Monday, April 19, 2010

Seth of South of the Equator -or- Wrap-a Nui

So, I'm in the air over the Pacific Ocean heading out to the Galapagos for the last few weeks of my journey, and I figured I'd do a wrap up of my time in Argentina and the southern part of the Southern Hemisphere.

Argentina is certainly an interesting place, with a very proud culture.  I may have mentioned this before, but my buddy Matt back in Uruguay made the point that there's a certain stubbornness and even bitterness to Argentina's impression of itself.  There's a sense that for just a moment they were major players on the world stage, and that it's something that really should have continued.  Unfortunately, their tumultuous history over the last few decades--combined with the rapid development of the world's other large nations--has kept them on the outside.  They seem to feel a bit snubbed by the Obama administration (all the while noting what an improvement it is on the days of the Bush administration), and there's a not insignificant amount of jealousy toward Brazil, which is much more on the rise on the world stage.  There also seems to be a sense of superiority towards other surrounding countries--for example, most Argentines will tell you you can skip a visit to Uruguay, and that you definitely don't need more than a day trip to Colonia.  If you've been reading this blog, you know that I strongly disagree.

So it is that Argentina appears to be a place struggling with its own identity, and even more with its own reality.  The Kirchners (former President Nestor and his wife, current President Cristina) have seen their popularity collapse, largely after privatizing the pension system.  Most people still haven't recovered from the various economic bubbles that have burst over the last two decades.  Many people who were formerly middle and upper-middle class have been reduced to begging on the streets--several dress up in their nicest clothes to differentiate themselves from what might be considered more standard panhandlers.  Unfortunately, the question of whether an economic recovery or a dampening of the national ego will come first remains open, and, unfortunately, the latter strikes me as more probable in the immediate future.

That said, Argentina--and Buenos Aires in particular--has a rich cosmopolitan culture to offer.  I left feeling like Buenos Aires would be a lovely place to live, even though I might personally still prefer Montevideo, a sacriledge in Argentine terms.  The people I met were lovely, and often a bit wistful when talking about their country and how far it has fallen.  When I look inward at the tarnished reputation and irrevocable mistakes of my own country in the last decade, I can certainly relate.  At any rate, it seems improbable that any kind of real recovery will happen while the Kirchners remain in power, and they have a couple of years left.  So perhaps a new administration and, let's hope, an improving world economy, will put a bit of shine back on Argentina's apple.

As for Chile, the truth is that I don't have much to comment on.  I was talking to a Chilean couple a few nights ago, and explained that although I'd spent cloes to three weeks in their country, I hadn't gotten to see the real Chile.  Having only been to Easter Island and Patagonia, I did sort of the Chilean equivalent of seeing Hawaii and Yellowstone.  They're important components of the country, to be sure, and spectacular places.  But neither one is really representative of the national culture, one because its only full-time inhabitants are animals, and the other because its only full-time inhabitants are Polynesian.*  I'm thrilled to have seen these things, of course, but it does leave me less able to speak to the country's issues with the kind of detail in which I've been able to explore Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Argentina.

I will, however, add a bit more about Easter Island.  There is some dispute over whether the pre-colonial Rapanui civilization crumbled due to decimation of natural resources or whether it might not have ever been all that big to begin with.  There is also dispute as to whether the island's palm tree population died off due to humans cutting them down or rats eating the seeds.  Those siding with the not-that-big-and-also-rats argument make the claim that our modern society's guilt about our own damage to the environment causes us to create a false narrative about the Rapanui, and use them as a cautionary tale.  I don't have much of a theory on that front, but I will offer one thing as evidence of a collapse.  The moai industry on Easter Island appears to have mirrored the real estate market in the U.S..  For centuries, moai were built and placed on altars looking out over nearby towns.  However, for some reason or another, there was a major boom, and production skyrocketed.  In some cases, moai too big to ever move were constructed.  For whatever reason--perhaps the workers revolted, perhaps the market for new moai collapsed--the bubble burst.  As a result, the number of moai left abandoned in the quarry in various states of construction outnumbers the number of moai at altars around the island by a factor of about six.  

I will say that the rat theory does make a fair amount of sense to me--there wasn't that much reason to cut down so many palm trees, but rats could certainly have eaten a lot of seeds.  Moreover, I do agree with the theorists who posit that we as a society have a tendency to project our own issues onto others.  But it really does amaze me how easy it is to envision a huge collection of moai going up in the sun belt, perhaps financed by the Rapanui equivalent of variable tranches of moai-backed securities.  On the plus side, at least a giant stone statue is more aesthetically pleasing than an empty McMansion.

Anyway, in about half an hour I should be landing on Isla Baltra and sinking back into the wonderful relaxation and isolation of island life.  I'm extremely excited to be finishing up what has been a truly spectacular experience with yet another stop in a long series of amazing sites to see.  I'm not sure how reliable my internet access will be there, but I'll check in when I can.


*The Yellowstone and Hawaii analogy totally holds up.


  1. No secret that, as your mommy, I can't wait 'til you get back home. On the other hand, your blog is so wonderful--exciting, thoughtful and beautifully written--that I truly will miss logging on.

  2. Hi
    I'm a filmmaker based in Canada doing some research for a documentary I'm working on. As you are no doubt aware, there is a large patch of plastic garbage floating in the north Pacific which deposits a lot of this plastic on the beaches of islands in the vicinity. I know this problem is particularly bad in Hawaii and Midway Atoll where in some places the "sand" is actually plastic, what do the beaches of Rapa Nui look like ?


  3. Jon,

    Rapa Nui has a mostly rocky and cliff-heavy shoreline. There are only four or five beaches on the island, all quite small. I only went to two, but I encountered nothing but good, clean, sand.

    It would seem, fortunately, that the Pacific garbage patch has not yet reached the Rapa Nui shores.


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