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1950s Archive

South American Journey


Originally Published March 1956

One cannot see a country,” Uncle Willie said, “by staying in its largest and most popular city. We must move on. Travel is broadening.”

“So are the meals you order,” I said. We were in our rooms at the Plaza Hotel in Buenos Aires, trying to figure out just how far our money would go and how we could go on with what we had left. There was a knock on the door and a little waiter came in with our breakfast on a wheeled table. He bowed and said, “Mornin’, señors.”

Uncle Willie motioned for me to tip the man and began to pour the coffee. He passed me a plate of dulce de lece, milk and jam over very thin pancakes. “I don't understand, Stevie,” he said, “how a nation as new and primitive in many ways as this one is eats better than we Americans—cooks its food better and serves it better. Perhaps it's because at heart we're puritans—blue nosed reformers afraid of well-fed souls. Pass me the broiled trout.”

The truite verte, from the cold upland streams, had been stuffed with a mixture of mashed egg yolks, pickles, mushrooms, and water cress and then barbecued. Uncle Willie also had some hot asparagus canapés. I finished off with a pecan torte, and Uncle Willie handed me a cigar I had paid for. We sat smoking, looking over the road maps and planning a trip to the Argentine-Chilean lake district.

There was tapping on our door, and a small plump woman came in, her pretty face one big smile. It was Lolita (“what-you-call-Mollie”) Valez, my Buenos Aires art dealer.

“Ho, boy,” she said as she saw our breakfast table. “What Mollie she needs is one big cup coffee.” She poured and drank and sat down and kicked off her very high-heeled shoes. “I am feeling no pain, as you Yankees say. The art show was a big success. I have sold eight big pictures.” She sighed happily.

“That's fine,” I said. “We want to go into the lake country.”

Mollie put down her cup and took a sheet of paper from a purse made of an alligator's head and paws. “Is the adding here—less my per cent, the lighting, the booze for the art lovers, the printing, the broken window, the newspaper ads, the dinners for the critics,” she said briskly. “So—I owing you five thousand pesos.”

That would get us across die Andes into Chile where I had some lectures booked. Mollie ate a piece out of a small pencil and sighed. “I have spent much money and will owe her to you. But I am willing to do a thing. I will marry Uncle Willie if you will take one-third of what is due you. I like Willie.”

I must say I could only sit with my mouth open, but my Uncle Willie is more a man of the world. He smiled, knocked off a bit of good Havana ash from his cigar, and crossed his legs.

“Charming,” he said. “Mollie, charming, and I'm honored. But I am not sure we are a pair.”

Un clavo saca otro clavo,” said Mollie.

“What we need it a period of adjusting and testing. Suppose, instead of getting married, we become engaged. And instead of giving us one-third of what is due us, you give us two-thirds? I promise you won't regret it.”

Mollie rose and came over and kissed Uncle Willie on the cheek. She was weeping with pleasure. “What a gentleman. Like my father, Don Filipo de Avellanedo Manrique Cordoba (sweet Jesus, take care of his soul). We are then engaged.”

She reached into her blouse and pulled out crisp new native bank notes and began to count.

I went out on the balcony and looked down past the Ninth of July Avenue on the sunny, happy, busy city, and left the engaged couple alone. Mollie came out and said, “I am driving you up to the lake. Your Uncle Willie! Like a king with his waxed mustaches!”

“May you two be very happy.” I felt like a page out of Alice In Wonderland.

“You need a valet, you two. A man to take care of your clothes and baggage. In the lake country it is the habit. I have a brother. He will make a valet.”

“No, Mollie, you've done enough. I think I know of a valet.”

I did not want any more of MoIlie's relations; I had seen enough of them at the art gallery. She left after kissing us, and I looked at Uncle Willie, who was savagely breaking the neck of his cigar in the hotel ash tray. “You may think me a coward, Stevie, to become engaged so easily. But I don't think we would have gotten a penny of our money otherwise. Don't worry; I've been engaged several times, but I've never married. I agree with the Bible: ’What they do in Heaven we know not, but there is no giving or taking in marriage.’ ”

“That's not in the Bible. Swift said that.” I corrected him.

Uncle Willie retorted coolly, as he usually did when caught up. “Swift is my Bible.”

I said, “I've got to go down to a bodegón and find a man I think will be our valet. We're traveling in style.”

Uncle Willie nodded. “About time. That vulgar life in Beverly Hills has made you lack.”

It was only when I got down to the street that I remembered I hadn't asked Uncle Willie for the money Mollie had given him.

The New Capurro was the haunt of cab drivers, horse dealers, and men with no known legitimate professions, and sure enough, against the teakwood bar, drinking a manda tin-juice gin fizz, was Rollo Lobengula Firbank, the big descendant of African kings, three hundred pounds of him in wrinkled linen.

I greeted him and ordered us two more fizzes. “Rollo, things are bad for you?”

