Archive 2008 1st Quarter

Allende's Birthday Parade

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Just back from Argentina, fuzzy from the 18-hour voyage, I wander around in San Miguel de Allende, savoring the joy of being home. I walk onto the Ancha de San Antonio. It's filled with people. Some major event is unfolding. Scenes galore!

Egad! My cameras are back in my luggage. All I have is my micro point-and-shoot. The battery is nearly depleted. It'll have to do.

Today is the birthday of Ignacio Allende, born here in San Miguel on January 21, 1769. He is a hero of Mexico's independence struggle. Our town was named after him, so his birthday is a big deal.

I arrive while the parade is setting up, to find these four traficantes standing at attention, spiffy in their rarely seen dress uniforms. I ask the guy on the right what's the occasion. He tells me to beat it. I guess some Mexican people don't like gringos.

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Lose the hats and epaulets, and their uniforms leave them looking like Re/Max salesmen.

(Sorry about the snide remark. I don't take rejection well.)

The cops form up and come to attention. Awaiting the go signal. But of course, this show isn't going to get on the road at the official starting time. They stand like that for over an hour, probably because the Capitán told them to. Surely he knew better.

Mexico has marines, and to go with them, a marine band. A couple of marine band corpsmen warm up with scales as they wait for the parade to start. Is one of them a corpswoman? Are they all corpspersons?

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Actually, one is a clarinetist and the other, a flautist. Musicians long ago abandoned gender-specific designations. It's that useful "ist" suffix that gets it.

I have to say I found this scene disturbing. I'm not accustomed to seeing armored personnel carriers and recoilless rifle vehicles at patriotic events.

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I guess we need them. Drug lords have enough money to fund their own armies; Federal forces have to be able to counter them.

Check out this APC. The .30 caliber machine gun on top is not much good for heavy combat, but it'll do quite nicely on a civilian populace. Rubber tires mean urban use. So this weaponry won't be used to repel an incursion across the Texas border, nor to invade Belize.

But it is ideal for turning on your own people.

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I don't know. Seems like too much power in the hands of the military. Would we tolerate these things in the streets north of the border?

In a parade, you want everything to be sharp. Soldiers touch up their vehicles with squirt bottles of cleanser and rags. While they're at it they clean their boots.

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Could you turn these boys on their own people? They seem so innocuous.

Finally things get underway. Color guards from every school in town lead, wearing dress school uniforms, jaunty hats, and white gloves.

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Every school fields its drum and bugle corps.

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So does the army. Tell me, why do they parade in camouflage fatigues, helmets, and goggles? Carrying bugles?

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Finally, we have one of those "only in Mexico" scenes: an elaborately costumed young man and four young ladies. He is carrying a banner that says, near as I can tell, Dragones de la Reina—the Queen's Dragons (Dragoons?). (The photo resolution is pretty bad.) I have no idea who they are or what they do.

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But check out the man's uniform. A beret. A black tunic with a bunch of white yarn balls dangling from his upper arms. White gloves. White canvas belt with large brass buckle. Black fatigue pants with patch pockets, bloused over black boots, and white gaiters. He's stylin'.

His female has escort abandoned the military look just south of their berets. The Queen's Dragons' uniform of the day is very short skirts and four-inch spike heels. These young women are going to march for two miles over cobblestone streets in those things. And yes, they're very good at it. Not a single misstep.

The symbolism of their getups escapes me, but they somehow seem to fit right in. Tanks and heels, why not?

It's good to be home, with things back to normal.

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Adios República Argentina

When I return to Argentina, it will be to the outdoors. Compared with California, it boasts six times the land area, but population is roughly the same, and a third of the people live in Buenos Aires. The rest of the country is essentially empty. Unspoiled Patagonia awaits, as do the Andes, the highest Mountains in the New World.

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Argentina shares with Brazil Iguazú Falls, largest cascade in the Americas. The jewel of an untouched subtropical jungle, visiting is a chance to see the continent the way it was before the coming of mankind.

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Downriver lies the Reina de la Plata, the Silver Queen. The Río de la Plata never delivered the hoped-for silver. Argentina's dreams always slip away.

But Fair Winds brought the sailing ships up the Río de la Plata to the best anchorage in the Southern Cone, and today the Chinese ship their manufactures here, as do everyone else. In 2010, this ship and others coming from Asia will be offloading in Santiago, Chile. The goods will be freighted on the refurbished Transandean Railway in a single day instead of taking ten around Cape Horn. And the dreams of the port of Buenos Aires will again dim a little.

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In spite of jarring economic crises, Buenos Aires grows. Rolls of sheet steel wait on a siding. In the background, new high rises house Microsoft and Cingular. Maybe someday, prosperity will reach all Porteños.

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The city's grand 19th-century buildings have survived a turbulent history. Not for nothing is Buenos Aires called the Paris of South America.

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Parks and plazas fill the center of the city, cool spots to rest in the January (summer) heat in the shade of a huge Banyan tree. (I know, I know. It's not a Banyan tree. Perhaps one of you will properly identify it.)

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If you have the money and you want a prestige address, it's hard to beat an apartment in the landmark Kavanagh building, once the tallest in South America. A four-bedroom apartment is for sale as I write: about a million dollars. That little won't get you one of the terrace apartments, though.

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For less than a fifth of that, you can get a nice two-bedroom apartment on a tree-lined street in a desireable neighborhood, a more welcoming neighborhood.

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Apartments above, shops on the ground floor, it's the ideal urban design. We walked to the butcher, baker, dry-goods and produce shops, all within a block of our Recoleta apartment. I bought gallons of Diet Coke from a carefree man in a convenience store, his boom box blasting popular music. He was so friendly, I didn't mind. The deli is in the next block, lavanderia across the street, a tailor next door who hemmed two pairs of pants for $6 while Jean got a manicure for $3. Don't expect those prices next year.

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For atmosphere, faded neighborhoods make good photo ops. This burger and hot dog joint is still in business, though you have to look closely to tell.

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A couple steals a moment together in the Retiro Railroad Station, oblivious to people hurrying by, and to my intrusive camera. Buenos Aires will reawaken the lover in you.

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The view from the plane looks north toward the Paraná Delta, with the summertime river houses of El Tigre and the flat water where Porteños row their beautiful wooden boats. How badly I want to be there now, sitting on the riverbank, reading the paper.

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Argentina has so much. The world's tenth-largest city offers culture and intellectual life and yet has a warm, small-town feel. Retirees can live happily and cheaply here, although maybe not for too much longer. Young people can find their life partners among so many beautiful people. A huge, uncongested land calls for exploring to find nature, serenity and maybe solitude.

For some, it's already become the ultimate snowbird destination. You can experience summer twice a year in a Western, first-world country, doing more than just lying on the beach.

I'm sad to leave. My friends in San Miguel call, otherwise I would stay longer. Maybe one of you will join me here some winter: a couple of weeks in BsAs, a month in Patagonia, a couple of weeks driving up the Andes along Route 40. It would make an unforgettable journey for both of us.

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Labor Unrest—A Civics Lesson

Strikes and Demonstrations are a daily feature of life in Buenos Aires. This small but astonishingly loud one is being kept in bounds by a dozen cops. It's noisy but peaceful, if that makes sense.

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The demonstrators today happen to be a group called El Brote (link in Spanish) that, near as I can figure out, is a group of actors who are also mental patients. I never managed to get exactly why they were demonstrating. Something about community trauma and mental health.

A favorite tactic is to hold demonstrations in arterial streets during rush hour, slowing traffic and increasing congestion. I rode with normally cheerful taxi drivers, whose demeanor went completely to hell whenever they ran into one of these messes. Here at El Brote's demonstration, a policeman directs traffic into the two remaining lanes of a four-lane street. Look at all those cabs! They are not happy.

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Police don't harass or break up such events. They seek cooperation or at least truce with demonstrators. This is a matter of policy. The State has lost all credibility ever since the Dirty War, and the people simply won't tolerate strong arm tactics by police or military. Authorities look back nervously at the riots during the collapse of the peso and tell the cops to back off.

Some demonstrations have a sinister feel. Late one night I rode in a taxi past the Plaza de la República where scores of muscular young men stood shoulder-to-shoulder in black tee shirts and jeans, wearing black hoods over their heads, holding three-foot crowbars at port arms. Hundreds of police stood across the street, keeping their distance. The taxista wouldn't stop for me to photograph.

A demonstration in front of Casa Rosada, the Argentinean White House, has been running for weeks. Casino workers are on strike. Demonstrators live in tents on the plaza.

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A couple of scout troops visited the demonstration. A troop leader told me they were learning about how social and political change is made in their country.

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Sounds ominous, but like kids everywhere, they could care less about politics. They're on an outing, having a good time, and mugging for the gringo shooting pictures.

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Peace, man.

Labor unrest in Argentina is serious. The failings of the economic system are serious. People are angry. Engage a Porteño in conversation, and the topic will always be politics. One told me the national sport was not polo, it was complaining.

The protesters are or were recently employed for the most part. Another group has not had jobs nor will they anytime soon.

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They gather in groups on street corners, but they are not demonstrating. They don't have the resources to do that. They wait for businesses to put out the garbage. They paw through sacks, looking for anything recyclable. They eke out a living, hope gone. Heaven help Argentina if someone comes along to lead them.

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Wall Demonstrations

In San Miguel de Allende, buildings get spray painted with gang tags—and engagement announcements. Porfirio Y Yulupa. In Barcelona, graffiti is an expression of visual art. Here in Buenos Aires, the walls are a political forum.

A statue (Is it Don Quixote?) bears a number of messages. Basta de Patotas K is a common one this week. Reactionary elements recently used gangs of thugs (patotas) to beat up and otherwise intimidate leftists. K refers to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, calling on her to stop the gangs.

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Socialist sympathy is strong because of a large impoverished and disenfranchised underclass. Below we have a message to norteamericanos and europeos: "Your profits are our illnesses. Stop contamination by capitalism."

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Stenciled graffiti seem to be appearing more frequently. Is this happening up north? The message below left calls for unity against repression and support for jobs and higher salaries. Porteños know that it is referring to recent attacks by patotas on teacher groups.

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On the right, the cheer for the Popular Rebellion (of Argentina) refers to the uprisings in December 2001 in reaction to the collapse of the peso—the economic crisis that plunged so many into poverty. The protesters have formed organizations that are active today.

