Saturday, February 27, 2010

Faces of Africa

Africa has many faces.  It is a place of exquisite beauty and of horrific ugliness.  The two contrasting faces of Janus are everywhere – enormous wealth and poverty more squalid than anything you can imagine.  People with hope and those who know that nothing will ever change.


In South Africa, there have been changes, but not enough.  The book club read Cry, the Beloved Country, a book published in 1948 and set in 1946, shortly before apartheid, which was basically in place already, became law.  The book does a masterful job of showing the comingling of joy and desperation that represents the contrasting faces of life in this country.  All lives, I suppose, contain these different faces, but in South Africa they are forced into stark contrast, light and shadow as harsh as the difference between a desert’s night and day.

The book is amazing in its prescience.  The upheavals and cracks in community and larger society are still present in the 62 years since it was published.  Given the understanding that men like Alan Paton, its author, and many others had at that time of the country’s wounds and what was needed to heal them, it is unutterably sad that things are not as different as they’d hoped.  And, to highlight this tragedy, the one place the book fails in its predictions of the future is the optimism with which it ends, an optimism that now seems na├»ve.


Not everything now is gloomy.  Apartheid has long been gone from the law books.  The soccer World Cup will be played here later in the year, and this has meant new jobs as stadiums are built, and will mean a huge inflow of tourists and money.  Talk of the event, and energetic discussions of which team is likely to win the cup are common, and everyone has an opinion.  Most of the locals, though, cannot afford to buy tickets to the games.


One friend here visited a township she last saw seven years ago when she lived in Africa, and said that while it is still a shanty town, without services North Americans take for granted, there is joy and optimism there.  Another face is shown, though, by another friend’s visit to one of Port Elizabeth’s townships.  He was horrified.  The people there, blacks who were moved out of the city during apartheid, and their descendants, still have no real building materials and so their homes are slapped together with whatever they can find.  There is no garbage pickup, and garbage is everywhere.  Water is communal, and has to be fetched in whatever containers are available.  One man in my friend’s group started taking pictures, and my friend had to bite his tongue not to ask how such poverty and suffering could be seen as grist for a tourist’s mill, something to be shown at home and tut-tutted over.

I’ve visited two towns in Namibia and three cities in South Africa.  I realize I’ve spent far too little time here to claim any sort of understanding of this complex area.  But I have been affected by its beauty and by its sadness, and am struggling, as so many have and will, to understand.

The ports the ship has stopped in are constantly busy.  Everywhere you look, there are huge containers piled on top of each other.  Most of them are the usual container size, which is one railway car or semi load.  Huge cranes, looking like George Lucas’ inspiration for some of the mechanical war machines in his Star Wars movies, squat along each area where concrete meets water.  Ships as long as the cruise ship line up along the walls, waiting to have containers taken off or put on.  It’s meticulous work, as containers are loaded or unloaded one at a time.

There is commerce, obviously, which is good for the country.  This activity makes it dangerous to walk from the ship to the port’s gates, so shuttle buses are available to take passengers to a selected area of the city in protected safety.  The area is usually a luxurious shopping area, often set along beaches or other waterfront property.  Those passengers who wish it will be able to think that everything in Africa is comfortable and safe.

Those who wish to look further, though, soon realize it isn’t.  Half a block away from expensive clothing boutiques are signs of decay.  People, mostly young men, stand around idly, dressed in torn jeans and ratty t-shirts.  Buildings are falling apart, paint peels from those still in use, windows are broken or boarded over.  The unemployment rate in the cities is unthinkably, to North Americans, high.  In Durban, I was told by one person that the unemployment rate overall is 68%.  I don’t know if this is correct, but it would help explain the number of young black men standing around on almost every corner.


