"In Search of Santiago’s Aunt – Part II"
By Bill Bonner
SAN MARTIN, ARGENTINA – "Tomorrow, we’ll return to our usual focus on the world of money. There have been a couple of interesting developments, for example, in the COVID Lockdown story. Stay tuned…
Discovering Cortaderita: Meanwhile… When we left you yesterday, we were describing our trip out beyond the Apacheta mountains. Improbably, there is an oasis far out in the bleak and barren mountains behind us. Santiago, a man who works at a neighboring farm, but whom we know because he is related to many of our own farm hands, told us about a visit some 20 years ago to his aunt who lives there. Was she still there? Was she still alive? Had it become a hippy colony? No one seemed to know. So, on Sunday, we set out on an expedition to find out.
We arrive at a house.
Having set off before dawn, and after six hours on the trail, we arrived at the place called Cortaderita. Someone was living there. Santiago called out. “Hola!”… But there was no answer. We sat on our horses, eager to dismount. “Hola!” Santiago tried again. Meat hung from a wire, drying. The dogs barked. The chickens scratched the ground. A curious young guanaco came over to take a look.
A curious guanaco.
Happy Reunion: Finally, a man emerged from the house. A few minutes later, the house disgorged another person, a woman. The man was dressed in dirty cotton clothes. The woman, too. He wore a baseball cap. She wore a multi-colored Andean bonnet. They appeared to be in their 50s or 60s. They looked puzzled. They walked towards Santiago, who had dismounted. The man smiled. He had all his teeth, which is rare in the area, with two long, sharp incisors that made him look a little like Dracula. The woman smiled, too… but with more of a look of concern on her face. “Who were these people?” “What did they want?” she seemed to be thinking.
She came on more cautiously. Her dark red skirt was covered with an apron. She was missing teeth. We didn’t like to think about how the teeth had been taken out. When was the last time they had a visitor? A month ago? A year ago? Who would make the trip? Why? Santiago approached the woman. “I’m Santiago Guantay, son of your sister, Josefa.” The woman looked more puzzled than ever, as if she were trying to remember. She hesitated. Then, she reached out… and hugged him. Tears formed on her cheeks.
Lunch at Cortaderita: While Santiago embraced his aunt, the rest of us dismounted. We took the horses over to a hitching post, tied them up, and loosened their cinches. Ramón checked his horse’s leg. “The white legs are always weaker than the brown ones,” he said. The saddlebags were removed. And introductions continued. “This is Señor Bonner; he’s the owner of San Martín.” “My name is Anacleto,” the man said, still smiling. “This is my wife, Alejandra.”
Our bona fides established, we sat down at a table under a plastic tarp. We each took out what we had brought for lunch and put it on the table to share with the others. Sausages. Milanesas. Cheese. Bread. A bottle of wine. We had also brought some walnuts and raisins to leave with our hosts.
We hadn’t known what we would find. Santiago’s family had not heard from his aunt in two decades. Had she moved away? Had she died? No one knew. There was a rumor that the outpost had been taken over by hippies. They went about naked, it was said… growing an ultra-puissant variety of marijuana in the high, mountain sun. It would have made a good place for them. They wouldn’t have to worry about visits from the authorities; no one would know – or care – what they were up to.
Unrelenting Misery: But the oasis was smaller than we expected. There was water; it was sweet and reliable. “It runs just like that all year round,” explained Anacleto. But there was probably only enough to support a single, small family. It almost never rains in this area. And all their food had to be produced here; there was no way to get supplies from town. The spring water had to be used to water animals and crops, too.
A steady stream of water ran into a small pond. From there, the water leaked over to a small orchard, with unpruned pear, plum, and peach trees. And they had carved tiny irrigation ditches to carry the water to a field of beans not far away. Anacleto said they grew corn, too, but we saw no evidence of it. Nor was there a vegetable garden. It would have been easy to grow a few heads of salad, some onions, and some beets. But there were none. Apart from the fruit trees, which looked like relics from an earlier era, there was nothing to break the unrelenting, windblown misery of the place.
Another Era: The water did not run into the house. It would have been easy to put in a plastic pipe to get running water; but they must not have thought about it, or cared. They carried water in buckets. The house had no TV. No telephone signal reached them. No microwave. No dishwasher. No clothes washer. There were no electric appliances of any sort. No water heater. No heating at all, other than a cooking fire in the kitchen. They had no transportation, either. No mules. No horses. If they went anywhere, they went on foot. There was one sheep and a lamb in the yard.
“That’s all that’s left,” Anacleto explained. “The others were killed by puma. “But we still have about 30 goats… and as many cows.” “What do the cows eat?” we asked, looking out at the barren valley. There was no pasture anywhere. “They find things up in the hills.” We were about as high “up in the hills” as we could get. But mountain cattle find little clumps of grass… and tiny pools of water. Somehow, like the people in front of us, they survive.
