Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

Before we left for Chile, I was expecting to spend much of my week in Valparaíso horseback riding while Ian was in class. I mean, who doesn't want to spend the bulk of her life on a horse? But the playful, wacky charms of the city and its people sucked me in immediately and I ended up only going for one ride, last Friday, our last full day in Valpo.

I actually had work to do, too, while we were there: my mother has finished her third memoir and I am the editor. We are hoping to get it out by Christmas, which meant I had something to occupy myself with when I began to miss Ian too much, as well as an excuse to rest my legs from all the non-ascensored hills. Nevertheless, there is a large horse culture in Chile that I wanted to sample, and I signed up for a half-day ride amongst the dunes and along the shore at Ritoque Beach, about an hour north of Valparaíso by bus.

I had gone down to the street where I was supposed to catch my bus (#206), a regular urban/suburban route, on Thursday morning after dropping Ian at work, to make sure that I could catch one the next day, to arrive in Concón (the town nearest Ritoque) at 11:00am. After about 10 minutes waiting at the bus stop, I saw a #206 approaching. I smiled and nodded a very slight nod, pleased that everything so far was working out . . . and the bus stopped right in front of me. I hadn't thought the driver could see me, but I was wrong. Oh, well—I could make sure of my destination. I approached the open door, and called up to the driver:

"Á Concón?" I asked, probably in Portuguese. He nodded, and looked expectant. "Mañana," I said, which is Spanish. He smiled, closed the door, and sped away from the curb.

The next day I caught my bus, paid my 90 cents, and enjoyed a long, slow slog through Viña del Mar, the awful, awful tourist town just north of Valpo, and a breathtaking race along the open roads north of that. I failed to inform the driver of my stop but it was, fortunately, the end of the line, and so I was able to get to my destination: the COPCO gas station by the rotonda in Concón, only a little after my 11:00am expected arrival. There was to be a man there to pick me up and take me the 5 minutes farther up the road, but I couldn't see any sign of him. Fortunately, Ian and I had switched out our cell phone SIM cards our first day in town and I was able to call—I was picked up within minutes. I was a bit worried about being late—the last time I had a horseriding adventure where I was picked up, it was in Greece, and if you weren't at the pick up at exactly the right time, you weren't riding. Of course, the woman running the riding was Austrian.

When I arrived at the ranch, there was a large party already there, a group of about 15 people from a local office, getting ready to celebrate their Christmas party with an annual trail ride and lunch. I was to join this group for the first part of the ride, then peel off with an English-speaking guide when they turned back for their food. I had been dropped off at a stable and a man tacking up a horse had gone silently into a shed and come out with some half chaps for me to wear (I was already wearing my usual riding boots). I assumed everyone else must already have them, but it turns out only I got them. I felt proud.

The Chilean Horses that we were riding are very short—only about 14 hands high, which is 56 inches at the withers, or where the neck meets the back. The horse that I rode today in my lesson, for comparison, is about 17 hands, or a whole foot taller. They're incredibly sturdy, though, and were quite happy carting around a bunch of full-sized adults. The adults were also quite happy; one portly man in particular kept trotting and galloping around the group, back and forth, arms and legs waving wildly. We were not given helmets, but then, we weren't very far from the ground. I think I did have to sign some sort of release, but I honestly can't remember. My brain was working so intensively the whole time I was in Chile, trying to understand the language (which I stood a chance to do, which made it harder to simply tune out), take in all the sights, adjust to a different season, etc, that certain things just fell by the wayside.

Anyway, we eventually all set out in a mob across a shallow river. My saddle was small, and my stirrups definitely short, but I felt like I could handle it okay. Once across the first river we all had a gallop, and I got my first inkling of just how fast these horses could go. It was very smooth, for legs so short (hers, not mine). We then crossed the river another time, and suddenly there was a shout and a commotion, and I turned to look and one of the horses was lying on its side in the water, its female rider lying in the river beside it. One of the guides raced over to help the woman up; it turns out that the horse hadn't stumbled; it had simply been hot, and chosen to lie down for a little cool-off (my own horse, Snappy, did this to me once in a creek near my mom's house. Lay down in the middle, saddle and all. I managed to jump off and land on my feet, but the level of the stream was higher than the tops of my boots). The woman good-naturedly got back on, but then Sebastian, the guide, decided that my saddle really was too small for comfort, since I was going to be going much farther (there was discussion with my solo guide about this, and also about the small back pack I was wearing; wouldn't I be more comfortable if they put the things in saddle bags instead? I assured them I was fine . . .) and he quickly exchanged his saddle for mine while the rest of the group disappeared around a bend up ahead. I remounted while he put my saddle on his horse and waited, remembering King taking off and Sikem having a cow in Idaho in September; Sebastian seated himself, nodded to me, and we took off at a gallop.

