The nights are getting cold.
Over the weekend, we marveled at the brightest moon we have ever seen.
The moon rising over San Martín
And in the morning, the sun lit up the clouds overhead.
A fiery sky greeted us in the morning
That time of year
After a cold night, our office is chilly. So we make a fire in the fireplace. Then, we eat breakfast in front of the fire before beginning work.
Down in the valley, we have a good phone signal and can use the internet without problem. This puts us in contact with the rest of the world…and we can keep up with the news and write to Dear Readers.
On weekends, we drive up to the ranch, spending most of our time cutting and splitting firewood…and trying to understand what is going on.
For a place so remote and so cut off from normal life, there is a remarkable amount of activity. People come and go. Cattle appear in the corrals…and then disappear.
‘It’s that time of year,’ explained Gustavo (the ranch foreman). ‘Everybody brings a couple of cows down from the mountains for slaughter.’
Selecting an animal for slaughter
Typically, they lead them to a shady spot under a sturdy algarrobo tree. Then, they plunge a knife into their throats, cutting the critical artery. The animal quickly loses consciousness. Then, it is skinned, gutted, and cut up…with the pieces, in all sizes and shapes, left hanging from the tree to dry.
But the cows, perhaps with a suspicion of what lies ahead, do not always cooperate. On Saturday, Pablo and Augustin were driving a cow up the driveway. One had a lasso around the animal’s horns. The other drove it forward with a whip.
The driveway is flanked by two solid-stone walls and lined with alamos trees…giving the cowboys some control over the cow’s movements.
All of a sudden, the cow turned on Pablo and rushed at him with its horns down. Pablo, used to handling these semi-wild animals, dropped his rope and ran for his life, while Augustin tried to whip the cow in the head to get it to stop.
But it was too late. The cow was out of control. It chased Pablo behind a tree and then took flight back down the driveway, dragging the rope behind it. Pablo ran behind it, hoping to get a hand on the rope before the cow got away.
But the cow didn’t slow down…and quickly reached the end of the driveway, where the stone walls stopped. Once there, it had 10,000 acres of free range.
We’ve been here in the Calchaquí Valley for the last three months. At first, we were confined to our house. But now, we too, have access to hundreds of thousands of acres of free range.
And now, we have new challenges, too.
Priest. Social worker. Boss. Counselor. Judge. Bank. Chauffeur. We’re asked to be all those things. In preview of the story below, we do our best.
We did not intend to get involved in others’ lives at the ranch. But it is a different world here…with different needs and expectations.
‘Paternalism’ is what the intellectuals call it today. Now widely condemned as condescending and exploitative, the landowner’s traditional role has been taken over by modern conveniences…and the government.
But our ranch is behind the times. While the government has intervened in many ways, and TV talk shows offer a constant babble of advice, the local people still come to see us when they need help.
We lend money to help them buy motorcycles and cars. (There is no other lender in the area.)
We take them to the hospital — six hours away — when they need to go. (Sometimes, a municipal ambulance will pick them up; sometimes, it won’t.)
We give scholarships and/or jobs to their children and grandchildren.
We fix the church roof…and we provide plastic pipes so they can have running water…and we provide rams and bulls to improve their herds.
We don’t do these things because we are nice. We do them because they are expected.
We are expected to help in other ways, too.
For example, on Sunday morning, there was a knock on the door. Mariana had come to see us. She is the wife of Carlos, one of the ranch hands. [Names changed for reasons that will soon be all too clear.]
Mariana is nearly blind. She is plump, short, and at about 55, considerably older than Carlos…And she is childless.
‘I need your help,’ she addressed herself to Elizabeth. ‘Carlos is fooling around with Laetitia.’
This was going to be a discussion from which your editor was best left out. We exited.
Later, we asked Elizabeth what it was all about.
‘It’s sad. Mariana’s husband is having an affair with Laetitia. She says it has been going on for a year, and everybody knows about it.
‘She wants me to talk to Laetitia and tell her to stop seeing her husband.’
It’s none of our business who sleeps with whom. But the ‘paternalistic’ role includes trying to keep the peace and helping people to get through difficult periods in their lives.
Patch things up
Last year, for example, Alfredo and Maria weren’t getting along. [Again, names have been changed.] Maria was accused of having a child with another man while married to Alfredo. Whether that was true or not, probably only Maria knew. And then, she was accused of taking up with yet another man. This was too much for Alfredo. He’d had enough. They could no longer live together.
Why did this concern us?
Maria, Alfredo, and his mother live in a house that is technically ours. We own all the houses on the property, even though we have very little control over them and can’t throw anyone out.
But Maria came to us. She said she couldn’t stand living with Alfredo and wanted us to build a separate house (next to Alfredo’s) for her, her children, and her mother (an originaria!).
The cost would have been minimal (they are not much more than mud huts). But it would have been asking for trouble. We declined…suggesting instead that they should take more time…and maybe, they could ‘patch things up.’
It was a mealy-mouthed reply. But if we started building houses for every woman who is on the outs with her husband (more often…with the man she lives with; few of the couples at the ranch are actually married), we’d be building them all the time.
But here we are a year later…As near as we can tell, Alfredo and Maria are getting along better. Alfredo and his son, whom he thought was not really his son, look very similar…and are often seen happily together. We haven’t seen Maria.
Returning to this past weekend’s drama, Elizabeth decided she should talk to Laetitia. Again, we were absent.
Laetitia is a young woman we know well. Unmarried. No children. She lives with her family in the mountains, coming down to the sala — the ranch headquarters — occasionally to use the internet.
‘Well, what’s the story?’ we asked Elizabeth later.
‘The whole thing is sad. Laetitia confessed that she is having an affair with Mariana’s husband.
‘I asked her where she was going with this. She’s over 30. She has no husband. No children. And she lives way up in the mountains, where she is unlikely to meet anyone appropriate. She’s terrified of spending the rest of her life alone, taking care of goats.
‘I told her that it was not right to fool around with a married man. But she knows that. So I tried to get her to think it through.
‘It’s possible that the two are determined to make a life together…and that there’s nothing anyone could say…
‘And maybe Carlos thinks this is his last chance for his happiness, too…Maybe he wants a family of his own. Or maybe he’s just tired of Mariana. I don’t know.
‘It’s very sad, for all of them. Poor Mariana would be left alone…and nearly blind. But at least she has a son from a previous liaison. I think he lives in the city. And this might be Laetitia’s last chance at having a family…
Fish or cut bait
‘There was no point in moralizing. All I could do was try to look at it on a practical level.
‘The way I see it, it’s either fish or cut bait. I tried to get Laetitia to see that if she and Carlos were just having an affair, they should stop — it’s causing pain and not really taking her where she wants to go.
‘But she said she didn’t know where she wanted to go…and that she would think about it. She said she would come talk to me next week.
‘But then she said that I should talk to Carlos. What would I say?’