My Interpreter

In Buenos Aires Dr. Jose Leon Suarez was chief of the division of Ganaderia or cattle breeding. He made every effort to procure for me a suitable interpreter. His secretary, too, Dr. Alberto Paz, was unwearying in his attentions. Dr. Paz was educated in the United States; he was therefore heartily glad to be of service to me. Interpreters of suitable character were difficult to find. I had a most amusing experience with one whom I engaged temporarily. Never mind his name; he was one of the longest and thinnest- young men that I have ever seen, with large, soulful eyes and a black mustache that was really too much of a drain on his vitality; it was so luxuriant. He was the gentlest of souls, the pink of kindness and courtesy, a university boy and, unhappily for me, an artist. Together, we had amusing times. We would make an appointment to meet at some hour. He usually arrived considerably later and always expressed astonished sorrow, “Oh! Is it then so late? I only stopped a few minutes to gaze at some pictures in a shop window. Oh, I wish you could have seen them ; the colors were exquisite.”

Well, we went to various railway offices to inquire about trains and routes. It is not a simple matter traveling on some lines in Argentina, as the trains do not run every day, though of course they do run every day on the main lines. My interpreter carefully noted down the details in a fine, new note-book that I had bought for him. After half a day of this work we went to breakfast and afterward consulted the notebook. The lad had forgotten what any of the facts or figures meant. I had, however, enjoyed his company very much. We would be hurrying along Calle Florida, when he would suddenly break across the street. “Come here, please, Mr. Wing; here is such a lovely print in this window! Isn’t it an exquisite piece of work? Wonderful!”

Poor boy; he was not meant for a business career, and I soon learned that he was not strong enough to endure the hardships of travel. Happily then the government found for me a young Argentino, Dr. L. P. Garrahan. He had lived and studied in the United States; his English was good; he was intelligent, companionable and kind. Together we traveled several thousand miles. I am not sure that I was always so courteous as I ought to have been during our companionship. I am sure that Dr. Garrahan was true to his Argentine traditions. I feel now that I must have been at times a most trying companion.

“Let’s go!” was my exclamation as soon as I had the doctor. “But, Mr. Wing, we can go no-where now. This is Holy Week, the estancieros (‘ranchers’), are entertaining company; men hunt or visit; nothing will be done this week.” It is true.

Men in South America do everything during Holy Week except go to church ; the women, I am humiliated to say, do that for them.

I had, however, certain inquiries to make that would take me to Rosario. There I could spend some time before going to the estancias (ranches). We therefore took a train for Rosario. On the train we found a crowd of people and with difficulty got seats in the dining-car. It is a custom in Argentina to sit in the dining-cars, only getting up after one has finished one’s meal and not then unless there seems need to give some one else a place. The breakfasts on these cars are very good, with rather more of meat than a North American de-sires. Frequently, we would be served with five different sorts at one meal.

We emerged from the suburbs of Buenos-Aires into the open country, the “camp.” The suburbs include some fine parks and plantings, with-palatial residences embowered in trees in certain favored quarters. The camp comes rather near the city. Along the railway from Rosario to Buenos Aires one does not see so many cattle as one would see farther west; there were many fields of wheat and corn, and yet we saw wide pastures, bare at the time of my visit, with sheep nibbling about and cattle; the cattle were thin in flesh and indeed many dead ones lay unburied in the fields. The drouth had lasted for more than a year. All vegetation was burned up. Sheep survived because they would paw away the earth and eat the very roots of the grass, or gather up the little seeds of bur clovers. Sheep are very tenacious of life.


The Argentine camp, as it exists over a region embracing many thousands of square leagues to the north, south and west of the city of Buenos Aires, is a level plain, absolutely flat and featureless. There are not as a rule even shallow watercourses in the plain; nor are there lakes, marshes or hills. One can ride for a day and not see a trace of where water ever has run. It is perhaps the most level tract of land in the world. All that saves it from becoming an impassable marsh is that there is not enough rainfall to make it a marsh. There are watercourses or rivers here and there, but they are insignificant and widely separated. I have ridden for half a day without seeing a channel where water had seemingly ever run. Once the plain was covered with the tall grass of the Pampas; now that has been destroyed by the plow and in some in-stances by digging it out, clump by clump, or by pulling the clumps out with oxen. Now the plain in a moist time is covered with fine annual grasses and bur clovers. In times of drouth the black soil is everywhere visible.

