Tuesday July 20, 2010
Apparently the roosters in Chijchipani were well behaved as poultry goes; at 1 o'clock in the morning I found myself quite envious of the leisurely 3:30 AM wake-up call that was customary at the Casa del Cafe. Shrill territorial cackles made their rounds through the village, rising over a more localized banter of high-pitched squeaks coming from above; every ten seconds or so the unpleasant chorus was interrupted by a loud, reverberating bang as a bat clumsily entered the lair from his nighttime rendezvous (I thought they used sonar...?). I wished for daylight and fumbled through my pack to find my earplugs.
At 4:30 AM a dance party commenced at the house behind the Centro de Acopio. Or at least that's the only reason I can possibly imagine that anyone in their right mind would ever crank such intense bass-throbbing music at such an unholy hour of the morning. My soft foam earplugs were no match for the natural amplifier that was the concrete, cavernous, and largely empty Centro de Acopio. I grabbed my headlamp and shuffled sideways through the door into the damp night where I was instantly greeted by ferocious growling and barking from somewhere in the surrounding darkness. I did not take the time to locate the source and hurriedly slid back into the safety of the warehouse and shut the door; the bathroom could wait. Instead I put my double-X chromosomes to work unpacking and organizing my belongings into something that resembled a (temporary) home. Aside from the concrete floor, to help with this endeavor I had four small chairs, a pile of junk that was capped with a Coleman-like double burner camping stove (alas, no fuel), and the far edges of my gymnastics-mat-turned-bed. What I did not have was electricity, a (working) stove to cook on, or internet service despite my fancy Tigo USB drive. Luckily I hadn't really expected any of those predictions to come true anyway; I know better by now. I stacked and stowed various items that I would be using with frequency and left the rest in my pack.
The azure glow of dawn finally illuminated my windows and I tried my luck one more time with the door. Again I was met by aggressive canine warnings; I retreated slightly until I noticed that the source of the ruckus had his tail between his legs. I took a step towards him and the barking crescendoed, but backpedaling paws betrayed his feigned confidence. A few more steps in his direction made him turn on his heels and bark his way deep into the jungle. I took a first look at my surroundings: a scruffy lawn stretched out in front of me until it abruptly ended in a mess of weedy bushes. There, a worn dirt road materialized to the left of the patch and a narrow footpath swept to the right. The smell of wood smoke hung in the air and the faint sounds of children and cooking floated over a thin line of greenery that separated me from my neighbors. I looked off in the distance to see that the fog from the previous day's journey had pursued me up the mountain: a ghostly mist enshrouded the cascading hills in front of me and a thick swath of low hanging clouds blew steadily overhead to settle into the valley to my right. I was looking forward to exploring.
After getting ready, I ate breakfast, grabbed a newspaper I had picked up in La Paz, and waited. At 7:45 Lucio's head appeared, bobbing above the weeds as he plodded along the footpath; he wore stained khaki pants that were tightly rolled at the ankles against the mud, a dirty white t-shirt, and a taupe hand-knit sweater vest. A silver-dollar sized hole was worn through the vest just to the right of where it stretched over the beginnings of a middle-aged pot-belly. Heavy boots dangled oddly at the end of his legs as he walked, as if their weight alone was fueling his forward motion by inertia. His face was weathered and looked tired, but both of these attributes quickly faded when he stopped in front of me and an easy, goofy smile rose from the corners of his lips. Buenos deeeeas, Ingeniera...did you sleep well? “Yes, yes, of course!” I lied. Out of respect they've christened me Ingeniera (“Engineer”); I'm not exactly sure why, as I'm certainly not an engineer...but I go with it (¿Cómo se llama? Catereeeeen, I say. Aaaahh, que nombre mas bonito tienes, Ingeniera. (what a pretty name you have, Ingeniera)). He asked me if anyone had brought my breakfast by yet. My mind cringed; not only was I a little wary at the idea of eating food prepared by someone who most likely is not overly concerned with the virtues of handwashing, but more importantly, knowing the depth of their poverty I was bound and determined to be as small of a burden as possible while I was here. I tried to assure him that I wouldn't be needing breakfast, that I had brought my own food and had already eaten. He smiled and said, not to worry, Ingeniera, Gregorio will be bringing you your breakfast by any minute now. Right...
Together we worked out my schedule for the next two weeks; each day I would be working with at least two, sometimes up to four farmers, harvesting, washing, peeling, eating, living, and breathing coffee. I scheduled in time to go to Caranavi on the first Saturday, and Lucio explained that during my second Sunday there, the region would begin their Fiestas Patrias festivities of dos de agosto (Patriot's Day, 2nd of August) (read: everyone will be too busy dancing and drinking to be driving their taxis into Caranavi, making my planned Monday departure back to La Paz impossible). We decided it would be better if I took off a couple days early. Not sure what to expect of the next two weeks here and conscious of the multitude of unfamiliar discomforts I had run into in the last twelve hours, I was content to agree with shortening my stay by 48 hours.
