Manuel and Much-Needed Medicine

Manuel and Much-Needed Medicine

After the big crash (See January 31 post.), we miraculously rode on, apparently no worse for the wear. But we decided to take the shorter, though hotter and less picturesque, route into Norquinco. Basically, we rode alongside a wide and dusty road. (What did I say about most of my travelling involving copious amounts of dust!) When we entered Norquinco “airspace” and had cellphone reception, Roberto made a call, telling us to ride on. He caught up about 20 minutes later and announced that he had to return to Bolson, claiming he had a problem due to an accident he had had with his truck and that he had commitments in Bariloche that he had to attend to. (We learned later that the problem was apparently with his wife and not as we suspected because he had become unenamoured with accompanying us.) Bad news for us for sure. Yes, we’d had a few upsets, but we now realized more than ever that we needed a guide to show us the ropes – literally. Roberto then told us that he knew lots of gauchos in Norquinco and he would find us a new guide.
The “Bald-Ass” Prairie near Norquinco
We limped into Norquinco, or so it seemed, in the heat of a desert day, still stunned by the morning’s events. We picked up a few supplies including a leg of lamb, which I then carried in my lap for the rest of the day’s journey – a first for me. Then we were off across what my ex-husband – who grew up in southeastern Alberta – would have called the “bald-ass” prairie. Under a blazing sun, we made slow, but steady progress on a two-hour ride to stay with a friend of Roberto’s whom he referred to as being “like a brother.” We had no idea of what was to come and still in shock, we ventured on like a pair of zombies. We had little choice but to trust Roberto despite his recent announcement.
Arriving at one of three spots along the way with a few trees, we stopped under huge alamos – the tall statuesque trees we would call Lombardy poplars. Roberto said he wanted to drop in quickly to say hello to a friend and could we wait for a bit in the limited shade these huge trees afforded us. With great pleasure, I jumped down from Gauchito, who we now mostly referred to as – though politically incorrect in our culture – El Negro. Alex, however, lowered himself gently to the ground, and I watched him gingerly try to put some weight on his knee. It was a no go. He was completely crippled. He deduced that in the accident, the rope adjoining the two horses had wrapped around his knee, likely tearing some ligaments. He could ride with the knee, but was unable to take even one step on the ground. First his elbow and now this. What were we to do now?
Roberto returned and Alex managed to use a tree stump to remount. We travelled on but for as far as we could see, which was a long way with nothing but low-lying ninao bushes covered in huge spines and taller but equally thorny rose hips to obscure our view, there was nary a hint of shade. All we could see was a small white house in the distance. There were no trees; there was no shady oasis that the hot sun couldn’t penetrate, and certainly no place that any sane person might want pitch a tent. Anyone in a tent in this heat would fry. Inside I groaned. What I really wanted was a cold beer, a perfectly functioning Alex and somewhere comfortable and preferably private to recover. 
But life, as we all know too well doesn’t always serve up what we want, though it often gives us what we need.
We pulled into the yard beside the white house in a small bit of cover provided by a roughly hewn barn. It was about 4pm and we’d been riding since 7am and had had nothing to eat since a small breakfast except for a snack and water in Norquinco. Alex was battered. Roberto was deserting us and I was just plain old tuckered out from nerves and not enough food or water.
Roberto’s brother/friend Manuel met us at the barn. He welcomed us warmly, helping us dismount and unpack the horses. Quickly he seemed to recognize that Alex was in some distress. He ushered us proudly into his house, inviting us to sit in one of a line up of beat up old chairs covered in various greasy looking covers. But dirty and dusty as we were, a bit of grime was not much of a concern. We gladly sat down. Alex had somehow rallied up enough spunk to mostly hop his way to the house. We gulped down the cool water Manuel handed to us, sipped on ever-present mate and gladly accepted some freshly baked “fry bread.” 
Minutes later, Roberto arrived and so did a variety of Manuel’s family who had come to meet the Canadienses. Next, Manuel introduced us to “La Padrona,” his wife. With a sporty haircut, Angelica, just a wisp of a thing, was curled up in an old hospital bed. “She does better in the morning and evening,” Manuel assured us cheerily. Uncertain, we said our hellos. I leaned down to give her a traditional peck on the cheek, greeted by the slightly sour smell I associate with the infirm. Angelica, who was once a great horsewoman, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis some 13 years ago, three years before she and Manuel bought the 650-hectare farm where they now had about 300 Angora goats, a dozen cattle, 14 horses and a handful of dogs and chickens. Manuel also made adobe bricks, which he sold for some additional income. They had two grown children, both of whom lived in Bolson, and a pair of grandchildren. For the last two years or more, Angelica had been completely bedridden, not leaving her bedroom at all. Although she and Manuel chatted a bit, and she would call out in a weak raspy voice from time to time, Angelica seemed to otherwise either be withdrawn. Though, when Alex showed her some of photos she seemed to understand what they were about. 
