“My wallet is stuffed with poor people’s change”. That is how I started the description in my journal of our first round of plum selling. Two days after the night of aguardiente and plum juice, we went to the barrio to sell plums with Maud. The prior day we had tried selling to tourists. We jacked up the prices and drove around town in Maud’s half-bed pickup truck. Even jacked up, the price was only about $2-3 per kilo, but tourists are offered things in bags every few minutes and I think we all learn to tune out the cries of hawkers. Besides, it was hot and our boss was fickle. We left a location after five minutes if we didn’t make a sale.
So Tuesday we tried the modelos (modules), rows of one-room homes built of cinderblocks and cement, rising out of the rocky feet of the mountains that loom over Cafayate’s valley. Maud told us that these tiny structures (maybe 12’ x 8’? That might be generous) were built to accommodate the overflow population from the town. “People born here think they have a right to live in Cafayate,” she had explained when we heard someone squawking on the radio about foreigners taking over the town, “but they can’t afford the rent and there is no space”.
“Where did all of these people live before the modelos were built?” I asked. The buildings were new, many still sat empty.
“With their parents.”
The government’s solution to the bursting homes of Cafayate’s abuelos stretched in front of us in straight rows overlooking the bowl of the town like seats in a giant amphitheater. In the book I’m savoring right now (I only brought one) the narrator says something about poverty in a beautiful setting not feeling quite as poor. These tiny homes have one of the most breathtaking views of the piercing red mountains and green valley below that I have ever seen.
On the outside they look identical, but of course they are not. They have potted plants cascading from the window sills, shade structures lashed on to expand the floorplans, curtains in the windows, piles of firewood, or extra bricks outside. Some have just one dusty child on their stoops while others have four or five. We rumbled up in Maud’s truck and parked at the end of a row. She took 3 half-kilo bags in each hand and ambled down the block shouting “hay ciruelas! Cinco pesos una bolsita!” When you hawk something in Spanish you don’t say “plums for sale” or “we’ve got plums!” you simply announce “there are plums!”
At the first stop we tried to divide and conquer. Danny and I imitated Maud’s cry, but apparently not very well. We were received like aliens. Some people asked us a second and third time what we were selling, unable or unwilling to decipher our accents. Some smiled and nodded. Others looked away. What were we doing there, shouting unintelligibly while holding bags of bright ripe fruit? Maud made her rounds, then returned to move the truck. This time we stayed behind to weigh and fill the bags, still loosing our cry when someone happened to pass but otherwise staying silent, attempting to be unobtrusive while we stood out—white in a white truck on a brown landscape. We made some sales. One boy bought four bags and I had to give him change from my own money, then collect scraps of cash from other sales until I made back what I had given him.
When we were almost out of ciruelas Maud stopped the truck way up at the top row of modelos. At the head of the street, three kids sat outside their house. “Hay ciruelas” crowed Maud. A three-ish year old bundle of pink scurried over and gripped the bag in Maud’s hand. “They cost five pesos,” Maud explained, “go ask you mama for some money.” As commanded, the pink girl pumped her tiny legs towards the house yelling for mamita. Maud waited a few minutes, then turned to continue down the street.
Suddenly all three kids came running, the oldest waving a bill. He was maybe ten or eleven and he handed his five pesos over to Maud. A smaller, shirtless boy grabbed a bag. Maud moved on, but we had nowhere to go and watched the drama over the purchase unfold. The boy holding the bag wouldn’t give his sister a plum. She started crying. Another older guy (a teenaged brother perhaps? An uncle?) chased down the plums. Everyone disappeared into the house. The little sister’s cries stopped, and were replaced soon after by others coming from inside. The girl emerged sucking a plum. So did the teenager and the ten year old. Then the shirtless kid, sniffling, waddled out holding his ear. No plum.
We, or I should really say Maud, sold all but one bag. Five pesos a bag (10 per kilo total) is a much better price than the 15p/kilo charged at the grocery store, of which Maud only gets 7 or 8. I like to imagine that some evenings were made by the sweet juicy treats in addition to the one that may have been ruined for the little shirtless boy. In reality, I have no idea what goes on inside the modelos. I only saw hints outside. A manhole suggests toilets and sewage. A woman scooping water out of a giant plastic cistern suggests no running water. A lot of kids and puppies.
I wonder what they saw. A woman who could pass for Argentine but for her Dutch tinged accent, holding plums in the air. Two white kids leaning against a tailgate looking curious, or uncomfortable, or uncomprehending, or tired, or just squinting into the distance trying not to stare but wanting to.