last entries
Nov 2007

Nederland, Ward,...

For the time being I live in a 'suburb' of San Martin called "La Vega", which is the Spanish word for wetland or floodplain. Yes, I know, you would haver never guessed as the place whose name sounds so similar - and by using the plural: Las Vegas, even amplifies our expectation of an abundance of natural moisture - is known for exactly the opposite: an arid desert climate with the ensuing water resource issues.

Looking out the window and using a little imagination I can easily understand how this neighbourhood here acquired its name. Check out the place in Google Earth here: < 40° 7'42.38"S - 71°16'42.63"W > and you'll agree. Heading East out of the center of town, the main road climbs through a gap between two small hills reaching out from the ridges to the North and South. Then the valley opens up and its floor becomes flat as a pan. About 10 miles further East a hill, appropriately called "lomo atravesado" - the hill across - marks the end of this vega. A small river and runoff from the mountains in numerous creeks keep the water table high enough, so that parts of this plain have areas of standing water most of the year.

LaVega_6761_400 - - - LaVega_6762_400
La Vega - the wetlands and the ridge to the north

But I digress. I wanted to say, that my current place is about 4 or 5 miles out of town. There is public transportation and the buses, whose routes connect even the remote satellite villages, run frequently and reliably and are cheap. For 45 cents you get a tour through different suburbs and neighbourhoods and the entire stretch of downtown. All that often times in vehicles, which have apparently completed their first service-life in a city close to that I just arrived from. The emblem next to their front entrance identifies that as the City of Basel, Switzerland.
So, whenever I go downtown for a single purpose, like running one of my favorite administrative errands, and don't have to worry about carrying home five plastic bags full of groceries, I take the 'colectivo'. Since I never know to how many diffferent places over what stretch of time my bureaucrazy adventures take me, I go well prepared. My backpack holds something to read, a notebook and an assortment of pens to write, my laptop - in case there's a forced pit stop at a wifi cafe - and the Nikon. It's the latter, above all, which over time has helped me to gather some insight into the town of San Martin. I suspect that these impressions are of a snapshot quality in that they reflect a rather momentary interpretation of what I see. A couple of months down the road I might relate to them in an entirely different manner.
Anyway, what is San Martin de los Andes like? Three towns(?) kept popping up in my visual memory as I was trying to find someplace to compare it to and for today I will refer to two of them only: Nederland and Ward. I know: these are not hot spots on any tourist map of the (western) US. So I apologize: what follows has been written primarily with my Boulder friends in mind.

Nederland? Not that San Martin looks like Nederland, much rather, for me, in some ways it 'feels' like it. In one corner a tourist town: a couple of small, nice shops, sport equipment, skiing, snowboarding, hiking mostly. A cute Hamburger place, perhaps.
And across the main drag, along a dusty gravel road the hide-outs of ex-hippies, secondhand stores for this and that, books, clothes, CD's.
The studio of a local, "indie" radio station hidden behind a group of pine trees.

SMA_Colo_6116_400 - - - SMA_Colo_6429_400
A cute music-and-games bar - - - - and the "indie" radio station, in San Martin

What defines this town for me is the mix of expensive cars carrying skiers in expensive gear to the slopes of Eldora and the locals, discussing along the counter of a small diner with a dusty parking lot in the back the exceptional spring skiing of last winter or planning the backcountry hikes of the coming summer. The locals seem to be mostly aged college kids with their studies in an extended holding pattern.

Yes, this is Nederland..

Most of this I've found here in San Martin, as well

And sometimes even more: right downtown, across from a hotel, a shack, which must have been one of the first buildings when the early 'pioneers' set up shop along the shores of Lago Lacar. And that reminds me of Ward.

SMA_Colo_6398_400 - - - SMA_Colo_6140_400
looks like ? and is: San Martin

Of course, there's the other San Martin as well, playing in an entirely different league and reminding me of a town as different from Ward or Nederland as one part of San Martin is from another.
More on that in a later post.


