29 September 2008

Ship parade against the fires

Caravana náutica II Last Saturday, September 27, there was a "ship parade" to protest the fires on the islands of the Paraná river's delta, opposite Rosario. The municipality organized it, and called all the people without a boat to participate by staying beside the river and waving.

Since I've written about the island fires before, I won't explain it all over again in detail. In short: farmer needs place for cattle; government of Entre Ríos Province lets farmer buy island; farmer cheaply clears island scrub by setting fire to it; drought makes fire worse; smoke blows away, blocks traffic, irritates people's eyes and noses; ash rains on Rosario; wetland ecosystem is destroyed; Entre Ríos government does nothing; neighbouring Santa Fe government gets angry; Rosario sues.

The ship parade was the last move of Rosario's municipal government, one week after a gathering and a declaration against the unchecked burning on the islands and for the creation of a natural reserve.

You wouldn't believe the kind of bullshit we've been getting from the government of Entre Ríos and the municipality of Victoria, under whose jurisdiction the nearby islands are. This has worked against them, as more and more facts are uncovered. Entre Ríos, we learned, gets some good money from leasing fiscal land plots on the islands to cattle farmers. And the mayor of Victoria, Entre Ríos, approved the establishment of a meat processing plant there as well, even after the town council rejected it because of the highly suspect credentials of its owner.

It's clear these guys have some business going on on the islands. The governor of Entre Ríos was livid when he learned that Santa Fe's senators were requesting the creation of a protected area. Right now, Entre Ríos and Victoria can say they are unable to stop the fires, with what the drought and their lack of economic resources, and that anyway it's private land; but a protected area under federal jurisdiction would force the national government to preserve the ecosystem from such destruction.

The fact that Cristina Kirchner's government has done almost nothing to stop the fires, except when the smoke reached Buenos Aires, and that Environment Secretary Romina Picolotti might as well be a wooden lamppost for all the effort she's put into this issue, is also a cause for more anger here in Rosario. We've always taken this sort of local pride on being a "self-made city", so if Entre Ríos can't or won't solve it and Cristina doesn't feel like it, let them hand the islands over to us, and we'll surely do a better job keeping one of South America's largest wetlands and most fragile ecosystems from being burned to the ground for short-term profit.

If you read Spanish, keep up with the news and activism reading my blog Sin calma: No a la quema.

22 September 2008

Vacation report: La Rioja City

Casa de Joaquín V. González
Joaquín V. González's house
Well, after Talampaya Canyon little of importance could happen to us. The next day, mid-morning, we got on the bus that would take us to the city of La Rioja, and arrived there about three hours later.

La Rioja is a relatively small provincial capital, and I don't have much to say about it, although I do want to be fair and emphasize that we visited it in a hurry and because we had to, since the return bus to Rosario departed from there rather than from Chilecito. La Rioja is cute, but it has no major remarkable touristic spots, with the exception of a huge palaentology museum and some historical churches. The cathedral is also beautiful, but at this stage of our vacations we were no longer terribly impressed about this sort of things.

There's a house resembling a castle where the famous Joaquín V. González lived (the one who built Samay Huasi in Chilecito as a house of rest), and a fair amount of ample, well cared-for public squares, but no big parks within the urban downtown area.

Cara de mono II Parque Yacampis, the public park where the zoo is located, lies almost outside of town, and either because of the drought or sheer carelessness it looks rather decrepit. The zoo itself is surprisingly large and comprehensive for such a small city, and we spent a couple of hours going from one cage and enclosure to another. Among the primates there are caí monkeys (capuchins), a spider monkey, and baboons; also many birds, including a miserable condor which seemed to have too little space to exercise its vast wingspan; llamas and guanacos, too, and less curious animals such as goats and pigs.

The "problem" (note the scare quotes) with La Rioja is that, touristic or not, it's a "deep country" city with a small town mentality, and siesta time is sacred, so even the finest restaurant on the best parts of downtown shoo off customers during the afternoon. The traveller that arrives from Chilecito, for instance, checks in at the hotel and goes looking for late lunch, is in for a bad surprise and will be forced to a hungry pilgrimage around the city before he or she can find a table and a waiter.

