Sunday, March 12, 2006


Mendoza, Argentina

We made a side trip to Maine.   Here's why.

In Panama our Camry developed a small steering fluid leak, which could
have been fixed for $700, or ignored.    The risk of an unrepaired unit failing
would have been tolerable in Maine, but not in the Andes.   Whether to
risk it or spend $700, that, added to other financial and miscellaneous
hurdles made us decide to leave the car in Panama, rather than ship or
fly it to Ecuador.   We wonder if it will go its next half million kilometers in

Panamanian law said that I, but not Margery, could not leave the country
without the car, or payment of import duty on it.    I had to leave my
passport and the car at Customs for processing, and the duty would have
to be paid in cash.   Then the bank would not cash our travelers checks
without seeing the original of my passport, and Customs would not release
the passport without the duty being paid.   Since that made me a prisoner
at large in Panama, but allowed me to stay just 30 days, the only legal
alternative seemed to be my quick burial.   To fast-forward over several
days of these Catch-22s, Customs finally gave me my passport, stamped
"OK to leave Panama without vehicle".   We signed the car over to the
friendly USA Vice Consul.   He sends us occasional emails saying that
Customs still has the car and hasn't decided how much duty should be
paid.   Clearly an official hopes to wear down the Americans and get the car
for a pittance.    If the duty is ever specified and paid, and the car released,
the Consul will sell it and send us the net proceeds.   We don't expect much.

We had time, but not enough, to see a little of Panama: the lush
countryside, boats passing through Miraflores Locks, prosperous
internationalized Panama City, and artifacts of this fulcrum of
Hemispheric exploration, conquest and trade.   We may go back, but
without a car, an asset which had become a liability.

Apparently this was a good opportunity to use a passenger carrying
freighter, to take us to Chile.    The crew of such a boat doesn't include a
doctor, so owners limit the age of passengers to 70 for some ships,
up to 80 for others.    In 2 years I'll be too old to qualify....  We were
influenced by our best vacation ever, a 1983 voyage up the west coast of
Norway on a small freighter.   Also, before Marge, I got a job on the first
small freighter I approached on the Reykjavik waterfront.    In spite of
nearly spilling soup in the captain"s lap, I received seven dollars, a
passage to Denmark, and the surreal predawn spectacle of the new
volcanic island of Surtsy, still slowly rising above the waves.   Two months
later I returned to New York on a freighter with my new $1600 (not a typo)
Austin Healey.   But I digress, like the other Ancient Mariner.    To our dismay,
we found that none of the dozens of boats daily traversing the Canal would
take on passengers there.

The only remaining practical egress option was by plane.   We could have
flown to Chile, but decided to return home January 12, to recoup and to
tend to some medical problems.


Our 3 weeks in Maine were cold busy ones, fraught with cliff-hangers.
Most crucially, the day before departure Marge received medical test
results saying she could continue our trip.

February 3 we flew to Atlanta, where a 6-hour layover allowed a visit with
grandson Nicholas, who was there on an internship with the M.L.King

Monitors on our nine hour flight to Santiago showed that we were at
37,000 feet, surrounded by minus 58 degree air, hurtling in a thin
aluminum capsule at 570 mph in the dark over 7 countries.

February 4 we recovered in our Santiago hotel, which was small, with no other
guests.   We had supper with Sira and Brian, our young expatriate
friends from Brunswick.   Their new business,,
 prospered in the subsequent years:

February 5 we walked with them to a gondola, which took us up to
lunch with a panoramic view of this city of 5 million people, somewhat
obscured by smog.   The temperature was 93 degrees.

What we write about the places and peoples on our journeys is of course
imperfect, because of the brevity of the encounters, but we have learned
something from those experiences, and from media and previous
travelers.   For example, we were impressed by how clean is Santiago
and the countryside.   Providencia, the business and residential area
where we stayed, is a grid of one way streets, flanked on each side by a
continuous strip of grass and enough trees to shade half the pavement,
then a sidewalk, lawns and flowering shrubs, and buildings.   All the
grass was so neatly clipped that we thought at first it was a type that only
grew an inch high.   Each morning building superintendents, each
sporting a necktie, swept the grass and sidewalk and gutters with brooms.
Hardly a piece of litter, even a cigarette butt, could be found anywhere.   There
may have been litter beside country highways, but from our car we saw none.
The explanation given us was that the years of dictatorship
under Pinochet, now deposed and senile, forced conformity, so that it is
now his legacy.   Similarly Mussolini made the trains run on time, and Hitler
built the autobahns.   Perhaps, however, the temperament of the people
had an older origin, because drivers seemed much more courteous than in
Mexico or New York.

Except for that, Santiago seemed to us like Paris in the summer.
However, faces were nearly all Caucasian, with those of Asian or
African or indigenous origin rare.    People walked and talked industriously.
 The ambiance was one of prosperity and safety.

