A Travellerspoint blog

Flypaper Fandango

Uruguay

sunny 31 °C

Given Paraguay and Uruguay don’t have a common border, we needed to transit back through eastern Argentina. 2 hours to exit Paraguay and enter Argentina started the day badly. It became worse. The roads chosen by our tour guides to reach a huge nature reserve called the Iberia Wetlands were challanging. We were due to arrive at 2pm. Unfortunately, the 120km road deteriorated to become very slow and bumpy – then turned to mud. Huge muddy wheel tracks through long stretches. We have been fortunate to have a wonderful young driver/guide for our 18 days in Paraguay/Uruguay. He is still studying for his Degree in Tourism but works part time for the company we found to organise our itinerary. These 2 countries effectively have no foreign tourist industry, so we required a special program to be prepared. Our obliging young man came complete with his own near new Toyota Yaris in immaculate condition. This day would change that dramatically. A Yaris is a nice sized car for 3 with luggage. We were well pleased. It also happens to be a 1,500cc, low, front wheel drive ideal for city and civilised touring. We had already wished for a 4wd in Paraguay on occasions but today it should have been mandatory. Who was to know? Our itinerary had never been driven previously. We did well for 50km, then became totally stuck. Fortunately, we found 2 gaucho’s repairing a nearby fence. They waded into the mud and heaved the little car back onto dry ground. 10kms later we were stuck again. Another motorist assisted and we reach firmer ground but still in extremely slippery conditions. It was here we could claim to see the funniest performance of the whole tour. In her haste to get back into the car, Flypaper started to perform the most incredible dance. I have since called it “The Flypaper Solo Fandango” (with respect to our Spanish environment). She twirled, waved her arms and ran on the spot while voicing inspiring lyrics … before falling flat on her back in a deep muddy hole. Our guide was mightily impressed, and I found myself cheering too. The performance continued in the prone position with the possibility of drowning – so we gallantly waded in to help. Recovery was difficult. The more we pulled on her slippery arms the more she slid around in the mud. Eventually she was saved. (I keep telling her this to ensure she is grateful for our efforts.) The dilemma now was how to transport a talking ball of mud. Realising the impossibility of cleaning up, she decided to undertake a complete change of clothes in the middle of the remote muddy road. This was achieved without too much embarrassment and the muddy garments stored in plastic bag. I began to wonder how many changes of clothes would be needed before the day was out.
Only 5kms further we became even more stuck in mud so deep the car was bellied; no amount of pushing or heaving by passing passer-by’s together with Flypaper and I could budge it. Given we were in the wilderness no help was available from nearby farms and no Cellphone coverage for 50km either way. The couple of motorcyclists who were having trouble of their own stopped to help without success and decided to go ahead seeking help. Eventually 2 hours later as the day was noticeably moving towards its end, a guy arrived in a 4wd Toyota HiLux. The Yaris (like most small modern automatic cars.) has no towing points apart from a flimsy loop under the back bumper – the wrong end. There is no detachable towing eye to thread through the grill – so in desperation we looped the strop through a front wheel and instructed the driver to just leave the engine off, engage neutral and hold the wheels straight. The HiLux was impressive. It dragged the Yaris for 50 meters to drier tyre tracks and disconnected. It was decided Flypaper, myself and all our luggage would travel in the truck while the Yaris would follow in its carefully chosen wheel-tracks. This lasted for another 5km when Yaris became stuck for the 4th time. Again, the front wheel tow was employed and soon we were again moving forward. There was still 60km to travel and the sun was setting. Fortunately, the road improved and we eventually arrived at our accommodation in total darkness. 5 hours late with a filthy car inside & out ... and a lost inner fender guard – but a day to remember.
Given we had missed our arranged wetlands tour that afternoon we organised all tours starting with a long, guided walking next morning to view the local resident animals. We saw none. That afternoon we boarded a small outboard motor propelled boat to chug around part of the lake. I use the word çhug' on purpose. The outboard obviously had fuel problems. It would not achieve full revs and oscillated beween half throttle and stopped. This time we saw lots of local crocodiles (up to 2 metres), a couple of randy Capybara (the largest living rodents) and their many offspring … plus a selection of distant birds. A similar exercise was undertaken the following morning – with similar results. There is wildlife in this region including monkeys, swamp deer, otters, fox’s, anteaters, Jaguar, turtles, etc. We know this because we saw them all in the video at the registration centre where we paid our wetlands entry fee. I have concluded; the animals rise at sunrise and retire at sunset. They feed for a couple of hours either side and hide in the jungle during the remainder of the day. This is totally out of phase with the park guides. They rise late and start guiding at 9am + (when their prey is hiding for their siesta. The guides also wake from their own siesta around 4pm and start work at 5pm - again missing the evening animal parade. There’s a disconnect here somewhere.
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The following day we loaded the Yaris and headed south into deepest central Uruguay. The initial 60kms was on bumpy dirt/gravel road where speeds up to 60km were achieved. As soon as we gained the sealed roads and increased speed with the intention of making up time to our next destination … the car developed severe vibrations. I realised immediately it was out of balance wheels caused by dried mud still inside the rims. The next 50kms were travelled on a magnificent highway at 65kph until we reached a town large enough to have a tyre shop capable of removing the wheels and water-blasting them clean. Unfortunately, we arrive at 1.15pm. Siesta starts at 1 and lasts until 4. We drove around the large town for over an hour asking everyone if they knew a place remaining open – everyone sent us to another place that was closed. Eventually we arrived at an unimpressive small establishment where an elderly guy was still toiling – and he agreed to undertake the task. Seeing Flypaper and her minder standing under a nearby tree in 35*C he rushed off and found as a couple of grubby plastic chairs. Much appreciated. 30 minutes later we were on the road – but couldn’t find a fuel station for a further 30 minutes. We eventually arrived at Salto – to late (and too tired) to check out this very civilised small city.
This day however had 2 highlights. The first and most surprising was crossing the boarder from Argentina into Uruguay. We fronted up to the customs and immigration at Argentina departure and presented our passports. They were processed without delay and we proceeded. Much to our surprise; and perhaps with a little concern, we never arrived at the Uruguay boarder crossing. Scrutiny of our passports showed the Uruguay stamp already present. What a wonderful idea. Both boarder posts at the one stop. We do hope this idea catches on.
The next surprise was discovering our hotel for the night was the Casino. Pity we don’t gamble … but I did stroll in to check it out. The usual collection of sorry individuals pressing buttons on machines that never oblige by releasing any funds. While being one of the flashiest hostelries in town, their restaurant was the equivalent of Burger King. American burger/pizza chains are not welcome in Paraguay – so they have created their own. The product is better. We had a pleasant meal of a nature not often chosen.
The follow day found us, without fuss, at a wonderful small town called San Gregorio de Polanco on the edge of a lake. It’s a favourite holiday resort for Uruguayans … with a real white sand beach and cooling forest. Of further delight, we had been booked into the best hotel in town … The Bali Hotel Boutique. I don’t normally promote venues (but do slag some). This one is worthy. Lovely rooms, every facility, superb breakfast and a delightful host. If visiting this part of the world, look it up on any of the hotel booking sites.
Adventure started immediately the next day when the ferry across the lake was not operating. 20 minutes up the road on the detour we found the road closed because a new roundabout was being constructed. Our driver negotiated access through the construction site and followed instruction to a large new bridge being built – but it wasn’t finished. Eventually we were directed down a dirt track under the new bridge to a 2 car ferry barge tethered to a small tugboat. Together with a Ute and 2 motorbikes we were ferried across the river. Excellent!
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The remainder of the days journey was through astonishing agricultural country to arrive just before dusk and a serious rainstorm at the Grand Hotel Mariscala. Grand was an exaggeration. A country fuel stop with a few accompanying businesses including our hotel. It appeared to have 4 rooms. The largest was a 40’shipping container. We have the best – uninspiring outside but a double bed cabin with all the facilities we could wish for. I was impressed by the use of galvanised plumbing fittings for towel rails, clothes hooks and toilet roll holder. d2ea6840-d15b-11ed-b6c2-eb90dfbdcf15.jpg
We procured much needed additional breakfast supplies at the petrol station and, following a heavy 1 hour cloudburst, attended the first of only 2 eateries in town. Dinner at this roadside café was excellent. Flypaper was moved to tell the proprietor (via the translation app) her chicken kebab with salad was her best meal in South America. High praise indeed.
Our daily journeys each day were long. It provided opportunity to recount many of our travels over many years to our driver. It also provided opportunity to ‘pull his leg’. An example one day. I put it to him; Red grapes make red wine – white grapes make white wine. Why then, do black and white cows in South America both make red meat. He thought about it for a while.
Uruguay proved to be a very pleasant surprise. We were very impressed. It’s the bright shining star of South America. Allow me to share so information gained by online research from illuminating sources such as Wikipedia.
The economy of Uruguay features an export-oriented agricultural sector and a well-educated workforce, along with high levels of social spending. The country also has a history and representation of advanced workers-rights protection, with unions and the eight-hour work-day. Banking has traditionally been one of the strongest service export sectors in the country. Uruguay was once dubbed "the Switzerland of America", mainly for its banking sector and stability. It enjoys the highest "Quality ofLlife" in South America and ranks 44th in the world (Chile 68th, Argentina 60th, UK 21st, USA 17th, New Zealand 12th.)
The World Bank reports … Uruguay stands out in Latin America for being an egalitarian society and for its high income per capita, low level of inequality and poverty and the almost complete absence of extreme poverty. In relative terms, its middle class is the largest in America and represents more than 60% of its population. Strong institutional performance in other areas, such as trust in government, low corruption, a consensus-based political approach, and a strong commitment to strengthening institutional arrangements gives the country a firm foundation on which to continue renewing its social contract and establish policies to face current limitations.

