- By Bill Bonner
"Oh...Senor Bonner...where is La Senora?"
This was the greeting we got on Saturday when we arrived at the school. Five little girls came running up. They were genuinely happy to see us, but only because it meant that Elizabeth was there too.
Elizabeth came over a little later, walking over the dusty path from the house to the school. The girls ran to greet her and gathered round, eager to talk to her...to touch her...to kiss her cheek.
It was the Fiesta de San Ramon, patron saint of Gualfin. There were already about 100 people gathered at the school. More were arriving in their pick-up trucks every minute.
"San Ramon is known as San Ramon Nonnatus" the priest explained later. "He is the patron saint of Gualfin, but also of pregnant women, midwives, and slaves. He is called "Nonnatus" because he wasn't born. At least not in the normal way. His mother died in childbirth. His father delivered him by performing a Ceasarean section on his dead wife. That's why he is patron saint to midwives and pregnant women.
"He is patron saint to slaves because he was one himself. He went to North Africa and bought slaves out of their servitude. This was back in the 13th century. And when he ran out of money, he traded his own freedom for the freedom of the slaves. In captivity, he preached Christianity to his fellow slaves. This got him into trouble with his captors, who tortured him. He even converted a couple of his torturers. Then, they bored holes in his lips with a hot iron and padlocked his mouth so he could no longer talk."
It was 10:30 in the morning. The sun was already hot. It is still winter here in Argentina. The grape vines will be pruned next week. Trees in the orchard will be pruned the following week. But the peach trees are already in flower and the hum of bees is so loud that we first mistook it for an electric motor.
"This is a very special place you have here," said one of our guests. "You probably think you are in Argentina. But this is another country."
He said this after Nicanora, sister of our cook, Martha, had taken her leave. She had kissed us all - including our guests - on both cheeks and announced that she was going back up to her house, 6 hours away on foot.
"It's not like this in the rest of the country. Everywhere else we are fighting with one another. Nobody wants to work. And we are all suffering from the damage done by Cristina Kirchner and her husband. I mean it is almost unbelievable what they've done. They are thoroughly corrupt. And they've corrupted the whole country. But you seem to have been spared...at least, so far..."
In the schoolyard, groups were beginning to form. One group was made up of the students of the school, dressed in white smocks, which the property owners had bought for them. Another was led by a policeman, with about 10 boys - all under the age of 12, and all in uniform. It was the 'police cadets.' There were a few drummers too.
The two schoolmistresses were there, and another well-dressed, but overweight woman who accompanied them, stood in the doorway of the school. She has just arrived, ready to take over from the headmistress who has just retired. But the headmistress is being replaced by her second-in-command, a thin, chain-smoker with a worried look. The two women lived in the school together for more than 20 years. They were only on speaking terms for about half the time. The rest of the years went by in silence. But now that the older one is retiring, the two seemed to have reconciled their differences. Now, the school will be run by the thin woman - who has become the new headmistress. Already, the local people refer to them as the "fat one and the thin one." Being fat is no shame in this part of the world. Instead, it seems to be, if not a badge of honor, at least a morally neutral condition.
The purpose of the schoolyard assembly was a mystery to us, until we were summoned to the flagpole. A loudspeaker explained it to us:
"The flag will now be raised by the headmistress, the local county executive, and the ranch owner," it announced.
Walter, the county executive, was missing, however. So word went out to find him. Once discovered, in a crowd of voters, he wasted no time making his way to the flagpole, running up the hill.
"Come on, fatso," yelled the organizer with the microphone.
Once we were all in place, we clipped the flags of Argentina and the province of Salta onto the pole and waited for the music. Nothing electric works as expected, there being no reliable power in this part of the country. So, it took a few minutes to get the volume on the CD player and amplifiers adjusted. By then, the national anthem was about half over. People began moving their mouths; it was not clear if any of them, apart from the politician, knew the words. But they seemed to understand the gist of it.
Along with the headmistress we had the job of pulling on the chords to get the flags up. When we had raised them to about half-mast, we realized that the national flag had not been unfurled properly. Instead, it was wrapped around the lines. Still, it seemed unwise to lower it and pull it out as the national anthem was reaching its finale, so we simply hoisted it to the top of the pole.
Your editor wore a wide-brimmed hat to keep the hot sun off of his head. He should have removed the hat for the national anthem, but it was not his country and it was his head. So, he waited until the final oomph of the anthemn, took off his hat in a theatrical gesture of respect, and promptly put it back on again.
After this salute to the temporal authorities was complete, the whole crowd made its way in procession to pay homage to the religious authorities. Down the hill we walked and then up the other side to the chapel, led by the policeman and his young enforcers, followed close behind by the schoolchildren, the teachers, the county executive and his entourage, and finally, the people themselves. It is so dry that the tromping of a couple hundred feet raised clouds of dust which a light wind carried off to the west.
The church was already nearly full by the time your editor arrived. He and his wife crowded onto a hard bench for the mass. Prayers were offered for what seemed like hundreds of people, saints and sinners, some long dead, and some still ailing. There are only about 10 families in the valley; the same family names keep recurring preceded by Christian names of great variety. And then, the Great Eucharist began, following the familiar pattern. The only unusual element was the sermon which, as mentioned, focused on the life of San Ramon, who watches over the farm with more or less attentiveness.
