"I'm from Arkansas," I answer, and receive a blank look.
"Arkansas," I repeat, this time pronouncing the word as if it were Portuguese.
"Ah, Arkansas. Tem cavalos lá, né?" Paulo asks suspiciously. There are horses there, right?
Yes, I assure him. We have horses in Arkansas. He nods in approval before clucking to his horse. "Remember, one horse space between you and the other riders!" he shouts over his shoulder as he rides off to take his place at the front of our group. Finally, after hours of preparation and waiting, the parade is about to start.
When I arrived in Porto Alegre, Brazil, seven months ago on a Fulbright grant to teach English, if someone had told me I would find myself riding in a traditional Gaucho parade, sidesaddle, wearing a sweeping Gaucho riding skirt and a matching hat, I would have laughed. But here I am, riding with 300 other Gauchos in Porto Alegre's annual parade.
A Gaucha named Karina gets the credit for my presence in the parade. I signed up for a horseback riding Air-bnb experience with her, and since then I have spent my time outside the classroom learning to ride among these traditional South American cowboys and documenting Gaucho culture through stories, video, and photos.
Karina looks back from her place in front of me to check on my horse, Helena, and me. "Tudo bem?" she asks. All good? "Tudo," I affirm.
Over the past months, Karina has been my teacher in both Gaucho culture and in horsemanship. From her I have learned to prepare chimarrão, the traditional Gaucho tea. It is a mix of herbs packed into a gourd called a cuia, then mixed with boiling water and passed around in a circle. It is a communal drink I have come to love despite the fact is it served so scalding hot that people joke it will give you esophageal cancer.
Karina and I also often eat churrasco together--Brazilian barbecue--and from her I learned that after a ride, everyone brings a piece of meat, which is spitted and grilled over an open flame in a brick oven, seasoned only with rock salt, and served on a wooden cutting board for everyone to share. She and the other Gauchos are proud, tough, loyal, and maintain such a collective mentality that if there is not enough food to share, the food is given to the dogs.
But more than anything, Karina has taught me to ride. "Shoulders of a queen, hands of a lady, and hips of a dancer," she reminds me often. Together we have ridden all over the countryside, sometimes saddled, sometimes bareback, sometimes sidesaddle. She took me to buy my first pair of bombachas, the wide pants tucked into soft leather boots, and my first Gaucho knife to attach to my belt. Now, she has loaned me a traditional sidesaddle riding skirt that her mother hand-sewed for her 30 years ago.
The parade begins with a military procession and Gauchos on foot in traditional dress. After they pass, it is our turn. Karina's horse, Cavalo de Fogo, walks ahead, and I have to pull Helena back to keep her at the proper distance. Since I am riding sidesaddle, uncommon even in this parade, Paulo has put me alone in the center of our group of 20, with riders in rows of three surrounding me. I am honored but also acutely aware that this will amplify any mistake on my part and any misbehavior on the part of Helena.
Sidesaddle is about looking dainty; the layers of skirt fabric cover up the fact that really, you are just hanging on for dear life with your right knee hooked around a horn, while your left foot rests elegantly in the near-useless stirrup.
The Gauchos around me laugh as the parade begins. "An American as our centerpiece!" I laugh with them; the irony isn't lost on anybody, but nobody minds either. They have welcomed me with the characteristic hospitality I have encountered so many times in Brazil. As we ride, I admire my fellow riders and their wide bombachas, crisp shirts, colorful neckties and the wide, flat Gaucho hat. After the first half the parade, Helena settles into the pace and I relax too, now that I think it is less likely she will throw me off.
Living abroad shows you the many differences in language, culture, and way of life, but it also reveals the deeper similarities of people across borders.
In the Gauchos, I have found a community with whom I have many things in common--we share the love of a good horse, a fast gallop, salty meat and bitter chimarrão. We share a respect for tradition, and, like many Arkansans, an appreciation for a life outside the city limits.
The parade winds down past the city center and the Guaiba River, moving toward the park where we will dismount and load the horses up at the waiting trailers. I smile and wave at the people gathered to watch the parade, thinking to myself that they probably don't suspect that I am not Brazilian. And even if they did know, it wouldn't matter.
Today is about honoring Gaucho culture and traditions, and a girl from Arkansas can do that.
Lindsey Liles of Little Rock graduated with degrees in literature and biology from Sewanee, and a master's degree in literature from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She is currently completing an English language assistant Fulbright grant in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
Editorial on 10/12/2019