Wednesday, December 31, 2008


by Graham

Hoy vamos a sandboarding. Lo es increible. El primero vez que bajo, yo no caido. Sandboarding es similar a snowboarding. Bajo muchos tiempos porque me gusta mucho. Mi papa esta bueno a sandboarding tambien. El primero tiempo para Katarina, ella caido. El segundo vez para Katarina, ella va bajo todo. Nosotros dicemos "Katarina! Katarina!" Tengo un tiempo muy bueno. Estoy encima de el mundo.

Graham's English translation: Today, we go sandboarding. It is incredible. The first time down, I do not fall. Sandboarding is similar to snowboarding. I go down many times because I like it a lot. My father is also good at sandboarding. The first time for Katharine, she falls. The second time, she goes down all the way. We say "Katharine! Katharine!" I have a very good time. I am on top of the world.

Cool dude

I Dream of Jeannie

Major face plant

Monday, December 22, 2008

What's Your Beef?

By Andrew

I have a beef to pick with Argentina. Actually several beefs, but bife de chorizo tops my list. It's a New York strip steak, only better: juicy, dense, and full of flavor. Heaven on the hoof. However you cut it, the beef here is magnificent. Maybe it's because the cows are pampas-ed shamelessly or because Argentines are so meat-crazed that no animal lives long enough to get tough.

I've never found much truth in national stereotypes. Not all Canadians are boring, for example, but Argentina's reputation for cow-mania is more than deserved. If anything, it's been under-publicized. The tango, a dance in which a couple walk the length of the room in a synchronized clutch, evolved in Buenos Aires purely as a way to ensure that neither partner reached the grilled lomo before the other.

I never fail to be amazed each time I walk into the grocery store. In each shopper's cart lies the better part of an entire cow. The only thing missing is four hooves pointing skyward. The check-out line, which invariably extends for a city block, looks like something out of a Hindu horror movie.

The average Argentine consumes 140 pounds of beef a year. Discount the very young and the very old (nonmasticatores) and the average climbs to an Aberdeen Angus per person per week. I always thought South Africans and Americans ate a lot of meat, but I now realize that by Argentine standards we are not yet fully weaned. One resident in our apartment block grills beef for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.

Not content with wheeling bloody carcasses home for consumption, Argentines fill the remaining gaps in their culinary schedule with visits to their local parilla. A parilla, pronounced "pareejah" in Buenos Aires, is a steakhouse. You will find an average of 20 on each block, interspersed with a like number of bakeries and purveyors of hair-removal products. We have had a couple of sublime meals in parillas, highlighted by the aforementioned bife de chorizo. Lomo, the Argentine filet mignon, is a delight that I shall be experiencing this week.

To gauge the role that meat plays in the Argentine diet, a glimpse at a typical menu is in order. The main courses are usually listed simply as a cut of beef, such as vacio, bife de chorizo, or lomo. A mysterious cut known as matambre occupies a special place in the hearts of Argentines. This cut, which (if my Spanish is to be trusted) consists of the diaphragm of retired opera singers, is obscenely tough but (we are assured) oh-so-tasty. One blogger said that the cut gets its name from the Spanish "mate hambre" meaning "kill hunger." The wit goes on to explain that he did not realize that it killed your desire to eat anything ever again.

Order one of these main courses in a restaurant and you will receive a plate containing an outlandishly large amount of beef. And nothing else. If you have the temerity to seek out a vegetable, you have two choices: You can pay for a visit to the salad bar, which consists of tired leaves dumped into metal canisters near the banos, or you can turn to the very back of the menu. There, just before the desserts and just after the explanation of how the restaurant was started, you will find a list of guarniciones. If that sounds like the English word "garnish", you are not far wrong. The restaurant is essentially asking you how you want your meat decorated. The most popular choice is French fries, followed closely by pure. This is mashed potatoes whipped with butter, giving the chef one more crack at filling your arteries with animal fat.

You can order any cut of meat imaginable, but the non-pareil of parillas is the parillada, a selection of grilled meats from every corner of the cow. On the third trip to our local joint, we decided to experience the full Monty of meat consumption.

