The sun is strong today, though it’s not quite as warm as it has been, and we bring a grand umbrella, large and bright pink and decorated with flowers, to shield ourselves from the worst of it. Being the tallest by a foot or more, I’m more likely to get poked in the neck than protected from the sun, at least until it’s my turn for shade duty -- holding the umbrella becomes a communal job, as no one really wants to do it.
It is Saint Valentine’s Day, and we are going to the rodeo.
We are on time -- that is, half an hour late, and just in time to see the aftermath of an escape, one lively bull breaking through the makeshift wooden barrier and running for the hills, everyone screaming with delight at the unexpected sideshow as men who have spent all day polishing their boots go running through the dust after it, waving their broad-brimmed hats as if that will stop the bull in its tracks and bring it meekly back.
The spectacle takes the better part of an hour to resolve itself: enough time for a good gossip about who likes who; which boys have said they’re going to the dance later; who has red nail polish to finish painting the flowers on our nails, since Janeth’s ran out; and to buy a few enchiladas from María, hot and greasy and perfect.
“Foto! Un foto!” The older girls have discovered the huge and magical world of Facebook, and now that they’ve all made accounts they need pictures for their profile: good pictures, they say; I am not allowed to put anything embarrassing up. A straw hat makes the rounds: the resulting pictures are declared absolutely forbidden from appearing anywhere online. The younger kids just want to take pictures of everything: themselves, each other, the bulls, the sky, everything slightly out of focus, blurry, with strange, inexplicable angles that might make good Art if anyone could figure out what the pictures are of.
This is cowboy country, the Wild West of Nicaragua, and on days like this, where the sun beats down and dries the earth to an unforgiving red-brown, it’s easy to get caught up in the feel of the place, to imagine that the Man with No Name might come striding into town at any moment, a pistol on each hip. It’s all scrub brush here, cactus and pine, the houses slung low to the earth, red-roofed, their crazy porches running wide where women sit you down for conversation and coffee boiled over a fire with milk from their own cows. The men walk with bowed legs from too many days of riding horses, the worn spurs on their heels clicking on every step. Their boots are dusty, their shirts unbuttoned at the top from the heat. Hard work, a lifetime of it, shows on everyone’s face: they are burned bronze-brown from the sun, the lines deep around the corners of their lips and eyes from laughter and from hardship -- memories are long, and the war was not so very many years ago. Here there is a man who lost an eye to a bullet; there someone missing a leg or an arm; there someone whose brother fought or was killed or simply disappeared.
But today, no one is thinking of that: today is for amor, for amistad, for competing to see who can yell the loudest for the hometown boys: so young, so intoxicated with life and themselves and the bull moving underneath them until they fall, scrambling away from the heavy hooves while the handlers move in with lassos, everyone heckling everyone else and laughing.
We heckle along with them, giving everyone fair play: the riders, the handlers, even ourselves, joyful spectators. We scream at the bulls when they kick too close, or when they come out and simply stand in place, dark tongues lolling and their eyes rolling at anyone who tries to make them move. Marcelo is standing next to me, filming with his own camera, narrating for posterity:
“Next is Josue, Josue on Coqueto, here we go -- here they come, Josue and Coqueto!”
But it is only Coqueto in the ring; Josue has been left behind while Coqueto does his best to kick down a wall and escape and Marcelo cracks jokes about the rider and this coquette of a bull that after a year here I still only half-understand.
The shadows grow slowly longer, the crowd more restless on the rough wooden stands. Marcelo has packed up his camera and moved on, and finally it is the last rider, the last bull, and everyone is trickling out of the field back down the road to town. There are no winners today, no losers, only the same sturdy men clicking their tongues to their tired horses, separating their cows expertly from the rest and herding them away.
Later, there will be a fiesta, regatón and bachata echoing off the dark sides of these hills which are never fully silent, the bass writing over the sounds of the wind swishing through the pines, the nightly conversation between the dogs and roosters. There will be music, Black Eyed Peas mixed with Shakira, with Luis Enrique and Dimensión Costeña and Aventura; there will be food and dancing and moonshine of all varieties, and in the morning everyone will get up before the sun climbs up the mountains to peer down on our valley, and go back to work. But for now, we are riding back to town, to the tight cluster of houses and families that is our home, dust in our hair and our mouths as everyone talks at once, and men on horseback lift their hats as we go by.