Sometime earlier this week a truck unloaded a small forest of chopped logs on the street below the hostel. I thought, “I am going to help those mother fuckers haul those logs when they get here.” I had a feeling that I needed a good hard day of work. Sometimes I forget what a hard day’s work feels like. It is important to not forget that feeling. Hard work generally requires using your hands and oftentimes it means getting dirty. Interacting with the earth. Picking rock, hauling logs, digging post holes, shoveling snow, carrying water and on and on.
I woke up this morning and drank a leftover cup of Huachuma (San Pedro cactus). I felt queasy drinking the cup and 30 minutes later I only felt worse so I decided a hot shower would help. In the shower I yakked 3 times. A green slurry of cactus and an undigested blueberry muffin. Outside the shower stall I heard a girl’s voice call out, “Are you ok?” I didn’t respond, but I felt much better; except that I had a mucusy, pukey, dense muffiny mess at my feet. I got to sweeping all the throw up to the drain and then smashed it through with my foot. I felt a little better. When I came out of the shower I noticed two local Peruvian men at work carrying the logs up the 120 stairs, probably 160 steps from the street to our wood pile at the hostel on the mountain. I walked up to the hostel lounge and told Ivan I am going to go help the workers who he paid to bring up the wood. He told me no. “Don’t hurt yourself for no reason. Don’t fuck up your back. I already paid them to do the job,” he said and told me no. I had to beg him for permission and finally I said, “Ivan, just give me 2 hours, please. I just want to get my hands dirty and throw some weight around.”
“Ok, you can go. I will give you 30 minutes and you’ll be back up here done with that idea.”
“Thank you,” I said and I turned around to walk out the door. Just before leaving I called out, “Hey, Ivan…what time is it?” And I walked out the door and down the hill where the workers were at the pile.
“Puedo ayuda,” I asked the one wearing rolled up slacks. “Can I help?” He was a man who looked his age- early 50’s. I guessed 44. His face was stone. His eyebrows were stuck in a furrow and his lips stayed sealed in a neutral position. He wore a sun-bleached gray adidas cap and a button down blue shirt with rolled up sleeves. On his feet were a homemade pair of sandals made from a recycled rubber tire. They dug into his feet like a natural growth. By the looks of his toes he had never owned a pair of socks or worn shoes; or even taken his rubber sandals off at night. He responded simply to my question. “Si,” he said as he walked by me up the stairs with a log on his back. “Si,” I said and I grabbed my first log. I wanted the biggest logs.
It was noon. At the top with my first log, I met the other. He was younger and more eager to chat. His name is Reuben. Reuben was 10 years his cousin’s junior. A sporty blue cap, streaked with whitewash sat atop a full head of midnight black hair. His face revealed his youthfulness and his skin was fairer than his friends. Reuben wore an old long sleeve red sweater with slacks and he wore a nice pair of black work boots. We made our way back down the stairs together and I told Rueben I just want to help and that I want a day of hard work. “Quiero un día de trabajo difícil.” I struggled to piece together. It’s not the correct translation but close enough that Reuben understood. He instructed me to stay half way up on the mountain and that he and his cousin would bring wood half way and I could take it the rest. It didn’t make sense to me to bring the wood only halfway up the stairs just to set it down so that someone else would have to pick it up again. After all, when the wood is dropped you go down the same steps and come back at the same rate. But it wasn’t my gig, I was just happy to help and do whatever they told me to do. I felt like I had something to prove as well and I was going to carry any and every log up that mountain no matter how many muscles I strained in my back. I felt like I owed it to everyone who I ever worked hard for and everyone I have asked to work hard for me that I would be the hardest worker on the mountain that day. My dad, my wrestling coaches and teammates, my bosses, my teachers. Everyone.
And we hauled logs. For 5 hours I helped Reuben and his cousin haul logs. Up and down the mountain more times than I can count. Lifting logs, throwing them over my increasingly sore shoulders, and hauling them up the hill one step at a time. Over and over hauling dense and heavy eucalyptus logs on our backs. Every once in a while we would sit for a break. I asked Reuben, “Como se dice, yo tengo que tomar una … and motioned that I had to piss.” “How do you say, I have to take a piss?”
