My Mind In The Clouds

IMG_3222 I decided, once again to the chagrin of everyone in my life, to abandon my course, to follow my instincts and remain in this place so vastly different from anywhere else on earth, a place that felt like home the moment I arrived years ago, a place that gives breathing room to my mind and dreams. The pulse of the beating heart of the Maya can still be felt in the highlands of Guatemala. I am on some acknowledgedly interminable quest search for something that I cannot phrase in words, something that I experience in fleeting moments that arise under unreplicable circumstances.

I stare out the window, maybe a little bit high on diesel fumes, of an old American schoolbus that moves to the beat of reggaeton. Guatemala is an amazing and strange intersection between traditional culture and modernity, I watch a woman board the bus carrying a basket on her head with a cellphone against her ear. In Xecam,  I hop out the back door, something that still makes me giddy after enduring a childhood of prohibition, and begin hiking my way upwards towards Nueva Xetinimit. This trail has been used since time immemorial to traverse the IMG_3233highlands, it was hewn by the feet of thousands of K’iche’ villagers, the feet of guerillas during the civil war and the well shod feet of those who want to see a Guatemala  from a different perspective. The K’iche’ are an indigenous cultural and linguistic group numbering an estimated 1.3 million people spread throughout the highlands of Guatemala, one of over 23 extant native languages. The long dry season is nearing its end; dust billows out from under my feet with each step. I step to the side of the trail into the pines as mules pass, straining under loads of firewood that arc over their backs. Men hurry alongside with machete in hand, we smile and greet one another with a long drawn out Buenos deeeeas that I learned to mimic after spending months crisscrossing the altiplano as a guide for a non-profit, volunteer run trekking agency that supports local social projects called Quetzaltrekkers in 2008.

The trail opens up into fallow fields furrowed and sown with maize that await the rain. A few moribund pines dot the landscape, the sheetmetal roofs of Nuevo Xetinimit shimmer in the distance. I walk thinking about how to capture this place that I love deeply. I greet a family working in their milpa and gaze out over the fields blotched with cloud shadows. I love this place because… grrrr….FUCK! I feel something clamp down on my ankle and instinctively break it loose and drive my foot directly into the cloud of fur and dust whirling around my feet. I shout obscenities, pick of a fistful of dust and impotently fill the air with a cloud of dust aimed at the retreating dreadlocked mongrel. The family dispassionately shouts as a friendly gesture, but we quickly break out into laughter after a moment. No rabies..no rabies..The only casualty is my sock.

IMG_3224I walk into Nuevo Xetinimit and approach two women sitting alongside a deep, dusty scar that cuts through the overgrazed and overworked plain. I greet them in one of the few K’iche’ words that I know, saqui’rik. I ask them how they are doing and they respond in K’iche’ accompanied with a hand gesture that says someone is going to come who speaks Spanish.

The farmers here, as in much of the highlands, scratch out an existence by planting maize, beans and potatoes in marginal soils on steep mountainsides. They hand plant, harvest firewood for cooking and live in simple adobe or block homes. They lead a precarious existence; it is a harsh landscape where there is either too much water or not enough. In the end of October 1998, Hurricane Mitch dropped a years worth of rain that fell nearly horizontal with high winds. The cornfields that provide the year’s sustenance were destroyed by the wind and water. Above Xetinimit the deforested landscape and sloped fields gave way, unleashing a torrent of rock and mud that left dozens of houses destroyed and two lives lost. Central America was left reeling.

Most of the villagers left to try again elsewhere and Nueva Xetinimit was born. Multiple families shared small houses for years as they tried to get back on their feet, there was nowhere else to go. Several children from this area have have passed through a school for children who would not otherwise have access to education called Escuela de la Calle in Quetzaltenango. Escuela de la Calle and Hogar Abierto are the primary projects that the funds generated by Quetzaltrekkers  fund. Quetzaltrekkers maintains close relationships with many of the communities through which trekking trails pass: in Nueva Xetinimit alone guides have joined forces to build a bridge, donate bicycles and provide school supplies.

Manuel Grinning in the Tunnel
Manuel Grinning in the Tunnel

What am I doing here? The village has spent that past 240 days working collectively to carve tunnels into the hillside in search of potable water. A project they undertook on faith, someone had an intuition that they would find water here. They dug two tunnels between 5-10 meters in length into the hillside, each one 1.5m high by 1m wide, before they found two trickling veins of ground water. Manuel, our liaison with the women’s committee tasked with building the project hands a

La Lavadera
La Lavadera

candle out to me and points towards the tunnel. It feels like an affront to my manliness, I grab the dainty candle and plod my way through the running water, crouching as I move further into the darkness and feel a rising panic as I think about the mass of earth towering over my head. Here, right now? In this tunnel? What if I died? They spent months in this tunnel, it is fine. But everything is fine until it isn’t fine anymore! I am too large! I feel like Alice. I try and balance myself against the ceiling and walls, but worry that this will only weaken the structure. I look and see Manuel’s grin lit by his cellphone at the end of the tunnel. He points to the water as it emerges from nowhere. I awkwardly turn around, quickly moving towards the light. Always move towards the light.

The guides from Quetzaltrekkers have agreed to provide the necessary materials to fortify the water source and carry water to the lavadera below. I am there simply to help facilitate the project. The lavadera is a washing station that currently sits almost empty, but will serve as a source of water for household consumption for several dozen families who currently walk several hundred meters to retrieve water.

Six women are clustered around the washing station as I approach, soaping, rubbing and rinsing the days wash. I am often cynical about aid from a theoretical perspective, critical about dependency and the inability of aid to achieve lasting results, yet I look on and imagine clear, potable water pouring out of a pipe and the effect that it will have on these women’s lives; it is a beautiful image.

I run back down to Xecam with a rock in each fist, ready for the cantankerous cur that never appears.
Victor
Victor

On a crisp and clear Xela morning I walk out the door of Casa Argentina with Santi, a guide, to find our friend Victor leaning against his pickup truck with a new dapper mustache above an unsmiling mouth and mirrored shades. He says nothing as we approach, until I stick my hand out.

‘Les gusta el new look?’ He bursts forth and starts cracking up.
We pile into the back of his pickup truck and head out to Tubofort. I think about the name Tubofort on the ride there, going back and forth: pipes are definitely sold there, but it isn’t a fort. Fort is also not a word in Spanish. I ultimately decide that the name is great: succinct, yet it has some flair. We wrangle and rope three dozen 6 meter PVC tubes into the back of the truck I sit in the back and watch Xela fade away as we head up to…Alaska?… the strangely named highpoint on the entirety of the Pan-American highway.
Dust devil sweeps across the landscape as Victor takes a leak.
Dust devil sweeps across the landscape as Victor takes a leak.

Manuel stands on the roadside grinning as we approach. He piles in and we drive into Nueva Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan to buy the rest of the materials. There is also a Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan where most of the locals here used to live; they had the chance to change this name that could only be described as cumbersome and unwieldy,  but kept it and added three more syllables.

Santi and Manuel
Santi and Manuel

We arrive in Santa Caterina (the town will be referred to by this name to avoid adding several extra pages to this post) only to be informed from the woman at the hardware store that the estimate she previously gave us was wrong: someone from the city called yesterday and the global price for steel rebar went up. Her gilded teeth wink at me as she explains the unfortunate position in which we find ourselves. I invoke the image of pitiful, dehydrated orphans to no avail.

We arrange for another pickup and a truck to carry materials. We load them down with cement, blocks and rebar before caravanning along dirt roads IMG_3239towards the project. Through the cloud of dust I look out on the volcanoes around Guatemala City and Lago de Atitlan stacked in the distance, clouds gently rising on their flanks. I only catch glimpses through pines as they blur past. I spend half of the time airborne while trying to hold together the rebar bundles that are coming undone without pinching or crushing my hand. Classic Guatemala.

IMG_3249I once read about a study by Geert Hofstede on the cultural dimensions of different nations around the world, where Guatemala ranked as the least individualistic country with a mere 6 points relative to the most individualistic country, the United States, with a score of 91 points. This can conversely be interpreted to reflect the degree of cooperation, or collectivist ethic, within a society. I feel this when I am here, it seems to permeate society and I think it may be what keeps bringing me back.

IMG_3253We arrive with the materials in Nueva Xetinimit and dozens of villagers hop to their feet, ranging from old women to young men with gelled hair. Blocks are stacked on backs, bags of cement are passed from person to person, rebar is carried in pairs, bundles of tubes are snaked up the hillside. Thousands of pounds of materials are unloaded in just a few minutes. The trucks leave and then I begin the descent to Xecam on foot with Santi.

