Argentinian Diary – Madres de Plaza de Mayo

Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

Argentinian Diary – Madres de Plaza de Mayo

Since 30th April 1977 mothers of those Communists, trade unionists and other social militants who were abducted and murdered by agents of the military dictatorship walked around the monument in the centre of the Plaza de Mayo, next to the government building known as the Casa Rosada. It was a Thursday and the time was 15.30.

On Thursday 29th November 2018 they did so for the 2120th time – without interruption.

There was a fear that the preparations for the G-20 Summit due to start on Friday 30th November (described above) might have caused that unbroken series by the blocking off of the square as it is in part of the no-go area. In order that such a situation could be forestalled a number of the women from the organisation, together with supporters and various members of the international media, arrived before midday and installed themselves in the centre of the square. They reasoned, accurately I would have thought, that the Argentine government would not like to have images of women in their 80s and 90s being dragged off by heavily armed riot police.

The stupidity of governments can never be overestimated but there was no move to prevent the traditional even from taking place and I saw no obvious police presence at the time. What might have happened since I’ll discover on my walkabout tomorrow morning.

More than 30,000 men and women were ‘disappeared’ by the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. They were abducted by agents of the fascists, more often than not tortured (for no other reason than because they could be), murdered and their bodies disposed of in unmarked graves in the countryside or just thrown from helicopters into the Atlantic ocean.

Although more than 40 years have passed there are still many parents and family members who know nothing about the whereabouts of their children’s remains. And justice is as far from being given these murdered champions of the working class now as it was then. The killing goes on. As I wrote about the demonstration in the centre of Buenos Aires on Monday 26th November, two militants have been killed by the police in the last week.

The symbol of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

The symbol of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

Anyone who goes to the square today can see white scarves, the symbol the women adopted from the very start of their campaign, painted in the circle they walk each Thursday.

Due to the proximity of the G-20 and the threat that the women (and their supporters) might have been prevented making the traditional circuit of the square I don’t know if what happened on Thursday 29th November was the norm – but I don’t think the process would have been much different. The Press Conference wouldn’t have taken place but the procession, I’m sure, has established its format over the years.

What happened was that a small group (just after 15.30), with the old women in the front, holding a banner from the top edge in front of them, walked slowly around the square (probably getting slower each passing year) and someone read out a list of names. Once the name was announced the crowd would shout ‘Presente!’ in the idea that even though no longer alive they were forever in the memories of those who knew them. I didn’t count but they must have walked around the square close to ten times. As was the tradition from the start there were copies of photos of those who were abducted and murdered either pinned to their clothes or held up as placards.

Then the women from the leadership of the organisation, who had arrived at midday and had spent the time under a temporary bodega (to protect them from the sun but on that Thursday it rained in the early afternoon but, fortunately, it had stopped by the time the clock struck the half hour past three) stood up so there were now two groups walking around the monument in the centre of the square. They didn’t read out names – but did carry photos of those ‘disappeared’ – but sang songs and from time to time started anti-government, workers solidarity chants.

This went on for about half an hour when the press conference took place. (This can be listened to on the official website of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo.)

There’s no shadow of a doubt that this is a very emotional occasion. The determination and steadfastness of these women has to be admired. As has their development of the organisation that is not only seeking justice for their dead children but expanding into one that fights for social justice in present day Argentina – when so-called ‘democracy’ has changed little for the better for the workers.

However positive their struggle and the lessons it has provided for movements around the world there is still a problem with (what I consider) a lack of understanding of the society in which we all live.

My knowledge of Argentinian politics and history has never been that good and it will take me some time to get up to date. That means that some of the statements made and slogans chanted in the press conference were lost to me – I’ve gotten out of the habit of understanding how Latin Americans refer to their political leaders.

If I understood matters at all, after all that the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo have suffered during the period of the military dictatorship and through the different governments since they are still peddling the idea of parliamentary cretinism, supporting some leaders because others are worse. I don’t know if there is potential in Argentina for a radical change but if aggrieved mothers haven’t got justice in 40 years I think it is time they looked for a more radical and revolutionary change in their society.

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Argentinian (and Brazilian) Diary – Iguazu Falls

First view of Iguazu Falls - Brazil

First view of Iguazu Falls – Brazil

Argentinian (and Brazilian) Diary – Iguazu Falls

If you are anywhere near the Misiones province of north-east Argentina then it’s a ‘must’ to go and see the Iguazu Falls. Superlatives abound when they have been described in the past – but they don’t disappoint. They fall within the border between Brazil and Argentina (with the majority in Argentina) and if possible you should try to see the falls from both sides. You are only watching water flow but you won’t get bored as around the corner it’s doing it in a different and often more spectacular manner.

