Sunday, January 25, 2009

The value of beans


A few weeks back Roberto, who has done pretty much all of our tiling, building, and plumbing work over the past ten years here in Mexico, buzzed at the apartment on a day when there was actually someone there. The economic recession has bitten in Mexico City as it has elsewhere, and Roberto's work was getting more scarce. He was thinking of getting a taxi licence and wondered about the prospects of borrowing some money to get one.

We weren't sure a taxi was a good bet, so we decided against lending the money.

Instead, we suggested he might like to take some time over in Coatepec working on a bit of house maintenance and we'd pay him what he needed for the licence. That way if the idea came unglued it would only be a bit of tiempo perdido (lost time) that went down the tubes.

So, he's been tiling and plastering and repairing by day and helping with some coffee production in the evenings.

Luxuriating in the bounty of this year's crop, I have been playing faster and looser with the beans than has been the case in the past. When we first began making a bit of coffee from the two robusta plants Roberto and I had naively planted in (what is now) the front courtyard of the house -- the first plants to be laid down here -- it was a matter of jealously tending every single bean. Nothing could be lost, and marginal beans were always admitted to the roast (not unlike marginal learner applicants whenever course numbers drop). So, while de-husking the beans this year I have been going for speed, and more than a few beans just fall to the floor or the ground and get swept into the bin later.

But once Roberto was on the job these beans were being picked up, and he was gently chiding me about my indifference to these fallen beans. In my head, of course, I was remembering untold bosses of construction companies I worked for in holidays as a university student. You'd let a dropped nail go because, as we were constantly reminded, "time is money". Yesterday's nails are today's beans in that scheme of things.

Roberto went after the fallen ones. I'd say "there are plenty of beans, so a few spilled ones won't hurt" -- or, at least, that's what I have been trying to say in Spanish.

Today we went out to the coffee land for an hour or so just to have a look around. There were a few ripe beans on the trees and even though we'll not be able to use any more -- the next picking will get sold at the markets -- I couldn't resist picking a few ripe ones and putting them in a basket. Roberto, meanwhile, was liking the place, where there is no electricity or other "urban" amenities. "It's like the ranchito that my grandparents lived on", he said. "They only had a parrafin lamp", he added. "Everything else was firewood, or done by hand".

We strolled through the trees, picking a few beans. He said he remembered when he used to live on the ranchito with his grandparents how they'd sometimes buy some green beans for roasting. "They would buy as many as would fit in three sardine cans", he said, gesturing to make the shape of those well-known oval-shaped cans that are in every supermarket and corner store in Mexico. "That was all they could afford. They would roast them on a comal (the flat circular metal tray used to heat tortillas over a flame). Then when the beans were roasted they would grind them using a stone 'rolling pin' on a stone grinding pad".

In that memory the "chased-down fallen to the floor" beans around the husking machine acquired a perspective that reminded me all too clearly of the politics (or lack of them) of abundance. It was a sobering moment, and one I doubt will be comfortable until the memory fades.

If it ever does.

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