A little bit of Amazonia goes a long way …

Travel

Lima: La Parte Uno The following day I had another early morning flight to the third country on my itinerary, Peru. Having prepared my bags, etc, the previous night, I set the wakeup time for 4:30 which would allow me enough time to shower and such and meet the 5am pickup time (once again having to forfeit breakfast). As soon I roused myself and start to get ready, the phone rang, it was reception, the transfer driver was already here, 30 minutes early! I told reception he had to wait. Either he or the local Chimu reps had got it wrong again! When I came down, just after 5, I could see that the Argentinian taxi driver was fuming, you could cut his seething anger with a gaucho knife. I reiterated what I had told reception, he was at fault coming half-an-hour early. This seem to propel him into an even bigger rage, responding with belligerence and rudeness. Once we were in the taxi, the intemperate oaf proceeded to drive like a coke-fuelled maniac at breakneck speed to the airport (fortunately there was very few cars of the freeway at that time). It was a very frosty trip with both of us seriously pissed off at that stage. I was glad to get to the airport in one piece. At least I didn’t have to deliberate over whether to give the turkey a monetary gratificación for his service(?).

Lima protest
Lima protest San Martin Plaza

The Flight to Lima was largely uneventful. Coming out of the Arrivals, I checked the cambio rates as I had no Peruvian sols but was still holding a surplus of Australian dollars. They were offering around 2.70 to the US dollar, which was not bad, but only 1.50 to the Aussie dollar. Considering that Australia was 1.05 or 1.06 to the US$ at the time, this was a rip-off of a deal. I put my Australian dollars away & withdrew sols from the Airport ATM instead. As I was leaving for Amazonia the next morning, The tour agent had booked me in to the nearest hotel 50 metres from the Arrivals gate, Costa Del Sol. This was the first modern hotel I had encountered on the tour! I had a complementary pisco sour at the bar. Notwithstanding my initial reservations I was starting to warm to this quintessentially South American drink. As it was still only mid-afternoon I decided to head into the city. Tossing up whether to go back to Jorge Chávez to get a Green Taxi or the convenience of booking one there at the hotel reception, I went for the convenience (and an extra 15 sols). Despite the reception guy saying it would there in a moment, 15 minutes of moments passed & still no sign of the cab! I walked out into the airport street and hailed one straight away. The drowsy old codger with a rundown taxi charged me 45 sols and then proceeded to drive like someone possessed, zigzagging between cars all the way into the centro. I hadn’t been prepared for such an unnervingly hairy ride from such a senior driver. But, based on my later cab experiences in the Peruvian capital, such dangerously wayward motoring is the norm for everyone. Lima, at least the part I saw on my first day, was very grimy, dirty and faded. There were some grand colonial buildings in the city, but all of them aside from those in Plaza San Martin, were in dire need of a clean and a fresh paint job. There appeared to be hardly any gardens or green areas to speak of in the central region. Of course there was the obligatory protest against the authorities going on in the Plaza, it was typically noisy, very musical with everyone apparently enjoying themselves! In the limited amount of exploring I did, the one street that raised a little bit of interest on my part was Jr Pierola in the downtown area. This curious street was composed largely of small ‘backyard’ printing presses, stretching one after another for blocks. I had thought it strange at the time that there could be a need for this many printing shops in Lima. I didn’t find out until much later that Lima was the counterfeit banknote capital of the world! it now made more sense. Unaware of the back story, I had been thinking only in terms of legitimate, domestic demand!

Order of the White Knotted Rope
Order of the White Knotted Rope

I walked down to the end of the street full of old technology printing businesses onto the main link road where I saw, not for the last time in Peru, an odd kind of religious ceremony. Outside of this big church, there was this line of about 20 priests standing outside the church entrance. They were all wearing a distinctive rope knot around their necks (I later dubbed them “the Order of the White Knotted Rope”). Watching the spectacle for several minutes I got the impression that I was observing some kind of phenomenon of celebrity priests. Clusters of people were standing in the street outside the cathedral (all with the devotional Catholic parishioner look about them) craning their necks and earnestly trying to get a glimpse of the “sacerdotal heavyweights”. And the priests themselves seemed to relish being the centre of attention, lapping up all the unconditional adoration like the strutting peacocks they seemed to be. Central to this spectacle was the priest in purple (rather than the standard black) who arrived late, making a rather grand entrance with quite a theatrical flourish (I didn’t actually notice if his white knotted rope was larger than the others). So, picture the scene, a cabal of monk celebrities being lavishly feted by the pious crowd, to a noisy backdrop of roving street vendors, women and girls, shrilly trying to peddle a range of religious icons, relics & souvenirs to the faithful. I felt the need to move on quickly. I tried to hail a taxi to take me back to the airport hotel but every single driver I stopped on the main avenue, shook their heads vigorously and sped off when I disclosed my intended destination. This left me perplexed, I couldn’t work out

San Jose turrones
San Jose turrones

why were they disinterested in my fare, passing up a chance to rip off another gullible tourist. I walked back in the direction of the church to try a different street for cabs. I passed a very brightly-lit up shop selling something called ‘San Jose turrones’. These were rectangular slabs of biscuit topped with multi-coloured lollies in a gooey base, which despite being very unappetising-looking were very popular with the local customers. Curious about these delicacies I googled them later, the manufacturers themselves don’t describe these turrones as food or biscuits, but as “edible products of Peruvian traditional custom!” Back home, I consulted a work colleague who comes from Peru on the turrones, his opinion was that the most distinctive aspect of these delicacies was their rock-like hardness. Looks like I saved my teeth some wear and tear there. I asked a young Peruvian couple also trying to hail a cab why the taxis wouldn’t take me. The guy informed me that many of the city taxi drivers did not have a permit to enter the airport. He managed to engage a taxi whose driver had the permit and was prepared to take me. This was very considerate of him, but then, when I was getting into the cab, the young fellow, astoundingly, paid the fare for me (which he had negotiated at 40 sols). My protests at such generosity were deflected by the Good Samaritan. It was all I could do to slip a 20 sol note, I had in my pocket, into his reluctant hands. I must say that I was quite blown away by the kindness of this stranger! Twenty minutes later, I was having serious misgivings about having got in this particular taxi. We’d gone about 3-4km when suddenly a traffic policewoman pulls our taxi over. She speaks curtly to the driver (who is already looking quite contrite and sorry for himself) and then she starts writing a ticket. I hadn’t been paying much attention so I was not certain of his misdemeanour, but I suspect he had run a red light. After the policewoman had issued the ticket and moved away to catch some other unalert transgressors, the driver remained sitting there in the cab, crestfallen, motionless for several minutes, reading the infringement notice, then placing it on the dashboard, picking it up again, re-reading it, reading it in minute detail as if not believing the words contained on it. Seemingly stunned by his misfortune, he appeared to have completely forgotten about me in the back, the passenger! Finally, he snaps out of his torpor and slowly put the notice in the glove box, and having regained some composure, restarted the engine and drove on. Our route to the airport, circuitously down various dark backstreets, was very different to the one taken by the ageing speedhog who had brought me into town, and it took a tortuously long time to return to the airport. Finally, outside of what looked like the entrance to the airport, he came to a halt, pointed vaguely in the direction of some amorphous building in the mid distance. I was a bit dubious at about exactly where I was. The driver’s motives for abandoning me outside the airport were not hard to fathom. I figured that he was trying to recoup some of his losses (the ticket still dominating his thinking), by not entering the aeropuerto precinct he was saving money on the permit usage. Whatever! I was still a good seven to eight minutes walking from the hotel but I didn’t care. After the ordeal of the long, long journey I was glad just to get out of the taxi. The next morning I was woken up at 6am by what sounded like a Tijuana brass band playing in an unrestrained fashion. Forty metres from my hotel window a collection of musicians were loudly welcoming a returning local Lima football team. When I got to the airport to catch my flight to the next destination, Puerto Maldonado, I found there were huge queues at the domestic airline check-in, and LAN had one line only open. After 15 minutes in the queue, the line had hardly moved, so I switched to the next line (also LAN) which had only a handful of passengers in it. After some time in this line, a LAN staff person came up and ejected me from the line, because apparently this was for ‘special’ check-ins. I remonstrated loudly with the staff, saying that LAN should have more than one lane open to cope with the overflow of passengers, but they would not budge, so I found myself relegated to the end of a now much longer queue. After three-quarters of an hour and little progress, it was pretty apparent that I would miss my flight. And I would have done so, had not a savvy American traveller I was talking with alerted LAN to my plight. The LAN staff person OK’d me to go straight to the departures gate carting my luggage with me. The sudden spike in passenger numbers at the airport was down to the school holidayers starting their trips, which underlined just how inept LAN was in planning for this annual occurrence. The plane flew first to Cusco for a stopover before going on to the Amazonia region. The Cusco trip turned into a wild salsa party, courtesy of the Latinos on board raucously singing, bumping and grinding their hips to the cabin music most of the way. Even some of the LAN cabin staff were getting into the action, turning up the volume on the music and dancing enthusiastically to the rhythm. I for one was relieved when most of these out-of-control Peruvian 20-somethings danced their way off the plane when it landed at Cusco! On the onward trip to Maldonado, the normal and more subdued in-flight entertainment replaced the passenger-generated entertainment. We were collected by a bus at the less than impressive Puerto Maldonaldo Aeropuerto. The posada lodgers gathering together in the bus were a very mixed group, nationality-wise. I had a nice conversation with two friendly American guys on the bus (not the typical loud, boastful type). On the advice of Lizbeth (our guide) to travel light, we unloaded all of the baggage not needed for the three-day trip to Amazonia in a secure storage holding (at least I was hoping it would be secure). At the river (Rio Tambopata), we took the long boat trip to the resorts (the bus group were going to three different lodges), fortunately ours’ was the closest.

