Archive: 2007 4th Quarter

Shopping

I say to Jean, "I need some new boxers. Mine are getting raggedy and the elastic is all loose."

Jean gets a gleam in her eye. The last time I bought underwear was five years ago. And that was under protest. Now she spots a shopping opportunity. Before I can reconsider my rash statement, she throws me into a cab and we're off to the Galleria.

Actually, I like to shop in big cities. Well, sort of anyway. Hick bergs like San Miguel de Allende offer slim pickings for a man of discerning taste, and not much more for one who used to wear pocket protectors.

The Cuidad Autónomo de Buenos Aires boasts several big malls situated in restored grand buildings. They're breathtaking.

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That is a working ferris wheel framed in the window.

Sadly, Paul (El Guapo) has not been present in these pages, on account of his computer was struck by lightning, and he doesn't have the patience to sit in a cybercafé. Too bad, because Paul has a shoe fetish, and has helped me develop an eye for them. He'd be proud to see me wearing my newly purchased red loafers, without socks.

I'm becoming such a free spirit.

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The red shoes inspired me. Riding a creative rush, I looked everywhere for boxers that weren't boring. After all, how one looks in one's underwear is sooo important.

I found some with a pattern of parrots drinking beer. Perfect!

Hungry after all that shopping (well, it was a lot for me) we looked for a snack. The Galleria offered lots of choices.

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(Somebody help me out here. Are there such things as Kosher McDonalds anyplace else?)

We went out onto Florida street. Nearly every shop had a barker out front. This nice young man invited me to come up to his second-floor emporium to check out his cashmere inventory.

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I dunno. With that grim expression, he just didn't strike me as someone I'd like to disappear up a darkened stairway with. In any event, it was too hot to even think about cashmere.

Jean manhandled me into a place that sells Argentinean-made leather goods, where I bought a couple of belts.

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The light one is rawhide. Jean asked the sales clerk about the other one.

"What kind of leather is it?"

"It's beaver."

—§—

One kind of shopping you readily can get me to do, besides going to an Apple store, is in bookstores. BsAs has a bunch of them on Avenida Corrientes, and nearby, there's El Ateneo, which claims to be the largest bookstore in South America.

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El Ateneo is housed in a spectacular restored old theater. The old stage contains a café; specialty books on medicine and engineering are stocked on the balconies.

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Most books are, of course, in Spanish, although a respectable selection of English-language books is available. I bought an anthology of Gaucho poetry. I find reading in Spanish laborious, but since poetry must be read closely, I don't mind frequently consulting a dictionary.

Like large general interest bookstores everywhere, overproduced lightweight titles are set out in special displays. For $30 US, you can read yet one more history of the life of Eva Perón, a figure who receives far too much attention in my opinion. Could it be that author Felipe Pigna, a historian at the University of Buenos Aires, is here pandering to popular tastes?

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Before I get too snotty about Evita, I have to remember that we all need mind candy once in a while. I bought Noah Gordon's The Physician which should put me to sleep every night until we fly home.

—§—

Flush with the success of getting me to shop for clothes, Jean pushed her luck and dragged me across town to a craft street fair.

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It turned out to be the same collection of aging hippies selling bad wallets you'll find at street fairs all over the world.

Tourists, mainly Americans, crowded among the kiosks. Several bought mates (MAH-tays) and bombillas (bome-BEE-schahs). Mates are used for drinking Argentina's national drink, also called mate. It's a sort of tea made by steeping leaves of a plant called yerba mate in hot water, properly drunk by sipping through a bombilla—a metal straw with an end designed to strain the liquid through all those leaves. Traditionally, everyone shares a single mate and bombilla, making mate-drinking an intimate social moment.

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This is one of those purchases travelers always regret. They get back to Grand Rapids, unpack their mate and bombilla and their slightly squashed box of Cruz de Malta teabags, only to realize mate-drinking has no place in their lives. So the whole kit gets put away until an emergency Christmas present is needed for Tiffani's latest loser boyfriend. Perhaps serving as a deterrent to a bad marriage.

