"Â¡Buenos dias, amigo!," said Ernesto, grinning widely behind the desk of the Villa Colonial Hostel, "I am happy to run into you! I want to tell you: outside of town today, there will be a charreada. It is – a cowboy festival?"
"A rodeo?" I suggested, seeing him grasp for the word.
"Rodeo! Yes!" he said excitedly but, seeing my skepticism, added, "It will be fun for you! There will be lots of pretty girls!"
I ignored that comment – it seems to be part of the Mexican character to advertise any event with the presence of "pretty girls" – but the idea of a rodeo in the heart of Mexico
piqued my curiosity. I discarded my plan of spending the morning googling Spanish obscenities and jumped a taxi to the bullring outside of town.
I had arrived in the colonial town of Zacatecas, 322 miles (518km) northwest of Mexico
City, two days beforehand during a religious procession, the winding alleys awash with balloons and fluttering lines of flags. Clowns entertained swarms of children in the plazas; the great dome of the basilica caught the sunlight in such a way as to cause the jaw to drop involuntarily. In a country facing such a publicity crisis – as tales of drug gangs and beheadings continue to litter the evening news – it can be shocking to discover a city as sophisticated and beautiful as Zacatecas.
I was shown to my concrete seat by a fast-talking drinks vendor who set about preparing me a monstrous michelada in a styrofoam cup. For the uninitiated, a micheladaÂ in the Mexican sense is akin to a Bloody Mary prepared with beer instead of vodka, filled out with Clamato juice, Tabasco, salt and ice – a concoction far more tasty than it sounds.
Of course, none of the pretty girls promised by Ernesto were present; in fact, the amphitheater was half full. The crowd compensated for the emptiness with raucous celebration, however. A mariachi band struck up tunes from the top tier; boys as young as nine swung lassoes about their body. Cowboy boots and wide-brimmed sombreros proliferated.
Inside the dusty ring, elaborately dressed charros jumped through their lassoes for the crowd. As they mounted their beautifully groomed horses, an unmounted horse was loosed from the gate, galloping with great strides around the ring, the charros in hot pursuit. A charro who remained standing waited for the right moment with his lasso and then neatly flicked it under the galloping horse, looping it almost magically around the front two legs.
The charro let the horse run a little further, drawing out the slack, and then with a jerk the horse was pulled off its feet mid-gallop, flying through the air and rolling as it hit the ground. It lifted itself gingerly and trotted away to the side as if embarrassed.
The effect of this, the might beast plummeting to earth in a cloud of dust, was initially shocking. It seemed a sport of senseless cruelty. I turned my face away at every jerk of the rope, cringing, while the crowd cheered and tossed their sombreros into the ring in exultation.
After a while, though, I came to see a beauty in this. It was something about the meticulous manner in which the charros worked. If they roped a horse incorrectly, their grip was loosened, the horse allowed to run free. There was a care here, even a love, and within the afternoon I came to a full reversal of my feelings. Here in Mexico, in the twenty-first century, is a group making a valiant, if hopeless, attempt to keep alive a time in which people understood the land, knew their animals, and possessed the requisite mix of skill and care to work with both.
Toward the end of the afternoon the vendor came and sat beside me as another horse crashed to earth.
"You know, amigo," he murmured, "if you don't have a sombrero, throw your shoes to the charros. They will appreciate it."
I ripped off my sneakers and tossed them into the ring. Or, I attempted to. One hit an elderly man, three aisles down, in the back of the head. The other clattered down the stairs. I raised my hands in apology. Here in Mexico, at least, a generation may be raised with more complex skills than "being able to make Google Translate beatbox."
Let's hope so.
Lachie Prior is the lead writer on the Latin American travel video blogÂ Planet Kapow, and has previously written the South-East Asian travel blogÂ The Juicy Pop. Having only left his native Australia for the first time atÂ the ripe old age of nineteen, he has so far visited twenty-seven countriesÂ across Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Americas. HeÂ is currently twelve months into an epic fifteen-month overland journey fromÂ Los Angeles to Patagonia – an experience that has taught him how to danceÂ (sort of), how to surf (kind of), how to be outrageously obscene inÂ Spanish (perfectly), and how to fall in love with the worldÂ all over again.