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Harvesting Coffee in the Mountains of Mordor

In the "Cult of Escapism": Harvesting Coffee in the Mountains of Mordor

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Harvesting Coffee in the Mountains of Mordor

Mordor, redux
After celebrating one year of service at a beach resort and visiting some other volunteers across the country, I returned to site feeling like I needed to re-immerse. I’ve never been one to ease into a pool or drink anything short of the entire bottle of cough syrup if my throat hurts, so I knew I needed a quick, hearty dose of Ngäbe-ness when I got back. What better than a rigorous hike into the mountains, followed by two days of manual labor, followed by a rigorous hike back?   
The mountain children
A producer’s coop that I (occasionally) work with had invited me to harvest coffee and clear farm land with them, so the day after I returned, I joined ex-president and lifetime Ngäbe Eugenio for the hike up. Long-time readers of this blog may remember a post about following the Terminator up to the Mountains of Mordor. This was Terminator in Mordor* round two.

The hike is four hours, mostly uphill, but it’s not too punishing because you pass a lot of traditional little towns and consistently have a good view of the surrounding mountains, valleys, rivers and eventually, the ocean. Towards the end of the climb, you reach a peak that overlooks both the ocean and the valley leading to the destination Mordor Mountains. Unfortunately, my camera doesn’t take pictures in opposite directions at once so none of you can truly appreciate this panorama. I also didn’t successfully take a picture of either side, because my camera won’t focus if there are anything distractions like: sunlight, other objects to focus on, or anything worth photographing. Did I mention I bought the cheapest digital camera I could find?

As I attempt to focus, Eugenio asks, “Is there more ocean than land? Because you can see the end of the land but not the end of the ocean.” Indeed. This may seem like a dumb question to you well educated readers, but out here, that’s a topic that simply isn’t covered. Which means few people think about it. Which is why I like Eugenio. I think in another time, Eugenio would have been an explorer or at least a settler. But for now, he’s just a clever little Ngäbe dude guiding a gringo up a mountain.
We arrive at our host’s house and are greeted with Ngäbe hospitality – that is, we find a few people working in the kitchen, who glance at us, say “Hi” and return to their work (in this case, grinding coffee). No one smiles.

Ngäbe hospitality is subtle. My host, Simon, strings up the only hammock and walks away. I sit and he soon returns and silently hands me a cup of freshly ground, but cold, coffee and again walks away. I don’t get any lunch, but I do get multiple cups of cold coffee to suppress my appetite and leave me wide-eyed and shaking (I don’t usually drink coffee, so my tolerance is low).

I smile because I know that I’m back in the Comarca and among my people.
My bed for the weekend
Simon walks me around the house, pointing out plants and explaining their uses. Every few minutes, he covers his mouth and giggles without provocation. The rest of the family has been doing the same since I arrived. Clearly, Simon had prepped them for my arrival and asked them to treat me like any other guest. But the novelty of a young white guy touring their garden and sitting in their hammock occasionally overwhelms them and they periodically lose it and giggle and stare with mouths so wide open, I can see their molars.

That night, I sleep on a table, using two traditional dresses as a pillow. As I lay down, Simon’s son puts on the radio and cranks up the volume. Ah, host family life all over again.
The next morning, I wake to the radio and the rising sun and rise to receive a bowl of rice and a large cup of coffee. Eugenio hands me a hip basket and walks away. I follow him to the coffee field.

Eugenio, the Terminator
Picking coffee is easy. You pick the beans off the tree and drop them in your hip basket. This requires little strength (if you have to bend the branch to reach the beans) and even less brainpower, which is why I thought, for once in my farm work experiences, I wouldn’t get embarrassed.

Almost true. While no one laughed out loud at me (a typical response to my farming efforts), I picked about half as much coffee as my counter-parts. I realized this was happening after about half an hour, so I studied Eugenio for tips.

After careful analysis of his technique, his hip basket placement, and dozens of other neurogastrointestinal factors, I realized: he’s picking the beans exactly the same as me, but faster. As the four time winner of the “Baserunning Award**” in high school baseball, I figured if speed was all I lacked, I could step up my game and close the gap. Among other clichés.

I never caught up. By day’s end, I had worked just as much, with half the output. Damn. Out-farmed again. But I learned a valuable lesson: picking coffee is really boring.

