An Argentine weekend in 'El Campo': Day 1
The weekend after my first actual week here we went to el campo. El campo means ‘the country’ in Spanish. It can also be a term used to refer to a single farm/ranch. Having grown up on a farm, it is always exciting for me to experience another country’s rural culture. We were going to be in the Pampas and the land of the gauchos!
I should take a moment to tell you about the two other students in my program. They are two girls from the Buckeye State: Alice Gibson (Cleveland), and Rachel Roberts (Akron). They’re both great!
The three of us and Tony all left for Rojas, Argentina at 7:30 am Friday morning. We were staying on the farm of Mario and Mariana Aguer. Mario also was kind enough to pick us up and drive us. He is a veterinarian, farmer, and business owner in Rojas. His wife, Mariana, is an M.D.
The city of Buenos Aires is situated in the northeastern corner of the greater province of Buenos Aires. The province makes up a large portion of a region of plains and fertile farmland known as La Pampa Humida. Just as I have found that many Argentines have misconceptions about the American “wild west”, I also had misconceptions about the Pampas. I was expecting a wild land of rolling grass-covered hills, covered with cattle. As it happens, the current pampas are almost nothing like I imagined. It is almost a carbon copy of rural Minnesota. Had I been dropped there from an airplane, I would have thought I was at home in Donnelly in the summer time, except for the palm tree here and there, and the occasional iguana. The many striking similarities outweigh the cultural differences; however, there are gauchos, cattle, and the vibrant mix of Spanish and Italian heritage. There are also endless fields of corn and soybeans, which have replaced much of the beef cattle industry in recent years.
Our first stop that morning was at INTA. INTA stands for Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria. It is a research station dedicated to agricultural advancement, technology, and sustainability, much like our own up on the hill (This is my shout out to every one up at the WCROC). One of the things I found most interesting about this organization was the fact that they are the only governmental organization to have remained in existence continuously through out all of the volatile changes in government in the last 100 years of Argentina’s history.
This was also where I drank my first yerba mate (cher-baw maw-tay). Yerba mate is a drink indigenous to the southern and central parts of South America. It is especially popular in Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina. It is as much a social exchange as it is a drink. A tea substance of crushed, dried leaves is put into a traditional cup (the mate) made out of a hollowed-out gourd. Hot, not boiling, water is poured over the leaves. The liquid is pulled through a traditional straw made of metal with strainer holes at one end, called a bombilla. The cup is passed from one person to another in a circle and every person drinks from the same bombilla. It is almost an intimate experience, that is, coming from the perspective of someone from the United States. The only similar experience I could think of is drinking the wine out of the same cup during communion at a Catholic mass. The unaccustomed mate drinker needs to be careful, however. It will make you go to the bathroom in more ways than one- pun intended!
After our little tour of INTA, we traveled through the city of Pergamino and closer to Rojas where we toured a plant that processes and packages seed corn for Monsanto. When my dad plants corn every spring, the seed likely comes from this plant and others like it in the region. It was really hot, but very interesting. The plant was very modern, had a ton of quality control, and a lot of bio security measures to ensure the worlds supply of seed corn would get to its destination safely.
It was an interesting afternoon, but we were all craving something cold after this tour. Luckily, Mario’s farm was only about a five-minute drive from the plant (which was in the middle of no where). We were so fortunate to get connected with Mario and Mariana- in part because they had a pool! We were all in the water within about 15 minutes of arriving, but the pool was far from the only noteworthy aspect of the Aguer’s farm.
The Aguer's farm/ranch is called “El Trigal”. It is a variation on the word ‘trigo’, which means ‘wheat’. Almost all of the farms have gated driveways in this region, and the view upon pulling up to their gate was impressive. The driveway was lined with ancient and enormous trees the met overhead, and continued for about 150 yards leading up to the house. They had a beautiful home, and you could tell the moment you stepped inside that they loved having guests. From food, to towels, to activities, there was nothing they hadn’t prepared for, and everything was inviting. Mario raises cattle and sheep, but also keeps a few horses. They were in pastures near the house. They also kept a variety of fruit and nut trees, and other flora and fauna around the house with the help of their resident help Luis and his wife Lita. Lita was about 8 months pregnant, so her sister Medium was there to help her with tasks she tended to normally. They lived in a separate house on the same property. I can’t forget the two dogs, Billy and Costero.