Angry people look even to anarchy for a way out. The A in a circle is the symbol of an anarchists' organization. (Link in Spanish.) If messages like "Against All Authority," signed by the "Anarchist NarcoPunks" were to spring up in Peoria, we'd have a large, frightened segment of northerners calling for crackdowns. An ambitious selectman could make his career on something like this.

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I'm charmed by the message promoting anarchy and vegetarianism. Gives an entirely different impression from the Serejevan bomb-throwers of 1914.

Issues around sexuality get a lot of play. The stencil on the left reads "I am a hooker and I'm happy." She must have been listening to Colonel Saito: "Be happy in your work." Someone has circled the stencil in freehand red and added "me too."

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The stencil on the right reminds us that lesbians are our mothers, daughters and sisters. As enlightened as I like to think I am, that thought had not occurred to me. Bless whoever painted it (even though I generally hate graffiti).

Then we have "Stop Homophobia." I never saw this kind of activism, even in San Francisco's Castro.

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Some messages don't seem to have social or political themes. Is Pampa someone's pet? What is CHIC@ all about?

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But for my money, the best of the lot is a seated Buddha above the words "breathe consciously". A reminder to us all.

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The San Telmo Antique Fair

My friend Clint is a seller at the Round Top (TX) Antiques and Crafts Show. When he heard we were traveling to Buenos Aires, he asked me to be sure and check out the antique fair held in the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires on Sundays. I think he wanted me to make some kind of competent survey: offerings, quality, salability, prices.

Clint knows better. When he and I were in Oaxaca together, Jean called from San Miguel and asked me if I would buy her some kind of
rebozo or something. She could just as well have been asking me to get her some chimeric plasmids. Finally, she said, "Give the phone to Clint." He of course immediately understood what she wanted.

And yet, he entrusts me with this important task.

We took a cab from our Recoleta apartment to Plaza Dorrego. We were early, 10 AM, so the legendary crowds hadn't built up yet.

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Unlike the jumbled antique shops I'm familiar with, San Telmo vendors for the most part specialize in a single type of object: Gaucho tack, wooden lasts, fans, copper vessels.

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Colored stemware makes a great photo.

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Incomplete sets of silverplate holloware are kept organized in bundles secured with rubber bands.

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Two vendors specialize in seltzer bottles. They're still used for making drinks in Buenos Aires—you can buy new ones in kitchen shops.

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I couldn't resist another image of stemmed glasses.

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Odd pipes caught my eye. The third from the left doesn't look like it was used for tobacco. What, then?

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Our traveling companion, Judy, bought some coffee spoons like those on the upper right. On the lower left are pastry forks, in case you need any.

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The six implements at the lower right are mother-of-pearl caviar spoons. You'll need them to prevent your $6,000 a pound Beluga caviar from acquiring a metallic taste on the way from the server to your toast points.

This old Siemens telephone almost made the trip home with me. What a beautiful example of machine-age technology. But it weighs twenty pounds, and we were already over our checked baggage weight allowances.

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Not all vendors sell antiques. The man on the left sells reproduction signs; the one on the right sketches city scenes.

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The yellow shoes and the pink socks give them away: these people are artists.

Antique vendors are often colorful. The woman on the left is wearing hundreds of badges. She's sort of an icon.

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The guy on the right is typical: disinterested, smoking. Maybe he'll give you some attention, maybe not.

This woman sells books and miscellanea. Check out her hookah.

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Entertainers work the periphery. This classic-looking Porteño will dance the tango with you for a few bucks.

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Shoppers come in all types. There is the geek contingent—my tribe.

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Even I wouldn't be able to wear that... what... safari hat?

Many stylish young people wander around aimlessly, killing time on a Sunday morning.

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The Porteño behind and to the left of the guy in shorts is reacting to the rare sight of a black man. BsAs is a white bread city.

Then there are the unusual: the tattooed man, the guy with the Soviet Union tee shirt.

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Guys making statements.

The locals are the best. San Telmo is a semi-Bohemian neighborhood. This guy stood in that one spot the whole time we were there, sucking dreamily on his mate, thermos at the ready for refreshing the brew.

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Does that combination of shirt and shorts worK? I kind of like it. I like his handwoven iPod bag, his oversize sunglasses. This man is cooler than I could ever be.

By noon, you couldn't walk through the aisles. People were lined up two and three deep at the booths. I don't know how any business got done.

I saw a lot of antiques, but I didn't ask questions of the vendors. Just took their pictures. I have no idea what I'm going to tell Clint. Maybe the photos will be all he needs. Probably not.

It's his own fault for sending an engineer to do a shopper's job.

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The Falklands War Memorial

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In 1982,
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the junta governing Argentina, faced with civil unrest, sought to divert the attention of the citizens by occupying the Falkland Islands, then held by the British as overseas territory. These islands have been long claimed by Argentina which calls them the Malvinas. The generals hoped to ignite an upwelling of patriotic fervor, reducing the threat to their regime.

Margaret Thatcher dispatched a task force which defeated the Argentineans. Casualties included 649 Argentinean soldiers dead. They are commemorated by a Vietnam Memorial-style monument.

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An outline of the Malvinas is on the brown tablet to the left. Black tablets bear the names of those killed in action. An honor guard in old-fashioned uniform protects the monument and honors the fallen soldiers.

The defeat in the Falklands War was a major step in the overthrow of the junta. Their last effort to maintain control of the country ended in disaster for them.

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My initial reaction on seeing the Malvinas Memorial was to write it off as a lame attempt do dignify a war that was no more than a cynical attempt by an unpopular government to stay in power. But it dawned on me that if that's all it is, then what is the Vietnam Memorial?

We are brought into war by those who lead us, almost always mistakenly. Those who are killed in them are a tragic loss. But these boys showed up when they were called on, and for that they should be remembered with dignity, no matter the legitimacy of the war that claimed their lives.

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El Gato Viejo

Looking back on my post about the Museo Ferroviario—the Railway Museum—I realize I invested considerable effort while photographing to isolate specific exhibits, and never went wide to capture the heaps of rusty junk that comprise the bulk of the place. Probably I found it just too hard to look at.

Much of what museum director Pedro and his buddies dragged home turned out to have no value, even for them. A heap of castoff stuff accumulated outside of the museum. One day, the pile of old iron caught the eye of an artist.

(I'm sorry I wasn't able to get his name.)

The artist leased (or more likely squatted on) the ground next to the museum, and so was born El Gato Viejo—The Old Cat. A shack built of found materials features a confusing clutter of signs, one of which informs us that El Gato Viejo is a
teatro ferroviario—a railroad theater. This characterization alone makes the place worth investigation.

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A ticket window built into the shack is unstaffed, and looks like it has been in that state for a long time. A search of the grounds failed to turn up any personnel, either. I just walked in and made myself at home.

The materials rejected by the museum—wheels, bolts, pipes, springs, rusty sheet metal—became sculptures; here a crocodile.

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The works inhabit a trashy space surrounded by ugly chain link fencing. One might say they're not being shown to their best advantage.

I think this one is supposed to be a stegosaur...

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... or maybe something out of Star Wars.

I love the fantasy airplane with railroad handcar wheels. That's a real aircraft propeller.

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A hundred yards away, on the verge of an arterial, a giraffe has escaped from the grounds of El Gato Negro. It's perhaps the most viewable of the sculptures.

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If you google El Gato Viejo, Buenos Aires, you'll only find references to a bar in the up-and-coming barrio of San Telmo. The teatro ferroviario is flying under the radar.

Someone applied much energy and creativity to make these sculptures. It's odd that they now seem to be abandoned. Hardly high art, but they are evidence that in this troubled country, free spirits live. It's comforting to spend an hour with them.

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Disappeared

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For me, vacations are not about golf or resorts or filling out a monument checklist: Eiffel Tower—Check; Pyramids at Giza—Check; Acropolis—Check. I travel to learn about new cultures, new geography, new environments. I travel to meet people, to understand them. This means it's not all roses. The seamy underbelly of a place is a part of the picture.

I looked for Argentina's assets, its joys, its marvels, and found them. I also went looking for its dark side. I found a terrible suppurating wound in the soul of the country.


Juntas ran Argentina from 1976 to 1983. The paranoid military dictatorship tolerated no dissent, and conducted what is now called the Dirty War. People were arrested and never heard from again, a practice that has made disappear into a transitive verb: the police disappeared my brother. The number of the disappeared is believed to be 30,000.

The
disappeared were leaders of unions, students and liberals in general. They were arrested, beaten, burned, electrocuted, raped and killed. They were taken into airplanes and thrown out over the Río de la Plata while they were alive. To simplify dispatch and body disposal.

These people are not forgotten. You see reminders all over Buenos Aires. This roll memorializes the disappeared of barrio La Boca.

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Many neighborhoods have similar plaques.

Posters bear photographs of faces of other disappeared people. This one promotes a year-end march to demonstrate against the Dirty War ever happening again.

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A couple of years ago, some excavation was being done at the site of the old Sports Club. People had forgotten that this was a facility used by the police to hold and interrogate prisoners.

Workers found the site full of human bones.

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I wanted to see it. I peered through a chain link fence at another of those posters with faces of the disappeared staring back. On the embankment behind it, markers had been placed where shallow graves had been found.

The victims' cemetery is a dingy, dark place beneath an overpass, full of construction debris and litter. Here, hundreds of human lives were swept under the carpet. Looking at it, I was devastated by the despicable tragedy.

I cried when I saw it.

This shitty place is being made into a memorial, as it should be. I hope they don't pretty it up. A sculpture depicting naked people climbing out of a hole in the earth screams to the bastards who did this that their secret can't be buried.

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During President Nestor Kirchner’s term, the amnesty granted the responsible military officers was lifted. Some subsequently have been jailed. An inadequate sort of justice is finally being done. But this injury to the people of Argentina won't be healed—ever.

I can't get over the fact that Argentina is not some laughably tragic banana republic. It was once among the top dozen richest nations in the world. It was a European country, a white country. They're supposed to be more civilized than all those countries full of brown faces.

But the Juntas made the Dirty War
government policy. A general said at the start of it all, "We are going to have to kill 50,000 people: 25,000 subversives, 20,000 sympathizers, and we will make 5,000 mistakes."

Have Argentina's leaders figured it out yet? In front of the imposing Military Headquarters, a tank is on display. It has rubber treads so it won't tear up the streets as it hunts down the citizens it is supposed to protect. I guess the streets will be OK then, but writing this post is tearing
me up.

