Instead of getting money in the bank, I agreed that it would make sense to exchange my $100 bill – the last US cash I had, but I doubted I would need it in Brazil, and definitely not in Cuba. The trick is that if you withdraw money from ATM’s, they charge you 35 pesos ($6) per transaction; the official exchange rate is like 5.9-6.0 pesos for dollar; but the unofficial one is almost 10.
So I got 950 pesos for my hundred, and found it quite satisfactory. It felt weird not to have any money – any at all – for two days straight. But at least they accept credit cards in restaurants.
Today we decided to go to Lujan Zoo, famous (or infamous) for having the jungle animals that let the visitors interact with them. You can pet a lion, cuddle with a tiger and so on, of course, at your own risk. The zoo owners say that the animals are harmless because they grow up with dogs, and the dogs play the part of the dominant animals and sort of suppress the instincts of the predators, as they are brought up to behave like dogs. But in reality – is that enough? Many suspect that the animals are being constantly sedated, and in this case it is very sad. Others say that they don’t look sedated. I guess, I will know when I see them – we’re on the bus now – but I really want to believe it’s not true. Especially after an SAS girl that’s on the bus with us said “They say they sedate them, but whatever, I don’t care. I just want to pet a tiger”. ***
Just think about it: a tiger’s paw can be as big as your head. He can kill you with one swift move if he wants to. Here in Lujan they don’t want to kill; they just want to be left alone. Hiding in the shadow from the heat of the day, they sleep, awoken only by the small groups of tourists eager to take a picture. I was watching them – the line was long – and trying to think whether the animals looked drugged. But I kept remembering the zoos I’ve been to, and the shots people brought from the safaris – during the day, the big cats sleep. They’re not interested in doing stuff or hunting. The hunting time comes at sunset, and after sunset there are no visitors in the cages – so said the zoo workers. The behavior of the animals also depends on their age; the younger ones are much less patient and get tired of people more quickly. We started with the baby lions, whom
Jose held in his arms only a couple of months ago. Now they’re more like teenagers, and you can’t cuddle with them anymore; they’re on the verge of turning into serious predators. They sleep and play with dogs, noticing no difference – they’re used to dogs.
There was a pond with three sea lions nearby – I really felt like climbing over the fence and joining them, for it was pretty damn hot. The pond reminded me of the ship’s pool. And the younger sea lion kept moving to and fro just like me, bouncing off the edges of the pool. It’s so tiny – I remembered that dolphinarium in Varna, Bulgaria, where the dolphins were caged in tiny slots of water and only let out into the bigger pool for the show. It looked so claustrophobic, that piece of water surrounded by glass, with people staring. I felt for the sea lions indeed.
In the cage next to them were two brown bears, not too big, but big enough to give you some trouble if they’d want to. We bought some food and fed them from long wooden sticks. The bears were excited and kept begging for food just like home pets would. Basically, every animal in the zoo expected to get some food from you.
We joined the line to interact with the tigers, and it was damn long. While waiting, I watched the big, fleshy geese stroll around and begging for food – they would even chase people; mother-ducks with bunches of fur – their ducklings, impossibly cute; the peacocks, chilling on the branches of the nearby tree and yelling at each other from time to time in super loud and irritating voices.
The line took forever – over an hour for sure. I desperately hate lines, I can’t stand still in one place for a long time – my knees start to hurt. At last we were let into the cage. The tigers were bored to death by all the tourists and wanted nothing but to be left alone. You could easily notice when they were getting irritated – their tails would start to move, and that’s a certain signal that the animal needs some time off. But what they never minded was milk, which we poured into our hands and fed them. I mean, can you imagine how big is the tiger’s tongue? Neither could I!
Like in the cheetah reserve, we were told to only touch the back. Even if you go just a bit up the neck, the tiger’s tail starts to move. I could’ve spent the whole day there, but other people were waiting for their turn. We had to go.
