film production + social action

WEBlog 5: Building a Canal

Life in Antuyo is hard and the people are poor. As I mentioned, the greatest problem is a lack of water. To aid in this issue, while I was there, the people of the town joined together to begin construction on a canal that would bring water down from a lagoon several miles away. The construction began on a Sunday. I was told we would be going very high up (“Arrrrrrrrrrrribba!” as they were fond of saying) the mountain, riding along on donkeys. I let myself daydream on the idea of a peaceful ride up the beautiful mountain bouncing along on the back of donkey. I heard wrong. We were not going to ride up the mountain on donkeys, but rather load the donkeys up with bags of cement and herd them up and down the steep mountain. I climbed the mountain five times that day in all, filming the townspeople as they marched their donkeys onward, often carrying bags of cement over their own shoulders – the heavy load pushing them toward the rocky Earth. Everyone in the town participated in this work – young fit men, old men, young women, old women, kids. For fear of being excommunicated if I didn’t help out, I herded a few donkeys myself. It’s pretty easy, you just need to stay behind the donkey and walk at a steady and purposeful pace. On my third trip up the mountain, I got a little slow and the donkey started veering off to the right. I started to run after him, which only caused him to run faster. He started heading downhill, picking up speed – perhaps sensing freedom. I grabbed onto the ropes that tied the cement onto his back. This seemed to piss him off – he darted away, dragging me along for a few moments until I was wise enough to let go. I dropped my heavy pack of gear and sprinted after the donkey.

Here’s a little known fact: donkey’s are fast. Much faster than you’d imagine. I had no hope of catching up with the donkey that ran with great strides toward liberation. The terrible shame that comes with losing one’s donkey started to come over me. I turned to look and see if anyone was looking and was relieved to see Bernardo, my 12-year old savior, sprinting out toward the donkey. Bernardo is also fast. Much faster than I am, even faster than the donkey. Within seconds he was well ahead of me, and managed to make his way in front of the donkey. Upon doing so, he came to a halt and turned back toward the mountain. Apparently, this is all that is needed to curb a run away donkey. Just get in front of them (as you see, not an easy task) and they give up. So, I’ve learned that donkeys are very fast but not very hopeful animals. Bernardo took over from there and the case of the run away donkey was solved. I of course, would not live the episode down, as Yanet’s father would often bring it up during dinner, laughing about the fact that I couldn’t keep my donkey in order.

The next day, with the cement distributed along the canal’s intended path, construction began in earnest on the canal and continued throughout the week. I went to film the construction on Friday. The people gathered on the mountain at 9, they spent an hour relaxing, chewing coca leaves and talking. They split into two groups – each working on different sections of the canal – and many arguments erupted about who had more cement, who had brought more cement, and where each group’s designated territories ended. It was not exactly the quaint, “we’re all in this together scene,” I had imagined. At 10, work began and continued until lunch at 1. First they dug out the canal from the Earth – pulling out large boulders that stood in their way. Then they lined the canal with large rocks, then laid and smoothed cement to preserve the design. By 11:30, satisfied with the footage I’d accumulated, I decided to help out with the canal’s construction. The people were all very pleased with my volunteerism. In fact, they even argued over which group I would help. In the end, I split my time between the two groups. I was assigned three different tasks: first I brought buckets of water to use in mixing the cement; then, once mixed, I brought buckets of cement up and down the mountain from the mixing site to the specific areas where it was needed; finally, I searched for and retrieved large rocks to put along the canal as a type of foundation – this seemingly easy task was complicated by the existence of little black spiders that hide under the rocks. I didn’t quite catch what would happen if I was bitten, other than that it would be rather painful and would include an hour long drive to the hospital. “And I don’t have a car!” The woman who was telling me all this concluded. The point was, I should be careful.

Work finished at four. Too tired for the long trek home, most of the people hung out for a bit before heading home. In helping out, I had certainly won over the respect of the whole community. Before then, while I was a recognizable face, I was still the unknown Gringo who danced kind of funny. Now, the people seemed to actually enjoy my presence. At lunch, I was given food by three different people, each insisting on taking my already full plate and adding to it. And, by the end of the day, my name had changed from “Gringo” to Michael.