a diverse collection of travel photos and firsthand experiences while venturing across the globe. each destination has welcomed us with open arms and warm smiles, making us feel right at home. from argentina to utah - and thousands of miles in between - these are our visual memories of 'home'...just as we never imagined.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Vineyards & Mountains with Imagine Argentina

panoramic view: click to enlarge

In mid-March, I had the true pleasure of greeting a travel group of 20 passengers eager to discover the wonders of Argentina. This specific trip, sponsored by The Wine Sellar & Brasserie of San Diego, and organized by Imagine Argentina and Grapevine Tours, proved to be a spectacular journey highlighting the elite vineyards of Mendoza, the dazzling tango of Buenos Aires, and the crashing cascades of Iguazú. After eight months of careful planning, we at last found ourselves together here in Argentina...and this was our excursion to Cerro Aconcagua - the tallest mountain peak in the Western Hemisphere:

The morning began with a peaceful visit to Bodega Ruca Malen, a modern establishment nestled below the majestic Andean peaks of Luján de Cuyo, dedicated to superior wine-making since 1998 and recognized for the following labels: Yauquén, Ruca Malén, and Kinién. Following a casual walk among the vines, under a brilliant blue sky, the group proceeded with a personal wine tasting session inside as conducted by residential expert, Carolina Macaya. Following a unique combination of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blends, we continued towards the Chilean border.

Past the abandoned tracks and train stations of the former Trans-Andean Railroad, and the raging waters of Rio Mendoza, we found ourselves winding through the vibrant and diverse formations of local Andean valleys. Wildlife was rare, though we did manage to spot one roaming guanaco in-between the stone tunnels of the railway. Upon arrival to Aconcagua National Park, a pleasant hike just a few meters up the trail led us to Laguna de Horcones, where we settled on the grassy slopes and enjoyed a delightful afternoon picnic...each couple sharing a basket filled with salads, bruschetta, and bottles of wine. In the distance, Aconcagua pierced the horizon, towering at a height of 22,840 feet above sea level.

As we returned towards the residential zone of Vistalba, we stretched our legs at the local craft market near Puente del Inca. This natural bridge, formed centuries ago through the intense interaction between hot springs and ice, was once the site of a popular thermal resort and train station. In addition to the healing powers supposedly provided by the sulfurous waters of Rio Vacas, the river offers unique souvenirs for tourists, ranging from crusted wine bottles to "golden" tennis shoes left in the water for a period of weeks. Charles Darwin was quite impressed with the phenomenon during his personal expedition to Mendoza years ago.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Report: National In-Security

This is a report based on current events in Argentina. Having studied Argentine politics and human rights issues, including personal research conducted here during the past six years, I felt the need to address this subject. Fears of insecurity have escalated here in recent months, and this report will hopefully shed some light on current social arguments.

In mid-1974, following the death of Juan Domingo Perón, his third wife (and now widow) was left in charge of the Argentine Republic as the first female pr
esident. Isabelita proved to be quite inefficient in her new role. As with several nations during the Cold War, Argentina was experiencing the rampant flood of leftist views and socialist tendencies. The conservative elite became greatly concerned over the chaotic state of the nation. Following riots, protests, and organized acts of violence, the military at last decided to overthrow Isabelita...and the democratic government of Argentina. The end of democracy came on March 24, 1976. The Dirty War had begun.

For the next seven years, military generals and foot soldiers contr
olled the nation with brutality and force in order to eradicate all elements of communism. Similar practices swept across South America - Brazil (1964-1985), Chile (1973 - 1989), Uruguay (1973 - 1985). Universities soon became targets for police raids as students were often dragged out by their hair...never to be seen again. Homes were often ransacked as family members were taken outside and forced into the infamous fleet of Ford Falcons. Soccer stadiums were converted into concentration camps and torture centers. Hospitals, now under military control, were often filled with desperate mothers in search of their missing newborn babies (many of which were secretly given up for adoption). Approx. 30,000 victims were killed and/or "disappeared" under the regime - a number still disputed today.

In 1978, Argentina hosted the FIFA World Cup of Soccer. Several nations did not participate in the tournament as a sign of protest against the human rights abuses inside Argentina. While Argentina did win the World Cup title at home, many still argue whether the gov
ernment "purchased" the championship in order to distract the world media (though Mario Kempes and others have denied such allegations).

In 1982, amidst civil unrest and economic turmoil, the Argentine government decided to strengthen its patriotic image by invading and reclaiming the Falkland Isla
nds from Great Britain (located 300 miles east of Argentina's southern coast). Underestimating Britain's power and potential for retaliation, the Argentine military suffered a devastating defeat. Lasting just two months, the war claimed 907 lives (649 Argentines). The military regime began to crumble. Democracy at last returned to Argentina with Raúl Alfonsín in 1983.

For the next several years, mothers and grandmothers of the "disappeared" would quietly march in front of the presidential palace of Buenos Aires. Still carrying black-and-white photos of loved ones lost, these women continue to meet each Thursday morning and ask the painful question, "Dónde Están?"

