- By Bill Bonner
Dow up 98 points on Friday. Gold still bouncing around on the $1,200 mark. If anything important happened in the world of finance over the weekend, we're not aware of it. So, we return to our life here on the ranch.
"How do you know she's still alive?" we asked Jorge.
"I don't. We'll have to find out."
On Friday, we rode up to Tacana. We had heard about it for years - a small oasis in the mountains at the headwaters of a trickling, seasonal river. There, an old woman lives alone. How old is she? No one knows.
Was she even still alive? No one knew that either. And, from what we had heard, the trail up to Tacana is so difficult that no one wants to find out.
"What if she has died?" asked Jorge. "I don't know how we will get her body down. I guess we'll have to come back up with an extra mule."
Local rumor told us that a son or grandson visited from time to time, but no one had seen him in many months. Further rumors had it that he was an alcoholic who hadn't visited in many years. No one knew.
Jorge himself, ranch foreman, hadn't been to see her in a year and a half.
So, we set out at 8am - Jorge, Elizabeth and your editor. We trotted out through the gate on the south side of the farm. In a few minutes we saw Pablo, wearing his sporty red beret, mounted on a Peruvian horse and leading a criollo bay behind him. We galloped to catch up.
"Isn't there a trail that leads from your house up over the ridge to Tacana," Jorge asked him? "It would be shorter than going all the way down the valley, wouldn't it?"
"Yes, but you can't get over the ridge with horses. You can only go by foot. If you want to stay on your horses, you have to go down into the valley and up on the other side of the river."
The ridge was steep and high. Treeless. With big rocks everywhere. It would be a difficult hike. We decided to take the longer, but supposedly easier route around the other side. It might be just as hard, but the horses would do the work.
The sun was higher in the sky now. We took off our sweaters, and tilted our hats to the north to block the sun. Jorge was mounted on a mule. We were on horses. The mule turned out to be the better choice, because the route we had chosen was only marginally passable. Several times we had to dismount and urge our horses up and down the steep slopes. Jorge stayed on his mule and seemed to have no trouble. But our horses often seemed on the verge of disaster, slipping on rocks high above a precipice or skidding on gravel on the ledge of a cliff. Elizabeth is afraid of heights. She had to avoid looking down to still her racing heart. Your editor had his moments of doubt and fear too. But he was too busy trying to keep his own footing...or seating...to think much about it.
Before crossing the river, we noticed the telltale signs of ancient habitation. There were abandoned terraces on the hills. The local people say these were "Inca settlements." But they weren't really Inca, according to archeologists. The Inca were here. But as overloads, not as farmers and settlers. The Inca had storehouses - in a distinctive square style - but the farming was done by the vassal people who had been here much, much earlier.
Amid the old abandoned terraces was evidence of more recent habitation. There were newer stone walls in similar style, but of obviously different construction. We rode through and around several of these before coming to an abandoned house and other derelict stone buildings.
"There was someone living here until the '70s," Jorge recalled. "Then, the water gave out."
There were remnants of the '70s. There were the rubber soles of discarded shoes, for example. In the corner of what must have been a kitchen, there were two large clay jars - much like the ancient burial vases found in the area, but less fine and with no designs on them. In another room, with a collapsed mud ceiling, was a cross in the corner that must have been left by the last occupants. The cross was the sort that marked a grave. It carried an inscription: Ramon Sandoval 1949.
"Yes, that was Dona Marta's father," Jorge explained. "They probably never got around to putting the cross in the graveyard."
Dona Marta was the woman we were going to see.
"When the water dried up here," Jorge explained, "the family moved to a spot further up the river. It is smaller. But there is more water. Marta has been there ever since. The last time I was up there I asked if she wouldn't prefer to move down where we could get to her if she needed help. She refused. People here want to die where they were born."
After exploring the old homestead, we went back down the valley where the hill was gradual enough that we could get down to the riverbed. Then, we climbed up the other bank, and then made our way up and around the mountain on the far side of the river. In places, the trail disappeared. In other places, it was so slim we held our breath as we crossed, trying not to look down to the rocks below. Several times, our horses dislodged rocks that then bounced hundreds of feet onto the boulders below.
Finally, we rounded a hill and saw a patch of green in the distance, with a corral and a ramshackle adobe house. Two white burros grazed near the corral. We looked twice. The corral was built around a huge boulder, as if they were trying to make sure it didn't get a way.
The question about whether Dona Marta was still alive was resolved immediately; there was smoke coming from the roof. We continued, now taking our eyes off the path in order to study the small homestead. There were three buildings in adobe, with black plastic on the roofs held down with rocks. There was a peach orchard, too, with a fence made of cactus and brambles to keep the burros out. With the bright sun shining down, mountains all around, and a tiny stream flowing by the farm, it was a very pretty sight.
Now, we were coming down off the mountainside, crossing the tiny river, and making our way up to the house. On a clump of grass near the river was a single metal cup, with the porcelain worn away on the handle. There was still the picture of a blue flower visible on one side.
Slightly up the river were several old apple trees. These had no fence to protect them, and the branches were eaten off approximately to the height of a burro's head. The apple trees, along with other bushes and trees, were scattered amongst more large boulders which gave the whole place the feel of a playground.
By this time, Jorge had already reached the house. He sat on his mule and called out:
"Dona Marta...hola...Dona Marta..."
There was no answer. We looked up the valley. Maybe she was tending her goats. Maybe she was in her garden, a small space, walled with cactus wood, with what looked like squash plants.
"Dona Marta...hola...Dona Marta..."
A few minutes went by. We were beginning to wonder. What could have happened?
Then, a very old woman appeared, wizened...with her left arm held up to her cheek as if she had a toothache. She was bent over. And she appeared to be deaf. We judged her to be in her early '90s, with large eyes and a V-shaped chin.
"Dona Marta, do you remember me?" Jorge yelled.
It was not clear she did. She looked puzzled. We were the first visitors - perhaps in months.
Jorge smiled. He kept talking, loudly, clearly enunciating.
"Si...si..." she responded, weakly.
She wore a flowered polyester shirt and a brown wool skirt. On her feet was a pair of tennis shoes.
"Dona Marta, are you okay? Are you alone? Would you like us to send the rural nurse up to see you?"
Jorge asked a series of questions. Dona Marta at first seemed to be confused. But then she talked. Most of what she said was incomprehensible to us; she spoke a local patois Spanish. But Jorge seemed to understand. Apparently, the rural nurse (who is supposed to visit people in the valley) had come to see her about 6 months ago. He pronounced her sound. But she did not appear to be completely sound of body or mind when we visited. Something was wrong with the left side of her face. It was swollen and discolored. But she wanted no help. Her grandson was supposed to come and bring her provisions, she said. She needed nothing else.
The grandson wasn't present, but he must be taking care of her. She could not be operating the irrigation system herself. And on the roof of the house were hundreds of peaches, drying in the sun. It was unlikely that she put them up there herself. The whole place appeared to be cared for in a way that seemed far beyond Dona Marta's capacity.
Elizabeth spoke to her with a sympathetic voice and the old woman warmed to her.
"We've brought you some things. Here are some apples from down in the valley. And here is some bread. And some tuna fish."
After a few more minutes of questions and awkward conversation, the three of us shook her hand and said goodbye.
"Until next time," we said, doubting there would be a next time, as we rode back across the river.
Bill Bonner is the President & Founder of Agora Inc, an international publisher of financial and special interest books and newsletters.