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Political Correctness in Uruguay

Q: How do you get a one-armed Pole out of a tree?
A: Wave to him.

Q: How do you take an Italian census?
A: Roll a quarter down the street.

Q: How did 18 Mexicans get into the Cadillac?
A: Picked the lock.

Q: Why did God create WASPs?
A: Someone has to buy retail.

Are any of these offensive? You could freely swap the nationalities in any of the first three jokes, and they’d be equally good. Or bad. The fourth joke works only if the subject is a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. You could make the argument that of the four, the last one is hurtful because the humor is dependent on a racial slur.

You would be wrong. Because WASPs are members of a privileged class and therefore fair game.

You can even get away with jokes about underprivileged racial groups:

A black guy walks into a bar with a beautiful parrot on his shoulder. The bartender says, “Wow! Where did you get him?”

The parrot says, “Africa.”

So why do I find
this image, found on the corner of a restaurant in Colonia del Sacramento, objectionable?
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We descendants of slaveholders have learned to be sensitive when making remarks about the descendants of slaves. Caricatures of black people in demeaning dress are not OK in the States.

But south of the border, I see images like this frequently—in Mexico and now in Uruguay and Argentina.

At the San Telmo Antique Fair in Buenos Aires, I ran across this shelf of antique dolls: frilly little white babies on the bottom, Aunt Jemimas above.

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Latin America has race issues. Blacks were treated badly here in the Southern Cone as elsewhere in the Americas. Early black immigrants came here as slaves. But they represent smaller fractions of the populations of Uruguay and especially Argentina, where they are notably absent. Porteños aren’t frequently reminded of their society’s sins. Less guilt.

But something else is at work here. Latins don’t object to poking fun at physical or racial attributes. I am called “Baldy” by Mexican friends and even waiters. A friend of mine is called
Gordo—fatso. Nobody gets offended.

The attitude seems to be that you are what you are—bald, fat, black, so why not get it out in the open? When I stand in the sun, the shine off my head make others squint. The most prominent aspect of my appearance is my lack of hair. So I learned to get over being called
Calvo.
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Mate Drinkers

Jean was invited to the home of one of a small group of women she met in Buenos Aires. During her visit, they shared a gourd of mate. Jean thought the taste was strong, herbal, and grassy; an acquired taste at best. So is coffee of course, but at this advanced stage of my life, I can't remember ever not liking coffee. You can get used to anything, and mate is one of those beverages that becomes an integral part of your day, I guess.

The term mate refers to the tree that produces the leaves, the dried leaves themselves, the gourd the beverage is prepared in, and the tea itself. To avoid confusion, I'm going to refer to the vessel as a gourd. That's literally what most of them actually are: carved calabashes.

Mate the fluid is prepared by stuffing a large bunch of leaves into the gourd, moistening them with cold water, and then shaking the gourd to cause them to settle into a sloping, soggy mass with the large pieces of leaf at the surface and the fine particles beneath, so you won't slurp up any of the "grounds".

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Photo credit: Wikipedia

The bombilla, a metal straw through which the drink is sipped, is then carefully inserted and used to further shape the pile of leaves, after which hot water is added to make the actual beverage.

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Photo credit: Wikipedia

The gourd is passed around from person to person, and more hot water is added from time to time as the tea is consumed. Everyone sips from the same bombilla, since to remove it would stir up the pile of leaves and ruin the drink. Jean thought this sharing practice unsanitary. Jean tends to be concerned about such things.

She was experiencing mate-drinking as a social bonding ritual, an elaborate ceremony giving a group of people something to do together as they converse. Sort of like a fondue pot, I imagine.

I observed mate-drinkers on the street, particularly in Colonia del Sacramento. (Mate is the national drink of Uruguay as well as of Argentina.) These people were drinking it the way I drink my morning coffee, as a solitary pursuit.

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They held their gourds in an upright position in their hands, without setting them down. Apparently it's important to keep the sloping pile of leaves in place to prevent sludge and particles from entering the bombilla. And the bottoms of many gourds have been left in their natural, rounded shape, so they won't stand upright anyway.

The drinkers carried thermoses of hot water to refresh the mate. Their faces registered pensive, faraway expressions. They spent a great deal of time sitting, drinking their mate, staring off into the distance. I noticed a man sitting on a shady bench beside the Río de la Plata. When I passed by two hours later, he was still sitting there, sucking on his bombilla.

All kinds of claims are made by people in the health food industry about the beneficial properties of mate. It's widely available in the USA, usually in tea bags or added to health drinks. Apparently if it grows in the wild and it tastes bad, you need to be drinking it to strengthen your immune system or whatever.

I don't think the people pictured above are thinking about the health-giving properties of mate. They don't seem to be much concerned about their health at all, judging from their appearances. I suspect they're just addicted to their morning drink of choice, like the way I am.

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Getting around Colonia


Get your motor runnin'
Head out on the highway
Lookin' for adventure
And whatever comes our way

—Mars Bonfire, Born to be Wild

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What Tourists Do:

Here we have a tourist on a rented scooter. He's waiting for someone in the souvenir shop behind him.

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The bike with the word "racing" and a checkered flag pattern and the matching metallic blue helmet promise a hip, snazzy ride. But it all falls apart with the Thrifty car rental agency logo on the back.

This rider was never going to pull off the look. He probably had no desire to anyway. Looks like a claims adjuster. And helmet or no, if he takes a spill on that thing in those shorts and sandals, he's going to leave a lot of skin on the road.

Rented scooters are one way to get around Colonia del Sacramento. Golf carts, motorcycles, rental cars, mo-peds, quadrimotos, bicycles; they're all available from Thrifty. Here some tourists, the largest clump of them I saw during our visit, are listening to a pitch by a Thrifty agent.

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The odd thing is, the interesting part of town runs only eight by eight blocks. And the ferry schedule ensures you're going to spend at least seven hours here. So it baffles me why any healthy person would want transportation other than her own two feet.

Below we see a substantial couple on a motorbike. From the sound of the poor thing, the engine displaces only 50cc. The riders look as if they're concerned about the vehicle making it up the street. They seem to be offering it encouragement.

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Thrifty doesn't rent the really cool vehicles. These women are riding around in a dune-buggy-like contraption powered by a Volkswagen engine. You can bet that it can get up and walk away from anything.

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Obviously locally made, their vehicle gives a nod to being highway-legal, evidenced by the pair of rear side rear view mirrors and turn signal indicator lights jerry rigged to the tubular frame. Judging from the tire wear, this thing is a popular ride.

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What Locals Do:

I've never seen so many functioning antique cars concentrated in one place. I'm not talking about Concours d'Elegances. I'm referring to ancient cars still in everyday service.

The '28-'31 era Model A Ford has been gussied up with un-Henry-Ford-like green paint and yellow wheels, but its owner tools around town in it.

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I guess a Model A isn't all that big a deal. You still see a few around. But that red car parked behind it is a rarity: a Rambler American convertible. It's the cool version of the '60s most uncool car. Most Ramblers were maroon and the cheapskates that bought them usually didn't even spring for a radio. You never asked your dad for the keys to the Rambler. But this car... What a dilemma!

Resting in the shade of a wisteria, another Model A awaits its next assignment. What is it with green in this town?

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This sad thing is a Mercedes. When I was a young professional, I couldn't afford it. Today, anybody could.

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I saw this '30s vintage Vauxhall out running errands several times during the day. It runs quietly and doesn't smoke. Although its owner does.

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Nothing says "Berkeley French Literature Professor" like a Citroen 2CV. This one nds. wrk.

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The real find was this no kidding, take-no-prisoners Land Rover. This is not the luxury vehicle with the unnecessary headlight brush guards and the leather seats. You know, the one that gets no closer to going off road than a friend's gravel driveway.

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This is a real safari-going truck that'll get you up close to observe the dik-diks.

At the far left, the owner is peering at me as I photograph the Land Rover. He told me maybe three people photograph it every week. He says he's proud of it—he should be—but that he will probably have to sell it. He needs the cash. (Note the little money pit sitting on the step.) If I'd had any reasonable way to get it to Mexico, I'd have bought it.

You've all seen this last vehicle driven by Nazis in WWII movies. It's also a Mercedes, no? Well, it's not anymore. Now it's a planter, the only non-running vehicle I saw. But still in service.

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Check out the doors that open from the front and swing to the rear. What pathetic excuse for an engineer came up with that design? And why did the manufacturer let him? Can you imagine accidentally opening the door while riding along at 50 mph?

When you travel, you never know what you're going to see. I came here to look at colonial houses and ruins and Portuguese cobblestone streets built from ships' ballast. I found an artifact of Uruguay's isolation and lack of cash for imports. And a good warm bout of nostalgia.

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Colonia del Sacramento

We finally made it to La República Oriental del Uruguay— a new entry for us to color in on our map of countries visited.

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The Río de la Plata forms Uruguay's southern boundary. It's allegedly a simple matter to cross if you want to want to visit from Buenos Aires. You just get on a ferry.

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The nearest town of interest is Colonia del Sacramento, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I've indicated the route by adding a red line to the ceramic mural map pictured above. Don't be deceived by the short length. A hydrofoil takes an hour to make the crossing, and a normal ferry takes three. Halfway there, no land is visible. The horizon is water in any direction.

(Incidentally, your atlas probably identifies this as the River Plate, because that's what the British called it long ago. Someone told me the English misunderstood the Spanish word plata to mean "plate", but I don't think so. They knew perfectly well the river was thought to be an artery into South America's silver country. An old meaning of "plate" is "silver", hence "the Silver River".)

Colonia, so called by locals, is the oldest city in Uruguay. Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, it changed hands frequently, from Portugal to Spain and back, then likewise from Brazil to Argentina and back, not settling down until Uruguay became an independent country in 1828.

Here we relaxed away from the noise and tumult of BsAs in a quiet, tree-lined place, surprisingly free of tourist crowds.

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A ferny town wall, with gate and drawbridge, offered ineffective protection during many sieges.

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An old iron cannon mounted on a beautifully preserved gun carriage still defends the historical quarter.

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Old walls make beautiful subjects for a photographer.

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An abandoned building serves as canvas for a religious mural.

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We did run into a few tourists. Here, four young Porteños pose atop a cannon in front of the city museum.

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Do they fit the category of Beautiful Men?