My young helper
We harvested for six hours and it wasn’t tiring, just boring. Pick the bean, put it in the basket. Like 12,000 times. Since their coffee is shade grown, I never even broke a sweat. The most entertainment I received was a child who started helping me harvest. He was the only one slower than I, which was a confidence booster. Plus, he was cute and only spoke Ngäberre, so we had many riveting conversations like:

Him: “Nede kure kuin.”
Me: “Yes?”
Him: “Krugore gain nobta.”
Me: “You take that back!”

Unfortunately, after 30 minutes or so, he decided sitting on the ground and sucking his finger was a better use of his time and I couldn’t really argue with him. So I went back to picking and thinking about how the Matrix Trilogy ended so dismally when it started so well.

After we finished harvesting, we brought the beans back to Simon’s house and de-pulped them. Spinning the de-pulper (Word’s telling me that’s not a word, but you get the idea) wheel gave me a callous on my pointer finger and the men finally got their chance to laugh at me, since by now in their lives, blisters are as rare as flat screen TVs. This blister would also prove significant the next morning.
The next morning, we “cleaned” or cleared the brush on Evangelio’s coffee farm with machetes. This consisted of chopping away all but the coffee trees and a few other useful plants. Before we started, the men pointed out the useful and therefore untouchable plants. I could at least recognize the coffee trees but the rest of the plants looked exactly alike (i.e. green and leafy) and no doubt now lay dead and stemless on the jungle floor.

But I did try. I would look for plants and then chop, look and chop and sometimes I felt like every plant was untouchable, other times none. So I alternated between wholesale carnage and unnecessary mercy and was just happy not to kill any fledgling coffee trees. Here are five minutes of cleaning:

Minute 1 – I scope the landscape and see no signs of children or untouchable plant life. CHOP. I swing back and forth, taking pleasure in the slicing sound and the smell of freshly cut grass.
The chopping crew
Minute 2 – I pull back mid-swing, realizing that I just partially cut a small coffee root. Looking around, I furtively straighten the root and hope that it will heal (and that no one noticed my error).
Minute 3 – I wonder why Leonardo DiCaprio never does comedies.  
Minute 4 – I stop to sharpen my machete and to rest my now blistered hand.
Minute 5 – Carnage resumes. Does this mean I’m like Smog from Fern Gully?

We chopped for four hours and by the end, my stroke was pretty weak, due to exhaustion and a badly blistered hand (damn you, de-pupler). We stopped for lunch and multiple cups of coffee and extremely questionable looking juice and then Eugenio and I began our four hour descent. The other men kept working.
This whole experience rejuvenated me. First, my town has a road and cell signal and lots of people, which makes it an anomaly in the Comarca. Most towns are more like Mordorville and even the people living in more populous locations are from somewhere in the mountains, so re-connecting with those people and that lifestyle reminded me who and what I’m here for.

Me, sporting my hip basket
Additionally, re-living with host families, even for just two nights, has made me re-appreciate living alone. Radio on all night, staring kids, total lack of privacy, being force fed bland food and drink from questionable sources, never sleeping past 5 am – these are all aspects of an almost forgotten life that I lived for my first three months. Now, when I sleep in silence till 7am and eat vegetables with my rice, I’ll remember that I’m lucky to be doing so.

Finally, I always enjoy walking and working with the Terminator and his men. Hopefully they don’t figure out just how many useful plants I destroyed.

*What an excellent movie idea: The Terminator in Mordor. We could have Arnold fighting Sauron (the humanoid one, not the giant, flaming eye) for two hours. Christian Bale would somehow be involved, perhaps as The Dark Knight or his character from The Fighter (just to spice things up). Also, Scarlet Johansson.
**Given to those unworthy of real awards.


At November 17, 2011 at 4:56 PM , Blogger Ila said...

is that a hip basket or are you just happy to see me?

At November 24, 2011 at 9:59 AM , Blogger HappinessPlunge said...

HI Jack!

I found your blog and I love the articles and pictures!

I’ll be heading to Panama in about a week. I wondered if your communities might be able to use an engineer/MBA for a week or so?

My story is that I gave up the corporate life to pursue my dreams/passions in life. So I am traveling and volunteering my way to personal fulfillment. I’ll head to Panama in about a week and I’ve really hard a hard time finding volunteering opportunities.

Let me know if I can help you out there, or if you know any places I could help out.

Adam Pervez


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