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“It’s a big day when the water comes in San Rafael” said my neighbor down the road as he raked leaves into a smoldering pile of smoke inside a canal near his house. We drank Modelo Negra’s while talking about chem-trails and how aerosol is dumped into the atmosphere by the government to cause clouds to form over the mountains and dump heavy metals into the water. Originally from Wisconsin Brennan lived for a time as a farmer in Oregon and while yes he is a white guy with dread’s, he’s a cool dude and I love talking about that kind of shit. We both stared at the thick gray smoke pouring up from the organic waste in silence contemplating the woes of the world. Shortly after I confirmed with him how difficult it was to obtain marijuana in San Rafael I got a call from some other volunteers at the finca who was waiting with others for me to come and have an impromptu party. It just so happened that I was on my way home from the store all stocked up on beer wine and booze for the week and when I got back I pulled out a bottle of cheap Fernet and a bottle of coke. Both were warm and we didn’t have any ice but in the freezer I found a bag of frozen pears, dumping them into several re-used marmalade jars, I poured a mix of half and half and was able to serve everybody a perfectly chilled Argentine favored drink. That’s when we all got drunk and I inevitably went on my perpetual rant of how full of shit the U.S. government is. And when I mentioned the existence of a desperately poor working population in the United State’s the only Argentine in the group was entertained, “This is amazing to hear because most people here think that everybody in the State’s live in Micky Mouse land.” And then he said “I am so happy you brought this” and poured himself another Fernet. After we finished the bottle everyone went in and I went to collect firewood which was when a very strong wind storm started. Then somebody got the idea to take a walk in the finca to go look at the stars. I joined them and as we were just behind the Andes, 500 kilometers or so from the Pacific coast the wind made it feel like we were walking on a beach coast of the ocean. Three of us walked to the middle darkest part of the finca and looked in our drunken astonishment at the brilliant night sky of stars. Brandon mentioned that Argentina was one of the best places on earth for astronomers to observe the sky because it is so clear here. “We have to go back and get everybody else to come out here and lay on the grass to see this shit” Proclaimed Brandon. So we went back, and I announced to the house, “We are in Argentina and need to go look at the stars. There are two big bottles of beer left. Listo” (if I was drunk 24/7 I could probably work as a mediocre, Chris Farley style motivational speaker). Everyone pulled on their coats and we trekked diagonally against gravity through a wind combined with booze that forced us all to miss a step or two along the way to the middle darkest part of the finca. All seven of us laid down, passed around the bottles and laughed every time the same person missed a shooting star that everyone else saw. When the beer was gone, we made our way back to the house and from there the other volunteers, Terry, Francisco, Brandan, and Molly left to the house of their hosts John and Sally less than a mile down the road. They were gone at 12:30 which is when the three of us remaining decided to make a dinner of steak, mashed potatoes and beet salad. We drank more wine and I’m told I passed out on the couch near the fire. I woke up at 6:30 in the morning with “A Game of Thrones” audio book being narrated from my laptop with the volume up full blast.
That was on a Sunday and the following day was the day before the big day. When the water comes.
It’s the middle of August the dead of winter and everywhere you go in San Rafael, people young and old are in their perspective acequia’s (a system of canals based on indigenous methods of irrigation) with large trowels called anchadas, cleaning out leaves, tumble weeds, inevitable garbage, and the occasional dead dog or cow to ensure a safe passage for water to flow to their fincas. Being the beginning of August it is still winter, it has been too cold to farm as generally all plants and trees go dormant, and therefor the municipality has not sent water for a month and some weeks. While most people have access to city water that comes from plumbing on the street to their taps, a lot of people are farmers and rely on water that comes from acequia’s for their livelihood. This being a desert town, having access to two different sources of water is analogous of the mix of old world living and new world conveniences here in San Rafael. The seclusion of the town being relatively far from major cities has meant that resources have historically been scarce and by association, the people are traditionally resourceful. But in recent decades, the virus of consumerism has spread like a plague and the seduction of cheap and comparatively low quality goods have filled homes with modern conveniences and the illusion of comfort. While people are sufficiently equipped with the knowledge and ability to utilize every last drop of water, the packaging of the things they buy and the garbage that all those products eventually become have ironically flooded the river beds beneath almost every bridge you might cross. With the corruption of government and peoples’ unwillingness to pay taxes as a result, Argentina as a whole has a hard time investing in basic infrastructure. Garbage municipality being one of them means they have a bit of a problem with garbage. One commonly used method of dealing with unwanted rubbish is to simply burn it. So on any given time of any day if you can look around the horizon you will surely see plumes of smoke off in the distance which mean the ashy death of all the dirty diapers, tumble weeds and dead dogs that have been clogging the dried up acequia’s throughout the winter. Vara, a man in his fifties with twelve children and sixteen grand children who works on this finca has shown me how to burn tumble weeds. He does it almost on a daily basis, and the day after watching Brennan clean his canal with fire I was out in the field getting ready for the big day and decided to try my hand at burning some rubbish as well. I pulled a big pile of tumble weeds out from a canal on the perimeter and shuffled them near the middle of the finca far away from the surrounding trees. As always the tumble weeds went up in a rapid, intense whirl of blaze. The nearby grass began to catch a little as well and as this is normal I calmly began to stomp it out with my feet. But the residual wind storm of last night’s star gazing session continued less intensively unto the next day but a little more than I noticed until it was accelerated by the heat and fed the fire on dead grass that hasn’t been wet since it snowed more than two weeks before. At first I was not concerned. I just stomped out one little fire then walked to stomp out another, then walked a little more rapidly to the one that re-appeared, then ran to the other, then my feet started to get really hot and it was getting hard to breath, my heart strained with fast pounding, my cigarette abused lungs heaved and struggled to maintain oxygen intake, and as I began to realize these little grass fires were moving faster than I could run, my whole body was suddenly flooded with the adrenaline of terrible anxiety, something I had not felt with such intensity since I was nine years old when I set the field of an apartment complex on fire. And I concluded that “I’m gonna be in big trouble.”
Ever so often, after this little farm has been left in my care I get a reminder that I might be in a little in over my head. Scenarios started to play out in my head where if I burn down a neighboring house and especially if somebody dies then I’ll drive the truck to the bus station head towards Chile, hop on the first plane back home and hope nobody suspects anything at least until I am too far outside of the country to be prosecuted. But more likely they will figure out my plan, and as everyone crossing the boarder has to go through customs, it will be too easy to pick out the nervous sweaty fugitive arsonist gringo and I will be sent to some run down Argentine prison eating the same soggy sliced bread sandwiches they serve on the bus for the rest of my miserable life. The other two volunteers Olga and Nigel were busy building a new corral for the goats and pigs when I came frantically running back to the finca house. “How’s it going out there Bobby?” Asked Olga, and out of breath I answered “I started a fire and it is out of control so I am going to call the fire department and I may need you to come help me dig ditches to put it out.” While fumbling for some anchadas in the garage I dialed 911 on a cell phone that has no credit to call anyone except 911 and immediately a female voice answered asking something in Spanish, to which I replied “Necesito una bombosa para un grande fuego en la finca en calle El Moro cuatro mil ocho ciento…” First of all “bombosa” is not a word which I learned when she said some bomberos were on their way. I ran back to the fire with Nigel and we tried hopelessly scratching it out with the anchadas, realizing again that I had little idea of how to combat a grass fire in such a strong wind, the two of us would likely not be enough, and that this fire needed to be stopped at least before it reached the trees and hence the other fincas and god knows what after that. So I was freaking out and told Nigel “Okay, I have to go to John’s [an English speaking friend of Robbies who lived at a close by finca] and have him call the fire department to make sure they actually come. If this gets to be too dodgy, too hot or too much smoke, or you feel you are in any danger at all just get the fuck out of here.” Leaving Ben to a giant grass fire all by himself I ran off to the truck but realizing Olga was at the other end of the finca with the truck keys I hopped on a bike to ride the half mile to retrieve the truck keys but since John’s house was almost the same distance as it was back to the truck I just continued riding the bike to his house. I showed up there out of breath and sweating, “Hello Bobby how are you?” Cheerfully asked Sally the wife of John, “I have another crisis…” The last emergency I came to ask help for was when the finca house got robbed and I caught one of the guys trying to steal a fucking pig, more about that later. After explaining that the finca was on fire I threw my bike in the back of their truck and a couple of their volunteers drove me back to the finca where then it was four of us with anchadas and were actually able to put out sizable parts of the fire. Never the less, the wind continued blowing smoldering embers into reignited grass fires. Shortly after, Mike showed up with more volunteers and his neighbor and they brought a couple of water spray backpacks. That’s when I realized there was another one of those in the garage. So I politely excused myself from the fire, ran to a truck, drove to the garage, grabbed the tank and by the time I got back, everyone had already put out the fire without me.
