First hand encounters with wildlife in the village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, Ibera Wetlands of Argentina
I am in Mesopotamia. No, not that Mesopotamia. Not the location of the ancient Babylonian empire and the modern state of Iraq in the Middle East. In another time and place I would have put that Mesopotamia high on my bucket list because the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were one of the cradles of civilization and history holds special fascination for me. Unfortunately wars and conflict of the last twenty years have been very effective in obliterating not only the present lives of that Mesopotamia’s inhabitants and their culture, but in many of its areas, travelers are beheaded for the unforgivable offense of intruding on their world.
The Mesopotamia where I now find myself in the far northeast of Argentina was originally populated by tribes that found their way here from another, less well known cradle of civilization known as the Amazon basin. They spoke variations and dialects of a language called Guarani. Other tribes from the Amazon basin migrated westward to the mountains and highlands of the Andes, and which in many parts of South America are today collectively referred to as the Quechua cultures.
The Guarani however migrated gradually southward through what is today Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. This long preceded the arrival of the Jesuit missionaries and the Spanish conquistadors. Many of these Amazonian tribes also did a lot of beheading, and we know this because archeologists have discovered large caches of shrunken heads, with the skulls and other contents removed, and stuffed with various materials. A quaint custom indeed, and one of technology’s first experiments with miniaturization. So the victors shrank heads, and the losers ran for cover. No one knows for sure why the Guarani were moving south through the continent, but it’s pretty likely they were running from someone. One recent and authoritative source says head shrinking is still taking place in some remote parts of the Amazon.
This story began in the Amazon basin
There is far more known about the highland, Andean cultures in South America because the artifacts of their civilization were often made of stone, found everywhere in great abundance. Buildings and tools made of stone, left undisturbed, such as in burial tombs, last for thousands of years. However the forebears of the Andean peoples lived in the jungles, rainforests, wetlands and swamps of the huge Amazon basin, and the jungle reclaimed most vestiges of those who once lived there. It is only in the last twenty years that evidence is surfacing of vast Amazonian civilizations with causeways, roads, and irrigation canals that stretched for hundreds of miles, and which radiocarbon dating is placing thousands of years before the Egyptian pharaohs.
Now let’s fast forward to August, 2017 when a certain enterprising (or delusional) travel and culture writer named John Bechtel decided to backpack around eight regions of Argentina in the hopes of creating a comprehensive English-language survey of the history and cultures of the country. The sojourn begins with an introduction to an intellectual who is retiring this year as the director of the Argentine version of Junior Achievement, well known everywhere in the U.S. for introducing young people to the possibilities of entrepreneurship and to real entrepreneurs, people who have successfully built businesses.
Greetings again from Buenos Aires. I arrived on July 10, and of course I have a plan. It’s a bit ambitious, maybe even a little over the top. Argentina is a very large country, the eighth largest in the world for area. It is about 2/3 the size of the continental U.S., and it has virtually every type of topography and climate imaginable, from glaciers to deserts to jungle to very high mountains (including the 2nd highest in the world after Mt. Everest as measured by the topographic prominence method of height) to vast savanna. I have divided the country into eight regions, and I intend to spend about three months in each of those regions exploring, interviewing, photographing, and writing for publication. I will use the internet and referrals to find lodging with families in their homes. How better to learn the history and culture of a country than to hear it from those who have spent their lives there? I will leave Argentina periodically for travel assignments to other parts of the world, but will return to Argentina as my base of operations. At the end of the project I will write and seek a publisher for a comprehensive English-language cultural history of Argentina, as told to me by Argentines.
I spent six months, from August 2016 through January 2017 sleeping in the same bunk bed in a hostel called Puerto Limon in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Many have asked why I went, what I learned, and what it has been like to return to the U.S. My experience was not that of a typical tourist or backpacker. I went to Argentina with purpose; I wanted an immersion experience with tourists from all over the world and I wanted to write about what I learned. I traveled to learn about travelers. I went with my backpack and my camera case. Nothing else. No suitcases. I interviewed, wrote, and was published. You can read some of it on this blog and some published articles on this website at www.johnbechtelwriter.com/articles/. I have material for many other articles which I have no doubt will be published in due time. I met travelers from 42 countries and collected over 150 of their email addresses. Some of us have become good friends. As I contact many more of them who think I forgot them, I am sure more friendships will blossom. In no particular order, and in compressed form, here are some observations and comparisons from my trip. Others may not agree.
There seems to be a vegetable and fruit stand on every corner in Buenos Aires. Most of the proprietors are men and women from Bolivia.