I have no idea what he replied back and I asked him, “Quechua a espanol?” and he said Quechua. I asked him to repeat the phrase several times and it was alien. He helped me pronounce the phrase and I recall none of it. Quechua is a traditional language still widely spoken by the people in these mountains of Peru’s Sacred Valley, the ancestors of the Incas. I asked him to repeat the phrase in espanol and I also recall none. It wasn’t all for naught. All day long I was able to interact with Reuben in a simple back and forth. It was the first time I spent a large amount of time with a Spanish speaking person and was able to communicate on an elevated level. I was energized by our conversations and look forward to more days like today in Bolivia over the next few months. We kept hauling logs. It was hard work. We took another break an hour later. As we sat around talking, Reuben invited me to visit his community and stay with his family in the mountains and offered me a job to help harvest his brother’s crops. He told me a little about his family and one son. His house has two bedrooms. Dos habitaciones. A girl from the hostel came down the stairs while we talked. She was a new arrival and we had not yet met. I thought maybe she was Latina but I did not know where. It was not long before she revealed that she did not speak spanish. I thought that was curious so I asked where she is from. Egypt. I believe she is the first Egyptian I ever met. Rueben didn’t know Egypt. I was surprised by this but I supposed I shouldn’t be. Wow, I thought, I should show him a picture of the pyramids. I didn’t have my phone on me. We kept working. Up and down the stairs. I felt strong and that my body can endure a lot. And so I put it to work. After another hour, we sat again for a rest. This time as we sat around, a woman coming up the stairs sat with us. She was carrying a large sack on her back and led a baby sheep on a leash. I sat and listened to the three talk. Mostly, Reuben and the women- they moved back and forth between Quechua and Spanish. The man with the rubber sandals was quiet; he didn’t have a lot to say all day. The woman pulled a plastic water bottle from her bag with a clear liquid in it. Water I assumed. All of a sudden the quiet one stood up and walked over to an empty water bottle. He ripped the wrapper off the bottle, flicked it away, and bit down on the bottle. He ripped the bottle away and tore the top of the bottle free. He peeled one small strip from the top and handed his professionally crafted plastic vessel to the woman. She poured the liquid from her bottle into the small cup. She moved the cup around in front of her face and uttered some words I didn’t understand. Then she poured a few drops and threw back the shot. She filled the cup for Reuben and he poured some out before taking the shot, then she handed the cup to the other and he did the same. She poured another cup and offered it to me. I tried to pour a little out but I struggled at first. They all laughed at me and I eventually got a few drops to pour out on the ground. I poured the liquid down my throat and my belly was immediately warmed. I smiled and rubbed my stomach. She passed the cup around 4 more times and then she pulled a bag of coca leaves from her sack. She passed around the sack and they each taught me how to properly munch on coca leaves. If the leaf still has a petiole, the chunk which connects to the stem, you have to rip it off. Then fold the leaf the long way and slide the leaf off the midrib. Then just build a ball of chewed up leaves in your mouth. It is a slightly bitter taste and has a mild mouth numbing effect. With a nice little buzz we got up for one more hour of hauling logs. My grunts were more numerous but I still wanted the heaviest load. At 430 pm, I told Reuben, “Tenemos una cerveza a las cinco.” We have a beer at 5. Again, not a proper translation, but he understood and I am a novice speaker fo spanish. When the 5 o’clock bell rang I bought each of us a cold half liter of beer. While Rueben and I waited for his cousin to join, I asked him his friend’s name. I asked the name twice earlier but he either didn’t understand me or I didn’t understand him or both. “Gregario,” Reuben told me. And Gregario, came up the stairs with one last log on his back. He threw it to the ground and I popped the Golden top and handed him a well deserved beer. “Salud!” We all clanked bottles and took that first glorious drink of cold beer after a day of hard work. Reuben was still going on about his plans to have me at his place. When he smiled I noticed a piece of silver around his right canine tooth. He looked youthful and happy. In my mind I was there with him, youthful and happy. My body felt like it was about to face the consequences of the day. Reuben and Gregario will be back to finish the job tomorrow. I guess most of their days are spent doing hard work. I got to hop in and live it for a day and tomorrow I have the luxury of staying in bed if I wish, resting if I need, or doing whatever I want. I’m no stranger to hard work, but I don’t know a life of hard labor. It was an honor to spend today with mi amigos Reuben and Gregario hauling wood.