Mike and Kirsten from A MOOSE IN THE ROAD and ARIEL go to Guatemala to regroup in FINCA VERDE
I jostled against a local woman dressed in an elaborately patterned skirt and blouse bearing the specific design for her village, I’d been told. Another bump in the road and I snugged against Kirsten who softly absorbed my weight in a way she hadn’t for some time. We were standing in the back of a pickup with twelve other people hanging onto a suspended 2×4 that ran the length of the bed. The Mayan woman thumped the roof of the cab and the driver pulled to the side of the road. She made her way off the back bumper, gave the driver a few coins and a new passenger climbed aboard. As we shuffled forward to make room, I was pleased to see Kirsten’s ‘happiness’ face.
For some time now, she had been tense, restless, acting less and less enthusiastic about enabling the miracle of birth. We talked about teaching obstetrics at the local medical school. Of course, she mentored interns but full-time classroom instruction would be too abstract for her, reducing the dynamics of hands-on deliveries to Power Point presentations. Administration would be a step up, but she really wasn’t interested in management.
Over dinner one night, flipping through the day’s stack of junk mail, I opened a Road Scholar brochure. “Hey, look, Kirs, they got us tagged as old-timers for guided tours.”
“We’re not there yet,” Kirsten replied. “We can make our own trips.”
“Okay,” I said, as I riffled the pages. “Let’s pick a place.” I opened on Guatemala and the Lake Atitlan highlands. “How about Guatemala?”
Kirsten shrugged. “Good a place as any.”
I smiled to myself. I had gotten the ball rolling and could count on her take-charge, Type A enthusiasm to follow through with the plans. While I scraped the remains of salad and squash into our compost bucket on the sink, I watched her munching a cookie and Googling on her iPad.
With Lucas in college now, we had been free to schedule three weeks at a super-green experimental farm near the city of Panajachel on the north shore of Lake Atitlan. Their website described Finca Verde as dedicated to environmentally sound agricultural techniques and committed to training others in the region to do the same. Visitors were welcome to live-in but had to pay for their room as well as work six hours a day for their board which would be, predictably, organic and vegetarian. Additionally, there was a yoga/meditation salon overlooking the volcanic lake, Spanish classes and a rainforest on the grounds.
Finca Verde checked a lot of boxes on Kirsten’s wish list. She had been wanting to learn Spanish for some time to enhance her OB practice with migrant workers. Always among the first to buy-into any new technology both personal and professional, old-as-dirt organic farming surprisingly piqued her interest. Sleeping in our own primitive cabins would feel like camping. A final plus was authentic recipes for home-grown produce cooked on a wood burning horno. Talk about farm to table.
When our open-air transport pulled to a stop on the edge of town late Sunday morning, it took us both a few minutes to absorb all the sights and sounds following our first full week of meditative calm at the collective. I was looking forward to a juicy, rare hamburger after tons of salad and beans and rice. In fact, my stomach was rebelling a bit.
It didn’t take long to get spotted as tourists. Four young boys formed a wall in front of us. Each held up cute note cards with colorful, hand-woven insets. Kirsten wanted to immediately buy up their inventory. “No,” I snapped, using fifty percent of my total knowledge of the Spanish language on the kids. Kirsten frowned. I held out my hand. “Not now, okay?” I requested. “I’ll explain later.”
I don’t like to be importuned, having learned as a child about giving milk to stray cats. Not to mention my habit of scoping out a new place slowly. A photographer once told me to put away my camera for the first twenty-four hours in a fresh city to avoid framing it through a viewfinder. The secret was to let the visual feast come to you, to absorb it, to let your eye scan and your mind select the most dramatic and memorable images with the intent to record later.
Kirsten shook her head and wandered down Calle Santander trailing juvenile vendors. She stopped in front of a row of about ten women, all in traditional clothes, hunkered along a stone wall weaving scarves or table runners or maybe belts on small hand looms. I left her with the women and kept walking toward the expansive blue horizon promised by the seductive glimpse down the cleavage of the long, narrow street.
