Monday, January 8, 2018

Smeared by a(n Attempted) Scammer

In nearly four decades of visiting Argentina, I’ve never been victim of a crime, though I experienced some anxious moments during the military dictatorship of 1976-83. In the course of researching and writing guidebooks to the country, though, I’ve always had to address issues of personal security, even though I’d never experienced any attempted attack or robbery—at least until yesterday in Buenos Aires.

In the course of writing multiple editions for a publisher now best left unnamed, I often received reams of reader mail, often touching upon issues of personal security. One common scenario in Argentina’s capital was being told that there were pigeon droppings on your shirt, or the “accidental” spilling of a cup of coffee followed by abject apologies that were, in fact, a distraction for a pickpocketing accomplice.
My boarding station, at Plaza de Mayo, for the train back to Palermo
The Puente de la Mujer, a pedestrian bridge, is an entry point to the Puerto Madero neighborhood. Beyond the bricks and high-rises, Puerto Madero also offers wildlife-rich wetlands and even some small beaches.
These stories were believable and, as I started to walk toward the Plaza de Mayo after a leisurely afternoon in Puerto Madero, I became part of one. On a narrow downtown street, with few other people, I felt some moisture on my back and, then, a middle-aged man animatedly pointed at my trouser leg. I’m not paranoid about personal safety, because I feel comfortable here, but this aroused my suspicion immediately.
When I got home, this is what my shirt looked like...
It’s worth mentioning that I was openly carrying a SLR in my right hand, and also had a wallet and a smartphone in my jeans pockets (though neither was visible), so I probably fit the profile of an easy target. My response to the man, who addressed me in halting English, was the Spanish-language equivalent of “Bugger off!” He didn’t exactly run away, but he didn’t persist either, and I saw no likely accomplice.
and this is what my jeans looked like.

Heading toward the Subte to catch a train home, I seated myself on the steps of a building to put my camera into my daypack, and discovered what appeared to be a creamy substance there and on my shirt as well. On arriving home, I changed clothes and took a shower and, this morning, I took everything to a nearby laundry. In the end, a portion of 120 pesos (about $6.50) was all the incident cost me—I already had a partial load in need of cleaning.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Messenger and the Movie

A few weeks ago, the day my wife arrived in Buenos Aires, we had the good fortune to catch one of the last local showings of Jayson McNamara’s documentary Messenger on a White Horse, about Robert Cox’s heroic editorship of the Buenos Aires Herald during the so-called “Dirty War” of 1976-83. The movie debuted last April at the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, but this was our first opportunity to see it.
Given the subject matter, it’s not the sort of film that one “enjoys,” but it was an absorbing account of Argentina’s most brutal dictatorship ever and the pervasive fear that prevailed at the time. As editor of the paper, Cox pursued and publicized the human rights violations that took place after the 1976 military coup and, facing threats to himself and his family, he went into exile in 1979—at a time when the Australian McNamara was not even born. I met McNamara four years ago, in Cox’s Recoleta apartment, at a time when he was working for the then struggling Herald—which was becoming the victim of the now-jailed tax evader and casino magnate Cristóbal López.
Bob Cox and Jayson McNamara at Cox's apartment in Recoleta, 2014
Given McNamara’s youth—I don’t believe he’s even 30 yet—I was impressed with his perspective on this complex country’s history. My wife, who lived through much of the worst in that period, agreed that his usage of historical footage and his interviews (with Cox and others) evinced a genuine skill for thorough and honest storytelling.

Some days later, when my wife and I shared empanadas and a bottle of Malbec with Cox and his wife Maud, both expressed admiration of the filmmaker’s ability to narrate a story he never experienced personally. In my opinion, it’s something that deserves a wider audience and, according to McNamara, “We’re hoping it will soon be available on Netflix or the like.” When it is, I’ll watch it again, and encourage others to tune in. It’s not a commercial film, but it deserves the widest possible audience.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Fruit for Calafate? And Veg, Too...

Nearly three decades ago, when I first visited El Calafate, the gateway to the Perito Moreno Glacier was a compact village of just a few thousand people with a modest selection of hotels, restaurants and other services. The nearest airport was in Río Gallegos, at least three hours overland.
El Calafate's core is compact and even sheltered, but the town is spreading onto the steppes and along the lakeshore.
The glacier’s presence, though, incentivized a tourist boom that, coupled with a new state-of-the-art airport, has resulted in a sprawling town with many new hotels, restaurants and other services—not to mention housing for an increasing number of permanent residents (one of whom is my cousin, Elisa Rodríguez, who’s a tour guide in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and elsewhere in Patagonia). The town center is still compact, but the old hilltop airport runway is home to a new bus terminal and is gradually filling with new houses, as is the Lago Argentino lakeshore west of downtown.
The wild Río Santa Cruz, whose source is Lago Argentino, is under threat from  two large hydroelectric projects.
That sort of growth—the population now exceeds 20,000—requires a larger food supply, both seasonally and throughout the year, and supermarkets like La Anónima (linked to the historic Braun-Menéndez wool empire) have picked up the slack. It helps that roads have improved dramatically, and that flights from Buenos Aires are frequent but, in an area where environmental issues are paramount—global warming directly affects the glaciers and two large dam projects on the free-flowing Río Santa Cruz are highly controversial—sustainable food might be included among them.
Grilled lamb, on a stake, is a stereotypical Patagonian entree.
In southern Patagonia, the stereotypical diet is meat and more meat—traditionally it’s lamb, grilled on a stake over hot coals. Historically speaking, that’s a by-product of the huge sheep ranches that have occupied almost every acre of land since the “wool rush” of the 19th century. To be sure, are some cattle, but getting fresh fruit and vegetables has always been an issue here. With low temperatures and short growing seasons, root crops like potatoes were viable, along with soft fruits like raspberries and gooseberries, but many items, such as grapes and even fruit trees, were restricted to limited production in conservatories.
The approach to Chacra Las Moras
A row of poplars protects the cherry orchard from fierce Patagonian winds.
That said, on my recent visit to Calafate, I saw the largest fruit and vegetable production I’d ever seen in the region, at Chacra Las Moras, a literal garden spot where my cousin shops for much of her produce. There’s an orchard of cherry trees, sheltered by poplars, similar to what I’ve seen in the more northerly “banana belt” climate of Los Antiguos (Argentina) and its cross-border sibling of Chile Chico.
Currants do well outdoors here.
Strawberry tunnels forever?
There are also currants, raspberries and blackberries outdoors, but most of the cultivation takes place within the largest poly-tunnels I’ve ever seen, where strawberries, lettuce and tomatoes thrive. The warm temperatures inside seemed positively subtropical, but these are vulnerable structures that Patagonian gales can shred in minutes—as has apparently happened. Still, it was refreshing to see this intensive horticulture test the limits to find a niche in a town that needs what it can offer.
Jams and liqueurs on display
More local products at the checkout display
Chacra Las Moras also sells products from other nearby farms, such as calafate jam and liqueurs, and serves afternoon tea. Even for those who don’t purchase anything, it’s open for self-guided tours of what can be done under such challenging conditions.
Cannabis can survive outdoors here, but not - to my knowledge, at least - at Chacra Las Moras.

They do not, however, grow cannabis, which my nephew—soon to leave for Australia—was cultivating on the window sill of his Calafate residence.
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