I am writing you from the Alejandro I Hotel in Salta, Argentina on Good Friday, March 30, 2018.
That I have been so remiss in my correspondence is only because I’ve been both distracted and busy. The combination seems to have drained the quadrant of my brain where free-wheeling creativity lives.
In any event, I’m sitting in room 1014 with time on my hands after coming into town yesterday for meetings on our wine businesses, and am now waiting until mid-afternoon to pick up my daughter at the airport.
Happily, she is visiting for two weeks during the spring break for her school back in England.
To complete the scene, I’m currently listening to Tan Cani by Aloeverah off of the Frequent Flyer, Barcelona album. It’s what a music critic might call “Latin Cool”. Or, at least I would, and just did.
While I usually don’t know where my fingers will take me, I expect today’s missive to be a bit of this and that, and probably not very long as I remain both distracted and busy.
I Saw a Man Crucified
One interesting aspect of life in the Argentine outback is the frequency that one is surprised. More specifically, the number of times one witnesses things that to the Western eye seem completely random, out of context, improbable or illogical.
It happens every day, and sometimes two or three times a day.
In a recent example, while driving past the cathedral in Cafayate’s Plaza Principal yesterday morning, I was shocked to see a man in the process of being crucified.
Naturally, I slowed down. Because, well, you know, it’s not every day you see a person, complete with a crown of thorns, being hoisted into the air on a cross.
It didn’t take me but a moment or two to work through that, given the proximity to Easter, the participants in this tableau were doing a practice run for the big day.
As I watched, the fellow honored to be this year’s Jesus shifted around a bit, testing the ropes binding his wrists and feet to the cross and, I imagine, making helpful suggestions to the pseudo-Romans crucifying him as to be sure the bonds held fast during the actual ritual.
A few years ago, also around Easter, I witnessed a group of parishioners in front of the very same church laboring to get a large priest atop a small donkey. It took a good 15 minutes before the physics could be worked out and priestly rear was seated on donkey back.
The donkey was then led about six staggering steps before it was halted and the process repeated in reverse. As the priest’s feet happily were reunited with terra firma, the audience broke into happy cheers.
While I am not religious myself, I love the faith and passion so many Argentines have for their religion. It is societally anchoring, always there and always ready to be drawn on in a moment of need.
Yesterday, driving through the amazing quebrada from Cafayate to Salta (think driving through the Grand Canyon), I noticed a group of young men - probably none of them more than about twenty-five years old - fiddling around on the side of the road.
Naturally, any time one sees a group of young men you wonder if they are up to something mischievous… because they usually are. But then I saw they were laying fresh flowers and otherwise tidying up one of the religious shrines erected to honor the memory of an accident victim, in roughly the spot where that person shed their mortal coil.
It was a brief but beautiful moment, in a life full of beautiful moments here in my personal version of paradise on earth.
Twilight was upon us when a voice began to ring out from somewhere in the mountains above us.
It was not a shout of anger, or a plea for help, but rather a loose, whooping, happy call, like someone shouting at the top of their lungs after a particularly clever play on the soccer pitch.
Not knowing what to make of it, and needing to get the horses and equipment stowed before night fully descended, we stopped only a moment to wonder at the significance of the shouting above us then returned to our unpacking.
Not very long after, a horse wearing an empty saddle emerged from the gloom at a full run, dashed past our camp and continued down the rocky slope and into the adobe compound further down the hill where two old gauchos - father and son - lived with a few hundred goats.
Again, we stopped and wondered, but as the voice bouncing joyously around the hills was not a voice of distress, we returned to our work of stowing saddles, hobbling horses, unpacking the various sleeping bags, food, ponchos and cooking gear we would need to pass a reasonably comfortable night in the remote hills above Cafayate.
With night now upon us, and the need to get a fire going and to slaughter one of the lambs in time for a late dinner, the mystery of the voice was resolved when a disheveled gaucho lurched out of the dark above us, weaving on legs made rubbery by booze.
Taken aback at the sight of interlopers encamped around the crumbling adobe storage building, he paused in his sing-song conversation with the heavens then approached us in a less-than-straight line.
In a slurring Spanish he asked who we were, then introduced himself as Casimiro, the son of the old man living in the small adobe compound perched on the side of the steep mountain slope.
We offered him a pull off of the communal wine bottle being passed around to celebrate the conclusion of the day’s ride, and he accepted it with the gusto.
It had taken the best part of eight hours to work our way from the floor of the valley, an altitude of about 1,200 meters, to our camp next to the gaucho’s compound at over 3,300 meters.
While my business and cabalgata partner Agustin and I have done some grueling horse rides in the past - the hardest being the failed attempt to get to the Rio de los Patos with Bill and Elizabeth Bonner - in terms of the ride, this may have had it beat.
That’s because the trail, if you can call it that, was akin to riding up a nearly vertical dried riverbed cluttered with large, sharp-edged rocks and pocked with holes of the sort that can break a horse’s leg. Which is why, on the way up, we had to lead our horses about half the time. And more than half on the way back down the following day.
Throw in the extreme altitude, a cloudless sky and temperatures in the 90s, and the ride/hike was a solid test. Fortunately, we all passed, although there were times it personally felt like a close thing.
Once we had the camp organized, the rest of the crew, which, in addition to Agustin, included my former partner in Everbank, Frank Trotter and his brother-in-law Jeff, as well as Tomas Casado, the best chef in Cafayate, and Juan Mirapeix, our banker, headed down the hill to kill and dress our dinner.
