And A Sh-load Of Coffee
2003 by Justice DeVille
I’m having an identity crisis. I don’t know if I’m a Peace Corps volunteer or what. I have scabies (a mite that burrows under the skin around the groin and waist) again which I had seven times when I lived in Yamaranguila, Honduras, two and a half years ago, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. My stomach was percolating like a coffee maker a few days ago and I had to eat a head of raw garlic to cure it. I’ve got the same cold that everyone else in town has. I read and sleep too much. Yep, just like those Peace Corps days, minus the $190 a month paycheck and ability to introduce myself as “un voluntario del Cuerpo de Paz.” But still I’m not sure why I bothered to bus all the way from Philadelphia to Honduras. There had to be a reason.
Yesterday I woke at 6:30 and washed all of my bedding and clothes to rid them of scabies, then threw a loaf of bread, cheese, tomatoes, onion, and avocadoes into my backpack and headed out to Cofradía, which is the tiny village where I “worked” six miles outside of Yamaranguila. I say “worked” because I don’t really think I did any work there. I was assigned to work with a group of pottery makers and help them sell more pottery. After a number of meetings and lectures about business principles that didn’t apply to them, the relationship mellowed into a casual friendship. We did other small projects like plant gardens and coffee, but they had faded from memory.
The trek began along a pebbly road that passed through a village called El Tablón. A bread truck blew by me, kicked dust into my face then halted about a mile up the road in front of a general store. Once past El Tablón, I cut off the road onto a path, generously cushioned with fallen pine needles. Through the mountains to the summit before dropping into the valley where Cofradía sits is the best part of the walk. The smell of pine mingles with the soft whistle of the wind, which could easily be mistaken for a nearby stream. I only passed one person on my way up the mountain, a mild farmer occupied with a small labor... chopping thin logs into firewood. When I reached the clearing at the top, I stopped for a few minutes to treat myself to a rest and enjoy the beauty. Up at 1900 meters, you could see over five ridges into El Salvador through the creamy sky. The magic was still there. A little dot of life swallowed in the endless mountains. My feet felt firmly planted.
I did not want to
change my solitude for company, although
I thought how nice it would be to have somebody there to share the
with. So I decided to invent an imaginary friend. Kids do it all the
and are pretty happy with it, why can’t big people do it too?
I’d give it a shot. What the heck did I have to lose? I
called him Oscar
and we enjoyed the view together.
Alright, did you believe that imaginary friend bit? Relax, it was a joke. I enjoyed listening to the silence and indulging my thoughts and senses in the mountains. I involuntarily reflected on world affairs and felt sad.
The mountains were very
innocent. So were the hawks circling
I breathed deeply, buried the treasure and started the descent down the mountain into Cofradía. Muscle memory. My instincts took over and carried me thirty minutes down the complicated, zig zagging, forking path that I hadn’t attempted in years. Imagine trying to explain a favorite song or a favorite painting to someone. Think of how difficult it would be... think of the injustice you would do to it. That’s what I would do if I tried to explain what it’s like descending that mountain at a rhythmic beat. So many memorized details locked away coming together to create the essence. The part that descends steeply, nearly into a barbed wire fence and the four-square inch flat where I confidently plant my foot, lean, and change direction to avoid impalement.
I was sweating profusely by the time I entered the baking valley. As I climbed the hill in front of Maria and Narcissus’ house, I hoped as hard as I could that they would be there. When I stepped over the wooden fence, I was confused to find myself in the middle of a sh-load of coffee plants. “Where the hell did this come from?” I thought, the coffee project that I started with them briefly crossed my mind. I followed a path to the house and found Narcissus’ daughter Concepcion, “Cono” is what everyone calls her, sitting in her wheelchair under the shade of a guayaba tree. She is about 16 years old, has cerebral palsy which left her legs and feet gimpy and her speech impaired. She has a very active mind, always the first to laugh at my understated humor. If she is in another room, she unfailingly follows the conversation. Sometimes when I throw out a subtle, sarcastic comment, she will be the only one who laughs and I’ll see her in a corner with her face all lit up. She told me that the three women were at the school giving vaccines to children and would be back in about an hour, then asked if I liked the way the coffee turned out. I did not believe her. She had to tell me three times.
What can I say about how that made me feel? Fifteen hundred coffee plants out of 2000 planted is good for anyone, but for three pottery makers and a hungover Peace Corps volunteer taking their first crack at it, it’s excellent. I cannot take any credit for the success though. All I did was some minimal research, prepare a manual for the women, buy the seeds and bags used in the nursery stage, and spend a few weeks with the women preparing the seedbed and nursery. When I left, the plants were sprouting, but I never thought the farm would take off the way it did. The Mayan women must have put their heart and soul into it to understand what needed to be done and then do it.
I asked Cono if the guayaba fruit had worms in it and she said some did. I carefully ate half of one and then asked her if the worms were big. She said they were tiny tiny tiny. So I threw the rest of the fruit toward a chicken and said that if the chicken ate it, there were worms in it because chickens don’t eat fruit, but they do eat worms. The chicken pecked at it and Cono laughed wholeheartedly as I spit out the rest of the fruit in disgust.
I heard the zing of a machete and saw Cono’s grandfather working by the edge of the farm. He is 89 and still works day in and day out tending the garden, chickens, coffee. I found him as I’d last seen him, in tattered clothing, that looked rather comfortable, and a campo hat on to block the sun. “Para servirle” he said, offering me his boney hand. That was the way he greeted me every time he saw me. He remembered me perfectly and told me that the coffee plants looked healthy.
Maria arrived and interrupted us with a wide smile. Her hair was evenly parted in the middle and matched the symmetry of her face. We made grilled cheese and veggie sandwiches with the comfortable familiarity that we’d known two and a half years ago and talked about pottery, coffee, war, the Bible. Maria handed me a glass of fresh guayaba juice and I gulped it down without looking at it.
Narcissus was tardy, so Maria and I packed a sandwich for her and left for the school. Along the way, we talked about the coffee farm. I suggested building a chicken coop because it would be easier to gather the chicken poop if they were in a coop rather than roaming around. Maria perked up with interest. I felt like a Peace Corps volunteer again... thinking of what resources were available and how much it would cost. Then I remembered I’m leaving in a week. Besides, I’m not a volunteer. I’m unemployed. I dunno.
We ran into Narcissus in the road and there was soon a debate between her and Maria about the afterlife. Narcissus believed in it, but insisted that it would not be in the same form... us hanging out, talking like we were there. Maria stubbornly defied her, “we don’t know that.” I refrained from the debate. It was 2:30 and looked like rain was moving in, so we said good-bye and fixed a date that I would return before leaving Honduras.
When I got back to
Yamaranguila, my neighbors (about thirty
of them) were finishing up the eighth day of a novena for someone who
a year ago. They invited me in for a mantooca (like a tamale, only not
as good) and a few glasses of chicha. Chicha is the local moonshine
of corn, water, and sugar. We enjoyed the various corn products while
coffee and the final day of the novena.
So I’m having this identity crisis. I don’t know if I’m a Peace Corps volunteer or what. But at least I figured out why I returned to Yamaranguila.
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