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.