La vida en chacra - a beautiful experience in farm paradise

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November 25th 2009
Published: January 19th 2010
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La chacra Rincon del Sur, Mallin Ahogado (cerca de El Bolsón)

Every morning we would stay in our beds, keeping warm, long after the sun rose. The sheep and cows would make their morning rounds and come up the hill to graze on the lush dewy grass in the sun near the casita. I was always the first one to get up. At first sign of movement from any of us the kittens would begin fussing for breakfast. I would climb down from my loft, head outside to the toilet, turn on the gas, then come back into the casita to feed the kittens and start breakfast. I might read for a bit if there was extra time. Because mornings were cold, unseasonable so, I cooked up oatmeal, rice pudding, sometimes hot chocolate, and always tea - lots of tea! It wouldn't be long until someone else would venture out of their warm cocoon, then the others would follow. Mornings were quiet and cozy. If it were very cold or snowy we would build a fire in the wood burning furnace. We shared breakfast and washed up, then gathered the box of food scraps, milk bottle, and basket, then headed down the hillside field to the path toward the house, every day inspired by the land around us and the stark Andes mountains with their sleek gray rock peaks topped in snow against the bright sky.

We waited for Cynthia's warm greetings on her porch. Each morning we were welcomed to work with smiles, kisses, and kind words. Together we walked to the barn and fed the animals. Cynthia greeted each of them every day as well, and every day they waited for the routine to begin, starting with the sound of her sweet voice calling out. First, the chickens, ducks, and geese would get our food scraps tossed over their fence into their yard. They scrambled to noisily eat up the goodies. One of us would go on to toss them two large cups of whole corn and fill their water trough. One of us would lead Mingo, the calf, out of the barn for a drink of water then tie him up in the yard to graze in the orchard. One of us would climb up to the barn loft and toss down alfalfa for the cows and bunnies. The bunnies were fed and watered, and all of the stalls were shoveled out each day before the cows were let in to milk. The pig, la Chanchi, slept in her pen in the barn during my first two weeks at the farm. She would be up on her hind legs with her big eyes and foaming mouth to greet us as soon as the barn door opened. One of us would open up the pig pen outside, prepare her bucket of wheatgerm slop, set it in, then open her barn door and she would run to the food. After those two weeks we had completed a fence around a new area of brush and trees to become her new pen and she slept there at night, so we just brought her mush. Once all the stalls were clean, the cows were let in. Margarita was milking, Linda was resting because she was soon due to have a new calf. To milk, Cynthia proudly showed us how to use her milking machine and explained that it was much more hygienic than hand milking. First, the cow's teets were washed and the first squirts of milk wasted, then the machine went on and with the flick of
Me in la casitaMe in la casitaMe in la casita

Yes I'm wearing lots of layers - it was cold many days! The bucket on the floor was is laundry washer, and the curtain near the sink is for the shower
a metal switch, the milking began, leaving us time to finish cleaning up. The milk was brought into the house and filtered through a cloth and cooled - usually Cynthia's job. The greenhouse was prepared for the day - the little electric radiator turned off, the window opened by pulling a small rope, and if the weather was good, boxes of seedlings carried out and the door opened. So began each morning with the hour long routine.

The rest of our mornings were spent on a variety of other tasks - always dependent on what needed attention, what the weather was like, and what we were interested in learning. We made cheese (or rather watched Cynthia's detailed demonstrations of cheese making. I was the only volunteer who got to help because I knew the process already), butter, bread, pasta, empanadas, dulce de leche, and soy patties in the kitchen. We tended the garden, transplanted seedlings, and collected then spread mulch of non-acidic fall leaves to keep the ground moist and covered so that weeds would not grow. We piled fallen branches and cut them for firewood, and burned the smaller and thornier ones to ensure the bramble didn't become homes for louchas (mice). If the weather was bad, we might stay in Cynthia's home by the fire and hand card wool. Pablo spent one day on the farm on the day that we dug a new outhouse and moved the outhouse building. That day I got my first lessons using a machete and a chainsaw! We got a lot done quickly!

