A Trip to Argentina

by Ben Best


  1. Arrival
  2. First Days
  3. Rosario
  4. Cryobiology Conference
  5. Departure

I. Arrival

Rudy Goya and Ben Best
at the La Plata School of Medicine
Rudy Goya and Ben Best <br>at the La Plata School of Medicine

From May 31 to June 7, 2012 I was in Argentina — my first trip to South America. The purpose of the trip was to attend a Society for Cryobiology Conference, but I arrived a few days early so that I could meet some people and engage in some tourism. I had two cryonics-related contacts in Argentina: (1) Cryonics Institute Member Rudy Goya, who was profiled on page 6 of the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of LONG LIFE magazine and (2) a woman named Maria who has been cryopreserving her brother's brain.

Rudy made some impressive efforts to exploit my visit for the promotion of cryonics in Argentina. He also did a terrific job of being a host and making my visit to Argentina uncomplicated and enjoyable. He arranged for me to be interviewed by a journalist from one of Argentina's largest newspapers, but the journalist chose to interview me by telephone and by e-mail rather than in person. Rudy also arranged for me to meet with some Argentine Transhumanists and to give a PowerPoint presentation on cryonics at the School of Medicine in La Plata where he works as a biogerontologist.

(I don't like being photographed, so I usually grimace when I am facing a camera.)

When I told Rudy of the desire to have a bus tour of Buenos Aires (BA), he arranged for me to be met at the BA airport by a fellow from La Plata who wanted to go on a bus tour of BA. My companion was to be holding a sign with my name on it. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the BA international airport I saw many people with signs for other people, but none for me. After waiting and walking around quite a bit I finally despaired and went to the airport communications center where I tried phoning Rudy and sending him e-mail messages to no avail. That failing I found a booth renting cell phones for $75 that would give me 100 minutes of outgoing call time anywhere in Argentina for a period of one month. I had considered renting such a phone before coming to Argentina, but I did not think I would have a use for it. The airport booth would be going out of service at the end of the week, however, which meant I would have to return the phone to an address in BA.

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II. First Days

As soon as I got the phone I was able to contact Rudy, and soon found my companion. Rudy had rented a special form of taxi (remisse) for the whole day that had brought my companion from La Plata. He was a law student. When I asked him if he visits BA very often, he told me that he had a Spanish father and a British mother and came to BA to research genealogy. But many genealogical records in Spain were lost in the Spanish Civil War.

Our tour bus spent 3 hours giving an overview of BA. In front of each seat there were head-phones and about 12 jacks labeled with about 12 different languages. Most of the time the bus was appropriately positioned for the dialogue on the tape to match what we were seeing, but occasionally the mismatch was disconcerting. BA reportedly has a population of 12 million, which I can easily believe. No sight was especially noteworthy, but I enjoyed seeing the variety of habitats, architecture, trees, and bustling humanity. Many houses have water-tanks on the roof because power outages are frequent and can last many hours, especially in the summertime. The polo grounds might be especially noteworthy insofar as BA hosts the Argentine Open Championship, the world's most important polo event.

At the end of the tour we met Rudy at a coffee shop, at which time my companion left to take a bus back to La Plata. I was not quite finished being a tourist, however, and I requested that we go to Plaza de Mayo. During the dictatorship of the late 1970s and early 1980s up to 30,000 mostly-young political radicals disappeared who were secretly tortured and murdered (the "Dirty war"). Every Thursday at 3:30 P.M. mothers whose children had disappeared marched in the Plaza partly as protest and partly in the hope of gaining information about the fate of their lost child. Rudy did not think the event would still be relevant due to the current government's prosecution of such crimes, but he reluctantly accompanied me to the Plaza and was surprised to see the marching mothers. He interpreted the event as an effort to ensure that others do not forget what had happened. He was a student at the time of the disappearances, and was not acquainted with anyone who had disappeared.

I was a bit disturbed at the thought that English-speaking tourists might be badly treated visiting Argentina on the 30-year anniversary of the Falklands War (I was prepared only to refer to the Falklands as Islas Malvinas). But Rudy told me that losing the war was really a blessing because the defeat meant that the dictatorship was no longer able to remain in power. I heard no other mention of the War during my visit.

