Communion Of Dreams

Matter of perspective.

This will probably come across as a little brag-y. Sorry about that. Not my intention.

The other day I got a phone call. For Legacy Art. The gallery we closed May 31, 2004. Yeah, more than ten years ago.

And after I got through abusing the telemarketer over this point, I got to thinking about the many changes in the last decade.

First thing I should say up front: I’m at a low point in my bipolar cycle, as I’ve noted recently. That means that my self-image isn’t all that great. This isn’t a debilitating depressive episode or anything — I’ve managed to continue to work steadily, as well as enjoy the usual aspects of life. So not horrid. But it is sometimes difficult to not focus on the things which haven’t gone well, and my own failings which are often a component of that. And one of those failings is a sense of not accomplishing much, of being lazy, of wasting my time and the time of others.

Anyway. I got to thinking about the changes in the last decade. And surprisingly, more positive things came to mind than negative ones. That fed on itself, and I found myself making a mental list of the accomplishments.

In no particular order or ranking: wrote two books (one of them as co-author). Most of the way done with another. Visited Wales. And Argentina. And New Zealand. And Italy. Wrote several thousand blog posts. Became something of an authority on small caliber ballistics. Wrote several hundred articles and columns for publication. Was the full-time caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s. Have done conservation work on something more than a thousand (that’s just a guess … may be closer to two thousand) books and documents. Made some great hot sauces. Raised, loved, and then said farewell to a great dog. Tried to be a good friend, and husband. Tried to help others when I could.

We all fail. We all have things we’ve done that haunt us in one way or another. Sometimes, those fears and demons overwhelm. Me, at least.

I may or may not be at a turning point in my bipolar cycle. But I’m glad that at least I can think of things I have accomplished. That helps.

Back to work on St. Cybi’s Well.


Jim Downey

I’ve been shot! (again)
March 30, 2009, 12:07 pm
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Argentina, Guns, Health, Patagonia, Preparedness, RKBA

I mentioned last fall that I went to get a Hep A vaccination, in prep for our trip to Patagonia. Actually, what I got was the first part of the vaccine. To be fully effective, you need a booster shot six months later.

That six months was last Monday. This morning I went back for the second shot.

And as I sat there in the waiting room, I considered the matter. Why get the second shot? I only got the first one because I had a somewhat compromised immune system (the years of stress due to being a care provider) and was heading to Argentina, where there was an *outside* risk of exposure. I have no intention of traveling anywhere which might have a serious risk. And given how little I enjoyed our Argentine trip, almost no real inclination of going back there or anywhere else where there is a slight risk.

So why take the time, spend the money (just $25, but still . . .), and risk a low-grade reaction to the vaccine?

Well, partly it is just my approach to the world – I like to be thorough, see things to completion. And partly it was inertia: I had the card noting when I should come in for the second shot, and had all along figured that I would get it done.

But partly it was insurance. Like owning a fire extinguisher. Chances are I may never need it, but if I do, nothing else will be a very good substitute. And while I have absolutely zero illusions about being “safe”, why not take reasonable precautions?

Would you have bothered?

Jim Downey

Jim Downey and the Federation of Silver.
November 10, 2008, 10:21 pm
Filed under: Argentina, N. Am. Welsh Choir, Patagonia, Travel

Part Five: OK, this is what I came for!

After spending the bulk of Saturday sitting in the hotel pub, sipping beer, making notes, doing a bit of quiet reading, things got busy.

That evening, the choir was giving a performance at one of the Catholic churches in downtown Buenos Aires, in honor of Dr. Edgar John Hughes, the British Ambassador to Argentina, who happens to be Welsh.  They all left for the rehearsal at the church about 4:00, the rest of us following at 6:30.  Of course, this being Argentina, nothing started on time – the concert got going about 8:30, and was quite enjoyable.  Following the performance, there was a brief reception, and then we went back to the hotel, arriving about 10:30.  Not too bad, right?

Well, except that we’d not had dinner.  Remember, no one eats dinner until starting about 9:00.

Not such a problem, eh?  I mean, plenty of restaurants were open, this was Saturday night in downtown Buenos Aires – the night was just starting!

Er, except that we had to be up at 3:30, in order to make our flight out of the Buenos Aires domestic airport, to Bariloche.

No, I am not kidding.  Well, actually, I am a bit.  See, Buenos Aires was changing over to Daylight Savings time, so the clocks had to be set forward Saturday night.  We needed to be up by 4:30 in order to make our flight.  Except that was 3:30.  And the place where we were going – San Carlos de Bariloche – was not going to change.  So, as far as our bodies, and the rest of the schedule, was concerned, we had to be up at 3:30.  Yeah, it was built into our schedule that we would have a maximum of five hours sleep.

I’d still like to find out what idiot came up with this idea.  I blame ‘Ferguson’.

And of course, that five hours maximum was really not possible.  Because we had to repack our bags before getting to bed.  And that, after persuading the hotel bar staff to come up with some sandwiches before we crashed.

Why not pack our bags earlier?  Good question.  Because there was a 15 kilo weight limit for the domestic airline.  So Alix and I had scaled back what we brought on the trip, by a considerable amount.  This was not a bad thing, overall, except that it necessitated packing in a certain way.  Specifically, in a way which required the more formal clothing we wore to the concert to go into the bags *first*.

