Ushuaia

Looking Up Rivadavia

Ushuaia, Argentina is the southernmost city on Earth. There is one town which is further south by a few miles: Puerto Williams, Chile, which is mostly a Chilean naval base. I have never been to Puerto Williams, but I did pass by it on a boat ride on the Beagle Channel to Estancia Harberton. Below is as close as I could get to Puerto Williams without going through Chilean customs:

Puerto Williams from the Beagle Channel

The whole Tierra Del Fuego area, both in Argentina and Chile, is endlessly fascinating. That’s where the Andes comes to an end, sputtering out by Ushuaia and the Dientes de Navarino in Chile. In the above picture, thee are high mountains behind Puerto Williams that are mostly hidden in cloud, though you could make out the rough outline of their summits.

Mark Twain once wrote, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a few minutes.” That is even more true of Tierra Del Fuego. After all, my last day in Ushuaia in 2006 (it was November 15 to be exact), dawned fair and turned into a blizzard. You may say, “Well, it was November, after all!” We were, however, in the Southern Hemisphere, so it was supposed to be like May in the Northern Hemisphere. The truth is, it can snow on any day of the year in Ushuaia.

There are compensations. The cuisine includes king crab (centolla), which is widely available at reasonable prices. The city is chock full of museums, most prominently the so-called Maritime Museum, which was built as a prison to house Argentina’s most dangerous criminals, including Simon Radowitzky, the anarchist responsible for killing a ranking police officer. Ushuaia was for many years Argentina’s Alcatraz.

Ushuaia was where I broke my shoulder in a blizzard. (That’s why I remember November 15, 2006.) The location was the corner of Magallanes and Rivadavia, where I slipped on ice and fell hard with my shoulder on a high curb. They have since put up a traffic signal there, so it is easier to cross the road.

In Patagonia

Guanacos by the Fitzroy Massif

Of all the places I have visited on my travels, I think the most spectacular was Argentinian Patagonia from El Chaltén south to Tierra del Fuego. Twice I have traveled that route, once in 2006 (when I had my trip cut short by a broken shoulder) and once in 2011 with Martine. Although both my finances and remaining years are dwindling, I would like to take another stab at it.

I would like to fly into Ushuaia and take buses north all the way to Buenos Aires. To my right would be the South Atlantic and to my left the windy plains of Patagonia with glimpses of the Andes in the distance.

Argentina is not a destination beloved by North American travelers. The country is full of mostly Spanish-speaking Italians with pockets of Welsh and Croatians. Its main export used to be wool centered in large estancias held by British landowners, but it has become more diversified over time, especially with oil being discovered there.

Near El Calafate there are numerous glaciers originating on the eastern slope of the Andes. Martine and I visited the Perito Moreno, Upsala, and Spegazzini glaciers. As the world warms up, many of these glaciers will not be around for the next generation. But it was nice seeing them while we could.

Lament of the Blind Librarian

Though he lost the use of his eyes in the 1950s, Jorge Luis Borges was appointed to head the National Library of Argentina. He was the second blind librarian there, the first being Paul Groussac. Borges works on the theme of his blindness and Groussac’s in the following poem:

Poem of the Gifts

No one should read self-pity or reproach
into this statement of the majesty
of God, who with such splendid irony
granted me books and blindness at one touch.

Care of this city of books he handed over
to sightless eyes, which now can do no more
than read in libraries of dream the poor
and senseless paragraphs that dawns deliver

to wishful scrutiny. In vain the day
squanders on these same eyes its infinite tomes,
as distant as the inaccessible volumes
that perished once in Alexandria.

From hunger and from thirst (in the Greek story),
a king lies dying among gardens and fountains.
Aimlessly, endlessly, I trace the confines,
high and profound, of this blind library.

Cultures of East and West, the entire atlas,
encyclopedias, centuries, dynasties,
symbols, the cosmos, and cosmogonies
are offered from the walls, all to no purpose.

In shadow, with a tentative stick, I try
the hollow twilight, slow and imprecise—
I, who had always thought of Paradise
in form and image as a library.

Something, which certainly is not defined
by the word fate, arranges all these things;
another man was given, on other evenings
now gone, these many books. He too was blind.

Wandering through the gradual galleries,
I often feel with vague and holy dread
I am that other dead one, who attempted
the same uncertain steps on similar days.

Which of the two is setting down this poem—
a single sightless self, a plural I?
What can it matter, then, the name that names me,
given our curse is common and the same?

Groussac or Borges, now I look upon
this dear world losing shape, fading away
into a pale uncertain ashy-gray
that feels like sleep, or else oblivion.

