South American Trilogy: Part 2
By Paul Mitchnick:
Read Part 1 of Paul's South American journey!
Getting to Argentina made for a very long day. Our journey had started the previous afternoon by flying from the island of Fernando de Noronha, off the coast of Brazil, to Recife on the mainland, sleeping in a downtown beige hotel until 3 A.M., getting to the airport, and a few hours of hungry waiting before an eight-hour flight with a stop in Sao Paulo, where we were not allowed to get off the plane. On the last leg of the flight, we flew over the Andes Mountains. They seemed close enough to touch, majestic enough to want
to . . .
Looking out the window has always been a treat for me. At age five, I graduated to the front seat of my father’s gray-blue Chevrolet coupe, and looking out the window became an active pastime. Then, it was where am I? This is something I want to see. Now, it’s here I am.
My brother Rob shares this with me. When we were kids, riding in the front seat was a pre-drive negotiation. Always. The drive to my Uncle Morris’s farm, where my love of horses began, had some great hills. The coupe kind of rose up at the top of the hills, and for one brief second it felt like the car was flying. That felt best in the front. If my brother got the front seat on the way there, I got it on the way back.
Sometimes on these farm visits, there was a pony saddled for us. My behavior was always exemplary in the hopes that it would end up with me on a horse. I was hooked.
We were bags of hammers on arrival in Buenos Aires. Our plan was to spend a brief afternoon in the city before heading to Estancia Don Joaquín for horseback riding. Located near the town of Esquina in the southwest province of Corrientes, it was an eight-hour bus ride north. Arrangements to get to the estancia (South American cattle ranch or farm) were made by Angie, the co-owner.
All fees, paid in advance, were deposited into a Miami account. Argentina has a very precarious banking system. The value of the peso is up and down like a child playing with power windows. No one can get a mortgage. One can only buy a house with cash.
Angie advised us to hire "Albert." We exchanged photos. Albert spoke English. He would meet us at the airport in the morning and get us to the bus in the evening. Albert would keep our luggage—a huge bonus.
Albert was an affable guy in his late fifties, originally from Uruguay. He would give us a little sightseeing tour, help with any errands, then leave us in the smart, refurbished old port, a very safe place to lunch and hang out until he ferried us to the bus terminal.
Chitchat was pleasant as our little sightseeing trip started. The temperature was in the early thirties this morning (and every morning), so I rolled down the window for some moving air. Well, you would have thought that I had urinated in his back seat. Albert just freaked out.
"Roll up the windows now!"
"Don’t stick your arm outside the window!"
"This is a bad neighbourhood!"
"This is a bad city!"
"You have to be careful here."
"Don’t look anyone in the eye."
"Carry your bags in front of you."
"Don’t pull out your camera anywhere."
"It isn’t safe anywhere in the evening."
"Blah, Blah, Blah."
Both Michaelin and I have travelled extensively around the world on either no money or very little. We’re not really package-tour travellers. I get the fact that this type of information is important. No one wants to walk down a blind alley. However, his tone conveyed a fearful war-zone anxiety that was anything but welcoming or necessary. We get it, and we can do this kind of travel. Albert hated Buenos Aires—not a good introduction to our free but careful spirits.
He dropped us off in one of the smartest barrios of Buenos Aires. Puerto Madero is a mix of the refurbished old warehouse area with plenty of new. Lots of restaurants in old buildings, lots of galleries in new buildings. Skyscrapers. A pair of swans. Even a man-made waterway with gondolas and gondoliers, of all things. And eye candy to both peruse and purchase. It has a rotating footbridge and a couple of construction cranes that speak to its old port history.
Walk, walk, walk . . . look, look, look . . .
Time to stop for a bite. Grilled meat rules in Argentina. We followed our noses until we came across a restaurant with a patio overlooking the water and a promenade. A very chic woman sat at the next table sipping white wine. The waiter approached with her bill and a small pair of tin snips. She leaned forward as the waiter cut the zap straps that attached her purse to her chair. Even in this very smart neighbourhood, restaurant thieves are masters at grabbing handbags and purses.
Going to take Albert’s warning a little more seriously now . . .
Albert picked us up at the appointed hour and place, then shepherded us to and through the bus terminal. Busy and crowded and hot, a bus terminal like any anywhere in the world. Tickets in hand, we bid Albert farewell at our bus.
"Would you like to be picked up at the ranch and driven back?"