The water here is said to be clean enough for bathing, probably a good thing as in summer, it gets hot. On the day we visited, the high temperature exceeded 100º. Jean and I wilted in our city clothes. The four young Porteños stripped down to their boxers and cooled off in the river.

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A small yacht club berths primarily sailboats. The usually smooth Río de la Plata looks like it makes for excellent sailing.

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The yacht club restaurant, recommended as the best in town, served shrimp stuffed with gruyère cheese, rolled in cocoanut flavored rice crispies and deep fried. A monumental culinary effort and one that failed.

Souvenir shops, galleries and restaurants occupy many colonial buildings, like they do in San Miguel de Allende. A block or two from the commercial district, lovely homes doze among old trees. I particularly admired this one. It's not for sale.

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But this one is.

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It's a huge stone waterfront house. It was much too hot to chase down the realtor, but I doubt it's priced over a million dollars—maybe much less. In Malibu, it would cost thirty.

The town has a functioning lighthouse. The Río de la Plata is a major shipping channel, and there's not a lot of room for navigation error, compared with the open sea.

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In front of the lighthouse are the ruins of the 17th century Convento de San Francisco.

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You wouldn't tour Colonia del Sacramento unless you were visiting Buenos Aires or Montevideo. You can see all there is to see in a day, although you could stay longer to relax by the water. You might even consider retiring here. Uruguay has little corruption, is liberal (same-sex unions are legal throughout the country), and almost 90% of the population are people of European descent, giving it the feel of southern Italy. Plus it's cheap.

But nothing much happens in Colonia, and it's hard to travel to anyplace else. So you need to be looking for rest and relaxation primarily, if you're going to settle here.

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Beautiful Porteño Women

First of all, let's get one thing straight: I am not a Dirty Old Man. That notwithstanding, it has not escaped my notice that Buenos Aires contains an incredible number of beautiful women. I've never seen so many in one place anywhere else in the world. For the last four weeks, I've been finding myself somewhat... ah... stimulated.

If I were a single man, I would come here to live. I realize San Miguel de Allende has a dearth of eligible men, so I may be doing a disservice to female Sanmiguelenses promoting Buenos Aires as the best dating town on the planet. But there you have it.

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They're everywhere I turn. I'm constantly bumping into them, as it were. And when I see one, my camera raises itself of it's own volition and snaps an image or two.

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I want to clear up a couple of other things before I go on. First of all, I'm happily married, a faithful husband. I am not tempted by these beautiful women. But evolution gave men woman-seeking radar—essential when we're seeking our partners, but awkward once we have found them. There's no "off" button. It's not that we're disloyal. We simply can't stop noticing.

Secondly, female readers might properly ask, "Well John, you male chauvinist pig, why don't you include a little beefcake in this post?"

A friend tells me that Buenos Aires is indeed full of beautiful men. Unfortunately, I don't have the capacity to recognize them. Men look angular and hairy to me. Frankly, I don't see what women see in us. So I simply cannot maintain gender balance in this post. Sorry.

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God, they're gorgeous. And there are so many of them. I can't understand how a club like Player's Girls can stay in business here.

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Most of the beauty of Porteño women comes from their energy and intelligence. They all seem to be going somewhere. They're not only physically beautiful, they're interesting.

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They're also stylish. Rhinestone sandals and glitter toenail polish; this woman is a free spirit.

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Many tattoos are visible these hot summer days. This one is a chinese character. Risky, getting tattooed with a message you can't understand.

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Probably means "beef with broccoli."

(Thanks, George Carlin.)

The fashion today is to show a lot of midsection.

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I get a vague urge to pat their tummies when I see them.

This young man has a better idea.

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You see a lot of fairly intense public kissing here.

A clever young man would come down here to look for his soul mate. He'll find many attractive women, accomplished women, good women. And in the blush of passionate youth, he'll choose one and pursue her, as hormone-driven men have been doing for eons. Maybe he'll deserve her. Maybe not.

Could this be the one? He has to choose well. And afterward, he has to live well. Even so, what will happen in forty years?

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Some lives go badly. Too much booze, too many cigarettes, too many bad men destroys youthful beauty and optimism. Maybe it's because of who you are, maybe it's who you choose, probably it's some of both.

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But if you choose wisely, and if you try to be good to her, and if you are very, very lucky, you will find someone whose beauty only grows.

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I found my soul mate 24 years ago, and I still can't believe how blessed I am.

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Porteños and Their Dogs

Buenos Aires seems to have more dogs than most cities. In the early mornings and evenings, dog owners walk their Yorkies and Goldens and even a Boston Terrier or two. When we see the Bostons, we miss ours, Rosie, all the more.

Sometimes we see clumps of dogs tied up on the sidewalk, no owner in sight.

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These are the charges of professional dogwalkers, and there are a lot of them in Buenos Aires. What's happening in the picture above is a dogwalker has been let into a building by a doorman to collect another canine client. The others are waiting for him patiently, the way that dogs can.

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Even though they are a common sight on the streets of the city, dog packs attract attention. It's because so many people here love dogs, and in a bunch of six or eight dogs, they're sure to see one they like.

Owners and dogwalkers alike clean up after the furry little poopers. The streets are immaculate. The blue thingies in the guy's backpack are plastic bags carried for the purpose.

When everybody has been picked up, they go to a park to play off leash. Dogwalkers bring plenty of water and treats. Here a Dalmatian mix scarfs a goodie. A German Shepherd sees that it's handout time and is hurrying over to get his share.

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Any city that loves dogs is OK in my book. For me, it's Good Reason #7 to live here.

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Museo Ferroviario

If a city has a railway museum, I'm there. Railway museums have got everything: interesting technology, wonderful industrial designs, nostalgia.

The Museo Ferroviario is located behind the Retiro Station near the center of Buenos Aires. You enter via a trashy parking lot through a gate in a chain link fence. When I visited, I was greeted by a friendly man who was burning a pile of garbage.

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I could see this was going to be a great place.

This exquisite one-eighth scale steam locomotive model thrilled me. Engines like this one took me to New York City when I was little.

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Twenty years ago, Paul Theroux observed that the Chinese were still building steam locomotives in Datong, and were using them extensively in their coal-rich country. I wonder if they still are. That would be, for me, an entirely sufficient reason to visit China—just to ride the last steam trains.

The year I was born, the world held maybe two and a half billion people, most living in the countryside. Today there are seven, primarily jammed into conurbations where pollutants concentrate. So coal-burning, inefficient steam engines can't be used anymore.

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But if you've ever stood beside one of these panting monsters, belching acrid smoke and cinders, driving wheels slipping while pulling out of the station, you'll understand why some are sad to see them go.

The Museo Ferroviario is disorganized and junky. My kind of place. It's run by Pedro here and his sidekick, two totally committed railroad buffs. They warmly invited me, the only visitor that day, clearly pleased to have a curious fellow spirit to show around.

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I found Pedro in his old-fashioned wooden office chair, carefully making entries in a ledger and chain smoking. His office looks mussy and homey. A heavy piece of gear rests on the floor to his left, an iron transmission lever leans over his desk.

So much to see, so many pictures to choose from. Here's just a few.

I just love this handcar. Railroad wheels with spokes! Bicycle seats, handle bars, a pair of cranks—it was meant to be ridden along the tracks for inspections. The crossbars are deeply dropped, as if ladies in full skirts might ride the machine.

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But of course they didn't. The design is intended to make life easy for workers who had to dismount frequently as they made their rounds.

The railroads were built by the British, with whom Argentineans have had a close, if sometimes turbulent relationship for a couple of centuries. You see evidence in the designs of everything, from locomotives to water filters.

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Jean and I could use a good germ intercepting filter in our home in Mexico.

The bathrooms in passenger cars contained stools of finely patterned china.

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(I seem to have a fascination with bathrooms; something to check with my therapist.)

This next gadget illustrates a solution to a problem. Here you are at Retiro. You have a train on a siding you want to send up to Rosario. Is the track clear?

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This apparatus signals the state of the track. It tells you when a train is occupying the track or if it is free. Pedro tells me there was never an accident on an Argentinean railroad while these indicators were used.

—§—

You all learned Morse Code when you were a Scout, didn't you? You know: A=dih-dah, B=dah-dit-dit-dit, C=dah-dih-dah-dit...

OK. Maybe you didn't learn it. But we nerdy kids did. Had to, to get our amateur radio operator's licenses. Had to send and receive fifteen words a minute. Hard—for me, anyway.

It was harder for Spanish speakers. I didn't realize this until I saw a placard giving the codes for accented letters: Á=dih-dah-dih-dah...

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Seven more letters to learn. I bet they didn't bother sending accented letters. I'm sure the sense was clear without them. And I notice they didn't go through the formality of assigning codes to ch, ll, or rr; all once considered parts of the Spanish alphabet.

By the way, is Ä actually used in Spanish writing? (=dih-dah-dah-dih-dah)

If your Morse is rusty, you always have the phone. This looks like something made by the Acme Company in a Warner Brothers cartoon.

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Hello central, give me Doctor Jazz.
He's got what I need, I say he has...

Most places in the world, conductors used whistles to signal to the engineer that everyone was on board and ready to go. But in a few really cool countries, they blew horns.

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I think if they started using horns again, more people would choose the train. How could they not?

Please forgive me if I now briefly indulge myself in some geek porn. This here is a rectifier. It converts AC into DC.

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It's an 8' tall vacuum tube; bigger than any other I've seen. It had to be big. It provided the current to operate electrically powered trains. Check out the eight anodes arranged around the bottom of the bulb, each contained in an elaborate extension of the envelope. A glassblowing masterpiece. Look at the fan at the bottom with the cast aluminum blades. If that sucker ever seized up, the whole shebang would melt down in a minute.

The great railway museums of the world have scores of locomotives. The British National Railway Museum in York must have a hundred. The Museo Ferroviario has a single, pathetic, narrow gauge one, all tarted up with red and silver trim, the way Argentineans like to embellish industrial antiques. It's lovely.

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It wasn't built for use on the narrow gauge section of the Transandean Railway; it's older than that road. But maybe it saw service there anyway, in the 30s. Two round windows in the engineer's cab mark it as a British design, probably manufactured there as well.

The Museo Ferroviario isn't a great museum. But it's one of the most satisfying to visit. You can get up close to the displays. You can touch most anything there. And you've got Pedro, the Museum Director, to personally guide you.

