Isn’t our life interesting when we stop long enough to look back and see where we’ve been? In 1998 I took a grueling trip to Rancho San Juan Poriahu, outside of Corrientes, Argentina. The basis for my trip was to gain resource material to paint the working Gauchos that are specific to the marshland region of Northern Argentina. I was about to give my first big gallery show in Denver, and was excited about painting an entire show of these iconic cowboys.
You need to understand that at this particular time, I was three years into my career, and a trip to Argentina wasn’t really in the budget. But I managed to find a travel agency in Houston that offered bird-hunting trips to the region of Argentina I was interested in. So I took a leap of faith and booked this trip, charging it on my MasterCard, with the hope that the photographic images I brought home, would be rendered as beautiful watercolors and result in a successful exhibition of my paintings.
From the beginning, my trip was marred by a rain event coming from the Andes Mountains. As you may know, painting in watercolor is dependent on your ability to see shadows in your subject, which requires the presence of the sun. So my biggest fear came true: torrential monsoons almost forced me completely out of the area. I only had 9 days to capture all the images I would need, and by day 5, the rain was still pouring from the heavens.
I had to travel 60 miles down a rain-soaked dirt road to the only phone in the area. I stood in line behind the peasants in a small-unnamed village. I finally reached Pam and told her she needed to call Houston and get me booked in another region where the sun was shining! She looked on the computer, informed me there was a purple cloud hovering over the ranch, but if I could hold on for another day the storm was moving out. So I said a prayer, and decided to stick it out.
And as God would have it, the down time waiting for the rain to subside turned out to be the most memorable part of the trip. It seems when Gauchos can’t work they spend the better part of the day drinking Yerba Mate tea and making their own tack, mostly through plating or braiding.
It seems that an American artist can be as captivating to a bunch of Gauchos as they were to me. I traded some cash and a couple of inexpensive folding knives I purchased in a Buenos Aires marketplace, for two beautiful hand-braided reatas, and three conturos, which is a plaited strand of leather with beads, which they use to count cattle. They thought they made the better trade, but I guarantee those knives are long-gone, and I still treasure my end of the bargain.
And the computer turned out to be correct…. the sun reappeared the last two days of my trip and I snapped photos as fast as I could.
The real blessing of the trip was the opportunity to meet the ranch owner, Marcos Garcia Rams. Keep in mind that Argentina was experiencing severe currency debasement at that time, so my dollars were very welcome. Marcos and I found common ground like two old friends as we talked politics, economics and the business of running a huge ranching empire. His ranch consisted of 400,000 to 500,000 acres!
At night we ate different preparations and variations of asada and drank wine and played competitive games of chess until the big Cummins diesel generator was stopped at 9 p.m. to conserve the supply of gas. After that, it was candlelight.
Mornings were for a light breakfast, reading time and a slower pace of life. Cow work began during the late morning and was over by lunch.
When my time was up, Marcos and I shook hands like old friends and fumbled our good-byes, both knowing we probably wouldn’t cross paths again.
Marcos is a smart man, hard working, and I know he is fighting tooth and nail to hang on to the ranching traditions of northern Argentina. I would give anything to share another meal by candlelight with this fascinating man.
In the end, as always, God saw fit to give me not necessarily what I wanted, but He made damn certain I got what I needed. I got my pictures for the show, met my obligations, and was able to pay for my trip. But the real value of the entire episode was that I received insight into a new and interesting world, a forced reality check and a great faraway friendship.
All content and images © Mark Kohler Studio.