Or “Epilogue numero uno”
(Buenos Aires, Argentina – Iguazu Falls, Brazil – Montevideo, Uruguay)
Back by popular demand… (well you didn’t really think it was the end, did you?)
The thing about getting to the end of the road is that somehow you have to get back again. And so it was that, after eight months of travelling from Alaska to (beyond) Tierra del Fuego without stepping foot on a plane (responses to that comment will single out those who have diligently followed all blogs from the start), I managed to leap-frog almost the entire length of Argentina in one easy, three-hour flight. Convenient, this air travel thing, isn’t it? Even if I did have to re-pack all dastardly life-threatening toiletries and blunt penknives.
First stop, Buenos Aires.
The city was apparently a mere outpost of the Spanish colony for many years, as they tried to keep the Portuguese hands off the land to the south, until the booming population and empire building of the rest of the world in the late 1800s/early 1900s led to huge exports of cows and crops, all channelled through BA’s port, and the landowning aristocrats moved in. One of them had an encyclopaedia of world architecture under his arm. So today’s BA is a bizarre mix of Italian Renaissance next to French Art Nouveau, next to English Gothic.
You get the picture. Whilst many of the grand palacios have actually been knocked down since then, a visit to the Recoleta Cemetery is still an eye-opener. An extraordinary number of impressive vaults squeezed into a small space, (allegedly) the highest concentration of stained glass windows in the world (somewhat lost on anyone who is actually alive – stained glass best seen from inside, and all that), and a Veuve Clicquot champagne bucket in place of flowers. Still trying to out-do the neighbours.
Having spent around four weeks in Argentina already though, I thought it was about time I learnt at least a little about at least its more recent history. First fascinating fact for you – Argentina is amongst only a very small handful of countries that somehow ended the 20th Century worse off than they started. From one of the wealthiest countries in the world in the early 1900s to breaking the record for the biggest default on global debt in 2001. Greece finally knocked them from the top spot in 2012.
On asking my guide how this had happened, he asked me if I had a few days to spare… I decided I didn’t.
Potted version of events? They spent more than they earned. Big time. (Who said that economics was complicated?) But the scary impact on the ordinary person has been huge inflation, continuing to this day – the talking point when I was there was the doubling in bus fares overnight. I would be peeved too…
As for Evita and Peronism – the past 80 years has alternated between military dictatorship and dictatorial socialism (to paraphrase another long explanation!). The new president in 2015 is neither – so there seemed to be some cautious excitement about the future amongst the Argentinians I spoke to. Turns out that most of the Evita symbolism around town only appeared in the past 10-15 years or so, a good bit of propaganda… Still, I was most amused by the negative reaction many people seemed to have about “that film”. I had to bite my tongue… Dear Argentina, Mr Lloyd-Webber wrote it for the West End – not the classroom! And no, maybe she never did appeal to any Argentinians not to cry for her… But I’ll bet that William Wallace never painted his face blue nor cried Freedom! as he stormed across the battlefield either. (And is that the first time that anyone has ever likened Mel Gibson to Madonna?)
Anyway, Braveheart. How could this possibly be relevant to my trip to Buenos Aires? Well by sheer good fortune I found myself in town on their annual Tartan Day! Great excitement as I walked down the main street to the sounds of a stirring Flower of Scotland from their resident pipe band… But then I became slightly confused by the medieval costumes and a few Napoleonic soldiers amongst the blue-painted faces (yes) and hairy Highlanders – and had to surmise that it was merely a good excuse to raid the dressing up box.
Nonetheless, I subsequently discovered that an Argentinian friend learnt the Highland Fling at school, and her father played the bagpipes for years… This would have been strange enough, but then she admitted she knew nothing about the Tango. What?!
Now it turns out that the Tango may be less prevalent in Argentinian culture than I (or indeed anyone) thought. But at the end of the day, I was still a tourist, so no one was going to keep me away from a tango show – particularly when this included a free lesson. And honestly, it really is remarkably simple. As long as you have no OCD about odd numbers. It’s all about 5, 7, 9…
And then we watched the professionals. And I had to admit that maybe I did need a few more lessons before I progressed to the spins and head lifts…
From one show to another though – and a night at the opera. The Teatro Colon used to be the biggest opera house in the world (Sydney is now in number 1 spot), and in order to test the assertion that its acoustics still are amongst the best, I dutifully sacrificed the best seats in the house (you can thank me later) for the peasants’ quarters up in the gods.
It was magnificent. Almost every one of the 3,000 seats were full, people got dressed up, my shoes only attracted a few snotty looks (what happens when you use the posh loo…) and in the grand finale, Don Giovanni had cream cheese sandwiches smeared all over his chest. What more could you ask for? And all for the measly price of (wait for it…) £2.
