My return from Turkey in 2010 was retarded by that already-forgotten Icelandic volcano, or rather the overreaction to same. A very big deal at the time, but the sort one forgets almost immediately. And it isn't just me: the Chilean volcano in 2011 stirred nothing, except on the Brazilian websites I customarily look at. It is very important to understand that vacationlands get attention and since deep South America isn't, it doesn't. Flights were cancelled all over Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and southern Brazil, but who knew? Even I, who have been to all those places, was slow to take an interest. But when I did, and actually looked up where Puyehue was, so much came back. I'd been to it, and never known!

In reconstructed diary form, then, I recount my visit. Chile is one of those countries right on the drop edge of my consciousness. For 22+ years I thought about it not at all, then amazed myself with how much I could recall, with no aid other than my old passport. As I have suggested elsewhere, the desire to censor the Internet may rise coincidentally right about the time most people realize they are bored with it anyway; if so, feats of memory will become important again. Nobody's going to censor THIS, but it's always good to stay in shape!

10/30/88: to judge from passport dates and other memories, I must have vacated my Florianópolis apartment this very night, and caught a bus to Porto Alegre. A little early - my rental was on the calendar month. The condo owner was very nice about it - he need not have held the place for me, for what I said might be a month. But the tourist trade in southern Brazil is slow until just after Christmas. My real concern was whether my just-resoled shoes would hold up. Just walking back from the shop a few days earlier, I had felt cheap textile eroding by the sixty-fourth-of-an-inch...and I wasn't imagining it! Misgivings aside, I hiked to the bus station, over the pedestrian bridge known locally as Fafá's Bra. (After all these years, I still don't know why. I've looked at her album covers...what's the story?) The bridge is needed to vault a busy highway, on the far side of which the bus station was built, on landfill. I have long thought that if you learn the word for "landfill" in ANY language, you must be serious about that language.

10/31/88: a dawn arrival in Happy Port. I have a distinct memory of standing on the platform for a metro train. Why would I have done that? Oh yeah: I was in doubt of the validity of my Argentine visa from 1986, and proposed to stay a day here, visit the consulate, and settle things. This I did, and the U.S. consulate too. The Argentines wanted me to go to the latter and bring back a piece of paper that said, roughly, that my passport was an American passport and that I was me. It didn't look official at all, but it worked for everybody.

The American consulate was a surprise. I'd never been to one before (or since), and the armor was disconcerting. Inside, I waited with three people, a couple from Texas and a young Brazilian who knew them. I think he'd been an exchange student. He said he'd played for his school basketball team in Houston, and I asked if he was the cestinha, which amused him. The Portuguese for "basketball" is basquete; the word for "basket" is cesta; with the suffix you might get "little basket" but what the diminutive more usually means is "high scorer in a basketball game." Which, I think, the guy was!

11/1/88: bus to Rio Grande. All this talk of ports and rivers is misleading: while the two categories are indeed richly represented in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, and are in fact the nation's major commercial byways, far more important than "Rio de Janeiro," they sure don't look dramatic. South America has no Mississippi. Yes, it has an Amazon, for better or for worse or for not much at all. But no Mississippi, or Missouri, or Ohio, or St. Lawrence. In any case, Brazil makes do, down here in its own deep south. Rio Grande was a quiet town. I had a beer at a place calling itself, in English, the Red River Bar. Asked for an explanation, the counterman said only that the name was bestowed by the owner, the Portuguese equivalent, I guess, of "above my paygrade." After that, I took a long walk and found a tall and lonely freeway flyover. Not for the first time, I wondered how projects like this got financed. What was the vision?

11/2/88: on to the Uruguayan border. In Jaguarão do Sul, a monument to favorite son Edu da Gaita ("Harmonica Eddy"), the man who, and I translate from a local lapidary inscription, "challenged Paganini." On a harmonica? Yes. I haven't heard it, but I gather what he meant was that he answered an implicit (read: hallucinatory) challenge to duplicate Paganini's multifinger violin technique on a mouth organ...with only one mouth. *YOUR JOKE HERE* Then, to the border proper. The Mauá Bridge. It was on the other side, in Rio Branco, in January of 1985, that I first glimpsed Brazil, scarcely guessing I'd take an interest in it, but tickled by the very name of the bridge. Mauá. When your ear is just barely tuned to Spanish, the alienness of such a short word is just so: it certainly isn't Spanish but it certainly is...something. You know at once you are on the fringe of an immense otherness, indifferent yet not hostile.

