Argentina – Retracing Steps

Go to the first post for Argentina

Another day in Cordoba, after a morning of meetings, David said, lets relax.  He had some money from the funds to “Entertain” and he decided to treat me to lunch in his favourite restaurant.   Not far from the Malvinas memorial, alongside the canalised river, was a rather non-descript building partly hidden by some small trees.  On the inside, it was very dark but Marianno, David and I sat close to the window and looked back in on a steak house, more subtle than any American or British one, but still with the oak panelling, the plush seats and the fake greenery between each table partition.  If the décor was fake, then the food wasn’t.  It was in this room that I had the most tasty beef I have ever had.  It was served on a wooden platter between the three of us, oozing with blood and juice, crispy brown on the outside, just the right amount of red once cut open.  David sliced several drooling hunks of meat from this joint. I seem to remember there were some fries and a few bits of salad, but most of the meal consisted of this huge plate of meat.  We drank a couple of bottles of the best Argentinean wine (I dared not mention Chilean wine in this part of the world, the UK were not the only past enemies of the Argentine).  We talked, of work, of life in Argentina, of David’s student days in London, or Marianno’s hopes for the future.  And the afternoon wore on in the most delightful way.  I was a bit embarrassed that this was part of my working week.

 My final day in Cordoba was taken up with a very strange co-incidence.  From Andre we had learnt that a bunch of British scientists were turning up to discuss some exciting opportunities for Cordoba from the placement of a high tech satellite receiver in their region.  This was way out of the league for David – he could never afford their routine imagery in the same way he could get from the NOAA satellite receiver he now had access to, but I was intrigued and wondered whether there might be some other linkages I could go for.  My very enthusiastic project leader in Britain; Jim Williams, had told me it was vital I looked out for all sorts of other possibilities, and I had heard that some of the regional governments in Argentina were looking into launching a microsatellite, a cheap system that could send simple pictures back to earth.

 So we tried to gatecrash this conference.  I knew who was on the programme, but I think my old remote sensing supervisor from UCL in London was quite shocked when he looked up from his notes on starting his presentation and saw me sitting in the audience, fully attentive.  Mike Barnsley had helped steer me through the last three or four months of my MSc work.  It had been a strange supervision.  I was working back down with NRI in Chatham while still living in London.  The reverse commute was excellent.  Sitting in an eight coach train with ten other passengers heading east while the whole of Kent was jammed onto every train going west.  But it meant that I was remote from Mike and we had to schedule very precise meetings to ensure we met regularly, often late in the day when both of us were knackered.  Although not his specialism, he helped me enormously, as he had done to all the students during the course.  Always a remarkably cheerful bloke on the outside, he was both a very concerned individual on the inside, and another careful scholar.  He and another old teacher, Ian Dowman, were both in this team and they both were rather taken aback with my presence here.  David indulged me for a while and we sat through much of the conference, but I had to head for the airport for the marathon ride home.  Marianno came with us again; I think he had enjoyed the outside influences for a brief period and didn’t want them to go away.  I saw Cordoba airport in a little more detail.  Typical of a busy provincial airport, it had a lot of through flow but nothing exotic like at long distance hubs, or as parochial and quaint as at the tiny airports.  It had seventies architecture which said nothing.  We checked my bags in; I always feel strange asking if they will go all the way to London.  We had an hour or more and we sat in an upstairs bar and drank several beers.  All three of us were sad to see this week end.  I had had a wonderful time, learnt a lot, imparted a little, and I looked out over the runway to the east watching the white and blue Aerolineas Argentinas planes pull back and pull up to the gates.  In the far distance, the blue sky was being replaced by rain.  I began to feel I was going full circle; it had rained as David had driven me into the centre of the city on the first day, it was about to again.

 Eventually I said my goodbyes and boarded the aircraft to Buenos Aires.  As we taxied out to the runway, a fiery sunset made the Sierra Cordoba stand out in vivid relief.  To the west, the already darkening skies were further darkened by storm clouds.  We rose quickly to the east and left behind the sunset, and headed over the dusky Pampas.  I got a good sense of the scale of this vast agricultural region as we went along, huge rectangular fields lined occasionally with trees.  The odd farmhouse here and there, or the line of a road or railway with more activity along its length.  And around the aircraft several thunder storms were releasing their anger.  I looked across at lightning streak after lightning streak, some striking the ground, others playing in amongst the clouds themselves, lighting up the plumes of clouds all around them.  Once or twice we bumped into the tail end of a shower, the craft plunging into a thick grey mist, but usually the pilot steered well enough clear and I was able to take in the massive power of the storm as it raced past in the opposite direction.

