Friday, November 28, 2008

PAMPAS-ASS TRAVELER PUTS ON AIRS, TAKES TO THE AIR, IN BUENOS AIRES




I hate to hang around when the party’s over. When it’s time to go home, then I do it. So I steal away in the middle of the night, from Vina del Mar climbing high into the Andes by midnight, straight up from the Chilean coast. Too bad there’s not much moonlight or it’d be a pretty sight I’m sure. As it is there’s not that much to see, a few snow-capped peaks and a rugged road a couple miles high I reckon. We finally hit the border crossing about three in the morning and there’s a line waiting of course. At least they’ve incorporated both countries’ formalities into one checkpoint Charlie, so we only have to do this once. I hate formalities. It all takes about an hour and soon we’re on our way again, off into the night and toward the pampas. But I’ll only go to Mendoza, stay a night, and then head off again to the Big City. Cop a crap first thing after an all night bus ride or you’ll pay for it later in traveler’s constipation, that poor second cousin to traveler’s diarrhea. This is a rule, like traveling light and not traveling with butter. Defy me at your peril. The things you should ‘hold in’ usually refer to your mouth. A good coffee usually works, but there are products on the market if the symptoms persist. Be careful what you ask for in Portuguese unless you want aspirin. Asi es idioma.

Mendoza is okay, a medium-size Argentine city with medium-size pretensions. After several weeks in Chile, I immediately recall why I prefer it to Argentina. It’s the difference between Europe and America, the Continent and the UK, rationalism and empiricism. For all its fancy restaurants, I’ve got nothing to eat. I must’ve lost ten pounds in Argentina and only partially gained it back in Chile. Hardie K’s diet tours anyone? Paris-loving Brits look aghast at me when I rag on Argentina’s food, or lack thereof, but listen to this: “If the stunningly boring national obsession of ham and cheese has left you with a yearning for more exotic food, with a little searching you can find international restaurants…”, and that’s from full-time ex-pats doing a travel ‘zine in Argentina, Dutch and Australian the principals, so I’m vindicated. And they’re being generous. It takes a LOT of searching to find something besides the asados and parilladas that the country is famous for and the pastas and pizzas that serve as filler for restaurant fare, starchy greasy stuff sufficing for fast food.


Still a little persistence pays off. If you can handle all-you-can-eat buffets (tenedor libre = ‘free fork’) and the long dark nod that usually follows, then Chinese is a decent option, though no cheaper than the US. A better option for me is take-out by the kilo, a decent $3 fix for about a half kilo (= 1 lb. for you Homies). I even found a veggie place doing the same, and even has brown rice, even cooked correctly. There IS a God. You just have to search. The veggie place still has steak knives, in case the tofu’s tough. Argentina DOES beat out Chile for coffee, Nescafe practically unheard of, and espresso prices cheap in places without seats. They saw me coming. The possible induces the probable. Don’t believe me? Order a double espresso in a cup with no lid, then attempt to walk down the street without spilling any. Someone will bump into you. I guarantee it, especially in Bs. As., where subways disgorge passengers onto streets planned for horses. Unless you’re a champion racing waiter, you’re in trouble.


They do that here for real, too, waiters walking down streets with a tray and two cups, rather than office workers having to deal with the indignity of refilling the water in a coffee maker in the office. It’s so romantic, so Latin, so inefficient, so ridiculous, an acquired taste for etiquette I suppose, cultivated over millennia. If they’d stop kissing each other, they might get some work done. But that would cut into the 3-4 hour siesta, mightn’t it? We don’t want that. So currency devaluations compete with inflation to see who wins, the Argentine economy slowly sliding downward by fits and starts.

Argentina’s got very few supermarkets, and they’re disappointing when you find them. The ones in Chile are great and frequently found, with lots of prepared dishes also, including salmon and seafood and variations on the chap suey theme. At least you can usually find a roast chicken in an Argentine Carrefour, so that helps relieve the ham-and-cheese syndrome. Paraguay doesn’t need supermarkets for that. Chickens line the streets roasting like heads at an Aztec sacrifice. I think it’s the national bird there. The fact that the French finally came in to Argentina with supermarkets speaks volumes. Chile has several of their own chains. And all the smaller non-chain ones in Argentina are run by Chinese, every one! Are these pampas-ass cowboys lame or what? Like southern Europeans they’d rather hang in bistros and buy groceries in kiosks, pure retail dahling.


Meanwhile Chile has ubiquitous pubs and non-pretentious eateries, with lots of local and regional home cooking. This includes Mom’s favorite pure’ de papas, good ol’ mashed ‘taters. And don’t even think about finding any food besides pastry items before noon in Argentina. It doesn’t exist, except in some laborer’s imagination. Is a croissant going to last him till noon? What’s worse, they call them facturas. You spend two years learning business Spanish and the word for ‘invoice’, then the Argentines have to call pastries ‘facturas’. There oughta’ be a law. Thank God for eggs. Anything graced by two eggs in Chile is a la pobre, ‘like the poor’, cheap extra protein. In Argentina it’s a caballo, ‘like a horse’, cheap extra protein.

It’s hot in Mendoza, in some act of reverse adiabasis. Temperatures are supposed to descend as you ascend, but not when you’re coming from a cool coastal fog. The west coast of South America is like its northern counterpart in that respect, staying cool far into the season while the east coast is starting to bake. I kick around town for a day and a half, find a wi-fi signal in the park, but an electrical outlet is another story. Public ones don’t exist, not even in Bs. As. International airport. Score another one for Chile. You can usually find a plug or two in the bus stations there. I hate hanging with nothing to do, but if I can crank the computer up, then I’m usually OK. I catch the night bus on to Buenos Aires. Valium would help. You think Kansas is boring? It’s got nothing on the pampas. They just go on and on, like your relatives and their travel stories, flat as a stale Coke and without the caffeine.


