Monday, October 10, 2005

Incarnacion's finca


Before 7:00 the next morning, looking like little angels, my friends are ready to join all the other kids trudging down the road to school.


The night is so full of activity. Roosters crowing at midnight; what's that all about? One nearby would start it all, then I would hear replies for miles around. (And there were some pretty sad cows out there!) Occasionally, there would be the sound of birds shooting by the tent and into the treeline. Whoosh! And of course, the constant drone of frogs, crickets and other insects.

High overhead during the night, the constellation Orion, and a little southeast, the Dog Star, Sirius. Low to the south, I can see for the first time since being in Vietnam in 1973, a "southern hemisphere star", Canopus. One of the things I so anticipated about this trip is seeing the southern constellations.

Up with the first light at 5:30. I can't believe how spent I feel; I'm not up for another day like yesterday! Men are already slogging through the mud, machetes in hand, bound for work in the fincas; another day of hacking back the jungle. Some pass on horseback.

Children start to appear in the road, white shirts or blouses and navy pants or skirts. All barefoot, the boys with pant legs rolled up. Off they go to school, walking the rutted mud highway.

"Chino", looking like an angel with his school uniform and carefully-combed hair, walks up carrying a small bowl of water and cup of black coffee. He presents them to me and indicates the water is to wash my face. What a gracious gesture! I tell him I will return the dishes to the house and wish him a good day at school. He joins the line of children walking up the road. I ask how far they have to go and the only response I can get out of them is lejos - "far".

The coffee is weak and very sweet, but the hospitality is wonderful. I carefully pick my way through a bog, across slippery logs and hardwood boards, following a path to the little farmhouse. I thank the couple for their generosity and ask if I might buy a couple more bananas like the ones the kids brought me last night.

The woman leads me to a shed where a bunch is hung, covered in burlap (for ripening, I guess). She plucks off a couple and asks if I want more, but I don't dare add another ounce of weight to my bike. When I try to pay, she lets out an embarrassed laugh and waves me off. But I insist on leaving them with $10 for their kindnesses. I thank them again and return to the road.

(It is much easier for me to put money in the hands of the people who actually do the work at this level. These people truly know the value of a dollar, in terms of their sweat and sacrifice, unlike those, myself included, "higher up the food chain" who each take their cut, leaving only scraps for the poor. So many of us have no idea and take it all for granted.)

Luis ("Luigi"), the highway worker, shows up in his little support van, carrying diesel fuel and supplies for the Caterpillar D6 bulldozer that's about to begin another day of pushing mud to the side of the road. He comes over and stays with me, offering encouragement. "It's better ahead," he assures me.

With the sun, the mud slowly begins to dry. I make another go of it, but only get fifty feet before my front end locks up. It's clear that, if I want to keep trying, I'll have to take off the front wheel and remove the fender. Then I would have better clearance. But there is no guarantee the clay wouldn't then just lock up the rear, which was already beginning to happen.

I notice the rear mud guard is again loose. A closer look reveals the bolt which attaches near the rear brake caliper has sheared off, and a flange has broken. The same break as on the Dalton Highway. I remove the assembly. BMW needs to find a solution for this!

Meanwhile, it's a waiting game. The only way I'll get through on my bike is if the sun bakes this mud enough to dry it out before the afternoon rain. While I wait, using a strong stick, I dig at the mud packed between the front tire and fender. It's dense clay. Amazingly thick. I don't even bother putting gear back on the bike. If I can get the bike down the road, I can always arrange for another vehicle to haul the bags after me.

I try again to ride the bike, but within twenty feet, the front wheel is locking up and their is no way to control the front end. I need water! I walk to a farm house across the road this time and ask a girl on horseback there if I could get some water. She rides back up to the house and a woman calls for me to enter their yard.

She invites me to a seat on their patio as two other women look on with curiosity. From a refrigerator, she pulls out a gallon jug and fills my water bottle. At this point, I have little concern whether or not the water is "pure". Again, I am humbled by the kindness of strangers.

After resting for fifteen minutes or so, I thank them and return to the bike. By now, the D6 is working the road ahead. But from my perspective, he is only making matters worse, turning up fresh mud and breaking up the top layer that was beginning to dry (and would perhaps offer me an escape.) I watch and wait, chatting with Luis. He's 19 years old and will be going back to school in the spring. He wants to study to become a Port Administrator.

I walk up and down, looking for a possible track to follow. The shoulders fall off into thick foliage; there is no going that way. And the mud is just not drying. It sticks to my boots and with each step, there is a ripping sound as I lift my boot.

Waiting is a big part of life out here, and I can be patient. After all, there was nowhere else I have to be. But I start to become concerned that others might worry. Out here, I have no easy way to comunicate that everything is fine, and it is just a matter of time before I am through this mess.

