Friday, 5 June 2009

Natrual Wonders

The day we crossed back into Argentina was mostly dedicated to travelling, we did manage to see the triple frontier though. Having lived on an Island all my life it was really strange to see 3 different countries in the same vision, all divided by rivers! The Paraguayan and Brazilian side of the triple frontier are said to be quite dangerous, smuggling, robberies and kid napping are very common as things easily can easily be popped across borders and never seen again!

We decided to stay in Iguazu, a little town between the triple frontier and Iguazu falls- one of the 7 natural wonders in the world. The town which is normally full of tourists was almost dead. The falls had dried up recently due to the lack of rain but fortunately it had rained every day since we left Chaco so we were going to see the falls in all its glory! After finding ourselves a nice little cabin in Iguazu Darinka and I decided we would need a little siesta in order to hit the town at night! The ghost town dished out a much more eventful night than we had ever imagined! We met lots of local guys and although they were all friendly and innocent to begin with when we decided we were going to go home they weren’t having any of it! We ended up getting into the taxi and having to ask the taxi driver to close the door on them as they all stretched out their arms and begged us to stay or meet them tomorrow! And as if that wasn’t bad- as we were nearing the cabin the taxi took a detour! We had no idea what was going on until he told us that one of the boys was following the taxi on his moped but with his light turned off so he could hardly be seen! We went round and round and round the city trying to loose this hooligan. When we thought we’d lost him we headed back to the cabin, and as we demounted our carriage and thanked the taxi driver 4 of the boys passed on their mopeds, lights off, scarves on and hoods up! We informed the owner of the cabins of what had happened- he told us that we could sleep peacefully; that they are innocent boys with nothing better to do and that he would keep an eye on things! Thankfully he was right!

The following day we headed to Parque Nacional de Iguazu (Iguazu national Park). I passed with a nice little discount due to being an “Argentine”. Darinka and I decided that although there was a train to take us to different areas of the park we wanted to walk which was a great decision as we encountered lots of animals, insects, interesting people and gob smacking views along the way. Having said this no view could have prepared us for the moment that we arrived at the “Garganta del Diavlo” (The Devils Mouth) which is the top of the main waterfall. The sensation of seeing such great volumes of water plunging into one place was indescribable so I’m not even going to try it! We stood in silence with our mouths wide open, hair blowing in the wind and hand firmly gripped to the safety barrier! It was beautiful! We left the sight quietly (which was totally out of character as we had been splitting our sides with constant laughter, jokes and stories since we left Chaco) trying to comprehend the natural beauty that we had just encountered as the image repeated its self in our minds.

As we headed Westwards along the border of Missiones Province and Paraguay towards home I started to realise why people tend to say that Chaco is ugly. Chaco is the arid stretch of monotonous landscape sandwiched between the North West and North East provinces which boast a forever changing landscape of mountains, strong colours and foliage! Having said this Chaco is totally within its rights to boast about its people!

We stopped off in “Minas de Wanda”, which is a gemstone mine full of amethysts and quarts. Having been a collector of gem stones when I was younger the thought of going to a gem mine was incredible but unfortunately it turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax! Maybe it was due to the contrast in the other natural wonder that we had already come face to face with that day OR the reality of a gem mine was incomparable to the images and ideas I had imaginatively put together as a child! Darinka on the other hand was “woooooowing” and “Oh my goding” at everything in her Spanish accent! Haha- I think I’ve taught her well!

We split up the long journey home by staying the night in a little town called San Ignazio. A small place in Missiones province bordering Paraguay but very famous and well known for its Jesuit ruins! We visited the ruins the following morning in the fog which was a beautiful sight. Without a guide and a great interest in archaeology the “wooow” factor was once again missing but we enjoyed our earl morning stroll around the ancient sight!

We made various short stops to break up the journey home and undoubtedly for Pablo to escape our constant banter, giggles and singing!

Donnalagamba y la Contrabanda

As we queued in Ciudad del Este (Paraguay) to cross the border into Foz do Iguacu where we were staying in Brasil street vendors walked the lanes trying to sell all sorts- windscreen wipers, toys, sweets, chipa, watches, perfumes, you name it, they got it! We crossed the “Bridge of Amnesty” into Brasil and the hot brzilian policeman let us through immigration with no problems. At the other side Pablo’s friend Shoe was there to meet us and take us to the hotel.

