Adios Montevideo y Bienvenido al Campo

February 15 I said goodbye to my home of the past month – La Herradura, my Spanish school in Montevideo. It was a day of mixed emotions; I have been comfortable in my routine at LaHerradura, learning a little Spanish, having lots of fun with my ever-changing house mates from around the world. Although this is my year to break out of routines, each change brings some apprehension and anxiety. Off I go to the campo. Buy bus ticket. Check. Found gate at the bus station. Check. Board the correct bus. Check. Get off at the right stop in Colonia Valdense. Check. Meet my WWOOFing hosts Hugo and Maria. No check. After about a half an hour of watching buses come and go, I inquired at the little tienda that serves as the bus station, if anyone knew Hugo and had they seen him. They did know Hugo, but they hadn’t seen him. I went back outside to wait. A bit later, the guy in the store told me Hugo had called him, and to tell me he and Maria were on their way. Whew. No hotels in sight at this dusty roadside bus stop. Hugo and Maria arrived, and after an enthusiastic welcome and a twenty-five minute drive, we arrived at Estancia Don Miguel – my first “WOOF.” The ranch dates back to 1890 to Hugo’s great grandfather. Three generations presently live and work here – the couple who run the estancia (Hugo and Maria), Maria’s daughter Monica, Sabino (her 8 year old son), and abuela, Hugo’s mother. Beautiful family. There are two other WWOOFers here – Disa and Mimi, ages 19 and 20 who started at the farm two days before me. Absolutely darling Swedish girls. When I arrived, they were working at making fig jam on a huge wood-fired stove in a semi-outdoor kitchen. Both a total sticky mess, all black from the soot, and having a blast. We are all sharing one room and it is working out fine. Disa casually mentioned, “Yes, we have found two scorpions in the room – small ones though. Their bite won’t kill you. Just check your bed before going to sleep.” Tiny frogs are regular visitors in the shower. We have also had a bat flying around the kitchen while making dinner one night – Hugo was summoned to take care of it. I jumped right in the next day with the first farm chores of the day, bringing in the cows for milking. The procession is lead by big daddy – the bull and father of all the calves on the place. He rouses the girls and gets them moving toward the milking shed. I was very grateful to learn that the bull is extremely docile – as are all the cows. The milking of the eight cows is done by hand. This is much harder than I expected. Hugo demoed the technique for me – it looked simple enough – the milk came squirting out for him like a fire hose. My turn – first a tiny drip, then a feeble dribble. Every other squirt on my shoe or shorts – my personal appearance has taken a major downturn in less than 24 hours. It took me nearly an hour to finish off my cow – then Hugo got half again as much milk out as me. My cow was very patient with my ineptitude. But, during all this, I was very aware of the digestive process in her four stomachs, just three inches from my head. All I could think was the Monty Python movie, “The Meaning of Life” and the sound effects just before the fat man exploded after “one little thin mint.” Hold tight there Bossy !!!! Each of the milking cows has a calf, and we leave one teat un-milked for baby. After milking, calves are united with mommies – lots of mooing until the reunion takes place. This photo of Mimi was actually from today (Feb 25). All three of us WWOOFers were helping Hugo milk (rather than the usual one) because we had a lot to do today. Usually the cows have their morning elimination on the walk up to the milking area. Today everything was all out of whack – poop and pee … well you get the idea. I actually fell off my milking stool into a bit of a mess, and my cow kept swatting me with her pee tail. Ughhh …. I may actually need to wash my jeans after 10 days of wearing them …. After milking, and making cheese (a story for another day), I told Disa that I could feel the “ghosts” of the estancia – in a good way- so much history here. This just popped out – no reason why. We then went out directly to gather wood with Hugo from one of the fields. The property is enormous, stretching as far as you can see in all directions, with no other buildings in sight. The wood supply (branches and treefall) seems unlimited. We take a little detour to two, side-by-side stonewall circles, set against giant boulders, trees growing up all around. Hugo told us that many archeological and historical experts have been out to investigate the site. It seems to have been constructed by “indigenous” people, at some unknown point in time. A number of theories on the significance have been proposed, but he says no one knows for sure. He showed us four circular stone depressions, perhaps used to grind herbs for ceremonial purposes; no mention of grinding corn (I have learned that no one here eats tortillas). A stone boulder chair and “foot rest” is theorized to have been a birthing chair. Another thought was that the footrest was actually a kneeler for priests to kneel at, hands in front to the side and head down in worship. The larger stone circle has a large boulder to one side that has been demonstrated to be an “energy center.” Some people feel a sort of vibration when sitting on the stone – I did not. Hugo demonstrated “dousing” near one end of the stone, and Disa and I were both able to get a similar effect. People have had their watches stop working, and noted blank spaces or “windows” in photographs taken in the circle. A very high level of phosphorous has been detected in the soil, suggesting it may have been an Indian burial ground. Lots more to tell – cheesmaking, vaccinating cows, abuela’s 90th birthday party, more on daily life at the estancia. I started this post over a week ago, and have been stalled by a brief electrical outage, Internet interruptions, lots of family visitors. But I want to get something posted, so here we go. One of the chores we do everyday is to make cheese. Hugo showed Disa and Mimi what to do, and the directions were posted on the wall, so we were on our own day 2. It is pretty simple. The processing room is very cool, right out of the 19th century. Giant metal cauldron is used to heat the milk, to 36 degrees centigrade, and two different substances are added – one called ‘fermentin” and the other is about ½ liter of whey from the day before to give the cheese the characteristic flavor – very mild – kind of like Havarti. After breakfast (about 45 minutes later), the cheese in the cauldron is “cut” with a long wooden knife, and it is heated again to 48 degrees C, stirring all the while with a wooden paddle so the cheese is broken up and reforms into soft curds. After the second processing, the cheese is in the soft-curd stage, and it is “fished” out using a curved wire and cheesecloth – two ends of the cheesecloth held in the teeth. This sounds a bit unsanitary, to be sure, but in a very short while, I have come to accept many different norms here on the farm. Abuela just celebrated her 90thbirthday, so they must be doing something right. The curds are placed into a cloth lined cheese form, and pressed for 24 hours. An ancient, hand-crafted wooden table with “gutters” catches the whey as it is pressed from the cheese and it dribbles to a collection barrel for the pigs. I did the whole thing myself the second day I was here. There is so much to so on a small farm, that as soon as someone can take over a task – it’s yours. I’m also seeing that not a scrap of food goes to waste – like nothing. I spend a lot of my day moving calories around – all food material goes to some animal for consumption – human, pig, goat, dogs. There is virtually nothing to compost, except for yard waste – and much of this is fed to the goats. Even apple peels (from making a delicious apple crumble dessert) are boiled in water, lemon peel and a little sugar to make a light and refreshing drink. Then, the pigs get the peels. There are a couple of palm trees in the yard that are dropping these lovely orange fruits called “butia.” They are great to eat as-is, but Maria also stews them to make a sweet compote with spices like cloves, and even uses the fruits to make a really yummy liquor (that takes a year to come to its full potential flavor). The squashed fruits in the driveway are gathered for the pigs, or shared with the goats as a special treat. Maria also told me that the seeds in the butia fruit are saved by country people (who live in a kind of thatched-roof house), and are packed tightly on the dirt floor of the house. Then melted bees wax is poured over the whole thing and it is hand-rubbed smooth. She said the effect is very beautiful, like the most lovely hardwood floor – but imagine the work that goes into this! (Note to self: my Spanish must be getting a little better for me to get all this).


Diane, USA 


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