A Day in the Woods

I always wondered how she kept such a nice house. From the outside you could see that her walls had been plastered and painted. Her windows were reinforced with elegant black iron, and she just started to build a cement wall around her property. What stands out most about Mirtala’s house however, is the large pile of chopped wood on the side of her house. It’s a huge pile, about 4 foot tall comprising about 10 large bundles.

Mirtala is a small woman with a stern and grim face. She looks fierce with a large nose, deeply embedded eyes, dark hair, and sharp wrinkles on her face. She is a single mom of three and caretaker of her granddaughter.

One day I asked Mirtala where she got all that wood and what she keeps it for. She chopped and gathered it herself, she said, and she keeps it for her and her family, she sells the rest. Curious how this seemingly fragile and elder woman could gather all this wood on her own, I asked to come with her on one of her wood gathering trips.

Mirtala’s home is nice from the outside, but on the inside its virtually empty. She had a wood table with a few pots and pans in one corner, plastic chairs stacked upon one another in another corner, and open space everywhere in between. The inside is dark and solemn, with dim lighting and the grey color from the cement engulfing the room.

She told me to come by her house at 1pm. As I walked up to her door I found Mirtala sweeping outside her house, with a machete hanging from her hip. “Hi Mirtala.” When she looked up, it looked as though Mirtala was surprised to see me. “Grab that machete over there and let’s go.” I grabbed the dull and used machete and followed her into the palm trees. Along with her daughter, we walked deep into the adjacent palm tree farm.

Mirtala has a son in the US. Her son supports Mirtala financially and will fund construction projects and send monthly remittances. Between this son, another who lives with her, and her wood selling venture, Mirtala meets most of her needs. She has a loan with La Ceiba which is late.

“You have to tap the wood to see if it is dry.” We seemed to reach an area where the wood was ready to cut and gather. “Hold the wood at an angle, like this, and strike it hard.” Mirtala swiftly cut through a thick piece of wood, cutting through it in two strokes. She watched as I tried to do the same. I fumbled through fallen branches. Grabbed one that I thought was adequate and hesitantly wacked at the branch. Mirtala laughed at my halfhearted attempt to cut through the piece. It took me several strokes, many adjustments in my positioning and handle on the machete, but I did it.

Mirtala has a tough appearance but a gentle manner. Any time I see her in passing she gives me a hug and kiss on the neck. “How are you Tiago?” she says. She’s gained the respect of all of my colleagues. Once described as, “one of the hardest working women in Villa,” Mirtala earned her reputation through her constant activity, seemingly endless energy and focus on her kids and granddaughter.

After 30 minutes of chopping wood, we gathered all of our pieces and organized them in a bundle. I had about 10 pieces of wood, each about 3 feet in length. I tied them together with a thin piece of rope and hauled them up on my shoulder. Mirtala had twice as many logs as me. She roped together her bundle, carefully placed a clumped t-shirt on her head and lifted the bundle of wood onto the t-shirt. My bundle must’ve weighed at least 40 lbs. I had to switch the bundle onto the other shoulder several times. Each time I did, Mirtala asked, “are you ok Tiago?”

“Listen Tiago, I know I am late on my loan. Be patient with me, I have a lot going on right now.” When we got back to her house, Mirtala gave me a glass of water and spoke up about her loan. I realized perhaps her loan was a bit too large for Mirtala given her income. But, this tireless woman, caretaker of two, single mother, with nothing but her machete, her stern look, and her gentle nature, I don’t have any doubt that she will follow through on her promise.

Santiago Sueiro (@SueiroSantiago), Program Director

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