The Inauguration

Traditional Male Dress
Traditional Male Dress

I am out working on other projects for a couple of weeks; the only news that I hear from the project is that it was short two sections of PVC pipe, which Santi carried up from Xecam on his back.

On a chilly, clear morning, I arrive slightly before the other guides from the organization for the inauguration; old men and women in traditional dress, teenagers in second hand clothes from the United States and little kids wearing a mix of the two lie around in the grass as I approach. We all sit admiring the project with mugs of atole de maiz in our hands. Manuel steps forth to express his gratitude for our collaboration on the project. One IMG_3261member of the women’s committee stands up and says the following in K’iche’, which Manuel translates into Spanish and I transcribe roughly:

‘Aqui tenemos la voluntad y estamos bien organizados. Terminamos con el proyecto en pocos días, pero no se pudiera hacerlo sin la ayuda de ustedes. Gracias a dios que hay personas con corazones como los que tienen ustedes.’ ‘Here we have the will and are well organized. We finished the project in just a few days, but it couldn’t have been done without your help. Thank god there are people with hearts like yours.’

Another woman steps forth and hands me a hand knitted sign thanking the organization to hang in the office. I also receive a diploma to add to my ego wall, once I have a wall that I can call my own and can afford to have it IMG_3279framed. We walk the length of the project and I see the sight I imagined weeks before: clear water gushing forth into the full lavadera. A few women look up and smile as they knead their clothing against the washboards already worn down from just a decade of use.

Guatemala is incredibly rich, it has taught me much about life. I want to give back and support what I see as right in the world; projects like this show the beautiful side of humanity. It is about coming together and working towards a better future one step at a time. Each step moves more than just a foot. Write that down.

A Free Man’s Worship

Friday the 19th began strange and remained that way. I ordered a licuado – milk blended with fruit – and sat on a stool outside a shack on the roadside in La Maquina, Guatemala; or The Machine. I work here. Don’t bother: There is no sign that says Bienvenidos a La Maquina or I would have stolen it already. I sat disdainfully sipping the licuado after watching the kid behind the counter pour roughly a quarter pound of white sugar into the blender. I got up and walked back to the car, sulking about what could have been.

I tried to pay for gasoline an hour and a half later and could not find my backpack. The backpack with all of my money, my camera, my ereader, and my journals. I began looking around the car. It has to be here since this is where it belongs. I tried to be cool, watching myself go through the motions. Maybe it is under these papers or maybe it is under this jacket that I have already checked three times. I seemed to be doing all of this for the benefit of the gas station attendant. Then I accepted reality: it is at the licuado stand. I frantically flew out of the gas station, punching inanimate objects and shouting obscenities. I would do this for a few seconds and then laugh at myself for being ridiculous; there is no sense in fretting about what you cannot change or do not have control over.  My pictures, my writing, my money! Fuck! It doesn’t matter, they are just things, if it is all gone it is the universe teaching me to be more mindful. NO! FUCK! I would give whoever has it all of my money, I would do anything….seriously…..anything. I flew over speed bumps and threaded my way through fields of potholes on my return journey.  I arrive in La Maquina, almost crashing the car as I saw the backpack miraculously sitting where I left it. I ran up and aggressively grabbed it by its body, like the scruff of an insolent puppy.

‘Thanks for guarding my backpack!’ I shouted.

‘Uh….yeah.’ The kid behind the counter seemed confused.

‘I left this here for several hours and everything is still here!’

‘What is in it?’

‘Oh…uh… my notebook.’ I pulled out just the notebook to show him. I never performed any of the depraved acts that ran through my mind that would be necessary to recover my backpack.

I hopped back in the car and returned to Retalhuleu; met with a machinist; caught a tuktuk to the terminal; and finally hopped onto a bus, after merely glancing at the plaque in front listing Xela as one of its destinations, filled with merry musing about my upcoming sojourn in Mexico for a ten day silent Vipassana retreat. I began reading “A Free Man’s Worship” by Bertrand Russell while I waited for a bus to depart and quickly became engrossed. As we thundered over potholes, the driver whipping the wheel and veering all over the two-lane road, I diligently maintained my deep concentration. I marveled at my aplomb; a bohemian vagabond deepening his erudition despite the pettiness and uncouthness that abounds.

‘Where are you going?’ I look up from my book slowly before responding to the ayudante’s question.

‘Xela.’ I smugly hand him 13 Quetzales, which I had already counted out, as that is how much the fare always costs. Everyone seemed to be laughing as they marveled at the gringo who knows the fares and routes on these rudimentary thirdworld transport systems.

‘We aren’t going to Xela; we are going to Coatepeque, but I can drop you off at a junction further down the road where you can get a bus  back towards Xela.’ He laughs at me and bellows out.

‘Oh. I uh..I saw the sign that…..Alright.’

I finished the essay as I sat sweating and pressed against 87 other people on the bus. 9 rows, 2 seats per row, 3 people per seat, count babies (sometimes as many as four per seat), count people in aisle, count ayudante that is occasionally on the roof. Sometimes you just read things at the right moment. The subject: Humanity under the blinding light of impermanence.

A Free Man’s Worship by Bertrand Russell

To Dr. Faustus in his study Mephistopheles told the history of the Creation, saying:

“The endless praises of the choirs of angels had begun to grow wearisome; for, after all, did he not deserve their praise? Had he not given them endless joy? Would it not be more amusing to obtain undeserved praise, to be worshipped by beings whom he tortured? He smiled inwardly, and resolved that the great drama should be performed.

“For countless ages the hot nebula whirled aimlessly through space. At length it began to take shape, the central mass threw off planets, the planets cooled, boiling seas and burning mountains heaved and tossed, from black masses of cloud hot sheets of rain deluged the barely solid crust. And now the first germ of life grew in the depths of the ocean, and developed rapidly in the fructifying warmth into vast forest trees, huge ferns springing from the damp mould, sea monsters breeding, fighting, devouring, and passing away. And from the monsters, as the play unfolded itself, Man was born, with the power of thought, the knowledge of good and evil, and the cruel thirst for worship. And Man saw that all is passing in this mad, monstrous world, that all is struggling to snatch, at any cost, a few brief moments of life before Death’s inexorable decree. And Man said: `There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’ And Man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts. And when he followed the instincts which God had transmitted to him from his ancestry of beasts of prey, he called it Sin, and asked God to forgive him. But he doubted whether he could be justly forgiven, until he invented a divine Plan by which God’s wrath was to have been appeased. And seeing the present was bad, he made it yet worse, that thereby the future might be better. And he gave God thanks for the strength that enabled him to forgo even the joys that were possible. And God smiled; and when he saw that Man had become perfect in renunciation and worship, he sent another sun through the sky, which crashed into Man’s sun; and all returned again to nebula.

“`Yes,’ he murmured, `it was a good play; I will have it performed again.'”

Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

How, in such an alien and inhuman world, can so powerless a creature as Man preserve his aspirations untarnished? A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother. In spite of Death, the mark and seal of the parental control, Man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs; and in this lies his superiority to the resistless forces that control his outward life.

The savage, like ourselves, feels the oppression of his impotence before the powers of Nature; but having in himself nothing that he respects more than Power, he is willing to prostrate himself before his gods, without inquiring whether they are worthy of his worship. Pathetic and very terrible is the long history of cruelty and torture, of degradation and human sacrifice, endured in the hope of placating the jealous gods: surely, the trembling believer thinks, when what is most precious has been freely given, their lust for blood must be appeased, and more will not be required. The religion of Moloch–as such creeds may be generically called–is in essence the cringing submission of the slave, who dare not, even in his heart, allow the thought that his master deserves no adulation. Since the independence of ideals is not yet acknowledged, Power may be freely worshipped, and receive an unlimited respect, despite its wanton infliction of pain.

But gradually, as morality grows bolder, the claim of the ideal world begins to be felt; and worship, if it is not to cease, must be given to gods of another kind than those created by the savage. Some, though they feel the demands of the ideal, will still consciously reject them, still urging that naked Power is worthy of worship. Such is the attitude inculcated in God’s answer to Job out of the whirlwind: the divine power and knowledge are paraded, but of the divine goodness there is no hint. Such also is the attitude of those who, in our own day, base their morality upon the struggle for survival, maintaining that the survivors are necessarily the fittest. But others, not content with an answer so repugnant to the moral sense, will adopt the position which we have become accustomed to regard as specially religious, maintaining that, in some hidden manner, the world of fact is really harmonious with the world of ideals. Thus Man creates God, all-powerful and all-good, the mystic unity of what is and what should be.

