Piling branches and leaves into the wheelbarrow, sweating, my hands and clothes covered in dirt, I was unperturbed by the thought of spiders in my hair. It was then I realised how much I had changed while living abroad. The Elizabeth of five years ago, who had arachnophobia and hated gardening, was seemingly long gone.
I’m not entirely sure who the new me is. Still as dizzy and impractical as ever, I don’t think I qualify as a fully-fledged country mouse yet. My sense of direction isn't great. Faced with tasks such as checking bicycle tyres, working out how to flush an Argentine toilet from the inside or identifying a pitch fork over a rake, apparently remain out of my reach.
That said, I’m now confident herding cows, I can just about navigate my way around an Argentine field and my Spanish is… well still pretty bad actually.
Nonetheless, I have fallen in love with country life in Argentina. Which is why, when my time at Estancia La Margarita (The Daisy) came to an end this month, I felt sad. Driving into the city my stomach churned. I knew in my heart I wasn't ready to return to city life.
Luckily for me, the fates were on side. Somehow I have managed to find another estancia in a remote corner of Patagonia to embark on new horsey adventure. But before I move on, it seems only appropriate that I bare all (or most) about my first two months in this incredible Latin American country.
Romantic rides and stormy weather
Riding with my co-worker Taylor through the vast, flat fields, I would forget to look where I was going. While she was busy planning the route or counting cattle, I was either taking in the smell of mint infusing the air from the dark green patches of field beneath my horse’s feet, basking in the warm glow of the sunset and admiring the way it turned the longer grass a burnt-yellow, or trying to get a video of the adorable baby calves as they trotted playfully behind their mothers.
Alone was a different story. After a few over-excited canters, I’d suddenly stop and think: “Shit, I’m lost.” There was very little in the way of landmarks, with only a windmill or small group of trees in the distance. I would pray for a gate, which usually meant I was on the right track. Naturally as soon as I’d find one I’d curse about the never-ending number of gates that were a pain to open and close. "Nieve, please cooperate and stand still,” I’d cry to my fussy, white mare whom I was riding without a saddle (and thus would struggle to mount from the ground again if I got off). However, after a just few rides together, she turned out to be my angel, not only getting close to the gate but standing quietly and patiently as I leaned over her side, perilously close to the ground.
Logistical challenges aside, solo rides were absolutely amazing. They instilled me with confidence, brought me closer to the horses and satisfied my hunger for quiet time. Life on our farm was intense. I lived and worked with my colleagues and was often surrounded by noise and other people, so it felt good to be by myself. Though alone, it was actually romantic. The violet sky, the acid-green, corn plants standing tall along the roadside and the nearby river that gleamed as the sun went to bed, were humbling.
Of course I was never completely alone. Aside from Nieve, Picara or Mariposa (my favourite horses) I was almost always accompanied by Catchy, Taylor’s loyal Alsatian who refused to be left at home. As he ran happily alongside, I decided we were very much like Kevin Costner and Two Socks in Dances With Wolves (my number one film). I wonder what my Sioux name would be.
Adding to the sense of adventure was the extreme weather, from sizzling-hot, summer afternoons to a night so stormy the entire estancia rattled. Shutters and doors banged violently and woke the house, while my bedroom mirror also came crashing to the floor, leaving behind countless shards of glass. Not even the strongest typhoon I experienced in Hong Kong was as loud or frightening. (Incidentally, I came to learn that the Spanish word for storm is "la tormenta", which to me is not only apt, but again, so romantic).
Another evening, when I ventured out into the rain to catch a glimpse of menacing clouds and perhaps the biggest double rainbow I’d ever seen, I could hear the horses whinnying between each clap of thunder. I was once again left feeling like a small, insignificant human in a very big, beautiful world.