Jean found a leather purse that she liked and I didn't, but then my opinion is neither here nor there in these matters. One of the 20 peso bills she gave the seller was counterfeit. Apparently there's a lot of that here, because I frequently see sales clerks holding bills up to the light. Jean's bill was so badly made that one of the 20s was wearing off. She replaced it with a good one, then promptly used the counterfeit to buy a bracelet.

I lasted ten minutes at the craft fair before retreating in the 95º heat to our air-conditioned apartment where I stripped down to my parrot boxers and wrote this post.

Feliz año a todos.

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La Frigata Presidente Sarmiento

You're looking at the screw frigate Presidente Sarmiento, an exquisite naval ship carefully preserved as a museum, moored here on the Buenos Aires waterfront. It is a prime example of something Argentineans do extremely well: restoring and maintaining old technology, and making it extremely accessible.

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The Sarmiento is perfectly suited for making a retired engineer happy. Visitors are allowed everywhere (except up in the rigging). The ship uses both wind and steam power (look for the stacks between the foremast and mainmast) so it offers a look at two types of propulsion technology. Does it get any better than this?

A group of smiling boys takes the helm. It has three ship's wheels. Why? Does it require several men to control the rudder in heavy seas? Down in the guts of the stern, there's a rudder servomotor, but maybe it can break down. Then you'd have to steer with sheer muscle power.

A gorgeous binnacle houses a gimbaled compass and a handsome brass ship's telegraph completes the helmsman's complement of controls and indicators.

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Wouldn't it be nice if this kind of design went into computers? I'd love to have a Mac made of brass and teak. With ivory keys.

Standing rigging is made from steel cable as would be expected in a late 19th-Century ship. Running rigging is of manila rope. Shown here at the mizzenmast, a bewildering array of sheaves and pinrails provides means for managing and securing halyards and downhauls.

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I spent an hour tracing the lines to see how the sails were controlled.

The Sarmiento is a warship, although it was used exclusively for training naval cadets and for goodwill expeditions and never saw any action. Nevertheless, it's armed with a couple of cannon and it can fire torpedoes.

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Steam power complements the sails, provided by a three-cylinder triple-expansion engine. (Writing that last sentence made me shiver with delight.)

Just look at those big cylinder heads. The brass thingys are pressure relief valves. They keep the ship from blowing up. An overhead crane visible at the upper right is used for removing the cylinder heads.

(I removed the cylinder heads on every car I owned from age 13 to age 23. I love removing cylinder heads. So of course I made a point of seeing how they did it on the Sarmiento. I wonder what the head bolt tightening pattern was?)

(Sorry about that. I sort of drifted off.)

I don't know what the red thing is. Part of the condenser?

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What triple-expansion means is that a small, high-pressure cylinder extracts as much energy from the steam as it can. Then, instead of wasting the exhaust steam, it is routed to a medium sized cylinder and then on to a huge, low pressure cylinder to wring every erg out of it.

Sounds efficient, doesn't it? But I doubt this engine achieved even 25% efficiency; one reason why piston engines were ultimately replaced by turbines.

The engine turns the drive shaft which runs through a long tunnel in the bottom of the ship.

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Note the absence of a handrail between the catwalk and the shaft. You wouldn't want to walk down here when the ship was pitching.

The drive shaft turns the propeller, or screw, which has been dismounted and placed onshore for viewing. This is a sophisticated design, with graceful hydrodynamic curves. Vernier markings where the blades attach to the hub assist in precise setting of pitch.

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The screw is eight feet from blade tip to blade tip. The blades themselves are pitted from gravel stirred up on shallow bottoms.

Even though it was built back in 1897, this vessel has electrical power. Here we see the dynamo room...

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... and the electrical control panel. The old knife switches are dangerous, but I love the completely exposed mechanisms. Their form and function exactly match.

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One of the most riveting scenes from that greatest of the Titanic movies, A night to Remember, is of circuit breakers blowing as seawater shorts out the electrical system. The control panel looks just like this one, and when the breakers start arcing, you know the end is not far off.

If I were a member of the Sarmiento's company, this would be my desk. The chief engineer's post is in the engine room, eyeballing his gages, shouting up a speaking tube: "Captain, I'm givin' her all she's got. She canna take much more o' this."

