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Freddy the Fish is Dead

Our fish died last week.  It is especially embarrassing to admit in the wake of his death that, at first, we didn’t really want him.

Three years ago when our babysitter, who was graduating from college and leaving the area, asked if we’d be interested in taking her fish I said, without any reservations, “No, thanks.” It wasn’t that taking care of a small, iridescent blue and purple betta fish would require so much work. It was that it felt like caring for a four year old, a baby who rarely slept, and ourselves pushed the limits of our capacities. It was only recently that we’d killed all but a single sprig of a low-maintenance houseplant through pure neglect. We were not people who needed more.

“I’ve looked into taking him with me on the plane out West, but it’s just really complicated,” she said.

Living in a college town you hear the horror stories of dogs left locked in closets,  pets abandoned outside the pet store, and much worse done by probably well meaning, but clearly clueless and immature students. Here she was researching the options to bring a $3, three year old fish home with her.

I immediately said yes.

We grew used to having Freddy around, even fond of him. It was as soothing to watch him swish and swirl as he swam in circles as it was terrifying to find him napping inside his ceramic shark, when only his tail, flopped out flat and perfectly still, was visible.

At the kids’ insistence I made him a tiny Christmas stocking while they constructed a faux mantle to hang behind his bowl. The girl went through a phase when she kissed his bowl every morning and night. They argued feverishly about who would get to place the grey rocks back in the bowl during water changes.

Admittedly there were times when his water got cloudy before it was changed and a meal was missed here and there, but that wasn’t any worse than the kids fared with missed washings and  yogurt occassionally passing for dinner. It was hard to tell what Freddy thought about the whole thing, but he kept living, which we took as a good sign.

Because he was a betta fish beyond his prime, I had be preparing for his death pretty much since he came to live with us. Before leaving for Uruguay we told the kids that chances were good he would be dead before we got home. 365 days was a long time for a fish. He wasn’t dead. Our neighbors had managed to nurse him through the polar vortex in a poorly heated house.

In the end, like it almost always does, death caught us off balance. There was no chance to prepare the kids with pep talks about mortality, the circle of life, or of flesh eventually turning into the dirt that feeds life. One morning last week there was just a dead fish in a bowl.

The kids were sad, but quickly practical. “All animals die,” said the boy to his sister. “We’ll die someday because we’re animals, too.” The girl now calmly points to the empty bowl stowed on a shelf and informs visitors that Freddy is not in it because he’s dead. Then, because she is three, she will lie down on the ground and pretend she too is dead. When she pretends to be dead she also asks that you put her in the freezer, which is a story for another time.

What are you supposed to do with an aquatic pet when they die? The kids had opinions about his funeral arrangements, but neither of them wanted any part in the actual internment. I buried Freddy in the backyard and covered the spot with a couple of bricks to deter the neighborhood cats from making a late night snack of him.

And then I cried. Not the tears of gasping, gulping grief, but a misty sadness of saying goodbye to something we hadn’t wanted, but ended up loving; and a creature we kept alive and healthy at a time when we thought we couldn’t.

 

 

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Ranching Like Tourists

The thing about being vegetarian in a carnivorous country is that you rarely go hungry. People are so concerned about making sure you get enough to eat, and concerned that the foods you eat seem entirely unsatisfying to them, that they keep offering more food until the table (and your waistband) are groaning.

This was definitely the case for us last weekend when we headed into Uruguay’s interior to visit a ranch.  Uruguay has many tourist ranches, which range from very fancy to basic. This one was a family run working ranch with 1000 head of cattle, several horses, chickens, two geese that mysteriously disappeared during the weekend (only their feathers remained), and a number of sheep recently diminished by preparations for a large group lunch.

To get there we drove three hours into Uruguay’s interior mostly on a tree-lined two-lane highway that cut through gently rolling green fields populated by cattle, horses, sheep, birds, and outcroppings of rocks. There were some cultivated fields and places where farm buildings were visible. Occasionally we watched gauchos ride across fields or farmers maneuver huge farm equipment across the highway.

