The Reality in the Rows

There are several sentences in this paragraph that need to be set to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song. Now this is the story all about how my weekend got flipped, turned upside down and I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there. I lay in bed on a Saturday morning, relishing the sunlight angularly splayed across my bed. My phone rings, I spring up and quickly answer it. I had anticipated this call as the night sky over Quetzaltenango erupted with dendritic shafts of lightning and a long anticipated deluge of water. I pick up my clothes off the floor and stuff papers into a backpack and run into the street, headlong into the maize planting season in the communities around Suchitepéquez, Guatemala. I whistle for a bus and as it comes near the windshield says “Lopez” and it has Jesus  in the mirror. If anything, I could say that this bus was rare. But I think nah, forget it. ¡Oye vos a Reu!

My curly hair expands outward as the magic school bus slowly immerses me in the coastal humidity. I get dropped off by the bus a kilometer shy of the mechanic’s shop where I will pick up the old champion of a Suzuki that I use in the field. I am walking against traffic in frustration until I hear someone shout:

‘Gringo!’ from across the road.

He runs to the curb with a mango in each hand. We stare at each other from across the road until there is a break in traffic. I run over and he hands me the mangos.

‘Por el camino.’ For the road he says through a smile.

IMG_3464I begin a pothole dodging drive, occasionally spraying rusty water out to the sides as the road itself becomes one large, unavoidable pothole. I shout out the window occasionally at teenagers on mopeds;  there is no time for patience when it comes to agriculture. A slate blanket of clouds smothers the fallow fields; men walk with purpose carrying machetes and hand hewn planting sticks.

I pass through Cuyotenango, prostitutes lean and leer from cantina doors in the early morning. A drunk pauses as I approach, staring into my eyes, the whites of his eyes cast against the backdrop of the brilliant blood pouring down his face. Nobody else seems concerned.

I currently work for a farmer to farmer organization that works with smallholders farmers on the Guatemalan Pacific coast to improve agriculture, livelihoods and food security IMG_3475through small scale experimentation. Farmers in this area of Guatemala, Suchitepequez and Retalhuleu, generally plant maize (corn) and sesame in soil depleted from years of intensive cotton monocropping that proceeded the land grants that occurred during or after the civil war. Sesame is planted purely for export, and maize for both sale and consumption. I am planting two different varieties of maize with the farmers that are nutritionally superior to the varieties that are currently planted in this region: Quality Protein Maiz and ICTA Maya. Farmers in this region traditionally only have access to information regarding seeds, chemicals, pests and weeds from rarely seen government officials or self-interested representatives from Monsanto or Disagro. We are trying to offer an alternative: I have collaborated with 15-20 farmers to set up small experiments on their parcels with the aims of introducing them to the experimentation process and these varieties of maize. We have been through the process of measuring and marking the experiment in the field; I am rushing to the coast to assist with planting to both monitor their experiments and to take part in the ritual.

I rattle through the shady tunnel created by a finca of Palma Africana; the symmetry is both beautiful and disgusting. My feeling is similar with regard to the strange smelling water that hits and cools my face from the sprinklers that line the roadside. I try to make it out to the field of Paula Jimenez in 2wd, but I am quickly mired in deep, slick mud as farmers knowingly snicker as they pass on bicycles. I wade out into the mud and lock the hubs, before emerging in a spray of mud.

IMG_3441I park the car before one daunting pit where a horse drawn cart wallows. I proceed on foot. I arrive late to Paula’s field, something that I see as a positive cultural adaptation to Guatemala on my part. I watch the farmers wander their fields, barefeet caked in black. I quickly come to understand the custom as I suddenly feel quite Dutch as my shoes are transformed into four inch clogs. I measure and remark an already planted experiment and make plans to return the following day to finish the planting of Paula’s field.

The day is fading quickly and I need to find somewhere to eat, somewhere to sleep and then be back here before 6am. I pass by a few other homes on my way out of town to check up on planting plans, navigating roads riven by rivulets. I eat five empanadas on the roadside, situate myself in the municipal building of a small town called Lupita and cool myself by dumping bowls of water on myself under a constant cacophony of grackles.

I sit reading Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut under a single dangling lightbulb as I am assailed by mosquitos. In amusement I read, ‘Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.’

