Thursday, 14 January 2010

From outlaw to saint

Hola, I haven't written much since I came to Argentina, mostly because I haven't done shit. I was in a state of laziness for a month, doing nothing mostly, enjoying the air conditioning in my room. I started to feel like a sloth but on the 7th of January (my birthday) I went on a pilgrimage (I'm always interested in scenes of mass hysteria) to the grave of Gauchito Antonio Gil. Now you may ask yourself: "Who is this gaucho Gil?" Well, gaucho Gil was a gaucho. Now of course you want to know what a gaucho is. A gaucho is a kind of cowboy, but then Argentinian style. The gaucho is much nestled in the Argentinian identity (Argentinidad), just as tango and beef. Many people are proud of the gaucho heritage and some still feel very gaucho, in fact are gauchos. They live the gaucho lifestyle. Riding horses, handling cattle and dressing up funny. They wear colourful gear including a wide brimmed low hat, loose fitting trousers (bombachas) that disappear into high cowboy euh I mean gaucho boots complete with spurs that resemble castanets which they use for dancing by stamping on the ground, and of course a knife to cut the beef.

A gaucho on his favorite place: a horse

They live primarily of beef and mate. The beef is prepared on the Argentinian barbecue: the assado. While on a normal barbecue the meat is neatly cut, the Argentinian way is to put a whole cow or pig on it, with half a kilo of salt sprinkled over it. Mate is the national drink, a kind of herby bitter broth that is sipped through a metal straw. In Argentina the rule is: don't leave home without your mate. And drink mate with your mate(s). It is a social thing, kind of the passing of a joint for the Dutch (the ones that smoke of course).

Now that's what I call a Gaucho Gill tattoo

So Gil was a gaucho that served in the army, however he didn't feel like fighting anymore and deserted. He became a outlaw that stole from the rich and gave to the poor. A kind of Argentinian Robin Hood. Apparently he also did some hand curing. However one day Gil's luck ran out and he got caught. A sergeant took him out to a place near Mercedes and hung him upside down to a tree and tortured him (people can be so cruel). Gill pleaded him to safe his life and told the sergeant that his child was very sick and that Gil could safe him. Not being moved by the pleads of Gil and in a blood thirsty mood, the sergeant cut Gil's throat. Upon returning home he found out that Gil was pardoned (whoops) and that his child was indeed very sick. However the child soon recovered. Gratefully the sergeant returned to the place where he had killed Gil to give him a proper funeral (the least he could do) and tell everybody who wanted to know and didn't want to know what a great guy this Gil was (that he killed). Although not recognised as a saint by the Vatican, many Argentinians see him as one and he is very popular. You can see many red flagged shrines for him along the roads (that's how I found out about him last year) especially in the North of Argentina. And many cars that you see have a red ribbon hanging from the rear mirror. Many trucks have the text "Gracios Gauchito Gil". So he is kind of the Saint Christopher of Argentina.

What started off as a simple shrine turned into a complex of restaurants, campsites and souvenir shops (religion, like sex, sells, you can ask that to the Vatican). And many go on pilgrimage in the week of his death (the 8th of January). A lot of stuff that is sold is of course made in China. I saw many Chinese lucky charms for sale with the picture of the Gaucho put over the face of the Chairman.

A vendor selling gaucho Gil souvenir, made in China

The shrine is 9 kilometer outside the otherwise sleepy town of Mercedes. Luckily it wasn't so warm because I heard a few days before the thermometer hit 49 degrees! Arriving at the shrine I saw a cue. After making sure it's not for the toilet I join the cue, thinking it will probably not gonna take to long. Many people around me are wearing a Gaucho Gil t-shirt or something else red. Either brought with them or bought from the street vendors that walk around. Red is the colour of the Gauchito because it resembles his red scarf (apparently it got a bit bloody when he got killed). The cue moved very slowly forward, I think every 5 minutes a meter or so. And I start to think that it might maybe take a bit longer then expected. Mind you: tens of thousands of people visit the shrine this week. I see many people wearing Gaucho Gil tattoos, one even covering somebodies whole back. Also a lot of people are drinking. Imagine that at Lourdes: pilgrims walking around bare chested with tattoos of the Virgin of Lourdes, getting drunk. So I get more the impression I'm at some 3 day music festival then on a pilgrimage. At some places bands are playing folkloric music. For the untrained ear it sounds a bit like tex mex but not so fast.. I'm not a big fan of it but it's always nice to see people enjoying themselves.

