Out of Africa

Spot the beast 56

Although it is pretty obvious, it was interesting that it was found by my wife that is not a fan of these beasts. She carefully avoided getting close to it and took the pictures with her cellphone from a distance!

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This small beast, a yarará (Bothrops diporus) measured about 25cm and, according to my wife was quite aggressive… After rolling itself up in the middle of the road, it eventually departed.

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Snakes of this genus (there are a few) are responsible for most fatalities in the Americas. Their venom is hemotoxic and cause severe lesions at the bite site (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bothrops#Behavior)

 

Spot the beast 55

The setting makes spotting this -rather delicate- beast difficult. However, I am sure you will find it…

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Here it is, probably not what you expected? I was pretty sure that you would check the sticks thoroughly and probably (at least at first) miss it.

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It is a rather delicate moth that does not visit us very often.

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Batmask

We bought the mask during a trip to the Chiquitanía region of Bolivia in 2002 while I was posted there. The Chiquitanía is a beautiful part of Bolivia where six churches (San Francisco Javier, Concepción, Santa Ana, San Miguel, San Rafael y San José) built by Jesuit and Franciscan missions in the 18th century have been restored and selected in 1990 as UNESCO World Heritage Sites under the name Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos.

The mask is used for to the dance of the “macheteros” (machete bearers), a local dance typical of the Beni region of Bolivia and it was acquired because of the insistence of our son.

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Our young daughter posing as a “machetera” wearing her brother’s mask.

After the trip the mask was quickly forgotten joining the vast amount of jumble that we have accumulated over the many traveling years. Eventually the mask ended up hanging in the back verandah of our farm in Salta where it is to be found today. But not for long…

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Noticing that the bat droppings extended beyond the two bat nests my daughter (a bat fan!) and I placed outside the house (see: https://bushsnob.com/2017/04/02/homely-bats/) Mabel checked the mask and, through its mouth, she spotted some fur and requested that I carried out a thorough inspection of the inside as a bat was surely living there!

I did check and found a bat trio sheltering happily in the mask, cozy and away from the rain!

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The bat trio in detail.

Although I am trying to defend them, it seems likely that both mask and occupants may need to move away from the verandah to a more ventilated area where their droppings and other odours would not interfere with our lives.

 

Rescue!

While in Salta I got an invitation to join a group of friends on a fishing trip near a place called Goya, in the mighty Paraná River, the same river where we have spent some great days fishing in the eighties (See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/01/28/a-fishing-expedition/).

This time the fishing was not memorable as there seems that the river is suffering from too much fishing pressure and the large fish are disappearing.

At one stage during the fishing we were traversing a smaller tributary known as the Santa Lucía River when I spotted three large birds of prey circling a floating object. I kept watching their activity from about one hundred metres away and saw that one of them landed in the water and started to peck the object.

I realised that the birds were three Caranchos or Caracara (Caracara plancus) and I was surprised to see one landing in the water. Then, the bird lifted the object in its paws and started to fly away but dropped it. At that time, I saw that what they were mobbing was a smaller bird so we went to have a look.

While moving towards the spot, there was a second attempt at lifting the bird again and, again it was dropped.

Our approach scared the predators and we found the prey to be a Ringed Kingfisher (Megaceryle torquata), a rather unusual target for the Caracaras that, although known as opportunistic, I did not think capable of going for a rather large kingfisher!

When we approached the bird, it swam with the aid of its wings towards us.

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A “rushed” picture of the kingfisher “swimming” towards us seconds before I lifted it.

I lifted the bird, risking its rather strong beak. Soon I managed to close it with a sticking plaster to avoid becoming a victim myself! I checked the bird and, fortunately, it did not show any visible injuries.

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Bushsnob and soaked wet rescued bird with its beak closed by the plaster!

I kept the bird on the boat for about two hours, waiting for it to dry and to keep it from struggling I covered it with my hat, burning my bald head in the process!

Eventually, it got dry and became rather active so I judged that it was as ready for release. As soon as I removed the plaster and held it in my hand for a few seconds, it flew away strongly.

