By Patrick Falterman
The next morning Juan awoke at around nine. ‘Wake up, Patreek, we must be on the move once more.’
I groggily rolled over and reluctantly came out of the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag as Juan twisted the ignition. The big engine thundered to life, and we were rolling once more through the windy Patagonian plains before I had gotten my boots back on.
The day passed; we slid smoothly by the vast, grassy plains for hours and hours.
One does not know the meaning of the word ‘endless’ until one travels by land through Patagonia; apart from the road, the monotony of tan grasses dominates the vision for as far as the human eye can possibly hope to see. There is no way of knowing whether the grasses come to an end just at the threshold of human vision or simply go on forever, stretching eternally into infinite oblivion. Every once in awhile we would pass a few trees which would provide a break in the monotony, for a moment; Juan informed me that hundreds of years ago, there had been pioneer homesteads in those places.
‘They planted the trees to provide a natural shelter from the wind,’ said Juan astutely. ‘Nowadays, the homes have long since vanished, but the trees remain.’ He lowered his voice, then continued on somberly, ‘Most of them died of exposure or starvation…during the winter months.’
We passed these solitary groves every fifteen miles or so, bleak reminders of those who tried and failed to civilize the feral Patagonain plains. I imagined for several hours what it must have been like to be a Patagonian settler back in those bygone days…
A Spanish farmer reads a bulletin notice in colonial-era Spain calling for settlers to colonize its new territories in America to ensure that they remain Spanish, for God’s Sake! I imagine how it must have looked…
Beist thou without work, or struggling to support thine thriving family?
Fear not, O impoverished Peasant, for the Spanish Crown has thy solution!
Her Majesty Queen Maria invites all thee whom find it agreeable in thine hearts to serve Her by colonizing those Imperial Territories of the Spanish Crown in the fruitful, exciting lands of America!
These Loyal Servants of Her Most Highness shall be rewarded with no less than 10,000 ko’s of Prime Farmland, Five Hardy Mules of the Finest Quality, and the Unfaltering Blessing of Her Mightiness The Queen, as well as thy patriotic satisfaction of keeping the most unwashed of Portuguese sons of swine off the Rightful Territory of the Most Highest and Powerful Nation of Spain.
Interested Parties should contact the Office of Colonial Affairs on Avenida Maria before the New Year of 1615. Gypsies Need Not Apply!!!
By Gods! was the likely thought of the Spanish farmer, fallen on hard times. This sounds like a fine offer! So off he goes to Avenida Maria to the Office of Colonial Affairs; after taking his number, waiting in several long lines with no clear purpose, filling out six forms that all asked the same questions, and wondering why the government employees took four hour lunch breaks, the farmer successfully signed he and his family up for the Spanish colonization of the wild land of America! What could be more exciting for little Juan, Jorge, Mario, Maria and Antoinetta? His Wife would bear him many more fine sons and no daughters in the fresh air and open plains, surely; not like this putrid European air they were currently choking down, like the rat in the sewer-pipes…
Six months later, after a two-month boat ride (during which little Antoinetta tragically died of cholera), the farmer arrives triumphantly to the fabled land of America. It’s an incomprehensibly vast and untamed wilderness; overwhelmed, the simple man genuflects several times and swears quietly in the Name of the Most Holy Mother of God.
Off the ship roll the wagons full of their supplies, their five hardy mules (“…as promised!” points out the enclosed letter cheerfully), and the map to the general location of his new homestead. In high spirits, the farmer and his family set off into the unknown, covered wagons clanking cheerfully along into the mysterious West.
As they drive, the farmer reads through more of the enclosed introductory pamphlet, penned on impressive Royal Spanish Parchment Paper and emblazoned in Peacock Green Ink of the finest quality:
To be read only upon arrival!!!!
screamed the front page. Due to seriousness that four exclamation marks carried in those days, the farmer was careful to do as he was told.
Welcome to Spanish America, O loyal settler of New Spain!
