03 August 2009

Primary election results

A few weird numbers came out of yesterday's election. The main thing was that the opposition represented by the Justicialist Party (that is, the Peronists) won in Rosario, where it usually loses by a wide margin, and the Progressive Front won in Santa Fe City, where it usually doesn't do that well and was vanquished in the latest legislative election. What happened?

You need to remember this was a primary election and, although it was compulsory, many people didn't turn up. It was a local election and in Rosario, also, it was a local election pitching a diverse (some would say promiscuous) opposition party against a fairly monolithic government party whose administration is showing some wear after 14 years in office. People who are more-or-less OK with the Socialist administration didn't vote for it because the main list of candidates was seen as a bunch of yes-people ready to raise their hands on the mayor's command. I myself voted for Nire Roldán, one of the minor, dissident candidates of the Progressive Front, instead of the "loyalist" Clara García (currently a top municipal official), because I don't want a Deliberative Council with an absolute majority of the government's faction.

In any case, the Progressive Front had differences in opinion among its factions, basically regarding the closeness of the candidates to the mayor's power. On the other hand, the Peronists are profoundly divided, and so they went to the primary election: a Kirchnerist faction led by extra-partisan, former Socialist and Menemist sell-out Héctor Cavallero, with the explicit support of the now disgraced Kirchnerist mouthpiece Agustín Rossi; a faction led by one Diego Giuliano, a political unknown who answers to formerly fervent Kirchnerist, now right-wing anti-Kirchnerist Carlos Reutemann; another one led by Osvaldo Miatello, the only one with a current and established legislative career, backed by former governor Jorge Obeid; and an assortment of no-names. These will have to get along somehow — they'll all be together in a single ballot in September.

My analysis is that many people just took the Progressive Front for granted and refused to show extra support for the mayor's faction (that's what I did after all) as a way of letting them know they'll have to work harder to stay in power, while each of the various competing Peronist candidates conducted an aggressive campaign just to make themselves noticed, and their wide differences encouraged their supporters to go out and vote.We'll see what happens with those figures in September. I really can't see a traditional, conservative Peronist voting for a former Socialist with Kirchnerist backing, or viceversa.

The flu

I haven't written about the influenza A(H1N1) epidemic in Argentina. Everyone else has, though, so I'll leave it at that. For me, it had its good and bad sides. The good side was that children and teenagers cleared the streets, buses, and other public venues for us grownups, leaving us room to enjoy our city without being bumped into,  or bombarded with trashy music out of MP3 players. Oh, some people died. Not many, certainly an insignificant number compared to the people who die of other preventable diseases or in traffic accidents caused by drivers' carelessness. Several acquaintances of mine fell with the flu, but it was nothing serious.

The bad side was the hysteria and the paranoia. I'm sure you've seen your share of this. What happens here is that as soon as, let's say, an outbreak of a disease is announced, society divides itself into two main groups: those who panic, go to ridiculous extremes to protect themselves, and generally bother the rest of us, and those who just dismiss it all as an invention of the government, the media, or both to make us forget of the really important matters, and place the rest of us at risk because of their carelessness. You may have noticed there's a third group, what I've called "the rest of us" — make of that what you want.

As the first wave of the flu subsided, many people have started to forget the cautionary measures against contagion. This may or may not be OK. Others continue to be hysterical, in both the usual and the figurative meaning: they remain fearful and paranoid, and they're very funny — tending towards the "pathetic" kind of funny. At work, I've had perfectly healthy people, who usually offered me their cheek to kiss every morning, refuse to come even close to me. During the initial phase of the epidemic, one of my co-workers first became very agitated, then tried to force her daughter's school to shut down, and then basically locked her up at home (this was a few days before the Ministry of Education finally decided to shut down the schools). There's still alcohol gel everywhere, and by the looks of it, some people think it's an all-powerful, virus-proof barrier against the flu.

The cold, and with it the flu, will be gone in less than two months. I can't wait to tell you about the upcoming dengue epidemic...

02 August 2009

Just voted

I've just voted on the (arguably) most boring election ever — a primary to select candidates for the city's Deliberative Council.

Not only did most people not know exactly who the candidates were, what general views (as opposed to nice specific ideas) they had, or even which party they belonged to, but also, as a result of the flu epidemic, the election should have taken place a month ago and didn't. It was postposed, but the legal ban on political advertising wasn't reset, so it's been more than a month since any of the candidates was allowed to appear on TV or be heard on the radio to explain the citizens what they intend to do if they're elected. Now I don't really love politicians broadcasting their promises along with catchy, unsubstantial slogans every ten minutes on the radio, but I do appreciate those things have a purpose.

Some of the major candidates evaded the ban by campaigning through Facebook. I think this is a very nice idea. It was pioneered, I think, by mayor Miguel Lifschitz, and spread quickly to other candidates, who apparently saw that just having a website was useless if nobody noticed it. The digital divide makes this practice a bit problematic, though.

I'll be posting the results here as soon as I have them, but nobody expects a surprise. The real election, with the candidates from each party already selected, will take place on September 27.

31 July 2009

Does God exist?

I don't like translating my own writings, so I won't subject you to a translation of my review of ¿Dios existe?, whose core is a public debate between then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the atheist Italian philosopher Paolo Flores d’Arcais (which, as far as I know, hasn't been published in English). The book in fact doesn't deal a lot with that ancient, ever-present topic, but has more to do with the mode of the affirmation of God by the believers and how it relates to the grounding of moral principles and the law.

Deep stuff, especially for one (like me) who has never studied philosophy. I'm missing most of the references that the author takes for granted... But I think I'm getting it, mostly. This guy Flores d’Arcais has some very clear ideas and he knows how to convey them. This unlike Michel Onfray, who's fascinating but excessively florid and elliptical (I just finished a book by him about the Cynics, by the way), and very, very unlike the one contemporary atheist philosopher I've read within the Anglo-Saxon materialist tradition, Daniel Dennett. Popular English-language atheistic thought is, understandably, almost completely devoted to refuting Protestant fundamentalism and creationism, on one hand, and denouncing the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism on the other — and it all seems a bit shallow and pointless after a while. I've been overexposed to that lately (I'm still trying to finish Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which has very engaging ideas on the origin of design). So for me Onfray and Flores d’Arcais are a door into a different world of thought.

I'll leave you with something to get an idea of what Flores d’Arcais thinks about religion in the public sphere, his Eleven Theses Against Habermas. The condition he sets for a pluralistic democracy are echoed in the arguments he presents in the book — namely, that all of us, believers of all faiths and nonbelievers alike, must renounce to claim that we have reasonable, unassailably objective grounds for our principles, because such a thing does not and cannot exist.

28 July 2009

Amado Boudou

I'm being asked to come back and write something. So instead of apologizing (again) for doing something else instead of writing, I thought I'd share short snippets of my thoughts that might interest my readership. Here comes one: did you know (or notice) that phonetically, the name of our latest Minister of Economy, Amado Boudou, means Beloved Voodoo?

Voodoo seems an appropriate subject to relate to the minister. Our economy, with its ups and downs, is faring surprisingly well given the crisis, but since Néstor Kirchner decided to get rid of Roberto Lavagna, the office of the Minister of Economy is like a periodically revived zombie. When someone alive steps into the post, or she or he's promptly bludgeoned into an undead state by the Kirchners' requirements of absolute loyalty. Felisa Miceli was an undead from the start, as was Miguel Peirano; his successor, Martín Lousteau, like him a promising, independent young minister, made the grave mistake of proposing Resolution 125 and the fatal one of disturbing the government's inflation denialism, and lasted very little after that; Carlos Fernández was barely seen or heard, an undead without even the redeeming features of romanticism or tragedy, and passed without a sigh.

Argentine governments tend to burn economy ministers fairly quickly. Boudou has just started and he's half wasted already, having had several members of his work team vetoed or hand-picked by Néstor Kirchner on the basis of personal loyalty. Want to bet how long he'll last?

02 July 2009

In a pause

I'm having trouble connecting to the internet at home, due to a chronically failing telephone line, so I'm writing from the office and I'll have to keep it short. I'm working at the very place where the statistics of the influenza A epidemic for the south of Santa Fe are reported and analyzed, so you'll understand.

I really have no idea what's going on, except what everybody knows: the schools are closed for July, though other public places are so far deemed OK, and it seems the government might postpone the provincial primary election to be held next Sunday (July 5) for a month. Pregnant women will be given a couple of weeks off (with pay) until the peak of the flu epidemic passes. And there's a lot of paranoia around. It's tiring sometimes.

