‘Oh…Señor Bonner. Where is la señora?’
This was the greeting we got on Saturday when we arrived at the school.
Five little girls came running up. They were genuinely happy to see us. But only because it meant that Elizabeth was there, too.
Elizabeth came over a little later, walking over the dusty path from the house to the school. The girls ran to greet her and gathered round, eager to talk to her…to touch her…to kiss her cheek.
It was the Fiesta de San Ramon, patron saint of Gualfin. There were already about 100 people gathered at the school. More were arriving in their pickup trucks every minute.
The story of San Ramon
‘San Ramon is known as San Ramon Nonnatus,’ the priest explained later.
‘He is the patron saint of Gualfin, but also of pregnant women, midwives, and slaves. He is called ‘Nonnatus’ because he wasn’t born. At least not in the normal way…
‘His mother died in childbirth. His father delivered him by performing a Caesarean section on his dead wife. That’s why he is patron saint to midwives and pregnant women.
‘He is patron saint to slaves because he was one himself. He went to North Africa and bought slaves out of their servitude. This was back in the 13th century.
‘And when he ran out of money, he traded his own freedom for the freedom of the slaves.
‘In captivity, he preached Christianity to his fellow slaves. This got him into trouble with his captors, who tortured him. He even converted a couple of his torturers.
‘Then they bored holes in his lips with a hot iron and padlocked his mouth so he could no longer talk.’
It was 10:30am The sun was already hot…even though it is still winter in Argentina.
The grapevines will be pruned next week. The trees in the orchard will be pruned the following week. But the peach trees are already in flower and the hum of bees is so loud that we first mistook it for an electric motor.
A very special place
‘This is a very special place you have here,’ said one of our guests.
‘You probably think you are in Argentina. But this is another world.’
He said this after Nicanora, the sister of our cook, Martha, had taken her leave.
She had kissed us all — including our guests — on both cheeks and announced that she was going back up to her house, six hours away on foot.
‘It’s not like this in the rest of the country. Everywhere else we are fighting with one another. Nobody wants to work. And we are all suffering from the damage done by President Kirchner and her husband [former president Nestor Kirchner].
I mean it is almost unbelievable what they’ve done. They’re thoroughly corrupt. And they’ve corrupted the whole country. But you seem to have been spared… at least, so far…’
In the schoolyard, groups were beginning to form.
One was made up of the students of the school. They were dressed in white smocks, which the property owners had bought for them.
A policeman led another group — about 10 boys all under the age of 12 and all in uniform. These were the ‘police cadets’. There were a few drummers, too.
The two schoolmistresses were there, too. With them was a well-dressed, but overweight, woman. She had just arrived…ready to take over from the headmistress, who had just retired.
But the headmistress’ second in command — a thin, chain-smoker with a worried look – will be taking over the top job.
The two women lived in the school together for more than 20 years. They were on speaking terms for only about half the time. The rest of the years went by in silence.
But now that the headmistress is retiring, the two seemed to have reconciled their differences. Now, the thin woman will run the school.
Already, the local people refer to them as ‘the fat one’ and ‘the thin one’.
Being fat is no shame in this part of the world. Instead, it seems to be, if not a badge of honour, at least a morally neutral condition.
Raising the flag
The purpose of the schoolyard assembly was a mystery to us, until we were summoned to the flagpole.
A loudspeaker explained it to us:
The flag will now be raised by the headmistress, the local county executive, and the ranch owner,’ it announced.
But Walter, the county executive, was missing. So word went out to find him. Once discovered, in a crowd of voters, he wasted no time making his way to the flagpole, running up the hill.
‘Come on, fatso,’ yelled the organiser with the microphone.
Once we were all in place, we clipped the flags of Argentina and Salta Province onto the pole and waited for the music.
But nothing electric works as expected, there being no reliable power in this part of the country. So, it took a few minutes to get the volume on the CD player and amplifiers adjusted.
By then, the national anthem was about half over. People began moving their mouths; it was not clear if any of them, apart from the politician, knew the words. But they seemed to understand the gist of it.
Along with the headmistress, we had the job of pulling on the chords to get the flags up.
When we had raised them to about half-mast, we realized that the national flag had not been unfurled properly. Instead, it was wrapped around the lines.
Still, it seemed unwise to lower it and pull it out, as the national anthem was reaching its finale. So we simply hoisted it to the top of the pole.
Your editor wore a wide-brimmed hat to keep the hot sun off of his head. He should have removed the hat for the national anthem, but it was not his country and it was his head.
So, he waited until the final oomph of the anthem, took off his hat in a theatrical gesture of respect, and promptly put it back on again.
An offering of prayers
After this salute to the temporal authorities, the crowd made its way in procession to pay homage to the religious ones.
Down the hill we walked and then up the other side to the chapel — led by the policeman and his young enforcers, followed close behind by the schoolchildren, the teachers, the county executive and his entourage and, finally, the rest of the people.
It was so dry that the tramping of a couple hundred feet raised clouds of dust, which a light wind carried off to the west.
The church was already nearly full by the time your editor arrived. He and his wife crowded onto a hard bench for the Mass. Prayers were offered for what seemed like hundreds of people, saints and sinners — some long dead, and some still ailing.
There are only about 10 families in the valley; the same family names keep recurring preceded by Christian names of great variety.
Then the Great Eucharist began, following the familiar pattern. The only unusual element was the sermon, which, as mentioned, focused on the life of San Ramon, who watches over the farm with more or less attentiveness.
One other element deserves a note: Special blessings were asked for the farm and its principal features.
