I felt like I had woken up a half an hour before I had gone to sleep. The sun was still slowly drifting across the Atlantic, and stars from both hemispheres illuminated the Andean sky. I crawled off my paja (straw) mattress, threw on a few layers and began my trek.
I had come up with this elaborate (and somewhat loco) scheme to stock a mountain lake with trucha de arco iris, or rainbow trout. It would involve transporting delicate fry from a nursery near Cuenca, Ecuador, to a little cloud forest lake hundreds of miles away. The idea was to provide farmers with another source of much-needed protein. I also figured the fish would be fun to catch. (See Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.)
After a long walk and an even longer bus ride, I arrived in the colonial town of Cuenca just before sunrise. I then hailed a taxi that took me to a fish hatchery high above the city. There, I filled two huge barrels with ice-cold water and thousands of baby trout. In a desperate race against the heat of the rising equatorial sun and the rapid consumption of oxygen by my tiny passengers, I reversed the trip.
I had arranged for a camión, or truck, to meet me at the bus stop in the town of Jima. We would then drive to the end of a long dirt road, where friends were waiting with horses. We would transfer the fish to smaller containers and ride up to the lake. If all went well, the majority of the trout would survive the ordeal.
It didn’t and they didn’t.
Even though I had paid the driver a deposit and had reminded him a hundred times, he wasn’t there. In a panic, I found a shady spot for the tanks and agitated the water to generate more oxygen. I looked and listened for signs of the truck and I spit expletives from beneath my breath in both English and Español.
After about a half an hour, I turned to an old man sitting on a park bench and pleaded, “¿Dios mio, dónde está el chófer?” (“My God, where is the driver?!”) He shrugged, fluttered a single outstretched hand from side to side (in Ecuador this is the universal gesture for bad news; I saw — and used — it a lot; I still do). Then he said, “Ya mismo.”
In Spanish, ya mismo means “right now.” In Ecuador, though, it’s been bastardized by sarcasm. There, it roughly translates, “It’ll happen sometime between now and the next Ice Age.” (Considering the current direction of climate change, a potentially very long time!)
So, I waited and waited; the camión didn’t come and the fry died. (Note: I tried again two months later and was successful. If you have an interest in trout fishing in the Andes, I can recommend a pretty good spot.)
I grew to loath the term “ya mismo.” It became the bane of my Peace Corps experience – a foreseen obstacle to just about every project. Eventually, though, I grew to accept it, albeit grudgingly. It was a reality of place and time – a survival tactic employed by people accustomed to disappointment.
Years later in New Orleans, The Big Queasy, I actually found myself using it a fair amount, especially after Hurricane Katrina.
“When are they gonna fix those roads?” “Ya mismo.”
“When do you think they’ll get a handle on the crime situation?” “Ya mismo.”
The expression provided a little solace in a world or frustration.
I lived in a small farmhouse above two branches of the Rio Moya. It was about a 15-minute walk from the tiny hamlet of Zhumar, one of 12 communities in the parroquia of Jima. One day a young boy ran by my house screaming, “¡Minga mañana en Pinjuma! ¡Minga mañana en Pinjuma!” My Spanish was pretty feeble at the time, but I certainly knew what mañana meant. And Pinjuma was a small town just downriver. As for “minga,” I hadn’t a clue. I looked in my dictionary, but it wasn’t there. I figured I would figure it out the following day.
When I arrived in Pinjuma, there were already hundreds of volunteers. Armed with picks, shovels and axes, campesinos, or farmers, from all corners of the parroquia were repairing a long stretch of road that had caved in. Women were passing around shots of canelazo (think warm kerosene with a hint of cinnamon) and preparing a massive meal of choclo, locro soup and roasted guinea pigs. Children were tending sheep, goats and younger siblings. I took a shot, grabbed an implement and joined in.
By the late afternoon, we were done. The road was back in operation. The volunteers headed off in different directions. They would see each other again either at the weekly market in Jima or at the next minga …
Minga is the Spanish version of the Inca term minka. For the indigenous people of the Andes, minkas were a form of communal labor. They were used to construct roads, irrigation systems, terraces, and temples. Like an Amish barn raising, they allowed people to overcome the limitations of technology and to accomplish truly extraordinary things. They were proof of the adage about strength in numbers.
After Katrina there were spontaneous and planned “mingas” here in New Orleans. They not only helped rebuild the city; they also brought people together at a time when it was more important than ever.
In a world of “ya mismo,” mingas restore hope.