Monday, May 12, 2008

A JOURNEY INTO THE MALARIAL JUNGLES OF MISIONES

THE LAST FERRY TO PARAGUAY, ROTISSEUR GAUCHESQUE, A WATERFALL ON THE IGUAZU AND OTHER OCCURRENCES


What did you do this weekend?

Gentle reader, I write to you now through the thick fog of the last stages of a very nasty reaction to a completely unnecessary vaccination against the jungle malady known as yellow fever. The reason for this unpleasant adventure in prophylactic medicine? A direct order from Global Student Experiences HQ in Irvine, California, where the dope smokers and hacky-sack champions turned millionaires organizing my exchange decided that no students would be allowed to Iguazu Falls without the vaccine. Never mind, of course, that there hasn't been a single confirmed case anywhere near Iguazu in years, the almost complete absence of the mosquitos that spread the disease at this time of year, and the near impossibility of healthy white people with health insurance dying from the disease. Anyway, I guard the bastards no rancor; Iguazu was the most amazing place I've been in years and a little yellow fever is just the price I'll have to pay. 
Ready to leave civilization behind - Jorge Newberry Departure Lounge

Before leaving, I was overcome by the desire to take advantage of the fact that Iguazu lies at what is known as "la triple frontera," where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet at the confluence of the Parana and Iguazu rivers. The region is as famous for its lawlessness than it is for the striking beauty of the waterfalls straddling the Argentina/Brazil border. For comparison, it is estimated that 1 million tourists visited the national parks in Brazil and Argentina last year, and I personally estimate that 1 million pirated DVD players were sold in Paraguay in the same period.  I wanted a slice of the pie. I wanted to buy stolen goods in Paraguay. Americans cannot legally enter Brazil without a consular visa, so I had decided to leave that for some other time and head to "Latin America's Mexico," Paraguay.   I became obsessed with Paraguay, and if I had to get some pointless vaccine on the whims of some birkenstock wearing post-feminists back in California, so be it. 

The people behind the organization of my exchange down here, to be fair, are giving me a lot more than the other programs with students at Belgrano, but all the same they tend to try to keep us in a very touristy sort of bubble. Iguazu, granted, is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world. Really, people only go there to see the waterfalls, and the national parks very complete network of Jungle catwalks and narrow gauge railways do most of the work in taking some of the adventure out of seeing the waterfalls. The thing about the falls, of course, is that they are too magnificent to really diminish with a few catwalks, or the presence of a few other gawking tourists. 

I wasn't going to let GSE screw up the rest of my time at the Tri-Frontier, though, so I decided to get straight to Paraguay where no tour groups dare to go. I didn't want a regular tourist experience with a bunch of clueless Americans being lead by the nose by our program director to pre-approved frippery (It took something of a revolt, for example, to keep Alfredo from taking us to an American chain restaurant in Mar del Plata). Everyone I asked told me the same thing, though.

"It is impossible for you to go to Paraguay." 

I had arrived on a Friday. To go to Paraguay by Taxi, you need to cross though Brazil and it was already too late in the afternoon to catch the last ferry back until Tuesday. 

I was despondent. I was outraged. Upper middle class young white men like me are not used to having the law apply to us, and this rude assertion of Brazilian sovereignty was killing me. There was no Paraguay in the cards for me, it seemed. I resigned to do what the tourists do. I hopped into a cab with a few friends whom I had severely let down after talking up Paraguay to them the whole week before, and asked the driver to take us to see the three frontiers. 

On the way to the river port he put on a DVD in a little flip down screen about the history of some hydroelectric dam. I asked him for some local music instead. This seemed to spike his interest somewhat. I confessed to him that Americans of a certain class and disposition have an obsession with authenticity. He looked authentic enough to me, and I wanted to get as much about the reality of the region out of him as possible in three days.

My fried Anastasia put to him that instead of the port, he should take us to some kind of bar where the locals would be eating. He thought it over, and then he asked the question that made the weekend.

"How about a an asado in the jungle tonight?"

Matt Fox of Baltimore and our driver, Miguel, at dinner later that night.

Miguel, our driver, it turns out, is part of a smaller, weirder and better tourist industry in Iguazu. He took us to the port all the same, and while we waited for a futuristic catamaran tour down the Parana, he went off to talk to a friend of his. That's how we met Fabricio. Anastasia and her friend Natasha thought he was dreamy. Matt and I thought he was awesome. In short, Fabricio is a gaucho, and he was going to host us at his humble home in the Jungle after our catamaran cruise returned. 

