Monday, March 23, 2015

Rio at 450


On March 1, 2015 Rio de Janeiro celebrated its 450-year anniversary. Or was it? March 1, 1565 was only chosen fifty years ago in 1965, when Rio needed a party to cheer itself up. With the founding of Brasilia in April 1960, Rio lost its crown of Brazil’s capital, and to add insult to injury, its rival São Paulo had already celebrated its 400-year anniversary in 1954, eleven years earlier. Until 1965, the accepted founding date of the city was January 20, 1567, when the Portuguese troops definitely expelled the French settlers. By selecting March 1, 1565, local politicians and historians made the city two years older. The story is rather convoluted and interpretations are many!

The choice of March 1, 1565, is disingenuous. On that day the Portuguese troops landed near Sugar Loaf with the goal of dislodging the French colonists. It took them two years to do so. Their landing place was named São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro owes its name to the Portuguese navigators who first “discovered” the Guanabara Bay on January 1, 1502. They named it January River (Rio de Janeiro) Bay, but they did not land there. The French came in 1555 and built a settlement there.

tupi       saintsebastian

            Original Carioca                                 Honorary Carioca

A French Knight of the Maltese Order, Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon, led the expedition and built a fort on an island where the domestic Santos Dumont Airport of Rio is located. The colony grew and reached 6,000 people which included many women. Villegagnon established an alliance with the local Tamoio and Tupinambá Indians who were unhappy with the Portuguese. The settlement was named France Antartique. What sets this colony apart is that it was based on a religious utopia of the time. The settlers were a mix of Catholics and Protestants. Although they were killing one another in Europe, Villegagnon wrongly believed that they could live harmoniously in the tropics. As soon as he returned to France, the colonists started arguing under the puzzled gaze of the Indians, many of whom were sharing their home.

When the Portuguese commander Estácio de Sá landed, the French settlement was already dysfunctional, its troops in disarray, and many residents had fled to live with the Indians on the mainland. Little support came from France as the pope had decided that South America should be divided between the Portuguese and the Spaniards.

In 1565, there were two enemy settlements, one French and one Portuguese, nearly facing each other! On Saint Sebastian feast day the French were finally rooted out and Sebastian became the patron saint of the Portuguese settlement. Coincidentally, like Saint Sebastian, Estácio de Sá died from an Indian arrow injury. The historic novel Brazil Red (2001) by French writer Jean-Christophe Rufin tells the story of Villegagnon’s ill-fated attempt to colonize this region of Brazil.

During the 17th century, Sáo Sebastiáo do Rio de Janeiro grew slowly, a Portuguese backwater where the main language was Tupi Indian. Better security encouraged people to leave their stronghold on the Castelo hill to colonize the shoreline. During this period, the locals added land to the low areas, and landfills became an urban development fixture for better or worse.

The Dutch were now challenging the Portuguese colonies in Brazil as well as in Africa. In 1648, a small Portuguese armada left Rio to recapture Portuguese ports in Angola, and in Sáo Tomè and Principe. With generous funding from the people of Rio the mission succeeded in expelling the Dutch.

Rio de Janeiro finally woke from its slumber when gold was discovered in 1697 in the hinterland. This region is now known as Minas Gerais, or General Mines. Thanks to the flow of gold, the 18th century was lively in Rio and in 1763 the city became the capital of the colony. Gold smuggling became a national sport and to deter it the Portuguese authorities set up an inefficient police force with bureaucracy and corruption setting a lasting pattern. The perception was that smuggling was benefiting England and not the needy Portuguese king.

Rio was in the limelight and both welcome and unwelcome visitors docked at the city harbor. Renè Duguay- Trouin, a French privateer, convinced the Sun King, Louis XIV of France who incidentally was broke, that Rio was the new Eldorado and could be easily ransacked. On 21 September 1711, commanding a twelve-ship-strong fleet, he entered the Bay of Guanabara hidden by a thick fog (divine help!). During an eleven-day battle, his 2600 men defeated a stronger Portuguese garrison. After capturing the hapless governor and his men, and freeing French prisoners from a previous attempt, the sack of Rio started in earnest. It lasted for two months. The terrified residents abandoned their houses and fled to the forest. On November 13, Duguay-Trouin left with an impressive and diverse booty, including tons of sugar, two hundred heads of cattle, piles of money, bags of gold, church artifacts and £4 million worth of African slaves. The slaves were promptly sold in Cayenne, the ramshackle capital of French Guyana. The ships were so heavily loaded with loot that a couple of them sank during the journey back to the French port of Saint-Malo. Rio was left reeling, but France had restored its reputation as a nation of dare devil corsairs.

