You Get What You Need

(The following conversation between me and my advisor has been both paraphrased and translated from Spanish. This is also just one small portion of a much larger conversation, and it’s constructed from memory, so don’t go quoting this exactly.)

My entire body ached as I finally sat down in front of Edmundo, the president of AACRI and my supervisor, in the AACRI office. My work at the farm hadn’t been treating me very kindly. A lot of things were going through my mind, as I’d been planning the conversation for a long time. I was wondering though, above everything else, how my apprenticeship in economic development, advertised as working in a laboratory to help create biofertilizers, working in coffee tourism, and running a café, had turned out to be me doing farm work on a hill side, the dreaded agriculture, the one thing I didn’t want to do with my Global Citizen Year. A week ago, Edmundo had told me that my project for these five months would be the creation of a nursery, from carving the rows of plants out of a hillside to the planting of the fifteen thousand coffee plants to their maintenance and care for the duration of my time in Apuela. The initial panic, hateful rejection, and angry days of work had faded into a dull acceptance, a duller pain, and a listlessness of repetitive movements, and I’d come to the conclusion that a major part of my time here would almost assuredly be spent as a student of agriculture, but I still wanted to try one last time to escape.

“Edmundo, my month of learning about AACRI is coming to a close, and I still really don’t know all that much about the business aspect. I’d love to have the chance to complete my knowledge of how AACRI works, so I can better help the association.”

“You’re not happy with your project in the Consortium, José?*”

*The Consortium is the site of the nursery. I go by José here in Apuela.

“Well, um, not exactly. I’d really just like to know more about AACRI, so that I can help you all more. I’ve got a lot of ideas about how to help, but I also really don’t know if they’re good. I want to understand more, and also address the needs AACRI has, and right now I can’t do that. It’s really hard to learn more about AACRI when I spend all my time at the Consortium.”

“So you don’t like it.”

“Agriculture just really isn’t my passion. I want to do more for AACRI, and I came with the intent of helping in economic development, not agriculture. I want to do something that others can’t. I am working and I will work at the Consortium because you want me to, but I feel useless there, like I said the other day. When there are five other volunteers, all local, doing the same work, who are stronger and faster than I, and who already know how to farm, it’s hard not to feel like I could be doing more somewhere else.”

“Do you know why you’re working at the Consortium?”

“I don’t really know what you mean.”

“You’re working there to learn what life is like. The hard work of the farm. So that when you return to your country, you truly want to go on to get a higher education, and a better job, and earn a better life, and you really understand what the alternatives are, the disparity in opportunity between here and there. There are a lot of people, in this country as much as yours, who work for ego. To build themselves up, their lives up, and to step on everyone in the way. These people work for a plaque on the wall, an award, or something like it. When you return to the United States, you’ll understand how to work for a community, and bring people up with you as you rise instead of crushing those in your way for some award, and give back to them, because you’ve done the work of the less privileged, and empathize, and truly understand how the poor and underprivileged live. This is the lesson we, I, want to give. It’s not about what you give us; it’s about what we can give you.”

“But… I can’t just take from you all. What can I give back to AACRI?”

“Every bag of coffee you filled in the plant, every seed you plant, is a gift and payment to us.”

I went back to the Consortium that day and worked in silence for a long time. The fact that I’d gone on to talk with Ramiro, another AACRI worker, about working with him in marketing on my day off, and contacting American companies about AACRI, exactly what I’d dreamed of doing, seemed a lot less important, a lot less exciting. For the first time, I planted a sapling with the tiniest grain of understanding what I was truly working towards.

I’m not working on a farm. I’m working on myself.