School Visits, Notebooks, and a Life’s Work

We walk back to the horses and gallop, wildly, over another set of green-gold hills to the new school Martina will begin working with.

The familiar two small blue and white buildings in a valley surrounded by mountains and a sea of silver, low clouds. The musical sonnet of children playing, which stops abruptly when they see the four horses and riders walking down the road. Then I try to give my best impression of a person hopping down from a horse, but know my soreness probably gives it away that I’m not.

Fortunately the children are so excited to see Martina, even my camera snaps hardly interrupt them.

She sweetly delivers the stacks of notebooks with an animated speech that leaves the kids laughing and smiling, as she teases and admonishes them to study hard.

She lights up in front of these kids like nothing I’ve ever seen. Theatrical and funny, yet sincere and kind. She gives each one a little hand shake or hug–in return each child shines with light and adoration. Only glimpse into the relationship she’s built over these past years, the little lives she’s impacted, this sweet little talk is enough to make my eyes water. I feel a swirl of pride and good fortune to be this woman’s friend, and humbled beyond belief with the beauty of the work she’s doing here…

Hugs, Kisses, and Arriving at My Nicaraguan Home…

A steep hill, a turn of a corner, a brilliant mural (that captures the coffee harvest, the jungle, the village life) sparkles from on an otherwise non-descript, one-story building, glistening in a coat of fresh blue and white paint.

Children wave shyly. A dog barks. Two boys hop a horse, bareback, and gallop after our truck.

Martina greets everyone by name, in beautifully fluent Spanish, with just a slight Italian bravado at the finish.

Then we’re hopping out of the truck, Martina’s instantly encased by friends, close hugs, a kiss on each cheek, laughter and rapid-fire Spanish. You’d think it had been years since they’d seen her last, but only a week since her last Miraflor stay.

I see already capable, amazing Martina in a whole new light.

I recognize Marlon (Martina’s friend and affable primary partner-in-crime), instantly, from his youtube videos he’s helped Martina create to communicate accomplishments and share heart-warming thankyous with Martina’s crew of UK based donors (many of them school children)  and from his crutches (the result of a recent surgery) as he hobbled toward me, grinning and wraps me up into a warm hug. His petite wife Myra, doesn’t attempt English and instead pecks a kiss my cheek, and squeezes my arm with a warm smile. I feel instantly at home.

Laughter filters through as we unpack the truck, in a mix of happy English and happier Spanish. But mostly Spanish. Aside from Marlon, most only speak Spanish. The crowd of new people on arrival taking me by complete surprise, my dull brain is regretfully slow and verbally stumbling through the most simple Spanish greetings, as I try and fail to beat back the Amharic habits and tell-tale Indonesian that jump to my tongue first, before Mucho Gusto and Me llamo. My rookie mistakes are hidden, or merely overlooked, in the excitement.

I meet more people than I can remember, each embrace me and kiss my cheek. Like a dream come true, I’m walking up the path to Marlon and Myra’s house.

Dirt-colored boards, a low tin roof of a simple house that is home to Marlon, Myra and their son Mauricio. A tiny picket fence. A well worn dirt path to the front door. Exotic flowers draped across each other. A pig grunts and struts, chickens are squawk and chicks peek between dogs. It’s animal and people chaos.

We drop our bags into the room we’ll share, draped in mosquito nets. A hug and a smile and we head outside to rejoin the party outside, as neighbors, family, and friends have gathered around the tiny household to witness our arrival.

A Pint (or Two), with UK’s Coffee Fairy

Exhausted. I fall back into the cushioned seat as the airport train speeds through the light to sink back underground. Iceland, Amsterdam, London. A whirlwind, but I’m doing it.

A Guinness with Martina, most naturally, turned into two. We talked like old friends, about travel, karma, experiences, the people you meet along the way, the good times, the not so good…but mostly how it all ends up good, even the bad. Especially the bad.

And that’s what I suspected (and proved to myself, that overcast London afternoon, in a pub in Soho) is what I’d admire most about Martina. Her life is not one charmed with perfection, of things coming to her easy. It has truly been lived. And to get here, now, the stylish, smart–utterly charming–entrepreneur, appreciatively sipping Guinness, can talk in equal and honest measure about her successes and her disappointments. She’s fluent in both.

She has no idea how refreshing it is to hear.

And, when I’d thought I’d forgotten all my English major-y baubles, with each brief pause in the conversation, with each cool sip of chocolaty Guinness, a few of the lines he wrote at the turn of the previous century make their way back to me…

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

Rudyard Kipling. If. If you can watch the things you gave your life to, broken, and stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools…

So many warn out tools.

martinaI think of petite Martina, finding her resolve, when life took her on an unexpected turn, and threatened to break her. So she grabbed what was left, traded the known for utter uncertainty. With a backpack and little else, she sets off on a crazy bus ride, deep into the Nicaraguan jungle. The tin hut, no electricity, a flimsy pad for a bed, she would make her home for the next year.

