I wrote this as part of my Masters project in 2010. It has been edited quite a bit since.
There were six of us in the tour group and we stood watching the gaucho, Juan Manuel, introduce us to the horses we’d be riding over the coming days. Juan Manuel was a slight man, but you could tell his body was a rope of muscle from the hard work on the estancia and all-night sessions of love-making with his Swiss yoga teacher wife. He was the first Uruguayan I’d met, so my expectations were slim to none. During the entire ride from Salto on the Argentina-Uruguay border to the estancia in the back of his truck, Juan Manuel had spoken little, let alone any English, and when he did it was to communicate to the group that he was fine, and that there was nothing to worry about, after a rock was hurled from a passing truck through the front windshield, completely shattering it. Yet, at the dinner table he delighted in provoking his female guests; his loquaciousness hinted at a genuine love of the fairer sex. The lyrics in the Bjork song ‘Venus as a Boy’ came instantly to mind: “His wicked sense of humour suggests exciting sex”. I guess it was enough to convince his wife to set up life in Middle-of-Nowhere, South America.
Juan Manuel was laconic to the hilt, dry, yet curious about the world and the people living in it. Only this type of personality would be able to handle tourists coming to his farm land to fool around on horses and ask stupid questions. On two walls in the living room, bookshelves were filled in DVDs and videotapes – this was a serious cinephile – and he’d seen every one, perhaps more than once, a fact that was more impressive when you considered the farmhouse had only three hours of electricity a day. You imagined he studied human behaviour through this medium just as intensely as he asked point blank questions about your sex life.
Standing beside a sign that said, “City slicker: It’s not the horse, it is YOU! For G’s sake!” we delighted in his earnest, yet jaded explanation of how to handle the horses the correct way. He even demonstrated his favourite city slicker mishap, ‘the 4-minute fall’ from a horse, which involves both horse and rider freaking out exponentially, with the rider getting caught in the stirrups. When asked if we had any questions, we were not allowed to politely decline, instead he insisted we had a question; otherwise, he said, we weren’t really paying attention. If not, a joke would suffice. One thing I really appreciate about many hispanophone cultures is that disallowance of being a shrinking violet. How is that any way to live? They seem to ask. Life is short, why not grab it by the balls? (And for Juan Manuel, as we would eventually see, this was literally what he did, to the detriment of randomly selected bulls.)
I was very excited at the prospect of riding a horse. I hadn’t for over a decade, but I’ve always had romantic fantasies about being a horse-rider, preferably dressed in chain mail and some fetching earthen-coloured cloak. I figured I’d start learning archery once the horse was consolidated as an asset, then the medieval fairs would be a source of income, but since I was destined to live in cities, the dream died, my sword went limp. I was chuffed when Juan Manuel commented on a natural affinity I had with the horse and how well I rode it – a huge part of me wanted to gallop off into the sunset, but a more real part of me wanted to sneeze.
As soon as we had entered the saddlery, I started sneezing. Generally, as a person, I’m quite prone to being a gawky asthmatic who winces at every change in temperature of office air conditioning, so I didn’t think much of my sudden (is there a word for a group of sneezes?) ‘bundle’. Half way through our introductory walk around the property on horseback I realised I was having an allergic reaction. I sidled up to Juan Manuel and his horse (trying to be as un-dramatic as possible, but as cool as Clint Eastwood) and told him in Spanish that I thought I might be allergic to the horse.
Now, this is something I should stop doing. I know what is happening to my body. If I’m on top of an animal wheezing for air, I’m having some sort of allergic attack. I am, as my friends know a thousand times over, allergic to a few foods – five to be exact: Sunflower seeds, peas, celery, peaches and avocado. I have run-ins with the first of these a lot (as it’s not a common enough allergy for companies to have to print it as an allergy caution on their products – sometimes it crops up as just the plural in ‘vegetable oils‘), so I’m well aware of the affects of anaphylactic shock. However, a few times I’ve wandered into chemists calmly asking for some antihistamines because I was having an attack, not wanting people to fuss over me, this, of course, leading to worried glances between the staff members. This desire to underplay it comes from two places. One is my awareness of whinging, and not wanting to sound weak or to get sympathy from people (… can’t wait ’til I’m an old man). The other is that allergies are still not taken that seriously by a lot of people, especially food allergies.
I remember not understanding it as a child. I’d look at my peanut butter sandwich, and then at my friend William, floundering on the ground struggling to breathe, thinking he was being a big sooky pants. God, I’d given him half of my lunch, the attention seeking loser. I think a lot of people still have that reaction to others with allergies or intolerances to food. More so if they have never experienced an ill reaction to what they eat. I love food, so believe me I’d eat anything and everything if I could. I haven’t selected foods that I hate to have an excuse not to eat them. I was devastated to get a reaction to avocado, in particular, because at one point of my student life I existed off home-made guacamole (this fact may be the reason for my body turning against it, however).
