Ituzaingo Wildlife

Some days, it’s rough to be in rural Argentina. In general, it can be tough to be in a town of 2,000-3,000 people, but it’s even rougher when the nearest city (and, to be honest, next bit of civilization) is an hour away and when you’re still very much considered the “outsiders.”

One of the higher points of living in this area, though, is the wildlife. From huge tegu lizards walking across the beach, geckos walking across the sliding door, and a herd of parrots squawking  in the palm tree–there’s a lot of stuff here that’s different from the US. No one here has ever seen a squirrel, but they don’t blink when a huge tarantula runs across the road. Every morning I get to watch the wild guinea pigs scurry on the side of the road. And then, I get to see the Rodents of Unusual Size…

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Every day we see carpinchos (capybara) on our way to work. Carpincho is the Argentinian word for these hundred pound guinea pigs, whereas Capybara is actually the Brazilian Portuguese term. Traveling in herds of up to dozens of individuals, these semi-aquatic animals are some of the coolest things we get to see here.

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They’re surprisingly fast for a short, squat animal. We’ve stopped multiple times to try and just take a closer look at them, only to have them take off like a shot in the opposite direction.

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I was surprised to learn that carpinchos make a much different noise than guinea pigs. Like guinea pigs, they can make “clucking” and “purring noises” to indicate happiness, but carpinchos can also make almost birdlike “chirps” as well as some crying noises (almost like a bird crying) when they are in distress.

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They are incredibly social, and we’ll often see what we refer to as “daycares” in a certain hollow, where it’s all mothers and dozens of babies. It’s very cute.

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The other animal we get to see every once in a while are marsh deer. Notoriously shy, these animals (very similar to the North American mule deer) are categorized as vulnerable. Where we live, it’s illegal to hunt these deer at all–but it does happen. The area we live and work is has been the site of some particularly interesting environmental impacts, so Ituzaingo and the surrounding marshlands are considered a prime area for marsh deer breeding and reintroduction. We often see a solitary deer peeking out of the bushes sometimes in the mornings. We’re not sure if it’s the same deer every time, but it’s always a treat to spy him.

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Carnaval

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We finally made it to Carnaval! Somehow, we had missed going to this South American rite of passage our first year here, and budget cuts in town meant last year’s Carnaval was cancelled. However, they were back in action this year–so we figured we’d brave the incredibly hot and muggy weather and see what makes this so special.

We just went to Ituzaingo’s small-town Carnaval–but it was still pretty impressive. I think some day we’d like to see a big-city Carnaval, but we just didn’t have the energy or time to devote to getting to any of the cities nearby. But being able to walk four blocks from the house and see a whole Carnaval parade is pretty special unto itself!

Carnaval in Argentina was officially two days (February 8th and 9th), but in addition to these federal holidays, Ituzaingo added three more weekends in January to the mix to maximize their tourists. The town could very obviously use the tourism–major flooding over the Christmas holiday wiped out almost all of the town’s beaches, so the tourists aren’t coming in droves from Brazil as in years past.

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From a logistics standpoint, Carnaval shuts down about a mile stretch of the main road into town. The elaborate floats end up being parked in an open-air garage that’s only about two blocks from our house–so we had the interesting opportunity to check out the floats in daylight before we saw them in action at Carnaval.

Carnaval starts LATE. The first round doesn’t start until about 11pm. We chose to do general entry, which was 30 pesos (or somewhere around $2USD) and allowed us standing room only. We figured this would give us the best option to walk from one end to the other and get the best vantage points for photos. They had the option of sitting on the bleachers (60 pesos) or in the “fancy seats”–otherwise known as lawn chairs on the dais (100 pesos).

One of the best-sellers of Carnaval was cans of spray foam–a cross between silly string and shaving cream. They were about 20 pesos each, and herds of kids spent the time in between groups dousing each other in foam. This must be a yearly tradition, since the moms we stood next to came prepared with hand towels to wipe away any that ended up in eyes and noses. If you go to Argentinian Carnaval, be sure to wear something that is okay to be covered in foam! (I hear the Paraguayan Carnaval version is about the same.)

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We knew that Carnaval would be full of barely-clothed women decked out in sequins, but I didn’t anticipate how inclusive it would be. People of every age, from toddlers to older folks, participated in the parade. It really was a community effort. As estadounidenses, we were a little uncomfortable with the preteen girls in g-strings–but it wasn’t particularly surprising, considering that’s pretty much what the bathing suits are down here as well. The costumes were incredibly ornate, and everyone was sprayed with copious amounts of glitter spray. Considering how difficult it can be to get so many basic craft goods in rural Argentina, I can’t imagine how much effort had to be put not just into making the costumes, but just in getting the raw materials!

