Friday, December 30, 2011

She Who Must Not Be Named?

Many of us have some idea of the history of Argentina, but not a lot. But most of us know of Eva Peron due to the musical Evita! Haven’t we all heard ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’? Evita and her husband cast a long shadow over Argentinean politics, and even today they are both figures of controversy. But Evita herself is a polarizing figure – it seems that she is loved and loathed in equal measure. And she, and her life and her mystique are  part of the tourist industry here.

After her death in 1952 her body was spirited away and was eventually buried under another name in Italy. The powers that be wanted to make sure that her body did not become a focal point for the Peronistas to rally around. They also demolished the house where she lived and it eventually became the national library. It took until the 1970’s for her family to get custody of her remains and even longer for her remains to make it to their current resting place.

Her family has created the official Evita Peron museum in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires, so we took ourselves off to see. A beautiful old house has been turned into the museum, and as we pass from room to room we learn about Evita and her life. The museum uses displays and multimedia to tell the story. And, besides the woman and her words we get to see her clothes:


Gowns from her tour of Europe.


Hats and accessories. And she had great shoes. It was an interesting museum, and we wonder about all the wonderful and exciting social programs that she launched with so much fanfare. Did they succeed?

It was also very interesting to learn the version of Evita’s life as given by her family. It is rather different from that of the history books (specifically the fact that she was illegitimate and that her family was abandoned by her father when she was very young)

We are staying in the Recoleta district of Buenos Aires,  which takes its name from La Recoleta cemetery. It is a very nice area, upscale, densely populated, interesting shops and restaurants. And there is the cemetery – a fascinating place. It is a city within the city, behind a high wall.  It is also the high society cemetery – you had to be somebody to  be buried here. The architecture is over the top – many of the tombs are national monuments. But it is also still an active cemetery.

Evita is buried in La Recoleta. Given the high society tone of the place there was major upset when she was buried there. And there is still speculation that she may be moved again to be with her late husband.

Many people come to visit her tomb, and many are frustrated. She is buried in her family tomb and many people wander about looking for the name Peron. But no – you are looking for Duarte:



As I mentioned, the cemetery is laid out with streets and avenues, plazas and trees. The various mausoleums are crowded all together – the very old and the new, the important and the forgotten.




In addition to an near endless succession of presidents, politicians, writers and military heroes is Louis Angel Firpo, known as ‘The Wild Bull of the Pampas’ he was the first South American to contend for the world heavyweight champion title (apparently he was robbed!)

Each plot is individually held and is considered private property. National monuments are tended to by the government, but otherwise it is up to the family. Some are beautifully maintained and obviously often visited. And others…. the families have died away and no looks after them any more. I guess if you are going to build a glorious monument to yourself you want to be sure that someone will be around to care….

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Penguins, part two.

Yes, the penguins in Chile were cute, but they weren’t the only penguins we saw. The second set carried British passports and live on the Falkland Islands. And visiting them turned out to be quite an experience. The information for the shore excursion said that we would be met by a bus at the pier and driven to a farm, where we would transfer to 4x4 vehicles for a hour ride to the penguin colony. Instead a fleet of 7 land rovers was waiting for us pier side. We organized ourselves into groups of four and set off. As it happened Wilf and I were in the leadvehicle with Patrick. He turned out to be an excellent driver. But as a tour guide…. let just say that he was the least chatty person I’ve met.
Off we went, about 10km from Port Stanley, crossing the Murell River and turning onto Murrell Farm, an operation of some 10,000 acres. The road along the way was paved or hard packed gravel and we sped along, looking at where peat was being harvested and dried for fuel. At the farm we passed between the house and the barn, turned right at a cow, waved at the geese and headed off across what looked like the tundra.
Patrick did admit that there were a few trees in Port Stanley, but other than that the next trees are, literally, thousands of miles away. The Falkand Islands are actually much bigger than I expected. Looking on the map they look small, out there alone in the ocean. But really, we drove for a long while and covered only a tiny little corner of one edge. But anyhoo, tundra. That’s what it looked like – low scrubby growth, peat, rocks, hills. Off in all directions. And no obvious path. Did I mention the rocks? We crept and lurched along, shifting gears and hanging on for dear life. I could see why the shore excursion brochure warned people with bad backs and necks from taking this trip. Every so often we’d come to a gate. I think the locals have a gentleman’s agreement with the cattle and sheep, ‘cause. Really? I don’t think the fence would slow down a determined cow or sheep. At one point we pulled up to the fence – about 15 feet from the gate. Patrick and another driver got out, yanked the fence posts out of the ground and laid the fence down. ‘Too boggy at the actual gate’, he said. Okay, then.
Picture from the truck window, looking back at the group following.
For an hour we banged and lurched along, wondering just where we were headed. We could see that we were heading toward the coast.

