Saturday, December 18, 2010

Iguazu Falls

Traveling north from Buenos Aires by plane, we visited the incredible Iguazu Falls.  You've likely seen these Falls in films including, for example, The Mission or Indian Jones and the Crystal Skull.  When Eleanor Roosevelt saw the Falls, she is said to have observed, "Poor Niagara!".  To put these Falls in perspective, here are some statistics culled from Wikpedia:

                      Iguazu Falls                  Victoria Falls                               Niagara Falls

Height              270 ft                           360 ft                                            167 ft

Width             8,800 ft                        5,600 ft                                          3,900 ft

Having been blessed to see all three waterfalls, the question is which is the most impressive?  Although I have a soft spot in my heart for Niagara--my parents honeymooned there--it ranks third of the three.  As to Iguazu and Victoria, that is a tough call.  They are very different waterfalls.  Victoria is the largest curtain of water in the world whereas Iguazu is a series of 275 waterfalls punctuated by verdant islands.  Linda and I agree on the winner: Iguazu.  As astonishing as the Victoria Falls are, the sheer number of waterfalls at Iguazu, ranging from mammoth torrents of water to delicate streams gently flowing over walls of green, challenge the senses.  We felt as though are necks were on pivots as we struggled to take everything in.

We stayed at the Sheraton Iguazu, the only hotel in the park itself, and had a view of the Falls from our balcony.  We enjoyed a martini before dinner and it was the best we had in Argentina.  Like their European counterparts, Argentine bartenders tend to use too much vermouth.  I complimented the Sheraton bartender and asked him where he had learned to make such an excellent martini.  His answer:  "Robert DeNiro showed me."  He explained that when DeNiro was filming The Mission, he stayed at the Sheraton and taught the bartender to make a martini exactly the way he liked it.  I've always enjoyed DeNiro's acting, and now thank him for making our stay at Iguazu even more enjoyable.

The largest cataract is called the Devil's Throat--note the similarity of the name to the Devil's Pool at Victoria.  Note to traveler: if an attraction has the word 'Devil' in it, ask a lot of questions about exactly what you are getting into.  To reach the Devil's Throat, you walk along a steel catwalk all the way across the river until you are on a platform perched above the water just before in plummets over the precipice.  The view, above the roar of the rushing water and the cold spray that licks at you, is frightening as you try and comprehend the power generated by the raging torrent.  Your imagination is helped by the remnants of a prior catwalk that was destroyed when the river flooded.


We left the cataract and took a truck along a bumpy road through the forest to the bank of the river.  There, we boarded a boat and went for an exhilarating ride to view the Falls, including up-close adventures when we curled against some of the massive walls of water as they tore into the river and everyone aboard became absolutely soaked.  All of it was great fun until the boat dropped us off and we were faced with a climb of several hundred feet.  Despite the beautiful scenery, hiking uphill in the heat and humidity was not fun.  Linda shot me several looks, along with comments I won't repeat here, and I knew that a trip to a jewelry store was in my immediate future. 

On our final day at Iguazu, I took a cab across the river to view the Falls from Brazil.  Linda opted to stay at the pool and relax, although she needed to be cautious because of an outbreak of Dengue fever--spread by mosquitoes--in nearby Paraguay.  I was not disappointed that I'd taken the trip, because the Brazilian view is very different from, but equally astonishing, as the panorama from the Argentine side.  Particularly noteworthy was a walkway to the base of the Devil's Throat.  As you stand and gaze up at the sheer immensity of the wall of water crashing down so nearby it literally takes your breath away.  An experience well worth the spray of water that soaks you; a sheen of mist that you stand and tolerate because you don't want to leave.

The taxi driver offered to take me on a side trip to Paraguay on the way back, but I declined.  Not only did I want to get back to Linda, but I did not have a visa to visit Paraguay.  When I explained to the driver about my lack of a visa, he laughed and said that Paraguay is too poor a country to patrol its borders.  He assured my that no papers would be needed but I nevertheless declined.  With my luck, I worried that I'd be intercepted and spend some time in a Paraguayan jail cell--not my idea of a good time.  I subsequently learned that the triangle where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay converge is, indeed, a haven for smugglers, criminals, and even Middle Eastern terrorist groups.  The jungle makes it difficult to patrol and the borders are consequently porous. 