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Waiting for the now dry kingfisher to fly off.

Unfortunately I can only speculate as to how the kingfisher ended in such a tight spot that, surely, would have cost it its life if we would not have come to look. In my view, the most probable scenario is that it was a young and inexperienced bird that had recently left the nest and, being still insecure, made a mistake spotted by the caracaras that took advantage of the situation. However, I could well be wrong.

Spot the beast 54

Another beast to test your observation powers. Not too difficult this time but good camouflage nevertheless…

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Good dress to deceive in Autumn!

Rococo

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A rococo is a large toad as you would expect with such spectacular name! It has been classified as Rhinella schneideri and it is also known as cururú toad in other parts of South America. In English it goes under the much less spectacular name of Schneider’s toad.

As toads go, a rococo is a large one: the males can measure between 15-17cm and the females between 18-25cm with a maximum weight of  2kg of weight! Pretty sizable if you ask me.

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Rhinella schneideri is a widespread and very common species that occurs in a variety of habitats but most commonly in open and urban ones. It breeds in permanent and temporary ponds.They are found in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Brazil where they are sometimes kept as pets. I remember my aunt in Salto, Uruguay that used to have one in her garden that would come every evening from the cover of the plants to get its mince meat!

Luckily, at Salta, although we are at about 1,500 m above sea level we do get rococos and we see them sometimes around the house, feeding on the insects attracted to the outside lights. They are fierce predators feeding not only on invertebrates but they have been seen feeding on rodents, snakes, small birds and even fish and other amphibians.

Despite this, it a a shy animal that itself falls prey to snakes and birds of prey.  In fact, just a few days ago we saw a roadside hawk (Rupornis magnirostris) catching one on the road but our approach by car scared the bird that -luckily for the toad- dropped it unharmed (as we stopped to check it). They are able to pump themselves up to avoid being swallowed by snakes but this is clearly no defense against birds.

They are mainly nocturnal and very imposing creatures with a rather large body but rather weak hind legs that makes rather slow. They are distinguished by their supraorbital crests and their pupils are large and slit-shaped. Apart from their size they also have tibial glands located in their hind legs that secrete a milky bufotoxin. The later causes nausea, vomiting, and even paralysis and death in potential predators.

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Luckily, they are not threatened despite being collected for the pet trade.

 

 

Annual migration

Every year we embark on our annual migration that covers three continents: Africa, Europe and South America. We find this ideal. Not only we avoid the bulk of the rainy season in Zimbabwe but we also get to Uruguay and Argentina to take advantage of the summer time there. After our sojourn in the Americas we avoid the winter and return to Zimbabwe with a summer stop in Europe to visit our children.

This year things changed as our son moved to Tenerife in the Canary Islands and we decided to spend the end of the year holidays there. We traveled there via Rome to spend a few days with our daughter and friends prior to our trip to Tenerife. This, unfortunately, was not the best move as we picked up severe flus that matured on arrival to the Canary Islands and kept us homebound for several days, some of them spent in bed!

Despite this, the fact that the family was together offset our sicknesses and, fortunately guided by our son we had some good time touring Tenerife and have a look at its attractions although planned trips other islands and visit to friends were cancelled.

After this, already recovered, we traveled to Uruguay where we spent a few days in the company of relatives and childhood friends. It was summer time and we enjoyed the warm weather that sometimes turned rather too hot but always preferable to the cold and wet winters that Uruguay can also deliver.

It was soon time to travel to Northern Argentina, a long but interesting journey that would take us to our farm in Salta “La Linda” (the beautiful) as it is known in this latitude.

After a few years of traveling this route we have decided to divided into three legs of about 600km each. The first takes us to Mercedes in Corrientes, the second ends in Presidencia Roque Saenz Peña and the final one -slighty longer- takes us to our final destination in Salta. This time, because of a basketball tournament there was no hotels in Mercedes so we booked a place in Curuzú Cuatiá, a few km nearer to Carmelo.

