A blog which may appeal to those who enjoy stories about people, politics, economics, sports, and travel. In and around Argentina and the USA.


La Rica and El Recuerdo

Arriving in the area near the tiny town of La Rica last weekend, our little band of city slickers adapted quickly to silly love songs, silent cell phones, and a missing bag of toiletries (left on a sidewalk in Buenos Aires). But finding our destination - the estancia also named La Rica - became an insurmountable task.

The one among us who had been there more than a few times tried to blame in turn: the written directions, the weather, and the rental car. But half an hour later we were in the same general spot on the wrong side of the highway with the volkswagen threatening to bog down on dirt roads left muddy by overnight rain. Progress was slow. The women enjoyed a moment of amusement when the men, overcome by a sense of inadequacy, devised and executed a brilliant diversionary tactic: we got out and walked. The women simply drove on a bit before stopping to capture the futile mutiny on camera. Before long the guys were slumped back in the vehicle wondering how soon we could be retested for emotional intelligence.

In town the butcher gave us new directions that were just too easy. Our fearless driver preferred to be more creative. This didn't work and soon the old and new instructions blurred together and we were on our way to another part of Argentina.

Turn left at the new silos. Turn right where the power line crosses the road. Continue to the end of town. There is only one street in town. The end of town is just there in front of you. Cross the train tracks to nowhere. Follow the bend in the road. Go straight. Yes, straight as in do not turn left, right or back up. Look for the old pigeon tower near the road. Turn in through the gate.

After a while we doubled back to town and soon all the villagers were watching in amusement as we drove back and forth, back and forth, never getting closer to the estancia, but happily snapping digital photos along the way.

Finally arriving at the entrance, we saw that it had all been worthwhile. A wide green lane leads to the long main house on the right and a carriage galpon on the left. Through the gated entrance the rooms along the gallery look out onto an old well in the garden. In the leafy park hundreds of singing birds made the place feel like a rain forest. The prior evening's storm had blown branches and leaves into the swimming pool and the mosquitos were more eaily avoided on the other side of the house. So we enjoyed a picnic and a bottle of white wine on a bench next to an ancient canon.

La Rica was built in that later part of the 19th century. Half country estate and half fortress, it was originally a 18,000 hectarea ranch that operated as a completely self-contained village. For each sheep sheered, workers were paid with copper coins that were accepted at the only store for miles around: the one on the estancia run by the big boss, Manuel Estaquio Lopez.

In the late 19th century European pioneers building immense estancias on the expanse of pampas west of Buenos Aires had to keep a twitchy eye fixed on the horizon. A storm cloud or a cloud of dust could mean big trouble. There wasn't much that could be done to stop a tornado, but the indigenous population, however unhappy about being displaced from their land, could be rebuffed. Did the natives occasionally make off with supplies or a female resident? Probably. But in the end they didn't have an answer for old Mr. Canon.

While the ladies were well protected during raids, the ranchers should have been more worried when the dominator came to town. These were gauchos with special talents, a lost breed of horse breakers who journeyed tirelessly from estancia to estancia, stopping only to earn their living in the corrals. In the hot afternoon everybody stopped to watch him skillfully tame a wild stallion, and after dinner all gathered around the fire to hear his stories. At night he sometimes chose not to sleep out under the stars.

The modern day travelers wrapped up lunch and were soon headed for El Recuerdo, the nearby house in which we would spend the night. But first we stopped back in town, again, to buy meat from our friend the butcher. We arrived at the wonderful house with no difficulty.

In the evening, out there on the pampas, we prepared a barbeque and a vegetarian meal and ate it under a full moon. For urbanites enjoying a (brief) little-house-on-the-prairie moment, there were reminders of life in the Laura Ingalls days. A hot shower still required a wood fire in the furnace. Rain meant the road needed time to dry out before you could go anywhere. To cook outside you still had to consider which way the wind was blowing. And at night beatles and bugs got in the kitchen sink if you left the door open. But Michael Landon never appeared with his violin, so we deployed a small armada of iPods and portable speakers and Merel led us in a sing-along around the campfire well into the night.

The next morning was sunny and clear and we talked over breakfast on the peaceful porch. Later my aunt and uncle joined us for an asado lunch, having already heard the story of our eventful visit to town. In the afternoon we were given a tour of the herds of healthy cows and beautiful horses, many of which live out there for years, eating the prarie grasses and clover. Seeing an armadillo run by, my uncle told us that the only way to get one out of its hole is to stick a finger in its ass. Nobody knew how to get President Bush's head out of his.

Finally we said goodbye and headed back to BA.

In the city people were enjoying a picture perfect Sunday afternoon. We dropped Merel off in Recoleta and I dropped Julieta and Gunnar in Belgrano. Near my neighborhood, Libertador was jammed with end-of-weekend traffic. I found Julieta's bag of toiletries waiting downstairs in the lobby.

Back in my apartment I was dazed by an email from an American friend telling me that she had flown to Puerto Rico for the weekend because she "needed miles to make status for next year." Another complained bitterly that United wanted to deduct 100,000 miles for a free ticket to Buens Aires. And Wells Fargo, the bank of the wild west, had sent a message announcing important new legal notifications. I turned off the computer and went out on the balcony. I didn't want to think about Puerto Rico or El Big Rico. I wanted to think about good friends and La Rica and the time we had had there.

Credits: Merel: Photography Julieta: Driving Augusto and Maria: Hospitality


Fútbol Argentino: Siempre Shenanigans

The madness of fútbol Argentino was on display this week in La Plata where Boca Juniors and Gimnasia played Wednesday afternoon.

Actually what was contested was the second half of a September 10th match that had been suspended by the referee who said he'd been strongly reprimanded during the break by Gimnasia's president, Juan José Muñoz. Noboby knows what motivated that locker room visit - Muñoz's team was beating the champions 1-0, and were playing with "un cuchillo entre los dientes," (a knife between their teeth).

