The Disappeared

memorial to the disappeared, Rosario

From 1976-1983, thirty thousand people disappeared in Argentina. They were left-wing guerrillas, political dissidents and activists. They were students, journalists and trade unionists. They were ‘disappeared’ by the military dictatorship and even today the official figure on the numbers involved is only 13,000. They left behind children.

The children were given new identities, illegally adopted by families sympathetic to the government, with no clue about their biological heritage.

memorial to the disappeared, Cordoba

When we visited Argentina, we saw memorials to the disappeared in several cities, but I didn’t know, or even consider, what became of their children.

But erasing an entire generation and stealing the identities of another, wasn’t the end. The parents of the disappeared still remembered, and since 1977 have been campaigning to find the stolen children and annul the illegal adoptions. Through family records and memorabilia, personal investigations and tip-offs, genetic testing and international help, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo have located more than 100 of the estimated 500 missing children.

Jorgelina and Hilario are just two of these children, but their stories show just how complicated reclaiming an identity can be.

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Two books to read in Patagonia

In a tiny little shop in the middle of route 40 in Argentinian Patagonia, I saw a book that catalogued the entire archaeological record of the area. I really wanted to buy it, except I had no cash. Stupidly, I didn’t write down the name because I assumed they’d sell it in all the tourist shops once we reached El Calafate. They didn’t.

But I did find another book instead: “The Captive in Patagonia, or Life Among the Giants” by Benjamin Franklin Bourne (free ebook available here). Published in 1853, it’s the true story of an American who was captured by a group of indigenous people in southern Patagonia. The memoir details his capture, life amongst the Tehuelche people, and finally his escape.

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Now, I said it’s a true story, but it definitely needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Let’s have a look at his description of the people:

“The average height, I should think, is nearly six and a half feet and there were specimens that could have been little less than seven feet high…They exhibit enormous strength, whenever they are sufficiently aroused to shake off their constitutional laziness and exert it.”
(Page 54-55)

Even in a simple physical description, Bourne can’t help adding in a moral judgement. And this is really nothing compared to what else he claims in the book. He tells the story through a very biased lens, but what makes it interesting, and amusing, is that he turns this lens on everyone, not just his captors. Here’s his description of one of the sailors on his ship:

“Our mate, who was a sensible young man, of good education, had two foibles; he was a decided grumbler, and, in his conviviality, he was a little too far from total abstinence.”
(Page 211)

Whilst the accuracy could be called into question, the book gives a glimpse of life (both the Tehuelche’s and Bourne’s) that is fascinating and entertaining. It was the perfect book to read whilst I sailed on the Navimag Ferry through the endless islands of southern Chile.

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It wasn’t until I got to Bolivia that I found the perfect companion book. “Tierra del Fuego” by Sylvia Iparraguirre, is based on real historical events that took place in the 19th century. It’s almost the exact opposite of Bourne’s story as here Iparraguirre chronicles the kidnapping of a Yámana boy, Jemmy Button, by Europeans and the ultimate consequences of this action.

Although narrated by a fictitious historical character, it’s written with a very modern sensibility and provides a wonderful counterpoint to the cultural superiority and colonialist attitudes exhibited by Bourne.

“Two years later in England, when Button was..speaking English fluently, I learned..that the impression I had made on him during those first weeks had been rather unflattering…It would have amused his people to see how someone so proud of what he knew..would turn into a know-nothing as soon as they left him on land…I was offended, but Button was right.”
(Page 66-67)

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The narrative doesn’t always flow well, but knowing the eventual outcome of when Button was returned to his native land, made me keep reading to see how all the events led up to this. It also sent me to Wikipedia afterwards to learn more – something that a good historical novel should do, in my opinion.

The two books together give a great introduction to this period of history in Patagonia. I was fascinated with the artifacts and black and white photos in the museum in Bariloche, but with only Spanish labeling it was hard to understand everything. These two books gave me a different kind of understanding of these people and their way of life.

Cueva de las Manos

There’s something about cave paintings, about ancient handprints and pigments dotting a rocky surface…So when I heard about Cueva de las Manos I knew I had to go. The fact it was in the middle of nowhere Patagonia only made it better.

You can read more about our visit to the caves and the journey there.

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Buenos Aires

People rave about Buenos Aires, so I didn’t want to like it. Yes, I’m that contrary. But when we arrived I couldn’t help but feel happy. The graffiti, the Carnaval parades, the faded red velvet seats in wooden subway carriages, the chaos of people at Retiro station, the dirty streets. It felt like a real city; the people looked tired just through sheer will of having to live in a place like this. It was like a sunnier, more colourful London. I almost felt at home.

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Córdoba

We ran from ATM to ATM, each one with a line longer than the last, until finally we gave in and decided to wait like everyone else. Soon enough though, we realized why the lines were so long. The machines were about to be closed for siesta. Not just the bank, but the ATMs themselves were to be closed between 2 and 4. This is traditional Argentina. This is Córdoba.

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3 cool things in the Museo de Estancia Jesuitica, Alta Gracia

We went to Alta Gracia as a day trip from Cordoba. The town started out as a Jesuit estate and much of the tourism here is based around visiting the ruins (and Che Guevara’s childhood home).

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The museum, housed in the 17th-century Jesuit quarters, has a collection of artifacts relating to both the history of the building and local life through the ages.

These are three of my favourite items, discovered as we wandered up and down stairs and in and out of Jesuits’ cells.

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A gaucho’s stool made out of cattle bones.

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The ceramic water purification system used in the 19th-century.

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A gaucho’s cow udder bag.

