The Big Water (Iguazú)

It is remarkable, that all three of the most
famous waterfalls in the world form a
boundary between two countries.

You can only get a full impression of the
enormous scale of the Iguazú Falls when
you get to Brazil.

Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund
There, Across The River, Lies Argentina

A pleasant, slightly built man in his thirties, with delicate face and hands the shade of bronze people like to boast of returning from Hawaii, opened the door of his car. “My name is Omar,” he said, “I’ll take you to Brazil.” “Omar is a Spanish name,” he added unexpectedly. “Of course,” I hastened to respond, not realizing the significance of the comment. “I know. For instance Omar Torrijos,” I ventured the name of a former president of Panama in whose government the father of Ilya’s friend Danny once served as the deputy finance minister. Not being a typical American, more famous names of baseball figures, like Omar Minaya, escaped me. Being an American, however, was very much the point.

Omar – our guide and driver
Omar – our guide and driver

The evening before, in our hotel in the middle of the Parque Nacional Iguazú, we passed a folding table with enticing brochures advertising trips to the Brazilian side of the border. Resigned to our fate, I casually mentioned to the man at the table that as Americans without Brazilian visas we probably had no hope of taking such a tour. “No problem,” the man said, “this can be arranged.” Then hearing our agitated discussion in Russian he became concerned. “But do you have American passports?” he asked, “Are you American citizens?” It turned out he had gotten into an embarrassing situation once when a group of Russian-speaking Americans produced Russian passports at the Brazilian border. They were turned away from that famous “promised” land where everybody wears white pants. How exactly this could be arranged and why passports would still be involved when visas were the official requirement, we were reluctant to ask. But given that a half-day chauffeured trip for the three of us to a place we had only dreamed of seeing would cost just $100, we decided to take a risk.

Sixty years earlier, the soon-to-be-famous Czech globe-trotters Hanzelka and Zikmund first had to negotiate what passed for a road in the jungle, and then were forced to wait for several days to ferry their trusty Tatra coupe across the river to Brazil. We had better luck. The road was as smooth as any autobahn, and the modernistic Tancredo Neves Bridge lay ahead. As one might expect on an autobahn, the next attraction on the way was created and owned by the friendly German family of Otto Waidelich and Irma Sommerfeld with their daughters Sonia, Ursula and Anelis.

And it was literally a trap. La Aripuca, presumably a simple Indian wooden trap for birds, inspired the good Germans to create a scale model to ensnare tourists. The scale in this case was up, way up. This aripuca, the size of a 4-storey building, was constructed of huge logs of indigenous timber up to a meter in diameter.

La Aripuca – a bird trap
La Aripuca – a bird trap

Not long after, we were entering Puerto Iguazú. A one-hotel town in the times of Hanzelka & Zikmund, it was buzzing with new construction, providing very good employment for the locals. Omar confirmed our impression. The employment situation was so “good”, he said, that for every five construction jobs twenty people usually had to be hired. He certainly knew a thing or two about corruption. Omar’s local roots ran deep. He was born and raised here and lived in subsidized housing with his wife, while she studied to become a nurse. He himself made a decent, by local standards, living entertaining gringos like us. When asked what languages he spoke, besides a very reasonable English and his native Spanish, he mentioned Portuguese and also Guaraní (the local Indian language) which he at a minimum understood. High cheekbones on his otherwise very European face were an indication of his probable mestizo roots.

In a few minutes we were standing next to the Hito Argentino de las Tres Fronteras, on a high bluff over the confluence of the mighty Iguazú and the even mightier Paraná. In front of us was Brazil and on the left the endless straight shoreline of Paraguay. The Hito Argentino was an obelisk of a modest size with an uneven stucco surface painted in the colors of the Argentine flag.

Hito Argentino
Hito Argentino

We knew that similar obelisks were placed in each country across the rivers, but the late afternoon sun blazing from the north barely let us catch sight of the Marco Brasileiro and completely obscured the Paraguayan monument.

A round red building with a conical roof at the very edge of Brazil was the only clearly visible man-made structure. It was the Fórum das Américas, a medieval style amphitheater constructed for high-level meetings and in particular for Mercosur, but rarely used for anything, according to Omar. Mercosur leaders did meet in Puerto Iguazú a month later where they had a hard time not only with Hugo Chávez of Venezuela but also and especially with the newly elected Peasant-President of Bolivia Evo Morales.

There, beyond the river, lies Paraguay (on the left; Brazil is on the right)
There, beyond the river, lies Paraguay (on the left; Brazil is on the right)

I was still a little concerned about the coming border crossing and the need to produce our passports and finally asked Omar about it. I should have anticipated the answer. “Brazilians and Argentines are not stupid,” he said, “they know what’s good for them and everybody knows each other here; there will be no problem.” One could only guess what portion of the tour fee goes to which official on which side of the Frontera, or why only 100% certified Americans were allowed to take advantage of this laissez-faire attitude, and not the half-baked green card holders from Eurasia. Maybe Brazilians were afraid that former Russians would be unable to resist the allure of the white-pants-wearing Eden and would simply blend in and disappear, never to return.

Having crossed the Tancredo Neves Bridge, we stopped and handed our passports to Omar, getting them back a minute later without a hitch. But one important ritual still remained. We were asked to get out of the car and thoroughly wipe our feet on one of several red mats scattered on the sidewalk in front of the checkpoint gate. This was ostensibly to protect Brazilian cattle from the transmission of foot-and-mouth disease from Argentina. On the way back we found that the same procedure was necessary to enter Argentina. Who really needed protection from whom remained unclear, and reminded me of the proverbial tough-childhood story of having to walk 10 miles to school and back barefoot and uphill both ways. Anyhow, we were now in Brazil in the city of Foz do Iguaçú and could finally say that “Argentina was across the river.”

