Mad About Travel

Crescent Lake Oasis Near Dunhuang, China

Immanuel Kant was a great philosopher, but I have no desire to emulate him. According to an editorial in Philosophy Now:

A curious case, this Kant. They say that travel broadens the mind, but Kant never in his whole life travelled more than ten miles from his home city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). He scraped a living for years as a private tutor before eventually becoming a hardworking professor at the university. He lived a life of disciplined regularity, taking the same walk around Königsberg at the same time each day, with such regularity that it was said that the inhabitants set their watches by him.

Living in Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s, I desired more than anything else to travel. Even when I came out to California and got a job, it was a full seven years before I could afford to go anywhere but Cleveland. And when I did, my parents were appalled. “Why don’t you come to Cleveland?” Mom wheedled. “I’ll cook my favorite dishes for you.” That’s all I needed—to get even fatter.

I started out with baby steps, going to Mexico and traveling all around the country by bus and train (back when there were trains). I went to England and Scotland, too, and even joined my parents in 1977 to visit Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

In 2001, I went to Iceland; and, in 2006, I discovered South America. Now my desire for travel is insatiable. On the left corner of my kitchen table is a collection of travel guides from Lonely Planet and moon. While waiting for my morning paper to be delivered, I can read about the Trans-Siberian Railroad (2 guides), Iceland, Bolivia, Ecuador, and New Mexico while sipping a cup of hot tea.

December 29 is the last day of my working career, so I may not be able to afford some more distant locations; but Mexico and Guatemala continue to beckon. If I should win the lottery (hah!) I will try for the Trans-Siberian Railroad between Moscow and Vladivostok, though maybe diverting through Mongolia to Beijing. I can always dream, can’t I?





Facing South

Skeletoid Academics?

Dartmouth College was the beginning of many things in my life. One of the most influential was the Reserve Room on the ground floor of Dartmouth’s Baker Library. On three sides was a magnificent sequence of frescoes by José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) which began with the invasion of Mexico by the Conquistadores and ended up with the mess that Mexico was in during the 1930s. One of the most shocking images was the one above of the skeletoid academics giving birth to a baby skeleton.

These frescoes influenced me so much that I would study or even just hang out in the Reserve Room just to imbibe the atmosphere of Orozco’s powerful political murals. It was no accident that the first vacation I took on my own, nine years after my graduation, was a visit to Mayan ruins in Yucatán. Over the next seventeen years, I was to go to Mexico eight times, spending as much as a month on each visit.

José Clemente Orozco

During those visits, my eyes turned further south. I would have loved to go from Yucatán to Belize and on to the Mayan ruins at Tikal in the Petén region of Guatemala. At that time, however, the man in charge was Efraín Ríos Montt, a murderous dog who was responsible for the massacre, rape, and torture of thousands of indigenous people; and the U.S. State Department did not recommend that Americans vacation in Guatemala during his presidency.

Around then, Paul Theroux published The Old Patagonian Express (1979), about taking trains from Boston as far south in the Americas as one could go. I vowed that I would eventually make it to South America, and I did. Since 2006, I visited Argentina (three times!), Uruguay, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador. An despite Mexico’s continuing problem with narcotraficantes, I would not mind going to Yucatán and Chiapas again.



Public Spaces

There Are Some Things at Which Latin Americans Excel

There Are Some Things at Which Latin Americans Excel

American planners stink when it comes to designing comfortable spaces for the public. A classic example is Los Angeles’s Pershing Square, which is essentially an underground parking garage. Do Angelenos want a place where they could sit down, read the paper, get their shoes shined, perhaps listen to an impromptu concert? Well, they’re out of luck: American planners design facilities primarily for hypothetical people who don’t really exist.

Compare that with Quito’s Plaza de la Independencia (see above), where one could sit and pass an hour or two without getting hassled. You can even feed the pigeons if you want. Take the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa, Peru (see below). Instead of chasing you away for feeding the pigeons, there are native women who will sell you some birdseed for a nueva sol or two.

The Plaza de Armas in Arequipa, Peru

The Plaza de Armas in Arequipa, Peru

Whenever I have some time to kill in Latin America, I will simply find a park bench and sit down for a while. In Cuenca’s Parque Calderón, I got into an interesting discussion with a Peruvian visiting from Cuzco. Admittedly, he was selling some pictures—and I bought some from him because I thought he was a talented artist.

I would have a hard time finding an equivalent in Los Angeles without getting panhandled or run over.


Do You Ever Want to Live There?

Parque El Carmen in Lima’s Pueblo Libre Municipalidad

Parque El Carmen in Lima’s Pueblo Libre Municipalidad

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know that I love to travel. The question that many people have asked me is, “Yes, but wouldn’t you like to live there?”

