Saturday, 13 October 2012

Where's Noah's Ark when you need it? (2 of 3)

Hinterland of the province of Córdoba, Argentina, 1920s and 30s

When my mother was a little girl the only paved roads were in the centres of the big cities.  She lived on farms and in villages until she reached the age when a formal education became imperative for her and her four siblings, and they moved to Buenos Aires. 

Until that point, she, her parents, sister and three brothers lead peaceful lives in the countryside, or in the village where it was a mere few minutes away.  She was part of a wider family that also lived on farms, so when socialising took place and the seven of them visited the relations in far flung corners of the province of Córdoba, negotiating the dusty roads in an old Ford T or an Oldsmobile took on the characteristics of a major expedition, with my grandfather dictating the plan of campaign and brooking no arguments or helpful suggestions from the rank and file.

Ford T 1926  (Google)

Oldsmobile, 1926 (Google)

Oldsmobile as above, but probably more like it really was
in those dusty days  (Google)

Granny would hope for the best but calmly plan for the worst without discussing it with her husband.  Thermoses with hot milk and tins of biscuits were stored in a box in the boot, along with as many fringed tartan rugs as she could get away with without him noticing and complaining that it was all a waste of space.  The Ford T or the Oldsmobile were apt to burst their tyres or break down in the most isolated of places.  It might be hours before someone went by who understood about the workings of the internal combustion engine.  The prevailing principle in these places was that all passers-by were duty bound to be knights-of-the-road and you would never deny assistance to a traveller in trouble; nevertheless in those days most people knew little about cars, and it could be a very long time before another car was seen in the distance bouncing along towards you and you heard those cheering words “What seems to be the trouble?”

What seems to be the trouble?...  (Google)

We'll soon have you on your way... (Google)

However there are large swathes of land in Argentina which though good for growing crops because of the rich, dark subsoil, are very sticky when muddy.  The land is flat, and at certain times of the year after a few days’ rain huge pantanos or boggy lakes would develop, often along the earth roads which had sunk over the years through soil erosion.  A driver would go to any lengths to skirt round the more evil looking patches...


...even by cutting fences or making an elaborate detour around a tree, but sometimes if – say - he judged (or remembered) that the base of the road was firm and stony on the north side of the road, he would get into second gear, tell the family to keep quiet and drive firmly through it, while everybody held their breath.  Once through it everyone would laugh with relief and they’d get out to stretch their legs while the driver tested the brakes – or waited till they dried.



Naturally, Mum remembered the times when her parents, she and her four young siblings didn’t make it, when the car would stall in the middle because it was deeper than her father had thought; and then after the soggy engine part had dried he would wade to the front of the car and start it again with the hand crank while one of the boys kept his foot on the accelerator.  After a cough and a splutter it would start again, but the situation was still hopeless – it would be unable to get any traction and simply whined as the tyres skidded round and round in the mud.   Usually this was with the Oldsmobile, because the Fort T was slung higher off the ground. 

Anybody passing would help – a rider with a strong horse, bigger vehicles with tow ropes, though no tractors in those early days – but my mother says in her memoirs:

"…I well remember a miserable night spent in one of these bogs, with mosquitoes buzzing around and Mum and Dad trying to calm my fears – no, the car would not sink and disappear into the mud; we just had to wait till the morning and somebody would be bound to come along and pull us out."

And sure enough, dawn would bring locals heading across the fields to work, when they would see the family huddled miserably in a car stuck in the mud and help dig them out.

Mum as a 7-year old (in the middle at the front) with
her four siblings and the Oldsmobile -
unfortunately no pictures survive
of them stuck in the mud!

Dressed up about to go somewhere important

Being stuck fast in mud is a frightening experience to a child, and thirty years later when I was her age and there still weren’t many paved roads, I also found myself in situations like this, though never had to spend the night in a bog, thank goodness.  I remember the fear even now.

Central Buenos Aires, 1930s and 40s

In the 1930s the children were old enough to make it imperative that they move to the capital to go to proper schools.  They bought a large four-bedroomed house on an avenue called El Cano, in the suburbs; it was a main road with two trams and three buses which regularly passed their door in both directions.  The buses in those days were open topped with canvas roofs, jammed to over capacity with too many passengers.  As the roads were cobbled the bus drivers drove (said Mum) at breakneck speed, balancing their vehicles on the tram lines for a smoother ride.  This meant that the neighbourhood was very noisy, and the quantity of traffic caused misery when it rained. 

"…Every time it rained heavily, it became a river, and the crossing streets all sloped down towards it.  The trams would stop running but the buses, being high-slung, kept going, and stirred up great waves that broke against our garage door."

On Sundays when there was less bustle, she remembered that she and her brothers would use an old sturdy box as a boat and a straw broom as an oar to row themselves across to the other side of the avenue.

