Reading: Casas de Playa Ancha by Myriam Waisberg

When I last saw Anne in New York, just as she was leaving for Paris to go watch hundreds of hours of Antarctica footage, I told her that I might have a few days layover in Santiago de Chile after shooting on Easter Island. "Did you know it is the most polluted city in the world?" She asked. "You should go to Valparaiso, instead." So, after a smog-sucking night in the capital, I did.

Stuck in a bowl in the Andes, as if in the bottom of an eggcup, Santiago's six million inhabitants are smothered under a thick smog pancake of their own creation. In contrast, Valparaiso, Chile's foremost port, has only three hundred thousand people, and it enjoys a cool Humboldt current breeze, blowing all one's exhaustion inshore and away.

But it is not the sea air that makes Valparaiso paradisiacal. Founded on the only tiny bit of flat land trapped between cliffs and its natural harbor, the growing population was soon forced up onto the forty-six absurdly steep hills that seem always to be trying to push that original triangular wedge of land into the sea. The result is a riotous visual spectacle of a city splayed out over a coastal mountain range.

In the same way that Los Angeles has expanded out onto ever more inhospitable and improbable patches of desert, Valparaiso has grown over the last century and a half to occupy every outrageous crag and outcrop of what once must have been seaside cliffs. Imagine repainting the architecture of New Orleans in a particularly acidic tropical palette, replanting it all on the most severe of San Franciscan topography, then squeezing it all together like an accordion, and you begin to grasp Valparaiso, where structures of all shapes and epochs clog the breath-stealingly steep cobblestone streets. As is the way in hill towns, no two facades seem to rest in quite the same plane, and from below the hills are a jumble of tilted surfaces of every imaginable hue.

In Casas de Playa Ancha, Myriam Waisberg chronicles the development of two hillside tracts of land that became, for a time, the most prestigious real estate for the emergent middle class of boomtown Valparaiso, just after the turn of the last century. An architectural historian, Waisberg collects in her book the original plans and sections of some two dozen mansions designed in a style I like to think of as Caribbean Gothic.

Such buildings are best known to me from my travels in Haiti, and I was drawn to Waisberg's book after leafing through it and seeing numerous line drawings that one could easily imagine finding in the flesh in the streets of Port au Prince or Jacmel. It was only after buying it that I discovered in the back, in an appendix relating the international historical context of the Playa Ancha mansions, a line drawing of the Oloffson Hotel in Port au Prince. The setting for Graham Greene's novel The Comedians, it is one of the foremost remaining examples of Haiti's Victorian gingerbread architecture, on the terrace of which I have drunk innumerable punches and made innumerable friends. Perhaps it is these fond associations that account for this aberrant diversion from the modern in my architectural tastes.
The "Olaffson" Hotel in Port au Prince as it appears in Casas de Playa Ancha. Another remarkable coincidence, as Waisberg only provides five drawings to illustrate the historical context of the Playa Ancha houses, three from Auckland, New Zealand, and two from Port au Prince. All illustrations taken from the book without any permission whatsoever. If you feel you are the legitimate owner of any pertinent copyrights and these reproductions are an issue for you, contact me through my profile.

Developed around 1900, with the bulk of buildings going up just after a devastating earthquake in 1906, Playa Ancha was planned out on a grid, but little sense of this structured layout is sensed by a wanderer of the streets. As Waisberg writes: "The intention of applying a plan based on the grid did not hold up to reality; it is generally difficult to perceive, thanks to topographic conditions characterized by profound channels cut by streams, and the accentuated disparity in the level of the land, which resulted in the persistence of historic trails that had followed the curve of the contours." (My translation). This turned out to be quite an understatement.
Despite being warned that I would be robbed, a favorite sport of Chileans (the warning, not the robbing), I wandered up to the once splendid neighborhood of Playa Ancha to track down a few of the spectacular buildings in Waisberg's thesis, which was first published almost 20 years ago. Those which I found are universally in need of your love, help and termite eradication skills. I did not carry a list of addresses with me, nor the book, lest I be mugged, but I am certain that some of the houses Waisberg studied have gone forever. Dotted amongst the mint, purple, ochre, lime and orange houses were ominous vacant lots and remnant mansions as badly in need of a fresh coat as any structure in Havana, where paint sometimes cannot be had for love or money. But the spectacular bones of many remain, awaiting plaster, power tools and teak oil. And a few hundred thou in plumbing. Those still standing are spectacular, but even if these rest were to crumble, their passing would do little to sully the glory of Valparaiso, whose charm rests in the constant collision of old and new, humble and grand, steep hill and sharp valley, painted and unpainted, water and land.

