Nazi Ghosts in the Jungle

San Ignacio in the Misiones Province of NorthEast Argentina is best know for the remains of the San Ignacio Mini Jesuit Mission.

San Ignacio Mini
San Ignacio Mini

Founded in 1632, the Mission (along with 29 more spread out over modern day Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina) was an attempt to provide the local Guaraní Indians with a community that would enable themselves to better themselves to Western standards and devote their lives to God, whilst at the same time allowing them to keep their traditions (only the ones deemed appropriate, of course) alive.

At its height, San Ignacio Mini was home to over 4,000 merry souls but towards the end of the 1600s, as with all good things, its fortunes began to suffer and the Jesuits withdrew from the site in 1767 and in 1816 the mission was destroyed.

Its ruins slumbered untouched in the jungle until 1903 and a full restoration process began in 1940, leaving a well-preserved historic site, named World Heritage by Unesco in 1984.

We arrived in San Ignacio in the late afternoon, after a 4 hour bus ride from Puerto Iguazu. We had 24 hours in the town, so we dropped into a tour office to see what our options were. After being told that the Mission itself would only occupy an hour of our time we happily signed up for a 5 hour jeep trip into the nearby Teyú Caupé Provincial Park. The tour, we were merrily informed, included a guided walk through the jungle to visit Martin Bormann’s house.

I paused at the name Martin Bormann. My first thought was the film director John Boorman, which didn’t really make sense, and I was just about to query this when my dad piped up, “Martin Bormann, the Nazi?”

Path to Bormann's House, Teyú Cuaré Park
Path to Bormann's House, Teyú Cuaré Park

Sure enough, it turns out that Martin Bormann (who from 1943 was the head of the Nazi Party and Hitler’s Private Secretary), fled Germany when things started to get a little bit hot and ended up, like many other Nazis, in South America. And out of the blue, we were going to get a chance to visit his house.

Teyú Caupé Park, named after a local Guaraní Dragon of legend, is on the banks of the Paraná River, South America’s 2nd longest river after the Amazon. At the start of the walk we climbed to high bluffs overlooking the river towards Paraguay on the far bank. Further into the jungle we were taken past 600 year old cacti and strangler figs, parasitic vines which take over full-grown trees and ultimately smother them.

We descended back down towards the river on a narrow path in otherwise undisturbed jungle. The occasional butterfly flitted past and lizards could be heard rustling through the undergrowth. After about 20 minutes we came across a solid-looking but somewhat delapidated wall – we had arrived chez Bormann.

La Casa de Martin Bormann, San Ignacio
La Casa de Martin Bormann, San Ignacio

The story goes that Bormann fled Europe at the end of World War II and, like many of his colleagues, made his way to South America and in particular Paraguay where the military dictator Alfredo Stroessner was only to willing to help and hide them. To confuse the trail, Bormann built his house on the Argentine side, linked it to the river bank by a tunnel and received all of his supplies from the Paraguay side, cut off from prying Argentine eyes by a thick jungle and high cliffs.

Overgrown Doorway
Overgrown Doorway

He lived like this from his arrival in 1946 until 7 years later when he mysteriously vanished, our guide’s theory being that the Israelis caught up with him and dealt with him directly, not worrying about the niceties of a trial. The inhabitants of San Ignacio were not totally unaware of him and it’s said that amongst others, local boy, author Horacio Quirago, met Bormann and only 2 years ago the last living person to have known him died aged 104.

50 years without tidying up
50 years without tidying up

It’s a fascinating story, and something you would never expect to come across. When I got back to Buenos Aires I started to look into Bormann’s life a little more to understand how he ended up this way.

Interior Decorating, Bormann Style
Interior Decorating, Bormann Style

And there I discovered a major problem with the story of the house near San Ignacio. After many years of uncertainty, rumors and unconfirmed sightings, remains discovered near Hitler’s bunker in Berlin in 1972 were DNA tested and in 1998 they were confirmed as being those of Bormann. So it looks probable (some people have suggested the body was not actually found in Berlin at all, pointing to the fact that the exhumed body contained traces of red clay not found in Berlin, but everywhere in this part of South America) that the person who lived in the house in the jungle was not Martin Bormann.

Which of course, begs the question. If it wasn’t Bormann that lived there, who the hell was it?

