Thursday, December 31, 2015

The end of three heart attack highway

The highway of the three heart attacks is no more. About fifteen years ago, I drove from San Luis to Mendoza in the early morning hours. I do not recall why I decided to drive in the darkness.

The road was a two lane road through the desert of San Luis, ending up about 3 hours later among the vineyards of Mendoza.

I refer to it as the three heart attack highway, as that was how it felt. First of all, to follow the general flow of cars, the speed limit is as fast as your car can go, which was about 130–140km/hr.

There several moments when your heart skipped a beat. First of all, not every car or truck had proper lights. So all of sudden you saw in front of you an object, unsure of what speed it is travelling at. I started to see vehicle-fantasmas continously: is that a car? Or that?

Secondly, there is the game of chicken you wre forced to play with passing traffic from the opposite direction. Worst of all was when a long haul bus passed another bus or a truck. That was a game of chicken I decided to lose. It is easier said than done: how do you lose, when you drive at 130 km/hr and there is no emergency section to the road, only loose dirt. There was your next heart attack.

Finally, there was the scenario whew an old beaten up truck pulled in front of you onto the road at 25km/hr. Holy $&@%£@!!

Several years ago, the province of San Luis, cut the heart attack rate in half when they built a four lane highway with middle divider. The portion from the border of the province of Mendoza to Mendoza city, remained the cause of plenty cardiac scarring.

Today, the entire stretch from San Luis to Mendoza is a wonderful 4 lane highway, fully lit, and with lightpoles in a rainbow of colors. It is a pleasure to drive to Mendoza now.

Monday, December 28, 2015


My first act as the new mayor (intendente) of San Luis will be to face graffiti in the city head on.

Graffiti is everywhere. It is in the center if the city. It is in the outskirts. It is on public buildings, on private houses, on doors, or walls. **Everywhere**. Few public walls remain untagged.

Almost none of the graffiti are drawings. They are scribbles for whatever reason: political candidates or parties, soccer teams, love interests, or just that kids graduated a particular year,  etc.

No al graffiti!

The quest for Sube

Sube is the name for the (new) bus payment system in Buenos Aires. It means an end to carrying a small purse full of coins. 

Public transportation is plentiful. The trains leaving retiro (trainstation) to the suburbs of Buenos Aires are brand new. The public bus system works great: they come often and remain very affordable (less than $0.50 for a trip). 

Finding a sube card is a challenge in its own. We visited several corner stores (kiosko) to buy a sube card. When we eventually found a store which sold sube cards, we then had to go and visit yet another store to load the card with money. 

How a tourist is supposed to figure this all out is beyond me. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Polo Argentino

Soccer is king here in Argentina. There is no doubt about that.

Rubgy, (women) field hockey and tennis contend for the next most popular sport.

And then there is polo. It is the sport of the very rich. Argentines seem to be masters at it. Many sjeiks will recruit Argentinean polo trainers, or scoop up Argentine trained horses.

wikipedia: ‘From then on, the game spread powerfully across the country and Argentina is credited globally as the mecca of polo, mainly because Argentina is notably the country with the largest number ever of 10 handicap players in the world.’

I ended up meeting a Argentine polo teacher during this visit, who summarized the game for me. A typical polo game consists of:
  • Two teams of 4 players.
  • Goals a 7 meters apart (I believe) and when you score, you get a single point.
  • There are about 7 periods of each 7 minutes (chukkas or chukkers)
  • Riders change horses each period. Thus each player typically shows up with 7 horses. No wonder this is an expensive game.
  • The game is physially exhausting to both horse and rider.
  • Great polo players should not own the horse, as they will not ride their own horses as hard.
  • Breeding great polo horses is big business. Cloning is big these days.
In about 10 classes the polo teacher can get you started with polo (If money were no issue). Most of it will be training on becoming one with the horse.


I associate big fellines with Africa or Asia: lions, tigers and leopards. Or the zoo.

Although we do have mountain lions and smaller bobcats in the Santa Cruz mountains, it is an extremely rare occurence to run into any of them. Luckily. Once, heading up to the Ridge winery, I did run into a bobcat crossing the road, recognizable by its ears. It was gone before we realized it.

Going about an hour North from the densily populated city center of Buenos Aires, along the river Plate, you run into the upscale cities of Martinez and San Isidro. Even further north, you enter the delta of the Parana river and the area of Tigre. It is frequented by the Porteños in the weekends and a popular tourist destination.

