Lake Balatón with Tihany Abbey, Burial Place of Magyar Kings

In 1977, I went to Hungary and Czechoslovakia (before it was split into two countries) with my mother and father. We spent a couple of days in a hostel on the shores of Lake Balatón, one of the largest in Europe. I remember it as a large but shallow lake in which one could walk out a half mile before getting in over your head. The average depth of the lake is only about 3 meters. The cafés around the lake served a kind of carp called, in Hungarian, ponty (that’s only a single syllable, which can be pronounced only by Hungarians).

I was delighted to find this poem by the Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño, which mentions the lake:


Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver in a lake.
Poetry, braver than anyone,
slips in and sinks
like lead
through a lake infinite as Loch Ness
or tragic and turbid as Lake Balatón.
Consider it from below:
a diver
covered in feathers
of will.
Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver who’s dead
in the eyes of God.

Those last few lines pack a punch, which I am still trying to figure out. Maybe the original Spanish will help:

un buzo
envuelto en las plumas
de la voluntad.
La poesía entra en el sueño
como un buzo muerto
en el ojo de Dios.

Or maybe it won’t help. But that’s what poetry is all about. Coming back to it again and again until everything seems to click into place.

Not a Connoisseur (Accent on the 2nd Syllable)

It Was Just a Phase I Was Going Through

I have fallen out of love with wine. Oh, when I was younger, I thought that it would be very cool if I were knowledgeable about wine and showed everyone what good taste I had. Right next to the company where I worked, there was a Vendome Wine & Liquors, and I tried mightily to read up on vintages and varietals, and to be the guy who showed up at the party with the most interesting wine.

My biggest coup was to find several 18th century Madeiras. It was a bit of a rip-off, because only a small portion of each bottle dated back two centuries, but the bottle stated that it was a 1756 (or whatever) vintage. It was all right, I suppose, but now Madeira is a bit too sweet for my taste.

Now my brother is a genuine wine connoisseur (with the accent on the last syllable). He actually has a wine cooler at home set to the ideal temperature, rarely varying more than a degree or two of optimal.

Perhaps the reason I no longer drink wine is that the medications I take—anyway, most of them—may not be taken with alcohol. And, as a diabetic, I know that alcohol turns into sugar in the body. So I rarely drink anything alcoholic with my meals. Yesterday’s lunch was an exception: I had some British hard cider, which was quite good. And when it is blisteringly hot, I will occasionally drink a beer.

As for wine, that is, for me, so 1970s that I generally avoid it. It was all well and good when I had people to share it with, but Martine doesn’t drink wine either, and if I open a bottle, what do I do with what I don’t finish? Put in in the refrigerator? That kind of wrecks the taste.

The last time I enjoined wine was three years ago when I was in Valparaiso, Chile. The Bed & Breakfast where I was staying had a wine tasting of reds and whites from the nearby Casablanca Valley. They were all pretty good. So maybe, it’s not so much that I don’t like wine as that the circumstances of my life as it is lived have irrevocably changed.


The Three Houses of the Poet

Isla Negra Where Neruda and His Wife Are Buried

Isla Negra Where Neruda and His Wife Are Buried

I haven’t written about South America lately, so I decided to return to it. If my visit to Chile seems haphazard and unplanned (Puerto Varas to Valparaíso to Santiago), it is because my sightseeing goals were, to say the least, abstruse. Remember, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Argentina if it weren’t for my readings of such writers as Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Juan José Saer, and César Aira. My favorite Chilean writer is the poet Pablo Neruda. So I went to Chile to visit his three houses.

It’s not really abstruse, I guess, because Neruda was not only a great poet; he was also a great domestic architect and designer. He had some money to work with because he was not only a poet, but served various diplomatic posts, particularly in Mexico.

The first house I visited was at Isla Negra, about an hour south of Valparaíso. It was my favorite of the three, located as it is on a nice stretch of beach. Also it was not trashed by Pinochet’s fascist supporters after Salvador Allende fell, like La Chascona in Santiago was. Isla Negra seems to go on forever, with quirky bars, dining rooms, nautical and railroad themes, and fascinating collectibles.

La Sebastiana in Valparaíso

La Sebastiana in Valparaíso

High on a hill, on Avenida Alemania, with a sweeping view of Valparaíso’s bay, is the towering La Sebastiana. Like Isla Negra, it still has all the original furnishings, with the poet’s quirky love of nautical themes. On the day I went, the house was full of French tourists.

Santiago’s La Chascona

Santiago’s La Chascona

Finally, in the city’s ritzy Bellavista area is La Chascona, which means “messy hair.” The reference is to wife Matilde Urrutia’s hair. This house is tucked against a hill and does not have any sweeping views the way the other two houses do. Although the original furnishings were trashed in 1973 by fascisti supporting dictator General Augusto Pinochet, Matilde managed to salvage many of her late husband’s original decorations, such that one scarcely notices the damage that had been done.


