The Polo Series: Life on Planet Oblivious aka Planet New Colonists (2)

The first few days would get off to a promising start – in spite of my unsanitary and quite viscerally disgusting living conditions. I had to call on some higher mental power for this one. That, and I averted my eyes as best as I could when using the WC, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘tunnel vision’.

The average day’s plan – according to the routine Groom No. 1 followed – was a simple one that made sense. Feed & water the horses at 6am, tie them up to the pony lines for a little grooming, tack two horses up for us to ride (with the rest being exercised by hand with lead ropes held in the left and right hand) on the exercise track – what the locals call varreos (or sets), turn out the horses so they can enjoy their chill time while we muck out and sweep clean the stables and tack room. That took us to about 11.30am, at which point we’d break til 2pm, and bring in the horses for their afternoon exercise, and evening feed & waters. In between there’d be the tack cleaning or washing out gunky water buckets or whatever else we needed to do. The bulk of the day’s work would end sometime around 6.30pm-7.30pm after the horses had their dinner, with a return to the stables before bedtime (around 10pm) for a goodnight poop scoop and waters (i.e filling up water buckets).

After days of being in the city, the physical activity felt like a release. Being out in the open and free of the cacophony of traffic noises, stretching under-utilised muscles mucking out or grooming, breathing in the fresh air – the ubiquitous cigarette smoking non withstanding – and bonding with the horses coupled with the anticipation of riding again- it was simultaneously grounding and liberating in a way that pounding the pavement in a concrete jungle just …. isn’t. I did mention I wasn’t much for big cities, didn’t I.

Groom No. 1 – Ignacio, known to all as Nacho – was a skinny reed of a young man (twenty years old I think), personable and pleasant to work with. Funny, patient, and paps to the cutest puppy I had laid eyes on as yet – Rocco. The only nasty habit he possessed – that I was aware of anyway – was a propensity to chain-smoke. And boy do I mean chain-smoke everywhere. He smoked in the tack room, in the stalls, near the hay bales, in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in his room, and for completions sakes, everywhere in between. There was nary a place he did not light up in, seemingly with the blessing of the owners of the club and the outfit renting out the stables for the season. Let’s just say Health & Safety – of horses or human – was not a factor.

Nacho travelled in a pack, as most humans seem to do. His little group consisted of his similarly aged ‘brother from another mother’ (the aptly named Nachi), Tomi (an incredibly sweet boy), and the requisite older male (of course) Uncle slash father figure, the portly Carlos, who lead the general direction and tenor of the group. My working with Nacho afforded me a temporary pass into this group, and it helped to have a cushion of sorts to pad the landing. After all, I was navigating across different cultural boundaries, something I’m quite used to doing but that isn’t always necessarily a smooth process. Stepping into Argentine culture, Argentine macho culture, Argentine gaucho culture, and Argentine polo culture – all with their own rules – was made a bit more fun with these guys.

Mornings would starts around 5.30am, a sleepy gathering with the requisite mate, in the kitchen on their end of the building. The four of us would sit on benches around a – usually – filthy kitchen table with leavings from last night’s dinner and stains from who knows how many meals ago hardened into the plastic green and white checked tablecloth. I had quickly learnt to enlarge my selective blind-spot to suit the environment, but the comfort I drew from their warm welcome was tempered by the fact that I knew I was putting my own health at risk being around them. I didn’t come across a single non-smoker – and they did not have boundaries when it came to where they smoked – throughout my entire time at the club. We’d cook our separate lunches during the afternoon break and eat together before returning to the stables. They’d have their mate breaks in between and I’d listen to them speak Spanish, getting used to the cadence and improving my vocabulary, or we’d get to know each other in my staggering Spanish and their halting English. It was a convivial experience, and good fun.

Unfortunately things went downhill at the end of the first week, as the groom I started out with left and ushered in groom No. 2. What I wouldn’t know on that day was that this new guy would be No. 2 in a revolving door of grooms that would top out at 6 when I left in late October (after 8 weeks). That’s a hell of a turnover. I found out pretty fast that the grooms up the road were getting paid about USD420/month, the average it seemed. Keep in mind their bosses were polo players who stable 10-20 horses at a time (and we know how expensive horses are to maintain, much less proper athletic ones), who pay club fees in the thousands (USD of course) per season, who pay to play chukkas, and who spend a pretty penny – oh say tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars – when purchasing a polo pony.

Yeah … kinda makes you just a little sick doesn’t it. And even so, USD 420/month was a bit too much for some of them. Listening comes in handy, I’ve found, and one of my experiences was listening to owners complain about how much their grooms were asking to be paid, and how – when I questioned one of them, a twenty year old Argentine with more money that sense, morals, or compassion – stated flatly that the grooms deserved the conditions they lived in because, well … they were grooms. Remember, there wasn’t the barrier of a corporation or a hierarchy in between these words and the people they impacted, and I was curious about what an individual would feel comfortable saying to my face, as it were. No ‘management issues’ or ‘office bureaucracy’ or ‘government politics’ – excuses I’d heard in the different work environments I’d been in from the middle man, no, this was straight from the horses mouth (couldn’t resist). And let me tell you, I spoke to a few of the grooms to get their take on their living conditions and (unsurprisingly) they didn’t think they deserved to live like that, in conditions so unsanitary and poorly maintained that they didn’t feel comfortable having their families visit.

