Thursday, January 25, 2007

Don´t Cry For Me, Argentina

Written by Lynn

It was a reverse culture shock...........

We left Uyuni in the dead of night on a train that by the morning had delivered us to the
Bolivian-Argentinian border. After waiting for an hour in the slowest passport line yet, we crossed into Argentina, home of the gaucho cowboys and of Eva Peron, Madonna´s character in the pop rock musical (first written by Andrew Lloyd Webber), listed above. Our first shock was how much more expensive buses were, as we booked our tickets to our first stop, the colonial city of Salta. The tickets were three times as expensive as any we had bought in Bolivia, though, admittedly, it could be argued that the bus was three times as nice (and EVERYONE actually had a seat assignment, no one in the aisles!).

When we got to Salta, it was our second shock. We had come from a very indigenous town, with the traditional markets, the less than clean streets full of children begging and what we North Americans would consider to be often "sub-standard" restaurant and lodging facilities. What we arrived at was a town that could have easily been mistaken as being European in origin. The main square was ringed with small, intimate cafes surrounding busy streets crowded with well dressed people. Other travellers had told us that Argentina was much more "european", but we weren´t really prepared for the immense difference between the two countries - Bolivia so poor that most people struggle to put together an evening meal, to Argentina where the day´s biggest concern is what outfit to wear to the club that night. And the two widely varying lifestyles seperated by a minor 12 hours of travel.

But far be it for us to complain. We had been looking forward to making it to New Zealand as a way to get back to more "normality" so were a bit shell shocked to have it happen sooner. The biggest problem turned out to be the Argentian accent, that slurs all the spanish words together, making it almost impossible for us to understand anything. Happily, however, we managed to settle into our air conditioned hotel room with private bath, hot showers and maid service quite quickly. We also found out that the food was everything that had been boasted about, and more. Red wine and more red wine, enormous steaks and other assorted meats done as a "parrilla" (grilled over aromatic woods), croissants dripping with butter and served with espresso - wow! All that weight I had lost during my starvation periods in Venezuela and Bolivia seemed doomed to find me again...............

In an effort to stave off complete and utter indolence we rented bikes and did a trip out to a small community just outside of Salta, called San Lorenzo. Here there are million dollar homes set on acreages with in ground pools, horse barns and private wineries -
no $200 a month salaries for these people! We checked into house prices and found that for a mere $500, 000 US we too could live with the rich and possibly famous. Of course, being that we had to quibble over the price of a bike rental for an afternoon, this didn´t seem like it was going to happen any time soon.

The next day we took a trip to the Museum of High Altitude Archeology of Salta. We were
drawn there to see an exhibit of mummies that had been discovered a mere 7 years ago in the mountains surrounding the town. There are over 200 high altitude shrines and archeological that have been discovered in the Andes, with 40 of them in the region of Salta. In March 1999 an archeology team, headed by Dr. Johan Reinhard, an anthropologist from the United States, discovered the "Llullaillico" children - 3 frozen mummies, the oldest only 15 years old, found at 6700 m (about 20,000ft) near the summit of the Llullaillico mountains. These children who had lived over 500 years ago at the height of the Inca empire just shortly before the Spanish conquest, had been sacrificed to the Incan gods. Along with the mummies, over 146 artifacts that made up their burial troves were also uncovered.

Human sacrifice was a rare event amongst the Incas and performed on only the most
important of occasions, such as the death of an Incan ruler. 1 or more children from each of the suyas (aka. "communities") were chosen and taken to Cusco for a ritual ceremony. These children were usually born into royal or ruling families and chosen for their physical perfection and beauty. After a number of animal sacrifices the children were joined in symbolic union to others from different communities, thus sealing alliances. Following the ceremonies, the children (some just babes in arm) returned to their suyas along with their attendants and priests, ritually travelling a straight line rather than using throughfares, forcing them to overcome often huge geographical obstacles. Once home they were greeted with great joy and celebration, dressed in their finest clothes and taken immediately to the offering site. Here they were plied with chicha (corn beer) until they fell asleep and then buried with an assembled treasure trove. It was the Incan belief that these children did not die, but rather were reunited with their ancestors and protected the village from the peaks of the mountains where they now lived.

The three mummies were all in an amazing state of preservation when found, naturally
mummified by freezing. The first mummy, called the Lightning Girl, was about 6 years old. At some point after her death her body was struck by lighting, leaving significant burns on the left side of her face, neck and shoulders. She was seated with her legs bent and facing west-southwest. Her skull had been deformed into a conical shape when young, indicating nobility. The second girl, known as the Maiden, was estimated to be 15 years old and had her face painted with red pigment. It was believed that she was an "aclla" (Virgin of the Sun, a woman gifted to the inca ruler, who then lived in the House of Chosen Women). CT scans performed on her body revealed that when she died she was suffering from sinusitis and bronchitis. The only boy discovered at this site was 7 years old and sat with his head facing the rising sun. He had the largest trove of artifacts with him, including slings and groups of miniature statues arrayed to appear in a diorama as finely dressed men leading caravans of llamas. He was also apparently a member of the ruling class, having a short hair cut, a white feather head ornament and a deformed skull.

