A Day in the Life of a Gaucho
“This is for you,” she said.
My traveling mate had me turn off Ruta 2 past a McDonald’s auto-mat and down a potholed asphalt two-laner that ran beside Lago Chascomús. We were over one hundred kilometres from Buenos Aires. It had rained earlier, and dark water blotches were still on the road, with moisture dripping off the tree leaves and puddles filling in the grassy plains beside us.
We came to the wet sign at the end of the road: “La Azotea, Hotel Boutique, Día de Campo.” This was the final destination. I didn’t know what was going on. A tourist-y boutique estancia wasn’t on my agenda. Working in Argentina as an English teacher had only led to disappointment, with a company that paid crap and bounced a teacher all over Buenos Aires for one-hour sessions. At that point, climbing a Patagonian glacier or even going to surfing school on a remote Uruguayan beach looked like the best form of escape. But my traveling mate booked the estancia trip, the rental car, and gave the orders to go. She was a native and the navigator.
It was good that she did. We left her home in La Plata mid-morning, stopped at the renowned Atalaya Café on the highway for their famous medialunas and coffee, and made it to Chascomús without incident. While the mosquitoes were out since the rain cleared, there was an air of some activity, and my guide kept everything a surprise. The parking attendant ushered us to a spot to leave the car and pointed us to the ticket booth. The estancia’s brick and concrete walls were all covered with vines and surrounding the dwellings were tall eucalyptus with falling bark. My companion came back with the bill and our agenda: a gaucho ride, and dinner and music in the main hall.
The estancia had a dock right on the shore of Lago Chascomús. There was a kayak beside it and my companion spoke to one of the attendants for us to take it out. Meanwhile, I saw a white llama on the green, and as I moved closer to look, it let out a big parabola spit towards me.
“I think he likes you,” my mate said.
Our kayak ride out into Lago Chascomús only lasted a few minutes. The wind came up and we didn’t want to get soaked, so we headed back to shore. There and then I noticed some other young attendants coming out from the horse barns. Their brown berets, red scarves, and tan work attire shot them back a century in time and my memory back to last month.
I mentioned to my traveling companion that I was taken with the stories of the gauchos, the old plainsmen of South America. She was surprised that I knew them. I had seen them in the famous Molina Campos caricatures, and I stupidly said they were like cowboys. She was sweet enough to get me a copy of Hernandez’s Martin Fierro in both English and Spanish to help me better understand the Argentine mythos. To illustrate the book, she sought to surprise me with me a trip to meet some real ones.
“Now we will put you on a horse,” she said.
The estancia kept their agenda according to what a real gaucho ranch would be. We didn’t get on the horse right away, instead we went on a wagon ride down the dirt road by the lake. Everything was green beside u,s and the two young men that conducted the ride were like leather, wood, and tanned cloth. We came to a turnaround and everyone got off the wagon, One young man detached the four horses and saddled them. It was now our turn to ride back solo. Gaucho-style.
I could count on my fingers the number of times I had ever been on a horse. The young man saw me on the saddle and then gave a click of tongue. The horse took off and bounced me up and down, back down the path. I tried to use words like “Woah!” to control it, but the horse was on autopilot at its own speed. I had to bounce right back to the estancia and come off as an incompetent tourist, whether I wanted to or not. When it stopped, I slid off with redder arse than when I started. My companion came behind me.
“Now, there. You are a real gaucho.”
Not really, but at least I got to fake it for one afternoon. Gaucho, or “gaucho” in Brazil. Outsiders thought they were all the same, but the natives in various spots of South America laid claim to different places. Argentines often flaunted the gaucho life and its traditions as their own, but there were others in Uruguay, Paraguay, and the southern states of Brazil that rejected the Argentines’ claim. They weren’t cowboys—six guns, dusters, and chaps were substituted for baggy pants, headscarves tucked under black hats, and bollas for snaring and running down animals.
They cooked their barbecue and drank their maté on the plains and settled their disputes with dagger fights. The gaucho museum on Avendia 18 de Julio in Montevideo revealed the slight differences in dress and customs. The difference between a real gaucho and a “paisano” or peasant, is the part of South America they were located. Whatever the difference, the whole tradition looked like something to participate in, even if by romantic proxy.
The main hall roast dinner and red wine later cured my embarrassment, and gaucho dance performed by young folks stomping on a wood floor kept us entertained. The extra bottle of wine made me say in an inebriated state that I could have made it as a gaucho.
“Que lindo,” she said, sniggering.