All in a Day's Work...

Trip Start May 24, 2008
Trip End Aug 23, 2008

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Flag of Honduras  ,
Saturday, June 21, 2008

Do you know what it takes to turn aloe vera plants into aloe vera products? I do. It takes a lot of work. And now I know from personal experience. Practically since I arrived in Marcala I had been bugging Ariel, COMUCAP's agricultural engineer, to take me around COMUCAP's farms and factories. I wanted to understand what exactly we do and I wanted to get out of the office. Well, I got my wish. It turns out that after days of cutting and collecting the aloe vera to take to the processing plants, we were short a couple thousand pounds...and short workers. So everyone in the office piled into the old pick-up truck and headed up to the farms to help out. I was actually excited to learn how to cut aloe and be a part of the whole process.

When we arrived at the farm after bouncing around on a dirt road for about twenty minutes I thought how beautiful it was. The aloe plants had been planted on a side of a hill with a little stream at the bottom, framed by trees, and a perfect blue sky above. I realized immediately that cutting aloe is an art form and the cuts had to be exact in order for the "leaves" to be accepted by the processor. It takes time to determine which leaves are ready to be cut and then to slice in just the right spot to take it off cleanly. My lack of any knowledge concerning how to cut aloe and the shortage of knives left me at the bottom of the worker totem pole. I got to carry the already cut aloe to the big collective piles and then to the waiting truck. At first it wasn't so bad and I really felt like I was contributing.

But walking on the side of a hill with armloads of aloe that can be surprisingly heavy with the sap running down your arms and the sharp edges of the leaves digging into your skin loses its novelty very quickly. Especially once you look down and see your ankles covered in little black bugs...and your arms...and hands. Now, I would just like to say that I have come a long way in my bug tolerance. I can kill my own spiders now, and have become skilled in roach extermination as long as I have a big heavy book or shoe or insecticide in hand. But I also have a history of reacting very very VERY badly to bug bites. When normal people are bitten by bugs, they get an itchy red spot that goes away within a few days. When I get bitten by bugs, be it ants or mosquitoes or mystery bugs in Laos, I swell up, turn red, and am tormented by itchiness for no less than a week. When I saw my body covered with these little black bugs, I did not panic all at once. At first glance they seemed like little gnats. But when I swatted at them, leaving streaks of blood and smushed bug guts everywhere, I realized with horror what kind of bug I was dealing with. I knew them well from Costa Rica. Tiny and harmless-looking, they left bites that turned into huge red welts with a dot of blood in the middle. And they itched like nothing I have ever experienced. And they were all over me. I screeched and started swatting, trying to rid myself of the nasty things. And as I looked around, I noticed everyone doing the same thing. Ariel quickly cut open an aloe leaf and told me to rub it all over to keep the bugs away. Sort of unbelieving, but willing to try anything, I quickly took the leave and ran sticky, gooey aloe sap over every part of my body not covered by clothes. Including my face. The others did the same, but I could still feel them crawling all over me as I continued with the endless trips between the cutters, the piles of aloe, and the truck.

After a few hours, I was covered in a mixture of blood, sweat, aloe, and dirt. I had torn my pants on some barbed wire at some point, and I had had enough. Ok, I got it. I had my experience. Ready to go home now. But I didn't want to be the whiney gringo who couldn't stand a little manual labor, so I didn't say anything, just sent out a big thank you when it started to rain and everyone made their way back to the truck. Relieved to be getting out of that bug infested farm, I gathered with the others, smiling. And then I heard the gasps and disbelieving giggles. One of the women grabbed my arm and held it for inspection, and when I looked, I wanted to cry. Mixed in with the sweat and dirt and aloe were streaks of blood that when washed away in the stream revealed my arm completely covered in red splotches with blood spots in their centers. And when I say covered, I mean that my arm was almost entirely red with my pasty pale skin showing through in only a couple of areas. My ankles were the same, and so was my other arm. Thank god my face was spared the attack, but there was one vampire bite to my neck. Everyone else had similar bites, but because I am so pale, they showed a lot more on me. I looked diseased and memories of that horrible rash in Asia brought tears to my eyes.

But there wasn't much time to feel sorry for myself because we still had a lot more work to do. First we went to a partner farm nearby to collect some more cuttings, though they had more than enough workers to transport the leaves and spare me from any more hard labor. But then we went to another farm owned by COMUCAP. The rain had stopped, the sun was out once again, and the view of the valley falling away from the farm was breathtaking. It was definitely the most beautiful farm I'd been to yet...but also the one with the steepest hill down to the aloe plants. As Dolores, Niria, Ariel, Jorge, and I made our way down to the uncut plants, I wondered who exactly was supposed to make their way back up that hill with the sacks of aloe. Luckily, I soon found out that it wasn't me. My job was to take the freshly cut leaves and put them in a sack as Dolores cut them, gave the sacks to Niria, who in turn took them over to a tree where the men were waiting.
The aloe was good and healthy down there and Dolores was determined to cut enough to finish off the 10,000 pounds that we were supposed to deliver to the processing plant the next day. So when dark clouds started to gather and thunder crashed practically on our heads, she was determined to keep working. When the rains started to pour down, we still kept working. I was told that I could go back up the hill and wait in the little house where the real workers were keeping dry, I refused. I was determined to see this through to the end. So on we worked until Ariel finally told us that we had enough. Already soaked through to the bone, everyone grabbed sacks to lug back up the now very muddy little trail to the truck. Well, everybody except me. I said that I could take a sack, I wanted to prove my dedication, but they entrusted me instead with the knives. Great. Images of falling in the mud and stabbing myself immediately started flashing through my mind. I think I would have preferred the weight of the aloe on my back, but they wouldn't let me carry anything else. I think my fellow workers felt sorry for my patheticness and wanted to give me a break. Little did they know that I'm not the most coordinated person when walking up or down hills or stairs, or anything on an incline or decline for that matter.

Luckily I made it up the hill without disaster, shot a dirty look at the real workers waiting in the cabin, and waited for the others. Next came transporting the newly cut aloe from our small truck to the big truck that would transport them to the processing plant. And yes, it was still raining. A lot. By the time we all made it back to the office seven hours after we left, we were freezing, soaked through to the bone, covered in mud and aloe, and splotchy red from bug bites and scratches. Oh yes, I had definitely had my experience with aloe production. I had gotten out of the office and gotten my hands dirty as I had wanted. And though I wanted nothing more than to take a shower and I was seriously dreading dealing with the weeks of torment that were surely to follow lending my body to an all you can eat buffet for the bugs, part of me was kind of proud and happy about the whole day. After all, I had made it. And even though my work days are still generally filled with meetings, planning for meetings, arranging meetings, and devising strategy, my whole life does not revolve around staring at a computer screen anymore. In the almost month since I have been here I have participated in two marches, I have acted as a translator (definitely an adventure considering my still limited Spanish skills), I've bounced around in the back of various pick-up trucks, and now I have helped harvest aloe vera. The adventures continue as I learn something new every day... and I will never again take for granted the nicely packaged plastic bottles of aloe vera that line grocery store shelves...not EVER again!
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dadofdivaboots on

Never the same
Well, you are sooo right. After your buggily wonderful adventure I have a much greater appreciation for aloe vera... it will never be the same again.
See you next week!

kvetka on

very inetersing story!
Lacey, I love your story about aloe, it was really interesting and educational! I learned something new from your story and beautiful pictures, but definately, it was worthy 'trip' for you. Even if you had 'bug problems' (I hope you are fine now) which would be very unpleasant for me too (grr!), but you will never forget it for sure and as you said we all should appreciate aloe much more...
Take care, please!

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