And we were there. And there they were! As cute as the Magellanic penguins were, the general consensus was that penguins should be black and white. And these Rockhopper penguins fit the bill. There are several hundred of them living at the top of this cliff.
Cute, huh?
The chicks are born over a period of a few weeks, so there were parents sitting on eggs, little brown fluff ball babies and chicks that were already grey and white. All so cute!
And the crazy thing is they nest and live at the top of this huge wind swept cliff, but they feed way down below:
And, like their names says they sort of hop along rather than waddling like most penguins do on land. So, hop hop hop they go, down down down to the lower area. At the back they jump in the water and swim through a crevasse out into the ocean, then reverse the project.
And yes, it was windy. There was a little tea hut up there  - I noticed that two big sturdy straps had been tossed over the roof and they were attached to big iron spikes driven into the peat moss. So – chronic wind situation going on if you need to tie the tea house to the ground.
After we had been with the penguins for about an hour, and were utterly charmed and totally windblown we piled back into the land rovers for another bracing one hour bounce across the tundra. It was a crazy day that ended with a wild tender ride back to the Veendam in a stormy sea, but it was a great and memorable day.

Friday, December 23, 2011

In which a symbol of Canadian industriousness wreaks havoc in Southern Argentina

The city of Ushuia, Argentina really does feel like it is at the end of the world. And yet a lot of people live there – it is a major jumping off point for Antarctica and for the beautiful parks in the area. There is also oil and gas production and a surprisingly large manufacturing area. One of the guide books I read dismissed it as an uninteresting and dusty town. I’m not sure about uninteresting, but dusty – yes. We were there on a rare warm and windless day. In fact when we got on our tour bus most people were gasping for air. The driver announced that this was the first time –ever – that he had put on the airconditioning. This led to half the bus wailing ‘Madre de dios es frios!’ while the other half was gasping for air. Lots of negotiating over the AC. Fortunately we had lots of stops so people could bail out and either warm up or cool down.

Anyhoo, the point of our tour was to see the park and then take a catamaran cruise to see the sea life.  As were were touring through the park our guide was explaining the trees, the shrubs, the birds. And then we pulled over so she could show us a beaver dam and lodge. To which we said to each other ‘Beavers? Our friends Castor canadensis? They’re down here?’ Well, it turns out they are and it is a tale.

Back in the 1940’s the Argentinean military decided it would be a good idea to start up a fur trade, and who better than the good old beaver. They live as far north in latitude as Tierra del Fuego is south, so – why not? Now, in 1845 we might excuse such thinking but by 1945 they should know better. But I guess there is no arguing with the Argentine military, so ‘help yourself’ said Canada and 25 breeding pairs were sent south.

You know this isn’t going to go well, right? Turns out that lovely glossy fur is a result of the cold. Which it isn't here. Not cold enough, not long enough. And soon enough the beavers are on the loose. But they have no natural predators. And it is warm, so they don’t have to doze the winter away in their lodges. And now there are some 150,000 of them. Wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. And they’re huge! 15 to 25 kg is the norm in they’re natural habitat. Some as big as 60kg have been caught down here. Just a reminder that mother nature puts things where they belong and if they aren’t somewhere else – there’s a reason!

