In which we stumble into a small town rodeo and head-butt a cow…
Juan is nervous. Though his dad is with him, this is his first time. As he hands his soft broad brimmed chupalla hat to his sister and puts on the helmeted version he conspicuously makes the sign of the cross before him.
He is feet from me and I can see he is feeling the pressure from the crowd. He hopes he and his horse can give a good account of the days and days of practice. His friends and family expect, he is following in a long line of huaso tradition, he wears the same colours as his dad, red and blue broad stripes across his poncho, the same as his father and his father’s father
The large swing gate creaks shut and there is a moment of hanging silence as we all take a breath in.
The cattle gate opens and the calf rushes out. Juan digs his heels and espuelas in, feels the acceleration of his horse push him to the back of the saddle as he gives chase. He shouts in what he hopes is his most manly voice and pulls his steed close to the quarry, learning forward to keep control.
His father takes the more challenging inside line as they corral the push the steer round the inner laps of the medialuna. Then out. Out at pace. inches from the railings as they harry the bullock the full length of the outer ring. Galloping now across the view of riders assembled from the area, seasoned and novice alike, waiting their turn in the outfield, all watching, evaluating, scrutinising. And drinking. Obviously.
His father reins tightly to cut the animal off marking the end of the lap. But he’s pulled too close, his horse has mounted the ducking cow from the side, struggles to keep its footing and tramples the beast beneath him awkwardly.
An ‘ooh’ from the crowd.
This means lost points and respect. Juan contains his frustration but his sullen look cannot hide his disappointment. Meanwhile the striken beast is cajoled to stand, pulled by nose and tail, kicked and slapped until upright. Juan and his father quietly usher the dazed animal to the side gate and return the centre of the ring with the other gauchos. Better luck next time.
Small town fairs, parades and fates all have a common theme. The coming together of people to indulge in community. Here in Northern Patagonia things are no different. The riders stroll from horse box to horse box, greeting old friends and catching up. There is an asado (spit roast) and the omnipresent empanada stand, flags are waving, and the empty bottles of red wine are already becoming a health and safety nightmare. The fire brigade have rolled their wagon down and the kids are running off the sweets and pop they’ve consumed. I see ‘yellow shirt’ of ‘salmon in a bin liner’ fame. Give him the universal global male greeting of a nod, and he affably returns the gesture, points at the proceedings in front of him and gives the thumbs up. Which slightly spills his beer. We smile and turn our attention to the next pair of riders as the gate clatters open once more.
Me, well I’m getting sun burnt, and head butted by desperate cows trying to leave the ring, as it happens. As I am fond of saying, “I do these things so you don’t have to” I got the photo, and added to the day’s entertainment, no doubt.
By the time we leave, much of the riding has finished and the serious business of actually getting properly drunk is starting. In the tin hall the long tables of filling up with empties, the volume is rising, the the feats and deeds of heroism are already, no doubt, greater then they were just an hour before.