Archive for October, 2009

Tourney in Temperley


[Chess guru Tom chimes in with this report.]

Ordinarily, I like to sleep in on Saturday mornings, but today, Zoe’s chess teacher had other plans for me.

Once every month or so, he volunteers at a junior chess tournament, and he encourages all of his students to participate. Which is awesome, especially since Zoe enjoys the competition. The problem is that on this particular Saturday, we needed to leave the confines of Capital Federal, and travel to the town of Temperley, a suburb located about half an hour south of the city border.

The easiest way to get there would have been to take a taxi all the way to Colegio Alemán (the school hosting the tournament this month), but that would have been rather expensive, and not very adventurous. The alternative was to take the train.

As my family knows a little too well by now, when I’m traveling somewhere for the first time, I like to leave early. So, that meant that even though the tournament started at 10:30 am, we left the house at 8:20 am.

You know, in case something goes wrong.

We found a taxi driver to take us to Estación Constitución (pictured below), and he quickly sized me up as a clueless foreigner, and warned me never to let go of my bag because the station was a dangerous place. I didn’t understand everything he was saying, but Zoe was able to fill in a lot of language gaps for me. In fact, he was so charmed by Zoe’s ability to act as a Spanish-English translator, that he gave her an alfajor. (My Castellano obviously didn’t make the cut, so no cookie for me!)

He dropped us off at the station, we got tickets and hopped on the next train, all without getting mugged. After a pleasant ride to Temperley, we walked a few blocks to the school…

…and, realized we were an hour early.

The chess tournament was a little tough for Zoe this go around. She had her first experience playing with chess clocks, which takes some getting used to. Plus, they have a rule here that if you make three illegal moves, you immediately forfeit the game. (You get to correct the illegal move, but each is a strike against you.) Zoe’s opponents kept putting her in check, but not actually saying “check” (a common chess courtesy), so when Zoe wouldn’t realize her King was imperiled and move some other piece, they would chalk up another illegal move on the scorecard.

After the event, hopped up on the requisite carbs and adrenalin, we managed to negotiate our way home using a train/subway/walking combo — the tournament may not have gone according to plan, but the traveling couldn’t have been smoother!


Falls, What Falls? Let’s Talk Buffet!


If you asked Zelda what her favorite thing about traveling to Iguazú Falls was, you might be surprised by her answer.

Was it the boat trip into the falls? NO.

Was it the jeep ride through the jungle? NO.

Was it the vista from our hotel balcony overlooking the falls themselves? NO.

I am willing to bet that the most-liked feature of our trip for the smallest member of the Offermann/Reeves clan was the buffet at the Sheraton. The evening repast featured a cornucopia of eating option, spread across multiple stations in two separate rooms. She was in heaven, and announced to one and all, “this is my first buffet.” (I think the 4-tiered chocolate fondue fountain really put it over the top for her.)

We realized that although she had previously been to a few all-you-can-eat fests, she was too young to remember them. So this dining experience, complete with live harpist shilling his CDs, was one to remember.

That’s not to say she didn’t really enjoy everything else! The rushing waters were a blast to motor through. (Because of the high water levels, only the tour with the big boats was running.) Zelda also explored the labyrinth of trails with enthusiasm. And, she managed to avoid being attacked by a coati scavenging for food. (A coati is a member of the raccoon family and are also known as Brazilian aardvarks, hog-nosed coons and snookum bears. They roam around taking food from tourists, but there are warnings everywhere that they can attack for vittles.)

Unfortunately, due to the pretty extreme weather, not a lot of toucans and monkeys were hanging about, but we were happy to exchange the fauna for such a spectacularly dramatic falls experience!



Crazy High Water Level at Iguazú!

We arrived at Iguazú in one piece around 5:00 pm on a Friday, when we pulled into the Sheraton, which we selected because it is right smack dab in the middle of the park (you can see the top of the falls and walk the trails from the lobby). No doubt the hotel is an architectural eyesore, but the interior is fine and its smallish size makes it very easy to negotiate.

After checking in, the power blinked out just as we made our way to the elevator with our bags. The poor folks stuck in the ascensor began banging away from the inside since they couldn’t leave their box-like confines. We figure the electricity goes out fairly frequently, because no hotel staff members felt the need to comfort their trapped guests.

