CHAPTER III. THE CRIOLLO VILLAGE.
The different centres of trade and commerce in the Argentine can easily be reached by train or river steamer. Rosario, with its 140,000 inhabitants, in the north; Bahia Blanca, where there is the largest wheat elevator in the world, in the south, and Mendoza, at the foot of the Andes, several times destroyed by earthquake, five hundred miles west - all these are more or less like the capital.
To arrive at an isolated village of the interior the traveller must be content to ride, as I did, on horseback, or be willing to jolt along for weeks in a wagon without springs. These carts are drawn by eight, ten, or more bullocks, as the weight warrants, and are provided with two very strong wheels, without tires, and often standing eight and ten feet high. The patient animals, by means of a yoke fastened to their horns with raw-hide, draw these carts through long prairie grass or sinking morass, through swollen rivers or oozing mud, over which malaria hangs in visible forms.
The voyager must be prepared to suffer a little hunger and thirst on the way. He must sleep amongst the baggage in the cart, or on the broader bed of the ground, where snakes and tarantulas creep and the heavy dew saturates one through and through.
As is well known, the bullock is a slow animal, and these never travel more than two or three miles an hour.
Time with the native is no object. The words, "With patience we win heaven," are ever on his lips.
The Argentine countryman is decidedly lazy.
Darwin relates that he asked two men the question: "Why don't you work?" One said: "The days are too long!" Another answered: "I am too poor."
With these people nothing can succeed unless it is begun when the moon is on the increase. The result is that little is accomplished.
You cannot make the driver understand your haste, and the bullocks understand and care still less.
The mosquitoes do their best to eat you up alive, unless your body has already had all the blood sucked out of it, a humiliating, painful and disfiguring process. You must carry with you sufficient food for the journey, or it may happen that, like me, you are only able to shoot a small ring dove, and with its entrails fish out of the muddy stream a monster turtle for the evening meal.
If, on the other hand, you pass a solitary house, they will with pleasure give you a sheep. If you killed one without permission your punishment would perhaps be greater than if you had killed a man.
If a bullock becomes ill on the road, the driver will, with his knife, cut all around the sod where the animal has left its footprint. Lifting this out, he will cut a cross on it and replace it the other side uppermost. This cure is most implicitly believed in and practised.
The making of the cross is supposed to do great wonders, which your guide is never tired of recounting while he drinks his mate in the unbroken stillness of the evening. Alas! the many bleaching bones on the road testify that this, and a hundred other such remedies, are not always effectual, but the mind of the native is so full of superstitious faith that the testimony of his own eyes will not convince him of the absurdity of his belief. As he stoops over the fire you will notice on his breast some trinket or relic - anything will do if blessed by the priest - and that, he assures you, will save him from every unknown and unseen danger in his land voyage. The priest has said it, and he rests satisfied that no lightning stroke will fell him, no lurking panther pounce upon him, nor will he die of thirst or any other evil. I have remarked men of the most cruel, cutthroat description wearing these treasures with zealous care, especially one, of whom it was said that he had killed two wives.
When your driver is young and amorously inclined you will notice that he never starts for the regions beyond without first providing himself with an owl's skin. This tied on his breast, he tells you, will ensure him favor in the eyes of the females he may meet on the road, and on arrival at his destination.
I once witnessed what at first sight appeared to be a heavy fall of snow coming up with the wind from the south. Strange to relate, this phenomenon turned out to be millions of white butterflies of large size. Some of these, when measured, I found to be four and five inches across the wings. Darwin relates his having, in 1832, seen the same sight, when his men exclaimed that it was "snowing butterflies."