On our return trip from Argentina, we had a long layover in Santiago, Chile. We’ve connected through that airport several times before but I had never actually been into the city, leaving Chile out of my reach beyond the windows of the international departures terminal. On this trip Lorena suggested we visit the city.

We only had time for a quick jaunt into the city center. It’s probably not fair for me to compare it with Argentina. The only comparable city there is Buenos Aires, where I spent an equally brief layover nine years ago on my very first visit to South America. That being said, what I saw of Santiago was surprisingly orderly (and a bit militarized). I did not fear for my life or the lives of pedestrians while riding in the taxis. Perhaps the Chileans have a touch of laid-back Pacific Coast attitude.

Speaking of pedestrians, some of the downtown pedestrian signals are whimsically animated.

Animated crosswalk signal

So Santiago is not so mysterious to me anymore. Unfortunately we were really, really tired at the end of a long trip. We did see the Plaza de Armas, the Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago, the Palacio de la Moneda, and Cerro Santa Lucia.

Oh yeah, and the girls are prettier in Argentina. Sorry, chilenas.

In the Sierras de Córdoba

There was still ice on the ground in Iowa from December’s snowstorm but it was about 90 °F when I landed in Córdoba almost two weeks ago. Fortunately, Lore was staying with her parents in Villa Giardino up in the Sierras de Córdoba, rugged green hills filled with horses. The weather there was pleasant and dry with some cool nights, good for a walk along the Camino de los Artesanos (a country road with art galleries) or to the diquecito (a small dam), a dip in the pool, a horseback ride, or a cook-out in the quincho (an outdoor patio with an asador for grilling meat).

On Thursday, Lore’s parents drove us to Jesús María, a city in the farmlands down on the pampas for the Festival Nacional e Internacional de la Doma y Folklore (or La Doma), which is sort of national rodeo and folk music festival. It’s a big national event. People from all over the country come to it. It’s the sort of event where gauchos don’t just compete but are part of the audience, so there were gauchos everywhere with their hats and knives and silver-studded belts. In between rounds of doma there were musical performances. On the night we went the music was less folklore than domestic rock and roll. This video is an example of folklore:

Folklore dancers

Doma is a horse-breaking competition, like bronco-riding, where the jinetes, or horsemen, have to ride on a bucking horse for ten seconds, and are scored by a jury. The jineteadas (individual attempts at doma) are narrated by a relator and are accompanied by a live folklore band which plays along to the action. Between jineteadas, a payador entertains the crowd with an improvised rhyming song about what just happened. It is amazing. The following two videos might give you an idea of it.

Doma competitor hangs on

Doma competitor falls off

The next day Lore and I spent the day in La Cumbre, a cute little town higher up the Punilla Valley above Villa Giardino. We rented mountain bikes and pedaled up the dirt road into the hills to Estancia El Rosario, an alfajor (a type of cookie) factory in an old estancia or ranch. We also rode up to Dique San Geronimo, a reservoir with hiking trails and waterfalls. On the way back we stopped at a fruit orchard to see if they had some fresh berries, but it was too late in the season. Back down in the valley we visited a lavender plantation, where the flowers are distilled for perfumes.

La Falda, the larger town down valley from Villa Giardino, is home to the Hotel Edén, a partially restored grand hotel that, along with the railroad, got the Punilla Valley started as a resort area. The hotel has a really interesting history. It was built by Germans who had some unfortunate affinities for Adolf Hitler. The night we went only the ghost tour was available, which was more for amusement than education. They did a pretty good job of scaring the bejeezus out of everybody.

Hotel Edén
The front entrance to the Hotel Edén, lit up at night

Lore’s family— brothers, sisters, and cousins— converged on her parents’ home for the weekend. Her brother-in-law Emiliano is something of a master griller, so on Saturday evening he parked himself in the quincho and grilled up some pork and beef (and cheese, believe it or not). As someone who actually knows how to cook pork, he could be very popular in Iowa.

Sunday was the big get-together. There were no meats grilled on the quincho, but lots of homemade empanadas. The pool and the foosball table (called metegol) were popular, and were followed by a game of tejo, like lawn bowling played with wooden discs.

As if all that wasn’t enough local color, the Dakar Rally came to town on Monday. I don’t think we were along the actual route of the race but some cars, trucks, motorcycles, and ATVs were passing through on their way to the next stage. The rally is a big deal in the sierras (they already had their own major competition, the Rally de Argentina, before the Dakar relocated to South America) and the people gathered along Ruta 38 to wave to the competitors, who honk back.

Spectators cheer rally truck

I always enjoy my visits to Argentina but this trip was particularly pleasant. Maybe that’s because I was full of empanadas, or maybe because I got to conocer mejor las sierras, to better know the hills, of which my wife and her family are very fond.

