29 April 2008

Weekend miscellanea

Picture, web and blog updates...

After I posted a couple of portraits using a simulation of the film technique known as split toning, I was asked to write a tutorial, an idea I'd had for some time. So I went back to my website (which I'd neglected) and wrote this split toning tutorial for the GIMP (in Spanish). I need to expand it to cover other uses of split toning... and I need another tutorial for cross processing.

Mariela (split toning)

Last Saturday I went with the Rosarigasinos to the Flag Memorial. We took the elevator and went up to the top of the tower to take pictures of the city. It was just a while before sunset, and there was a noticeable amount of smoke from the island fires in the air, so I got interesting results.

Skyline rosarino al norte

Skyline rosarino

I joined a couple of atheist groups on Flickr, which somehow I had overlooked all this time. How do you picture atheism? Well, while some groups emphasize criticism of religion (or blasphemy), there's one called "Atheists who love photographing churches" (exactly my niche!), and another one called "The Happy Atheist" where you're supposed to show positive, cheerful images — nothing offensive, especially to religion, and no proselytizing; just a celebration of (godless) life.

We had an interesting conversation/debate among several of the Rosarigasinos after the Flag Memorial session. When DrGEN comes we always end up talking about atheism and religion, and that day we'd had some harmless photo fun at the foot of the Memorial, which has a stone cross on a wall and the usual dedications to God and Mary and so on by some archbishop or general. That was in part why I looked for atheist groups on Flickr. Well, the discussion went along the lines of denouncing religion in the public sphere vs. tolerating the need for people to cling to their unsubstantiated beliefs, and it got rather heated, but Marisa and I had to leave early. We had a friend of mine's birthday party at his house in Funes.

Alerta Religión (my blog about the evils of religion and faith) is taking off slowly, with peaks every now and then. I'm at 10 daily visits on average today, which isn't much, but I've been found by the search engine spiders already, and I'm writing mostly for myself anyway.

On Sunday it rained like crazy, so most of the fires on the islands were finally extinguished and the smoke went away. It made for good photos, but it also caused traffic accidents. I started a group on Flickr to collect smoky pictures of the city, and some of the results were impressive. Check it out at Humo sobre Rosario ("Smoke over Rosario").

And that's it for today.

25 April 2008

Martín Lousteau's fall, a sign of the times?

Martín Lousteau resigned from the Ministry of Economy yesterday. This looks like one more step towards a catastrophic failure of the economy. It's not that Lousteau was our last hope, but he seemed at least flexible enough to admit his mistakes and propose alternatives. His resignation, after he spoke publicly of the inflation problem and supposedly presented the president with a set of proposals to cool the economy, followed a vitriolic speech by Néstor Kirchner as the new chairman of the Justicialist Party. What happens confirms the generalized suspicion that Néstor K continues to pull all the strings in the government.

The new minister is Carlos Fernández, a pure technician whose only political cachet is that he's very close to Néstor Kirchner. One has to guess that he'll be as weak as all the Kirchnerist economy ministers have been after Lavagna. Miceli, Peirano and Lousteau never did anything without presidential prompt; Peirano's suggestion that the INDEC's figures shouldn't be tampered with earned him his exclusion from Cristina's cabinet, and Lousteau was practically stillborn, excluded from important matters, a dummy doll used to fill in a position.

Guillermo Moreno, Secretary of Domestic Commerce, is as powerful as, or more than, the economy minister. Moreno is a brute, a blunt instrument who may have been useful to deal with an emergency situation, but who is now an obstacle to the negotiations with the agricultural producers, and a liability. He won't be fired, because Néstor Kirchner wants him there — he needs enemies, and Moreno is ideal to induce conflict.

Regrettably, outside of Néstor Kirchner's partisan island, Argentina has problems. A sensible government must avoid turning serious technical issues into politico-ideological wars. The Kirchners are political warmongers, and stubborn to boot. They refuse to hear their own subordinates' warnings, and they're alienating their allies. And they're losing this war, bringing all of us down with them.

Inflation is clearly out of control; it's not the ten or twelve percent that you can expect from a burst of economic expansion and which most businesses can manage, but more like thirty or forty percent, enough to set off all the alarms on the Argentine psyche, more than enough to make long-term planning impossible. With high inflation and a government that seems lost and in denial, you don't save; you spend your money as quickly as possible before it loses its value, or else you rush to the exchange house and buy dollars or euros. Every Argentinian above a certain age has seen this happen before; it's terrifyingly familiar to us. I'm old enough to remember the end of the 1980s, when prices started to climb at a steady pace, then accelerating, and then it came to a point when supermarkets rewrote the prices two or three times in one day. Things like that eventually resolve themselves in a catastrophe; and after the crisis, even after things have quieted down and some form of economy recovery has reached us, we are a bit worse than before.

Insisting on an expansive policy and branding everyone who opposes it as the enemy while inflation eats away all the economic achievements of the last four years, while basic items become unaffordable to the poor, while a food crisis looms over the whole world, while oil prices break records every day and you have no way to supply yourself, while your farmers are ready to stop delivering food to your big cities, and refuse to acknowledge you need to change — it's madness.

The neoliberal governments of the 1990s insisted on the orthodox economic recipe of "adjustment": cooling the economy, removing money from circulation, increasing interest rates, and (in the background) "shrinking the state". Not only did their policies harm the poor and bring more inequality to Argentina; they wrecked the whole economy, and yet they continued to apply them with almost religious zeal. They even ruined their political careers! The Kirchners have an equal and opposite ideological bias — they have an ideal structure of power in their heads, and they'll fight to impose it on reality even as the whole country is crumbling around them. Do they stop to think, "maybe we're doing something wrong and that's why so many people are angry at us?" Do they ever wonder, "what will people in the future think about our government?". I don't think so.

Well, Lousteau and the question of whatever will become of Argentina's economy is all over the news today, so I'll say no more for now. For my own good I should stick to reviewing books... but I couldn't pass this up.

24 April 2008

Book Day

Yesterday was World Book Day, so (following Microsiervos) I was about to write about some of my favourite books, or books I've recently read, but something else interrupted me. So this is it now.

Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami (original image posted on Flickr by wakarimasita)
First, I need to tell you I've been reading a few books by Haruki Murakami, a modern Japanese author known for his "surrealist" themes and his modern, American-influenced style. What I read was two novels, Kafka on the Shore and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and his non-fiction journalistic work in Underground, a compilation of interviews he conducted on survivors of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. I read all of them in English translations who were supervised by Murakami (Spanish versions are unavailable and/or re-translated from the English, which must surely detract a lot from the original). I'm also excruciatingly reading Kafka on the Shore in the original Japanese, vocabulary and grammar not being an issue when the translation is beside me, but a real pain when (every two or three lines) I must pause to look up a character or two that I can't read.

Neither Kafka… nor Hard-Boiled… are easy to summarize or explain, but both have in common that they resort to parallel stories, one of them "realistic", if outlandish, the other more clearly fantastic or dream-like, which tend to converge but never quite join each other. In Kafka on the Shore, which starts as the story of a 15-year-old boy leaving his father's house, the realistic and fantastic elements are mixed from the start; Hard-Boiled… works by alternating chapters, one in the "real" world of near-future Tokyo with some strange developments, the other in the "fantasy" town at a metaphorical "end of the world", the meaning of which we discover rather late.

