Thursday, April 29, 2010

Planting Potatoes

The first week here was kind of rough. I was on vacation from 'work' Wednesday through Sunday, living with an evangelical family whose work ethic doesn’t let up for Semana Santa, and suddenly without a familiar support network. Needless to say, when on Wednesday night my host mother tossed me an invitation to join the whole family in planting potato the next day, I absolutely jumped at her heels like a lost puppy.

Shortly before 6 am Thursday someone knocked on my door without saying anything. I threw on some layers and flew downstairs and out the door just as they were about to drive off in the family’s large truck. My host father drives this truck to the coast every weekday in order to bring firewood from the coastal plantations to sell here, as our forest laws are somewhat strict (although not enforced that well). We barreled off on the 30-minute or so ride to a family field on the other side of the hills with the sun just rising.

An interesting aspect of life here is land tenure: the vast majority of families have farmland, even if farming is not their primary source of income. As with my family, the land is typically in several small parcels in different areas, even in different municipalities. There is reportedly not much conflict about whose land is whose, either. The people just know and respect the property lines. (Typically marked by a path or a row of trees or shrubs.)

We started off the morning with breakfast: boiled potatoes (obviously), a broth made from some sort of bitter herb, a piece of sweet bread, and a drink made from ground dry corn (a ´coffee´, except the powder is corn instead of coffee bean). The morning was beautiful and frigidly cold.

The kids played while the men set off hauling huge sacks of organically-rich underbrush, extracted from the locally lush forests as fertilizer to the sandy soils which are intensively cultivated with potato, corn, and other ground vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage.

Eventually we began planting: the rows were lined out with a rope tied between two stakes on opposite sides of the field, just as we did at the small farm I worked at last summer. Three men hacked away at the ground with hoes to create a deep trench. Then two people followed from both ends placing potatoes in the trench a standard distance apart, and the rest of us followed them covering the seed potatoes with a thick coating of moist, organic underbrush. Then the men on the hoes covered up our work and set the next line.

The pace of the people on the hoes was tremendous, and all told we planted 70 rows in about six hours. That is not to say the work was not enjoyable. The sun was strong, but a temperate breeze made it bearable. Like farmwork I’ve done before, we slipped into a good rhythm together, always having enough time on each row to take a breath and get ready for the next row while the others do their part. We also took ample breaks for hot atoll (a boiled drink made with large corn pieces) and took a large lunch break with only about a half hour of work remaining.

I don’t think they believed me when I said we planted in the same way back up in Michigan. Yet this was an experience I had to appreciate not only for its universality but its uniqueness, too: how many people in my position can say they’ve had the chance to plant potatoes in Guatemala, under a hot sun and cool breeze, with a view of the mountains for miles around, female companions in traditional traje and a male companion wearing a Che Guevera t-shirt?

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