Monthly Archives: November 2019

South America by Subaru 19/11/02 – Tacos for 6

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/24/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-01-carless-for-the-day/

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Saturday starts out lazily with breakfast, a dip in the pool, and only minimal ambition. By about 1 PM, I realize I’d better get my ass in gear if I’m going to produce a taco dinner for tonight. I carry corn tortillas from the U.S. but everything else has to be located locally. Cheese and ground beef are universal. Produce — tomatoes, onions, garlic, avocados — are easy, except in some of the more meat-exclusive areas of Argentina. Finding edible lettuce can be a little dicey. Black olives are much less ripe than what we’re accustomed to. It gets worse from there: Sour cream is unheard of in some countries and I learned to stock up on spices when I found them because the ones I want are far from ubiquitous.

The real challenge, though, is salsa. Some stores carry a local version. In others, it’s a hopeless quest. For one meal in southern Chile, I jury rigged salsa from tomatoes, onions, chimichurri, and spices — there wasn’t a chili pepper to be found. In Santa Rosa’s Becerra Supermarket, I get lucky. Off in a corner they have one display unit of international foods and there, on a shelf marked “Germany”, are jars of what we would call barely acceptable salsa. You know the kind: heavily cooked and thick enough to ooze rather than pour. I wouldn’t use this at home, but here it’s a real find and I buy 3 jars. I almost don’t care that they cost several dollars each. Shopping accomplished, I head home for some hours of food preparation.

Rare find: U.S. supermarket salsa in Argentina
Rare find: U.S. supermarket salsa in Argentina

Another challenge in a typical tourist apartment kitchen is finding enough bowls or bowl-like objects just to hold 6 or 7 “make your own” taco ingredients at the table. Fortunately, we carry some basic picnicware that supplements what we find. A couple of hours of slicing and dicing means all that remains is cooking the meat and frying tortillas.

I cook a lot of different things, but Tex-Mex tacos are usually a real novelty and always well received, so that tends to be my first choice for guests while we’re on the road. Everyone, everywhere eats plenty of pasta so I rarely do that. Slab o’ meat is not my favorite eating style so that’s eliminated, and other ethnic foods have ingredient procurement problems. I fry a load of tortillas and keep them warm in the oven so there’s a continuous supply once the spiced meat is cooked and ready.

Susan is attending a book presentation with Josie in town at 8 PM, so dinner won’t start until 9:30 which, fortunately, is normal in Argentina, even for young children. Our guests/hosts, Yanina, Chris, Dante, and Vera arrive on time bearing dessert and drinks and we dig in to the feast. They’ve brought Fernet Branca, an Italian herb liqueur. In Argentina, Fernet and Coca Cola are effectively the national cocktail. Unfortunately, I don’t like cola, so Fernet and Coke is, let’s say, an acquired taste. The sweet, bitter Fernet might be great straight or with other mixers but, for me, the cola destroys it. When it comes to national drinks, I’ll stick with Perú’s (and Chile’s) pisco sour.

Yanina and Susan at Cabañas Kangarú
Yanina and Susan at Cabañas Kangarú

While traveling with Indian-American friend Anurag in Chile, though, we gave guests the choice of tacos or Indian food and they always chose Indian, to my chagrin. With Anurag nowhere in sight, though, tacos are back in the saddle. The six of us go through a lot of tacos and have a great conversation throughout. Young Dante gives us a thumbs up and assembles more tacos so we know he really enjoys them.

Chris and Yanina tell us their origin story, they met at a bar in the happening neighborhood of San Telmo in Buenos Aires. Discovering that Yanina was learning English, they decided to get together for language practice. “Language practice”… That’s Chris’ story and he’s sticking to it. They eventually decided to move to Santa Rosa and build a living and a life there. It’s a great cross-cultural story. Chris mentioned yesterday that Yanina resists seat belting their two children for short trips feeling, as many Argentinians do, that danger only exists on the highways. He has been trying to convince her how important it is but apparently without total success.

So when the topic of driving comes up during dinner, both Susan and I, without any prior plan, start relating gory stories of all the deaths and crippling injuries that happened to our friends and classmates in the long ago pre-seat belt days, hoping that the additional input will strengthen Yanina’s resolve.

As we feel like friends rather than customers, we dare to offer some constructive criticism of the cabaña details. Things like providing an extension cord outside so we can sit in the shade with the computer, adding a soap dish in the shower stall — little amenities that make a difference to guests but are rarely commented on. As hoped, these are taken in the spirit in which they’re offered.

Yanina has made dessert, an original, unnamed concoction somewhere between a cake and a pudding and it is delicious. By 11:30 or so, the family heads back across the yard to their house (after Chris generously and unsolicitedly washes dishes), we put away the leftovers and collapse into bed.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/12/10/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-03-more-meat/

South America by Subaru 19/11/01 – Carless for the day

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/23/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-31-santa-rosa-de-calamuchita/

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With the car in the shop until evening, being repaired after yesterday’s unfortunate tap by Alberto’s pickup truck, we take a rest day hanging out at Cabañas Kangarú, including taking a dip in the swimming pool.

One of the outstanding cabaña amenities is two very friendly dogs, Aussie and Kiwi, who keep us company during whatever precious hours they don’t spend sleeping.

Aussie and Kiwi, Cabañas Kangarú
Aussie and Kiwi, Cabañas Kangarú

We also have several conversations throughout the day with Chris and Yanina. She has generously offered to do a load of laundry for us (“no undies!”) and by afternoon we’re feeling more like houseguests than paying customers. I invite the 4 of them to a taco dinner tomorrow night, which means I have some major shopping to do.

Yanina, Dante, Chris (Vera unavailable), Cabañas Kangarú
Yanina, Dante, Chris (Vera unavailable), Cabañas Kangarú

As evening approaches, I walk a few blocks across the Puente Hierro (Iron Bridge) to catch the bus for the neighboring town of Villa Belgrano where I have to pick up the Subaru. Despite only requesting a rough repair, the body shop has done more than the minimum and the damaged area, while clearly visible, looks pretty good.

