Salsa danced on the radio as the van whirled us away from the airport in Guatemala City through the mountains to the colonial town of Antigua. "Ven corazón, ven corazón" the chorus to a typical Guatemalan song repeated itself, "Come here heart, come here heart." My heart had already decided on this journey a year ago when Kirk McClelland told me of his vision to take a group of students to study the coffee process in Guatemala. At that time I knew I wanted to major in Spanish, but I had yet to discover my second passion: Sociology. So when I came back to school this past fall I was thrilled to find the Coffee International Seminar presented as a two-credit sociology course.
This picture is of Ashley Higgins and I our first morning in Guatemala at an overlook of Antigua. We roomed together during much of the trip and had spent most of the first night talking before waking up at 6:00 a.m. to the sounds of church bells ringing. Needless to say, it wasn't hard to wake up to this view of Antigua. Volcano Agua in the background is one of the three volcanoes that surround Antigua.
I knew this trip would change the way I looked at my beverage of choice, but I could never have anticipated the friendships and connections that were made during our two week stay in Guatemala.
This is a coffee plant in the garden at a Coffee and Music Museum near Antigua. The cherries taste faintly sweet and have very little flavor. The museum really helped us understand a little more about the cultivation of coffee, and some of what goes into producing coffee.
January is the end of the four-month long coffee season, the time when farmers will strip the branches of berries to keep the trees healthy. When we visited the farms and started picking coffee during the trip, we picked all of the cherries instead of only the ripe ones. Considering we took twice as much time as the farmers to fill our baskets, we were grateful to have a little bit of grace. The children's school vacation is during the coffee season so often whole families pick together.
At every coffee farm, there are always various patios for drying the coffee beans. If the weather is good it takes about a week to dry the beans. If it's cloudy it will take at least twelve days. The beans are routinely spread and re-spread so as to speed up the drying process. The patios often double as a space for fiestas or sports. After the beans are dried the parchment is removed and they are off to be roasted.
This is our entire 'class' at Fernando's Kaffee, a café just two doors down from our hotel. Since Fernando's normally doesn't serve dinner, the restaurant was all ours for the evenings, and we were able to discuss coffee with the owner, Fernando. This particular evening's conversation was supposed to be on economics, but we jumped around. As the only Spanish major on the trip, I was given the task of translating the first portion of the evening discussion. It was my first official translating job, and more than a little above my level. "How do you say fair trade in Spanish?" "What's the word for organic again?"
Although a bit chaotic, the discussion was thought-provoking. I noticed one of the farmers, Juan, tense up when we asked about fair trade. "What is fair?" he responded immediately. He prompted us to continuously question what is truly just throughout the remainder of our trip. Someone in our group asked what we should pay attention to when we went to visit the coffee farms. He looked at me to have me translate, and told us to note the conditions of the workers. His face was so sad and honest in that moment that I remember feeling relieved that I was translating because I couldn't formulate a response. I wanted to assure him that we would and that it would make a difference but I couldn't.
We spent two and half days in the community of Santa Anita, an organic fair trade cooperative. The farm was community owned and run by former guerillas. The 36 year long civil war just ended in 1996, and its presence is still strong. Santa Anita just started tourism two years ago. This is the 'hotel' where we stayed during our visit. At first glance, the bright colors on the mural make it look like a children's storybook, but this is no fairytale. The first portion of the mural starts out with soldiers dragging people out of their homes and killing them and then burning the houses. It moves to a progression of people fleeing to the mountains, and then to the peace agreement between the guerillas and the army being signed. On the right a woman guerilla lays down her gun and the picture changes once more to a farmer and a tourist woman picking coffee. Most of the farmers had been involved in the war in some way. I couldn't possibly imagine what it would be like to go from fighting in a brutal civil war to growing coffee and bananas. Everyone we talked to there was so grateful for the land. Even though they admitted coffee wasn't enough to earn a living, they called Santa Anita a paradise.
Aura, one of the women of Santa Anita, took time out of her busy day to take us on a hike around of the farm. Countless banana trees, coffee plants, exotic flowers, and breathless views took our breath away but what impressed me most was this woman's willingness to guide us. She was quiet, only pausing once in a while to point out a certain flower, path, or something else of interest. I moved up towards the front of the trail to be with her and so we talked for a few moments in Spanish but soon fell back to a comfortable silence. I was so curious to hear her story that it took me some time before I realized that her presence with us was her story. The fact that she was in Santa Anita was a miracle.
This picture was taken at the 'despulpadora' where the coffee beans are removed from their fruit covering or 'de-pulped'. This picture shows bags of beans and the covering decomposing. Coffee is sorted by water--bad or unripe cherries float and the ripe cherries will sink.