We the Most Stately Administration of the Spanish Crown trust that thee hast receiveth thy mules and thy cargo-wagons, as promised! and in an acceptable condition after the rigors of sea-travel. Enclosed is the location of thy future prosperous farmland…!
Enjoy thy life in New Spain, and thou must rememberest: PPS!
Pay thy Royal Taxes!
Piss on the Portuguese swine!
Scan the Horizon for Savages!
Savages, thinks the farmer, with some alarm. No-one told I such Barbary may be afoot. I hope very much mine quiet little family does not encounter such evil things. The caravan rolls onward, deep into colonial Patagonia, the blue seas of the Atlantic fading away in the distance. A new life, thinks the farmer dreamily. We go forth to start anew…
Years have since passed since the happy times of the farmer’s first arrival to the New World; years of hardship, hunger, and misery. To start anew indeed, thinks the now-old man bitterly as he sits alone in his empty home during another harsh Patagonian winter. I haveth not one piece of bread or venison to feed mine weakening body, nor one drop of brandy to quell my old nerves… Suddenly, unable to take it any longer, he runs from his home and into the harsh snows and icy winds, faltering in the deep drifts and rolling down a steep snow bank. Beaten at last, the old farmer screws up his face in agony and shouts to the heavens, “Thou hast forsaken me, O mine God of Nigh! I stand here in this savage, frozen land, mine Wife since two years dead from starvation, mine Children frozen in the icy snows of the winter of ’29, and mine Mules all dead by my own hand, for there be naught game to be hunted nor harvest to be reaped in this desolate land of America!” The farmer collapses to the ground in his weakness. As the cold seeps into his old bones, life finally starts to leave his withered, tortured body; he crawls to the grove of spiking Pine, planted along the edges of his modest homestead by his loving wife after their happy arrival to the homestead all those years ago, now halfway buried in the deep snow. The memory grows faint as the farmer’s mind begins to shut down. My ‘new life,’ indeed is his last conscious thought as he huddles up against the trunks, before the spark of life leaves him forever and the cold snows of Patagonia bury his frail body for the last time.
The stately groves still stand today, rustling in the eternal winds of the Patagonian plains, timeless grave-markers for the long-lost settlers of old which dot the horizon of Patagonia, a warning to all who dare try and tame the Beast that is the frigid Plains.
Of course, there are those that have survived; every few hundred miles we drove past a small town that managed to subsist here, isolated in the most literal sense of the word in the vast grasses, though they are forced to import their water (‘It is a strange thing,’ said Juan to me pensively, ‘it seems always to be raining in Patagonia, or snowing; yet there is no water to be had here!’ He shook his head in bewilderment. ‘Where it all goes, I do not know.’) Sometimes even mid-sized towns sprout up when there are mountains around to block some of the wind (these, I assume, are the principal reasons the town of S- has managed to remain in existence for more than a century, as the sign in the entryway so proudly states in bold letters).
Patagonia is not always the vast grasslands, however. We passed great grey mountainsides which jutted regally into the blue sky, stabbing aggressively at the cotton-ball puffs of clouds which floated in vast numbers above the southern land; great mountains, forbidding canyons and gorges, scars and blemishes on this strange land. Their beauty was undeniable; but was a dark beauty, like that of witches.
Meanwhile, as mystical Patagonia rolled quietly by out the window of the semi, I felt us slowing down; the air breaks hissed and we pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. ‘Why have we stopped?’ I asked curiously.
‘Lunch,’ said Juan with a grin.
I looked around; we were miles away from anything.
‘Here,’ said the trucker placidly. ‘I am going to cook for you ‘Juan’s Chilean Soup.’ I always make this when I travel through Patagonia; restaurants are few and far in between, and I don’t much care for the food in Argentina,’ he said winking. ‘Not enough onions. I like onions.’ He began unloading pots, pans, and a gas stove from a space under his seat that was apparently a lot larger than it looked. ‘This is cheaper as well,’ said Juan thriftily, and he began busily removing all the ingredients out of a medium-sized ice chest that had somehow managed to fit underneath the seat as well.