The eye roves restlessly over the plain, seeking some distinguishing objects. No trees are near the railway; in the distance, however, there looms up a stately grove, almost a bit of forest, at the estancia headquarters. The trees are eucalypts which row with amazing rapidity, excelling those of California. Trees twenty years planted may be 100 feet high or more. Astonishingly rich is the black soil. It lacks only moisture and cultivation to make it break out in prodigous vegetation. We passed by many a farm which was poor, dry and desolate looking—merely a field, a small house of adobe bricks with a roof of galvanized iron, and near the house a collection of farm machinery standing. In the field perhaps the stubble was of wheat or maize, short, stunted and earless during this year of drouth and disaster. These are the chacras or farms of the “colonists,” as tenant farmers are called. These farmers are chiefly Italians or Spaniards, perhaps newly come to Argentina. The landlord is lord of many thousands of acres; he apportions to the colonist a tract of perhaps 400 acres and may fence it; the colonist builds his own house, making the bricks of native earth where the house is to stand and furnishing the roof, the door and window. He has nothing else, no wood for floor and no ceiling and perhaps no partitions between the enclosed walls. The colonist buys North American riding plows, brings his oxen or mules, plows widely, tills slightly, sows, waits and reaps. If he is fortunate, he secures a crop of wheat or maize. Of this he re-tains from 70 to 80 per cent. After he has tilled the land for a few years, it becomes weedy, and often the landlord sows it to alfalfa, moving the tenant with his iron roof, his window, his door, his collection of machinery, his working stock and his wife and children. This man is reputed lazy, but he hires no labor, if he can avoid it, and works hard before and at seeding time and then rests until harvest, when again it is a time of strenuous endeavor.


One sees American gang plows, drawn by two yoke of oxen or four horses or mules; sometimes one plow follows another, the father in the lead, the son behind, a daughter perhaps behind him, then the wife, like as not, and I have even seen the mother-in-law riding the plow. If the helpers are too young or too old to turn the plows about at the end of the field (the field may be a mile or more long), the father obligingly waits there to turn them all about and start them on the next furrow. It will be seen that the colonist usually does not remain long enough on the land to plant trees, if he is so inclined, and so the country; apart from the environs of the headquarters of the estancias, is bare indeed and so very wide that the eye wearies in looking off so far. Our train stopped long at each station, as do all trains in Argentina, thus giving trains a chance to arrive on time, which they commonly do. The locomotives are usually English; the cars are somewhat of the pattern of those in North America, with aisles down the middle and seats on the sides and entered at the ends.

At wide intervals I saw a strange sort of tree, not large, and perhaps forty-five feet high; if it was a large one, it had a dense and rounded greenness of head, with a trunk thick and short, spreading out at the root most curiously, so that sometimes it might extend for many feet in great couch-ant rounded root or trunk masses, sometimes resembling a reclining beast. This is the ombu tree and under its shade have happened many notable events in Argentina. Once, indeed, it made about all the shade known in the pampas, outside houses. The ombu comes through Spain from Africa, but it has become naturalized in Argentina, so that people there consider it a native. In truth, there were originally no trees native to the pampas; none could exist there; the huge growth of grass and weeds was burned off yearly and the furious fires made tree-growing impossible.


The little cities far apart along the way were strikingly alike. They were for the most part one-storied plastered white-walled houses, built flush with the streets, with a little shop in every corner, and perhaps a grocery store (the almacen), or a drug store (the botica). The streets are wide, dusty and usually unpaved. Every little camp village has its plaza or park. However, with trees, even if they are dry and dusty and perhaps stunted, they look interesting in a land so short of trees. The glimpses of the great plantations of trees at the estancia headquarters were entrancing; they made one to feel that there was much worth exploring.

From Buenos Aires to Rosario is a distance of about 200 miles. One would not think it a long way with North American train service, but some good trains are between these two principal Argentine cities, although the one we were on took nearly all of one day to land us in Rosario. My most vivid recollection of the day’s journey is of the terrible effects of the drouth, the dead horses lying in the roads, the dead cattle in the fields and the fields of maize so burned up that it did not seem as though they would return the seed planted. And this turned out to be true in many instances.