Week 30 of the Quarantine
There’s been so much to talk about this week…
Donald Trump’s almost miraculous three-day recovery from the Black Death…
His sudden discovery of fiscal virtue – putting an end to negotiations on a new bailout boondoggle…
…and then, his sudden lapse… announcing that he was “ready to sign” more giveaways… (or, at least, where it might improve his chances of being re-elected – forget the Blue Cities!)
…the upcoming Doomsday Debt Debacle…
And today brings news that the White House is “open to bigger stimulus bill as Mnuchin, Pelosi talk” (Bloomberg).
As we discussed yesterday, an economy cannot be “stimulated.” It can only be distorted… and perverted.
Both parties are in favor of more perversion; but, behind in the polls, the Trump team is probably more antsy for it.
Anyhow, with so much going on, we didn’t have time to tell you what happened last weekend.
For the benefit of new readers, we’ve been quarantined down here on our ranch in Argentina for seven months. It’s not a bad place to be locked up… We can ramble around in a space the size of Utah without ever crossing a public road.
Trouble is, there’s a war going on here. It’s between the landowners and some “native American activists” – the Originarios – who’ve invented a lost tribe of Indians… and claim to be taking back their ancestral lands.
On Saturday… their local Pocahontas came to visit.
Maria La Gorda was one of the brightest students at the local school. Of course, up here in the mountains, there weren’t a lot of Elon Musks or René Descartes in the class; the competition was weak. Still, the school mistress thought Maria could grow up to be a nurse… or a schoolteacher herself.
But it didn’t work out that way.
Now, “Fat Mary,” as she is known locally, is about 40 years old, and lives up in a pretty valley with no road access. It is so remote that in the 15 years we’ve been here, we have visited only once, though it is part of our ranch.
It is high up… and hidden behind bare mountains. But it is up there where our water comes from.
Looking down on Maria’s valley
Maria has had six children. Some have grown up and moved away. Three are said to still be with her.
“Who is her husband?” we once asked naively.
“Up here, they say ‘it is the wind,’” came the answer.
About 10 years ago, a surly breeze blew across the valley. It brought with it a public health nurse from Peru. He was hired to go around to the local people and do what he could to keep them healthy.
Alas, he dispensed more than antibiotics. He brought a message of insurrection. He is now the “chief” of the local tribe. Maria is one of his most enthusiastic admirers.
The police had told us to expect a visit. But not from Maria. Instead, a small, wiry man named Juan, who was squatting on our land, was supposed to come and ask permission to remain.
Maria and Juan came into the courtyard and took seats at the center table.
“We’ve come to tell you that we represent the originario community,” Maria began. “And we’re here to tell you that this is our land. And we will do what we want on it. You think you can buy it. But it is not for sale. Someone stole it from my [great… great… great, etc.] grandfather. Now, we’re taking it back.”
Maria wasn’t pussyfooting around. In a few words, she had set the terms of the debate. They were the owners, she asserted, not us.
“But Maria,” we argued. “You don’t get title to land just because you had an ancestor who lived on it. If that were the case, I could go back to Ireland and claim land there. Or the descendants of the Manhattan tribe could claim Times Square.
“There is a system of laws… and rights to private property. It’s been around for hundreds of years.”
Maria, unimpressed by our arguments, insists that because she is an originaria, she doesn’t have to pay attention to the laws of white men… particularly those who arrived in the country only 15 years ago and whose grasp of the local idiom is still only más o menos.
“You think you can come in with your pockets full of money and take over. But this farm belongs to the people who have always been here… who have worked it for hundreds of years.”
Maria is loose on the details. There are no people here who’ve worked the land for hundreds of years. The whole area was depopulated after the Battle of Gualfin. The surviving indigenous people were shipped off where they wouldn’t cause any trouble.
Was that nice? Was that fair? Of course not.
But it was the way property changed hands in the entire New World, North America as well as South America, in the 16th and 17th centuries. Trying to reverse 500 years of property titles is going to be an uphill battle.
More to It
Besides, the whole tribe is as counterfeit as its Peruvian chief.
“Maria’s family came from over near Chile,” explains the foreman. “Everybody knows it. None of the families are original to here. They came fairly recently. And the tribe they say they are part of was exterminated even before the Spanish arrived – by the Inca. They just invented this tribe thing because it lets them get away with not paying their rent.”
But there’s more to it than that. The rent is so low, it’s almost not worth collecting. And the property itself has very little value. It’s not just about money, in other words.
Maria and her “community” think they are undoing the wrongs of the past and making the world a better place… at least, for them.
She and other renters are supposed to give us five goats for every 100 they have in their herds. We don’t want the goats. And they’re not saleable. But it is part of the ritual, the barleycorn that proves the relationship. We are the owners. They are renters.