 Night had overtaken me when I reached Buenos Aires airport.  After passing the transit desk, I joined the intercontinental travellers in the long corridor.  I bought a Maté container as my souvenir, and ambled up and down the terminal.  Knowing how long I was to be aboard the Jumbo to Madrid I decided not to sit until the last moment.  The busy flight home took off on time and as I settled down to dinner a couple of hours later, I glanced at the lights of Rio de Janeiro out of the window – little trails of light avoiding the sea and the hills around.  I lost count of the number of towns and villages I saw out of the window before I eventually slumbered.  When I woke, we were in a browny early morning mist heading up the west coast of Africa, the result of a sand storm and cold salty water mixture.  It should be remembered the Atlantic is relatively narrow between South America and Africa, and it meant that most of our flight was over or close to land.  We crossed into Portugal near Faro and then headed north east to Madrid.  As I got out to look around for the Iberian flight back to Heathrow, it felt strange that although I had been nearly half way across the world, it had only been five days since I had sat in this terminal.

Argentina – Doing the business end

After what seemed like an eternity, I heard David breathe deeply and ask, he thought helpfully, “What do you think is the problem”.  I had no answer.  The only thing I could suggest was emailing James in Bradford to ask his advice.  This we did, with the three hour difference it was just after lunch.  Fortunately, I had asked him to be ready on Monday in case something like this was to happen so I hoped he was actually near a terminal and read his email in a short time, unlike the period before I went on the trip.

 After sending the email, there was little else I could do on the computers, so David and I went off to a couple of other meetings he had set up.  When we returned in the afternoon, Andre had received a response from James, with another attached program.  With an apology, he said he had given me a slightly older version of the program…….  Andre and I tried to follow his instructions and after two or three goes, we managed to change the format of his South American image and we got it into the NOM.  Once there, Andre was impressed with some of its capabilities, an achievement as Andre was one of these guys who because he works with computers so much that most of his emotions had become suppressed.

 My relief was difficult to hide. I still had reservations about the whole software side, but at least I had achieved what I had travelled for twenty-four hours for.  David and I spent the rest of the week at several meetings.  I cannot remember many of the meetings now; it included a grace meeting to the funding agency for the trip, the group who with the British Council, had organised the exchange visits.  I met several eminent scientists, who seemed to split into the haves and have-nots.  Those who had channelled into International funding agencies were on the academic equivalent of the gravy train.  Those who had not yet reached there struggled to maintain their existence in the country.  Although outwardly first world, with the institutions, culture and mannerisms of anything Europe had to offer, inside the cracks were wide and many lived close to the poverty level, academics and government workers included.

 One afternoon, David took me to the Laboratorio de Ecología de Insectos, the unit he had set up to specifically look at the use of satellite imagery in insect habitat and ecology.  His two students, Mariano and Raquel came along ( I could never pronounce her name right; I am sure she told me to call her Rachel, like the English, but others called her Raquel as in Welch and one or two pronounced it in a throat clearing manner that left nothing to the imagination).  Raquel had a young baby that she dragged everywhere, being unable to afford a babysitter while trying to do her degree.  David tolerated this very well, but it was clear that there were times when he wished she could keep her train of concentration long enough to make progress with her degree, instead of having to react to the baby’s needs all the time.