Enough of the facts. They may ruin a good story. We were impressed with the obvious standard of living compared to recent countries visited. Examples of improving infostructure are everywhere. New roads, bridges, energy projects everywhere. Particularly in the remote rural regions where Agriculture, Silviculture and Arable farming are hugely impressive. NZ farmers would love touring here. There is virtually no tourist industry outside the major south coast so inland visitors will find little to do except marvel at the farming and appreciate the small towns supporting them.
The provincial towns are amazing. Wide clean streets with no rubbish, tidy colourful houses, impressive schools and other public services such as health. The Capital city on the other hand is a disappointment. Montevideo is crowded and shambolic with crumbling footpaths and a distinctive class structure. Worse – we discovered prices of the things we purchased to be over double that of the rural areas. A morning coffee and cake for 3 cost NZ$78 !
Most tourists visit the south coast. Indeed, that’s the only region that boasts a tourist industry. There are nice beaches, high rise apartments, upmarket shops and all the infrastructure to please wealthy people. Quite frankly, in my opinion this ‘show-off’ region ruins a very fine country.
There has been one observation I’ve made which is consistent in all the southern SA counties. Motor bikes and scooters are everywhere. There are virtually no bicycles and nobody walks far. Chinese scooters rule. My observations are… (a.) the smaller the scooter, the larger the rider, (b) there is no load too large or unwieldy that cannot be carried on a motorised bike and (c.) if 2 people are aboard, the fattest is on the rear.
We parted company with our wonderfully obliging guide/driver in Montevideo. He successfully delivered us to the ferry across to Buenos Aires and didn’t make us feel he was pleased to see us go. On reflection, he took on a risky assignment. Looking after 2 elderly travelers who had requested an arduous 18 day itinerary over 4,000km with few luxuries. It could have bee a disaster for both parties - but it proved adventurous, entertaining and educational. I was concerned he had an 8 hour drive back to his home which would be very tiring and possibly dangerous alone. I suggested he needed someone to talk to and further suggested he buy a parrot. It could perch on my seat and chat continuously. I did enquire if local parrots spoke Spanish - he assured me they did. While thinking the idea had merit, he told us he has invited his girlfriend to travel down 9 hours on the bus to accompany him home. (The parrot would have been cheaper to keep and dispensable. Probably tastes like chicken.)
The 200km, 3 hour, ferry from Montevideo (Uruguay) to Buenos Aris (Argentina) to start the journey home was both superb and chaotic. The 100m ‘wave-piercing’ Catamaran accommodates 1,000 passengers and 135 cars on four tiers. It travelled at 80knots but is capable of more – running on LPG powered turbines driving 2 huge water jets. Amazing technology. Unfortunately it carries 1,000 passengers all trying to be 1st on & off. Pandemonium! Boarding took over 2 hours and everyone acted like they were going to miss the boat. On arrival they have to enter through Immigration and customs on arrival – that took us over an hour - and we enjoyed priority. (3rd class can wait 3 hours). The luggage carousel was akin to a free-for-all riot. Being a boat, there is no limit to size & number of luggage. Some huge suitcases could have been smuggling illegal immigrants. Imagine 5 x 200 seat airplanes landing together with 4 times the luggage. Another hour of high volume Spanish mayhem.
Summing up Uruguay … although the 2nd smallest country on the continent, it is the virtually unknown jewel in South America. Its still considered by some to be an emerging’ country but others claim its already moved up the rank and has emerged. If you are considering a holiday to somewhere little known but require a safe, law abiding, ‘civilised’ country with a good climate and very friendly people – consider Uruguay.
The scariest thing to happen was at a fuel stop in a small rural town. On these occasions I, and other travel wise people, make use of the toilets (called Banos in Spanish SA.) To prove they are indeed civilised and using western technology, this facility has dispensed with a light switch in the concrete cell used for toileting activity. I entered and marveled at the instant light. However, just as I had the bowel lined up and felt that well known relief – the light went out. Pitch darkness. The shock caused me to jump – and possibly turn a little. I envisaged the cleanliness of this toilet may have been reduced to that typical of a third world country. I waved my arm (given the other was already employed), extended a leg in several directions – all without creating light. I was conscious Flypaper was in the neighbouring cell and may be experiencing similar. That constituted an emergency requiring creative thinking. I decided to use a strangling technique to stem the persisting flow and the remaining arm to grope around the cell in hope of finding the door. (There was further hope of no waiting queue.) Thankfully the light returned – briefly. It required 3 of these stressful experiences to complete the normally simple exercise. Fortunately, the female Banos had retained its light switch and Flypaper was unchallenged. Pity – this could have been a bonding experience.
On the eve of returning home, we are discussing our journey and have concluded it has mostly exceeded our expectations. We are so very happy to have experienced this group of counties that tend to be overlooked due to their remoteness. We’ll never return – that’s because there remain a few unvisited countries that require our attention. However, we recommend to those who can see beyond their usual journeys to UK, Europe, eastern Asia and North America, to consider the most southern of the Latin American countries. Do so, and, like us, you will make new friends.

Posted by Wheelspin 14:25 Archived in Uruguay Tagged mud crocodiles uruguay latin_america montevideo capybara yaris bali_hotel Comments (0)

