Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Dear friends and family,

You may recall from our last email that on September 2 we came to where the Rio Paraguay joins the much-larger Rio ParanĂ¡. Below the confluence, in the city of Corrientes, ocean-going ships were being unloaded at a tall dock. From the downstream end of the dock streamed a line of two-story floating buildings. These concrete structures served as breakwater for about fifty sailboats and power-craft. One of the structures housed the Club Nautico Corrientes, a representative of which waved us over.
“Tie up here,” he said, indicating the dinghy dock. “You won’t be in the way. My name is Carlos. Is there anything I can help while you are our guests?”

“Well, we would like to get our smaller Honda motor going again. It’s been broken down since Brazil. Do you know a good outboard mechanic?”

“Sure! I can take you there myself, no problem.”

After we had settled in Carlos led us up two flights of stairs to a busy city scene. Parks and walkways overlooked the river. Everything was clean and orderly. We loaded the motor into his vehicle, a new mini-panel van made by Renault, and took it to a shop on the outskirts of the city.

The next day we returned to the shop. “The rings are cooked like spaghetti,” the mechanic said. “The rod broke from being fused onto the crankshaft bearing. We can’t get imported parts in Argentina because la Presidenta won’t let us have dollars.” (He grimaced referring to President Christina Kirchner.) “But our after-market industry can make most things.” We gave him some money to get the process started.

The crankshaft had to be sent to a distant city for rehabilitation. In the meantime we had much to learn about Argentina. For example, there were oddly few restaurants, and they rarely opened before eight o’clock. It took several days to figure out how to adapt our cell phone and computer modem for use in Argentina, the technology and plans being very different. The buses only accepted coins, which were acutely scarce. And to get market rate for our dollars we had to ask around until we found a shopkeeper who dabbled in the “parallel market.” He took us into his office and gave us 35% more pesos than we could have gotten at a cash machine. At the resulting rate of exchange Argentine goods and services were very cheap.

 Hardest to get used to, however, was the long siesta. Businesses closed at noon and didn’t reopen until 4:00 or later. Everybody went home and enjoyed a long, mysterious interval. Some used the time to go windsurfing, as we knew from the colorful sails that zipped back and forth across the river in the afternoons. This mid-day idyll lost its luster, however, when we considered that everyone had to return to their shops and offices for another four-hour shift, which explains why the restaurants didn’t open until eight o’clock.

We went to a clinic for Ginny’s thirteenth-week pregnancy checkup. The ultra-sound showed our child to be vigorously dancing around inside her womb, perhaps the tango given our location. We spent a month completing various projects and taking in the sights. We attended a Kafka play where men in leotards portrayed apes and aggressively shouted incomprehensible monologues while waving canes dangerously near our faces. We also attended a dramatization of poetry by Garcia Lorca and checked out every museum in the city. 

Finally the mechanic called. “I got the motor running, but the cylinder is ovalled,” he said. “It will burn oil until you get the cylinder repaired.” We were glad for this partial success because going downriver the outboard would outperform the “little-tail motor,” which was incompatible with sailing. So we broke the little-tail down into several parts and stowed them away, to be re-assembled whenever we should travel upriver again.

On October 4 we went to the local Prefectura Naval office to get a permit to leave Corrientes. A group of neatly-dressed officers began crafting a legal document.

“You’ll have to carry a pilot,” one informed us. We made faces of disbelief and waited until a superior officer exempted us from this real or imaginary requirement.

“Your boater’s license, please.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have one,” smiled Steve. “In the U.S. they don’t give licenses for pleasure boating.”

“Then how do you avoid collisions?” he asked, astounded.

We could think of no proper response to this, nor to their dire warnings regarding thieves and storms, having concluded that they exaggerated all dangers. After three hours of supreme patience we signed in quadruplicate.

“Where will you sleep tonight?” they asked.

An answer was required. “Barranqueras,” we said, it being now too late to go any further.

In the following days the Prefectos (Prefectura officials) kept close tabs on us. They insisted that we contact them by phone or VHF at least once daily. If we stopped near one of their major offices we had to report ourselves and get new paperwork. The Prefectos were paranoid mother hens, friendly busybodies. But they never lost patience with us, and in one town invited us into their barracks for much-needed showers.


Listless heat alternated with blustery cold snaps. We rowed and sailed some but mostly motored due to headwinds. The river was a sheet of brown water with huge islands and adjoining swamps. Innumerable side channels added to or subtracted from the torrent, maintaining a complex balance between the river and its surrounding lagoons. Cattle now outnumbered alligators and capybara; the woods were full of their trails. Once a sudden storm obliged us to douse all sail and start the motor. In the building waves a sheet got caught in the propeller, disabling us. We washed up on a sandbank beset with breaking waves, but by wading chest-deep in the chill water were able to manhandle Thurston into the lee of the bank. Here we strung our clothes along the horizontal masts to dry and waited out the gale.
In the city of ParanĂ¡ another yacht club hosted us. It was large and immaculate. The yachties had us over for barbeques in a community shelter equipped with a big fireplace for roasting beef and sausage. Most were of Italian descent; they kissed each other on the cheek in greeting and were exquisitely polite. Twice a week the five-to-ten year-olds launched tiny Optimist sailboats. They milled about the basin, working their tillers and sheets, until someone in a powerboat tied them together in a long line and towed them upstream so they could race back to the yacht club. Teenagers sailed Lasers or went wake-boarding.

 In Rosario, our biggest Argentine city so far, we ghosted past miles of grain-loading terminals. The ships’ homeports were Limassol, Manila, Monrovia. When we stopped at a marina to ask directions, an athletic-looking yachtsman, who turned out to be a symphony cellist, offered to arrange a courtesy mooring for us. Thinking this a good place to make further progress on the Honda 2 HP motor, we accepted.

This time we took it apart ourselves. We removed the engine then split open the crankcase, marveling that something smaller than a lunch box could propel us so effectively. We removed the piston and took the cylinder to a specialist. “These are meant to be disposable. Can’t be fixed,” he said. We bought a torque wrench and reassembled the motor, tightening the bolts to specification. We hadn’t stopped the oil consumption, but now we knew which parts to have shipped down from the States.

Below Rosario we entered the delta of the Rio ParanĂ¡. The channels became smaller and more numerous. Willows and vacation homes lined the banks. People paddled about in canoes and kayaks. The Prefectos became increasingly obsessed with monitoring us. Ginny, a great lover of privacy, started calling them “Prefucktos.” They called us on our cell phone so much we learned to turn it off at night. One day we forgot to turn it back on until 2 pm. Our phone service immediately sent us a text message saying we had missed a call. “It’s a Prefuckto number,” spit Ginny. We immediately got another. And another. For a half hour the phone company notified us of our accumulated missed calls. There were twenty-nine of them, all from Prefucktos!
On October 30 we exited the right-most river mouth and found ourselves in the suburb city of San Isidro. Beyond stood the Buenos Aires skyline. We had completed the southward leg of our voyage. Starting at 29 degrees north of the equator in Florida, we were now 35 degrees south of it. 

The waterfront was entirely occupied by yacht clubs, canoe clubs, and rowing clubs. The Club de Veleros (sailboats) gave us a courtesy moorage. We called the local Prefectura. “We’ll be right over!” they exclaimed. For the rest of the day we were at the center of a swarm of happy Prefectos, customs agents, and sniff dogs. Everybody filled forms to their hearts’ content then left us to our devices in the shadow of a great metropolis.

Bye for now,
Love Steve and Ginny