Sunday, March 29, 2015

Savez-vous plantez des choux?

Our two weeks at Chacalté, the cooperative farming venture in the hills between Tikal and Rio Dulce, was an experience I will not forget. The lovely stone building that houses the volunteers was built three years ago by Casira volunteers. It is made entirely from stones found on the property. All the wood is local. There are two dormitories, open to the air, where a total of twelve people can stay, in mixed quarters. The plan is that the 8 farmers in the coop will eventually be totally independent and not require the monetary and physical support they now get. For now they live in local villages and come by truck to the finca (farm) daily to work the fields, care for the chickens, and tend to the cardamom, pepper and cinnamon plants that are the main source of income at this point.

These men (campesinos) live a meagre existence with their families. The oldest, Jose, is 71 and the youngest Jobani is 23. In between there are Santos, Miguel, Venizio, Abraham, Herman, and Juan, two of whom are in their late 60s. The finca is their way of perhaps providing a better life for the future. They live without running water or electricity, on a diet of beans and tortillas. It is inspiring to see how hard they work. Every evening one of the campesinos, the one whose turn it is to sleep overnight in the workers shack as a night guardian, is our guest for dinner. It was a pleasure to sit at the same table as these quiet men, who get to enjoy a generous meal each his turn. Some of them are more outgoing than others, seeming to appreciate the good food, a glass of beer or wine, and some company other than that of the chickens. One evening we had a complete family, mother, father and two children, come for dinner because the father was the watchman for the night. A real treat. The children were shy at first, but then enjoyed making paper boats, garlands of dolls, and paper hats.
The food at the finca is cooked by a local Guatemaltec women. Meals are simple but delicious. Fresh juice made daily from  the limes that we picked was a treat after the hard work done in the heat of mid day. The finca has a large lemon grove and I learned how to use the long perch with the wire basket attached in order to pull down the limes. All food grown and taken for use in the kitchen is bought from the campesinos. If we took a banana from the farm, we paid a quetzal. The chickens are slaughtered twice a week and sold locally or bought for the kitchen. Tuesdays and Thursdays are when the chickens are slaughtered. Two local women chop off their heads, pluck the feathers and prepare them for market. Once a week a man arrives on his motorcycle, buys a few chickens that he places in the old cooler on the back of his bike, and drives back on a terrible gravel road, up into the mountains to the town of Guitarra, where they are sold.

The chicken coops, with bananas

Our jobs varied from day to day depending on the needs. We spent a few days cutting long weeds under the cinnamon plants, using machetes. This was arduous work, bending and cutting for several hours at a time. My job for the first few days was to plant seeds that were donated by one of our volunteers who had owned a nursery. I planted beets, radishes, carrots, onions, melon,  and Cuban chilis.The ground is very dry and it is hard to believe that anything can grow in the blazing sun. The seeds were appreciated because it is very costly to buy them in Guatemala. By the time we left I could see small radishes poking through the earth, as well as some beets. But without rain, I wonder if they stand a chance.
Others worked in the makeshift nursery, trying to get tomatoes to grow. There is always cinnamon to grind and bag, herbs to dry, gravel to be spread on the roads around the area, palms to cut for the thatched roof of the chicken coop, etc. etc.

Planting beets

Manaca leaves cut for thatch roof

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jennifer. Sounds like very hard and important work. I am glad that you are having the Chance to meet so many Guatemalan workers and families. Your Spanish must be really benefitting. Have a very happy birthday in 2 days and see your when you get home.