Dining in the Rest Room recommended

Paraguay

On entry to Paraguay at Asuncion Airport, Flypaper lined up to change some US$ into local Guaraní. She decided on US$200 to get us started and enable time to sniff out the Black-Market money changers. Astonishingly she was given PYG1,436,270. Said in another way … nearly 1,5 million Guarani – mostly in PYG100,000 notes (a bit over NZ$20 each.) There are no coins in circulation. Paraguay has suffered high inflation, but nothing like Argentina and it has an excellent growth rate in South America, 2nd only to Chile. I tried to research the reason for the high denominations but after reading half a dozen articles my head hurt so I decided to treat it with a cold beer. (Paraguayan beer is very good and recommended for many ailments.)
Our driver/guide and our Asuncion city guide strongly recommended against using the Black-Market money changers. Some of the reasons were: counterfeit notes in circulation, damaged notes being difficult to use and the problem of getting one’s head around the numbers often result in gullible travelers being well taken for a ride. We decided to stick with the official rate – especially as our daily requirements are astonishingly inexpensive. For example, lunch at a small rural town popular with tourists for its clay products required Flypaper to query the change she was given. Without having any idea of values, we ordered 2 glasses of juice (Orange/Beetroot juice – honest, a bit sweet but I drank it.), a very large chicken schnitzel Sandwich (shared) and 2 x 250ml bottles of water = PYG2,300 (about NZ$5.) The aforementioned 750mm beer at our 4 star hotel is NZ$0.62. !!!! I appreciate sharing this particular knowledge could start a surge in Paraguayan immigration but it’s too early for me to recommend such a brave move.
There is more good news. Argentina has a reputation for fine meat products and huge cuts. Hear this … Paraguay has better and bigger. Again, the prices are astonishingly low. I’m carefully avoiding the word ‘cheap’. Cheap infers poor quality. Things we have enjoyed to date have not caused any form of gastric reaction and have been ‘inexpensive’.
It’s time to offend at least 50% of female readers. I do so without fear and a promise there will be no apology. Over many years I have come to an opinion regarding female hotel employees. Given the number of hotels we have visited, this verges on a scientifically proven fact. It is my considered opinion based on observation of many young ladies over many years, those considered pretty (a subjective opinion) are given the positions of receptionist and other front of house roles. There is absolutely no consideration of intelligence or other helpful abilities. Whereas the less fortunate fulfil roles such as housekeeping, kitchen and cleaning. They do so with great ability and are generally willing and helpful. The example which has generated the sharing of this knowledge is our current receptionist. Our first meeting confirmed the stereotype. She couldn’t find our reservation despite having only 3 new guest rooms that evening. She couldn’t find O’Reilly given she was looking for O.Reilly. A common confusion … but surely not when compared with 2 other names that were unquestionably Spanish in origin. This verges on offending all Irish – especially as it happened on St Patricks Day.
My 2nd exposure to this young woman was the next day when I, quite reasonably, asked if she could recommend any restaurants within walking distance that wouldn’t offend our sensibilities. (e.g. Loud music, starving children demanding mother for relief, dogs in the kitchen or overdressed women that inevitably cause Flypaper to head out to the shops the following day.) She immediately pointed out the nearby sign saying ‘Restrooms’. I appreciate our native tongues differ … but her role is front of house to help tourists. I’m a tourist. Restaurant vs Rest Rooms. Its fortunate I have an understanding nature and I recognise beauty when I see it.
I didn’t have great expectations of Paraguay but I’m finding it not only pleasing in many ways, but full of astonishing features. For example, on the outskirts of Asuncion a huge bridge is being constructed over the large Paraguayan River. This is a very big project by any standards … US$136 million. The thing that made it differ from even lesser projects at home in New Zealand was the fact the site was teeming with workers. Some were even using shovels and wheelbarrows. Started in 2019 it will be completed in 2024 – only $18m over budget. Compared to silly little projects in NZ that double in budget and never meet deadlines, this is impressive. Understandable when we never see anyone working. What we obviously need is more wheelbarrows.
In the city of Concepcion, we experienced the perils of ‘reservation by internet”. The Hotel Karanday presents very well online. While providing the basic amenities including the much needed air-conditioning, the remainder was focused on the basics. It’s the first time we have checked in - in a kitchen. The baking smelled delicious. The room was bigger than a wardrobe – helped by the fact there was no wardrobe – or shelves, hooks or drawers. In times like this we say, “When the lights go out the hotels all look the same”. This was proven when we returned from dinner at the cities contrasting best hotel, the lights of the whole city did indeed go out. It’s very dark inside a concrete tomb. The bathroom is designed like a yacht ‘head’ – a combined toilet, basin, shower in a 2m x 1.2m enclosure. One MUST remember to remove the toilet paper before taking a shower. The shower is worth comment. It was an electric instant hot water device designed to ‘blanch’ the unwary. Instant scalding followed by freezing. There was an adjustment on top of the device – about 2.5 meters above. I manged to reach it on tiptoes, Flypaper had no chance. Her screams should have alerted the emergency services. I noticed some strange ‘looks’ from others at breakfast.
Following the mandatory City Tour next morning with a guide who enlisted the help of an English speaking friend, we were inspired to accept their offer to arrange a boat tour on the massive Rio Paraguay beside which the city was founded. At 2,550km long it’s the 5th largest river in South America and is subject for much of its length to seasonal flooding. We are in that season. Flooding of the river's banks extends 100,000sqkms (about the size of New Zealand) and forces many thousands of displaced residents to seek temporary shelter until the waters recede from their homes. We found one of those displaced who had a small boat (dinghy) who was willing to take us across to their (mostly) submerged island. We motored past his and his neighbours’ homes – all with about a meter of water throughout. While sad to see, the most astonishing thing is, it happens every year. (Paraguay is a huge flat plain. The highest point, Cerro Peró, is only 842 Meters high.)
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An issue that faces all developing (correctly called emerging) countries is the lack of infrastructure maintenance. If it still basically functions, leave it alone. Streets, footpaths, water/sewage and electrical systems all demonstrate signs of disrepair. This subject was discussed with our guide when we drove past a power pole dangling from its own wires at about a 30 degree angle. It showed sign of being hit but a truck some time ago – possibly years. The electricity still coursed through the wires so why bother to repair – there are always far greater priorities. Another example … most bridges across rivers (some very large) have gaping holes in the side railings where obviously a large vehicle had left the road in an unfortunate place. Most appear to be years old but, the road still functions so why repair? Another feature of bridge railings is their absence due to people with the need for steel tube who happen to have a hacksaw.
Given all the people we have meet are wonderfully friendly and helpful (we haven’t met anyone in an official capacity yet) we are delighted to learn Paraguay is the 2nd fastest growing economy in South America (after Chile). Evidence of that growth is everywhere – but is most obvious in the automotive and related industries. There are dozens of brands of cars and motorcycles I have never heard of being sold on Hire Purchase from new premises of spectacular architecture. Few are electric. On-line research has revealed EVs are selling at a ‘trickle’ compared to ICE and most are owned by electricity supply companies or ‘guvmint’ departments. The greatest visible expansion is the automotive related industries and particularly by Oil Companies. Their new fuel stations are huge and modern. There are dozens of fuel brands competing for what they believe is a huge growing market. Shell Oil may be pulling out of New Zealand, but they are opening enormous retail outlets in Paraguay. (This was also observed in Argentina.) Travel does provide a practical understanding. The populations of emerging nations are largely poor. Their priorities are to improve their lifestyles by every small step possible. They are not about to embrace new ideologies even if they wanted to. Their ubiquitous smartphones are leading them in the footsteps of the western nations who have taken advantage of them for centuries. To believe they will embrace the carbon free philosophy is fantasizing. Their ‘guvmints’ know this but still sign international agreements knowing it’s pointless … or at least likely to result in payments from richer nations being given to the poorer which assists propping up corrupt politicians.