Maria doesn’t buy it. “God put us here. We are meant to be owners… with all the water… the housing… and the food… we need.”
“God was pretty cheap with the water,” we muttered.
How Maria knows what God has in mind was never clarified. But there was no point in arguing with her.
Besides, the real object of the conversation was the weasely little man sitting next to her. Juan.
They were like Jack Sprat and his wife. Maria must have eaten every piece of fat that came her way; Juan ate none.
But it was Juan who had the immediate concern. He is a squatter. Maria, tucked away in her mountain fastness, causes few problems. But Juan built a house smack dab in the middle of the farm… without permission. We came back one year… and there it was.
And whatever bogus claim Maria may have to originaria status, Juan has none. He has no land. He only came over from a neighboring farm a couple of years ago. And only to shack up with another woman, Maria’s neighbor.
Juan admitted to the police that he was not from our farm… and had no right to build the house. Last week, he told them that he would behave from now on, and sign a document declaring that he was living on our land. And that he would ask our permission to remain.
That would have been fine with us. We didn’t expect him to pay rent. We wouldn’t demand to tear the house down. All we wanted was a piece of paper… proof that the land was ours, not his.
But in coming to see us, he followed Maria’s lead.
“I’m not going to sign anything,” he said.
“It won’t cost you anything… and I’m not going to throw you out…”
“No, I won’t sign.”
“Then I’ll have to throw you out.”
“I’ll die first… You’ll have to carry me out.”
“Oh no… Don’t die…” we roared with laughter. “We’re just talking about property rights. It’s not that serious.”
After a while, we gave up on the conversation. There was nothing to be gained. They have their position; we have ours.
Normally, you’d refer this to the police or the courts. But why bother? We’ve already denounced Juan four times. The police are sick of hearing about it.
And they can’t do much, either. Anyone who claims to be an originario is a protected species. It’s almost impossible to evict him.
Readers may wonder why we bother at all. There’s no money in it. And don’t we have problems enough already?
But there are some problems you just can’t solve. We can’t get the originarios off our land. And we can’t make it rain.
Maybe that is what keeps us here… the majestic futility of it. We live on the edge… on the rim of the abyss. We can’t defeat our enemies. But, at least, as long as we are engaged in combat, we are still alive.
Trip to Pucarilla
Our ranch is at the end of the road (Gualfin means “the place at the end”)… where civilization ends… and the wild mountains begin. There are no farms further west, just ragged peaks, puma, vicuna, volcanoes, the salt flats of “the dead man,” and a high desert.
In one part of the Atacama desert west of here, it has never rained… and the air is so thin, travelers crossing over to Chile are advised to take oxygen tanks with them.
But there are quiet, idyllic moments, too. Ceasefires… truces… in the ongoing battle.
On Sunday, we took our usual afternoon holiday… this time, driving over to Pucarilla, the tiny valley where our grapes are grown. It is a beautiful place.
And the weather was beautiful, too – sunny and warm. It is springtime. The vines have begun to sprout leaves.
But here, it is also the most dangerous time of the year. Each spring – October, November, and December – the ranch faces disaster. It has not rained here since January or February. Everything is parched.
Many of the cattle have been taken down to another farm. The remaining ones are moved around… kept alive by eating every dried-up weed on the ranch.
We had a picnic under an old grape arbor…
Our picnic spot
…and then crossed a field of dry grass down to the river.
There was no water. We could walk down the middle of the riverbed without getting our boots wet.
This time of year, there is never much water… But it is unusual for the river to be completely dry.
A reservoir up the valley collects what little water there is. We need every drop of it to keep the grapes alive until January… hoping that the summer rains will come on schedule.
Some years, they don’t come at all. And then, the grass dies, the grapes shrivel, and the cattle go hungry.
Three years ago, a drought forced us to shut down almost completely, taking all the cattle off the farm. There was nothing left for them to eat.
We drove up to look at the reservoir, hoping to see it brimming with cool water. But there was little water in it.
“This is going to be a bad year,” we said to ourselves.
Back at the house on Sunday evening, Samuel, one of the farmhands, stopped by.
“I guess La Gorda told you,” he said.
“Told us? She told us that she was the owner of the ranch. What more was there to say?”
Samuel smiled. La Gorda had threatened him a month ago. She said if he dared to go into her valley, she’d go to the police and accuse him of rape.
“She didn’t mention the water?”
“Well, I went up the valley yesterday. They cut off the water to Pucarilla. They put up a little dam. They’re using our water. I guess they think they own that, too.”
Now, the situation is getting serious. We could laugh at Maria and Juan and their fantasies. But cutting off our water is real.
Without the water coming down from the upper valleys, even as little as it is, we will soon be finished.
“Go back up there tomorrow. Take Pablo and Gustavo with you. If the river is blocked, unblock it. Okay?”
To be continued…
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