By Dana Gaskin Wenig
My father, fueled by Bob Marley and Dr. Pepper, is driving us almost fifteen hundred miles from our home on The Farm in southern, middle Tennessee to Guatemala. We’re carrying supplies and volunteers to help rebuild schools and homes after the 7.5 terremoto (earthquake) of February 4, 1976. We were in good company. Other teenagers, John F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late president and his cousin, Tim Shriver were doing social and reconstruction work in the central Guatemalan town of Rabinal.
The headlights of our customized classic Greyhound Scenicruiser bus project a long, lighted tunnel out into the Mexican night. Hypnotized by the white line down the center of the two-lane highway, I imagine that I’m traveling alone with my lanky, six-foot-four father with his Jesus-long hair in a tiny spaceship built for two. Out the front window, tiny dark forms flash by: tumbleweeds, the odd mammal or reptile. We could drive like this forever, a headlong flight south. I am fifteen years old.
I feel special when I get to sit in the little jump seat next to the driver’s seat and Dad calls me his copilot. At mealtime I put just the right amount of food on the end of a fork and, carefully avoiding Dad’s mustache, place each bite in his mouth. I have no sense of where we are geographically or where we’re going really.
Behind the driver’s seat, instead of five rows of double seats on each side, there are cushion-covered seating areas, and two more custom, collapsible jump seats over the steps leading up into the bus. The night crew: a ham radio operator, a few more copilots, someone making a snack at the propane stove, and whoever else likes looking out the big front windshield of the bus at night, shares responsibility for keeping us all safe. Across from the built-in kitchen is a cramped bathroom, so there’s no reason to stop driving until we have to fill the 180-gallon tank with diesel.
The rear of the bus, originally organized in tidy rows of thirty-three separate seats for people who purchased tickets from Tuscaloosa to Texarkana, is redesigned with wall-to-wall foam mattresses covered with colorful, Madras bedspreads and storage for clothing underneath. At night it’s crowded with the warm, sleeping bodies of Plenty volunteers.
The warm, sleeping bodies sharing the back of the bus are volunteers with Plenty (now Plenty International), the non-profit arm of The Farm, the intentional community where I grew up. These volunteers were the grownups of our small town, practically family to me. These are my aunts and uncles. Plenty was partnered with Canadian relief agencies to help rebuild after “The greatest natural disaster ever in the history of Central America,” the earthquake that hit near Guatemala City at 3 am and killed 23,000 people, leaving 76,000 more injured and over one million without shelter. Homes built of adobe brick crumbled instantly into rubble, crushing the people inside. We were headed west through Arkansas and Texas, then south along the coast of Mexico on a 1,455-mile journey, the destination banner above the front windshield: Out To Save the World.
When someone else is Dad’s copilot, I sit in the back of the bus, stare out the side window, and read everything I see, my brain set on improving my high school Spanish. I read, La rubia que todos quieren (The blond that everyone wants). It’s an advertisement for La Rubia cigarettes. The further south we travel, the more conservatively my father wants me to dress.
When I was little my dad would sing me Woody Guthrie’s “The Car Song,” every time we went for a drive. “I’m a gonna let you blow the horn, I’m a gonna let you blow the horn, A oorah, a oorah, a oogah, oogah, I’ll take you riding in my car.” To this day road trips bring me a feeling of freedom, the possibility of a chance connection, and a sense of adventure. This trip to Guatemala was one of dozens of long-distance road trips dad took me on. I’ve been to every state in the lower 48 with him. This trip changed me by introducing me to what poverty looked like outside of the United States.
I fell hard for Guatemala the moment we crossed the border at Tapachula; the unfamiliar birdcalls, steep cliffs wearing lush, green shawls, the warm breeze. When we arrived in the small town of San Andrés Itzapa, Dad parked our bus next to a forest of coffee trees. After breakfast, a group of us walked the soft earth path through the shaded grove. On the other side, bright sun, and a dirt road lined with tin-roofed shacks — the village. “Pat, pat, pat, pat,” echoed through the street: the sound of dozens of women shaping tortillas.