If possible I would suggest you try to see the falls from the Brazilian side first in order to get a panoramic view of them and then (the next day) visit the National Park in Argentina where you can get close up in a way that’s impossible in Brazil. (The Practical Details involved in visiting the two sides are at the end of the post.)

There are so many people visiting both parks in the summer that any animals you might see are only the ones that have become used to humans as a source (either willingly or unwittingly) of free food. The coati (from my experience) have become more bold and aggressive and despite all the signs about not feeding them they will literally snatch food from out of the hands of the unwary. I don’t know if some of the more forward might not be culled at various times of the year – otherwise the ‘wild’ population would become totally dependent upon scraps from tourists. But some of the birds, and especially the butterflies (on my visit), were amazing.

To see any of the other, larger mammals you would have to be there first thing in the morning before the arrival of the crowds or (if possible) pick you time to visit when it’s the low season.

The Brazilian Side

You are much more constrained in the Brazilian National Park than when you visit the falls in Argentina – unless you take one of the many not-so-cheap add-on tours that are on sale. You have to queue and get on a bus getting off close to the pink Hotel das Cataratas – ignore the first two stops which are just for the extra tours.

From there you join a path which follows the banks of the river as it gets closer to the outflow from the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). The videos below will, I hope, give some idea of what you would see.

In the next video you will be able to see groups of people standing on a platform right over the water. This walkway is part of the Upper Trail you can take and gives you an idea of the different experience awaiting you on a visit to the Argentinian National Park, from Puerto Iguazu.

Go on a crowded Sunday in January, as I did, and you will be fighting to get a view with the people wanting to take selfies. Just behind the rising plume of spray you can see people on the walkway heading to the Garganta del Diablo in Argentina.

One of the amazing things about Iguazu is that you have the huge waterfalls and countless other smaller, yet in any other context significant, falls wherever you look.

This is the closest you get the falls on the Brazilian side. You’re looking up at the Garganta del Diablo and getting wet.

It’s a true fight to get space at the end of the walkway. You see nothing, as the spray is so intense, but it will give you a feeling of the force of the water – and the noise.

 

The Argentinian Side

Parque Nacional Iguazu - Argentina

Parque Nacional Iguazu – Argentina

Considering that if you could only go to one side of the falls you would want to choose the Argentinian the experience of entering the Parque Nacional Iguazú from Puerto Iguazú is much more pleasant and relaxed. This is obvious as soon as you get off the bus.

Here there is no huge esplanade that is capable of taking queues of hundreds for the ticket office and then the bus. Here it is quiet and what you would expect on entering a national park as opposed to a Disney-style theme park. Here the crowds soon disappear into the various ways that people can enjoy the surroundings.

Yes, there are bottlenecks at the two railway stations that take those who don’t want to walk to the closest land point to the Garganta del Diablo and possible bottlenecks along the walkway itself but nothing as compared to the other side of the river. You see much more, have an experience of walking in a jungle environment, albeit along constructed walkways, and get a better impression of the scale of the place you are in. And it’s cheaper to visit – in fact all the National Parks in Argentina are cheaper than they are in neighbouring Chile and Brazil. Added to that you can get a printed plan of the park from the Visitor’s Centre (see above).

Garganta del Diablo

To get to the main attraction it’s possible to take the small narrow gauge railway the 2.5 kilometres from Cataratas Station or you can walk it in a little over half an hour. The route is easy enough to find, you just walk beside the railway track. The walk means you don’t have to fight to get on the train and as it only runs every half an hour you can walk it in the time it takes to wait for the next one. From the Garganta Station it’s another 15 minute walk, more or less, (depending upon the crowds) to the platform that looks into the Devil’s Throat.

Views of the ‘minor’ falls

As can be seen from the previous videos the Garganta del Diablo is not the only waterfall at Iguzu and in order to get a close view of some of the others a quite intricate, but relatively subtle, system of walkways has been created to allow people to get close to the water before it thunders down yet another precipice. Often hidden by the undergrowth these walkways make the park accessible without being too intrusive. Obviously there are times when these walkways come out into the open (especially the one to the Garganta del Diablo as it crosses the open river) but much of the time the heavy vegetation hides most of the structure – at least the second system since the falls were made accessible to the public.

There are two main trails, the Upper and the Lower.

The Upper Trail

And a bit further along:

(I didn’t notice the Great White Egret at the very end of the clip until I reviewed what I had filmed later on – a pity that.)

The Lower Trail

And a final Iguazu Falls video.