Artilleria #156, architectural scheme
Artilleria #156 today; it is a restaurant hanging off the edge of the cliff

Waisberg's photographs from 1988

A view of the same house from below, with the funicular-style public elevator that takes passengers to Playa Ancha
Abandoned by its middle class for jobs in the capital and the up-to-date horrors of nearby Viña del Mar, a Dubaiesque beachfront excrescence just along the coast, Valparaiso and its cable cars and public funicular elevators was left to the aged and infirm to wither and die with them. (Despite its brash hordes of loathsome high-rises jostling for ocean views, Viña del Mar remains Chile's most prestigious resort. When I told the locals of Easter Island, some of whom had never been to the South American continent, that I intended to visit Valparaiso they said "oh, no, don't go there, it's dingy and old, and you'll be robbed. Go to Viña, next door, it's much nicer.") Generations of university students have also temporarily lived in Valparaiso, writing on the walls before moving on, but despite the neglect the city is finally enjoying a sort of touristic rehabilitation, with, at least, Chileans visiting in droves. Here and there the occasional sushi bar or polished cafe has brought a touch of swank and income to the ground floor of one of the old houses, but the city is quite big enough to absorb a few mooks wandering the streets with maps and cameras without feeling as if it is turning into a museum. The occasional sea-captain in whites and braided cap is still to be found descending the endless cement staircases linking the hillsides with the port, and a stone's-throw from the docks in the petite flat market district dusty glass storefronts still display, without any irony whatsoever, hasps and coils of rope and fishhooks and oilskins and other marine frippery. There is little I could say in higher praise of a seaport town than this.
"Marine frippery." Note the Chilean burgee
I'm looking at real estate. When the floods surge in the coming great melt, Valparaiso's container port may sink underwater, but my termite-ridden Victorian mansion will be high and dry. And painted fuschia, with eggplant trim.


Sadly I wasn't able to stay in Chile long enough...

Flew from Santiago, Chile to Belize City yesterday, with five hours of lounging on the filthy carpets of the Miami airport in-between. I spent a couple of my days off in Valparaiso, my new favorite city, about which more soon, but my greatest regret, other than going back to work of course, was that I missed this:

Yes, those are the Twin Towers in the background, and yes, this guy is the "Youtube phenomenon of Chile," despite the fact that he is wearing an "Ecuador" hat.... Please, if you have any more information... share!

Update: Apparently Ecuadorian Blogspot homeboy Delfin started posting cheesy homemade music videos of himself singing morbid and maudlin cumbias on Youtube and has quickly become all the rage. His elegiac crooning to his late girlfriend, who purportedly perished in the World Trade Center disaster, has become a notorious anthem sufficient to launch Delfin on tour. You may already purchase Delfin ring-tones for your cellie and there are rap, metal, techno and many other genre covers of his "hits" already available and remixed, and so on. The show I missed was at a nightclub called El Huevo, the Egg.

How I wish I could make this stuff up!


Another Blurry Bird Photo

One of the most exciting, scarce and spectacular shorebirds of the world doesn't actually run about on beaches the way you would expect from a sandpiper, or a plover. The beautifully named amalgam of the two, the highly sought after Diademed Sandpiper-plover, lives only in Andean bogs, soggy high-elevation mountain plateaux generally three or even four thousand meters above sea level. The bird, as Alvaro Jaramillo puts it in Birds of Chile, "appears to have very specific habitat requirements, details of which are unclear. Absent from bogs which appear perfect to an observer, perhaps due to overgrazing.... Its movements are unclear."

