Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Continent Unvisited

During last winter there was the swine flue scare. Students from an Auckland High School returned from Mexico City with it. We ranked high on the list of countries to be avoided for a while. I was asked why would our students need to go to Mexico? To learn Spanish was my reply.

Spanish is an important international language. With our emphasis upon East Asia we’re inclined to ignore the trade potential of South America. I recall Jim Bolger stressed it and one of Helen Clark’s first visits was to Chile. But the region seems to have gone off the radar. Pity!

On the American continent I’ve never been further south than Mexico City. My brief visit gave me a glimpse of a way of life, not European, not Anglo-Saxon, but uniquely based upon Spanish and the indigenous.

In the late 1990s I was invited to go on a trade mission to South America led by Minister Lockwood Smith. I was to represent Wellington College of Education, which was interested in training teachers from the region in English but also reciprocity with Spanish teaching. Alas that was not to be. I developed pneumonia and that was that. Here is a poem I wrote about that non-trip.

A Continent Unvisited

I should have been
in Lima
a constitutional around Harbour View Rd
millpool water
a departing ferry
Mt Vic windows sparkling in the winter sun.

ancient Incas
conference room
after conference room
& cocktail do
after cocktail do
What day is it? This must be Santiago.
Johnnie Walker in the mini-bar.

I would liked
to have gone
another scene
another continent

but then I wouldn’t have seen
three large stick insects
lured out by a false spring
clinging sluggishly
to a bare climbing rose
where have all the leaves gone
& the approaching evening
threatening an apprehensive frost

Today marks the 200th anniversary of Argentina becoming an independent nation. I read that in this morning’s paper. Aha, I thought, Napoleon’s overthrow of the Spanish monarchy cleared the decks for the locals. A little research proved me right. The idea of liberty hovered in the air. Further north Simon Bolivar was on the verge of leading other successful revolts against Spanish rule. Even further north, the successful revolt against British rule also encouraged the colonials around Buenos Aires to declare their own independence.

I realised I know very little about Argentina. Speaking to my replacement on that mission reinforced my idea that they ate very little but beef. ‘You’ve never seen steaks so enormous,' and they ate late. So I did a little reading this morning.

Sparsely populated by indigenous people (relatively speaking) before the Spanish arrived, Argentina is fairly unique in South America in that it is more European in nature. Neither did it have the Black intake of Brazil, the Caribbean and the USA. There was a large Italian influx between the two world wars while there was considerable German migration both before and after the Second World War. The economy throughout the 19th and indeed much of the 20th century was based upon livestock farming. British capital formed the basis of development.

In 1884 all children were guaranteed universal, free and non-religious education. When I represented New Zealand at the UNESCO Education Conference I was greatly impressed by its chair – the woman Minister of Education from Argentina. Her vision of education’s possibilities was heart-warming. It reflected a country that’s known turmoil and social conflict. It also showed an idealistic streak that I envied. Both reflected the Spanish origin and a wide class gap.

Like most modern nations it’s top-heavy with its capital city. More than one-third of the its 32 million live in Buenos Aires. 90% of Argentineans live in urban areas.

When I met the Argentinean ambassador preparatory to the mission he stressed the tourism potential and urged me to make a return visit to explore some of his country’s scenic spots. Alas again. That ‘apprehensive frost’ was more perceptive than I realised at the time of writing.

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