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As a senior officer, I would have my own cabin...

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... and for special occasions, I would wear my dress uniform, complete with sword. Of course, if I actually had to use my sword, I'd be completely lost. Unless I used it to cut out a spare gasket or something.

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I'd dress up on special occasions; like the time President Taft came on board the Sarmiento during a visit to Boston. I'd be one of those guys way in the back.

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Technologists have always been under-appreciated. One of these days, somebody's going to call me with a frozen computer, and I'm gonna say, "Why don't you call an English major? Oh! That's right! You are one."

"Say, can you give me some fries with that?"

The Presidente Sarmiento was one of the last of the beautiful ships. Within ten years, masts and sails were gone, and forms of ships descended into today's boxy cruise palaces. We are fortunate that the porteños preserved this one, so we can appreciate the elegant work of our great-grandfathers.

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Parks in Mendoza

You can judge a city by its parks. Mendoza has lots of them and they're wonderful. The greatest of them is Parque General San Martín, larger than New York's Central Park, and unlike the latter, every square inch is manicured.

One look at the front gate, and you think you're in France. Only the French do gilded ironwork like this.

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And so they did here. The park was designed by architect Charles Thays, who arrived in Argentina from France in 1889 at the age of 40, promptly changed his name to Carlos, and went on to create some of Argentina's greatest city parks.

That's an Andean Condor on top of the gate—Argentina's answer to the American Eagle. It's the largest land bird in the Americas, and is the pride of the Andean countries.

Argentineans may claim they're not Latins, but they use parks just like Mexicans do. Everywhere I saw families spread out on the grass enjoying picnics or just hanging out.

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For those left behind in Northern climes, I can't resist pointing out that the photo of the shirtless man kissing his baby girl was taken on December 24th.

A coltish young skater makes her way down miles of paved pathways.

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In a couple more years she is going to be devastating, her wake littered with broken-hearted boys.

Yeah, it's a French park all right. The original of this fountain, The Four Continents, is in Paris.

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Someone explained that it was so named because at the time, Australia was considered part of Asia. Lessee. Four plus one equals five. Aren't there, like, seven?

I'm guessing the French see the Americas as just one continent because we have no culture. And Antarctica doesn't count 'cause you can't get good pommes frites there.

A monument to Argentina's national hero, General José de San Martín, caps a hilltop in the eponymous park.

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A bronze of the General astride his horse, flanked by mounted soldiers, occupies the lower portion of the monument. His arms are folded over his chest in satisfaction over his accomplishments. At its peak, we see an allegorical winged Argentina, her arms raised, holding broken chains signifying freedom from Spain.

—§—

In the city center, a checkerboard of parks, each occupying an entire city block, were originally laid out as refuges in the event of another devastating earthquake. Today they are refuges from urban traffic and noise. This one is named Plaza Italia, in recognition of the heritage of nearly half of Mendoza's inhabitants.

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The centerpiece of Plaza Italia is a less-than-impressive fountain—it just kind of sits there and dribbles—backed by a spectacular wall of scenes composed of tiles.

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The tiles depict the discovery and occupation of the New World. Here we see Christopher Columbus and one of his lieutenants ordering the crew to turn right at the equator.

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Next, we have conquistadors bringing enlightenment to the savages. A priest, backed up by an officer with drawn sword and a fierce dog, is spreading the gospel. A worker is tapping a barrel of wine to make the lesson go down easier.

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A final scene shows the peaceful outcome of the meeting of the two cultures. The Spanish have built a mission and have finally managed to get some pants on the befeathered indian. The indigene's soul has been saved, and he has been broken of his idle habit of hunting and gathering, now better serving God by growing food for the priests.

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In the middle of the checkerboard of parks we have Plaza Independencia, a stately four-block park featuring broad stone plazas, flights of wide steps, and hundreds of elegant lamps.

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A wall flanking a reflecting pool features a bas-relief the subject of which I cannot fathom.

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I'm inclined to call it Rudolph Nureyev Discovers the Joys of Bondage.

Nighttime in Plaza Independencia, and a neon sculpture depicts the Arms of Argentina. Or of Mendoza. They're similar and I can't tell them apart.