I haven't even caught a cold this winter (knock on wood), so I'll be back soon, I hope!

30 June 2009

After the elections

The legislative elections are over, and if you're following the news, you'll be surely aware of the big picture: Néstor Kirchner has lost, the government's power in Congress has been cut down, and several presidenciables (that is, likely presidential candidates) are already lining up (or have been lined up by the media) for the 2011 election.

So I'll just concentrate on the small things and the analysis. First, let's get Kirchner out of the way... Néstor Kirchner lost to Francisco de Narváez by a handful of votes, a lot of votes actually, but only about two-and-a-half percent of the Buenos Aires Province vote. Of course, what happened is that the list of candidates headed by NK got a few votes less than that led by FDN; in formal terms it was a tie, but Kirchner's insistence on the paramount importance of this election worked like a self-fulfilled prophecy: almost everyone assumed positions as if it were the one and final battle of a war, and the election turned into an opportunity to bash the government. And bashed it was: Kirchner, who had achieved record levels of popularity during his term, lost to a group of the strangest bedfellows politics has inflicted on us as of late, led by a right-wing Colombian-born multimillionaire with an image constructed hastily by the media in a matter of months. Many of the so-called "barons" of Greater Buenos Aires, who rule the poorest and most densely populated parts of Argentina as virtual feudal lords and are keen observers of reality, betrayed their alliance with Kirchner, unnanounced.

In any case, after what must have been a very long night and a terrible day, Kirchner dutifully resigned from the presidency of the Justicialist Party. He released a short video accepting the defeat and I swear he looked mildly drugged.

Yesterday in the afternoon, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner gave a press conference. First she started out by reciting highly optimistic figures for the composition of the new Congress, and feigned not to have the exact numbers of her husband's defeat on hand (while, as everyone knows, she probably had the figures down to the least significant digit painfully etched in her short-term memory). Then she tried to turn the whole thing on its head, pointing out how an awful lot of people had still voted for the government's party. When a journalist pointed out that she'd gotten 45% of the vote when she was elected and now her husband got only 31%, she was upset and accused the media of having a double standard because they hadn't gone and asked that to Mauricio Macri and his candidate Gabriela Michetti (in the City of Buenos Aires, Michetti got 30% of the vote, only half of what Macri and her had gotten two years ago). She also resented the petitio principii of a journalist who asked about the manipulation of INDEC's figures of inflation — which did beg the question, of course, because the government has never admitted to that manipulation, although everyone, including some of the president's favorite economists, is certain of it.

At that point, approximately, I stopped watching the press conference. It was pointless. Either Cristina has learned nothing or she needs a few days to let it sink in, but based on previous experience, the latter is unlikely. We're left with the hope that she won't attempt something funny before December, when the new Congressmen will take their seats.

28 June 2009

I have voted

I've just come back from my old primary school, where I voted. My DNI (Documento Nacional de Identidad) now has one more stamped-and-signed square near its back. Now to wait until evening...

27 June 2009

Before the elections (III)

This is probably a breach of electoral law, but what the heck, these are littering the streets everywhere... This is my vote for tomorrow:

As you see, the ballot has two parts; on the left is the vote for the senators of the Progressive Front (whose major force is the Socialist Party, which rules Santa Fe Province since 2007 and Rosario since 1989), and on the right, the vote for the deputies (diputados, or what Americans would call Representatives). I'm mainly supporting Rubén Giustiniani for senator, and against the ghastly Carlos Reutemann. I don't care much about the deputies — on that department my vote is for the coalition rather than the candidates.

If I wanted to, I could vote for different parties, by manually cutting the ballots along the vertical dotted line; senators and deputies are formally separate elections after all. Or I could just vote for senator Giustiniani and leave the deputies' place blank (i.e. not placing any vote for deputies in the envelope I'll be given), but I feel it's important to strengthen the opposition in the Lower House.

I'll be voting at my old primary school, about four blocks from my house, probably just before noon as usual. Then we'll all have to wait until eight or nine in the evening to get the preliminary results. I'll blog about that as soon as I can.

26 June 2009

Before the elections (II)

I left out some details in my previous post about the upcoming legislative election, just to keep it short and avoid digression. I think I need to clarify some things, for those who don't live in Argentina and have no idea what's the voting system is like. Some general information can be found in the Wikipedia articles Elections in Argentina and Argentine legislative election, 2009, but here I'm interested in the little things that make fraud and deceitful tactics easy (or easier).

There are two kinds of problems with this election (and many past ones): what I'd call ethical problems, and systemic problems. The latter are technical details; the former are often allowed (or encouraged) by the latter. Let me explain.

The main systemic problem in legislative elections is the fact that, for Deputies (the members of the Lower House), we use proportional representation, whereby you vote for party-approved lists of candidates, rather than single candidates. The more votes a list receives, the more candidates the party gets elected. This in itself is not bad, but in a very uninformed society like Argentina's, it means most people don't know who they're voting for, beyond the first candidate in the list, who's usually chosen to be as charismatic and well-known a character as possible. Most of our current representatives never have to do any campaigning besides standing next to the "poster guy", and get elected merely because they've secured (by whatever means) a place in the list.

Compounding this, there's another problem with the system: we use paper ballots as a universal means of vote, and each party or coalition is in charge of printing and supplying the public with their ballots. When you go to vote, you're let into a cuarto oscuro (literally, a "dark room", though of course it's not dark) where you face dozens of piles of ballots, each with different logos, party symbols, colors, etc. The ballots for each party have the party name and the first candidate in the list printed in large type; the second and maybe the third and fourth candidates in the list are printed somewhat smaller, and the rest are in normal type. There's nothing to stop the sensible, concerned citizen from reading and assessing the whole list, but as I said, Argentina's political culture is very primitive, so most people only know the first candidate and will vote for him or her without paying attention to the rest of the bandwagon, or simply look for the party name among the ballots and put that into the envelope.

The different ballots thing also enables a whole host of fraudulent activities. For example, pseudo-parties created with the sole purpose of having an extra ballot in the "dark room" and confuse the voters, either by closely mimicking the name and typography chosen by another party, or by suggesting there are alternatives where there aren't (in this case the pseudo-party might be a "mirror" of another party — different name, same candidates). There are (in)famous cases of parties registered only to have a first candidate with a last name very similar to a major candidate of another party.

The state must pay for the ballots so each party has an opportunity to participate even if it doesn't have a lot of contributors. In every election, many little parties pop into existence, ask the state for money to print their ballots, and vanish. Control is absent.

If the ballots for a party run out, they have to be replenished by the delegates of the party present in the election table. If the party couldn't provide a delegate, the ballots won't be replenished and some people might have to go without voting for the party they had in mind. So it's a very common practice in some areas for voters to be sent into the voting rooms to steal or ruin other party's ballots. People can be also sent in to plant fake ballots for a competing party, differring from the real ones by minor details that won't be noticed by the voters, but will be cause for voiding them afterwards, during the count.

It's quite clear these problems exist and could be easily solved by printing a single standard ballot, with the names of all the candidates in it, and having the voters mark them with a pen, as is done in other countries. It's also very clear why this hasn't been done — the party that most benefits from these tactics is the one in power, and wishes to remain so.

Some other problems with the system derive from the fact that the laws regulating the elections are lax, and moreover, nobody respects them, and the judges are unable or unwilling to do anything about it. But mostly the remaining problem is one of ethics. There's no law forbidding a person from running as candidate to a post he or she will never accept once elected (or will accept only to resign immediately), but in a normal society such dishonest behavior would be punished by public opinion; in Argentina, however, we have "testimonial candidates" at the top of the public's preferences.

The main offender in the ethics field is, no doubt, the Front for Victory, i.e. Kirchnerism. As is regrettably usual in Argentine politics, but taken to the extreme by the ruling couple and their allies, there's a confusion and merging of the conceptual limits of state, government and party. One sees Néstor Kirchner campaigning and can almost forget he's only a candidate in a given district — the full structure of the national government has been put at his disposal (funds, transportation, official coverage, the Cabinet, the President herself), even though it's illegal (and even more so because it's just before an election). We have no president, we have a ruling cabal presided by Néstor Kirchner, and Congress is virtually non-existent.

There are many who still passionately support the Kirchners because of their past achievements regarding human rights, the renewel of the Supreme Court, and the economic recovery, as well as the idea (unfounded in my opinion) that their ethical "rough edges" will be polished in time. Despite the fact that wealth inequality hasn't decreased and that the Kirchners show no sign of changing their friends' capitalism for socialism, many in the left still believe "the model" is an ongoing revolution towards a better country. Others don't have that faith, but refuse to position themselves against the Kirchners because they know the opposition is worse.

