Posted at 02:03h
by Cristián Londoño Proaño
Translated by Joan Gavey, Paula Weiss, and Ricardo Segreda
I live together with my grandparents in a hacienda in a town on the Ecuadorian coast called Buena Fe, meaning "Good Faith," which is an hour and a half from the provincial capital and seven hours from Quito. My grandparents adopted me when I was five years old, because my parents died in an unfortunate traffic accident. I grew up with them, and learned the family business. My grandfather, Carlos, dedicates himself to the sowing and cultivation of various products such as tomatoes and bananas. He still maintains some ancient agrarian techniques such as hydroponics. He has yet to bring in robots to automate harvesting. Rather, he prefers to hire people from neighboring communities to do the work.
It's noon and it's raining cats and dogs. For three days it has not stopped. I am in my room listening to electronic music and emailing my last assignment for the semester.
"Your grandmother requests your presence at lunch," states Rita, the virtual assistant.
“Thanks, Rita," I respond.
I leave my room. I walk down the corridor. On the walls are the photographs of the old cacao plantations that once covered a large part of the hacienda.
My grandparents and I sit at the table. My grandmother, Rosa, makes an effort to prepare food with the hacienda's own produce. She cooks up rice with stewed, chicken. I like the traditional Ecuadorian touch of my grandmother's food. Grandmother has preserved the recipes she learned from her mother and tries to prepare them just like the originals. However, due to the fact that some ingredients no longer exist because they are no longer produced, she has to incorporate other elements.
At the head of the table, Carlos, or as I call him, Grandfather, eats a spoonful with a piece of chicken. He chews it, swallows and afterwards he lingers, looking out towards the window. I admire his graying hair and green eyes, his wide nose and fine mouth. In his green eyes I perceive a lot of frustration, one that I totally understand. It began two years ago. It was early morning. Two sharp knocks on my door woke me up.
"Lucas?" I hear my grandmother's voice.
I stretch out. It was still dark in my room. I check my cell phone. Five in the morning, very early.
"Tell me, Grandmother," I say, waking up.
My grandmother slowly opens the door, the light of the corridor filtering faintly into my room.
"The lights, Rita, " I say to the maid.
They come on. My grandmother enters my room. The brown hair, turning gray, her green eyes and pink mouth; Grandmother looks distressed. There is something urgent.
"Did something happen?," I say.
My grandmother comes over to me, takes me by the hand and says:
I hurriedly sit up. My grandmother's words scare me.
"It's okay," my grandma says slowly. However, she then she groans and speaks with heaviness.
I sense something. Whatever it is, however, she is not eager to tell me.
"It failed again," she announces.
"It failed?," I say. However, I knew what she was referring to. The importance of the project that my grandfather had undertaken. He said he was a dreamer. That was how he defined himself. As for me, I am like my late mother. The limited memories I had of her involved her incredible way of encouraging my father in his innumerable projects. Here I had been by my grandfather's side in the project. For several days I had accompanied him to the field and toured the property, making sure that conditions were fulfilled so that the plant would grow healthily and would bear fruit, that nothing would fail. But what, exactly, had failed?
"Where is he? Where's Grandfather?," I ask anxiously.
"In the dining room, Lucas," my grandmother answers.
I walk, as quickly as possible, to the dining room. My grandfather is sitting at the head of the table. To one side was the plant. You could tell that it had atrophied and rotted. I approached, I sit on a chair and say to Grandfather:
"It didn't make it, Luquitas." He took the fruit in his hands and added: "Every time I try to make the cacao grow back, this happens. I only want a strong plant that can survive the climate. I want to plant cacao just like the grandfather of my grandfather's grandfather, I want the cacao plantations to grow in my land. Is that too big a wish?"
Starting from that early morning, my grandfather's frustration grew and grew. He was not able to dedicate part of his crops to cacao production, as his ancestors had done, because theobroma cacao seed was dying. With great sadness, I still remember when some media reported that chocolate was a luxury pleasure that was gradually being relegated to history.
There was very little production and in the coming years it was expected that it would disappear completely because the theobroma seed had not withstood climate change, nor fungi and even less insects. The main producers such as the Ivory Coast, Ecuador and Central American countries had their crops decimated. The efforts made by an American company in the first decade of the 21st century to save cacao did not yield the expected success. Thus the seed was doomed to become extinct. Nonetheless, my grandfather was convinced that he could achieve a miracle through his techniques.
He had tried to cultivate the plant through various means, but with no success. This filled him with frustration; he felt impotent, was not fulfilling the legacy of his ancestors. However, though it seemed to him that it was his fault, he did not understand that climate change had affected the entire world and all human activities.
Now back to me. Grandfather looks away, lifts a spoonful of food and puts it in his mouth. We all eat in silence, savoring the wonderful grained rice and the chicken stew seasoned with onion and garlic. Grandfather finishes his food, he pushes his plate aside and says:
"Some of my plants will die. This climate seems like the enemy of farmers."
Rosa, sitting to his left, raises her spoonful of rice, pauses, looks at Grandfather and says:
"What is he talking about?"
Then turning her face and looking at me with much tenderness she asks:
"How are you doing in college, Lucas?"
For a moment, I recall that it was two years ago, in 2049, when I decided that I would study in a foreign university, even though my Grandfather told me that he thought the institution was too far away.
"Now the universities are closer," I say to Grandpa when we walk among the hydroponic tomato crops.
"What do you mean?," he asked, plucking a tomato with his hands.
