Monday, July 29, 2019

In the Falkland Islands, a Week Is Not Enough

As a travel writer myself, I’ve long enjoyed The New York Times 52 Places Traveler, in which a single writer (now one much younger than myself) spends a year exploring the world and producing weekly dispatches from some relatively well-known destinations and other more remote ones. In my own experience, the logistics of organizing several months of travel is taxing enough in my three chosen countries—Argentina, Chile and to a lesser degree Uruguay—that I truly admire the drive and skills of the chosen individual. This year, that individual is Sebastian Modak, whose dispatches appears every Sunday (in print and online).
An aerial view of Stanley Harbour, looking east,
with the city airport at the upper left
For part of 1986-7, we resided in a house belonging to the Sheepowners' Association, at 63 Fitzroy Road.
Yesterday,  Modak’s column dealt with the Falkland Islands, a personal favorite where I spent more than a year as a Fulbright-Hays scholar in 1986-7 and have returned at least half a dozen times. He went, apparently, in early July—“a couple of weeks after the winter solstice”—and says that there were only three other tourists on the Islands (I’m skeptical of that claim). The highlight was penguins, though the only species he mentions are kings and gentoos, which are present year-round (macaronisrockhoppers and Magellanics are migratory summer residents).

Penguins in Winter 
King penguins are the biggest attraction - except for the nearby elephant seals - at Volunteer Point.
On FIGAS's "Round Robin" flights, visitors can view impressive periglacial "stone runs" from above.
To see the kings, at East Falkland’s Volunteer Point, Modak took advantage of Falklands Helicopter Services, a new enterprise that obviates the need for an all-day Land Rover tour from the capital of Stanley, but that comes at a cost of £349 (about US$430) per person, with a two-person minimum (cheaper overland options are possible, but probably not in July). I can certainly concur, however, with his recommendation of the “Round Robin Flights” by the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS) that can give visitors a spectacular aerial overview of the entire archipelago at a fraction of that cost. He also went overland to the settlement of Darwin to see the Bodie Bridge, the world’s southernmost suspension bridge that’s apparently on its last legs (er, towers…) in the peninsula of Lafonia (while I have visited Darwin, I never made it farther south to the bridge).
Darwin from the air
Bodie Suspension Bridge, under construction in 1925 (Creative Commons)
Stranded in Stanley?
Ross Road, Stanley, as it appeared in early 1987.
The Historic Dockyard Museum is part of Stanley's renovated waterfront.
Modak, meanwhile, is almost shockingly silent on the capital of Stanley even though, of necessity, he spends several days there because weather delays his departure from the Islands. That’s not an uncommon occurrence but, for a journalist scheduled to report on 52 destinations in 52 weeks, it’s a major inconvenience. He uses the time to explore Stanley’s pub culture but, somehow, he overlooks a surprisingly creative food scene and the Historic Dockyard Museum—which might the best in the world for a town of its size (about 2,500 residents).
The Tasty Treat snackbar serves items such as St. Helenian plo - chicken and bacon with vegetables and rice in a South African curry,  topped with a fried egg.
Roast reindeer - once culled from South Georgia and now raised on West Falkland - is on the menu at Malvina House Hotel.
While the Falklands is much more than 1982 war between Britain and Argentina, the museum offers a professionally measured description of that conflict, which he says comes up with virtually everybody he meets. That’s not quite my experience, even though my wife is an Argentine who also spent a year there with me (on her US passport). He also, apparently, overlooked the multi-ethnic melting pot that the Islands have become since the war, with Chileans, Saint Helenians or "Saints," and even Argentines (there have always been some and, at one point, there was an Argentine policewoman).
During the 1982 war, Eileen Vidal kept countryside residents current on happenings in Stanley and elsewhere via radio telephone. When we lived there, she always knew where everybody was.
While Modak had some trouble getting out of the Islands he does, in my experience, overstate their inaccessibility and remoteness: “Consumed by a sense of total isolation, I leaned into the rare feeling of being off the map, stuck somewhere and part of a small community of travelers.” In fact, the Islanders themselves have always been in constant contact with the outside world—whether by mailboat, amateur radio, telephone and now Internet—and often express a sophisticated understanding of overseas events. The Internet may be slow and expensive—I can attest to that—but, as he acknowledges, there will now be a second weekly flight from the South American continent (in addition to the well-established connection with Santiago and Punta Arenas, Chile).
In the summer high season, cruise ship visits can nearly double Stanley's population - briefly.
Had he visited in January, when cruise ships can double Stanley’s population for a day, he might have adjusted his conclusion that “There’s no chance of ever being a major destination…” The Islands may be a niche experience, but one that’s likely to grow, especially as the logistics improve for those who prefer to be land-based. That’s my preference, I’ve been back at least half a dozen times, and I’ll do so again soon.