Each day we had lunch and siesta from 1pm - 4pm. We cooked, did our laundry gathered firewood, and if the weather was nice, sat outside and read. Cooking took up lots of time some days, especially when the gas was out or the stove was broken. We managed to use the wood burning furnace pretty well. Afternoons activities were similar to those in the mornings, often a continuation.

On Wednesday mornings we went to the local school to tend the large greenhouse that Cynthia had built there to feed the children fresh foods. On my first day at the school, Sarah and I cleaned out and deepened a small channel for water to drain. The wind and the rain had left the greenhouse a bit flooded and the windows hanging on their hinges. The next week we found that our work had fixed the flooding problem, and we worked weeding and planting.

Food occupied much of our time and conversation each day. We ate oatmeal, rice pudding, and bread for breakfast. Lunch was often soup, salad, grain pilaf, veggies, and sometimes soy milanesas. Twice I made sopa de ajo - garlic soup, served boiling with an egg cracked into it. Sarah loved it! Dinner was often similar, but we made some fun and special dishes too, including latkes, crepes with sauteed greens and a white sauce made of wild morels, parsnip hash, pizza with morels. We all found ourselves liking sweets more than we thought we did - farm honey, jams, and dulce de leche were always a treat! We liked to make hot coco with the day's fresh milk, and tea and mate accompanied us everywhere! All of us loved food! Sarah was eager to learn new recipes, and Aily, Lucy, and I had lots to share. We worked as a team prepping food and cleaning up each day, everyone falling into a role and keeping our tiny casita running smoothly.

So many things were so perfect, at least for me as a traveler, but I got to know the community as well and found it fascinating, yet frequently sad. With persistence the land is farmable and beautiful in the summer, but due to a unique mix of people in the area - local indigenous families who are uneducated and have become lazy through government handouts, hippies (to the extreme) who can't seem to work together well and rely on government handouts, and better educated Argentinians and foreigners looking to create their farm life - there is certainly a strange dynamic and many people keep to their own groups, weary of those in the others. Many local families sold their land when the region became popular and moved into town, spending their money quickly on modern gadgets and expensive tennis shoes, then found themselves on government assistance again because they don't have anything else to do (and many do not want to do anything - just ask them)! The politics of the local school showed me that without a real authority to implement plans, each person's ideas and power struggles led to more and more dysfunction. I guess a social utopia isn't so easy. I appreciated Cynthia's community projects, which are funded in part by national grants, and her persistence to make them work - often by her work alone. The greenhouse was indeed helping to feed malnourished children, and even though the school had met it with some resistance in its first years, it seemed to be a little more welcomed and appreciated.

I learned so much on the farm! Less about farming - somehow it did seem pretty intuitive, although I have lots of great little tips and ideas now - and more about serenity, drive, detail, and reassurance. By paying attention to the natural world around, it is easy to see what needs to be done to keep balance and productivity in the farm. Branches fall - move them. Seedlings are growing large - plant them. The weather is warming - time to sheer the sheep. The bees are exploring a new area in a swarm- move the hive (little by little) so that they don't leave the farm. Cynthia and Nacho moved here to the south as a young family, leaving their city jobs in Buenos Aires, and decided to create a life on a farm knowing nothing about it. They lived in la casita, (basically a little shed which had no water or electricity at the time), for nearly a year with a newborn and a five year old while they built their home themselves and bought a cow that they didn't know how to feed (off a radio add). Now the farm seems ideal, picturesque, bountiful. Buildings have been put up, gardens built, fruit trees mature, kids (now 10 and 15) playful, happy, and helpful. Nacho works around town and Cynthia works the farm and each year she studies something new and useful - veterinary science, bread and pastry making, beekeeping, cheese making, carpentry, basketry, local medicine and weaving from the Mapuche indians...

I am grateful to have been a student of Cynthia's and of the farm for the month and left with so much inspiration as I leave to create the things I want to build in my life.

My thanks to Sarah for some of the wonderful fotos posted with this entry!

Additional photos below
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cleaning wool cleaning wool
cleaning wool

Sitting by the fire drinking mate

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