I hear a polite knock on the screen door and Daniel, Treasurer of the local development organization, pulls up a chair. We talk about the organization where I work and the challenges that Guatemala faces. Daniel explains the history of the village: Lupita was founded 17 years earlier by refugees returning for Mexico as the Guatemalan Civil War drew to a close in 1996. The founders came from indigenous communities in the highlands: Quiche, Quetzaltenango and San Marcos. There are still six different languages spoken in the community. The community has benefited from a high degree of organization, despite the cultural diversity. Community organization here is synonymous with agricultural organization; this has allowed the town to prosper through coordinated development projects.

Daniel sums up the government development and agricultural extension programs that visit the town by saying the following: ‘They love talking, but hate to get their boots dirty. We learn in the fields, we learn by doing. They pass out sheets about how to do technical things, like make organic fertilizer, to people who cannot read, then a farmer tries to do it and it doesn’t work because they didn’t understand how to apply it because it was never demonstrated. Everyone then thinks that organic fertilizer doesn’t work. It happens all of the time; I don’t even want to ask the community to gather for trainings or meetings from the government anymore. The people have no confidence in them and most of the time just hope to receive free fertilizer.’

‘How should an organization try to help people and make lasting change here?’

‘You should work closely with a few people that can create good examples. Show us what you’re talking about, show us the benefits. I went to university and studied agriculture, came back, and then tried to convince my father to try using organic fertilizer. He wouldn’t . If I showed him how to do it he might try it, but how does anyone expect to show up as an outsider and convince anyone of anything with words? You need to build trust and a relationship with the people and then they will listen to you.’

Nuevos Bracitios, Suchitepéquez, Guatemala

I wake up to the same raucous cackling, the intensity increasing as dawn nears. I throw my things in the car in a somnambulant daze and take off. The sky is light as I park in front of the house belonging to a friend named Catocho in Nuevos Bracitos. I slap him on the back as he mixes his seed with a treatment to combat pests, a neon yellow substance called Blindage, with a grin on his face. We sit down for a bowl of black beans and deep yellow tortillas made from a native variety of corn. Catocho and his wife were brought together, in my mind, by one defining and hilarious mannerism: they scream to communicate. They will shout at you from across the table about a mango or to offer you a delicious, cold drink.

Catocho began working in the cotton fincas at the age of six years old, something that was normal in the 1970s. He grew to be a man who is constant motion and energy, words coming out of his mouth in torrents punctuated with laughter. He is off to an early start today, spinning tales of bad harvests and about the time they accidentally planted all of the rows maize diagonally. Everyone is in high spirits; there is an energy in the fields and houses that is a release after months of anticipation.

IMG_3455The fields in every direction are filled with men, women and children thrusting planting sticks into the ground made soft by the rain. They expertly cast two kernels into each hole before gently covering it.  I  measure several parcels, help plant one and then head out to help Catocho. I leave the car at an impassable mudhole and walk through the fields with my machete, a few sticks and some twine. I pull off my shoes and fill up a plastic container that I sling off my hip with seed.  We plant seed that will yield hundreds of pounds of food nourished by the sun, rain and soil…..well and copious amounts of chemicals. The fields are  littered with colorful plastic bottles from frequently fertilizer and pesticide applications, the water in one puddle glows bright blue. The poor soils and imbalanced ecosystem here have lead to an unhealthy reliance on chemicals, both economically and physically, to yield a decent harvest.

We work silently, each in our own row. It is a meditative exercise for me; Catocho talks on his cell phone and still plants quicker than me.

‘I didn’t hire anyone. I just have one slow gringo.’ He looks over at me grinning.

After planting, we head back to Catocho’s house to eat lunch. Catocho quickly bathes and changes before we sit down to eat. His wife Gaby has set the table beautifully, in keeping with the auspiciousness of the day.

I check up on a few more parcels before Humberto, an agronomist with whom I work, and I rush out towards Conrado de La Cruz to mark a parcel there, racing against the fading day. Mango trees line the road, holding the last of the season’s bounty, much to my dismay as I often pick mangos out of the car window for lunch. I get out of the car at one point and wade out into a flowing stream,  which comes midway up my thigh, to make sure it is passable. I think that I learned this from Oregon Trail. I shrug at Humberto and he grins before plowing the truck into the chocolaty flow.  The fan slaps the water and the truck billows steam as it roars through the waterhole.

