Interview with a Nicaraguan Coffee Farmer

We stop our horses in front of a narrow path, leading up a steep hill, through stands of banana trees.

Horrific high-pitch squeals screech from massive, mud-covered pig, as farmers in dirt-covered shirts and rubber boots, drag it’s front legs, inches at a time, towards a waiting truck.

I feel my breakfast churn in my nauseous stomach as the clumsy, but determined, farm animal drags the farmers backwards and the scene starts again, from the beginning, with horrific high-pitched tortured squeals.

No one seems to notice. Spencer and I grimace. A shared joke about our relative inability, as city-dwellers, to survive were we ever left to our own devices. At least, we’d probably have to go without bacon.

In a dirt-floor room, Martina sits down to talk with the first farmer. Their faces are light by hazy sunshine, fingering through the inch wide slats between slabs of rough wood. The room empty, but for a bench, a chair, and the people within.

The farm, a community leader, with a careful mustache and soft voice, patiently answers Martina’s questions, as I slink around the room, self-consciously playing the part of the photographer while my camera clicks mercilessly through their interview, trying to interpret the soft light, the cool shadows, and the other farmer (with massive handlebar mustache that screams “machismo”)  and woman (who will later, shyly, let me photograph her kitchen — which I will learn is the Nicaraguan standard, wood fire “stove”, a wood plank of mis-matched dishes and the very non-standard luxury of a blue-canister water-filter which Martina secured for the family), listening in the shadows of opposite doors.

My ears listen, jealously, as Martina comfortably switches to fluent Spanish. She asks fluid, detailed question after question while never missing a word from her farmer.  I, on the other hand, with my four years of school, catch a word here or there and have to remind myself to not drown out the unfamiliar sounds, but do the work to grasp at the syllables. I want understand more Spanish, not leave it just to Martina to interpret for me.  But it’s a constant struggle (to learn and not grow lethargic in growing heat of the day, the sore back muscles from the ride, the lazy melody of Spanish spoken much too quickly for me). When I put down my camera, I force myself to listen for the sounds long after my head aches and my ears feel like they will bleed, searching for one more familiar word, one more new word I can look up when we get home to my little travel dictionary.

And, Martina, with a tired smile on her face, just as sleep deprived and sore as I…keeping up conversation long after my head has shut off. I listen to her carry the conversation further and I try again to understand, as I orbit around their interview snapping photos. A stream of clicks trying to find the right light, the right angle, intensely worried I will come nothing close to what being here, now, feels like.

Standing in the dusty, silver-gold light of a Nicaraguan kitchen, listening to coffee farmers.

Cell-Phone Reception, Dinner & the Light of a Single Bulb

I join the girls for a hike, up the side of a mountain, in search of cell phone reception. It’s no small task as we carefully pick our way, in sandals, through loose rock and dried leaves, following a seemingly impassable steep whisper of a trail. A golden-green jungle sunset peeks between massive trees and far away emerald hillsides.

In the cooling, golden evening, they stand very still. Trying and failing to place a call. Then trying again. It takes nearly an hour. When we’re about to give up, Myra’s last call reaches the DJ of the local station, which broadcasts music and commentary throughout the jungle into the wood smoked kitchens of thousands, each with a little, black transistor radio. The cloud-forest lifeline.

We head home for dinner, triumphant. Back in the tiny kitchen with it’s perfectly aged walls, weathered grey wood, collection of 10 cups, a few plates. We sink back into the bench at the table, sitting on the dirt floor three feet lower than the rest of the room.  Shoulder to shoulder, we sit. Careful to alternate how many people move at any one time, in the small space. A tiny dog, named Flea, runs under foot and a tinier, flea-bitten kitten, named Mouse, is passed from lap to lap.

Conversation and jokes spill from rapid Spanish to slow English to rapid English and slow Spanish and back again. Waves of laughter roll through it all. We’re like family in no time, despite most of being relative strangers less than 12 hours ago.

There are a few slow minutes when the conversation stops as we cough out the wood smoke that shifts from heating dinner to our teary eyes.   Wood-fire warmed dinner is passed around. A simple and tasty blend of frijoles, rice, scrambled eggs and dried fish that spent the day smoking over a fire.

We clean dishes from a small bowl of precious water (hauled the half mile from the well, earlier in the day) then sit down for more laughing and talking.

Jackson, a mildly handicapped young man in the village who lived a difficult life until

Myra and Marlon took him in, put him to work (doing house chores and work) in exchange for food and family, taps me on the shoulder  hands me Mouse (the cat) with a gummy grin and mumbled, happy Spanish.  I think of the various kitchens I’ve sat in over the years. The spaciousness, the appliances, the perfectly lit atmosphere, perfectly timed laughter. I roll my toes across the uneven, dirt floor, and smile as Mouse  stretches, warm and happy, in my lap.

The talk turns to tomorrow. The horses we’ll take, Marlon’s concerns that Martina and I (as women) can’t go alone. He insists we go with Spencer (who knows zero of the landscape or horses compared to Martina’s mastery of both). When she teases we find out it’s a man thing and talk turns to machismo. The ornate beards around the town, the horse training, the clearly defined duties of women who retreat to the kitchen.

Marlon looks very seriously at Spencer, “Spencer….what would you rate your machismo?!!”

We erupt in laughter, Mouse lifts a lazy little head up, only to settle back down with a purr. Flea (the tiny puppy) yawns at my feet.

Tired beyond-belief from a long day of travel and interviews, we sit up, way past midnight under the slight light of a single electric bulb that runs off a tiny car battery generator, it spreads a dim light around our little circle, otherwise, absolute darkness of the Nicaraguan jungle.

I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.