On our final night, Linda and I had dinner at a lively restaurant in town, complete with dancing and music.  The steak was outstanding and grilled tableside.  Back at the hotel, we gazed through a clear sky to see the Southern Cross constellation and capped the evening with a nightcap in the bar.  We toasted Mr. DeNiro and looked forward to our departure in the morning and our journey onward to Uruguay.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Buenos Aires

Almost a third of the Argentine population live in or around Buenos Aires, a truly fascinating metropolis.  We stayed at the Alvear Palace Hotel in the upscale Recoleta neighborhood.   The storied Hotel, always ranked amongst the best in South America, did not disappoint.  The elegant marble-floored lobby and mirrored bar were beautiful, the service was great, and the French restaurant was outstanding.  The Hotel also served as a perfect spot for a special reunion with an old friend, Ernesto, who traveled with his lovely wife, Roseanne, to meet us in Buenos Aires. 

I had met Ernesto on my first trip to Argentina and having the opportunity to see him again--more than 25 years later--was a real treat.  Not only did we have the chance to catch up personally, but they showed us all around town and we saw things we would never have seen if we were touring alone.  We dined at Ernesto's favorite steakhouse, along the river in the Puerto Madero neighborhood, toured the city to view some of the architecturally impressive government buildings, and circled the massive Teatro Colon.  Closed for renovation at the time, the Teatro Colon is one of the world's foremost opera houses and evidence of Buenos Aires' European influence is nowhere more striking. 

A word about those steaks--the rumors about Argentine beef are true.  I'm told that the tenderness and rich flavor stem from the fact that the cattle are grass-fed, primarily in the vast Pampas.  I can certainly vouch for the taste and understand why Argentines consume an incredible amount of beef each year.  A popular custom, and one I've personally enjoyed, is the asado.  The only way I can describe it is as a barbecue on steroids.  The meal begins around noon with wine and the first course of meat, usually sausages and intestine.  Ribs will follow later, after more wine, then other cuts of beef.  The meal will culminate, late afternoon, in steaks of various cuts and more wine.  All of this is accompanied by salad and, usually, potatoes.  Following the meal, everyone stays and converses for a while.  All in all, not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Ernesto's beautiful daughter, Gabriella, and her fiance joined us for dinner a second night and we visited a tango hall where Ernesto's father had taken him years before.  The atmosphere was great: an old wooden building, high ceiling, columns, and dim lighting.  The show was spectacular, a series of exhibitions by skilled dancers in colorful costumes displaying many facets of the tango.  They moved with grace and seemed to glide through the spotlights, embracing the shadows in the corners of the stage, then whirling once more into the light.  Linda and I were so impressed that we vowed to put our Cleveland tango lessons to use and visit a milongra, a traditional tango hall, and dance the tango together in Buenos Aires.  But that, my friends, will be another entry...

Saturday, December 11, 2010


I've visited Argentina twice, the first trip in 1982 and the second, with Linda, two years ago.  Both trips were great and gave me the opportunity to learn a great deal about the culture.  The 1982 trip was in many respects a unique opportunity.  I traveled as a member of a Rotary International Group Study Exchange team which, at that time, meant I'd spend six weeks in Argentina with other young professionals. We would be hosted by families in Argentina and have the opportunity to meet professional counterparts in that country.  Because of my one semester of college Spanish, I was the third 'best' Spanish speaker which meant I stayed in homes that spoke little or no English.  To this day, I can fumble through in Spanish because of the nights spent with kind people who encouraged my efforts to communicate. Those efforts were facilitated, I might add, by generous portions of fine Argentine wines--and more on that later.  To top off what was an extraordinary trip by any measure, Argentina declared war on England over the Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas) only three weeks into our journey. 

By way of background, Argentina is the eighth largest country, by land mass, in the world and stretches from the frigid Patagonian realm of glaciers and tundra in the south to a subtropical northern climate.  Around the turn of the century, Argentina had one of the world's most powerful economies--probably in the top five--and was attractive to immigrants from around the world, but particularly Europe.  Indeed, more than 86% of the population is of European descent.  The largest ethnic group in the country are the Italians, and Buenos Aires is often referred to as the Paris of South American due to the European flavor of its architecture.