Fabricio and I talked a little about literature, which he used to study before he became a gaucho/tree husbander. We made a deal for the dinner, and he went off to prepare while we watched the sun go down over the confluence of the rivers and the triple frontier. The last ferry to Paraguay, loaded with the boxy vans that move the third world, set steam without us, but I didn't mind so much anymore.

The catamaran tour was strange. We cruised down the river aways in this very futuristic boat (if the future hadn't been properly serviced in a few years, anyway) until we came to this beach on the Paraguayan side of the river. We beached. Finally I was in Paraguay, even if it was just for a few minutes. What were we doing here in Paraguay? We had come to observe an ancient Guarani ritual, carried out twice a day on the banks of the river in exchange for bags of food and medical aid from the catamaran company. Everyone went out to the front of the boat to watch the dancing of the indians, which was, to say the least, somewhat uninspired. The scene was starting to give me a bad feeling. Tourists from all over (mostly from Spain and Buenos Aires) were staring wide eyed. It was as if space aliens paid me to go back to church so they could observe homo sapiens' capacity for spiritual feeling.  We left the Guarani behind to be treated to a selection of everyone's favorite songs from all over the Spanish speaking world.

Miguel came to get us at the hotel that night, and we set off into the jungle for the most delicious barbecue that I've ever had. We left the town behind, passing some indigenous houses, a half built schoolhouse, the carwash and then we were in the jungle, going up a mountain. Miguel played with us once we were out of town, shutting off the lights and showing us how pitch black it was out there. Then we got lost. We stopped to get our bearings for a minute.



Then we saw a lantern light coming out of the Jungle. Fabricio had seen the lights from the car and come out to find us. We followed him on foot back to his place, a patch of land with a small shack for sleeping, a lean-too for cooking and a bunch of seedlings growing out of cut up soda bottles. 


Mostly, when we got there, we were speechless (unusual for me). Fabricio had set up everything beautifully. He told us all about his home, what he did out there, living in the Jungle. It was wonderful. Fabricio had been a literature student before he ran off to become a gaucho. He had worked a few years artificially inseminating pigs and cows before he visited Iguazu on a vacation five years ago. He fell in love with the place, and decided to stay.

The dinner he made us was fantastic. We ate like kings out under the stars. Everything was perfect. The meat of Argentina is known to be the best, and the meat in the countryside is even better. Meat cooked over a wood fire is better than charcoal, and the meat of Misiones grows out the famous red soil of the province, giving everything a special flavor. Fabricio had arranged everything  wonderfully. For desert we had fresh bananas, straight from the jungle, and special hand rolled gaucho cigars from Paraguay.


Of course, our authentic Jungle barbecue is only so different from paying Guarani to come out and dance. That was an authentic Guarani dance, after all. What does it mean to be a tourist? Does paying to see a waterfall make it less of a waterfall? Who knows, really. I like to think Miguel, Fabricio and I got on well, but the truth is that I still paid them. I got what I wanted, I got to get away from my program, hang out with a gaucho, smoke paraguayan cigars and eat a ton the best meat I've ever had in my life. They got what they wanted, and it's too base to say that they just wanted to make money. Fabricio is digging another well, and trying to start a business raising indigenous trees. Was I saving the rain-forest?  Maybe. My point is this - you can only get so authentic in one afternoon. 


A TRIP TO THE FALLS

They've got all these catwalks set up that take you through the jungles and over the rivers so you can get to the falls without damaging the rain-forest ecosystem. 

This is called the "Devil's Throat" waterfall. It's biggest one of the falls at Iguazu. Everybody in the crowd here was talking about death. This photo does not capture how epic it is to look down into the Devil's Throat. No joke, everybody was talking about death. So many people probably kill themselves here.

There are a million rainbows all over the place.


This boat took us right underneath the falls. Like, they just drove the boat straight into the waterfall. It was awesome. Everyone got so soaked, and everyone else was wearing jeans. The fools.



My mom just came back from Egypt. A lot of her pictures from the temples have "orbs" in them, that are allegedly the spirits of the Pharaohs or something. The spots in this picture are drops of water. 

Some photos come courtesy of Traci Fortier. 

1 comment:

Harriet Welch said...

Nick, Loved your comments on Iguazu falls and the barbecue. Someday, I know, your pictures will have orbs too. Love Mom