Despite all the problems with our system, I still hope we can all change this state of affairs. Right now the battle between Kirchnerism and opposition is a zero-sum game. Maybe after next Sunday, or next year (once the candidates have taken office) the politicians who haven't done anything but fight each other will find a way to discuss and, if necessary, compromise, so we can move on.

25 June 2009

Before the elections

It's only a few days to the legislative election, so this is a brief "state of the campaign" post. I'll refrain from emphasizing the appallingly low level of today's politics, if only because the post would turn into in a long, bitter rant if I tried to convey that.

First, my home district, Santa Fe. Here the senatorial race is the major one, because we have two great contenders: former two-time governor Carlos Reutemann, and Rubén Giustiniani, backed by current governor and former two-time mayor of Rosario Hermes Binner. Both candidates are already senators and both are sure to be reelected; the real issue is, first, who will win (even by one vote), and in a distant second place, which party will get the third senator.

Reutemann is a well-known, wealthy, conservative Peronist who for some reason (certainly not his charisma or his performance when in office) has consistently captured over a third of the vote in every election. Giustiniani is your typically neat low-profile militant of the very moderate (almost European-like) Socialist Party who ran (big mistake!) as candidate for the vice-presidency next to Elisa Carrió in 2007. Reutemann is playing the anti-Kirchnerist card, an attribute he earned by positioning himself against the ruling couple on the issue of Resolution 125, even though he barely did anything but raise his hand on command on all other issues. Since half the population of the province barely knows Giustiniani, until a few months ago Reutemann took his triumph for granted, but since governor Binner stepped into the campaign, Giustiniani has come close to his opponent, to the point that the predicted result is very close to a tie.

The leading candidates for the Chamber of Deputies are almost completely unknown; they're only getting votes because they'll be on the same paper ballot as their respective senators. Ironically, the only candidate everyone knows is the one heading for the distant third place: Agustín Rossi, by now politically disgraced in his own home turf due to his complete, unwavering submission to Néstor Kirchner.

In the Province of Buenos Aires, well... you have a contest of unscrupulous millionaires, a huge, impoverished clientele, well-oiled political machines with their filthy cogs obscenely in view and no-one doing anything about it, the government doing campaign for its party with state funds, the opposition wipping up the visceral hate for the Kirchners of the mostly right-wing citizenry, and no government proposals whatsoever except for "it's us or chaos". It's sleazy. So you'll forgive me if I refuse to take one more step into that crap.

Several problems with this election and with the system in general: first, the ballots printed by each party with their own candidates (instead of a universal ballot where you have to select what you want), which leaves ample space for fraud and many borderline illegal practices; second, the use of (linear) proportional representation in a country like Argentina, with a ridiculously skewered population distribution, which makes it possible for a party to win an election just by concentrating their efforts on a few hundred square kilometers crammed full with very poor, very influentiable people; third, the lack of political awareness of most of the citizens, understandably tired of anything to do with politics, which makes it easy for opportunists to flourish and for the unscrupulous to "disappear in the crowd".

I feel fortunate that I inhabit a district where, at least, the choices are clear-cut and the fight has not turned dirty beyond words. I won't vote for Reutemann, the love child of Carlos Menem and completely deprived of ideas besides his own plans to maintain influence; I won't vote for Rossi, a mouthpiece of the Executive Branch who would bring its own province to its knees to further the Kirchnerist agenda of centralized control; I'll vote for Giustiniani, who has some ideas I like and belongs to a structured political project that's going in the (general) right direction.

21 June 2009

Finally back from vacations

First of all, I'm very sorry! I haven't found the time to update this blog for more than month, including the week I was away on vacation. Secondly, I promise I'll try to post at least once a week, even if it's only a very short post.

I took a lot of pictures (and many many notes) on my trip to and from the Iguassu Falls. For the travel chronicle I posted on Sin calma, I just transcribed the notes, and added some pictures, but even so, it was a lot of work. You'll forgive me I don't translate it all into English here.

It was a packaged tour, unlike all our previous trips: everything (almost) was arranged and paid for in advance. Although both Marisa and I prefer the flexibility of self-made tours and hostel accomodation, for this particular destination, and with these particular time constraints (one week off work and not a single day more), a package was both inexpensive and comfortable.

Of six days, we spent two on the road, with frequent stops. We visited San Ignacio Miní (which I visited a couple of years ago) and the semiprecious stone mines of Wanda (a tourist trap if I ever saw one). Then we crossed into Brazil, where we lodged at a hotel in the city of Foz do Iguaçu. From there we were taken on succesive days to the Argentine and Brazilian sides of the Iguassu River (Iguazú in Argentina, Iguaçu in Brazil) to see the falls from different angles. It wasn't difficult to see why the Iguassu Falls are considered a natural wonder of the world.

Regarding the pictures, for the time being, I'll leave you with a slideshow of the ones I uploaded to Flickr. There are a few of each place we visited. Of course none of the photos of the falls do any justice to their majesty. You just have to be there to appreciate them, and even there it's difficult to take it all in.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

17 May 2009


I'm going on vacation to the Iguazú Falls today. Marisa and I will be lodging on the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu, from where we'll the falls from both sides of the border. I'll share the experience when I come back, next Saturday. See you!

04 May 2009

Marijuana March 2009 in Rosario

Marcha Mundial por la Marihuana Rosario 2009Last Saturday it was the tenth edition of the Global Marijuana March, and Rosario wouldn't be left out of it, so an event for the legalization of the private use of cannabis was scheduled. Yours truly hasn't even had a tobacco cigarette in his life, but I do support the right of people to smoke whatever they want provided they don't hurt anyone else, so I attended just to see what it was all about.

The meeting place was the spot beside the Planetarium, within the Parque Urquiza, and the time was 3 PM. Marisa and I had a very late lunch, and we couldn't make it until after 4 PM. I had my doubts, because it was supposedly a march, i.e. people would not stay there just waiting for us to come. But there was no march, only fairly scattered groups sitting in the park. Some activists had mounted stands and were giving out pamphlets explaining what marijuana is, the kind of care you must take if you're going to smoke it or eat it, etc.; others asked for the legalization of cultivation for private use and for government-sponsored strategies of damage reduction. A guy walked around disguised as the cannabis plant, in a green foam rubber suit, and people took pictures of themselves with him.

It was sunny and warm, a typical day for this weird autumn. Like ourselves, many had brought thermos and mate, while of course more than a few others were smoking joints. It was all rather calm, with people coming and leaving all the time, while joggers ran and elderly couples strolled by the site, probably curious but not seemingly alarmed. We stayed until our mate ran out, then left for a walk down the coast.

Anything to do with cannabis is illegal in Argentina, which seems rather stupid. As in many other places, the victims are the consumers: if they're caught, they're subject to all-too-frequent police abuse, and if they become addicted, they get treated like criminals. Lots of people sell, buy and smoke marijuana in bars and discos, and the law against it only serves to set up a bribe system benefitting the police and the authorities. Of course, the ones who make money selling bad-quality drugs to the poor are elsewhere.

Banning the possession of marijuana for private use has been deemed unconstitutional several times (per Article 19 of the Constitution, such things are "exempt from the authority of magistrates"). The Supreme Court is currently withholding its position, but it seems the majority wants the repressive law to be repealed.

29 April 2009

Testimonial candidates, or, lying for Kirchner

In the past, people voted for parties. But the candidates were important. They were expected to support the party platform, but also to do things independently, since a party's legislative bloc is not a committee. Otherwise it would be simpler to choose one representative per party and give each a certain number of beans to represent their voting power.

When Resolution 125 was killed in the Senate, the Kirchners realized that legislators were not beans they could count and hold in their hands. But Cristina and Néstor still need their beans. Now they're dangerously close to losing the majority, they'll do anything to retain it, including the latest fad: "testimonial" candidates.

Testimonial candidates are the quintessential beans. They're not even expected to get elected and then vote as the party leader tells them: their only function is to bring in votes. They're expected to resign without even taking office and leave their place to their stand-ins and to the next ones in the list. This is so because testimonial candidates must perforce be highly visible characters with political influence, and these are already taken up, mostly at executive positions, so they're not to be "wasted" as mere beans.

