23 July 2017

In Patagonia

It was tree-less, grey-green thornscrub for as far as you could see. There was no shade and the wind was relentless. The gusts blew my bike out into the road. I had ridden all day in my lowest gear. In 12 hours, I had covered 80 kilometers.

I passed a shrine to Gauchito Gil and then a sign for “Agro Tourism,” and I turned off onto a one-track dirt road that led back to an estancia. In front of a white farmhouse shielded by poplars a man sat at a table drinking mate. I had not seen anyone in three days.

¿Qué tal?

“The wind is strong. The wind has defeated me today,” I said.

“This wind is nothing,” said the man. “In the Land of Fire is the strong wind. La Escoba de Dios. The Broom of God, they call it.”

His name was Guido and I asked about food and water and a place to put up my tent. Did I also want to go horseback-riding, or to fish at the coast? Did I want to hunt guanaco? I told him I was too fatigued for those activities and we came to an agreement that for 100 pesos I would put up my tent and have an asado of mutton for dinner, then breakfast in the morning.

Guido showed me a place along the poplars to put the tent, and as I started to put it up, he whistled and called for “Samantha.” A guanaco came trotting out from the corral. Two sheepdogs barked and nipped at her legs. I had only seen guanaco from a distance on the pampas. They were like deer with bulging black eyes. As the guanaco neared, Guido quickly turned his back to it. The guanaco sniffed at his hair and his neck, and then it rubbed its nose on his back. 

"You must not look at the eyes of Samantha," Guido warned me. “If you look at the eyes, she will [something] on you.”

I looked away. But I did not understand the verb. I asked Guido to repeat it, but I still didn’t understand.

Guido tried in English, “You look at the eyes, she put a spell on you.”

“A spell?”

“A spell. Yes.”

Whether or not I respected the dark power of certain animals to cast spells, I saw the seriousness with which Guido turned his back to the creature, and so when she came for me I quickly turned away. I felt her at my back and then her breathing upon my neck. I reached behind and touched her fur. I wanted to be friendly. I didn’t want her practicing any witchcraft upon me. She pulled out a mouthful of hair from the back of my head and I jumped forward.

Guido laughed. “Cuidate. If she [something] on you, it will take four baths to remove the smell. The saliva is dark and very terrible.”

I realized Guido had been trying to say that Samantha would spit at you if looked directly in the eyes. There was no sorcery involved. He had confused the English words “spell” and “spit.”

I went back to putting up the tent, but Samantha continued to harass me. Being unable to turn and face her, she would trot up behind me and pluck out my hair. It was all very funny for Guido.

When the tent was up, we went behind the farmhouse where the peon was butchering a sheep for the asado. He stretched the carcass on an iron spit and staked it above the fire. A dog chewed on a purpled bunch of intestines in the dust. Guido and I drank cups of rainwater from a barrel.

"Do you not fear camping?"

“What is to fear?”

“Do you not fear the Mapuche?”

“What is the Mapuche?”

Indígenas. They come with a knife in the night. Chorros. Thieves. I do not hire Mapuche. No one hires Mapuche.” He nodded at the peon. “That one is Tehuelche. Only a half-breed.”

Inside the farmhouse, we sat at the dinner table drinking Fernet and cola. It was dark outside and the generator hummed loudly. Samantha looked in through the farmhouse window, her nostrils pressed against the glass. “She looks for you,” said Guido. I thought so too. His wife brought out the heaping plates of mutton-chops with mashed potatoes and a salad of greens and tomatoes. The meat was delicious.

“Do you think more gringos will come here?” Guido asked.

“Maybe. But it is far.”

“In Patagonia everything is far. But there are penguins here.”

"There are penguins in other places too."

The lights flickered and went out. The generator had stopped. It was quiet and his wife lit the candles and we finished eating by candlelight.

“If only they brought us electricity. If only the government brought us running water and telephone lines. More gringos would come then.”


“She destroys Argentina, this Kirchner. This one destroys it worse than the husband. Esos chorros roban Patagonia. These thieves steal from Patagonia.”

His wife touched his arm.

“They argue always for who has the true Peronismo. But all are chorros. Thieves. What they do not steal for themselves, they give to the poor. That is the true Peronismo.”

"He is a little drunk."

“And what if I am drunk? Are they not chorros? Do they not steal from Patagonia?”

“Yes, Guido,” she said gently.

“These thieves steal from Patagonia because it is where there is money. But soon they take all the money. Soon there is no more money!” Guido slammed his fist on the table, his glass bouncing off and shattering on the floor. “Putos chorros!” He looked as though about to cry. He stood from the table and left the room. His wife picked up the pieces of broken glass.

“I am tired,” I said finally.

“Yes,” she said. “The wind was strong today.”

I did not see Samantha at the window. I went to the door and opened it carefully and started towards the tent. Then I heard the guanaco behind me in the darkness and I ran. I heard her stumble on something and I quickly unzipped the rain-fly and crawled inside. I heard her outside. She was nibbling on the tent poles.

In the morning, I packed up and loaded the bike. Guido prepared mate for us and apologized for the night before. After all, it has happened before, he said. First the army will remove her. Then the generals will name the towns and streets after themselves. It has happened before many times. Argentina will have more towns and streets named for generals. He was resigned to it.

13 July 2017

The Black Poet

It was early morning in Ibarra, Ecuador, and all the bars were closed except for a small, one-room tavern at the edge of the old city. It stayed open for men who were committed to their drinking. The police did not bother with it so long as the drinking was done quietly. At a wooden table inside, I was sharing liter bottles of beer with an out-of-work carpenter, a belly dancer, one very drunken photographer, and the Black Poet of Ibarra.

The belly dancer had just finished her performance and returned to the table. She wore a green sheer dress and a sparkling bikini top, and she jingled when she moved. Four old men at the other table looked at her longingly. She smiled and was not ashamed of her bad teeth. She very much enjoyed the attention.

The Black Poet stood and announced that his poem for me was now complete.

He asked that the pasillo music be turned off. From the pocket of his corduroy jacket, the Black Poet produced a jagged piece of convex glass. It looked as though it had been broken from the bottom of a bottle. He held the glass to his eye and he began to read the poem he had written on both sides of a small square of paper:

Undiscovered friend, pollen of light,
Dragonfly that heeds the pollen of the setting sun,
Torch of wind inflamed,
You noble rebel of thought
Your heart is a tear of rain
That no one can undermine to fail
Your thought is perfect, but cold
Like a game of death
On the outspoken lips of life
You love not philosophy,
But love instead the sad and cloudy mirror
Of the fool’s heart
Go and fill your pockets with wind
And having no longer the ugliness of words
All shall be yours
The perfect, impressible beauty of the heavens.

The photographer had his head on the table and was asleep. The belly dancer put her hand on my thigh. Your poem was beautiful, she said. Take her upstairs if you want, said the carpenter. The Black Poet handed me the square of paper. The poem was written in a shaky but elegant script. The poem is now yours, he said. Please, will you do me the favor of walking me home? 

The Black Poet was old and very sad. His wife of 48 years had just died. He walked slowly and talked to me of Augustine and Nietzsche and the Pre-Socratics. He talked of how life might have been had not men become so reasonable, had not the myths been rejected and the gods exiled. I told him that his verse about having pockets filled with wind was going to stay with me a long time. The Black Poet lived nearby and I slept a few hours on his couch until the sun came up.
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