During the preparation of our first trip to Brazil, the Pantanal quickly appeared to be an obvious stop of our journey. An incursion into the heart of this immense natural reserve, surrounded by forests, ponds and wild animals, punctuated with excursions on the Paraguay River and treks in the surrounding bushes, what could be more exotic for us city dwellers?
We decide to start our stay in Campo Grande, one of the main gateways to this natural area. As we left the bus station, we easily booked reserved a 3-day-tour; a German backpacker and a Dutch medical student would join us. On site, a native guide from the Pantanal was already waiting for us.
After a 3-hour drive in a mini van, we still had to take a pick up to access our pousada (bed and breakfast in Brazil), in the heart of the Pantanal via Estrada Parque, a dusty track with small docks from where l could already see groups of caimans a few meters away from us. 1h30 later, we arrived at our destination with the ever-growing feeling of being in a magical place, a place to remember. This place is both isolated and so alive, few people but so many animals surrounding us, barely noticing us, Yet, we are on their land. From our very first walk in the forest, in the evening, with our English-speaking guide, Sandro, I noticed this immense respect between man and animal. The cohabitation with animals – that we Westerners consider dangerous – becomes obvious when we respect each other. Afterwards, all my fears and inhibitions regarding the caimans disappeared, I ventured without apprehension into a pond, surrounded by two baby caimans and their mother.
The highlight of our stay in the Pantanal, was by far the spontaneous invitation from our guide to a barbecue at a nearby ranch. The second evening, Sandro explained that the neighboring fazenda (large agricultural property in Brazil) was having a barbecue because they had just killed a cow. Tradition is to invite the neighborhood so he invited us to join him ; he thought it might turn out to be an interesting experience for us as tourists. It seemed like an experience off the beaten track, we accepted right away. Of course we had already noticed all these cows grazing on this immense land, as well as the few cowboys caring for their herd, but had Sandro not invited us, we would have never met these people nor heard their stories.
Men of all ages were gathered around a homemade barbecue and we could already sense smell the delicious grilled meat. They smiled as we arrived, no one seemed surprised, and we were given a kind and warm welcome. And just like that, we both ended up devouring ribs with our fingers and it was delightful!
I do not know how they had killed the cow but I would lean for a traditional slaughter because there was no structure closeby big enough for an industrial slaughter. And I know they had killed it just a few hours ago. The Brazilians who were around the barbecue seemed to find it was normal to eat the cow that they had just killed. Probably because that’s what it had been bred for. They respect their herds, they take good care of them, and according to me, while we feasted, they did not feel guilty in the least of having killed an animal for food. It was just part of the cycle of their lives.
As we were chatting away with two young gauchos (herdsmen), they didn’t waste any time in proudly showing us – on their latest Smartphones – videos of themselves and colleagues training a wild horse. It was unbelievable, thousands of miles away from our comfortable life, we were listening to these men telling us why the horse on these videos was so crazy, and specifically why these men were defying his madness. The horse squirmed and jumped while the rider held tight. We witnessed a retransmission of a real rodeo, right there in the heart of the Pantanal. This horse must have been 5 years old. When it was born, the cowboys had decided that it would not be tamed but would remain wild until a certain age. After a few years of freedom, the training begins, painfully. Once tamed, this animal will be much more powerful and spirited than others raised by men from a young age.
Freedom and passion will always remain within. It will later be in charge of catching lost cattle and will prove much faster in difficult situations. On these videos, the young boys seemed to be having fun but the stakes were real and important; this was part of their work within the fazenda. Through these videos, which could have easily ended up in our Facebook thread, these Gauchos were proud to show us their work and their day-to-day life.
That evening will remain one of the most beautiful memories of our trip and is still today a story that we often tell our families and friends.
2016, Pantanal via Estrada Parque, Brazil
Photograph: Justin Feyer