Outside fat Mourice’s hut, dusk hides all the sinister sounds a huge swamp can frighten strangers with, unaccustomed to such infinite forest and water. Beats, buzzings, growlings, howlings. It’s humid and heavy. Anxious. Mourice cooks coffee and bakes bread, the warm and pleasant smell comforts us that it all might end well. After a rain shower nearby, without lifting his gaze, he speaks toothless… caiman. Big one. Hunting. We exhale. Better than an anaconda, or God forbid, a jaguar, a large caiman i these conditions is quite acceptable.
text and photos / Zoran Marinovic
Hungry parrots screech awaiting dawn, while cowboys silently saddle horses. They gather slowly. Dreamy. Tired. Grouchy. It’s going to be a long day. Muddy above all.
Cowboys who drive cattle across the Pantanala swamp, in the Mato Grosso region, stuck in the heart of the continent, bordering with Bolivia, have more names for mud than anything else. Regular mud is called lama, the thick one, barro. Pure mud, or just silt, in which cattle gathers next to the ranch entrance, is called maiado. Mud dappled with large holes form hooves, with sharp edges is called brocoto. And so on. Even the time of year when all this mud in Pantanala is created has its name. They call it cheia, or the “full” period, when this great swamp is flooded with water, to the knees, hips, waist. To the neck.
Before the sun hangs its first rays on the dark treetops, chases the swamp bats to sleep and flies to java, most of the twenty cowboys that will drive thousands of cattle from one pasture to another, readily await to mount their horse and get to work. The fifteen dollar daily wage is small compensation for their hard work. But one must live.
Cowboy and his horse. Pantanjeros i pantanero. Inseparable. The life of pantanjeros is brotherly, bound to his horse. Pantanera. He is fast and durable. Special. He can live for days in water and can swim too. Not afraid of caimans and will warn his rider of the presence of jaguars. And snakes. He will save your life, if you listen to him. No machine has been able to replace him yet. Or will it, most cowboys say.
He’s more important than a woman. He jokes, roughly, tauntingly. Cowboys jeer. But after she arrived to the corral, the laughter vanished. Patricia Silva. Lovely Patricia Silva. White hat, pin chequered shirt, flawless jeans. From a soap opera. Only daughter of the farm owner. She says “I am a woman. And that’s why I fight for respect in a man’s world. If there isn’t any, then I make some. I say. I ride better than you. Wave my lasso better than you. Herd cows better than you. If you want I can show you. Right here. Now.” She talks to us and eyeballs Mourice. Pats her leather whip on her thigh. He’s not in favour with her. Doesn’t feel like joking.
Horses, caimans and mud. This is their life. And if you ask anyone, they would never change. If just once you pull on the boots, saddle a horse and ride across the Pantanala swamp, you become a pantanjeros for life. It’s been like this and will be. As long as there are men and horses.
Patricia mounts and blows into a large horn. Hundreds of parrots fly to the sky. Whips whistle through the air and the endless herd starts across the river. To a new pasture. Land above water is diminishing. Cows are more and more. And the need for money rises.
It’s a struggle for survival. Brutal and unsparing. From day to day. Cowboys and cows on one side, nature and wild animals on the other, and at the very end those still looking for their side, trapped in between. Indians.