So, why do we mention all of this? Because next Tuesday - March 24th - marks 33 years since the Dirty War began. It is now a national holiday - El Día de la Memoria - reserved as a date that Argentines must never forget. So, how is this related to current events? Well, three decades later, social arguments still ensue over human rights vs. military rule in order to manage crime.

Mendoza is the nation's fourth largest metropolitan area wi
th an urban population under 900,000 in and around the capital. In 2007, there were 140 murders (*). In 2008, there were 125 murders (*). In addition, there have been a number of armed robberies and assaults with makeshift weapons. Private gated neighborhoods have been attacked. Hotel properties and patrons have been attacked. Department stores and banks h ave been attacked. Fine restaurants and diners have been attacked (some managed by fellow international expats). And just last weekend, six taxi drivers were attacked downtown.

The general outcry among local residents is that the government ignores the issue altogether. Promises are made to improve security...but such promises are broken a
nd forgotten. The police are often blamed for allowing such crime to continue...even though their presence is felt in and around the capital 24 hours a day.

People have started to take justice into their own hands, something I predicted months ago. A few wanted criminals have been chased down and punished by angry victims and neighbors. In fact, just last month, downtown shoppers had the chance to unleash some of that fury on one thief caught in the act. On the morning of February 16, three men attempted to rob a jewelry store along San Martín Avenue - Mendoza's main street (*). The owner chased them off, and while two men managed to escape, the third was detained by an angry crowd of consumers and severely beaten before the police arrived.

According to the online blogs and forums of major Mendoza newspaper
s, this is what needs to be done in order to control local crime. For many, criminals and delinquent youth will not stop their violent activities unless “public justice” is served. The local community is divided into two general ideas:

-Bring Back La Mano Dura (Heavy Hand): The only solution to
end the escalating crime wave is to use force…provided by a military and/or police regime . Capital punishment and quick arrests will decrease criminal acts of violence…similar to the Dirty War. An armed presence on every corner will return all things to order. An over-exaggerated focus on human rights has allowed young criminals to be untouchable, often released upon arrest thanks to the efforts and protection of human rights lawyers and government officials.

-Los Derechos Humanos (Human Rights): We must defend the rights and lives of all citizens. The Dirty War that once raged in Argentina and claimed the lives of tho
usands must not be in vain. Harsh punishment and military control is not the solution. We must help, fix, protect, and aide criminals and delinquent youth if we hope to save them. Government rule with an iron fist will only worsen the nation’s current condition.

Due to Argentina’s turbulent history with human rights – as described above – the current issue of insecurity is both heated and delicate. What lessons were le
arned in the 1970s? Is there a limit to human rights…especially for violent criminals? Is there a limit on public safety…or only on public justice? More importantly, how much longer will this go on…before one side crumbles?

Such concerns have stirred the hearts of proud Mendocinos in rece
nt months. Speak to them and they will tell you, “My Mendoza was not like this 10 or 15 years ago. We used to leave our doors unlocked. Now I have bars on my windows and razor wire on my fence. This isn’t the Mendoza I grew up in.” Tania and I have seen such crimes firsthand…almost experiencing it ourselves last winter. While no solution has been found, civil unrest and impatience is visible.

This week, a peaceful “march against insecurity” was organized in downtown Mendoza (*). I attended…and walked in the front line, along with the most vocal citizens stating their grievances and fears, some even carrying the black-and-white photos of loved ones lost…in recent months. Following a few short blocks along San Martín Avenue, the small group of 50 quickly grew into a passionate crowd of hundreds, chanting the slogan, “Pueblo Unido – Jamás Será Vencido!” Such marches are planned for the next few weeks in Mendoza…and Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Rosario, Mar del Plata, etc.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Imagine Argentina: La Vendimia Collection

Another parade has come and gone. After months of strategic preparation, the streets of Mendoza at last erupted in early March with blaring music and vibrant colors; galloping gauchos and beautiful reinas. This is the international wine festival of Mendoza...also known as La Vendimia. Here is our travel log:

The annual festivities begin with a raucous parade through downtown, celebrating a fruitful harvest...and rejoicing in local culture. Small children and grown adults frantically wave their hands in the air, begging the pageant queens of each passing float to share their "emblems" of the harvest. In return, grapes and gourds are soon tossed into the crowd, gathered up in makeshift baskets attached to broom handles. Laughter is contagious as desperate onlookers struggle to catch the goods, only to eventually squash some of the fruit below their feet. With a sense of pride, smiling sons and daughters run to their parents to show off their newly acquired gifts: cantaloupes, garlic heads, and even bags of oregano (or so I think). Dallin found his own success...as you will see below.

Native cowboys, both young and old, trot down the avenue atop their horses. Decorated soldiers march to the rhythm of the himno nacional. Glamorous dance groups move, twist, and entertain the crowd, causing a reaction of cheers and applause. Each queen represents her provincial department aboard an extravagant float...competing for the adoration of neighbors - and politicians - in order to be voted the official Reina de la Vendimia later that evening. Vamos Godoy Cruz! Sos hermosa!

