Monday, 27 February 2012

The ones who were made to disappear

After some delicious days in Mendoza we took a 17 hour bus ride to Rosario. No disrespect to Rosario or her residents but the only reason we stopped there was so as not to be on a bus for 30 hours. That just sounds like being a hamster in a cage with no wheel. I'm glad we stopped there. It's a pretty city with a river where the first Argentinian flag was raised. But more importantly, here we visited the Museo de la Memoria, or the Museum of Memory.
     I won't pretend to know what I'm talking about so I will try to describe what I learned that afternoon.
     This museum holds an exhibition about the Dirty War; the tragic days between 1976 - 1983 when men and women, mothers and fathers, mothers-to-be, children, babies and babies not yet born into the world were "made to disappear". Hearing it is horrible, but seeing puzzles of photographs of people who make up communities, families, where blank spaces mark "the disappeared" person, where there is a red line across it stating "murdered", it is made to be quite real. Or as real as it can be when you are an observer of photos on a wall.

Neither words, nor I, can describe what "the disappeared" must have gone through, or their loved ones (many of whom were made to "disappear" soon afterwards. Pregnant women were made to "disappear" and were kept prisoners in some kind of torture centre, then later killed. Or they were kept until they gave birth, were then murdered, and their new-born babies were given to military families. Some of these babies have been found, by their grandparents, perhaps, and have taken back their original name. Others can't face the reality that they were stolen, or that their parents were complicit, so opt to live on as if nothing ever happened. This way their "adoptive" parents don't go to jail.

What was the torture centre during the period of the Dirty War is now a government building and when you stand outside and look at it, you realise how recent this mass killing was by the graffitti on the road that says "Justice. Not one child less".

It is estimated that 30,000 people were made to "disappear".

Friday, 17 February 2012

Argentina: the land of vino and asados

First stop: Salta.
     Salta feels like a little Madrid or Rome - lots of Argentina does. So you understand when everyone tells Oscar that one of their grandparents or great grandparents came from any number of regions of Spain and the Basque Country. They smile with twinkly eyes as they tell you who from their family lives there now. I knew there were links, but I hadn’t imagined they were so strong and alive today.
     After three months of a pretty unvaried diet of soup, rice and potatoes you can imagine our delight at being in the land of empanadas, pizza, pasta, choripan, milanesa, provoleta, bife ancho, bife de chorizo, and vacio that looks like this:

     As if we weren’t having enough fun with food and wine, we moved on to Cafayate. Here we had a ball with wine, wine, wine, more wine, and alfajores. Yum! We hired bikes and cycled to wineries until the tyre went flat, returned the bikes and carried on by foot. We tried Torrentes, a delicious white, the only wine with 100% Argentian grape, as well as Malbec, Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat in Nanni, Esteco, Etchart, Las Nubes, and other wineries. We hooked up with a couple from Buenos Aires who were having as much fun as we were trying wines, so we went to a bar and bought some really expensive ones to share. That myth about not getting a hangover from expensive alcohol was tried, tested, and failed.

     In our 19 hour bus ride to Mendoza, after the pane of glass beside me getting smashed (by thieves who wanted to rob everyone onboard), we had to change buses. I was half asleep and left my bag under the seat. I remembered half an hour later; the driver rang the station, they got my bag and gave it to the driver of the next bus to give to us in Mendoza. It found me safe and sound, with everything inside. That was a lovely moment.
     In Mendoza, with faith in the good in humankind, we continued our journey of wine, and asados with the best steak I’ve ever eaten, and facturas, and alfajores, with dulce de leche on top. We were lucky enough to be taken in by Rodolfo, with whom we ate, drank and rested like real Mendocinos. Life in Mendoza is good! Demasiado deli.

Friday, 10 February 2012

A salty end to Bolivia and - hello Malvinas!

Uyuni. A small town from which you take a tour to the famous salt flats: isolated, windy, dusty, boiling hot and freezing cold. Full of tourist agencies and, yes, tourists. Tourists hanging out on the streets in big groups like they’re the best thing since sliced bread. Suffice to say, I didn’t like Uyuni: a victim of its own salty success. Of course, the locals can’t stand the sight of the tourists, either. I got into a pickle with a man working in an internet cafĂ© where everyone was paying to watch pages load. He followed on my heels as I walked out, silently threatening to hit me. That was when I realised what machism really is. I’ve seen how women sometimes barely look at you, how their man speaks for them, how the man who speaks louder gets served first. But to see a man in his forties threaten me so publicly was frightening. I couldn’t imagine what he’d be capable of behind closed doors. Sometimes I like to think I’m such a modern woman that I can break through gender barriers, that there are moments when I’m genderless, but in that incident I was reminded very clearly that I was a female, and that, in Bolivia at least, there is a marked difference between ‘her’ and ‘him’.

