In classical Chinese romance stories, the beautiful heroine often dies young. In the typical western classical fairy tale, not a single word is wasted after the lucky beauty is happily married to her prince. Ah, such is the strength of bond between youth and beauty. For as long as the human history, people have fascinated about holding on to them, more than about holding on to their lives. Stay, the spring of life; Stay, the beauty in my eyes.
Eva Peron’s is just such a terribly tragic, and therefore the more achingly beautiful, story. She started from the bottom of the society, became an actress (but not a topnotch one), and then helped her husband to become the country’s President. She connected with people, gave them production tools or start up money (economical stimulus package?), and rejected their calls to become the first female Vice President. And then she died, in her youth, with her beauty intact. What more can a person, whether the beauty or the admirer, ask for?
Our trip to South America, in the summer of 2008 (locally winter), however, was not primarily to trace the romantic silhouettes of Evita, or Che, whose famous motorcycle journey started from Buenos Aires. Our main aim was something more tangible, something we can see, hear, feel, and breathe in, at the same time.
My fascination with Iguazu Falls dates back to the days when I was studying in Arizona, where I saw a poster of a tremendous waterfall, wrapping around the camera like a silky theatrical backdrop, but with the elegance and fluidity only nature can produce. It’s such an otherworldly image that I thought the place cannot be reached. Well, it was surely out of reach, at least for someone on a graduate student’s stipend. But (sometimes) good things can wait.
At places thunderous and gut-wrenching, elsewhere smooth and peaceful, Iguacu Falls have the multi-faceted personality that can suit the mood of waterfall lovers of all persuasions. At the top of Devil’s Throat, where the torrential water flow gushes down a small section of Iguacu river, smashes into gazillion pieces of smithereens on the bedrock below, and swarms back up to darken the sky, one must talk loudly in order to be heard, walk gingerly in order not to slip, and cannot but dread an unfortunate fall, a speedy trip down with the roaring water and being sent skyward in pieces in the blink of an eye. At the bottom of the Dos Hermanas, on the other hand, the tranquil pools, surrounded by garden-like grounds with aging trees and wooden benches, are exceedingly inviting, except for the wintery weather. “Poor Niagara!” was the famous proclamation by Eleanor Roosevelt, when she saw the sight.
Iguacu Falls is a group of waterfalls across a couple of kilometers (more than a mile) of Iguacu River. Because of the extraordinary width of the river at this point, the different waterfalls cannot be viewed from one (land-based) vantage point alone. The interspersion of waterfalls with small islets on the river, the curves and turns of the river cross-section, and the two levels of falls due to the special geographical composition, give people varied impressions wherever they turn. The up close and personal is best experienced in Argentina, while grandiose panoramas can only be fully enjoyed on the Brazilian side. While touring the Argentina side, we almost ran out of time, and certainly drained all the energy out of my in-laws, such that they had to stay behind when we took up the third trail to the falls. But on the Brazilian side, we walked up and down the same riverside trail, rode up and down the tower elevator next to the falls, and ran out of things to do with time to spare.
Iguacu Falls is located near the triple point of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The rank order of the reputations of these three countries, justifiably or not, seems to parallel the alphabetical order of their names. We avoided Paraguay altogether, and only made a day trip to Brazil just to see the other side of the Iguacu Falls before quickly returning to the perceived safe-haven of Argentina.
The Brazilian national park at Iguacu Falls is in much better shape than its Argentinean counterpart, much to our disbelief. The trails are wider and better maintained, the air-conditioned tour buses are more modern by several decades than the narrow-gauge open-air train in use on the Argentinean side, and an out-door set of billboards explaining the special geography of the Falls plainly point to a lack of educational material on the opposite side of the river. In addition to wet-shirt boat rides, the Brazilian national park also provides the opportunity for a helicopter ride above the falls. Other than the river and the falls, the only thing the two sides share is their similar discrimination against foreign visitors: whatever kind of tickets they desire, foreigners must pay a price several times that for the locals.
