As some of my closest friends know, I was once quite good with a machete. I think my skills and muscle memory are long gone, but they were pretty acute at some point.
I’ve posted about Sophomore year (refer to HISTORIES – Mogui) a fair amount, but you may notice after careful study of my various timelines that I tend to leave one giant gaping hole in my story. That hole would be from, approximately, June to December 2011.
I don’t write about it very often because it didn’t seem very important at the time. In fact, most of it is simply recovery. My thoughts didn’t seem very interesting to me while I was having them because each day’s ponderings were essentially the same as those of the day before. What I didn’t realize (and what I still fail to realize most of the time) is that, over time, I was becoming a different person. I don’t mean that in the small sense; I’m aware that I’m a newly tailored person every day, but this was something more significant. It started with the end of Sophomore year and it ended with the end of the first semester of Junior year, and in that time… I evolved. I think that’s the right word for it. Perhaps adaptation is a better term.
What changed? Well, that’s what I’m going to write about. I need to do it chronologically to really focus my thinking and figure out what my final conclusion is – honestly, I feel the need to figure out what I evolved from and into more than you do. Sorry, readers, but I hope you can tolerate this little exploration of the past.
Sometime in Sophomore year, I agreed to this trip. I wanted to improve my Spanish, and an Academy teacher somehow convinced me to volunteer with AMIGOS. (Their full name is Amigos de las Américas, by the way, and I welcome any questions you may have on the program.)
Back in 2011, México was pretty heavily infected with the druglord epidemic, but most of Latin America was pretty clean. My dad, as such, suggested several “safe” countries, and I chose Honduras; I was going to go live in the Intibucá region for six weeks, plus a week of training in Houston, Texas and a few days for debriefing. It was basically my entire summer; I don’t think I’d ever been away from home and my family for nearly that long. Hell, my two weeks at summer camp in previous years had probably been my longest “trip.”
Despite that, I was pretty okay with the idea of going away. I don’t know why. I’m a pretty flexible person, so I figured it wouldn’t be that weird. I’d get used to it. So I took a plane to Texas that June, and then another to Tegucigalpa, Honduras a week later. Eventually, I found myself in a tiny village (still bigger than Puedelag) without running water or electricity. I slept on my travel cot with my jacket as a pillow. I took my malaria pill every Monday, and had vivid, freaky dreams until Wednesday.
My fellow volunteer was from a big city and didn’t talk much. I probably exchanged fewer than a hundred words with him, on average, each day. Maybe each week. Seriously, we barely talked. It was quite odd. He was less social than I was, which surprised me a bit. I hadn’t realized that that was even possible. Anyway, I had to find other things to fill my time than talking to people (in English, at least).
So I began by doing housework. I didn’t know what to do at first, so I sort of swept things in the house (eight rooms, made entirely of cement with no glass in the windows, probably fifty feet by twenty feet in all, approximately) and stood awkwardly behind my host mom while she made coffee in the mornings. (By the way, coffee was served with every meal. And coffee made in my village, El Rodeo, is fantastic coffee. First, you mix coffee grounds with sugar, then put them in a net made out of similar material to a teabag, then dunk that in a coffeepot – a good classic one like the picture below – and let it sit on the stove for a few minutes. Then you pour it out and drink it and it’s sweet and fantastic. It may have stunted my growth, but it was so worth it.) Eventually, I did learn to make coffee almost as well as she did, but I was never great at building fires. What I did learn to do was use a machete.
On day one, a few hours after my arrival in the village, I saw my host mother out with her son, chopping weeds in the “lawn” (an area with patches of grass and patches of bare earth that doubled as a drill field for my eight-year-old host brother to practice his soccer skills) with a machete. I’d heard about machetes before, of course, but never really seen one. I learned one thing very quickly: a machete is not a weapon. It’s not a sword, even though it might look an awful lot like one at first glance. But, upon closer appraisal, I realized that the blade was quite dull. You could do some damage to someone with this, but honestly you’d be better off attacking them with a good old-fashioned baseball bat.
On day two, I tried chopping the weeds myself. It was not as easy as my host mother had made it look – then again, María Justa Dominguez was an utter boss. I saw her lift a metal coffeepot from the fully burning stove one time, place her bare hand against the blazingly hot bottom, and pour four perfectly filled cups of coffee without batting an eyelash or adjusting her expression from her classic stern, stolid look. In any case, I made it through a few square yards and gave up, already feeling blisters forming on my fingers.
On day four, I saw Justa chopping wood in the woodshed. I offered to help and she chuckled. I insisted and she handed me the machete, still chuckling. I took my first swing and the blade, not angled properly at all, merely glanced off the log I was working with. I looked sheepishly at Justa, who raised an eyebrow. “Otra vez,” she said, then left. Again, I thought to myself, still struggling a lot with basic Spanish. Well, I could try it again.
I practiced and practiced, pouring hours into chopping wood, and about a week later I was pretty good, though I had blisters covering my right hand. The blisters were worth it, though – I was good at chopping wood.
My host brother complained constantly about the state of the town soccer field. After listening to an especially long tirade about how, “he couldn’t be expected to beat the Mexicano team in the World Cup without a properly cared-for soccer field,” I pushed my chair back and stood up. “Grab the machetes,” I said. “Let’s gather up some people and fix the field.” I ran to my room, tied a washcloth around my hand, and fastened the belt for my machete around my waist.
We ended up with a fine team: three eight-year-olds, a ten-year-old to lead them, and a cowboy on a horse that laughed at us until he realized that we were serious and that he really wanted to play a good game of soccer on a good field. We found any tools we could – I favored my machete, of course (I’d bought my own in a nearby town a week earlier) but my host brother found a hoe in the woodshed and decided to use that. Together we sliced through half the weeds in the field – and then my supervisor showed up.
