Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Feria de los Mataderos

Its Sunday in the spring, and we decide to go to Feria de los Mataderos.
Stephanie, Silke, Francesca and I meet outside Bar El Federal at the corner of Peru and Carlos Calvo for colectivo 126. This will take us the full journey of 13 kilometres to bario Mataderos. With relatively empty streets, we race along Carlos Calvo, negotiating Av 9 de Julio, and following Humberto Primo to its source, skirting Parque Avellaneda arriving in Av Lisandro de la Torre 45 minutes later.
We know the stop, for this is where the Sunday bus decants most of its travellers. What a draw is this feria!
Stretching out into the distance is a huge market of small stalls, covered with tarpaulin and plastic sheeting to shade the wares and the vendors. To our left is a parilla, already in business, with masses of sausages and steak on the grill. The air is heavy with smoke from the charcoal wafting along the street. A band has arrived to play in the park, and visitors are strolling up and down the rows of produce - food, crafts, clothing, jewellery, mate cups, carvings, paintings and shoes.
We make our way to the stage area, positioned in the centre of the feria, with small streets leading off in four directions. With others, we remove our hats and bow our heads as a national hymn is sung, and then the dancing starts.
Feria Mataderos is a folk market, populated by local people. This is far distant from the tango trail, and the dances here are principally chacarera and zamba. Some of the dancers are in costume - the men wearing pleated trousers gathered at the calf, raglan shirts, with riding boots, waistcoats, silk scarves and leather belts. Inside the belt are sashes and a decorative dagger. The women wear brightly coloured dresses, cut above the ankle, with white petticoats. They are joined by the people of the market, simply dressed for their Sunday out at the feria. The music is bright and dramatic, drawing passersby in to dance or to watch. There will be over 100 in this group alone.
Nearby are the stalls for food. Just to the right is an empanada stall. Four women sit making these small savouries, whilst two men deep-fry them in a large pan of oil. Each one is a work of art, with delicate patterns in the pastry to seal the contents. Just across from here is a churro stall, selling freshly made sweet pastries filled with dolce de leche and chocolate.
The main focus of the feria is horsemanship. Shortly, I will take you further down the street to a place where there are no stalls. Instead, the centre of the road has been covered with a strip of sand, and placed centrally is a light steel gantry carrying a short piece of rubber strip, below which is affixed a steel circle, the size of a key ring. On the pavements under the shade of trees are the gauchos - some mounted, others tethering their horses; and they wait.
Back here in the market is everything to support your equestrian needs - riding boots, spurs, ropes, harness decorations, bridles and sashes. You may buy gaucho costume, especially the daggers - bearing intricate detail in silver and bone.
A bell rings and we hear the sound of thundering hooves. Even for race goers or those used to attending point-to-point, nothing can prepare you for this specacle. A young gaucho, perhaps 25 years of age, wearing a boina (Argentine beret), has spurred his horse to a gallop. The speed is astonishing, as is the noise. He charges down the sanded strip. Between his lips he carries a small steel tube the size of a pencil.  It is a mate straw, used for drinking the special Argentine 'tea'. As he approaches the gantry, though which he will pass, he takes the tube from his mouth and holds it aloft. The crowd roar as he just misses the tiny ring. It will be another 100 metres before he can bring his horse to a canter. His return brings commiserating applause from the crowd. He wipes the sweat from his brow with his kerchief. In the meantine, the senior gaucho, mounted on a huge chestnut bay, reaches up to reposition the ring for the next pass.
We are now directly beside the gantry. The oldest gaucho turns his horse from the pavement and he mounts swiftly, despite his 60 or so years. Under a flat topped hat with wide rim, his hair is silver as a fox, as is his moustache. Across his saddle is a full sheep skin, his dagger slipped into the back of his belt. He rides a bright grey mare, the sort that will cut fast. A coil of rope rests against his knee. His turn of speed is remarkable. One moment gaining the saddle, the next at lightening pace. His speed must be too fast. He is approaching the gantry, his hat having flown off, to be captured by a string tie. But the horse knows this task well. She is dead centre of the gantry. At the last moment he removes the steel tube and holds if aloft. It happens so quickly, that the eye cannot see the point of contact. It is only after he has passed below the gantry that you realise that the ring has gone, speared and possessed. The crowd goes wild as the thundering recedes down the street. Pesos slip from one hand to another. His return is gladiatorial. He holds the tube to show the crowd, and he sits back on his horse.
Thoughout the afternoon, more gauchos take their turn. Some succeed and others fail. The crowd has their favourites, but the skill and courage of each one is appreciated.
With the smell of leather, sweat, sand, mate and parilla in the air, we take our leave. Departing this place brings a sadness as well as a sense of peace. It is in this quiet moment that we talk and review the excitement of the afternoon. Colectivo 126 is waiting at the stop, and we run, catching the bus just as the doors swing closed. We return, bunched and standing with other revellers, back along Avenida San Juan towards Chacabuco. We grap half a kilo of icecream from the corner, climbing the turned staircase to Fabrizio's. A day at the races, well spent!