I was getting hungry now and David drove north to a small town he knew, and he pulled in next to a wide river. The water itself, coming off the Sierra de Cordoba was confined to a small clear-brown central channel, like the peat rivers of Scotland. Rocks and pebbles and old trees littered the rest of the bed. Large weeping trees gave good shade here. We needed it. Even though it was still only spring in Cordoba, here the temperature was well into the thirties in the shade. David had brought a variety of snacks with him and we sat and chatted, comparing the different education systems in each country, and I heard more of how difficult life had been in Argentina.
Probably the strangest aspect of daily life was inflation. The rates of inflation had been so bad in Argentina that when workers were paid at 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, they went straight out and bought everything they needed for the whole week. If they left the shopping till past 7 p.m. then they would not be able to afford it. Of course, salaries were not rising fast enough to compete with retail prices and they quickly fell behind. The inflation cut right across society, even moderately well paid people like David on his university salary had to struggle. Those who could had foreign currency accounts as well, but the difficulty in transferring Argentinean Pesos across made it not worthwhile for many. So bad did the situation get at one stage that the state of Cordoba stopped issuing Pesos for pay. Instead they started a new currency for use in the state, notes which had two perforated additions. After so long, one of the perforations had to be cut off because the note was not worth as much, after another period the second would be cut off. The inflation was still bad when I visited Argentina but normal money was the norm again.
However, some other scars of Argentina’s past were still haunting. The British regard the military junta under General Galtieri from the perspective only of the Falklands war, but the regime hit every aspect of the country during their 7 year reign, and indeed there had been several military interventions in political Argentinean life since the 1950’s. The loss of free speech, right to assemble and other civil liberties cut deep into the society which David kept. He knew of several people who “disappeared” during this time, and many families are still trying to trace what happened to opponents of the junta who were forcibly taken away.
And yet, in amongst all these stories of money and lack of liberty, the Argentinean culture is one of the most diverse, rich and warm of any I have ever come across. I think it shocked me to find out all these things could happened to such a well developed country. Argentineans like to think of themselves as more European than South American. The construction and atmosphere of cities such as Buenos Aires (or B.A. as they prefer to call it) and Cordoba, give it the cosmopolitan, sophisticated air of a Mediterranean city. The mixture of people is more diverse than several other Latin American States. Although the national language is Spanish, only about a third of the population are of Spanish descent. Almost an equal proportion are Italian, as both Mariano and David’s families were. The rest are a mixture of many European countries, a surprising number of English and Scottish (many coming over to help with engineering projects such as the construction of the railways), a good number of Russians and eastern Europeans, the Welsh of course who left their mark on Patagonia, and Germans. Curiously, some of the nations who arrived there, the Brits, Italians and Spanish, are fairly well mixed into Argentinean society, but a few nations ghettoised. And they did it not only in the big cities but some areas of the country became enclaves of the old way.
As we drove round the north end of the Sierra de Cordoba, I came across one. The largest was called Villa General Belgrano but they were Great Bavaria and Little Bavaria to most people. The Spanish influence runs deep in the desert and northern mountains. Typical low flat concrete houses as I had seen throughout my previous trip to the continent in Colombia dominated the scenery. Many had unfinished roofs, steel rods poking out of the concrete. Washing would be hanging from every corner, the backyard littered with old cars, buckets, dog kennels, bits of wood, chickens, surrounded by wire fencing that would be pretty dilapidated in parts.
Then we passed by one of these two villages, where submarine crews from the first and second world wars had ended up deserting in B.A. or Montevideo, and they had made there way to the highlands of the centre of Argentina. The landscape changed to neat chalet style houses with wooden slats, finished roofs and neat windows. Surrounding the house was a neat simple garden with a tidy log pile leaning not against the wall but piled a perfect distance away. An immaculately raked gravel track led up to the house and even the roads around the village were in much better order than elsewhere. For a mile or two the journey was like stepping into the Black Forest. Then, almost as immediately, the scene reverted back to the usual Spanish style sprawl.
Between lunch and the Bavarian village, we passed from the rain shadow to the Grand Chaco. With a little more rainfall, a different scrubby vegetation thrived here. As we drove along the straight empty roads, the scrub seemed endless, and indeed it is not far from the truth. The Grand Chaco is the second largest environmental area in the whole of South America. Only the Amazon jungle beats it in terms of acreage, even the Andes do not amount to much in comparison. To say I had not heard about it before I came is untrue, but it had just been a name on a map, I had never thought what it actually was. It extends from the point in Argentina where we were northwards through the top of the country to the borders with Bolivia, Paraguay and a small part of Brazil. Most naturalists probably ignore it because it neither has the stunning beauty of the rainforest or mountains nor their biodiversity. Unfortunately, the argument about preserving the most biodiverse regions of the world by ardent ecologists ignores this sort of area, which may not have the species, but has a uniqueness that once it is lost, there is no other place on earth that can replace it. The Chaco is one of these regions. Like much of South America, it is under pressure from population increase; farmers within the Chaco are demanding more land, and others are pushing at its fringes to start irrigation, ranching and other extensive farming techniques.
As I always am on days such as this, I was sorry that eventually we had to turn back east and head towards Cordoba, but the advantage was that we had driven a way north now and could come home via a different route. We passed through the little town of Cruz del Eje and drove for miles back to the lake. Then we descended again into the metropolis. As we descended the dawning realisation came over me that the Argentineans had done their hospitable best and now it was up to me to deliver my goods.