Feeling like the dumbest gringo in the world, I walked with shame back into the field with the stupid backpack on, spraying the smoldering grass and finally came face to face with John who gave me a stern fatherly look. “Umm, thank you?… I really feel like such a fucking idiot.” “No worries” he said in his very proper British accent, “Everyone sets a big fire or two the first few times they burn some rubbish.” He honestly didn’t seem concerned at all and actually called the fire department not to come. Apparently they may not have made it there anyway because they were occupied by six other fires that same day. All the other volunteers thanked me for throwing some excitement into their day, “You won’t find this in any tour guide book.” Said a hung over Brandon while stomping out some smoldering cow pies not too far from where we were all laying the night before. After hearing that, I immediately started laughing at myself and the ridiculous serendipity of it all. After it was all said and done maybe a third of an acre of grass was burned and John pointed out “Honestly, this will do the field a lot of good. After the next rain, this part will be the first place the grass will grow.” And the very next day Vara went out and set the entire neighboring field on fire, while well controlled of course, his was bigger and more intense than mine. Seeing while standing on the roof of my chicken coop I thought “Fuck, not a gain!” and I got on the bike and rode to check it out. Vara was standing leaned against the handle of an anchada next to the tractor smoking a cigarette looking like a proper bad ass goucho passively watching as giant flames kicked up high over head. He had plowed the perimeter of the field to contain the fire within a border of exposed non-combustable earth, set a fire and let it go to town. He explained that you couldn’t do this if it was as windy as it was the day before and chuckled a bit in reference of my previous my previous days folly.
So despite my shortcomings with it all, this type of life, and this style of being abroad really suits me quite well. It feels more real, and less pretentious than taking packaged budget tours of pretty places. Not that there’s anything wrong with trekking the beaten tourist path. I did try it for the first time a couple weeks before this episode, traveling with a friend from Santiago Chile to Arequipa in Southern Peru. We had only met recently and got along so well we agreed to travel with each other. But after only one 25 hr bus ride I got cold feet and began to realize how far we were going from the finca in San Rafael. Before leaving for this excursion with my friend, I agreed with my host Robbie that I would be back after three weeks to look after his farm while he went to see his wife and son in Scotland. I left my laptop with him to seal the deal. And while away the yearning for escape and adventure that was inspired by long hard hours working on the finca began to wane as I slowly understood what it meant to be a tourist. Constantly being on the move, spending money and consuming my surroundings as an outsider were all things that made me feel uncomfortable. This was a point of contention between my friend and I as she saw things differently and as such she helped me to come to terms with accepting and embracing the fact that I was a tourist and I came down here to get out of my comfort zone anyway. I did, to a certain extent, accept this and while having learned a lot from that experience during those few weeks of traveling, seeing and doing amazing things, the same feeling of discontent kept creeping back. So after three weeks, we said our goodbyes and I b-lined it from Arequipa Peru back to San Rafeal partying a bit along the way while I carried with me a stomach flu contracted in Peru that put a bit of a damper on things. The day I got back to San Rafael Robbie had some of his friends at his house for an asado. (An asado is basically a hedonistic Argentine meat orgy Bar-b-q where a thin cut of some fatty part of the cow is salted and cooked outside on a grill, referred to as a parilla, over carefully selected glowing embers, usually grilled along side spiced pork sausages, blood sausages, pig intestines and any other possibly edible part of a dead animal. Asados are a huge part of the culture in Argentina and on any given holiday you can see people parked on the side of the road in seemingly random places for no particular reason than to set a fire next to their car, sit on lawn chairs, drink mate, cook and eat some of the best tasting cow in the world. When meat prices go up people here will fill the streets by the tens of thousands in protest and as a result the best beef you’ve ever tasted is also the most affordable here. As a past vegetarian I can attest that the cows here are well taken care of and happy which is likely why they are so delicious.) I was pleased to come back to such a festive environment and had a lot of fun talking about the adventures I had just returned from. The long story is this:
Just a couple weeks before I left the States I met Up with Mae, a friend of a friend who had experience traveling the world and who offered to give me some useful advice. We got along well enough and hung out a couple of times when I casually invited her to come travel with me. Then, after a few weeks of working on the finca, I got an email from her asking if it would be weird if she were to come down from California to do a few weeks of traveling with me. I didn’t really think much about it and said “Yeah come on down. I don’t know if it’s weird but what ever, do what you want. If it doesn’t work out you can throw me off the bus and it will all just be a part of the adventure.” At this point I was pretty burnt out on the finca and needed a break anyway. So we met up in Santiago, spent a day there then hopped on a bus to San Pedro which is near the top of Chile. At first it was exciting to just get away and do something different. But towards the middle of this 25 hour bus ride, a bit of anxiety started simmering. At some point while on the bus that I critically analyzed a map for the first time and I wrapped my head around how incredibly far away from the farm we were going. I guess you could call it separation anxiety from a place that perhaps I began to feel was becoming my home. If we were to keep heading in that same direction, going up north for three weeks, then it was going to cost that much more to go back to the finca and would cut into the money I had that allowed me to be abroad. As I didn’t make any plans I wasn’t sure what Mae had in store for this trip but there was something about moving so far from the finca that was rubbing me the wrong way. Like it was just too excessive and redundant. When we finally got to San Pedro at eight or nine in the evening, it was dark. We walked on un-paved roads through alleys of adobe houses to find a campsite listed in Mae’s guide book. This “campsite” was actually a small empty dirt lot scattered with garbage, broken glass and beer cans, accompanied by loud bar music and perpetual barking dogs. After that ride and because of the unpleasantness of the dirt lot I was silently annoyed while setting up the tent and couldn’t wait to eat some real food and drink a beer. In our search for a restaurant, we ended up going to the most expensive one in town and honestly I didn’t care because this particular one had nice ambiance and outside seating next to a fire. Some time after ordering our meal, and having forced an overpriced quinoa plate onto Mae, I began to express to her the anxiety I was feeling while riding up there and how I might want to go back to the finca after maybe just a little tour through that part of the world as an alternative to continuing on up towards Colombia. She started crying and I immediately felt like a pile of shit. Here, I invited her, she came all the way down, and not even 3 days into the trip I already had cold feet. During our emotional episode in a public space, we ate our overpriced meal in awkward discomfort. We came to some kind of agreement to wait it out and see how I felt after a few days of touring.
The next day we bought a guided tour. We swam in a salt water lake and then watched the sun set cast against snow capped Andes whose doubled reflection started again at the base of a huge pristine crystal clear lake. The day after that we got up at four in the morning to ride a tour bus to watch the eruption of a multitude of geysers in the highest altitude and coldest temperature I had ever experienced. That was like being on another planet. The landscape was barren and mountainous with strange colored green and yellow patches of Dr. Suesian desert grasses in large concentration covering rounded Tellatuby hills outside the range of large looming five story towers of steamy sulfuric clouds. Seeing all this as the sun rose gave it all a dramatic surreal light whose romantic appeal was only slightly tarnished by the presence of dozens of other tourists all taking photos of the same magical moment. At the edge of this mine field of ancient hydro thermal blemishes was a natural hot spring pool. It was cold as hell out there but we and a few other brave tourists stripped into our swimming suites and jumped into the contrastingly hot water. Then the tour guide rushed us all back into the bus and we headed back to take a nap in our dirt lot that began grow on me especially since San Pedro was such a tourist trap and the dirt lot was the cheapest alternative to exponentially more expensive accommodations. Since the boarders from Chile to Bolivia were closed due to snowy mountain syndrome, we continued up the coast of Chile to a sleepy beach town called Iquique. I immediately loved this place the minute we got off the bus and my lungs filled with the familiar musky odor of salty ocean spray.
It just so happened that at that time of year Iquique was one of the best places to go surfing and while I am too wimpy a swimmer to even try body surfing, I was able to admire the slow motion growth of giant waves as they relentlessly threw themselves into violent white chaotic oblivion. We stayed in Iquique for three days or so. And on the second day we got on an hour long bus ride that took us back into the plateau of mountains where there is an abandoned ghost town that was a hundred year old sulfur mining community. This place was the epitome of industrial decay, being able to walk into dilapidated living structures and massive rusty warehouses full of heavy machinery and seemingly bottomless open pits that reek of eighty year old grease and oil, you would never know that you were in a State funded historical museum. This felt like a privilege to us because in the States the ability to enter buildings in such a beautiful state of precarious structural integrity would only be possible by trespassing. In the town there are dwellings, shops, a school, a church, a bakery and any given sign, receipt, or official document was written in either Spanish or English or both. Set in a bleak mountainous desert not too dissimilar to that of a Clint Eastwood film the little ghost town is called Humberstone, founded by a Scottish mining tycoon and hence there were families imported from Europe working and living alongside native Chileans. As Mae is a photographer she had a special interest in in utilizing this special scenery, so we stayed for hours, exploring and taking photos of everything. She came up with a bunch of ideas for using props that would make for very interesting situations and so we spent the next morning shopping and returned in the afternoon to Humberstone with a professionally adventurous focus on the business of art photography. We went from one time worn structure to the next and after checking that the coast was clear Mae would scout the best position of the camera, adjust the settings, hand it to me, strip down to a bikini, put on a cheap plastic bunny mask and pose for a shot that I was directed to make. With this it was my personal ambition primarily not to drop the very expensive camera and secondarily try my best to not totally fuck up the shot. At the end of the day we had taken possibly hundreds of photos, some in fairly dangerous locations, on top of giant machinery and mysteriously suspended latter’s and looking back on it now this was by far my favorite part the entire three week excursion we made.
