There were a number of things which stimulated my interest, as well as my emotions on the trip to South America.
To start with, I have to mention the food and the drink. I ate the most wonderful fish in Puerto Madryn and the best steak I have ever eaten in a lively restaurant in Buenos Aires, with Jane, Rosie and her boyfriend. It came with chips, no vegetables (the latter were a rare feature in Argentinian cuisine!), it was enormous and I ate it all. The picture doesn’t show exactly this steak but this one was pretty good too!
We drank a bottle of Malbec and discussed Argentina and who knows what else. And then there was a glorious ice cream cone to follow. It could only have been improved if John had been there! There was good fruit in Buenos Aires, if not veg and very pretty it was.
I was pretty happy with the beer too!
Almost as good as all of this was the cheap pizza and wine in a small place in Buenos Aires, completely off the tourist track with a wonderful waitress who had a great attitude to life. We encountered another such waitress on Cocacabana Beach.
She introduced us to the relaxed nature of the beach with people selling (but not hassling) loads of things. And I saw a parade in Rio which summed up the beach – people of all ages and sizes having loads of fun.
It was such a pleasure to be a traveller because people were universally friendly in all three countries.
Before I set out, I knew virtually nothing about the history and the culture of the region. In the early 1970’s and studying sociology, I studied land issues in South America and at that time I certainly had a view about the political situation in Chile. So I was particularly keen to find out as much as I could about that period and what has happened since.
In the history museum in Santiago, the final exhibit is Salvador Allende’s broken glasses, removed from him after he committed suicide in the Palace de Monedo in 1973, as the Palace was bombed by the military.
It is a very personal item and one which highlighted the human and political tragedy of that time. Looking at it, I was reminded of the anger that I felt at the time about the military coup there. Allende was a man of the ‘left’, who wanted radical changes in his country, and he was a believer in the democratic process and in the need to build a coalition in his country to achieve these changes. He worked all his political life towards that end; he had a political vision; he was not corrupt and in 1970 he was elected president of Chile with a Popular Unity Government. In his first year, he nationalised the copper mines and when we visited the Atacama Desert, this was mentioned in a very positive light by the guide, Harold.
But in 1973, Augusto Pinochet and the military took over the country and remained in charge until 1990. The government had had difficulties and there are many explanations for the coup but they were exacerbated by the USA (who I understand are supposed to believe in the democratic process) systematically undermining the democratically elected government. When I looked at these specs, 40 years later, I felt anger and some despair with the limitations of democracy. Democracy seems to be OK as long as the people vote for ‘acceptable’ people to the powers that be. This reminded me of a badge of mine of that period: ‘If voting changed anything, it would be abolished’!
By chance, Jane and I saw a small exhibition in the Fine Arts Museum in Santiago of photographs and a textile banner from a rally in London in 1974, supporting a democratically elected government in Chile.
It was a nice reminder, in a small way, of a sense of international democratic solidarity.
Pinochet, himself, never went on trial for the various human rights charges. However there has been some effort at a national level in Chile to examine what happened during the military dictatorship; to remember those who died; to acknowledge what happened; and to move on.
The new Museum of National Reconciliation is a memorial to those who died and others who were tortured and provides loads of information about the military coup; the 15 years of Pinochet’s rule; and the process of what has been done to enable the country to move forward.
There was too much information to absorb completely but the wall with all the names of those, who died because of their political beliefs, was a simple and effective way of honouring them.
When you visit the Plaza de Mayo in the middle of Buenos Aires, you immediately see placards and signs of discontent. A variety of issues are represented including the Malvinas and environmental concerns.
But the most moving were the ‘Madres de la Plaza de Mayo’. Since 1977 at every Thursday afternoon at 3.30, a group of women have marched in the Plaza, demanding information about their grown up children who disappeared during the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.
When the military dictatorship was in power, women risked their own lives doing this and in fact three of the founder members of the organisation disappeared. The women have achieved information and action over the years. This has not brought back their sons and daughters, but bodies have been found and identified and members of the military have been held to account.
There were military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and Brazil in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, when I was a young person. I spoke to one of the Chilean guides, who was my age, and he said ruefully that it wasn’t much fun being a young person living under a military dictatorship with an evening curfew for years. That comment and others made me appreciate the freedoms of my own youth and what the reality was to live in a country with a military dictatorship.
And then what about the Perons? We went to the Eva Peron museum which was interesting but mainly confirmed that I didn’t really know enough about the Peron era and what they were about. So I have a serious book on my kindle to try and remedy my lack of knowledge. Eva certainly was a busy woman between 1946 till she died in 1952 in the social welfare world and her dresses were pretty stylish too!!! We made a visit to Recoleta graveyard where Eva is buried.
