April 14, 2005

Argentina: A gaucho's gift

When we arrived at the Estancia Santa Susana in Los Cardales, some 70 kilometers along the Pan-American Highway from elegant, pulsing Buenos Aires, the ranch’s gauchos were busy. Not riding or roping, but tending to the chicken, fat sausages and huge slabs of beef that lay dripping and sizzling on a flaming, twenty-foot outdoor grill. The smoke from the asado, Argentina’s signature barbecue, smelled rich enough to cut and eat. Servers balancing trays of robust Argentine red wine weaved among the tourists who’d come here to the Pampas, the dry, nearly treeless grassy plain that hosts Argentina’s cowboys and cattle industry, for an afternoon of food, folklore and horsemanship.

Mike passed on the wine because he had a date with a horse. I’ve been thrown and stepped over in Arkansas and taken straight into a thicket of thorny bushes in Belize, so I’ve sworn off horses completely. But they are Dana’s consuming passion, so when we travel and she wants to ride, Mike assumes the role of mounted escort (leaving me to enjoy more wine).

A small group of gauchos led Dana, Mike and about 30 others on an easy amble across the estancia’s flat, dusty reaches, and I could see Dana’s smile as she loped along in the saddle, talking to her horse, Clarita, and stroking her neck. When the ride was over, Dana stood at the fence and watched Clarita trot past with other guests on her back.

The asado done to perfection, we were called to lunch. Rows of long tables filled the dining pavilion, and a small stage rose in the center. We enjoyed a folklore show and swayed to exquisite tango performed by some of the same dancers we’d seen the night before in Buenos Aires’ famed restaurant-theater, El Viejo Almacen.

A grinning bear of a man in leather boots and chaps, brimmed hat, vest, bolo and blowsy shirt appeared next to Dana. He held a tray next to my semi-vegetarian’s little face, pointed to it and said, “Blood sausage!” The only thing that kept my plant-eater from recoiling in horror and trying to hide her head in the nearest salad bowl (a rare commodity in this country of beefeaters) was the knowledge that she was being addressed by none other than Cirilo, who, it had been whispered from the moment we’d entered the property, was “one of the most famous gauchos in Argentina!”

We passed on the blood sausage but shared, in Spanglish, Dana’s love of everything horse. We pulled out the Polaroid photo of Dana atop Clarita that someone had given us, and Cirilo signed it with his name and the horse’s. The Argentine cowboy took Dana’s hand, pressed it warmly, then resumed serving blood sausage to the table’s other diners. He came to Mike, and I watched my husband fork a chunk of Cirilo’s chorizo onto his plate, point to Dana, and whisper something into the great gaucho’s ear. Then glances, nods, a handshake. A favor asked and entertained.

After lunch and tango, we went outside for the day’s highlight, a presentation of gaucho horsemanship. Both graceful and gritty, it was a vibrant, thrilling spectacle. The gauchos turned galloping horses into art, herding them in groups according to their color. From a stand of trees, they’d run a herd of bays before us, then duns, then grays, in forceful, fluid circles. Like the tango dancers who’d left us breathless, the horses moved with intense but supple power.

The day’s final event was a contest among the cowboys. High speed rodeo, Argentina-style. Silver rings hung from the center of a wooden arch placed just on the gaucho side of the rail fence separating cowboys from spectators. As each gaucho approached the arch in a full-tilt gallop, he’d throw the reins into one hand and, with the other, reach up and grasp for a silver ring. Many failed, but enough succeeded to make it a heady contest.

Cirilo charged toward the arch, eyes set, jaw fixed. He reached up and snared himself a silver ring.

After the show, most of the gauchos dusted themselves off and focused their energy on tending to the horses who’d performed so brilliantly. Cirilo came looking for Dana. When he found her, he pressed the silver ring into her hand.