Rankin and Ruthi Skinner – Buenos Aires

Note: The following two blog posts are the final submissions by Ruthi and Rankin Skinner from their time spent in South America earlier this year.

Buenos Aires is a large, cosmopolitan and truly beautiful city with a European feel. Everyone who visits seems to fall under her spell. This is an immigrant city, most of its original inhabitants having migrated from Spain and Italy. The architecture is definitely European, along with the layout of the streets, broad boulevards with green space in the center. Buenos Aires lies in the Pampas. Pampas actually means “land with no trees”, but one of B.A.’s early presidents had the vision and foresight to have planted 150,000 trees during his term of office, and the trend has continued. Now Buenos Aires is tree-lined from one end of the city to the other. Every park has public art and the people here frequent these lovely parks regularly.
We arrived at Ezeiza International Airport via Lima, Peru. It is a 30-minute taxi ride from the airport to the center of town. We stayed at Las Naciones Hotel, right in the center of the theatre district, and situated on Ave. Corriantes, one of the main streets in town. We arrived in early evening and everything was lit up, with big billboards advertising all the plays. The city was (as it always seems to be) alive! Folks here walk arm-in-arm at all hours of the night; lovers, friends, whole families with their kids, even kids who seem to be all alone (!!). Most restaurants do not open until 8 or 9 P.M., and no one eats early here. One of our favorite things to do was to sit in outdoor cafes, have a coffee or share a bottle of wine and people watch. Speaking of wines, Argentina is known for some of the best wines in South America. In one restaurant, we had a great small bottle of Malbec for $17 Argentine Pesos ($4.25). We are not meat eaters, but everyone raves over the steaks here. Of course, Argentina considers itself to be the beef capital of the world. The steak houses (parrillas) will give you a choice of several different cuts, and the servings seem to always be more than any normal appetite can handle. Argentinians will tell you it is so good because free-range Argentine cows eat nutritious pampas grass, without the massive quantities of corn, antibiotics and growth hormones which American and European stock is given in feedlots. In Argentina, the average yearly intake of beef is 70 kg/person.
Buenos Aires proper has a population of 3,000,000, not including the surrounding area which swells to 12.4 million. B.A. is separated into 48 separate neighborhoods, some very wealthy, others desperately poor. The city is also known for its cutting-edge designers and great shopping. One cool shopping street (1 block from our hotel) is Calle Florida, a long pedestrian street with no automobile access. It is one of the main arteries of this neighborhood. It is always jammed during the day with business people, shoppers and tourists seeking vehicle-free access from north to south without bus fumes and honking taxis. Buskers, beggars and street vendors thrive here, adding color and noise. The day we shopped here, there were several bands playing along the street, including a jazz band, Otavalan flute band (they’re everywhere, they’re everywhere) and reggae musicians. Ruthi was pleased to find our daughter Erin some cha-cha little sandles here.
A note: We really do not discriminate between our kids, grandkids and in-laws. The ATM at the airport in B.A. had eaten our debit card, so our shopping possibilities were severely hampered. What the heck. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It was because of  needing to use the phone when we reached Puerto Iguazu to call our bank back home that we were treated to that charming little town, which we wrote about in a previous blog. Then, David Coffey just brought us down some cash from Winchester, so shopping would pick up again in Quito. 
The next day we visited several of the neighborhoods. One, Recoleta, had tree-lined streets with mansions copied after ones found in Europe. If you want one of these you had better have plenty of cash. Most of the middle class citizens live in Palermo, another interesting area in 3 distinct parts. Many museums are found here, as well as many embassies of different countries. In one of the parks here is found one of Buenos Aires’ most unique sculptures. It is a monumental flower by Eduardo Catalano, constructed of polished aluminum much like the museum in Bilbao. An interesting feature is it is solar-powered and the petals close at night. Really cool! Next, we visited La Boca, a blue-collar neighborhood, where many of the houses are covered with corrugated metal and painted in bright colors. This neighborhood is a rough one and it is not recommended to stroll away from the main streets, where there is constantly a street fair, with tango dancers, musicians and artists. Another neighborhood nearby, and known for its antique shops and great cafes, is San Telmo.

