My host Cheyo disappeared every Saturday morning to work at the milpa. I imagined him working with his neighbours to pour corn into chutes, walk a wheel in circles to move the mill, and shovel the cornflour into sacks for everyone to take home. In fact, I must never have looked up the meaning of this false friend. On a whim, I decided to join him on my last day in San Pedro, assuming it would be a short trip to the top of the town, making for an easy walk to wherever I decided to go for the rest of the day.
As soon as we were out of the house, Cheyo told me we’d need to get a taxi to reach the milpa, which I still thought was a mill. The taxi took us out of the Atitlan crater and along the adjacent cornfield-covered plateau for about ten kilometres before we got out and walked through the cornfields. Cheyo explained where each corn field started and ended and who owned each one until we arrived at his. The corn stood tall – about his height – but fruitless. Surprisingly, there were large piles of rocks throughout the fields, and Cheyo explained that the corn loved rocks for some reason, always growing stronger where the rocks were. I assume the volcanic rocks contain minerals that wash into the soil, but he couldn’t confirm this.
There was no work to be done on the corn itself. Instead, he took me to where he’d hidden his tools and we began to walk up the hill, beyond the corn to the tree line. Here, he showed me where he’d planted pine trees, still just bristly twigs, and had me help him clear away weeds and fallen leaves that threatened to choke his new forest. He loves pine, but these were to be a source of firewood, as were the existing trees when they got in the way of the pines’ growth.
That done, we came back down the hill, collecting ‘herbs’ on the way. They apparently like to be pruned, and his wife, Maria, loves to make soup out of them. We must have gathered a kilo of leaves before he was satisfied, saying that should just about make a single meal. We then walked to Maria’s family property and collected more. He showed me how small some of the corn stalks were there, pointing out how lack of sun, or yellow soil caused their poor growth.
When we were finally ready, we flagged down a ute and jumped on the back with a number of other farmers and their cargo of firewood. They all admired the stack of leaves I had poking out the top of my bag, lamenting that young people didn’t eat them any more. It was ignorance of course. They didn’t understand that you had to soak the leaves for hours before cooking them to get rid of the acidic taste.
It was an enlightening morning, and I can’t believe that it took me three weeks to ask to join him.
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