Several days on, we’re on the road again. This time Doctor Mariano Hernández Gil is at the helm of the Donkey Sanctuary’s activities in the East-Central state region. We’re bombing through luscious rolling countryside not far from Veracruz, a port city of half-a-million people in the Gulf of Mexico. Mango trees and fields of sugar cane fly past our window, and there are tangerine and banana groves everywhere, and papayas and avocados, and almonds, and guavas and lemons—it’s a tropical cornucopia outside. “Veracruz is a very rich province,” Mariano says, “rich enough to be its own country.” Alongside fertile soils and hot, humid weather, there’s also petrol and nuclear power, and beautiful beaches and gem colonial architecture. But, as the handsome thirty-something equine vet points out, in the villages there are very poor people, and very poor donkeys.
We’re heading along a beat-up meandering back track, an hour or more from any discernible rural civilisation. It’s a universe removed from Mexico City’s swanky neighbourhoods bathed in the soft purple glow of Jacaranda trees, areas like Condesa, with its boutiques, cool restaurants and one of the world’s most stunning bookstores at the Centro Cultural Bella Época, a converted Art Deco cinema; or the sleepy cobble-stoned Pueblo of San Ángel with its oldie-worldly splendour, Saturday morning craft market and celebrity residents like Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez. If anything, where we are feels more like that author’s supernatural creation of Macondo, from One Hundred Years of Solitude, and everywhere there are real life José Arcadia Buendías, bands of men in straw hats with faces that have been baked in slow ovens like dried chillies, all with machetes strapped around their waists, all sat atop either a donkey, mule or horse, and all, apparently, coming to Mariano’s weekly clinic at Santa María Tatetla.
Once we’ve stopped and parked in a piece of wasteland near a dried up stream, it’s animal mayhem and human chaos. There are hundreds of donkeys and a contagion of braying, and at considerable decibels; the message is getting voiced down the line, as if everybody in this isolated village of 1770 inhabitants with its little glowing green church possesses a donkey and every donkey knows their neighbour and wants to chat, or else wants to share respective woes. Mariano tries to establish order, taking names and assuaging impatient farmers who want to be seen first and who haven’t got time to waste. Wizened native men utter words in Náhuatl, the language of Aztecs. After a while, everybody settles down, and standing next to their animals the men wait their turn and observe the vets in action, Mariano and assistant José Antonio, aided by student trainees there for practical, hands-on experience.
The team has its work cut out: saddle abrasions and hoof problems, teeth troubles and worms—lots of donkeys around here are infected by parasites, like threadworm, lungworm, and tapeworm, and squirting “wormer” medicine into their mouths is crucial for preventing serious infection. Moreover, the area is full of bats, many of which are rabid, so donkeys need rabies vaccinations since bats have a nocturnal habit of colliding with animals left outdoors. Donkeys, too, suffer from hurt feet. Neglected hoofs can lead to painful foot problems like “seedy toe,” where incorrectly shaped hoofs compromise proper horn growth and prompt bacterial infections. It’s necessary to trim the foot of the donkey, clean everything out between the sole and the frog—soil, stones and dust—and balance the hoof. Balancing a donkey’s hoofs will centre the animal’s weight distribution and verify the symmetry of its gait, helping to ensure proper shock absorption and more efficient load carrying.
All around the village and in the surrounding countryside little donkeys bear huge piles of wood used for cooking, burnt to heat up pots and pans in makeshift ovens; and since there’s no running water either, donkeys haul up to 20 gallons of water at a time, back and forth several times each day, often with their owners onboard; at harvest time, donkeys lug mangos and tangerines, bananas and lemons, papayas and avocados; and, of course, for those families without cars, donkeys transport people: men and women and kids, to and from work, to and from school, over many rough, mountainous, and hot miles. Meanwhile, donkeys carry milk, 16 gallons or more, milk destined for domestic consumption as well as for sale to neighbouring little enterprises who manufacture cheese.
José is one farmer who sells his milk to a local cheese company. Nearing seventy, with a mouthful of gold fillings, he has a dozen cows that graze up a nearby mountain, 5 miles from the village. Early each morning, often before sunrise, José sets off on his little white donkey, el Blanco Diablo, the White Devil. On the way down, White Devil transports a couple of big churns full of milk, about 150 lbs the pair, as well as José himself, who probably weighs around 120 lbs. In the evening, he and his donkey repeat the two-and-a-half-hour round trip, returning again with two full churns. José is proud of White Devil’s remarkable strength, but Mariano tells him he’s overloading his mount and recommends a course of vitamins; the donkey is too skinny and has saddle sores. “Average donkey weight in this region is probably about 350 lbs,” says Mariano. “El Blanco Diablo is less than that. Ideally, donkeys should bear loads of about 30/40% of their bodyweight. But often they’re carrying weights almost comparable to their bodyweight.”
Later, when the medicine chests are finally packed away and the mini-bus is ready to roll, it’s 7pm and darkness has fallen. Some 350 animals were treated that day, a record, including six, open-air horse castrations. (An old man had stopped by to ask if he could take away the horses’ testicles; a little treat for his mutt’s supper. He was very content disappearing into the twilight with a bag of still-warm goodies.) The elected village leader—the ejidatario—a man of about sixty, wearing a red baseball cap, is jovial with Mariano as they say adiõs until next month. He’s visibly delighted with the clinic’s work. Earlier, he’d come himself with a fold-up table and several big pots, offering us an alfresco array of spicy pork tamales, home-made and wrapped in banana leaves, together with fried chicken and Coca-Cola—Mexicans are avid Coke guzzlers. Donkeys are somehow part of his rural constituency, too; without them, without their quiet participation in communal affairs, without their peaceful fellowship, the village chief knows there’d be no communal affairs, and nothing left to lead. Anybody who keeps those donkeys healthy will, by definition, keep his political future healthy, keep his and the villagers’ lives going against the fatalism of dusty poverty and melancholy of rotten guava.
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