I didn’t know that Joaquin was his name until after four weeks of working there, at the lecheria, because my companeros, Carlos, Victor, and Roger, would always refer to him as el dueno, the owner/boss. This name isn’t out of status as much as it is a cultural tendency to use people’s names relatively infrequently. Instead, people use their relationships to people as names. For example, neither do I know the actual name of el vecino, the neighbor, who is around all the time because we call him el vecino. Sonia would call me “mi amor” or “mi hijo.” There are two lecherias in Palmira that Joaquin heads, but lately I have been working at the one abajo. I walk up from the mountain, enter the barn, and we are leaving to go cut hay. Joaquin and I peel and eat our bananas together in the front seat of the pick-up, with Roger and Victor standing in back as we roll over the rocky road. We pile the truck high with armfuls of fresh grass. Joaquin stands on top stamping it down. I can’t help but feeling like we are father and son, like I am his sidekick learning how to work on the farm, and after returning from a hard day’s work, eating bread and fresco that his wife, Mariela, serves us. Joaquin has on his “Money won’t change me” sweatshirt, my favorite of his English text shirts, although his “Middle School Concert Choir” and “Johnsburg Jaguar Pride” coach polos are close seconds. Joaquin is a little over fifty, but works like he is 25, climbing, climbing, chasing cattle, we are always climbing, or carrying, usually both. He isn’t nimble, but he is sure-footed and catches his stumbles with grace.
When we aren’t cutting grass for the day, we are over on the far wild mountain attaching hundreds and hundreds of feet worth of hose with pega, tar sticky glue, to reach the stream below. Wild beans and pumpkin and dead bamboo poke up across the landscape. We tread slowly through the brush, hauling our long hoses, sawing this piece off and sticking a smaller tube inside the two ends, pulling, pushing them, twisting, one of us on either side, pulling the hoses together until our foreheads touch and our fingers are sticky with tar glue.
Or we are clearing brush with machetes since the cows won’t eat the mora bushes or the shrubs. I watch for a few minutes as Victor and Joaquin slash away at the hillside, grab a machete from the truck, and ask if I can join. Victor sharpens the blade. “Be careful not to swing through to hit your foot,” Joaquin says. “You can hold the shrub with one hand like this,” he says. “Vea, like this,” Victor says. Three abreast, we are slashing away the brush like bandits. I am grinning like an idiot as the knife slashes through the wooden knob in an elegant, strong stroke. I wack the ground and the roots multiple times to finish it off, to feel like I am a kid out loose, unleashing my pent-up energy. It is this balance of composed strength and unruly energy that I crave, and am fed here.
I have lost myself in this rhythm. I can’t sleep past 5:45 am because I am ready, eager to head off to the cows. I have deferred going to the farmers’ market on Saturdays in order to work a full day. After I finish the two mornings at the school every week, I begin my walk across the mountain.
Joaquin tells me they are going to sangrar the cattle tomorrow. It only happens once every two years, he says, so I am in luck. With sangre, meaning blood, I become worried that I am about to partake in some sacrificial ritual, bloodletting the cattle, but figure I had better not turn the opportunity down. We drop a newborn boy calf at the butcher to be slaughtered (they only keep the girls because it is a dairy farm). And then we head off to sangrar the cattle. We venture up to Pueblo Nuevo, a town that is even higher and further, where the lungs must again re-adjust to climbing through this thin air. I am standing up in the back of the pick-up with Joaquin against the hood. “The trafico doesn’t come around these parts,” he says. “Don’t be afraid.” We are like smiling dogs, tongues out in the wind. “It is nicer back here, isn’t it?” he says. “Yes, it is.” The car curves over the bumpy road, and I stand like I am on my skateboard, skating the roads with Lynne, free and unfettered, feeling the road under my feet, under the wheels, balancing, body forward, now back. We herd the cattle into a cement blocked area where I stand guard while Joaquin ropes them one by one. Luckily, sangrar only means drawing blood in order to make sure the cows don’t have tuberculosis or other diseases.
