We stopped at a carnicería in the marshes two or three hours north of Buenos Aires. It was a combination gas station and carnicería, the gas station looking like any whitewashed gas station might look. The meat stand was also whitewashed, what there was of it: low walls to designate space, tree trunks that held up the thatched roof, the two great grills, one rounded and dome-roofed for the traditional slow-roasting method where slabs of beef are sandwiched between metal grills that lean in at an angle around the fire.
A man was grilling meat over wood coals on the flat grill and our driver told him we would like cerveza to cut our thirst, and meat and papas fritas, and vino tinto to wash down our meal. We sat in the shade of the thatched roof and drank our beer, Eisenbeck, crisp and cold and delicious, as we waited for our food.
None of us spoke any Spanish. I had the most and so I would use the few words and phrases I knew to tell our driver what we wanted and he would then translate as if I had spoken in English or German instead of pigeon Spanish the man at the grill could understand just as well as our driver. Perhaps it was a subtle way for our driver to lord it over the man at the grill, to underscore that he, the driver, was a cosmopolitan accustomed to picking up strange Americans at the airport and ferrying them through the vast, decaying sprawl, eighteen million strong, of Buenos Aires and then on to elegant estancias deep in the country, while he, the other, was a simple dweller of the ciénagas, perhaps one of those who lived in one of the tiny shacks on stilts surrounded by collapsing lean-tos and a few pigs and chickens and the ubiquitous and requisite sway-backed and spavined horse.
Whatever the reason, the system worked. Soon the table was covered with plates and glasses and a vast mound of papas fritas, the fried potatoes that are served with practically every meal in Argentina, and a bottle of their strong, underrated wine. Then the man brought a miniature cast-iron grill, black and greasy, to the table and set it by my elbow. On its little lower tray a few wood coals glowed and crackled, while on an upper tray ribs and slices of liver and sweetbreads and chorizo and blood sausage sizzled and popped in their own fat.
We toasted the upcoming hunt and ate and laughed and talked exactly as if we weren’t all dead with fatigue from a cramped and dangerous eighteen-hour flight. Dangerous because of the sudden, violent, unexpected turbulence that left un-seat-belted passengers sprawled in the aisle after bouncing off the ceiling of the plane, food and glasses and newspapers and blankets everywhere, a stewardess unconscious, people screaming and praying, myself not least among them.
But all that was past, and we toasted the upcoming hunt, the joy of eating outdoors on a fine day in an unfamiliar land, the excellence of Argentine beef and wine, the pleasure of each other’s company. We ate and drank and laughed, and then we climbed back into the rickety Fiat van and drove north. Chris and Lars fell asleep, but I wanted to see this new and unknown land, so I sat up front with our driver and watched.
It was all marsh, just as it had been ever since we left Buenos Aires, with meager shacks built on stilts and, occasionally, a slightly grander, whitewashed shack built on a raised mound of earth not unlike our Indian burial mounds. But mostly the marsh stretched away, flat and empty save for cattle and horses grazing in water up to their bellies. I wondered how they kept their horses from getting thrush and hoof-rot or if they cared enough to worry about it. The Argentines are famous for their love of horses and their horsemanship, but men are men everywhere and famous for their ignorance and cruelty around the world.
As we drove further north the land raised imperceptibly, so that the marsh became broken, the cattle and horses grazing on drier ground. We drove past occasional tilled and planted fields, past growths of pine and eucalyptus, maguari storks and rheas, gauchos on sturdy little bucket-headed horses, horse-drawn wagons. In Gualeguay we saw a three-up pulling a wagon down a dirt street at a fast trot so that for a moment I was able to imagine I was in 19th century Russia.
We were driving through the Entre Rios Province, the Province Between the Rivers, the two rivers being the Parana to the west and the Uruguay to the east. The province is huge, bigger than many American states, which doesn’t make it sound so big until you realize that much of it is still marshland, undrained and unimproved by modern technology, which is why the hunting is so good, of course.
We drove on, angling away from the Parana, the river first explored by Sebastian Cabot in the late 1520’s, who gave not only the Río de la Plata its name, River of Silver, but also Argentina itself, both names inspired by his delight, or cupidity, with the silver work of the native Indians. The land rose a little more to the northeast, just a little, still mostly flat, with some slight undulation, rather like Kansas. We started to see estancias, a few grand and hidden at the ends of great allées of eucalyptus, some very modest, close to the road and huddled in small stands of trees, most somewhere in between in scale, all whitewashed and red-tile-roofed.
Then we turned onto a dirt road and through a gate, El Rincón in black wrought-iron letters on both whitewashed stone posts. It is called El Rincón because it stands on land at the corner where two rivers come together, but it is also a play on words because rincón means not only corner, but also a remote or private place, and it also means a dwelling. It is all of that and more.
