Thursday, 20 November 2014

Emergency food supplies, a treacherous journey and a looming test of survival skills

I sat in the back next to the barrel-bellied puppy we had plucked from the municipal pound that morning. With floppy legs, a droopy tail, downy tufts of black fur and a distinctly doggy pong, she was ungainly but endearing, and within five minutes, had wriggled onto my lap, where she stayed for the duration of the three-hour drive. We were heading to an isolated outpost high in the steppes of Parque Nahuel Huapi known as Las Mellizas (The Twins), so called because of the two lakes just behind it, one leading to the Pacific and the other to the Atlantic. José, the gaucho living there, had phoned to advise he was knee-deep in snow and running low on food over a week ago, but treacherous conditions meant reaching him was impossible. Now on his last ration of potatos, we couldn't delay any longer.

To make the trip, we recruited part-time photographer Paulo Sanchez and his smooth-cruising Land Rover Discovery called Matilda, which we stacked with food crates, bales of hay, rolls of wire (to reinforce the buildings), a chainsaw (for firewood) and the puppy (for company).

The journey began in the foothills of the park on a dirt track with small plots of fenced off land to one side - a few huts, a handful of animals and locals that waved in greeting as we passed, one round-faced with a thick neck and just two front teeth, another gruff and crinkled with scraggly grey hair. As we left them behind, the road soon deteriorated to a vaguely distinguishable trail and the wilderness of the steppes took over. Paulo pulled up to fasten a Go-Pro to the windscreen, put on a CD of Millennium Classics and opened a family-size bag of biscuits. We were soon engulfed in the expansive hillside: earthy multicolours of light lime greens, fading beiges and turquoise tints; curvy, colourful rock formations that swelled out of the hillsides and sharp, jagged edges that protruded from sandy dunes; long grasses peppered with dandelions and half-submerged swamps. Paulo expertly traversed terrain I would have thought impassable: crumbling tracks eroded to steep diagonals, sinking, water-laden marshes and crevasse-like dips. Only once did he pull up to assess the obstacle ahead - a particularly fast-flowing river, bulging at its banks with the snow melt. However, he only hesitated for a moment, before plunging onwards. Water sloshing up at the windows, we cruised through the currents.

Around lunchtime, we arrived at Las Mellizas, a grassy clearing with just four small huts (only one of which is in use) and a wooden coral. Set back from a wide, shallow stream and surrounded by hills, it blended easily into the steppes, except for the two horses that were galloping up and down the wire fence. As we trundled through the gate, José came out to meet us. I don't know if it was because I expected someone gruff, hardened and slightly wild, but José surprised me. Slim with dark skin and a mop of black hair protruding from under his boina, he was wearing boots, baggy jeans and a blue jacket - not much given the biting mountain air. He smiled warmly, revealing a diagonally chipped front tooth, and invited us in to the main hut.

Stark and simple, with splodges of cement squashed into any cracks in the brickwork, the hut had a distinctly makeshift feel. An enormous open fireplace stretched almost the length of one wall, a stack of firewood piled up to one side and the mantelpiece scattered with an assortment of necessities - a bar of soap, a candle, a battery and jump leads, a knife sharpening stone, a fishing line and float wrapped around a 7Up bottle... A sports bag hung from a horseshoe above the firewood, the only visible personal belonging other than the radio, which was balanced in a plastic crate nailed to the wall, and the jackets hanging next to it. The bed, narrow with two threadbare blankets, flanked one wall, opposite a dining table and a large rectangular window looking out across the steppes towards the stream. Three handmade, knee-height stools were arranged in the centre of the room around a black, wood-fire oven with two big metal teapots on top, the chimney passing through a rough-hewn hole in the roof.

We unloaded the car and introduced the puppy to his new stomping ground, before a round of yerba mate was prepared and an enormous slab of meat rolled into a pan, doused with salt and put in the oven. As a vegetarian who feels the cold and works in the arts, I could not have felt more of a city softie next to these hardened Patagonians. While I resembled the Michelin Man, barely able to walk for layers of clothes, they rolled up their sleeves and took off their hats. The food seemed to take an age to cook and, while the Patagonians sucked on mate, I had to keep sneaking to the car to raid the family pack of biscuits. Then, while I nibbled on a slightly soggy spinach empanada, they sliced meat off enormous juicy joints straight into their mouths, the ferociously sharp blade of their knife flicking dangerously close to their tongues. The puppy on the other hand, rapidly adapted to his new surroundings; showing no sign of feeling the cold, he gnawed happily on the discarded bones.

