When Rae and I first arrived in Tumbes, Peru, I asked people where the cockfights were and nobody seemed to know, which was weird because once we figured it out for ourselves, wandering around the market and the cemetery and the Plaza de Armas one Sunday afternoon, reading pamphlets and following crowds of people, it turned out that cockfights were all over the place. Then whenever I brought up the matter, people seemed to feel obligated to express a position for or against, considering considerations of all sorts, including sociological, cultural, and economic factors. Chickens are people too, and all that.
One veterinarian who worked on Rae’s public health project assured me he injected all his roosters with antibiotics before they fought, which protected them from disease. Another veterinarian who worked on the project said he was against cockfights, with or without antibiotics. He explained to me that the roosters are traumatized by the experience. I said the survivors don’t seem traumatized, what with how they perk right up and trot around afterwards, as though nothing bad had happened. He said it was adrenaline that made them do that, but that I could be sure that they were traumatized all the same. You can’t always tell if somebody’s traumatized by how they scratch the dirt and peck at bugs, he said. Somebody can seem pretty normal to the casual observer, but still have insomnia, hypervigilance, paranoia, shortness of breath, attachment disorders, irritability, etc. I had to concede the point. He had a good point. Shoot, I had all those things and wasn’t traumatized a bit.
The health project that Rae was working on was determined to eradicate cysticercosis. They even had t-shirts that said as much. Every year they had a big soccer game against the other public health projects in the area, with a parade and everything. When we were there, they nominated Rae the Cysticercosis Queen. She put on a tiara, enormous plastic high-heeled shoes, and a red dress. Then she led the whole project team, wearing their t-shirts in a big parade around the soccer field. After that, everybody stood in rows and sang a series of anthems and listened to speeches by local officials.
Cysticercosis is a tapeworm that needs both pigs and humans to survive. Lucky for cysticercosis, in Tumbes, people live with their pigs. In humans, the worm attaches to the intestinal wall and lays hundreds of thousands of eggs. Humans shit the eggs. If folks don’t contain their shit or pen their pigs, the pigs inevitably eat the shit. Eggs hatch into worms and crawl around the pigs’ muscles. People eat the pork. The worms crawl around in people’s eyes and brains, causing headaches, confusion, and seizures.
So the way to eradicate the disease is to break the cycle. Get the pigs to stop eating people shit. Get the people to stop eating contaminated pork. That’s what the public health project was trying to do.
I had high hopes that the project would hire me. I didn’t have a degree in public health like Rae, but I figured I had skills. Specifically, I was hoping that the project would hire me to collect pig shit for analysis. I didn’t claim to have pig shit analysis skills. But I thought that the collection of pig shit was something I’d be gifted at. I thought I brought a lot to the table when it came to collecting pig shit.
We piled into the pickup truck and drove out to the village. We drove and drove along dirt roads, through dry scrub under the pounding sun. At last we lurched to a stop and the experts went to work. Juan knocked on the door and called out to see if anybody was home. An old man came to the door and stared at all of us standing there. He looked confused while Juan explained he was a doctor and that we were there to vaccinate his pig. The man pointed vaguely towards the brush, indicating that that was where we’d find his pig wandering and foraging for food. So we had to find the pig and the man sure wasn’t going to help us. He seemed ambivalent about the whole deal and went back inside. We spread out. I was eager to demonstrate my knack for this kind of work, so I looked especially hard. I hoped I’d be the one to spot him first.
The pig was enormous, absolutely huge. He eyes were beady little things deep in the folds of his bristly head. His snout was fleshy and wet. Flies buzzed around his leathery ears. Truth be told, I didn’t want to get close. I put my hands on my hips and affixed a wry expression onto my face. I let the other people wrestle him and inject him and collect his shit. As we drove back to town, I felt the disapproval of my miserable performance emanating from all corners. Later, when I brought up the matter, Juan gently explained that I didn’t have the qualifications for this difficult job. Rae was the Cysticercosis Queen, but I was nobody around these parts. So I sulked during the day and went to a lot of cockfights in the afternoons, not having anything better to do.