A long time ago, when I was younger, more ambitious, and not near as smart as I am now, I came to be involved in a seat of the pants resource based venture in the Central American wild lands.
A small scale and selective wood cutting operation, and not what you may have already pictured in your minds eye, that proved to be a low level boom to the local grass roots economy. For a time at least.
This musing begins after a weekend sortie into a neighboring republic...
The first rays of sun began to touch the rim of low lying hills in the distance to the west and I been making good use of the Trooper's overdrive since leaving Chetumal in the night.
Armando and I had just completed one of our weekend trips up into Mexico, and had checked out of our rooms at the lovely Los Cocos Hotel at 2 that morning. Buddy Armando has been having himself a pretty good snooze the whole time except for waking up briefly to deal with the border people when we crossed the Rio Hondo. He has taken an undignified occupancy of the seat, and sprawls with his head lightly bumping the passenger window, a small drool on his lip. We had intended to meet up with the crew bus before it left town at 5am, and I had my foot to the floor of the long suffering Isuzu Trooper on the deserted Northern highway. Approaching Orangewalk I took my hand off the wheel and glanced at my Swiss Army watch, and was satisfied we would be there with time to spare.
I had no sooner returned what attention I had to the road ahead when there it was, laying across both lanes, just laying in wait for the unwary. The speed bumps on the highway, or topes as they are affectionately known in Latin America, are commonly placed out at the town limits. They put up a small sign to warn you, but they put it up at the same place as the damn topes. You often don't see them coming, and the only indication of one is a sudden patch of long skid marks leading up to it. By now I had just about worn out every friggin topes in the territory, and again this one had my name all over it.
After a few tries I found the brake pedal and added some of the Trooper's tires to the skid field leading up to the topes. An awakening Armando piles into a heap against the Isuzu dash just before the Trooper launched into the air with a tremendous bang, knocking a weeks worth of mud loose from underneath, we landed with another big bang and Armando scrambled to get back in his seat.
"Morning" I said, before he had a chance to rag on me about my driving.
"Dias Senor Robin" he laughs rubbing his shin, "I was just getting comfortable too".
The main drag in 'town' is divided down the center by a strip of palmetto. Already the streets were busy with loaded cane trucks, bicycles, and the odd one horse cart filled with produce. We pull into the town square and pull up next to the beat up old bus we had contracted to move the crew at the beginning and end of the work week. Roughly half of the employees live in town and assemble here to get on the bus for the 2 plus hour trip out to camp. Ricardo was a senior employee and took the head count for the bus Monday mornings, he tells us we have everyone other than Feliciano.
"I'll take his seat!" exclaims Armando, then he takes his bag and heads for the dilapidated bus to lay claim to the back seat to resume his nap on the long trip out to camp.
That was bad news as it was just what I had in mind, hell.
The crew bus fires up and pulls away in a cloud of black smoke.
Feliciano Blanco was a funny character whom on occasion would have too much fun on weekends and have trouble making it on the bus Monday morning. The lovable Blanco also held the record for employee most often fired. I figured I had better go see if I could round him up.
I backed the Trooper out onto the road like I owned the place, then raked through the gears up the street past D'Victoria hotel and took the next left, dodging the potholes for a short ways in and up next to the soccer field is the small board shack that Blanco rents from his sister, "The Weech" as he refers to her. I strode up and gave the flimsy whitewashed door a half dozen hard knocks, shaking it on the hinges.
"Wake up call mister!" I called out in English, which he speaks pretty well, but cracks me up with his accent.
He rolls out of his hammock and stumbles into the door, fumbling with the nail that locks the latch on the inside. In huge grass stained boxer shorts he presents all 5 feet of himself in the doorway, smelling of cheap drink and two day old cologne.
"Ahhh Mr. Robin" he says, "How are you theese fine morning?", then adds..."It eeze morning, eeze it not?"
"Si" I said, adding that had been a damn long one at that.
In the vehicle I had a little quiet time to myself while I waited for Blanco to get his small bag of stuff together, putting the time to good use smashing the mosquitoes that inevitably get in when you open the doors. Soon Blanco came out and lets a whole new batch in.
Once on the highway out of town I began to smell smoke, so I knew we were gaining on the bus.
Pretty soon its lumbering presence fills my sights and I pulled out of the vapour trail to blow by on the left, tooting the horn and waving to the numerous faces that are looking back and taking particular interest in our rocket sled like progress down the narrow highway.
"Topes Mr. Robin" states Blanco calmly, trying to brace his short legs to the firewall before the tires locked.
BANG!, and we launched off the topes to the south.
We bounced along the dirt road into the village of Santa Marta where the other half of our workers lived. The 15 or so would congregate under the big tree in the schoolyard to await the company limosina.
I checked my watch as I turned in, "Holy Cats" I say out loud, puzzling Blanco, I've been on the go for over 4 hours and its not even 6 am yet!
These folks were all refugees from Guatemala and lived quite a simple lifestyle.
The group visibly straightens when the vehicle pulls in, and I rolled the window down as I wheeled up.
"Buenos dia Meester Robeen!" they all sung at once, trying hard to out smile each other.
