Monthly Archives: January 2012

What Kind Of Man Kicks A Puppy?

A family readies to take a picture with the Saint Bernards. The smaller dog at the right is still a puppy. The man in the red baseball cap dragged and kicked the pup after it sought shelter from the sun under a park bench.

I was simply stunned. So was a woman standing behind me. We both confronted the man simultaneously with our outrage. We had just witnessed the man drag and kick a sweet, cuddly, lovable Saint Bernard puppy.

This was no ordinary man. And certainly no ordinary puppy. The man, you see, works in the Civic Center square with a couple of fully grown Saint Bernard, including the pup maybe a couple of months old.

MORE CUSTOMERS come to pose with the dogs, but little do they know...

He, and others who have also have Saint Bernard, offer tourist a chance to be photographed with the oversize dogs built for cold weather and used in snowy rescues. I love Saint Bernard. They are my favorite breed of dogs. They apparently also the favorite of hundreds of tourists who come to Bariloche, Argentina. They line up for a chance to pay up to $20 for a photograph with the dogs. I admit, I considered having my picture taken with the dogs as well, but I thought the quality of the photographs did not warrant the $20 cost. So a couple of days earlier, I had turned down the man’s offer to have my picture taken with the gentle giants of the dog world.

THE VICTIM heads for the bench. Moments later he gets a swift punishment

Fast forward two days later. I’m back in the square, watching kids and their parents go gaga over the dogs and agreeing to an 8 x 10 photograph. I kept my eyes on the dogs, as it was an extremely hot day and they seemed uncomfortable in the sun. In fact, when the man tried to pose them with visitors, the tourists taking their picture with the dogs didn’t seem to notice that the hot stone pavement caused discomfort to the dogs’ paws. The dogs kept rapidly shifting from one paw to another as if standing on hot coal. They also didn’t seem to notice the man was being rather rough with the dogs, shoving them and yanking them by the collar into position. That alone troubled me.

ONE DOG runs off to seek shelter under the arches. Sometimes the handlers give the dogs a break here. Sometimes it's an umbrella in the square. Sometimes nothing. But does it really matter? It's still hot even in the shade!

But the real troubling treatment came in between photo shoots. The puppy ran off to a bench in the square to seek shelter from the sun under the bench. He was looking for a cool spot. The man walked across the square, grabbed the leash, dragged the pup from under the bench and gave the animal a firm kick in the stomach.

“Woahhhh!”, I yelled out immediately. It was a spontaneous reaction. From behind, I also heard a voice scream out. The woman and I, strangers to each other, walked up to the man and berated him. “Was that really necessary?” I asked the man, as he walked across the square back to the waiting tourists. The woman shouted to him “How would you like me to kick you in the stomach?” He just looked at us and looked away as if trying to not draw any attention from his waiting customers. I was really tempted to make a sign that read “ANIMAL ABUSER!” and stroll the square, but then I remembered reading somewhere that it is illegal for foreigners to take part in any kind of protest in neighboring Chile, and I imagine it to be the same in Argentina. Automatic expulsion or who knows else. This is Argentina, where the police is not trusted by its own citizens. Corruption in their ranks is rampant, Argentinians tell me.

WIDER VIEW of Civic Center in Bariloche, Argentina

So I tried another tactic. For at least an hour, I walked the square talking to people who looked remotely interested in having their photos taken with the dogs. I told them what I saw. Some were just as outraged as I was. Others just saw a black guy trying to talk to them and refused to listen. So after a few more of those, soaked in sweat from the heat, I left, not before taking these photos of the dogs at work in the square and the man I witnessed mistreat the dogs. He’s the old guy in the red baseball cap, but there are others with the same breed of dog pushing photographs to tourists and who seem to not care about the animals, but rather about money.

So I am taking an activist stance here and telling everybody who travels to Bariloche: Do not pay these folks in the square a dime to have your picture taken with the Saint Bernard. You want a picture of the dogs? Snap one. They are in a public square and anybody is allowed to take a picture. To support these so-called human beings is to support animal abuse!

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Double Trouble In Patagonia = A Change Of Plans

After a 22-hour trip by car from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, my river dance

I’m in a cafe in Bariloche. The town in the breathtaking Patagonia region of Argentina serves as a launchpad for mountaineers, hikers, skiers, campers and travelers headed to all points, but mostly south to the end of the American continent and its spectacular glaciers. The place is packed. I am hearing many languages: Hebrew. German. Italian. Dutch. English. Spanish. French. Some others I can’t quite discern.  These are people who absolutely love the outdoors. Hardcore climbers. Extreme sports enthusiasts. They’ve somehow made it to Patagonia, despite the challenges getting here, not to mention spending any time here under current conditions.

There haven’t been commercial flights to Bariloche since last June. For these last eight months, the airport has been closed because of an erupting volcano and the ash it has been blasting into the air. Visibility on some days here is down to almost nothing. The volcanic ashhangs in the air, looks like heavy fog, falls from the sky and coats everything. There’s a thick layer of the stuff on the ground, and at first glance it looks like a fine gray sand.

Sand? It's volcanic ash that traveled for miles to Bariloche

It makes people cough and sneeze and stings the eyes when the wind kicks it up. I’ve had just three days of this. Imagine how it has impacted the people who have lived with it for months. Economically, it hasn’t been good, they say. Tourism is down. Way down. The only travelers in town are the hearty souls who have opted to make the 22-hour road trip from Buenos Airesor from other parts overland. They are the people now in the cafe who are here to conquer nature: a mountain covered in ice; a rushing river; a few days surviving in the woods. Nothing, not even an erupting volcano, was going to keep this crowd away. Just to look at them you can tell they live and breathe the outdoors.