The price we paid for the day-trip to Brazil is also remarkable. According to the Lonely Planet tour book, visas are required for US citizens (but not for EU citizens), and they charge dearly (it cost us about US$500 for 4 visas!). And the visas could not be issued within an hour, as suggested by the tour book, but can be picked up in a half day. Since we didn’t want to wait around for it, we opted to go to the Argentinean national park first, and pick up our passports the next day.
Our hearts sank even further when we realized that no Brazilian really cared whether we had visas or not. After going through the Argentinean border control, our bus didn’t bother to unload us at the Brazilian border control. When we asked, our driver said simply: “Una dia—no.” It turned out they are very lassie-faire—if you want a stamp on your passport, you can always voluntarily go in for it, wasting a lot of your own time, and some of that of fellow travelers on the bus. Otherwise, the bus driver can take you in and out without stopping. So we ended up spending time and money for the visas for nothing!
Aside from two diagonal boulevards leading out of the plaza in front of Casa Rosada (the presidential palace), streets in Buenos Aires generally follow a well-laid out rectangular grid.
We stayed in a small hotel near the Avenida Nueve de Julio, a grand thoroughfare through Buenos Aires that is said to be one of the widest roads in the world. From there, we were within walking distance to many tourist destinations. At the far end of the spectrum, we walked to Casa Rosada, Recoleta, a famous old town area that houses some of the richest people and chicest shops, the train and bus stations at Retiro. At the near end of the spectrum, we went to the pedestrian streets of Lavalle and Florida daily, ate tough Argentinean beef there (the roasted is more famous than delicious), watched free tango shows on the street, and visited Galarias Pacifico, a fancy shopping mall with famous frescos.
When we were there, Casa Rosada was closed to visitors due to renovations. But standing in front of it, we could see vividly in our mind’s eye Evita waving her hand from the balcony, with her husband steadying her weak body with his firm hands. In front of Casa Rosada, and on nearby city streets, specially marked pavers gave special phone numbers for people to trace the life of Evita. For example, one tile gives the famous dialog between Evita on the balcony, and her supporters on the street, who were there to ask her to run for Vice President. Of course, not only is the sound recording in Spanish, so is the sign itself. And we had yet another impediment to call the number—we didn’t have a local cell phone. Evidently, Buenos Aires is more tuned to local tourists. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
The cemetery at Recoleta, situated in the center of a bustling city, is on a boxed-in piece of prime real estate. Not only must one be rich or famous to get in, his/her family has to continuously pay up a city tax for him/her to remain there in peace. Right by the entrance, a tomb of a certain president receives occasional glances from passers-by, but no one seems to pause for a second. Inside, rows of tombs are like small houses one butting another, hosting the remains of politicians, generals, surgeons, and other dignitaries, and those of their family members. The cemetery appears desolate and tranquil, as it should be. A few fat cats call the place home, lazily dozing off in the cool winter sun. The only place that has significant foot traffic is off a side street, reachable only by those who followed a purposeful mental map. This is the resting place of Evita, among the family she had before she met her future husband and the future President of Argentina, Juan Peron. Her tomb is the only one with fresh flowers. In death as well as in life, Evita is loved by many.
The district of La Boca is well known, at least to international tourists like us, for its eccentric arts and artists. We paid the obligatory tribute. There, the walls of houses are often covered cheaply with sheet metal, yet painted in bright contrasting colors. The streets beam with tango music everywhere, and attractive female dancers would invite male tourists to take photos with them in sultry tango poses after their impromptu performances. After some strolling around, we bought a couple of watercolor paintings by a local artist. The artist himself was not available, however—he was busy making his art, we were told, and did not speak much English.
Iguacu Falls is at the corner of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Paraguay and Brazil seem to suffer from a less than desirable reputation, in terms of their social stability. In addition, my in-laws, who were travelling with us again this time, also preferred Argentina. So Argentina was the route we took.