After dinner Dari and I decided we couldn’t spend a night in Brasil without a Capirinah. We found a cosy bar, had a couple of capirinahs and rolled home along the hilly avenues to our hotel. From what I had seen of Ciudad del Este and the plans that Pablo had I knew that tomorrow was going to be a BIG day!

Shoe came to meet us at the hotel in the morning to accompany us to Ciudad del Este, she had planned the whole thing, that’s when I realised that it wasn’t just a day out but a mission that needed to be completed. We caught a bus and we hit the bombshell of a city at 10am in the pouring down rain which was washing streams or red dirt, orange peel, rubbish and herbs down the street. Luckily we knew exactly what we were there for and went straight for it. Pablo wanted a new laptop and mobile phones for the girls. I wanted a bad boy reflex camera! After a good hour of browsing just one block of electronic shops I spotted my beauty and I was approached by Muhamed the owner of the shop who was Lebanese, had a mullet and was wearing waterproofs. He helped me, gave me a coffee, flattered me and blabbed out all sorts of obvious sales talk and offers in his own macho way. He threw in a camera bag for free and gave me a good discount on the camera which was already cheap due to 0 TAX! Weeeheeey! He insisted on being in the first picture so got one of his assistants to put my little beauty together as he gave me his number and practically proposed! It was hilarious!

Pablo got his laptop and the girls got their mobile phones and we were done just one obstacle was in front of us- crossing the bridge without paying a fee due to the $300 restriction that we had all individually exceeded! We crossed with no trouble- the inspectors didn’t see or suspect anything. I sat restlessly in the bus crossing back to Brazil with sweaty palms gazing out the window. Suddenly I had to burst out laughing at the scene which was going on on the riverbanks below. There were people were running across the riverbank with great big boxes on their shoulders full of electrical goods. They went to no effort what so ever to hide the fact that they were doing something that was blatantly illegal under the police’s noses. But the police weren’t too bothered about it either.

Having completed our missions successfully we spent the afternoon playing with our new gadgets and drying off in a nice coffee shop where they serve cake by weight! It was a day never to be forgotten and in the evening Darinka and I put the cherry on the cake by blowing away the Brazilians with our version of Madonna- Like A Virgin in a Karaoke bar, washed down with some well deserved Caipirinha beers.

3 Countries, 4 Currencies, 2 days

5am, Thursday 28th of May and we’re off! My friends Darinka and her dad Pablo had invited me to join them on their travels and I definitely wasn’t going to say no to what they had planned! We were meant to have hit the road 2 days earlier but due to Argentine bureaucracy we were delayed. Any Argentine under the age of 21 must have a document signed by both parents and stamped by a solicitor in order for them to leave the country. If the parents are divorced it’s even more important and if a parent has already passed away a death certificate must be shown! They just love legal documents in this country!

First stop was 200km away- Resistencia, the capital of Chaco to meet the coach that was hopefully carrying Darinka’s gold leaf document that her mother had completed; thankfully it all went to plan! We hit the road north for Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay! The landscape got wetter, redder and poorer as we headed north. We crossed the border into Paraguay with no problems. On first impression Paraguay seemed much poorer in comparison with Argentina. But at this point I had only caught a glimpse of how the poor live in their wooden little huts surrounded by boggy water; dirt and rubbish but maybe the grey sky and cold, wet ground made it seem worse than what it was.

When entering the city we had our first encounter with the Paraguayan Police. A bus had stopped right in front of us and to avoid colliding Pablo had swerved into the other lane and there was a policeman off duty behind us. He made us pull over, he got out of his car and started shouting, swearing and all sorts through our window. Once he’d let off his steam he let us go at no other cost (which is apparently very unusual)! We carried on cautiously to the hotel where Pablo’s girlfriend Sara was waiting. This is when I noticed the difference between British men and Argentine men. Pablo didn’t have a map so stopped every 200m to wind down the window and ask kindly for directions. This is something I’ve never encountered in the UK! Men generally have a map or have already studied the route and never get lost let, they just take “short cuts” and like hell will they ask for directions. I think I prefer the Argentine way.

We spent the afternoon walking around different areas of the city and seeing the rest by car. The first destination was a market which occupied a good couple of blocs close to the city centre. The pavements were lined with home made shacks and stalls made from all sorts of claimed or stolen scrap material selling sports clothes, fruit and veg, tedede thermos and cups and a variety of fresh herbs which they grinded for you on the spot to add to your Mate or what not. Paraguay is a tax free country so is full of cheap imported goods- hundreds of Argentine’s and Brazilians cross the borders daily to stock up on cheap goods- there’s a restriction to the value of goods each person can carry across the border at any time (US$300) hardly anyone respects this restriction as I would soon find out in a couple of days time in Ciudad del Este. After changing our “pesos” for “guarani” and “US dollars” (most places deal in dual currency due to extensive importations) getting bamboozled by the sums we had to do and the atmosphere and chaos in the market we headed for the city centre.

