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Oct-19-2009 19:38printcomments

Adios a Oregon

Views of a rainy NW state from a South American Paradise.

El Bolson, Argentina
El Bolson, Argentina

(PATAGONIA, Argentina) - Patagonia is a long way from the USA not just in terms of the miles that a person has to travel to get here, but culturally and politically as well.

When I recently returned to our little outpost here in the southern cone, several of the neighbors dropped by to say welcome and chat for a bit. It was good to be back on our dusty lane in Patagonia where people value tranquility just ahead of raspberry jam.

Some came just for a quick kiss and hello while others wanted a report on how things are in the EE.UU. Are Americans giving up their cars? Will Obama beat the insurance companies? Is everyone still fearful of another terrorist attack? I said no to everything.

My next door neighbor Claudia was particularly interested in knowing about the great health care debate in the US and how I thought it would all shake out. She assured me she knew what the issues were. After all, she said, she had seen Michael Moore’s “Sicko” and knew that Americans were getting a raw deal from the big insurance companies.

She pointed to her five year old son, locally known as “el demonio” (the demon), and said that when he was two, he needed a serious operation to save his life. The complex surgery had to be performed in far off Buenos Aires by a team of specialists and when it was all over, her bill came to zero, not one peso. She was certain she knew how that would have gone in the EE.UU.

With their family income of less than $10,000 per year, she and her husband Patricio would have had no health insurance and would have been faced with choosing between a dead child and insurmountable debt. Michael Moore’s film had made it quite clear to her that she was lucky to be living outside the USA where adequate health care is a right and not a luxury. Claudia wanted to know if the people of the land of opportunity had recognized their chance to secure the right to modern health care.

In this and in other conversations with neighbors and friends here about my trip, I came to realize how strongly their ideas about America are formed by films, by the media. There are a few people who mention other sources of information like CNN, visiting foreigners and web-based newspapers. Jorge even claimed Noam Chomsky as his primary source of information.

Nothing, however, matches the movies for information on what is really happening in the northern hemisphere. Moreover, it has only been recently that documentaries have made their contribution to the moving picture image of America and Michael Moore is the film maker everybody seems to have faith in down here. Another neighbor, Diego, expressed relief that we made it back here safely because he had seen “Bowling for Columbine” and knew how easy it would be to be a victim of gunplay up north.

Diego assured me that Hollywood movies show how rich people live in America, but that Michael Moore relates the story of ordinary folks. He thought Michael Moore would do well to come down here and do a documentary on the dangers of guns in the hands of the police.

We got back just in time to find our neighbors all worked up over police brutality in the form of the BORA. While we were away in Oregon, the Rio Negro Police swat team came to El Bolson and everyone is in an uproar.

It seems that there was a bar fight al Lo del Viejo (The old guy’s place) and a 45 year-old paisano was stabbed to death and his father kicked in the head. In response, the provincial police sent BORA (Brigada de Operaciones de Rescate y Antitumulto/ Rescue and Anti-riot Operations Brigade) to prevent further mayhem in town. This swat team in their jack boots and black berets ride around town in a huge armored vehicle looking for trouble.

Mostly they find trouble at three am at the town’s discos where they have been known to crack the heads of a few underage drunks. Our neighborhood association is in a snit over this stepped up police presence and thinks that the Mayor has been instrumental in bringing these thugs to town with the real intention of intimidating honest citizens who don’t go along with his self-serving political maneuvers. Two days after we got back there was a big demonstration downtown to protest the BORA.

Bandaged teenagers spoke of their late-night encounters with the newly arrived guardians of public safety and everybody marched down Avenida San Martin when the drummers arrived. All the usual signs that say “No a la impunidad!” fluttered in the early evening spring breeze. It may take a while to get the BORA gang sent back to wherever they came from, but we can be certain that in the meanwhile their truck won’t be coming out to our neighborhood.

The culture shock of our trip had been enormous. It was mainly the overwhelming presence of auto traffic that took so much getting used to. We had become conditioned to living in an auto-light culture where cars have not yet replaced feet as the primary mode of transportation.

Every day in El Bolson there are about as many people coming by our house on foot as there are in cars. Teenagers especially are seen walking as none of them have access to autos. This is why when we would stand at the curb (another thing we don’t have here) on Molalla Avenue in Oregon City waiting for the parade of teens in shiny pick-ups to pass, we nearly had a fit every time.

Where do kids get the dough-re-mi for their new rigs? Where are they going? Why do they get all that expanse of asphalt to drive on? Our teenagers here look just like the kids in Oregon City. They have the same pierced noses, mohawk hairdos and black clothing. The only difference is that the peripatetic South American teens smile, wave, and say hello when they pass by your house. The only thing I’ve ever heard from an Oregon City teen passing by in a car is an occasional blood-curdling screech intended to scare old codgers into a stupor.