Living in Spain was a test of patience; waiters didn’t fully comprehend my allergy to sunflower seeds (and henceforth sunflower oil). I’d tell them about my allergy, we’d arrange it so that my chicken would be cooked in nothing but olive oil, and they’d bring it out with a side of chips deep fried in sunflower oil. Needless to say, Spain was where I finally got over my kitchen-phobia, and learnt how to cook non life-threatening food for myself. I’ve also had run-ins with imbeciles in Australia. I’ve grown weary of anywhere that sells a healthy or organic alternative as this usually means they use sunflower oil in the belief that it is healthier for you (which is wrong, canola oil is just as good and less expensive, and olive oil is healthier still). One time I had a discussion with some hippy about how I couldn’t eat my falafel because I didn’t realise everything in the shop was cooked in sunflower oil, only to be lectured on its benefits to my health. No, no, I said, it’s not healthier if it kills you. I think they were just annoyed they had sacrificed the lives of several chickpeas that were never going to be digested.
Back at the estancia, I had a whole morning to entertain myself while the others went off riding (to herd sheep, castrate cattle, watch the birthing of a lamb, that sort of thing). The Uruguayan landscape reminded me of the Adelaide hills back home: not dramatic, rather cosy, muted greens, and the odd eucalyptus here and there. I wandered the house and the surrounding gardens, taking what I thought were ‘artistic’ photographs of the place. You know the type where a close-up of a fixture or a randomly placed packet of matches makes your series of photos of a place more unique, yet ultimately more bewildering when you look back on them in ten years time? I also made a mental note, dodging cow pats in a nearby paddock, that I’m not much of a country boy.
I worried that Juan Manuel would see this in me, however, and it struck me as odd how much I wanted to impress him. In scenarios where I’m presented with one of the Village People (in this case, the Cowboy), I tend to want to big up my masculine side to impress the alpha male. Beto, the Ecuadorian tour organiser, was the first to impress, so I climbed the highest mountain on the Brazilian tropical island of Ilha Grande, Pico de Papagaio, with him. I didn’t decide to do it specifically to be a big man on campus – I do enjoy hiking – but there was a motivation somewhere in me to prove to this guy (is there a Tour Organiser Village Person?) that I was no ‘pussy’. I hadn’t even ‘come out’ to him yet, but regardless of sexuality, I wanted to make him understand that as Sam, the person, I’m quite partial to physical exertion. I couldn’t stand the thought that Juan Manuel might put me in the box of “City Slicker Poof Who Has Allergies”.
We sat around Juan Manuel’s dining table eating a hearty Uruguayan dinner, full of meat and beans. An hour into the meal the three hours of electricity went off and we lit candles, but still the conversation raged on.
On the Brazil-Argentina border at Iguazu Falls, our small tour group of four became six when an Australian couple from Brisbane met us there to journey the rest of the way through Uruguay and then on to Buenos Aires with us. I had already ‘come out’ to the others in the group, but because the new couple was older (in their 50s and 70s), I didn’t know how well it would go down with them. Later, when the conversation brushed on inherited diseases, I wanted to make a point about whether homosexuality is a product of nature or nurture, but couldn’t without alluding to my own sexuality. After the plates were cleared away and I sat alone with the older couple for the first time, they apologised if they had made me uncomfortable. They also said that I shouldn’t have such a ‘block’ up with people. So I ‘came out’ to them, but it was an odd reminder that sexuality is an expected insight into your character.
The couple asked me if it would be easier for me to open up if I had a partner.
Now, having been single for a very long time, I have an instant reaction against this line of questioning. It takes a lot of work to not be an angsty single person. So I blurted out a “No” before thinking logically about it, and changing it to a “Yes”.
When I thought about it, if somebody is in a relationship, their sexuality is on full display – especially if they’re both physically together in front of you. I had never thought about how a partner makes your sexuality a less abstract idea for other people. It certainly helps the whole ‘coming out’ ordeal. Saying “My partner, <insert male name here>…” feels much more civilised and means you don’t have to label yourself one way or the other. You can replace the whole labelling statement of ‘I’m gay’ to a pronoun: “My partner is looking after the dogs. He usually takes them for walks after ‘Will & Grace’.”
While everyone was out horse riding over the gentle hills of the Uruguayan campo, I passed some time perusing Juan Manuel’s massive DVD collection. I saw a couple of queer films amongst the titles, and realised our gaucho host was more than just a stereotype of heterosexual masculinity – he would’ve explored his sexuality in his own way. It takes a very sheltered person not to have lived several lives, meeting a vast array of characters pushing us to rethink our own identity amongst it all. Who knows the hidden depths of every one of us?
Before we left the estancia, Juan Manuel was asked what he used the bullwhip on the front of his saddle for. Instantly, and as dry as ever, he replied, “Sado-masochism. You open up the wife’s legs and crack… She loves it.”