We stayed in La Rioja all Friday afternoon and Saturday until sunset, when our bus departed. Again we had the unforgettable experience of an interrupted return trip. In March, you'll remember, we were stopped en route by a picket of farmers near Villa María, Córdoba; now it was a bit earlier, when the engine failed and started losing diesel. Marisa, doubtless because of the fuel vapours, felt sick all night; she couldn't force herself to eat so much as a mouthful of dinner, and the nausea lasted even a couple of days after our return. Fortunately we weren't delayed a lot: we stopped in La Falda, north of Córdoba, and we waited an hour or so until a replacement bus was sent from nearby Capilla del Monte. So in the end we got to Rosario two hours after schedule.

And that's the end of my vacation report.

19 September 2008

Vacation report: Talampaya Canyon

Two days after our first, failed attempt, we finally got to see the Talampaya National Park. This was what we'd come to La Rioja for, so we were exhilarating.

Cañón de Talampaya

The weather had changed. It was cloudy and rather cool, and the tour guide warned us about being so happy, since there was a possibility, if remote, that it could rain. I made the mistake of not taking along more warm clothes than I had already on...

Cañón de Talampaya
The canyon's walls (there are earthquakes here)

Marisa helada
Marisa, frozen, just like me
The trip felt shorter than before. The Cuesta de Miranda wasn't full of splendour under the sun like the previous Tuesday, but dark, with deep colours toned down by the cloud cover. We got to the park's entrance, registered, and then the van kept on going for 12 km. The Talampaya National Park is huge (2,150 km²), but the touristic part, the one you can actually visit, is just the canyon formed by the Talampaya river (which is a dry bed of dust most of the time), with rocky walls chiseled by wind erosion.

We got to the canyon and got off the van to do our trekking. It was bitterly cold and the wind didn't help it, but luckily it hit us from the back. I immediately realized I should've brought at least two more layers of protective warm clothing, plus a scarf, gloves and a wool cap. Marisa was a bit better protected than me and she had a hood over her head; the tips of my ears painfully froze in a matter of minutes.

All this notwithstanding, when you walk for a while at a good pace you forget the cold, even more so when you have such a great spectacle before your eyes. At this point I must let the pictures speak for themselves, because I don't have proper words to describe the immensity of the view. All I was left with was impressions — the clearest one being one the guide made us notice, our inability to grasp the sheer height of the canyon's walls. I don't know how much they were apart; for us, walking along the midline of the utterly dry riverbed, they seemed close enough, but when we tried to get closer we noticed we were never there, it took us a minute or so to get to where your hand could actually touch the reddish rock wall, and then you looked up and it was impossible to see the end of it. The Talampaya Canyon's walls are up to 180 metres high, equivalent to a 60-storey building (there are none so high in Argentina, by the way).

Pongámoslo en perspectiva
The "chimney"
Our other impression was that of geological age. The wind we felt was dragging and blowing sand and dust; that we could see. But it was hard to relate that to the worn-down, polished, modelled walls. How many millions of years of wind and sand there were on those rocks, I don't know.

The guide showed us petroglyphs, symbols and human and animal characters carved on the surface of the rocks by the ancient natives of the place, who didn't live there but sent their shamans to perform occult ceremonies there (some pictures of petroglyphs can be viewed on my other blog). It's easy to understand how they came to believe the canyon was appropriate for the supernatural; I myself, who don't believe in it, had a perception of concreteness, of such overwhelming solidity that it felt more than sheer material stuff. (Even now my regret is not having touched those rocks with my bare hands a little more. It sounds incredible, but I hardly touched them.)

In a couple of spots, the shape of the rocks and the canyon multiplies the echoes. A cry uttered there rebounds so that you can hear entire sentences repeat themselves four or five times, clearly, all along the walls, at a great distance.

In another spot, a fortuitous combination of factors make the scarce humidity of the place gather and create a natural "garden", with several typical desert tree species. Besides trees and bushes there are maras (wrongly called Patagonian hares — they're cousins of Guinea pigs).

