A vacation to a fairy-tale place where 'dragons' fly
Every year they return to the same spot in Argentina – and even after 40 years, he still can't quite define what the town is all about.
SAN JOSÉ DEL RINCÓN, ARGENTINA — This little town has a faintly imaginary quality to it. But I can't really elaborate on what that means, not even after 40 years of coming and going. Things seem never to change, yet do all the time, and I am never surprised at what will seize the imagination of the Rinconeros.
They had an exhibit not long ago in the "cultural salon," once a wine depository on the town plaza. Beneath a photograph of a man with a squint, a sign advertised, "Smallest Art Work in the World." It was free, so I went in and saw a landscape painting that included a horse, a cow, and a palm tree in a green field beneath a big blue sky with clouds in it. I had to look at the picture through a microscope because it was painted on a grain of rice. The wonders of Rincón tend to be small.
Artists are attracted to this place. A few, like Puccinelli, have become locally famous. He had a street named after him. A sign telling of his residence here is placed before the small house that he occupied.
Rincón has about 5,000 inhabitants. It is perpetually overrun by bright flowers – from morning glories to hibiscuses of every color, and yellow orchids that breathe through long delicate tendrils. The flowers enhance all the low, simple houses, and steal some of the thunder from the bigger, more arrogant ones. At our place we have a bougainvillea the size of a cloud spilling down off the tree it chose to be its host about 20 years ago, deploying itself like a brilliant vermilion fog.
The sky is always alive with the shriek of wild parrots and the song of a yellow-breasted bird known as the bicho feo.
A venerable white church with a clunking bell anchors the plaza, along with a pink-walled school and the 19th-century building used for a museum. It's filled with old crockery, photographs of the plaza a hundred years ago, a monster-size typewriter, a rusty pistol or two, rifles, swords, and even some small images carved years before the Spaniards arrived.
The Rinconeros are known for their lack of industry. They are late risers; so are their dogs and their dogs' friends. That formulation is right, because not every dog lives in a house or has a human family association. They sleep in the sandy streets, often in the middle. They all bark and howl, but they don't bite.
Over the years, I've been disabused by the Rinconeros of certain misconceptions, baggage from my youth. One had to do with dragonflies, which thrive in abundance because of the presence of the Parana River.
I was always leery of dragonflies, recalling a story told to me as a child that this insect was put on earth to go about sewing up the lips of gossips. It made me discreet. Imagine my surprise when, coming out of the house one hot afternoon, I saw my wife standing in the pool with a dragonfly perched on her upheld finger.
In a flash I was in the water myself, holding up my own finger, being circled by several of these fairy creatures.
Actually, on closer examination, the bug, with two sets of wings, had a configuration which, when regarded with a certain flexibility of mind, resembled one of those World War I bi-wing fighter planes. It was red, and when it touched down on my finger, I dubbed it the Red Baron. I couldn't even detect its weight, just its faint grip. I pulled him so close to my eyes, I could see what was probably his mouth, moving. Talking? I'm not that naive.
Dragonfly. The name used in this country is less intimidating, even beautiful: aguacil.
Imagination tends to be richer in those places that have not yet embraced the certainties of contemporary life. Argentina, especially in its more distant reaches, cultivates its own lore. It has more than its share of popular saints, for instance, none of which are recognized by any organized religion, but they are honored and canonized by the benign impulses of ordinary people, sometimes many ordinary people.
One such is Gauchito Gil, a bandit from the distant past, who, the legend goes, was hung while being captured by a squad of soldiers or police. Before dying, he told one of his captors to rush home, that his baby son was sick and about to die, and that if he were to return home quickly, the boy would survive.
Evidently it all went right, and Gauchito Gil was launched into "sainthood." I've seen the miniature red-roofed chapels dedicated to him along the roads from the far Andean valleys of the Argentine northwest, even down to the Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego, and everywhere in between. They all contain a small, doll-like image of a gaucho and a few red flags (the gaucho's color), and are invariably rich with gaucho wealth, such as maté tea and fresh flowers.
A man I knew – a Dane, a seaman who lived here – once warned me about this place. "It goes on, always a quarter turn off reality," he said, or words to that effect. No doubt that's why the first thing I do on my return every year is adjust my watch.