The centre of Asuncion is full of glitzy modern American and “British” shopping malls, handsomely elegant houses, parks and people cruising in their luxurious cars. The contrasts were horrifying. There’s no wonder Paraguay is known as one of the most corrupt countries in the world!

The following morning we re-loaded the car and were set to cross the country to the triple frontier of Paraguay, Brasil and Argentina. Before leaving the city we had our second encounter with the Paraguayan police. This time it was a little scam. He claimed that we had gone through a red light and that Pablo had two choices- hand over his documents and wait for a huge fine through the post or pay the policeman in cash on the spot and avoid the whole legal document process. Of course there was a small discount if he chose option 2 but still the price was absurd for something that never happened. The policeman wasn’t taking any of Pablo’s offers but when he realised that Sara was a Paraguayan he soon backed off and accepted 20% of the price he first demanded. Everyone in the car shrugged the incident off as if it was part of the weekly routine but I kept silent with my jaw dropped and all sorts of things racing through my mind- there’s absolutely no hope in civilising this country!

Back on the road we passed through lots of little villages. On the road side there were little stalls selling each village’s speciality- sacks of oranges, grapefruits, pumpkins, hammocks, chutneys, chipas etc. We picked up a crocodile shaped chipa (cheesy bread made from mandioca flour) AMAZING!

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Gastronomic Delights & Disgusts

So you all know that I love experimenting and trying different foods but meats is something that I usually leave aside but here in Argentina I have promised myself I will try everything once so here’s a list of the good and bad novelties to date.
Key: \,- good experience; \,/X- so-so experience; X- bad experience

Sweet (all \,)
Dulce de Leche: delicious caramel like spread that they put on all things sweet here.
Alfajores: typical biscuits sandwiched together with dulce de leche or jam.
Pastafrola: A light sponge/tart with dulce de membrilla
Dulce de membrilla: Quince pear jam
Dulce de Batata: A solid jam made of sweet potato and milk
Pudin de Pan: A sponge made of bread and milk
Dulce de Mamon: a local fruit soaked and boiled in sweet water.

\,-Chipa- Puffs of cheesy bread made with mandioca flour.
\,-Guiso- Meat stew cooked with rice, pasta or polenta
X-Morsilla- Bloody sausage (similar to black pudding)
X-Tripe- Part of a cow’s intestine- grilled
X-Mondongo- Cows stomach- cooked as a stew
X-Mure- Cow’s udder- grilled
X/\,-Locro- Typical soup of sweet corn, lentils, pasta and all the left over insides of animals
\,-Humita- Sweet corn boiled and creamed with milk, cheese and spices and wrapped in sweet corn leaves.
\,-Tamal- Similar to Humita but with meat and not so sweet
\,-Cazuela de Cabrito- Goat stew (delicious)
\,-Zapallito de tronco- Courgette like vegetable but ball-like.
\,-Empanada- similar to a pasty/calzone traditionally filled with minced beef.


On our way back from our adventures in Jujuy we decided to stop off in Salta. Vilma and Jose know Salta quite well so it wasn´t going to be a time consuming struggle to find our way around the city. Salta is a big city (468,583 habitants), is placed in a basin surrounded by mountains and claims a European feel. I definitely felt it!

We orientated ourselves by catching the Teleferico (Cable car) to the tip off the hill that over looks the city. The views were spectacular but I couldn´t help comparing it to Naples and I have to say that the view from Castel San Elmo hasn´t been beaten! The city spreads out for kilometres but like every other city I’ve been to in Argentina the city centre was very small in comparison.

Back on level ground we headed to MAAM (Museo deArqueologia de Alta MontaƱa) an amazing archaeology museum based on Inca culture and findings. According to MAAM every year the Incas sacrificed the most beautiful and intelligent children from their communities. It was a way of pleasing their gods and it was an honour for the families and children that were chosen. The children were buried in tombs on mountain peaks in their best clothes along with trinkets and toys of the highest quality e.g. tiny dolls made of gold and wrapped in the finest hand made materials, shells from Ecuador, solid silver llamas, feather head pieces etc. In 1999 an expedition discovered the tombs of 3 children on a mountain peak and due to the cold conditions everything was well conserved- even the bodies of the children.