 The unit was in an agricultural centre about ten miles to the east of Cordoba.  The journey was interesting for me as it headed the other way from Sunday’s excursion.  The east of the city fell quickly into the flat Pampas, and after some industrial areas, the wide dual carriageway that began the long trip back to Buenos Aires fell to more open land.  On the very outskirts of the city, a large concrete gate, the “Gateway to Cordoba” dominated the scene and we headed to the north down some dusty roads, skirting a shanty town.  I had been impressed by how clean and tidy much of the centre of Cordoba was and the moderate level of houses around.  But now I was seeing where the poor of Cordoba eked out a living, and it was much more like the Barrios of Colombia or the shanties of Africa.  As David explained, the urban underclass in Argentina was a relatively new phenomena, and, as in Africa, had to squat on whatever land was available.  In Cordoba, like in so many third world cities, this was at the edges of these rapidly expanding cities. This was another reminder that however western Cordoba looked, it was more akin to the third world cities I knew.  In western cities, the urban poor are quite often located near the city centre, or are relocated to estates from the centre to the edge.  Here they were still arriving from the country (like in the British Industrial Revolution at the end of the 18th Century) and were forced to stop at the city limits.

 The agricultural university where David kept his unit was deep in the rich Pampas farmland beyond the city.  Open planned, a number of shabby concrete buildings were widely spaced in a neat parkland of young trees and carefully mown grass.  David’s unit was located at the far end of one block.  The hot spring sun belted through the glass windows, similar to the ones I knew from my old school days in Liverpool with the thin glass and white painted metal surrounds.  At the top of one window an ancient air conditioning unit perched precariously.  David turned it on but it vibrated so violently that we could not hear each other speak.  David fiddled for a while with some shards of wood he found in an outer room and tried to wedge the unit more firmly in its casing, but it had little effect on the noise.  In the end he left it for a few minutes to cool the room then switched it off.

Cordoba

Laboratorio de Ecología de Insectos

 After some fumbling by Raquel and her baby, the two students presented to me their work.  I was sat in one of those desk seats, my arms resting on the flip table, in the centre of the room.  David sat to one side, slightly behind me, and I felt as if I was a theatre producer holding auditions.  Raquel spoke of her project first, and did not convince me that she understood it well.  I could feel David behind me shift uncomfortably when she occasionally faltered, as if he had been through it so many times before.

 When she finished, Marianno raised himself and nervously started to speak.  Marianno was a lovely guy, small and compact.  He gave the impression he was in much awe of most other people he met, but a second consideration revealed that he was just attentive.  In his own right he was a meticulous thinker, and David knew he was something special.  I grew to like Marianno enormously during that week and was very pleased when he and his wife moved to Chatham a couple of years later.  She was very nervous when she arrived in England because her English was not strong, and she was left in the house to a certain extent.  But she found a couple of jobs in town and attended classes and the last time I saw them she was bubbling with confidence.  Marianno worked at NRI for a couple of years and produced some impressive research papers.

 Marianno talked about his project that was trying to see whether an incidence of a mosquito borne disease was directly proportional to the vegetation greenness as seen from satellite imagery.  It was a very good talk that I found little to comment on when he had finished.

At the Agricultural Institute

At the Agricultural Institute

Argentina – The most embarrassing moment

 I had borrowed a laptop computer from David, but it was too old and slow to test out the software I had brought, so when David picked me up from the hotel next morning, I still had no idea whether this NOM conversion software would work.  I had brought a whole stack of floppy disks; this was still in the days before we moved over to Internet and CD software installations.  I took them with me and David went first to the Satellite receiving station in the south of the city.  He used these people to gather his images of the area around Cordoba where his students were studying the effect of the environment on the habitats of various insects, mainly the mosquito.  They had a similar set up to the one NRI had, we captured data from the NOAA series of satellites, an American set up (NOAA stands for National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) and deals with anything weathery or watery in the States.  Their satellites orbited around the earth in a polar direction, so almost anyone could pick up the satellite images.  There was little decoding to do, so if you had the right kit (usually a metal horn, some wires and a bit of glue) you could pick up the signals and make some nice images.  The pictures allowed you to detect all sorts of different features.  A sort of colour picture could be picked up, but unfortunately, the sensors can only pick up red light, but they can also pick up four types of Infra red light, and combinations of these were very useful for detecting where green vegetation is, where fires may have been started, where clouds were forming and what the temperature of the land or sea was.  My institute had developed all sorts of clever techniques to make pretty maps of this kind of stuff, and had been quite successful at getting other agencies across the world to routinely use this data in their environmental monitoring.  Both a good and bad feature of the data was that each piece of information covered about 1km square.  That meant you could never pin point exactly where a bush was green or where a fire was, but it meant you could cover a large area quickly with a relatively small computer.  These images could easily take 500 km swathes in a few moments, and more if you wanted it.  An image of most of Chile and Argentina could be captured in a matter of minutes.  A quick regional picture is often what is needed by your average environmental manager, so it was quite effective.

