Now that we are full into the dry season here, summer as it is called in most places, this is the season of fiestas and rodeos, local style. Every weekend there is a fiesta held in a small town – or large town – somewhere. All the different sizes of villages and individual flavors of their own fiestas present a great assortment if you choose to visit a few, but there are always certain things in common during the fiesta: always bull riding, the ‘parade of the bulls’, and this is a sport much different than the USA and not for the faint hearted; the food – the local flavors and fares offered up local style; the cabalgata, which is a total family event – everyone gets on their horse and goes for a long ride through the mountains or the cities (depending) for a half day ride; the soccer games of all levels for most of a day; and of course music and dancing.
Although we have lived here for a few summers now, we attended our first fiesta this year in our small community of San Juan. The preparations had begun weeks ahead of time, repairs to the bull riding stadium which is built very much like a bull fighting ring, only smaller, with the spectator stands circling for great views by all. There was rock being hauled in and repairs to the chutes and whatnot, and then there was the general clean-up and grounds preparation to accommodate people coming in out of the hills and surrounding mountains to enjoy the festivities. We watched all of this set-up going on for the few weeks ahead, with anticipation for our first fiesta.
The previous few weeks had been rather strenuous for us as we looked at potential new living arrangements way up on the mountain, investigating an offer that had been made to us by our local friend when he learned of our need to relocate, a.s.a.p. An amazing offer…however, upon close examination we realized that perhaps what seemed to be so very exceptionally awesome and exciting…was just a bit out of our reach, financially and physically. We are not spring chickens and our funds are very limited, so we were quite disappointed when we realized that we had to be far more practical and realistic about what we were willing to bite off at this point and time in our lives. Having to pay rent is one thing, but having to pay rent on two places while creating a home on the one was too much, not to mention that fuel prices are soaring again and what it would cost to access this far away piece of heaven would be more than we could handle, along with the rest of the building costs. So we made the decision to keep looking, while feeling a bit deflated about the entire thing. Where would we go now? Yes, there were a couple of other offers as last minute back-up plans, but instead we decided to let it all go for the weekend and go play a little bit at the fiesta. We sorely needed a change of scenery.
The events did not start until late in the day, however there were soccer games most of the afternoon, so we headed on down the hill midafternoon to have the opportunity to watch things unfold. We parked at our friend’s place and visited there for a while, then meandered over to watch the soccer games and see what was happening in the main area. This is a very small village, everything kind of runs together and all within walking distance, the river running close by. There were already people milling about, several different venders set up in the area: cotton candy, popcorn, a trampoline for the kids, locally made knick knacks and jewelry, a beer station, the kitchen was cranking out some marvelous smells – actually, we had gone by the day before and they were butchering a couple of pigs on the spot and getting the huge pots up to boil over the wood stoves…mmmm. Food was piled and cooking (there are no people with white gloves and check lists here that will close the kitchen down in a heartbeat, and yet we have had nothing but good experience with the food here, despite being in the tropics and a third world country), the locals know what they like and know how to put it together, it is always delicioso. And now here we are to enjoy what was being prepared for almost two days, or more… We decided it might be a good idea to eat early before everyone else became hungry, and so we found a quiet spot and ordered some food. . There was fried chicken, chicken and rice, gallo pinto – which is rice and beans with a little bit of salad – pork soup and pork fried rice, a lot of options to satisfy the taste. The senora that attended us spoke very good English and was quite curious to meet us and talk, asking us if she could be of any help and that she would ask about to help us find our place to live. The food was delicious and the crowd thickened…and it was also time to quench our thirst with a cold cerveza as we continued to watch the people in their interactions and enjoyment. Across the yard the speakers were blaring as the ones in charge of the music did their sound testing, and we continued ‘people watching’.
‘People watching’ is always the best part in my opinion, especially the children. This is a country where events like this are very special and exciting to attend for them, not the norm as it is for kids in the States. Everywhere there are little kids with their faces sticky into cotton candy or popcorn, playing on the trampoline, or happy to be carted around by Papa. The family life here is traditionally very close, all of the family members immediate and extended are always close and they spend much time together, especially over food. There is so much love and devotion given to the children, and the old folks are taken care of by the family until they die – there are no homes for old folks, the love and commitment to the family is understated, it is simply evident and such a wonderful thing to witness. Today for me it was such a beautiful thing to watch the families enjoying themselves, there was little to no fussing and the children ran and played together freely with abandon.
We see a couple of horses at the bull ring now and the big truck with the bulls has arrived, time to unload – so we gather to watch with several other people as the bulls are ushered into the holding pens in preparation for the night’s activities. The horses were dancing, as they do here, in anticipation of doing their job. The excitement was building, so we took our seat in the stands to watch. The bull riders were introduced one at a time, each crossing their self (no doubt) as they entered into the arena, and then it was time for the show. The first bull and rider came out in a blast of ‘yeehaw’, the rider with both hands in the air – what? This was a first to see for us, no hands! These riders are wild, for sure! And almost every rider came out with no hands to start, but most grabbed ahold of something before the end of the ride. There were some really good rides and some not so good rides, but as usual the fun is usually after the ride, and here there are no clowns except for the young men that climb down into the arena to test their mettle against the bull before he finds his way out of the arena. There were several of these brave (personally, I question this term) men that tease and taunt the bull around the small arena, often running up and climbing the sides of the arena as fast as they can when the bull takes the bait, until the horses do their magic and move the bull out. These bulls are big and ornery, as bulls tend to go, and had no hesitation in trying to toss some human around in the air – and successfully so at least one time! Of course this was to the crowd’s delight, and the man was poked and bruised but relatively unhurt, and ready to try again. The horses and riders were also entertaining in throwing their lariats in huge loops while scooting quickly around the pen for just the right shot at the head of the bull, in true show off mode. The saddles do not have horns as they do in the States and thus the riders did not dally their ropes on the saddle, but held fast to the mecates with bull in tow – ouch! These guys are tough, and know their business and I was impressed by their skill and agility, and of course the horse’s skills as well with their fine dancing and movements around the bulls. The Criollo horses have some of the Andalusion horse blood in their background, which are the true bull fighting horses from Spain, and they certainly honor their ancestry. We watched bull riding until we could watch no more, and then called it a day as we headed up the road to our mountain top home.
The next day was the cabalgata, the huge horse ride in which most all of the locals and whoever chooses to travel here from elsewhere, participate. People of all ages and sizes ride, it is something that the locals look forward to every year. This is a ride that lasts about three hours, sometimes longer, and covers a loop of country road surrounding the small village of San Juan. Some of the folks had to ride a few hours just to get there, make this ride, and then ride home. (That would have been me if I had chosen to participate.) It is a pretty big hoopla and I would guess that a large percentage of the folks had their own stash of guaro (homemade corn whisky) tucked someplace convenient for the ride. Everyone thoroughly enjoys the sharing and laughter of riding together, but apparently there were quite a few that had a difficult time getting home, horse or no horse, after the ride! And of course it seems as though the guaro did not stop pouring after the ride, but well on into the remainder of the day.
Everyone enjoyed the fiesta, we enjoyed the fiesta and the community gathering as well, especially since this was our first. There are always lots of fiestas, many more to come, and surely we will be present at more as our future evolves here in this wonderful country. It truly was a pleasure to watch the people that live in this valley gather together in festivities, enjoying the camaraderie and family fun.