We finally get in to Buenos Aires, a major world megalopolis, for whatever that’s worth. At least it’s a Sunday so traffic’s light. Sunday’s always a good day to travel in these parts, since everything pretty much shuts down. Saturday’s not much better. You need to pack in supplies for the weekend here. Despite the inconvenience it’s nice. Monday’s why, raucous and regrettable. Downtown Bs. As. has a level of social organization that rivals an ant hill for order. If you judge a country by its drivers, then Argentina wouldn’t rate too high. They’re not alone. Watch your feet. Pedestrians aren’t much better. It’s a vicious cycle. What I can’t believe is that so many people seem to like the confusion, meeting with friends and chatting on sidewalks where three sets of shoulders couldn’t fit sideways. They seem to feed off the stress, like Matrix mugwumps getting a bio-electric buzz. So I go out to the suburbs to check out Chinatown. My cell phone still gets a signal in the subway. That’s scary. There ain’t much to Chinatown, a few restaurants, some tourist kitsch and a grocery store, but at least the ‘burbs are peaceful, compared to the core. A pack of ramen noodles cost a buck. I could probably find a niche here, but… naah. I got a flight to catch. Beam me up, Scotty.

Monday, November 24, 2008

ANDEAN MUSIC, ANDEAN FILM… SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT






I finally get back down to La Serena and it’s just that- serene, and dirt cheap too, unlike certain other touristy locations. I even find something there I haven’t seen much of on this trip, Andean music, complete with dances, the kind of thing you might expect to find in Bolivia, but not here. I like it, the clogging and tapping, the singing and rapping. It reminds me I’m in South America. It reminds me I’m alive. To be sure the dances and costumes are derived from the Bolivian standard, regardless of to what degree any of them might still exist in Chile. Andean music itself is becoming increasingly interbred, and increasingly with jazz. I like it. A good example of this is the Chilean group Entrama I saw earlier in Valdivia. All Andean groups incorporate a great deal of Spanish folk music of course. This could help revive the genre. Andean music was one of the first types of ‘world music’ on the scene, long before ‘Afro-Beat’. Why has it faded? Is it too simplistic, too folksy? Have we simply outgrown it? Certainly the fact that many of its proponents are playing for tips on street corners and in subways doesn’t help, making it seem too common. Dressing up in American Indian costume like I saw in Barcelona and even in Buenos Aires doesn’t help much either. Those Otavalenos don’t miss a trick. The verdict is still out. Many of its problems are problems of ‘world music’ in general of course. But more of that later, I’ve got a film festival to attend in Vina del Mar.

I had a choice of which film festival to attend, the Mar del Plata ‘grade-A’ event or its much lesser known minor cousin, the Vina del Mar event. Vina (sorry no ‘enye’ on this keyboard) fit my schedule better and Chile satisfies my belly and my pocketbook better, so that’s where I showed up. If you’re hard-core of course you could do both in succession, but who’s so hard core when you could just sit home and watch cable instead? Still, there’s something nice about a good festival, mostly the opportunity to see a lot of good independent films and the festive atmosphere itself. For better or worse film festivals in recent years have increasingly become the farm system for Hollywood, a place for films to find distributors and audiences, the same films showing up all over the ‘circuit’, about as spontaneous as an alarm clock. On the plus side, Hollywood is making some of its best films ever with directors from all over the world, including del Toro, Cuaron, and Inarritu from Mexico.


Vina hasn’t reached that level yet, being more a venue for student films and the Spanish-language market for independent features and documentaries. The student films were fairly predictable dissertations on the status of the human condition, and the ease of changing all that if only society weren’t so corrupt. As Gertrude Stein once said, “students they are merciful, and recognized they chew something.” I wish I had said that, but I catch flack for my flights of fancy writing. Write vertically just once instead of the usual horizontal missionary position, and I’m sure to hear about it from hacks with axes. Sure as shit some redneck cop with bad teeth is gonna’ stop me and ask to see my poetic license. It never fails. Film is no different. It long ago surrendered to its to its most mundane role as a popular literary medium, its qualities of light color sound and celluloid reduced to subordinate roles. Such things are relegated to ‘experimental films’ and their festivals, increasingly hard to find. Money wins. YouTube and its surfing dogs don’t help much either, such is the tyranny of democracy, but they DO have stuff by Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage and all the other early innovators, if anybody still cares.


The documentaries at Vina were a disappointment, more talking heads (a technical term) than telling pictures, moral platitudes from southern latitudes, predictable at best. Boring film is failed film. The Mexican ones from the Churubusco studios were best, not surprisingly. This is a film tradition the qualitative equal of Hollywood, commercial cradle of Bunuel, and fountain of creativity. Their stuff always looks good. The fiction fared better than the documentaries. Though it’s hard to see them all when they’re playing simultaneously on different screens, the ones I saw were good, particularly an Argentine offering called ‘Soledad’, a play on terms, being the name of a new-born child and the theme of the film, solitude. The story manages to weave through social classes and their distinctions without falling into clich├ęs, just confusion. Such is life, a comedy of airs and errors. The Chango Spasiuk-infused soundtrack was perfect.


The Vina festival had its moments but largely failed from an outsider’s point of view. First and foremost a festival should be festive. I suppose it was if you knew where the parties were, but such are superfluous considerations for an aficionado of film. The buzz was at the O’Higgins hotel where I got wi-fi, not at the theatres, waiting with baited breath to see the next cinematic jewel to melt in your mind. One problem was that venues were scattered around town; at least Vina is not so big, so doable. Try that in Bangkok. They did once and it was the worst film festival I’ve ever attended. The ‘festival’ consisted of a sign under which volunteers would steer you to the theater that had the film you wanted to see (in a city of ten million!) and before which trucked-in Hollywood celebrities would gather for publicity photos, a purely media event organized by government functionaries. The same event when organized by and for film-lovers is one of the best I’ve ever attended, scads of films in one central location, both ‘circuit’ films and regional delicacies, robustly attended by local Thais always looking for an excuse to party.