The answer is very simply no. It’s not because I have any great hopes for the United States, but because I know that many of the places I love to visit have or have had insurmountable difficulties which make me think twice.

For instance, I love Iceland; but I dread the idea of six dark months out of every year in which the weak sun comes up for only a few minutes in the middle of the afternoon. And even though virtually everyone speaks English, I would probably have difficulties getting my kennitala (registration number), because officialdom likes to do its business in Icelandic.

Of all the countries I have visited, I would probably like Argentina the best. Even though my Spanish is adequate for travel, however, it would not fare too well dealing with the authorities in matters relating to housing and taxation. Also, all the South American countries I like (including Peru, Uruguay, and Chile) have had problems in the not too distant past with rightist dictators and left wing insurgencies.

We’re not quite there in the U.S.—yet!

As for Hungary, Slovakia, France, England, Scotland, Belgium, and the Netherlands—they’re nice, but I have a feeling they are just at the point of entering a bad time, what with the hoards invading from the Middle East and Africa. I just don’t see a good path around the problems they are just beginning to face.

There’s always Canada, I suppose, and I really like the Canadian people, even the Québecois, but I think I’ll stick it out in the U. S. of A. for the time being.


Ilex paraguariensis

Traditional Yerba Mate Tea Popular in South America

Traditional Yerba Mate Tea Popular in South America

When cooler weather returns to Southern California, in about twenty years or so, I will resume my habit of drinking yerba mate tea. In the meantime, I will enjoy Robert Southey’s poem “Introductory to South America Yerba Mate.” I was pleasantly surprised to see a 19th century British poet conversant with the Ilex paraguariensis, or yerba mate.

Introductory to South America
Yerba Mate
Robert Southey (1774–1843)

(From A Tale of Paraguay)

AMID those marshy woodlands far and wide
Which spread beyond the soaring vulture’s eye,
There grew on Empalado’s southern side
Groves of that tree whose leaves adust supply     [scorched
The Spaniards with their daily luxury;
A beverage whose salubrious use obtains
Through many a land of mines and slavery,
Even over all La Plata’s sea-like plains,
And Chili’s mountain realm, and proud Peru’s domains.

But better for the injured Indian race
Had woods of manchineel the land o’erspread:
Yea, in that tree so blest by Nature’s grace
A direr curse had they inherited,
Than if the Upas there had reared its head
And sent its baleful scions all around,
Blasting where’er its effluent force was shed,
In air and water, and the infected ground,
All things wherein the breath or sap of life is found.

The poor Guaranies dreamt of no such ill,    [Paraguayan natives
When for themselves in miserable hour,
The virtues of that leaf, with pure good-will,
They taught their unsuspected visitor,
New in the land as yet. They learnt his power
Too soon, which law nor conscience could restrain,
A fearless but inhuman conqueror,
Heart-hardened by the accursed lust of gain,
O fatal thirst of gold! O foul reproach for Spain!

For gold and silver had the Spaniards sought,
Exploring Paraguay with desperate pains,
Their way through forests axe in hand they wrought;
Drenched from above by unremitting rains
They waded over inundated plains,
Forward by hope of plunder still allured;
So they might one day count their golden gains,
They cared not at what cost of sin procured,
All dangers they defied, all sufferings they endured.

Barren alike of glory and of gold
That region proved to them; nor would the soil
Unto their unindustrious hands unfold
Harvests, the fruit of peace,—and wine and oil,
The treasures that repay contented toil
With health and weal; treasures that with them bring
No guilt for priest and penance to assoil,
Nor with their venom arm the awakened sting
Of conscience at that hour when life is vanishing.

But keen of eye in their pursuit of gain
The conquerors looked for lucre in this tree:
An annual harvest there might they attain,
Without the cost of annual industry.
’T was but to gather in what there grew free
And share Potosi’s wealth. Nor thence alone.
But gold in glad exchange they soon should see
From all that once the Incas called their own,
Or where the Zippa’s power or Zaque’s laws were known.

For this, in fact though not in name a slave,
The Indian from his family was torn;
And droves on droves were sent to find a grave
In woods and swamps, by toil severe outworn,
No friend at hand to succor or to mourn,
In death unpitied, as in life unblest.
O miserable race, to slavery born!
Yet when we look beyond this world’s unrest,
More miserable then the oppressors than the opprest.

