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culture

Toronto Documentarian Takes a Transcontinental Horseback Ride

Filipe Masetti Leite, a Brazilian-Canadian documentarian, is traveling from Canada to South America the old-fashioned way.

Filipe Leite in Mexico.

When we first met Filipe Masetti Leite, a 26-year-old, Brazilian-born, Ryerson-educated documentarian now on the horseback ride to end all horseback rides, his expedition was barely past the planning stages. It was October 2011, and Leite was looking to saddle up the following May. He was planning on riding from Canada to Brazil, while filming every waypoint en route—not simply for posterity, but to document the faces, stories and crises of the people he’d meet along the way.

He calls the documentary, now officially a work in progress, Journey America.

“Everything in my body is telling me I need to do this,” Leite told us in 2011, all but rippling with enthusiasm. A second-generation cowboy—he may as well have grown up in a stable—Leite, whose first name literally translates to “friend of horses,” grew up steeped in stories of adventures you can really only have in the saddle. Specifically, it was the story of Swiss teacher Aimé Tschiffely, who rode from Argentina to Washington, D.C. in 1925, that lit the fire.

It took Tschiffely three years. Leite, ever ambitious, planned to get from Hogtown to Brazil in two. “All I know is that if I didn’t do this,” he said in 2011, “I’d be fighting every instinct.”

A border stop.

In July 2012, Leite and his father, Luis, began a 10,000 kilometre journey. They rode from Calgary through the Great Plains of the United States, down through New Mexico, and into the bullet-riddled border towns of Northern Mexico, the backdrop to some of the worst cartel-related violence in recent years. One of those towns, Fresnillo, was the site of a five-hour standoff two years ago, with Mexican marines and Federales on one side, and Los Zetas—a cartel considered to be the most advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous in north-central Mexico—on the other. Here, Leite told us, he and his father rode straight into a warzone.

“A week ago,” he said, “[we] were in a town where cartels are fighting for control. Shootouts happening daily. Locals hid us in a ranch outside town, and police accompanied us into town and out. It was pretty tense.” In photos available on Journey America‘s website, the duality of it all is arresting. With little apart from a payload of camera equipment to indicate that the images are from 2013, Felipe and his father look like throwbacks to 1900—escorted by all the helmeted, black-clad firepower of 21st-century Mexico.

As of the early hours of March 12, Felipe is in Aguascalientes, a heartland state close to Mexico’s geographic center. “Mexico has offered some of the most beautiful moments of the trip so far,” Leite tells us. “In every town we pass, people celebrate the journey and join us for a few kilometers on horseback. It’s amazing. Mexico has some of the kindest and most generous people I have ever met.”

Leite and his father, Luis.

In one northern town, he recalls, residents swarmed the pair, joining on foot, bicycle, or horseback as the expedition trotted through. Children dressed in white followed. “It was a very emotional moment for me,” Leite said. Despite the very real, present threat of being caught in the crossfire between the state and the cartels, people welcomed them.

“It’s sad that they have to live with so much insecurity and fear,” he says. “All so others can get their fix.”

The trip has been fraught with the unexpected, as any adventure should be. It has, on occasion, been downright terrifying. On top of the Mexican border towns, there was also the time a grizzly crossed the expedition’s path in Montana. On one occasion in New Mexico, one of Filipe’s two horses, Bruiser, fell into a hole. Also while in New Mexico, Leite briefly traded Bruiser for a bull. The ride that resulted, he says, ranks as one of his most frightening encounters since setting out eight months ago.

Leite and his father visited Mexican border towns.

“I’ve learned a lot on this trip already,” Leite said. “How strong and powerful horses are. How beautiful mankind can be. How lonely the road can get. The importance of water!” Whether it’s a healthy horse, a cracker with tuna, or even just shade, he has learned to appreciate the little things.

It was clear even in 2011 that Leite, then 24, knew what he was getting himself into. He knew about the risks of riding through northern Mexico, and that his plans to homestay at farms and ranches wouldn’t always work out, meaning nights would sometimes be spent in ditches. His preparations, he said, included arming himself. But the prospect of wasting away in a Toronto cubicle seemed, to him, even crazier than his plan.

Today, thousands of kilometres later, Leite is anything but exhausted.

“Since I left Calgary eight months ago,” he tells us, “I have felt fear, hunger, thirst, happiness. I have felt my heart beat harder than ever. I hate the mundane. I love the unknown. Ninety percent of my days start with me not having a single clue where I will sleep that night. And I wouldn’t change that for the world.”

All images provided by Filipe Masetti Leite.

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