by Pete McCann
The frontiers of Wilderness may still be found in a tiny village of Argentina.
|THE FRONTIERS OF WILDERNESS
It was Sunday evening. My friend Jack called me from Buenos Aires to ask me to check out one of his client’s land-investments in the village of Amblayo in northwestern Argentina nestling high in the Andes Mountain range.
I wasn’t really interested until he said:
“Look, Pete, all you have to do is go and look around, take some photographs, talk to the neighbors and draw up a report. The owners have never even seen the place so they want to know what it’s like. You’ll be well paid of course. Besides,” and I could see the juicy bait wriggling on the shiny hook he was shamelessly dangling in front of my eyes: “The property covers almost all of Calchaqui valley and has a town in the middle. It stretches over...get this, Pete: 90,000 acres!” He hesitated and added: “you get two grand and all expenses paid for a couple of days work!”
“What’s the name of the town?” I asked just to stretch the matter a little further and not give in too easily.
“Amblayo,”” he answered.
“Ok. I’ll get onto it,” my self esteem lower than ever.
Ï knew you’d like it!,” my friend said smugly.
I had no idea what I was getting into.
I looked up Amblayo in one of my guidebooks and read:
“Amblayo. Province of Salta. Population 150. Department of San Carlos. Part of the Calchaquí Valley System. Well known within the province for its goat cheese.” End of description. I unfolded a map of the area and sure enough, there it was: Five blocks long, one wide. The towering mountains surrounding the valley went by names such as Mt. Falcon People, Mt. Small Hill (at 14,000 ft.!), and Mt. Dead Bull among others. I was beginning to like this project.
At the time, I was living temporarily in Salta, the colonial-style Capital City of Argentina’s northwestern province of the same name. City and province are endowed with remarkable natural beauty. The topography ranges from flat deserts in the northwest,through impenetrable jungle in the East to some of the highest mountains in the world, the Andes range, due West. The city of Salta sprawls across a valley close to the foothills of the Andes at a height of over 3000 feet.
A local friend warned me to pack a thick sweater and the warmest jacket I possessed for, though in the city the sun blazed down creating an average temperature of 37 degrees Celsius, high up in the Andes it would be around 15 or 20 degrees below zero. This later turned out to be good advice and I was to be glad I heeded it.
Another important piece of advice I followed was to take along a person known to the people in the area. Alone I would get only surly, laconic responses from the local inhabitants, descendents of the Indians who roamed the valleys and fought fiercly over their territory until the Spaniards finally drove away those they hadn’t already massacred. Living in their valley, isolated from the rest of the world at over 9000 ft., they tended to be suspicious of strangers, especially those with white skin and blue eyes both of which I am afflicted with. I contacted Orlando Chaile who had spent over 15 years in the area as a teacher at the frontier school in the area. Orlando was to prove himself a wonderful companion, knowledgeable in local history and a keen and understanding observer of the inhabitants' ways.
Orlando and I packed his aging four-wheel drive pick-up truck with our few belongings and presents of fruits and vegetables to give the to the townspeople. Their isolation didn't allow them to purchase these goods very often. Also, it was a way to show our goodwill toward these people who had been lied to and exploited by politicians and landowners for generations.
Once loaded, Ortlando took his time getting the truck started. He cajoled it while pressing the starter button time and time again. Eventually it fired up and he turned to me, with a smile I interpreted as "See...old, rundown but faithful".
Some three miles out of Salta City we began to see the first tobacco fields neatly laid out on either side of the road. The road itself was a narrow asphalt ribbon leading through green fields and flanked on either side by tall eucalyptus and cypress trees. In Salta the towns are just a few miles apart despite the vast extent of the land.The villagers travel back and forth on bicycles. It can be a hair-raising experience to round one of the many curves and suddenly face three cyclists abreast chatting merrily among themselves and ignoring the oncoming traffic.
