Thursday, May 20, 2010

La lingua

Today, I went with Ronaldo to the Portuguese language museum in a beautiful train station near downtown.

The museum was amazing and modern and a wet dream for grammar nerds. It features interactive exhibits about accents, common phrases, cliches, grammar and the evolution of the language. There's also a phenomenal video presentation in a room where the video surrounds visitors on all sides.

I couldn't understand all of the poetry and only a fraction of the exhibits I saw, but it was impressive all the same. I found the exhibit about the evolution of the language especially interesting.

It's crazy to me that this is a completely separate language and that when I hear it without listening to it, it almost sounds Asian, yet I'm able to understand so much of it. It's not just a cousin, but more like a brother to Spanish.

Before the museum, Ronaldo and I went to the Sao Paulo governor's palace and had a tour. Our guide took us and a Colombian man through the marble halls. She spoke only Portuguese, yet the Colombian man never seemed to have trouble following what she told us and I only had to ask Ronaldo for clarification a few times.

So many of the words are the same, though many are different. The way they're said, however, is different enough to make me feel like I'm on the other side of a mirror trying to make sense of backward Spanish.

I usually turn into a seemingly stupid mute any time I think I might be asked to communicate here.

When I was in Santiago, I had a week of incredibly interesting Spanish classes with Hernan, who talked to me about the evolution of language. He explained that the emperor of the territory that would later be known as Spain gave Portugal to his younger son as a wedding gift in 1100. The older son maintained control of the rest of the territory. That physical division, Hernan told me, would solidify the division in the language. He added that Spain is actually home to several different languages and you can't call it Spanish there without getting in trouble. It's Castellano, he said.

The museum today didn't argue that Spanish and Portuguese are any more closely related than Spanish and French.

I've enjoyed my time in Sao Paulo and I've seen it from angles I don't think most people do. Ronaldo took me around by car, by subway and by foot. He's seen several places during my visit that he'd never been to before. It's a huge, huge, sprawling city.

The food is great. I've had coxinha, a batter and fried chicken in soft dough, and pao de quejo, cheese bread. They are two of my favorites, along with acai (ah-say-ee), a sorbet made from a sort of dusty-tasting red fruit that Ronaldo said he's never seen in fruit form.

We leave early tomorrow morning on a flight to Lima, Peru with plans to see Machu Picchu and Bolivia. Yet another two-week bite out of this adventure.

I've loved my time here and my Portuguese experiment, but I do so look forward to again feeling competent and intelligent in a place where I can speak the language with relative confidence.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Off the beaten path

I have spent the last week going where few backpackers do.

Illa and I began her visit to South America with three days in one of the continent's most popular and awe-inspiring destinations -- Iguazu Falls. And then we left all of the other tourists in our dust.

We took a 10-hour overnight bus to Resestincia, Argentina, where Lonely Planet promised we would see hundreds of brilliant statutes nestled into a tiny little town and where we would be able to travel to a national park and ride horses through the marshlands to see caimans and colorful birds.

But alas, our faith in Lonely Planet should have waned the moment we drove into the city, which was not a tiny little town at all. We went to one of the hotels suggested in the book. It had changed its name to the Hotel Scrum. Again, we should have known better. We checked in, filling in our passport numbers at the hotel desk. Then we were taken up a dark stairwell with peeling paint and handed the keys to a dark little room with two bunk beds that took up so much of the space we couldn't really both be in the room at the same time unless one of us was in bed.

Just as Illa was about to take her clothes off for a shower, I looked over and spotted what looked like a herd of dead bugs laying on the white sheets. I had my shoes back on and tied before I'd finished saying we had to leave. I explained that I thought they were probably bed bugs and that we would look like lepers if we stayed. Illa agreed and we started readying our things. But then the complacent Americans in us said, "oh maybe they're not bed bugs. Maybe it's just dirt." There's something in us that hates to make a stink.

We examined the pile of bugs on my sheets then pulled back the covers on Illa's top bunk. As she squished something into the covers and said she wasn't sure if it was a dead bug or just dirt, something crawled past. But it was "just" a spider. "I think this is a bug," she said, smearing the dusty carcass of an insect into the sheet, "but I'm not sure if it's a bed bug."

Finally, we took a breath and realized that we were crazy. It didn't really matter what the nasty dirt/dead bugs were or if it was "just" a spider crawling through the bed, the place was terrible. The lady at the front desk didn't even protest when I told her we couldn't stay because of the bugs.

We showered under a dribble of hot water at our next hotel before setting out to see the sculptures. There are over 500 in the city, they told us at tourist information. They have a competition every four years where sculptors come from around the world to create works, which then stay in the city.

There's a red line we could follow through the city center for about two hours and see 150 statues. The line, however, faded in and out and we got lost here and there. Some of the sculptures were impressive and many were very artistic and interesting. Several depicted the beloved dog, Fernando.

Fernando, the dog, is credited as being one of the founding fathers of the town. He attended all of the most important events and meetings during the development of the area and was adored by all.

The city shuttered its windows and locked its doors every day from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. when everyone settled in for a siesta.

