Thursday, August 27, 2015

Feathered Nights by Sofia Lavista

This must be the end of civilisation. The Argentinian pampas and clear sky stretch out to infinity. We are in the north-eastern province of Entre Ríos, which, as its name states, is sandwiched between two rivers: the Parana and the Uruguay. Until the late seventies, it was an isolated island of gauchos herding cattle. Still today, we can hear their whistling and the stomping of the hooves of their obedient cattle.

Just one hour north from Buenos Aires we reach the first bridge that crosses the longest river in South American after the Amazon: the Paraná, which gets its name from the original Tupi language para rehe onáva, meaning ‘as big as the sea’. Ahead, our road bisects the endless wetlands, teeming with water birds. The scenery and the local chamamé folk music playing on the radio mesmerize us. Suddenly, the aroma of firewood and homemade bread drifts through the open windows. We have reached Gualeguay, with its friendly welcome sign: Capital de la Cordialidad. We later learn that the entrance to Gualeguay is deliberately unobtrusive to dissuade tourists, who then head towards the much larger town of Gualeguaychú.

We stop and ask a local paisano for directions.

‘Could you tell us the way to Gualeguaychú?’

‘If you want to see what’s showing on T.V. take that road to the left and follow the signs. Otherwise, welcome this way to experience the real carnival.’

We are hooked.

The enchanting song of birds thronging the savannah blends with the slow grind of bikes and the cheerful greetings of locals in the streets. In Gualeguay there is plenty of time for drinking mate, the original bitter infusion of Guaraníes that still nowadays everybody shares on all occasions. We reach our hotel situated at the wide central square that breeds beautiful gardens of native trees, just in front of San Antonio church. After checking in, the receptionist, Zulema persuades us to beat the typical February morning heat with a walk in the Parque Quintana along the Gualeguay — the river that gives its name to the town.

The city glows under the summer sun, like people’s bronzed skin. The smell of jasmine and homemade bread accompanies us all our way to the park. There’s a bakery on every second block, each one specialized in a certain type of bread. Definitely, Picasso has the best tortas negras — biscuit bread topped with brown sugar, while the salty croissants are best at La Fenix. Reaching the park, we welcome the refreshing breeze in the eucalyptus grove and thank Zulema for her foresight in giving us insect repellent. We enjoy the light-hearted chatter of the parrots. Later we learn that they are considered a plague, since their nests are so high up in the eucalyptus trees that they don’t have any predators.

The park is equipped with benches and dining tables and several barbecue spots, where families are grilling their asados. We continue our stroll along the trees to finally reach the widest part of the river. A white sandy beach stretches out in front of us. The few locals sunbathing, drinking mate or canoeing do not seem to notice us. The water is cool and pale reddish-brown from the silt dragged all the way down from its source in the heart of Brazil, which also makes the bottom pleasantly sandy. We quickly improvise a picnic by the beach.

Two local young men are amused by our English and approach us using every bit of our language they have learned at school.

‘Hello, my name is Alcides’, one says. He has a complete set for mate made out of braided raw leather. He indicates his friend, whose cheerful black eyes smile at us. ‘And this is Luciano.’

Half an hour later we all share a boat towards Puerto Ruiz, which was once an important commercial harbour for salted meat and other products formerly produced in Entre Ríos and transported by ship to Buenos Aires. We try to catch some dorado, the local speciality, with no luck. Our boat tour leaves us sunburned and tired enough for a slow early dinner and a good rest. After all, we just arrived this morning.

It is two hours till dusk so after a refreshing shower we decide to take dinner on the terrace. Gradually, a sound like a herd of horses’ hooves approaches, waking up the city. Suddenly, hundreds of people appear from nowhere, surround us, and we walk all together towards the source of the drumbeat. The music is addictive; the carnival has just started.

Someone throws foam on my face and I momentarily lose my vision. It has a sweet smell though, and feels smooth and warm. I can’t see my friends. I’m now sitting with soon-to-be new friends who offer me foam to play with. I am cheering for Si Si, the first of the local carnival parades on show tonight. The music fills my entire being as the orchestra approaches. The drum band opens the spectacular dance procession. After ten minutes, I already know the lyrics of their song and the basic steps. Glittery bodies topped with headdresses made of colourful feathers twist and pulsate at inhuman speed. Si Si keeps us haunted. My heart beats in time to the drums in an endless crescendo. Suddenly they stop and the trumpets blare: Gualeguay explodes.  

The carnival continues non-stop for two hours. Gradually, it comes to an end. I eventually find my friends and exhausted, we stroll back to the hotel, exchanging our surreal experiences.

Alcides and Luciano pull up beside us in a van.

‘Come on up, we have mate and fresh croissants from La Fenix. We are heading to the beach.’
The sun rises bright behind the savannah, reflecting in the orange water. The first day of our long weekend seems to extend beyond the vast horizon, like the Argentinean sky. A flock of roseate spoonbills passes by flying above us on their morning peregrination to fresh water lagoons. They will come back tonight spangling the firmament with their colourful feathers, when Gualeguay wakes up again.

Sofía Lavista is an Argentinean biologist living in Germany. She has lived in four countries over three continents and is happiest visiting family and friends in her home town, Gualeguay. She combines science with writing poetry and dancing.

Monday, August 24, 2015

On a Terrace in Peru by Stacey Venzel

Mistakes abound when you’re frolicking in a foreign country.  Language barriers, wrong turns and cultural faux pas are common threads between travelers.  I once asked a waiter at a restaurant in Latin America if I should “sentirme” instead of “sentarme,” the difference between “feel myself” and “seat myself.”  In Portugal, I took a path less traveled expecting to find solitude in the Algarve; instead, I encountered a colony of wrinkly, sunbaked skin in the form of elderly nudists—my first nude beach experience.  I thought “Boxing Day” in the Bahamas referred to celebrating the sport of boxing… It does not.

