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Being Prepared to Live Little By Little

Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010

I wasn't allowed in the kitchen. It had nothing to do with the smoke that filled the room from the use of a natural fire oven, or that we threatened to ruin the food with our inadequacy, but the fact that the color of my skin made it look as though my insides were not happy with the heat. I tried to explain that I was Irish and not anticipating a heart attack, but it did no good, and I was kicked out of the kitchen.

So, I sat in the living room, next to the brother that “we don't speak to or about” as he swung his machete, and pretended to make tortillas, while actually shaping them into various animals. The family would make upwards of forty tortillas a day, and when I asked why, Chata just looked at me and said the likes of, “Because people eat them.” Which is true. Tortillas are more than a staple in El Salvador, as they are often the only food that demonstrates any sort of loyalty at meals. The price of rice just went up thirteen dollars. The recent rain storm wiped out all of the bean crops. Vegetables are often infested. But, we've always got the tortilla. Tortillas are so important in fact, that once we mastered tortillaing (yeah, it's a verb in Spanish), we were informed that we were now allowed to marry. I stopped making tortillas.

Now, our week in the campo was not what Bridget and I had expected. Lacking were the four mile hikes for water, the killing of our own dinner, and the animals that live in the outhouse. We didn't eat raw meat, chop our way through the brush to the front porch, or wake up with cows standing aloof over our faces. But what we did find is that even in the most urban of rustic areas, you will still drink water from the same bucket as the chuchos, chickens, and horses, find whole animals with eyes, beaks, fins, and guts on your plate, and realize that bathrooms aren't any worse off with a couple of toads. Ten at night and seven in the morning is late, there's nothing wrong with hacking up your breakfast onto the floor, and hauling grain is not strenuous, but if you find yourself standing for more than twenty minutes, you better have a tortilla in hand for sustenance.

Chinda is always at the table, catching you with a hug if you come too close and fixing your ailments and needs before you even know they exist. You know it will be a good day when you wake to her laughter. Papita is never without a cigar, occasionally lighting it with his one arm, but usually just letting it rest between his lips. He only appears in hours of need, holding impaled snakes on the end of his machete, popping joints back into place of the careless children in the neighborhood, all the while with an expression that can never change due to the permanent position of the cigar. Chata is a legend, a great friend, and someone I will miss for a long time. At twenty, her potential outweighs her possibilities and you can only hope that she will someday find a way to defy her static lifestyle.

On our last morning we sat with Chinda in the living room. The only sound came from the beans as they fell from their pods and our fingers, seeming unusually loud as the normal twelve misfits of the house had been reduced to just us three. “Mi ninas,” Chinda would say, taking a break to admire us struggle to do what she did with ease. Most of our beans were small, unripe, and few in number, a sad profit for the number of hours we had sat at their command. “How do you get enough beans to feed yourselves everyday?” we asked as we tried to imagine where our past meals had come from. Chinda grabbed the handful of beans from our bowl and said “poco a poco, mi amors. Poco a poco.”

And that's when we learned what the campo is really about. Their slow pace of life is not only a necessity given social constructs, physical ailments, and monetary struggles, but a way in which to endure a hard reality with pause for enjoyment and love for those who enhance it. Little by little. Someday, Chinda's broken ankle will heal, she will sell her embroidery work, and she will harvest enough beans for a sufficient helping. Someday, Elmer will come to term with his parents death, he will realize that twenty-four is so young to wander in a listless state, and he will step outside the house. Someday, Laydi will learn to read, she will see that her generosity and warmth can help a great deal more then she realizes, and she will have confidence. And Chata. Oh Chata. Someday, Chata will be given the financial resources and relief of familial burdens to go to university and realize her potential, she will inspire those who believe that circumstances determine fate to reach higher, and she will change the world. Little by little.

Our week consisted of tree climbing, pick up games of futbol, seeing my first firefly, falling down mountains, forgetting that we are in El Salvador, loving being a carnivore as the roosters crow in the early hours of the morning, accidentally setting the cows free, meeting family, slowing down, eating up, stepping aside, and stopping to enjoy the view. Home. But, most importantly, we learned that there is nothing wrong with sitting in a guava tree instead of reading for history, clothes feel softer after drying in the sun, and eventually, little by little, you will have enough beans to feed the family. We spent a week living little by little.

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Tags: Diana Fitts (El Salvador)

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