Friday, July 2, 2010
A flurry of activity began the morning today as the adults and older children packed their things in preparation to go in search of work harvesting coffee for a few days. I was sweeping the porch with my favorite green escoba when I heard animated yells from the top of the driveway where they were piling into the taxi. I put my broom down and went up to see what all the excitement was about; they were deciding whether to take their tiny dog Goliath and how best to pack the car. Teodoro asked me if I wanted to ride with them; ¿Adónde? I asked. Al cumbre, he said. You and I will come back here after the taxi ride..? I asked. Sí. At 8:00 AM I jumped in the taxi with them, carrying nothing but the clothes on my back.
Thirty minutes later we got out at the foot of a small trail that headed up the mountain and disappeared into the weeds. We walked for two minutes up the hill until Teodoro stopped and pointed his machete toward a place in the bushes to our right. El camino va por aquí, he said. Some people use the term camino more loosely than others, I suppose. The entrance to said camino was marked by an outcropping of vines that romantically draped over the trees and undergrowth, framing what was perhaps a “trail” that someone used once, a long time ago. Or perhaps not. The metalic clang of Teodoro's machete led the way as we scrambled over fallen trees, crawled on all fours under long spans of tangled, thorny vines, and grabbed onto tree trunks to pull ourselves up dangerously steep slopes. The humidity and shade of the jungle cooled the air as we reached the cumbre and headed down the other side of the mountain. As the cumbre disappeared behind a dense cloak of jungle disarray, I didn't even bother to ask Teo if the two of us would be turning around soon; I already knew the answer. Nothing here is ever as you're told it will be...the ability to thrive in spontaneity is a requisite survival skill.
After bushwhacking through the jungle for over an hour, the eight of us plus Goliath emerged into a newly cleared agricultural field. And by cleared I mean the trees had been felled and left haphazardly where they lay, and by agricultural field I mean the side of a mountain. Squat, one-year old banana trees and coffee plants were the only things that gave marginal order to the surrounding environment. A plethora of weeds had taken the rare opportunity of full sunshine to flourish amidst the fallen trunks and sapling crops. Though our destination at the far edge of the field was no more than 400 meters from where we emerged from the jungle, the climbing and scrambling that our rugged terrain demanded hindered our pace; it took us nearly forty five minutes to cross. Waiting for us on the other side of the field was a mature cafetal (coffee farm) that spread evenly over the steep, slippery slopes that we traversed. Shade trees towered overhead, hosting all manner of colorful birds with colorful songs. Mandarin and orange trees mingled with tall healthy-looking coffee trees whose thin branches bore shiny, dark green leaves and arched under the weight of an abundance of beautiful cranberry-colored coffee cherries. I picked one and stuck my thumbnail through the skin; sticky sweet juice oozed from the thin layer of clear flesh that surrounded the valuable pit...the bean that runs America.
Around eleven o'clock the ground started to level a bit and we approached a house. Through the trees I saw several members of a family surrounding rickety rectangular dryer screens that sat on wooden stilts in front of the house. They had their heads bent low and their hands moved quickly as they sorted through the white coffee beans that lay drying in the sun. Teodoro told us to wait in the forest as he approached the owners of the cafetal to inquire about work. We made ourselves cozy in the shade and dug into the load of oranges the kids had picked that morning at the Casa del Cafe. Twenty minutes later Teodoro came back to announce that this farm was not looking for workers but that there were perhaps some farms up the road that were. Weathered hands paused and quiet heads raised from their work; dark eyes squinted against the sun in unfriendly stares as seven Bolivians and a Gringa emerged from the forest behind the house and walked down the driveway to the road. 800 meters up the road, Teodoro announced, we should find work there. As we walked we helped ourselves to mandarinas and oranges from trees that were brimming with fruit; we passed small houses with owners washing and sorting coffee beans, and on all sides we saw the beautiful green trees heavy with red fruit as far as the eye could see. Despite the apparent abundance of work to be done on these cafetals, no one we passed was looking for workers. As we walked, Cooper and Dalila kept happily saying, “Who would have ever thought we'd be here in Caranavi, paseando (walking) con una Americana...con la Catereeeeen...”
