This weekend sees the World Rally Argentina take place in Cordoba province, a mere sniff and stones throw from where I am at the Estancia. Sadly for us (but happily for the bosses) the Estancia is so full we’re running two houses, kitchens, horses etc and doing a polo week, so there’s zip chance of getting to see the competition as all holiday is cancelled.

However following a short meeting with the management (where we voiced a little concern over the millions of hours we’ll be working without a break), Becca and myself were given a days holiday on Tuesday, coincidentally the same day that Tasha already had as holiday.

But I need to backtrack slightly… I also had a days holiday on Saturday and went jollying off into Cordoba buying jeans, a top and almost buying about 6 leather jackets, seriously, they’re that good. The clothes shops out here are fabulous and exceedingly reasonable for gorg-eous beautiful Italianesque stuff (the Italians settled Argentina more or less and so there’s loads of their food influence and clothing etc… bit more to the history of it really, but that isn’t what this post is about).

After some plastic bashing in Patio Olmo (upmarket equivilent of Meadowhall), and back in the happening village puddle that is Rio Ceballos, I ran into Graciela (29), the wife of our head gaucho.

After talking about the supermarket shopping she was on her way to do, I took a punt and said, “fancy a beer?” (although in Spanish obviously). She bit my arm off.

We went to a nearby bar (Bokete… where everyone goes) and in due course her two boys (8 and 10) came along with their uncle… who is rather gorgeous and single, and brother to Luis who I work every day with. Long story cut short… at the end of the night gorgeous uncle said we should we go out. Grinned my way back in a taxi to the Estancia.

Monday morning, guess who shows up at the Estancia with his nephews who have Easter Monday off school… (I’m looking a wreck by the way, no hot water so cold shower, grumpy cos I’m getting up early and haven’t had enough sleep)… anyway he’s around all day. I finally get chance to smarten myself up for dinner just as he’s leaving… anyway we (in this post the “we” generally refers to the English girls) shoe horn into converation that we have Tuesday off and if he and a couple of mates fancy it we’re going into Cordoba…

Tuesday 12 noon, he shows up (cue heart palpitations and sharp intake of breath), shortly followed by his mate in an Escort (oh the memories of dates and boyfriends with Escorts) and we load into Pepe’s car (Becca, Tasha, Julio – yes that’s his name – and myself) and head off to Cordoba. Conversation turns to the Rally and we go and track down the stage which is near to the Stadium in Cordoba and watch the practise cars going around testing the track. All good stuff, no famous drivers but a few co driver types taking notes in their Volvos.

With our appetites whetted, we shun the offer of an artesanal market visit… (sorry Tash!)… and head off on a bit of a flyer to a place called Carlos Paz. Where the Rally teams have their service base. Hoping we might see some cars or something, even though the rally won’t start for another 2 days.

At this point I really want to THANK Pepe for driving us around. If we hadn’t had him and Julio there is no way we’d have had any chance of seeing so much as a whiff of Rally dust. As it was, their local knowledge, combined with a bit of girlieness, we were really very lucky indeed. And this is another reason why I like South America… you wouldn’t have stood a chance of this in Britain.

On arrival we find the marques and car paraphernalia. It’s pretty quiet, but things are being set up. We don’t have passes, but the police are happy enough to let us into the main area, though not into any of the team areas.

The boys start happily snapping the car tents, some with cars in. Although the poor Subaru team didn’t have a car as it was stuck in the strike traffic (farmers are being outrageously taxed in Argentina at the moment and are protesting with various road closures and stoppages). Becca and I start, without originally realising it, pressing our female advantage… (we were virtually the only women there).

First call the Pirelli tent. We find making conversation over the barrier with the Italians very easy. We chat in some mixture of Italian and Spanish and after a while… jump the barrier. The police officials helpfully look the other way.

A quick espresso with the boys and some pics around the large piles of tyres (each car gets through 36 Pirelli tyres over the 3 days), I speak to the head honcho… who ACTUALLY says that if I am around the following day I can speak to the marketing boss re a job! (Probably wouldn’t have happened, but how flipping great or what!) We promise to come back later and pick up our free Pirelli caps… shame we won’t be able to meet the guys in the local bars over the next few days. Some beautiful Italians it has to be said.