Peanut butter is hard to find. Really good feta cheese is almost impossible to find. Handkerchiefs were scarce, and Argentine T-shirts didn’t last through very many washings. The proprietor of the local butcher shop could do amazing things with his meat cleaver and a raw chicken. Once he cut his hand while preparing my order. You can walk around the same block twenty times and see an establishment that you missed all the other times. When they close up, they all look the same. Most of the locals I met did not speak any English, or just a word or two. About like my Spanish. Bothering to learn their first name and remembering it always lit up their faces with a smile.
Never order “American food” in Buenos Aires. Things like pizza, hamburgers, and certainly not a Long Island Iced Tea. You may not recognize what comes to your table. They have their own fast food, which, if you give it a chance, is just as good but different. Like choripán, which means a sausage sandwich.
It originated in Argentina but has spread to contiguous countries like Chile and Brazil. The secret ingredient is chimichurri. Use the usual condiments with caution; they often have an extremely high salt content. I have wondered what a choripán would taste like with a good horseradish-based mustard.
Luis Barolo, an Italian industrialist, was a Mason, and a great admirer of another Mason, the poet Alghieri Dante, who lived about six hundred years before him. Dante was a pioneer celebrity in the late medieval era, and his long narrative poem The Divine Comedy takes the reader on a detailed guided tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and is still considered the preeminent Italian contribution to world literature. The poem is an allegory about getting close to God and has much to say about sin, redemption, ethics, and moral life. Dante was a member of a number of secret societies of his time, and it is not surprising that his poem is also full of numbers and symbolisms. Luis Barolo, who came to Argentina in 1890, wanted to design and construct an office building inspired by The Divine Comedy. Like most of the Italians living in Argentina after World War I, Barolo wondered if Italy was going to go out of existence. Therefore he intended for his Palacio Barolo to become Dante’s mausoleum where his ashes could be kept safe. Italy remained in existence, however, and Dante’s ashes remained in Ravenna.
Barolo hired another Italian Mason, Mario Palanti, to design the building. Barolo died before the building opened to the public, but his architect lived to be almost 100 and died in his home country in 1979. Palanti was a scholar of The Divine Comedy and filled the building with references to the poem. The building is exactly one hundred meters high, one meter for each of the 100 cantos in Dante’s poem. The building is divided into three parts, Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, also symbolizing the Holy Trinity of God, Son, and Holy Ghost. There are 22 floors; there are 22 stanzas in some cantos. There are 11 balconies on the front of the building; there are 11 stanzas to some of the cantos. The Ground Floor and two basements represent Hell. The central hall of the palace has nine arches representing the nine hierarchies of Hell. On the columns of the transverse arches there are twelve lamps supported by four condors, four female dragons, and four male dragons. that represent the alchemy principles, mercury, sulphur, and their attributes.
Recessed into the Ground Floor, there are twelve round circles outlined in brass, and at one time, beneath these circles were bright lights. At night, when it was dark inside, and the recessed and hidden lights were turned on from the first basement below, beams of light shot upward through the circles and colored glass implanted in the floor and into the darkness of the grand hallway, signifying the fires of Hell.
Marina is gone. She left us (again) about a month ago and disappeared into the mists and fog of rain-drenched Buenos Aires. She said she was going back to Germany, where she insisted she was not from. Marina Zubkova claimed she was Russian, but as far as I know, no one ever verified that by looking at her passport. We had a lot of people passing through Puerto Limon claiming to be one thing or another. Writers with no laptops, Swiss bankers trying to borrow other people’s cell phones to communicate with Panama; you never knew. But Marina probably was Russian. For one thing, she knew how to make borscht. And even though she spoke fluent German, she never wanted to be referred to as a German. So of course, we all borrowed a line out of Fawlty Towers: “Don’t mention the war!”
We loved Marina. We still do. We have dozens of photos of her holding her hands in front of her face when she thought we were taking her picture. Marina got teased a lot, but she always rose to the occasion, and we all got accustomed to her querulous voice rising to the pretend accusations, both parties betrayed by the shitty grins on their faces. Marina is very bright (English is her third or fourth language), and very diligent, responsible, and supremely organized. That’s why we wondered if she wasn’t secretly a German. Marina never shirked her duty. But the Russian in her could never admit things were good. Marina never had enough rest, and if you pointed out the good things that were happening, Marina’s rejoinder always began with “Yes, but . . . ” When Marina went out with a group, like any Marine, she always made sure everyone got home safe. She never left anyone behind.
Marina always gave back. She ate my bananas, but she taught me Excel. And if I asked her for help, she never turned me down. She would even apologize for making me wait sometimes until she could get to it. She taught me how to use my camera. If something didn’t work right, she couldn’t leave it alone until she figured it out. She never refused a beer.
