As I watched Yaniv’s bus dwindle into the vast silence of the surrounding desert I considered my new situation. Alone, 60 miles of dirt road away from the closest town, in a house servicing the road company AGVP workers. Not too shabby. Jose, my host for the time being, was the quiet type, which is fine by me considering my Spanish (or Castellano) is limited to questions about the bike and how much something costs. I spent the evening watching the subtle range of light on the nearby hills and cottonwoods.
bikes in the hangar with new road signs
The next day Jose packed up his few belongings and told me is going to spend some time on his farm with his horse. His replacement, Christian, was a bit chatty for my tastes, but very nice. Since I was already in residence when he arrived, I suddenly had the status of an old-timer, using the kitchen and bathroom at my discretion. He invited me to use one of the beds in the heated dormitory, but I declined. My tent was pretty frosty at night, but afforded me a measure of privacy in a world dominated by men.
Tamel Aike is a truly interesting place. For thousands of years, it was used by the indigenous population who valued the sweet spring nestled in its hills. Today you can still see the faint outline of a foot path leading away from a shallow pool that services the wildlife. About a hundred years ago the local government built the building that still exists there. It was used as a police station and jail. One of the local Gauchos showed me some Chilean passports from 1923 that he found there above the ceiling boards. The narrow bathroom stalls in the back were the jail cells. Leonardo, the last man to be manning the station during my 10 day stay there, locks his door at night to protect against the ghosts of all the men executed over the years. Even now, the nicely groomed garden full of delicious red berries and the white-washed exterior are off-set by the multitude of bones and animal parts gracing the grounds. Meat is so abundant here that the dogs and cats are thrown whole rabbits and half a guanaco for dinner.
The culture of Tamel Aike is tranquil and hospitable. The official mission of the care-taker is to man the short-wave radio and provide help, either mechanical or medical, to road crews that are often 100 miles away from any support. He also fulfills an important social role in an area dominated by isolated Estancias. During the day, almost every third vehicle (on average about two vehicles per hour pass) stops to ask for directions, or to use the bathroom, or to share some mate. The kitchen is always heated and there is always a kettle of water warming. For lunch and dinner large cuts of meat are roasted or stewed with onions and carrots. Whoever happens to be there is invited to eat. Gauchos come by for company and to watch a bit of Gran Hermano (24 hour Big Brother) which everyone watches with intensity.
I was a welcome curiosity there. It was obvious that I was at home in the cozy kitchen, and lumbering men moved delicately around me while I studied Hebrew or typed. I set the table and made salads (nobody eats vegetables if they can help it) and marveled at the unending tide of meat that made its way into the two freezers in the hallway. A couple of young men would come by, eat two pieces of chicken, then go out to their pick-up truck and return with half a sheep to contribute to tomorrows meal. We didn’t save leftover steaks, we just threw them outside to the dogs. When I cut the fat off my meat, someone would invariably ask for it and shovel it in with copious amounts of white bread and butter. I ate more during this week than any other on our entire trip, including our fatty times in Mexico City.
Really, there is not much else to do besides eat. Water the plants, feed the chickens, it doesn’t take up too much time. The cold-spell and 80 kph winds put an end to hill-side tramping. One day I hitchhiked into Gregores to by some supplies and use the internet. Unlike Yaniv, who spent three hours standing next to the road waiting to get picked up, I was rewarded immediately by a ride from a trucker hauling maybe a hundred tightly packed sheep. He drove very slowly, 20 kph, so a supposedly hour and a half ride turned into three and half. He was also very hard of hearing yet insisted on asking me questions like “what is your father’s profession?” Now everyone in my family is a “professor” which is the only shouted word he could understand.
It was getting dark as I left the grocery store and lugged my box (Argentina has a new law limiting shoppers to two grocery bags, good for them) to the gas station to get a ride. It got dark. No cars passed. By nine I was panicking a little. It was very very cold and I didn’t have enough money for a hotel. Finally a truck lumbered up and I jumped in. It took a little bit of stilted conversation to figure out that the driver didn’t really know where he was going, so we drove down the road a bit so he could ask directions. Luckily for me, he needed to go by Tamel Aike. During our fast ride home we jammed to MJ and Madonna and tried to avoid the rabbits, which was pretty futile. Every large bump shut his headlights off which offered a few seconds of thrilling darkness and grinding breaks before they switched on again and we both sighed with relief. It was almost eleven when we arrived. I watched out the kitchen window until almost 2 am and not a single other car passed.
One night Christian looked out the window and said “your boyfriend’s here.” I thought he was joking and refused to look up. I was missing Yaniv terribly and didn’t want to be disappointed. But there he was, red-faced from the cold and exultant with two new tires. The next day I caught a ride into town with Chiquito, an old lonely man who had spent the last three days with us rather than alone on his farm. He dropped me off at the same Gomeria that we visited before. The original guy was not there, which was unfortunate because his replacement was an ill-tempered, impatient young man who knew nothing about changing motorcycle tires. I kept a close eye on him, which pissed him off, but proved to be ridiculously necessary. When trying to break the bead, rather than using the machine they have specifically for that purpose, he threw the tire with the break side down and proceeded to jump on it. I pushed him off and told him, no, that’s not the way to do it. I talked to him in my pidgin Spanish, gesturing until I was sure he understood me. “Look, this arrow needs to go on this side of the rim, and this red spot here needs to go next to the air valve hole.” He assured me he understood. I left to go pee. I returned to find he had neglected my instructions and centered the tire incorrectly. I vacillated for a few moments. Should I make him redo it? Should we redo it? I hate confrontations. I decided to wait until he finished the second tire. For this one I had to keep repositioning the tire, which caused him to turn to his friends and say really nice things about me. He also constantly stopped to drink mate, whistle at girls, and text. Once he had correctly finished the second tire, I picked up the first and pointed out the problem. He spent about a minute throwing tools and saying really wonderful things about me to his friends. But he finished eventually. This time it was tougher getting a ride. I waited for two hours for a car to pass when finally a young man stopped for me. He was a Gaucho getting ready to go north to work on an Estancia shearing sheep. About fifty kilometers into the drive he got a flat. With practiced hands he quickly went to work. Unfortunately, the menacing clouds that had been approaching all afternoon finally caught up with us and quickly drenched us with rain and hail. I got back in the truck as it was soon obvious that he didn’t need any help. By the time we got to Tamel Aike he had another flat. It became clear to me why everyone here carries two spare tires.
Christian left, Leonardo came. He cooked delicious spaghetti Bolognese and taught us how to shoot his rifle and air rifle. I am a crack shot, oddly enough. When we ran out of bullets we threw stones at targets. Later that night he went out and brought back a rabbit. They are an introduced species and driving the ranchers crazy, so it’s fine here to kill them and throw a whole rabbit to a kitten. Speaking of kittens, my stay was made much cozier by a little ginger kitty that liked to share my sleeping bag at night. It was difficult to leave her behind. It was difficult to leave Tamel Aike behind. It’s one of the closest places I’ve had to home for the last seven months. At some point, we both realized that we now take experiences like this for granted. We had hot showers, delicious meals and warm beds for free. I could probably have stayed there for months before anyone official took notice, and I already had standing invitations to stay at any of the estancias nearby. The hospitality of Argentinians has been truly overwhelming and hugely appreciated by us. It is a beautiful country with beautiful traditions and beautiful people that I just can’t get enough of.
my bed mate
I would be so hard core if I could just wipe that silly grin off my face
be patient young paduan
kitty vainly trying to keep us there