Linea A-13, La Maquina, Suchitepéquez, Guatemala

The rains are late here.  A-13 falls within the ‘dry corridor,’ something that local belief holds to have resulted from severe deforestation. I pass the following week in waiting, clouds perpetually looming in the distance. I mark parcels amidst the smell of rain and rumbling in the distance. I ask all of the farmers if it is going to rain and they always answer optimistically while looking at the sky.

The week passes without rain. On Friday morning I am awakened by a soft blob bludgeoning me in the face, interrupting my slumber in a bed made of straw.

‘What the fuck!’ I shout in confusion in the pitched black, windowless room.

I frantically grab around my face to confront my assailant. I grab a roughly textured, cool blob that takes both hands to corral before it urinates on me. I toss it on the floor.

‘What is it? What was that?’ Humberto inquires in concern from the floor where he lies.

‘A toad!’

‘What did you do with it?’

‘I put it on the floor.’ I start laughing.

‘You mean where I am sleeping?’

‘Yeah.’ He starts laughing as well.

To this day it remains a mystery how this toad got into the room, how it got onto the bed, how it gained enough force to bludgeon me from above with substantial force. There is simply no way realistic explanation. I briefly harbor suspicions that maybe Humberto is responsible, but I dismiss them as paranoid.

The one thing that I think that I, along with every witch or shaman, would agree upon is that this is a sign that it will rain today. I check a few more parcels and then wait. The sky unleashes a torrent all over Southern Guatemala that night, setting in motion the last round of planting.

IMG_3490The sky is clear, the cones of the volcanoes idyllically hang over the fields as the farmers plant a crop derived from a grass thousands of years ago; a sacred ceremony under volcanoes that have been shrouded in clouds for months. I plow through puddles once again, frantically answering phone calls regarding planting from all directions. I visited planted parcels in the morning and then plant all afternoon. Stab, throw, step, cover.

I eat dinner with Humberto at a family’s home in a town called Willy Woods. We repeat a ritual that keeps both of us contented in the field: eating stacks of ember toasted tortillas in Rosaura’s smoke filled kitchen. Chickens, a cat and a few puppies mill the room. I snicker to myself as Rosaura always makes noises at them and softly yells at them to get out, but never actually does anything about it.

IMG_3497The following morning we rise in the darkness to canvas different areas. I check two experiments before arriving at Cirilo’s house in A-13. We treat the seeds with a different neon blue treatment and then start planting with his sons; the four of us work two different rows, each one starting at an opposite end. We quickly shift the ropes and my inefficiency shines.

IMG_3499‘Let’s go to Los Angeles.’ Cirilo declares in jest.

‘Why? Do you want to plant corn there?’

‘No, I want to see the skyscrapers.’

‘I think we should go plant corn there instead.’

IMG_3501We finish up and scrub the pesticides off of our hands.  I decapitate a coconut and devour a mango, filling my beard with orange flesh. I get into the car in excited exhaustion, chickens and iguanas scatter as I clatter and clunk down the dirt roads of A-13.

What awaits these people? It is a question that is increasingly tied to the question of what happens to us, to the earth in general. The problems that Guatemala currently faces have not arisen overnight, but they are increasingly more apparent and exacerbated by our interconnected world. Inequality, resource scarcity, expanding populations and environmental degradation are universal problems that cannot be contained by borders, yet we live within an economic and political order that is currently structurally unsuited to deal with complex, global problems. I feel that, as individuals, we are left with several options:

1. Live in a solipsistic world and deny the reality of these problems.

2. Defer to some other hypothetical man’s infinite ingenuity as justification for personal inaction. To look towards technology as a solution to the problems that technology causes.

3. Recognize the reality of these problems.

  • Do nothing in despair/perception that one’s locus of control is limited.
  • Make mindful choices in your personal life each day to try and create a better world.
  • Actively work to create a better world using increasing interconnectedness; economically, socially, politically, informationally; to foster a counterbalance to these externalities.

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