Either as a cruel practical joke or because Argentina is still bitter about that whole Falklands Islands thing, our parillada contained an awful lot of offal. Some people will go great distances for glands, kidneys, liver, and brain. Fortunately, most of them live in the Congo. The stuff is absolutely abominable. Our family sat in shocked horror, staring down at what looked like the remains of an aircraft disaster, all the while casting wistful glances at a succulent lomo on the next table.

Believe it or not, I actually thought I was going to enjoy them. I dismissed the childhood nightmare of liver and onions as one more culinary abomination committed by my boarding school. Instead, I remembered how the New York Times included sweetbreads among the trinity of epicurean decadence, alongside truffles and caviar. More than anything, though, I remembered years of classical education, where I was taught that the Greeks considered offal the best part of the animal and offered it as a burnt sacrifice to win the favor of the Gods. The ancient Greeks were so good at so much. Could they really be wrong on this count?

In hindsight, my teachers were naive twits. What hundreds of years' worth of classical scholarship has failed to appreciate is something that every Brit on a package tour to Santorini can tell you after one day: The Greeks would swindle their own mother to get an edge.

Where did we get the silly idea that the Greeks considered offal a delicacy? Homer's Odyssey, of course. Like many of you, I have often wondered why Odysseus had such a tough row to hoe. What did he do to get the Gods so peeved?

A careful re-reading of the Greek shows that Odysseus was nothing but a two-bit con man. Every time he sacrificed a cow, he would dedicate to the Gods what he termed "the choicest cuts" but were actually the dreaded innards. These were flung into the sacrificial fire, with the smoke rising up to Olympus. While Odysseus sat on the beach tucking into a grilled bife de chorizo, the Gods had to make do with the poo-poo platter.

I don't blame the Gods one bit for tossing the little bastard around the Mediterranean for a while. He's lucky he made it home at all.

Katharine would not have been so charitable. After a first bite of pancreas (gall bladder? spleen?), she looked as if she had licked a car battery. Only hunger and a passion for sausages brought her back to the table. Unfortunately, the most repellent bits of the beast were hidden in sausage skins. What followed is not something I care to recount, let alone remember. Put it this way: A week later, in Patagonia, I experienced a pang of intense discomfort as I watched adult penguins regurgitating squid for their fledglings.

Six weeks after arriving in Argentina, I felt I had a sufficient understanding of the local diet to make a bold prediction: that all Argentines would be dead by Wednesday. When this failed to happen, I took to the Google, expecting to find a litany of health articles showing that Argentines drop dead at a rate higher than that of the common fruit fly. Nothing. Nada. From an arterial standpoint, they are no more congested than the rest of us.

My first thought was that I had stumbled on a Latin American equivalent of the French paradox. As you know, the French appear able to eat obscene amounts of butter, cheese, and wine without dying or turning into Gallic Hindenburgs. The only side-effect is an unpleasant arrogance. Had I stumbled on the Argentine Enigma?

Like the United States, Argentina is a country of immigrants. The answer could not possibly lie in the gene pool. Argentines were staying alive--and reasonably trim--by some other, unknown mechanism. The answer, I am happy to report, is dulche de leche.

Argentines love sugar. Each block in BA is crammed with enough bakeries and cake shops to make the population of Missouri diabetic. Even the ground coffee in grocery stores is sold with sugar already added. But dulche de leche is the pinnacle of Argentina's sugary artistry. It's made from heating sweetened condensed milk until it caramelizes. Argentines put it in literally everything, from croissants to empanadas to ice cream. They spoon it over bread, they coat it with chocolate, they eat it with a dollop of cream. I think they even use it as caulk. If Ronald Reagan had been Argentine, he would have named it a food group.

I am convinced that dulce de leche, in all its gooey glory, is the Liquid Plumr of the Argentine diet. Combined with the country's strong coffee, it speeds up the Argentine metabolism to a point where cholesterol is simply incinerated in the furnace of caloric excess. More power to them, I say. It sure beats cauliflower.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Tail of a Whale

By Katharine

We were in Puerto Piramides, a little village on the Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia. We went there to see Southern Right whales. They are called Right whales because they were the right type of whales to hunt. They have oil in them and float after they are killed. The whales come to the Golfo Nuevo to have babies and mate.

