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


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.