Ah, well.  We survived.  Got something to eat – basically, I ordered the sandwiches as soon as I walked in the door, and then the check as soon as they were brought – and then got packed and crashed.  Up ungodly early, had a light breakfast (rolls, coffee, juice) in the hotel lobby, then climbed on the bus for the airport.

The domestic airport in Buenos Aires is as nice as any airport I’ve been to in the States.  Security was somewhat casual, but still substantial.  Got our bags checked, then up to wait for the plane.  And of course it was late – we could have easily slept in at least another hour, and still had plenty of time to spare.  The flight was two hours, with another light breakfast en route, along with the sort of absurd officiousness to be found among airline crew everywhere.

We landed in Bariloche, at a small airport about the size of the one here in Columbia.  In other words, getting off the plane, collecting our bags, getting out took no time to speak of.  Cold there – with mountains in the not-too-far distance!  Ferguson kept telling people mixed up and confusing things, but we got into buses OK, then set out for a bit of a tour of the area around Bariloche – effectively, a tour of Nahuel Huapi National Park.

It was absolutely gorgeous!  Simply stunning.  Early spring, into the mountains.  Take a look at the images on the Bariloche tourism site, but keep in mind that they are no better at capturing the beauty of these mountains than any photos of mountains anywhere are.  I was reminded more of the Swiss Alps than the Rocky Mountains, if that helps.  And it is little wonder that the area was largely settled by Germans/Swiss and Italians.  Which shows very much in the style of the architecture and in the culture of the town. We stopped at several junctures, just to get out and enjoy the view.  I was hooked – this is what lured me on the trip to start with!

The local guide for our bus, Frederico, was very knowledeable about not just the culture of the area, but also of the local geography.  Young, smart, relaxed, and with a much better command of English than Ferguson, it was a real pleasure to listen to him as we toured the countryside.  I would have loved to have traded him for Ferguson for the rest of the trip, but my karma is not that clean.

Finally, mid afternoon we rolled back into Bariloche proper, and went to the hotel.  (Whose website is yet another example of the god-awful preference they have for flash-design in Argentina!  Gah!!  Particularly given the poor condition overall of the internet infrastructure down there, especially outside of Buenos Aires, you’d think they wouldn’t want to run such a bandwidth-heavy design.  Makes me crazy.)  It was a complete debacle at the hotel, trying to get checked in and getting to our rooms.  Oh, the hotel staff was friendly and helpful enough, but it was like they were totally unprepared for the mass of us to arrive there, and good ol’ Ferguson just kept confusing everyone by standing up and loundly trying to ‘clarify’ things.  Madness.

Eventually, we got into our rooms.  Tired, hungry, we went out to seek something resembling a decent meal.  Turns out, this was the day that Argentina celebrates “Mother’s Day”.  Meaning that every restaurant had done a huge business for the normal lunch crowd, and we were arriving at the tail end of that.  But Alix and I were able to join another couple on the tour for a pleasant meal at the Familia Weiss – something of a local institution specializing in smoked meats, wild game, and handmade pastas.  I ordered some wild pork – which arrived as four large medallians, thick and juicy, and absolutely delicious – and easily more meat than I would normally eat in a week at home.  I think that it was at this point in the tour that I made the conscious decision to scale back radically on how much I was eating – in an effort to enjoy everything, I was over indulging.

It was also here that I discovered that there was a handcrafted – the Argentines translate it as “homemade” – label of the national beer Quilmes called “Patagonia Amber Lager” which is excellent.  Much like any decent microbrew amber ale you’d find here in the States.  And comes in a nice quart-sized bottle.  Yum.  That helped moderate my tiredness and aggravation at having to listen to Ferguson back at the hotel.

Following our leisurely meal, we wandered back to the hotel in the rain.  Got settled in.  Napped.  Alix went down for a social function with everyone in the lobby, but I decided that I was full enough, and tired enough, to just stay and snooze.  It was also evident at this point that I had the beginnings of a cold.  Ah, well, to be expected, I suppose.

Jim Downey

Jim Downey and the Federation of Silver.
November 7, 2008, 9:03 pm
Filed under: Argentina, N. Am. Welsh Choir, Patagonia, Society, Travel

Part Four: Interlude.

Some random notes and reflections while sitting in the hotel bar under a large stained-glass window, sipping beer, enjoying some peace and quiet while Alix is off to a rehearsal.

* * *

First, a note about that window, which says a lot about Buenos Aires.  It’s actually a long series of window panels, along the front of the hotel on one side, off of the entrance.  And outside the actual window is a very stout, very businesslike grid of steel bars.

You will see some variation of those bars everywhere.  I mean, everywhere.  Even the nicest parts of the city have this kind of security, which in the US is usually only found in high-crime areas.  It is hard to tell if it is due to crime, or whether it is a precaution against social breakdown such as has occured many times in the history of the country.  Regardless, security is a big deal here, though not so blatant as to draw the notice of most of the rest of the people in our party.  It is usually behind the scene, just out of casual sight.  The steel bars I mentioned.  There’s also plenty of solid locks and security cameras.  And lots of guards, both private and actual police.  I’d mentioned previously that the “Federal Police” were common on the streets, and they are.  But they also seem to function almost as attached security in many locations.  You see them positioned in front of nice hotels, banks, and businesses – usually the same ones, in the same locations, on the several days I have been here and exploring the immediate business area around our hotel.  I do know that the same cop has been outside the entrance to our hotel since we arrived.  He doesn’t seem to interact at all with the guests, and has looked past me completely when I have tried to make eye contact with him.  But he is on very friendly, almost joking, terms with the staff.  I don’t know whether this is some kind of formal arrangement, or just a form of low-level graft, with the cop taking a payoff from the hotel management to provide a presence.  But, it seems to work.

