Sunday, December 5, 2010

Companerismo, manual labor and RE-learning my body

I like more than anything to feel useful and to feel capable. I know how to write essays and I know how to play sports but growing up I never learned how to use knives and shovels.

Here, at the lecheria, I wanted to do the work that the other workers were doing, but I didn’t know exactly how, and if I could, or if they would let me. I wasn’t sure quite what I was doing there and they weren’t quite sure what I was doing there. “Hi, I am Spencer, can I work with you?” I show up one day. “Si, si quiere.” Victor and Roger hang onto the back of the pick-up, speeding by with machetes strapped onto their belts: “Mejor que el se queda con Carlos. Este trabajo es feo. El es un turista,” they joke. The stench of the carrot, papaya, and pina cascara compost is strong and thick. “Can I load the wheelbarrow with pina?” “Mejor si se queda adentro para no se moja.” 

They seemed to not let me do something because they didn’t think I was strong enough or capable enough or thought that I was “above” this work. Usually, a combination. Slowly, though, day after day, misunderstanding and distrust faded. The obstacles didn’t appear to be about class (and gender), about not being used to manual labor or not knowing how to use certain tools, so much as they also revealed culture. And these obstacles didn’t always turn out to be obstacles.

 One day, after I had gotten accustomed to the satisfaction of echar pina to the 38 cows, (after asking repeatedly, I need to build muscle, I say), Victor and I got into an argument. There were four buckets available to fill. Victor said, “I’ll fill the buckets and then you bring them to the feeders.” And I said, “Yes, but I can walk there and back faster than you can fill the buckets, so wouldn’t it be better if we both fill our own buckets and carry them to the feeders?” Victor looked confused, and said, “Que? You don’t like carrying the buckets? Okay, you fill the buckets and I will carry them.” I paused. Clearly, shoveling was the more difficult task, but I knew that he could fill them much faster, and again protested: “But it’s faster if we each do both. Llenar y echar. Igual.” And he said smiling, “Why is quickness the most important?”

The shovel has become my arm now. I don’t notice its iron weight or the strain of pushing a flat nose into dense, wet matter. I shovel, foot forward lunging, one hand driving the blade, bicep clenched back twisting abs back arms shoulders engaged. The diving, rising, twisting has become one motion, one sweep, like my movements are automatic, continuous, easy. Kuch, the blade splices a papaya in two, black seeds spilling out orange flesh raw.  I turn the shovel over to deposit the fruit slosh into a quickly filling wheelbarrow and row the shovel back across my body. I switch sides and hands to even myself out. It is no longer awkward. My body feels strong and full. I know that angles work best, and that the edges are looser, and sometimes I can slide the shovel along the bottom, along the slick wooden boards to slip into the pile and lift an orange mountain. This I did not know I could do before.

We are off on the far mountain today. I watch for a few minutes as Victor and the boss hack away at the hillside, clearing brush to make pasture. Are they going to give me a machete too? Christian is amarando wire to the hose. I eye an extra machete in the truck and ask if I can join. Quincho grins and yells to Victor, “El dice que quiere chopear.” Victor sharpens the blade. “Be careful not to swing through to hit your foot,” the boss says. I raise the machete high and swing it down hard, slicing through the thick shrub stem. “Ooooh,” Victor says, “Suave. Cuidado. Here, here is a smaller one.” I smile but insist that I want to use the bigger one. “Mas facil,” Victor exhorts. “No, pero yo quiero esta. I can manage it.” The boss hovers by my side. “You can hold the shrub with one hand like this,” he says, “That way you don’t have to use so much force.” “Vea, like this,” Victor says. I check myself in my I-can-do-it-myself mindset, and try out their tips. “Like this?” I confirm.

Three abreast, we are slashing away the brush like bandits. I am grinning like an idiot as the knife slashes through the wooden knob at the base in an elegant, angled 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, seek out, and am slowly fed here. My raw blisters have closed and hardened. “Mira,” the boss says to Victor. “Look at Spencer’s hands.” He is smiling.

Knowing the “other”: what is real and true among unlikely relationships

Yes, we are different.