Buenos Aires, a history

I’ve been doing some research for a project I’ll be working on more very soon, and here is some of the output.

In 1536 explorer Pedro de Mendoza, stopped for a while, put a few tents up and Buenos Aires was born. Originally called Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Ayre it didn’t last long and by 1541 was gone. In 1580 however, another explorer Juan de Garay decided he liked the spot and set up a permanent settlement named Santísima Trinidad, the port however kept the previous name, Puerto de Santa María de los Buenos Aires. This was to prove to be the most important part of the city – to this day the inhabitants of Buenos Aires are known as Porteños, people of the port. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the port of Buenos Aires played a pivotal role in the Spanish colonisation of South America. Following the French Revolution in 1789, unhappiness with the colonial rule led, in 1810 to the May Revolution (commemorated today in the Plaza de Mayo), and on 9th July 1816 to full independence for Argentina. Throughout the 19th century, there were squabbles as to the status of Buenos Aires within this new nation but by 1880 the Federal Capital was established, and its role as the seat of government fixed.

Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires
Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires

As a major port, Buenos Aires flourished economically and culturally and by the start of the 20th Century it ranked with the major European cities of the age, having remodeled itself with wide avenues, leafy boulevards, grand mansions, one of the finest opera houses in the world and South America’s first underground train system. The 1920s brought a large wave of immigration to Argentina from Europe, mainly Italy and Spain, the influences of which are still very strongly felt today in Buenos Aires and Argentina as a whole. Plaza de Mayo (& the Casa Rosada which houses the President’s Offices) has been the focal point for many demonstrations throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century. In 1955, 364 people (mainly civilians) died when Plaza de Mayo was attacked by 34 Argentine Navy planes in a coup against the then-President Juan Perón. Today, it is where the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo march every Thursday in memory of the 30,000 people killed during the military dictatorship of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today Buenos Aires and surrounding urban area is home to over 12 million people, a third of the population of Argentina, making it the 2nd largest city in South America after Sao Paulo in Brazil. The European influence remains strong (over 85% of the population are of European descent), yet it is a city which is proud of its place in South American history.

Diana Arroz

I’m not going to beat around the bush, and I’ve said it before but Argentinian TV is pretty much universally awful. I was in a supermarket the other day and the TV in the corner was tuned to an entertainment show which consisted of 2 young trendy dudes talking to (“Do you have a boyfriend?”) and physically assessing 5 scantily clad female dancers (give us a twirl close-ups on the boobs and arse type of thing). Then a man dressed up as a monkey came on and they asked the girls which one of them was single. The lucky girl stepped forward and gave the monkey a kiss on his monkey cheek whereby he collapsed in mock-ecstasy twitching on the floor.

I am however proud to reveal that there is one light in the darkness that is Argentinian TV and that is Diana Arroz. A play on the Spanish word for rice, this advert (for rice, obviously) made me laugh out loud the first few times I saw it, and I still haven’t got bored of it. The song (which can be heard being sung and hummed all over Buenos Aires) goes “Hoy hice arroz. Lo hice para vos. Yo soy Diana Arroz.” (Today I made rice. I made it for you. I am Diana Arroz.)

Hardcore Corn

I recently posted a status update to Facebook informing the world that I had discovered my local supermarket here in Buenos Aires stocks 17 types of tinned corn, which I found to be a little excessive. A couple of my friends commented that I should buy each one and review it.

Which is exactly what I am going to do. And what’s more I will document it all at CornWars!

Some of the tins in my local supermarket

On the Up and Up

I went for lunch with a friend a couple of days ago, we had a sandwich each, a drink and a coffee. The bill came to 128 pesos. That may not mean anything to you but had we not finished our delicious lunch, we may well have choked on it.

Everybody that has spent any length of time in Buenos Aires has stories about how expensive it has become. I first came here nearly 3 years ago when 6 of us ate (in a good but basic cafe) a main meal and dessert and had change from 100 pesos. The first thing you’re going to do is look up how much 100 pesos is. I’ll save you the bother, as of today 100 pesos is  £17.54 ($25.50 or €21.25). That makes our lunch clock in at £22.45, London prices indeed.