The weather during the journey was expected to be stormy but, despite some rains on the way, we had no difficulties. After driving about 600km? we reached Curuzú Cuatiá, a small town whose name comes from cross (curuzú) as it is placed at an important crossroads with traffic to and from several important Provinces in Argentina and Buenos Aires. The Jesuits had marked this place with a large wooden cross but the local Guaraní already had a name for the place: Curuzú Cuatiá.

After a good night rest we continued North, this time under heavy rain until, …km later and driving through the Iberá wetlands, we crossed the Paraná River at Corrientes through the large bridge that joins the Provinces of Corrientes with the Chaco. This time, the waters of this wide river showed a ribbon of clear water on the side of Corrientes (the waters from the high Paraná) and a wide brown area occupying more than half of the river course on the Chaco side. The latter indicated that the Paraguay River, that joins the Paraná a few km upstream, was in flood. The view reminded me to that seen at Khartoum with the Blue and White Nile running in parallel.

A couple of hundred km after crossing the river we arrived at our destination for the day: Presidencia Roque Sanz Peña. The reader may ask why we stopping in such an unsung place. As I mentioned, we needed a stopover that would be located about two thirds of the way to Salta and, after trying a few options Presidencia (for short) was chosen. It is the second city in importance in the Chaco Province after Resistencia, its capital. Luckily we discovered that it has a comfortable hotel with a sauna, adjacent to a thermal water spa. Just a short walk away there is also a good BBQ place where a large display of various meats allows for the choice of dinner to be made. A great desert of cheese and papaya in syrup is usually tasted after a good portion of “asado” (barbecued meat).

The final leg is the harder as it is a bit further and the road offers some “challenges”! Hence we departed as early as possible stocked with plenty of water. The straight road took us across what was a vast expanse of forest known as “El Impenetrable”. The straight road traverses the Chaco and Santiago del Estero provinces before getting to Salta. It passes through places with dramatic and even scary names, some of which are worth mentioning.

The first location we find is Avia Terai, (originally “Aviauck Tadaek” meaning large or thick forest in the Toba Qom language). Unfortunately, only isolated clumps of forest remain this day although, because of its woodlands of white and red quebrachos (Schinopsis spp) a very hard (density 0.9–1.3) wood tree species whose name means “axe-breaker”; algarrobo (Ceratonia siliqua) and guayaibí (Patagonula americana) was once known as the “Fortress of the woods”. Charcoal burning, the extraction of the hard woods and the clearing of lands for cultivation (mainly soybean) have taken their toll throughout the region nowadays

You then reach Concepción del Bermejo, a rather symbolic village that evokes an earlier settlement known as Concepción de la Buena Esperanza. This early attempt at colonizing effort was founded in 1585. Although it was the most effective Spanish occupation of the Chaco Province, it came to grief in 1631 when a tribal coalition destroyed it and forced the survivors to migrate all the way to Corrientes (240km), luckily ignored by the attackers!

The string of dramatic names starts with the next settlement called Pampa del Infierno (Hell’s Pampas) that clearly illustrates the feeling of the early settlers that chose the name when confronted with the intense heat and humidity that prevailed there. The next town, Los Frentones, is another small enclave that remembers the indigenous nation of that name that roamed this area. They used to shave their heads half way up their skull appearing to have a wide forehead (frente) hence their name that means “large fronted”.

Río Muerto’s (Dead River) is the next place we crossed. Its rather gloomy name comes from a dead “cauce” associated with the Bermejo River that apparently was blocked during the Chaco conquest through which the Argentinian Government conquered the aborigines. Pampa de los Guanacos is the next town name as a herd of these ruminants? were seen in the area at some stage. The place is home to a Mennonite colony? that came from Paraguay over thirty years ago. They live their rather isolated lives working the land and producing excellent cheese that is very sought after in the area!

We then came to Los Tigres (The Tigers) where probably jaguars once lived but no longer. Here the asphalt road deteriorates taking a rather “political” characteristic that also makes it interesting. It runs smoothly through the Chaco until you enter Santiago del Estero where the potholes become more frequent until it becomes a totally broken road. If your car survives the knocks, you emerge triumphantly back in the Chaco at Taco Pozo (hole of the tree or hole of the the algarrobo in Quechua) about 70km later after having driven through Monte Quemado (Burnt Forest).

