The Ibera Wetlands, and the Ibera Lagoon, the second largest pristine wild paradise left in the world.
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.
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.
This is a recently published article I wrote about how the Finns stole the tango from Argentina and rebranded it to their own culture. Click on the picture to read the entire article.
Rose garden and jacaranda trees in November
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.
A Buenos Aires “telo” or transitorio, where you can have privacy, discretion, and imagination for a reasonable price.
From left, Jose Hernandez (Argentinian pharmaceutical executive working in Baltimore); John Bechtel (author); Santana Subenbach (German backpacker in Buenos Aires), Hannah Ilva (Argentinian medical worker living in Boston) all of whom met by accident at the San Telmo Mercado on their way to other places.
There is an old Jewish joke about a Mrs. Berkowitz having a conversation with a friend. During the conversation the friend remarked at the beauty and breathtaking size of the diamond ring on Mrs. Berkowitz’s left hand. Mrs. Berkowitz phlegmatically responded that yes, it was the famous Berkowitz diamond but added after a brief pause, “but it comes with the infamous Berkowitz curse.” “And what is that?” her friend inquired. “Mr. Berkowitz” came the immediate reply.
It seems everyone wants to be a writer, and why not? It comes with a certain romantic cachet. You instantly become labeled as a wordsmith, a creative spirit, an intellectual, and it seems from that point on you can ask anything or do anything that engaged in by anyone else would be considered boorish or in poor taste, but excused in your case because “you’re a writer.” You may be forgiven for drinking to excess, talking too much or too loudly, dominating conversations, expressing political or social opinions too dogmatically, bragging too much, or dancing on tables, and you may be good-naturedly toasted or roasted. After all, you’re a writer.
Alas, writing also comes with a curse. You have to write, and it has to be something others want to read, and most unreasonably of all, it has to be something others are willing to pay to read. Short of that, you are a hobbyist.
A professional writer is also a marketer. It is not enough that your family and best friends extol your wit or intrinsic virtues as an undiscovered writer. It is your challenge to write, to get your talents recognized and compensated. This is what professional writers do.
I have been an accidental writer all my life, and I have been a traveler all my life, but I had never put the two together in a professional way until September 2014 when I attended the Ultimate Travel Writer’s Workshop in San Diego. The three-day event was sponsored and managed by Lori Allen and her team at Great Escape Publishing. The program was written by world adventurer, master copywriter, and Executive Editor of International Living magazine, Jennifer Stevens.
To a certain extent we are all defined by our fears, and my first fear attending this event was that I was going to be the oldest person in the room, surrounded by twenty-something millennials, all exuding boundless energy (and maybe hormones), in love with writing and willing to work for free in order to be called a writer. Maybe they would sneak glances at me and wonder what such a relic was doing there. You know, the way my grown kids look at me.
With both online and social media communication, we have lost our way. We have forgotten that less is more.
Quantity has totally trumped quality. Social media dominated by commercial interests is no longer social, but just another technology pressed into the service of broadcast (or should I say bombast) media. Instead of being touched by the messages, we are bombarded by propaganda. Commerce has always been about selling, but seduced by technology, the volume has become so loud that it is virtually impossible to have an uninterrupted conversation. It is increasingly difficult to read a simple message of only a couple paragraphs without our screen being invaded by persistent banners, pop-up advertising and unprompted audio and video. We have become a mass population afflicted with attention-deficit disorder on steroids.
Personal Isolation is Growing
As a result, communication in the sense of gaining the trust and confidence of each other is atrophying and personal isolation is growing. Imagine being on a first date with someone you might be seriously interested in developing a relationship with, and over the course of dinner your conversation is continually interrupted by your guest sending and receiving messages on his/her smart phone. What is the message to you? ‘Please wait, this current interruption may be from someone more important than you and this dinner.’ This lends a very literal significance to the term instant gratification, where the party that interrupts achieves instant and often undeserved top priority. In the process, you have been devalued. (more…)