To see the whales, we had to ride on a boat. We wore orange life vests. Mine hurt my neck. There were 16 other people on the boat. It was sunny and the water was calm. We traveled 15 minutes until the captain spotted two mom whales with their babies. We saw 17 more whales, as well as penguins and dolphins.

The whales live to be up to 100 years old. They are 40-60 feet long and average 54 tons. They eat krill, filtering it out of the water with their baleen. Every three years, the whales have one baby.

We saw the whales stick their tales up in the air. Some came up under the boat and bumped us. They had barnacles and weeds stuck to their skin. One time, a whale sprayed me out of his spout. It smelled like snot.

When we were about to leave, a whale jumped out of the water completely and made a huge splash. We had a fun day.

The boat is trailered into the water.

For a three-hour cruise....

Right whale with callosities and other growths.

What a fluke!

One of many, many tail shots

Publish or Perish

Several readers have asked whether Graham and Katharine have written their posts on their own. The answer is yes, with an asterisk. Here's what happens. The kids first choose a topic; if they're being difficult, we assign one. They write a first draft by hand that we review together. We discuss the essay's strengths and weaknesses, and where it could be improved. Sometimes, we have them go online to do additional research. The kids then write a second draft, which we type into the computer.

Finally, we sit side by side and review the whole essay again. We point out spelling and grammatical mistakes and fix them together. We also discuss problems with the narrative (e.g., the need to set the scene better, etc.) and prompt them to fill in the gaps. We don't write anything ourselves, but we do guide them ("Where were we when this happened?" or "What did it look like?").

The result is definitely much better than they would produce solely on their own. We're hoping to achieve two things: Give all of you something worth reading, while also teaching the kids to write better.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas in the Rocket's Red Glare

by Andrew

With just 10 days until Christmas, an apartment the size of a taco , and two gonzo children, I now understand why sales of expensive liquors rise so dramatically in December.

Nevertheless, Christmas in Buenos Aires is a pale shadow of its tinseled American counterpart. Firstly, it's summer here, which does take some of the snap and crackle out of the season's festivities. Second, Argentines would never dream of trampling a Walmart employee to death unless he were manning the meat counter.

Sure, businesses here put up a few garlands and lights, but the shop windows aren't festooned with mechanized nodding reindeer, and the TV commercials haven't changed much. Even more noticeably, people who attend church once a year don't snarl "Feliz Navidad" at you if you happen to say "Felices Fiestas!"

None of this festive understatement has phased Graham and Katharine in the slightest, however. You could put our children in the middle of the Kalahari in December and they would happily pass the time building an airstrip for Santa with bleached bones. They are genetically programmed to get stuff at this time of year.

The children have had to make some adjustments, of course. Here, in no particular order, are the issues with which we are grappling:

1) Logistics. Santa can only bring what will fit into our suitcases. This is a dictum that has been handed down by me, and the children have been instructed to pass the order on to Santa in their Christmas letters. No doll houses, bicycles, or swimming pools, please. The children have been noticeably cold toward me ever since.

2) Lack of chimney. Katharine was appalled when she walked into our first-floor apartment and saw that it lacked Santa's traditional ingress. Fortunately, we do have a small patio and the children have our assurance that we will leave the French doors open on Christmas Eve.

3) Lack of Christmas tree. As in South Africa, real Christmas trees are something of a luxury, and most residents make do with an artificial one. We don't even have that, leaving us no choice but to decorate a dusty little ficus tree on the patio. The children are making decorations from the cardboard inserts in old toilet rolls. Katharine hopes that Santa leaves extra presents out of sheer pity.

4) Greed. By now, we are all weary of hearing the excesses of Wall Street. Make no mistake, though, the rot goes much deeper than that. For the past few days, Katharine has been weighing a scheme that could quite possibly destroy the very fabric of our universe. For the sake of profit, she wants to bring together two of the most powerful magic forces known to man: Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

For six weeks now, Katharine has been clutching a tooth that fell out as we drove to Miami. She refused to put it under her pillow in the United States, hoping instead to make a killing on the foreign-exchange market. Panamanian pillows flunked the test after she discovered that the balboa is pegged to the U.S. dollar. She has been marginally more enthusiastic about the Argentine peso, and has watched closely as the dollar strengthened from 3.0 pesos to 3.4. But with Christmas just around the corner, she saw the chance to hit pay dirt. What would happen, she mused, if she put her tooth under her pillow on Christmas Eve?

