FROM THE CONE
6 November, 2004
Most of the people in Chile live in or adjacent to Santiago, a mega-city which looks, along the six tedious cross-town routes by which I entered by taxi from the airport, left by express bus to Valparaiso, re-entered by the metro, left again by endlessly zigzagging local bus for San Jose del Maipo, entered again by another zigzagging bus and elevated metro, and finally left by train for the south, half as big and half as ugly, almost, as Los Angeles. So I came expecting a southern San Francisco and found a monster Fresno.
In the main plaza, which is bordered by American fast-food stalls, an artist in an art show where all the artists painted while they showed, protested that Valparaiso at least is more beautiful than San Francisco. Not true, but the neighboring port city, still blessedly separated from the capital sprawl by a few miles of open hills, though it's clearly third world and has some slopes I was warned to stay off of, just like in Venezuela, does indeed include one neighborhood along Uruguay Street with the some pleasing ambience.
But it's the long valley south of Santiago that sticks in my mind as the only reason I might return, and that was so much like northern California in the spring, maybe there'd be no point. For days going by train and bus to several small cities and towns on my way to Chile's frigid south-coast scramble of fiords and islands, the valley was beautifully clean and green and crisply visible from side to side, a place of vineyards, orchards and pastures, small woods and seas of bright yellow flowers. It's also home to most of the famous wineries whose labels locate them, confusingly, in separate valleys named for the various east-west streams cutting mere barrancas across the broad central shelf.
I actually travelled in the "cone" countries for two months, caroming southward through Chile between the Andes, the coast, and the valley until it got too cold to go on and I settled for visiting just the first big island of the south-coast fiordlands before crossing to Lake Bariloche on the Argentine slope of the Andes.
Having found bonus geographic features in Chile, after leaving Lake Bariloche, I found Argentina, which is much bigger, wider and longer, and spacious enough for a lot of variation, almost depressingly feature free and plain. The land may tilt gradually from the Atlantic to the far away Andes, but it looked, from the busses that carried me across the south and from a plane that carried me across the north, as flat as a pointed trowel, without even a slight ridge along the coastal edge. About midway north and south, the Rio Negro and its upriver tributaries runs arbitrarily across it from the Andes to the Atlantic and, for no reason except that it's so, that half of the country south of the Rio Negro is mostly a sandy wasteland called Patagonia, one of the least interesting looking deserts I've ever seen, and the half of the country north of the river is the world's biggest lawn, totally tended and subdivided into plots of grass at different growth stages, so the cattle can be rotated through the plots as the grass is eaten and regrown.
I rolled north all day through Patagonian wastelands where I saw one llama, one red fox, and a dozen humans at a gas/cafe/rock shop lunch stop, before, after several more wasteland hours my bus threw a wheel and I was stranded in an isolated desert motel with giant osprey legs and a boar's head on the wall. The next day, I crossed the Rio Negro and, besides several flat and fairly neat cities and towns, I saw and saw and saw so much pampa I don't see why they don't end the word with an s, like I do. An old woman on a train crossing more pampa a few days later told me, "They waste every bit of the land on the cows and have to import food for people." And she was a vegetarian. I had seen some orchards, and there are obviously vineyards along the base of the Andes, but through the moving window past her waving hand, all I saw besides grass seemed to be planted windbreaks, often eucalyptus.
I rode all of one day in the front seat of an upper bus deck with a wrap-around view filled with flat green grass to all the edges of the world. Large herds of black cattle seemed lost in it. Spectacular? Yes, but with no reason to be here or there. The cities of Argentina are where they happen to be, perhaps spaced out by the needs of the beef industry, and Buenos Aires is sprawled along a chance portion of the flat bank of the Rio de la Plata's gulf sized mouth, while the port for shipping out the beef and shipping in the people food is where the city happens to be. B.A. (my own I think appropriate term) is not as table-top flat as Santiago, but it's flat. The architecture is older and more European than Santiago, the streets are narrower, and it's generally dark, dank, and dull, its brightest spot being an artificial zone of cafe tables packed into the streets and strenuously festive arts and crafts tables packed on the grass in and around the cemetery.
