Gold is recovering well, moving from weak hands to stronger ones. Not much else to report.
So we’ll tell you about our weekend…
‘I’ve been to Buenos Aires twice,’ said Jorge. ‘First, when I did my military service…and second, when I went after I got married.’
We were sitting around the campfire. But we had no fire. We were far from the urban attractions – the restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, street noise, lingerie shops, traffic light jugglers, political demonstrations, opera house…and all the other things that make Buenos Aires a delightful place to live.
That morning, we mounted on horses for the five-hour ride up to the high valley, Compuel. We passed a few arriendos – where the local people raise their crops and live in rude adobe houses.
From the mountain trail, we looked down on them. We could see the laundry drying on bushes…the small fields of corn…the pastures, often with a horse or two in them…a fruit orchard…and a pile of hay, pitched up by hand the way it was done in the 19th century in Europe and America.
No machines are used here, partly because the local people can’t afford them…and partly because there is no way to get them to these isolated farms. The road is too small and too rough.
Last year, a group of Paris-Dakar adventurers tried to cross Compuel. They got stuck in the marshes and used their satellite telephones to call for help. They hoped the Argentine military would send big helicopters to rescue them.
But the helicopters never came and the adventurers – French and Italian – eventually gave up and hiked down to our ranch house.
With no relief from the government in sight, Jorge organized a crew with horses that was able to pull the Land Rovers out of the muck. Then, using picks and shovels, they moved boulders out of the way and filled in the holes so the 4x4s were able to inch their way down the mountain.
We sent the Paris-Dakar organisers a bill for $226 for our time and trouble. It was never paid.
The Compuel Road is marked on the maps as a public road. About once a month, someone shows up at the ranch and demands to pass through. He shows Jorge a map that clearly indicates that the road goes up to Compuel and then continues up into the mountains and eventually ends up out on the salt flats in Catamarca Province.
Jorge gets a smile on his face. He politely informs the traveller that the road is not passable. Yes, it is public, says Jorge. But that doesn’t mean the public can use it.
Usually, he succeeds; the adventurer turns back. Occasionally, a hard-headed driver insists, and Jorge opens the gate and lets him through. Then he waits for the driver to straggle back on foot and prepares another crew to rescue him.
‘Jorge is a treasure.’ So true and so widely shared is this sentiment that the sentence could have come from the mouths of any one of dozens of people in the Calchaqui Valley.
He is known everywhere around these parts for being polite, honest, hardworking, cheerful and competent – all the qualities you want in a capataz.
We may be the owner of this ship, but Jorge is its captain. A capataz is the person who runs a ranch. He must know what he is doing. He must have the respect of the people who live and work on it (there are seven employees and 25 families on the ranch). And he must be ready to deal with whatever challenge God or man throws at him.
We had told Jorge that we wanted to do the circuito – the long loop that begins at the ranch house, takes us up the road to Compuel…and then leads down the Rio Compuel to Corralito, Pucarillo, and back to the sala, which what they call the ranch house.
Jorge’s face took on a look.
‘Hmm… It’s very rough,’ Jorge replied. ‘I’d better do it with you.’
‘No. It’s not necessary,’ we foolishly replied. ‘We know our way around pretty well now.’
‘I think I should go with you. The trail can be very hard to find.’
‘There is a trail, right?’
‘Yes, but it hasn’t been used in many years. I would like to go…really.’
Whether Jorge really wanted to go or not, we will never know. He works seven days a week. He is up before dawn. He brings up the horses. He readies the equipment. He organizes his workers…and keeps at it until darkness is so complete that he must retire. Every day.
On Sundays, Jorge typically mounts up and rides off to check on the cattle, either in campo adentro or campo afuera – each of which, one on either side of the sala, is about 10,000 acres.
This time, we were just heading in a different direction. On Saturday, we reached Compuel at about 4:00 in the afternoon. The valley is at about 12,000 level acres at about 10,000 feet high. There are no trees. Two rivers cut through the valley, meandering through the grass, bush, and lakes. Much of it is boggy…
‘In the summertime, much of this is covered in water,’ Jorge explained.