This is Rigoberto roasting coffee. This day was challenging for me. After seeing what Guatemalans go through each day to make a product that they don't even get to enjoy I became overwhelmed. As we roasted, all I could think about was the fact that this isn't enough. Coffee is such a strange, complex process--from cherry to bean to brew. They work so hard to create something that isn't even a necessity. The more we learned about the economic situation in Guatemala and the country's struggles the more overwhelmed I became. How badly I wanted to fix the situation! It took a few talks with some good friends to realize I couldn't take the all the weight onto my shoulders. It was at this moment in the trip where I had to make a conscious effort to trust God with what I was learning.
My second morning picking coffee at Santa Anita was spent with Emma, Kirk, and our guide, Angel. He lead us on a thirty minute hike into the mountains and then down a ravine towards the river to start picking. The average farmer picks about 6-7 baskets a day and works for seven hours picking. Besides cultivating coffee, the farmers in Santa Anita grow and sell bananas, cut wood, and sometimes hold other jobs. Angel is eleven and wants to be a chef. He was a small boy but strong--he could carry his weight in coffee! We enjoyed getting to know each other. When I told him I liked the popular Colombian artist Juanes, he pulled out his cell phone and played me his ring tone of Juanes' most recent single. It was such a funny and strange moment; the collision of two worlds. We spent the rest of our picking time making animal noises and silly faces at each other. The next morning before we left I searched him out to say goodbye. As I walked back to the group, Jennifer pulled me aside to hug me and said, "It's strange how people become a part of you."
Two of our meals at Santa Anita were in people's homes. This woman was named Agustina. She served us a typical Guatemalan soup, tortillas, and sweet rolls. To drink she gave us Nescafe. It was ironic and somewhat sad to drink instant coffee flavoring with hot water on a coffee farm in one of the best coffee regions of the world. Most Guatemalans are used to instant coffee and prefer it.
Agustina was a Mexican woman from Chiapas. Her husband was working in Guatemala City in some sort of private security. Her six children were watching television in one of the house's two bedrooms, and periodically we'd hear loads of giggles as we ate. Agustina's oldest son was born in Chiapas and was very proud to be Mexican. As soon as she said she was from Mexico he yelled out from the other room, "Me too!" It was our first experience inside a Guatemalan home and we were very humbled. It was a more intimate setting than we had yet been in and I was struck by how much one's impression of a place or country changes once one is let into the private space of a home.
On our last afternoon in Santa Anita we had two piñatas for the kids. It was fun to see different members of the community come out to watch the excitement. Here, Dr. Johnson is helping to string on of the piñata while everyone looks on. Just to be together doing something so simple and silly such as watching children hit a large blue dog filled with candy was wonderful. It was amazing how the days seemed to stretch in Guatemala. Even after rising at 5:30 to make tortillas for the family, picking for four hours, returning to make the main meal, and then going back to the fields to pick for three more hours, the mothers still came to play basketball with us and watch their kids scramble to pick up sweets. For just a few days we were welcomed into a community with open arms. They didn't resent us for our ignorance, our loud American ways, or our wealth, but consistently showed us patience, grace, and kindness. Even when I dropped a ball of tortilla dough when learning how to make the Guatemalan staple or dropped a few coffee cherries I was given a smile.
On one of our last days of the trip we went to a small village outside of Antigua to visit the director of As Green As It Gets, a coffee company that is attempting to improve upon fair trade by buying and paying about 25% more per pound for its coffee. Most coffee farms now use roasting machines (like the one Rigoberto is using in one of the previous pictures) but in some rural areas women still roast the coffee beans over an open fire. We were invited into a Guatemalan kitchen to watch roasting and then try our hands at it. The small cement room quickly filled with smoke. When I leaned over the fire it was very hot. I had a hard time keeping the beans from burning because they blackened so quickly. Again, I was so blessed by this woman's hospitality. Even with my eyes watering from the smoke, I was given a clearer picture of what life in Guatemala is really like.
After two weeks in Guatemala it would be more than a little presumptuous to say that I know the country or what Guatemalan coffee farmers experience on a daily basis but thanks to this trip I have been given a window that has allowed me to look in and in turn change the way I view the world. Listening to farmers like Juan, being lead through the mountains in Santa Anita with Aura, picking coffee with Angel, eating dinner with Agustina--each person blessed me with their grace, their hospitality, and most of all their presence. They have each become a part of my life in some way and have influenced me in how I think about sociology, coffee, and myself. Although I am still tempted to try and take on the burdens of the world I am comforted by the fact that quite possibly for the moment, my presence in Guatemala was enough.