The following post details the Global Goulets’ journey from June 4 – June 14
- We travel to a farm in El Salvador called Finca Jalapa, where we work for an awesome dude named Arcangel
- Over the weekend, we try our hand at surfing again (and fail miserably)
- Farming turns out to be really, really hard
Day 65: Leaving the Antillon abode felt a whole lot like leaving our own. That blanket of security, fleeting in its warmth and protection, was a temporary haven before we were to cross into the wild. More specifically, we had planned out a one-week stay on a farm in El Salvador through Work Away. The man with whom we corresponded, Arcangel, told us he had 1000 coffee trees in need of planting and he was more than happy to accommodate three men who might assist in the process. Little did Arcangel know we had next to no experience in the art of farming; still, the work he had in mind for us would aid in our ever-evolving development.
After crossing the border into our third nation below our own, we snaked through El Salvador’s unfamiliar roads and arrived at Finca Jalapa (Jalapa Farm), near the sleepy commuter town of Cojutepeque, on the brink of dusk. Arcangel cordially received us and pointed us to a plot of land next to the guest cabana on which we could camp.
We learned very quickly that this man in charge of Jalapa Farm owned a mindset of the upmost tranquility. This is exactly what beginning farmers like us should hope for in a boss. On the first night, we settled in, met the other two traveling farmhands Mike and Rio, and adapted to this brand new environment. Oh, and by the way, Rio is riding a bike from L.A. to Brazil, which is far more badass than what we’re doing.
Day 66 (Jalapa Day 1): Working on the farm deserves it’s own chronology of days. In total we worked six days there, so I will include days 1 to 6 as a sub notation next to the regular count of our days on the road. In this first morning, we readied our energy with a tall cup of coffee made from beans planted in the very grounds we were to work. Fresh and aromatic, accompanied by a hearty and healthy breakfast, we were ready to work… or so we thought.
Arcangel led us out to the farm and gave us an elementary tutorial on the task he had in mind for us. Okay, maybe it wasn’t all that complicated after all. Brian and Eric were to use a hoe to re-fill holes with a mix of soil and manure, making sure it was packed in tightly and done with plenty of love, as Arcangel’s mama insisted. This preceded the fundamental, ultimate step of actually planting the baby coffee tree, which was to become Alex’s post. The work was certainly tough, albeit straightforward, and we toiled the morning away in this lively dense green plantation, which only occasionally permitted a beam or two of the sun’s rays to shine through. We learned pretty early on that mosquitos were an evil entity pervasive throughout the farm, and over the course of our stay we cleared through a shocking amount of bug spray. Blisters sprouted on our unforgiving hands within minutes of wielding the farm tools and our sorry, sore backs were only in the beginning stages of the punishment they were to endure.
We learned to appreciate the power of a hearty lunch. Rice and beans became the norm, with the occasional variation of avocados or platanos. That week was undoubtedly our longest inadvertent flirtation with vegetarianism. It was tolerable to take part in a meat cleanse for those few days, but I don’t think any of us are convinced to take up the practice full time.
We ended up arriving at the finca about 4 days later than we’d originally told Arcangel and it turned out the coffee planting process was almost done. So, while Mike and Rio finished the job in the afternoon, we three were put to the menial task of picking up the trash littered about the farm. This was the type of work even a middle schooler could handle, but we didn’t complain; after all, we saved our fresh aches and pains a world of added hurt. Night came; we chowed down on a bit of dinner and passed out before the clock turned into the double-digit hours.
Day 67 & 68: After a grand total of one day of manual labor on the farm, we’d made it to the weekend! As pathetic as it was to need a break so soon after starting to get our hands dirty, it was probably best to ease our way into that onerous manual labor. Either way, Saturdays and Sundays are typically days when Arcangel kicks it for the coast to crush some surf. The sound of a nice beach break was as pleasant to us as waves crashing on a rocky seashore – we were in. Along with Arcangel and fellow farmer Rio, we crammed into the worn down Santa Maria, apologized for its decrepit state, and cruised down to the coast. We stopped only for a brief introductory papusa lunch, where our taste buds danced to the beat of a brand new flavor (okay, maybe it was the same flavor as everything else we were eating in Central America, but it came in a brand new, ultra-fried form).
At the surf shack, all three of us rented boards, took a deep breath, and jumped into the water. Eric made it about 10 minutes and 100 meters in the wrong direction before giving up, falling prey to the deceptively strong current, which pushed him far away from the area where all the other surfers were waiting for waves. ‘If I can’t even swim with this surf board to get to where you go to catch the waves, I don’t stand a chance,’ he admitted to himself as he crashed to the shore. Back to the surf shack he returned, where he spent the rest of the day watching Barcelona beat Juventes in the Champions League Finals.
Brian and Alex didn’t give up so easily. After fighting successfully through the violent current, they made it to the calm seas from which the crowd of surfers waited in unofficial order for their turn to ride. Unfortunately, the sea was angry that day and in no way accommodating to a couple of amateurs. The two of them gave it a valiant try, but simply couldn’t find any success. To celebrate the effort, we enjoyed some throwback Mexican burritos (god, we miss Mexican food), checked out some live music at a local bar, and saved a couple dollars on hostel beds by sleeping in the car. The next day welcomed Eric to some horribly timed back soreness that would linger for the rest of the agonizing workweek on the farm.