Subaru after repair (red circle)
Subaru after repair (red circle)

I drive back to Santa Rosa, pick up Susan, and then Josie. We’re going out to eat at 9 PM, the typical Argentine dinner hour, to her favorite restaurant, a fancy, family run Italian place called Nonna Bertina. The owner knows Josie well and we’re treated as honored guests. By the end of the meal, stuffed with pasta and dessert, we can barely move. The owner is a whiskey connoisseur and offers us a complimentary taste of a rare one. It takes some effort to convince him that the experience (and the expensive booze) would be wasted on us, especially me who thinks straight distilled liquor tastes vile and fine wine is just spoiled grape juice. I’m also cognizant that Córdoba province has 0.00% blood alcohol tolerance for drivers and frequent DWI checkpoints.

Nonna Bertina restaurant, Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, Argentina
Nonna Bertina restaurant, Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, Argentina

After dropping Josie around 11 PM, we return to Kangarú to sleep off the meal.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/25/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-02-tacos-for-6/

Alberto's Biergarten

South America by Subaru 19/10/31 – Santa Rosa de Calamuchita

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/19/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-30-santa-rosa-to-see-friends/

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We get up refreshed after our first night at Cabañas Kangarú. Chris is cleaning the pool outside and we strike up a conversation. He, like me, is not suitable for a 9 to 5 job and seems to have found his niche with Yanina, who is a Buenos Aires escapee. They bought the property, which was a neighborhood trash repository (or “tip” in Chris’ Aussie terminology), brought in machinery to haul off all the garbage, and built their house several years ago. As they found the funds, they added two well thought out cabañas, the pool, and various amenities. The coming summer is their first full season and we are their first non-Argentinian guests.

Yanina brings in outside money teaching in a school, tutoring English, and who knows what else, while Chris’ main work seems to be upkeep of the property. Chris and Yanina are both so friendly we feel at home here after just a few hours.

Susan’s author friend Josie Peralta is who drew us back to Santa Rosa for a second visit. We meet up with her this morning at a coffee shop and catch up on the two years since our last visit.

Josie and Suan at coffee shop, Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, Argentina
Josie and Suan at coffee shop, Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, Argentina

Josie’s invited us to her son, Alberto’s, house in a nearby town for the afternoon. We drive out there with her and enter a gated community with large, sun baked lots and scattered homes. Clearly, there is much more construction to come. Subdivision lots for sale can be seen everywhere in Argentina. Due to the vicious inflation, pesos have no long term value (one friend refers to them as painted paper), so Argentinians are constantly looking for ways to preserve value. Real estate is one favorite approach. Buying dollars, despite legal limitations, is another.

We pull up to a nice house surrounded by open lawn. I park next to a large Toyota Hilux, what I long ago dubbed the Argentine national pickup truck. At one side of the house is a concrete swimming pool, the deep green agae color showing it’s currently unused. Alberto is there to greet us. He grew up in the U.S. while Josie lived in Woodstock NY for many years and only moved to Argentina and learned Spanish as an adult. He’s one of those maddening people who can master a second or third language completely, while I perpetually struggle to speak and, especially, understand anything beyond English. It took me a long time to accept that any language learning I accomplish is by brute force rather than aptitude.

Alberto founded a successful chain of gyms in New York and now makes his living remotely in a most unusual way. Residing in rural Argentina, he owns a popular takeout restaurant in Lahaina, Hawaii! Through a network of cameras and a reliable on site manager, he runs the operation via internet. In inflation ravaged Argentina, his US dollar income seems to keep him very comfortable. For someone like me who’s found a thousand ways not to get rich, his feat is very impressive.

Alberto feeds us parrillada, the Argentine national dish, consisting of several kinds of meats barbecued very slowly over a sparse bed of coals.

Alberto and John discussing asado, Los Reartes, Argentina
Alberto and John discussing asado, Los Reartes, Argentina

Parrilla is an obsession here and every cook has their own secret techniques and spices. In some parts of the country, produce is almost nonexistent because the diet consists almost totally of meat and starch. This led the late Anthony Bourdain to exclaim during a foodie visit to Buenos Aires, “After a week or two here, even confirmed carnivores like myself will fall to their knees praying for a vegetable.” After spending several months, over 4 trips, traveling almost every corner of the country, I know exactly what he meant.

Asado in progress on the parrilla
Asado in progress on the parrilla

Unfortunately, asado (barbecue) here is truly delicious, so the temptation to eat it returns quickly once your body clears out the globules of fat careening through your arteries after a meal. The only down side is that some of the items presented eagerly by your host are various organs and body parts that aren’t very appealing to dilettante carnivores such as myself. It takes some real diplomacy to negotiate exhortations to taste and compliment grilled calf intestine or goat brain on crackers.

Pre-asado appetizers
Pre-asado appetizers

Of course, the meat fest is all wasted on Josie, who is a vegetarian — seemingly one of the few in all Argentina. It must work for her because, at 79, she still has incredible energy and purpose. Alberto makes sure he has items that fit her diet as well.

Josie Peralta at Alberto's house
Josie Peralta at Alberto’s house

We also meet Leonardo, Alberto’s employee who does groundskeeping and other work for him. Leo is a shy man who speaks very softly and reticently, but we soon realize he has a good command of English. It turns out he did very well in school but due to poverty he was unable to advance his education. His is, sadly, a typical South American story.

Leonardo and Susan
Leonardo and Susan

Alberto and I get along famously, despite substantially different approaches to life, and we tend to talk non-stop. It turns out the house we’re in, nice as it is, is just a rental while his “palace” is under construction nearby. After lunch, we all hop in the Hilux so he can show us the new place and his horses. Alberto loves horses, he owns several and is an accomplished jumper, a sport I find excessively dangerous. As he backs off his lawn, instead of heading perpendicularly to the road, he spins the wheel a bit to angle out and — BANG! –the corner of his enormous truck whacks the Subaru parked adjacently. My instinctive reaction is a very sarcastic “Thank you!” which, fortunately, is ignored in the heat of the moment.