This is what Gaucho Gil probably looked like.
A Gaucho Gil impersonator standing in the cue

A accordeon player is giving some relief to the people who wait in line

One or two hours further (my sense of time is disappearing) I'm still in the cue and the point which I thought/hoped would be the destination is just a turn off point. I get a bit annoyed and ask myself who is more crazy here: all the other people who came to ask favours from a dead gaucho, or me, the unbeliever who is joining them, just to take some pictures. We pass (very slowly, approximately speed is 100 meters a hour) many stands and assado restaurants (for vegetarians there are biscuits at the kiosk). At many moments (actually all the time) I think of just stepping out of the cue and just wander and wonder around, there is enough to see. But for some reason I don't. It's the gaucho that is pulling me to his shrine. Such magnitude he has on me. After a few hours and a few turns more my mind has become totally numb, it's like I'm in a state of meditation. No thoughts at all.

Imagine this at Lourdes. A pilgrim drinking
one for the gaucho inside the shrine

Then finally after the last corner I can see the cue is directed between some riot fences into a make shift open construction with a roof over it. Until now all the people have been very calm, but now they get a bit more pushy and things get a bit crammed. In the construction there are a few police men who try to bring a bit of order in the chaos. Every time the let approximately 20 people in for 1 or 2 minutes. You can feel the tension mount, like you are at the start line of the 1000 meter Olympics. People get really excited. Finally after about 5 to 6 hours in the cue we will be let into the shrine, this is what everybody came for. Some will ask for help during their studies, for a good or better marriage or maybe for a divorce, for good health, for finding a good job. You can ask the gaucho anything and he will ask god for you. That is basically the idea. You also vow to return the next year if your wish comes true, since so many people show up every year it really is a miracle.
Then the whistle blows and we rush into the shrine, everybody starts touching the statue of the gauchito and doing their wishes. They also give offers like bottles of wine or tie a ribbon or a small flag to the construction. It's all very hectic and intense after 5 hours hardly moving. Then after one minute or so the whistle blows again (well several times actually, some people are not finished with their wish list to the gaucho I guess and want to stay as long as possible) and we have to move from the sanctuary. It's time for the next group of devotees.

I feel exhilarated and ecstatic, going along in the flow of excitement and hysteria (it's that easy). But fuck: I was so busy taking pictures I forgot to make any wish, oh well I will come back tomorrow, then I can stand in the cue again :-) I walk a bit around the area of the shrine, at some places people are getting a fresh Gaucho Gil tattoo, their pilgrimage isn't complete without one. There is also a museum but there is a cue for it and having enough of cues for today I decide to go back to the hotel.

Two pilgrims next to the shrine, if you look closely to the statue
you can see that Gil also had three testicles

Next day I go back not to stand again in the cue, but to see what's going on more. I see a lot of drunken people, some of them look a bit rough. This is not a good place to walk around in the dark showing off your digital SLR. At one point I notice my bag has been slashed, luckily nothing got stolen. Apparently there are some people here that follow his example of stealing from the rich (me, although it's not true, my bank account is dramatically low, I didn't even have enough money to buy a return ticket to Argentina, so I bought a single one :-)) and giving to the poor (themselves). So I carry my backpack in front of me and walk around. At a few places there is live music and at some times the dancing gets quite intense (amazing how intense some people can dance to such lame music). It's a beautiful sight. Gaucho's, ex convicts (after the bag slashing incident I'm convinced every dodgy looking drunk guy is a criminal) and normal people (well if it's normal to believe in a dead gaucho to grand your wishes) dancing their ass of. Some of the gauchos stamp on the ground, producing a extra rhythm to the music with their spurs. The gauchos are dressed at their Sunday best, with embroidered patterns on their clothes.