Day 69 (Jalapa Day 2): Monday morning, rise and shine, people! Roosters cockle doodle doo’d us awake in as cliché a way as it gets. Sleepy, we sauntered to the house where coffee kicked our butts awake. Ok, now we were ready. “What do you have in store for us this week?” we asked Arcangel.
We followed Arcangel and his 3 faithful dogs out well past where we thought was the edge of his property. Turns out, the family owns a ton of land. Past the mango trees, past the banana trees, past the corn stocks, past the unidentifiable exotic fruit trees we trekked, finally meeting our home for the next 5 days: the orange grove.
Orange trees scattered the thick forests in all directions. Some were small, some were large; some had giant, nearly ripe oranges, others with barely an orange at all. These orange trees stood on a bed of thick, rich grass, which gave the whole scene a sort of rain forest vibe. Until we realized, most of this wasn’t grass at all. It was weeds.
In generally comprehensible Spanish, Arcangel laid out the plans for us. “You need to cut down these weeds around the orange trees. One of you use a machete to chop down the weeds, one of you use a hoe to really clean up the soil surrounding each tree, and one of you go up into the trees and pull down the vines (matapalo), which basically act as parasites.” The goal was to clear the area of all of these weeds, which essentially steal the nutrients that the orange trees need to produce big, healthy fruit. On the ground, fewer weeds means less competition for rain water. In the branches, less matapalo means less competition for sunlight.
From the onset, we self-assigned ourselves jobs. Brian manned the machete, Alex handled the hoe, and Eric climbed the trees. We got to work with all the vigor of a Monday morning, without the rejuvenation a weekend is supposed to provide. Out in our own little section of Finca Jalapa, we were excited to put our able bodies to good use for once in our lives. ‘Thank god we aren’t wasting our peak fitness years behind a desk in an office,” we naively thought upon the week’s commencement.
At first, we somewhat enjoyed our tasks. Brian bragged about his newfound entry into the ranks of machete men around the world. Eric felt like a real jungle man jumping from tree to tree, testing the limits of the sturdiness of each questionably fragile branch, becoming more brave as the branches on which he stood looked increasingly brittle. Alex may not have been having quite as much fun, but he sure felt effective. “I just finished that tree in record time – 30 minutes! I’m getting better at this.” The enthusiasm didn’t last long.
Day 70-73 (Jalapa Day 3-6): By Tuesday, the zest with which we worked began to fade. Doing the same monotonous task hour after hour can really start to wear on a guy; we were left with incalculable amounts of solitary think time. There, in our own little daydream worlds, we thought about how people could do this their whole lives. Arcangel’s workers amazed us with their unflagging productivity. On a meager 6 dollars a day, they planted trees, de-weeded others, and adhered to general farm maintenance. We’d romanticized the idea of working on a farm. Turns out its incomprehensibly tough work, especially for those of us who’ve spent the large majority of our working lives behind a desk, from pre-school to post-grad. Comparing our efficiency to theirs left us feeling nearly useless.
By Thursday, when the workers turned their attention to a plot of orange trees near our own turf, they cleared in one morning what we seemed to have done in 3 full days. As volunteers, was what we were accomplishing each day even worth the 2 full meals Arcangel prepared for us? If we were working at a sixth of the pace as the normal workers, shouldn’t we be entitled to only a sixth of the compensation? Starting sometime in the middle of the week, we started wolfing down Arcangel’s rice and beans inventions with a sense of guilt; we feared we weren’t holding up our end of the bargain, despite the hard work we delivered. Blisters layered our calloused hands and newfound aches accumulated throughout our untrained frames. We treated acetaminophen as a kid enjoys candy. Numbing the pain was our only option, as tent sleep provided us no reprieve. Just when we were at the end of our leashes, having counted down the minutes until week’s end, we made it to Friday afternoon. We were done. I think we now know what is meant by the saying, “stick to your day job.”
On Friday evening, we took Arcangel, his girlfriend Emma and his mother out to a commemorative papusa party. Rather, they took us, but we covered the bill. This still was too small a thank you for all of the lifelong lessons working on their farm afforded us. We were gifted a small window into the difficulty of life on a farm. We learned the hard way that it’s not exactly like a 20th century Steinbeck novel might lead you to believe.
Day 74-75: And on the seventh day, the Goulets rested; we left early the following day after conducting a formal interview with our incredibly gracious host. For as much as we learned about Arcangel as a man during the week we spent on his farm, the information he generously offered in the interview opened our eyes to his unimaginable upbringing in the midst of a violent and impassioned civil war. With sincerity we bade farewell and began our voyage towards Honduras, aiming first for the nearby village Suchitoto, which would bring us that much closer to the border and minimize our driving time in Honduras the following day.
We took fellow farmhand Mike along with us, a Canadian long-term backpacker who, unlike most bus-using travelers, gets from place to place through the art of hitchhiking. Our day in Suchitoto was fairly uneventful, but we’d discovered a newfound appreciation for doing very little after an exhausting week on the farm. We checked out the dried-up Terceros waterfall just outside of town, which is apparently much more full during August and September, deeper into the rainy season. Before heading back to the town center and scouting out cheap accommodations, Eric asked the guy near the waterfall gates if we could camp for the night on his little plot of land, overlooking the beautiful Lago Suchitlan; he happily obliged. That night, our final one in El Salvador, we peacefully enjoyed a campfire and a cooked meal in the tranquil outdoors.