The village women peek around the edges of their doorways watching us shyly. Within a few days, one invited us into her home. The dirt floor was swept bare, rocks and twigs relegated to the outdoors, it was tidy and dark, with huipil, traditional embroidered shirts, folded in a basket on the floor. Maria and her sister stood side by side with their arms around each other and smiled behind their hands. I tried out my high school Spanish, “¿Por favor, enseña me como hacer tortillas?” (Please teach me how to make tortillas?) I asked Maria. “¡Si!” Maria says, pinching off a golf-ball-sized ball of masa from the stone bowl and rolling it into a perfect ball. Made from dried corn kernels first nixtamalized, then ground by hand with a mano y matate or in a communal grinder, literally from scratch, the masa is as fresh as it gets.
Maria pats the ball rhythmically, palms crossing each other, nimble fingers controlling the edges of the dough to shape a perfect circle. With her open palm, she lays the uncooked tortilla on the salt-sprinkled lid of a 55-gallon drum balanced on rocks over an indoor fire pit, her improvised griddle. Watching the first tortilla cook, she pinches a second ball from the bowl and hands it to me, then takes another for herself so I can follow along. I lay mine carefully on the griddle — she turns her tortilla with her bare fingers, and when it’s done cooking on the second side, she hands it to me to eat. The corn-soaked-in-slaked lime smells like heaven, like cherry blossoms. These are the best corn tortillas I will ever eat.
Further into el centro (the center), we encounter el mercado (the market), and the la pila comunal (communal laundry). El mercado filled my every sense — a symphony of color, sound, scent, flavors, and textures. Row upon row of tables piled with fruits and vegetables both familiar and unfamiliar, dirt paths between rickety tables under a huge awning, stacks of meat and vegetables, dogs, chickens, and children running, music playing. Kaqchikel vendors smile shyly and haggle with humor. (It took a while to grasp that Kaqchikel wave hello by making a scooping motion with the palm facing the ground. The familiar gesture hello for me, the wave, means goodbye there.) A few aisles over, I browsed a multi-colored pile of jaspe ikat, the traditional, backstrap-woven cotton fabric women wear as cortes (skirts). I spent a few quetzals on a beautiful piece of soft cotton in shades of turquoise. In the next stall, stunningly intricate brocade huipils, everyday blouses for women native to this part of Guatemala. The designs are ancient, and can telegraph a woman’s home village, her social status, religious beliefs, and personality. Near to toppling stacks of colorful plastic basins in two or three sizes, for doing laundry, scooping water, and in the next stall, rows of two-handled, four-gallon plastic jugs in a classic, almost Grecian design, in red, white, green, or blue plastic swirled with white, each weighing 33 pounds when full of water. And another stall offering another favorite local snack: roasted ears of corn sold with a wedge of lime and a small, hand-wrapped paper packet of coarse salt.
We stayed long enough in San Andrés Itzapa that I had the opportunity to work in the small, crowded clinic Plenty helped staff. I sorted donated medicine between tall dark shelves piled high, the labels were in Spanish, which I could read better than I could speak. Kaqchikel women carried infants in rebozos on their backs and held older children by the hand as they came to door of the clinic, many still suffering from injuries received in the earthquake months before. A nurse trained me to give inoculations using a syringe full of water and an orange, but I never felt confident enough to give a shot to a child. One baby girl I got to hold, no more than a year old, had a thin, red string buried tight in the folds of skin around her neck. Probably an amulet placed around her neck for protection when she was much smaller. I pointed it out to a nurse and she carefully removed the string after asking the baby’s mom for permission.
Learning to wash my jeans and t-shirts by hand under the Guatemalan sun at the la pila, a concrete laundry structure in the center of town, was a baptism of sorts for me. The twelve by eight-foot rectangle had three or four slanted, stone basins on each side, each with a drain at the far end. And on either side of each basin, and in the center: probably the only clean water in easy walking distance. The women of the village, already washing their clothes there, showed me how to scoop clean water using the small, plastic tub in each basin – and to keep jabon (soap) out of the clean water.