Vina started off with one strike against it, fallen ill to the Latin American disease, labor strikes. From what I gather this one is by municipal workers, looking for cures to the ‘crisis’. This is not surprising in the typical Latin American bureaucratic state, but Chile is the least of those. Old habits die hard. This shut one of the main venues down, the Municipal Theatre and its retinue of selections and competition entries, though somehow it managed to open for the evening’s high-profile gala events. Shit’s relative. The main problem was with the organization itself. Information was not clear about times locations and costs, so some perseverance was necessary. That’s doable and probably excusable. Not excusable was the unprofessional attitude of much of the volunteers themselves, presumably film students, entering theatres mid-screening en masse laughing and cutting up, even talking on cell phones. *^%$(&^%!!! Hardly anybody stayed for credits and sometimes they were cut out completely!? There is no substitute for professionalism. Still, Vina’s got potential. But me, I get on the bus again a day early and head for the hills. After three weeks in Chile it’s time to head back to Argentina. It’s time to head home, wherever that is.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

SANTA FE SOUTH- ATACAMA SOONER OR LATER




The Santiago-Valparaiso nexus lies in the fertile central region of Chile. Below is increasing rain and cold, if not quite Antarctic extremes. Above is increasing aridity, if not heat, to extremes hardly known anywhere else, rainfall never recorded. Roofs are optional in Antofagasta. Somehow it seems strange for such dryness to exist next to the ocean, but that it does, on a cloudy day ocean, sand, and sky blending into a seamless grayness. Fortunately in Chile the sun usually comes out to brighten things up. Farther north in Peru, it seldom does. Fortunately the desert comes in stages. North of Valparaiso to la Serena is some of the most beautiful desert you’d ever want to see. Sonora’s got nothing on this. In keeping with Chile’s metaphor of a far-south California, there are wind farms climbing up the slope from the sea. Unlike California, an evening fog (?) rolls in and licks up the terrain until it whites us out briefly.

By the time the bus gets to La Serena it’s almost 6pm and we’re parked on the outskirts of town, or so it seems. This is a tourist town, but there’s not a map to be had anywhere. There’s a stall for tourist info, but it’s closed. Suburban bus stations are a bummer. You have to make a commitment to a place with incomplete information. It’s nice to hop from place to place, staying if you like, moving on if you don’t. It’s hard to know whether you like a place by looking at a shopping mall in the suburbs. That’s why centrally located bus stations are nice, though the trend is toward remote locations. That’s one thing nice about Buenos Aires, an easy walk into the center of town.


Though it doesn’t get dark until fairly late right now right here in Chile, I decide to shove on. I have to come back the same route, another unfortunate occurrence when the motto is ‘backpack, don’t backtrack’, but that’s the price you pay for your cultural intercourse sometimes. I could either hang around in Vina for a week for a film festival which may or may not be any good, by which time I’d be burnt out on the place, or take a trip and come back. I could also loop through Argentina, but extra border crossings can be laborious also, in time and paperwork and extra stamps in the passport. I get on the bus.


All night bus rides are a challenge. If you’re lucky you’ll be beside an empty seat, though it doesn’t matter that much. I’ve tried all kinds of positions, and the straight old middle of the saddle missionary position usually works best. It gets harder with age, but if you fly around, then you miss the landscape. That’s a big part of the fun, right? You can save some bucks 2. Buses may not be prompt in Chile, but they ARE pretty cheap. Unless some overexcited bus attendant plays videos all night, I can usually do almost as many hours REM as in bed, which probably says more about me than it. If there’s nothing else to do, I’ll study some Arabic; that usually knocks me right out. Don’t do that through border crossings btw. Pick another language, maybe Old Church Slavonic. That’ll f**k ‘em.


The night passes in darkness (doesn’t it usually?) outside. By the time I wake up the lush desert at Serena has become moonscape at Antofagasta. Temperatures hover just above freezing at daybreak on the road to Calama, though they’re around 70F by the time we get there an hour later. It’ll be scorching at high noon in San Pedro de Atacama, my immediate destination. Once a lonely dusty outpost on the Golden Triangle where Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia meet, this is now THE back-packers hot spot in the region. Unfortunately it’s still dusty, but now it’s hip too, with Krishna restaurants and tour guides, the whole nine yards, but not quite a first down, not for me at least. I hate it, reluctantly, this Santa Fe-in-progress. It’s a shame too, because if you could discover it early on, it’d be way cool, a picturesque stopover en route to a remote border crossing. There’s nothing a backpacker loves more than THAT.


But I have a rule of thumb: if a place has more than 50% tourists and/or tourist-industry workers, then I can’t do it. It’s a matter of authenticity, remember? I try to be open-minded, but… naah. I also realize the danger of reverse snobbery, the ‘authentic’ guy acting ‘less-tourist-than-thou’ when faced with people simply enjoying themselves. Does that change anything? Does that mean I’ll be hanging out at Khao San road in Bangkok? I doubt it. I know what I like also. I order a bowl of cazuela in a street stall up by the bus stop while everybody else sips wine or chug-a-lugs brew down with the Interzone people, best soup I’ve had in years. The prices are out of proportion here, too. I spend the night then get back on the bus. Others spend days and weeks, grooving with the groovers. But I stick to my guns- if you want to see the REAL Santa Fe, then you go to Las Vegas NM. If you want to see the REAL Thailand, then go to Laos. If you want to see the REAL China, then go to Vietnam. If you want to see the REAL Atacama, then go to…?


Considering I slept through much of the Atacama Desert on the way up, I figure to go back in stages, seeing what I missed. I already saw a bit of Calama already, so go back straight to Antofagasta. This is copper country. Statues in the Calama pedestrian mall are made of the stuff, and the rail yards are full of it, hammered into crumpled sheets. They only found the stuff after the phosphate trade dried up. I don’t know why it took so long- the hills around the area have a distinct greenish tint. Prices are up, stolen electric wire a big problem now, and the area is prosperous. Antofagasta is more expensive than any place I’ve been yet in Chile, with the possible exception of Santiago. It’s got plenty of bars and strip clubs for the mine workers. It’s even got ‘sexy’ coffee. Huh? It sounds like a trap. Have these people been reading my blog? These are daytime girlie joints with apparently a different set of rules than the nighttime alcohol-based ones. That sounds good to me, though not as weird as the ‘sexy breakfasts’ in Montreal. But there is something even more interesting here- gypsies, a whole family of them occupying the town square.