We did appreciate a dose of the Willamette Valley climate. Within a week of arriving in Oregon all our skin problems evaporated. Our weather here in Patagonia is so dry that even in the rainy season, your skin dries, cracks, and flakes incessantly.

It was nice to have a break from daily application of skin cremes and nightly hot oil foot baths. I suppose when it gets too bad in the future, we will have to take a jaunt across the mountains to some of the nearby burgs in Chile to soften up our hides.

Buenos Aires was just a blip on the run back home as we stopped there only long enough to get some papers certified at the College of Translators. This legalization of documents had taken nearly a month and cost over a hundred dollars when we had a delivery service perform the service back in March. We anticipated much waiting and bureaucracy, but it was not to be the case.

When we had the taxi from the airport stop and wait while I dropped our papers off for processing, I didn’t dream that I would get back to the cab with a set of completed documents. For an extra five pesos apiece I could get express service, the clerk at the counter said. Ten minutes later I was back in the cab and headed to the bus station where we could sign up for the next bus to Bariloche.

Getting two comfortable seats headed south was easy. The clerk at the counter was about as “amable” as they come and offered us our choice of any seat on the 2:45 super sleeper to Bariloche. It seemed that the ski season in Bariloche has been a big disaster what with the economic crisis, late arrival of snow and the swine flu; so most buses are nearly empty.

We shared our big cruiser with only three other passengers and were able to demand the shutting of the Video players when the more offensive videos made their appearance. The trip took an hour longer than usual as the bus had to ply an alternate, more westerly route due to piquiteros blocking our usual route from Neuquen to Bariloche.

No one seemed to know who the piquiteros were and why they had shut down the road for the last several weeks, but everyone was certain that the strikers were paid to be there. The extra hour turned out to be a bonus as we got good views of the Lanin volcano (a dead ringer for Mt. Hood) and saw lots of black necked swans on a lake just outside of Zapala. Despite the delay, we were able to bound straight from the cruiser to the 1130 El Bolson connection and still make it home by mid afternoon.

Part of our mission to Oregon was to secure access to some things that are difficult to acquire or just too expensive. Books are high on that list. We came home with quite a few volumes that we were able to purchase cheaply at Oregon bookstores or glean from our friends’ libraries. All sorts of books are very expensive in Argentina.

In a local bookstore recently we perused a dual-language edition of the saga of Martin Fierro, the Argentine national epic. The more handsome hard-cover edition might sell for between $30 and $35 in the US, but here retails for 195 pesos or about $52. If you adjust the price to the difference in cost of living and disposable incomes, this book would cost the typical middle class Argentine the equivalent of about $160. English language books are twice as expensive.

Some of our neighbors here say that books are so expensive in Argentina because the government wishes to keep people ignorant. This, they say, is why the library systems here are so decrepit. You must pay serious money to belong to a library here and there are precious few books available and even fewer other services. Those who have visited the US have been absolutely awed by public libraries there.

With libraries like those in North America, Argentines could exercise greater personal power. But it is not just the will of those in power that makes books so inaccessible in Argentina; economics has a lot to do with it, too. Our barrio is experimenting with a way to get around the economics that inhibit libraries here.

As part of the philosophy of “autogestion” (making things easy for yourself) , our neighbors have gotten us to join in their effort to establish our own library here in our barrio. Several hundred volumes have been received in the form of donations and a catalog of books created and kept on the barrio website.

Since there is no physical place for the library right now, the books are kept in the homes of a few folks around the barrio where others can go to borrow. We have cataloged and keep our library’s English-language collection. There is a long-term plan to construct a combination library/community center for the barrio.

While I am sure it will be a good thing to have a physical library here, I like the current system where people occasionally pop over to borrow a book that they have seen you have available on the internet. We are not only bringing books here, but have also been working on bringing Argentine books to the USA.

When we visited Powell’s books in Portland, we tried to peddle an Argentine book on the birds of Patagonia and the Antarctic Islands. This self-published volume is slick, scholarly, artistic and perhaps the current reference of choice for birds of the southern cone.

It is the life’s work of Carlos and Ors Kovacs, a pair of Hungarian immigrant long-time residents of El Bolson. The Ornithology book buyer at Powell’s was mightily impressed and immediately announced that it was a $75 book. He would put it on sale for $75 if he could get it from a distributor in the US. He then proceeded to give us names of distributors who might be interested in handling the book.

We have begun the process of having the book reviewed for possible US distribution, but we have a looming problem regarding the price. The Kovacs brothers had the book produced in Buenos Aires where the cost of printing and binding is so high that they have to receive a minimum of $50 per copy to break even.