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Christmas is over and our party is returning to Buenos Aires. I'd never even heard of Mendoza before this week. I would never have thought of coming here. The world is full of undiscovered gems: this is one of them.

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Ciudad Mendoza

If San Miguel de Allende continues its breakneck growth, I could easily see myself continuing my flight to the South—maybe to Mendoza, Argentina. It's a pleasant and livable city of around a million inhabitants, the center of a wine and olive oil producing region half the size of Italy.

The first impression visitors get is that the place is green. This is surprising considering that it is located in the rain shadow of the Andes. There's simply not enough rain to support all those trees and vines. The bulk of the region's water comes from the Andes via the Mendoza RIver.

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The city's trees are watered by an extensive series of channels. These sycamores can find water at astonishing depths, but they can't survive on only 8-10" of rain a year. So they need supplemental water. I don't think I've ever before seen street trees that are irrigated.

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In 1861, Mendoza was leveled by an earthquake. Ten thousand people were killed, a sizable fraction of the population at that time. Much of the way the city is laid out and built is informed by this tragedy. Parks, for example, have been placed every three blocks or so to provide sanctuaries.

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City planners note: this field may not be much help during an earthquake, but kids use it for pickup soccer games, and soccer moms don't have to load them into the SUV and drive them to their games. Less traffic, more soccer. Sounds good to me.

Once you have lots of public parks, you might as well install lots of benches. Benches encourage all kinds of healthy activities.

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I'd appreciate it if someone would tell me exactly what is going on here. Whatever it is, I think I'd rather like it.

Fabián told me these are called chorizo houses. I got it right away. Sausage houses. Long and narrow. In Louisiana they'd be called shotgun houses.

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They were built to standards developed after the earthquake. Single-story buildings are more survivable. Build deep, not up. They're set on wide streets so people can run outside to escape falling masonry. And then there's those carefully irrigated sycamores: two in front of each house, to keep walls from falling into the street where people are trying to escape.

Mendoza provides housing for the poor. Projects like this one are built to get people out of the shantytowns.

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Of course, the system doesn't work. The government builds new houses and sells them cheap to the poor, who promptly resell them at a profit or rent them out, moving back to the shantytowns. It's so very hard to do good works.

—§—

Juan Perón was here. When you see monumental public buildings like this presidencia, you're reminded of the regime.

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Massive, full of vertical lines, an oversize portico, lack of adornment; this building might have been designed by Albert Speer. I can't keep from speculating: Is there something systemic about how Italians and Germans and Spanish react to economic crises?

"Jeez, Giacomo, looks like the economy's going to hell. We better go elect a fascist."

That's of course what happened in Europe, and when the Great Depression hit here in Argentina, the Spanish, German and Italian expatriates did exactly the same thing. Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Perón; is there a pattern here?

—§—

I see beauty in pre-war industrial design. Apparently, Argentineans do, too, because when the railway through town fell into disuse and was converted into a pedestrian walking path, they preserved the semaphores. Bless whoever came up with this idea.

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They preserved the old telephone lines, too. These poles bring back childhood memories in technicolor. They're not in use anymore, but they've been left up there to remind us what the urban landscape used to be like.

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More careful thinking has gone into the development of Mendoza than most cities, and the result is a jewel, a city that works. Wide streets limit congestion. Trees filter exhaust fumes out of the air. Wide sidewalks make walking a pleasure.

Civilization emerges in places where grapes and olives grow. It happened 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, and it happened because the agreeable climate produced abundant food, freeing time so people could do things like write the Bible. We live best in places like this. Places like Mendoza.

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The Archbishop's Christmas


First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect.

—Tom Lehrer, The Vatican Rag

—§—

I know I've offended someone, quoting those lyrics. Please forgive me. The sniggering teenager inside this 66-year-old body sneaks out at night sometimes, and I'm at my wits' end knowing what to do with him.

—§—

Some of the world's greatest art and music was inspired by the church. So how come it produces such bad images today?

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This is just pure treacle. Jan van Eyck would vomit. One of the world's greatest institutions, and this is the best they can come up with?

