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1950s Archive

South American Journey


Originally Published April 1956

In many ways Uncle Willie and I were just like all the other tourists in Argentina. Always in a hurry, we saw too much, digested some of it, but left the real national mystery, the full flavor of Argentina, untouched by our swift passing. In other ways we weren't at all like other tourists; we didn't have a lot of money, we sometimes lived On the side roads, we talked to the people whom the other tourists didn't notice, and we didn't carry cameras. Every other tourist staggered from his hotel loaded down with at least two cameras, one for movies, one for snapshots, plus color meters, rolls of film, tripods, extra lenses, manuals,cloud filters, Hash attachments, bulbs, leather cases, and timers. Uncle Willie and I could no more have loaded a camera than an atomic cannon, and neither of us knew how to snap a picture that showed both the legs and the heads of the subjects.

“What a banal thing the photograph is,” said Uncle Willie. “It lacks the true feel of flesh, the proper warmth of sunshine, the smell and taste of life that only good painting can give you. They copy the tricks of painters, those camera bugs, and get nothing but damn shadows. Let Rollo do the picture-taking.”

Rollo, all three hundred black pounds of him, not only served as valet, but he owned a small Swiss “spy” camera the size and shape of a cigarette lighter. It had a lens as big as an apple seed and exposed a strip of film the size of a wide shoelace. It had one real virtue; the resulting pictures couldn't be seen without a magnifying glass. Rut Rollo went on snapping it.

Rollo, all three hundred black pounds of him, not only served as valet, but he owned a small Swiss “spy” camera the size and shape of a cigarette lighter. It had a lens as big as an apple seed and exposed a strip of film the size of a wide shoelace. It had one real virtue; the resulting pictures couldn't be seen without a magnifying glass. Rut Rollo went on snapping it.

We were rolling across vast Argentine space in Mollie’s little car, crossing the pampas to Bariloche in the Argentine-Chilean lake district. A plane could have taken us from B. A. in four and a half hours, but we would have missed the dust and heat and the far purple hills and the great green-yellow pampas and the wild riding horsemen and the thousands of cattle, soon to end up in England as tins of beef.

Argentina is a wide, wonderful land, its resources just touched. Its railroads, mines, shipping, and raw materials are still waiting to be exploited. The English control the railroads and many of the city bus and trolley lines, and pay dividends to old colonels resting at Bath and Brighton. And of course there are the Germans, who are the new lords of factories and mills in Argentina.

We had lunch with one of these Germans at Los Menucos, where we gave up the roads and loaded the car and all of us onto a train. Herr von Schiller ran a packing house, and he had a freight car on which we could transport Mollie's car, so we ate lunch with him. It was a good one.We had turtle soup with the turtle meat and hard-cooked eggs braised in Sherry, roast quail on yellow rice with slices of apples and pineapple, and barbecued beef on skewers. (It had been bathed in olive oil, lime juice, Tabasco,and dried thyme and had smoldered on the fire coals.) We drank green Chartreuse and native sparkling wine, not too bad.

The train was not air conditioned, and the blue plush scats were grimy. Mollie slept and Rollo told us of his life in Argentina on the Bahia Blanca delta as a young man, when he first came to the country.

“I didn't have too bad a time. I liked the pull of the tidal waters; the color of the geraniums that Leda,my yellow girl, grew in old cans; the pies of blueberries; our shoat fattening under the cabin floor on oak acorns.

“I was getting no place and knew it,” he went on, “but we enjoyed the rose blooms and every once in a while one of the planters went mad and axed his father or got shotgunned with the wrong woman. A strangler of a storm used to wreck our boats from time to time. Once the tax collector burned my boat and we lived on cooter stew and eggs; the big land turtle has a lor of pink-and-white meat and the eggs are good eating, even if the whites never do boil hard. I bought some traps and trapped wild pig, and possum, fat from eating pinders and persimmons, and the gray fox. I trapped and seined. I caught mudfish and eels, jacks and big-mouthed bass. Good eating. I should have been unhappy but I wasn't. The plant-jungle smell pleased me, the roar of a bull ‘gator,the sight of floating tussocks, the islands of floating trees, and I even planted some acres of yams.

“Life for the average man in Argentina isn't luxury, but it isn't hard and living can be fun. You drink the yerba maté, eat the calabasinos and papa fritas (stuffed squashes and fried potatoes), lots of pucberos (stews), and much beef.

