On Argentinean Time

That’s me on Judy doing my Butch Cassidy impression.

Sharing lamb (capon) with a campesino en route to Esquel.
He has spent four months on his own in that cabin
for the last 32 summers looking after his sheep,
cows, horses and dogs. Not uncommon in Argentina,
I think this type of life is all but gone from North America.

Interestingly, the word “time” is one of the 100 most frequently used words in the English language. I was also once told that one way to learn something about a person’s relationship to time is to ask them what it means if a meeting is “moved forward” by a day. Those who are bored and have too much time tend to think this means the meeting will take place a day sooner, whereas someone who is busy and doesn’t have enough time tends to think that the meeting will take place a day later — it’s  all about hopeful thinking, I suppose.

Both Alex and I fell into the latter category when asked the question about what “moved forward” meant, but that is about all we have in common when it comes to time — or so it seems when our sense of how quickly we should do something — like get going in the morning — is concerned.

Despite our challenges with meeting each other’s schedule, however, our sense of time is much more closely aligned with each other than it is with the Argentinians we deal with on this trip.

Take earlier this week, for example. We finally arrived in the town of Esquel on March 1. A trip that we had hoped would take one long day had taken two and a half. We didn’t mind since we had travelled though some of the finest country yet. We’d followed a small track most of the way as it climbed up and down through deep dark lenga forest, through sand dunes with enormous hoodoos and across open rangeland that looked out across vast green valleys. We had had an unexpected lunch of barbecued lamb cooked over an open fire inside an old campesino’s wooden hut where he has lived on his own for four months every year for 32 years caring for his lambs, cows, horses and dogs. We were the first foreigners who had ever visited him and he was happy for the company. In fact, he sawed the hunk of lamb we eventually ate from his stash after we approached his home to make sure we were on the right route. And when we rode off two hours later, he accompanied us for about an hour, seemingly unwilling to let us go.

But we had also had to camp for two nights at less than ideal sites. Neither had water readily available and at the latter one, we had had to kick a goodly amount of cow dung away from our site before we could hurriedly put up our tent in a dense and eerily dark pine tree plantation. Deep purple clouds, thunder and lightening threatened to deluge us with rain as we battened down the hatches expecting the worst. (Fortunately, the brunt of the storm passed us by.) So when we arrived in Esquel at about noon, we were a bit ragged. We were also rattled by all the cars and noise and busyness. Though a small town, Esquel was by far the largest place we’d visited in almost six weeks and it seemed very chaotic.

Beto explained that he had a nephew in Esquel and if we went there maybe we could telephone our friends on Lago Rosario where we hoped to stay for a few days. Leaving Alex on the street corner with all five horses, Beto and I walked the block and a half to his nephew’s. It seemed that almost every campesino or gaucho we met was either related to Beto or knew his family. Of course that isn’t surprising when you discover that Beto is the 22nd of 22 children. His father had three wives. Beto’s mother produced 11 herself. Beto’s nephew Cruz (Who was nine years older than his uncle.) and his wife Adele invited us into their small house helping me send an email to our friends since the phone number didn’t seem to work. Innocently, I wrote that if all went well, we would be at their place by about 4pm. Adele then invited me for that favoured Argentinian pastime —  sharing mate — but I explained that I couldn’t really since Alex was waiting for us with the horses. “Are the horses quiet?” she asked. When we replied yes, she said we should “park” them in front of the house. Soon the front yard was filled with our mounts (and their deposits) and we were sitting in the warmth of their kitchen sharing hot mate. We told them about our adventures sharing stories until an hour had passed and they had offered to drive us to our friend’s place on Lago Rosario, a trip that would take a good hour, half of which would be on roads best attempted in a four by four.

We welcomed the offer not really recognizing that rather than saving us a bit of time since our other option involved a combination of a commuter bus and a taxi, it would put us on Argentina time. In our culture, such an offer would be followed by a question about timing. We would expect to be asked something like, “Are you in a rush to get out there?” or “Do your friends expect you to arrive by a certain time?” But not in Argentina. Not once were we ever asked about time or anything else for that matter. everything seemed to arranged on our behalf.

Cruz eventually put away the mate and with our horses still standing on the street, he drove Alex and Beto out to the Club Hippo to make arrangements to leave our horses there for a few days. I stayed with Adele who began cooking some lamb she’d purchased that morning and assembling a tomato sauce. She explained that she was making a pasta dish called “topo,” as she fired questions at me seemingly oblivious to the passing time. Alex and crew returned about an hour later, at which point we sat down to lunch. We’d never actually been invited to lunch, it was just assumed that we would stay. At about 3:30 pm, we tucked into plates of hardy pasta. We had only had a handful of nuts for breakfast, the mate and a few pieces of torta frita or fried bread that Adele had given us earlier, so we soon forgot about the passage of time and enjoyed the meal and the friendly company.

An hour later, a young neighbour boy got us all into action telling us that one of the horses had wandered off. Had he not done so, I think we might still be sitting at that table. I rushed out to find Judy was at the end of the street happily eating someone’s grass (Of course none of the horses were tied up as they stood in front of Cruz and Adele’s house.) Beto then announced that he and Alex had to ride the horses to the Club Hippo. I was to stay with Adele. Meanwhile, Cruz had a tire on his small car fixed in preparation for the trip to Lago Rosario, before going to pick up Alex and Beto who had washed the horses and turned them out into about 400 hectares of thick pasture for a few days, a service that cost us 1000 pesos ($200).

When they returned, we finally piled into the car with Cruz and Adele, and after stopping for gas, then wine (for us to take to our friends) and some bottled water, we were off. It was 6pm. As we drove through the magnificent flat wide valley that links Esquel to Trevlin, a smaller town known for its Welsh settlers and scrumptious Welsh Tea, Cruz and Adele gave us a personal tour. Cruz had grown up in the valley living in the campo looking after cattle with his parents and siblings. He’d attended the small school in Trevelin. As he drove by the now enlarged schoolhouse, he explained that he’d ridden his horse there everyday, a trip that took an hour and a half each way. He also swung by the old brick grist mill that was being restored before he headed out on to highway again. We arrived at Campo Cielo Grande, the very deluxe tent camp owned by our friends Shelby and Trey Scharp, a delightful couple from Wyoming, at 7:45pm, hopeful that their years spent in Argentina would have prepared them for our late arrival.