Somewhere between Trinidad and Durazno there was a faded sign pointing down a rutted dirt road toward the ranch. The road dipped down to cross a stream and on the other side cattle stood knee deep in swirling early evening mist. The ranch itself was a few white washed one story buildings with thatched roofs and some outbuildings surrounded by manicured lawns with nothing but pasture beyond.  We were greeted by five barking dogs who chased our car down the winding drive. They were intimidating until we opened the car doors when they promptly stopped barking and prostrated themselves before us, waiting to be pet.

Our room was attached to the main house and was accessed through a walled garden, which was crowded with flowering plants and small trees. A porch ran along one side of the house, dormant wisteria vines climbing up the poles and over the roof. The door to our room, as well as doors to the kitchen and entry way, opened off the porch. Our room was a clean, high-ceilinged, spartan space with three beds covered in wool blankets, wooden shuttered windows, stone walls, and a moldering armoire filled with dusty extra blankets.

Before we had our coats off Mariela and her assistant Iris were feeding us. We ate our meals in a small room with a thatched ceiling, a sturdy wooden table and carved straight-back chairs, a huge fireplace (which was the only thing keeping the damp chill at bay), and two pink armchairs that felt like sitting inside a warm hug. The room was dark and cold away from the fire, but also appealing and cozy.

Mariela and Iris always brought us soup in a traditional cast iron pot with white bread and butter on the side. This was followed by delicious, but rich, dishes like canalones de choclo, milanesa de berenjena, and  zapallitos rellenos.  And this was followed by dessert. They made other dishes that would please the kids as well, but in quantities large enough for several busloads of children. Two meals in Nathan and I realized we were eating past hunger and on into guilt. No matter how many servings we ladled onto our plates, we didn’t seem to make a dent in the spread. Yet somehow after every meal, as we waddled out of the room, they worried that we were leaving hungry.

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To work off the food we explored outside. We watched the sheep who, understandably, were not so fond of people. The kids picked the pink flowers that grew in the yard. We rode horses around a bucolic field (bucolic as long as you didn’t look down at the sheep skulls chewed clean by the dogs and bleached by the sun). The kids climbed on the various tractors. The fact that it was a working ranch, not just a tourist destination, was always apparent. At one point I found the boy staring transfixed at piles of sheep skins hanging from a rafter in the barn. Trying to rationalize it, he suggested maybe they had been able to remove all the fleece so it just looked like a skin, but the sheep were still alive. There was a disappointing experience with milking that involved a year old cow, her still nursing calf, and a very sticky udder.

The ranch had plenty of entertainment to offer, but we also managed to tear ourselves away long enough to see some other sights. Outside Trinidad is a large, well-kept, and free animal reserve. We spent a few hours there looking at carpinchos, monkeys, alpacas, rabbits, snakes, deer, goats, and the cutest swarm of guinea pigs (including baby guinea pigs).

Some twenty kilometers down a bumpy road  in Flores are the Grutas del Palacio.  Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Grutas are 70 million year old naturally occurring limestone caves. Columns of stone and curved archways formed by millions of years of erosion give the impression of some intricately planned architecture. There are places where, with the help of a guide, you can walk back into the caves, stepping over puddles of water and into ancient history. Given the chance there are many reasons you should visit them, but our kids will tell you the best part was the flashlights they got to carry while exploring the caves.

On our last day at the Ranch, still well-stuffed from lunch and not yet ready for dinner, the owners took us for a drive to see some of the cattle and their property. They pointed out their cattle, distant property lines, and birds while we all made awkward conversation. A short way into the drive we discovered three yearlings who had escaped the pasture. We followed them in the pick up truck, Mariela leaning out the window making the same huffing noises cows make. Eventually, for some reason neither Nathan nor I could discern all three calves decided to plow back through the barbed wire fence into the pasture. Across the road curious cattle gathered to watch the show. Mariela knelt down in the ditch again making soft blowing sounds and grunts, which urged the cattle forward. We all stared at each for awhile as the light turned golden.