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Bull Testicles, Ticks and Woofing in Central America

It’s all organic farming until the fleas and scorpions show up…

I’d never really liked bulls, ever since I’d seen a piece on the news about a man going to fix a gas leak by the side of a road in Devon and a bull charging through the fence and killing him. So when the opportunity arose for me to not only meet a bull about twice his size, but actually stand and stroke his balls for a while, I knew I had to think fast.

Our new friend in the village beamed proudly at us through his wispy moustache.

‘This is my bull’, he told us.

Unlike any other bull I’d ever seen, this one towered above us and regarded us disinterestedly for a moment or two. And it was lying down. Jorge poked it and prodded it with his self-whittled walking stick until it stood for him. Then he walked confidently around to the back of the bull, and started stroking his huge, silky balls.

‘Come stroke,’ he motioned to my boyfriend and I.

Paralysed with terror at the idea of being trodden to death by an angry beast because a western stranger touched his balls, I panicked.

‘I’m a vegetarian’, I told him, and ran for my life.

Mike and I had gone to help on a farm in Central America. It was one of these woofing projects where you work hard on various aspects of the farm for your board and lodging. A fairly new project, the locals in the tiny village were a little sceptical and kept their distance. The concept of organic farming was not new to them, but it was amusing. They would watch the volunteers traipse to and fro, clad in the uniform hiking boots, cargo pants, shapeless t-shirts and bandanas, heading to the dusty, parched piece of land that had once been a cattle ranch. It was our job to transform it into a lush, thriving, and most importantly of all, organic venture.

We arrived with only the best intentions, having farmed elsewhere in the world quite successfully in the past. ‘Organic only’ was our policy, up to our soap and lemongrass insect repellent. Most of the other volunteers echoed our feelings. Early mornings were spent sharing yoga tips and discussing chemical-free insect repellent.

We were only a few days into the project when the ticks made themselves known. They seemed to attach themselves at our every step and even with pants tucked into socks, tucked into boots, somehow they still found their way in. They actually seemed to like the smell of lemongrass. My patience quickly began to wear thin. What began as a fun and intimate tick-checking nightly ritual with my boyfriend soon became a screaming match – ‘don’t leave the head in. That’s my skin in the tweezers, not the tick.’ One night, I removed my pants and found over a hundred on my left leg. Two nights with my leg covered in wet chamomile tea bags wrapped around with toilet paper took its toll. Enough was enough. A bottle of 90% DEET found its way into my possession. With no more ticks and the swelling on my left leg finally going down, (with a little help from some strong anti-itch cream and equally strong anti-histamines), I could sleep, and farm, soundly again.

Then came the fleas, the ants and the scorpions. I tried burning incense in every room in the house. It seemed a nice, non-toxic way to rid ourselves of these nasty creatures. Like ticks to lemongrass, these insects swarmed – a menagerie of pincers, stings and potential pain. The scorpions dived gleefully into our vegetable soup from the rafters, while the fleas cunningly avoided our deathly slaps and drove us slowly mad. As the incense sticks clattered into the rubbish bin, the backpack sprayer was already loaded with the toxic Cruz Verde pesticide. The front of the bottle shouted ‘MATA TODO’- KILLS EVERYTHING’. I sprayed the house with it. Twice. Just to be sure. After all, organic farming is really all about what goes on the soil, not in the house, right?

After weeks of tilling the soil and planting various vegetables, we were praying for the rains to arrive. Our tiny sprinklers were struggling with the amount of crops we were planting and we needed a greater source of water very soon. At the end of May we got it. But it was no spring shower. And as day turned into night, turned into day, we could only watch through the windows in dismay, as one by one, our baby plants drowned miserably in the never-ending rains. The soil we had prepared so carefully along the paths was gradually washing away. On the first sunny day we got, we gave up on keeping it all natural and decided to cement the pathways. It didn’t seem too unnatural after all.

After much debating and deliberating, we finally worked out where and how to plant our vegetables so as not to lose them to the incessant rains. They began to grow. And in spite of the tonnes of waters that fell upon them, they kept on growing. Finally it seemed that our luck was beginning to turn. With a tick-free body (thanks to that 90% DEET), and an insect-free house (down to the mata todo pesticide), we were finally gardening successfully and organically. One night we celebrated our success with a rare drink of wine, looked contentedly out of my window, and went to bed.

We woke up the next day only to find that half the plants were gone. We pinched each other to check we weren’t asleep or mad. The rains had calmed down weeks ago. And they’d been flourishing for a while. But the plants weren’t dead. They had completely disappeared. Immediately on the warpath to find the local plant thief in the village, we scattered, until we noticed the ants. The garden was a map of green lines, with large ants going in all directions. Apparently, they were called ‘leaf-cutters’! We were desperate. We tried blocking them. They got around, beneath or over. we tried burning their nests. They kept on coming. We were in danger of, yet again, being left with nothing.

The stress began to reappear within us and no amount of yoga or meditation could relieve it, as every time we peered out of the window, where once was the beautiful view of our garden, all we saw was our hard work being carried away by these not too sweet creatures of God. We finished the bottle of wine from the previous night, and unlike us, started another. The various natural ways we tried to coax the things away just seemed to attract more of them. Even the mango tree was left bare. White-faced monkeys sat in the trees and pelted the few remaining mangoes at the corrugated roof of the house. Their high pitched shrieks sounded very much like laughter.

Things were getting desperate. I smoked a cigarette. I didn’t usually. But it tasted good so I smoked another. It tasted even better with a little vodka and helped relieve the pain of losing everything we’d worked for. It also helped to clarify the mind and we soon decided to get the little beggars with something a little stronger than honey. We piled high in the poisonous stuff and poured it all over the farm.

The next day with a slightly unclear mind and an even less clear objective, we looked out at our beautiful organic farm. There was nothing left. No ants, no plants, no organic farm. There was a reason why the people in our village didn’t grow the things we tried to grow in the way we tried to grow them. We had learned the hard way, what that reason was.

The American owners of the farm resigned themselves sadly to the fate of their farm, already talking lovingly about the blight, cutworms and caterpillars that awaited them on their next project back home.

‘At least we half know what to expect from the weather, bugs and beasties back there’, they grinned.

‘And if things don’t work out, then a bottle of organic wine is never too far away’!

At that moment, Jorge, the local cattle farmer from whose bull I had so rudely run away from, timidly knocked on the door. Hesitantly, we opened it, and he peered dismayed at the tired, tear-stained faces that filled the room. I explained to him, slightly ashamed, what had happened to us over the past few months. He smiled sadly and thought for a minute.

Finally his face lit up and he said, ‘but the land is good and you have lots of it. Why don’t you try some cattle!’

Caroline Nye