Saturday, 21 January 2012

Tales from Argentina - Tormo the Cranky Donkey

Until the age of thirteen I spent all my summer holidays on a farm in an idyllic setting, the hills of Córdoba, in Argentina.  It was run by relatives who sought to supplement their modest income by having paying guests.  The fees were ridiculously low, and it was customary to bring victuals with us from Buenos Aires to help with the meals – typically a side of beef or pork, a large container of honey or a truckle of cheese.
The location was remote; when you arrived at the nearest village, you enquired as to recent weather for the last part of the journey up to the farm, and whether the streams would be in full flood or the road muddy and impassable in anything less than a 4x4 vehicle. 

It was all part of the excitement of feeling you were almost there.  There were 14 streams to cross – or rather, there were some streams which you crossed several times.  Either they had sandy bottoms and you prayed you wouldn’t get stuck if the water was high, or they were stony but the road ascended steeply the other side, and you fretted in case your little car wouldn’t manage to cough and splutter its way onward. 

After an hour of painfully slow progress sloshing in and out of streams with everybody in the car counting them one by one, and noting whether the natural landmarks had changed – a tree burnt down, a large familiar rock submerged where last year it had risen, bare and dry out of the water –

we would finally glimpse our first view of the house and raise a cheer, late as it was and tired as we were.

After the polite and fond greetings had been exchanged with the uncles, aunts and cousins staying there, for the house was large and welcoming, I would race round the house saying hello to the dogs, then down to the stream and over the bridge,

where I would stop to throw a stick and watch it come out on the other side, then round the hill to the stables and corrals where the horses were.  After a brief chat with Don Aparicio, who was employed to look after the area and lived in a little house there, we lost no time in stroking the horses’ velvet noses, patting their backs and taking in their horsey smell once again.  It was pure bliss. 

In the distance over in the field I could see Old Tormo, the bad-tempered donkey, staring balefully, totally disinclined to come over to see what was going on, but there would be no time to seek him out (warily), because Aunt Marion didn’t take kindly to people arriving late for dinner.
The dining-room

Things would settle down in the next few days.  We would go off on rides in the hills, looking for waterfalls and natural pools in which to swim, hunting for fresh watercress in the stream shallows, and stones covered in glittering mica,

or eating the peaches that grew wild in the hillsides around the house. 

Sometimes we came across rattlesnakes and tarantulas, and pretended we were very brave – which we weren’t.  There were pumas in the area too, and we were constantly warned about the behaviour of a female with young.  I only ever saw a puma once in the distance on that farm in the years I spent there on holidays, but as children we lived with the real fear that we would come across one which would be convinced we were after her cubs.  It stopped me venturing very far away from the house on my own.

Back at the corrals we would unsaddle and put the heavy saddles and reins back tidily on the wooden horses and hooks on the walls in the saddle room because there were always adults around to tell us off is we didn’t.  Then we would take our horse to the stream and using rusty tins left there for the purpose, wash the animals and rub them down, finally taking them to the field where they could graze.  And there would be Old Tormo, standing stubbornly in a corner, unwilling or unable to come over and join in.
(internet pic)

I had read the Ladybird series of beautifully illustrated children’s books, and by far and away my favourite story was Ned the Lonely Donkey,

...about a donkey who spent the days by himself in a field with no friends.  Lonely and sad (and the illustrations reflected this superbly), he wandered from one animal and bird to another asking them how he could make friends. 
None of their suggestions worked until a friendly magpie led him to a beautiful house in a wood where he told him there was a boy called Timothy who lived there.  His parents were always away and he was usually to be seen all by himself looking glum. 

Eventually the two met and made friends, and both were happy.  Subsequently Ned would sometimes meet up with the magpie in the woods for a chat, and would tell him all about his adventures with Timothy and how happy they now were.  The end. 

The way the story is told is somewhat sad, not to mention the pictures; invariably I would weep with pity every time I re-read it.

So here was Old Tormo, a lonely donkey with no friends, just waiting for someone like me to be a Timothy and keep him company.  The borderlines between fantasy and reality would become blurred, and unable to resist his naturally sad face, year after year I would go quietly up to him, making reassuring noises and carrying a mouthful of straw.  “Come, Tormo” I’d whisper “I’ll be your friend”.  He would eye me suspiciously, and as soon as I got to within 5 metres of him he would toss his head and run off, braying crossly.

