I woke shivering. I laid still for a second trying to remember where I was when I heard a voice. “Juan…Guillermo…” It was Miguel calling our names trying to wake us up. I sat up and let him know I was awake. Neal woke up at the same time. It was pitch black outside still.
Miguel informed me he would be back and that we needed to pack our things as he disappeared out the end of the train car into the darkness. I asked Neal the time, and he told me it was 4 am. So much for getting a start at sunup. I felt like I was in the John Wayne movie “Cowboys” when the boys were told they were “burning daylight” before the sun had even come up.
I looked down to the other end of the train car where the three Ayoreo women were only to find they had already left. I wondered how they managed to see where they were going without flashlights. We rolled up our blankets and pulled our cowboy boots on. It only took a minute to pack up and we climbed down from the train car to wait. It was chilly but not terribly cold.
All of the sudden Miguel appeared out of the darkness leading 2 horses and a large steer. One of the horses was large and extremely long. He was much larger than any horse I had seen in Bolivia. He was on the skinny side which was normal for Bolivian horses. I had heard stories of this horse. In fact, he was the father to my horse and his name was Muchacho. The other horse was a small mare that gave birth to the mule I was there to break. The steer’s name was Ford. He had long horns with the tips cut off and a ring through his nose. Miguel explained that like a Ford truck, the steer could go forever so he felt the name was fitting. Miguel tied them all to the end of the train car and we helped bring the saddles he had piled inside the train car down. He quickly saddled all three animals. He had some rope and we tied our bags to the back of our saddles and he did the same with his bed roll on the steer.
My brother was bigger than me, so he got to ride Muchacho and I was relegated to the small mare Miguel called La Yegua. Ford had a rope tied around the base of his horns that then ran down through the ring in his nose. Miguel held onto the other end to control him. Ford realized it was time to go the moment Miguel started to climb into the saddle. Miguel forced him to turn in circles as he hopped on his right foot while getting his left into the stirrup. Once he was seated he walked Ford by the steps of the train car where his son was waiting and he pulled the boy onto the back of the beast. Once his son was seated behind the saddle on the bed roll Miguel straightened him out in the direction we needed to go and Ford took off at a fast walk into the darkness. Neal and I were amazed at what we were seeing and had to quickly jump on our horses and try to catch up.
Bolivian saddles are not comfortable at all. They are nothing like the Western saddle I had at home. I realized very quickly that I should have checked the stirrup length before we headed out. My right stirrup was a little on the short side, but my left was so short I felt like I should sit like a jockey on a race horse. There was nothing I could do at this point as Miguel had disappeared and Neal had the only flashlight between the two of us. I also learned very quickly that the mare I was riding was a stubborn old lady and she had a mind of her own. It was only fitting that she was the mother of a mule since she seemed just about as stubborn.
Neal and I caught up to Miguel just as the two track road we were riding on went over a small mountain. At the bottom we crossed the railroad tracks and proceeded to enter a small canyon with a stream that we crossed several times. I could not believe how fast that steer was going and my horse was forced to trot to keep up. The only thing I could do was hang on, because I couldn’t see in the darkness anyway.
About an hour into our ride we turned off the two track trail and climbed to the top of a hill on a cow trail. At the top Miguel and his son dismounted from Ford. He told us we needed to lead our horses because the trail was steep. We were going to take a shortcut that would save us almost an hour. Again I was at a huge disadvantage not having a flashlight. The trail was narrow with a steep descent. There were boulders that created stair steps and the animals were slipping and sliding down behind us. I slipped and fell once pulling hard on my horse’s reigns to try to keep from hitting the ground but it didn’t help. I landed on my backside and my horse jerked back pulling the reigns from my hand. I quickly jumped up and snatched the reigns again before my horse could get away. After several switchback turns on the mountainside we reached the bottom of the trail. I breathed a sigh of relief that we were off the mountain. Miguel and Ford did their spinning dance while Miguel mounted. In the process several small bushes were trampled by Ford in his desire to get going. However, this time Miguel had to reach down and pull his son up to join him. Once they were situated Miguel pointed Ford in the right direction and we were off again. Soon our trail rejoined the main road again just as the daybreak started to light our way.
The early morning light revealed the Gran Chaco to us. It is a dry dense jungle that extends from Brazil to the northeast all the way south through Bolivia, western Paraguay, and into northern Argentina. Some have been known to call it “The Green Hell”. In the summer it is scorching hot over 100 degrees with torrential rains. The rains bring humidity and the bugs can be horrendous. The rains come in the summer, but not near as frequently as the Amazon far to the north. In the winter, it can be cold and dry. Tall trees that are cut for lumber in some areas are frequent. However, there is a thick undergrowth beneath the tall trees that in many areas is impenetrable except by animals. Wildlife is present but we did not see much more than birds on our journey. We did see a pair beautiful toucans fly by. Miguel informed us that deer could occasionally be shot and jaguars were also present. Miguel carried a Colt .45 revolver for just such encounters. A few years earlier there was a jaguar terrorizing Tobite and it killed a donkey right outside the village. One of the native men shot it and my dad happened to be visiting a few days later and bought the skin. Its body was about 6 feet long and the cured hide hung on our wall at home. There were also anteaters, armadillo, tapir, and jochi (also known as capybara) but we did not see any.
