I left the train at San Antonio de los Cobres. It was a bleak town enlivened by an occasional ponchoed figure hurrying down an alley, green or blue paint daubed on the odd door, the click of billiard balls in a seedy bar. As dusk fell, a bright sun foreshortened the streets, compressing them into a two-dimensional film set. The freight train to the Chilean border climbed out of the wind-scoured basin of San Antonio and dragged its notched shadow into the dusty mountains.
With time on my hands I went to an evening film show organized by San Antonio’s nuns. The church hall was full of boisterous children and smoking adolescents. Expectant six-year-olds sat in the front row. The projector stuttered, the lamp flashed, fugitive images crossed the wall, and the film snapped. The audience catcalled, the projectionist fiddled with spools, and the film began again. The storyline was simple enough. A group of American martial arts experts had entered Afghanistan to harass the Soviet occupiers. Stern and muscular, they wore headbands and were invisible to enemy fire. When the Russian body-count reached two dozen, I left. The film had been running for ten minutes.
The next day I went to the convent. My knocking precipitated deep-throated barking and clawing at the door. A woman’s voice soothed the beast. Bolts were drawn back and a young nun stood in the doorway. She asked me in and led the Alsatian into a sunflowered yard. Pope John Paul II waved from the wall against a backdrop of the Inca city of Machu Picchu. The inscription read: “God alone suffices.”
Another nun appeared and unfolded a large map. She swept her hand over the unmarked expanses and said: ‘Where the asphalt ends, they say, there begin our labours. We are called the “Missionaries of Jesus the Word and the Victim.”’ The nuns carry religious and secular teachings into the mountains. They baptise, wed and bury. They are counsellors, carers, midwives.
‘What brings you here?’ asked the nun.
Why, I wanted to know, was machine-gun slaughter being projected all over the wall of the church hall? In front of six-year-olds. Surely it was unsuitable? I was surprised to find myself meddling. I had become a busybody. The nuns, it turned out, organized the shows but let the older boys in town select the films. In future, the nun assured me, more care would be taken.
Uncertain whether I had righted a wrong or was a killjoy, I walked back through town. Along one street a chalked board advertised a private video show. Another war had come to San Antonio. This time it was Vietnam.
Extracted from David Marsh’s excellent new travel book ‘Last Tango in Buenos Aires‘, also available on Amazon.
Copyright © 2016 David Marsh