But the world of fact, after all, is not good; and, in submitting our judgment to it, there is an element of slavishness from which our thoughts must be purged. For in all things it is well to exalt the dignity of Man, by freeing him as far as possible from the tyranny of non-human Power. When we have realised that Power is largely bad, that man, with his knowledge of good and evil, is but a helpless atom in a world which has no such knowledge, the choice is again presented to us: Shall we worship Force, or shall we worship Goodness? Shall our God exist and be evil, or shall he be recognised as the creation of our own conscience?

The answer to this question is very momentous, and affects profoundly our whole morality. The worship of Force, to which Carlyle and Nietzsche and the creed of Militarism have accustomed us, is the result of failure to maintain our own ideals against a hostile universe: it is itself a prostrate submission to evil, a sacrifice of our best to Moloch. If strength indeed is to be respected, let us respect rather the strength of those who refuse that false “recognition of facts” which fails to recognise that facts are often bad. Let us admit that, in the world we know, there are many things that would be better otherwise, and that the ideals to which we do and must adhere are not realised in the realm of matter. Let us preserve our respect for truth, for beauty, for the ideal of perfection which life does not permit us to attain, though none of these things meet with the approval of the unconscious universe. If Power is bad, as it seems to be, let us reject it from our hearts. In this lies Man’s true freedom: in determination to worship only the God created by our own love of the good, to respect only the heaven which inspires the insight of our best moments. In action, in desire, we must submit perpetually to the tyranny of outside forces; but in thought, in aspiration, we are free, free from our fellow-men, free from the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl, free even, while we live, from the tyranny of death. Let us learn, then, that energy of faith which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good; and let us descend, in action, into the world of fact, with that vision always before us.

When first the opposition of fact and ideal grows fully visible, a spirit of fiery revolt, of fierce hatred of the gods, seems necessary to the assertion of freedom. To defy with Promethean constancy a hostile universe, to keep its evil always in view, always actively hated, to refuse no pain that the malice of Power can invent, appears to be the duty of all who will not bow before the inevitable. But indignation is still a bondage, for it compels our thoughts to be occupied with an evil world; and in the fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs there is a kind of self-assertion which it is necessary for the wise to overcome. Indignation is a submission of our thoughts, but not of our desires; the Stoic freedom in which wisdom consists is found in the submission of our desires, but not of our thoughts. From the submission of our desires springs the virtue of resignation; from the freedom of our thoughts springs the whole world of art and philosophy, and the vision of beauty by which, at last, we half reconquer the reluctant world. But the vision of beauty is possible only to unfettered contemplation, to thoughts not weighted by the load of eager wishes; and thus Freedom comes only to those who no longer ask of life that it shall yield them any of those personal goods that are subject to the mutations of Time.

Although the necessity of renunciation is evidence of the existence of evil, yet Christianity, in preaching it, has shown a wisdom exceeding that of the Promethean philosophy of rebellion. It must be admitted that, of the things we desire, some, though they prove impossible, are yet real goods; others, however, as ardently longed for, do not form part of a fully purified ideal. The belief that what must be renounced is bad, though sometimes false, is far less often false than untamed passion supposes; and the creed of religion, by providing a reason for proving that it is never false, has been the means of purifying our hopes by the discovery of many austere truths.

But there is in resignation a further good element: even real goods, when they are unattainable, ought not to be fretfully desired. To every man comes, sooner or later, the great renunciation. For the young, there is nothing unattainable; a good thing desired with the whole force of a passionate will, and yet impossible, is to them not credible. Yet, by death, by illness, by poverty, or by the voice of duty, we must learn, each one of us, that the world was not made for us, and that, however beautiful may be the things we crave, Fate may nevertheless forbid them. It is the part of courage, when misfortune comes, to bear without repining the ruin of our hopes, to turn away our thoughts from vain regrets. This degree of submission to Power is not only just and right: it is the very gate of wisdom.

But passive renunciation is not the whole of wisdom; for not by renunciation alone can we build a temple for the worship of our own ideals. Haunting foreshadowings of the temple appear in the realm of imagination, in music, in architecture, in the untroubled kingdom of reason, and in the golden sunset magic of lyrics, where beauty shines and glows, remote from the touch of sorrow, remote from the fear of change, remote from the failures and disenchantments of the world of fact. In the contemplation of these things the vision of heaven will shape itself in our hearts, giving at once a touchstone to judge the world about us, and an inspiration by which to fashion to our needs whatever is not incapable of serving as a stone in the sacred temple.

Except for those rare spirits that are born without sin, there is a cavern of darkness to be traversed before that temple can be entered. The gate of the cavern is despair, and its floor is paved with the gravestones of abandoned hopes. There Self must die; there the eagerness, the greed of untamed desire must be slain, for only so can the soul be freed from the empire of Fate. But out of the cavern the Gate of Renunciation leads again to the daylight of wisdom, by whose radiance a new insight, a new joy, a new tenderness, shine forth to gladden the pilgrim’s heart.

When, without the bitterness of impotent rebellion, we have learnt both to resign ourselves to the outward rules of Fate and to recognise that the non-human world is unworthy of our worship, it becomes possible at last so to transform and refashion the unconscious universe, so to transmute it in the crucible of imagination, that a new image of shining gold replaces the old idol of clay. In all the multiform facts of the world–in the visual shapes of trees and mountains and clouds, in the events of the life of man, even in the very omnipotence of Death–the insight of creative idealism can find the reflection of a beauty which its own thoughts first made. In this way mind asserts its subtle mastery over the thoughtless forces of Nature. The more evil the material with which it deals, the more thwarting to untrained desire, the greater is its achievement in inducing the reluctant rock to yield up its hidden treasures, the prouder its victory in compelling the opposing forces to swell the pageant of its triumph. Of all the arts, Tragedy is the proudest, the most triumphant; for it builds its shining citadel in the very centre of the enemy’s country, on the very summit of his highest mountain; from its impregnable watchtowers, his camps and arsenals, his columns and forts, are all revealed; within its walls the free life continues, while the legions of Death and Pain and Despair, and all the servile captains of tyrant Fate, afford the burghers of that dauntless city new spectacles of beauty. Happy those sacred ramparts, thrice happy the dwellers on that all-seeing eminence. Honour to those brave warriors who, through countless ages of warfare, have preserved for us the priceless heritage of liberty, and have kept undefiled by sacrilegious invaders the home of the unsubdued.

But the beauty of Tragedy does but make visible a quality which, in more or less obvious shapes, is present always and everywhere in life. In the spectacle of Death, in the endurance of intolerable pain, and in the irrevocableness of a vanished past, there is a sacredness, an overpowering awe, a feeling of the vastness, the depth, the inexhaustible mystery of existence, in which, as by some strange marriage of pain, the sufferer is bound to the world by bonds of sorrow. In these moments of insight, we lose all eagerness of temporary desire, all struggling and striving for petty ends, all care for the little trivial things that, to a superficial view, make up the common life of day by day; we see, surrounding the narrow raft illumined by the flickering light of human comradeship, the dark ocean on whose rolling waves we toss for a brief hour; from the great night without, a chill blast breaks in upon our refuge; all the loneliness of humanity amid hostile forces is concentrated upon the individual soul, which must struggle alone, with what of courage it can command, against the whole weight of a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears. Victory, in this struggle with the powers of darkness, is the true baptism into the glorious company of heroes, the true initiation into the overmastering beauty of human existence. From that awful encounter of the soul with the outer world, enunciation, wisdom, and charity are born; and with their birth a new life begins. To take into the inmost shrine of the soul the irresistible forces whose puppets we seem to be–Death and change, the irrevocableness of the past, and the powerlessness of Man before the blind hurry of the universe from vanity to vanity–to feel these things and know them is to conquer them.

This is the reason why the Past has such magical power. The beauty of its motionless and silent pictures is like the enchanted purity of late autumn, when the leaves, though one breath would make them fall, still glow against the sky in golden glory. The Past does not change or strive; like Duncan, after life’s fitful fever it sleeps well; what was eager and grasping, what was petty and transitory, has faded away, the things that were beautiful and eternal shine out of it like stars in the night. Its beauty, to a soul not worthy of it, is unendurable; but to a soul which has conquered Fate it is the key of religion.

The life of Man, viewed outwardly, is but a small thing in comparison with the forces of Nature. The slave is doomed to worship Time and Fate and Death, because they are greater than anything he finds in himself, and because all his thoughts are of things which they devour. But, great as they are, to think of them greatly, to feel their passionless splendour, is greater still. And such thought makes us free men; we no longer bow before the inevitable in Oriental subjection, but we absorb it, and make it a part of ourselves. To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things–this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship. And this liberation is effected by a contemplation of Fate; for Fate itself is subdued by the mind which leaves nothing to be purged by the purifying fire of Time.