Departure point for Amazonia
Departure point for Amazonia

As we chugged down the Tambopata, I enquired “Are we in Amazonia yet?” Lizbeth replied in the affirmative, so, suppressing my instinctive reflex to say “If that’s so, where is the Amazon River then?”, I instead asked “Is this a tributary of the Amazon?” Lizbeth ‘s halting response was that it was a tributary of another river which was a tributary of the Amazon. A tributary of a tributary? Someone else asked the obvious question, “How far are we from the Amazon River itself?” The guide hesitatingly replied that it was 4,000 kilometres away! The other questioner was incredulous and thought she meant 400 kilometres, and corrected her, which under pressure she eventually agreed to in an appeasing gesture. I checked later, it was 4,000km away! Not to mention several tributaries of tributaries away … through eastern Peru, across Bolivia and of course deep into Brazil. All of my tour group were caught off-guard by this revelation! Before coming to Peru we had thought along these lines: the itinerary says we were going to the Amazonas region of Peru, given we know that the Amazon River itself flows through part of Peru, ergo we will actually be on the Amazon River! Not so apparently! (I discovered later that the Peruvian part of Rio Amazon flows much farther north in the area around Iquitos).

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Rio Tambo

We pulled over to the mooring for the Posada Amazonas and walked up the track a short distance to the rainforest lodge. After a welcome session in the restaurant/bar, my group settled into our rooms which were hobbled together with wood, bamboo, palm fronds, adobe mud and clay, nonetheless the rooms appeared solid enough. They were not however soundproof as all rooms were open at the top, nor were they secure as the verandahs were windowless, opening out to a view of the close-by jungle. Needless to say guests at the lodge would have been foolhardy not to use the room safety deposit boxes.

Posada Amazonas room
Posada Amazonas room

My room had a grand, four-poster bed with a (essential) mosquito net, reminding me of the room I had once stayed in at Livingstone in Zambia alongside the Zambesi River. The hammock in the corner seemed an over the top “Jungle Jim” cliche (and it didn’t come with a mosquito net!). In the afternoon we did an exploratory walk thorough the Amazonas jungle, climbing a 37 metre-high scaffolding canopy tower to get a view of the native bird life. Unfortunately, we didn’t see much of anything of the avian family. Lizbeth, our guide, claimed she got a glimpse of a toucan in the canopy from about 500 metres away but I couldn’t see for sure that it was a toucan! The meal in the Posada that night comprised a set menu and was excellent. Variety was provided with a good rotation of dishes each night, and breakfast and lunch were of a similar quality. Not so ideal was the electricity supply, a couple of times each day the lodge turned on the generator for an hour to allow guests to recharge their batteries, phones and cameras. The problem with this was that the generator’s availability tended to coincide with our boat excursions, so this made it difficult to keep our devices charged up. The electricity also was cut off each night at 9pm, usually ensuring an early night for most. Still, we were deep in the jungle and should have expected to forego the usual urban conveniences and rough it to some extent to give the experience more of an authentic flavour. The next day we pulled on the black wellies supplied by the lodge (most of the trails were permanently muddy in the tropical wild) and crossed the Rio Tambopata by boat to an oxbow lake called Tres Chimbadas, where we circled round the lake in a catamaran. We were on the lookout for caiman and hoatzin (could find any) and giant river otters, which we did see. I asked why we didn’t see any pirañas in the lake. Lizbeth reckoned it was because the otters love to hunt them. We moved to a different part of the river where Lizbeth supplied us with wooden branches fashioned into primitive fishing rods. This time pirañas were plentiful and quite a number were caught by the group, mainly by a Gippsland farmer’s wife (none by me!). The pirañas were surprisingly small (given their fearsome reputation), but any feelings of complacency we might have had were dismissed when Lizbeth demonstrated the razor-sharpness of their teeth in effortlessly cutting through a leaf! I was reminded of this several weeks after the trip when I heard a report of how a host of pirañas had attacked swimmers at a beach in Argentina.

Piranha!
Piranha!

After lunch we went to a nearby Collpa (salted soils) on the river bank. Here at the Clay Licks, neotropic birds ingest the clay from the side of the river bank. Lizbeth had forewarned us that macaws might not be present at the parrot clay licks and we may only see parrots and parakeets, but we were in luck as scarlet macaws were there on mass. From a elevated screen cover constructed next to the clay lick we were able to observe the normally shy macaws feeding on the clay. Without the cover we wouldn’t have been to get that close to the timid but spectacular red, yellow and blue macaws.

The Clay Licks: Macaws
The Clay Licks: Macaws

Later we did a short boat ride downriver to the Infierno native community’s ethnobotanical centre (Centro Ñape). We were escorted around the ‘medicinal’ garden by an Indian medicine-man who showed us the plants that were used by the community for treating different ailments and conditions. At the end of the tour the shaman invited us to sample some of the concoctions which he claimed could treat everything from cancer to diabetics to arthritis to impotence! No one else was game but I tried a couple of the fawn to darkish brownish-coloured drinks which had a taste somewhere between sour whiskey and cough medicine. I didn’t notice any benefits but fortunately I didn’t experience any adverse after-effects either.

Jungle's medicinal cabinet
Jungle’s medicinal cabinet

At night after dinner we did a hike in the dark and the rain looking for jungle organisms which are more nocturnal in their activity. The night patrol turned out to be a bit of a meaningless wander as we only managed to glimpse the occasional frog, a few unexciting insects and one well-camouflaged monkey in the trees. In the morning the Amazonia adventure at an end, I said goodbye to Lizbeth who implored me to give a very good report on the tour evaluation sheet. Her earnest entreaties were of such a magnitude, as if a life or death outcome rested on my favourable response, so I was only too happy to oblige her request. In my jungle room each night when retiring, I had gone to obsessively lengths to ensure that the moissie net covered my body 100 per cent, so intent was I to try to escape the dreaded bite of the Amazonian mosquito. But just as I was leaving, they had finally got a piece of me, causing my skin to become increasingly sensitive and itchy as the day wore on.

