El Gauchito Gil

One of the first things that got my attention on the roads of Argentina was the profusion of little shrines surrounded by offerings and decorated with red flags that can be spotted in most provinces I’ve visited. They are usually under trees but not restricted to that (especially where there’s no such thing as trees).


A roadside shrine to the Gauchito Gil
A roadside shrine to the Gauchito Gil
There isn’t nearly as many as there are roadside wats in Thailand but there is enough to be noticed.

I knew somehow that this was not a Christian thing, there’s always been little shrines dedicated to Virgin Mary of Luján along the roads of Argentina but this felt different. Only after a while my subconscious finally made the link and I realised they were shrines dedicated to the Gauchito Gil. But who is this and why is it everywhere? The devotion to Gauchito Gil is a heathen devotion that originates in Northeastern Argentina, in the province of Corrientes, and is apparently propagated by truck drivers. He is said to work miracles.

The legend has it that the gaucho Antonio Gil, an adorer of San La Muerte (another pagan devotion), had a romance with a rich widow and that earned him the hatred of her brothers and of a police sheriff that had courted her. Seeing the danger to his life, he enlisted himself to fight in the Paraguayan war. After coming back, he was enlisted by the Autonomist Party of the province of Corrientes to fight in the provincial civil war against the Liberal Party but he defected. Defection being punishable by death, he was hanged from a tree by his foot and his throat slit. Before dying, he told his executioner that he should pray in his name for his son’s health. The executioner’s son healed miraculously and so he decided to give Gil proper burial. The red flags are the symbol of the Autonomist Party.

There is other versions of the story and more on San La Muerte in wikipedia in Spanish and in English. Some of the versions even omit the bit about San La Muerte and make him a Christian, thus trying to make him into a Catholic saint. The Catholic Church obviously wants nothing to do with it.

It’s one of those things you only notice if you are riding the roads instead of sitting inside a bus.

Roadside shrine
Roadside shrine


Today is a sad day. Today, on my way from El Calafate to the Chilean border, I ran over a sheep. Today I want to tell the story of Miorița. I didn’t kill the sheep, but I must have hurt it pretty badly because it was shaking and tried frantically to limp away from me when I approached her on foot.

The tale of Miorița was related to me in Samarqand, Uzbekistan by a group of shady-looking Romanians who were running the Mongol Rally, their team was called Free Miorița. The views about Romania in this article reflect what they tried to convey with this tale. As far as I remember anyway.

Miorița was a sheep. She was very fond of her shepherd and when she heard that two other shepherds, envious, were plotting to kill him in order to steal his herd, she went straight to him and told him about the danger to his life. Despaired, the shepherd asked Miorița that, should the worst befall him, she should make sure that he gets proper burial and never tell that he was murdered.

The actual poem is much longer and has other nuances but the point is that this tale symbolises the conformism and tragic mood of the Romanian people. Their aim as a team, and in their lives was to fight against this and debunk the myth of Miorița as a foundational story for the Romanians. I wish them good luck.

On my bike I have two stickers that they gave me and the other day I was about to cover one with another sticker. Maybe now I won’t. I have been meaning to write about this story for a very long time but somehow I couldn’t fit it anywhere. Now seems to be as good a moment as any.


Of course the sheep I ran over has nothing to do with Miorița but I felt sorry for it as I felt sorry for the shepherd when I heard the tale for the first time.

The bike didn’t suffer any damage as far as I can tell but I did get a hell of a scare. After hitting it, I lost control of the bike for about 20 meters. I didn’t think at any moment that I would come off, though.

By the way, sheep are not usually that stupid. Most sheep run away from the road when they see you coming. This particular flock was having a cow day and decided to cross the road when they saw me coming at 100kph.

Unveiling the truth

You know, in all the movies about Indochina, at nap time when it’s hottest there is always a room with a ceiling fan.

A ceiling fan

The fan is always moving at an impossibly slow speed that can never cool any room in that heat. There’s usually also a bed in the room and possibly a couple making love.

Those scenes are all fake, I tell you. All of them. I’ve been in South East Asia around 2 months so far and I’ve spent one full month it what used to be called Indochina and maybe it is hot and maybe there are small rooms in wooden shacks with blinds and a view to the street and maybe also couples do make love when it’s hottest outside but never in all this time did I see such a contraption. Never. Ever. They all look like this:

A real Indochinese ceiling fan
The truth is out.

Death in Samarkand

There was a rich merchant, who after having been out travelling with his caravan for some time, reached the outskirts of a town. The evening was late, but he needed a few things so he sent his best servant to the market. At the market the servant happened to meet Death. It was easy to recognize the sinister face of Death, they were no more than ten meters away from each other. Death saw the servant and raised his hand. The servant instantly became terrified and fled head over heels to his master without having bought anything at all.

Back at the merchant’s tent the terrified servant told his master whom he had met at the market. The merchant immediately gave the servant one of his fastest horses and told him to ride the whole night without stopping and by dawn he would be safe in Samarkand. The servant rode as fast as the horse could carry him. That night it was only him, the horse and the glistening stars.

Early the next morning the merchant went to the market and also he happened to meet Death. The merchant, who was annoyed instead of being afraid, went straight up to Death asking what he ment by threatening his best servant. Death calmly replied « I wasn’t threatening him, I was merely greeting him. But I must say I was very surprised to see him here since I have a meeting with him in Samarkand tonight ».

My mother told me this story when I was a kid and since then the name Samarkand has been in my mind associated to this story. Finally going to Samarkand has for me a great symbolic value because it is related to this story and to my childhood. I know there will be nothing related to this story in the city but just being there is enough. My brothers know what I’m talking about.

With this bit of personal history in my mind, I set off on my way to Samarkand.

The Burqa

Nasreddin on his donkey
A statue for Nasreddin in the center of Bukhara

Nasreddin Hodja’s first marriage was an arranged marriage, and in keeping with the custom of the time, he did not see his unveiled bride until the wedding ceremony. Unfortunately, she did not have an attractive face.

The next day when the bride was making preparations to go to market, she asked her husband, as was the custom, « Shall I wear my burqa? I do not wish to show my face to anyone against your wishes. »

Nasreddin answered, « Wear your burqa or leave it at home. It is all the same to me to whom you show your face in public. All I ask is that you keep your face covered when you are at home with me. »

Hodja Nasreddin Afandi is the beloved character of many stories and witty jokes around the Middle East and Turkey and even in Western China. Uzbeks believe he lived in Bukhara, a beautiful city along the silk road where wonderful people who tell his stories live.

You can find a couple more Nasreddin stories in his wikipedia page.