A rooster’s sharp caw breaks through my dreams and soon I am awake, mulling over how best to murder said rooster. I grumble as I squint my eyes in the early morning light, the sun hasn’t even risen yet. The rooster keeps at it. This rooster must be faulty, or sadistic, I decide as I realize I am not going back to sleep anytime soon. Then, mid-rooster death plotting, it dawns on me, today is my birthday. I am officially 23 and celebrating my second birthday abroad in as many years. I spent 22 drinking beer on a lake in Ghent, Belgium and today I will celebrate on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua with Hari’s Horses.
I have not been overly impressed by the island thus far. However, all I’ve seen is the small, crowded, ramshackle town that we stumbled into, fresh from a rather horrifying voyage across Lake Nicaragua on the discount ferry. Never take the discount ferry. The boat had easily been older than my partner and I combined and was made of a patchwork of heavy wooden slabs, each haphazardly covering what were probably life-threatening holes in the hull that did very little to stop the water splashing in across our feet. When I emerged from that would-be death trap, my face a sickly green, I was not in a mood to focus on the town’s finer points.
My phone starts beeping in the corner. Beep beep beep. I try to grab it before Kane, my partner, awakens. I fail in this endeavor, but despite a grumpy, prematurely woken boyfriend at my side, a grin spreads across my face.
“I get to go riding today!” I squeal with delight. Kane just rolls over. He doesn’t get it, he’s afraid of horses. I, however, have been riding horses since I was 8 years old and ever since then I have loved everything equine. I show jumped horses competitively in high school, taught riding lessons in university, and ran the university barn while I was at it, but lately, it has been almost a year since I’ve sat astride a horse. Not that I can complain, gallivanting around Europe and Central America aren’t exactly horrible things to have been doing for the past year, but still, I miss horses.
I throw my clothes on in a hurry, hiking pants and running shoes as they are the closest replacements I can find in the depths of my backpack for proper riding breeches and boots, and drag Kane out the door.
Soon we are bumping along the dusty, cow dotted island road, enroute to Hari’s Horses, the barn I have decided to ride with on my birthday. I grip Kane’s waist tighter as our scooter careens around a corner, narrowly missing some of the semi-feral horses that have taken to grazing on the side of the road. I let loose the breath that has caught in my throat and am glad to have a partner who is willing to drive halfway around an island to drop me off and pick me up, because, while I will ride any horse anywhere, I am too afraid of driving a scooter to get myself there and back in one piece.
We arrive an hour later, with just enough time for me to kiss Kane goodbye and sprint up the muddy, rock covered path to the barn. There are two horses saddled and waiting to go as I slow to a speed walk to disguise my tardiness, but there’s no Hari in sight…or at least anyone who could pass as a trail guide. There is one slightly crazed looking guy wearing flip flops and chain smoking as he yells at someone in a harsh, staccato language that I can only assume is German.
As the angry older man turns towards me I remember that, according to the website, Hari is German. He tosses his cigarette aside, squints his eyes, and looks me over with an intensity only common in German riding schools.
“You Monica?” He asks curtly while turning towards the horses, already hopping into the saddle of the larger black one.
“Ya,” I respond, rather nervously. I have no idea what to make of this man. He is breaking almost every rule I was taught growing up around horses; always wear close toed shoes, boots must have at least a quarter inch heel, helmets are mandatory while riding, and, no, I repeat, no cigarettes anywhere near the barn; yet he seems at ease with his horses. The tack is well cared for, the leather looks supple and recently conditioned, and the horses are fat and healthy, a rarity in Central America. At least I got that much right when researching the barn.
“Then mount up, you’re late.”
And with that Hari turns his mount for the gate, not waiting for me to respond. I quickly adjust my stirrups, check the girth, and swing a leg up. As my weight settles into the well-worn saddle I can’t help but breathe a sigh of contentment. No matter how long I go away from horses I will always feel at home in the saddle. I guide my white mare down the cobblestone path, my hips swaying with her steady walk, my body remembering. It almost feels more natural for me to ride than to walk.
