Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Al Andalus Day 6: Ecija to Cordoba


Fase 1 - Ecija - Las Pinedas - 26.09 km
Fase 2 - Las Pinedas - Cordoba - 31.67 km
TOTAL: 57.76 km

All day I kept thinking, one more day, then a rest day! I'm sure I wasn't the only one thinking that, because there were more than a few bleary eyes at the breakfast tables this morning.

It was a controlled start again, around 11 AM, the 29 horses escorted out of the city on paved streets by Javier and Alberto's car (with whom I was riding) and the police. It was somewhat darkly overcast this morning, and it had rained the last few nights. The officials were concerned about the mud on course, so nobody would be driving over it but the fearless man driving the four-wheeler with his passenger, Abraham the video camera man, and two jeeps with Jose Manuel Soto at the wheel of one. All of the 'outdoor' passengers were bundled up in rain gear - against the possible rain, and against the definite mud. Ines would ride her motorbike, but only on the first Fase. "The second Fase - no way!" Later I'd see why she said that!

The Organization set up the first Assistance point at 11 kilometers beside an olive orchard - no crews allowed because the road was too narrow - with a water truck. We stopped there, and as I took photos, Alberto, Javier, Antonio (driving Paula da Silva around) and the truck driver filled water buckets for the horses, hosed the horses down as they paused, handed pitchers of water to the riders to pour on horses, handed the riders bottled water to drink. Two veterinarians were also there to keep an eye on the horses.

The mud caked up on the bottoms of my sandals just from standing at the edge of a field - I wondered how it must be for the horses, with the mud sticking to their shoes.

Truly, my Spanish had improved over last year, and the Spanish people do like to help you learn. The hardest part for me (besides just REMEMBERING Spanish words) is comprehending verb tenses. Today in the car Javier gave me some verb tense lessons.

Who would have thunk it, but Javier Gutierrez is a pre-law professor at the Universidad de Jaen, and a Judge in real life, but, "this is the real planet," he says. "In my other life, I'm serious. But this is what I love: the people, this ride, this adventure." He's slowly lost his voice over the last few days so that when he speaks at the ride meetings, nobody even notices until he's halfway through with his speech. Doesn't matter anyway, because everybody's too exuberant to listen!

After all the horses had passed through and the buckets and tubs were emptied and put back in the water truck, we drove on to the second assistance point where all the crews were waiting for their riders. We stopped there just briefly before continuing on to the vet gate in a lovely meadow next to an olive orchard. It was still cool, and partly sunny, just the right light being cast on the day. A very pleasant place to pass a half hour of your vet check if you were human or horse. Several horses - those Equipos horses not in today's ride - were out in temporary tape pens. Some days those horses were hauled straight to the finish stables, and other days, they followed the ride all day, so it was nice for them to get out and graze or be handwalked during the lunch stops.

I picked up a sandwich and a couple of cold drinks, and this time I put them on the windshield right in front of Javier's view, so nobody could miss them this time. (And I had my lunch in the car when we left!)

Santiago Perez and Marlboro Yac were the first out onto Fase 2, just a few seconds ahead of Sara Hobbs and Gamera. Two horses were eliminated from lameness here at the vet gate, Daniel Maldera and Nathalie Michel. Natalie had gone back to riding Petra De Sommant, the horse she'd ridden the first 3 days, but she couldn't go on to Fase 2.

Sometimes Javier drove fast, but now we poked along as we headed towards Cordoba, Javier telling Alberto stories all the way, taking, instead of the more obvious paved roads), dirt roads between orchards that kept disintegrating and getting muddier... It looked like we were the only ones going this way - the horses had long since headed off in a different direction. I thought if we got stuck it would be a long time before anybody would even find us, because these orchard roads were certainly on no map ever made. We did finally make it out onto the highway to Cordoba, with thick mud caking our tires. Alberto put a DVD of Jose Manuel Soto in the player, cranked it up, and he and Javier sang and flamenco clapped along in stereo.