‘We’re going to cook?’ I said, bewildered. ‘But the wind is so strong outside!’ And it was; some gusts slammed into the cab with such force that the truck shook about as if in a strong earthquake.
‘Don’t be silly,’ said Juan tolerantly. ‘We shall cook here in the cab!’
And cook we did. Soon, Juan had a potful of meat, carrots, onions, and mixed vegetables simmering on a roaring gas burner, giving the inside of the cab a pleasant odor.
‘The onions are the most important,’ said Juan as he industriously chopped a fourth and scraped it into the pot, blinking his eyes with the tart aroma that had replaced that of the soup. ‘If you don’t eat enough onions, than your stomach never gets fully emptied,’ he droned, blinking as he started chopping a fifth. ‘People who never eat any onions have all sorts of food caught in their stomachs. This way, you start afresh each time you dine.’ He scraped the fifth in, and looked up at me. ‘You know, I heard of one fellow who could not eat anything, for the amount of food that was trapped in his stomach and could not pass on…and all because the man ate no onions!’ The trucker shook his head, as if to say “what a pity,” and began chopping a sixth.
‘I don’t really like onions all that much,’ I said, wiping the tears from my eyes.
Juan looked up at me. ‘Are you hungry?’
‘Do you wish to eat before you arrive to Punta Arenas?’
‘Then today, you like onions,’ he said, and with a grin, scraped the sixth one in. The soup steamed ominously, the meat and carrots invisible beneath Juan’s regiment of chopped stink.
‘I guess I like onions,’ said I apprehensively. Juan produced a wooden ladle from somewhere and began to stir the mess, which hissed menacingly; as if angry someone dared disturb its malignant mumble.
‘Now,’ said the trucker, businesslike, ‘you must keep stirring the soup so that it does not stick to the bottom. After five minutes (he looked at his watch) you must add that second bag of mixed vegetables over there by the bunks.’ I nodded, unable to see the phantom bag since my eyes were full with water caused by the onion funk. Juan appeared unaffected; perhaps he had developed immunity over the years.
‘It has now been five minutes. Add the bag!’
I groped around in what I thought was the general direction of the vegetable bag, wishing we could crack a window or something. Finally, after coming up with a bag of chocolate donuts, crumpled-up loose leaf notebook paper, and a bag of Smarties, I managed to locate the elusive mixed veggies. I tore open the bag with my teeth and dumped it in the pot, hoping it would repress some of the onion smell; it didn’t.
‘Perfect!’ said Juan happily. ‘And now…we wait.’ Great, I thought.
‘Can we roll down a window?’ I mumbled grumpily, still unable to see anything with clarity.
‘And let all this wonderful, cleansing smell out? What a waste that would be!’ said Juan, aghast. But he could see I was quite uncomfortable, and said, ‘Oh, crack open your side if you wish. But don’t come a-weeping to me when you find you can no longer digest your food properly!’
Gasping, I groped for the button which would release me from my sour-scented prison; finding it, I jammed it down with my thumb and stuck my head out into the fierce Patagonian wind, taking huge gulps of the cold, clean air.
‘What a baby,’ I heard Juan mutter good-naturedly as he stirred his onions.
Surprisingly, the soup turned out to be of tolerable flavour, as Juan had cooked his smelly scoundrels to the point of almost total collapse (‘To release the enzymes,’ Juan replied sagaciously after I’d asked why). I finished my bowl and used my bread to sop up as much onion juice as I dared.
‘I’m finished,’ I announced once I had scarfed the loaf.
‘Great!’ said Juan, ‘there is plenty more!’ and before I could object, he had ladled another sloppy spoonful into my valiantly empty bowl. I sighed, and resigned myself to eating it all. Food is, after all, food, and to waste it is, in my book, a great travesty …even if it is mostly pulverized onion carcasses.
After we had cleaned up the cab, I was put on dish-duty. ‘I cook, you clean!’ Juan had cried reasonably (reminding me rather alarmingly of my father), and I washed the stinky dishware off in good spirits. Juan was a great man, despite his disturbing love for onions. I was lucky to have gotten picked up by such a fun person.