On that first afternoon, besides swimming and sunning by the pool, we also took some time to work on our language skills by getting to know Mariana, their fifteen-year-old son Bernardino, and the director of our program at UBA, Marcelo, and his wife, Gilda. They were all engaging and helpful with our rusty Spanish. We stayed by the pool talking, then we shared mate on the veranda, talking, and then we went back to the pool and talked some more, and then went back to the veranda and had coffee. It was not hard to adjust to this schedule. There were Quaker parrots flying overhead, chattering in the trees, and an overall feeling of ease and relaxation that is hard to come by in the states. This has been a recurring theme of my time here: we don’t take as much time to relax and enjoy our lives in the United States as people here do. The sun started going down in the most beautiful way, and signaled it was time to prepare for the asado.
While the rest of us were cleaning off the sunscreen, Luis had been building a roaring bonfire in the back yard. There was a large metal grate on four legs amid the flames. When we came out to see this master of the asado in action, he was just turning to prepare the meat for cooking. There were several cuts of beef, mostly from: the ribs, the skirt, the loin, and the tripe (intestines). It is customary in the U.S. for meat being prepared for the grill to be seasoned to death, or drowned in marinade, but here in el campo the animal had acquired natural flavors from it’s time alive eating nothing but grass, and so nothing is added to season the meat, except a liberal dose of kosher salt. The meat was allowed to rest in the salt for a few minutes while the grate was being pulled out of the fire. Then Luis used a shovel to pull out burning coals from the bonfire. You don’t want the meat to be right on top of the fire; you want it to cook slowly over the hot coals. Altogether the process takes about 4 hours. The Aguer’s had a special room attached onto their house for the asado. It had a long wooden banquet table with wood benches on both sides, and a large grate for grilling inside. We all went in to prepare for the meal, talk, and enjoy our excellent Argentine wine. The meal started with the chorizo. These sausages were made by some one Mario knew personally and with ingredients he had either brought in to him or selected at his shop. They were delicious. Then came the other cuts from the ribs, the skirt, the loin, and the tripe (bife de chorizo, bife de lomo, entraña, tripe, cortilla, etc.). The meal continued to improve with time, as each bite was more delicious and succulent than the previous. We almost ate ourselves sick, but we were so satisfied at the end. I hardly needed the bread and salad also on the table. There was enough meat to feed an army. The animal had been killed 5 days before we ate it, and I could honestly say I had never had a meal of meat that was so delicious and so fresh off the land. That would change the following night, but lets not get ahead of ourselves.
After the meal, there was dessert and coffee, and a concert by Rachel and her guitar. What an astounding voice she has! This girl is going to be famous some day, and she knew just what songs to play to set the mood for the night. We applauded Luis, the asador, and went out and sat by the pool to finish our coffee. I looked up, and the stars were the brightest I had ever seen. Mario shut off all the lights inside the house and on the veranda and we all leaned back in our chairs and faced the heavens. I was born on a farm, so I know what it means to look up and actually see the stars, but this was something else. In Argentina there are no yard lights in the country, so there is no light pollution what so ever. Also, as you may know, all of the stars are different. Mario pointed out some constellations: the Southern Cross, Las Tres Marias, and Lucero (actually a planet, Venus I think).
After a few minutes Mario got up and told us to follow him. There was a little confusion, not just because we were still trying to understand everything he said, but also because we had no idea where he was going. We followed him as he walked down the driveway to the gate by the road. He veered off through the line of trees into the open field. He told us to be silent, and then we all laid down on the ground. The stars were even brighter here than they had been by the house. We laid there for what seemed like an eternity, but it could not have been long enough. Maybe it was the wine, maybe it was the silence, I don’t know, but it was one of the most spiritual moments of my life. I felt close to something and yet a million miles away- like I possessed the entirety of creation within me, but at the same time it was like I was sitting above the atmosphere looking down at the earth from above. I could feel the rotation of the earth beneath me. I could see the movement of the stars in the heavens. I had never felt so alive. I thought to myself, “Could this night get any better?!”
Well yes, actually it could! After we walked back up the driveway with the parrots roosting in the trees over our heads, we decided to go for a little night swim in the pool. Night swimming is one of my favorite things in the entire world! After this it was about 3 am. We finished off the wine, and started heading for bed. I was in such an elated state of mind I couldn’t sleep, and so I wrote a few letters to friends that night before going to bed.