 

Practical details

Cataratas do Iguaçu (The Brazilian Viewpoint)

If you can at all help it DON’T visit the Cataratas do Iguaçu in January, and especially not on a Sunday, as I did. Unless you are very strategic the queues can be horrendous. The suggestions made below are based on someone being based in Puerto de Iguazu (Argentina) who wishes to see the falls from Brazil.

Nothing is really difficult here it just means that with a little forethought (which I lacked having arrived after dark and didn’t think to check departure details until the following day) and planning a lot of the stress and frustration can be taken out of the trip.

Take the first bus from Puerto de Iguazu bus station at 07.30. The local (as opposed to the long distance) buses leave from over the green metal bridge on the right hand side of the bus station as you enter it from Avenida Cordoba.

At the bottom of the ramp there’s the ticket booth of the Rio Uruguay bus company, who run one of the regular routes to both the falls on the Brazilian and Argentinian side. Get your ticket before you try to get on the bus – the driver will take cash but it speeds things up if you already have a ticket. The fare is AR$ 130 each way. Get a return, (ida y vuelta).

The buses leave on the half hour, every hour from both ends of the journey and take just under an hour – taking into account the border formalities. (If you take the 07.30 bus from the Puerto you will arrive just under 30 minutes after the ticket office has opened and it should be very quiet.)

When the bus arrives at the Argentinian immigration ALL passengers have to get off and go through the well staffed and efficient (although somewhat cramped) passport hall. You will get an exit stamp in your passport. Get back on the bus and everyone should be in and out in less than 10 minutes.

The bus then goes to the Brazilian immigration and customs. Here everyone BUT Argentinian citizens have to get off and go through the entry process. (Argentinians (and presumably Brazilians) wanting to visit the neighbouring country for less than 24 hours don’t have to get stamps in their passports – the reason for them getting off and having their identity cards checked on leaving Argentina is to make sure there’s nothing untoward). People leaving Argentina to start a trip in Brazil are unlikely to have their luggage checked – although don’t bank on it. Every so often there might be a bit of a purge.)

Get back on the bus and, again, this process should be over in 10 minutes. It’s about 15 more minutes to the Visitors’ Centre. (My driver seemed to want to get people to buy tickets for the Parque das Aves, just outside the entrance to the falls. My information is that it’s not really worth it, especially for indigenous breeds. And it delays you getting to your main objective.)

Once at the Visitors’ Centre there are two ways to get your tickets.

The first, and the quickest in most circumstances, is from the self-service ticket machines that are just to the left of the bus stop. There you will find about 6 blue machines. Fairly straightforward if you have a Visa or Mastercard Debit/Credit Card. You’re snookered if your card is not – mine wasn’t, when I just assumed it was, and wasted time standing in one long queue when I should have been wasting my time standing in an even bigger queue.

The second is the general ticket windows. They will accept Brazilian Rials, Argentinian Pesos or US Dollars. To confuse things even more the ticket cost me, more or less, the equivalent of £18.00 (or AR$ 862). Strangely I was asked for my passport and it was actually photographed and stored on the computer system. Why that was necessary is beyond me. Perhaps if the waterfall was to go missing during the day they had a list of suspects.

(The number of times our personal details are being recorded is phenomenal. Eat your heart out Stasi. What you did was nothing as compared to modern states – those vassal states, such as Argentina and the UK, sending all this information to the Department for Homeland Security in the USA. A visit to a waterfall obviously counting as a terrorist training activity.)

Once bought you have to queue at the embarkation gate to get on a bus to take you into the National Park. If early in the morning this should be a breeze – also after about 14.00.

There are two stops before you arrive at the large Hotel das Cataratas. Those stops are for extra excursions not included in the park entrance fee – and if you had paid for them you would probably have been taken to the area in your own bus. You get of the bus at the huge hotel and there’s a trail that starts dropping down from the road about a 100 metres after the bus stop, where you immediately get an idea of the extent of the falls.

This route will take you along a path which reveals more of what is on offer, eventually coming down close to the river where there’s a pedestrian bridge taking you quite a way into the river and a view, and feel, of the spray created by the biggest fall, the Garganta del Diablo. If you go that far you will get wet.

From that low point you can either take the lift up to the road level or walk back a short distance and take the route marked as ‘Exit’ which brings you to the same place. The queues to come back will move a lot faster as there seems to be a limit on the numbers of people arriving, especially when it is very busy, so as not to create huge log jams of people at the various viewpoints. Once you have finished the aim is to get you out as quickly as possible.

I didn’t test out any of the food and drink places at the visitors’ centre – or at the end of the trail by the return bus stop.

