“How to Survive at 9,000 Feet Above Sea Level”
by Bill Bonner
Gualfin, Argentina. “We have been developing an important insight into the way the economy works... with a view to understanding what might happen next. We'll return to it tomorrow. Today, we turn to matters here on the family ranch in Argentina...
Ask almost any of the changos – boys – on the ranch, and he will tell you his father is "unknown." Surely the mother knows. Or maybe not. But such is the culture in this part of the Andes that fathers often do not recognize their children.
Maria is not happy about it. Maria came here 40 years ago to teach children at the local school. She married the ranch foreman and has been here ever since. Now, instead of lecturing children on grammar, she lectures adults on their moral responsibilities. "The Catholic Church knows only two roles for a woman," she said sternly, looking directly at Victorina and another madre soltera (single mother), Juanita. She was giving instruction in anticipation of baptism; both women have babies; both would like the local padre to baptize them on Easter Sunday.
Maria was giving them Hell. "Either you get married and have children... or you enter religious orders. Either way, you are meant to serve God and the church." The two women were doing neither. They were "single moms." One was the mother of Talia Natalie – about six months old – whose tall, light-skinned godparents looked on with a mixture of curiosity and misgivings. They wondered whether they were doing the right thing by agreeing to be godparents to an Indian girl they scarcely knew in a language they barely spoke.
Manning Up: Living in the Andes in Argentina's Salta Province toughens you up. First, blue eyes and fair skin are unsuited to the high desert. But you have to go with what you've got. Then the lungs feel the challenge. At nearly 9,000 feet above sea level, there is less oxygen in the air. A man who has spent his entire life at sea level is likely to feel faint; it takes time for the lungs to get used to the thin air and compensate.
Next, the digestive tract must man up. There are bugs here that it is unused to. Sanitary standards are not the same as in Paris or Baltimore. Last Easter, for example, we walked into the kitchen. In anticipation of the Easter feast, the ranch foreman, Jorge, had killed a lamb... and laid its skinned and headless body on the bare kitchen table. Flies buzzed around, wondering whether to light on the meat then... or wait until it was cooked.
The water comes from mountain streams – the same ones used by goats, cows, llamas and upstream humans – and arrives at our spigots untreated. The windows are unscreened. There is no dodging: The digestive system just has to get used to a little dysentery.
Lower down, the reproductive organs meet their own test. Muña-muña is a local herb tea, from higher up in the mountains, consumed regularly at the ranch. Our cook titters every time she serves it to us. It is said to have an aphrodisiac effect... about which we will say no more.
Then there is the gluteus maximus – otherwise known as the "derriere." We arrive here after spending nine months of the year riding in cushy automobiles, sitting in upholstered airplane seats or settling into comfy office chairs. Bouncing for five hours on a piece of hard leather, firmly attached to the back of a trotting horse comes as a shock to the posterior. It takes weeks before we begin to feel comfortable.
Rights and Duties: But probably nothing needs as much toughening up as our moral sentiments. "The church is very clear about this," Maria continued. "As a Christian, you have both rights and duties. You have the right to all of the church sacraments. You are baptized so you can have eternal life. That's a right you have that no one can take away from you. Even if they kill you.
And you have the right to confirm your faith, as an adolescent... and then to confess and take communion, so your sins are forgiven. You have the right to marry in the church. And finally, you have the right to unction, at the end of your life, when you are welcomed into the community of saints in Heaven. All these things are the rights that you enjoy as Christians. But you have duties too. You can't just live with any man you fancy at the time. You're supposed to get married. And it's no good having a secular marriage by going to see the mayor. You have to get married in the church.
Then you have children. Then you bring the children to church to have them baptized and bring them up in the true faith. That's the right way to do it. The church – as an intermediary to God – forgives sin. But only if you stop sinning."
Church doctrine may have evolved a bit since Maria took her first communion. But word of the new developments may not have reached this remote valley. Today, the major religions are more easygoing. At lower altitudes sin may not be forgiven exactly, but it is readily overlooked – as long as the sinner recycles his trash and gives up smoking. "The church will freely welcome these babies into the Christian community. But you have duties as parents and godparents. And the first duty is to conduct yourselves as faithful Christians." The godparents looked at each other, wondering if they were up to it.”