After six months of traipsing through the crushed shell beaches of Manabi, we decided it was high time to a catch a glimpse of life above sea level. We packed up the bikinis and board shorts to trade them in for dusty, creased jeans and our favorite leather boots. We tossed our kids, and our bags into the back of a Jeep and said goodbye to the sun kissed streets of San Clemente. It was quite a journey up the mountains, to get from the rolling sea to 12,000 feet; high above the colonial city of Quito. We lazily climbed through the quiet villages and snaking roads, peering out the windows in awe of waterfalls and landslides that dot the jungled mountainside.
We stopped at the indigenous artisanal market in the capitol city, to gear up for life in the Antisana volcanic region. Our final destination would be at home on the range, in the El Quinto ranchlands. Up there the air is clear and the atmosphere serene, but the UV rays and wind are unforgiving, in this country close to the sun. Surprisingly, it doesn’t snow, but the fickle weather means preparing for three seasons in a moment’s notice. As is true of anywhere in Ecuador, the only way to survive is to dress in layers. And so we did, dress ourselves with the Chagras in mind. The Chagras are the cattlemen of the Andes, and the Antisanas, too. The high altitude cowboys have learned to live and love the elements after centuries in the thin air countryside. There was nothing else to do but to take our ques from the experienced roamers, and to load up on many layers of alpaca wool clothing made by the indigenous.
It was a strange thing to us, to buy heavy socks and scarves, and stocking hats too, but to completely dismiss the need for a heavy winter coat. With raised eyebrows in doubt, we exited the marketplace with our cold weather accessories and thick, hooded sweaters for our trip to the heights. Just a few moments beyond the outskirts of the city of two and half a million people, civilization quickly gave way to rolling landscapes and cobblestone streets.
Quiet came over us as we were engulfed by a new kind of beauty, a different angle on the splendor of Ecuador. The pollution of lights and sound drifted behind us and we were instantly transported to life in a different place and time. The highlands were draped in a quilt of farmlands and lovely dirt roads, speckled with livestock; divine running, horses and broad, Brahma bulls.
Just before we tumbled up to the gates of the ranch, our guide pulled his truck to the side of the narrow, bumpy lane, and dared us to peer over the barbed wire fence. The doors of our 4X4 creaked open and we peered down from the sky, over mountains and valleys of lava rock; strange alien-like deposits from the Antisana some thousand years ago. As we pondered a time when the angry innards of the earth exploded over the lands, we bumped along the rural acres home to the grasslands that house the herds we came to see. The hundred heads that live here are shrouded in history and culture, and most recently in debate and controversy. This ranch is home to the breeders and bloodline of the Spanish fighting bull, a tradition five hundred years deep in Ecuador.
We came to see and be seen, by the angry, adrenaline filled, fighting bull. The Roman family breeders have been in business for 40 years, with three living generations still practicing the art of capote and muleta passing. But, here, heritage is not required, and anyone can learn the honor of bullfighting, as taught by the ranch’s team of toreros, otherwise known as bullfighters.
My husband for one; took up on the adventure, in a quest to understand and immerse in the culture of bullfighting. Carlos was invited to participate in the training of the bullfighters and the bravery testing of a bull. In this practice, the bulls are not injured or killed, but rather they were enticed to show the signs of nobility, valor, and might, requirements for breeding the fighting bulls. The bulls that show the right stuff are further prepared for passing on their bloodline, but those that lack in the desired attributes are returned to a life of grazing and lazing in the Andes sun.
Early in the afternoon, the trainers and participants gathered in the wide circle of the bull ring to practice the graceful sweeps of their capes. The kids and I tucked ourselves into the sun drenched strands of knee high hay, growing between the faded red slats of the wooden corral. We basked in the scent of evergreens and eucalyptus as we savored the hugs of our fuzzy, wool sweaters. It was a little piece of heaven, to peek at our father and husband through the blades of the countryside as he danced with his borrowed moleta. Without the presence of the not-yet-summoned bull, we were free to imagine the animal’s place in the ring, and to gaze at the empty stands above our heads.
Not too long later, we left our huddle to find a place in the bleachers, where the midday rays blasted us with their presence. We couldn’t get rid of our jackets and mittens fast enough, tossing them in the dust beneath our boots as the show began. Our four year old daughter crouched beneath the front barrier, peering between the cracks in the boards. She was desperate to watch, but overcome by trepidation as the wild bull frantically rooting around in the field below. Our younger son fell silent as he peaked from behind my shoulders.
