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Day 12 (Wednesday February 8, 2012) I hope you don’t mind me asking but is there any Judeo-Christian religion with better customer service than Catholicism? From top to bottom you have one God that is actually three, the Father, the son Jesus, and the Holly Ghost. Right under him/them you have the Virgin Mary in her many incarnations—Candelaria, Guadalupe, Luján, del Rosario, and many more. Looking after Catholics there are also Angels—a heavenly creature with clearly compromised anatomy due to the presence of both arms and wings presumably articulated to the same shoulder blade.  Below Mary and the Angels you have the Saints—many of whom have been assigned to specific areas of service. Saint Anthony of Padua will help you if you lose something (including love); Saint Christopher if you need help in sports or while traveling; Saint Roch if you fear pestilence and plague (and in Argentina this saint also provides protection against dogs—“San Roque, San Roque, que ese perro, no me toque”, goes the saying.  There are more than 10,000 saints and as a Catholic you have access to all of them. All these figures are officially sanctioned by the Vatican and are thus available for the faithful to pray to—in many cases to request specific favors. But many Catholics, at least in Argentina, also revere other figures that they believe are able to provide help in times of need. When my siblings and I were kids, my parents brought us to Chilecito (La Rioja), the town where we are spending the night. Along many of the roads we took back then it was common to find small altars encircled by glass bottles. These shrines were dedicated to la Difunta Correa (the Deceased Correa). Deolinda Correa was a woman that, according to the legend, died of thirst in a journey across the desert while she was searching for her sick husband who had been left behind by his troops. Gauchos driving cattle found Deolinda’s dead body and next to it, alive, was Deolinda’s baby —who had survived by nursing off her dead mom’s body. Deolinda’s remains were buried by the gauchos near Vallecito (San Juan Province)—a few hundred kilometers south of Chilecito. The miraculous survival of the child who was nourished from a dead woman’s breasts has made La Difunta Correa a popular, albeit unofficial, saint among Argentineans. People would bring bottles of water to the shrines as offerings to calm Deolinda’s thirst.  One can still find altars dedicated to Deolinda here but not as many as when I visited this region as a kid.  The skeptics suggest that it was the advent of the plastic bottle that discouraged glass sellers from building small altars all over the place.  Today it is much more common to find shrines decorated with bright red flags that are dedicated to the Gauchito Gil (the little gaucho Gil). The devotion for the Gauchito Gil is more recent and has spread throughout Argentina very fast. The legend of the Gauchito Gil is interesting.

Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez was born near Mercedes (Province of Corrientes). He became a farm worker and at a given point had a relationship with a wealthy widow who was coveted by the local police chief. Gil had to run away threatened by the widow’s brothers and the police. Eventually Gauchito Gil was captured by the police, tortured, and hung from his feet on an algarrobo tree.  In January 8, 1878, a policeman killed Gauchito Gil by cutting his throat. Right before his death the Gaucito told the policeman that his son was very ill and was going to die. Gil offered to save the child if the policeman was willing to beg him and pray. The policeman was unaware that his son was sick so he carried out the order to kill the Gauchito. When the policeman came back to his town he was told that his son was in fact very ill. The frightened policeman knelt down and prayed to Gauchito Gil to save his son.  You can guess the end of the story. The kid was saved and the policeman became a believer of and a champion for the Gauchito.

Today we rode from Belén to Chilecito (La Rioja Province).  We were hit by heavy showers as soon as we left Belén. We had to go slowly because it was hard to see and there was a lot of mud in places were temporary rivers crossed the road. Behind the low clouds we could make out the silhouettes of the beautiful green mountains of this region of Catamarca—covered with thorny legume trees with compound leaves that close at night. The humid air was a pleasure to breath.  We passed a group of people who were demonstrating against new mines that have been allowed to open in the region. We saw later in the news that the police had brutally dispersed the demonstrators we saw this morning.  We reached the area of San Blas de los Sauces by mid afternoon. Rather than a single town San Blas is a collection of small hamlets distributed continuously along the road for several kilometers.  After San Blas we rode for near 50 kilometers under very strong and gusty side winds until we reach the little village of Pituil where we parked our bikes under a fig tree to enjoy delicious black figs. The last town we visited before reaching Chilecito was Famatina. Throughout the town there were wall murals with the legend “El Famatina no se toca” (The Famatina cannot be touched) protesting against the current plans to mega mine the Famatina range—a dangerous venture very likely to result in high levels of toxic contamination. Most houses in the little villages we visited today have a bit of land planted with grape vines, fruit trees—figs, quinces, peaches—and vegetables. The main squares of these small towns have free wireless, high-speed Internet access. I parked my bike on the curb, sat on a bench, and checked my email outdoors for free. Cool!

In Chilecito we were welcomed by a huge statute of Jesus the overlooks the town. We stayed at “Hotel Ruta 40” and had chivito (grilled young goat) for dinner.