On a museum plaque in Uruguay, I read a long boasting claim that all of that country is useful for agriculture and agronomy, because none of it is wasted by mountains or deserts. Uruguay is a tiny bit rolling, but approaching by bus and leaving by boat, I saw no sign of a mountain around Montevideo, which is just as slightly off flat and European as B.A. but with wider streets where the sun can shine and the wind can blow - through a lot of leaves. The oldest part is a relatively barren, currently deserted ruin, but the bigger, next oldest part, enhanced by a forest of tall street trees, is the most attractive capital city I saw in South America. I liked it better each day I was there. It's easy to walk around and it feels safe, although a sprinting urchin tried and failed to grab my camera and notebook bag off my shoulder on a sidestreet, and the "cop on every corner" phenomenon falsely attributed to Cuba by embedded reporters plagiarizing each other actually exists so plainly in Montevideo's old town that standing in an empty intersection there and looking all four directions at the successive cops on receding corners is like being inside a kaleidoscope.
I saw some south Atlantic beach towns where I almost starved trying to fit my life into rigid Argentine feeding schedules, a lot of Mar de Plata which I liked a little, and all I wanted to see of Buenos Aires before I ferried across the wide mouth of the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay, where I split a week between Montevideo and Colonia, a relaxing old upriver town I'd love to go back to if it weren't forever away from Mexico City on the plane I had to ferry back over to B.A. to catch.
The "cone" country capitals of Southern South America, to a casual observer on a central park bench, look fairly first world, and so do the countries, but that's partly, not entirely, but certainly partly, a matter of viewpoint. It's actually very much a matter of their flatness. Caracas, Bogota, Quito, and La Paz, thanks to their steep urban geography, are totally visible. Standing in the right place, I could almost measure the right and wrong sides of the tracks in those places with my thumb and forefinger - especially the right sides, the safe bubble worlds, which aren't very big. The boundaries of the safe zones in those places are close and easy (though dangerous) to walk past. But when I landed in Santiago in an airport cab, taxiing into the center along Bernardo O'Higgins, I couldn't see anything, except that the buildings I was passing looked OK. The taxista told me that on a clear day the Andes are visible up the main street slot, but it wasn't a clear day. And Santiago itself wasn't really visible either because the clean, modern downtown streets are all as flat as hallways and absolutely walled in.
You may think I'm making too much of this, but I'm not. It's hard to see Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo because they're flat and therefore anything that sticks up blocks your view. And what stick up are thickets of wide, tall buildings, which, modern or old, are full of modern material wealth. When you're in the modern, U.S. or European looking centers of Santiago and Montevideo, all you can see are the buildings and their display windows and the crowds of shoppers. To westerners, shoppers = OK. And even the dark, narrow street canyons of old central Buenos Aires, where they're blocked off to make long, narrow, grubby malls lined with familiar stores and eateries are at least full of window shoppers.
If you're on the Plaza de Mayo on a week day, the amazing array of barricades and armados protecting the capitol (or surrounding the leftist president) may tell you something's wrong. But the huge old colonial building fronts circling and frowning down at you may still not remind you of the miles-wide aura of shanties and grimy urban slums I went through on the train from Mar de Plata to reach the center.
The flatness of Havana has the opposite effect. The dark, narrow crevices of Centro Havana block the one-time visitor's view of the good life that prevails everywhere in Cuba, including in Centro behind doors one-timers don't knock on. I've gotten past that problem by seeing all of Cuba and by being unafraid to explore any Cuban neighborhood. But I hope I made it clear in "From the Andes" that I learned in South America to be afraid of poor neighborhoods, and when I reached the B.A. train station and found myself still in the slums, I got in a cab fast, and when I wearied of walking past American hamburger and fried chicken places in central Santiago and asked my desk clerk if there is real food in other parts of town, and she said probably but she couldn't think of anyplace outside the center I could safely go, that almost made me sick, because I hadn't done any exploring yet and I was still hoping Santiago was different.
