"Real Life in the Calchaquí Valley"

"Real Life in the Calchaquí Valley"
 Week 15 of the Quarantine
By Bill Bonner

SAN MARTIN, ARGENTINA – "This week, we are looking at the hurt inflicted on the U.S. economy by the fake money system. It suits the top 10%; the other 90% suffer. Today, we comment only that however much hurt we’ve had so far… there’s a lot more to come. The feds – left and right – have lifted anchor and set sail. They’ve charted a course that will take them onto the high seas… amid terrible storms and torments… where they will confront horrible sea monsters… to where, finally, they will fall off the edge of the Earth. And there’s no turning back… But we take a break to tell some stories…

Stories From the Ranch: On Friday, we were on our way to the ranch when we came upon a pickup truck parked astride the road… backed up to the hillside on the left. A whole family – mother, father, and two children – was digging out the dirt and throwing it into the back of the truck. Seeing us approach, the man moved his truck out of the way. Then, we saw who it was – people from our own farm. “That’s Victor… and those two children are in my classes,” said Elizabeth.

“What are you doing?” we asked Victor. “Oh, just getting some dirt. I need to plaster my garage. This is the best mud for it.” Earlier that same day, Victor had told us his story... “My mother died when I was 11. I had nowhere to go. But I was lucky. The [ranch] owner’s wife took me in. I lived with them for years. She was very nice to me. A great woman. Later on, she helped me find my family. But by then, I was 14, and ready to go to work.”

English Lessons: Elizabeth is teaching classes at the clinic on the edge of the farm. All the schools here are closed. Children are supposed to learn via the internet. But many of them have no access to the internet. And the level of public education is generally low – at least, here in the valley. So, Elizabeth – unaware that she may be defying some government order – volunteered to give lessons in English and math.
Some of Elizabeth’s students.

Some of her students are young children. But there are adults who want to learn English, too. Victor was working in a hotel nearby (an hour and a half away on a dirt road). He thought learning English would help him. But asked why he wanted to learn English, he gave a fuller answer…  “I grew up right next to your ranch. Over the mountains. It was rough there. Especially when my mother died. I remember one time, one of the local people went crazy. I don’t know why. But he wandered over to your ranch.

We knew he was crazy. When he didn’t come back, we all went to look for him. He was supposed to be going back to his mother’s place, over the mountains on your ranch. But he must have taken a wrong turn. And then, it started snowing. There wasn’t much we could do. They didn’t find him until seven years later. You know Laetitia? It was her mother who found him when she was out with her goats. Just bones and some clothes.”

Innocent Question: Stories from the Calchaquí Valley are always interesting. They are elemental. Real life. Real death. Love. Hate. Heat. Cold. No BS. No complaints. No claptrap. They are a welcome relief from the news media. “What’s your favorite animal?” Elizabeth asked her English class. She held up pictures to stir replies. “Dog.” All agreed. “Who here has a dog?” she followed up. All the hands went up, but one. It was little Jose. “Jose, you don’t have a dog?” “No… I used to have a dog. But he was a bad dog. Then, he disappeared. I found him down by the river, hanging from a tree. Somebody had hung him. I guess he killed their chickens.” “Oh…”

Playing It Cool: We arrived at the ranch on Friday night.
The entry to the ranch in the evening light.

There, we discovered that the originarios had just driven a herd of cows across our fields. “You let them use our corral at Guasapampa?” we asked the capataz (foreman), Gustavo. “After they destroyed our corral at Compuel, and burned down our houses! Well, we’re playing it cool. We don’t want to give them any reason to escalate the violence. It’s too dangerous.

We rode out to talk to them. We wanted to be sure there weren’t any of our cows in their herd. You know, they have a reputation for rustling cattle. We were cordial. They didn’t ask, but we told them they could use the corral. They’re driving the cattle down to Angastaco (a small town on the other side of the pass), and they needed to keep them there overnight.

We could have told them not to use it. But then, we would have had to stay there all night to make sure they didn’t. And besides, it is impossible to police them. They’re lawbreakers. And they could get a lot nastier. Down in Patagonia, the originarios burn cars. And over in Jujuy, people have gotten killed.

All they would have to do is leave our gates open, set fire to our rolls of hay, sabotage our tractors, or throw rocks through our windows. It would be impossible to stop them. Then how much would the ranch be worth to you if you felt you couldn’t ride around without worrying about being attacked?” Gustavo had a point. So far, the originarios are only claiming our high pasture as their own. They come and go as they please, but they close the gates. It could be worse.