Both amazing and so overwhelming. I think big changes, the utterly monstrous ones that scare the bejeezus out of you, are like that. It’s good. You know it. But at the same time, because they truly are momentous, because you have no idea which way you’re going, how it will work out–it’s like feeling your way around in the dark. Sometimes it can feel like drowning. Tossed through the washing machine. Over and over. It’s not the little things that do this. It’s the utterly overpowering things that force you to stoop down and gather what’s left of yourself. Yet, I think until it happens (and it will happen), you don’t really know your own weaknesses…or your own strengths. Or those of the people around you.

So she goes. Bit by bit, Martina creates a brilliant new life in Nicaragua. And now that life creates new, little ripples of difference in the lives of others. As her and her friends set up and fund new schools for long-ignored communities.

Besides the fact that I adore her for being willing to just drop her busy schedule and meet me (the total stranger, whose only connection is the house she’s renting in France), I love her honesty. It would be easy to talk, after the fact, about how easy it all was. But she never does. She is never fake. It wasn’t easy, often it was hard. There were times when she wanted to stop. Give up. And that’s where her story sparkles before my eyes! In the darkness of utter uncertainty, she found her way through it. Equally amazing people come forward to support her. Slowly and surely, they climb. Upward.

Sometimes you have to go to new places in order to find pieces of yourself, she says.

In the jungles, that first felt immense, Martina finds her bearing, gets to know the people, her new surroundings, a whole new side of herself. One thing leads to another. She introduces backpackers to the people and the coffee of Miraflor farmers. She starts bringing it home, giving a part of the profit back to the farmers to improve the educational resources of the village kids. Just as amazing friends join her on trips to repaint walls and stock up school supplies. When a Swedish surfer jokes to her, “What are you the coffee fairy, or something?” The name sticks.

DSC_0703Two years later (yeah, just two years), it’s a business: The Coffee Fairy. Now she flits from food fairs to schools to interviews, in a dizzying schedule, talking tirelessly to anyone and everyone about her business that’s helping to fund education through the coffee of Miraflor. And, from the coffee she sells, they’re improving education for those living in the same Nicaraguan jungle she’d arrived at, alone, years before.

It’s good work, of course she loves it. Loves the independence and the travel. She cannot believe she’s doing it. Though it comes with times of unimaginably hard work, tight budgets, working solo. But she couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It’s a business that makes a profit and makes a difference. It has changed her life as much as it’s changes others.

We talk of many things that afternoon. I’ll always remember how I didn’t want the day to end….

Alone, again. The blast of air and click-click-click of the metal slideshow, as another train speeds past my little window-seat. Brick buildings, giant monuments faded to green, pastoral countryside long ago. The delicious, richness from the bag of coffee, grown in Nicaraguan jungles, now in my day pack to Amsterdam confirms it really wasn’t a daydream.

No, you really did meet someone that amazing.

And it happened on accident. On a last minute change to a trip you’ve been planning for months.

Who knows what or who the next months will bring….or won’t. I’m both excited and calm. Just letting the trip unfold, as it pleases. And, for the hundredth time, I try to remember not to hold my hopes too tightly. But enjoy the ride. For what it is. Not be too hard on myself about what I’m not doing or being. Just doing this (whatever it is?!), now, as best as I can. Martina’s story in my head. Reassurance that there’s more around the corner, even yet, to discover. Struggle, battle, fun, laughs. God knows. But I’m dying of curiosity.

After so many months of truly falling, tumbling and stumbling only to fall more, through so many moments, riding the train from London to Stansted, I finally feel the peace of knowing I’m headed in a the right direction, wherever that may be…

I check my clock again, yup. Missed my flight checkin. I missed my flight back to Amsterdam.

I laugh: shoot, guess I’ll have to stay one more day in London!

By the time I get home to Amsterdam, Martina’s little business gets the most amazing news: UK’s specialty chain, Harvey Nichols, will start selling her coffee as a holiday exclusive.

That’s one more (huge!) point for Nicaraguan school kids, with love, from The Coffee Fairy.

Riding Trains & Standing Still

DSC_0544As quickly as my day in London sprang into sudden existence hours earlier, it’s just as suddenly time to go. A rush of goodbyes, laughs, running through more rain to the Tube station and getting sucked below ground with the throngs of corporate types, heading home for the evening.

DSC_0657Through the tunnels of turnstyles and escalators, hopping aboard a packed carriage (“mind the gap!”), mechanical sighs, a whoosh of closing doors, the shifts and adjustments of 100 people simultaneously trying to achieve some level of mobile comfort in cramped quarters, the scraping of metal on metal in the unlit, claustrophobic caverns, the blast of stale air pressed suddenly closer with the passing of machines traveling in the opposite directions, then it stops. Bright lights. Movement slows and stops. People get on and off.