* * *

The whole pace of life is different here, and I understand this will be even more noticeable once we get out of the busy city.  Here, the locals will have breakfast at about 9:00.  As with any other meal, it is leisurely.  So business gets started sometime after.  The hours posted may say a shop opens at 10:00, but that seems to be little more than a fiction – almost no place was actually open and doing business by then, most not by 10:30.  Lunch starts sometime after 1:00, and will run at least a couple of hours, though the shops here usually seem to be open during that time.  They usually have a light meal, something along the lines of “tea”, with sweets, perhaps a thin sandwich (and by thin I mean basically mashed, the local preference being ham & cheese with the inevitable white bread, but pressed flat and toasted).  No one even thinks about dinner until 9:00 or so, and as I noted earlier most restaurants don’t open their doors for dinner until 8:00 or 8:30.

This is not to say that people eat heavily, or constantly, at each of these meals.  Rather they just seem to take their time, encouraging conversation.  It is quite civilized, but takes a real adjustment.  Even the wait-staff functions comfortably according to these rules, taking their time about bringing orders, in absolutely no hurry to rush you off.  They will not bring the bill until you specifically ask for it – and then in their own good time.

* * *

The local beer – or, should I say, the National Beer – is Quilmes.  Named after the city near Beunos Aires where it was first brewed by German immigrants.  It isn’t at all bad, really.  A crisp lager, about on a par with some of the better mass-produced American beers (which is to say, relatively light and low in alcohol).  I have seen in a store that the brand also makes a Bock and a Stout, though none of the restaurants I’ve been to seem to carry these.  Dark beer in general – “robusto” in Spanish – doesn’t seem to be very popular in the city.  Last night when I popped out to get some dinner, I stopped in to an upscale wine shop nearby, which also carries hard liquor.  Argentina does have a respectable wine industry, as I mentioned, and this was reflected in their wide selection of national labels, mostly of the Marbeck (Merlot) varietal.  I can’t drink more than a half glass of full bodied red wine (triggers migraines), but I have also had some of the local whites and those are all quite good.

There in the shop I did ask about local hard liquor.  It seems that other than some very low end whiskey and vodka, there really isn’t anything produced in Argentina.  A shame, really.  They did have a small selection of local liqueurs, most of which is based on the national addiction to dulche de leche.

* * *

I’m not kidding about the Argentines being addicted to that stuff.  You find it everywhere.  There’s always great vats of the stuff at every breakfast layout, used as we would use jam or even butter for toast or rolls.  It goes into most cakes and pastries, and it is actually hard to find a candy sold in the country which *doesn’t* have dulche de leche in it.  It’s added to fruit cocktail.  It is one of the common flavors of ice cream.  It goes into coffee and tea.  Cookies with a thick version of the stuff sandwiched inside are very popular.

It is good, though cloying to my palate.  About as sweet as honey, but with an intense milk caramel flavor it imparts to everything it touches.  As popular and prevalent as it is, you’d expect this to be a nation of diabetics.

* * *

Jim Downey

Jim Downey and the Federation of Silver.
November 5, 2008, 9:26 pm
Filed under: Argentina, N. Am. Welsh Choir, Patagonia, Society, Travel

Part Three: The Kitty Cats of Death.

Friday started out with me feeling the psychic pressure of being in close proximity with so many extroverts for so long. We had an early breakfast in the hotel with the entire crowd, since everyone was going on an excursion together this morning and the buses were to load at 8:00. Meaning a bit of a fight to get service, since even under these circumstances the Argentine default is to leave people to have a leisurely meal, no rushing about to refill coffee cups or any such nonsense. Somehow, we managed.

On the buses a bit after 8:00. Another brilliant and beautiful spring day – just perfect for a nice jaunt through a cemetery.

Say what?

Yeah, Cementerio de la Recoleta – where all the beautiful people of Argentina go to spend the afterlife. No, I’m not kidding. Our guide took great pleasure in explaining all about the place, and how as far as most Argentines are concerned, it doesn’t matter where you came from, or what you did, so long as you are buried in the right place.

Here’s a Spanish language site with a lot more photos of the place. It really is quite amazing, in a very surreal way. Incredible art & architecture to the some six thousand mausoleums – ranging from pseudo Baroque to Art Deco. Elaborately carved doors, stunningly beautiful statues, glorious & glowing stained glass – you’ll find it all there in the cemetery. Most of the dead people there live better than the vast majority of the still walking population in Buenos Aires, and the amount of wealth splashed about the place seems almost obscene when you find yourself driving through/past the shantytowns around the city. And the cemetery has far and away the best sidewalks in the entire city.

