It’s still dark outside as I stumble out onto the road, closing the gate behind me with a clang. The roads are empty, so I have no choice but to make my way to the bus station on foot. My backpack, laden with all the gear I will hopefully need over the next week, digs into my hips. I arrive at the terminal as they are calling for passengers to Comitan. I board the bus along with only three other people, so we depart according to schedule.
I step out of the Comitan bus terminal into the street after a 90 minute bus ride. The clouds that enveloped the region a few days ago have not let up yet and a dreary rain soaks everything as I make my way to the combis. The drizzle turns into a gale just as I step under the corrugated tin roof over the combi station. I ask when the next combi to Agua Perla is bound to leave. I am told that it ought to depart in half an hour. I am foolhardy enough to believe the prediction, but wind up waiting for about an hour and a half before all the passengers finally make their way on board. I toss my backpack atop the combi amongst boxes of vegetables, a crate of chicks, and a handful of mops. The driver covers the cargo with a PVC tarp and we head out into the rain. The drive is fairly pleasant before we reach Maravilla Tenejapa. I chat with a man from Nueva Esperanza and explain my work. He is interested and surprised that a gringo wants to undertake it. I must admit that become less and less sure myself with every passing year.
These long spells of nothing allow me delve into myself and force me to reckon with the self-pitying and self-doubting part of my psyche that I usually am able to ignore by focusing on work. I become tired of living out of a backpack. Tired of constantly being gawked at and talked about in hushed tones as I walk by. Tired of campesino men jeering at me with shouts of, “Guero!” Tired of having to put the rest of my life on hold to travel to collect data. Tired of re-wearing sweat and mud-caked clothes day after day until even I realize that I smell something like spoiled milk. Tired of waiting for combi drivers who don’t stick to their schedule and all the what-ifs that worm their way into my mind as I wait. Tired of chiggers, bedbugs, and mosquitoes. Tired of my feet looking like they have been stricken by leprosy because of all the bloody welts and bug bites that cover my ankles. Tired of…being tired…just tired…
There are some things I still appreciate. I have made several friends and not many people can say that a Lacandon Maya milpero calls them, “companero.” I believe in the projects I am doing; that they can make a positive impact on the local and scientific communities, perhaps now more than ever. I finally feel like I am an expert in something. I get a rise out of teaching others about the work I am doing and the places I have experienced. I am excited by the fact that I can now do so with confidence rather than self-doubt. I love p values less than 0.05. I still love standing in the forest with a pair of binoculars and scanning the treetops for the movement of a bird, even if it just turns out to be one I’ve already seen a hundred times before. I love that everyone will greet you with a brief acknowledgement of “Buenas dias,” if you do so in turn. I still get butterflies when I look at deep-green forested mountainsides dotted with skeletal bone-white tree trunks, or when I look up at a giant cedro tree around whose girth I cannot wrap my arms. Maybe that’s all that matters. Maybe I just need to suck it up and come to grips with the choice that I made and that ultimately that what I am doing is meaningful. Then of course comes the guilt that I’m should recognize my privilege and the fortune that I have had in my life thus far. Maybe I just need some sun and a good night’s rest.
The combi ride becomes significantly less comfortable when we reach Maravilla Tenejapa. A family fills in the rest of the empty seats, which means that the little bus is already fairly well stuffed. Unfortunately, this combi driver, like so many others, does not really grasp the concept of “full.” We continue to stop in every town to take on passengers. This is only made more uncomfortable by the fact that the temperature outside is rising steadily as we descend to the lowlands around Montes Azules. We are stuffed like sardines bouncing down the highway. Our heads bob in unison as our little metal can maneuvers around potholes (can it really be called a pothole if half of the road is gone?) and landslides almost undoubtedly caused by the recent heavy rains. Actually, sardines may have it better off than us. At least sardines are packed in water.
I reach Plan de Rio Azul after 4 hours in the combi. I squeeze out and squint into the sunlight as the driver lowers my backpack to me. He drives off leaving me to my own devices to find my way to Agua Perla. I ask a few teenage boys hanging around a small shop for directions to Agua Perla and get little more than sideways glances and stifled giggles in response. Teenagers are pricks everywhere. A man inside the shop tells me that it’s across the river and that I will need to take a lancha. I thank him, shoot a disapproving glance at the boys, and start walking down to the river.
Two boys paddle an old canoe that seems to be taking on water toward me and offer to take me across the river. I agree given that I don’t seem to have any other option. The boat shivers in the water as I get in and I immediately crouch down in the middle of the craft, which is apparently put together from roughly hewn scrap wood, not even bothering to remove my backpack. The boys, aged probably about 10 years old, start paddling upstream. The river is swollen to just below its bank-tops due to the storms that have passed through the watershed over the last week. It drifts sluggishly, dyed chocolate brown with silt and clay. The boys prove to be fairly adept oarsmen and we make our way across in short order. I ask them about a price. They counter with a twenty peso fare, which I fork over, glad to be over that obstacle without having ended up downstream with all my equipment at the bottom of the channel.