Tambopata boat
Tambopata boat

After a 45 minute boat ride and a final photo or two of the Tambopata, we returned to the port and the Maldonado storage depot. After the bus was unloaded, I discovered that my baggage from the lodge had not been brought back. I had been a bit apprehensive that they might have missed my bag because my room was at the far end of the lodge. Indeed I had actually gone back just prior to departure time to make sure that it was still not outside the room. It had been taken so I was (deceptively) reassured. The depot staff were all relaxed about it when I reported it missing (typical Latino insouciance) and the supervisor told me not to be concerned, “no te preocupes señor“, on the next bus no problem. Frustrated, I was left to cool my heels, thinking that I should not have trusted the inept fuckers and instead carried the bag myself. I was less than amused to find out that the porters had placed my bag with another group of bags in error. Fortunately I was running early for the flight back to Cusco, so the lodge’s cockup wasn’t costly. Puerto Maldonado Aeropuerto was about as threadbare and lacking infrastructure as any airport I could imagine in South America, befitting I guess a remote jungle outpost! There was no air con and not much in the way of snacks or refreshments in the cafe. There was very few seats in the terminal and woefully few in the Departures area. This was not a place you want to get stuck in for a long time, the boredom factor would probably kick in pretty swiftly. Interestingly, the electronic detector at the baggage point seemed to be activated only by footwear! Waiting in the Departures lounge I looked round for something to distract me and find it in the shape of an odd sign on the wall. The notice lists a number of points, including a warning to passengers of their potential criminal liability in the event of flights being delayed by wild birds coming in contact with the aircraft (not sure how this could be attributed to a passenger?!?), something about passengers ingesting drugs and then being apprehended, and then later it turns out that they didn’t actually ingest any drugs and so are allowed to stay on the flight after all (I’ve no idea what this means!!!), and a statement indicating the possibility of a bomb being discovered at the airport or on board (no mention of what procedure would follow the discovery – just that there could be a bomb and folks you should know this!). El bizarro! I sighed heavily and was just happy to see the LAN jet appear on the tarmac soon afterwards.

Tour de Tigre and Late Night Life of the Portenos

Travel

Argentina La Parte Tres:

Portenos outside Metropolitan Cathedral, Plaza de Mayo
Portenos outside Metropolitan Cathedral, Plaza de Mayo

At breakfast the next morning an Argentinian guest at the hotel strikes up a conversation with me addressing me initially in Spanish, until he, a little embarrassed, realises his error. Quite a few of the locals seem to think I’m a Latino, until I open my mouth that is! Having inadvertently broken the ice we converse whilst choosing consumables from the buffet selection. He mentions to me that the Argie president (simply known as ‘Cristina’ to the masses) was in the process of having an operation on her brain (I was aware of this, it being the main topic running on the BA news). He said it with such gravitas seeming to infer great respect, but then he applied the sting in the tail, adding in a deadpan tone betrayed only by a trailing chuckle, “Perhaps they will find nothing there!” I ask him if he knew Hugo Porta, curious if El Puma has a profile here in soccer-obsessed Argentina. Yes he does, not so much because he was an international rugby star for the Argentine team, but because he was the Government’s sports minister under the Menem regime.

The breakfast news runs yet another story about La Desaparecidos. A woman is being interviewed on television about her sister who is one of the young Argentinians who was suddenly and mysteriously seen to disappear from society. In South America this is code for ‘abducted’ by the authorities or the military and probably murdered for alleged left-wing activity (defined as subversive activity). The television ‘interview’ comprises the distraught sibling, wailing and sobbing incoherently, pleading for the return of her lost sister. What was extraordinary about this spectacle, was that, despite the woman being largely incomprehensible and reduced to a rambling, emotional mess, the coverage uncomfortably persists, letting the story run live on and on for over half an hour on prime-time TV without cutting it! On Australian or UK TV they would never permit something as indulgent and as loose and unstructured as this to happen, but I understand why it is accepted here. The plight of ‘the disappeared’ is THE emotional issue for so many South Americans, the raw wound for ordinary people which remains unhealed. The lingering issue of La Desaparecidos is the continuing, unaccounted for exemplar of justice denied for so many citizens in Chile and Argentina in particular.

Having ticked the previous day’s city tour off my list of things to do, it was now time to take the excursion to Tigre. The “Eye of the Tiger” tour, as it is called, is a standard part of all Buenos Aires tour packages. Tigre is a town at the mouth of the delta region of the Paraná River some 30 km north of BA and close to the Uruguay border. ‘Tigre’ is a bit of a misnomer, as it was thus named by the early settlers because of the presence of jaguars (not tigers as you might presume) in the region during the pioneering years. The delta comprises many branches (5000-plus waterways in all) linking thousands of tiny islands. We set out from Tigre on a river cat cruiser down one of the main tributary rivers of the Paraná, Rio San Antonio). Our guide for the Tigre tour was a very personable, gentle young guy called Jeremy (Jeremias) who looked like an Argentinian Ferris Bueller. Jeremy was very informative and accommodating, and spoke excellent English, albeit with some delightful idiosyncrasies which betrayed his non-English speaking background, for example, he referred to Canberra as a ‘planified’ city (a real gem!), I didn’t try to correct him, after all the meaning was clear, and the idea of the insular hinterland of Canberra being described as ‘planified’ sounded spot on! Jeremy mentioned that geoscientific experts have predicted that the Tigre islands which under tectonic force, are ever so slowly moving south, will eventually collide with the northern suburbs of Buenos Aires!

Tigre Art Museum
Tigre Art Museum

The cruise went past a number of distinctive buildings on the foreshore, none more impressive than the Tigre Art Museum with its large classical columns, extended upper deck and classy marble staircase. The waterfront along the Paraná contained a number of 19th century mansions, where the upper classes engaged in leisurely activities. There wasn’t a lot of passing traffic on the river as we cruised on it, mostly single scullers doing their rowing practice, with the occasional pilot boat and water taxi. The sight of moored houseboats and smaller ‘family’ boats were very common on the river, given the isolation of delta dwellers maritime vessels are just about obligatory. Other sights that we pass further up the river include a casino, an amusement park and old shipbuilding yards.

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The floating ‘corner shop’

Another distinctive feature of Tigre and common to the entire length of the delta’s waterways is the presence of heavily-laden, wooden provisions boats. More than anything else in the region. these moored boats illustrate the isolated nature of the delta region. With no supermarkets or even shops around, the 3500 or so Tigrean locals rely on these “floating stores”. The supply boats, laden with household goods, cruise from dock-shed to dock-shed, from property to property, enabling the rivers’ residents to stock up their weekly shopping needs. Right along the lower delta there is an interesting array of riverfront houses (all dwellings on the river are numberless but are identified by their own distinguishing names), as well as holiday and camping grounds providing a weekend escape for the Portenos, and heavily wooden parklands, the delta was a traditional source of osier wood used for construction in the capital (the Osier is a willow found in wet habitats). The number of homes on the Paraná raised up on stilts was testimony to the threat of flooding, an on-going reality.

Not just the houses get put on stilts!
Not just the houses get put on stilts!

The river itself was alluvial, exhibiting a muddy brown colour which gave the impression of being brackish, which Jeremy assured us was more to do with the particular sediments in the water rather than any indicator of pollution. The river cat looped round in a circuit past the weird spectacle of Museo Sarmiento, a small house totally encapsulated in a large, transparent glass enclosure, which reminded me of the imposing glass cathedral in Peter Carey’s novel Oscar and Lucinda. From Sarmiento we headed back into the open channel at River Plat, docking again at Tigre Delta Station. I tipped the rivercat captain 60 pesos because he got us back in one piece. The delta excursion was an interesting diversion but not really a riveting tour, and it certainly didn’t live up to the tour provider’s brochure description of the Delta del Paraná experience as a “sensation that cannot be transmitted,” and even more obliquely, “(containing) tiny details that enclose big emotions.” The tour visited the nearby city of San Isidro, which is the stronghold of rugby union in Argentina, stopping off at Puerto de Frutos to visit the dock markets where other members of our tour, comprising mainly Mexican car dealers and their spouses, clicked into bartering mode for a hectic 25 minutes of shopping! Puerto de Frutos, despite the name, seems to be a emporium for bargain domestic goods with a few tourist shops thrown in. The fruit vending side of the markets was nowhere to be seen.

Ocampo
Ocampo

Later, we took a tour of the Villa Ocampo also in San Isidro, the former home of a famous Argentinian woman writer and publisher, now owned and administered by UNESCO. The childless Victoria Ocampo, to avoid the Villa being acquired after her death by the right wing, militaristic Argentinian government of the Seventies, signed it over to UNESCO. Villa Ocampo is a magnificent mansion, quite eclectic stylistically, with various, many French and British, influences evident. During Ocampo’s time, it was a meeting place for many famous intellectuals and writers (Camus, Lorca, Le Corbusier, Tagore, Malraux, Borges, Graham Greene, etc), today it is a cultural centre, a venue for music and the arts. Inside, the rooms are very grand, stylishly decorated with a room devoted to the literature and magazine work (SUR) of Ocampo. As we were visiting, workers were setting up the drawing room for a jazz recital. The gardens (Centro del Paisaje) are extensive (the property is 10,500 square metres in size) and a particular delight, a reflection of the great passion Victoria Ocampo had for gardening, and for the Villa in its entirety. From Villa Ocampo, we connected up with the Av de Liberador (named in honour of the ubiquitous General San Martin whose statutes line the Avenue), the main thoroughfare passing right through the city. At the Tigre tour’s end, after getting some advice from Jeremy on what to see, I set out on foot to explore more of Buenos Aires. Being in the metro central I went first to the nearby Av 9th de Julio, reputed by Argentinians to be the widest avenue in the world. It is very, very wide, but it depends on how you look at it! Within parts of the Avenue I counted what I might call five distinct streets, the two inner ones being restricted to metrobus transport.

