Friday, 20 November 2015
Vote now to save the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition
If you care about the rights of cyclists in San Francisco, I urge you to join me in voting for the slate of reform candidates endorsed by "Save SF Bike!", to reclaim our organization and restore member control, democracy, transparency, and honesty to SFBC decision-making.
Voting continues through 30 December 2015 on SFbike.org. You can also vote by mail or in person at the SFBC office or at the annual meeting of SFBC members on Thursday evening, December 10th. The agenda for the annual meeting is up to the members who attend to determine once the meeting is called to order, but there are apparently plans to propose an agenda that would include time for a candidates' forum. See you there!
I'm not running for the SFBC Board of Directors this year. Instead, I have endorsed the excellent slate of candidates put together by Save Sf Bike!
I first tried to run for the Board in 2013, but I was lied to about the election deadlines and illegally kept off the ballot by the then Executive Director (and current candidate for the Board on the slate endorsed by the incumbents), Leah Shahum. I tried to run for the Board again last year, but was illegally prevented from communicating with my fellow members about the election until it was over, by action or inaction of the incumbent Board members (including those running for re-election, who as candidates should have recused themselves from decisions about the election) and again by Leah Shahum in some of her final actions as Executive Director.
These are harsh words, and said with sadness, but they are true. It's important for SFBC members to hear them -- especially since the incumbent Board members are, as a body, lying about what happened in last year's election and about what they've done before and since.
I'm distraught by what's happened to the SFBC. I don't want to have to publicly criticize officers of an organization that I've believed in and publicly identified myself with as a dues-paying member (including on my Web site since it was first created, and in the author profiles in each of my books) for almost 20 years. But the incumbent SFBC Board and staff have resolutely refused pleas from members to create an internal communication mechanism that would allow us to share our concerns with our fellow SFBC members without posting them publicly.
I also want to make clear that I have never felt any personal animosity from any of the SFBC Board members or staff, nor do I feel any towards any of them. I believe that they mean well, and that they are acting out of sincere anti-democratic principles and a "corporatist" top-down philosophy of organizational governance rather than out of personal animus towards me. It's the principles that they have articulated, and that they have acted on in their official capacity as members of the Board of Directors, that lead me to urge you not to vote for any of the incumbents or those other candidates who they have endorsed, and instead to vote for the Save SF Bike! slate.Continue reading "Vote now to save the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition"
Friday, 13 November 2015
The Amazing Race 27, Episode 8
The Hague (Netherlands) - Krakow (Poland)
The first time The Amazing Race visited Poland, the reality-TV travel show visited the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. This season, the racers were sent to the Krakow municipal historical museum at Oscar Schindler's Enamel Factory, where more than a thousand and Jews were saved from the death camps by Schindler's employing them in his factory and bribing SS officials.
The Nazi Holocaust is an important (if increasingly distant) piece of Poland's past, and there are good reasons for tourists to visits sites where that past is memorialized and to take the opportunity to engage with its meanings for the present and the future of our own countries.
The Amazing Race has also visited sites of memory of other Holocausts and horrors on other continents: slave pens at Gorée Island off Dakar, Senegal in West Africa and at Stone Town, Zanzibar Island, Tanzania in East Africa; the Peace Memorial at the site of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima, Japan; and the cell on Robben Island off Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela was confined for 18 of the 27 years during which he was imprisoned before he was released and elected president of South Africa.
The producers of The Amazing Race as a mass-market TV show deserve credit for visiting these places, raising these issues -- and showing that it's possible to do so, when you have the chance, without necessarily having that be the primary focus of your travels. ( I haven't yet been to Krakow, but I've heard it's a pleasant and interesting place to visit.)
What I struggle to understand, as much or more with respect to real-world travellers as with respect to The Amazing Race, is how and why it comes to be considered normal and even expected that visitors to some places will include sites of memory of events like this in their tour itineraries, while visits to such sites in other places are unusual.
The Amazing Race -- by way of example and not to criticize -- overlooked significant sites of memory of state terrorism against African-Americans in places it passed through in the USA, and has yet to visit any of the extensive and increasingly conspicuous network of sites of memory of state terrorism in Argentina and the other countries of the Southern Cone.
The former prison on Alcatraz Island is a "must-see" for visitors to San Francisco. Given that the USA has the world's largest prison population, it makes perfect sense for foreign visitors to want to understand US attitudes toward, and practices of, incarceration. For better or (mostly) worse, these are distinctive features of the USA and of our culture. But most people who live here, not to mention most foreigners, have never heard of the prison in Florence, Colorado, that has replaced Alcatraz as the most restrictive in the Federal prison system. Why? And why does no other US prison or museum of the history of imprisonment attract anything like the interest or visitorship of Alcatraz?
It's tempting to attribute this solely to the impact on popular awareness of Hollywood movies like Schindler's List and Escape from Alcatraz. There's some truth to that, but I think there is more going on than just pop-culture fads. It's also tempting to assume that tourists want a vacation from unpleasant thoughts. But that can't account for the interest in Alcatraz -- or, for that matter, for the perennial popularity as tourist destinations of some battlefields and sites of military history.
Travel isn't like watching a movie. It's easier to contemplate horrors or holocausts when we can distance ourselves from them as being part of another time, another place, or another culture. But the more we immerse ourselves in the place we are visiting, the more we try to see the world through our hosts' eyes, the harder it is to sustain that emotional separation.
Do you visit sites of unpleasant memory when you travel? Which ones? Where and where not? Why?
Friday, 6 November 2015
The Amazing Race 27, Episode 7
Paris (France) - Rotterdam (Netherlands) - The Hague (Netherlands)
[River traffic under the bridges of central Rotterdam.]
At the mouth of the Rhine River, Rotterdam is the second largest city in the Netherlands and the busiest port in Europe. But like many "second cities", it's largely overlooked by tourists. One of the teams in this episode of The Amazing Race 27 passed through Rotterdam Central Station on a train from Brussels to Amsterdam before realizing that Rotterdam was not, as they had thought, simply another name for Amsterdam. They had to get off at the next stop, at Schiphol Airport, and wait for another train back to Rotterdam. Another team of racers remained convinced, even after they got to Rotterdam, that they were in Germany.
