It was Friday night when, between beers, some friends mentioned they would go up to the desert of Lavalle. They were headed to meet a puestero (dweller of the desert), with the idea of an educational visit in mind for a group of exchange students that was to arrive in a few days’ time. When I suggested a phone call instead my friend started laughing. Isidro, the puestero, had no phone, and the only one in that area was in a school, several kilometers from his house. Besides it was Saturday. No one would pick up the phone to deliver the message. You had to go in the flesh. So I joined the excursion. I had been very few times to Lavalle but it always generated on me intrigue and fascination with its stripped landscape, ocher colors and its adobe houses, with its vast extensions of nothing (or perhaps of everything), with its nations so close, but so far…just like that, out of time.
On the next day, I started very early. I baked a lemon pudding, gathered up my mate gear and filled up mi water bottle (note: always take one when headed for desert). Picked up my friends and got out on the route.
Halfway on the way to Villa Tulumaya, the break from the city became evident. Downtown Lavalle, time acquired a different rhythm. We stopped to buy at a store, which turned to be a convenient (super convenient) store that sold from flour for bread or patay, from seeds to soap powder. Then we got back on the road, and after we passed one or two wrecked pick up trucks, the landscape started showing its irreversible side of thirsty land, where every minute became 120 seconds and letany became the rule.
Passing the dunes of Altos Limpios, we turned right and got on an endless dirt track of dry terrain. Towards the end of a dispersed group of houses, we stopped. Someone came out to receive us from behind a choco (local word for dog) which came to us very happily too. Bewildered by the new visitors, and from behind sun built wrinkles, Isidro released a almost watery emotion when he saw my friends and me, a complete stranger.
I looked all around me. His domain was made of bare dry land, a humble adobe home, with two very small windows, a warehouse, corrals and the precious waterhole.
He invited us in. I must admit that I felt a little like an intruder at first. It was that I just could not stop scanning everything I saw. When we stepped in I noticed some potatoes and other root vegetables lying on the kitchen floor. There was also a precarious electrical installation, with bare wires that from the air, fed a refrigerator, an old washing machine and a tv that had not been used for quite some time. On the wall close to the table, there were some drawings made with chalk. Isidro did not have any children, but he had brothers. I thought, maybe some nephew may have left the drawing for him. The decor was completed by a calendar from a year long ago and some faded “condorito” comic books. The soil was dirt, and I wondered how he managed to keep it moist in the summer when heat can be scolding, in order to keep his residency at a lower temperature. The adobe bricks on the walls and the cane and mud ceiling isolated the house from the heat. That Saturday in August was cold, nonetheless inside it was warm and smelled of something sweet, and wood burning on the stove. It smelled like home.
Our host took us to see the corrals. It was obvious that his life and the life of his site were closely linked to the water resource. A few steps from the house was the jagüel (waterhole) vital for the hydration of the animals in the middle of the desert.
The days at the site seemed to spin around the animals and their cycle: open the the gates of the corrals, separate them from each other, wait for them to return; milk the nanny-goats, take care of the male goats, feed chicks and chickens. At the backyard we could see some ovens. He told us that in his free time he makes ceramic vases and, sometimes, leather drenched, all of it using the elements with which he shares his life: clay and goat leather.
Towards the end of the afternoon, we went for a walk. This time we went into the wilderness of the place, leaving behind the goats, horses and a centennial tree, home of parakeets.
We went through a Zampa and carob tree field, while Isidro was proudly telling us that INTA (national institute of agriculture technology) had installed there an experimental station.
I honestly do not know what was Isidro’s formal education, but I understood that the desert and his huarpe roots deeply instructed him. Owner of a grand knowledge of the desert plants, he told us about the medicinal use of them, like it was a open sky pharmacy, and also said he did not remember the last time he set foot on the local health care unit. We reached the tip of a dune and the sun started to change its colour. We ran down while he was waiting down laughing with the innocence of a child as he watched us trip and fall on the sand.
The vital rhythm of Isidro was signed by the movement of the sun, waking up and going to bed early. So when we returned to his post, we said goodbye. Once again I noticed his watery eyes.
Silently and with an inexplicable nostalgic feeling, we went back to the road when the sun was scratching the horizon and the desert traded oker by violet colors.