Should any potential US distributor offer less, the Kovacs will have to make a difficult choice. Argentines are conditioned to pay dearly for every volume and The Birds of Patagonia and the Antarctic Islands continues to sell languidly at outlets in South America and in Europe.

Argentines’ conditioning to paying dearly for clothing and any foreign manufactured item was another reason for our trip. We had spent much of our first week in Oregon roaming the department stores and Goodwill outlets for clothing to take back with us.

All that cheap and abundant clothing Americans buy from sweatshops in Bangladesh and Honduras is 50 to 100 percent more expensive in Argentina. We had been a bit fearful at the outset that the second hand outlets might be short on inventory due to the recession, but found the opposite to be true. Perhaps all the Mexican laborers who normally sojourn in Oregon and shop the thrift stores are chilling south of the border this year and letting the second hand inventories pile up.

Since Argentina is not a completely integrated world free trade zone, there is a tariff or duty on all imported goods. Added to that is a 21% value added tax and the variable amount of bribe money that the importer must pay to pass his goods through customs.

I bought a pair of walking shoes at Columbia Sportswear on sale for $40 that retail at a sportswear store in Bariloche for 490 pesos (about $120). We lugged extra baggage through the airline terminals stuffed with jeans, sweaters, coats, assorted footwear and softball mitts. Nobody checked our bags to see if we had taken the tags off everything.

Our home was in reasonable shape when we returned. The only damage done by our house-sitter was to our food supply. He had consumed every bit of food we’d left in the house including all the spices and condiments. We knew that this young friend of one of our friends was poor, but we didn’t realize how poor.

The only thing he didn’t eat was the ziplock bag of frozen cheese rinds that we keep in the freezer for making Welsh rarebit. I suppose he didn’t really know what they were. Hungry as he was, he didn’t eat any of the greens in our garden so we came home to an overabundance of broccoli and collard greens which we’ve been sharing with our neighbors since we got back. Rapacious as he was, he was still rail thin, appearing to have not gained an ounce in the month we were gone.

Our dogs, on the other hand, were clearly heavier. I had left enough food to supply them for the month of our absence and then some. There should have been a two to three week supply of kibbles left, but the cupboard was bare.

The house sitter must have been quite a generous person. Since he did not deny himself access to food, he treated the dogs to generous feedings as well. When I had to immediately run to the store to get the pooches their next meal, they were both too corpulent and lethargic to want to follow me into town.

In the short time we’ve been back, we’ve hit the garden and home care chores with wild abandon. Arriving as we did on the first week of spring, there was much to do in the realm of weeding, bed-making, composting and planting.

Nearly all the new trees we’d planted in fall and winter were showing signs of growth and our hedge-planting of swamp privet was looking particularly vigorous. While we had been gone, it had rained almost continually so we were spared the humiliation of having to dig through dust.

After a good house cleaning, we tackled some other lingering chores. We hired a painter to finish up the painting that that had been left incomplete by our contractor and to change the unappealing green wall in the living room to something brighter and cheerier.

Our painter, Luciano, was recommended by a neighbor and turned out to be a familiar face. He had been the cook at Bolson Station, our favorite restaurant before it closed down last year. He has been working slowly, but meticulously. It has been nice to have a young and steady hand getting all the paint in the right places and none in the wrong.

Our housekeeper, Estella, showed up our first week back looking for work so we’ve gotten her services back for that good down and dirty Saturday morning scrubbing that she does so well. Both Luciano and Estella are happy with the 20 peso per hour wage we pay as it is more than the going rate. It feels good to be able to give honest work to decent workers at a reasonable rate of pay.

Our neighbors in the barrio wonder when we will go back to Oregon. Don’t you miss your old home and family, they think, and more so since you just took a trip back there? Many people here think that cultural differences must be so great that we could never feel as comfortable here as we would in the Pacific Northwest.

One of the things we missed when in Oregon, however, was the sense that everybody in the neighborhood cared about us like they do here. We have that kind of connection with some family and a few friends in Oregon, but nowhere is there a sense of community like the one we have down here. On a recent Monday, a holiday called “Dia de la Raza”, we got together with our neighbors here to pull rocks and plant trees along our new neighborhood bike path.

The “usual suspects”, the core 15 people who are the nucleus of our barrio junta, showed up that day, but they were joined by many more. Old men like me, women with babies on their hips and small children all showed up with bare hands and shovels to clear the path for what will be our primary route into town. It was good to spend some time working together to make this place just a little more livable. working with people who are trying to improve our lives.

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Las Nalcas October 20, 2009 3:36 pm (Pacific time)

very nice article!

JamesB October 20, 2009 2:35 pm (Pacific time)

This is a good article and really highlights the problems with out current health care system..hopefully Obama can deal out some of the change he has promised!

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