To celebrate our last day of volunteering, Brian and I and the other volunteers made a night of it. After grabbing pizza at a local establishment, we stopped at a bar for caiphirans before heading to a karaoke joint.
A few of the people in our group overindulged and as the night wore on they began to spill drinks and climb up on chairs to dance. One of them dropped the karaoke microphone and it broke into pieces. I was embarrassed by the scene and stood to leave, but as we filed out the door we were stopped and told we owed $3 additional. This set off a round of drunken complaining from some of the members of the group, so I quickly paid the $3 and headed for home, ashamed that we had fit the stereotype of the self-centered westerner.
The next morning Brian and I awoke and set off on a hike while some of our roommates were still sleeping off their hangovers. Our plan was to hike to the Virgin statue that overlooks Baños and then across on a trail to a large illuminated Cross, a route that would take us high in the hills above town.
After a hellish twenty-minute climb up a never-ending flight of stairs we reached that statue of the Virgin where we lingered to snap a few pictures and take in the view. Then we set off on the path that would lead us to the Cross, past tiny shacks and farmland built onto severe slopes.
After a half-hour or so of walking we passed a man of about sixty chopping thick branches with a machete, two tiny dogs at his heel. Buenos dias, we said as we shuffled past.
Ten minutes later we came upon a very old woman standing behind a barbed-wire fence. She stopped us and spoke to us in Spanish. Brian and I could make out only a few words: man, below. Was she asking if we’d passed a man on our way up? Si, I told her, we had. She spoke again, a long sentence at a rapid-fire pace, and I caught only one word: cow. Lo siento, no entiendo, I told her. I’m sorry, I don’t understand. She looked angry and disappointed and waved us away.
After another ten minutes we passed an old man walking slowly with a makeshift bamboo cane. He was yelling something in Spanish to a man farming on an almost vertical hill below us. We passed them both and continued on.
Finally, about a half-mile from where we’d seen the old man, we came upon a gigantic black and white cow who was blocking the trail, leisurely eating grass. We noticed she was tied to a heavy rope that had come untethered. We put the pieces together. The old woman had been asking if we’d seen her husband. Their cow had escaped. The old man with the cane was desperately trying to track the cow down.
The runaway cow
Brian took hold of the rope and I turned around to find the old man and tell him we’d found his cow. When I saw the man hobbling slowly up the steep slope of the trail I yelled Tengo tu baca (I have your cow). As I approached he tripped and fell. He couldn’t have been more than five feet tall and was at least eighty years old. He’d been hiking on this muddy, rocky trail for more than an hour. Uno momento, I said to him. Aqui, aqui. Here. Stay here.
I turned back up the trail to find Brian unsuccessfully trying to wrangle the cow in my direction. Together we worked out a system: I stood behind the cow clapping my hands and Brian walked in front, guiding the cow back towards the home of the old couple.
When we reached the old man again Brian moved ahead with the cow while I lingered behind to make sure the man didn’t fall. I resisted my urge to just pick him up and carry him over my shoulder. He’d look up from time to time and rub his knee, indicating to me that his knee was bad and walking was painful.
We eventually reached the barbed-wire fence where we’d seen the old lady earlier. We found her there still, but this time she was trapped in the fence, her foot caught on the barbed-wire and bleeding. From what I could make of the situation she had tried to climb through the fence to look for the cow, but got caught in the barbed-wire instead.
Brian handed the cow over to me and set about freeing the woman from the fence. She didn’t say a word, didn’t cry out in pain, just stood there with a steely look on her face until her foot was released. When she was free, she and her husband yelled back and forth to each other while Brian and I stood waiting for instruction.
The old man wanted to try to force the cow back through a small hole in the barbed-wire fence that it had escaped from. Brian and I tried our best to coax it back through, but the cow was having none of it. The old man took his cane and beat the hind end of the cow. I tried to place my hands on the cow to calm it. I’m sorry, I whispered. I could feel it jump with fright each time the cane came down.
When it became clear to the old man that we’d never get the cow back through the hole we moved on to option number two. The old man and woman gestured wildly, signaling to us to take the cow down the trail and around the bend to their casa. Brian left with the cow while I walked with the couple as they limped and tripped their way back home.
We finally rounded the bend and their home came into view, a tiny, one-room wooden shack. We walked onto their property and Brian tied the cow to a post, wrapping the tether tightly.
Brian and I looked at each other and grinned. We’d returned the cow to her home, the old couple had made it back safely. We’d been in the right place at the right time. Perhaps it was coincidence or luck, but we could both sense that it was something else.
The old couple thanked us profusely. The old man clapped Brian on the back and shook his hand. The old woman removed her hat, closed her eyes, pushed her hands together and prayed. Then she blessed us both. We couldn’t catch much of what she was saying but I heard her repeat the words hermoso and gente: Beautiful people.
Yesterday I was writing with an old friend from High School over Facebook chat. She told me that she was back in our hometown to donate her kidney to her brother.
“I’m excited,” she said.
“Excited because your brother will be healthy again?” I asked. I was surprised that she’d used the word excited. It wouldn’t have been the word I’d use to describe how I felt about having a kidney cut out of me.
“Yep,” she said. “And that I’m blessed with the opportunity to share.”
I’d typed up this blog post in the afternoon after we’d helped the couple recover their cow. I put the story down right away, but I was still searching for the words to describe what had made the experience so moving. It has affected both Brian and I in a deep way.
It wasn’t until my friend told me that she felt blessed with the opportunity to share that I realized that I felt a similar way about helping the couple find their cow. I felt blessed to have been of service to people that needed me.
I still feel strange talking about prayer because I don’t consider myself a religious person, just highly spiritual, but when I pray each night one thing I ask for is to be a force for good. I ask that, despite all of my faults and flaws and tendency to be self-centered and bitchy, that in my best moments perhaps I can be lucky enough to create or give something to the world that makes it better. We all yearn for that, don’t we?
So when something like this happens, when a cow escapes from two people who desperately need it, and Brian and I are there to retrieve it, I can’t help but feel like I’m receiving what I’ve asked for. I don’t know what to call the blessing except, perhaps, to call it grace.