The truck bumper hit the front passenger quarter panel and bashed it in noticeably, and the damage is enough to prevent the passenger door from opening fully. Alberto is obviously embarrassed but we put off further discussion until we return from our little tour. First, Josie insists that we stop on a road in the subdivision named Capricornio. I have no use for astrology. In fact, it’s hard to describe how quickly my respect for someone plummets when they give any credence to the idea that the accident of birth divides all humans into 12 categories of personality. I often try to tell astrology nuts that my birthday is 6 months later than it is, so they can go through some elaborate analysis of how my traits fit whatever sign my false birthday puts me in. Unfortunately, Susan, who claims not to believe in this bunkum but brings up the subject repeatedly, never lets me get away with my ploy. She outs my attempted deception immediately. I have yet to receive satisfaction at hearing someone go off an astrological cliff.

Sun dried Capricorns
Sun dried Capricorns

Josie picked up on my distaste for the topic immediately and delights in good naturedly tormenting me with it. Alberto and I were both born in January and she insists that we take pictures under the Capricornio street sign. This humiliation accomplished, we continue on to the new house, Nearing completion, it’s been under construction for, I think, two years and it is impressive. Beautifully designed, it offers great views of the sunset over the western mountains.

Alberto's "palace"
Alberto’s “palace”

Alberto has included space for Josie to move in when she’s ready and for her schizophrenic 60-year old daughter, Alberto’s half-sister, as well. His generosity gives each of them a secure living option as they age, but it strikes me the rural location would make it difficult for either Josie or Leda to engage in external activities and social life. They currently live right in the center of Santa Rosa where they have easy access to cultural events, restaurants, and services.

The pride and joy of the house design is Alberto’s beer garden on the roof, although today it is still unshaded and brutally hot up there.

Alberto's biergarten under construction
Alberto’s biergarten under construction

He has bought an adjacent lot to ensure that no one builds nearby and he’ll be able to keep his horses right outside once he moves in. Our next stop is his temporary pasture, where we meet his three horses.

Alberto and one of his horses
Alberto and one of his horses

Alberto loves these animals and each one plants their wet lips squarely on his face when he intones “Besito” (little kiss). Having never been a horseman, I marvel at the strong bonds some people have with these enormous, intelligent animals. Alberto’s connection with his is obviously very deep.

Besito (little kiss)
Besito (little kiss)

Returning to the scene of the crime, Alberto offers to pay for repairs and I tell him all that’s needed is to yank out the worst of the damage so the door is again functional, rather than “good as new” body work. Really, the 2007 car has 140,000 miles on it and other blemishes (one when I was lightly rear ended at a speed bump by a distracted driver in Tierra del Fuego and another when I carelessly backed a tail light into a tree trunk in Perú). When we’re ready to return to Santa Rosa, we convoy to a body shop en route, drop off the car, and Alberto arranges and pays for a functional repair. The car is promised in 24 hours and Alberto takes us and Josie to our respective residences.

Stuffed to the gills with asado, we don’t even think about dinner and spend the remainder of the evening at the cabaña. Touchingly, Chris tells us Yanina was very worried at our daylong absence, concerned that something happened to us. He reassured her, “No worries. They’re experienced travelers.” I really don’t understand all the unfounded worrying people do. In Susan’s family, it’s a moral crime not to let someone know that you’ve arrived safely after leaving their home. Of course, it’s nice to have someone else do your worrying for you. Since Susan and her sister worry intensely about everything bad that might conceivably happen, I let them carry my load and, as a result, can go through life care free. In Yanina’s case, I find it rather endearing that this young woman bothered to be concerned about the two old farts who she had just met as customers the night before.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/24/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-01-carless-for-the-day/

South America by Subaru 19/10/30 – Santa Rosa to See Friends

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/15/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-29-into-the-wild/

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We pack up camp on a beautiful morning and continue eastward on quiet Argentina Route 20.

One last mara photo from Sierra de las Quijadas National Park
One last mara photo from Sierra de las Quijadas National Park
campsite Don Pilar, Argentina
Campsite Don Pilar, Argentina

We have about 300 miles to go. Our goal is Santa Rosa de Calamuchita for a return visit to Susan’s author friend, Josie Peralta. Like many crossings of central Argentina, we travel on flat, relatively empty land. As usual, we see many goats on and near the pavement. They always look unsupervised but on occasion we see a dog or goatherd off in the brush so I’m sure every herd is watched.

Goats along the highway in San Luis province, Argentina
Goats along the highway in San Luis province, Argentina

Further down the road, we encounter something distinctly more depressing, especially since we’ve seen it several times in Argentina: a long stretch of highway festooned on both sides by plastic bags hanging off rocks, trees, and fences, tens of thousands of them. In some cases this is the result of garbage illegally dumped along the highway by refuse trucks.In this case, the bags are being blown by wind out of a transfer station. It’s fundamentally ugly and indicates a complete lack of local environmental sensibility.

Windblown plastic bag mess near a transfer station, , San Luis province, Argentina
Windblown plastic bag mess near a transfer station, San Luis province, Argentina

Another highway feature is going through a dozen or more checkpoints staffed by various police forces. At some of these, the police are nowhere to be seen, sitting in their roadside trailers or fixed posts. I always imagine them relaxing with their cups of mate tea (the Argentine national drink), whiling their time away on cell phones. This may be an unjust characterization, but I’ve directly seen some examples of it. At many others though, police officers stand on the center line, scrutinizing each vehicle as they all slow to a crawl and either waving it through or stopping it for questioning. I have yet to understand what they’re looking for, except at the occasional Fitosanitario stops where they confiscate any produce seen as a threat to local agriculture. Sometimes there will be three checkpoints within 10 miles, each operated by a different force and with no coordination between them.