The numbers game

Days go by fast when you're number 127 in a queue at the bank, or 39 at the meat counter in the supermercado, or even 17 at the icecream parlor. Almost everywhere you have to take a number first to become a potential customer, a client, simply a person, who wants something. Otherwise you're a curious spectator at best, a minor nuisance, really. Individual characteristics, personality, physical size or strength, beauty or wits don't mean anything. To join the "flow of business" you've got to have a piece of paper with a number on it. Only then do you turn from Mr. Nobody into a respected person, only the 2 or 3 digits help you to acquire a real identity.
That was something I had to learn. Often enough, after having carefully assembled a simple sentence with my limited spanish vocabulary, I mustered all the courage available and stepped forward to the counter to ask or place an order. But even before I could pronounce the first palabra, the clerk looked at me slightly surprised, all other customers a bit annoyed. Some had even changed to an aggressively self-defensive stance. Only after somebody had waved a little piece of paper with a number on it, did I realize: wrong move - back to square one! But where do I get my identity from? After an intensive search I found the "dispenser" hidden behind the entrance door.
Once more to end of the queue!
Ok, learning takes time. In most cases 10, 15 minutes in line and everything is cool. But it can get worse, a lot worse. Like yesterday morning. Right after opening hour I came to the Registro Civil to apply for a "DNI" (documento nacional de identidad). Already ten people ahead of me! And where's the roll with the numbers? I can't find it. The next person arrives and asks: " Good morning, who is last?" At first nobody answers, then I realize what he's trying to find out: the last person to arrive was me! Duh! A different way to find out about one's standing in the 'workflow'! But why, then, holds the guy across the aisle one of these numbers in his hands? After he's finished with his 'business' here, he storms out of the office, down the stairs, waves his number and says something about "Banca Provincial".
When it's finally my turn, I learn, again. In addition to the copies of passport in triplicate, the 4 mugshots and all the other documents I also need a receipt for the payment of an administrative fee. And that has to be paid at the local bank. And at the bank you have to be a number. I storm out of the office, down the stairs and over to the Banca Provincial. A bunch of people is waiting outside the front door - doesn't look good! I try to squeeze by to get to the infamous roll. And again I feel annoyed looks on my back, again I see this posturing for self-defense. What's going on? After all I'm trying to pull my number and the dispenser is there, up front, right!? Then I understand: they're all lining up to pull their number! Dios mios!
When I finally grab the piece of paper I read 361. The LED panel says "turno 121" - and then I see a sign at the door which advises: today we close at 11, power cut!
The calculation is quick and easy: 240 clients for 6 counters in 90 minutes - forget it!


On my way out, an old guy points with his number at me: 237. And then, with a wry smile on his face, he stretches out his other arm, palm up. I see, he's selling time! And over there, a number from the butcher store is being traded with one from the bank, and back there, looks like three guys are playing poker for a number in the high one hundreds.. Ah, all these numbers games.
For today I have enough. I need a coffee!

"How good is your Spanish?"

How good is your Spanish?

Today is one of those days, when one can easily fall in love with the place, the region. The first glance out of the window made the Patagonia hormones jump: from a faint red in the East to a bluish, almost pitch dark black over the lake to the West, the morning sky had painted a gradient over the mountains which would drive any Photoshop artist into desperation. No point in taking the Nikon out, either. But with my eyes I could take in the beauty, suck up more than enough energy for the day.
A couple of days ago the morning light had been compatible with digital photography. Compared to the view at a parking lot from my kitchen window in Brugg it was literally from a different world


My view from the kitchen window in San Martin - the clouds disappeared soon thereafter.

But view and clouds were not the highlight of that day - it was rather my first job interview!
And here's how that came about:
Shortly before my departure I had gotten a surprise call from Claudia in San Martin. All excited, she had told me about an unexpected - and rather unusual - solution to my search for an appropriate accommodation: for the off-season period I could be a live-in "caretaker", in what she called a "boutique bed and breakfast" in a spectacular location high above lake Lacar. There wouldn't be any caretaker obligations except the 'task' to live there, i.e. be present. In exchange for my being there and, obviously, making sure that nothing unjust was happening, I was offered the use of a small apartment in the adjacent Teahouse for free. Why not? after all the vistas were one of the reasons why I had been so intrigued by the region in the first place.
As it turned out, my short hours in Buenos Aires didn't match with the schedule of the contact person for the resort and a foreseen meeting had to be cancelled. So, once in San Martin, Gustavo, Claudia and I took the first opportunity to drive up on a steep, adventurous dirt road for a close inspection of the place.

Well, the view was certainly nothing short of spectacular - the view of lake, mountains and sky...

Arayan_tea_6074_400 - - - teahouse_6078_400

As soon as I focused on the living quarters, however, it was a different story. A mattress on the floor and in front of it, on a small, old table, a big new TV set. Next to it an electric radiator/heater and close to the window a single chair. And that should be my residence for a couple of months? No way I could picture that, despite all the fringe benefits like free use of the Teahouse kitchen (a muscle-powered kitchen in the style of the Thirties with a large wooden oven and a small gas stove), the bar (the place, not the liquids) and the saloon.


