I arrive in Ocú under the cover of darkness. The town’s church has been designated as my pickup point. I wait on a green park bench with a priest’s sermon echoing in the background. In the foreground, there is a teenage boy giving his girlfriend a ride the bike’s handlebars. A late model yellow taxi pulls up as the passenger window is manually rolled down. A señora pops her head out and shouts, “Vamos pues!” (Lets go!)
The señora in the cab is Virginia. She is Deira’s mother. The driver’s name is Jose, but everyone calls him Sheri. Sheri is Deira’s stepfather. They’re hosting my stay in Ocú and helping me setup a machetero internship. Deria is the co-worker who took my mother to visit her family in Ocú and attend a local festival. The idea seeds of my machetero internship were sown at that time.
Deira: “Porque no te vas con nosotras a Ocú?” (Why don’t you come with us girls to Ocú?)
Me: “Nah, really can’t. I have to do (excuse), (excuse) and then (another excuse).”
Deira: “No! Es porque no te gusta el campo. Eres demasiado fino.” (No! It is because you do not like life in the country. You’re too prissy.)
Me: “I like el campo, plenty. I can throw around the machete with the best of them.”
Deira: “Tu! Tirando machete con esas manitos suaves? HA!” (You! Throwing around a machete with these soft little hands? HA!)
Me: “Oh yeah! I’ll show you. I’ll work that farm, I’ll work it good.”
That conversation sealed my machetero faith. Deira had done what so many have done to me before: challenged my manhood in order for me to carry out a silly dare.
This time the dare was working a day as a machetero. In college, it was a friend daring me to chug a gallon of whole-milk as fast as possible. This ended in disaster. And there countless other embarrassing dares that I’d rather not talk about right now.
The literal English translation of el machetero = machete man or peasant. Yet, el machetero is so much more. Agriculture is the backbone of rural Panama’s economy. Many city dwelling Panamanians were born in el interior (rural Panama). A gleeful smile spreads across their faces when I tell them, “Me voy pa’ el campo.” (I go to the countryside). Panama’s campo is shrouded with a reminisce nostalgia. El machetero is its unsung hero.
Virginia and Sheri live on the outer edge of Ocú. Ocú is a small Panamanian pueblo consisting of approximately 3,000 people in the rural province of Herrera. Virginia and I sit sideways on hammocks on her porch illuminated by a single light bulb. She is verifying the details of my day as a machetero.
Virginia: “Tu quieres ser machetero pa’ un dia?” (You want to learn how to be a machetero for one day?)
Virginia: “Porque? Vas a comprar una finca o estás estudiando agricultura?” (Why? Are you going to buy a farm or are you studying agriculture?)
Me: “Nah. I just want to caminar en los zapatos del pueblo.” (Walk in the shoes of Joe the Plumber)
Virginia and Sheri sit silent for a moment. I can see they are trying to make sense of me. They can’t figure out why a city-boy Gringo voluntarily wants to work as a machetero. They’re both thinking to themselves, “Este Gringo está loco!” (Evan is a crazy man)
Sheri starts making phone calls. He scrolls through a list of farmer friends on his second-hand Blackberry Bold cell phone.
Sheri: “Buenas noches, Eladio. Oiga, usted va a trabajar en la finca mañana siempre?” (Good evening, Eladio. Are you working on the farm tomorrow?)
Eladio: “Si, mañana voy a sacar Otoe.” (Yes, tomorrow I’m going to harvest a potato like plant)
Sheri pulls the phone away from his ear and turns to me: “Sacando Otoe – está bien contigo?” (Harvesting Otoe – ok with you?)
Sheri: “El Gringo dice está bien.” (Evan says it is ok)
Eladio: “Oiga Sheri, El Gringo va a cobrar?” (Is Evan going to charge?)
Again, Sheri pulls the phone away from his ear and turns to me: “Tu no vas a cobrar, cierto?” (You are not going to charge, correct?)
Me: “Nah, this is an internship. Internships are free.”
