“Welfare Cops” Come to the Ranch

GUALFIN, Argentina – We’re taking a mini-holiday this week.

Unless something exciting happens in the markets, we’ll ignore them. But we’ll be happy to tell you what’s going on at the ranch.

Last week, we had a series of setbacks…

First, our satellite Internet connection went down for no apparent reason.

It had been very windy and cold, so we went around and checked the connections. Everything seemed to be in order. We waited. And waited. Finally, we thought we needed to get in touch with the outside world.

So we drove down to Colomé, a wine estate about an hour away. There, they maintain a museum and a small restaurant with Wi-Fi.

It seems impossible that such a place exists – so close to us but so far from everything else. But there it is: a happy miracle. An outpost of civilization, created by a wealthy Swiss winemaker and his wife.

On the Way to Colomé

Donald and Ursula Hess fell in love with the place about 15 years ago.

They had vineyards in California, Australia, and South Africa. But the place here in Argentina was special to them. They could live anywhere. But they decided to live here – far from everything else but with its own rich culture.

They planted acres of grapes… built a luxury hotel and a museum dedicated to the work of artist James Turrell (famous for his light installations)… and added a little café restaurant to their winery. 

Poor Ursula developed a lung problem. Then it was time for Donald to retire. So they went back to Switzerland, where they live today. They closed the hotel but kept everything else in operation.

On the way to Colomé, we spied a car coming up the hill toward the ranch. We have gotten a little suspicious of people who drive up unannounced.

There is a group of cross-country 4×4 enthusiasts who want to drive around the ranch. Our now retired ranch foreman, Jorge, advised us to keep them out because they don’t close the gates. Then, they inevitably run into trouble, and we have to bail them out – often with our backhoe or horses.

One group, for example, was training for the Dakar Rally. They drove into the back of the ranch and got stuck in our high pasture.

Two of them straggled down to the ranch house to report that their comrades, left behind with the vehicles, were running out of food.

We didn’t take that alarm very seriously; the pasture is full of our beef cattle, as well as the local’s sheep, goats, and llamas. If they starved to death, we reasoned, it would be their own damned fault.

But we organized a team of horses to pull their 4x4s out of the mud.

Unexpected Visitors

Not many people come to visit. Except for the 4×4 buffs, people only drive up when they have to. For business. Or because one of the older people on the ranch has had a health emergency.

The day before yesterday, for example, an aunt of our new ranch foreman, Gustavo, woke up with her right leg paralyzed.

We thought it was probably a stroke. So we organized someone to take her down to the hospital in the nearby village of Molinos. She’s back at her house now. Doctors don’t seem to know what is wrong with her.

Seeing the car approaching, we stopped to find out what was up.

“Hi, we’re Greg and Christy from Washington. We heard there was a beautiful place up here. So we just thought we’d drive up to take a look.”

The couple in the car was middle-aged, cheerful, open, and optimistic in a very American way.

“Uh… Do you realize that this is private property?” we answered a little coldly, a manner of speaking we picked up during our years in France.

“No. We didn’t think about it. And we didn’t see any signs.”

“No problem.”

We were warming up, returning to our naturally friendly roots. And Greg and Christy seemed like nice people.

“You’ve come all this way. Just drive up to the ranch house and tell Marta you’re friends of ours. She’ll show you around and take care of you.”

Finally, we got to Colomé, where we ran into old friends from Doug Casey’s place in nearby Cafayate – including Casey Research analyst Louis James, who just happened to be visiting.

After some small talk, we sat down, ordered a coffee, and went to work – mostly signaling to the Bonner & Partners team back in Delray Beach, Florida, that we might be out of contact for a while.

Out of Contact

Being out of contact is an odd concept for the folks back in the U.S. to understand.

In Baltimore, we are always connected – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

If there were a problem with the office Wi-Fi, we’d turn to our trusty iPhones, which seem to pick up the news from the ether. We don’t know how these messages come to us, but they seem to find us no matter where we are.

We are able to send and receive… all day long. Here, it is a different story.

When we returned to the ranch, Greg and Christy were on their way out. They told us they had been well looked after, which we were glad to hear.

And back at the house, the Internet was working again. It came as it went – like a surly teenager, without excuse or explanation.

But then a second setback: The electricity went off.

We had just replaced the batteries in our super-duper solar system, at a price of about $4,000. So there was no reason for the system not to work.

But there it was – as lifeless and useless as a joint session of Congress.

And without power, of course, the Internet wouldn’t work. And without the Internet, we couldn’t keep up with the latest news on the presidential primaries. Or the latest postings on Facebook. Or what was happening in ABC’s Dancing with the Stars.

Suddenly and mercilessly, our lives would be focused on things that really mattered.

That is probably what we like about being here. Almost everything matters – especially when the Internet is not working.

The chickens have stopped laying. The cows are running out of grass. The reservoirs are no longer filling.

Is it because the people up farther in the valley are not respecting our water rights? Or because the river has dried up?

And what’s wrong with Doña Ana? How will we get her to the hospital?

Every problem… every situation… needs further investigation and a solution.

How can we get rid of more cattle? How is the pasture up at Compuel? Is that gas leaking from the kitchen stove?

Welfare Cops

Last week, two “policemen” drove up to the ranch.

Gustavo reported that they asked to borrow our horses. They were not regular policemen, he explained, they were with the agency that provides welfare checks for poor people.

Almost all the people in the valley – except those who work for us or for Colomé – are poor. They all qualify for government assistance. And this being Argentina, it is common for the families of older people to continue accepting this largesse long after their loved ones have had the life sucked out of them and the dirt thrown onto their faces.

The Argentine feds meet this chicanery with visits to old people, checking pulses to determine if the recipients are still alive.

We have at the ranch four people who appear to be in their 90s. Doña Marta Sandoval, who we went to visit last year, Doña Isadora, Don Domingo, and Don Severiano.

Don Domingo was in church on Sunday. He had walked the hour or so down the valley to take confession.

“When will the priest come?” he asked. We didn’t know. As it turned out, he never came. Instead, Sister Domenica showed up, full of energy and enthusiasm but lacking the sacred authority necessary for confession.

“This is the first time I’ve been here,” she said to us after the service.

“This is very different from any place I’ve seen. Where do these people live? I didn’t see any houses.”

“Ah… they live up in the mountains… often very far away.”

Down in the suburbs and barrios of Buenos Aires, the areas that rule makers had in mind when they set up the inspection program, it is an easy matter to go from house to house visiting the old and infirm.

Up here, it is a different story.

The welfare cops came up intending to see all four nonagenarians. But just visiting one is an all-day affair.

Don Domingo and Doña Isadora are only about an hour away on horseback up the valley. But Doña Marta is about a three-hour ride away. And you need a guide, or you will never find her.

Don Severiano is an hour’s drive from the house… then about four hours more on horseback… eight hours, roundtrip. We have never seen his place.

In any event, the police, guided by Gustavo, went to Doña Marta’s place. They are “local” police… from the province of Salta. But they were not from here, and not used to our horses or the thin air.

After the visit to Marta’s – who has now been declared, officially, to be among the quick – they decided to drive back to their comforts for the weekend and come back the following week for further investigation.

Until tomorrow…



Bonner Properties