Crime, too, is sky high.  Barbed wire atop high walls is common, as are cars and trucks bearing various logos that all say, “Armed Response.”  People live in fear here.  We are warned not to wear any jewelry when we go into town, to hang on to cameras and purses, to wear backpacks backwards, so the pack is on your chest , not your back. We are told stories of watches ripped from wrists, earrings torn off leaving bloody earlobes, purse and backpack straps cut.  If we are this afraid during our one or two day visit, how much worse must it be for those who live here?  Gated communities, armed watchmen, and multiple locks can offer only facades of protection.

But mixed in with the desperation is the joy, too.  Market places are crowded and busy.  People talk to each other, and laugh together.  Children run and shout and play just as they do everywhere.


And yet, everywhere I’ve been, businesses have small signs in their windows, that say, “We reserve the right to refuse admittance.”  And ‘we’, the other ‘we’, the visitors, know as well as anyone living here who the ones are who will be refused entry.


Africa is achingly beautiful.  Why is it that an overwhelming beauty can make your chest hurt?  My heart aches when I see the sweep of sand dunes in the desert, or watch two baby giraffes run together.  Acacia tress stand along a ridge, silhouetted against a sky so much bigger than any in North America, bigger even than in Saskatchewan, that land of living skies.


Beauty makes the heart hurt.  As anyone who’s been to a wedding knows, we are moved to tears during moments of joy.  But as the two faces of Janus remind us, there is always another side, another view, another face to see, and it will also cause the heart to break.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Dream Come True

What woman my age, heck, any age, wouldn't like to be serenaded by four cute young guys?  It happened to me, and on stage during a show, no less.  The guys are a group called The Unexpected Boys, and if you ever get a chance to hear them, go.  The mostly do a Frankie Vallie (I don't know how to spell his name) and the Four Seasons/Jersey Boys tribute show, but they are also New York Broadway actors, and they did a second show of Broadway tunes.  No one got taken on stage during the second show, though.

 
  
 




As one woman in the audience said to me as we were all leaving after the show, "I had a hot flash for you!" 
  They sang two or three different songs to me, but the only one I can remember is "Only You"
  I was a celebrity the next day, people kept stopping me to talk about it.  The nice thing is lots of them told me that I was great, because I did play along and joked with them and even added a line of dialogue. 
  And now there's only memories and photographs.  Sigh.

Mid-Cruise Doldrums

When I first got on board Bruce, the Cruise Director, held a meeting of all the enrichment staff.  One thing he told us was that there are three stages to the cruise.   ‘Right,’ I thought, ‘South America, Africa, and Asia.”  That wasn’t what he meant though.  He talked about how the middle of a cruise this long is often a more difficult time.  At first, everyone is excited about being here and all the places we’ll see.  Near the end, everyone become aware that it’s almost over and they want to cram in as much as they can.  During the middle, though, people can get tired, bored, less energetic, and down-in-the-dumps.  He said we’d have to work even harder to keep the guests and happy and energized.

I’ve actually observed this, not just in the guests but in myself, too.  This morning I could not decide what to wear, and I discovered that I am completely bored with all the clothes I brought.  I don’t want to buy more things, as I don’t need them, and this became an enormous dilemma, taking way too much time and energy.  Sometimes I walk around the ship and realize I don’t want to smile at everyone, which is as grouchy as I can allow myself to become.  I do smile, especially at the ones who are the keenest writing students or book club members, but as I’m not always sure if someone smiling at me is in the book group (it has forty plus members and they don’t all come to every meeting) I smile anyway.  And, I’ve learned that sometimes smiling can change my mood in a positive way.

In general, the guests are showing signs of cruise fatigue, also.  Many are pairing up, to find some other sources of entertainment and exercise.  Not me, alas.  For those who’ve asked what happened to my crush, I discovered that with my former unerring instinct, I chose the man with the single biggest ego on the ship.  Fortunately I was able to divest myself of any yearning emotions rather easily, which I guess means I have matured at least a little bit since I was a teenager.