The 9th of July
The 9th of July

On coming to South America, and venturing out into the busy pedestrian zones, I soon realised that here, the practice is that you walk on the right of the footpath (a reverse of the ‘down under’ custom). This makes sense, you drive on the right side and you walk on the right, so wherever I walked, I tried to be conscious of this ‘rule’. What I found though, is that the locals in the various cities do not consistently adhere to this rule. Some pedestrians automatically just veer straight across to the left side when it is closer to the shops. Accordingly, I soon adopted the approach of walking in the middle of footpaths to be flexible enough to hop either to the left or right as the occasion required.

Power dressing: 1950s dictator's wife-style
Power dressing: 1950s dictator’s wife style

After traversing 9th de Julio I headed for the Parques district where the Zoo and Museo Evita is. Despite having an electronic assistant (my iPad maps), but because of my poor sense of direction, I managed to get hopelessly lost, and ended up backtracking to Microcentro, where I started from. Trying again, this time using a different route, I did get eventually to the Zoo and close by, the Museo Evita. I passed on the Zoo as it was too close to the closing time & headed for the museum. It had a very elegant interior with a classy staircase, but it wasn’t a very propitious entrance for me, the first thing the girl at the ticket booth mentioned to me was the toilets weren’t ‘available’. I wondered, is this code for ‘not working’? – or for “we only say we have customer toilets on the brochure to get more tourist brownie points”? Either way, after walking halfway across BA, I thought ‘great!’ Museo Evita was a good insight into Argentina’s most famous woman. On display were carefully assembled items from Evita’s childhood, her theatre and movie careers, and of course, given that Evita was a fashionista for millones of Argentinian women, her dresses and outfits (lots of them!). And, very stylish they were. A curious exhibit included in the display was Evita’s kitchen, complete with fake slabs of meat on the griller. The once powerful husband, Juan Peron, does not get much of a look-in, a single bust and one of his military uniforms encapsulates his total representation at the museum. After the museum, I did some more sightseeing around the Palermo district, before heading back in the direction of the hotel. I noticed the widespread habit of naming streets in Buenos Aires after Argentinian generals, they’re everywhere, Avenida General Paz, Avenida General Alvear, Calle General Balcarce, Avenida Díaz Vélez, and of course, Calle General San Martin. There is even the practice of naming streets after cruisers named after generals (the outstanding example of this, geared toward achieving maximum propagandistic effect, is the General Belgrano). Walking down General Las Heras I passed a street named Coronel Diaz, and concluded that they must have run out of notable generals to honour! Something else occurred to me whilst strolling around the city, there were very few priests to be seen on the streets. I had come across maybe one member of the clergy in my time in the Argentine, which seemed strange in the capital of such a staunchly Catholic country. Whimsically I pondered, were priests becoming the new desaparecidos? I stopped off in Av Las Heras for dinner, picking a restaurant that was reasonably busy but not crowded. I had pizza again and a pisco sour (I did not like this South America specialty when I first tried it but by now I was warming to it). I declined the sweet on offer, dulce de leche (I had tried it earlier at the hotel – way too caramelisingly syrupy for me!), but washed the meal down with what is becoming a custom, a bottle of Qualmes.

BA after dark
BA after dark

Walking around Buenos Aires at night you experience a different side to the city. All sorts of things come out of the woodwork after dark. I didn’t have to stray far from my Centro hotel to find the dodgiest parts of BA. Walking down Calle Florida from Lavalle I soon came across the illegal money changers all shouting out “Cambio, cambio” at the passing punters. Usually these street touts quote very good exchange rates for USD, but this can be a risky venture with a fair chance of you ending up lumbered with counterfeit notes. Florida is an area to exercise caution, I was warned that flashing a wad of cash could be an invitation to robbery around here. Along Florida you will also find callow youths on every corner or cross-section handing out their tiny squares of paper advertising either some special pizza deal or certain massage parlour services which may with or without the additional “happy ending”!

Wander a bit further along to Av Corboda, close to Av 9th de Julio, and you’ll soon find the spot where the local streetwalkers ply their trade. It was after 11.30 when I passed a girl standing in the shadow of a door of a closed business who canvassed her ‘recreational‘ services so softly and in such a low-key manner that I virtually didn’t notice her! My second encounter, which followed minutes later contained no such ambiguity. I was waiting at the lights to cross the road, when one overweight, overenthusiastic woman, in a very forwardly way, bounced up to me grabbing my arm and proceeded to try to entice me to accompany her to a nearby hotel for “a little drink and maybe some massage later, eh?” Caught somewhat off-guard by her directness, I fumbled around for several seconds eventually managing to utter some excuse and slipped out of her grasp and up the street. Later I learnt that the ‘sting’ involved enticing the target back to the hotel to fork out for overpriced drinks, before a taxi to a telos (quaintly described by Portenos as “love hotels”). A lot of the night action seemed to centre around Avenida Cordoba and Noveno Julio, where you can experience both the subtle and the not-so subtle approach of the street-stalking girls.

I don’t know why but this seems to happen to me on a regular basis when I head overseas. Perhaps it’s because of my preference for exploring new cities on foot and often late at night. When I do venture out in places I am visiting for the first time I often find that without either knowing where I am or any dubious intention on my part, I end up in the heart of the local red light district! I was similarly accosted by overzealous working girls when I innocently stumbled onto Canton Road in Hong Kong and Ronda Litoral in Barcelona. To avoid more encounters with late night shift workers on Av de Cordoba, I head off in the opposite direction. Needing to make another early start in the morning for the next leg of my trip, I decide to call it a night and return to my not-so-Gran Hotel. I take a circuitous route down Lavalle, noticing that despite it being past midnight the restaurants are all full of people who, revived by a late afternoon siesta, are now tucking avariciously into supersize portions of pizza, parrillada and bondiola. Everywhere Portenos demonstrating the Buenos Aires obsession with late night non-vegetarian dining!

The Accidental Survivor: Part III

Bushwalking

Day 3

As the night went on…and on, I was cursing the rain, not especially because it was making me cold and wet, I was already cold and totally saturated from walking hip-deep in the creek, but because it was not raining enough for me to get some material benefit from it. I was hoping that a decent rainfall would lessen the effects of dehydration from which I was suffering, but the light, intermittent drizzle over most of the night barely succeeded in making my lips moist.

The swirling winds of the mountains delivered me the strangest of nights on the rocky heights. Every so often my nostrils would detect the inexplicable whiff of glue (quite strong at times), and this combined with the periodical sound of loud machinery in operation, made me believe there was an industrial plant or factory of some sort not far from the rocky outcrop that I had bedded down on. At times the source of the noise seemed to be very close indeed, as did the train, the sound of which I could also clearly distinguish to the north-east of me. These ‘revelations’ did lift my spirits and the prospect of at last escaping the wilderness trap I was in seemed almost tangible. I sensed I was very close to breaking out, although in my more lucid and realistic moments I tempered this optimism with the sobering reminder that noises at high elevation have a tendency to be carried considerable distances by the wind.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As time passed my mind, deprived of sleep, seemed to lapse into a kind of hallucinatory state. I started to rehearse in my head an almost quixotic scenario by which I would make good my escape. At the first sign of a lightening sky I would struggle up the remaining distance to the peak, crossing over it into ‘civilisation’ and secure my own deliverance by finding a workplace plant of some description (it didn’t have to be precisely that, the key element was that I would find people in some sort of roofed structure!). Obsessively through the rest of the night, I would replay this same, imagined sequence of events whereby I would dramatically emerge from the bush and burst in upon the surprised workers, telling them they have no idea how glad I was to see them, the first humans I have sighted in two days, etc, etc. Startled, they would view me as some sort of wondrous spectre bringing lustre and excitement to their deadly-dull, tedious night shift existences (such was the lyrical degree to which my mind was running wildly off the rails!). I would ask my would-be saviours for water and implore them to drive me back to Ross Crescent where my car was, so I could be on my merry way back to a world of modern indoor conveniences!