The name of this area, Tigre, struck me as odd.

This is were the English and Spanish settlers ran into the skull crushing cat of the Latin Americas: the jaguar. Locals call it tigre, and indian tribes call it Nahuel (Mapuche), Yaguareté (guaraní), Uturunco (Quechua), Overo, Manchado (Salta) and a few other names.

Both the spotted jaguar and melanistic black panther roam Argentina.

The most optimistic estimates are that there is still a population of 250 specimens in Argentina (although it is impossible to have an exact number), according to volunteer organization red yaguarete.

Since the remaining jaguars mainly roam in the North of Argentina, I do not expect to run into any. In the San Luis province, you may however see some pumas (mountain lions, or el leon as farmers call it), and el gato montes (a sort of medium sized wild cat).

Saturday, December 26, 2015

In the first year after Cristina

After talking to several people in my first day in the country, there is a general sentiment that the change in political power in Argentina is the beginning of something much bigger.

Some openly stated that this is how many people must have felt in Europe after Hilter was no more (ignoring the fact that the world was at war and that Hitler was not merely a dictator). It was odd that the same person did not compare it to the end of Argentina’s own military dictatorship in the eighties.
Others believe that the change in power is the beginning of something bigger for Latin America. In a similar fashion, how the ouster of the military junta in 1983 set in motion a wave of change of military dictatorships across the continent, the defeat of Kirchnerism will end a wave of populism and socialism. Adios Maduro. Adios Morales.

There is also regret among many who originally supported Cristina. ‘Yes, I voted before for Cristina, and almost immediately regretted it.’ Lots of wonderful promises and no funds to realize them. Thus Cristina went on a robbing spree among the already tattered middleclass and the coffers of the country. Sadly, people realized too late that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

To the question how Cristina got elected and reelected, I did not get a lot of answers. Perhaps the wave of populism was at its highest in the continent. Perhaps the many governmental jobs created made the difference. Or an adversary which was not much of a contender.

Macri is not considered the savior of the country either. In the first round of the election, he ammased only 30.12% of the votes, and in the runoff election he won by a slim margin (51.34%). ‘There are many things I do not like about Macri’, people will admit. They often see him too much as a free market politician. However, breaking with the thievery of Cristina, and the fear campaign of her succesor, Scioli, was worth electing Macri. 

Although Macri swiftly made some economic changes, the skeletons are still falling out the closets. Last minute sweetheart agreements by Cristina are rearing their head. For example, Cristina signed agreements with Chinese companies to build a large hydro electric dam on the Santa Cruz river, though it appears funds to pay the salaries for the workers were not budgetted. The governor of Cristina’s province is now asking Macri for help. Oh the irony.

The worst of the post Cristina era is yet to come. The devaluation of the Argentine peso made basic goods quickly more expensive whereas salaries have not been adjusted. Wait two to three months for the real hardship to come for the middle and lower class Argentines. 

For now, people are still enjoying their honeymoon with the new president.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Ver palermo y morir

Palermo is a traditional Italian area of Buenos Aires. It is known for its large parks. Also the American Embassy and the new Argentine president, Mauricio Macri, call Palermo home.

Since a few years, Palermo is the place to be in Buenos Aires. Surely La Recolleta and San Telmo have the touristic cachet. Palermo is a more honest area to have a beer or to meet for dinner.

Almost every corner is made up of a coffee shop, bar or restaurant. Party central are the bars of Plaza Serrano. Walk a few blocks away from Plaza Serrano, and you run into small and romantic restaurants.

Palemo got so popular that they started to distinguish between Palermo Palermo, the more traditional area with the large city parks; Parlermo chico where the president lives; Palermo Viejo and the more popular areas, Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho.

While, as a tourist, you have to visit, La Recolleta, la Boca and San Telmo, the place to be are the bars and quaint restaurants of Palermo. Find a place nearby to stay. It will save you a pretty penny. (If only I knew prior.)

Feliz Navidad

The fact that Argentina is a Catholic country is surely no surprise to many. How much of a Catholic country it is, one can only experience.

Christmas is naturally the most important holiday of the year. This makes Christmas Eve the biggest family gathering of the year. It falls also smack into the summer vacations.

Very much like in the US, the days leading up to Christmas are crazy shopping season. Papa Noel brings lots of gifts, mostly smaller gifts.

