Archive for the ‘Animals’ Category

Mammoth impact of documentary about elephants

June 29, 2016

One would have to be made of stone to not be moved by Sangita Iyer’s award-winning documentary, Gods in Shackles, about the torture of elephants in temple rituals in India.

The movie opens with a scene shot during the largest festival of the year, in an immense square teeming with people and a line of elephants on either end. The elephants are bedecked in glittering color down their long foreheads and onto their trunks, and ridden by men who use sticks with barbed ends to keep them in line. Their beauty and height above the crowds make them a dramatic symbol and dazzling border to the intensity of the thirty-six hour continuous activity. I suppose it could be easy to forget that they are not merely decorations, and not an imperative part of this celebration.

Iyer, Toronto based journalist and documentary film maker, brings our attention to the fact that they are sentient and particularly sensitive beings, and this is being ignored in their treatment and use in ceremony. She points out their painfully raw ankles where the shackles rub them for hours on end, and reminds us that their feet, which are built for the softness of the grasslands, are tormented by hot pavement and unrelenting sun. Their feet are also made for many hours of movement a day, in order to find feed for their enormous frames. Standing still for hours at a stretch is in itself an excruciatingly painful practice.

Perhaps most frightening are the firecracker-like noises which punctuate the festival. The majestic elephants, with extremely keen hearing, are subject to these blasts without a way to react or move in response. What results when they do bolt or move suddenly out of fear and frustration is injury (or death) to nearby people or the elephants themselves. These avoidable tragedies are part of what drives Sangita forward in her quest to end this practice.

I sit at the world debut screening at Elephant Walk Restaurant in Cambridge, and know I am among like minds. There are PETA representatives, and people who are already sympathetic to the plight of these magnificent creatures. Many of us are nervous about watching the movie. I could not watch Lassie or Flipper as a child; even with predictably positive outcomes, I could not bear any potential (or imagined) suffering that might befall these stage animals. Now we are watching multiple ways in which these real life gentle giants are mistreated without thought.

I am prepared to avert my sightline during very graphic shots of wounds inflicted not only to the ankles, but ears and eyes as well. But the places that truly take my breath away are the scenes where Sangita herself is meeting the elephants, helping to bathe them and embracing them with the kind of love one sees between parent and child. Her joy is radiant and jumps off the screen – it is this passion which is infectious, and matched by her professionalism in documenting the fate of the elephants.

The event is also a fundraiser to help get the multiple award-garnering film to the seven cities where it will screen in India, and Kerala, Iyer’s home province. Although Iyer wants it distributed yesterday, she is aware that the process of moving it forward is circuitous and that each gradual step counts toward her goal of liberating the elephants and restoring them to the wild where they help maintain the delicate balance in the ecosystem.

It is a rare privilege to support this intensely focussed, humane, and inspired movement to return these beautiful animals to the place where their spirits soar. Visit

Blown away by the Manta Ray

June 8, 2016

Off the coast of the big island of Hawaii, we don wet suits, snorkels and masks and splash into the salty Pacific. As dusk approaches we make our way the short distance from the chartered boat to the raft, grabbing the red handles that ring the structure in order to float with legs stretched out.

Within minutes a twelve foot Manta Ray swims into view not four feet away, its wings flapping fluidly as it banks left and swims off. “Argglg!” I exclaim through my snorkel. Even though we are expecting them, the appearance out of the depths is still startling, as is their size of up to sixteen feet from wing tip to wing tip. Within several minutes there is one after another looping up in front of us, gigantic mouths wide open and gills spread to filter and catch as many plankton as possible. We see their gray and sometimes spotted top and white belly as they make several circuits in a row and I am in awe of the acrobatic and graceful arc that they carve as they repeat this choreography. My eyes grow wide and I am wonderstruck at their size, elegance and utter grace. They come within inches of our outstretched bodies, and several times I’m certain that one of their wings will brush against me.

