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.

__________________

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.

__________________

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

___________

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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31 thoughts on “Wild Kingdom

  1. You could’ve knocked me over with a feather when the “here” like opened up an actual and intended page on SFGate! You are a wizard sir.

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  2. Jon, we’ll miss you, buddy, but we think you’d better stay down there out of the crossfire. It’s pretty bad up here.

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  3. And:

    “Capybaras are autocoprophagous, meaning they eat their own feces as a source of bacterial gut flora…”

    Do they have gold fixtures in their bathrooms?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks, Jon, for the momentary relief from the stark insanity going on up here in your cherished homeland. You might want to stay down there a little longer than you had originally planned…like maybe four years or so. You might be able to master the tango in that time…and don’t be afraid to point that toe!

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  5. [Shhhhhhh!!!! Everybody: don’t tell him!! Leave him alone and let him be unburdened a bit longer.]

    Nothing to see here, Jon! Pat a capybara on the head for me! Take your time down there!

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  6. This is just so darn wonderful. I particularly loved how brave you were during the attack. I just wrote about something freakily similar. Note: I was working on what would become “The Pentagon Papers.” I was not a soldier.

    Saigon, 1964

    Even our supposed protectors could be threatening, whether they meant to be or not. One night we decided to go to the Rex Hotel, which provided rooms for U.S. military people in transit and a well-guarded, relatively secure environment. We would be attending a barbecue on the roof, and a showing of the film “Cleopatra.” Life in Saigon was nothing if not fantastic.

    As we approached the hotel entrance, I felt something heavy, something with sharp scales and claws, land on my right shoulder. (You do remember which shoulder it was, in such a situation, decades later.) I have never been given to screeching in such situations, but this time, I made an exception. I screeched, David started batting at the giant tree lizard that had attacked — no, more likely, it had fallen on me and was now as scared as I was. Instantly, one of the Vietnamese soldiers guarding the entrance spun around and aimed a machine gun at the center of my body. His eyes were wide, he shook, and he was obviously striving desperately to classify whatever was happening before him — and to decide what he was supposed to do about it.

    “Cleopatra” was anti-climactic. What I will always remember, aside from nearly being shot to death in the embrace of a stupefied tree lizard, was the fantastic juxtaposition of Elizabeth Taylor as an unlikely Cleopatra, entering Rome with her entourage, with the background of explosions in the Mekong River Delta, not far away. A year after the Rex Hotel incident, having dinner with my dad and some of his friends at the Milwaukee Elks Club, I began to feel anxious but didn’t know why — until I learned that there was a bowling alley one story above us. No one else noticed the noise, but my mind had found it, and decided that things must be bad in the delta tonight.

    Your fan, Susan

    On Fri, Nov 11, 2016 at 2:27 PM, Jon Carroll Prose wrote:

    > joncarrollprose posted: ” 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 we” >

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  7. Thanks for linking us to the Thanksgiving column. God I miss your column and thank the lord for your blog. The Thanksgiving column brought me to tears for some reason. Perhaps it was the voice of sanity in a land gone mad. Travel safe, Jon.

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  8. Jon, you need to get a copy of Capyboppy by Bill Peet , which is a delightful children’s book about Peet’s real life experience of living with a pet capybara in the house. The illustrations are wonderful. (WordPress won’t let me show you the cover, alas.)

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  9. Something in your post reminds me of “The Komodo Dragon” (the world’s largest living lizard) by Bob & Ray. I’ve attached it.

    Cheers, Andy

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  10. Andy, You hit it right on the head. Bob & Ray came to mind right away. “One swipe of it’s tail can render a man senseless”.
    You may want to reconsider returning for a while. Things are somewhat depressing.
    bob sala

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    1. Don’t mean to be nit-picky, but I assume “wableted” is just a typo? Actually I kinda like the sound of the verb “wablet”. Let’s create a new word!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks for the entire vicarious travel experience. It sounds glorious — looking forward to reading about the rest of the adventure.

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