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!

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