Not much joy at the Suburu tent. Geeky bunch of Brits, nowhere near as female friendly as the Italians… have a chat with a geeky lad who looks around 18, although is probably 35 and is actually in charge of a Suburu. Although they don’t have the cars in and their stand is virtually empty.

A few of the teams have British guys working on cars and we get lucky at Ford, on Peter Solbergs car.

Scooter, who’s in charge of the car invites us over the fence if we want. Becca and I are over in a flash (and it’s not an easy thing to climb over. adorned with boards and posters there’s nowhere to stick your toes in to climb over).

And yes, it is okay if we want a sit in the car.

OMflippingheck.

I was actually shaking. I do not get close to World Rally cars let alone sit in them. Scooter was a complete Welsh sweetie. He took me through all the controls, we talked about the nice drivers and the ego drivers, how it is being on the road for months at a time and who’s going to win… everyone thought Sebastian Loeb in the Citroen.

Please do take a look at the pics to verify that I’m not making this stuff up. It was completely fab.

Time passed, I sat in the drivers and co-driver seat, Scooter showed me all the electronics and read outs on the display panel that the co-driver uses, miles to go, miles covered, stage times, fuel, emergency panels etc. By the way, the co-drivers seat really is SOOOO low down, you really can’t see a thing and the driver has great visibility over your head. All the cars are fitted with cameras inside for TV purposes, and seats aren’t like F1 seats and are standard rather than fitted to the driver. They have lumbar pumps in the seats, and air vents in the roof. Dad – I’m afraid I didn’t ask any engine, performance, suspension or other actual mechanical questions!

Eventually the guys hopped over the fence with Tasha, they took some pics and finally we left. (To pick up our Pirelli caps actually).

Heading into Cordoba at last, we had something to eat and some beers and made it back to the Estancia for 3am. I got up at 7.30am and worked through until midnight. Fortunately today it rained and I’ve had time to have a (hot!) shower and a decent siesta.

Really hope some of you get to watch some of the Rally on the TV. It’s all filmed near to where I am and will give you an idea of the scenery. In fact the main road up to the Estancia (which like 27% of Argentine roads isn’t paved) used to be one of the stages in the Rally. Although because a huge storm brought us immense and amazing lightening last night, it also meant that we’ve had a large amount of rain and I would imagine that the initial stages at least are going to be dangerously slippery.

Anyway, all in all a cracking day off. And just to top it off, think I’m going out with Julio on my next day off…

Vos?

March 22, 2008

Had my third Spanish lesson with Nora this week. It’s going well. I’m not very correct but I have a monton of vocabulary at my disposal largely born out of a million random and weird situations in Ecuador.

Out here I’ve picked up some other new words and had to replace some of my existing vocab with the Argentine versions. For example boisal is headcollar, shame as I really liked hakima the word we use in Ecuador (I wonder if Hakima is a Quechua word? Fairly likey as the indigenous language has crept into all kinds of Ecuadorian Spanish). A boina is the hat that we all wear out here.. yes including me. It’s something like a flat cap crossed with a beret. Have a look at Becca wearing one. A young unbroken foal is called a chuckaro not a potro. My transportation´s all gone to pot… as I’ve just forgotten the word for pick up truck.. but it’s nothing like camionetta; and the word for bus is a collectivo whilst taxis are called remis. Odd stuff.

The other thing is vos. I’ve spent ages using but it seems in Argentina they use vos instead.

So…

¿Como estas?

Bien. ¿Y vos?

I’ve also spent some time learning irregular verbs… but vos doesn’t accept irregular conjugations, so I have to learn regular conjugations of those verbs…

I also foolishly told my teacher that I had plans to go to Spain, so she’s also teaching me the official Castellaño conjugations for vosotros when I’d been quite happy with ustedes. Hey ho, it’s all good learning stuff. No lessons now for a couple of weeks though, because we have a bunch of people showing up for polo week. Hope I can keep going, these 12 to 16 hour days are killing me. Spare time is spent asleep.

It is again – cue the whoooooo-hoooooos, whistling and cheering – my dia franco (day off). And so I snuck a lift with Miguel down to Rio Ceballos, dropped of my washing and went to the bus station. Not exactly massive and so easy to pick up a little Fonobus (no idea why it’s called that by the way, but it’s the equivilent of catching the old 261 around little Lepton) and have successfully minibussed it into Cordoba city.