Around 12:00 Teodoro told us to wait while he went ahead to see what he could find. Oranges were again enjoyed as we sat in the shade waiting for word. When he returned at 12:30 with no news of work, we decided to have lunch and head home. With their fingers they dug into the pot of meat, rice, and potatoes Delila had cooked that morning and insisted on giving me a plate with rice and potatoes (para la Catereeeen, la vegetariana...). Truthfully I somehow was not terribly hungry and the heavy beef flavor in the rice was perhaps more than my vegetarian palate could manage. Feeling like the potatoes might be a safer bet, I bit into one, revealing a grape-sized dark brown lump. I brushed my finger across it and the casing fell in half, exposing a fat pink grub nestled inside. Gag reflex. For the next fifteen minutes I revisited my old childhood habit of squishing and spreading the food out on my plate and (oops!) pushing some over the edge, hoping it would look like I had eaten more than the few grains of rice and one bite of potato I had actually consumed of the food they had so graciously shared with me.
Nourished (or not) and rested, we returned to the road, this time headed back in the direction from which we came. The day was beautiful, the company was lighthearted and fun, and the scenery was movie-worthy. I kept reminding myself of where I was and what I was doing, not wanting a single minute to pass without appreciating the experience in its entirety. As we retraced our steps, the banter continued between the seven Bolivians and the Gringa. Though I had been regularly partaking in the orange chupas to stay hydrated and had consequently made a few stops in the bushes, my status and abilities in the eyes of the group had risen to super-human levels of which I was certainly not deserving. Look how easily she walks, they'd say. It's like she's not even trying! She doesn't ever need to rest! Or eat! She doesn't even need to pee.They sure do make 'em strong in the U.S. I bet the bugs don't bite her either. Do the bugs bite you Catereeeen? Yes the bugs bite me. ...But they don't do any damage, Teodoro quickly interjected, her body is strong like iron and her skin is impenetrable like fine metal....nothing can harm it. I stared at him blankly, not quite sure what I had done over the weeks to earn such a bionic reputation. Aaahhhh, they said. No wonder she looks so healthy...nothing can harm her. Kryptonyte, perhaps. We passed a black raspberry bush set high up on the hillside adjacent to the road. Afra was beside herself with excitement. I watched as she struggled to lower a branch with a long stick; when it became clear that this strategy would not work, I suddenly remembered that I am a foot and a half taller than her and offered my assistance. She lowered the stick and looked at me while momentarily considering my offer. Sí, pues....como eres gigante... (Well yes...since you're giant...); she backed away to give me room and I quickly jumped and grabbed the branch. Yup, raspberry bushes have thorns in Bolivia too. It's a good thing, to be honest...for a little while there I was actually starting to think I might get through a day without drawing blood; no worries though, yet again the jungle put me in my place. I dolled out the raspberries and lagged behind the group as I dislodged at least a dozen thorns from my fingers and palms. Addendum: kryptonyte and thorns.
As the afternoon wore on, our pace became slower and stops became more frequent, as if everyone else's ability to get themselves home was somehow inversely proportional to my ravenous state of hunger. At 4:00 we reached the road where the taxi had dropped us off. There we rested. We walked for ten minutes before resting again. I had to work hard to quell my impatience. We walked thirty minutes down the road before Teodoro ran into someone he knew and disappeared into their house...wait for me down the road, he said. When he finally emerged twenty minutes later I was pretty well ready to implode as I fought basic instinct to attack that which stood between me and my food. We set out anew and within minutes Teodoro lagged behind again to chat with someone else. Thankfully the rest of the group continued on; Cristian, the rambunctious thirteen year old quickened his pace and I gladly matched it. As the two of us pulled away from the rest of the group, I daydreamed about how incredibly delicious my cold meal of tuna, canned peas, and stale bread would be upon my return.
At 5:30, nine and a half hours after boarding the taxi to head to the cumbre, we finally arrived back at the house. The kids who had stayed behind ran joyously up to us, surprised and elated by our return. What do you want to play?! They asked. I could barely muster a smile and Cristian thankfully answered for the both of us: We're tired. We don't want to play. I went straight to my room and dug in to the meal I had been salivating over for a good hour and a half.
As it turns out, canned peas are always terrible no matter how hungry you are...