Sensory overload. After months in a windowless cave in the basement of the hospital like a mouse trapped in a maze of schematics and circuit boards, I was stunned by the smells of mango trees hanging over a wall, grilled beef from a street vendor, dog shit under foot, heavy sun on my shoulders and overall the alluring smell of open water pulling me to the lake. Standing at the wall that T-stopped the road and overlooked the shore, I watched children splashing and dunking each other in the shallows. I had to squelch an urge to do the same. Who knew if the water at the edge of a good-size town was polluted? Farther down, water-taxis nestled against rickety two-plank docks. A dozen folks were disembarking from one craft. A ways out, a strangely shaped boat, like a wooden coffin for a four-foot man, with a square stern and very pointed bow carried a fisherman slowly retrieving a net. I sat on the wall and took in the panorama.
Atitlan was called a volcanic lake. Could be. High walls dropped down to the water in a vague circle like a partially eaten sugar cone with blue ice cream puddling in the middle. I had caught glimpses of the lake as we swung through mountain cutbacks on the way down to Pana. Motionless at ground level—or is it lake level—the effect is very different. This country is beautiful, but hard—learned after a week at the Finca and the challenges of growing food, of surviving in this visual paradise.
I heard a gravelly voice passing behind me. “So, do you want to eat at the hotel again tonight or try somewhere else?” A quick glance offered a retreating view of an elderly American couple. The man, bandy legged in mid-shin cargo shorts was draped in a peach-colored golf shirt. His monkish tonsure of frizzy gray hair, fire plug shape and bouncy gait reminded me of Donohue, the head man at Finca Verde. Which in turn reminded me of Mac up at the fish camp above Agawa Canyon. Funny thing. Kirsten took to Donohue the same way as Mac. Instant rapport on both sides and I was odd man out.
As soon as we walked in the gate, Donohue was there shaking our hands and holding Kirsten’s a little longer than necessary. And there she was falling all over herself smiling and gushing. Well, maybe not quite that bad. But still, I’ve seen her more self-contained when making a new acquaintance. Turns out Donohue was an ex-pat living in Central America since he stopped backpacking in the ‘60s. He was the kind of self-reliant, make-do, can-do guy that appealed to Kirsten. I wonder what it is with her and older men. I’m not a psychiatrist but she really gets on with old duffers, for some reason. Maybe that portends well for my old age.
It didn’t take long for her to slide into the flow of the commune. She made friends with the staff who were mostly younger Latino volunteers, environmentally keen, college student types. That’s where her Spanish made it possible to connect. I, on the other hand, with no Spanish was limited to English with Donohue, Kirsten and one of the Swedish guests and the use of sign language and grunts with staff. Which was fine with me since I think of foreign languages as basically a code that only works in certain countries, is hard to learn and offers limited pay off. Computer code, conversely, is global and worth the effort.
Kirsten was fully engaged, constantly going head-to-head with her Spanish teacher and the yoga instructress and when they found out she was a doctor, with patients in the first-aid cabin. She loved helping the cook. And her work assignments ran to preparing organic bug killer from fermented papaya, to weeding and harvesting vegetables, to culling hands-full of tiny lettuce seeds from surrounding chaff. Watching her do that with three other people, including the two women from Sweden and one from Portugal, got me thinking of a better way to do the job. So, I found a stash of lumber scraps under a porch, sized them on a table saw outside the utility shed, made frames and backed them with window screen. The filters sped up the process.
That was how it went for me at the farm. Donohue would assign me, for example, to paint the outside of a building. When it became clear that I couldn’t reach the top of the walls, I borrowed Rodrigo’s machete. He was the gardener. We got along well since he was a man of few words, Spanish or otherwise. And whenever I got a chance I would tag along with him on his rounds in neighboring woods or forest depending on what you called the tangle of banana trees and palms, live oak and scrub. We spotted animals. Chopped fire wood. Studied exotic flowers and bugs. I was like a city kid in an abandoned lot gone feral.
