Sunday, January 16, 2011

Argentina – the largest Spanish Speaking Country on Earth

Struggling through flight cancelation, reroute, and delays resulting from the notorious X’mas blizzard of 2010, we finally reached the sunny Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina 56 hours behind schedule.  The only event of the original itinerary we managed to salvage was an evening Tango show and dinner at the Tango Porteño, right next to the 67 meter high Obelisk, (a mini Washington Monument might be the best way to picture it) the most obvious landmark of the city. 

If you have never seen Tango performance before, here is the unforgettable tango scene of the 1992 movie Scent of a Women in which Al Pacino gave his Oscar winning performance of a blind, depressed, and difficult man who carried out his wishes in last few days of his life before his planned suicide.   Of course, the tango you see on this video is a Ballroom style tango which is just one of many styles of tango and is quite different from Argentina Tango.  One would have to do a lot more research to understand the intricacy of different styles of tango. 

If you are more into music than dance, you may want to try the Libertango, performed by Cellist Yo Yo Ma including the essential tango music instrument BandoneonLibertango was composed by Astor Piazzola, the famed Argentine composer who brought Tango music to the international stage.   It is also the opening music of Yo Yo Ma’s best seller music CD Soul of the Tango

Situated at the southeast part of South America, Argentina is the 8th largest country of the world with 40 million people over a little over one million square miles of land.  Its history, following the familiar pattern of the Americas, was demarcated with the Spanish Colonization that began at the discovery of the area by the Spanish navigator Juan Díaz de Solís in 1516.  The name Argentina came from the Latin word Argentum that means silverRío de la Plata, the widest river in the world (140 miles wide at its mouth where Buenos Aires is located) literally means Silver River, so named because of the rumor and belief in early days that there were rich silver mountains upstream that turned out not to be true.  

Today, Argentina is a predominantly white nation with over 86% of its population self-identify as European descendants, followed by 8% of mestizo (mixed of European and Native Americans).  There was one time a third of its population was Afro-Argentines during colonial time but now disappearing with a widely varying estimates and confusing theories about a upward close to 5% of population with Afro ancestry.   Less controversial statistics are available for Amerindians: about 1% of the population is Amerindians and 3% if you include anyone with significant Amerindian ancestry.   As one can guess, Argentina had its share of notoriety of genocides in its history.  The Conquest of the Desert of the 1870s killed about 1.3 million of aboriginal people in Patagonia.   Indigenous population now stands at approximately 600,000 (or about 1.5% of the total population).

Patagonia is the geographical region of the southern part of today’s Chile and Argentina between Pacific and Atlantic oceans, totaled to a little over one million square kilometers.   The name came from Spanish word patagón where pata- means big leg or foot, a reference to the mythical local people Magellan and his crew saw and met in the region in 1520 on its first around the world voyage.  Some depictions put those giants at such a height that sailing Spaniards and Portugese could only reach their waists.   In reality, the Tehuelche people of Patagonia averaged about 6 ft, a bit taller than Spaniards and Portugese but hardly qualified as giants.  For more on the myth, one can refer to e.g., Austin Whittall's blog in 2009.

Patagonia does have however what believes to be one of the largest (longest and heaviest) dinosaurs on earth, the Argentinosaurus, whose story and discovery was told vividly in the movie Dinosaurs: Giants of Patagonia which has been shown in many Natural History museums.   While one can only found fossils and models of the remains of giant dinosaurs at a few places, one can see and touch parts of Patagonian Ice Sheet of the current ice age since few million years ago.  Over the Andes mountains, this largest ice cap outside of Antarctica and Greenland feeds 47 large glaciers out of which 13 flowing east towards to the Atlantic ocean.   The most popular destination of all is the 1700+ square mile Parque Nacional Los Glaciares of Argentina that was created in 1937 and declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Sites in 1981. 

Flying southwest from Buenos Aires, one reaches El Calafate in about three hours, a booming tourist town.  People flocking to this town with at least one activity in common – visit of Perito Moreno Glacier.  At a mere 200 meter above sea level and 1 hour ride 30 miles west of El Calafate where it ends its eastward march at the Lake Argentina, Moreno Glacier is one of the most easily accessible and visited glaciers.     On top of it, it offers once in a while a spectacular scene of rupture when a whole section of the glacier front collapses in front of naked eyes.  Here is a Youtube video of the last rupture in 2008.

