Exploding Cows

Hitchhiking was common in Nicaragua during the Sandinista-Contra war. So was waiting. If the enemy forces–the U.S. backed Contra–were nearby, the Sandinista military would close off all the roads, to keep civilians from getting caught in a battle.

Then there were the cows. And the landmines.

Michelle and I sat on the edge of a curb in Jícaro, a town in northern Nicaragua. Sandinista soldiers stood at a road block. They had borrowed a small herd of cattle from a farmer, and promised him they’d pay for however many cows died. They made sure the cows covered the entire dirt road, from one shoulder to the other.

One of the Contra’s tactics was to attack the civilian population. It was terrorism by the book: put panic in the people, create chaos, and keep the national military busy protecting them.

The Contra came through areas at night and set up landmines on the roads. People walking from one village to another sometimes tripped over them. Cars drove over them. You’d hear single explosions in the valleys, near and far.

It would take several hours for the Sandinistas to mosey those poor cows all the way from Jícaro to the main highway. We sat alongside a couple dozen other people waiting to leave town. They made exploding cow jokes, wondered how much the Sandinistas would pay for a ripped-up carcass, and complained about the landmine holdup.

In these moments, I became closer to the country. There were no cellphones, no internet. Sometimes Michelle and I read while waiting, or studied vocabulary. But most of the time, we lingered, which, as the years passed, I have seen as a skill one must hone.

We all hung out, waiting for a torn sack of cow guts to fly off the earth and onto our heads: women, men and their children, old folks, teenagers who grinned at us and asked about our Walkman.

To linger. To be with others for a spell. To talk, then get quiet, then talk again, tell jokes, get into a heated debate over politics, share gossip, pray. This is as much a part of my Central American culture as Spanish. Something difficult to sustain these days, when we’re all so very busy looking for meaning through a cellphone screen, desperately filling every single minute of our days with distraction.

The only thing the Nicaraguans had to distract themselves with was one another. It was there where I began to shed the American lie of rugged individualism. La comunidad. That word has echoed throughout my life since those years. I had to go to a war zone to learn what it meant to love one another.

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