7. Song of the wind

Dear friends! Welcome to Brazil! Visa for Russian citizens
$130; for citizens of Togo, Afghanistan, Zaire, North Korea, and
Taiwan $30; for citizens of all other countries $5. Have a good time!
Sign in Brazilian consulate, Puerto Iguazu

A few years before our arrival in Coyaque, Hudson Volcano a hundred kilometers to the south had erupted, covering fields and pastures with ash. Many farmers sold their land and moved to cities. By the time we got there, the country was green again, but many farms were still abandoned, and hitchhiking was very difficult. At first I didn't realize how lucky we were. Having to hike for hours along little-traveled roads, we saw some creatures most zoologists have never heard about. Many of them did not even have established English names, such as "super-fluffy mouse" (Euneomys), "icecream-cone armadillo" (Chamyphorus truncatus), or "snow opossum" (Listrodelphis halli). It was a bit windy there, but otherwise the weather was great.

After nightfall we found a small farm which was still inhabited. While assisting our hosts in their assault on a huge pile of dumplings, I decided to discuss local fauna with them. I didn't know animal names used in the area, so I had to draw sketches on a piece of paper. I am not much of an artist, but my drawings made quite an impression. I had to spend all evening making tiny pictures of cougars, hares, foxes, and rodents, and giving them to everybody as souvenirs. People even rode from a village two miles away to get a picture.

Next day we took a ferry across a very large lake, called Lago General Carrera in Chile and Lago Buenos Aires in Argentina. We passed the border, hiked for two hours across the neutral zone, and hitchhiked to Panamerican Highway, which followed the Atlantic Coast. Hitchhiking in Argentina was awful. Roads were good, so people were driving fast, and didn't bother to stop. Besides, most Argentinos believe that their country is underpopulated, and try to have as many children as possible, so usually all cars are full. Almost all drivers who gave us lifts were of Italian origin. They used my Indulgencia to get free gas at gas stations. When we got to the coast, Paolo turned north (it was time for him to get back to work), and I continued south.

The grasslands were beautiful, but it was so windy that I could hardly walk. Downwind from every small town was a long zone of garbage-covered desert; each tiny shrub or tussock wrapped in plastic bags. I soon learned that by approaching small lakes upwind, I could get very close to waterbirds. They didn't dare take off because the wind would throw them towards me. Sometimes I couldn't see the water because the lakes were covered by swans, geese, ducks, flamingoes, and gulls. The cutiest of local birds were tiny stifftail ducks. As soon as you came close, they floated towards you in pairs to investigate. Harriers and hawks couldn't soar, so they hunted by walking around, trying to catch a pigmy Guinea pig or a baby armadillo. Huge herds of geese were grazing on wet meadows: sometimes I could see thousands at a time. Hailstorms moved at a great speed across the sky, and sunsets in this sea of golden grass were splendid. But this playground of western winds was a tough country to live in: in many places the hills were covered with hundreds of dead sheep, victims of harsh winter. Condors and caracaras came from the mountains to feed on them. At the coast, the surf looked very unusual. It is not common to see large waves moving against such a strong wind. Each breaker was crowned by a gorgeous flag of water blown off its top.

Buses were very expensive, so I had to hitchhike all the time. I remembered my European experience, and got some great rides by talking to truck drivers at gas stations. Another good method was stopping at police checkpoints: the officers considered it part of their duty to help hitchhikers. One of the checkpoints was surrounded by a herd of guanacos. One calf kept looking inside through the window. As soon as you walked out of the building, it would greet you like a dog, standing up and putting the front legs on your shoulders.