We then headed to a very cool colonial city in southern most Peru called Arequipa. It seemed way more old school European than most of what I had seen in Buenos Aires. We stayed at a hostel that overlooked a two hundred year old monastery and after a day of browsing tourist packed cobble stoned streets and patronizing overpriced restaurants we left our in-essential possessions at the hostel and hopped on a bus to Culca Canyon. Crossing over the Chilean border into Peru, we saw a lot more indigenous looking people. The woman wear beautiful dresses made from traditional textiles and the coolest fucking hats ever. Outside of the city and into the mountains almost every woman over thirty was decked out in this awesome garb and while as a tourist I am inclined to over-romanticize a culture that is very exotic to me, I can’t help but feel very privileged to witness human beings that are not completely indoctrinated by modern military industrial consumer obsessed brainwashed thinking. On the way to the canyon from the bus you could see hills inside smaller canyons where every inch of agriculturally usable land is cultivated via gracefully tiered systems of traditional bio dynamic methods that seem very similar to rice fields I’ve seen in photos of China. We were dropped off in a town that looked as old as the jagged mountains that surrounded them and after purchasing a small cooking pot we started hiking into the canyon. When we got to the bottom we met a woman and her children who lived in a traditional adobe hut. She was very nice and welcoming and when Mea told her that we were looking for a place to camp she offered that we could camp for free on her property. She showed us the spot, a small grassy flat with a fantastic view of the surrounding giant mountainous canyon that can be seen towering like godly giants beyond the mass abundance of ancient fig trees growing wild all over this shady side of a desert mountain amongst happy palm trees and the bittersweet smell of horse shit. After setting up our tent in this place that was in stark contrast to the dusty garbage speckled dirt-lot of San Pedro, night had fallen and we went to go visit Mogaly and her family to purchase something she was selling as a thank you for allowing us to camp on her land. They had no electricity and no running water and were living a bare bones simplistic life off the land just the same as you might think people have done for the previous thousands of years. With my head lamp she lead us into her sleeping quarters which was a mess of blankets, clothes, beer bottles, hanging dried meat, animal skins, and fruits. What she had to sell were candy bars, bottled water and sports drinks. We bought two packs of Twix and an orange flavored drink. Mae opened a pack of Twix and asked if she could split them between two of her older kids, who were brother and sister around six and four years. She said yes and when the kids were handed the bars of candy they were stoked. Then after going back to the tent and realizing how early it still was we decided to go on a night hike. It was my untold motivation to hike to the cluster of lights on a hill side that seemed just a mile or so away on the off chance that there might be a store or a bar where I could get a beer to cap off the evening. Mae doesn’t drink so her motives for adventure were more pure than mine. After a half hour the darkness made it too sketchy to keep going on so we hiked back. Turns out it would have taken three hours to get to that little town anyway. Shortly after getting into our sleeping bags the biggest brightest moon I had ever seen climbed up from behind the very center of where the canyon divided. It was so bright that throughout the whole night I kept waking up thinking that the morning sun was rising. Nevertheless I felt well rested in the real morning and after we packed up and went to talk with Mogaly. Mae took awesome photographs of her and her baby and the two other kids and then we started for the Oasis. On this second day of hiking it became more and more of a reality that I had over-packed entirely too much shit and each step became progressively slower and more painful with every turn of that desert mountain trail. When we got to there it was literally a lush green oasis of natural spring water swimming pools. The first one we got to was the most prominent pool. You could see it from miles away and while hiking it resembled a desert mirage you would see in a cartoon. It made my mouth water and I had assumed we would not be able to afford to even touch the pool but when we asked the manager of that resort if they allowed camping he said yeah, we asked where, and he said next to the pool! He showed us the spot, a lush lawn bordering the water. It was hella cheap and we were like fucking score!!! Before even setting up the tent we stripped down and jumped in. The water was perfect. While swimming I drank a beer, then took a shower and after opening the second beer I suddenly became incredibly weak, started shivering and was all of a sudden sick as hell. The night before Mea discovered she had contracted bed bugs likely from that hostel we stayed at in Arequipa and by this time those elusive parasites had bitten her dozens of times and while she had gotten a bit of a stomach flu as well it had at this point become difficult to be happy campers despite our picturesque surroundings. I shivered myself to sleep while Mae itched and scratched in her sleeping bag. I woke up at dawn and could barely lift myself up out of the tent. I had to go to the bathroom to take the first of eight shits I would have to take that day. Attempting to walk the twenty yards to the bathroom I became aware of what it would be like to be a sickly old man. Going down the stairs my knees felt like they were replaced sometime throughout the night with those of eighty year old mummy corpse boiled in fermaldahide. This was going to be a very long day. And it was. With the stupid heavy pack I had, there was no way I would have made it without Mae because she packed most of the tent, my heaviest object, into her back pack. Because I could barely walk on flat land let alone switch-backed cliffs, it took us six hours to make what should have been a four hour hike. When we got back to the little town we were determined to not stay at another bed bug hostel. We ended up staying at the nicest one there called Hostel Garden and Nature which over looked that beautiful fucked up canyon I just pulled my sickly body out of. In this new found tranquil environment my stomach pains stopped and I magically regained most of my energy.
The next day on the way back to Arequipa we stopped at a condor viewing point. While I was getting off of the bus there, almost about to exit I remembered I left my camera on the seat inside my beanie. I immediately went back for it and not even thirty seconds after I left my seat two dudes were sitting where Mae and I were and there between them was the beanie. I excused my self to reach for it but the camera inside it was gone. As I was the last one to get off at that stop I was looking frantically in the seams, around, under and over the seat before the bus started moving again. Surrounding passengers began to help in the search, all but one. The guy sitting in what was my seat who, with ear buds on, took little interest in my frantic efforts. It could very well have been the guy next to him who helped me search for it that actually took the camera but as we started moving I simply gave up and walked off the bus. I could have asked the driver to stop while I tried to figure out who took the camera but what’s done is done and looking back, such an episode could have provoked an even worse scene so maybe it was for the best that I didn’t. Nevertheless I felt like a dumb shit for leaving that thing on the seat and it put me in a sour mood that hindered my ability to join the hoards of other tourists with their fancy un-stolen cameras in enjoying the wondrous sight of the giant condors hovering over head. That night we searched for yet another bed bug free hostel back in Arequipa and were successful in finding a dingy looking place that really wasn’t much different and stayed the night there. The next morning Mae found a place that was by contrast lavish luxury on the second story of a old style European building, on the corner of a street block so that the room had a balcony that wrapped around and gave us a lovely view of the city. Expensive but reasonably priced for what it was, we took the room and stayed in it for two days and three nights. It was on the second day that I told Mae I was too burnt out to keep traveling. Almost at the beginning of this trip I told her I wanted to go back to the farm, a few days after that, I said I’d travel with her to Colombia and then there in the romantic city of Arequipa Peru I couldn’t bare the idea of going any further. Likely because of my fickle indecisiveness, we had some tumultuous interactions that night and the following morning, we made one last trek together to the bus station, she bought a ticket, I think to Cusco, and I bought one to Santiago. We said our goodbye’s and departed in opposite directions. For the following three weeks she continued on up to Colombia. I saw some of her photos and it looked pretty amazing.
The day after I got back and had that asado party at Robbie’s house was the grayest gloomy day I had ever seen in San Rafael. The sky had no depth. It was a cold terrible existential oblivion that combined with all the changes in my life inspired me to be markedly depressed that day. Staying at the finca at that time were a young bohemian couple from Chile and a philosophic mechanic from France. Feeling a bit home-sick in the days ahead I shared with them individually in passing my disenfranchisement with the purpose of why I was going to look after this finca throughout what seemed was going to be a cold and dismal winter. Unknowingly they all helped to ground me and I had to realize and remind myself this would be an experience of a life time. Even then I was still recovering from a rather trivial near death experience I had weeks before I left the finca for my trip with Mae. It was one of the most prominent of many lessons that taught me that I needed to chill the out.
