© 2010 Greg Jones
I’m headed to Tres Bocas on the Rio Sarmiento in Argentina’s Parana River Delta. It’s a voyage of discovery. I don’t pretend to understand this country or its people but perhaps I can aim a penlight, which is all I happen to have at the moment, in order to shed a thin shaft of illumination on their wonderful flaws and terrible virtues.
The 45-minute commuter train ride from Buenos Aires to Tigre is highly subsidized and costs only about 30 cents. Tigre is the river-port on the western bank of the Lujan River where it empties into the Platte Estuary. Coming into the station, I notice some graffiti scrawled on a brick wall along the railway easement. One author advocates Socialism while another invokes the Revolution. “We are armed,” he warns. Someone has written, “Vamos a Cristina.” A member of the Radical Party, Cristina Kirchner is the current president. For the past sixty years, the country has been in the grips of Peronism. Key industries have been nationalized and then sold, manufacturing is protected from foreign competition, exports are heavily taxed, and prices are fixed for hundreds of consumer goods. In 2002, the government froze bank accounts and allowed the peso to float after having for years pegged it one-to-one with the dollar. Overnight, the currency shed two-thirds of its value. Dictatorship, hyperinflation (try 197% per month), and a Byzantine beaurocracy have left Argentineans justifiably cynical. It’s a bit like the mood in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. They want to be part of the global economy; they just don’t know quite how to do it.
At the train station, a blind busker sings for centavos that are given freely and unselfconsciously. A girl of about fifteen parts from her friends to help an old man, crippled by arthritis, make his way onto the platform. They hold the door for them or she would have missed the train back to Buenos Aires.
I walk the short distance to the Estacion Fluvial. Tigre’s docks were at one time heaped with timber and tropical fruit shipped down from upriver plantations. It enjoyed its heyday in the late 19th century when Argentina was the 5th largest economy in the world, and the well-to-do from the capital built summer homes here. They gambled in the magnificent casino, a building constructed after the advent of railroads, steamships, and refrigeration made it possible to ship the vast wealth of the pampas—beef and grain—to Europe. Buenos Aires became Nuevo Chicago, the railhead and port at the edge of an immense plain, the stockyards and slaughterhouses situated discretely on its outskirts.
I stand in a long line to board the lancha collectiva, a varnished low-riding river bus. It’s Easter, the last week of summer in the southern hemisphere. Schools are out, and many excited youngsters, their backpacks and bedrolls stacked on top of the roof, are riding the river launch, heading to overnight camps out in the delta. Argentineans are overwhelmingly Catholic, but few of them regularly attend mass. They prefer to celebrate Easter as we do Labor Day weekend. The guy in front of me hands over his bag to a crewman. Boarding, he kisses him on the side of the face. Argentineans, even man to man, almost always kiss one another.
The river launch departs the dock and throbs past the Naval Prefecture and the Italian Rowing Club. Entering the main channel, I spot a beached ferry, rotting in the sun, and several rusting freighters, half-sunk in the river. The spectacle resembles those bombed naval bases I’ve seen in archival films.
Turning up the Rio Sarmiento, we enter a different world. There are over 6,500 miles of rivers, tributaries, canals, and sloughs that wind through this region. Boats are the only means of transportation for the 3,000 or so local residents. Having been raised around California’s Sacramento River Delta, I’m drawn to this place. It’s a welcome respite from the noise and pollution of Buenos Aires, a city that may top twelve million souls. But the delta of my youth works for a living; this one is a wastrel. There are no farms along its banks, only weekend getaways, stilt houses, campgrounds, resorts, dockside restaurants, a dozen small hostelries, and an assortment of faded mansions set back behind low, back-filled sea-walls. Weekenders sail, kayak, canoe, scull, water ski, and cruise around the hundreds of little islands that dot the map. There’s even a wakeboarding school.
On-board, a girl wants to sell me some smoked fish from her straw basket. They say Argentineans speak Spanish with an Italian accent. Ninety-seven percent of them claim European heritage—mainly Spanish and Italian. Though they look to Europe, Argentineans seem to be strangely isolated.
The lancha drops me at a jetty on Tres Bocas. The puttering engine roars to life, and the launch plows upstream with its load of passengers. For just a moment, I’m choked by its diesel exhaust fumes. There’s a narrow path that winds along the slough and hops over rickety pedestrian bridges from island to island. Hydrangeas are in bloom, pines and papyrus line the riverbank, and overhanging willows provide welcome shade. I skip a flat stone over the ochre water and inhale the familiar odor of fetid black river mud. A mahogany runabout sends its wake rolling onto the rip-rap.
I grab a canvas chair on the plank dock of El Remanso Resto Bar where several German Shepherds lounge lazily in the shade of the 7-Up umbrellas. I order lunch from the pretty waitress who reminds me they’re cash only. Typically, Argentineans distrust banking, currency, and credit cards. Lunch is finally served—no one is in a terrible hurry around here—and the grilled Paku, a local perch, is excellent. The Quilmes beer, swathed in Styrofoam, tastes refreshing on a warm sultry afternoon. The bill for everything is less than ten bucks. But it’s not the cheap eats that draws me back to this country; rather, it’s these warm, resilient, and baffling people.
Bay Area writer, Greg Jones, splits his time between Northern California and Argentina.