The alarm on my phone goes off at 4am I am not a natural early riser but the thoughts of missing my flight always propels me onwards on such mornings. I bump the blue bag down a flight of stairs and I’m out on the street, almost immediately Giulia a wonderful PhD student with excellent English arrives with her father Martin, our taxi driver. They are a wonderful pair, the love is palpable and it's beautiful to see how proud he is of her. I am soon swept along in their familiar warmth and praise of - pão de queso, the bread of cheese. My weakness for morning coffee leaves me vulnerable and willingly I’m led astray. A quick detour finds us parking outside a large bakery as dawn breaks, the waft of warm bread overwhelms me as we open the door and we enter. Coffee and cheese bread fresh from the oven is a breakfast fit for a Portuguese saint. We delight in the taste, blowing to cool the hot bread straight from the oven - long threads of cheese extending like interrupted kisses, as I break open the golden crust. And just then, like a fairy godmother the voice arrives in my head reminding me; get to the airport early, Brazilians like to queue up, don't be late!
Yes, we arrive at the airport check-in desk 7 minutes after the flight is closed. Despite a considerable charm offensive Guilia and I are unable undo the young mans decision. Crest fallen, but not despairing I am contented when we are informed; there is a seat on the next plane and it won’t cost a peso. I say my farewells to Guilia, who is simply a darling, and settle myself to wait with my book. I am very pleasantly surprised when, finally, I board my flight to Puerto Iguazu, realising that the determined young man at check-in has put me in first class - collective female charm evidently never loses its strength.
“The Guarani people are the indigenous population native to Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and parts of Bolivia and Uruguay. The Guarani people suffered under the Spanish and Portuguese invasion during the 17th centuries and were subjugated to slavery and religious conversion. After the expulsion of the missions in the early 19th century, the Guarani focused on creating their own strong community”
A long line of people snake towards passport control, tired and weary I only want to get to the hotel and sleep. Finally I present my passport to the man in the glass box, he asks me the name of my hotel, foggy but not yet asleep, I say ‘El Dictator’. His serious eyes view me from above his glasses, I realise what I have said and quickly offer ‘El Liberator” he smirks and hands me back my passport. One womans dictator is another womans liberator.
White taxis crowd the entrance to the small airport like hungry fowl, I fall into one and soon we are heading towards town. Its dark and still hot, the headlights illuminate the dense green on either side of the road. This is definitely jungle territory and its more than a little thrilling. Arrival at El Liberator is loud and confusing, an ‘entertainer’ with dark dyed hair belts out his party tunes to a group of well-fed mesmerised senior citizens in the large open lobby. It's hard to even hear the concierge speak, the enforced merriment makes my heart sink. I will soon turn 60 and the thoughts of submitting to this twilight zone of inferior music and below average singing has me thinking that when I get to Iguazu falls it might be worth considering one last grand leap into the glorious thundering uncompromising water, excusing myself from dreaded time in the ‘departure lounge’.
I wake in paradise, pulling the curtains on the glass doors to reveal a small makeshift town, tropical trees, corrugated roofs and cobalt blue sky. The air conditioner sends a cool breeze across the room, its early morning and already stifling. After breakfast I lie by the pool with my book. I watch ants march in dedicated lines over the scorching concrete disappearing into a tiny dark fissure. Finally, when I can bear the heat no longer, I plunge into the water and revel in its cool refreshing blueness. I lie arms open and float looking up at the sky.
Ricardo, Puerto Iguazú, Argentina.
Later I go out for a walk, deciding to stop and have dinner at cafe table on the street. No sooner have I sat down than an eight-year old boy appears with small carved animals sprouting from between his fingers. An assortment of jungle animals; anteaters, spotted cats and lemurs all fashioned in wood and decorated with tiny burnt in patterns. They are quite beautiful, and he is far too young to be out wandering the streets at evening trying to sell his wares to tourists. I gesture towards his small yellow backpack, he swings it off his shoulders and unzips. His name is Ricardo, I buy the lot and his face dances with delight. Trading over, I ask him can I take a photograph, still smiling he agrees and is curious to see the resulting image of himself on the iPhone screen. I wish Ricardo good luck and realise that this is my first encounter with the Guarani people. Being Irish I think we have something in common.
Redrock plateaus and thick jungle forests have left the region fairly undeveloped, save for the big tourist attraction at Iguazu. Considered uniquely untouched by modern civilization, there is one vast culture that has lived in and protected the area for centuries. The Guarani people are the indigenous population native to Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and parts of Bolivia and Uruguay. The Guarani people suffered under the Spanish and Portuguese invasion during the 17th centuries and were subjugated to slavery and religious conversion. After the expulsion of the missions in the early 19th century, the Guarani focused on creating their own strong community. Modern Guarani culture still carries ancient traditions, some that has been shared throughout South America.