In the museum the bodies of 2 girls are on display, along with the trinkets they found in each of their tombs. The body of the eldest who was about 15 years old is incredible; she looks like she could just be sleeping with her legs crossed, her back hunched and her head dozing. The youngest girl on the other hand is in such poorer condition. It is thought that she was struck by lightning and since the finding she’s had a horrible history of attempted smugglings etc. I didn´t really know what to think! Although it´s great for educational and historic matters it completely disrespects the beliefs, culture and sacrifices of the Incas and the bodies and rests of the children.

After lunch we had just enough time to hit another “Mercado Artesanal” (Craft Market). To my surprise it was totally different to the others. To begin with it was under a roof and behind the scenes it was all organized differently too. Here the Artesanos (indigenous craftsmen) had arranged themselves into a co-operative. Every item in the building had tag which noted the Artesano’s name, the price and when it was made. Here everything was made to the highest quality and it had an air of “Fairer trade” too. The items were also different to that of further north. The majority of the items came from “Wichi” or “Toba” communities. The colours were more neutral and the materials more natural and the items were equally if not more beautiful. After browsing and feeling everything for a good hour we started our long journey home to Chaco.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

$4L!N4S GR4ND€$

The next destination was “Salinas Grandes” (Salt plains). I had seen, learnt and experienced so much in one day and there was still more to come! On the way we stopped in a crockery workshop and there we were greeted by the family that own the place and make the items. Once again they had everything and yes you guessed it, I bought more! In the back of the workshop they had a mound of corn on the cobs drying in the sun but they were all sorts of colours. Apparently they are multicoloured due to the richness and fertility of the soil!

We travelled the next 150km almost in silence- we were lost for words with everything that we had already experienced in a day! Many meters climb (3350m above sea level), views and hours later we arrived in Salinas Grandes! I’ve seen so many photos of salt plains but nothing can prepare you for how beautiful they are in reality. The Salinas Grandes of Salta/Jujuy (it grosses the border or two neighbouring provinces) are minute in comparison to others in Chile and Bolivia but still stretches itself across a staggering 525km/sq. The reflection of the sun on the salt was blinding in the silence. It was amazing, we wondered off on our own but everyone at some point looked up or had to support their head with their hands to try and begin to comprehend where exactly we were, how it came to be and compare the great expectations we had with the even greater reality!

We returned to Jujuy in silence as we descended the mountains in a wonderful silence admiring the simplicity of life and nature that the day had thrown at us.

La Quebrada de Humahuaca

After a good 100km along the Quebrada de Humahuaca which had goats, cacti, llamas and all sorts around every corner (and there are loads of corners) we arrived at Humahuaca. Vilma and Jose were overwhelmed to be in Humahuaca on the bank holiday eating locro (chapter gastronomic delights and disgusts). Humahuaca is the inspiration of many folklore artists and songs and I didn’t have to ask why. It was obvious! Humahuaca is the home of almost 8,000 beautiful, coca chewing habitants. It’s at a height of 2989m and the streets are cobbled and full of the most picturesque novelties, trinkets and shacks. After taking in the atmosphere of the little treat of a town I loaded myself with artesania.

Crafts vary from one indigenous community to another. They use different materials, colours according to their beliefs and local natural resources. In the north the indigenous communities are of “quosha” origin and their crafts are bright and colourful. They use all sorts of wool (sheep, llama, albaca) to make blankets, table cloths, jumpers, gloves, hats, socks and all sorts. Music is also a very strong element of their community and the creativity in their instruments was impressive. They use all sorts of materials from cactus wood to goat hooves and ceramics. They have so much talent! At home no one would ever dream of knitting as well as they do (no offence Mamgu/Granny) but here the whole village knits patterns that only machines could try to imitate in the UK.

The “Restraunt” we chose couldn’t have been better! We were served by Flavio Calapeaa- the cutest old man with a nervous twitch, the smallest attention span, the memory of a fish but the heart of a little boy. He was overwhelmed to meet us and smiled and looked around nervously as he tried to write our order of Humitas, Tamales, Locro and Cazuela de Cabrito (see gastro. D & D). He was full of jokes and random responses and wanted to sit with us and tell us his life story but couldn’t as he had 3 other tables to serve, his wife was in the kitchen keeping a good eye on him from the hatch and his blinking, slow reactions and clumsy limp weren’t to his favour. He filled us with joy, giggles and great food- it was a lunch never to be forgotten!