With some difficulty we rented a small Toyota Yaris sedan, paying extra for the papers necessary for multiple crossings between Chile and Argentina.  The first 50 miles after the city were 75 mph toll highways.   The next 50 sinuously climbed the Andes to the 10,500' border with Argentina.
We had expensive sandwiches at the famous Portillo ski resort near the border,
looking out the window at an azure lake set among barren multicolored crags.

The border crossing took only an hour.   It was efficient and free of corruption.

The first sign inside Argentina proclaimed Islas Malvinas Son Argentinas,
meaning The Falkland Islands Are Argentinian.   Considering the
proximity of those islands to the mainland, no wonder the country is
bitter about losing The War.   The sign in the picture means "Welcome to the Republic of Argentina".  Our parked car appears.

We drove a very rocky jeep side road to the ranger station of Aconcagua Provincial Park, sort of a base camp for climbers of snow clad Aconcagua, the highest point in the Americas at 22800'.   Back on the highway, the scenery continued to be a geologist's dream, but gradually leveled as it approached the central plain of the continent.

Remains of the Trans-Andean Railway were in sight most of the day.
Opened in 1910, the demise of this stupendous engineering project in
1982 was blamed by Argentinians on the president after Juan and Evita
Peron.   However, apparently Nature had been trying for years to kill the
railroad, requiring high maintenance until it was abandoned.   We saw
countless landslides that had either buried tracks or undermined them so they dangled in air.

We saw many abandoned road and railway tunnels, and drove through
dozens of tunnels, one 2.5 miles long, another 2.0 miles.    Since this was
the only land route between the large cities of Santiago and Buenos Aires,
maintaining traffic while making repairs to these rough narrow tunnels
would be difficult.   The principal vehicles on the paved roads of Argentina
are big trucks, so we have been fortunate not to have met any in a tunnel.
That's because there is very little traffic.

We stopped at a pile of thousands of full green water bottles, an apparent
exception to the otherwise clean roadsides.   It was the first of many
shrines to Difunta Correa (click), who died of thirst about 1835 while following
her soldier husband through the desert.    Her live baby was found at her
breast.   She is considered a saint by many, which the Church considers a superstition.

We are staying 2 nights at the Hotel Mendoza in Mendoza, a very attractive
modern small city.   There are popular leafy parks and streets only for
pedestrians.   The streets are broad and most buildings low because of the
memory of the total destruction by earthquake in 1861.

Prices reflect the economic collapse of just 2 years ago.   Then a dollar
bought a peso, now it buys nearly 3.   We ate lunch today at a sidewalk
cafe.   Urchins occasionally darted among the tables and grabbed leftover
food before the tables could be cleared.   Steak and drinks and dessert  for 2
cost $9 total.   An excellent local wine costs 5 dollars a bottle.

Added 2/29/2012:  From an Argentinian:
“During the Menem years, in the ’90s, I lived in Buenos Aires. Things were good then. Because Menem had tied the peso to the dollar. He said he would never break the link. So people lent money to Argentina. They thought they couldn’t lose, because the peso was linked to the dollar. It was like lending money to the US. Almost.

“But eventually — it only took 10 years — Argentina had borrowed too much money. It couldn’t keep up. People who knew what was going on began taking their money out of Argentina. Speculators began betting against the peso. 

“Then, it was just a matter of a few weeks...and we defaulted. The link to the dollar was broken, the peso lost two-thirds of its value and investors and savers lost a lot of money.

“Greece did the same thing. Instead of linking the drachma to the just took up the euro. That way, it was able to borrow a lot of money at low rates.   Since it was part of the eurozone...and since the euro was controlled by the Germans...people thought it was safe to lend, so Greece went on a borrowing and spending spree.   Now they’re suffering.   They should we did. 

“Here in Argentina, the middle class was practically wiped out.   People griped.   They lost a lot of money. And for a couple years, it was pretty rough. But we were able to pick ourselves up and start over again...”

By R.D: The USA government now borrows 42 cents of every dollar it spends.   How long before the same collapse happens in the USA?   Argentina didn't learn from its expensive lesson, for inflation  is accelerating, and the government trying unsuccessfully to cover it up:  click here


We anticipate it will be easier coping with the challenges of Nature
(ahead) than of Man (back in Central America).   According to books and the most dangerous countries in the Americas are
three we cautiously traversed (Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua ) and
Colombia, which we had no intention of visiting.    The journey south
will be long and spectacular, nearly 5000 miles round trip, over vast
pampas (elsewhere called prairie, veldt, savannah, steppe), in
occasional sight of guanacos and rheas and penguins, via paved roads
and dirt roads and "incessant gales", to Ushuaia, the southernmost city
on Earth, 651 miles from Antarctica.

1 comment:

carol dreselly said...

We love reading about your adventures, and especially appreciate all the detailed descriptions. Seven years to the month after your trip to Argentina, incl. to the base of Aconcagua, Mendoza, Buenos Aires, your grandson Michael w/fiance Kristen visited to meet the BBC & Discovery Channel re her doctoral research on local weather; Michael helped w/photography & some Spanish translation. He (& the rest of us!) shares your sense of adventure & interest in the world!