We made our way to the ice-cream place as fast as we could – we really felt like it after an hour in the heat. The taste of happiness – an ice-cream and a fresh fruit smoothie. On the way to the elephants I saw a llama. Not that I never saw a llama, but never live and never so close for sure. Just like geese, the llamas were wandering around on their own, no cage and all. I faced a dilemma: I really wanted to touch a llama, but I had no idea how it would react. Jose and Rachel preferred to take my camera and stay away and watch if I fail or not. I approached the animal, slowly, making my presence obvious. Every few seconds I moved closer until I was standing next to it. It took me a while to reach out for the llama’s neck, but at last I did it. The llama stayed apathetic to everything, even when I started to stroke its neck (so soft! Omigosh, sooo soft!). A hippie llama (jk, but they really do look like they’re stoned all the time). At last I got bold enough to sit next to it and just hug its neck. The llama did not mind. That was my achievement of the day.
We dropped by the parrots and chatted with the guy who worked with them; among all the zoo workers we met that day, he seemed the most loving and caring of his birds.
We moved on to the elephants and fed them small pieces of apple. Their trunks were so big that the apples seemed to have gotten lost in them; but every time the elephants managed to deliver them to their mouths. Last time I interacted with an elephant was this winter in Thailand, and it was a child elephant. The ones in the zoo were really big.
White tigers were the next spot, but it didn’t last long, as the tiger we were trying to pet was a 1-year-old (a few times my size, just for the record). To say he was gorgeous is to say nothing: snow white with pale stripes of caramel brown, and stunning blue eyes, like Patagonia ices on these pictures. The eyes were almost white, with a circle of ice blue around the pupils. I used to have a stuffed white tiger toy, only its stripes were black; my relatives sent it as a birthday present from America, and it was my favorite toy for many years, so soft and cuddly. This guy was no toy for sure, neither was he soft and cuddly. The big cats aren’t actually as soft as one may think, their fur is rather stiff. This white tiger wasn’t as calm as the baby lions or the tigers we encountered. He was impatient, and once I stroked his back a few times, he decided to get up, preparing to jump off the table on the side I was standing. I was pretty concentrated, and my reaction quite good. I moved out of the way in an instant, getting out of his sight. When they don’t see you, you don’t really bother them, at least there at Lujan. So we carefully got out of the cage and moved to the lions.
There were two, laying next to each other. The zoo employee pointed out one of them, napping on the right. I kneeled behind his head and touched his back. He radiated calmness, lazy sleepiness of a hot day – or signs of sedation? I’ll never know. If I was a local journalist, I would surely try to get a job at the zoo and investigate.
I let my fingers sink in the lion’s mane – and was surprised that he didn’t react at all. Then I realized that the mane was so thick and big in volume that he barely felt the touch.
I don’t know why I went up the mane; I just felt like doing it. Later both Rachel and Jose told me about the expression on the zoo guy’s face when I reached out for the lion’s forehead. But I stroke it, and the lion didn’t mind at all. I kept stroking his forehead, watching his every move, listening to every breath; with these you never know. What you know is that now he’s licking milk off your hands, and everything else is unpredictable. We actually got a bottle of milk, and I figured out how to pour milk straight into his mouth, without the hand. It was funny to watch – he reminded me of that guy from Gogol’s “Night before Christmas”, where one of the characters had the dumplings fly into his mouth by the power of his thought. So I kept feeding the lion and stroking his forehead. The zoo guy just let it be.
Afterwards Rachel said she was surprised how calm I was all the time with all the animals; she called it courage – should I rather call it stupidity? Perhaps. Definitely wouldn’t do the same thing in the wild. Hopefully.
On the bus back to the city Rachel seemed to have a conversation of a lifetime with a lady who turned out to be a dancer; I kept floating away in the waves of sleep, as we slept so little the night before.
Jose took us to his favorite steak place. May I just tell you that it was unbe-freaking-livable? Best. Steak. Ever. Come to Argentina, people. Seriously. The food is just a blast. By the way, the ice-cream afterwards was also great. Nighttime walks and talks through the cool city air. Managed to buy sweaters made of alpaca wool on the way home – they don’t only make them in Peru, but in some parts of Argentina as well. I mean, probably they make those in many countries, but for me alpaca always was a symbol of Peru. Also, I wanna go to Peru. Just sayin’.