It happened in Patagonia the week before, on our way to an estancia to ride horses. As the bus bumped along the unpaved highway, our tour guide Maria filled us in on the economic history of Argentina. She mentioned a name that I didn’t hear, and Ezekial, our local guide for the Bariloche area, cried out in dismay. “Maria!”
“It’s all right. I did this,” she said, pointing one finger to the floor.
Ezekial wasn’t convinced. “If something goes wrong, we’ll know why.” Maria had repeated the name of the man who led the country in the 1990s. It took years, and several different leaders, to right his wrongs, and now Argentinians will not repeat his name for fear of causing misfortune. Maria laughed about her nation’s superstitions, then continued telling us how “that guy” had dismantled a superior rail system and ruined their economy.
“Clunk!” The vehicle lurched. A wheel had locked; the bus was not drive-able. We gathered our belongings to walk the final two kilometers. The remainder of the afternoon was uneventful: ranchero horses were gentle, our ride pleasant, the barbequed lunch delicious. Still, Ezekial, and now also Maria, felt uneasy. Both knew that bad luck could, and would, follow us.
Back toward town, Maria and Ezekial pointed to a triangular patch of stony ground and the substitute driver in our replacement bus pulled off the road. Amongst scrubby bushes and weeds stood a small, mostly red, doghouse-looking structure. Flags and a trashy assortment of odds and ends littered this shrine to Gauchito Gil. Ezekial had bought a 500-milliliter can of Quilmes, the local beer, as an offering.
Maria explained the legend. Antonio Gil was a good person, a faith healer of sorts, who happened to love a woman that the sheriff also fancied. He served his military service but refused to report for a second round of duty. Instead, he hid and stole animals for food. Between the church, after him as a sacrilegious healer, and the military because he didn’t report, and the sheriff for a lot of reasons, the authorities caught up with him. At his execution, he pleaded to be buried properly. He said his executioner’s son was very sick, and would recover only if the father prayed to Gil. But Gil’s throat was slashed and he bled to death. When the executioner went home and saw his son deathly ill, he retrieved the body, burying it along with Gil’s blood-drenched shirt. The son lived and a legend was born.
This common man’s saint still works his wonders; true tales abound and roadside shrines multiply. One tour guide tells how he and a friend, on a lark as teenagers, drank a bottle of beer that had been left at a shrine. Bad luck ensued, of course, and stopped only when the young man returned with a six-pack. A visitor from North America built a shrine to Gil in the U.S. after his wife was cured of cancer; that shrine later survived a forest fire when all around it burned.
Who were we to question? We each poured a bit of the beer on the ground, and made a wish. Or said a prayer. Some crossed themselves like devout passengers whose plane just landed safely; others bowed as if offering incense at a Buddhist funeral. One of us left a chocolate wrapped in red. Later, I asked Maria to write the name of the bad leader, but she refused, saying only to take a plural of man and turn it into a palindrome. (Shhh, it’s Menem.)
Maria, haunted by her mistake and worried about the rough waters of the Drake, tried to buy St. Christopher stamps at Bariloche’s cathedral gift shop. Then she made a mistake––she also asked for stamps of Gauchito Gil. The church does not recognize Gil as a saint––maybe “does not recognize” understates the issue. At any rate, words were exchanged and Maria left the shop with no stamps to safeguard our trip.
Later, others in our group would say they had prayed at the shrine for a safe crossing, or a calm sea. I didn’t have specific expectations. I only closed my eyes and thought a simple wish: “I hope it’s all good.” And it was.