His big black face became a sad mask. “I am no longer a diamond dealer. They have taken back my stock; it was only on consignment. I am an Oxford man, the great-grandson of Zulu war chiefs. I shall teach drawing in a girls' school. I like the way girls walk here on their high heels and—”

“Nuns teach the girls here, Rollo, If you're not too proud I have a job for you. Will you go back to an old trade? Valet, hundred a month, U. S. A., all your food, and travel.”

Rollo sighed, and his big body shook emotionally as he finished his fizz. He said, “And castoffs. Mr. Willie's foot size is the same as mine. Those snake-skin shots, he will be discarding them soon. Hope the chaps at Oxford never hear of this.”

I didn't know if Rollo had ever been to Oxford or was actually a descendant of Zulu kings. But I liked his spirit, his grace, and his style in facing a hard cruel world. If he was an actor he played his part well. I told him to meet us at the hotel at ten the next morning.

I left him telling the barman about his great-grandfather's 263 wives. “It was not just for pleasure or show, you know, but for watching one's wealth. Each wife cost two hundred long-horned cattle; a man could watch a wife easier than two hundred cattle. Figure out what those wives represented in cold solid cash. Why, it was like living with the Bank of England. And the rate of interest was the kids. Live dividends.”

At ten the next morning, packed, we sent the boys up for the baggage. Rollo showed up in a pith sun helmet and a freshly pressed white linen suit. He bowed to Uncle Willie, secured our luggage in the little Italian car with neatly spliced leather straps, lit our morning cigars, blew air into Mollie's leather driving gloves and handed them to her, and then got into the back with me. I could see he had pleased Uncle Willie, who didn't bother much about how a diamond salesman could suddenly become a valet.

Mollie, dressed in a snug green knitted dress with a white scarf tied around her sleek black hair, and wearing dark Hollywood smoked glasses, raced the motor and then Said. “Hokay, here we go.”

We passed (Rollo said) the Maipo, the local burlesque house, and then the Odéon, where a visiting French company was doing Un Tramway Nommé Désir. Soon the Avenida Corrientes led us out of town, towards Mar del Plata, 250 miles from the city, on the ocean, the Palm Beach of Argentina. We took our time, ate a good lunch on the road, and at four entered the beach town. Mollie suggested the Hotel Provincial, and Rollo said we must try our luck at the casino, Uncle Willie said Mar del Plata was famous for its sea food. We were all sun- and wind-burned.

Uncle Willie and I had a suite, and Hollo pressed our pants for our evening at the casino with a portable iron he carried in a small tin trunk.

Mollie looked very good in her evening gown of blue beads and dark silk. We ate dinner at a place called, without much imagination, the Fish Grotto. But it was very good food.

Uncle Willie ordered a special drink to protect us from dyspepsia and dysentery and dropsy. He called it “The Tourists' Protector.” It is a mixture of orange rind, brandy, rosemary, and a teaspoon of fennel seed. To this you add two cups of wild honey, and (this is important) with a cold steel knife, not silver, scrape into it the pulp of two green apples. According to Uncle Willie, the chemical action of the steel on the green apples will keep off dysentery. I only half believed this until an Army doctor told me it was a sure cure.

The medical part of the meal done with, Uncle Willie ordered dinner. He began with shrimp and a soup made of hard crabs, lobster, and okra stock and flavored with a bouquet garni, strong with thyme and bay leaf. The main dish was white bass cooked in oiled paper bags. The fish is sniffed with mushrooms, smoked sausage, Sherry-soaked water chestnuts, and bean sprouts, all flavored with a little soy sauce and molasses. I suspect the dish is originally Chinese, for Chinese and Japanese colonies arc established up and down the Argentine coast. Uncle Willie asked for Drambuie, and Mollie and I had little glasses of Kümmel.

Uncle Willie said, “Now to the gambling tables.”

We didn't do so well at the casino, but Mollie and I danced a few rounds next door to the music of a band that had an idea it was playing Dixieland. Uncle Willie reported he had just held his own at the tables, and we went back to the hotel, ready to start in the morning for the estancias at Chapadmalal and Ojo de Agua, where they breed fancy horses. I wanted to do some sketching, too.

I came awake to the smell of coffee and opened one eye to find Rollo, in a white jacket, standing over me, a silver tray in his hands.

“Hard night?” he asked.

“Not too good,” I said, sitting up.

Rollo poured the coffee, buttered the toast, and unfolded a napkin. “I had a good night at the wheel. The number eight and the red were very good to me. I won ten thousand pesos.”

“You're the rich man in the party, Rollo. Maybe I better serve you.”

Rollo held out a fat finger. On it glittered a huge yellow diamond. I was impressed. “It's blinding.”

“It's a good size, but frankly there is a huge flaw under the setting. However, it was a bargain, and I feel dressed again. Once a diamond man, always a diamond man. Your gray suit today? And may I suggest the brown tie and socks?”

I followed his suggestions, and Uncle Willie come in in his dressing gown. “Mollie phoned,” he said. “We start right after breakfast. That coffee hot, Rollo?”