Suddenly a shout pierces the air. “SH*T! OH SH*T!” It is the teenager from the family of five. “MOM, IT’S SO HUGE!” he bellows at the top of his lungs. At first I am annoyed, worried that his screaming will scare the Mantas. It quickly becomes evident that this is not the case as more of these enormous creatures make their way to the lights from the raft, which attracted the plankton. The boy cannot contain himself. Any veneer of teenage cool has vanished as he continues at volume ten: “MOM, IT’S SO CLOSE. THEY’RE AMAZING. IT’S LIKE A BALLERINA DANCE. SH*T!” Now it is pee-your-pants funny. And the joy that is unselfconsciously bubbling up from him is contagious.

His voice booms utter astonishment mixed with a touch of fear, as he is completely overcome with these toothless and stinger-free giants. I cannot even fathom how he can keep his mask underwater while his mouth is above water to narrate his flabbergasted observations. Anything I try to say comes out in a garbled mush. My husband, who is immediately to my right does not even hear him at all, we find out later. My 26 year old daughter is in between the kid and me and is as tickled as I am.

Even as we are reverent, and silently witnessing the majesty of the moment, there is a part of all of us that feels exactly like this fifteen year old. We all want to scream and shout and wiggle all around and it is just our desire to interfere as little as possible (and our snorkels) that help us to remain silent. For every moment that I am speechless, he is broadcasting the magic with his natural megaphone.” SH*T! OH MY GOD! IT’S A LITTLE SCARY BUT THEY’RE SO COOOOOOL!” Honest and pure, life giving and hilarious, unadulterated WONDER.

I am IMMENSELY GRATEFUL that the unbridled enthusiasm of this awestruck teenager was PRESENT to enhance our reverence of these magnificent animals of the sea. They will remain forever favorites, coupled with the neon lit expletives provided by our young friend.

When the chickens come a-callin’

April 18, 2016

Saturday was a day of unusual relationships. It started with a bridal shower at which I was meeting the bride for the first time, and ended with greeting our daughter’s (newly ex) boyfriend’s family who had flown in from Scotland. But neither of these was the most unusual.

When I arrived home from the shower I was greeted by one leaping dog, who insists on demonstrating her enthusiasm in this way until I get her to settle down. But where was her slightly shyer sister?

I spotted her in the middle of the yard, and she appeared to be munching on something. “Oh NO!” I screamed and went tearing out to the yard at break neck speed. Our seventeen pound peanut of a rescue was pecking at a downed hen. She looked gleeful and I couldn’t spot any chicken parts, but it was clear that the hen was expired, inert, an ex-hen. The break neck speed had evidently been in reference to the hen.

I turned tail and careened inside where my husband was already lacing up his shoes to dispose of the unfortunate clucker. “Nooooooooo,” I wailed, even though I knew it was too late to save this feathered friend. “Nooooo.” Twice before I had caught Livvie with a chicken in her mouth, and had raced outside screaming bloody murder to um, stop the bloody murder. And despite the plethora of flying feathers, both times a hen had waddled away swiftly. Our dogs stay within the bounds of their underground fence, so each time the hen was visiting our (h)enticing, insect ridden yard.

Our sanguine neighbors were unperturbed. “That’s Mother Nature,” and then “That’ll teach her to go in your yard.” I was dubious about the learning curve of the hens and imagined one arriving back at the coop. “Guys, do NOT go over there when the four leggeds are out. Man, they are FAST, and their bite is way worse than their bark. I lost a whole patch of feathers back there. How’s a gal supposed to relax and lay eggs after that?”

I felt terrible that our previously shy and shakingly terrified terrier had hit her stride and was aggressive with the chickens. I know how upset our neighbors have been when hawks, owls or coyotes have picked off their brood. Having just seen Zootopia, I ponder the question of how we overcome our savage tendencies. I am just as struck by how deep this streak can run.

I wondered how much dinner the little carnivore would eat after her live snack, but she ate normally, and our daughter commented that she looked remarkably unbloody. The meaning of this struck home the next day when watching Livvie (aka Chickenhawk) playing with Fred, our fifteen pound kitten. She was jabbing at him with her mouth the same way she does with her sister dog, or us. My husband’s words came back to me, now that I could hear them. “She was pecking at the (unresponsive) hen, trying to get her to engage.” It’s possible that Livvie was playing, but was just too rough, and the faint hearted chicken was literally scared to death.

