When I think of the country, I think of dirty houses, hot dusty weather, flies buzzing around in a shabby corner store, and intense boredom. (This is my prejudice as a kid from the suburbs I guess.) Well, one poor schmuck from Bangkok Thailand wound up out in the country for his exchange-student experience, in backwater town called Ulapes, five hours from my little La Rioja. He's stranded in a house with no internet, a school of 150, and absolutely nothing to do on weekends.
Mention the idea of living in Ulapes to any kid from La Rioja and he will put his fingers to his temples in a gesture of suicide.
Well, I came out to visit this kid for a weekend. Jett is his name, short for Jethaana. I'm writing from Ulapes on my laptop - I'm lucky to have found an electrical outlet. I've been here two days, which is quite enough for me. Jett's host family invited me for much more time, but I told them I had an obligation at the university (Academic obligation? In Argentina? Yeah right!). There is really nothing to do in Ulapes. Tomorrow I'll get on my escape bus for La Rioja, which I suddenly view as a thriving urban metropolis.
While my brief stay in Ulapes confirmed many of my general prejudices about country life (it being hot, dirty, and incredibly boring), I have a newfound appreciation for people who live there. Jett's host parents - Jorge and Mercedes - live the most perfect idyllic country life I can imagine. They are not rich, but they own a comfortably large house and an old (but decent) pickup truck. Jorge is a tall muscular 47-year-old who works most of the day in the grocery market he owns, attached to the house. In the evenings he drives out about three miles in his pickup truck to tend to his small ranch. In his spare time he plays cards with his amigos out on the back porch. Mercedes is his humble country housewife. She teaches math in Ulapes's tiny school. She is a very devout catholic, a loving mother of two, and a pleasant person to sit down with and talk about your day. I never hear her complain, she only gives thanks for what God has given her.
I can hardly describe what a admirable life they live - they are so happy in their rustic lifestyle. Mercedes always explains to me how grateful they are to live in the country, "It's quiet here. We know everybody and everybody knows us, they're all our friends. We leave the doors and windows open because we know no one will steal from us." Jorge explained to me, "It's great. In the city, you have to commute back and forth from work and there's no time to cook, so you eat from a can. No, here we walk home from work in three minutes. And we eat fresh cooked food, with fresh meat and fresh eggs, fresh bread. There's no other way to do it!"
At about 7:00PM last night Jorge was loading crates of scrap meat into his truck. "Gotta slop the pigs." He invited me along to see his ranch. We rode out a few miles in his rusty pickup until we arrived at a large field surrounded by a fence made of wire and tree branches. "This is it." He dumped the old meat into the pigpen with a grunt. This is what struck me: To him, working with his animals didn't seem like a tedious chore. Quite contrary, he seemed to love it. In some way, his work was an affirmation of his strong masculine identity. His work was a man's work. He was a man wielding power and control over his animals, a man bringing food to his family. He seemed proud. Not arrogant, just proud. Content, satisfied. "See the balls on that pig? I'll cut them off later this month. Meat from a pig with balls is always tough. Three years castrated, the pork will be perfect."
Out beyond the fence was a beautiful white horse. "She's old now, almost 13. But oh, she was a beaut when she was younger. Like a woman when she's 25," he kissed his thumb and forefinger like a chef who has just perfected his sauce. "Pure racing breed. She even won a few races in her day. And won't hurt you for anything, she's the most tranquil thing there is." A few other horses came galloping over, Jorge was doling out the fodder. "But it isn't worth it for her to have babies. With this breed, they need attention around the clock. You'd have to prop up the babe every 20 minutes or so to suck the tit, attention like that for months" You could tell without any words that he loved his horses.
Next he invited me into the cow pen. "Don't be afraid, if they're not hungry they won't do anything to you, and I keep them well fed." The troughs were almost empty though, so he called over his farmhand. "Give 'em some more feed." "But I already gave them double today." "It don't matter, if they're hungry give 'em food." So the farmhand he lumbered off to get more fodder. Jorge continued, "See these little ones? They'll make a fine steak. That's a cow for an asado. But those bigger fat ones, no. The meat's tougher and just not as good. I'll grind them up into hamburger or sausage. Nothing goes to waste."
On the ride back to the house he was explaining to me more about meats. He knew his stuff. I guess that's what comes from both raising with the animals and selling the meat as a butcher. As we pulled into the driveway he said "On the weekends my sons like to use the truck. They don't want to bring their girls into the house, they'd be ashamed. So they take 'em out to the field." He gave me a strong look, and something that resembled like a wink. It was as if to say, That's just how you do it in the country.
So while I could never live out here, and while I pity the kid from Thailand, I have to admire the people that do live here. It is hot, dusty, and boring; that stereotype remains. But if I had stereotypes about country folk - redneck, hick, or hillbilly stereotypes - they have been thoroughly dispelled. The people I met are some incredible people. Mercedes, gratefully tending the house and family. Jorge, proudly managing his animals and his shop. And their two sons, taking their girls out to the field in the pickup truck.