“Have you been down to the valley recently?” we wondered. “No… Not for about six months. We heard they had the plague (the peste, he called it) down there.” Of all the world’s 8 billion people, these two were probably the least likely to get the coronavirus. They have almost no contact with the outside world.
Family Connections: Anacleto seemed a little awkward. Uncomfortable. He got up from the table and stood by himself, wondering what to do. We posed questions in our más o menos Spanish. He often didn’t understand what we were saying… “He’s asking you…” Santiago interpreted. Between Santiago and Ramón, there was practically not a single stranger in the entire Calchaquí Valley. So the whole family tree was soon established. Anacleto’s brother worked down in the valley. He worked for so-and-so, who had a cousin who was married to so-and-so…
As for his wife, Santiago’s aunt, she was related to almost everyone we knew in the area. Santiago brought her up-to-date on the family. But she was curiously passive. Almost indifferent. She asked no questions. She seemed almost in shock, as if she didn’t know what was going on. Maybe she had lived in this strange, isolated place for so long, she had lost interest in the outside world… even in her own relatives. Not once did she suggest that she might like to visit them… or that they should visit her.
Anacleto and Alejandra
Want for Nothing: While the story of humanity is generally a tale of progress, anthropologists sometimes find isolated tribes that have gone backward. They lose their skills. They abandon their gods. Their myths, rules, and rituals are forgotten. We wondered whether the couple in front of us had not slipped. “Do you have any children?” “Yes, we have two… a son and a daughter. The son lives about three hours away, near the uranium mine. Our daughter went to the city.” “When was the last time you saw them?” Anacleto made a gesture with his hand… as if it had been a while and he couldn’t remember.
The two had nothing. But perhaps they wanted nothing. They paid no rent. No electricity bill. No telephone bill. No gas bill. No insurance bill. No medical bills. No food bills. But they had sunshine every day. Water. Food.
“And what if either one of them should have a health emergency?” Ramón asked on the ride back. “Here, they have no access to anything. They’re completely on their own.” Ramón is a practical man. Farming in the Calchaquí Valley isn’t easy. And he’s done it all his life. There is almost never enough water. Machines break down; parts need to be ordered from Europe or America. The government makes life difficult. Inflation comes and goes. Workers come and go, too.
For him, the forlorn romance of Cortaderita – isolated… with a stunning view over a desert valley – was overshadowed by problems. How could they get supplies? How do they know what’s going on in the world? Why would anyone want to live like that?
Last Goodbye: We finished our lunch and said our goodbyes. It was already 3 p.m… we only had about four more hours of daylight. Alejandra grasped Santiago’s hand. Both knew it would probably be for the last time. She sent her regards to her sister and her brother. We said goodbye. Elizabeth took a photo. “There’s a better way to go back,” Anacleto advised Santiago. Take the trail to the west after you pass the pond.” When we got to the pond, we let the horses drink.
The horses having a drink before the long trek home.
Then, we continued, turning to the right, as Anacleto had suggested. The first part of the trail was rough. We had to go up and over the crest of the mountain… and then down a steep hillside, all the way to the arroyo at the bottom. After that, it was easy riding… along the sandy quebrada, all the way back through the Apacheta… and out onto the wide slope down to the Calchaquí itself.
The long journey home.
Sticking It Out: “They really ought to leave there,” Ramón concluded. “They live as though it were 100 years ago… or 1,000 years ago. They don’t have anything but hand tools. “My father brought the first tractor to the valley… but that was more than 70 years ago. And they still don’t have anything that is mechanized. No generator. No internal combustion engines. They don’t even have a mule to pull a plow.”
But they looked healthy. Weather-beaten, but still sturdy. And it looked like – whatever the reason – they were prepared to take it to the end. “That’s what Marta Sandoval did. And it’s what Eleena wants to do,” Elizabeth reminded us. Marta lived alone at a remote outpost, not as far away as Cortaderita, but almost impossible to get to. We visited her when she was in her eighties. She already had something wrong – an abscess in her jaw. “Can we take you down to the city?” we had asked. “Wouldn’t you like to live closer to doctors and services?” She, too, had nothing… no electricity, no running water… nothing but a few goats. But she stuck it out. Her grandson went to check on her a year later… and found her dead.
Eleena lived with her husband at a very pretty outpost called Coralito. Her husband died two years ago. Her daughter dragged Eleena down to the local town to live with her. But she didn’t want to stay. She wanted to go back to her mountain outpost. And there she is, alone. In her eighties. Spry, but withered. Fortunately, she’s easier to visit. A farm road takes you up to the base of the mountains. From there, it’s an hour and a half on foot. Her grandson checks on her each weekend. She intends to stick it out, too… to the end.
“I’ve been here all my life,” Ramón concluded. “Sooner or later, the valley makes everyone a little loco. Including me.”
Getting close to the end of the trail.