Have we truly come to the point where a 7-year-old child will risk everything to increase her return by a few points? Who knows what will happen when Santa's magical emanations collide with the pixie dust of the Tooth Fairy? It simply doesn't bear thinking about. Katharine, her eyes set on a big score, couldn't care less. Fortunately, there is still hope (see below).

5) Anti-aircraft fire. As in much of Europe, Argentines enjoy their big celebration on Christmas Eve. The whole country shuts down in the afternoon and the rest of the day is family time. As midnight nears, it's common for the residents of Buenos Aires to count down a la New Year's Eve before discharging tons of fireworks into the night sky. From what we have been told, the resulting explosions make Beirut look sleepy.

As excited as the children are about the prospect of fireworks, they are more terrified by the possibility that Santa will be blown out of the sky as he attempts to make his deliveries. In hopes of avoiding friendly-fire accidents, Graham wants Rudolf to exchange his red schnozz for a flashing blue-and-white police beacon. And, in the event that this safety precaution fails, Katharine and Graham have mobilized their own fire brigade on our patio. They spend hours practicing fire-suppression techniques with the cleaning hose, convinced that Santa will appear smouldering on our doorstep with a Chinese rocket lodged in his beard.

This distressing image has given even hard-hearted Katharine pause. Not only is she concerned about exposing the Tooth Fairy to anti-aircraft fire, but she also worries that Santa and the Tooth Fairy might collide during mid-air maneuvers. If that happens, she can kiss her profit margin goodbye.

At this point, we don't know what will happen with Katharine and her tooth. Ecuador uses the U.S dollar, so it's a bust from an investment standpoint, leaving only Costa Rica. Hopefully, it's not known as the Rich Coast for nothing.

As for Christmas, we're prepared, fire buckets at the ready, staring up hopefully into the sky.

Scenes from Jumbo, a super-supermercado

California plums for sale!

Onions make her cry.

Dried fish.

Cheesy grin.

Katharine hamming it up.

We really, really miss Food Lion.

Scary doll.

Everything has a price.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Hiking With an Assassin

By Louise

After spending two days in El Calafate standing around gawking at glaciers, we felt the need to seriously stretch our legs on some hiking trails. So we headed to El Chalten, a dusty town within the Parque National Los Glaciares in southern Patagonia. It’s a small, granola/tourist town that was settled in 1985. The town accommodates hikers and climbers eager to hurl themselves at the Fitz Roy massif; Cerro Fitz Roy being one of the toughest climbing peaks in the Andes. Graham had his sights set on it.

The mountain range that surrounded the tiny town was jaw-droppingly beautiful. Even though it’s summer, many peaks were blanketed in snow. Without binoculars, the Glaciar Grande—that flowed between Cerro Solo and Cerro Fitz Roy—looked like a field of trampled snow. With binoculars, we could see that that the snow and ice were actually hundreds of feet thick. We all wished we could hike on a glacier but the walk was four hours long one way and we weren't prepared. Much to Graham's dismay, our goal was to complete two different hikes that would take us only 350 meters up, but would give us vastly different views of the mountains.

As we walked, we did our best to talk in loud voices and disturb all wildlife and any peace other hikers were looking for. We talked about glaciers, global warming, moss, puma attacks, and Santa. It being the season and all, Katharine, who had been walking while sharpening a stick, was keen on reviewing her Christmas wish list. So what if the most amazing mountain scenery surrounded us; let’s focus on the big guy in the red suit.

I asked Katharine what she wanted. Without looking up from her stick sharpening, she very coolly said, “I’m going to ask Santa for a complete assassin’s kit. One with a grappling hook, machine gun, knife, and motorcycle. I want to be an assassin when I grow up.”

