As economy sinks, killer mantas slink

Life: Local issues sometimes trump national crises, especially when 400-pound monsters lurk.

Letter from Argentina

January 19, 2003|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SAN JOSE DEL RINCON, Argentina - Just over a year ago, this country shocked the world of international finance by defaulting on its $140 billion foreign debt, thereby crashing the national self-esteem and ushering Argentina into what the Queen of England described a decade ago, with reference to her own dominions, as an annus horribilis: one hell of a bad year.

Argentina's year featured the unscheduled resignation of one president, the rise and fall of two others, the withering into political impotence of a fourth.

It was a year of robust street demonstrations against the government's freeze on the bank accounts of its citizens, a year in which unemployment passed 20 percent, and the incidence of crime spiked so alarmingly that people everywhere began putting up steel bars to keep burglars at bay, even out in this sleepy pampas hamlet. The dawn of 2003 found half the population of Argentina officially in poverty.

There are a few points of light. The decline of the peso's value stimulated Argentina's exports, which replenished the government's stash of hard currency. The banks have begun giving their smoldering depositors their money back, a little at a time. And a recent Gallup poll revealed that 49 percent of Argentines optimistically expect this year to be better than 2002.

One asks, how could it be worse?

These problems roil the sleep of all Argentines, including the 6,000 to 8,000 souls who call Rincon home, and have additional local issues to sort out.

Among these is the perennial dispute over whether to pave the streets. Rincon's streets are a mixture of earth and sand, and have been for the 500 years of the town's existence. When it rains, and it does here with crashing intensity, these routes become rivers of mud. When it doesn't rain for a while, they yield billows of dust. What better reasons for drastic action, the pavers argue.

The anti-pavers advance rebuttals. The dust problem, they say, is quaintly dealt with by the old water truck that rumbles through town a few times a day spraying the streets. When it does rain, the sandy roads filter it quickly through to the water table. A few hours of sun and the streets are right as rain, so to speak. Also, dirt streets are cooler and friendlier to horses, a detail that matters here.

Everybody agrees paved streets are practical, but a majority of the residents have not wished to pay the price. Shabby as it is, overrun by dogs, Rincon has an ineffable quality widely appreciated throughout the region. The people who live here are known for their immunity to haste, their preference for simple pleasures. They enjoy watching the majestic flow of the Parana River; they build little houses with roofs of thatch, and cook in the cool shade.

Singers write songs about the river; painters paint pictures of those rutted roads, poets praise the cascades of flowers: bougainvillea vines vast as clouds, hibiscus red as blood, orchids glistening in the trees, alive with wild parrots and hummingbirds. Rincon, with its crumbling old Spanish houses, persists in the memory long after you leave it, fixed in a state of elegant decay.

Asphalt on the streets? What next, stop signs?

There is another preoccupation these days, more regional but specific to Rincon as well, if only because of the numbers of men who go out on the Parana to catch rays - not of the sun, but of the deep.

Recently, two fishermen were lost after an encounter with one of these fish on the nearby Setubal Lagoon. After hooking it, and evidently not appreciating its size, they tried to haul it aboard their small boat. But their catch weighed more than 400 pounds, and with a brush of its wing it sank the boat and the men in it. Police continue to drag the lagoon.

There are between 300 and 350 species of ray in the world, from the giant manta ray to the lowly skate. All live in ocean waters, except for a few species that prefer the rivers of South America.

The deaths of the two men made the local newspaper, of course; the creature was described by a relative of the drowned who was fishing for rays from the shore. A day or so later the newspaper, El Litoral, possibly thinking its readers might doubt the size of the fish as given by the eyewitness, published a picture of a ray caught nearby a few years back. It, too, was well over 400 pounds. It measured nearly 7 feet across. Manta rays can exceed 20 feet from wingtip to wingtip.

It is summer in Argentina, when the big rays congregate in lagoons and arroyos of the Parana like elephants. In March, when it gets cooler, they will migrate to the warmer waters of the north, and for the rest of the year will not be much talked about.

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign correspondent and foreign editor of The Sun.

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