United with his fellow-men by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that a new vision is with him always, shedding over every daily task the light of love. The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instil faith in hours of despair. Let us not weigh in grudging scales their merits and demerits, but let us think only of their need–of the sorrows, the difficulties, perhaps the blindnesses, that make the misery of their lives; let us remember that they are fellow-sufferers in the same darkness, actors in the same tragedy as ourselves. And so, when their day is over, when their good and their evil have become eternal by the immortality of the past, be it ours to feel that, where they suffered, where they failed, no deed of ours was the cause; but wherever a spark of the divine fire kindled in their hearts, we were ready with encouragement, with sympathy, with brave words in which high courage glowed.

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

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.

Cloud Chasing Levity

‘El Capricho’ Km. 52 Cattle Inspection Station to Luis Espinoza, Chiapas

Trucks clatter and squeal me awake to a fetid trailer, rank with a pungent miasma. We roll our bikes out onto the concrete slab under a steely sky. Adam had told us the night before that he had been trying to learn to read English, but currently had no books. He also had timidly asked if either of us had a one dollar bill from the United States that we could give him as a memento from his time spent there. We give him ‘The Time Machine’ by Orson Wells and a crisp dollar bookmark; he hands us two manila mangos.

Riding on the highway changes the way that I think, I don’t notice it immediately. Highways are designed for going from point a to point b, the signage tells me so. I don’t know where either of those places are located, so I arbitrarily choose certain towns and meticulously watch the kilometers laboriously decline.  I whir through a wasteland of barbed wire that protects rolling green slash-and-burn-scapes. I could ride a highway anywhere in the world and likely have the same experience. I long for the rural roads where chickens run rampant, where dogs rambunctiously chase with no mal intent, where snatches of shouted English resound from hammocks, where our passing is enough to give rise to smiles and laughter.

IMG_2969We turn off near Raudales towards Tecpatan and sigh in relief as a chicken struts across the road to the bellowing of a hackled cur. Land slides frequently spill into the road. Everywhere water falls and then runs, the final arbiter on existence and form, necrotizing sizable sections of concrete. We luxuriantly weave across the road, traffic almost nonexistent. We drop into Luis Espinoza and are greeted profusely as we enter town; we find ourselves perpetually descending, to our dismay, in search of the municipal building. We pull up filthy and sweaty and begin shaking hands.

‘Can we stay here?’ I ask some  man indolently lazing in front of the municipal building, a man who could be a drunk or the mayor, it is difficult to tells sometimes without our culture of opulent ostententatious fetters.

‘Yeah sure! You can stay here, right in front of the municipal building on the steps.’ He confidently responds.

In the next half hour we meet all of the political heavyweights in Luis Espinoza political arena before finally receiving formal permission to spend the night. We are offered use of the showers, a very privileged and coveted service, and round the clock police protection. I answer endless questions on the front steps and pose for dozens of pictures on camera phones where I likely appear as some sort of hairy white blob. The police usher us into the municipal building to offer us a reprieve from the masses of adoring rubes. They grant us the use of their stove as well, but they continue questioning us with genuine interest.

‘I am going to try and get my mom to come see you guys, she has never seen anyone with blue eyes before.’ One of the police tells us bashfully. I always wonder if anyone is confused why all of the characters in my writing speak English and speak in strangely bland paraphrases.

‘Everyone is really excited for you to be here. Foreigners don’t come here, but most of us will never have the opportunity to travel like you do, so it is really interesting to talk to you… To find out about you and your lives.’ We sit around showing them photos and compare our respective pueblos. It is beautiful. I talk about poverty in America, food stamps, my childhood home being taken by the bank because my family was ineffectually avaricious. I cannot unfortunately paint my peregrinations out to have resulted from some sort of tragedy akin to the atmosphere stealing all of my topsoil and blotting out the sun. I am filled with rage at the inability of society to offer me martyrdom or elect me as an archetype of a generation.

Luis Espinoza, Chiapas to Chocasen, Chiapas

We met a dentist the night before who invited us to eat breakfast with him. He runs an icecream parlor that is a facsimile of an American malt shop, which happens to be attached to his dentist’s office. Damien and I roar laughing at the concept.

‘Would you guys care for some cokes?’ We politely decline at 7am and chortle.

‘What do you guys want to eat? Cheeseburgers?’

‘Oh any type of breakfast food sounds good.’

‘Make a few cheeseburgers for these guys!’

We leave, but we are not full. We are riding in search of food, our eye scanning for billowing smoke and our finely tuned noses aggressively flaring in pursuit of any trace of meat at any temperature above 45 degrees Celsius. A set of stairs strangely juts out into the street. Damien rams into it and topples to the ground in laughter. Two women come out of the door that leads to the stairs that he hit and cover their mouths as they laugh at him writhing on the ground. They then invite us inside to eat breakfast.

IMG_2971We climb most of the morning before a steep descent into Tecpatan where a few locals from Luiz Espinoza yell at us and stop to chat. The golden nectar of mango runs down my face and coats my hands; there is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of a mango binge. I cut up a mango for a few kids who watch me eat in amusement.

IMG_2973My mind is clear, my thoughts incisive and collected. I am not sure if I can ever lead a meaningfully happy life as a component of what I see developing around me. This morning it is clear, the disparate pieces are being assembled in my mind. The increasing stranglehold of a political, culture and economic system rooted in the diffusion of responsibility, in the faceless degradation of humanity to the level of groveling imbeciles subservient to an incomprehensibly complex, unsustainable system of material production with a nebulous purpose, yet deadly serious modus operandi. I try to understand it as merely a manifestation of our humanity, something that could only be different insofar as we are different. Sometimes my mind is gripped; fragments previously irreconcilable coalesce and find coherence through a perspective that painfully dominates my consciousness like a billowing black cloud enveloping me; my mind retreating into the synaptic orgy occurring in some strange corner of my brain indefinitely until I see some sort of colorful bird trace a streak through my unwavering vision in deft flight or I hit a pothole that gives me a prostate exam, then I realize that it all is and that it all isn’t.

IMG_2974We pass Copainala, dropping down to Chicoasen and the bottom of the river valley. We climb the narrow inclined streets to the police station in search of a place to stay, but are directed towards a boarding house. We walk in, dirty and disheveled (I am not sure why I keep stating this description, I should probably just preface most of my writing with the concept that I am perpetually filthy and pungent in an endearing way that most women find incredibly alluring and irresistible.)

I do not have the disarming apparatus of my bicycle to defuse the proprietress’s incredibly agitated pheromone receptors.

‘Good afternoon! We are looking for a place to stay, the police told us that you had rooms for rent.’ Looking back on it this is not a good introduction. She stares harshly at us before sternly and suggestively muttering:

‘You won’t like it here.’

‘Look, we just need a place to sleep for one night.’ I explain in confusion.

‘Here is what a room looks like.’ She glares at me in a menacing way, threatening me with what I remember as bared teeth. There is one lightbulb dangling from the ceiling, enough room for a bed and no window.

‘Perfect! Thanks, we’ll go grab our stuff from outside!’ I decide to melt her icy demeanor with my warm, boyish charm.

As soon as I load my stuff into the room, I sit down to eat peanuts. I have both fists completely full of them as she approaches.

‘Are you going to pay?’ She mutters in geriatric suspicion.

‘Both of my hands are full,’ I show her my hands, ‘I can’t right now.’ Small pieces of peanut spray out of my mouth as I laugh. Damien hears the conversation and comes out to pay her.

We walk around the small town and eat some street food as the elderly stroll, teenagers giggle and ride bike,s and adults rest from the day on benches.

We return to our lodging and I sit up for an hour or two talking with the proprietor as he rubs his belly and tells me about the indigenous tribe in Lacandon. A tribe of pure Mayan blood left untouched in the depths of the Chiapan jungle until the early 20th century. The sky breaks and I can see the stars for the first time in a week.

Chicoasen, Chiapas to San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas

IMG_2978The street we take to leave Chicoasen is the steepest that I have ever seen in my life. My arms strain and burn as I push my bike upwards. I finally summit and straddle my bike to set out towards Soyalo; the road in various states of decomposition. We follow a roaring river before switchbacking our way up to San Francisco Sarabia. A hundred meter waterfall casts rainbows as it pour off the cliff on which the town is perched. Old men with belt slung machetes amble towards the field, dispensing sage advice as I stop to sweat and pant. I don’t remember any of the sage advice.