Now I know there are readers who are going to say, "Hey! It's the same in L.A." Or Kansas City, or Rome, or Melbourne. The same readers, reading my accounts of being mugged in Colombia and Ecuador, probably wanted to say, "Hey! Try walking around alone in (fill in the blank) and see what happens to you." Perfect. I actually adopted my defensive stance as a muggee, which at least saved my belongings if not my dignity or composure in Medellin and Quito, after being jumped by two guys on a downtown street in Madrid, when I had just enough hands to lock down my wallet and passport and none left for fighting and weathered the threat without even thinking of yelling for help. Now, by keeping vital things only in my left and right front Levi's pockets, I free my hands to fight for time while I yell like hell, and I learned that in Madrid So I agree. But I'm not comparing South American cities to U.S. or European cities. I'm comparing them to Cuban cities, and I welcome any reader's realization that Chicago doesn't compare well with Havana either, because I'm comparing capitalist cities filled with ignorant and desperate paupers killing their own pain and judgement and justifying violence with drugs, self pity, and anger, to Cuban cities that may look bad in places but which are full of educated, healthy people who aren't at all desperate because their government takes care of them.
Actually, though, while America is also divided between the bubble worlds of the haves and the nether worlds of the have nots, few first world cities can match the normal "free" and democratic Latin American capital for squalor and tension, because a much larger proportion of Americans are among the winners, so U.S. safe zones are bigger and even closer to being dominant, and a much smaller proportion of Americans are really bottom level losers, so the ghettos there aren't as miserable. But yes, capitalist cities are capitalist cities, and readers are welcome to compare their cities to Buenos Aires, or even Bogota or Caracas. My point is that no Cuban city is like that, and there has to be a reason why, doesn't there?
Santiago and Montevideo aren't apparently like that either, and neither are a number of other cities I visited in Argentina. But the familiar warnings are there, and the armados are there, though not like in America or, worse, Buenos Aires. And when I strayed far enough I found the reasons. While the near sides of the tracks are right up to date, the other sides, when and if you find them, are at least as bad as poor America of 50 years ago. A lot of hiking, a series of city bus rides, or help from a willing taxi driver will show you that.
Chile has clearly progressed more, socially, than any of its neighbors, so that even outside of Santiago, out in the open, and in the small towns, some of which are as neat as Sonoma, it looks close to the first world. But travelling south through the the neat green central valley, I noticed that the barrancas that claim to be valleys on the wine bottle labels hide small shanty towns, visible from the train (they'd be trailers in California), and entering and leaving every old, European looking town along the way, my train or bus windows passed through suburbs as decayed as Texas ghost towns along the Rio Grande. Some entire little towns, once OK, are now entirely decaying. Riding city bus lines to their ends in Concepcion, I found some nightmare shack jungles.
Argentina also has a lot of almost militarily squared away little villages, but along the Rio Negro, I saw shanty towns too extreme to be anything but movie sets. This is common at the edges of agricultural cities and there are giant versions just outside Buenos Aires and Mar de Plata. I saw the same phenomenon bussing into Montevideo. There are clusters of shanties even on the perimeters of the picture perfect Uruguayan village of Colonia, and there is also another center there, not so picture perfect.
Though actual shanty towns are rapidly being replaced in slightly leftist Chile with undersized but solid subsidized houses, and thousands of new houses are planned and funded in hopefully now more leftist Argentina, and presumably the new socialist president of Uruguay intends to follow suit, shanty ghettos as ugly as you'll find in Central America and Mexico still exist.
Most of what looked to me like former farm labor camps in the Chilean central valley have become (just as in Colombia) fairly new tracts of undersized houses that look like pieces of normal, 2-floor, peak-roofed houses sliced crosswise like cakes into thirds, each third of a real house about ten feet deep and twenty feet wide - 200 square feet on top of 200 square feet, with maybe another 100 usable feet in the loft, not enough space inside for a normal couch, a woman who lived in one told me, with bathtubs the size of deep sinks.
And, of course, I also saw edificio thickets in every city. Everywhere in Latin America, except where Hugo Chavez' larger vision has taken hold in Venezuela, subsidized urban renewal means replacing shanties with no more than what the poor are assumed to deserve or expect.