A few weeks ago, Néstor Kirchner told a number of loyal governors and mayors of the Buenos Aires metropolitan area to run for legislative posts, with the understanding that they'd have to campaign and let their valuable names be placed in big bold letters at the top of ballots, but nothing else. They are to (unofficially) take a couple of months off from their government obligations and just get elected. Most of the mayors accepted to run for the post of city council member. Some said they wouldn't, but offered to put their spouses or children on the lists instead (that's advertising by association for you); after all it's not as if beans must know what to do once elected, except raise their hands at the appropriate moments. The governors weren't so obedient, but Daniel Scioli, the governor of Buenos Aires, the largest and wealthiest province of Argentina, complied. He's now the best known of testimonial candidates.

Why "testimonial"? Well, the Kirchners believe (or want us to believe — it's not clear) that they're leading a movement based on a certain "model". El modelo is said to stand for a lot of very nice things, like wealth redistribution and social justice. It's like Christian salvation. Like religious believers, the governors and mayors are being told to testify. Their contribution to "the model" is to be where the leader tells them to, defending the bean count (i.e. the legislative majority). There's no need for them to take office; once the beans are in place, it doesn't matter who they are; in fact, it's better if they're not well-known, politically experienced people, as these tend to become ambitious on their own. The testimonial candidates just stand there saying "I support this model".

Whether this insulting farce will work or not, we'll see after June 28.

26 April 2009


Last Saturday I was interviewed by Vicky Baker, a British journalist currently residing in Buenos Aires and working on a tourist book. She's been in Argentina for several months now, and this is her fourth or fifth time in the country, but she'd never been to Rosario, so she wanted to meet me and have a chat about the city's "gems" as she called them — from restaurants and bars to nightlife to interesting local tales.

We arranged to meet at the famed El Cairo, the bar where Roberto Fontanorrosa used to gather with his friends for years. I'd been to my first Mate&Blogs meeting with Marisa, so after we finished there, we headed for the bar with a bunch of bloggers on our tail. When Vicky arrived Marisa and I found an extra chair for her and talked for an hour and a half; then we walked with her down to the river and along the Parque España, and finally let her go. I hope what we told her will be useful for her research; she has to fill 400 pages of Argentina!

06 April 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 16: This is the end, my friends

Available in Spanish: Final final 

This is the last post about my Uruguay vacations. I'll make it short because it's been a month and a half since I got back and other things are happening in real life.

As I explained before, there were no Paysandú-Colón-Rosario bus combinations at convenient times. Surprisingly for neighbouring frontier towns (one of which is the second city in its country), there aren't frequent bus routes; maybe the people who move between them are few and/or they do it by car.

That being not our case, we had to get up early and take a stroll with our backpacks up to the Paysandú bus terminal. The bus departed on time, but when we reached the international bridge we had to wait more than half an hour for some guy to take a few glances at each of us as he counted our heads, and for the migrations and customs officers to check our identity papers.

Drawing up a comparison with the more finicky but also much more efficient bureaucracy between Buenos Aires and Colonia, I couldn't help but conclude that it all comes down to money: if you travel on the Buquebús, you're served by shirt-and-tie, smiling employees who try to make things easy for you so nobody gets delayed; if you travel by bus, your time is worthless and the customs staff will waste it as they see fit.

We finally got to Colón and, of course, the bus for Rosario had gone twenty minutes ago. It was 9:30 and we'd have to wait for the next one... departing some time after 2 PM. The ghost of Valle Edén's nightmare reared its head, but in the end it wasn't such a big deal: Colón's bus terminal was relatively cool, there were toilets, a bar, and benches. In a languid state we let the hours go by, and weren't totally fed up by the time our transportation arrived.

We crossed Entre Ríos from east to west — a geographical ode to boredom — until we reached Victoria. Then a leap of six hundred metres over the Paraná, and we were in Rosario, some five hours after leaving Colón, and almost ten after departing from Paysandú. It was still day. My mother and my brother had come to welcome us back. As if trying to forget that this was the end of our vacations, we said goodbye quickly, quickly, and went away, each of us following their own path.

And thus is finished the story of our travels in Uruguay.

04 April 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 15: Paysandú

Available in Spanish: Paysandú

Interior de la  Basílica
Paysandú's basilica
After the evening deluge, Tacuarembó felt much cooler, but we didn't have the chance to take a last look at it, since our bus to Paysandú was scheduled very early. While it was still dark, we phoned a taxi from the hotel, and twenty minutes later we were already on our way west — and asleep.

Three hours later we woke up in Paysandú, Uruguay's second city, department capital, port on the Uruguay River, and border town. It was a sunny, windy, nice morning. It took us almost no effort to locate the address of our lodging place, a big single-story house turned hotel, opposite the main square and not far from the bus terminal. If as the beach rhythm grew farther away and our "big city people" habits returned, this was a step in the right direction — we had a room where five people would've fit, a large bathroom, and even a little patio.

I'd been to Paysandú, briefly, years ago (on an afternoon escapade) but I didn't remember much of it, so we'll have to go over it. In order to do that, however, we were first in need of breakfast, which we'd been unable to have before leaving Tacuarembó. We found a bar (it was called "El Bar") and we asked for white coffee and medialunas. Now I saw that the menu listed both medialunas and croissants, and the latter were much cheaper; the waiter gave us a weird look when we ordered medialunas "with nothing" (he checked), and my suspicions were confirmed when he brought us two huge crescent-shaped pieces of pastry, of the same kind (but double the size) of what's known in Argentina as medialuna — they were the kind we'd seen used for sandwiches in supermarkets throughout Uruguay. Nobody asks for "croissants" in Argentina; we just have medialunas.

Año 1689After such copious breakfast (which, I'll hasten to add, didn't prompt any protests on our part) we went on a tour of the nearby touristic spots: the basilica church, rather modest from the outside but quite nice inside, and with a large bronze bell dated 1689 exhibited near the front door; the small museum honouring Leandro Gómez, the brave (and suicidal) defender of Paysandú during the siege of eighteen-twentysomething, at the main square; and the municipal history museum, with a diorama showing the area of the ancient battle where Gómez fell before my supposed far-removed relative, General Venancio Flores, with the help of Brazilians, on his way to conquer Montevideo.

We had some light thing for lunch in the hotel, and took a nap. Then we went to the bus terminal to buy our tickets in advance. I had the slightest hope that we might be able to get a direct ticket to Rosario, or an acceptable combination, but there was no such thing. The bus leaving Paysandú for Colón (Entre Ríos) reaches its destination, provided there are no delays, at exactly the same time as another bus leaves Colón for Rosario. And of course, there are always delays.

We still had the afternoon. Since the weather was fine, we decided to walk: map in hand, we went from one square to the next, we passed by the old train station, and we reached the river. We wandered along the coast. The port, which I had known in a state of abandon and open to the curious visitor, had been reactivated and now rejected us with fences and guards. The spot indicated in the map as a prime place to watch the river was also closed. We went on until we found a small beach, and there we sat down to rest, looking at a few children who played in the water, against the light of the sun near the horizon. We felt the weight of accumulated fatigue and didn't want to go back.

Marisa wanted to phone home to let her parents know about our return time, but we couldn't find a single public phone available at that time. The evening had arrived suddenly and Paysandú had shut off. My legs were wobbling from tiredness. At that moment Marisa realized she'd kept a whole lot of Uruguayan pesos... It was pointless, of course, to look for an exchange. So we made an opportunity out of it, and decided to spend that money on dinner as we hadn't had during the whole trip, a copious, hot, well-made restaurant dinner.

And that's how we said goodbye to Paysandú.

To be continued...

02 April 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 14: Valle Edén

Available in Spanish: Valle Edén 

On the day after our arrival, Tacuarembó continued to feel asphyxiatingly hot and humid. We woke up deliciously later that many other days, with no appointments for the morning, and once in the street we walked with resignation following the shaded parts of the sidewalk.

Datos para el pasajero que no llega (by pablodf)There are two museums in Tacuarembó: the Historical and the Geoscience Museum. None of them is notable, but they were OK for a brief visit. None had air conditioning. The lady who sat (in supreme boredom) at the reception of the Geoscience Museum made a note out of that, while she guided us around a room where labels made her explanations wholly unnecessary.

Near noon we headed for the bus terminal to wait for the bus that would take us to Valle Edén, 23 km from Tacuarembó, a recommended touristic spot which promised lots of green, water and cool, besides being the seat of the Carlos Gardel Museum. Said museum showcases abundant proofs that Gardel, the most famous of all tango singers, was born in Tacuarembó, the bastard son of a promiscuous military man, and not in France... although those proofs are only considered clearly true by the people of Tacuarembó.

