Monthly Archives: November 2019

Argentina 2: I’m eating your llama

My 423-day streak on DuoLingo Spanish, made me cocky, insisting we speak only Spanish (or Portuguese in E’s case) even though we rarely understood the true meaning of what people were saying to us.

For instance, there is a South American tea-like drink called mate, drunk from a special cup made out of a hollowed out gourd. It is paired with a flattened metal straw called a “bombilla” with notches on the end that filter out the leaves as you drink it. E is a longtime mate drinker from his years living in Brazil so we’ve been stopping at various stands to check out the cups or “cuias” and bombillas on display.

At one stall, a vendor, eager for a sale, rattled off an incomprehensible description of the bombilla in Spanish, which surprisingly included the word “alpaca” in addition to “plata.” I confidently, some might say resolutely turned to the others, “He said it is made of alpaca bone plated with silver.” L looked sceptical at that and E gently said something to the effect of “You’re crazy, girl.” E can’t do that too often, though, because he made the mistake of admitting how he’d brushed his teeth for some moments the other day before the lack of minty freshness made him realize he was brushing with hydrocortisone — the dangers of mixing a well-stocked first aid kit in with your toiletries. I haven’t yet told him that one potential side effect is increased hair growth on the forehead so I look away quickly when he catches me staring.

But the silver straw made from alpaca kept coming up at each stand so in an attempt to prove I was right, I finally googled “alpaca silver.” After the simple explanation that it is a metal alloy similar to a shiny stainless steel, Google added a pointed “It does not contain any alpaca (the animal). That question comes up often.”

To be fair, we’d understand more if DuoLingo taught the dialect of Argentine Spanish. Here they swallow the s in the middle of a word and add them other places. It is “mucha gracias” and “buena noches,” when spoken at least, even as they insist the s’s are there.

Another big difference is that y’s and double ell’s are pronounced as an sh and not as a y. Instead of what’s your name being cómo se llama (yama), it is cómo se shama. It’s not ayuda (help) but ashuda. We didn’t stay in Cafayate (Ca-fah-yah-tay), but Cafash… never mind.

Of course written Spanish has its own peculiarities. Leave the accent off of cómo and como se llama roughly translates to “I am eating your llama” (which we’ve actually had cause to say here. It’s delicious.) And in a bookstore, I saw the cover of Susan Orlean’s best-selling nonfiction work called The Library Book about the 1986 fire that destroyed the LA Public Library. In Spanish it’s called “La Biblioteca en Llamas” which was very confusing until we realized that llamas also means flames.

If the language takes getting used to, the road rules are simple. Pedestrians come last and presumably provide great traction for tires on pavement. To cross the street, we glued ourselves to locals, often schoolkids, or chose to jaywalk in the middle of a street. Most are one way so in the middle we only had one direction from which to get hit. Other than the largest streets, intersections are completely uncontrolled — no traffic lights, no yield signs and no taking turns. Cars keep going until one car hesitates or there is a foot-long gap in traffic, then the other direction jumps in and takes over.

In smaller towns, even the traffic lights work differently. The lane in each direction takes its own turn rather than north-south lanes going at the same time and then east-west. So when a northbound car has the green light, in effect it has a permanent advanced green, right turn green and straight ahead green at the same time. Then the next lane goes wherever it wants while the other three lanes wait. As pedestrians, we’d take so long to figure out which car was likely to hit us that the light would change before we could move and we’d have to start all over again.

After Iguazú, we flew to Salta, Northern Argentina, rented a car and drove the wine route south to Cafayate. Getting out of the city was hardest because the main roads are wide enough for three lanes but five cars will drive abreast in a staggered, flowing, bumper-cars manner. If the cars here were equipped with the side warning sensors back home, our car would have been beeping frantically with tachycardia. Much like we were.

Highway driving was a breeze in comparison and absolutely stunning as we wove through the pre-Andes on the southern wine route, stirring up dust. We stopped at deep-red rock formations called the Devil’s Throat and the Buried Houses and exclaimed over vistas of layered mountains into the distance and sandstone coloured in pink and tan. Cafayate itself was a small town with tons of wineries within walking distance that we took advantage of to escape the torrential rain that turned streets into rivers in minutes and then dried up almost as quickly once it had stopped. We toured the wine museum which had won awards for creativity but was not to our taste as all the placards were written in verse with flowery turns of phrase like “the water writes drop by drop a love story on the earth,” and something about “palpitating destiny” and “the wombs of grapes.”

We then drove north to Humahuaca and Purmamarca where the Inca culture is much more prevalent, along switchbacks though the Andes themselves, gaping at the deep dry gorge and rising to over 11,000 feet in elevation to the Salinas Grandes salt flats, a kind of white cracked tundra that stretches in both directions.

When we tell others what we’ve seen, they say we’ve hit many of the highlights. And after a few weeks here we now walk unflinching into traffic, weave around cars as we drive and speak to shopkeepers, hotel staff and waiters in Spanish without hesitation. Like I said, cocky. Until yesterday when we tried to order a sandwich. The stand was set up kinda like a Subway where you choose your toppings, or so we thought, not realizing that the long list of toppings were actually different flavours of mayonnaise. So we walked up confidently and basically said, I’ll have a chorizo hot dog with mayonnaise and blue cheese mayonnaise and garlic mayonnaise and onion mayonnaise and avocado mayonnaise and chimichurri mayonnaise. The long suffering sandwich artist sighed and complied. And we ate it resolutely like that was exactly what we’d intended.

