“Okay,” said Marcelo, “stop here. I want to take a picture.”
I gave my horse, Híman (as in He Man, named by Marcelo’s son) a little nudge to try to get him to line up with the other three but he wasn’t in the mood.
“Whiskey!” cried Marcelo out in the Argentine Sierras, the South American equivalent of “cheese!”. He snapped a picture with his phone. “Now I will put on Facebook. I have pictures of every group I ever take on my Facebook.” He fiddled with the phone.
“Right now?” I asked.
“Si, si. I have Blackberry.” He wagged his hand in mock dismissiveness. “I’m not one of those poor gauchos” he joked, “I’m a gaucho con Blackberry.” Danny and I looked at Lou and Lewis, our British companions for the day, and laughed. “Vamos” said Marcelo. We each gave our horse a kick and continued on our three hour ride through the semi arid bushy terrain of the Sierras Chicas.
Marcelo has blue eyes, a reddish weathered face, and (despite running a campsite, cow farm, and horseback riding business) a pit of a paunch, which he attributes to the cookies and beef he showered on us. His look reminds me of a combination of the Australians who ran the waterfront at overnight camp and the Canadians who sat and watched kids play softball most of the day. Maybe that combo comes from his being a retired pro athlete. He’s happy to tell you how much happier he is now than he was cavorting around Europe as a professional polo player for nine years.
“It was a great experience, I got to see so many things. I have a second family in England who took me in for four years” but after every story of “waking up with five naked people around me and I say ‘ahhh, Marcelo where are youuu?'” or “You see that tree? Me, here, that tree, the queen” Marcelo made sure to balance with the dark sides of the polo world. “In Argentina, all the farmers we play polo because we all have a horse. In UK two kinds of people play polo: people who are good, ad rich people, because you have to be rich to have horses. So the rich people they wave money in your face but then they pull it away… They prop you up they bring you to parties.., but my boss the first four months I am there he introduce me as ‘my professional polo player’ after four months of this I say ‘I have a name. My name is Marcelo.'”
At some moments it seemed like he needed to justify leaving that fast world of week to week payment and surface level interactions behind to come home and start businesses that provide houses and jobs for his father, brother, and friends; boost his town’s economy; and allow him to be the father he wasn’t while he was away. At others it felt more like he was just reminding himself why he loves his life so much. I lost count of how many iterations of “I love horses and I love travel– to see the world. I got lazy so I brought the world to me. Horses and tourists, I have the best job” I heard, but I never got tired of it nor became convinced that he was lazy.
Marcelo had picked us up at our hostel five minutes before he said he would, unheard of in Argentina. Then we swung by for Lou and Lewis, who are about two months into a 10 month circumnavigation of the globe and made delightful company. Being British, they also knew far more about polo than we did (I knew that it was played on horses and that was about it) and therefore asked better questions than I did, like “did you ever play with the royals” which also got more interesting responses like a story about William and Harry.
After an hour drive we arrived at Marcelo’s property. I had pictured horses and maybe one small structure. Instead, what would better be described as a compound included his house; houses for some of his employees; his pool, a campground that he runs as a business; a public pool for the campground (which was full of middle schoolers on an end of school year trip); and a poolhouse complete with snacks, beer, and of course a place for a barbecue. Behind the shrieking tumble of limbs (I mean kids) ran a lazy creek with a mini zipline over it. Lou and I both expressed thoughts along the lines of “how long can we stay?”.
Before we mounted up, Marcelo welcomed us with a tutorial in the ritual of maté, oh and cookies. “Don’t eat the cookies while you have the maté” he wagged a finger in a very Sudaméricano way and furrowed his brow at the disgusting thought of chewed up cookie clogging the bombillo (maté straw).
Once he had each of us in a saddle, Marcelo leapt onto his mule in one smooth motion. About five minutes into our walk he showed off by standing on the mule’s back. Then we settled into a quiet afternoon of meandering on winding paths through green brown hills.
Just when I’d gotten comfortable enough to let my mind wander from the reigns and my eyes stray from the ground to enjoy the scenery, Marcelo stopped us to teach us to trot. I recalled from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s descriptions that trotting was jolting and uncomfortable, your whole body jumps up and down, landing hard in the saddle with each step. She was right. After a few tries though, I felt like I was getting the rhythm of it at least. Then Marcelo stopped us one more time, near enough to the end of the three hours that I was starting to recognize our surroundings. “Okay, who wants to try galloping?” No one said anything. “Great!”
When Laura’s cousin boosts her onto a black pony with no saddle or reigns and she describes that clunky trotting experience, she makes galloping sound like a sudden shift into a cloudy dream where everything smooths out and you are flying, one with the horse. Riding Híman I definitely felt like I was flying. Flying right off of him, not one with him. I didn’t actually fall of, but I was relieved when the galloping part ended and sorry to discover that I am not as brave as the little girl on the prairie. As we walked the last few minutes back Marcelo came up next to me and looked lovingly at Híman. “He has the best gallop” he said.
After dismounting and taking a few minutes to figure out how to use our own legs again, we found a picnic table set for us with a yellow table cloth, five wooden plates, steak knives, and a bottle of red wine (Marcelo, always the professional, drank apple juice). The salad was light on lettuce and heavy on tomatoes that tasted like tomatoes, just how I like it. The bread was simple. And the steak was… let’s just say the steak knives were redundant. Butter knives could have cut it.
I promised myself before I left the US that I wasn’t going to Argentina again and not eating steak. I can’t think of a better setting for my first beef centered meal since fifth grade. The serving plate kept refilling before it emptied and we sat eating, drinking, getting to know Lou and Lewis, and listening to Marcelo’s stories all afternoon. Marcelo has notebooks into which he pastes pictures of every group he takes riding. He carefullly marked a spot for our picture then invited us to write messages. Leaving through the pages he told stories of Australians skinny dipping in his pool, people having sex in the bathroom, and someone staying for fifteen days. In four years he’s on book eight. The world really has come to him.
Even eating only half as much steak as everyone else, I was full for a loooong time. I don’t think my body knew what to do with so much protein. When we ran into Lou and Lewish later that evening at the Cordoba craft market and went for a beer together we all agreed on three things:
1) No one had agreed to the galloping
2) Marcelo himself had made the day, The horses were a bonus.
3) It was the best meal we’d had in Argentina and some of the best company.