The graveyard is nothing like I have ever seen before.
Only the powerful and the rich are here. Eva only scraped in and her ‘small’ family tomb is nothing in comparison with some, such as the one below.
Jane and I also learned a lot about the Wars of Independence in Argentina and Chile in the early nineteenth century. We visited museums and read about and saw the statues of the ‘liberators’. We saw the grave of Jose de San Martin in the Cathedral in Buenos Aires and he was obviously important as he had two guards beside him.
He is described as the liberator of Argentina, Chile and Peru so he definitely deserves recognition! We were picked up from the plane in Santiago by a employee of Journey Latin America called Bernard and he told us about his namesake, Bernardo O’Higgins, one of the liberators of Chile, and of his mother. It was a great story involving sex, wealth and illegitimacy. The next day, I was very pleased to see a picture of both in the History Museum.
I felt that I knew them both from Bernard’s story!
The economic issues in all three countries become more real when you talk to people and look around. I sat next to a young woman teacher on a plane, from Santiago. She was very positive about teaching, about Chile and was extremely confident. But she said there needed to be changes in Chile. The wage for teachers was 400 dollars a month and this was not enough. She said people were looking for change. The new government in Chile has work to do.
Gabriella, who rented the flat to us in Buenos Aires, gave us the benefit of her views on the Argentinian Government which were pretty negative. There had been a heatwave in Buenos Aires and some people had lost their power for a considerable length of time. Gabriella was not impressed and was very angry.
In Argentina, we didn’t see the poverty but we heard about it. When Rosie took us to Retiro railway station, she warned us to look after our bags. There is a shanty town, nearby.
In La Boca there are many tourists who visit to see the colourful houses but it is advised not to walk far from the houses.
Rita, our guide in Trelew and Puerta Madryn
told us about her own life and the economic conditions in the area. She moved with her parents to Trelew from Brazil because her father had got a job in the aluminium works. She said things had changed in the time they had been there and that Trelew now has social problems, related to lack of work.
The day we came home, there were riots in Rio and there have been more since. People were angry at increased transport costs but there was also a connection with the fact that Rio is hosting the World Cup in June.
There were people querying how Rio can afford to host the World Cup whilst there is such poverty or to put it another way, why isn’t the priority to give people better housing etc?
It did seem to be a city of the rich and the poor. When we were driven from the airport to our hotel near Cocacabana beach, we were told that the first bit of the drive was through the poorer part of Rio. Certainly the housing looked poor. Then, at a particular point further south, we were told this is where the middle classes and the rich live. It seemed like there was a specific line dividing the well off from the not so well off.
When we were driven back to Rio airport, we got caught up in traffic in the poorer area and could see that boards were being put up so that you couldn’t see the housing and houses were being demolished.
Jane and I thought this might be about hiding the poverty to the World Cup fans. But we were just guessing. We could see lots of construction and again assumed this was to stop football fans being caught up in delays such as the one we were in.
As for the money, I yearned for a single currency in South America. Moving from one currency to another currency is not easy. In Chile, which seemed to have a growing economy, they surprisingly had a currency which had loads of noughts on it. £1 is worth about 950 Chilean pesos. I never got to grips with it! In Brazil £1 is worth 3.9 reals and in Argentina a month ago, £1 was worth about 11 pesos. Today it is 13! I think that might be something to do with the state of the Argentinian economy! So while both Argentina and Chile call their currency pesos, they don’t have any link in terms of value.
Lastly, thinking of the upcoming vote on Scottish independence, I met a guide called Carlos, in the Torres del Paine, Patagonia, who was from Puerto Naturales, a town very near to the National Park.
He had gone to Santiago to study tourism and clearly thought that there was much more investment in the industry in Chile now. He was trying to get a variety of experience in the tourist world but saw his future in Patagonia. He mentioned the fact that there were people who wanted independence for Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia. Geographically, Puerto Naturales is around 3000km from Santiago and to get to the capital, you fly or you drive a journey that either takes you into Argentina or involves a boat trip and lasts for at least 3 days. I have only found a few references to this on the internet but felt an initial empathy with Carlos, as I can imagine Patagonia is not the biggest priority to the government based in Santiago or Buenos Aires!
The observations above are a bit random but I hope you get some sense of how wonderful, thought-provoking and stimulating a trip it was. I’ve got loads of books to read and articles to digest from the internet. I have a number of images which will remain with me for ever. Allende’s glasses and the women marching in Buenos Aires are added to the Three Towers, the Atacama desert, Christ the Redeemer, the Andes and the Perito Moreno Glacier.
Now back to life here!!!!