Animals, plants and small town life
When I wasn't riding or being bowled over by nature I juggled a range of fun farm duties, one of which was taking care of Cineza, a gorgeous, blue-grey cat who moved into the farm shortly after I arrived and quickly became my baby. I was of course also charged with caring for Peppita (the pig) and Francisco (our duck), through which I came to full appreciate those age-old expressions my mum used: “your bedroom is like a pig sty” and - when hosing down my web-footed friend - “like water off a duck’s back”. Despite his initial refusal to eat, Francisco did eventually accept corn, and over time Peppita most definitely came to see me as her friend, squealing with excitement and not-so-gently gnawing on my wellies as I tried to enter the pen. (I have no doubt it was cupboard love).
Other jobs included looking after the guests, cleaning rooms and generally maintaining the premises. By far the main challenges were attending to our sad-looking vegetable garden (which I was really not qualified to do) and attempting to cut back the fast-growing plants and weeds that monopolised space everywhere. I decided it was a simple case of woman verses nature, and I was doomed to lose. One day my friend Francisco advised I used heavy machinery. Watching me gave him and his male relatives a good laugh. Another day when taking a guest on a walk through “the monte” (our wood), Taylor and I alternated between hacking at the huge grass with a machete. As we barged our way through the thick vegetation with the sound of cows moaning in the distance, it felt rather like Jurassic Park. I had visions of a velociraptor jumping out at me any moment. Thankfully, at least on that day, we only saw birds.
It’s not surprising then that I maintained my figure rather well, given the physical exertion of farm life, and this made me happy. Lifting wood and furniture over to the main house for an asado, however, was tougher than I expected. Not only did Taylor prove to be significantly stronger than me (freakishly strong actually), but I, stupidly wearing shorts and open shoes, soon found myself at the mercy of the omnipresent thistles - so vicious they sometimes drew blood. No idea how the horses coped with them.
To relax, I’d do yoga in our studio above the barn. Taylor and I were also frequent visitors to a nearby horse trainer’s ranch, where we would have a couple of beers with the boys during the week, or on crazier nights, dance around chairs and teach them yoga. Even without being able to converse much, these evenings were among my happiest times in Tapalqué (our town).
In fact, it was at social events that I got a real taste of local culture. On an evening by the river when I joined a family for beers and a pre-packed dinner, I noticed a sense of community and appreciation of simple pleasures that was so different from city life, and reminded me of English towns in the 1980s and early 90s. Children played happily in the water and ran around the ankles of relaxed parents, all of whom seemed to know each other. No one fretted about their child being abducted or the lack of fancy restaurants - they were content sitting out on deck chairs, taking it all in.
Our lovely town of Tapalqué
Tapalqué, I quickly learned, was also a place steeped in tradition. Estancias were still fairly popular among city-dwellers eyeing a break from their hectic lives. The country houses and farms had a distinct smell of wood, and something else, (maybe history?) which I found intoxicating and comforting as I pondered all the possible events that had played out within the walls. At horse shows and parades, the all-male participants dressed in traditional gaucho attire (at least one man I knew dressed like this on a normal day), while a vegetarian sandwich was about as hard to come by in the Argentine campo as a rainy day in Dubai. Horses, I realised, were as ubiquitous in Argentina as cows were in England, so it was also very normal for most people (or at least men) to be good riders.
When not in formal clothing, the guys would often wear gaucho hats and dress in cowboy-style jeans with hunting knives poking out of the waistbands, which brought to mind another movie, Brokeback Mountain, and made me chuckle. (In fact, one particular guy I met had a distinct look of Jake Gyllenhaal, which soon became my nickname for him). For Christmas I actually got my own knife from my friend Francisco. It was one of the best presents ever!
Which reminds me... I have to make a confession. It pains me to admit that I was an accessory to murder. Not only was I present when Taylor collected a sheep to be killed for an asado, but it was me who drove the truck transporting the sheep to the ranch where we were having the party. However, I should also point out that this animal, I guess unlike those you’d buy in British supermarkets, was killed quickly and humanely and had a happy life up until its end. It felt natural, OK even, that the locals killed an animal in the afternoon to eat it later that night. I thought how much nicer it would be in England and the US if people thought more about where their meat was coming from.
Nevertheless, I stuck to salad.
