Our service project began on March 4–a Monday that should be the role model for all Mondays: We were excited, put in a great effort, and ended eager for the rest of the week. It became the cornerstone of our experience–the story’s climax, the man’s epiphany.
Our task was simple: Build a drying rack and fermentation boxes.
Two days earlier we’d been given the chance to see the first drying rack built by an N.C. State ASB Trip to Belize–right in San Antonio where we were staying.
It looks a little worn for good reason–it’s been used for years since it was built, and there were even cacao beans drying inside when we were there. See, cacao beans can’t be used straight out of the pod–they need some TLC first.
The process begins with fermentation, which is exactly what it sounds like: The beans are stuffed in wooden boxes and as the slimy membranes surrounding them ferment, they darken and gain a distinct chocolatey flavor. After a week or so, the come out a bit wet, so they need to be dried before shipping and production.
Many farmers put their beans on a tarp on the ground to let them dry. However, the weather can change from sunny to stormy in seconds, and not only can the rain ruin the beans, they could also mildew and become inedible.
Enter the drying rack: the structure keeps the beans off the ground while protecting them from rain and mildew. This ensures a more consistent, higher-quality product.
It isn’t all business: the better the production, the more the farmers make for producing it–and this means they earn the money necessary to feed and clothe their families and send their children to school. We’re giving them a tool to enhance and enrich their abilities. We’re helping these families uplift themselves out of poverty, one drying rack at a time.
So when the building began, we knew what we were doing it for–at least on a rational level. We dug holes for the supports. We cut up wood and began assembling the structure’s frame. We set the foundational and cut the bolts to start assembling it, piece by piece.
And that’s how it continued all week–one step after another after one more.
There’s something intensely therapeutic about working with your hands. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the building-type–my comfort zone and my strengths lie in academia and leadership, not with hammers and saws–but when I get into it, it’s empowering: To see a change at the end of the day, to feel a little more strength around my bones, to step back and say, “I helped build that.”
I encourage everyone to get out there and do something with your hands every once in a while–take a crafting class, volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, tackle a weekend DIY. Just use your hands. We have eight fingers and two thumbs for a reason–and I highly doubt evolution’s primary concern was how best to fit our fingers to the keyboard.
We built. Some days were slower than others as jobs shifted and tasks became more intensive or specialized. Sometimes all we did for hours was feed corn through this awesome hand-cranked machine that removed all the kernels. Our first day we discovered it and cleaned all the corn in its box; the next day it was refilled–and the next day after that. It was fun, distracting, contemplative. I liked that machine.
Like I said: Do something with your hands.
My mom’s doctor once said our thumbs are all that separates us from monkeys.
So don’t be a monkey: use your thumbs.
I’m getting distracted.
It’s what happens after twelve-hour training days when I’ve got a fever. My apologies.
It took two events to catalyze my understanding of just how much we were doing in Belize. The first happened during lunch one day during the middle of the week. We joined a nearby family for caldo, a traditional soup, and we were informed they would be using our drying rack, too–a fact none of us had known before, that more than one farmer would be benefiting from our service.
That was just the beginning: Afterwards we got to play with their kids, and even thinking about it now, my eyes well up with tears–we played Duck Duck Goose and yet it was the most fun I had all week. We chased them, they chased us, and there was laughter–our laughter, their laughter–all of us laughing together.
Later that same day I joined one of our team leaders to visit her site from last year. I was nervous approaching people I didn’t know–but not only were they welcoming to each of us, they all remembered her–after a year, they recognized her face and still knew her name. You can’t put that kind of touching feeling into words–at least I know I can’t.
To say it felt like butterflies wouldn’t be right. I imagine if I were a flower blossoming for the first time, feeling all the sunlight on every facet, each shade of some color suddenly the brightest it would ever be–I suppose that’d be like how I felt witnessing such a poignant and powerful interaction as this.
Before we left, they told us how much the drying rack and fermentation boxes had helped them. They were close enough to be convenient, and they were secure and reliable, so the farming became more efficient and yielded a better product. There aren’t words to capture the look of gratitude on their faces, the thankfulness in their eyes.
I remembered the children I’d met at lunch and realized they were the reason I had come to Belize–they were the ones who brought a logical action to a human level, to the personal, the passionate.
Before I started writing, I was thinking of the things I might say, and it occurred me every great experience in my life has been linked to music: In Israel, Calle Ocho was all the rage; I returned from Cherokee with a recording of Native American music; LeaderShape introduced me to Macklemore; and doesn’t Don’t Stop Believing pop up everywhere?
But in Belize, there was no music. For ten days we were severed from the technology that attaches soundwaves to our ears, so all we heard we the sounds of nature–the wind, the surf, the beating of our hearts. And I realized the song that captures Belize in my head, in my heart, wasn’t produced in a studio or ripped from a CD.
It came from a handful of kids as we ran around each other calling, “Duck, duck, goose!” Their laughter gave me strength and purpose. Their laughter was all the music I needed.