This is an anachronism and a dying way of life, the act of Gypsies being gypsies. They panhandle and perform little rites and shuffle around bugging people, but other than that the only thing that distinguishes them is their long flowing cheap printed dresses and a general attitude of listlessness. I want to know more, but not TOO much. I know these people’s reputation for sticky fingers. I don’t want to get ‘gypped’ by Gypsies; the idea is to get a piece without losing my fleece. So I let the lady approach me and do me up a little love potion. I need it. She takes some magic powder and asks me for a little piece of paper to wrap it up in. Then she asks me for a banknote to lay it on. I know what you’re thinking, me too- I’ll never see that note again. She does a few ‘repeat-after-me’s, then asks for a larger bill. I get the picture and start to leave. Feigning insult, though I’m sure she’s had much worse, she settles for another small bill and finishes the encantations.


We’re good and I’m outta’ there, she even suggesting I should consider a gypsy woman. Yeah, and they should consider bathing. As I walk away I notice a familiar smell. B-O? No, it’s the magic powder wafting windward, the distinct smell of… guess what? Curry, turmeric, the essence of India with a human vector, mobilized and motivated. Do the Gypsies know that’s their ancient home? They spoke another language to each other besides Spanish, but off my radar. What’s their story? Do they even know? Theirs is an emigration unlike any other, Jew Chinese or Inuit, bound together by ancient ties and uncertain logic. They’re famous even where they never reached. Tarot cards in Thailand are known as ‘gypsy cards’. I wonder why they didn’t head east.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

WHORE HOUSES, HOSTELS, BREAKFAST ‘N BED… AND BUSES

I don’t like staying in whore houses, or hotels acting like them, whether Hanoi, Tecun Uman, Dakar, or Santiago. It may SOUND cool, but it’s usually not. There are no keys. The doors only lock from the inside. Weird people congregate and act self-important. Weird sounds come from weird places. The toilet paper disappears only to re-appear in the trashcan smudged with lipstick. And I can’t get a wi-fi signal for shit. I decide to go to Valparaiso. The two-hour ride from inland to coast goes through pipe-organ cactus, eucalyptus, pine, and then finally palm trees. Multicolored houses form a patchwork on the surrounding hillsides, like Mexico without quite the same reeking stench of abject poverty. You can even take an elevator up the hillsides to the next level if you got balls. That’s a pretty good ride for a half dollar, though my stomach really would’ve rather stayed down. There are a lot of cheap hostales and residencias, but none of them advertise wi-fi or internet or anything like that. There IS one that calls itself ‘bed and breakfast’, a term mostly out-of-date, for me at least, and largely superseded by the term ‘hostel’ these days, but that’s probably the best bet. South American hostales pre-date the modern concept of ‘hostel’ btw though they may very well be cognate. If the place is hip to ‘hostels’, then they’ll probably use the term for you. Anyway I usually avoid conspicuously ‘Gringo’-oriented places, but try to maintain an open mind. If I wanted to hang out with Gringos, I wouldn’t be in South America now, would I?

Mostly I try to avoid Interzone people, not international travelers mind you, but what I call local people who consider themselves the self-appointed interface between cultures, whether they actually live in an ‘international zone’ or not, the origin of the term in war-time Morocco, I believe, and popularized by Uncle Bill Burroughs. I like the term so apply it to many circumstances which may not seem similar on the surface, but which I think really are. These people are generally blessed with a better-than-your-typical-local’s facility with Pidgin English and are extremely proud of it. But when I travel I look for authenticity, notwithstanding the fact that my presence and how others may perceive me may change the very thing I’m perceiving. Still I persevere and try to mitigate the circumstances by learning languages and blending in with the environment as much as possible despite the fact that my skin color places me to one extreme of the spectrum.


This is the good or bad side of ‘hosteling’, depending on your point of view, that a traveler can hop from one safe haven to the next, all around the world, without ever really ‘seeing’ the real world around him, only the false world created by other travelers like himself and the Interzone people who act as interface with the ‘real world’. In some cases this may be necessary and even good of course, giving you succor and keeping you from being suckered. But for the most part I avoid it, even though the chances of having real connections with ‘real’ locals are rare, at least in this age or at my age. It wasn’t always that way. Back in my twenties in the seventies I used to hang with the Homies a lot, mostly toking up. That was the zeitgeist then, no? I may have chatted up a few girls then, but they were secondary. There was a sexy revolution stateside about then too, remember? No? Too bad. You hardly needed to go south to get laid. Most cultures in Latin America don’t give up their girls to foreigners anyway, mostly just Peru and Colombia, same then as now. Peruvian girls used to stop me on street corners. No quiero que te vayas!” she said. But… but I don’t even know you. But riding with the guys on motorcycles around Silvia, Colombia (a town, not a girl), now that was a gas!


Manzanillas, Colombia, seems to have made women their number one export crop. I even remember the name of one girl from Mraflores, Peru, one Rosa Tramoltola, because she wrote it down and visual memory’s better than any other kind. I wonder where she is now? Sorry, Rosa, I meant to get back to you; really I did… That’s old news for Asia of course, though hosteling is even on the upswing there, despite the fact that cost isn’t so much of an issue. You’d probably pay more for a hostel in Thailand than you would at a normal businessman’s hotel. Not so in Argentina, where it can not only save you a chunk of pesos, let you meet some fellow partying travelers, but best of all allow you to do your own cooking, saving more pesos and ham-and-cheese heartache. Once again, this is hardly necessary in Asia, where a decent meal in a small eatery not only costs about a buck, not only tastes good, but has even got vegetables. Remember them? Of course if you want to bang the local bimbos (bimbas?), then a hostel’s not the place for that. That’s probably another reason traveling women are attracted to hostels in free-for-all Asia, where everybody’s in on the absurdly ridiculous sex trade, or it almost seems so sometimes.


Anyway at the Gringo ‘B&B’ they show me a room that I don’t like, but for the same price I ultimately get a large room with King-size bed on the condition that I only use the small extra bed. I’m in. So that’s barely two figures $ with cable TV and a rogue wi-fi signal that comes and goes. Jackpot! There’s only one thing missing, a good cuppa’ java, and I finally found that too, right in the bus station. It’s all an illusion of course. The next day AFTER paying the rent the B&B lady tells me that I have to change rooms, since they have a reservation for the big room that night. Why couldn’t she have told me that earlier? At least she didn’t move me herself. That’s not cool. It’s happened to me three times in my life and I remember every one, pissed as Hell. But to add insult to injury, she insists on speaking English to me, even though I’d never spoken it to her nor identified myself to her as American. While it’s all probably innocent, I tend to take such maneuvers as racial slights intended to emphasize her dominance and my Gringo-ass helplessness. While her English admittedly wasn’t that bad, neither is my Spanish, and it’s my money, so THERE! Two can play that game. Like love, language was never meant to be a weapon. So we duel dual lingoes back and forth a few minutes. Welcome to Thailand.