Road Trippers: With Massi of Italy and Austria, a stop on our way to Bariloche

I’m here with them. Not much was going to keep me away either. I have been looking forward to Patagonia for years. I checked news reports about the volcanic eruption and all official reports indicate it’s safe to be here. And yet, this isn’t exactly how I had hoped to experience Patagonia.

It’s amazing when you stop to think that this ash has traveled for thousands of miles from southern Chile, where the  Puyehue Volcano rises as but one giant in the  Andes Mountains chain.

My plan for Patagonia: to head to the southern tip of South America, with stops in Punta Arenas, Chile, and Ushuai, Argentina. Beyond that lies Antarctica. But things don’t always go according to plan. With the volcanic ash, I had decided to cut short my trip in Bariloche and head to El Bolsón, which by all accounts is a cool place to visit in Argentina.

Some car repair and a check of the map on our way from Buenos Aires to Bariloche

From there, to Perito Moreno glacier. But south of El Bolsón a destructive forest fire rages on. It has destroyed homes and forced evacuations. It has also closed the roads – albeit temporarily – south. So now I am rethinking and redrawing my plans. Perhaps go as far as El Bolsón now, then near the end of my three-year journey, return to Patagonia or southern Chile, to experienced what I’ve missed. This new plan would allow me to get back to Buenos Aires, cross by ferry to Uruguay and get to Brazil in time for carnival.

I had planned to be back in Santiago, Chile, anyway by 2013, on my way from Easter Islands, so it makes good sense to get to the rest of Argentina and Chile then. And hopefully then, there won’t be any forest fires or erupting volcanoes. Hopefully.

After 22 hours in a car together from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, still friends! 🙂 From left to right, me, Alex of Toronto, Canada, Massi of Austria and Italy, and our fearless driver, Juan of Buenos Aires, Argentina

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Buenos Aires: Why The Long Face?

The sun on Argentina's flag: Is that a smile?

When I saw Prague several years ago, instantly I knew I liked the city. There was no doubt. I can say the same about Rome, Cape Town and many other places in the world I have been fortunate enough to visit. After  more than a week in Buenos Aires, I’m still not sure what to make of South America’s second most populous city –  only Sao Paolo, Brazil, is larger. 

There’s much to like, even love about Buenos Aires, but cities are about the people in them as much as they are about what’s in them and what they offer. Paris is full of beautiful things but don’t visitors always say that sadly it’s also full of Parisians? The people of Paris get very low marks when it comes to friendliness and helpfulness to outsiders. It’s as if Parisians would rather see all these millions of tourists disappear. Never mind that these visitors from all over the world pump billions of dollars into the French economy and have made Paris the number one tourist destination for decades.

Parisians, rightly or wrongly, get a bad rap. Some of it may be deserved. I did not enjoy my first trip to Paris because of negative experiences with the Parisians I had turned to for help with directions. Most of them were shockingly rude. Amazingly, several of them made their living selling stuff to tourists. Could they even imagine what just a weeklong world boycott of Paris would do to their bottom line?

Urban Gaucho: in the Recoleta neighborhood

And yet, on my last trip to Paris some three years later, just about every Parisian I met couldn’t have been nicer and extremely helpful. I kept asking myself what had changed. Had there been some tourist board campaign to tell Parisians to straighten up and fly right? Had Parisians themselves seen the light? Had they decided to turn a new leaf after much international bashing?

Suddenly Paris was filled not only with nice things but nice people and that made for a nicer experience. This is the rub I’m having with Buenos Aires. I like the city. I’m not too sure about the people.

It’s not that the people of Buenos Aires are rude or unhelpful. Stop anyone on the street and they will help get you on your way. They will even offer a smile afterward, or a no-need-to-thank-me-it’s-my-pleasure. They definitely show themselves to be friendly. My problem with the people of Buenos Aires is how cold and unfriendly they appear en mass. Nobody smiles. Everyone seems to look at each other with suspicion. They don’t seem happy. Ride the buses or the trains and the only long face you don’t see is that of a child at play. Of course, go to a bar or a disco and there are plenty of jubilant people there, mostly under the influence of beer. But I’m not talking about the people celebrating something in the Palermo party district or alcohol-induced giddiness. I’m talking about the regular Joe going about his day. I understand that going to work for some may not be reason enough to smile or even appear to be happy to be alive, but I can’t help but to think “why all the sad faces?”

Then I wonder is it something in this city’s DNA or the country’s troubled political history? The years of ruthless military dictatorships? The scars of the economic collapse and deadly protests a decade ago? Are these otherwise nice folks just simply physically and emotionally exhausted?

Okay, I know, I know. Buenos Aires is a big city – a huge one – and people in big cities with big problems need a reason to smile. Living in a city is challenging. Just getting around on overcrowded trains and buses in the summer heat is enough to make a person want to scream.  Yet, I’ve been to dozens of cities, some as large or larger than Buenos Aires, and the people didn’t  look like downtrodden huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They were light, talkative, shared a smile upon eye contact.

In some way, I understand that in a city – one that has its share of petty street crime – you want to wear your don’t-mess-with-me, or leave-me-alone face. Coming from a city like New York, I completely understand. But at the end of the day New Yorkers are at least entertaining and laugh at themselves. Sooner or later, something or someone around you will give you good reason to smile, even laugh.

Now, as I said before, the people of Buenos Aires aren’t necessarily unfriendly. They just seem that way until you engage them in conversation. Then, you sort of like them.

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