Streams of hot sweat ran down my forehead and into my eyes. I clutched my knees and sucked air like a spent marathoner. Once again the handle of the twenty pound sledgehammer I’d optimistically dubbed Mjolnir had broken in half and rested against my quivering calf. The fifth handle in two weeks. Ten tons of solid granite stared up at me, taunting me with its implacable presence. No matter how hard I drove the metal stake toward the boulder’s heart, it simply refused to die. Instead with every swing I grew weaker and it seemed to grow stronger, as if through some ancient, vampiric quality of granite.
I leaned on the hammer’s shortened handle and gazed around me, trying to draw motivation from my surroundings. Above me swayed the leafy boughs of dozens of avocado trees, weighted heavily with fruit. At each gust they threatened to drop their softball-sized bounties on unsuspecting passers-by, of which there were few. Sunlight trickled through the canopy, dappling the sides of the freshly-dug canal in which I stood, and playing off of the black and fluorescent blue wings of a butterfly bobbing on barely discernible air currents. The smell that entered my nostrils was of rich earth, the kind that insinuates itself under your fingernails and into your hair and rests like a layer of silk on your skin. It felt good to breathe, despite the oppressive heat and humidity, and all around me the high Amazon sang with life. It was not entirely jungle, but not entirely cleared land either. A land of coffee and pineapples, high hills and low valleys, forest and rivers, and communities clinging to steep hillsides. A land at once between two worlds – jungle and mountains – and still a world of its own.
The Pichanaki river, one of the many sources of the Amazon, roared downhill about twenty feet to my right in swirls of whitewater, careening around bend after bend from the high Andes to the west. That same river, tens of thousands of years ago, had deposited the boulder upon which I stood – the same boulder that had to be broken into pieces to allow for the completion of a canal, which would allow for an arm of the river to flow through, which would subsequently turn a turbine, which would power a dynamo, which would produce 12-15 daily kW of hydroelectric power for the Kadagaya community. So far nearly all of the excavation had been completed, though progress had stalled at the rock. The rock was at the crux in every way imaginable.
As I looked back at the river, a fist-sized stone suddenly tumbled down the side of the canal and thudded on the floor a few feet in front of me. I jerked my head upward. One of the community dogs had stuck his head over the edge of the trench to see what was going on and knocked the rock loose. I shook my head.
Along with falling avocados, such wayward stones counted among the daily pitfalls of canal work at Kadagaya. My good friend and former safety supervisor Matt would not have approved – our lack of helmets seemed a glaring omission, though I can’t imagine the poor souls who dug the Panama Canal enjoyed modern OSHA standards either. On the other hand they did enjoy the benefit of turn-of-the-twentieth-century steam shovels and other industrial machinery, while we were making do with pickaxes, shovels, sledgehammers, wheelbarrows, levers, pulleys, and a single rock drill – more or less Incan technology, less the rock drill, oh, and the wheel! I won’t begrudge those olden days workers though. Our canal was after all only ten feet high, ten feet wide, and about the length of a football field whereas the Panama Canal stretches the length of an entire country (albeit an exceptionally narrow one). So let’s just call it a wash and move on.
Behind me I heard Vladimir shuffle his feet. Vladimir – one half of the brainchild (with his wife Julie) of the hydroelectric project and the larger Kadagaya community – was waiting to see if I would ask for a break. I suppose there’s an unspoken rule among working men in such situations: one doesn’t ask another man if he is tired (thus offending his ego) but instead waits until the fatigue is expressed explicitly before offering a hand. Not my rule, but one I have unquestioningly followed on every relevant occasion. I let beauty and pain meld together for a final moment, permitting the soreness in my back muscles to mingle with the experiences of fresh air and rushing river, before conceding and handing Mjolnir over to Vlad. Without a word he climbed up onto the rock and took the woefully shortened hammer from me. Choking up on the handle, he started banging away at the stake, willing the rock to break with every ounce of his being.
It didn’t even shudder.
The situation called to my mind an iconic scene from the film Fitzcarraldo, in which the title character, obsessed with his ambition to construct an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle, recruits an army of indigenous people to haul his steamship up and over a steep wooded slope separating two rivers. The feat is depicted as an incredible and insane undertaking, which becomes even more so upon learning that the director, Werner Herzog, and his production crew actually accomplished it (more or less) with an army of Peruvian extras. So obsessed was the filmmaker with realism that he risked the financial health of the production and the security of his crew to create the indelible scene. Thus the insanity of the filmmaker directly mirrored that of his protagonist, perhaps even exceeding it – there is a story Herzog tells himself of a point during filming in which he threatened to kill his lead actor, Klaus Kinski, and then commit suicide if Kinski carried out his own threat to leave the set (incidentally, Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now, two of the more fraught film shoots ever, have production histories that rival their final products in terms of complications, human drama, and outright insanity. Both productions also happen to have excellent documentary films made about them: The Burden of Dreams and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse).
But I digress. Vladimir is no Fitzcarraldo, nor is he a Herzog, and I mean that in the best way possible. His soft-spoken confidence and calm are palpable, as is his absolute rationality about nearly everything. He is a scientist through and through. But the rock had unquestionably taxed his reserves. Frustration lined his face, and as he cracked away relentlessly at the unmoving stake, I couldn’t help but see something Herzogian in the whole affair. Two people (Vlad and Julie) moving to the Amazon jungle to start a new way of life, constructing a massive concrete structure deep in a river valley using mostly hand tools and simple machines. While in superficial terms (the setting, the large-scale construction, the complications, etc) their project may have mirrored both Herzog’s and his protagonist’s, I knew that theirs had more noble aspirations. I only hoped that their ambition would be repaid with success in the same way that Herzog’s was.
