Nicaragua Day 2
Day two of an origin trip is always an exercise in reality of time perception. Last night Jay was caught saying “and later that same day” when referring to events that had occurred only a few hours before. Waking up this morning in Roberto’s farmhouse to the sounds of birds chirping and workers getting ready for a day of picking felt both familiar and foreign. It feels as though we have been in Nicaragua for weeks, but in reality we had landed in this country less than 48 hours ago. This morning routine is nothing that any of us are used to (although I must admit that I am quickly becoming accustomed to the nomadic lifestyle associated with coffee trips), however our purpose and mission is so solid that the prospect of a full day of coffee related travel does not feel all that far away from reality. I started the morning with a fresh pot of coffee and a stroll around Roberto’s manicured rose garden, flanked by gigantic eucalyptus trees, with mountains of coffee looming in the distance. I now understand why Paul declares this farmhouse as his favorite place in the world.
We enjoyed an enormous breakfast of eggs, ham, rice, beans, fried plantains, fresh cheese and homemade juice, before hitting the bumpy roads. Our first stop was just down the road to see the coffee that was de-pulped the previous evening. After approximately 12 hours of fermentation, the beans were mucilage free and ready to be rinsed and bagged off to transport to the mill for drying. This was the first time that I had seen both steps of this process performed in their entirety, and the whole system ran like a well-calibrated machine. I will say, however, that I do not admire the man whose job is to lift the sacs filled with dripping wet green coffee beans and races it to a hand cart to put in a truck.
Next we headed off deep into Roberto’s farm El Quetzal to test our skills at coffee picking. Each of us donned a basket fastened to our waists with a canvas strap, and into the rows of trees we went. Our mission was to pick as much coffee as we could in 30 minutes or so. The caveat of coffee picking is that not all of the cherries ripen at the same time, and so the picker must only select the cherries that are red that day. For this reason, each section of this 200-acre farm is passed over 3-4 times per season to ensure the collection of the entire crop at its peak ripeness. Our coffee-picking adventure started off pretty easily, each of us selecting a tree on the side of the dirt road and stripping the branches of all of the red cherries. The cherries do not come off easily like a grape off its stem, and a considerable amount of force is needed to pluck each individual cherry from its tree. The trouble started when we had finished the easy trees along the road and then proceeded to venture into the thicket of trees that cascaded down the steep slope ahead of us. Good thing that I was wearing Deet. The competition got fierce as each of us tried to find the most easily accessible tree with the greatest concentration of cherries. I had the competitive advantage of being a Spanish speaker, and I lured the farm manager with my delightful conversation into staying with me and helping me fill my basket. When our 30 minutes were up, we all headed back to the road to see who had picked the best quality and most cherries (I won). The real shock was that between our whole group we picked less than one basked of coffee cherries. Our meager ration of cherries would equate to about 2 pounds of roasted coffee. We each would have earned about 12 cents for our 30 minutes of labor. A real coffee picker can pick up to 6 baskets a day, each basket paying approximately $1.00. This is a wage set by the Nicaraguan government for coffee pickers, and is generally accepted as a fair price. Workers also receive meals, lodging, and transportation during the picking season. Roberto’s farm also provides daycare and elementary school for children who do not work (children under the age of 14 are prohibited from working, and those 14-16 may only work with the permission of their parents).
After experiencing firsthand the effort that goes into picking the coffee cherry for one cup of coffee, we headed for a bumpy drive through coffee country to pass through various small farms in the Matagalpa and Jinotega regions. The views were spectacular, and as much as I wanted to take in all of the sights, I got a severe case of car-narcolepsy (my carpolepsy, Patrick says) and missed much of it. We ended up in the city of Matagalpa around midday, and after a quick, delicious lunch, headed back to Roberto’s mill, Beneficio La Pita, to see the final step in the coffee processing sequence before export. The wet coffee from the de-pulpers is transported here each day, and the coffee is laid out to dry on raised African beds as well as large cement patios. The coffee is constantly raked so that no moisture goes untouched by the sun. When the coffee is dried to 12 percent moisture, it is ready to be milled. After dry milling (where the outer layer of parchment is removed) the dry green coffee is ready to be bagged and packed into a truck for export. While we were there, we were also able to cup some of Roberto’s Don Paco coffee, including 8 of the containers that we have purchased for Coffee Bean International.
And so ended day two of the Great Nicaraguan Adventure 2011. We made a quick pit stop in Matagalpa to refresh our supplies of beer, rum, and wine, and jostled our way back over the mountains to the farmhouse. I am now drowsy on Toña, beans, rice, plantains (sounding familiar?) and fresh salsa, and cannot wait to crawl into bed and fall asleep listening to the pounding rain on the skylight above me.