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Crying for Argentina

We're looking down the Plaza del Congreso at the neoclassical edifice that is the Palacio del Congreso. It's the seat of Argentina's legislative body, a group of democratically elected wise men and women who look to the welfare of all Argentineans.

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On that very same plaza, we see some of their constituents.

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These are not drunks. They're not addicts. They're not crazies. They are intelligent, able-bodied people who cannot find work. They make a few pesos by collecting recyclable cardboard and soft drink containers at night, and so are the backbone of the recycling program in Buenos Aires.

Lots of people beg for coins in San Miguel de Allende. Most are pros, wearing traditional indígena dress, their hands permanently cocked in a supplicating gesture, their expressions conveying practiced misery and want.

Not these people. Not this little girl, receiving a few coins from a tourist just before the waiter ejects her from the sidewalk restaurant.

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Her expression is lifeless. She doesn't want to be doing this. But she has to, along with the rest of the family, if they're going to eat tonight. Hell of a childhood.

Here we have a group of women and children, spending their days on a street corner. They're making the best of a bad situation, sitting in the shade, holding the kids, sharing a mate. I gave them $4 pesos ($1.20 US) after they noticed me taking their picture: 20¢ a person. Cheap bastard.

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You think they're in it for the money? This man comes occasionally to our corner breakfast place. The waiters give him a plastic bag full of stale bread. A nearby patron gives him the fisheye. That bum is ruining his breakfast.

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Housing stinks, too. This woman lives in a hut made of plastic bags. She's literate. The paperback she's reading has no pictures in it, so she must be reading the words. There's no job for this educated woman.

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Cops don't hassle her. They know she has no place to go. They don't protect her, either. That's why she has a dog.

Most dogs like me. This one didn't. Stay away buddy.

At least she has some kind of shelter. When you don't, and you don't have friends or a dog for protection, you sleep under an awning, in a place so public no one will risk harming you.

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The poor in Mexico have pretty much always been poor. Their lot, while tragic, is slowly improving or at least static.

These Porteños are people who had jobs and homes. They lost all that beginning seven years ago. They live in a first-world country, a European country. What the hell happened?

Carlos Menem listened to experts at the IMF, who horned in on Argentina's economic miracle. Policymakers wanted to showcase their skills at economy-building in developing nations. They convinced Menem to fix the dollar-peso exchange rate at parity, and when Argentina's export volume dried up as a result, they shoveled loans into the country to prop up the currency—more loans than could ever be repaid. Before long, everybody knew Argentina was going to default on its bonds.

Finally the bankers cut off credit. The economy collapsed. Rioting broke out. Argentina went through four presidents in eleven days. Citizens were told they could not pull their deposits out of banks, so they watched as the peso sank against the dollar, wiping out their savings.

Of course, the wealthy held their assets in dollars, banked outside the country. The elite barely saw a ripple.

But not the middle and lower classes. Businesses closed. People lost jobs and homes. One or more of the people in the photos above may once have been a member of the middle class.

They were robbed. By their leaders. By American policymakers. Another reason Latin America is turning against us.

I'm angry and there are tears in my eyes as I write this. For some illogical reason, I can handle poverty in Mexico. I can handle homeless people in Golden Gate Park. I can't handle former homeowners pushing their ratty carts at night, rooting through the garbage set out on the street, tearing up cardboard boxes for sale.

I've been avoiding writing this one. Too painful. BsAs is a lovely city in a lovely country. But it has open sores.

Think it can't happen to you? The US is the biggest debtor nation by every measure. The dollar is sinking. Asset prices are collapsing.

Think again.

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Barflies

Buenos Aires is a European city: nothing like Mexico City or New York or Bangkok. Think Paris or Madrid or Brussels, but without the attitude.

The streets seem familiar to anyone who has traveled on the Continent. And one great feature of European streets is that you're never more than a block away from a restaurant, café or bar. So when you're worn out from shopping, or viewing monuments, or touring museums, you can just step into a nearby place, and for the price of a drink or an espresso, you can rest your feet and regroup with your city map laid on the table in front of you.

The Plaza Dorrego Bar is a colorful example of the kind of place Jean and I use for rest stops.

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All the bars we've visited in Buenos Aires have been pleasant places. They're not havens for bleary has-beens. No drunks sleep down at the end of the bar. The places don't smell like stale beer, and most important, they're smoke-free. Smoking inside public places is prohibited by law in Buenos Aires.

Lone women can patronize bars here without looking like hookers. They're safe places where they won't be hit on. Much.

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Well, maybe sometimes. The mustachioed waiter is straightening his tie, a subtle "I'm interested" signal aimed at a pretty girl. Like any proper European waiter, he has no trouble ignoring other patrons.

Plaza Dorrego Bar has been in business for more than a century. Old bottles line the walls. Drawers for flour, polenta, cheese, and other foodstuffs date from a prior incarnation as a grocery store. A military-grade coffee percolator graces a counter.

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Mercifully, it's no longer used.

(We've all become so picky about our coffee. That percolator makes me shudder at the thought of the bitter, stale sludge once dispensed from it. But I happily drank gallons of coffee from machines just like it in the 60s.)

Unshelled peanuts with your beer, cookies with your coffee. Wooden chairs, beat-up wooden tables. No stemware. A no-nonsense place. A comfortable room to hang out in—for the whole afternoon if you feel like it.

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Our "usual" rests on the table in front of Jean: agua con gas for her, diet cola for me. No ice. We're cheap dates, in case you were wondering.

We spent a restful half hour sipping our drinks, and another half hour trying to get the waiter's attention. Our bill finally paid, we went, refreshed, back to the noise and bustle of the streets.

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The End of Quiet Places

These people have just had a great day at Iguazú Falls National Park. Now they're getting on their tour bus for a ride to their hotel.

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A score of buses full of Porteños visited today, as they do every day during the high season. Seeing a parking lot full of freeway cruisers presages one of the park's biggest problems: lots of visitors.

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They come from Buenos Aires, more than 1,000 KM away. The ride takes 20 hours. They spend a day or two in Iguazú and then return to the city. The whole package costs $1,000 pesos—about $300 US. They sign up a year ahead and make payments of $100 pesos a month until it's time to depart.

Affordable and then some, these excursions are very popular. Iguazú Falls is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And that means crowds.

—§—

The entrance to the park is a couple of miles from any actual waterfalls.

"Let them walk," you say. "If they want to see nature, they should be willing to work for it," you say.

Well, high season temperatures are high, as is the humidity—over 100º and 50% the day I was there. And visitors have to walk for hours once they get to the falls, so they'll be working plenty for their nature outing.

Can you imagine this lot being required to walk? Check out the sandals on the guy in the yellow baseball hat. Great hiking gear.

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So a tram transports visitors to the trailheads. Private vehicles are not allowed, avoiding the smog and traffic jams overwhelming places like Yosemite.

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At first, I thought we'd be sightseeing from the tram. Only later did I realize it was just a utilitarian conveyance. Good thing too, because it was crowded and uncomfortable.

The open air coaches have benches across the width of the narrow cars. Just enough room for three people. Everyone clambered on board. Then a man came along yelling ¡cuatro por ciento! Four percent? Even the native Spanish speakers were saying ¿Qué?

Then someone got it. Cuatro por asiento. Four per seat!

Bad news indeed. We spent the next half hour in groups of eight jammed into facing benches, outboard people leaning to make room for the pairs suffocating in the middle. The benches were so closely spaced we had to interweave our knees like the teeth of a zipper. And you thought tourist class was bad.

Bitch, bitch, bitch. Forty-five years ago I used to hike the John Muir trail with a 50-pound wooden frame backpack for two weeks at a time. No complaining then. So why am I whining now? The tram was indeed a luxury.

—§—

Yesterday I posted photographs of people-free vistas.

I lied.

I deliberately chose images conveying a false sense of solitude and nature, because I wanted to show the incredible beauty of the place.

This is another view of what it was like:

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There's a couple hundred people on that catwalk, elbowing each other out of the way to get that honeymoon photo of Eugenio and Yulupa in front of a waterfall.

A group of kids monopolized the end of a catwalk that reached within a few yards of this cataract. Otherwise nice kids, their extended turn at the front meant that a hundred people got no closer than I did when I shot this.

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A portion of our visit involved riding on a four-wheel-drive sightseeing truck through the jungle. Hot, dusty, uninteresting, except when the driver ran over a mammal of some sort.

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At Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, they call trucks like these "shake-n-bakes".

I have a problem with the idea of nature as theme park. As would, I'm sure, John Muir or Ansel Adams. But there's an element of Disneyland here. About a dozen boats like these took groups of visitors to experience the falls up close.

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There's no way someone could get so close unaided. So as distasteful as this seems, it's an ride not to be missed.

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The boat crew gave me a drybag. I put my cameras inside, and within minutes, I was soaked. The boat goes into the cataracts. Suddenly equilibrium and vision are gone. The lurching world contracts to stinging white wetness.

—§—

People want pictures of their vacations, and not all are skilled at taking them. I saw a couple dozen guys like this one, ready to help out for a price.

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A large tour group posed for another fotografico profesional at La Garganta del Diablo.

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The lens hood had fallen off his Nikon long ago (a weakness of the brand) so he's using a magazine to control lens flare. Just like I do. What he'd really like is something to control the yahoos posing for him.

Hours of walking, lugging cameras, and elbowing Italians left me exhausted. I took an hour out for a snack and a rest under an old fig tree.

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Later, walking on a trail called the upper circuit, I ran across the highlight of the entire day. This girl was touring the falls with her parrot.

Of course. Why didn't I think of that? Next time I'll bring Chiapas. He'd love it.

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The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite—all must deal with the problem of large and increasing numbers of visitors. Iguazú Falls National Park does an excellent job of handling them. Yes, the E rides had godawful crowds. But a few steps away from the catwalks and paved trails, you're alone with the toucans, the jungle and all that water.

Busloads of Chinese gamblers and Japanese tour groups and Germans in rented Class C motorhomes converge on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Go to the North Rim, and you've got the canyon to yourself. There's plenty of wilderness to experience. Just takes a little planning, a little thinking, and a little more effort to get to it.

You can't get to the primeval subtropical rainforest in a tour group. Tours are good only for a quick but useful survey.

But what a survey! Even with the crowds, Iguazú is one of the wonders of the world. The roar of the water and the eye-popping views take you away from the mobs, even as you're hemmed in by them. And there's always someplace you can find that gives you a little space.

