This account provided by Cache Valley photographer and international adventurer Casey McFarland. The McFarland family spend 7 weeks in Gautemala this year.
Jack and I had an amazing opportunity yesterday to work a full day on a farm with a family in San Jose Chacaya.
Last week our friend Calvin Kelly launched a business which pairs solo travelers with a family on a farm for a week. When he was 16 he lived with a local family for a week. He asked that they don’t change anything they are doing, just to treat him like one of the kids. He got up at 5:00 am and hauled rocks up a hill, gathered wood for burning, ate their food, and slept in their humble home. It was a life changing experience for him needless to say. Now, he has been working with some key locals to open this opportunity for solo travelers over 18 years old. It’s live. It’s available right now.
I reached out to Calvin Sunday and told him I would love to see if me and Jack could go do it with one of the families he is working with. He called me back and told us to meet him up at a farm and that he would send us a pin in the morning. It was short notice so we would need to bring our own food. Tuesday morning he sent the pin early. Jack and I found a chicken bus going up to a city called Solola. The bus was full so Jack and I ended up standing. The ticket taker came back and scooted people to make room for us and then he did something very resourceful. He had me sit with one cheek on the seat and then he had another guy my size sit on the seat across with only one of his cheeks on the seat. Both of our inside cheeks together acted as a keystone, the pressure allowing us to sit suspended over the aisle. Brilliant and surprisingly comfortable!
We reached Solola. Jack grabbed his backpack and that’s when I realized I had packed our lunches in the wrong backpack. I had an instant visual of our lunches sitting on the chair where I left it at home. Crap!! We stopped quick and grabbed a couple bags of extreme nacho cheese doritos (mostly air) and a snickers bar each and then began asking where to find a “microbus” to the village. By now we are about an hour into the journey. We asked around a few times and found a guy with a van headed to San Jose Chacaya. The sliding door remained open on the 15 minute drive in case anyone wanted to hop on or hop off. He set us down in the middle of the village.
I had taken some screen shots of my maps before we left. When I tried to show locals nobody in the village had any idea what my screen shots meant. They wanted only to know the name of the people who owned the farm. I didn’t know so I tried asking two Tuk Tuk (3 wheel taxis) drivers. Finally, an old mayan lady in a Tuk yelled out, “Go find Gregorio.” She was referring to my friend Greg Jensen who is our close friend down here and co founder of Cultiva International. He and Lucy lived near this little village and largely raised their family here. The first time I came here in 2012 the instructions I received were to just ask the driver to tell you where the gringos live since they were the only foreigners for miles. The problem is they don’t live there anymore.
I finally convinced a young Tuk Tuk driver that I could get us there if he would be our wings. He agreed. Using what my dad would call “McFarland intuition” I took us to the pin. We were now in the middle of some fields. I asked some laborers if they had seen a couple of gringos around that morning. They hadn’t. I then remembered Calvin had told me that the pin was only the beginning of the driveway. I saw a path that was the closest thing to a driveway. We didn’t get far when our friend Josh was coming up the hill with a handful of little village kids.
It look us an hour and a half but we arrived at the farm to find Calvin planting potatoes on a terraced hill with a small family. The total cost for bus, microbus, and TUK TUK was about $1.35 total to get there.
The fields were muddy so this was a barefoot endeavor. We shed our shoes and went to work. The family began to teach Jack how to lay potato starts in the furrows. It took 30 minutes of correction but Jack finally got in the groove. I sat out to film and photograph the action. Within minutes I was swarmed with kids climbing all over me, touching my camera, and rubbing my beard and resting their heads on my shoulder. They were especially mesmerized by my arm hair (the spider legs on my chest would have been too much to handle!). Mayans don’t generally have much arm or facial hair. They almost rubbed a hole in my arm. Very affectionate!
Francisco, a nine year old, leaned in to tell me that I am now his best friend. “How nice it is to have a best friend”, He proclaimed. He told me that he is going to tell me a secret. He cupped his hand and whispered in my ear, “Nelson is a robot.” Nelson was his nine year old cousin that was hoeing the field with Calvin. For about an hour I supposed Nelson to be a robot until my Spanish was corrected. “El roba” is what he really said which means, “he steals.” Just like a kid to point such a fact out.
