Posts Tagged With: tropics

Buenos Aires (Oct 15) and Iguazú Falls (Oct 16): Mucho Agua

Stephen King’s market place in Santelmo

Alice is recovering from a mild to moderate cold (that she caught from me) and so passed on a few of yesterday’s goings-on, starting with an indoor marketplace. A somewhat grungier version of Baltimore’s Lexington Market or Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, Buenos Aires’ Santelmo market is housed in a cavernous warehouse space that, but for being too small, might in some other life have been an abandoned railway station. As it is, most of the stalls were closed since we we there on a weekday — weekends are the big market time — which gave the place a somewhat forlorn and slightly spooky aura; you get the idea from the photo at left.

But there were nonetheless a fair number of places open, mostly butchers and produce stalls (with very nice looking produce, I should add), as well as a certain number of hard-to-describe places selling extremely random odds and ends: antique dolls, mismatched china sets, pots and pans, household utensils and tools of uncertain purpose, long-obscure toys (anybody remember Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse puppet from the Ed Sullivan Show? He’s here.), etc., etc.


It was an unusual but strangely interesting way to spend an hour or so. So to continue…

Buenos Aires sits on the Rio La Plata, or “silver river”. Why that name? Is it silver-colored? No. In fact, because of an enormous amount of suspended sediment, the whole river and the delta at its mouth are the color of chocolate milk. It is a very odd sight, the broad and tranquil river flowing into a wide delta stretching to the horizon, all the water a pleasant but surreal café au lait brown that makes it feel like someone has Photoshopped your retina by somehow shifting the color scale. In any case it is definitely not silver.

Ah then, perhaps there are some big silver mines along it. Nope, not that either. Turns out that the Argentines are prone to hyperbole and the original settlers were misled by the natives into thinking that somewhere at the headwaters of the river there were major silver deposits. So they optimistically named the river after them and basically got stuck with the name even after the eponymous silver turned out to be mostly nonexistent.

We spent a pleasant sunny morning on a boat out on that earthy-looking water, or rather I did; Alice had that cold and decided to sleep in that day. But the rest of us boarded our van and drove for an hour to the town of Tigre, first passing some of Buenos Aires’ extensive and remarkably constructed shantytowns, as you see here.

No plumbing, no problem — we got cable!

The slum is vast, dense and essentially improvised, with surprisingly sophisticated structures constructed mostly out of scrounged materials, and sustained by bootleg connections to city utilities. They may not all have water, but you better believe they all have TV.

Liquid bus stop

We continued pass the tenements for another half hour or so to the town of Tigre, whose mascot and town logo is exactly what you think it would be. Tigre is a pleasant resort town near the delta of the river whose claim to fame is an entire community that lives on the water. The delta is crisscrossed by river channels — again that chocolate brown water — that are perhaps 50 or 75 yards wide and lined by a mix of residences and vacation houses whose condition ranges from luxurious to caved-in. There is a local “bus” service rather like a water taxi with fixed stops; you can see one at right. Note the color of the water and the elegant wooden structure of the boat itself; a large fraction of boats plying these waters are genteel-looking low-slung dark wooden hulls, most of them dating back 50 or 60 years.

Groceries on the river

Some are are aquatic school buses, ferrying children to a school on the river bank; others, floating hardware and landscape stores selling tools and plants; and still others, floating grocery stores. (We pulled up to one of the latter  and bought some crackers and fruit through a port hole…kinda cool to do.) You can see one of the grocery boats at left; the one we stopped at resembled the dark, low-riding ones. The proprietors were greatly amused at the dozen or so childlike tourists sticking their arms through the window and trying to call out orders in execrable Spanish. But we did get our crackers and fruit.

It was a mostly sunny day with temperatures in the low 70’s, a welcome respite from the literal glacial conditions that we had been trekking around in for the past several days. Indeed, when we pulled back into port we stopped for ice cream — Chileans and Argentines love their ice cream — which made the whole outing feel like some kind of cross between summer vacation and a school class trip.

