Saturday 10 December 2016

The world at his feet

Latin America lover Lucy Clark has travelled the length and breadth of the continent. This is her tale of sophistication versus the simple life — of steak and Malbec versus the cactus hollow.

Lucy Clark

Published 13/11/2010 | 05:00

It was the bar of pink soap and the razor that brought a lump to my throat. They sat in a naturally hollowed piece of cactus wood, outside a shack, hidden in a valley, somewhere in the Andes of north-west Argentina.

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We'd walked for five hours to get there, kitted out in lightweight trekking trousers, with walking poles and factor 50 on our faces, marching up a steep incline through a dry river bed, watching as the village turned to a few farms, the farms to an occasional smallholding, the smallholdings to shepherd huts, the huts to nothing but rock and cacti and mountains draped in green and gold velvet.

The path had long since disappeared as we picked our way across jagged stone, crunching over pin-cushion plants that were no match for our Gore-Tex boots. Then, next to a stream, the shack appeared, tiny in a giant mineral bowl rimmed with beautiful, hostile peaks.

Cut to lunchtime in Buenos Aires. Steak. Malbec. Sophistication. My urbane, glossy companions tease me about the journey north to the Andes, to Argentina's Wild West. My meeting at 6pm outside the church in the little town of Cachi with somebody called Juan, who will be taking me across the Andes on foot. How many Juans I might meet before I got the right one. We laughed. They rolled their eyes. This was the so-called 'Paris of South America', where people dined out at midnight, danced tango until the small hours, mooched around antique markets and opened up boutique hotels oozing BA cool.

Their exports were rib-eye and red wine, and even their complex, corrupt politics and footballing misdemeanours were bathed in a soft-focus, glamorous light to a crackly, melancholy, tango soundtrack. We clinked glasses, ordered another bottle. I felt young and knowing and on the brink of adventure, the world at my feet. My 'Juan' and our meeting outside the church in Cachi seemed improbable, a quaint, faraway fairytale. A very long way from here.

First stop on our trek, Juan explained two days later, was to call in on a friend of his, Francisco, and I readily agreed, eager for a glimpse into private lives lived quietly, modestly, in the world's longest mountain range. Francisco lived not in Cachi, nor in one of the neighbouring villages, but a five-hour hike of continuous uphill that left a salty, chemical taste on my lips of sweat mixed with sun block.

His home comprised four small, single-storey huts, hand-built from the rocks that lay all around us, with cactus-wood roofs caked in mud and straw. There was a small corral, empty of livestock. Perfectly camouflaged in the softly nuanced olive and sand tones of the Andes, from a distance his shack and the corral were just another shade in that delicate, infinite palette. Step closer and domestic details came into focus: a washing line devoid of clothes, a bucket filled with tin cans and then, closer still, soap and razor in the cactus hollow, and a calendar on the wall, four years out of date.

The minutiae of a solitary life lived simply amid all that enormity. No clinking of glasses. No worldly rolling of eyes. Nothing but self and silence.

And yet, remarkably, Francisco was out. The man who had been born in this very shack, married here, raised his four children here (each hut testament to his growing family) and remained here alone after his wife died 10 years ago; a 67-year-old man who lived five hours from the nearest village (despite his children's pleas to move closer) was out, on an annual pilgrimage to Salta, the city some three days' walk from here.

Juan smiled wryly, looked a little sheepish. Yet in his absence, the detail of Francisco's life in the mountains came into sharper focus: the rickety wooden table holding a knife and a plate and nothing more; the tins of vegetables; the two shirts hanging in the closet.

And as we climbed the hill at the back of his house, Juan led me to a smooth, flat, sun-drenched rock; Francisco's thinking place. A pair of his boots sat on the edge of the rock and we removed ours and put them next to his. Like reptiles, we basked for a while and then sat up to contemplate the view back down the valley, the overlap of mountains behind mountains daubed in the pastel shades of a suburban living room, to hear the silence, to feel the warm rock under our tired legs.

This was Francisco's home. Francisco, who owned so little, possessed everything, this view his daily bread. And at that moment, I envied him. He had the world at his feet.

Irish Independent

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