Other guests are getting testy.  There are some chronic complainers on any cruise, but they seem to be upping both quantity and volume when they express their displeasure.  Since the cruise line wants everyone to be happy, often complainers will be give a free glass of wine, bottle of champagne, or some other perk.  I hadn’t realized this, but it would explain why some people complain about things that seem perfectly fine.  Also, people are arguing more in public.  I have no idea how many people fight with their cabin mates when in the cabin, but there are definite signs of friction.  Even Melissa and I, who get along amazingly well, have had our little differences.

Not everyone is exhibiting signs of trouble, of course.  There are some people who have a seemingly endless source of energy and joy.  I wish I could be like them.  And the cruise continues to offer great activities, shows, food, and places to explore.  But I find this psychological pattern interesting.

In a way, the mid-cruise doldrums are like writing a novel.  Most novels, and movies, have a three-act structure.  I won’t get into details, but Act 2 is usually the longest and most difficult to write.  Writers, and editors, speak of ‘sagging middles’.  It’s hard to come up with enough conflict and tension to keep a reader turning the pages of something that can be several hundred pages long.  In Act 1, you are showing character, introducing goals and opposition, and setting an atmosphere, among other things.  In Act 3, events are rushing towards the climax.  In Act 2, though, you have to keep the characters striving to accomplish their goals or solve their problems, in believable and interesting ways.  When writing romance, for example, you have to find a way to keep two people, who are attracted to each other, apart in a way that is realistic and interesting, and do it while their attraction, in physical and in other ways, is growing.

Actually, I'm not sure if novel structure and a four-month cruise are are similar.  All I know is that middles can be difficult.  And keeping mine from growing when there is so much wonderful food on the ship, is the biggest challenge of all.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cruise Ship People - Bobbie Cohen

When I first told people about my getting the cruise job, many of them spoke enviously about all the interesting people I'd meet.  I hadn't really thought about this much, being a usually anti-social introvert.  It's true, though.  The people on this ship are fascinating.  Mostly older, many have traveled extensively.  Some have had successful careers and financial success, but others save for months or years to be able to come on the round-the-world cruise.  They have had all sorts of experiences and are often very happy to share.

Bobbie Cohen’s husband, Jerry, has been collecting clowns for a very long time.  “Now,” she says, her grin lighting up her eyes, “I’m the biggest clown in his collection.”

Bobbie has been a clown for 12 years.  She’s a caring clown, as compared to a show clown.  She visits hospitals and nursing homes, and  entertains the people there.

Bobbie got into clowning through her volunteer work with the Retired Senior Volunteer Program in New York city  She and Jerry had volunteered for years with their local theatres.   A community association that worked with seniors asked Jerry if he wanted to join their work and be a clown, and he asked Bobbie to come with him.  By the end of the meeting, Jerry decided not to take part, because he’d had bad experiences in hospitals and so didn’t want to spend time there, but Bobbie was hooked.

There is an application process to be a clown, and a certificate is earned after a specified number of hours of class?

A Clown Alley is a place where a group of clowns share and learn together.  She joined one and, when she and Jerry moved to Florida six years ago, she searched and found one in Delray Beach.  Bobbie loves the work and the friends she makes.  When she first started working in the hospitals, she’d get home and Jerry would wonder who got more out of the experience, the patients, or Bobbie.

In hospitals, she focuses on adults, especially those who are in for a long time, and who don’t have frequent visitors.  With a partner, she knocks on a patient’s door and asks permission to come in.  When this is granted, the two clowns do a little schtick, and spend time talking with the patient.    Listening is big part of being a caring clown.  Bobbie relates especially to the seniors.  “They appreciate your time and they want to tell you their stories.”

In nursing homes and assisted living buildings, the clowns usually do a 45 minute show.  Former professional jugglers and magicians join the clowns, to produce a variety show with acts and skits.

There are strong connections in the clown community, and many people continue clowning into old age and through illnesses and disabilities.  Bobbie spoke of one man with a bad heart condition, and a woman with leukemia.  Clowning helps them stay involved with life and with other people.  Many clowns she’s known were in their late 80s and early 90s, and didn’t want to stop.  One elderly woman asked that, when she died, everyone come in costume to her funeral.