The climax of our experience was looking up and seeing two black shapes gliding among the red peaks, perching on a rock for a while, then flying again. They were condors. There was no way to estimate their size, but we knew a condor can have a wingspan of three metres and these were at high altitude.

El cóndor pasa

A van full of tourists went by and came back after a while. The passengers glared at us, confused. What were we doing outside in this freezing weather, walking miles along the canyon? And just what were looking at so eagerly, up in the sky? Our guide explained that many tourists, instead of hiring the full tour, come by themselves to the park. As they arrive, the management offers them to ride on their vans (it's how they do business). The tour on the van is much cheaper than doing the trip from Chilecito, getting off and hike for two and a half hours with a guide on your side, but it's much more partial. The whole show is reduced to what you can see from the van's windows. Of course you can't see the condors. I don't know what those poor tourists are told, but based on what the guide said, many tourists who came to see the canyon realize only later than they've been sold a very small part of it.

As we walked into the "garden", a shower of tiny, cold things floated down from the sky. It was (barely) snowing. I was happy as a child. Where I live it hasn't snowed since before I was born. Once in my life had I touched snow, when I was 17, in Bariloche.

We took the way back. The wind now blew into our faces. I felt my nose freezing over. Marisa had lost all the healthy colour she'd acquired during the previous days outdoors. Our hands were livid, devoid of blood. It couldn't be much above zero degrees, and there was no shelter. After what seemed like eternity, we came back to the parked van. It took us a while to stop shivering.

In the Cuesta de Miranda, 2,000 metres above sea level, it was snowing with minuscule snowflakes of a white so white it looked fake, like a rain of fine-grained expanded polystyrene; the clouds veiled the peaks. Coming down from those heights, we saw again the already familiar hills of the Famatina, the highest of them subtly covered with snow. It wasn't much, but I hope it helped. In Chilecito, when there's no snow in the winter, there's no water in the summer.

16 September 2008

Vacation report: My God, it's full of cacti!

Chirau Mita
Entrance to Chirau Mita
You'll remember we had to retreat from Talampaya chased by the zonda wind. Well, after that and two and a half hours, we got back to Chilecito and were told the tour was re-booked for two days later, or else we'd get our money back (minus the cost of fuel).

Since we'd made no other plans, we tried to fit something in the rest of the day, a sunless Tuesday afternoon full of suspended dirt, so we visited Chirau Mita, a cactus garden on the Paimán hill beside Chilecito. You enter from the street and climb terraces planted with many species of cacti plus some non-cactus, mostly agaves (the source of tequila).

Asunto espinoso (by pablodf) The guide told us everything we wanted to know about cacti but were afraid to ask, a bit too quickly for my taste, since I'd rather stop beside each plant and take pictures from several angles, while she continued to climb the stairs and speak of other cacti. You can see some of the best cactus pictures on a special photo-only post of my other blog.

We learned that cacti are succulent plants, which reduce the loss of water through the surface of leaves by turning leaves into spines, which has the added advantage of protecting the plant. The trunk itself turns green and takes over photosynthesis. We saw huge spherical cacti ("mother-in-law's cushions"), tiny cacti with infinitesimal flowers, tall straight cacti, cacti with helicoidally twisted trunks, and hairy cacti, with white doll-like manes that protect them from freezing (you know what happens when water contained in a barely flexible container freezes?). We also learned that cacti are exclusive of the American continent.

We returned to the hostel and saw the people mopping the sidewalks in front of shops to remove the fine reddish dirt, before opening to the public. (It was rather late in the afternoon, but siesta time is kept almost as a sacred tradition.) And that was the rest of Tuesday afternoon.

15 September 2008

Vacation report: Zonda Tuesday

Tuesday, September 2, the sun rose gloriously above Chilecito. We got up at 6 AM and had a half-conscious breakfast. The tour guide came to fetch us on his van at 7, to go to Talampaya and Ischigualasto (Valle de la Luna). These are natural preserves with unique geological formations, and the main reason why we thought of Chilecito for our vacations. (You can also go to Villa Unión, which is much closer to Talampaya, but there's nothing else to do there. The same goes for Valle Fértil, which is opposite Valle de la Luna in San Juan. Both are OK if you have your own vehicle and don't mind changing from one hotel to another.)

