The Gauche Gaucho

Autumn in Patagonia

FROM In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

BAHIA BLANCA is the last big place before the Patagonian desert. Bill dropped me at the hotel near the bus station. The bar-room was green and brightly lit and full of men playing cards. A country boy stood by the bar. He was shaky on his feet but he kept his head up like a gaucho. He was a nice-looking boy with curly bkack hair and he really was very drunk. The owner’s wife showed me a hot airless room, painted purple, with two beds in it. The room had no window and the door gave out on to a glassed-in courtyard. It was very cheap and the woman said nothing about having to share.

I was half asleep when the country boy reeled in, flung himself on the other bed and groaned and sat up and was sick. He was sick on and off for an hour and then he snored. I did not sleep that night for the smell of the sick and the snoring.

So next day, as we drove through the desert, I sleepily watched the rags of silver cloud spinning across the sky, and the sea of grey-green thornscrub lying off in sweeps and rising in terraces and the white dust streaming off the saltpans, and, on the horizon, land and sky dissolving into an absence of colour.

Patagonia begins on the Rio Negro. At mid-day the bus crossed an iron bridge over the river and stopped outside a bar. An Indian woman got off with her son. She had filled up two seats with her bulk. She chewed garlic and wore real gold jangly earrings and a hard white hat pinned over her braids. A look of abstract horror passed over the boy’s face as she manoeuvred herself and her parcels on to the street.

The permanent houses of the village were of brick with black stove pipes and a tangle of electric wires above. Where the brick houses gave out, the shacks of the Indians began. These were patched out of packing cases, sheet plastic and sacking.

A single man was walking up the street, his brown felt hat pulled low over his face. He was carrying a sack and walking into the white dustclouds, out into the country. Some children sheltered in a doorway and tormented a lamb. From one hut came the noise of the radio and sizzling fat. A lumpy arm appeared and threw a dog a bone. The dog took it and slunk off.

The Indians were migrant workers from Southern Chile. They were Araucanian Indians. A hundred years ago the Araucanians were incredibly fierce and brave. They painted their bodies red and flayed their enemies alive and sucked at the hearts of the dead. Their boys’ education consisted of hockey, horsemanship, liquor, insolence and sexual athletics, and for three centuries they scared the Spaniards out of their wits. In the sixteenth century Alonso de Ercilla wrote an epic in their honour and called it the Araucana, Voltaire read it and through him the Araucanians became candidates for the Noble Savage (tough version). The Araucanians are still very tough and would be a lot tougher if they gave up drink.

Outside the village there were irrigated plantations of maize and squash, and orchards of cherries and apricots. Along the line of the river, the willows were all blown about and showing their silvery undersides. The Indians had been cutting withies and there were fresh white cuts and the smell of sap. The river was swollen with snowmelt from the Andes, fast-running and rustling the reeds. Purple swallows were chasing bugs. When they flew above the cliff, the wind caught them and keeled them over in a fluttering reversal and they dropped again low over the river.

The cliff rose sheer above a ferry-landing. I climbed a path and from the top looked up-stream towards Chile. I could see the river, glinting and sliding through the bone-white cliffs with strips of emerald cultivation either side. Away from the cliffs was the desert. There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones.

The Patagonian desert is not a desert of sand or gravel, but a low thicket of grey-leaved thorns which give off a-bitter smell when crushed. Unlike the deserts of Arabia it has not produced any dramatic excess of the spirit, but it does have a place in the record of human experience. Charles Darwin found its negative qualities irresistible. In summing up The Voyage of the Beagle, he tried, unsuccessfully, to explain why, more than any of the wonders he had seen, these ‘arid wastes’ had taken such firm possession of his mind.

In the 1860s W. H. Hudson came to the Rio Negro looking for the migrant birds that wintered around his home in La Plata. Years later he remembered the trip through the filter of his Notting Hill boarding-house and wrote a book so quiet and sane it makes Thoreau seem a ranter. Hudson devotes a whole chapter of Idle Days in Patagonia to answering Mr Darwin’s question, and he concludes that desert wanderers discover in themselves a primaeval calmness (known also to the simplest savage), which is perhaps the same as the Peace of God.

About the time of Hudson’s visit, the Rio Negro was the northern frontier of an unusual kingdom which still maintains a court in exile in Paris.

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Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 9:31 PM  Leave a Comment  
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