Monday, July 19, 2010

Farmin' It

Ventured up to the farm in the highlands yesterday with José, Pamela, and Daniela. Vicente and Gladís had went the day before and are spending four days at the small cabin they have built there. The weather, as usual, was cloudy and misty as soon as we began the ascent in the taxi truck. It takes close to an hour to make the trip to the finca (farm). There is a paved black-top road until El Progreso, after that the road cuts off to hard-packed dirt, or just mud, and lava rock gravel. The truck must slowly creep and crawl over this trail, bouncing it's occupants like a baby on it's knee.

When we got there, we unloaded the truck, tip-toed our way around cow patties, and said our hellos to Vicente and Gladís. We put on our gear: tall rubber boots (I found a pair that was only one size too small, hot dog!), long sleeved shirts and hats, and mosquito repellant. They all laugh at me for using citronella essential oil instead of the high-powered DEET that they use, but I don't care, it works about as well as what they use, and it smells better. I learned how to tie a shirt over my head, using the neck-hole for my eyes to peek through. This make-shift ski mask also protects my face, ears, and neck from the multitude of chomps and nibbles from mosquitoes, ants, and flies.

First, we planted some rows of corn in a freshly cleared and burned pasture. The small space is surrounded by lemon trees, tangerine trees, and semoya patches (they look like dark green pumpkins, the inside orange and and firm like a squash). Three kernels in each hole, then sweep the dirt with your foot to tuck them into the rich soil.

After that, we needed a snack, so I climbed a ladder and plucked some tangerine-lemon hybrids from a tree, heavily laden with the fruits. Very good, a little more tart than a perfect tangerine, we sat on a log and tossed the deep orange peels into the brush, spitting seeds mid-sentence.

Paula, Daniela's six-year old daughter, introduced me to her new kitten, telling me that he only lives here at the cabin, while her puppy lives with her in town. The small kitten is docile, letting her carry it around just under the armpits, leaving the little furry belly exposed, limp legs and tail hanging. Paula then took me into the kitchen, where Gladís was cooking lunch on the open fire stove. It is a steel barrel, cut in half, a grill placed on top, campfire underneath. This is Gladis' favorite way to cook, she'll tell you. She hates to use a regular gas stove. The food tastes better, she says, and she's right.

Paula walked right up the the open fire stove and placed the cat above the fire. I reacted immediately, "¡Cuidado, Pauli!" (Careful!) but the kitten had already slipped between the grate on the open stove and cozied up in the corner of the pit, nestled in the light grey ashes from the fire. Paula looked at me matter-of-factly, "El tiene frio." (He is cold.)

I told her that I was worried that we were having kitten for lunch, and she laughed. But yes, the little pet stayed out of the way of the fire and pots, sometimes peeking it's dusty little head out to see if I was still watching him or not. I was.

We ate lunch next: soup with chicken necks and feet, semoya, and celery leaves. Then rice and spicy shrimp sauce. We drank papaya juice and talked. The rain sounded like drumming fingertips on the metal roof of the crude cabin, the door wide open, chickens hiding under bushes, pecking away.

After a little rest in the hammock, we got the wheel barrow, sacks, ladder, and machete and marched into the brush to collect tangerines and oranges. There is a method to this madness. The objective is to find the tree with the most fruit, pick a few, pass them out and everyone tries them. Then there is much debate over which tree has the better fruits, (not too dry, more sweet than tart, larger, more orange than green, etc). This can even be debated about which side of the tree you are harvesting from. After a consensus has been reached, we ready the ladder, and José climbs upward into the strong yet flexible branches, muddy boots and all. He is the picker. We are the catchers, craning our necks to watch for falling fruits, yet shielding our eyes and heads for falling insects and small twigs.

We tell him where to pick (always higher and just out of his reach), and he complains that we don't catch all the fruits that accidentally fall, busting open from the impact. Once he's picked all he can, we move the ladder and it starts all over again. Sometimes Paula gets elected to climb the ladder, two or three people holding it steady, to reach a far end of a branch, surely these tangerines are the best. She shows no fear and mimics us in the same jokes. "Just climb one more stair, there are some above your head." "Are you crazy? We have more than you can eat, already!" We do this for hours.

Finally, with the bags and wheelbarrow filled, our arms and faces swollen with stings, we walk like ants back to the cabin. The taxi has returned and we load up our loot. A quick change from muddy boots to flip flops, and we all pile into the cab. Waving goodbye from the windows, we bounce and lurch over the gravel path, until the little cabin is out of sight.

On the return trip to town, we see lots of other people harvesting their own tangerines. People climbing trees, holding sacks on the ground, pointing and hollering, giving instructions, laughing and wiping dirt on their foreheads, as they smack a mosquito. Soon after we hit the smoother road, everyone falls asleep, salsa playing low on the stereo, windshield wipers squeeking rhythmically.