Our neighbors have talked about clipping the wings of the chickens so that they don’t fly over the fence. I hope this helps. Even with the complete understanding of our egg collecting friends, it does not sit well to have their animal population so impacted by ours. I am grateful for their perspective and will consider whether it’s possible to train the chicken chasing gene out of our feisty young dogs.

A Mutter’s Day Tail

May 9, 2015

My husband and I have lived with dogs for 27 years together and both of us had dogs as kids. But all that did not prepare us for the adoption process with Livvie, our newly rescued pup. And I feel like a new mom in very foreign territory.

I have only lived with rescue dogs, but none of them remotely like Olivia. I had been thinking that autumn would be a good time to welcome a new critter into our home after our menagerie had dwindled to zero in March. But my husband sent a link to a site with an adorable dog for adoption. It turned out that she was spoken for by the next day, but I was already in search mode and my heart went out to Olivia’s sweet furry yellow face with the deep brown eyes and little whiskers that characterize some type of Terrier background.

So commenced the process of application, references, plus veterinary reference, and a home check. At first we were a bit indignant, ignorant as we were about the new standard screening through the Adopt-a-Pet website. It all checked out and two weeks later I brought shy Livvie into our home. We expected shy, but we were not prepared for the level of patience that will clearly be required for her to become comfortable with us, and trust that after the many transitions that started in Louisiana, that she can stay here without having to compete for food or attention.

Where Charlie, our last rescue from Puerto Rico marked every room and pinged off the walls at first, Livvie has barely ventured out of her crate-even to eat. She started to eat and drink after a day, if it was brought directly to her, but will not seek it out. She quakes when we go outside and freezes, never mind considering this a good place to play or pee.

It’s early days, less than a week, and people remind us to give her a couple of weeks to really see who she is.

I am remembering the importance of patience and this being her schedule and timeframe, not my wish for how it should be. She will need enough structure without there being too much, and consistent loving through it all. We will learn from having her in our family as she will learn from being here. As with children, we set the tone, and she will take her cues from us. Her past four and half months will affect how readily she can move past the multiple transitions and mistrust that this is just another stop along the way, or worse, that we could visit some kind of harm on her. We must pay attention to what the new baby is telling us, as we make clear what she can expect from us, and how predictable we are. We could not have anticipated our pup would be this kind of baby, but here she is, and it is certainly not her fault that we didn’t know who she would be. No parent can know what a child will be like.

We will all adjust together, taking one step at a time, appreciating each small progression, knowing that there is no hurrying it, and no need to rush.

This Mother’s Day, feeling so connected with my own two daughters who are exploring other parts of the world, I will hold our furry new pooch on my lap, and welcome another journey that is ours to navigate, with all its unknowns, hopes, unpredictability and time to evolve. I am ready.

Double Cat Indemnity

April 15, 2015

I have begun to write this column dozens of times. Usually once I have a topic it writes itself, tumbling out faster than my fingers can accommodate. This time, I have been stymied by my difficulty finding a way in. Or by the preponderance of ways in. Or by the fact that my grief overtakes me and I am afraid that I will just sob onto my keyboard.

Last month, in a stunning demonstration of the laws of impermanence, we lost both of our cats in the same week. Neither of them was young, but neither terribly old by cat standards–12 and 14 respectively. We had been on borrowed time with the younger one, Daphne, who had been bearing up nobly with a neurological issue for over two years. It made her wobbly, bolder, more interactive and affectionate.

A miscalculated jump resulted in a broken paw, and within days she was in congestive heart failure, forcing our decision to part with her rather than subject her to extensive treatment.

We had already planned a long weekend in New Orleans to lick our wounds from the protracted illness and death of my father in law on Superbowl Sunday. Since that time our older cat, Bob, had a long day at the emergency vet with a sudden worsening of his cardiac issues. Our one night away in the beginning of March proved to be traumatic for him, demonstrated by the multiple messes he delivered. If one day was like a week for him, how would he survive five days? It would be an eternity and certain cardiac failure by the time of our return, so two days after losing Daphne, we dragged our heavy hearts to spare Bob this trauma, and bade our farewells to him.