For the first mile or so the drive was bordered only by random growth of hedgerow, wild shrubs and bushes that the guides would later cut with machetes and carry with us to make our blinds. Then we passed into an allée of eucalyptus, towering old trees, and drove along that for another mile. At the end of the allée the road divided, one branch heading back to the servants’ houses and barns and kennels, the other to the main house. We passed through another gate and into a large formal park and there was the estancia, not whitewashed and low with a covered gallery in the front as I had expected, but an enormous, gray, Italianate stone castle, the kind of hunting box an industrial robber baron or minor archduke might have built for himself in eastern Germany or Czechoslovakia around 1890.
A large and dignified German Shepherd and a languid young man with a mass of curly dark hair and a bad head cold came down the front steps to greet us. The young man was our host, Enrique, a self-described sometime professional hunter, sometime professional student from Uruguay. As men poured out of the house to take our bags and gun cases, Enrique ushered us up the steps, across a gallery of painted Spanish tiles and into the house. Sixteen-foot high ceilings on both floors, gun room, dining room, drawing room, game room, a master bedroom on the ground floor, massive oak stairway leading up to a balcony looking down on the entry hall below, bedrooms off the balcony, and overhead, probably thirty-five or forty feet over the entry, a stained-glass ceiling lit by the windows in the tower above it. Rich, dark, oak wainscoting, six feet high around every wall of every room on the ground floor, corner fireplaces with elaborately carved mantels, Turkish rugs, over-stuffed chairs and sofas, English hunt prints, paintings of horses, poorly done taxidermist’s mounts in the dining room of the ducks we had come to hunt: Brazilian ducks, Rosey-billed Pochards, Silver Teal, Speckled Teal, Ringed Teal.
A little later, after I had unpacked, as we sat on the front gallery in wicker chairs, sipping whisky, shooing a black Lab and an assortment of pointers away from the hors-d’oeuvres, watching the last of the sun turn the world golden, parakeets and pigeons and doves circling through the trees, I was overcome by a desire to settle in here and never leave. That feeling remained.
The first morning we hunted over a narrow, weed-infested slough at the edge of the great marsh that is the Entre Rios Province. Branches and saplings cut from the hedgerow along the drive were driven into the mud to make our blind. Our marsh stools were driven into the mud and branches laid down around them to give us a kind of platform to stand on. Without those branches, after only a few minutes you would sink so far into that black super-glue that nothing less than a backhoe could ever free you. It was very warm, and we shed our jackets and sprayed ourselves liberally with DEET to discourage the clouds of mosquitoes that swarmed around us. The ducks started swarming in almost as thick as the mosquitoes while it was still too dark to identify them.
These were puddle ducks: the ubiquitous Brazilian Duck, South America’s version of the Mallard in numbers and adaptability, even if it is truly a perching-duck; various teal, mostly Speckled and Ringed. As it got light enough to shoot, we could see in the distance, over the marsh, large flights of Roseybills circling and dipping over the larger water they prefer. The puddle ducks came into our decoys in twos and fours, occasionally in groups of eight or ten, coming in very fast, braking suddenly, then flaring off as we shot.
We had time between flights to look around us at the great flat emptiness of the marsh, little pockets of mist rising up off the water, towering Eucalyptus trees behind us where the parakeets screamed and whirled, and, inexplicably, in the mud near our blind, an old rusted electric sewing machine there in the marsh, miles from any house and further still from any house with electricity.
Chris is very knowledgeable and has hunted in South America before and had an Argentine bird book for reference. One of the teal we hunted that morning was called a “corn duck” by Enrique, but when we identified it, it turned out to be the Speckled Teal. They live in the nests the parakeets build, enormous structures, some four or six or even eight feet tall, in the upper branches of whatever tree is available, but the higher up the better. The parakeets are very communal and very numerous, and they build these great nests out of thorny branches, with multiple entrances, but the Speckled Teal move in as squatters, driving the parakeets out. The teal lay their eggs in there and I would give much to see one of the precocial fledglings leaving the nest for the first time. Unlike our Wood Ducks, whose nests in the hollows of trees are usually only six or ten or perhaps fifteen feet up over water, these Speckled Duck nests, the usurped parakeet nests, are frequently forty or fifty feet up and over dry land. How do the fledglings survive that fall? I don’t know.
In one group of Brazilian Ducks there was a very pale duck flying with them. I thought it might be a hen and swung past it to shoot a drake, but Chris shot it. Later, when we recovered it, it turned out to be, not an albino, but almost; a very pale color-phase of a Brazilian duck, a light caramel color that caused all the bird-boys to gather around, admiring and wondering.