The World’s Poorest Head of State

José Mujica, President of Uruguay

José Mujica, President of Uruguay

When he leaves office as President of Uruguay next month, “El Pepe” Mujica will continue to live humbly on his little flower farm and continue to drive a 1987 VW Bug. For years, he has refused to take more than the average Uruguayan’s salary of $775 a month, depositing the rest of his $12,000 a month salary to charities benefiting single mothers and others.

Once a leftist Tupamaro guerrilla, Mujica spent 14 years in prison. Upon his release, he went into politics with the Broad Front Party and saw his country through a spurt of growth and prosperity.

We don’t think much about Uruguay, but one time it was a very rich country, along with Argentina. The Societe de Fray Bentos Giebert & Cie. along the Rio Uruguay was one of the main sources of canned meat that sustained troops of both sides in the trenches of World War I.

There’s something going on in South America that I like. First there was Pope Francis, who continues to astonish me, and now there is José Mujica, about whom you should read this excellent article by Natasha Hakimi on Truthdig.Com.


Yes, They Are a Little Thick

Yes, They Are a Little Thick

When Martine and I were in Calgary in 2010, Martine and I saw an exhibit entitled “The Baroque World of Fernando Botero” at the city’s Glenbow Museum. (Other than the fish and chips, it was the only thing I remember really liking about the city.) It was my first acquaintance with the Colombian artist other than an odd book cover or two, and I found myself liking his vertically challenged and horizontally enhanced vision. Born in Medellin, Colombia, in 1932, Fernando Botero has developed a unique style in both painting and sculpture. To see a gallery of his work, click here.

For your enjoyment, here is what Botero does to the art of ballet:

Botero Ballerina

Botero Ballerina

Is that an apple atop her head?



Juan Manuel de Rosas Ruled Argentina 1929 to 1952

Juan Manuel de Rosas Ruled Argentina 1929 to 1952

When we think of South America, we usually think of the military dictators, or caudillos, who seemed to rule most of the time. Why is it that the continent has had so much difficulty transitioning to a democratic form of government? I think the reason goes all the way back to the expulsion of Spain from her colonies. The Spanish forces were sent back, but the criollos were still very much in charge. They were mostly white, with rarely some Indian admixture, but they held the reins of power. Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín, and Bernardo O’Higgins were all criollos. All the big landowners, almost without exception, were criollos. Only rarely did an Indian come into power, and then usually only for a short time.

The armies of the South American countries were, until late in the Twentieth Century, pretty much in charge. They acted as a kind of Praetorian Guard to their favorites, who were usually the caudillos. God help them, however, when the favorites were no longer favored. Eric Lawlor in his excellent book In Bolivia enumerates the country’s heads of state who met violent ends:

The list of presidents and former presidents to die violently is extensive. Pedro Blanco was assassinated in 1829; Sucre in 1830; Jorge Córdova in 1861; Belzú in 1866; Melgarejo in 1871; Augustín Morales in 1872; Hilarión Daza in 1894; and José Manuel Pando in 1917. Nor did the tradition end in 1946: President René Barrientos died in a highly suspicious helicopter crash in 1969, and former President Torres was gunned down in Buenos Aires in 1972. Becoming chief of state in this country often amounts to signing one’s death warrant.

Actually, the most spectacular Bolivian President’s demise was that of Gualberto Villaroel, who was hanged by a mob on a lamp post across the street from the Presidential Palace in 1946. As Lawlor write, “A sobering sight for incumbent presidents, it [the lamp post, which still exists] may explain why so many Bolivian communities are still without streetlights.”

Bolivia might be the most spectacular bad example of misgovernment, but virtually every South American country has its own bad examples, from Juan Manuel de Rosas of Argentina, who set some type of caudillo longevity record; to General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte of Chile; to Ramón Castilla y Marquesado of Peru; to José Antonio Páez of Venezuela; to José Artigas of Uruguay. Of the independent countries, Chile and Brazil had the fewest; and probably Bolivia had the most.

There is a nice PDF file on “The Rise of the Caudillos,” which deals with the issue in outline format.




The Bolivians Attack

Hilarion Daza

Hilarion Daza

Were the consequences not so tragic, [Bolivian President Hilarion] Daza’s trek through Tarapacá’s hinterland might provoke coarse laughter. From the onset of his campaign, the general demonstrated an almost monumental incompetence: he refused to hire guides to lead his forces through the unforgiving and unknown wasteland. Rather than travel at night, and thus spare his men from the searing desert sun, Daza instead advanced during the day. (Apparently he feared, with good reason, that his troops might desert under the cover of darkness.) The Bolivian general rejected a Peruvian offer of ambulances, and he ordered his artillery to remain in Arica [to the rear]. Perhaps one of Daza’s most criminally negligent acts was that [of] his refusal to bring sufficient water with him. Worse, he permitted his men to fill their canteens with wine or raw spirits, a disastrous mistake given the fact that the nearest supply of water was a substantial distance away from Arica. Col. Narciso Tablares, alerted by a commissary official that Daza’s expedition would carry only eleven water skins, warned the general that his men might run out of water. When Daza haughtily dismissed these fears with the words “You do what you are told,” Tablares had little choice but to obey.—William F. Sater, Andean Tragedy: Fighting the War of the Pacific, 1879-1884