Foot stomping music. A gaucho creating a rhythm with his boots

Everybody was having a good time, except maybe this woman

I visit the little museum and wonder at all the gifts for the gaucho, a lot of bicycles, car plates, wedding dresses and photos. One even thanked the gaucho for passing the exam at the University for the course "air conditioning and refrigerator techniques" Didn't know that was a University course :-)
On some of the peoples faces the signs of drinking for days in a row are very clear and they look more rough then they normally do. What a difference with Buenos Aires with it's hip and chique people. About 7 I decide to go back before dark.

Having a one on one with the gauchito

My last day in Mercedes I go back to the shrine. Most people have left and it's much quieter now. I can just walk in the shrine without having to cue for 5 hours. If I had known that 2 days ago! Well yeah, it's all part of the experience right? Anyway now I do my wish to the gaucho. I don't know if you are supposed to tell your wish, but some of the people who know me will know. Yes indeed: a lot of se.. euh worldpeace.

The gaucho can use some new paint

Doing my wish to the gauchito, little did I know
it would be granted the same night!

Later I take a taxi back to Mercedes and shared it with 2 drunk, 130 kilo Neanderthal looking pilgrims.They shared their wine with me and the driver (why not, Gil is looking over us). 5 hours later I see them again on the bus station when I want to catch my bus. At this time they are really drunk, not much light coming out of their eyes. Like always when I take a bus in Argentina it's a total chaos and the bus I intented to go on was full so I have to wait for another one. In the mean time I witness a fight between some drunken racist Argentines and some Africans who have been standing on the market. It seems there are enough drunken Argentines willing to jump in, the atmosphere turns really bad. But things quiet down thank god, and no lynching is happening. Then I finally can board a bus, taking the last seat, all in the back. And next to who am I sitting? One of the neanderthals of the taxi. Everything is cool until he starts putting his big hand on my knee (well actually I'm fine with that if it's a sign of comradely non sexual feelings). However his hand starts to move more up, over my thighs towards my crotch, feeling a bit around. So here I'm sitting in the nights bus with no other seat available getting touched at my private parts by a 130 kilo sweaty drunk Neanderthal looking guy, most probably a ex convict, who's intentions I don't even know. Is he trying to rob me or sexual abuse me? Or maybe he is just mixing work with pleasure and doing both. After a few times putting his hand back where it belongs and saying I'm not into this kind of thing, since I have never been to prison and so I have never been introduced to this kind of brotherly love, he gets it. Well I wished for world peace and there you go.

I go to sleep a bit worried (to say the least), but to my delight I wake up to find my wallet still there and my ass still virgin. My neighbor doesn't say much and when he leaves he doesn't say goodbye. Maybe he was still hurt by the rejection or feeling pissed off of not being able to rob me. At 3 in the afternoon (after having a flat tire, I guess nobody on the bus praid for the journey back) I arrive safe back in Buenos Aires and so came a end to a crazy weekend. It still puzzles me, I will never understand religion and all it's crazy aspects. It's a complete mystery to me. I know now that many Argentinians are less rational then I expected them to be.

Ciao for now


You can see a slide show of the festival here


  1. Ghe Ghe Ghe, you get what you whish for and then you reject it. Kurt, you should never look a given horse in the back.

  2. It's "look a given horse in the mouth" no? I should have maybe been a bit more specific to the gaucho. I probably end up in hell for refusing "God's gift".

  3. you should get a donkey or horse and find yourself a great master goucho to teach you the sense of life tatoos and brotherly love exange. Enjoy your trip ..Valentin

  4. So I would end up covered in gaucho gil tattoos and double saddle pain? No thanks