The bus came on time, and after about 40 minutes it left us at the entrance to Valle Edén, under a sky pouring sunlight on us. First mistake: the museum is one kilometre from the entrance; if we'd asked for it the bus would've taken us closer. The walk we had to endure was the first step of the realization of what would become painfully obvious later: that Valle Edén was not a summer paradise, unless you have a fast means of transportation (and with A/C).

En la vía (by pablodf)The museum was an oasis of coolness, a house with lots of pictures and copies of historical documents about Carlos Gardel, and tango in the background. We tarried there, on my part without any interest in the hellish outside. Once the tour was over, we sat down to have lunch beside the museum, under some trees. We visited what's left of the Valle Edén train station, where a couple of locomotives are abandoned, giving the visitor a false sense of security (a train came by at full speed a while later). Then, map in hand, I went and inquired about the paths to take in order to reach the curiously named places noted as attractions.

There's nothing, nothing in Valle Edén that is close to anything else. The nearest touristic spot was about 7 km from us, maybe feasible for people in better shape or in more moderate temperatures, but not for us two. We didn't recoil from the challenge, though. Following the directions given to me by a local guide, we started walking toward the Gruta de los Chivos (Goats' Cave), but soon we realized that either the map or the guide's tips, or most likely both, bore no relationship to reality. We went back to the starting point, beside a rocky stream, shallow and full of green mud (described in the touristic brochure as having "crystal-clear waters") and near a suspended bridge (which we dared not climb).

By then it was clear the one good idea I had when we decided to try Valle Edén was insisting that we take two litres of cold water with us, despite its weight and the fact that it meant forfeiting our afternoon mate. There's no need, I guess, to note that anyway drinking hot mate at 40 °C was not a priority. We were sweating just by sitting down. And sitting we would have to stay, because the only bus back to Tacuarembó would come after 7 PM. And it was 2.

Vaquero (by pablodf) Faced with the prospect of a five-hour wait in that open-air sauna (which was mercifully getting cloudy), we exhausted all conversation topics, including how the hell we'd gotten there and why the guy at Tourist Info didn't explicitly tell us not to go. It was truly very very hot (I can't help repeating that) and we had to be careful with our water.

For a good while we considered going up to the road and hitchhike. But we hadn't seen any hitchhiking in Uruguay, least of all in Tacuarembó. Maybe it wasn't customary, maybe here in the deep interior of the country nobody had that custom. The road didn't look very crowded to us. And beside the road there wouldn't be a lot of convenient waiting places in the shade. We decided against hitchhiking. What to do then?

I'd brought a book, mostly because I had a lot of room in my backpack, thinking maybe we'd lie down in the cool grass in that paradise which Valle Edén had promised to be. I took the book out and started reading, but right away I realized that Marisa, who hadn't brought her own book, would get even more bored watching me read. So I asked her if she wanted me to read aloud. And that was, I think, the second good idea I had in Tacuarembó. The book was Desert Memories, by Ariel Dorfman, an Argentine-born Chilean exilee settled in the United States, and it was about his trip in the north of Chile for a close-up investigation of the history of the towns that sprang up in the late 19th century and early 20th beside the saltpeter mines. Not only was it entertaining and moving, but ideal for travelers like us, ideal to forget the heavy heat, to spend the hours, to stop after a couple of paragraphs and chat and discuss.

At one point when the time to return was still far away and not even the book or the conversations it prompted were enough anymore to keep us calm, we rose and went towards the road. We'd escaped from the dead hours and from our own tempers and we even had some water left, which we now took in little sips. The weather was better as well: the sky was gray and gusts of promising cool wind blew. I started to fear a storm would fall upon us.

At about 6:30 the bus came by, headed for Tambores, the end of its route, from where it would have to return and fetch us. From that moment on the wait became easier. One hour later we saw the same bus come towards us, we signaled it, got in and sat down, so happy.

With almost chronometric precision, it started to rain as soon as we neared Tacuarembó. We had no food for the night, and I had to phone a woman in Paysandú to confirm our reservation for the next day. We ran along the streets; sweating from the day and wet from the rain we went to a supermarket to buy some stuff, and managed to find a public phone. The whole night was a deluge, and thus the coolness we'd wished for the whole day finally came.

To be continued...

01 April 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 13: Tacuarembó

Available in Spanish: Conociendo Tacuarembó
San Fructuoso (by pablodf)
Church of St. Fructuoso, Tacuarembó
How did it cross our minds to go to Tacuarembó, in the depths of Uruguay, closer to the south of Brazil than to the Atlantic coast? It was a purely geographical matter: the goal was not to stay all the time in the coast, and not to return the same way we had come. Tacuarembó isn't a place of international tourist attractions, unless you're a true fan of Carlos Gardel (I'll explain that in due time).

Anyway, Uruguay suffers from the same type of macrocephalic disorder as Argentina, only even more pronounced; if Buenos Aires and its metropolitan area hold between one third and one fourth of the Argentine population, half of the Uruguayan population (which is only one tenth of that of Argentina) is concentrated on the Montevideo Department. That is to say that all roads lead to Montevideo. Or, to make a long story short, there's no direct route from Rocha to Tacuarembó. The traveller who wants to reach the gaucho heart of the country has no other recourse but to go first west-southwest to Montevideo and then wait for another bus to take him north-northeast to Tacuarembó. You go to a place 365 km away (as the crow flies) but you have to travel some 560 km, including a few tens of kilometres going on the opposite direction as the one desired.

So despite our intentions we did go back on our steps, although our stay in Montevideo was much shorter; by a fortunate coincidence, the bus that took us away from a cool night in La Pedrera at 6:30 left us in Tres Cruces, Montevideo, four hours later, and less than an hour before the departure of the bus to Tacuarembó.

The trip was rather long: about five hours (that's long for Uruguayan standards). Half asleep, we entered a flat, green country of scattered cows and sheep. Map in hand, but with no real knowledge of actual geography, I tried to guess at and remember the names of towns and cities we were passing by. I knew we were going to cross several department capitals and a great river... We got to Durazno (what a beautiful name, I thought¹) and then, much later, when I'd started to lose hope of seeing running water ever again, I saw a bridge, a watery expanse, and bam, in a matter of seconds we'd crossed over a blue river, its banks lined with trees, and there waving at us was a huge yellow sign with the black silhouette of a bull, the mark of the most famous of tonic waters in both our countries (when I was little I believed "tonic water" was just a non-commercial way of saying Paso de los Toros).² Of course, of said tonic water only the brand is left, acquired by a multinational consortium which surely claims to be making it "with the same coolness as ever", or something like that.
¹ Durazno means "peach".
² Paso de los Toros is the second city of Tacuarembó Department. Its name means "bulls' crossing", referring to the ford on the Río Negro beside which the city is located. It's also the brand name of a soft drink originally made there and still sold widely in Uruguay and Argentina.
Coming to Tacuarembó and getting off the bus was literally a thermal shock. From the marine coolness and the Montevidean air conditioning we had emerged directly into the subtropical weather of a land-locked city. And it was 4 PM, and in the Tacuarembó bus terminal there was no A/C. We went to the tourist office, where we were informed that touristic spots in Tacuarembó are located outside the city and in no way made easily accessible to visitors by bus.

Unraveled and sticky, we marched, backpacks over our shoulders, into the city center and towards our hotel, which turned out to be a curious but eventually satisfactory mix between disarray and amplitude. After the almost forgotten days in the confusing barracks that was the hostel of La Paloma, and the couple of days in the cozy but too little room in La Pedrera, with its doorless bathroom, this was paradise. We had a shower and, braving the awful heat outside, we went out for a walk.

Laguna (by pablodf)
Laguna de las Lavanderas (Lavenders' Lagoon)

Transporte tacuaremboense (by pablodf)
Multicolour bridge
Tacuarembó is a village — a village of fifty-odd thousand, scattered, but a little town anyway, with summer afternoons empty until sunset, lots of young guys in motorbikes, a big square in the middle, a main street on each side of the square and a church just over there. If even walking in the shade hadn't been exhausting, I'm sure we could've enjoyed it more. As things went, there wasn't much to see, so we took the road towards the only tourist attraction we could reach on foot, the Lavenders' Lagoon (Laguna de las Lavanderas).

Even if a picture is worth a thousand words, one has to note that those words can be lies. The postcard images of the Lavenders' Lagoon showed a beautiful watery mirror surrounded by greenery and shade; only by coming close you would notice that the calm water was in fact stagnant. There was indeed much life and green stuff there, but it felt yucky just thinking of touching the water with the tip of a toe.