We shot well. Chris and Lars always shoot well, but I was shooting better than I normally do, and in a very short time we had forty or fifty birds down and called it a day. The bird-boys waded out into the slough, aided by Tyson, the black Labrador, to collect our ducks. The limits in Argentina are very liberal—some species have no limits—and no one cares how many you shoot anyway. Even now, even after landowners have learned that Americans will pay large sums of money to hunt down there, farmers still consider the vast numbers of waterfowl as pests, on the order of parakeets or doves, and will still conduct aerial spraying of poison, killing tens of thousands of ducks at a time, irrespective of species, limited or not, endangered or not, pest or not.
Usually we dropped off most of ducks at the local landowner’s little estancia. We think of estancia as meaning hacienda, a mansion or large ranch, but in Argentina it can also mean any small farm, and that was where we usually took the birds. This first morning though, the gaucho rode up on his sturdy little bucket-headed mare, followed by a two or three-month old foal who immediately collapsed for some much-needed rest as the gaucho collected the ducks in burlap feed bags. The horses are Crillollos, specially bred by the gauchos for ranch work and highly prized for their great strength and endurance, for their quick gait yet calm and steady temperament, rather like our Morgans, though nowhere near as good-looking.
I walked over to look at the mare and was stunned by the tack. There was no saddle, or not what we would call a saddle. It appeared to be nothing more than a saddle-tree covered with a raw sheepskin blanket, both held to the horse by a single, rather narrow strap around the widest point of girth, what cowboys in America would call a center-fire rig. The stirrup straps were as delicate as you might find on our English saddles and the stirrups themselves no bigger or more substantial either.
The headstall was a little more reminiscent of our tack: a crudely hand-cut rawhide hackamore (which comes from jaquima and simply means headstall). Unlike our hackamores, there was a central woven piece, about the size of a playing-card, that sat in the broadest part of the mare’s forehead, just between the eyes, and everything else, brow-band, poll-strap, cheek-pieces, was woven out from that in one unbroken piece. The rawhide strands had been hand-cut and were not delicate or refined, but it was still an amazing piece of craftsmanship. The bosal was a little more refined but also out of the same hand-cut strands of rawhide, and the whole thing was greasy with tallow. Another strap held a bit, which the gaucho showed me, a simple sweet-iron bar with a low spade and no rein attached; this was a young mare still in training.
The gaucho himself was as stocky and strongly built as his horse. He wore black knee-high leather boots with very loose, puffy, full-cut pleated blue pants tucked into them. (Later, when one of the gauchos on El Rincón grilled meat for us on our last day, I saw that they only wear the boots when riding; the rest of the time they wear a little black slipper and the pants narrow tightly at the ankle.) He wore a short, close-fitting jacket and a flat-brimmed hat. Around his waist was a very wide—three or four inches—leather belt that he had clearly decorated himself with rawhide strips woven into it in a pattern. Thrust into the belt at the small of his back, in a sheath that matched the belt, was the knife that all the gauchos carry at the small of the back. It is a big affair, with a ten-to-fourteen-inch blade, that they use for everything from cutting wood to grill their meat, to cutting the meat itself, to cutting the strips of rawhide for the jaquima. Later I would learn that they use it too for another, more deadly purpose.
He spoke politely to me, with Enrique as interpreter, and let Lars take photographs of him. Then he tied the two bags of ducks together and threw them over his mare’s withers and rode off, followed by the young foal, a vaquero as at home in the marshes as American cowboys are in the mountains and plains.
Every day we followed the same pattern. Mabel, pronounced Ma Bell, the merry, chunky, flashing-eyed majordomo, would wake us at five and we would have breakfast in the great dining room (to distinguish it from the children’s dining room behind it, or the servant’s dining room behind that): freshly squeezed orange juice, thick, strong café con leche, eggs and bacon, and small pancakes smothered in a dulce de leche sauce that was delicious and ruinous for my waistline.
Then we would go out to duck hunt. We always hunted duck in the morning, but each morning the venue was slightly different. The small slough for teal the first day; a long boat ride down a river to a smaller tributary for Rosey-billed Pochards the next morning; an even longer boat ride the following day across a vast, shallow estuary to hunt a mixed bag of everything in a strong cold wind where the birds rose up off the water in waves and came screaming in like rockets; and on the last morning, a long drive to the far side of the province to hunt in a misty, dike-lined marsh that reminded me of Holland, where between flights we watched a snipe conduct his noisy courtship flight, climbing in spirals to drop like a stone, the wind in his wings making the harsh raspy noise that, presumably, drives lady snipe wild.
After the morning hunts we would go back to the estancia for lunch, always some kind of meat, always the strong red wine, followed always by a siesta. It is such a lovely word for a civilized and romantic custom. A nap is falling asleep on the sofa with your mouth open. A siesta is a ritual rest, as much a part of the pattern of the day as any meal, and it carries with it the unspoken implication that it should include a darkened room and a beautiful woman.
