On Wednesday, August 4, Linda drove me to the Parker Road train station and I rode public transit to DFW Airport. Slow but green. And since the student conference I was headed to was all about sustainability, it made sense to walk the talk. Fifteen minutes into the journey, there was a fracas when the Fare Police boarded and at the next station removed three scofflaws. They pushed back. I was astonished, and immediately recalled a recent episode in Germany, where most public transit also uses the honor system, and where that fare enforcer was One Big Man. The German offender did not launch an unprotestable protest.
In downtown Dallas, I snapped a nice picture of the recently restored county courthouse – our adopted home state has a long tradition of splendid local courthouses, and “old red” in Dallas is a gem. Fourteen hours later, we landed in winter, in Buenos Aires. It was 37° F and felt great. Outside the airport customs hall, I met two of the organizers of the annual South American Business Forum, a student-run conference that I’ve helped with since 2006, Josué and Elisa, who drove me into the city.
It was rush hour, so the 25-mile drive took awhile, a perfect opportunity to make new friends. My hotel room was not ready, so I stashed my suitcase and met a friend from past SABFs, Juan Trouilh, and we jumped in his VW. A block east, I spotted the Hotel San Antonio, a small, red-brick building where I stayed on my first visit to Buenos Aires. Some cool symmetry: that arrival was almost exactly 40 years ago, on August 8, 1970.
We motored west to meet another pal, Martin Siniawski. The three of us then headed a mile or two to Palermo Soho, a cool, hip neighborhood. It was raining lightly, but no matter. First stop was a La Salamandra shop, which my sharp eye spotted. I shrieked with delight. What’s La Salamandra? The leading brand in dulce de leche, a caramelized milk spread that is one of my favorite sweet tastes. I bought four pounds in two big jars, a great souvenir. We ambled around for an hour.
Juan peeled off and Martin and I rode back toward the center, stopping at El Ateneo, one of the coolest bookstores I’ve ever seen, in an ornate restored theater (The Guardian newspaper ranked it the #2 bookstore in the world, but I’d give it top rank). Way cool. Martin and I ate lunch, and I hopped a cab back to the hotel. My room was still not ready, so I sat in the lobby, worked my e-mail, and brought this journal up to date. Finally got the key (to save money, I opted to stay at the same hotel where the SABF student participants are staying), unpacked, and headed back out onto the streets.It had cleared, and was a lovely, crisp winter day, like we have in January in Dallas. I ambled over to the offices of LAN, the airline, got set up to fly (standby) to Santiago in three days, then ambled north on the broad Avenida 9 de Julio, then east to Plaza San Martin, and back on the shopping street called Florida.
Took a much-needed nap and shower, and headed back out for a cold beer. Walked around the corner and found the lively Bar Baro, which had cheap beer, free olives and nuts, and free wi-fi (I was able to ask the barmaid, in Spanish, for the “key”). Ya gotta love that! By 7:30, the place was totally hopping, and it was fun to watch the scene.
Met Martin at eight, and we hopped in a cab to the historic San Telmo neighborhood. I told him earlier of my interest in the bares notables, historic drinking places officially recognized by the city. The first one had been converted to a tourist tango show, so we headed to Bar Seddon a few blocks north on Defensa. A nice old joint. I had a big steak, a couple of beers, and some more laughs. Hopped a cab back to the hotel in time for me to deliver a cheer and small homily to the stalwart (and baggy-eyed) team directing the 2010 SABF. Clocked out.
Up at seven Friday morning, and off to the start of the forum. Before the opening, I had a nice chat with Hamza, a Palestinian kid (18), who grew up in a refugee camp in Jordan, and who was now studying nursing in Amman. When we meet people like that, we are reminded both of our blessings and of human persistence – how did he manage to rise above the squalor and entropy of a refugee camp? And recent persistence: in order to get an Argentine visa, he had to travel from Jordan to Damascus, Syria, which also required a visa; and, oh yes, he was robbed while sleeping between flights in the Madrid airport.
It was a busy day, a plenary session with lots of interesting speakers, notably a prominent and outspoken rabbi (his grandparents survived Auschwitz), who urged civic participation and involvement; and the president of a small Argentine bank that had build a microcredit business, and who spoke very honestly about the challenge of loaning small sums to poor people unused to financial concepts. Toward the end of the afternoon, we had the first meeting of the SABF Board of Trustees, a chance to share ideas with several other adults who are invested in the Forum; I was the only foreigner.