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Each group started with a fanfare and flag bearers to clear the way. That’s followed by various groups, each with their own costuming theme. It seemed like some of the songs had a specific dance the whole troupe would do and others allowed each group to create their own choreography. The costumes would get wilder the closer to the end, and was often closed out with an elaborate float carrying that company’s “Carnaval Queen(s),” followed by the Argentinian version of a marching band.

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We ultimately only stayed until 2am (about three “crews”)–but we were told the party went on until after 7am. After further consultation with our Argentinian friends, it seems like the traditional schedule is to go out to eat at 9 or 10pm, drink a little bit at the bar, and then go to Carnaval for a bit, and finish the night (morning?) by dancing at the club.

Overall, I’m glad we got to experience Carnaval! The best way I’ve found to describe how the various groups work is that it’s very much like the Mummers in Philadelphia. The groups are familial or neighborhood based, and they spend a whole year coming up with a theme, costuming, choreography, and music. Each crew has their own distinct flavor, but they are all impressive in their own right. It was a great night to see the whole community to come together and dance, sing, and (of course) spray foam.

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Fiesta Nacional de la Yerra y Doma Correntina 2015

Each year, our sleepy little river town comes alive for a weekend full of gaucho culture. The local fairgrounds fill up with horses and cattle for the yearly Fiesta Nacional de la Yerra y Doma. Ostensibly a festival where the guachos bring cattle for branding (which does still happen), it has more a a country-fair-meets-rodeo. A decent number of people live in houses on sprawling ranches outside of town limits, and this is one of their excuses to spend a weekend in town celebrating their way of life with other gaucho families. (An aside: “going into town” in this context sounds very “Little House on the Prairie,” doesn’t it? In this case, it’s really true–a lot of these gauchos see going into town as a rare treat.)

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You may remember we went to the festival last year as well. Whereas last year we saw the Argentinian gaucho equivalent of barrel racing, this year we saw the bucking bronco competition. What seems to happen is that they take a half-broke horse in from the pasture, and then challenge all of the gauchos to see who can ride the bucking horse longest. There’s a lot of horses in the fields that don’t seem to be broken at all, so it doesn’t appear to be hard to find a “wild” horse for this event. T got some incredible pictures.

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One of the advantages of living in rural, rural Argentina is that we see gauchos every day. We pass them riding their horses to the fields every day, and see them in their traditional clothes in the grocery store. Cultural heritage in our area isn’t just something that they engage in on special occasions–this is indeed their lifestyle. It’s been amazing seeing this side of Argentina.

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The gaucho is considered the Argentinian national folk hero and symbol–so much so, that one of the greatest Argentinian literature pieces is the epic gaucho poem Martin Fierro. They’re seen as industrious, feisty, rebellious outsiders–in stark contrast to the corruption and riches of the city. In reality, gauchos don’t just belong to Argentina–the word is used anywhere on the pampas or Gran Chaco, and includes Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and southern Brazil.

Also, if you’re liking the photos, be sure to check out T’s Flickr Page. He’s a great photographer.

Animal Adventures: Green Anaconda and Burrowing Owl

Sometimes, at work, life gets interesting. Our work area borders a nature preserve, so we see lots of carpinchos (capybaras), yacare (crocodiles), and other assorted animals on a regular basis. A few weeks ago, we met two more of the area’s inhabitants.

This is a green anaconda. And this is the baby.

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It was about seven feet long, and they can allegedly grow up to 29 feet and weigh up to 550 lbs (thanks, wikipedia).In reality, they’re the biggest snakes on the planet by weight.

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They’re constrictors, so they choke their food to death and swallow them whole.. A group of anacondas, which is what we have somewhere on our island, is referred to as a “bed” or “knot”.  We saw this guy crossing the road, and T stopped to grab a few pictures. They’re pretty slow on land, but incredibly fast in water.

We also have a  family of burrowing owls on site. They’re adorable little owls that often steal ground squirrel nests to make their homes.

IMG_0932Since rattlesnakes also tend to steal ground squirrel nests (ground squirrels must spend a lot of time making holes…), the owls have learned to make rattling and hissing sounds to scare away predators like our friend the anaconda.