Both novels make abundant use of sexual themes, sometimes only as allusions to trigger loose subconscious associations, sometimes as explicit scenes that tend to be either dream-like in their intensity, or matter-of-factly outlined in a few conventional words. Reading them (especially in Kafka…) you know there's something at work, rather than a gratuitious instance of copulation for the reader's amusement. Murakami seems to appeal to things we can't rationally grasp and explain in concrete terms, and he reaches into the depths of our mind to push those buttons he needs to play his subtle tune.

Underground is a series of interviews conducted personally by Murakami on people who were on the Tokyo subway when selected members of Aum Shinrikyo, then a young religious sect not known for such violence, planted plastic bags of the nerve agent sarin on several subway cars on the morning of March 20, 1995. The sarin evaporated quickly; it killed 12 and injured more than a thousand. About two years later, Murakami did all the work of finding the survivors, or the families of the deceased, and interviewed those who agreed to meet him.

Murakami also interviewed a few past and current members of the cult, and wrote himself reflecting on what really prompted so many men and women, not only poor or ignorant folk but also a few members of the Japanese "super elite", to join this self-rejecting cult and eventually obey their leader when told to release a lethal chemical weapon on innocent bystanders. He (echoing many of the interviewees) criticized the media's handling of the event, their sensationalist and bidimensional portrayal of both the survivors and the perpetrators, and the terrifying realization that Japan was not only completely unprepared to deal with such a crisis, but continues in denial about its failure to contain the people who don't fit in the rigid frame of social convention. How can we be so sure Japan's the safest country in the world, Murakami asks, when among us such a rotten cult was allowed to spread unnoticed?

Well, I ended up talking about Murakami's books only... I'll tell you about my other books later.

22 April 2008

Smoked: It's blame time!

The authorities are saying that 60–80% of the fires on the islands of the Paraná river delta are under control, and given the expected wind patterns Buenos Aires is unlikely to be covered by smoke again (though some say Buenos Aires is likely to be covered by smoke again!).

Here in Rosario we've seen no more of it after the ash-filled smelly cloud that appeared last Friday evening and stayed until Saturday afternoon, though there was some smoke blowing in again on Monday evening.

Se vino el humo II

The eastern and southern horizons continue to be covered with an almost uniform smoky blanket, gray during the day and turning a sick shadow of purple before sunset. It goes south, mostly, but as soon as the wind shifts it will surely come back. As I write this, National Route 9 is closed to traffic because of the smoke and an accident involving three trucks, and the Rosario–Victoria Bridge is, once again, closed as well. People keep complaining of eye and throat irritation. The fires near Victoria, across the delta, are still far from contained.

The smoke is not merely smelly, dirty or irritating, since it's not just burning plant matter — there are about 220 thousand head of cattle on the islands, each producing 21 times as much waste as a human being. All that dung is burning and raining on an area shaped like an elongated trapezoid, its shorter base, between Rosario and Victoria, being 60 km wide, and the longer one, located 300 km south-southwest at the mouth of the Río de la Plata, about double or triple that width.

Now the Uruguayans are also mad at us — first we block their international bridges in protest for a paper mill that was supposed to pollute our air and water, and, while said paper mill cleanly and flawlessly works as it should, we sit idly as the whole delta of the Paraná turns into smoke and sends that smoke their way, and then we realize the situation is grave (i.e. the smoke has reached the upper-class neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires) and desperately start trying to put the fire out with more courage than equipment.

The fires, as an official conservative estimate, have devastated 70,000 hectares (700 km² or 173,000 acres) of the delta's islands. The government of Santa Fe wants to turn the Paraná's islands and wetlands into a protected area, like a national park. Governor Hermes Binner has demanded that Sergio Urribarri, governor of Entre Ríos, do something about the whole issue, because that's their jurisdiction, and they're the ones who allowed ranchers to overpopulate the islands and burn them to clear the scrub. Binner ironically repeated what Rosario's mayor had said about the smoke — "We've lived with these problems every year. Fortunately this time the smoke reached Buenos Aires, so it's everybody's concern now."

The fires aren't just a source of smoke, but they've also killed off the whole ecosystem. Of course grass will grow again; that's the purpose of the fires. But the islands are (were) much more than simply grassy plains for cows to graze on. The destruction originally began when the numbers of cattle multiplied by 15 in a matter of years. Those cows' excrement and urine are full of nutrients that the environment cannot absorb properly. When algae get hold of them, they choke the streams where they grow, then die and rot, and this causes a proliferation of bacteria that consume all the oxygen dissolved in the water, killing the fish and the rest of the aquatic fauna (the process is called eutrophication).

A lawyer is accusing Romina Picolotti, Secretary of the Environment, for her handling (or lack thereof) of the problem. Picolotti is an environmentalist who used to counsel the Gualeguaychú Assembly regarding the Uruguayan pulp mills (remember?), and I thought she would be at least alarmed, but she acts like a bureaucrat and seems to have blended extremely well into the state of general indifference to real problems that characterizes the Argentine government. Like somebody said (I overheard on TV) she realized there was a problem when the smoke started coming in through her windows.

Among the impending failure of the negotiations with the agricultural producers, the governments has resorted to finger pointing, accusing farmers of burning fields with no regard for human life only to reap more money from crops. This is strictly true, but then the majority of the farmers who've done nothing wrong were justly enraged. The government was unsubtly trying to shift all the blame on their chosen enemies of the day.

Yesterday, grassroots agro-leader Alfredo De Angeli remarked that, back when the roads were blocked, the people were armed so as to defend themselves in case the truck drivers sent by Hugo Moyano (head of the truckers' union, allied to the government) tried to force them out. Within hours, prosecutor Guillermo Marijuán filed an accusation against De Angeli for "inciting violence". Marijuán being usually independent, one must wonder whether he sold out, or was pressured by the government, or was simply stupid. De Angeli is an aggressive activist, to be sure, but his comment was a description of the tense environment of the road block, not a call to arms.

The last ridiculous development on this sad story is the indictment of a rural worker who was found setting fields on fire. This person couldn't possibly do much on his own, and certainly not without orders from an employer or permission from the owner of the field. In our slang this is called a perejil — a kind of scapegoat, but one specifically chosen due to his complete lack of power to influence the big picture (like a street drug dealer that gets jail time because of an ounce of marijuana, while the one that brings the dope in by tons stays free).

My own impression is that the national administration is lost and, faced by problems on several fronts, behaves like a caged tiger, almost blind with fury. Ten days from now the farmers' "truce" will end, and it's quite possible that the fires, or the problems caused by them, won't have been extinguished by then. In the meantime, Secretary of Commerce Guillermo Moreno wants to seize cattle from their owners to sell on the market and keep the price down. Inflation continues to rise, and the government stays on denial. They're going to indebt the country heavily to build a bullet train that only rich people will be able to afford. Our capacity to produce electricity and natural gas is strained. The power fees are going to rise soon. Paraguay's new president wants to renegotiate the price of the energy from Yacyretá they sell to Argentina.

21 April 2008

Another villa miseria (followup)

Last October I wrote a couple of posts about the Qom ethnic group (also known as the Toba) and their migration from Chaco to Santa Fe and Rosario, where they ended up in villas miseria (slums), marginalized from the rest of society and subject to discrimination. A blogger called mdiana found those posts and left a comment asking about Father Arturo Paoli and his work among the woodchoppers of the La Forestal logging company (the British-owned company which felled most of the quebracho trees of the Chaco, where the Qom tribe lived, and turned it into a desert).

