A letter from the road, as we stop to visit old friends on our way to Gualfin.
The wooden farm gate stands open, held to a post with a loop of wire. Thick brush and trees surround the dirt road to the finca on either side. Glimpsed through the foliage, green fields stretch far away to the foot of mountains blue with distance and haze.
Out on the highway, tractors hauling trailers piled with yellow-golden tobacco leaves are taking the harvest to drying sheds. But here in the farmyard, the tall, narrow tobacco kilns are starting to crumble. Seasons of rain and wind have worn away at abode bricks and tin. El Turco, standing in the farmyard with a couple of dogs and a workman, dismisses the melting bricks and rusty roofs with a quick shrug. Tobacco prices are low, farm salaries are high, and he is converting his land from crops to cattle.
El Turco is the agronomist for finca Gualfin. Black-haired, swarthy, lively and optimistic, he is a native Salteño. To his friends, he’s the Turk. Usually, his advice is restricted to the vineyard at Pucharilla, Gualfin’s little river valley oasis, lying just low enough for vines to survive. But this year, an early frost nipped back the grape harvest in the Calchaquíes valleys. Then it stopped raining.
There was at least some good news: cattle prices are up.
In the highest pastures of Gualfin, on the plain of Compuel, the grass had been drying since the sparse rains of December. We knew our herd would barely survive the harsh wind and freezing cold of winter.
“The cattle get so weak they won’t even walk to bales of alfalfa,” our capataz told us. “And anyway, we can’t truck enough bales up there; the road is barely passable with one small tractor.”
The cattle couldn’t survive in Compuel. But nor could the cattle in Gualfin’s lower campo adentro and campo afuera share their own meager lot with another hungry herd.
“And cattle are territorial. It might kill them, but they’ll try to get back to Compuel,” added our capataz.
El Turco’s offer was too good to resist. Down the narrow rocky sentero the cattle were driven, to where trucks could load them up for El Turco’s fertile bottomland farm outside Salta. We provide the cows and their calves; El Turco takes care of the rest. We split the sales.
The pick-up truck clunked through thick grass and tall pasto cubano with daisy-like yellow flowers. El Turco stopped the truck and pointed. There were our cattle! They might be thin, but they were glossy! We got out to admire them…and then caught sight a gaucho coming toward us from the distance.
We knew the horse, a bad-tempered mare our old friend and the faithful former capataz of Gualfin, Don Jorge, had raised from a foal. And we certainly knew the rider. Jorge’s high-cheekboned face, tanned and creased with years of sun and wind, his sparkling dark eyes under his broad forehead, his thick straight black Indian hair, his quick warm smile were unchanged.
“He’s been here every day ever since the cattle arrived,” said El Turco as Jorge rode towards us. No wonder the cattle looked so glossy and contented. And no wonder Jorge, springing down from the mare with his characteristic easy grace, looked happy. All his life, he had spent most of the day on horseback looking after cattle on the ranges of Gualfin. First with his father, who was capataz before him, then as capataz in his own right for the next 41 years.
After a lifetime of service, Jorge had retired the month before. We had come back to Argentina to give a fiesta in his honor at Gualfin.
Jorge shook hands all around, with a warm and courteous abrazo for la señora. We all marveled: so much grass; twice as much rain every day as Gualfin gets in a year! But, Jorge added, shaking his head, so many more diseases and parasites. Gualfin, burned by sun and swept by wind, is cold, high and isolated at the end of the Molinos River valley. Apart from the condor and puma that prey on newborn calves, lack of fodder is the worse menace to Gualfin’s cattle.
By a stroke of benevolent fate, Jorge’s house is only minutes from El Turco’s finca. Empanadas were in the oven; his wife Doña Maria was waiting for us.
It wasn’t so much the absence of seven months since we had last seen Jorge and Maria, but the change in the circumstances. Maria and I fell into each other’s arms with happy cries.
I expect from the beginning we have been as much of a discovery to Jorge and Maria as they have been for us. Coming from very different experiences, we had woven a close relationship with each other over the last ten years.
The former patron of Gualfin was an Argentine success-story. We met him the first time we came to Gualfin. Francisco Rodó emigrated from Catalonia, he told us, drove a taxi in Buenos Aires at first and then converted into a pimento grower and cattleman. Rodó expected his farms to produce an income. He rarely paid his workers on time and sometimes not at all. And as a just master and a hard worker, he was widely respected.