The closest most foreign tourists get to Rotterdam, other than passing through by train or arriving or departing on one of the ferries to Harwich or Hull (good routes between the Continent and England or Scotland, if you want to avoid London), are the antique windmills at Kinderdijk, a fixture on every If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium bus tour of Europe.
We bicycled past the Kinderdijk windmills a year ago on our way from Utrecht (another very different but also very pleasant provincial Dutch city where we had rendezvoused with some friends) to Rotterdam to catch the ferry to England, where we visited more friends in Leeds and watched the start of the Tour de France.
As the racers found out, the windmills are strung out for some distance along the canal. It's easier to explore them on a bicycle than on foot, and Kinderdijk would make a pleasant day trip by bike from central Rotterdam.
You can also get to and from Kinderdijk by way of the Lek River, one of the many branches of the mouths of the Rhine. We took this ferry across the river from Kinderdijk, and continued through central Rotterdam along the north bank of the river:
[Ferry landing at Kinderdijk. Water taxis dock at the end of the smaller pier at the right.]
The racers had to take water taxis -- faster but much more expensive, obviously -- which dock at this smaller pier adjacent to the Kinderdijk ferry landing:
[Water taxi landing at Kinderdijk]
One of the racers' other tasks in Rotterdam was a session in a simulator like a flight simulator used for training pilots who guide ships in and out of the port. The port made Rotterdam a strategic target that was almost totally destroyed in World War II. Today, Rotterdam is a modern-looking city known for adventurous architecture. The port also makes Rotterdam -- like other international ports --- vastly more cosmopolitan than would otherwise be typical of a city its size.
The port serves ocean-going ships from around the world, as well as large riverboats from as far up the Rhine and its tributaries as Basel, Switzerland. Port facilities stretch from downtown Rotterdam east to the sea at the Hook of Holland, along several channels separated by spits of land -- also enjoyably explored by bicycle -- occupied by a mix of industry, parkland -- and of course, this being Holland, more windmills:
[New windmills along the ship channels of the Europort west of downtown Rotterdam]
Since we were on our way to the ferry and were as interested in the port itself as in anything else in Rotterdam, we stayed at the extremely comfortable Delta Hotel built out over the water on a pier in Vlaardingen, a suburb half way between central Rotterdam and the Europort ferry terminal.
The restaurant at the Delta Hotel is expensive and there are few other tourist services in the immediate neighborhood. The hotel is surrounded mainly by port services and related offices, and most of its guests are on port-related business. But the riverfront suites, great value for luxury at about US$150 a night if the hotel isn't full and you haggle a bit, have the best close-up views of ocean and river traffic of any hotel rooms I've ever seen, including at high-rise hotels I've stayed in overlooking the ports of Hong Kong and Singapore. The only place you could hope for better port views might be in Shanghai, which has surpassed Rotterdam as the world's busiest port but where comparable rooms would be much more expensive.
[View across the main ship channel from our suite at the Delta Hotel in Vlaardingen.]
It was a splurge for us, but worth it. We could have spent days without leaving our room, just watching the ships go by.
The only rooms worth bothering with at the Delta Hotel in Vlaardingen are the riverfront rooms or suites, especially the riverfront corner suites with wraparound balconies. So be extremely careful about exactly which room category you are being promised when you make your reservation.
We had a (typically) bad experience booking our first night at this hotel through Expedia, which had the lowest price for what was supposed to be the room type we wanted. Expedia described our room as river-view but refused to do anything when we were assigned a land-side room. The next night, we showed the room description and price on the Expedia Web site to the front desk manager. Seeing the Expedia price, they offered to match the Expedia price and guarantee us the riverfront suite we wanted if we booked directly with the hotel, which we did.
Friday, 30 October 2015
The Amazing Race 27, Episode 6
Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) - Livingstone (Zambia) - Paris (France) - La Ferté-Alais - Paris (France)
In this episode of The Amazing Race 27 in France, the racers had two different tasks, each of which required them to repeat phrases that they had read and/or heard spoken in French. They didn't have to understand the meaning of what they were saying, and in only one of the two tasks were they judged at all on their pronunciation.
As I've said many times before (one, two, three, four), an important skill in The Amazing Race and in real-world travel around the world is the ability to repeat what you have heard, or to sound out what you have read, in a foreign language, even if you don't understand what you are saying.
It was obvious that none of the racers had learned any French, and the French people to whom they needed to recite what they had heard or read appeared to be struggling to avoid laughing at their pronunciation. In the privacy of my home, I was laughing too. I wouldn't have wanted to be a monolingual Francophone tested on my ability to understand what the racers were trying to say in their fractured French!
But you shouldn't let fear of failing to communicate or fear of looking foolish deter you from trying to learn a new language, or trying to use a language in which you aren't (and maybe never will be) fluent or confident. In real life, people are more likely to laugh with you than at you if you try to speak their language. Most people will go to great lengths to try to understand you.
Inherent in any attempt to communicate is a risk, indeed a likelihood, of miscommunicating, sometimes innocuously but sometimes in ways that are embarrassing or even offensive.
That's why the most important prerequisite to language proficiency is not aptitude but courage: the courage to make mistakes and appear foolish in front of others.
People with the courage to look like idiots by trying to speak foreign languages they speak badly should be -- and usually are -- congratulated for their courage and effort, not put down.
Seth Davidson is a bicycle racer and attorney best known for his blog about cycling in Southern California. But he also lived in Japan for a decade and Germany for a year, claims fluency in Japanese and German, and is learning Chinese. He got it exactly right, I think, in his commentary (worth reading in its entirety) about Mark Zuckerberg's public speeches in China in Mandarin:
Zuckerberg may have looked and sounded foolish at times, but you know what? He also looked incredibly nervous and exposed and vulnerable. It was the most intimate view of him you’ll ever have. You could even say that he pissed away all his privacy protections in a pair of twenty-minute videos. He was up there naked. Anyone who’s tried to fumble a few phrases of French to an impatient Parisian waiter knows that when you’re speaking their language YOU’RE ON THEIR TURF.
You think public speaking is hard? Try it in a foreign language that you’re not very good at in front of a global audience....