I'll go back by myself next year or the year after that, in the off season, and spend some quality time at the falls.

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The National Park of Iguazú

First, let me get my geography straight. Iguazú Falls are not on the Paraná River as I claimed in yesterday's post. They're on the Iguazú River just before it joins the Paraná.

The photo below should make this crystal clear. Coming in from the right is the brown, muddy Iguazú River. The clear, bluish waters of the Paraná are flowing toward Jean and our driver, Walter. Jean is standing in the country of Argentina. That round building across the Iguazú is in Brazil. The land to the left is Paraguay. Got it?

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I was surprised to find out the Paraná is navigable between this place, called Porto Iguazú, and Buenos Aires, some 1,600 miles downriver. Agricultural goods are freighted south and large excursion boats make a five-day run up from the Capital. I'm takin' it next time I'm in Argentina.

People from Brazil and Paraguay all want to shop in Argentina because devaluation of the peso results in low prices. The easy way to go is via a bridge that connects Argentina to Brazil, and another that connects Brazil with Paraguay. But Paraguayans take a slow, clunky ferry direct from Argentina to avoid Brazilian imposts. Aren't governments wonderful?

Above the falls, the Iguazú River breaks into many channels and slowly meanders over a large plain, creating a moist ecosystem.

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Parts of the river look like hot chocolate.

A 200' drop from the plateau creates the falls. This image is of a portion of them called La Garganta del Diablo—The Devil's Throat. If you could stand in the middle of the lower river at this point, you would be surrounded on three sides by cataracts like this.

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But you probably couldn't see them because of the mist which sometimes reaches hundreds of meters into the air.

The spray creates permanent rainbows; permanent, that is, depending on the elevation of the sun.

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The subtropical jungle is dense, supporting a huge variety of wildlife and plants. Here an Andean condor, Argentina's national bird, is drying its wings.

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A caiman basks in shallow water.

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Here in its highly specialized habitat—a walkway beside a snack stand—we find a Coati, a South American type of raccoon. Signs prohibit touching or feeding them. People do anyway. They stand on their hind legs and stick their noses in your shoulder bag.

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The wildlife is terrific. I wish I could spend a couple of days on a Zodiac looking for jaguars and ocelots.

But most people don't come here for the wildlife. They come here for the falls.

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Around 275 individual waterfalls are strung along a curtain that is one and two thirds miles long. From the ground, you can't see them all. But you can hike trails and clamber over catwalks for hours, revealing countless views. I could not take enough pictures.

The park is full of plants: some new to me, some new only in the wild: bromeliads, orchids, epiphytes, cacti, rare palms, timber bamboo, ceiba trees, mate trees, many different vines, houseplants on steroids.

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I don't know the red-flowered plant. The inflorescences on the right are on a cupay tree. A rarity, it grows only here.

And then, there's the falls: the overwhelming, thrilling, inescapable falls. No moving water anywhere in the world can match them.

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I was with a small tour group and I kept up with everybody so I could get a good overview of the park. I also would have liked to just sit quietly, listening to the roar, feeling the spray on my face, and watching the vencejos (a kind of swift) diving at Mach 2 past the columns of water.

When we decided to visit Argentina, our plan was set up housekeeping in Buenos Aires; maybe make a couple of short side trips to Mendoza and Iguazú. Well, Buenos Aires is a great city, deserving of a close look, of experiencing living there. But the real Argentina is outdoors. My next visit will be to the Andes, Patagonia—and Antarctica while it's still there.

But I'll return to Iguazú, too. My quick look left me wanting much, much more.

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Iguazú—A First Look

This looks a lot like waves breaking over rocks somewhere on the Oregon coast. But it's not.

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It's a hole in the Paraná Iguazú River.

We're spending a couple of days in a large subtropical rain forest: Iguazú. It's located where the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet.

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The reason people come here is for the waterfall—the second-largest waterfall in the world after Victoria Falls. Makes Niagra Falls look like a plumbing leak.

The Paraná River originates in southern Brazil from moisture blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean. At the intersection of the three countries, it drops over 200' into a canyon and then continues southward, reaching the sea at Buenos Aires, a journey of 1,600 miles. This river deserves respect: It's second only to the Amazon.

The falls occur on the Iguazú just before it joins the Paraná.

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Iguazú is probably the most spectacular waterfall in the world, not only because of the huge volume of its waters, but because it is broken into hundreds of separate cataracts, creating unmatched views.

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After entering the park today, I traveled by train, boat, jungle truck and foot—especially by foot—to view the falls. I'm bushed: only enough energy for a short post. But I have a lot to say about this incredible place, so as my friend John Calypso says in his blog, Stay Tuned!

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El Palacio de las Aguas Corrientes

People who visit Buenos Aires want to see Casa Rosada, Congress, the Obelisk, the Opera. Me too. But then what?

Maybe to go see the Water Works.

Completed in 1894 and still in use, the formal name of this building is El Palacio de las Aguas Corrientes—The Palace of Running Waters. It's a superb example of late 19th-century British architectural excess.

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It occupies an entire city block. It bewilders the eye. It's horrible. It's covered with gewgaws. It's magnificent. I love it.

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Here's a travel tip: Never tour a Christian country over the Christmas and New Year holidays. Half of what you want to see is closed. Any schedule of hours posted anywhere will be wrong for the next two weeks. For my visit to the Water Works, this phenomenon would play a big part.

The front entrance to the Palacio is closed and locked. I look for a side entrance, because I heard that it contained a museum.

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The side entrance is closed as well. It's a holiday, you see.

No matter. A museum about plumbing! There's no way I'm going to miss touring the place. I'll just come back another day.

I check around the back just in case someone is working who would let me in. There I see this sign.

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It basically asks people not to paint graffiti on the building. Some little delinquent promptly scrawled on the sign. But wonder of wonders, the building itself was spared; remarkable as I'll demonstrate in a future post.

I come back the following day. A guard tells me I can't go in because while the building is open, the museum isn't. For some unfathomable reason.

"When will it be open?"

"Tomorrow."

Bear in mind that El Palacio de las Aguas Corrientes is about three miles from my apartment. I'm trying to walk off some of the weight that two steaks a day is putting on me, so I'm trekking the round trip every time. Daytime temperatures are in the high 90s. I'm starting to feel like two attempts to get inside are more than enough.

But then, there's all that plumbing calling to me.

The next day I go back. The forecast says it's going to break 100º. I arrive, dripping sweat. The guard lets me in.

Downstairs feels like the inside of a bank: counters, clerks, velvet ropes marking off queues. Apparently people come here to pay bills or arrange for connections. A sign announces that the museum is upstairs.

I arrive at a small door at the end of a long hall. A placard says "Open from 9 to 1". It's 1:10. The door is closed. Another notice says, "When museum is closed, ring bell".

I ring it hopefully. I hear the clip-clop of high heels striding across a wooden floor. A woman who looks like a research librarian opens the door and peers at me suspiciously over the top of her reading glasses.

"May I come inside?"

"No, No. Certainly not, Señor. The museum is closed. You must come back tomorrow between nine and one. She shuts the door in my face.

I've got way too much invested in this project to give up now. I return the next day at 9:15. The door to the museum is open. I stick my head through the door, tentatively. The research librarian intercepts me and asks where my museum pass is.

"I need a pass?"

She gives me a pitiful look, like she's dealing with someone a little slow. "You must go to the desk at the other end of the hall, and get a pass to enter the museum."

(Remember now, this is a big building. It's a city block from one end of the building to the other. I'm going to have to make a two-block round trip to satisfy the gatekeeping virago.)

At the end of the hall, a pleasant woman wearing a banana republic colonel's uniform welcomes me. Lots of gold braid. Yes, she will give me a pass for the museum. No, there will be no charge. Could she see my passport?

Seasoned travelers know that you never carry your passport while walking the streets. But in Argentina, if you look American, you can't do anything without showing it. So I've been carrying mine with me.

The pleasant officer laboriously copies down all of my passport information into an old-fashioned thick bound ledger. Then she inserts a ratty piece of carbon paper between two forms, and copies all that information again. I surreptitiously glance at my watch. One o'clock is coming ever closer.

At last, she gives me my pass. I airily wave it at the librarian as I walk through the museum entrance. Gooooooaaaaaal!

The first things I see once inside are architectural drawings prepared over a century ago by the British firm that built the place.

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This one is for the ceramic coats of arms of Argentina and the city of Buenos Aires that dot the outside of the building.

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Further along, I see a desk used by some underappreciated engineer who may have prepared that very drawing. One of my own.

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Then I hit pay dirt. A wall of urinals!

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The little white vessel on the folding stand is a bidet. The inset shows a flush tank as originally manufactured with a glass front, so you can watch the mechanism work. That is, it you're into hanging around in the bathroom after using it.

The two sink/toilet hybrids with the iron grates are slop sinks.

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They're used in hospitals to dispose of... whatever. You don't want to think about slop sinks too much.

One entire room was almost entirely given over to toilets.

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The two in front are the "put your feet on the footrests and squat" types. We older Americans have pretty much lost the flexibility and balance to do that. Except maybe for you who practice yoga.

I spend a couple of hours perusing the exhibits. The only other visitors are an elderly German couple who hover over pressure gages and hold intense discussions about them.

Every twenty minutes I hear the clip-clop of high heels. The harridan pokes her head into whatever room I'm in, frowns suspiciously, and clip-clops off again to her lair. Clearly she suspects I'm a potential toilet thief.

Now things get really interesting for engineers: a display of valves and faucets, and a selection of early drain pipe fittings.

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I took so many photos of so many interesting things: huge centrifugal pumps, a whole wall of water meters, glass carbon tetrachloride bombs for throwing at fires to extinguish them... I could go on and on.

A couple of interesting posters catch my eye. On the left, a Maxfield Parrish-esque woman in her bathroom. I have no idea what the intended message is.

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On the right, we have what looks like a Soviet-era poster of a worker pouring iron. It's publicizing a firm called "Piazza Brothers", a "Society of Limited Responsibility."

Wonderful graphics. I'd hang them in my living room in a heartbeat. Jean would put them out in the garden shed a heartbeat after that.

The best piece of gear is not in the museum itself. It's in the entrance lobby. It contains 21 pressure gages, 21 valves, and atop it all, a wonderful clock with Roman numerals on the face, all housed in mahogany. No plaque explains its original function, but in some ways, it speaks for itself: 19th-century workmanship and technology at its finest.

