Thursday, May 28, 2009

Reports from Argentina and Chile

November 2000
Parque Pumalin, Cybercafes in the Atacama, little trains and more.

The Camino Austral
Southern Chile resembles the Alaskan Panhandle with twisting fjords, glaciars, forests, and steep mountains. For most of the regions history, it was only accessible via the flatter Argentine Patagonia, a fact which much have annoyed General Pinochet to no end. In 1978 he began a road construction project of great cost and questionable economic value to connect up all these isolated settlements. The result is a twisting, whimsical road that goes over mountains, valleys, lakes, and fjords. It looks cool on a map and even better in real life. As a kid I would often look at maps of remote regions and imagine some amazing road that cut through the mountains and swept down into valleys (yes, I was odd even then). Pinochet obviously must have had the same fantasies, although as dictator for 17 years he had the power to make them reality.

Parque Pumalin - Southern Chile
Near the north end of the Camino Austral is a nature reserve founded by American mulit-millionaire Douglas Thompkins. About ten years ago he came in and bought up about a million acres of virgin rain forest and made the land into a park which he offered to donate to the Chilean government who nevertheless refused. Chileans, for the most part, cannot understand why someone would spend so much money and then just do nothing with the land. Thompkins' presence in Southern Chile has generated endless controversy. For an excellent overview of this story rich with the irony of post-modern life, you should really read this article from the Atlantic Monthly by William Langwiesche

I stayed right in the heart of the park with this old couple who have lived there for 40 years and are the last of the original settlers not to sell out to Thompkins. The old couple moved there in 1960 and raised ten children on fishing, and tending livestock. These facts I learned not from them, but a Spanish glossy magazine they had in the living room with a cover story on Doug Thompkins. In the article was a side-bar on my hosts. The interior of their modest home is covered with puma skins which they've trapped over the years to protect their sheep and cows. The old man showed me the trap outback where he lures in the pumas. He said, with sly understatement that "Don Doug" doesn't like him to trap the pumas, but what is he gonna do, he's gotta protect his property?

On either side of their home are two settlements of "Project Pumalin", an effort to show off sustainable agricultural practices. Thompkins' efforts are directed at more than just saving forest but at promoting a philosophy known as Deep Ecology which basically promotes de-industrialization and a return to an agrarian lifestyle (read the article for more). The two settlements are a collection of modest wood homes with wood stoves, gabled roofs, and multi-paned windows. Everything has a sort of Restoration Hardware aesthetic and I wondered how much of it had been shipped in direct from Marin County. The neatness and deliberateness of the constructions is an incredible contrast from everywhere else in Latin America where economic exigencies bring about a haphazardness to architecture. The forests were certainly beautiful, but I couldn't help feeling that they place had a sort of Disney feeling of unreality.

La Trochita - Patagonia
Skipping back into Argentina, I had the pleasure to ride on La Trochita, the narrow-gauged railroad made famous by Paul Theroux's "Old Patagonia Express" where he described the train as "a samovar on wheels". With a gauge slightly over two feet wide, the passenger cars are definitely of diminutive proportions. There are no regular passenger services anymore, just a Saturday tour about 10km out of town and back again. The steam engines and passenger cars are originals from Germany, imported in 1922 when construction was started on the railroad. The guide explained to us with the bitter irony typical of Argentine's that unlike the rest of Argentina's rails, which had been efficiently constructed and run by the British, La Trochita was an undertaking of the Argentine government and thus took 23 years to complete is 400km run as each economic and political crisis stalled construction.

Internet Cafes in Arica Chile - The Atacama
Internet cafes are everywhere now and prices have come down so much that the clientele in most places are locals, students and whatnot. Of course, they are not really cafes (which was sort of a stupid idea to begin with, coffee on the keyboard anyone?) but small shops packed tight with computers. Its a cut rate, low margin business. In Arica, the northernmost city in Chile, I saw something new; each of the little posts were separated by dark curtains so your neighbors can't see what you're looking at, or, as seems to be the case, who you're chatting with. I'm sure the admins of the cafes have a great time looking at the caches and history files at the end of the day

Border Disputes
Maps of Latin America seem stable, but they don't really reflect the open wounds and harbored resentments of past wars and present border ambiguities. Maps are, of course, political documents as any quick glance at an Argentine or Chilean map will show. Both claim large (and overlapping) slices of Antarctica as national territory and of course the Faulkland Island aren't really British. Bumper stickers in southern Argentina proclaim "The continental ice sheets are Argentine!", disputing a recent treaty between Argentina and Chile. Peru and Ecuador only recently resolved overlapping claims of the Amazon. Venezuela claims about a third of Guayana and Belize is just another province of Guatemala depending on your point of view.

Here in Bolivia they have never quite overcome the psychological blow of losing their coastal provinces to Chile in the War of the Pacific in 1883. La Paz is filled with references to the Bolivian "Litoral", litoral being the Spanish word for coastal region. Just yesterday the most respected newspaper here ran a long op-ed piece warning against a deal selling water rights in southwestern Bolivia to Chile. The writer warned that this was an incursion on Bolivian sovereignty and part of a well-defined Chilean policy of territorial expansion whose goal is to take the region in 50 to 100 years time.