But an entirely different Gimnasia showed up for the second half nearly two months later. A lethargic squad gave up two quick goals and went on to lose to Boca 4-1. The former "iron opponent" played so badly that the accusations were immediate: Gimnasia's players had taken the dive. On Thursday sports paper Olé (owned by Clarín) reported that the team had received death threats from the barrabrava (hardcore, often violent, gangs associated with each team). The apparent reason was that Estudiantes were only a point behind first place Boca. Come again? Gimnasia's own barrabrava had demanded the team lose to weaken local archrival Estudiantes´ chances of gaining the championship.

The gang´s leaders; Fernando Núñez, alias Torugo, Juan Pablo Córdoba, alias Papupa, and Cristian Camillieri, alias El Volador, later said that they had not been to the training facility on Tuesday. But the manager, Pedro Troglio, and several players had already admitted that a meeting had taken place. In fact the player Ariel Franco implied that something omnious was discussed.

A special prosecutor, Marcelo Romero, was assigned and Torugo and company got themselves a lawyer. The lawyer, Burlando, a fan of hair products and, oddly, Estudiantes, told reporters that the threesome had a very good relationship with Gimnasia´s players and that he himself had known the lads since they were kids. In fact he had already defended Cristian against charges of homicide and, "of course," inciting violence.

The players, summoned to appear on Friday, simply didn't show up. (Later they explained lamely that they had not received a citation). Muñoz did appear around midday, but now Romero himself wasn´t around - he had stormed out saying the players had shown a lack of respect. Romero finally returned and Muñoz told him, "I don´t know what happened."

Troglio is scheduled to appear today and the players have been rescheduled for Monday. (Olé also said that on Wednesday Troglio had avoided the usual pregame chat with reporters by hiding in the bathroom).

From what I've seen and heard, just about every team in the league has been seriously threatened by their barrabravas, although more often the demand is for a win. When River lost a few games early in the season the player´s tires were slashed and the manager Passarella received death threats. I feel sorry for the players who must keep straight whether they´re to play like their lives depend on it or lie down on the job. "Che, tenemos que ganar o perder?" "No sé boludo."

So is anyone expecting the special prosecutor to make an indictment or the courts to actually punish anyone? Absolutely not. The prosecutor himself said that the investigation will probably end in futility on Monday.

And where is Julio Grondona in all of this? The president of the Argentine Fútbol Federation said only that he hadn't seen anything and that he won't talk about any incidents. The man in charge of the quality and integrity of the only major team sport in Argentina plans to do what he always does, absolutely nothing.

November 13, 2006

Following yesterday's Gimnasia v Velez match in La Plata, at least four reporters including Juan Manuel Allan of Olé, were attacked by fans outside the stadium. The reporters were left exposed to the unruly mob when they found the dressing room press gate locked and no police presence in the area. After being punched, kicked and threatened by the hooligans, the group of reporters managed to get back into the stadium and report the incident to police. Club officials later denied having deliberately locked the door but the police directly contradicted that statement.

Was this a shameful act of retribution by the club? Without question.

Adding to another dumb day for fútbol Argentino were the all-to-familiar events that unfolded in Avellaneda during a match between archrivals Independiente and Racing. Less than midway through the second half and down 2-0, Racing hooligans rioted and forced famous World Cup referee Hector Elizondo to suspend the game.

Fútbol Argentino is in disarray and President Kirchner himself should take action although that is extremely unlikely.


Expats in Argentina

In July, El Expatriado,www.expat-argentina.com, blogspot.com, posted a very good analysis, "How Much Money Do You Need to Live in Argentina?" It's still generating comments in November. Here is an excerpt:

"Some other expats could chime in on this, but I think a pretty good way of estimating your standard of living here would be to take your U.S. Dollar income, multiply it by three, and then imagine living in New York, Chicago, or some other major American city with that income. I think that's a mental exercise that most of us could do."

OK, I will take the invitation and ring in with two cents or more. The 3X rule stated here is easily true. The reality can be even better than that with a little management. An American living in Buenos Aires and making say, $30,000(or 90,000 pesos), will probably enjoy a better standard of living and feel less financial stress than if he or she were making $90,000 and living in NY, Chicago, SF, Boston or LA. The terms "standard of living" and "quality-of-life" can get complicated, so let me clarify that I am talking about the affordability of basic goods and services. (Which is not to say quality-of-life measures such as cultural resources and access to natural wonders are not extremely good here. They are).

1. Housing. As El Expat points out, rents for like-apartments are typically more than three times less costly in Buenos Aires than in major US cities like New York. And buying an apartment will cost you about four to five times less. In major US cities, percentage of income dedicated to housing can get as high as 50%. In Buenos Aires it should be much less: %20-%30 would be a good target range. This means you'll have more money left over to enjoy everything else.

2. Transportation Unlike most Americans in the middle class or higher(excluding New Yorkers),expats in Buenos Aires usually don't own or need cars. On automotive expenses alone you'll save a fortune. Add cheap cabs ($2 to $5 for most cab rides) and nearly free buses and subways(.25c), and it's game over in this category. Note that transportation is linked with housing. You don't have to live in Recoleta or Palermo because you can get around quickly and inexpensively. Try Belgrano for example.

3. Food and entertainment. You will spend less than a third on restaurants, movies, drinks, theater etc. This is especially true if you mix in small neighborhood spots with your Olsens and Sushi Clubs. This is the land of $20-$25 dinners for two including a good bottle of malbec. And if you cook at home once in a while you will save even more. First run movies at nice multiplexes like Village Recoleta are $5.00 a ticket with a seat number you select. The popcorn is available salty or sweet.

4. Consumerism/Keeping Up With the Jones In Buenos Aires most expats will spend far less on general shopping and consumption. For one thing you won't have any access to Best Buy, Amazon and Banana Republic. The constant advertising won't reach you either(file under quality-of-life). And you won't have the pressure from friends and coworkers to buy all the latest electronic gadgetry and other so called durable goods (such as cars). Anyway you'll be too busy enjoying the city to miss your widescreen plasma and TiVo.

5. Taxes Don't think you're off the hook with the IRS, but as a bonafide resident of Argentina who is physically present in the country for 330 days during any period of 12 consecutive months, you may qualify to exclude income up to $80,000 of your foreign earnings.

If you work for an "indefinite or extended period and you set up permanent quarters for yourself and your family, you probably have established a bonafide residence in a foreign country, even though you intend to return eventually to the United States."