The economy, however, sputtered after World War II and remains problematic even today.  During our 1982 visit, inflation was over 1,000%.  No one saved money because it made much more sense to buy something, anything, before the currency further declined.  Today, Argentines will gaze wistfully at the stunning buildings in Buenos Aires and observe that they "built monuments for the empire that never arrived."

The stalled economy is what really gave rise to the Falklands War.  Although Argentina has long claimed the islands--tiny, windswept islands that, at the time, were home to sheep farmers of British descent--the controversy had remained diplomatic.  However, labor strikes were held nationwide in 1982 and became violent, with over 12 deaths nationally.  We witnessed a strike in Rosario, one of the largest cities in the country, and observed a tense confrontation between the strikers and a military force armed with submachine guns.  Not my idea of a pleasant afternoon.

Three days later, the military junta announced that they had ordered an invasion of the Falklands.  Everyone knew, and our hosts privately admitted, that the invasion was done to distract the nation's attention from the disastrous state of the economy.  Initial euphoria over the invasion soon disappeared when ill-prepared young Argentine soldiers, some with only weeks of training, faced combat against crack British troops, including a regiment of Gurka warriors.  The end result was a humiliating defeat for Argentina.  The silver lining, however, was the resignation of the military the very next year and, since then, the country has enjoyed a series of democratic elections. 

One other note before I close this post.  There was a significant guerrilla movement in Argentina in the 70's and 80's and the military government cracked down.  Many perceived leftists were arrested and simply disappeared.  We spoke with one man who had lived with his wife, their son, and daughter-in-law.  His son and daughter-in-law had just had their first child.  One night, masked men broke in and led his son and daughter-in-law away.  He never saw them again.  He pointed across the ground at his granddaughter, now being raised by the gentleman and his wife, and said, "She's all we have to remember them by."

The so-called 'Dirty War' was viewed, at the time, by many Argentines as necessary.  Subsequently, however, when the extent of the atrocities committed by the government came to light--torture, throwing live captives from helicopters hovering over the Atlantic--the people were outraged.  The days of military rule are not fondly remembered. 

Under the circumstances--including the fact that America sided with England during the war--we were treated royally by our Argentine hosts.  I hope in coming posts to share what I can of a fascinating culture, the bond of drinking mate, and the sensual movements of the dance called the Tango.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

From Japan to Argentina and memories of dulce de leche

I am finally adjusting to the time change between Tokyo and Cleveland; a doctor friend of mine told me it takes one day for every hour that is different before you recover fully.  Tokyo was such a whirlwind of experiences that I've enjoyed reflecting on the memories of such  a unique country.  The incredible sense of order and politeness--one rarely hears a car horn, even in Tokyo--is juxtaposed against a blur of modern architecture and a kaleidoscope of glaring lights.  The absence of diversity in the people is striking to a Westerner accustomed to people of varying size and color.  To the Japanese, diversity seems to manifest itself more in the differences between people based upon station in life.  The language used to address another, the depth and duration of a bow, all signify that everyone is not the same.  These differences appear baffling to an outsider.  I spoke with an American who has lived in Japan for fifteen years and he still does not fully comprehend the bowing ritual.  Perhaps it is these mysteries of the Japanese which would lure me to visit the country again.  Not just the sake, not just the food, not just the incredible hospitality, but the sense that coming to understand Japan is like unpeeling layers, each time revealing and knowing a little bit more. 

Our next entry will focus on our trip to Argentina, in part because I want to contrast our impressions of Victoria Falls with our thoughts of Iguazu Falls, on the Argentine/Brazilian border.  While Angel Falls in Venezuela is the tallest waterfall in the world, Victoria and Iguazu vie for most spectacular and, by volume, the largest. 