Tonight, almost 40,000 people pack the outdoor theater inside San Martín Park - Teatro Griego Frank Romero Day. A brilliant and dazzling performance begins with singers, dancers, and queens of years past. Vice President Cobos is present - and greeted with a roar of cheers. I believe Presidenta Kirchner is also here - yet welcomed with thunderous boos.

Following two hours of entertainment - with third row tickets thanks to The Grapevine - all seventeen queens are called out and line up on stage. We listen as the ballots are read. Who will be this year's "first lady of wine"? The crowd is wild...with fans screaming and yelling in support of their neighborhood queen. Massive banners and posters are waved in the air as provincial departments are read aloud: "Luuuuuuján!! Godooooooy Cruz!! San Marrrrrrrtín!!" And the winner is...San Martín by a landslide! Well, at least Godoy Cruz took second place. We now enjoy an impressive display of fireworks at 12:30AM...and Dallin is still awake!

Time to head home, face the traffic, and crash in bed. As for the rest of the week...well, it is the annual wine festival. Salud!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Park City + Lake Tahoe + Chocolate = Argentina's Lake District (Part 3)

DAY 4: Los Siete Lagos...and More
After an early morning alarm, and a light breakfast of fruits and medialunas, we are prepared to head north and discover the 7 Lakes shared between Río Negro and Neuquen. Our expert guide spends the next 12 hours leading us through diverse terrain overflowing with lakes, rivers, forests, and wildlife. Despite morning rain and cloudy skies, we still enjoy a serene drive...down dirt roads and gravel trails. This same region was the recent site of Discovery Channel's Eco Challenge.

The 7 Lakes in order of appearance: Espejo, Correntoso, Escondido, Villarino, Falkner, Machonico, and Lakar. Alternating shades of blue and green are visible through towering pine trees. Large lookout points accommodate international travelers and backpackers, all eager for the perfect picture. At Lake Falkner, we walk along the sandy shore, picking wild Calafate berries from the surrounding shrubs.

Such an excursion includes brief visits to the prestigious towns of Villa La Angostura and San Martín de los Andes, both smaller replicas of Bariloche nestled in the southwest corner of Neuquen. These quaint destinations continue to welcome worldwide travelers...and international expats seeking permanent relocation.

Our drive continues, the lakes disappear in the distance, and the landscape gradually transforms into a picturesque steppe painted in hues of brown and green. Quiet sheep farms and moss-covered fences are now behind us. It's hard to believe we were just in Bariloche this morning. We keep our eyes peeled for wildlife...and we are not disappointed! We witness wild boars roaming through low scrub, elegant guanacos meandering across fields, and curious rheas peeking inbetween foxtail plants. As condors soar overhead, we are delighted to see pink flamingos bathing in the lagoon to our right.

Our journey concludes with peculiar stone formations in the mountains, resembling elephant seals and mountain lions. We return to our hotel. It is late...but not too late for a dozen warm beef empanadas.

Wooden street sign in Villa La Angostura

The turquoise waters of Lake Escondido

Just us doing our thing...in front of Lake Falkner

Modeling in front of Lake Espejo

The moss-covered fences of southern sheep farms

Central square of San Martin de los Andes

Colored kayaks along the coast of San Martin de los Andes

Rustic fences and tumbleweed...elements of a Patagonia farm

Argentina's steppe...no, this is not a painting

The great outdoors of northern Patagonia

Roaming guanacos in their natural habitat

DAY 5: Final Highlights
A pleasant sunrise greets us through the window. We take advantage of our final few hours to squeeze in some trademark highlights of Bariloche. A brief drive along Bustillo Avenue, past budget hostels and public schools, leads us to the vibrant red cable cars that ascend Cerro Otto (4600 feet above sea level). The view is unforgettable...a panoramic unparallel to anywhere else in the world.

Back in the civic center, we visit the fine chocolate shops one last time. We lie down on the grassy slope leading from the main plaza to the central pier...as multiple Saint Bernards look on inbetween photo sessions with cheerful kids. Our time is winding down...so we decide to get up and accomplish our final goal while here in northen Patagonia - eat grilled lamb at El Boliche de Alberto. To die for.

We grab our suitcase, head to the terminal, and take our favorite seats on board the Andesmar bus: upper level/ in front. We recline our seats, pull out the iPods, and prepare ourselves for the 17-hour return journey. The sun is shining through the side window, it's actually getting hot. No problem, we'll just adjust the....oh no, the air conditioning is broken. Not good.

An early sunrise as seen from our hotel window

Cable cars ascending Cerro Otto

Aerial view of South America's Switzerland

A barren and wind-tilted tree along Lake Nahuel Huapi

Traditional preserves and jams

Grilled lamb from Patagonia (and a restaurant tip from los Galaso)