Argentina 1: Falling for Iguazú

Iguazú Falls, on the border of Argentina and Brazil, has long been on my list of places to see so I jumped at the chance to tag along when my sister, L, was invited to speak at a conference in northern Argentina. Her boyfriend, E, wasn’t about to be left behind so the three of us found our way to the falls about four days into our trip.

Those days weren’t without excitement with a backpack left on a plane (we retrieved it), a flight connection time narrowed by delay to minutes (we sprinted), and a hotel safe jammed shut with all our important stuff inside (we liberated it after some serious sweating; well, E did, winning MVP of the trip from the start). We weathered the national election (thankfully peaceful) and enjoyed Buenos Aires thoroughly, wandering around neighborhoods and stopping in at the Recoleta Cemetary, a street market and a bookstore housed in a grandiose, old theatre.

The eating has been, shall we say, carnivorous: a steakhouse whose portions could easily have fed Bedrock, empanadas (oh the empanadas) and a chart-topping wine-paired seven-course closed-door dinner (a night of wine, food and conversation followed by a rough morning, for me at least, after seven glasses of wine).

Getting to Iguazú Falls was easy once we figured out how to match the town to the airport and accommodation. Iguazú is actually hundreds of waterfalls linked to stretch for three kilometres across the Argentina-Brazil border much like Niagara can been seen from Canada and the US, with towns and airports on both sides. We arranged for an airport transfer on the Argentine side and kept the driver, Andrés, firmly in our clutches for the next two days, subjecting him to our DuoLingo Spanish (me and L) and E’s good, but perhaps rusty Portuguese, despite the fact that Andrés spoke and understood English (I insisted we should be practicing).

Andrés shepherded us across the border for dinner in Brazil the first night to a traditional churrascaria — a sort of dim sum of meat skewers where I drastically overate in order not to hurt any one server’s feelings by turning down their meat. So chicken hearts it was, quite tasty, barbecued. Followed by rump steak, sausages (spicy and not), lamb, filet mignon wrapped in bacon, ribs with perfectly rendered fat, another meat I’ve forgotten, grilled cheese cubes, grilled pineapple, an unlimited salad and dessert bar, and the whole round all over again although by then we’d learned to insist on “solo un poco” with finger and thumb held an inch apart or more often a “no really, I couldn’t” with a laughing groan.

Meat quota reached, the next day we planned to tackle the Argentine side of the falls but immediately found that the boat ride up to them, à la Maid of the Mist for Niagara fans, was sold out for the day. After a quick re-plan with Andrés, we allotted three hours to make our way to some of the viewpoints on the Argentina side then drove over to the Brazil side where there were also boats but less people.

Faced with a choice of wet boat ride or dry, we of course chose wet. No question as it was 40 degrees Celsius and humid. The dry boat would still get wet, we were told, but the wet one would be closer to the falls. We were so hot that as we neared the dock to board, anytime anyone asked us something in Portuguese, I would yell “molhado! (wet!),” panicked that someone might stick us on the lame dry boat instead.

The boat was a medium Zodiac that sat four to a bench and was maybe seven benches long. Off we went down the Iguazú river pulling over to the side until it was our turn to run the loud, frothed-up rapids. Then we calmed for a panoramic photo op of the falls, and more falls and more falls — delicate and lacy in some places, powerful and punishing in others, and as a whole, breathtaking.

Whether it was that our boat was too small or due to jurisdictional issues from the Brazil side, instead of heading towards to the long curtain of water as expected, we turned to a nearer, narrower fall, nonetheless spectacular. We nosed up to it and as we were exclaiming over its beauty, the boat pilot drove us completely into the water flow. The excited squeals of running the rapids was nothing compared to the maniacal laughter of a boatload of people being drowned under a waterfall. Four times. It couldn’t have been more fun, like riding through a car wash in a little red wagon. There was even a natural cycle of overheated wind that blowdried our hair into a cloud of tangles on the ride back. Although an hour later I was still wringing out my sponge of a t-shirt and my shorts were drooping to mid-calf like I played professional ball.

While the Argentine side that morning had been impressive, we’d been hampered by time and a large crowd that we’d fought for railing space as we gaped at the enormous Giant’s Throat fall. On the Brazil side, we were practically alone and could pause at every lookout to soak in the wonder of it all. With less people, we also came across more wildlife: capuchin monkeys swinging tree to tree, large sleek grey and black lizards with tails long enough to look like snakes, a miniature deer the size of a medium-sized dog, and of course the ever present koati, a seeming raccoon-anteater cross that is so intent on food that we humans had had to eat lunch inside a large cage so the handful of hungry koatis clawed up against it on the outside couldn’t get at us.

But to cap it off, the final Brazil lookout was only 30m or so from that same Giant’s Throat fall we’d glimpsed under people’s armpits and around their selfie poses earlier that day. We stepped out onto a hexagonal platform mid-fall-height and stood quiet and respectful, arms out like the figurehead on a ship, getting thoroughly re-misted. Then we met up with Andrés again to head home across the border, damp and tired, in time for more meat.