Monthly Archives: January 2014

Futbol, Art and Tango in Buenos Aires

3-D Artwork in La Boca's Caminito

We were warned: Watch your wallets and purses if you go to La Boca, Buenos Aires’ rough-and-tumble barrio located at the mouth (boca, in Spanish) of the Riachuelo river along the city’s southern border.

During the day, however, the most clear and present danger to your cash lies with the hawkers and hustlers in La Boca’s Caminito—a colorful tourist trap lined with artists’ studios, trinket shops, cafés, musicians and tango dancers. If you like, you can have your photo taken with the dancers—for a price, of course.

As always, my focus was on photography. In particular, I wanted to capture the bright red, blue and yellow dwellings constructed mainly of planks, sheet metal and corrugated iron—cast-off ship building materials left over from the days when the neighborhood was lined with shipyards. Early dockworkers—settlers from Genoa, Italy—built the makeshift houses. Other Europeans followed. Today, many La Boca residents are of mixed European descent: Italian, Spanish, German, French, Arab and Basque.

Drab and dreary at their inception, Caminito’s houses were painted in 1960 by local artist Benito Quinquela Martin, who also erected a makeshift stage for performances. Now each café has its own narrow stage where singers, musicians and tango dancers perform for your pesos. The many hawkers can be annoying, but it’s a poor neighborhood and they’re just trying to make a living.

Not too far from Caminito, La Boca’s futbol (soccer) stadium rises from the narrow streets like a modern-day Roman Colosseum. Instead of gladiators and lions, however, the stadium—named La Bombonera (the candy box)—is home to Argentina’s most famous soccer team, the Boca Juniors, but rivalries with other teams—especially their sworn enemies, River Plate—are, it seems, just as fierce. When full of screaming, chanting, weeping, frenzied fans, the blue-and-yellow stadium, it’s said, shakes as if an earthquake is underfoot.

La Boca has a third claim to fame. In 1882, after a lengthy general strike, it seceded from Argentina—or tried to. Rebels raised the Genoese flag, which was immediately removed personally by then President Julio Argentino Roca.

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Categories: Argentina, Art, Photography, Shopping, South America, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Don’t Eat the Salt

Yours truly on Argentina's Salinas Grandes (salt flats)

The salt in Argentina’s Salinas Grande is not for eating. It’s mined for industrial sodium and potassium, which, in turn, is used for making soap, oven cleaners, drain openers and other products. But recently the mining emphasis in Argentina’s salt flats has shifted to another element that lies beneath the salt—lithium.

Not to get too technical, but the average concentration of lithium in mines worldwide is 1,100 ppm (parts per million). In Salinas Grandes, it’s up to 1,600 ppm.

And there’s a lot of it—about 20 million tons of the ore, from which can be extracted about 300,000 tons of pure lithium. Think about that the next time you buy a pack of lithium batteries (lithium is also used in ceramics and glass, electronics, lubricating greases, metallurgy, pyrotechnics, air purification, optics, and on and on).

But that’s not why I was there. I just wanted to see it—2,300 square miles of white stretching toward distant mountains. I had seen photos of people at these and other salt flats; they were doing fun things like jumping, lying down, and using the absence of scale to take photos—one appearing to stand in the hand of another. I wanted to do that, too, but by the time we got there, I had altitude sickness and could barely walk.

Because these salt flats are at an elevation of about 11,000 feet.

“You don’t have enough oxygen in your blood,” our guide told me as I wobbled out of the van complaining of nausea and dizziness. Before leaving the town of Salta that morning, he had stopped at a convenience store and instructed us to buy a bag of coca leaves (yes, THOSE coca leaves), a bunch of which we were to stick between our teeth and gums, swallowing the juices—a blood-oxygenating remedy for altitude sickness. I can’t say if I would have been worse off without the leaves, but I can tell you they are bitter, they poke the insides of your mouth, and I couldn’t wait to spit them out. (Coca tea, I found out later, is a much more pleasant alternative).

Actually, the salt flats weren’t exactly white because they were covered with layers of dust, which washes off with the summer rains. Good thing, too, because I lacked sunglasses and even the dingy saltscape was bright enough to make me squint.

You might be wondering how the salt comes to be there. We were actually standing on a lake covered with about twelve inches of hard-packed salt. Each year, rain in the mountains washes minerals down to this lake, renewing the crusted salt beds. To mine the minerals, workers simply chop out a 3×5-foot-by-six-inch-deep rectangle with a pick ax, then shovel the salt out and pile it next to the cut. Water seeps into the cut, and within six weeks, the sun evaporates the water, and salt fills in the cut as if it had never been made.

The road we had traveled runs through this white sea on its way to Bolivia, and I noticed that a number of black vehicle tires had been placed here and there on the flats adjacent to the road. They’re markers, I was told—a warning to anyone planning to drive onto the expanse of whiteness for a photo op. Like thin ice on a frozen pond. Unwary vehicles have broken through the crust and become stranded. Tractors, bulldozers and backhoes—like salt Zambonis—do venture onto the flats to move and collect the salt, but they know which spots to avoid. At least, I assume they do.