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You’ve probably seen burrowing owls in the movies before–they were the Mariachi owls in “Rango,” Digger in the insufferable-but-beautiful “Owls of Ga’Hoole,” and one appears in Pixar’s short “Boundin’.” We’re hoping that since we’re  moving into spring, we’ll be able to see some owelets at some point! They aren’t terribly scared of humans, and tend to congregate near roads, so whenever we drive by, we see little owl heads peeking out burrows.

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Where have I been?

I’ve been bad about updating the blog–apologies! I could make all sorts of excuses, but honestly, life has just gotten away from me.

Here’s a small snapshot of what we’ve been up to since I last posted:

Everyone in our office got sick. A miserable, clogged sinus, drink-all-the-tea-with-honey kind of sick. As a result, I had my first experience with an Argentinian doctor. I brought a friend along for translation purposes. I got some antibiotics, ibuprofen, lozenges, and cold medicine. It also took twenty minutes to try to explain what DayQuil is to a person who has never heard of it before. (Pro Tip: Call it by it’s brand name, Vicks, and explain that it’s a cold medicine from them.) Also, I was instructed to cover my throat at night to keep the blood moving. I’ve felt that the medicine down here is 80% normal Western medicine, and 20% homeopathic horse-hockey. There’s a lot of “drink this random mix of herbs so you get good vibes” or “do this to chase away evil spirits.” Not quite my cup of tea, but never hurts. T and I are still trying to fully get over the cold, so we’re still suffering through lots of bland food and increased water consumption.

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It’s fall in Ituzaingo, which means that the weather is beautiful! But, that also means that for days at a time, it suddenly erupts into violent downpours. Our little house isn’t well sealed, so even during normal rainstorms, we get a flooded kitchen. This time, it flooded all the way to the living room.  I also found my salt shaker entirely humid and with the consistency of play dough. After some internet sleuthing, I discovered how to remedy the situation–spread all the salt on a baking sheet, put in the oven on low, and give it about 15-20 minutes. Break up clumps, let cool, and it’s good to go again!

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We discovered a nice little nature trail near town. Someone just took a mower through the meadow and maintains it. We got about 10,000 steps just hiking around it a few times. We saw lots of birds, and even saw a little brown wild guinea pig!

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We’ve also started a new, fun tradition: One night a week, a bunch of our friends come over for dinner. I mentioned wing night before, but we’ve continued the tradition since then. Sometimes they cook for us–we have the larger kitchen out of the group, so they just bring the ingredients and cook up some delicious Argentinian and Paraguayan dishes. We’ve also been enjoying sharing some American customs with them. I spent a long time explaining the concept of brunch, and they love to challenge each other to eat a small teaspoon of the spicy Tabasco sauce. We had a spirited game of Uno this weekend–which actually ended up being a great cross-cultural game, since colors and numbers tend to be easy things to learn in other languages. The other thing we teach each other is dirty slang in each others’ languages. This week’s English lesson was “talking shit”–a phrase which was a big hit amongst the group.

We also managed to do some walking along the Costanera in Posadas. It’s a new, beautiful walk all along the river, which demarcates the border with Paraguay. The walk was partly a mission to figure out where the new train across the border was! Although it can take up to three hours each way to wait in line to cross the border by private car, we’re told that the train is infinitely shorter–and judging by the ease of access, we’ll be making a trip to Encarnacion soon!

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The Costanera area is filled with restaurants with beautiful patios that overlook plazas filled with public art. A lot of planning and time went into making this public works project–and it’s well-used by the local populace. There were lots of people sitting in the shade drinking mate, walking dogs, or just going out for a run.

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Felices Pascuas!

I know I’m a few days late here, but Felices Pascuas a todos!  Happy Easter, all!

Easter is a huge deal in Argentina and Paraguay. Our site was off from Wednesday to Sunday for Semana Santa festivities. Last year, T and I were in a bit of an existential funk, so our Easter enjoyment was pretty much limited to chocolate. This year, with a regular internet connection (albeit a slow one) and beautiful weather, we were feeling more adventurous!

Let’s just start with the obvious–a lot of this week focuses on going to Mass. Not being particularly religious, T and I did not partake in that. (Instead, we made it through all two seasons of “Dead Like Me.” Sacrilegious?) So, what I can report on is what happens outside of the church.