Vista desde la cornisa Carrying our mate gear, some warm clothing, and the compulsory cap and sunblock, we exited Chilecito, passed by Nonogasta, and then the Cuesta de Miranda, between the mountains (I'm not going to refer to this beautiful place right now). Then we took a dirt road, asphalted road, dirt again, a couple of sleepy villages, and finally we came up to the entrance gate of the Talampaya National Park. A strong wind was blowing, and dust flew around.

The guide got off the van to record our entry and came back after a while. "People, the park is closed", he said calmly. For two whole second I stared at him, waiting for some laughter to emerge after what was indoubtedly a joke told to every tourist — una jodita, as we say in Argentina. It wasn't. It was the truth.

Only then we realized the wind was blowing stronger and stronger. It was the zonda, a dry wind that comes down from the mountains and is felt by the Cuyo provinces of central and central-northern Argentina at the foot of the Andes. This zonda brought reddish dust and sand in incredible amounts and at a terrible speed. It was just starting and the horizon was already vanishing, blurred out of sight by a brown mass of the color of Talampaya's iron-laden sand. Not only sightseeing or taking pictures would be impossible, but anything could fly away, or come flying with, such a wind.

Viene el zonda

We stayed there for a while to inquire about the park rangers' opinion. The zonda was going to last for a few hours at least, and even after that there would be too much suspended dust. It was entirely likely that the wind wouldn't stop during the whole day.

Dispirited, we took the road back to Chilecito. The zonda's entry way among the mountains could be seen clearly at a distance of a few kilometres: a uniform opaque brownish jet that ran and expanded after us. To my surprise, I noticed I was resigned, even content. The trip to the park and view on the way had been fabulous. I had no right to complain because an unforeseeable weather incident had ruined the main tour. We would have a new chance two days later.

We got back to Chilecito after midday. The zonda had arrived as well. The sky and the tops of the hills had disappeared, swallowed by the enveloping brown cloud. It was cooler than the day before, so off we went to see cacti... which I'll come to later.

12 September 2008

Vacation report: Santa Florentina

Monday, September 1, we kept on braving the heat climbing hills under the sun at noon. This time we resumed our exploration of the famous cablerail that climbs from Chilecito to the Famatina.

You take a bus and it takes you, in twenty minutes or so, to a nearby village called Santa Florentina, a few miles closer to the Famatina range and therefore a few meters above downtown Chilecito's level. SF's main touristic asset is supposedly a plaza museo, that is, an outdoors "museum square", the only one of its kind in the country, with mining-related objects on display from the time when there was mining.

Estación 2 del Cablecarril Chilecito - La Mejicana The "museum square" was a complete disappointment, but across the street you can walk up a broad path that leads you along the hillside, first past a deserted camping site and then reaching (after 40 minutes of ascension) to Station No. 2 of the Cablerail, at about 1,600 m amsl.

The station is well-preserved, the buildings and machinery taken care of as if people still lived and worked there every day. When we got there, obviously, we were mostly interested in getting some rest in the shade, but then we took lots of pictures. The view is fabulous: on one side, the slope down the hills, with a line of towers supporting the cablerail, red-ochre, disappearing on a gracious curve towards Chilecito; on the other side, hills crowded with cacti fusing into a gray-blue mass that climbs and climbs until fine snowy threads appear, and finally the eternally white summits of the Nevados del Famatina, no less than 25 or 30 km away and over 4,500 m above sea level. Below, in the valley, a little river flows, with swift, slightly turbid waters, their colour between gold and copper, laden with minerals.

Nevado al fondo

El río de los minerales

After much admiring the landscape, having some mate, and catching our breath, we went down the path and stayed beside the "museum square" waiting for the bus, which was only half and hour late.

The next day was scheduled for the tour we came to La Rioja for: the visit to the Talampaya Canyon and the Valle de la Luna (Ischigualasto). It began at 7 AM and was going to last 13 hours, so we went to bed early...