Melting ice feeds the raging torrent

Just this sort of lack of clarity is precisely what makes for a grand birding adventure. Being a glutton for punishment, I decided instead of driving straight to the beach that I would waste a day of my layover between Easter Island and Belize and go for this legendary species at the El Yeso dam, three grueling hours of dirt road driving up into the snowy Andes to the south-east of Santiago de Chile. The braided streams and soggy tundra at the head of this dam's vast lake are one of the lowest elevation locations at which the sandpiper-plover has ever been seen, a mere 2600 or so oxygen-depleted meters above sea level. Coming from the smog-clotted streets of Santiago I knew it would be doubly tough to breathe.

El Yeso Reservoir, just downstream from the bog

The drive up to the dam seemed endless, despite a very successful stop where I found Chilean Mockingbird, Long Billed Meadowlark, Spot-billed and White-browed Ground Tyrants, Scale-throated Earthcreeper and Mourning Sierra-finch--I know, you are salivating just hearing the names! Once I arrived beyond the vast lake formed by the dam it was obvious at a glance that the only plausible habitat was on the far side of a network of rushing glacial streams, icy-blue rivulets of freezing water that had only recently been snow and were now tumbling down the valley to feed the mighty lake. Numerous horses were nibbling there, however, which I considered a bad sign. To have any chance, there was nothing to do but plunge in, so once again I found myself wading through thigh-deep water in search of obscure birds. Before me, surrounded by snow-clad Andean peaks, was an expansive triangular valley dotted with the grazing horses, all ankle deep in soft muck. With chilly, shriveled toes, my boots squelching, I walked across muddy, peaty clods of grass, which sank as I stepped on them, becoming so many reflecting pools of oozing bogwater. There were fabulous birds (Greater Yellow Finch, Crested Duck, Gray Flanked Cinclodes, Gray Bellied Seedsnipe, Baird's Sandpiper, South American Snipe, Gray Hooded Sierra Finch, White Sided Hillstar, whew, okay, take a deep breath...) but my feet were freezing and not a Diademed Sandpiper-plover was to be found.

This stuff makes for really moist walking

After three or four hours of this absurd bog-trotting, suffering from incipient World War One style trench-foot, finding myself well downstream of all the river crossings I had previously braved, and looking back out over the valley at a much more daunting series of frigid hip-deep fords between me and the car, I started to tire of the whole enterprise. Clusters of birds which had only moments earlier been exciting and new flushed at my feet--a dozen snipe here, eight or ten sandpipers there, a handful of perfectly camouflaged seedsnipes disappearing in amongst the gravels. The Diademed, I was sure, was a write-off, one of those species that for me, at least, would remain mythological. I had trudged back and forth across countless sodden acres without flushing anything like one, and the Baird's Sandpipers which, about the same size, had brought me a rush of adrenalin only an hour before, were now a distracting annoyance as they bolted up out of the marsh in hordes. On the opposite hillside the car was invitingly visible, but with oh so very many obstacles to be swum between me and it. On the floor of the passenger seat, I knew, was half a bottle of mineral water. Although my feet and trousers were soaked, I was parched. In defeat I turned back, trying to remember where the shallowest crossings had been on the way over. Then, as I was edging my way through the mud beside a tiny lagoon, just at the foot of the mountain, an impression of rufous in motion caught the corner of my eye, like the quick swish of a foxes tail. I looked quickly sideways over the narrow body of water. Nothing but wet pebbles, gray, black and red. Then one moved. In one smooth and masculine motion I brought the binoculars up to my eyes. Two! Abundantly incontrovertibly splendidly Diademed Sandpiper Plovers. There they were, trapped halfway between scurrying away, revealing themselves, and sticking tight, but uncomfortably nearer than their luxurious sense of personal space permitted them. I edged closer, one step at a time, ecstatic. I know this isn't nearly as good for you as it was for me, but in return for your patience, dear reader, I bring you this lone, blurry photograph.

The mythical and legendary Phegornis mitchellii


Ancient Tribal Ritual

In the best tradition of verite documentary filmmaking we spent our last night on Easter Island slinking through the gloomy nocturnal jungle in search of anthropological excitement. Our patience was rewarded when we came upon this apparent fertility ritual. After extensive negotiations permission was granted to film this most secret of ceremonies.

Cameraman Will Edwards begins to film a local tribesman and his rather suggestive vegetal "spear-thingy"

Much to the tribesman´s surprise Will pauses to "help adjust" the "thingy" so that it better captures the light of the jungle torches

I believe the directions for this shot were "just thrust it towards the camera a little"

A couple of the local tribesladies, evidencing their amusement at all the phallic goings-on

Crew and cast pose for a farewell photo memento. No dummy, I made sure I was the one taking the pictures.