In hindsight, I can see that this was merely a fanciful, desperate construct of my mind concocted to shore up my resolve to get the hell out of that accursed bush … to find a release from my unhappy predicament. Or to view my line of thought from a different angle, this was therapy that I was “self-medicating”, psyching myself up to be in, and stay in, survivor mode … at one point I reminded myself that, unhelpfully, I had never ever watched a single episode of that over-publicised Survivor TV show. Drat! All the useless, mindless television I had watched over the years, and I hadn’t included something that would have been at least a little bit practical right now!

Even though this intoxicating ‘vision’ of mine was guileless and implausible to say the very least, it affirmed the extent to which I was determined to save myself (or be saved) by whatever means it took. Constantly running through a best result scenario in my head passed the time on this impossible-to-sleep night, as well as being a device to give myself hope, to keep my spirits up in the midst of such a trying experience. Looking at both Google Maps and Gregory’s later, I could not pinpoint the slightest sign of an industrial plant in the vicinity of where I had been, but there was a large man-made structure, possibly an electricity sub-station, in that proximity which I may have mistaken for a factory of some kind … though the mystery of the strong odour of glue remained just that, a mystery!

The part of my coccyx/tailbone which had impacted so dramatically with the stony ground the previous evening had by this time cooled down and I started feeling a discernible pain which came and went. It was a dull pain centred in the lower back, interspersed over the next 24 hours by occasional sharp stabbing pains … a series of momentary spasms in the middle of the back. Fortunately the pain was not severe enough at this time to hamper my mobility. With the light of day came the bitter, demoralising reality that I was not where I had thought I was, not anywhere near it in fact! The top of the mountain peak was still a long way off and a long way up, and between me and the top was a thick ground cover of undergrowth and high trees.

Disappointed, a feeling I was becoming accustomed to, I hastily revised my plans. I figured that I must have gone a long way past the old ladder and was probably on the mountainous range closer to the Warrimo side of the Florabella track. The only alternative to going up was to return to the creek in order to to retrace my steps to the ladder. Starting on my descent down I was keen to avoid those same sheer vertical cliff-faces which had been my unmaking the night before I had already decided to forgo any chance there might have been of recovering the lost hiking boot on the way down (it would have been the most remote of chances indeed). Heading east I steered a haphazard, zig-zagging course trying to skirt around the stony cliffs and gradually ease myself down a steep embankment to the bottom using the hill’s slender but resilient plant stems as hand brakes.

The dense hillside of course had no human-made path and I had to step my way through, over and past an assortment of fallen logs, bush palms, vines, briar patches and countless other native shrubs and trees. Eventually I found or fashioned a way down the steep hill half-running and half-sliding. Thus far, the blundering, accident-filled wilderness adventure I was experiencing had not sparked any inspired perspicacity on my part, let alone anything resembling an epiphany, but suddenly a fragment of bush survival wisdom flickered within me. I realised that the bush foliage everywhere was still wet from the previous night’s intermittent rain, from this I was to obtain a partial antidote to the dehydration that was overtaking me. Not an especially profound revelation but an immensely practical one in the circumstance!

From that point on, every bush or tree that I laboured past on the way down the hill, I would pause in front of it and shake it for all that it was worth. The spray from the leaves and foliage was eagerly received by my mouth. I had move quickly to get to as many trees as I could before the emerging morning sun dried their foliage. I ‘drank’ from dozens of bushes that I came to, and continued this practice when I reached the creek, supping on the wattles, musky-smelling ferns and other tree higher branches overhanging the creek as I made my way up it. In reality, the quantity of fresh water I absorbed through this method wouldn’t have come close to filling a 250ml bottle, but I think it was important (psychologically as well), maybe even vital, in securing for me some temporary respite from a state of being totally dehydrated.

Buoyed by the rainwater I kept to the creek for a good portion of the day, by now I was finding land progress very heavy going. My steps, two days since I had last eaten or drunk anything other than the small quantity of rainwater, were understandably more lethargic than when I started, plus there was the added, significant disadvantage of being reduced to 50% of my footwear! This in itself made it a very hard, laborious slog, both on land and in the creek. Whether on land or in the creek, clambering over obstacles had become a more arduous exercise with one boot only, especially as it was my left boot that was missing. I hadn’t realised prior to this situation that when climbing over boulders or rocks (or going up generally) I naturally and instinctively led or pushed off with my left leg (a habit I guess that comes from being left-handed?). With only a sock on my left leg I become instantly aware of this trait and how it was a handicap in the circumstances. Getting traction on wet or mossy rocks with a shoeless left foot was hard to do, so I had to kind of painstakingly teach myself there in the bush to lead with my (‘unnatural’) right leg … I found the discipline of this surprisingly difficult to master as instinctively I still wanted to start off each time on my left, the consequence of a lifetime habit of relying on it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFoot slogging it in the creek brought its own extra burdens courtesy of nature. Walking in the water seemed to attract more pestering insects to myself than when on land. Mosquitos and sandflies of course were ever present but the most persistent annoyances were the large, black bush blowflies. These irritants, which reminded me in appearance of Darth Vader in arthropod form, seemed to be imbued with a large dose of schadenfreude, as they noisily delighted in repeatedly latching on to my open cuts and scratches with blood-sucking precision. Fortunately these insects were slow to react to a counterblow and I managed to squash many a one against my arm or leg whilst trudging upstream.

In my increasingly dire bush predicament, with all the time in the world and nothing or no one to disturb me, I found myself mulling over the oddest notions. Considering my potentially disastrous situation, I marvelled to think that things such as social embarrassment loomed as in any way important to me right at that moment. But extraordinarily they did! As I walked and mused randomly I conjured up images and scenarios that I found distinctly unpalatable, such as the prospect of being identified on the Channel 7 News. I visualised a news item flashing up on the screen along the lines of “Lost bushwalker still not found in Blue Mountains, cold snap predicted for day seven of search”, things like that.

For years I had listened censoriously to reports on the nightly news about rescue trams searching for hopelessly ill prepared and equipped hikers lost in various national parks, and thought how totally inept and irresponsible were these tossers to put themselves in that position! Now the wheel had turned full circle and I reflected that could soon be my fate, nationally outed as the careless and grossly negligent doofus expending valuable resources on an avoidable rescue! Despite the reality of the imminent peril that I was facing, I had the weird presence of mind to push the central issue of my potential non-survival to the back of my mind and concentrate on the galling prospect of being the focus of widespread, social opprobrium. For some inexplicable reason, odd as it seems to me, this was more important at that moment than the very real threat to my life.

It occurred to me that I was hearing or sighting the helicopter above the gorge less frequently than the day before. It had crossed once in the morning relatively close to me, but despite my frantic attempts to attract its attention, in an instant it disappeared from view oblivious of my existence. A new potential news banner sprang into my head: “Emergency rescue services scale back search for missing Blue Mountains solo bushwalker, authorities indicate little chance …..”. My fertile mind turned to reactions of people to the news of my non-rescue, I wondered what people from work would say or whether for instance ex-girlfriends from 20-30 years ago would find out. I thought, they’d be sitting down in front of the nightly news with their families, see the story identifying me as being presumed dead and would say things like “Yes, I remember him! Well what do you know … he always did seem a bit impetuous!” My over-activated mind was really giving it a nudge, as they say!

I don’t have a clue why this particular notion came into my head, but such were the bizarre thoughts I was entertaining after three days of exclusively sharing my own company. I can only surmise that maybe I was becoming a bit delirious. I started to speculate in a very left field fashion … rethinking the helicopter situation I reverted fleetingly to a view that they may still be looking for me. I wondered to myself: OK if they were scanning the whole Glenbrook Creek area, surely, I reasoned, they’d realise that I would come down to the creek at regular intervals? Therefore, I thought, why don’t they randomly drop 50 water bottles say all the way along the creek? They could even attach notes to the bottles saying they’re still searching for me! At least, if nothing else, that would solve the acute problem I had of no drinking water. Clearly, my mind was meandering in a wildly erratic way.

An hour or two later (I was watch-less as well so I couldn’t be sure of the time lapse) I started to recognise some of the landform features on the side of the creek (experience was to teach me that this was not a fail-safe approach as many natural features I thought distinctive, I later discovered were replicated elsewhere in the largely homogenous Glenbrook Creek bushscape). I moved closer to the line of trees on the highway side, passing a patch of massive wild, radiantly bright orange mushrooms, I noted a broad area of lanky reeds adjoining a long sandbank which reduced the stream to a trickle, this landform seemed faintly familiar.

