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Throwing the Bums Out, Within and Without

By Sara Mansfield Taber
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 30, 2008

Once in a while, at mutton barbecues in Patagonia, the sheep farmers would mention something they'd heard about a certain campesino's daughter's friend who had been taken by the police in Buenos Aires. The air would go quiet and everyone would become still, saying nothing -- as if even here, in the most remote spot on Earth, the walls or sky had ears. But this was rare. Usually, Buenos Aires seemed far off.

The first time I went to Argentina, it was winter. The year was 1978, and out of the blue my boyfriend and I had been offered an opportunity to study whales in Patagonia, a wild, unpopulated realm at the end of the continent. Those were the days when I wanted to be the new Jane Goodall; I fantasized about conducting groundbreaking research on southern right whales while simultaneously proving my mettle in the wild. Argentina would allow me to make my mark, and I would somehow please the despotic, gray-bearded academic authority in the sky who was by nature unsatisfiable.

I immediately took a leave from school. I was 23.

The Argentina we encountered was hardly the stuff of fantasy. The country still reeled from the military's takeover of the government a few years earlier. I knew that Jorge Videla had displaced Isabel Peron as president in a coup d'etat, but otherwise I had only the barest knowledge of current affairs. People had warned me that Argentina was dangerous, that anyone who disagreed with the government was jailed, that some municipal offices sported posters with crossed-out smiley faces labeled, "Smiling prohibited while conducting official business." But I knew nothing of the teachers being abducted from schools, of 18-year-olds stolen from their beds, of writers yanked from dinner tables -- all of them destined to disappear into some unknown nightmare.

There were signs of menace the minute Peter and I landed in Argentina. Stepping off the plane, we were greeted by scowling young men toting machine guns. Customs officials scrutinized us with narrowed eyes as they rummaged through our luggage. For a few minutes I felt a dissident's fear.

In Buenos Aires it was dark and cold. People on the streets in their black, flowing coats looked white-faced and grim. In Patagonia, though, there was scant evidence of brutality. The landscape -- sere, flat, barely inhabited thornland that extended to an infinite horizon and, at dusk, lit up pink and gold -- enthralled me. The whales woke us each morning with deep bellows, and we spent our days stamping our feet in the cold, documenting the whales' behavior from a patched-together hut perched precariously on a cliff. Driven by youthful energy, we quickly became absorbed in the task.

And then, driven by inner tyranny, I became consumed by what I saw as flaws in our work. I constantly scrutinized our research, revised our methods and made Peter crazy with my pursuit of the rigor that I was sure would give our research heft. I refused what little human contact was available and took pride in my self-sufficiency. We went to town for groceries just once a month; we seldom saw a newspaper.

I thought a lot about the two tyrannies of my youth, my own and Argentina's, when next I made a trip to the country, almost 30 years later. I arrived this past November, just a few weeks after Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was elected president. One tyranny was long gone, make no mistake. The country had turned a corner.

It was spring then, and Argentina was in bud and flower. Bougainvillea draped languorously over house fronts, and sprays of jasmine scented the air. The Argentines were, this visit, in jeans and Converse All-Stars, and a couple occupied every other park bench, making out in full sun.

The country had come a long way since 1983, when the people elected Raul Alfonsin and Argentina began its long march toward democracy. There had been many difficulties along the way -- the economic disaster of 2001, for example, when the peso depreciated to a quarter of its former value and millions in the middle class were left in poverty -- but these days the country had an undeniable buoyancy, and it rode its troughs without resorting to martial law.

I, meanwhile, had struggled to please my own private tyrant for the greater part of three decades, working as a social worker, becoming an academic, marrying Peter (he eventually forgave me my cliff-top imperiousness) and having children, writing books. But sometime along the way, I'd managed to abandon my need to please that arbitrary evaluator in the sky. And then, as if on cue and once more out of the blue, I was given a second chance at discovering Argentina.

Mendoza, the city where I stayed this time, was overflowing with the creativity that has blossomed under democratic rule. Where portions of Mendoza province had long been dedicated to the production of crude table wine for domestic consumption, a new initiative, begun 15 years before, had transformed the local viticulture into a vital and profitable export.

On this sojourn, just as 30 years earlier, I was struck by Argentina's rampant splendor and the raw beauty of its rough lands. The broad, dry valleys of poplars, olive groves and green vines -- backed by ochre-sage foothills and massive, snow-covered summits -- stole my breath.

* * *

The first time I went to Argentina, we stayed for 18 months, during which time I became, as I say, work-obsessed and hard on others. I became a dictator myself -- and more and more depressed. Finally, one day, Peter -- who no doubt needed relief from my ruthlessness -- insisted we visit the nearest ranch. Dona Sara, the wife of the man who managed it, met us at the door of her three-room concrete house in that forgotten nowhere and, chattering merrily, shooed us in out of the bitter wind for tea.

Immediately on stepping over the threshold, I felt the ropes constricting me begin to loosen. Rural Argentines are known for their cari¿o, their open-heartedness, and this was my first taste. This gentle old woman, almost bent in two by back troubles, embraced us like long-lost family. When her husband, Don Pepe, arrived, we shared a meal of mutton, dry bread and vino tinto. As we ate and the cheap table wine flowed, the couple's unfettered generosity flooded into me, warming me for the first time all winter.

On my second trip, I found, Argentina had lost none of its cari¿o: The inn receptionist with a lustrous, soft, guileless beauty who chuckled good-naturedly when I rang the bell for the third time, having forgotten first my sunglasses, then my windbreak, then my passport. The more-gorgeous-than-a-movie-star marketing expert who explained to me, "Our carino? It's our blood. The mix of the Spaniard and the Italian. We Latins are all warm like this." And who then teared up and told me, without shifting his gaze, that he felt sad when he thought of all his country had gone through. This time, I didn't resist for a second; I let the emotion well up in me, too.

Lagrimas -- tears -- that's what Argentines call the drips that flow down the inside of a glass of swirled wine. The country, it seems, has been able to weep -- and now, to smile. I'd come a long way in three decades, too. Like Argentina, I wept and raved, and finally threw out the bastards. No longer crude, quick-drunk concoctions, we've both been aged in oak barrels -- complexified, deepened, clarified -- and earned a unique signature: a particular pattern of lagrimas, with notes of cherry, lemon and thyme . . . and a long finish.

Sara Mansfield Taber is a writer, editor and teacher who lives in Silver Spring.

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