We fled, therefore, and back in the city, after crossing a bridge painted in bright, desaturated colours (the multicolour logo of the Municipality of Tacuarembó), we got into a cybercafé, and after that we went looking for a place to eat. We shared a huge sandwich and a beer in a bar, sitting next to two young foreign tourists of Anglo-Saxon speech habits and backpacker looks, who for some strange reason (such is the way of globalization) had ended up in this same little corner of the planet as us.

We were in front of the main square, which was filling up, and beside the main street, buzzing with little motorbikes and scooters. I'm emphasizing the bikes because it seems to be a common feature of middle-sized towns where public transport is scarce or nonexistent; in Chilecito, La Rioja, we'd observed that each and every youth seemed to have a motorbike, small or big, old or new, but always a means of transportation for their own use, relatively small and inexpensive, so as to be free from the alternative of a long, slow walk vs. an expensive taxi.

In Tacuarembó, of course, the boys came in motorbikes or bicycles carrying their thermos and mate, showing a kind of manual dexterity I couldn't hope to imitate; they parked at the square, turned on their music, chatted and drank mate. None or almost none of beer or wine or alcoholic drinks, which in Argentina and in squares and in every public place where young people gather tend to mix and turn inevitably into insolence and violence. It was still early, sure, but these guys seemed to be ready to stay, and neither boys nor girls looked any less happy or entertained than their Argentine counterparts, who (rather sadly) claim or assume they need some alcohol blood content to have fun.

These observations having been made, and with a few good, cold glasses of beer in our bloodstream, we wrapped up dinner and went back to the hotel to have some rest.

To be continued...

29 March 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 12: Cabo Polonio

Available in Spanish: Cabo Polonio


El Mamut (by pablodf)
Cabo Polonio is a projection of land that enters the sea, surrounded and almost completely covered by huge dunes. A few years ago it was rather difficult to reach. Today you still have to get off your bus or car, get into a large off-road vehicle, and shake around at low speed for half an hour along a sandy path. The difference is that before (I'm told) there was only one big four-wheel drive truck which departed from the middle of nowhere and came to what was then a fishermen's village without drinking water or electric power, occasionally inhabited by hippies and other adventurous types; while now there's a whole fleet, a small emporium of vehicles, on an open space with ticket vending booths and public restrooms, and at the end of the road the little village has turned into a still picturesque and rustic but also populous place, with decent lodgings and even a seafood restaurant.

The day was splendid, threatening none of those clouds or those cold winds that had been visited upon us on previous occasions. We took the bus headed for Barra de Valizas and left it a few kilometers before that; there we boarded our 4x4 truck, named El Mamut (the Mammoth), together with a couple dozens of people, and slightly compressed atop its bulge we went down the sandy, wavy road, until we were able to see, far off in the distance, some dunes and a beach of uniform colour, some scattered houses, a turquoise-blue sea. The Mammoth drove along the shoreline for a while, turned left, and let us go in a place no different from any other.

Faro entre las rocasWe daubbed ourselves on sunblock (which in the long run would turn out insufficient) and a few steps from there we sat down to eat our sandwich lunch. Even without much wind, the sea looked fabulous; in the distance I thought I saw some surfers. Off the beach you could see some islets with little dark spots on the bare, glittering, surf-beaten rocks: seawolves, aparently gathering just to be together and bask in the sun all day. Beyond, on our side of the coast, there were more rocks and a lighthouse. We headed for it to try and down our meal.

Macho loboOn our way we found a corner where the rocky floor went down up to the sea, and a fenced-out area. A few metres away, some twenty sea lions,* black and brown, glistening with salty waterdrops, were dozing off. You couldn't really say they were active animals in any sense. One that looked like a maned male emitted faint bellows while it lifted itself on its forefins, and somewhat apart a pup scratched itself, oblivious to the rest of the world.

* I don't know if this is the proper terminology. In Spanish these are lobos marinos ("sea wolves") rather than leones marinos ("sea lions"), but the names are often mixed up in actual usage. In any case the ones in Cabo Polonio must be South American Sea Lions, Otaria flavescens.

We retraced our steps up the rocks and went to the lighthouse. The climb left us breathless (120 steps!) but the effort was rewarded: from up there our eyes could span not only the ocean and the two islands full of sea lions, but the whole cape, with beaches on both sides and the immense, saffron-yellow dunes in the distance. (I assembled a panoramic picture there which soon, I expect, will be hanging in my room's wall in its full 5-foot-wide glory.)

The sea was inviting. We'd had enough of walking and climbing stairs. We rushed into the beach, towards a place with fewer people around, and went into the water. (As in other occasions, I stayed there much longer than Marisa and went back several times. It was by far the best beach we'd experienced during the whole trip.)

Enseñanza sobre lo infinito (by pablodf)

Sunset was upon us. The distant beach was becoming empty and promised peace and a glorious view for meditation. We set ourselves into motion again, the sun burning us from the side, and soon reached the point where the dunes come a few steps close to the sea and there are just lonely beachgoers looking  for silence stay. I climbed a dune and looked around. It would've been easy to go down the other slope and climb again and get lost in this fine, hot sand, but I had to hurry back to the beach, where Marisa was waiting, taking those typical I'm-at-the-top-of-the-world tourist-waving-from-afar pictures.

Gran duna

We'd gone towards an end of the cape, which looked far away but not impossibly so, and we hadn't even gotten half-way there, and the lighthouse and the village houses were barely visible already. It wasn't too late, but it wasn't a good idea to wait. When, half an hour later, we rode back on one of the Mammoth's companions and then had to wait for our bus 45 minutes beside the road, we resented not having used up to our last minute in Cabo Polonio; but such is the cruel fate of the tourist who depends on his feet and on other people's means of transportation.


Exhausted on our return, we somehow dragged ourselves to a supermarket and bought mosquito repellent and a quick dinner before falling into deep sleep. There were to be no more beaches for us. Our tired eyes tired and our deep-tanned skins were saying goodbye to the coasts of Uruguay; the next day, before the sun was out, we'd be on our way to Montevideo.

To be continued...

26 March 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 11: La Pedrera

The day we arrived in La Pedrera marked one week of our journey, and like many other times before and after, it felt incredible to me that so much could have happened in such a short time.

El TucánWe had already called Janneo, the owner of our hostel in La Pedrera, to reassure him and promise, swear that we wouldn't fail him. Even then he hadn't felt extremely sure, and when we came into his front yard, almost at noon, he greeted us with genuine joy and noticeable relief, and proceeded to make us comfortable in our room at once. It was good to finally have a place for ourselves, with a private bathroom where you didn't have to wait on a queue to take a shower or pray for hot water to come out, and without other people's luggage scattered on the floor.

The room itself was little (the bed took up most of it), but well-lit, painted white, with an immaculately clean bathroom (separated from the rest only by a translucent curtain). Its sliding window was also its entrance.

Breakfast wasn't provided, and there was no kitchen available either, which somehow stretched the definition of a hostel and made the price less acceptable; but after three days of living in a tight space, it was paradise. We went out, therefore, to look for lunch, and since we were in good spirits, we splashed out: we sat at the table of a nice little restaurant, beside the main street (filled with sun and sand) and had a good meal with a cold beer.

If La Paloma can be termed a city, La Pedrera is definitely what you'd call a little town. The only paved street is the main one, which leads straight to the sea, which anyway isn't far from anywhere, in one direction or another.

Calle principal


Marisa had a vague reminiscence of the place from a visit long ago. It had changed only a bit; many luxurious homes had sprouted near the coast, there were certain facilities on the previously empty beach, and the visitors weren't all adventurous youth but also elderly people and families, including a good proportion of Argentinians. On both sides of the main street, populated by trucks and full of beach-goers, there were bars, restaurants, bakeries and takeaway food stores, besides a couple of little supermarkets and a few artisans' spots.

After downing our food as best we could, we went down to the sea. Again we had to endure wind and clouds. My secret hope of witnessing a storm over the sea, however, wasn't fulfilled.

Bajada a la playa

We stayed for a long while, until it started getting uncomfortably cool. We returned to the hostel, had a hot shower to rid ourselves of the cold, the sand and the tiredness, and went out again to fetch dinner. We had empanadas. Marisa, evidently not in her highest moment regarding food, almost couldn't sleep. I didn't do that well either, since (as in Montevideo) mosquitoes attacked.