 Many people across the world had set up their systems to capture the data from the NOAA satellite, and many could do some of the simple calculations needed to get a map of vegetation.  However, the more difficult equations from Land Surface Temperature or fire monitoring had only been tackled by more specialist agencies, and NRI thought they were one that had cracked it.  The NOM software was a new Windows package that was meant to help this processing along and help store the images effectively.

 This Argentinean capture centre could collect their own images but could not do these more sophisticated algorithms for land surface temperature.  So, they were interested in trying out the NOM data for the storage and algorithms, but did not need the capture software.  Instead they needed some conversion software, and this is what I had got from young James in Bradford a couple of hours before I left.

 I was shown around their rather nice office in an old villa style house in a leafy suburb.  I was shown the capture machines (the antennae itself was out of town), and I settled down with the computer specialist, Andre, to load up the software.  I had to keep apologising for the number of floppies as the NOM software was still in development and they had not got it to a smooth set-up routine yet.  In fact I had to do several operations manually before I could get the NOM software to work.  After about half an hour of fiddling, I was successful and the empty shell of the NOM appeared on the screen.  Andre was concerned about one or two ideas of the NOM, but they seemed generally impressed with its look.  The second stage was to load the conversion software from James.  This was a relatively simple operation.  For all the time it had taken me to receive it, this was a simple DOS program which you just copied from the floppy.  I had been given some instructions in a README file giving the syntax for when you typed the instruction.

 By this time, quite a crowd had gathered.  David had invited several people in to see this wonderful new software that was being promised to him.  Mariano, his student, had arrived, his ever-present cheerful countenance a friendly face in a bunch of strangers.  I was introduced to several others and they stood around as Andre and I made the final touches to the system.  We took a decent image of southern South America, from Cape Horn to Bolivia, and typed the file name in very carefully alongside the name of the programme from James.  I pressed return.  A small error message appeared on the screen.  I looked directly at the black screen, but could feel fifteen pairs of eyes burning into the back of my head, and the thoughts of David Gorla were translated into my brain.  “We have paid an Englishman to travel half way across the world, wined him, dined him ,shown him the country, just to have him come with a dud piece of software on a temporary floppy disk”.  I could have quite happily shrivelled away into one of the waste paper baskets and waited till night fall.  Not having developed the software, there was nothing I could do to fix it – I couldn’t even get inside it to take a look at what was going on.  I’ve become more proficient at programming issues since then, but at the time I was very much a lacky.

Argentina – Sampling the diversity

 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.

Road in the Grand Chaco

Road in the Grand Chaco

 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.

Argentina – Into the Sierra

 I woke early and had breakfast and met David in the lobby armed with camera and binoculars.  These kind of trips always fascinate me.  It does not matter if I am going round slums, boring farmland or the most fantastic scenery in the world.  To go with someone who both has the local knowledge and the same eagerness to share places with me is sublime, and David was a perfect host.  It was just the two of us, and I got to know David very well.  I had met him when he had done the other part of the exchange visit to the UK, where he spent about three or four weeks at NRI.  Although I was not the main host, I had shared several lunch times with him, where during the summer we used to sit at the picnic tables next to the croquet lawn at the old HMS Pembroke buildings where NRI was based.  But to have the time with him in Argentina meant I got to learn more about the way he worked.  He was extremely hard working.  He had his two Phd students, Mariano and Raquel, to supervise.  He sat on various committees at the central CordobaUniversity as well as his institute, and he seemed to have his finger into several other academic pies.  On top of that, he managed to sustain a considerable research programme which was well respected by his peers internationally.  I had seen he had a wonderful family and circle of friends, and I found him a courteous and amiable companion.

