Buenos Aires’ Fiberglass Jesus Man

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We cram together in stadium seats, waiting for 10:40 p.m. A packed audience from Chile, America, Brazil, and around Argentina pulls out cameras, ready to shoot. Parents clasp little ones in their laps.

A shrill “Hallelujah” recording pierces the Holy Land air. Time for the Resurrection.

He emerges from the plastic mountain and ceremoniously ascends. A fiberglass Jesus several times human size. Hallelujahs ever magnifying from the speakers embedded in the hill, crowd gaga-eyed and madly flashing photos.

Jesus turns his head to the left, leans it back and closes his dark haunting eyes. He turns back straight, opens his eyes and stares. At me? At you? A sacred robot’s grave stare.

Jesus wastes no time, and six Hallelujahs later he’s descended and disappeared again within the mouth of the synthetic rock. A 3-minute resurrection. If you missed it too bad, you have to wait until the next hour (or next day if you miss the 11:40 slot).

This is the top attraction at Tierra Santa (Spanish for Holy Land), Latin America’s prized only Biblical theme park right by the Buenos Aires airport. The constant planes overhead either distract or supplement the heavenly allusions, you pick.

Perhaps you’d like a reenactment of the birth of God, with a light show included? A chance to pose with naked Adam and Eve before their doomed first apple bite? Or a stroll through
fiberglass mini-Bethlehem?

The recent Sunday night I visited the park was packed–staff said it’s boomed with popularity this year since the new Pope is from Argentina. His photo’s in the entrance and employees have started saying that he’ll be gracing the Holy Land with his presence in May (but his visit to Argentina hasn’t even been confirmed).

“Yes, rumor has it,” one Biblically robed manager at an on-site restaurant told me about the Pope’s visit. “We’re very proud.”

The director of the park, however, wouldn’t respond to my questions about the gossip after I sent him multiple emails.

Pope or no, the 13-year-old Tierra Santa is successfully drawing a steady stream of visitors, mainly from outside of Buenos Aires.

“It transports you,” one petite twenty-something-year-old girl from Southern Argentina told me as she strolled in shorts through the little world with a friend. She’s been a handful of times the past several years and said technological advancements in the park had deepened her holy experience there.

And a teenage girl I met in Buenos Aires recently even went on a field trip with her elementary school (also called Tierra Santa) to the park. Years later she still vividly recalls, and praises, the light spectacle of the 7-day creation of the world.

“It was beautiful,” she said, insisting that young children could connect more immediately with such a concrete demonstration.

As for me, when I watched Jesus pop up from his pseudo-mountain I felt completely jarred. The shrill Hallelujahs gave me goosebumps as I marveled at the meaning bestowed in this painted synthetic stick.

Then my mind went to jeweled statues in churches, elaborate movie sets, even printed ink on book pages. Provocative language on signs or graffitied walls. A diamond ring or hundred dollar bill. Where do we draw the line in what to give significance and what to laugh off as the biggest farce of all?

Here’s to you, Fiberglass Jesus Man.

Uruguayan Utopia in Flux

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You find yourself galloping down a dune, hail pellets whipping at ringlets and swimsuit already salty wet from falling post-headstand into a tugging eastern bath. Thunder swept in fast and only rough grass or sand footprints, no roads, lead to the nearest refuge beneath the ledge of an empty white box hut. Others huddle drenched as well and a Brazilian girl compares this to “Into the Wild” in Portuguese which then cycles through Spanish and English. You’re all laughing as the only time passing is the number of raindrops emptied from the clouds. A boy from Montevideo sets rolled paper afire and weed smoke twists up with the mist.

Candles, a fat moon and Times Square of stars later breathe kind light on all who declined the day’s last open-air auto off the protected peninsula. A peninsula, but more like an island or nation with distinct freedoms and codes. Tango barefoot or splash naked in a storm while a cow saunters past. Walk door-to-door selling banana chocolate chip cookies. Approach a silhouette singing and become entwined on a dune.

Don’t drive, use the Internet or ask for the time. And if you want your own house, make your own plumbing and electricity stand-ins.

This is Cabo Polonio, a mystical beach village deemed a national park with no streets on the Uruguayan coast.

“If you could capture what magic it is, what it does to people, I’d be impressed,” a new Uruguayan friend tells me. The magic of the intimate, the essential.

Cabo Polonio is a sandy “V” shape robed in shorelines with the sole power for the lighthouse, a beacon reigning over rocks with hundreds of barking sea lions at the land’s end.

Year-round only 27 families remain in the hand-built rainbow shanties and a rural elementary school in a one-room blue cottage teaches five students math and how to put metal shoes on horses’ hooves or to spay a dog. Rough winds, remoteness and cold black long nights drive most everyone away, except for some fishermen, natives and a few who gain inspiration from the harsh winters.

But come January hundreds of visitors enter each day, staying for hours, or several nights, or several weeks, by riding in a few government-sanctioned vehicles from the park’s entrance several kilometers away. Cabo might just swallow you and tempt you never to leave. That’s what I felt, from the moment I lurched up in an auto across the dunes under the sweeping pastel sky.

Each day when the sun bows below the westward waves applause break out across the beach. Together we watch the orange moon climbing from the opposite sea.

Then time for guitar strumming, rest and empanadas. Starting at 2 a.m. the young and feverish dance in candlelit boliches (clubs) until the sun reappears, and then they fall into hostel bunks or bungalow rooms for a few hours of hard sleep.

Cut off, thoughts elongate. Conversations drift. Hours dissolve, and bonds quickly form.

It certainly seems that simple for the visitor, like me. But for those who have their whole lives here, they not only face the elements but fight a constant battle to keep their homes–there’ve been years of disputes with the government over who has rights to the land.
The history is more than complicated, but leads to a precarious existence for dozens of the homes.

