We have been rolling out an important insight into the way the economy works, with a view to understanding what might happen next. We’ll return to it on Monday. Today, other things.
Ask almost any of the changos – boys – on the ranch; he will say 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 recognise their children.
Maria is not happy about it. Maria came here 40 years ago to teach children at the local school. She married the 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, Juanita. She was giving instruction in anticipation of baptism. Both women have babies. Both would like the padre to baptise 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 mums”. 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, agreeing to be godparents to an indian girl they scarcely knew, in a language they barely spoke.
Living in the Andes of 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, there is less oxygen in the air. A man who has spent his entire life at sea level is likely to feel a little 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 micro-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 Pasqual feast, Jorge had killed a lamb and laid its skinned and headless body on the bare kitchen table.
Flies buzzed around, wondering whether to attack 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.
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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 aeroplane 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.
But probably nothing needs more 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 baptised 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 baptised 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 doing it.”
Church doctrine may have evolved a bit since Maria took her first communion. Word of the new developments may not have reached this remote valley.
Today, the major religions are much more easy-going. 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.
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