So to qualify you can't leave the country for more than a month in any given year. But you can spend your free time traveling around the beautiful country of Argentina.


Where Will George Be Ranked?

When George W Bush finally retires to the ranch he will come out near the top of the historical presidential rankings. Assuming he serves out the remainder of his second term, he will end up tied for second with 2922 days in office.

Actually Bush will be only the thirteenth man to pull off two full terms. The other twelve are Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Grant, Cleveland, Wilson, FDR(easily #1 with 3+ terms), Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton. Truman, Teddy Roosevelt, Coolidge and Lyndon Johnson took over after the death of the sitting president and were elected to second terms. This group served anywhere from 1800 to 2800 days. Richard Nixon managed 2027 days in office.

Of the many great presidents with long tenures, Nixon is not one of them. Grant and Coolidge are also typically ranked among the poorest presidents of all time. So where will George W Bush end up in terms of achievement?

In a Quinnipac University poll from May of this year, Bush was picked as far and away the worst of the eleven chief executives since WWII. If scholars and historians end up agreeing with these respondents and George gets ranked below Nixon, he will slide in as the eleventh worst president of all time. But why stop there? The bottom ten beckons.

Admittedly, this a very tough club to break into. The current basement dwellers are (counting down): James Garfield, Zachary Taylor, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Ulysses Grant, William Henry Harrison, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Warren G Harding. In this lot we find familiar stories of corruption, laziness and drinking. Let's focus on the man on the bubble: James A. Garfield. Could Garfield edge out George W in the final ratings?

Garfield served only 199 days of his term including 80 days on his death bed. After being shot twice in an assasination attempt, he spent nearly three months under the horrendous care of the doctors who eventually killed him. The best physicians in the land probed Garfield's chest wound with unsterilized fingers, accidentally punctured his liver, and never found the bullet. The famous story is that a newly invented metal detector malfunctioned because Garfield was lying on a metal bedframe. Garfield's condition deteriorated and he ended up dead from an aneurysm.

But in happier times Garfield could simultaneously write in Latin with one hand and in Ancient Greek with the other. (Can W scratch out his fraternity letters without breaking his pencil?) Garfield also has a Johnny Cash tune about him, was mentioned in a Clint Eastwood movie, and didn't make the entire world hate the United States. So yes, Garfield could pull off the upset.

If Bush does join Tippecanoe and Tyler too in the bottom ten, Democrats will have nothing to gloat about. We couldn't beat him with a sitting VP or a tall war hero with a deep voice. Of course Republicans will probably rig the vote and get GWB ranked ahead of Clinton.

No matter where he ends up on the all time list, George W has already been properly memorialized in his least favorite place on earth, northern California. For some reason San Francisco has a proud tradition of naming streets after terrible presidents. Always ahead of the game, the city already has one named for 43. Long after George is gone, his favorite people (liberals, freaks and gays) will be strolling along Fillmore, Taylor, Buchanan, Pierce, Harrison, Grant and Bush. For those keeping score at home, Garfield and Johnson are sadly not San Francisco street names. But Harding Park Golf Course is named for Warren G, an avid golfer who died at the Palace Hotel.

Tyler was excluded because he annexed the Republic of Texas and admitted the state of Florida in 1845.


Dora la Gestora

I'm shown into the office on Cordoba and there behind the desk is someone who must be Dora. There is a commotion going on. She has slid her chair over to the fax machine and seems to be in a desperate struggle to remove a toner cartridge. The receiver is wedged up to her ear and she is shouting at someone over the phone line. She tells the person to hold and yells for her assistant. He leans in and she sends him out to buy a roll of fax paper.

I expect that after a while she will stand up or lean forward for the usual greeting - the kiss on the cheek. Instead Dora doesn't acknowledge my presence. She takes a drag of her cigarette and a swig of coffee and goes back to her conversation.

I have time to look around.

The fax machine, circa 1986, is the only sign of change in the office, circa 1950. On her desk there is a old three-line office phone and that's it. No computer to be seen. There are stacks of papers around the phone and in the little bookcase along the wall. The walls have never been repainted, but there is a picture of the Casa Rosada or maybe the Obelisco which stands a few blocks away.
The assistant returns quickly with the roll of fax paper and gets the machine up and running again. The crisis is over for now and Dora finally turns her attention to me. She looks as battle-hardened as her smokey-voice sounds, but she seems like a good person and I like her right away.

I hand over my birth certificate(registro civil)and an old passport. She considers these and rapidly describes the steps that will have to be taken. I pick up every third or fourth word. She seems to be saying that any official record of my birth is definitely gone goodbye. The only thing we have to work with is that piece of paper. For some reason the passport is useless and she hands it back to me.

Anyone could see after two minutes that Dora kicks butt and gets results. And that's why I'm here. Dora is going to walk me through Argentina's epic bureaucracy. She's the best gestora in town. Think you're smart enough, charming enough, or resilient enough to wade into a Argentine goverment office on your own and come out with whatever important documentation you need? Forget it. Better call old Dora. She knows how to plow through paperwork backlogs, missing files, change in procedure, take a number, closing at 3:00pm, on vacation, that office moved, come back when you have 5 copies of X or the proper forms Y and Z. Dora knows overworked and underpayed functionaries and clerks and works them until they bend to her will.

I go away feeling confident.

But my case is a difficult one and even Dora struggles to make progress. After a few weeks she calls and says to stop by on a Saturday and leave $200 pesos with the guard. He will give me a receipt. I tell this to various people and they all agree that this is coima for someone(a bribe). When I show up on Saturday the guard is out to lunch. I wait for more than an hour while he enjoys his 5-course meal and a siesta. A second-rate modeling school in the building is holding auditions and that keeps things interesting. Finally the guard shows up and starts digging around in his desk for the receipt. He can't find it but I see it there under his nose. The transaction is finally completed.