I know it sounds silly but Interzone people generally have identity issues which they resolve linguistically, no exceptions allowed. They can speak your language; you can’t speak theirs, PERIOD, end of discussion. To see you hobbled increases their own sense of self-importance. I speculated on this in Thailand for years, to critiques of paranoia and ego issues on my own part. Whatever the truth of my own shortcomings, I was right on this. It’s been confirmed, and I paid a heavy price for the knowledge. If you want to get ahead, then leave the Interzone bozos behind. They’ll cripple you, no apologies. I learned this lesson the hard way, paying dearly dearly, the penultimate sacrifice so to speak, if you will. I know I will. I hope she’s OK.


But I know to second-guess myself and not to burn bridges, so I even go look at the other room the lady has for me. It’s a dump and I tell her so. I’m out of there and into another cheapo place down the street with not a word of English written anywhere. The guy asks me for my RUC number. That’s the term for your national ID card in Chile. He thinks I’m Chilean. Am I crazy? Of course there’s no cable TV, nor Internet, much less wi-fi, but still it’s better than the room they tried to switch me in to at the first place, and cheaper too, so I’m vindicated at least partially. My miracle coffee didn’t really work either, after my initial exhilaration. They got the right machine but they’re not using the right coffee, or not handling it right in the process, leaving it open to the air or something like that. By the time it rolls into my mouth, it’s long been dead. Coffee is like any other food; it lives. Leave it open and the spirit leaves, evaporated to nothingness. Valparaiso is losing its attraction for me quickly.


About the time the ‘students’ next door finally crash out, AFTER the heavy metal marathon, the street outside is waking up. I hear horses clomping through the street even though I never saw them in the daytime. I imagine that I’m in Dickens’ England slinking down the street in the fog, then drift off again. The second time I finally look out the window; the horses are real. At least the Burmese didn’t attack. That only happens when I take sleeping pills. The last time that happened I lay silent in the grass for hours, tied and captured. When the sun finally rose I realized I was just tangled up in the sheets. That was when I was in traction; I’m better now. I’ll go to La Serena tomorrow, then on up the coast to the Atacama Desert, but I’ve still got a day to kill so follow the coast a few miles down to Vina del Mar. That’s a good move; it’s everything that Valparaiso’s not, shiny and happy compared to Valpo’s run-down feel. I usually like that feel of faded glory, but not always, especially not when I can upgrade for free.


Vina is not expensive at all, certainly not like Copacabana, its sister beach resort on the opposite coast. I’ll come back for the film festival next week. It may not be ‘Grade A’ like Mar del Plata running this week in Argentina, but that means ‘Hollywood’, even if they have an independent section. I like regional films and Vina’s fine, the last place I would’ve expected to like, with its jet-set image. This might be the epiphany for the entire trip. But first I got some miles to go and some things to see. Miles cost money of course, but when you go at night (often no choice) you save the cost of a crib. It usually works out about the same and is great if you can arrive mid-morning. Looking for a hotel at midnight’s a drag.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

CHILIES TODAY, CHILLY TONIGHT, STILL CHILE TOMORROW




Chile has the most unusual shape in the world, right, like some string bean or something? Or maybe one of those silver straws they use with the mate’ cups in Argentina? They don’t use those on this side of the Andes. Everything’s different over here- no more gauchos, no more mate’, no more Portu-Italo-Spaniol as lingua franca, no more fancy pretentious restaurants with spotless white tablecloths, wine glasses, and waiters in penguin suits. No, Chile is more down-to-earth, with many small eateries and menu options with nice little ladies running from table to table, advertising the tastiness of their food by the inches on their waistline. They even have sopaipillas down here, street food, something I’ve never seen anywhere in Latin America, though standard fare in US Tex-Mex restaurants. How come? Did culinary DNA make that big of a leap or was it widespread in previous times only to become forgotten at the center, kind of like camels in Asia and llamas in South America, first cousins long forgotten in their North American home of birth?

There’s only one problem with those cozy little holes-in-the-wall. They’re smoking in there, cigarettes not ribs. Apparently each place has the right to choose its orientation, some choosing separate sections, most choosing the status quo, i.e. smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. In a large place it’s not so offensive, but in a smaller place the smoke can really build up in a cool climate where the doors are shut tight. As if it’s not hard enough to keep your clothes clean on the road, try fighting the fumes too. Still, for a $3 plate of salmon, I guess we can overlook some unpleasantries, right?


But back to that funny shape, it’s really worth stretching your imagination a bit to fully comprehend. Imagine grabbing California by its little Baja chicken-leg, then rip upward along San Andreas’ fault and follow the Sierras northward all the way up to say, about Juneau. Now take that sucker and flip it over southward, letting people slide toward the desert while you’ve got it upended (losing most of them in the process, may they r-i-p). Now slide the whole thing southward to the tip of the South American continent. Welcome to Chile, stretching from almost Antarctica to the Tropics. The southern part of the country is so wet you’d almost think you’re in Oregon or Washington, but without all the people. The northern part is so dry some parts have never recorded rainfall, but they’ve still got plenty of people, and have had long before the Spaniards or even the Incas. The cultures are well documented, since not even textiles rot in dry sand, not to mention the Nazca lines of Peru or the ‘tall ruling people’ observed on Easter Island at the colonizers’ first visit but gone by the second.


But if you like the US Pacific Northwest, then southern Chile is like paradise. Punta Arenas may be a bit cold and windy, but not THAT bad considering its geographical position. Give it some latitude; if you don’t like the weather now, then just wait an hour. The wind is so strong it’ll go through four or five weather changes each day. Puerto Montt is a definite improvement weather-wise, if still a bit rough around the edges from its frontier perch, a mini-Seattle servicing the outback. At least the flowers are beautiful. They say the grayest climes produce the prettiest flowers. If New York or Hanoi is any measure they produce the darkest clothes also, and some of the darkest moods, too, people looking like the Hanoi buzzard ladies dressed in black pajamas, squatting on haunches, chewing betel nut through reddened teeth and watching me with crocodile tears. It all comes back to me now, the angst and the helplessness of that longest night back then back there, frozen in panic, waiting to die and living to look back on it, creating new gods to serve so that they might save me before the night’s over. So I walk the streets of Puerto Montt in my certified 100% wool plaid ‘grunge coat’ humming Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’, singing the chorus in three-part harmony and waiting for the rain to stop. It doesn’t.


