To Maui – In Search of Paniolo

Maui is what happened after Mexico – an incredibly last minute bit of decision making on my part. I’m less inclined to call it a brain fart, although that phrasing wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate. Let’s just say that weighing the merits of the decision was a spottily vague process, at best.

Why Maui, you might ask? Well, you probably wouldn’t to be honest. Most people equate Maui with paradise and leave it at that. But growing up close to some of the best beaches in the world in SE Asia leaves you immune to the often flaunted – and superficial – idea of Maui as paradise. If this sounds harsh, let me put it this way, paradise is in the eye of the beholder and living in a wildly over-priced, over-ghettoised island where I have to pay $6 for a bag of spinach while I enjoy the blue sky and balmy weather, isn’t it. Throw in the colonial history and its present incarnations, what this means for the native Hawaiians, plainly there to see for the open-eyed, and no, I wouldn’t say I was in paradise.

Admittedly, Maui was a bit of a weird step to take after Mexico, and one I definitely would not have thought to take had I not received a personal invite from two guests I met at the Rancho in Mexico. The offer: come stay with us and check out the local Paniolo – or Hawaiian cowboy – scene while you figure out what comes next. Having been the first stop on my trip, and leaden with the expectation of a warm and hospitable welcome, I was left a bit shattered when Mexico didn’t turn out well, and needed a quiet place to regroup. Misogyny was not something I had planned on encountering at the Rancho. Horse poop, tired and achy muscles, rides out into the countryside, perpetual sweatiness – YES. Misogyny – NO. That quiet place turned out to be a house in the Upcountry, in a so-called paniolo town called Kula, on the famed (and very windy) Haleakala Highway.

My hosts Heather and Sara (Heather more than Sara, for Sara had a tendency to run to her room as soon as she got home from work … I did ask why … regrettably) helped put me in touch with anyone remotely having to do with horses and riding through their super spidey network of facebook friends and acquaintances in Maui. That’s when H and I (I had a lot more in common with H, a bubbly and compassionate soul) weren’t busy having to the death bananagram tournaments, rocking out road trips (Road to Hana and Oprah’s house anyone?), baking (I assisted) banana bread and chocolate chip cookies (I had died and gone to heaven), hiking volcanos and bamboo forests, and finding out we had a heck of a lot in common.

My first paniolo (or maybe paniolo-lite) experience was at a Longhorn cattle ranch that also did trail rides, a place run by an ethically challenged little guy – a transplant from the mainland somewhere – who spat out his tobacco wad with disgusting frequency. I also saw him cheat a volunteer out of promised tip money from working days and those four hour trail rides – and here I thought he couldn’t get more disgusting. I had to revise my opinion when I met his wife and listened to them spout off about Christ. That really made me want to upchuck.

But Oh god, those trail rides. With some of the most enticing canter and gallop tracks on the property – you could potentially, or I imagined you could, feel as if you were racing to the ocean with the mountains at your back – these rides were done in a tail-nose fashion, entirely at a walk. This was painful on a whole other level. Mind numbing would be an appropriate description, and one that left me wondering at the point of having the horse in the equation. Could we legitimately call these rides? What sane person would shell out close to $300 per person for a four hour walk in a straight line while seated on their ass? In any event, the whole island was populated with similar ‘trail rides’, the reason behind which were primarily liability issues.

Things were slow after that. I visited a few ranches but didn’t lay eyes on any paniolos. Little did I know, the paniolo has come to be identified mostly by remnants of their past now currently occupied by trendy (read overpriced) boutiques and cafes in downtown Makawao. Suffice it to say the paniolo scene was a bit of a disappointment. Legend has it the working paniolo do still exist at cattle ranch Ulupalakula but alas I only found out after leaving Hawaii.

Funnily enough, I did learn that Maui’s local traditional cowboy scene had serious ties to Mexico. At least, in that historical dimension, my decision to go to Maui made some sense. As it turned out, Maui’s paniolo culture was born when vaqueros (or Spanish cowboys from Mexico) were brought in by King Kamehameha III (in 1823) to deal with the rapidly burgeoning cattle problem. The vaqueros taught the native Hawaiians their ways, and hey presto – cutting a bit of a long story short here – the paniolo came to be. While the pop culture figure of the mainland American cowboy has achieved something of an iconic and global status symbol, the paniolo (although first on the scene by about fifty years) has quietly retreated into the dusty background and remains somewhat stubbornly rooted to the local landscape of shopfronts and folklore fancy.

