BLOG 3 12-26-2018
I believe I left off from my last blog with hopes of finding a place to hang out with the true Californio Vaquero, or cowboy, in Baja, Mexico. Well three weeks ago, I landed just that opportunity thanks to an inquiry I made on a Facebook Page called Talk Baja, in which I asked the group if anyone knew of any ranchos where I could go to learn Mexican horsemanship. An American ex-pat living in El Rosario has a friend who has a friend, who lives south of Tecate, so I maked (Editor’s note: Remember, I deliberately misspell words the way they should be spelled, according to their root word.) my way up to the Valle de Gaudalupe, in Baja’s wine country, and meeted TeTe and his family, of which there are many in the small village where his ancestors descended from the Navajo Indians of North America, the Kumiay, long before the United States annexed Mexico in 1848. I couldn’t have been more welcomed, and it wasn’t long before I was no longer the center of attention, and made to feel part of the family. It was a Saturday when I rolled into town and they were making a pile of tamales for a birthday on Sunday. Getting together and socializing is a big part of their lifes, and how they show their love for eachother. I realized they must celebrate a lot of birthdays in the family with so many relatives? They also help eachother work on projects regularly, moving farm animals back and forth, or shopping for all the familys when someone goes to town. TeTe’s family accounts for over a quarter of the village’s 250 inhabitants, and they are well liked and respected in the community. They have a long history in this area, and many generations of vaqueros.
The tamales and birthday celebration were great fun, and a pinata was stringed up with the kids taking turns having a whack at it until it breaked. I witnessed a lot of adults dive into the candy action, and it was an obvious highlight to the afternoon. The enormous Christmas hog got loose and was running wild around the yard about the time the birthday cake was cut but no one payed attention until the dogs decided it was their job to herd it back into the pen. They did a fine job in short order so it must be a regular activity? (I later saw pictures of that hog in pieces, ready for cooking on Christmas Eve.) People came from out of town to attend the party and church services later that Sunday evening, where the pastor gave an impassioned sermon that bringed tears to most of us in the congregation. My spanish was rusty my first week in Mexico but even I was pulled in by the emotion of it all, and I’m not religious. TeTe’s family has a strong Catholic faith, and grace is sayed at every meal, giving thanks to God for all the blessings they have in their lifes. His mother, Lupe, the sweetest woman you could ever meet, is the matriarch and lives alone as a widow. Her home is never empty, however, and I witnessed endless love by her family in their care for her. She misses her husband dearly, as does the rest of the family. That is obvious.
Monday I set about finding work to stay busy and word soon got out I could fix broken furniture. The village has a community woodshop but it had been neglected for some time, so TeTe taked it upon himself to clean up while I assembled rudimentary tools. I was feeling frustrated by how little was available to me in both materials and quality tools, when I realized that I had a very elitist attitude coming from the USA, where I have my own personal cabinet shop and access to any kind of lumber I want. Despite the rustic conditions I still builded TeTe’s sister, Tabita, a nice kitchen island to her specifications to prep food and make tortillas on. She was pleased when it was delivered, and promptly moved out her kitchen table to make room. The family soon utilized one of the drawers to set the granddaughter, Kuilchap, in to watch while they socialized in the kitchen. The baby was adored by all and rarely was not sitting in someone’s lap, smiling constantly and providing all of us with endless entertainment.
I was happy to have helped make something useful and offered their family to keep me busy whatever they needed help with. The next day two broken chairs were delivered to me in the shop, missing legs and a back, and a chest of drawers to repair. In all, I fixed 14 chairs, a kitchen table, four drawers, and the island, and became known as the Doctor de Muebles, or Furniture Doctor. It was great fun and I enjoy giving back to people who are so appreciative and hospitable. Not having all my tools at my disposal was challenging but I adapted to what was there, and it all turned out well. I even had a good helper in Abraham, TeTe’s young son, who liked spending time in the shop with me.
As the first week neared, I didn’t want to leave before spending some time on horseback, so TeTe saddled me up one of his mounts he promised was not a “bronco”, raced him around to to knock any notions from his mind, and off I went on my own around the village and over the hill to the many vineyards in the area. The Valle de Guadalupe is a valley 30 miles long filled with 100 winerys, and is becoming famous for producing fine wines. I was gone about two hours when we came upon a loose horse who decided to join up with us. It had rained the day before and the arroyo had flooded so I was concerned crossing the wide creekbed, not knowing the consistency of the soil and getting stuck in quicksand. I carefully picked my way across, with the colt following me all the way back home and to the corral. The local dogs, not recognizing the new horse, decided to have some fun and run him off, which was just as well. For the next two days I practiced my roping skills with good instruction from the vaqueros, and went riding in the wine country. It was heaven.