As a daily routine, after milking and feeding the cows and calves, Joaquin fills my water bottle up with milk, and gives me an extra full cup to drink, and I head out into the sunset to walk the hour back to Tapezco. Today, I enter the milk room, and Joaquin slides two 10,000 colones bills (twenty dollar bills) out of his pocket. He says, “I wanted to give you something for your expenses. Ten thousand from last week, and ten thousand for this week.”
(A note on politeness/generosity and culture: generally, it is not polite to decline any sort of gift or offer. Generosity is expected and accepted. You accept and say thank you and offer your generosity to others. Yet it still overwhelms me—how to accept, and how to give back. In the US I am used to paying exactly what I owe, and declining half-hearted polite offers out of politeness. When I enter someone’s house and they offer to get me a drink or food if I am hungry, I usually say, “No, thank you, I am fine,” and they usually expect this answer without prodding. But here, you offer because you mean it. Whether it is a truck pulling up beside me to offer me a ride up the mountain to Palmira, the panaderia waving off my attempt to pay for bread rolls, the pulperia woman sliding an extra tomato into my bag, Joaquin giving me a pineapple to take home, Mariela sitting me down in her kitchen to eat bread and fresco, this happens all the time. Furthermore, it is not polite to try to refuse gifts or defer an opinion or to be ambiguous. When you are asked by Sonia if you prefer sweet or green plaintains, you tell her. “No me importa” is practically an insult; Sonia will get a surprised/hurt look on her face and turn on her heel for the kitchen. If you are asked if you like wine, and you say yes, Carlos will pour you wine and it is not wise to say, “Oh, it’s okay I am fine without wine.” You say thank you and drink it.)
But I stood there, trying to search for words. I was blushing and trying to explain that as part of the program, I was receiving credit for this (since I just kind of showed up one day and wasn’t working with Joaquin at the start) and they were teaching me so much, and he interrupted. “Then, it is a little present. At least take one.” At this word, regalo, I put away my verguenza and accepted the pride of working for an actual 10,000 colon.
Joaquin has been telling me about a shortcut of late. In fact, Roger, Joaquin, and Victor have been discussing at length, pointing to this water tank on the landscape, and that blue roof, debating the best shortcut for me to take to walk down the mountain, through the bosque, over the river, and back up, instead of using the road. I have found the way that Joaquin says is best in coming to work that morning, and this afternoon Joaquin hands me a big stick, and tells me “If there is a coyote, you feign like this (hand raised, stamped foot) and it will run off. If there are a lot of them, you are the one that should be running. But, there won’t be any coyotes yet. If it wasn’t safe I wouldn’t send you through there. I am going to watch to make sure you find the path.” “Thanks, but I remember where it is,” I say. He nods, “Spencer, hay paso arribo, exit the fence above,” and I head off down the mountain with my backpack, milk, and walking (coyote) stick, meandering along the slope. I look over my shoulder to see Joaquin’s yellow rubber milking apron, Victor’s red coat, and Roger’s baseball cap, all standing there, chatting, watching me descend. I pick up my pace a little to get out of sight so they don’t have to watch anymore. I scamper and fall like a drunkard down the uneven patchy hillside, roll, crawl under the barbed wire fence still with my backpack still on and stick in hand, and slide down the mudslope. Out of sight, whew. I have found the path and am in the forest now, picking my way across the rocks to avoid the mud, and leaping across the river stones. The waterfall is small but fast. The afternoon sun is a gorgeous gold, and I stop to take pictures of the sun hitting the thick layers and hanging shapes of green. I plunge my stick into the damp Earth to await my arrival the next day. The moras are ripening in the forest and I pick a few of those too, chewing softly so that the seeds don’t stick in my teeth. I go up, up, up, rucking under a wire every twenty feet in the cow pasture on the adjacent side. Sweating, heavy breathes, I stop to rest. I look back across the forest, up the other hillside to the lecheria, and 30 minutes after I’ve left, Joaquin’s yellow, Victor’s red, and Roger’s baseball cap are all there still, watching, making sure I haven’t lost my way or been eaten by the wolves.