But perhaps one of my favorite oops-a-daisy incidents to date is one that began like so many others—with a combination of pure stupidity and bad luck. 

I booked a six-week trip to Peru on a whim, planning to start off visiting my sister in Lima.  In the middle of my Peruvian adventure, my sister and her husband returned to the US for their own vacation.  Prior to their departure, they kindly lent me a key to their apartment so I could let myself back in when my nomadic wanderings around the south of Peru came to an end.

I returned late in the night to their apartment four days before they were due back.  When I woke early the next morning, clean clothes were first on my mind.  I had hiked and slept in the same clothes for more than two weeks, and a sour smell was beginning to emanate from the cotton fibers on my sweatshirt.  I threw on a running shirt and floral pattern skirt that had been left behind during my gallivanting.  Sure, I didn’t match and yes it was chilly outside but I wasn’t planning on walking the streets anytime soon.

When I heard the ding! of the washer, I piled the clothes into a basket and tromped up to the third floor to hang my clothes outside.  I found the key to the terrace on a side table, turned it in the lock, threw open the door and stepped onto the tile to place the basket on a table.  Not more than two seconds later, I heard a loud thud.

“Nooooo,” I whined.  That thud seemed to say it all, a noise punctuating bad news, confirming the unknown.  I checked the handle just to be sure.  Locked.

I frantically meandered around furniture and potted plants, checking the windows.

“Yes!”  I nearly screamed.  They were open.  But homeowners in Lima obsess over security, even three floors high.  I yanked repeatedly on the bars covering the glass, knowing full well it was a futile effort.  Better yet, I could see my phone on the counter inside, mocking me, safeguarding the contact number for the housekeeper who had a spare key.  She had cleaned the house in preparation for my arrival, a day earlier than her usual cleaning day—Tuesday.  The day I locked myself out on a third story terrace in Peru.

I began rummaging in hanging ferns, lifting up clay pots, doormats and seat cushions in search of a hidden key.  Defeat pulling in the reins, I did the one last thing I could think of.

“Cesar!” I whispered, leaning over the railing in the direction of the neighbor’s apartment three houses down.  “Cesar!” I repeated to a man I’d met only twice before.

His face appeared in an open window.

“I locked myself out.  I don’t have my phone.  Can you call my sister to get the number for the housekeeper?”

He scurried onto the street and stared up at me as he tried to reach my sister and her husband on Whatsapp.  After 30 minutes of texting and attempted phone calls, I tried to explain to him that they only receive messages when they are connected to Wifi, so they must be on the road.  He didn’t quite seem to grasp the concept and continued trying to call them.

Exchanging the skirt for a pair of my clean, damp shorts, I Spider-man climbed atop the roof and surveyed my surroundings.  There was no plausible re-entry.  Cesar decided to see for himself.  He used his homemade ladder to step onto the roof of the neighbor’s one story house.  From there, he climbed up the ladder onto the terrace.

He tapped his lips in thought, then suddenly handed me his phone.  “I have to go work,” he said.  “This is my extra phone.  Keep it in case they call.”  

He crawled back down, leaving me cold, frustrated, hungry and helpless.  I contemplated climbing down but then realized I didn’t really have anywhere to go.  So I waited, slipper-clad and looking like a stranded Sporty Spice in the Peruvian winter.

Cesar said he would be gone 30 minutes.  I’ve learned timing is grossly underestimated in South America.  An hour-and-a-half later, he was climbing back up the ladder.

“This is for you,” he said, handing me a bag with a banana and piece of bread.  In a country where my favorite animal is a delicacy, he still remembered I was vegan.  And though he couldn’t quite fathom how I continue to live and breathe and enjoy eating without meat in my diet, he was kind enough to think of my growling stomach.

I told him I had not heard from my sister.  I asked if he could give me the number to a locksmith, trying my best to explain “a person who unlocks doors” in Spanish.  Then I noticed he was busily unloading tools from a zippered pack around his waist.  He tied a piece of string to a hook and wedged it inside the door with the help of pliers.  I commented that this didn’t look like his first rodeo.  He chuckled but didn’t reply.

In the middle of trying to loop the hook around the handle, my sister’s husband called, gave me the number to the housekeeper and wished us good luck.  I inked the phone number on the cement wall with the juice from a leaf.  I was ready to dial, but Cesar insisted on continuing with his invention.  God bless Latinos and their persistent nature.  Though a clever method, the handle was too heavy for the contraption and, ultimately, the string broke.

Four hours had passed.  Grateful as I was for Cesar’s attempted break-in, I wanted desperately to get back inside, so I punched in the number for the housekeeper.  She was more than willing to bring over the spare but was a bit of a drive away.  Cesar returned to his home and told me to alert him when I was free. 

I spent five hours of my trip to Peru stuck on a terrace.  When the housekeeper unlocked the door, I walked to the neighbor’s to report the update.  I rang the wrong doorbell.

“Hola?” a woman’s voice said through the intercom.  I mistook her for Cesar’s wife.

“Estoy libre!” I shouted excitedly.  Literally, that translates to, “I’m free.”  I later learned from my sister that, out of context, I basically said “I’m a whore” to a stranger.


Zoologist, blogger and self-proclaimed comedian, Stacey Venzel has rescued sea turtles, bunked with a tribe in the Amazon, built a school in Brazil and performed various literal interpretations to pop songs on-stage.  She grew up in Ohio and currently calls Long Island, Bahamas home base.