A short while later a small, happy man in flip-flops appeared on the dirt road; he carried a plate and a steaming cup. I assumed him to be breakfast-bearing Gregorio. ¡Buen día, Ingeniera! He said while pressing the plate and cup into my hands. Aquí tiene su desayunito, I'll be back in fifteen minutes. I smiled big and sputtered gracias...mucheeeeeesimas gracias about ten times while lowering my head into a series of quick short bows (apparently I thought I was in Asia)--trying every way I knew how to show my gratitude for the food that he and his family were sharing with me. He disappeared around the bend, leaving me standing in the lawn holding a plate piled high with copious amounts of rice and potatoes and a solitary egg on top. There was no doubt that the egg came from one of the hundreds of chickens that wandered about the town scratching and pecking its way across the dirt; its fluid yolk shone a radioactive shade of tangy yellow that only comes from a healthy diet of grubs and greens. Over the course of my time in San Ignacio I would learn to be grateful for those chickens for many reasons. Not only did they provide incredible eggs, but they were also more than willing to hungrily snatch up the evidence of anything that I could (or would) not eat. My problem was most often the former: at each sitting, Bolivians eat about three times what my grazer's stomach is accustomed to; it didn't seem to matter how many times I told everyone that I'm not a big eater...plates continued to arrive piled high with more starch than I could ever hope to consume.
I followed Gregorio down the main dirt (mud) road, up short stack of steep earthen (muddy) stairs, and around a winding, dirt (mud) trail up the mountain through the forest. We stopped at a tiny run-down shack in a small clearing to pick up a handful of harvesting paraphernalia, continued up the mountain for another fifteen minutes, and finally stopped. We'll work here today, he said, handing me a small tarp and instructing me how to tie the four corners into two knots and sling one knot onto each shoulder. He then gave me a small purse and instructed me to wear it diagonally across my body with the pouch on the opposite side as the tarp sling. I followed him to the nearest tree. He plucked two fistfulls of coffee cherries for demonstration; in the first hand the cherries were perfect specimens: the deep cranberry red skin was unblemished and unbroken. Cafes especiales, he said with a nod. Normally, these would go in the big bag, pero porque la lluvia ha fregado todo...(but because the rain has ruined everything...), they'll go in the small bag today. He opened his other hand to show me precisely how the rain had ruined everything: like any other fruit, too much rain spells doom for coffee; the once prefect skin had split and turned black along the opened edges; fermentation had set in. When the bean is exposed to air in this way its flavor changes, and it can no longer be considered specialty coffee. Gregorio explained that this coffee would be sold as regular organic coffee in the local market. We harvested for three hours, chatting and laughing the whole time; Gregorio is quite a character. At midday his wife and their two smallest children joined us and we ate lunch: more rice and potatoes and a nice big hunk of chicken. To refuse perfectly good food amongst such poverty simply because I choose not to eat meat seemed like an overly privileged and spoiled thing to do; I put my big girl pants on and dealt with it. After a solid six years of vegetarianism, the tough, well-exercised meat of these very free-range chickens did not go down easy, but I slowly worked my way through it bit by bit. My efforts at politeness paid off: after lunch Gregorio and his wife gifted me the baby.
|Lucio washing coffee|
The afternoon involved more hiking, more harvesting, and more hilarity, this time with Lucio. He and his wife had an ease of conversation about them and they enjoyed poking fun at everything about me from my shoes to my grammar; they had me in stitches for the entire afternoon while we worked. In the evening all of the men in the village convened outside of the Centro de Acopio so we could communicate to everyone my itinerary. While waiting for the last few stragglers to arrive the men asked all sorts of questions about Americans and the United States. Chief among them were a) why are Americans all so tall, and b) how much does abc or xyz cost in the U.S.? I wasn't quite sure what to say when the men laughed about how the value of my round-trip tickets from Boston to Bolivia was equal to two full years of income for the average family of 6 in San Ignacio. I thus had even more drive to make sure I was not a burden on their lives during my stay; before the business portion of the gathering commenced, I reiterated my sentiments from earlier in the day to Lucio. He chuckled his good-natured Lucio chuckle, said Okay, Ingeniera, and ten minutes later I listened to him instruct the group that I was to be fed breakfast, lunch, or dinner by whomever I was working with when mealtime struck. I stared at him. Frankly I should have known better; trying to tell a Hispanic not to feed you is about like trying to tell your cattle-raising southern grandmother that you no longer eat meat: first he'll take personal offense that you don't want his food, then he'll quote the Bible to give you a number of concrete examples as to why you really should eat his food, and then he'll decide that you can't possibly be serious and will go ahead and serve you anyway. Not hungry...? Pshhh. Not hungry. You must be absolutely starved to be so delirious, for heaven's sake. Have some pot roast.
Exhausted after a night of almost no sleep and a full day's work, I crashed into bed shortly after the meeting ended at 7:30. Unfortunately, sleep was again not in the cards for me: at 11:30 I was awakened by an ominous pain that had taken hold in my stomach; apparently my well-intentioned meals from the village today were laced with a little something extra. The agitated churning rose well above the bat chatter and I set up camp on the concrete outside, anticipating a long night ahead.