Valdivia is the sweet spot, the pearl of coastal southern Chile, sitting on three rivers and a bay on the ocean also. Not only do you get salmon, but sea lions too. Strawberriews and cherries line the streets for sale. Sound familiar? Portland would DIE for this view in its backyard, the better to compete with Seattle. Again like Portland, the ambience is friendlier and less threatening than its edgy neighbor farther pole-ward. Crafts are for sale in the markets, lots of articulated lizards, but no rain sticks, not yet at least. I wonder if they buy their lizards from China now? The houses are all made of wood, ship-lap and shakes, and architecture that lends itself to the use of wood, very ‘un-Latino’. Is that because of the pronounced German influence into the bloodlines here? It’s probably more because of an abundance of trees, chain saws proudly offered for sale, certainly not illegal like in Thailand. I even got to see and hear some good music on the way through. A ‘fusion’ group called Entrama (Andean jazz?) just happened to be on tour and was there at the university the same night as me. Chile seems more sentimentally attached to Andean culture than its eastern neighbors, even though Argentina probably has more of it within its borders. I like it, flutes and quenas and cuatros with cellos and organ and clean jazz guitar.


There are some problems in paradise of course, the rain not the least of it. There’s also the cold, not so cold really until you try it without heaters and a chill set into the bones. Then there’s the coffee, much harder to find in espresso form than neighboring Argentina and just as expensive or even more if you do. You know you’re in trouble when the espresso machine has a Nescafe logo on the side. Pretentiousness has its perks I suppose, but can’t you be unpretentious and still prefer good coffee? I’m confused. And how do you explain cheaper prices at Starbucks in the US? Coffee is an international commodity, meaning the same price the world over. Wages are four or five times higher in the US and a cup of coffee is mostly just that, labor. You can get a lot of cups out of a ten dollar bag of coffee, and that’s retail! Go figure. And that doesn’t mean you can even find a place open before mid-morning. This is when you need that breakfast with your bed, just to have something warm for your belly first thing on a chilly Chile morning. Screw it. I’m tired of the wet and cold. I’m going to Santiago.


Fingers are crossed. Santiago has a rep for smog, but maybe Saturday will be better. Maybe all that rain will have washed it away, future perfect tense. The bus pulls in at day break and the outlook (i.e. sky) looks grim, grimy and gray. But that’s typical of the morning on the Pacific coast of America almost everywhere, isn’t it? It finally lifts to reveal blue sky, something I haven’t seen in days, if not weeks, temps mild even warm, and sidewalk cafes busy. I’m groggy from an all-night bus ride and things happen to make me wonder if maybe I’m hallucinating. First I pass a Christian Science reading room. Huh? In Santiago? Mom, are you following me? Then I’m sitting in the park looking for a wi-fi signal, when an entire family of three sits on the bench beside me, seemingly interested in my Cambodian baseball cap. The man asks me in English, “Where you from?” I answer in Spanish, “Soy Americano.” Then they start talking to each other in Thai. Huh? In Santiago? Tang, are you following me? Turns out they’re with the embassy here, three of the couple dozen Thais in town. The teen-ager's nickname is Anwar, in homage to the Thai pop star. I inform him that's an Arab name, something he was oblivious to. We chat for a half hour in Thai, trading notes and addresses.


Too bad there are no good hostels downtown. In the rush to convert to condominiums, hostales don’t bother to renovate. The only cheap hotels are for short-term use, renting by the hour. Anyway I’m home, for a day at least.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

OBAMA SWEEPS PATAGONIA ON WAY TO WIN; CONSPIRACY LOSES BIG

Arizona voter Earl Hardie Karges, also known by his pen name 'Hardie K', faxed in his vote for US President last week from Punta Arenas in Chile, on the Strait of Magellan next to Tierra del Fuego. Though his travels have and will continue to take him all over the world, that doesn't mean that he doesn't keep up with or maintain an interest in American politics. How could he in a world increasingly global both politically and economically?

"To say that this could be the transformation of American politics would be an understatement. One vote could make the difference between war and peace, proper health care or none, the past and the future. It's been difficult being a traveler the last eight years with America's increasingly belligerent and indefensible position in the world, not just from the locals, but from the Europeans who expect better from their close cousins. The Statue of Liberty and the Statue of Lincoln have inspired millions of people for hundreds of years and now we've become a pathetic caricature of ourselves, maintaining one system for ourselves and another for everybody else. America was born in the struggle for freedom and human rights. We want our revolution back."


So this means another vote for Obama?


"Is there any other choice? If he was short on experience before, he's certainly gained it in this campaign. That's the good aspect of these long grueling elections; it makes you tough. I didn't support Obama originally simply because others had more experience and their policies are similar. His value increased every day that he didn't stumble or lose his cool. McCain's value decreased for the same reasons, with his silly campaign stunts and reckless posturing. If Obama's execution of his job matches his vision, then the entire world could have a peerless leader for decades to come. Of course he'll need Congress's support long before he'll ever get Ahmadinejad's or Chavez's. The potential is tremendous and exciting. That's why I'm making the extra effort to cast my vote."


Why Punta Arenas in southernmost Chile to vote?


"Why not? I plan to visit every country before I’m finished. This is where I happen to be as Nov. 4 rolls around in a country that I’m visiting for the first time. Considering that I'm registered to vote in Flagstaff, Arizona, where I've lived on and off for the last twenty years, it's appropriate, considering their mutual and sometimes surprising Arctic-like conditions; make that ‘Antarctic’. It snowed here this morning in the middle of spring. That sounds like Flagstaff to me."


Is this just a cheap ploy for that fifteen minutes of fame we were all promised by Andy Warhol?