New Orleans welcomed us with its warm weather, rich food, beautiful architecture and music brimming from corners and cafes. The balm of the time away was healing, but did not make walking in the door to our empty home any less easy. We realized that for the first time in 27 years there was no one else sharing our living space. It has been an adjustment in many ways, of course. The gentle presence of the cats was always welcome. Their outstretched paws in greeting or gratitude for scratching, and unreserved delight for treats, or the right toy to mangle unfailingly disarmed our most challenging day.

It is not possible to completely appreciate the nature of the rhythm of living with animals until that rhythm is interrupted. My mornings had been marked recently with dispensing the variety of medications they had accrued, as well as ensure the cat fountain was filled. We no longer need to be so aware of our comings and goings. But just as our care taking responsibilities are alleviated so too, our onsite happiness radiators were removed. Bob, particularly, emanated his profound unwavering confidence that the world would produce exactly what he needed at any given time. The depth of his trust was contagious, as was his unadulterated delight in having someone sleep near him. He literally would purr for fifteen minutes when someone would cuddle up with him, or he would request it either by climbing onto a lap (at 22 pounds, he overflowed most laps), or by curling up in the crook of a TV watcher’s knees.

I’m realizing that as I allow in these memories, they will gradually replace the ache that currently dwells in my heart. The tears make room for the joys of having lived with the love that only animals can convey to the pack with whom they reside. We benefit from the privilege of sharing their space, appreciating their antics, singing with them, rolling around on the floor, and holding them close.

Goodbye sweet cats. We know we will welcome both new canine and feline creatures into our home at some point. We need the time to be ready for their presence after working through the absence of the family animals we raised with our two daughters. All in its time. All in the current that brings new life as unpredictably as it claims those who have completed their particular cycle. How fortunate we are to have overlapped with such magnificent beings in our personal sphere.

To Pill a Mocking Cat

March 14, 2015

If you live with a cat, especially an older one, you may know that the way one describes administering medication to a feline is “to pill” them. Yes, it is an active verb, perhaps more accurately described as a contact sport.

It starts out innocuously enough, with a text to my phone from CVS that Bob or Daphne Stafford has a script ready for pick up. I have long since stopped grumbling about being a secretary for my cats. Now I just swing by, have their date of birth at the ready and pick up their drugs. Sometimes I mention that it’s for a cat, as Phenobarbital and Prednisone might look like a tricky combination for a 10 or 11 year old child.

Bobcat recently had a cardiac event, which necessitated an additional trio of medicines. I stare in a combination of wonder and horror at the cabinet which holds his arsenal and finally bought am and pm medicine cases to help keep them straight. It used to be so simple. I could stuff his one pill into a treat and he was grateful to gobble it down; he would even purr in anticipation. The stuff for his arthritis was dumped into his food, and although not thrilled about this arrangement, hunger always prevailed, and down the hatch it went.

Two months ago, a quarter of a pill was added to his regiment, and Bob decided that this one could not be disguised in a soft treat. He would eat around it, or drool it out of his mouth, leaving a trail of evidence on his way to sulk underneath the bench, or hurl it out of his mouth. His previously secret target practice means he is able to land these tiny bits on shirt collars, eyebrows, or camouflaged into the carpet for later disposal.

This latest round of prescriptions made my eyes pop, and my fingers wince in anticipation. One is liquid, and easy to squirt into the corner of his mouth, one is small, and acceptable in a treat, but the third is the size of Wyoming. We learned that they were designed for dogs to be chewed, so they are like biscuits. For Great Danes. Liver flavored. I need to cut it into literally dozens of pieces. The best way to get them into the animal is for my husband to get him in a gentle (but firm) headlock while he is lying down (the cat, not my husband). Then he can pry open the cat’s locked jaw, creating an open gullet for me to shower the flavored bits of cardiac functioning assistance. This is a much less efficient option on my own, as I am lacking the extra hands needed to hold him steady, and can only employ a gentle knee or elbow as I contort him and myself into the most favorable way to impart the gift to him. A lean 21 pound cat can bring remarkable force to bear when he puts his mind (and claws) to it.

