When I woke, my first view was of the lush farms of the SE Brazilian coast. It was now about five o’clock in the morning below me, but I had had about four hours sleep on and off. The time difference was beginning to confuse me already. The flight went on for another six hours or so, seemingly crawling down the coast of South America, sometimes slightly further inland. We passed over Sao Paulo and several very large satellite cities; sprawling high rises everywhere. Then the rolling hills and farms gave way to wilder scenery and we started to track down a huge river. Below me the dark brown water snaked its way through forest and savannah. Although huge, the river was less than a centimetre wide from where I was looking, and I was amazed to see a white speck in the centre of it at one point. Gradually it dawned on me that it was a waterfall. Then I realised I was looking at one of the most spectacular falls in the world, the IguazaFalls. It looked so minute from 30 000 ft.
If that was a lesson in relative size, the journey over Uruguay were something else, the flight lumbered on over a vast green plain, occasionally marked by gullies and rivers, once in a while a small settlement or a long straight road, but mostly an unbroken sea of grass. We started our descent into Buenos Aires and the human activity became more intense below me, then a string of towns, a marshy area and the River Plate. Directly below me, the Plate was enormous, to my right a series of smaller rivers, some canalised, spurted their heavy silt loads into the estuary. A series of large ships were plodding towards the Atlantic. We dropped lower and lower, and hit the coast of Argentina, and a vast city spread in front. We passed directly over the centre of Buenos Aires and out to the south west towards the airport. After London and Chicago, this was the only other place where I have not seen the whole city in one view from a plane, it is immense. It looked busy; after all it was late morning.
We landed and I was aware that we were two hours late arriving. I now had to find my connection to Cordoba, if such a thing existed. We disembarked and I went towards the long queue of immigration. I stood for a moment, before I became aware of a woman shouting “Cordoba, Cordoba”. I went over to them and showed my ticket, and led frantically to the front of the queue. Second time in less than 24 hours. The passport was hurriedly stamped and I was hustled towards a plane. Its engines were already roaring as I went in, sat down and we started to pull back from the gate.
The flight was packed, but I swapped seats with a large woman and was able to watch the vast pampas move underneath me. I was afraid that I was going to be terribly disappointed with Cordoba. I expected it to be a boring industrial city in the middle of the pampas. It was over 400 miles from Buenos Aires, and a further 400 from the Andes. We started to descend, still with the plains below me, and landed in the usual mixture of farmers’ fields, tyre depots and industrial units.
My passage through a small to middle sized airport was fairly easy, though my chances of being searched by customs came down to whether I could hit a button connected to two lights. If it came up green, I could go through; if it came up red, I had to stop and be searched. I was lucky, I got green.
David Gorla, my host for the week, met me on the other side and we journeyed the four or five miles into the centre of the city. He booked me in the hotel and then I had a couple of hours to try and catch up. Surprisingly, Argentina is only three hours ahead, in November, it is much further east than the USA or much of the Caribbean and has the southern equivalent of Summer Time. We had a few meetings that afternoon, where I learnt a lot about the university system in the country, the research problems and a bit of the geography of the country.
Argentina is vast, there is no denying that. It has several key areas of ecology; the Andean belt and the Pampas and Patagonia being the most familiar. There is something approaching rainforest in the NE corner of the country, but a large area, larger than any of these and yet not well publicised, is the Grand Chaco. This is an area of semi-arid scrub that extends deep into Bolivia and Paraguay, and starts just NW of Cordoba. Several research problems came to light there, but, as ever, money is the key problem with this and very little ever came of our research proposals. The major problem was Chagas disease, caused by the reduviid bug that lived in the badly kept houses of the Grand Chaco. Often called “kissing bugs” they transmit the disease from one infected animal to an uninfected one; the feces of the bug as it crawls over your face being rubbed accidentally into a wound or your eyes or mouth. Rather unpleasant really. The disease gets worse and worse over time and can cause premature death. David was working with some other scientists to understand the bugs better so that houses could be treated to avoid the bugs interacting with people altogether.
David left me to my own devices that evening and I went for a quiet walk around the city. Unlike so many cities the centre was carefully kept and very safe to walk around. It had dawned on me that it was the beginning of summer here, despite it being November. I had gone so far south that a near temperate, or at least Mediterranean climate was present here. However, because Cordoba was so far inland, the winters can be extremely harsh, the bitter winds blowing across the Pampas and temperatures dropping well below freezing. In the summer, the heat soars the temperatures above 40 degrees C. Now it was a pleasant warm evening, and it stayed light till eight or nine o’clock.
I had something to eat in an Italian style fast food joint a few doors down from my hotel (which itself only served breakfast). I had a couple of cans of beer and then set out for the central square. On the south side, the ornate catholic cathedral was lit up; its crumbling walls showing how old this area was. My tendencies towards so many countries I have visited that they never match the history of Europe. This has since been squashed by my visits to Sri Lanka, but even here, in the so called New World, the colonial influence is over 400 years old, now. Many of the old buildings in Cordoba would not look out of place in its namesake in Spain.
In the central square a man was doing a breakdance dressed like Michael Jackson, and probably doing it better than he could. He got rapturous applause at the end, and as I looked around the sizeable crowd, I realised that they were all ages, families, teenagers, grandparents and young couples. And they were doing something very Spanish, promenading. Hundreds of people wandered the city squares and boulevards, quietly chatting with their friends or loved ones, dropping in on relatives. And this continued for several hours. Long past the time my body would allow me to stay up.