This afternoon, Carlos taught me how to tie up a horse’s tail using hair and spit alone. Mateo stood back, hands on hips, and admired the result.
“Re campero!” he says, “Now that’s country!”
He used the same word when he admired Carlos’s knife, when he refused to change his espadrilles for riding boots, and when came back from town with a new leather strap immaculately crafted from cow-gut leather (cuero) plaited in the round. Re campero. The strap was for his necklace, which sports the emblem of his football team.
Most campero of all, of course, is practicality, simplicity, and humility, both in objects and in actions. That’s the real difference between the two sets of horses that roam the estancia, and the two groups of people that care for them. The first set is Carlos, Mateo, and I, who work in an elegant stable yard, looking after the trekking horses, and taking tourists riding. There's a vase of flowers in the tack room. Huge photographs of handsome horses hang on the walls, for sale. The great poets of folklore music, whose words echo around the stable yard every afternoon, never sang about tourism, but this is what ‘working with horses’ means today, and elements of the campero do remain. Spreading animal-fat on the reins, then scraping it off between two planks of wood is the best way to care for the cuero, so that’s what we do. Carlos’ sombero keeps off the sun, his boots protect his legs, and the knife that lives in his belt gets used almost every day. Our work may be untraditional, but the traditional is essential to our work.
The second set of horses is the polo ponies. The grooms are three guys in their 20s, mad about surfing and even more mad about polo. When the surf-cowboys greeted me this afternoon, ready to tack up and train the horses, all three were wearing board shorts with their riding boots, topped off with a baseball-cap, a sombrero, and a floppy fishing hat. I giggled, and Capataz shrugged. “What?” he said, “It’s hot.” The aesthetic may not be old-school campero, but the philosophy is.
There’s no heating in the shipping container where the grooms live, and the stove’s not great either. Nobody complains because we love the alternative. In the evenings, after we’ve unpacked the saddles from the pick-up, fed the horses, and let them loose for the night, we sit around a campfire with a beer and a guitar, singing folklore and old cowboy tunes. We’re all wearing bombachas rather than Levi’s, but all the same, singing Country music doesn’t feel so silly when your trousers really are faded by the sun and ripped through working. Once the usual repertoire runs out, Bautista starts to play a simple riff, and Santi treats us all to a payada. It’s an improvised story-song, a cornerstone of folklore; half-sung, half-spoken, and always punctuated by shrieks of laughter from the rest of us. The Greats sang payadas about beautiful fat cows, and wise eagles. Santi takes the piss of the tiny fish Capataz caught, or the fantastic fall Rafa took in today’s polo.
One day, it was just Carlos, Mateo, and I sitting by the fire while we waited for the lamb to cook, and for the others to arrive. Mateo had some folklore on Spotify, and they were both talking me through the importance of the lyrics, line by line.
Once, watching the bugs in the countryside,
I noticed that the butterflies and the bees
Don’t choose the prettiest flowers
To stop and sit upon.
From them I learnt that the beautiful is what’s inside.
It was that night that Carlos looked me solemnly in the eye and handed me a well-thumbed copy of La Biblia Gaucha, ‘The Cowboy Bible’. The pale yellow cover shows only the silhouette of a man in a sombrero, pouring maté tea. That man on the cover, pouring the maté, he’s still with us. He told the stories, he’s in the stories, and he’s still reading the stories; handing them to English girls with a growing love for el campero.
The Matron’s Birthday (El Santo de “La Vieja”)
from La Biblia Gaucha, Javier de Viana (1925), trans. by Alice Whaley
Primroses reign. The sky, heavenly blue and fluted with gold, caresses the green countryside with her lustrous warmth, whilst constellations of colourful little flowers tumble over the prairie.
The birds, in festive spirit, have abandoned the humid twilit forest. They throw themselves across the placid air in wayward rings, drunk on light and scent.
And once again, Love - the root of life, a tender seed - emerges from the fertile belly of mother earth, from inexhaustible youth.
The great nest of the ovenbird sits at the ranch of Don Servando. The colour of the house’s walls disappears beneath the rich foliage of the wild Parietaria trees, between whose branches the bumble-bees buzz, the butterflies flutter, and the tireless hummingbirds perform their acrobatics. The sparrows chase each other, screech, jump, and fly, feeling so at-home that they invite themselves inside, sometimes brushing their wings across the strings of a guitar, testing fleeting harmonies which chime like the teasing laughter of happy children.
“Come, my love. Let’s show these lads how we danced the Pericón when we were colts and fillies, when the unbroken horses grazed in the yard, and, leaning against a wall nearby, our fathers’ spears awaited the dawn, when they would join their comrades and die for their homeland. Let the musicians play!”
And, just as the earth keeps in her bosom the seed of interminable springs, the old couple stripped off the dark cloak of more than a half-century of life and struggle, and put on the lights and the colours, the grace and the energy, and the tender perfume of the white flowers that filled their wedding day.
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