THE ANTIPODES 5
GENERAL MANUEL BELGRANO antipode of PIAO LU MU PARK
GENERAL MANUEL BELGRANO
Ñeca de Bale suggests we meet at Almacén San Miguel, her grocery store that is now managed by her son. As I assumed and later confirmed, he is the one behind the counter. When I tell him that I’m looking for his mother, he immediately sends for her. I have no doubt that Almacén San Miguel knew better times. Even so, I am surprised by the variety and quantity of products they sell. Ñeca comes to meet me and invites me to go to her house, which is next door. We sit in her dining-room. The shirt of the elegant and friendly Ñeca matches the pink walls.
Ñeca de Bale was born in Paraguay. When she was 17, she moved to Argentina with an aunt in Colonia Apayeré, about 30 km from General Manuel Belgrano. Years later, Ramiro Mazza, whom I mentioned in El Espinillo story, would grow up in that same community. In that same place that Ñeca met a hardworking man, the one she then married and the one she lived with until a heart attack did them part.
In 1964 they moved to General Belgrano, previously called Cataño Cué. “Cué means ‘is’, therefore it translates as ‘Is Cataño,’” she tells me. Cataño was an Italian man that she did not get to meet because he was no longer there when Ñeca moved to Belgrano. “He owned a huge piece of land. I don’t know if it’s true, but I was told he was a tax evader. He fled leaving everything behind. At that moment, the town had very few residents. There were no aborigines, they were all Argentinians. Not more than 10 families inhabited the town. There was no water, no electricity. It was all very basic.” Ñeca also tells me in a clear voice and slow pace that then about 20 to 30 French families of Algerian origin came to the area to work the land. “Many of those French people were single. Some of them went to Misión Tacaaglé and others came to Belgrano.”
Ñeca’s parents-in-law opened a store where they also sold home-made food. “Those French families settled down and the local people started looking for a job. The French government gave each family a car, a truck, a harvester and all the other tools they needed to work the land. They were given 500 hectares for agriculture. It seems that that land was donated by the Argentine to the French government. They first built their houses and then they began to work the land.” That’s what Ñeca heard and that’s what she tells me.
“In 1966 an engineer came to the area to build the town. He traced the streets between the farms, he built the police station and the school. He gave work to everyone who came to ask because they had lots of tools and there were plenty of things to do. There were no residents in the area. The newcomers came from other places to stay.”
“My husband drove the tractor with the harvester. He drove all the vehicles. In 1965, I already had my first child. I joined my husband to work in that faraway land rented by the French. First the trees were removed to prepare the land to grow crops. They grew banana, pumpkin, sunflower. Buyers came from many places, but it seems that the French government helped them for many years. I remember that on some occasions, the bananas that were not sold got rotten in the field. It’s obvious that they were helped. Years later, some of them moved to Buenos Aires and some others returned to their country.”
I ask her if there are still French people living here and she tells me that only a few. “Some of their grown-up children stayed in the countryside. I know someone who still lives here. His parents went to Buenos Aires but he didn’t want to go with them.”
- How did you get the grocery store?, I ask.
-The owner of this house was a builder, but he had just passed away. His widow was left alone and she wanted to sell the house because someone wanted to take it away from her. They already had a small grocery. She offered to sell it to us. We sold our house and we came to live here. We made renovations to expand it. And we are still here- she says.
Ñeca has 3 children. The eldest one is the man in charge of the grocery. She has a daughter who at 23 graduated as a dentist in the province of Corrientes. She’s 49 now and lives in the capital city of Formosa. Another daughter lives in the house at the back, both houses are joined by a path. “We talk across the patio,” she tells me with a smile.
Ñeca, at 73 looks charming, she is mentally sharp and lively. She says that she has been suffering from hypothyroidism and rheumatoid arthritis since she was 62. “It is very painful, my skin dries out a lot.” But Ñeca is well treated by doctors in Formosa city.
Ñeca’s youngest granddaughter comes into the house with her babysitter. She holds a yogurt and some candies in one of her tiny hands. She has just bought them at the grocery store, but “uncle didn’t want to charge me”, she says, showing me the wrinkled bills in her other hand. Cheeky little thing, she doesn’t stop talking while her grandmother can’t hide the pride behind her smile. Some time later, Ñeca’s eldest granddaughter enters the house. She’s a teenager, she wears her school uniform and has her long hair down. She hands her grandmother a piece of paper that sounds like an excuse to come in.
Before I leave, Ñeca wants to show me her house. It’s cute and comfortable. Cheerful colors and details make it a warm, cozy home. I can tell that she has raised a beautiful family and, although she has had a life of many sacrifices and hard work, she can now rest knowing that she has done a good job and she has achieved more than she could have imagined.