Christmas Eve mass is very well attended. I ended up going to a small neighborhood church to the 8:30pm mass. The Church was overflowing into the sidewalks and onto the street.

People go all out for Christmas Eve dinners, which start around 9pm and go late into the night. It is 2am as I am writing this and the party is still going strong. Although the younger kids are slowly finding their way to a bed.

Then there are the fireworks. It is unheard of in most countries to shoot of fireworks on Christmas Eve. Argentinean streets however turn into a war zone, with simple fireworks for the young kids, to large fireworks costing hundreds of dollars each.

Feliz Navidad!!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Niño Turbio

Tonight we experienced a private performance of the young Argentina folk band, Niño Turbio.
Surely I am somewhat biased, given that the band consists of 3 sobrinos politicos, Richi, Javier, Federico and their friends Nico and Bruno. 

Many of the songs are composed by Richi (Ricardo). The sound is a more traditional Argentine version of Munford and Sons and is made up of a guitar, ukele, bass guitar, cajon (percussion), and accordion.

No topic is out of reach: gigologos, frogs or even the political murder of attorney Alberto Nisman 

Soon, the band will be recording their first CD (if that is still how things are done) or look for them on #snapchat and their own #youtubeChannel soon.

After the performance, the party moved inside, so neighbors could go to sleep - afterall it was a Monday night. A group of talented students of the conservatory of Buenos Aires jammed away. Even some Argentine rappers spewed their lyrics.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Back to the eighties

American Airlines flight AA977 from Dallas to Buenos Aires is a real time machine. Painted in the new American Airlines color scheme, this Boeing 777 gives the appearance of a modern aircraft. Though looks are deceiving.

The audio visual system dates from before Back to the Future 1. The audio system crackles like a radio transmission from the moon. The touch screen shows a rainbow of colors around its edges. And the pre Google Maps flight path maps simply belongs in the Computer History museum. To make the experience complete, the feature film, on a rotating schedule, is Straight out of Compton: The NWA story.

I should havs known something was up with this plane, when check-in signs alerted us that hoover boards were prohibited and that American Airlines was paging Marty McFly.

(Written on an ipad, a device clearly from the future in this aircraft.)

The new (old) Argentina

It has been a decade since I visited Argentina in December. Bound by the school schedule of my children, I end up traveling to Argentina during their winter months: July and August. I was there, in Buenos Aires, when they experienced snow for the first time in a hundred years. A visit to the wineries of Mendoza in August, is always a sad affair.

This time, it is different. My suitcase is light and packed with a few shorts, swim trunks, a hat and several short sleeved shirts and sunscreen.

This trip is different in other ways as well. December is the honeymoon month of the new president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri. The presidential elections were hotly contested. This is a break from the populistic policies of Kirchnerism which turned this country into a stagnant and economically eroded place. This is a country which had no choice but to default on his debt a few years ago. This is a country which sold its natural riches to the Chinese for pennies, merely to stay afloat. What will the post-Cristina era be like? How will things be different for the casual tourist?

One obvious change is that, as of December 11, the US dollar is 30% more valuable, as compared to the Argentine peso. True to his promise, Macri enacted swift economic changes. The peso was devaluated, export taxes obliterated, and people are allowed to buy foreign currencies more freely.

This means immediatly the end of a black market for US dollars, which traded at 30–40% higher than the official rate. It puts more pesos in my pocket. On the othe hand, I do not expect this trip tp be cheap. Inflation is currently at 25% and expected to increase in the next year. I fear delicious Argentine beef will be super expensive, as will clothes or leather goods.

‘When two Argentines are debating over a cup of coffee, there are three political parties’. I wonder how people in the street feel about the political change: hopeful for an economic recovery?, fearful for a year of violent manifestations, general strikes or worse? Or, they may just not care for the moment. It is summer after all and families will get together for Christmas and New Year, serving great Argentine barbecued meat (asado) with Malbec wine and flan for desert.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

PG&E trail at Rancho San Antonio

This morning's hike went along the PG&E trail at Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve. It was a 5 mile hike, starting at the equestrian parking lot, up the PG&E trail. In the midst of the rain, I decide to loop back via Wild Cat and Coyote trail.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Ed Levin County Park

Today we visited the Ed Levin County Park in the East Bay. We started on the Tularcitos trail and completed the Agua Caliente loop, back to Sandy Wool lake. It was a short (3.8mi) loop, although it has some steep sections to get your heart rate up. Next time, we'll continue an conquer Monument Peak. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve

Early Sunday hike down into the Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve.

