I’ve often heard it said that travel gives you a true appreciation for how big the Earth really is. I’ve had a few, very small, chances to experience this: drives around New England, a visit to Canada, a ski trip in Utah, and finally a 6,000 mile flight down to the Southern Hemisphere. By the time I touched down in Buenos Aires I was starting to think, “yeah, I think I might have got a handle on the size of the world. If not the world, then the American continent, and if not the continent at least the country. It was only 3 or 4 hours into the bus ride towards Tapalque that I realized how wrong I was.
A quick geography lesson on the country that is Argentina: the 8th largest in the world, it stretches from the southern border of Brazil all the way down to the tip of South America. The city of Buenos Aires, where I live, sits about smack-dab in the middle of the Atlantic coastline. Heading north will bring you to Brazil, Iguazú Falls, and eventually the Amazon. South is the legendary land called Patagonia. West will bring you through a great stretch of plains called Las Pampas before you eventually you hit the Andes. La Margarita, like the majority of Argentine estancias, was tucked into a small corner of Las Pampas, not even a quarter of the way between me and the mountains. I knew all of this prior to my departure on Saturday afternoon, but I didn’t really know it. Looking out the window of our bus I was struck by how much there was- of everything. First, the sprawling suburbs of Buenos Aires, low-income housing with tin roofs and kids on bikes. Then came massive stretches of…nothing really. Perfectly flat farmland, dotted with herds of cattle, shabby fences, and hundreds of miles of road. About every 25 minutes we’d come upon a town made up of blocks of dirt roads, a collection of houses, a gas station, and a handful of shops.
Tapalque was one of these very towns; one of those places where 50 years could pass and nothing would really change. Becky and I climbed off the bus and looked around for our ride to La Margarita, which is located about 12 km from the town center. A blonde-haired woman approached us, fully decked out in guacho gear: loose jeans, layered flannel shirts, a scarf, floppy hat, and cigarette between her lips.
“Chicos, por La Margarita?”
Becky and I gave an excited confirmation and followed our new compañera, named Malí, towards an old, pick-up truck that had La Margarita stenciled in fading black cursive on either door. Inside the truck we met Mario, a young Argentine native who came to Tapalque after working at a different Estancia for some years. He and Malí brought us to the local fruitstand and supermarket, where we stocked up on produce, snacks, and ingredients for dinner. By the time we arrived at the door of our home for the weekend, night was fully upon us. Inside of the bright pink building was a simple kitchen, complete with miniature stove, sturdy table, fridge, and a few cabinets. A woodstove was tucked into the back right corner, and I wasted no time stoking a cheerfully crackling fire. Becky and I could feel the wear from a full day of travel, so we contented ourselves with sipping hot chocolate, making dinner, and playing an icebreaker game called “Family Dinner” that we found hidden in one of the cabinets. In many ways it was reminiscent of a night at Pappy’s cabin in the mountains of Maine. No tv, no distractions; just hearty food, a warm fire, good company, and simple fun.
Fresh morning sunlight gave me the chance to fully investigate the surroundings. The unit Becky and I shared was one of four in a strip. Our back windows looked out on a small pen containing a family of happily-scratching pigs. Looking out from the front door, one could see the horse barn and one side of the main house on the La Margarita property. Chickens clucked around your feet, horses whinnied in the background, and a group of four dogs got into various forms of mischief. After a month in the city, these simple sounds were music to my ears; the enormous stretches of sun-washed plain and blue sky were more beautiful than any painting displayed in a stuffy museum.
Malí knocked on the front door around 10:30 to escort us to the barn, where our trusty steeds awaited the morning ride. I had a fiery, chestnut-colored lady named “Diabla,” which translates to she-devil. Becky sat atop a sweet horse whose white coloring earned her the name “Nieve,” the Spanish word for snow. Our posse, complete with Mario and Malí, mounted up and headed out into pasture for an easy one-hour loop.
I’ve always had a special spot in my heart for horses. Part of it is definitely genetic; my mom spent much of her childhood caring for her own horse, and has various experiences working on ranches and farms in the West. I grew up around this, along with occasional trips to the mighty estate of Dr. Walter Titus Carpenter, my great-grandfather. Dr. Carpenter, known to friends, family, and patients as “Docky,” kept a paddock with a handful of horses that I would treat with carrots and love. My clinching horse moment, however, was seeing the movie “Hidalgo” at age 12. I walked out of the theater determined to ride horses like Viggo Mortensen, and spent the next 3 years taking lessons. I may never gallop a horse across the desert, but I did pick up a little bit of knowledge.