The newest and least conventional of B.A.’s barrios is Puerto Madero, located east of Microcentro. Once an old waterfront, it is now a wonderful place to stroll, boasting cobblestone walkways and a long line of attractive brick warehouses which have been converted into ritzy lofts, business offices and upscale restaurants. Skyscrapers are being built here in record numbers and here is found some of B.A.’s most expensive real estate. 
Of course, no visit to B.A. is complete without a visit to the tomb of Eva Peron (Evita) who championed the poor during her husband’s presidency and gave women the right to vote. Today she is revered with saint-like love and respect by nearly all Argentinians. Tragically, she died of cancer at only age 33. There is a beautiful much-oversized statue of her in the park where her body lies, testament to the way in which her memory is treasured. 
Another site which should not be missed is La Plaza de Mayo, where in 1977, 14 mothers marched to demand information about their missing children. This was during the human rights violations of then-President Jorge Rafael Videla. These women’s bravery turned  into a strong social movement which challenged the military government. Their movement is credited for the country’s return to civil government in 1983. Thousands of young people disappeared during this time and the mothers continue to march in the plaza demanding retribution and information. In 2005 the Argentine Supreme Court overturned an amnesty (which until then protected former military officers suspected and accused of human rights violations during the 1973-1986 military dictatorship). Mothers still hold silent vigils every Thursday afternoon in remembrance of the “disappeared”. 
Sadly, our time in Buenos Aires came to an end, but we left knowing we had only touched the surface of what this great city has to offer. Stay tuned: if at all possible, we’ll be back for a longer stay next year. 
Rankin Skinner

Rankin and Ruthi Skinner – Iguazu Falls

Years ago, a dear friend, and one of KEP’s most devoted volunteers, Ron Padgett, visited me at my home after he had returned from a Kellogg Fellows meeting in Brazil. After the meeting, the group had all gone to Iguazu Falls and were stunned by the wondrous beauty of this place. He made me promise that one day Ruthi and I would go there.
For years after, the responsibilities of life, and the lack of time and money, prevented us from making this dream a reality. This year, all the stars were aligned (and we realized we were not getting any younger, and we are only promised this moment). After Roberta and Donnie returned to the U.S., having traveled with us for 5 weeks of our 10-week sojourn, we bought our tickets for Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls to fulfil our dream and our promise to Ron.
Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and his expedition were the first Europeans to view the falls, in 1542. According to Guarani legend, the falls originated when an indigenous warrior named Caroba incurred the wrath of a forest god by escaping in a canoe with a young girl, Naipur, with whom the god was infatuated. Enraged, the god caused the river bend to collapse in front of the lovers, producing a line of waterfalls over which Naipur fell, and at their base, turned into a rock. Caroba survived as a tree overlooking the falls.
Geologists have a better explanation. The Rio Iguazu’s course takes it over a basaltic plateau which ends abruptly, just short of the confluence with the Parana’. Where the lava flow stopped, thousands of cubic meters of water per second now plunge as much as 80 meters into the valley below. Before reaching the falls, the river divides into many channels with hidden reefs, rocky sand islands that separate
 the river into the many different falls. In total, the falls stretch around for more than 2 kilometers. Venezuela’s Angel Falls is the world’s highest single waterfall, But Iguazu is the widest set of falls on the planet.
Iguazu Falls (Cataratas de Iguazu) is located in an area where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay come together, although the falls are primarily in Brazil and Argentina. It really is one of earth’s most wondrous sites. The power and noise of the falls is simply unforgettable. The falls lie in thousands of acres of national park, established in the 1930’s. It is subtropical, with palm trees, ferns and lush green surrounding all. The rainforest is teeming with unique flora and fauna. There are thousands of species of insects and hundreds of species of birds, and many different mammals and reptiles. A few years ago, Iguazu Falls was named a World Heritage Site, and is a finalist to be named one of the new 7 Wonders of the World in Nature.

