Concrete(ly) in my body

August 15, 2012

*Disclaimer: This is MUCH longer than most of my other posts.  It will take a while to read through.  If you were to print it out, it would be about 2 pages double-spaced. I’m going to post part two separately. 

Almost three weeks after the fact, about to reconstruct the day of concrete and cement, I looked in my journal today to see what I’d noted, in the hopes that it might jog my memory of the day.  What I found: nothing.   That evening I was in bed by 9 p.m. and asleep by 9:03; I was that wiped.  Why so tired?  Let me share.

When we arrived at 7 a.m., we came upon the workers mixing dry concrete into a large pile of sand that was about 15 feet wide and 4-5 feet high.  They’d place sand down, layer some concrete, then more sand.  The next step of the process involved turning the two together (with shovels) and then placing the mix into cone-like piles.  The 2 boys were immediately assigned this task.  Several of the girls and adults went up onto the roof to prep it for the foundation; they took bands of cloth/paper and stuck them into the holes in the roof so that there wouldn’t be any leaks later.  After the cone-like piles were finished, it was all mixed back together, into a large circle (about 18 feet in diameter, and 1-2 feet high), ready for the next step.

Andres had left about 30 minutes before with Juan Carlos to collect our police officers (new ones!), and he was going to stop at a shop and purchase some gloves for himself and for me; I had given mine to a girl whose mother had sent dish washing gloves with her.  Subsequently, I got to translate for the foreman! He explained that we needed 40 of the rocks from the mountain of rocks that was near us.  It didn’t make much sense to me, so we went to count out 40 of the rocks…  and I learned that it didn’t make sense because… he wanted not 40 rocks, but 40 wheelbarrows FULL of rocks.  I didn’t know the Spanish word for wheelbarrow. (I looked it up, it’s carretilla)


Our team effort began: several teens would load rocks into the wheelbarrows using shovels, two would wheel the rocks into the middle of the circle (on these planks that the foreman had placed over the mound), and two would spread out the rocks over the dirt/concrete mix.  The foreman or one of the workers would point to where the next set of rocks should be dumped.

We learned a brilliant way to keep track of the wheelbarrows: for each one, the kids would place one stone onto a concrete block.  What a simple way to count what we were doing!  The foreman had been working in construction for 25 years and clearly knew what was what.  The other workers were younger guys, probably in their early to mid twenties.  I could understand pieces of their conversation and they were constantly making cracks about the gringos working—but in a good-natured way.  They’d tease each other, too, much like men (whom I’ve known) working construction here in the States.

After the rocks were all distributed, it was time for the water.  The foreman gave me a 5 gallon bucket and one of the girls a smaller bucket and again, through pantomime, instructed us.  There were giant trashcan-like cylinders filled with water.  We were to move the water, bucket by bucket, into the mound (that was now rocks, dirt/sand, and concrete).  The workers and the foreman watched our initial efforts and corrected us (we were pouring directly down when we needed to be more or less swooshing it out in a horizontal manner).  They made gulleys and holes throughout the mound, to enable the water to distribute more evenly into the pile and soak through.

At this point, there was a big debate that Andres pulled me in to.  The foreman (and Andres, maybe?) was concerned that the buckets filled with concrete might be too heavy for the girls to lift.  TEENY TINY buckets.  If I thought it was necessary, they could find some more guys from the neighborhood to come and help.

Although I’m usually pretty aware, in this moment, I wasn’t very culturally sensitive.  I had studied Central America and learned all about machismo.  We didn’t have this anymore in the States (right?) and I wasn’t going to let it happen in Guatemala.  I informed Andres that the girls (and Jen and I) would be just fine, thankyouverymuch.  I rock climb/boulder, and I lift my own body regularly.  Lifting a small bucket of concrete? Easy.

Well, let me tell you.  Lifting my body to rock climb for 10 minutes at a go, then resting ‘til I feel like climbing again is not the same thing as repetitive lifting of buckets of cement for 3 hours: pride- 1, Monica- 0.

Some caveats I should mention, before I proceed.

1)   I have a herniated disc at L4/L5. It’s an old injury from my days at Oxford, when I did crew.  More or less it’s under control now, but occasionally it flares up.  There are a few things that trigger it.  Number one? Lack of sleep.  Number two? Bending over with incorrect posture.

2)   I didn’t tell Jen or Andres about my injury, cause it so rarely bothers me.

3)   I did bring some old painkillers with me, because long travel times can also exacerbate it.  So I was prepared. My preference was to avoid use though; they are strong strong strong narcotics.  Usually when I take them, I fly in the sky a bit.  This is not a plus when you are with teenagers in a foreign country.

4)   When I was in high school, my guy friends knew that they could provoke a response if they challenged me on whether or not I could do something “as a girl.”  I would rather pass out then step down from that sort of challenge.  I thought I had outgrown this: mostly I have, but not totally.

5)   As I mentioned here, I wanted to engage in physical labor.  I analyze and deliberate and act with precision generally: this can exhaust me and suck my energy.  When I am physically present in my body, I’m less in my head.  I craved physical labor.  That’s what I got during this day.  No space for daydreaming or analyzing.  Pure presence. Presence to the physicality of it all.  This presence carried into the conversations I had with all the people I met (YAY!)

I had to split this into more, folks. It’s over 1000 words just here. If you have time, go on to the next one! I’ll link it as soon as I format pictures into it and post.

3 Responses to “Concrete(ly) in my body”

  1. mcfeinics says:

    Ha, I would have told Andres the same thing and I’d have had the same regret!

  2. […] mentioned my herniated disc here and here: there were several pieces to that story, though.  I would take breaks from our work so that my […]

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