Monday, November 3, 2008


I´ve been thinking about this entry for a long time. Peace Corps asks (demands) of us a certain cultural sensitivity when we post to our blogs, send letters home, post film clips to you-tube or what have you. If I had written of the following two or three months ago, immediately after the incident I´m about to describe, all of my anger and frustration would have come spilling out, and any ¨cultural sensitivity¨ that I may possess would have gone by the wayside. In that I am one who can be quite quick to judge, it has been good for me to take some time and to think about my role in this story, and more importantly to determine if I am learning anything, anything at all, while I am here in Ambuqui, Ecuador.
A few months ago, I was invited by friends to dinner and to celebrate the birthday of one of their daughters, who was turning 30 something. I arrived about 7PM, and was surprised that no one else was there. ¨Where are Juanita (the b´day girl), and Miguel (her husband) y los niños¨ I asked. Marina, Juanitas´ mother, replied ¨they went down to their house to get sharp knives to butcher the cow.¨ I was a bit dismayed by this, thinking that this meant we would not eat until midnight or later. ¨Did one of the cows die?¨, I asked. ¨Si, the cow died, and we will butcher it and sell the meat; it´s not for tonight.¨ This family had 3 milk cows, and eked out a small living selling the milk door to door from an old pot. Knowing that the loss of a cow would impact their income I was sad to hear that one had died, and at the same time relieved to know that I could eat soon, stay a short while at the party, and then get home to bed at a reasonable time.
Everyone turned up soon, we had chicken, potatoes and rice (big surprise) for dinner, and as we were cleaning up my little amiga Anita grabbed my arm and said, ¨come outside and look at the cow!¨
¨Why should I go outside to look at a dead cow¨ I asked,
¨No, silly, the cow is not dead, the cow´s baby is dead!!¨, Anita countered, looking at me like I was completely stupid.
We stepped out the back door, and not 10 feet away is a pitiful, but alive, milk cow tied to a tree, looking lost and confused, with half a dead calf hanging from its backside.
I ran into the house, livid, and shouted - ¨what the hell is this!?! Here we are eating and partying and your cow is in big trouble!!¨
- Yes, we know the cow has a problem. That is why we are going to butcher it.
- But why kill the mother – we need to get the dead calf out!!
- Oh no, the calf will not come out, it has been that way since early this morning
- Early this morning!! More than 12 hours! Why didn´t you call the veterinarian – or you could have come to get me!!
- Oh, do you know about cows??
- Almost nothing, but I could have called someone who knows more than me.
- Well, now it is done. The calf will not come out, and we will butcher the cow and sell the meat.
- No no no. We are going to get the calf out and try to save your cow. You have had cows all your lives! You have had 2 Peace Corps volunteers who specialize in animals before I came here! Why do you not know how to get the calf out when the mother has trouble?
- Because it is very rare for the mother to have problems. If she has problems she is of no worth.
- Well we are going to try to help her. I will need some soap and some cooking oil.
At this point I am fuming. The cow has no water to drink, has not had any for the entire day. (Oh, cows like water?) My request for some cooking oil for lubrication is met by blank stares – my friends think cooking oil is too expensive to be foolishly wasted in this manner.
The next hour and a half is spent fruitlessly trying to extract the calf. It was born with the left leg and the head presenting. I washed up and lubricated the mother, and tried to get the leg back inside in order to make room to work and bring out both forelegs along with the head. This turned out to be impossible, because rigor mortis had set in and the calves limbs are stiff as 2 by 4s. I managed to get one of my arms up inside the mother, but was unable to budge the other foreleg. I am wearing my best shirt, which is now ruined with sweat, blood, and cooking oil. I ask for a hacksaw – we need to cut off the protruding foreleg at the shoulder, and perhaps then we can bring out the other, and then the whole calf will come. A saw is brought, and as I hack off the limb the dogs stare hungrily, knowing that they are about to feast. There is surprisingly little blood, and the job is done in a couple of moments. To no avail. I really have no idea what I am doing, yet it all seems to make sense in a dream like sort of way. I am working hard, aided by Miguel while the rest of the family either watches or goes on with the party preparations. We are unable to get any part of the calf back inside the mother. Someone fetches a rope and we tie it around the head and sawed off leg stump of the calf. Five people pull on the rope, we succeed only in dragging the mother 2 or 3 meters through the dirt. She has been wonderfully patient – apparently resigned to her fate – but willing to humor this gringo who thinks he is going to perform some kind of miracle. Her attitude mirrors that of my friends. They are humoring me; they are resigned to the loss of the calf and to the loss of the milk cow as well. There is nothing else to do; my friends, bored and eager to get the party started, pat me on the back, tell me it was a good try, and they are sorry about my ruined shirt. We go back in the house, eat some cake while a few people dance to some cumbia music, and later I walk home, exhausted and dejected. I have suffered several failures in my work here, but this one seems huge and hurts more than all the others combined. The next morning, the cow is gone – a hired butcher has come, performed a C-section to remove the calf, and hauled away the carcass in the back of his truck. My friends have received about 160 dollars for the meat value – a good new milk cow will cost them twice that.
It is this sense of resignation, of utter acceptance, that gnaws at me. It is completely foreign to me. I simply don`t understand it. Is this what comes of neverending poverty; or is this what comes of the belief that everything is in the hands of god? Or is this just part of being South American, or more specifically, Ecuadorean? I do not know – and probably never will. I have been poor in my life, and by many standards still am, but never have I been impoverished or without options. I do not believe in god, but I believe in free will and believe as well that we are all ultimately responsible for what happens to us in our lives. And of course I am neither South American nor Ecuadorean, and never will be, no matter how long I may stay here.
So where do I come off, with virtually no animal experience, thinking that I can waltz in and save the day? This is what I am trying to figure out, and I think that the events of that night caused me to rethink everything, at least as much as I am able. Since that night I have learned to think a little more before reacting; to watch the people around me and to gauge their view of a given situation. Pretty elementary stuff, really, but a new found skill for me. I have, by necessity, become somewhat more patient, and accepted that I am not going to change habits and customs that have been prevalent for generations. I have learned that some people in this world have nothing but time, therefore the passing of time means little, harms almost nothing and yet heals almost everything. Yesterday is gone, and who knows if tomorrow will ever come? Who knows what people are thinking in a culture where one can be greeted with “a los tiempos!” whether the last time one was seen was one day or one month or one year ago? In a blog post here some months or more ago I talked about the frustrations of “ya mismo”, but recently I have come to embrace the concept. Yes, it, or he or she or they or them, or the bus or the camionetta or what have you will be here eventually. When? Who knows . . . and does it really matter?
Since that night I have read every book, pamphlet, or magazine that I could get my hands on about animal health and especially birthing. I hope I never face the same situation again, but if I do, I will be ready with information, but only if someone asks for it. I now believe I was wrong to impose my will on my friends and on that animal that night, and I hope I have learned enough not to ever do it again.