He’s put himself out there, arrogant, self-satisfied, and shrewdly manipulative perhaps, but he’s clearly doing the hard work that it takes to speak a foreign language,.... -- and he’s offering himself up to a billion Chinese critics, each one of whom is supremely qualified to tear his language skills apart.
The beauty of it is, of course, that they don’t. People appreciate it when you make the effort, and they respect the hell out of the courage it takes to speak in public in a foreign language. Mark may scramble his tones, but the only message he really cares about is coming across loud and clear: YOU MATTER TO ME.Hats off to the sorry-assed scoundrel. In this regard at least, I wish him the very best, and hope that more Americans in every walk of life follow his lead.
(Something to love about Mark Zuckerberg. Finally. By Seth Davidson, Cycling in the South Bay, 29 October 2015)
Friday, 23 October 2015
The Amazing Race 27, Episode 5
Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe)
This leg of The Amazing Race 27 in Zimbabwe was decided not by a sprint but by a slow and careful walk by the racers, each of whom had to carry a basket of fruit on their head along the path to the finish line.
Alongside the racers' pratfalls with their headloads, a parade of local women hired as extras by the TV producers filed gracefully and steadily past with similar loads.
The racers' difficulty in performing this task, compared with its ease for the local women for whose entire lives it has been the normal way of carrying things, was a reminder that people we think of as "primitive" may have skills that are just as complex and hard-to-learn, although different, from those that are defined as basic, essential, natural, or easy in our culture. This is a fundamental lesson of ethnography, although I haven't tracked down to whom to attribute it. (If you have suggested citations or sources, please leave them in the comments.)
It's also a reminder that there's more than one way to skin a cat -- or to carry a load. In some cultures it's normal to carry things by motor vehicle, in others by bicycle (or cargo tricycle), in others by wheelbarrow or other wheeled handcart, in others in containers or bundles suspended from each end of a carrying pole across the shoulders, in others in a backpack (or, especially for carrying infants, a front pack) with shoulder straps, and in others as a headload. Anyone who has travelled in India has probably seen lines of women in saris and sandals (or barefoot) carrying baskets of dirt, cement, and bricks on their heads at excavation and construction sites.
There are universal "laws" of science, but technology and the design of tools are culturally diverse phenomena. One of the reason to travel in places with different technological cultures is to open your mind to different ways of doing things you thought could only be done in one way, and of solving practical problems that you thought had only one solution.
The racers' struggle to carry loads on their heads is an example of a more general travel problem: What do you do when the local method of doing some everyday task requires skills you haven't learned, because you are using to doing it another way and/or with different tools?
In a place where everyone eats with chopsticks, and there are few forks, what do you do if you don't know how to eat with chopsticks? Do you learn to use chopsticks? Carry your own personal fork? Eat only in those exceptional restaurants or other places where forks are provided (which might be few and far between, overpriced, and serve the least interesting meals)?
What if the only type of toilet you have ever used is a sit-up "throne", but you find yourself in a place where most toilets are squatters? Or vice versa? Do you only stay in lodgings that have installed "European" or "Western" toilets with seats? Or do you learn to squat?
Some of the techniques and skills of daily life for local people may be obvious. Other tasks may require more work and/or more or different skills than in your homeland, but in non-obvious ways. Behind the scenes, for example, water in a village or even a sizable town in Africa may have had to be carried from a well, stream, or pool a mile or several miles away in plastic jugs hung across the back of a donkey. Cooked food or hot water for washing at a trekking lodge in Nepal may depend on a constant procession of porters carrying cans of kerosene from the nearest jeepable road.
I once met a man who had been raised in the USA, but was deported as a young adult, with no warning, to a country where most of the people are subsistence farmers.
This man had been born abroad, but his mother married a US citizen and moved with him to the US when he was a small child. His step-father adopted him, and he got a green card as a permanent US resident eligible to work in the US. But he never bothered to get US citizenship, or realized that it would ever matter.
He'd grown up in the USA, he thought of himself as American, and he had papers that entitled him to live and work in the USA. Like most native-born US citizens, he'd never thought of going anywhere outside the US. What did he need with US citizenship or a US passport?
Like more than a million people in the USA each year, he was arrested for a minor nonviolent violation of US drug prohibition laws. He was convicted, and did his time, without realizing or being told that as a convict without US citizenship he had become ineligible to remain in the USA.
When he walked out of prison at the end of his sentence, expecting to go free, he had no idea that he would be met at the gates by immigration agents who would immediately put him back in a different pair of handcuffs and take him to a deportation flight to the country of his citizenship. This is what happens to "excludable aliens" in the USA: Go to the Third (or Fourth) World. Go directly to the Third World. Do not pass home. Do not collect any money to tide you over while you establish yourself there.
He was a citizen, for what little that was worth, of the country where he had been born, where he now found himself, and where he would likely have to spend the rest of his life. But truly he was a stranger in a strange land. It wasn't just that he knew none of the local languages in the place to which he had been deported, had only distant and unfamiliar family ties, and had no local friends. He also lacked the most basic survival skills and job qualifications in a pastoral and subsistence-farming economy. He didn't know how to plant, or plow, or weed, or harvest crops, or care for livestock, or prepare food, or make anything with local materials and techniques. He was an adult, but he wasn't even qualified to do the work usually done by children, such as herding goats. Fluency and literacy in English weren't worth anything to any potential employer in his new village.
Unlike this man, I was just visiting. But what if you suddenly found that you couldn't come home? What skills would you need to live in a part of the world where they do things with different tools and techniques? How would you learn those skills, and how would you cope without them until you did? How long would that take? Travel provides an opportunity and an impetus to think about these questions and put yourself in other people's shoes, sandals, or flip-flops.
Friday, 16 October 2015
The Amazing Race 27, Episode 4
San Antonio de Areco (Argentina) - Buenos Aires (Argentina) - Livingstone (Zambia) - Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe)
[The high-rises of Palermo overlook the Beaux-Arts Pista Central of La Rural in Buenos Aires]
This week the teams on The Amazing Race 27 had to make their way by bus from San Antonio de Areco back to Buenos Aires, then through the city somehow to one of the airports (we weren't told which one) for the first of a series of connecting flights that would get them to the small tourist town of Livingstone on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls.