The Ancient Mysteries, continued

The night before we left Easter Island I headed out into the wilds of the jungle, near the swimming pool, for a relaxing walk and wind-down from our week of filming. On that walk I made what I feel certain is an archeological discovery of immense significance. I, a rank amateur, have discovered two previously unknown Moai, standing in a bamboo grove, proving that archeology can still be done by the everyman, the run-of-the-mill joe willing to go where no man has gone before.

With very few exceptions all the great Moai of Easter Island are either standing in lines along the coast, facing inland, or abandoned in transit along the presumed routes from the quarry to the coast. Because of this, decades of scholarship have described Rapa Nui culture as being "inward-looking" and focused on its own needs and isolation. Well, I have upset that apple-cart. Although rather lichen-infested and crumbly, the presence of these two never-before-seen Moai in the forest suggests many completely new interpretations of the role of these sculptures in Rapa Nui society.

At the site of my discovery the Moai are incontrovertibly positioned as guardians of the forest. Therefore the "conventional wisdom" that the Rapa Nui consumed all of their natural resources in a frenzy of statue-building, with little regard for the trees that once covered their island, goes right out the proverbial window. Remember you saw it here first, and I hope you don't mind that I don't want to tell you any more until I have had a chance to talk to some of the scientific journals, and maybe even Time and Newsweek.

(Update: My euphoria was short-lived. The owner of the Hotel Otai informs that these Moai are his personal property and were given to him by Kevin Costner in recognition of his work in the transportation department on the set of Rapa Nui, the movie, a Costner production that made it to US theaters for a whole week, before sinking into oblivion faster than an actual Moai would if pushed out of a rowboat. They are made of styrofoam sprayed over a rebar frame.)


Rapa Nui

After opting for a relaxing, extended New Zealand and Australia vacation wind-down from last fall into winter's Antarctic extravaganza, I discovered last week that ten days in New York was barely enough time for me to have one home-cooked meal in Red Hook, let alone relax and enjoy my castle. It was hectic, harried and distracting, and that despite my barely leaving the house. Now that I've rushed off again the only upside is that I wasn't even back long enough for me now to get homesick. Suddenly I'm in Easter Island, magical, wonderful, extraordinarily remote and a place I would be most unlikely to visit if someone weren't paying me ready money to wear my headphones and wield a microphone boom.

Grumpy, Squinty soundguy, back to work. Am I really needed here? These Moai are not making very much noise...

A tri-cornered volcanic slab in the mid-Pacific, five and a half hours flying time from Santiago de Chile, Easter Island is one of the most remote chunks of rock to be found jutting up out of any of the world's seas. Despite Thor Heyerdahl "proving" on board Kon Tiki that the original inhabitants here could have arrived from South America by raft, nobody serious thinks anything other than that the original people here represented the eastermost outpost of Polynesia. The locals that I've met consider themselves a branch off of the Maori tree and feel a closer cultural affinity to Hawaii and Tahiti than to any part of South America. The owner of our hotel here recently flew to Aukland to partcipate in a pan-Polynesian dragon-boat paddling competition.

Despite there being only two tiny although spectacular beaches on the island, the economy is driven entirely by tourism. There are four thousand permanent residents, and something like thirty thousand brief and transient visitors. Yesterday a Norwegian cruise liner arrived and anchored offshore from Easter Island's only town of Hangaroa, disgorging tenders full of pasty germans. We were inspired to hustle in our morning filming of the Moai quarry, to avoid the dire predicament of having the background of our shots filled with scurrying ant-trails of tourists in Bermuda shorts. The Moai, of course, are the enormous, enigmatic sculptured heads which seem to me to represent the most extreme example of graven image worship ever made manifest by any human society. These are vast, twenty-ton objets, some four hundred in number, virtually all of which were carved in situ at the quarry at Ranu Raraku, a towering black bluff of a rock called tuff, a rather soft volcanic stone that is quite easily worked. How these statues, once completed, were moved into their positions many miles away around the perimeter of the island is what everyone here refers to as "one of the many mysteries."