Paoli, a missionary priest, came and settled in Fortín Olmos, in the north of Santa Fe, and organized a fraternity and cooperative with the woodchoppers and small local producers who were left without a job when La Forestal closed down in 1960. In November 2007 a section of Santa Fe's Provincial Route 40 was named after him in homage, and then-governor Jorge Obeid noted he had known Paoli when he was a young man, in the 1960s. At that time Paoli was over 90 years old and living in Italy, from where he sent a letter speaking of the strength of those woodchoppers as a symbol of Latin American endurance.

Well, I just learned that. My original intent was to post a video I took a few days ago, from the bus. It shows the expansion of the villa miseria I mentioned back then in those posts. The settlers have decided to occupy the neighbouring terrain, a large lot that was mostly vacant, though parts of it were devoted to vegetable gardens. The owner has never done anything with the lot, and the municipality, which long ago should have expropriated it for some purpose, looked the other way. Now a sprawling slum is forming, the neighbours are upset, and that's all for nothing, because the poor people who've illegally settled on the land will eventually be pushed away later, when the tortuous bureaucracy of the judicial system decides to command their eviction. This is a sad way for a free people to end.

The video is bumpy and the sound is that of the bus; you can turn it off if you want to. It's only a short stretch, maybe two blocks, along the street where I live (but 10 or 12 blocks from my house), just before and after the railway tracks. On the first part you can see precarious homes that were already there years ago; the rest is all new, a small shanty town assembled almost overnight.

I don't know how this can be solved. You can't let those people set up their huts anywhere; you can't build them houses in the short term; you can't bulldoze them; you can't send them back to their ancestral lands; but the thing you absolutely can't do is ignore them.

19 April 2008


Wake up and smell the smoke, if you haven't! I've noticed this blog has many occasional (or one-time) readers. So, for the ones just tuning in, this is about the fires covering the Argentine littoral (and its capital) with smoke. Here's a few pictures, all taken from the coast of Rosario, Santa Fe, Argentina, today around noon. We're 300 km north from Buenos Aires (whose name has never seemed so much of a joke as nowadays, he he...). A seamless cloud of gray smoke covers the eastern horizon. The islands of the Paraná delta are on fire, because the owners of the fields have once again employed the ancient method of clearing scrubland with fire.

The Rosario–Victoria Bridge has been re-opened to traffic after a couple of days of being partially or totally shut down. You can barely see it, though, from this point located only 7 km away. Remember this is noon, and the picture has been enhanced for contrast.

Una humadera teyible (by pablodf)

You can't go from the south of Santa Fe to Entre Ríos if you can't use the bridge — you have to take a huge detour up to Santa Fe City and cross the river though the Subfluvial Tunnel.

In Rosario we've been enduring the smoke and the ashes for years, but it was only this time that the fires got completely out control and the smoke reached Buenos Aires, thus instantly turning this issue into a national emergency. The presidential minions quickly blamed the farmers (who seem to be guilty of everything that's wrong in the world today, from child hunger to environmental destruction) and Queen Cristina herself ruined her hair by flying over the affected area on a helicopter.

Navegando por el humo (by pablodf)

Not a word was heard from the unanswered complaints of Rosario's municipal government over the years, or the complete lack of suitable responses by the Kirchnerist governors of Entre Ríos (both past and present) regarding the fires being intentionally started by farmers in their jurisdiction. They knew who they were, and although there was a judicial ruling protecting their irresponsible actions, those things can and should be fought in court. Anyone with a minimum of foresight could see this coming.

Firefighters are now trying to contain (not extinguish) the many fires throughout the delta's islands. It's impossible to do anything else. Planes cannot go there with all that smoke. The place is a tangled maze of wetlands and streams. I hear we're getting help from the federal government; up until recently there were only volunteer firefighters from Santa Fe and Entre Ríos, the former heavily outnumbering the latter, although (as I said and will keep on saying) the islands are in the jurisdiction of Entre Ríos and whatever happens there falls entirely under the responsibility of the government of Entre Ríos.

Here you have another picture, this time facing due north, so you can see the visual effect of the smoke. The sky is naturally colourless at this time of the day, but the horizon's gray is not natural. The old piers and the silos on the left are closest; the silos and the buildings around are former port facilities. They're not far away, and you can see they're already veiled by the smoke.

Humo sobre el Paraná (by pablodf)

A little more to the right you can see the silhouettes of four towers; they're the illumination towers of Rosario Central's Gigante de Arroyito stadium. On the center-right you have the Sorrento thermal power plant, and then a cargo boat anchored nearby. At that point the coast describes a curve, so what you see right of the boat is much farther away. On a clear day you can see that shore clearly, though, but these days the smoke is noticeable all the time, subtly when you look at buildings a block or two away, and as a thick gray cloud when your line of sight is clear, as in this case.

So far I don't know of people suffering any grave consequences from the smoke. Fortunately most of it is being blown southwest towards Buenos Aires, leaving us with a subtle cloud that runs all along the coastal area of the city, including downtown. It's not pretty, and sometimes it smells, but we can breathe.

In case you didn't like my pictures, here's one from a better perspective, by NASA. The tiny red circles are fires. Rosario is the grayish splotch to the right of the leftmost one (above the ra in Parana), beside the green mass of the delta.

17 April 2008

Wake up and smell the smoke

Smoke along the coast of the Paraná river

"Smoke paralyzes the country", warns Perfil, "Retiro station is closed and trucks cannot leave Buenos Aires". "Smoke also affects Entre Ríos and Santa Fe", almost parenthetically notes Crítica. "Behind a shroud of fog", ironizes Página/12, echoing the lyrics of the March of the Malvinas, while the accompanying picture shows a grayed-out Puerto Madero. "The smoke in the city will not go away", says La Nación, essentially titling a glorified weather forecast.

All I can say is... wow. To the otherwise uninformed reader, it would seem like this is a unique phenomenon, rather than something we backward hinterlanders have been suffering for years. Cattle farmers of the Paraná river delta in the provinces of Entre Ríos and Buenos Aires have been using fire to clear fields on the islands all along the littoral for ages; the smoke is blown westward towards us (Rosario and the cities south of it), and the government of Entre Ríos has never answered to Santa Fe's requests that they police their territory, or to more desperate requests made before national authorities and environmental agencies. But one day porteños wake up smelling the smoke and the whole country is suddenly in grave danger, paralyzed and terrified.

"It seems the smoke has to reach Capital Federal for someone to try and solve this problem", as Rosario's mayor Miguel Lifschitz tiredly put it. There's a whole chain of islands opposite Rosario, at some points no more than 600 meters from the coast, often employed for recreation, but they don't belong to our municipality; they fall under the jurisdiction of Victoria, located on dry land on the other side of the delta, almost 60 km away, which has never cared for them (except to collect taxes). For years Rosario has demanded that they control the fires and punish the farmers who use them to clear the islands, damaging the ecosystem (an important wetland) and smoking our city. They've mocked us with their silence.

Smoke along the coast of the Paraná river

But the governor of Entre Ríos knows better than to bother Buenos Aires. I mean, the president lives there, and she would get absolutely mad if her European furs caught that smoke! So right after Environment Secretary Romina Picolotti called the governors of the three affected provinces, the governor of Entre Ríos Sergio Urribarri promised to work on it, and Victoria's mayor also noted he has a list of the islands' landowners who've been setting their fields on fire, so they can be sued.

Later, though, we learned that this was already done in 2004 — a judge in Entre Ríos took the case and the process ran smoothly, until the accusation was appealed and dismissed. The reason: clearing fields by fire is an "ancestral practice" so it can't be abolished just like that. Even though some of the perpetrators clearly knew that the fire could spread out of control.

