“Un poco más…” Carlos assured me from under his classic cowboy hat. I was days into my volunteer trip to a coffee farm in Guatemala. A little more. A little more what? I began to wonder. Just a little more until we reach the “finca de café” (coffee farm) owned by Filleberto and his son Carlos? A little more strength and you’ll be able to be able to scale this next bit of terrain like a mountain goat? A little more faith and you’ll be carried up the mountain on the wings of love? Or perhaps promise up a little more of your soul and the devil with lift you there himself? As I sat to catch my breath, I began to imagine that Carlos wasn’t actually a campesino on a coffee farm, but the grim reaper himself, come to lead me to the seventh ring of hell.
It sure felt as hot as hell.
My climbing team consisted of 6 abled-bodied men and a me:
–Two campesinos, tanned and strong.
–A tough, fit Australian on his third week of similar climbs and coffee farming excursions.
–A father and son duo with legs proportional to Gumby’s.
–And of course my boyfriend, with his calves indistinguishable from those of a prize clydesdale.
I leaned back on the muddy rock and sighed, “I’m starting to see black spots” I told Carlos in halted, breathless Spanish. “Si.” Carlos replied, “Un poco más…” A little more. As I hiked on, my lungs caught flame. They simultaneously burned and smothered at the undeterminably high altitude. There was sweat in my eyeballs and running down my ankles. I never knew that ankles could sweat. I slipped on loose rocks and stumbled on roots, the dry dirt and sand under my feet more dangerous than a parking lot of black ice. It seemed we had been going up for hours. Más, y más y más…
“Hay tierra plana?” I begged Carlos, my Spanish fueled by my adrenaline to live. I secretly hoped he would return with, “Why yes my brave warrior! There is flat ground just beyond this field of corn. Oh, and here is this medal of honor and an ice-cream cone for your impressive work!” Instead, he tipped his hat and patted a rock, inviting me to sit. “Un poco más.” he laughed.
As we sat and breathed (or rather as Carlos breathed and I gasped like a trout in Death Valley) Carlos told me stories. One time, he assured me, he took a a whole group of strong men up to his family’s farm and it took them 3 hours. Coming in at just an hour, I was blowing those muchachos away. I told Carlos I felt ridiculous, he told me it was okay. I told Carlos I could never make an excuse to not walk to the grocery or go to the gym again, he told me it was okay. I told Carlos that I thought I might die on this mountain. He told me it was okay. I told Carlos I wished I was stronger, braver, smarter. He told me he wished he was too. I told Carlos I was going to give up. He told me, “Un poco más…”
Channeling my inner Richard Simmons I pushed on, past corn that had exceeded the height of an elephant’s eye, through brush, mud. horse shit and coffee farms. Carlos kindly introduced me to each farm (finca) as we passed, as though they were old friends. “This is Miguel’s farm. And this is my father’s, brother’s, uncle in-law’s farm.” he would say with a gentle wave. Each farm had its own personality. “This farm is ornery. This farm drinks up all the water and doesn’t share with other farms. This farm is tired and old and needs to be re-born. This farm is neglected but strong.” I stopped for a moment somewhere between la finca de Carlos’ neighbor and la finca de Carlos’ neighbor’s brother in-law’s mother’s cat to watch the small eruption from Volcán Fuego.
The smoke furled out in the distance like the plume from a steam engine, chugging along faster than I could climb. I had had small hopes to hike Fuego, but at this point I’d just be happy to make it to Filleberto’s farm. I had been eyeing the large holes along the path that Carlos said were dug “to collect rain water” and wondering if they were really for out of shape Americans who couldn’t make it. The path wove and turned like a lemon peel garnish on a martini glass. “If I make it to the top,” I promised myself, “I am going to take a bath in a martini.”
“Un poco más…” Carlos asured me, shoving water in my face. “I can’t. I can’t make it any farther.” I retorted in perfect Spanish, conjugating verbs like a life raft being thrown out to sea. Carlos chose to ignore my perfectly structured sentence and described that the boarders of each farm are marked with a plant that suspiciously looks like the top of Sponge Bob’s underwater pineapple mansion. In all, the ascent took me one hour and forty minutes. One hour and forty minutes of vertical travel. One hour and forty minutes of knee grinding, thigh burning, lung bursting, heart pounding climbing. According to my Fitbit, this translates roughly into 18,000 steps up a mountain. Eighteen-THOUSAND steps to (here is the kicker) dig the 2 x 3 foot foundation holes for a new section of Filleberto’s farm. Wielding my hatchet like tool through the thorny mess that greeted us at the top of the climb felt simple and victorious after dominating that trek. (Of course by dominating, I mean slithering slowly six minutes behind the pack like a boat on a river cruise.) I let my hatchet fall as I pulled back on rocks, mud, and thick roots, letting the hot sun dry my sweat. I stood back to survey my work, legs cut and bleeding from traipsing through the thorns and stumbling on the mountain. My fingers black from digging out the bolders.
“Carlos!” I called, gesturing to my fine product of a hole, pride swelling in my exhausted lungs. He smiled at me as he crossed over to survey my hole. He wiped his forehead, considering its size. “Un poco más…”