Iguazu Falls

fallsThe Grand Cataratas

In the far northeastern corner of Argentina, where the border bumps up against Paraguay and Brazil, is one of the most spectacular sights you could ever hope to see.

If the Grand Canyon of the Colorado is, well, grand then the falls at Iguazu are every bit as unique and impossible to capture in words or pictures. About 275 individual water falls dump 5,000 cubic meters per second of water over the falls. Vastly more water than Niagara. Victoria Falls in Africa is higher than Iguazu, but the massive sweep of the Argentine falls has to make it the water fall in the world.

Since 1934 the area has been, wisely for Argentina and the rest of us, protected as a National Park. The park, the first in Argentina, and the surrounding subtropical rain forest is also a World Heritage Site and one of South America’s top tourist destinations.

The river system that produces the falls drains an area comparable to the Amazon or the Mississippi. The system eventually drains to the vast Rio de la Plata separating Uruguay and Argentina. I have never seen so much water.

The park is very well maintained with access to the falls provided by an ingenious series of metal catwalks that allows a visitor to cross the many river channels and literally stand atop the great cataratas. Boat tours also travel up the river for a down below look at the falls. Yes, it is wet down there. Very, very wet. Sort of an E ticket ride at Disneyland, but conducted in the rain forest.

I have always thought the Grand Canyon was the single most impressive natural site I have ever seen. Iguazu Falls is every bit as grand. See this place if you ever get the chance. And good for the Argentines for taking such good care of such a remarkable and sensitive place.

An Argentine Icon

firpoDempsey vs. Firpo – A Fight For All Time

Only the most die hard American sports fan is likely to recognize the name Luis Angel Firpo. In Argentina, he is a national icon thanks, in part, to one big fight and one amazing painting.

In 1923, Jack Dempsey was the biggest name in sports. The heavyweight champion of the world took a backseat to no one, not even the great Babe Ruth.

In 1923, Luis Firpo, nicknamed “the wild bull of the Pampas,” was handsome, strapping, 6′ 2″ heavyweight contender who had made a name for himself by beating, among others, former champ Jess Willard. On September 24, 1923, Dempsey and Firpo met before 80,000 fans at the Polo Grounds in New York. The fight was over inside of two rounds, but what a brawl it was.

Within a few seconds of the first round, Firpo knocked Dempsey down with a hay maker, but Dempsey bounced back to knock the Argentine down an unbelievable seven times. (No three knockdown rule and no neutral corners in those days.) Firpo somehow survived the onslaught and kept pn punching. Just before the end of the first round he hit the champion so hard that Dempsey fell through the ropes and out of the ring. Dempsey landed on the press table.

That moment – Luis Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey out of the ring – is captured in George Bellow’s famous painting.

Amazingly, somehow Big Jack pulled himself back into the ring and the round ended. The slug fest continued in the second round with Dempsey finally knocking Firpo out to retain the championship. Firpo pocketed more than $150,000 for the fight, a lot of money in 1923. He went on to fight a while longer, but used his smart business sense to parley his boxing skill into a fortune. Luis Firpo died in 1960, but is well remembered in Argentina where statutes have been erected in his memory.

The Bellow’s painting hasn’t hurt either man’s reputation either. Firpo is the only man to ever knock Dempsey out of a boxing ring. Dempsey was tough enough to take it and still prevail. The picture has been reproduced a million times. If I ever own a place where you could get a beer and shot, I know what would hang behind the bar.

There you have the Argentine roots of the one of the greatest boxing matches of all time and the origin of a painting the Smithsonian ranks as an American masterpiece.

The Malvinas

christinaPolitics the World Over

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is not really a movie star, she just plays one in the bizarre world of Argentine politics. As the first woman elected president of Argentina – she succeeded her husband who remains in Congress – she does command a certain rock star celebrity.

The papers in Buenos Aires right now are full of President Cristina’s worries about impending British oil exploration off the coast of the Falkland Islands, er, make that the Isles Malvinas in the south Atlantic.

Some might remember that Argentina and Great Britain engaged in a deadly little shooting war over those islands in 1982. The then-Argentine military government, hoping to divert public attention from its awful human rights record and inability to improve the economy, launched an invasion of what the Argentine’s still consider their territory. Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” and not willing to look weak in a showdown with Argentina, of all countries, dispatched the Royal Marines, the Royal Navy and several boatloads of national pride several thousand miles to the southern hemisphere to keep the desolate specks of land that make up the Falklands in the hands of the Brits.

Now, the British, no doubt sure that they settled the matter years ago, want to explore for oil in the area. Some estimates place the reserves in the billions of barrels. Silly Brits. Argentine maps still claim the territory – ergo it is really Argentine oil – even if most of the rest of the world thinks the whole affair a little silly; a Latin version of The Mouse That Roared.

Argentina plans to raise the oil exploration issue – “anachronistic colonization” one Argentine pol called it – at the United Nations. And not to put too fine a point on the dispute, it is being suggested in Buenos Aires that maybe British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is hoping to trigger an international incident to help his flagging standing in front of a national elections in Britain now expected in May.

The thought occurs that perhaps President CFK, as she is called in Argentina, also suffering in the polls, in a nasty dispute with her own vice president, and not very popular, may too appreciate the distraction of a good, old fashioned international dust-up. Just to put this in some context, one of the daily demonstrations last week in Buenos Aires’s main square – where Juan and Eva Peron used to rally the faithful – was a protest of Malvinas war veterans who were calling for better benefits. That little south Atlantic war back in 1982 may be mostly forgotten elsewhere. Not in Argentina.

