National Geographic : 2005 Aug
ranch full-time. They spend part of each month a hundred miles south in Aquidauana, the cow town on the southern edge of the Pantanal where many ranchers in this corner of the wetland keep a house and buy supplies. Lau's brother Jopei or a hired hand runs Santa Marta in their absence. Bigger ranches, like Santa Sophia, employ a fore man to manage operations. Really big ranches may also subdivide the property and station a cowhand and his family in a house called a retiro to oversee an outlying spread. During the 15-hour, four-wheel-drive trip that had brought me from Aquidauana to Santa Marta, Lau stopped his truck at one of these sim ple plank retiros on a neighbor's ranch. It was late afternoon. A man named Clemente and his wife, who was never introduced, sat at a table on the veranda, he splicing strands into a raw leather lariat that looked to be 30 feet long. Their teenage son, shirtless, in battered chaps, perched on the low veranda wall. His 13-year-old sister rocked in a hammock. Chickens scratched at the swept dirt yard. Two horses dozed at a hitching post, dressed in high Pantaneiro style: shiny metal rings laced together into bridles and chest ornaments; cushy vermilion sheepskin saddle blankets topped with a square of tooled leather. Clemente asked if we'd accept some tererd, a kind of cold mate tea, equal parts ceremony and caffeine fix with which Pantaneiros punctuate their day. His wife fetched the worn cow-horn cup packed with green, grassy-tasting mate leaves, the metal straw with its bulbous strainer, and a plastic pipkin of water. Clemente filled the cup and passed it to each of us in turn. Etiquette requires the drinker to drain the cup with a last, hard, audible pull on the straw before passing it back to the host. He refills it and passes it on to the next. As Lau and I left, I asked what the children of cowhands do out here. "That boy's been a salaried cowboy since he was 11," he said. And the girl? Lau sighed. "A 13-year-old girl we know was mar ried this summer. It's not unusual. They have nothing else to do. There's no school out here. There are no jobs for women. Their mother nags them: Wash the clothes! Their father nags them: Sweep the yard! Marrying and being independent and having their own house starts to look good-even at 13. "The boys, 14, 15, 16, well, they're accustomed to visiting women of the street when they go 64 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * AUGUST 2005 It took an outright war on wildlife to bring the Pantanal to the world's notice. The wet season yields a finny crop in a flooded forest on Barra Mansa Ranch, where a worker snagged a dourado, a prized food and game fish. Tens of thousands of subsistence and sport fishermen ply the Pantanal's waters, which brim with at least 325 kinds of fish. Those fish nourish other animals such as the giant river otter (right), now on the rebound after nearly being wiped out by poachers.