In addition to the lousy wages, the grooms were not given a single day off throughout the 3-4 month polo season. At my particular stables, I was initially told that I would get every alternate Monday after the morning jobs were done off as time off. I lasted 2 weeks. After that I asked for a day off a week. The working environment after No.1 left was terrible, and the tone was set from the top, as it so often is. Poor standards of communication not only between the people I was volunteering for but between them and us, a lack of understanding about stable management and lack of oversight, and allowances for poor behaviour in the name of expediency led to the excellent quality of work I was a part of with Groom No. 1, not to mention the attendant camaraderie, quickly becoming a thing of the past.

The people they attracted – to summarise; No 2 was a pervert who did more mate sipping, smoking, and chatting with his buddies over the way than actual working. That’s when he wasn’t making inappropriate comments or overly concerning himself with the way my shoulders felt – something I talked to the horse owners about but that they didn’t feel comfortable bringing up with the groom as they ‘needed him to work’ and I was just a volunteer, after all. Their words, not mine. No 3 was a physically aggressive brute who had a problem working with women. He liked to yell; an episode which due to a misunderstanding on his part led to him screaming at me and trying to intimidate me physically with his body led to the owners asking me to apologise for his misunderstanding. No 4 was a joke who up and left one Sunday morning because his side gig – racing his Greyhounds at the track – was more lucrative which isn’t saying much, No 5 turned out to be a lovely guy (finally) who treated me with respect and consideration, and did his share of the work, and No 6 was a sour puss who again had a problem working with women. I had called it quits by then.

It was becoming increasingly clear, as days turned into weeks, that the Brit & Argentine couple who I volunteered for, and the Brits who owned and managed the club – an ex-champion polo player for Queen and Country tut tut – took advantage of their staff in ways they would never dream of getting away with back home. The local Argentines who rented out the stables for the polo season weren’t far behind. As for me, I counted myself lucky that I could turn on my heel and walk out whenever I chose. After all, my livelihood and that of my family’s weren’t dependent on a bunch of oblivious polo playing, horse-riding – I use the term loosely here – asshats.

I was looking for something else.

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The Polo Series: Life on Planet Oblivious aka Planet New Colonists (1)

I got off the Pilar Express and stood waiting in the cold, on some street. I was waiting to be picked up by a guy in a huge black pick-up truck with the words La Amistad Polo scrawled in tiny orange print below the side window (or so he said on the phone). There’s plenty of activity on the street, but the night already has this weird quality to it, a quality that would become a bit clearer to me when we stop at a supermarket and I hear Cantonese music blaring through the store’s speaker system, and would fully reveal itself on arrival at the club’s accommodations for grooms, my new home for the next 3 months.

Surreal. That’s what it felt like. I couldn’t quite believe that this man – who seemed normal enough over multiple emails and a couple of Skype calls – was actually showing me these quarters as if he fully expected me to shower (and more) here, sleep here, and cook and eat here. I was told that the pettiseros (grooms) brought their own everything (bedsheets, duvet, pillow, pillow cases, cutlery, cookware, dish soap etc etc) and that I was receiving special treatment by the very presence of the thoroughly cleaned room, the bedsheets and duvet, and the cutlery. And the lilting wardrobe too, now that I think back on it. I couldn’t quite overcome my surprise at the fact that he didn’t seem to be embarrassed at all. I was told to expect accommodation in the style of an army barracks so I definitely was not expecting to see the Shangri-La of groom accommodations, but as far as I knew discipline and cleanliness were enforced strictly in the army. Full Metal Jacket, anyone?

Its moments like this when I wish I was raised on a trailer park with the manners of a white thrash (sorry!!!), beer-swilling, gut shaking, chain smoking redneck and the attitude to match. I would’ve liked to have channelled me some Bubba on that particular night. Instead my WASP-equivalent self (the polo dynamic seemed to centre around this sort of equation) let out a gentle ‘Oh’ on the exhale followed by a light laugh (desperately trying to hide my shock) while I tried to rationalise the situation I was in. Cultural differences, I told my jet-lagged bleary myself. Maybe this was their normal, for whatever reason. After all, I had just gotten there. It was pitch dark, and I hadn’t seen much of anything else. I couldn’t very well turn around and walk out on the first night, could I? This was supposed to be an adventure.

The trade: I would be an intern or volunteer, bringing my BHS stable management knowledge, and riding skills, and being shown what I’d need to know as part of the experience of working as a volunteer groom at a polo stables in Pilar, the polo capital of the world (or so I’m told), in exchange for accommodation and lessons in riding polo ponies and playing polo. It was unusual for this sort of gig that food wasn’t included but I was willing to shell out for the food to try out this completely different experience. Besides I was told I would get a share of the tips to help cover the outflow in my strict year-long budget which always helps. Or it would if the locals tipped, which as it turns out, they don’t.

I was told that the day started at 6am, and so, on my very first morning, I fully expected the grounds of the La Quinta Polo Club to resemble the ‘challenging’ condition of the grooms’ quarters. An ‘up and comer’ I told myself. Give it a chance. Let’s see how this goes. The horses!! I brought out the big guns of pep. But as the sun rose, and the horses were fed, and the morning jobs were done and dusted, I got to explore the grounds a bit more during the siesta hour. And you can imagine my surprise at the sight of immaculately manicured polo fields, meticulously cared for horses (better it seemed than their owners would care for their staff), and a sense of disconnect or obliviousness that left me feeling like I was Alice down the rabbit hole in Wonderland, or Dorothy in Oz.


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