As one of few growing glaciers in Patagonia, the 3 miles wide Perito Moreno Glacier advances as fast as 1.5 meter per day towards Lago Argentino (Lake Argentina), the second largest lake of South America.   When the glacier meets the land (where the park viewing platforms are), it becomes a ~200 meters high natural dam that dissects the L-shape Lake Argentina in two and as a result, the water level the pressure of the southern part of the lake continues to rise, sometimes reaching as high as 30 meters.  Every few years, unannounced, with the increasing pressure, the “dam” broke with the rupture of the glacier wall, a unique incredible scene in nature.   Here is a panoramic  frontal view of the Moreno Glacier taken from the viewing platform a few hundred yards away.  Walkways and viewing platforms have been built along the lake front.   One can take time strolling down the walkway enjoying the views at various angles of the bluish ice formations.   Even better, one can quietly listen to the roar and occasionally see the crumbling of pieces of the glacier.  In addition to some longer cruises of the lake seeing other glaciers and icebergs, one can also take a short one hour cruise to the south wall of the glacier to get a close-up view of the 40 meter (100+ ft) high wall of the glacier from the lake (see photos below). 

Flying back to Buenos Aires, we enjoyed a stroll leisurely at the La Recoleta Cemetery, one of the top tourist spots of the city, where many rich and famous Argentines rest in peace.   Most people come here to visit or pay tribute to the late Eva Perón (full name: María Eva Duarte de Perón) in her (Duarte) family tomb.  Before late 70’s, Eva Peron may not be a well-known public figure outside Argentina.  Andrew Lloyd Webber (for music) and Tim Rice (for lyrics) changed it with their powerful musical Evita.  More than three decades later, its best-known song Don't Cry for Me Argentina is still widely circulated and referred to globally.  Here is a Youtube video of it, performed by Elaine Paige on Webber’s 50th birthday celebration in 1998.  Of course, Elaine Paige was the one who delivered perfectly the combative and passionate Evita in the 1978 premiere of the show in Westend of London.  If you have not heard of the song before, I promise you will love it.

There seems no doubt that Eva Peron was an ultimate populist political figure with her humble upbringing and ambitions yearning for attention, love and glory.  She was a huge factor in the success of her husband Juan Peron’s political career and the formation of Peronism and feminist movement that drew strong support from labor, workers and women.  At the end, her ambition was stopped short by the male-dominated society and military power, and finally terminated at age 33 by cancer.   However despite her short life, she still occupies an important spiritual and mythical role deeply imbedded in many Argentines’. 

Six months earlier in 1951 before Eva Peron’s death, 23 years old upper middle class Argentine Ernesto 'Che' Guevara took a year off from his medical study at the University of Buenos Aires to embark with his friend Alberto Granado on a 5,000 miles journey across South America.  The experience was documented in his famous The Motorcycle Diaries  which was made into a movie as well.  Che later joined Fidel Castro for the Cuban revolution in 1956 and was captured and executed in Bolivia when he waged armed revolution there in 1967.  No, Che was not buried at the La Recoleta Cemetery.  His remains were eventually recovered in mid 1990s in Bolivia and laid to rest in 1997 in Cuba.   For more about Che, see my blog 269 minutes with Che

What both Eva Peron and Che Guevara experienced and saw were social economic, welfare, and equity problem of Argentine society. Despite the political instability and military dictatorship in the ensuing years, Argentina has been doing quite well economically with a large middle class compared to many other countries although one can see some villa miseria (the Argentine slumps) in parts of Buenos Aires.    Recent global financial crisis did hit Argentina hard and Inflation is threatening to be getting out of control.  I wish Argentine can overcome the difficulties and the shadow of its association with fascism, military dictatorship to advance the welfare of all their people.

Last note: Unless you are a vegetarian, don’t miss the Parrilla (Argentina Grill), see photo to the right.  Try the wonderful Argentina BBQ beef, chicken, pork or lamb.  You may prefer the American corn- fed beef for its tenderness, I found myself like a lot the better flavored, leaner, more textured grass-fed Argentine cattle from pastures.  I was told they are free of growth hormone and antibiotics as well.   Of course, Argentina pizza is wonderful too, with its strong heritage of Italian immigrants.  I found their pizza is a lot closer to Italy’s than the American version.  In any case, whenever in doubt, order a glass of Argentina Malbec that will make any food agreeable. 

Next stop: Iguazu Falls.  Talk to you soon!

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