As a lead-in to Argentina there is a terrific spread they make there called dulce de leche.  It is now available at some speciality food stores in the U.S. and, if you haven't tried it, I highly recommend that you pick some up.  Legend claims that it originated in 1829 when a general's servant accidentally left a mixture of sugar and milk on the stove.  A daring soldier tasted the dark brown paste that remained and a legend was born.  Today, dulce de leche is ubiquitous throughout Argentina and some estimate the average national consumption at five pounds annually.  To enjoy dulce de leche like an Argentine, sample it in the morning melted atop warm toast, or as an afternoon snack encased in milk chocolate.  Drizzle some over ice cream after dinner.  With none of the cloying stickiness of peanut butter, only the sweet caramel taste will linger, creamy and delicious, before melting away.  The memory of it won't so easily disappear.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Surviving Fugu, Ginza, a German Beer Hall, and a long night in Tokyo

Our return from Nikko was uneventful, save for a ride on the bullet train from Utsunomiya into Tokyo.  The Japanese trains are clean and on time, and the bullet train rocketed through the countryside and dropped us downtown in no time at all.  We returned to the Hyatt to prepare for dinner at a restaurant specializing in the traditional preparation of Fugu, or puffer fish.  The fish has a neurotoxin in its system and, if prepared improperly, can result in what witnesses describe as a painful-looking death.  There are no first hand accounts because no one has ever survived a dose of this lethal little problem.

Hunter and I were given our own small room for the dinner, and a waiter who spoke some English took care of the meal.  He wore a kimono and helpfully explained each course and how it should be consumed.  The first course was Fugu sashimi accompanied by a mound of thin shreds of Fugu skin, served with red and green peppers, soy sauce with vinegar, and salt.  The taste of the sashimi was mild and the texture slightly firm.

The second course consisted of seaweed boiled in water with fresh chunks of Fugu added to the roil.  A thick foam appeared atop the water and was scooped away by the waiter.  He then added leek, Chinese cabbage, and mushroom to the mix.  The meat, sliced about three-quarters of an inch thick, had been cut so that it was still attached to the spine.  We were given a bowl for bones and dug in.  The taste and texture reminded me of monkfish.  My mouth and lips did not experience any tingling sensation, contrary to reports I had heard of what to expect.

The third course was prepared when bean curd and rice noodles were added to the broth with the remaining fish.  Some quarter-sized remnants of skin remained on a few of the fish pieces and we liked neither the taste nor texture.  It seemed like I was chewing on a piece of rubber flavored with fish oil.

The final course was prepared when rice was added to the now-fishless broth.  A shot of sake was poured in, together with salt, a sticky rice cake, and egg yolk.  The mixture thickened and was ladled into a bowl, then topped with sprinkled leeks and a bit of soy sauce.  The concoction had the rich taste of egg with the tang of soy.

Our final conclusion:  an enjoyable experience, but not one to try a second time.  Monkfish will do quite nicely, thank you, and without that pesky threat of lingering neurotoxins.

The next day, Saturday, we went to the Sensoji Temple and the warren of shops jammed into the nearby Nakamise bazaar.  We had visited this complex on a prior trip, but that had been during the week and in the morning.  I had no idea that a weekend would bring out a crowd that was literally shoulder-to-shoulder for blocks on end or, given our height, more like shoulder-to-rib cage for Hunter and me.  We moved with the herd for a while, but decided to retreat to Ginza for lunch and shopping.  Our lunch stop was a treat:  The Lion Beer Hall.

Built sometime in the 1930's, the Lion Beer Hall is a Tokyo institution that was built to resemble an European style beer garden.  We ate on the third of three stories for the Lion, enjoying pints of Japanese beer served in unique boot-shaped mugs.  Dark wood paneling was the order of the day, with a large central dining area surrounded by private rooms.  We learned that the Lion had needed to be relocated approximately 15 years ago and was dismantled and reconstructed, piece by piece, at its current location. 

We visited a few of the high-end shops in Ginza, amazed at its resemblance to New York's Fifth Avenue, and returned to the hotel to await our second night on the town with the good people from Bespoke Tokyo.

Our first host from Bespoke, Charlie, was not feeling well and sent his associate, Hikari, to escort us for another night on the town.  Hikari, a Japanese-American who has now lived in Tokyo for several years, was a terrific host.  We visited some extremely unique bars, including one modeled on an European cafe and specializing in absinthe. The food all night was great, including platters of terrific sashimi and a variety of succulent yakitori.  Cold sake flowed freely, as did the time, and we ended the evening in a late-night noodle establishment debating the structure and ethics of the current world order.  Before the evening drew to a close we had solved most, if not all, of the world's problems. 

We depart tomorrow for the states and, while certainly ready to return to Cleveland, I value the time spent in Japan.  I'll reflect on what has been seen, what has been learned, and write a final post when we're back in the blur of snow and the comforts of home.