The next morning, Daniel informed us that he could not leave for the Veranada for three days. By then we would be hundreds of miles away on the coast. We talked about traveling up into the mountains with the gauchos we had met at the river. But Daniel advised us against it. “The gauchos drink a lot,” he warned. “And they like to fight. It can be very dangerous.”
I was disappointed at first. The Veranada promised to be one of the highlights of my journey through Patagonia. But as is often the case in life, what at first seemed like misfortune turned out to be a boon. Because if we had gone, we would never have met Dona Dominga Rosa Guajardo.
So, after a breakfast of eggs and strong, dark coffee, Andres and I set off to find her. We were accompanied by a teacher from the local college called Antonio Rodriguez, who had interviewed her for a popular, local radio show, “Fiestas Populares,” which covers local festivals and customs.
A few miles out of Chos Malal our passage was blocked by a herd of Hereford cattle. A gaucho in a black cloche hat with a neckerchief over his mouth wheeled about on a horse trying to control them. Our car edged into this bellowing herd of animals. Bullocks lashed out with its hooves, making clunking sounds against the metal of our jeep. One hundred and fifty feet above us, silhouetted against the sun, another group of gauchos herded a large flock of sheep across a rocky escarpment. Their horsemanship was spectacular. Slipping and sliding on the loose scree or vaulting over boulders they urged their steeds up and down the hillside in a swirling cloud of dust as half a dozen sheepdogs raced up and down, yapping.
The road climbed up a valley towards the southern flank of the Mountains of the Wind. As a gift for Dona Dominga Antonio had brought two large bottles of beer with red and white labels and the word “Andes “ stamped across the centre in black capitals. After about forty minutes, we turned a corner and there they were, stretched across the horizon: a band of blue- black rock flecked with snow, topped by a long streamer of cloud. As we passed a wooden house set back from the road, a black and white terrier came racing out onto the track and launched itself at our rear bumper. There was a loud “clunk “ as its teeth bit into the metal.
We headed down a dirt track then dropped down into a rocky streambed. Fording the stream, we came up onto a small plateau where a herd of sheep was searching for grass among the sparse vegetation. On a bluff on the other side of the stream I could just make out a group of buildings. We left the car and began to walk towards the bluff. We were on the edge of the Cordillera del Viento and the wind was so strong that I had to turn and walk backwards to keep the dust out of my eyes.
Through a small wooden gate and over a narrow wooden footbridge we arrived at a circle of tall willows. Beneath them was a little vegetable garden. Patagonia is not a good place for horticulture. The intense summer heat and wind mean that evaporation levels are some of the highest in the world. To protect it, the garden was fenced in by a circle of branches woven together like lattice and hung with cans and strips of tin foil to keep off the birds. Inside it, a few lettuce plants clung to life.
On a flat patch of dusty earth at the top of the bank we found a small, whitewashed house. Passing under a trellis of ripening grapes, we stooped to enter a cramped, dark room. For a moment, as my eyes adjusted from the blinding light outside, I could not see a thing. But as I grew accustomed to the darkness, the outlines of the room became clear. It had a dirt floor and smoke-blackened walls made of mud and rough-hewn stone. An old dresser along the back wall contained a few cups; some tin plates; and a small collection of battered cooking pots. A dust-covered transistor radio hanging from a nail on the wall was the only piece of modern technology I could see. From the rafters hung a plastic basket full of eggs and bundles of rough, dark brown wool.
In the centre of the room an elderly woman sat perched on a little stool covered with a lamb’s fleece for a cushion. She was feeding sticks into a soot-covered, cast-iron stove. And though it was high summer, she was bundled up in several layers of clothes: a faded lime green sports shirt; a burgundy red sweatshirt; an old blue fleece jacket; dark blue cotton sweatpants; and a battered turquoise-colored cap with white mesh sides. On her feet she wore slip-on shoes made of black velvet decorated with silver buckles. Though her face was now wizened with age she had clearly once been a beautiful woman. It was Dona Dominga.
“I have lived here for thirty-two years,” she said, as I took a seat in a straight-backed, cane chair against the wall. She spoke fast, in a chirruping voice that rose and fell like a songbird. “When I first came here, there were only the two stone huts you can see outside. I lived in them until my son built me this house five years ago.”
Dona Dominga’s face was a map of her world. Etched with a pattern of fissures and cracks from a lifetime’s exposure to Patagonia’s fierce sun and winds, it looked like the bed of a dried up river. An inch long scar she had got when an axe she was using to chop wood jumped back into her face climbed from the corner of her upper lip to the edge of her nose, like a briar. Yet these disfigurements only added to her character. Her deep-sunk eyes were full of humour, her eyebrows permanently arched in an expression of lively amusement. It was the opposite of the vapid, Botox look popular among Hollywood actresses.
Legend had it that, half a century earlier, when she was a young woman, Dona Dominga left her fiancée standing at the altar, rode up into the mountains and built the shack where she still lives today. I had heard several different versions of the story, so I asked her to tell it to me herself.
“When I was young woman, I was engaged to be married,” she explained. “The marriage had been arranged by my family.” She pulled a face. “But I did not care for the man.” She chuckled. “Era un hombre wappo.”
There was a moment of confusion. Andres, who was translating what Dona Dominga said, had never heard the word wappo. There was a brief discussion and some laughter. Then Andres turned to me and said. “Wappo is a local word, meaning bad. So she is saying he was a bad man.”
Dona Dominga fed some sticks into the stove then went on with her story.
“On the day of the wedding I got up early and dressed in my bridal clothes. It was a beautiful satin dress with a white veil. The family went on ahead to the church. But I stayed at the house, waiting to be collected by a horse-drawn buggy that would take me to the ceremony. Then I slipped out of my wedding dress and put on some trousers, a work shirt and a pair of riding boots belonging to my brother. I went down to the kitchen and took some bread and cheese and water; and a good poncho. Then I went out to the stables, saddled my horse and rode up into the hills……….”