Although "colectivos" (city buses) in Buenos Aires all accept the same SUBE prepaid RFID-chipped farecard, colectivos on each route are operated by a separate company. That makes them harder to incorporate into digital mapping and navigation applications than if they were under common management. In an earlier episode this season, we saw how much trouble the racers had trying to use apps like Google Maps to find their way around Buenos Aires.
The secret to getting around in B.A. is do what the locals do and use the Guia "T". You can get the pocket edition ("Guia "T" de Bolsilla") at most newspaper and magazine stands. Because it's universally used by locals, consulting a copy of the Guia "T" in public doesn't mark you as a tourist. It's organized very differently from the "London A-Z", but serves a similar function and provides comprehensive bus route information that's absent from the "A-Z". The city is divided into squares, with both ranges of street numbers and bus routes indexed by square. Find which colectivo number serves both the map square where you are and the square of your destination and you know which bus to take.There's also a list of colectivos by number, with both their route in each direction and a "bus-spotter's guide" showing the distinctive color scheme and livery of each bus, to help you find the right bus in traffic on a busy street.
The BA Cómo Llego ("How to Go") app has similar information, and works better for these purposes than Google Maps or any of the other apps or Web sites we tried.
The racers, of course, only had time while they were in Argentina to go to the places that they were sent by the TV producers. As I discussed in my previous column, that inevitably denied them the chance to happen upon any of the places that nobody recommends, but that can be at least equally interesting, in part because they are more genuinely "typical" in not being tourist destinations (and where foreign visitors haven;t yet worn out their welcome or come to be seen solely as customers rather than also as guests).
Crossing Argentina by bicycle earlier this year, we spent much of our two months in places that weren't on most lists of must-see's. Even in the major cities we passed through, we had time and made the choice to wander rather than to focus on anyone else's list of recommendations.
We found ourselves in some dumps (although fewer, particularly with respect to small-town lodging, then we had feared), had some bad meals (yes, that's possible, even in Argentina), and wasted some time on wild goose chases and random walks or rides that got us nowhere.
But as I discussed last week, we also had some fascinating and often enjoyable experiences that we wouldn't have had if we let ourselves be guided by even the best of guidebooks.
Here are some of the unexpected highlights of our latest two months in Argentina. places we went, places we stayed: places we ate, and things we visited and did that we found worthwhile.
Few of these were part of our plans, and fewer showed up in any of the lists of highlights or recommendations (even those of experts) we had seen before this trip. Your mileage may vary, and I hope you explore on your own, but for someone with my tastes and interests, any of these would be worth a detour.
Places to go:
- Merlo and the Comechingones and Traslasierra Valleys on the west side of the Central Sierras: The best bicycling region we found, although its attractions aren't limited to cycling. Scenic with plentiful services, but uncrowded, at least in the off season when we were there. (More.)
- Rosario, Santa Fe Province: Rosario is actually often recommended (and often described as "underrated"), but oddly few foreign tourists actually seem to heed those recommendations. It's an interesting, attractive, energetic, and prosperous city that is to Buenos Aires in many of the same ways that Chicago is to New York. It's an inland river port accessible to ocean-going ships, and one of the two main gateways (along with Bahía Blanca in the south) for Argentine grain and soybean exports. But unlike the port of Buenos Aires (and like Chicago), Rosario embraces its waterfront with parks and promenades.
- Victoria, Entre Ríos Province: In 2003, a 60 km chain of bridges and causeways over the ship channel and marshes of the inland delta of the Paraná River opened to traffic, connecting the literally backwater little town of Victoria to one of Argentina's second cities, Rosario. In a few years, I wouldn't be surprised to see Victoria subsumed into greater Roario and/or transformed into an overcrowded tourist trap for Rosarino day-trippers, weekenders, and retirees. For now, though, Victoria remains a remarkably peaceful and self-contained place with a completely different vibe from the big city across the river an hour away by bus.
Places to stay:
- Solans Hotel Libertador, Rosario: If you want good service and many amenities -- emphasizing functional comforts rather than image and ornamentation -- but in a local style and without paying the price of affiliation with a global brand, locally-owned business hotels are often a good balance. The Solans hotels, for example, are a chain of boutique business hotels that's just beginning to expand from Rosario to other cities in Argentina. We stayed at the Libertador (right next door to the BCR -- see below) because it happened to be the least expensive of the Solans hotels available in Rosario during our visit, but we probably would have been happy at any of their other properties. It's in a part of the financial district that's pretty dead at night, but within walking distance of shopping and restaurant areas. We stayed in similar locally-owned business hotels in several other cities.
- Posada del Valle, Merlo, San Luis Province: We stayed in several "posadas" (inns) and B&B's, and all were excellent, but this was far and away the best and the best value for the money. A countrified and relaxing "oasis" in the middle of town, with outstanding service even by Argentine standards, which are typically high. The proprietors are welcoming and friendly without being intrusive, a balance that not all B&B's manage. (More.)
- Park Hyatt Hotel, Mendoza: The most luxurious and best-situated hotel we stayed at on this trip, with some of the most consistently excellent service of any hotel I've ever stayed in anywhere. Yes, this is part of a global chain. But it's clear -- in a good way -- that the management is not merely Argentine but Mendocino. I'm not sure that this hotel is worth the cash price (although it might be, and I've paid to stay here before), but it was outstanding value as a way to redeem credit card points. (I'll have more about that in a future column.) One of the things that, to me, distinguishes a truly first-rate hotel or other business is that it offers the same first-rate service to every customer, no matter what they look like or how much they paid. Here, we were treated impeccably even when we were dressed in bicycling clothes and even by staff who knew that we'd redeemed points rather than paying for our room. That's very different from what I've seen at many (although not all) other hotels, especially some high-end hotels.
