Observation from a recent trip: the automated announcements at Des Moines Airport are delivered with a British accent. While classy, it seems a poor fit for the locale. Contrast Des Moines with Dallas, where the same announcements come with a hearty Texas twang.
During our visit to Argentina this winter I took some photos in my in-laws’ home, which decorated with a lot of rustic or antique items.
Author’s note: This post has been backdated to February, when I took the photo at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, so I could maintain my streak of at least one post per month. So there.
The splash page of the Lonely Planet website is elegantly simple: a search box already filled with an exotic destination like “Macedonia,” on a background photo depicting one of that destination’s amazing attractions (in Macedonia’s case, a castle perched on a hill).
I sighed, and typed in “Des Moines.”
According to Lonely Planet:
Des Moines, meaning ‘of the monks’ not ‘in the corn’ as the surrounding fields might suggest, is Iowa’s snoozy capital. The town really is rather dull, but does have one of the nation’s best state capitols and state fairs. Pause, but then get out and see the state.
This is a typically sneering assessment and yet, quite accurate.
We had tickets for the Broadway tour of the musical Wicked this afternoon. The Des Moines Civic Center was completely packed for it. Wicked, the book by Gregory Maguire, is one of my favorites. I own it and have read it several times, which was a slight distraction from enjoying the musical, but not too much. There are a lot of layers to contend with, though: the musical is based on Maguire’s book, which in turn is alternate perspective on L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its 1939 film adaptation The Wizard of Oz.
Even though the show starts out like an parallel-universe Victorian Grease, it eventually takes on the ominous tone of the novel. The songs were very good, though none were truly catchy. The woman who played Glinda was especially funny (she invoked a lot of Carol Kane). Most impressive about the production was the way they used lighting to create patterns and effects. In the scene that concludes the first act, the character Elphaba floats in the dark at the apex of a cone of light beams which make her look giant and supernatural.
We spent the weekend in the picturesque river towns of Van Buren County. I went for a class— Beginning Blacksmithing, if you can believe it. We stayed in Keosauqua, while the training was at a blacksmith shop in Bentonsport, two picturesque towns along the Des Moines River. The area markets itself as the “Villages of Van Buren County,” though it wasn’t terribly busy with tourists. What visitors were in Keosauqua seemed to be there for boating the river and fishing. Bentonsport, where I attended class, is a tiny little place, cute with a lot of old preserved buildings converted into shops and bed-and-breakfasts. There’s an old wrought iron bridge across the Des Moines in Bentonsport that you can walk across. We found a couple of nice places to eat in Keosauqua and Bonaparte, but bring your own vegetables if you ever go and want something green.
The blacksmithing class was a hoot. I was actually there for work (we have a blacksmith shop in the park). It’s sort of a like shop class for kids in that we make some things we get to bring home, and I had a lot of help from the teacher. What I produced probably falls into the “primitive tools” category anyway, just above hammerstones and obsidian flakes. Creating something with your own hands, some tools, and fire is empowering, but can also be a little frustrating. I am not the least bit handy and forging even simple items feels like fighting against a particularly stubborn foe who doesn’t always lose. My arms were fatigued and my hands were swollen at the end of each day; I could barely hold a glass in my hand to drink. I can’t imagine having to do it for a living. Full-time blacksmiths probably know how to make each blow count.
Driving in Van Buren County between Bentonsport and Keosauqua I commented to Lore about the rolling green cow pastures and belts of oak trees, “It’s pretty, isn’t it?” “Yes,” she said, “pretty Iowan.”
We made a quick stop at Tippecanoe Battlefield near Lafayette, Indiana. There was a museum we didn’t have time for this visit, and the battlefield included an obelisk monument with a statue of William Henry Harrison. A wrought-iron fence enclosed the battlefield. The gate was unlocked, and we could go in and out. More mysterious were the steps that led up an over the fence. We had a good laugh at it, and even made a video.
My brother looked it up later, and the steps are called a “stile,” as in “turnstile”— something that allows passage while maintaining the barrier. It’s purpose at this battlefield is still a mystery, though.
Photos from our trip, as seen by Instagram, which we experimented with this weekend. I don’t have a way to post simultaneously to Instagram and this site, so I’ll just have to duplicate for now.
I think the Speedway is a bad influence on Indianapolis drivers.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Terminal D at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport has the advantage of being big and spacious and full of diverting artwork. A tile mosaic floor medallion of frolicking business travelers, for example, makes layovers actually seem fun.
While traveling through Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington, D.C. this week I wondered, what’s it like to be an air traffic controller there?
I was in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia for another training this week. Even though I’ve been there before, I don’t usually have time during the day to explore the historical park, but this time I had part of Friday afternoon, so I visited some of the historic buildings in the Lower Town. Each one, more or less, is a museum with exhibits of the park’s many themes: John Brown’s raid, the Civil War, arms manufacturing, and so on. Though the exhibits were a little busy-looking and cluttered for my visual tastes (especially after a week of hard concentration), the one on John Brown’s raid was pretty provocative. One of the videos, without going into too much graphic detail, was frank about the violence of the raid and the counter-raid, as if it was an omen of the great war to come. It raised some interesting questions about violence in the name of righteousness.
It’s too bad this sort of thoughtful reflection appears in a public exhibit about a radical antislavery action, but not in our numerous war museums and memorials. It is as if violence should only give us pause when it is not perpetrated by the state. Or perhaps fear of inflaming Southern sensitivities prompted the National Park Service to be particularly introspective when planning this exhibit.
On lighter note, one evening some of us went on a “ghost tour” of the Lower Town. Despite its rich and exciting past, Lower Town is pretty deserted on Monday evenings. I can see why ghost stories are popular there. I noticed a little extra zeal in the local businesses for Halloween decorations.
A belated gallery of photos from last Sunday’s trip to the fair.