A sad day
Another episode involving an animal was far more traumatising and occurred in my last week at the estancia. To me at least, it felt like a case of unnecessary suffering that could have been avoided, and upset me a lot.
My pig Peppita had been growing quickly, and supposedly as pigs get older they start to get restless. Additionally, we had recently set Francisco free in the nearby laguna (which I have to admit brought a tear to my eye as I watched him swim away and called out “Bye Francisco!”). Anyway, Peppita, now bigger and alone, decided she was bored in her pen and somehow managed to find a way out. For two days running, we laughed watching her trot around the field among the horses. My boss said she would secure the pen to keep all the animals safe.
But the following day, after I accidentally skidded/rolled our car off a rain-soaked country track, (which was pretty traumatic in itself though I came out without a scratch), I happened to hear the pig screaming. Assuming she was calling for food (as was a recent habit of hers), I didn’t rush out.
Sadly, I was wrong. As I headed towards the pen, food in hand, I heard my boss scream “No! No! No!” and realised, not only had Peppita escaped again, but she was being attacked by our dogs.
When we found her, she was badly injured and in shock. I felt sick and had no idea what to do. We got her to the vegetable garden where she collapsed in the shade. My boss left for town and I was alone with this frightened, bleeding animal. I tried to tend to her wounds as best I could, but I’m not a vet. No one was available to come out to her. My boss said it was too dangerous to shoot her as neither of us knew how to use the gun. I sobbed as I stroked her shaking body. Eventually my friend Francisco came to the farm to put her out of her misery, but said her wounds were superficial, she would be ok, and took her away to be cared for.
Needless to say, I could not speak to, or look at, the dogs for two days. They weren’t mine to reprimand, and Taylor was away, which put me in a difficult situation. All I could do was avoid them. I had many conversations with friends, some of whom argued the dogs were not to blame and that the pig was “only a pig”. But to me, a life is a life. I also felt that, though they were farm dogs, they knew Peppita and ought to have been reprimanded for attacking something they were meant to protect. It may sound stupid, but I also realised later I was doubly upset by the whole situation because it felt like the dogs – whom I had come to love - had betrayed me.
Adding to the horror of it all, I learned this week that the pig had finally succumbed to her injuries, some time after the incident. In my opinion, she should have been seen by a vet or put down, but ultimately the decision wasn't mine. Perhaps this is another side to Argentina. I wish I could have done more to help her. All I can hope is that she is resting somewhere in pig heaven, and that the dogs learnt something from my two days of ice-cold treatment towards them. In all honesty, I think Catchy did.
My story wouldn’t be complete without mention of a particular man. Though not a famous polo player, he was certainly a horseman, and as gentle with women as he was towards animals. I didn’t feel anything for him at first, but frustratingly, he managed to win me over. I have no idea what the future holds between him and I, but he definitely made my time in Tapalqué more special. Not only did we have a lot of fun, but he had a unique ability to comfort me when I was sad, taught me about the importance of having a connection with your horse and, through his sensitive nature, brought out my soft side.
The other special person to me during my time at La Margarita was Taylor. Despite being just 26, she had an amazing knowledge of horses, which she was happy to share, thus helping me to become a better horsewoman and rider. She also encouraged me to have faith in myself and be more independent, while showing me how to make the most of country life. Some of my best memories include laughing as we drank water from the hosepipe, riding home under the stars (on clear nights we could see Orion’s Belt) and relieving ourselves in the open campo (it turned out she was right, going for a wee in the bushes is therapeutic once you master the squat and stop worrying).
Goodbye civilisation! Hello new job!
With a new post just days away, I am a combination of anxious and excited. I have been informed there is limited electricity and WIFI access. I was told to bring a sleeping bag, and that I would learn how to pack a mule. The great thing is I’ll be close to both horses and mountains, living with people who speak zero English (this is super useful for practising Spanish) and I’ll get to explore a whole new, albeit remote, side of Argentina. The downside is I’ll be away from, well most people. Come to think of it, that could be a good thing! ;)
Stay tuned for more...