No, gallop doesn't begin to describe it. These horses were flying. Like jets fly. I could barely even feel her feet touch the ground, my speedy little pony. It was like she had a jet pack harnessed to her rump. I have never, in my life, been on a faster horse, or been more surprised about the speed. Sikem can put on the gas, and Shadow is remarkably smooth, but they would've been left in the dust. It was AWESOME.

Anyway, soon after we rejoined the group, they split off and my guide, Ignacio, and I headed into the dunes. And here is where it got surreal. Along the coastline at Ritoque is a wide swath of glittering white sand dunes. I'm not sure that my estimates of the dune heights are very good, but a couple of them seemed to be miles high. Well, okay, I'm sure that's not true, but they were probably 100-200 feet high. The horses would gallop up one side and reach the top and suddenly I was looking over a knife-edge summit at a long, cliff-like slope heading down. My horse, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, would step over the top and head pretty much straight down the hill in the blinding glare, each step sinking into the hillside, sometimes so far that my feet, in my stirrups, dragged in the sand. It was like riding a camel (or, like how riding a camel looks)—undulating, slow. Sandy. It felt like we were the last creatures on earth, and as if we weren't really going anywhere, just marching in place in front of an endlessly looping picture. A picture with the bright turned up way too high.

Ignacio took my pic, right as we reached the end of the dunes. Note the stirrups, which seem to have highly carved wooden clogs hooked onto them. I don't know why. The tack, also, was all tied on with leather thongs. No buckles for these folks. The reins were also different--a round, braided leather rope, which really chafed at my delicate hands by the time we made it back to camp.

We were going somewhere, however, and we eventually came upon a little oasis in a cleft of the dunes where some scrub trees had grown up (enough for quite a fine piddlery), and there was some grass for the horses to nibble on. Ignacio had been waxing poetic earlier about a particular restaurant on Ritoque Beach that you ride horses to; it's only open in the summer, but has spectacular empanadas.

"You know empanadas?" Ignacio asked me.

"Of course," I said. "I have one in my back pack."

"In your back pack?!?" he asked, incredulously. "I think you don't know empanadas."

"Yes," I said, "Empanada de carne. I brought it to have it for lunch!"

After we'd tied the horses, Ignacio pulled out some cookies to share and I pulled out my cold, but tasty, empanada filled with ground beef and onion. I was starving after my hours in transit and on horseback and in this brilliant, windy, alternate reality, and the snack really hit the spot.

Almost at the beach!

Soon after, we reached the beach, and had another several glorious long racing gallops on virtually unmarked sand. After my initial gallop through the surf, I stayed out of the water; it's late spring in Chile right now, but IT. WAS. COLD. And water spray did not help. The cold is perhaps why I didn't notice that the backs of my hands were burning to a crisp at the end of my long-sleeved shirt. They've changed to brown now, and if I'm wearing winter-in-Seattle clothes, one could assume I got a full-body tan.

An endless (and windy, and cold) racetrack.

After about 3 hours we arrived back home at the end of a huge loop, and my horse started whinnying and whinnying. It's funny to sit on a horse when she's whinnying—her whole barrel shakes and vibrates. Ignacio laughed and said "home!", and then "She has a little boy—what do you call him?"

"A colt?" I asked. "She has a colt?"

"Yes, a colt. She is calling him," he said. Then, "Oh, now, he is calling her! Look, here he comes!"

There wasn't a fence along the sea side of the pasture where the herd of horses was grazing at the ranch, just seaside, and suddenly out of the bundle appeared a fuzzy little baby with knobbly knees, galumphing (not very quickly yet) to meet us.

"Oh my gosh!" I cried. "How old is he?"

"About 2 ½ months," said Ignacio. "Still little."

The little colt fell into step with us, butting against my leg, trying to get his mother to stop so he could nurse. We paused during our last crossing of the river for her to drink; he was right there behind my calf, drinking himself. He didn't seem shy, so I reached down and patted his forelock; he looked up at me, offended, and backed just out of reach. I think he hadn't even noticed me until that point.

Anyway, it was a fantastic experience. I arrived back in Valpo just as Ian's class let out for the last time, and we went to the house of one of his colleagues for assada, Chilean traditional barbeque. The food was mostly meat, the beverage mostly (after a traditional Peruvian Pisco Sour, which all Chileans present agreed was far superior to the Chilean style) delicious red Chilean wines.

The perfect end to the perfect week.

Cute fuzzy baby!

Mama and baby, reunited.

1 comment:

Deane said...

This is a fantastic entry! Highly compelling! I don't know the original purpose of the carved wood stirrup foot-cozies, but I'll bet they were nice to have if your feet dragged in the sand on the dune descent. Especially in summer, or for someone wearing open-toed shoes.