"All the universities have virtual campuses and most allow online attendance," I answered. "That's why I say they are closer, you can spend short periods in your physical campus, but most of the study is done in the virtual campus."
"In all the majors?"
"No, only in some courses,” I said. “For example, communication classes are one hundred percent virtual, but for scientific careers there is a mixture of both modalities. In addition, the quality of the researchers at the university seems interesting to me. I have read some of their work and they seem to me to be both rigorous and serious."
I had persuaded Grandfather and he decided to support me. Afterwards, I took the university virtual skills test, as well as the knowledge test. I applied for the scholarship. It was hugely satisfying when they sent me the email notifying me of my acceptance. After I matriculated they sent me my coursework in genetic biotechnology. Brimming with enthusiasm I attended my first classes, lectures and talks using the university's virtual reality platform. I put on my virtual glasses as well as my sensory gloves. I entered the password for my avatar and transported myself to the campus of the university.
At the entrance there was a cement arch and at the top was the name of university. I entered via a path. On the sides were several gardens showcasing flowers of various colors as well as fruit trees. The details of everything represented was impressive, making it seem vividly real. At the bottom of the path were three buildings. The first building was in the Baroque style, and it housed the administrative offices of the university. The other two remaining buildings had ovular modules; they looked like spaceships, and inside these were the classrooms and laboratories.
In the virtual classes, the avatars of the instructors allowed you enter into the settings of the subjects taught. For example, the science history professor created a virtual nineteenth century environment in order to teach us about the scientists of that era. You could chat with Darwin himself and hear him explain his theory of the evolution of the species.
In the virtual laboratories there were humanoid robots that, on the one hand, gave guidelines for the experiments that had to be carried out; while on the other hand, supported the student's personal research project.
The "in person" classes also motivated me, though most were developed with forms of enhanced reality. For example, the professor of genetics facilitated a didactic activity in which the structure of DNA was looked at and the chains could be altered with one's own hands.
Due to my high qualifications I could apply to be an assistant in the genetic agriculture laboratory. Part of my work there was done in the virtual campus and the rest in my visits to the university.
Coming back to the present. I look at my grandmother's sweet face and answer the question:
"Very good, Grandmother."
Grandfather smiles and listens to me admiringly.
"I really like my 'in person' classes," I say, full of enthusiasm. "Would you believe I have Chinese, Malaysian, Finnish and Arabian classmates?"
"And how do you communicate with everyone?," Grandfather asks. "Everybody speaks English?"
"Now it's different, grandfather," I reply. "We all use our headset translators. There is no problem talking in your own language. The headset translates into your language."
"Wonderful," says Grandmother. "If that had been available in my time, I certainly would not have bothered to study English."
"And how do you develop your work in the laboratory?," Grandfather asks. I take a small sip of water.
"Some processes have been automated," I answer." Robots and artificial intelligence help out in the laboratories of the university. Many processes that could have lasted months have been shortened to weeks. I believe that, in the next few years, they will be shortened to days."
At that moment the doorbell rings. Rita, the virtual domestic assistant, informs us that there is a person at the door who wants to see me.
"Thank you, Rita," Grandfather says.
"You're welcome, Don Carlos," says the virtual assistant.
Rita is one of the few technological acquisitions that my grandfather has allowed to be installed in the hacienda house. There are only a few things that he likes, since he considers most new technology an aberration. He still has an old iPhone, for example, which he will not change for anything, even though the new crystal cell phones are ultra-fast.
"Who is it?," Grandmother asks.
"He says he's a messenger," Rita informs us.
"Thank you, Rita."
"Should I relay some message to him?," she asks.
"None, Rita," I say. I'm going out now.
I stand up as my grandparents watch me attentively. Maybe I can intuit what this is about.
I walk down the hall of the hacienda house. I take an umbrella from the coat rack and walk out the door. I open the umbrella and walk down the dirt path. In the background I see the banana plantations. I start thinking that, maybe, just maybe, I know what kind of package it is that I'm about to pick up. I've been waiting for that package with great expectations, the result of what I started two years ago.
I open the door and look at the messenger’s face. He is a young boy with brown hair, brown eyes and a wide nose. He has a red cap featuring the logo of the delivery company, and he is holding a square package in his hands.
"Lucas Mendoza?," the messenger asks.
"It's me," I reply anxiously.
The boy pulls out a device: "Look at the red light, please."
He places it in front of my eyes and scans my retinas. My identity confirmed, he hands me the package. My university’s name is mentioned in the label, “send to.” I thank the boy and we say goodbye
I wak into the hacienda, holding in my hands the package that has come from the university, and leave the umbrella hanging on the rack. I worked a lot on this project, I believe. I spent many hours in virtual laboratories as well as university "in person" laboratories. Though I was only an assistant, I supported and assisted in the development of this venture. I involved myself enthusiastically. And it was in the laboratory that they developed a new genome of the cacao seed.
The laboratory researchers wanted to modify the genetic sequence, changing the mobile chromosomes. In that way, the seed would be better adapt to the climate, resisting temperature changes, excessive rain, fungi and damage caused by insects. I remember that one of the researchers said that cacao would arise from death. After the researchers had the seeds genetically designed, I offered to plant them in my grandfather's farm. They accepted and thus, they sent the package to my house.
I enter the living room. My grandparents are sitting in the armchairs. I sit on a sofa. My grandparents look at me expectantly. I take the package in my hands, unwrap it, then open the box inside and take out the hermetic capsule.
“What is it?," Grandmother says.
I smile. So does my grandfather.
"Don't tell me it's...