All of these mummies are present in the museum available for viewing, though contained in
atmospherically controlled display cases. During the study of the mummies it was decided that minimally invasive techniques would be used to study them. CT scans, odontological survey radiographs and punch biopsies to obtain DNA were all done in limited 20 minute time frames to prevent thawing of the bodies. The mummies today appear pretty much as found, even their clothing still intact.....or so we heard. After building up the anticipation by going through the various rooms and religiously reading all the English literature available, we arrived at the room containing the mummies - only to find it was closed for maintenance. What an incredible disappointment. So as a warning, all the pictures of the Llullaillico children you see here, they´ve been stolen from another website :(

After hanging in Salta for a few days we decided that we HAD to see Iguazu falls. Unfortunately, it´s not the easiest place to get to. Situated on a small finger of land that makes up the border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, it is in the proverbial middle of nowhere. But having recently seen "The Mission", with Robert DeNiro (fine movie, check it out for a better understanding of the history of the Jesuit mission in the area), it seemed like it would be worth the effort. So after 2 days of back to back travelling (with an overnight stay in the incredibly boring town of Corrientes) we made it to Puerto Iguaza. My first impression - oh my god, is it hot here! It was easily 40 degrees celsius with humidity ratcheting that up another 10 degrees or so. Sweat just starts when you leave the air conditioning, and then has no where to go. I am not a heat person, so suffered a bit, but it was worth it to see the falls.

The word "iguazu" come from the local Guarani language and means "big water". The falls are made up of a series of 270 cascades that are up to 82m in height. The most impressive is the Garganta del Diablo (or "devil´s throat") that is a U-shaped behemoth that is 150m wide and 700 m long. From the Brazilian side (which we didn´t make it to) there is apparently a perpetual rainbow during daylight hours that is created from the amount of spray sent up. As a comparison that you can relate to, Iguazu falls have a peak flow of over 400,000 square metres during wet season, in comparison to Niagara´s piddly 180,000 square metres. To its credit, however, Niagara´s overall yearly output is apparently higher than Iguazu´s as it is not subject to seasonal variation (apparently, had we shown up 6 months from now, it would be barely a trickle).

To get to these falls and many of the others you take a small train out to a series of well kept trails that meander through the jungle ecosystem of the surrounding national park. While on these trails you can view a huge variety of birds and over 50 species of butterflies, the occasional reptile, and, if you´re really lucky, even a monkey or two. Collared anteaters are all over the place, apparently the raccoons of South America, often seen with their long striped tails hanging out of garbage cans. You also have the pleasure of viewing these marvels with THOUSANDS of other tourists. Considering how remote this place was, it was truly amazing the number of people to complete this pilgrimage (though it is the summer holiday season here in Argentina).

Since there wasn´t much to do in Puerto Iguazu other than see the falls and sweat a lot, we left the following evening on an overnight bus to the capital - Buenos Aires, where 45% of Argentina´s population of 38,000,000 live. Here we managed to get ourselves into a hostel right down town so we could wander around and enjoy the sights. We also decided (as we had never taken one before) to pay for a city bus tour. What an incredible waste of money!! It was almost 5(!!) hours of driving from one souvenir booth to another, with a few stops in between at the football stadium and main squares. Suffice it to say we will never do that again. The advantage of the bus tour was that it did show us the various districts of Buenos Aires, including the infamous La Boca, a colourfully painted neighbourhood infamous as the original site of Tango.

We did manage, while we were in town, to take in our first movie on the big screen in months. We also went to the infamous Cemetery of th Recoleta. This enormous "city" houses over 6400 family masoleums, many of them works of art, adorned with life size carved marble statues. Should you want to buy a plot here (if you can find anyone to sell it to you) it would cost you a mere $20,000 per square metre to lie with the presidents, general and Argentinian "royalty". In this cemetery you can even view the grave of Eva Peron, also known as Evita (or "little Eva"). She was the beloved wife of Juan Domingo Peron, president of Argentina
from 1946 until 1955 when a military coup unseated him. From 1946 until her death in 1952 at the age of 33 from cancer, Evita was incredibly active in politics. She founded the Eva Peron Charitable Foundation (which stills handles over $100 million dollars annually in charitable donations) and the Female Peronian Party (the first large scale female political party in Argentina that won the right for women to vote in 1951). Just prior to her death she was declared the Spiritual Leader of the Nation. Interestingly, her body is buried 8 metres underground in order to prevent it from disappearing as it did in 1955. After Juan Peron was overthrown, he fled into exile and Evita´s body was spirited away. It was not until 1971 that the Argentinian military revealed that it was buried in Italy under an assumed name "Maria Maggi". In 1974 her body was finally returned to Argentina and now lies in her family´s tomb protected by several layers of marble and metal.

As we had only a few days in Buenos Aires, it was with great regret that we missed out on a tango show. Happily there is an almost constant parade of street performers in many districts, so we did manage to see a little bit of dancing. After a few days we continued on to our final destination in Argentina - the city in the heart of wine country, Mendoza.

1 comment:

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