Wipe off your Argentinian plague when entering Brazil (and vice versa)
Wipe off your Argentinian plague when entering Brazil (and vice versa)

The first indication that we had entered a new and exotic country were numerous billboards along the road with huge letters spelling MONALISA. The “O” framed that most universally marketable face of high art. Smaller letters above formed the following invitation, in Portuguese: “Visit Paraguay shop at [MONALISA]” I have come to understand since then that shopping in Paraguay, although unattainable for the undocumented Norteamericanos, may have indeed been good. The area of the Tres Fronteras is apparently famous for smuggling, and while drugs and weapons are the high value added goods (or “bads”) of choice, other lesser wares also tag along the well-oiled paths where everybody knows everybody. Paraphrasing Omar, Paraguayans are not stupid either. Lacking the waterfalls, but having a broken down economic and political system, they turn it to their relative advantage, just as Dr. Milton Friedman ordered. All globalization is local.

MONALISA invites you to Paraguay
MONALISA invites you to Paraguay

There was one more globalization feature in the area. On the map of Foz do Iguaçú, a large symbol with domes and minarets had the following legend: Mesquita Centro Cultural Beneficente Islámico. It is there that the bombing of the Argentine Mutual Israelite Association in Buenos Aires was allegedly planned and supplied. The deed has not been punished to this day. Indeed, several accused plotters were controversially acquitted for lack of evidence while we were in Argentina. Plenty of other Omars could probably be found there.

But these side attractions were not on our well-prescribed route. The next stop was at the Brazilian answer to MONALISA – Artesanato Tres Fronteiras – a straightforward warehouse-sized souvenir shop. Besides exchanging money (I wanted to get some Brazilian Reals), I could not help buying a few maps. And here I was rewarded with a surprise. While Argentina is full of monuments to the heroes of the abortive war with Britain for the islands that all Argentinean sources still call the “Malvinas” (and add a few more remote spots to Argentina’s territory for good measure), the Brazilian map of the region said: “Ilhas Falkland ou Malvinas, R.U.”  “R.U.” here stands for Reino Unido, or United Kingdom. Such a betrayal from such a close neighbor!

One might imagine that Brazil is a more spontaneous and disorganized country than Argentina, but the Parque Nacional do Iguaçú was much more orderly and regimented than its Argentinean counterpart. It starts with the entrance which is even a bit disneyesque with its low-rise contemporary architecture, magnetic strip tickets and double-decker buses with yellow-billed toucans and other tropical themes painted all over them. Cars had to be left at the entrance and buses with designated routes and stops took visitors inside the park.

Eco Tucan bus – Brazilian side
Eco Tucan bus – Brazilian side

On the Argentinean side, the many trails at different levels above the river took the visitors close to a variety of falls with names like Adam & Eve or Two Sisters. An “ecological” train chugged through the jungle to the main water-flow bowl of Garganta del Diablo, or the Devil’s Throat. Boats would ferry tourists across an inlet to Isla San Martín for more close-up views, or right into the whirling waters at the foot of the falls.

Isla San Martin (left) - Argentina
Isla San Martin (left) - Argentina
Garganta del Diablo - Argentina
Garganta del Diablo - Argentina

In Brazil, the main attraction was a long promenade on the high shore with panoramic vistas across the river. There were also playful mono caí (brown capuchin monkeys) in the trees, snowy egrets sitting calmly on rocks in the middle of rushing waters, bungee-jumping platforms for German tourists, and the omnipresent coatis. These raccoon’s relatives are just as thieving and enterprising, with their pointy anteater-like muzzles and a long striped clown’s sock for a tail.

Coatis
Coatis

At the end of the path, in front of the souvenir shop, a bronze statue of Alberto Santos-Dumont, the godfather of the national park and Brazil’s entry in the great “father of aviation” contest, was sternly gazing at the visitors from under his trademark Panama hat. All Senhor Santos-Dumont had to do to cause the eventual creation of the park was to mention the idea to the local political boss Jorge Schimmelpfeng (!) while passing through the area in 1916.  

Alberto Santos-Dumont – the first aviator (according to Brazil)
Alberto Santos-Dumont – the first aviator (according to Brazil)

And what of the falls? It pains me to admit that my weak keyboard (“pen” would have been used here by a more classical writer) is incapable of describing them with even a minimal degree of justice. It is impossible to say anything adequate about hundreds of streams, some separate some joined into widest white bands, spread over several miles along the arc of the far and near horizon, interleaved with red cliffs and tropical vegetation, rushing down in stages, interrupted sometimes by boiling cauldrons, sometimes temporarily collected in deceptively calm lagoons before irreversibly plunging to the bottom of the river canyon. I abdicate all responsibility for this task and refer the reader to the spontaneous reaction of a native New Yorker, Eleanor Roosevelt, who, on seeing the Iguazú Falls, could only exclaim: “Poor Niagara!”

Garcita blanca (snowy egret) - Brazil
Garcita blanca (snowy egret) - Brazil
Panoramic view from Brazil to Argentina
Panoramic view from Brazil to Argentina
Garganta do Diablo – Brazil
Garganta do Diablo – Brazil
Toucan - Argentina
Toucan - Argentina
Gut yontef – in Puerto Iguazú!
Gut yontef – in Puerto Iguazú!

Our last image of Puerto Iguazú was the silhouette of a bearded man in a long black coat and a black hat over curled side locks, rolling his luggage cart through the airport exit door into the bright midday sun. This Hasid was coming home for the great feast of Lag Ba’Omer