Reading the local papers wherever I go, it never takes long to learn about wages and benefits and conversations even with the middle class always soon reveal what the papers don't. In Argentina, almost half the retirees have no insurance and no medical care. Salaries start officially at 550 pesos a month, and inflation in Argentina has begun again. I arrived expecting low prices and had to spend more than 150 pesos a day, not a bohemian budget but close to it. So 550 a month, $183 last November, is pitiful, and there's more unemployment than the papers say, just like everywhere.
Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay all have new leftist presidents precisely because each has undergone recent upheaval due to the historic suffering of the poor. Washington played an active role in the suppression of the poor in Chile and Argentina and is unhappy with the current trend. Washington is as sure as George Bush always is of all his misinformation that the first world look of Santiago, for instance, means capitalism has been working. But it doesn't mean that. It means life has gotten sweeter for some. For most, this eternal turn of affairs has simply gotten older and less bearable, and the only answer is sweeping change, beginning with new and entirely different kinds of leadership.
There are four, maybe five new presidents in South America now who don't pretend to scorn Cuba anymore and don't shun Fidel and, though they still seem too timid to say so (including Chavez), I hope and every Latin American progressive I've talked to hopes they haven't bought America's cunning lie that socialism is too idealistic to go for.
While I was still in Peru, sanity flickered briefly on the U.N. floor, when, starting with Kofi Annan, several world leaders decided to talk a little more realistically than usual about the reasons for unreasonable violence and were very close to making an issue of economic inequality. Those who kept babbling about "terrorism" as a kind of super vandalism inflicted on good people by bad people should have been revealed by contrast as either intellectually or ethically bankrupt. But the alert volunteer press brigade quickly doused the spark, restored the regular news agenda, and overwhelmingly forgot anything strange had happened.
So both officially and in fact, not much HAD happened (except that Annan reaped the lasting wrath of rightists who can't stand even timid realism). Annan, Lula da Silva, and others, though they spoke more bravely than usual, were still shamefully silent about the most fundamental realities. Obviously, nobody mentioned overpopulation and the crushing weight of the ever growing human encampment on the same world resource base from which western misleaders glibly promise to squeeze five times as much to bring the empty handed 80% to parity as soon as they obediently embrace "freedom" and democracy.
But also, even while they pointed straight at economic inequality for a change and called for reforms which would have to be socialistic, their mouths couldn't say communism or even socialism to the U.S. or British face or honestly connect the speakable problem to its unspeakable causes. Intellectually crippled by fear (maybe of personal economic repercussions) or by their philosophical upbringing or by whatever it is that keeps people politically correct, they couldn't utter the words: economic competition (capitalism) doesn't work for the losers.
But the economic war of privilege versus survival between the literally different peoples and territories of the haves and have-nots; the desperation and anger of the have-nots, which is bound to be acted out; and, in reaction to that, the fortification of their position by the haves; and then in turn, to compete with tanks and bombers, the adoption of guerrilla tactics including terrorism by the have-nots; and etc. is all clearly the inevitable adjunct of "free" enterprise by too many people living in a closed space, NOT sharing but competing for limited and dwindling resources, with no salve offered to the losers except more "freedom" and democracy, which is obviously a scam.
Regardless of the grand rhetoric shrouding it, western style "free" enterprise democracy doesn't work for most people. That is because "free" enterprise and democracy, separately or together, are absolutely, irrefutably, inevitably, always, by definition, obviously competitive, and that means there are winners and losers.
"Free" enterprise democracy doesn't work for most people because it can't. It has to work only for the few, because that's the way it works. The Carnegian "comet tails of the mighty" idea, that if the rich get richer the poor will get richer, too, is based on the kind of pure math that leads unphilosophical scientists to their stupidest errors. If the rich always have 100 times as much as the poor, then if the rich get 100 times richer, the poor will get 100 time richer and be just as rich as the rich were before. That's the kind of math George Bush uses to justify his plans for social security. It's the kind of math that has led astronomers to believe the universe has a beginning, an end, and edges.
