We were sitting around in the garden chopping vegetables and potatoes for the daily lunch. It had been slow at school that week, just how it goes. The kids come only when they wanted to, it was totally voluntary. So that day it was just some of us volunteers, a couple of the bigger boys, two little girls and Ester and Janeti, the cooks. Janeti is the most important person at the school: a big woman with a bigger heart who cooks great meals for little money. She talks non-stop and looks after the bigger boys, tries to keep them on the straight and narrow. Her relationship with Luis is a great example. He is twenty-five and has come up through the school system. He came to the school as a troubled youth years ago, a street fighter. Now he works here doing maintenance and helping in the kitchen. I have seen some funny moments with Janeti chasing him around the garden with a big frying pan. I’ve never seen her connect, but she regularly gets him in the back of the head with her hand. Luis can be good and bad. He looks after the kids, they look up to him, he is always smacking them around. It is just the way here. Even the grownups show their affection by smacking each other. I still get a kick out of it.
Lena was sitting in my lap cutting peppers. I was cutting garlic. She was complaining about the garlic. I was going on about how I love it. She said I was crazy. Yes was always my reply. Jan Luis showed up and started giving me shit saying here I was helping my girlfriend, again, Don Janeti. They all laughed. We finished up with the chopping and I went into the shop and got out some tools to fix some of the wooden benches. As usual the chicos showed up and took over the job, taking the tools out of my hands and fixing the bench. More chicos showed off giving advice. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. I just let it go and fixed what went wrong later.
Roberto was one of the commandeers, he was on the hike. It is something to see these kids at school, but it’s something else to get a glimpse of their lives on the outside. I was still shaken from the day of the hike when I was walking with Roberto and Ever in the streets of Sucre and ran into his mother and his brother Andros on the street. They were sitting on the sidewalk selling candy. Andros was curled up next to her like a stray dog. What shook me was her appearance; this woman of thirty-four looked older than sixty with a long scar under her left eye from an auto accident in which she lost two of her eight kids. Her clothes were ragged and she looked haggard. Her kids always look so well dressed. It really shook me, and I can’t really say why. I was told they live just out of town in a one-room house with no electricity or running water. They had to walk ten minutes to a dirty river to bathe. This is how it has been, always the layers of understanding revealing another reality.
I had to eat lunch in a rush. I was supposed to be at the cemetery to help the kids build their wooden ladders. I arrived by cab with my box of tools—it costs fifty cents to go anywhere in the city. A twelve-year-old boy met me and took me by the hand through the cemetery and down some stairs to a shaded spot under big cedar trees. There was a pile of at least twenty-five wooden ladders. Holy shit, where to begin? I took out four hammers and a kilo of nails and began the work. More kids showed up and the circus began. We took ladders apart, salvaged the good parts and rebuilt ladders. The hard part was pulling the nails from the stubborn hardwood. I would be helping some kids when there would be the hand tapping my back wanting help elsewhere. The kids who did not have hammers were using big sticks to take ladders apart. I just kept moving, going where I thought I could help the most. One girl of eight with one of those high tone little girl voices took it upon herself to direct me. Quite the little bossy boots, that one. Two of the hammers broke from pulling nails, and one of the bigger boys made a handle out of a tree branch. The little one made me fix the other one by whittling down one of the broken handles and refitting. These kids were not deterred by any setback. Get ‘er done. When we ran out of nails they took the bent ones and straightened them for reuse. It was really something to watch. These kids were workers. After four hours of this I was exhausted, and only three ladders were left to fix with two girls and a boy remaining. The guards blew the whistle to clear the cemetery for closing. The kids worked on ignoring the guards until the job was done.