While we were in La Paloma he'd been unable to arrange a trip to Cabo Polonio, and here in La Pedrera we were all set to go the next day. Nice trip, I thought — me without sleep, and Marisa with her stomach turned into a knot... But finally our tiredness got the best of us both, and when we woke up, with the whole town still drowned in the silence and coolness of morning, we managed to get started with the help of coffee and tea, served in a baker's shop which was evidently used to early birds.

We only had one more beach day ahead...

To be continued...

24 March 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 10: The Fortress and National Park of Santa Teresa

Fortaleza (by pablodf)The Fortress of Santa Teresa is near the coast of the Atlantic. Its construction began in 1762, by the Portuguese. The Spaniards came, took over it, and finished it. After undergoing wars and conflicts of all kinds, it was abandoned and got deteriorated seriously. In 1928 an archaelogist took upon himself the task of rebuilding it, and that's why it's still there in our time. Today it's a museum and it marks the entrance of the Santa Teresa National Park.

That day, at mid-morning, we left the La Paloma bus terminal without a clear idea of what the place was like that we were about to visit, and thinking maybe we could step by nearby Punta del Diablo on our way back. The bus we were on finished its route in Chuy, on the frontier with Brazil, and entered each and every city and town in the way, so the trip took twice the time it should have.

Viejo símbolo (by pablodf)As soon as we saw the Fortress we (hastily) got off the bus. Right away we realized it hadn't been a good idea, as the bus went on its way toward the interior of the National Park, leaving us under the sun falling vertically on us. There was none of the sea breeze that had been with us on other occasions, and to top it off, the stone walls of the Fortress showed no opening, or at least an overhang. So that we could postpone a walk that promised to be extremely hot, and also to avoid food poisoning later, we took out our ham-and-cheese sandwiches and ate, sitting on a rock carefully chosen so that the nearest wall provided shade (not much of it).

It turned out, when we went around the Fortress, that the entrance gate was on the other side. Once inside we found shade and cool in the great stone halls that were used, long ago, to house soldiers and officers, to prepare their meals, to pray and hear Mass, to repair weapons, to shoe horses, and to store ammunition. There were, as is usual, ancient and modern weapons in heterogeneous sets, cannonballs, ordinary objects rescued from the past, old flags and banners, uniforms, a chapel with a tearful Virgin Mary, and even a latrine room.

The contrast between the inside of these dark chambers, with walls one metre thick, and the sweltering outside, was terrible. From the Fortress's watchtowers you could feel some breeze, but that was all. As my mood was getting rather nasty (this I believed I noticed myself, and Marisa confirmed it), we wrapped up our visit and went down to the beach, across the park's camping site; on our way we bought return bus tickets, so we'd be sure to have seats.

As soon as I saw the sea my fastidiousness disappeared. The heat didn't matter anymore. In fact, it was a blessing, encouraging me to get right into the water and enjoy it. The problem was the wind... again the wind. At one point the fine, almost colourless sand, started flying around and stinging our legs. Our things (clothes, towel, camera...) were being covered in sand. A few steps from us, the wind grabbed an umbrella and sent it tumbling away to an amazing distance, followed closely by its owner.

Simplemente mar (by pablodf)

But the waves were fabulous, the beach was wide and quiet, and in the water the wind and the sand didn't exist.

I had to concede in the end. We took the sand off our stuff and retreated. On a bend in the road we had some late mate (which had been impossible before, with so much sand flying around), and then we went into the heart of the park.

Green peace (by pablodf)

Espejo con isla (by pablodf)
The park is quite large... not huge, but rather large for a casual walk. There were a lot of tall palm trees, those stereotypical palm trees with smallish leaves all bunched up at the top, but also leafy trees and lots of flowers and bushes. Where one would've expected park rangers or guides there were five individuals who, on seeing our approach, seemed to wage a short silent battle of mutual glances to decide which one of them would move and speak to us. We were given a map and at the same time the advice not to pay attention to it. We walked on, therefore, following verbal directions, among gigantic trees with a smooth, hard, plastic-looking, lustrous bark, and accompanied by the squeaks and cries of an immense crowd of parakeets.

Thus we came to the Pajarera. Despite its name, suggesting a bird cage, it had not only birds (of various species, from chickens to a tucan) but also monkeys and rabbits, along with a couple of cats which apparently were part of the staff; they let visitors call and pet them, and from time to time they sat down and looked intently (as if in a trance) into the cages of the smaller birds.

Nutria al descubierto (by pablodf)Nearby there was a small lagoon, with palm trees on one side and a kind of wooden balcony or pier on the other. In the lagoon there were ducks, and under the balcony, hidden among the grass and the mud of the shore, an otter. A group of kids, delighted at the sight of such a rare animal, debated whether it was a giant rat, a kind of hamster or a carpincho.

The time to go back was nearing, so we had to forfeit the chance of watching the sunset in the park. Clearly we should've gone there first, into the green and the shade, and then to the Fortress, but that's how it went, and it was a good day. It was the third in La Paloma, and the last night of our stay there. Next stop: La Pedrera.

To be continued...

22 March 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 9: Bird watching in La Paloma

Available in Spanish: Avistamiento de aves en La Paloma

Our second day in La Paloma began early. Having gone to bed so tired the night before, sleep came so fast and overwhelming that despite the crowded room and the thin mattress, when I woke up I found out I hadn't moved from my original position, nor had I dreamed (that I could remember), and I hadn't even woken up once and taken a look in the darkness as I often do.

Carpintero nuca roja
Green-barred Woodpecker

Carpintero de campo
Campo Flicker

Garcita (by pablodf)
White heron

Ostrero común (by pablodf)
American Oystercatcher
The morning air felt fresh and stimulating, and there was quite a lot of light. I took a peek and found out Marisa wasn't there. It was no more than 7:30, and though I tend to wake up early because of my work, she most definitely doesn't; maybe she'd gone to the bathroom? I got out, trying not to step on anything or anybody. Marisa was on the hammock, reading under the vine, in the almost completely silent patio (the water of the fountain in the other patio could be heard).

The hostel was evidently not a place for early risers, and breakfast was served at nine o'clock, so we decided to kill time walking around. It felt like an autumn morning, but it was green and bright and without a trace of the mist and the grayness we associate with that season. We came back to the hostel in time to sit down by an outside table, with white coffee and a pile of toast and biscuits with jam.

After this copious feeding, with our faithful map in hand, we headed for the port zone and its breakwater, so we could be surrounded by sea. On our way there we passed by a naval base, around which lots of birds were doing their things: our familiar teros (Southern Lapwings), and others I didn't recognize. I chased them, zoom maxed out, while Marisa waited patiently. In the end I managed to take one acceptable picture of (what I later found out to be) a Green-barred Woodpecker and a Campo Flicker. I honestly thought that woodpeckers were all little birds with a red crest that lived all the time clutching a tree trunk and drilling holes in it, but as it turned out, these ones prefer the grass.

The breakwater was narrow and long. On the side of the port (a haven, actually) a large group of sea birds took to the air as we got 200 meters from them. On the calm water there were some birds with a little crest and a long reddish neck. Unknown to me at the time, they turned out to be Great Grebes with breeding plumage. On the side of the sea, right on a group of nearby rocks, there were the ever-present biguás (Neotropic Cormorants) by the dozens, as usual happily taking in the sun, along with a few little white herons, a couple of oystercatchers (small, with long, flaming red-orange beaks), and Kelp Gulls (white, with yellow bill and legs, and black wings with a white border).

This ornithological feast didn't keep the sun from going up and up. We left the coast and went to see the old train station on our way back. There we noticed there's a tremendous difference between a sunny midday in the cool breeze from the sea and the same time of day with no wind or shade even among the trees. I don't remember what we had for lunch, but I know after the long walk in the sun I wanted to take a nap. Marisa declared she had no intention to sleep, and went away with her book to read in the hammock; as expected, when I went to the patio to fetch her, one and a half hour later, she was sound asleep.

The afternoon sky was starting to get cloudy. We'd planned to go to the other beach, the one we hadn't visited before, called La Aguada, crossing a little woods (there's a camping site inside), and then have some mate beside the sea, as the weather it was noticeably getting cooler. After just a moment there we realized we wouldn't be able to pour even one mate, since the wind was blowing so strong that sand was flying, prickling our faces, and we were barely able to keep our eyes open. We retreated into the woods. Even among the tall trees it took us a while to find a calm spot for our picnic.