IMG_2979As we keep climbing to Soyalo I curse the genial old men who gave me spurious information about the route, imagining each of their faces as I belittle their navigation and perception skills. Dark clouds overtake us in Soyalo. A chilly winter breeze sweeps across the fields, giving lift to both trash and vultures. I pour sweat and mash my pedals on an increasingly steep section of climbing. I eat fruit by the kilo, I don’t deal in grams or ounces anymore. The road planes out and leads us into Ixtapa.

I pull up next to a few men that greet me with sated post prandial stares and state, ‘We want to go to Chamula. How do we get there?’

‘It’s easy. You just go straight and then climb into the clouds.’ He points towards the clouds that have swallowed the mountains in the distance.

IMG_2982We ride out of town and the smooth pavement gives way to rough dirt that begins a precipitous descent into a canyon. We follow a clear river that boils white water over black rocks. I can hear nothing but the rush of water and the crunch of gravel under my tires. Strange abandoned buildings appear out of the growth, slowly being claimed by the jungle. We leave the river and ride through towering fields of criollo maize with the sierra still looming distant.

IMG_2985We pass through an indigenous village, several people peering out of doors and windows as we pass. The faces noticeable darker, contrasted with bright, resplendent traditional dress. We pass over another river and then look upwards towards the road incised at a daunting angle into the mountainside; I ocularly trace it until it disappears into the clouds. My back tire spins on steep sections. The afternoon passes quickly amidst frequently breaks as our weeks of consecutive riding begin to call in payment.

IMG_2986I ride ahead of Damien, my mind drifting in frustration with nothing in particular. Neither of us speak for a bit. I want to get there. Get where? Before dark? Why? We are out of water…so? I am just tired, so tired. And? I reach a moment where everything seems inconsequential. Nothing can touch me, nothing can take anything away from me. All the worrying, planning and fighting are all for naught. All the speculation and hypothetical situations are pointless. I can fight my way through the rest of the way to San Cristobal with no difference in outcome or I can embrace the trajectory that we are on.

We ride slowly, enjoying ourselves in acceptance of the reality that we will be spending a significant amount of time riding in the dark this evening. We arrive in a small town as the golden light before sunset strikes. We pass a bottle of honey back and forth, gulping it down as we look up at the climb ahead. Quite a few people gather in front of their homes and discuss us in Tsotsil and laugh at us as we chug honey. The road once again disappears into the clouds. I catch the glint of a guardrail in the distance; pavement ahead.

IMG_2992The final climb requires exacting concentration and effort, every time that I push downwards my legs quiver in protest. I grit my teeth and inhale voluminous breaths. I push myself to the edge of my limits and hold it. I fight, time a meaningless abstraction to me. I arrive at the summit and look back on the spine of the sierra and the floor of clouds below painted by the disappearing sun. My mind is vacant of internal ruminations as I feel my chest expand and contract. Everything is brilliant, gilded with light as I have never seen before in my life. Everything is perfect, I see myself, my life and the world in one brilliant clairvoyant oneness. I feel the energy and richness of life and every moment running through my veins. It all erupts and explodes within my head, beatitude burns within me. Everything is insignificant when compared to the crimson edge smeared across the sheared clouds by an exploding ball of gas that is the basis for all life or to the cold wind luxuriantly prickling my skin.

IMG_2996I ride down from this point in elation, my perspective changed. The day is done; in twilight we climb upwards until a gunshot rings out. I flinch, quickly swerve and look around. Damien hops off his bike and I see his front tire is flat. We examine the tire and the tube has exploded and the tire is completely worn through in several spots. After making the questionable decision to continue on this tire a week ago, it fails within spitting distance of San Cristobal at a rather inauspicious hour and IMG_3000location. We sit in the darkness on the roadside, the cold breeze pouring down of the mountain summits. We cut up the tube and reinforce the tire with this and ducttape amidst much laughter, laughter of abandon. We inflate his new tube and the tire bulges at this spot without any structure to constrain the internal pressure. Our headlamps pan the darkness, emerald animal eyes occasionally glowing and silently moving through the darkness.

We arrive in a small village and see the light of a small store. We pull over, haggard and delirious in the way that a day like this can make you, the world only gaining in absurdity. The residents are in an adjacent house, their faces glowing through a screen of smoke as they warm themselves around a fire. An old man cautiously emerges and is amused as we devour anything that he offers us. Women wearing luxurious black wool skirts gather in the room quietly whispering in Tsotsil with babies swaddled in robozos on their backs. Everyone is uncertain what to make of these gringos stumbling in out of the darkness on bicycles, but they find nearly everything that we do amusing. We sit under the porch light repairing Damien’s tire with more ducttape in front of an audience. Little boys retrieve their bicycles from their houses and ride in excited circles. Old ladies cautiously peer from afar. The little girls are incredibly cute miniature replicas of their mothers, they stare at everything we do and hide if I smile at them.

The light pollution of San Cristobal lights the clouds in the distance. We ride past a few small villages, the dogs barking through town as soon as one hears us rattling past at this hour. They charge us aggressively, but never bite. Rain starts gently falling on us. San Juan Chamula covers a mountainside and we pass through the outskirts on our descent into San Cristobal. Traffic flies past us with our dim lights, the road surface is variable and treacherous in the darkness. Damien and I quietly revel in our luck at having made it this far on the Macgivered tire, but I ride worrying about a blowout on the quick descent.

Not dying on this descent requires mustering every bit of focus that I have left; my mind is in a dangerous haze of exhaustion.

Another gunshot rings out and I look back as Damien hops off his bike on the outskirts of San Cristobal. There is no fix; our riding for the day is over.  A rock is impaled through the tire and tube at the very hole that we strove to fix previously. We stand two kilometers from the city center in the cold drizzle, so close.

I decide to be proactive and flag down a family in a pickup and explain our situation; they seem to pick up on the exhausted, desperate edge of my voice.

‘Toss your bike in back and we will go find your friend. Where do you guys want go to?’

The world provides. I am filled with gratitude. Every day through actions like this, the world is made livable, held together.

We walk down Real de Guadalupe, or Gringo Alley with Damien carrying his bags on his shoulders and lifting the front tire of his bike. Tourists pass in chic, flowing clothes that declaim their leisure through their impracticality; British accents loudly shriek from the front of the London pub; Argentines busk and Americans peruse storefronts. The eco tour operators. The boutique wine shop. The seriousness of all of this, the gravity and importance placed on anything and everything. It is laughable. A joke.  Night clubs? Televisions? Fashion? Trash dumps? Fiscal cliffs? Retirement? My pretentiousness?

I eat dinner and curl up in a ball. I have a dream where I am riding my bike uphill for what seems like days. I finally summit in a perfect village, radiant in noontime sun under an immaculate sky. I let my hubs gradually gain velocity as I roll over the highpoint of the parabola. I let gravity pull me through the wavering mirage rising off of the obsidian tarmac. I stare out over verdant valleys and towering craggy spines. The beauty overcomes me as I peer off the precipice to the left; my velocity is incredible. The feeling of effortless speed suddenly shatters as I hit an anomaly in the perfection that sends me hurtling through the air towards the mesmerizing view. I hit the glassy obsidian slick and begin sliding. I grasp with my hands, using my skin as a friction brake to avoid learning what flying feels like. I stop teetering on the edge with the feeling of being unable to move without falling.

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas

IMG_3105I read, wander and cook what I find in my wanderings. I run across old friends. I get parasites and empty myself out. I don’t eat for four days. I drink a lot of tea and sleep. I take antibiotics. I read about and watch documentaries on the Zapatista revolution. Two weeks pass.

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas to Comitan de Dominguez, Chiapas

IMG_3115I start to feel the sun of the tropics, the sun of the coming spring. We ride past military bases teeming with feverish activity with no clear purpose and then through the autonomous Zapatista towns that they are meant to oppress. The towns look lifeless except for the signature colorful murals across the sides of the buildings. The riding is remarkable, but both Damien and I are quite ill. As we near Comitan, I see a IMG_3117haggard man climbing upwards on a bicycle nearly devoid of gear, apart from a few spare parts; the first other cyclist that I have crossed paths with while en route. I swerve across the highway. He tells me that he is riding for peace out of his exasperation with the escalating violence in Mexico, visiting every state in the republic to speak out in favor of action.

Comitan de Dominguez, Chiapas to Cuidad de Cuahtemoc, Chiapas

IMG_3122Damien is too ill to continue. After riding several weeks with one another, something that bring people together in a way that few other things can in life, we solemnly part ways. I worry about turning him loose, letting him fly solo. My options are limited though, it is either this or brutally clipping his wings. I decide after much consternation not to cripple him.

