We came to South America with the plan of spending about 5 months living rough in a tent in summer weather. We brought along just what we needed and nothing more- old clothes, no winter layers, shoulder season camping gear, and an old laptop for no real reason other than to update this blog. Now, 8 months since our arrival in Santiago and after almost 5 unexpected months on a sheep farm, our world and most of our possessions are starting to break down around us.
As we tend to the animals and go about our business in the middle of an unexpected winter in Patagonia, we have each been bundling up in nearly every scrap of clothing we have, wearing the exact same thing almost every single day. These are old articles of clothing that we had planned to permanently retire months ago, and the stitching and darning hardly lasts a day before new holes open up right beside the old ones. It’s a good thing Lisa learned how to knit, because our new woolen garments are indispensable to help keep us on the winning end of our battle with the cold.
Likewise, the old laptop which has proven immensely valuable for entertainment, job searching, and poring over the depressing and maddening quarantine-related news is showing worrying signs of retirement as well. The battery stopped working long ago, while the increasingly loud complaints of the cooling fan are quelled only by abrupt shutdowns due to overheating. This old thing will be lucky if it makes it out of Argentina alive.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, our hope and sanity are showing signs of weakness too. We are well aware that we are in a comfortable and lucky situation compared to many people on Earth, that we don’t dispute. Nonetheless we are growing increasingly weary under our own burdens of mental fatigue, and all of the silver linings we try to focus on have stopped making the load feel any lighter. As we watch our friends and family around the world return to relatively normal lives we feel as though we have inadvertently selected one of the absolute worst countries in the world to weather the storm, and the prospect of anything in Argentina returning to normal or even us escaping our captivity without incurring significant financial loss is even less likely than it was a full five months ago. At this point there is almost no hope, and very little to keep our spirits alive.
Except, it turns out, for the horses.
Before we had left Canada Elliott expressed an interest in doing something with horses while in Patagonia. We both expected this would be some sort of tourist trail ride in the Andes and nothing more. As the months passed by on the sheep farm, however, one day we had a revelation: here around El Bolson there are lots of gauchos and even more horses, surely we could find one who might be willing to teach us how to ride.
We told our kind hosts here on the farm about our idea, and within no time they had helped to put us in touch with a couple of people who would be willing to meet with us and work something out. A few days later, as the beetle rumbled into a nearby farmyard and the resident horses perked their ears in curiosity, we had no idea that we were about to meet one of the fiercest gauchos and friendliest horsemen, or rather horsewoman, in the region.
Our soon-to-be-instructor and all around horse mentor, Ailin, welcomed us with a warmth of spirit and kindness of character that evaporated our feelings of hopelessness and sorrow in an instant. It was clear that her horses felt it too, and they exuded the same sense of calm and positivity as their master. We could tell that this is a person who truly loves and cares for her animals. We learned quickly that she is a person who prefers to train horses with a firm but kind establishment of trust and respect, rather than the crude but brutally effective exertion of machismo dominance preferred by many of the other people in the area. Over time, we would learn that she was one of the best teachers we could have asked for, and that we too have what it takes to establish a relationship with the animals and become at least somewhat decent on horseback.
And so, for the last few weeks, we have been visiting Ailin and her horses several times a week to learn everything we need to know to become proficient at riding and caring for horses. At first we were clumsy and nervous both around and atop the horses, and they knew it too- ears back, sensing our tension, seeing what they could get away with. The horses were more in control than we were, Elliott bounced around helplessly in a trot, and Lisa couldn’t hide her fear of falling off as she had once done while riding through a beautiful meadow in Mallorca. Yet over time our riding skills improved, the horses began to establish a relationship with us, and we began to feel more comfortable in everything from brushing their coats or cleaning their hooves to saddling them up gaucho-style before a ride.
Everything was going well and our horse lessons became the central focus of our week, helping immensely to keep our minds focused on something positive and to distract us from the reality of our situation. We didn’t think things could get much better, but one day they somehow did.
As a little girl, Lisa would spend countless hours at her neighbour’s farm in Austria, offering her help with the horses (but probably mostly getting in the way) and gazing longingly from beside the corral at the other kids taking riding lessons. She had had a lesson of her own from time to time when she was able to save up enough money, but not very regularly. It was always her dream to gallop, but it was something that had always eluded her.
And then, on a beautifully sunny day, Lisa’s childhood dream came true. Atop of the marvellously trained Piuque, with the snow covered peaks of the Andes watching and the warmth of the sun streaming down, Lisa and Piuque galloped. They went slowly at first, gradually getting a little faster, and as the crisp mountain air rushed past them it was as if for a moment that the quarantine, the sheep farm, the virus, all of it… it was going to be alright, and we were going to get through it.
Since that day our experience has only become more positive and our skills more improved. We are now trotting and galloping with significantly more grace than before and learning how to wheel our horses around in ever tighter circles at ever higher speeds. We are getting better at reading the horses, anticipating their movements, and working with them to have them do (almost) exactly what we want them to. At the end of most lessons we remove the saddles, climb atop our horses bareback, and go for a relaxed saunter around the farm. We close our eyes, focus on the horses’ muscles beneath us, and become more in tune with our sense of equilibrium and how it interacts with their movements, not to mention our mental equilibrium and the good that it does for us.
And all the while, as our sense of well-being is nurtured and our feelings of unrest are quelled, the beauty of the Andes and the Patagonian sky loom above us, a reminder that there is meaning, there is hope, and that soon COVID and quarantine and all of the pain for us and for everybody else will one day be but a distant and forgotten memory, while the moments of beauty, hope, and purpose will live on.
From the bottom of our hearts, we are so very grateful to Ailin as well as Piuque and the rest of the horses that kept our spirits going during our equine quarantine.