The two sides of the peninsula have had two separate private owners, while the end including the lighthouse is state-owned. The government has ordered buildings demolished as part of its 2009 claim to the land as a national park, and one of the private owners is fighting residents in court with the claim they are squatters with no right to the property.

Then there’s the “wealthier” side of the peninsula, whose private owner already sold off the houses individually back in the 90’s to residents who could afford them and razed the rest.

But for folks still living in Cabo, there’s not a way to even imagine leaving.

“If they really make us leave I’m ready to fight the state in court. This is my life,” Danny Machado, the “president” of the community (who lives on government land) told me. The past two years he’s been holding meetings with other residents to draft a plan that would allow them to stay and also preserve the natural area. They just voted on the final plan this December, and are now waiting (hoping) for the president of Uruguay to sign it into effect.

Machado, who owns the popular buliche Lo de Danny, is third-generation Cabonian. His grandfather was hired by the government to plant trees in Cabo and then his dad hunted sea lions (also contracted by the state) and uncle became a fisherman.

Machado is convinced that the government’s conversion of Cabo to a park was so the state could take control of the land’s fate.

“They want to take [the land] for their own use and their own type of tourism,” said Machado. But the state has asserted their plan is to protect the delicate nature, and some residents are hopeful this is the beginning of talks to formalize rules over sanitation, sewage and other environmental concerns.

“They won’t clear out Cabo, the people have too much history here,” one summertime resident told me in disbelief that the state would really make such a controversial move. It can be hard to believe in large societal changes when you’re in such a wild and tranquil place.

But even without roads and electricity, Cabo has already transformed–from a discreet fishing village to a destination spot for well-off families, creative types and young vacationers from throughout South America. And each year Cabo has two faces, that of the two-month summer and of the empty rest of the year.

“You spend 10 months alone and all of the sudden you see all these people. By the time you get used to them all the people leave,” Cabo life-timer Gustavo Olivera told me. He runs a restaurant in Cabo and has thought about leaving the peninsula “for ambition,” but any other place feels wrong.

“I don’t have an alternative. There’s not enough oxygen elsewhere,” he told me.

I, too, choke when I pull up to Montevideo after days in the hushing cloak of salty winds and candles. Maybe I will return.

Argentine Ramblings (written 1/18)

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Apart from the mind rattling heat, I keep failing to believe I’m on the far end of the opposite hemisphere. Buenos Aires is perhaps the easiest new place I’ve ever tried to settle into, a sleepless but mellow (compared to New York) maze of low reaching buildings, a convergence of immigrants consumed by their own styles, families, quests. Greenery, bold street art, inefficient buses and trains and the expectation you’ll be later than you say.

A self-assured city, even amidst a mini-crisis of electricity and finance: some buildings have gone weeks with power outages this summer and the “illegal” (but unmonitored) black market to trade dollars for pesos is at a dramatic 11 pesos per dollar. When I bought my ferry ticket for Uruguay, the boat company wouldn’t even let me use pesos when they learned I was from the States. Foreigners had to use other currency since the peso is so unstable.

I’ve been keenly turned outward, yanking buckets of answers from the people I meet. The journalist, searching, searching for just what I can share about the place. Have written two brief articles (drafts really) about a group of sex workers fighting to legalize prostitution and about a transgender nurse who overcame odds (about 90 percent of transgender people in Argentina apparently enter prostitution), and am researching more about prostitution/sex trafficking/gender expectations here. I know these issues abound in the States too, but for some reason it’s taken coming here to become so fascinated in them.

And what else? I’ve visited a Biblical theme park where a fiber glass Jesus is “resurrected” every hour by popping out of a fake mountain, turning his mechanical head and shutting and reopening his eyes, and descending back to disappear (more on that in a future blog post or article).

I’ve ridden ignorantly on a borrowed bike with a flat tire around Buenos Aires and almost been hit by a car.

I’ve chatted with a 70-year-old poet with a milk-blonde bob and two pampered puppies named Gala for Dali’s wife and Theo for Van Gogh’s brother. I’ve been rejected from taking her picture since her first husband overly photographed her and so in a way stole her soul.

I’ve made a kind new friend who baked me a loaf of challah bread and calls me “patience” to remind me of the quality I supremely lack.

I’ve met a man who bathes in a mausoleum of the famous Cemetery of the Recoleta since he works repairing the graves and says he has nowhere else to go. I’ve been interrogated by his uncle, who runs the grave repair company and wanted to make sure I wasn’t a journalist…

I’ve spent a day with a 17-year-old girl I met randomly asking for directions and then learned she’d been without power for 2 1/2 weeks in a middle class neighborhood of the city.

And I’ve gotten eat by bugs on an island off Tigre (north of B.A.), where people use only boats to get around.

And more…

OK, now that I’ve written this less than poetic blog post from my journeys I expect and hope to be freed to write more. It’s always about breaking the ice…

Off to the majestic (so I’ve heard) Uruguayan beach of Cabo de Polonio.

Learning in the South

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You learn and learn what’s outside of you and it all leads you back to you.

Geography color taste conversation the laws and unkept laws of other countries beverages requested in another language cardboard collectors young sullen eyes graffitied propaganda  platform sandals January heat unclimbed trees all sweeping back to the topic at the bar:  What is life.

Argentine sushi overpriced red wine that’s not overpriced for the unjust gift of informal markets

Claim your own lostness

“Did you come here to denigrate yourself”

“You just denigrated yourself”

“What does denigrate mean” the third person asks at the bar table

And we both feel better, elevated in our self doubt

We all know bankers and politicians and priests don’t own the world. We do. And that’s what’s so terrible.