To not leave under the impact of this - let's say: ambivalent - first impression, we decided to have tea and try the chocolate-coconut cake: absolutely delicious! For both I would - and most likely will - accept the challenging 4 mile drive up through potholes and washboard. But to live there?

Some of the magic of the place, however, kept stirring. As a studio for creative work, or a writer’s refuge, the attic would be hard to beat. Why not spend a couple of days, perhaps even nights, per week up there, so I dreamt, making sure everything is ok, and let the marvelous vistas inspire my creative mind, but keep the main residence somewhere else. This was what I intended to propose to the manager and agreed to meet for an informal interview during his visit to San Martin the following weekend.
Our conversation over coffee and brownies (more on those later) was conducted in English to avoid any misunderstandings with possibly far reaching consequences. It became clear quite quickly, that the situation at the resort really called for a full time professional caretaker/manager. So the questions were: would I want to be/do that? and would I feel up to it? - and my answers were simple and easy: No! With all these projects in photography, writing, video in the back of my mind I didn't want to commit too much of my time to running a "boutique bed and breakfast". I also considered the switch from scientist to hotel manager (in a region where I really wasn't versed well enough, yet, in either language or customs) to be a hairpin turn too tight to be successfully negotiated. This left a third question, which I then had to answer more for reasons of protocol: " And how good is your Spanish?"

When we parted, we agreed to stay in touch. Despite all, there was an area, where collaboration appeared quite feasible: after having enjoyed tea, cake and views while visiting the teahouse, I realized that my fifth sense had been totally neglected. There was a void waiting to be filled. How about some music, some gentle sounds? That would be fantastic. I could clearly see, how delightful a sunset with jazz and some exquisite wine from our "friends" at the Bodega Zuccardi near Mendoza (remember?) would be. And in order to announce "Take the A-Train", or "Blue Monk" or a Bossa Nova by Joe Henderson, " Spanish is certainly good enough".


Living and writing

I've been here in San Martin for more than 4 weeks now, but with my writing I've just about gotten to my arrival! Living and writing seem to be somewhat out of sync!

Well, that's no surprise, during the first couple of weeks there was simply too much living to do.

And sometimes I asked myself: where did I exactly arrive?

in springtime?
on a playground of climate change?
in the early seventies?

The spectrum of impressions was huge, obviously it took some time until I had managed to cope with them, to consolidate them into a first view of my place of residence south of the equator.
Sure, I "knew" the place. But through the eyes of a "permanent" resident it looked different than through the eyes of a visitor.

Springtime: the bloom was in full swing, lilac, dandylions, one or the other fruit tree and all kinds of local plants were pushing out their blossoms at full power. The temperature, however, didn't want to have nothing to do with it. Sure, every now and then, there was a day, which felt like early summer, when the sun cut through the UV-20 blocker in no time. But these were exceptions. Many a day, although not necessarily horribly wet or grey and overcast, was just cool, almost cold and the locals began to ask themselves if there was going to be a primavera at all.

primavera_SMA_6089_400 - - - Amancay_Chapelco_6104_400
- in el centro de San Martin - -and- - Suburbia, my present neighbourhood
But when the weather decided to be nice, it did so with an overwhelming intensity.
My second sunday here was such a marvelous day. Perfect timing, because that was also the last day of the skiing season up on Cerro Chapelco. Out of curiosity and a craving for altitude I drove up there.

Oh well! A season's very last downhill run, or summer-skiing in a T-shirt on some glacier never was my favorite. Skiing is wintersport for me, the more white stuff the better.
But here? It looked like a big "goggled and booted" crowd was desperately trying to shrug off obvious signs of global warming: the half-way committed dragged boots and skis or snowboards across a dry and dusty parking lot towards the Poma cable gondola. The totally committed appeared hours later suddenly on the last snowpatch about 300ft uphill of the of that very Poma lift. How they managed to "ski" down here from the more or less white slopes up there on the ridge remained a mystery.

snowpatch_lift_6174_400 - - - - chairshad_snwdirt_6189_400
on the slopes of Cerro Chapelco

Without skis, I was free and open for a different view of things -and had ample opportunity to try out my new lenses.