We didn’t see or hear of anything interesting happening Maundy Thursday, but on Good Friday at dusk there was a HUGE procession for Via Crucis, or the Way of the Cross. I’m not entirely certain if this is the same thing as the Stations of the Cross or not–can any Catholic readers clarify this for me?  Essentially, the procession starts at the church door with a crowd full of candles (and a truck with a very large loudspeaker blaring prayers).  The assembled crowd parts to let through the priests, followed by some of the more important men in the village carrying the statue of Jesus. They walk around town and pray as they go.

IMG_0412We went to Posadas on Saturday to grab some necessities, since store hours are a little unpredictable on holidays (or, honestly, all the time). We thought we were being smart by going on a holiday when everyone would be busy with family. We were incredibly wrong. Apparently we did the Argentinian equivalent of going shopping the day before Thanksgiving. We spent an hour in the checkout line–bless you, iPhone and your Kindle app.

IMG_0414You can see the Prioridad line above for pregnant ladies, families with children under 2 years old, and senior citizens. They can, and will, throw you out of that line if you do not apply to one of those groups.

Sunday was a slow day, with our only real marking of the holiday with a Ferrero Rocher chocolate bunny. Normally, Argentinians eat giant chocolate Easter eggs. They are ornately decorated and can be as tall as two feet high. (Our butcher has one, but they make fun of us for taking tourist photos, so I didn’t grab a photo.) We settled for the bunny instead of the mass produced Bon o Bon eggs.

IMG_0415 IMG_0416 IMG_0418I clearly like chocolate far too much for my own good, as evidenced by so. many. chocolate pictures on my phone.

Sunday ended with a bit of a surprise. There are a LOT of stray/random dogs in Argentina. A lot of them belong to people–they just let their dogs wander around the neighborhood in packs, and trust they will come home for dinner. Others are legitimately strays. It’s often difficult to tell the difference, since there’s a lot of instances of abandoned pets as people move.

A dog showed up at our gate, looked at us expectantly, and then circled the block only to sit in front of our gate again. We opened the gate up, and she spent the next few hours at our feet watching tv outside. That night, we went on our evening walk (about 3.5 miles!), and she miraculously followed us the entire way. I caught her still snoozing on our porch at midnight, but by morning she was gone and we haven’t seen her since.

IMG_0419Mooch was incredibly jealous of and displeased by our guest. I don’t blame him–the dog ate some of his food.

 

Also, I have to apologize for the low photo quality on this post. All of these are from my iPhone–I kept forgetting to bring my camera with me. Whoops!

I did it! But with some American mistakes.

This Saturday, I did something I had not been able to pull off yet here in Argentina.  I stayed out late like an Argentinian–but added some definitely different elements.

T and I hosted a wing night–where we introduce our Paraguayan and Argentinian friends to the joy of barbeque chicken wings and watch them squirm when they try buffalo sauce. Apparently wings are the cheapest of the cheap food down here–only the poorest people eat them–so it was an odd invitation to say the least when we invited them over for a whole meal composed just of that! However, they were all mighty impressed. American mistake number one:  feeding the guests peasant food.

In the past, T and I would be ready for bed at 1am and the South Americans would leave our house and head to the club.  This time, T was still pooped, but I still had some energy left and decided to tag along. Since I don’t drive stick (which is the only option for cars down here), and I wanted the freedom to come back to the house if I got tired, I decided to take my bike. Once I arrived at the bar (Deja Vu–which appears in a few pictures in previous posts), I got a few funny looks for riding to the bar on my bike. My friends quickly told the bouncer, “She’s American,” which I guess appeased him. Apparently only the poorest of the poor ride their bikes around willingly. American mistake number two: riding the peasant transportation to a fancy night out.

After a bit at the bar, we decided to cruise around town and see what else was going on. Around 3am, we ended up at the gas station (which is surprisngly nice and serves good food).  While everyone else continued to drink screwdrivers (with vodka and OJ bought in the gas station, which also has a full wine section), I made the mistake of ordering just seltzer water. Hydration, inexplicably, just isn’t a thing that happens. They actually ended up asking 1) whether T had imposed a curfew on me and 2) whether T required that I come home completely sober. I (obviously) was a bit flabbergasted that that was even an option. No, T does not dictate my curfew or my consumption of any liquid alcoholic or otherwise. American mistake numbers three and four: Ordering water in the middle of the party night, and not having my husband issue a curfew.