While the Argentine occupation left large numbers of land mines,  demining efforts have been successful and no civilian has ever been injured.
This being The New York Times, it’s worth mentioning the readers’ comments, of which there were just 17—almost all of them superficial and a couple astonishingly ignorant. One Patty Mutkoski of Ithaca lamented that there was no place for “long walks” because of “all the land mines left over from the war.” As someone who undertook multi-day treks on both East and West Falkland only four years after the conflict, and has seen the results of removal efforts since then, I can assert that there are many fine hiking opportunities around Stanley and also on the outer islands, such as PebbleSaunders and Carcass. The biggest obstacle is not land mines, but rather the almost incessant winds.
A hike along the headlands of Saunders Island passes through The Rookery, with large colonies of black-browed albatrosses, cormorants, and penguins.
Another reader, Barbara from California, bemoaned that she “didn’t understand why the USA was sending troops to the Falklands [in 1982], and I still don’t, now.” Perhaps that’s because the United States never sent a single soldier there; in fact, the Reagan Administration made every effort to appease Argentina’s military dictatorship before finally providing rhetorical support for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s counter-invasion. Another commenter, MBV from New York, dismissively proclaimed that “There’s nothing to see here, and it shows.” Just because Modak missed an opportunity doesn’t make that true.

Post-Post Script

Thursday, July 11, 2019

This Year's Eclipse (and Next Year's?)

Chilean eclipse-chasers filled the beach at Caleta Los Hornos (photo by Marializ Maldonado)
I couldn’t attend last week’s solar eclipse in Chile but, indirectly at least, I had a sort of presence. When my longtime friend Marializ Maldonado, at whose house I often stay when in Santiago, asked to borrow my car to drive north to the Coquimbo region, I immediately said yes, and she was able to view the event at the beachside locale of Caleta Los Hornos, north of the city of La Serena.
In the minutes before totality, at Caleta Los Hornos (photo by Marializ Maldonado)
Partly, this was a favor to a friend, but it was also a favor to me, as it’s best not to leave a car unused for months, as I do by necessity in the outskirts of Santiago. Marializ also often does me the favor of paying my highway tolls as, for some incomprehensible reason, Chile’s online payment system does not want to accept my US credit cards (though I use them regularly when I visit Chile).
The Coquimbo region is home to major international observatories such as Cerro Tololo (CTIO), part of the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory.
Marializ arrived just five minutes before totality, which she described as “two intense and beautiful minutes” on the Pacific shoreline. The most vivid account I’ve read, though, came from the New York Times, whose “52 Places” columnist Sebastian Modak saw the event from the European Southern Observatory at La Silla—also pointing out that this was only the third eclipse to pass over a major international observatory in the last 50 years.

The eclipse turned out to be an economic bonanza for the region. According to the local daily El Observatodo, the event attracted more than 300,000 people over five days, and those visitors spent more than US$82 million. Many if not most arrived by private car, presumably from Santiago as Marializ did, but there were also numerous foreign eclipse-chasers. Plenty of people also witnessed it from the Argentine side of the border, though cloud cover obscured things in Buenos Aires.
Path of next year's eclipse
There's no guarantee of clear weather as next year's eclipse passes over Volcán Villarrica.
For Chileans and others who missed this year’s eclipse, there’ll be another chance soon enough. On December 14th of 2020, the moon will once again block the sun in the southern lakes resort district around Lago Villarrica and the town of Pucón, but that area’s marine West Coast climate—resembling Seattle’s—mean that clear skies are no sure thing. A few years ago, some friends and I planned to do a small plane flyover of Volcán Villarrica’s steaming crater but, after several days of fine clear weather, the clouds moved in the next morning and made the flight impossible. Across the Andes, where Argentina’s Patagonian steppe usually has clear skies, could be a better option.
Next year, the rain-shadow steppes of Argentina's Neuquén province might be a better place to observe totality.

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