Searching for Swallows

There's an airport in Goya, but my girlfriend, Sylvia, and I are on a backpacker's budget, so we leave shimmering Buenos Aires by night bus; the moon, constellations and our bus lights light the arid Pampas flatscape. White road posts rise up like ghosts or tombstones of the dissappeareds—liberals and Leftists murdered by the dictatorship during its Dirty War between 1976 and 1983. Ten to 30,000 souls.

Patches of bumpy road. Dust in the mouth. Sleep? Please. Daybreak. Papaya sky. Ten kilometers to Goya. Bucolic grasslands. Meandering tributaries of the Rio Parana. Drifting sandbars. Musky soil and hay scent on the breeze. Farm houses with thatched roofs. Enter Goya. Boys on beach cruisers wave at us. Narrow brick-lined avenidas. Chickens in back yards. Eerily silent. We smell—indeed, we can almost taste—croissants and coffee as we pull into the station.

We spot the tourist office next to the bus stop. Local river fish hang on the wall. So do images of the fork-tailed barn swallow—the same mistaken figure used at the Trading Post across the street from Mission San Juan Capistrano since the 1950s. We're in the right place.

When I say I'm from San Juan Capistrano—that I grew up around the mission there—the tourism lady nearly spits out her mate (a tea served in a gourd that is sipped all day long through an odd metal spoon/ straw). Goya is the wintering grounds for the famous swallows of Capistrano; detecting some sort of payoff in this avian connection, the towns declared themselves sister cities years ago. The origins remain fuzzy. In 1976, the fascist junta ordered every city to attempt to establish sister cities; Goya found a natural partner in San Juan Capistrano. Two years later, Buenos Aires poet Maria Elgul de Paris arrived in San Juan Capistrano to deliver a poem in honor of the San Juan Capistrano-Goya sister-city relationship. After that, silence. They seldom get tourists in Goya, let alone foreigners, and no foreigners from San Juan Capistrano.

Another woman, Carolina, 25, blushingly beautiful, asks if we've seen the Monumento de Las Golondrinasgolondrinas being Spanish for swallows. What monumento? She hands us a brochure of the town. Apart from listing great accommodations ($30 to $40 per night for a hot shower and TV in a cozy, clean room), noting the posh restaurants and bars along the river, telling of festivals, there's a map of the town. She circles an X on the map. X marks the Plaza de San Martin, where we'll find the monument. It's three blocks away.

Rose bricks and cement sidewalks take us by charming shops. Pastel treats fill bakery windows. The smell of fresh leather apparel fills our nostrils. So does the aroma of Argentine pizza—a local saying has it that Argentineans are Italians who speak Spanish and think they're British, an homage to the three groups who, in addition to the native peoples, produced modern Argentina. Uniformed children cavort on their way to school. Young men and women in tight T-shirts and butt-hugging denim flirt. It's springtime in South America. Ladies in flower-print dresses and pumps. Men in trousers and polo shirts. Some wear straw cowboy hats, others cloth berets and cravats.

We get lost. An old-timer lends us a hand. A grape-leaf cigarillo hangs from his lips. He's wearing a Harley cap. Isn't surprised I'm from Capistrano. About time, he seems to say. About time.

There it stood! Like fingers rising from the earth at the tip of the plaza. The swallow monument. A row of five whitewashed wood and concrete pillars, 25 feet at the center, 30 feet at the ends. Bolted midway on up on the middle pillar, a flattened globe depicts the Americas. Crimson, communist-like stars denote Goya and San Juan Capistrano. A cream-colored dotted line connects the two ciudades hermanas. It portrays the putative migration path taken by the cliff swallows —in fact, they nest all over North America, especially in distant Nebraska. On each side of the map, cutouts of barn swallows arch their ebony wings, bend ivory bellies, crane their beaks toward the dotted line. In front of the pillars, there's a pedestal crowned with a bowling-ball-shaped cerulean planet—a real swallow sculpture perches atop. Hundreds of swallows—real ones—flitter around the monument. The cinnamon-orange square tail rump gives it away, a key biological hallmark that separates these from other swallows. They peck at the grass. Twitter and chirp in trees. Knock one another off benches. I hug Sylvia. We've found gold.

I take photos like an amateur at the pyramids. Some people stare at us—the same stare I've given tourists blindly snapping at pigeons in the Mission San Juan. My turn to be the swallow tourist.

I'm naked in the shower when the police show up at our hotel (the Alcazar—'60s mod meets gaucho) to take us "downtown." I know it's the welcome wagon (tipped off by the tourist office), but cops terrify me. We're given a Toyota-cade escort to the Municipal de Gobierno de Goya. A televised press conference awaits us upstairs. I've had no sleep for 30 hours. I'm put on the spot in a media hot pot. We're prepped for the heat by our translator, Maria Mendez Firpo—a stout onion of a lawyer, with chic Gramscian specs. She leads us into the pressure cooker. Introductions to the cream of Goya's political scene. A nun, officials, community organizers. A Goyavision camera is poised. A newsman holds his pen above his notepad like a cleaver. Then the big cheese arrives: Victor Juan Balestra. Intendente— the equivalent of a mayor. On a gaucho diet, apparently. A mighty ham of a face. Handshakes.

We are peppered with questions. "Why did you come to Goya?" asks Firpo. I stumble over my words: "I grew up in Capistrano. . . . Whenever the swallows are mentioned, no details are given about Goya. . . . It's a mystery."

Balestra waves his arm and speaks. "He has invited you to be our guests for Swallows Day in two weeks," says Firpo. I lock eyes with Sylvia. Our flight back is in 10 days. I imagine what we'll miss at what I later learn is called Llegada de Las Golondrinas (Return of the Swallows) on Nov. 24. Rounds of carne de parrillada, hearty Italian gnocchi, wedges of pizza, fillets of succulent lemon-fried Surubi, the salmon of river fish in Argentina. Kegs and litros of the ubiquitous national futbol beer, Quilmes, to fuel the pageant (just say, "Too much won't hurt me, it will Quilmes" with each glass you down). Oh, the chilled Chilean wine. And everything relatively cheap.

The rest of the day moves lightning-fast. A plaque of the city tossed at us like a Frisbee—photos, please! Firpo privately insists on Rotarian contacts with San Juan Capistrano. Later, at a meeting with community organizers, we learn why we've been given hero treatment: rocky economics—the river washed out scores of homes, trade and tourism are down, and the tobacco factory is sending people packing.

They plan to build a huge plaza dedicated to the swallows and Capistrano, remarks organizer Bruce Avenando. A meaningful global exchange is sought. "We want artists, poets, craftsmen and students to be traded with Capistrano. . . . We'll greet whoever comes here with a parade and festival," says local author Maria de Duarte de Gamboa. She gives me a thin book in Spanish about Goya's connection with Capistrano. They wrote a letter in October 1999 to officials in Capistrano outlining their plan. Why hasn't San Juan Capistrano replied?

Firpo's husband, Nestor Pasceata, gives us a whirlwind tour. The town's symbol: a church with Spanish colonial towers. Founded in 1807, notes a plaque on an obelisk. Pronounced Go-jah(like ambrosia). Nicknamed after a woman, he thinks.

The river is both provider and destroyer. No swimming, the current will pull you to the bottom. A boy fishes on the banks. His burro and cart are parked up on the road. A young couple frantically French kiss in the Villa Italia park overlooking the placid Parana. No wonder the swallows come back here. Why haven't we?

Raised in San Juan Capistrano, Christopher Cottrell is a freelance journalist in the Bay Area. He's finishing a book of essays on the swallow myth.


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