In 1768, in the course of his first journey, Capitan James Cook docked with entirely peaceful intentions, needing cleaning, repairs and food supplies. Nonetheless, the crew of HMS Endeavour got a frosty welcome and several sailors were even accused of gold and gemstone smuggling. The exasperated Cook painted a very negative portrait of the city and its leaders who he wrote were lazy, inefficient, arrogant and despotic. The city was only ten percent white, and the British officers were shocked by the apparent freedom of movement of the black people. Naturalist Joseph Bank was scandalized by the “unchastity” of the woman folk; he further wrote that there was not a single modest woman in the whole city! With notorious British Navy arrogance, he was also critical of the quality of the food supplies, saying that only pumpkins were up to British standards.

                         imported cariocas

                                    Imported Cariocas (by J.B. Debret)

What happened to Rio de Janeiro in 1808 is unprecedented. Thanks to Napoléon and George III of England, the city became the capital of the Portuguese kingdom. The former invaded Portugal and the latter helped the Portuguese royal family to escape to Brazil. The royals fled with the whole court and government bureaucrats, some 15 000 people. Local houses were seized to house the newcomers and Rio underwent a real estate boom with the Cariocas (the local residents who drank water from the Carioca River) scrambling to build new homes for themselves.


                         Upward mobility, Carioca style (By J.B. Debret)

Rio became a world class city successively attracting scientists, artists, traders and an Austrian Princess who married the heir to the throne. The new king, Don João VI, modernized and turned the city upside down. In 1822, his heir declared Brazil an empire independent from Portugal. Several golden decades followed thanks to the policies of a benevolent sovereign and his daughter and the booming coffee exports. But this period has a dark edge: until the abolition of slavery in 1888, a million new slaves were shipped from Africa to work in the coffee plantations. The empire collapsed with a coup d’etat the following year.

The 20th century nearly destroyed Rio: the city was shaken to its foundations literally. The landfill mania returned with a vengeance, but it was associated with the razing of hills to the ground. With little respect for history, the first hill to be flattened was the Castelo hill, Rio’s original township. The new republic used France as a model and Rio endeavored to become a tropical Paris. Rio’s population grew with the influx of European immigrants and former rural black slaves. Colonial buildings were torn down and new thoroughfares were opened. A lasting urban process started with the richest layer of the population settling on the low areas, shorelines and landfills and the poorer ones moving up hill where the first slums, the favelas, took root.

In 1960, Rio lost its capital status. A president born in the hinterland who probably did not like the beach, inaugurated Brasilia as the new capital. But four years later, Cariocas undoubtedly experienced schadenfreude when Brasilia was taken over by a military dictatorship, whose grip lasted 21 years. Rio’s hedonistic reputation grew with the global success of bossa nova. Care-free Cariocas from all walks of life went to the beaches whistling a Garota de Ipanema.

        moderncarioca    rioolympicsmascots

Saint Sebastian going to the beach              Olympics Cariocas

In 1965, to boost the city moral, the mayor celebrated Rio’s 400-year anniversary with pomp and new urban revitalization projects. Meanwhile poor people continued their move to the hills, some favelas became so large that they fell prey to drug dealers who set up their own violence-based government. In 1985, democracy was restored, rough and tumble, until today. Oil discovery fuelled Rio’s economy and the income that was not wasted or stolen was put to good use to pacify the favelas and attempt to bridge the socio-economic gulf between Cariocas living in the low areas and those living on the hills. Today, twenty two percent of the Rio population live in favelas. Four hundred and fifty year-old Rio remains the face of Brazil, tolerant, welcoming, vibrant but also unequal and often cruel. But again, Cariocas will put on their best behavior to host the 2016 Olympic Games.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Queen of Patagonia

The king is long dead.