After driving through the Tierra del Fuego park we arrived at the end of the road, which is the end of the Pan-American Highway.


Yep – turn around and it is a mere 17, 849km back to Alaska.

At the end of the highway a catamaran was waiting to take us on a sea tour:


It really is a beautiful part of the world, with the mountains rising right up from the ocean, lots of birds to see. Out in the Beagle Channel are rock outcroppings (I’m not sure that they are big enough to qualify as islands). The first one we visited was shared by sea lions and cormorants.



Is there anything more relaxed than a sea lion?


Beautiful place….


The city at the end of the world.

Los Penguinos

One of the big selling points of a South American cruise is, of course, penguins. Penguin related shore excursions are a big seller, as is an assortment of penguin related stuff – t-shirts, stuffed animals, hats, you name it.

Our first opportunity to see penguins came when we stopped in Punta Arenas, which is located in Southern Chile on the Straits of Magellan. Our tour was to take us to Magdalena Island, which has a protected colony of Magellanic penguins. We were met at the pier and loaded into buses for a two minute trip to another pier, where the local inter-island ferry awaited us. We were handed pack lunches and then we walked aboard, settling ourselves in a vey comfortable lounge for the 1.5 hour ride to the island.


In this picture the ferry has just docked at Magdalana Island and everyone is standing on the car deck waiting to unload. We had a great day weather wise – no rain, light wind, very comfortable.  But here’s what we’re here to see:


Penguins on the beach.


Penguins on the path.


Penguins in a burrow.


Penguins on a rock.


And lovey dovey penguin families with chicks – awww! So cute!

After an hour walking on the island, watching the penguins do penguin business we got back on our ferry and headed off – even if it looked like some of the penguins were thinking of hitching a ride:



Tuesday, December 20, 2011

You say Falklands, I say Malvinas

Tomato, Tomahto – let’s call the whole thing off.

When we arrived in Ushuia, Argentina we were there were a series of signs along the pier, including this one:


Just so you’re clear on where the Argentineans stand on the whole affair. When we booked this cruise we were more interested in the Chilean and Argentinean aspects of the tour, and didn’t really think too much about the Falkland Islands. And when the Veendam made its passage from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso in late November/early December  they were not able to dock at Port Stanley due to the wind, which happens about 40% of the time. But as the Falklands drew closer the buzz on the ship was kind of excited. People were excited to be visiting this remote area, with its dramatic history. We arrived early on our day and the wind was down so off we went. We had a tour booked to take us to see penguins, of which I will write later. The little corner of the Falkland Islands that we saw turned out to be very interesting and the Falklands visit turned out to be a highlight of our cruise.

Of course no sooner did we put to shore than the wind picked up. Our guide said that the day previous had been uncommonly warm – 20 degrees and still (isn’t it always the case that we should have been there yesterday?) By the time we made our tour and got back to Port Stanley the wind was blowing terrifically. Or, more likely, normally. Tendering from the ship had been suspended for a time and further shore leave had been cancelled for passengers. We wanted to look around the town, but could hardly walk about. We did, however, get blown into the local pub.


Typical English pub (with Christmas decorations) inside.


What that man will do for a beer!

The Veendam uses its big lifeboats for tender vessels. On the way back to the ship we had quite the wild ride – there were what seemed like big waves and it was bouncy enough. They had us really packed in to try and cut down on the number of trips required. And then we passed from the inner harbour to where the ship was moored. Yikes! The front windows kept nosing under the waves, there was water sloshing on the floor and except for some nervous giggles it was very quiet. But, the sailors and crew of the Veendam did a fantastic job of getting us safely back – they stood out on the gangway in the wind and the spray and made sure we kept our footing, they managed the tender docking carefully at both ends. It was exemplary service under very trying conditions. If we had arrived even a few hours later they would not have put us ashore. We were very lucky to have our shore excursions, and to be brought back safely. The whole process was quite protracted – we were to leave port at 4:00 and they finally headed out at 6:15, so we’ve been steaming along quite smartly since then.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Chile – a tale of two cities

I said earlier that I was surprised by Santiago. I don’t know what I expected a South American city to be like. We walked through the town, found the downtown business district, the university area, the boho arts area, we got around! The city sits between the Andes and the coastal range in a big fertile valley. It is dry dry dry, though. There are two hills in the city and we took the funicular to the top of one of them – huge view from up there, along with a huge statue of Mary.