“For fun I raised up fighting cocks. It's the baseball of the back country, the football and polo of the poor and middle-class. I raised up some biddies of Dominique hens and bred some fighting gamecocks. My little cock-fighting roosters lived better than most people I knew. I bred up some Roundheads crossed with Brazil Blues and White Hackles, but I didn't care much for the Haiti Grays. I had a nest set of fighting cocks the year after the yellow girl came. One of my best with bronze-green feathers was Little Eddie. A fat old don named Diaz Ruiz Ovando had a blue cock, Dark Miguel, and I bet a hundred on Littler Eddie. I had raised him up on soft food and hard-crushed corn. I plucked out his tail feathers so he looked sleek and fast.I clipped his comb down to a nub with a razor. I filed off his own spurs and fitted him with steel needle gaffs. It was a great day on our delta when the meet in an old coffee barn started with the judge shouting, 'Bill your cocks.' And after they had touched bills he said, 'Pit your cocks.'

“It was a great fight and Little Eddie was doing fine, springing up in the air like an explosion of feathers and coming in spurs first, like a charging cactus plant. But the blue Miguel outweighed him and was lucky, very lucky. Little Eddie got a gaff full in his brain, and he died,beak and mouth open, a drop of blood on the end of his horny nose. I wrung his neck tenderly. I felt so bad I decided to go into the salesman business. Maybe I was wrong to leave the fat easy life on the Bahia delta.”

The train was climbing now, going like a snorting little horse up the grades, climbing up towards the blue skies, up to the mountains and the lakes. Mollie came awake and said, “How old-fashioned to come by train. We should use the airplane.”

Uncle Willie shook dust off his dark straw hat and said, “You see more this way.”

“You see it full of cinder, dear.”

At last we got to Bariloche. It looks just like the Swiss villages on badly colored post cards, with houses with peaked roofs and wooden walls. In fact, some Swiss had been its original settlers. In the winter (the winter here is from July to October) there is even skiing. The whole region is part of the Nahuel Huapi National Park.

We got our little car in order and rode on to Lake Nahuel Huapi. Rollo lost a fight with two Indian boys over who should move our bags. The government runs the two hotels here and they are both good: the Llao-Llao (you say it yao-yao—and if I were a proper travel writer I'd find out what it means, but I don't know) and the Tunqueien. We took the first, just on a gamble. We had some fine rooms with a balcony overlooking the lake, and we sat on our balcony in the late sun drinking light rum and fruit juice, looking over the best that nature could offer. The lake is 2,000 feet high, and we could look up at mountains that lorded it over us at 1,200 feet. Unlike most travelers, we had no desire to climb them.

Rollo picked up the empty glasses and said, “Tomorrow you can go fishing at Lake Traful, or take a motorboat to the fiord at Puerto Blest. There is also a huge waterfall, Cascada Blanca, that comes down from the glaciers.”

“Keep your information to yourself,” said Uncle Willie. “I'm here to rest.Do they have a tango band?”

“The best,” said Rollo, helping Uncle Willie to an ash tray.

“Good,” said Uncle Willie. “I dislike raw nature in all her forms, wild places the most. Mollie and I will stay and dance. You, Stevie, can do what you want.”

Mollie held Uncle Willie's hand. “You are the most man I have been engaged to for the much long time.”

“Stop talking like Hemingway, ” said Uncle Willie, and he went inside to the bar. He was not in a good mood. Unlike Gramp, his father, he was awed and made sad when nature in the large economy-size showed him all her muscles.

Rollo said to me, “We will go hunting the wild boar tomorrow, you and I. I will get permits. I would like to use a Zulu spear, but we'll use guns. Then I will have the hotel chef cook the boar, African style.”

“I suppose so, Rollo. I don't want to be around when Uncle Willie gets one of his moods.”

It is always cold in the morning this high up. The green-yellow day is the color of ice, and the air is sharp and biting. I got up at dawn and got into rough clothes, and let Rollo put a hunting rifle in my hand. Two dark Indian boatbuilders were to be our guides. They had taken the day off from chopping out a boat from a solid tree trunk, and they had four small, mean-looking dogs who looked ready to bite anyone without notice. Rollo was in hunting brown, a long knife in his belt. We climbed up. We climbed down. We walked over rocks, went past spuming waterfalls that fell like feathers on ladies' hats. Unlike Uncle Willie, I enjoyed it all, and as the day grew brighter I felt one with the universe, the mountains,the steady roar of icy water, the slow pace of the guides, and even the surly dogs. In life there come a few moments when everything is just right, and all turmoil fades out. That is how it was the day I went after boar.

A guide made a hand motion, the dogs lowered their growls. Rollo, very erect, nodded, his big black body at ease and poised. There was a rattle of stones, the snap of a twig, and then out of some fruit-green bushes came a shaggy snout, two sharp, curved tusks stained with yellow, and the meanest-looking little eyes I'd seen since my last motion picture producer. Rollo held his hand up, the dogs ran forward, yipping, and I saw there were two of the wild pigs; I could smell them now, the gamy odor of living, four-legged animals.