I said my farewells to Maui, and the lovely Collins family who hosted me for a spell, and packed for my flight. Before I left though, I spent a few days at Jillian’s – a local hunter jumper equestrian school – and was given the contact details of a polo club in Argentina. I had a few things to take care of on another continent, Asia this time, but it looked like my next horsey stop was going to be Pilar, Argentina.

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Mexico, Oh Mexico.

Where art thou, lovely Mexico?

Mexico was my first stop. In my head, I hear the sound of a car grinding to a screeching halt when I think back on my time at the ranch. I started off excited, of course. I had been a guest at the Rancho a few months before I started volunteering as a wrangler, and while I had had a few quiet misgivings about the state of the horses, I mistakenly thought that I could use my time there to be of some help. I had also been treated well as a guest which on hindsight, gave me an entirely false idea of how I’d be welcomed back as a member of the staff. My conversation with the Guest Experience Manager at the time, a North American we’ll call Ms. Happy Happy Sunshine, was confidence inspiring. In return for food and lodging, I’d be expected to ride out with the guests, give some one-on-one instruction to the newbies, be a communications bridge between English speaking guests and the local wranglers when needed, work up to leading trips while I learnt the routes, and take care of the horses – turning them out, bringing them in, grooming, feeding, tack stuff, and what have you. I had no conception of any shitstorms on the horizon. It seemed straight-forward enough.

And when I did start in March, it went well for the first couple of days. Living on the grounds close to the horses, being able to pop out and just admire them chowing down on their hay as the sun set was an exercise in tranquility. The physicality of the work and twice-a-day (sometimes thrice-a-day) rides were mentally and spiritually clarifying, It was the right turn of events for me, at that point in my life, and I was feeling the peace of mind of having made the right choice. Of recognising a problem in my life back in London, and actively working to address it. As astronaut Chris Hadfield likes to say, I was “working the problem”. But the ugly macho culture of the land – not exclusive to the hombres, mind you – reared its ugly head and took a giant shit on my peace of mind. Sigh. I can tell you it was a goddamn disappointment. I had worked hard to get to where I was, and to me, this all felt exceedingly unnecessary and a waste of time, energy, and oxygen. But to them, it was the be all and the end all of their existence in (and perhaps out of) the Rancho. Their interdependent sense of themselves relied on showing me that I was not wanted there which they did in various petty and small-minded, but nonetheless hurtful ways.

The local male wranglers – all 3 of them – got their panties in a twist at a lady – much less a foreign lady – coming up and doing the work they were doing. The fact that I was taking instruction from Ms. HH Sunshine probably stuck in their craw too. Their female counterparts in the kitchen (where I relied on getting my meals in return for the work I was doing) got their panties in an even bigger twist – or so it seemed – at the fact that I was working with their men (and was working to take them away, of course). For what else would I do in life without a Mexican man of my very own. Oh my. Oh my. Let’s just say that by the end of the week I felt like I was stuck in a really bad telenovela, having received my education muy rapido in the gender dynamics of small town Mexican culture. I realised pretty fast that I had been presented with an overly-sanitised environment during my time as a guest. In my naïveté, I thought that the warmth I felt – a tool of the trade – would simply translate to my new role. Instead, I saw and heard what they really thought of the people staying at the Rancho.

In essence, my on-the-ground education was now being expanded to include the behind the scenes ugliness of the business I was volunteering in (a horse riding outfit that caters exclusively to tourists), and the driving motivator of money above all else, including animal welfare. I saw horses not getting enough to eat, horses being over-ridden without sufficient rest, ill horses being ridden twice a day on fast canter rides that should’ve been quarantined, horses being ill-treated by hot-tempered local wranglers, and a horse being put down due to a severely broken leg after a local wrangler’s negligence had left it tied up overnight with horses it shouldn’t have been near. What happened to the wrangler, you may ask? Nothing. He turned up for work the next day, and we all had to pretend like nothing was amiss and get the tourists out on their rides less anything detract from their happy happy experience.