By 4:30am, we were back at Deja Vu, and by 5am I decided to call it a night. Despite some protestations from the rest of the crew, I convinced them that I was lucky just to be awake right now and that my warm, fluffy bed was calling to me. The crowd tried to convince me to stay out with them the “whole night” until 9am, when apparently the bar serves empanadas and croissants.  I calmly told them that I can make my own darn breakfast at home after a few hours of sleep, and that no empanada or croissant is good enough to warrant four more hours in a pair of heels when I’m dead tired. American mistake five: Not staying out until breakfast is served the next day.

I grabbed my bike, and apparently confused them again. “But you’ll be riding back alone!”  I rode here alone–and I do it all the time! “Are you sure you don’t want us to follow you with our car?” It’s 5am–the only thing out right now is you people downtown and about 25 assorted cats and dogs. I relented by saying I’d text as soon as I got back to my house. Needless to say, in my five minute bike ride back, I encountered no people, no cars, no motorcycles, and about five cats and dogs.  American mistake six: Riding the peasant transportation back home alone.

Was it fun? Sure! Would I do it again? Definitely! Will it be my new weekend “thing to do”? Um, no. I don’t have that kind of stamina.

The end of summer in Ituzaingo

It’s the end of the summer tourist season here in Ituzaingo. The kids are back in school and the tourists have all gone home. The locals still spend their time on the beach on the weekends–but the town has definitely shifted gears.

I started going to my local spinning class again this week–the gym shuts down entirely for December, January and February since it’s just too darn hot to work out in an un-air conditioned space. Although it feels good to get back to “normal,” it is a bit of a letdown after all of the excitement that tourist season brings.

T got a fancy new camera for Christmas, so we’ve been enjoying walking around town and getting some interesting shots. Here are some from the end of summer here in Ituzaingo.

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When the Circus Comes to Town

In case you hadn’t already figured it out, it’s summer here in Ituzaingo. This means the afternoons are long, hot and lazy–the perfect time for a siesta! (However, since we work American schedules, that’s not much of an option for us…) What it also means is our little town comes alive with tourists.

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The town plaza that previously only held a few scraggly boys chasing a dog now holds hundreds of families, dozens of vendors, and even a circus or two.  These are not the three ring, Barnum and Bailey extravaganzas–it’s more a few friends with some otherwise out of place talents coming together each night and putting on a pretty professional show. We recently found out that the town doesn’t even pay the circuses to come to town–they just load up their van and set up their stage every night (with the mayor’s permission, of course) in the hopes that the tourists will drop enough pesos into their hats to keep going for another season.

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There are all sorts of vendors around town as well, congregating in little groups of dreadlocked hippies and bohemians with a diverse array of wares to sell. From hand-carved wooden toys to choripan to ash trays made from flattened wine bottles–there’s something there for everyone.

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An Ode to the Argentinian Cat

Back in November, a cat adopted us. We didn’t adopt him–he completely adopted us. We were sitting outside, digging in the garden, when I hear a faint mewling coming from under our car.  I see the skinniest orange cat ever crawl out from under and stare at us, mewling. T asked if we should feed him, and remembered we had a leftover empanada in our fridge.

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Twenty minutes later, I had a purring, orange fluffball in my lap giving me cat hugs.  We’ve named him Mooch, because we’re pretty sure that he’s a Six Dinner Sid and he is quite insistent with mealtimes.

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He is absolutely an outdoor cat.  T is incredibly allergic to cats, so he’s never coming in. But I think he’s cool with being an outdoor kitty. He has no urge to use the litter pan we bought (actually, it’s his naptime spot), and the only times he’s coming in the house are to run from the front door to the back door in order to expedite dinner time and when a bunch of dogs started chasing him and the nearest escape was our front door.

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As the months have gone by, he’s brought the family along. Fred (a girl cat we named before we realized she was very pregnant) and her two kittens (one of whom we’ve named Ferris Mewler) make an appearance, and Derf (who used to be called “Not Fred” because T has a problem distinguishing which tabby cat is which) and her two kittens also swing by the food dish.

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This isn’t an uncommon thing–to just place a bowl of food out, but not really “own” any of the cats. Most of the Argentinian cats we’ve encountered have been strays like Fred and Mooch. They just have their regular porches to sleep on, but aren’t terribly friendly. (Except for Mooch, who would like to be involved in everything and loves to be petted.) There’s a completely different theory about animals down here–there are no trap and release or trap and adopt measures. There’s much more of a “live and let live” feel to it.

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Mooch isn’t coming back with us to the States–we know that. I don’t think he would like not having the run of the neighborhood, and he’s clearly not learning litterbox etiquette anytime soon. But for now, he’s a good companion.