A morning with the gauchos in northeast Argentina

This early morning photo was taken about an hour after we arrived at the farm.


Jose and Marco picked me up in their pick-up at 4:05 a.m. Jose greeted me with Hola! and Marco said ‘Hi John.’ Marco is 11 years old and he is my student. Jose is his father. After the brief greetings, they continued talking in Spanish. Jose is from partial Guarani stock, and grew up on an estancia, or Argentine ranch. His formal education ended at about 8th grade. He is congenial, with a ready smile, and often a hug. He understands a lot of English but rarely speaks it. At 43 years of age he is still a fit and handsome gaucho.

This is Jose, Marco’s father and mentor. Jose got his education in a one-room schoolhouse. Book learning was a luxury and took a distant second place to practical matters of survival.


As a student, Marco spent most of his class time with his head on the desk, acting as if he was asleep, and he would intentionally scribble his answers illegibly to an exercise, making it impossible to determine what his answer was, or whether it was correct. If I marked one of his answers wrong, he would invariably claim I had merely misread his writing. He was an exhibitionist, and loved to jump out of his seat to act out his responses to any questions. Fun loving, perhaps, but still a kid.  Today I saw a side of him I had not experienced before.

We stopped to pick up another gaucho, whose face I couldn’t make out in the darkness of the back seat.  Just outside the village, the car stopped, and Jose and Marco switched places. Marco, my boyish, mischievous, and bored student, carefully adjusted the rear view mirrors and we headed down the rutted country road with his head barely visible above the back of his seat. I idly wondered how long it would take the authorities to identify my mangled body and contact my next of kin. So this was how it all was going to end.

We stopped a few more times to pick up some more ranch hands, who sat in the back of the pick-up, bouncing around and hanging on to whatever was available as we recklessly zipped along at 35 miles per hour. It occurred to me that Marco and his dad had switched places outside the village to avoid problems with the village police. Even then I think their risk was small, since the village seemed to have no crime, and no one had any idea how the two local cops amused themselves while on the clock. The streets are dirt, and there are no traffic signals or signs. Not even any street signs.

We got to the farm at about 4:50 a.m.  Besides Jose and Marco, there were five other gauchos with their boots, chaps, and debonair hats. They had more stuff hanging from their belts than a telephone line staffer. One on horseback rounded up half a dozen horses and backed them into a corner of the corral, where one by one, the gauchos outfitted their mounts.

One of the gauchos selects his horse for the day.


Before dawn’s first light they rode off in all directions to find the cattle. Marco rode beside his father.

Marco, all dressed up for action. Marco’s father was, and still is a gaucho, and Marco often shadows his father like any good apprentice.



The next generation of adobe house builders in the village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, Corrientes province, NE Argentina

Adobe houses are an example of vernacular architecture, meaning housing that wasn’t actually designed by an architect at all, but was built from natural materials found in abundance locally by workers with no formal education in the building arts. These days we don’t call it primitive architecture out of respect for the intelligence required to adapt and use what you have.

There is irony in the fact that modern architects frequently borrow ideas from the vernacular, or local constructions, incorporating the latest modern technology when creating the traditional “look” of the end product. And so it is that in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, where architectural design is frequently on display, the village building codes require that only local building materials be used with traditional methods, thereby assuring that no well-heeled investors come in and build gaudy McMansions that clearly do not blend with the landscape and look of the village.

So buildings are only allowed to be one story high, and local blocks or adobe may be used for the walls, and the roofs can only be made of the corrugated metal in evidence everywhere. All of this is good for the villagers, most of whom could not get financing for anything ostentatious. The more elaborate projects do employ architects, but simple and inexpensive homes are often built with adobe, or houses made with mud, boards, and wire by the men, women, and children who will live in them. They build as they have time, and there are no mortgages to pay. In this manner, and over time, someone with the usual plot of land can add dwellings, one at a time, until they have a motel (posada) finished. The education begins early and everyone uses whatever they have handy, beginning of course, with the ubiquitous mud and espartillo grass.


The new apprentices were enthusiastic as they piled into the transport. The 4WD vehicle should get us through the marshy fields and ant hill city to meet the two local experts, who are bringing the bags of flexible grass that is so essential to the project.


