I find myself waiting around the stables of a ranch in semi-arid Guanacaste, Costa Rica while my wife and daughter take a two-hour horseback tour. The ranch is located just beyond the village of Porte Golpe, which is between Belen and Flamingo. If that clarification does not entirely enlighten the reader, geographically speaking, I apologize. But I’m not really sure where we are, either.
My most recent equestrian experience was on a pony at a birthday party during the Kennedy administration. Until Google invents one that drives automatically, I am not riding. As to today’s tour, I insisted to the girls that I’d be content to sit it out, as they say, and neither objected with enthusiasm.
I’m under a wooden picnic-pavilion sort of structure with the owner’s black pit bull sitting beside me. He is fearsome in appearance, basically a seventy-pound muscle. He sniffs at my hand and allows me to rub his forehead, his soft brown eyes appearing thankful for the attention. I’d always approached pit bulls with caution, aware of their popularity with drug dealers and the like. This dog, however, has absorbed the Costa Rican vacation vibe. He appears as relaxed as a yogi at a Yanni concert.
A continuous breeze keeps us relatively cool in the tropical heat while I look around at white, stucco-sided buildings that contain miscellaneous horse and cow-related equipment. I imagine John Wayne walking through the door, jodhpurs and holster jangling, and I feel transported in time. From here, my canine companion and I observe the ranch’s wranglers as they manipulate and jostle the cows, among several pens, perhaps with the purpose of grooming them or washing them or exercising them. I hope some good comes of it, given how many hits and slaps and kicks the men are delivering.
Why do the men appear so mean, their aggression jarring in the midst of an otherwise lovely tableau of nature? Are they bored with their jobs and prospects? Do they think the owner values the livestock more than them? Can they support their families on the menial pay they receive? All of these are possible explanations, but are they excuses? Offering the benefit of the doubt, I wonder if brute force is the only way to manage the animals.
The cattle appear stunningly powerful up-close, yet they display no aggression, even when their necks are jerked with ropes and their haunches slapped with twitches. Ah, yes, two men have wrestled one of the biggest cows under a hose across the dirt parking area from me, perhaps fifty feet away, where they tie her to a fence-post and deliver a less-than luxurious sponge bath. I think there are only cows here, not bulls, but I still wonder if it was shortsighted to have worn a bright red tee shirt. When they finish, one of the men caresses the cow gently on its side and speaks to it softly. People are so confusing.
My picnic table has some bugs walking around which are unfamiliar to me, but they appear harmless enough, without bright colors or threatening shapes. I wish I’d sprayed some of that bug repellant. I scoff at it as a placebo, but I wouldn’t turn it down right now if somebody offered.
Occasionally, the cows moo and the cocks crow. Birds chatter incessantly with a variety of calls, complaints, entreaties, threats, songs, etc. A horse periodically whinnies or snorts to complete the symphony and a troupe of howler monkeys just arrived to colonize a massive tree. Eight or nine jet-black athletes swing into place on individual limbs and look languidly down. Two males attempt to out-do each other with their deeply resonant “oo-oo-oo’s.” How does such a massive sound emanate from such a relatively small animal?
The cow that was being washed appears content now, cooling down, as steam rises from her body. She stares dully, still tethered by a rope to the rough wooden fencing. I wonder what she is thinking, if anything.
The men take refuge from the sun beneath a massive strangler fig tree and lay down to rest. I fear I have displaced them from their usual siesta location. A white and yellow cat saunters over to join the dog and me. She brushes affectionately against the pit-bull, who appears to be napping, though one of his eyes is half-open. She lays down a few feet in front of us; basically, we are three apparently purposeless participants in the animal ballet all around us. A resplendent black and orange rooster emerges from a doorway to strut towards us. Will he complete our varied menagerie under the pavilion? No, he turns back towards his harem of clucking chickens, barely contained in a loosely fenced pen.
The cat regards me unhurriedly, and decides I might be useful. She leaps upon the table. I offer some high-quality scratching behind the ears and she purrs. After several minutes, just as I fear she will never allow me to stop, she sprawls and commences grooming herself. The dog is completely asleep now, occasionally twitching with what might be dreams. The monkeys have subsided, too, settled throughout several trees, spread-eagled across the limbs. I notice a baby clinging adorably to its mother’s back. All seems right in the world.
I hear the clip-clop of the girls returning. Somehow, two hours have passed. Hearing the sound, the pit bull lifts his massive head and sniffs. He regards me for a moment and settles back down to sleep. I am not certain, but I doubt the pit bull will remember me. I’m just a taller- and paler-than-average human who hung out in his domain, and occasionally spoke to him in an unusual language. But I expect I will always remember him, and the couple of hours we shared.