I grew up in Brooklyn, New York…

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and though I’ve been fortunate enough to live in several places and report from several different regions, I can’t say that I’ve really ever spent that much time around farm animals. I saw a pig maybe once in my life, when I was a kid I think. I drink milk religiously (I have a process where I leave a glass to chill in the fridge so it’s nice and cold, but instead of using it for beer, I use it for milk), but I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve straight up hung out with a cow.

For one of our stories, my colleague Yana and I traveled out to countryside villages to interview villagers and farmers to report on the intersection of climate change and women’s empowerment. Many of these interviews took place in people’s homes, squat structures made of clay or red earth that had maybe two rooms at best. Behind their houses were where they kept their livestock: cows, pigs, roosters, chickens. At one point there was even a turkey. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a live turkey before (and sadly all I could think when I saw him that Thanksgiving was just days away).

I sat down to interview one of our subjects, and for whatever reason thought it would be totally fine to position my chair directly in front of their cow’s pen. About halfway through the interview, I felt a warm breath on the back of my neck. A few seconds later, a tongue dabbed the base of my neck, almost like someone who was trying ice cream for the first time. Then, before I could turn around, I felt the cow’s entire tongue lick my neck. I couldn’t do anything but laugh. Had someone told me just like…six months ago that I’d be working with a photographer to report on a story in rural Rwanda, I don’t know that I would have believed them. I still can’t believe this trip happened. It was the fastest few weeks of our lives. “Can you believe that was just the other day?” we’d say to one another over breakfast or dinner. Time has a way of doing that to you, of making you feel like you’ve had an infinity of lives, each one punctuated by a burst of reality that brings you from one chapter to the next.

Turns out the cow thing was a bit of an issue on my departure from Rwanda. Not only did the cow try to give me a bath, but it found the need to shower my backpack with its saliva. Well, that send the airport security dogs wild. How could I explain that I was not hiding a cow in my small daypack but instead that a cow had left its mark on my bag?

That was one of many questions I had when I left Rwanda, but the bigger question I left with is, “When can I come back?”

–Alexandra Petri