We continued off into Patagonia, my stomach rumbling irritably with all the onions (‘Can you feel yourself becoming unburdened by all the excess food?’ asked Juan excitedly. I felt like I was about to be unburdened, all right…). We drove until the day had worn itself out and the night had returned once more, whereupon Juan declared that I must serenade him with my harmonica in order to keep him awake.
‘I’m making record time on this trip!’ he said animatedly. ‘We must drive late into the night once more!’ I extracted my mouth-organ and began obediently tooting away, but after an hour of this I began to grow tired.
‘Teach me another song in Spanish.’ I suggested.
‘I know no more.’
I thought for a moment. “Then I’ll teach you one in English!’
He shook his head. ‘I am terrible at English. I do not even know one word.’
‘It’ll be easy,’ I assured him. ‘Memorizing songs is the easiest way to learn another language.’
‘All right, I suppose,’ said he, still sounding unsure. ‘What song shall you teach me?’
I knew just the song, one that had been gloriously stuck in my head since my magnificent train-hop in Peru: King of the Road.
‘OK, so the first line goes like this: “Trailers for sale or rent…”’
‘Treell…ment?’ said Juan pathetically. Perhaps this would be more difficult than I thought. So I drilled the words into his head like a Texas oil rig going full-force into the Gulf of Mexico.
‘There you go! Trailers!’
‘Tray-lurss!’ said Juan, more confidently now.
‘Traylerss!’ he said happily.
And so it went, with each word of the song. I even taught him the meaning of each word, so after I had hammered the lines into his head, he could remember what they meant. Finally, he was able to repeat the first two stanzas, without my help, after about four hours of drilling on my part. Juan sang, with each syllable having a different and completely wrong note, hilariously off-tune. It was like so:
“‘Tray-lers fo sayle o ren’
Roo’ to let…fifty cen’..
No foah…no po’…no pits…
I don’ have ci-ga-ret!’”
(he always giggled childishly after this one. Then…)
‘“Too are…pushin’ broo…
Byes iight by twel’ far bit roo’
I’m a man of mean…by no mean?
Keeng of da ro’a!’”
Afterwards, just to see if he remembered what the words all meant, I gave him a ‘test.’ We covered all words; this is a sample:
‘How do you say habitationes, o piso, in English?
‘Roo’,’ sang Juan unceartintly.
How do you say mascotas in English?
‘How do you say cigarros in English?
How do you say para arender in English, both words?
‘Ren’, and…’ he paused for a moment. ‘Too le’e?’
‘How do you say yo no tengo in English?’
‘Eye don’ hab…’
‘Fon…’ trailed Juan.
Pleased, I tried to change things up on him. ‘Juan, how do you say, yo no tengo mascotas in English?’
He started. ‘But you did not teach me that one.’
‘Ah, but I did. Think.’
Juan scrunched up his face. Then, ‘Eye don’ hab…’ a long pause, then, finally, ‘Pits?’
Juan did very well indeed, though his pronunciation perhaps needed a bit more work (‘PETS!’ I had shouted at him over and over again. ‘With an EH! PETS!’ ‘PITS!’ he would shout back at me every time). However, I was quite proud of myself, and of Juan. Perhaps I should look into teaching English as a foreign language, for something to do in a far-off city dominated by Spanish, my newest toy.
By the time Juan’s English lesson was over, it was nearly five a.m.
‘It is time to sleep,’ said he, and I agreed wholeheartedly. All the hours of shouting ‘PE-EH-EH-EH-EHTS!!!’ had really taken it out of me. ‘But I shan’t remember a word of the song…’ he thought for a moment, ‘Keeng of de Ro’a’, in the morning. I shall forget it all.’ I disagreed. Juan pulled over the semi on a random side road and we collapsed into our respective beds, Juan still muttering the lines to ‘King of the Road’ under his breath as he fell asleep.