Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Secret Lives of My Plants and Life in Old Puerto Rico

It's funny how much I feel like a parent to my very old house plants. I care deeply about my 4 avocado trees, palm tree, and two cactus. One of the avocado trees is actually 22 years old. Should I make it move out and find a place of it's own?

These plants feel like children to me for many reasons. They entirely depend on me. I make sure they get enough water, sunlight, and food. If I were to die, they would too and they know that. The oldest avocado truly relates to me and has literally grown over the place where I usually sleep, and the spot where I work. Yes, it is that big.

Avocado and MacBook 077481

The two cactus are each 15 years old. They sometimes fight, over little things like water and sunlight. They are strong-willed and think they can live without me. Really they do need me for at least a few days each month.

The younger avocado plants are very scared of their much older brother. They like each other but not the cactus, oh no.

The palm is a loner and really has no friends except me. It probably thrives, with such large leaves, off the carbon dioxide I exhale.

These plants have all managed to survive for weeks without water when I have to travel on business. They are naturally drought-resistant species but more-so because I have unwittingly trained them. All except for the cactus would really prefer a little water every day. Each of my plants has a very distinct personality, like all living creatures.

Avocado trees seldom live longer than 14 years so my oldest is quite a miracle at 22. All the avocados are rare in that they were started from pits of avocados I bought at the market. That probably means they are all hybrids and cannot reproduce. No farmer in his right mind would ever have raised trees that cannot bear fruit for this many years. For me they represent children I will probably never get to raise, human lives that did not happen.

No matter, these plants are alive. As living things they have brought joy and purpose to my otherwise quiet life. There is a mystery to the ways that all living things are intertwined, the way lives get started, and the way they end. We cannot expect to solve all those mysteries and that is perfectly fine with me. For now it is good just to be needed.

There is a deeper history to this small crop I am now responsible for. When I was young man I moved to the tropics to assume responsibility for a very obscure USDA research farm.

My Life in Puerto Rico

While working in Santa Clara, California in 1978, I received a strange letter forwarded by an old friend. The letter was handed to him by a total stranger while my friend was vacationing on a beach in Puerto Rico. It was clearly written to me and contained a line, "The farm is yours, these people need you. Don't worry about the Spanish. Good luck. An old friend." There were some other personal details in the letter that only my friends could have known.

Included with the letter was a hand-drawn map to a small farm located on the western end of the island of Puerto Rico. Naive young man that I was, I quit my job in a circuit board factory and bought a one-way ticket from San Francisco to San Juan. The decision would forever change my outlook on the world.

I took an L1011 aircraft that turned out to be the final time that particular flight from SFO to SJU would be flown. We stopped over in Los Angeles and then flew all night to San Juan. In San Juan I transferred to a small twin-engined plane that took me to an airport called Ramey Base. We hit some very bad weather on the inter-island flight and it seemed likely that we might crash. The funny young Dutch pilot never lost his cool and landed us safely on a massive old U.S. Air Force base runway.

I had to show my little map to several taxi drivers before one understood the directions and agreed to drive me all the way to my new home.

On A Mountain Farm

Moca Map

From early in 1979 until early 1981 I lived in the hills far above the city of Aguadilla, in western Borinquen. Borinquen is the real name for Puerto Rico. My farm was an almost forgotten USDA project intended to re-introduce local crops into a region heavily dependent on the U.S. food stamp (couponés) program.

When I arrived, the farm was mostly planted in varieties of avocados, bananas, and a kind of potato known locally as the yamé. I taught the people about organic gardening and they taught me people skills and how to use certain medicinal plants. Some of this information dated back to the days of the original Taino native population. It is those social skills that I really treasure and have attempted to use every day of my life since.