Places to eat:
- Lo Mejor del Centro, Rosario: After the financial crisis in 2001, many business owners who saw no hope of paying off dollar-denominated debts whose value in pesos had multiplied walked away from factories and other businesses. Some of these establishments were "reclaimed" by the former employees and resumed or continued operation as worker cooperatives. In 2007, we ate at the Restaurante Rich, one of Rosario's most renowned restaurants, which in this fashion had come to be a worker coop. Sadly, the creditors of the erstwhile owner repossessed all the fixtures and kitchen equipment in 2008, putting the Rich collective out of business. We were pleasantly surprised, after finding the Rich closed, to happen upon this less fancy but equally good-value worker coop restaurant just a few blocks away. Service was friendly and helpful if a little less attentive than the norm of Argentine professional waiters, but everything we tried was tasty. Ask your "mozo" (waiter) about the catch-of-the-day specials of grilled river fish.
- Txoko (Restaurante Centro Vasco), Villa Maria: There are people of Basque ancestry and Basque cultural centers throughout Argentina, but Basque food is a surprisingly uncommon "ethnic" specialty in Argentine restaurants. This public restaurant in the Basque social club in Villa Maria is well worth a detour off the RN9 autopista (or the parallel "Old RN9" that goes through town centers) for lunch or dinner mid-way between Córdoba and Rosario. The fact that a minor regional agricultural center like Villa Maria has such an upscale restaurant is a clue to how much of the money from the boom in soybean and grain exports is actually remaining in otherwise undistinguished-looking provincial towns, not all being siphoned off to absentee owners or bankers in the capital or overseas.
- Dirán, Mercado del Norte, Córdoba: It's not a fluke that Argentina's president in the 1990's was of Syrian heritage: More Argentines trace their ancestry to what is now Syria or Lebanon than to anywhere else outside Europe. "Syrian" restaurants and menu items such as "empanadas arabe" aren't too unusual in Argentina, but genuine Syrian food is rare. Typical "Syrian-Argentine" restaurant cuisine is about as Syrian as chop suey is Chinese. To complicate matters, the Syrians immigrants and their Argentine-born children who operate this hole-in-wall stall in the public market in Córdoba are ethnic Armenians, not Arabs. But that isn't as odd as you might think, either: the Assad dictatorship in Syria is secular, and at least when we visited Syria in 2008 (before the start of the present civil war, foreign interventions, and refugee crisis), there was still a substantial and visible Orthodox Christian ethnic Armenian community. Anyway, the food at Dirán is excellent, prepared with great care, and different from what you are likely to find at any other restaurant in the country.
- Parilla del Mercado, Mercado Central, Mendoza: This looks like just another stall in the food court ("patio de comidas") of the central produce market in Mendoza. And the steaks and ribs were nothing special, by Argentine standards (although still good value for the prices). But if you think of organ meats and entrails as delicacies, or have never tried them but are open minded, get a plate of the superb mixed grill of assorted "entrañas". In Argentina, offal is usually an appetizer, although an important one. Here, it earns its rightful its place as a main course.
- Popup restaurants at La Rural: During the Exposición Rural (see below) in late July and early August, a variety of temporary restaurants pop up on the fairgrounds in Palermo. These range from take-out "choripan" (grilled sausage sandwich) stands to extravagantly ornate pavilions showcasing the most elaborate and traditional Argentine banquet food. In between, there are white-tablecloth parilla restaurants in sections of the same barns where the prize cattle are stabled. If you are spending a day at the fair, pick where and when you want to eat and reserve your table as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.
[Rodeo in the city: Barrel racing at La Rural in Buenos Aires]
Things to visit and do:
- La Rural: Imagine a state fair and agricultural exposition and trade show, on a national scale, in a country whose economy is overwhelmingly dominated by agricultural exports and whose national culture is rooted in the "campo" (the countryside), the "gaucho" (cowboy), and the farm and ranch ("estancia"). Now move it to a permanent home in one of the wealthiest high-rise residential neighborhoods in the capital city -- the equivalent of a site in Central Park in Manhattan -- with acres of purpose-built livestock barns, exhibition halls, rodeo arenas, restaurant pavilions, and arcades of stalls selling everything from artisanal cheese and dulce de leche to hand-tooled saddlery and the finest Patagonian wool. Combine this with a grand gathering of "estancia" owners, managers, and other rural gentry on their annual visits to the big city to meet, greet, eat, dance, make deals, compete for prizes, and shop for agricultural implements and other equipment and supplies as well as luxuries for their homes and families that aren't available in small-town shops. For two weeks each year at the end of July and start of August, this is the scene at the Exposición Rural on the grounds of the Sociedad Rural Argentina. If you can't make it to the provinces, this is your chance to see what it's like when the campo comes to the city.
- Museo de la Bolsa de Comercio de Rosario (BCR): The BCR (often shortened to simply "la Bolsa") is Argentina's counterpart of the Chicago Board of Trade, on which it has been consciously and explicitly modeled since its founding more than a hundred years ago. In small towns across the pampas, signs at the grain elevators display the current prices of soybeans, wheat, and corn in both Rosario and Chicago. The BCR was especially interesting to me because I once worked as a runner on the trading floor at the Chicago Board Options Exchange, which at the time shared premises and many procedures and customs with the Board of Trade. A major reason that Argentina has survived its ongoing financial crisis is the ongoing boom in soybean and grain exports, especially exports of soy to China. Increasing amounts of land have been converted from pasturage or crop rotation to unsustainable monoculture accompanied by increased use of agricultural chemicals, worrying people we spoke with even in places that have, in the short term, prospered. The center of all this change is the BCR, and a tour of its museum will give you a detailed (if one-sided) view of the history of Argentina's export-oriented agricultural economy and the recent changes to Argentina's agricultural geography.The time-lapse land use maps are especially enlightening. Call or e-mail in advance to arrange a tour. Most visitors are school groups or foreign grain traders, but individual tourists are welcome and some of the guides speak English.
- Museo de Historia de San Luis (MUHSAL): An unusual and ambitious little museum that focuses on the provincial history of San Luis (from pre-history to the present, geology, ethnography, art, politics, economics, sport, etc.), but does a remarkably good job of putting the case study of one province into the context of Argentine and world affairs. Worth a short detour off the RN7 autopista even if you don't have any special interest in San Luis Province.
- National Network of Sites of Memory of State Terrorism: As I discussed in another recent column, one of the most significant aspects of this network is that it includes locations throughout the country. So wherever you go in Argentina, you can find opportunities to visit some of these places. You might happen upon them along country roads or on city streets, but you won't find them in most lists or maps of tourist sites. See the online directories of museums and memory spaces and of other marked sites of memory. (More.)
