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.

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.

Fair Trade, Trace-ability & Lasers!

When I meet up with the group again, they’re standing in one of the massive warehouses. Giant 200+ pound bags bulging with dry coffee (not yet roasted) stacked on pallets.  A series of colorful skyscrapers, white, red, tan and red, we wander the maze-like pathways between stacks as a sparrow flits in the rafters. Each stack tagged with a wooden plaque with the finca name. There are hundreds of plaques signifying Nica fincas, in the cool room. Every one of the million coffee bags are tagged with a slip of paper carefully tracing the roots of this particular bag: stating name of a region, a finca, and the individual farmer.

Traceability, Spencer points to a single tag, for fair trade.

Of course. It just never dawned on me how they would track massive shipments of coffee, that would leave this facility to be shipped to the states, to the UK, so on. And I think of summers in Eugene, Oregon, on my grandparents tiny ranch, steering a rattling tractor with six-year-old hands, shadowed by my grandpa’s gnarled ones, and each day continues as life for those golden months revolves around that 100 acre parcel of land. This is repeated over and over and over, for generations, and the product of that effort, aggregated here. Right in front of me. Months of work, shared by generations.

As we stand, cool in the relative shade, men in green jumpsuits hoist one massive bag of coffee across their shoulders. Head down, sweat streaming from frowned faces, they carry each burden down the walkway and up, up, up, a rickety 15 stair step “escalerona” in front of a pallet-in-progress. The bag is thrown on the pile, arranged, and the man trots back for another, like sweaty, but inhuman clockwork. I lean in the doorway watching first, gasp or smile to the human drama, and when the time feels right, I jokingly grasp at a bag myself. I’m strong. But my best tug, with all my might, barely moves the bag an inch–forget lifting it above my head. And snap, the grim human machine stops and they stare, and laugh good naturedly, as I flex my muscles and try again.

Por que?! I laugh at myself and ask why I’m not strong like them? Nothing like making an ass of yourself, to make friends. It generally works. And in the dim light, my camera no longer feels like such an intruder, and the strong me pose for shots as they curiously eye our little group as we take in the massive machines.

One de-husks the dry bean, dropping parchment-like tan paper of a single bean into a pile two times higher than me (which will be used as compost or kitchen-fire fuel — nothing is wasted) and we move on to another machine that takes the husked beans (which replaced a line of women picking at beans one at a time) a high-tech sorter that jiggles beans into their appropriate class (A being biggest and best and down the alphabet…). Finally, the sorted beans are shot through the final machine, four tubes review beans, in rapid-fire motion, so that the hundred beans shot through in a single minute look like one (and only my camera is able to slow it down to see, yes, there are really one bean at a time being inspected). Technology finds a bad bean and a thousand little lasers shoot the bean with a thousands tiny holes until it disintegrates into dust, as the good beans continue their march toward the retail world.

It’s insane. Women quietly raking beans, men lugging bags in the absence of a simple dolly
–and a space-age sorter shooting lasers. (I had to look at Spencer’s face 100 times before I trusted he wasn’t pulling my leg.)

The production process complete, it’s amazing how much (human) work it takes for my morning coffee. I will never begrudge a hike in coffee. (In fact, I’d be ready to sign the petition to pay more, if it could go to these people. I’ve always been a fan of fair trade, but it’s never hit home like this.)

The smile on Martina’s face, as we walk and talk to our guide and she procures the bits of free-trade and organic data she needs, is just like the sunshine. I wonder if it’s hitting her too, how tough but amazing the last five years of her life has been, to have struggled to put this all together. I wonder what would have happened if I’d have never taken a day trip to London last summer. I would have missed this. And now we’re laughing, interviewing and photographing for the BBC.

Riding in the Back of a Truck

We walk slowly to the store, through a maze of narrow alleys and along an old cemetery, filling each step with more stories and details of the lives we’ve lived in the last six months, as men in cowboy hats wait on horses lazily grazing the green grass along the river and the sun spreads gold and rose arms across the sky.

Back at Carmen Maria’s, a simple dinner of hot pasta in front of the TV feels like five star luxury. Then to bed.

I lay for a few minutes. Savoring my own stillness, as the little Nicaraguan town around me continues to move. Shadows flit across glazed windows, the rattle of Spanish spoken way to quickly for my ears to comprehend. The bark of a dog. A motorcycle kicks off. A girl laughs.

I wake up with sunlight streaking through the window. Martina’s already made pancakes — delicate, buttery, dripped in honey — with hot, dark coffee. A thank you and a smile. Each bite tastes like the best breakfast ever. More than anything, after months traveling solo more accustomed to having my guard up than taking a breath, I can’t get over the sweetness of being cared for. We sit amongst Carmen’s collection of china figurines, for a moment in the handful of quiet minutes, until there’s a hollow rap on the massive metal door.

Smiles and a deep breath, and we’re off again.

Gustav, a heavyset man with requisite cowboy hat and mustache, uses gnarled hands to carefully sweep the bed of his old green pickup truck–our seats for the next stint of the trip. We climb in and hang onto the black, wrought-iron rails as we drive into town. The warm wind (in the dead of my winter) and the freedom of traveling however we please feels like a treat, and I feel like two kids in a parade. Passersby glance, then again. Two white girls riding in a pick up truck in a swirl of dust and sun.

We make stop after stop. Piling stacks of notebooks, paper, groceries and one red pinata into the bed of the truck until it’s nearly full. Then settle carefully between bags and sun-scorched metal for the long ride. Outside Esteli, tiny towns flit by between long expanses of absolutely nothing but dry jungle trees. My hair whips out of it’s french braid into a snarled halo around my head as we speed along. Trucks speed up within feet of the back bumper, lights flashing, as we wave off would-be admirers.

“We’re one hour late.” Martina worries.

“Sounds like we’re right on time!” I figure Nicaraguan’s must have a concept of Nicaraguan time that’s similar to Mexican, Indonesian, and Ethiopian time.

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.


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…