Our orientation to life on the ranch was fairly straightforward. A small staff was employed to cook, clean and care for the owners, the guests and the horses as well as tend the macadamia nut orchard and coffee cherries, which grow on trees. Most of the staff was indigenous, bilingual and under 25; Spanish was their second language. Eight cabins could accommodate up to 32 visitors overnight. We gathered in an open-air central palapa for communal meals twice a day. In between meals, my partner and I were responsible for supervising the preparation, serving and clean up of meals and snacks, arranging visits to a nearby archeological site and horseback rides, and planning and budgeting for purchase of food, beverages, and essential items on a daily basis that would allow the ranch to function and prosper.
Doña Margarita (not her real name) led us to the office above the kitchen. She gave us keys to the lock box that kept cash and receipts. She was friendly, chattering on and on and laughing as she explained some of the system she and her husband used to maintain the cabins and direct the staff. Her husband soon joined us, a bottle of Corona in hand. Don Glen was tall and lanky, spoke broken Spanish at best, and nervous. He made it clear we were to keep a strict eye on the staff, especially “the boys”, at all times.
The boys were likely to take a rest under a tree in the macadamia grove or lean against the woodpile if they were allowed too much freedom, he explained. It was our charge to see they didn’t slack off. My partner glanced at me as we absorbed this new information.
As it turned out, “the boys”, Cristobal and Manuel, worked enthusiastically from sun up to sundown. After serving and cleaning up breakfast, they split wood, gather nuts and picked coffee by hand, prepared cabins for guests, served quesadillas during the afternoon, stocked the coolers with cold cerveza and tended bar, and assisted in whatever task was required to keep the ranch running smoothly. They did all this and more with a humble smile, day after day.
Number one on the list of priorities for Don Glen was setting up the bar at 4:45 pm. If the ice bucket wasn’t filled at five o’clock, he became agitated and ever more nervous, despite the fact that he had been drinking Coronas since approximately 10:30 am every day and had ready access to more.
“Dame una Corona! una Sol! These light beers are like drinking water! Important to stay hydrated!” he wheezed, as he rolled another unfiltered cigarette. “Let’s set up the bar, the guests will be wanting a cocktail when they get back from the horse ride.”
Despite their many responsibilities, Cristobal and Manuel asked us for English lessons. They quickly learned the basics, and attempted to teach us a little of the Mayan dialect they spoke when left alone. It was a true pleasure having them on staff, and they seemed to enjoy talking to us as the day’s work unfolded, and occasionally we had a few minutes to check in at the end of a day.
One evening Manuel asked my husband in Spanish: “What is inflation, anyway?” and a serious discussion on economics took place. Meanwhile, Doña Margarita and Don Glen insisted “these Indian boys are completely uneducated, can’t really do much than work at this ranch, they’re so lucky to have this job!”
Manuel was the first member of his community to have left to seek a living in the “modern” world of Ocosingo. He came from a village that did not rely on pesos to function. I wondered, not for the first time, how we could reconcile our values with those of the owners of the ranch. Within a week or two, we soon realized that we could not.
Please do let me know if you would like me to continue this story.