I kid you not, the Rancho was referred to as “a happy happy place” for its overwhelmingly American, Canadian, and European customers. We were expected to actively hide the simplest issues, such as a horse not doing well, to ensure guests were uninterruptedly happy in this, their happy happy place. As I came to learn more about the Rancho’s management, the less surprised I was at the things I saw. The ethics, or lack thereof, came from the top and the bottom line was the dollar amount made. Its owner, a European woman, micro-managed from a more palatable location (she supposedly couldn’t stand the telenovela environment either but hey, cheap labour) through Ms. HH Sunshine and the General Manager – a Mexican man who was mostly absent but appeared for meals and to lord it over select people. The embedded layers of dysfunction became almost perfectly ordinary and boring once you took the horses and exotic locale out of the question.

What about the guests, you may ask? Well, the guests aren’t entirely blameless in this whole enterprise. Putting aside the ones that know next to nothing about horses and have never ridden before, I saw experienced riders from the UK and other parts of Europe ride ill horses like they wouldn’t in their own home countries. Their malnourished state was shrugged at as a ‘local’ way of doing things. I personally know of a few that plan on returning for more. What do you do with that? When the concerned ones did raise an issue or two with Ms. HH Sunshine, she blithely brushed aside their worries while eviscerating them behind their backs.

As for myself, I got an eye-opener of an experience and left 2 weeks after I started. I wasn’t making any bit of difference, and I was disappointed, frustrated, and just a little heartbroken. My suggestions to rest ill horses were ignored, and the local dramatics were making life untenable for me at the Rancho. After all, did I just leave my life in London – and all that wasn’t working with it – to willingly put myself through the dysfunctional grinder I had stumbled into.

No.

As for the Rancho, its still listed as a “luxury” horse riding retreat cranking out those tourist dollars.

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Hello Out There!

I started my year long sabbatical from life as I was living it on March 7th 2019. The plan was to volunteer with horses out yonder, far far away from the now boring confines of the riding school in London, England and spark some of that joy that I so readily experienced while riding out in Mongolia or Kazakhstan. Travelling from volunteer gig to volunteer gig, and being immersed in different horse cultures just seemed like icing on the cake. Backpack, riding kit, a budget, travel insurance, and my enthusiasm – what else could I possible need, right?

Well I’m five and a half months into my quasi adventure to figure some things out about myself in this nutty world, and it has certainly been a trip and a half. Ups and downs like you wouldn’t believe – revelations about myself and my life, the making and breaking of friendships, reconnecting with past loves, cultural clashes and seamless transitions, and of course, riding some amazing horses in some pretty amazing (and not so amazing) places.

To find out a bit more about myself and why I decided to pack up and everything and leave click on my About Me page. To find out what the past few months have been like and to follow me on this adventure click away on the posts. I hope you find some aspect of my documenting this journey rewarding, and I’d love to hear from you with stories of your own.

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London (Not)Calling

Going back to London mid-way through my trip wasn’t a part of my plan, not that I had much of one. But I had some inkling that I wanted some distance away from the Grey City aka the Home of Cold and Emotionally-distant Grumps. And it had only been five months. But I needed a physiotherapist who knew horses and riders, and I couldn’t find that in Malaysia.

July in London was as perfect weather-wise as you were going to get, and I took advantage of every moment of it doing whatever riding I could, walking along the Southbank, and reading on my favourite bench by the riverside close to Gabriel’s Wharf by the OXO tower. Experiencing London as a tourist of sorts rather than the perpetually stressed and bothered commuter attempting to navigate ‘the Global Hub’ was a welcome change of pace. I strolled with the best of them, struck up conversations with perfect strangers on park benches (not as creepy as it sounds) and market vendors selling gluten-free brownies and Mauritian ‘street-food’, and sank into a state of being replete with multiple attendances of the National’s production of Small Island and assurances from both the physiotherapist and one of my old coaches that I was recovering well.

Before I knew it five weeks had gone by, and I was getting myself into the frame of mind I needed for Argentina. I was at the end of my prescribed recovery and rehab time. After the physio and pilates, and a few ‘re-entry’ sessions on horseback – I was good to go.

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