After a few more weeks I hear from Dora that plan A has apparently failed. Now I am to meet her at the neighborhood civil office in an end-run on the national register. At the civil office we wait for our number to be called. As usual there are no computers to be seen. The woman tells us we're in the wrong place. They debate back and forth. Dora gets her turned around. OK, where are the photographs? We don't have them. We run down the street to a photography studio. It's closed. A sign on the door says check the cafe on the corner. Dora finds him and hauls him back to work against his will. He puts on tango. First things first. He tells a few stories. I'm thoroughly enjoying myself. Dora tries to hurry him along. He finally takes the pictures and we go back. A flurry of stamps and signatures and paperwork. The woman inks up all 10 of my fingers with a huge ink pad and makes 10 prints on a form. They send me to the men's room to wash up. The sink is covered with ink stains.

About a month later we make arrangements to meet at another office. Here I am to get the long awaited DNI. We are at a little known auxiliary branch of a forgotten department of the national register. We are sent up to the 6th floor. Wrong floor. Someone tells us to go down to 5. Someone on 5 tells us to go down to 3. On 3 we are sent through an interior office and out across a courtyard to another building. In this office there are stacks of blank ID cards and handwritten forms. We finally find the office in question and the woman comes out to the hallway to meet us. She asks for a photograph. Dora looks surprised. Luckily I have the last one with me. After a while we are called in. I sign the handwritten ID. The woman sticks the photo in the right place and laminates it. She shakes my hand. That's it. I have Argentine citizenship again.

Back out in the hallway I pay Dora and she gives me her new business card. We say goodbye forever.

Over the last 6 months I've heard her name mentioned repeatedly. I'm surprised to learn that she now has a web site. The site looks good and there is a choice of 4 different languages.
But only the spanish link works.


Dear, It Appears to be Raining Frogs

On the way to Sierra de la Ventana we had stopped for a coffee and a fill up in the town of Azul. As we sat there waiting for Augusto, Maria told me that 5 years earlier, in the parking lot of that very same gas station, she had seen thousands of little frogs raining down from the sky.

At first glance this looked like confirmation that she had lost it. She even claimed that that had been the third time she had witnessed amphibian rain. Little warning bells went off in my head. And this was the first day of a long weekend together. But then Augusto came in and signed off on the story. He had been there that day in Azul. It was true.

Frog rain, it turns out, is a fairly common phenomenon first reported way back in history. In his famous diary, Samuel Pepys wrote on May 23rd 1661: "At table I had very good discourse with Mr. Ashmole, wherein he did assure me that frogs and many insects do often fall from the sky, ready formed." In July 1883 Scientific American wrote: "A shower of frogs, which darkened the air and covered the ground for a long distance, is the reported result of a recent rainstorm at Kansas City, Missouri." More recently a frog rain occurred in Odzaci, Serbia in June 2005. There is even a frog rain scene in the movie Magnolia. The theory is that tornadoes or violent thunderstorms passing over ponds and creeks pick up the frogs and toads and then drop them nearby or hundreds of miles away.

But this was not enough to explain how one person could witness three events in the same general area of Argentinian pampas. Then I read this observation: “Away from coastal areas, frogs and toads are more frequently swept up because sizeable inland swamps or mrshy areas can easily be cleared out by storms.” Add pampas to that list. Pampas are lowland plains that flood easily after heavy rains. On our trip we saw flooded areas and lagoons along every route. It had rained heavily a few days before the weekend.

So Maria has been completely vindicated. All those who doubted her in the past should learn their lesson.

Pictured below is an Argentinian Horned Frog, also known as Pac Man.


Sierra de la Ventana

Estancia de la Ventana was the country estate of turn-of-the-century tycoon Ernesto Tornquist(1842-1908). Tornquist, whose business interests included cattle, railroads, sugar refineries, salt mines, hardwood, oil, breweries, hotels and whaling, owned 100,000 hectares (close to 250,000 acres)in the valley of the Sierra de la Ventana, in the southwest corner of the province of Buenos Aires, near the port of Bahía Blanca.

Tornquist is also the name of the town Ernesto founded there in 1880 when he invited German, Swiss, Austrian, and Russian-German families to settle in the area.

Over the recent long weekend I visited the house with my uncle Augusto Coelho and aunt Maria Acuña. Maria is a great-granddaughter of Ernesto and one of the present day owners of the property.

A 100-year-old mansion of this size (24 bedrooms) is costly to maintain, but the building is in good condition. The tall front doors open to white marble entry stairs. Beyond the foryer is a long, tiled gallery. The living and dining rooms are large enough to entertain all the guests at Gosford Park, although this weekend there were just three visitors and no murders to investigate. Upstairs I had about 20 bedrooms and 7 bathrooms to myself unless old Ernesto himself was drifting around in the dark corners. I never saw him on my floor and didn't have time to check the attic.

The park was designed by Charles Thays, the french landscape architect who had a huge influence on the famed public spaces of Buenos Aires. But as in the Bosques de Palermo and the Botanical Gardens, his work here has faded somewhat over time. In one place a large grassy depression is the imprint left by a lake that was once there. Not far away a brick border traces the site of a tennis court. On another side of the house cherubs wait impatiently with hands on hips for their fountain to spring back to life.

But what remains are acres of woods and an amazing variety of trees, all older and grander now. Two arroyos that flow through the grounds were filled with water and running fast after a recent rain. A suspension bridge crosses one of these at the original entrance. There, a huge iron gate was a welcome sight at the end of the long journey from the city. Today it stands on nearby land donated by the family for a provincial park.

Maria and Augusto led us on a walk down the carriage lanes and pointed out giant eucalyptus, oak (roble), cork oak, walnut (nogal), chestnut (castaño), rosewood (tipuana tipu), stone pine, aleppo pine, acacia, rows of slender alamos, and another visitor from California: a surprising sequoia. At one point we heard the loud sound of cracking wood and turned to see a tree come crashing down across the path behind us. Along an arroyo we came to an wonderful old dam that, over time, had created nature there. As if to prove the point, Augusto and Maria showed me the exact spot where, 10 years earlier, my father had reached down into a fissure and found a rare fern. A little further along I ventured out onto an aqueduct that crosses the stream and looked down through thick green plants and fallen trees at a beautiful hidden place where the water pools.