To this day, people are still amazed to learn that I was once a poor country mountain farmer in the Caribbean. The Puerto Ricans I met often told me that I was living the life of a hibaro. You see, the USDA checks intended for my maintenance costs there on the project site never reached me. The previous project manager never resigned and apparently continued to receive those checks. I actually did not know for a very long time that I was supposed to receive a project manager's stipend. I lived each day in the mindset of subsistence farmer who happened to do some teaching on the side.

The USDA officials took over a year to realize the error and another year to get the checks redirected. By that time I had to move back to Pennsylvania, to avoid being caught up between Los Macheteros and various law enforcement agencies. I never received a penny for my services and yet I lived a very special existence in the community.

I was only twenty years old at this time and spoke no Spanish whatsoever when I first arrived in San Juan. Looking back on those days in Barrio Voladoras I now realize that I lived much like a priest or an ascetic monk. My farm was located on a very steep hillside in a poor region. At first my neighbors did not know what to make of the young Americano farmer that suddenly appeared in their close community. As they learned my work ethic they gradually grew to enjoy having me contribute to their daily lives.

Few of the locals spoke any English where I lived, except the children. They were taught English in school but rarely used it at home. When I first arrived I did not speak Spanish. Nobody cared. We spoke in smiles until my vocabulary expanded from single words like "ola, senor, pan y agua, por favor, gracias." Communication progressed this way until a crafty visiting minister from South Carolina briefly taught me a form of Biblical Spanish, using an old Spanish bible. To this day I do not know what my initial voice sounded like to Puerto Rican ears but they eventually understood my Spanish, once they stopped laughing. I eventually picked up the local Latino.

I lived far up in the steep mountains near the small town of Moca, almost equally distant from the major cities of Aguadilla and Mayaguez. My concrete USDA house had a deep foundation, it was a former pillbox built during the Great Depression as a civil defense measure. It was situated at the intersection of two foot trails that crisscrossed the island in those days. These foot trails had been used for hundreds of years actually and were hard as concrete.

The Importance of a Sharp Machete

My farm or finca was located about a quarter mile off the nearest paved road. It ran along steep hillsides leading down to huge fields of sugar cane. I awoke at sunrise every day, the rooster outside my window always made sure of that. After morning bath and meditation I would eat some fruit, finish yesterday's milk or homemade goat cheese, strap on my always sharp machete and go out to work the farm.

Banana Flower 15772

It was weeks before I learned how it was that my machete stayed so sharp day after day. In the early evenings my neighbor's son, Arcenio, quietly walked down to my tool shed and removed the nearly three-foot long sword. This was the time of day his father sharpened all the tools on a foot-powered grinding wheel. He would sharpen my machete along with all his others because, "The most dangerous cutting tool is one that is not kept sharp."

It was very hard work from almost sunrise until noon siesta. When the sun became too unbearable I went back to my house, ate a small lunch, and rested in a hammock hung in the shade until early afternoon. A light rain shower often reminded me that it was time to go back to tending the goat, planting, picking fruit, and teaching my many neighbors. After all, this was Puerto Rico, one of the most crowded places on the planet.

The neighbors were the reason I stayed for two years despite getting no pay and hearing almost no spoken English, plus having few friends my age. Other people from the States did come to live on the project farm from time to time but most of them never seemed to adjust to the tropical life or to warm to the neighbors. They wanted a cheap vacation from the snow and cold up north, but no part of the very hard daily work and sweat that tropical farming represents. Besides, we had bee hives out on the farm and more than a few wasp nests so most visitors considered the terraced plots rather uninviting.

Local growers, on the other hand, constantly stopped by to learn about the way I was farming. They loved to watch me remove a panel from the beehive, from a distance of course. They thought it was funny how I used a wheelbarrow to go collect cow manure when chemical fertilizer was only 3 dollars for a big sack.

They laughed when I tried to grow peanuts in small circular mounds, insisting the rats would eat them all. But I was taught to plant by the moon's cycles and my peanut harvest was huge. I was informed that the insects would eat all my lettuce, spinach, and cabbage if the tropical sun did not burn the leaves first. I sprayed the leafy vegetables with a special hot pepper sauce and then draped the plots with pieces of an army surplus parachute.

