Monday, February 9, 2009

Me and Catato

How about a story?

We sent the students off on their solos, which consists of them spending two days and two nights alone without food, a sort of forced suffering in the hopes of an eagle swooping down and telling them all of the elusive answers to propel them into their greatest work in life, but actually ends up being a horsefly killing competition (between the right hand and the left hand), and a lot of grumbling lonesomeness...So there we were, Brett and I, free from responsibilities for a few days, staring vacantly towards our relaxation, when Brett remembered that he needed to walk a few miles down the valley to a puesto where a gaucho lives so that we could order a sheep to be delivered to us for slaughter and eating. Well of course, being the esteemed teaching assistant that I am, I considered internally to offer to do this task for him, but then thought better of it, and remained mum. The conversation dragged onward, and in a moment of extreme stupidity I said, ¨Geez, I really wish I spoke better spanish, because then I could go in your place.¨ And Brett, being the encouraging and empowering man that he is, said, ¨You wanna try?¨

Let´s set the scene a bit, shall we? The place that we spent the past month is a 60 square mile Estancia in Central Argentina, near the border of Chile. The Patagonian Steppe. Very dry, zeric if you will (as you can see I´ve paying attention in class...). The land stretches out as far as the eye can see, rolling spines of mountains, all gold and green from the bunch grasses, with hardly any trees to speak of. The mountains rise steeply up from the valleys carved by the Rios Trocomon and Picunleo, and the massive Andean Condors have their many nests tucked into the caves of the cracked, crumbling, arthritic spires of red stone, and condensed grey layers of volcanic ash.

We did a huge loop, hiking for a little over a week before we reached our basecamp at Laguna Negra, a gorgeous deep blue lake held in a glacier-carved bowl surrounded by mountains. Throughout our hike we would occasionally come across a puesto, which is a little hut made of thatched ñire (the dominant tree species of the area. A close relative of the oaks, which mostly grows in thick, shrub-like clumps) branches and stone where a gaucho, an Argentine cowboy, lives and herds his animals. There are no roads here, no towns, no nothin. These guys live miles from their nearest neighbor, and spend their lives moving huge herds of goats, sheep, horses and cows along the sides and tops of these mountains that we were walking.

So there we were, sitting in a little ñire invagination which was our kitchen at basecamp, and suddenly Brett is urging me on to go down and place the order for a live sheep to be delivered to us day after tomorrow. I put on the one nice shirt that I had, tucked it in, washed my face, and had Brett write me out instructions of what to say when I arrived. The two plus mile hike down the valley was beautiful, and suddenly I felt all puffed up with confidence for the task ahead. I began to imagine myself showing up to this puesto, greeting the gaucho with my best manners and phrases, having him invite me in for a mate´, and discussing life in the campo, with the spanish suddenly blooming off my tongue like a spring day after the rains, a true cultural experience was at my fingertips and I was ready! Then I got lost. Like I said, the ñire grows in thick, shrubby clumps, and at its most profilic it creates vast, impenetrable labyrinths. As I neared this still invisible puesto I found myself surrounded by one such labyrinth, and as I crashed around in the bushes, trying to find my way, but constantly hitting deadends, my mind began to wander into such thoughts as: ¨Do gauchos have rifles?¨and ¨Maybe if I just curl up in a ball and close my eyes I´ll wake up in California?¨ Finally I emerged in a field of goats, and knew I was close by. I wandered a little ways further, and there it was, the puesto of Don Troncoso. I walked up, whistling my pathetic, high-pitched, through the crack in my front teeth whistle, which is the only one in my command, and was met by a swirling fury of dog barks, and a mass of giant cows tearing away from me in all directions. I saw the gaucho, who I assumed was Troncoso, brushing his horse near the puesto. I walked up to him, greeted him as best I could, and asked if he was indeed Don Troncoso. He muttered a lot of short little syllables that I had no comprehension of, and I smiled moronically as little beads of sweat emerged on my forehead. I later realized with Brett´s assistance that he was telling me that he was not Don Troncoso, but was instead his puestero, Catato, which I never caught, and I must have called Catato Don Troncoso at least 15 more times throughout our ¨conversation.¨ After a weak attempt at navigating the conversation without the piece of paper that Brett gave me, I reached into my pocket and unfolded the page, saying, ¨Yo tengo instucciones,¨at which time his look of disgust deepened, and I commenced to read to him our request. When I was through we both stood there staring at one another, I said, ¨¿Claro?¨, to which he responded, ¨Si.¨and then I just stood there, and he turned around and began brushing his horse again, and whistling a far superior whistle to mine. We were the only two human beings in miles, and as I stood there holding my instrucciones, and he brushed his horse, and the nearby radio was cranked at full volume shooting out nothing but pure fuzzy static, I couldn´t help but think that this moment was as pure a distillation of true and utter awkwardness as was ever conjured, a manifestation of discomfort unparralled in all other arenas of my life, and I loved it! I began to slowly shuffle off, shouted my saludos, and laughed and laughed at the hilarity of it all as I climbed through the maze of ñire, the maze of ridiculousness, the maze of life.

And a must for any gringo writing home from a spanish speaking country...Enter here: Fancy spanish phrase that inaccurately shows how much I´ve learned, and makes every one who doesn´t speak spanish feel stupid and left out. ¡Bueno!


  1. Nothing tickles me more than the awkwardness of learning another language...and I'll end this by one-upping you: Que bueno!

    Amazing I know.

  2. My two most favorite awkward people using spanish! Belissimo!

  3. Hmm, I suppose I´ll continue to be the picky asshole that I am and point out that, though you have learned the meaning of the word you so closely paid attention to in class which roughly means, "dry landscape requiring little to no water to support the community of flora and fauna therein dwelling," its spelling is actually, "xeric," not "zeric." This of course does nothing to dimisinsh the profound education you are receiving out there in the sticks with a bunch of loons like yourself, only allots me a reason to showcase my supreme ability to completely miss the point, and dick around with phonetics.
    Vas a comer un assado para mi, mira las estrellas, da me un besito con la luna llena, y que nunca tengas hambre o sed. Doces sueños! Buenas!
    Nicolas (bu)

  4. thank you for the laughs!!! it reminds me of the time (about a month ago) that i told the woman in charge of our hostel that i loved her. literally: "te amo." true happened. i meant of course that i loved the nice clean, comfortable room but i was so taken by the moment that my spanish got away from me and instead i told the middle aged (totally hot) Mexican woman that i indeed loved her. cheers to painfully fantastic awkward experiences. hasta pronto amigo. that means, see you soon friend, in spanish. caio

  5. !SAMMY! (flip that first exclamation upside-down) You're incredible. I'm supposed to be studying autonomic dysreflexia and SIADH (syndrome of inappropriate anti-diuretic hormone) for a test that happens in 2 hours but I'm stuck on your blog. Let's make one thing very clear: I'm usually as interested in other people's travel emails as my dog is in lettuce. Sticking with the metaphor, if other people's emails are lettuce, yours is STEAK. My dog loves steak. I love your writing. You traveling is bittersweet. We miss you on rainy days when we make big pots of chili, drink homebrew and play rings in Chloe/Will's garage. But in exchange for your absence we get THIS! Makes me want to keep you on the road so that I can have good reading material. More, please! Love you and miss you. Claro?

  6. i love this story the most...
    that's why i'm responding to it a month late...
    i love it the most because i've been there! in know the puesto, i know the gaucho (or at least the archetype he embodies), and dammit, i know the awkwardness!

    ... but man, i bet that chivito was good... i know that too.

    love you like a brother, brother.

    ~ w

  7. i just found this website! That story was great.