"Como esta Mr. Robeen" croons a feminine voice, as I was afraid it would.Forefront and center is a cooks helper, Sandra, bless her heart, whom had become more than a little enamoured with a certain, reluctant gringo. She stands there winking and pursing her lips every time I look at her, which of course makes it hard not to.
The flat deck truck was going to the city today so I tell the driver, Omar, to hop in so he can get the Blue Louisville checked over and get a head start on the day. He sprints around the Trooper and slams Blanco ahead with the seat back and settles into the dusty back seat, holding his tape player on his lap.
This seemed to take about 5 seconds.
I tried to start it, put it in gear, and wind the window up all at the same time and tear out of there for camp.
"There eeze steel one more seat mi amor" Sandra purrs through the rapidly closing window, then begins to race around to the passenger side, like she's going to beat Omar's time.
"Oh hell, Blanco, make sure she goes in the back" I said.
"Yesss Meester Robeen" he kids as the he gets out.
Sandra barrels in, grabs Blanco and fires him head first into the back seat with Omar. She slams the seat back into his backside and jumps and lands in the passenger side, sliding over to my side of her bucket seat as far as she can, and begins to purr seductively.
"Damn you Blanco" I said to his still struggling backside as we pulled away.
Once beyond the canefeilds the bush closes in and we made the turn onto the rough jungle road we hacked in 5 months previous to gain access to the remote site.
It would take a bumpy hour, provided we didn't get stuck, or break down.
"Omar, el musica por favor" I said over my shoulder to him, slapping away the hand again from the passenger side that keeps lighting on my knee. He pokes the play button on his cassette player.
Blanco is being noticeably quiet by the time we reach the muddy section where the road crosses the savanna.
Then from out of nowhere he asks, "Mr. Robin, what exactly eeze a holy cats?"
I could almost taste a cup of steaming coffee from the cook hut as we burst out of the woodlands and into the camp clearing.
|photos M Kemp-Gee|
I felt like I had put in a full shift already with nothing in me so I headed straight for the cook shack.
Big Damien was an easy going jungle sideman from Guatemala with a good sense of humor I got to be pretty good friends with. He didn't really have anywhere to go so often he would just enjoy a quiet weekend in camp. He liked to take over the abandoned cook hut on weekends when the girls were gone, and is there now, puttering around at the large wood burning cook stove.
Damien Grande fancies himself rather well versed in the making of the local variety of tortilla. He greets me with a dirty linen draped over one arm, like I've just entered an expensive restaurante. "Ah, Mr. Robin", he says seriously, "Tabla de uno?".
I dipped one of the large metal camp mugs into the pot of hot water that was always on the stove and mixed in a heaping spoonful of the instant coffee we bought in huge containers.
Damien is of course beside himself for me to try his latest tortilla masterpiece, and has probably been out here since 5 am preparing for this very moment, he encourages me to load up my enamel plate with a stack of his thick tortilla.
I took a spot at the end of the long bench where I could get a good look out over the yard and idle operation, going over details in my head before the crew bus arrived. Damien hangs on my every move.
So I'm munching away, slurping coffee, and thinking all kinds of things, in the process of which at some point I become aware the tortilla had the odd raisin in them. After awhile my mind wandered back to my breakfast. Damien's tortilla were never as good as the gal's, but I thought adding raisins was a hell of an idea. At the same time, I couldn't recall anything that tasted like a raisin.
Raisins. Where the hell would he find raisins, we sure didn't keep frills like that around here. I paid more attention this time and held a tortilla remnant up close to have a good study of a remaining 'raisin'.
I can clearly see it has wings, and I stopped munching.
Well I'll be darned if they are not raisins at all, but large black flies.
"Whaa?" I asked with a mouthful, checking another before spitting the works out onto the ground for the camp dogs. I figure Damien was making tortilla in there like Mr Cool with his sunglasses on and probably rolled up some flies that must have got their feet stuck to the greased wooden surface used for that purpose.
Damien is horrified at my sudden reaction to his fine cooking and approaches cautiously, "Mr Robin, el problema?" he asks, with no little concern for his future with the company.
I began to think it was all pretty hilarious and had to try hard to hold a straight face, and no doubt Damien would feel bad about his little oversight had I brought it up.
"Cafe... mucho caliente, goddamn el' hotto!" I told him in both languages, fanning my mouth with a free hand. Damien relaxes and returns to the kitchen area to attempt to get his mess cleaned up before the gals arrive. Blanco appears at the cook hut.
"Blanco", I urge him, "Have a tortilla!"
"No gracias" he says politely, steeling a glance back at Damien, swatting the air back at the stove.
"Holyness of cats" says Blanco, "Here comes the bus!".
The steaming old vehicle grinds into the yard in its own dust cloud and begins to expel its human cargo.
Armando strides up to the cook shack looking mighty smug about all the sleep he's manged to have.
"Armando" I offer smiling, "Have a tortilla".
"Thanks" he says, helping himself from my plate, and wolfing it down.
Soon Margarita and her helpers arrive and chase Damien Grande from their domain.
And so began the work week.