Patagonia is a vast region that occupies the southern part of South America. It covers over a million square kilometers, about the size of France, United Kingdom and Germany, or California and Texas combined. Most of Patagonia is in Argentina; Chilean Patagonia forms a 2000 kilometer-long belt along the Andes Cordillera. To the chagrin of the British government, the Falklands Islands are also geographically part of Patagonia in Argentina.

There is something mythical about this cold, windy, harsh and remote land where sheep outnumber humans ten to one. In pre-Columbian times the region was inhabited by bands of hunter-gatherers. It might not have been the land of giants, the Patagones as imagined by the 16th century navigator Ferdinand Magellan and by other early explorers, but Patagonia’s fierce inhabitants made the region inhospitable for the Spanish colonizers.


                                           Patagonian landscape

Among the indigenous people, the Araucanians/Mapuche tribes were particularly bellicose and refused to relinquish their land to their colonial masters. This lack of co-operation delayed the economic development of Patagonia well until the end of the 19th century. As in the North American Wild West, the colonization of Patagonia took place at the expense of its native population. Argentina launched successive military campaigns with the objective of removing the Indians manu militari to make room for European settlers considered more productive. The Conquest of the Desert (1870) as the principal military expedition is known, is an increasingly controversial subject that is now labeled genocide. However, for its apologists, the Indians were violent parasites whose main business was to ransack new settlements.

Chilean Patagonia is a narrow ribbon of land that had to be both colonized and expanded at the expense of its Argentine neighbor. The Chileans were shrewd and took a different approach. They used their fierce Mapuche Indians as proxy fighters and dispatched them well-armed over the ill-defined border to raid Argentine territory. In the end, their fate was not much better than that of their brethren on the Argentine side. These wild times provided opportunities for the adventurous and the eccentric, and this is when the king of Patagonia appeared on the scene.

Orélie-Antoine de Tounens was a French lawyer who had moved to Chile around 1850. On the pretense of improving their chances of independence, he convinced the restless Mapuche chiefs to elect him as their leader with the assumption that a European would be taken more seriously. Subsequently, in 1862, he self-proclaimed himself King Orélie-Antoine I of Araucania and Patagonia. With a stroke, he further extended his fictional kingdom all the way to the Magellan Strait. Two years later, he was jailed and shipped back to France by the Chilean government. Needless to say his kingdom was never recognized as sovereign. Tounens tried unsuccessfully three times to regain his throne. His French heirs haven’t relinquished their claim and the current pretender is actually a champagne dealer.

If the king of Patagonia was a 19th century con artist, Queen Cristina is a very hands-on 21st century entrepreneur who along with her late husband Nestor, built an empire in Patagonia. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, casually known as CFK is the current president of Argentina. Her political career as well as her wealth sprung from a backwater place called El Calafate located near several spectacular Andean glaciers. Paradoxically, El Calafate grows while the glaciers recede! Benefitting from glacier tourism economy, Nestor who was nicknamed the Emperor Penguin and Cristina amassed land and business deals. Cristina fits the Ice Queen definition: good looking and charming outside and cold-blooded and heartless inside.

   cristina                 florence dixie 

                             Cristina                                                Florence

This is how many of her enemies think of her. For her fans (she has 1.6 million followers on Facebook) she is the reincarnation of Evita Perón. Although as president she took many pages from Evita’s populist book, CFK resents the comparison. Evita owed her popularity to her husband Juan, but CFK is a politician in her own right. She ranks 19 on Forbes list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women (2014). Under fire from many quarters, with a mixed bag of successes and failures her second term is not ending as smoothly as expected. Until the end, she will be defending her record, but she probably won’t be able to add an emblematic piece of real estate to her Patagonian kingdom. In spite of her brash diplomatic offensive, the Falkland Islands or Islas Malvinas islands are still firmly in British hands.