On this round-the-world cruise Jerry is the ship’s dentist, and Bobbie is a clown ambassador.  Her letter of appointment, from Clowns of America International, states that she is “commissioned to spread the joy of clowning as you visit Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, South Africa, India, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan, Russia, and wherever your travels may take you.  Be sure to share not only the joy, but the smiles, the laughter, the many traditions and history of our performing art with all of the people you meet.”

When Bobbie speaks of clowning her face, even though it’s bare of clown makeup, shows the humour, the wide-eyed examination of the world, and the innocent observations that are the hallmarks of the clown.  She’s knows how to live in the world and be part of all that exists, even in different places with different cultures.  Clowns know no nationality.  They belong to all of humanity, and they do this by reflecting back to us all that makes us human – the emotions, the weaknesses, the joys and the sadness – the things that bind us together.  She shows us ourselves, and then laughs, not at us, but with us.

It is funny being us.  When a clown shows us something about ourselves, but does it without implying otherness or superiority, we see the humour, too.  And we all love to laugh, don’t we.  Life isn’t always easy, but laughter can help get us through the rough spots.  And realizing we are all funny helps, too, by showing us that we are not alone.  We are all fools at times, we all hurt sometimes, we all make mistakes, we all want things we can’t have.  We all dream.  When we laugh together, we more deeply root ourselves into the garden that contains all that makes us.

Bobbie lent me an issue of a clown magazine.  In it was an ad that said:



Come to Mooseburger Camp, and people will laugh at you the rest of your life –

-               and wouldn’t that be great??



Yes, I think it would be great.




Bobbie is one of my writing students, working on travel pieces and thinking about the report she will write for Clowns of America International when she returns to Florida.




Jerry and I started to walk into the town of Puerto Limom.  This was a delightful street that was only for pedestrians.  There were vendors on both sides of the streets with their colorful carts.

So much to see, but what was this before me?   I could not believe my eyes.  It was a tall all-dressed-up clown and he was making balloon animals.

Oh, I was excited.  I was not dressed in clown, but I had my nose, balloons, balloon pump, and clown sketches with me.  Jerry and I walked over to the clown.  I pulled out my balloon pump and positioned my red nose as I greeted the jovial artist.  When he saw me, he gave me a filled but unstructured balloon.  I made him a dog and he made me an even fancier dog.  We could not communicate verbally, but we were friends immediately.

He started to put a number of balloons together at once, creating Daffy Duck.  It was a magnificent feat.  His friend spoke a little English and he kept telling me what my new friend was doing.  Jerry took video and photos of the two of us together.

What a joy.  What a pleasure.  The clown gave Daffy to a passing child.  I took a snapshot of the child and his present.  This was the most exciting experience of the day as far as I was concerned.   To travel all this way to a different country and find something and someone to make me feel so comfortable, and a part of this culture as well.

We bid the clown farewell and Jerry and I proceeded on our walk.  On our way back, the clown spotted us again.  He told us his clown name, but I did not have a pen or paper with me, so I couldn’t write it down.  I did give him one of my clown cards.  This pleased him very much.

Once again we parted with smiles on our faces.  It is such a good feeling to know  that wherever you go,  you have the opportunity to somehow communicate and relate to another person.  If you look for the similarities and friendships out there, I believe you can always find them.