In the meantime, traffic accidents have been allowed to happen, half a dozen people have died in the road just last week, and now the Rosario-Victoria bridge is closed to traffic, as are several major routes. The core of Argentina's industrial, agricultural and overseas trade area is half-paralyzed, its ports closed, its roads blocked, for completely avoidable causes due to intentional fires initiated by people who've been identified for a long time — but the real news is that porteños cannot leave their precious city. I repeat, in case you didn't get it before — this is old news to everyone in Rosario and around, but only became a national concern because Buenos Aires was affected.

There's a saying here, "God is everywhere, but His office is in Buenos Aires." It could very well date back to the federalist struggle of early and mid-19th century. That's how long we've been fighting this fight.

16 April 2008

Middle East, Argentina

Suppose you hear the following statements:

  • "The first thing Jews do with their children is put guns in their hands. Then they send them to Israel to learn how to use them."
  • "Arabs are not terrorists. There are no terrorists among the Arabs. They're peace-loving people. They don't even have guns."
  • "It was a shame how they treated Saddam Hussein — they killed a man who was ill and defenseless."
Now imagine this in a context where it would be rather uncomfortable to contradict the person — let's say, when the person uttering the words is in a position of authority, and you are surrounded by a bunch of people who seem to agree wholeheartedly with the above.

And then, imagine you eventually come around to tell this person what you thought and how disgusted you felt about those words, and among a flurry of incoherent but vehement justifications you get this:
  • "Why do you get so upset about this? You're not a Jew."
  • "You know, you might be a Jew. You could pass for one. Are you sure you're not a Jew?"
Aren't you sick yet?

Well, the first part is what happened to me during my third, and last, Arabic language class. The rest took place three days afterward. The person who said those words was my teacher, the founder and current head of the Arabic School of Rosario, who I won't name (though you can find out her name quite easily if you try). It was a week ago. Fortunately I've had better things to do and say, since then, than reporting on this nasty episode.

While I was sitting there listening to this old woman's disgusting antisemitic rant, I felt my stomach turn. Several voices concurred with my teacher, several heads nodded in agreement, someone said something about the Jews controlling the media. The class went on. I thought, alright, this is an 81-year-old woman after all. She's the daughter of Syrian parents. She's seen her ancient land crushed, and Arabs being humiliated, turned to despair and hatred; she's watched young men turning into suicide bombers. It's natural, I thought, that she has a one-sided view, that she's resentful, intensely angry, even blindly mad at the attackers. I left in a daze.

Then I realized I'd been a coward. I should've stood up and said something. I would've made a scandal. It wouldn't have served any purpose, but I knew I wasn't going back to that classroom, ever, so that wasn't a problem, and I could possibly get my classmates to think.

And, I thought, I made a mistake being kind to that old lady. It didn't matter that she was 81 years old, or that she was partly right about the suffering of the Arabs under Israel's attacks and the worldwide wave of racist anti-Arab sentiment. Her romantic view of the Arabs as peaceful, family-loving, law-abiding people who don't keep a single gun in their homes was a dream that insulted the thousands of people murdered by Islamic terrorists around the world. She wasn't an incoherent old woman; she spoke clearly and precisely. She wasn't just criticizing the murderous policies of the state of Israel or its treatment of Israeli Muslims as second-class citizens; she spoke of "the Jew" and how he teaches his children to kill, and the evil alliance between the U.S. empire and the Zionists. In her head she thought she knew what she was talking about. She had (she has) no excuse.

And no excuse is what I got when I finally confronted her, just before the next class. I think she didn't even understand what troubled me. I didn't expect to change her mind, but at least hoped she would get angry. I needed that. I didn't get it. She said I was "a good boy", if only a bit too sensitive ("since you're not a Jew, why does it bother you so much?"), and that I had tried "to be just". She said she wasn't anti-Jew — "I have lots of Jewish friends". I asked her, well, have you said those things in front of any of your Jewish friends?

That was last Thursday. Besides several hours of my time and the sign-up fee, I felt I'd lost an opportunity. Fortunately I had a terrific weekend, and I can write this now, free of those somber feelings of failure.

15 April 2008

Juan Domingo Perón according to The Simpsons

The Simpsons - Carl: I'd really like a dictatorship...There's an outrage here over the 10th episode of the 19th season of The Simpsons. It seems Homer's friend and drinking buddy at Moe's, Carl Carlson, thinks Juan Perón was a military dictator and his government "disappeared" people. So far the episode has aired only in the original English version in the United States, but already a Peronist representative wants it censored in Argentina. Clarín (posing as anti-government these days) throws an oblique dart at Peronism, misleadingly titling their coverage of this news "They want to ban The Simpsons", which was probably intended to match the censorship request with what Venezuela did (banning the whole series, and replacing it with the moronic Baywatch). The 30-second video segment was posted by Perfil.com on YouTube, but it was promptly removed as a copyright violation.

I think this is all very stupid, though I can understand the concern. Just to clarify the debate, Juan Domingo Perón was democratically elected president on three occasions. True, the second time he ran for re-election after having the constitution reformed specifically for that purpose by a fanatically loyal Congress, but it was all legal. And it's also true he wasn't really a fan of tolerance or a champion of free speech, and he was a fan of Mussolini's administration, and didn't show any great dislike for the German Nazis until they lost the war.

Under Perón, dissidents were harassed, intellectuals were forced to exile, and people lost their jobs if they were outspoken in their opposition. The media were censored. The government's bullies were free to manage the streets. Nothing unusual in that time and age, or even today in many places.

And, as far as we know, Perón's administration didn't have people abducted and nullified. Harassed, beaten, incarcerated, even incidentally tortured, but not in great numbers, not by explicit orders from the top, not systematically. Comparing Perón with even the "softer" dictatorial governments we've had in Argentina is misleading, and suggesting a similarity with the latest (and internationally best known) dictatorship is a gross exaggeration.

Still, what's the problem here? Americans are notorious for their ignorance of international issues, and the history of their neighbours in Latin America is just one of those issues, even when the U.S. helped shape it by their constant interference. The Simpsons only reflect that real fact. After Carl displays his crude ignorance of Argentine history by commenting on the "disappeared" of Perón's time, Lenny tops it off noting that, besides that, Perón's wife was Madonna! And Carl and Lenny are two drunks, for Jeebus' sake! Two ignorant drunks in an animated series that mocks American culture. Remember the episode when Carl and Lenny are Buddhists, Richard Gere is meditating with them, and Lenny doesn't know who the Dalai Lama is, or indeed, who Buddha himself is?

Censoring the Perón episode would be ridiculous. If Peronists don't want the name of their leader smeared, let them fight for education, so that children learn unbiased history from books and not from TV series. It's not like Perón had a terrific record on that respect — when he was president, textbooks were filled with hagiographic views of him and his wife, and nothing else could reach the public. When he was toppled by the military, this cult of personality was abolished and even the possession of pictures of Perón and Evita was forbidden.

Censorship of any kind is wrong, and ridiculous: it didn't stop Perón from falling, and didn't stop the military from being toppled in turn. Our representatives should be doing much more important things than watching The Simpsons for historical accuracy.