Then one year a much younger donkey appeared, and Old Tormo became more cantankerous than ever.  He wasn’t merely put out by the competition, he was absolutely furious.  He kept to the far end of the field, only venturing nearer the saddle room when he needed the water trough.  Any attempts to approach him were met by his rear hooves kicking high up in the air.  We were warned not to venture too close and to keep to the other side of the fence.
One afternoon when we were down at the corrals looking at the horses, one of my cousins called us over to watch a drama that was unfolding.  Old Tormo had happened on the water trough a couple of minutes before the younger donkey had ambled up and started drinking quietly at one end.   
As soon as Tormo became aware of his rival’s presence, he gave out a harsh squeal, leaned over and bit him on his rump.  It must have been a vicious bite, because the younger animal emitted a shrill scream and instinctively attempted to bite him back.  Don Aparicio had appeared by this time and shouted at them in order to distract and separate them, but made the mistake of leaving the gate to the field open in his haste to sort out the dispute. 
Tormo veered off towards the gate and raced through it, scattering us all.  From a safe distance I watched in amazement as he did what no one could possibly have expected him to do.  Instead of racing up the slope to get away from us, he galloped into the saddle room, his hooves clacking noisily on the stone floor.
He stood in the middle of the room, snorting heavily, his head turning this way and that.  Then with astonishing skill he proceeded to drag a saddle off the wooden horse with his strong teeth.  Argentine saddles consist of the basic frame made from raw hide, with a series of layers of blankets, sheepskin covers and the sweat pad beneath; all in all a hefty unit.  


Old Tormo made quick work of one of them, dragged it into the centre of the room, stood on it, stamped on it repeatedly and urinated copiously upon it with his head pointing at the ceiling, braying raucously, deafeningly and triumphantly all the while.  We looked on with grudging admiration.  He had certainly made his point.
From that day onwards the younger donkey was moved to another field and Tormo was left in peace to enjoy what was left of his retirement as grumpily as he pleased. 
As for myself, I was never able to look upon my favourite Ladybird book in quite the same way again.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive

In Valencia and Chiva, Spain

Valencia from the sea

And lastly, two pictures not taken by me
of people I care about:
Verónica Minieri, a good friend who visited England in 2010
(her adventures are recorded in this blog under
'Vero's Visit', link in left margin).
She is now happily expecting her second child.

...and my train-mad great nephew, 2 and a half,
being taken on a train ride and experiencing one of the
greatest thrills of his life so far:
presenting his ticket to the guard. 
Taken by his mother, my niece.



Vagabonde said...

That Tormo was quite a donkey! I love your new blog décor – the heading is particularly pretty and the color attractive. I enjoyed looking at your photos, which are always so good. I had to laugh at your friend Jenny’s letter – what a day she had! It is always fun to come and visit you.

Lonicera said...

Vagabonde - Thank you on all counts! So glad you like the new appearance of the blog. Joyful of Snap That did a grand job.

Matvi. said...

Did you take take the farm pictures before thirteen? Amazingly good, they are.

Nrver trust a donkey.

Lonicera said...

Matvi - the pictures were taken when I was in my early twenties and I returned for a sentimental whistlestop tour round the estancia to capture on my little instamatic Olympus every memory I could find. It had been a year of unaccustomed rainfall, which is why the steams all looked so healthy. The bit around the bridge would never have been as full of weeds in my time.
You're so right about donkeys! I've ALWAYS been taken in by their sweet and sad expressions and then feel the inevitable chagrin as they show their bad temper...

Joyful said...

I've been meaning to come by and read this for some time. I always need a bit of time especially for your blog ;-)

The photos are especially beautiful and I enjoyed reading about the long journey to this summer place.

That old Tormo was a cantakerous fellow and he sure did make his point! I can see why you enjoyed reading the illustrated children's books as they are lovely and the illustrations are fantastic. I especially enjoyed all your photos today too. Just stunning scenery although it took so long for the journey. I can't imagine building such a big house when it must have been a real chore to get all the building materials to the site. But the house really is lovely.

Lonicera said...

It took 8 or 9 hours driving from Buenos Aires to get there, but from my own childish perspective it was all an exciting adventure with the prospect of at least a month in an idyllic playground. Thanks Penny for the comments about the pictures.

Reddirt Woman said...

Ah, Tormo... what an ass! He missed out on a delightful friend but you sure told his story well. Did they keep the donkeys as protectors for the cattle like they do here in the States? My cousin has three donkeys that they put in the different pastures with the cattle because even the mini-donkeys will kill a coyote or a cougar (yes, we have those in Oklahoma) to protect their herd. What an idyllic life you had growing up...

Great story and the photos, as usual, make me long to see those places with my own eyes. Thank you for the journeys you take us on...


Lonicera said...

Hi Helen - no I'd never heard of this use of a donkey. But perhaps it's just my ignorance, because there were pumas around, and Tormo might have helped protect the herd I suppose. There were a lot of bad tempered mules around as well, but they were plain mean and I didn't dare get near them. So glad you liked the story and the pictures - much appreciate your comment!

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