I ride under a vacant sky towards the end of Mexico, slowly sliding down a continuous downgrade, the heat growing as I descend into a hazy valley surrounded by rugged mountains. I come upon a roadblock, where cars and trucks stand motionless as a mob mills. I carefully approach, uncertain of my reception at this function as a denizen of a nation widely viewed as some sort of evil empire bent on world destruction using our very species as complicit slaves in the process. All eyes are IMG_3126focused on me, I look around and weigh my options. I lay my bike down on its side and something unexpected happens: they erupt in cheers. I am handed a manifesto expounding the abuses of the Mexican government and its corporate handlers. I sit on the pavement and read it before expressing my sincerest condolences.

‘Would it be a problem if I continued riding?’ I ask anxiously.

‘Not at all!’ The ringleader jovially responds.

‘Continue fighting!’ I shout to much cheers and applause.

I see another cyclist coming, we are both wearing huge grins as we cross paths. Javier began in the South of Argentina. We talk about our trips briefly, take a photo and part ways. I had always imagined this moment differently: The other rider would emerge from a sun scorched mirage as the wind swept sand and detritus across the road. IMG_3128Our pedal strokes both slowing as we size one another up. A hawk lets out a shrill screech from above. Her perfectly matched hand slides into mine, there is no ring. I look into her gentle eyes and something passes between us, I feel a jolt, not just between my legs, but somewhere deeper. On the right side of my body. My heart. I don’t let go of her hand, using it to pull her into a sweaty, heartwarming embrace. It turns out that we are soul mates, both of our mothers still cut up our Eggo Waffles, as they know how to do it best. We both used to dress our pet chickens up in clothes left over from our childhood. We both write blogs that nobody reads because they are rambling pretentious musings or too uncomfortably weird to read. We both adhere to a terrible strain of romantic philosophy that leads to a myopic focus on self-development and rejection of anything that does not accentuate our grandiose self-image. We laugh, we cry, IMG_3119we make love on the roadside with reckless abandon. I take a job training birds of prey to protect malnourished children from vulture attacks and teaching yoga to quadriplegics. She works for a social enterprise that offers subsidized ice cubes and teaches indigenous African languages to Guatemalan refugees. We hyphenate our last names. We have children that are so intelligent that everyone believes that they are borderline autistic. We are bequeathed an estate from a bitter widow who manages to secure her place in the afterlife through this last gesture of benevolence towards a family that could not be more deserving.

I feel elated and wallow in my greatness as I reach the Mexican immigration booth at Ciudad Cuahtemoc. It is strange the effect that accomplishing this goal can have on a person. The strife, the doubt, the suffering all fade, my success takes primacy. All of the luck and generous people along the way are utterly insignificant in contrast against the scintillating force of my will. I did this myself, look at me. Nobody does though, so I will write about it.

I sit eat on the Mexican side and sit across from a man with a small backpack and a machete. He eats with relish and purpose.

‘Where are you going?’ I ask him, knowing the answer.

‘Mexico, Mexico City.’ He cautiously answers.

We talk for a while about Guatemala and he seems to relax.

‘Is the border crossing hard?’ He asks me timidly. I explain the sad and dangerous realities of crossing as best I can.

‘Where will you cross?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Where are you going in America?’

‘I don’t know where I am going either.’

He leaves quickly with his machete, off to work in America. I sit sadly thinking about the tough road ahead of him beset on all sides by people who are going to take advantage of him, including at his final destination.

I sit in a strange lounge chair that faces the border inspection station and watch for a few hours.

Ciudad de Cuahtemoc, Chiapas, Mexico to Huehuetenango, Quiche, Guatemala

IMG_3129The climb begins. I pass a trash dump that separates the two nations, several people climb on the smoldering stain that spreads across the landscape. Anti-littering signs abound, they seem to actually be anchored in trash.  Vultures circle in the acrid air of burning plastic.

At the Guatemalan immigration station I am processed by the same agent that has been there the previous two times that I have passed. He is the best border patrol official I have ever seen, a paragon of efficiency with an air of politeness that is borderline reverent.  I have deduced from these three border crossings that he is deaf and mute. He never says a word to me as I pass through, he simply stamps my passport and sends me on my way each time.

IMG_31324100km exactly to this point. Immediately upon crossing the chaos of Guatemala begins; the chaos that I have come to love. People yell at me, kids run alongside, chickens crispin in vats of oil, stereos compete outside small stores, buses bellow and ayudantes shout.

IMG_3133I thought that the topes, reductores de velocidad, vibradores, speed bumps would disappear as I cross, that this balderdash would be seen as ridiculous by the practical Guatemalans not gripped by a tope-industrial complex. I see a sign warning the approach of something called a ‘Tumulo’ on a steep downhill. Hmmm.. that sounds pleasant and non-three dimensional. I think nothing of it until I am rudely jolted, my speed forcefully reduced. No, it can’t be! I repeat this process several more times until my disillusionment is complete.

IMG_3139I ride with the wind and shouts of ‘Gringo!’ at my back. I never researched this section. The scenery slowly changes and the air cools until I reach a high plain. As I ride I invent my own radio station, ‘Uno!….Cero!…..Cinco!….Puntoooo! Dos!….Tha Mixxxx!’ I yell this over and over again in my best rendition of a Mexican DJ/the guy who seems to do the voice for ever commercial in Mexico. The station consists of my unconstrained and oft non-sensical thoughts, a steam of consciousness monologue that vomits forth and occasionally carries a tune. I am pretty sure that I have lost my mind, lost it to my own personal radio station. I tune in and out. This blogpost is a transcript of the radio stations first broadcast.

IMG_3141I sleep in Huehuetenango and set out early. I drink coconuts and orange juice with raw eggs on the roadside as I perpetually climb towards Xela, my radio stations #1 hit becomes me yelling ‘Xela…Xela….XELAAAAAA!’ like one of the ayudantes on the old American school buses that traverse the highlands.

IMG_3145I ride into Xela with a feeling of levity, the future boundless and my life as pure potential.

How did I got here, to Xela, Guatemala, is a question that is far more vast than pertains to me or you. On the surface, I took one stroke with my left leg, then one with my right and then I kept going. An infinite sum of pieces, each infinitesimally small, comprises a whole.

I crossed vast vacant expanses. The wind blew, rain fell, I got sick, I got lost and sometimes I forgot what I was doing this in the first place. Then I took another stroke. Night after night I laid looking up at an ocular symphony in awe, in terrified awe of the reality of this inexplicable anomaly. The life will leave my body one day and I will have understood so little through eyes that are inherently mine and are only open for a brief period of time.

I will never know the answers to the questions that loom over us omnipresent and radiant like the sun. We can stare at the sun, stare at these unanswerable questions until we are blind and wander desperately groping for an explanation or a purpose. Our only other option is to let it illuminate our path, to continue walking with our eyes humbly downcast.

IMG_3208I pass a few days in contemplation before passing a sleepless night under Volcan Santiaguito as it roars and vomits forth a cascade of sanguine rock. I sit anticipating each hourly explosion and the accompanying raucous rasp; it is primal and riveting; it is terrifying and perspective altering. The ever salient question: what do I want to do with my fleeting time? Ash rains down on me. I decide that I should do something different, chase the loose ends that tantalizingly dangle in front of my face. The needle on my compass is not pointing North, it is spinning capriciously. I am not returning home.

I look back at all of this, well everything, in bewilderment and mirth. All of it an infinite sum, a discontinuous function if any piece of it were to be missing. I am still in Xela.

The Strong Protect the Sweet

I have ridden my bicycle through Mexico and through Guatemala, learning about where our food comes from as the panorama passes and through conversations with farmers on the roadside. I have slept in corn fields, cow pastures, below apple trees and in the wild. I felt seen the trees, grasses, stalks and vines. I have met the sinewy, tired, wrinkled, tough, proud people who tend them. I became strangely interested in agriculture and today I find myself interviewing farmers on the Southern coast of Guatemala with the intent of helping a sustainable agriculture organization learn more about the communities where they work. I have spent weeks so far swinging in hammocks and reclining in the shade as I try to capture their story. In my spare time I climb mango trees and gorge myself, unsure whether my stomach pain is from too many mangos or parasites. I consistently fail at resisting the delicious cold beverages made with well water that consistently leave me running to the bathroom.

Here is generalized profile of a campesino (small farmer): A small landholder, with 1-3 manzanas (1.72-5.16 acres)  through land grant or a lease, that farms maize (corn) for consumption and sale and sesame for export. The typical diet here revolves around beans and tortillas, with occasional garnishes when they are affordable. Farming is the sole source of income for the family (occasional family members contributing through remittance payments from the United States or by working on palm, banana or sugar plantations). The agriculture in this region, due to the poor quality land of the land received, requires a substantial amount of inputs in the form of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Incomes have risen through yield increases that reflect an increased intensification of agriculture through the heavy use of these inputs and hybrid seeds adapted to their use. Money is borrowed from banks, money lenders or input distributors to finance the agricultural process at usurious rates. A succinct summary of their felt need: economic development, a healthy environment and a path forward for their children. It sounds relatively similar to what much of the rest of the world desires.