Over the months people carefully taught me how to keep tropical bees, cultivate avocado, banana, yamé and many traditional uses for native plants. I raised goats for milk and cheese, just like those around me. Spices actually grow wild all over the island, or they did then. They even called these places the "Spice Islands." I learned to harvest spices fresh and use them in dishes immediately, old dried spices from a supermarket lost all value to me from that point forward in my life.

An Island Shared

They all shared their island back then, fences were only for cow pastures or schoolyards. One of my neighbors had an agreement with the previous project manager that allowed him to graze his cow on a small field of grass below my fresh water spring. In exchange I received several quarts of still warm raw milk every day. People taught me to heat the milk slightly before drinking it. I made cheese from any spare milk that remained at the end of the day.

The farm came with a irascible goat. That creature also gave milk sometimes. The extra goat's milk made a wonderful cheese too.

There was a big problem with alcoholism in my community. Rum was cheap and some people even brewed their own in secret stills. I drank some of this rum cana once and never drank any more liquor of any kind the rest of the time I lived there. Occasionally friends bought me a Corona beer or two but that was not very often.

I did not welcome drunks or drug addicts to my farm though they sometimes appeared. My neighbors were always looking out for my welfare and had a way of convincing ruffians to leave as soon as their habits were made evident. Men, women, and teenage boys in the country all carried some form of long, curved sword or "machete" like I did in those days. It was the most important tool on any farm. Everyone knew exactly how to use them.

Habitual criminals and violent alcoholics were sometimes locked up in tiny one-room prisons built outside the rural communities. Village ladies, probably their mothers, brought prisoners a plate of rice and beans once a day. Once I saw a police truck pick up one of these people and take him to a bigger prison. It was not long before someone else was placed in that cell.

Such wonderful people they were, the old rural farming Puerto Ricans. On holidays the men pulled out brass instruments and guitars and played salsa music that sounded like Tito Puenté. Women of all ages put on colorful dresses and people danced in the streets.

San Juan was considered a great distance away since the major highways were not finished at this time. The cities were feared for the crime they represented. Eventually most young people went down to the coast to find work in the new prescription drug factories or tourist hotels. Tourists in their big rental cars seldom made it up the steep narrow roads to my barrio.

How To Gain Trust

There is often one question people ask over and over again about my years in Puerto Rico: "How did I gain the trust and confidence of the Puerto Ricans?" The answer, as you might imagine, related to my daily behavior. For example, they appreciated the great efforts I took to quickly learn the Puerto Rican Latino spanish they spoke. It is not Castilian Spanish, not by any means. Actually my neighbors were mostly descendants of Corsican immigrants. Since I learned some French as a boy, my personal vocabulary ended up being a creole of Latino, French and local slang words. This suited and rather amused the locals of Corsican descent. They told me I talked like their grandparents.

One or two other small but important acts cemented my position into the community. Only a few months after I arrived found a wallet by the side of a local road. There was over one hundred dollars in cash, credit cards, pictures, and even a few winning lottery tickets for small sums, like ten or twenty dollars each. I knew they were winners because the owner had written notes on the tickets to that effect. A few neighbors sometimes did the same thing as it was a long drive to the lottery redemption office in Mayaguez.

I went to my local Cash and Carry store and showed the owner the driver's license from the wallet. He immediately recognized the man. He also knew very well who I was. Because Puerto Ricans love to gossip everyone in the region seemed to know who I was in those days. He said this man stopped in his store about once a week. This was not surprising since the store also sold lottery tickets.

I handed him the wallet and asked if he could return it to the owner. He agreed to but quickly looked in the wallet. He reminded me that there was money in the wallet. He seemed very surprised that a poor country farmer would return the wallet with the money. I told him that I knew the exact contents of that wallet and expected it to be returned to the owner as I had found it. I also told him my mother once taught me that no good would come from stolen money.

