During the time I spent in the mountains of Patagonia, Argentina, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend five days with a local community in their town known as Cuyin Manzano. Being close to a three-hour drive over rugged dirt roads to the nearest domestic city, Cuyin Manzano is close to as remote as it gets and it is easy to lose yourself in the beauty of the surrounding mountains. There are about 50 people that make up the town, half of which are children, and all of them live off the land on the edge of Nahuel Huapi National Park. The townsfolk of Cuyin Manzano homesteaded the land before the National Park was declared, and for these reasons, have been allowed to stay even after the park was created.
But living on the edge of a National Park comes with its price. To this date, this village makes do with what they have, which, is not very much. They are allowed electricity from a generator from 8 – 11 in the morning and 8 – 11 at night. Any water that enters their homes is pumped straight out of the river that flows directly passed their town, and all washing of clothes and their own bathing is usually done in the river (although they do have outdoor showers set up). Their houses are built by hand from the foundation up, and even what Westerner’s would consider everyday household objects have to be put together creatively. For example, inside one of their homes they had a radio which had been plucked out of an old truck and rigged to a 9 volt battery with some wiring. Their ovens are non electric and are all cast-iron wood-burning ovens that have to be heated in advance of any baking or cooking. This means that firewood is chopped and stacked daily, (we caught 93-year old Abuela (grandmother) chopping her own wood one morning) and to insure that the firewood never dwindles to just a few logs, huge pieces of driftwood, some the size of full trees, are lugged out of the river daily and left in the hot desert sand to dry for chopping.
The life of a gaucho (or a cowboy) in Cuyin Manzano means waking up at the crack of dawn, saddling the horses, and riding out to tend to the cattle and other horses that are simply left to roam the surrounding mountains without barricade. The gauchos are an expert tracker, which means not only knowing where the heard is heading at all times, but also knowing where the predators are going. While we were camping in the middle of the mountains, we were met by a gaucho in the morning that was on his way to move his cattle because he knew that a couple of puma were going to be heading in the direction they were in now. This tracking expertise is an absolute necessity in order to ensure that the family doesn’t lose any of their precious resources whether it be for their own food, or for sale in the city. Once the herding is completed, the gaucho will then return to the town where various tasks need completion, including taking care of any of the other animals they raise and building new structures.
The gauchos make their own knives with animal bone handles, while the women knit wool clothes and rugs, all of which are for sale to anybody who might actually be passing by along the dirt road on their way to visiting another part of the National Park. Unfortunately, while I was in Cuyin Manzano, I only witnessed one car drive by, and the driver of that car was the warden who had come to inspect a building we were putting together in order to make sure it was acceptable to the standards of the National Park (something the villagers of Cuyin Manzano must deal with every time they want to build something new). In this case, we were building a trading post in order to sell those knives or the woolen clothes and rugs to any possible tourists who may pass by.
To give you an idea of the building process for all of the buildings in this town, Pablo must drive to the city in order to purchase bags of mixing cement. We hauled large stones up from the river which will be used to build the foundation to the building, and planted them into the hole that was dug in the dirt where the foundation will be. After filling in as many of the spaces between the stones as possible with smaller pebbles, we proceeded to throw glass bottles onto the stones so that they would shatter and spray onto the rocks. Pablo’s idea behind doing this is that glass provides great insulation. Once this is done, the cement must be mixed with water and sand by hand. The mixer has a crank to turn in order to keep the device spinning and therefore the cement liquefied. Then we lifted the mixer in order to pour the cement into a wheelbarrow (which had a hole in the bottom of it) before proceeding to dump it from wheelbarrow over the rocks (before it leaked out the bottom of the wheel barrow). The cement was eventually smoothed and dried and a foundation to the building was in place.
By this time everyone was exhausted, and it was time for Abuela to teach us how to cook fried dough in her oven. It turns out that she had been planning this lesson all day, because she had been allowing for the dough to rise while we were hard at work with the trading post. Using all natural ingredients, including fresh cow lard added to the pot of oil, Abuela taught us how to fry dough squares into the most delicious pieces of fried dough you’ll ever eat. She then brought out her own jams which she also makes herself from the fruit in her fruit garden behind the house, and we feasted on fried dough squares and jelly for quite some time while Pablo passed around a mate cup and attempted to tell us stories in Spanish. Unfortunately nobody was really able to understand Spanish, but a mild understanding was able to be conveyed via hand gestures.
Overall, life in Cuyin Manzano is extremely different than Western life. These people know that they do not have all of the same amenities that I do at my house, and they know that their way of living is different, but they don’t care. They have found happiness in what they have, and have learned to simply go with the flow and live and flourish with each other. Despite the way they live, they are the happiest people I have ever met. For that, I am quite jealous, but also very thankful because my experience with Pablo and his family changed my life for the better forever.