Next to the tourist-van parking lot, I peered in the window of a building and found rows of salt tables—workstations for packing the salt into blocks, perhaps? Outside, some of the 20-somethings in our group gleefully climbed on the mounds of salt, defying a sign that specifically said, in Spanish, do not climb on the salt.

We heard that sometimes you could find a craft market next to the roofless outdoor café—its tables and benches made exclusively from salt bricks. But on the day we visited, the café was deserted, and we found no market—just a shelf containing a few miniature llamas carved from salt.

Categories: Argentina, Photography, South America, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Argentina’s Gauchos

Some say there are no real gauchos in the traditional sense—rebels who never settled down, who defied authority, ignored the law, and were so attached to their horses that when they finally dismounted, they walked with permanent bowed legs. “A man on foot is half a gaucho,” the saying goes, “because the gaucho and his horse are one.” But in Argentina, many proudly consider themselves gauchos and carry on gaucho traditions.

Each year, in early November, the Argentine pampa town of San Antonio de Areco holds a Dia de la Tradicion (day of tradition), which is actually a week-long festival of all things gaucho. We had planned to be there for the festival’s ending—a parade of gauchos—hundreds of them—through town, followed by displays of gaucho horsemanship. To our dismay, the festivities were cancelled at the last minute in response to reports of a gathering storm.

Nobody was happy with that decision, including the gauchos, especially when we arrived at San Antonio de Areco and the weather was picture perfect. So instead of the parade (and the crush of thousands of people that we were doing well to avoid, our tour guide assured us) we would tour the sleepy town itself, with visits to a famous gaucho bar, and shops crafting leather goods, handmade ponchos and silver knives.

Gauchos differ from American cowboys in many respects, including their rejection of guns. Instead, gauchos carry knives—long and sharp, with elaborately carved handles—which they stow at the back of their leather belts and employ for everything: cutting firewood, fixing saddles and lariats, making adobe bricks, skinning cattle, carving off chunks of meat at mealtime, and in the early days, occasionally as a weapon.

After our tour (and the spotting of a few gauchos who flaunted the festival cancellation and rode their horses around the town square anyway), we headed to a nearby estancia (ranch) where the first order of business (after a short trail ride on the ranch’s horses) was lunch. In the cookhouse, a hearty meal was being prepared: meat, meat and more meat—steaks, chicken and sausages—as well as other delectable salad/vegetable dishes and Argentine Malbec wine.

Once satiated, we gathered on the lawn outside the stone portico where lunch had been served to watch a demonstration of the bonding between a gaucho and his horse. Trained with respect and affection, our guide explained, the horse trusts his gaucho completely, and vice versa. The photos tell the story.

At a nearby field, another gaucho demonstrated a technique in which unbridled horses have been trained to shadow a “follow horse” led by the gaucho. It was like watching a school of fish moving as one, twisting and turning whichever way the gaucho led them.

Too soon it was time to start the 90-minute drive back to Buenos Aires.

Note: Yes, we missed the gaucho parade, but that’s not the end of the story. Stay tuned to successive posts, and you’ll find out why.

Categories: Argentina, culture, Photography, South America, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Argentina: The Journey Begins

Our flight path, from Miami to Buenos Aires

Our flight path, from Miami to Buenos Aires

Argentina is a country of contrasts. And it’s BIG. Boarding five internal flights in three weeks, we sampled four different locales: city life in Buenos Aires and a visit to a pampas estancia (ranch) where gauchos rule the range; the big-sky country of Patagonia at Trelew and the Peninsula Valdes area with its southern right whales, elephant seals, dinosaur skeletons, penguin colony at Punta Tombo, and even a Welsh village with tea shops; Iguazu Falls’ rainforest majesty; and Salta’s multi-colored mountains, cactus forests, salt flats, and high desert where I stood next to a llama and hoped it wouldn’t spit on me. It was all quite amazing, and I’ll be posting more about our adventures in this incredible country

But for now, let’s start with a pictorial gallery. Click on any image below the maps to start the slideshow.

Map of Argentina showing (in red)  the four areas we visited.

Map of Argentina showing (in red) the four areas we visited.

Categories: Argentina, Photography, South America, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 9 Comments

Hawaii by Sea

Two of my Hawaii photos have been selected for magazine covers recently. The voyaging canoe was taken on the North Shore of Oahu, and the sunset at Anaeho’omalu on the Big Island of Hawaii.

palm trees at Anaeho'omalu Bay, Big Island of Hawaii

palm trees at Anaeho’omalu Bay, Big Island of Hawaii

Inside Out cover Jan '14

Categories: culture, Hawaii, Photography, Published Work, Stock Photography, Sunsets, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

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