Nicaragua Day 1

Ahh the joys of being back at coffee origins!  It feels so natural to be back in Latin America, hearing and speaking Spanish, understanding street signs and soaking in the culture.  This is my first trip to Nicaragua, and it has gotten off to a great start.  I arrived in Managua late last night, accompanied by Patrick, our President and CEO, Jay, our Sr. VP of National Accounts, and the buyers for a national direct trade program.  We also had a surprise guest – Peter Giuliano of Counter Culture Coffee and the current President of the SCAA was Patrick’s seatmate on our flight from Houston to Managua.  Once we landed, we met up with Paul, our Roastmaster and Roberto Bendaña, our main contact from Café Don Paco—supplier of a great amount of our Nicaraguan coffees as well as our three Nicaraguan Direct Trade coffees—El Quetzal, El Paraiso and El Cruzero (the certified organic farm).  Even after the long day’s journey down south, we all mustered up the energy to drink a couple of cervezas and discuss our goals for this weeklong trip in Nicaragua before we hit the hay. 

After a quick night’s sleep (a pretty common recurring theme of origin trips, I am discovering) Paul and I picked up a rental car and we set off to see some coffee.  Our first obstacle was navigating rush-hour traffic in Managua, which does not compare to Portland’s I-405 at rush hour, but offers its own obstacles of bicycles, moto-taxis, brave pedestrians and infinite traffic circles.  Our first destination was to the farm El Cruzero where our organic Direct Trade is coming from.  This farm is a new acquisition of the Bendaña family, and they have spent the last three years developing infrastructure, clearing brush, and planting new coffee trees.  The results are stunning, and although this year’s crop was small, the Bendaña’s expect an increased quantity and quality in the next few years once all of their hard work starts to take effect on the land.

We were greeted by Roberto’s sister, Lilly, who is in charge of the Bendaña’s involvement with local communities around their coffee farms and she briefly outlined the family’s projects.  Lilly was one of the original founders of Project Smile, a non-profit that provides surgeries for children born with cleft lips.  She is also essential to the process of improving the educational infrastructure of Nicaraguan Public Schools and helped develop a new and more modern curriculum for Elementary schools.  In the green coffee warehouse at El Cruzero, there were stacks of boxes that contained refurbished Macintosh computers donated from the US to use in schools and teach children how to navigate the internet for research as well as develop much needed computer skills for both teachers and students. 

We then toured El Cruzero and saw the new and immensely large nursery of organic coffee plants that will be ready in the next couple of months for permanent planting.  While blithely wading through the brush on the side of the road to take photos and admire the baby trees, none of us were keen enough to notice the fire ant swarm until it was too late.  “Hey, uh, guys…we’re standing in ANTS!!!!” screamed Paul as he leapt back on to the dirt road.  Chuckling, I shot some video of Paul dancing around with ants in his pants, throwing his shoes to the floor and slapping his feet.  Then I felt the bites, and with a looming sense of dread, discovered that I, too, was knee deep in fire ants that showed no signs of letting up.  Needless to say, I looked just as much as a dancing fool as Paul as I rolled up my jeans and frantically tried to clear my knees, ankles, and feet of the endless, stinging bites.  Jay was the next one to fall, his late reaction resulting in a particularly brutal case of the ants.  Patrick, standing in a more sensible spot, faced the particular challenge of deciding whom he needed to photograph and videotape first.  Luckily, he had enough time to get damaging evidence of each of us, barefoot in the road, jerkily dancing like the gringos that we truly are.  He finally tired of laughing at our expense, and helped me brush the final ants off of my discarded shoes.  Once the immediate trauma was over, we hopped back into the car, nursing our burning skin, and headed down the dirt road to see the rest of the farm.

Since renovation, the farm now looks like the combination of a Jurassic garden infused with a coffee nursery.  Steep hills planted with orderly rows of young trees are shaded by knobby, tall shade trees, topped by an upper canopy of large fruit bearing trees.  In one especially tall canopy we happened upon a group of howler monkeys, lounging in the early afternoon heat, haunting the shady mountains with their ominous deep yells.  Paul reminded us to be careful and not make too much noise, as the howler monkeys first line of defense is to poop in their hands and throw it at invaders.  At that, we all quickly jumped back into our cars and zipped up the steep dirt path and headed back to Managua. 

Our next stop in Managua was to a school that Café Don Paco funds on the edge of the Managua dump.  A Pastor in Amarillo, Texas, who has worked with Roberto for a very long time, started this school after he discovered that the children from this surrounding slum were not attending primary school at all, but instead helping their parents scavenge for valuables in the dump.  At first children were lured to the school with the promise of free breakfast and lunch, for many their only meals of the day.  Now, after 6 years, the children have developed the skills and experience to be curious about learning.  The most notable quote from the school’s director was “the children have finally begun to think like children.”  Although school was not in session, the care and passion that is put into this school, which now teaches around 600 children grades K-6, was obvious. 

In the early afternoon we started our trek up north to the region of Matagalpa, about 3 hours Northwest of Managua.  Once free of the city traffic, the scenery drastically changed.  We saw overlooking views of Lake Managua, and the Pacific Ocean as we were driving through rice paddies along the Pan-American Highway.  A quick nap later, we had arrived at Roberto’s dry mill on the outskirts of the city of Matagalpa.  We were still on the Western side of the cordillera isabellia where the mountains block the thick cold fog from the east, and the climate was remarkably cool and dry (a nice breather from the smoggy 90 degrees that we left behind in Managua).  We arrived late and missed the working day, but were able to tour his small roasting facility and meet his staff.  From there we headed even further up, crossing the peak of the mountains and descending down the Eastern side of the cordillera, enveloped in a whole new world.  The constant fog and cool weather have transformed this side of the mountain range from the dry chaparral surrounding Managua to a lush, green, exotic looking forest.  We slowly descended down the steep mountain, engaging our cores on the bumpy hills, and inspiring Jay to invent a new work out machine called The Jiggler™.  This machine would jiggle the user in a random fashion, forcing them to stabilize their core just like a truck ride down a coffee farm.  We think this is going to be the next big thing…

We arrived at dusk to Roberto’s farm El Quetzal, just in time to catch a quick glimpse of the grounds, workers quarters, and de-pulping process before we settled down for the day at the family farmhouse.  The house has the cozy feel of a summer cabin, and we all welcomed a cold beer and a delicious meal prepared for us of rice, red beans, fried chicken, and fresh cheese, as well as homemade corn tortillas, plantain chips, and potato chips.

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