Iguaçu Falls. What a tantalizing pairing of words, wet with contour and risk. They slide over and around one another like intertwined snakes. And then there are the layers of resonance, evoking temptation and fear at once. Anyone who stands at the edges of Iguaçu experiences the sensation of wonder.
If Wonder has its roots in childhood, in an uninhibited response to the beauty and mystery of the new, then what happens when we grow up? Children live in a constant state of what could be called "radical amazement" with wonder unfurling before their eyes at every turn.
But what stirs us as adults? What are the ingredients of wonder? What makes us go "Wow?" and why?
Earlier this year I set out to explore the contours of wonder on a journey across South America. From the magnificent displays of grand nature; to the riddles that ripple through time; to the mystic power of ancient beauty; to the marvels of diversity at play on a living canvass. If there is a geography of wonder, it is South America.
If, as truth-seekers have suggested, it is not half so important to know as to feel, these are the meridians that fired passions, and made us marvel as far back as we can sail.
Christopher Columbus first set foot on South American soil in 1498, and in his chronicles wrote: "the land is so good and capacious that it is a wonder to see." But the land was named for Amerigo Vespucci, who arrived a year later. He wrote, "I saw many wonderful things...singular and wonderful things... that may live with future generations."
My journey radiates from the hub of South America, Lima, Peru, to four of the greatest wonders on the planet, Easter Island in Chile; the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru; the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, and Iguaçu Falls in Brazil and Argentina, the first destination in my quest for wonder.
Here at Iguaçu, fluid beauty and violence collide. These falls rattle the bones and exceed the imagination. Standing here, it's as if I can hear the cries of cataracts in battle...and feel the earth tremble in response. It is the geometry of turmoil, an agreeable kind of horror; a magnificent rudeness, and a rapturous terror. The sights and feelings of these falls are both awe inspiring and terrifying, and they throw open the floodgates of wonder.
The falls were formed by volcanic activity about 100 million years ago. When the oceans were fashioned and all the world was a workshop. The average water flow over Iguaçu is the equivalent of about 100,000 fire hoses in full blast. But of all its 'hydrotechnics,' the 14 falls that make up the Devil's Throat may be the most astonishing. Amidst the ocean of applause here, we seek the feelings that were ours when we were young explorers, turning each corner for the first time. Huge, potent, loud, the Devil's Throat is an exhilarating cocktail of fear and bliss. Why does this muscular display move us so? Because we are drawn to the wonder of power in Nature, to its ability to create and destroy -- it puts us on edge, and makes us feel alive.
"Poor Niagara!" So said Eleanor Roosevelt upon seeing Iguaçu for the first time, and rightly so. It's higher than Niagara, and twice as wide. Few other natural sites in the world offer such impact and intrinsic beauty.
The first European to wonder at these falls was conquistador Cabeza de Vaca in 1541, but its origin stories reach further back through unmeasured time when Iguasú nourished the indigenous Guarani people who still call this place home.
For all peoples wonder provokes explanations. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the land around Iguasú belonged to the Guarani. Every year the tribe would sacrifice a beautiful virgin to the Serpent God who lived in the Iguaçu River. Usually these women were bred to be sacrificed, and no one protested as the girls were thrown into the river. Naipi, however, was not one of these condemned girls. She was to be married to Taruba, a great warrior from a neighboring tribe.
A few weeks before the marriage ceremony Naipi was walking near the river and the Serpent God saw her reflection in the water. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and demanded the Guarani tribe give her to him through sacrifice.
Taruba was furious and believed he could rescue Naipi from her grim fate. The lovers made arrangements to meet at the Iguaçu River and run away. Unfortunately the Serpent God saw Naipi climbing into the canoe and raced to catch up.
The god slithered and squirmed causing the river to form new curves and the little canoe to rock back in forth. When Taruba wouldn't give up, The Serpent God became absolutely furious, and forced the earth to split.
The river spilled over the cracked earth, sending the canoe into spirals. Taruba was tossed onto the embankment, where he turned into a palm tree -- forever rooted to the earth above the falls on one side. The Serpent god changed Naipi into a large rock on the other.
Now the two lovers could see each other but never touch. The Serpent god is said to lurk deep in the waters of the Devil's Throat, watching the palm tree and the rock, making sure they never unite, though they still manage to show their love by forming a rainbow that reaches from Brazil to Argentina.
The Guarani were the first inhabitants of what they call the "Tierra Sin Mal," or "Land without Evil," and today, like so many indigenous people, they cultivate a balance between humans and nature.
When I ask a Guarani elder, Caraimini, why it is important to preserve the forest, and what his people will lose if they fail to do so, he says "This is important because these days our children are not learning our culture -- our jungle. For this reason it's very important to preserve and protect this jungle, that is to say, our culture and our traditions. There's no way to take this from us--our love for the natural world. When you love Nature, there's no way to lose that connection."
Guarani religion is based on the protective God, Tupá. Evil spirits, in turn, castigate those who destroy the forest. The National Parks and UNESCO have joined forces to preserve one of the largest sub-tropical forests in South America, and, now, much of this forest is protected.
Back at the Hotel das Cataratas, on the Brazilian side with a grand overlook to the Falls, it's the wonder of scale, the astonishment of the enormous that makes us go "Wow!" And what is the impulse of travel if not to seek wonder?
Iguaçu Falls pulses with fear, beauty and power. "Wonder is the first of all the passions," Descartes said, and places such as this inspire the fresh and profound feelings that were ours when we were the youngest of explorers; and are still accessible when we wing to the spectacular tableaus of South America.
Wonder catapults us into the abstract. It's a point of departure that sparks a piece of art, an idea or a journey. This is the signature of Wonder.
The APT/KQED television special "Richard Bangs' South America: Quest for Wonder" is airing nationally now on PBS. See this link for air dates and info.