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Dragons students hand-carving a dugout canoe. Photo by Micah LeMasters, Indonesia Semester.

From el Campo to the Cafe

At home, in New York City, I drink at least one cup of coffee a day. Drip coffee with my dad in the morning, a mid-day paper cup at school, sometimes a 4 pm decaf cappuccino from the cafe at the top of my block; these moments are some of my favorite in a day. But ask me how my coffee got all the way from a field at least a 1,000 miles away to a mug on my kitchen counter? Until now, I had no idea.

Last Friday, I spent the day with my host father Don Manuel harvesting coffee from his land on the slopes of the volcano above our town. At 8 am, we loaded baskets, sacks, a machete, and a packed lunch into his truck, then picked up several local women and one of the women’s young sons, all of whom climbed into the truck bed. It took us almost half an hour to drive the washed-out dirt road that leads out of town and up to “el campo,” where Don Manuel owns his land, and then another few minutes to park the car and unload the supplies. As everyone hopped out of the truck, I felt ridiculously overdressed. My host mother Doña Rossi was very concerned about me burning my skin, so she suggested I wear a sweater. I took her advice a little too far, and showed up looking more like a scientist in a hazmat suit than a teenage girl. All the other women were dressed far more casually, and when I put on my sunglasses. I felt quite silly.

As it turns out, coffee grows on bush-like trees, in large clumps of sticky, red fruit. Inside that fruit are the coffee beans we’re so used to seeing, although in their fresh form, they’re green, wet, and bloated, nothing like the dried and roasted brown version that comes neatly packaged to our a coffee shop. Here in Guatemala, we’re two weeks into a three month harvest season, so all the coffee plants on Don Manuel’s land were laden with coffee.

We spent the morning picking the ripest fruit from the plants. Everyone got their own row to pick along, except me who shared with Don Manuel, because I was picking at the pace of a snail. Even as slow as I was going, harvest coffee is a cardio workout, strength training, and hot yoga class all in one, at about 6,000 ft in altitude. After just one plant, I was covered in the sticky black-brown juice of the coffee, and subsequently caked in dirt. Fortunately, it wasn’t that hot out and we were working in the shade, but my understanding is that as the season progresses, it will get far hotter, and some coffee fields don’t have much shade.

At around 1 pm, we all took a lunch break together in the field. Someone started a small fire to heat up our tortillas on, and we all sat in a circle chatting. The women had coordinated with one another ahead of time to create a picnic: someone brought the tortillas, another the beans, etc. A lot of the conversation was dedicated to teasing and joking, some to politics, and some to scolding a dog that had followed the scent of meat and found our circle. While we were eating, Doña Rossi called to make sure I was drinking enough water, so I downed a few huge gulps from my Nalgene before starting to pick again for a long afternoon.

At the end of the day, we all got together to weigh how much coffee everyone had picked, because the women are paid per pound harvested. I went first, and clocked in at what I thought was a respectable 30 lbs. After me, another woman went who had picked 70 pounds of coffee. The next woman picked 80. One person picked 98 lbs of coffee. I zipped up my hazmat suit-esque rain jacket to hide my burning cheeks, and watched as each woman weighed bags of at least 60 lbs.

That night, we brought the coffee back home and put it in huge metal beds on our terrace to dry for around 20 days. After that, the coffee will go through several more processes like removing its skin, washing it, sorting each grain for quality (by hand!), roasting, packaging, and more before it eventually winds up in your supermarket aisle.

As the afternoon was wrapping up, I ended up talking to a woman named Doña Vertice. She, like many of the women, has young children at home. “Are you tired?” she asked me, and I responded “Yes!” without really thinking, and then added “Are you?” She smiled at me and said in Spanish: “All the women here had to wake up at 4:30 am to be able to come pick coffee today. We had to do all the housework, make breakfast and lunch for our families, and when we go back home tonight, we still have to make dinner.” Here I was, after a very mild day of picking coffee, having woken up at 7 am, and with zero other responsibilities, complaining. The conversation continued to other topics as I rather sheepishly asked her more questions, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her day compared to mine.

Of course, it’s cliche for an American to go to another country and remark on how hardworking the people are there. But at risk of falling into that cliche, I wanted to write about this coffee-harvesting experience, because the lives farmers in Guatemala and other coffee-growing countries are so inextricably linked to the lives of coffee consumers. The vast majority of coffee farmers in Latin America make between 1 and 2 dollars for every pound of coffee they sell, which often does not even cover their production costs.

Here in San Miguel, my host father is a part of a coffee-growing coop called De La Gente. By eliminating many of the third parties between a farmer and a consumer and sharing expensive equipment, farmers at De La Gente make between 40-250% more per pound of coffee than the standard market price. De La Gente also provides members of the coop with job opportunities like leading tours of the coffee fields, teaching cooking classes, and hosting guests like me.

So, when I go back to New York, I’m going to try to only buy truly fair trade coffee, and not complain about being tired when I wake up to drink it at 6:30 am.

Other updates from the week:

  • I helped Doña Rossi cook for her restaurant
  • Our whole family played a 400-person, town-wide Bingo game to raise money for the local church, and my host sister was one square away from winning a round!
  • I accidentally boarded a bus to Guatemala City instead of home (but realized very quickly and got on the right bus!)
  • Don Manuel and I got to see the mayor give an impromptu press conference about local issues
  • I went to the market at 5 am to buy a truck-load of food with Doña Rossi for the family’s two tiendas
  • I lost almost every game I played against my host sisters, including hide-and-go-seek and Chutes and Ladders
  • We cooked pepian, a traditional Guatemalan stew, with a group of chefs yesterday, and I still can’t move I’m so full

Attached are a few photos of coffee, and other activities from the week