As a small child, the only personal knowledge that I had with Argentina was visits to our church of furloughed missionaries who sang the exotic wonders of this distant land. Exotic and distant are the key words here. I heard about maté, gauchos and the pampas. It was all very exciting. I couldn’t envision a land where people lived ordinary lives.
When I did get to visit Buenos Aires, Argentina, I was slightly disappointed not to find an unusual foreign city but a European-styled one where I felt quite at home. We signed up for a day-long bus trip to the Pampas, the flat cattle grazing area just north of Buenos Aires. When we arrived at Estancia Santa Susana, a large ranch, our forty passenger bus passed through acres of horses and cattle munching contentedly in the fields. There I got my first chance to meet gauchos, Argentine cowboys. They were not this year’s model, mind you, and had been retired for well over two weeks.
This operation was prepared for tourists and had organized tours of the farmhouse which has been converted to a museum of Spanish-Victorian artifacts and furniture. Painted and carved decoration, mostly in the Spanish style, covered every available surface. Tin boxes, carved angels, sewing boxes, chinaware and one lonely cuckoo clock fought for the tourists’ attention. Religious regalia, belled harness and front parlour antique furniture added to the jumble in this low-ceilinged stuccoed home surrounded by a wide colonnaded porch.
The house tour was preliminary to the main event of the day, Lunch. Passing by slabs of meat the size of a coffee table book cooking on a grill, we were led into a thatched, barn-like structure, open on all sides. Bottles of wines and quarts of beer created a boulevard on every table. We were clearly in for an extravagance. We were not surprised. I thought that Texans ate beef in heroic quantities, but obviously the Argentines take no backseat in that department.
The entertainment following this feast featured a “Charo-esque” young woman performing a flamenco dance. She was coupled with a young man wearing a wide-brimmed black hat, a striped shirt, baggy gaucho pants secured by a wide silver-studded leather belt and calf-high leather boots. This dance was sexless and noted more for noise than fury. Later, back in the city, we did get a chance to witness the real thing at a tango club.
After the pallid dance performance, the band started into popular tunes from the Fifties and Forties and the former waiters, those superannuated cowboys, made the rounds of tables asking the women to dance. These gauchos seemed to strike a chord with the females that set off a flood of flash-assisted photos. Pictures for friends back home, I guess.
I was more taken by the outside display that capped our visit. In this event these old cow punchers put on a demonstration of horsemanship as they charged at a full gallop with an extended forefinger spearing a ring the size of a loonie from a dangling string.
There was, I guess, something for everyone in this day, and strangely, few of the things we witnessed had ever been mentioned by the Mennonite missionaries. I guess they had just forgotten about the booze, the women and the tango.