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I raise my camera to photograph it. A guard hustles over and tells me I'm not allowed to take photographs downstairs.

Yeah. Right. After four trips over here in the blistering sun, I'm going to just leave on some guard's say-so?

I consider asking him who could give me permission to photograph the control panel, but it's obvious to me that I would have no difficulty whatever obtaining assent from any reasonable authority. It's not like it's a state secret or anything. So with a clear conscience, I go to the bathroom. When I emerge, the guard has gone around the corner.

Gooooooaaaaaal!

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Our Daily Bread

Travelers learn to be adaptive about diets. Here in Argentina, you can't get bacon and eggs. Not huevos rancheros either.

What Porteños eat for breakfast are mezzalunas and café. Maybe some orange juice, but that's extra.

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It's fairly thin fare for people brought up on IHOP blueberry stacks with aerosol whipped cream. But in Argentina, you have to lighten up somewhere. Pizza for lunch and yet another rib-eye steak a punto for dinner leaves one overfed and logy. These days I'm just not hungry in the morning anymore.

—§—

Only in the USA do you get that 48 oz soft drink in a plastic tub half full of ice. Nobody else in the world has the love affair with frozen water that Americans do. In Mexico, you normally have to ask for ice; it's usually cheerfully supplied. In France, waiters sneer when you ask, sigh in exasperation, and exchange knowing glances with the locals at the adjacent table.

In Buenos Aires, your diet coke is served in a wine glass. No ice. Takes some getting used to.

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Seeing as I drink diet Coke or Pepsi to the exclusion of all other fluids except for coffee, this is a big deal for me. At first I asked for a larger glass and some ice. Waiters simply can't grasp the concept of someone wanting a larger glass, but they've heard about ice in Argentina; they even have a little. Comes from Antarctica I think.

When you ask for ice, the waiter brings you a crudely cast aluminum pot with three ice cubes in it. Jean takes two of them for her agua con gas, leaving me with one small one. I drink half of my glass of coke so there's room for my ice cube. I put it in the glass. It instantly melts.

I'm adapting. I don't bother with ice in my coke anymore. I'm actually getting to like tepid soft drinks. And mezzalunas for breakfast hit the spot after last night's pig out.

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Busquebus

One of the great things about visiting Buenos Aires for the first time is you get a twofer. You get to color in Argentina on your map of countries visited. Then you hop on the ferry—the Busquebus—and an hour later you're in the UNESCO world heritage site, Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay.

We headed down to the Busquebus terminal in the morning for our easy day trip across Río de la Plata. This is what we ran into:

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A nightmare! The Black Hole of Calcutta. A mass of human misery, all wanting to go to Uruguay, most going nowhere.

It took a half hour and Bill's incredibly rapidly acquired grasp of Argentinean Spanish just to figure out what the hell was going on.

(Use vos instead of ; pronounce calle KY-schah, not KY-yah...)

It may not look like it from the photo, but there are four lines, and you have to wait in them all in sequence to get on the ferry. That's not counting the line at the information kiosk where you find out about the other four lines.

First, there's the line to book your ticket. One harried clerk has to handle every person you see there. He has to copy all the information from your travel documents. Then he has to find a slot for you on one of the ferries.

After many minutes of paper shuffling, you are given a coupon. Congratulations! You have just been promoted to the line where you pay for your passage. Be prepared to show your passport again. Be prepared for a clerk to laboriously write your passport information by hand on another form.

Now you choose the appropriate line for check-in for your ferry. Let's say it's the 10:30 AM hydroplane. Don't for God's sake get in the line for the 11:00 AM slow ferry, because when you get up to the front, you'll just get sent back to the end of the 10:30 AM hydroplane line. Oh, yeah. You'll need to show both your ticket and your passport again.

You're almost there, bunkie. Now you get into the security line. Just like at the airport. Take off your shoes, x-ray your luggage, show your ticket and passport again.

We waited in line #1 for over an hour. We finally made it up to the booking clerk. We graciously allowed three people who had reservation problems cut in front of us. Finally we told the man, "We'd like to go to Colonia del Sacramento on the 12:30 PM ferry."

He looked at us incredulously. "You don't mean today?"

"Well, yeah. We just spent two hours waiting this line so we could go over to Uruguay for the day. Today."

He said, "Sorry. No seats until Friday."

—§—

I'm too close to Uruguay to be denied. I'm determined to find a way to get there. Preferably one where it takes less time to buy a ticket than to make the actual crossing.

Next week. I'm gonna try next week. When I've regained my strength. And composure. Maybe if I go at midnight...

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Rowing in Argentina

In Europe it seems like everywhere there's flat water, there's recreational and competitive rowing. The English have been rowing on the Thames for centuries.

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—Doggett Coat Badge. Thomas Rowlandson

Argentina is more European than Latin American, and it has lots of flat water. So it should come as no surprise that Argentineans row. What is surprising is the ubiquity of rowers: you see them everywhere.

A couple of lunch-hour boatsmen work out in a dique at Puerto Madero in downtown Buenos Aires.

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The compulsive (and wealthy) build elaborate rowing clubs. Club Regata Mendoza is located in parched Parque San Martín. The founders built a severely rectangular lake large enough for racing. The building and lake represent serious money.

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You've got to really care to go to such lengths.

Apparently membership in Club Regata Mendoza is countrywide. This woman is walking through an outdoor mercado in Buenos Aires.

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I'm not sure her outfit is what serious rowers wear. When I looked up rowing gear, I found a reference to kidney warmers, "best worn next to the skin." I group kidney warmers right next to trekking poles. Whatever happened to just getting out and rowing? Or walking? In, like, sneakers and jeans?

El Tigre is loaded with rowers paddling through the center of town, on a tributary of the Río Luján.

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Some are members of one of the town's many rowing clubs. Argentina's first, the Buenos Aires Rowing Club, was built here in 1873. It still exists, the acme of rowing clubs. I probably wouldn't be invited to join. El Guapo certainly wouldn't.

Owners keep their boats in palatial boathouses like this one at Club Canottieri Italiani—The Italian Rower's Club.

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Riverbanks in El Tigre are public spaces with few private buildings permitted. Boathouses and rowing clubs are located across the street. Your better rowing clubs have installed trolley tracks for transporting boats down to the river.

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These hand-built wooden boats are high art. Hull shapes have been honed over centuries with small, incremental improvements. Cross sections are shaped so that as the boat tips, resistance to tipping further increases. Hulls are widest aft of center, helping keep the boat pointed forward. And the woodwork! The craftsmanship is incredible.

Up in the Paraná Delta a rower enjoys quiet water. Her boat belongs to an era long past. Her oars are the latest in rowing technology: hatchet sculls made from carbon fiber composites.

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Here's a dream: Buy an apartment in a belle époque building in a nice neighborhood like Palermo. It'll cost you less than a house in San Miguel de Allende. With the leftover money, buy a weekend home in the Paraná Delta. Join a mid-level rowing club. Enjoy a peaceful, elegant sport while getting in shape. European living at its best—but here affordable, and with a decent climate.

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La Boca

From our apartment in respectable Recoleta, Barrio La Boca might as well be in another country. It's not exactly bohemian. It's not really an artists' colony. God only knows what it is.

Buenos Aires' original port, La Boca decayed over the last century when the ships stopped coming. A down-at-the-heels working-class neighborhood, it has been a hotbed of far left politics and a site for demonstrations, especially during the financial crisis of 2002.

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La Boca has a long history of rebellion. Once it even seceded from Argentina.

A tile mural shows the port during its glory days. Some of us are old enough to remember when the sight of tall brick chimneys belching black smoke meant prosperity.

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The scene reminds me of riding on the Hoboken ferry to Canal Street in New York. I still feel nostalgic when I smell coal smoke.

Tourists are drawn to La Boca, supporting a renaissance. Buildings are colorful and everybody wants to photograph them. Can you imagine?

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The image on the lower right is of Garibaldi Street, where Nazi Adolph Eichmann lived until captured by Mossad agents.

One street, the Caminito, is a tourist trap. A handful of waiters and performers are locals. The remainder, a vast majority, are visitors aiming cameras somewhere.

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On the right we have Justin posing in a fighter's stance while Cyndi takes his picture. Ha ha. They'll love that one in Dubuque, Justin.

Below left, a couple demonstrates the tango. La Boca claims to be the birthplace of the dance, an assertion that almost certainly is spurious.

I've been here for little more than two weeks and I'm already sick of the tango. If I hear one more accordion pumping out dance music, I'm going to go wocka wocka.

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On the right, a man is bemused... or something... by a mannequin's costume.

Everyone is acting crazy. Only the dog is doing something rational.

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The waterfront, a few steps from Caminito, boasts La Boca's landmark bridge, an ugly sucker built in 1914.

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The harbor, the Riachuelo, is said by one writer to have been "a repository of cattle carcasses, oil, oxidized metals and assorted toxins..." Good thing they got it cleaned up.

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Poverty is just around the corner, giving ears to populist politicians.

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Both of these dwellings are flanked on either side by colorful renovated buildings frequented by tourists.

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The value of the cameras we visitors carried that day would have lifted the entire population out of want.

But hey, the economy continues to improve. Some Argentineans at least are doing well. Might as well share a mate with a friend. Just ignore the little girl on the balcony across the street.

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The party goes on. Papier mâché sculptures of Juan and Eva Perón, along with Boca Juniors player Diego Maradona, smile down on passers-by, poor and rich alike.

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The residents of La Boca worship false heros: a fascist, a second-rate actress playing president, and a defrocked soccer star. Their choices are emblematic of the repeated failures of this beautiful country, a land of promise denied.

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Life on a River

Tigre, a sweet town in the Paraná River Delta, offers amusements for visitors who come to enjoy summertime resort living. You can't miss the amusement park with its ferris wheel.

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The town also boasts the Trilenium Casino, not worth a photo from the outside, nor would the guards let me use my camera inside. Imagine that!

The gambling hall is glitzy, but the patrons look more like the remains of the Atenas, below. (That's a high-tech roller coaster behind the ship.)

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Old and hollow-eyed, they stake out two slot machines each and mechanically feed them one-peso coins (30¢ US) one after another for hours on end. Judy met a woman in the restroom who, unwilling to leave her machine, had not made it to a stall in time.

What is this thing—a Zodiac? Whatever it is, put me on one. These guys are using speed to beat the heat, generating their own breeze.