For my accommodations, Abraham, the son, had given up his “cabana”, which is a vintage 1980s Class-B RV camper, on blocks in the front yard, that had gotten mixed up in a head-on collision in its day and had its motor pulled but the living parts are still in good shape, next to the house. To keep the rain off, it is covered with a fabric billboard banner advertising a furniture sale in the USA. It was nice for all of us for me to have my own privacy. Each night I retreated after dinner to read; waking in the morning to scribe in my journal.
After ten days, I was sad to say goodbye to the family and promised to return on the next leg of my trip. We had wonderful conversations about how different our lifes are from where we live but really how elemental is the human existence: where if you have the basics covered, like love, a home and food, you can count yourself blessed. They have never experienced snow, skied, floated a river or sat in a forest but I will never equal TeTe’s experience as a vaquero, where as a young man he lived in the mountains tending the cattle alone for months at a time, from when he was his son’s age of 12. His skills as a horseman are legendary and people speak with reverence when they describe this humble man.
Seeing the love TeTe shares with his family, their sense of community and belonging, I can understand why he prefers to live where he does. People dropped by constantly to ask his advice, and other family members are leaders within the community. Everyone treated me with respect and kindness because of my association with the family. I was repeatedly invited back for Christmas and New Years, when the entire family from afar gets together to celebrate, and both a hog and a steer would be butchered to feed everyone: they were expecting 100 people for each holiday.
TeTe tryed to teach me to throw a lasso, and made it look so easy with every toss strangling whatever it landed on. TeTe also throws a reata, a leather lasso braided from several strings of rawhide, up to 70 feet long. It is a real talent to use a reata well, and very few cowboys do anymore. It is also much more fragile than today’s nylon ropes, more expensive and hard to find good ones, as making them is a dying art; and it takes a lot of maintenance to keep supple, and not dryed out. The thought of lassoing a 2,000 lb bull on the end of a bungie cord makes me rethink why I want to learn to do this. The reality is, no matter how many times you put on a cowboy hat, unless you can rope an animal off a horse, you’ve got no business calling yourself a cowboy, let alone a Californio vaquero. All hat and no cattle, as the expression goes. And, I was quickly corrected when I made the mistake of calling TeTe a caballero, which is the equivalent of calling a real cowboy a “dude” or a city slicker. Often, a caballero is a ranch owner, or a gentleman horseman who doesn’t work with his hands and never has gotten a callous or a blister in his life, let alone been pulled through a cactus field by an angry bull or stomped by a horse gone loco.
All of TeTe’s brothers grew up ranching, and they were helpful in teaching me new knots and how to throw a lasso. Two of his nephews are champion ropers and the oldest telled me TeTe is better than they are. They prominently display the many trophy saddles they’ve won over the years, inside the house, and their father Abraham recounts with obvious pride that all three of his boys are college educated, two as animal veterinarians and the youngest as an engineer; he is also a champion soccer player, and our first day together we all crowded inside the living room to watch the flat screen TV on the wall. The Mexican girls national team went against Spain for the U-18 World Futbol Championships, this year in Uruguay. I was startled to learn how good both teams were and actually thought I was watching women’s professional soccer. Mexico lost but this family held them in high esteem and were gracious losers to their former colonizers: what might be considered a long-standing rivalry…?
So, in light of all of this newfound knowledge and excitement to want to become a true vaquero/cowboy, I’ve decided to postpone my motorcycle trip for a few months and help out during the crucial time of gathering and branding. For the next two months, TeTe and his family will be out at their two ranches in the mountains, four or more hours away by horseback, collecting the herd which has been grazing the wild country of north Baja, just south of Tecate. There, the heifers will give birth, and the calfs roped and branded. I don’t know what use I will be, and I certainly won’t be on a horse’s back pretending to be anything other than the city slicker I am. I will, however, return to Idaho to retrieve my roping saddle and my chaps, with the hopes of learning to lasso bushes and rocks and maybe a goat or a dog or two; I have found the Mexican saddle doesn’t fit my long legs very well. This, after my girlfriend Katherine and I take our motorcycles down the length of Baja, me for the third time and she for the first, in February.
So, a hiatus from my motorcycle trip is in store. It just happened six months sooner than I figured. This is not unexepected for me, as I often let my plans dissolve in life’s current, being more interested where this river is taking me vs. where I think I should go, or where people tell me I should go. My plan on this trip all along has been with the idea of pausing in varyous locations to learn from the locals what I can, wherever that is – preferably with horses and mules. To quote from my first blog from a month ago: “I leave myself open to the opportunity for anything and everything on this trip.” From here in Baja, I now have contacts in Acapulco and Veracruz, Mexico, to learn more jinete (horse riding) skills in the form of the very traditional and flamboyant charreada equestrian style. Then onto South America to work with the gauchos and arrieros of Chile and Argentina. When I get to Spain it will be with even more vaqueros and caballeros, all over again, with hopes of offering more skill than I had prior. In Mongolia, I will be with the nomadic herders, on tiny mustang horses, camping in yurts. But, I’m getting ahead of myself; there’s still a lot of motorcycling between here and there. On with the adventure. And the blog.