The priest called out a prayer for the ‘tools we use on the farm’. And a boy came down the aisle with a hoe and a rake in his hands.
Then came a girl with a basket of fruit — apples, pears, grapes — and a piece of beef. (It is not the season. So the fruit had to be bought in town.) Another child came with a Bible in hand. And another with a schoolbook.
All were blessed.
When the Mass was over, four bearers picked up the statue of San Ramon and carried it outside.
Following it were the same groups in the same order — except this time the padre and the altar girls followed immediately behind San Ramon; the rest of the procession fell in line behind them.
We reversed our steps. This time, we proceeded to the schoolyard…did a circle around the generator in the middle of the yard…and went back to the chapel.
Once there, the priest took the microphone to offer a final blessing upon the ranch and all its people.
A few words
The padre is a slight man with a warm smile. He is from Spain but has spent most of his career in northwest Argentina among the poor indigenous peoples.
It is easier to understand him when he talks than it is to understand the local people.
Dressed in white, he thanked all the people who had prepared the fiesta and wished good things for them all and the ranch over the 12 months until the next fiesta.
‘I also want to thank the ranch owner, Señor Bonner, for contributing so much to the ranch and supporting it through these trying times,’ he said.
Jorge, the ranch foreman and our guide to everything that happens on the ranch, sidled over:
‘You should say a few words.’
‘Yes…you’re the owner. They expect it.’
At first, we were frozen in place, panicked at the idea of having to speak in public, in Spanish.
But there was no way out. Our single most important goal as owner of the ranch is to win Jorge’s respect. We knew we would lose it forever if we failed now.
We took the microphone and did our best…
We thanked all those who had prepared the fiesta and all those who lived on or worked on the ranch for making it such a nice place. We vowed to come to the next fiesta. And we invited all present to join in the communal feast that Jorge and his team had prepared.
At least, we think that is what we said. Sometimes our grip on the local idiom is shaky.
Often, we think we have commented on the government’s macroeconomic policies, but instead we have asked for a turnip. And often, our accent is so thick… or so unaccustomed are the local people to it… that they have no idea what we said anyway.
Still, we understand Jorge, and he understands us. After our brief remarks, he gave a nod of approval. That is all that matters.
An impromptu song
Maria, Jorge’s wife, then took the microphone…
She called forth first the police squad, which did a goose-step march to the applause of the crowd… then a team of children dressed in folkloric costumes performed a Salteña dance routine.
It bore some resemblance to flamenco… with flowing dresses swirling around, while the boys kicked their heels and raised their arms above their heads to the music of local guitars and singers.
Source: The Salteña
The dancers were followed by two women who performed a copla — a long wail interrupted by lines of sung poetry.
It is a musical form to which we had never been properly introduced. But it was appealing in a melancholy way — a bit like keening at a gravesite.
The copla is supposed to be impromptu. It’s ad lib,’ explained an Argentine friend from Buenos Aires.
It is almost always about love — lost love, of course. But this one was about the love of the place…of Gualfin. At least I think it was. I couldn’t quite understand.’
By this time, the sun was high…and very hot. People were standing around in a circle in front of the church, admiring the dancing, marching and singing, but also getting hungry.
Finally, Maria announced that it was time to eat. Then the crowd turned and followed the trail that led from the chapel to the main house.
Lunch Is Served
In front of Jorge’s house, and adjacent to the main house, rows of tables had been arranged, with benches and stools to sit on.
Some stretched across the front of Jorge’s house, under the mud-covered porch. Others filled the two garages nearby. And still another line of tables was placed under a shade canopy drawn taught between poles.
Source: The fiesta
But all of these places proved insufficient for the crowd. There were about 300 to 400 people. The overflow happily sat down under the willow trees or in the small pasture in front of the house.
We worried that there would not be enough food to feed such a multitude. But, of course, Jorge had the whole thing under control.
Twenty or so volunteers — almost all members of Jorge’s family or ranch staff — served lunch.
They brought platters of salad — cut-up pieces of potatoes and carrots with a mayonnaise sauce — followed by soup and beef.
A large fire had been prepared much earlier out in the pasture. The cattle had been butchered in advance, too. The meat was hanging on a long wire between the trees when we arrived the day before.
A team of men — Jose, Javier, Natalio, and Carlos, our ranch hands — slaughtered and roasted the beef. Nolberto, ready for retirement, was put to work stirring the huge caldrons of soup.
There were two kinds of soup. One was a thick corn soup called locro. The other was described as ‘el picante’.
We took that to mean spicy. But it didn’t seem especially spicy. It was less thick and included the intestinal parts of the cows.
Both were delicious.
Wine, water, Coca-Cola, and some kind of orange-flavoured drink provided the liquid refreshment.
‘Don’t bring out too much wine,’ Jorge had cautioned.
‘People drink too much. The next thing you know, they are getting out their knives and fighting over a girl…or a cow.’
No blood spilled
The only heavy drinking we saw was at the head table — our own.
But no knives were drawn and no blood was spilled.
The end of the repast was marked by the arrival of an enormous cake, carried by three men and our cook, Martha.
The latter had made it, with help from her sister Nicanora. On the top was written ‘10 Años’. It was commemorating the 10th anniversary of the building of the chapel.
Elizabeth was called front and center to cut the cake, along with Maria. This they continued to do for at least half an hour, until all were served.
Then the crowd began to break up. Three people went this way… two went that way. Many came up to us and thanked us for the fiesta.
Often, we missed the detail of what they were saying. But we smiled broadly and sincerely, which seemed to be enough.
‘This is another world,’ repeated our friend from the big city.
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