Back to the machete. I hacked a two-inch thick bamboo stalk and trimmed it to about six feet. Then I taped the paint roller to it so I could reach the top of the walls. Job completed, I mounted a shelf over the sink for one of the Swedish ladies. Donohue looked in as I was finishing and offered a grudging nod of approval. Another day, I spotted a Guatamalteco volunteer struggling with the design of a beehive he was trying to make for local farmers. I watched for a while and figured out a solution to what he was trying to do. I took his wood to the table saw, showed him how to make dado cuts and he all but kissed me with delight at the resolution of his problem. I was turning into the Mr. Fix-it of Finca Verde.
My lakeside thoughts were interrupted by Kirsten snugging next to me, “Lovely isn’t it?”
“Hmm,” I replied.
She offered me a bite of her grilled corn-on-the cob. I eyed the twelve-inch long cob with horse-tooth sized kernels and took a tentative nibble. It tasted like popcorn instead of sweet corn. That’s when I felt my gut lurch, reminding me of my ongoing gastric distress. When I explained my symptoms to Kirsten, she suggested finding a pharmacy.
We stopped in front of a farmacia open to the street, two steps from the constant parade of tourists and vendors at the end of Calle Santander. A lady came to the counter. I hesitated, unused to describing the state of my bowels on a street corner.
The lady waited a moment, then said, “Si…?”
Kirsten nudged me, said, “I got it,” offered a few words in Spanish and placed a hand on my belly.
The lady yelled, “Hector!”
I looked to a corner of the shop where a short, heavy-set man in nylon shorts and a team-type jersey sat on a couch with two adolescent boys watching what sounded like a soccer match. He levered himself up and edged his way over to me all the while looking over his shoulder at the game. He glanced up and asked what the problem was.
Kirsten used what I think was the word for diarrhea. The pharmacist questioned her with words and gestures for fever, vomiting and number of days. Then he reached into a drawer and poured ten tablets into an envelope. ‘Cipro,’ he said. Then held up two fingers. “Dos cada dia.” Then he held up five fingers, “Cinco dias.”
From the corner of the room I heard a loud whoop and an announcer drawing out a long ‘G-O-O-A-L!’ The doctor raced back to the game. The wife rang up the sale.
“Pretty efficient, huh?” I said to Kirsten.
She chuckled. “I can’t believe it…no appointment, no insurance card, no family history no script, no co-pay. Worked like a charm.”
Back at the farm that evening, Donohue invited Kirsten and me to his veranda for a beer. She told him about our encounter with the insistent young boys. “And then, after we thought they were gone we went to Ling’s for lunch.”
“Nice place,” Donohue said. “She’s been there three years, buys some of our extra produce.” He huffed, “Wait. I can guess what happened next. The boys walked up to your table and dropped their stuff right next to your food.”
“They’re so cute,” Kirsten said, “but of course, Mike tried to shoo them away.”
“I tried to explain to you,” I said. “They don’t particularly like you. You’re just a mark.”
“Donohue, can you believe what he said to them…what was it, Mike?”
Donohue guffawed, “Where did you learn that? Hell, you hardly know a word of Spanish but you learned Mayan for ‘fuck off.’”
“Rodrigo taught me.”
Donohue laughed again. “Did they leave?”
“Yes,” Kirsten replied, “but on the way out, one of the boys said, plain as day, ‘Fuck you.’”
“At least we understood each other,” I said.
Donohue gave me five—the first time he seemed to notice me. He paused for a quiet burp, continued, “I understand how those kids, and the women too, hustling shawls and scarves can really get in your face. But then, that’s how we do it down here. Third world advertising. We don’t have billboards. We don’t have commercials bombarding you every second. It’s a personal encounter. The only hitch is, the locals don’t bother each other, only the tourists. And the tourists operate on a different standard of politeness. If someone stands in front of an American and engages him or her, good manners dictate that they respond. The only way to deal with it is to avoid eye contact and at most shake your head, no. And, once in a while, hell, think of it like a toll road. You’re paying to pass through the territory.”