There was a day here on this finca that changed my perception of work and perhaps even that of my life. It started off with waking up early to go work on constructing one of the million yards of fences that need to be built, the last of six or so I already made. On this specific morning I was feeling worn down and decided I was going to check out and spin my wheels. After walking the half a mile to the part of the fence that we were building I set down the wheel-barrow of tools I rolled there, made sure everyone had what they needed to do what they were doing and then announced “I am going to collect branches” for an accompanying gate we were making as well. From there I walked back to the house where the Italian guy Leonardo was making doors for the rooms inside. I liked him a lot especially at this time because he really knew how to be “leisurely.” When I got there he was busy measuring out something or other in his easy domestic atmosphere, smoking cigarettes with free reign access to all the instant coffee and snacks at his disposal. I went to take a crap and after conducting my business, even though the bathroom reeked of a septic tank, I decided to take a siesta in there on the bench perpendicular to the toilet. It was not necessary to hide to take a nap but in my typical North American mindset I was too embarrassed to admit to my self-perceived laziness. After being startled by a noise threatening to reveal my stinky siesta, I sprang up out of the bathroom proudly announcing to Leonardo the successful completion of a healthy and satisfying bowl movement. Realizing he wasn’t keeping tabs on my bottle-ti functions we chatted for a bit and decided it was high time for an impromptu coffee. After close to an hour of talking with cigarettes and instant coffee I finally felt energized enough to continue on my original decoy objective of cutting down and collecting branches. With a big bow saw in hand I managed to scavenge a healthy bundle of necessary materials and shlepped them back to our work site where not feeling particularly social I went to dig a hole for a post out of ear shot of the chatty girls, the German Luisa and the Dutch Carmen, who probably could have used my help. Just as I began to break earth for this I heard the lament of my name from a booming British voice in the far off distance. It was Robbie asking if I wanted to help with something. Thankful for anything to break up my monotonous despair I dropped the shovel and walked to see what it was he wanted. Expecting that he wanted me to dig another ditch he said “I just bartered for a cow and I need two or three people to help bring it here.” I had no idea what this would entail but I was ready to break up my blister-laden Argentine adventure of monotony and casually agreed to help. Then Robbie, Luisa, Leonardo and I all hopped in the truck and headed towards Robbie’s new cow at a nearby by finca.
On the way I noticed we were not towing a trailer with which to transport the cow and looking around the truck I asked “So Robbie, where’s the cow gonna sit?” “In the back with you guys… we’re going to walk it back, it’s not too far.” Even though it was less than a mile away, Robbie managed to get lost and we ended up having to park the truck at a dead end road of another finca. Luisa asked if he had even seen what cow we were going to get and I replied “Robbie had sex with it last night.” And Robbie said “Actually I’d much prefer a goat.” Luisa did not seem amused. We jumped a fence and walked a quarter mile to la vaca nueva. When we got there, there was a dog that looked me up and down, sniffed my shoe, looks up at me stoically (with stationary tail) casually turns to his left, lifts up his leg and urinates on my pants. That was the first time I ever wanted to beat up a dog. Turns out this place was a small pig farm that had one cow which Robbie traded several giant rolls of alfalfa for. The owner of this farm Sut, feeds the grass to his pigs. He lead us to a small muddy corral, the floor of which seemed to be made of nothing but fresh reeking cow shit and this indeed contained Robbie’s new cow. Going in with nothing but two ropes and three inexperienced volunteers, Robbie made a lasso with one of the ropes, instructed us to stand in strategic positions and until just before he threw the first lasso, I was convinced that he knew what he was doing. From then on the capture and transport of this cow was a comedy of errors hybrid episode of The Three Stooges meet I Love Lucy as “Cowboys for a Day.” Robbie and Leonardo eventually got two ropes around the cow’s neck and it was clumsily lead out of the corral. We tried to direct it towards Robbie’s finca but the cow pushed and pulled them in every other direction and they were yanked about like rag dolls falling on top of themselves. I mostly tried to get out the way of her attempts to escape and tried harder to keep from laughing. After twenty minutes of this Sut volunteered one of his workers to help. With proper goucho expertise this guy managed to get a harness around the snout of the cow and by pulling at her by her mouth, like you would a horse, was able to get her to move in his specified direction and tread calmly towards Robbie’s finca.
As we all began to follow the magical cow whisperer, Sut yelled something out in Spanish and Robbie translated, “He wants to trade one of my workers for one if his. Can one of you go help him until we get this cow back?” I told Leonardo he should go since he could speak Spanish and as he agreed and started walking away I thought better of it and went after him, “Actually, I need to practice my Spanish, I’ll go.” He agreed again and went after the cow whisperer. Following Sut and his workers back to his truck and trailer, I waited for instruction. There was Sut and two other guys. One was maybe about my age, with mangled teeth and a severe speech impediment as a result, and the other man that must have been in his late sixties, missing most of his teeth and he seemed to be constantly out of breath. I said hola to them and they politely replied the same but we didn’t get to talk mostly because they could probably tell I didn’t know how. They got into the back of the truck to sit and ride on the roof of the cab and excited to do the same I started to climb up as well until I was beckoned by Sut to sit in the cab with him. Only a little disappointed I got in the truck and on we went towing an open top trailer to Robbie’s finca to collect some rolls of grass. On the way there he practiced his English. He is a lawyer of some sort whose grandparents emigrated to Argentina from Egypt and Syria. After the exchange of the subjects of our occupations and heritages, he in English, I in Spanish we both concluded that our comprehensions of each others’ languages was evenly matched and by the time we ran out of things to say, which took about eight mintutos, we had pulled up next to a row of rolls on the finca. I got out to help un-hitch the trailer and standing next to these massive rolls they looked like they weighed at least a thousand pounds each. The younger guy fetched two long posts and leaned them parallel to one another onto the back of the big truck, the bed of which was about four feet off the ground the posts being no more than seven feet long made for a rather steep gradation. “Okay, so we just roll them onto the truck. They must not be very heavy then.” I thought to myself. And then we started to budge one from its resting place. The second I set my hands on it I realized why everyone was wearing gloves because I felt instant stinging pain as needle thin thorns of tumble weeds shot into my nerve endings. I tried to save face and pushed with all my might to help roll it over. We then turned it into position aiming for the truck bed which started to look like it was two stories high. Sut gave the command “Va!” and the four of us pushed. At first slowly then gaining momentum, the side walls of the bed seemed almost too narrow for the size of this thing but we rolled it at full speed with nascar precision. Up the ramp it went, going slower and slower the closer to the top it got. All the while we were kicking up a thick dander cloud of hay and dust that filled the air around us and wanting desperately to hold my breath I had no choice but to inhale it all through my mouth while I used every fiber of my mortal strength to not keep from retching my body from beneath this mass of dirt-filled organic matter. We got it to the edge of the truck bed where it stopped, inevitably hitting the side wall, we were an inch or so too far to the right, and it was here that I got a more accurate impression of its weight; with four guys, one sixty five year old man, his malnourished twenty five year old (grand?)son, a sun burnt boy-man gringo towering over both of them by a head at five feet six inches, and one six foot tall fat hefe an asado or two away from a heart attack, all practically holding this thing up in mid-air using the capacity of our combined efforts, I surmised that one rolo de pastos couldn’t be much less than a thousand pounds. It wasn’t going in so we had to back down, an effort that required some amount of trust of each others denial of our carnal want to escape being run over and smashed Indiana Jones style. Back to square one, we repositioned for round two and while hacking all shit I just inhaled out of my lungs I couldn’t believe we had to do that whole thing all over again. This time, with a better idea of how fucked up this was, I was determined to get it over with and push even harder to force this thing into the truck whether or not we miscalculated our trajectory. “Va” and we pushed, rolling the giant compacted grass beast, hoping to a nonexistent benevolent christmas baby jesus gawd all mighty that we wouldn’t fucking miss again and half way up the ramp we slowed to a slugs crawl and resulted to coordinated thrusts via voice command “Va!” one two three “Va!” one two three “Va” one two three, inch by inch, foot by foot the thick dust we inhaled became the fuel of what we just wanted to end and by the mercy of our collective brute determination, we got that fucking thing onto the truck. Hacking in rejoice I was suddenly struck with the reality of a question that spontaneously erupted in the for front of my mind “How many more?” The truck was big but so were the rolos. With the same method we repeated that ungodly act and filled the capacity of the truck with a total of two rolos. But there was still the trailer. “So this is what it means to learn Spanish” I thought and yet some how I did not regret my decision to be the replacement worker.
We were in an area of the finca where the rolos de pastos were fenced off so as to protect them from being eaten by the cows and horses. However, in order to drive in we had to open a gate and while it was left open while we worked a herd of hungry horses came in to feast on the packaged alfalfa. Sut signaled to me to shoe out the horses from that area while he and the other guys re-hitched the trailer. He wanted to get more roles from a different part of the finca and they were preparing to drive out of the part. Having herded the horses and cows several times before with Luisa I knew how to get them moving and so I walked up behind them lifting my arms with sudden thrusts whistling and hooting… perhaps a bit too hastily because one big white horse at the tail end of the pack stopped momentarily as I kept walking toward it with my head-strong aggressive sounds and motions and I got just close enough for it to kick its hind legs towards me, one hoof going back just a bit more than the other and becoming aware of the moment of this seemingly casual action I dodged my upper body to the left while her hoof made a thunking noise in the air less than a foot away from the right side of my head. I stammered a bit backwards saying out loud “fucking asshole” and as I continued shoeing them out, it slowly began to dawn on me what it would have meant if that hoof made contact with my cranium. After they were all out of that area Sut pulled the truck and trailer out and I closed the gate and got into the cab. As we drove to the other part I told Sut “El caballo…” made a kicking action with my foot and pointed to my head. He put his hands together and bowed his head as if to pray then put his hands back on the wheel and continued driving. A vague and complicated feeling started to manifest itself in me. Sut backed the truck up next to his next selected set of rolos and as I got out of the cab his traded worker came walking up. “Thank fucking god,” I thought. I shook hands with everyone and said ciao and left them to their work. What’s fucked up though is that they had already come twice in the morning and two more times after I helped to repeat that hellacious episode for a total of twenty roles of hay.