I learn from Luis and his boss there is a tienda, or small country store only a couple hundred meters up the road, on the left. Wonderful! (I recall a "Twilight Zone" episode - way back - called "One hundred yards over the rim", I think. Crossing the desert, a nineteenth-century wagon train leader, is desperate to find help for his people. He walks ahead over the sand dunes and suddenly below, he's confronted with the amazing spectacle of a modern highway, power lines and a gas station. Okay, it's a stretch, but I feel a sense of relief.)

We load my gear onto Luis' little truck and he creeps down the road. I give it one more go with the motorcycle. Twenty feet, no more. I leave it there, stuck in the mud (I can't even get it to the shoulder) and walk towards the tienda. We pile all my gear by the roadside, opposite the little farmhouse with a small store in its front room. At this point, I am concerned about heat stroke. It is amazing how exhausting it is (for me) working (and even walking!) in this environment.

The tienda offers a sheltered patio. I buy a soda, drink it down, and ask for another. In the shade, I just hang my head and try to catch my breath. After a third soda, I begin to reach a normal operating temperature and think about next steps. I have to be ready, should a truck come down the road.

I pull out tie-downs that will be needed when I eventually get a lift, then return to the bike and again begin scraping away at the mud. In it's present condition, it can't even be rolled. Then, back to the tienda to escape the heat and await rescue.

As the afternoon progresses, I realize there is a distinct possibility no truck will pass today, and begin to think about a campsite for tonight. I ask the woman inside the shop if I might be able to sleep outside on the concrete slab tonight. No problem, she replies.

Out of school, Cholo, Chino and Mauricio track me down (not hard to do) and stay the afternoon, playing games on the patio. More kids show up, all primas, cousins of Cholo and Chino, ranging in age from about four up to fourteen. I buy sodas for all ten or twelve of them. I have an unquenchable thirst, and drink with them.



The second day by the side of the road in Churupaquete. My services were demanded again. "Foto!" This photo is at the tienda, or small country store, where Incarnacion Espinosa (sp?) allowed me to set up my tent (on the slab behind the kids.)


A small truck arrives to deliver goods to the store. The kids help carry things up the hill. The woman locks up the store and leaves, indicating she will return tomorrow, and climbs into the truck. (My food and beverage connection is cut off!) Her young daughter, Laura, remains behind, sitting on a bench out front. (I think it quite strange that she would leave her daughter alone with a stranger!)

The games become wild, as the kids play with a tiny foam soccer ball, some marbles, stones, anything they can find. And, of course, photos are demanded.

Meanwhile, Laura sits quietly away from the others. They say she is a solitary person, and make fun of her. I ask if I can take her picture, but she shakes her head and refuses to turn toward the camera. I let her see the other photos I had taken (while the others squeeze close in to also see), but she isn't interested.

Late in the afternoon, two men show up at the house, carrying their machetes. The children quickly disappear, bidding me good-bye. I meet Laura's father, Incarnacion Espinosa and his son, and thank him for accommodating me tonight. It's nothing, he assures me. The men go inside to clean up after a day's labor.

Later, Incarnacion comes out and I ask him about his finca, what he grows here. He takes me around the yard and points out the banana and papaya trees, the coconut, orange and nut trees, chickens and cattle. I ask the ages of some trees he had planted. They are half as old as I would expect. Things grow really fast here! A five-year-old coconut tree is already over a foot in diameter.

Incarnacion re-opens the tienda for business, so I am relieved to be able to buy food and drink (only soda available.) I ask what he sells in the way of food and he asks if I want rice. Sure. He indicates it was cooking. A short time later, he carries a plate and glass of water out to a small table on the patio, setting them down and inviting me to eat. The plate is a well-worn plastic one, and the glass, something you might get for free through some marketing offer. But for all I know, this is his finest "china".

The meal is pig's feet and rice. I have never tried this particular part of the pig, so it is another new experience! There's nothing like eating some fatty knuckles! The skin tastes like a stock yard smells, so I carefully pick that off and heap it on the side. But I am very thankful to get some food in me. And I know that, as a guest in his house, he has no intention of charging for the meal. He is, as they say, "muy amabile", very kind.

After dinner, the TV comes on. It is strategically situated on a high shelf inside the front door, so that it can be viewed from the room to the right, the tienda to the left, or from the bench outside on the front porch.

While Incarnacion watches from a chair just inside the door, his son (whose name I never learned), Laura and I watch from the porch. Sitting next to them, it is funny to see and hear the regular, unconscious swatting of mosquitoes. Several times a minute, without even diverting their eyes from the TV, they swat some part of their body.

Neighbors come and go, most wanting to make a small purchase, but a couple come to watch TV. It is Latin American soap opera, depicting very affluent people. I wish I had some command of the language and were able to ask what they think of seeing people on TV who are so rich, while they have so little. The commercials are particularly troubling, obviously catering to those who have "disposable income". They all seem to really enjoy it though.

I am quite tired after last night's nearly sleepless ordeal and bid them "buenos noches" around 8:00, and crawl into my tent on the patio, about twenty feet away. I am thrilled to be on a dry surface. The TV and lights stay on until 9:00, then all the human sounds grow quiet and the farm and jungle sounds take over the night.

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