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.