Once out of the park the bus back to Puerto de Iguazu leaves from where you got off. Although Argentinians are into queuing normally even they will leave their culture behind at this bus stop. At least 50% of the passengers will be foreigners with no tradition of queuing and everyone knows that it’s not a matter of getting on the bus it’s a matter of getting seat.

The process through immigration is the same as coming. Argentinians stay on the bus at the Brazil immigration (and take the seats of those who have to get off if they didn’t have one in the first place) and it’s an even bigger scrum at the Argentinian immigration as their identity cards are checked quicker than foreign passports. Then either with or without a seat you head back to Puerto de Iguazu. Normally all it has cost you over and above the park entrance fees is a lost page in your passport.

Cataratas del Iguazú (the Argentinian viewpoint)

The bus leaves from the same place as for the trip to the Brazilian Falls and the bus is operated by the same company. (There are other companies that make these trips but Rio Uruguay was the one I used.) The cost is AR$ 130 each way, and as above get a return – although the Argentinian Park being quieter there would be no problem in getting a ticket in the office by the bus stop at the park entrance.

Nominally the buses run every half hour, on the hour and half hour but in January the frequency was increased to every 20 minutes and they were doubling up of buses at the busy time around 09.00-10.00. Obviously the earlier the bus the less crowded will be the park when you arrive. The journey takes about 45 minutes.

The ticket windows (only 3 or 4 of them) are just back from the bus stop and the queues are nothing like they are in Brazil – that was crazy. Entrance for a foreign national adult is AR$ 700 – about £14.00.

Once with ticket just walk through the automated barriers and you can go where you want. The Visitors Centre is about 400m into the park on the right hand side where you can pick up a paper plan. My recommendation is – whatever time you arrive – that you head for the Garganta del Diablo first, either by the train or by walking. It is THE area to see and you don’t want to leave yourself short of time.

After the Garganta del Diablo head back to the Cataratas Station and pick up the path that leads to the two walkways – the red one on the map which is the Upper Circuit and the blue one which is the Lower Circuit. Both are worth the effort. 

There are a number of eating and drinking places around the area of the Central Rail Station towards the entrance.

Buses back to Puerto de Iguazu are timetabled the same as leaving the town but in the height of the season more will be made available. The company seems to be able to predict when it needs extra buses as they weren’t just responding at the last minute in the bus station. They know from experience how much time the majority of people will stay in the park and will schedule the buses accordingly.

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Argentinian Diary – the shrine of La Difunta Correa – the deceased Correa

La Difunta Correa

La Difunta Correa

Argentinian Diary – the shrine of La Difunta Correa – the deceased Correa

A few days ago I made my first pilgrimage to a pagan shrine. (At least it wasn’t Christian one.) I didn’t do on my knees or by stripping the skin off my back with a metal flay – the like of which I saw in a priest’s cell in Sicily – but on a regular bus from San Juan to a small village known as Vallecito, about 65 kms away and taking just over an hour.

The story of the Difunta Correa is as strange and unbelievable as any produced by the mainstream religions. Her name was Deolinda Correa and she was married to a conscript in the war of Independence against the Spanish crown. She heard that he was sick (how that was possible for a poor conscript and his wife is a mystery to me) and she decided (for bizarre reasons) to head to the war zone to give him succour.

She was also nursing her baby and went through the desert area through the present day province of San Juan with limited provisions. A little bit irresponsible and irrational but it is from such situations that miracles are born.

Why she went out into the desert so ill prepared is another mystery and (according to some versions of the story) no one was prepared to give her water as she made her progress and died of heat exhaustion. A few days after her death (how many is not specified) she was found by a group of gauchos (Argentinian cowboys) and they were surprised to find that her baby was still feeding from her dead breast – what happened to that baby is also not specified. This was in 1840 when people were more stupid and susceptible to suggestion about so-called ‘miracles’ but many still believe this twaddle well into the 21st century – so really no less stupid and susceptible.

I’m not a medical expert but I assume that the process of a mother being able to breast feed her baby is a two way contract. The baby suckles and something in the mother’s metabolism permits the release of milk from the mammary glands. I can’t see even the most desperate and hungry baby being able to suck out the nutrition to survive even if it had the sucking power of a Dyson on speed. Or perhaps, the hidden part of the story, this baby was an offspring of Lestat and was, in fact, a vampire.

Whatever the reality ‘La Difunta Correa’ became a people’s ‘saint’.

Now here I’m going to make a few wild assumptions.

From what I have read about young Deolinda she really became an icon for the poor just over 40 years ago – that coincides with the beginning of the military dictatorship in Argentina – which only collapsed due to the failure in the liberation of the Malvinas from the imperialist British. This means to say that for more than a hundred years she was merely a folk tale that fed the limited imagination of the desperate.

