To be completely honest, I don't believe I was originally supposed to accompany my host family to their coffee finca, but upon seeing me laying aimlessly on my bed, my host sister wandered over and, leaning against the door frame, invited me along. She said it with hesitation, though. Perhaps my predecessors had never wanted to go?
I jumped at the chance – to get out of the house and to see something else besides the dusty streets and desperate chuchos pawing hungrily at scraps of garbage.
After throwing on a pullover, my boots, and gulping down a full cup of instant coffee, I was out the door and in the car, driving away from the road that had brought me to this town. Volcan de Fuego stood firm in the distance. Another day, I promised. My host mother probably wondered why I smiled, but before I could tell her "I'm gonna climb that damn thing", my host sister pointed to a unassuming cemetery positioned at the edge of the road.
"See! There it is!"
How old was the cemetery? Were some family buried there? Or someone else important? My host sister had offered no explanation as to why it was so important to "see", but as we passed it, our eyes lingered on its tall white walls and the stalk-like crosses sticking up from the grass and rocks.
After a few more minutes down Ruta 14, we pulled through the finca's grand iron gates. A figure waved us up the narrow road, and we parked next to a worn pick-up truck. At first I didn't notice the elderly man sitting placidly in the bed of the truck, but as I stepped up to greet my host mother's brother (the one who'd waved us on) the anciano gingerly stuck out his hand, eyes gleaming. We shook, he smiled, and I gave him my Spanish name.
Then Grandfather, he didn't introduce himself as anything else but, climbed out of the truck and immediately brought his hands to the ground.
“There's trash here! Who comes to throw trash?”
My host uncle's sudden silence implied some sort of guilt, and Grandfather shuffled closer to the ground, his hands sifting through the grass and dirt. I coughed under my breath, embarrassed. Who wanted to watch an old man chastise his children? I turned and fixed my stare on a wilting coffee plant. Brown spots lined its edges, and portions of its green leaves had been stained by perfect, deep brown circles.
This plant was sick.
After a while, the three of them (Grandfather, my host mother and her brother) wandered off through the brush, and all seemed well enough again.
But my host sister pulled me back, and I fell beside her, our steps crunching lightly on fallen branches.
“My grandfather is necio,” She said. “This finca used to bring us thousands and thousands of quetzales, but now the harvest only gives us half of what it did before...if even. He lives in the past.”
Necio. Foolish to want to hold on to dying land. Tough words coming from someone who probably never had to till a day in her life. (Tough words once you realize the finca is named for Grandfather's wife, the late matriarch of the family.) Tough, and probably true.
But my host sister didn't speak about Grandfather anymore, and I followed closely behind as she continued through the finca, past the weeds, and the avocado trees, until we stumbled upon a hissing, agitated thing. The thing paced back and forth at the bottom of a large cement basin set deep in the earth. It tried vainly to climb the steep, flat sides of the basin's thick walls. Of course, it failed, every time. The thing (a possum, as far as I could tell) was stuck.
The others had made it there before us, and my host uncle motioned me over, pointing down to the decaying body of a second possum. In a flash of morbidity, I wondered if my troubled, living possum, in an effort to survive, had taken a few bites of his dead, same-fated friend.
My host uncle struck the possum with a few twigs, and it scurried under a shelter of sticks and leaves. I felt for the little thing. There he must have been, minding his own business, likely stalking a bit of to-be food, when suddenly he found himself sliding headfirst into a cement cage from which he could never escape. I looked at the possum again, his body shaking back and forth under the leaves and rocks.
"Ugly, isn't he?"
My host Uncle didn't wait for my answer, and the family moved on. But I stayed for a moment longer with the possum. And I thought about a plane ride, two weeks prior, where I sat staring out at the greens and blues of a land I did not yet know.
Yes, maybe I felt like the possum, then.