For this blogger, the true queen of Patagonia is a 19th century British traveler, writer, political activist, war correspondent and feminist. Lady Florence Caroline Dixie was the daughter of a Scottish marquis.  Although born into wealth and privilege, at a very young age she rebelled against social conventions, such as maternal domesticity. At 21, having fulfilled her Victorian family contract, she left her brood in England and travelled with her husband to Patagonia. She had selected Patagonia because it was an “outlandish place”. An excellent horsewoman and a good shot she enjoyed game hunting and eating. In 1879, her party reached Punta Arenas and in Puerto Natales a hotel is named after her. After spending six months in Patagonia, she returned to Britain where she wrote Riding across Patagonia, an account of her adventure. She brought back with her a puma pet (she had killed his aggressive mother). The puma took an immoderate liking for British deer, and had to be sent to a zoo. She routinely shared her Patagonia observations with Charles Darwin and was not always in agreement with him.

She became a war correspondent in South Africa and later wrote a feminist novel. She founded the British Ladies’ Football Club. She supported women’s rights and animal welfare, as well as the right of self-determination for Irish and native South African people. Familiar with the moors of Scotland, free-spirited Florence may not have found the Patagonian pampas so outlandish after all, except for the puma. Florence and Cristina are miles apart but both are tough and are their own women.


Travel Digests

Thursday, February 12. At 2.40 am this morning, I left the shabby Rio de Janeiro Galeão airport to fly to Santiago where I arrived at 9 am after a stop-over at the swank Buenos Aires airport. Compared to Rio, all other airports seem swank!  Aerolinea Argentinas flights were on time and my suitcase arrived with me.  A happy start for someone who has a limited trust in state-owned airlines! I recollect that AA was re-nationalized by Nestor Kirchner the former president of Argentina. 

The airline returned the favor, its inflight magazine Alta dedicated several pages to Cristina's populist social programs.  In the magazine, the Falkland Islands or Islas Malvinas are also included with the Argentina territory along with its slice of Antartica.  May-be the French should re-claim les Malouines (their original name) as the islands were French until 1766!

Santiago is provincial compared to Rio.  I visited a few museums near the hotel and had an early night.  More city investigation tomorrow. It is my forth visit. My tour starts tomorrow night with a welcome cocktail and dinner.  Some fellow tour participants have already arrived, mostly senior couples from the U.S.

Friday, February 13. After a hearty breakfast, I walked towards the Santiago Zoo.  Unlike Rio but like Paris, Santiago streets are littered with dog poos.  Santiago is known for its stray dogs, who are fat and lazy.  Do-gooders feed them but goodwill stops at the bowl...So walk carefully.

I boarded the funicular San Cristobal towards the Metropolitan Park on a hillside.  My first stop was the zoo where I wanted to see up-close animals I probably won't be able to spot in their Patagonian habitat.  This zoo is not a sad place, its residents were either frolicking or napping.  I saw many guanacos, a kind of vicuña on steroids.  They are big and look at you with aplomb.  Nearly wiped out in the wild, they are making a come-back, and the vicuñas are no longer endangered.  

I watched a bunch of Humboldt penguins who strut their stuff in front of the cheering kids. Also in residence are ñandus or rhea, a smallish emu.  Rhea are vain, always grooming themselves.  The emus don't seem to take much care of their look, a scruffy looking lot!

The highlight of my wildlife adventure was a group of Patagonian maras.  I never saw them before.  They look like a composite: a dog body with a head of a hare (see pic).  In fact they are rodents, a smaller and skinner version of our Brazilian capybara. 


                                            Patagonian maras

My favorite was a couple of zorros gris, the Chilean grey fox.  Cute and curious, they came to sniff their admirers.  They are fox/dog hybrids and roam the Andes. After so many exotics, I had ceviche for lunch.

Saturday, February 14. A travel day: Punta Arenas (latitude 53 degrees) a 4 hr. flight from Santiago . Already penguin territory. Fifty shades of yellow...the color of the grass and the earth. The city is located on the margin of the Magellan Strait, (53th parallel S).  Although close to the northern tip of Antartica (66 degrees) P.A. has the same latitude as Brussels except that it is much colder and windy.  Patagonia is notorious for its summer wind during the tourist season.  Wind is the key annoying factor. From Punta Arenas we rode a bus to Puerto Natales some 200 kms to the northwest, near Torres del Paine National Park.  The ride could have been really boring except for the abundant wildlife we spotted on both sides of the road: Guanacos, rheas and water fowls competing for pasture with sheep and cows. In Patagonia, sheep continue to outnumber people by a 10 to one ratio.