We travelled to Iguacu Falls the way most Argentineans did: by bus. A long distance bus, driven mostly in the night, provided us with life’s necessities. In addition to the basics, such as warmth, water, food, toilet facilities, we had reclining chairs which double as beds, or camas. For dinners, we had very tasty rib-eyes; and on the outgoing trip, dinner service even included alcoholic drinks (“Red, white, or Champaign?”)! Yiran was very happy to be on board. “I can live like this!” she declared. We rode on the upper level, which, when the windows were not completely fogged up, provided the better view. But it also shook around more—we had to take motion sickness pills. On the way back, the highway was blocked for a couple of hours, due to an early morning fog in the low-lying areas ahead. Other than that, the ride was rather uneventful.
The high drama we encountered, and, unfortunately, partook in, was in Buenos Aires. It was the last day of our trip. We checked out of our hotel, and decided to wander around town to use up the hours before going to the airport. It was a Sunday morning, overcast and cool as usual, and the streets were mostly bare of pedestrians and vehicles. The six of us walked towards Casa Rosada along the southern diagonal, under the eaves of imposing tall buildings constructed with huge granite blocks. Suddenly, some dirty and smelly liquid came down on us, as if some large bird did its cleansing business up above. Shortly after, a middle-aged couple came up to us, and offered to help us clean our jackets with the paper tissue and bottled water they had in their hands. They moved about us for a few minutes, rubbing here and there as they went. My father-in-law became suspicious when the man suggested that he take off his overcoat for better cleaning. But not knowing much Spanish, we didn’t understand the situation that well. It was only a couple of hours later, when I was trying to buy the tickets for our kids to get onto a museum boat that I realized that my wallet had been lifted. Fortunately, we are always prepared for possible mishaps like this during our travels, and never leave any large amount of money in my wallet. Unfortunately, since this was our last day in Argentina, we had prepared for two taxi fares from Buenos Aires to the airport, which is a larger amount than what we would have needed for any other day.
The planning (at least three people were involved in the scheme), the choice of venue (major street, but at a quiet time), and the execution of the theft were impeccable! But although we were greatly impressed, the locals weren’t. When we reported the incidence to a policeman, he just listened and walked away, not even asking for any details. When we told the story to our hotel staff, the young man on duty told us this happens just about every month!
At the Buenos Aires bus station, we were accosted by a Chinese-speaking man in a tidy sports jacket. He said that he came to Buenos Aires to see a doctor for his skin condition (which he showed us), all his money was stolen, and he couldn’t get back home (he mentioned a particular city, which was not familiar to us). Not knowing whether he was telling the truth, and not willing to leave a compatriot in the cold, we gave him a bit of money, so that he could get something warm to eat, and call home. In the following days, we met him twice more. In the first instance, my wife was so afraid of him that she walked around the place he was wandering about. In the second, I simply cut him short by reminding him that we’d heard his spiel before, and he quickly turned heel and melted away into the crowd.
Finally, while walking on the street near La Boca, we encountered a strange woman, who tugged on the overcoat of my father-in-law, and gave half-hearted chase to us while mumbling incessantly. We did not want to get into any trouble, and did not spend time to ascertain her mental conditions.
Overall, people seemed to be carrying out their daily lives with dignity and sincerity, despite the unpleasant incidents described above (thankfully we’re not harmed, so “don’t cry for me, Argentina”). We did not find as much warmth as we did in many western European places, but a tourist should feel pretty comfortable in Buenos Aires or Argentina in general.
The romantic legends aside, Argentina is famous for its beef and tango. Beef Argentinean style is something that we are yet to learn to appreciate, even though we gave it a few tries. Tango can be enjoyed either in a formal setting or on the street, and we were quite impressed by the street variety, where one could get up close to the performers. And the Iguacu Falls? It’s out of this world!
More pictures of our trip to South America can be found here.
A few more panoramic pictures are here.