As we got closer to Cordoba, we turned off the main paved road onto a dirt road again, which again quickly turned to a slick mess that the horses would be coming along. We stopped at a "5 km" sign (5 km left to the finish) that had fallen over, and Javier got out and tried to shove it back in the mud. It didn't stay, so I got out, fetched a big rock to hammer it in, and just that quick, my sandals had 2 inches of mud stuck to the bottom of them. Surely the horses were having much the same problem. As we drove on, I kept thinking we were bound to get stuck.

We did make it to a deep muddy river crossing for the horses. It wasn't particularly picturesque, but it would be an event, this crossing. The water was really of unknown depth, the horses had been travelling through the thick sticky mud much of the day; and coming out of the water on this side, it was very muddy, which would become very slick mud. I was nervous about it - especially for the horses that would come later, once the track was really wet from the first horses' feet. In fact my heart was pounding because I could picture all those animals in Africa trying to get out of a river but it's so muddy they keep slipping and falling and get exhausted and die. OK, so that's a little dramatic, but my heart still pounded thinking about slipping and falling horses, although nobody seemed concerned about it but me.

More people came for the spectacle, including Jose Antonio, last year's Al-Andalus Binomios winner, who will ride Campanera tomorrow in a 2-star ride (over the same course as the Al Andalus trail). I asked him how Campanera was, and he just lit up.
"Campanera is the best in the world right now!" His eyes still sparkle as he speaks of his beloved mare.

A small crowd, including Dr Castejon, and one of the video crews, had now gathered at the river crossing; wine came out - an impromptu Andalusian picnic. And then a murmur passed through the crowd: the first vehicle had been spotted: the first crossing of the river!

It was the quad with the fearless driver carrying Abraham the video man... everybody crowded around the river bank for the spectacle. The driver stood up from his seat, forged into the river while Abraham held his camera way up over his head with one hand and tried to hang on with the other. The water swirling up well over the fenders of the quad... but the driver, mad grin on his face, gunned it right along and popped up out on our bank, wheels spinning and sliding, with Abraham grinning just as big, laughing to cheers of the onlookers

Next came two horses (I gritted my teeth and my heart thumped), but really, they had no problems other than a minor slip or two. I stopped worrying quite so much.

Next came Jose Manuel Soto and his passenger. He stopped on the far bank, taking in the - gulp - deep muddy river, while this side cheered and crowded close - a group of Andalucians gathering to watch an adventure: a race, a wreck, a bullfight, a horse race, a challenge... always the Andalucians are thinking, "Will he make it or won't he? I don't know, but I'm going to watch and enjoy and cheer!"

I could see from here that Jose's eyes were wide; and then he crossed himself, put the pedal down, gunned it straight at the water and plunged in. There were cheers from the onlookers as the jeep labored through the water. Jose's eyes were getting wider, his mouth forming a big O, as in, O Ssssshhhhhhiii*********** ! The buggy sloshed across the river and it reached the mud track on our side, but it started to slip sideways. Jose's mouth became a bigger O and his eyes grew ever wider as the buggy's wheels spun and the whole thing started tipping sideways while Jose steered against the skid (his passenger grinned all the way) - both of them gripping on and leaning left as the buggy leaned right upon losing the left wheels from the ground briefly... and the O turned into an O YEAH! and a fist pumping in victory in the air as the buggy righted itself and they made it up and out!

Big Andalucian cheer! Time for a glass of Andalucian wine to top that off!

One by one the horses came, none of them refusing to go in the muddy river, some of them considering it carefully before going in, but always moving forward, feeling their way. The water went above their knees but not quite to their chest, and they waded across, only a few of them slipping as they came out our side.

One more jeep came through, driving Emilio the photographer. Emilio had his feet up way over the dash, just avoiding the water, and while his driver was smiling, Emilio looked a bit pale, especially when coming out of the river on our side, the jeep almost fell over on its side... but they made it too. I was quite happy I was not on the trail today! I'd have gotten out of my jeep or quad on the other side of the river and hiked 55 kilometers back to Ecija. Just call me chicken!