No two Moai are alike, and their humanoid faces, when not degraded by erosion or toppled and damaged by the occasional tsunami, show distinct personalities and expressions. There is a predominant type, however, and the bulk of the Moai share a rather droopy and long-faced profile with the late president Richard Nixon. In position, invariably facing inland from atop platforms beside the sea, known as Ahu, the rows of Moai look like a gigantic chess game waiting to be played by oversized intergalactic visitors. And despite years of archeology there isn't much hard evidence to support any competing theory. I would like to believe that the locals still know everything about the Moai and their function, but have never wavered through generations of successful secret-keeping. But the devastation of 90% of the island population by smallpox, syphilis and other charming european imports after contact probably buried the secrets of the Moai forever. But because their purpose and meaning remain largely in the realm of the speculative, the Moai are a sort of blank slate for everyone from conspiracy theorists to logicians. Depending on where you fall on the belief spectrum, the Moai either descended from outer space or were painstakingly moved on their backs, over the course of many years, on mammoth wooden sledges, with the help of most of the able-bodied population of the island. Some adroit googling reveals an infinity of theories in between. It's a delicious mystery.

This is not our crew. We arrived in our two vans, making our series for Discovery Channel, only to find these jokers set up overlooking this spectacular row of Moai, doing a standup for, I believe, the Travel Channel, which Discovery also owns, if I am not mistaken. Thankfully the enormous worldwide media agglomerates still are not quite organized enough to have conspired to exploit us into filming both shows at once. Instead we had to dance around and make sure our people avoided wandering into their shot, and so on. The smiley blond babe is probably the producer, just standing in. The "talent," as we say in the biz, was some jester wearing an Australian bush hat and a safari shirt, of course. What else would you wear to stalk the wild Moai? "Excuse me, we were here first. Please wait your turn behind the other film crews."


Reading: Hooked by G. Bruce Knecht

Albatross, of which I'm rather fond after seeing many of them on my recent jaunts to the cold southern ocean waters off New Zealand and Australia, are being killed in the thousands by long-line fishermen. The birds eat fish, fish bits, and fish offal. In long-line fisheries tremendous mile-long fishing lines, with hundreds of subsidiary branching strands, each with dozens of hooks baited with fish, are suspended in the ocean in the hopes of catching many tons of bigger fish all in one go. As the mass of hooks drift below the surface, albatross and other birds feast on the catch and the remaining baits, swallowing the hooks themselves. Those that do not sustain fatal injury to their internal organs drown.

The leader of one of the pelagic birding trips I went on in Kaikoura pointed out a terrible irony here. The broad acceptance and use of long-line fishing dates to the very successful "dolphin-safe" campaign, which forced tuna fishermen to abandon purse-sein netting, another fishing technique which drowned thousands of dolphins each year. So where the dolphins once suffered, now the albatross suffer. The broader point is that modern fishing techniques capture their prey in vast, industrial quantities and cause horrifying collateral damage to all sorts of creatures, from birds and marine mammals to non-target fish species.

The devastation of the world's fish populations themselves is the subject of Hooked, by G. Bruce Knecht, a writer with a much broader environmentalist streak than one would expect from someone at the Wall Street Journal. It is one of my shortcomings as a birdbrain that I might normally be unlikely to pick up a book about the Patagonian toothfishing industry. In fact, "nothing but a bunch of books about toothfish" could almost serve as a generic indictment of those sad and unwanted dusty volumes that sit on the shelves of low-budget travelers lodges everywhere, those manky coffee-stained Louis L'Amour novels offering themselves in trade for the invariably superior volume one has just finished while on vacation. But down in McMurdo station my friend Gretchen of the chicks who fish, and her posse, were all reading Hooked. They said it was much more exciting than it sounded, so even though they are all marine biologists and dna geeks I thought I would check it out.