Time to takeoff inching steadily near. Heart pounds, my phone is dead–I can’t check-in online. I immediately hop to the left side to speed up escalators now with the professionals, while others stand dutifully out of the way on the right. Stepping up, up, up, with light little steps. Swinging through corners, carried along with the flow of commuters. I feel every bit an experienced cog in the London transportation system and it’s lovely. The efficiency which which I can travel, rapidly, along with so many other people. I burst through the dark tunnels into the open, bright air of Liverpool plaza.

DSC_0670Silver-gray light of an over-cast afternoon streams through glassed ceilings, and pools on the shoulders of thousands of people, standing perfectly still. In the chaos, they are quiet. They are all looking up. They stare at the giant board, slowly flitting through hundreds of departures. One by one, they catch what they were looking for and dart to a platform.

I stop. For a moment, just to watch. To stand perfectly still. Before, I, myself, dart through the silver pools of light and columns of people, off to the Stansted train on Platform 7.

Telling (Little) White Lies in London

Hoards of soccer fans, draped in orange, taunt crowds of Brits and tourists as double-decker red buses and quaint black cabs speed through busy streets. Each corner, each road sits some giant, old thing. A monument. A building. A fountain with some inscription that speaks from centuries past.

It all seems familiar. I could see the horses and carriages, the full skirts and gentlemen of my childhood dreams. The backdrop of the movies, now my present surroundings. History and literature, converging, as I walk suddenly remembering the steady diet of Jane Austin novels, as a teen, which set me firmly on a path to one day study the birth of the novel, the implications, Eyre, Burney…Marvel, Pope, who else? Why are their names so fuzzy now… The poetry of John Donne…all this, in between working for a small Seattle .com, learning HTML, finer points of segmentation & data analysis and (my favorite) writing copy for a brilliant, chartreuse-adoring boss (who once uttered these words: “Just do what you love–English majors can do anything.” and “If I don’t see your plane ticket to Bamberg, Germany on my desk, before the end of the day, you are fired.).

And thus, an English major was born, plucked from the study of economics and marketing…only to set aside books and become a data-obsessed marketer, only to use those years of marketing to spend the last years, to my surprise, writing. I have no idea how it works. But it did, it does. And I’m happy.

I think of The Flea, of St. Lucy’s Day (the B&W copy that had graced each corporate lodging, and now tucked away in my attic, until I return home…) and how thankful I am for the influence of an editorial manager, turned dear friend, in my life. I think of other things I’ve forgotten. Then start to the present. Wondering what will this be….

Before I have more than a few moments to worry if this will crumble too. Or if it’ll be an formal and cool reception, Martina swings around the corner. Bright eyes, gorgeous and the pixie smile of her photo, wrap me in the most heart-felt hug. It’s exactly like our emails from across the Atlantic: just comfortable, just like old friends.

We catch up, laughing, talking, trade stories, walking down the cute, cobbled streets of Soho. Lunch, a light glass of white wine, a double-shot of espresso.

Now why Villeseque des Corbieres, how did you find me? If you don’t mind me asking?

I tell her how I can work & travel, how Indonesia was amazing, how the photos sold, how it turned into another possible show, how joking about coffee got me serious about it, what I hope to do in Ethiopia…the last minute change to France to learn French, the nights of disappointing searching and then, Voila! Martina!!!

You see it was just meant to be. How could I not go there?

She agrees, she confides in me more details about the house that I will love, she tells me she’s already mentioned me to her friends there. (I already have friends there! How could this be wrong?!) Too quickly lunch is up. She’s off to a meeting. She looks at me, curiously, now what business did you say you have to do in London?

I pause. Am I forgetting something. Nope. Oh, nothing. I just thought I’d come out here for the day

What? But you said you had business of some sort in London.

I have to think for a minute. What business did I have in…Oh…Ohhhh! Yes, I lied.

WHAT?!

Yeah, I just lied. Haha, sorry! I’m laughing but she’s staring at me incredulously.

You just bought a ticket for the day and came out to London….just for lunch…with me?!

Yes. Absolutely.

She’s a still stunned. I suppose it’s not very Jane Austin of me to lie like that. So I come to my own defense:

Now that you know the story – I had to at least try to do everything within my power to meet this woman who’s doing so many amazing things! That, and, if I’d told the truth, I didn’t think your good conscious would agree to lunch if you knew I had no other reason for being here…

She’s laughing, shaking her head. Eyes, glittering. She gets it. And, I know I’ve had the time of my life on my day to London. She heads off to her meeting. I explore London. We meet back at the pub for one more pint…maybe two…

London for The Day

The train pulls from tiny Stansted Airport. Under a blue-sky, green fields divided by greener trees and brush, flit by. Ancient brick homes give way to crowds of bigger buildings. Work set aside for this day. I’m riding a train. To London. I couldn’t be happier. Or in more shock. Since when did I get to hop a train to London, for the day, on a Monday. But (train heaves to a shuddering stop), here I sit, riding a train. To London. For the day.