In the late afternoon near the house we heard the cook Sofia ring a bell announcing tea. Inside we were treated to toasted french bread, homemade jam, sweet local honey, and a tasty quince pie called pastafrola. Downstairs in the kitchen Sofia had also been busy feeding wood into the boiler for hot showers. That night after dinner we sat in comfortable chairs near the fireplace and were joined by Sofia who stopped to chitchat. Later, after she had gone, the three of us talked and read newspapers while Maria mended a pair of pants. Later she showed me an old guest book and on one of its pages I saw a little painting my father had made of that special fern.

In the morning the sky was blue but a chilly breeze stirred the leaves outside. The dining room was empty but whole sections of a tree were already burning in the massive fireplace. And the sun was shining in through the east window. On the sideboard I found hot coffee and milk waiting under quilted covers.

In the early afternoon Augusto and I brought up the saddles and walked over to two mares that Julio had left waiting for us in the corral. There, we saw that our horses were already attended by an amped up young stallion who stood just outside their enclosure. Unfortunately the only way to get the gals out was through his pasture. Sure enough the fiesty young guy was in our face, but Augusto waved him off repeatedly and we managed to maneuver out through the gate while keeping him in. The studhorse was not happy about having his harem taken away and continued to voice displeasure while pacing up and down the fence line. Things finally quieted down once we were in the woods and out of his sight. But on the other side of the stream the trees opened to a large pasture and there we found ourselves in the proverbial fire. Across the field a herd of 15 semi-broken ponies grazed quietly. But the gang soon spotted us and came trotting up to investigate. Our mares were ears-back tense and ready to kick as the ponies surrounded us and then followed along, weaving in and out on our tail. After a few minutes Augusto led us through a treeline and we seemed to cross an unseen boundary. The ponies fell back.

On the other side of a little-used gate we walked through green alfalfa fields and stopped a few times to let our hungry horses feed. At the base of a sloping rocky sierra called La Colita de Cocodrilo, we started to climb up to a ridge. The steep incline and stoney terrain forced us to dismount and lead the horses on. Later, trying to mount again at a tricky place, Augusto had a foot in a stirrup and was pulling himself up into the saddle when his mare suddenly turned and stumbled. At that moment the saddle came loose and there was nothing left to hold on to. Augusto hung in the air for a moment and then fell backwards, landing hard on the rocks. Miraculously he was up on his feet right away and brushing off dust; he had suffered nothing more than a skinned elbow and we were able to continue on to the summit. Up there we found that the gate we were looking for was locked. The choice now was to turn back or follow the fence through thick brush and rocks downhill and then up again to another hilltop near el cerro Mamin. After much effort we were close to our destination when Augusto spotted a place where the fence itself could be released. He opened it up and we rode on down to the valley on the other side. Back at the corral our friend the stallion tried to mount one of the mares, but Augusto only smiled and chuckled at his youthful inexperience.

That evening we sat and watched the sierras turn pink at sunset and then gray at dusk. Parrots and chimangos darted overhead and called to each other through the branches. After dark we stepped outside and saw a shooting star crossing the southern skies.


El Superclasíco

On Sunday, a hot and sunny spring afternoon, I went with friends Merel and Juliette to the superclásico! Home team River Plate´s Monumental stadium in the Nuñez neighborhood of Buenos Aires was packed that day - hundreds of spectators literally sat in the aisles.

Visiting crosstown rivals Boca Juniors are the most popular team in Argentina and have won the last two championships. More than rivals, the teams and their fans hate each other. Violence is not unknown and police are careful to keep fans seperated. But the strongest beverage on sale is coca-cola and visiting fans exit first and get bused away while home fans wait in their seats. There was no trouble.

This year Boca, in blue and gold, was again in first place going into Sunday's match. The superclásico is the biggest game of the year between the country´s two top teams. Boca has the historical lead in the superclásico with 65 wins. River has won 60 times and there have been 55 draws. First to walk out onto the field was the referee Horacio Elizondo whose recent moment of fame came after holding a red card over Zinedine Zidane's bald head and pointing to the sideline. No one needs to be reminded that ZZ had just used his hard skull to bulldoze Marco Materazzi in defense of his sister's honor.

We arrived an hour and half before Elizondo and retreated quickly to shady upper row seats out of the scorching sun. Boca Juniors' fans, called bosteros, or "shit pickers", were relegated to three small sections behind a goal. Throughout the day they made a good effort to support their team but 65,000 River Plate enthusisasts were dominant.

The home fans, waving red and white flags and singing in unison, put on a show that never stopped. They threw confetti and smoke bombs, spun umbrellas and balloons, and unfurled a huge banner that covered one entire end of the stadium. You can get an idea of what it looked like here, but to feel the energy of futbol argentino, you know what you have to do. You can picture thousands of fans, young and old, jumping and cheering happily in that huge vibrating stadium. But you have to show up to hear River fans (los millonarios) serenading the bosteros and their irreputable female relatives, their poor housing arrangements, and their distant countries of origin.

The new coach for Boca Juniors is Argentine Ricardo La Volpe, recently the coach of the Mexican national team. His team features stars such as Rodrigo Palacios, a member of the Argentine national team that played so well in Germany. Boca was unbeaten in a long series of games going back to last season.

River Plate is coached by el Kaiser, Daniel Passarella, a hero of earlier World Cups. His team features new stars soon on their way to Europe and others that are past their prime and already back. On the one hand, Gonzalo Higuaín and Fernando Belluschi, and on the other el burrito Ariel Ortega and el muñeco Marcelo Gallardo.

River Plate opened the scoring with a neat back foot by Higuaín that beat Boca goalie Aldo Bombadilla, the Paraguayan national team goalie. But Boca Juniors soon tied with a Palacio goal and score stood at 1 - 1 after a very good half of play.

In the second half, River Plate, playing with visible enthusiasm and energy, scored twice on golazos by Higuain and el Tecla, Ernesto Farías. Belluschi set up all three River goals and looked especially brilliant on long passes that dropped in on the toes of Higuaín and Farías. Both beat defenders and juked Bombadilla to finish with stunning goals that Boca fans, sitting nearby in the upper deck, felt as painfully as if they had been kicked themselves while bending over in a cow pasture.

Boca had no answer and River Plate won 3 to 1 in a blowout. The celebration in the streets went on late into the night.


Liberty Hill Farm

Wisely, he has a folded handkerchief ready.
He knows how beautiful she will be.
It is a good thing because the tears come right way.

