Where the World is Most Definitely Flat

Iguazu Falls

Two days later and morning started too early, some time before eight we were walking through the national park gates on our way to Iguazu Falls. By some miracle the sun was shining, the perfect day for rain to end. The we was the European couple I’d ignored at the mission but met in San Ignacio regardless, due to my need for caffeine first thing a.m., a cup of coffee that thirty seconds missed the bus for me, while Giulia and Igor turned up ten minutes later at the stretch of footpath doubling as bus stop. They’d dared breakfast. Suddenly we had about an hour and a half to solve the world, an activity befitting the final leg of their round world journey from and to London.
‘No, it’s not genes,’ Igor was saying, ‘Tahitians are fat because France subsidises the price of baguettes. An English-style loaf costs ten times as much in Tahiti.’
‘It’s not just the baguettes,’ said Giulia.
‘Two points, there’s the paté too – goose liver, French, full of fat and subsidised.’
Igor had this curious habit of awarding points for what people said. Within minutes I’d raced ahead of Giulia, who’d only managed six to my ten, unless it was one of those games where the more points you earn the worse you’re doing. Not knowing the rules my game plan had no strategy.
‘How did you like Australia?’ I asked.
‘Ten points, it was brilliant,’ he said.
‘There are few truly jaw-dropping moments in this world,’ Giulia said, ‘but Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef both made my jaw drop.’
‘Another two points,’ Igor said, ‘The people are great. Australians can fix any problem calmly and professionally, like that problem with our plane ticket. The company where I work in London would fall apart without them.’
‘New Zealanders were more interested in money,’ she said.
‘Two points again. It’s because of the Americans who drop by New Zealand for two weeks and take helicopter rides to mountain tops. They’re too obese to walk and it makes New Zealand expensive for everyone.’
‘He hasn’t been the same since they bombed Belgrade,’ Giulia explained.
Giulia and Igor fit together like Christmas-in-July, unlikely but compatible, he dogmatic, she diplomatic, he emotional and she frank. Mid-thirties Giulia was fashionably casual in that Italian way while I was just sloppy. Her tightly curled hair was blond-African attractive and as tall as she was, Igor was taller, probably star basketball player for Serbia. That’s why when the bus finally arrived, ten points to the bus company, he hit his head on the roof while trying to sit, minus five. I’d graduated to awarding points of my own and it felt good.
‘You think the rain might stop?’ I said to Igor, ‘five points.’ He looked at me suspiciously, assessing the appropriateness of my new point-awarder post, but after some contemplation seemed to accept my efforts, perhaps because he’d always awarded points and never actually earned any. Water leaked through the bus roof (no bingo this time) as the scenery rattled by, rolling red dirt hills, small wooden farmhouses, scrawny chickens and hints of jungle, towards Argentina’s end.
When we arrived in sleepy Puerto Iguazu we settled into a hostel carefully chosen via the random method and wandered to the tri-border where the Parana and Iguazu rivers met, over the one Paraguay, the other Brazil. Puerto Iguazu was relaxing, good for pretending you were on the Amazon verges as despite being a major tourist hub it had a frontier feel. Our discussion continued over dinner, pizza and beer. ‘It’s not that all Americans are bad,’ Igor said, ‘but remember that lady in Peru?’ He looked to Giulia for affirmation, ‘she was running around Lima looking for a First Boston bank. ‘I only bank with First Boston!’ she was yelling. She had no concept she was standing in sodding Peru!’
‘Did you make it to Bolivia?’ I asked hopefully.
‘We spent a couple of weeks there,’ Giulia said.
‘How was it?’ I held my breath.
‘We missed the worst of the strikes,’ she said, ‘but others had to knock on boarded-up restaurants to get dinner. They pretend to be closed, might be attacked if they openly break the strike, but inside they were open. They sneak you in.’ I liked the idea of knocking on boarded-up buildings for a meal, people who sneak you in, are open on the inside.
Bolivia has great desserts, people were really friendly,’ Igor said, spilling his beer in the process. I had to deduct six points.

Judging by Iguazu National Park, Argentines manage to keep major tourist attractions relative pristine, raw and refined: like a tango turn. There were a few ugly buildings but mostly it was tasteful and like the Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney it did well considering how many people go there. The falls sit right on the Brazil border, both sides have an airport and fancy hotels, so Americans can jet in for a day and say they’ve been to South America according to Igor.
Within metres of the entrance we (we meaning mostly me) stood captivated by a group of rat looking creatures on spindly legs in the bushes by the track. They were like smaller, jungle capybaras and I asked around. ‘I know the animals you mean,’ locals said, ‘but not their name.’ A great start to the day, animals sufficiently useless as to be virtually nameless.  I’ve always had a soft spot for useless animals.
Giulia preferred the butterflies in azure blues, oranges, purples, yellows and patterned whites. ‘It’s as if each butterfly has to submit an application on the extent of its uniqueness before being allowed permission to enter the park,’ Igor said.
‘I really prefer moths,’ I couldn’t help saying.
As for the falls themselves I was a sceptic, waterfalls are generally nice but I had doubts how much they could impress even if big. That all changed when we first saw them. ‘It’s another jaw dropping moment for me,’ Giulia said. There were hundreds of large falls including one directly beneath the platform where we stood, the smallest of which would be an important tourist site in most countries, but here just entrée to the colossal liquid horseshoe in the distance that blended jungle, spray and sky into the horizon hills of far Brazil. ‘That’s the Devil’s Throat, it’s two kilometres across,’ Giulia said, ‘let’s go there last.’
Water, water everywhere as the track wound its way right to the edge of several falls. Looking down, the world was simply spray rising hundreds of metres, raincoat country despite sunshine. There in a tree was our first wild toucan!
‘Everything’s Italian here,’ Giulia said referring to Argentina not the falls, ‘when Argentines hear I’m Italian they launch into it themselves, even speak Spanish with an Italian accent.’
‘Does that explain the zh sound?’ I said, ‘from what I’ve heard Argentines want to transform every consonant into zh.
‘Two points and they probably can,’ Igor agreed.