We, on the other hand, bought Gualfin never asking if it would turn a profit, enraptured by the majestic mountains and valleys, the rich colors of sky and land, and the fascinating, austere life of the gente on this remote ranch. We must have seemed very strange to Jorge and Maria. But we came to a good understanding with Jorge and his wife, el patrón working with Jorge to improve the livestock and modernize the farm operation, la patrona learning about the human and natural history of Gualfin with Maria. They both set us straight on many misconceptions about the nature of farming and human nature!
Maria and Jorge showed us around their house. In a room off the living room, is a remarkable collection of objects: stone hatches and arrowheads from the riverbeds and mountainsides of Gualfin, a small ceramic jaguar head, shards of pottery with characteristic Diagita designs, distinctive stones and minerals from different parts of Gualfin. This is Maria’s collection, the result of four decades at Gualfin. And there is more to the collection than objects from the natural and pre-Columbian world.
“My father gave me this little stove when I was first married,” said Maria, showing me a small white gas stove in corner of the room. “When I taught at Colomé, it went with me in the front-end loader. “
Maria and Jorge met at Gualfin. The little elementary school was her first teaching post. Then, after their first child was born, she was transferred to a neighboring finca. Though only an hour away on today’s roads, in those days it was so remote that she had to live on site. She took her baby and the stove, while Jorge stayed at Gualfin to run the ranch.
“I’ve had that stove all my life. I don’t need it here, but it’s still good. And I want my grandchildren to see how life was, back before everyone had electricity and cellphones and cars.”
Maria is trying to decide how to organize a catalogue to explain it to her grandchildren: alphabetically or by sections. She’s going to number all the objects. Not for nothing was she the beloved schoolmistress of Gualfin for almost two decades.
On the little stove were the accouterments still seen in every kitchen at Gualfin, though most are simple hearths with an open fire…a well-used tin kettle for making tea, its handle a little bent; a pot for making soup and stews. Next to it was a small refrigerator with the rounded edges and slanted metal logo that were the latest thing 50 years ago. The door was open and the shelves displayed old plates and glassware.
“It still runs. It just needs gas.”
Maria sighed, though not sadly. This was her own private museum and she was pleased with the way it was shaping up.
“Look at this!” She held a flat square box made of thin wood. Someone long ago had glued a print cut out of a magazine on the top, a view of a street with trees and a horse and carriage. It was yellowed with age and varnish. Little strips of leather had been attached with tiny nails to make hinges.
It was a letterbox. On the other side were stamps and the address “Finca Gualfin, Dpto de Molinos, Salta, Argentina.” The postmark said 1930. It had been used to send mail to Gualfin back in the old days, long before the Rodó family bought the finca in 1956.
We went back into the kitchen for lunch. Jorge paused to show us a cupboard made of lacey cardón cactus wood. He’d made it himself for Maria, he said, obviously tickled. Its smoky patina spoke of years in Maria’s hospitable kitchen, always a gathering place for friends and neighbors, passersby and travelers at Gualfin.
We sat down at the table, covered with a flowered oilcloth. Jorge brought out a bottle of our own wine from Pucharilla. Maria carried her home-made empanadas from the oven, with a bowl of freshly fried empanadas for good measure.
It was a highly satisfactory reunion.
Jorge and Maria’s two grandsons joined us briefly. His elder son and his wife and their two children stopped in on the way home from school. Jorge Junior, like his sister and younger brother, were born in Gualfin and went to the little elementary school where their mother taught. But Maria and Jorge sent them away to live with relatives in Salta for colegio and high school. Their path was to be different from that of their parents; they were to join the world of professionals and the upwardly mobile, to live in houses with electricity and running water, to go to work and come home in the throngs of a large and thriving city.
“Dad won’t drive the children to school,” said Jorge’s son, laughing indulgently. “The traffic makes him nervous.”
Jorge smiled and said nothing. Tomorrow, the bad-tempered mare will be tied to a tree, saddled and waiting to take him into the fields among the cattle from Gualfin.
We said our good-byes, and climbed into our truck. We left Salta City and its well-watered lowland farms behind, heading for the mountain pass into the dry, high-altitude valleys of the Calchaquiés.