The "taxi" Rudy had rented for the day had been a safe place to store my luggage during my bus tour of BA, and the driver was at Rudy's disposal to take us to the cafe where Rudy had arranged for us to meet with some Argentine Transhumanists and other cryonics-friendly people, notably a woman named Maria.

Rudy, Ben, and Santiago Koval
Rudy, Ben, and Santiago Koval

Maria has been storing the brain of her brother at dry ice temperature. She does not want to keep her brother's brain in Argentina, but has been unable to find an acceptable alternative. Alcor wants $155,000 to take the brain, the Cryonics Institute (CI) only will accept whole bodies, and Maria has not felt comfortable sending the brain to KrioRus because of perceived instability of Russia and the newness of KrioRus. Maria had sent individual e-mail messages to every CI Director trying to persuade them to accept the brain. Although I would have favored accepting the brain, I know that CI Directors are unyielding on the issue. KrioRus had been founded because CI refused to accept the brain of KrioRus co-founder Igor Artyukhov, despite lobbying by Robert Ettinger and me to take the Russian brain.

Also at the meeting were Santiago Koval (the author of a Spanish language transhumanist book who has his own website), a lawyer with his architect girlfriend, and a female economist. All but the economist were interested in cryonics and life extension. The economist kept probing me about the role of the unconscious in economic decision-making. I tried to incorporate this into the discussion by using the example of the decision to choose cryonics. I gave the example of two CI Members dying of cancer, one of whom cancelled her cryonics arrangement on her deathbed because she was sick of the misery of life, and the other of whom refused to take pain killers because he wanted to savor every last moment of life with full awareness. The economist was more interested in the unconscious, so I suggested that she Google "brain", "intention" and "decisions". Doing so when I returned to Michigan got me to the topic of brain activity in the motor cortex preceding the moment in which someone is conscious of having decided to move: Neuroscience of free will and Benjamin_Libet.

Ben, Rudy, Lawyer, and Architect
Ben, Rudy, Lawyer, and Architect

As a last effort at BA tourism, I requested to Rudy that we visit Palacio Barolo. The building was created by an architect seeking to make a representation of Dante's Inferno. On the bottom floor he had sculptures of demons and torture, whereas upper floors led through purgatory and heaven (with a good view of BA from heaven). The architect had the futile hope that Italy would send Dante's ashes to his building. Rudy had not heard of this building before, but we arrived too late to see anything but the bottom floor.

The driver of Rudy's taxi took us to La Plata where Rudy had graciously arranged for me to have a hotel room. The next morning Rudy picked me up from the hotel in his own car and drove me to his labs in the school of medicine. After a brief tour we went to the lecture hall where I was to give my PowerPoint presentation. We had no idea what the turnout would be. Rudy had at first been shy about publicizing the event among his colleagues, but eventually decided promote to the fullest. The article about me and cryonics in the national newspaper had meant that some journalists planned to attend. I counted an audience of 27 people, most of whom were distinguished academics or researchers, and all of whom were respectful and attentive. There was some concern when I mentioned that the rabbit kidney vitrification had only been done once in 2003, in one rabbit, and had not been replicated. After the lecture I was interviewed by a La Plata newspaper journalist and then both Rudy and I were interviewed and videoed by some TV journalists.

That evening Rudy treated me to a dinner at a restaurant. Argentines eat dinner fairly late. Rudy and I arrived at about 9 P.M., and we were among the first. Rudy's wife works in his laboratory, and she sat beside him at the 2011 SENS conference because she would pick-up on things that he would miss. I am normally mostly vegetarian, but that evening I took the opportunity to have a plate of calf thymuses. It was fairly flavorful, although there was some sinew that I gave-up trying to chew. When I parted company with the couple that evening, Rudy's wife presented her cheek for me to kiss, which I did. It is a practice of Argentine women to be kissed on the cheek by men, and it made me uncomfortable about appearing overly forward — as it would be considered in North America. On the other hand, I did not feel comfortable foregoing the practice and appearing to be rude or cold.