Eventually I got to the southernmost tip of the continent, a splendid land of iceberg-filled lakes, endless icefields, and mountains decorated with colossal rocky towers. More scenic places were almost all in Chile, but for some reason there were ten times more tourists at the much more expensive Argentinian side. Forests still consisted of beeches, but here they were small trees, covered with weird apple-like parasitic fungae Cittaria darwini. Because of the winds, birds of the open sea could be watched from the streets of seaside villages. It was nice to sit in a cafe, drinking coffee and watching albatrosses, giant petrels, and fulmars fly by. Black-and-white Commerson's dolphins were playing just offshore. Fjords and the Straits of Magellan were full of cormorants, penguins, and porpoises. I also saw a very rare feline otter, the smallest marine mammal in the World.

The most beautiful place was Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. It was also the windiest - even small lakes were covered with white foam. UFO-like lenticular clouds were hanging above mountaintops. The stronger was the wind, the more still were the clouds. I watched some of them for many hours, and they didn't move at all. Wildlife mostly gathered in deep ravines: mountain lions, pampas cats, rheas, viscachas, and smaller creatures. Some slopes were so windy that there was no grass on them at all, just pebbles.

On the way back from Torres I got a ride in a minivan. We were crossing a barren hillslope when a cloud of sand and small stones rolled towards us from the plain below. Suddenly it was totally dark. Then the wind started bombarding us with larger rocks and dead sheep. All windows on one side were broken, and the squall instantly filled the van with sand. It dragged us across the road, and threw on a hillside. Two minutes later it was over. We got the mutilated van back on its wheels, and rode on.

It was very cold in the Far South. I spent most nights in caves or gulches, but once in a while I had to stay in a city. Fortunately, there were usually construction sites or abandoned houses available. The main inconvenience of traveling there was the border between Argentina and Chile. It looked as if both sides had been determined to draw it in the most stupid way possible. To get to Ushuaia and back, you had to cross it six times. Every time I had to wait for three or four hours, while the border guards were calling their superiors to ask them if it was OK to let a Russian citizen through. Each border crossing left two more stamps in my passport, so I was running out of pages. I knew I would have to get a new passport soon after returning home, and this was not a pleasant procedure in Russia.

I wasted a day trying to get a free ride to the Antarctic. The tourist season hadn't started yet, and non-touristic flights or boats were under constant siege from tourists, so crews there were unfriendly to say the least. The last place I managed to get to was a Nature reserve at the southern tip of Terra del Fuego. It looked very much like the northern coast of the Baltic Sea, with the same fauna - European hare, muskrat, beaver, mink and trout. Only colorful kelp geese, flightless steamer ducks, and foxes were native. The highway I was hiking along turned into a dirt road, and then into a trail. The trail ended at a beach with a wooden sign: "Here is the end of the Panamerican Highway. Buenos Aires 3,000 km, Anchorage 17,500 km".

The day was unusually warm, so I tried snorkeling in a fjord. There was nice kelp forest just offshore, with lots of colorful fish, crabs, and octopuses.

It would be possible to drive to Buenos Aires in two days, but hitchhiking was still very slow. It took me a whole day to cross the island back to the Straights of Magellan. Walking along the highway, I found a place where a truck had been overturned by the wind. The site of the accident was surrounded with piles of chocolate cookies. I filled my backpack with boxes of cookies, and fed on them for about a week afterward. If not for that truck, I'd have to eat in roadside restaurants while hitchhiking, and they were all expensive.

Next morning I crossed the Straights, and after a few more hours of hiking was picked up by a large truck. When I got inside, I could hardly talk because of the cold.

"I'm sick of this road," the driver said, "can you drive?"

"I don't have a license."

"That's OK. There are no turns for the next 500 km. Just don't go faster than 150 per hour, and try not to kill any skunks. I hate washing this truck."

"What about the police?"

"There will be a checkpoint after 300 km, and then after another 300. If you see a sign "police 50 km", wake me up."

"But what about the gears?" (the truck had 12).

"I'll take care of them. Just get to 150 kph, and then drive at that speed."