Behind me Marcelo, broad-shouldered and wearing a huge grin on his face, patted me on the back as we watched Vladimir catch his breath before taking another round of swings with the hammer. Marcelo was the only local worker who’d shown up that day. Finding workers had lately become a major obstacle. Though Vladimir had initially employed a number of local Asheninka men from the neighboring village to help with the excavation, the numbers had dwindled all the way down to zero in recent weeks. There was little explanation as to their disappearance, though Vlad and Julie were able to glean from rumors and insinuations that it might have to do with a couple of persistent local superstitions, both of which were pretty horrifying. The first was that gringos came to the jungle to harvest the fat and organs of local people to sell on the international market – a claim that sounds crazy but actually has truth to it! And the other, which is apparently very common among Andean workers in Peru and Bolivia, involves the belief that in order to appease Pachamama, the Incan earth goddess, anytime a bridge or dam or other large-scale infrastructural project is built, a human life must be sacrificed and the body buried in cement at the base of the structure. The belief goes that if this is not done, the structure will not stand – which is understandable considering the seismic activity of the region. Vladimir had joked with the workers that the base of his canal would only be ten centimeters deep and that it would be impossible to hide a body in cement so shallow, but that hadn’t stopped the men from leaving the project.
“We need Big Show,” Marcelo declared in Spanish, making a display of his biceps.
This was a reference I hadn’t expected. Believe it or not, U.S. professional wrestling (WWE in this case) is massively popular in Peru, so much so that even grandmothers are known to watch from time to time. Marcelo quizzed me as to my favorite wrestler (Chris Jericho, of course) and made sure that I knew what the current storylines were with some of the most popular WWE superstars, though the deeper he got into the byzantine drama the more lost I became. Nevertheless, I was glad to hear that “Big Show” was still around choke-slamming opponents, and I agreed with Marcelo that we could indeed make good use of the seven foot tall, four hundred fifty pound wrestler in this instance.
After a half dozen more determined strikes at the stake, Vladimir stepped off the rock like a WWE superstar tagging out of the ring, and Marcelo tagged immediately in, eager to take a few swings himself. I looked over at Vladimir, who smiled wanly.
“I don’t think it’s going to go in any farther,” I said, trying not to sound too negative.
He cocked his head, as if unsure. “Maybe we need to make more holes.”
Smoke wafted on the air towards us. I turned my head to the opposite hillside across the river. There burned at least ten small fires. The steep hillside looked like a big charcoal blot on the landscape. I looked back at Vladimir.
He shook his head, not saying anything. He’d already told me that the people in the area were burning the jungle to plant pineapples, the newest and most lucrative cash crop fad. The monocultural tendencies of the local farmers had apparently caused major problems in the past. Only a few years before a massive coffee blight had struck the area, killing the majority of the coffee plants and nearly bankrupting many of the farmers. Consequently many had switched to pineapples, hoping to avoid the same fate. To assist them, local banks had begun making large agricultural loans that Vladimir believed many of the farmers would never be able to repay, forcing them into a cycle of debt. The most recent bankruptcies had already begun among those who hadn’t understood the loan terms and repayment policies. Some people had even come to Vlad and Julie begging for money, while others had just taken out additional loans with higher interest rates from other banks to pay off their original loans. It all sounded too familiar.
The prospect of the destruction of the Amazon, debt enslavement, agricultural ruin, and the seemingly immovable rock swirled in my head in a potent stew of despair.
I looked at Vladimir again. He appeared circumspect. He and Julie had staked their hopes and efforts on an economic model known as a Resource-Based Economy (RBE), upon which the Kadagaya community was based. Remarkably, it’s an idea that gets little press despite its intensely logical framework. The premise is simple: the earth has enough resources for everyone, so why don’t we use our massive technological know-how, worldwide communications/knowledge apparatus, and collaborative abilities and figure out a way to share them for the benefit of all. I knew the philosophy often fell victim to knee-jerk comparisons to communism, but from what I saw and read, the comparisons were spurious at best, and at worst, defensive fire-breathing from an entrenched ideological system that recognized its weaknesses.
I knew it didn’t matter. Words are wind – which is why Julie and Vladimir and their project impressed me so much. While others who proposed ways to reimagine new systems merely talked and argued, these two people were actually putting their beliefs to action, making their philosophy into reality. Ultimately they would have something to show their critics.
I guess it was this faith in the potential of humanity that made Vladimir confident that the rock would eventually crumble, that it would be hauled away, that the cement would be poured and the hydroelectric turbine installed. It was recognition that change is the rule, not the exception. Nothing, not even huge boulders remain static forever. And as surely as gravity pulls mountain melt-water to the sea, so too does the force of human creativity, compassion, and ingenuity shape what is to come.
I tried to imagine the future of abundance and equality that Vladimir so often described. In that moment it seemed absurd to believe that human beings could carry on the way we have indefinitely. I imagined barren hillsides, blighted farms, and worthless soil. People like Marcelo wouldn’t be able to cope with such conditions, and there were people like Marcelo all over the world. The 85 people who possessed more wealth than the poorest 3 billion would never be able to hold back such a massive tide.
Just then Vladimir jumped up and scampered back onto the rock. Marcelo stopped his hammering and moved aside.
“I think I see a crack,” Vladimir said, getting down on his hands and knees and pressing his face close to the granite.
I didn’t see anything.
“Look, right there,” he said, running his index finger down along the surface. “Can you see it?”
I squinted. Nothing looked changed to me. No crack was visible to my eyes. Yet something felt different; everything suddenly felt more hopeful. Maybe my eyes weren’t as infallible as I’d always believed.
“Yeah, I think I can see something,” I murmured, moving over to crouch next to Vladimir. A line seemed to shimmer out of thin air on the surface of the rock. “I think I can see a crack.”