One other thing it also has is cats. While stray dogs rule supreme throughout the rest of the country, here in the quiet of the necropolis, it is cats who reign. Domestic housecats. Er, make that domestic mausoleumcats. They’re everywhere. Everywhere. In twos and threes. Solo and in small packs, clustered around bowls of food, milk, and water that locals leave for them. Silent, serene, more than a little eerie.

I was, honestly, glad to get out of the place. No, cemeteries don’t bother me. And I love cats. I even appreciate good art in almost all forms. But this fetishization – this status competition of which family has the best location and grandest burial for their dead – was creepy. Such ostentation strikes me as being more about the glory of the living than the memory of the dead.

Anyway, we left. Back on the buses. Through the city. Through suburbs. Through more suburbs, all on surface streets, stopping at every light, looking around into the houses and businesses. Easily feels like it could be just about any major American city, in the nice part of town. Plenty of car dealers. And boat dealers. And fast-food places. Our guide (not ‘Ferguson’) explains that these are all the rich parts of the city, desireable because of the proximity to the river.

The river? Actually, the estuary Rio de la Plata. But they call it a river, and take pride that it is so wide. No, I am not kidding. Yes, it is wide – some 30 miles where it starts at the juncture of two other major rivers, to almost 140 miles at the boundary of the Atlantic. And a big chunk of this estuary forms a huge delta, interlaced with numerous small navigable passages, creating countless small islands just a few feet above the water level. Most of this delta is, by treaty, a nature preserve, but one large section of it close to Buenos Aires is settled, more or less permanently.

And I can see why. It is a beautiful, peaceful, place. It would be a great place to hide from the world. And relatively inexpensive – a decent sized hunk of an island, big enough for a nice little vacation home and a bit of yard, a garden – will go for $30,000 to $100,000, depending on the quality of the house and how remote the location. We got out onto the river in a couple of decent sized tour boats, and for almost an hour made our way through some of the larger channels, finally arriving at the Restaurante Gato Blanco (“White Cat”). Charming. And good food. We sat out on the deck, watching other patrons arrive by boat (and their boats taken away by valet service – when you have seating for some 250 people, and are only accessible by boat, this is an issue), enjoying the breeze and the food.

Once done eating, while the others sat and chatted, I wandered off behind the restaurant to explore a bit. The whole place was dead-flat level, and lush, the soil somewhat springy and very very rich. Even though it was still early spring, there were already many trees and flowers in bloom, with both butterflies and bees feeding at the flowers. The island was very much like a park, an old park in a quiet part of town, showing signs of love and age and much use.

We got back on the boats that brought us, made our way back to the Tigre Fluvial Station. From there the group split, with the choristers heading off for a workshop rehearsal, the rest of us back to the hotels. Our friend ML and I dropped off stuff, then headed out for some shopping, swimming against the human tide. Got back and spent some time relaxing.

It had been arranged that we would all go off to have dinner with some local families, in small groups of six to eight. It would be a chance to spend time with some of the residents in their homes, getting to know one another and learn a bit about how a typical family lived. Alix was looking forward to it, but I just decided that I couldn’t face more time with people – I was worn ragged by all the contact I had had over the past several days. So when she got back from the workshop, I let her know I was going to beg off the dinner. It was a shame, really, because she had a great time (along with the others), and I probably would have as well. But my ‘extrovert batteries’ were just dead, and I needed to spend some time alone in peace and quiet in order to recharge enough for other things coming up. She went, I popped out to a local street vendor and got a sandwich, and then retired to the room where I relaxed and did some reading. It helped.

Jim Downey

Jim Downey and the Federation of Silver.
November 1, 2008, 5:06 pm
Filed under: Argentina, Humor, Mark Twain, N. Am. Welsh Choir, Patagonia, Society, Travel

Part Two: Home, home of the strays.

On Thursday the 16th, Alix was going to be busy with some choir-related rehearsals, so I opted for one of the excursions available to non-choir members of the tour which left at 8:00 local time.  As a result, I was up and going early.

Went downstairs into the hotel’s dining area for breakfast (included in the room price).  It was actually quite a nice spread, and showed that they cater to Americans and Europeans – in addition to various cereals and breakfast breads, juices and yoghurt, there was was a wide selection of German style cold meats and cheeses, fresh fruits and fruit cocktail, even US style bacon and scrambled eggs.  But there were local items as well – something like a quiche or fritatta which was egg-based, with a crusty top and a base of peas – and that was quite good.  There was also something like a beef stew – chunks of beef in a brown sauce, a side dish of potatoes and carrots you could add as you wished.  This was fantastic.  The coffee was also excellent, even though Argentina is not a coffee-producing country, and is available almost everywhere throughout the day, served in small cups similar to (but not as strong as) a Turkish coffee or espresso.

A side note, which I should have mentioned in the previous travelogue: you will hear a lot of hype about the quality of Argentine beef, and of the popularity of both asados and parrilladas.  Believe every word of it.  Seriously – I lived in Iowa for some 15 years, and thought I knew what top-quality meat was.  The Argentine beef we had while on the trip was even better, every single time, without exception.  Little wonder that the Argentine diet is very heavy on beef.  The stuff is just phenomenal.  The Wikipedia article on Argentine Cuisine overall is very accurate from my experience.  In fact, I had to make a conscious decision partway through the trip to cut way back on the amount of food I was eating, since I was feeling overly stuffed all the time.

