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Name: James Halford

Bio: From Brisbane. Writes fiction, travel essays and songs. Likes Chinese trains, Mongolian Yurts, New Australia colony Paraguay, hiking in Venezuela, drinking mate with the Argentines. Dislikes big cities and air pollution.

Photos: Jim's photo libraries

The Ruins ( 11th Aug, 2008 )
Some Favourite Argentinisms ( 13th Nov, 2007 )
La Cocinera ( 8th Nov, 2007 )
The Minister For Kites ( 27th Oct, 2007 )
The Puppeteer ( 12th Aug, 2007 )
An Australian abroad ( 22nd Jun, 2007 )
Tupiza ( 22nd Jun, 2007 )
The Blindess of Borges ( 21st Jun, 2007 )
What are you doing here? ( 12th Jun, 2007 )
Conversation Overheard in a Havana Cafe ( 13th May, 2007 )
Unreality Worms ( 8th May, 2007 )
Mystic Mountain Tours ( 8th May, 2007 )
Purgatory in Caracas ( 22nd Apr, 2007 )
We are with you Fidel ( 6th Apr, 2007 )
Why Oswaldo Guayasamin and William Faulkner are not Completely Irrelevant ( 17th Mar, 2007 )
Ecuadorian Highlights Package (Brought to you by Dico the world´s loudest clown) ( 15th Mar, 2007 )
Hollman Morris ( 27th Feb, 2007 )
The King of Belts ( 25th Feb, 2007 )
Snapshots of Ecuador ( 12th Feb, 2007 )
Twentieth Century Closed for Renovations ( 24th Jan, 2007 )
Pinochet es muerto. ¡Vive Chile! ( 23rd Jan, 2007 )

The Ruins

Soledad and I set out early for the Jesuit reductions at San Ignacio about 60 kilometres outside of the city of Posadas on the Argentine Paraguayan border. Enroute we read, Miel Silvestre (Forest Honey), a short story by the great Uruguayan writer, Horacio Quiroga, who fled the literary metropolis of Buenos Aires to seek his muse in the seclusion of the forest in northern Argentina. A typical offering from the collection Cuentos de Amor Locura y Muerte (Tales of Love Madness and Death), the story tells of a dandified young Bonarense whose thrill-seeking trip to the jungle goes terribly wrong when he is devoured by carnivorous ants. Macabre and amusing at the same time. Later in the day we would visit the writer´s house, but first we went to the ruins.

San Ignacio mini is the most readily accessible and hence the most visited of the 30 former Jesuit reductions in the frontier region spanning Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. The order came to South America in the early 1600s with the objective of achieving through prayer what the conquistadors had been unable to accomplish with the sword: subduing the indigenous in the zone between the the Uruguay and Parana rivers. The Guarani already possessed a sophisticated cosmology of their own, and were hardly crying out for an imported faith. They were, however, in need of protection against both the Spanish colonists who wanted them as labour in their plantations, and the Mamelucos, marauding bands of Portugese slave traders. In the early days the missions were plagued by the brigands from Sao Paulo, until finally Father Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, led an exodus of some 12,000 indigenous 800 kilometres to safer territory. It was at the end of this great journey that the Missions at San Ignacio and in the surrounding area were founded.

At its peak in the early 18th century the reduction was said to have have housed some 4000 Guarani. Jesuit rule was met with deep suspicion by religious authorities of the era, who could not believe that the order would work so tirelessly for genuinely altruistic reasons, and reasoned that there must be great gold and silver mines under their command. Posterity in contrast has come to view the society that flourished under the Jesuits increasingly positively as a kind of benelovent pre-communist theocracy (it also seems to have been a model for the Australian socialist colonies of the 1890s in Paraguay).

Certainly the Jesuit fathers were more humane toward their charges than either the Spanish or Portuges colonists. Moreover their achievements in other areas were impressive. The missions constructed from red stone in what came to be known as the Guarani Baroque style, remain striking even 300 years later. Instruments made in the mission territory are said to have rivalled those produced in Europe. In agriculture and business too, the Holy Guarani Empire was a sucess. It was the Jesuit fathers who discovered the elusive and lucrative secret to the cultivation of yerba mate (seeds must be burned before planted). This knowledge was lost and rediscovered only 200 years after the order had been expelled from the continent. As Cunningham Graham suggests, it was the very success of the Jesuit enterprise that brought about its demise. In Europe, where the image of the conspiratorial Jesuit had long held sway, as well as in Spain´s possessions in America, there were rumours of fabulous wealth in the isolated mission territory. Dark whispering that the fathers did not pay sufficient tax to the crown, coupled with the fact that the Jesuits allowed the Guarani to bear arms (a necessary provision against slave traders), created suspicion that they wanted to create a separate empire in the region. In 1767 the King of Spain decreed that the order be expelled from all of Latin America. Although many of the missions were subsequently placed under the control of other religious orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans, the genuine respect and affection that seems to have existed between the Jesuits and Guarani had vanished, and with it went the Arcadian communal society it had supported. Within two decades the gorgeous old red stone buildings in the forest had been abandoned and left to their fate.

