The Rupununi Rodeo is a paradox- two parallel events, opposite in atmosphere. Viewing it through a month’s distance, some great pictures and memories, and the rape of a foreigner, I can’t work out whether the two are yin-yang or oxymoronic.
On the one hand is the rodeo itself. This is not a smart stadium event, where professional sportsmen compete in fancy gear. It is a home-grown gathering from the ranches. Farmhands and cowboys are showing off the practical and dangerous skills that create their livelihoods. For 362 days of the year, these skills are for money, and capture, and subsistence, and are performed without spectators or applause. Then suddenly, they are for entertainment. It’s not an exact fit. It’s rather like holding an appendectomy competition between surgeons in an opera house- fascinating, but clearly not a fair contest in any real sense. You aren’t comparing like with like. Here in Lethem, there is nothing even faintly groomed about it. The bulls are uncoached and genuinely unpredictable. They are penned into a small stockade and get increasingly restless and disturbed as the day progresses. Occasionally, one will stroll out noncholantly and make the rider a laughing stock. Others rush the fence, clearly aching to gore the audience as well as the rider.
The best thing for me is recognising so many of the participants. We have been in Dadanawa many times and several of the finest rodeo riders are familiar faces. The classiest riders are those who don’t care about winning. Some of their most amazing feats are in the stockade, getting the animals into the pens, before they ever reach the arena. Paul Sinthill’s ability to steer a bull by flicking its tail, and his assurance round panicking horses, is at least as breathtaking as his feats in the ring. The last event of the day is the bull-lassoing. Paul does a neat job, but when his rope breaks and loses him the event, he throws back his head in laughter. He jogs back to the stockade, bare feet comfortable in the hot sand, face full of enjoyment. He’s a cowboy, not a sports personality. Nothing hangs on this as it does in a real round-up. The applause is like being given a medal for breathing. He is modest because the only thing he is pitting himself against is the bull, and vaqueros do not vaunt around bulls.
There is an innocence about the whole daytime proceedings. It is an uncomplicated pleasure to watch the horsewomanship of the ranchers’ stylish daughters, and the watermelon- and cassava bread- eating contests; the yin and yang of wet and dry. The rampaging ‘ever-vicious bulls’, as the MC dignifies them, rush the fence enough to thrill, but rarely enough to terrify. The baking sun smites the splintering wooden stands and punch-drunk punters alike.
The darker side is the night festival, a gigantic piss-up without the usual social constraints. I don’t suppose many people at the Oktoberfest notice the security detail much, or feel thankful for their subduing influence. To most of the after-hours Rodeo boozers, it’s just a rough-edged Friday night blur of unglamorous excess lasting three days. But take away the killjoys and who is to discourage rape and a little dark corner stabbing here and there? The Brazilian funfair at nights has a rickety, mustachioed unattractiveness that is less gigolo and more sleazy thug. And there is a hangover effect too. On the final day, fortified (or fooled) by a bloodstream full of stale alcohol, an American volunteer is arrested for offensive behaviour, first inciting a bull as none of the good vaqueros did, and then insulting the policeman trying to restrain him. Sullen, uncooked-pastry British teenage girls roam in glued supercilious huddles of eight or more, hangovers visibly worsening as rodeo reaches its conclusion and the sun finishes cooking the Rupununi lobsters.
And yet, despite this, the Rupununi Rodeo felt homely in the best sort of way. Somehow it made me feel very accepted, sitting with Cheryl from Dadanawa on the stands watching the world and his drunk granddad go by, while B perched on rickety fences risking sunburn and goring for good photos. Perhaps without the piss-up it wouldn’t be a real Rupununi Bacchanalia. Disorderliness is a defining characteristic of this place: the winding trails, the sporadicity, the vanishing past and unreal future.