The owner of the wallet turned out to be the brother of the local chief of police. My honest act was actually written up in a story in the local newspaper. A few days later a very rotund Chief of Police walked up to me, put his huge arm around me in the local town square, and told me that I was now his good friend. "Any time you need any assistance, any time anyone tries to bother you, you will have my immediate help." Those were his words, as translated by my friend who understood spoken Spanish better than I did in those early days.

Tropical Beekeeping is Hard Work

Flower with Bees, Easton 27404

Another important thing I did was spend a few hours every week helping a local coffee farmer named Sebbio Mendez. To grow coffee commercially you also need to keep bees, lots of bees. Senor Mendez was in his eighties and all his sons had gone to the city long ago. Although he was still a very strong old man, he needed some help harvesting all that honey and picking coffee beans on his finca. I worked there in exchange for honey, sweet peas, plantains, and eventually even entire bee colonies. Those very full hives eventually changed the face of my small farm entirely. Fruit tree production literally doubled the season after we moved two hives onto my farm.

There were a few tough things about working bees in the tropics. First, you need to harvest honey at the hottest parts of the day, using a centrifuge. Sebbio's centrifuge was an old hand-cranked type. Instead of taking siesta I would walk more than three kilometers to the coffee plantationjust before noon. About halfway there this extremely old woman always made me stop at her farm to drink some cool water. Her name was Senora Mendez.

Senora Mendez was one of the most friendly people I ever met the whole time in Puerto Rico. She had few remaining teeth and disliked wearing dentures. She would put them in only to talk. Her features were more like those of American Indian woman than those of my neighbors. She was quite thin too. There were more wrinkles on wrinkles on her face than you could ever imagine. When she smiled, which she often did, her whole head seemed to be a part of the smile. She rather beamed energy, instead of simply sharing her smile.

The first time we met she asked me where I was going at the hottest time of the day. She smiled and almost laughed when she learned I was going to work as a beekeeper up the road. She asked me about the coffee farmer but she was more eager to hear about the children that lived all around my farm, and the children that I saw during my walk up the steep hill to her house. She wanted to know how many little boys and girls I saw at different houses, and how old I thought they were. I found this odd but over the months I gradually learned to take a mental census of the mountainside families as I walked along. I knew Senora Mendez would quiz me about the children so I tried to remember as much as I could.

She was older than 110

I later learned that Senora Mendez was more than 110 years old. She was Sebbio's mother. She was also the matriarch of most of the families living on the mountain. The old lady wanted to know so much about the children because they were at least her great grandchildren.

Most of the books in the local library were written in Spanish, though the public library had a some English copies of Hardy & Dickens I had already read. Oh, I also had four years worth of Organic Gardening magazine the former project manager left behind, an absolute treasure trove! Los Testigos (Jehovah' Witness) and Hare Krishnas walked through the nearby village every few months. They left behind their materials which were usually promptly destroyed by the devout Roman Catholics living all around me.

It was almost a year before I learned the USDA wanted a model farm there to serve as an example to the local people that families could live well just eating and selling the food from about 1/2 acre of land. Every day hundreds of people came mostly silently walking down through the middle of my farm or right across the center, on trails so hardened you would have thought mud had turned to concrete. USDA managers showed up in new Jeeps on the farm twice the entire time I lived there. They dropped off paper forms, some poorly written guides recommending chemical fertilizer and told me I was doing a great job. They left after about an hour, showing little concern for the details of my hard work.

After my first year as a rural farmer Ronald Reagan was elected and promptly turned off the food couponés the Puerto Ricans all lived on in those days. I just kept working my farm with the sharp machete and now thickly calloused hands. At first I gave away extra food but quickly learned I had to sell or barter my extra produce in the marketplaces alongside the other farmers. Any farmer seen giving away food was seen as upsetting the system. It was unnatural and it hurt the other farmers. People bartered more and more as the tax people started showing up at more farm markets.