I think we may be one of three families on the ES who don’t own a gun. Aside from knocking off the occasional backyard fowl, we’re pretty peaceful. So this was weird; not to mention that she’s seven. But then Graham, rolling on the ground with laughter, explained that Katharine wanted to be the woman in the movie we watched a few days earlier. Oh yeah, that movie, the one starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as husband and wife assassins. Yes, we know it was inappropriate.

Assassin discussion continued for days until Katharine saw part of an episode of Colombo— dubbed in Spanish—and changed her tune. “I don’t want to be an assassin anymore. I don’t want big lips. I want to be a detective.”

That settles it: Dear Santa, Please send Katharine a raincoat for Christmas.

The road to El Chalten.

The assassin leads the way.

Down in the valley

Laguna Capri with Fitz Roy massif in the background.

Glacier with Fitz Roy massif on the right.

The assassin tests the water.

Taking a break: It's tough hiking with regular folk.

Assassin with her sharpened stick.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Horsing Around at Punta Delgada

By Katharine

On our last day at Punta Delgada, we rode horses along the cliffs above the elephant seals. We walked from the hotel to a farm building where they saddle the horses. There were bunches of sheep skins in piles and heads in buckets. Chickens were running around, and horses roamed the place.

A man named Raoul whistled and the horses came. First, he brought out a tan horse that was very big, and he said “el caballo del nino” and pointed to Graham. Graham got on with the help of Raoul. Then he saddled a tannish brown horse and said “el caballo de la nina” and pointed to me, so I got on. After that, Raoul took two black horses out for my dad and mom.

We kicked the horses and started. We didn’t have to steer because the horses followed the path. We walked along the cliffs, which was very scary but beautiful. Then we went through the plains, and stepped on bushes. My horse ran up a hill and across a dirt road, which really scared me because she would not stop when I pulled her reins. Finally, we were done.

After we stopped, Roxanne (the boss of the hotel) ran to us and said she had spotted three orcas. We said “adios” to Raoul, and ran to the cliff. We saw the orcas swimming along the beach, but they didn’t steal a seal. Roxanne said that she thought they had just eaten.

Salted sheep skins. The lamb is on the asador.

Raoul saddles Katharine's horse.

Katharine with her trusty steed.

The magnificent three ride again.

El gaucho guapo.

I hope our riders aren't French.

Elefantes Marinas de Chubut

By Katharine

Our family stayed in a hotel next to a lighthouse at Punta Delgada, on the Peninsula Valdes. We went to see a colony of southern elephant seals down on the beach. We sat in the back of a Land Rover on the way, while the guide in the front seat talked to me with a walkie-talkie. The ride down was great, because you could see the sea and the cliffs, and the path was bumpy, dusty, and lumpy.

When we stopped, she led us down a big, sandy cliff to the beach where the elephant seals were lying. First we heard a noise that Dad thought was elephant seal farts, but the guide said that they were calling. It sounded like a burp to Europe. They burped so loudly that they nearly blew our ears off.

We sat on the beach, watching them from 10 yards away. Some were in big groups and some were by themselves. Every few seconds, the seals would try to cover themselves with sand using their flippers. When they opened their mouths to call, the inside of their mouths were a bubble-gum pink. Their eyes were big and black, and the whites of their eyes were red, making them look bloodshot.

A male elephant seal is the size of a Punch Buggy, and can weigh 8,800 pounds. A male is the size of seven females. The full-grown males had gone to the ocean to get food, so only the girls and the young males were left with the babies. They were shedding, so we found lots of skin and hair on the beach.

Elephant seals eat fish, squid, and other sea animals. They can stay underwater for two hours and can dive 4,900 feet deep.

On land, the elephant seals move on their bellies like worms. Their back goes up, then their middle goes down, and then their front goes up, just like a seesaw. They are so fat that when they do the worm, the fat rolls up and down.

We wished for an orca to come to the beach to eat an elephant seal. They come really fast and fling themselves on the beach. When an elephant seal tries to get away, they pick them up and eat them, and then go back into the water. We didn’t see that happen, but we did spot some orcas (read my post about horses).

When we left the beach, Graham and I took the Land Rover, while Mom and Dad walked back to the hotel. We got to drive the Land Rover with the guide. She pressed the brake and the accelerator, while we steered.

Katharine coordinated all movement.

Elephant seals on the beach below.