Apparently the shortcut to the construction site is through this field of ant hills. Since the ants would drown if they dug down into the marsh, they build colonies above ground and these colonies are remarkably equidistant from each other. Humans can’t seem to live that close together without killing each other, but the ants seem to manage it. I am unaware of any ant wars.


These two men are the grass gatherers, which they cut and bring in large bundles on their backs to the construction site.



The insane traffic situation and other things you should know before visiting the village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini on the edge of the Ibera Marshes, the 2nd largest pristine wetland in the world.

The Insane Traffic Situation

In the remote village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini and the roads leading into it, there are few rules that I am aware of. Humans and animals share the same spaces and seem to accommodate each other’s idiosyncrasies. No one knows whether the normal traffic pattern should be driving on the left or the right side of the road. It all depends on the depth of the mud and the ruts. There is a really big farm tractor with a winch that routinely extracts cars that get in over their head, so to speak. On the 120 kilometer dirt and sand washboard road leading into the village from the town of Mercedes, the drivers of cars, vans, buses, and trucks all drive wherever they think they will find the smoothest section of road. I haven’t quite figured this out, because going south we drive on the left side of the road and going north we drive on the left side of the road, which means we prefer the “wrong” side of the road no matter which way we are going. It also means that going in either direction the drivers prefer the side of the road they were avoiding at all costs when they were headed the other way, if you get what I am trying to say here. If I spoke better Spanish I would ask them about this. When a vehicle approaches from the other direction everyone seems to play a very polite game of “chicken” with warm smiles and hand waving all around.

RUSH HOUR. If you’re checking your rear view mirror, these two are pulling up on you fast. They are known for hogging intersections and road rage. I saw one of them kick a dog, except the dog was faster and got out of the way. As you can see, the filly is tailgating at high speed.


CAUTION: DUCK CROSSING. Not maintaining minimum speed and approaching traffic.


RAPID TRANSIT. Juvenile, joyriding, probably without a license.


PASSING IN A NO PASSING ZONE. Reckless driving. The horse’s back legs can do some serious damage to that bike. Never mind the driver. (Avoid night driving if you have cataracts.)


SLOW DRIVING IN THE PASSING LANE. Blocking oncoming traffic.


ROAD RAGE. No idea what’s going on here. Avoid eye contact and keep moving. It might get ugly.



Teaching merchandising and entrepreneurship to kids under 12 in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, Corrientes province, Argentina

Kids learning self-confidence and self-esteem, the most valuable languages in the world.


The school in our little village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini has no textbooks, no workbooks, no internet, and a painted sheet of composition board that is resistant to chalk. There are three instruction books, one for each of three grades, but there are no copies of the pages because the printer cartridges for the printer cost too much to use for anything but essential business. So every activity and exercise used in teaching has to be written out on the “blackboard” and then copied by each of the students in their notebooks, much as medieval copyists did before Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. So at least half of all teaching time is spent copying. You could call this a dreadful waste, except the kids are always learning, even when you were sure they weren’t.

There’s about 15 kids who are learning English as a second language. Some of them are not yet old enough to learn how to write in their mother tongue of Spanish. They all speak English at different levels of proficiency. Their worst English is better than my Spanish. Their brains are like hungry sponges and they learn without trying, as long as it looks and feels like fun.

Learning the basics of entrepreneurship from a vegetable stand

Last week we studied some basics of business and entrepreneurship. The parents of most of these kids are entrepreneurs, although I don’t think anyone ever told them that. They just do what they do. It’s called survival. This is a village of about 1,000 people confined in an area about ten blocks by nine block square at the end of the world. The village is completely isolated, with only two terrible dirt roads leading in or out of the village. It’s hours to the next place. Virtually everything is trucked in from outside the village. Everyone in the village in one way or another is part of the support system for tourism, and the big attraction; indeed the only attraction, are the birds. Everyone comes to see the incredible birds.  And a few other things like caimans and rheas and of course the capybaras, big, fat, overgrown rodents that sort of look like giant groundhogs.