My Uruguayan tourist card had warnings in Spanish and English but not Portuguese; from it I learned that English had the word "mulct." I caught a bus direct to Montevideo, which would've been hard not to do in such a small country. The charmingly named town of Treinta y Tres was not so charming with all the trees in the plaza harshly pruned. En route, the radio played what I could have sworn was the soundtrack to 1970's-vintage Monday Night Football's halftime-show highlights of Sunday's games. I could hardly believe it, a few weeks later, when I learned this was in fact a recent release by the Brazilian group Os Paralamas do Sucesso, titled Bora-Bora.

11/2/88-11/5/88: the passport shows I left Uruguay on 11/5, and of course arrived in Argentina the same day, but what I did in those three days is a complete blank. I am pretty sure I stayed at the Hotel Ateneo; I know I did in 1986. It had changed. The room - and I may have had the same one both times - had had its own bathroom installed. Now I like a private throne as much as anybody, but this thing was a gross intrusion, at a stroke cutting floorspace by a good quarter. Minus this, the place had no charm. It was right downtown, on a noisy bus route, and all it really had going for it was its balcony and high ceiling.

From Montevideo there was a bus ride to Colonia del Sacramento, whence the hydrofoil traveled to Buenos Aires. I've never been on a hovercraft but a hydrofoil has got to be competitive...once. I'd taken this same ride in the other direction in 1986, and it hadn't changed. The speed is a thrill, but you just can't see very much.

11/5/88-11/8/88: another near-blank interlude. I believe I would have taken The Liberator to Mendoza, and certainly I did both take a train and pass through that city; yet I have a memory of seeing Córdoba, which isn't exactly en route. With some effort, I could probably dig up evidence: among the travel habits I have lost is the fond retention of all tickets and invoices, something I would certainly have been doing in 1988. I don't do it now because these things are all printed on computers now and are utterly without romance.

Well, wherever I was, I recall these as quite large and attractive cities. I imagine Argentine cities that aren't Buenos Aires are considered by many the very definition of "provincial"; I disagree, but on those rare occasions I am moved to apply the adjective at all, I insist on applying it to people, not places, and my own definition is "impressed by New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and the University of Chicago." Be that as it may, I also recall, though I sort of regret that I do, that one hotel I stayed in was having plumbing problems and had posted a sign urging guests not to flush too much paper down the toilet, as this might clog the cloaca. I did not know the zoological term was also, in Spanish, a plumbing term. ¿Por que no?

11/8/88: bus from Mendoza to Santiago. The border post felt wintry, but the descent warmed things up, a bit. I recall tilted vineyards in late-afternoon sun: sounds right for the Pacific side of the Andes. The elderly woman sitting next to me described a dish, seafood I think it was. Fish, and lemon. The lemon was critical. She made a kissy sound to emphasize this. It occurs to me only now, as I write this, that I have always expected too much from the cuisines of other countries. The European ones are all, I still think, wildly overrated; but ignoring ratings and just eating the stuff, even I must admit that hey, a fish with a lemon on it is perfectly OK!

11/9/88: I think I spent at least a full day in Santiago. It was not attractive. I recalled a friend who'd climbed in the Andes briskly dismissing it: in a letter, it would have been, something like "Santiago (now there's an armpit)...". It wasn't so bad, but it did have That Conurbation Feel, just a place where a bunch of folks lived.

It was at least into the afternoon: I recall a man in a suit asking me the time, which was 12:35 PM, with me wondering how a guy could have a briefcase but not a watch. Chile would turn out to be thoroughly odd, though with time I have come to see this as something of an achievement. I was very close to La Moneda, which I expected to have remained a bombed-out ruin, but it was not. I walked to, indeed into, the National Stadium, which had served as an impromptu prison for politicals in 1973; again I expected something solemn, but on the playing field itself, where I myself strolled, teenagers were throwing Frisbees around. I had got the firm and wrong idea that Chile ought to be a grim place. It just wasn't.

11/10/88: the train trip to Puerto Montt took almost a full day, so I must have boarded it the previous evening. At daybreak a steward came through with coffee and hot milk in heavy porcelain vessels. In the Brazilian fashion, I poured myself mostly milk, with only a shot of coffee. The steward seemed surprised, and I hoped I wasn't seeming greedy, though now that I think of it, in that landscape milk ought to have been cheaper than coffee. Anyway, it was a pleasant accent on a pleasant train.

On the evidence so far, Chileans had Swiss names and Mexican faces and lived in upstate New York. And to the extent I could communicate with them, they acted as loopy as northeastern Brazilians. The station in Puerto Montt incorrectly identified itself as South America's southernmost. This somehow seemed consistent with every other misapprehension I'd experienced. True, those had had mostly to do with food, but food does loom large. I never did have a fish or a lemon. Mainly I'd found myself being the only customer in a place, ordering a Coke and a sandwich, and getting a beer and a burger - something totally other. But now that I write this down, it all seems so unreasonable of me. How long had I been in the country so far? How many meals had I ordered so far? How often could these strange things have happened? My memories may be accurate after all, but even if they are, they need this kind of testing, to shrink them. I am so glad I wasn't blogging this trip. What a...blogger I would have sounded like.