My role was at the end of the day, 7:00-8:15, offering in plenary a summary and highlights of what we had heard, and inviting questions and comments from the students. (Before the session, the translator introduced himself; he had worked for American in the early 1990s, in security at Guayaquil, Ecuador; small world.). We ambled a few blocks to dinner, where my tablemates were from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Argentina. Looking around the room at the 100 students from 29 countries, I was reminded of what the airplane makes possible.
Saturday was for small workshops and presentations, held at the ITBA building. I moderated a session in which a very sharp law student from Buenos Aires offered some views on user-generated innovations on the Internet. I peeled off after a huge lunch (an enormous veal cutlet; as I have written before, Argentina would be a challenging place for vegetarians!). It was a warm, sunny day. Changed clothes, ambled north on Calle Florida¸to an upmarket luggage store where I bought a briefcase in 2005 (the one thieves stole in Holland the following year). Bought a simpler leather messenger bag, dropped it at the hotel, and headed to the Route152 bus stop. On the way, snapped a picture of the Hotel San Antonio (see above), my digs in 1970. Rode the 152 (fare, 28¢) a couple miles south, back to San Telmo, and walked up Avenida Brasil to the Bar Britanico, another of the bares notables. Headed inside, asked for a Quilmes Bock, a splendid dark beer, and brought this journal up to date. The people watching at the Britanico was superb. It was truly a neighborhood place. Families, old people, folks reading the newspaper, young people hugging at tables.
I walked about a kilometer north to another “notable bar,” La Coruña on Calle Bolivar. This one was smaller and less atmospheric (fluorescent lights, dumpier furniture), but a football match was on (one of the local teams, River Plate, versus Rosario, a provincial city) and the handful of patrons were seriously into the game. The place was no no-nonsense: behind me were stacked cases of empty beer bottles, the lights were fluorescent, furniture was well used. But the place grew on me, especially after a young husband and wife entered, rolling their infant in a stroller, the local bakery delivery man brought fresh bread for Saturday night and Sunday, and the local beat cop came in with his German Shepherd; lonely for MacKenzie, I stroked her chin. It was the kind of place most gringos would not enter, but I enjoyed it.
After a second Quilmes Bock I ambled back to the SABF at ITBA for a pizza dinner and a last chat with students and friends. Two conversations were especially pleasant. One was with a young woman about to embark on a four-month study and internship in Boston. She confessed to some apprehension, so my role was to make her feel comfortable. I made a good start, and agreed to send links to some useful websites. The other was with a young law student from Rio de Janeiro, who had spent a month in the U.S. on a study visited paid for by the State Department. I told him that I was happy to pay taxes to support such a venture! They were based at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and made visits across the Carolinas, and of course to Washington, D.C. Like most people who get that opportunity, he loved America and almost everything about us. It made me feel so good, and so proud. Before leaving, I gave hugs and cheek kisses to Martín, Valeria, Josué, Elisa, Alejandro, and other SABF stalwarts. Such a great group of young friends. They mean a lot to me.
Left the hotel at eight on Sunday morning, wheeling my much heavier suitcase (now laden with five pounds of dulce de leche and a bottle of wonderful Argentine sparkling wine) to the downtown terminal of the airport bus.My memory of its location was a bit faulty, prompting additional exercise, but was on the 8:30 ride, and at Ezeiza Airport by 9:10. There were no seats on LAN’s 11:35 flight, but I snagged chair 23A on the 12:30 departure. Waiting at the counter (not the gate), I had a nice T-t-S exchange with a young Chilean woman who worked for LAN in their I.T. department. She and her mom went to Buenos Aires for weekend shopping, one of those universal perks of the airline business. Turned out she knew some of the people I worked with when, earlier in 2010, I was consulting for Sabre, because LAN is in the process of converting to that airline system.
It was a clear day and from the window of the A320 one could get a sense of the vast farm and ranch that is Argentina. We bounced over the snowy Andes and landed in Santiago at 3:30, 40 years and 1 week after arriving for the first time. Hopped the bus and subway to my hotel, a short walk from a station in the Las Condes neighborhood. I greatly needed a workout, so headed to the gym. The only stationery bikes were two with flywheels, not my choice of machine. It took some tinkering to get the resistance adjusted, and even at the lowest level it was a trudge. But I needed to sweat, and I cranked a hard 30 minutes. Afterward, had a nice chat with a Peruvian guy who worked for Fluor, the big U.S. project-management company.
