Final Week of the Quarantine

…they died like flies. The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water. The temples in which they took up their quarters were full of the dead bodies of people who had died inside them. For the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.

– Thucydides

SAN MARTIN, ARGENTINA – Now that our nine-month quarantine is coming to an end – on Wednesday – we look back and wonder: Where did the time go? 

We have included you, Dear Reader, in this adventure… So we hope you won’t mind if we spend the next day or two trying to understand. What did it mean? What did it yield? What did we learn?

Racing to a conclusion…

…we found out what it was like to run a complex farming/ranching operation in a difficult, dry country… with a 50% inflation rate… during a Plague Year.

Nothing in our 50-year career had prepared us for it. 

We found out, too, that with no cafes, restaurants, or malls… no cocktail parties, TV, or theaters… no paved roads… central heating… hair salons… or doctors visit – we were able to enjoy one of the most delightful episodes in our lives.

And we discovered that people – frightened by the media and herded by public policies – are even madder than we thought they were.

But let us tell the story… You can draw your own conclusions.

Operation Warp Speed

We arrived here in March, just as the world was drawing up its bridges and closing its gates. A Black Plague was ravaging the planet.

Thucydides described the plague that struck Athens in 430 B.C. 2,450 years later, public officials – no doubt well-schooled in the classics – took Thucydides as a warning… and closed up shop. 

Little did they know that “The Plague” that visited the world in 2020 was nothing at all like the plague that Thucydides lived through.

Approximately one out of every four Athenians died – young as well as old, strong as well as weak… including Pericles himself. The coronavirus, by contrast, has barely scratched the world’s population, let alone diminish it. 

Many heads of state – including Donald J. Trump himself – got the dreaded disease. Not one was felled by it.

At the beginning of 2020, 7.6 billion souls took their breath on Planet Earth. Nearing the end of the plague year, adding births and subtracting deaths, nearly 7.7 billion are still among the quick.

A real “killer plague” it is not. Instead, it is a particularly nasty virus… romping through nursing homes like lusty vikings through a convent.

Still, in early March, forecasters foresaw the bodies piling up. Orders went out for lockdowns… special new hospitals… body bags… and a vaccine! 

Operation Warp Speed it was called. It would be like the Manhattan Project… delivering a bomb that would save humanity in record time.

Endless Time

That was the state of things when we touched down at Salta airport on March 13, unaware of the madness to come. 

Scarcely had we cleared the passport check when the airport was closed and the borders were sealed… The next day, police arrived at our house, ordering us to stay at home.

This proved no problem at all. Our house is separated from the outside world by a river, which in that season, could only be crossed by a footbridge

What a delight! To find ourselves in this beautiful place… with plenty of food and drink (we had a stock of our own wine – 40 cases left over from the last harvest)… an internet connection… books… a grand piano and a guitar – and be told by the gendarmes to stay put!

It was like being washed up on a desert island… and finding the place a tropical paradise.

We imagined long, idle afternoons, reading on the porch… extended evenings, glass of wine in hand, overlooking the river… the pastures… and the cattle…

…quiet days… solitude… and time… time… time…

Time to remember and time to forget… Time to do things we had never had time for – to read Thucydides… learn Spanish… and play tangos on the piano. Time to talk… and time to listen.

And yes, we had plenty of time. Nine months, in fact – much more than we expected.

But it went so fast… Where did it go?

A Landowner’s Job

Alas, the role of a landowner – at least on one of the big old ranches in the area – is like that of a feudal lord, with none of the advantages… and all of the inconveniences.

He cannot deflower the maidens. He cannot pass judgment on the peasants, torture them in his cells, or force them to work in his fields. He cannot even get rid of them. 

Times have changed. Now, they torture him!

We enjoyed a couple of weeks of delicious idleness. But then, our house arrest ended… the river fell… and our responsibilities rose.

Elizabeth crossed the river to teach the children of the village (the schools were closed). And your editor shouldered his duties as best he could…

A landowner must provide the financial wherewithal for the property (none of the large farms in the area are profitable). But money-drain is just the beginning… 

He must provide jobs and housing… lend money… offer transportation… bail his employees and his sharecroppers out of jail… and generally intercede with the outside world, as necessary. 

And he must fight to protect his property, too… in our case, against originarios. (To remind readers, the originarios are local people who say they are members of a long-lost Indian tribe. They say our ranch was stolen from their ancestors 400 years ago.)

Final Requests

On Sunday, we held a going-away barbecue – an asado – at the ranch. 


Our going-away asado

It was a jolly time for everyone.


Claudia and Mateo


Pablo and Lucas


Going away cake

But before the day was over, we had been asked…

…for a $300 loan so one of the cowboys could fix his pickup (we agreed)…

…to provide a roof beam for an addition to a house (we cut down a dead tree and dressed the beam with our chainsaw)… and roof rafters for another (we agreed that he could cut down a few dead trees)…

…to give a scholarship to the daughter of another so she could go to school in the city (no problem)…

…to stop one of our ranch hands from having an affair with a younger woman. The wife made this request to Elizabeth, her second attempt. Elizabeth had previously cautioned the young woman. This time, the wife provided love letters, proving the affair was still going on. This was a surprise to us, since we thought the cowboy was illiterate. (Elizabeth commiserated, but could not provide much more help.)…

…to find a new house for a young couple who are being harassed by the originarios… and a larger water tank for another household…

…and to visit a young woman in the hospital; about which, more tomorrow… 

Bad Ideas

We also got a visit from a local politician, a state-level senator, who said he wanted to help us in our war with the originarios.

“It’s like a disease,” he said.

“Once they get it, they can’t seem to think straight. I keep telling them, ‘You’re not the owners. You can’t do whatever you want.’ But they don’t listen.

“So then, I try to make fun of them. One of the ‘chiefs’ came to see me. He was driving a new pickup truck and wearing a nice jacket. I said, ‘You claim to be an Indian chief. You should at least wear a feather. And put on some face paint.’ But he didn’t think it was funny.

“And now, they are telling us that they don’t want the government to send a teacher to the local school. They say they don’t want their children to learn a ‘foreign’ culture, the Catholic religion, or the Spanish language.

“They say they’re going to teach them their own language… which they believe is Karkan. It hasn’t been spoken in at least 200 years. None of them know how to speak it. It’s crazy. I feel sorry for their children.

“You just have to try to get along with them… and talk to them,” he advised. “They’re not bad people. They just have some very bad ideas.”


The originarios are convinced that they are descendants of the Diaguita tribe (which may have been exterminated by the Inca, even before the Spanish arrived). 

They believe this gives them special rights – to take back “their” land… to receive welfare from the government… to go where they want and do what they want, with no regard for the “European” laws.

They want their own religion, their own language, their own culture… and their own community.

“It is just a fantasy,” said the senator.

But no one is immune to fantasies. Neither on the banks of the Calchaquí, nor on the banks of the Potomac, nor on the banks of the Hudson. 

More to come…




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