We wound our way around the bottom, platforms perched close enough beside the falls that you could stick your arm under however many tonnes of water if you felt it worthwhile. Standing there meant being drenched in five seconds from spray. A squirrel sat on the railing further back, jumping and flit-flitting its bushy tail.
Argentina has style,’ Igor proclaimed in the direction of the squirrel, ‘in Buenos Aires I saw a bidet in a public toilet.’
‘You were impressed by that bidet weren’t you?’ said Giulia.
‘It would never happen in Chile,’ he retorted, ‘all money, no class. They serve instant coffee in little packets and think that’s European.’
The forest was bird noises, rustling bushes and another troop of those unnamed rat creatures. We encountered fuzzy-faced cai monkeys, a troop of thirty or more, grooming each other, carrying babies through the canopy. The whole troop made this giant leap, one by one, across a canopy gap.

Middle Age seers thought the world flat, which would have been understandable had not the Greeks many centuries earlier known it round – knowledge discovered and discarded, returned to jungle, moss and strangler fig. It would have been understandable had they thought it while standing atop the Devil’s Throat. Two kilometres of planet seem to disappear suddenly downwards into mist-void and modern science might be tempted to vote for flatness here.
     From deep-green jungle chocolate channels emerge, rush and swirl to abyss and perhaps beyond, flow southeast to solidify into the Pampas like liquid chocolate cooling. The channels vine-twist like the weave and weft of events, places, moments and faces, tri-colour deep-green, brown and toasted orange sky. The patterns are absurd, chance meetings, confusion and laughter that humans alone could never create, the patterns of journey.
     That channel there, it’s when at twenty-three I found myself in an Iranian university lecture, barely-decipherable biology in Farsi, tomatoes and potatoes with black clad women partitioned in rows on the left. Where it meets that small stream, that must be the lecturer who somehow went to Adelaide, knew to discuss cricket before moving onto legumes.
     We walk on water, Giulia, Igor and I, like Central American Jesus Christ lizards, across aluminium bridges, island hopping one kilometre out to the Earth-yawn. The islands are stubborn, fixated with stasis, thinking they can avoid change and defy the river, but on the downside they constantly lose soil and have to grab every passing grain upside to maintain an unchanging illusion. It takes energy to stand still.
     ‘It’s relatively easy for westerners to let go and be free of their daily dramas,’ Giulia said, ‘but so few do. Fear holds them back, somehow they like their dramas; it gives comfort.’
     The channel beyond, that was the little village in Rajasthan where at twenty I was called into the school, taught an impromptu English class and drank tea with all the teachers in the headmaster’s office. They’d slurped so loudly in tea-appreciation and I’d tried to copy but burst out laughing at what in Australia was rude. We culture-shared the why and they laughed at my laughter.
     The water, thing of beauty and life-shapes, carries sticks, leaves, anything that comes to it, has a rhythmic flow that felt good watching. The water brought together, united in a vast liquid plain, was a gathering audience for the great horseshoe plummet.
     Maybe it’s the collusion and deception of sunshine and spray, together creating permanent rainbows far below which lure like sirens water to the edge. Maybe they conspire with the unseeable rocks at the bottom to hit and split water so violently the whole place roars in pain. I can’t hear Giulia speak so I just nod. But when the worst happens sustenance arrives in the most peculiar packages, that small Iranian girl travelling on the bus with her grandmother, who uninvited rechristened me Farid because she couldn’t say my name, and together we’d discovered and sang that Salam Ebdasam, Salam Farid song most of the way to Bandar Buhshehr. How did she know I’d been robbed and needed distraction? Just when all seems lost water regroups, altered and replenished – and sometimes by chance it’s you who drop unexpected into someone’s far away life with something to offer, an opportunity to be useful in some modest probably unknown way. Sometimes you’re the Ebdasam, the water that pushes in a broad sweep down valley away from crisis.
     The river disappears in the direction of Paraguay fed by challenge, knowledge and inspiration, stronger and more together, to some final destination the indignant islands will never see. Might it be the chaotic enchantment of Buenos Aires? Or the land of the delta?

Memories also filed under Estonia,  packaged in the Himalayas and risen from the dead in Cyprus.

A shorter version of this article is published in Star Magazine, here: Where the World is Flat

Note: This was first written in 2005 and redrafted in 2007.  It follows on from the post ‘The Mission’.  The names are changed and it’s not one hundred percent fact, but close to it.  It was when I was on my way to Bolivia for the first time to take up a teaching job.

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