We got up before the sun on our second day in town because we wanted to explore the Chaco National Park, known, according to Lonely Planet, for its wildlife. The bus ride took about an hour longer than expected -- three in total. When we arrived, the man at the park administration building said there were no horses at all allowed in the park and that the only way to get to the isolated place was to walk another 5 kilometers or hire a taxi. Since we'd bought bus tickets to another town for that night, it turned out there was only one bus we could take back to town and it would leave two hours after we arrived.

We went across the street to a tiny grocery store where we bought the only premade thing they had, a roll filled half with ham and cheese and half with dulce de leche.

So we took a taxi (a 1980-something black car that shook while sitting still driven by a teenage boy)and walked around the longest trail in the park, which took 45 minutes. Before we set out, we opened the roll we bought at the store. It turned out to be a foam-like roll of dough without any of the filling pictured on the wrapper or listed in what turned out to be ingredients for recipes. Then we got back in the "taxi" and waited for the bus.

The same driver who dropped us off, picked us up again.

We finished the day with milanesa and ice cream before boarding a bus to Mercedes, Argentina in the state of Corrientes. We arrived to a hostel at about 11 p.m. We made arrangements with Graciela the next morning to take a trip into the Esteros del Iberá, a provincial park known for its exotic wildlife. Few travelers have ever heard of the park, which was created only 20 years ago.

We took a long rocky bus ride down a dirt road at 1 p.m. and arrived in the tiny town of Carlos Pelegrini. The roads through the town and around the edges of its central square were a soft red sand, giving the impression that one might be able to rub out the border of the park with a strong breeze.

We settled into one of the rooms at a house turned hotel, stuffed with five beds, and then set out on our first sightseeing excursion in the park. Ricardo guided a German girl named Theresa, Illa and me through the marshlands shortly before sunset.

It was an amazing boat ride. Ricardo slowed once we reached the grassy banks of one of the area's floating islands and pointed out a big black caiman. Once she knew what she was looking for, Illa pointed out dozens of others soaking up the sunlight and sitting still, just waiting for prey to pass within snapping distance. They conserve energy in the winter, moving little, Ricardo explained.

A few minutes later, we came upon a marsh deer moving smoothly through the grass in perfect late afternoon light. And just when we thought it couldn't get any better, we found a family of capybaras, the world's largest rodents. They're like rats twice the size of large dogs.

As we sped back toward shore, we all took turns snapping each others pictures in front of the brilliant purple sunset.

Ricardo explained that the town and the park hadn't been prepared for tourists. It was just a dusty little town in the middle of the blank planes of northeastern Argentina. There was nothing around for miles and miles and miles. But people had hunted the animals to near extinction and a group decided the area needed to be preserved and established a provincial park. It's Corrientes' only state park. Slowly, tourists have trickled in. Every year there are more and more people, Ricardo said.

The state sent tourism professionals and instructors to the town to train the 600 people living there to be guides and hotel owners and chefs and waiters, Ricardo said.

That night we walked up the sand street to another house turned restaurant and ordered from the oldest son/waiter. His mother prepared the food for us, we paid and went back to our room to read and go to bed early.

The next day, David took us on a walking tour through the jungle area, pointing out monkeys in the trees. There are 12 different types of monkeys in the area, he said.

And, at last we got to ride horses. Illa and I trotted through the grass lands outside of the town, looking at colorful birds and giant ant hills. Our guide, Carlos, said the ants dig up the earth to get to the nutrient rich soil below, serving as natural rototillers. The field was once used to grow rice, which is what his father did for a living--worked in the rice fields outside of town. Carlos had worked there too. But there hadn't been much rice production in the area in recent years because prices were too low.

But prices have risen and he said the people will probably plant new rice fields again this year. In the meantime, the town had changed. He is only 24, but remembers that since he started working there was no work for women in the town. And now that the tourists are coming, there's more work for women than there is for men.

After our horse ride, we showered and then loaded into Hugo's truck. Hugo provides transportation for tourists and had taken us all over town already. Now he carried Maider from California, Illa and me two and a half hours down dirt roads to Virasoro where we would catch a night bus back to Iguazu.

We had to arrive before 8 p.m. to get our tickets though the bus didn't leave until 1:30 a.m. We wandered around the town and stopped at the cultural center. We asked if there was anything interesting there for tourists and Maria walked us down the street and opened the town's little history museum just for us. She gave a us a private tour of the tiny space, showing us relics from the Guarani people. She opened a glass case, picked up a hatchet and handed it to us to hold. It came from about 1100 BC, she said.

The Guarani are the only prehistoric civilization still thriving. There are many Guarani in northern Argentina and Paraguay.

We finished our long layover with an exquisite Argentinian barbecue.

I left Illa at the airport in Iguazu and boarded a bus to Sao Paulo, Brazil. I was the only backpacker on the bus.

Now I'm exploring this city with my friend Ronaldo who lives here. We met in Buenos Aires and he invited me. It's an incredibly huge city with buildings and buildings as far as the eye can see. But it's still not a common tourist destination.

We're off to Peru together on Friday.