And the helpless smile.

I look and I see the perfect blue sky.
And the green Tennessee countryside.
In front of us, in a long rolling meadow,
a brown mare and a Pinto, perhaps Shiloh,
quietly work the short grass.

They move slowly, heads down,
feigning a lack of interest,
but all the while curiously close
to the white fence and the wedding party.
I look back and I see that she’s arrived
and it’s true, she is beautiful in a white dress
and a brilliant red sash.
Her face as alive as the day.

He gives her the handkerchief
when he sees her tears start.
She puts it to her eyes and there is silence.
We look and we know what it is between them.

Later the rings appear
and the laughter starts
and we see the brown mare and the Pinto,
having forgotten their shyness,
are standing at the fence,
taking a good look at their visitors.
We smile because there’s something so familiar.

But then the music starts
and the party cheers
and the horses jump in surprise
and race off down the meadow.
We watch them go and we laugh again.

I look and I see the white fence
and the trees near the old well.
The late summer afternoon is ending.
The couple has gone
and it’s time for us to join them.


Growing Up In New York City

I was an undersized third grader with glasses growing up in Washington Heights. Riverside Park was a short walk away from our northern Manhattan neighborhood and I loved to explore it with friends. On warm summer days we walked along the Hudson as far north as the Little Red Lighthouse which sits under the giant east tower of the George Washington Bridge and faces the sheer rock palisades of New Jersey. Here and there along the way we would stop to throw rocks in the river and watch men fishing. Quiet railroad tracks led us back south through trees and bramble to white mountains of rock salt under the West Side Highway that begged to be climbed.

That year my parents decided that, like my brother, I would attend school outside our neighborhood. On the first day in early September my brother escorted me there on the subway and pointed out the correct classroom. But at 3:00pm the bell rang, he went off to Central Park with friends, and I was left to make the return trip on my own. I arrived without incident and took the train myself the next morning.

And thus began my career as an 8 year old New York City subway commuter.

Soon it became a routine and usually pleasant journey. Board the 1 train at 157th street and Broadway; uptown one stop to 168th; ride the elevator up one level; walk down a long tunnel to the B train; south to 96th street and Central Park West. After school reverse each step to get home.

I got used to people asking where my parents were or if I was lost. Occasionally I got harassed by other kids. Bullies from other schools learned to relieve me of my subway pass early in the month, before others got there first. Slow movers had to settle for loose change.

My father was mugged in our elevator by two guys with a butcher knife. This despite the elevator´s high tech security system: a porthole window and a mirror. I think they lifted his wallet and wristwatch. After that I was in the best shape of my life; a few weeks of walking up and down seven flights of stairs will do that.

In the 1970s the subways were in bad shape following years of neglect, think: Beneath the Planet of the Apes. None of us would have been surprised to see James Franciscus crawling out of the tunnel in a space suit, Nova at his side. Near school, on Columbus Avenue, wild dogs trotted down the street in small packs. At night they lived in the abandoned buildings and empty lots that seemed to overflow with discarded treasures. But not wanting to cross paths with rats or Ratso Rizzo, we spent most of our time in playgrounds and in Central Park, that big green playground just across the street. There, in the park, boys growing up in the city are for a moment the same as boys everywhere. In springtime they climb trees, play baseball, or chase each other over hills in a game of capture the flag. In fall, tackle football on fallen leaves. In winter, a snowball finding its mark and the shock of melting ice on bare skin. All the time perfect laughter. Take a picture without Fifth Avenue in the background and you are anywhere.

In summer I took a break from the city. It was time for fresh air at camp in New England. There we canoed on rivers in Maine, toured Nova Scotia on bicycles, and backpacked the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In camp we sang indian verse at council fires, attended early morning flag raising, or walked down to the lake for evening vespers by candlelight.

One winter at home I prepared for a class ski trip to Vermont with extra sledding on a deadend street. The night of the big trip I rode the subway to meet up with the group at school. I had unwisely choosen to ride alone in the front of the first subway car, watching the long dark tunnel fly by. At the second or third stop three teenagers boarded and started toward my position. I made some resistance but before long they had helped themselves to the new ski jacket and mittens I had been breaking in for the slopes. One of them put the coat on and another the gloves. The third was left without any prize, but all three got off at the next stop. The conductor sat safely nearby in his compartment, unaware of what was happening. Luckily the trio hadn't bothered to look through my suitcase which had been sitting nearby. Finally the train arrived at 96th street I continued bravely on to school, walking three long blocks through the cold night carrying the luggage and wearing nothing but a t-shirt and jeans. Upon arrival I caught the attention of classmates and teachers who listened in amazement to my story. Luckily one of the kids said he had an extra jacket at his father's apartment, which was nearby in the famous Dakota. I arrived there a few minutes later in a taxi and found the father waiting for me outside with the coat. I was once again ready for the trip north.

In high school, after my brother left to become a fighter pilot, I took over his room located next to the kitchen. Actually it had been my aunt's room first, before she married a poet and moved to Venezuela. My brother left his old stereo and I listened to the Beatles and read John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. Occasionally, in the still of the night, I would jump at the sudden report of a kill; a split-second break in the silence caused by the loud snap of a mouse trap. The next morning I would report the event at breakfast and my father would search through the canned vegetables and pull out the little guillotine and its victim. The mouse would be released into the kitchen garbage, the trap recheesed, reloaded, and repositioned on a pantry shelf. I could never resist taking another look down into the garabage. There would be the little brown body half buried in last night's lettuce.

The mouse and rat population in the building attracted a community of alley cats who lived in and around the building's garbage room. No campaign to remove them was ever witnessed by myself. I guess the theory was: better a few wild cats then too many rodents.

Our apartment was burglarized twice. Unfortunately, two gentlemen were still at work one day when I arrived home, rummaging for valuables in my parent's bedroom. I had come in, put my books down in my room and stopped in the kitchen for a glass of water, all the while undetected by the perpetrators who were making a racket opening closets and drawers at the other end of the apartment. I had thought it was my mother doing something strange and I went to find out what it was. But as I turned the corner to the bedroom I saw one of the men coming around the other way. We stopped and looked at each other and for a split second I was disoriented enough to wonder if I was lost. I like to think now that a stunning counterattack was my first option. In this scenario I bang their heads together after a series of dangerous kicks and punches, and watch them drop to the floor. Afterwards a calm phone call to a friend at the precinct. Come pick up these baddies.