I wonder that he still likes me at all, subjecting him as I do to twice daily torture, but Bobcat does not hold a grudge. He still purrs when we walk in the room, assured that our attentive ear scratches are on the way. I’m grateful that he can separate out the pill adventures from this repertoire and that we can remain TV buddies, and spooning champs.

And so we toil with pilling the cats, trying to balance what it right for the furry creature while retaining most of our digits and bank account. It’s all part of the learning, part of the love and care for a fabulous feline.

Nothing but a dog

October 10, 2014

At 18 years of age, it is not a tragedy that our dear dog has departed for his next great adventure. Without ambivalence about it being the right time, the sadness that remains is pure, and will abate in time, replaced by our connection with him.

Anyone with a pet knows about the exquisite nature of this relationship: the silent communication that invites them in when we are hurting, and the unbridled joy when celebrating, or finding a tiny scrap of chicken on the floor. There is little fear of misunderstanding when conversing with your dog; they are incapable of guile and it is clear where they stand once you know the signals.

Our former dog did train us by wagging at the back door, where we would never deny her egress. Then sometimes she would move to where her treat were, with a “Now that you’re up…” smile at us. This dog, Mr. 18, Charlie, hailed from Puerto Rico, and arrived in Massachusetts courtesy of American Airlines who had an agreement with a shelter there. Evidently their stray dog problem had reached epic proportions and surely they offered them beef or chicken dinners on their way north.

It was obvious he was from the street as he marked every room in the house, ricocheting around like a pinball and then reared back and hurled himself halfway up the stairs before he figured out how to negotiate them. The most mortifying moment occurred during training, which happened at our home, as our trainer wished to reward people choosing shelter dogs with training at home. It was the last of the six sessions, and Charlie decided that the trainer’s wife was part of his territory, and marked her accordingly. She was unflapped, stating that the only other dog to do that was their own. As a host there is not a way to un-do this honor; only offers of washing or cake or a gift certificate.

Charlie proved that dogs can have nine lives, coming through multiple bouts with pancreatitis, two ACL surgeries, and wicked old age. His unrelenting confidence that the fridge may yield treats persisted through even his deafest times. This kind of diehard optimism demands respect and the very occasional spoonful of peanut butter, which gave us as much joy to watch as it gave him to extract from his mouth. His eyes remained fixed on us lest he miss another offering.

As his arthritis increased, along with more regular and embarrassing episodes of incontinence and frequent falls it became clear that we would just need to choose a day for him to find the Rainbow Bridge. The pain that was evident in his face, along with difficulty finding a way to be comfortable made us feel like we were offering him a kindness, a last loving gesture for his long and colorful life.

The emptiness is palpable now, even though I feel certain that we will feel him close at hand when cracking a can of cat food, or opening the window to let the breeze blow across his favorite bench. Both cats climbed up on the bed to sleep with us last night, a very unusual event, as they do not typically sleep near each other, or even sleep on the bed regularly, and they were tail to tail between us.

We wish Mr. Dog well on his journey and promise that we will plant a tree to mark the new growth that he generously brought to us each and every day.

Meg Stafford can be reached at

Old dog, new tricks for us

September 14, 2014


It was the message no one wants to receive while on vacation. We had just settled into our rooms at a lovely bed and breakfast overlooking a lake in the Highlands of Scotland when I noticed an email from our neighbor: “We’re at the vet’s office. Please call ASAP.” I realized that the email had actually come through a couple of hours before, but we had been driving through the mountainous Highlands: beautiful, remote, and completely without service.

Four days into our vacation this was the first place that had no wifi service in the rooms, only downstairs in the lobby. I texted back, not sure whether it was our dog or one of the cats in our geriatric animal unit who was in trouble. At nearly 18 years of age, our dog had already defied the odds multiple times, coming back from the brink of pancreatitis or dehydration, bouncing with remarkable spunk to his arthritic but enthusiastic self.

