“…we stopped at a pulperia, or drinking-shop. During the evening a great number of Gauchos came in to drink spirits and smoke cigars.” p.44

After a little more than a week in the lowland tropics of Perú I was completely thrown by the change of scenery upon my arrival in wintry, über-urban Buenos Aires.  Mike had invited me to crash for the next week at the San Telmo apartment he shares with Guille, Clyde, and Puti, and although I was determined to be a good guest it was hard–insurmountably hard–for me to pretend to enjoy being in the middle of a city.

Things started looking up when Mike and I put together plans to re-trace a little road trip from Buenos Aires to Santa Fe taken by Charles Darwin and documented in his book The Voyage of the Beagle.  In his journal entry for 27 September 1830 he writes, “In the evening I set out on an excursion to St. Fé, which is situated nearly three hundred English miles from Buenos Ayres, on the banks of the Parana.” His return to the capital in late October was impeded by a violent revolution for which rebels had blockaded the city–this was a problem for Darwin, because he needed to rendezvous with Fitzroy and the Beagle or else be left behind.

“I had now been several days without tasting anything besides meat: I did not at all dislike this new regimen; but I felt as if it would only have agreed with me with hard exercise. I have heard that patients in England, when desired to confine themselves exclusively to an animal diet, even with the hope of life before their eyes, have hardly been able to endure it. Yet the Gaucho in the Pampas, for months together, touches nothing but beef. But they eat, I observe, a very large proportion of fat, which is of a less animalised nature; and they particularly dislike dry meat, such as that of the Agouti.” p.123

Darwin made his trip on horseback and had to keep a wary eye out for hostile natives–his visit coincided with the height of a war between European settlers and several hostile factions of native Argentines. In contrast, Mike, Clyde, and I had the advantages of nice roads and a rented Peugot SUV, and we figured we could hit more than a few of the highlights from Darwin’s month-long trip in the span of a day and a half. 🙂

Lunch stop was at a parrilla/pulperia outside of Rosario. An assortment of meats are brought to the table on a mini-parrilla. Meaty. Argentina as I understand it has the highest per capita consumption of beef at 64.6 kg per person in 2009 (wikipedia). This is something that is not dramatically different from Darwin’s time, at least based on the account of his diet while in Argentina.

“Before arriving at Rozario, we crossed the Saladillo, a stream of fine clear running water, but too saline to drink.” p.132

Darwin noted that many of the rivers throughout this area (and even south of Buenos Aires) are salty. Later in our trip we would make a stop at a thermal/mineral springs spa in Victoria, Entre Rios, and the water there was intensely saline.   Problematic for agriculture as well as for livestock, Darwin noted: “All the small rivers became highly saline, and this caused the death of vast numbers in particular spots; for when an animal drinks of such water it does not recover.” (p.142)

“The cliffs are the most picturesque part; sometimes they are absolutely perpendicular, and of a red colour.” p.132

“I reached the place of our bivouac by sunset, and drinking much maté, and smoking several cigaritos, soon made up my bed for the night. The wind was very strong and cold, but I never slept more comfortably.” p.115

Darwin spent most of 1 October 1830 hunting for fossils in the exposed sedimentary rock near the Arroyo Saladillo. Among his findings on that one day were  two large skeletons, one of which was a mastodon, and the tooth of Toxodon, an extinct rhino-like mammal. The eroded sandstone cliffs that Darwin describes in The Voyage of the Beagle are still around, if substantially less inviting for fossil-hunters.  People living at the tops of the cliffs use the precipices as their personal garbage dumps. It’s pretty gross.

“In the morning we arrived at St. Fé. … I was confined for these two days to my bed by a headache. A good-natured old woman, who attended me, wished me to try many odd remedies. A common practice is, to bind an orange-leaf or a bit of black plaster to each temple: and a still more general plan is, to split a bean into halves, moisten them, and place one on each temple, where they will easily adhere.” p.134

Having read The Voyage a while ago, I recalled a few things that I could no longer find as I re-read the book in preparation for this trip. For example, I was sure that there was a passage in which Darwin assocates some positive attributes of Pampas-dwelling native Argentines (compared with the lackluster Fuegians, who didn’t impress Darwin at all) with their heavy consumption of yerba mate, a tea whose caffeine content could certainly account for the “strong work ethic”–or whatever positive character trait that Darwin was (in my memory) describing in his praise of the Pampas natives.  Today mate is drunk by almost all Argentines–and you see people everywhere carrying their mates, bombillas, and thermoses of hot water in specialized totes.  When we got to the city of Paraná (corresponding to the town known as Santa Fé Bajada in Darwin’s time?) we found a cool little shop with a gigantic mate over its storefront.  We bought some stuff, the owner engaged us in conversation for hours, and ultimately pointed us in the direction of a residencial where the three of us could hole up for the night.

“This river is also called the Saladillo, and it deserves the name, for the water is brackish. I stayed here the greater part of the day, searching for fossil bones. Besides a perfect tooth of the Toxodon, and many scattered bones, I found two immense skeletons near each other, projecting in bold relief from the perpendicular cliff of the Parana. They were, however, so completely decayed, that I could only bring away small fragments of one of the great molar teeth; but these are sufficient to show that the remains belonged to a Mastodon, probably to the same species with that which formerly must have inhabited the Cordillera in Upper Peru in such great numbers.” p.134

In the city of Santa Fé proper, there would be little that we could count on to connect with Darwin’s text. When it comes to human settlements things will have changed beyond recognition–several times–over the course of 180 years.  As sort of a joke I asked Mike to stop at a pharmacy, where I walked in and complained of a headache. The treatment I was recommended and sold was a bit more familiar than what Darwin received when he was here.