During the 19th century the missions at San Ignacio lay abandoned for some 80 years, before restoration efforts began around 1900. The ruins are now UNESCO heritage listed and receive funds from a number of international donors. They are well serviced by the usual array of tourist facilities: junk stalls, guided tours, restaurants and a small museum. Although the trappings of modern tourism conspire to drain the ruins of their mystery, a trace of wonder and awe survives for those who see them in the orange groves, wreathed in mist.

Some Favourite Argentinisms

A list of my favourite Argentinisms:

Argentine Spanish is quite distinct from that spoken in other parts of South America and in Europe. Not surprisingly given the size of the country and its ethnic diversity, there`s considerable variation within Argentina itself. The little town where I`ve been doing voluntary english teaching for the last four months, San Miguel del Monte, is 110 km south of Buenos Aires. It is situated on the river Salado, the natural frontier between the Buenos Aires province and the central plains or pampa. The dialect spoken in this part of the county is noticeably different to that spoken in other major cities like Cordoba or Mendoza, even to an intermediate student of the language like myself. The most obvious feature is the prominent ¨sh´ sound that invades just about everything. In Spain or other Latin-American republics the letter ¨y¨ and the ¨ll¨ are both pronounced like the English ¨y.¨ Here, both are transformed into a great sluicy ¨sh¨ so that a phrase such as ¨Yo estaba caminando en la calle con mi llave y mi caballo (I was walking in the street with my key and my horse) becomes ¨Sho estaba caminando en la cashe con mi shave y mi cabasho.¨

The Argentines use ¨vos¨ instead of ¨tu¨ as the second person informal pronoun (you) and conjugate present tense verbs differently with this pronoun. Thus ¨¿de donde eres?¨ (where are you from) becomes ¨¿de donde sos?

On top of pronunciation differences and the use of ¨vos¨ they also have a different word for just about anything you can think of. This means you often have to learn the same item of vocabulary two or three times, first the version they say in Spain, second the version in the dictionary, third the version people really use when they`re talking. A t-shirt is a camiseta in the dictionary, but if you use the word in the street they`ll laugh at you and tell you that you mean a remera. A pen is a pluma or a boligrafo elsewhere, but here you have to say lapizera. The Argentines are a fiercely proud people and insist that you learn their peculiar interpretation of the ¨marvellous language of Cervantes.¨ I`m not convinced that a more neutral Spanish wouldn`t be more useful in the long term, but it`s virtually impossible not to copy the language that`s in the air around you every day. About a month ago I took a weeks holiday in Mendoza, in the Andes near the Chilean border. My Mendocinan language teacher and my two Brazilian classmates all had a good chuckle over my Buenos Aires accent.

Below I include a few of my favourite local expressions and snatches of overheard conversation with (very approximate) translations and a bit of background info.

Football expressions:

¨Por la camiseta, muchacho¨ (do it for the jersey young man). Argentines are born into a family that supports a particular football team (equipo). From a young age they are provided with memoribilia in the team colours, traditional songs of the stadium called ¨nuestros hijos¨(our sons) and a whole list of diabolical slurs to hurl at the opposition. The first three questions asked of a foreigner are usually ¨what`s your name?¨ ¨where are you from?¨and ¨¿de que equipo sos? (what team do you go for?). The idea that a person from the other side of the world might not have a favourite Argentine football team is too ridiculous to be considered. I usually say Boca Juniors, Diego Maridona`s old team, to make the conversation shorter.

The opposition striker who just scored a goal against your team in the second overtime with five minutes remaining is an ¨hijo de puta¨ (son of a whore).

¨Jugamos por el pancho y la coca¨ (we play for the hotdog and the coke). This football expression emphasises the noble poverty of the amateur sportsmen.


¨Huevos¨ (eggs), ¨bolas¨ and ¨pelotas¨ (balls) all mean testicles. The expressive possibilities of these three words are limitless at the command of an Argentine teenager. They can often be heard to exclaim ¨¡No me hinchas las pelotas!¨ (literally ¨don`t swell my balls,¨ but in practice, ¨don`t bother me¨). If a person is irritating you can also say ¨¡que hincha pelota sos!¨ (what a ball sweller you are).