All of these memories eased their way back into my mind during our first morning ride, and by the time Diabla and I cantered back towards the barn I could feel my inner gaucho stirring, ready for more. Luckily, I had signed up for a longer ride later in the afternoon. Becky and I relaxed, lunched, and took a pair of rickety bicycles out to explore the dirt roads around La Margarita before I headed back for my second date with Diabla.
This was a longer ride, 3 hours to be exact, and it was during this one where I learned how Diabla got her name. It was as if the little she-devil had a fire burning in her legs; at the slightest slack I could full her entire body poised to take off across the Pampas. She would grudgingly listen when I shortened the lead and whisper “Tranquila Diabla.” More than few times, however, I loosened up even more, sat back in the saddle, and we took off at a rapid canter, the wind causing water to bead in my eyes. By the time we slowed again, both of us would be out of breath, and I’d have a smile plastered to my flushed face.
When not dashing across the Pampas, I spent the ride talking with Mario and Malí – all in Spanish, of course. I asked Malí about her home in Germany and her travels across South America. Mario was quieter, but would occasionally add a sly comment or joke in the rapidly slurred dialect of a gaucho. By the time we arrived back at the gates of La Margarita, the sun was dipping below the horizon, casting brilliant shades of red and yellow across the sky. It was, without a doubt, one of the most scenes I have had the pleasure to see.
The sun might be gone, but our day was far from over. Within 15 minutes of my return, Becky and I hopped back into the La Margarita pickup truck for a ride to la pulpería, an authentic gaucho bar/convenience store that has been in operation since the late 1800’s. We were joined by Malí and Raquel, the house cook at the estancia. Stepping out of the truck we were greeted by the bright twinkle of stars above, something I hadn’t seen since arriving in Buenos Aires. We took seats at an ancient wooden bar and ordered Fernet con Coca, the national cocktail of Argentina. The next hour was filled with easy conversation, a platter of salami and cheese, and even a spurt of dancing, inspired by music drifting from the dusty radio in the corner. As our hunger grew a little sharper, we headed back towards La Margarita, where Becky and I had an asado waiting for us.
Asado is the Argentine term for a grand barbeque. Every other restaurant in the city will offer their version of the event, and they can range from smaller ordeals to a full side of beef. Tonight Raquel’s protegé had prepared a spread of various salads (potato, carrot, greens), bread, butter, wine, and delicately grilled beef. As an added bonus, Becky and I were joined for dinner by an family of 4 that had just arrived from their home in the Buenos Aires province. The mother, father, and two young girls had never met anyone from the United States, and they excitedly asked us about some of the typical stereotypes that come with the US.
“Do you eat only fast food?”
“Is it all big cities, or are there small towns, too?”
“What do they say about Argentina?”
Becky and I did our best to give them a glimpse of life in Kansas (where she lives) and Maine and matched their questions with some of our own. By the time a dessert of chocolate mousse was set down in front of us, the father was comfortable enough to share his views on politics and the sentiment of the Argentine people. I was amazed by how similar his thoughts were to my own musings about the world, and those of my friends and family. He voiced his belief that the people of the world were ready for change, a movement away from violence towards “paz y amor” (Peace and Love). Amen mi amigo, amen.
Our final day at La Margarita started in the same way as the previous, with an hour-long ride around the pastures underneath warm sun and blue sky. Becky and I got a chance to try some of the infamous Tapalque ice cream, made with fresh milk from local cows. Raquel informed us that it was actually one of her sons that made the sinful concoctions with his wife, and invited us to share a late lunch with her and her family. We ended up seated at the end of a long picnic table for another asado, surrounded by 15 or 16 members of Raquel’s delightful family. Sons, daughters, spouses, and grandchildren all welcomed us with open arms, excited questions, and full plates. You would have thought Becky and I were long lost cousins who had finally come back for a visit. Raquel’s son, the ice cream maker, begged us to come back to Tapalque, as we still had yet to check out his Pizza place, ice cream shop, and humble bed and breakfast. He even offered to let us stay for free if we ever came back! Coincidentally, he also turned out to be a strong proponent of “paz y amor,” using the exact same phrase as the father from the night before. Small world, huh?
The incredible lunch was just another amazing example of the hospitality that runs so thick in this Argentine culture. It is these types of experiences that really affirm my belief that people are intrinsically good, and that regardless of the country or culture you can always find individuals who want to share their happiness with you. That is exactly what every single person we met in Tapalque, from the fruit stand vendor to the pulpería clerk, had been trying to do.
At the end of it all, Becky and I exchanged hugs and cheek kisses with the whole Margarita crew. We boarded our bus home with tired legs, full stomachs, and warmed hearts.