"Absolutely not; it’s not cheap at all to get here. Have you seen airline prices recently? Seriously though, I'd like to publicize the fact that voting is not limited to a little booth in your little hometown in some little corner of the world. We've come a long way since Biblical times. I wish I could do it all by Internet, but we're not quite there yet, maybe next time. As it is, the forms can be received by e-mail scan, but then I have to fax them in. That's not bad. The people in Coconino County, Arizona, have been very helpful. There's no excuse not to vote. I'd like to inspire others to do likewise, wherever you happen to be."


Where next?


"I'll go up the coast to central and maybe northern Chile. I've been in and around Argentina for a few weeks and just crossed over to Chile here in Patagonia. So far I like it a lot. Since I'm not much of a steak eater, the food seems better than Argentina, and costs are reasonable. I plan to be back in the US the day before Thanksgiving, then pick up my wife and head to Thailand, where she's from and which is my true second home. Then I'll travel some more while the dollar's strong against the Euro, which hasn't been the case in years. This is the real deal. It’s a way of life."


So Obama won and some people are declaring the death of racism. I doubt that but I would say it’s about time to bury conspiracy theory. I take this personally. I’ve lost friends to conspiracy theory. It’s worse than any conspiracy itself could ever be. I hope they’re OK. Yeah, you know the rap. “The candidates are all the same… They were all members of the same secret society… The game is rigged… If you don’t have money, then you can’t go anywhere in this society…” This rap reached fever pitch after 9-11 of course with claims that our secret government attacked its own people as a pretense for starting a war, something a lot of very intelligent people have no problem believing. The story probably peaked around the 2004 elections with claims that the two candidates were somehow ‘the same’ or that the ‘secret government’ might decide to ‘install Kerry’ just to mess with us. That’s also the time I dropped out, when one of my conspiracy friends asserted that ‘we need four more years of George Bush.’ Huh? I couldn’t get any of them to refute that. Obviously their game was little better than that of the devil himself, or the devil’s patsy rather, ‘W’. They need him to make their case. Without him, or someone like him, they’re forced to gather evidence. There is none.


The beauty with conspiracy theory of course is that it can’t be disproved. The problem is that by itself it proves nor predicts nothing either, merely backfilling logic with the pinpoint accuracy of a Monday morning quarterback. They even refused to believe Osama’s own confession on 9-11, a racial slight in my opinion, that a bunch of Arabs couldn’t possibly have done it. That’s an insult. Fast forward four years and conspiracy people are in as much trouble philosophically as Republicans. Their underpinnings have been seriously hobbled. Does this mean that David Icke will have to go ‘beyond the cutting edge’ and get a real job? I doubt it. As Dan Brown knows, these are first and foremost good stories. But no one could say that Barack Obama and John McCain were the same nor deny that Obama had no innate advantage and overcame tremendous odds on the path to victory. As Freud said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” and sometimes the good guy wins. Like Michelle, for the first time in a long time, “I’m proud to be an American.” Let’s drop the defeatist nay-saying and make the world a better place. There are too many reasons for success. Why bother with failure?

Monday, November 03, 2008

WHEN YOU’RE FEELIN’ TOO PAMPA’D, THEN GO TO PATAGONIA




Patagonia = n X ½(500X1000)m, where n is nothingness and m is miles, all measurements approximate. Nothingness for me does not imply lack; nothingness implies infinity, and so does Patagonia with its many wonders, albeit most of them crinkled up against that stone massif called the Andes. Unfortunately it’s a long ride to get there. I don’t remember what year Paul Theroux came here, but I don’t think the ‘Old Patagonia Express’ exists any more. The train stations in Bs. As. seem pretty decrepit with trains going to no places I’ve ever heard of, local and regional only I think. The big problem now is a lack of coins to pay with, queues stretching around corners with people waiting patiently in line. It was all over the news down here; I’m sure it must’ve made CNN. The long distance trains I imagine have long since been replaced by buses, double deck affairs with meals and entertainment included (sometimes even cute hostesses). The food sucks of course. If you think airline food is bad, then you should try some bus food. Remember ‘chicken-fried’ steak (or did we only rate that privilege in Mississippi)? Milanesa is an Argentine favorite and usually makes it into the little foil-wrap containers that conceal what will eventually go into your mouth. It’s better that way. The breading on the ‘steak’ works to hide what’s really inside.

So what’s a health-food person to do down south? As always, smile and say ‘cheese’. I’m getting really tired of cheese but I haven’t eaten much for the last ten years in Asia so I can endure I suppose. The real demon is ham-and-cheese. It’s evil. I’m starting to think of these as ham-and-cheese republics it’s so ubiquitous. It’s a plot I’m sure, and a bad one, characters wanted, a conspiracy of some sort, kill our souls with ham and clog our intestines with cheese, round us up into colonoscopy camps. I’m not joking, not much anyway. For lunch on the bus we had two sandwiches, one on square loaf bread with the edges neatly trimmed and one on a hamburger bun, both- you guessed it- with ham and cheese in the center. It’s enough to make you go on a fast, or go on a slow, conserving energy to conserve calories so as not to bore yourself with eating. At least the 36-hour bus ride to Rio Gallegos is actually on schedule, not like a certain train running between Bamako and Dakar that arrives a day late, and then dumps you on the side of the tracks at 5am, that smell of compost your own, but fortunately there’s always a hotel-cum-whorehouse still open working the night shift as long as you don’t mind paying for a night that’s already gone and best forgotten.


It’s probably better that way, that the food’s no good, since the bus has no crappers anyway, recycling bathrooms advised for use with ‘liquids only’. So what if you’ve got the runs? Interpret liberally. The coffee is no better of course, though sometimes instant is preferable to a bad brew. Don’t waste time looking for a bus with latte’. Then there’s the ubiquitous orange drink. As Seinfeld might say, “what’s the deal with a fizzy orange drink? Does it taste orange? Do they put in any real orange flavor? If you closed your eyes could you tell the difference between an orange drink and a green drink? Does a green drink taste like something green?” I’ve had the red drink in Thailand and I couldn’t tell you what it tastes like. What’s the taste of red?


