When I first arrived in Patagonia and was suddenly the Patron of vast leagues of land populated with animals that turned the grass into meat and vines that became wine and such, I inherited a posse of gauchos as well. I spoke no Spanish and initially had to rely on occasional visits to “neighbors”—most of which were a day’s horse ride away—to check in on what it all meant, this Patron business. I was only 30 years old and wondered what exactly I was to do, having purchased these delicious lands for the magic waters, lakes and mountains—trading in a tiny handful of my wife’s paper in the process.
At the county fair, where I was already famous for (1) being a Yankee, (2) paying cash overnight for one of the larger estancias in this part of Patagonia, and (3) being young and sort of Marlboro Man/hippie/preppie—I quickly ascertained who of my turned-out neighbors spoke English.
To a man they informed that I was not to fraternize on any level with the peons (workers), that it would breed familiarity, and that I would lose work ethic and effectivity: performance would drop off.
Wanting to be a good neighbor and not display inappropriate behavior, and not speaking Spanish any old ways, I pretty much did as instructed. That had not been my lifelong standard operating procedure, but when in Rome … you know.
But over time, I mean these guys were my heroes; wildly riding horses in all weathers, working leathers, roping bulls and throwing them to the ground to do strange things with knives to their testicles, dressing in bombachas and scarves, cooking amazing asados on campfires, dancing with handkerchiefs twirling in smoky dens, joking with each other all the day long, and throughout all these ceaseless activities they whistled little tuneless tunes of happiness and of place, of fast women and of lonely horses.
I was jealous of their funs and abilities. Listen, they would take an unbroke horse, after tethering him to a strong post all night, put a leather thong in his mouth, tie him around the neck to a tame horse ridden by a buddy, and then hop on to go out into the camp for fun and games, bucking and prancing out of sight in a dust cloud and coming back each riding independently his horse, and … whistling. Goodness.
I could not help but join in, especially as I began to grab hold of communication abilities via a delectable cutie who spoke no English, but we both had good pillow-talk skills and some actual Spanish evolved out of it. Soon I found myself sharing mate with them and joking. Everything with them is a joke: the weather, the guy who got bucked off and broke a wrist, the lion who killed six sheep in the night, the Patron fly fishing in the rivers.
They say that there are no longer any true Gauchos—that they all died out a half century ago, and today’s cattlemen are but a tame version of the legendary dudes who rode the endless plains of the pampas and of Patagonia—homeless always but never horseless. We honor our peons by referring to them as gauchos, and they are way more hands-on than the American cowboys who now mostly ride those horrid four-wheelers and sport beer paunches punching closely watched time clocks. Woefully warped as the wild west has become.
Still, today, down thisaway, when you ask for a favor from someone, it is termed a gauchada.