Argentina’s 3rd largest city and home of the countries first University. So far I’ve seen the bus station (fairly large) and the internet cafe (super fast.. have uploaded a gig of photos so far!). It’s raining outside. Although as you’ll see from the pictures taken at the Estancia it’s been really hot and sunny most days. This has of course given rise to the builders tan… my arms are now doing a great impression of fabulously tanned Walls sausages and my legs are white and bruised from playing polo or other such adventurous riding in the wilds of the Sierras Chica.

Do take a look at the photos, there’s some of Panama too as well as Argentina. I’m going to go and do what I do best on a rainy Saturday afternoon… find the shopping centre.

Biting the bullet

March 18, 2008

I think I’ve done the right thing, but these things remain to be seen.

Yesterday evening after Becca and I finished cleaning one of the pools (draining all the water and scrubbing the thing out – which takes a week to fill) I took an opportunity on a sunny patch of lawn to speak with Louisa. I told her that I didn’t see myself staying at Los Potreros for six months. I had, and still have, a million small reasons as to why it just doesn’t seem right for me, but I ended up hanging my hat on the fact that for the work I’m putting in, I’m just not getting enough back; specifically that the place is far more English than I expected and I’m speaking far less Spanish than I was in Ecuador. So if I stay here six months, I’m really not going to have learned that much… certainly not enough to help me find a marketing job in Spain (which was one random plan I had in mind).

Anyway it’s done now. She was disappointed and angry, but took it as well as could be expected really. I was wondering if she and Kevin would treat me differently because of it, but to their credit they’ve been just great with me today.

It had been eating me up inside a little, and I do feel an awful lot happier now, almost as if I can really enjoy the place, rather than feel trapped in it.

***

This morning we played polo (my second time) with two guests, one gaucho and one Steve (British property developer friend of Kevin’s from Nottingham, who with his wife spends between 4 and 6 months a year in Argentina… mainly playing polo and looking for new ponies to take to the UK). After some “stick and ball” practice, we made up two teams of three, and Louisa was the referee.

The type of polo we play is a simplified version. In the real game I think the rules are rather more complex, and you’re supposed to be able to hit the ball to people… in our version there is rather a lot of missing the ball going on, and only Steve can really play the ball to somewhere he’s intending. Fortunately, Steve and I were on the same team, along with 13 year old Julia (a guest from the States, daughter of an English mother, Kate who are both here for a week). With the major advantage that is Steve, we played two unofficially timed chukkas and won 2-1. Not exactly high scoring, fairly exhausting and a HUGE amount of fun.

The game is played in a “train” and play moves up and down the field in straight lines, with riders forming a train of players riding one behind the other.

For example if the red team have the ball, they hit it up the field towards their pair of football sized goal posts (no cross bar). The players in the red team ride behind each other, so if the player at the front misses the ball with his stick, the next red player can hit the ball on, and if the second red player misses the third red player can have a go. (I’m simplifying things, but this is basically how it works). Meanwhile the blue team can’t cross the playing line of the ball or infront of the red player who hit the ball last and is presumably continuing in riding in a straight line to the ball to hit it forward again. (Are you following this?) What the blue team can do however, is to hook the stick of a red player going for the ball, therby preventing them from hitting it. Or they can barge into the red team players horse and force the rider off their chosen line. All flipping good fun. Especially when executed at a canter or gallop.

I was today, however, spectacularly useless at hitting the ball. I had a speedier horse than the first time I played. In fact it would not be unfair to say that the horse knows an awful lot more about polo than me. Verley was reading the ball and turning before I had asked her, and on one occasion when the ball came to an unexpected stop she jammed on the breaks and I think a few other riders may have gone over the front.

So I’m sorry to say that with a speedier horse, the temptation to approach the ball a little too fast is rather strong… and I duffed the stick into the ground a couple of inches infront of the ball a number of times (although I made some really good backward/backhand shots in practice). Fortunately Super Steve rarely misses the ball and was able to play attack and defensive to mine and Julia’s pathetic beginner efforts and in the end I settled for a general molesting and barging people off the ball tactic, which was great fun. Chasing down the field at flat out gallop after little Jose (our playing gaucho today) and riding his horse off the ball is rather exhilarating to say the least. Verley is indeed fast and not intimidated by any other horse out there.

