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Day 30: West of Serrita

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Cowboys' families and admirers arrive for the party. Not exactly dressed for catching a bull. Or are they?
Michael Palin - BrazilIt's early afternoon before attention turns to the Pega de Boi, and the cowboys get their chance to show their skills. Five bulls are secured in a corral a little way up the track. They will be released and after a fifteen-minute interval the cowboys can begin their pursuit. The first thing that strikes me is how small the bulls are. These are not the fearsome brutes of Hemingway's world but apparently mild- mannered specimens about the size of a small cow. To protect themselves from the viciousness of the spiky scrub, the cowboys don the leather equivalent of a suit of armour. It's sturdy bull's leather, and some of it is as ornately fashioned and elaborately decorated as a medieval knight's. The legs are protected by a pair of chaps, some of such thick leather that they stand up on their own. An apron is worn from the neck to the groin to protect the chest and stomach and on top of that is a bulbous leather jacket, the jibăo, curved at the back like a tortoise's shell. Leather gauntlets are worn over the back of their hands and on their heads are the distinctive conical caps with drawstrings secured beneath the chin. I'm told that despite this comprehensive protection some of the cowboys will deliberately leave a strap untied or a hand revealed, as drops of blood are seen as a badge of courage.

As the time of release approaches Julio looks pleased. There is a good turnout. Some 160 riders are lining up along the path. They look timeless. They could be any army, anywhere in the world, anytime in the last 2,000 years. And the horses stand waiting, with their inscrutable, patient eyes.

Then comes a shout and a muffled cheer as the gates of the corral are opened and the bulls, surprisingly unhurriedly in some cases, make their way out. Once loose, they accelerate enthusiastically into the undergrowth and are soon out of sight.

The fifteen minutes allowed for them to get well clear seems to last for ever. It's growing hotter by the hour and must be almost unbearable inside the heavy leathers. Lips are licked, eyes rubbed, flies flicked from faces. Some of the young riders look around cockily, exchanging a joke or two. Some have taken too much drink and look ill-prepared for what's ahead. The old hands narrow their eyes and wait. This, after all, is what they do for a living, and have done for a long, long time. Music drifts up from the nearby encampment. The jolly, upbeat strains of an accordion, carrying the sound of forró in the wind. Probably a Luiz Gonzaga song. Appropriate really, considering he was one of those who helped put the vaqueiro back on the map.

'Ao boi!' the shout goes up, and with cheers and shouts of encouragement from the spectators, the army charges off into the thick scrub, leaving behind a cloud of dust that takes a while to settle.

There are no leader-boards for Pega de Boi, or helicopters or cameras to enable us to follow the action. Instead we rely on the frequent and consistently unreliable shouts of boys who've climbed up the trees to try and be the first to spot a winner. Almost forty-five minutes have passed before one is sighted and the bull is led out of the fields and down the hill. There are four or five riders around it, but the capture has been claimed by one of the younger men who has the tail of the bull held firmly against his saddle. His face shines with pride and perspiration, and from the look in his eyes as he struggles to steer the bull back into the corral you'd think he'd just killed the Minotaur.

Once the celebrations have died down there's quite a long period of nothing much happening. After an hour there is still no sign of a second or third bull, and people are beginning to drift away, back to the party. In a sense it's an image of what today has been all about. The determination to preserve a proud, ancient and immensely tough way of life in a world that's moving on.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 30: West of Serrita
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Serrita
  • Book page no: 129

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  • Sport and Leisure
  • Day 6 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 7 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 4 
  • Pole to Pole