Friday, September 17, 2010

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger...

Today I am strong. I am a man of iron. But we'll get there in a moment.
Just got back from a 3 day stint on the Finca. Everyone is excited because this year, for the first time, we will be making Panela (some kind of sugar brick) directly on the farm, instead of selling the sugar-cane directly. This involves a ton of preparation. How does sugar get from a farm in the cloud forests of the Andean mountains to your table, you may ask? (well A, it probably doesn't, it probably comes from the midwest and Haiti, but thats besides the point) First you grow sugar cane. It looks like a cross between corn and bamboo, grows to seven or eight feet tall, falls over, and then grows more. It goes from green to reddish in color at the base, and is delicious snack, when peeled, chewed, and the pulp spit out. Next the cane is harvested, using a machete each stalk is cut at the base, the leafy top removed, and stacked in piles. The piles are tied to mules or other animals, and dragged to a machine that looks like an archaic torture device. It probably is in some settings. Its go a big wheel which is turned, which in turn turns three rollers which crush the cane into juice, pushing out the leftover matter, which is discarded for fed to nearby pigs. The cane juice is delicious. Filled with a fair amount of pulp, dirt, and moss (from the cane). The first couple gallons come out brown, until the machine gets a bit cleaner, and then it is a light yellow color.
Next you need an oven. This was my task on Day 1. For starters one (that means me and one other dude here) digs a trench, fifteen feet long, five feet wide, and going from 8 inches deep at the top to four feet at the bottom. WIth a shovel and a pickaxe, this was some serious labor. Less bad after chewing about ten feet of sugar cane. Following this you take ten fifty-kilo sacks of empty glass bottles (of every kind) and smash them, carefully, with a hammer, machete, brick, or wrench. This was the easy, fun, and highly dangerous part. When you have a pile of glass three feet tall and five feet wide, your done. This took one morning.
That afternoon we started on the oven. Mix bags of concrete with fifty percent dirt and a bunc h of water (which is dragged, via mule, from a solid two kilometers down the mountain from the fish farm). Painstakingly place bricks into the trench, between strips of broken glass, and build an oven, six feet tall, and a few paces shorter then the trench. Fill the top of the trench with concrete on top of broken glass. It took us the rest of day 1 to build half the oven.
On to day two. I plan on completey ignoring the rest of the Panela making process until my next trip to the finca, as making the oven was as far as i got. After working on the oven in the morning, I went with Elvirea to "buy plaintains". Sounds like fun...So you walk an hour and a half up and down a mountainous dirt road (where I passed some German student's who were counting how many leaves leaf-carrier ants carry per day....huh) until you come to some dudes farm. Wait fifteen minutes for the dude (Mirado) to show up, wait for him to feed the chickens, and follow him down a serious mountain to a cornfield. Leave the mules a quarter-mile from the place where you pick corn (so they don't munch out), and fill several fifty-kilo sacks with corn. Now this part had me pissed off. There were three of us, me, Elvirea, and Mirado, and three hundred plus pound sacks of corn. They made me carry all of them, the quarter mile to the mules. My back was destroyed. I didn't find this very amusing (not a word of complaint, thus its probably my fault. Tie the sacks to the mule (which is actually a Macho, which I think is a mule, but there are also burros, mulos, caballos, Machedos, all of which are some kind of donkey, so I have no idea). and then follow it back up the huge mountain to the farm. Elvirea (who rode to the farm on the mule, though she offered to let me ride) let the mule pull her up, in addition to the corn, but holding firmly onto it's tail and smacking it on the but. I didn't think this was very nice for the poor animal, which was stumbling all over the place trying to climb near verticle mudbanks in the middle of the jungle. When we got back to the farm, we went to get plantains. Cut down a banana tree, grab the bananas, throw em in a sack. You guessed it, fifty kilos. You guessed it, I carried it. back up the damn mountain to the mule, who I'm starting to understand now that I've carried everything which it is carrying. Tie the plantains to the mule, and walk another hour and a half, mostly uphill (Elvirea holding the tail for every uphill), back to the finca. Then walk another mile from the road to the finca. I then ate a huge pile of rice beans and a small fried tilapia, and passed out. Pronto.
An hour later I got up, and went to continue working on the oven for the Panela. This was a tough day, the first day I've been pissed off (I didn't say a word). This was cake compared to the next day. One more thing about day 2. I ate several of these delicious fruit called Pirapingas (I think) which grow on cactuses. I ate four, and later had some of the worst diarrea of my life. Everyone laughed about this, explaining that Pirapingas are a natural laxative. No kidding. I ate four, and it was like drinking a liter of ipikak for the ass. I shat for hours. Everyone thought this was hilarious. I would have appreciated a warning after the first two. Nevertheless, some of the most delicious fruit I've ever tasted.
Day 3. 6 am, get up, eat breakfast (two eggs, bread from yesterday), and go to another Finca. Theres one person waiting, and after fifteen minutes about 15 others have showed up, half on motorcycles, all with various tools, machetes, a chainsaw, picks and shovels. Someone tells me we are going to build bridges. I really hope that means some neighborly community building okeley dokeley bs. It doesn't.
Walk down another giant mountain (a solid mile at a serious decline) to a path, which they explain has been built by volunteers and the volunteer organization (who are the people I am with) for bicyclists to go to a campsite, which is also being built. The path is crumpled in places, and needs serious maintenance and five or six bridges. half the people go off to cut down seventy stalks of ten foot long six inch wide bamboo (wadua). I, and 3 others, go off with picks and shovels to do path maintenance. This involves moving serious amounts of earth. I won't go into the details, but we dug, picked, scraped, hauled, and worked our buts off for four hours. Then we went to get the cut bamboo, each piece weighing fifty plus pounds because its filled with water, and walk three quarters of a mile down the path with it, over several pre-bridges made of two pieces of bamboo spanning large gaps, to the campsite, where we dump it. Break an hour for lunch, by the river, very pleasant, everyone shared fruit with me, and then go back to work. Haul bamboo for a couple hours (I must have moved more then a thousand pounds over the course of the day), and then go to dig a latrine at the campsite (which is beautiful, on the river, nestled in the rainforest). This hole has to be seven feet long, four feet wide, and three meters deep. As in nine feet. Are you kidding me? We worked on it for hours. It was four feet deep by the time we left. Every muscle in my body was destroyed. Very glad for all the hours in the gym this summer. FInish movng the seventy stalks of bamboo, see the two bridges which have been built of bamboo which I was digging the giant hole, and then walk a mile, up a mountain, back to the house. Wait twenty minutes for an empty lechero (milk truck), and get in. Oh, and it's raining at this point, lightly. It never really rains hard here. Stand in the open back of the truck, no seats, and drive back to LT. By the time I get there my hands are numb and I'm soaked, but so is everyone else.
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and after the last couple of days, I am an iron man. I haven't yet slept past 8 on this trip, tomorrow I'm shooting for 10 at the earliest.
After all that complaining, I'm still glad I did it. It was a great workout, I got a ton of stuff done, and met a bunch of great people. Still looking forward to a couple days in LT to heal up before I'm off to figure out the second half of the Panela making process.

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