As I walked back to the house I met Robbie who looked particularly more disheveled than usual and asked how it went with the cow. He responded in his usual unimpressed demeanor. Then asked how I was doing. I said good and that a horse almost kicked at my head. “Which one?” he asked. “The big white one with horse shoes.” Not all of them have shoes and I remembered seeing the gleam of metal under this specific hoof. I explained to him what happened and he responded “Never stand behind a horse!” Dually noted. Then he asked if I wanted to help him dig a ditch to clear out an acequia or something and normally I would be down to do what ever but not at that moment. “I’m done for the day.” and showed him how fucked up my hands were. He looked unimpressed. “I am going to ride the bike to the store and get some beer. You are more than welcome to join me when I get back.” And we went our separate ways. Later, coming back from digging a ditch somewhere by himself, he approached me, “You know, if you want to build a chicken coop here, by all means please do.” “Okay then, I will.” I answered. From then on my main job until Robbie left the place in my care was making a chicken coop (I kept calling it la casa de pollos but Vara informed me that “gagina” is what people call a chicken coop in Argentina). Any other work that needed to be done on the finca I did so at my leisure.
Many weeks later, after I had come back from the trip with Mae, after Robbie left to Scotland, after the last of the volunteers left to the next chapter of their own life changing journeys, I was at the finca by myself. I relished in my new found solitude. “How awesome is this. I’m in the middle of Argentina, far away from the political and consumer madness of the United States, saturating myself in a different madness, and with a truck I can use to come and go as I please.” I thought rejoicefully. On the first few mornings I would get up, make coffee and go outside to sit in the morning sun and write in my journal as I had made it a habit to do since before I was alone, writing about my new found romantic solace. And then one night while I was away using the internet at Robbie’s house in a nearby neighborhood, the finca house was robbed and all my shit was stolen.
A couple days before this, in the afternoon I was leaning against the hood of the truck figuring out a budget for the finca and a little shiny black car pulled up. A dude got out of the car smoking a cigarette and approached me with a smile. He said a bunch of stuff in Spanish, asking a question about something very specific “Quiero compro un chancho…” He wanted to buy something but what the fuck is a chancho? I thought. He looked back at his girlfriend in the car and laughed while saying something like “El no entendio nada!” I smiled my stupid gringo smile. “Quieres compro pastos parra caballos?” I asked if wants grass to feed horses and he replied “No, chanchos parra comi,” putting his hand up to his mouth signaling “to eat” and then kept pointing in the direction of the pigs. That’s how I learned the word for pigs. I said sorry, that the pigs were not for sale. He thanked me, we shook hands and he drove away. The next day he showed up saying he wanted to buy the house at the front of the finca. He said that his parents live just down the road and he wanted to live closer to them. I said it wasn’t for sale and then we chatted about the old broken down ford parked by the house and I said jokingly he could buy that if he wanted. He said yeah I might want to buy this as well. “This guy must be Mr. Money Bags, he wants to buy everything.” I thought, we shook hands and he went on his marry way.
The third time I saw this guy was after driving back from Robbie’s house and seeing from the outside that all the lights in the finca house were on, not remembering if I did that, I didn’t think much of it. I parked the truck in the garage by request of Robbie, and walked to the entrance of the house where I found the door was open, every light in every room was on and the place was ransacked. I looked in my room, confirmed that my backpack and all its contents were gone. As I still had my day pack with passport, wallet, phone, computer and they left all my clothes I didn’t feel too much remorse about what was gone and thought “Not much I can do now.” and just 20 minutes to clean up the house and started making dinner. As I threw some chopped potatoes into a pan, I heard Chucky, the dog, make a noise outside like he does when greeting somebody. I looked out the window and he was wagging his tail and walked off out of sight. As the gate was locked I thought perhaps John from down the road was visiting as he and Vara are the only ones with keys. When I went outside, whose car did I see parked next to the pig coral? None other than the little black hatchback of my old friend Fredrico. I flashed my headlamp into it and could not see through the tinted windows but then I heard the squeal of a pig. And there comes my good friend climbing out of the poorly built pig pen whose proper entrance was a secret kept exclusively between all non-pig-snatchers. I shined my head lamp into his face and asked in English “Hello, can I help you?” As he silently got into the car I said, again in English, “I have your license plate number.” as if that meant anything to him at that point. As he drove away I memorized the number, went back in the house to write it down (I hesitate to write it here as well), turned off the stove, collected my back pack with my remaining in-valuables, pulled the truck out of the garage, and drove off to Johns’ to see if it was worth going to the police. Even though it was almost twelve in the morning he drove me to the police station and translated all that I had witnessed. The station was no more than a converted house with very little of anything inside. Walking in we were greeted by a guy in uniform sitting at a desk with nothing on it while texting on is cell phone. He called the officer that would take our report and she lead us to another room which looked like it used to be a living room. We sat facing her from behind a well used desk with a computer monitor, a key pad, a cheap HP modem underneath and a printer that must have been twenty years old. While she took the report I could barely make out anything was being said over the volume of screaming voices that screeched out from a giant blinking police scanner that seemed impressive being the most modern piece of technology they had, out of place as it was mounted on a water stained wall. At one point a very portly man in uniform came out from a doorway with a shot gun, leaned it precariously on a chair behind me, left back into the same door way and returned again with a hand full of loose ammunition. I couldn’t help but watch as he casually loaded his gun a few feet behind me. Then he pulled a pack of cigarettes out from his breast pocket, selected one, then left outside to have a smoke with his loaded weapon. It took an hour or so to take this report. At the end she pressed print and it took two minutes for a single page of a plain word document to crawl out of the printer. She had John and I sign it and we were on our way. Turns out a neighbor Hugo had seen the same little black car on his property and actually shot at it and they drove off. Good old Fredrico has not been seen or heard from since.
I was on edge for a few days following this and am very embarrassed to admit that I brought Robbie’s rifle (as he suggested) from his house to the finca house because of it. I thought that if I was going to have that thing here I should at least know how to use it. I shot it one day aiming for a broken brick and while missing of course the sound of the big dramatic bang made me nervous that I was doing something I shouldn’t. So I put it away. The next day I tried the same thing again and it gave me the same sense that I was playing with fire. When some new volunteers, Nigel and Olga, came to stay and work there I was quite embarrassed about having to explain why I had that thing in my room. After talking about how I felt about the idiocy of gun politics in the U.S. and explaining that I did not believe a human life was not worth that of my meager possessions, I resolved to take it back to Robbie’s house. But as I kept forgetting to take it out of the truck after going to his house multiple times I just put it in the locked garage. Now Vara uses it any time he sees a big rabbit in the neighboring field.
Now I am still at the finca and will be managing it for another month until Robbie gets back. I arrived here towards the end of fall and am now watching leaves bud on trees as it is the beginning of spring. I’ve seen a cow get slaughtered while four others were born (one died as it was rejected by its mother). One of the two sheep we had had two kids and shortly after that all the sheep were stolen while I was away. Here I have met and worked with more than a dozen amazing people from around the world. I made a bad ass chicken coop out very minimal resources in amongst learning how to irrigate large fields, kind of ride a horse, and speak broken gringo Spanish with Vara. I still don’t really know what I am doing with my life and am beginning to realize that as long as I am doing what makes me happy, it doesn’t matter. Being here so far has helped me at least not to worry so much. About all the imaginary incompetencies that I impose on my self, and all the fucked up shit going on in the world. I still desire to be aware of it all but I no longer want to beat myself up about it. Before all this I was inclined to get depressed about the existential despair of everything and now that I have been allowed the time and experience enough to conclude that while such a state of mind served some cathartic purpose for me in the past, I no longer need to dwell and be afraid of imaginary self perceived in-competencies that I allow to hold me back from doing what I want. Life here isn’t perfect of course but it has served as a means for me to learn and appreciate all that I have back home. When I go back I want to live a bit similarly as I did before I left. But with out working a job that disenfranchises me from the things that are more important in life. I’ve often told people of late that I do not want to have a “job.” That I just want to build a small living structure, live off the land, make sculptures, play music, hang with friends and just live simply. One person’s response was “That’s what everyone wants to do and I wish you all the luck with that but there are many other factors in life that will distract from such a fantasy…” While that is disheartening to hear, I have to ask at this point what life is worth living if you don’t at least try to do what feels right. Sure with everyone’s’ debt, the collapsing world economy, our corrupt governments catering to build welfare for the rich at the expense of the poor, the working and the working poor and our equally ravished environment, the odds may be stacked against us. If our hands are all so tied, our lives so short and the world is going to shit with such a terrible proverbial apocalypse coming on the horizon what’s the point of continuing with this indoctrinated attitude that everything is bigger than us and that we are powerless to live as we like? We have certain unalienable rights for the pursuit of happiness and to be free. If that is really the case then why not stop thinking as if we were all slaves to an unchangeable system? In a country where we are all raised with the propaganda of the idea of freedom while now living in a time where our government is becoming exponentially more fascist by the day, shouldn’t we stop to ask ourselves if the lives we are leading are really what we want and deserve according to what we contribute to society by the sweat of our collective brow? I think that if we all did what we truly wanted with our lives, without conforming to the blinding seduction of consumerism and its accompanying garbage and debt the world would not be as fucked up as it is. Maybe I am delusional, too idealistic or naive but if I want to build and live in a tree house in the redwoods, by god I’m gonna go do it. I don’t care how unoriginal or unattainable it may seem, if I set my mind to it I’ll figure out how to make it happen. Granted I’m speaking from my high Argentine horse right now and things might seem a bit different when I get back home, broke as a joke but being down here has allowed me to feel much more liberated and confident than when I left. It doesn’t take much to live. It doesn’t take much to be happy. If you had patience enough to read this far I owe you a beer.