Anyway, I had a nice breakfast, then got on the tour bus for the trip over to La Plata.  The bus was nice – all the buses we had were nice – but when you spend about 217 hours a day on one for weeks on end, you get sick of the damned things.  And this is was my first experience with the tour guide I shall henceforth call “Ferguson”.

Ferguson was a nice enough sort, but seemingly could not shut up.  I don’t mean that he carried on a rambling discription of all the things we saw, and all the places we went.  No, he would repeat himself about a dozen times on any given little factoid, each time trying some new formulation to the English which almost but not quite meant the same thing as the previous version, always in a sing-song sort of voice that I came to loathe.  And over the course of the dozen permutations he would range from a simple verifiable fact to almost its exact opposite – as though he were a one man game of ‘telephone’.  It got to the point where most of the tour members just did their best to ignore whatever he said, which was a tad problematic given that often he was our only source for information as to scheduling, upcoming events we need to prepare for, et cetera.  I just got in the habit of listening to the *first* thing he said, which was usually reasonably close to the truth, and then tried to tune out all subsequent “clarifications”.  When I say henceforth that Ferguson said this or that, understand that this is what I mean and I am cutting out the 12 to 14 other versions I usually got from the man.

Anyway, we got on the bus to La Plata, located to the east of the Buenos Aires city center about twenty minutes, on the south shore of the Rio La Plata.  The ride took us from the concentrated urban area of our hotels through a variety of suburbs, which ranged from American/European style areas to startlingly apocalyptic shanty towns.  Seriously – vast swathes of land where the housing consisted of little more than packing materials, boardered by places where it was difficult to discern whether the high rises were going up or coming down.  In the merely marginal areas there was some semblence of regular (unpaved) streets and a power grid, with large black plastic tanks of water on the rooftops.  In the poorer sections, even this much civilization was undetectable.

Officially, the population of greater Buenos Aires is about 13 million.  Unoffiicially, most people estimate it is somewhere between 16 and 18 million.  Those who live in the shantytowns are about as unofficial as possible, and the source for the discrepency.

And everywhere – throughout the entire country – there are stray dogs.  You don’t notice that many right in the downtown area, though there are some.  But you get outside of there, and you see more.  Lots more.  Dogs who are clearly homeless, who shy away from most humans, but search for kindness, looking from person to person for someone who will notice them.  They live off whatever scraps they can find, whatever bits are handed over. They are so prevelant that it has become common custom across the entire country to construct elevated baskets for holding garbarge, some four or five feet off the ground.  One of our other tour guides later in the trip said that the Argentines loved dogs, and so were happy to see them everywhere like this.  But the haunted and degraded nature of the strays said otherwise to me, as did the signs in many places which warn of feeding the dogs.   These are not signs of love, leastways as I understand it.

La Plata was a designed city, not an organic one.  It’s nice enough, in the slightly shabby way that seems typical of most of the country.  The drivers there, as in Buenos Aires and the other large towns we visited, were universally insane, and considered things like lane markings and traffic signs to be little more than suggestions.  I did ask Ferguson how “right of way” is determined in the mix of four-way and six-way intersections, since nothing was obvious.  He looked at me like the question made no sense, then shrugged and said that the biggest vehicle went first, of course.  But I saw no accidents, so if it works for them and I don’t have to drive in it, more power to them.

It was a beautify, clear and sunny day, a touch cool but not at all bad.  We got out of the bus in front of the neogothic Cathedral, which Ferguson explained is the fourth largest in the world by some measure or another.  It was impressive, but did not stand up to the great cathedrals in Europe in my mind.  Across the large plaza in front of the Cathedral was the City Hall.  Ferguson said we could go there for a bathroom break.  We did – there seemed to be little else to see there at the time, since the City Council was in session and the bulk of the building off limits to tourists.

Out front of the City Hall there was some kind of demonstration going on.  We watched from in front of the building for a while, trying to figure out what it was all about.  Ferguson explained that one of the government agencies, responsible for certifying taxes, had set up a roadblock.  Seems that they pull in cars, and then search their database to see whether the drivers are current on various taxes due.  If not, the driver can settle up right there.  Or have their car impounded until arrangements are made.  Imagine, if you will, a combination of the IRS and the DMV, with immediate police powers thrown in for good measure.  Little wonder that people were objecting.  Interesting to watch them at it – a bunch of cars had stopped, blocking access to the roadblock (a roadblock of the roadblock, if you will).  Then people poured out of their cars and swamped the tax-checkers.  Bullhorns were produced.  Radio and TV crews attended.  Ferguson said that it was typical.

We left, headed over to the Museo de La Plata – one of the largest Natural History museums in South America, with over 2 million artifacts relating to the continent.  It is a classic 19th century style museum, and in its heyday must have been quite the thing.  While the collection is still very impressive, it is clear that the exhibits are badly dated and funds for upkeep have been lacking.  Even so, it was worth wandering through, and is certainly still a major destination for area schoolchildren, who were thronging the place.

On our way back we took a slight detour through a riverfront/park area which Ferguson called ‘Puerto Sur’.  I am not entirely sure where this area actually is, since I have been unable to find it online.  Suffice it to say that it is one of the many neighborhoods of the city, not far from the city center and adjacent to the Rio Plata, which serves as something of a park and amusement area.