With the tour came other-worldly landscapes that made you feel you'd stepped off Earth, and the world's largest salt flats:

 the red, white, and coloured lagoons, the stone tree, Dali's desert, and various breeds of pink flamingo:

geysers (huge stinky holes that smell of rotten egg where sulphur is bubbling away), and a locomotive cemetry.    
     Our driver, Javier, was lovely. He drove us in a jeep for 3 days, prepared lunch at mid-day and cooked dinner as soon as we arrived at our resting place for the night. On the third day he told us about a bus accident he was in on his way home for Christmas - the brakes failed and the bus flew through the barrier and 200 metres down the mountain. Javier lost his memory, ability to speak French and English and had to have several operations. I knew buses were dangerous around these parts: I have blessed myself on more than one occasion, and we had our own scare when a chunk of the engine fell off our bus in Peru and I woke up to shouting and whistling.
     After the tour, being offered a shower by a little girl in the street and a night bus, I was on the bridge, officially in no-man’s land, waiting to get into Argentina. Standing in the queue under the scorching sun, I watched a pig eat a dead puppy. She got every bit of meat off that corpse, I can tell you.
     Stepping onto Argentian soil, after getting through with no search or questions (not everyone got through so easily), I was welcomed by a huge sign: “ The Faulklands are Argentinian”.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The poor old devils in Potosi

I wasn't going to do a tour of the mines - the LP warns you of extreme conditions like no air, darkness, lack of safety in descending etc, but the guy in our hostel was an ex-Miner and had good reports so I found myself suited and booted and ready to see the mines of Potosi.

     Potosi is where silver was mined years ago from the Cerro Rico hill when it was discovered by the Spaniards, and back in its day, was the richest, largest city in South America. Millions of African and (later) Indigenous slaves died in the mines extracting silver. Now there is none left, but there are other minerals like zinc here to be had, working underground so as not to destroy the UNESCO protected hill. The tour began in the market with how to light dynamite, then we bought gifts for the miners (who work in a cooperative - which isn't as great as it sounds) and we went in.
     Not only is it freezing, it's also pitch black, and you have to tread very carefully so as not to fall into the huge holes that are everywhere. There are 400 explosions a day, and 2 to 3 miners die per month. Before, this figure was 5 to 6 per week. Welcome to the world of the Bolivian miners.
     We saw 2 miners working, pushing a cart of 1 tonne of rock along the tracks. "Mind your feet," Antonio, the guide said, "lots of people have lost their feet this way." When the men passed, he continued to tell us they would live until about 35 years of age. Each of the men had a cheek bulging with a ball of coca leaves, and their teeth covered with a green film. Antonio told us several times of the importance of coca: it keeps them going with energy, it suppresses their appetite, and it marks the time. They chew leaves for 4 hours, then break, spit the ball out and put a fresh ball in for the remaining 4 hours. That way they break up the day and keep track of time. Why don't they have lunch? I thought. "Why don't they eat, I bet you're thinking," said Antonio on cue. "Because, with food in their bellies, they will have two problems: deadly toxins in their lungs, and in their stomachs." The air is thick with toxins, and asbestos is everywhere. The walls and roof of the mines glisten with beautiful stalactites of asbestos. And these toxins cause the fatal disease silicosis which kills the miners one by one.
     When we were buying gifts I decided not to buy cigarettes so as not to support an unhealthy habit. When I saw these men literally breaking their backs, inhaling toxins that are killing them, and chewing coca that is rotting their teeth, I realised the cigarettes are the least of their worries. It was hilariously sad.
     In the mines we saw several statues made of clay and earth. These are the devils worshipped by the miners, called "Tios".

This comes from when slaves worked the mines and the Spaniards told them that if they didn't extract minerals the devil would take them and they would never see daylight again. The devil slowly became their friend and they now worship and adore them, bringing them gifts such as cigarettes to smoke, 96% pure alcohol, and coca leaves which they sprinkle on the devils' hands, feet and penis. In return for these things they ask for the following: strong hands to work and push the carts, feet that carry them out of the mine alive, and fertility of the mountain to produce minerals, as well as their own fertility to produce more children to continue working the mines.
     Their motto: "For you today, for me tomorrow."