In contrast to the Oil Company expansion is the proliferation of possibly the worlds smallest petrol stations on every route in & out of cities bordering Argentina. The fuel price in Argentina is about half that in Paraguay. Enterprising people cross the boarder and return with large containers of petrol which are displayed by the roadside for sale at a lesser price. The collective quantities are large but not large enough to be of concern to the official outlets. Private enterprise is flourishing in ways we from the developed world cannot imagine.
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The rivers of Paraguay are home to a very large catfish called a Surubí. It’s one of the big stars of Paraguayan cuisine, used as the main ingredient for some of the most traditional dishes in Paraguay, and one of the many inheritances from the Guaraní indigenous culture. The baby in the picture is 35 kilos - the most massive individuals may reach a length of about 4.7 metres (15.4 feet) and a weight of 320 kg (705 lbs). Flypaper has developed a taste for the large boneless steaks. Personally, I don’t like the look of it. I may try the soup.
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Any fish that gobbles morsels from the mud of discoloured rivers remains unattractive to me. Compared to the ‘Black Angus’ steak on the same menu it doesn’t stand a chance. However, given we have travelled many thousands of kilometres in South America and NEVER seen a black cow I do wonder if there isn’t some culinary descriptive licence aimed at the gullible tourist. Notwithstanding, their white, grey, brown and multicolours cows are worthy substitutes. All steaks look the same on a plate.
I am troubled, tormented may be a better word. When traveling in the rural areas my sinuses suffer from the pollens, whereas in the cities the smog doesn’t affect at all. I hate sinus effects. I hate cities. What to do. When speaking to a doctor early in our journey she confirmed pollens can be annoying, but smog will eventually kill those continually exposed. Travel is full of dilemma. Perhaps a gas mask will solve both issues. I’m sure one would be available in the local chaotic street market in my size and preferred colour.
All emerging countries have infrastructure issues and often problems with the neighbouring nations. (Paraguay has suffered badly in this respect over many years.) Astonishingly, in 1975, Paraguay and their monstrous neighbour Brazil decided to jointly build the largest hydroelectricity station in the world. The dam is one of the 7 modern wonders of the world. It remains one of the most expensive objects ever built. The Itaipu Dam on the Rio Parana boasts 20 electric generation units and to this day holds the record for the most electricity generated in a year – in spite of the Chinese 3 Georges project (which is the largest dam today but is only fully operation for part of the year). The statistics regarding the build and subsequent operation are stupendous - I won’t bore you here (but it’s worth looking it up on Wikipedia). A tour of the complex is an absolute must when visiting Paraguay. Incredibly, while waiting for our entry tickets, Flypaper noticed; in this immaculate, state of the art electricity generation plant, there was a broken power point hanging out of the wall waiting to electrocute the unwary.
On the other hand, Paraguay has emissions issues caused by deforestation (just like Brazil). We drove through part of the Chaco region and witnessed some of the huge transition from forest to farmland. A vast area inhabited, and totally managed by the Mennonites. In the 1920’s the Mennonites were allotted wilderness, lands nearly impossible to cultivate, impenetrable forests and swamps. Now, two to four generations down the line, they are mostly rich colonials with vast agricultural businesses. Further south we drove through about 150km of astonishing grain production. Planted 200 hectare areas one after the other as far as we could see to the horizon. The grain was probably cattle feed to services their equally huge cattle farms. I was particularly impressed by the ladies in long dresses and headscarves that are reportedly totally subservient to their husbands. Obviously they are on to something I need to research further.
Its incongruous to see Naval ships moored in rivers 100’s of kilometres from the ocean. Paraguay has the largest Navy of any landlocked country. They not only have a navy but have the largest out of all countries without a coastline. The Paraguayan navy operates on the country’s rivers and can get to the ocean by traveling down through Argentina. It removes any element of surprise.
Following the excellent visit to the Itaipu Dam our guide drove us to the nearby Wildlife Park created by the dam owners to appease their conscious for flooding 1,350 square kilometres and displacing 10,000 families. Given money is no object, the reserve is a peninsular extending out into the lake with very nice buildings and lots of employees. The only downside is … there is no wildlife. The animals and birds were obviously unimpressed and decamped for a better place. The tractor trailer ride took us to view the largest, oldest tree on the peninsular. At 120 years and 30 metres high, it was a disappointment. We have 2 better examples in our front garden – for which visitors may have to pay to view in future (????) We can also offer the occasional glimpse of the neighbour’s cat and regular visits by a couple of Tui’s, a few doves and hundreds of sparrows. Those who do not wish to pay will be offered parking under a tree popular with birds who have chosen this tree for bowel evacuation.
Personally, when travelling in the cities of emerging nations at times when there are no arrival deadlines, I enjoy the inevitable traffic jam. Just sitting watching the efforts of those around can be both entertaining and educational. The skills of motorcyclists weaving through near impossible gaps, the dozens of street vendors shouting through your windows offering goods they believe you cannot do without and the occasional bouts of road rage provide a wonderful insight to the culture and demeanour of those around. Only this morning Flypaper was offered numerous electronic accessories, an obscene carving, tempting bags of fruit and a small baby. She declined all on the basis her luggage was already too heavy and the guy she bought with her to carry it was on the verge of withholding his services.
There is a clear legal distinction between graffiti and Street Art in Paraguay. I small amount of Street Art exists in Asuncion and is protected by copyright law. We have seen no ‘graffiti’ anywhere in the country as it is considered vandalism and punished accordingly. Given the clean street surfaces I presume the law vandalism is dealt with quite severely. Interestingly in Paraguay, duelling is legal - just as long as both parties are registered blood donors.
In 2 cities I observed Public Libraries. Both closed. My guide, who is Argentinian, enquired and discovered that, as in Argentina, Libraries are a relic of past civilisation. They have been replaced by Google. Some may find this sad. However, emerging countries cannot afford sentimentality. Funds have greater demands and priority.
Summing up Paraguay … its more civilised than I expected – but most emerging nations are. We should beware – they are on the way up. Our own western cultures have become overburdened with bureaucracy, regulation and a false sense of superiority. We are victims of ideology and social media while the emergers are grabbing opportunity. People are the same everywhere. They want to improve their lifestyles and wish to create a better place for their children. All based on the image created by the (so called) first world nations. The emergers will make all the same mistakes but it will be at the expense of those who consider themselves superior. I wouldn’t recommend moving to Paraguay in spite of the cheap beer. It’s hot, humid and chaotic ‘but that’s compared to my own home environment. For Paraguayans – it’s the land of opportunity. In 20 years’ time I may have a different opinion. Flypaper thinks I’ve become too serious.