When we’re stopped the first question is usually “Where are you going?” followed by a request for some car document: drivers license, registration or, very occasionally, proof of insurance. We’re virtually never asked to show passports. At checkpoints, I suddenly can’t speak Spanish. My first response is generally “No hablo mucho español”, carefully enunciated using atrocious English pronunciation. In some cases, we are waved through with a smile. In others, the officer eagerly trots out whatever English proficiency they have. Occasionally, the conversation continues anyway and I have to focus on not absently switching into Spanish. We’ve never been severely hassled, but some drivers are obviously questioned more intensely. At first, I thought our Chile license plates attracted scrutiny, but we’re ignored as often as we’re halted. The “English only”approach is great for routine stops but I’ve learned that for any more complex interaction with the authorities, it’s better to speak Spanish.

Since I can’t understand what all these stops are looking for, I’m tempted to think they are job creation programs, but that’s probably completely unfair. I have to say, though, that having the police stand in the highway at clearly marked checkpoints is much better than the U.S. system where they’re sneaking around or hiding in an effort to catch motorists violating traffic laws and bringing in major revenue that financially supports whole towns. In the U.S., it should be illegal for any jurisdiction to use court imposed fines for budgetary purposes, to eliminate the incentive for ticket mills. Examples of this abuse are periodically the topic of investigative reporting.

In my first three visits to Argentina, there was zero sign of traffic law enforcement. Cars travel way over the speed limit, pass on double yellow lines, and I quickly learned that “Stop” signs and crosswalks are merely aspirational. Even more maddening, most Buenos Aires neighborhood intersections are completely uncontrolled and, even if they have yield signs, right of way is based on how fast and confidently you enter the intersection (I’ve gotten very good at this). Nonetheless, Argentine driving is relatively safe and we see very few accident scenes.

Now, though, certain provinces are introducing roadside radar traps. We’ve seen, perhaps, a half dozen of these over a few thousand miles, using large, old fashioned, tripod-based antennas with the officer standing at the readout (generally in the shade) and radioing ahead to a nearby checkpoint which cars should be ticketed. It’s a primitive approach, so far, but a sign of things to come. I’m sure the radar, lidar, and speed camera vendors are putting on a full court press to get governmental units to buy more sophisticated equipment and have it pay for itself, and more, with fines.

The most troubling aspect of driving here is the ubiquity of motos, low speed motorcycles that move much more slowly than the cars and then weave in, out, and between lanes where traffic is congested. Many drivers and passengers forego helmets and any sort of protective clothing. It’s quite common to see a tee-shirted driver with a female passenger behind wearing shorts and a tank top zipping along at the bike’s top speed of about 50 mph. We met one man who, drunk, slid under an oncoming truck, and two years later is still recovering from major surgery on 3 of his limbs.

About 200 miles into the day’s drive, mountains loom ahead of us. The highway gets more interesting as it winds through picturesque foothill tourist towns and then begins an impressive ascent between and around granite domes to a high, comparatively uninhabited plateau. The road winds north, then east, then south across the range, finally descending to lower elevations dominated by rolling, wooded hills and a large reservoir in the distance.

We arrive in Santa Rosa and look for lodging. On our last visit we stayed with Josie and her adult daughter but now they’ve moved into two tiny adjacent apartments and can no longer accommodate us. As a result, I apply my lodging strategy, which I think is interesting enough to describe here.

I’m not a big Airbnb fan for a number of reasons. First, the only information you have about a property is what they provide in their listing. You have to commit in advance, sight unseen. The lodger pays the Airbnb commission with no assurance that the posted rate is any lower because of it. If the place isn’t to your liking, the effective answer from Airbnb is most likely, “Too bad” unless there’s been some gross misrepresentation.

Almost every lodging in South America is on booking.com and we use it a lot. Approaching an area, I search for rooms there, set filters to eliminate unwanted listings (Susan’s minimum is private bathroom and, in warm weather, air conditioning. I often want a kitchen or included breakfast. We both want wifi and parking.) Once I get the filtered list, I sort from low price to high and work my way down. I want a high booking.com user rating, at least 8 and preferably close to 10. Some you can eliminate immediately by reading the details or user reviews and some don’t have our desired dates available. Susan and I go down the remainder and look at the pictures and written details. More often than not, we find something both economical and very desirable we can agree on — and believe me that’s no small trick. Even then, since booking.com shows the address and often a searchable name, we don’t have to commit ahead of time. Unless it’s late at night, we drive to each lodging in preference order and eyeball it ourselves before taking the room or moving on.

In Santa Rosa, my method came up with about 10 possibilities. We drove to one after the other, rejecting the first 4 for various reasons: room too dark, street too noisy, shabby interior, inadequate wifi in the room, etc. Our 5th possibility, Cabañas Kangarú, was a winner. 2 well appointed cabins to choose from, good kitchen, swimming pool, protected parking, and a very personable young owner couple, Chris and Yanina, an Australian and a Porteña (a Buenos Aires native) and their two young children, Dante and Vera. We immediately seal the deal for 4 nights and unpack. By 6 PM we’re settled in for the evening.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/23/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-31-santa-rosa-de-calamuchita/

Sunset from Don Pilar campground

South America by Subaru 19/10/29 – Into the Wild

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/14/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-28-rise-from-the-abyss/

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It’s with great relief that we pack up this morning and prepare to leave Mendoza after an unanticipated week here. We have the last of Ines’ breakfasts, take some departure photos, and head northeast out of town.

Ines and John
Ines and John
Ines, Casa Huésped, Godoy Cruz, Argentina
Ines, Casa Huésped, Godoy Cruz, Argentina

Our destination is a national park of which I just became aware a few days ago. We’re traversing typically flat Argentine terrain, along a paved highway with herds of goats grazing on the shoulders. The roads are quite empty and we make good time, covering the 160 miles to the park entrance by 4 PM. Susan has agreed to camp tonight in the park, which is quite isolated and with no nearby services or even, for that matter, public drinking water. I’m excited because this will be Susan’s and my first night in the tent that we purchased almost 2 years ago.