14 April 2008

Weekend part 2: Japanese culture

(This is continued from the last post.) After the Friday birthday party and the Saturday breakfast Marisa and I were exhausted, so we had lunch and then took a long nap. Later in the afternoon we took a bus downtown to see a Japanese culture show at Plaza Montenegro. This year is the centennial of the first immigration to Argentina from Okinawa (Okinawa Prefecture is where most Argentine-Japanese came from). I knew that the Japanese Association's taiko group (Ryūshin Rosario Taiko) was going to perform; I know many of the guys there and taiko's always nice to watch and listen to, plus I hoped Marisa would appreciate it as well. As it turned out, they were terrific, and they were joined by another group, Medetaiko, from Buenos Aires. [PS: Marisa just posted a short video: Medetaiko en la plaza.]

Marisa liked taiko — she described it as energetic. She observed that percussion groups like Choque Urbano (or Stomp or Mayumana) must have taken much of their inspiration from them. Medetaiko, especially, focused on multiple percussion registers and patterns, while our own Ryūshin Rosario Taiko is more oriented towards choreography. There was a karate exhibition, and for the finale both taiko gropus performed together. The people who had gathered there, and stayed in spite of the creeping cold, applauded enthusiastically.

The celebrations continued the next day at the Japanese Association. They had what they call a "bazaar", with typical foods, people selling vaguely "Eastern" stuff, and brochures for those interested in Japanese culture, with a background of dance and music on stage. I said hi to a lot of people I knew, introduced Marisa to a few of them, and we watched some taiko and kimono-clad ladies dancing with fans, while having yakisoba and yakitori (washed down with sake). Marisa said she wanted to steal the yakitori sauce, and noted that she would've preferred the sake to be served cold, which is utter heresy.

We left and I waited for her bus to come before I went on to wait for mine. Both took quite a long time to come, which was terrible because we're experience a winter-like cold wave... And that was our weekend for you.

13 April 2008

Weekend part 1: Visitors from Buenos Aires

It was a busy weekend. I signed up for Friday shodō (Japanese calligraphy) classes this year, and we began last week, so there I was at 7 PM, back at the old Japanese Association after my summer vacation and getting hisashiburi desu ne! ("it's been a while!") from everyone. You'll remember I decided not to keep on studying Japanese. I'm still firm on that, but I know I'm going to miss my gakkō. It's been four years and counting — you can't not get attached.

Just as we were beginning the class, I saw my first calligraphy teacher, Kyōko, just outside (I need to get a picture of her!). It was a huge surprise. She left for Japan in 2005 after two years volunteering in Argentina, but she made lots of friends, so she manages to visit every now and then, and now it seems she's going to stay and teach some Japanese.

After class I went to fetch Marisa and we took off for a friend of mine's birthday party at the Club Mitre (the place by the river, remember?). It was rather cool. We stayed longer than we'd planned. On Saturday morning we were supposed to be having a welcome breakfast for a couple of photographers visiting from Buenos Aires.

At 10 AM we were there with Claudio, another guy from the Rosarigasinos, waiting for our visitors to show up, when we got a call from one of them asking for directions. Fifteen minutes later, no sign of them, we called. They'd taken a wrong turn. Frantic exchanges ensued. They were using a GPS guidance system and it seems it was confused. Long story short, it was almost 11 AM by the time they were sitting before their coffee cups. Meet Slaff and SandroG...

Visitantes - Slaff (by pablodf) Visitantes - SandroG (by pablodftream)

Since the guys had to be somewhere else to have lunch at 1 PM, we could only walk them around for about an hour... They took a lot of shots of the river and the ships, and then we went down Oroño Boulevard, since they wanted to see old architecture. We only got as far as six blocks when their time ran out. They had some free time in the afternoon, so I hope they were able to see some more of Rosario, although in any case, as Sandro said, this surely wasn't the last time.

There was more to last weekend. The Japanese community was celebrating, and we were there to enjoy. Coming soon...

10 April 2008

Eye of the storm III: Powers that be

Still more about the campo crisis, farmers' strike, agricultural lockout, or whatever your choice of words.

Once I said that Cristina's first speech (the one I heard while I was held in Villa María, back from vacations, by a road block) was the worst piece of diplomacy I'd ever heard. I need to correct — Cristina's last speech at Plaza de Mayo, surrounded by the dreadful camarilla his husband assembled, and facing the crowd of vociferous supporters herded like cattle to applaud her, was the worst piece of diplomacy, the one thing anyone seeking to solve a conflict should never do. Intended as a show of strength, it enraged everyone and ended up having the opposite effect. Most analyzed it as a show of weakness and insecurity. I think it was a knee-jerk reaction, triggered by a mentality that equals adulation with approval.

Decisions in the national government are taken within a circle of four or five people, with occasional nods to a few more. Orders for the rest of the administration come from the top, from those few people. No experts are consulted. Past experience and history are ignored. Congress is bypassed. The press is informed by leaks or learns about new government measures when the president starts ranting about them in partisan meetings. So are the governors, even those that identify as Kirchnerist, and the public. That's what everybody saw these days, and what angered many, I think. Myself, I'm sick and tired of my representatives being silent.

Agustín Rossi, deputy for Santa Fe, has been verbally punishing or threatening dissidence and opposition, and no-one has approached him to tell him that he should be lobbying for his province's interests in Congress, instead of campaigning (unsurprisingly, there are already signs reading "A BETTER COUNTRY WITH CRISTINA & AGUSTIN" painted all over Rosario). Carlos Reutemann, senator for Santa Fe, a man I have no love for whatsoever, surprised many by signing a statement next to governor Hermes Binner, asking the national government to turn back the export tax increase and sit down to discuss properly. Rossi promptly notified Reutemann in public that his candidacy for the 2009 legislative elections "is no more". Reutemann's sin was putting the interests of his constituency (and his own political interests tied to them, of course) before the loyalty to this Kirchnerist "project" no-one can exactly describe, but which seems to reduce to "say yes to whatever Cristina woke up this morning thinking of".

This was just one example. Here's another: the governor of Chubut, Mario Das Neves, sharply criticized Chief of Cabinet Alberto Fernández for his rough handling of the crisis. Two Kirchnerist governors quickly and bitterly responded, and Néstor Kirchner ordered public works and fund grants for Chubut to be suspended as punishment. Das Neves is now a pariah, as is Juan Schiaretti, the governor of Córdoba who belatedly and half-heartedly aligned with some of the farmers' demands, and is now shunned by both the farmers and the national government.

The message is clear: one either accepts the Kirchners micromanaging our resources to achieve their goal of "income redistribution" (a goal that is as far today as it was in the 1990s), or opposes them and therefore turns into an enemy of the poor, or worse. This is how most people interpret the government discourse now, and that's why (regardless of what they said) the cacerolazos were not about the agricultural producers, but about government policies. And the reason why no-one wants to acknowledge that is, simply, that the pro-government folks were right in more than a few cases when they pointed out that people hate the Kirchners due to socioeconomic class issues. I know this — I've heard it said to my face — many people hate the fact that the police aren't sent to beat up those dirty piqueteros, and that the government spends a lot of tax money on welfare for the poor, while taxes and inflation eat away the money that the middle class deserves to have so as to spend it in SUVs and vacations abroad. Today it's not politically correct to demonstrate against a government for those reasons — so many people used the campo strike as an excuse.

The bad thing is, aside from that, why should it be wrong to admit that you don't like your government because it uses the poor as an excuse for their real plans? I don't like this government. I would like it to be straightened by a strong opposition in Congress, and by strong independent leaders of the same party who look after their constituents' interests, rather then the Kirchners'. But no-one wanted to say that. Most people restrained themselves; some, obliquely, attacked Cristina's stereotypically feminine spending habits; others reacted to Luis D'Elía's attack on the Plaza de Mayo demonstrators; many blamed the strike and the crisis on Cristina's arrogance. Yet what if the president wants to have a collection of expensive shoes? It's her money. It's not like she's spending millions. What about D'Elía? A more serious matter, no doubt: a hateful bigot with a band of thugs at his disposal, encouraged by the government. But then the Kirchners distanced themselves from him and can do it again at any time, and it only takes the police to do their work. The real cause of the urban cacelorazos is, by and large, the hate of the middle class for the emergence of this political model.