The sun was warm and welcoming as I had been chilly all morning. I didn’t realize how cold I was until I started to warm up. The road was straight and sandy. We rode along in silence following the steer. The only sound was the breeze through the trees and the hooves of the animals. The sand was having a toll on the horses but it didn’t seem to bother Ford. It seemed as if he was on a mission, which in fact he was. He knew this was the way home and he apparently enjoyed traveling. Occasionally he would flip his head to knock a fly off his back with his long horns. Miguel had trimmed about an inch off the tips so they were not sharp.
We caught up to the three Ayoreo ladies from the train. I could not believe how far they had traveled already. They were loaded down with makeshift packs on their backs carrying the supplies they had purchased in the city. How they made it down that mountain trail in the dark with no flashlights while carrying heavy packs amazed me. Miguel exchanged pleasantries with them as we passed, but we didn’t stop.
Two hours into our ride Miguel pulled Ford into a spinning circle and he and his son dismounted next to a large log along the road. He told us we would take a little break as this was the half way point on the ride to Tobite. We welcomed the break and dismounted. I had been riding with my feet out of the stirrups most of the way because it was more comfortable like that. Miguel pulled out some crackers and a jug of water to share with us from a bag he had been carrying. Since I had not eaten since the night before I welcomed the snack. After eating a little, I took a look at the stirrups on my saddle. I managed to adjust them to fit me much better after several mounts and dismounts. La Yegua was not real keen on me getting up and down and would not stand still for me. After about thirty minutes Miguel said we should get going and he and Ford did their dance again. His son stood on the log waiting to leap on the back of the moving animal. Miguel reached back and helped him get up and situated as Ford took off in the right direction.
Our journey through the Chaco was uneventful. There was not a whole lot to see except green thick jungle. The terrain was fairly flat and the road was very straight. The sun was warm and we took our jackets off and tied them around our waists. I think Miguel could sense that we were getting tired and informed us we were almost there. He pointed to a small mountain that could be seen in the distance jutting up from the dense jungle. “Tobite is just on the other side of that mountain”, he said.
As we neared the mountain the road emerged onto the airstrip missionaries had built many years before. We rode down the length of the grassy strip to the far end where the road continued around to the right of the mountain. The side of the mountain was a jagged vertical cliff. About half a mile later a large white two story house came into view. It was extremely out of place in the middle of nowhere. Miguel informed us that this was where Paul Gess and his family had lived when they were missionaries there. Paul’s youngest daughter Kathy was only a few years older than Neal and I and we went to school with her. There was another missionary family named Abram and Rut Martinez were living in the house now. They were a Bolivian family that moved here to minister to the Ayoreo people. We stopped in front of the house next to some large trees and tied up our animals.
Abram came to the door and greeted us. Neal and I had known him for several years and he greeted us like we were best friends. Rut was making breakfast and we were right on time. My stomach was extremely thankful for a good meal and my backside was thankful for the reprieve from the uncomfortable saddle. Neal was hurting too and glad to be down off his horse. We were there for an hour or so visiting before Miguel said we needed to get going. We still had another hour ride to get to the ranch where Miguel’s wife and daughter were alone.
We mounted up and Miguel led the way through the village of Ayoreo houses. The houses were all small one or two room buildings. The walls were made of mud or rough sawn lumber. The floors were dirt. Some had thatched roofs but a few had corrugated tin roofs. There was a small area cleared out with some crude soccer goals set up where a few children were playing. Next to the soccer field was a small church.
We rode out of the village and back into the jungle heading north. The road was the same as before. It was simply two tracks going through the sand and not much wider than one vehicle. About halfway to the ranch we came to a barbed wire fence with a gate made of barbed wire. I jumped down and opened it so Miguel wouldn’t have to go through the ritual of mounting his steer after again.
Finally we came to a small creek. On the north side sat a small three roomed house about 20 yards from the 8 foot high creek bank. The road went up at an angle to the right and the bank was cut away to make the road flat. There was a barbed wire fence at the top of the bank that created a large square that kept the cows from getting to close to the house. The front door was around to the east side. It was a mud house with a tin roof. Homemade pvc gutters hung around the eaves of the roof to collect the rainwater into a cistern that sat on the ground at the corner of the house.
Directly in front of the house to the east was a pole corral for livestock about 20 yards away. The corral was similar to what you might see in a western movie, except not as fancy. It was about 5 feet tall and made from 3 to 4 inch poles cut from the jungle. To hold the horizontal poles in place, about every ten feet or so there were two vertical poles standing about 6 feet tall on each side of the horizontal poles. The vertical poles sandwiched the horizontal poles holding them in place. Heavy wire tied the two vertical poles together creating saddles for the horizontal poles to rest on. There were several small pens close to the house and they were joined to a much larger pen that had a barbed wire fence around the far side that was a continuation of the fence along the creek.
