The City of “Good Air”

Buenos Aires, Argentina

In the Edgar Allen Poe classic The Masque of the Red Death, the Prince and his minions are partying heartily in the castle while outside the peasantry is being ravaged by the dreaded disease. Eventually Death himself makes an appearance as a masked guest, spreading the fatal illness to the horrified attendees. If the story had taken place down here, Death would arrive on a hot afternoon, be enticed with a curbside table at a fancy cafe, then spend the rest of the day nursing a mineral water with his friends Pestilence and Famine. In the laid back, live-for-today atmosphere, he’d eventually conclude that even a plague would not cause these inhabitants to change their behavior.

Welcome to Buenos Aires, where ambition takes a holiday. The name, by the way, translates to “good air”. Rather ironic when the tailpipes on the diesel buses are adorned with Surgeon General’s Warnings.

The history of Argentina is typical of what you would expect to find in Latin America. There’s a national holiday celebrating the overthrow of the Spanish, then another holiday for the overthrow of the dictator who tossed out the Spanish, and so on. The constitutions down here are about as stable as a Windows beta release. Despite an admittedly raucous past, the beginning of the 20th century found this country as one of the wealthiest in the world, ahead of even France and Germany. But then exports dropped off during World War I, the Great Depression hit a decade later, and the country never quite reclaimed its former lofty standing. The final indignity came some seven decades further on with the country’s default and collapse of the peso in 2001. Not that I am lamenting Argentina’s fall from the upper echelons. The devalued currency means everything is dirt cheap for us winter refugees from up north despite the nosedive the U.S. dollar has taken this year. It is also nice to know that regardless of what dregs the American economy may descend to, there will always be someone below us.

Thanks to a combination of diligent internet research and good fortune, I have found a pleasant apartment for my stay in a perfect location in a middle class neighborhood called Palermo. Within walking distance of my abode there are huge parks, a variety of restaurants, the zoo and the museum for Evita Peron — the country’s answer to the Kennedys. The big project for me has been improving my laughable Spanish. I’ve found a very understanding private tutor plus a neighborhood friend who has taken pity on my earnest efforts and offered to help with my everyday language needs. For listening practice, I watch Miami Vice in Spanish. However, this has caused some misunderstandings when I combine parts of that program’s often violent dialogue with the materials from my instructor. For example, the last time at Burger King, I ordered “Una hamborguesa mas pronto o voy a matarte” (One hamburger right now or I will kill you.) It didn’t get me any better service. 

evita

A Glamorous, Haunting Past

A Mystery in the Andes

Machu Picchu, Peru

Imagine an ancient, robust structure that could comfortably hold an untold number of people, then was suddenly abandoned for no discernible reason… Actually, I was referring to the old Kingdome in Seattle. The only difference between that and Machu Picchu is the Incas had not yet discovered dynamite.

Since I had some free time towards the end of my Lima stay, I decided to book a tour to see this city of the clouds. According to the Peruvians, the place was voted one of the top ten historical wonders of the world (I tried to ask where the Space Needle finished in the balloting, but it appears to have ended up well out of the top twenty).

To get to Machu Picchu, one has to take an hour-long flight from Lima to Cuzco, which judging from the shortness of breath when attempting even simple tasks there, is only slightly lower than Mt. Everest. When jogging but a few steps up a narrow alleyway to avoid an onrushing taxi, I experienced a wave of dizziness so intense my IT career briefly flashed before my eyes. (It seemed to consist mostly of Standards Meetings and waiting for large COBOL computer programs to properly compile.)