Got back to the hotel early afternoon.  I dropped off my bag, and went out for a bit of a stroll, stopping at one of the little sidewalk places for something akin to an Argentine gyro – a wrap with some delicious strips of beef, a few veggies and a sauce thrown in for good measure.  Swung back by the hotel and connected with a friend who was joining the tour a day late, due to airline hassles.  Since Alix was not yet back from her rehearsals, the two of us went out again into the madness of the city – she wanted to see a bit of it, I wanted to pick up a small English-Spanish dictionary (I was already gaining some confidence with my survival Spanish, wanted more than the simple phrasebook I had could offer).

On both trips out encountered large, wandering protests – huge things which incorporated sound cars, puppets, kettle drums, banners, and no small number of Federal Police on the sidelines, keeping a close eye on developments.  It was unclear exactly what was the focus of the protest was – there were banners and chants about the usual topics of internationalization, native people’s rights, farming, banking.  This recent NPR news item talked about recent protests in Buenos Aires, so that may have been the catalyst for what I saw.  Such street protests are part of the culture of Buenos Aires, and so long as things are peaceful, not to be missed.  Of course, they can turn violent with little warning (to outsiders, anyway), so you take your chances.  I kept my eye on the cops, and so long as they seemed calm, I wasn’t too worried.

Again returned to the hotel, and met up with Alix.  Our friend ML decided to go clean up a bit, take a nap and unpack, so Alix and I went down to the “English Style Pub” (well, more or less . . .) in the hotel for drinks and to chat with other members of the tour.  Discovered that service, as most things related to time/scheduling in Argentina, was very . . . um, casual.  Relaxed.  Unhurried.  As noted on Wikitravel:


Argentinians generally take a relaxed attitude towards time. This can be unsettling to visitors from North America and non-Latin parts of Europe where punctuality is highly valued. You should expect that your Argentine contacts will be at least 10 to 15 minutes late for any appointment. Tardiness of 30 to 45 minutes is not unusual. This is considered normal in Argentina and does not signify any lack of respect for the relationship. Of course, this does not apply to business meetings.

If you are invited to a dinner or party at, say 9 PM, it does not mean that you should be present at 9 PM, but instead that you should not arrive before 9 PM. You’ll be welcomed anytime afterwards. Arriving to a party 2-3 hours late is normally OK and sometimes expected.

This attitude extends to any scheduled activity in Argentina. Plays, concerts usually get going around half an hour after their scheduled times. Long distance buses leave on time. As in any busy city around the world, short-distance public transportation like city buses and the subway do not even bother with time estimates; they arrive when they arrive. Factor these elements into your calculations of how long things will take.

Unannounced bus or train departures ahead of the schedule are not uncommon, especially in big cities. This is normally not a problem, as in general no one will expect you to be on time anyway.

Yup, that’s about right.  For someone such as myself who considers punctuality a sign of respect, it took some getting used to.

Eventually, ML joined us again, and we hooked up with another tour member to wander down the street to an Italian place which had a good reputation.  As it was only 8:30 when we got there, the place was empty – but they were happy to seat us, and our waiter went out of his way to make us feel welcome.  It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had, and we took a full two hours to enjoy it, the Argentina way.  Antipasto, main meal, nice dessert, drinks and coffee – an excellent meal.  All told, even with a generous gratuity, it came to about $27 per person – a meal I would easily expect to pay $100 per person for in the US, if I could find one of similar quality.  Sated, we wandered back to the hotel and crashed.

Jim Downey

Jim Downey and the Federation of Silver.
October 30, 2008, 8:54 pm
Filed under: Health, Humor, N. Am. Welsh Choir, Patagonia, Travel

Part One: We many, we noisy many, we band of travelers.

In spite of the fact that all the prep went well, I should have known what was in store for me on the trip.  Sorry – getting ahead of myself.  So to speak.

The trip to Patagonia – my first real vacation in almost three years – was going to be something of a challenge.  I knew this from the time I decided that I would go along with my wife on the tour.  See, it was put together because of the choir she belongs to – it wasn’t something I particularly had ever wanted to do.  But I decided to go.  As I put it back in January:

You probably already know about the North American Welsh Choir tour to Patagonia next October. And you may know that in return for my wife coordinating all the reservations and money and whatnot on the Choir’s end, she is getting her cost of the trip offset (in full, it looks like). Just in the last few days I’ve decided that I am going to go along.

Yeah, surprises me a bit, as well. I have no desire to go to South America. I have never had any desire to go to South America.

But my MIL is going to die soon. And late this year I should have decompressed from that, and been working hard for months being a good little book conservator, maybe an author. It will be a good time to challenge myself in a new way, get out of my comfort zone. This tour will be a good opportunity to do that. Plus my wife and I haven’t had anything approaching a real vacation in a couple of years, and we didn’t do anything to celebrate our 20th anniversary last October. So, this will serve that purpose as well.

Boy, did it.  You’ll see.