I hope this will give you a hint as to how much more there is to find in any country or area once you abandon the standard or recommended routes of tour. As host Phil Keoghan says at the start of each season of The Amazing Race, "The world is waiting!"
Friday, 9 October 2015
The Amazing Race 27, Episode 3
Buenos Aires (Argentina) - San Antonio de Areco (Argentina)
[La Soñada Posada, along RP14 in La Población, Córdoba Province]
This week The Amazing Race 27 left Buenos Aires for San Antonio de Areco, which has branded itself as the leading destination in Argentina for "gaucho tourism". If you ask a location consultant for a gaucho town, they'll send you to San Antonio de Areco. (Many travel writers, as destination experts, also freelance as location consultants and "fixers" for movies, TV shows, advertisements, and other film and photo shoots.)
Almost by definition, a place that is known as the "most typical" of anything of interest to international tourists probably isn't typical of anything except the culture of international tourism. Tourism, especially mass tourism by people from far away and from very different cultures, changes everything it touches. The most typical places don't show up on any "must-see" list. I've referred to this here and here as the "Hasbrouck Uncertainty Principle of Travel".
For every town like San Antonio de Areco in any country, there are many more towns like, to give just one Argentine example I happened upon earlier this year, Merlo, San Luis Province: a holiday destination for domestic tourists that few foreigners have ever heard of. There are even more towns like Las Rosas or others we passed through while travelling across Argentina by bicycle, "places in between" that see no tourists of any sort.
Merlo is a growing weekend and holiday getaway destination and retirement community and secondary gateway to the west side of the Central Sierras. Most visitors and residents come from the provincial cities of San Luis and Villa Mercedes, not from Córdoba (closer but on the other side of the mountains) much less the Federal Capital. Merlo isn't even mentioned in some of the most popular guidebooks to Argentina for foreign visitors. Merlo does get brief treatment in Wayne Bernhardson's more eclectic and in-depth "Moon Argentina", although not as a place Wayne especially recommends.
There are enough retirees in Merlo that restaurants and other businesses that serve tourists are open all year, but despite what locals claim is the best year-round microclimate in the country, it's a low-key little town in low season that had lots of empty beds available at highly-negotiable discounts. For all I know, however, it might be an overcrowded and overpriced tourist trap in peak season.
[With one of the welcoming watchcats at the Posada del Valle in Merlo]
We were the only guests throughout our week's stay at the Posada del Valle, an outstandingly comfortable and friendly bed and breakfast that managed to provide the ambiance of a quiet country inn on spacious and secluded grounds despite being only a block off the main tourist strip.
Merlo is located on one of the best stretches of road for bicycle tourists that we found in Argentina: San Luis RP1, which becomes Córdoba RP14 where it crosses the provincial border just north of Merlo. It's well-paved and has relatively frequent accommodations and other services but little traffic for most of its length, a rare combination of attributes for an Argentine road. The road winds along the western edge of the mountains, with generally modest grades and often spectacular views of the wall of mountains on one side and the semi-desert plain on the other.
[Sierras de Comechingones above RP1 between Papagayo and Merlo, San Luis Province]
There are places to stay in most, although not all, of the towns along this route, as well as campgrounds, resorts, "cabañas", "complejos turísticos", and formal and informal B&Bs -- many not listed in any printed or online directory -- between towns. A short day's ride north of Merlo into the Traslasierra Valley across the provincial border in Córdoba, for example, we stayed at the excellent La Soñada Posada in the hamlet of La Población. Once again, we had the place to ourselves except for the proprietors, the maid, the gardener, and the house cats. Tourist complexes vary widely in what services and types of accommodations they offer, so you have to ask. A complejo can be anything from a campground with few amenities to a resort with a choice of cabins/cottages or motel rooms, and in some cases a restaurant and/or a convenience store. This being Argentina, there's always an outdoor parilla, although cabins or cottages may or may not have cooking facilities.
The last time The Amazing Race went to a "parilla" (barbecue) in Argentina ten years ago, the challenge was what and how much the racers could eat. This time the task was cooking: a member of each team of two racers had to properly crucify two whole lamb carcasses and a rack of beef ribs on iron frames staked out in the right position for grilling alongside and angled over an open fire.
[An asador and his parilla. Photo by Ruth Radetsky.]
The racers kept calling out, "Gaucho!" to have their culinary prep work inspected by an expert. The proper title for the pit boss or grill master of a parilla, however, is "asador".
Like "chef de cuisine", asador is an honorific, not just a job title. At the Esquina del Sol in Merlo, for example, the asadors tend their parilla in a theatrically-floodlit glass-walled enclosure in the place of honor in front of the restaurant.
Two whole carcasses may seem like a lot of meat for each of the racers to have to put on the grill at once. But it's not an uncommon sight at a parilla restaurant. There's beef and lamb on the menu at La Esquina del Sol, but the specialty of the house is the "cabrito" for which Merlo is known: kid goat from the Comechingones mountains that rise above the town. There was always at least one goat, usually at least two, staked out by the fire whenever we passed by.
The proprietor told us that diners at this one restaurant consume a dozen whole kid goats on a typical weekday in low season, and thirty on an average day in the summer tourist season. Volume doesn't always coincide with quality, of course, but in this case perhaps practice does make perfect. I love goat meat, and have eaten it prepared in many ways (stewed, curried, roasted, grilled, etc.), but this was some of the best I've ever tasted.
My point isn't that everyone should go to Merlo. They shouldn't, and if they did, it would be a different place reshaped by the desires and expectations of foreign tourists, and where foreigners would get a different (if not necessarily less hospitable) reception. Merlo is just one example of what you, too, might find if you don't limit your travelling to places that anyone has recommended -- a place I had never heard of before, but that was one of the unexpected highlights of our trip.
Friday, 2 October 2015
The Amazing Race 27, Episode 2
Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) - Buenos Aires (Argentina)
Sites of memory of state terrorism in Argentina
["2 km ahead: Pilar Highway Patrol station, former clandestine center of detention and torture"]
Both The Amazing Race and my partner and I returned to Argentina this June after an absence of several years. The reality-TV show last visited Argentina during Season 20 in 2012, and my partner and I were last there in 2007 during our most recent trip around the world.