Come again? The customs agent, stops mid-stamping to interrogate me in a inquisitive, dry Brit accent that makes me feel like I’m on a specimen on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”, as the rest of my flight looks on in amusement. You came to London. 10AM. Today. To meet a friend. For lunch? Then you fly back tonight.

Yes. Final answer. We’re meeting at Picadilly Circus in 1 hour.

You flew in from America, to Amsterdam, less than a week. Now you’re in London. For the day?

Yes.

Why?

Well, I’d booked the flight to Amsterdam first. Before we had made lunch plans.

That’s a lot of travel. If you’re such good friends, why did she not come to you?

Because I wanted to meet her. We’ve actually never met before, she just works on a project I think is amazing. Have you heard of the Coffee Fairy? I have to meet her. That’s all! Flash a big cheezy grin that sings “I-assure-you-I’m-really-not-a-terrorist….just-let-me-through-your-bloody-station-so-I’m-not-late-for-the-single-thing-I-came-here-for!”. And, look, I said “bloody” — already a friend of the Brits. Even bigger smile.

You’ve never met her before? But you’re flying for lunch?

Yes, that is correct.

Must be some woman. The solid clink of inked metal to watermarked paper. She cracks a bit of a smile as she hands it back to me. I laugh, I run to the train platform stuffing the pile of tourist brochures they handed me with my train tickets, into my pack–don’t think I didn’t see that, lady! You don’t think I’m crazy at all!

I check my watch again. 20 more minutes to Liverpool, then transfer to Picadilly. Right on time.

I watch the stops carefully. No time for mistakes. I check my email. No cancellation note. That means we’re still on. Tissue in my pocket and inhaler in my purse: I feel invincible!

The train chugs. My head churns. No matter what happens, I’m glad I’m doing this. She must think I’m absolutely crazy, traveling one day for lunch with someone I’ve never met–but I’m genuinely glad to be doing this, plus I’ve never been to London! There’s no down side. Even if we have a horrid time, I’m still in London for the day!

Then daylight disappears as we dive through dark, ancient tunnels. Momentum slows. Then stops. After moving so quickly all morning, I stumble to my feet. Sling my little pack to my back. And step out, into the streaming silver-light of the expansive, glassed ceiling of the Liverpool Train Station platform. Massive trains line each side. People move with purpose.

A transfer. Passage through a series of dark tunnels. Followed by a series of escalators. Then I emerge. In the middle of London, where I wait to meet UK’s Coffee Fairy, Martina.

When putting together the trip I’d planned to go to Eastern Europe. Hopping from Hungary to Croatia to god-knows-where sounded idyllic, until the logistics and languages overwhelmed me. Four weeks before flying out I spontaneously trade out Bosnia for France. South of France. Someplace old and quiet, where the pace of things is slow enough for wine and learning French.

I scour sites, I send 30 emails for three nights, through every rental site I know. To my surprise, my inquiry of a month’s rent brings complete and utter silence.

Hmmm…maybe France just isn’t the right decision….or maybe there’s something REALLY good out there and I’m supposed to keep searching…

With a little help from Facebook referrals, I end up on VRBO and I find a listing in a tiny town. But it’s the photos that grab me: white-washed, rough stone walls of a centuries old house, simple charm of both antique and modern.

Then it’s the bit in her bio that stops me: woman my age, with bright eyes and pixie face, traded her office job for the jungles of Nicaragua and teaching English to the children of remote coffee farmers, which led her to setting up a business which sells the coffee of these farmers in the UK. Coffee sales then help fund schooling for the children. A summer home in south of France. Whatever she’s done, it works. It actually can work!

It was 12:30 AM, and I was sitting in my Seattle home office, when I emailed her about her house, hoping, praying, she’ll email me back and trying not to sound too desperate by saying, I want to help people do just THAT. (They laugh at these ideas…. But, yet, look at you! You are doing it!)

It was 4:30 AM when I wake up from a dead sleep. Grabbed my phone. One email from Martina – the house was available, she would love for me to stay there. I have a hard time going back to sleep I’m so excited.

The next day, to my utter shock, email responses from ALL across the south of France start to POUR into my inbox, Toulouse, Perpignan, Narbonne…I reply to 70 emails in one day, with my sincerest apologies. I know I’ve found the one I want.

After an email exchange, across seas, that confirm I’m dealing with something amazing….Good or bad, or just crazy–how do you not book a day trip to London when in Amsterdam?

It’s a small price to pay, for something that just feels like “it’s meant to be”, as cheezy as that sounds…