Posted by Wheelspin 21:24 Archived in Paraguay Comments (0)

What’s that smell ?

Antarctica

Plumbing and electricity have always been mysterious black arts to most. Akin to magic for the naïve. Both trades are even more mysterious in Chile & Argentina. Most of our interaction has been in hotel rooms which one would think were likely to be better than in public or private facilities. Let’s consider our experience with electricity. About 30% of the time when we hoped for light activated by a switch – it never happened. Sometimes it was a loose or blown bulb which I could deal with. At other times it was a lost cause. Fortunately, from experience, we travel with a torch – others now use their ever-handy smartphone. It’s pointless complaining to management as they are equally bamboozled. Power-points are even more likely to be a game of chance. Often a double plug works only on one side … which is usually used for a lamp or TV leaving nothing capable of charging the smartphone which is speedily running out due to using the light. Plumbing is even more baffling. Sometimes the hot tap is on the left, sometime on the right. Sometimes the taps turn on clockwise, sometime counterclockwise. Sometimes two taps side by side have different directions of rotation. You may think this is no big deal. But consider all these options if you happen to be using a bidet. The consequences of guessing incorrectly can be dire. Equally concerning is the toilet may or may not flush – or it may lull one into a sense of false security by flushing once then never again. The final act prior to leaving our last hotel in Argentina – a salubrious place owned by a well-known giant US chain, was to have the toilet block. In some ways, I think this was symbolic of the counties we have been visiting. It’s also symbolic of the US global influence.
Having moved on to what was expected to be the ‘rest and grow fatter’ phase of our journey, I find only half of that expectation applies. On board the Viking Octantis, a small expedition ship set to cross and recross the notorious Drake Passage to check out the penguins and seals at the northernmost tip of Antarctica. (Surprisingly, most Antarctic cruises don’t actually cross the Antarctic Circle so in fact con their passengers. This one does – but not all the time.) The afternoon of boarding plus the following day were a hectic schedule of safety briefings for Lifeboat Drills, Zodiac shore landings, Special Operations boat trips and Submarine journeys to the ocean floor. (Yes, you read that right - but very weather dependant because getting in and out requires pre-practiced acrobatic manoeuvres from a small Zodiac.)
Octantis may be a small ship but its long and thin requiring many kilometres of hiking which includes regular flights of stairs. We would have taken the elevators more often, but they tended to be full of large old and bewildered folk who expected priority. An example of the bewildered was the lady at the ‘On Shore’ rules and regulations session who asked, “Are we at risk of Polar Bear attacks”. She obviously boarded the wrong ship – as did others who had serious mobility issues. The gender is unusually divided slightly in favour of males, nationality split appears to be 5% Asian, 3% Canadian, 3% Australian, 5% British, 84% US + 1 odd Kiwi, Obesity divide 60/40, 75% aged over 70. No comment at this stage regarding mental aptitude… but there does already appear to be some falling below the average IQ.
I know the % of Aussies is about 3 because all were invited to an exclusive dinner in the captains private dining room one evening by 2 lectures who happened to be Australian and married to each other. (I qualified to attend by shrewd long-term planning.) One is an expert on fish, the other an authority on matters geological. I had the pleasure of sitting next to both for half of the evening. The geologist expounded on ‘The Abyss of Time’. ie. The enormous periods beyond our comprehension required for geology and flora/fauna and the overall environment to evolve. We also discussed the current urgency to stop global warming asap. He advised there was no need to consider selling and moving to higher ground any time soon. His wife was successful in raising my awareness of the importance of fish in our lives. I ended the evening by assuring her I would have a great deal more appreciation of my Fish & Chip lunch the next day.
Having crossed the Equator 49 times, and the Artic Circle twice, it was a relief to at last make it a full house by crossing the Antarctic Circle. It’s a milestone; but not one that makes me feel I can die happy. Apart from the ships Neptune ceremony the only outstanding factor was viewing a few passing whales. (I’m referring to the leviathan of the ocean rather than several fellow travellers.) I’m feeling guilty. I misled you a couple of paragraphs back. The obesity divide was calculated subconsciously putting me in with the slim group. Using myself as the tipping point, obese is 70/30. Sorry. (Maybe 74/26. Very sorry.) Flypaper has decried I can no longer eat at the buffet. Now its fine dining only which results in a calorie intake of only about 4,000 as opposed to 2,500 at home.
Octantis has some impressive toys. They include – lots of 12-person Zodiac’s with 50hp Diesel outboards (not surprisingly many of these landing craft can only take 8 – 10 due to the average girth often being larger than design parameters.) – 2 Special operations craft (800hp twin jets with a roof and fancy shock absorbing seats – but best of all, two 6 person submersibles named after the Beatles and appropriately painted yellow. (2 more on the sister ship) Ours was called John.
Sadly, the Zodiac’s and SOC’s jut tootle around between idle and 10knts – because the average passenger is on medications that recommend against them having increased heart rates. They are also prone to falling overboard so extreme safety precautions prevail. As a result, we all struggle into extreme cold/wet weather clothing, don lifejackets, take instruction on how to embark and disembark … then tootle around a few hundred meters from the ship seeing very little but constantly being told the scenery is beautiful. This of course is nonscience. It’s a monochrome view of ice and rocks blown into one’s eyes by freezing wind. The boatman fills his passengers with frenzied excitement if they see a lonely penguin, seal or a low flying bird. Thousands of photos are snapped. I am underwhelmed. While I dream of staging a hijack of a SOB and speeding off at its capable 60knots to harpoon a whale, it’s unlikely I could find a suitable crew among my fellow passengers.
At the submarine briefing those of us booked and hopeful were told the 6-man sub has sufficient food, water & oxygen to stay submerged for 90 hours if required. These needing, should take their medication to last the same. (That caused considerable angst as some pointed out they would need to wear their backpack.) It was the least of my concerns. My mind dwelt on the fact there is no toilet on board.
Although expressing amazement and delight at their first steps on the continent of Antarctica, I noticed fellow travelers did so through clenched teeth. The landing and subsequent hours ‘stroll’ to see 28 penguins and 2 seals was tempered by the agony of walking over rocks and slippery ice in their new issue Antarctic Boots – tall and heavy. Although the temperature was 1*C it felt like 7. All were dressed for -10*C. I predict, like Flypaper, most would have showered and applied liniment before lunch. The afternoon would have been spent viewing hundreds of photos, videos and selfies as would their friends and families left at home – via social media. I relented to Flypapers pleadings and took 3 – to prove she was there and to probably ponder over in the future wondering where they were taken.
During discussion with a fellow passenger in an elevator returning from the gym, (clarification – I was looking for a quiet corner to read while he was returning from the gym where he had spent 10 minutes on an exercycle drinking water to make himself fit.) I made the mistake of asking if he had considered taking the stairs to achieve even greater health and fitness. He proudly showed me a device on his wrist together with a strap around his chest that could determine, among many other things) his Body Mass Index (BMI). It only cost him US$1,200. Not to be outdone, I showed him my own $10 BMI device … my belt. (That’s another who won’t talk to me again.)
There are many genuinely nice people aboard. We haven’t met everyone but it’s strange how like-minded people seem to gravitate towards each other. For example, dinner with a woman who was a retired US Court Judge. Generally, I’m not keen on judges but she had many fascinating stories to tell regarding years of listening to the dregs of US society explain their misdeeds in the hope she would feel sorry for them. She is confident Donald Trump won’t be nominated but has concerns about most global leadership – many of which should be tried for their own misdeeds. Another notable is a Brit who has had an interesting, varied life, and owned many sports cars … and seems to have crashed every one. That, at least, shows a certain consistency.
I was happy for the lady who announced, as we bumped in choppy seas towards a rocky landing, “Oh My God. Those penguins smell”! She further informed us that her friends and family would be advised of the same that very day. (Isn’t technology wonderful.) “Why do they smell”? she asked all the other 9 in the Zodiac. No-one seemed to know, so I advanced the theory, “It could be because they effectively live in their toilet. See how the land all around is yellow.” That certainly stimulated conversation. Most of which was about the fact we were expected to walk around on the same coloured ice. In a disgusted tone she declared it should at least be disinfected. A guide waited on shore to further our knowledge of Antarctic fauna. In short, a penguin’s life is not to be envied. After standing about in solitary contemplation for hours, a group will suddenly waddle down to the water, plunge in and swim about looking for an even more unfortunate fish to eat, while watching over their shoulders for Leopard Seals intent on eating them. It’s not an overly complicated plot. Those who make it home waddle back up the hill and regurgitate their catch of the day to nourish their offspring while letting their partner waddle off to repeat the whole routine. It seems the life of all other Arctic creatures – seals, whales, birds, etc. is similar. We certainly travelled a long way to discover there is little excitement in their existence. But that evenings onboard lecturer told us they are all part of a complex and critical chain that effects all other creatures including us humans. I’m delighted to share this with you.
We have become well acquainted with the Chief Chef on board. He is British but lives in Spain. Shortly he will move to Brazil. (A new girlfriend) He obviously tastes all his creations – probably continually testing the many assistant chefs’ efforts. I took an opportunity to ask if penguin, whale & seal would feature in any dishes before the end of the voyage. He admitted the idea had not been considered and felt the company policy of preserving the environment would make it unlikely to gain approval. I argued it was unlikely to upset the environment if we smuggled a couple on board and disguised them as a casserole. Given the seals are eating the penguins the penguins’ are eating the fish and we also eat the fish; moving us up the chain a notch wouldn’t hurt the environment at all. The whale may prove difficult. We have previously eaten all 3 of these creatures. Whale in Japan – it has the taste and consistency dense foam rubber soaked in engine oil – although I confess to not having undertaken a back-to-back tasting. The Greenland seal served for lunch at a fisherman’s house needed a change of recipe to make it eatable. The chunks in the Suaasat stew were enjoyed by the family and their huskies but somehow incapacitated our swallowing mechanism. The dogs had a 2nd helping while we struggled on with the potatoes and what may have been seaweed swimming in liquid fat. I’ve not had Penguin yet but feel sure it will be offered somewhere, someday. I suspect it will taste like chicken – or cat.
Here's a fact … According to recent surveys, the average person spends roughly 416 days of their life in the bathroom! That’s a lot of time around the porcelain throne! However, those who have taken a cruise are likely to boast of a higher number. If they crossed the Drake Passage, they may be at the top of the stats. To quote Wikipedia … About 1,000km between the tip of Chile & the Antarctic Peninsular, the Drake Passage is considered one of the most treacherous voyages for ships to make. Currents at its latitude meet no resistance from any landmass, and waves top 40 feet (12 m), hence its reputation as "the most powerful convergence of seas".
Many of our fellow travellers were wearing patches on their neck. I thought there may have been a Vampire on board but Flypaper told me this is a prevention for motion sickness. Evidently, they prevent the vomiting center in your brain from being activated. (I’ve made a note to wear one when listening to the next ‘guvmint’ budget.
After reading the following report by someone called Kyle Jordan who had made the crossing, I was looking forward to it. “The sea was angry that day, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli. I felt like a wet dirty sock in the washing machine on a 36-hour spin cycle. I’ve never been one to fall ill to motion sickness, but this journey home would be a true test of that. Seventy-five percent of my fellow passengers were locked away in their respective cabins, just feet from the safety of their porcelain barf bag. I’d hug my bed — like a long-lost lover — at night, in hopes I wouldn’t end upon the floor. Rather than walk and hold tight to the wall, I’d crawl on all fours to my desired destination. The idea of presenting myself with dignity was a thing of the past; this was about survival. It’s been more than six years since my epic battle with the Drake, one I’ll remember forever.” For me the transit was a huge disappointment. Relatively calm in both directions. Most passengers were practicing strange dance steps in the passageways but there were no reports of anyone hugging the porcelain.
To sum up my visit to Antarctica … apart from joining those with boasting rights, I was disappointed. It fell below expectations. If its on your bucket list consider moving it well down. To gain an impression, put on as many layers of clothing possible and stand out in your garden on a frosty morning while throwing large denomination notes into the breeze and scanning the sky for a passing bird. If you see a penguin, you should definitely not consider traveling anywhere.
Maurice O’Reilly

Posted by Wheelspin 14:31 Archived in Antarctica Tagged penguin zodiac ice glacier seal whale submarine seasick iceburg drake_passage Comments (0)