Much has changed in Argentina since the start of the ongoing financial crisis in 2001, and much remains unstable. (For more lessons and advice from my latest trip, see my FAQ: Bicycle touring in Argentina.) One of the ways people displaced from traditional employment have found to survive during the crisis is as "cartoneros": scavengers who collect cardboard cartons and other discarded but recyclable materials on the streets.
In this episode, each team in The Amazing Race 27 had to collect 100 kg. of cardboard in a handcart. But the most visible and emblematic symbol of the cartonero might be a horse and cart. There are still gaucho cowboys working livestock with horses in rural areas across Argentina, and a tethered or ridden horse isn't a rare sight in a small town. But if you see a horse on the street in Buenos Aires or another big Argentine city these days, odds are it's pulling a cart with a load of scavenged recycling. A horse and cart are major income-enhancing assets for a family of cartoneros. Typically, these horses are grazed on unbuilt, unpaved, unplanted ground on the periphery or in the interstices of the city, often on or near the same plots of "waste" land where many cartoneros live in self-built homes in "villas miseria".
Despite efforts to "normalize" the work of the cartoneros as part of the recycling industry, and despite widespread sympathy for their plight ("There but for the grace of God go I..."), my impression is that most Argentines see the fact that 10,000 people in the "Paris of the South" are surviving by dump-picking as an embarrassingly conspicuous reminder of Argentina's fall from wealth. Many people who want to know whether Argentina has become a Third World country (it hasn't) look no further than the omnipresence of cartoneros in every Argentine city since the start of the crisis. Porteños are proud that the wealth of their city and country comes from the "campo" (as celebrated at the annual Exposición Rural in the heart of the Federal Capital), but that doesn't mean they want to step in horseshit in city streets, or think of their civilized cities as invaded by peasant horse-carts and sinking back down into the ordure.
One of the most interesting changes since our lengthy visit in 2007 that was visible this year across Argentina has been the creation of the Red Federal de Sitios de Memoria del Terrorismo de Estado ("National Network of Sites of Memory of State Terrorism") including both museums and other "Spaces of Memory" and official signs along highways and at other locations of facilities that were formerly used as clandestine centers for detention, torture, and extermination ("ex-CCDTyE" in Spanish acronym).
In 2007, we saw significantly more (although still very limited and mostly marginal) official acknowledgment of the legacy of dictatorship and state terrorism in Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil than in Argentina. Not long ago, what's generally referred to in English as the "Dirty War" was still commonly referred to in Argentina by the Orwellian euphemism coined by the "represores" themselves: "El Proceso" (the Process of National Reorganization).
It's not clear how much popular attitudes have changed, but there is official acknowledgment of the history of Argentine state terrorism, official sanction for talking about it, and official support and some level of funding to mark the "ex-CCDTyE" sites and reclaim them as sites of memory.
The finish line for this leg of The Amazing Race 27 was at the Polo Grounds in Buenos Aires, part of a large cluster of parks and athletic facilities separated from the northern riverfront by the domestic airport and the "autopista".
Nearby are two of the major Sitios de Memoria, although neither shows up in most references for tourists.
About a mile north of the Campo de Polo, on the riverfront at the north end of the Costanera (an excellent route for an excursion if you've rented or borrowed a bike for a day) between the Aeroparque and the Estadio Monumental, is the Park of Memory that includes, among other art and installations, the National Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism.
[One of the walls of names at the National Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism in Buenos Aires]
The form of the monument is obviously inspired in part by that of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, but with an irregular array of walls of names rather than just one. What most impressed me about these walls were the numbers: There are only half as many names on these walls as on the Vietnam Memorial, but during the period of most intense state terrorism the population of Argentina was only about one-seventh that of the USA at the height of the US war in Vietnam. The impact on Argentine individuals, families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and communities was pervasive. Even today, most Argentines we talked with about this history know someone with a hole in their family tree or that of a friend.
["The names on this monument comprise those of the victims of state terrorism, detained, disappeared, and assassinated, and those who died fighting for the same ideals of justice and equity."]
Another mile north past the Monumental, just inside the city limits, is the formal Naval training complex cum-torture center universally known by its Spanish acronym ESMA. It was the first and remains the best-known of the "Spaces of Memory", and the de facto national museum of the modern history of state terrorism in Argentina. Normal tours were suspended for special school-vacation events the week we were in Buenos Aires this year, but Wayne Bernhardson, one of whose Argentine in-laws was "disappeared" and killed during the period of state terror, has written about taking a tour of ESMA a few years ago shortly after it was reclaimed as a space of memory. More of ESMA is now open to visitors, but my impression is that a visit to ESMA today is a more "museum-like" and perhaps less participatory and immersive experience.
Memories of the disappeared, and sites at which they are remembered, are by no means limited to museums or to the Federal Capital (Buenos Aires). The essential goal of state terrorism is to instill fear within its subjects, so that internalized fear acts as an instrument of self-censorship and control that obviates the need for further external or overtly violent mechanisms of coercion. State terrorism was, by nature and by design, present throughout the country and imposed on and into every life. So too today is its memory, and the memorialization of its victims and survivors.Continue reading "The Amazing Race 27, Episode 2"
Wednesday, 30 September 2015
Bicycle components for touring in Argentina
[The Malvinas [Falkland] Islands are Argentine! And there's a tire repair and bicycle shop just across the road.]
When you are choosing what to bring on any trip, it's important to consider both what's appropriate for local conditions and what's locally available if you need to replace it. If you bring gear or components that aren't locally available, try to bring as durable equipment as possible, and bring spares for critical and/or easily damaged small parts if weight permits.
That's especially true for a bicycle tour, where your trip is highly dependent on the smooth functioning of a complex machine (although a much simpler and more elegant one than a motor vehicle).
In the preceding article, I described the conditions for travel by bicycle in Argentina as of my own trip in June and July 2015, and some of the factors -- notably including the effects of the ongoing Argentine financial crisis -- that influence the choice of equipment for bicycle touring in Argentina.
In this follow-up article, I'll talk about what this means in terms of my specific recommendations for choices of bicycle components and accessories for independent travel in Argentina, based primarily on what consumables and replacement parts are and aren't readily available.
