The trail seems never ending and always straight up. I can see my house brother, William, watching out of the corner of his eye for when I start slowing down. He changes his pace to accommodate my lagging step. It’s obvious he knows the trail well as he delicately steps over and around all the places that trip me up. I’m glad that I only know a few complaints in Spanish because it makes it easier to keep my mouth shut. For a little while the trail runs along a gorge. One wrong step and this chore would be all over a little too soon. I try not to think about what it will be like on the return trip. We keep moving and finally William asks if I need a break. I gratefully take it crashing to the ground and wiping the sweat from my face. I doubt he stops when he does this by himself. He takes a small sip of the water and then hands it to me. I try to get more in my mouth than on my shirt. It must be humorous to see me struggling so much with something he does every weekend. I struggle though conversation for a bit and we keep going. The trail splits innumerable times. Right here, left there, William always knows which way. By the time we arrive, the only thing holding me up is my pride. Again, I crash to the ground ready to sleep until tomorrow. William smiles and takes another small sip of water. Maybe just to make me feel better that he is actually drinking some of it.

We are in the same coffee field that we started in and who knows what’s different about this specific spot. As far as I am concerned I could have found an identical looking spot an hour ago. To encourage growth of the coffee trees, the growers cut off the limbs after the berries are picked, then the remnants are just left strewn about. After his sip of water, William gets up and starts collecting the dead coffee branches. Despite still trying to catch my breath from the altitude gain, I struggle to my feet to try and help. Pulling the machete from his belt he rapidly removes the other branches from a limb and starts chopping it into 20 inch pieces. This limb is only a couple inches in diameter and probably six feet long. The time it will take him to cut it will maybe give me time to fully catch my breath. Unconsciously I slow down to half-time of the rhythmic chopping of the machete. Bam, bam, move, bam, bam, move. I feel like I’m in slow motion and William is in real time. He finishes the limb and has a neat stack of 6 or 7 pieces of wood. I have barely returned in time to give him the limb I’m dragging. He starts cleaning that one and I head for more. Luckily the limbs are long, and I am able to get a pile of a few at a time. At about 8 limbs I figure that will be plenty, and sit to drink more water. William quickly continues as I sit and wonder just how long his arm can keep the same beat going. He finishes another, and another, and another. I came to help so I ask if he wants me to cut a while. He smiles as he cleans another limb for me then promptly disappears. I slowly start cutting using the small twig form that he has made. I don’t have the technique or the power, but I make progress slowly. By the time I have finished the limb, William has collected a grand stack of limbs for us to go through. He borrows the machete for a second and takes a large chop at a limb. Almost disgusted, he throws it away from his pile. Green wood, he explains, too much weight. I wonder when, if ever, a kid in the States knows that. He learned it probably when he owned his first machete around the age of 5. We start into a system of one person cleaning branches while the other rests, then the other person cuts the branch and the first person can rest. I like it because of the rests; William allows it because he can see I’m struggling. We make relatively quick work of the rest of t and its time to head back. When I ask how much he thinks it is he replies with ONLY 90 lbs or so because his mom doesn’t need a lot this week.

He starts into the process of making the bundle. Smooth ones for a start so it doesn’t destroy your back. Then the other pieces piled on tip. Using two ropes he ties it in an odd shaped oval. Then he pulls out his macapal. This you won’t ever find in any Spanish-English Dictionary. It’s a piece of rope with a leather throng in the middle, and it looks like a sling. The ropes on either side of the leather are to tie to the bundle of wood and the leather throng is for just a little higher than your forehead. The soft pieces we picked out lays against your back, and you are supposed to lean forward as you walk. The weight ends up directly over your legs and right between your step. Supposedly the most efficient way for males is on the back and for females it’s on top of the head; different center of gravity. Either way, I can’t help correlate the possible spine compaction with the national height average at 5.5 or so. William puts the bundle on a large rock and holds a burlap sack against it. I ask if he wants me to carry it. He merely laughs and says if I want to try and carry it I should wait for flat ground. Slipping under the macapal, the burlap sack is his padding against the wood. Slowly he rises to his feet, shifting the wood back and forth to get “comfortable.” When everything is good I grab the machete and slip it in my belt like I’ve seen the Guatemaltecos do. Besides the machete I have a small bag with the practically empty water bottle. About a pound in all I suppose. I should be able to keep up now that he has 90 pounds to deal with, I think. William is off already and I hurry to catch up. For having 90 pounds on him he sure doesn’t show it. His pace is fast. I’m nearly running to keep up. He slows because we are behind a man who looks about 85 with a stack of wood about double ours. William says something in Katchikal to him, and the man replies something equally throaty. I know a few key words in Katchikal, but I can’t even pronounce them close so I don’t bother. With nothing on my back I feel a little sheepish and merely mumble a “Buenos dias, con permiso” as the old man steps out of our way to let us pass. “Vaya.” He replies to me, a shortened version of “Que la vaya bien,” directly meaning “that it goes well for you.” William is long down the trail so I run off without saying anything more.

As we continue the terrain levels a little. William stops and leans back to put the bundle on another rock. Only if I’m sure I want to take it, this is the place, he says. How hard can it be, right? Slipping under the macapal like I saw him do, I adjust the leather just above my forehead. With a grunt and a heave I lean forward and take the full weight. The muscles in my neck scream in agony immediately and the weight feels like its going to rip my head straight off my shoulders. I must have it adjusted wrong. After William convinces me that it looks perfect to him, the realization sets in. It’s not adjusted wrong. I better start moving or this thing really will pull my head back and snap my neck. I start down the trail and use both my hands to grab the ropes behind my head to alleviate a little strain from my neck. I can feel William laughing inside. People say the veins in my neck bulge when I laugh real hard. Those veins are throbbing out past my muscles with every heart beat and my neck muscles are so bulged I feel like my neck could just explode. I haven’t even made it an eighth of what William has gone. Press on; pride will carry me through again. My pace slackens again as I try to pick my way down the trail. Careful is all the advice William offers. I can’t imagine if I trip. 90 lbs of wood would make sure that I knew I just tripped. I doubt I could catch myself and try not to think about the impact it would make when the wood pinned me between a rock or a tree or maybe just the ground. Slowly, slowly, sure step here, sure step there. The dirt on the ground is at such an angle that it’s slippery. I try to only step on rocks almost as if I was crossing a river. Soon, William tells me I can stop, and I take the excuse. My neck immediately decreases by a third the size and I’m sure is still rather engorged with blood. Falling still on my mind, I ask if William has ever fallen. Never. I’m sure he knows how lucky he is. Rounders comes to mind, “They always insist on calling it luck.” As is true here, now that I think about it, I’m sure luck has nothing to do with it. William quickly takes the bundle and starts down the trail before I can catch my breath. It’s not bad with just a machete and a handbag though. We continue on and more than once I slip on the loose dirt. “Cuidado.” Williams says as he picks his way down the trail. If I had the bundle I would have plummeted into one of these gorges long ago. William still plugs along at the same even pace. I slow a little so next time I slip I won’t knock out his legs. Last time was a little too close.

Finally we make it to the relatively flat streets of San Lucas. Now that we can walk side by side I start a conversation. William comes home every weekend and does this same thing for his mom every Saturday. I joke and ask why he still comes home. He doesn’t understand. Why wouldn’t he? I tell him to forget it; it’s a joke that doesn’t make the cultural gap. Of course he would still come home. It’s family. He doesn’t understand that there are people out there that don’t appreciate or even like their family. This is the way he knows. It’s the Guatemalan way…