Sheri: “Si, si, si, el Gringo dice que no va a cobrar. Solo pagele con un lunche.” (Yeah, yeah, yeah, Evan says that he is not going to charge. Just pay him with lunch.)
On my Chinito Internship, the shopkeeper Chen was very clear that he was not going to pay me as well. This is understandable. Sole proprietors must keep their cost down. However, I’m beginning to believe another hypothesis: Locals are fearful of Gringo-ization.
In Panama, Gringos are synonymous with all things expensive. Restaurants and hotels that are frequented by Gringos are pricey. When Gringos start buying land, prices increase dramatically (Pedasi and Boquete). Spendy Gringos inflate prices to levels that are unaffordable to most working-class Panamanians. Many believe that Gringos are making Panama expensive.
For this reason, both Chen and Eladio have trepidations about associating themselves with me – a Gringo. I’m like voodoo to them. Their businesses and daily lives are just fine. They want nothing to become Gringo-ized. Thus, I’m super clear about my intentions: One day, no pay.
My alarm is set for 5 AM the following morning, but I do not need it. Minutes before the alarm rings, a chorus of roosters sound off. Seemingly, they’re having a competition for who can cock-a-doodle-doo the loudest.
Still half asleep, I walk like a zombie towards bathroom. My iPhone flashlight app leads the way. In the bathroom, I strip off my clothes and step into the shower. Through groggy vision, I see that the shower is controlled by a single lever. I turn it downwards. In an instant, a blast of morning-cold water hits me directly in the solar plex. The shock of the shivery blast sends me retreating to the back corner of the shower.
From there, I gingerly splash the cold water over soap-laden body parts for quick morning shower. Thanks to the chorus of roosters and ice cold water, I am wide awake.
Sheri waits for me in the car. Before heading to Eladio’s, we make a quick stop to buy some breakfast. I buy a Dixie-cup of black coffee and a bit of dry bread that sets me back $0.65. Sheri mingles with local friends. He knows everyone there.
It’s a 20-minute drive to Eladio’s home. He lives in a smaller pueblito called Rincon Santo. During the drive, there are children in Catholic school uniforms waiting curbside for their shuttle school van. Chickens scurry across the two-lane country road as we pass. This is el campo.
Eladio is the landowner. He sits shirtless on a wood chair inside his zinc roof home. He sips coffee from a tin cup while he sharpens a machete with a river rock. Eladio is 54-years-old. Yet, his lean muscular physique is that of a person 20 years younger.
Eladio: “Vamos a montar caballos a la finca hoy.” (We go to the farm on horseback today)
Sheri: “Dejo el Gringo en la escuela, entonces?” (So, I’ll leave Evan at the school?)
Eladio only has two horses. Both are occupied. So, Sheri drives me further down the country road. I’ll wait for Eladio in front of the single classroom elementary school.
I sit on the steps of the school. In the morning dew everything is cool and thick and wet. I choke down more dry bread with water from my water bottle. I’m going to need these carbohydrates for the long day ahead.
In no time, two horses come galloping up on the dirty road. “Vamos pues!” Eladio tells me. I sling my day bag over my right shoulder and begin walking behind the two horses. Our pace is swift. The horses are setting it.
In route, we meet the 3 additional macheteros. They’re brothers that live in the area. From their look, they can’t be much older than 20. Normally, they’d be working their family farms. In the downtime, Eladio gives them work.
The walk to Eladio’s farm is 2 miles. Eladio’s cattle are grazing when we arrive. The horses are tied up under the shade of trees. We squeeze through a barb wire fence and proceed to the field. From the fence to the field is less than 500 yards. However, it is heavily covered in high grass and bushes. The machetes clear the way.
After nearly 300 machete swings, we reach the patch of land that will be harvested. The plan for the day is to harvest Otoe. Otoe is known as a tuber or root vegetable. Tuber plants have roots systems that grow underneath the soil. Otoe is a starch. It is the color of a red onion with a mass comparable to a potato. Otoe is cooked in soups and is also served like mashed potatoes.