Happy that we made it through this bad stretch, we decided to stop to regain our breath and recover some of the energy spent.

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Preparing a coffee and snacks.

Aware that, after spending time negotiating the bad road drivers tend to go really fast we drove off the road down a gentle slope a few metres towards the railway track that runs parallel to the road most of the way and enjoyed our food while discovering a few interesting inhabitants.

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See if you can spot one of the locals… The answer is at the bottom of the post!

When the time to go came we were surprised that the car did not move although the engine was making an effort to go! We got out and discovered that one back wheel was spinning in the hitherto undetected red mud. I engaged 4WD and tried again with no difference. Well, there was a difference as a wheel at the front also buried. Used to these situations, I stopped the car and proceeded to inspect the situation learning that the grass upon which our left wheels were it was very soft and the wheels were deeply set. We were well stuck!

Luckily we carry a few tools for these occasions and the spade came very useful to dig in front of the wheels to enable them to move as their thread was totally filled with sticky mud that did not allow any grip. To make matters more sticky, raindrops were falling and it was imperative that we dug fast. We had about two attempts at going but our rather optimistic digging did not work. Eventually, after quite an effort the car move about one metre. That was all we needed and I rocked it back and forth until it gain some motion forward and, with the engine screaming, Mabel pushing and spreading mud all over, the car moved and I did not stop until I was on high and firm ground. It was a relief as we had lost about two hours between the picnic and the mud!

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With the car back on the tarmac, we took a picture of the trench we made!

From then on we had no other difficulties and we soon caught sight of the hazy mountains in the distance that are always welcome as they are the sign that we are getting close to the Andean mountains and our destination: Salta La Linda from where I will be writing for the next three to four months.

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An immature mantis waiting for the right prey to pass by!

Roman elephant

Walking through the various quarters of Rome in summer is a pleasure. Despite its apparent (and real) chaos, Rome has so many facets that every walk reveals new sights. Even old -and apparently commonplace- sights become interesting once we learn more about them.

Although I had walked through the Piazza della Minerva in the past, it had been to get to other of Rome’s main attractions such as the Piazza Navona or the Pantheon. I had noticed the obelisk in the centre but my attention somehow was directed to a plaque informing the public that the Argentinian General José de San Martín stayed at the Grand Hotel de la Minerve in 1846, four years before his death in 1850.

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The plaque on San Martín placed on the front of the hotel.

During this visit, my daughter mentioned that, apart from the Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) -close to her flat- she also enjoyed seeing the small elephant. So one afternoon we walked there and we got to the Piazza delle Minerva again. Not being one of the popular attractions, this small and rather overlooked piazza does not have the crowds and endless tourists’ queues to stick their hands in the Bocca della Veritá or to enter San Peter’s in the Vatican.

So, with time, we had a look at the obelisk. At the time we noted its rather the rather elongated trunk and agreed that it was a rather peculiar sculpture. Further investigation on its origins and development followed and its creation and symbolism is worth describing.

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The rather long trunk of the marble elephant.

The monument consists of two parts, an Egyptian obelisk -unearthed during some excavations carried out before the 17th Century- and the elephant that carries it. The latter is believed to have been the work of Ercole Ferrata, a disciple of the well-known sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini [1].

At the time of the unearthing of the Egyptian obelisk, Fabio Chigi (Pope Alexander VII) wanted to build a monument to display it. Father Domenico Paglia proposed the idea of the Obelisk resting over six small hills, as well as a dog in each corner, the dog being a symbol of the Dominican priests, the Order he belonged to. The hills recalled the six hills depicted on the Chigi family crest. By depicting the latter he hoped to convince the Pope. However, to Paglia’s surprise, Alexander rejected his design.