Sierra de las Quijadas is, indeed, remote. A friendly ranger at the entry station explains the layout. Two unrestricted trails, a small campground, and the chance (no guarantees) to see condors, pumas. guanacos, and maras (rodents with rabbit-like features). Unlike most Argentina national parks, there are no hefty entrance charges, although I see evidence of past fee collection. Even the camping is free. We check out the campground and find it surprisingly pleasant and shady for this hot, arid area. Since the sun is getting low, it’s a good time for hiking so we go out to the end of the park road and set out on one of the two short trails. Geologically, the area is an ancient sedimentary basin uplifted into mountains of relatively soft rock that have eroded into badlands — which we have all to ourselves this afternoon. The views out over the valley are gratifying and signs identify many of the plants along the trail.

Sierra de las Quijadas
Sierra de las Quijadas
Intricate erosion
Intricate erosion
Prickly pear cactus
Prickly pear cactus

We see vultures soaring high above, swallows diving frenetically in the ravine below us as they feed on the wing, and a few songbirds but nothing else in the way of wildlife.

Distant vulture
Distant vulture
Feeding swallow
Feeding swallow

Returning to the car we set out on the other unrestricted trail that leads through the sculpted formations to several valley overlooks. It’s not a difficult trail but heat, fatigue, and uneven footing cause us to turn back a little early. I have an extra backtrack detour to retrieve some litter I accidentally left on a bench.

Sierra de las Quijadas
Sierra de las Quijadas

There are two other trails but they require hiring guides, and those guides are based many miles away. One of the walks leads to dinosaur footprints — well, one footprint since the ranger explained that the rest were excavated and transported to a distant museum. Needless to say, the expense and time required to procure a guide don’t seem worth it to us. Now if they could assure we would spot a puma in the wild.. That would be a different story.

On the drive back to the campground, we see several maras in the brush alongside the road. They exhibit little fear of the car or us, continuing to browse as we approach to within 20 feet. They’re odd looking animals, with rabbit like ears and hind feet and an almost tailless two-tone rump.

Patagonian mara (rodent)
Patagonian mara (rodent)

Although not particularly bulky, they’re the fourth largest living rodent, exceeded only by the freakishly large capybara, the beaver, and the porcupine. Although the relaxed ones in front of us don’t show us, they are said to be capable of sprinting 18 or 30 miles per hour. You can choose which number to believe.

Maras
Maras

We’ve traveled thousands of miles in Argentina over 3 trips and can state quite authoritatively that most of the country has been so civilized that it’s virtually devoid of wildlife. Only in designated reserves and some areas of abandoned estancias (ranches) have we spotted anything other than cows, sheep, goats, horses, and the birds and rodents that coexist with them.

Will the guanacos be offended?
Will the guanacos be offended?

We choose the best of the 6 walk-in campsites and start carrying our gear from the car. To my dismay, I discover that the air mattress cap is not with the mattress and pump. I know I packed it but 20 minutes of intense searching fails to locate it. Even though it means sleeping directly on the ground, Susan gamely agrees to camp anyway.

Sierra de los Quijadas campsite
Sierra de los Quijadas campsite

As we eat a cold snack/supper, we’re treated to a magnificent desert sunset.

Sunset from Don Pilar campground
Sunset from Don Pilar campground

As darkness falls, an increasing array of stars become visible due to the clear air and absence of light pollution. In the hours after sunset, we see a crescent moon and 4 planets spaced in a narrow arc of the ecliptic: Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mercury.

left to right: Mercury, Venus, Moon
(left to right) Mercury, Venus, Moon, Jupiter. Saturn was also visible out of camera range.
(left to right) Mercury, Venus, Moon, Jupiter. Saturn was also visible out of camera range.

As the moon sets and the darkness intensifies, the sky fills with stars and the Milky Way is very evident. Even lying in bed later, we see a celestial display though the gauze roof.

Most of the world’s population rarely sees such an unobscured night sky. Already in big cities, the glow of lights makes most stars invisible and it looks like it’s going to get much worse. SpaceX has started launching “constellations” of low orbit satellites to provide global internet service. It plans to have 42,000 of them. Other big companies like Amazon will compete and it’s possible that the look of the night sky, regardless of ground conditions, may be dramatically altered by hundreds of thousands of satellites speeding across it. Our grandchildren might never see what humankind has always known as the starry night.

Despite the hard ground, we drop off to a somewhat fitful sleep in the silent and remote Argentine landscape.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/19/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-30-santa-rosa-to-see-friends/

South America by Subaru 19/10/28 – Rise from the Abyss

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/14/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-27-casa-huesped-godoy-cruz-argentina/

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This morning I wake up, shoulder my precious A-frame, and walk about a mile to the Hermanos [Brothers] Ricci repair shop. I get there just as they’re opening and hand off the parts to Carlos who says he’ll get to work on the car immediately. I’m back at the hostal in plenty of time to eat Ines’ nice breakfast with Susan.

We spend the day relaxing until I get a text at 4:30 saying the car is ready. I walk back to the shop, this time noticing another Mendoza hazard for the unwary. At one point, a wide new sidewalk approaches the street corner. The left side bridges the ditch smoothly to the curb, while the right ends abruptly at the yawning abyss. You wouldn’t want to come on this in the dark, or drunk, or distracted.

Please watch your step... or else!
Please watch your step… or else!

The car is ready when I arrive and the bill is very reasonable, although the $500 I paid for the factory Subaru part in Santiago was not. I drive out to the highway and head south to test run it at high speed. After winding it out to 80 mph for about 7 miles, I take an off ramp to turn around and head home. As I reach the cross street, I’m suddenly smelling something burning and smoke is rising from the area of the repair. I get onto the shoulder immediately and kill the engine, fearing a fire under the hood. When I lift it, there’s plenty of smoke, but no fire so I abandon my plan to dive for the extinguisher tucked under the driver’s seat. As the air clears, I can see a strong pattern of liquid splatter down low against the firewall and drive train. It looks like a pressurized leak was spraying flammable liquid on to the hot exhaust pipes.