Bloody Wars of the Americas


Political Cartoon Regarding the Chaco War

Political Cartoon Regarding the Chaco War

This post is about three wars fought in South America between1864 and 1935—wars that most people in the United States have never heard of. Yet withal they were extremely bloody, involved transfers of large amounts of territory between the combatants, and set some of the participants back for decades.

The War of the Triple Alliance

Here’s one that’s difficult to even imagine, considering the unevenness of the sides. Arrayed on one side was Paraguay under dictator Francisco Solano López, one of the more imbecilic caudillos in South America’s bloody history. Arrayed against it was Brazil. But wait, there’s more. Argentina and Uruguay jumped in on the side of Brazil. This is also referred to as the Paraguayan War. Before López and 1.2 million Paraguayans, or 90% of the pre-war population, was killed. You can read about it in John Gimlette’s wonderful book about Paraguay called At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig. After this war, Paraguay pretty much disappeared from the world scene—until it was time for the next war it fought.

The War of the Pacific

We move ahead to period 1879-1884. Bolivia actually had a seacoast with seaports back then, and its lands in the Atacama Desert were a rich source of nitrates. These were mined by a Chilean company called the Antofagasta Nitrate & Railway Company. The adjacent parts of Peru around Tacna and Arica were also being mined for nitre, which was at the time the number one export of Pacific South America. But then Hilarion Daza, the idiot caudillo of Bolivia, decided to levy a tax against the Chileans, and the nitre hit the fan. Chile invaded the Bolivian. Unfortunately for Peru, it had a mutual defense alliance with Bolivia, so it joined the fray.

Although the armies of Peru and Bolivia greatly outnumbered the Chileans, the Chileans were better officered. As William F. Sater wrote in his excellent Fighting the War of the Pacific, 1879-1884:

Peruvian intellectual Ricardo Palma said of the officer corps that “for every ten punctilious and worthy officers, you have ninety rogues, for whom duty and motherland are empty words. To form an army, you have to shoot at least half the military.”

In addition, there was one commissioned officer and one non-commissioned officer for every three privates. That’s not a terribly good ratio.

Anyhow, Bolivia and Peru lost the war and huge amounts of territory, and Bolivia became a landlocked country.

The Chaco War

This one is between the only two landlocked countries in South America, Bolivia and Paraguay—two losers if there ever were any. It was fought over the Gran Chaco, an area that was thought to harbor vast oil reserves. Typically, Royal Dutch Shell supported Paraguay; and Standard Oil backed Bolivia. This war is also called La Guerra de la Sed, or “The War of Thirst,” because so many of the combatants died of thirst fighting among the cacti of the arid region.

Between 1932 and 1935, the Chaco War led to lots of casualties, and a gain for Paraguay, which surprisingly won the war:

By the time a ceasefire was negotiated for noon June 10, 1935, Paraguay controlled most of the region. In the last half-hour there was a senseless shootout between the armies. This was recognized in a 1938 truce, signed in Buenos Aires in Argentina and approved in a referendum in Paraguay, by which Paraguay was awarded three-quarters of the Chaco Boreal, 20,000 square miles (52,000 sq km). Two Paraguayans and three Bolivians died for every square mile. Bolivia did get the remaining territory that bordered Paraguay’s River, Puerto Busch.

Over the succeeding 77 years, no commercial amounts of oil or gas were discovered in the portion of the Chaco awarded to Paraguay, until 26 November 2012, when Paraguayan President Federico Franco announced the discovery of oil reserves in the area of the Pirity river….  The President claimed that “in the name of the 30,000 Paraguayans who died in the war” the Chaco will become the richest oil-bearing region in South America. Oil and gas resources extend also from the Villa Montes area and the portion of the Chaco awarded to Bolivia northward along the foothills of the Andes. Today these fields give Bolivia the second largest resources of natural gas in South America after Venezuela. (Wikipedia)

Again, Gimlette’s At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is a good source of the only war that Paraguay could be said to have won, though it was only a booby prize for decades.

The cartoon above is taken from Poliical Cartoon Gallery by Derso and Kelen, which is well worth a look.