Lions and tigers and badgers, oh my!
The language coming out of people’s faces here sounds like a mouthful of Walkers crisps. At first I am flummoxed by it, uncomprehending and a little alarmed. How will we get around now? I think while a woman spouts incomprehensible, crunchy sounds me at me. Gradually though, it begins to make a little sense and I even try it myself.
Bom noit! Rua Do Oriente, Santa Teresa….por…favour…..
I say haltingly to the taxi driver. It’s not pronounced right and half of it’s in Spanish but it seems I have made myself understood.
Boa NoiCHE….Rua Do OrienCHE?
The driver asks, pronouncing his T’s like a handful of gravel.
I reply, knowing vaguely that ‘si’ has an M on the end of it here but not if one should pronounce said ‘M’.
Rua Do Orienche, Sancha Teryesa
The driver says in to his phone.Voice recognition on the GPS app finds the address and whisks us away from the airport, across a long bridge and in to the city of Rio De Janeiro. We pass by the usual concrete blocks and city centre sights until the car turns off from the main road and begins an almost vertical ascent up a cobbled villagey looking road. The darkened streets are lined with tumbling bougainvillea and the little windows of the old houses are lit with various theatrical looking and homely scenes in the cosy dark. It’s like we have suddenly veered in to an old hilltop town but with arty looking graffiti on the walls and tramlines coursing the road. We turn again and the road, incredibly, steepens further and I am sure the driver will stop the car and ask us to walk but he doesn’t. He puts the car in to first gear and floors the accelerator. We bump and clatter with a high whine up in to a small square lined with busy bars. Finally, a further left turn and we arrive at what is apparently our destination though there is no sign to announce the entrance way to Casa De Wanderley.
Outside the night air is a hot, damp high tog duvet and the darkness shivers with the sound of cicadas in the trees. We heave our bags from the boot of the car and say our thanks to the driver,
We say in unison and it seems we haven’t universally got a handle on this peculiar language yet. We can’t work out whether you use the masculine version of ‘thank you’ if you are a man or if you are addressing it to a man. What happens if you are a woman speaking to a man? And what about a woman speaking to a woman? Jamie, in the confusion, just settles for Spanish instead.
After ringing a doorbell marked only with a number, a tall, bearded man of about fifty five appears and welcomes in to what is actually his house. Casa De Wanderley, Wanderley’s House. Wanderley is clearly a literal man. He is also an artist and the house is bristling with beautiful pieces of art hung in every available space. We are shown in to our respective rooms in a fruit salad of languages and then he retires rangily to his sitting room to watch some television. Hanging from the ceiling and walls are a profusion of delicately made, wooden sculptures serving as lampshades, pictures or simply objets d’art. The room is drowsy with heat and I switch on both fans and open the window. Zika virus has been parading its way throughout Latin America though particularly here in Brazil and we are all a little paranoid about open windows. Fortunately we have plenty of DEET and we slather it stinkily on to our flesh and, having settled in, head down to the little square we past in the taxi, glistening lightly.
The bar is the kind of place everyone should be immediately placed in upon arrival in a new country. Open on all sides to allow the languid scent of jasmine to breeze in, bustling with people and serving beer so cold it tinkles with ice in your mouth, it’s really a wonderful place to start. We are quickly made at home by the waiter who recognises our wide eyed gazing and begins in English.
You want some beer? Ok I’ll bring you beer. And you should try our pizzas too…really good.
We nod enthusiastically to everything he says and are repeatedly brought bottles of the aptly named Antarctica beer and an enormous pizza which sizzles atop a red hot stone, straight from the oven.
We say when the pizza arrives and then slice off tiny, burning corners of the pizza, cooling our mouths with the icy beer and calling for more when it vanishes rather suddenly down our gullets. The interior of the bar is full of interesting things hanging from the ceiling and lovely old wooden drawers lining the walls. Every table is full of laughing, chattering people shrouded in the dim, warm light of the place and our windowside, magically free table seems like a small miracle.
Carnival is due to begin in a few days so the bar, for tonight anyway, is full of tourists. Throughout the city, there are floats parked in the street being prepared, stadia crawling with workmen frantically readying the place for the coming extravaganza. Tomorrow we are due to head to the Iguassu falls which span the Brazilian and Argentine border some 1500km South West of Rio. We will return after three days to new accommodation near Copacabana Beach so the evening we have here in Santa Theresa glows with the sort of heightened conviviality of such brief encounters.