I spent most of the day driving at that speed, waking him up every two hours to pass a checkpoint. The golden grasslands were slowly turning green. Approximately every fifty kilometers, a new bird species would appear at the roadside: crested tinamous, caracaras, tyrant flycatchers. It was very nice to get back into the warm climate. I didn't have enough warm clothes, and felt very cold most of the time since I'd left Manu National Park. During the last two days in the Far South, I noticed that I couldn't get warm even in heated rooms - a sure sign that my thermoregulatory system was about to give up under constant stress. The other problem was that because of the winds, I often couldn't risk putting up my lightweight tent, and had to sleep in ravines and other dirty places. My clothes were loosing clean look, and looking clean was essential for successful hitchhiking.

Late at night I got off the nice truck at Puerto Madryn turnoff, and hiked across blooming spring steppe to this funny city, which depended almost entirely on whalewatching business. Its stores were full of T-shirts and other souvenirs with pictures of blue whales, sperm whales, and emperor penguins, none of which occured there. The nearby Valdez Peninsula was, however, a great place to see right whales, killer whales, elephant seals, and sea lions. There was also a lot of wildlife in the inner areas of the peninsula - birds, unusual rodents, armadillos, and other interesting stuff, which mostly went unnoticed by thousands of tourists.

Two days later I returned to the highway, and soon got on another truck. This time the driver didn't ask me to drive. Instead, he kept talking for five hours. The country was getting more and more populated. In every small town we drove through, he managed to comment on every passing woman's silhouette.

The central part of Argentina was once an endless sea of tallgrass steppe called pampa. Now it is mostly agricultural land, except for a few small Nature reserves. I spent a day in one of them, called Window Mountain (Cerro de la Ventana). The mountain doesn't have a window, but a deep narrow canyon cuts it in two. It is inhabited by small, very pretty pampas deer. It is also the southern limit of the range of leafcutting ants - here they are very small and cut crescent-shaped pieces of leaves, not rounded ones.

I left the Panamerican Highway, and had to hitchhike from village to village. It took twelve rides to make 300 kilometers. The country looked very much like Ukraine or Hungary: endless green fields, Lombardy poplars, white storks, even adobe houses in some villages. But any similarity disappeared at sunset, when endless flocks of ibises, spoonbills, and screamers crossed the sky. At night, fields were full of grazing armadillos, wild Guinea pigs, and nutrias.

Eventually I got lost in this network of rural roads, not shown on any map. I tried to keep moving northward, and suddenly found myself on a seashore again. It was Mar del Plata, the Silver Sea. I took a ferry to Buenos Aires. The sea (actually, the estuary of La Plata River) was kind of boring, but there were very interesting dolphins in it. They were called franciscanas, and belonged to freshwater dolphins, but lived in the sea.

I spent a night in a small Nature reserve on the river's marshy shores, and next morning paid a visit to Brazilian embassy. It was the last visa I needed to get.

"Do you have an invitation?" they asked.

"My friend invited me," I said, and gave them Paolo's address and phone number.

"You must pay us ten dollars," they said, "because we have to call him and check."

Fortunately, Paolo was home. He confirmed that he'd invited me.

"Now we need a confirmation from our foreign ministry. It will take no more than a week, and you'll have to pay twenty dollars," they said.

I didn't like the idea of living in a swamp for such a long time, so I asked them to send the confirmation to their consulate at the border, and left. At the city edge I found a police checkpoint, showed my Indulgencia to an officer, and asked him to get me a ride north. He stopped a truck for me, and I rode for a couple of hours along dark highway, lit up once in a while by a roadside service station, an island of civilization complete with a restaurant, a hotel, and other goodies. I realized just how complete they were when my driver suddenly stopped at one of the islands, said he'd be back in a few minutes, picked up a prostitute, and disappeared for three long cold hours. I waited for him, watching other drivers pick up girls and bring them back. Interestingly, the price of a girl was directly proportional to her diameter at the thickest point (never less than 50 cm).