My friends borrowed some money, at an exorbitant interest rate, to buy a new cow. She is a beauty, and she and her mates get led out to pasture on the scrub every day, and then are brought in at night where they eat fresh cut canegrass and have all the fresh water they can drink. My friends have noted that the cows are giving more milk since they have a good supply of water every night. I smile and say “si, es un milagro, no?”.


Anonymous said...

It's frustratiing & I understand what you mean. We have seen similar things throughout our travels in SA and Mex. Usually animal related and you know how we feel about our animals. The machismo end of things had friends of ours reeling in Argentina and it wa shard to say..."you can't change a cultural thing like this". We live one way and have to accept that in other places others don't nessesarily do. Lori & I have seen things that really bother us and we have to just turn away accept that it is their way and keep walking. Funny enough living out here on the farm we have found, albeit in a smaller way, that there are things here that we just shuddr at that are taken as the norm. We may not like it, but have to accept it as part of the way things are adn have always been done out this way.

Have a Pilsner for me buddy!

Rose said...

Tia told me about your blog a couple of nights ago and I'm glad I got around to reading it. Your pictures are beautiful and your anecdotes are funny and moving and (not surprisingly) well-written. I'm excited for you. I hope when you publish your first book I can get my copy signed.
Paz, Rose

mama bear said...

oh roger, i commented on the last blog too soon...this is my favorite now. this story rings too elequently you put into words the frustrations and insights that i, and many others i am positive, also feel. it reminds me of when my neighbors pup got ran over, its leg splayed wide open, and the neighbors just leaving it to nature to heal. i couldn't watch that suffering and what followed was a horrendous stiching and restitching by an incompetent vet sin anethesia and yet again the stiches broke and eventually the pup died. what a horrible experience that i think you will continue to think about and wonder "what was the lesson here?" thanks for sharing that story. stephanie