Today I got off a bus that took over 12 hours overnight to get from Buenos Aires to San Rafael. My ticket cost a hundred-twenty bucks USD. The girl at the hostel booked it for me, a service I was thankful for because it required talking to someone in Spanish. Bus systems here are complicated and muy dificil to navigate. Yesterday I bought a cell phone at a store using mostly my shitty Spanish but at some point a beautiful irritated girl was asked to interpret for the confused gringo. After making the purchase I had to go buy credit for the SIM card at another location then took my precious device to the hostel, took a nap and then tested it to make a single call to my host in San Rafael. It worked but after realizing I paid sixty-six dollars for a phone that would cost twenty dollars in the US I decided to return it. I was proudly able to conduct this transaction entirely in espanol. All that said, if I wasn’t so lazy, I probably would have found a cheaper bus. The bus station was a concentrated version of the chaotic anarchy of the city of Buenos Aires. There are over seventy platforms for god knows how many more different tour bus companies. At the kiosk for my company she told me to go to platform 42 and find inspector Williams, and then a bunch of other stuff in Spanish to which I replied “Que?” and she said it all again in an abrivated form which I believe was “go to platform 42, show this to the inspector and that’s it.” Alright, simple enough.
So I get there, realizing I’m too early I go find the hotdog cart I passed on the way from the kiosk and got one with ketchup and mustard. That’s all there was but it was delicious. Then waited for the guy at my platform to hold up a sign baring my destination. There were hundreds of people waiting at this and dozens of other platforms, looking just as confused as I felt. Finally inspector dude puts up the sign and me and 2 dozen other visibly anxious people crowded around him to show our tickets. He looks at each one, reads it carefully, tares off half and says Gracias. After that we all stand around questioning the mysteries of the universe/el estacion de autobus because our bus isn’t at our specified platform. Finally we are all instructed to follow him somewhere. After making sure we’ve all been checked he negotiates with an associate then makes a loud indiscernible declaration, points in the direction we all entered the station and suddenly starts off. We go after him back through the station, out the front entrance, across the street, and down half a block. From the start I had a feeling something like this might happen so I made sure to take note of all the peeps who showed their tickets for the same bus and sure enough all our individualized luggage came in handy.
This was a bit perplexing but seemingly not too out of the ordinary considering there were giant buses parked everywhere. Ours was a double-Decker and I was hoping I’d get to ride in the top. But I was disappointed to find that I was in the luxury section, on the bottom where the seats lean back farther and everything is made of leather. Without seeing the landscape of Argentina from a few feet higher, this is where I sat, with the older more affluent passengers. I paid thirty extra pesos for this seat that leans back but after finding that it was on the bottom and that most of the people getting on the bus didn’t get to sit in this section I felt like a weird dumb prince who had just been let out of his enchanted castle for the first time.
Two hours into the ride we stopped at a station where they found something was broken on the bus and it took a little over an hour for the mechanic to fix and while figuring out how long that was going to take I saw someone get off the bus that I recognized from the hostel and I asked “Hey! Were you staying at the hostel?” She said something questioningly in Spanish and we figured out that we were at the same place, and that neither of us could barely speak each others’ language. She is a doctor applying for jobs in both Buenos Aires and Mendoza, hoping more for Mendoza than Buenos Aires because it is not as stressful and closer to her family. She asked who I was staying with and where I was going and in recognition of my confusion she offered that her family give me a ride from the bus station. I had no idea how far from the station was the farm I was going but I enthusiastically agreed to taking a ride in the event that it was a realistically convenient endeavor for her when we got there. She was from San Rafael and even though she seemed “white” she was very Argentine, hence my initial informal question in English. (I have learned since then that people here don’t make the racial distinction between white and non-white and that it’s actually an awkward label that hardly anyone identifies with.) We continued struggling to communicate via my limited Spanish until we were called back into the bus for dinner. It was basically airplane food and while unwrapping all the tiny compartmentalized packages I was thankful for the hot dog I managed to scarf at the station.
In my lonely leather bound luxury I tried to comprehend the romantic Spanish of Argentine pop music video’s while being distracted by the passing landscape outside. At the start of the journey we passed all the miles of slums I saw going in that first day I arrived in Buenos Aires and just like the city, they didn’t seem as harsh at night. Looking back, that first night in Buenos Aires was a world different from the day. The city transformed and was quite pleasant at night. People here stay up late if not all night. I went out a few times with my globe trotter friends from the hostel and it was easy to loose track of time. Clubs and bars don’t have a curfew and so you don’t really see the time pass. The longer I spent there, the more I grew to like Buenos Aires a lot. I went out and danced with beautiful Argentine girls, ate the best asado in the world and continued to freak out about what the fuck it was I supposed to be doing here. The least I could surmise is that I had a vague idea of going away to travel for a for a year. But that all requires money and each day I spend here in the city costs something, not a lot, but certainly if you want to stay in a place like this you will have to pay for it. And this is where the question of freedom comes in. Is money freedom? If I spent less money on this bus I might be in a section where I could talk to someone. Better yet, if I hitch-hiked I would have spent close to nothing and would definitely gotten a good story out of it. That would have taken a long time and I just wanted to get the hell out of the city. And yet, as I was leaving I felt sad, like I was missing something, leaving something I didn’t quite understand, like a missed opportunity. Who knows?
In the middle of the night my eyes opened in the direction of the window and the moment I was pining for since embarking to a different country finally happened. The landscape changed dramatically from smog stained slums to barren desert, from frenzied dense population to the most comforting thing for me to see at the time: nothing. No dilapidated buildings, no smog, no blatant reality check of the chasm between the moderately affluent and the destitute working poor. Nothing but flat Argentine landscape. And then I looked up and saw stars for my first time in Argentina. They were real stars like when you can see the milky way and galaxy clusters and the space time continuum where John Luke Picard used his alter ego as Locutus of Borg to infiltrate the collective mind matrix of the Borg and blow up that big scary cube ship of theirs. All of this was a comforting sight that served as a release from the tensions and anxieties produced by the multitudes of psychic interference of the city. In the morning I was the first to wake in the first-class geriatric retirement section of the bus. After the culture-shock of being unable to speak to the girl I decided to use this time to work on Spanish and write down my hosts directions to his finca (farm). Throughout that morning we passed through a few sleepy small towns. People seemed contrastingly relaxed and calm, not in a terrible hurry to get somewhere to make money and meet deadlines.
When we got to San Rafael all the sleepy eyed passengers lumbered off the bus to wait for a guy to dig our bags out of the bottom. Out there I saw again the girl from the hostel who was lovingly greeted by her mom. She approached me to see if I still wanted a ride. “Es no problemo?” She shakes her head ,“No, no (something in Spanish)…” “Okay, gracias. Gracias!” After meeting her sweet mother and collecting our bags I asked if I could go in the bus station to get a map of San Rafael. They were nice enough to humor me, but unexpectedly we all went in at once and they asked around to find a map for me and finding that the tourism office was closed, we went to the car. It was her brothers’ new red Nisan pick-up. They greeted and I shook hands with him and loaded my overweight back-pack into the back. They explained to the brother that the clueless gringo needed a ride to a destination apparently on the outskirts of San Rafael. I gave him the address and after his sister deciphered the directions, he knew where to go. But their unyielding hospitality lead us to the house of her brothers’ girlfriend who could serve as an interpreter for us. More loving greetings were exchanged between family and friends and from there we stopped at yet another tourism office in the town center to find me a map. Bro’s girlfriend and Amanda(?) accompanied me again to this place where they had maps for tourists but none that included where I was going and they had to dig out a tattered old map book to look up the secluded roads which they hand drew on the tourist map approximately how to get to the finca. When we got back to the truck, these directions confirmed what the brother already surmised. So from there we set off to my final destination. They seemed to want to make sure they weren’t dropping me off with a lunatic or just wasn’t completely lead astray. So I got my host, Robbie on her cell phone which was passed to the driver who confirmed for the third time where the finca was (dude had some serious patience). After passing through town we were lead down a long dirt road where we finally found a hand painted sign reading “Finca Tamara, Robbie Ryder, El Moro 4800 (aprox.) [yes, this is exactly how it written… ha!]” Once we got out of the truck they had me call Robbie again to let him know I was there… just being insanely cautious for my sake I guess. Even after calling him, they didn’t seem all that confident that I knew what I was getting myself into but I excitedly grabbed my stuff out of the back of the truck, shook hands, exchanged hugs, I offered money for gas, which they refused multiple times and I said Muchizimas gracias! They went way out of their way, above and beyond the normal demands of hyper-generous hospitality and even after all that I still haven’t sent them a message to let them know I did not die and their efforts were not in vain.
