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.
Forgot my tuxedo
I was Eduardo’s guest for lunch, a beautiful affair with I must confess, the best steak I have yet to eat in Argentina. We drank coffee and no wine, because we both had serious work to do. At the conclusion of lunch, Eduardo calls an octogenarian friend of his, also of intellectual bent, and who has authored nine or ten books, written in Spanish, but many of them translated into English, all on the topic of why Argentina fell from being one of the wealthiest nations in the world to being a third world nation in less than a hundred years. On our walk back to his office Eduardo casually informs me that my lunch appointment the following day with his friend Billy will be at the Jockey Club, and that a strict dress code is enforced. You may never have been to the Jockey Club here, but it is one of those places with 30-foot ceilings and 8-foot statuary in the lobby and hallway. The kind of place where everyone lowers their voice and talks in hushed, almost reverential tones, for some peculiar reason.
Unfortunately I forgot to pack a suit in my backpack. I knew I had forgotten something! The next morning I rented everything except my underwear from a local merchant and showed up for lunch at the Jockey Club, only to be informed there had been a mistake about the reservation and we were eating somewhere else nearby, where there was no dress code. I take it all in stride, have a fabulous four-hour lunch with Billy, and still managed to return my rented clothes before store closing time.
Both Eduardo and Billy have a keen interest in their country and its culture, and happily, they were enthusiastic about my project. Billy gave me three of his books to read, which I did in the following week. I was glad that I had generously tipped the young man who outfitted me with a beautiful black suit, shirt, and tie on a moment’s notice, because Billy informed me at lunch that the next time lunch was going to be at the Jockey Club.
From tux to mud boots
Then came a 10-hour overnight bus ride 800 kilometers to the small town of Mercedes, in the middle of a very large province of Argentina called Corrientes, and the capital of which is also Corrientes. It seems to me there is a certain lack of imagination in the naming of places, because I have noticed that everywhere I go, at least thus far, even the streets in different cities have the same names, all of famous military men from Argentina’s past. It makes me wonder if Argentina has any heroes other than warriors, generals, and politicians.
The last 120 kilometers to my final destination of the village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini is all on an unpaved dirt road with very deep ruts in some places from traffic when local rains had turned the road into a sea of mud. The village itself is about ten blocks square, and I do mean square; every single block seems to be a perfect square. The sandy streets may have names, but there are no street signs and no traffic signs. They say a thousand people live here, but it hardly seems like it. You see people here and there, but not crowds and seldom even groups.
I am staying at the Huella Ibera Lodge in this village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, in the province of Corrientes, the region of Mesopotamia, Argentina. Don’t send me any mail. No one delivers.
Rush hour in the village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini. They claim 1,000 people live here, so I wonder where they all hide in 10 blocks square.
Teaching English to los hijos
I teach English as a foreign language to children, ages seven to twelve, in a little one-room schoolhouse with a horrible cheap chalkboard and chalk that were not designed for each other, so that what you write is almost invisible unless you press very hard over and over again. I traded the teaching for room and board. I teach 15 hours a week.
The internet is extremely weak, so it is rarely possible to pull up a website or download a program. I live in a lodge ten blocks from where I teach, and two blocks further for where I can send or receive emails. Even this is a torturous process, with frequent interruptions of loss of signal. Generally I type out my emails in MS Word the night before, so that I can quickly copy and paste into gmail and hit Send before the inevitable loss of signal in mid-message. Occasionally I walk to the mayor’s office because when it is functioning at all, the signal is stronger there.
Apart from the chalkboard and the internet, the children are a delight and watching their eager minds absorb a second language is nothing short of awesome. Some of them already have a good grasp of grammar and vocabulary but have a very heavy, sometimes indecipherable accent, so they have the correct answer except I couldn’t understand their spoken “English.” Which I can certainly relate to, as evidenced by the pained concentrated facial expressions of those to whom I am addressing my “Spanish.”
Affluence and poverty
The village, like much of South America, is a combination of affluence and poverty side by side. There are 26 lodges in this village, and many of them would be suitable for Scandinavia or Switzerland. They are beautifully designed and immaculate. For the most part I live alone in a lodge called Huella Ibera, which I would call high middle-end facility that to me resembles a nice roadside motel from the 1960s in the U.S.