On a recent Friday, Puerto Limon Hostel where I reside in Buenos Aires got a phone call asking if I was a resident there. They asked for my passport number and said they had received a small package addressed to me from the U.S. The package contained a replacement hearing aid from the Audibel hearing aid organization in Florida. As part of my warranty on their product, they had agreed to replace the hearing aid I had lost, and put on the bill of lading a value of $2 because zero was not acceptable. The following Monday, a Fed Ex driver stopped by the Hostel, not to deliver the package, but to drop off two pages of confusing instructions, in Spanish, about how to pay customs charges of U.S. $121 and an additional AR $250 for my free package. I had heard horror stories about package delivery in Argentina, but being the eternal optimist, I was ready to find out for myself. I do not visit a country to become its critic, and after five months of residence here, I loved Buenos Aires and learned more every day. I even entertained notions of using this experience to deepen my understanding of how customs worked, and how the values were determined.
So I set about with one of the receptionists here, who tried to translate the written instructions. Eventually she gave up and called the local Fed Ex office. They explained what I would owe, which I thought was ridiculous. After all, a comparable hearing aid was simply not available in Argentina, and why would they punish a handicapped person (not being able to hear IS a handicap) by making a replacement as difficult and as expensive as possible? It’s not as if they could repair or replace it from an Argentine provider. The following is what happened next to me and Erika, my assistant and interpreter, who was helping me on her precious day off work:
Some live lives of unfulfilled promise; lives that could have been, but that didn’t happen. Sometimes because the individuals are too dull-witted to even conceive of their own possibilities, overwhelmed and paralyzed by too many possibilities, too risk averse to take a chance, or lacking the industry and persistence to pursue their dreams with focus and stamina. None of this describes Estefania Gulina, a 32-year-old first-time Executive Producer of a movie to be filmed in Cordoba, Argentina, and a recent guest at Puerto Limon Hostel here in Buenos Aires. Her motto is “The way traveled was not wasted time if it has really been lived.”
Estefania is passionate about everything she does; she has little tolerance for a monochromatic existence, and if she is going to do something, she will hold back nothing as if subconsciously preparing for failure. She says her broad interests and passion for making things happen are the reason she has gotten involved and stayed with projects for years. But she is no fool either.
Puerto Limón Hostel, Buenos Aires
I have often been asked why I continue to live in Puerto Limón Hostel here in the San Telmo barrio of Buenos Aires. There are many travelers here who have far more experience than I do with hostel life in many countries. There are 50 beds in this hostel, and other than Rick Powell, an American from Indiana who has been here for eight years, I now have the most seniority. I have become a long-term guest and I have remained here because it serves my purposes for coming to Argentina in the first place.
In the last five months I have met people from 39 countries from right here in the Community Room of Puerto Limón Hostel. This hostel has a cozy feeling to it, a touch of Tuscany, let’s say. It’s air conditioned, very clean, and well organized. But I could get all of that and more in a hotel, albeit at a higher price. What I could not get in an apartment, a home, or even a popular bar, is the opportunity to meet and engage with all these people. I find this very soul-satisfying. Relatively speaking, there are few Americans who come through here. But just last week I met the exception, the very exceptional William Morgan, a retired medical science researcher at the university level, whose specialty was malaria.
For this particular Thanksgiving Day, we will leave the worries of the world at the door and travel themeless, timeless, but not thoughtless. Here are thoughts, sights, sounds, smells, and springtime pleasures from travelers at the Puerto Limon Hostel in Buenos Aires.
The Traveler: The traveler has no safety net. At home the familiar and unchanging serve as a safety net. But the traveler needs to be in the zone, and in the flow. Otherwise he can get lost with no one to help him. He can’t bother with worry or fear. So he allows for everything and can know nothing for sure, trusting that in the end things will be as they need to be.
In the springtime, the mind turns to love, and in Buenos Aires business picks up for the transitorios. Lunfardo, or Buenos Aires slang popular in the neighborhoods where the tango also began, had a special word for where lovers met. One characteristic of lunfardo is that it reverses the order of syllables, so that hotel becomes tel-ho. But in Spanish, the “h” is silent, so telho is pronounced as telo. On the street a telo is lunfardo slang for a transitorio, one of which is directly across the street from Puerto Limon Hostel where I have stayed for the last four months.
So what is a transitorio? It is a place where you can rent rooms by the hour in order to have sex—but it is not a whorehouse. Far from it.
The lodging is provided, but not the partner.