Manuel happily showed us around the bedroom, extremely proud of his shelf overflowing with various medical products that he administered to his wife and others who might need attention given it was a two-hour ride into Norquinco. I found La Padrona’s quiet presence cast a sad, almost tragic hue on Manuel’s otherwise lively house and was unable to shake off the tragedy of the situation. Manuel was only 42 years old.
We were then treated to a bowl of excellent vegetable soup before Manuel showed us to our room, helped Alex carefully remove his boot from the leg of his damaged knee and gave him some slippers. He agreed that it looked and sounded like Alex had damaged some ligaments. Then he gave us some horse lineament to treat the problem, and put Alex to bed so that his knee might have a chance to heal. Alex responded to Manuel’s administrations – honed as they were given his complete care of his wife – without resistance and within minutes was fast asleep. Though I didn’t hold out much hope, Manuel seemed pretty confident that within three days we would be back on the road again.
Over the next two days, Manuel turned out to be exactly the medicine we needed. He was like Florence Nightingale crossed with Ben Cartwright. There didn’t seem to be anything this man couldn’t do and he did it all competently and with a smile on his face. When I asked him if he was happy with his life, he was quick to point out that he had land; he was his own boss and he was living a gaucho’s life.
During our stay, he fed us the most spectacular meals made from such delicacies as a lamb’s spine. He showed us his collection of gaucho paraphernalia, much of it antique. He filled up the water tank on his roof so that I could have a hot shower. He turned on the generator most nights so that we would have light. He showed both of us through his barn where he had a workshop to make his own tack from raw horsehide. He expertly, butchered the goat I bought for an Asado (Argentinean barbecue) unaware that I was purchasing an entire goat that arrived walking on four legs. He rode into Norquinco for us to pick up the  papers for the hoses that we had had sent there by the vet in Bolson. He pulled out his guitar before we sat down for dinner each evening (never before 11:30pm) and sang “milangos” (Though I couldn’t find it described anywhere, it is an Argentinean form of song that involves making up the words from recent events. It’s like storytelling to music.) in a rich, colourful voice that made us feel as if we had returned to a century past when gauchos were incredible horsemen, and wild knife fighters who lived freely and without possessions or impediments of any sort. They inter-married with the Mapuches and other indigenous people, much as our Metis did. And all the while he lovingly attended to Angelica. After creating some hearty meal, we would all sit down at the table, but Manuel would take his meal and share it with his wife in their bedroom. For the three days we stayed there, he took every meal with Angelica, feeding her before cleaning up after her. 
Given the goodness of this man, it was easy to forgive him for allowing the house to slip into a state that would have made the owners of Molly Maid rub their hands together in glee. While I was there I tried to clean up the bathroom a bit and I washed all of the table “linens” as best I could in a bucket of tepid water.
On the left – Manuel, a cross between Florence Nightingale and Ben Cartwright.
On the right – Alberto, our new guide. Gauchos both.
Moreover, Manuel also agreed to trade Wizard (who had given Alex the painful kick in the elbow) for a solid little packhorse that he said (and it proved to be true) was foolproof and incredibly strong. He used El Moro to haul 120 kilos of salt through the mountains, a load that far exceeded the maximum of about 60 kilos a horse can carry for long distances, matching what mules are able to transport. (On our first day out, the pichero slipped around El Moro’s belly and he walked along unperturbed for who knows how long until we noticed.) And if that wasn’t enough, Manuel found us Alberto, who would replace Roberto and become our guide. 
Manuel accompanied us on our way for the first hour or so, but not before he tried to give Alex his boots, as Alex’s had all but given up the ghost. Under his care, Alex had, as he had predicted, a much improved, if not perfect knee. This man truly would have given us the shirt off his back. As a final parting gift, he gave Alex one of his “revelenkes,” a gaucho riding crop that makes more noise than hurt.
And so we were on the road again having been served up the most delightful and needed example of Argentinean hospitality.

nicola

A seasoned adventurous traveler, Nicola Ross shares her insights and stories about the places she visits. With a nod to the world's greatest travel writers, Ross looks at a culture from the inside out.

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