The connection that farmers here feel to the land is difficult to fully grasp for anyone from a culture that is disconnected from the land, as is typical of much of the industrialized world. The culture of Guatemala today grows from agrarian life, which is rooted deeply in the land itself. Virtually all strife within this country can be traced back to land, especially the 36 year civil war that ravaged the countryside before ending in 1996. Here is one rant from the coast, one of many that I hope to share. It is a rant because I am not sure if I know how to assimilate all of these things that I am feeling and trying to understand into a coherent narrative. We live in a complex world. Here is where sugar comes from:

Palma Africana
Palma Africana

Land ownership in Guatemala has a markedly skewed distribution: 2.5% of the country’s farms control 65% of agricultural land, while 88% of all farms, with an average size of 1.5 hectares, occupy 16% of the land. Approximately 40% of the economically active rural population does not own land. Along the South slope this distribution is reflected at ground level in expansive plantations that produce valuable export crops that can exploit the cheap cost of labor and the simple spreads of the cheap labor. The primary export crops produced on a large scale are: palm oil, sugar cane and bananas. I spend my days weaving through potholes and inhaling dust as I navigate the endless and confusingly homogenous landscape on my way to small communities sometimes only known by a name like A-13 or Calle 2.

Sugar processing facility with cane in the foreground.
Sugar processing facility with cane in the foreground.

After spending the week in La Montana speaking with farmers, I am driving the wife of a friend of the organization to the market in Retalhuleu. The air is sweet with the smell of burning sugarcane, a smell that has permeated the coast for months, one that I will never forget. I keep the truck in second gear as Graciela and I jar our way down roads ruined by overloaded semis stacked high with cut cane as white clouds streaked with black smoke billowed on the horizon. Many men and quite a few kids walk the scorched earth and cleave their way through hellish rows of blackened cane with machetes, their faces and arms swarthy with ash stuck to the sweat that runs in the midday heat. The machetes seem disproportionate in size relative to the kids.

Workers cutting cane.
Workers cutting cane.

“How old are those kids in the fields?” I ask Graciela with a grimace.

“Some are as young as 12. Most of the kids whose parents cannot afford to send them to school start working with their fathers on the plantations.” Graciela readily responds, her tone seemingly not adequately reflecting how sad and strange this reality seems to me.

Sugarcane is tall grass native to South Asia that has been cultivated for thousands of years. The production process in Guatemala occurs over the course of a year. The sugar cane is irrigated and left to grow on fields maintained clean through heavy applications of herbicides. After it reaches maturity, the fields are set on fire to remove the parts of the plant that are not used in the production process. This step significantly reduces manual labor costs. The cane itself is then manually cut and loosely piled into semis that are bound for nearby processing plants, as the cane loses sucrose with the passage of time. The canes are pressed to remove the cane juice, which is then processed and refined into the product completely devoid of nutritional value that we are all familiar with.

We pass fields of sugarcane kept radiantly green during the dry season through extensive irrigation that drains the earth with large motors pulling from wells over 30 meters deep. Many farmers have mentioned that their wells have run dry as the water table is has been consistently dropping since the sugar cane plantations arrived with advanced machinery in the past five years. A well 8-10m deep is no longer enough.

Planes hum overhead before they disappear in self-produced clouds of chemicals. The planes are dropping what is called a maldurativo, which is used to artificially ripen the cane, but has the additional effect of destroying the fruit on neighboring farmer’s land. Several farmers have spoken of mango trees dropping small unripe mangoes and of lime trees producing nothing. One of the few farmers growing vegetables in an area suffering from a very imbalanced diet decided not to plant tomatoes this year as it is too risky with the effects of the maldurativo.

The way in which plantations affect the area is part of a global economic problem afflicting thousands of campesinos. An interaction between various variables feed a cycle that appears to be without end. Maize is not a high value export crop, thus the value generated by a hectare is low relative to palm oil, bananas or sugar. Maize is life in Guatemala. Maize and sesame prices have been increasing in recent years, which has provided some gains for farmers, but this is offset by many other factors.

Input costs are rising. Rents are increasing. The land is degrading. In general the costs of life are increasing in this area, as are expectations related to quality of life.

A small farmer has the advantage of exploiting his own labor and that of his family to increase profitability, but this decreases with additional land, rendering non-mechanized agriculture at a scale more than a few manzanas not very profitable. The economic analysis that I have done in conjunction with the survey paints a bleak picture with no clear path forward. The long run is more challenging as land is expected to be divided amongst children, which deepens the situation created by a lack of land and resources. Many campesinos are now forced to work on plantations to supplement their income or to pay down debt.

IMG_3422
After the harvest.

Is this just the process of development? The transition of rural labor into industrial labor? Not all jobs that are created equal: the plantations only hire laborers that are aged from 12-25 years of age from what I can gather. The jobs are almost entirely low value manual labor that entails toiling in the fields for punishing hours every day. After just a few years many of the workers are exhausted, leading the plantations to only hire young workers.

After age 25? There are no other jobs other than on the plantations or producing maize and sesame; there is no apparent or bright future for these kids in the fields. The viability of sustaining a family producing just maize and sesame appears increasingly difficult. This cycle is not new, but it is worsening.

Conflict

I spend a week in Calle 2 outside of Retalhuleu. I am interviewing, Don Pedro, a boisterous man who spins tales from the hammock about the civil war and the time he spent working in the United States. He swats at dogs and throws objects at chickens as they cluck and strut around us. He tells me about a strange farm in South Carolina where he worked only picking small cucumbers many years ago. He doesn’t know why. I think about it for a second and start laughing.

‘It was a farm for pickles!’ I realize.

He tries grins with the teeth he still has and repeatedly mispronounces pickles as he laughs. I finish the interview with the following question:

‘Is there anything else that you want me to add?’ I ask randomly.

‘Well, yeah there is one thing that maybe you guys could help with since you know people in the government.’

‘Sure. What is it?’

‘Well, my brother just called me and he works in irrigation at the plantation up the river called ‘La Virgen.’ They plantation just dammed the river that runs behind the house to irrigate, el Rio Espanol. They did this a month ago with a larger river and we blocked the highway for several days before they removed the dam. Can you call anyone you know and ask for help? This can’t keep happening.’ He asks timidly.

‘Let’s go see the river.’ I am incensed.

We hop on bicycles and pedal hard down singletrack trails to the river; the level is low and it is barely flowing. I shout down to a woman washing her clothes in the river who confirms that something is wrong.

‘Where is the dam? I want to go see it.’

‘Let me call my brother.’

…..

‘There are four men guarding the dam right now with shotguns. I don’t think it is a good idea for you to go there right now.’

‘Well we need to do something. They aren’t going to do anything unless you take action like before. You should block the highways again.’ I am indignant, the Western American urge to kill for water rising in my veins.

IMG_3328
‘The sugar plantations pollute the air we breathe..’
‘For monoculture there will be more hunger’
‘The planting of sugar doesn’t help us, the other cost is high.’

We set out early for Xela after interviewing a few more farmers. We received word that the road is blocked, but decide it is worth the effort to try. We flag down a pickup truck that is carrying a few other passengers to carry us to the first roadblock. I get my wish: as we approach a mob comes screaming and running towards us brandishing clubs. Angela and I sit uneasily in the back of the truck as they hit the outside of the truck and force the driver to stop and turn off his vehicle. Eventually the mob subdues and returns to the blockade. The road is blocked with logs, rocks and several banners declaiming the campesino’s quandary. A woman is screaming loudly, the kind of desperate and angry wail that brings tears to my eyes. We talk with several of the protestors who explain to me that the protest is about more than simply the river being blocked, it is about air quality, it is about the roads, it is about their future. The plantations expect to expand several thousand acres in the next two years according to one of the protest organizers.

Sugar cane trucks.
Sugar cane trucks.

We set out walking in the heat, past lines of parked trucks from the sugar plantations. I feel like a scab. The highway is filled with pedestrians. We stop and chat with other people walking, we buy a watermelon from a family selling fruit on the roadside and eat it on the spot. One pickup truck carrying mangos hits a speedbump and a few fall out the back, I pick them up and feast. It is beautiful.

Angela walks a desolate road.
Angela walks a desolate road through the perpetually smoke filled air.