                                 Torres del Paine: Guanacos

It is a water fowl paradise. There are three different species of swans, several types of geese and ducks, etc.  And I can spot them all from my bedroom window! We are accommodated in a spectacular hotel named The Singular.

Sunday, February 15. This morning we had to abort our cruise to the Balmaceda Glacier.  Pity because it is receding, so we should rush to see it.  Our speed boats were too small to fight the high surf of the fiord.  Plan B was a shorter cruise in quieter waters with a long trek on a windy hillside.

So far, the highlight of this trip is neither the scenery nor the attractions but our 5- star- hotel The Singular Patagonia, in Puerto Natales.  It was built four years ago inside a national historic monument, the Frigorificos Bories, a cold storage plant built in 1906.  It started as a slaughter house for sheep at the end of the 19th century.  In the early days, the sheep were processed into canned food until boilers and compressors were imported from Scotland.  Coincidentally, this Scottish company manufactured the boilers of HSM Titanic. The produced steam was used to generate cold air for the freezers. The cold storage chambers have been replaced by 57 luxurious guest rooms.  The hotel is also a museum.  For a non-meat eater like me, it hard to reconcile the pampering and the gruesome: Between 150.000 and 250.000 sheep were slaughtered annually.


                                   Hotel The Singular Puerto Natales

Monday, February 16. So far the weather has collaborated, mostly sunny, temperature above average: 12-15 degrees, and wind within seasonal range. Torres del Paine National Park, UNESCO Heritage Site is the high point of Chilean Patagonia.  The park deserves more than our one-day bus tour: that is the drawback of organized tours for senior travelers! As expected the notorious Patagonian wind didn't let up and a 100 km/hr. gust often made our walking hazardous. The torres (towers) and cuernos (horns) are strikingly beautiful and change color during the day.  The mountains are surrounded by lagoons of various shades of blue and green.


                                               Torres del Paine

n addition to its scenic appeal, the park is a sanctuary for endangered species. Its "Big Five" are puma (mountain lion), grey fox, guanaco, condor and lesser rhea (South American ostrich).  If we didn't spot the first two, we saw plenty of the other animals. The guanaco as already described in my first digest is a vicuña on steroids.  On a picture it is hard to tell them apart.  Guanacos and rheas have odd sexual habits. I very much pity madam guanaco who spends most of her adult life (up to 20 yrs.) pregnant.  Pregnancy lasts for nearly 12 months and one month after delivering the tiny chulengo, the female is in heat and subjected to male attention and copulation. These baby machines live in large herds under the protection of an alpha male.  His lot is not very enviable either.  When he doesn't service his ladies, he has to fight marauding horny males.  So he spends much of his life in hot pursuit of his females' potential suitors. He also has to watch for puma, the top predator.

Rhea's sexual life is even odder. The male is more serial lover than polygamist, and his ladies are promiscuous. He likes rough sex and jumps on the female during copulation. He builds a simple nest on the ground where his females lay their eggs.  The job done, the girls move away in search of new adventures.  The poor guys incubates the eggs (up to six). To ensure that his eggs are not all eaten by Mister Fox, he builds a decoy nest with the help of a subordinate male.  Some eggs are sacrificed.  After hatching, daddy takes care of the chicks. 

Condors are like petit bourgeois, they mate for life and share domestic chores.


                                 Torres del Paine Los Cuernos.

Tuesday, February 16. We had a quiet day, visited the Mylodon cave, and I went horse-back riding. The Mylodon is a 30 m high Pleistocene ground sloth which has been extinct for thousands of years. Anyway, its discovery generated a scientific stampede, so frantic that not a single bone remains in Chile.  Bruce Chatwin mentioned the pre-historic beast in his book In Patagonia.  Some imaginative individuals are still looking for the Mylodon in Patagonia.

During my ride, I didn't bump into the Mylodon, but spotted a couple of Patagonian parakeets, odd to find cold climate parrots, and several condors flying over us.  We were in puma territory, but cats, big and small usually nap during the day.

