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Rocks have to go from one pile to the other. Big rocks. Pick axing and shoveling loosens them from the earth. Then we can get them where they need to go. An uninterrupted time for meditation is the perk of the job so far.
Pick-ax. Move rocks. Pick-ax. Move rocks—and so on. The work itself embodies the definition of monotony. Repetition and sameness echo like ghosts that haunt the flesh inside worn gloves and all down a tense back into achy hamstrings. Construction motors along under the white-hot radiation of the Andean sun. There is plenty of musky-green coca leaf for us to chew.
The Spaniard takes charge of the guinea pig farm being built, but we lend a hand with a green house instead. Local school children do not get enough leafy green roughage in their diet, and copious amounts of starches lead to ubiquitous intestinal distress. The green house we build can grow kale and cabbage, and all sorts of verdure for them.
We are teachers, but we are on strike much like the rest of the schools in the mountains. This political unrest gives us a chance to lend a hand with the rocks and the green house. So, we do.
Watching the Spaniard order some French volunteers about in broken English entertains us far more than the idle lull that occurs between times of strike. And we get to know our European comrades, who willingly give of their time and money to these projects, but whose feelings about the present labor seem mixed.
We wheelbarrow a few loads more. There are always more rocks to move. Big rocks. Then it blossoms again—that beautiful and glorious tedium! More quickly than before, meditation takes root, and we are aware of our bodies under the sun. More coca parts our lips.
So many physical things warrant attention now. The body’s many hinges and articulations forever adjust to the loads. Joints conform this way and that, especially where body parts bear the potential energy stored in each load. Heavy loads. Muscles pull tendons and bones with every exertion of brute force. Human life courses our veins in the good hope of supplying our flesh with whatever little oxygen floats about at two miles in altitude.
Here there is commitment; here there is freedom; but there is hardly any air.
The Spaniard spies me with a wheelbarrow chock-full of stones and grunts, “Work! Work!” His great sense of humor electrifies the crowd. Who can help but chortle at the hyperbole in his shout?
Our manual labor seems glorious, albeit veiled under the umbral shadow of privilege. We know the denizens here who duplicate this work with incredulous frequency. They are our neighbors, after all. The ferocity of their labor even drives some to take hard drink early in the mornings. Of course, we call this labor ‘hard labor’ because it is seldom anything but hard. And yet, seldom applies to us here; we have the privilege to pick it up and leave it as we please.
We have that privilege.
The man who keeps the grounds we build on is here with us. We return the wheelbarrows and see him caught in a moment. Time to pull him out of it with a chat and a handshake (we suppose).
As we talk and download with one another, we consider the meaning of work. We agree that the teleological value in work is not actually found in the end goal, or even in the finished job. Every job ends; there is nothing unique about that aspect of work, especially not hard work. The value of this work comes from knowing that the guinea pig farm and the green house mean nothing upon completion unless the people building them firstly understand that sorority is what makes them great. Solidarity makes them great. Any construction erected with power but without understanding and togetherness is hollow, not hallowed. Together is what matters, and our construction cannot be anything without it.
Yes! Our solidarity makes a thing worth building.
The Peruvian groundskeeper still looks on ahead as he thumbs his red hat with a brown hand and parts his stained-green lips to talk. His motionless eyes never leave the distant horizon as he says, “That’s just it. That is everything in life.”
Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.