Shortly, I spotted an opening in the bush, an area cleared of trees with an elevated mound, and I thought I could actually see the walking track on the ridge on the horizon. This seemed like the point I had gone off-track two days before, but what I couldn’t spot, which would clinch it for me, was the definitive marker, the old corroded white ladder. For this reason I decided to venture on for a bit to locate other markers which would corroborate the location. Unfortunately, the particular markers I had in mind (a log connecting the creek to the bank, a second sandbar with long, dense grasses, a darkly-discoloured rock formation), never came into view. So, I continued on, thinking that I had misjudged the distance between the various markers and the old ladder on day one.

Trudging on in silence up the creek I was reflecting on what had just transpired. Did I misread where I was, did I miss that one elusive window of opportunity for escape? The further I went in the opposite direction I became convinced that the answer was yes … or at least, probably. I was feeling extremely frustrated now. I reached another, vaguely familiar, landmark, which I couldn’t decide whether I had seen it on the first day or not turn back. Indecisive, I tossed up over what to do, concluding that I was now too far west I decided to turn around. Amazingly on the way back, despite looking intently, I couldn’t spot the clearing which I had located as being close to the old ladder. My sense of frustration heightened, a banding the ladder objective I pushed on eastwards. Yet again I resumed my quest to find those swimming holes, on which I had refocused all of my hopes for self-preservation.

Surely, if I could just locate those accursed pools, it would yield up a way out of the maze. I was annoyed with myself because I was heading east for the third occasion in three days, and for not finding the exit after all this time! I had now gone so long (and so far) without seeing any people, the valley appeared deserted and eerily quiet, bereft of all human existence. Contradicting this thought though was the plentiful evidence of human visitation, numerous bits of litter in the form of discarded soft drink bottles, ice cream and chocolate wrappers. So, the humans have been here, but not just any at the same time as me!

The slow upstream progress allowed me to muse on my mishap, my closely-run ‘escape’ of the night before. Falling from the rock-face was very scary and the outcome had been undoubtedly a very painful one but more worrying was the possibility of something being more serious amiss with me. But the unlimited amount of time I had to my disposal allowed me to mull over just how much more catastrophic the fall might have been. Out there alone in the bush without help, I could easily have pierced a lung or other organ on a rock, or fallen to my death by landing on my head, or by missing the narrow ledge and plunging to the bottom of the canyon – lots of possibilities for achieving mortality. I marvelled at my utter foolhardiness, what was I thinking!!! It was surely crazy, I thought, to have played that desperate card on the mountain, I must have been at that instant gripped by some overpowering instinctive urge to resolve my predicament right then. I guess that I had been in a sort of “crash through or crash” mindset.

The afternoon was hot, by submerging myself in the creek regularly as I travelled up it I managed to get some relief from the sun, refreshing me momentarily but sufficiently to carry on. Eventually I came to a large pool of water, not particularly clear in appearance but deep in parts. This pool was connected by a narrow isthmus of land and rocks to a second pool similar in nature to the first. I realised that this, finally, had to be the elusive, old swimming holes charted on the guidebook map. I looked around the pools and could see that there was a rough-hewn path coming down from the surrounding east-side hill, with a rotted-out old log forming an entry point into the water. This was, finally, the swimming holes, but from the state of them it was clear that they hadn’t been used for a very long time. I scouted round and discovered two potential paths leading away from the waterholes. One was quite steep, going up round a large, rocky hill, and the other followed the elevated bank on the edge of the creek. I tried tracking these routes, but it proved fruitless, as both seemed to lead nowhere, ending either with the path vanishing or coming to a halt at an insurmountable barrier of massive boulders which couldn’t be circumvented. I double-backed to the creek, concluding that if this was an access route to and from the Florabella track, it had long fallen into disuse, another black mark against the guidebook’s accuracy.

Back down in the creek, it was around 3 o’clock and very hot still. My aspirations to escape via this route had been snuffed out, what was I to do now? Going on, further up the creek, was a ‘unknowable unknown’, my map (whatever good it was given it’s dubious performance so far) did not in any case chart the area beyond the swimming holes, so I didn’t have any inkling of where Glenbrook Creek ended. I only knew what I had learned empirically over the preceding two days, that it stretched west for a long way. Backtracking (once again) seemed the only viable course. Yet once more I found myself putting all my faith in finding the old ladder. It was feeling increasingly like ‘Groundhog Day’ without Bill Murray (or any other human company for that matter!) From this point on as I cursed and struggled up the creek, I took every opportunity to metaphorically ‘kick’ myself over the lapse in judgement in not acting earlier in the afternoon when I spotted what I guessed was the trail from the creek bank.

I had by now given up on the helicopter as being my saviour, it wasn’t going to happen. That prospect had become more and more remote as the sightings become less frequent and further away each time. Dehydration was becoming a serious matter of concern for me again. My lips were parched and only cosmetically relieved for a brief time whenever I would cup the unpleasant-smelling creek water in my hands and brush it against my mouth. Even with this, I was aware that if I had to shout for help in the event of the sudden, miraculous appearance of some human sentient being, it was extremely unlikely that I would be able to muster anything more than the most inaudible squeak from my feeble voice.

I found myself adopting a curious stratagem to try to counter the reality of having nothing to drink and its testing physiological (and psychological) effect on me. I kind of psyched myself into this obsessive craving for either Pepsi or Coca-Cola, the inexplicable thing about this is that Coke is a beverage that I’d hardly ever drink or like much (ginger beer is my non-alcoholic drink of choice!)

Nonetheless the idea of it acted as a spur to drive me forwards when fatigue was having a debilitating and demoralising effect on my mind. Revisiting my musings on the mountain of the previous night I visualised a “walk to freedom” (to put it somewhat over-grandly), a sequential process, one step at a time. First, I envisaged myself finally making it to the old ladder, I didn’t ever contemplate the mechanics of how I would get myself, weary and worn, from the ground to the ridge above and then up a straight vertical incline of soft unstable mud and loose dirt to the ladder with nothing much to grab on to. I just knew that once I got there, I would do it – somehow!

I imagined myself on the Florabella track, ragged, filthy, exhausted and half-shoeless. I would somehow hobble my way back to Ross Crescent Blaxland and my car. The last step to liberty would take me to the nearest servo. Then, the act of raising the glass of Pepsi or Coca-Cola to my lips heralded that I had returned to civilisation and all its creature comforts! I would indulge myself with the thought of the unbridled pleasure of the coke as it silkily went down my throat. I still can’t fathom why I chose coke of all beverages, alcoholic and non-alcoholic, as the symbol of my resolve to make it out of the bush.

My feet were starting to ache, my left foot in particular was feeling the effects of wear and tear sans footwear, and the nail on my big right toe had turned black and had commenced the process of separating itself from the toe. I don’t know exactly when or how this additional injury happened, perhaps when I stubbed it one too many of the countless rocks in the creek, either that or very possibly, it was damaged in the cliff fall when I clipped one or the two ridges on my rapid, spiral descent. After the disappointments of the day, I rallied my spirits and refocusing on the “magical elixir” of Pepsi Cola, I set myself the objective of reaching the old ladder by nightfall. But I didn’t properly reckon on the toll three days of lumbering and stumbling through fierce bush without food or water would take.

By around 5pm, wet and bone-weary, I again switched from the creek bed to the rugged terrain of the bank. I struggled on manfully for as long as I could, going forward where I could, sideways more often than not, around, under, over, through, all the while collecting new abrasions and incisions on my unprotected legs. Later on I paused long enough to do a count of the cuts on my hands (not even bothering to start on my legs!), I stopped when I got to 68 on the top and palm of my left hand and 51 on my right hand. My arms and legs bore witness to the fact that I had come a distant second in taking on a hostile physical environment. And it was not getting any easier after three days, ominously quite to the contrary.

By about quarter past six I was fed up with walking on such a difficult course, and easily succumbed to the fatigue of my tribulations. I simply couldn’t go after further … I stopped and searched out a favourable strip of sand to recover my energies during the night. I flopped down and lay on the cool evening sand, drenched and listless, in need of urgent sleep but unable to sleep in these harsh al fresco surrounds. Exposed like this on the ground, my position felt vulnerable and helpless against any unknown and unseeable threats that may be out there, but I was too drained to do anything about it. I submissively curled up in the cold in an essentially futile attempt to keep warm, all the time listening intently for sounds that may signal some new menace, this hadn’t concerned me before but now, exposed in the open, it had come into my head.

