Monday, March 28, 2011

A San Mateo field trip

So much has happened that I forgot to write about the trip I took with the students from the INHAT Seeds of Change school on Friday. It was a trip to get ¨tierra negra¨ or rich black earth, to replant a forest area near the farm. If you´re a teacher or school administrator used to high trip safety standards and you have a weak heart, I suggest you stop reading now.

I met Cara at the INHAT cyber-cafe with her students in the afternoon. We walked up the road toward the school and stopped where we were supposed to meet our ride. There were about 20 kids, so I thought there would be a bus, or at least a large truck with a cage. What arrived instead, after we´d waited about 20-30 minutes, was a mini-pickup with a cage around the bed.

The kids quickly jumped onto the cage. There was room in the middle of the bed, but the boys all preferred to hang off the side, while the girls sat on the wall around the bed, leaving the middle empty. I wanted to take a picture of this terrifying sight, but the truck was about to pull out without me. So I hung off the side as well.

I didn´t have a good grip or foothold, and the girl on the bed inside kept leaning against me as if to push me off the truck. Then the truck started climbing up the narrow, steep roads towards the bosque where we were going to get the tierra negra.

I will never be frightened of a roller coaster again. Most of the roads are just wide enough for the wheels of the truck to fit, and several times I found myself hanging over a drop of several hundred feet, which the children hanging off the truck didn´t even notice. The grade of the road in several places exceeded twenty degrees. Those who know something about road grades will assume I am being hyperbolic or making an uneducated guess. But on the way back when I was in a more secure position I measured with the level on my phone. For those who don´t know anything about road grades, in the United States a grade of six degrees will generate terrifying warnings about steep roads and runaway trucks. If you´ve ever seen those steep blocks in San Francisco where you have to put bricks under the wheels of your car to keep it from rolling away, those are about fifteen degrees. Twenty degree grades are normal around here.

Finally I chickened out and asked one of the girls to move aside so I could sit in the middle of the truck. There I talked to a boy who had spent several years in Tennessee, which has a community of Chuj Maya. I asked if he liked it better there or here, and he said he preferred the US.

We got there and started digging. The earth here is volcanic clay, rich, wet and black. I helped dig for awhile, and then I started carrying full feedbags of tierra negra to the truck bed. Cara said the plan was to get 48 feedbags of tierra negra; the bags were each between 25 and 50 pounds, depending how full they were. As I watched the bed fill with the bags I started doing the math in my head, and I started to worry about the suspension of the truck.

Fortunately the driver was also conscious about how much the truck could carry, and at some point said he couldn´t carry any more. Unfortunately, when he said he couldn´t carry any more that included the kids.

It occurred to me that this was the kind of thing you might plan ahead for if you´re making a trip to carry black earth and children from one place to another, but they hadn´t. So they left the kids in the middle of the forest; apparently they knew their way home. I was prepared to walk with the kids, but Cara said I could ride along if I was willing to unload the black earth by the farm. So that´s what I did.

After we´d unloaded the earth and walked back into town we ran into the kids who had walked back from the forest; they didn´t seem bothered or surprised by the walk. Nothing about this trip was outside the normal bounds of safety here. Among other things I´ve seen recently are children playing blind-man´s bluff with one kid stumbling around blindfolded next to a drop of more than 100 feet, and a 3-4 year old child running down a mountain road with a homemade kite in one hand and a 2-foot machete in the other. I´ve also seen the results: there are kids who are missing fingers, arms and hands. Child mortality due to accidents is no doubt very high.

I don´t want to give the impression that the Maya don´t care about their kids. But I think the people here just accept they live in a much more dangerous place. The men who work the milpas have to harvest corn on slopes that are so steep that if you slip you´ll just slide all the way down and go over a cliff. Kids need to learn to use machetes, because they´re used here for everything from harvesting to cutting wood for the stove to keeping away the hungry wild dogs that occasionally gang up and attack people at night.

It´s easy for us to judge someone else´s lifestyle. But I have also thought that I wish American kids (including my own) would get half as much exercise as the kids do here. Childhood obesity -- or adult obesity, for that matter -- is pretty much unheard of. I have not seen an overweight Chuj Mayan. I imagine diabetes would be equally rare.

I won´t say that one way or the other is better. But I do know that the next time I have to fill out fifteen different safety forms for a field trip and some administrator freaks out because a kid stands up in the bus I´m going to laugh inside.

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