At 6:30 I hopped the Metro back toward the center, to the historic Santa Lucia neighborhood, and to the wonderful, rustic restaurant, Patagonia, that I found by accident a year ago. Asked for a glass of microbrew stout (they offer more than 20 craft brews from Chile), and the key to their wi-fi. My inbox contained several messages that made me smile, the more so a long way from home. Appetizer was a pot of mussels steamed with garlic and green onions; I don’t get that dish often, and these were superb, carrying me back to 1979 at Walt’s King of the Crabs in Philadelphia, where this Midwestern kid first tasted those shellfish. Nice! The main course was corvina, a wonderful firm Pacific fish, prepared in a light tomato broth with clams, squid, and more mussels. Yum. I was full, and I was asleep at 9:35.
My lecture was at six on Monday evening, so I had a free day and no firm plan. I rode the trudge-bike before breakfast, ate a big one, and set off for Estacion Central, which is home to a few trains and a lot of buses. The draft plan was a day trip to the Casablanca Valley, a beautiful place between Santiago and the Pacific; I had traversed it twice, enroute to Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. It’s one of Chile’s well-known wine regions. They have tourist trips there, but the prospect of being stuck on a tourist mini-bus with some inexperienced and perhaps narrow people did not sound as fun as riding the local bus with ordinary Chileans, $7.50 round trip. I was reminded of the need for even 15 minutes of Internet research when I got to the bus station; so I found an Internet café, figured out I could ride to the town of Casablanca, and find a winery from there. When I finally located the bus company that served the town (the express buses did not), the fellow said the bus left in one minute. I ran as best I could to the stand, and did the almost-cinematic leap aboard as the bus was backing out. Whew!
We climbed a bit and entered a lovely first valley, the [check]. Lots of peach and pear trees, some olive, vines skeletal. The bus left the tollway in Curacaví, and we made several stops in the town. It was good to be away from the city, to see simple stores with hand-made signs, wash drying in the sun, a car-repair shop right out of a George Booth cartoon (including a dog), an old man with a deeply tanned face riding a bicycle, street dogs slumbering in a park, and, yes, a small Mormon church, proof of their persistent evangelizing on this continent (my flight to Buenos Aires carried a dozen fresh-scrubbed “elders” headed south to convert people who likely did not require conversion). Though parts of the town were poor, on the whole the place reflected the rising living standards of the last 20 years.
We entered the Casablanca Valley, passing the Veramonte vineyards, a quality brand I recognized. I wondered if I should have hopped off at a stop a few hundred meters along, but decided to ride on. I asked the friendly young conductor, in my poor Spanish, if he would tell me when we reached the stop in the town of Casablanca where I could get a taxi or colectivo to another vineyard. It was pretty easy to figure out where to get off: the numbers on the houses were getting smaller (Latin America uses a system similar to that in the U.S.), and when we were in the 100 block, we turned right onto the main square.
I got off, smiling and remembering –as I often do in small towns overseas – of the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when they get off the train in some dusty place in Bolivia, and Sundance says, “well Butch, this is it; this is Bolivia!”
I walked across the street and bought a ticket for the 3:30 bus back to Santiago, and asked the clerk about a tourist office. She recommended city hall, a couple hundred feet north. I walked in, found the PR office, and asked. The kindly young woman walked me to the street and gave directions to an office of the valley’s vineyards. From there, it was easy, all in Spanish, to agree that the closest vineyard, a bodega, five minutes by taxi, was the best. So at noon I found myself in the very agreeable courtyard of Casas del Bosque. I ambled around a bit, snapping photos of the laboratory, barrels, vines with graftings, in winter brown.
Winter visitors were few but steady, and they managed to squeeze in a tasting just for me on the shady side of the courtyard. A friendly young fellow poured three, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay, and a gran reserva Pinot Noir. They were all great.
With the bus departing in more than two hours, I took my time, sipping and bringing this journal up to date (another joy of my new two-pound netbook PC is that it fits comfortably in my smaller over-the-shoulder backpack). The day was warm and I walked the couple of miles back to Casablanca.