I threw my shit over the gate, changed into my hiking shoes and started down the road for an undisclosed distance. I was happy. This is the exact stereotypical situation I was hoping for. Far reaching mountains were romantically staged in the panoramic back-drop surrounding the finca, “They are not the Andes but they are older than them geologically,” Robbie told me later on. The air was dry and clean and the ubiquitous horns and sirens of Buenos Aires were replaced by silence and cawing exotic birds. First I saw a house and sitting against it was Louisa with a dog she affectionately named Chucky. I greeted the nervous dog and Louisa said hello in a German accent, bent her tall torso down low to hug me, and we set off to tour the house. It was just as I had imagined, unpolished concrete floors, a leaky roof, sparse furniture, no hot water, but by some miracle there was electricity… a proper man cave. Louisa said she had cleaned it up a lot since she got there, “It was like a party house. Beer bottles everywhere!” The evidence showed as a neatly organized group of about thirty beer and wine bottles stood at attention just outside the front door. We then went outside to meet the two sheep, two pigs and three goats. There’s a story behind the number of each of these but I’ll save that for later. I like the goats a lot but the sheep are too flighty and the pigs, though cute, just squeal too damn much (for this reason I am glad they are delicious because I hope to stay long enough to eat one).
Then we set off to go fetch the cows. There is a water reservoir near the house for both the cows and horses but they are kept separate (for some reason, still not sure why) and while the cows will come towards the end of every day to drink, the horses, if left to their own devices, will not come but for every three days; so they have to be fetched. For now, I am getting an impromptu tutorial, right down to business… Louisa was an office worker in Spain before she came to Latin America, and while she was well prepared by being a fluent Spanish speaker, before coming here she barely knew how to cook or do most other kinds of self sufficient things. So many months into her trip she has taken to self-sufficiency like second nature. After only two weeks here on the finca, she already knew all the in’s and out’s of the animals; their feeding and behavior, she knew how the irrigation of the fields works, how to make preserve’s, and wash clothes by hand. She’s a real natural. I think it’s because she is just a hard worker.
My past experience with cows is to stay away from them because before you know it, a thousand pound wildebeest is barreling for you because small creatures like myself are typically a predator of its offspring. I have learned since that cows and horses alike, for the most part, are afraid of humans and will move at the presence and proper command, vocally in Spanish, (all dopmesticated animals here are conditioned to Spanish, so I at least have that to practice my Spanish on). We keep walking a half mile or so through the finca to herd the cows and follow them slowly to the reservoir. This, along with fetching the horses was a semi-spiritual experience for me because it was the first time I felt I could have a command over such large and powerful creatures.
Once we got back, Louisa went to work on cleaning the bathroom and I went out to tidy up the yard. There were random piles of rubbish scattered all about and being the OCD freak that I am, I had to make order of it all. In the past ten days Louisa and I have made this place into something that resembles a home. I got the wood-fired hot water heater working, she is cleaning wool from the sheep to make pillows, we keep a tidy house and outside the first priority is always the animals. When I first got here the sheep and goats seemed like they were in jail; cooped up in pens. The sheep had a whole caral designed specificity for them but were kept in the pen to keep them safe from predators. They had been in their pen as a result of some incident but Louisa and I devised a plan that would allow them to roam outside and then closed up in their own little house at night. This required building a whole new fence and a whole slew of other things but after a few days they were finally free from confinement. Then we had to figure out the goats who were were confined for another reason. They are crafty fuckers and can seem to get out of any fence less than 4 ft tall. So everyday we have been taking them out and tying them by their horns to posts. But this has been problematic in that they tangle themselves up too often throughout the day and we have since figured out that one goat in particular, who actually seems very pregnant, will not leave the other goats. So in a newly enclosed area that we constructed near the sheep, we tie two goats just far enough from each other not to tie each other up and the third pregnant goat, she has red fir, is very affectionate, I named her Mercy and gets to roam free. This is all still a work in progress.
There didn’t seem to be much of an order or routine to this place before Louisa got here but the basic routine she has established is first thing in the morning to feed the animals, let the horses into the reservoir or go fetch them to drink water, Louisa brings Johny out into the yard near the house (who used to be called Jenny by an avid horse rider who made a slight miscalculation) to put an ointment on his hoof and run him around, then tie up the goats somewhere they are least likely to tangle themselves. After all this we are left to our own devices to work on seemingly any project of our liking. But as Robbie says, “This finca is all about priorities.” And there seems to be a lot of priorities. I hope to make a chicken coop but before that we need to make sure the horses don’t get into the fields growing crops which requires an infinite amount of maintenance on pretty much all the fences and gates. And then there is when the water comes… these four words were something I would hear spoken by by both Louisa and Robie over and over again in reference to the water that comes to the property via a complicated system of canals on a predetermined schedule and is used to irrigate the fields. It wasn’t until the water had actually come that I understood how it all works and work it is indeed. It is hard to gauge how much time we are supposed to spend on this vital indevour but both Louisa and I have spent a few ten hour days building damns in anticapation for the water and managing the irragation. As I write this at 9:30 on a Sunday morning sitting outside near where the water first enters the property, it is coming very strong and while it is a soothing sound it also means that it is probably flooding a field that last night Robie has requested us to irrigate first thing in the morning. Technically we’re not supposed to work on Sundays but Louisa just informed me that the sheep pen is completely flooded so I’ll be right back.
Ok so back to the first day when Louisa invited me to join her and some friends, Artimus and Maximus, to go to a club in town and celebrate Art’s birthday. I was excited about this but as they were not going to pick us up until midnight I decided to take a nap since I was still tired from the journey. They came sharp at 12:00, apparently very boisterously and made their loudest attempts possible to wake me, complete with poking and shoving all to no avail. I’m not sure I have ever been in such a deep sleep as this night. I woke up on the couch assuming they never came and thought Louisa went to bed. So I went to bed. Then at five or six in the morning some people came crashing into the house, Louisa and the boys had a lot of shots and I helped them to bed, went back to sleep and did not wake up until noon. That day Maximus inquired how I was able to sleep so deeply through all their efforts to wake me. I had to explain that I barely slept in Buenos Aires.
I stayed at a hostel on Avinida Corrientes near the Obelisco in the middle of downtown Boenos Aires Capital Federal. This was the noisiest part of the city where while I was there, a large telephone company used about thirty company vehicles to occupy three of the four lanes of this avinada to strike and protest for living wages. On the day they came, they made a very dramatic entrance starting off with huge M-80 fireworks at the obelisco that just sounded like bombs then slowly moved their parade down the avinida and parked almost directly in front of the hostel. The fireworks went off all day while stopping traffic and disrupting commerce. (For this reason, protests like these take place at the obelisco on a regular basis) This all took place just outside the window of my room that faced this busy street and the fireworks continued throughout the night and somehow I managed to fall asleep only to wake at 7:00 AM to another M-80. This was the start of everyday for 6 days in combination with constant and ubiquitous sirens and constant honking horns, non-fucking-stop until god knows how long after I left. After becoming accustomed to sleeping through mock-warfare and then getting to a place where my lungs were overwhelmed with fresh air and my ears were corrupted by silence, nothing could bring me out of my new-found solitude.
The following day, while Louisa recovered from her unexpected hang-over I felt like a million bucks. This really is an amazing and beautiful place. So much so that my ego-centric vocabulary bank lacks the appropriate adjectives that such a picturesque vista deserves. But amongst all the work and the day-dreaming at the mountains in the distance, it has taken entirely too long to write this and it is probably much more long winded than you should have to endure reading. However, it has now been two weeks since I’ve arrived at Finca Tamara and after learning how to string a taught fencing wire, irrigate fields, herd cattle and horses, making three fences and gates and a whole slew of other things, I can tell you that I like the work but more so than that, I like being free. I’m still just getting used to the flavor of freedom, the idea of it, and what it means for me. Kind of like a beast of burden who has recently been let out of his cage but doesn’t know what to do and just walks back into the only place he has known to be his home I am working harder than I did back home and while it is good healthy work, I am learning that I need to remind myself that I can leave anytime I want. This concept of leaving was a constant fantasy at play in my head every day for ten years while working at the bookstore back home and now that I’ve managed to do it I have to basically reprogram my brain to get used to this new reality. I complain about it to my self constantly but I know secretly work is my comfort zone. I know that as long as I am working, keeping myself occupied with a specific task, my life at that moment is figured out. I don’t have to think about what will be my next career path or have to make any kind of life plan. There is a certain responsibility that comes with being an adult that I am afraid of having to acknowledge.