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III. Rosario

The next day Rudy and I took a bus to Rosario, Argentina where the annual Society for Cryobiology conference was being held. Rudy's field is biogerontology, but he decided to attend the conference partly out of curiosity, and partly to spend more time with me. He discovered that a lot of cryonics-relevant technology could be learned from cryobiologists — and that cryobiological research has the potential to contribute much to cryonics, despite whatever hostility and/or skepticism cryobiologists may have toward the practice of cryonics. Like me, Rudy came to appreciate the pointlessness of being confrontive with cryobiologists over cryonics, and what a valuable learning experience these conferences can be.

Rudy stayed with a friend in Rosario, whereas I stayed at a youth hostel which does not descriminate on the basis of age. Arriving as I did on a Saturday evening, the eight bunk-beds in the room I was sharing were mostly occupied — forcing me to sleep in an upper bunk. After the weekend, however, there were not more than one or two others in the room and I was able to take a bottom bunk. This hostel had a climbing wall covered with stones for gripping. I tried climbing to a height no higher than my own height, but quickly descended. I would not have risked falling and landing on the concrete floor. Later I saw climbers scaling the wall while equipped with ropes and climbing apparatus to prevent such a disaster.

Breakfast and internet access through hostel computers were included in the price, which amounted to less than $100 for five days. The hostel would not accept credit card payment, however, which I discovered was a common problem in Argentina. (I had not had this problem on my visit to China in 2004.) I had to pay cash for an outing, and for my return shuttle to the BA airport. Strapped for cash, I stood outside the locked glass doors of a bank waiting for someone to exit so I could enter and get a cash advance in pesos from my credit card. (The Argentines use "$" as the sign for pesos, but I guessed that I would be getting pesos because of the amounts suggested.) The only acceptance of credit cards I experienced in Argentina was when I was charged $75 for entering the country by the government at the airport, and when I rented a cell phone at the airport (which gave the company the right to charge my credit card for the phone if it was not returned).

Rosario is not a common tourist destination. Most of the inhabitants of Rosario are of Italian rather than Spanish ancestry. Che Guevera was born in Rosario, and there is a city park honoring his memory. Although it was the equivalent of December in Argentina, and it was cold, temperature was not below freezing and it rarely snows. Palm trees are mixed-in with fir trees and deciduous trees. Although it can get very hot in January, siestas are not part of Argentine culture.

While in Rosario, I did not spend much time exploring the city because I was mostly busy with the conference. In walking the streets I would continually think north was south, and had a hard time ridding myself of that misconception or the problems it caused with my navigation. I can't use being in the southern hemisphere as an excuse, because I did not have that problem in Australia or New Zealand. Cars have the right of way, and pedestrians must fend for themselves. The occasional stoplight is respected, but stop signs are regarded as being not much more than a suggestion.

Reflecting on Maria and her brother's plight, I gave her a call on my rented cell phone after I had been in Rosario a couple of days. I pressed her for more details. Her brother was older than Maria, and they had been living together at the time of his death. When she found him dead in the shower she called 911, but her brother was pronounced dead by emergency medical services. Her brother experienced 8 hours of warm ischemia in their apartment until he was taken to the morgue. Autopsy revealed the cause of death as an aortic aneurysm. The brain was removed, the cerebellum was severed from the cerebrum, and both were placed in the chest cavity. There was another 24 hours of warm ischemia during the funeral after which Maria's brother sat in a −4ºC vault for 3 or 4 weeks before Maria asked a pathologist to remove the brain from the chest cavity so she could transfer it to her home freezer (−20ºC) and finally to dry ice temperature.

Although Maria had outlined her brother's fate in a descriptions sent to me, the document had not made it clear that her brother had suffered more than 30 hours of warm ischemia. Maria asked me if there was any point in continuing storage. Despite my understanding that most neurons are necrotic after 12 hours of warm ischemia [STROKE; Garcia,JD; 26(4):636-643 (1995)], I can't help but wonder what structure may be left in a brain that is still tangibly solid — and what future technology may be able to do with it. I told her that it is more conservative to save the brain. When I told her that she is a pioneer and that I respect her efforts, she denied that there is anything other than desperation in what she had done.