So about one out of every five houses is a tiny country store selling a few vegetables or meats or pasta or bread or cerveza (Argentine beer). When there are no tourists they seem to sell to each other in the village. There are no banks and no ATM machines. To the best of my knowledge there is only one bar in the village, but it must open after I go to bed, because I rarely see it open. The electric, which is brought into the village from over 120 kilometers of soggy wetlands is erratic and goes out about every other day, for a few minutes or a few hours. It was on one of these dreary, rainy days, when we were sitting in the semi-dark one-room school with no lights and a chalkboard that was not cooperating, and I was wondering what to do with these kids who had way too much energy for the situation.


First hand encounters with wildlife in the village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, Ibera Wetlands of Argentina

It had been raining for days. Successive waves of storms rolled over and through us, lightning alternating between turning nighttime into day with sheets of light and sudden bolts cleaving the sky into halves for nanoseconds before engulfing us in darkness again. Incessant rolling thunder rattled the panes and the nerves as everything that breathed ran for cover. The sky played mind games with our heads as the gray clouds broke up in bright promise and then reformed darker than ever. As another soggy night descended upon us, the posadas of the village looked every bit the outposts of civilization that they were.


As the downpours continued day after night, the manicured lawns became ponds and lakes. Even the most raucous birds grew quiet.


The special native mud became deeper and more treacherous than ever, sucking at your boots and slowing your pace as the rain pelted harder. Running for cover was impossible for those caught unawares. At least one tourist that ventured out that week, beguiled by a break in the rain, fell and broke a bone in the mud streets. On one occasion I saw a handful of bored and determined tourists leave the safety of their posada, only to turn back in frustration after taking less than a dozen steps.



Memories of Mesopotamia

The Ibera Wetlands, and the Ibera Lagoon, the second largest pristine wild paradise left in the world.

I am in Mesopotamia. No, not that Mesopotamia. Not the location of the ancient Babylonian empire and the modern state of Iraq in the Middle East. In another time and place I would have put that Mesopotamia high on my bucket list because the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were one of the cradles of civilization and history holds special fascination for me. Unfortunately wars and conflict of the last twenty years have been very effective in obliterating not only the present lives of that Mesopotamia’s inhabitants and their culture, but in many of its areas, travelers are beheaded for the unforgivable offense of intruding on their world.


The Mesopotamia where I now find myself in the far northeast of Argentina was originally populated by tribes that found their way here from another, less well known cradle of civilization known as the Amazon basin. They spoke variations and dialects of a language called Guarani. Other tribes from the Amazon basin migrated westward to the mountains and highlands of the Andes, and which in many parts of South America are today collectively referred to as the Quechua cultures.


The Guarani however migrated gradually southward through what is today Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. This long preceded the arrival of the Jesuit missionaries and the Spanish conquistadors. Many of these Amazonian tribes also did a lot of beheading, and we know this because archeologists have discovered large caches of shrunken heads, with the skulls and other contents removed, and stuffed with various materials. A quaint custom indeed, and one of technology’s first experiments with miniaturization. So the victors shrank heads, and the losers ran for cover. No one knows for sure why the Guarani were moving south through the continent, but it’s pretty likely they were running from someone. One recent and authoritative source says head shrinking is still taking place in some remote parts of the Amazon.


This story began in the Amazon basin


There is far more known about the highland, Andean cultures in South America because the artifacts of their civilization were often made of stone, found everywhere in great abundance. Buildings and tools made of stone, left undisturbed, such as in burial tombs, last for thousands of years. However the forebears of the Andean peoples lived in the jungles, rainforests, wetlands and swamps of the huge Amazon basin, and the jungle reclaimed most vestiges of those who once lived there. It is only in the last twenty years that evidence is surfacing of vast Amazonian civilizations with causeways, roads, and irrigation canals that stretched for hundreds of miles, and which radiocarbon dating is placing thousands of years before the Egyptian pharaohs.


Now let’s fast forward to August, 2017 when a certain enterprising (or delusional) travel and culture writer named John Bechtel decided to backpack around eight regions of Argentina in the hopes of creating a comprehensive English-language survey of the history and cultures of the country. The sojourn begins with an introduction to an intellectual who is retiring this year as the director of the Argentine version of Junior Achievement, well known everywhere in the U.S. for introducing young people to the possibilities of entrepreneurship and to real entrepreneurs, people who have successfully built businesses.