Orlando drove well and carefully so I had plenty of time to admire the pastoral landscapes as we passed. We lowered the truck windows to let the wind cool us. No airconditioner in this truck! The fresh, calming smells of the fields swept in. In the fields horses and cows gently grazed their way through life occasionally lifting their heads to whiff the dense air and watch the sparse traffic moving along the road.They seemed impressed by those strange butswift metal animals emitting evil-smelling gases and disturbing noises. Sparrows, plovers and swallows darted about their daily business with an eye on the large predator hawks sweeping in lazy arcs above them. The small birds, I saw, had their own defense strategy. When one of the predators failed to climb quickly enough when leveling out of its nose dive, the little ones banded together by the dozen just above it pecking and beating at it one after the other, hindering the hawk's ascent. If it got away with one eye still in place, it could consider itself fortunate.
Small, Spanish-colonial style houses made of whitewashed adobe and could be seen near the highway while further away smaller huts nestled beneath wide shade-trees. Farm laborers lived in the latter and the landowners or foremen lived in the former. Feudal life here is still very much alive. Stooping In the fields, female figures tended the crops, bowler hats angled on their heads and pinned to their hair, wide rumps counter-balancing stocky trunks as they leaned over and picked at the weeds or plucked away dead tobacco leaves. Their men-folk preferred to stay inside, away from the heat, sweat and strain of hard work. They sipped mate tea, smoked handmade cigarettes and sat silently staring into the void of their lives while dozens of flies buzzed around unmolested. Now and then one of the weather beaten men, complained about the heat and the callowness of the local landowners in the meantime watching their women painfully bending their hardened bodies over the soil. As often as not a small baby wrapped in a cloth hammock swung over the shoulder of one of the women as they performed their magic on the land. The Andes mountains stretched across the horizon, a high, dark but beckoning backdrop. I felt I had traveled a thousand years back in time.
To dispel the mood of drowsiness caused by the sun's hypnotic reflection glinting off the road, the pastoral scenery and the constant rumble of the motor, I asked Orlando to tell me about his experience as a teacher in the field. He is what in this country is officially called a “Frontier Teacher” carrying out his job not necessarily on the nation's borders but on the frontiers of wilderness, a category recognized by the government and which entails a slightly higher salary.Orlando went about his work in sparsely inhabited areas, frequently where the climate is unmerciful and the population living at subsistence level. The teacher in a shanty town in the heart of a big city would also legally be considered a “Frontier Teacher".
In these regions a frontier teacher discovers he is given, like it or not, attributes and responsibilities that become a heavy burden. He, or she, must not only teach the children their three Rs but also instruct illiterate parents in how to cope with their adverse environment. He is asked to settle family feuds, habitually of a violent nature. He is expected to obtain, all be it miraculously, assistance of all kinds from the nearest town or on occasion, Salta City authorities. Malcontents must be put in their place and shown how to get along with their neighbors and the wild but beautifully postulated promises of hand-waving election-year politicians must be placed in perspective. He must arbitrate lovers’ disputes and apply first aid when needed, often due to the large amount of cactus needles and venomous insects and snakes. In a place where myth, gossip and reality are one, the teacher can make unconditional friends or arch enemies very easily. The latter usually handy with scythe and longknife, carbine and shotgun and endowed with primitively quick tempers. The “macho” sensitivity is not only overwhelmingly present but admired and honed to a fine art. It is easy to understand why few frontier teachers remain at their jobs for very long.
I turned to him and asked: “Does the government curriculum include teaching children how to adapt to their particular surroundings?”
“No,” he replied somewhat unexpectedly. "Not really. In and around Amblayo, for example, cacti abound. It’s all over the place as you’ll soon see. Dry cactus wood is very good for making pretty boxes and small furniture. It’s a light wood and naturally patterned by thousands of little holes and dents which make it perfect for fashioning decorative boxes or masks. It’s hard enough to be used for light furniture too. But the locals only make crude fence posts and goat pens."
"So?" I prompted.
"So once I filed a requisition with the education authorities to send me some basic carpentry tools in order to teach the children to make boxes, masks and light furniture. "Mind you," he said turning to smile at me, "most of these people sit on logs and cow skulls in their homes. Their floors are just compacted soil. I wanted the children to see how they could create something better, figuring that they would spur their parents into a little ambition. It was a useless task. They're too set in their own old ways and innovations such as chairs or tables met with too much resistance."
"Well," I exclaimed, suitably amazed, "they really are primitive."