The Pope then asked Bernini for an alternative design. Bernini’s first reaction was to place four seated figures holding the obelisk at each corner of a pedestal. As this was not to Alexander’s liking, he presented another option showing the Obelisk resting on a rock and a later proposal depicted Hercules with his knees semi-bent as he hoists the obelisk upward and recalls Atlantis holding up the world.

Eventually Bernini got the agreement of the Pope with a design of an elephant carrying the Obelisk on its back, inspired by a popular novel of the time called “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” (“Poliphilo’s The Strife of Love in a Dream” )[2] authored by Francesco Colonna in 1499.

In Bernini’s original drawings, the obelisk’s weight would have fully rested on the legs of the animal. However father Paglia -envious of Bernini receiving the commission and being an architect himself- convinced the Pope that “according to traditional cannons, no weight should rest vertically above an empty space, as it would not be steady nor long lasting” so he strongly recommended that the obelisk should be placed upon a stone block. Bernini was opposed to this modification, especially as he had already proven that he could accomplish such a design in his “Four Rivers Fountain” in Piazza Navona.

Despite Bernini’s opinion, the Pope finally followed Paglia’s advice and decided that a marble cube should be inserted under the elephant. He also had the Latin phrase “These symbols of the science of Egypt, which you see engraved on the obelisk borne by the elephant, the most powerful of all animals, show that a strong mind is needed to support a solid knowledge” inscribed on the base.

Although Bernini tried to hide the heavy look of the block placed between the elephant’s legs by adding a saddle to the elephant’s back, this was not enough and the elephant acquired a rather heavy appearance that -I am sure to Bernini’s annoyance- originated its nick name of Minerva’s Piggy [3]!

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Despite the addition of the saddle the marble block supporting the obelisk is rather obvious.

The complete work was unveiled in February 1667 and it turned out to be the last commission of Pope Alexander VII as he died a few months later.

There is still a final twist to the story.

Bernini was able to take his revenge upon Paglia and the Pope by shifting the elephant’s tail slightly to the left and in that way pointing its rear end rather obscenely toward the Dominican Monastery sited in the square!

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The elephant’s rear end.

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The elephant with its rear end pointing towards the Dominican Monastery.

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gian_Lorenzo_Bernini

[2] https://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/hieroglyphs/hypnerotomachia-poliphili

[3] Today the sculpture is popularly known as Minerva’s chick as the Roman dialect word for piggy (“procino”) has been replaced by chick (“pulcino”).

 

Rome – Food processor seller

Another character from the streets of Rome and one of the most engaging. He is called Mustafa and spends his time selling gadgets to prepare veggies in an imaginative way. We had heard and then seen him in earlier visits at the Porta Portese flea market. This time he was trading at the Campo di Fiori market. I can assure you that you cannot fail to stop and watch!!!

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Mustafa’s stand.

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Mustafa blowing bubbles to demonstrate the versatility of his ware.

While selling ,Mustafa mentioned that he had over 5 million hits in his video at Youtube so I did not film him but went to Youtube where I found many videos of “Mustafa Patata e Carota” performance.

So, rather than filming him yet again, I decided to embed the video where he speaks English. There is another one in Italian with 2,5 million hits in Youtube! [1]

 

 

Mustafa was so convincing that we ended up buying his tools without really needing them! I am now practicing and destroying a few veggies but I am getting there…

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[1] The video in Italian can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbPBN6kvnCU.

 

 

Rome – Gladiators

If you know a bit about Rome, you will also know that it is full of surprises. This visit has been no exception and I found this scene during some rains we had yesterday while walking through the historical centre towards our rented flat in the Jewish quarter.

IMG_3474 copy.jpgThese two gladiators took advantage of the rain-break in their fighting to the death activities to catch up with life events and have a puff rather than sharpening their swords! This is something expected of the current Millennial generation but they are clearly beyond that, probably Xennials[1]

Whatever their generation, the sight was really amusing!

 

[1] The term “Xennials” is a portmanteau blending the names of Generation X and the Millennials to describe individuals born during the Generation X/Millennial cusp years of the late 1970s to the early 1980s. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xennials)