11/11/88: today I would have devoted to buying a ticket on a boat way south, down amongst the glaciers. I found the agency, a booth actually. I asked a boy when it opened; he said 9; it did not, until much later. Yup. I cannot remember what I ate, this day. Probably a hotdog whose bun was sluiced to the gunwales with mayonnaise, itself then troweled smooth. That was unquestionably popular in Chile. Made a hell of a mess of my mustache and beard.

11/12/88: I took a bus to Ancud, I think it was; and when I saw the accommodations on the boat, I decided pretty quickly that this was not how I was going to spend my 31st birthday! There was a room, a galley I guess, with about four fixed tables with benches on either side of them. That was it. You just sat there for a day or two. Maybe meals were served - I never heard. There were a lot of folks traveling; if anybody needed to get up for any reason, everybody on his bench would need to, too. I recovered my duffel bag from the hold - I would not have had access to it during the voyage, there being no place at all in the galley for any baggage - and without much regret, decided 41 degrees South latitude was south enough for me. I promptly caught the bus back to Puerto Montt. On it was a small boy who spoke Spanish, Portuguese, and English fluently. Maybe he was the driver's son; he had no luggage, or companions, or even a seat as far as I could tell; I just accepted him as some kind of short roving tourist-helper, even though he wasn't asking for money. He was...just one of those very nice, very capable people you meet in way-out places. What he was capable AT, I cannot say, and I doubt it matters.

In Puerto Montt I decided at last to deal with my shoes, like throw them out and get new ones, possibly in that order. One sole had already worn clean through - I'd been using a traveler's-check plastic wallet to plug the hole. This was ridiculous. I went into a shoe store, and walked out a very happy man.

11/13/88: back to Argentina - Brazil, really. The bus to Bariloche retreated north before aiming at the Andes. I recall disliking this fact, as I'd wanted to "push to the Pole" just a little farther than Ancud. But now I know that this route was the one that would take me past Puyehue. I had no idea at the time, though. The much more interesting feature was the road itself: at several places, it had the word SÍ or NO painted across both lanes. The plebiscite had been last month. And that was why I'd figured Chile was going to be a mournful country. Nobody sounded happy about the vote. Nobody in print, anyway. My Spanish being so exiguous, I hardly thought to ask anyone personally. I'd been reacting to Chileans as I'd reacted to northeastern Brazilians. At least I'd spent enough time in Brazil to get over this obstructive behavior.

On the bus was a Brazilian. There were also German-speaking American passport-holders. There is no getting around it: people who speak German in South America, and hold passports that are neither, just seem funny. But I lunched with them at some serene high piney station just over the border, and they were very nice, though the lady who'd been sitting next to me on the bus measured the tip a little too carefully for my tastes. I'm sure I was reading way too much into the act.

11/14/88: in Bariloche, quite a comfortable outpost, I ran into the Brazilian, who praised the place's infraestrutura. This word was and is often heard in Brazil but it would be decades before the English equivalent was on Americans' tongues as much. But when you're subdesenvolvido, a word Brazilians don't use anywhere near as much as they used to, things like pavement and pipes are impressive and stir longings.

I took a long walk out of town, past a lake I think, and somehow I found a cablecar up a mountain. As with a hydrofoil, I took it on general principles. In the car was an Argentine couple. They were Mormons. Their ambition was to go to Salt Lake City. I wished them well. This was on the way down. On the way up were French tourists. I cannot remember what was at the top. With a cablecar, does it matter?

11/15/88: I had to wait all day, but at last I got on the train to Buenos Aires, and let it here be noted that, 99 years to the evening after the declaration of the Brazilian Republic, I at last found the Southern Cross. It was upside down. That almost threw me. But I knew what to look for - because it's on the Brazilian flag!

11/16/88: a full day on an Argentine train, and that is not a bad place to be at all. A very formal lunch, with waiters bringing and removing courses very efficiently. Outside the window, Patagonia. At lunchtime specifically, the towns of Carmen de Patagones and Viedma. To judge from certain British authors this is supposed to be a spooky landscape, but to any American who has been to New Mexico, it's just rangeland. Looked fine to me. I expect, however, that it jars visitors who think the whole country is going to Keep It Europe as Buenos Aires itself obviously tries to. Nope!