"Maybe not so much, but thanks."
"You have my card, call me if you change your mind."
The bus was a modern two-level affair with first class on the upper level. We had stellar sleeper berths. The seats folded flat; there was a curtain, a TV, and a meal. Pretty cool. Michaelin slept. Not one to turn down a meal I’d paid for, I nibbled away while watching soap operas in Spanish—there were a lot of women sporting enormous eyelashes. Then I slept . . . sort of. The sound of the bus, the weaving of the road, the springs in the folded-flat seat became its own thing and never let me completely drift away. Never fully in that place that wasn’t the bus.
We were gently nudged awake near our destination. Looking out the bus windows, you could have been in almost any second-world country town. At 3:30 A.M., the tiny bus station was populated by people who had been waiting hours for this bus, and people who looked like they hung out at bus stations as a hobby.
A smiling young man approached. It was pretty obvious that we weren’t from around here, as they say. One of owner’s handsome sons. Our luggage went in the back of his pickup, and we went in the front. We continued in this never-quite-awake/never-quite-asleep fog that had been our underlying state since arriving in Argentina during the half-hour winding in the dark to the estancia. The owner’s son escorted us to our cottage and wished us goodnight with, "You’re required at 8:00 A.M. breakfast for an orientation."
Our room was spacious and welcoming. Maroon and wood with soft finishes. It also had a bed that wasn’t moving. We fell into its comfort.
Bang, bang. The knock on the door woke us up a mere eyelid blink after we'd laid down. We dressed enough and went outside. Horses. A garden of horses. Walking around, eating grass at sunrise. Fairy tale-like. There was no barn for the horses. They knew where to be and where to go. Free-range horses, so to speak.
The dining-room decor was hacienda chic in the most affable way. Around a large, heavy wooden table sat six well-rested people: a young couple from Los Angeles; an architect and his partner, who was a recent graduate of teacher’s college; a "Sir" farmer from England who came to fish the local Golden Dorado and shoot game; a female English shop owner who had ridden horses all over the world; a gentleman from Italy who came annually for a month to ride and had just bought property adjacent to the estancia; and a woman from San Francisco, a visual and performance artist whose part-time gig was as the San Quentin gardener; now joined by two very tired Canadians.
Good coffee. Friendly conversation about lots of things followed, and then we met our hosts, Angie and Diego. South American, Ralph Lauren attractive. Angie ran the tourist part, and Diego the cattle-ranch part. Happy, healthy, self-reliant people.
Several years earlier, Angie and Diego had run a very successful fashion business in Buenos Aires; very busy people having a very busy life. A car accident brought their world to a standstill. During the recovery process, there were thoughts about a life more gentle.
Their estancia was huge, with over 200 head of cattle and five gauchos (South American for real live cowboys). Their traditional costumes and gear were distinctive. Large tight-fitting berets on their heads, ponchos on their bodies, and "chirpas," a 4-inch belt around their waists sporting a facón, a very long, thin, sharp knife with a matching sharpener. I immediately wanted a facón and sharpener, partially because the scabbards were various degrees of decorative and ornate. Fortunately, that desire passed. I mean, it is not something I could really wear in downtown Toronto.
However, the best thing was their saddles. Layers of cloth under the saddle part and a very thick and comfortable sheepskin on top. It did, however, change the riding position. A little higher up off the horse’s back and legs farther apart meant not having close leg contact with the horse. And I was used to communicating with my horse with my calves. That position and grip were way different, too. And the stirrups were much narrower, so the hiking boots that served me well with western saddles were useless.
There was a ride (or two) in the morning and a ride (or two) in the afternoon. Your horse would match your skill level. And there were rides that would match your skill level. The afternoon ride was late because of the early afternoon heat. So all those rides would be in beautiful, soft late-afternoon sun. How perfect. Food was an all-you-could-eat, asada-right off-the-grill kind-of-affair with all the beer and wine you could handle.
Our first ride was also that first afternoon. Michaelin got "Daisy." My horse was a little reluctant on the "go" part; also a little reluctant to ride beside other horses.
The land was dry grass and marsh—pampas. Flat land, big-sky country. It reminded Michaelin of Manitoba.
Taking photos on horseback proved to be challenging, even with the iPhone.