Here we got Charlton Heston and Elizabeth Taylor gazing at the Gerber baby. The composition misleads: Joseph, who can't even claim paternity, is the dominant figure. The Madonna has been reduced to a vacuous groupie, and the Son of God just looks cute.

Does the Archbishop of Mendoza actually believe he is spreading the Word with this kind of thing? Winning converts? Reassuring the faithful?

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The Andes

When I return to Argentina, it'll be to the outdoors, because essentially all of Argentina is out of doors. Only 36 million people live here, the same as in California. But Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world, eighteen times the size of California. The place is empty. And it's gorgeous.

Fabián picked us up in his van and drove us into the mountains west of Mendoza, along the route taken by José de San Martín as he led his Army of the North across the Andes into Chile and Peru to free all of South America from Spanish rule.

The passes San Martín used were carved by the Mendoza River, without water from which, there would be no city of Mendoza.

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All of its waters are collected and used to supplement the meager 8-10" of annual rainfall in the area. The river is fed by snowmelt from the glaciers and snowpacks of the Andes. Much of the gravelly riverbed was exposed as we drove by, great cliffs of alluvial soil marking the current path of the waters.

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This river—this scene—is so important to Mendoza that artists frequently paint images of the mountains fronted by the river that gives life to all those trees and grape vines.

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So this pass was important for the freedom of South America and the founding of Argentina. It is important today for the water it provides. And for many years, it was the site of a railway link between Argentina and Chile.

Built over a period of 35 years, the complete route from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso was completed in 1910—the first rail link to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It cut transit between the two ports from eleven days to a day and a half.

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Rusting track and ruined railway buildings are all that's left today. Fabián says that a border dispute between the two countries (in the 1980s?) in 1978 might have broken into hostilities but for the intervention of the Pope. During the ruckus, though, the Chileans blew up their side of the Transandine Railway.

The railway is scheduled to be refurbished and reopened in 2010. The center of the world has shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, and 1,500 semis a day winding over the mountain passes just aren't enough to handle increasing trade with China. Now that the generals no longer run either country, it's time to rebuild this important connection.

The road isn't particularly easy to drive. Tight curves, steep grades, tunnels and avalanches impede traffic.

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Our destination was not the Chilean border: Our van lacked permits to cross the border, and we didn't have visas anyway.

(Time was, Americans were welcomed almost anywhere in the world with a minimum of bureaucratic fuss. Today an application for a tourist visa to the USA costs $100, due to more than double next year. And odds are, if you have brown skin, you'll be turned down and lose your $100. So of course, other countries are retaliating. You're hassled at the Chilean border. I'm told it's tough to get into Brazil anymore.)

We stopped 35 KM from the border, to view the highest mountain in the New World, Aconcagua.

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I apologize for the photo above. I hate this kind of stuff. Looky everyone. We were really there! If there had been a restroom at the summit, I would have insisted we pose in front of it, like the Chinese gamblers day-tripping from Vegas do at the Grand Canyon.

For the record, we have left to right, Judy, Bill, Jean and a scruffy blogger.

This is what we drove the seven-hour round trip to see:

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I'll have to travel to Tibet to see one that's higher.

But many of you know that I'm more interested in small details than in monuments. Here I'm adjusting aperture to shoot some alpine wildflowers.

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It's like all those times I was in the Sierra Nevada in spring, just after the passes opened. The alpine meadows burst into flower. Few things thrill me more.

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These flowers were photographed on December 23rd, the first day of summer south of the equator.

Having successfully captured images of the elusive purple lupine, we drove home—another three and a half hours on the road. I set my shutter to 1/1000 second and took scores of images through the van window, too tired to ask Hugo, our driver, to stop to set up proper shots.

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Every turn produced another spectacular view. Whenever I tried to nod off, something like this would open up in front of me, and I'd have to line it up in my viewfinder.

Argentina has its sophisticated European city: Buenos Aires. It has its wine aficionado and foodie magnet: Mendoza. But for my money, the real Argentina is elsewhere, in some of the most beautiful and spectacular scenery imaginable.