I finally couldn’t take it anymore and marched to the lift to explain through the metal doors, in Spanish, that the power was kaput and that the hotel was attempting to get them out as soon as possible (although there was really no evidence to support that statement). Then, I practically forced a Sheraton employee to go talk to them.

We made a mental note to ourselves at that point to avoid the elevator!

By 5:45 pm, we were ensconced in our room. We looked out from our balcony, but could hardly see the falls through all the rain and mist. That’s when I declared, “screw it, we’re here…let’s go.”

We set out on the trails, even though there were signs posted everywhere saying the park was closed from 6:00 pm to 8:00 am. So there we were, just before closing on a rainy Friday, in one of the most majestic spots on the globe…and we had the park to ourselves!! It was exhilarating to run solo along the steel walkways that are perched atop the lips of the falls with the raging waters crashing all around us.

In fact, it was so intense, Zoe was a little shaken after our first pass through the park.

Later, we found out why. The normal flow rate is about 1,500 cubic meters per second, but while we were there, the chocolate brown water was moving at a clip of about 11,000 cubic meters per second. Intense is right.

The Road to the Mission


To get to the falls of Iguazú, we reunited with our friend Mario Andretti, I mean Ariel, and took off over the treacherous clay roads tucked into our 4 x 4 yet again. (It had been raining before our trip, so the passage seemed a little bumpier than our way into Iberá.) Everyone heaved a big sigh of relief when we hit a two lane paved highway after about 2 hours.

Sadly, that relief lasted for a mere moment, because Mario immediately began passing people like a crazy man.

As we were driving, we noticed rather large mounds of dirt everywhere; it was as if oversized moles had been at work in the fields surrounding our passage way. Turns out, they were termite mounds and boy were they prolific. For some reason, we found their being ubiquitous to be rather creepy, so we tried not to think about it too much.

Three hours into the trip, we took a break for some lunch and a tour of las ruinas de San Ignacio Miní, a mission built by the Jesuits and the Guaraní dating from the late 1600s.

At lunch, we talked with Ariel a bit more about Iberá and tourism to the area. He said that about 70% of the visitors are from Europe and 30% are from Argentina. Us Norte Americanos are not well represented, apparently. He did note that they have seen a downward impact on visitor levels from the global recession.

The visit to the Mission was pretty dramatic. As you can see here, there is little left, but what remains shows you the impact of the clay red sandstone used to build the front of the church. Walking through the buildings and the central plaza, you can still get a sense of the grand scale of the community. The priests’ living quarters, which weren’t large, had lovely stone floors, huge windows and a door out to a generous terrace — it must have been truly stunning. (A partial picture below.)

Also, off the terrace was the largest “cactus tree” I’ve ever seen, which is pictured below as well. (A note on the pix, they present very washed out as thumbnails — click on them to really see the richness and detail of the construction.)

Anyhow, I am sitting in Ariel’s truck as I write this on the last leg of our drive, hoping we will make it to Iguazú alive — it is pouring rain, the terrain has become quite hilly and visibility is rapidly deteriorating. Unfortunately, bad driving conditions have not stopped the aggressive driving nature of our conductor. *sigh*

I believe I may have left indentations of my fingers in the Z’s legs as I clutched with fear during the near-accident we were just involved in as Mario passed yet another car.

I think it’s time to close my computer.

(Tom thought my blogging in the back seat was so funny, he took a picture of that as well!)



You Say Yacaré, I say Cayman


While in the marshes of Iberá, our guide told us there were three types of large reptiles living in the lagunas: the green cayman, some sort of blunt nosed cayman and the black cayman, which grow to be the largest — up to about 3 m. The black variety was by far the most common during our visit.

As far as we could observe, they spend much of the day recharging their cold-blooded batteries by basking in the sun, often with their mouths hinged open. They are so preternaturally still for such long periods of time, we were all starting to joke that the lodge had placed plastic caymans around the estuaries for tours.

Just as you would find yourself lulled into a false sense of security though, one would randomly scurry off into the water incredibly quickly. (The first time that happened, Zoe suddenly saw the wisdom of keeping her hands out of the water while near land in the shallower depths.)