The world according to the airport gift shop

During layovers I make a little game of learning about a place only from what I see in its airport gift shops. It shows me more of a caricature of the place, but I wonder, a caricature from whose point of view? Is the caricature drawn by the travelers or the locals? In other words, do the Chileans want to sell us penguin and moai chotchkies or is that just how we want to think of them?

A moai model stands guard over shelves of stuffed penguins and flamingos in an airport gift shop.
A moai model stood guard over shelves of stuffed penguins and flamingos in one of the airport gift shops.
An airport gift shop displays copper yerba mate tea sets in its window.
The airport gift shop also displayed copper mates in its window.

Gruff flight attendants

American Airline’s flight attendants are a gruff bunch. Whenever I see ads for Asian carriers (Singapore Airlines stands out in my mind) they always make their flight attendants look practically like geishas. Not here in the U.S., though. I don’t know what their schedule or work conditions are like, but on my flight from Dallas to Santiago last week they seemed a little punchy (though they were definitely yukking it up in the back during their down time). A disgruntled passenger with a complaint about the cabin temperature called one of them “old, ugly, and mean.” She gave it right back to him.

Ender’s Game

As you might guess from some of my recent book reports, I’ve been making my way through some of NPR’s Top 100 Science-Fiction Books.

High on the list is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I had never heard of it before. It is a very good story though, very plainly written. In the author’s preface to the edition I read, Card writes that he cut out some of the prose he found excessive, then goes on to defend the book against what must have been for him bothersome criticism. I think the plain style works nicely in Ender’s Game. I don’t care much for fiction which gets too philosophical. I think the story have a larger meaning without being overly philosophical. It simply places a greater burden on the author to create a really strong story.

Most of the characters in the book are young children, including the main character, Ender. They are super gifted, all recruited to fight off an imminent space invasion that threatens human extinction. They don’t talk much like children—even gifted kids don’t sound so adult-like. Card addresses this in his preface also, pointing out that children don’t perceive their thoughts as being childlike, nor do adults recall their childhood thoughts as very different from their adult ones. I still can’t decide of that’s a clever excuse or a brilliant story-telling device. Because a novel filled with third-grader dialogue would have been pretty tedious.

The People Versus George Lucas

There’s this movie that Netflix keeps recommending to me: The People Versus George Lucas. It’s a documentary about where fans (represented in this film by greasy, overweight American Studies majors) think Lucas went wrong with the Star Wars franchise, particularly with the special edition remastering of the original trilogy and his treatment of the new trilogy. There’s even a low blow mention of the demented Star Wars Christmas special.

I never had a huge problem with the prequel trilogy. I thought those movies were pretty good. Not great, but good. On their own, they wouldn’t have made Star Wars a cultural phenomenon. Their main improvement over the older films is a more sophisticated storyline. For example, in Return of the Jedi the Emperor is just a cantankerous old man with electric fingers. But in the new trilogy he’s a master manipulator who’s pulling everybody’s strings.

I agree with the critics that Jar-Jar Binks and the midi-chlorians or whatever the hell they were called were pretty stupid. And as my brother points out, the transformation of the Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader is not really convincing: how does this guy get from loving his mother and wife to slaughtering children? It took me a while to admit I agree with him. Intellectually I can understand that story arc; emotionally I just don’t feel it. But people who were disappointed by the new trilogy expected to experience it the way they experienced the original, as awe-struck eight year olds. But I don’t think it’s fair to expect somebody, even George Lucas, to repeat that level of achievement.

Lucas’ real crime was tampering with him original films. With a lot of sequels, adaptations, and remakes, there is a fallacy among the faithful that original art is somehow damaged by its inferior successors. That is not usually true, but in this case Lucas actually did harm his films. I can sort of understand why he might want to dress up the old special effects, but the old effects were noteworthy in their own time. They were part of what made those movies cool to begin with. But the addition of unnecessary scenes, and the outright changing of one of them (Han shot first!) is unforgivable.


Since tomato sauce and pasta post-date the Roman Empire, I’ve often wondered what ancient Romans ate. One staple of their cuisine was garum, a fermented fish sauce. Some researchers on a PBS show were trying out a batch of homemade.

I have a book a about the rise of sugar as a commodity and its role in colonialism and modern European empires, especially the British. In it the author notes that the British consume much more sugar per head than the French. “It is not necessarily naughty to suggest,” he writes, that if their food tasted better the British wouldn’t have incorporated so much sugar into their diets.

I reason that the same probably goes for garum. If it was any good perhaps the Italians would not have bothered with spaghetti and marinara.