The Most Expensive Real Estate in Argentina

Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires

When former military dictator of Argentina Juan Perón died in 1974, he couldn’t be buried at Buenos Aires’s exclusive Recoleta Cemetery. It was most galling to his followers that his widow Evita did manage to be buried there with the rest of her family (née Duarte). Eventually, his body was moved to the grounds of his estate in the exclusive barrio of Olivos.

I have visited Recoleta during each of my three trips to Argentina. Why? It is actually the number one tourist destination in Buenos Aires—and it’s free. Just about everyone of note in Argentine history and culture is buried there. Adolfo Bioy Casares the writer is buried there, but the Argentina’s greatest writer, his friend Jorge Luis Borges, is buried in Geneva, Switzerland, where he died in 1986.

One of Many Bronze Commemorative Plaques Marking the Grave of Evita Perón

Among other famous denizens are past presidents such as Agustín Pedro Justo, Bartolomé Mitre, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Hipólito Yrigoyen, Julio Argentino Roca, Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, and Raúl Alfonsín. There’s famous boxer Luis Firpo; Isabelle Walewski, a granddaughter of Napoleon Bonaparte; warlord Facundo Quiroga; writer Silvina Ocampo and her sister, publisher Victoria Ocampo; and William Brown, Irish-born founder of the Argentinean Navy (widely known as Almirante Brown).

The Narrow Streets of Argentina’s Notable Dead

In fact, the last time I stayed in Buenos Aires, I stayed at a hotel right across the street from the west wall of the cemetery.

La Difunta Correa and Other Saints

Some Saints You’ve Never Heard Of Before

This is a repost from Multiply.Com which I wrote some ten years ago:

Oh, oh! I’ve been thinking about Argentina again, and that means you’re going to hear about some more really obscure (but, IMHO fascinating) stuff.

To begin with, Argentina is such a Catholic country that it had to create additional saints native to its own soil. Let’s begin with La Difunta Correa, which means, literally, the Dead Correa:

According to popular legend, Deolinda Correa was a woman whose husband was forcibly recruited around the year 1840, during the Argentine civil wars. Becoming sick, he was then abandoned by the Montoneras [partisans]. In an attempt to reach her sick husband, Deolinda took her baby child and followed the tracks of the Montoneras through the desert of San Juan Province. When her supplies ran out, she died. Her body was found days later by gauchos that were driving cattle through, and to their astonishment found the baby still alive, feeding from the deceased woman’s “miraculously” ever-full breast. The men buried the body in present-day Vallecito, and took the baby with them. [from Wikipedia] All over the country, there are roadside shrines to La Difunta Correa, many surrounded by gifts left by truck drivers and travelers in a hope for a safe journey to their destination. Remember that Argentina is the eighth largest country on earth, and that distances can be farther than one ever imagines, especially on unpaved ripio roads.

There are two other popular saints with shrines all across the nation: Gauchito Gil (“Little Gaucho Gil”) and El Ángelito Milagroso, a.k.a. Miguel Ángel Gaitán.

Gauchito Gil hails from the state of La Rioja. A farmworker, Gil was seduced by a wealthy widow. When the police chief, who also had a thing for the widow, and her brothers came after Gil, he joined the army in the War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay (perhaps the bloodiest war ever fought in the Americas, with the exception of our own Civil War). When he returned home, the Army came after him to join in one of Argentina’s many civil wars. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Gauchito deserted. He was discovered by the police, who wanted to execute him. Whereupon Gil prophesied to the head of the police detail that if he were merciful, the officer’s child, who was gravely ill, would get better. Instead of being shown mercy, Gil was executed.

When he returned home, the police officer found that his son was indeed very ill. So he prayed to Gauchito Gil, and his son got better. It was this police officer who returned to the scene of the execution, gave Gil a proper burial, and built a shrine in his memory. Today there are hundreds of such shrines scattered throughout the country.

By the way, the Gauchito is not the only deserter hero in Argentina’s past. Perhaps the national epic is Martin Fierro by José Hernández, about a gaucho who deserts from the so-called “Conquest of the Desert”—really a war of genocide against the native tribes of the Pampas—and is pursued by the police militia.

The Nineteenth Century in Argentina was unusually bloody, what with civil war, wars against the native peoples, and wars against other countries such as Paraguay and Brazil. So it is not unusual to find deserters as heroes, which is unthinkable in Europe and North America.

Finally, there is another La Rioja “saint” named Miguel Ángel Gaitán, El Ángelito Milagroso, who died at the tender age of one in 1967. When his body didn’t rot, the locals thought that meant it was supposed to be exposed for veneration—and so it was.