José had arrived at Las Mellizas few weeks ago, charged with taking care of the land and ensuring no-one enters. The snow had at one point reached his horse's girth and, that morning, he had eaten his last ration of boiled potatoes. Even so, he had learnt the lay of the surrounding land, restored the hut in which he was living, and made a start on the others. Now with fresh supplies, he is to stay until December, when he has four days off to visit his daughter on her birthday. Over dessert (fruit), it was proposed that, in his absence, 'la gringita' (myself) could take charge. To me, the suggestion seemed so farcical I assumed it was a joke. When I realised that it was a serious proposal, I had to swallow my shock and nod enthusiastically, hunching over my mandarin to hide my horror. While not one to shy away from an adventure, I seriously doubt my survival skills would stand up to four days in arctic isolation, let alone my ability to 'take care of the land' and 'guard against trespassers'.

I have since discovered that Carol, my host, once spent 10 days living at Las Mellizas with her 20-day-old daughter. As such, should the opportunity arise, I will have a crack (albeit armed with a four-day supply of spinach empanadas and red wine). Needless to say, I have been watching recent asados and how to make a good fire with studied interest!

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Club, the Vet and the Borracho

There are two polo pitches, 40 plus horses, four grooms and a pack of ferociously affectionate dogs at Retiro Polo, a polo club frequented by local Argentines and tourists looking for a taste of authenticity. Even so, a sleepy, relaxed sort of vibe pervades. Apart from match days, when there is a flurry of activity, each groom quietly goes about his own business with his horses, fitting work around the comings and goings of tractor drivers, vets, delivery men, friends and family. In the six weeks I worked there, it fluctuated between bracing temperatures with torrential rain, and serious sunshine at 30° plus. Some afternoons I huddled over a glass of tea warming up with home-fried donuts, others I rode to the village for an ice-cream. And as time went by, I settled into my own vague routine - grooming the herd, riding my favourites, mucking out, rolling bandages and cleaning bridles - and got used to the ebb and flow of visitors.

Horatio, a local vet and farrier, was a regular. With a mop of grey hair, bushy, expressive eyebrows and a kind, friendly face, he has a scruffy sort of charm about him. He often arrived in time for lunch, armed with bottles of 7Up, fresh bread and biscuits. Once, he turned up three weeks running and each time presented a different girlfriend; "A boat in every port", he explained the week after. He took a no-nonsense approach to veterinary treatment: I watched him 'open-up' a small puncture wound to release the pus by repeatedly jabbing the cut with scissors, and heard in detail how he sows up mare's private parts to prevent damage to their ovaries when pulling up sharply on the polo pitch. Eeesh.

Another familiar face was Roberto el Borracho (Roberto the drunk). Weathered and wrinkled, his shabby, oversized clothes barely hide his skininess, but he thwarts all attempts at help by declaring: "Prefiero ser el borracho conocido que un alcolico anonimo!" (I'd rather be a well-known drunk than an anonymous alcoholic). Affable and friendly, albeit with a slightly dazed, dopey air, he greets everyone with a wave and a toothy grin; for me, it's always a few words of surprisingly comprehensible English. He lives, on the goodwill of the club owner, by the abandoned house adjacent to the Polo Club. Ironically, the crumbling building houses a farmyard of animals, while he lives in a makeshift hut outside. He scrapes a living by charging locals to graze their animals on the neighbouring field that, ironically, doesn't even belong to him. I am told he used to groom for polo games, recruiting a troop of boys from the local village and delegating duties. Now, polo days behind him, he appears at least twice weekly. Hunched somewhat precariously on top of his horse, a black mare that wears a shabby, brown jute rug whatever the weather, he always comes bearing a plastic bag of eggs to give to the club owner.

Having got to know the locals and the horses, I was sad to move on from Retiro Polo (despite my ineptitude on the pitch). Now in Bariloche, Argentina's chocolate capital nestled in the foothills of the Andes, I've swapped sun cream for thermals. Instead of working polo ponies and grooming for matches, I will be leading mountain rides with tourists in the mountains. Let's hope my navigation skills prove better than my hand-eye coordination on the polo pitch! I should have bought a GPS...

Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Gauchos

Fortin San Pedro: a small jineteada (buck 'n' bronco) with a big prize pot. The raffle alone warrants visiting, with prizes including a herd of 10 horses and a collection of young cows. It draws gauchos from across the province, bringing extended family and multiple herds, such that the number of horses more than triples that of spectators. The fair itself however, is quite understated. The arena is about half the size of a football pitch and surrounded by tiered benches. Handfuls of spectators cluster at the top under the shade, while early-birds have cordoned off ring-side seats in front and rigged up canvas coverings, equipped with picnic tables, deck chairs, a cool box and even a stove. Outside the arena, a selection of stands sell everything gaucho - an array of metals bits, leather halters, intricately designed bridles, fearsome whips and long-bladed knives - and an enormous grill, tended by a rosy-faced, barrel-bellied gaucho, sells meat by the kilo and 7Up by the litre.