They hunt at night, eating fish when the water is cold, making their prey more sluggish and easy to catch. There is a relative of the piranha in the waters of Iberá that is supposed to be a favorite treat. We went on a night excursion and, using a strong flashlight, we could see cayman eyes reflecting back at us — glowing orbs gliding silently over the surface of the water as they searched for hapless fish. It was eerie.

Linguistically, I thought I would mention that Yacaré is the Guaraní word for the cayman, and it roughly signifies something submerged, drifting over the water with just a head poking out.

On another linguistic side note, Tom and I have been arguing over the spelling of caiman/cayman. I like it with a “y” and Tom prefers it with an “i” — you will probably see both in the entries as the editorial battle rages on. Yes, I know, we need to find something more meaty to argue over, really!


The Largest Rodent in the World


What barks like a dog, hangs out in the water like a hippo, is furry like a brown bear, and resembles a hog rooting around in the marshes? That would be the capybara (carpincho in Spanish).

They are everywhere in Esteros del Iberá, and currently seem to live the life of Riley…bring on some big cat predators, I say. The cayman appear to be scared of these gigantic rat relatives and are often seen scurrying away when one lets loose with a hoarse bark.

I had a hard time getting the Spanish name for the capybara straight, and for some unknown reason actually kept wanting to say “pinchero” instead of “carpincho.” Now, this is a very bad substitution, since the former essentially means “fucker” in Spanish. I nearly gave the guide a heart attack one day when I didn’t catch myself and made the ill-fated switch. I flashed him my most pathetic “gringa speaking Spanish” look and he let it slide. Whew.

From there on out though, Tom and I began to think of the capybara as an expletive, and I’m afraid it’s going to stick, forever cementing the two words together in my mind. *sigh*


My New Love Affair with the Bidet

As others have written before me, the Argentines are serious about their hygiene. There are bidets besprinkled pretty much everywhere throughout the country.

Personally, I’ve never really been a fan, they seem more trouble than they are worth. The bidet in our apartment is never used, except to store toilet paper rolls over the knobs. (There’s literally no extra space in our bathroom.)

Anyway, my transition to bidetophile came about as a result of an extreme case of gastrointestinal distress that led to massive amounts of vomiting and diarrhea. Residing at the Posada de la Laguna during this illness, sipping my lovely deliveries of green tea and toast from the kitchen staff, caused me to feel as if I were staying at some sort of twisted, bulimic weight loss spa!

I digress…again, sorry.

So, one day, while my poor body was purging itself of toxins, my keen family was on the water attempting to canoe amongst the spectacular flora and fauna in gale force winds. This meant I didn’t have anyone to fetch me new toilet paper, causing me to eyeball the bidet, reluctantly realizing it was going to act as savior with my low supply of tissue.

I held off for as long as I could, but finally, I succumbed to the siren song of warm moisture (as opposed to the razor sharp papel higiénico squares I was using). It took me about an hour to figure out all of the knobs and settings, but once I gave it a test run, I thought it was so damn great, I insisted Tom give it a try! (The poor man, it must be hell being married to me.)

Entrancing Esteros del Iberá


What a treasure this area is. Esteros del Iberá is one of the largest wetland/marsh areas in the world. It became a provincial reserve in Corrientes about 25 years ago.

The region features huge floating islands of compressed dead grasses and plants that support an incredible array of biodiversity that you can view via small boat, canoe, on foot and horseback while visiting.

The population of caiman (the Latin alligator) has recovered quite nicely, as has the marsh deer. I’m particularly fond of the latter, of which we saw quite a few, because these unusual ungulates apparently have hooves that expand to allow them to walk in the soft, moist soil. And, last but not least, the region is home to a thriving population of capybara. For those not familiar with this particular creature, the carpincho (as they are called here) is not only the largest rodent in the world, but if our observations over four days are at all reliable, it is also the most carefree.

If you are a birder, you could see a zillion life birds here.

One of our favorite avian moments happened when we came upon a very large bird settled atop a tall palm tree, yelling at us with its ignominious cry. It was really a Dr. Seuss visual.