Navigating the communication was proving challenging. I had no phone service, nor did our daughter with a British phone. My husband, two daughters and I gathered in one section of the lobby, pooling our respective electronic devices. Skype! We used my husband’s iPad, and called our neighbor. We could hear her, but she couldn’t hear us. The service cut out and I called back and if I spoke loudly, she could tell I was there. She continued speaking even when she couldn’t hear me. Already home from the vet, they had administered fluids and an appetite stimulant, but needed to have our wishes clear should the dog start to fail again.

Teary, but clear, we call back and convey our wishes for him to be comfortable, but not to keep him alive until we returned four days later if he was in pain.

“The vet needs you to call and tell them directly, “ our neighbor advises. We ring off, and place a call. Amazingly we get through first try. I explain our wishes to the woman who answers in an increasingly loud voice because the wifi is shaky, fading in and out. “OK,” she says, finally, “but I need you to tell the vet herself. Can you hold?” I sigh, praying that the connection can sustain.

The vet picks up and I rush to try to get our stance across before we lose signal. “Our dog has lived a long and happy life and we don’t want to prolong it if he is in pain.” I’m speaking in a controlled shout so she can understand. “What?” she asks. I take a breath and go for the quick direct route. “IT’S OK TO GIVE THE DOG THE SHOT IF IT’S TIME.” I look around and see a couple on a Skype call with their grandchild, and another couple speaking in hushed tones. The vet responds. “So it’s ok with you if he doesn’t come around from the fluids?” “YES, IT’S OK.” I’m self conscious about screaming how it’s all right to send our dog into the next life with all these people around. I’m hoping they are foreign and don’t understand me.

“Ok,” the vet says. “I need you to just tell our tech since we can’t get it in writing.” She is transferring me over before I can tell her that I already spoke to someone. Tracy picks up and I feel a wave of nervous laughter bubbling up. I am in a sit come here, about to shout to a third person that IT’S OK TO OFF OUR DOG if necessary. I have to slap a hand over my mouth to regain control.

Miraculously the line holds, although it is staticky. Tracy is apologetic and sympathetic but I interrupt her and blurt out that “IT’S OK TO GIVE HIM THE SHOT IF NECESSARY.” Having satisfied this condition we are able to ring off and I breathe out a sigh of relief.

The next morning I remember that we have our calling card number and text it to Beth, our generous neighbor, suggesting she call my daughter’s phone. We receive the call in the afternoon and once again our little street dog from Puerto Rice has come through, happy to eat the special cans of dog food from the vet. I am eager to see the little guy, grateful that we will be able to be with him again, with no plans to be away more than a night for months to come.

Meg Stafford can be reached at She will have good service for the foreseeable future.


Contradictions in Columbia; Where the Cows Really Do Come Home

March 29, 2014

It is many of the everyday things that we take completely for granted that are different in a tropical place like Colombia. I had been fooled by the modernness of the large city of Medellin, and touristy section of Cartagena, especially by staying in hotels which are thriving by accommodating westerners. It was not until arriving in the countryside that I understood how different the relationship with animals would be.


Hiking up two hours to where my daughter Gale is living I am struck by the natural beauty of the place as well as the fact that country life in a hot and humid climate by itself dictates many differences from what I am used to in the American Northeast. The differences expand out from there once you add in the country of Colombia, the fact that her village is rural by any standards, and then the fact that this village has made a point of declaring its neutrality in a country that continues to be rife with conflict.


The hike, although not arduous in terms of technical difficulty, is steadily uphill through rolling and sometimes steep hills. I get winded at times and Gale reminds me that it is very humid, and that I am carrying 15 pounds on my back. This feels like small consolation, but we are all dripping when we arrive at her little home.


There is one sink in a home, composed of two parts. Made of concrete, the right hand side is a large tank filled with water. On the left hand side is a downward sloping surface that drains at the bottom. A plastic bowl is used as a scoop to get water for rinsing dishes, or teeth, or clothing, depending on what is currently being washed. It takes a little time to get used to it, but it is easy enough to splash water on our faces to cool off immediately (until we have the energy for a quick cold shower). It is also a relief to remove the knee high mud boots and socks which are much too warm now that they are not necessary. There is a hammock tucked off to the side of the main room and another on the small back porch. The young women who have hiked up the mountain with us each climb into one and fall immediately asleep.