Chap_treestump_6194_400 - - - trees_Chap_Lanin_6169_400
- View from the slopes - over to- -Volcano Lanin-

On my way back I must have slid through a time tunnel. Suddenly, only small and smaller sized European cars of the late sixties and early seventies were on the roads. No, not the carefully and lovingly restored antiques of those times, only old clunkers which couldn't deceive anybody about their age. Mostly Renaults, from the venerable R4 all the way up to the R12, in all shapes, and states of decomposition, a few Peugeots and one or the other tiny Fiat. And. of course, that sweetheart of the in-crowd: the Ford Falcon (probably a Ford-Europe/Ford-USA hybrid, since I've never seen one in either the US or Europe) spiffed up with decals, monster exhaust pipes and outrageous paint schemes.

oldcar_blue_6477_400 - - - FordFalcon_6481_400
-back in the sixties?... - or - ...the seventies?....

All these were state of the art compared to that one..

... or the fifties ?

and it was for sale!

New options for my car search seemed to open up on each corner. And memories of weekends filled with fixing, tuning, modifying old cars popped up, when - to compensate for a tough week in lab and auditorium at the University - we'd get our hands dirty working on exactly the same models I saw here. Would I still be able to adjust the timing, tune the carburetor, change the alternator belt...?


Planes and Buses (wine in..)

Me -and- 150lbs of luggage? on one cheap ticket? Some of you might have raised the eyebrows. When I think back at the heavy hauling from the airport shuttle to the bus terminal of Buenos Aires, I'd venture that it must have been at least 250lbs.

Let's see: one suitcase of 50 lbs, the other one close to 60 that's 110lbs right there, then the huge bag with videocam, wide angle lens, 2 batteries, mic, cables, etc... that was the "carry on", plus my backpack, aka "personal item" holding - or hiding - my laptop, the Nikon, a couple of books, the Spanish dictionary and all that additional stuff like chargers, change, how many? ounces of eau de drinking and eau de smelling,...well, that adds up!

I paid an extra 100$ - only because I travelled via Atlanta, on Delta. Without the stopover in the USA, anything exceeding a 45lbs suitcase and a small beauty case would have been way beyond my financial reach. Yes, I read the fine print...

And I have to say: Delta was a pleasant surprise, really. Reasonable service, we got one, no: two, bottles of red wine for free - to "compensate" for a 30 minute delay on take off. This was the second time that happened to me this year - the delayed take off (last time, on my way to Denver we took off 4 (four!) hours late - on American) and the free drinks. The first I didn't mind, because my layover in ATL was scheduled to be 6 hrs anyway, the second quite agreeable.
Allright, Delta was most likely not responsible for my even more "agreeable" travel compañera.

Quite relaxed I continued at 8pm towards South America, night flight to BsAs. Tired as I was it took only a couple of sips from the Malbec - free again for some reason - and I fell into a doze-sleep, lasting a couple of hours.
I woke up right in time for sunrise.


Right in time, too, so that my new compañero de viaje, a decathlete of the Argentinian track and field team, could explain in necessary detail, where to best change the first traveller cheque and where to find the cheap "micro" (shuttle) to the huge bus terminal downtown.
Everything's cool!

Retiro1400_6036_400 - - - cotravelers_6043_400


In Argentina, buses are the most popular and - for all those who cannot afford a First Class airline ticket - the by far most comfortable means of transportation.
I had realized that about a year ago, when I took the overnight bus from Mendoza to San Martin de los Andes. Consequently, I was really looking forward to the 20 hr trip. After all, there was a "Tutto Letto", a fully reclining seat-bed, waiting for me.

Right on time we departed at 4 pm. Five hours later dinner was served, then a whisky for digestion and a movie to fall asleep with.
When I woke up, another movie was flickering across the screen - or was it not? Wait a minute, these shots seemed familiar somehow, was I still dreaming?
Wasn't this right out of "Diarios de motocicleta" ?
And the dawn - exactly like in the movie!

che_bike_6047_400 - - - dawn_bus_6045_400

Oops, the pothole certainly was real reality!

Just before noon we arrived in San Martin, again right on time.
After 60 hrs of travelling I was still reasonably fit. Fit enough, anyway, so that Gustavo's overwhelming welcome hug didn't bring me to my knees.

At home, Claudia had already prepared a sumptuous lunch and one of her cabañas to crash after a last glass of wine from Gustavo's well stocked wine cellar.

I almost felt like the lost son - obviously, I had found(again) my Patagonian family.