Outskirts of Buenos Aires, 1970s

This house was eventually sold, the family grew up and went their separate ways.  My mother married, and had my sister and me.  Then when I was about nine, in the early 1960s, the opportunity arose to buy that old house on Avenida El Cano where she had grown up.  My parents bought the house and we lived there for about 10 years – so my formative childhood years were spent there too. 

This was the house on Avenida El Cano. 
The picture was taken in 1994, when it had been turned into
a shop and painted white with blue-grey trimmings (ugh).
It used to be plain stone.  The garage was bottom right,
and the sitting room bottom left, with double windows and
a ballustrade in the manner of the floor above it,
not as it is here.  Sadly the house was knocked down
some years later to build - what else - an apartment  block.

By this time the street drain problem had been sorted out, and it was no longer a drama when it rained; except on one occasion that I can remember, when once again the overflowing drains caused the avenue to flood from one side of the road to the other.  The house wasn’t flooded except for the garage and the entrance door because they were at a slightly lower than the rest of the house.  I was quite disappointed, having heard Mum’s story of what used to happen when she was a child.  Still, our own novelty was that we had bees somewhere under the stairs one year, and when you went down the few steps that led into the garage there was sometimes honey dripping from the sloped ceiling – I know because I tasted it. 

In the early 1970s we moved to the northern suburbs of the city, to another large house with, at the rear, the remains of what had once been a small perfume factory business.  The stale, cheap smell still permeated that part of the house.  The building was probably about 40 years old, and had not been kept in very good repair, particularly the roof.  My parents’ abiding view where house repairs were concerned was that if it wasn’t broke, don’t fix it, so no remedial work was carried out on the building until the rain started to come in – and not even then.  To this day we don’t really understand why they didn’t grasp the nettle and have the most important part of the house properly repaired.  Gradually all the washing up bowls and plastic containers and buckets started to disappear as they were placed upstairs in strategic spots to catch the raindrops.   

Twenty years later when they were living out their retirement years in Spain, neglect of the roof was once again to return to haunt them. 


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive

A walk round La Boca, formerly a poor immigrant suburb of Buenos Aires, by the river.  People still live there, and benefit from the tourism.

A  trompe l'oeuil

Old rusting ships in highly polluted waters...



Joyful said...

I have to come back later and finish reading your story but I wanted to say that the muddy roads remind me of African roads in the highlands after the rain. I met a young Argentinian girl at a coffee shop the other day. Actually I bumped into a woman here on holiday from Brazil and she started to converse with the young girl from Argentina. It is a small world ;-) Hope you are keeping dry.

Tina said...

As usual a great read :) We are in the midst of our own downpour weather here today. It is good for the yarn business but not so exciting for me :)


Simone said...

Hi Caroline

Thank you - as always - for your wise words over at my blog. Please know that I always appreciate what you have to say - and often nod my head in agreement, even though I'd be flattering myself to think that I was anywhere near as wise as you :)

I am feeling slightly encumbered by a lot of "stuff" - some of it family stuff about which I cannot do much apart from move it to arm's length distance away from me & run very quickly!! Thank you for your comment on my post that I wrote a couple of weeks ago on that subject....your words meant a lot.

I love what you had to say - happiness & contentment, which to choose? Contentment every time I think.

I have to tell you that since I read "Birdsong" at the beginning of my summer holiday, every time I think about it, I think of you - because I remember the comment you left me when I wrote my Summer Reading list post - it was the first title from my list that you commented on & you said I'd need tissues! I cannot even tell you how much I loved it, it's such a moving, evocative & wonderful read, he is just an extraordinary's remained by my bedside since then & although I read a lot more books on holiday after it, I didn't enjoy any of them as much as I enjoyed Birdsong.

I honestly think that it's one of those rare books which when you've finished it, you look up and life just seems different.

So, Birdsong & you will always go together in my mind, I like that :)

Thanks for following my blog, I am honestly so glad that you do.

Best wishes to you,
Simone XX

Lonicera said...

Penny - incredible how we're all travelling all over the world now... One day I shall travel to your part of the world - I've always wanted to go.

Lonicera said...

Thanks Tina. I'm so impressed by the way your business is going. The Yarn Queen - how does that sound?

Lonicera said...

Thanks for a lovely comment Simone. So glad you liked Birdsong! He's written other books too, though I didn't like the Girl at the Lion D'Or as much.
I so enjoy looking at your blog, even though I haven't always got a comment to make - I wouldn't make one just out of habit. The post with chocolate pictures last week certainly deserved one, but I hardly even dared look at it.
Despite the setbacks you have occasionally, I love your inner joy.
Don't you dare ever take your blog off your list of things to do!

Simone said...

Oh no, I can't stop blogging, I love it too much....and it just really connects me with myself and my thoughts, I don't think I could be without it now!!

I've bought another of his books "A Week in December", going to get started on that ASAP XX

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