Anyway, as I said, our prep for the trip went well.  By the time Tuesday, Oct. 14 rolled around, we were ready to go.  We’d scaled back our packing for the trip considerably from previous trips overseas, and each of us had managed to get everything we wanted to take into one suitcase per person, under 13 kilograms (call it 29 pounds).  This was necessary because during the tour we’d be flying on an internal Argentine airlines which had a strict weight limit of 15 kilos.  We’d gathered together all the necessary documentation, stuff to read on long flights, et cetera, et cetera.  Made arrangements to have the pets cared for in our absence, mail and newspapers brought in.  Cleaned out the fridge, even washed the dishes so we weren’t faced with a mess when returning home.

So when the shuttle to take us to the airport arrived ten minutes early, it only caused a mild panic.  We grabbed our bags, our coats, said goodbye to the dog, and left.

We got to the Kansas City airport, and went to the check-in counter.  We had burned a bunch of frequent-flyer miles for an upgrade to business class for our flights, but wanted to see if we could take an earlier flight than originally scheduled from KC to Dallas.  The check-in person was very helpful, and we managed it with no problems.  Better to waste time in the Admiral’s Club in Dallas than worry about making our flight.  This worked as planned.

When it came time for our flight to Buenos Aires that evening, we happily got on board and settled ourselves in the spacious seats in business class (which is effectively First Class on that flight – there’s only the one premium class).  Flying in business class makes everything more pleasant, in terms of the space, the food, the entertainment.  Too bad I spent a large chunk of the 11 hours in the head.

Yeah, some intestinal grunge.  Traveler’s Disease, before I even got out of the country.  In one of those itty-bitty aircraft toilets.  Actually, in three of those itty-bitty aircraft toilets, depending on which one was available at the time.  Almost as much fun as having that kind of problem when confined to a porta-potty.

And that’s what I meant when I said I should have known what was in store for me on this trip.  No, I didn’t get another round of TD – I was fortunate in that regard.  Rather, that nothing would work out as I had hoped, and too much time would be spent crowded, uncomfortable, in a noisy small space.

So, we got to Buenos Aires.  Thanks to my Lonely Planet guide, I had a good idea about the layout of the airport, and where to find an ATM and a taxi to get us to our hotel.  Alix (my nickname for my wife – most people know her as Martha) and I retrieved our bags, made the pro-forma pass through customs (it’s easy to get INTO Argentina), and met up with another member of the tour who had come in on the same flight.  The three of us shared a taxi.  Or, rather, I should say that we shared getting sheared by a couple of the local touts who arranged for a taxi for us.

Actually, it wasn’t that bad.  I knew what the official rate was supposed to be (foreigners pay a significantly higher amount for taxis than do locals – they’re wonderfully upfront about how they are screwing you over in this way).  The two kids who latched onto us and then “negotiated” with the taxi driver wound up getting about the same rate, with a surcharge for the extra person going to a slightly different location (her hotel was about a dozen blocks from ours).  They got a kick-back from the driver, he got the fare in front of some other taxis, and we got to our hotel feeling only slightly fleeced.  Everybody was happy.

The hotel is right downtown, in Buenos Aires’ business district.  Actually, quite nice.  A bit on the swank side.  Since it was mid-morning, our rooms wouldn’t be ready for a while, but they were happy to stow our luggage for us until we could check in.  Alix and I went for a bit of an exploratory walk around downtown.

OK, we’d been traveling for about 24 hours at that point, having lost a couple of hours due to time-change in going east.  And I’d spent way too much time miserable, sitting in an airplane toilet.  But still, Buenos Aires struck me as . . . well, alien.  Not just “foreign”, as I might describe a large unknown city in Europe.  More different than that.  Even though porteños consider themselves to be essentially European, this was different than any city I’ve been in.  Grungier.  Horrid, horrid sidewalks (seriously – you could easily break an ankle if you didn’t pay close attention where you put your feet).  A crush of humanity.  Touts for every single business out in the streets and pedestrian walkways pushing flyers and business cards on you, trying to grab your attention (and sometimes you, physically) for the business they represented.  Loud speakers blaring advertisiments and music.  Lots and lots of glitzy, flashing, obnoxious signs.  Honestly, it felt like Blade Runner, without the perpetual gritty rain.

I was happy to get back to the hotel after a couple of hours of that.

We sat in the lobby as others arrived.  Alix, having helped arrange the trip on the choir side, knew a lot of the people by name at least – many were pleased to meet her in person.  There was much chattering and going on back and forth.  I mostly smiled and sat off to the side, out of the way.

Finally, we went on a tour of the city, previously arranged.  Frankly, most of the people on our bus (myself included) were almost comatose at that point, and could really care less about the various important city monuments we passed – everyone was tired from travel, wanting to get into our rooms and get cleaned up before getting dinner.  But we dutifully nodded at each landmark’s history, got off the bus to admire the pink government house and stare at the riot police lining up to stop one of the daily demonstrations in B.A.  Best of all, when the bus returned to the hotel, our rooms were ready.

Nice room for us, generous by European standards, moderate by American.  A change, a bit of a shower, rest a while.  Several stations on cable in English, with Spanish subtitles.  Met back downstairs early evening for the big opening night feast.

