I stopped for a coffee at Oh Santino!, a corner cafe overlooking the main park in Chilecito. From where I sat, I could see the artisans setting up their tents. On the opposite corner, a pale yellow building with tall windows and white columns caught my eye. I liked the muted yellows and whites of Escuela Nicolas Davila against the grey sky. I knocked out a quick color sketch of the school while I thought about my next move. It was getting dark and I need a place to sleep.
If I could find the Tourist center, I'd have some leads and could ask them about Famatina. Famatina was the reason I cut across the sierras on the hair raising Cuesta de Miranda, and stopped in Chilecito. The town is in a David and Goliath battle with mining companies who want the gold in the surrounding mountains. These same mountains are the sole source of water for Famatina and the surrounding villages. People are outraged at the idea of water contamination from the mining. I wanted to see the town, paint the mountains and hear the story of Famatina from the people who know it best.
I found the Tourist center and asked about it. The girl handed me a half page flyer with ads boasting guided tours of the mountains in 4X4's. A 4X4 may seem like a given for someone living in remote mountainous areas in the U.S. but in Argentina, cars cost about one and a half times (sometimes double) what you would pay in the U.S. Meanwhile, the median income is $17,700 (as of 2011). That is less than half of the median income in the U.S. So when a guide proudly boasts that he has a 4 x 4 in a tiny town like Famatina, as if it's a big deal… it is.
I dialed the number for hostel “Casa del Cerro” a woman named Patricia answered. Not only did she have a place for me, she just happened to be in Chilecito, less than a block away getting her cell phone serviced.
Immediately, I knew Patricia would take good care of me. She fluttered around like a mother hen making sure I understood where to meet her so I could follow her. Her two boys Lucas and Alejo waited patiently. Patricia looked concerned as I walked towards my car. Like maybe the traffic would swallow me up or push me down the wrong street. “Derecho… uno, dos, tres cuadras y me esperas, OK?” , she shouted after me. “Si, si, no problema”, I smiled and waved. I got to my car, drove straight three blocks, pulled over and waited.
Patricia pulled up in a black LandRover Defender 110. “Wow,” I said “that is the perfect car for Famatina eh?” She agreed but in a confessional tone, told me the engine was not original.
Her Defender didn't go so fast, she told me. If I wanted to pass her on the highway and wait for her, it was OK. “I'm not in a hurry” I assured her. “No worries.”
A few blocks later, Patricia pulled over and hopped out. She pointed to the grocery store across the street asking if I needed supplies, or dinner. Lucas and Alejo twisted around in their seats, keeping a close eye on their mom. I had a cooler full of food (minus three pears) so we continued on.
For the next 30 kilometers, black smoke spewed from her exhaust. Our top speed was about 35 kph (22mph). On steeper hills the car slowed almost to a stop. There was so much smoke, I was sure the engine had blown. I hit my hazards giving other drivers the cue to pass. The Defender chugged on. Once at the house Patricia laughed and apologized for going so slow. I told her about the black smoke. “Is it just on the steep parts?”, she asked.
“No, It is constant.”
“Hmmm… ” She thought for a second and then laughed again. “See? this engine is not as good as the original. When I have some extra money we'll get it fixed. Then I can take people up to the mountains. Ten people can fit, but I think its more comfortable with eight.” Alejo brought the key to the apartment she and her husband built on the side of their house.
We chatted as she gave me a tour. She kept asking if I liked the apartment, if it would be OK. She darted in and out making sure everything I might possibly need was there. She showed me the bedroom and asked which of the three beds I wanted to sleep in. I pointed to the one closest to the heater. Patricia changed the sheets, apologizing as she fluffed the pillows that the place wasn't ready (How could it be, when she had no idea I was coming?). She looked around the room, flicked the bed stand lights on and off to make sure they worked. Satisfied, she turned the bedroom heater on then, remembering something, dashed out of the apartment. A few minutes later she returned with an emergency light. “Just in case. If the power goes out, this turns on automatically”. She plugged it in, showed me how it works and asked again if I was OK with the apartment. “It's beautiful, I love it!”.
Patricia built a fire in the salamandra to make sure I'd be warm enough, I filled the tea pot with water and set it on top of the iron stove. I asked her about Famatina's battle with the mining companies and what she thought of it. “It has divided the town.” she said simply.
Neighbors on opposite sides of the issue pass each other on the street without a glance. They don't don't speak. This is a culture where customers walk into a shop announcing their presence with a “Buen Dia!' as a hello to everyone in the store. The standard greeting and goodbye is a kiss on the cheek. To pass a neighbor, (likely someone you've known your whole life) in silence and without eye contact is a deafening statement. She didn't seem comfortable talking about it. “I stay out of it.” she said.
We both stared at the red glow from the salamandra. After a long pause she added “My husband used to work in the mines. Now he has to go away to find work. If you stay until Sunday you can meet him!” Her face brightens at the thought of her husband coming home. “We're building another apartment behind the house. When we fix the Defender I can guide tourists into the mountains. That will help a lot.”