During the period of the dictatorship the Catholic Church, both in Rome and at a local level in Argentina, would have supported the military in their campaign against left wing, socialist and communist groups within the country who were seeking to make the life of the majority better at the expense of the rich.

In such circumstances the choice of a ‘popular’ heroine, such a Deolinda Correa, could have been seen as a pacific act of defiance to the military dictatorship and the official, State religion. By the time the military had ceased to hold (openly) political and economic power the cult of ‘La Difunta Correa’ had already produced its own momentum. From that time there was no going back and the mythology and importance of the death of a poor, young peasant woman (if she ever existed) could only grow in importance.

She became the ‘pagan’ patron ‘saint’ of travellers (eat your heart out Saint Christopher) and the shrine just grew and grew.

Today it’s worth a visit for the view it provides about what Argentinian people think about their existence. The phenomenon of ‘La Difunta Correa’ is not just one for the area (San Juan province) in which she is supposed to have died and little red shrines, normally a small dolls house with bottles of water surrounding them (often with red flags flying), can be seen the length and breadth of the country alongside roads, both major and minor. (I’ve seen I don’t know how many of these shrines but always on a speeding bus and so don’t have a photo to help the understanding of the phenomenon.)

At the top of the shrine in Vallecito there’s a place where people can light candles, just as if it were a Catholic shrine, and although on my visit there were only a few people there are certain times of the year – one of them coinciding with the ‘Day of the Dead’ (November 1st) – when thousands of people are in the small village. The stench from the burning of the cheap candles must be intense and the pollution it is causing is clear for all to see.

Around the shrine of the La Difunta Correa

Around the shrine of the La Difunta Correa

It would also be interesting to know the attitude of the Catholic Church to this phenomenon. Yes, it’s not on the level of Lourdes in France but there’s a serious undercurrent that challenges the official religion. At the same time I’m almost certain that those who go to visit ‘La Difunta’ are also quite ‘religious’ in the official sense. There were crucifixes in abundance at the shrine and the statues were touched and venerated in the same way I’ve seen people approach statues in various churches and Cathedrals throughout Argentina. However, at present, the church probably has nothing to fear from the poor girl and her child.

What I did find interesting about her image is the fact that she is wearing a bright red dress, red on women being an anathema to Catholics – with the Magdalena always being depicted with red hair (and often with red painted toe nails) to indicate that she was a ‘fallen woman’, i.e. a prostitute. Whereas Deolinda wears her red shroud with pride.

There was also a few examples of the sexualisation of the dead girl as some of the statues had her with her left leg bent at the knee and therefore the raising of her dress.

La Difunta Correa

La Difunta Correa

I’ll let the picture gallery at the end tell its own story but before that I want to make a number of points.

Although not praying, and asking favours, from the establishment’s God all the relics that have been left by I don’t know how many thousands of people in the last 40 years demonstrate that still many people believe in a force outside of themselves for their successes – no one goes to Vallecito to register their failures.

And this is problematic.

The more that people look to external factors, influences on their lives, the less they look to themselves and those around them for the solution to the problems of society.

For example, in the Museum area there is a ‘Salon de estudiantes’ – ‘Students Room’ – where the ‘faithful’ have left copies of their diplomas, etc. If it becomes universally accepted that some sort of ‘divine’ intervention is needed to succeed in exams then why should anyone study? More importantly, those who fail can always blame their lack of dedication to that deity for their failures.

La Difunta Correa - 'Students' Room'

La Difunta Correa – ‘Students’ Room’

In another women have ‘donated’ their wedding dresses (what use do they have for it a second time, anyway) in thanks for finding someone to marry them. But that doesn’t reduce the divorce rate which is increasing, even in Argentina.

But the main problem with this way of thinking is that people don’t take responsibility for their own actions, or inaction. They will either play the victim or argue that they were helpless against an overwhelming force. Or the lack of support from a dead peasant woman.

And this just feeds the victim status that many claim in present day societies. They are incapable of changing things as there is some overwhelming force against them which makes any change impossible, that there’s no point in doing anything as nothing is achievable.

As is always the case at these ‘shrines’ there are a multitude of souvenir shops selling tat. Just so I could ensure I would survive my journey I bought a little statuette of the dead woman and her child as well as a fridge magnet (to add to my collection of the worse taste fridge magnets in the world). I did that before a beer as I waited for the bus back to San Juan. It was after a certain level of alcohol I wondered why I had been so daft – not the other way round.

If I do survive then perhaps I will have to return to Vallecito and leave an offering of thanks.

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