Unfinished Business Abroad

The East Fjords of Iceland

I still have places to see. Even though I have been to Iceland, Argentina, and the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico several times each, I have missed a number of destinations. These are just some of them.

Iceland’s Far Northeast

I have been to Egilsstaðir where I had to change buses on my way to Höfn and Hornstrandir, but I have never seen Iceland’s wild northeast coast between Seydisfjorður and Borgarfjörður Eystri. As my brother once told me, I am drawn to wild and desolate places—probably because I have lived most of my life in the United States’s second largest city.

This is one trip for which I would have to rent a car, as public transit here is mostly potty. And I would have to be prepared for bad weather at any time of the year. But with a good four-wheel-drive vehicle, I think I can hack it.

Southeastern Campeche State

Look at All the Maya Ruins Along Route 186 in Campeche

Back in the heyday of the Maya from around AD 600-800, the southeast of the State of Campeche was where it was happening. Particularly important was Calakmul, which was a major competitor to Tikal in Guatemala’s Petén region. The only town of any size in the area is Xpuhil. Ruins include Balamkú, Chicanna, El Ramonal, La Muñeca, Hormiguero, Xpujil, and Rio Bec.

This is one trip where I would have to hire a guide with a car. The accommodations and dining are probably acceptable, but not great. And I would need to apply large amounts of DEET insect repellent, as this area is jungle and thinly inhabited now.

Argentina’s Patagonian Coast

The South South Atlantic

I am intrigued by this wild coast and would love to visit Rio Gallegos, Puerto San Julian, Puerto Deseado, and Comodoro Rivadavia, the port from which Argentina launched its attack on the Falkland Islands, or the Islas Malvinas, as they insist on calling it to this day.

The extreme South Atlantic coast of the provinces of Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego are very much unfinished business. In 2006 in broke my shoulder in Ushuaia, which forced me to cancel my ride via a TecniAustral bus to Rio Gallegos, from which I planned to work my way north back to Buenos Aires. But, as the pain was too much to bear, I had to fly back to the United States and get better.

In 2011, Martine and I flew from Ushuaia to El Calafate, and thereupon on to Trelew and Buenos Aires. I’d love to do it by bus, at least as far as Comodoro, from where I could fly the rest of the way.

Obviously, I still have places to go.

“I Am Everything I Have Already Lost”

Argentinean Poet and Writer Silvina Ocampo Aguirre (1903-1993)

I’m not about to call her a poetess, because she could hold her own in the literary world of women and men. She was a great writer who was married to another great writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, friend of Jorge Luis Borges. I understand she is buried in Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, which I have visited three times without finding her grave. I will have to make another visit and try harder to find her so that I can pay homage to her beauty and talent.

The following poem is from her collection Poemas de amor desesperado (Poems of Desperate Love, 1949).

Song

Oh, nothing, nothing is mine,
not the tone of my voice, nor my absent hands,
nor my distant arms!
I have received it all. Oh, nothing, nothing is mine.
I am like the reflections of a gloomy lake
or the echo of voices at the bottom of a blue
well when it has rained.
I have received it all:
like water or glass
that turns into anything,
into smoke, into a spiral,
into a building, a fish, a stone, a rose.
I am different from me, so different,
like some people when they are in society.
I am all the places I have loved in my life.

I am the woman I hated most.
and the perfume that wounded me one night
with decrees of an uncertain destiny.
I am the shadows that entered a car,
the luminosity of a port,
the secret embraces hidden in the eyes.
I am the knife of jealousy,
and the aches red with wounds.
Of the long eager glances I am the sparkle.
I am the voice I heard behind the blinds,
the light, the air above the cypress trees.
I am all the words that I adored
on the lips, in the books that I admired.
I am the greyhound that fled in the distance,
the solitary branch among the branches.
I am the happiness of a day,
the whisper of the flames.
I am the poverty of naked feet,
with children going silently away.
I am what they did not tell me and I knew.
Oh, I wanted everything to be mine!
I am everything I have already lost.
But everything’s elusive like the wind and the river,
like the golden summer flowers
that die in your hands.
I am everything, but nothing, nothing is mine,
not the pain, nor the joy, nor the terror,
not even the words of my song.

 

This poem can be found in the excellent edition of Silvina Ocampo’s poetry published by NYRB/Poets and translated and edited by Jason Weiss.

Villa 31

View of Apartments in the Villa 31 Shantytown in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on April 25, 2017

I had a long conversation with my friend Suzanne about the homeless earlier this evening. The increasing poverty displayed by the rising numbers of tent-dwelling homeless bothered both of us, especially as we did not find any easy solution to the situation.