Making the descent to the beach.

Louise now feels good about her weight.

Louise enjoys a spa treatment.

Dermabrasion helped a little, but not much.

A Black-Tie Event in Patagonia

By Katharine

In Patagonia we saw penguins, not just one but half a million. We visited the biggest penguin colony in South America. It was a two-hour drive from Puerto Madryn to Punta Tombo. When we got there, we saw penguins walking everywhere. A guide said to us that we could not touch them.

The penguins were sitting on nests in holes that they had dug in the ground and also under bushes. Many of the nests were filled with chicks or eggs. The penguins are called Magellanic penguins because they were named after Ferdinand Magellan, the first man to sail around the world. They are small. They look like South African penguins. They have pink circles around their eyes, a black back, and a white face and chest. They reached a little bit above my knee.

After the nest is built, the mom lays 2 eggs at a time. It takes 5 to 6 weeks for an egg to hatch. The chicks stay in the nest for 1 month. After that, they leave the nest to grow adult feathers. The parents swim up to 600 km for food to give to the babies. They eat shrimp, fish, and krill. Both chicks are given equal care. Usually, they survive. The predators are the sea lion and petral.

We walked on gravel paths and over bridges through the reserve. The penguins were on there, too. We got about a foot away from them. They sing a crazy song that sounds like a car horn. They do it to attract a female. Two of them were fighting. They were pulling at each other and biting their tails.

When we were leaving mom was videotaping a penguin, when another penguin came up behind me and nipped my pants. It didn’t hurt, though. Penguins are cool birds.

Click image for larger view.

Penguin in nest with chicks.

Penguins at the Battle of Ypres.

Penguins view local wildlife (guanaco).

Penguin having trouble flossing.

You lookin' at me?

A gala event on the beach.

She can't swim 600 kms but she's a cutie.

Okay, okay, I'm short for my weight.

My Visit to Patagonia's Glaciers

By Graham

Three days ago I saw one of the most amazing sights.

My family and I were on a three-story boat on the waters of Lago Argentino in Patagonia. For the first time in my life I saw icebergs and glaciers. Icebergs are chunks that have fallen off glaciers. They are all different shapes and sizes. In Patagonia some are as big as houses and some are the size of a baseball.

Two hours later we saw their source: the gigantic glacier Upsala, 100 m tall, 50 km long, and 10 km wide. It towered over us. Once Upsala was the biggest glacier in South America; now, it is losing 200 m a year, due to global warming. A glacier that loses more ice than it gains is known as an unstable glacier.

We noticed that the glacier was blue. This happens when the ice becomes very dense. Years of compression slowly force out tiny pockets of air trapped between ice crystals. Extremely dense ice absorbs all other colors in the spectrum except blue, which is what we see. If glacier ice is white, it usually means lots of air is trapped inside.

Glaciers are formed when snow stays in the same place all year, and then new snow piles on top of it for years and years. The compression forces snow to recrystalize, forming grains similar in size and shape to a grain of sugar. Slowly, the grains become bigger and the air pockets between them become smaller. After two years, the snow turns into firn, which is between snow and glacier ice.

We sailed two hours to reach an even taller glacier, called Perito Moreno. Named after a famous explorer and environmentalist, the glacier is 250 square kms and one of three stable glaciers in Patagonia. It is fed by the Southern Patagonian ice field, along with 47 other glaciers.
Watching ice fall from the face of the glacier into the lake was amazing. Some of the pieces must have been the size of a house. A gigantic piece of ice would crack off the glacier and tumble into the water, creating a sound like a savage beast grumbling. It just blew thunder away. I jumped every time I heard it.

Sabias Que?
* Glaciers produce 75% of the world’s fresh water.

* Presently, 10% of land is covered by glaciers.

* During the last ice age, glaciers covered 32% of total land area.
* If all land ice melted, the sea level would rise 70 m worldwide.

Click image for larger view.

View of Perito Moreno glacier.

Graham is splashed by glacial water.

Now we know why the Titanic went down.

Hues of blue.

Hielo azul sin martini.

Only blue light is reflected from the densest ice.

Impersonation of Wall Street.

Video of calving ice at Perito Moreno.