A gaucho painting by Lielzo Azambuja

By Léo Azambuja

My father was born and raised in a cattle farm in the very south of Brazil, where it gets as cold as it can get in this large nation. He grew up among cowboys and hunters. I still remember his tales of ambushing red wolves that had gotten a taste of cattle and lamb, and would keep coming back for more.

When he was 17, he left for the big city 1,000 miles north. He was gifted with an extraordinary talent as an artist, so when he arrived in tropical Rio de Janeiro, he had no problem finding good jobs as a layout artist for renowned advertising companies.

I was born in the city, and so were my three siblings. We grew up near the ocean, but we were never too far away from the country. When I was still a toddler, my parents bought a small ranch a couple hours inland of Rio, in a tiny and charming countryside town. To reach our ranch, we had to get off the highway, drive a couple hundred feet past the town’s main square, and then drive about a mile on a dirt road.

Because of his upbringing, my father is a horse aficionado, so whenever we spent time in the ranch, we would drive to different stables in town to check out horses that were more expensive than the most expensive cars at that time. But the biggest fun in town was riding the mixed breed horses that we would rent for the day.

We would check with the horses’ owner early in the morning, and they would show up with a handful of horses at our ranch after lunch. We would all pick which ones we liked, and off for the rest of the day we were. We would ride them for hours through the dirt roads. No guides, no set trails, no cute picnics or waterfall tours. It was just us and the horses, going wherever we wanted.

Those days are long gone. I don’t even remember the last time I rode a horse, and I would probably be really clumsy doing so these days. But I still remember those feelings of riding carefree through dirt roads, with my dad, my brothers, my sister, cousins and friends. Sometimes there would be a dozen of us just riding all afternoon.

I can only imagine the freedom my dad felt in his youth, riding at my grandfather’s farm. I still don’t know how many acres the farm had, but my father and my uncles would say that it was farther than your eyes could see, stretching beyond the horizon.

Léo Azambuja

Every July, when the Koloa Plantation Days come around, I love to check out the rodeo. It brings me right back to my childhood. I imagine my dad spiking a horse like in my childhood days, with my mom screaming bloody murder at him for doing it. It brings back countless memories of going to more rodeos than I can remember as a child. They were all in Brazil, but they weren’t too different than the rodeos here. The bullriding and everything else are quite similar to the rodeos south of the equator. Even the music is similar. Though I’m not a fan of country music, I do like it when it’s live, especially when it has a lively upbeat.

Today on Kaua‘i, we drive to pretty much every destination. Just imagine for a second how it must have been back in the day, when cars were rare, and horseriding was the common way of getting around.

Horses as a way of transportation is now a thing of the past, but it’s cool to see the paniolo culture is still alive on this island. And one good chance to witness it is during the Koloa Plantation Days. Go check out the rodeos this month, and get your annual dose of nostalgia.

And yes, my dad is still alive and kicking — and painting — at 80 years old. He doesn’t ride anymore, but the main subject of his paintings, since he was three years old, is still the horse.