Finally I got off the truck at El Palmar junction. The night was warm, full of cricket songs, and the air smelled of flowers. Millions of fireflies of all colors and sizes were flashing in the air and in the trees. Bright dots of light were covering the road. These were nightjars' eyes. As I approached them, they started flying around, looking weird with their unnaturally long tails. I was back to the sunny side of the Earth.

El Palmar and the next national park I visited, Chaco, were two small versions of paradise. Unlike in the forests of Amazonia, wildlife was easy to see in these savannas, especially at dusk. You could expect anything, from painted snipes, purple-nosed rats, seriemas, and six species of armadillos to rheas, giant anteaters, chaco peccaries, and maned wolfs. Picnic areas were inhabited by crocodile-sized teiu lizards and huge plains viscachas. Amphibians mostly gathered around restrooms: it was wet there, and lights attracted lots of insects. I counted twelve species of toads and frogs in one shower booth in Chaco. Dusty roads were covered with animal tracks. Once I saw a family of capybaras: I was standing on a footbridge across a small creek, and a female with three cubs the size of a Guinea pig floated underneath. I also swam across the river which separated El Palmar from Uruguay, but the other side was just some boring pasture.

In my last day in El Palmar I got bitten by an africanized killer bee. It wasn't that painful, but the swelling of my face looked so bad that it made hitchhiking almost impossible. Still, walking along savanna roads was interesting. The countryside had some wildlife, too, and once I saw a real gaucho in traditional clothes (he happened to be a Jew from a village of Polish immigrants).

By the time I left Chaco, the swelling had disappeared. I got a ride from an old German guy. As we were going north along the Paraguay border, he told me he was a Nazi war criminal. I didn't believe him at first, but he showed me some war medals and an officer's ID card. Apparently, he was a former SS sturmbannfuhrer. Naturally, I felt it my moral obligation to kill him, and decided to do it as soon as we pass the next police checkpoint. I already got a string out of my backpack, when he suddenly stopped within view of the checkpoint and said:

"I have to visit this farm out there. The owner owes me money. You'll have to wait for another car."

Well, at least I could hike to the checkpoint and get an easy ride from there. Soon I got to Salto Iguazu National Park, and spent the rest of the day walking along forest roads and saving baby pit vipers from traffic. It is the only tropical rainforest in Argentina, with tall araucarias and lots of birds. The waterfalls don't have that out-of-the Earth feeling Anjel has, but it is still a breathtakingly beautiful place, especially at sunrise, when there are no tourists, and thousands of rainbows play in the cascades. It is also the best place in South America to see flora and fauna of waterfalls: tiny lichen-like plants, terrestrial flatworms that look like a moving stream of black oil, and hundreds of thousands of swifts.

Here I found the most beautiful beetle I've ever seen. It was flat and rounded, probably from Cassidae family, bright golden with two black rings and a dot on its back, like a target. This tiny wonder was about quarter of an inch in size. I couldn't catch it, but I'm almost sure it was an undescribed species.

Next morning I went to the nearby city and waited for the Brazilian consulate to open. Soon there was a line of about fifty tourists behind me. When the consulate opened, the clerk told me they hadn't got my papers from Buenos Aires yet. In five minutes, everybody else got their visas, except for one guy.

"Where are you from, brother?" I asked him.

He was from Poland. He was studying Brazilian literature in a university in Baia, and was trying to get back there after holidays.

We had to come to the consulate for five more days. The city was expensive, so I had to return to the national park every time. Finally we called the embassy in Buenos Aires, and were told that our papers had been faxed to the consulate long time ago.

"We couldn't receive them," the consulate clerk said, smiling friendly.

"Why not?"

"We don't have a fax machine."

"Why didn't you tell us before?"

"You never asked."

"Can you ask them by phone?"

"We don't have a phone yet. We only moved to this office six months ago."

We had to drag the consul to a post office, and pay for another phone call. Now there were no more problems, and in less than ten hours we were allowed to walk across the border.

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