At least there are plenty of touristy restaurants to choose from in Cuzco (and by this I mean the menus are in both English and Spanish). While enjoying a dish of raw trout marinated in lime & chili sauce, some fellow Americans came in and asked the hard-working waitress for the vegetarian menu. Now, I have nothing against those who choose not to eat meat for health reasons. Both my grandfathers consumed beef and pork their entire lives and paid the price, tragically passing away at the ages of ninety-two and eighty-eight. From this, I am painfully aware that my own carnivorous lifestyle will likely preclude my ever celebrating a ninety-fifth birthday. (Too bad, I really had hoped to see the Washington State Cougars in a major bowl game one more time.) What I don’t agree with are the people who travel the world and expect the local cuisine to align with their gastric convictions. I call this behavior The Ugly Vegetarian and always keep my distance. Fortunately, these kind of tourists do not frequent my beloved McDonalds, so contact is rare.

From Cuzco to Machu Picchu, it is necessary to hop on a train for four and a half hours. The scenery gradually mutates from a dry brown to lush green as the engine labors its way into the mountains. I passed the time by inflicting my Spanish on a friendly engineer from Columbia, who reminded me of a former co-worker whose Spanish invectives directed at IBM served as my introduction to the language.

When the train finally arrives at its destination, the tourists disembark and run the gauntlet of trinket stands to board a bus for the final leg. With the vehicle navigating through an endless series of switchbacks, you see the neighboring steep cliffs rising along with you and wonder how the Incas ever climbed this high on their own, much less how they managed to built such a remarkable site.

Since the history of Machu Picchu contains a lot of conjecture, the tour guide there stuck to the basics, pointing out the temple, sun dial, garden, residential areas, etc. Most of us were only half paying attention, instead admiring the breathtaking (pun intended) views. Clearly not a place for someone suffering from acrophobia.

One of the more interesting experiences was a large rock used for personal healing. By stepping up with your left leg first, then touching the stone with both hands, you could draw from it’s resolute strength. When I tried this, I ended up bumping my knee, though the pain did quickly recede.

Despite the lack of hard knowledge, one cannot help but speculate about why this place was abandoned. According to our guide, the latest theory is that long ago, Machu Picchu had a franchise in the Inca Basketball Association (IBA). The team, known as the Jumping Beans, demanded a new sports temple with luxury stone suits in order to keep pace with the rest of the league. When the Machu Picchu Tribal Council refused, the team moved upstream to Quillabamba and subsequently won two consecutive Lima Trail Championships. With the loss of an IBA franchise, Machu Picchu was no longer considered a “big league” town and began an inevitable, irreversible decline. Those in Seattle who are opposing the Sonic´s multi million dollar demands for a new arena should take heed.

machpichume

Candidate city for an NBA franchise.

Getting ‘Round for the Quarter Pound

Lima, Peru

At last, I have done it! After almost half a decade of fruitless searching over three continents, I’ve finally discovered a place with a mass transit system less efficient than Seattle´s. This quest has involved visits to cities leveled by B-29 raids; overrun by the Red Army & then mismanaged by the communists; or endured Death Squad politics combined with pathetic economies. Yet somehow all these municipalities found the wherewithal to build a subway system. And not some light-rail-to-the-airport cop out either.

Initially, I feared my worse-than-Seattle search would have to continue when I saw all the conveniently placed “M” (metro station!?!) markings in my map of the downtown. But these turned out to be the location of McDonalds — American cuisine at its most unapologetic. While the transit service of Lima is a crapshoot, Ronald & his Golden Arches gang are doing an inspired job insuring the cholesterol levels at least are keeping pace with Uncle Sam´s.

Walking into a McD joint in this city, and you are overwhelmed with pictures of quarter pounders dripping with cheese and triple-stacked Big Macs. To avoid these cardiac sledge hammers, I tried ordering a simple burger & fries, but couldn’t get the message across. Eventually I ended up learning the Spanish words for “Kids Happy Meal”. Oh sure, I enjoyed spinning that cute little top around the remnants of my french fries, but it was still embarrassing. McDonalds is part of my rich American heritage and not being able to properly order a meal there was humiliating. I will never be able to look a ketchup dispenser in the face again.

Thank heavens the Colonel and I remain on good terms!

quarter-pounder

Temptation