Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The story of coffee

Just how does that wonderful burnt, brown liquid make it to my addiction?

I know that most people in the States think that coffee comes from coffee shops and tightly sealed foil baggies, pre-ground on flourescent-light lit grocery store shelves. Surprise, coffee actually grows on trees. Wouldn´t it be nice if all things we love grew on trees?

Guatemala is coffee country. Some of the finest coffees in the world are grown here, and literally right here on the volcano on which I live. There´s coffee fields everywhere and coffee trees grow between houses, along pathways, etc. Basically coffee trees are more plentiful than Mayan children, and that´s saying something.
I find it futile to post a photo of an actual coffee tree as I waited until just after the coffee harvest ended here to make this post(my deepest apologies). There is barely any cherries left on the trees so it would just look like a picture of green. But besides that, here´s how it goes.

Coffee is a huge income generator here in a very poor place. Men will spend weeks and months on end in the fields, during the harvest, gently pulling coffee cherries from trees and filling huge bags with them. That´s right, coffee begins as a cherry, literally looks like a cherry. When the cherries are ripe, they are harvested. But what then?

After the cherries are harvested, the men come down from the fields on the volcano at the end of each day to have their harvest weighed and then further processed. It takes about two full days of harvesting in order to fill a 50lb. bag. The harvesters make about the equivelant of about $25 to $30 per bag of raw cherries. That´s two days of extremly hard, hand shredding work, whilst carrying a heavy sack of cherries, for $30.

After the collection of raw cherries at the processing "plants" scattered throughout our tiny town, the cherries are then spread out in a thin layer on the ground in order to dry. Pictured above is a close up of coffee cherries drying, the light colored beans are the raw(pre-roasted)coffee beans and the darker colored beans are still wrapped in a dried cherry husk. And below is a larger view of the cherries drying at various stages, which I will explain.

The cherries dry for a certain number of days and when they are ready, they are processed in the first round of washings which the cherries/beans will recieve. The processing plants are basically a small, open-air building with a series of automated machines which the cherries pass through in order to wash the husk off the bean inside. It is a sight to see the men working through the night, washing, lifting baskets of cherries, raking through piles of cherries, and on and on and on.

Well, once is not enough to get the fruit off of the bean, thus the process of spreading, drying, and washing is repeated a number of times in order for the beans to be ready to roast. Wash, rinse, repeat comes to mind. In the middle picture, the darkest pile is the newest pile to be drying, whilst the pile on the right of the photo is mid-process(similar to the first photo/close up)and the very light colored pile is nearing its final stages just before roasting here in San Pedro, or shipping to a first world, coffee fueled country for roasting.

But that´s not the best part. The best part(heavy sarcasm), is what happens to the coffee cherries that come off of the beans. The picture below is of an enormous pile of fermenting cherries that have been washed off of the beans as they are processed. Oh, the smell, wow, the smell. . . We are talking tons of fermenting fruit here people. It´s a bit overwhelming upon first whiff, but I have come to appreciate it as a part of my life here, knowing full well
that I have to accept all aspects of my addiction to this wonderful product of the Earth.

The fruit is later collected and redistributed on the coffee fields as a fertilizer, hence the sign advertising a gift of coffee fruit/pulp. It´s like saying "Look what we have for free, rotten fruit!". And the Guatemalans snap it up.

All in all, the process of harvesting, drying, washing, drying, washing again takes about a month before the beans are ready for roasting. Personally, the most romantic part of this process for me is when the beans are almost ready for roasting and I see a Mayan woman on a roof top picking up baskets of raw, dried beans and slowly pouring them through the air so the breeze can carry away all the dust and leftover bits. Some things cannot ever be automated.

A pound of local coffee sells here for about $3.50, sometimes less, sometimes more, grown right on the volcano, roasted by an old man in the back of his house, now that´s fresh coffee.
And, I will say this, the smell of roasting coffee coming out of houses and coffee shops here is plenty to make up for the stench of the rotting fruit. You suckers worshiping Starbucks think that stuff is fresh, ha, ha, losers! We´ve already pissed out our coffee here by the time that stuff even makes it on a boat.

I find all this very fascinating and as I learned more and more about what was acutally happening all around me, every day, I definately appreciate more and more each cup of coffee or latté that I enjoy. The amount of extremly hard labor and the amount of love put into coffee growing, harvesting and processing here is impressive, to say the least.

As previously mentioned, the coffee harvest has ended. Which for me, means that no more HUGE trucks loaded with bags of cherries arriving from the volcano each afternoon, no more endless nights of watching the processing plants run, no more drying coffee. What it also means is that now the rain has started, the piles of fruit are fermenting at an even higher lever of stinkiness. However, the piles are also shrinking as farmers and the like are taking away the tons of fruit to fertilize their fields in order to begin again after a few months of blessed rain.

So now that I have made your cups of coffee much more than just cups of coffee, you can all look longingly into your burnt, brown goodness and imagine what it took to get it from these fields, through the hands of hard working Mayans and into your office, thus fueling your comments on my blog and your emails expressing your greatest thanks for your new coffee knowledge.

Friday, April 24, 2009


As a tall, blonde woman, there are many benefits to be enjoyed pretty much anywhere in the world, and the comedy of Guatemala is no exception.