I wake the next morning, tongue festooned with tiny blisters from the superheated pizza. Joining Suzie, David and Jamie in the breakfast room is a memorable occasion with the views from the windows one of cartoon pretty, steep sided hills jostling with leafy trees and aged mansions. We feast on Wanderley’s homemade guava and rosemary jam then settle in to a slow, rolling walk through the streets of Santa Theresa. Though it is only 10.30, the prickling, throbbing heat soon gets the better of us and we dive in to a small, unmarked corner shop to sit in the relief of a plastic table and plenty of shade. The owner, a short, grey haired man of immediately likeable disposition, cheerfully brings us more icy cold Antarctica beers, each zipped in to a branded neoprene jacket to keep it cool.
This is a pastime at which I excel but Jamie and his family are useless at sitting still and, despite the unbearable heat, they decide it’s time to move on after only half an hour. Reluctantly I thank the shop owner and we trundle back out in to the sunshine and begin a sweaty hike down some mosaiced steps and through Centro to hail the taxi which will take us to the airport.
I joke with the taxi driver at the departures drop off point, thanking him for an excellent Portuguese lesson and apologising for my Espanoguese, a weird sounding mishmash of Spanish, a few real Portuguese words and many made up ones. He waves us off, smiling and it is not long before we are cruising high above Rio on a flight to Aeroporto Internacional de Foz do Iguaçu Cataratas. It is a tiny plane, a little like having a private jet, and we bump down on to the runway feeling important. The place is quiet and we follow the other tourists in to the main building where we are waved lazily through the building. Outside, another taxi is waiting to sweep us in to Argentina to our apartment in Puerto Iguazu.
Puerto Iguazu seems to exist solely for the benefit of tourists who are in the area to visit the waterfalls for which the area is famous. The shops are universally selling crappy souvenirs, the likes of which could be bought in any shop anywhere. The only exception are the rather wonderful leather and gourd cups from which Argentinians mainline mate tea through elegant metal straws day and night. That evening, after a fruitless search for rotisserie chicken upon which one can dine well and for virtually no money across all of South America, I listlessly order a pizza and then press my nose against a souvenir shop window debating a mate cup purchase.
I don’t buy a cup in the end, although for reasons not even known to myself, I do buy a cotton bag full of mate which, from past experience I know full well I don’t like. Perhaps I am tired. Certainly when I pick up the pizzas it takes some weary effort to slope back to our apartment where the other three are eagerly waiting with beers at the ready. We sit around the breakfast bar and quietly consume both pizzas within moments. By ten I can barely keep my eyes open and we are all sound asleep by half past.
It is already steamy hot when we leave the apartment the next morning. We bid the small, rather anxious dog who hangs out outside the communal kitchen adieu and leap in to the nearest taxi. The driver quizzes me relentlessly about the native wild animals of Britain.
You have lions? We have lions.
I’m not sure this is strictly true of Argentina but I don’t say that,
No, we don’t have lions in Britain, we only have badgers.
He thinks about this for a moment.
What about monkeys? Do you have monkeys?
Nope, just badgers….and mice
I reply. He points to a road sign bearing the silhouette of a long nosed, short legged mammal I don’t recognise.
Do you have them?
No…but we have….erm…….cows?
I reply, wondering where all the animals in Britain went. He nods.
No lions then?
No….the biggest predator is the badger….you know, it’s a small country….small and green and…brown…
I reply stupidly. He ruffles his brow slightly like he can’t imagine such a beastless desert and cheerfully drops us off at the entrance to Jurassic Park. It’s not Jurassic Park of course, it’s the Iguaçu Falls or Iguazu falls depending on which country you’re in. Since we’re in Argentina, let’s stick with Iguazu. The falls are an enormous tourist destination and thus, money has been poured upon the place like honey over Cleopatra. Beautifully paved yellow brick roads lead us beyond the ticket gates to a world of Disney styled shops and neatly arrowed signs herding us towards the waters.
At this point I am feeling hot and bothered, rather underwhelmed by this rather plastic experience. I don’t like following the crowd and am usually the one to be found in the bit that no one else is interested in, avoiding people. We turn the corner where the path widens and a crowd is standing gazing at a wall and smiling. My sour mood immediately lifts when I spot the attraction. Clambering sturdily over a low wall and filtering through the thrilled tourists legs are the creatures from the sign post I couldn’t identify earlier. They have the low, furry slink of a well fed cat, the ringed tail of a racoon, long, snorty noses and the paws of a badger. They waddle about ceaselessly bribing food from the rapt crowds followed by small, golden brown babies whose baby fluff melts hearts and loosens bread from picnics.
These are coati or hog-nosed coons. Despite signs all over the park instructing tourists never to feed the wildlife, the coati are rampant thieves and use their soft, wide eyed gaze to maximum effect with snack loaded tourists. Hot, sweaty and exhausted, Jamie and I will later sit heavily down in one of the many onsite cafes where eager coati will at once appear. Though there are plastic bottled strapped to sticks for the shoving of coatis leant against the tables, I will unwisely use a baguette which will leave us with a smaller sandwich and one particularly persistent coati, very much less hungry.