Mollie was wearing a suede skirt, a black sweater, and a turban of silver cloth. “Must look like horsy people, where we are going. They like you on the estancias to conform.”

We drove along good dirt roads past flat fields, and far off the violet haze of distance danced. Steers ran in rough pastures dotted with small ranch houses. Once in a while we ran through a small town: tin-roofed houses of clay or brick, tattered dusty trees, a large village square, a big glazed-tile church, often in ruins; and we saw wonderful-looking horses, frisking and feeding. At the Rancho Larrea I got out the roll of white wrapping paper that I often use instead of a sketch book, and began to draw forms of running horses, in black lines of very black ink. Uncle Willie and Mollie sat in the shade of a tile porch and drank maté and then rum. Rollo was around the back peddling zircons to the horse hands and field crews.

A little boy named Chico came out to watch me draw a big dark stallion they called Tar Baby. He told me about the horse's history and his life in the pampas grass. The horse would always remember the pampas grass; it bloomed waxy-yellow on every hill, and all day water ran draining away under his hoofs, and the mares with their foals were frisky on the slippery ground. If he hadn't been so proud, he might have joined in their childish play too. But of course he couldn't, Chico said.

The land was his home. Chico said Tar Baby was never frightened. He was a true stallion. He knew it and told it to the birds that helped him eat his oats.

It was a good ranch, I said as I drew.

When the thin rains snipped and the land dried, Chico said, the (lowers came out between the Judas trees, and the old lady's garden bloomed. The Stream water was very clean and cold. Tar Baby loved to bury his nose in it and blow bubbles and hunt frogs and frighten them. The sun was hot overhead every day and the birds hunted in the cool, inky pines.

Everything was hot now, as I worked; in the plain to the south the checker-board lizards and armadillos came our to watch us.

It was amazing, the greenness, Chico said, that came so quickly and gulped so much in a hurry; it knew it could not last, for the big sun was very warm. The stallion grew large; Chico told me the colt burst out into a horse. The dark, wet dorsal streak, smooth as silk, and the springy, sloping pasterns, going quickly over the windy grass, took on form.

The Gauchos admired Tar Baby's wide, high heel and the good concave below it, and rubbed down his oblique shoulders and patted his smooth, free hocks as he flexed them.

Chico said he used to come down early in the morning to run his hands across Tar Baby's square skull and slide fingers along the stifle and the thigh, so strong and long. Tar Baby liked people. He was a good horse, though he was proud; he could enjoy the close contact on the ranch and the glow of the life that went on there.

Sometimes lightning forked in the sky, but he stood still, Chico said, his silky mane and tail showing none of the curl that is the sign of a coarse breed. He flared his large, dilating nos-trils, and he laughed. Yes, laughed, Chico swore; a horse with a sense of humor and the feel of life can laugh.

It wasn't all fun and play. I saw how they trained him. They stopped Tar Baby's kicking when they saddled him. They let him walk along the road a bit before Chico got into the saddle. But it was all right; he liked the boy, and after the first flow of wonder and resentment boiled from him he walked Chico around the road. Then he trotted. knees advancing high. Oh. he knew everything with only a few hints, an old Gaucho said; he remembered from : hundred generations of ancestral horses.

In the local stud ledger they entered his name as Black Nero, but no one eve-called him anything but Tar Baby, and they pulled his car when they said it.

Chico sighed. The years of no water were bad. The flowers still bloomed, bu the time of quick seeding was near. The hills were turning from apple green to olive green; fawn and brown and tan colors were creeping between the rocks and the slopes where the firs in their dark green were not heavy were fading away to soft, sun-washed colors.

The sheep were out to catch the Irs of the green growths; the cows ami steers went picking their pasturage among the foothills, and soon a neutral tone would settle over the range except where the streams and the dams and the deep wells pumped their wetness onto the earth. There, the grass would grow thick.

I finished my drawings and gave Chico one of Tar Baby. He thanked me and said I was much artist.

With many good-bys we left for the mountains. Rollo looked tired and sad. He had been selling his zircons. A zircon looks like a diamond, feels like a diamond, flashes like a diamond, but it isn't a diamond.

Rollo moaned and rubbed an eye. “They gave me a red eye.”

I said, “Why a red eye?”

“Because with my face you can't give me a black eye. So when Emilio, the tall horse breaker, hit me in the face I got a red eye, see?”

I saw. “Why did he hit you?”

“I was kissing his wife and he came and hit me.” He rubbed his eye again.

Uncle Willie laughed. “That's to be expected.”

Mollie nodded. “You mustn't monkey with the wife in this part of the country”.

Rollo moved in discomfort. “That wasn't what bothered Emilio. I had sold him a zircon, and he thought it was a diamond. I hadn't said so. but I hadn't said it wasn't. He showed it to somebody and they said it wasn't a diamond. So he came in and told his wife I was no gentleman and she stepped aside, and poof—he gave me this red eye.”

Mollie began to sing: “Mi amor es Como el conejo. My love is like a rabbit, sensitive as the deer.”