A traditional gourd vessel. Yerba mate tea is sipped through a metal straw.
One widespread Guarani influence is Yerba mate -mate is a loose leafed tea brewed with hot water in a traditional mate gourd, made of pumpkin or wood. Yerba mate has been a part of the Guarani culture for hundreds of years, and its popularity has spread all across Argentina and Uruguay.
Walking back to the hotel after dinner I see a middle aged woman dressed in a multitude of tourist souvenirs, beads and bows and arrows crowd her arms, a net bag filled with trinkets straddles her back, a crown of feathers stands erect on her head - a pitiful vision from some diabolical Disney tale perhaps - she looks tired and laden, a sad spectacle of an indigenous dweller made clown. I can only hope that her ‘warrior’ husband has the tea ready when she gets home?
The next day I rise early and decide to make my way up to the falls, I am interested to see this spectacle of nature, where Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay meet to share a border. I breakfast at the hotel with all the other guests. We eat fruit, eggs and an acre of sweet bread confections that pose as cake, with coffee for breakfast. Tray after tray of these small cake-like confections are laid out. ‘La medialuna’ is a small croissant. I choose a plain looking horseshoe shaped folded pastry - the filling of dulce con leche touches my tongue like a sin. This thick buttery, toffee substance, made from a reduction of rich milk is a favourite here and it seems to have found its way into just about everything. The coffee is excellent; robust and strong and a good compliment to the over-sweet breads. Fortified, I head off to the waterfalls.
“Relieved in the oppressive heat, my thoughts meander to the German Romantic landscape painting movement and their desire to understand nature and by extension the divine? Casper David Friedrich was the leader of the movement and I was wondering what he might have made of the ‘devil’s throat”
The bus with sun shading curtains takes 30 minutes to bring fellow passengers and myself to the gates of the national park and from there I move ticket in hand with all the others, heading in the same direction. The sun is well up and its full blaze is relentless. A river of people, we take our seats in the open carriages of a narrowgauge train, thankfully we are well shaded and off we go into the jungle. Large signs declare dangerous wild cats and keen eyes scour the trees. Black birds in trees squabble, and their nests hang like old stockings stuffed with fibre. A sudden dart of flight reveals crimson back feathers and I try to take a photograph, but like some Japanese erotica it’s too fast an eclipse. An ant eater appears to entertain the tourists, he is definitely a character in my new collection of forest animals and I realise the little carvings are very well observed. A bell signals our arrival and the final trek to the waterfalls begins. There are metals walk ways slung out over vast areas of khaki coloured water, occasionally the surface of the water is broken with flat rock and branches. I watch a huge black catfish hang in the current feeding, the sun continues to rise and scorch. The walkways stretch from island to island and after witnessing the water erupt in a frenzy of piranha fish as they devour a bite of my apple I dropped over the railing. I look closer at the engineering of these footbridges and hear my father questioning the age and deterioration of steel close to water. Excitement mounts as I see the plume of mist rises on the horizon, obstructed by the trees - it’s a little closer. A faint rumbling sound can be heard as we trek closer. An emergency of water opens onto the indescribable scene and words leave me simply breathing in awe of this vast magisterial scene.
When I finally turn back I discover a poem near a shaded seat and discover I am reading the words alongside a Dublin woman of a similar age. Her son is working in Brazil and we chatted for a bit, both of us trying to express our sense of gratitude at having seen the spectacle. A butterfly lands on my arm and I decide it’s a blessing from mother nature, then I notice butterflies everywhere; lighting on peoples heads, amusing children, riding on the shoulders of fellow travelers, a visual manifestation of natures benediction.
Let your soul be sated
with the odd beauty of this landscape
that although the world scrolling through on your travels
you can never find anything like this
good and bad dynamic and changing
find here since your name
takes in your humble heart of man
truthful and consistent message
meditate and feel deep emotion
watching the vibrant paroxysm
eternal mists that is circled
and do not try to describe it with your voice
just leans his forehead against the abyss
which is the mirror of the word of God
- Alfonso Ricchiuto
Arriving back at the beginning and waiting for the bus, I sit in the shade under one of the caged fans that sprays a fine mist of water. Relieved in the oppressive heat, my thoughts meander to the German Romantic landscape painting movement and their desire to understand nature and by extension the divine? Casper David Friedrich was the leader of the movement and I was wondering what he might have made of the ‘devil’s throat’. A young woman tall and strong as a tree smiled as she moved towards me and the fan, she was by happenstance German. We got to talking, she knew nothing of Casper D Friedrich and was heading the next day with her little tent to the Amazon. She loved jungles and I resolved when I come back to South America next year I will go to the Amazon.