As our time capsule continues into the night, God only knows what changes are occurring while we feign sleep and wish for dreams to come. A few stops occur with people shuffling in and out, but nothing very notable. When the morning comes we’re heading due west toward Bariloche before heading south again. By now we’re heading into the heart of Patagonia and the population is thinning rapidly, only to almost peter out totally long before the 50th parallel where Rio Gallegos lies. Comodoro Rivadavia is the only town of note for almost a thousand miles. The land is so flat and the vistas so broad that Nevada would fit right in, literally lost in the vastness. Then below the 50th parallel things change again, Patagonia morphing into Tierra del Fuego. The terrain becomes a little more broken up, but the main characteristic is the wind. Winds blow at gale force it seems like all the time, so there’s no need to give them names as if they’re special or something. The emptiness otherwise makes a blank slate for tourism; you don’t have to be bothered with the detritus of culture impinging on your package tour. I’m being facetious, trying to chisel the rough edges of my personality into multiple smooth faces and facets.


After checking in at Rio Gallegos and buying an onward ticket to Chile in advance, I go up to El Calafate for a couple days to watch a glacier make babies. The glacier is nice and the town not so bad, but the most fun was the skewered English on the bus up there. Thought Chinese had a monopoly on that? Listen to this: “Prohibited the gown to be extracted,” meaning “don’t take off your clothes on the bus” (Europeans, remember?). Anyway the wind’s not so bad there and if the sun’s out, then it’s downright nice. Rio Gallegos is another story. Perched along the coast the wind blows with a vengeance that stops buses in their tracks and makes me think twice before using the pedestrian overpasses. Otherwise it’s like a time warp, inspired from Fifties’ America it seems, certainly not typically Latino, though quite a few northern Quechua-types make it down for the work. What’s a little cold to them? South from there it only gets worse. That’s the bad thing about my obsession with geographical extremes and Arctic circles- the weather sucks bad. Why can’t I just put on a fake Hawaiian shirt and content myself with the tropics instead like normal people?


Finally I crossed the border. What difference can a line drawn on the map make? It surprises me sometimes. They’re not always as startling as the border at TJ, but that’s to be expected. Still the one here delineates more than the one up by Vancouver. There are no more ubiquitous meat grills or cups of mate’ with the silver straw extruding into almost everyone’s mouth. Chile seems more down-to-earth and less pretentious. There are small little restaurants and bars that seem like interesting cheap places. At least the Chilean border guards didn’t charge me the $131 visa ‘reciprocity’ charge that I’ve been dreading and scheming against for months. Even though it’s on and in all the books, apparently they only hit you up for it at Santiago International Airpost upon direct entry to the country. If you slime your way through the land border, then apparently you avoid the charge. That’s cool, almost making up for the humiliation of spacing out my entry card in Uruguay and having to buy my way past the immigration point.


The weather’s cool too, as you might expect this far south, cool and rainy, but I eventually find the hotel I’ve reserved and exchange some money at the same rate I passed on at the border, but what the hey… all’s well that ends well, right? So now I sit in my room in Punta Arenas with the wind howling outside my window, rain falling intermittently, and temperatures on their way down to freezing tonight if not already there yet. This is the price I pay for my policy of experimentation. If it’s any consolation, weather would be very similar many places back at the same latitude in Canada if not yet Stateside. That’s because it’s mid-spring here and mid-Autumn there, pretty similar. Scary movies play on every channel. Finally I realize why. It’s Halloween. Boo!


The next morning dawns clear and bright. An hour later it’s snowing; so much for my summer vacation. Life at the extremes can be unpredictable. It could affect your way of life I suppose. It gives new appreciation for the accomplishments of Magellan and his crew who traversed these straits some five hundred years ago while circumcising the globe. They had some problems here if I remember correctly. They found more booty in the Philippines I imagine until Ferdinand met his match and his maker. So the search is on to not only seek out Chile but to figure out my next move. There’s no road north except back through Argentina, so this could be tricky. If I can’t find a cheap flight north to Puerto Montt, then I continue (even further) south to Ushuaia where I can get a flight back to Buenos Aires for not too expensive, then go catch the film festival at Mar del Plata, leaving Chile with hardly a penetration. Unfortunately it’s Saturday, so the city’s pretty quiet. It’s a holiday, too, All Saints Day (Halloween, remember?) so everybody’s out at the cemeteries and flowers are selling briskly at impromptu markets. So maybe it doesn’t freeze hard enough to kill them? They say the prettiest flowers grow in the nastiest weather.


“I can’t believe this,” the travel agent says. “It’s like a miracle. I’ve never seen a price so low to Puerto Montt. Usually they’re more than twice this. It must be a special promotion.”


It’s a holiday of course, so she can’t write out the $50 ticket till Monday, but things are looking up. I was hoping for a $100 ticket, still far better than the expensive LAN flight or the even more expensive ferry through the fjords, which doubled from last year. Then the ATM spits out the equivalent of $300 without even coaxing, far better than the paltry $100-200 you’re limited to in Argentina, all with per-use charges. Is my luck changing? I could use it after the Uruguay exit snafu and the ATM snafu and others that not only threaten my street-cred as a master traveler, but my own sense of self-esteem. But mostly I’m hungry. I haven’t had a decent meal in a week, surviving on bread and cheese. It’s time to check out the supermarkets. Other tourists go to museums and spectacles. I go to supermarkets.


There’s lots of salsa picante on display, the local aji, so that’s good, none of that in Argentina. There’s even roast chicken, so I can get off the cheese diet. The breads and pastries look OK, some even called kuchen, so that’s exotic, given my heritage. There are even avocadoes, black Hass, at a good price. I’m getting really hungry now. Then my eye catches something that looks almost like a gaeng khieow wan (sweet green curry) from Thailand, full of things red and green swimming in it. They call it chap suey de pollo. If nothing else this adds a new paragraph to my chapter on culinary DNA that refers to the dissemination and evolution of the sweet-and-sour-like ‘cap cai’ of Indonesia to the meat-and-gravy-like ‘chop suey’ of America, all propagated by pragmatic Chinese eager to please and willing to adapt. Turns out it’s the best ‘chop suey’ I’ve ever had, cheap too. It even tastes green. Chile’s looking better all the time. It feels good to be back on the Pacific Rim. Could this be love? We’ll see; the night’s still young. But first I’ve got more important things to do, like vote. I’ll fax it in from here.

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