Reflecting on the events of the day, I was all too cognisant of an emerging pattern after three days: on each of the three evenings, after a hard, all-day slog in the bush, I was forced to call a halt to my trek earlier than on the one preceding it! It was becoming clear that understandably the cumulative effects of total exhaustion and lack of nourishment were starting to catch up with me.

As I lay on the cold sand, capable of no more than simulating sleep for the duration of another agonisingly long night in the open, many thoughts rushed through my head. Disparate as some of these were, they all came back to a common theme, I was exhorting myself to stay resolved. Whatever I did the next day, which way I went, which choices I made, this time I had to make them count, I knew that my chances of saving myself or being saved as each day passed, were diminishing rapidly.

Back in BA: Tango in the fast lane, Finding Evita, La Boca and the Cult of Maradona

Travel

Argentina La Parte Dos:

This morning was my last in Puerto Iguazú but my time of departure had become an issue. The night before Rodrigo had read out the pickup times for airport transfers, I noted that he indicated that my time was 9am, but when I later checked my itinerary provided by Chimu, it said 11:20. At reception I tried to resolve this but they didn’t seem to know (or understand). Before having breakfast I tried phoning the Chimu reps office in Buenos Aires (I had no mobile connection in Chile but my service in Iguazú appeared to be functioning). I couldn’t get through to the Chimu number in the capital but eventually the hotel receptionist did get on to them and confirmed that the original, printed time (11:20) was the right one (Rodrigid the spoiler had struck again!).

As I sat down for breakfast I remembered that I had asked the receptionist to keep my cholera vaccine in a cool place for me (the restaurant fridge), and that I needed to take the last dose before leaving. I stopped one of the passing staff, and motioned towards the fridge inside the bar annex (only a few paces away from where I was seated). The guy ‘seemed’ to get what I was wanted. I waved my room key with the room number 221 on the tag (my vaccine in the fridge was in an envelope marked ‘room 221′). Before I could clarify further, he said ‘Si, no problema senor” and suddenly grabbed the key and bounded up the stairs to my room before I could stop him. I scurried out to intercept him on the stairs, beckoning him back down to the restaurant. I have no idea what he was going to fetch from my room because he had totally misunderstood what I was after! As he was returning, another staff person walked past and I was able to guide her by the arm to the fridge and finally retrieve the medicine. Neither of the staff seemed to have comprehended the word ‘fridge’ (although I didn’t think it was all that remote from the Spanish, ‘refrigador’). To top off this farcical exercise in miscommunication, the attendant guy didn’t return the key to me, instead the dodo leaves it with the duty person at the front desk, so I had to retrieve it later. Grrrrr! After breakfast I filled in the two hours till the departure time by making a last sweep of the Port shops for souvenirs.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The airport at Puerto Iguazú turned out to be less than the sum of its parts … and its parts were not all that flash to begin with! I would give it Fs for communications (big surprise!) and for facilities. The check-in baggage staffer told me my flight departure would be 30 minutes late but the Departures screen said it was on time. Who to believe? … such is South American impreciseness! The regular loud speaker announcements, heavily accented and crackling with static, didn’t clear up this contradiction (so inaudible it was impossible to be sure if the announcement was in Spanish or English, or perhaps Spanglish!). When you go through the hand bags and body search point, it was conducted in the old fashion “touchy-feely, nice to meet you” way – no technical aids like hand scanners here). Amazingly, there were no refreshment or snack facilities available inside the airport. Also, no air-conditioning, so you just had to sit there in the heat waiting for your delayed flight. A tin shack structure, but then again, maybe I’m being a bit harsh, on the positive side Puerto Iguazú was probably quite good by Fourth World standard airports!

Chatting with a widely-travelled Japanese female tourist filled in time until the flight finally got off the ground. It was a shortish trip with no dramas but one curious coda. As LA4025 descended into Buenos Aires and the aircraft safely touched down on the tarmac, the Argentinians on the plane, perhaps momentarily releasing their grips on their rosary beads, spontaneously burst into a prolonged round of very enthusiastic applause! They had done the same thing when the plane had landed at Cataratas del Iguazú International Airport on the way into Iguazú. As this didn’t happen with any flights within or to either Chile or Peru, I concluded that this over-the-top appreciation of piloting and navigational skills appeared to be confined to Argentina and Argentinians. Worryingly, I wondered if it said something about the general lack of confidence in Argentinian pilots.

My Buenos Aires hotel, blandly named La Gran, was in Marcelo de Alvear in Microcentre (the hotel diagonally opposite is tongue-in-cheekily called ‘The Sheltown’!). La Gran is close to a square dominated by an imposing statue of San Martin, the especial Liberator of choice, I gather, for much of South America. Before coming to the Americas, based on my superficial grasp of Latin American colonial history, I had always thought this handle had been the property of one Simon Bolivar, but around here, San Martin is the Liberator getting the bulk of the adulation (in BA alone you can find a Teatro San Martin, Centro Cultural San Martin, Palacio San Martin, San Martin Partido, General San Martin Metro, etc, etc). Chile also elevated him to the pantheon of their national heroes with the mandatory plaza statues, but in that curiously-shaped, tiny Andean republic, the exotically named Bernardo O’Higgins monopolises most of the bragging rights as Libertador of his nation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALooking around the streets of BA I notice a real cosmopolitan flavour in the faces of the Portenos, compared to the more homogeneous-looking Chileans. Whereas Chileans tend towards a mestizo or native countenance and are shorter in stature, Argentinians, in the capital anyway, tend to have more of a European appearance (Spanish/Italian/German). The women, especially, on the whole are appreciably taller than Chilean women, and with a high proportion of blondes. I observed the cosmopolitan nature of the city within the hotel as well. The bellhop helping lug my suitcase up to the room was a friendly, young Armenian migrant called Haug. I engaged him in an interesting conversation and mention a curious incident in Australia which more than intrigues him (given his ethnic background), the backstory behind the mystifying murder of the Turkish consul in Sydney in the 1990s.

Tango in the street
Tango in the street

In the evening I walked around the square to get an idea of the meal options. I discover almost immediately that my hotel is very close to the BA “red light” district, I have to say I wasn’t looking for this – seriously! Wherever I go I seem to have a knack of effortlessly stumbling in no time into the part of that particular city that houses this, most pliable of trades. I change tack and head down to Plaza Lavalle in Tribunales, where I found plenty of options for dinner. Before dining, I happened upon a nocturnal street performance of tango dancing in the plaza. Portenos call popular tango dances in plazas milongas (where punters can pay to go and take the floor to live music accompaniment), but this was a demonstration by tango enthusiasts who were basically buskers (immaculately and formally-attired buskers it should be said). Moonlight strollers milled around the canvas mat square, some in appreciation of the elegant performers throw money into the containers that had been strategically placed at different ends of the mat. I had positioned myself a bit back from the action, up against the shop front, which seem to earn the ire of the dancers who were waiting their turn for a spin. They loudly exhort me (and other apparent transgressors) to move up to the edge of the impromptu dance floor to get a better view, (more to the point I suspect their motive is to ensure the audience is within reaching distance of the containers!).

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… or pretend to tango!

I selected a restaurant in Lavalle to eat, a pizza place that looked OK, it wasn’t very well patronised when I went in at around quarter to nine (fairly late time for dinner for me), only a sprinkling of customers, but the place looked quite presentable. I had a leisurely pizza and a couple of Quilmes’ (actually I was an inordinately long time choosing the pizza as there was only a marginal different between each one on the menu!). When I finished and was leaving, at around 10:30, the restaurant milieu had transformed, it was packed with people having, and still coming in to have, their evening meals. I was to learn that this was characteristically Porteno in behaviour, as late, even very late (post-midnight) dinners, are the norm for urban Buenos Aireans. Walking back to my hotel close to midnight and seeing how alive the place is, I come to appreciate what I had heard about BA, this is a city that pulsates and parties more and more the later the hour!