There were a few trees between the corral and the house. The ground was hard packed with no grass between the two, only a few weeds had managed to sprout up. On the north side of the house was another smaller building that was for storage. This is where Miguel kept his tack and a two wheeled cart that Ford could pull. About 50 yards past the storage building was another fence and gate that made the boundary of the yard. Past the gate was about a 30 acre pen surrounded by a fence. It had a small pond in it that provided water for the livestock when kept there. A good sized jack donkey was grazing in this pen along with a couple more horses. I later learned that the jack was the father of my project for the week. On the far side of that pen was another gate that opened out to the open range where the cattle roamed. Between the storage building and the house but off to the west was an outhouse with a nice hard packed path leading to it. It was nothing fancy, but sure beat using the woods.
Chickens were roaming around the yard looking for bugs and plants to eat. Miguel’s wife came to the door as we approached. She was glad to see us and warmly welcomed us to her home. It was not fancy, but I could see she did her best to take care of it and make it a home. We gladly dismounted and unpacked our horses. The horses were worn out after trotting through soft sand for 5 hours. A young mule came trotting up to welcome us. Miguel informed me that he was La Yegua’s youngest offspring. He pointed over to the corral where a larger mule stood inside and told me his name was Vicente. I asked Miguel why he named him that and he told me it was because Vicente was a “picaro”. A “pícaro” is often used when referring to a hard headed, stubborn, independent person. I did not understand the connection between the name Vicente and the word picaro, but it didn’t really matter. I would soon learn exactly what Miguel meant when he called Vicente a picaro.
Vicente was light brown in color. I believe he would be called a “Zebra Dunn”. He had a dark brown stripe running the length of his back with a vertical stripe running down each shoulder. He was not very tall, in fact I was not very impressed with his size. I was expecting a larger animal, but then again after riding his mother for 5 hours I should have known what to expect. I turned back to unloading my horse when I heard the sound of a hoof striking wood. I turned to look just in time to see Vicente landing on our side of the corral fence. That little mule leaped right over the 5 foot tall fence like it was nothing with no running start. Miguel didn’t seem bothered by it and proceeded to put all the tack into the storage shed. I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Miguel is expecting me to ride this beast and tame him in a week’s time. I had no formal training with such a task, but I was pretty good at hanging onto my horse at home, although I had taken a few spills over the years.
We turned our horses and Ford into the barbed wire pen with the other livestock. The young mule followed his mom, but Vicente stayed in front of the house. Miguel didn’t seem too bothered by him and I soon learned why. He would jump the barbed wire fences just like the corral anytime he wanted, but he never wandered off.
We walked into the house. The first room doubled as the kitchen and dining room. A wood stove was located on the right wall about half way down. There was no ceiling, the rafters and the underside of the tin roof was exposed throughout. There were two small windows, one was near the front door and the other on the adjacent wall to the right. Under the window to the corner of the room was a counter with storage underneath. A curtain hung across the shelves to cover the dishes and pots. One end of the counter was built to accommodate a dish pan. The floor was smooth hard packed dirt. Directly in front of the door was a wood dining table with benches on two sides and wood chairs on each end. The table was fairly large and could seat about 8 people. There was a wall to the left with a door through it. This would be Neal and I’s bedroom. Straight behind the table was a door into another room that served as the master bedroom. The family was going to all stay in that bedroom leaving the other to Neal and me. Our bedroom had two small beds on each side with a small homemade nightstand between them. A candle on the nightstand would provide us with light at night. There was shuttered opening in the wall between the beds that could be opened to let air in, but there was no glass.
We put our bags in the room and rolled out our blankets. Neal discovered that somewhere on the ride he had lost his flashlight. This was a little more concerning because you really didn’t want to go to the outhouse without a light at night.
We both relaxed for the rest of the day. We walked around outside and enjoyed the beautiful weather. Both Neal and I had brought a few books to read and I was glad I didn’t pack them in my missing duffle bag. We were both sore from the ride and needed to rest after the lack of sleep the night before. I was also apprehensive about what the next week would entail.
We had dinner just after the sun had set. A propane powered lamp provided the light in the kitchen. We sat around the table enjoying getting to know each other. Miguel had met our dad a time or two and they were full of questions about us. The two children still did not know what to think of us and stared most of the time. We also enjoyed some hot “Yerba Mate” as well. Yerba Mate is a plant that is ground up and used for tea. Often it is put loosely into a hollowed out cow horn and a strainer straw is used to suck the tea out. The horn is cut and a cork is inserted into one end to make a cup. It is served both hot and cold. When served cold it is called Terrere by some. The horn is passed around the group and refilled after each person takes a drink. It appears a bit odd the first time you see it, but it quickly becomes a traditional pastime.
After dinner we retired to the bedroom for some much needed rest.