Gale and I go back outside and sit on the stoop directly outside the door. I can see other similar small dwellings further up and down the hill. Three little pigs walk by, grazing and moving without once looking up from their work. I wonder how they even get anything in their mouths, but during my two day stay they wander by a number of times, like tiny vegetarian land sharks, ever moving and eating.


The horses, cows, dog, and chickens also roam quite freely. Gale and her housemates take advantage of this by tossing banana and papaya peels outside for them to eat. I practice taking aim with my peel from the kitchen out the six inch square window to the back yard. Once a horse paused long enough for us to show the banana peel and it obligingly sauntered over to take it out of our hands, much to my delight.


This is not to say that I could engage the horse any other way. When I heard that the animals roam around I had wondered aloud whether I might be able to ride on a horse. “Well,” Gale had replied. “You’ll see.” I now understood that it was not easy to explain this seeming contradiction. The animals roam free, but that does not mean they are friendly or seeking interaction. In fact, I realized they would be quite unaccustomed to people from the outside, unlike any American farm I have visited. Even most of the dogs, while happy to congregate on the porch, do not look for affection, except from the family with which it lives. All the skinny animals are happy recipients of whatever food scraps are being offered.


One cow in particular, a cafe con leche colored beauty whose tan fades as it moves toward her belly, was particularly forward. Gale and her housemates had dubbed her “Daisy” and had on more than one occasion needed to usher her out of the house. Gale confessed that Daisy had once peed in the house. WHAT?!! I was appalled, but her roommate calmly reassured me that it wasn’t that big a deal. (Clearly his idea of not a big deal did not match my own sensibility about a bucket of cow pee being delivered indoors.) “Really, it mostly drained out right away. We followed it with water immediately, and the cleaning impact was pretty small.” Happy not to have this demonstrated, I had to admire Daisy for her perseverance and initiative. She had only been passing through the house because she noticed the garden in the back yard. On my second day we learned that Daisy is pregnant, thus possibly accounting for her head butting insistence on getting scraps.


My first night I was jolted awake by the sound of grass being forcefully ripped from the ground. I realized that it was a horse or cow who had chosen that moment for a midnight snack. The roosters conversed raucously through the night as well and as I drifted off for perhaps the fourth time I realized that these entertaining yet aloof creatures were integrated into the community in a way they knew and understood. In two days I could only begin to observe and appreciate their roles. I would have to settle for imitating the calf who bellowed like a bull. The rest of the mysteries would have to keep for another time. I could live with this.


Initial Thoughts Regarding Rural Colombia

February 26, 2014

First Thoughts About Colombia


After a day in Medellin, a large city set into and completely ringed by mountains, and three days in Cartagena, a port with an old walled section and beautiful architecture, we set out for Apartado, in the west of Colombia, and then to the pueblo where Gale is currently making her home. The half hour ride in from the tiny airport took us past mile after mile of banana fields. Gale was pointing out the various types and sizes that were growing.


Our taxi left us off at the station where we would get our jeep ride partway up the mountain to L’Holandita, a sister community to hers where we would spend the night since it would be dark by the time we arrived. Gale inquired about the leaving time of the jeep, and learned that we had enough time to dash to the market for some food to cook that night. When we returned , we hopped under the roof of the open air back along with a couple of women, two young girls, and a young man. We fit comfortably in the jalopy which could easily seat four adults on each of the two bar seats that faced each other. Another man tossed a bag on top, and stood outside on the back fender, holding on to something I could not see from where I sat. We set off and stopped five minutes later. The man at the back hopped off, pulled a few eight foot long wood boards from where we parked, put them on top of the jeep, and off we went again. We made a couple more stops and then dropped off the whole load, to Gale’s dismay, because after a half hour of travel we were within a block of where we started.