Driving while blind

Argentina – a country in trouble

A South American custom I have developed a liking for, is eating cake at breakfast. Flypaper is not enthusiastic and says this has caused the demise of empires. I suspect she heard about Marie-Antoinette who was associated with the moral decline of the French monarchy and who famously said, “Let them eat cake!” shortly before she lost her head. I accept, if eating cake first thing each day paved a path to the guillotine I would likely refuse. However, I have argued the principal ingredient in cake, toast and cereal is grain. I do not believe my digestive tract can tell the difference and I propose a 6 month test when we return. No more eggs on toast for me. I urge others to join me.
The subject of food stimulates another quandary in my mind. Throughout this journey we have seen a huge variety of cactus. All shapes and sizes. There are about 1750 known species of cactus and apart from someone telling me Tequila is made from them (untrue!!!) they seem to serve absolutely no purpose. Imagine the surprise when I googled, “Uses for cactus’’ to discover it’s a wonder food. Just remove the prickly bits and slice them into the salad. Its claimed, (I remain sceptical) : Helps the Digestive System, Helps Lose Weight, Lowers Cholesterol, Good For Diabetes, Protects From Cancer, fights Infections, Supports Liver Health, Protects Heart, Cures Wounds, Strengthens Bones, Supports Thyroid Health. So, why are we not seeing people harvesting them and becoming wealthy? I’ve never seen Cactus featured on a menu in the areas they are common. Forget growing Medicinal Marijuana – start a Cactus Market Garden.
There is another use for Cactus we discovered at one of our provincial hotels where they obviously take security seriously. Given 88% of all crime is undertaken in the cities it struck me as caring on our behalf. They planted Cactus along the top of their wall. I imagine it looked very pretty on the few days per year they flowered.
I should have asked the restaurateur in Sala who was full of information why he didn’t serve Cactus. Unfortunately, his information was in Spanish. Demonstrating why he is the most successful host in town, he marched us through to the huge kitchen where we could watch greasy butchers carve huge chunks of meat and pass them to sweaty chefs manning the barbeques. He ordered on our behalf. To solve the issue surrounding the choice of wine we nipped down to the cellar where he proudly chose his favourite from an impressive collection. Of course, we couldn’t refuse or even question his recommendations. Returning to our table, Flypaper fumbled around in the money sack to discover the extent of our readily available funds. We suspected we may have been cunningly manoeuvred into the upper end of the menu. We should be ashamed of even thinking he would take advantage of mono-language tourists. The enormous steak was superb and the wine among the best ever tasted … but the price remained modest and far less expensive than a middle-class restaurant at home. Perhaps we were given the wrong bill?
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Looking for a place to park in a busy town I saw a sign beside a vacant spot. I interpreted the sign as place for blind people to park. (???) While Flypaper did the shopping, I had a conversation with a policeman. He said the parking was for Armoured Security Vehicles. I pointed out there remained room for one of those behind me but if 2 arrived I would move along. He realised the futility of arguing against my willingness to comply and seemed to accept the fact the sign could confuse blind foreigners.
We have observed other signage that both confused and entertained.
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Geologists the world over must dream of visiting the gorges and mountain passes in the Salta region. (I mentioned these amazing vistas in the last blog.) The ancient glacier valleys have all been eroded and laid the earths crust open for their inspection. The colours created by many minerals together with the layers of strata clearly identifying the various eras of geological formation have created the worlds largest artistic canvas. Never mind the signs that advise the enormous formations could fall on ones head at any moment.
Today’s route through natures grandeur was interrupted 4 times by police security checkpoints. No problem for us today; we are white, elderly and drive a late model Ute. Not the profile of the average illegal immigrant or someone transporting fermented Cactus juice to market. However, I have noticed they never stop the busses. The one behind us today barely slowed to the required 20km. Surely the more cunning fugitives would be aware and simply take the bus. The minds of the authorities the world over are a mystery. Should you wish to undertake some nefarious activities, become an unregistered immigrant or even invade the country, public transport will serve you well.
I’ve observed diligent ladies in our hotels scurrying about dusting. They are at it constantly. Understandably as fast as the mop the floors, clean the windows and dust the furniture, another gust of wind blows in the next batch. The greatest commodity in South America is dust. I guess this does create an economic benefit as many earn their living from attempting to banish it. The thought crossed my mind I should attempt to take one of these ladies’ home with us. The idea was generated because Flypaper is constantly telling me our home is full of dust. I can’t see it. Perhaps its agender thing. I’ve never seen a male dusting anywhere in the world.
Surprisingly tobacco is a major crop in the Salta region. We’ve seen many hectares of crop and watched many vehicles towing multiple, specially designed long trailers of leaf to the drying houses. Much is harvested by hand but for the first time I saw a large ‘mower’ depriving the poor people of a living. That’s all very modern and efficient but I perceive a downside. If you are a smoker, consider, there may be many small parings of mouse and snake in your ciggy.
Wish you were here – sincerely. It would give me an ear to shout into. Just arrived ‘home’ from dinner at a restaurant recommended by our receptionist. I’m in a state of heightened indignation. Risky – I may say something I regret (again). The meal we ordered was a sharer – 1 between 2 – as is often our way nowadays. The food that arrived was sufficient for 6! Totally obscene. Even our well-trained friends from North America would have had difficulty doing justice. A meat platter of 8 cuts x 2, a salad enough for Flypaper and a horse plus a bowel of fries I would have happily shared with Ali Barber and his 40 Thieves. On the other hand, the bottle of excellent wine was barely enough. This was not a ‘tourist’ venue catering for the fat and expectant – this was a local restaurant for those who could walk past the Empanada shop and even the local hamburger joint looking for a balanced diet of quality cuisine. We did our best – because I have a policy of eating what is put on my plate, reinforced by the fact Flypaper paid for it. (Another policy.) I was annoyed to leave 60% to be collected in the trash next morning. (I hope – perhaps it was recycled for the next evenings diners???) This exemplifies all that the western world is demonstrating to emerging nations and is creating an unsustainable future, (Did I say that? Knew I would regret this outburst.)
Flypaper had been waiting for our arrival in Buenos Aires. She immediately declared, after 5 weeks of travel, I needed a haircut. This is a very personal experience usually entrusted to a lady with 30 years’ experience, a gentle, caring nature and a wonderful sense of humour. Here in BA there are ‘barbers’ and ‘hairdressers.’ The barbers target heterosexual men who have decided to take on a trendy appearance which requires a careful selection of which hairs to trim and an imaginative arrangement of the remainder. The hairdressers attend to all other genders. Our hotel receptionist directed me to a nearby establishment which she correctly identified as suitable. Unfortunately, they were closing but advised there was another barber nearby. Specifically, “Up 1 street, across 1 street”. I eventually found it in a completely different location. It was disguised as a Harley Davidson Motorcycle Gang Headquarters. I could hardly admit to Flypaper I was intimidated – so I sidled in appearing to be window shopping. Which of course didn’t fool anyone. Two bearded guys who seriously needed haircuts were standing behind chairs’, that had once been motorcycle pillion seats. Their questions in Spanish resulted in my thinking of how to make a dignified exit. Fortunately, one of their customers was a trendy American gangster who arranged for me to wait for 10 minutes at which time he translated my specific requirements. The result met with the approval of both Flypaper and our receptionist.
Sitting on a busy street corner on a hot Sunday afternoon, trying to find the bottom of a huge glass of Patagonian cerveza is not my idea of a fun time. Following an excellent 4 hour city tour in an airconditioned car with a lovely guide, Flypaper insisted on joining the promenading, late lunching, socialising locals for a few hours to absorb the atmosphere of a sophisticated city relaxing on their day off. I couldn’t relax - primarily because I’d forgotten my mirrored sunglasses. I was very concerned the passing young ladies would mistakenly identify me as an aging voyeur. However, in the interests of accurate reporting to you, I carefully studied the passing crowds. It soon became apparent the female garment industry in Argentina is in serious economic trouble. There is obviously a lack of fabric. This was confirmed when I carefully studied the windows of selected fashion shops. On the other hand, the agricultural protein producing industry is prospering.
I feel there is a matter at our hotel in the jungle near the Iguazu Falls that is not mentioned in their marketing but could be of great interest to potential clients. On arrival the staff advises, “If you see a Panther, a Cougar or any other carnivorous beath with a taste for easy sweet meat, on the path to your room do NOT run!” This is all very well; it’s a natural instinct to flee from danger and statistically those who do so live longest. Flypapers first inclination was to spend 2 days in our room. Then she decided a better strategy was to send me out ahead. Many of their guests are aged and infirm – so they cannot run. This provides them with little comfort. Additionally, the hotel architects designed features to stop them running. Between the various accommodation blocks are swing bridges that move disturbingly up and down and side to side. Some clients can be seen clutching their heart medication or, understandably as this is a predominantly catholic country, a crucifix. My strategy is equally effective, I keep my fingers crossed. Room service is very popular.
This is serious jungle with all the South American fauna that could cause palpitations if met without the iron bars provided by zoos. It reminds me; a few years ago, while boating 2,000kms up the Amazon River there was a sign at a landing popular with tourists hoping to see the native wildlife. It said, “Do not shake hands with the monkeys”. At a hotel was another sign that was adamantly large and bold saying, “Do not encourage snakes into your room”. I’m seriously considering the wisdom of insisting on an IQ test before letting people achieve the status of tourists. As I study my fellow travellers I cannot but wonder which of them would have failed … although some do exhibits traits that provide good cause for suspicion. Our guide recalled one customer who, having seen boats approaching the foot of these huge waterfalls asked, “Can we take a boat to the edge of the falls at the top to look down?” Another felt cheated because the Brazilian side of the falls and the Argentinian side … were both the same falls. (Couldn’t fool her.) I rest my case.
On the eve of our departure from Argentina I ponder the time spent. It was different to expectation. City and rural are (typical throughout the world) contrastingly different and the gap is widening. Buenos Aires is a huge, sophisticated city but the footpaths are crumbling and much of the infrastructure is failing under the weight of growth and change. Maintenance is an unknown industry. The fastest growing demographic are the homeless. As always, the people are kind, helpful and delighted we visited. The exception are the police and those in authority. Corruption is well known and can be blamed for all the mounting problems. With inflation currently around 95%, the country is approaching the ninth bankruptcy in its 200 years of independence and the third this millennium. It’s the lovely people we met who suffer. The corrupt upper echelons of government are openly inviting Russian Oligarchs to immigrate and assist with the balance of payments – for a backhander. Watch your news source for reports of protests very soon.