Africa - the Namib Desert

As soon as we, in our Landrovers, drove out of the town of Walvis Bat, Namibia, I began to understand why people love Africa, in a way that other continents rarely inspire.  It's the landscape.  It's beautiful, and big, and old.  The landscape is so overwhelmingly what it is, and it's difficult to picture anything, other than time, managing to change it.  Unfortunately, human beings can and do change it.  The Namib desert is a protected area, but uranium mining has been allowed in parts, and I can only imagine what would happen if oil, or another resource that someone can get rich off, was discovered.
  But for now the desert is here, in all it's subtle beauty.  It's odd to call it subtle, since it is so huge, but it is subtle, in its colours, its shapes, and most of all, in its life.
  The desert is an eco-system, and during my trip there, I learned about the life forms that live and thrive and interact there.  Without Tommy, our guide, though, I would have thought nothing lived there except a few scrubby plants.
  First we visited Dune 7, which is the largest dune in the world.   There are others that are higher, but apparently for sheer number of sand grains, this one is biggest.  Melissa climbed to the top, and I went part way.  It's s hard climb.  The sand is fine and soft, and so every step sinks in and also slides down, so climbing is two steps up for every step climbed.  The bottom of my calves became sore quite quickly.  The dune became steeper the higher you went, and Melissa needed to use her hands near the top, since she had to lean forward to keep her balance.
  A man from Michigan informed me that there is a much bigger sand dune in northern Michigan.  I just smiled and nodded. 
   Walking back down is rather fun, though.  It's like skiing, as each step glides down as the foot sinks in the sand.
 
Here is what the road looked like just before we left the pavement and entered the desert.  Once we did so, the drivers got out and let air out of the tires, to have better traction in the soft sand.  While the routes through the desert and well known by the drivers, and are supposed to be the only places vehicles are allowed, the sands shift and so each day new drifts might appear or dunes move over, covering an area that was previously clear.

I've always wanted to see a desert, a real desert with a lot of sand and only sand.  I got my wish here.
Here is my first step, followed by Melissa, who having made a snow angel on the ship's deck, had to make a sand angel.
 
The sand was rippled in this spot, but a few meters over it was totally different.  Here are some glimpses of what we saw here.  This desert is mostly quartz.  The white areas of made up of larger grains which, being heavier, are sorted by the wind.  The black is magnetite.

 
  

Okay, finally we get to the life forms.  I took a very large number of photos of the landscapes, though, even though they can't portray the sheer size of the area, and how the shapes and colours changed as you moved through it.  You can breathe a sigh of relief, though, as I am not going to show you too many of them.
  Tge life.  The above is a head-stand beetle.  It's a picture of a picture because, although Tommy had brought several beetles in a jar, he couldn't show what it's like when they get to drink.  This area gets between 3 and 15 millimetres of rain a year.  Yes, milimetres.  It's within 15 kilometers of the coast, and so even though it gets so little rain, there is often fog, which is an important part of the ecosystem.
  This beetle gets all it's water from the rain.  People here talk about 100 milllimeter rain and what they mean isn't the total depth, but the distance between rain drops.  The beetle fortunate enough to be rained on will drink the entire drop, which for something of its size is like one of us drinking seven litres at a time.  Its shell is waxy which helps keep the water inside its body.  The beetle provides a travel mug for other creatures.
Above is the doorway to the home of the dancing white spider.  It's called that because when alarmed it will stand up, four legs up in the air, four legs on the ground.  It can also form itself into a ball and roll down dunes, which is how it escapes its worst predator, a wasp. 
  The spider can dig only a few centimeters in two hours, but it's tunnel is half a meter long.  WHile digging, the spider uses its web material to stick the sand grains together, so its tunnel doesn't collapse.  Unfortunately the wasp is able to enter the tunnel.  When the two meet, they fight.  If the spider wins, it eats the wasp.  It the wasp wins, it stings the spider into unconsciousness because it needs it alive.  The wasp lays an egg and the resulting larva eats the spider as it grows.
 
Tommy was very careful to dig the spider out at the end of its tunnel, so he didn't destroy all its work.  He also kept a hand over it to shade it at all time, and when we were finished looking at it and he'd got it to roll down a dune a couple of times, he put it in a jar in his landrover.  The spider is nocturnal, and direct sun can quickly kill it.  He does a night tour in the desert also, and he returns it to its burrow then.
  Next we looked for sign of the sand-diving lizard.  This little guy can dig into the sand until he is entirely covered in no more than a couple of seconds.  As you can see, he has a strong jaw, too.