“See?” Kirsten said.
“By the way,” Donohue asked, “What kind of work do you do?”
“Equipment repair. Biomedical equipment for hospitals.”
“Ah, well maybe you can fix my keyboard. I got a sticky F. Drives me crazy.”
Back in our cabin, I complained to Kirsten as she got ready for bed, “I’ll fix his sticky F all right.”
“Now come on, Mike. He’s a good guy and does a lot of good for folks.”
“Hmm,” I muttered as I booted up the Scrabble game on my iPad. We usually played a couple of rounds before tucking in. There wasn’t much other nightlife down on the farm.
Two days later over breakfast in the open-air dining area, Donohue took a call on his cell. He walked toward us, concern furrowing his face. “Kirsten,” he pleaded, “we need your help. My wife’s cousin across the lake in San Pedro has been in labor for two days now. Think you can help?”
“I can try,” she said, gulping the last of her coffee. She looked a request at me.
“Yeah, I’ll come along,” I offered.
Donohue drove us down to Panajachel in the farm van and joined us in the queue to the ubiquitous water taxis. Since we were the last ones on I had to scramble over four crowded bench seats to the very back to squeeze into the last spot between a lady carrying a chicken in her lap and a man with a bag of avocados. Donohue and Kirsten hunched on the inside edge of the bow. I watched them talking all the way across the six-mile lake. Lots of nods and expression of interest and concern. I was literally sitting the JV bench.
We filed out the wobbly plank dock to the main square of town where Donohue took the lead to the cousin’s house. Three men squatted outside a small stone building. We heard a weak, keening cry. The youngest man, who was probably the husband buried his head in his knees. The other older men shook hands with Donohue while Kirsten went inside with a woman who might have been the mother. After ten minutes of uncomfortable silence and shared cigarettes, the two older men took Donohue off to who knows where. I hunkered next to the husband for another ten minutes until Kirsten came out talking ostensibly to me but really just to herself because she never looked at me. “Failure to progress. At home I could order an epidural. Or if it goes on much longer, move to C-section. But out here…can’t do anything. The midwife has tried all she knows.”
At that point, the other two women emerged, joined my wife. I needed to take a leak, so I headed inside looking for the John. I passed the room where the woman was, eyes shut, exhausted but fists clenched, face taut. Across from her bed was a table and a tall glass votive candle with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I used my lighter to make a flame for her to hopefully focus on. Then I went behind the head of the bed, placed my hands on the base of her neck and pressed gently, running my thumbs across the top of her shoulders. I don’t know where it came from but I started sing-songing, very slowly, “Bah bah black sheep. Have you any wool. Yes sir. Yes sir. Three bags full.” I could feel her shoulders relax. I stroked her arms. “Just relax now. Soft and still. One for the master. One for the dame. One for the little boy. Who lives down…” Her whole body tensed as a contraction began. So, I started over again, my voice mellow and low. “Bah bah black sheep. Have you any wool.” I rubbed her shoulders, her arms. “Relax all over. Except down there. Save that power. Focus down there. Yes sir. Yes sir. Three bags full. You can do it. Just don’t fight. Let it happen. Come out all right.”
She took a deep breath as the contraction ended, half-closed her eyes aimed at the dancing flame. A short while later she lurched awake, straining. “Kirsten,” I called. The women rushed in. “Oh my god. She’s crowning.”
I completed my bathroom break and joined the husband out front. I patted him on the shoulder and pushed the limits of my vocabulary with, “is bueno,” just before we heard a baby cry. I offered him a Marlboro and then, in a fit of generosity gifted the whole pack.
Half an hour later, Kirsten emerged and gave me a penetrating look with those hazel eyes of hers. Hadn’t seen that in a while. And this time, on the boat ride back, she sat next to me and Donohue sat alone.