The front of her house is painted in different shades of green. She tells me that the painter had told her how much paint she had to buy. She bought it but it wasn’t enough. When she went back to buy more, there was no more paint of the same shade of green left.
Ñeca’s pink shirt stands out against that wall. She walks me to the car. The birds are chirping loudly.
November 14, 2019.
PIAO LU MU PARK
To go from Zhong Li to Piao Lu Mu Park, the antipodal point of General Manuel Belgrano, Google Maps tells me to take a train to Hu Kou, then a bus to Hou Hu and then walk. When I leave Hu Kou train station, I find no bus stop nor bus in sight, although I do see a group of taxi drivers chatting animatedly on the sidewalk waiting for a passenger. I approach them and they look at me surprised to see a face that is not from there. I show them the map on my phone but they have no idea which bus I should take. I ask one of them if he could drive me. He nods. I ask him if he can wait for me there for a couple of hours, but he says he can’t. To get back, he says, I would need to call him because there is no taxi stand. We go as soon as I agreed.
The sky is dark, packed with clouds. It looks like a storm is approaching. We drive along a narrow and quiet road. There are no sidewalks. No other cars in sight. Only us. My eyes see green everywhere. The tiled top middle class houses are surrounded by palm trees and, when there are no houses, there are even more palm trees. The leaves begin to sway and, after a while, they sway even more. The storm might be getting closer or the sea is just there. Or both.
I see a taxi coming from the opposite direction. My driver greets his colleague. Both taxis stop. His friend gets out of his car and walks towards us. They talk for a while. I understand that they agree to meet somewhere in about 30 minutes’ time. I guess he will do so after he leaves me at my destination. Every kilometer we drive the weather worsens. It gets darker and darker, the wind turns wild, it starts to rain. The palm trees look like they are going to break. The storm doesn’t bother me that much. I think it could give a different touch to my photos and I am quite well prepared with a raincoat, a poncho and a plastic bag to cover my camera.
We reached the place. It took less than a 20 minute drive. I take my things to get off the taxi and ask the driver how much I owe him. He tells me not to pay him yet, that he will wait for me. I don’t know if he felt bad for leaving me alone in that remote place, or if he was worried because I was a foreigner and a woman. Maybe he was just curious. What I do know is that I was as moved as relieved by his decision.
I put on my raincoat and I attach the poncho’s hood on my head. It doesn’t rain as much anymore, but it’s dark and very windy. The driver gets out of the taxi, put his hand in his pocket to get a pack of cigarettes. I vanish from his sight. I go down a path to the right that leads me to the beach. There are some trees, a path and the ocean, which is fierce. A stock of wood. Rocks, scattered all over, as if someone had chosen where to place them, randomly. Far behind, a few wind turbines in action. Not many photo opportunities in sight. I go back to the car and I see him. His back is against the taxi, while smoking he’s gazing at the horizon. He’s lost in his thoughts. I imagine that he is wondering what is my interest in taking photos in such an uninteresting place. I feel he needs an explanation. I walk towards him. In my basic Chinese I try to explain my project on the antipodes. I’m surprised, he seems to get it right away. Either the guy is very sharp, or my Chinese is extraordinary. Or he tells me he understands so I don’t feel bad. But I do notice that his face lights up. He gets excited to help me with my project. Peng Ji Cai (彭及彩), my new friend, feels like he is James Bond. From now on, he lets me take my photos and when he sees that I go far from him, he gets in the car and follows me closely in case I need anything.
I walk across a park. I’m the only human being in it. I keep walking and see a Buddhist temple with hardly any people. Strange, off-key sounds come out of rusty loudspeakers. The indistinguishable sound could be of a woman singing. Or trying to sing. I follow the direction where that sort of music comes from and I reach a primitive karaoke restaurant with no walls, a roof, a few tables and three people looking at the song menu. They try to show interest to the woman who perseveres in singing on the small stage that seems improvised but that isn’t. Next to the performer there is a useless fan. It is unplugged. The singer sees me enter. I photograph her. She is still singing the same song.
Outside, Peng Ji Cai is waiting for me. He’s smoking another cigarette. He suggests taking me to other temples and points of interest. Those places are not part of my project but I accept just to make him happy. After seeing the temples he takes me back to the train station where we have met a few hours earlier. The taximeter shows that I owe him 750 Taiwanese dollars. I leave him a good tip. We say goodbye to each other with a smile on our faces and a hint of sadness. He will have a lot to tell his family at the end of the day. However, certainly not as much as I do.
November 18, 2017
Heartfelt thanks to:
Ñeca, for sharing her story. To Father Jimmy, for giving me her contact. To Peng Ji Cai, for driving me around and for taking care of me.
To Alfre, for reading my Spanish versions.
In memory of Alf, my biggest and irreplaceable fan.