25th May Square
25th May Square

The next day is the city tour – our group was guided round BA by a tall, slim, dark-haired young woman who looks as much like a model as a guide. We headed first to the central Plaza de 25 Mayo where Diana the guide-model gives us a rundown on the Square’s critical function as a platform for Portenos to protest against the excesses of authoritarian Argentinian rule. Some of these protests have a ritualistic nature, such as the mothers who regularly gather at a particular spot (an X literally marks the spot!) in the Plaza to stage a vigil, a silent protest with placards against the unaccounted for disappearance of their children (la desaparecidos). Our tour takes in the ritzy neighbourhood of Retiro, the more fashionable, comfortable eastern suburbs such as Barrio Norte and Palermo (which has several parts, one ostentatiously called ‘Palermo Hollywood’), San Telmo, the dockside Puerto Madero (once a rundown slum area now reconstructed as aspirational middle class), and La Boca, one of the city’s tourist highlights. Along with large numbers of visitors, we strolled along the safe part of La Boca, El Caminito, a triangular walkway lined with convertillos (rows of oddly-connected buildings in a dazzling diversity of bold colours), beautiful murals, sculptures, souvenir shops, art and craft markets. In the plaza tango dancers demonstrated their steps whilst visitors eagerly snapped pictures. A popular feature of the brightly-painted museums in Calle Caminito is the presence of dolls on display on the balconies which are caricatures of famous Argentinians. Maradona, Evita and Juan Peron, and other, less recognisable figures, gaze down on visitors from second floor balconies. Maradona worship is of course alive and well in Argentina, and nowhere is this more on display than in the heartland of his former team, Boca Juniors. In Caminito there are a number of similar caricatures in doll or other form which gently and affectionately poke fun at the flawed football maven.

Guys & dolls in Boca
Guys & dolls in Boca

Our BA city tour ended at Recoleta where we visited one of the most fascinating cemeteries in the world, Cemetaria Recoleta, whose most famous expired resident is Evita Peron. For a cemetery, it is a constant hub of human activity. BA Walking Tours advertise their tour of Cemetaria Recoleta as being “fun, comprehensive, in-depth (but not literally”)”. The amount of time that Argentinians appeared to spend here, I concluded that they can’t all be here ONLY to see Evita’s tomb. Many of the curious visitors seem to come to explore its dozens and dozens of rows of vaults in hope of discovering some famous statesman or general (very many of which are interred here), for whatever reason it exacts quite a pull on people. Diana, our ciudad guide, recounted her own father’s experience that he was initially very reluctant to visit when she suggested it, but once there, he ended up staying for five hours! Recoleta is a large, crowded cemetery, comprising countless large vaults and towering monuments, many very old, all tightly packed together in rows separated by narrow lanes. Open space in the Cemetery is at a premium, all the land is taken up with conjoined vaults and monuments, many of which are examples of impressive and elaborate masonry.

Recoleta from the Mall
Recoleta from the Mall

Whilst Argentinian visitors to Recoleta Cemetery delight in discovering the monuments to the famous personages in BA history, the number one objective for the majority of non-local visitors is to locate the monument to its most internationally famous resident, Evita Peron. Given that Argentina’s one time First Lady was so famous (and became so much more famous posthumously thanks to the Rice and Webber musical), there is a surprising complete absence of signage pointing the way to her tomb. I used the directions provided by Lonely Planet Argentina Guide to trace the indirect and convoluted path to Evita’s remains. I’m pleased to say the book did guide me to the precise location of the tomb. Also surprising, there is nothing special or distinctive to mark the final resting place of Evita, its not gold-lined or especially ornately grand or even large in any way, it is like all of the other family vaults around it. Actually, she is buried in HER family’s vault (the Duartes), rather than in the presidential Peron vault (in fact Juan the dictator is buried separately to Evita in a different cemetery in Buenos Aires! There must be a story in that.) There was no big crowd milling around the Duarte vault, just a constant trickle of visitors coming up for a look and a photo and then quickly moving on. I had a short conversation at the vault with a couple of nice expatriate Persian women who were now domiciled in London. They were interested in Iranian migrants in Australia, I told them how they had split into three distinct camps based along political/religious lines (uncharacteristically of me to go off-topic, I probably hadn’t done this for at least a day!).

Cemetaria Recoleta is home for untold numbers of cats, moggy strays in all manner of colours, shadings and patterns. They look pretty comfortable and settled in this “city of the dead,” I suspect that cemetery workers and the odd local visitor provides food for them. One sight that I came across intrigued me a lot. In one of the lanes, about four rows west of the Duarte vault, there, crammed in between two family vaults, three cemetery labourers were sitting and eating in a tiny box structure (about 2 metres wide by 4 metres long), which was their lunch room! For these workers, there was no sense of distance from the subjects of their labour, even in their off-duty moments.

After leaving the Cemetery I removed to the Recoleta Mall directly across the road from it to have some lunch with two Chinese/American women from the tour. We went to Macdonalds (or, in Spanish America, should that be called Macdonaldos?), the girls enthused about how much better the Angus beef burger was in Buenos Aires compared to California … “Really?”- but what caught my eye whilst we were eating, was that the side balcony of the Macdonalds store offered the optimal, elevated vantage point to get great overview photos of the vast, sprawling cemetery, which I duly took advantage of!

The tour activity that night was a trip to San Telmo to see the Ventana Tango Show. As the result of some random selection process I was seated at a table with a Francophone and frank-talking Gallic woman and a non-English speaking Columbian technician. The Frenchwoman (let’s call her Clare, that sounds familiar), had a reasonable handle on English, was quite loquacious, and she seemed to have a lot of opinions (doesn’t really sound French, does it?). Being sociable, I tried to engage in conversation with the non-English speaker at the table, the Columbian guy, but clearly I was making no headway. Several minutes of frustrating and awkward attempts at conversation ensued. At first, he would appear to follow my question (or at least not look discomforted by it), but whenever I tried to extend this line of enquiry, I would lose him totally.

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Tango Club in Balcarce

Despite these setbacks I was determined to keep the conversation going … somehow. I remembered that Clare had mentioned at the introduction that she was a teacher, or had been a teacher, one or the other, I wasn’t paying that close attention. So I developed this, well, I’ll call it a method for lack of a better word, to get the conversation past the stillborn stage. I would proceed with an opening gambit, a question to engage the Columbian (his name incidentally was Pablo), and then when, inevitably, the conversation would get log-jammed and Pablo would register that blank and uncomprehending look that was becoming familiar, I would turn to the only-too-eager-to-help Clare, and repeat my statement in English to her (with a bit of hand-gesturing and Spanglish thrown in for emphasis). The over-keen Clare would then pick up the threads of my floundering question and try to translate it to Mr Columbia using the limited amount of Spanish she commanded. I would sit back and watch Clare struggling to translate my question with Pablo looking more and more uncertain. Admittedly, this did not get us very far in the direction of a flowing three-way dialogue, but it served to get me off the hook that I had put myself on in the first place! I felt kind of bad for Clare’s discomfort, but I figured that, being a teacher, she would probably view the whole thing as a pedagogic exercise and maybe even relish the challenge! At least that’s what I told myself. And, it did eat up some time while we were finishing our dinner and waiting for the show to begin. When the tango show finally got underway, we were seated right at the front and so had an excellent view of what was an enjoyable performance. But as the show went (and on), I started to get very tired (the comprehensive lack of sleep in Santiago had at last caught up with me), and I could hardly keep my eyes open. The show itself, when I could focus on it for any miniscule amount of time (constantly drifting in and out of the “half-dream room” as I was), comprised tango dancing supplemented by some other auxiliary activities on stage (eg, a comedic performance of rapid fire rope snapping by an urban gaucho). Clare, unsurprisingly, was NOT impressed by these extra-curricular acts. I kind of agreed with her about the lack of purity in the performance, but at that stage I was just happy that it was finally over and I could get back to the hotel.

On the bus returning to the hotels a couple started addressing me in Spanish, when I indicated to them through gestures and expressions that I had no español (or at least, to put a very generous spin on it, un poco español sólo), they apologised for mistaking me for being Hispanophone and switched to talking in halting English. I discovered that the couple were los recién casados, newly-weds from Madrid, this was the second time in three days that I had crossed paths with Spanish honeymooners from Old Castille. In Madrid it must be the “lets honeymoon in Latin America” season, but more to the point I realise that it makes logical sense for Spanish outward-bound tourists to gravitate towards Latin America – for convenience of communication, and out of a curiosity about a geographically distant set of countries which share a common language with Spain but are distinctly different types of societies to it.
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