I say “alone”, because most of the time the other nine rooms are empty. We are in low season. So I have the run of the place. It has an outdoor swimming pool, a billiards table, ping pong table, and a dining room for twenty. There is a huge floor to ceiling fireplace. One morning I opened the door to my room and found three horses staring at me. I eat lunch with my host family Monday through Friday, and they often stuff “my” refrigerator with leftovers from guest meals at another facility they own at the other end of the village. They treat me like family.
Your price is higher, senor
The village survives on tourism. Almost every house is a small business of some sort catering to the trade. The economy here is cash based and barter. When prices are not posted, which is most of the time, you will be charged higher prices than the locals, sometimes more than double. It is their culture. I have not experienced any tendency toward negotiations. If you are a gringo, you have your price, everyone else has another price. You get evaluated when you walk in the door. In my case, when I speak my first word of “Spanish”. Nothing is ever said about the price, and they always take your money with a warm smile. Nothing bad is intended. It is just how it is.
Most of the tourists are from Argentina, and specifically from Buenos Aires. There are a few Europeans, and virtually no one from North America. I think that is because most of their websites are in Spanish or poorly done, with almost no grasp of key word search and SEO. How could they have such an awareness when it is with great difficulty for them to pull up and view their own website? For the most part neither the children here nor their parents have any awareness of the immense learning experiences they are missing without adequate internet. It is a very bumpy three-hour ride on a dirt road to anything better.
What’s the big deal about the Ibera Wetlands, anyway?
What is the big attraction here? Colonia Carlos Pellegrini is in the middle of the province, and on the edge of the second-largest pristine wetland in the world. Put very simply, this is one gigantic swamp/wetland. When it rains it is like Niagara Falls being dumped on your head. The ground is mostly sand and dirt and it dries out quickly with sunshine.
There is wildlife, like caimans (smaller version of crocodile), rheas (smaller version of ostrich), otters, a larger specie of deer, the yellow anaconda (smaller 9-foot version of the famous green anaconda), peccaries (wild pigs), capybara (the world’s largest rodent) which looks like a very big, domesticated beaver if you can imagine such a thing. They seem to be harmless and just seem to eat, constantly.
High in the treetops are the howler monkeys, a big black primate whose young are astonishly blonde. They are named for the big booming voice of the males warning others away from their turf. And the stars of the show are the birds, birds, and more birds, hundreds of species in abundance everywhere. An ornithologist’s paradise and an orgasmic experience for every amateur bird watcher. The wetland itself is almost two million acres. There is canoeing, kayaking, horseback riding, and lots of guided wildlife tours, all in Spanish only.
This weekend I am back in Mercedes, looking for better internet. It was raining buckets when I arrived and I was looking and feeling like a drowned rat. After a false start by renting a hotel room that loudly proclaimed internet but had even less than what I left back in the village, not to mention the price didn’t include toilet seats, I found my internet in a restaurant/bar across the street from the bus station. (BTW, I noticed there were no toilet seats in the bus station either, which suggests to me that either this is a modern convenience that has not spread to this corner of Argentina yet, or there is a thriving black market in stolen toilet seats going on somewhere.)
At the local bar, I got an awesome steak sandwich with real, very tender steak at posted prices, with no price gouging. My kind of place! They have no less than four different sources of WiFi, and the signal was powerful. I stayed past closing last night, and then this morning, which is a Sunday, I sat outside on the sidewalk to pick up their signal and get this long-overdue post up on my blog. If my luck holds, you will even get some photos to go with the story.
While here in this town of maybe 30,000 I was so pleased to find more notebooks to write in, packs of index cards to teach with, and I also purchased small individual bags of M&Ms to use as rewards for my kids back in Colonia. I also found two very nice hotels to stay at in the future, at excellent rates, WiFi and buffet lunches. They even had postcards with photos of the rooms and bathrooms, and the toilets had seats attached! Altogether a successful weekend!
In the weeks to come I will be traveling even further north, and entering jungle on the border with southeast Brazil to the west of Iguazu Falls. I will also be traveling through the province of Missiones and the Jesuit history that was the basis for the 1986 movie The Mission with Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons. This might be one of Hollywood’s few successes depicting history with some degree of accuracy.
As always, thank you for reading and for following. Your comments are always welcome, especially since I have never felt this far off the grid! Comments are best left on the blog in the comments section because there is only one place I know of where there is a strong enough signal to pull up Facebook, and that is at this bar three hours from the village. It is a long trip and I can only handle so much beer.
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