Sadly it all came to end when a rogue shot hit Romero (Jose’s horse) on the back foot. At the time Romero’s bum was pointed squarely in my direction and as the ball bounced off his foot he gave a mighty kick and whacked me on the shin. I thought initially that it just had to be a fractured shin bone, and rode of the pitch sharpish to apply some ice and take of my boots and see the damage. However, I appear to have been really lucky or tougher than I thought, the blow was to the inside of my shin bone and has barely left a mark. I’ve just rolled up my jeans to verify this, and nope, not a mark. Phew.

Anyway it was all great.

As for what next I don’t really know. When things are going well (like this evening with three guests playing scrabble… Mum – I won!!!) and having a lovely dinner, after a day’s polo, I wonder if I’ve made too hasty a judgement on the place. But then I see a horse with a chunk out of its flank and remember that I started work at 8, have had a half hour siesta and will be lucky to get to bed the right side of midnight, I’m pretty sure I’ve done the right thing.

I didn’t give Louisa a date for when I wanted to leave. I know they have a very busy period coming up and as I have no plans to go anywhere else just yet, so I said I can stay to work through that. I don’t want to drop them in it, which was why I wanted to let them know sooner rather than later so that they can invite someone else to come out (they have a lot of applications every year). I imagine we’ll have another conversation about when I’ll leave in a week or so, once we have the big polo group over with.

So, for now I’m happy. Excited about a trip I’ll be doing in May… Argentina is really such a big country it’s going to be hard to see all the places I want to. And unless something unexpected comes up (who knows), I do hope to be home sometime in the summer. Hopefully to attend a wedding and to see a few good friends and family who I’d like to be around for at the moment. And actually I’m really looking forward to working again. I need some mental stimulation, the guests here think I’m bonkers grilling them about their businesses and careers. What do they say about the grass being greener??

Lots of love to everyone at home. Advice always welcome. Hasta la proxima!

Day off

March 13, 2008

Today is my second day of holiday since I arrived. I caught a lift with a guest who was leaving for the airport this morning and came down to Rio Ceballos. (A small town, which you probably won’t be able to find on any map of Argentina, but it’s kind of close to a place called La Falda and another place called La Cumbre, slightly north or Cordoba).

First stop was the launderette. Virtually everything I have needs washing. The washing facilities at the estancia are limited. More of a bucket really.

There’s this thing which purports to be a washing machine, but it doesn’t rinse or spin clothes, in fact it only agitates them with a bit of powder and you have to fill it with water from a hose by hand. Not exactly automatic then. Add to that that it’s used by the maids to wash their uniforms, the chefs to wash their whites and the gauchos to wash bombachas (Argy trousers) and their socks… so usually when you come to it (having carried your washing 10 minutes walk up a hill from our little house) it’s full of someone else´s stuff, making clothes washing a little difficult.

So this morning I’ve spent more of my own money on the washing 30 Arg Pesos, which is less than a tenner, but more than a fiver. And I’ll be spending my own money getting back in the taxi up the slow, bumpy (10km an hour if you’re lucky) , unmade road back to the hacienda later this evening. Deep joy.

The town itself is nice. I get to see a little Argentine culture. Today I came in with Tasha, English 19, works in the kitchen, but is leaving about half way through April. She was supposed to be here for 12 months, but she thinks 6 is enough I’d be inclined to agree. (Geez the kid sitting next to me in this internet cafe really honks).

And this morning we’d not been here long before we ran into Hume (Huumeee), (speaks English and trains polo ponies stopped working at the estancia about a month ago), who invited us back to his house. It’s actually his grans house, but all of his huge family use it from time to time as a holiday home. It’s gorgeous, old and big with high ceilings and a huge garden and pool. I’ve burnt my shins sitting out there this afternoon (yes, I look ridiculous as usual; brown arms and face, white legs with ocean stick pink shins). Tasha is still down at the house now, taking a siesta (mi casa es su casa, really means something out here!)… but I’ve walked back up the hill to use one of a few internet cafes in the town. This one, seems to be full of school-boy gamers, which on the upside means the PC has the OS and resolution to cope with yahoo mail, and speed to search for flights, but on the downside you have to sit next to stinky pubescent boys.