Now with a few days to spare, what else to do? I was never intending to visit the Iguazu Falls, but you wouldn’t believe the number of travellers (past and present) who look at you in horror when you admit this to them… So I succumbed to peer pressure.
And despite the two 20 hour bus journeys within the space of 3½ days, and the shock to the system of 30C+ heat and 80%+ humidity (along with the jungle mists and red earth, I could have been forgiven for thinking I’d woken up in the Congo again), and realising that I’d been a little premature in discarding the remainder of my insect repellent…
…Yes ok, you were all right.
As instructed, I dutifully “did” both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides – so I have visited Brazil in 2016 after all! For a grand total of 5 hours. Short but (very) sweet. I had been slightly overwhelmed – and as a result went through a strange feeling of being underwhelmed – by the (allegedly) better Argentinian side the day before. (Its calling card is that you get closer to – and soaked by – more waterfalls). To combat this feeling I spent my time talking to the thousands of incredible, multi-coloured butterflies instead. Just call me Doolittle.
But on the Brazilian side, with a panorama view, you can really appreciate the huge chasm forged through the land by the sheer force of the water (hark – was that a GCSE geography flashback?) over hundreds of thousands of years. I did worry for the fate of the toucan spotted midway across (though assume that he/she had probably flown that route before…).
However, rather than the usual futile attempt to stay dry by merely scurrying to and from the platform in the middle of the river for one quick photo opp – instead I found myself laughing in the spray from an immense curtain of water spilling over the top on one side of me, then down another 100 feet below in the next falls, under the “Devil’s Throat” cataract.
My hair was plastered all over my dripping face, I was seriously rocking the wet T-shirt look (photos not for public consumption), and I had only faint nostalgia for the memory of that cheap plastic poncho I had once known and loved… The noise, power, speed, volume of the water; a rainbow arcing around and below us; long lush grasses still clinging onto the rocks right on the edge – truly nature in all its glory.
And I nearly missed this?
Then something else I nearly missed (swift gear change coming up, cramming a lot in!) – Uruguay. My final country of the Americas. #16 in case you’re counting. Another place I’d never intended to visit when I set out. But the biggest joy of travelling is making friends along the way, and I had lucked out by meeting three Uruguayan girls in Peru two long months ago. Entirely supporting the general consensus amongst most South American travellers and residents that the Uruguayans are a friendly, kind and modest bunch…
Which is probably why they now find themselves grumbling that the Argentinians have taken advantage of them, stealing not only the Tango (so that explains it) – but Dulce de Leche as well? Truly the stuff of diplomatic nightmares.
Happily the Uruguayans are frankly too happy with their lot to really take issue with it all – known as the Switzerland of South America because of its peace, wealth, neutrality. Its landscape, however, is less alpine and more… Angus?! I had a double-take when I looked up from my book on the bus to Montevideo and saw nothing but well-tended fields over a rolling landscape, tractors, hay bales, sheep & cows. The only hint that we might be elsewhere – a couple of palm trees sneaking in with the oaks and chestnuts.
Somehow I had also chosen to visit during the worst storm in Uruguayan history (or some such similar superlative). The thunder and torrential rain seemed to continue for at least 48 hours, but undeterred, I pulled out my well-travelled brolly – ta da! – and ploughed on regardless. Amongst other dutifully-touristy activities, I made authentic empanadas, had a private tour around the nation’s Teatro Solis (US$5 for any seat in the house for the resident Company’s productions – yet more brilliant accessibility to the arts), drove (I repeat – it was raining – a lot) along the famous “Ramblas” promenade at least 5 times – and finally, took a ringside seat at the bar of a hot, smoky, noisy parilla in the main market.
Juicy and delicious meats of all shapes and sizes, and small tree trunks being flung across the grill to replenish the embers on the side. I just hoped that it wasn’t a vegetarian who had ordered the cheese starter I watched being prepared on the blood-stained chopping board…
Finally, sadly, it was time to leave. And finally some travel plans that went wrong. (It was about time I got to call the insurance company). Turns out a tornado had struck the road I had travelled along three days earlier. And so what did I do? Traded havoc at the ferry port, and fights for the one boat sailing back to Buenos Aires, for the peace and tranquillity of, yes… The airport.
The environmentalists won’t like this, but… Should I just stick to flying in future?
And on that note, I am writing this whilst safely ensconced in the departures lounge of BA’s international airport, thunderstorm raging outside, waiting for my flight to Sydney. The gap yaah continues (told you it wasn’t really the end).
I have promised a “highlights” blog to some (I suspect they are the cheats who are hoping to score well on the test when I get back…) so you’ll get that soon enough.
But in the meantime, having adventurised myself from top to toe, it’s now time to find out what life is like at the heel.
Ciao America – hola Australia!