Although you can reach the falls from Brazil, Argentina or Paraguay, we decided to visit from the Argentinian side. We initially flew into Buenos Aires, traveling on to Puerto Iguazu the next morning. We checked into our hotel, The Orquidea, 4 km. from the town of Puerto Iguazu itself. This small town reminded us of Fernandina Beach, Florida, with its natural beauty and lovely architecture (all the bricks used in the buildings having been made from the deep red earth found everywhere here). Down the center of the main street is green space, with palm trees planted throughout. We had a simple, tasty Italian lunch (Does it get any better than this?  A friend of ours always calls this plain, good food) at an open-air restaurant and were amazed to realize most tourists never set foot in this quaint little town located at the confluence of the Rios Parana’ and Iguazu, bypassing it totally in their rush to see the falls. From this vantage point, one can also look across to Brazil and Paraguay.
The next morning we headed to the park. We were pinching ourselves on the way, not believing we were finally here. We were informed that massive rains in Brazil had caused an excess of water going over the falls, shutting down the boat ride to Isla San Martin. Upon leaving the visitor’s center, we took a short walk through the jungle to a train which took us to where we began the trek to the see the greatest of all the falls, Garganta del Diablo (Throat of the Devil). There are walkways built from island to island, which allow people to actually walk over the river. In the distance you can hear this incredible (Ruthi here; we are constantly getting on Rankin for overusing the word incredible. But, I am completely at a loss to think of a better word to use here) ROAR and see a mist of water shooting hundreds of feet into the air. Nothing we ever read prepared us for that moment when we stepped on the platform overlooking The Throat of the Devil. The ground vibrates beneath and the sheer power of what you are experiencing make it very hard to believe there is no higher power at work in the world. This memory will stay with us as long as we live.
We then took the train back to the main station and hiked to the Upper Circuit, where you see, up close and personal, the panoramic view of a series of falls. For Ruthi, this was the moment of special awe, viewing these stunning falls which go on and on. There are overlooks which take you right over the falls to watch the water crashing over the edge as you stand there. By then, we were sufficiently soaked, even though we were wearing our ponchos.
We then hiked (total hiking is supposed to be about 4 kilometers) to a sort of troop transport, where we drove through the jungle for about 20 minutes, to reach the river and the boat. This boat is an inflatable one, holds about 30 people and has a big old inboard motor, with a  whole lot of go-juice. We were instructed to take off our shoes, socks and anything else we couldn’t afford to get wet. We were allowed to keep our cameras, knowing there would be a point at which we would be ordered to put them away for their own protection. We blasted up the river with a tremendous view of the jungle and vertical cliffs. Very soon we began to hear the noise and, as we rounded a bend, we headed directly towards the falls. The captain then took us very close to the falls for photos, advised us to put away those cameras, then exploded into the falls. Buckets, gallons, seemingly tons of water were coming down on us all. He then plowed into Garganta del Diablo, where we completely disappeared into the mist of the “throat”.
Completely drenched, we were disembarked on the lower trail, where we then ascended, step by step, back to the top, being able to view the falls at several different levels. As we reached the top, we were totally exhausted and a bit overwhelmed by our experience. We were met by a family of coatis, members of the raccoon family. We had been so absorbed with and stunned by the falls that we had forgotten for a bit having seen butterflies, beautiful birds, an iguana, and those pesky coatis, said to be the first to notice that bag of Ruffles potato chips you’re carrying, and just as persistent as their North American cousins in grouping up to procure those units. Oh, yes; they’re just as cute as our guys, too.
Our Iguazu Falls dream has now been expanded to hopefully live long enough (and healthily enough) to be able to one day share this awesome wonder with our grandchildren. It truly is magic.
Rankin Skinner

Day 26 quito

Since we arrived in Ecuador, our group has struggled with stomach problems. Somehow, I had managed to avoid this contagious nausea… until today. Most of my day was spent trying to recover so I would be able to enjoy my last day in Ecuador tomorrow.

We should be getting into some amazing adventures tomorrow. Stay posted!