Re: my ongoing internal battle as to whether I should stay here or not… I don’t know. I want to leave, but as the two bosses have been nice to me I’m going to feel really bad leaving them in the lurch for the rest of the six months I was supposed to be here.

On the other hand the horse care continues to be poor and every day it seems I am given yet another example of their negligence. Yesterday I watched a horse completely needlessly crash over a small stone wall and rip its back legs to shreds (They bring the horses, about 50 of them, into a small rocky paddock to catch them. The horses kick and bite each other whilst trying to avoid being caught and the sharp teeth or heals of other horses higher up the pecking order than themselves). The vet wasn’t available and so one of the gauchos stitched up the gash with needle and thread usually used for repairing saddles. It was just awful, I saw the whole thing and the poor animal hobble off on three legs afterwards.

There’s also a few horses with Vampire Bat bites. Yup. No joke. Vampire bats live here. So we have a couple with nasty looking bites and dried blood running down them. (No-one working here would bother to clean up a wound like that.)

In addition to Vampire Bats, we also have a wide range of bird-life… I’ve seen woodpeckers, eagles, a condor, vultures, loads of parakeets, lapwings, hummingbirds, even heard (but not seen) a beep-beep road runner! But on the scary side, we also have various poisonous snakes and pumas.

The local puma population occasionally take one of the foals… in fact we have a mare in the herd that was attacked by a Puma in the last few months. They found her in the morning with scratches down her face, a cracked skull and various nasty lacerations. She now has half her face paralysed and droopy bottom lip, is very underweight (still feeding her foal) and is ostracised by the rest of the herd. However she survived and must be one tough lady, she’s not seen as a “special” animal here and doesn’t get any extra food to help her recovery.

I had thought Pumas were just a type of wild cat… however they are rather large. Much bigger than a dog. They are also known as the Mountain Lion. I really don’t want to run into one, although it would seem attacks on humans are rare. Unfortunately last night walking home to the cottage Becca and I saw some Puma footprints. Puddle-wet footprints on the concrete path around the side of the house. Not good. No wonder the little kitty cats are keen to come in on an evening.

And to think, I thought volcanoes and earthquakes were risky in Ecuador, I had no idea!

Hope that’s enough for now. Sorry to say I forgot my camera and photos… but I promise, on my next day off I’ll upload some.

Next week is polo week… so tacking up 20 horses for polo every morning. Wish me luck. The game itself is fun and I’m looking forward to getting a few more goes at it. No doubt I’ll be entertaining guests too (I juggle and tap dance dontcha know)… so that means an 8am start and right though until they go to bed at midnight, 1am or whatever… followed by another 8am start, 6 days out opf 7. This week the bosses left me in charge one day… so I hosted lunch and dinner and took out two rides and served afternoon tea. Can someone tell me why I’m doing this for free when I clearly should be earning some serious dinero for all this?

Just a quick update from the chefs laptop in the kitchen at 11pm. Guests have just gone to bed, we had a lovely dinner together. We have 4 guests at the moment, an Irish lady married to an Italian, another Irish lady and an English girl about my age. Guests are a lot younger here and generally very easy to get on with, although they are far less horsey and conversation isn’t that often about horse things.

Went out with Louisa this morning and one guest, for a FAST ride. She was at the front… I’d guess with limited brakes, going flat out, the guest behind, also going flat out… over stones and tufts of grass. I, had a steady horse (ie Dobbin) although to be honest I don’t mind not being able to keep up at that game, the last thing I want is to come off on this type of ground or at speed.

In the afternoon I led a ride out (or rather Luis – head Gaucho led, because I haven’t got all the routes in my head yet), but we rode to my rules. No passing the guide, distances between horses etc. and I was much happier. Anyway, Luis told me over a biscuit snack stop, that he had had a bad fall about 2 months back. Don’t worry Mum I don’t intend this to be me, but he came off whilst Louisa was leading a ride, at flat out, as his horse tripped on both front legs and went down and went right over and landed on him. Broken ribs some internal bleeding, 5 days in hospital. This is a gaucho who’s ridden every day of his life virtually.

Okay.. have to go… Tash needs her ‘puter back. 

Not too sure what to say actually, it still being early days and all. But I’ve already renamed the estancia in my head as “Estancia Gates and Thistles”.