11 September 2008

Vacation report: Samay Huasi

Joaquín y Marisa On Sunday, August 31, we decided to visit Samay Huasi (that's Quechua for "house of rest"), a large country residence that belonged to Joaquín V. González. The guy's name was vaguely familiar to me before, but in La Rioja he was everywhere. He was born in Nonogasta, near Chilecito, and he was a deputy, senator, governor, educator, historian, philosopher and writer, besides (rumour has it) an atheist and/or a freemason, and an obsessive gambler — a truly fascinating character.

Samay Huasi is minutes away from Chilecito's city center by taxi. There's a small historical museum, rooms with preserved stuff from Joaquín's time, and plenty of space outdoors for the visitor to wander freely, once the AR$1 admittance fee is paid to the guide.

So we walked around, listening to the noisy wild parrots, among galleries, withered vines, and seemingly decorative olive and almond trees. The heat increased as the morning turned into noon. We came by a big statue of Joaquín in a meditative pose, at the foot of a hill. We took a path up the hill and climbed and climbed until we got tired (which was not that close to the summit, I'm embarrassed to admit). I took some pictures, and then we went down a bit, sought the shade of a boulder, took out our sandwiches, and ate lunch.

Samay Huasi - Panorámica desde el cerro

Coming down the hill wasn't as easy as we'd guessed, but finally, sweating and panting, we returned to the main residence and sat comfortably on a bench in the shade, drank mate and ate cookies and generally attempted to waste as much of our time as possible. The guide had disappeared around siesta time, so nobody looked for us to check what we might be doing. I guess we could've camped somewhere in the fields and stayed for a couple of days.

We had spent a quiet and well-rounded day. We took a deep breath and walked back to Chilecito, 3 or 4 km along the road.

And that was the morning and afternoon of the second day.

10 September 2008

Vacation report: First day in Chilecito

We arrived at Chilecito on Saturday, August 30, mid-morning. The trip from Rosario lasts about 14 hours, not the least because it goes out of the straight path to reach Córdoba City and stops in two dozen little towns on the way. Although the punctuality was exceptional and the travel was fortunately uneventful, I'd like to vent my carefully preserved rancour at the General Urquiza bus company, which gave us no on-board dinner and no breakfast — a major crime if you ask me.

You get to Chilecito and the bus leaves you on the road by the new terminal station. It's not far from the city center but unless you're a backpacker you don't want to drag your stuff ten long blocks, so we took a taxi. We found our hostel quickly enough, left our bags there, went for breakfast, then back to the hostel for a bath, and then to the Cablerail Museum.

Cablecarril al cerro

The Famatina range west of Chilecito is full of valuable mineral ores, so back in the early 20th century a German company built a system of aerial cables to transport rocks from the mine up in the mountains (at some 4,600 m ASL) to the processing facilities in Chilecito (at 1,100 m ASL). The rails and the supporting towers are still in place and, according to the guide, it might still work if the parts that have been stolen were replaced (and maybe oiled a bit). The Museum is Station No. 1 of the Cablerail, its terminus, and it harbours a heterogeneous collection of tools, blueprints in German, a payroll, parts of the mineral wagons, and rust.

Junto al cactus We learned that the Famatina is being open for exploitation of its gold ore by the provincial governor, one of whose campaign promises was that he'd never allow exploitation of the Famatina. Gold extraction requires cyanide, and the snow on top of the Famatina is Chilecito's almost single source of water. Environmentalists don't know if the cyanide process is safe and they're up in arms against the government.

After the museum, we took a nap and then went out again, wandering, taking in the ochre-pink of walls, the blossoming lapachos, the stillness of siesta time. Carrying a thermos for mate, we went to see a white statue of a Christ on a hill and took pictures of ourselves beside a couple of tall cacti, exactly as tourist couples are supposed to do.

And those were the morning and the afternoon of the first day.

09 September 2008

Back from vacations

I'm back from my vacation! I'm trying to summarize all the information and to review all the pictures I took, so it'll take me some time to recount my 1-week experience in Chilecito and La Rioja... but I'll get to it.