While we looked at the lizard, and Tommy tried to get it to hang from my earlobe as a sort of living earring, one of the other drivers found this.
 
Tommy told us it was a baby black mamba, and once several people had hastily stepped back, confessed it was a skink, a legless lizard.
Next we looked for signs of this gecko.  It was easy, kind of, once we knew what to look for.
 
Yeah, right.
Unearthing the gecko was hard work as this creature, unlike the spider, can dig and burrow very quickly.

 
But Tommy succeeded at last.  He was a great guide.  He so obviously loves the desert and all that lives there, and he has a great deal of respect for all the creatures we saw.
   Many creature live underground because during the day the temperature is cooler and at night it is warmer.

 
He had even more respect for the next creature we found.

 
Yup, this is a sidewinder snake.  During the day they hide in the shade of the few plants, but often move from one plant to another, leaving a track in the sand.
  
  
This snake is venemous, and can be fatal.  It does move sideways, keeping itself in a sinuous 's' shape.  It can move very fast, and only fifty percent of its body touches the hot sand at any one time, which enables it to move during the day.  Our tour began early in the morning, and the sand was pleasantly warm, but later in the day it gets hot enough to literarlly fry an egg.

  Here is last creature Tommy found for us.  He's a chameleon who spends the day hiding in the cool shade of a plant.  He happily ate some of the head-stand beetles in Tommy's jar, and also some meal worms.  His tongue is very long and very fast.  I tried several times to photograph it in action, but was never fast enough.  The chameleon spent a lot of time examining the beetle or worm Tommy put out for him.  His eyes are on turrets and can move independently.  He'd study the beetle and us and the sky, before making his move.  When in the bush, he is dark, but on the sand, he grew paler.
 
  
  

As you can tell from the length of this post, I loved the desert.  I wish I could have had more time there, especially enough to do a night tour.  That's the nature of cruising, though.  You get a taste of many different places, enough to entice you and help you decide that someday you must return.  Africa is one place I must return to, and I've decided that after visiting only the one place.  We have several more stops here.
  Before I close, I want to tell you a little about the joys and fears of driving through the desert.  Many of the approved routes moved beside the length of a dune, but in places we went up, over, and down.  The dunes are steep, especially the higher flanks, and often we were on a sideways angle as well.

 
We traveled in four vehicles and two of the others got stuck.  My driver, who didn't get stuck, found his friends' misadventures hilarious, although he cheerfully admitted that everyone gets stuck sometimes, and that the next day would probably be his turn.  In a way, driving here is like driving in heavy snow.  Spinning your wheels digs you in deeper, and you need to rock to get out or back up, if you can, and try again.  It's snow, though, that covers quicksand, as there is no pavement under the sand to keep you from digging even deeper.
 
 
The above is an effort to show you how steep the dunes are.  The shot is straight through the front windshield.  The landrover shown has just come down the side of a dune, and we have just come over the top.  At times it seemed as if we shifted 180 degrees as we went up, over the sharp edged top and down.  It was like a rollercoaster, but without any smooth curves on the track.  We bounced, ricocheted off the side doors and off each other.  Sometimes we felt as if we were lying down on our backs, sometimes we felt we'd soon be standing on our heads.  At times it was scary, and one person asked our driver if the landrovers ever rolled.  He said no, and I believed him.  He knew just when to shift gears, when to go fast to gain momentum and when to slow down to get more traction.  Toomy's company does three tours a day, so the drivers have a lot of time to practice.  They also come out often to check on the routes and make alternate plans in case a dune has shifted enough to make a section too dangerous.  
  They all clearly love the desert, and I can understand why.  Three tours a day might get boring, I didn't ask, but since what you see is ever-changing, and what you look for is hidden, everytime could be see as an adventure.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mid-Atlantic

