Entry 49 -Brazil: damn good, the world's worst taste, moisture and video buffets
Itapu is the world's biggest hydroelectric project. I knew this because we were in the Itapu auditorium enjoying an informative short film, the beginning of the 'Itapu Experience.' This extended infomercial was a sort of Soviet propaganda piece crossed with a Club Med promo video. First we'd get a bit about heroic feats of engineering and the marvels of concrete. Then we'd have clips of attractive young things having fun with water skis on the lake behind the dam. And every now and then there would be an earnest declaration of the dam's environmental credentials. There were enough of these to suggest that the dam has a fair few rainforests in its closet. Finally, at the end, there was a stirring bit of bi-nationalism (the dam sits in neutralised territory between Brazil and Paraguay) when the narrator pointed out that even when the Three Gorges Dam was finished, Itapu would still be bigger. And better. So there China. At the end of the film, I started clapping to see if anyone else would. They did. I'd like to think they followed my lead but the timing was probably coincidental and they were most likely moved by the stirring sight of so much hydroelectricity being generated.
In the flesh (or concrete) the dam is quite impressive, although like everything else in the tropics made of concrete, it suffers from a sort of stained, mildewed look. You drive across the top for a nice view of the spillways (some grousing from fellow tourists as we did not stop to video these) and you can watch some rather fine vultures wheeling overhead. And that's about it unless you are a civil engineer and get really worked up over big concrete things; we met a couple who were. Oh - and how could I forget - there is also a 'workers wood' where the dam's loyal employees get to plant a named tree after working there for fifteen years. I think the Itapu Corporation probably needs to put some more thought into its workforce's long term incentive packages.
Before the tour was over we also learned a lot of believe-it-or-not facts about the dam. There is enough concrete there to fill the big stadium in Rio; it generates 25% of Brazil's and 95% of Paraguay's energy needs (quite impressive, actually); it has enough reinforcing steel in it build several dozen Eiffel towers; if the damn wrestled Godzilla, the dam would win, etc, etc. The dam saved its most draw dropping fact for last though. It gets 1500 visitors a day and is one of South America's biggest tourist attractions. This is startling until you actually stop to consider why quite so many punters come to see it. Then you realise that visiting the Brazilian side of Iguazu falls takes about an hour, and that every single crappy tour operator in the Iguazu Falls area (such as our own) uses the free Itapu tour to bulk out the day. So, yes, the damn gets 1,500 visitors a day and every single one of them is saying to themselves: 'Sure, this is kind of cool. But I'm pretty certain I'm supposed to be visiting a waterfall.'
Feeling damn impressed, (ha ha), we got back into our minibus with the rest of our tour group which consisted of four fat ladies from Chile, a family (also from Chile) and a guide whose indifference to his job was a wonder to behold. I wondered if the waterfall was next. Not a bit of it: it was time to hit the souvenir shop. I have to admit I wasn't expecting much - but reader, I was wrong. Good God, I have never seen so much crap in my life - and not cheap crap either, but really, really expensive crap. I had never, ever, in my wildest 1970s pimp fantasies believed that onyx could take on so many forms. Why there was an entire rainforest full of animals craved out of the stuff! There was a statue, a full metre high - of an angry, well-muscled fellow wrestling a puma. (Does anyone outside the crack trade think 'Why that's just the thing for the living room'). Even better was one of those geodes, a hollow rock full of purple amethyst crystals. This was enormous and had been opened on one side so that it looked like a sort of disco cavern. Already a naturally garish object, it had been augmented by half a dozen parrots, lovingly hand carved in pink onyx and a bouquet of stone flowers. This piece was definitely the work of an artist as a machine that can carve pink onyx parrots has yet to be invented. It cost $5000.
But who buys this utter crap? Well, the South Americans, it would appear, cannot get enough. That, I think, is what comes from having a thoroughly vulgar moneyed class. When Brits get rich, they go all fiscally coquettish on you, and many of them even seek to gentrify themselves in some way. Not so in Argentina and Brazil: here the rich want you to know how wealthy they are. And, if you really want to shout about your riches from the rooftops - well, I guess that an onyx parrot ensemble is a pretty good way of doing it.
All this was pretty diverting for about 20 minutes. But our family were wealthy South Americans and were absolutely loving this smorgasboard of semi-precious shite; they could cheerfully have spent the afternoon there. We couldn't: once you've laughed at one couple (Texans, actually) discussing the logistics of shipping home a three foot high tree (gilded trunk, several thousand amethyst leaves, $3000) it all gets a bit dull. Briefly I bonded with our guide who told me that 'The rich people here, they like shit, you know,' but even that couldn't make the last half of an hour spent in the company of half the continent's onyx interesting.