I myself use what I call "conceptual" math, which includes multi-dimensional real-world factors beyond simplistic numbers, including complete comprehension of language. It used to be called "philosophy" before the whiz kids proclaimed philosophy eclipsed by new math. Using conceptual math, I won my bet with handwringing computer genius acquaintances that their Y2K crash wouldn't happen. Using conceptual math supplemented by factors in front of my face when I travel, I know capitalism can't work for most people or for the world. Of course, if you have money, all you need is business math to count it. Republican pundits hang on to denial by sticking to business math and by staying inside their fortified bubbles - by staying mentally inside their bubbles even when they venture out into the ugly world of the majority losers, and by never going to Cuba and trying to keep anyone else from going there, either.
In October '04, the U.N reminded itself that in 1996 it was resolved to cut world hunger in half by 2015, but so far hunger has continued to grow. An estimated 840 million people are now chronically hungry. Obviously, it's hard to pin deaths specifically on hunger, so the new report concluded that from 24,000 to 100,000 a day die from hunger. The important fact here is that none of those are Cubans, though many are Latin Americans. In Guatemala the problem of hunger has increased 14% since 1990. In some countries in Africa, half the population is hungry. But, probably, nobody is hungry in Cuba except anorexic girls and really fat people who just want more.
In Bolivia, weary of walking so much and having learned to fear the poor, it came to me that my self appointed task of comparing Cuba to "western style free enterprise democracies" needn't be so difficult as to threaten my health and safety, since all the evidence I needed falls into a clear set of obvious and obviously conclusive comparisons easy to make, since the evidence was in front of my face everywhere. This didn't really change in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, even though they look more like the U.S. than like Bolivia.
A high ratio of substandard homes is the most important indication that a country is failing to make life better for its people, and, compared to any other Latin American country, including even Chile, there are fewer substandard homes per capita in Cuba and almost no shanties. Furthermore, all substandard homes in Cuba are seriously slated for replacement. It goes slowly but it's certain.
In every other country, concentrations of substandard homes become forbidden casbahs where the middle classes fear to tread, and that includes the U.S. Ill informed tourists may think Centro Havana is such a place, but in fact, I've never encountered the concept in Cuba, and I've only met friendliness and unconcern about me in Centro.
Fear of the night and the poor even outside the ghetto is also common almost everywhere except in Cuba. I have been told all my U.S. life and have been told emphatically, continually, and often hysterically in almost every other Latin American country (except Nicaragua in the 80's) to be afraid of the night and the poor, but I've never been told that in Cuba. Chile and Uruguay seem to suffer less from this syndrome, but it's there.
Every other country has safe bubble zones where the middle and upper classes and the tourists can seal themselves off from both danger and the ugliness of capitalist reality, and the U.S. is itself such a bubble. An unfortunately entrenched concept of tourism has created apparent bubble zones at Varadero Beach, Trinidad, and in Habana Vieja, but it's not the same because all of Cuba is safe, and that can only be said of Cuba.
To protect the middle and upper classes from the poor, an armed camp atmosphere prevails in and around safe zones. Indeed, most Latin American countries are crawling with over armed cops and military, and armed checkpoints, the most obvious symbols of fascism, are common. U.S. foreign and border policy is virtually a macro metaphor for this ugly syndrome. Chile has very little of it, but only Cuba, where the police are few and lightly armed, has virtually no military presence and no checkpoints.
The absence of permanent social security, economic stability, assured health care, and confidence in government is the norm everywhere but Cuba, where an opposite norm prevails. Inertly habitual assumptions that Cubans are poor are literally absurd. Peru has just decided in desperation to give $30 a month (which is about $60 buying power) to 22% of its people who now earn less than $1.60 a day and have nothing else. Over half of Colombians have less than $2, i.e. about $5 buying power a day and nothing else. The Miami Herald recently listed 10 other Latin American countries with similar situations. But the much maligned $8 a month low Cuban salary actually represents over $200 of buying power in addition to virtually all necessities being subsidized, the most important - health, education, and economic security for life - totally guaranteed. Obviously, the pundits who call Cubans poor can't handle conceptual math.
Throughout Latin America and the world, lack of education is pandemic. People trying to explain to me why the poor are dangerous inevitably, everywhere, tell me it is because they are uneducated. Several countries supposedly guarantee education, but not equally, and not certainly. This guarantee is threatened now in the U.S. It simply fails in most of Latin America. It was recently reported tht 40 million Latin Americans can't read or write at all, and 120 million are functionally illiterate. Virtually none of those are Cubans.
