Sweaty fingers, dozens, paw me, arms outstretched, dirt and grime under fingernails. Above crusty noses, brown eyes peer out searching for my soul. I try not to look at their faces staring into me, focus on their tattered shirts. Money they want money, tugging on me like indigenous feral cats. “Just kids,” I tell myself, pace quickening to cross the street, get away, get back to my hotel, get past the security guard, into the air conditioning. For a minute they are with me like pigeons and I’m the bread. We walk together, my unwanted children. Wordless, I’d like to pause, embrace each one, but I quickly close the heavy hotel door.
20 years since slogging through the reddish mud country roads of Guaira, Caazapa, and Caaguazu. Guarani names that I practiced saying over and over before the flight to Asunción. A language that survived because of coitus, six women to every Spanish soldier.
Sitting shotgun in a truck, 3 of us squeezed in the front (Cayo, Ernesto, Me), no seat belts, sipping yerba mate. I’m speaking Spanish, asking questions about recycling plastic and filtering water with chlorine. Cayo drives, points his finger up at the windshield, motioning to each vehicle we pass on the two lane highway. Yvaga, he says, cielo, heaven. That’s where you will go when you die, his finger silently communicates. Watching this ritual I see the other drivers smiling at us, their fingers also pointing upward, telling us the same thing.
Cayo asks me about California. The Paraguayan campo has no cable TV, no CNN, no movie theaters. He doesn’t question me about celebrities or our president, he asks about the land, trees, animals, what the air smells like, feels like. I tell him about non-native eucalyptus trees, how they suck water out of the earth, take nourishment away from other plants. He understands. The conversation is easy, like the cumulus clouds that float like cotton above us. Ernesto speaks and at first I think I understand, the cadence sounds the same, but then I’m lost in a time before Spanish, before South American roads. I close my eyes for a few seconds, a lightness takes over. I’m hearing a language not of an evangelizing church or of plundering capitalism, but of a people, a community. A few minutes later we slow down, pick up a hitchhiker, normal in this part of Paraguay. I see the guy sitting in the truck bed, a large heavy sack between his legs. A man on a journey, we both watch the road, I look out the front, he looks out the back.
Ecuador is adobe bricks, hardened mud homes, no electricity, the smell of burning trash and chicken soup with feathers floating in the bowl.
My partner Scott and I sleep on cots, plant trees, dig latrine holes, smoke Lark cigarettes at night to pass the time. Scott rows crew for Andover, is tall with dirty blonde hair, has an intensity for work that I lack. We stay with Don Emiliano and his wife Lucia and their children Rosa, Hilda, Aurora, Armando and Alberto. Don Emiliano, part Quechan, is about five-foot three, kind, hard-working and dark-skinned. He has a forearm that juts out unnaturally; it had been broken and never properly reset. Before we finished our family’s latrine, we took dumps in our designated locations in the cornfield a few dozen yards from the house. Scott went to shit row, I went to shit haven. We both kicked the chickens to get them to quit following us, but inevitably they still ended up eating our liquidy crap, then days later we would eat them.
We saw things die in Ecuador, two dogs from poison, and a woman. We didn’t actually see the woman die, but we ate greasy rice and eggs sitting next to her dead body. The Garcia family kept her lying on the wood table for a few days to let people pay their respects before burial. It should have freaked me out more, but it actually seemed normal, her rigid body, lightly draped by a see through veil. I could have reached out, touched her closed eyes. She was dead, but at the dinner table, a physical reminder of how it ends for all of us. I would stare at the outline of her face while shoveling forkfuls of the inedible rice into the grease-stained pockets of my red windbreaker. I appreciated the food, but couldn’t stomach it; I dumped it out later for the chickens.
When we aren’t working, we play soccer games with the kids, teach them baseball with a bamboo bat and a taped up rock ball. We are in Ecuador to combat poverty, disease, flies landing on poo, spreading typhoid, cholera, dysentery. We build makeshift bathrooms, plant fruit trees, the villagers rotate as hosts, take turns feeding us. Maria Lopez and her husband Juan live the farthest away, maybe a mile and a half from Don Emiliano’s place. Juan makes guarapo for a living, a moonshine-like concoction made from fermented sugar cane. He just calls it traiga. We trudge up the single file trail that hugs a mountain on our way to the Lopez house, our skinny bodies weak from diarrhea and eating too much yucca and rice. Far above the path, precarious steep grazing pastures, where Don Emiliano’s milk cows roam. Dirt trail, kicking the toes of my Merrell boots, long views of mountain ranges in the distance.
Suddenly above us we hear a sound like Chewbacca, a cacophonous squeal-like moan. I never thought I’d be killed by a 1500-pound cow, but looking up all I see are udders, hooves, and blue sky. I squat like a football player doing a drill, like a soccer goalie guessing on a penalty kick. Moving to my right a few feet puts me off the mountain, a two hundred-foot fall. I’m frozen in time, three seconds, the fear doesn’t hit before I see the black and white shoulder smash against the ground first, legs, ass, and tail tumbling after. Writhing, it tries to get up, but only the head moves upward, body pinned, broken. Screaming now, high-pitched pain, a fellow mammal suffering, dying. I find a large rock, more like a big brown cube, maybe 25 pounds, awkward to hold, it makes my wrists ache. Afraid to walk directly over and bludgeon the poor creature, I take aim like a two-armed shot putter, heave the mini-boulder at the head, and miss. Less than a minute later the death knell ceases, only the silence of blood trickling from the cow’s nostrils.
Scott runs off to tell our family, several minutes later Don Emiliano returns to skin the cow. I want to help but don’t know how, the incision opens the cow up, lets the heat of stench out, a sauna of smells, guts, milk, blood, excrement. Poor cow, Don Emiliano says in Spanish. It was worth much more alive. I don’t know how many more cows he owns, but the whole family looks gloomy, almost ready to cry. Before walking back to the house, I look at the ground, red and white rivulets, blood and milk, mixed on the ground, like death and life commingled. Later, Don Emiliano butchers the cow, hangs a huge hunk in front of our light bulb-less room. They sell some of the meat, start eating the rest.
That night I get up in the pitch black to pee, my face smacks into the bloody thigh, I feel it dripping down my forehead. No fridge, no plastic wrap, no USDA Choice, no ground beef, just the taste of flesh on my lips.