I see this as a serious problem and text Carlos for emergency help. He assures me there’s nothing wrong but drives down to join me at the side of the road. He looks under the hood and explains something about grasa (grease) that I don’t fully comprehend. Making it clear there’s no danger, he has me follow him back to the shop. Once there he puts the Subaru on the lift and shows me the front right axle. When reassembling the front end, he greased the universal joint under it’s rubber sleeve. During my high speed test, excess grease was flung from the rapidly turning axle causing the spatter pattern I thought was a pressure leak. Once the excess is gone, the burning smell will stop.

The damage done by my careless driving into the pozo 5 trying days ago is fixed, but the omnipresent Mendoza ditches are still on my mind. Relieved to be mobile again, I drive back to the hostal, but along the way I see a now ironic scene. A sign warning of the danger of two-car collisions at a traffic circle sits directly above an unremarked yawning abyss.

Ironic warning sign in Mendoza, Argentina. It's the ditches you have to watch for.
Ironic warning sign in Mendoza, Argentina. It’s the ditches you have to watch for.

Susan and I are both dying for a non-ravioli meal, so we do a little internet research and drive to Anna’s Bistro downtown. We have a very nice dinner in their lush garden and go back to the room feeling renewed in several ways. Tomorrow the journey resumes.

Anna's Bistro, Mendoza, Argentina
Anna’s Bistro, Mendoza, Argentina


South America by Subaru 19/10/27 – Casa Huésped, Godoy Cruz, Argentina

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/14/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-26-my-iditarod-car-parts-to-mendoza/

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Today, first, a digression: why has the bidet never become a North American bathroom fixture?? Doesn’t an inverted asshole shower make excellent sense?

Bidet, virtually unknown in the U.S.
Bidet, virtually unknown in the U.S.

Ines, our host, has become downright chatty since I procured a cheap smartphone for her in Santiago. At breakfast, we exchange information about families, including the mandatory Latin American question, “¿Nietos?” (grandchildren?). Finally, after years of disappointing people by saying I have none, I can finally bring joy to their eyes by telling them my first one will be born in February. Finally, I am a man . Now if only we can get the pitying look out of their eyes when they find out Susan has never had children…

We exchange small gifts and I ask her for a Casa Huésped business card. On it, I notice her full name is Ester Ines Tumbarello Marino. I address her as Ester and get a quick correction, “Ines… Ester is Jewish.” I may be misunderstanding, but it appears to be the most casual sort of anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, Ines is a hardworking woman surviving economically in a difficult, inflation ravaged economy.

Tomorrow, I deliver the parts to the repair shop and the Subaru will come back to life. Today we just veg out.

View from our room, CasaHuésped

View from our room, Casa Huésped

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/14/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-28-rise-from-the-abyss/

South America by Subaru 19/10/26 My Iditarod: Car Parts to Mendoza


Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/13/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-25-santiago-chile-in-turmoil/

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I’m up and out of the hostel at 5 AM, standing on the wide, deserted Alameda in the dark. The 25 pound car part is hanging painfully off my shoulders from the crude backpack kluge built into my duffel bag. Since I have no idea if the city buses are running this morning, I start out on the 2.5 mile hike toward the bus terminal. It’s a nice walk but my shoulders are aching, as much from twisting my head every few minutes to scan hopefully for the bus as from the load itself.

Eventually, I see the unmistakable light pattern of a bus in the distance and jog my way to the next stop in time to board. Now, of course, I arrive at the terminal way too early. I buy my ticket, which curiously costs a third more than the identical outbound trip two days ago, and sit around outside for almost an hour until the double decker bus pulls in and loads. This time, the trip is fully booked and I’m stuck in the last row.

Chile to Argentina bus
Chile to Argentina bus

During my long ago, 1984 five month meander in Brasil, we used to call where I’m sitting the shit seats, since they were always adjacent to the broken toilet compartment. Only once did we get a spot up front where we could see through the windshield. It was an overnight ride in the rural northeast of the country and we were so terrified to see potholes, cattle, and unlit cars come looming out of the darkness into the hurtling bus’s narrow cone of headlight that we gratefully settled for the shit seats on every subsequent ride.

The bus I’m on now has a very nice toilet on the lower level, so there’s no shit seat. As a lifelong car driver, sitting in the back of the bus is still annoying, though, but I just have to grin and bear it. The ride is uneventful, the Chilean highways unmarred by protest blockades. For the sixth time, I traverse the impressive Caracoles switchbacks on the Chilean side of the Andes.

Los Caracoles switchbacks
Los Caracoles switchbacks

At the border, Argentinian customs quickly notices my bulky auto part. Since this is not normal tourist gear, I’m at risk of being assessed a high import tariff. A few minutes of explanation that this is a Chilean part for my broken Chilean car ends satisfactorily when they’re able to verify in their computer system that my license plate entered Argentina 5 days earlier.

With everyone back on the bus and waiting to move on, a senior immigration officer with a stern demeanor boards and comes directly to the family in front of me for an additional check of their passports. They’re obviously Muslim since the wife is wearing a head scarf. It turns out they’re Iranians with a young son holding a U.S. passport. Although nothing comes of the additional scrutiny, it illustrates how nerve wracking it must be to travel as Asians. The mood is lightened only fractionally when the officer looks at the child’s passport and says, “Gringo, eh?”

The remainder of the long trip unspools as expected and we arrive on schedule in Mendoza, Argentina after 2 PM. Once again, the office that sells municipal bus fare cards is closed but I now know to pay another passenger cash to have them swipe me on board so I’m back with Susan at Casa Huésped by 3 o’clock.

Mendoza, Argentina city bus
Mendoza, Argentina city bus

I deliver the Chilean phone to Ines. Her reserved manner has now evaporated and she is much chummier with us. I had wondered why she so badly wanted a replacement phone from Chile since, in general, prices in Argentina are very much lower than across the border. She explains that for telephones, at least, Mendoza prices are about 3 times higher than in Santiago, so I was able to save her some serious money. We’re paying only about US$17 per day for a very nice room and a decent breakfast, so there’s no way she’s getting rich operating her 6-room establishment. We’re glad we could help out, because we’ve seen her working steadily every day keeping the place scrubbed and maintained.