“This is very unusual,” she explained. “A couple of stops, maybe, but not so many that we’ve now added a half hour onto a usually 45 minute trip.” We finally headed out of town, making a couple of quick drops, and then came upon a swarm of children getting out of school, perhaps? At this hour? It was past 6:30 pm. A couple of policemen pulled over our vehicle. Everyone needed to show ID. We retrieved our passports easily, but a couple of people had to get their ID from a bag that had been tossed onto the roof of the jeep. Nothing else happened and we were sent off within ten minutes. The rest of the trip was in darkness because this close to the equator the day is always divided nearly in half and by 6:45 it was completely dark. I couldn’t see the greenery that I could tell now surrounded the potholed, gravelly road. We stopped a few more times to let off a couple of people, or a bag here, or a message to that person until we arrived at La Holandita and jumped down with our backpacks.


A nun dressed in chino pants and a tee shirt greeted us, as well as a Bosnian girl and a German girl who both spoke perfect English. They, too,were staying there for the night because they had heard about the intentionally peaceful community and wanted to visit it. We all made food on the two burners that comprised the stove. The Bosnian girl had learned to make arepas while living in Venezuela for three months. (They are a type of flattish cornflour bread that could be sliced and buttered or eaten with cheese.). We cooked our vegetables and the German girl made lentils. We feasted and chatted and turned in for the night under our mosquito netting. I had feared that I would feel claustrophobic but it is so light and see through that this was not really the case. Gale elected to sleep in the hammock in the main area instead, preferring the open air to the slightly moldy cast of the mattresses.


Not long after I managed to drift to sleep I heard some kind of flapping outside my window. I couldn’t quite place what it was, although I kew it was not wings. Seconds later a rooster close by crowed like mad, setting up a series of calls like the game telephone, and I could hear the ripple of roosters going around the small community. Then, like a wave, it restarted with the rooster by my window, delivering an equally urgent and compelling message, and spreading with the same efficiency. After a third round of this, a dog responded with a long and plaintive howl. This set off a new call and response from the roosters, not to be outdone by a single canine.


Pondering the reason why this was happening at midnight instead of six am, I shifted on my super firm two inch thick mattress and welcomed a bit of shut eye into my humid bed.


An hour later, a nearby cow lowed. Nothing serious, it had probably just noticed a few pigs in its path. This received the same enthusiastic narration from the roosters who clearly could not let any comment go without a conversation. Who knew they were so freaking social? I ventured outside my net to the bathroom, hoping they would not see fit to declare this another reason for comment.


I must have drifted off again because next thing I knew it was three am, and a delicate melody as if from a music box filled the air. In my extreme disorientation I could not place where it was coming from and after a minute it stopped. I realized it was probably someone’s cell phone, though why it was ringing at 3 am was baffling. Fifteen minutes later the same delicate melody repeated, again with no response from its owner. Or the roosters, which was a relief. When it went off again 15 minutes later I nearly jumped out of bed, ready to throw it in the large basin of water that served as part of the sink, and was sooooo close by. I didn’t but I did hum along with the tune this time, not quite getting the last little bit right yet. I heard rustling and the pressing of cell phone buttons, and the creaking of the bed on the other side of the wall.


At four, the rooster contingent had something else to discuss, and the ring leader outside my window made sure that all the roosters in the camp had it clear before settling back down. And at 5 am someone a few houses down the grassy path demonstrated the “one up, everyone up” rule and blared Reggae so loud I was shocked that the rooster had no response. More surprising to me was that there was no discernible human response, either. Were people so accustomed to noises of all types that they could screen out all but those that pertained to them?


I have not been blessed with the heavy sleeping gene, so I was able to witness each event as the night unfolded. I recalled when Gale was five years old and I mentioned that I was a light sleeper. “Oh, then I must be a dark sleeper because I don’t wake up at all in the night.” she replied. I was hoping this skill still applied at age 23.


By 6:30 we were all awake, making coffee and oatmeal, and preparing for our two hour hike up the mountain to get to Gale’s community. I wondered whether the roosters wanted us to convey any messages to their brethren there. I hoped not. My Spanish was still weak, and I had other plans for my night than deciphering conversation between the community’s fowl. Armed with my broken night’s sleep I breathed deeply and looked around at my spectacularly lush surroundings. And this was just the beginning. I couldn’t wait to learn about the rest.IMG_1836IMG_1843IMG_1881

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