The morning is devoted to the jineteada. A wild horse is blindfolded and tied chin-tight to a stake in the ground, a pommel cautiously fastened around its belly. A gaucho mounts, settling himself as securely as possible, and the horse is released. A frenzy of leaping, plunging and grunting ensues, the gaucho clinging on top and thwacking it with a whip to make it leap all the more. After eight seconds, a bell is rung and two teammates ride to the rescue, squashing the bronco between their horses and lifting its rider to safety. Sometimes the gaucho goes flying in the first second, other times, the horse crashes to the floor mid-jump, scrambles to its feet to leap again and the rider inexplicably remains in tact and on top. But, whether they are flung to the floor or crushed under the horse, the gauchos just get up, dust themselves off and walk away looking tough. Hard as nails.

Lunch follows the jineteada, the 'hour-long' break stretching to three to accommodate the 1kg portions of meat, a lengthy siesta and a round of yerba mate (the Argentine equivalent for tea). Action resumes at 5pm: the Enlazada (lassoing). Four gauchos stand primed at one end of the arena. Wearing heavy duty gloves, legs spread wide in a solid stance, hips rocking rhythmically in time to the rope, they work the lasso in broad circles with full arm movements above their head. Meanwhile, just outside the arena, a foal is corralled into a narrow corridor fashioned out of plastic sheets, which are smacked energetically by gauchos on the outside. The foal, frightened by the rustling walls surrounding it, and the crack of the whip from the gaucho behind, launches into the arena at a panicked gallop. The gauchos have approximately 30 metres to try and lasso it, and the foal needs to fall flat for it to class as a successful lasso - the more times the better in terms of points.

The first, a striking black foal with white socks, flew into the arena. Before it had gone 20 metres, it nosedived horribly into a violent somersault when a gaucho lassoed its front legs mid-gallop. Thankfully, it scrambled to its feet and retreated to nibble at the grass at the far end of the arena. A succession of over 40 foals went on to run the gauntlet past the gauchos: some somersaulted, some skidded, some hopped helplessly with their legs bound together before being pulled down. Very few escaped, and only one managed to tug itself free of the rope, dragging the gaucho some 50 metres before he suceeded. I tried to convince myself that all survived unharmed to happily join the growing herd at the other end of the arena, but sadly, many ended up with bloody rope burns on their knees and pronounced limps. Then, just before closing, one was lassoed around the neck and yanked awkwardly to the floor. There, it lay lifeless except for the spasms in its hind legs. Unceremoniously tied to the back of a truck, it was towed away and the enlazada continued without pause. Barbaric.

However, brutality aside, elements of the gaucho lifestyle are captivating, and seeing them altogether was a bit like stepping back in time to a mediaeval fair. All wear traditional clothes much like they wore in the 1800s, attire that is as practical now as it was 200 years ago: slip-on canvas shoes (alpargatas) or soft, leather boots; lightweight, baggy trouser (bombachos) gathered at the ankle and often tucked into socks; a brightly coloured, patterned cloth tied at the waist, a long-bladed knife tucked in at the back (for asados) and often a beaded keyring (for counting cattle) to one side; most wear a loose shirt, some with a waistcoat or a necktie, and nearly all wear the trademark 'boina' flatcap.

The closing parade was quite spectacular. It involved hundreds of gauchos (and their extended families) in all their finery: skinny ten-year-old boys, proud and confident astride their mounts; pot-bellied moustachioed men; tiny girls holding tightly to the boy in front, wearing brightly coloured floor-length dresses spread across the back of the horse; beautiful women with long curly hair flowing from under their boina; and toddlers barely able to sit up straight, flopping forwards onto their horse's shoulders. The horses were just as diverse. Some were chunky and muscular with their tails chopped short just below the dock, others flighty and wispy; browns, blacks, greys, palominos and a huge variety of patchy specimens, known somewhat disparagingly as 'manchados' ('stained'). The herd up for grabs in the raffle - young, stocky ponies streaked with black and white speckles - was also in the parade. They swirled around their 'mother mare', ridden by a portly gaucho, with a kind of desperate urgency, anxious to stay as close as possible. Another loose herd, a collection of miniature ponies, trotted in quick step behind a boy of no more than eight.

Wave upon wave of horses entered the arena, until it was almost at capacity. Then, as soon as the last rider entered, they all filed out again. Those not camping over the weekend set to the roads to ride home in the twilight. Driving back, we followed the long procession for the best part of three miles. Traffic pushed to the curbside and slowed to a walking pace, the gauchos travelled three or four abreast, some horses loose, some ridden, local villagers cheering and waving as they passed. Quite the spectacle!