We have different classes, races, genders, and sexualities. You don’t have a debit/credit card and I have over 10,000$ in the bank. You are brown and I am white. You are a cis-guy and I am somewhere between butch and trans. You are “straight” and I am queer. You are from the poorest Central American country and I am from the rich north. We have different histories and languages and cultures. You are 17 and have been working at the lecheria for two years, 72 hours a week, 120$ per week, one day off per month. You are a Nicaraguan immigrant. You left when you were 15 by yourself to cross the border in the mountains and find work here. You finished primary school but haven’t started colegio. I am a gringo finishing a private college paid for by my parents. I work 10 hours a week at school.

I am reluctant to admit that I went to Manuel Antonio for the weekend with my friend. Maybe the ocean is universal? “I like to swim a lot,” I say. You nod. “It´s bonito to know how to swim, verdad?” And I realize that this is a privilege too. Do you feel jealous? I wonder. I leave the subject for the lack of understanding, my lack of words.

It is past 1pm but we haven´t finished automizando to stop for lunch, and you say you’re hungry. “you aren´t?” you ask. I say, no, that I ate a big breakfast. “What do you eat for breakfast?” I ask. “Ud. es delgado” slips out of my mouth. “CafĂ©,” you say. “That’s it?” “You get used to it.” I am silent, frozen by never having known an immediacy of hunger.

 But we share things too. We are both foreigners to Costa Rica and miss our family and friends. (You have 13 siblings and I have 5). We share language. You teach me what chulear means and I teach you what “under the sky” means. I understand most of what you’re saying, and when I don’t you have other ways of communicating with me. I know what you mean when you talk to me up close and when you use vos I know you are being caring and that we are close, and the tone of your voice is soft and sweet. We share bread and avocado and whiskey. We share smiling and laughing, especially when the boss holds the camera backwards to take a picture, and especially when I jump away as the toro grunts, and tambien when you are joking with me or when I don’t understand and I smile and you smile and we search for actions like charades or use roundabout words. We share work too.  You start at that end of the row recogiendo el pasto, and I start at this end, and our armfuls of grass finally meet in the middle and we are carrying the same bundle to the truck. We feed the calves milk side by side and we chat and we chat and we chat. You teach me how to hold the shovel like this, and throw the sawdust onto the stall floor in one sweep so that a thin layer covers evenly. Not so much force. Slide your hand down now. We attach hose: you pull, I pull push twist together fitting the hose together until our foreheads touch together and our fingers are sticky with tar glue. And we play too. I teach you how to ruck and you say, “vea,” and try to show my how to shoot the bucket into the concentrado as if you are better than me. (You are not ☺).

 I know we are different but I want to know you so bad and as I enter the barn in the morning you yell, “ESPENCEEERRRR!” smiling like a crazy person and you fire questions at me while we are milking: “Espencer, how many siblings do you have? Y barones o mujeres?” And “Espencer, I thought you were a boy. Why did you lie to me?” You close the key and pull the ordenador from the udder. “Espencer, can you really find things of value in the trash?” And I know you want to know me too. And you say to me, “Espencer, and it doesn’t cost other North Americans to get to know foreigners either?” Well, time has passed too quickly and it is too soon, and now when I am leaving, you ask for my phone number so we can stay in touch between the US and here.

I am feeling more comfortable in this culture and learning more facets of this culture. I know when you say “su mujer” it is not that you are being machista, but that addressing others in relation to oneself is common—my child, my love, neighbor, professor. And when you joke about me marrying you or Roger so that I can stay, I laugh too in knowing that marriage and companionship are so important here, talked about so much here. I know that offering help is part of valuing dependence on one another. I—I want to learn so much more. Your culture is beautiful, Victor.

 I have known you for 6 weeks. If I stayed would I understand you better and would the differences get smaller and if I stayed still longer would our languages and cultures start to blend and longer still, would our differences start to fade and fit somehow together (or, are they too many and too much?) Would understanding fill in the gaps and would we find the surface and holes of difference and could we at some point eventually in the future discover how deep you can know a culture and a person who is supposedly so different than you simply through the strength of desire to know each other? (I feel like when we are together the differences appear small already).