Argentina had more than enough of this sixty years ago. Back then it ended with a coup d'état — a few hundreds dead, a few hundred exiled, and then it was "back to business" and no trouble for anyone... except if you wanted to criticize the new powers. That kind of thing fortunately won't happen now. For good or bad, there's no easy way out.

09 April 2008

Eye of the storm II: The papers

A few more things about the farmers' strike, or as Página/12 calls it, the agricultural businessmen's lockout. The strike, lockout, or whatever you call it, is now on hold while the leaders of the movement wait for their call to negotiate with the government.

Página/12 cover, March 26, 2008

La Nación cover, March 26, 2008

Covers of Página/12 and La Nación for March 26 (the day after Cristina's inflammatory first speech, the cacerolazos in upper-class Buenos Aires, and the disbanding of Plaza de Mayo demonstrators by Luis D'Elía's thugs).

Since the subject of Página/12's word choice came up, here's something I meant to say before. I was appalled by Página's coverage of the conflict. I'm well aware that Página is a leftist newspaper, and like all media, they select news and editorialize on them from that perspective. I'm a lefty myself, not a radical, but in general I'm in agreement with that perspective.

Sometimes Página's op-eds go over the top and I don't like that; I don't like how certain people in their staff see 1970s' politics, or class struggle, or whatever their pet subject, in every bit of current news. To balance that, I read La Nación, which is right-wing and anti-government, but also has a few really good writers, alongside some whose opinions make my stomach turn.

Well, my discovery these days was that Página/12 is obviously, visibly, on the pay of the national government. Página's coverage of the strike/lockout was so deliberately skewed, so unctuously pro-government, so grossly anti-strike, so monolithically defensive of Cristina, that I can't be convinced that ideology alone is responsible. I felt angry. The rest of the media coverage was sloppy, partial, sensationalist, sentimental..., as usual. Even La Nación didn't dig so much in the trash. Página's was a pro-government campaign, almost as subtle as Luis D'Elía screaming his hate for the rich.

The fact is, I'm a "salad bar"-type political pragmatist. I tend to distrust and discount the opinions of people who are in the extremes, but outside of those, I applaud anyone, from the left or the right, who comes up with a good idea, or something that looks like a good idea. I had a deep distrust of Néstor Kirchner when he ran for president. I changed my mind as he did some really cool things, like renewing the Supreme Court, facing up to the utility companies that wanted to triple their fees, maneuvering around the defaulted bond-holders who would see the country broke to get paid, and repealing the laws that prevented the torturers and murderers of the last dictatorship from being tried. Then he started channeling Juan Domingo Perón or something (that is, Perón minus the articulateness and good diction in speeches) and the worst elements in his government acquired power, and then he passed it all on to Cristina, who has been doing exactly the opposite of what should be done since Day 1.

All this time (getting back to the subject) I heard Néstor and Cristina criticizing the media for this and that. Néstor K once said the media should inform objectively instead of doing opposition politics (that is, kill the editorial section, kill political analysis — just repeat whatever the government officially communicates to the press), and more than once he pointed at specific journalists and specific papers. Cristina is even worse. For all her supposed communicational talents, she sounded remarkably stupid, to me at least, when she tried to make a sarcastic comment — "It seems as if the media were forbidden from printing good news." The Kirchners never understood journalism, maybe because in Santa Cruz the media were few and were controlled by their friends and cronies.

Up to the export tax crisis, Página/12 was (so it seemed to me) rather neutral, not in the sense that it didn't editorialize, but in the sense that it wasn't systematically putting out an apology of the government. La Nación, on the other hand (so it seemed to me) was always trying to poke holes in everything the government did. Granted, as of late Página would have real trouble finding something good to say about the government, and the ideological strain was showing; and La Nación was enjoying a free ride on the scandal rollercoaster, so it came out as more objective (negative spin wasn't necessary) and didn't look so clearly anti-government.

When the countryside rose, Página/12 suddenly shifted gears (or so it seemed to me...) and launched an all-out offensive against the critics of the Kirchner administration. Even the witty Rudy & Paz comics became bitter, unfunny attacks on the "oligarchy". You could count a half-dozen headlines each day, every one of them a long editorial piece, pointing out the many sins, past and present, of the participants in the protest — and not one objective criticism of the idiotic measure taken by the Ministry of Economy which had caused all the trouble in the first place.

It got me really mad. I've gone mad with La Nación over the coverage of certain episodes by specific writers, here and there, and I'm accustomed to see through its supposed objectivity into its rotten conservative heart. But I didn't expect this from Página: a whole paper, which used to cover a variety of topics seriously when appropriate, or with well-placed irony and sarcasm in other cases, turned overnight into a government propaganda machine. Not for a left-wing government, but for an administration that's fast turning us back to old-style fascism. I can barely read it anymore. In fact, since the campo crisis started, I almost don't read about it in the papers — I pick and choose only the shorter informative articles, and quickly skip over the editorials.

It's all bare ideology out there now. Dialogue, compromise and solutions seem to have been banished.

07 April 2008

Eye of the storm

Your typical countryside scene Now that the farmers are off the roads and the president is off her soapbox (the farmers are hastily harvesting; the president is busy in Paris — see, I can even alliterate parenthetically!) I'll say some things I've been holding up about this mess we've all gotten into.

I say all of us, because countryside or town or big city, rich or poor, oligarch or proletarian, tax-burdened or welfare-assisted, we can't escape one another. Even Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has to come back from Paris and face the country she was elected to govern.

I'm not going to discuss the illegality of blocking roads. That's ridiculous, in a country where everybody has been blocking roads to ask for whatever they felt was their right since 2002. It may be a nuisance or a huge inconvenience, but the farmers did it and they had reasons.

What political analysts say, and they must be right, is that people block roads (an extreme, disruptive form of protest) because they've found that's the only way to get the attention of those who can solve their problems. And that's because those who are supposed to represent them (us) aren't doing their job. Not a single governor, deputy or senator reacted to the strike of the campo to understand what their constituencies were telling them. Politicians are supposed to have quick reflexes in this field. Our politicians, however, have had it easy. That's bound to change soon, I expect.

Cristina, for example, delivered an aggressive speech when she had to go for appeasement and dialogue. She was met with rage in the countryside, and banging pots and pans in some of the big cities. Her answer was to organize a show of strength, bringing thousands to applaud her, not without first letting that rabid classist bigot Luis D'Elía loose with his band of thugs. Her ministers publicly defended D'Elía's mob tactics. Deputy Agustín Rossi, instead of representing his district (Santa Fe), turned into the de facto Kirchnerist Political Commissar and went around attacking the critics. The president gave another speech where, after insulting the farmers and the cities' protesters in several ways, she invited the farmers to dialogue in the most affected way.

All this time, nobody tried to, or was able to, get close enough to Cristina or the members of the Cabinet to explain them that this is no way to handle a country in flames. Cristina continued to believe that she, her husband, that filthy rat Alberto Fernández, and that pathetical rag doll of an economy minister Martín Lousteau, were basically right.