Our buses – gods, did I spend so much time on buses – were ready, and took the lot of us over to a nice fancy restaurant for dinner.  A note on this – the restaurants in Buenos Aires, in all of Argentina in fact, don’t even *think* about opening for dinner until 8:30 or 9:00.  No, I am not kidding – it is one of the most significant cultural differences between here and there.  Dinner is eaten late, often as late as 11:00 or midnight.  And they *always* take a couple of hours for a meal.  Seriously.  I grew to like the longer, relaxed pace for eating.  I never did get used to the idea of eating a heavy meal so late.

Anyway, the restaurant was designed as their version of an “all you can eat” place.  But with the twist that everything is made to order.  Well, the entrees, anyway.  The way it was done was that all around the perimeter were different “stations” – one was a custom pasta station, one a custom pizza station, one an Argentine barbeque/grill, one doing sushi, one doing custom crepes (with a double metric buttload of other desserts already waiting).  There was also an established elaborate and extensive salad/antipasto bar.  Everything was included in the meal, except for the drinks and tips for the chefs at the individual stations.  (Prices are very cheap in Argentina at present – a quart bottle of decent domestic beer is about US $4 in a nice restaurant, and an acceptible tip is AR $2 (two pesos – about US 60 cents.)  The domestic wines are quite good, though they tend toward a preponderence of red wines (Merlots in particular – what they call ‘Marbec’ in Argentina).  But do not try the local distilled spirits.  Really – just don’t.

We ate and drank ourselves stupid over the next couple of hours, and towards the end there were introductions of the various tour leaders, guides, and whatnot.  Alix got a very nice round of applause from everyone for her work coordinating things.  This made it easy for me to get along with everyone on the tour – all I had to do was explain that I was her husband, and I instantly had a niche.  It was towards the end of the evening that two themes emerged in my awareness which were to dominate the entire tour: one, that I was with a large group (about 60) of extrovert musicians – and the other 60 or so people on the tour were likewise gregarious Welsh who love the sound of their own voice; and two, that in addition to the non-stop, high speed conversations taking place around me, these people know and love music.  During the course of dinner the din of talking got to the point of almost being painful, making it impossible to hear what people across the table were trying to say to me.  Then, at the end after all the introductions were over, they broke into song.  Not just a half-hearted verse of “Happy Birthday”, either – this was a full-throated, trained choir which loves to sing, along with a large number of similarly inclined Welsh (who are happy to break into song at just about any excuse).  Everyone stood, and they gave their first performance in Argentina to the other patrons and staff at the restaurant – who loved it!

We finally left the restaurant about 11:00 – just when the bulk of other patrons were starting to arrive.  Back to the hotel and crash, hard.  It’d been a long and eventful day.

Jim Downey

In front of the hurdle.
October 30, 2008, 10:54 am
Filed under: N. Am. Welsh Choir, Patagonia, Politics, Travel, Writing stuff

OK, I lied – I didn’t get back soon.  Getting settled and caught up with the world is only part of the issue – another major component is that I am obsessed with politics at this point, waiting for the election to finally come to fruition.  Well, that, and the fact that I am still struggling with exactly how I want to approach the travelogues from this recent trip.

See, the problem is that there were parts of it that I really didn’t enjoy.  Not just this or that isolated incident that might add a bit of spark or humor to the stories – whole aspects of the trip were just unpleasant.  But I don’t just want to whine or bitch through those sections of the travelogues.  Nor do I want to skim over them – these are things which need to be addressed, for my own understanding and perspective if nothing else.

So, apologies.  I’ve been putting off writing about anything else until I came to terms with this, and it has led me to something of a small case of writer’s block.  But I’ll get over this hurdle soon – there is just too much else I want to write about.

Jim Downey

So, didja miss me?
October 27, 2008, 6:12 pm
Filed under: Humor, Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, Patagonia

Got back from Patagonia this afternoon, after more than a day’s worth of steady travel.  Lots to tell – good and bad, richer and poorer.  Though overall very educational.  I’ll be doing that over the coming weeks with a series of travelogues.

But for tonight, I need to work some to correct an imbalance in my scotch level – it had dropped to a dangerously low percentage of overall blood content.  Scary stuff.

In the meantime, you can get some taste of the trip here.

Back soon.

Jim Downey

Leaving, on a jet plane . . .
October 13, 2008, 4:09 pm
Filed under: General Musings, N. Am. Welsh Choir, Patagonia, Travel

Been a busy few days, getting everything ready for heading to Patagonia tomorrow morning, so I apologize for the sparsity of posting.  And chances are I won’t have a chance to post anything else tomorrow.  However, while I am on vacation, I’m having some old posts from my archives queued up for your enjoyment. Most of it is stuff few people have seen, and hasn’t been posted here previously.  Some of it is rather long – much longer than what I usually post – and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

If you’re interested in following the progress of the tour we’ll be on, a friend of mine who is going has set up a blog and supposedly the organizers will be posting pix and text from along the trail as we go.  When I get back I will certainly be writing up entire thing, as I have done with most of my other trips abroad.

Even though I never got around to learning more than a few bits and pieces of Spanish, I am very much looking forward to this trip.  It’s been almost three years since I have had a real vacation, and I think that this will be an important component in my ongoing recovery from caring for Martha Sr for so long.  But I’ll miss blogging, and the comments I get – don’t expect responses to either comments or emails until I get back and have a day to recover a bit.

Chat with you then.

Jim Downey