The slow turning clock of the harvest time. Early to bed, early to rise. Bones sore, skin blistered and cut, feet weary. As the eastern sky begins to change, the rustling in the kitchen begins. Breakfast is eaten, machetes sharpened, lunches packed, all before the sun rises. The finca is nearly an hour away, leaving you already tired when you arrive. And then its time for the work. The field is a golden sea of bowing tassels amidst the jungle green on the periphery. A slice of the machete takes down the bushel in one strike and you leave it in a bundle on the ground, ready to saltar, or jump. You work always with one eye on the ground around you, weary of the snakes that hunt the mice that eat your corn. The other day I saw someone, an older man who still works the fields and walks the trail barefooted, who had the two purple fang-marks of the snake on his swollen foot. It had been two weeks since he’d been bit and the swelling continued to grow. He had been looking for the right plant to apply as medicine but it could not be found.
One clean cut and the bushel is free in your hand, the rewarding thrash of steel slicing through plant singing from every laborer there, all of them family, the women and children who at other times are too small to work the field, working for the food that fill the bellies until the next harvest. The sun is up now and it is hot. Hot and the air is thick as if you were cooking in it. As hot as your hand gets when you stick it in the oven to check the bread. A few minutes rest in the shade could save your life, but before long it will be noon and there will be no shade left to give you shelter.
Once the rice is down its time to free the kernels from the stock. For this you have a canoe, maybe 5 feet long and 3 high. Carved in one solid piece from the hollowed out trunk of a nodo tree. With the bundle of rice in both hands you slam the tassels into the tapered walls of the canoe and the kernels jump into the pile at the bottom. Lift, hit, shake. Lift, hit, shake. From plant to burlap sack in a process that has unlikely changed for millennia. On a good day with a clean area to cut and 4 seasoned workers you can get nearly 100 pounds of rice loaded into sacks and slung on the back of your horse to take it back to the house.
By the time the hike through the jungle ends and you the start seeing the traffic of the village on the trail it is nearly two o’clock. And in this time of year, with the true start of the rainy season weeks or days away, you look up at the mountains to the south, east, and west, to see where the clouds are coming in from today. If there is time you lay the rice out to dry in the sun on whatever clean surface you’ve got- a tarp, the campaign posters from July’s election, the zinc roofing the government gave you without ever stopping to ask why you prefer the cool roofs of chunga leafs instead. When the rain comes the children rush out to return the drying kernal to the bag.
When Saturday comes around the whole village lines up at the building of the machine. Without this incredible device, itself a gift from the Spanish priest that for 10 years lived and prayed with the Embera, the work of the women would be so much more. They return to the traditional method when the piladora needs a new belt or the cords have to be rewired. It involves a tree trunk waste high, its top hollowed out into a deep mortar where the unshucked rice grains are placed. The women stand over it with an arm length, heavy pestol in hand. The rhythmic thud of the rice slammed between the wood is the harvest song of the village, the tune playing from the yard of every house. But on the Saturdays when the machine is functional, the women and children line up at the building where it resides, alerted to its use by one of its operators who shouts that today is the today as he himself walks down the street to begin a long day of work. The women appear quickly, hoping for a place in line amongst their friends, heavy bags of rice strung over their shoulders and dragged behind them by their kids. The operators clean out its crevasses ceremoniously, a ritual befitting the church of the almighty machine. The belts are pushed and pulled to test for tension. Screws are tightened and retightened. The floor swept and the scale takes its place on its string hanging from the rafters. Ready, the men look at each other, and then at the women, and then all as one look anxiously at the machine. As the flick is switched an unspoken prayer is mouthed by all present, some delivering their petitions to the machine itself. And then the current is released, the motor takes up a hum, and the gears and the belts and the blades start to turning.
The shouter jumps up on a table and takes the first bucket of rice and pours vigorously into the hopper, feeding it in with a stick. The head operator, wearing the glasses he wears only for occasions of such solemn importance as this, sticks his hand in to the rice as it pours out, shaking his head like a worried father when it does not come out clean enough. Bolts are tightened, the metal hit and pounded in just the right spot, and the grain comes out the perfect white rice that for the months to come will feed and nourish every member of this community. As each women passes through after her rice is done, the bag is weighed and the price of the use of the machine is paid in silver or grain so that new parts can be acquired, belts replaced, and the miracle of the piladora can carry on to the next season.
The next day is another day, and there is work to be done. Fields to clear and plant, the rest of the harvest to collect, everyday another struggle to keep one step ahead of an empty bag of grain and a child’s plate bereft of a meal.