Wednesday, February 17. We crossed the border between Argentina and Chile in a desolate spot: Rio Don Guillermo, north of Puerto Natales. Once again, the Chilean professionalism was on display: In no time, immigration officers electronically checked our passports, whereas their Argentine counterpart processed them the old fashioned way literally in the dark, as there is no electricity in the morning!  Our guide said that the lack of technology was a blessing in disguise because the clearance was faster!

Tonight, we are staying in Casa Los Sauces, a 5 star resort in El Calafate, Santa Cruz Province (pic below).  It belongs to Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the current Argentine president. The resort is a modest token of her wealth.  Nestor Kirchner, her late husband and former president ruled the province for several years.  Both made a fortune and went on a land grab.  My room is old fashioned with many touches of feminine kitsch, not surprising, since one of Cristina's hobbies is interior decoration.  I miss The Singular even knowing that, in its previous life, it was a former slaughterhouse. 

In El Calafate, we visited the well documented museum of Glaciers and drank vodka in an ice bar with the futile hope of stopping the shrinking of the Patagonian glaciers.  Except for Perito Moreno and another glacier, they are all receding up to 150 meters per year.  Perito Moreno Glacier doesn't recede because its accumulation area (from snow fall) is far larger than its front where it breaks into the lake.

Patagonia is a desolate and inhospitable land where people got easily lost.  Geographic names such as Dead End Road, Last Hope Pass, Desolate Island, etc., coined by those who survived left evidence of their resilience.

Thursday, February 18. Sunny days, little wind and daylight temperatures around 15 degrees C. We will sail up country to check the receding Upsala Glacier.  We had our Titanic experience.  We sailed upstream to the front of the Upsala Glacier.  Since it recedes appr. 200 m per year, before melting many icebergs are floating downstream over a 5 km long distance.  Our captain knew the routine and being a more skillful version of Costa Concordia Capitan Schettino, he let us touch the biggest iceberg without sinking.


                                             Upsala Glacier

When on land, we trekked to a look-out to see the whole glacier network.  Awesome scenery. (Above pic)

Friday, February 19. This is my last Patagonia digest. "Ice Escapades" ended our trip to Patagonia. We were bussed to Perito Moreno Glacier, the poster boy of global warming deniers. Contrary to the majority of Patagonia glaciers, Perito Moreno is in equilibrium.  Its snow accumulation area exceeds the loses from ablation (melting, evaporation etc.).  The glacier also enjoys a unique micro-climate.


                                           Perito Moreno Glacier

El Calafate is a boom town thanks to glacier tourism. The city has grown so much that it has now opened an Evita Peron museum like in bigger cities. Evita's cult has reached Patagonia!  Actually, she is everywhere, posters and even banknotes.  She now graces the 100 pesos note (value: $US 11.60 at official exchange rate and $ 7.70 at black market).  She is taking the place of the 19th  century General Julio Argentino Roca, the previous face on the note.  Roca led the Conquest of the Desert; in the process he killed thousands of native Patagonian people.  The choice of Evita can be interpreted as an ethical improvement.


                            !00 Pesos Note with Evita Peron

Argentina is badly managed by Cristina Fernandez the current president of Argentina, and a somehow reincarnation of Evita. Inflation is estimated at 40 % year, so the parallel exchange rate is available everywhere, except in Cristina’s hotels.  Shops, restaurants and hotels invite you to pay in US dollars, and each offers a different exchange rate. 

Cristina does a much better job as a hotelière, she is the owner of the hotel where we are staying.  To keep the guests safe, she didn't hire security guards. Instead, she employs, at no cost, a flock of birds, not geese like the Romans did, although geese are plentiful in El Calafate, but southern lapwings. These birds live in large groups and do not sleep at night; when disturbed by intruders they fly-off making very loud noises.  Legend has it that General San Martin, the Argentine hero of Independence kept a patrol of clipped winged southern lapwings as sentinels when fighting the Spanish forces. 

A closing quote: Patagonia is famous for its fierce winds.  In his book In Patagonia, Chatwin wrote that wind was "striping men to the raw, and made Antoine de Saint-Exupery's plane fly backward instead of forward."