Wild Kingdom

All my life, I have wanted to see a capybara, the world’s largest rodent, if by “all my life” I mean “since last February.” The largest known capybara, found in Brazil, weighed 201 pounds. The capybara, the world’s largest rodent, is found only in the wetlands of eastern South America. When we were planning our trip to Argentina, and some people wableted to spend more time in Patagonia (where the glaciers, sadly, are tiny, even contemptible), I protested. “What’s the point of going to South America if we can’t see capybaras, the world’s largest rodent?” I may have shouted.

Did this story have a happy ending? Why yes:

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The author with rodents

I was afraid that capybaras, the world’s largest rodent, would be shy or nocturnal; they were neither. They hung around by trails and houses and overpriced tourist lodges, sometimes crossing the road in packs, causing drivers to swerve and curse. They could theoretically leap on a human and gnaw him to death with their tiny teeth.

But they eat grass and reeds. Though they are the world’s largest rodent, a cousin of the common guinea pig, they are not dangerous. Indeed, they are cuter than all get-out. Again, the capybara:

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The world’s largest rodent

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We saw a caiman outside our room, getting warm in the morning sun. It looked a little goofy, and we may have giggled. Let’s say we did giggle. A caiman is a close relative of the alligator, although it looks more like a crocodile. They eat small mammals, and parts of large mammals if the mammals dangle their feet in the water.

That evening, roaming along the edge of the lagoon, we saw the caiman again. I swear it was the same caiman; it had that look. It was hunting, its little beady eyes gliding slowly through the water. The eyes fixed on me. This is the only known photograph of the caiman using its predatory instincts to entrap me with its fearsome jaws:

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Note beady eyes, alarmed bird

Just as the last gleaming rays of twilight darkened, the caiman came on land near my feet. My wife was there; she can attest to the truth of that statement. Unfortunately, she had left before the caiman lunged at me. I beat him off with my binoculars, but still he kept coming. Caimans are prideful animals; I am certain this one was enraged by my insulting chortling earlier that day.

The wild beast grabbed me by my elbow and almost swallowed my arm. I felt his vile stomach juices lapping at my fingertips. Grabbing his massive hind leg, I flipped him over; his great tail knocked me to the ground. He grabbed me again and pulled me into the water. My eyes were misting over, and I saw as long tunnel with a bright light shining at the end. As his jaws closed on my head, I pressed my thumbs against the soft underside of his throat. Enraged and injured, he released my head and, with a anguished scream, disappeared into the inky blackness from which he came.

Exhausted, I climbed to my feet just as my wife returned. “There you are,” she said.

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The place where we’re seeing all this wildlife is the Argentinian town of Carlos Pellegrini, a village in the middle of the Ibera wetlands. It’s got 350 different varieties of bird life; you’ve got your screamers and your flycatchers and your strange-tailed tyrants, which look like an ordinary perching bird with a pigeon feather stuck up its butt. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this.

Carlos Pellegrini is an astonishing place, a sleepy village with wildlife everywhere. Bird geeks know about it, but it’s hard to get to, a three-hour drive down a rutted dirt road impassable when it rains, which it does, a lot. But wait; that road is being paved. Expect the tour buses to start up in 2019. So if you want a kind of paradise, make plans now.

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Carlos Pelligrini, right now but not forever

Of course, the overnight bus to Mercedes is not for everyone, and the food in Carlos Pellegrini is universally sub-par, and I’m being kind. But it is possible for a human being to live on bananas and croissants, which are ubiquitous in Argentina for uncertain reasons. Chance of a lifetime; act now.

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There are two myths about Argentina, promulgated by way too many travel websites and books.

First myth: People in Argentina eat at midnight; at 8 p.m. restaurants are dead, maybe not even open. Nope. It’s certainly true that some Argentinians, mostly young people, eat at 11 or later, but I went out to dinner at various spots in Buenos Aires (including the famous and yummy Cafe San Juan), and I got there between eight and nine, and the places were jumping. Maybe there were a few tourists there, but it was mostly Argentinians, speaking Spanish like mad and making exclamation points in the air. So do not be afraid, and eat when you please.

Second myth: It is not necessary to tip in Argentina. Nope. My pal Beatrice speculates that this idea came about because waiters and cab drivers make a decent living and do not depend on tips to keep them out of poverty. Nevertheless, a 10-15 percent tip is polite, and more if the service has been particularly fine. And, of course, nothing if there’s been a problem, like a two-hour wait for food or a five hundred dollar cab ride from the airport.

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Taking the bus in Buenos Aires is big fun. For one thing, the buses run frequently. And they’re cheap (use a SUBE card). It’s five pesos one way; 15 pesos to the dollar; you do the math. People are polite; they offer to give up their seats to old people, and they often wave old people to the front of the line.

As an old person, I find that habit charming. I wish I could convey that message to the manspreaders on BART, but for the moment I’ll just keep yelling, “give me a seat, you grotesque cretin,” which often works. Old people do grumpy pretty darned well.

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He’s got one arm and he’s standing on a rock neat a sinking ship; you tell me.

We took the bus to La Recoleta Cemetery, the last resting place of hundreds of Argentinian dignitaries. I’ve been to Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and I enjoyed seeing the graves of famous people (Balzac, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison), but it’s small potatoes compared to Recoleta, where the monuments are large, ornate and occasionally crumbling.