Dining with the Bomberos

One of the Best Places to Eat in Chile is the Main Fire Station in Valparaiso

One of the Best Places to Eat in Chile is the Main Fire Station in Valparaiso

One of the best places to have good wholesome food in Chile is at the local firehouse. I put this truism to the test in Valparaiso, where I had a delicious meal consisting of chicken consommé, salad, fried fish, rice, and a fruit dessert at the main fire station in Valparaiso—for only 3,000 pesos (that’s less than five dollars).

I believe my waiter was one of the firemen (he’s shown standing in the background in the above photo). The food was straightforward; there were no other tourists in attendance; and the place was immaculately clean.

The word bombero sounds vaguely menacing in English, probably because it looks like “bomber.” Rest assured that I do not make a practice of dining with terrorists. Chilean firemen is a different story altogether.

The Lakes Crossing

From Bariloche Over the Andes to Chile

From Bariloche Over the Andes to Chile

There are a number of border crossings between Argentina and Chile. One of the most picturesque is the so-called “Lakes Crossing,” known in Spanish as the CruceAndino. It takes almost eleven hours and consists of three boat rides and four bus rides. They are as follows:

  • BUS from San Carlos de Bariloche to Puerto Pañuelos on Lago Nahuel Huapi
  • CATAMARAN from Puerto Pañuelos to Puerto Blest
  • BUS from Puerto Blest to Puerto Alegre on Lago Frias
  • BOAT from Puerto Alegre to Puerto Frias, where you will officially exit from Argentina
  • BUS from Puerto Frias to Puerto Peulla on Lago Todos Santos, where you will officially enter Chile, and where you can stretch the trip to two days by staying in a hotel (I didn’t)
  • CATAMARAN from Puerto Peulla to Petrohué
  • BUS from Petrohué to Puerto Varas right past the Calbuco Volcano, which erupted three times this spring
Puerto Peulla on Chile’s Lago Todos Santos

Puerto Peulla on Chile’s Lago Todos Santos

I had thought that crossing the Andes here would involve altitude sickness, but it didn’t. I do not believe this route got much higher than 3,000-4,000 feet. Although while on Lago Frias, it seemed we were way up high, we weren’t. All in all, it was very comfortable and well organized, considering all the handoffs between buses and boats.

The only thing that was odd was that I never received a Chilean tourist card at Peulla, where I entered the country. When I left Chile from Santiago’s Benitez Airport, I had to go to another window so that the PDI (investigative police) generated one for me based on my passport stamps. In any case, it was worth the slight inconvenience.


The Magical Forest

A Forest of Chilean Myrtles at Los Arrayanes National Park

A Forest of Chilean Myrtles at Los Arrayanes National Park

One of the sights I most wanted to see on my recent trip to Argentina and Chile was Los Arrayanes National Park on the Quetrihué Peninsula. We arrived there on a fantastic old boat (more about which in a future post) from Puerto Panuelos near San Carlos Bariloche.

There is a prevalent myth that Disney was inspired by the look of the Luma apiculata (Chilean Myrtle) trees for his cartoon feature Bambi (1942); but, alas, Disney did not visit Argentina until three years later. Still, it is possible that he knew of and was inspired by the forest before his visit.

These trees with their orange-colored bark grow only in the Patagonian Lakes District of Argentina and Chile between 33° and 45° South Latitude. They range from 33 to 49 feet (10 to 15 meters) tall.

Typically it is possible to take a tour to Los Arrayanes which also includes Isla Victoria on Lago Nahuel Huapi, where one can see Sequoias and Ponderosa Pines imported from California over a century ago.



My Vacation Is Getting Closer

My Vacation Is Getting Closer

In the last few weeks before my vacation, I am feeling restless. All other things aside, here are the books I plan to read before the month is over:

  • Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside-Down. Revolutionary movements in 17th century England.
  • Guy de Maupassant, Afloat. For my French literature group on Yahoo!
  • Pablo Neruda, Canto General. I plan to visit the poet’s houses in Chile.
  • Macedonio Fernandez, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel, by a friend and hero of Jorge Luis Borges.
  • John Lynch, San Martin: Argentine Soldier, American Hero. A biography of the Founding Father of Argentina.
  • Aldous Huxley, Complete Essays, Vol. 1, 1920-1925.

And that’s probably half of what I will end up reading this month. Only, it’s always more difficult when one faces a deadline. One thing I will not do is stuff my suitcase full of books, nor concrete blocks either. While I am traveling, I will be reading exclusively from my two Kindles.

As usual, I have a dental emergency just before my vacation. Two small pyramidal chunks of tooth came loose the other day, so I will have to go to the dentist tomorrow. Plus I have two medical appointments this month.

Most of my shopping is done, but I will need a new belt: My old one fell to pieces a couple weeks ago. Plus I will have to get some mosquito repellent (for the Iguasu Falls area), and possibly a two-pocket shirt if I can find one. Oh, and I’m sure I’ll find a couple of other things I will need, or at least feel I’ll need.

The picture above is by Paulo Zerbato and nicely expresses what I am feeling right now.