A Dying Breed: On Sunday, we went to visit Nolberto and his wife, Marcelina. Nolberto retired last year after 40 years working on the ranch. “I was one of the real originals,” says Nolberto… “There were only five of us. We worked the whole place… with 2,000 cows… about 50,000 acres… and no machines. None. Only horses and mules. We worked from before sun-up to after sun-down, six days a week. It was great fun…

Especially rounding up the cattle. It’s not like today. You have your herd in the valley, where they are easy to look after. Back then, they were almost all mountain cattle, nearly wild. And you couldn’t get on a horse to round them up. The terrain is too rough. You’d have to do it on foot. We’d spend days climbing on the rocks, driving the cattle into pens, and sleeping on the ground. There was no other way. Of course, now, nobody wants those cattle. They’re too skinny and tough. I guess you could say that about us, too. Only Natalio is left. The rest of us have all retired. Jorge lives in the city. Justo died. And Martin has his place way out past Pena Punta. We’re a dying breed.”

Too Wild: Nolberto married our ranch hand Natalio’s sister, Marcelina, one of a huge clan. “How’s the family?” begins the conversation. From there, we are soon dizzy with brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles… Erasmus, Anselmo, Enrique, Sylvia, Mariana… Somehow, Elizabeth keeps them straight, endearing her to all the locals. They’re amazed, as are we, that she can remember more family connections than Ancestry.com.

“And how’s Carmelo?” she asks. “I heard he was sick.” Carmelo lives in the huge, wild place called Jasimana. It is an originario stronghold – about a million acres with no real owner. The owners disappeared without a trace decades ago. The locals say it’s theirs now. Occasionally, someone comes forward with a title claim, but there is no way to exercise control over it. Anyone who tries is likely to end up in the same place as the former owners.

Many of the people on our ranch came from Jasimana. Most still have relatives there, including Carmelo, who keeps his cows on our ranch, but way up in a valley we’ve never seen. “He has lymphoma, or something like that…” said Nolberto. We asked if we could help. Maybe the ranch could take charge of his cattle? “No. They are too wild. You’d never be able to get them down to the valley to vaccinate them.”

Hidden Oasis: Nolberto and Marcelina have one of the oases further up the valley from our ranch house. It’s a lovely place. Like all of the hidden oases on the ranch, it is a surprise. You ride across the valley, then through the pass, and up and down through several arroyos. The whole way, you may barely see a blade of grass. And then, you see green trees up in a narrow valley. You ride along, still in a desert, and then you go down into the valley. Suddenly, you are in the shade, with bushes, trees, grass… and a path that leads up to Nolberto’s house.

The house itself is a typical adobe-built farm dwelling, with dried meat hanging from the rafters, along with bits of chain, lasso, tin cans, and other useful items. The place is neat and clean; it looks as though Marcelina swept the dirt floor, perhaps anticipating our visit. Behind the house are several fields flush with grass, fruit trees, and grape vines. There’s a haystack… and a place to protect the goats from mountain lions. A little stream of water runs through the fields and down to the house. It is the source of all living things at the oasis. But it peters out in the springtime (before the rains begin), leaving them in a precarious position.

“Every year, we wonder if we’ll get through it,” says Nolberto. “But we’ve been here 50 years… We’re not going anywhere. It rains in the summer. Then, we have enough water for the fall, and usually, the winter. But by the spring, the grass dries up, and there’s no more water to irrigate it.

One year – I think it was about five years ago – everything dried up early. The goats and the cattle survived – barely – by going further up into the hills." "But we had to go up every day,” added Marcelina, “to check them and put them away at night so the lions didn’t eat them. It would take me a couple of hours to walk up there, and a couple of hours to get back. I was so tired from climbing over the rocks that I could barely do anything else. And now, my knees are giving out.”

More Explorations: We explained that we had recently gone up to the top of Pena Punta. “Did you see the tombs?” asked Nolberto. “What tombs?” “Oh… You missed the most interesting part. In the middle, there’s a place where you walk on a slab of rock. You can hear that it is hollow underneath. Thunk… thunk…” Nolberto made the sound while driving his heel into the earth beneath him. “We think it is a tomb… But maybe it’s just hollow underneath.”

Nolberto’s place was also an ancient Indian settlement. There are huge rocks with the tell-tale morteros (grinding holes) in them. And several smooth, flat rocks, too, bespeak generations of use.
A petroglyph found on the way to Nolberto’s farm.

“There are ruins… mostly those little retaining walls… up in the hills behind here.” Nolberto gestured to the mountainside behind his house. I’m surprised archeologists have never been here to study it. They’ve been all over the ranch. I don’t know why they’ve never come here.” “Well… We’ll have to explore it ourselves,” we replied.

Update on Affair of the Heart: “How’s Laetitia?” we asked Elizabeth. (She is openly fooling around with a married man. The married man’s wife recently sought Elizabeth’s help to put a stop to it.) “I don’t know. She was supposed to talk to me after she decided what to do. But she hasn’t come back. All I know is that when I saw her, she looked happy. Probably not a good sign, under the circumstances.”

Siesta Time: After our travels, it’s time for a siesta…"
Don Bill takes a siesta.

"Hasta Mañana…"