To put this into some sort of comparison, I went for a job interview the other day. It’s a customer-facing role for a professional company, requiring language skills and technology experience. Take home pay is 3,000 pesos a month (£526.33). If you’re sharing a decent flat and lucky enough to pay Argentinian rates (as opposed to tourist short-term rates) your rent & services will come to around half of that. This leaves you with £263 a month, that’s 10 lunches for 2. And I am, of course, one of the lucky few.

Veinte Pesos
Veinte Pesos. Flickr image by Irargerich.

Whatever great economic progress the government is trumping, the fact remains that living here remains a struggle for the vast majority of the population (working full-time in a coffee shop pays about 1,200 pesos a month).

To illustrate this, there is a nice parallel to the Big Mac Index, the Ugi’s Pizza index, which tracks the cost of a plain Muzzerela pizza at resolutely working-class pizza chain, Ugi’s Pizza. In the last 10 years, it’s gone from 2 pesos to 16 (64% in real terms). If that’s just too depressing to contemplate, here are some great shots of people who just won’t be put off by a 16 peso pizza.

10 Things Argentinian TV Has Taught Me

  • Only men drink alcohol, except Tia Maria which is only drunk by women
  • It’s not possible to like beer and not like football
  • There are only 3 things important in a women’s life: washing clothes and talking about it, cooking food using packets of processed crap for their families and having men that drink beer and watch football whistle at them in the street
  • A flooded street corner is “News”. It deserves a 20 minute live segment
  • Commercials that take up half the screen and have sound are to be shown during a football match.
  • By law, football commentary must mention Diego Maradona every 45 seconds
  • In case they forget what they are watching, it’s advisable to run a trailer for the program you are showing during that very same program
  • Argentina has already won the 2010 World Cup. It’s just that the rest of the world doesn’t know it yet
  • Light entertainment shows kill your soul just a little bit each time you watch them
  • To be a star on Argentinian TV it’s important that you don’t actually look real
Susana Gimenez
Argentine Megastar 66-year old Susana Gimenez
Ricardo Fort
Chocolate Heir and Reality TV Star Ricardo Fort

Just in case you think I’m being overly harsh on Argentinian TV, I give you this, from Senorita Gimenez herself, Argentina’s biggest TV star. This show is real, and it wins prizes.

Cotopaxi Timelapse

Cotopaxi is an active volcano close to Quito, Ecuador. The summits of the volcanos in central Ecuador are the furthest points from the earth’s centre due to the bulging of the earth at the equator. This is a timelapse video taken from Nasa’s APOD site which shows what happens above Cotopaxi in one night. Full explanation here.

Who Invented What?

There’s a nice article over on Going Local Travel about how the Argentinians are claiming that they invented the internet (or the word at least). Obviously this is a little bit of fun (I hope so) but it does raise the question of how we define which country invented what. We might say that it was the British that invented the railway or the French the guillotine, when in fact it was an individual from those countries that did the actual inventing.

However it can be confusing if the person doing the inventing has, at some point, changed countries. Which country can lay claim to the invention? This came up recently as I was having a discussion with an Argentine friend about the inventions that had come from Argentina. At one point he claimed that the ballpoint pen was an Argentina invention. Being a trivia nerd, I patiently explained that a Mr Laszlo Biro had been the inventor of that particular implement and that I was pretty sure (as I know 110%) that he was Hungarian, not Argentinian.

[singlepic id=43 w=320 h=240 float=center]

Indignantly he pointed out that whilst being born in Hungary, Mr Biro had moved to Argentina and had died as an Argentine citizen, therefore the ballpoint pen is to be considered Argentinian. Indeed, Argentina has even gone so far as to commemorate Inventor’s Day on 25th September, the man’s birthday.

Biro did indeed, with his brother, move to Buenos Aires in 1940, fleeing the Nazis. And in 1943 patented the pen in question in Argentina. However, he filed the initial patent in 1938, 2 years before moving away from Hungary. The pen was first produced and sold in Argentina as a “birome”, (the Biro brothers’ partner was another Hungarian emigré called Meyne) and it is still called by that name to this day.

Now, I’m in no position to resolve this; my gut feeling is that the man was born Hungarian but died an Argentinian so I think both countries can lay claim to him and to his legacy. They didn’t invent the Internet though, I’m not letting them get away with that one…