When I returned to the hotel Alice was up and about and ready to explore the city a bit more, which is to say go shopping. She had her eye on a purse that she had seen briefly in a store window that we had driven past, quite close to our hotel, and when we walked there we were delighted to learn that the store was called “Carpincho”, which is the Spanish word for capybara (the world’s largest rodent…look it up!) and specialized in leather from the that particular beast. This was a wonderful thing because I myself am the longtime proud owner of a capybara leather jacket that I bought here in Buenos Aires about a dozen years ago whilst attending a conference. We have long called it my “rat coat”, and Alice now has a “rat purse” that complements it perfectly. It is a speckled suede-like leather, very beautiful and soft to the touch. We are now fully rodent-accessorized.

Our next goal was a well-known synagogue, Buenos Aires having a large Jewish population and this particular temple supposedly very elaborate and offering guided tours. But not, as it turned out, on Wednesdays. So we pounded on the door and when an Orthodox-looking gentleman answered I tried to talk our way in by playing the “I’m a Jewish tourist” card. He trumped it by playing the “Today is a Jewish holiday” card and said I could come to Sukkot services that evening if I wanted to see the place. Since I am extremely committed to avoiding religious services of any kind, we didn’t get to see the synagogue. So we visited the Teatro de Colón instead, Buenos Aires’ famous opera house and performing venue, hooking up with an English language tour of the building. It is beautiful and elaborate, built about 60 years ago in the style of the palace of Versailles.

This morning we continued our northward march towards the tropics, leaving Buenos Aires for Iguazú Falls (also spelled Iguassu and Iguaçu, in all cases with the accent on the last syllable). We’re now up at 26° latitude, just a few degrees south of the Tropic of Capricorn, which is a fancy way of saying that in stark contrast to our glacier visits of just a few days ago it is now 102° F and greater than 70% humidity. Or to put it even more simply, we are in Major Schvitzing Territory now.

I have been hyping the falls to Alice since I visited them on my previous trip here, and they did not disappoint. They are both higher than Niagara Falls (with cataracts ranging up to 280′ high), and with a higher water volume. As it happens, due to recent rainfalls the current volume is far higher than usual, with several million gallons per second thundering over the sides among all 270 cataracts. It is simply stunning, and you get up close and personal on a walkway that takes you right up into the spray of one of the larger cataracts. I will let a few photos do the talking:

See the boats? We will be on one tomorrow, getting very, very wet. But to continue…

…and to get a little more up close…

After completing the walkway up to the falls, we were not sated and so took a helicopter ride, from which vantage point they look like this:

I should mention that the falls are located at the “corner” where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet, and that this all took place on the Brazil side of the border. (We had to change to a Brazilian bus and go through passport control to cross the border; we applied for and received Brazilian visas for this purpose a few months ago.) Tomorrow we will explore the Argentine side, which is to say we will ride on one of those boats right up to the fall, which as I recall from my experience 12 years ago is like having a swimming pool dropped from 200 feet onto your head. Wet fun!

Tomorrow will also be our last night here. On Saturday the journey home begins, with a flight to Buenos Aires in the morning, and an evening red eye home.

Categories: Patagonia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Almost Aloha (Which They Do Not Say Here) Time

Not George

It’s now Friday noon-ish as I type this, and we leave for LA late tomorrow night. The main event of the last couple of days was a guided island tour which, given the 20 mile perimeter of Rarotonga, might seem a little redundant in light of our circumnavigation in our own car the day before. (Traffic here is pretty thin, mostly tiny cars and scooters, and moves within the stately island-wide speed limit of 30 mph. School zones are 20 mph.) But this was not so, and it was in fact quite interesting and a great deal of fun, just us and our voluble driver George, whom you do not see here at left.

George took a number of little back roads up into the hills and spent a lot of time pointing out various plants, which of course delighted Alice no end and put her into a frenzy of point-and-clicking. He was very knowledgable about many of the plants, with odd gaps regarding the ones that the locals themselves found uninteresting: it happened several times that Alice would ask about some nearby bush festooned with delicate, colorful flowers and George would admit with admirable candor, “I have no idea. We call it a weed.”