With her lack of Spanish comprehension and car, Susan has spent the entire 60 hours of my absence at the hostal and she’s eager for a good meal. We walk about 2 miles through the area, searching for an acceptable place to eat. It’s siesta time, though, and most eateries won’t reopen until 8 PM so we end up back at the shopping mall restaurant for a very tasty but repetitive lunch of ravioli and dark beer. Today is Saturday and car repairs won’t happen until Monday morning, so we pass the rest of the day in our room.

For those who don’t recognize the Iditarod reference in the title, I’m facetiously comparing my journey from Santiago to Mendoza with “lifesaving” car parts to the 1925 dog sled relay that brought lifesaving diptheria serum from Nenana to Nome, Alaska. This trip was the inspiration for the modern 1000 mile annual Iditarod sled dog race.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/14/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-27-casa-huesped-godoy-cruz-argentina/

Demonstrator, Santiago, Chile, 25 Oct 2019. Hr sign says, "Apparently killing is not a sin if the state is the killer."

South America by Subaru 19/10/25 Santiago, Chile in turmoil

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/06/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-24-descent-into-the-maelstrom-santiago-chile/

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I’m up early, for no particular reason. My Subaru parts won’t be available until afternoon. The streets outside the hostel are quiet, the demonstrators having gone home to sleep.

I’m hoping to head back to Mendoza today, but the chances of pulling that off are slim. The last bus leaves at 1:30 PM and my parts aren’t promised until 2 PM. I’m going to check out of the hostel and get to the store at around noon, hoping they arrive early enough to let me catch that bus. My drop dead time for leaving the store, parts in hand, is 1:00 PM, so I’m clutching at straws.

I go downstairs to look over the optional $7 breakfast the hostel offers. There’s plenty of food and it’s nicely presented, but most of it is artificially sweetened fruit drinks, coffee, and South American pastries and breads. Although this is standard fare, I find all of it fairly unpalatable so I go out and buy breakfast items and sit in the kitchen eating. What I buy isn’t any better than what they’re serving, but it’s cheaper and I have a liter of cold milk with which to wash it down. I check out, realizing that I’ll most likely be back this afternoon. As I’m preparing to spend a couple of hours in the lounge researching and writing, an emergency message comes in from Susan. Somehow, the cell phone of Ines, our landlady of the moment in Mendoza, has disappeared, probably stolen. She’s asking if I can buy a replacement in Santiago and bring it back with me. I’m imagining a comical exchange since Susan understands only certain Spanish words and Ines speaks no English whatsoever. Somehow the concept comes across and the task is now mine to execute in the short period before I have to head for the parts store.

I immediately interrogate the desk clerk as to nearby cell phone vendors. A consultation group of staff and locals is quickly formed to ponder my problem. To my extraordinary good luck, there is an appropriate store virtually around the corner, but is it open today when so much is shuttered? I walk out to the Alameda, which still shows the effects of yesterday’s demonstrations, locate the store, and find it open and bustling. Excellent fortune as it will most surely lock down in a few hours as the demonstrators return. A salesman latches on to me immediately and I explain what I need, a basic smartphone, not carrier-locked, and cheap. My luck holds and they have just what I need. Ines had suggested a price cap of about 70 dollars and this one fills the bill for less than 60. I text back and forth a couple of times to Ines, via Susan’s phone, and Ines says “get it!” I close the deal, being careful to get a sealed factory box and inspecting the contents before paying. What seemed like an impossible task at the outset has been accomplished in under an hour. Susan tells me the reserved Ines has lit up and is literally dancing for joy at the economical solution to her problem.

Around noon, I shoulder my dead parts, cross the Alameda, and walk to the auto parts store. I ensconce myself on their waiting bench and do my best to cast significant looks at my salesman. Alternately pleading, impatient, and resigned expressions come pretty naturally to me, but it’s not as if he has any control over when the parts arrive. About 12:45, he tells me the delivery has come in. I excitedly queue up an Uber ride to the bus terminal, ready to trigger it the moment the metal touches my hand. The store paperwork and inventory procedures aren’t trivial, so I don’t actually walk out the door until 1 PM — probably too late. I call for the ride but it’s delayed in the heavy traffic and finally canceled. No go, but it was a long shot to begin with.

I walk back to the hostel, this time lugging 50 pounds of metal, both old and new parts, and check in to my same bunk .

I forgot to bring my leftover Chilean cash with me and I’m trying to avoid getting more so I’m limited to buying from places that accept credit cards. Normally, that’s no problem but in conjunction with the closures, my selection of stores is very limited. I’m thirsty and end up walking almost a mile from the hostel only to buy 2 liters of overpriced, bad tasting fruit drink. By this time, the demonstrations have resumed, so I hoof it back to the wide Alameda. The mood today is a bit less peaceful. Intersection fires have already been lit, there’s much more invective being hurled at the still-patient police, and vandals are being more brazen. At one point I see about 20 young men energetically rocking a 60 foot metal bus station railing out of its sidewalk foundations, perhaps to use it as a street barricade.

As I walk further west, I start to get whiffs of tear gas drifting in from out of sight. My eyes tear, my cheeks are stinging, and as I cross an intersection, the acrid burning smoke of a mattress fire starts to choke me.

Protest fire, Santiago, Chile, 25 Oct 2019a
Protest fire, Santiago, Chile, 25 Oct 2019a

I decide a fast retreat is in order and head down a side street at a trot. A noticeable number of others are taking the same action. One young man seeing me rubbing my eyes offers some water from his bottle to rinse them.

In the smaller side streets, the more peaceful protest still dominates. Every block is filled with groups of young marchers. Plenty of vulgar insults are being hurled at the police who have blocked off certain areas for their use, but again by a minority of the crowd. A frequent shout includes a word that sounds like “culio” which from the context is no compliment. The derisive term for the police seems to be “paco”. At one point a plastic water bottle is hurled at a group of standing police but elicits no reaction.