You are unlikely, of course, to buy a bike just for one trip, or to base your choice of a bike and components solely on conditions in one country. (Although you might change some components depending on where you are going.) For general advice about how to choose a bike for touring, see my FAQ on Buying a Touring Bicycle. For issues that are common to bictycle travel around the world (but might be different from travel in your home country), see my FAQ on International Bicycle Travel and my FAQ on Riding Skills for Bicycle Travel. But for reasons discussed in my preceding article on Bicycle Touring in Argentina, some aspects of bicycle touring in Argentina, especially choices of bicycles, components, and gear in a country, are like those that are appropriate in many other parts of the world with much worse infrastructure than Argentina. So people planning to travel by bicycle anywhere outside the First World might find these issues relevant, and these recommendations worth at least considering.Continue reading "Bicycle components for touring in Argentina"
Tuesday, 29 September 2015
Bicycle touring in Argentina
My partner and I spent June and July of 2015 (southern hemisphere winter) bicycling across Argentina, west to east, from Mendoza to Buenos Aires.
tl;dr summary: We had a good trip, and we would recommend it and do it again ourselves (with some different preparations and expectations). But travelling independently by bicycle in Argentina was harder than we expected. We worked at preparing, but more knowledge of bicycling conditions in the parts of Argentina where we were going, and different preparations and expectations, would have made for a better trip.
Argentina is not, by any definition, a Third World country. But the density and pattern of settlement, character of the infrastructure, and some of the consequences of the ongoing Argentine national financial crisis mean that you need to prepare for an independent bicycle journey in Argentina -- even in the more densely populated flatlands of the central and eastern pampas -- more the way you would for a bike tour in the Third World:
- Be prepared to share any paved road, even the smallest paved rural road, with heavy (although generally extremely well-behaved) long-distance tandem trucks and at least some buses. If that's not your cup of tea, be prepared to ride mainly on dirt roads. Don't expect shoulders to be paved or rideable, or lanes to be wide enough for motor vehicles to be able to pass a bicyclist within the same lane. Bring tires that can handle the mats of thorns that are a ubiquitous part of the groundcover on and along dirt roads and immediately alongside the travel lanes of paved roads in some areas we passed through.
- The infrastructure for travel and for bicycling in Argentina is generally excellent, but you can't rely on it. There's often no way to be certain whether you will find lodging in a town until you get there, and it can be more than a day's ride between lodging, even on the pampas. Camping, including polite wild camping, is widely practiced and universally accepted. But you need to be prepared to wild camp in locations with no services. At times -- even on the pampas, and not just in mountainous or desert areas or in Patagonia -- you will need to carry enough food and water to ride all day, camp for the night, and ride on the next day before you get to any place where food, water, or fuel for your camp stove are available.
- There are bike shops or general stores in even the smallest towns where some tubes and other spare parts for the sorts of bicycles that are used locally are usually available. But except for certain of the most basic and lowest-quality consumables, you can't count on finding any particular item. It's impossible for you or anyone else, or even a local bike shop, to special order parts, accessories, or anything else by mail from outside Argentina. If what you want isn't already stocked by a dealer or distributor in Argentina, then it's not available in Argentina, period. Bring the most reliable equipment you can, and think carefully about what components and spares to bring in light of what types of bikes and components are in local use.
Most of we had found about bicycle touring in Argentina, including most of the trip reports on CrazyGuyOnABike.com, related to bicycling in southern and western Argentina: Patagonia and the Andes.
Argentina covers a lot of ground, however, with more diversity of terrain and climate than all but a handful of other countries. We weren't planning an "expedition" through the most thinly-settled deserts, mountains, or areas of most extreme wind, heat, and/or cold. We weren't sure how much of the information we found about bicycle trekking in Patagonia and the Andes would apply to bicycle touring on the pampas, where the terrain is level (except for the Central Sierras west of Córdoba, which we planned from the start to cross by bus), towns are much closer together, and the climate at any season is much milder.
I hope that other people thinking about bicycle travel in Argentina, especially on the pampas and in other parts of the country north of Patagonia and east of the Andes, will find this article useful in deciding whether to take such a trip (which I highly recommend) and in planning and preparing for it.
Even if you aren't a bicycle tourist, you may find parts of this article useful in thinking about how something like the ongoing Argentine financial crisis can affect travel in complex and unexpected ways, and how that might apply to travel in other countries in crisis such as Greece.
To put our experience with this bike trip in context, we had visited Argentina several times, but never before with bicycles. Our first visit was in was in late 2002 (just after the start of the continuing financial crisis), and our last previous visit was in 2007, when we rented an apartment in Buenos Aires for two months and spent another month exploring northwestern Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile before heading back east to Brazil and on around the world.
We'd enjoyed our time in Argentina, and wanted to see more and different parts of the country, especially the farming and ranching regions that drive the economy and shape the national identity and culture. There's a lot to explore in Argentina: It's the 8th largest country in the world -- larger than any country in Africa, to put it in some sort of perspective. Without bicycles, we'd seen the places in between the big cities and major tourist destinations only through the windows of planes, trains, and (mostly) buses. We figured that travelling by bicycle would be a great way to get off the tourist track and immerse ourselves in this other Argentina -- and it was. We also thought that having bicycled across the North American grain and livestock belt would give us a good basis for interpreting and comparing what was different about the grasslands and small-town farm and ranch country of Argentina and the USA -- and it did.
We've taken long trips by bicycle on paved roads and off-road paths in North America and Europe, and rented bikes locally in many other parts of the world. A trip by bicycle across the pampas (the flattest and easiest part of Argentina in which to travel) seemed like it would be a relatively easy introduction to bicycle travel outside North America and Europe. We already had some sense of the way things work in Argentina, one of us (my partner) already spoke functional Spanish and we could both read it a bit (it got better during the trip: bicycle travel improved our Spanish more than any of our previous attempts at immersive language learning), and Argentina is one of the wealthiest countries, with some of the best roads and other infrastructure, in South America or anywhere outside the First World.
So how did it go, and what did we find that we hadn't anticipated and that influenced our experience?Continue reading "Bicycle touring in Argentina"