Orlando chuckled as if saying "wait and see, Pete". I asked, "what happened with the requisition, it seemed like a good idea?"
"Ha! They sent me a letter many weeks later explaining that carpentry wasn't on their list of school supplies but they would be happy to send us some surplus books on Roman history. I followed this up with several visits to the authorities in the city and although they sympathized, they couldn't get the tools for me. It was against the rules. I asked them what they thought of teaching Roman Civilization to illiterate Indians living in the middle of the Andes at subsistence level. I explained that what they needed was to break out of isolation albeit through the use of simple carpentry to make basic furniture. Did the authorities think, by chance, that these kids could get jobs at a university teaching Roman History? And I said much more, for instance just where they could stash their surplus books...one by one. In a province gnarled in red tape," he sneered, "it was impossible not to go by the book."
I had run up against this kind of idiotic bureaucracy myself more than once. "Did you just give up?"
"No way, Pete," he replied.
Orlando had then organized a meeting with the parents. This was no mean feat since more than a few had to ride in on horseback from many miles away after a weary day's work in the fields. Once they were gathered in the school mess room he explained his plans to obtain carpentry tools so their children could learn to make practical items to be used in their homes or even sent to the city and sold to tourists in another larger village for a little much-needed cash. To get the tools, he pointed out, we need money. Needless to say, cash was a commodity few disposed of in the valley community. They bartered and exchanged their own goods rather than use cash. But they did have a few crops, goats and goat cheese. The latter were considered a delicacy by the city folk. Lambs, goats and cheese were offered and accepted. Orlando took the meager offerings to the city in his battered pick-up truck assisted by a few of the menfolk and sold them. With the proceeds a few carpentry benches and tools were purchased and hauled back to the school.
By now, the pavement had given way to a winding dirt mountain road. Orlando swerved thoughtfully around the first of hundreds of curves to come as the road creeped up the Obispo mountainside, doubling back on itself every two or three hundred yards. At each curve Orlando tapped the strident horn of his truck to warn any oncoming car of his approach. Any small misjudgment of space when passing could mean slipping over the edge and dropping into eternity.
The tobacco fields were now being replaced by mountains; some red, some green, some gray. the Andes towered above us, clouds whirled across the valley, blasted through ravines and whipped from side to side on haphazard crosswinds far below the summits. A few condors could be seen, small specks floating above, lazily playing the thermals, waiting patiently for something to die and then swoop down and gather some food for themselves and their chicks. The air was dryer and thinning out as we climbed. I rolled up my window before the coldness crept in.
Orlando was humming and smiling to himself while carefully threading his way around loose boulders and small landslides. I looked at the mountain wall on my side, so near I could reach out and touch it. It was striped by dull gray strata.
"What are those gray strata on the mountain side?" I asked.
"Those are ancient algae, from the bottom of the ocean floor," he replied matter-of-factly.
"At 6.600 ft.!" I blurted unbelievingly. Orlando was patient. He was a school teacher.
"The Andes were born when the Southern Pacific tectonic plaque rammed into the continent, slid underneath it and raised the ocean floor to its present height millions of years ago. Here, I'll show you!"
Orlando stopped the truck and we both climbed out. "Look at this," he said pulling out his pocket knife. He slid the thin blade expertly between a fold of the seam of algae and worked a chunk off. He broke the piece in his hands and surely enough I could see the perfect form of the ancient plants and ancient crustaceans. "If we had time we could surely find fossils of long extinct sea animals. I sometimes bring the kids here to show them so they can see for themselves what I teach them in the classroom". I was impressed and after breaking off a few more pieces to take home to my daughter who was finishing high school in the sophisticated Buenos Aires, we climbed back into the truck and continued our journey but not before I took a last aching look at the wondrous primitiveness of nature around me.
Still maneuvering his way up the mountain, Orlando asked me:
"Can you imagine anyone never having eaten lettuce?" I duly showed surprise at the question and was intrigued to see where it was leading. "OK, Orlando, tell me who you know that has never eaten lettuce," I said.
"Well, as you know we are carrying fruit and vegetables in the back of the truck to give to them. I am practically the only supplier here of this type of food since few people come here."