The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borge once referred to the Falkland’s War as “two bald men arguing over a comb,” but “wagging the dog” has long been good politics the world over. Expect diplomacy to prevail – eventually. For one thing, one Argentine writer estimates that the “powerful” Argentine Air Force might be able to get all of ten aircraft off the tarmac. Still, and more seriously, Argentina is threatening to hold up shipping in the area to halt the British moves.

Also expect, based upon the reaction in the land that still lays claim to the Malvinas, that a lot of newspaper ink is going to be spilled for the sake of national honor and, of course, politics. In the British press, CFK is dismissively called “the botox Evita,” but she knows a good role when she sees one. Drama is part of the president’s job description in Argentina.

Eye to Eye

penquinsThe World in Balance

It is impossible, I think, to kneel down to eye level with a penguin and not be impressed – awed even – with power of ol’ Mother Nature to put the whole world proper perspective.

On a tiny, rocky island in the Beagle Channel off the coast of Argentina, about 8,000 penguins have settled in for their summer break in the southern hemisphere. Some of them spent the winter getting to this remote birthing room from as far away as Antarctica, 1,000 kilometers further south. The happy penguins we saw this week seem remarkably tolerant of humans, although the government here is careful to allow no more than 20 visitors at a time to their island and the visits – like to any maternity room – are short and quiet. Sudden movements are discouraged. Don’t mess with the penguins, in other words.

The day of our visit was beautifully sunny, warm and not too windy. Most of the chubby penguins seemed to enjoy basking in the warm, summer sun of the very South Atlantic with an occasional quick swim to bring lunch back for the kids. The penguins, mostly the black and white Magellanic penguin, happily posed for pictures. They should have been running a photo concession. They could easily have collected boat fare back to winter quarters.

On this perfect February day, nature seemed in perfect balance. That is, of course, a momentary, human illusion. The glaciers nearby are retreating. The Antarctic ice is shrinking. Whatever one thinks of the global climate change, it can’t be lost on any of us that places like this tiny, rocky island off the coast of Argentina are indicators of the health of our own lives on the blue planet. For one day it all seemed in order, in balance. I’m already thinking about coming back for another visit. I hope the penguins feel the same, next year and for thousands more.

The End of the World

andesAndes + Ocean + Islands = Spectacular

I have always thought some of the world’s great scenery was in the American West. The northern Rockies in Glacier National Park in Montana and the Sawtooth Range in central Idaho are truly world class. For maritime views there is little to compare with the San Juan Islands between Washington State and British Columbia.

However, having spent a couple of days tramping around “the end of the world” has me convinced that the southern tip of Argentina – Tierra del Fuego - must rank as one of the world’s most spectacular pieces of real estate.

The Argentine’s have tried a thousands schemes of create an industrial economy here. Sheep ranching in the 1890’s, a massive prison in the early 20th Century and in the 1950’s Juan Peron decreed that a naval base be located in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. More recently, port facilities have been developed. Still it is the incredible scenery that brings most of the visitors and generates most of the pesos.

Argentina has struggled to create a modern industrial society in a vast land with limited traditional natural resources. What Patagonia has in abundance – breathtaking scenery, penguins, birds and solitude – may be even more valuable in an increasingly industrialized 21st Century.

The end of the world feels more like the beginning of the world we will increasingly value. It is not all that easy to get here, but it will be impossible to forget and irresistible not to return.

On the Road – Still

francisWaiting for Godot…or Delta

The British mystery writer Dick Francis has died. I liked his crisp, descriptive writing and thank him for introducing me, along with many other Americans, I suspect, to the sport of steeplechasing. His obit in the New York Times recounts his own early career as a jockey. He rode a dozen races with a broken arm and won two of them.

There was another obit in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution over the weekend that was both difficult to read and impossible to ignore. Diane Caves worked for the Centers for Disease Control and went to Haiti three weeks before the earthquake. Here is one sentence from writer Mark Davis’s poignant piece about her life and work:

Diane Caves of Atlanta, a policy analyst with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was killed in the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti. This past Tuesday, nearly a month later, searchers found her body in the ruins of the hotel where she was staying. She traveled as much as she could. She laughed loud and often. She was 31.”

Moving from those sublime lives to the ridiculous, word comes over the weekend that two former politicians who ought to be retired for life – former Ohio Congressman Jim Traficant and former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci - are positioning to attempt the post-prison comeback. Just what the U.S. Congress needs, an election Salon calls “the year of the crook.” At least those guys will have the most interesting hairstyles in the House. Meanwhile, good guys like Senators Evan Bayh and Judd Gregg are hanging it up. Not a good development for the Republic.

A lot of time to catch up on, and reflect upon, the news this weekend as Delta Airlines continues to recover in the American southeast from a “crippling” one inch snowstorm on Friday. Today is the day, I’m assured, when all returns to “normal.” I have faith.

Still, I couldn’t help reflect while, waiting for Delta, on Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play where two characters wait for that fellow Godot, who never shows up. At one point, Beckett has one of his characters proclaim: “I don’t seem to be able… (long hesitation) to depart.”

I know the feeling. But, today is the day when all returns to “normal.” I just know it.