The large boar came right at me, slashing a dog aside, and I knelt down to fire and got the blurred head right in the sights. I was calm, too calm, and reality was far away. At five yards I fired, the gun butt hit my shoulder, I ejected the empty shell and fired again. The boar coughed, leaped, turned to one side as if ashamed to show me his mean death. In a flash the dogs were all over him.

There was more firing. Rollo was running fast, for a fat man, a small boar slashing at his booced heels. The two Indians were laughing, but I was worried about other wild pigs. Rollo went up a tree, then pulled out a long hunting knife. He was shouting something that could only have been a Zulu war cry. He leaped down on the boar's back. The knife went high once, twice, and the pig ended in a whistling struggle for breath he never got. Rollo stood up and smiled. The Indians beat off the dogs and began to slit open the boars. One of the dogs didn't move.

Rollo said, “It was a grand fine hunt.”

I said, “I never saw anybody kill a boar by jumping on him.”

Rollo looked sadly at me and turned away as if I had mocked his tribal fetish. We came back to the hotel with the guides grunting under long poles bearing the two boars' bodies. We paid for the dead dog and the hunt.

Uncle Willie and Mollie came out, cocktail glasses in hand, and Uncle Willie kicked at the big boar and said, “That head looks like my colonel in the Life Guards when I was in the British Army. Old Horatio Waugh-Finnley, a proper old swine he was too selling the troops' rum ration and sending them boxes of prayer books instead of the cigarettes. Well, how shall we eat him?”

Rollo said,“I will direct the hotel chef to serve him Zulu style.”

Uncle Willie looked at Rollo, who was scratched and torn. “I hope not.”

I could see Uncle Willie was still in a bad mood as he went back into the bar.

Actually the way Rollo had the big boar baked was very satisfactory. He had a huge hole dug in the ground and lined it with stones, then put in glowing charcoal embers. The boar's liver was ground up and mixed with yams, milk, bread, chestnuts, and walnuts, then stuffed into the boar. Rollo sewed him up with a surgeon's skill. He larded the pig with olive oil, garlic, and ground ginger and wound him in large sheets of oiled paper. Banana leaves would have been better, but up here there are no banana leaves. Finally Rollo coated the pig with thick, wet red day. This big clay ball was let down into the live coals in the pit, more clay was put on top of it, and then dirt was shoveled over the pit. At noon the next day the pit was opened. Steam of savory roast boar floated in the air, mouths watered, and for the first time in the past three days, Uncle Willie showed some interest in life.

Rollo, in a white jacket, carved like a cavalry charge as we fed a dozen guests. Uncle Willie had made a cafébrûlot to go with the boar. He mixed lemon and orange peels, stick cinnamon, cloves, and coriander seeds in a bowl and added two lumps of sugar for each person. Over this he poured very hot coffee and then brandy, set afire. He stirred the brew, then blew out the flame before it burned up all the brandy. This potion was just right to follow the late respected boar.

Afterward we sat on our balcony over-looking the lake and the fading mountains and listened to the cold water running over the yellow rocks. Rollo lit our cigars and Mollie's cigarette, and Mollie kicked off her high-heeled shoes and stretched like a plump kitten full of cream. “Ho boy. This is the living.”

Uncle Willie said, “It seems a shame to leave for Chile. But we're going in the morning. Right over those mountains.”

Mollie began to weep. “Always at the best part of the life somebody they leave.”

I said, “We have lecture dates. We have to go.”

Mollie nodded. “I have the gallery in B. A. to take care of. And I am engaged to Willie, yet I make the sacrifice. Like the woman I always lose.”

Uncle Willie, much recovered in spirit, said sweetly, “My dear Mollie, you say the most banal things in the most charming way. Since this is our last night together we must dance a tango in farewell. I will give the party. Is that all right, Stevie?”

I said it was. I sat up late on the balcony while, below, the hotel band played soft, sticky music and a bandman with a mule jaw rattled and banged his seed-filled gourd in dancetime. Rollo came out to me in a tight blue suit, a red flower in his lapel, yellow gloves in his hand, and a gold-headed cane under his arm.

“Rollo,” I said, “men have forgotten how to dress with daring. You are the last of the snazzy dressers.”

Rollo bowed. “A young widow from the coffee belt needs consoling. And thank you for not mentioning today how I fell on a boar. You think my tiger eye pin is too, too much? A little overripe?”

I said, as a burst of tango music rocked the hotel, “I like it.”