Late December 2006
This morning, while sitting at one of the tables by the pool visiting with a resident of the complex, I noticed Palm fronds falling from the canopy of green above me. I followed the thwup, thwup, thwup? of a heavy tool beating in the air to the cascade of fronds falling to the sandy soil below and finally, looked up into the tree from which they fell.
A ladder, probably 20-feet tall, rested against the narrow trunk of a tall Palm and atop it, a thin, grizzled man in cowboy boots, blue jeans, a colorful long sleeved shirt, and baseball cap, stood. He held a 12-inch long machete in his oversized hands and swiftly, with precision that comes only from years of repetition, he cut through the stalk of each of the fronds attached to the statuesque tree, leaving only a few tall fronds in the very center of the crown.
He made quick work of each of the ten or so trees in the patio, some only 20 feet tall, some 30 feet. I watched for nearly 20 minutes, the man trimming four trees while I gazed up into the bright blue Mexican sky. After the fourth tree, I retrieved my camera and as the dark man with the thin face descended from a tree, I approached him. I smiled and said in English, amazing. He smiled and pointed up to the next tree with a full crown.
Trabajo, he said to me. I smiled again and with my eyes, followed his pointing finger to the top of the tree.
I pointed to my camera and in English said, May I?
Si, he nodded his head and stood beside his ladder, leaned into the tree and posed for a picture.
Gracias, I said, and although my high school Spanish class was nearly twenty years ago and I have forgotten almost everything Mr. Perez taught me, I asked, Como te llamas? What is your name?
Carlos, the grizzled man said to me.
Carlos, I repeated. He smiled his big smile again and waited for me to tell him my name. me llamo Mariana,? I replied, and I wondered where the sentence came from. It popped into my head as random as a star shooting through the night sky.
Mariana, he repeated and nodded his head in confirmation.
Carlos stuffed the handle of the machete into the waistband of the back of his jeans and took hold of the ladder, grabbing both sides of the metal contraption with his gnarled hands and hoisting it to the next tree.
I watched as he climbed the 25-foot Palm, the heels of his cowboy boots catching each rung of the ladder on his way. Carlos stopped every few feet and smiled down at me and on cue, I raised my camera over and over to snap his photo. Finally, at the top, he turned his attention from my camera and focused his hands on the regal crown of the giant Palm.
He worked with determination on the foot-long ball of bark that had formed at the base of the crown, peeling away layers of brown husk like the layers of an onion. He worked until the trunk was smooth, the husk discarded to the ground below, the space where the ball had been was nearly flat.
The machete suddenly appeared in his large, chocolate hands and he stopped once more to look down at me, Are you watching? He seemed to say. I raised my camera and snapped the photo just as he dropped the machete on the tender flesh of the green stalk. He held the severed frond in one hand and the machete in the other, balancing high on the ladder as he posed for a photo. Bueno! I called up to him. He laughed and let the frond fall to the ground.
Carlos spent the next few minutes chopping away at the fronds, letting each fall the way the first had, until brown husk and Palm fronds littered the walkway and shrubs below. Finally, he stuffed the handle of the machete into his waistband again and descended the ladder. When he was planted on the ground, I called to him, Carlos! Gracias! and gave my best smile to let him know I appreciated his time. He abandoned his ladder and walked toward me, pointing at the camera in my hands.
See, see? he asked, and pointed to himself.
You want to see the photos? I asked, and he nodded and smiled. He leaned over my shoulder to see the tiny image of himself in the tree, holding the machete, dropping the fronds. I’m going to write a story, I told him, escribe story, and I pantomimed writing with a pen and paper.
Si, story, he repeated.
Carlos, Cabo San Lucas? I asked Carlos if he lived in Cabo San Lucas.
Todos Santos, he replied. My husband and I had traveled to the tiny artists village a few days earlier. The village hung over a bluff on the Pacific Ocean, perched somewhere between modernity and an ancient Mexican village.
Oh, beautiful! I said to him. He nodded his head and agreed with me, beautiful.
I had learned how many, how much while shopping a few days before and asked Carlos, Cuantos anos? How old are you?
Cuarenta nueve, he replied.
Forty-nine? I confirm.
Si, forty-nine anos, he replied.
Carlos must think I am more learned than I am, for he breaks into rapid, nearly unintelligible to me, Spanish and I make my mind quicken to keep up with his tongue. I pick out a few words, but nothing that will make a sentence and I realize that my education, although good, was wasted due to my constant residence in the United States. When it comes to other cultures and languages, I am nearly bankrupt.
But I nodded my head and parroted a few of the words Carlos has spoken to tell him that some of what he said got through, that I was paying attention, that I will remember. He smiled and enveloped my hand in his surprisingly soft grasp, shaking it warmly for several seconds.
Gracias, Carlos, Gracias, I said and smiled.
Gracias, senora, he said, and dropped my hand. It was replaced almost immediately by the machete and as I walked away, he moved his ladder to a new Palm, climbed the giant tree to its top, and went to work, once again.
Originally published at www.norcalblogs.com
Marianne Paiva, recovering paramedic and adrenaline junky who comes to Ethnography.com after 4 years driving ambulances very, very fast. When she gave up life in the fast lane, she decided to study paramedics instead, and wrote the book, Breathe: Essays from a Recovering Paramedic, which every trauma junky and ambulance chaser should buy multiple copies of from Amazon.com.
A professor told her after she finished her B.A. at Chico State in 1999 that she could study paramedics as a vocation, if not a living. This she has done off and on for ten years or so, while also teaching Introduction to Sociology, First Year Experience, Sociology of Stress, Population, Ethnicity and Nationalism, and other courses for California State University, Chico. On slow days in class, she wakes students up with stories about ambulances, and funny stories about freshmen. In her spare time, she gardens, tends to her children, and writes creative Facebook postings, and Ethnography.com blogs. You can connect with Marianne at her website www.mariannepaiva.com and also purchase her collection of essays here from Amazon.com. Marianne Paiva is a lecturer in the department of Sociology at California State University, Chico. Currently an inactive author, awaiting a poke with a sharp stick.