Looking for Cows
“Wanna come look for the cows?” Bienvito had a stick in his hand that was taller than he is, and his little brother was standing next to him. “Sure,” I replied. The kids who I had been playing cards with all got up, eager to look for cows too. I stashed the cards in my room and locked it up, then headed out through our zinc sheet gate and into the rocky street. Every day, my neighbor Miriam or her kids or some combination thereof bring their cows up to the mountains in the morning and search for them to lead them down in the evening. I don’t actually know her last name, because people here just call her Miriam Vaca.
I had brought the cows up to the mountain earlier that day. I had been locked out of my house so I wandered over to Miriam’s to hang out. I taught the kids a trick for multiplying by 9, and they were amazed. The time came to bring the cows up, so I went too. Because I’d been earlier in the day, the kids made me walk in front and lead the way to show that I knew how to get there. Like a pro, I turned off the road at the right clump of trees and marched confidently into the field, sidestepping the discarded clothes, sandals, and other trash that littered the grass.
The small paths were easy enough to follow, and I led the muchachos towards the road up the mountain. We tossed the obligatory stones into the Really Deep Hole to listen to them clang on the way down. The kids walked along the wall of an abandoned building and threw me empty two-liter soda bottles to turn into hand washing stations later. We continued upward, the road becoming gradually steeper and more garbage-y.
When we reached the top, the smoke was so thick I could barely see the piles of trash looming all around me. There were low, smoldering fires burning all around. Giant pigs nuzzled through the heaps of refuse, trying to find something good to eat. I don’t know what it is about eating trash, but those pigs were massive. “The cows aren’t here. Let’s go down this way. It’s just a little bit further up,” said Bienvisto. “A little bit further up” lay past a carpet of garbage and a deep gray smoke. I paused, sighed, covered my mouth and nose with my t-shirt, and followed the kids. The buzzing of flies got louder and louder as I made my way through the trash, taking care not to step in any fires. At the edge of the trash pile was a small path into the thick plants. Next to the entrance was a pile of clothes hangers that I seriously considered picking up and taking home. I decided against the hangers and followed the kids into the forest.
The plants were thick, thorny, and aggressive. I had to fold my 6’2” frame in half to fit under some of the overhanging branches. I used the pole from a discarded Partido Revolucionario Dominicano flag to push thorny bushes out of the way. Finally, after a few wrong turns and wrong cows, we made it down to the riverbank. The correct cows were nowhere to be seen, but there was deep water, so the kids decided to go swimming. “Swim with us!” they shouted to me. “No thanks.” “Why don’t you want to swim?” I eyed the brownish water that played host to a collection of trash. “I’m fine up here!” I occupied myself with skipping stones in a weak effort to show that dry land was fun, too.
The sun had slowly been slipping behind the nearby mountains. Night was on its way, so I told the kids that we were going. It took me about three tries, but they finally relented and got out of the water, dressed, and started down the mostly dry riverbed. “Why don’t you want to walk at night? Are all Americans afraid of the dark?” asked Tito. I searched around for the best answer to give the fourteen year old question machine. “Well, people who don’t know me think I’m rich because I’m an American. And I’d rather not get mugged. And even Margot told me I shouldn’t go out at night.” He seemed satisfied by an answer that invoked the wisdom of my host mom, and moved on to other topics. We talked about the river, cows, swimming, houses, fruit, and whether or not I could throw a rock over that really tall tree. (I can.)
“Let’s go this way to see a really deep hole!” suggested Bienvito. “Well, I don’t know where I’m going, so sure.” We turned off the riverbed up through some plants and onto a dirt road that I didn’t know existed. A little ways up, the kids spotted the pair of wells and ran over to them. We each peaked nervously over the edge. One was, indeed, a really deep hole. Nobody fell in, so we continued down the road. The tunnel of overhanging trees eventually opened up to the gradually darkening sky, and we started to pass houses. Back to civilization. We sneakily stole some cashew fruits from an orchard, but immediately threw them out because of their mouth-numbing sourness.
We got back to my house just before dark. I got water for the kids and grabbed a plastic chair for myself, collapsing into it. “Where’s the volleyball? Let’s play!” I grabbed the ball and tossed it to one of them but chose to sit out and rest after a day of walking. Later that night, when the electricity was out and we were sitting around telling stories, the day caught up with me and I started nodding in and out. But when there’s no light, nobody can see you sleeping during their stories.