Cuba has come late to ecological awareness, but ecological blindness still dominates almost everywhere. The most startling thing I saw in Chile is the near complete absence of big trees. The country is covered with sapling forests because previous governments sold all their timber to greedy U.S. companies. American Republicans will be among the last people on the planet to reach ecological awareness.
Besides being hungry, the poor of the world are routinely denied dignity. Indians almost everywhere in Latin America are treated as if they aren't even people. Cuba may be the only place in the world that guarantees every individual's dignity. For instance, Cuba is far closer to zero racism than anyplace else I've been. Surely countries which allow any or all the negatives listed above to continue are abusing the rights of their people, and Cuba is the only country in the hemisphere where none of these negatives do persist. Cuba has less political prisoners than other countries, it has no more failures of justice, and there is no evidence of torture in Cuba (except at the Guantanamo U.S. Marine base). Its version of democracy is as valid as anyone's, and the Cuban people overwhelmingly support their socialist system. Cuba's one significant abuse, in contrast to all the above, that its press is government controlled, is obviously not enough to obscure the obvious fact that it is asinine for the other OAS countries to judge Cuba. Obviously, Cuba should be judging everyone else. Obviously, if human rights are the yard stick, Cuba is the best model available.
Cuba is, of course, only a probably vain start, which may fail due to the errors of over-confident pure math economists inside its government, even if the U.S. doesn't tragically invade. It's a small island of good intentions, and in a truly progressive world it wouldn't be enough just to leave Cuba alone or even for intelligent Americans to go there and look quickly, while it's still there. If the U.S. were led by intellectuals instead of being misled by politicians advised by mystics and cynics, the U.S., through the U.N., would be subsidizing the Cuban effort to achieve a social, economic, political, ecological, philosophical model better suited for a world in deep trouble and badly in need of a compass and a plan.
The apparently irreversible ecological disaster the world is up against, and the apparently eternal economic disaster, which terrorism and other ongoing strife simply reflect, call for nothing less than to wrench the bow of the world ship around and head it at last toward the logical goal of making life and the world better for all people, instead of just for business and the chosen few who succeed in business.
That truism being certain to fall on deaf ears - to bounce off giant, impervious shields of denial - I'll close this document with a few more travel observations. I have a large box at home, when I have a home (right now my only address besides my shoes is firstname.lastname@example.org), full of notebooks from all my travels. When I get back to that box, I'll toss in most of the notes from my 2004 odyssey through South America, and maybe a future book from all my travel notes will include my gentler adventures on this trip. To prove I was there, though, I should at least report some corollaries to the less political discoveries I recounted in "From the Andes" about Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Boliva.
Maybe most important, I added Argentina to Colombia and Peru as a good place to eat. After nearly starving in Chile, where they can't cook anything except soup and french fries, I forgot all about politics in Bariloche when I realized that, there, Italians run the Italian restaurants, Swiss and Germans run the bakeries and chocolate circuses, and everyone knows more about steak than anyone else in the world.
I'm not a fanatic meat eater and in recent years have preferred pork to beef, but in Argentina I found beef brochettes irresistible. I've repeatedly learned the hard way that San Diegans should never eat pizza away from home, but I ate pizza everywhere I went in Argentina that was almost as good as at La Scala or Etna. And, after finding the word sausage twisted to mean nothing but weenie everywhere else I'd been, it was a dream come true to find a complete array of German sausages again. And, though I have no sugar compulsion, especially in Latin American places where sweetness itself is prized, I had cake with my late coffee every night in Bariloche. I quit that when I realized every good hotel in Argentina serves its guests perfect croissants with coffee almost as good as in Colombia.
That said, I have to add that I didn't like the Argentines much. They're as Germanic as Spaniards and twice as rigid and huffy about their customs. The people of Chile, though they usually can't cook, are another friendly tribe, though their agreeableness may be contrived. They'll always assure you you're right before they know what you're saying. The Uruguayans (the way they say it, the Uruguash) are just right. They're intelligently friendly, and they also consider the Argentine manner Germanic. But they aren't great cooks.