Street Crowds in Valparaíso During Tsunami Alert

Street Crowds in Valparaíso During Tsunami Alert

In about two months from now, I will be in one of the Ring of Fire’s “Hot Zones”—coastal Chile, where a Richter 8.3 quake has just struck not more than a couple of hours ago. Most articles centered on the effects of the quake on Santiago, though the epicenter was 144 miles northwest of the capital, which suffered minimal danger because  it is built on rock, namely the foothills of the Andes.

The city of Coquimbo, nearer the epicenter, has already seen tsunami waves as high as 4.5 meters (about 14 feet), and even California and New Zealand are expected to feel some activity.

I will be in Valparaíso for several days in late November, though I will be on higher ground on Cerro Alegre. The port area is probably the most dangerous area: If there is another major earthquake, people will be running for the forty-three hills that surround the city in a semicircle.

Crowds Gather on High Ground in Valparaíso

Crowds Gather on High Ground in Valparaíso

Oh, I suppose I could visit less dangerous areas, like North Dakota or Manitoba, but I’ve always wanted to visit Chile, even if for just a few days. By then, with luck, the aftershocks will have died down some.

Today, I checked the volcanic activity at Calbuco and was delighted to find that its alert status has been lowered to green.

Live dangerously!


Under Four Flags

Lord Thomas Cochrane (1775-1860)

Lord Thomas Cochrane (1775-1860)

He must have been an amazing sight to his enemies, towering over six feet with red hair. Lord Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, was an impoverished Scot of noble birth who was a brilliant attacking sea captain. Because of various circumstances, mostly relating to his problems with authority, he was perhaps the most brilliant naval strategist who did not actually command a fleet. Had the Admiralty not been so venal and corrupt, he could have shortened the Napoleonic Wars by incursions against the mainland of France, forcing Napoleon back from Russia ahead of schedule. But that was not to be.

Some people are not meant to get along well with politicians. (I am one such myself, though not with one thousandth the talent of the Scotsman.) Cochrane developed a whole slew of enemies, hobnobbing as he did with Radicals as William Cobbett and Sir Francis Burdett. He even spent time at King’s Bench Prison for stock fraud—a mostly bogus charge cobbled together by his enemies with a complaisant and corrupt judge on the bench.

Stripped of his Order of the Bath and drummed out of the Navy, Cochrane accepted an offer the command the navy of the emerging Republic of Chile. He fought a number of sharp naval actions until the Spanish Pacific Fleet was driven off. Then he assisted Dom Pedro I of Brazil fight for that country’s independence from Brazil.

Memorial to Cochrane in Valparaiso, Chile

Memorial to Cochrane in Valparaiso, Chile

Finally, he ended up commanding the fleet of the Greeks who were then fighting to free themselves from the Ottomans. Here he was least effective, largely because of the rampant factionalism of the Greeks. According to Donald Thomas in his excellent biography Cochrane, “he wrote to the Chevalier Eynard of the Philhellenic Committee in Paris, describing the government of Greece as depending on ‘bands of undisciplined, ignorant, and lawless savages.’” This was a far cry from the well-trained British and Chilean sailors he had commanded.

Eventually, Greece won her independence, but only after the British, Russians, and French combined to dictate terms against the Turks.

Cochrane reminds me of General George Patton, another brilliant military leader who paid a heavy price for refusing to kiss the butts of military administrators.


The Driest Place on Earth

The Driest Place on Earth

As we in Southern California swelter through a seemingly endless series of hot, humid weather, my mind turns to the Norte Grande of Chile, where the Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth. At one time, I desperately wanted to take the Ferrocarril Antofagasta a Bolivia (FCAB), which ran passenger trains between Antofagasta, Chile and Oruro, Bolivia, from which it was possible to change trains to La Paz.

Years ago, I saw a television documentary about one such trip: I was instantly sold. Unfortunately, although trains still run along the FCAB route, they are all freights.

In My Invented Country, Isabel Allende describes fleeing Chile by this train in 1973 after her cousin Salvador was killed with the participation of the CIA. She remembers an endless, hot, dry expanse.

The FCAB Today

The FCAB Today

Another refugee from Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship was writer Ariel Dorfman, who has this to say about the Atacama in Desert Memories: Journeys Through the Chilean North:

Less rain falls on these sands than on any other similarly blighted expanse on Earth. I talked to men born in Arica, a woman brought up in Pisagua, men and women who had never ventured forth from the nitrate town of María Elena or who have never left the oasis of Pica, which produces the most fragrant oranges your tongue has ever rolled over, and none of them had felt one drop of rain on their bodies in their lives….

Oh yes, it rained once, some years ago, in Antofagasta. Two millimeters. And several residents died in the ensuing mudslide…. That semi-sprinkle had not reached Antofagasta itself, though there was an unusual front of turbulence sweeping in from the sea, so the reporter on the local radio was already trying to calm down a populace that had begun to panic, a woman had called in to say—much to our cruel mirth—that she thought she had felt a drop of rain on her cheek, and what should she do, should she evacuate her children?

We might smirk a bit at that, though with our California drought, we ought to be prepared for anything. With luck, we might see some appreciable rain this winter … or else!