Sorting Beans: Passing time on the Marañón


Written by Fidgit

It was one of those towns which instantly underwhelms:
The plaza was an uneven dirt square. Funding was coming from somewhere to build a cement sports plot. I have become skeptical of projects like this in damming territory, having heard enough stories and seen enough examples of the ways the international corporations buy locals’ votes.

I could not believe the Peruvian man who told us the damming company had come around with a blank piece of paper, collecting signatures which they then presented to the government as approval for the project.
“That’s not legal!” I exclaimed to Luigi once I confirmed I had heard the story correctly.
“This is what they do,” he shrugged.

Considering the lack of access to resources, information, and limited education in these regions, the playing field hardly seems even, cement sports court or not. Electricity was a recent arrival. The center piece of one of the homes was a chest freezer which had been packed in by mules. The lady of the house made us all mugs of delicious hot chocolate by hand mixing bits of chocolate brick from their cocoa plants with hot water.
“Or you can make it in a blender,” she explained when I asked for the recipe, “but the original way is to do it with a wooden spoon in a clay jar.”

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Our rafts alongside the balsa rafts traditionally used on the Marañón.

Several of us had wandered up from the boats on various missions. Ben loped toward the schoolhouse and the professor he knew there to talk about sharing Confluir, the film we had brought to share with people about the effect the proposed dams would have. Later conversations would reveal the dam companies had already been hard at work making relationships and winning over support in this community.

Cloudbuster and I had meandered up to see what there was to see and check out if there was a shop. It was a typical small village in that a shop had to be there somewhere, it was just a matter of engendering enough trust to be told whose house it was in.

So we wandered the dirt paths between the houses. The only people out were an elderly couple sitting on the floor of their porch with a tarp covered in tiny beans and a couple metal bowls. A large stretcher made of long poles and hide was leaned against the wall, “To take injured people to the road,” the woman explained.

We asked about a shop, “it is over there but they are out at the chakras,” the tiny crone mumbled amidst a flurry of other Spanish words I did not follow. I asked Cloudbuster if he was up for burning time and sorting beans.

“Sure,” he shrugged.
I was excited and nervous.
This is an aspect of my life, of this journey, which I don’t usually get to share.


Having occupied a space between cultures since I was 4 years old, I’m pretty good at it, but, while most words can be translated, sometimes lines of thinking and social rules of etiquette are difficult to explain. Being a dialectical thinker can be uncomfortable, especially when you have a short time to try to get this person to understand why that person does something differently.

Suffice it to say, life and logic is not as linear in South America as it is to your average U.S. citizen. People in the campo do a lot of sitting around, and if you want to understand anything about their lives, you have to join them in that. Little did I know what a vivid example we were sitting down to.

We asked why and how they were sorting the beans, “they are old and worms got into them, so we are picking out the bad ones and keeping the good ones.” She kept running her hand across them, seemingly picking ones up at random. I inspected the bowls and found one full of beans with holes burrowed in them or shriveled and discolored.

I showed Cloudbuster what I had inferred was the process and we began methodically to sort handfuls, placing the bad beans into this bowl and the good ones into that one.

“But you don’t work, first, you eat some mangoes.” She reached into the darkened doorway and produced a bowlful of the ubiquitous regional fruit.

I began sucking one off the peel, throwing bits to the chicken tied up nearby as we chatted. Cloudbuster had already set to sorting the beans and tiny bean sorting is not a job for sticky hands. He exemplified the cherished U.S. perspective: work hard now, earn your treat later.

“Why isn’t he accepting a mango? They are ripe and good. Does he not like my mangoes?” she demanded.

“No no, we are from North America, and in our culture it is respectful to work first before accepting a snack. Your mangoes are very good, he looks forward to eating one.” I explained to her in Spanish.

I uttered a quick explanation to him in English and he tactfully switched tasks, immediately gaining the interest of all the surrounding animals. The chicken wanted the peels, the pig behind the wood door began knocking with its snout, the kitten stretched and made its presence known.

After an appropriate amount of mango eating and complimenting, we returned to sorting. It was thus with some dismay that we watched her pour the large bowl of “approved beans” back out onto the tarp with the “unverified beans” and resume randomly push them around as she talked.

“I am ancient,” she declared.
“How old are you?” I inquired.
She turned to her partner, “how old am I?”
“26,” he replied, not looking up.
“I’m 26,” she informed us.
I sorted through 26 beans before raising my head lest I have to justify my smirk.

A neighbor walked past, greeting the couple cheerily, “how are you?”
“Still here,” she ran through a list of their various maladies and while he slowed his pace, he did not stop.

“Do you have children?” I eventually asked.
“Yes but only a few. One is in the city, one is working our chakra, and the river took one.”
This was something I heard several times along the float.
The river takes people.
The same way mountains fall down.
Natural disasters are phrased in the same terms as if a child had fallen and scraped their knee, or if a neighbor had borrowed a cup of flower.
Se cayo” (It/he/she fell down)
Se le llevo” (It took it/him)

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This river canyon has a way of putting a human in context.

“I am so old,” she lamented, “and I just won’t die. God has disintegrated rocks faster than he will take me!” She seemed genuinely offended.
“You must be a keeper of great wisdom.” I offered, searching for the positive.
“Yes, when I was young I was a healer. I tied (helped birth) over 80 babies. I have brought much life into this world but I cannot seem to leave it.”

We continued sorting beans and chatted for a while longer until I began to wonder about the rest of our crew. Gently I excused us to go look for our friends.

“Well, next time you come past, be sure to stop by. I’ll probably still be here!”

So you see, you can’t build dams here because she can neither die nor move.

6 thoughts on “Sorting Beans: Passing time on the Marañón

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