We also learned about the unusual property laws here. Property stays within a family, is owned absolutely, and cannot be sold outside the family. By “owned absolutely”, I mean that local law reflects property ownership to a degree that would be astonishing anywhere else. Owners pay no property taxes of any kind and can use their property for any purpose whatever; you could, for example, theoretically knock down your tin-roof shack (and their are a lot of them) and lease — but not sell — your land to a developer to build a tall if extraordinarily skinny high rise hotel. You could also bury dear departed Aunt Velma and Uncle Mort in a large ornate tomb in your carport, and believe it or not we saw quite a number of those. In addition to these little onsey-twosy gravesides, there are a large number of small cemeteries on private properties scattered all over the island, all very well kept with lots of flowers, and many with attractive ocean views.

Location, location, location

You will note that nearly all of the graves appear to be raised. This is just a local decorative custom (George opined that it was to make sure that Aunt Velma and Uncle Mort stay there); the graves beneath are the conventional 6′ deep.

The law about properties staying in families has some unintended side effects. If a particular family member owns a property that he has no use for but wants to keep, the other family members can force him to sell it to them if it remains undeveloped. So what you see are a lot of unfinished foundations (this counts as “development”) put in place by property owners who have otherwise permanently decamped to New Zealand or Australia, holding the property against their eventual theoretical return and leaving assorted seething relatives in their wake.

We also saw a lot of dogs (indeed, have been seeing them since we first got here). They’re everywhere, mongrelized to hell and gone, and they’re all really relaxed. Despite their ubiquity, they are not actually strays; almost all have owners and return home at night, but simply have the run of the island during the day and seem to be generally friendly… real islanders, all right. There are a couple from down the road that have adopted our hotel beach as their daytime home away from home, chilling out in the sand and playing with the beachgoers. (The hotel staff gently confiscated a 20 lb bag of doggie treats from one well-meaning guest; they don’t want the dogs getting too comfortable here.)

Our tour culminated in a garden where we were served about the freshest island snack imaginable: papaya slices covered in shaved coconut and sprinkled with lime juice, accompanied by fresh-baked banana bread. Every one of the ingredients in front of us had been on the trees surrounding us minutes or hours before. In fact, I opened the coconut myself, leading to the obligatory “Inept Tourist Opens A Coconut” photo op.

I escaped injury, sort of (and yes, that is George on the right).

Getting the husk off was a first class pain in the neck, as I remembered from my Hawaii days, but the rest of the operation went moderately smoothly. (And let me preempt any snarky comments to the effect that I am holding the machete upside down in the photo. You’re supposed to do it that way, cracking the shell with the dull part of the blade so that the pieces can be prized apart without spilling the juice inside. I spilled it anyway.)

We pigged out on papaya and freshly-grated coconut.  That, as it turned out, did not sit so well, and my digestive system rebelled. (Alice was unaffected.) I was an unhappy camper for the next 24 hours, which took care of my previously scheduled scuba dive the next day but was otherwise a bump in the road. We didn’t have anything planned for today so Alice is having a spa day: mani-pedi and something called a water massage, which to me sounds like a euphemism for something that they use to quell a prison riot.

Tomorrow, our last day, is market day in town. We are told that it is quite the diverse and colorful affair, so we are planning on taking the bus into town to visit (that would be the anti-clockwise route). Our flight to LA is a red-eye, departing at close to midnight, and the hotel has kindly allowed us to stay in our room until our scheduled pickup at 9:30 PM. That means that our final day is a full day so we are hoping to get some beach time in — maybe a little afternoon kayak trip around the motu in the lagoon offshore from our hotel. If I get ambitious I’ll write a final journal entry about the day, but otherwise this is it for this trip. We’re in LA for a day, leaving about 11AM Monday and getting home at something like 8PM.

This has been a helluva retirement kickoff, and the list of amazing things that we’ve experienced is pretty daunting in retrospect: scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, helicopter ride over Ayer’s Rock, desert hike through Kata Tjuta, sunset dinner in the Outback, touring the Sydney Opera House, kayaking on Doubtful Sound, hiking on Fox Glacier, train ride across the Southern Alps, playing in a thermal waterfall, tubing 200′ underground through a glowworm cave, snorkeling on a Pacific atoll…it’s just what we wanted, and now we’re ready to return to whatever post-retirement real life is supposed to look like.

Categories: Australia/New Zealand | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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