I start up the opposite bank and almost immediately slip on the treacle-like mud slope, the full weight of my pack collapsing atop me. I dust myself off. Fortunately, only my hat is partially crushed and I am no worse for wear. The trail intersects a road. A man walking up it greets me and asks where I am going. I explain that I am going to Agua Perla to meet with Don Reynaldo to sample birds in his cacao plots and ask whether he knows where I could find him. Ermilio responds that he does, given that Reynaldo is his brother. Ermilo was heading back to Agua Perla himself and offers to show me the way. He also reveals that he cultivates cacao as well and allows me to sample there. It is good to have contacts here, because many small rural villages are extraordinarily insular. One certainly does not just walk onto some random person’s land, and you should expect to be ignored or rejected even if you do introduce yourself as a student researcher.
On the road to Agua Perla
We reach the town after about half an hour of walking. It is past mid-day and the heat is oppressive. Sweat drips from my forehead and stings my eyes to the point that I can barely keep them open. Ermilo leads me to Reynaldo’s home, where I am welcomed and given a glass of chocolate water. It is something akin to a Yoohoo, but made with bone-fide cacao. I recount the purpose of my travels to Reynaldo, who agrees to help me and suggests that I hang my hammock in Ermilo’s tool shed. I am not entirely enamored with the idea, but it turns out that the shed is open on one side to let in the breeze and quite clean and spacious.
My home during my stay in Agua Perla
A little boy, Ermilo’s grandson, walks into the shed as I unpack my backpack and set up my hammock. Everything is carefully inspected by his exacting gaze. Luis is an indefatigable 5-year-old. He pelts me with questions until both my Spanish and mind are exhausted. Everything needs to be removed from its container so that he can see it more closely. However, despite the obvious fact that these technologies are completely unknown to him, his interest is purely academic. He has no jealousy or desire towards my relative material wealth. He is quite content to snack on his Sabritas: spicy Cheeto-like corn snacks.
Luis in action
Reynaldo invites me to eat dinner at his house. I realize that the food I brought was in all likelihood going to be completely superfluous, which doesn’t bother me at all. Fresh corn tortillas, beans, and avocado beat potatoes, carrots, and lentils any day. The municipal elections are coming up in the next week and he tries to clear up the confusion I have about the process as we eat. It appears that three new parties, namely the PRD, Chiapas Unido, and Mover a Chiapas, have popped up alongside the centrist PRI, conservative PAN, and the center-right Verde party. I have no real notion of what separates these parties as they all seem to be promising the same things: development of one form or another. One candidate promises a road; the other promises a bridge. One claims that the other is corrupt; the other retorts that his opponent does not really represent a change from the present administration. The campaign posters that invariably depict the candidates smiling a toothy grin and giving the thumbs up don’t really do much to differentiate them. Despite the fact that the elections seem to have very little impact on the well-being of these oft-forgotten rural villages, they are very passionate about local politics. Upping the ante from lawn signs, every home seems to have a campaign symbol or slogan painted on its side.
After dinner, Reynaldo and I talk about cacao cultivation and my plans for my field work on this trip. He says that there are two main groups of cacao producers in the region. One is organic while the other raises cacao conventionally, that is, allowing for the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. He belongs to the former group. He admits that his work would be much easier if he could use chemicals, especially to treat the fungal infestation (“la plaga”) that significantly impacts his crop yield, but is very adamant that he believes that organic farming is the best way to reduce his impact on the local environment, which he cares deeply about. Not everybody is as devoted as Reynaldo. He tells me that some people have accepted chemical pesticides and fertilizers from political campaigns in exchange for votes. I suppose that there is no way for the politicians to actually ascertain whether their return upon investment, but I suppose that it can serve as a powerful incentive when one politician is almost indistinguishable from the next. Reynaldo supplements his income from cacao with milpa and fruit trees. These plots have become increasingly important for him given that recent years have been hotter and brought more intense but sporadic rain events, thereby reducing the productivity of his cacao. He also suggests a few more people in Amatitlan whose cacao plots I could sample.
I make my way back to Ermilo’s place and sit down in a plastic chair that he has provided for me. Luis and his older sister Anamaria come over and begin their inquisition regarding my equipment anew. I must explain the function of a teakettle at least four times. It would appear that I will have no rest while they are around. I try to escape to the shelter of my hammock, naively thinking that they would leave me alone if I hide and remain silent for a while. It turns out that this merely gives them the means and opportunity to batter me around like a piñata. Their mother comes over and reprimands them for their behavior and they settle down. Luis, however, does not cease to babble quietly to himself. I finally manage to fall asleep shortly after dark, thoroughly exhausted from almost 8 hours of travel.
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