Organic! Cooperative!

I wanted to learn Spanish.  I had already toiled through five semesters of graduate school and one-and-one half years of internships.  With fluency in Spanish, I figured, I would likely be able to get a newspaper job.

So, I went to Guatemala and enrolled at Ulew Tinimit School of Language.  Ulew Tinimit was not like those trendy Central American language schools that took masses of expats: It was on a higher plane.  It had a higher pedigree than regular tourism.  It supported real families.  Part of $70 went for 14 meals and a place to stay in the home of a Guatemalan family. I wanted that.  I wanted to be a part of someting socially concerned, even it this was only a concern expressed through consumption. Maybe that made me an easy mark.

It was a good life. We spent five hours talking with  underfed Guatemalan philosophy students.  We spent our afternoons playing.  We visited monasteries.  We hiked up mountains to visit honey-making collectives.  We played soccer in empty lots on the outskirts of Quetzaltenango.  We went on a visit to the Ruins nearby.

Although we were from all over the world, we had a lot in common. We had all kinds of degrees.  We liked Tom Robbins and Edward Abbey. We could afford to be poor. We could barter for two quetzals off on our indigenous friendship bracelets, and then we could store them inside our Lowe compression backpacks.

On this particular Tuesday, nothing much was happening. I wanted to sit there with Roberto, on the second floor of the English school in Guatemala.  I wanted to call him “buen guia” a few more times.

My friend Peter fanned a well-worn copy of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” against his orange frizzy hair.  A fan slapped the dry, hot air against the walls of the concrete office.

That was when I heard a person knocking on the metal door downstairs.  Roberto looked up. He was annoyed, but he jumped down the stairs.

“My name is Eduardo,” he said. “I understand that this is a language school,” he went on.

“Yes, that is true,” said Roberto, as he opened the creaking metal door.

Eduardo was a stocky man. His jeans were tucked underneath knee-high black boots, the kind for wading through deep water.  He held his palms out, his fingertips pointed back at his square jaw, as if to hold out for patience.

“I understand that your students are very aware of many things,” he said.

Roberto looked over his shoulder at Peter and me.  He raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips. “Oh, yeah, those guys.”

“Let me explain,” Roberto said, “I have a co-operative organic farm. I have applied for a micro-loan to buy seeds for this spring, but in the meantime, I must prepare my fields.”

He paused.

“I need,” he paused. He took a breath and looked toward the frame of the door.  “I need technical assistance.”

Roberto smiled.  “Yes,” he said, “we do have students who need to help on those kinds of things.”

Peter and I stood up. What a buen guia! Eduardo had answered our prayers. A real organic cooperative! Run by real indigenous workers! Pursuing sustainable agriculture!  It was the holy grail of socially concerned voluntarism.  .

– –

Our optimism was not to be tempered. We stood in the bed of Eduardo’s truck as he drove us to our future . We pulled off on the side of the road near a break in the forest. I nodded at Peter.  “Clearcutting, eh?”

“Yep,” he said, “and probably some burning, too. Just like in the Amazon.”

Eduardo got out of the truck and unlocked the gate. “We’re here,” he said.

It was odd, but there were no crops here. Just a barren slope that rose about 500 yards, then crested and fell out of view.  Although Guatemala’s many volcanoes have produced plenty of rich soil, none of it remained on Eduardo’s steep, treeless hill.  All of the topsoil had run off.

He gave me a hoe. I picked a spot about twenty feet up the hill. I lifted the hoe above my shoulders, re-centered my weight on my bent knees, and propeled it to the ground.  The hoe kicked back.  The ash handle stung my soft language school fingers.  A corner of the crust was broken where the clay had yielded a small divot to my hoe’s strike. It was the “most ungrateful of all soils.”

Eduardo’s eyes appeared to twinkle. “Someday,” he said, “this will be a wonderful cooperative.”

Eduardo left to take care of some business. I guess he trusted us with his clay.  The sun was silent and harsh.  We had no water. We had no sunscreen.  Peter and I got home a bit after 6. I skipped dinner and fell asleep at 6:15.

It was the same the next day, and the following day, too. We had broken three long rows – about six hundred linear yards of terraced field. The clay gave way to rock.  Eduardo came and went. He gave us a wheel barrow on Friday.

– –

The next week, Peter and I stuck around school. It was not long before we returned to bantering with Roberto. It was not much longer before Roberto got annoyed.

Roberto looked up from his dial-up connection.

“I would like to tell you,” said Roberto, “about a group of Mayan women who are building a community-supported grain mill..”


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