Museum entrance fee: ARS$5
How to get there: take a bus from Cordoba, ARS$28 return fare. Tourist maps available from the bus station in town.

Wine tours in Argentina and Chile

We visited three wineries in Argentina (two in Mendoza, one in Cafayate) and one in Chile (near Santiago). The experience at each one was quite similar; a tour of the processing area and/or wine cellars and vineyards, then a tasting of a few wines followed, of course, by a trip to the gift shop (compare them to the bodegas we visited in Bolivia).

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Some varieties of grapes had already been harvested when we visited Mendoza at the end of March.

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Our tour left at 2pm and included transport and a guide, with visits to two different wineries and an olive oil factory (as well as English-speaking guides at each location).

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Bodega Dante Robino is fairly big, producing reds and whites for national and international consumption. As we were shown around, we were told how they make use of various technological processes to speed up production and increase yield. We got to try two reds and a sparkling white (which was too champagne-like for my tastes). There wasn’t that much explanation about the wines themselves and the whole tour was a little impersonal.

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When we reached Bodega Cavas de Don Arturo, it was a totally different story. The guide here was well-trained and knew just how to draw us in with anecdotes about Don Arturo and his family. Processing and production are done as naturally as possible, without the use of chemicals. It may have been my imagination, but the wines we tasted here really did seem better for it (and apparently it’s the chemicals that cause a hangover, not the alcohol…hmm…). We were given four different kinds, with a full explanation of each, as well as a ‘how to’ of wine tasting. This was easily my favourite winery.

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Whilst on a tour of Quebrada de las Conchas, we didn’t realise that we were going to stop in at a winery in Cafayate.

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Like Mendoza, the region is very dry and needs complex irrigation systems for the vines. This area is especially well-known for Torrontés (a white grape variety). As whites go, it wasn’t bad but I still preferred the reds.

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The bodega we visited is similar in size to Don Arturo’s, although it was more of just a tasting experience than a full-blown tour (they have a nice looking lunch menu, although we had to eat elsewhere).

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In Santiago we decided to skip the tour group and go ourselves to the Concha y Toro winery (but we still, understandably, had to join a tour once we arrived). The grounds of the Concha y Toro estate are really beautiful…and big! Depending on how you count – acres of vines or gallons produced – it’s the second or third biggest in the world (the other two are E&J Gallo and Fosters).

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Concha y Toro produces the Casillero del Diablo line of wines (which happens to be the only decent wine we could find in 7-11 in Taiwan). We were taken into the ‘Devil’s cellar’ and left in the dark while a dramatic voice explained the legend behind the name. I won’t spoil it by telling you.

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Mendoza: half-day tour booked through our hostel, ARS$100 per person.
Cafayate: day tour booked through tourist agency in Salta, ARS$150 pp.
Santiago: our transport was kindly paid by David Bronson, winery tour CLP$8,000 pp.

A postcard from the shrine of Difunta Correa

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Walking in the desert surrounding Mendoza, we’d seen small roadside shrines made out of tiny mud bricks and stones. Sometimes there were little statues, sometimes nothing but water-filled plastic bottles.

It was hot. Really hot. And since we were having no luck with hitch-hiking we considered for a moment that if we got stuck out there we’d drink the water from the bottles.

It didn’t come to that, luckily.

A week later, in Salta, we were riding through the desert landscape of Quebrada de las Conchas, with more water than we needed. In the misty dampness our guide pointed out a red shrine under a tree. It was for Gauchito Gil, who was hanged from a tree but whose supernatural powers, according to legend, have influence from beyond the grave.

We asked if the shrines we’d seen in the desert had also been made for Gauchito Gil, and that’s when we learned about another folkloric miracle worker.

In the 19th century, a young woman had been crossing the desert with her baby to reach her sick husband who was fighting in the civil war. Without enough water, she died. Days later some gauchos found her body, the baby miraculously still alive having fed from her ever flowing breast milk.

Like Gauchito Gil, she has become a popular folk-figure preyed to for help and miracles. A debate among the Argentinians in our bus began over whether the Catholic Church officially recognized either Difunta Correa or Gauchito Gil. They told us that if in need you can take water from her shrine, but you must later replenish it.

Two days later, our long-distance bus made a stop in a middle-of-no-where village. The road was just a dust track, but there were lots of parilla restaurants with outdoor barbecue pits where animal carcasses were stretched out as if undergoing some kind of medieval torture. Behind a row of little gift stalls, a dry path led up a hill through what looked like piles of junk. We decided to explore.

What we found was a huge shrine complex devoted to Difunta Correa, in her final resting place. The ‘piles of junk’ were models of houses and businesses, offered in hope and gratitude for her help. Weather-worn figurines of the prone Difunta, complete with bare breast and baby, adorned the stairs and railings of the pathway as it lead upwards. License plates, and the occasional motorcycle helmet, hung from the roofed cover of the staircase and little church at the top. Photos and notes of thanks were attached with string and drawing pins to every available surface.

A man was crawling on hands and knees in supplication as he neared the top. A woman reached into a large concrete pit to light a candle amongst a mass of wax stumps and burning flames and whispered something with her hands pressed together. Another woman took a bottle of water from the many that were next to a well, and then threw an empty bottle into a pile on the other side, presumably to be refilled later. Inside the tiny church, people bent their heads in prayer to the life-size figure in a red dress.

We had hardly enough time to look before we had to descend through the hill of votives and pass the gift shops, selling the same little figurines used as offerings, and get back on our departing bus.

This was a world away from Buenos Aires or Rosario, which felt like being in any European country.