardo in the driver's seat and Ona in the back.
Eduardo and Emilia, though, had car problems—the starter had given out on their 2012 vehicle and the Citroën itself is almost unknown in this country except, perhaps, for a few collectors. Parking outside, they had to leave the car running (and locked) because they could only start it on an incline. After a brief visit and a thermos of mate, drunk while Ona cavorted with my daughter’s boxer mix in the garden (my elderly and arthritic malamute could only observe), I accompanied them to our local mechanic, who told us they couldn’t work on the exotic French vehicle (Citroën have not been sold in the US since 1974).
In 1991-2, our Peugeot 404 was a frequent guest of Patagonian mechanics.
Fortunately, using the mobile app iOverlander, they located a Guatemalan mechanic who managed to repair the starter, but their situation suggests a greater problem worth the attention of anyone who takes a Pan-American road trip. I myself have driven extensively in southernmost South America, first with a rattletrap Peugeot 404 that belonged to my late father-in-law and somehow survived the ruggedest stretches of Patagonia’s legendary Ruta 40—with help from talented street mechanics—in the days before that highway was even partly paved. In some cases, the surface was not gravel, but rather stones the size of my first.

I have even shipped cars from California—in one case an aging Datsun pickup and, in another, a more versatile Toyota Xtra Cab. In Chile, I now own an SUV, a 2007 Suzuki Grand Nomade with relatively low mileage, and I’ve occasionally encountered other gringos who’ve traveled the length of the Americas, though not necessarily from Alaska.

The type of vehicle makes a difference precisely because of parts availability and mechanical assistance. If, for example, you drive a Prius to South America, finding replacement parts would be nearly impossible, as these hybrid vehicles are only now starting to appear in Argentina and Chile. In my opinion, our new Argentine friends were fortunate to find a capable mechanic willing to tackle their problem—I expect he had to improvise—but if something gives out on the remote Alaska Highway, will they be so fortunate again?
If you're northbound from California, keep an eye out for Eduardo and Emilia.
I’ve never driven to or even visited Alaska, though I suspect that anybody along the route will lend the help they can in case of breakdown, but I still feel the Citroën is something of a ticking time bomb. Alaska also has a short summer, and I would hope they get started soon, as a long drive remains. You can follow their progress at Todo por América.
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