Everyone deals with this in different ways and for me I guess I just distract myself from it with work and other seemingly inane art projects. To make art and build chicken coops and greenhouses, having friends and family around to share and participate in what I do are things that have given my life meaning. Travel is like the forbidden fruit of gaining perspective that can help one appreciate more the work and friends that have made my life rich. I am hoping to gain from these new perspectives I am privileged to experience, insight into my own psyche that will help me to decide the next step in my life. First thing’s first; get accustomed to freedom, second priority; learn Spanish. For now these are my primary tasks and I will worry about the adult shit later. There is a multitude more I could tell about what I’ve experienced and have seen but I will save it for later so as not to exhaust your capacity to read my self centered drivel. -Bobby loves you!
To make a leap of faith into worlds unknown for me has required a certain amount of voluntary blindness and hap-hazard preparedness. I am here now in this big city with so many new and strange sights, smells, feelings, cultures, people, and languages… it is all so overwhelming. With the language divide, some of the simplest things take very long to figure out, but I am learning. When I first got here, the city seemed so ugly and strange that I immediately regretted my decision to come. It was hot and the smog was thick in the air, with every breath I could feel it burning in my lungs, like smoking cigarettes that have been soaked in used motor oil. This in combination of being sleep-deprived lead me to have a bit of an anxiety attack after getting off the shuttle. In the middle of this densely populated and anarchisticly chaotic city is this hostel and from the shuttle parked a few yards away, without hardly looking around I b-lined it to the entrance.
As I climbed the steep stairs to the reception desk my heart began to beat very fast… it was the smog mostly that inspired a vaguely terrified disgust in me. The girl at the reception was a bit surly and when I told her I was heading back down 20 miles south of the Airport she looked at me with a cross face, and while shaking her head said “There is nothing down there.” Which was the tipping point for me and dropped before my romantic perception of travel a veil of “I am fucked.” “You let me plan for you and you will go to some nice places that are much nicer.” She said. “What about my shitty plans?” I thought to myself. Eventually I got to take a shower and a little nap and while struggling with the turmoil of my anxious regret (I quickly came to the conclusion that “it’s the city, I have to get out of the city”) I worked up the courage to go outside. I set out to walk in the general direction where I knew there would be water, the inlet of the Atlantic between Argentina and Uruguay, and, immediately after stepping out of the entrance of the hostel, like falling into a river, I was caught in relenting current people.
I have never in my life seen so many people out packed into the streets for no good reason than it being Tuesday. Every inch of the roads and sidewalks were congested to maximum capacity. Unprotected garbage filled hazardous construction zones, complete with potholes, broken concrete and exposed jagged rebar adorn the entrances of fancy high end hotels and restaurants… along with the crowd, I just kept walking through it all, eventually crossing over some train tracks where it suddenly became less congested and contrastly tranquil. It must be the touristy business district because nothing was under construction and garbage seemed to be kept out of site, everything was clean and there were lots of fancy people and local tourists walking around. I crossed over a large canal/water inlet and kept walking and eventually found a comforting site a botanical reserve.
Here the sidewalks were much less intense, the smog seemed to have dissipated dramatically and there was a street sandwich vender that had a line of business looking people (I guess on their lunch break) so I went there and asked a guy the name of an apparently appetizing sandwich and ordered that. While waiting a a guy spoke Spanish to me, “Lo siento. No le entendia.” I said “Where are you from?” He asked in a French accent. I’m from California. “So you don’t understand anything that is being said” he said with a smile. I smiled, shook my head and said no. Speaking English with him was nice and grounding and I ate my sandwich while we spoke. That sandwich was the first thing I ate in Argentina, it cost the equivalent of $3.50 and it was a grilled pork flank with seasoning and various condiments. So far it has been the best thing I’ve eaten since I got here 5 days ago. I was done eating and Norbert lit up a cigarette and told me more about the current politics of Argentina, class segregation, political corruption and the sort, and I asked if I could bum a smoke. He shared, we smoked, (everybody smokes here, apparently Argentina is one of the last places in the world where it is not stigmatized but all the packs and advertisements are accompanied with equally sized pictures of death a catchy phrases like “Fumar causa cancer”) we talked more then exchanged info and he left back to his place.
I then set off for the reserva botanica, a flat, nevertheless lush wetland which was such a huge contrast from the city, lots of trees and plants I had never seen before, all looking like the not too distant Argentine cousin’s of the biodiversity of the bay area. At the edge of this was the water which was very brown and seemed quite polluted, but given that area is near to where a major river dumps into the ocean, the color just that of run-off from the land. This admittedly was also not so romantic. After walking around this place and clandestinely taking pictures when I thought no one was looking (to avoid looking like a tourist) I made my way back to the hostel. There I made friends with Eve and Joan who are both from France. We went out to dinner and quickly discovered that 98 % of the restaurants are pizza places. So we had pizza while they explained what they were saying in French and teaching me Spanish with French accents. After getting back to the hostel, Joan wanted to celebrate his last night here before setting off back to his bike trip. He had biked here all the way from Colombia, Amazing I told him! But this, my first day here was really like 4 days and as Eve was telling me one of many amazing stories she has to tell, I could barely hold up my own head. I slept for at least 12 hours that night.
A couple days later I got in contact with my first host (the one that lives 20 miles south of the Airport, we talked on the phone and neither of us could understand each other. He agreed to pick me up at a hospital where his pregnant wife was going for a check up. I didn’t really understand the name or the location he specified so I just went to the biggest hospital there was on Paraguay st. It was not the right one of course but in getting there I learned the difference in fares between a taxi and a bus. 2 miles on crowded streets in a taxi equals $10.00. (a special inflated rate for being American I’m sure, it should have cost $6.00) and a bus ride back the same distance… $0.75. I called Juan (the host) when I got back and he seemed frustrated, he waited for an hour at a hospital 2 miles down the same street. The phone kept cutting out and eventually I decided to nix this plan. I just wanted to get out of this city so I contacted another host 983 km (610 miles) west of here in San Rafeal where there’s fresh air, mountains, a finca with a horse and a pig and chickens an a whole bunch of building projects… sounds like paradise to me. He promptly emailed me back with directions which was a fantastic relief granted they are very complicated, at this point I would much rather get lost in the country than be stuck in the city. Everything is so expensive here and it’s just too intense for me. Then yesterday I went to the reception desk to figure out how to get a bus to San Rafael and as it turns out this hostel, doubles as a tourist agency. The lady spent 40 minutes planning a 3 month trip for me all over Argentina. She started off by showing me pictures of penguins, then glaciers, then mountains and waterfalls. It sounded alright but I didn’t really come here to be a tourist, but I understand she’s just trying to sell me a product. I just want a bus to San Rafeal.
Finally, after all that, she was gonna book my bus then mentioned in passing that there was a bus strike. Turns out it’s not the city buses, which is common, but the tour buses, all of the tour buses in Argentina! It’s the biggest strike to have happened in a long time. So just about everyone in Argentina is stranded. I have a feeling that if this strike continues this hostel will be filling up with lots of folks from the airport. But hopefully it will end by Monday. Until then I’ve signed up with couch surfing and will see if that is a cheaper alternative to staying here. Snot a bad way to make friends anyway.
Another interesting note about Argentina is that there are two conversion rates of the peso against the dollar. The official rate set by the government is something like 5.5 % but the real inflation rate is the “blue rate” which is more like 9.9 %. When you take money from the ATM you get super screwed. It’s better to bring US dollars, cash money. Other wise there’s a site you can use to send money to yourself for a conversion rate of 8.5 % which is way better. The government does this as a supposed attempt to stabilize the economy, but some say the president is making money form it. The economy is very volatile so it’s hard to say what is really going on. Other countries like bolivia and Colombia the dollar stretches a lot longer.
Well now, the sun has come out today (it rained the passed two days) and I think I will go back to that sandwich stand again and just hang out outside and most likely learn some Spanish. This is definitely a different place and despite all that I have observed, negative or otherwise, the longer I am here the more I like it. Luckily I suck at planning otherwise I might be a lot more stressed. I just have to remind myself, I’m in fucking Argentina. It’s the first time I’ve left the country and my mind has been sufficiently blown. The buildings, the sculptures, the people, it’s so very very different and I really appreciate this opportunity to get out of my comfort zone. This is really only the beginning and there’s still the rest of the world.
Thanks for humoring me. That’s it for now. Supplementary photos coming soon.
-Bobby loves you
A new adventure wouldn’t be exciting if anticipation for it wasn’t drenched in self doubt. So far all I’ve done to prepare is buy a plane ticket, quit my job, learned a few basic phrases in Spanish, went to the doctor and dentist, got over-priced vaccinations (which my awesome healthcare doesn’t cover!), got a good replacement roommate to live in the the beautiful mansion in North Oakland, taught the roommates how to care and feed for the chickens, scheduled a bon voyage party, trying to hang with as much friends and family as possible, franticly trying to continue retaining as much espanol as possible. . .
Still to do: my mom has requested an itinerary… this is tough for me because it requires planning… not my strong suite. But at least I started this blog. Hopefully future posts will be more exciting. At the very least, reading a record of my trials and tribulations with being consumed with anxiety about the uncertainty of the future and culture-shock (which is a daily occurrence while staying here at home and relishing in the velvet cage of agoraphobia) will be entertaining nonetheless.
Ok for now, Bobby luvz you.