Five kilometers to go after the river crossing, and the horses came into Cordoba (a World Heritage Site since 1984) escorted by police, directed by police at every crossing, right into the middle of the city, under the Meta arch alongside the old town fortress walls. There was traffic anyway in Cordoba, but the horses really slowed it down. It must be a big thing to convince the city to let Al Andalus do this!

The horses went under an arch inside the fortress walls to the vet check and stables. The horses were trotted out right under an old watch tower; the beer was flowing in the stand set up right beside the Al Andalus truck.

I'd missed the finish, but I knew who won Binomios when I got there: Salvador and Shakyra of Team Andalucia - they gave me the thumbs up and Not-John gave me a hug. That had moved Salvador into third place over all behind Eduardo and Hermes (who were still first overall with an hour lead over Otto Velez and Pal Partenon). Sarah Hobbs outlasted Santiago Perez to win Equipos. Fourteen-year-old Teresa Lozano finished 8th in Equipos, but it was still good enough to keep her and her uncle Inigo del Solar in first place overall by 1 hour. Daniel Maldera's unfortunate lameness vet out at lunch dropped him and Paulette Maldera from 2nd to 11th place overall with the time penalty.

After all the horses had arrived, I grabbed a ride to the hotel with Jose Manuel Soto, Ines, and Paula da Silva. And what another terrific hotel: the 4* Hesperia Cordoba, right above
the wide Guadalquivir river, with a view overlooking the old city and El Puento Roman, the old Roman bridge over the river. All this - and we'd be here for TWO NIGHTS!

Paula and I threw our stuff in our rooms and immediately went downstairs for a CAPPUCHINO which I hadn't had since... I couldn't remember when. (You can't count the "cappuchino" I had the morning in Montoro). Paula had me in tears laughing so hard, as she told stories and we drank our cappuchinos.

Yes, this was indeed a lovely pristine 4**** hotel for probably some exclusive clients, but I was part of an endurance ride, and I tracked the day's thick mud EVERYWHERE - into the lobby, in the elevator, into the room I didn't stay in, (they gave me and Maaite a smoking room, so after leaving mud in the room, I went right back downstairs to ask for another room), back down the hall, the stairs, the lobby, into our new room, into the cafe. (But it wasn't just me - in the morning I followed someone else's endurance mud tracks down to breakfast... they definitely weren't my tracks, as I hadn't been down there yet!).

I took an hour long shower while washing a bunch of clothes, and hung them all over the chairs and open windows to dry (once a backpacking, practical traveller and endurance rider, always a backpacking, practical traveller and endurance rider : ) .

Paula and I decided to go out to eat later as there was no Al-Andalus dinner tonight. We walked down the street trying to decide which restaurant to stop in. We looked at one menu posted outside the door then walked on, then passed another restaurant. It looked interesting inside but there was no menu outside. I noticed a menu on the table of a couple sitting inside. "There's one. Ask them to turn it around," I joked, since we were out of their sight around the corner.

I was kidding, but Paula stepped to the window and peered in at this couple, and when they looked at her, she motioned to the menu - 'turn it around.'

The lady became wide-eyed at this dark figure outside her window staring in and gesturing at her, but the man turned it around. I was petrified, between nearly falling down laughing and waiting for the lady to scream, and as Paula tried to read the menu - I couldn't see straight anymore I was laughing so hard - the man smiled and got up and brought us the menu outside. I could barely get out a thank you! We decided to come in and eat there. Once inside, I handed the man back their menu but the lady decided it was best to pretend we just weren't there.

After a decent dinner (salmoreja, cauliflower, calamari, and a cold beer) and a good time, we went back to the hotel, and I worked till 1 AM. The late hour didn't matter, because I could sleep in next morning!


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