Above ground, Otoe grows two to four stems that reach to about waist height. Off each stem grows a large leaf. I shadow Eladio as he demonstrates how to harvest Otoe:
1) Bend over and firmly grab the stem near the root. Beware of sticker bushes that could prick your hands.
2) Once you have a firm grip, pull upwards and outwards. Rock the Otoe sharply back and forth will help dislodge it from the soil.
3) Once removed, check the plant’s roots for vegetables. Any Otoe larger than a baseball should be harvested.
4) Knee to the ground. Plunge your hands deep into the soil to search for more Otoe.
5) Remove all attached roots and excess dirt from the Otoe. Place the clean Otoe into a neat pile.
Finally rinse and repeat this process for the next 5 hours.
Harvesting Otoe is labor intensive! We’ve started just after 7AM. The rising morning sun is just beginning to evaporate the dew from the air. I have my hands buried into the rich soil. Working the land like this hits me just right.
By 8:30 AM, the sun is beginning to beat down on us. My body is lathered with sweat. My hands and shirt are covered in dirt. I’ve given up on working independently. Instead, I’m now assisting Eladio.
During our digging, I’m asking Eladio about the economics of Otoe. He explains to me that the average plant we pull contains $0.30-$1.00 of produce. Today, the market price of Otoe is $0.50/lb. Five years ago it was only $0.10/lb. This just shows the rise in global commodity prices.
From the field, the Otoe is packed into white sacks. Each sack weighs approximately 50lbs. That 50lbs sack has a market value of $25. Our goal for the day is to harvest 10 to 15 sacks which will gross $250 – $375.
Eladio: “La finca le paga, pero tiene que trabajarla.” (The farm pays, but you have it work it)
Eladio does have significant cost. He has a loan to payback. There is labor. Each machetero earns $10/day plus a chicken and rice lunch. Labor costs vary in Panama depending on the province. Macheteros makes as much as $12/day in Los Santos and as little as $8/day in the Darien. Other costs include things like equipment and feed for horses.
There are also unforeseeable costs which include insect evasion, drought, and robbery. Robbery is the most frequent of these. Multiple times a year sections of Eladio’s farm are pilfered.
Eladio: “Me roban cuando estoy en otro lado.” (They rob when I’m not at the farm)
Me: “Do you know who is robbing you?”
Eladio: “Claro que si, pero no les digo nada. Me da pena. Ellos son más pobre que yo y lo necesitan la plata más que yo.” (Yeah, but I don’t say anything. I feel bad. They are the poorer than me. They need the money more than me.)
Most of my focus has not been not on harvesting Otoe. Rather, I’m primarily focused on asking Charlie Rose style interview questions of Eladio. Absent is Charlie’s trademark set of a round table and black backdrop in NYC. Instead, Eladio and I talk while working with our hands in the dirt in rural Panama.
Me: “So how did you start farming?”
Eladio openly admits that he is not formally educated beyond the 6th grade. So, going off to work in Panama City would have him, “limpiando la casa de un rico” (cleaning a rich person’s house). Instead, Eladio wanted to buy his own farm. He wanted to be his own boss.
The problem was that Eladio had no means to buy a farm. His parents were poor. Eladio owned no land or other collateralizable assets. He had been working years as a machetero. The paid was just enough to survive.
What Eladio did do was opened up savings account 15 years ago with Panama’s state-owned bank – Banco Nacional. Over time, he established credit. 3 years later, he applied for a small loan through a government-sponsored rural development program at the bank. For the subsequent 5 years, he improved his credit by making payments on time.
After he established good credit, Eladio applied for a larger loan. This time it was to buy another larger farm. It’s the farm Eladio and I are currently working. Eladio has the 15-year loan scheduled to pay off in 10 years. A full 5 years early.