I have to say, though, that in two days an article in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/27/chile-hundreds-shot-and-beaten-street-protests) reports that hundreds of protesters have been severely injured by beatings and non-lethal, but still very dangerous, ammunition. It also alleges that Chile media are self-censoring scenes of police violence, so my direct observations don’t tell the whole story. I talk to more people, take more pictures, and marvel at how committed the many thousands are to invoking real economic change. The original incitement, the 3% transit fare increase has been long forgotten, and the government has actually rescinded it in a futile effort to appease the demonstrators.

The people I met and talked to are committed to change, but with my limited Spanish, I couldn’t fully comprehend their nuanced or complex stories. If you want to see professional reporting of protester interviews, I highly recommend https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/30/chile-protests-portraits-protesters-sebastian-pinera.

As I mentioned yesterday, I shot a lot of photos. If you want to see more than the ones I’ve included here, the entire raw and unedited collection is at https://photos.app.goo.gl/pzeawM1WaUK9NhFg7.

I return to the hostel and sit in the lounge for a while researching and writing, but this isn’t much fun because I have only my phone to work on, rather than the laptop. Life is so hard. I give up and watch the live television news coverage which is reporting one million people in the streets. From the aerial photos of various cities, I can believe it. I sincerely hope these demonstrations lead to some fundamental economic changes but it’s not my fight and I have my own obligations. First thing in the morning, I have to get back to Susan and the Subaru in Argentina. I go up to bed and set the alarm for a 5 AM departure.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/14/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-26-my-iditarod-car-parts-to-mendoza/

Santiago, Chile protests, 10/24/19

South America by Subaru 19/10/24 Descent into the Maelstrom, Santiago, Chile

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/01/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-23-stupidity-strikes/

[NOTE: To enlarge any image, right click it and choose “View image” or similar. Use the Back button to return to the post.]

I’m out of bed at 5 AM to get to Mendoza’s main bus terminal in time for the 6:30 bus to Santiago, lugging my heavy, ruined A-frame.

Ruined Subaru A-frame, 25 pounds of trouble
Ruined Subaru A-frame, the 25 pound albatross around my neck

The agent, pegging me immediately as a tourist, assigns me the front seat of the upper level, assuring I can see the expansive mountain views. The ride is uneventful and comfortable. Border formalities passing from Argentina to Chile are much simpler as a bus passenger than with our car.

I’ve sent a message to Álvaro in Santiago, who was so generous and helpful in storing and preparing the Subaru for its return to the road. He owns an automotive accessories business and, before long, he’s done the research, tells me what parts store to go to, and has arranged for me to pay the reseller price.

Arriving at the Santiago bus terminal, I immediately make my way the 4 miles to the store via local bus (micro) and foot. Although the city is in political upheaval, there’s no evidence of that along my route. At the store, I’m told the parts won’t arrive from the warehouse until tomorrow at 2 PM. Given the curtailed bus service to Argentina, my original hope of getting the parts to the mechanic in time to have the car repaired tomorrow, Friday, have already been dashed. Repairs can’t possibly happen until Monday but Susan is sitting in our Mendoza B&B with no car and very little Spanish at her disposal so I’m eager to get back as soon as possible. I’ve urged her to use this forced delay as a writing retreat but I know well that writing happens on her terms, when the timing and conditions are suitable.

I pay for the parts in advance and do a quick search for suitable accommodations. I find a US$7 bed in a highly rated hostel about a mile away on the Alameda, a prominent boulevard that heads west from downtown Santiago. Although Susan has never agreed to stay in a dormitory room, my needs are modest and I like the social interaction that often occurs, so I walk over there to check it out. As I near the Alameda, I see it occupied by a seemingly endless parade of overwhelmingly young demonstrators, many thousands, peacefully but determinedly marching, carrying an array of protest signs.

This piques my interest because we’ve been following the news from Chile every night. The protests are now in their eighth day and it’s clear they’ve become a mass movement, and unexpectedly here I am again not far from the heart of it. I check out the hostel, which is just steps away from the moving demonstrators, find it clean and pleasant, and get a bed in an otherwise empty 4 bunk room.

Che Lagarto Hostel, Santiago, Chile
Che Lagarto hostel, Santiago, Chile

I quickly head back out to the street to observe events. All the stores and buildings are closed and protected with metal roll downs. There’s a heavy police presence including armored vehicles but where I am they are largely stationary and ignoring the vile insults hurled by a minority of the demonstrators. Underlying everything is the rhythm of Chilean protest, cacerolazo (from “casserole”), the rhythmic banging of kitchen pots with spoons. Vehicles passing by, duplicate the rhythm with their horns.

I speak to a variety of young people. They’re all very friendly to me as a North American and I’m struck by how deeply dissatisfied they are with the status quo. They’re out here, at some significant risk to themselves – in some cases, parents are wheeling children in strollers – to try to force big changes in a prosperous nation whose inequality exceeds all other Latin American countries — and that’s saying something.

Santiago, Chile protests, 10/24/19
Santiago, Chile protests, 10/24/1

I’m very skeptical of revolutions, whether peaceful or violent. Successful ones tend to create power vacuums which are too often filled with corrupt politicians or other criminals. The American and French revolutions, arguably, were beneficial to the masses, but those are rare examples and were simultaneously fraught with many injustices and persistent cruelties. In this case, having developed many local acquaintances and friends, I fervently hope some lasting good comes out of this upheaval

Despite the overwhelmingly peaceful tenor, there are some hooligans vandalizing public amenities and some intersections have trash fires fueled with plastic, pallets, mattresses, and other flammables.

I shot a lot of photos. If you want to see more than the ones I’ve included here, the entire raw and unedited collection is at https://photos.app.goo.gl/pzeawM1WaUK9NhFg7

After some hours, hunger overcomes me and I’m forced to walk at least 10 blocks perpendicular to the Alameda to find any kind of open restaurants or small grocery stores – large supermarkets are out of the question. The few available eateries are expensive and not to my taste but I make do, then hoof it back to my 3rd floor bunk and fall asleep to the sound of boisterous groups wandering the street below until about 4 AM.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/13/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-25-santiago-chile-in-turmoil/