I thought the answer was pretty obvious.
Trying to stay out of the way of the horses that were standing in a row and whose back legs seemed within kicking range, for one.
At the same time, avoiding the other horses who were being ridden sideways by the cowboys in the middle of the sandy ring.
Nevertheless, I was aware both of being a guest in the country and, more to the point, of standing near the side of a small stadium with about three dozen horses on all sides of me.
Their riders were contestants at Parque Alberto Hurtado during La Semana De Chilenidad, a week of typical Chilean cultural activities that started before, and ended after, Chilean Independence Day on September 18. (It’s often simply called, “Dieciocho.”)
Rodeo was named the national sport of Chile in 1962.
“I’m taking a picture,” I answered.
“You can’t take pictures of cows that have fallen,” replied the photographer, who was about my height, stocky, and was wearing a woolen black hat and round glasses.
It’s forbidden, he told me.
He went on to explain that there were strict rules governing the photographing of cows in the rodeo competition. Violators, he said meaningfully, can be arrested by the carabineros, citing an example of one recent photographer had been hit forcefully in the head after having taken the rules-breaking image.
I looked at the first row in the stand outside of the ring.
The number of green-suited carabineros standing with arms folded right near the entrance where I had gained entrance half an hour earlier seemed to have multiplied.
Perhaps I was being unduly influenced by my new acquaintance, but some of them seemed to be looking at me.
I started to look for where I could leave the ring without being noticed. The fact that I had earlier snapped two pictures of the same cow on the ground after an earlier time of being ploughed into the ring’s sideboards gave my search additional urgency.
I pictured attempting to inform Dunreith, who, after a cursory glance at the cowboys coming into the stadium, listening to the white-robed priest bless the event, and hearing the Chilean and Spanish national anthems, had returned to the Adam Johnson novel she had been reading. (I had a sneaking suspicion that she would not notice me being carted off into custody.)
Where are you from? He asked, interrupting my reverie.
“I’m from the United States; it’s my first time here in the country for Dieciocho,” Because he had conveyed the information to me about my transgression, I started talking to the photographer as if he were a policeman.
Thank you for explaining rules I wasn’t aware of, I said, a touch of desperation entering my voice as I imagined myself standing before a Chilean judge and hoping that ignorance of rodeo photography policy would in fact be an acceptable excuse.
“Is there anything else that I shouldn’t do,” I asked.
“Don’t take pictures of a cow that’s on the ground,” he repeated.
I decided to change the topic.
Is this a national competition, I inquired.
My question elicited a lengthy discourse about the association of local rodeos, the winners of whom earned points that helped qualify them for the annual national competition in April.
The man spoke calmly, as if we were having an afternoon cup of team, not standing within striking range of large hoofed animals who could easily paralyze, maim or even kill us with a single kick of their back legs.
What’s your name, he asked.
I told him mine and requested the same information.
Maximiliano, he answered, smiling broadly and extending his hand.
I shook it.
His calloused hand had a firm grip.
We started talking about where we worked.
Maximiliano was independent, he said. This meant freelance.
I started telling him about the Fulbright and teaching a journalism class at the University of Diego Portale.s.
Maximiliano nodded sagely, then asked, “Where’s your credential?”
I didn’t have one, I told him, that sinking feeling again coursing through my stomach.
I asked the man at the gate if it was all right if I went in, and he let me, I told Maximiliano.
To be completely honest, the second part of the statement was far more accurate than the first. (Unless you count a look at the gatekeeper who pulled it open and allowed me to slip through as asking.)
I looked again in the stands.
Another cow being crushed into the board near me.
The time when I had entered the stadium in the park and walked along green grass, past the little children being led on ponies by a blue-haired lady and close to a dozen people playing on the longest fussball table I had ever seen, seemed like years ago.
I scanned the crowd to find Dunreith.
Her attention was directed downward into the book.
It was time for me to leave, but how?
I spied a cowboy directing a horse toward the same exit where I had entered.
This was my chance.
I gave enough space to avoid the row of horses waiting their turn as well as the one shimmying around the middle of the ring and arrived at the open gate just a second after the horse.
True to his name, the caballero let me pass.
I walked up the bald patch of dirt, nearly bumping into four carabineros.
They paid no attention to me.
I walked back into the stands and found Dunreith, who looked quizzically at me.
I didn’t see you, so I started to walk around, she told me.
We confirmed that we were both ready to leave and started to head back toward the entrance of the park.
Before we left the stadium I shook a security guard’s hand and thanked him.
Where are you from? He asked.
The United States, I said.
From Chicago in the state of Illinois. It’s our first time in the country, our first dieciocho. We’re very excited to be here.
This was starting to sound too much like my conversation with Maximiliano.
Better not to push my luck.
Thanks again, I repeated, reaching my hand out again.
Disappointment flashed across the guard’s dark face for an instant before he extended his hand and we shook again.
We stopped to buy an overpriced cheese empanada with a flaky crust and my second anticucho, a long skewer with a cork on the bottom, think hunks of meat, slices of thin red peppers and onion in between, and a piece of bread on the top.
Unlike much Chilean asado that I’ve had thus far, which has been on the overcooked side, this anticucho had a savory medium rare texture.
My gratitude at being free after my excursion into the ring made it taste even better.