“Y por favor si les ofrecen útiles peligrosos, si hay riesgo que les tienen accidente, digan que no. Digan – “gracias señor pero quiero hacer otra cosa – ¿okay? No quiero que pierdan dedos, brazos, un pie, ¿okay?”

My eyes lit up. I had been wanting to use a machete since I had arrived in Costa Rica a month ago. Forget about the American farmer’s pocket-knife. I had seen the light. Unless your knife is at least a foot long – no sirve.

“Sarah, ¿me estás esuchando?”the-campesinos-horse

Our program leader knew me too well.

My study abroad group and I spent one day in Costa Rica working with some small subsistence farmers. They are referred to as “campesinos.” This word comes from the word “campo,” which means “the countryside” or “field.” Campesinos are the peasants in Costa Rican farming hierarchy. Wealthy farmers with larger farms are called “granjeros,” which means “farmers,” or “rancheros,” ranchers.These campesinos  had been given their land by the government seven years ago as part of a land reform program. Their government had been trying to alleviate some of the poverty in the cities by moving people back to the land. Campesinos are not going to get rich—most of them do not even sell crops—but they can own their houses and land and feed themselves.

My campesino family consisted of a father and mother and three sons. All of the sons were grown and living off the farm, although one did come to help often. My campesino father had about three acres of land. He was growing sugar cane, corn, rice, beans, watermelon, plantains, bananas, and cabbage. He also had one horse (that I got to ride all day!), two pigs, lots of chickens, some Amazon parrots, and a dog. They also had a pet kitten, which made me very happy. Pet cats are rare in Costa Rica, and I missed my kitties. Sadly, they didn’t have a cow. I was missing my cows too!

He had his land laid out very well. He grew rice in a low marshy spot, and beans above it on a sunny hillside. His largest field was for watermelon, and he had planted plantain trees all around it in a nice hedge. Our job was to cut the dead leaves off of the plantain trees (los plantanos). Best of all, I got to use a machete.

Plantains

Los plantanos fascinated me. They are not really trees; they are large plants.What I wanted to call the trunk had all the characteristics of a water-logged stem. The stem’s interior is very pulpy. With the more rotted ones, I could squeeze water out of it just by pressing with two fingers. The outside was a brittle shell that peeled in strips.

My Spanish was not very good at the time, but I was determined to learn why I had to cut the dead leaves off.

“¿Señor, por qué tenemos que quitar las ojas viejas?”

He gave me a long and lengthy explanation. I was fascinated, but understood none of it.  He laughed at my frantic response.

“!Espera! ¿Qué hay que hacer? ¿Por qué?”

He began again but stopped when he saw how lost I was. He patted me on the shoulder and waved me toward the tree. But I was not ready to go to work again.

“¿Es que las ojas matan los platanos?”

“Más fruta,” he summarized.

Now I got it. We were cutting off the old leaves to stimulate a new crop of fruit.

I asked him about the plants around us. Every one had a medicinal use. Y aún más, he knew which moon cycle is best for the harvesting of each plant! I told him that some of the organic farmers I know are beginning to learn about moon cycles and medicinal herbs. He thought it was funny that we did not know already.  I was very humbled by his botanical knowledge. Some day I hope to go back and learn it for myself.

And get myself a machete.