So, we wondered, was the waterfall next? Of course not. Next we had a bird park, which was kind of OK, especially as we saw a bird from New Guinea that could kill people. Then we had lunch (another buffet restaurant - Brazilians love 'em; they remind me of wedding receptions without the celebration) where we got to watch the Chilean ladies eat more than I thought was humanly possible. Buffets - to which we will return later - are an interesting behavioural phenomenon in their own right. Not seen overmuch in the UK these days, it is hugely interesting to watch what happens when people are offered all they can eat. Many of them eat all they can.
Once we had eaten (some of us, all we could) and waited for the family, who were slack, even by Latin standards it was...wait for it...time for the falls. Iguazu is famous for being the spectacle that caused Eleanor Roosevelt to quip 'Poor Niagara.' She was right: on almost every hydrological criterion, Iguazu beats its US Canadian counterpart hands down. Although, I suppose, if you wanted to be charitable, you would say that Niagara looks slightly less muddy. There are not two, but dozens of falls, cascades, cataracts, rapids, etc. They form part of a massively moist panorama that stretches on for about a kilometre. And you can walk right up the huge V shaped part of the falls, called the Devil's Throat which really is a total immersion waterfall experience (ladies should not wear white tops).
A diverting sideshow to this pleasingly damp vista was watching numerous people struggling with their home video equipment. For these would be auteurs (mostly Yanks), it's a nightmare. Do you pass up what could be some of the greatest home video footage ever to hit Buttgrease, Massachusetts? Or do you go for it and risk soaking this year's Sony Home Pro Digistudio? Few people appreciate quite how these folk suffer for their art. A suffering that is made all the more poignant (and artistically credible, natch) as 99% of home videos are only ever watched by their makers and household pets.
As we'd had to wait an hour, completely soaked, at the end of the Brazilian for the 'tard family (who were now really pissing off even the fat ladies), we ditched our tour group the following day and went over to the Argentine side. Whereas on the Brazilian side, you mainly gawp at the falls from afar, on its Argie opposite, you really get involved. Dozens of walkways thread their way through jungly trees and lush vegetation to unexpected cliffs and huge cataracts. Animals that look like a cross between a racoon and an anteater snaffle at your bags and, until you get stuck behind a South American tour group (think tree sloth on ketamine), you really can pretend that you are in some sort of Lost World.
This is the other great thing about the falls. For a continent that clearly prizes onyx parrots, the South Americans have done a remarkable job of keeping the area around them free of tat. There is a pair of hotels at the falls themselves. One is old and indifferently pleasant. The other, a Sheraton (a chain which seems to specialise in recreating eastern European social housing around the world) looks like something out of Buck Rogers. But that's pretty much it. Foz do Iguazu, the main town for the falls is undeniably ghastly but it is 20km away. And for the most part, much of Iguazu's charm is that the falls are laudably free of the kind of commercial squalor that defiles Niagara.
We rounded out our tour of the falls with a boat ride, paying $20 to motor right up to the falls, thus soaking any undergarments that had escaped earlier drenchings. Meanwhile some of our fellow passengers bravely worked their video cameras, right into the deluge; their heroism in the face of water reminded me of 'The Perfect Storm.' Later, we drove through a little bit of the vast national park that surrounds Iguazu. I asked our guide (who greatly impressed me by knowing the actual biological difference between jungle and rainforest) if it was possible to visit the rest of the park. She said 'No, it is too dangerous, the park is full of Pumas and Jaguars.' I asked her if they'd killed people in the past. She said, 'Yes, mainly children.' Thinking back to the family of the day before, my sympathy was with the jaguars. And, while I wouldn't have minded a walk in the park, I approved. Almost everyone who goes to Iguazu is interested only in the falls, boat rides, etc, so why not have a heavily used 10 square kilometres full of tubby twits subsidising and protecting 2000 square km of unpopulated jungle.
Back at the hotel (for there is no even remotely compelling no reason to go out anywhere in Foz do Iguazu) and we spent half an hour comparing mosquito bites by the pool. The local mozzies, while not malarial, have a bite which causes horrorshow welts which first erupt then leak clear, yellow fluid for the next four days; left alone your legs and ankles soon look like pine trees after they've been weeping sap.
February 21, 2003