Horseback riding is a relationship between man and animal; the more you get each other, the better ride you both have. This was kind of like a blind date, but no partner in a relationship likes you spending time on your phone when you should be paying attention to him or her instead. Your horse knew you weren’t paying attention if you were thinking about composition.
Going for a horseback ride with people is like going for a walk with people, lots of yak and chat. Our new companions were all interesting, if only by the fact that they all had spent eight hours on a bus at night in a foreign country just to get here. It was a very pleasant afternoon with Angie seeing how everyone was doing, making everyone feel welcome and at home. We rode through marshes, grassland, saw their cattle, and chatted.
Dinner was a true Argentinian parrilla. Unlike the rapid fire of BBQ, it’s slow and low cooking. The food didn’t stop until you stopped it. There is a big difference between fresh from the ranch and fresh from your supermarket. Lots of grilled-meat eating, lots of red-wine drinking, lots of beer drinking, accompanied by much conversation very late into the evening about everything and anything.
The next day I was rewarded with a horse that possessed a heart beat, and my ride was more pleasant. Our afternoon ride included watching a cattle round-up. What we witnessed was extraordinary horsemanship by Angie’s sons and by the gauchos. More than just at home in the saddle, they transformed into some kind of perfect other being. Watching them cut cattle was as beautiful an athletic feat as one could witness. Their grace, precision, and speed were balletic. A couple of the tourists, myself included, went off to chase a few strays back into the herd. That was pretty thrilling—more thrilling than beautiful to watch, but still pretty cool.
The English farmer had gone hunting and shot enough pigeons for our dinner. Now, these weren’t your everyday city-garbage-eating, shit-on-your-car, eat-your-french-fries-while-you-sit-on-a-park-bench, dirty, gruff, ill-mannered city birds; these were country, grass-fed, life-is-grand, all-day-in-clean-country-air Argentinian pigeons. Angie did them in a mushroom and white wine sauce. Delicious.
Angie was present at every meal. She maintained a genuinely friendly, concerned demeanor, conversing with everyone; no hint of rush in any conversation. Our conversation was about photography. Red wine makes me a little bold, so I asked to see her photographs. Her observations of the ranch were sensitive and insightful. What you might expect but the perfect moment always.
The wine and stories flowed and flowed.
The evening progressed into tongue twisters and tears of laughter. Then more laughter and more tears of laughter.
My personal favourite has always been:
One smart fellow, he felt smart.
Two smart fellows, they felt smart.
Three smart fellows, they felt smart.
Say that three times quickly. I dare you.
One of the guests was Chinese-American, and he shared a Chinese tongue twister, which we all tried. Seldom have I witnessed such relaxed joy in one place.
The next day, Angie told me that such an evening rarely happens.
On our last day, I was presented with the boss’s horse—Diego’s horse! A little taller and bigger than what I had been riding. Once in the saddle, I knew I was in a special place on a very special horse. His carriage, his shoulders, his gate all spoke of royalty. My group included two experienced riders and a gaucho. And I was in the Ferrari. There was no movement from this animal that wasn’t elegant and powerful. None. Walking, cantering, trotting . . . all just elegant. Off for a gallop down a nice, hard-packed dirt road. Razor sharp.
I was not of this Earth.
I was flying. My heart was in my mouth, maintaining, only just, control. Wow. Every element fueled by adrenaline. The rhythm, the physical for me, the physical for the horse, the race of my heart, the smell of his sweat and the saddle, the speed, the sound of his hooves on the hard dirt. Power. Purpose. And Grace. No one word can describe that moment.
Michaelin sadly never got the rhythm of horseback riding. A natural athlete all her life, it just never took. Anything more than walking was physically assaulting to her. So her pace was slow, but the scenery and the ranch’s social aspect were her reward. In the end, she was in such back pain that she had to slide out of bed before standing.
Paul Mitchnick is a cinematographer living and working out of Toronto, Canada. He has spent time with many gifted filmmakers in his career—Sean Penn, Lawrence Kasdan, and John Woo as Directors, as well as many Oscar-winning cinematographers. For the last decade, Paul has been Director of Photography on award-winning Canadian Independent Features and television Movies of the Week. He shot KEIF AL-HAL, the first feature film produced by a Saudi Arabian company. Whenever on assignment, Paul travels with his still camera and has taken photographs all over the globe. "I make my living looking at things, and when I have my still camera, opportunities kind of present themselves. Whether those things are looking for me or I am looking for them, I am not sure."