The Kirchners don't know how to deal with a normal country. In the crisis, Néstor Kirchner fared well because he was stubborn and didn't fear bending the rules. He started making mistakes when the waters quieted down and the "normal" troubles began creeping in, such as inflation. Cristina received an isolationist government, and eagerly embraced it. She's aware of her surroundings, of the typical urban politics of Buenos Aires, of his allied robber barons encroaching on the metropolitan area, of large-scale political ties with the quasi-feudal governments of the outer provinces. Nothing else. And yet she and her team seem to think they can micromanage a country like Argentina just by tweaking inflation figures, paying or pressuring the media to publish their version of the truth, keeping hold of a few governors of provinces chronically dependent on federal relief, and periodically forcing busloads of unionized workers and squadrons of welfare slaves* to attend meetings with banners inscribed "VIVA CRISTINA" to show the rest of us how powerful she is.

* If a strong union has a presence in your company, and said union is allied with (or bought by) the government, your union delegates will come to you and suggest that you should march with the guys and cheer for Cristina in the upcoming rally, for which they'll supply transportation to and from, as well as drinks, some food, and maybe complimentary hats. If you're a poor person enrolled in one of the many social movements that were born of the 2001 crisis, and which the government controlled by delegating distribution of welfare and favours on their leaders, then said leaders will come to you and suggest that you should go and cheer for Cristina, too, to show your appreciation for the hand that feeds you. That's how it's done. I mean, poor people gathering freely, for free, just to applaud a filthy-rich politician? In Argentina, Land of the Ever-Complaining? Please.

It doesn't work. It can't. A sizable minority of Argentinians hate Cristina's guts because she has a past of leftist militance, because she's a Peronist, because she relies on the strength of the "insolent poor". Peronism is divisive — not a topic I can deal with. A few hate the Kirchners because they interpret their human rights policy as revenge — the revenge of "terrorist sympathizers" against the state terror of the 1970s. Others don't like how the government tolerates the requests of poor people (pickets and disruptive demonstrations) and encourages "laziness" through welfare, while "decent working people" have to bear with increasing inflation and insecurity and feel nobody brings answers to them. Some criticize the fine points, or the whole layout, of the economic policy. The opposition is a complex mix, and though disorganized, it's not an isolated minority that can be scared by hired crowds.

Cristina Kirchner threw them all into a single bloodied bag. I found myself inside that bag, next to really despicable people, and I didn't like it. She still doesn't understand. She's been bringing back a really dangerous cocktail of ideas from the past, mixing in some unsuitable modern ingredients, stirring with liberal doses of misguided rhetoric, and serving it to people unable to resist the punch, or to people who believe that such ideological cocktails are passé — for which she only gets a complaint and loses a few customers, while 30 years before she would've had the whole bar set on fire.

We're now at the eye of the storm. There were the pickets, the roadblocks, the milk being spilt beside the road, the thousands of starving chickens being killed, the empty supermarket aisles, the cacerolazos, the displays of intolerance and exaggerated outrage, the marches and countermarches, the speeches, the awful media coverage. Then came the truce. Thirty days. The government wasted a week already. The opposition is moving together in Congress. Cristina is in Paris, looking all stateswomanly and probably shopping for jewelry in her spare time.

I have so much more to say about this... I'll leave it for another day. It's so complicated, I tell you, I don't want to ramble, and still, just see what huge mess I've just written.

03 April 2008

Vacations in Córdoba: Carlos Paz and back

Our last trip was to Carlos Paz, a city about an hour from Córdoba. Carlos Paz is a busy town traversed by the small San Antonio River, with opens into Lake San Roque, formed by the dam of the same name. It's an all-time tourist trap, not unlike Mar del Plata, and like Mardel, it's full of over-colourful marquees advertising plays starred by wrinkled middle-age "actors" and busty "vedettes", shops selling all kinds of souvenirs, and endless crowds of fat tourists with loads of kids that push you and trip over you and block your way in the sidewalk.

Cultural activities in Carlos Paz

Carlos Paz (like Mar del Plata) is the paragon of overvalued touristic spots — people come here and happily, obliviously, fill it to the brim, paying whatever they're told to pay, going through the motions, and thus the town inexplicably survives until the next season. Nothing changes. There's no incentive. People will continue to come, so why spend money on beautifying the city?

It's not that Carlos Paz is ugly. It's not. It's just ordinary. Supremely ordinary. Run-of-the-mill, featureless, flat. There's nothing of note here. Not a singular piece of architecture, not one place of breathtaking natural beauty. Nothing. Sure, you've got the river and the lake, and the sierras beyond — no big deal: there are a million places in Córdoba and elsewhere with the same natural features and less irritating surroundings.

So why did we go? Well, although I didn't particularly liked the idea, Marisa wanted a place with a quiet spot by a body of water, not far from Córdoba City, and I agreed with that. And neither of us had been to Carlos Paz in a long time (I think I went there as a child). We weren't prepared for it.

I was determined not to leave a single peso in this awful town, but tradition demands that you bring back alfajores when you go to Córdoba, and we were leaving the next day so we might not have the time to go shopping then. So we went into a shop and bought several dozens. Those alfajores were the only good thing to come out of our visit to Carlos Paz.

We went back to Córdoba and, though very tired (I was actually ill all this time — I'll tell you about that later), decided to take advantage of our last night, so we went out to see an artisans' fair. I don't particularly care for those, but the night was pleasantly cool and the fair had an upbeat vibe. We bought home-made liquors there, and Marisa got a purse to give as a present for her niece. Then we had dinner nearby, and went to bed early.

The next day was our last, so we finished packing our stuff and then studied the map — had we missed anything? I saw we hadn't seen the Museum of the Marquis of Sobremonte. Rafael de Sobremonte was Governor-Intendant of Córdoba for 14 years. Outside the province it's known as the guy who was in charge of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata and ran away from Buenos Aires with the royal treasure when the British attacked the capital city in 1806. It seems, however, that Sobremonte was doing what he must. As for Córdoba, he's said to have been an excellent administrator there.

Cañonazo (by pablodf) The museum, as in other cases, turned out to be the house where Sobremonte lived, an old colonial-style building, simple, with thick walls. I wish I had good pictures of it, but all we were allowed to photograph were the patios. Some rooms preserved furniture and personal effects, others were just used to display objects of the time — military uniforms, weapons of various kinds. On one of the big inner yards were several large bronze cannons.

I noticed the rooms were very well-kept, but the outdoor areas weren't — the cannons were simply thrown there, exposed to the elements. Policemen (museum security) were sipping mate next to one of the rooms. There were plastic buckets and other cleaning tools next to one of the venerable walls. It looked as if, leaving aside the rooms allocated for the museum, the rest was free to use by anyone in charge.

The above notwithstanding, the museum was a nice place to see. It was larger than it seemed at first, so it kept us busy almost exactly until the time we had to leave.

We did a small detour back to the hostel to take pictures of the Cathedral, which was now almost empty (it was Tuesday, and the rage of Easter weekend had passed). They're restoring it, so we had to stay out of certain areas.

After that, we headed for the hostel, got our luggage, took it to the bus station (only two blocks away, thankfully) and sat down to wait for our bus, which came almost in perfect time, for which I felt stupidly happy at the time. You know what happened next...

02 April 2008

Vacations in Córdoba: Alta Gracia

On our fourth day in Córdoba, we took a short trip to Alta Gracia, a town less than 40 km from the provincial capital.