Once we are passed the gate, we urge our horses into a quick trot. The manicured lawn of the hacienda soon fades into the wilder verdant of the Nicaraguan jungle. Our horses pick their way expertly through the maze of half submerged rocks that passes as a road. Then at Hari’s command, “We have a volcano to ride around, we don’t have all day,” I gently ask my mare to canter. She sucks back, sullen about being asked to move faster. I tighten my leg around her generous middle, dig my heels in, and firmly remind her who makes the decisions around here. She cocks her head just enough that I can see the stubborn mind calculating behind those big brown eyes, sighs, and acquiesces.
“Not bad,” Hari calls back to me, his young stallion’s legs eating up the ground, already close to a gallop. “She can be a real brat with the tourists.”
I seem to have passed his test. The ride I am heading out on is an all-day tour of the north side of the island, a tour specifically for experienced riders. According to the website, riders need to be comfortable at all gaits, able to handle difficult horses, and strong enough to last in the saddle for the seven hours this ride may take. I had mentioned my prior equine accomplishments to Hari in our email exchange, but he seems to be more of the believe it when he sees it type of person.
“Don’t be afraid to let her move, she likes her head when she gallops.”
I raise my eyebrows, apparently, we are galloping now. I have only galloped rarely and with much caution due to the ease in which a rider can lose control at that speed, but today is not the day for caution. All it takes for my mare to decide she wants to race the wind is for Hari’s black mount to pick up speed, leaving us the options of being left in the dust or keeping pace. I loosen my reins, give my mare her head, and we start to fly. Her stride lengthens, her delicate legs nothing more than a blur beneath us, and then, for a moment, we are completely airborne. At a gallop, a four-beat gait, the fourth beat is pure bliss. The horse’s legs switch from full extension to full contraction and it is in that switch that all four hooves leave the ground, horse and rider suspended momentarily in a snapshot of flight.
I laugh to myself as I rise in the saddle, absorbing the increased speed with my slightly bent knees. What would my trainer think if she saw me now, galloping a strange horse helmet-less behind a crazy German dude in flip flops?
I smile wide into the wind and veer right, following Hari down a narrower path headed to the coast. The lush green of this jungle island encroaches on our path, the long tendrils of mango leaves whipping against my legs as we pass. Hari’s horse begins to slow and my mare follows suit, as if she’s done this before, as if she knows a break is coming. We dismount, tie the horses near a water hole, and, without so much as a word, Hari walks off again.
“Where are we going?” I call after him, trying to hurry despite the rocks blocking my way.
“Petroglyphs,” he grunts in response.
“What?” I am properly confused now. There was no mention of petroglyphs on the online tour description.
“There are petroglyphs near the lake,” he calls back, still moving toward the shoreline. Interesting, a full sentence from Hari. The fact that I have survived our hair-raising ride thus far must have risen me in his esteem.
It turns out he’s right, there are petroglyphs near the lake. Ancient carvings dot the large rocks that make up this island beach. Who knows how long it must have taken to carve these intricate swirls, the sharp lines that one day, long ago, meant something. It is almost sad now, to have that meaning lost to the ages. What did these markings once mean? Were they claims to land ownership or odes to a long-lost love? The romantic in me will always hope for the latter, for the most beautiful, artistic meaning. The cynic in me assumes they were probably just some ancient teenager’s graffiti.
After we and the horses have drunk our fill, us from a couple of bottles procured at a small tienda and them from the water hole, we are ready to continue our journey around Volcan Concepción, the massive volcano that makes up the center of this section of the island.
Then the heavens open.