The theme of male genitalia continues with arguably the most commonly heard word in high school canteens ¨boludo/a¨. Translated literally this means ¨big balls,¨ but like so many obscenities its literal meaning has been worn away by frequent use. It`s often used affectionately between close friends to express mild irritation or disagreement. ¨No boludo¨ (perhaps equivalent to ¨no dickhead¨) rings through the halls of the school every day. So thorougly has the word been accepted into the popular lexicon that I have actually heard a mother use it to refer to her son. ¨Es medio boludo mi hijo¨ (he`s a bit of an idiot my son). My Spanish tutor, who also teaches literature to indifferent Argentine teenagers, once remarked of the once wealthy country`s dramatic economic decline and political turmoil ¨No somos el triangulo Bermuda, somos el triangulo de los boludos.¨ (¨We`re not the Bermuda triangle, we`re the triangle of fuck-ups.¨ I`m not endorsing the sentiment, but if you look at the map the country does look kind of triangular). Used in a genuine conflict ¨bulodo¨ is much more agressive and might result in the loss of teeth.

¨Concha de loro¨ (parrot cunt) and ¨concha de guanaco¨ (lama cunt) might just be the two most vivid curses on the planet.

A bad car is ¨un auto de mierda¨(a shitty car), a bad day is ¨un dia de mierda,¨ (a shitty day), anything bad is ¨de mierda¨ (of shit).

Expressing affection

The Argentines love to shout at each other but they`re also very affectionate and use a number of trademarks expressions with friends and loved ones.

Lovers say ¨mi corazon,¨ (my heart) ¨mi amore¨ (my love), linda, hermosa, bonita (beautiful).

The little old lady who sweeps the floor of the school refers to me as ¨pichonsito¨ (something like little duckling).

Kids often refer to their parents as ¨viejo¨(old man) and ¨vieja¨ (old woman), but usually not in front of them.

Anybody can be called ¨loco¨ (crazy), provided you`re on reasobly good terms with them.

People here are highly conscious of skin colour. Anybody with the slightest hint of colour in their face is referred to as ¨Negro¨ (blackie). It`s perfectly socially acceptable in Argentina, but given the rampant discrimation against the large population of Peruvian, Bolivian and Paraguayan immigrants it`s rather insenstive. I`ve grown rather tired of being complimented on how white my skin is and my lovely green eyes. It`s as though a racial hierarchy is demarcated by gradations of colour. This sensitivity to shades of skin suggests an element of self-disgust in the makeup of this self-proclaimed ¨most European¨ of South American nations. Grimy, poverty-stricken Buenos Aires is no more the Paris of South America than Disney Land is an accurate representation of modern America. The cult of europeanness was always a vain illusion, but since the Argentines were even more successful in exterminating the indigneous population than European Australians, little trace of the original culture is left. What does remain is an immigrant nation with a particularly high concentration of people of Italian and Spanish descent, many of whom don`t wish to appear ¨South American.¨ ¨Negro¨ is used ¨cariñosamente¨ (affectionately), I`ve been told time and time again, but is it really so innocent that colour is always noticed and always commented on?

Children and lovers are frequently called ¨gordo¨ (fatty) or gordito (little fatty) without any apparent ill-will.

Anybody who isn`t called fatty can be called ¨flaco¨ (skinny).


Random bits from the telly, radio and long sessions of chusmeando (gossiping) over mate.

¨Che¨ is an all purpose conversation filler that means something between ¨um¨ or ¨er,¨¨hey you,¨ ¨my friend¨ the US ¨buddy¨ and the aussie ¨mate.¨ It can be used alone as in ¨¿che, que te queria decir? (Umm... what was I saying?), or with a person`s name ¨Che, Australiano ¿Todo bien entonces? (So is everything okay, Aussie?). The word was originally Guarani Indian for the second person pronoun ¨you¨ and was later imported into Spanish. Of course, it also gave one of the most famous Argentines, Ernest Che Gueverra, his nickname.

¨Como serà la laguna que el chanco la cruza al trote¨ (What will the lagoon be like when the pig crosses it at a trot?). Apparently this is an old saying, but after hours of extensive explination I`m still in the dark. Still kind of great.

¨Uno mas y no hodamos mas¨ (One more and we won`t bother you anymore). Shouted at the end of concerts.

¿Me queres mandar a los tiburones? (Do you want to throw me to the sharks?)

Es una locura (it`s crazy).

Genial! (cool)

¡Que buena onda! (what good vibes).

¡Que fea actitud! (what a bad attitude).

Cualquier cosa (whatever)

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