Posted by Wheelspin 13:27 Archived in Argentina Tagged monkey cactus cake snake geology iguazu_falls corruption cougar hairdresser barber blind panther backhander carnavour inflation cervazavoyeur Comments (0)

Passing Wind

Argentina Here & There

Driving 4 hours from Chilean Patagonia to Argentina Patagonia revealed a surprising town … Calafate. I’d call I the ‘’NZ Queenstown’’ of Argentina. A fronter boom town that has already made the same mistakes – fast growth with infrastructure falling behind. An impressive decision was to move the old airport on the edge of town 23km out in the country where the Jets do not clash with the sounds of the all-night parties catering for the upwardly mobile. The old runway was sensibly converted to a 4 lane highway serving the new suburbs. Best road in Argentina.
Distance in many parts means little to Argies. Sometimes the next town is 200kms away and accepted as all in a day’s work. We took 2 guided tours In Arg Patigonia. The first drove 78km to the Perito Moreno Glacier.

20230212_123101_resized.jpgThis glacier, like some others we have visited, is advancing – much to the disgust of the doomsday tourists in our rattly van. They insisted it couldn’t be true as all the worlds’ glaciers are retreating. They learned this on social media and questioned the guides integrity. I resisted arguing we had seen others or pointing out their travels were using up vast resources and contributing carbon to the environment they believed others were destroying. The 2nd journey the next day, also travelled about 78km on a different bumpy dirt road to an Estancia (Ranch) less than 15km from the glacier. We could have achieved both in the same day - but that would have deprived those making their living from we gullible tourists. Flypaper tipped both teams generously – especially the handsome Gauchos who raced their horses, sheared a huge grubby sheep with old fashioned clippers and sacrificed a lamb on a crucifix for us to enjoy in obscene quantities – delicious.
One evening we visited ancient rock drawings. We had a similar experience in Chile and have fallen for these attractions in at least 20 other countries. Seems our ancestors were enthusiastic artists. At every location a great sense of imagination is required. Both to identify the drawings and to accept the interpretation offered. Following the observations we attended the real attraction – a traditional dinner cooked in a cave in similar circumstances (Smokey fire of handy dead wood) to the indigenous people 4,000 years earlier. I noticed a couple of differences. We were rugged up in Ponchos and woolly hats (thankfully) while the early folk covered themselves only in Rea fat. (The original ‘slippery’ characters.) I also suspect the excellent Malbec wine was absent from the original dinners. I sat and mused the excitement and interpretation of anthropologists in another thousand years as they carbon dated the smoked cave roof and identified the dribbling’s left by the semi inebriated dinners. I confess to leaving my DNA behind a bush and clear footprint in a sheltered area (just to make it more interesting I put my shoes on the wrong feet.)
We ate with a Japanese girl who is a retail analyst for Nike in Tokyo. She spends much of her time in shops watching people who entered just to pass the time become interested in buying. Following my in-depth interrogation, it was confirmed that window shopping is one of the most dangerous pursuits in the modern world. In contrast, the Israeli couple at our table confessed they lived in fear of the Gaza missiles as the Iron Dome missile shield only stops 80% and their children are traumatised. Notwithstanding they and their children are not leaving. Sad.
Sheep made Argentina a wealthy country. In late 19th and early 20th centuries, sheep farming expanded across the Patagonian grasslands making the southern regions of Argentina and Chile one of the world's foremost sheep farming areas. It was always a hard industry. Low numbers of stock per acre, short animal life due to teeth wearing out on the hard country and Puma killing a substantial number of lambs. In the 1030’s, as a result of competition from New Zealand and Australia together with environment impact the industry declined and the authorities decided to repurpose the land. The Estancia boss we visited explained they changed to cattle during the late 1990’s but still run a few sheep for tourist activities including the famous lamb barbeque. He explained the agricultural authorities only authorised them to run cattle on this land which was inside a National Park … but the city bureaucrats didn’t know the difference from a sheep to a cow. They’ve been getting away with it for 30 years. Rural Argentina looks very poor. The roads are poorly maintained dirt and the properties portray a subsistence living.
The cities once had good tar sealed roads but, like the footpaths and many buildings, are falling into decay. Walking the streets requires attention and nifty footwork to avoid tripping on paving lifted by tree roots or stollen by others who felt they had a better purpose. I’ve observed with interest in many towns and cities, where water is likely to pour down the mountain across the street, they don’t put in a culvert – just scoop out a ford that becomes a car wash during inclement weather. Cost effective, dual purpose. Speed control in the cities is by speedbump – causing motorists to speed up then jamb on the brakes, then speed up again. The result is increased smog and pollution. The vehicles never attain an economical cruise and brake dust pervades. Even though the Argentinian authorities have signed up to all international environmental protocols, it must have been done tongue in cheek as the reality is, change will never occur among poor people.
In NZ I have, against my natural inclination, formed the habit of stopping to let other motorists into the traffic flow. Sometimes it makes me feel good – other times I wish they had taken public transport so I could proceed uninhibited. I have subconsciously been doing this throughout our journey – much to the chagrin of motorist following. They are quick to hit the horn to show their displeasure … while those being given the opportunity to move forward reward me with expressions and gestures that would be appropriate to recognise the 2nd coming of Jesus Christ. Flypaper advises it takes more than this to become a Saint.
Argentina – the land of the long queue. We remain puzzled by the long queues daily at all Argie banks. It’s well known he government faces several enduring challenges, including endemic corruption and low levels of public trust. Constant rumours cause people to withdraw their savings when currency controls, devaluation, interest rate charges, etc circulate on social media. Coincidently our visit corresponded with the time of month the lucky few receive a social welfare benefit. Immediately they queue to withdraw the funds – and many scurry down the road to buy US$’s from the street money exchangers. Official rate 175 Peso to 1US$ > Blue Market Rate 370 Peso for the same $. (Guess where Flypaper trades.) The queues are truly astonishing. There are also queues at telephone shops. The modus operandi is to wait until finally reaching a terminal where one inputs information of some nature. If the right buttons are pushed one is issued with a numbered ticket to join the next queue waiting for an attending employee to consider ones requirements. Other popular businesses have adopted the same practice. This of course, is no different to our own Health Service. Control by waiting list. The only difference is one can be in a queue and in bed at the same time.
Our 4WD for Argentina turned out to be a near new Hertz supplied Nissan Frontier. On collection I started to check its suitability. The 12v accessories plug didn’t work (needed for our Garmin Sat Nav (as most modern smartphone navigation apps don’t cut the mustard.), neither did some of the dash lights. I called the Hertz personnel who quickly decided I was a difficult prat. I then demonstrated the wipers worked but the washers didn’t. Neither did the horn (critical equipment). Then, to their astonishment I popped the bonnet and opened the fuse box. Someone had removed many of the fuses. No accusations made – but the Hertz guy started to show some concern. He called the boss lady. That activated my charm program. Soon she had another vehicle on the way but on arrival she started shrieking in Spanish to her subserviates to the effect this was a vehicle waiting to be serviced. They scurried about and produced an unwashed 105,00km Ute of dubious age with fewer ‘’nice to have’’ features – but it was legally drivable. Having wasted an hour, we accepted it along with profuse apologies and a promise this experience would not be reported to Hertz H/O (she saw on screen I had been a customer since 1981 and possibly knew the MD personally). Before the day was over I was aware this car would not pass a WOF in NZ (eg. Audible clucks in the steering, hand brake seriously requiring adjustment, etc) but, as boss lady had pointed out, we had full comprehensive insurance with no access. At the time of writing, it has proved very capable, and, like all Utes in Argentina, quite intimidating – although these occasion to provoke urgent remarks from Flypaper. Sometimes she accuses me of taking risks. No sense of adventure and she fails to appreciate the locals expect unpredictability from someone who may be a tradie in a hurry to satisfy someone’s urgent expectations.