I'd been concerned about getting lodging in La Pedrera (especially after I saw the conditions of our accommodation in La Paloma), and I'd located a place that seemed OK. So when we got back, we went to a public phone and I called. The owner of this place, the only one we could conceivably get a room at, would not settle the deal: yes, he had room, a double room, and he would have room for us two days from now, but as for assuring us of it, he'd rather not, he couldn't, but if I insisted, well, I should go and see and he would see if he had that room... and so on. This indecission was all the more worrying because La Pedrera isn't exactly full of cheap lodgings, least of all available on high tourist season. I promised the man I'd call him back the next day to assure him (once again) that we'd be there.

We grabbed some warm clothes (it was a bit cold already), and we went (for the second time) to the artisans' fair in front of the hostel. If in Argentina good crafts tend to be a little expensive for the casual passer-by, they were very expensive here, so we only got ourselves a couple of carved mate gourds.

The next day we had already planned a tour outside La Paloma, to the famous (but only vaguely portrayed in the brochures) Fortress of Santa Teresa.

To be continued...

04 March 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 8: Arrival in La Paloma

Disponible en español: Llegada a La Paloma

Terminal de La Paloma (by pablodf)On the morning of February 4 we said goodbye to the Montevidean hostel that had given us lodging for three nights, to the streets of the Old Town and to the expansive capital metropolis. The trip that followed lasted too much and, to my disappointment, we barely got to see the sea at any point. First the suburbs of Punta del Este passed by; then almost two hours later we entered Rocha, the capital of the Rocha Departament, and a while later we got off the bus at the luminous terminal of La Paloma.

As is already automatic for us, we asked for a map and inquired about our hostel, where we headed on foot. Due to reasons of availability, first, and then also of price, in La Paloma we'd had no other recourse but to book places in a shared bedroom. My hostelling experience in that regard was more or less varied, but it hadn't prepared me for this: a mixed room with five twin bunk beds, low and not really firm-looking, with the thinnest mattresses ever seen, and some tiny lockers, all of which filled up with people in a very short time. People who choose to sleep in mixed, low-price shared bedrooms tend to come along with lots of luggage and make room for it liberally (that is to say, there were huge backpacks thrown around the middle of the room, all the time).

The place had a reduced staff, not to say two people (in all shifts, not always simultaneously), and it was reduced also in two very, very major aspects: the bathrooms and the kitchen. The latter was so small that two people couldn't get in it at the same time, and the equipment was scarce, though fortunately it worked OK. As for the bathrooms, they were few and logically they weren't (always) clean, since among that many people there's always one or two that are dirty and careless. For my first shower I got cold water; for the second one, I was cautious enough to get up early, before the hot water ran out.

We men at last have the advantage of being quick; some of the women managed to hog the shower for themselves for half an hour or more, which led to the formation of queues (ask Marisa about that). Naturally they then emerged from the bathroom as if just come from the beauty parlour, which confirms to me that we men are sometimes too lazy to take our time, although in cases like these being negligent actually helps. (My self-portraits of those days are unpublishable, showing how I completely let fo of the routine of combing my hair, shaving and choosing the right clothes, as soon as I left Montevideo.)

Patio (by pablodf)I don't want to trash the hostel completely, though, since there were some good things about it. Firstly, it was cheap and the location was very convenient. Secondly, thin as they were, the mattresses were sleepable. Breakfast wasn't just abundant but varied: coffee (black or white) and croissants or biscuits with jam, or juice and slices of fresh watermelon, all of it freely available on a covered pool table for unlimited servings. Outside there were chairs so you could have breakfast facing the streets, and inside, a great patio shaded by a dense vine (a haven for the sunny hours) and a hammock.

I'm speaking ahead of the facts, though. The first day, as I said, we arrived after a long trip, so we quickly dropped our stuff and went to eat lunch at the closest place we'd spotted: a little bar across from the bus terminal, where we were served a sandwich of something that was a beef milanesa in name, though not in looks or texture, and which came to us addled in sticky, antique oil. My chronic digestive troubles made no appearance, which is a clear sign that work not only isn't healthy but should be actively advised against by medical professionals.

After prudently waiting for the meal to go down, we went to the beach. It was our first encounter with the sea proper here in Uruguay (as I've said, in Montevideo the river is practically a sea, but not technically), and off I went, according to Marisa "just like a kid", which is perfectly understandable if you ask me. She likes the sea but basically to look at and listen to it; I have to get inside the water and if possible be beaten, dragged, rudely rocked by it in order to feel it.

El refugio (by pablodf)

My little secret, here, is that it was the first time I went to the sea. As a kid my family never went on vacation (as so many Argentine families) to Mar del Plata or any of the all-too-popular beach resorts in the coast of Buenos Aires; as a teenager we had no vacations at all; when, as a grown-up, I had my own job and the ability to make use of my own money, it never occurred to me to look toward the ocean, but rather I turned to the dense forest or the mountain or the desert. So there I was, 32 years old and for the first time treading on the soaked-up sand, feeling the foam come and go over my feet, the cool shock and the rude welcome of the waves, the salt in my mouth. If I ever get used to it, I'll stop being a kid before the sea and I'll be just one more guy in the beach... but that won't happen soon.

The wind blows all the time in the shore, and it wasn't easy staying in the beach waiting for the sun to dry you off. We went back to town, wandered here and there, bought some food, went to the hostel, grabbed some warm clothes. Then we went down to the beach again to watch the sunset and stayed there, two lovers looking at the sun and the surf, exactly like countless couples on countless sunsets must have done since the world began.

Ocultamiento del esplendor (by pablodf)

To be continued...

02 March 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 7: El Prado

Disponible en español: El barrio del Prado

De aquí al cielo (by pablodf)
Church of the Carmelites
We spent our last day in Montevideo visiting the neighbourhood of El Prado, a residential area, very quiet and very old, full of trees, with houses from days of long-past splendour.

The night before, after having a big time eating shellfish and fried calamari, walking several kilometers and skirting disaster on our return by bus after midnight, we were left exhausted. Some of all that must have had an effect on Marisa, because she woke up early with a major stomach pain, feeling very weak and certainly in no shape to go out for a walking tour. Fortunately it turned out not to be (as she feared) a gastroenteritis. Nothing could be done except to get her to rest, something for the pain, lots of liquid and nothing to eat.

The plan of touring some more of Montevideo in the morning was discarded, and I started to fear that we would have to call a doctor, but Marisa would have none of that. So I left her where she was and took a bus to Tres Cruces to get our tickets for La Paloma. The day was cloudy and just a little too warm. I went and returned in an hour and a half, tops, and I saw Marisa was much better. She had something light to eat and we decided we'd try to go to El Prado in the afternoon.

It took us almost 40 minutes to get there, on a bus going first towards the city center, and then north; we traversed unknown neighbourhoods and completely lost our bearings, but somehow managed to get off the bus just one block from where we should. Our informant had given us an exact location to begin (the intersection of Agraciada and 19 de Abril), and a detailed route to follow as well. Probably not in that order, we saw the old houses and tall plane trees of Avenida 19 de Abril, the Church of the Carmelites (one of the few truly large churches I saw in Montevideo), the weird storehouses of the Rural Society, the Miguelete Stream, a great park with a huge pergola and a rose garden (without roses), the Hotel del Prado, the Botanical Garden, the presidential residence, a museum, and thrown in with all that, little houses of archaic style and mansions that went from the austerely severe to the Disneylandish.

En una verde paz (by pablodf)

Casita de chocolate (by pablodf)

We ended up in a bar called Los Yuyos, which must be famous, and which owes its name to the traditional herbs that are added to the caña and the grappa served there. We had no occasion to try such stuff, of course; just a glass of orange juice and a hot sandwich (to the list of things I missed in Uruguay, which started with icecream, let's add carlitos and ketchup).

Ella en el viejo bar (by pablodf)
Marisa at "Los Yuyos"

We had walked about three hours and the tour had taken us to the far end of the neighbourhood, a long way from Avenida Agraciada, the only street that we knew for sure could get us back to our hostel. The idea of crossing the whole barrio again wasn't something we were looking forward to. We were so lucky, though, that only a couple of blocks from Los Yuyos there was a bus stop and the bus took us to the Old Town.

Evening came and my one concern was finding a bed to crash, but Marisa (who had obviously recovered and wasn't sleepy) found Hannibal (i.e. the sequel of The Silence of the Lambs) on cable and decided to watch it whole, so my half-sleep was punctuated by screams, bullet shots and a variety of scenes with guts and brains flying around.

And that's how we said goodbye to Montevideo. Next stop: the beaches of La Paloma.

To be continued...