Repeating what I wrote on Sin calma, it was a week full of variations — especially weather-wise. First it was sunny spring, which in dry, northern Chilecito means cool nights and blazing-hot days under the sun. Then came the zonda, which is a föhn wind that comes down from the mountains carrying tons of dust and is usually very hot, though this time it was atypically cool. And then there was rain (more like a drizzle, but still extraordinary in this arid land), and then a cold wave hit the whole country and it even snowed a little on the mountaintops. So we got to wear almost all the clothing we'd brought with us, which was nice in a way — because I always pack things just in case which are returned home unused.

The trip to Chilecito lacked any surprises, except the fact that the bus departed and arrived on time. The return trip was a bit bumpy, which makes three of that kind for me since January, and two for Marisa and I as a couple (the first one, you'll remember, took place while the farmers were blocking the roads). If I believed in such nonsense, I'd believe I'm under a jinx of some kind.

I reckon we travelled about 3,000 km total by bus and on a van, plus a few more kilometres on foot, including a few hundred on the vertical axis. I took in a considerable amount of sunlight and sweet honey paste, I ruined an almost brand-new tripod, I submitted to wearing a Mets cap Marisa gave me to prevent sunstroke, I snapped about 1,100 pictures, and I saw llamas, guanacos, maras (Patagonian hares), and condors (three of them for sure, one of them in a zoo cage).

I'm writing a travel chronicle in a more literary, un-blog-like format, in Spanish, which I'll post somewhere else when finished, in case you can read it (and want to try). In the meantime, I'll post my travel stories here. Be patient!

In case you were wondering, I'm having Internet access problems both at home and at work, so the reports may not come smoothly...

03 September 2008

Musketeers of redistribution: Guillermo Moreno

This is the third and last installment of my translation of the Crítica Digital article titled Los mosqueteros de la redistribución ("The Musketeers of Redistribution"), which shows how the Kirchner administration has failed to redistribute income, which they claim as their main economic goal. This time it's about the worst offender in many respects, Secretary of Commerce Guillermo Moreno. This is what the article says about him:

In theory, his mission was to keep inflation from diluting the purchasing power of fixed-wage workers and retired citizens. The price agreements that he signed with companies at the beginning ceased being complied with long ago, except for [the statistics bureau] INDEC, where Moreno draws the lines of his private world.
Of course I've already written about INDEC and its ridiculous, obscenely faked figures of inflation, which the government continues to defend as true. Moreno is de facto leader of INDEC, which used to be a purely technical organization, fairly independent from the national government and thus trustable, until Néstor Kirchner decided he didn't like reality and let Moreno appoint his minions in places of power there. And that's not all.
[The manipulation of INDEC's figures] is a well-known story. Less known are [Moreno's] practices to favour concentrated companies, consolidating monopolic or oligopolic markets. For Moreno, competition is [a subject] for textbooks. He has always chosen commanding phone calls and verbal agreements with the major actors in each economic sector (cereal producers, mills, supermarkets, dairy companies, food companies, etc.) over transparent regulations that might discourage [the formation of] concentrated structures and encourage competition.

The removal of José Sbatella from the leadership of the National Commission for the Defense of Competition, key to the enforcement of anti-monopoly laws, is the culmination of that process. Sbatella, a professional with a long career, ruled against the Cablevisión-Multicanal merge, which two of Moreno's deputies in the Commission approved on the last day of Néstor Kirchner's term; Sbatella also set conditions for other multi-million [company] purchases in the food sector, which were not taken into account.
Guillermo Moreno is the kind of official that any sane administration would get rid of as quickly as possible, preferrably offering him (as compensation) a trip to some faraway land. Cristina Kirchner's unspoken excuse for keeping him is that everybody in the opposition and the major media is asking for Moreno's head, so firing the guy would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. I can understand that, but it also shows quite plainly that Cristina cares more for an appearance of overwhelming power and firm determination than for doing her job well despite her personal pride.

Moreno is a wrench in the most sensitive part of the economic machinery; the more he stays, the more difficult it will be to restore the credibility of the government regarding inflation and their goal of reducing poverty. Right now we don't know how many poor people there are in Argentina, but we know for sure they're many, many more than Cristina Kirchner and Guillermo Moreno would admit.