In the afternoons we went out for upland game. The first day we hunted dove, standing by a copse as the birds came screaming in from the fields at unexpected angles, zigging and zagging erratically as dove are want to do. It was fast and tricky shooting, but I was still shooting well and it was fun.
The dove are called eared-dove and are a separate species even though they are indistinguishable, to my eye, from our mourning dove. They even make the same call, coah, cooo, cooo, cooo, though in a much harsher, raspier tone. Think of a mourning dove with laryngitis. In America it takes an average of seven shots for every dove taken, and the eared-dove of Argentina were no easier, but we laughed and razzed and dared each other to take ever more difficult shots, Enrique shooting with us.
In the late afternoon as the light began to fade the bird boys came to gather the shot dove, in this case ‘boys’ being the literal term, small children, male only, from impoverished estancias near and far, chattering and laughing like small predators as they ran about in the dusk gathering our fallen birds for their families. As we drove out we passed their bicycles in the ditch by the road and I wondered how many American children would work that hard for their food.
The three following afternoons we hunted perdiz in the fields, the dogs sweeping back and forth in front of us in great figure eights, locking up on point and then creeping slowly, cautiously forward as the birds ran. The birds are called perdiz, which means partridge, but they aren’t. When the Spanish first settled in the pampas the birds reminded them of the red-legged partridge of the Iberian Peninsula and so they called them that. In fact, they are Tinnamou, members of the ostrich family, but they are almost as devious and sporty as our pheasant and the hunting was wonderful.
The first afternoon we hunted them it was raining horizontally and the birds were especially wild, getting up forty or fifty yards out in front, sometimes too far away to even try shooting, but we were all shooting well and we bagged a respectable number. The second day the weather was perfect, soft and mild, and the birds held better. Chris’s shotgun was hanging fire so he stopped shooting and took photographs while Lars and I shot until we ran out of shells.
Some other hunters had come down from Uruguay and Enrique had driven them to another field a couple of miles away, so when the shooting was over we started walking, looking for the van. We walked in the golden evening light along a sunken dirt road with hedgerows on either side that reminded me of France, my game vest heavy with the perdiz that aren’t perdiz at all. The pointer, a little lemon-and-white bitch was still hunting, quartering through the fields above our heads until our guide called her back in and made her walk along the road with us. He had just done this when I saw the espantajo a quarter of a mile ahead, walking toward us, and I knew there would be trouble.
The word means scarecrow, but also something more, something frightening. He was clearly a local, yet not a gaucho. He wore the same flat-brimmed hat and close-fitting jacket, but not the pants or shoes of a gaucho and there was nothing about him that suggested a horseman. He had a small bundle thrown over one shoulder and walked with the easy steady gait of a man who has walked a long way and has a long way to go, but no particular hurry to get there. As he drew closer, his face had the same sharp, watchful look I associate with the gypsies I used to see as a child, growing up in Europe, the gypsies my parents warned me to stay away from.
Whatever it was that I had sensed about him, the pointer sensed it too. She started walking with the deliberate, stiff-legged steps that a dog uses when approaching another, unknown dog. Then she made a short, stiff-legged charge, barking.
Instantly he dropped his bundle, but before it had even hit the ground his hand had gone behind his back and the great knife was out, quicker than thought, held easily in his hand a little away from his body, his attitude conveying readiness and confidence. Four men with shotguns and a dog were clearly nothing for him to be too alarmed about. It was, as Chris said afterward, the instinctive reaction of a man who has practiced that particular movement countless times, the reaction of a man used to fighting with a knife, a man used to winning.
Our guide ran forward a few steps, hands up, palms out, conciliatory, alternately speaking to the espantajo and calling the dog off. He got the pointer by the collar and we moved on, the espantajo lowering his arm, the knife hanging loosely by his side.
As I passed him I nodded, the brief, quick nod that is a universal gesture of courtesy, a polite, non-committal greeting. He nodded back, but his was far grander, the stately, condescending movement of head that royalty grants to the respectful multitude.
A few yards later I looked back. He was just finishing returning the knife to its sheath. He stooped and picked up his bundle, threw it over his shoulder, shrugged it into a more comfortable position, and resumed his steady, unhurried gait along the sunken road.
On our last afternoon we hunted in untilled land, picking our way through heavy, matted grass and fire-ant mounds and something that looked like a cross between Spanish-dagger and aloe. We shot a few of the larger Red-wing Tinnamou, almost as big as a domestic chicken, and when the hunt was over we trudged back to the van, parked by a small shabby estancia in a grove of eucalyptus and pines. Enrique had built a small fire and was grilling chorizo and slabs of crusty bread, like the traditional French baguettes. We stood by the fire in the pink and golden light and ate the spicy sausage on chunks of warm bread and washed it down with strong red wine and joked with the guides in pigeon Spanish and wished we had another day, another lifetime, in a silver land.