Patagonian express

A consumer's guide
By ANA RIVAS  |  July 28, 2006

Bombon: El Perro

Bruce Chatwin crossed the Rio Negro and entered the Patagonian Desert looking for an answer. What about this desert took such possession of Darwin’s mind? Why did these “arid wastes,” as Darwin termed the landscape, captivate him more than any other wonders he had seen in the Voyage of the Beagle? The answer, Chatwin finds, is that desert wanderers discover in themselves “a primeval calmness (known also to the simplest savage), which is perhaps the same as the Peace of God.” Well, my simple savages, the Patagonian wasteland to which these men devoted so much ink can be discovered in multiple ways ― through film and wine and books ― so that you yourself can experience what it is to be a desert wanderer without leaving Boston.

A fine start to the exploration is seeing what Chatwin and Darwin meant by “desert.” Tonight and tomorrow, July 28 and 29, the MFA will screen Bombón, El Perro, a terrific glimpse of Patagonia by Argentinean director Carlos Sorin. This road movie proves that unlike the desserts of Arabia, this is not a desert of sand or gravel, but instead a low thicket of gray-leaved thorns that ooze a bitter smell when crushed. Sorin has said in interviews that he is only interested in “losers,” and through El Perro’s unemployed middle-aged hero, his daughter, and the widow  —a wholly non-professional cast, including the dogs — you’ll hear the silent spaces conversations tend to have in a land that is as empty as Alaska.

For a taste of Patagonia, visit Dana Hill Liquor Mart on Mass Ave, in Cambridge, and ask Eric about their selection of Patagonian wines. They offer two versions of Estepa, a Malbec-Merlot-Syrah blend ($16.99) and a Cabernet Sauvignon ($13.99). Unlike other Argentinean or Chilean wines, these are made with grapes grown further south, and have the taste of the dryer, colder soil (the weather in the Patagonian Andes is as unpredictable as in New England), giving it a moderate, but strong character.

Other good mates for your red wine are the stories of some enthralling paperback travelers. Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is a classic starting point, with his fascinating accounts of other travelers’ adventures, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who, according to the legend, hid for years as farmers in Patagonia. In The Old Patagonian Express, Massachusetts native Paul Theroux offers a travel narrative that takes much longer to get to Patagonia, starting right here, with a rush-hour T ride to South Station.

Lastly, and only for those who’ve have developed a considerable addiction to Patagonia, Darwin’s papers — displayed through May at the Museum of Natural History in New York and then coming to the Museum of Science here in Boston in February, 2007 — can not only upset Intelligent Design’s activists, but also provide some answers the question: What is it that makes Patagonia’s arid wastes so mesmerizing?

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