“We continued to ride over plains of the same character. At San Nicolas I first saw the noble river of the Parana.” p.133

I found it deeply disturbing that throughout this entire trip we found almost no form of commemoration of Darwin’s presence. We stopped at several points to ask locals if there was any kind of monument or statue of Darwin. In most cases we got directions to the only monuments of which they were aware–I think one was a memorial to the unknown meat-industry-worker in Rosario (but that might be a flaw in my interpretation of Spanish). I got the feeling that few here are even aware of who Darwin was, and those who recognize the name are surprised to find that this corner of Argentina figures significantly in one of his most well-received works.

So we were thrilled to find “Darwin” on a wall (it looked like a street name, though on a map the same street had a different name), near the Arroyo Saladillo.  This was the only vague glimmer of commemoration that we encountered in our trip. There are actually two Saladillos mentioned in The Voyage, and it’s likely the second one (which Darwin notes is also known as the Tercero) that was the site of his fossil findings. We crossed over an Arroyo Tercero as well, but this was well after dark and not a good time for us to pull off to look for Darwin souvenirs.

“At some future day this must be one of the richest countries of La Plata. The soil is varied and productive; and its almost insular form gives it two grand lines of communication by the rivers Parana and Uruguay.” p.135

“The wooded banks of the great rivers appear to be the favourite haunts of the jaguar; but south of the Plata, I was told that they frequented the reeds bordering lakes: wherever they are, they seem to require water.” p. 142

The Paraná is an immense river of almost the same scale as the Amazon. Its watershed includes most if not all of the nation of Paraguay as well as sizable portions of Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina.  When Sharkey and I went to Mato Grosso do Sul a few years ago, we swam in this same watershed, two countries away.

Darwin’s marvel at the economic potential of the Entre Rios–this area between the Paraná and the Río Uruguay (which is also the border with the nation of Uruguay) is clear from his words of praise in The Voyage.  Even today the area’s economy focuses on productivity of the land–however, things are changing dramatically.  The tradition of strictly free-range Argentine beef has been violated, and the use of US-style feedlots is growing rapidly. The vast acreage of what used to be pasture is being converted for the cultivation of soya. And in case you’re wondering, all of this soya is exported to Asia and not being made into high-quality Argentine tofu.

“Owing to bad weather we remained two days at our moorings. Our only amusement was catching fish for our dinner: there were several kinds, and all good eating. A fish called the “armado” (a Silurus) is remarkable from a harsh grating noise which it makes when caught by hook and line, and which can be distinctly heard when the fish is beneath the water. This same fish has the power of firmly catching hold of any object, such as the blade of an oar or the fishing-line, with the strong spine both of its pectoral and dorsal fin.” p.143-144

With the hopes of seeing some relatively undisturbed Paraná habitat, we targeted the Pre-Delta National Park, just outside of the town of Diamante.  At the time of our visit, the availability of activities here was truly bare-bones: two very short trails that would offer visitors a very short nature hike/bird watch opportunity.  The majority of the park’s acreage (which is really not large at all) was inaccessible.  Still Mike was able to exercise Clyde and we got to see some wildlife, including the small parrot that Darwin mentions in The Voyage.

Having explored this part of the Paraná, Darwin was supposed to sail/float back down to Río de la Plata and ultimately to Buenos Aires on a balandra, a single-masted vessel that was also carrying one hundred tons of unspecified cargo. But a spell of lousy weather combined with a wimpy captain–and Darwin suggested as much (“In the evening, the wind being not quite fair, as usual we immediately moored, and the next day, as it blew rather freshly, though with a favouring current, the master was much too indolent to think of starting.” p.148)–kept them from making a lot of progress back towards the capital and Darwin’s arranged meeting with Fitzroy. On the plus side, it gave Darwin a chance to do some fishing.

“A small green parrot (Conurus murinus), with a grey breast, appears to prefer the tall trees on the islands to any other situation for its building-place. A number of nests are placed so close together as to form one great mass of sticks.” p.146

It is truly unfair to my hosts that I have only this one blog entry for my enitre week in Argentina, compared with several posts for an approximately equal time spent in Perú. I greatly enjoyed the time spent with Mike and Guille. Their lives near the heart of a large capital city–we walked from the apartment to the Casa Rosada on my first afternoon there–is at once familiar (I grew up in one big city and endured another for grad school) and foreign. I suppose I could have made more of an effort to see the city through the eyes of someone who cares about the Museum of Whatever or the Cathedral of St. Yadda, or tangoing in the Plaza de Qualquier Cosa or strolling down the Avenida Muymuy Ancha (this stroll is, btw, something I actually did!).  Yes, I really should have made this effort.

“How different would have been the aspect of this river if English colonists had by good fortune first sailed up the Plata! What noble towns would now have occupied its shores!” p.147

But I came to Argentina to visit Mike, not Buenos Aires. We ate some beef and sipped some mate, which is exactly what I expected to happen. We’ve known each other since seventh grade, and our exchanges today are not appreciably different from the way we got along thirtysomething years ago. Making the acquaintances of Clyde, Guille, and Puti was also part of the plan, and that went well also.

“We then rode on to our sleeping-place, and had for supper ‘carne con cuero,’ or meat roasted with the skin on it. This is as superior to common beef as venison is to mutton.” p.199

The Darwin-themed trip was also sort of planned–it’s what I suggested to Mike as a possible “fun outing” in our email exchanges before I came.  Mostly, however, it was done in the same spur-of-the-moment, impulsive, hair-up-your-ass kind of mindset that I think Darwin had when he was here.  Keep in mind that it was a strapping young Charles who took the journey in 1830–not the ancient-looking bearded gentleman that comes up if you google “Darwin.”  The man was truly an epic badass. If you haven’t read The Voyage, I highly recommend it–even moreso than Origin.

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