Hunting for Space Aliens

One afternoon a German scientist saw me walking along a road near my farm. He was an astronomer. He offered to drive me to see "the largest telescope in the world." It was actually near Arecibo, not too far a drive from my farm at all. When we got there I was surprised to see that the telescope was not an ordinary telescope but a huge valley in the mountains. The valley had been smoothed out and covered with mirrors and all kinds of cables.

We walked on a trail around the edge of this "radio telescope" not far from a funny little motel built up there in the mountains. The weirdest thing of all was when this astronomer told me the telescope was built not only to search for new stars but also to look for space aliens. I did not believe him and figured he was giving me a cover story so I did not think it was some secret military project. However, there was only one security guard at the gate and he waved the astronomer's car right past without stopping us at all.

Disaster Strikes, Twice

Hurricane David Track

Two hurricanes struck the island while I was a Puerto Rican. Hurricane David destroyed the first six months of work on my farm and years of work on every other farm for miles. I remember the howling winds went on for hours. The coconut trees all whipped back and forth, occasionally sending their nuts flying like bombs.

My neighbors that lived in wooden houses all came to stay in my concrete house. Each family occupied a corner of the small house or a spot on the floor until the house was full of very wet, smelly people and even whimpering dogs and shaking goats. We finally put the goats and dogs out in the cooking room next to the house.

Another storm, Hurricane Frederic, passed right over my farm not long after David. I recall going outside in the middle of the storm when the winds completely stopped. A friend and I walked up to a hilltop to see if the storm was over. The refugees staying my house insisted that we stay put but we were young and foolish.

From the top of the hill we climbed we could see a wall, like a huge black, curved curtain, extending for a mile or more. At first it was not easy to see that that this curtain was slowly moving towards us. I started running back to the house and urged my friend to run with me. He insisted we had more time to watch. As I ran down the hillside I looked back and saw the curtain swiftly pass over the peak where my friend was. I barely made it back to the farm house. The winds kept grabbing at me like strange hands extending out of the curtain. I was trying to walk by leaning so far forward it seemed comical. The refugees literally had to pull me though the door as the winds swept me right off my feet.

The ladies cooked all the rice and beans and vegetables I had in the house until the propane tank ran out of fuel. Strangely enough we ran out of fresh water. It was too dangerous to go outside and get more from the cistern or spring. I managed to start a wood fire out in the cooking room, standing there with the goats and dogs. We boiled rain water collected from a leak and cooked up some corn meal that remained. The little children were fed that.

My friend did not make it back to the farm for hours. We finally saw him through a crack in the front door. He was naked and clinging fast to a swaying fruit tree in the yard. He entire body was covered in cuts and bruises. The next day we managed to get him to a hospital where they were able to save his life. Later he told us he remembered holding onto trees until the wind pulled him away. He said he got near the house several times only to be thrown hundreds of feet away and had to start crawling back all over again.

When the storms ended we went outside to a completely changed world. Many wooden houses were completely gone. The trees had no leaves and no fruit. At the bottom of the hill we found a massive pile made up of tree limbs, fruit, dead animals, and parts of the neighbor's homes. A few people living near us had even been killed.

We all worked together as a community to clean and rebuild the region. In a strange way, the storms had scrubbed the land of all the garbage and pruned all the trees. This was actually a good thing for the land in Puerto Rico, though I dared not mention it to anyone.

The old beekeeper, some friends, and I started moving any beehives that survived the hurricanes to locations all over the region. He kept telling me in Spanish that the bees would heal the wounds from the hurricane, it is ancient knowledge. It is true the surviving trees were heavy with fruit many months later.