Bought a few lunch fixings in the Unimarc supermarket and repaired to a shady park bench in the town square.
At 3:30 I got the bus back to Santiago, Metro to my hotel, suit up, and into the new B-school building of Universidad Católica by 5:50. I met my new (since last year) host Carmen Luz Urbina, a very friendly person. We caught up a bit, and at 6:30 I delivered my talk. Good questions from MBA students and a few alumni, and out the door, across the street and a block more to the Patagonia Restobar for a second meal. Like the night before, things that swam were on the plate, a first course of grilled octopus and a main dish of congrio, my favorite Chilean seafood, a large eel. Yum.
Was up early the next morning, Tuesday the 10th, and at the airport just after eight. Rented a little Suzuki (before releasing the car, a guy walked around it with me, noting some pretty small dings and scratches, way more careful than in the U.S.). The car was a stick, but working a clutch is like jumping rope – you just don’t forget. In no time I was whizzing along a beltway toll road, remarking at how little traffic was on the road. Bzzzzzt. Wrong. The brake lights slowed me, and I got stuck for about 40 minutes, but finally cleared and headed north on another toll road, toward Los Andes. My destinations were two: a large bronze statue of Jesus (Christo el Redentor, properly) on the Chile-Argentine border, and the remote ski resort Portillo, where I skied in 1970, a few miles from the frontier. Beyond Los Andes, the road narrowed and began to climb. The hamsters in the Suzuki were well exercised when I passed slow-moving trucks. The last several thousand feet of climb were a series of about 30 switchbacks, not for the faint of heart or those prone to motion sickness. But I was having a blast!
I did not make it to the border. Even with my poor Spanish, it was clear that there was just too much red tape. As easy as it is to cross borders at airports, Chile made it really, really hard to even approach the divide (I didn’t intend to cross into Argentina, because that required special insurance). One especially nasty policeman was enough to reverse course. Considering that both countries are members of the trade bloc Mercosur, the Chileans seemed remarkably protective. Was Mrs. Kirchner plotting an attack? So it seemed.
Things got better at Portillo. The hotel, built in the early 1950s, stands by itself at about 10,000 feet (Aconcagua, the tallest peak in the Hemisphere, is just a few miles east). This is high alpine and then some.I walked in and immediately remembered the pleasant five days I spent 40 years earlier. On the lower level, I spent many minutes admiring framed, autographed photos of ski greats going back more than four decades – Jean Claude Killy, the great French skier, who won gold medals in the downhill and combined when the World Cup was at Portillo in 1966; and more recent stars like Lindsay Vonn and Bode Miller, American gold medalists at Vancouver 2010. It was way cool.
I spotted an open door to an office and knocked to ask a quick question. After a “buenos días,” I asked if he spoke English, he replied with an American accent, smiled, and invited me to sit down. What a friendly fellow, I thought. Michael Rogan, from Lake Tahoe, was the hotel’s assistant general manager. I told him I had been in his hotel almost exactly 40 years earlier, and he asked why I had not been back! We had a nice chat about skiing, skiers, and snow. Great fun.
I walked outside to admire the spectacular view of Laguna del Inca, a large mountain lake directly in front of the hotel. Wandered the hotel a bit more, bought a Ski Portillo baseball cap, and headed back to the car. I made two snowballs for a photo, snapping a pic with the camera resting on the hood of an adjacent car. I couldn’t just drop the balls, so I threw. The first one went high, but the second pasted a side window of the TuristTour minibus parked about 30 feet away, just behind the driver’s seat. Bam, direct hit, I thought, and turned away. Unbeknownst to me, the driver was slumped, dozing. He woke up, sat up, and tried to figure who the hell just interrupted his siesta. He must have thought, it could not have been the guy with glasses and the red sweater, he’s an adult; but where are the kids? I put on a very grown-up face, but was howling inside.
With that episode behind me, I started back down the mountain, down the switchbacks, zipping around trucks (they go almost as slowly downhill as up). The return trip was going smoothly until I took the wrong exit, and ended up going well out of my way, but was still back at the airport about six hours before my 9 p.m. flight. Landed in DFW before sunrise, hopped on trains back to Plano, Robin (visiting from D.C.) picked me up, and we were home by nine.