We arrive at the second roadblock after walking and catching rides for a couple of hours. We arrive at the second roadblock as the protest is breaking up.  A government bureaucrat makes incredibly vague conciliatory remarks while surrounded by police, ending by saying there will be a dialogue between the government, the plantations and the campesinos the following Friday. Women stand barefooted in the audience staring with eyes wizened by decades of the same rhetoric. The sugar trucks lurch back into action and we catch an old schoolbus back to Xela.

The protest breaks up.
The protest breaks up.

The fight continues. I receive word the next week that the roads will be blocked again as the government, nor the sugar plantations, made any concessions. Unfortunately change does not happen unless it is forced to happen.

Workers work through the night, the field burning.
Workers work through the night, the field burning.

I sit watching one of the fields burn at night, the strange orange glow of the smoke and fire on the horizon evokes thoughts of burning oil fields. Ash rains down upon me as I sit on a street corner in Los Encuentros speaking to a few farmers about the sugar cane that now surrounds their houses. It is the first year it has been planted in the area. I look up and a piece of ash goes into my eye and I go for a walk by myself as I wince for the next few minutes. Ash covers everything. I stand in the darkness thinking.

I want to live in a world where there are small farmers who have a connection to the land. I want to live in a world where people are paid fairly for their work and where we all have a right to clean air and water. I may not be directly fighting, but it seems inherent in so many aspects of my daily life. The degree of interconnectedness in our world, how the actions of millions of individuals on one continent can affect the lives of millions in another, is difficult to grasp and be conscious of at every moment. We have the opportunity to make the best choices that are in accordance with the information that we have and our values. We cannot keep diffusing responsibility, equivocating or looking to someone else. Be conscious of the decisions that you make, you choose what you support with your actions.

The path to a better world involves widening our moral circle, the extent to which we extend moral consideration. Is it just your family? Is it your friends? Acquaintances? Fellow citizens? People who you identify with culturally? All other human beings?

References:

http://www.ruralpovertyportal.org/topic/statistics/tags/land
https://sites.google.com/site/sugarcanepm/pre-harvest-burning
http://www.agmrc.org/commodities__products/grains__oilseeds/sugarcane_profile.cfm

Guns, Germs and Topes

The culmination of months of work, my photojournalism project documenting the abhorrent lack of freedom endured by Mexico’s people as reflected in the continued prevalence of a colonial vestige: el tope.

Mexico suffers from an epidemic so pervasive that most residents are unaware of its pernicious effects and unendemic origins. The concept was initially brought from Europe during the Spanish conquest of the Americas and was tradionally used for psychological warfare, harassment in a sense. It was initially seen in very primitive and crude forms, of which artifacts have scarcely survived. The years that ensued after the arrival of the Spanish, and for the entirety of their presence in Mexico, were marked by fierce resistance on the part of indigenous peoples and a lack of cohesion amongst the colony. This lead to the development of an institutionalized form known as a Tùmulo, a named still used in Guatemala despite its brutal etymology, that translates to ‘tomb’ or ‘burial mound.’

Mexico, ever since its emancipation from the dominion of the crown, has been nothing but an aristocracy cloaked in the pleasing rhetoric of democracy. The need for oppression to assure order has never dissapated and neither has the existence of Tùmulos. In fact, they have proliferated since independence under a multitude of different names and physical forms intended to obscure the device’s origin: vibradore, tope, reductor and through signs adopting Mayan glyphs that are universally intelligible in the linguistically diverse nation.

Although stripped of their previously potent form and only seen in muted representations, their existence is a reminder of where power lies. The aristocracy has consolidated power and managed to create a market within this country, through legislation, for something seen as an oppressive burden on citizens and commerce in almost every other part of the world. The tope construction industry has come to consume to an estimated 25%-27% of the GDP of the 13th largest economy in the world. Tope related industires, such as car repair and tope maintenance contribute an additional 7% to this number.

I set out on my bicycle from the United States three and a half months ago to document this sad phenomenon.I was forced to go through the motions of being an abhorrent Western tourist in order to gain access to several tense tope terretories: pretending that I am interested in churches, Chinese-made trinkets, finding good coffee and eating pizza. I was forced to discuss ‘how incredibly cheap everything is!’ and which is the best party beach. All of this time I had only one thing on my mind, one major bump to me enjoying myself: topes. I felt the jar of the topes in my body and in the components of my bicycle. I watched families on their way to picnics grinding the bottom of their vehicles across a dozens of topes in a row serving no purpose other than antagonization. I have flown down dozens of mountains in elation only to have my smile fade as I am repeatedly warned by signs that this cannot continue, losing all of the momentum that I built up over hours of climbing. I have seen the localized resistance, the valiant guerrillas fighting against a faceless industrial enemy with their barehands, taking to the streets wielding sledgehammers and picks to create safe passage for their compadres.

I was quiet about my cause, only was stopped once and questioned by the military as I took pictures of a tope near a checkpoint, where I was forced to lie, telling them that I wasn’t taking pictures of the tope, just documenting their communications equipment and technology for publication on the internet. To avoid responding to too many emails I have the following to say to you: You are welcome. Here is what I found:

IMG_2769IMG_2929IMG_2869IMG_2858IMG_2810IMG_3113IMG_2802IMG_3109IMG_3138

Estado de Michoacan: Threat of tope installation.
Estado de Michoacan: Threat of tope installation.
Distrito Federal. Half ellipse. Faded white/yellow stripes on Asphlant. Obscure on approach.
Distrito Federal. Half ellipse. Faded white/yellow stripes on Asphlant. Obscure on approach.
Estado de Puebla: Steep approach, half ellipse. Brilliant red/white striped Asphalt.
Estado de Puebla: Steep approach, half ellipse. Brilliant red/white striped Asphalt.
Estado de Puebla: False form. White/yellow.
Estado de Puebla: False form. White/yellow.
Estado de Puebla: Reverse tope. Loose soil/gravel on Asphalt.
Estado de Puebla: Reverse tope. Loose soil/gravel on Asphalt.
Amecameca, Puebla: Half ellipse. Asphalt.
Amecameca, Puebla: Half ellipse. Asphalt.
Cholula, Puebla: Lengthy trapezoid. Cobblestone.
Cholula, Puebla: Lengthy trapezoid. Cobblestone.
Patria Nueva, Puebla: Densely clustered domes. Yellow on steel.
Patria Nueva, Puebla: Densely clustered domes. Yellow on steel. Man holding rooster on roadside.
San Nicolas Huajuapan, Puebla: Half ellipse. Dirt.
San Nicolas Huajuapan, Puebla: Half ellipse. Dirt.
San Juan Atzompa, Puebla: Triangular. Brick underlaid with concrete (presumably).
San Juan Atzompa, Puebla: Triangular. Brick underlaid with concrete (presumably).
Tepexi Rodriguez, Puebla: Trapezoidal with ridges. Concrete.
Tepexi Rodriguez, Puebla: Trapezoidal with ridges. Concrete.
Outskirts of Oaxaca de Juarèz, Oaxaca: A formation of domes. Yellow on steel.
Outskirts of Oaxaca de Juarèz, Oaxaca: A formation of domes. Yellow on steel.
Asunciòn Cacalotepec, Oaxaca: Used tire tread.
Asunciòn Cacalotepec, Oaxaca: Used tire tread.
San Juan Cotzocon, Oaxaca: Half ellipse. Wood reinforced with gravel.
San Juan Cotzocon, Oaxaca: Half ellipse. Wood reinforced with gravel.
Poblado Cinco, Veracruz: Three domed ridges. Concrete.
Poblado Cinco, Veracruz: Three domed ridges. Concrete.
Outside Copainala, Chiapas: Long trapezoid. Brick core with concete approach.
Outside Copainala, Chiapas: Long trapezoid. Brick core with concete approach.
Copainala, Chiapas: Formation of trapezoidal reflectors. Plastic.
Copainala, Chiapas: Formation of trapezoidal reflectors. Plastic.
Outside Soyalò, Chiapas: Formation of half ellipses. Asphalt.
Outside Soyalò, Chiapas: Formation of half ellipses. Asphalt.
San Cristòbal de Las Casas, Chiapas: Rectangular multimedium. Concrete with river cobble inlay.
San Cristòbal de Las Casas, Chiapas: Rectangular multimedium. Concrete with river cobble inlay.
Outside San Cristòbal de Las Casas, Chiapas: Rectangular. Plastic with steel anchors.
Outside San Cristòbal de Las Casas, Chiapas: Rectangular. Plastic with steel anchors.
Outside Comitan de Dominguez, Chiapas: Round. Rope.
Outside Comitan de Dominguez, Chiapas: Round. Rope.
Outside Huehuetenango, Quichè, Guatemala: Natural.
Outside Huehuetenango, Quichè, Guatemala: Natural.