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IV. Cryobiology Conference

This conference was attended by not more than about 80 people, at least half of whom were South America. There were maybe 30 or so hard-core Society for Cryobiology Members. This was my 9th annual meeting in a row, but for the most part I made little effort to relate to the cryobiologists, although one of my intentions in attending these meetings has been to soften the hostility of cryobiologists to cryonicists. I sat near the front of the meetings with Rudy who told me that he learned a great deal about the cryobiology behind cryonics practices by attending this conference. Very many of the cryobiologists were reporting on using vitrification at this conference, and including articular cartilage and plant tissue as well as single cells. I was fairly active in my questioning and comments — about which a few of the cryobiologists complimented me.

I lost my sense of urgency about talking to Peter Mazur, who is regarded as the guru of cryobiology by most of the other cryobiologists. Peter recently told a journalist that although it is not possible to prove that the chance of cryonics patients being reanimated are zero, "you can, I think demonstrated that the probability of its being done is so extremely low that effectively it is zero" [CANADIAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION JOURNAL; Monette, M; The Church of Cryopreservation; 184(7):749 (2012)]. I am curious about the demonstration Peter has in mind, but I am also committed to learning from cryobiologists rather than arguing with them about cryonics. Peter walked away a few years ago when I asked him when solution effects rather than mechanical damage cause injury to cells due to slow cooling, so that may be a touchy subject with Peter as well.

The first session dealt with an aspect of Argentine cultural heritage, the Llullaillaco children — three Inca children who had been mummified by dehydration high on a volcano and preserved for over 500 years. Two of children were selected by the Incas because they were "perfect" (beautiful and pure) at 6 or 7 years of age. It was believe to be an honor to go directly to heaven, not really death or sacrifice. The children were given an intoxicant and buried alive atop the Llullaillaco volcano. Much of the session focused on the conditions that caused the children to be so well-preserved, and the conditions the curators should use to preserve the children for the future — involving careful regulation of temperature, atmosphere, humidity, and an environment inhospitable to most microbes.

If reanimated cryonicists receive anything like the care these children are receiving, there should be no concerns about being welcome in the future. In a sense, the Incas had it right when thinking they were sending the children to heaven. Of course the Inca children were deprived of life and are unable to experience or enjoy their treatment by modern curators — and cryonicists should not encourage hastening death based on reliance on unproven future techologies.

Tuesday morning had been scheduled to begin with a lecture by Ken Storey. Storey typically has no interest in what other cryobiologists have to say, is fairly ignorant of areas of cryobiology outside of hibernation and effects of low temperature on animals in nature, and only comes for his own presentation before leaving. His ignorance is on display when journalists get him to do cryonics-bashing, which he does with relish, but the general public only sees the comments of a respected cryobiologist, not the ignorant misunderstandings of cryobiology. I would not have expected Storey to come all the way to Rosario, Argentina only for his own presentation, but this is what he attempted to do — and he missed one of his flight connections. Ironically, this year Storey was honored by being made a Fellow in the Society for Cryobiology.

To compensate for Storey's absence the conference organizers arranged a makeshift follow-up session on the Llullaillaco children. Ths wasn't entirely a waste, because many issues had not been addressed in the first round. I was going to question using a 2% oxygen and 98% nitrogen atmosphere for the children rather than pure nitrogen, but Barry Fuller raised this objection before I was called upon. I did, nonetheless, suggest that the goal should be to perfect the preservation environment rather than try to recreate the conditions of the mountain. Even this had not been done because the relative humidity had been raised to 70% on the bad advice of an expert rather than held to the 40% present on the volcano. The children were reportedly gaining 300 grams per year, probably from the humidity. There is a lower humidity limit below which no microorganisms can grow, but 0% relative humidity in the −20ºC preservation chambers would run the risk of freeze-drying.

Adam Higgens reported on an improved procedure for washing glycerol from red blood cells. Currently about 99% of banked blood is stored at refrigerator temperature (2-4ºC), with a shelf life of 42 days. Only 1% of blood (mostly rare blood types) is cryopreserved with glycerol and stored at −80ºC, with a shelf life of ten years. A major deterrent preventing more blood from being banked at −80ºC is the 30-60 minute glycerol washout procedure. Adam's group developed a procedure that can wash the glycerol out in 30 seconds, but 5 seconds longer or shorter results in too much hemolysis. A three minute washout procedure is less time sensitive (one minute longer or shorter is tolerable), but the method needs to be scaled-up from the 0.5 milliliter test volumes being used.

