Sunday, 8 January 2017

El Sargento

Cesar makes an entrance every time he arrives at la finca. Pausing in his stride a moment, he raises both his arms high above his head, looks around and grins broadly as if basking in the applause of an expectant crowd. "Estoy aquí," (I'm here). He's been working at la finca most days this week, and regularity certainly hasn't diminished his style. If anything, his appearance each day has become every day more grandiose.

Cesar is one of the chagras (Ecuadorean horsemen) who regularly joins the team at la finca to help prepare for the six-day trail rides - a monumental task that involves packing enough food, equipment and first aid to see 12 horses and ten riders through six days of adventure and all four seasons. I had been nervous about working with him - warned he would cut corners and slack off - but I needn't have worried. The first thing he said to me was "Yo trabajo, tu descanses," (I work so you can rest), and he has remained true to his word.

Small and round-faced, with a broad smile and a cheeky twinkle in his eye, Cesar is hard-working, efficient and cheerful. No matter how much work there is to get through, he remains implacably calm and relaxed. "Tranquila señorita", has become his catchphrase, repeated every time I try to plan ahead. It turns out he has been working these trail rides for over eight years, and so is well-versed in the extraordinary amount of paraphernalia involved. He certainly looks the part. At home, he wears jeans and a gillet, but when riding, he dons full-length, fur-fronted leather chaps, a thick, red and white woollen poncho and a broad-rimmed hat.

Yet this is just one of his jobs. At home, he has ten horses of his own that he uses to take Ecuadorean tourists on trail rides. He also milks his own cows every day and looks after the bulls at the local hacienda. Unbelievably, this is meant to be his retirement. Prior to all this, he spent 18 years in the Ecuadorean army - perhaps that explains why he can work such long hours and still be smiling. He also credits the army with his domestic skills. He always insists on doing the washing up and, if given half a chance, will light the fire in my bedroom to make sure I'm "calentita" (warm). Is it any wonder that after a day working with him I began to salute him as "El Sargento"?

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Cesar is just one of the lovely local Ecuadoreans I have been lucky enough to meet. There's also Clemencia, who lives at the top of la finca and is full of smiles whenever we pass. For a dollar, she'll milk her cow and hand you over a bucket of fresh milk - something I'm yet to acquire a taste for. When she heard my housemate was ill, her whole family appeared on our doorstep armed with a little bottle of decongestant drops. I'm not sure that sort of neighbourly concern survives in London!

And then there's Kevin, the 17-year-old lorry driver. He manoeuvres the truck with the calm confidence of an old hand, and simply chuckled when he told me he's too young to have a driving licence. And there's Viktor, the happy-go-lucky chofer who gave up his lunch break to help me shift weighty water pipes and then drove me to town for groceries.

The charm, wit, concern and kindness of locals like Clemencia, Kevin and Victor - not to mention El Sargento - has been a highlight of my few weeks in Pesillo, Ecuador. Soon to be moving on, I only hope to meet similarly good-natured locals at my next stop.

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