Crashing Grandma and Grandpa’s fancy hotel suite smack in the middle of an Argentine jungle seemed like a good indication of how much life has changed in the last nine months. It wasn’t like there wasn’t enough room—Ethan and I slept comfortably on the pull out couch and the kids in a nest of blankets and pillows on the floor—but back when my CBS paycheck was auto-deposited into my account each Friday, free-loading probably wouldn’t have been an option.
The Sheraton Iguazu Resort and Spa is the only hotel inside the 165,000-acre Iguazu National Park in the northeastern tip of Argentina, home of the second largest waterfall system in the world. From afar, the Sheraton looks like the Battlestar Galactica crash landed in the jungle—a large grey monolith cocooned in a blanket of impenetrable green. A cockroach the size of a mouse greeted us in the hotel foyer and the clash between the air conditioning inside and humidity outside frosted the windows so thoroughly, The Galactica seemed swaddled in an enormous ball of cotton.
Somehow, these idiosyncracies were not negative. The battleship’s faded concrete façade, its weary elegance, and aura of pride made us somehow feel like we were visiting a great aunt who knew she was special no matter how many wrinkles and age spots she had. This old hotel was definitely King Of The Jungle and when we opened the door to Suite A, (shushing the kids to avoid getting busted), we gasped. Laid out in front of us, in the Technicolor splendor usually seen only in movies, was one of the timeless wonders of the world.
I don’t mean to be unpatriotic, but Iguazu Falls makes Niagara seem like its wimpy kid brother. Perhaps this is because Iguaza is comprised of 270 individual waterfalls that, at their peak, pump 420,000 cubic feet of water per second over two miles of sheer cliffs that slice an unspoiled stretch of jungle in half. Argentina owns one side, Brazil the other. Poor Paraguay, just a few miles down river, missed out on the gold mine the falls have become since they opened as a tourist attraction in 1934.
Throughout Iguazu, a network of metal catwalks allows access to the most awe-inspiring viewpoints. As we followed one to the top of the biggest waterfall, “La Garganta Del Diablo” (The Devil’s Throat), we noticed a yellow sign with a picture of a cartoon snake next to the figure of a man missing his head. We laughed, but then kept a wary eye on the vines that dripped and arced in every direction to see if they moved. Another sign said “Do Not Bluth”. So we did not bluth, not one of us, the entire time.
At the catwalk’s end, huge plumes of spray shot into the air, sending rainbows arcing in every direction and drenching visitors. Three middle-aged nuns dressed in full grey habits peeked over the edge of the void, getting soaked and looking rapturous to be in a place that must have felt to them like God’s Country. Next to these sturdy-shoe-wearing sisters, a young Brazilian woman stood holding a sleeping baby. The child was naked except for a soggy diaper, and its wet, brown skin glistened like burnished copper in the bright sunshine. This was truly a show no one wanted to miss.
Like Niagara, Iguazu has had its share of spectacular accidents. In the early years, long before the catwalks, tourists could go by rowboat to the top of the falls–a captain rowing furiously against the current the only thing keeping the boat from going over. This E-ticket ride came to its inevitable deadly end when one captain couldn’t row quite fast enough and launched, along with seven German tourists, into oblivion, hurtling three hundred feet into the frothing brown water below. It must have been one hell of a free fall.
Modern day tourists can board large Zodiacs with big motors for one hell of a ride to the bottom of the falls. Having been warned that we would get wet, I wore only a bathing suit and a life vest, putting my clothes into a dry bag. At some point during the initial ride up the wide, muddy Rio Iguazu, I noticed two tanned teenage girls also wearing bikinis and had the horrible realization that the time was swiftly coming when I would finally have to invest in a one-piece… or keep the t-shirt on.
All the ridiculous age-angst fled when our captain wrapped himself in a hurricane poncho, gunned the motors and charged The Devil’s Throat like it was Custer’s last stand. He wasn’t checking out anyone’s bikini, but focusing on a wall of water that seemed as thick as it was high. Within seconds we were engulfed in a storm, laughing and screaming while trying to shield our eyes from the stinging spray and breathe without gulping mouthfuls of water. A roaring sound beat at our ears and the world turned greyish white—and then we pulled back to the sunlit safety of the blue, cloud-dotted sky. I glanced at Griff and Ado’s faces, sure they would be crying, but my intrepid little adventurers just yelled “Again!” in tandem.
It turns out that Iguazu has not only great physical power, but spiritual power as well. Perhaps this is why Ethan, who is about as spiritual as a snail, was hit with a deep revelation at Iguazu that proved another vivid example of how the simple passage of time can change you.
“Last night I dreamed I got a job,” he said as we watched a band of snout nosed, raccoon-like mammals called coatimundi beg for food in front of the Sheraton.
“A real job,” he continued. “And I liked it.” I would have been less shocked if one of the hungry coatis had waved and hollered “hola!” Ethan has never been a nine-to-fiver. Or even a noon-to-fiver. My husband is enormously smart, talented, and the antithesis of lazy, but putting his skills to work as a stockbroker, lawyer, or pizza delivery man for that matter, where he would have scheduled hours and report to a… gasp… boss, has never been his thing. He has always worked for himself, with
little structure and lots of creative freedom, so the sudden longing for the daily grind was strange. Perhaps the freedom of the road is getting to him. Perhaps the longing for our comfortable old life in Toluca Lake is getting to him. Or perhaps he just felt a little freaked out about crashing his in-law’s hotel room.
Poor Nana and Grandpa Rich did not have an easy time in Iguazu despite their comfy digs. My mother, who is seventy-three but likes to act thirty seven, was knocked flat by the Argentine equivalent of Mexico’s Montezuma’s Revenge. Still, my stubborn, optimistic mom insisted on trekking three kilometers to the lower falls in heat and humidity that would have dropped a horse. Halfway back, the double whammy of heatstroke and dehydration knocked her nearly unconscious and Rich, a retired surgeon, went to call for a wheelchair.
“Bullshit!” said the lovely Nana when she heard she was to be carted up the cliff like an old lady. She took a moment to scold Grandpa Rich for buying her two bottles of water at tourist prices from a vendor, then gulped them down and struggled back to the Sheraton, where she collapsed in the cool sheets and slept for the rest of the evening. When I peeked in on her, she looked tiny and vulnerable, as translucent and fragile as a porcelain doll. Tears came to my eyes as I realized that the years had taken their toll on what used to be her immeasurable strength. How do I stop time, I wondered as I caught a clear glimpse of the future, so that I would never lose her?
That night, Ethan, Griffin, Ado and I drove into Iguazu National Park alone. In the dark, we stopped our beat up rental car by the side of the road, turned off the lights, and listened to the sound of the jungle. It buzzed and hummed and squeaked in the hot, heavy air, but thankfully, it did not roar. A lightning storm fought the darkness on the distant horizon.
“Daddy,” said Ado, my youngest child, my baby, who somehow had just turned three years old. “I love you more than all those stars.” As he said it, fireflies began to spark all around us, performing aerobatic loop-de-loops and zig-zags across our small stretch of road before slowly winking out of sight.