One other element deserves a note. Special blessings were asked for the farm and its principal features. The priest called out a prayer for the 'tools we use on the farm' and a boy came down the aisle with a hoe and a rake in his hands. Then came a girl with a basket of fruit - apples, pears, grapes and a piece of beef. (It is not the season, so the fruit had to be bought in town.) Another child came with a Bible in hand. And another with a school book. All were blessed.
When the mass was over, the statue of San Ramon was picked up by four bearers and carried outside. Following it, were the same groups in the same order, except that this time the Padre and the altar girls followed immediately behind San Ramon; the rest of the procession fell in line behind them. We reversed our steps. This time we proceeded to the schoolyard, did a circle around the generator in the middle of the yard, and went back to the chapel. Once there, the priest took the microphone to offer a final blessing upon the ranch and all its people. The Padre is a slight man with a warm smile. He is from Spain but has spent most of his career here in northwest Argentina among the very poor indigenous peoples. It is easier to understand him when he talks than it is to understand the local people. Dressed in white, he thanked all the people who had prepared the fiesta and wished good things for them all and the ranch over the 12 months until the next fiesta.
"I also want to thank the ranch owner, Senor Bonner, for contributing so much to the ranch and supporting it through these trying times," he said.
Jorge, foreman and our guide to everything that happens on the ranch, sidled over:
"You should say a few words."
"Yes...you're the owner. They expect it."
At first, we were frozen in place, panicked at the idea of having to speak in public, in Spanish. But there was no way out. Our single, most important goal as owner of the ranch is to win Jorge's respect. We knew we would lose it forever if we failed now.
We took the microphone did our best. We thanked all those who had prepared the fiesta...and all those who lived on or worked on the ranch for making it such a nice place. We vowed to come to the next fiesta. And we invited all present to join in the communal feast which Jorge and his team had prepared.
At least, we think that is what we said. Sometimes our grip on the Spanish idiom is shaky. Often, we think we have commented on the government's macro economic policies and instead we have asked for a turnip. And often, our accent is so thick, or so unaccustomed are the local people to it, that they have no idea what we said anyway. Still, we understand Jorge, and he us; after our brief remarks Jorge gave a nod of approval. That is all that matters.
Maria, Jorge's wife, took the microphone after us. She called forth first the police squad, which did a goose-step march to the applause of the crowd, then a team of children dressed in folkloric costumes performed a Saltena dance routine. It bore some resemblance to Flamenco...with flowing dresses swirling around, while the boys kicked their heels and raised their arms above their heads to the music of local guitars and singers. These school-aged dancers were followed by two women who performed a "copla," a long wail interrupted by lines of sung poetry. It is a musical form to which we had never been properly introduced, but it was appealing in a melancholy way, a bit like keening at a gravesite.
"The copla is supposed to be impromptu...it's ad lib," explained an Argentine friend from Buenos Aires. "It is almost always about love...lost love, of course. But this one was about the love of the place...of Gualfin. At least I think it was. I couldn't quite understand."
By this time, the sun was high...and very hot. People were standing around in a circle in front of the church, admiring the dancing, marching and singing, but also getting hungry. Finally, Maria announced that it was time to eat. Then the crowd turned and followed the trail that led from the chapel to the main house. There, in front of Jorge's house and adjacent to the main house, rows of tables had been arranged, with benches and stools to sit on. Some stretched across the front of Jorge's house, under the mud-covered porch. Others filled the two garages nearby. And still another line of tables were placed under a shade canopy drawn taught between poles.
All of these places, however, proved insufficient for the crowd. There were about 300 to 400 people. The over-flow happily sat down under the willow trees or in the small pasture in front of the house. We worried that there would not be enough food to feed such a multitude. But, of course, Jorge had the whole thing under control.
Lunch was served by 20 or so volunteers - almost all members of Jorge's family or ranch staff. They brought platters of salad - cut up pieces of potatoes and carrots with a mayonnaise sauce - followed by soup and beef. A large fire had been prepared much earlier out in the pasture. The cattle had been butchered in advance, too. The meat was hanging on a long wire between the trees when we arrived the day before. A whole team of men - Jose, Javier, Natalio and Carlos, our ranch hands - slaughtered and roasted the beef. Nolberto, ready for retirement, was put to work stirring up the huge caldrons of soup.
There were two kinds of soup. One was a thick corn soup called 'locro.' The other was described as "el picante." We took that to mean 'spicy,' but it didn't seem especially spicy. It was less thick and included the intestinal parts of the cows. Both were delicious.
Wine, water, coca cola, or some kind of orange flavored drink provided the liquid refreshment.
"Don't bring out too much wine," Jorge had cautioned. "People drink too much. The next thing you know, they are getting out their knives and fighting over a girl...or a cow."
The only heavy drinking we saw was at the head table - our own. But no knives were drawn and no blood was spilled.
The end of the repast was marked by the arrival of an enormous cake, carried by three men and our cook, Martha. The latter had made it, with help from her sister Nicanora. On the top was written: "10 Anos," commemorating the 10th anniversary of the building of the chapel.
Elizabeth was called front and center to cut the cake, along with Maria, Jorge's wife. This they continued to do for at least a half an hour, until all were served.
Then, the crowd began to break up...three people went this way...two went that way... Many came up to us and thanked us for the fiesta. Often, we missed the detail of what they were saying, but we smiled broadly and sincerely, which seemed to be enough.
"This is another world," repeated our friend from the big city.
Bill Bonner is the President & Founder of Agora Inc, an international publisher of financial and special interest books and newsletters.