The word pila shares roots with recipiente (stone or basin), de cocina (sink), fuente (fountain), montón (pile or heap), de bautismo (baptismal font), de agua bendita (holy water font), and parroquia (parish). The women of this village came and went, some bringing dirty laundry, others leaving with a large, plastic tub of clean, wet clothing on top of her head, ready to hang in the hot, Central American sun. (Men carried immense stacks of firewood on their backs, suspended by a strap around the forehead.) Other women carried the 4-gallon, plastic water pitchers on their heads that I’d seen at el mercado, a small coil of cotton fabric twisted between pitcher and skull to help balance the load. (Water made holy by the hard work of gathering, protecting, and transporting it.) Still working on my Spanish language comprehension, and with no Kaqchikel, I understood bits of stories and relaxed into the easy laughter and friendly teasing (a parish of women weaving the community together carrying village news with their laundry and water).
When we got home to Tennessee, I told my Dad that I wanted to go back and help with the ongoing relief effort. With immersion I would become fluent in Spanish, maybe I’d try to learn Kaqchikel. I wanted to learn how to make masa and to solve the koan of patting the perfect tortilla in my two hands clapping. I was entirely enamored with the stunning artistry of the traje (traditional clothing), the beauty of the quetzal birds, the climate, and the culture. Unfortunately my dad wasn’t ready for me to move over 2,000 miles away.
Growing up on The Farm we lived below the poverty level on purpose. Adults signed a vow of poverty. I only ever had one pair of shoes at a time, and anyone needing prescription glasses had to put their name on a list and wait. Complete vegetarians (vegans), we lived primarily on soybeans and tortillas, pinto beans and rice. Most of us lived in surplus 16′ x 32′ Army tents, cabins, and remodeled school buses among the oak trees and dogwood. Some years we were lucky to have margarine and sugar on the shelves. What made us think we could make a difference helping villagers in Guatemala after the earthquake of 1976?
Vow of the Bodhisattva
Sentient beings are numberless — I vow to save them all.
The deluding passions are inexhaustible — I vow to extinguish them all.
The way of the dharma is impossible to expound — I vow to expound it.
It is impossible to attain the way of the Buddha — I vow to attain it.
My father raised me on the Vow of the Boddhisatva, “Sentient being are numberless. I vow to save them all,” and Marvel comic book heroes. I grew up expecting to change the world while wearing a cape or busting the seams of my button-down shirt as I turned Hulk green. It’s a big order for a kid — the expectation that the only thing worth doing is to make it okay for everyone else first.
My father taught me that if everyone chose to make do with less, there would be enough to go around. I’m no longer convinced sole responsibility for saving the world should fall on the shoulders of individuals (unfortunately, that path can lead to burn out and doesn’t hold corporations responsible). But I am so proud to be connected to a group that holds relief work as a sacred responsibility. And in contrast to many nonprofit organizations, Plenty International partners with communities in need rather than unilaterally giving what they think is needed. Everyone in the world deserves to have basic needs met, and when you believe this, it can be hard to rest.
My mother speaks of service in terms of a ceramic pitcher and basin set, the kind people washed with before every house had running water. The pitcher fills to the brim when a person’s bas— time to take care of others. This makes a lot of sense to me. Between my father’s love of heroes and my early introduction to real poverty and need, I’ve focused more on volunteer work and less on making money in my life. I suspect The Farm had similar issues around balancing the standard of living at home against the obvious need of their friends in Guatemala.
I’d felt ashamed, growing up, of not having. My time in Guatemala changed my perspective. I came back to my life on The Farm with a new and intense awareness of our bounty, even as hippies sharing everything in common in southern, middle Tennessee. Simply living in the United States meant we were rich beyond measure, and I’d taken it for granted. Years later I still stop and think each time I chop the stem ends off a bunch of carrots or throw out food that is a little past its prime, about how I could use those ends and bits to make vegetable broth — about how people all over the world go hungry every day, people for whom a neatly swept dirt floor and a raked yard is a point of pride.
There is something so straightforward about seeing the depth of need and having the capacity and the will to help. I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with Plenty even for a short time, and I salute all the Plenty volunteers over the years. I miss the sureness of service. There is a blessed relief in knowing what needs to be done and simply doing it.