Some of the potatoes that Jack was planting weren’t good to plant so Jack threw one as far as he could. The kids went crazy. “Eres incredible Jack!” “You are incredible Jack.” “It’s so nice to have a friend who can throw so far.” They began to sing a song about Jack and how incredible he is. One of them shouted, “We are going to be best friends forever!” Followed by, “I was the first one to say we are best friends.” Making sure his cousins knew.
Calvin, Josh and Jack went to work in the fields. Furrows were dug by Augustin the father, followed by laying down compost of chicken poop and feathers, commercial fertilizer, and a spritz of some anti fungal pesticide on the potato starts. Then the potatoes were buried flat, not in mounds like at home.
Calvin asked Victoria, a young woman in the family, what the going rate of field labor is in that area. A woman in a full 8 hour day makes 30 quetzals while a man makes 70-80. Thirty quetzales is the equivalent of $4 a day. A flat of potato starts was about .50 cents and they were saying they were a little upset this year at how the price has gone up. Every time I hear numbers around here I have to ask twice to make sure I heard correctly. Today, I am thinking about $ differently than I was yesterday.
Lunch time came and I didn’t want to impose since we were coming late to the game. Our protests were ignored. The patriarch of the family waved me and Jack in. We were invited into their home for lunch which worked out since our sandwiches were sitting an hour and a half away. Calvin and Josh say that around here if someone offers you something it has already been given so it’s best not to argue.
Things happen for a reason. I am so glad we got to eat lunch with them. It was so lovely. I am tearing up as I write this. They were so kind. The soup was outstanding. A few vegetables in some broth with some beef bone for flavor. The kids slurped up with us. We supplemented it with tortillas made on the spot. They cooked from a wood stove in the middle of the room. I have always been a believer that food is the great uniter. If you want to get to know someone, sit at the table with them.
During dinner Augustin came in with some PVC pipe and hung it over the kitchen coals. Then he took another piece of PVC and then joined the two pieces by melting them together. No glue. Brilliant.
Back to work. We planted the rest of the fields. Jack was mentioning that his back was hurting. That was music to my ears. “That’s wonderful Jack! Keep planting.” The evening before, Calvin and Josh helped an 85 year old man clear a field. Afterwards they mentioned their backs hurt. They said he was puzzled. He genuinely couldn’t figure out why. He said his shoulder was a little sore but his back was fine. They said this guy could work circles around them. Notwithstanding Jack’s back, he had a great attitude. He loved playing with the kids and kept saying he wishes he could stay. He said it was his best day in Guatemala so far. In fact, he told me last night that this was one of the best experiences he has ever had. This is what I like to call a “reference anchor”. It’s something to recall when you think life is hard. We all need them and when we forget them we need new ones.
As we finished up around 5:30 it began to cool off in the mountains. We washed our feet in the wash basin. One of the kids gave Calvin a teddy bear to dry his feet off on. We said goodbye to all the kids and then caught a microbus to Solola followed by the craziest bus ride I have ever taken (that’s saying a lot) back down to Panajachel. This dude was passing motorcycles with a cliff on one side. Think of the Harry Potter bus in Prisoner of Azkaban. Jack said, “I am sure he knows what he is doing.” I replied, “I am sure we will live but….Holy Crap, he just passed a car around a blind turn!” We marveled. I have never owned a car that I would drive that fast down a serpentine road like that. We had seconds to jump out the back when it stopped at the bottom. We could have roasted hot dogs on his brakes.
It’s crazy how one day can change you so much. Me and Jack couldn’t stop talking about it when we got home.
If you are under 18 I highly recommend a youth week with Greg Jensen. If you are over 18 I highly recommend reaching out to Calvin Kelly and getting your hands dirty. Both of these opportunities are so beneficial to both parties. I can’t say enough about how important it is to get some perspective no matter how old you are.