Argentina Was a Land of Huge Contrasts — And Fascinating

By Joe Darby

 

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Last week I began to tell you about a travel writers’ trip I had taken to Argentina in 1979. I’d told you how the huge and beautiful country was under a harsh military dictatorship and how the leftist opposition murdered Argentina’s minister of utilities in a car bomb just a few blocks from my hotel in Buenos Aires.

Now, with the background on the country’s political and economic problems in hand, I want to tell you what I saw and did on the trip — which was 39 years ago, another example to me of how time is flying.

Two weeks ago I’d shared with you details of an 18-hour airplane ride I took to a NATO air base in Europe and how I struggled to keep awake to interview the Louisiana fighter pilots and ground crew members there.

Well, the flight to Argentina was almost as long. The airline, one of the trip’s sponsors, first flew us from New Orleans to New York then down to BA, as the Argentines call their capital city. As I recall that was 14 hours in the air. However, that trip was made more comfortable by the fact that I and my fellow travel writers were put in business class, which meant free cocktails all the way down to southern South America.

By the time we reached BA, we were all fairly mellow and had dozed intermittently on the trip. Even I, who normally can’t sleep on a plane, had no trouble relaxing, thanks to my seat partner, Mr. Jack Daniels.

BA is a beautiful, sophisticated city, called by its natives the Paris of Latin America. And indeed it does have the appearance of a European city. It was clean, full of traffic and had many streets full of posh shops, hotels and night clubs.

Social life in BA doesn’t get started until around 11 p.m. or midnight. I don’t know how its residents get up and go to work every morning. In any case, we were taken to a plush supper club, which featured a lovely Argentine stand up comic, but with my lack of Spanish, I could not understand a word she said. She got lots of laughs, though. I doubt if she was criticizing the government, however or she would have wound up in one of Argentina’s secret prisons.

We were fed some Argentine beef. It was quite tasty but rather tough for those of us used to eating good old American steaks.

The reporters were given an extensive driving tour of the city, which included the area where working class Argentines had invented the tango, back in the early 20th century, and we saw a dance performance to the strains of that mesmerizing music.

We made a side trip to one of the most fascinating places on earth — Iquasu Falls, up near the border of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. After a long, long road trip, we arrived at our lovely hotel, right smack in the middle of the jungle. Except for the tourist facilities there were few or no other signs of civilization. Consequently, when I went out on my balcony that night I saw the most amazing sky I’d ever seen in my life.

First of all, it was the Southern Sky, which us northern hemisphere residents cannot see from where we live. So all of the familiar constellations were gone and the sky was full of new star formations I’d never even imagined. And the brilliant clarity of the stars, because no ambient light was around for miles, made for the most brilliant view of the heavens I’d ever seen.

The next day they took us out in small boats on to the water above the falls. (If you want to get a sense of this place, look it up on the Internet.) It was rather scary because the boats were powered by a single outboard engine that looked like it had been built in the 1930s. If the engine had conked out, there was nothing to prevent the whole boat from being swept over the edge of the falls, which we approached as near as about 25 yards away.

Another interesting side trip was to a ski resort in the Andes, the mighty South American mountain chain that separates Argentina from Chile. By the time we got to our destination, the weather had turned and it began to snow heavily. I don’t know if it was a genuine blizzard, but it sounded like one to me, as the wind howled shrilly. But, we all piled into a small car suspended from a cable, to be lifted up to the resort. On the way up the car began to sway back and forth, causing some measure of concern among some of the writers, but we arrived safely at the top. After we enjoyed refreshments and snacks, the weather eased up and we once again entered the car for what turned out to be a more gentle descent.

It was a beautiful, intriguing country, but I was glad to return to New Orleans, where no soldiers armed with automatic weapons were patrolling every street corner. I wrote a story detailing the nation’s attractions, but also emphasized the political problems as well as an inflation that made everything one purchased quite expensive.

Next week I want to tell you about another fascinating Latin American country, but one that could not be more different from Argentina — in size, wealth and culture — and that will be Guatemala. I hope you can come along.

 

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