 Heading out of Cordoba, I soon had my preconceptions of the region blown out.  Cordoba lies on the western extreme of the Pampas and indeed by the time you head out of the western suburbs you are climbing steeply.  But the Andes are still four hundred miles west of you.  Instead you are climbing into the Sierra de Cordoba.  Rising some three thousand feet above the plain, the climate is cooler and the range of habitats varies enormously.  A plateau guarded by a series of hills contains a significant tourism region, centred on a series of lakes.  The largest of these is the Ambalse San Roque where we first headed for.  The last couple of miles to the dam that encloses the lake were along a dramatic rocky gorge, the concrete modern dam looming up in the distance.

 We drove out across the dam to the centre, and while I glanced up the narrow gap between the hills to the lake proper, I noticed a structure like a concrete pier in the water below me. David told me its tale.  The original dam had been built at the beginning of the 20th century, and served the community well enough for a period.  Then a politician found out that some reports said the strength of the dam was suspect, and some engineers persuaded him that it would collapse and flood the whole of Cordoba, some twenty miles below.  The government immediately set out to rectify the situation, and ordered that a new dam be built lower down and the old one destroyed.  The new dam was duly built, the one we were standing on, and the original designer of the dam was brought before a tribunal.  He was found guilty of skimping on the materials for the dam, for causing undue risk to the people of Cordoba, and costing the Government a lot more money to rectify the problem.  I cannot remember his fate but I think he was imprisoned and may have taken his own life.

The remains of the "unsafe" dam

The remains of the “unsafe” dam

 The postscript to the story came when they tried to dismantle the old dam.  They tried all sorts of ways, resorting to explosives, but could not blow a hole in the dam.  It was in fact, near as damn it, indestructible.  The politician’s engineers had been all wrong and the whole farce had been gone through for nothing.  So there it stands, just like a pier above the waterline, the original dam with a small gap punched through so the water can reach the new dam but apart from that, as strong and as able to withstand the water pressure as well as it was designed to.

 We followed the main road up the south side of the lake to a series of resort towns.  They sprawl in a shallow valley here, spreading as far as the eye can see.  Several hotels lie on the lakeshore.  Where it is a three hundred mile trek to the nearest piece of sea, these lakes act as Cordoba’s beaches, and even early on a Sunday morning there were hundreds of families gathering.  On the far side the land climbed again and I found myself looking around a completely alien landscape….the Yorkshire Dales.  The grass was cropped by sheep, the wide open grassy hillsides were only disturbed by a few boulders, a couple of conifer plantations and a number of stone walls.  Typical of the tops of Swale or Wensleydale.  The air was so pure up here, the sky a deep blue and hardly disturbed by cloud.  Along the roadside, which was often open to the surrounding landscape, little spring flowers were showing themselves off, I spotted a huge Scotch Thistle with a brimming bright purple head.  The view back down the valley was hazy but I could still see the development around the tourist lakes.  Above me, only a few farmsteads gave us indication of habitation.  David turned off the main road and he eased his new, low slung car carefully along a stony track.  We paused at an old bridge to look again at the panoramas.  He asked me at this point whether I wanted to go for a hike or drive further around.  I had to debate carefully as it would have been perfect to have done both, but this was my only day left free in Argentina and although it would have been nice to have some exercise, I really wanted to lap up as much as possible.  So I opted for the drive, particularly since what David has explained to me was over the next peak had touched my inquisitive side.

Yorkshire Dales or Sierra De Cordoba?

Yorkshire Dales or Sierra De Cordoba?

 The very tops of the mountains could be any Pennine or North Welsh pass.  The highest part of the Sierra stood along a rocky outcrop which the road wound round to pass through.  The top was very stony, and large screes headed off in most directions.  But to the south west, the contrast with what had gone before was stark.  I was staring towards the Andes.  Although I could not see them directly, there were a bunch of foothills nearly 70 miles off that hinted at the massif that lay beyond.  And between them and us was an area that never saw rain.  Sheltered by the Sierra de Cordoba to the east and the Andes to the west, any moisture carrying winds ran out of water well before reaching this valley.  The resulting landscape was dry and largely unvegetated.  Large boulders spread in all directions and tiny cacti, hardy grasses and the occasional herbaceous plant eked out survival in amongst them.  We dropped gently down the side of the Sierra, and the view back of this long chain of mountains grew as we descended.  At the foot, the vegetation was stronger but nothing like the east side, more like southern Iberia.