Something like the hip fish salesmen and bi-coastal restauranteurs he describes, who changed the name of the Patagonian toothfish to "Chilean sea bass" and watched its popularity explode, Knecht takes what on the face of it seems a dull subject and weaves an exciting tale full of fish-piracy, courtroom drama, and urgent high-seas satphone conversations, set in slick and stinky fish markets, the Hamptons mansions of illicit fish-moguls and the dining rooms of posh restaurants across the globe. Following the story of an Australian intercept of suspected toothfish poachers, operating in a trawler under Uruguayan registry, Knecht sucks the reader along in his wake, ending chapter after chapter with some cliff-hanging moment of toothfishing suspense, until you arrive at the last pages, breathless from the narrative tension of it all. Only then do you relax for a moment and realize that you've been in a page-turning frenzy and stayed up late into the night reading a book about industrial fishing.

Included in what amounts to an environmental call-to-arms masquerading as a paperback thriller are delicious and not-so-delicious factoids that illustrate, once again, just how very little we know about the food we eat in America. Just as we haven't the vaguest idea what state or country a particular steak might come from we have generally zero concept of the origins of our fish. But at least you know what a cow looks like, or is supposed to look like; presented with the pristine white flesh of some sea bass fillets spread out on the ice at the local Fairway I realize I haven't the foggiest idea of how big a toothfish might be, or what color, or what shape its snout might be. Let alone which ocean it came from, or what method was used to catch it. What can you tell me about Orange roughy? That it is trendy, and delicious, perhaps, but not much more. Knecht tells us that this fish, now threatened with commercial extinction just as the toothfish is, was not always so prized. Orange roughy used to be known as "slime heads." Mmmm. What are those going for, per pound? Our special tonite: slime head, in a pomegranate-balsamic reduction.

Ultimately, Hooked is about the senseless destruction of the world's fisheries and fish habitats by voracious and unregulated massive scale industrial fishing operations. The unthinkable, the exhaustion of the ocean as a resource, is already a reality. Are we to immediately stop eating fish? No, we need education and awareness and we need to bring the power of the consumer to the dining table, as in the dolphin-safe campaign. As a dozen albatross swooped around our boat, the leader of the pelagic trip in Kaikoura explained that New Zealand has an active long-line fishery, but one that kills no albatross at all. A few voluntary measures to ensure the hooks stay deep enough to be out of range of fishing seabirds are all that it takes to prevent massive slaughter, but no one is influencing the international fleet of trawlers, all dieseling about registered under flags of convenience, to take these simple steps. In the same way, argues Knecht, true international regulation of fisheries could bring fishing back to life as an industry, instead of the desperate last-gasp strip-mining of the oceans that it has become.


Great unused names for bands dept.

I haven't got much to say for myself at the moment as I scramble to get my equipment together for my next job, unpacking it from the shipping cases it came back from Antarctica in, making sure it all works, and packing it right back up again. Thrillsville. But I'm beyond sick of seeing my own hairy mug staring out at me from the pages of antarcticiana every time I obsessively log on to see if any of you lovely readers have left me a message. So I just had to post something to push my face further down the page. Anything would be better than that pilose ball of furze, anything, even, direct all the way from the wilds of the Queensland outback, THE CICADA HUSK TRILOGY!

In the Eucalyptus and paperbark forests of tropical north Queensland the sound of the birds twittering in the trees has by ten in the morning been obliterated by an increasing and then incessant whine of vibrating cicada wings. At some stage in their progression towards professional noise-makers the cicadas shed their hulls while perched on some sturdy surface, in this case a paperbark trunk. This one was dotted with literally dozens of husks, all split cleanly down the spine like the incredible Hulk's shirt. The creatures inside have long-since emerged and moved on, abandoning their translucent shells to erode or blow away.


New Year, New Look

My last week in Antarctica, at the coffeeshop in McMurdo, a guy I had never met before charged up to me in the dim light of the bar and thrust his finger in my face, as if he was going to scold me. "Dude!" he began, with intensity, waggling his finger inches from my chin. "I just had to tell you, man. Top McMurdo beard! Top!" Despite the massive ice-credibility I felt anointed with after this spontaneous and anonymous outpouring of praise, things were getting out of hand by the end of the 2006, hairwise, and I decided for '07 it needed to go. But such a mammoth investment of time and shed proteins deserved, I thought, some kind of memorial.

Photographed on January first, but unfortunately my young time lapse skills and software organization just weren't quite together enough to get this exciting film onto your laptop cinema until now. One minute and forty-five action-packed seconds.




location: The Giant's House, Linton
stylist: Just Concentrate for stella mccartney / adidas