Most of the time a hike starts in a valley and leads upwards. This is one is different. You park at the top of Sierra Road and hike downwards. Of course the hard part comes later. I already hike the Boccardo Loop last year. Today, we hiked about 6 miles along the Sierra Vista trail, and the lower and upper Calaveras Fault trails.

(Note: go early, and you will avoid many of the mountain bikers sharing some of the same trails.)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Pinnacles, CA

Earlier in the year, we made a backpacking/hiking trip to the Pinnacles. The trip was a practice run, leading up to our week long Lost Coast trip.

Unfortunately, we were not able to complete the planned route, as we had to add a bunch of miles from the visitor center to the trail head, as the park was overly crowded that day due to an event.

This time, it was a lot calmer in the park and we were able to do a wonderful hike. We started in Bear Gulch, hiked up to Condor Gulch, and made it back along the High Peaks trail to the Bear Gulch reservoir. We returned through the caves. All in all, 175 floors and 6-7 miles. (trails) (map)

Although we were well prepared, brought sufficient food and a decent amount of water, it was clear that we did not bring nearly enough water. One liter per hour is was is recommended in this heat in the park.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Animals of the Lost Coast

On our Lost Coast backpacking trip, we only feared one encounter: the bear. Bear canisters are mandatory.

Luckily we did not meet smokey, or his cousins. We did encounter lost of animals in the wild: seals, sea lions, sea otters, river otters, swallows, osprey, seagulls, pelicans, frogs, bats, turkey vultures, field mice, rabbits, jack rabbits, octopus, water snakes, a hermit river creature and 2 stranded whales, which we named Arturo and Guido.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Welcome to the trowel club

One of the interesting experiences along the Lost Coast, is the requirement "to bury all human waste in the sand below the high tide line or 6-8" deep and at least 200 feet (approx. 70 paces) from streams when you are not near the ocean".

This is one of those unspoken aspects when hiking the trail, similar to the requirement to hike out your poo when hiking the High Sierras above the tree line.

With wonderful bean-rich and oat-rich meals, we all quickly became members of the famous Lost Coast Trowel Club.  

PS - Oh, and when you see sticks sticking up along the beach, do not go digging for gold.

Lost Coast

At the end of June, I loaded my 43 pounds backpack in the car and at 7am we headed with Santa Clara troop 14 from the Bay Area along highway 101 North; destination: The Lost Coast.

Our first day was pretty much a travel day: coffee break in Cottati, lunch in Willits, and snack stop in Garberville. At 4:15pm we arrived at the Mattole campground. However for some, day was far from over. After unloading our gear and setting up camp, the drivers headed South to park the cars at Shelter Cove, the end of the trail. We had arranged for one of the parents to shuttle them back to Mattole. At 8:30pm, just in time for the first sunset, was the entire Lost Coast Gang together in camp.

Over the next days, we ventured along the beautiful Lost Coast trail and camped out along the various creeks. Our first stop was Cooksie Creek. Oak creek was overly windy and we decided to push to Kinsey Creek. Our third night on the trail we stayed at Big Flat. Most of the time we set up our tent. Our final night we slept under the stars on the beach at Glitchwell Creek.

We came across incredible flora and founa: seals, sea lions, sea otters, river otters, swallows, osprey, seagulls, pelicans, frogs, bats, turkey vultures, field mice, rabbits, jack rabbits, water snakes, a hermit river creature and 2 stranded whales, which we named Arturo and Guido. Below is Guido the whale, beached only very recent. 

We shared fantastic food, from simple tuna and crackers to tortilla soup, noodles in tomato sauce, quinoa with chicken and nuts and a plum and crumbs desert.

(Fire permit required)

We were lucky with the weather and did not encounter a drop of rain. A little wind here and there. With a tide chart in hand, we didn't run into any issues with the ocean. Nobody took a dive on the boulders, or was injured along the way. 

As one our gang mentioned: "Hiking the Lost Coast, is like getting an enema for your lungs". This backpacking trip was a wonderful experience. I'll share a few more tidbits in future posts. Below are also references to useful information we used.

More pictures from the trip