Towards the Andes

Towards the Andes

Argentina – Exploring Cordoba

I awoke next morning feeling much better, and more in sync with my current country.  I had breakfast and went for a walk around the city centre.  The shops were packed with people, and a little wary of being a stranger, I dipped into several shopping centres.  The heat beat down ferociously in open areas, but many of the pedestrian areas were covered in vines or climbing plants which kept the worst off.  And several fountains or water features freshened the air as you walked past.  It seemed incongruous to then look inside almost every shop window to see a jolly Santa riding along in a sleigh on snow, thick green and red tinsel; the colours of winter adorned every corner.  A Northern Hemisphere Christmas was being imposed on the south.  I looked around the glorious Catholic cathedral, in need of some serious renovation.  I then plodded around some of the quieter streets in the central grid iron.  Although there were some run down areas, it was a proudly set city centre.  In one small shady corner of the city, next to a small canalised river called La Canada, stood an ornate war memorial.  A bunch of soldiers in various poses, holding up a flag on a mound of earth, all in bronze.  A list of names ran right round the base of the monument, and although my Spanish was ropy, I could make out the words; Malvinas; the Falklands.

 The centre of the city was still manic with activity as I approached La Casa de Sobremonte en Rosario de Santa Fe e Ituzaingó.  Did you get that?  Built as the local governor’s house during the colonial period, it has been restored as a museum.  Like many houses of Spanish origin, the exterior is rather foreboding, a high plain wall right against the pavement edge.  But once through the gate, the interior is laid out perfectly.  A number of small courtyards divide up the rooms.  Each one had its own character, an old well here, some potted plants there.  And the rooms were all laid out like a colonial house would have been.  Looking down from the highest windows, I could see the busy street life, the hustle and bustle of Cordoba outside, but the little museum was an oasis of tranquillity.

 Activity began to decrease by late morning and I retired to my bed again.  Not so much jet lag, but the sheer length of journeying had tired me out completely.  I knew I had to be fresh by Monday and I had some preparation work to do as well.

 David picked me up from the hotel late afternoon and we drove out of town through some rather non-descript suburbs to his estate, on a slightly raised hill.  I went inside this low white house and into a large open plan living room.  Scattered around were tasteful antiques and artefacts, as befits a respected university doctor, but with a familial touch.  I was introduced to his wife, who kissed me smack on the cheeks, I was introduced to one of his gorgeous daughters who reached up and also gave me a kiss.  David laughed at my expression, especially as I had a hand extended towards her to shake.  He explained that it was a natural greeting in Argentina.  We went out into a back garden made for kids, a few plants banished to the extremes, the rest just a large grassy patch where kids and their imaginations could go wild.  We sat and drank beer for an hour, and then enjoyed a magnificent barbecue.  It was not just put on for my benefit, David had invited a whole host of friends who graciously spoke English in my presence.  I tried a few Spanish phrases but the experience I had built up in Colombia three years beforehand had all but deserted me, and during BBQ chit chat you move away from the ‘How old are you’, ‘where are you from’, pretty quickly and I could not extend my Spanish to discuss the finer points of GIS or insect behaviour.

 The evening passed too quickly, and the chill outside of a clear evening drove us indoors (after all, it was only early spring).  In the warm living room, David got out his guitar and sang a bunch of folk songs, with a clear booming voice.  Several others performed their party pieces.  The kids went off to bed but still the party continued.  David got the maté out.  This is a bitter drink brewed from the bark of a tree.  It is sometimes mixed with sugar but Argentineans generally drink it without.  To get the full flavour, it is served in a small round bowl, and you suck it through a specially made straw.  It has a filter at the bottom to stop the dregs of the bark rising up it, and a narrow opening like a pipe’s, that forces you to suck hard.  The juice hits the back of the throat.  I found the initial taste very acceptable, but the strong bitter aftertaste ruined it.  I took a few polite sips then passed the cup on round the circle.  The evening ended and David gave me a lift back into town and the hotel.  We arranged our trip for the following day, David was to show me around the country to the west , the Sierra de Cordoba.

Mate

Mate

Argentina – Arriving in Cordoba

 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.

Cordoba Cathedral

Cordoba Cathedral