That's the scene I later played in my head.

But the actual footage will show me locking myself in the bathroom before they had time to blink.

So there I was in that white-tiled bathroom with the criminals banging on the door and yelling confusingly about friendship. Luckily we lived in a prewar building with solid walls and doors. As a precaution I loaded the waterpick with hot water. If they had gotten in the only real threat would have been my violent shaking.

I have no idea why the hulking bandits didn't just go about their business and continue with the robbery. Could be that there wasn't much worth stealing and they were simply diverting themselves for a while before rejoining their busy social lives. Maybe they thought the place had already been robbed, and that was actually true. Eventually things quieted down and it became clear that my new friends had left, but I decided to maintain my secure position for a few more hours, knowing that they could also be hiding in the apartment.

After that incident I was a nervous wreck on the streets. I was afraid I would be recognized and forced to reveal what I had told the cops (which was of course nothing useful). The intruders would never believe that I had been unable to make a description for a police sketch or that the cops had not bothered to take fingerprints and interview neighbors.

But I survived and soon stopped wearing those famous glasses. I simply sat closer to the blackboard. I started roller skating with a friend from school. On Fridays and Saturdays we danced all nigh(on wheels)in clubs like The Roxy and High Rollers. There we saw performances by new artists like Africa Bambatta and Madonna. On Sunday afternoons we kept on skating near Sheep's Meadow in Central Park. Nearby, on that sidewalk in front of the Dakota, John Lennon was shot and killed not long before we graduated high school.


Torquato Tasso

In late June I made a stop in Ferrara Italy. This is a great town to visit. On a quiet summer afternoon you can check out the castello estense, medieval streets, renaissance palazzios, and the city wall. In the evening things picked up as stores reopen and locals emerge, stopping their bicycles for friendly chats in the square.

Not long after the university there started accepting students in 1391, a place called Hostaria del Chiuchiolino opened nearby (ciucco is italian slang for drunk). Copernicus took a law degree there in 1503 and while I'm sure he was very studious, the story is that he lived above this establishment, which is now called Al Brindisi(The Toast). I went there with a group of students from California and their italian professor. They told me the best time to jump in the moat is early morning - after the night watchman has gone home to bed. But having a flight out the next morning I was not able to enjoy a morning swim.

Back here in Buenos Aires I went to the live music venue called Torquato Tasso that's best known as a milonga. I was surprised to find out that the name does not refer to a difficult tango step, but rather to another famous patron of Al Brindisi.

Torquato Tasso's wikipedia biography is long, confusing and contradicts other sources, so here is a summary of his story compliled from the internet for those who are interested.

Torquato Tasso was a 16th century poet who received an invitation to join the brilliant court of Ferrara at 21 years of age. By this time Torq was already a famous poet and a veteran of the Italian court circuit. As poet-in-residence at the house of Este, Torquato found many pleasures. Byron later wrote of his legendary love for princess Leonora d'Este, daughter of Lucrecia Borgia and Duke Alfonso d'Este. Tasso's benefactor was princess Leonora's nephew, Duke Alfonso II.

Tasso was also in love with two renowned singers who were members of the court's illustrious concerto delle donne: Laura Peverara and Lucrezia Bendido, the future wife of Macchiavelli.

But Torquato was always in and out of crisis mode. His mental health deteriorated over the years and he became more and more paranoid and neurotic. In 1577 he knifed a servant he thought was a spy and was put in a convent. Later he disrupted the Duke's third wedding by shouting insults at people and was sent to St Anna's hospital where he stayed on and off for seven years. After his release in 1586 he wandered around Italy behaving badly. Physically and mentally he continued to decline. But Tasso was admired and loved by so many that he always managed to find new benefactors such as Pope Clement VIII. He died in 1595 at the Convent of St Onofrio.

Tasso's poems were instant classics and required reading in Europe through the 19th century. Goethe wrote a play about him called Torquato Tasso.


High School Soccer Coach

Materazzi finally confirmed that he provoked the head butt. This week Marco admitted to referencing Zinedine's sister.

United States fans will recall that Italy was actually on the delivery end of the World Cup's most violent act: the wicked De Rossi elbow that almost broke Brian McBride's face. (In this photo, just hours before US v Italy, James flashes hang ten to the amusement of young friend.)

These events had me recalling my earlier experience with Italian-style soccer.

Our high school soccer team was unfortunately a perpetual loser. We finished either 0-10 every year or close to it. One September we were told a new coach was coming in. What they didn't tell us was that he was a short, snuff-sniffing, perfumed Italian-American New Yorker who showed up for after-school games with a five o'clock shadow.

After the first contest, and our first lose, he told us to play more physically, by which he was careful to explain he meant play rough and don't get caught. Try to kick the shin or throw a knee into the lower back, he said. But his teachings had little effect on thirteen undersized boys and a girl who practiced on scratches of dirt in Central Park and played every game on the road. We carried on losing. Soon he got tired of this and surprised us with the decision to put himself in the next match. On game day he showed up in the locker room early and spent about an hour shaving his face, neck and truncated legs, while steadily inhaling tobacco powder through the nose. Our new "coach" was a kid recruited from the basketball team complete with overcoat and clipboard. As promised our real coach put himself in after halftime and proceeded to go to work on the other side. Soon the opposing coach and the referee were angry and getting suspicous when time ran out and we lost the game anyway.

For the final game he actually recruited our high school music teacher to impersonate him and this time played the entire match. I don't recall winning that game, it's possible that, like Italy, we overcame bad karma and tied one. The following year another new coach came in.


Dinosaurs and Ford Falcons

Only George Bush could love a oil town like Comodoro Rivadavia. This stretch of coast along the Gulf of San Jorge is not ideal for sightseeing. I continued on to Trelew where I stopped to check out The MEF. This is a quality paleontology museum in the heart of dinosaur country. Patagonia is to paleontologists what Vegas is to gamblers. I don't know if these guys are better at finding old bones or coming up with fun names that convey size: Megaraptor, Titanosaurs and Giganotosaurus are good examples. It's no coincidence that oil companies and dinosaur scientists are operating in close proximity here. Solyent Green is people and fossil fuel is liquid gasosaurus.