The water has gone down now…but there are still a few shallow lakes…and marshy areas. White ducks flew overhead. Cattle were grazing, scattered throughout the valley, accompanied by many healthy calves.
‘This has been a good year,’ Jorge explained, smiling. ‘It rained more than usual last year, so we had plenty of grass. The cows were fat. We got about 100 calves from this group – about 50% fertility. Better than usual.’
But Jorge was not happy.
We rode over to look at a llama. It was unafraid. Instead, it came up and smelled the horses. ‘And look,’ Jorge pointed to the ground. ‘Sheep tracks. There aren’t supposed to be any sheep here.’
The sheep are supposed to be up in the hills, not down in the valley. They belong to the local people – the gente. This valley is for our cattle.
There were also some cows in the valley without the yellow ear tags that we put on our own. Those gente cows weren’t supposed to be there, either.
It is an old system. The gente have their animals. We have ours. They keep their goats, sheep, llama and cattle up in the mountains. We keep ours in the valley. They use our land… and give us the equivalent of 5% of their animals per year. ‘The equivalent’ means cash. And since their animals are thin, tough and virtually unsaleable, the equivalent in cash is practically nothing.
Still, the form is more important than the substance. It marks the traditional relationship between the gente and the landowner. If the relationship breaks down…there is trouble. And Jorge, as capataz, is responsible for enforcing the rules and avoiding trouble.
‘Some people are always trouble,’ he explained. ‘One family has been here forever. And they’ve always been trouble. The grandfather was always causing problems. He died. But now his children cause trouble.’
We had passed one member of the clan on our ride up to Compuel. She was mounted on a thin horse…and wore a brightly colored hat. She crossed us without speaking.
‘Why not get rid of them?’ we suggested. ‘They’re renting from us, right?’
Jorge gave us another look.
‘That would be nice. But they claim ‘indigenous rights’. Very hard to do anything with them.’
After a tour of the valley…splashing through marshes…inspecting the bulls and calves…we took refuge for the night in a small stone house amid derelict corrals and extensive Inca ruins. Pottery shards were everywhere. Inca terraces spread out in both directions from the house.
As Jorge prepared the horses and pack mules for the night… hobbling two of them so the others wouldn’t leave…we explored the ruins and climbed a hill. From there, we could see almost the entire valley…surrounded by mountains on all sides.
The sun had gone behind Remate, the largest of the mountains. There was a small icing of snow on Remate. And now, with the sun down, it grew cold.
Summer is over. Everything was dry. It wouldn’t take much for a spark to set off a wildfire, sweeping through the valley. So we had only a small fire inside the kitchen of the stone house.
We cooked our sausages there. But we couldn’t sit inside. Like most houses in this part of the world, this one had no chimney. The smoke filled the room and then eased its way out through the front door and openings in the roof.
There were two rooms to the house. The kitchen. And the bedroom. The kitchen had nothing but a raised stone platform where the fire was made. Over it, a wire hung down from which an old tin can was suspended over the fire to heat up water. A handmade grill was propped on rocks over the fire too. Otherwise, there were no kitchen utensils…no sink…no stove…no cabinets…no granite-topped counters. Instead, the walls and floor were granite…
The bedroom was similarly spare. No beds. No closets. No dressers. Nothing but a dusty stone floor, on which we spread horse blankets. On top of the horse blankets, we put inflatable mattresses…and then sleeping bags.
Jorge didn’t seem to mind the smoke, so he did the cooking…bringing the sausages out on a wooden platter.
We sat on horse blankets and ate our sausages.
‘Yes, I had a good time in Buenos Aires.’ Jorge continued. ‘But I couldn’t live in the city. I like it out here. It’s quiet. I have time to think…without too many distractions.’
Overhead, the stars had come out. It was cold now. Wrapped in our coats and blankets, we looked up. Never had we seen so many stars. The air was thin and cold…like the air on the moon, we imagined…
There was no light from the ground…not even a campfire. There were no noises other than an eagle or a hawk. There were no clouds. Between us and the heavens, there was nothing at all.
To be continued…
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