The Happiest Day in a Man's Life - The Daily Reckoning
The Daily Reckoning by Bill Bonner
On This Day - 23 April 2010
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Buenos Aires, Argentina

Friday, 23 April 2010

Not much financial news yesterday.

The 'recovery' is still recovering...with house sales up and joblessness down.

And yesterday the Dow rose 9 points. Gold fell $5. Oil stayed around $83.

We're still thinking about the week we just spent at the ranch. So, we'll tell you about it...

The Happiest Day in a Man's Life

Dust swirled up so thick you could barely see what was going on in the corral. Edward had lassoed a calf. He was holding on to the rope and digging in his heels. But he wasn't heavy enough to hold the young animal He skidded on the dirt and looked like he was water skiing.

The other changitas - the boys who helped with the round-up - threw their lassoes over the calf too. One got another rope on his neck. The other caught a foot. The three of them slowed him down and then grabbed him, trying to turn him over. The idea was to reach over his back and grab him under his chest or belly...and pull him over onto the ground.

The boys struggled and tugged but they couldn't bring the calf down. Instead, the four of them looked like a rugby scrum, with the calf in the middle. Then, Javier came over. Javier was wearing chaps. He's Jorge's nephew and his right-hand-man...second in command of the gauchos and first in command of the cows. About 5ft 10in, dark and muscular. He has a wide face, stretched even wider by an ever-present wad of cocoa leaves in his jaw, topped by a broad, blue Andean-style hat. A handsome man, in a rough, gaucho style.

Javier walked threw the cloud of dust to where the boys were wraslin' the calf. With a single, swift movement, he reached over the animal, lifted it off the ground and put it down, bringing his knee down on its neck to hold it in place. He then drew a knife from behind his back, while the boys held the animal. A few seconds later, the calf had been castrated, tagged with a piece of yellow plastic on its ear, and released.

Javier put his knife back and walked over to another calf being held in place by another group of changitas.

The yerra - the round-up - had started early in the morning. Jorge and Javier put on their chaps and checked their syringes as the other cowboys began driving the animals from a holding pen into the long, narrow stone-walled entrance to the wooden chute where they would be held in place and vaccinated. We were a little short-handed, because some of the cowboys were still out in the field, collecting cows over about 10,000 acres of open range. Boys - the changitas - did the work of driving the cattle around the pens. Included among them was one little blond boy, Alejo, only 5 years old.

Alejo is the son of our farm manager, an Anglo-Argentine, originally from Buenos Aires. He ran along the top of the 8-foot-high stone wall, whooping and hollering along with the other boys...and occasionally jumping from side to side of the chute. The boys tried to frighten the cattle so they would move into the wooden stocks where Jorge and Javier could work on them. The boys didn't know whether they were working or playing; it was all the same to them. They practiced lassoeing the cattle in the pens...and yelled with such gusto that the animals occasionally stampeded on top of each other.

Cattle will try to avoid you. You can get down in the middle of them. They'll run all around you. They'll keep away from you. Except for the bulls, when they get angry. The danger was that one of the boys would fall into the chute, where the cows were so crammed up together they stomped on one another by accident. Your editor operated one of the gates and tried to keep an eye on the boys. But there was no point to it. The changitas would have been trampled in seconds.

The roundup, tagging, castrations and vaccinations continued all day. By the time the light began to fade, we were covered with dust and had barely enough energy left to walk back up the hill to the ranch house.

But this was not the beginning of our visit. It was the middle. We had arrived the day before.

After we landed in Salta, we went straight to the bootmaker. His shop was on a broad avenue, where we were able to park at an angle to the curb. Inside, there were large piles of boots and shoes, mens' and womens'... right on the floor. There were so many shoes. We didn't think the city had that many feet.

In the back of the room was an old cobbler sitting on a stool, with a blue apron and a workbench in front of him. He was hammering at a boot. There was no sign of modern technology. Or even any kind of technology. A young apprentice sat near him, in front of one of the enormous piles of footwear...applying shoe polish to a woman's slipper.

The shoes were all in jumbled heaps. How did they know whose were whose? Maybe it didn't matter. Maybe customers left off one pair and came back the next week for another pair. As long as they fit, nobody complained.

At the front desk was a cheerful man with a round face, talking to an even more cheerful customer with an even rounder body. On the wall was a newspaper clipping with a photo. The man in the yellowed photo was a younger version of the man behind the counter. Smiling, then as now. With a little mischief in his smile, like a cobbler who enjoyed making pairs of shoes with two left feet.

The woman was making jokes. Or maybe just laughing at nothing. She was talking so fast, we couldn't understand what she was saying. And then, she stopped and turned to us.

"He's the best bootmaker in the North of Argentina."

For a second, we wondered who was his rival in the South. And then we got down to business.

"I'd like a pair of boots made to fit my feet."

"Well, of course...we wouldn't make them to fit your head. Nobody wears boots on his head."