These Tzu´tzuhil Mayans are damn near comedians, seriously so funny. And there is little that is so endearing as the random "I love you" yelled to me in passing in the streets by any man or boy here. Often times it is also followed or preceeded by a "hey baybee!". The level of English known by these people is extremly minimal, but "I love you" and "hey baby" seem to be some of the first things they learn. Not to mention also important for the advancement of their chances with any extranjera(foreign woman). Somehow I don´t think they are teaching this in school.

One of the most hilarious occasions was as my friend Emily and I were walking one day and we hear hollers of "Babies in the street!" from a group of local men. Immediately we begin looking for the babies in the street, certainly they need to be moved to the sidewalk. But after a few seconds, we realized that WE were the babies in the street. Apparently those men do not understand the difference between babies and babes. Ahhh, English as a second language, barely. At least they practice every chance they get.

It nice to be so loved :)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Holy Week, Batman!!

Whilst all of you were gorging on candy and spinning tales to small children of human sized bunnies that bring said candy late at night, here in Guatemala, Easter is a bit different. And yes, that is a fake dead Jesus to our left here being carried on the shoulders of Guatemalans.

The week leading up to the Easter holiday is called Semana Santa(Week of Saints), and is without a doubt, the largest holiday of the year. Every Guatemalan takes the week off and our town is invaded by folks from the city(welcomed with a grain of salt and a forced smile). Guatemala also boasts the largest celebrations of Semana Santa in world, the most grandiose being in Antigua.

Without going into too much detail, every single town has processions starting on Thursday before Easter, multiple times a day, until Sunday morning when Jesus is finally risen.

The processions are done only by the Catholics, the Evangelicals seem to think carrying heavy things on their shoulders for hours is unecessary. Above is a picture of a pre-procession procession, with the Mayan ladies carrying baskets of fruit used to later decorate the town for the larger processions. The photo on the right above is of an alfombra. An alfombra is a "carpet" made in the streets of colored sawdust, pine needles, flower petals and the like. The alfombra pictured here is one that was in San Pedro last year and does not hold a flame to the amazing detail put into the alfombras in other towns and would not even be considered an alfombra by Antigua standards. I do what I can here, the rest is up to your imagination and to the wonderful world of Google images.

So in short, these processions involve hours of the slowest marching one has ever seen whilst groups of Mayans carry huge and heavy displays of Jesus on their shoulders in order to feel some of the suffering they believe Christ may have felt during his ordeal all those years ago. The alfombras are made in the streets in order to be marched/walked over, ultimately being destroyed.

A bit loco, I know. However it i
s quite a sight to see if you have the ability to watch the slowest parade of all time, more than one time a day for more than one day. Rumor has it there was a procession in Antigua this year that lasted for fourteen hours. These Guatemalans are dedicated to suffering.

Along with all the carrying of things, there are many "costumes" as well, pictured below. What the significance of all this is remains a mystery to me. But all in all, a very interesting and different tradition than all of our candy laden holidays in the states. Imagine a religious holiday still holding its religious significance, mind blowing. I´d rather eat candy.

Monday, April 6, 2009

¡Pablo, ya!

Leave it up to me to move to the most tranquil place I´ve ever been only to live feet away from an insane Italian man and his loud dog. Let me indulge you.

I live on the dirt path pictured to the right. I live in the house on the right with the red and the white paint and the insane neighbor, we shall call him Vecino(spanish for neighbor), lives in the house on the left of the photo with the bamboo fence and the balcony.

Pablo is the dog and the balcony is his roost. God bless him, his face is so cute and for the most part he is well behaved. However, Pablo likes to bark his ass off at nearly anything passing on the path, bikes, children, gringos, etc.

Vecino is usually watching futból with his doors open so we hear the shouts of "goooooooooaaaaaaalllll" all day long from the announcers on the TV and from Vecino himself. Vecino likes to yell, and he is very good at it. So when our buddy Pablo barks at whatever we hear shouts of "¡Pablo, ya!". Pablo usually shuts up right away, usually. "Pablo, ya" is translated into something resembling "Pablo, enough already". All day, everyday, these are the sounds echoing in my neighborhood, Pablo barking like a raving lunatic followed by a loud "¡Pablo, ya!" from Vecino.

Honestly, as much as this could drive one insane, I find it kind of endearing. Last week there was a glitch in the matrix when Vecino and his wife left town for a few days. I knew the first day there was something different, Pablo was not on the balcony, girly music blasting from the house in place of the noise of futból. It is crazy, but not hearing the barking then the yelling was very strange. I have come to need the noise and chaos in order to know all is well in San Pedro. I mean, if Vecino isn´t going to shut Pablo up, who will?? Tragic.

I was thrilled the other morning to hear Vecino yell "¡Pablo, ya!" whilst drinking my coffee and staring at the volcanoes. The glitch in the matrix had passed and all survived, even Pablo´s strong voice, and Vecino´s insanity.

I hate to say it, but this is not all sugar and spice. Pablo is not a well behaved dog at all when other dogs are near(frequent due to the large population of street dogs here)and I will not go into detail on the things I have seen Vecino do to Pablo. However, I have also seen amazingly tender moments between the crazy man and his crazy dog.

Pablo and Vecino, as obnoxious as they are, are a fixture in my life here in San Pedro. Should I ever change location in San Pedro, I will likely not sleep for weeks as the only way I am rocked to sleep these days is by the barking, yelling, barking, yelling, barking . . . . "gooooooaaaaallll".