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Bodega la Rural

For fifteen years Jean and I lived in the Sonoma Valley, one of California's premium winemaking regions. Some of our friends were vintners. We escorted our visitors to wineries for tastings. Wines were featured at dinner parties, hosts competing to discover obscure releases from undiscovered boutique wineries.

Our neighbors made homemade wine from small plantings of their own, or from grapes gleaned from the big commercial vineyards after the harvest. When a vineyard truck overturned on a mountain road, responding members of our Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department scooped up the spilled grapes and made a limited-edition artesanal wine they called Roadkill Red—a cab I believe.

Mendoza is Argentina's winemaking center. Here we visited a famous winery: Don Felipe. It was founded by an Italian family in 1885, about the same time so many famous houses were founded in the Sonoma and Napa valleys, also by Italians.

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Don Felipe is a working winery producing a premium label, much of which is exported. But what makes it fun to visit is its museum, the finest wine museum Jean and I have ever visited.

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A great deal of equipment used by Don Felipe from the bodega's earliest days has been preserved and carefully restored. An old truck has new green paint and lovingly finished wooden components. Processing equipment borders rows of vines.

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A large selection of 19th-Century woodworking tools illustrates the art of barrel-making.

I wondered, what is the function of this large cowhide tub? And is the drain at the near end what I think it is?

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Why yes, the drain is in fact just what I thought it was: the cow's tail.

What did you think it was?

A sketch on some tiles shows a cowhide tub in use.

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A barefoot man tromps grapes, the juice running through the tail drain into a leather bucket. Do you think wine made this way tasted anywhere as good as today's vintages?

Wine presses reduced the labor of the crush while extracting more of the juice. Beat the hell out of grape-stomping. No longer in use today, old presses litter the grounds of wineries the way wooden wagon wheels flank the gates of ranches.

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The old gear is redolent of an age of authenticity, a time of pride of craftsmanship. But it can't handle today's volumes or price structures. Wine making today is accomplished with the latest in high-tech equipment: centrifugal crushers, stainless-steel fermenting vats and tanks.

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All that's left of the old ways are the wooden aging barrels, here imported from The U. S. or France. They make up a major portion of the cost of winemaking, because they cannot be re-used—maybe only once or twice if at all. A French barrel costs $1,000.

We toured the winery with perhaps 40 other tourists. I hate tours. When through some accident I wind up on one, I usually wander off by myself, one ear cocked in the rare event that the tour guide says something interesting.

The main reason I don't like tours is having to crowd through sites with other people. Our group consisted mainly of tourists who were there because a travel agent told them they should see the place, not because they had any real interest in it. Count me among these people.

But this guy intrigued me. He walked around for an hour with his eye glued to the camcorder viewfinder, panning down rows of barrels and equipment. He's gonna have to edit the hell out of that video to make it watchable.

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Factory tour over, it was time for Judy and Jean to shop—the high point of their morning.

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They lined up at the counter to buy a couple of bottles at low, low winery prices.

—§—

In the Bible stories I read as a kid, those early middle eastern people grew grapes. And apricots and figs and olives. Those crops seem to go together. I guess they flourish in the dry Mediterranean climate, just like the climate we enjoyed in the Sonoma Valley, just like the climate in Mendoza. Most places we've visited, where premium wine is made, so is olive oil. Not that tranny lube you buy in the supermarket, but spicy, fruity artisanal olive oil.

Don Felipe still has its old olive presses, although I didn't find out if they still make oil.

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The press on the left has a conventional pair of cylindrical millstones. But the reason I'm even bothering to write about olive oil is the press on the right. I've never seen anything like it. Three conical stones press the olives against a flat stone plate. Unlike the cylindrical press, the entire surface of the plate is engaged in the pressing work. So I imagine this design is more efficient. Cool, huh?

Stuff like this tickles my engineer side. But then again, engineers are like that. I remember as a teenager, picking up a camshaft and showing it to a similarly inclined friend. We both looked at it, and burst out laughing.

Not many people can see the humor in a radical camshaft grind. Or the beauty in a trio of conical millstones. Or the ingenuity of a cow tail drain. But for me, the opportunity to stumble on stuff like this is a benefit of traveling.

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