SAM_0623 The Virgin floats above the city, rising above the smog.

After two days in Santiago we took the bus to Valparaiso. Valparaiso is more what I expected from a South American city. More chaotic, not so tidy, more more dogs (they’re everywhere) The part of the city where we are staying is a UNESCO world heritage sight. It is super hilly and the buildings are all painted different colours. It looks quite charming and festive, but closer inspection shows that things are rather run down and unkempt. And apparently no-one is in charge of managing power lines, cause things look like this:


This stair case runs from our street up to the next street. Our street runs practically straight up from water. To get to the next street we can walk up up up and then around, take the staircase, or walk down the hill to the main street, along the way and then take an elevator. A two hundred year old elevator. Works like a charm and saves a lot of steps. Just don’t look down:


or up:


300 pesos and a lot fewer steps!

We sail later today and I don’t know when we’ll have Internet again, but I’ll be back!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

In Santiago your coffee may have legs….

We took a walking tour in Santiago, which turned out to be a great. Our guide covered all sorts of information about Chile – customs and history and culture and food.

Franco told us that once upon a time a decent cup of coffee was not to be had in Chile – it was the land of Nescafe. And to a certain extant it still is. But one enterprising fellow decided to do something about that. He decided to provide good coffee, and as an incentive pretty girls. In particular, girls with long long legs. Et voila, coffee with legs. These cafes only exist in the financial district, are only open during business hours and have no chairs. You sidle up to the bar where a young lady in a short skirt serves up a coffee and lingers for a chat. We passed several of these institutions along the main pedestrian street.

We didn’t actually visit a coffee with legs bar, but we did try one popular local drink – Mote con Huesillo, which is peaches with wheat. I know, sounds weird! Dehydrated peaches are re-hydrated in a sugar syrup that has cinnamon in it. Peach juice is added. First into the glass is a big scoop of cooked wheat berries – they have the texture of cooked rice. Next up, some peach halves, then the liquid. Very sweet, very refreshing, very good. A summer treat sold from pushcarts all over the city.

 SAM_0620 SAM_0621

We’ve eaten very well here in Chile, and that includes some of the best ice-cream I’ve ever eaten (sorry, Italy). In fact before we set sail tomorrow I’ve got my heart set on one more go round with a combo of orange/ginger and raspberry/mint. You can’t believe how good they are!

Our adventure begins

I’m writing to you from Santiago, Chile, where Wilf and I are at the beginning of our next adventure. This is my first trip to South America, first time over the equator. I’m pretty excited to be here. We flew Victoria/Vancouver/Toronto/Santiago, arriving at noon after some 18 hours in transit. It has been a long two days, but we did it!

Of course it is summer here – the jaqueranda trees are in full bloom and they are laden with purple blossoms.  Our neighbourhood is full of small restaurants – tonight we ate Peruvian and tomorrow we have  a line on traditional Chilean. I don’t think we’ll go hungry.

I’m not totally sure what I expected of Santiago, but it is different from whatever I expected. Six million people live in the city, so it is huge. We’ll only explore a small corner of it while we’re here. But what we’ve seen looks more like a European city. The city looks prosperous, the people are well dressed and the buildings, roads and sidewalks are in good repair. There is a big subway system, filled with art and murals. In fact there is art and sculpture throughout the city.

This statue is in the main plaza and recognizes the Mapuche, the indigenous people of the south of the country  - quite haunting…


So – it has been a long two days and it is time for us to go to bed – there are sights to be seen in the morning!