Nick Bratcher

Day 25 – Quito

 Today we went to the Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world) to see the monument to the ecuator there. We may have had some fun straddling the Northern and Southern hemishperes:We had planned to ride the teleférico (a cable car that overlooks modern Quito) after our journey to the middle of the world, but the clowdy day changed our plans. Instead, we did something far more culturally rich… we went to the mall. A view from the food court:

And how would the average Ecuadorian get home from the mall? How about taking a bus (pictured below)? 

Let’s just say, they were a bit more populated than the busses we were used to.How to end such an eventful day? The cuy dinner we had seemed like the perfect option.And in case any of my readers are wondering, cuy means Guinea Pig in Spanish. It reminded me of chicken, minus the still-attached feet and head complete with teeth. Overall, it was delicious.    

Nick Bratcher  

    Day 23 Puerto Lopez

    We took to the sea today to visit Isla de la Plata to bird-watch, hike, and snorkel.

     We’ll be travelling back to Quito (it’s an eight-hour drive) tomorrow, so I’m off to enjoy our last night on the beach! Buenas noches!
    Nick Bratcher

    Day 22 – Puerto Lopez

    Today we went to the village of Agua Blanca to hear about one of the oldest indigenous peoples in Ecuador.

    Some of the artifacts that have been excavated date back farther than even the birth of Christ and the Incan civilization, such as the throne in the picture below.

    Admittedly, ADD did kick in towards the end, so we broke out the ancient musical instruments. My childhood trumpet lessons paid off, I think.

    While there, we also made a stop in the town’s sulfur lagoon. The mud exfoliates the skin, so naturally I took advantage of nature’s gift.

    We wrapped up the day with yet another view of the sunset. This might have been the best one yet.

    Nick Bratcher

    Day 21 – Puerto Lopez

     Today was spent lounging on the beach. I got a nice tan, but by tan, I mean that my legs look considerably similar to a distant relative of the lobster.

    Some of us wrote messages to significant others in the sand (pictured above). Good to see the distance can’t stop true love!
    The city held a parade, complete with marching band, in the afternoon to celebrate the migration of the whales along Puerto Lopez’s Coast. The sister of President Correa resided over the ceremonies.
    Some of the floats were pretty elaborate:
    But my favorite was the school of kids dressed up as squids… or octapi? It was hard to tell.
    We wrapped up today with another view of the sunset. Enjoy!
    Nick Bratcher

    Day 20 – Puertp Lopez

    I know it’s easy to do seeing all of the awesomeness that is going on down here in Ecuador. But just in case anyone forgot, this is a STUDY abroad opportunity. Let’s take a glimpse into class this morning:
    Yes, that’s a beach. Yes, that’s also a class. And in case you’re wondering if we’re actually learning anything, let me share with you a portion of a piece by Pablo Neruda called “The Lamb and the Pinecone” that we analyzed today:

    I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and weaknesses- that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being and unites all living things.

    Neruda was speaking of the importance of giving and service. Though we may not always understand the effect of a good deed or even know its recipient, that sharing of affection and love unites all humans in the struggle that is life.
    To close, I leave you with a view of the sunset over the Pacific Ocean from the roof of the hostel we are staying in.
    Nick Bratcher

    Day 19 – Puertp Lopez

    This has got to be the coolest place I’ve ever stayed in my life. Every inch of the hostel/hotel was hand-made by the owner. Every corner holds tons of puzzles and games. It’s one giant adult playground. Just look at the floor of the study:
    And don’t get me started on the lounge. It’s got a marimba hanging from the ceiling:
    The sun had already set when we arrived here, so there’s not much else to say about our stay on the coast yet. However, the crashing of the waves and cool breeze are certainly making me optimistic.

    Nick Bratcher

    Day 18 – Yachana

    Tonight was our last night in the rainforest. We’ll be waking up bright and early tomorrow at 5 a.m. to venture to our next destination. We’ll take our three-hour boat ride to Coca to fly to our connecting flight in Quito and then to Manta, a town on the coast, for a couple days on the beach.
    In honor of our last night in Yachana, we threw a bonfire/cookout.
    Nick Bratcher