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Gringo, Macho.


Just a short stretch off to the left of the Pan-American Highway, between Quito and Latacunga, is the hacienda Llitio de Plaza, owned, at the time I am writing about, by one of those rare and colourful characters, Jose-Maria Plaza Lasso. By European standards it was a large farm, some twelve hundred hectares of mainly paramo, reaching almost to the snow line of the five thousand meter volcano, Cotapaxi.

On the hacienda, as well as raising cattle and cultivating what few crops will grow at that altitude, Jose-Maria bred a special race of bulls needed for the national and local corridas, bullfights.
  
Through my friendship with his prodigal son Leonides, I had the pleasure of being an occasional guest at the hacienda. One much sort after invitation was to attend the branding and testing of the young bulls for their future stamina, prior to their appearance in the bullrings. This proving of the young bulls is a serious business as the appearance of an inferior specimen in the bullring can mean a loss of prestige its owner.

The hacienda had its own small Plaza de Toros where Jose Maria, Leonidas and even his sister Migñon, all competent aficionados, or amateur bullfighters, would themselves join in the proving of the bulls. Guests would also be invited to try their hand. I did my best on a several occasions but, despite Jose Maria’s tuition, showed no promise as a future torero, despite  an ample supply of liquor on hand to give a little Dutch courage. Following this amusing and sometimes injury prone entertainment, an excellent lunch would be offered. Should the day be a cold one, as if often the case at that altitude, the meal would be served indoors?

The dining room, with its massive dining table, large enough to seat twenty people, was originally an Inca temple, which had been incorporated into the main building. It was in this impressive setting that   Jose-Maria, a born raconteur, would entertain us with some of the incredible escapades in his life. One such extraordinary escapade deservedly became international news.

In nineteen-forty one, the Ecuadorian political situation was in turmoil. Gallo Plaza, Jose-Maria’s, look alike, older brother had been imprisoned on charges of political sedition. Jose-Maria, determined to rescue him from Quito’s, notorious Garcia Moreno jail, devised a plan based on the escape in Dickens’s ‘Tale of two cities’.

Being well known to the guards, he visited the jail with a plaster on his face, having  faked a minor accident during a bullfight the previous day. Once inside he then changed clothes, plaster and places with his brother who then walked out of the prison undetected, Jose-Maria following him when the prison guard had changed. A couple of weeks later the government fell and Gallo Plaza was elected president of Ecuador; eventually going on to become Secretary General of the Organization of American States.

On another, not internationally noteworthy occasion, Leonidas had invited Simon Mennell, the British Ambassador’s son, a bevy of attractive local female and myself, to the hacienda for a bar-be-que. Although neither of us knew it at the time, one of the girls would become my future wife. Following the lunch which we were to ride over to the nearby village of Mulaló, where a community bull fight was being held to commemorate some Saint’s day. Being a rather bleak and cold day, we had started early on the good whisky that was generously on offer.

The hacienda’s Indian employees, also enjoying the religious holiday, had started celebrating even earlier than us and were already paralytic. They were normally unaccustomed to having contact with Gringos and hospitably insisted that Simon and I, being the only foreigners present, join them downing mouthfuls of Pico, cheap, local hooch made from sugarcane. Leonides and the girls, knowing better the Indian customs, sensibly declined. Mixing drinks was bad enough but this deadly mix of whisky and gut rot, drank at an altitude of three and a half thousand metres was to prove disastrous.
   
The horses were saddled up and we set off at a canter across the paramo. I can best describe my equestrian attributes that afternoon as being similar to James Coburn’s drunken sheriff in the classic western, “Cat Baloo”. As if my antics on horseback were not enough, having been warned that rain was imminent, I had somehow acquired a black, rolled up umbrella.

Arriving at Mulaló, thanks to the Plaza family standing and as the main employer, we were treated as VIPs.  A temporary stand had been set up and we took our seats alongside the mayor, his numerous family and other village dignitaries, all in the same state of inebriation as was I.

The unpaved market square had been converted into a temporary bullring by blocking off the streets leading into it with a barrier of wagons and trucks, which were packed with eager and very drunken spectators.

The bulls used in these village bullfights are not normally killed and, being employed frequently during the fiesta season, have more experience than the aficionados who are attempting to show off their prowess as would-be matadors. Leonidas, later to become a fully fledged toreo in Spain, made a few passes at one of the bulls and had received the bevy Ole’s  from the crowd for his performance. Warming to the genial atmosphere he insisted that I come down from the stand, into the arena and try my hand.

Against the protestations of the Simon and girls I jumped down into the sand, complete with umbrella. The crowd roared their appreciation believing that I was about to perform the portagayola, which is when the torero, with much bravado, meets the charging bull on his knees. But it was the alcohol, shaken inside me into a lethal cocktail by a three mile canter, diverted my vault into a stumble and caused me to land as though in a position of prayer. 

Leonidas immediately regretted his offer when a ferocious looking animal - its size depending on who is telling the tale - with terrifyingly long and wide spread horns, broke away from the Indians who were unsuccessfully trying to hold its massive bulk back with a rope around its neck.

The first thing the beast set eyes upon on obtaining its new found freedom was a ruddy faced Englishman, umbrella poised as though to employ the coup de grace. I have since learned that bulls are colour blind, so it was not my complexion that attracted its attention but it certainly must have recognised the difference between a sword and an umbrella, because instead of cowering with fear as in some Walt Disney cartoon, it charged.
 
Fortunately for me its horns were wide spread because if they had been narrower on that animal’s head, they would have caused serious damage. Instead it was the beast’s head and not a horn  that caught and flipped me couple of meters into the air. I came down rather heavily into the sand, throwing up an atom bomb of dust. The girls were screaming and the Indians howling for more as I arose victorious out of the white cloud - umbrella still clutched firmly in my hand, the bull having been drawn away from me by a couple of passes of Leonidas’s cape.
   
I must in all honesty admit I don’t recall much of the drama I have just related. It is my wife of many years who clearly remembers every embarrassing detail, including my public protestations of eternal love for her and, on her initial rebuttal, how I mistook the couple of broken ribs the beast had inflicted, for a broken heart. In fact, she still uses my short-lived career as a torero to warn our two daughters against red faced, English bullfighters, with umbrellas.  

BRT
 

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