11/17/88: through Bahía Blanca very early; I didn't see anything from the station, but wished I did, because I like to see foreigners' idea of a holiday getaway place. We arrived in Buenos Aires not long after. Again I checked into the Hotel Nobel, on the Hotel Ateneo Or Is It Hotel Inertia Principle. It was a neat old little place with a dignified old man running it, but it was even noisier than its Montevideo counterpart and I knew it. This was because Buenos Aires is itself a jumpin' joint, wildly active into the wee hours, then abruptly falling silent just before dawn. I never could get used to this, though I felt like a party-pooper for so failing.

I had a mission here: visit the Brazilian Consulate (which is separate from the Embassy) and get a new visa. My "residence" in Florianópolis was legitimate but it had been on a 3-month tourist visa with the single permitted renewal. I'd had to leave Brazil after that, and get a whole new visa. Be ticklish if they denied me one - I'd left a lot of my stuff in the apartment! After a brief initial resistance, the consular employee granted me the visa. "This is the last time!" he said. Whether that in particular was true, he was serious about immigration-law enforcement in general. When I finally returned to the U.S. the following February, the border official at the airport actually counted the number of days I'd stayed on this visa. 88. The limit was 90.

In the consulate was a young blonde with a tennis racket. We got to talking. She was American, living in Buenos Aires though ostensibly a college student back in Boston, I think; she was about to vacation in Foz do Iguaçu, wherefore her own business here. She spoke Spanish and Italian fluently, and I think French too. We dropped by the Nobel for something, during which time she spoke Italian with the proprietor. We killed the afternoon together, in a city where there is always something to do, even though I think we found each other odd in the extreme. At one point I surprised her by guessing, correctly, that she owned a white bikini. (A white bikini being my measure of feminine eccentricity. I mean, it looks like underwear, doesn't it?) I cannot remember what exactly we did, though I do recall suggesting we ride the subway someplace. She had been in this city for months but never ridden it, which was even stranger than owning a white bikini anywhere. She approved of the exhalation of cool subway air; I approved of her sensibilities. For some reason she insisted I put her subway token in the turnstile.

11/18/88: got my train ticket back to Brazil, more precisely Paso de Los Libres, which is at the point where Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil meet. This required a visit to The Other Buenos Aires Railway Station. The clerk was amused - I had just missed a discount for people 30 and under! It seemed a funny cutoff, and I wondered whether Argentine Railways, indeed most railways, are riddled to near-death with special programs, special pleadings. Anyway, paying full fare was no problem. I liked just standing on swept terrazzo in this empty breezy corridor, looking out at the trees and hearing big sunny city noise while waiting for my ticket. Argentina excels at such moments.

11/19/88: the train didn't leave until 3 PM. I spent the waiting time well, though, buying and reading an issue of Muy Interesante, a very good popular-science magazine. (The Brazilian version is Super Interessante.) I learned about helicopters. It was of course in Spanish but the description of the two levers matched that in Ken Follett's Lie Down With Lions. Now I knew the theoretical limit on helicopter airspeed. It's the relative speed at the tip of the main rotor. When it's swinging back, its absolute speed is its relative speed minus the forward speed of the entire craft. If that sums to zero, then there's no lift on that side of the chopper!

The ride to Paso de Los Libres was 12 hours, in a seat, not a compartment, and wasn't very much fun. I was however impressed by the Louisianan expanse of this part of Argentina. At one point, probably crossing the Río de la Plata itself, the bed soared high, much as it does near New Orleans in point of fact, and far more effectively than anywhere else in this country did I perceive its size and opportunity both.

11/20/88: the train arrived on time, which I viewed with mixed feelings. Fortunately, everybody in Argentina is still awake at 3 AM, so I got stamped out of the country quickly and walked across the stately old bridge to Uruguaiana, the Brazilian port of entry. Getting in was a bit of a bother, as I was asked to show how much money I had; I asked if I could go to the bathroom first, so I could extract the cash from its hiding place; this I did. Then, into town, which was still asleep. A cabbie was asleep in his cab. I wasn't in a hurry anyway. A woman just looking out her window at a deserted street rolled her r's, as no one else in Brazil does. I think I was asking where the train station was. It was far, so I found that cabbie - "You woke up!" I said, and he grinned - and drove there. The train for Porto Alegre left at 11. It was a brilliantly sunny, intensely hot trip. Near Alegrete I saw an ostrich. In the dining car, which was a million miles from Argentina, I had a tough steak with a fried egg on top. Back in my seat, I was asked by the conductor to put my shirt back on. Good ol' Brazil. None of this would've sounded, or tasted, the same in Spanish.

© 2011 J.A.Hutter

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