When Jamie has finally torn me away from this first encounter with these twinkly, tenacious little animals we will encounter huge amounts more fantastic creatures throughout the day. There are bright blue butterflies who will ride on my finger dabbing politely at the sweat on my skin, monkeys skittering through the canopy above us, wide-eyed, clotted cream bellied birds and turtles bobbing in the river. In the jungles around us are jaguars, toucans, tapir and parrots. The place is positively humming with life. And of course noise. The people chatter almost constantly but the sound of them is a dim hum beneath the great walloping crash of the waterfalls. These falls are massive. On average, 1500 cubic metres of water flows over the 275 waterfalls though that can rise to as much as 13,000 cubic metres. They really are quite big.
We first catch sight of them as we amble along a rather lovely boardwalk which funnels sightseers in to safety and along the more spectacular routes. The trees suddenly part and in front of us is nothing short of a landscape painting of paradise. John Constable would love it, he’d never leave. Great, tumbling swathes of water, staggered back from one another and cleaved apart by the yellow rock faces recede in to the distance. Great classical looking cloaks of canopy cling to every horizontal surface and the green river far below us slides attractively around a beachy, t-rexy island. Everyone stops and says
For a moment and then the photography starts. There has never been a group of people with more photos of the Iguazu Falls. It simply wouldn’t be possible. I focus on the haloes the light refracting though the shallows makes around my shadow. Jamie snaps big, papery butterflies, Suzie takes a thousand for each of us crossing the bridges. David just stands and gazes at his surroundings. He has wanted to come here a long time and he isn’t wasting time with the camera.
I realise quite quickly though that I am reaching the end of my sightseeing tolerance. The picture before me is magnificent, no other words will do it justice. Although I can see this and recognise it, it’s not really sinking in. Such an enormous quantity of wonderful things from the last nine months of travel crowd together in my brain that this kind of landscape is starting to look normal. I believe this is commonly called Temple Fatigue when one is gadding about in Thailand or India. Here you get vast landscape fatigue. It’s also hot, extremely hot and sticky and we take any opportunity to bathe ourselves in the billowing spray kicked back by the bigger falls. Suzie and David take a boat ride in the river and come back with wide eyes and drenched hair, insisting we take the ride ourselves. The place is totally overwhelming though, and we decline politely, preferring instead to sit on the numerous benches fending off coatis and quietly gazing about the place.
By five o’clock we are exhausted. We take a long, hot boardwalk over the wide shallows of the river towards the Devil’s Throat, a narrow chasm over which almost half of the water at the site flows over. It is by far the most powerful fall of the lot. The sun is relentless and the are sticky crowds tacked on to every available piece of fence when we get there. I am feeling itchy and annoyed and my head feels like a pot of boiling jam.
Urgh, more waterfalls
Says my brain, irritably. Then I get to the front and vast landscape fatigue or no, I am impressed. Such is the power of the water that the view to Brazil on the other side of the river is almost completely obscured by rising spray. The water is solid looking, a mass of churning, furious energy pouring over the lip of the chasm and hurtling down in to a thick mist. I watch as the great ribbonous river is sucked towards it and am mesmerised by the inevitability of it. There’s absolutely no turning back once you’re headed towards the Devil’s Throat.
I peek under the wooden boardwalk to watch burbling streamlets of water trundling over the rocks from the shallows and vanish in suprise over the gaping edge. I watch the groups of tourists take photos of one another, teeth gleaming in the sunshine. I am wedged in to my own photo by Suzie who is grinning from ear to ear and eventually, overcome by the intensity of the sun, I head back towards dry land.
The shadows are growing longer and the colours more intense and when I return to the beginning of the boardwalk, I stand under the cold showers provided for the tourists glorying in the chilly water and watching as clouds of butterflies lift and swirl amongst the puddles. Jamie appears soon after and finally, Suzie and David wander back. We stand in the station waiting for the embarrasing little train to take us back to the entrance, watching as a lone coati plays the crowds and narrowly avoids being run over when the train finally arrives.
There are hosts of long, curling orchids pushing from the undergrowth on the way back and a much appreciated breeze washes over us. We are unloaded at the main station and reloaded again thirty minutes later and eventually we are dropped off at the gates for a wobble legged hunt for a taxi. Tomorrow, Jamie and I will languish in the cool of the apartment reading books while Suzie and David head to the Brazilian side of the falls in the slopping rain but tonight, there is just time for some icey cold glasses of white wine and a beer or two before no one can keep their eyes open a moment longer.