During my travels, I have seen some grinding urban poverty, mostly in Buenos Aires. That was only because the train and bus stations in Retiro border on one of the worst slums in South America, namely Villa 31, one of the Villas Miserias in the Argentine capital. In BA, the ugliest slums tend to be prefaced by the word Villa in their names.

The following YouTube video will give you an idea of the place:

YouTube Video About Villa 31

In 2015, I was at the edge of Villa 31 while walking between the train station and the bus terminal. At the time, I was carrying over $2,000 in Argentinean pesos I had just obtained. A couple in their thirties came up behind me and sprayed me with a combination of steak sauce and mustard. Suddenly, they started wiping the mess with tissues that appeared miraculously in their hands. They tried to get me to go to a restroom where they would help me clean up and strip me of anything of value. But as they were urging me to my left, I suddenly cut right toward a waiting taxi and made my escape. The taxi driver was not happy with a passenger that smelled of steak sauce, but I tipped him well to clean up the upholstery after I left.

I did not visit any of the other famous favelas or shantytowns of South America, but I did get a good look at Villa 31 as my bus sped me toward Puerto Iguazú near the border with Brazil and Paraguay.

The Crowding has Made Villa 31 a Covid-19 Hot Spot

If you have any sort of conscience, you can only feel uncomfortable dealing with so much raw poverty. In the gospels (specifically Matthew 26:11), we are told “The poor you will always have with you.” But we are not told how we can eradicate poverty. Maybe we can’t, but I think it is only right that we be disturbed about it.

Along the Paraná

Vacation Homes Along the Delta of the Paraná

I was talking to my friend Bill Korn a few minutes ago. When he happened to mention that there were massive fires in the delta of the Paraná River, I was shocked. I was familiar with the Paraná Delta, having taken a boat tour of the area in 2006 and 2015. I pulled up an article The Guardian, which described parts of the delta upriver from Tigre, around the city of Rosario: The area with which I was familiar was where the river feeds into the Rio de la Plata. It is an a weekend getaway for the residents of Buenos Aires that is densely vegetated, very pretty, but full of mosquitoes.

The Drainage Area of the River Paraná

The Paraná is the second longest river in South America. Its drainage area includes Argentina, all of Paraguay, and parts of Brazil and Bolivia. As you can see from the above map, Rosario is not far from Rosario, a city I went through on a night bus on the way to Puerto Iguazu, where the boundaries of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina meet, The river is some 3,030 miles (4,800 km) long and is navigable for much of its length with several deep water ports along its length. In Puerto Iguazu, I dined on surubi, a fresh water fish caught on the river.

View from a Boat Ride on the Delta

I have been to Argentina three times and fallen in love with the country. I hope that, what with Argentina mired in the coronavirus, they manage to save some of the beautiful places I have seen. It is along the river that much of Argentina’s Yerba Mate crop is grown. I remember from that bus ride passing through almost a hundred miles of fields where the tea leaves are grown.

 

Plague Diary 4: The Empanadas Run

Our Local Empanada Take-Out Restaurant

Near the corner of Sawtelle and Venice is our local Argentinian take-out restaurant, called Empanadas Place. I have been to Argentina three times, and I find that Empanadas Place has tastier empanadas than the South American versions. I decided to pick up a bunch of them for Martine, myself, and my elderly Mexican neighbor Luis, who is particularly fond of the place.

So I drove down there and placed my order. The tables for the sit-down part of the restaurant were all in storage, except for one for people waiting for take-out. I had a nice chat with the owner, an Argentinian of Italian ancestry (like about 75% of all Argentinians). Because his business had always been heavily oriented toward take-out, his business did not seem to be suffering from the forced closure of all sit-down restaurants. Unlike most Americans, he did not see his business as a path to riches: He was quite happy to make a small living selling delicious empanadas to the residents of Culver City and West Los Angeles.

For myself, I got four items: an Arabe (lemon-flavored ground beef and onions), spicy beef with cheese, spinach, and potatoes with cheese. I ate two of them for lunch, saving the remainder for tomorrow. Luis was pleased with his empanadas. (I think I will try to do an occasional take-out run at least once a week for the duration of the plague.

A Selection of Goodies from Empanadas Place

In addition to the featured items, Empanadas Place also sells a selection of Argentinian groceries, such as yerba mate tea, dolce de leche, and cookies known as alfajores. You can also get sandwiches and salads, as well as a refreshing glass of iced yerba mate tea.