On the positive side…

– I’m doing lots of riding, most days, sometimes twice a day

– I’ve played polo… which I loved (more on that later)

– It’s permanently sunny

– The estancia is beautiful

– The people are friendly

– The food is great

So it sounds pretty good really. I have no cause to complain. However on the niggle side…

– The horses are ridden western style

This means that you CAN ONLY use your reins on the sides of their neck to steer them. You have to KICK them to make them go forward, a gentle squeeze is unlikely to generate ANY response at all. No horses will go on the bit, no horse understands opening the rein to go in that direction and steering to open gates is virtually impossible as you can´t put pressure on with one leg and the horse move over… they just don’t have any idea what you’re asking for.

– Horse care

It’s in the top 20s most days here; sun up at 8am and down at 9.30pm and it’s hot. The stallion is tethered. Without water. He drank three buckets down straight away when I took him some over. Also we don’t stop for water for the horses on the riding tours… usually these are around 3 hours. Guests get water, but horses no, despite walking through plenty of little streams en route. The stallion also has huge welts on the back of his feet. Mud fever, or horrendously cracked heals, he is lame with one open sore on the back of his left hoof. However the boss lady RODE HIM yesterday, to show the guests his flaring Peruvian Paso action. I’ve mentioned the open sore to Luis, the head Gaucho, and seen the boss man looking at the sores, but as yet I haven’t seen ANYONE wash them or put anything on them. Other horses often have chunks out of their flanks, legs or feet. I’ve pointed a few out, but apart from one instance (when I got back from a ride with a horse with a large fresh cut and started to hose it down and then the guys put some goo on it, although I hadn’t finished hosing… 3 minutes not long enough) no-one does anything to deal with these nicks and scrapes (the horse should have been ridden in boots, it’s clearly a repeated thing; and it seems that lots of pure or part peruvian pasos are slightly pigeon toed and inclined to catch their legs on their hooves as they whizz along). Although most injuries are minor for the most part, there would be a lot less if they weren’t all put in a field together. I heard they used to be separated into appropriate groups to stop this general pecking order fighting that goes on, but that was too much hassle and now they’re all in together. Also quite a few of them have girth galls and some fungus growing on their bellies, which seems to be spreading.

The boss lady was given a mare and a young foal for her 40th. She comes to coo around the only stable they have here, whilst I’m mucking it out… no big job, made slightly harder as I have to use a heavy spade rather than a muck or shavings fork, but doesn’t do much else apart from coo. The mare is being fed twice a day, as she’s a little under weight, and they feed her alfalfa bales and wheat. (I think it’s wheat, long thin grains, Dad?). The oats/wheat/corn are not rolled or soaked. She gets half a bucket full, that looks like it’s fresh from the ear. Nothing is mixed with it. Now surely that’s dangerous?

– Getting away from the Estancia

This is expensive, especially when you’re not earning anything. Tips are reputadly in the region of 400 Arg Pesos each month (as with Sally guests give the tips to the management who then distribute it amongst the staff). A trip to the nearest town, Rio Ceballos, a mere 45 minutes away down a TERRIBLE road costs 110 Arg Pesos for a round trip. There is no bus, and we have to use the taxi firm that the estancia use, it’s a fixed price. I thought about hitching from the main road, but it’s an hours walk to get to the main road which doesn’t have much traffic anyway.

– The rides

I’ve been here a week and we’re repeating routes. The Estancia is large, but not as large as I had imagined, plus it ALL LOOKS THE SAME. Long dry brushy grass, a million thistles, and loads of granite outcrops (prettily encrusted in sparkling mica). I now REALLY appreciate the beauty and variety of Ecuador. After a week I am already fairly bored of riding poorly schooled horses around an area that looks the same. Plus they canter the horses on rocky parts or rock hard ground. I don’t like that at all. There are two rides a day, one at 10am and another at 5pm, both are usually between 2 and 3 hours and so I guess getting away from the same area and routes is going to be difficult.

– Gates

There are a lot here. It is after all Estancia Los Potreros, which I think means, Estancia of enclosed areas or fields. On a ride it is my job to open and close them all. I might do 15 in a ride, dismounting and remounting. I don’t really mind, but it really breaks up the ride for the guests. Why don’t they invest in some easy to open whilst mounted opening mechanisms?

more later… i have to give the computer back… they still haven’t provided a communal one for me to use, I’m using the chefs laptop.