Updated: Apr 15, 2020
Uruguay is the kind of place where you’ll find a frog in the shower and a firefly in your wine. It’s a rustic kind of magic that makes the fields shimmer with silver grasshoppers.
A great deal has happened since I last put pen to paper, with moving and shaking going on both inside and out. I’ve moved from El Rincon Polo Club to the Estancia Vik, and over the last month my once-brown cowboy hat has been bleached a dusty green by the South American sun. The fox cub ate holes in my pyjamas, I learnt to milk a cow, I’m growing to love maté tea, and my accent is getting more Uruguayan by the day. This evening I took a Spanish guest for a ride around the Estancia and found myself calling her ‘vos’ instead of ‘tu’, an expression that doesn’t exist in Castellano Spanish. She looked a trifle confused when I said I lived in Andalucía.
Oddly, most of the Europeans and Americans who visit the Estancia aren’t terribly surprised to find a British girl leading their ride through the countryside. I suppose the reasoning is that if they made their way to this corner of the world, why shouldn’t I have done the same? It’s the Uruguayans and Argentinians that are most baffled by my roundabout journey to Maldonado. To them, it looks as if I had the whole world to choose from, and I chose here. “Don’t get me wrong,” they say, “Uruguay’s the most beautiful country in the world, but why here?” Well, it all started with a beer, 1,500 miles away, looking over Lake Futalaufque in Patagonia. There I met a man whose brother was looking for workers. That same brother just happened to be neighbours with El Rincon Polo Club, where I’d be starting work the next week. And so, here I am for the high season; carried here by beer, fate, and a love of horses.
The love of horses runs all the way from the surface to the core, here in Uruguay. Horsemanship is at once everything and nothing. It’s so essential to culture, life and livelihood that it’s overlooked, like water. That is, horsemanship is overlooked by everyone except those who spend their Sunday evenings sitting around a campfire in the field, exchanging stories, songs, and jokes, and ordering new bridle-parts on amazon from Mexico. Evenings with the polo grooms, the petiseros, are always like that. Every third sentence is a comment on that pingo or that flete (good horses) another groom was training that day, but “did you see the chestnut? Oh che – dude – what a zoco you’ve got there. That’s a bad horse.”
The three polo grooms, Santi, Raffa, and Capataz, all live in a metal shipping container (with Santi’s dog), down in the field with the polo ponies. The container’s full of disused saddles and spurs, there’s a snapped-off wing mirror hanging from a piece of bailer-twine above the bathroom sink, and the fridge has to be propped shut by pushing a broom handle under a nail in the door. It’s easily my favourite place on the estancia. I said as much to Santi as he turned over the half-lamb that was sizzling over the fire. He chuckled through his gap-toothed smile, “La vida pura. What more do you need?” A horse gently snorted its agreement in the darkness, and then there was silence as we watched the sparks fly and fade into the night.
I’ve along way to go before I speak the petiseros’ language when it comes to polo, pingos and fletes, but la vida pura is something I’m coming to understand.
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