As I used to hunt and had seen it all before, I hung back at the camp alone with a tin cup full of excellent wine and took in the universe from my dark perch on a saddle blanket.
While Cafayate itself has minimal light pollution, outside of the bounds of civilization on the side of the mountain the stars are free to shine without interference. And shine they did, with the full glory of the heavens on brilliant display.
And there was one more thing: during the breaks in conversation among the group in the compound below, there was literally not even the slightest sound. No insects, no motors, not even wind… just pure silence, a condition that I suspect many people in this world have never experienced.
In time, the group returned with the sheep carcass in hand and, accompanied by more wine, we enjoyed a dinner of lamb cooked over an open fire before I tucked in for the night, accompanied by the sounds of Juan, Agustin and Tomas singing around the campfire.
In the morning, we rose early and began organizing breakfast. Juan, a very good singer, brought out his guitar again and started playing, soon attracting Casimiro from the compound below.
Even though it was early, the sun barely up, Casimiro appeared to already be drunk. Or, I began to wonder, maybe he was a little crazy (probably a bit of both) as he was soon singing a ribald song, and dancing in circles on one unsteady leg.
Regardless, Casimiro’s good nature and the enthusiasm with which he sang and danced quickly infected us all and everyone joined in with a good laugh and applause.
That the two gauchos, with the father appearing to be severely arthritic, manage to survive on the side of an isolated and inhospitable mountain is a testament to the fortitude of humankind. Though I guess, reflecting on Casimiro, the isolation had taken its toll.
There are many more observations I could make, but time and work demands press (we are launching an important new wine in a month and there is much to be done) so I will sign off by relating that as tough as the ride was up the mountain, in most ways the trip back down was worse.
That’s because the rocky trail had ripped one or more shoes off of each of the horses, and so we ended up walking almost the entire way back at constant risk of being trampled by our horses as they climbed down the steeper sections of the trail almost on top of us.
While I would never do that particular trail again - it is just too hard on the horses - and so will likely never see Casimiro or his father again, at least now when I turn my eyes to the steep mountains to the southwest of town, I will know what’s up there, and think back to yet another great adventure here in the middle of nowhere, Argentina.
Besos y Abrazos
The other day I accompanied my partner to collect his five year old daughter from school.
While it has been years since I’ve had a child in pre-school, my understanding is that back in the “first” world things have changed quite a bit. For example, teachers are afraid to have any physical contact with the students, and in some school districts are prohibited from doing so.
Here it is something else altogether, with the warm tradition of “besos” (kisses) and “abrazos” (hugs) an entrenched part of the culture.
In the case of the school, when we arrived all of the kids were lined up waiting for the brief ceremony of bringing the flag down to conclude the school day.
The flag retrieved, the line of kids moved slowly past their teachers pausing long enough for each one of them, in turn, to be given a farewell hug and a kiss by their teacher before being released to their parents, who were waiting to welcome them with another hug and a kiss.
With school now officially dismissed, many of the parents moved forward to say hello/goodbye to the teachers with a kiss and a hug, and the teachers kissed and hugged their co-workers good-bye as well.
And, of course, parents greeted other parents they knew, giving each other hello/goodbye hugs and kisses.
So, basically, a love-fest!
Unlike parts of Europe, where the “beso” has turned into something of a fatuous ritual involving up to three or even four kisses on alternating cheeks, here a single beso suffices, a simple demonstration of goodwill and warmth.
Thus, even when meeting complete strangers of the opposite sex, a beso is expected. And friends of the same sex invariably hug and beso each other on every fresh encounter, and every farewell.
One sight that never fails to make me smile is seeing the stewardesses on airplanes giving a beso to the member of the ground crew who opens the cabin door on arrival.
There is so much I love about our adopted country, and the besos and abrazos are one of best. As I see it, it is a glance into the warm and loving soul of the people.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S. political correctness and an inherent tendency for puritanism is sucking the soul out of the culture.
So Long For Now
At the onset of this missive, I stated that I have been busy and distracted. The simple fact is that any notion of reorganizing my life to slide gracefully into something that looks like retirement has gone out the window.
Both the wine and the restaurant businesses are very challenging and require a lot of attention. The wine business, in particular, is very complex. Consider, for example, that every day in Argentina there is, on average, five new wine brands launched.
Breaking through the noise to get your wine noticed is, to put it mildly, a tough go.
But here’s the thing - I love a new challenge - and so have rolled up the proverbial sleeves and am working day and night trying to beat out the considerable competition, and do it on a shoestring budget.
However, because of the complexity involved in marketing on the cheap in a very crowded market, my mind has been working overtime trying to come up with productive angles. Ergo, the distraction.
And then it’s up early and at the desk late, trying to implement.
Maybe I’ll retire next year… but at this point, I think I am a hopeless workaholic, so that’s probably a false hope.
Hey, here’s something fun, a sneak preview of the label of our new Ilogico extreme altitude Malbec.
The name comes the fact that it is completely illogical to try and make wine at 2,724 meters which is where our vineyard is located. That makes it the third highest vineyard in the world.
As an aside, the painting on the label is an original by Esteban Diaz Mauthe, a rising star in the Argentine art community.
Hope we have a chance to share a glass sometime. If you are every passing through Cafayate…