Vista serrana (by pablodf)

Alta Gracia is most famous for being the home of Ernesto Che Guevara during his childhood and youth (after his family moved in from Rosario, looking for a climate better suited to Ernesto's asthma). It was originally a Jesuit town, so there's also a Jesuit church and mission, and other signs of the presence of these enterprising religious order. And it's the place where the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla came to rest during the last four years of his life.

It's a quiet town, with an abundance of simple, sturdy white houses along meandering streets; parts of it climb into the surrounding hills, full of green. A stream runs through the western, older part of town.

Verdes y sombras (by pablodf)

We arrived before noon after a one-hour trip from Córdoba City and discovered that the bus terminal lacked an information booth. We had passed the busy touristic part, and now we had no maps, no-one to point us to where we should go. I found a large map glued to the inside of an empty office, and took pictures of it. After a long while, following the zoomed image in my camera's screen, we got to the closest marked spot, the Manuel de Falla Museum.

This was a good way to start the day, because the museum was wonderful. De Falla moved to Argentina in 1939, after the Spanish Civil War, and to Alta Gracia in 1942, looking for peace and quiet — and I'm sure he got plenty. The house he rented was designed specifically for the needs of the sick, with plenty of natural lighting in all the rooms, and a gallery to spend the day in the sun.

Museo Casa de Manuel de Falla (by pablodf)

De Falla had a chronic condition and this was exactly what he needed. After his sister became a widow, she took care of him, while he worked on the cantata Atlántida, which he never finished. He died in 1946. His remains were taken back to Spain by request of the dictator Francisco Franco. De Falla was a very devout Catholic and a lover of things traditional and Spanish, so Franco viewed him as ideologically OK. We don't know how De Falla he felt about Franco, but he sure didn't like his intellectual friends being murdered or forced into exile for political reasons, and his country torn apart by war; that and the ensuing solitude and desperation, according to the museum's guide, was the reason why he moved to Argentina, where he had played concerts before. He was buried in the cathedral of Cádiz, his city of birth, and his personal effects were taken to Spain, but decades later many of them were brought back to Alta Gracia.

After this nice tour, we followed the map to the home of Che Guevara. The contrast couldn't have been greater. Where the De Falla museum was peacefully empty, quiet and unassuming, Guevara's childhood home was full of noisy, rude tourists, stuffed with souvenirs and trinkets, all of it recognizable from a block away. I hated every moment I stayed in there. Besides the many photographs, there was nothing of interest except a replica of the famed motorcycle (the one in The Motorcycle Diaries).

La Poderosa II (by pablodf)

At the porch there was a very badly done bronze statue of little Ernesto for the tourists to take pictures beside it, and an equally horrible bust of Guevara in a corner. Granted, this was the peak hour of the busiest weekend in the whole tourist season, so you might find fewer people at other times, and if you really appreciate Guevara you may be inspired by his lingering presence in this place while there's no-one stepping on your toes. But Guevara didn't actually do anything here.

Next we looked for a place to eat lunch. It was the hottest time of day. Once the sun went down a bit, we went back to the stream and spent some more time there, just relaxing. Then we dragged ourselves to the Jesuit historical core.

The Jesuits weren't people to just come and build a church. They built whole towns around their churches. It's all a World Heritage Site now. The church is surprisingly well preserved, as are the courtyards and galleries around it.

Aljibe, etc. (by pablodf)

In front of it there's the Tajamar, a wall that the Jesuits used to dam the stream and create a reservoir for their water needs. Nowadays the water level at the Tajamar is usually low, the water is green and stagnant and covered with plants, although it surprisingly doesn't stink. Birds live around it, and people fish in it too. It's a nice sight when the sun goes down and the ancient buildings and the trees are reflected in the surface.

Tajamar (by pablodf)

And that was the end of our visit to Alta Gracia, and probably the best day in our vacations. We took the bus right there beside the Tajamar and arrived back in Córdoba as night settled in.

01 April 2008

Vacations in Córdoba: Quebrada del Condorito

On our third day in Córdoba, we intended to reach the Quebrada del Condorito (which translates as Little Condor's Gorge), a gorge on whose walls condors can be seen from up close. The gorge and the high plateau that surrounds it at no less than 1,900 m above sea level, called Pampa de Achala, are all part of Quebrada del Condorito National Park, created in 1996. There's a project to raise condors there and repopulate the area with them.

Buen viento (by pablodf)

If we'd had our way, we could've chosen the day and enjoy it to the max. But it turned out that you have to buy bus tickets in advance, or you may not get a place. So we got our tickets for Saturday morning on Thursday afternoon. It's the bus that goes along the winding road known as Camino de las Altas Cumbres (High Summits Road), crossing the Sierras Grandes range from Villa Carlos Paz (west of Córdoba City) to Mina Clavero, and we had to get off the bus midway, in a place called La Pampilla.

Well, Friday night was unbearably hot and humid, so we went to bed reviewing the precautions stated in the national park's brochures for sunny days: lots of water to drink, a light windbreaker since the wind blows strong all the time at those heights, some good sunblock, etc. An hour later, however, we heard the familiar faraway rumble of thunder, followed by a steady downpour of rain.

Come morning, there was still raining lightly. We didn't want the bus ticket money to go to waste, but even disregarding that, we would probably have no choice after this — who knows when we could get other tickets. Off we went, with the vague hope that the rain could stop and maybe even the clouds could part. We had a two-hour trip before us into an area where the weather is known to change rapidly, so it wasn't completely ridiculous to think that.

Quebrada del Condorito National Park - Visitors' CenterLa Pampilla was just a spot along the road. We'd somehow gotten the idea that there were huge signs pointing to where the adventurous tourist was supposed to go, but no. We almost climbed over a fence on the wrong side of the road, until we spotted a sign and a path on the opposite side. We took it. It was cold (10 degrees? 5 degrees?) and there was a drizzle, and wind blowing it into our faces (I had to take off my glasses). About a mile later, shivering and dripping wet, we came to the park rangers' house. We were informed of the various dangers (including pumas) and sent on our way, with the warning that there weren't any other human-built shelters of any kind beyond that point. Yipee.

Quebrada del Condorito - Inside a cloudSoon we stopped feeling so cold. The landscape was soberly beautiful and the road wasn't steep. However, we were literally inside a rain cloud most of the time. By the time we reached the middle point, we were soaked all over, except where our windbreakers had (partially) protected us. We forged on. We got to the last marked spot (number 10), and there we found a sign indicating the way for the place where you could actually see the condors... 45 minutes away.

We turned back. I felt I was going to faint, and Marisa was shivering. We searched for shelter, and found a rock with a top projection that kept the wind and most of the rain from us. We took out the thermos to prepare hot mates... only to find the water had cooled off. By now it was lukewarm — we threw it over our hands to regain the sensation, and then ate our ham-and-cheese sandwiches. That was good.

We retraced our steps. Once we got disoriented and went in a circle for 15 minutes. Soon afterward, though, I sensed a change in light. The drizzle had all but stopped. I put on my glasses. The wind was blowing away the clouds, and a bit of sun was beginning to shine through. Minutes later, a patch of blue sky appeared and expanded.

We found another big boulder to cover from the wind, and took off a couple of layers of clothing, including our socks. They wouldn't dry completely, but they would get warm, as we would. We stayed there for a while, and then headed back, dead tired but uplifted. I saw many details of the landscape for the first time — I realized that before, with the wind and the rain, I'd kept my eyes fixed to the ground and all my efforts concentrated in merely walking on.

The trip was worth it. Even with the rain, the cold, and not seeing a single condor up there, we had a lot of fun.