There were many other presentations and sessions at the conference, but I will not burden my trip report with further details. At the end of the conference sessions I gave my cell phone to Rudy, who kindly offered to send the phone by courier to the office in BA.

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V. Departure

At the final conference banquet after the end of the conference, I sat next to one of the conference organizers. He told me that John G. Baust had been supposed to conduct a symposium, but had cancelled the whole thing a month before the conference without giving any explanation. He agreed with the comments I had made about the Llullaillaco children, and told me that a committee of cryobiologists was going to supplement the questionable advice that the Argentine government has been getting from a single advisor in New York. He told me that National Geographic had discovered the children and attempted to remove them from Argentina on a midnight flight, but the Argentine government got wind of the plan and intervened. Nonetheless, the children were simply kept in −20ºC freezers for several years while planning and building better preservation chambers.

I left the banquet early because I did not want to be walking the dark streets of Rosario alone after midnight. In the front room of the hostel there were at least 40 people singing and shouting loudly while someone played the guitar. The hostel-manager rushed up to me to give me a note saying that the pick-up time for my bus to BA had been changed. Fortunately, I had brought my pair or ear muffs that I had bought in a gun store in Michigan — and it was effective in blocking the sound when I lay down in my bunk.

The next morning as I was leaving, I had a chat with the super-friendly hostel manager. She told me that there is usually some guitar music on Wednesday evenings, but it had been expanded greatly the previous evening because a couple of the climbing-wall instructors were celebrating birthdays. I tried to get her to explain how she had recognized me the previous evening, and she said it was a process of elimination based on her knowledge of the others staying there. She had come to Rosario a couple of years earlier, broken-up with her boyfriend, got a job cleaning in the hostel, and had worked her way up to being manager. She told me she had been to Canada, that she loved my country, and she dreamed every day of immigrating there. She said that because of air-conditioning in Toronto (even in the buses) that she is less often cold in Toronto than she is in Argentina. I told her that I was expecting my future to be in the United States, and that I probably wouldn't be seeing her in Canada.

The return bus trip to BA on Thursday took the entire afternoon — much longer than I would have expected. I sat next to Adam Higgens on the bus, and spoke with him much of the time, mostly about his life and work, as well as about our experiences in Argentina. Adam knew Spanish fairly well because he has spent four months of language immersion living in Equador (and visiting the Galapagos Islands). If he gets a patent for deglycerolizing blood, the University would get half the royalties and he would split his half with his collaborators. The advantages of his method would be the ten year rather than 42-day shelf life for banked blood, and the greatly reduced washout time. The latter is a significant savings in labor costs, but would have to be weighed against greater electrical costs for a −80ºC freezer as opposed to refrigeration. Even if he is successful in perfecting his methods, he thinks that the blood banking industry is too conservative to be captivated by superior storage methods. Adam has attended most of the annual conferences since I began attending in 2004, and told me that he would like to become a Governor of the Society. Not once did Adam ask me what work I do, and he evidently does not know because he was surprised when I told him I am not a Member of the Society for Cryobiology. Whether or not I am formally accepted as a Member, my attendance at these conferences is implanting me into the consciousness of the cryobiologists as being a member of their community.

I had figured US$220 worth of Argentine pesos would be adequate for my cash needs in Argentina (relying on my credit card for anything else). Rudy told me that I would get a better rate for pesos at the BA airport than at the Detroit airport. Sure enough, Detroit airport currency exchange offered me 4 pesos per US dollar, whereas the BA airport gave me 4.4 pesos per dollar. I heard rumors in Argentina that it would not be possible to change pesos back into US dollars. But at the BA airport they told me I could change back into US dollars only if I had the receipt for the original transaction at the airport (which I had not saved). Upon my return to Detroit, the airport currency exchange did not demand a receipt, but they charged 7.5 pesos per dollar for the 70 pesos still in my possession.