Here we are, in the middle of nowhere.  The water out here is a rich blue, clean and clear and deep.  Internet is a little less reliable and often slower, which doesn't make sense, because we aren't any farther from the satellite.  And, even more surprising, there are no satellite TV dishes anywhere, which means we can't watch Olympics!  I'm sure you are all feeling deep sympathy for me.
  The trip is a third over, and I'm already thinking of what it will be like when I get home, and if I want fruit salad, I not only have to go shopping for the fruit, I have to chop it myself.  We really do get pampered here.
  Today was the fifth day of the eight day passage between South America and Namibia.  The time is going quite fast, because there are so many things to do on board.  Out of the five days, we've moved our clocks ahead one hour on three of them, and will do so again tomorrow.  No change today, I guess someone decided we should get a break on Valentine's Day.  Going this direction is unusual, the cruises usually go the other way, so the ships gain time instead of losing it.  Someone said we're doing it this way so we can arrive in Japan during cherry blossom time which, if true, makes all the jet lag, or rather ship lag fatigue worth while.  And we'll experience a full day twice, I think it's April 19th, when we cross the date line.

On Kissing Gauchos

The ship stayed two days in Buenos Aires, and on the second day I went to a ranch outside the city, to learn about the life, both traditional and contemporary, of gauchos.  The ranch had belonged to an Irish family, who did raised horses and cattle.  They had five children, and one of them now owns the ranch and lives elsewhere on the property.  The family home is a museum, showing life as it was, and there were some lovely old ponchos and other weavings.  And, not in the museum, but on the property, are a lot of pretty horses.
 
And, this being a tourist destination, there were also tango dancers and musicians who performed some of the traditional gaucho songs.


Gauchos are cowboys.  The picture below shows a man dancing using his bola, which is a hunting weapon.  Accurately thrown, they can be deadly.


The next photo shows a typical belt, which for a reason I didn't learn, was made of old coins.  Perhaps it's how they kept their money, before the days of banks.


The next picture is of the family chapel, to give you an idea of the architecture.


  
We went riding, as you can see, and the gauchos then showed us how they herd horses and cattle.  

It's lovely here, and in many ways, similar to the Canadian prairies.
  Different flora, though.
  

The gauchos brought in a herd of horses, and then divided them into groups by colour.
 

 
 
 
  
I love this next photo because the horse looks so annoyed and the other one seems to be comforting him.

 
Okay, finally I'll get to the kissing gauchos part.  After the herding, they showed us a game of skill they play.  A tiny ring, and inch and a half in diameter, is hung from the bottom of a strap hanging from a wooden frame.  The gaucho holds a small stick, not much bigger than a chop stick, rides his horse at full gallop under the frame, and tried to snatch the ring on his stick.   If he succeeds, he gives the ring to a woman watching, in return for a kiss.  Their skill was impressive, and after the first couple of rings had been given, I decided I wanted one.  I surprised myself, because when the next guy got a ring, I stepped up beside the field and waved at him.  And over he rode!  I don't think of myself as being quite so brazen, and it made me think of how, for centuries, women have watched me perform athletic feats and offered kisses and more to the winners.  It was strange to see myself as part of this long-time form of interaction between the sexes.  I did wonder if there are ever any women gauchos, and some of the men in the audience were joking that they'd been ripped off, since they didn't get to kiss anyone.  It was fun, though, and impressive to watch.  And if watching set my little female heart to fluttering, well, I'm not the first to react that way.

 
Hopefully you can see the little stick in the above picture.  The rings are hanging from the three straps, but they're so small they were hard to see.

 
Here's my guy, about to get his kiss.  It's impressive how far down they can lean and still remain in the saddle.  And besides, he's cute, isn't he.
    And here are the triumphant warriors.  They all got their rings far more often than they missed.

 
The hats that look like berets are the traditional gaucho hat. 
   I took a lot of pictures, so here are some more, some last views of this lovely place.