Reviewing these last paragraphs, I see they are somewhat hyperbolic, i.e. not very objective. I encountered fine empanadas and other good food in San Jose del Maipo in the Chilean Andes and excellent food all over Colonia in Uruguay, and I met one charming Argentine at a time in at least a few places. Good wine is readily available all over the "cone," including some distilled in Colonia, that I bought in well aged little bottles to keep in my room.
Colonia is a special place. Its sidewalk forest is so thick, the town looks like an odd green Uruguash hill coming in on the ferry from Buenos Aires. This means that the abundant sidewalk cafe tables are always luxuriously shady. It's as colonial as the name implies at the upriver end where it's a literal park, and the newer but old enough middle, being all one or two story and 100% traditional, is just as pretty and with all the trees it's a park, too. Every street in every direction is photogenic. Aside from my dutiful hiking, I did almost nothing there but sit at shady tables talking to inn matrons and drinking beer or wine. It would be fattening, but I'd go back annually if it wasn't so far away. Colonia was my favorite place on the South American continent.
My favorite place in Chile was San Jose del Maipo, high up in what I would call the Maipo Valley, where I went to visit all the famous wineries that aren't there and found a neat northern California mountain town, with snowcaps in both directions and large redwoods in the central park. I visited a small family winery that made strange wines and bought a huge bottle of almond wine that I shared with other guests and some saucy maids at the French chalet where I holed up a little out of town. Every morning I caught a bus in and had richly stuffed empanadas for breakfast in a tiny wooden restaurant stuffed with cheery regulars and almost Colombian quality coffee brewed in a Cuban style cafetero. I talked over coffee with a beautiful profesora from Santiago who'd lived in the city all her life and assured me I couldn't dislike it more than she did.
She was enthusiastic about the small towns I'd see in the south, though and recommended Valdivia. I enjoyed Valdivia in ceaseless rain. But, maybe because it was, like San Jose del Maipo, mostly wooden, almost Victorian, Valdivia was also a lot like northern California. It's a mile or so inside a complex river mouth with beautiful, ducky waterfronts on two sides, and I rode a jammed and breath steamy bus from there in pouring rain to a coastal restaurant that reminded me of the mouth of the Russian river, where, being alone at a small table surrounded by them, I was adopted into a huge family gathering along with the owner and the waiter.
Though it was a neat, pretty, totally middle and upper class town, even in Valdivia I saw a family sleeping on the sidewalk (oddly on mattresses), in front of a closed store named right over their bodies "Mundo Feliz." But I saw few such extremes. There were beggars and ambulantes on the main shopping street, including a near midget woman, ignored by the passing crowd, with a tiny sound system, her back to a building wall on the cold, rainy sidewalk, singing.
My favorite place in Argentina was that isolated desert hotel. As soon as the wheel fell off and the bus fell to one knee helpless, miraculously in that empty land right in front of the motel, I shouldered my bag, got off, and checked in. I was the only guest, and there was only one staff person, a maid of all trades, who served me an, of course, delicious steak sandwich and a huge can of beer while I watched the people milling around the bus carcass outside, waiting for a rescue bus from Neuquen or for friends they'd called or to find space on a local bus going by. The maid told me the local would pass every hour the next day, too, and with the crowd gone I could go when I pleased. So it only made sense to declare a separate peace there and stop.
I thought she said the osprey feet on the wall were from an albatross, though, with her accent, she might have said an ostrich. Later I learned they really call ospreys avestruses. She said the desert brush was full of them. But, though I had the most remote room in the place, practically in the brush, I heard nothing stirring. After the dog had barked me to my room and then shut up, both the motel and the desert were absolutely quiet that night and my only problem was that Argentines never heard of breakfast. I waited for the morning bus with the mother of the motel's owner, and she convinced me I needed to go to Mar de Plata. She was right. I'd recommend that anyone go straight there from the airport and skip B.A., though I only liked the place a little. That it ranks second in the country to that desert motel, to me, says more about Argentina than Mar de Plata.
I intended to but didn't get to Mendoza. Argentina is too big, and public transportation kept refusing to go the way I wanted it to go. Also, by November, frustrated mainly by the near universal vacuum outside California and Mexico where breakfast belongs, I was longing to get back to Mexico.