In the old welsh frontier town of Gaiman I found a $25 room in an 1867 hotel on main street. This part of town feels like an old western - patagonia style. The room, with its creeky hardwood floors, high ceilings and big antique bed, did not disappoint.

Later that day I stopped at a welsh tea house visited by Princess Diana 10 years back. There you can see the chair she sat in. (I have a picture of her in my mind from the day I saw her coming out of a hotel in New York). The tea house gardens and the nearby river are also beautiful to see.

Returning to main street I was surprised to find 15 to 20 Ford Falcons lined up in front of the hotel for a thunderous rally. The surprise was the setting, not the vehicle, since the Falcon is the classic car in Argentina.

The young Ford enthusiasts gathered in Gaiman that afternoon were writing a new chapter in the Falcon's history. Here were more than a dozen examples in very good condition and each one sounding as loud as an F15. Everyone was making good use of that dinosaur oil.

The next day I was heading west on Route 25 and moving fast when I came up on a venue of huge bald vultures feeding on a rabbit carcass. When they saw the Kia approaching they started flapping and taking off, but one made a bad low turn and the truck slammed into him at high speed. I could feel the weight of it at impact. I stopped in a state of shock. I went back and looked around but couldn't locate anything. There was blood on the bumper but he was gone. I waited nearby but obviously the rabbit was now deemed too risky by these living dinosaurs. They didn't make it this far by being stupid.


Patagonia Atlantic Coast

Driving north from Punta Arenas along the Strait of Magellan I stopped to check out the red roofed buildings of San Gregorio, a 19th century sheep estancia. Also nearby was the shell of a 1869 british ship called the Ambassador. The former was apparently still operating while the later was now a Chilean historical monument.

Crossing the border back into Argentina I soon arrived in Rio Gallegos. I'm not sure what there is to say about this town except that Kirchner was based there as governor of Santa Cruz before becoming president of Argentina. Possibly the only easier job in the world than governor of Santa Cruz is governor of Texas. I visited a bank machine and gas station and got out of there.

North on Route 3 it was close to sunset when I drove up to a inn at an empty truck stop. The owner showed me to a crispy clean room. I really enjoyed the hot shower in the polished bathroom and the good food out in the dining room after a long day of driving and sightseeing. But something was not right in the twilight. As far as I could tell I as the only guest at Posada Lemarchand. After a while I noticed the family walking around with wild looks on their faces. The inn seemed new, but who knows how long they had been out there on that windy steppe. We all glanced up when a group of very tough looking gauchos walked in. I was ready for what had to be the next scene in the movie. But these guys turned out to be regulars who looked happy to be out of the wind - no knife throwing competitions or nervous womenfolk. They simply drank and watched late night futbol replays and I did the same.The next day I was up for an early breakfast and could see the wind already blowing outside. I looked over and noticed Granny behind the counter staring out at the gravel parking lot, lost in her morning cigarettes and solitude. On the way out I waved goodbye and didn't notice a response.

I drove north to Monte Leon national park which opened just two years earlier. The only coastal national park in Argentina was once a huge estancia owned by The Southern Patagonia Sheep Farming Company. The land was recently bought and donated to the country by an American. When I arrived the place was completely deserted and that made it more special. The signature viewpoint is on a high cliff facing a towering island out in the ocean which happens to be home to thousands of comarants. Two long cables connected land and island, but anyone hoping to ride out on a gondola would be confusing Patagonia and Orlando. Further north I walked along an empty rocky beach backed by low cliffs and muddy inlets when I was suddenly joined by a solitary penguin. I approached slowly as he inspected himself and enjoyed the sunshine. Once or twice the surf came up to his webbed feet and he shifted further up the beach to avoid the cold water. This went on for a while but then as I came closer he turned and swam out into the Atlantic and I watched him swimming and fishing in the water close to shore. I took my souvenir egg-shaped rock and headed back to the 4 x 4 up on the bank. The Kia had not been lonely as it was surrounded by a large herd of Guanaco. One bold individual stood near me down on the beach level drinking from a muddy pool. The others waited nervously above until it was safe to drop in from the cliff's edges.

Continuing north on route 3 the wind was steadily slashing the truck and trying to knock it off the road. I had to hang on tight. Insect bits and dust made it difficult to see and it didn't help to smear it all around with fluid and water. At one point a suicide bird came flying in and ofted himself with a slap on the front grill. Later that afternoon I turned off for the 50K drive out to Petrified Forest National Park. The huge fallen trees trunks turned to stone millions of years ago and now lay across dry rocky hills and cliffs. Very forceful hot winds were whipping dust across the lunar landscape and its strange grey volcanic mountains. The wind was so strong I was having a hard time breathing and walking. Starting my drive back I stopped to take a leak and was left gasping when the wind flipped around and peppersprayed me in the face with urine and dust. Then, trying to get back inside the truck I had to duck down in front of it because I was getting raked by painful buckshot swirling up off the road.

Finally back off the ripio and on route 3 I arrived later in the small town of Fitz Roy with my tank on empty and planning to make another 100 kilometers. There on the side of the road was something that looked promising but as I approached I saw the shell of the old YPF station complete with wrecked vehicles scattered about the lot. This was making me nervous. I drove around until I found the local police station and the police chief. He went off to find me some gas. A while later he was back with a can and a plastic tube and sucked up a nice mouthful of the stuff. But the syphon worked and $!00 pesos later I was back on my way.

I made it up to a town I thought would be a nice place to stay. But Caleta Olivia turned out to be a smaller version of Commodoro Rivadavia. I now know why no one talks about it in the guide books. I stopped at two shabby hotels and was shown jail cells with sad carpets, stained walls and tiny cots. I kept moving. In the end I ended up at the Hotel Robert which, as far as I could tell, was the least miserable hotel in town. I had a nice milanesa with vino tinto downstairs in the busy restaurant and fell asleep early after realizing the remote control didn't work.