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But for a full day's outing, I'd rather hire the Nelida F. I'd ride it all over the delta, tie up somewhere for a picnic, nap during the boring parts. I simply cannot describe how peaceful and satisfying it is to be out on the water near the confluence of the Paraná and Plata Rivers.

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Thousands of homes dot the delta. Maia's Casita here looks like a vacation rental. The hot spell—99º at the end of December—lures people into the water. If I come back this way, I'm gonna rent one of these. But a nicer one.

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These little boys are swimming in front of El Capricho, which I suspect belongs to their parents. It doesn't have that ratty rental look. No life guards, no fences around the water. No paranoia. When I was a kid, all water was like this.

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Maybe mom and dad commute to Buenos Aires from here. Takes about a half hour on the train. More likely though, El Capricho is their weekend home.

A few public beaches (and a lot of private ones) are strung out along delta waterways. A pretty girl and her unseen friend take a rest from kayaking at one of them.

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This has got to be a junior high water polo team—something like that. Matching shorts are the giveaway. The delta consists of thousands of square miles of what basically is summer camp. Here I am in Argentina, feeling nostalgic.

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Of all the people we meet along the way, this man has the best idea.

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Sit in the cool water with your dog on the steps of your dock. There you can placidly dream. Or bark at passing boats. Your choice.

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Water Transport in the Delta


There's nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats.

River Rat to Mole
Kenneth Grahame,
The Wind in the Willows

—§—

Oh, to live in a place where you have to get around by boat. In the Paraná Delta, travel is mostly by water, owing to a lack of roads.

"Darn, honey. I forgot to get milk. I'll just have to run down to Tigre or we won't have any in the morning. Have you seen the boat keys?"

The delta waterways buzz with boats. No congestion, but you could sit on a dock and watch hundreds of craft of all kinds go by. This one looks big enough to have some commercial use, but today a family is taking a pleasure ride on it.

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Smaller boats are the norm. A surprising number ones have inboard engines. Even more unusual, they seem to be jerry-rigged. This one is driven by what appears to be a small automobile engine.

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I saw an even smaller boat propelled by an inboard lawn mower engine. Mexican ingenuity in Argentina!

A minority of delta boats are propelled by muscle power. The waterways cover hundreds of miles; distances are too great to get around using oars. You have to be strong and have a lot of time on your hands if you're planning to paddle from place to place.

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This young man clearly has both. His backpack and his mountain bike aboard his extremely well-used canoe, he's doing what I would have liked to do when I was his age.

Maybe I could just go ahead and do it now. I wonder if Jean would mind...

The banks of the Paraná itself, the main channel that is, are littered with abandoned craft.

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They must have considerable value in scrap metal alone. Why are they simply left here?

Some commercial activity takes place on the river. This boat is equipped with a hydraulically actuated claw for plucking floating logs out of the water and stacking them on deck.

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Somewhere back in the wild parts of the delta, people are logging.

This disintegrating rowboat is part of river commerce as well. Few bridges span the Paraná, so ferrymen transport passengers across.

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The rowboat's water-worthiness seems questionable, but the oarsman has no lack of trusting customers.

When I saw this thing, I burst out laughing. Only a government committee could have come up with such a kluge.

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But it's way more clever than it looks. In front, it has a sort of sieve that scoops up floating plastic bottles and other flotsam. When the sieve is full, the operator raises it and deposits the contents onshore before going back to scooping.

The nautical street-sweeper is incredibly maneuverable. Two paddlewheels operate independently, like tracks on a bulldozer, so the craft can turn completely around in its own length.

It looks like a duck that can't get traction trying to take off. But I bet running it is a blast. Like a riding mower. I'd love to be the guy who gets paid to use it.

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Paraná Delta

A thirty-minute train ride north of Buenos Aires leads to the Municipality of Tigre (TEE-gray). Tigre is a town built on the delta of the Río Paraná, the second-longest river in South America.

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A skein of waterways cross the delta as the river works its way to the junction with Río Plata, forever named on our maps as the Plate River, on account of early British presence and influence in the area. The Brits stole not only the name, but the Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands) as well. Argentineans remain resentful to this day.

I hate touristy things. Especially sightseeing buses and river cruises. I once took a Seine River sightseeing boat through the center of Paris. Our Frenchwoman guide pointed out the American Embassy, sniffing that the Américaines had installed air conditioning, of course. Her armpits announced far more emphatically that she herself eschewed air conditioning, a reassuring consistency in her pronouncements.

I see I'm having real difficulty staying on the subject.

—§—

So we reach the banks of a delta waterway and our traveling companion Judy says, "Oh, let's take a catamaran ride!"

Bless her.

On my own, I would have contemptuously dismissed the boat rides, and so would have missed a highlight of our visit.

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Scores of these twin-hulled wooden boats carry tourists all over the delta. The waterways are languid, colored greenish brown as any good tropical river should be, and immediately put me in mind of the setting for Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows.

This building could be Toad Hall. It's not—it's the yacht club. But it could be a sort of a jungle Toad hall.

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Tigre has an art museum that we didn't visit: an architectual fantasy on the river's edge.

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The true charm of the delta emerges when the monumental buildings are left behind. Entering the minor waterways, a whole community is revealed.

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Some houses are mansions or near-mansions. Others are more modest. All slumber peacefully beside the water, side-by-side, class distinctions forgotten. Mansion, shack, tract house, ruin. Nobody seems to care.

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No roads connect these places. All communication is by boat. The place below looks like it's right out of the "Y" summer camp I stayed in when I was ten.

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Besides transportation, the river has other uses. Yard trimmings piling up? Hell, just dump it in the river.

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I wonder: Is that legal?

I took scores of images of riverside houses. I particularly liked this one.

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I could see myself sitting on my dock, reading the papers, sipping a coffee. Getting in my inboard river boat and running down to Tigre for lunch and buying groceries. Taking an evening swim. Passing a little time with Mole.

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Itamae Sushi

Perhaps no decent Japanese food is available anywhere in Latin America. Certainly I've had no success in finding any.

But being in a capital city, I figured my odds of finding good Sushi in Buenos Aires would be good. Itamae Sushi is within walking distance of our Recoleta apartment: a good place to start.

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Sleek modern front, interesting logo, delivery bike parked on the sidewalk: the place looks promising.

Interior decor is pleasing. Black lacquer tables. Bamboo birdcages for table lamps. Sophisticated brass railings. Jean patiently sits, Mona Lisa-like, while I disturb patrons lining up a shot.

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I think she endures me, more than loves me.

The place gets passing marks for decor and atmosphere. The first sign of potential trouble, though, is an absence of epicanthic folds. Not even the sushi chef has them. He looks Italian, like he should be tossing pizza. Never good in Asian restaurants.

Gaijin lack the conditioning, the exhaustive training of a proper Japanese sushi chef; one who likely was made to sharpen knives for two years before he was allowed to touch a fish. (Desperate for sushi in Missoula, I once patronized a sushi bar where the chef was a blonde halfback for the University of Montana named Kevin. The fish looked like it had been prepared with a hammer, but it was imported Japanese seafood and tasted OK if you ate it with your eyes closed.)

—§—

The second sign that we would not be swept into the spirit of Nippon was the presence of salt on the table. In my opinion, salt does not belong on a Japanese dinner table. Never saw it in Japan. You season Japanese food with shoyu, not salt.

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While we're on the subject, let's take a brief detour into the subject of Argentinean salt. First, it's ground much finer than we're accustomed to in the US and Mexico. So when you invert the shaker over your plate, your food is immediately oversalted. The stuff just pours out. A whole new shaker handling skill is called for. Hint: It's all in the wrist.

Second, for some reason, chefs don't use salt in cooking. So you have to add salt at the table. You don't even have to check to see if your dish is properly seasoned. It isn't. Just salt it and move on.

Lastly, in damp weather we put rice grains in our salt shakers. In Argentina, they use coffee beans.

—§—

Now, about the food.

Any resemblance between what we were served and something a Japanese person would find palatable was purely coincidental.

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My sushi looks nice, but it's all local fish, not sushi grade. Mushy octopus, stringy tuna, Costco shrimp, passable salmon. No other types of seafood available. The rice was properly seasoned, but not properly sticky.

Jean's meal was the real disaster. Her roll contained cream cheese: exquisite paired with lox on a bagel, nasty in maki. Worse yet was her order of tempura: a sodden mass of vegetables coated with gluey flour paste.

I am certain there's good Japanese food to be had in the capital of Argentina. Itamae Sushi, though, just continues my run of strikeouts in Latin America.

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Che

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Grossly lopsided division of wealth, corrupt government and growing disenchantment with the USA are leading to a resurgence of some of the socialist ideas of the 1960s including populism, centrally planned economies and nationalization of industries. The emergence of Evo Morales, Hugo Chávez, the narrow failure of the presidential bid of Manuel López Obrador and the reappearance of Daniel Ortega testify to the rise of the Latin American left.

Much of the new movement revolves around the cult figure of Che Guevara. Chávez gives speeches wearing Che tee shirts. Argentina-born, you're never far away from his image in Buenos Aires. He's the subject of graffiti and street art.

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Argentineans call each other che. Other Latins use the term che to refer to someone as being from Argentina. So the famous revolutionary got his memorable name because he was Guevara from Argentina—Che Guevara.

Today he represents rebellious youth culture as much as socialism. A close look at this wall art tells the tale.

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Based on Alberto Korda's incredibly famous photograph, cigarillo-smoking Che's image has here been doctored up to incorporate ideas that resonate with today's young people. The star on his beret has morphed into a marijuana leaf. He's wearing a slingshot around his neck. His turtleneck tee shirt is sleeveless to show off his tattoo of Argentina's most famous ex-soccer player, Diego Maradona.

The old socialist must be spinning in his grave, to know that rampant capitalism has produced a huge trade in his image. You'll find books, photographs, hats and clocks everywhere. Che tee-shirts are available online, as illustrated by this dignified ad photo:

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¡Viva la revolución!

For the revolutionary in your life who has everything, there's Che panties, also found online.

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I took this last photo at a newsstand in the Recoleta neighborhood. On offer: a 2008 Che Guevara calendar featuring twelve different portraits of your favorite guerilla.

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The newsie displayed it adjacent to the Maxxim 2008 calendar. Young men are faced with a difficult choice: Che at $19.90 pesos or Wanda Nera for only $8.50.

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