"Good point."

After a little negotiation over time and money, we took off our shoe and placed our right foot on a piece of white paper. He traced the foot and took measurements of the circumference of our calf and the height of the arch.

"That's all I need," he said. "But what if the left foot is not the same as the right foot?"

"Then I don't want to make you a pair of boots. They're supposed to match. If they're different, they're not a pair...they're two separate boots for two separate feet."

"Oh..."

After the bootmaker's shop, we went over the Caterpillar dealer, on the outskirts of town. We had come in search of a backhoe. We needed it at the ranch to dig new reservoirs and canals. The rainfall in the area has been going down for many years. Two years ago, we got 120 milliliters of rain. Last year, we got only 100 ml. The rainy season is already over for this year and we got only 80 ml. If this trend keeps up the whole place will dry up and blow away.

We've already sold off half the herd; the farm is huge. But size is a liability here. It can only support about 600 cows now. And, in the winter months, we need to irrigate some fields or there will be nothing for them to eat. So, we need to build bigger, deeper, better reservoirs to catch the little water that comes our way.

Your editor's cousin, Calvert, came along. He is in the construction business in Maryland. An economist can eat and drink as well as any man, but he is no good at buying backhoes.

Calvert inspected two used machines. He worked the levers and tried out the controls.

"This is just too beat up...it's only got 5,000 hours. But they were hard hours. The bucket wobbles a bit. And one of the hydraulic cylinders looks like it's been hit by a rock.

"And this other one is just a mess..." It was a local brand. On the surface, it looked like a Caterpillar, but it was made in Argentina.

"Easy to get parts," said the salesman.

"Yeah...and you're likely to need them," said Calvert.

Then, we looked at a third one. It was just 2 years old. Only about 2,700 hours on the chronometer.

"This one looks like someone took care of it," said Calvert. He got up in the cab and started it up. The motor made a low rumble...even...and smooth. The front bucket worked like it should. Calvert then swiveled around to test the back bucket. Everything seemed in order.

Then, we checked it over for signs of leaks in the hydraulic system and other indications of wear and tear. After a few minutes, Calvert came to the point:

"Ask them how much they want."

"He says it's $70,000," we reported.

"Well, a new one of this model, down here, is about $20,000 more. And you'll have to wait for it. This one is here...and ready to go. And I doubt that there's $20,000 worth of difference between this and a new one. So, if I were you, I'd go for it."

We went for it.

"Good Lord, Bill," said cousin Calvert. "This must be the happiest day of your life. You bought a pair of hand-made boots and a backhoe in a single day."

The machine arrived at the ranch the day after the yerra. Javier was appointed to the designated operator. That is because Javier is the only one of our farmhands who knows how to drive. Javier has an old Chevy pickup. The rest of the crew ride horses...or walk.

So Javier climbed up into the driver's seat. Calvert showed him how to operate the big rig.

"What you want to do," Calvert explained, "is not to think about it too much. You want it to be instinctive....you just try to operate these controls so that the machine works as smooth as silk."

We translated as best we could: 'Hagalo suave. Naturalement. Instinctivamente."

Javier's expression rarely changes. He shook his head and went to work, digging a hole in the rocky, dry ground.

We were going to build a reservoir near the house. This was decided after Jorge took us on a four-hour horseback ride to examine another place - the site of an abandoned reservoir. It didn't take us long to figure out why it had been abandoned.

Our horses struggled to get down one side of the mountain, across a stream and up the other side. The incline was steep, with huge boulders blocking the way.

"There's no way we could get the backhoe in here," said Calvert. "And if we tried, it would turn over or something...we'd never get it out. I wouldn't come anywhere near this place with a backhoe."

The horses barely made it up the far side of the mountain. We were so preoccupied by their progress...picking their way between the rocks...that we didn't notice the rocks themselves. There were rows of stones piled at right angles to the hillsides, forming low walls. We were making our way across one of these walls when Calvert remarked...

"Ask Jorge what these walls were for..."

"We're in an old Indian settlement," Jorge explained. "These are the walls that held the terrasses. Over there is a 'pucara' - a fortress."

Jorge pointed to a hill in the middle of the valley.

"How many of these Indian settlements are there?"

"They're all over the place. The archeologists know about some of them. But they don't know about all of them. And maybe they don't care...there are so many."

"You mean to tell me that you're considering building a road through an impossible stretch of hillside...right through the middle of Indian ruins...and then digging them up to make a reservoir?

"It's amazing that you could even think of it. In America, you'd need an act of Congress to do something like this...and then you'd never get it."

Javier learned fast. Within an hour or so, the backhoe's movements were fluid. The hoe dug itself into the hard earth, curled towards the tractor, and came up full of dirt and rocks.

The new reservoir was underway....

Bill Bonner is the President & Founder of Agora Inc, an international publisher of financial and special interest books and newsletters.

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