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Trip Start Sep 15, 2006
Trip End ??? ??, 2007

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Flag of Uruguay  ,
Saturday, March 24, 2007

San Gabriel turns out to be a dusty clump of houses without much fanfare, so I was glad for my practiced speech to the conductor in Spanish.  "Please, when we arrive in San Gabriel, tell me." She did, and we dropped down from the bus and were greeted by a small but tough-looking lady in a leather hat.  A cheek kiss for us both and we'd met Magdalena.  Her father, greying except for 2 magnificent black and pointy eyebrows, had come along for the ride and greeted us in English that was a bit more rusty.  We threw our packs in the back of her truck and climbed in.  As we drove towards the ranch, Magdalena filled us in on some of the excitement of the past week.

"We had an incredible amount of rain last Thursday.  Water all up through here, it blocked the road.  My dog ate some medicine for the cattle the same day and she was dying.  I called everyone and there was nothing I could do for her at home.  So the vet came to this side and I stood there, and he put the antidote in a bag with a rock.  Slung it across the river, I caught it,
injected her and she lived.  She's such a pig, she's always eating something bad.  It's the second time she's been poisoned."

This sounds like a movie, I thought.  Well if it's going to be a movie, then I'd guess we're in a Western, judging by the dirt roads, open fields, and fences rolling by outside the truck's windows.  We turned up a rutted drive, pulled up next to a barn, and walked toward the house, a low concrete box-like structure from the outside.

The 19th Century mission that Magdalena called home had been partially destroyed by a tornado that might be considered a lucky stroke.  The half of the building left standing was a perfectly suitable size for her home, and the stone foundation left of the other half made a beautiful courtyard space, filled with the greenest grass and all variety of flowering plants.  In the center stood a tiled well, a chain and bucket hanging from an iron pulley. 

Nodding towards the well, "I'm afraid all the water has to be drawn up that way.  This time of year there's no wind."

A windmill stood still on the side of the hill.

  "The wind here, you need more of it, and then there's too much and it kills you.  I've lost the roof off this place several times in just six years."
Inside, the house was a georgeous mix of old and new, and of East meets West, due to the age of the structure and the owner's lifetime of travel.  In the kitchen, a huge wooden steam vent crouched over an iron stove, out of service for the moment due to lack of water to heat and run it.  Instead, we would cook over a camping stove.

We met Magdalena's mother on the porch, looking young for someone who just celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary a few days ago.  They'd had a huge party over the weekend and were spending a few days on the ranch before heading back to the coast. 

We took a little tour of the yard with our host, then walked down the hill to the river to help her look for her bamboo fishing rod, which she'd left near the bank before the storm.  The current had stolen the rod, but we enjoyed the hunt anyway, as it gave us a chance to chat with this amazing woman. 
Seven languages spoken fluently, and successful businesses in Uruguay, Thailand, and Vietnam.  Then she'd returned to her roots and the ranching life her family had lost by purchasing this place, over 500 hectacres, and paying it off in just 6 years.  Now she had sheep and cows grazing in the parcels, 3 workers living in the converted barn, and 10 horses helping them herd everyone to and fro. 

Lamb stew was on the menu tonight, so we went to the butchery for the meat, a small, cold room in the barn where half a lamb hung in shadow.  She took it down and with a knife, axe, and aw, started to cut it into manageable pieces.  Back inside, we climbed down into the wine cellar and selected a fine vino blanco to celebrate the occasion.  We scooped and stirred away until Magdalena called a halt to the cooking for now, and turned the burner off.

Back on the patio, we chatted with her parents.  They'd spent the previous 10 years living in Vietnam, working with their daughter.  One of the things they'd come back for now was the sky.  "It's so beautiful here, so blue." they said.  "On the other side of the world, it's not like this.  It's like there's an extra layer there."

The huge sky shone down on us with brilliant clouds as the evening pressed on and the light faded.  Stars came out one by one.  Magdalena took us out past the stone walls lit by hidden lights, and with a word from her, all the lights in the courtyard were turned off.  Our eyes adjusted, and millions of stars winked back at us from the night sky.  There was the whole Milky Way, like a picture from the Hubble telescope.  Living here, you could get to know the constellations as your next-door neighbors. 

We ate lamb stew and drank more wine inside, and when seconds were offered, I eagerly accepted.  Once we were full, we headed off to bed, for we had promised to get up at dawn with everyone else and do what we could to help with the running of the ranch. 

Just after 6, a tapping on the door, and we were up and eating a bit of breakfast before we got the horses saddled up.  Cierra got to ride a bay gelding who'd gone blind in one eye and was a little annoyed about it.  Being a beginner, I got the fat palomino one who didn't have a care in the world.  Simply too bored with existence, her only drawback was that she was stuck in first gear and would use any excuse to call a halt and start grazing.  I decided to call her Gorda.

  Our task was to ride to the back of the adjacent parcel and drive the sheep down the field, to the holding pen and eventually into the stocks.  Simple enough, really.  Near the back, a stream cut across the pasture, and we struggled to find a way to cross.  I was ready to forget it, because I couldn't see any signs of sheep over there anyway.  As far as I could see, they were all together in the center of the field.  But Cierra and her steed trotted over there and drove out 2 stray members of the herd like a well-seasoned shepherd.  Gathering up the rest of the herd, she started to drive them up the hill, while I went along the top of the ridge to collect a group of stragglers.  Slowly, we gathered them all into the pen and closed the gate.  Wow! Task accomplished, no screwups, and I'm still in my saddle.  Amazing.

We must have looked like we knew what we were doing, too, because our host gave us an opportunity for a second task.  We got to ride out to the next pasture over and gather up a herd of black Angus cattle and drive them through an open gate so that they would discover a new grazing area. 

No problem, pard.  Due to the speed of my mount, I took the rear on this task and Cierra had the flank, but in reality it was us doing most of the work as Cierra just stood off to the side watching as we gathered up the scattered cattle and bullied them into a group along the fence.  Gorda knew exactly how to do it and scarcely needed any direction from me, ambling first one way and then another to group all the loose and mooing beasts into an easily controlled pack.  "I'm just standing back and watching" Cierra called from atop her mount.

"Yeah, I know!" I yelled back.  "Gorda made a note!"
Al the cattle slipped through the gate like a knife through butter.  Second task accomplished, and we were feeling good.  Can we call ourselves cowhands now?

We stuck around and helped as they shoved the sheep through the run.  The jumpy creatures only want to stay as far from you as possible, and being in an enclosed area with them is rather like watching metal fragments scatter when a negative magnet approaches.  At the end of the run was a pen attached to a scales, and we weighed each sheep to determine if it was over 35 kilograms.  Those that were over got a red dot painted on their behinds, which I imagine wasn't good for their life expectancy.

Relatives were coming by for lunch, so we broke off the work early to prepare.  A delicious Indian lentil dish was on offer, and again we devoured second helpings.  Afterwards, Magdalena drove her parents down to their beach home in Punta del Este and we hitched a ride with everybody back down to the coast.
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