She was half-Honduran, and older than me by enough years that she commanded respect. It was obvious who she was – even though she was darker-skinned than me and the other volunteer, she was still a gringo – when she got off the bus, so I sheathed my machete and went over to talk to her.
“Hey,” I said. “Good to meet you. I’m George.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Have you been using that on a regular basis?”
I frowned. “Using what?”
“That.” She gestured to my belt. “The machete.”
“Obviously.” I frowned again. “Do other volunteers not use them a lot? I mean, I guess it’s weird that I have my own, but-”
“No one else uses a machete at all, George.” She started walking toward my host home. “I’m not sure you’re allowed to be using one, actually. Might be against program rules.”
I paused. What should I say?
“I don’t think so.” Whoa. Okay, maybe that was too bold. Screw it, I’m committed now. “I’m going to keep using it.”
My supervisor turned around, stared at me for a minute, and then nodded slowly. “Well. I think I’m going to like you, George.”
Being half catracha, she got a lot of respect from the villagers; we ate incredibly well that night (oh, how I really do miss those corn tortillas, rice and beans – I’m not being sarcastic, they were really good!) and my host mother gave us plenty of space – and coffee – to talk. It was good to do that, to talk about what I’d been doing. I told her what I’d thought of Atlas Shrugged. She found it interesting that I’d ignored the book’s theme and story, for the most part, and instead talked mostly about Rand’s statement, in the back, about how she’d developed the book from a simple idea. I admitted that I’d taken her basic framework for that development of characters and a theme and applied it to a story that I wrote that summer (what eventually became part five of my writing project). My supervisor thought that was pretty cool.
She was a rugby player who taught special needs students in New York City, and had dreams of starting her own bilingual school in Latin America. I told her I knew some great teachers who had recently been let go from the Academy, and that I’d get them in touch if she got the ball rolling on the rest of it. I think she laughed at that one, but I was serious. She had a pretty good plan. It was missing a Chevy Silverado, but other than that it was a good plan.
I used my machete routinely through the last night, when we found no fewer than three cockroaches in our room. One of my roommates panicked completely, so I turned to the other one. “Can you fight?” I said, drawing my machete. “I can,” he replied, picking up one of my Crocs. “Destroy them.”
We finished them off with flamethrowers made from burning newspapers and Axe body spray, then collapsed for the night. I wrote a note expressing my deep feelings for the girl I’d fallen for that summer and promptly forgot to give it to her the next day. In the end, I wrote it out in an email. It wasn’t the same.
I don’t remember much from Honduras, really. My Spanish is trashed by now, and I only sleep on my cot on ten-thousand-mile road trips. But one thing will always remain: my machete, which lies under my mattress every night. It’s not for defense in case someone breaks in. It’s to remind me of… something. Perhaps hard work, or perseverance. Maybe it just lies under my bed to remind me constantly that once upon a time, I was really good at something pretty cool. I went somewhere far away and different, and I had a really good time. I met interesting new people and, most of all, gained a lot of stories to tell.
Working Hard or Hardly Working?
In the fall of Junior year, I began what was probably my most challenging year (academically) at the Academy. It was FULL of work. I was taking 5 AP classes (plus Orchestra, which doesn’t count as anything since I was low brass and that meant an automatic A because we were short on low brass) and the teachers all doled out homework like it was their job. Oh… right.
However, this was the year I started rooming with Fred, and that meant that work was a dubiously important priority. Fred has this habit of saying he has to work… and then not working. Ever. Well, at least until 2am. Things seem to get in the way… and by “things,” I mean every possible single thing that could possibly impede a human being’s ability to get work done magically finds its way between Fred and work. Thank God we weren’t running the blog that year, because that probably would have killed him. He had TV shows to watch, and YouTube videos to make me watch, and new music to listen to, and… I’m telling you, the list was infinite. Meanwhile, he had no less work than I did, really, so it all had to get done sometime (and, usually, that “sometime” was 2am).
This started, slowly but surely, to rub off on me, and before long I was doing long marathons of Statistics homework accompanied by long marathons of How I Met Your Mother. It was a new show for me, but I had a bunch of seasons, so I just started watching. Thankfully, Fred eventually joined me, and we started marathoning it heavily. We would watch through the entire show, pause confusedly for five minutes, and then start at the first episode again. It was an endless and awesome cycle. (It’s really a fantastic show.)
My mom was livid when she realized that I was occasionally putting off work for other things, which annoyed me a bit. My grades were still great, so I didn’t think it was a problem that I was managing my time in a fashion that she considered poor. In any case, I kept at it.
Around November, I added yet another procrastination to my schedule in the form of a complete rewrite of the old drafts of my writing project. I started putting hours into it, and eventually my work schedule turned into my writing/HIMYM schedule. I was still working, but for shorter periods of time. The upside to this was that I got incredibly fast at doing work. Essays take twenty minutes now – and they’re written well with few (if any) spelling or grammar mistakes, a skill which I credit to my work with the Academy newspaper and all that time writing on my own. I read even more quickly than I did before, which was already quite fast. And I study more efficiently, more quickly, and (I think) more effectively. In short, I became a more efficient worker because I was taking so much time out of my available work hours. (I topped it all off when I got addicted to Firefly, but that ended after about a week. Stupid cancellation.)
I just realized that I was supposed to reach a conclusion with all this.
I really have nothing, and I hope that’s okay with anyone that might be reading this. I don’t know how I changed over that span of time, at least not right now. That’s just… what happened. They were significant experiences, and I am a different person after them. How exactly did they change me? That I’m not sure of. I’ll keep trying to figure it out, that I can promise you, but I have nothing for you right now except a brief admission of my great gratitude for any of you who read all the way through this long post.
As always, thanks for reading.