Some of the crypts feature windows, through which can be seen caskets, pious statuary, staircases and, occasionally, litter, grass and broken bits of marble. The only internationally famous person buried there is Evita, Eva Peron, who is buried in the relatively modest Duarte family plot. It’s down a narrow passageway, and is often visited by mobs of schoolchildren all with cameras.

And there are, of course, selfie sticks:

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Perhaps he’s taking a picture of himself reading a document

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This is my last post from Argentina. I’m in Patagonia now, listening to the wind howl outside our bungalow. Maybe I’ll write about it; maybe not. But nothing until after Thanksgiving. And, for fans only, there’s always this…

So let us bid farewell to the land of small wastebaskets, eccentric light switch placements,  non-absorbent paper cafe napkins and keys that float around in their locks like small fish in a large aquarium.  And of frequent sidewalk cafes, didactic bookstores, magical murals and, of course, the world’s largest rodents.

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San Telmo, Buenos Aires, early morning. Gonna miss it

Photography by Tracy “I wish I had a long lens” Johnston

North American associate: Michelle Mizera

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Argentina: Interim Report

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Pumice field near Penon, Argentina

In the bad old days, I used to make judgments about national character based on three days in the capital city and earnest talks with two cab drivers. But now I am older and wiser, and I temper my judgments with modesty and candor.

Thus: The Argentinians are a happy people. They enjoy drinking coffee, eating beef and saying, “You from America? I love Americans.” The government made people disappear a few years ago, but everything OK now, because capitalism. They have a blue-and-white soccer team, and it’s very hard to get baseball scores here.  There are deserts and mountains. Buenos Aires is a very, very large city. There is poverty, sure, but also narrow colorful cobblestone streets, semi-paved sidewalks, and did I mention coffee?

I oversimplify, of course. Also there are empanadas. Many, many empanadas.

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Picnic area carved from salt, Salinas Grande, Argentina

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I didn’t mention wine, because I don’t drink wine. Neither does Tracy. We are like fish stranded in an ocean of air.

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We have only been in two places here so far: The San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and the Puna, which is the high Andean desert in the far northwest of the country. San Telmo is like someone’s dream of a picturesque Latin American neighborhood, with urban necessities — grocery stores, pharmacies, electronics stores — cheek by jowl with urban amenities — internet cafes, eccentric apartments, dark welcoming bars. Tourists, millennials, pensioners; they’re all here, in proportions not clear to me.

The Puna is something else entirely, a vast wilderness of unexpected geologic wonders, immense plains at 11,00 feet, mountains topping out at 17,000 feet — and it’s not even the real Andes. I’ve been all over the American West, and nothing there (except the Grand Canyon) comes close to the splendor of the Puna.

Dotted along the way are mining towns (borax, lithium, copper), both abandoned and not. In between are oases, sudden explosions of green in a brown landscape. There are vicuña roaming the hillsides, along with wild burros, rheas (a kind of ostrich), flamingos, llamas (tame), plus Andean ducks, geese and vultures.

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Yes, flamingos. At 14,00 feet. Yow!

We did a homestay in Antofallita, a village of 30 people nestled in a narrow canyon at the edge of a sea of sand. We walked around at twilight, saying “hola” and “buenos” and waiting for the children to appear. Which they did, shy or bold, staring at us as though we were visitors from another planet.

Which we were. But they trusted us — which, it can be argued, is always humanity’s first mistake.

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Maria and Isobel and friends, Antofallita, Argentina

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Our guide was Joaquin Bergese, a burly former rugby player with an excellent command of English, an encyclopedic knowledge of the Puna, and an easy laugh. We recommend him without reservation.

We spent many hours in the car together, talking or not talking, watching the road unspool to reveal this or that new wonder. On our fourth day together, we discovered a mutual affection for the blues. We spent hours listening to his recording of the 2013 Crossroads Blues Festival, with guitar heroes like Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Stevie Winwood and…the list was endless.

They were singing about that train that was coming down the tracks, or asking if we’d ever been mistreated, or pleading with us to shake our moneymakers, and we opened the windows and drove through the desert like we were 16 again, on our first road trip, just happy to be us and there.

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Somewhere, Argentina

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We got back to civilization and, for the first time in five days, I opened up the Twitter machine. My God, I thought, the world has gone mad. Or maybe it was always mad, and I just hadn’t noticed. Emails and FBI reports and Anthony fucking Weiner — how is he back? Can I find a hovel somewhere and raise goats and mutter into the sunset?

We’ve been invited to an election viewing party in Buenos Aires. Since it’s right where we’ll be staying, we’ll be there. (Our splendid apartment is run by the lovely and talented Beatrice Murch, and you can stay there too!)  I imagine people will be talking back to the television. I plan to ask them whether cursing is permitted. I won’t be able to stop myself, but it is polite to ask.

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“Revolution is happiness.” Probably not, but one can dream.

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Tonight: Overnight bus to the Ibera wetlands, for bird-watching and drifting. Later on: Patagonia. Next time: How my wife saved my life, and the miracle of the bananas.

Photography by Tracy Johnston

Long distance help by Michelle Mizera