Having access to capital has changed Eladio’s life. Eladio had been working the majority of his life as a landless machetero. Through a government rural development program, Eladio capitalized on his hard work. He went from a peasant to a landowner. He went from poverty to the middle class. Today, the banking industry is often demonized – and rightfully so – but the capital markets have given Eladio social mobility. Very Cool!
In the field, Eladio wears a Banco Nacional hat. Its primary utility is not sponsorship, rather to block the unrelenting sun. However, he does prefer Banco Nacional to other government agricultural loan programs, even though Banco Nacional is very strict on their repayment terms.
Eladio: “Los Panameños, somos frescos. Si no pagas tu deuda, Banco Nacional te llame en seguida. No importa tu exusa.” (Some Panamanians are not to be trusted. If you don’t make a loan payment on time, Banco Nacional calls you. No excuses)
Eladio contributes this strict repayment schedule for the main reason that he stayed on target.
By 11 AM, I am extremely fatigued. I barely have enough energy to help Eladio on the Otoe pulls and zero desire to have my filthy hands in the dirt any longer. The heat from the rising afternoon sun is so damn intense. My sweat is sweating. Soil is embedded underneath my fingernails. My sneakers have been obliterated. The underwear I’m wearing is soaked through with swamp-ass. The novelty of workin-on-the-farm is long gone.
Eladio’s man-strength and stamina are impressive. Lifting weights in a gym, there is zero doubt that I’m stronger than this 54-year-old man. But in the field, there is no competition. Eladio is stronger on the pulls and shows no discomfort as he works from a bent over position. I’m basically tapping out, while Eladio is just getting started.
At noon, the macheteros break for lunch. From a seated position underneath a tree, I reach into my day bag and grab a secret stash of peanuts. Lunch is being served. But I know the arroz pelao (plain rice) with a small piece of chicken will not give me enough strength to continue.
I gobble down as many peanuts as my mouth can fit. To wash it down, I chug a jug of river water. The taste is glorious. It’s as refreshing as a fresh slice of mama’s apple pie and a giant glass of cold milk.
The other macheteros sit on top of bags while they eat their lunch. During our 30-minute break, they ask me questions about America. Primarily the questions are about agricultural produce grow in America; Did I vote for Obama; And, do I like the Yankees.
Phase II is much easier. We fill the Otoe into white sacks. The 50lbs sacks are loaded onto the horses and walked to a meeting point. There the loads will be transferred to a truck that picks everyone up 2:30 PM.
During this process, my job is little. I simply walk to the school and wait for the truck. When it appears, I take the lead on lifting the heavy white sacks into the back of the Toyota Hilux. The lift movement is similar to an Olympic-style exercise called a Power Clean.
A thought occurs to me: A day as a machetero would be a fantastic Crossfit workout. They are always posting quirky workouts on their website like bear crawls, fireman rope climbs, and running with bags on your back. The workouts are designed to test both physical and mental toughness. I’m emailing them my machetero workout as we speak:
2 Mile horse-pace walk
300 Machete swings through tall grass
200 Otoe pulls
2 Mile horse-pace walk
20 Power cleans of 50lbs sacks of Otoe into the back of a pickup truck
The day is nearing an end. The other macheteros and I are hanging off the back of the Toyota Hilux as we ride home. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about my day.
Personally, it felt good to work the land. Typically, 70% of my working day is spent behind a computer screen. Farming outdoors was a refreshing change. Sure, the labor was hard. But it gave me a sense of contribution to the earth. Responding to emails all day has never given me that same sense of contribution.
For individuals, farming builds a strong work ethic. Successful farmers wake up before sunrise. Eladio rarely drinks. Not because he doesn’t like the taste of a beer, rather because drinking makes him unproductive. Individuals with industrious habits likes these are good for the community.
Lastly, increasing social mobility is good for society. Macheteros working indefinitely the farm of land barrens returns society back to feudalism. A life like this is a real tragedy because it’s destined to abject poverty. People must see the tangible benefits from their hard work. To borrow a quote from Bill Clinton, “Society must have a connection between effort and reward.”
See more Machetero Internship photos here.