We arose early one day and zipped over one of the finest driving roads in the world – the Quebrada de Lipan. (Google the images). Over 36km, it rises from 2214m to the summit at 4170m. That’s higher than NZs Mount Cook at 3724m. Finally ending at our destination - a vast salt desert in the Puna: Salinas Grandes. (Still 3350m above sea level. If I was to tell you all about this Salt Lake you would likely discover I had made it up. On arrival Flypaper paid 1,500 Pesos (about NZ$12) to take an 8km circuitous drive of the area salt is being harvested. We waited 40 minutes for our well-worn lady guide who arrived on a 90cc motorbike and beckoned us to follow in our Ute. First and last stop was about 1km out on the salt where were invited to pose for a few snaps – then she led us back and took up with the next suckers. Admittedly, during the single stop she shared a few morsels of information … all in Spanish.
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Returning over the pass – why take an inferior route – we decided it would be prudent to fill the tank of the diesel Ute. Soon after joining the road to travel 22km to the next town and the only fuel station for 70km in any direction we ground to a halt in a 7km queue of traffic. After inching forward about 2km in 30 minutes I said a naughty word and did a U turn; heading for the hotel. On the way home we saw an ambulance and numerous police cars headed for scene – likely an accident. There have been many mangled vehicles to see on the roadsides. The alternate program was to find a carpark and join hundreds of locals in our village. Its Saturday / Market Day. Dozens of makeshift stalls all competing to sell similar items made from various parts of Llamas, dried wood or the local terracotta clay. These occasions leave me in a serious nervous condition as Flypaper fondles all the fabrics and even asks the price. Thankfully the seller is just as confused giving me time to intervene with sensible comment – like, we’ll need to buy extra luggage or which item already in the collection will this replace? Chaos prevailed so we soon optioned for an excellent tortilla and retired for a much-needed restful afternoon and contemplate the possibility of running out of fuel in the morning.
At dinner one evening I realised a fact that had never crossed my mind previously – despite many moments of opportunity. Babies of all nationalities speak the same language until influenced by their parents to adopt something they can understand. (Bet you never knew that.) The child is given little opportunity to contribute to the decision. Thought provoking. (Many promote giving them the opportunity choose gender -why not more?) This flash of brilliance arrived together with a baby at dinner. Being hard to ignore it became obvious the mother was focused on feeding herself instead of the baby. It ruined my ability to evaluate the Llama steak. I suspect Llama is a mandatory dish in tourist hotels, but I’m told it is also eaten by the local populous on occasion. So far Flypaper has had Llama Cutlet and Steak. I’ve had the Steak and Ribs. Our joint opinion … tastes like veal. Even though it’s been domesticated for thousands of years, the good Llama has not developed fat to hasten the onset of clogged arteries. This also reduces the taste resulting in a rather unexciting culinary experience. The big meat in Argentina is goat. As a child growing up on a blackberry infested 10 acre block it was my duty to move the smelly, vicious, old billy goat to a fresh new batch of weed. He was on a long chain that enabled him to chew everything that grew within his confines in a week. He was justifiably mean. We treated him badly. Understandably I have no affection for goats, either domesticated, in the wild or on a plate. However, on occasions it has featured on menus as the most appealing of options that otherwise leaves me considering a crash diet. It’s been very good although probably contributes to changed bowel habits. Here, vegetarian is not a popular option and again it fails to meet the food standard Flypaper has imposed, or rather, enforced.
We departed one morning intent on achieving significant mileage during a long day. As usual, just a few kilometres we joined a long queue. Eventually the queue took me to a Police checkpoint. These occur every 20 – 30kms. Argentina has a huge police force. There is Federal Police, National Gendarmerie and Provincial State Police’. Numbers are hard to find but Buenos Aries alone is estimated to have 18,000 State Cops. The government fears the populous. All these personnel need to be kept working so they run security checks all the time everywhere. One road stop needs at least 8 police. On previous occasions I’ve simply lowered window and said, “Good morning”, in English. Usually that’s enough. But some give further thought and look at Flypaper. At that point they probably think, “He’s got enough problems”, and let me proceed. On one occasion I was asked to produce my driver’s licence. He studied it and broke out into a huge grin, saying, “We beat the All Blacks”. However, on this particular day I had a new experience. Breathalysed. The officer offered a device of a nature I’d never seen before. It was like Cellphone with a bell-shaped attachment on the end – like the noisy end of a small trumpet. Presuming he spoke as little English as I spoke Spanish, I asked, “Do I pass wind into here”. He missed the joke and simply said, “Blow”. I made feeble effort, but it was sufficient to be released to proceed.
Traditionally, before plastic straws were invented, liquid requiring suction to move from cup to lip utilised a thin metal tube. As the apparent sole effort to reduce the use of plastic, the metal tube is back. Usually copper. In fact, it looks suspiciously like old copper brake and fuel line. It’s like sucking on an exhaust pipe and the resultant taste ruins every beverage.
Be sure I’m not receiving a commission for the following travel promo. If ever considering a visit to Argentina be sure to include at least 4 days travelling in the Salta region. In particular, driving 4 absolutely spectacular gorges. The one mentioned previously plus the 2 long day’s journey down to Cafayate and back to Salto via Cachi. The scenery is stunning. If you like looking down into the Grand Canyon, you will certainly like the equivalent of driving through it. These have the addition of rainbow colours created by various minerals. I’d drive them all again next week except Flypaper has made other arrangements. Another reassuring thing about these drives – you can buy the staple South American street food every 20kms from roadside stalls. Empanada’s, Ham & Cheese Tortilla’s or other unpronounceable morsels. (However, the best Empanada I’ve had was in Santiago Chile – you will need a guide to find them.)
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Southern South Americans in general do not sit at home watching TV while receiving social security benefits. They get out and have a go to make a living. It’s obvious they are not getting rich, but they have my admiration for trying.
We lunched at an obscenely spectacular winery (Bodega Piattelli Cafayate). The tour was typically boring – wine is made much the same way all over world. The tasting was among the best (but the 14500 Peso NZ58 cost) took the shine off it. Lunch (another NZ$120) was an obscene exercise in depriving dozens of peasants a good feed. I felt guilty.

20230221_103222.jpgHowever, the day was saved by the performance of a couple who (they had obviously had many large meals previously) arrived in a flash car and created a scene. “Our agent booked us a table on the terrace, “ they shouted when the waitress put them at the best inside table with view over the vineyard to the mountains. They were unmoved by any reasoning including the fact there were no available terrace tables than the offered one (actually, next to us – thank God they were moved) which was always reserved for special guests. Eventually, as the tantrum escalated, the senior restaurant manager escorted them to the far corner of the terrace where there was an inferior unset table which took quite a while to prepare. I always wonder if the restaurant employees take their revenge in ways unknown to the dinner. I would have been reluctant to eat their meal.
Maurice O’Reilly
Argentina February 2023

Posted by Wheelspin 17:35 Archived in Argentina Tagged police glacier argentina calafate salinas sala grandes gauchos salt_lake estancia perito_moreno_glacier llama_steak cave_art rock_drawings empanardo speed_bump Comments (0)

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