Walk Across The Island

In my last weeks there I hiked almost the entire length of the island on foot. It was during dry season that I packed a small pack and decided to walk all the way across Puerto Rico, through the mountains. It took about two weeks but so many people learned about what I was doing that I had to leave the roads and hike in the forests and fields just to be left alone.

At one point a man picked me up and showed me a small story from a local newspaper that he said was about the "loco Americano" hiking across the entire island on foot. Since I did not read Spanish I had no idea if he was telling me the truth but I suspect he may have been.

Although I started out from the village with a friend he quickly gave up with sore feet and took a publico car back. So I walked alone most of the way, even climbing the highest peak, Cerro De Punta. The army soldiers based there aimed their guns at me. They thought I was a militant perhaps because I wore army surplus khakis. Foolishly, I kept walking towards them since I wanted to be able to tell others I had climbed the highest mountain on the island.

Their nervous leader saved my life and ordered them to lower their guns, but only after I explained to him that I was just a "tourista from Philadelphia." He talked to me for several hours after that while two soldiers spread the entire contents of my backpack out on a big table. It turns out some other people were recently shot dead doing exactly what I was doing. The top of the highest mountain in Puerto Rico is the location of a very important military communications tower.

I spent most of the night up talking with those lonely army officers. They insisted that I sleep on a cot in a small concrete room rather than camp on the mountain peak that night. The next morning I was allowed to continue my island hike, it was mostly downhill from there to the city of Poncé.

Not longer after that incident on the mountain top I was picked up by none other than the Commander of Police, of all Puerto Rico. He insisted I take up his offer of a ride in his large police truck. We talked for hours while his assistant on the back seat searched every inch of my backpack. He invited me into his home to meet his wife and stay the night. We sat up late talking about his Borinquen, true name of Puerto Rico. I recall the brilliant galaxies crowding the evening skies and the tiny but loud frogs called "coquis."

The next day the Commander drove me to a trailhead leading into a giant forest. He gave me a very detailed map and assured me that this trail was safer place to hike.

From there I did my best to follow the trail until I reached Luquillo Beach, by hiking through El Yunque Rainforest. El Yunque was one the most dense rainforests in the world, at least in those days. The ranger that threw me a rope and saved my life when I got trapped down in a huge washout told me that it rained more than 300 inches a year that place. He also told me that if it had rained when I was down in that giant ravine my body would have been swept all the way to the coast.

The island of Borinquen is a much larger place and wilder place than it looks on a map.

Independista Movement, Los Macheteros, and Much More

There is so much more for me to tell about my days in Puerto Rico. There was my relationship to the leaders and members of the Independista Movement and Los Macheteros, and please note, they are not the same group, not at all. Activists in the latter group were the reason I had to leave Puerto Rico in 1981. They destroyed all the fighter jets at the Air National Guard base in San Juan. Apparently some of my neighbors were involved in that incident. The Comptroller of Puerto Rico, who had become a friend over the years, came and picked me up late one night in late January or February. I have never returned to that island since those days.

The Puertoricanos I sometimes encounter in New York marvel at my experiences. They tell me that simple rural lifestyle is all gone now. Few if any people farm for a living, except on some commercial farms or some old people. Names like Linissa, Sebbio, and Arsenio are seldom given to babies any more. If you walk to the towns with a machete hanging from your belt they will arrest you. I imagine they are telling me the truth but my memories remain sharp from the days of my life in the West Indies.

If anyone is interested in learning more about my life as a farmer in Puerto Rico please let me know and I will take the time to write more of it down. These are far more pleasant adventures than my years in Haiti or India. I can assure you they will not give you the nightmares that my experiences near Calcutta or Port au Prince gave some of my listeners.


T.H. Williams


nancy said...

Great read. I loved it. I live on Vieques, and travelled the mountains on vacation 22 yrs ago and it was so different then.

TH Williams said...

Thank you Nancy.

Re-reading my own post I am reminded of so much hardship faced by my neighbors. However those struggles made them stronger and more determined to give their children greater opportunities.

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