The rain is coming down in buckets, a proper tropical summer thunderstorm, but Hari wastes no time in heading out into the deluge. I make a face and follow. The Southern California girl in me will never be fully comfortable in the rain. The heavy droplets quickly soak my thin hiking pants and the chaffing begins. My pants were not meant for horseback riding on a good day and this water is not helping anything. We are riding fast for the next stop, lunch at a restaurant half way around the island, and the speed is making the chaffing worse. I grit my teeth and keep riding through the pain. Who needs skin on your legs anyway?
By the time we arrive at the restaurant my inner thighs are raw and my ass feels like I’ve been sitting on sandpaper for the past three hours. The rain finally lets up as we drag our sodden selves into the nice, dry establishment. We sit on the porch so we can make sure the horses don’t get into too much trouble and promptly order two beers. Food is secondary when your legs are on fire.
A fat pig munches a fallen mango across the road, the horses poke and prod each other like insolent children, and I melt into my chair, preparing for a very quiet birthday lunch.
“So, why are you here?” Hari starts in as the beers arrive. I’m surprised he is interested in my life, up until now he’d been quite the stoic, silent guide.
“I was learning Spanish in Guatemala for six months, but now my boyfriend and I are traveling south over the next couple months,” I answer after swallowing that first mouthful of cold, hoppy goodness. The beer revives me as our conversation continues.
“I see, but where did you learn to ride?” Ah, now, it makes more sense, he wants to know the reason behind my sloppy lower leg.
“I’ve been riding since I was 8 and rode competitively for a couple of years in high school, but I haven’t been on a horse since I graduated university last year,” I answer, a flash of sadness in my eyes. Hari’s weathered face screws up in distrust, or is it surprise?
“You ride so much better than all the show jumping girls who come here. They think they are the best, but can’t handle a gallop. I didn’t think you’d be one of them.” A small bubble of pride climbs its way into my heart. He may be crazy, but I’m still happy he approves of my riding. He doesn’t strike me as a person to casually dole out compliments and, despite his appearance, his riding is solid, a lower leg that doesn’t move an iota of an inch, a seat that flows with the horse’s movement, and an upper body that equitation girls would envy.
The waiter comes and we order food, then more beer. We talk about Krystal, my old riding instructor who did not believe in fear and who taught me to find my own brand of fearlessness on horseback. We talk about his life growing up in a traditional German riding school and his rejection of all that for a laid-back life in Central America. We talk and talk and talk. His hard exterior fades into a kind, laughing smile as the beer flows. I’m surprised, but I find myself enjoying his company. Then, a bit more than an hour later, he abruptly checks his watch.
“Shiza, we need to be off if we want to make it back before sundown,” he curses as he signals the waiter for the bill. In an unanticipated gesture of kindness, he throws down enough cash for the whole meal and mutters, “Happy birthday by the way.”
A few hours latter we are slowly cantering in the direction of the barn, the speed a nod towards my ravaged legs. The sun shines through the clouds for the first time all day and I am happy, maybe a little tipsy too. Let’s just add that to the list of rules broken today. I’ve evaded death or serious injury this far, I think as we round what must be the final bend. I’ll be okay.
The rain begins again and we decide to race for home. My mare’s small hooves pound the muddy road, the wind whipping my rain soaked hair behind me, and I tip my face to the tumultuous sky. The rain drops sting as they splatter on my skin, their cold embraces a beautiful contrast to the muggy tropical air. The speed, the storm, and the beer are twisting together into such a vibrant painting of young, reckless life that I shout for joy, for the base pleasure of being alive, my muscles screaming along with the wind and rain.
I cannot contain my laughter as we race the rain all the way home, my body and my horse’s moving as one, the road flashing beneath us, two beings forever entwined in a moment, suspended in an eternal wild youth.
Later that night I am face first on the bed, white knuckles gripping the sheets as I try to suppress a scream while Kane cleans the wounds that now cover my legs, the skin red and raw from a birthday spent riding like a mad woman.
“Was it worth it?” Kane asks mid-bandaging, his kind hands trying to inflict as little pain as possible.
“Hell yes,” I reply, still grinning like a maniac, “best birthday ever.”