The small crowd of onlookers bustled around to get the best view and out of the sudden heat. A few poured some liquor, as the celebratory event commenced, and others passed around bags of candy as if celebrating at a holiday party.
With our eyes to the participants, we watched as the bullfighters glided into the ring, one by one. Most took their places behind the burladero, a guarding wall at the edges of the ring that offers protection from the bull. And finally the first one was chosen to begin the taunting of the bull. He took his turn, showed his tricks, and flapped the cape from to the side, above the bull’s head, and then behind his hips again.
And then one after the other, the trainees took their turns, stepping in and out as instructed, some succeeding and some struggling to present their old or newfound expertise. I have no place to critique, as a first time viewer, safe in my seat; but I’m sure of one thing, it took a certain dose of bravery for any of them to put themselves in front of a bull.
Though there were a few close calls, most of the interactions were little more than near encounters between man and monster. But, near the middle of the show, there was an occurrence when the bull mastered the taunting man; sending him clear to the ground. The seconds felt like hours as the bullfighters emerged from every corner of the ring, flapping their capotes to distract the angered animal from the downed participant.
I snapped out of my stupor, to grab my camera, preparing to shoot my first tragedy. Just as I focused my lens, I caught sight of my husband… racing front and center, his first time in front of the bull. I bit my lip as I waited, hoping the worst wouldn’t happen. I envisioned scenes not from the present, but of men getting gored from movies on TV. Luckily nothing like that happened, and the bull trotted off in the opposite direction, leaving my husband and the others the chance to escape to the other end.
But, it wasn’t over yet. The bull snorted and kicked and tried to get at them from behind their safety net. He ran a couple of laps before simmering down, and then the games resumed. Apparently he was deemed mad enough, as the cowboys removed him from the ring, excusing him for the remainder of the fights.
A second bull came in, and much of the same repeated, each of the men taking turns testing the temperament of the fresh, horned animal. I saw from the sidelines, my husband removing his leather Andes hat and laying it to the side. I knew it was his time, as he slid from behind the burladero, creeping gracefully into the sights of the bull. He whipped his muleta around, flashing the blood red color, while enticing the animal to come a little closer. I was startled by its reaction, barreling through the cape, and getting a little too close for comfort. I cringed as I eyed the horns, watching them narrowly pass by the jeaned thighs of my husband.
But, Carlos was quick on his feet, and the kids cheered Daddy on, as he escaped danger time and time again. Then, just as quick as it began, it was over, and my hubby exited the performance, unscathed by the experience. Head held high, he looked up at me and nodded with his best Marlboro man wink as he stepped out of view.
The sun shrugged off its warmth shortly after, but long before darkness fell over the ranch. We pulled the wool back up over our ears, as we trudged up the hill and past the pastures. In the evening hours, we sat around the wood burning fireplace in cow hide chairs, tossing around stories about the excitement of the day. We sipped coffee and cocoa as we admired the posters on the walls, those that told the tales of bullfighters and matadors from the decades before. The kids laughed and squealed with echoes through the old, brick walls.
Just as all cowboys must do, we finally retreated for the night, to a corner room far from the heat. We giggled as we breathed the cool, mountain air from the nostrils of our sun burnt noses.
The kids scurried across the cold, tiled floor and into a bed, fitted with nearly ten piled blankets. We doubled our socks and pulled our sweaters over our jammies, before digging our toes under the heavy, wool layers.
As the softness of the night came over the room, I listened to the calm, shallow breathing of slumbering children. I heard a couple of thuds from the outer walls of our room, and peered into the dark trying to make sense of it. From the un-curtained panes, I saw the moon glowing across the mane of the mare that sleeps behind the house. She pushed her nose against the glass and left steam on the window, before turning in dismissal with a clop clop on the dirt.
I couldn’t help but wonder if her rider normally slept there, but was absent that night. I asked my husband if he agreed, but the only response was silence, as all of my cowboys had fallen asleep. I imagined living there, and leaving a bale of hale at the foot of the bed, of opening the window to let the horse stick her snout in.
Eventually I drifted off too, reminiscing on day one of the best vacation that had ever been.