The Iberá reservists hope to continue their species recovery work by reintroducing many of the animals that were hunted to extinction in the area, some of which include big cats, the tapir, the giant anteater, and wild boars. They are starting with the howler monkey though. The marshes here represent their southern-most habitat on this continent. The forested area where they currently reside can support about 15 monkeys, which is the size of the population living there now.

We will be following anxiously the fortunes of this delicate ecosystem over the next decade as it fends off threats from poachers and hydro-electric dams (run off increases the water levels and destroys the marshes). We hope that the whole of Argentina recognizes this area for the incredible national treasure that it is.




Posada de la Laguna, A Review


Our home away from home was the lovely Posada de la Laguna, which is pictured here. For an all inclusive rate, we were given 2 excursions a day, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and tea. As if that’s not enough, they also would deliver water and caramels to each habitación every afternoon. The latter was a favorite feature for the Zs, who would race back to their room, fling open their door, and inhale the buttery confection as quickly as possible.

The main lodge/dining area was homey and, during meals, there was usually an interesting mix of music playing. We heard everything from Pink Martini (we told the proprietress that they heralded from our home city in the States) to arias from the Verdi opera Rigoletto.

The property hosts a small unheated pool, which was suffering a bit. Half way though our stay, they decommissioned it to lay some tile and institute repairs.

The rooms were quaint and generously sized with fabulous light, patios, hammocks, and screened windows. They were impeccably clean — you could walk around barefoot in the room or on the patio and pick up nary a dust bunny. There is a picture of our bedroom below.

The food was surprisingly good. There were several lunch menus sin (without) meat. (No that’s not a typo folks — vegetarian meals in Argentina!) Unusual fare included soups (not containing squash), a stir fry, some sort of carrot timballo, and a homemade al dente ravioli stuffed with spinach. They also made a wide selection of very yummy tortas (cakes) which were available for breakfast and for tea. Lastly, our personal favorite, was their homemade white bread that toasted up a la delish French bread. Boy, did we go through some butter on this trip.

Their excursions were varied and the guides were great, but if you don’t speak any Spanish, you’ll be out of luck.

Service was deft — subtle and gracious. When I became violently ill on day 3, they would bring green tea and toast on a lovely tray to my room while Tom and the kids were out on the lagunas.

Our five days were relaxing, calm, scenic, and perfectly scheduled!


On the Bus Again


Apologies for my posting gap — we have been traveling in locales sin Internet.

Yes, that means we have taken to the road again, a change for us because we haven’t done any significant roaming since our summer sojourn in Dec – Feb of 2008/2009.

This last Sunday evening, everything started on a fabulous note as we trekked out to Libertador to catch a cab to Retiro — Zoe spotted a Kangoo cab, which meant we could all fit in one car! (Four people plus luggage is a lot for your standard taxi to absorb.)

Upon our arrival at the Terminal de Omnibus, memories of being on the bus during the Christmas season came rushing back to us. At that time, as you can imagine, the terminal was a zoo. In contrast, it felt deserted this last Sunday. Pictured here is the abandoned first class lounge; for awhile, we were the only people there.

The next item to really catch our attention was the length of the trip — nine hours of overnight travel. After experiencing much longer stretches during our previous stint of vagabonding, the nine hour haul seemed like a short jaunt.

Our last item of note was the usual disappointment with “breakfast:” salt-free (meaning flavorless) crackers, cookies, and some sort of cereal bar flavored with artificial chemi-peach.

Despite our lack of morning nutrition, we made it, no worse for the wear, to Mercedes in the province of Corrientes by about 7:00 am Monday morning, an hour behind schedule. There, we were met by Ariel, who was to take us via 4 x 4 to our posada (lodge) outside of Carlos Pelligrini, where adventure awaited us in the Esteros del Iberá (marshes of the shining waters).

The ride to the lodge was actually an expedition in itself. Our driver seemed to believe we were in a Dakar rally because he drove about 110 kilometers per hour over the deep grooves and gigantic bumps that are worn into the orange ribbons of clay. I sat in between the two girls in the back of an extended cab Toyota truck while they tried to nap on me despite the thrill ride we were taking, during which we seemed to catch air every few minutes. I admired their persistence.

To add to the adventure, Zoe was sick and had a fever and Zelda was combating her usual motion sickness.

Never a dull moment!