Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A visit to Honduras Part 1

Our friend Sara Nelson recently visited Honduras and journaled extensively during her time there. Sara was visiting her husband, Raul, who happens to currently live in Comayagua, the city where our coffee co-op is based. Her journal is poignant because she describes her first contact with Raul since he returned to Honduras in order to process his request to be legally in the United States. Current U.S. law requires undocumented immigrants to return to their home country in order to apply.

Sara brought money down for the Honduran coffee farmers to help them pay the processing expenses to get our coffee up here. We are grateful to Sara, but also I am in awe her ability to capture the flavor of Honduras and especially here personal connection with so many people.

I have asked Sara for permission to publish her journal in the blog so we can get a sense of her experience. Here is part one:


Growing up, I heard about the trouble in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. I

was aware of the death squads and the FMLN’s guerrilla tactics, of the murder of

Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who took up the cause of the poor

people. The war between the Contras and Sandinistas popped up on newscasts,

culminating in the Iran-Contra scandal, which confirmed all the theories I’d come

up with about Reagan and about the Contras. I read about the massacre of the

Ixil Maya in Guatemala. I had a vague notion of the role the CIA, the United Fruit

Company and other US companies played in these countries’ politics. I never

heard anything about Honduras. Not one peep. I felt deeply for the peoples of El

Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala – for the difficulties they had undergone, for their

struggles to create stable, democratic governments, for the civil wars, tortures and

coups precipitated in part by the meddling US government. Honduras never got a

So I am boning up on some Honduran facts and history, trying to get some sort

of handle on the issues Hondurans face before I leave. Right now news of the

unaccompanied children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador nabbed by

the Border Patrol is all over news outlets. People are speculating about what is

driving parents to send their children on such a dangerous journey, protected by

total strangers. The more compassionate people, I should say, are speculating. The

monsters in our country (and I don’t use that term lightly) are showing up with

signs and even (in Michigan) guns, to turn away buses filled with these frightened,

By now I know that Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. I know

that the poverty rate is 64.5%, up from 58.8% in 2009 (The World Bank). It

is the second poorest country in Central America and ranks 121st

countries on the UN’s Human Development Index (which measures education, life

expectancy, literacy and other standards of living). There are few jobs available (the

unemployment rate is 27.9%), and one third of those with jobs are underemployed.

Big cities, like San Pedro Sula and the capital, Tegucigalpa, are essentially controlled

by gangs exported from East LA and Chicago. Narco-trafficking is rampant,

especially in the north and west since it is on the route from Colombia through

Mexico to drug users in the US. Corruption in both the government and the police

force runs rampant and people take justice into their own hands because you can’t

count on the police. If they are even inspired to come, they often don’t have the gas

to transport themselves to the crime scene.

 out of 187

While Honduras is a beautiful country and could capitalize on this to create a

successful tourism industry, most tourists avoid it because it is so dangerous. The

few who do come go to the north-west coast and to the Bay Islands. They have

some eco-tourism (there is incredible bio-diversity), and they have some minerals,

textiles, coffee, sugar cane and tropical fruit to export. But the United Fruit

Company and other US companies dominated the fruit production, and because they

were pretty much independent of the government (and tax exempt, somehow) any

financial benefit went to the US companies, not the country and definitely not the

workers. I didn’t realize that it was O. Henry who came up with the term “Banana

Republic” and that he used it to describe Honduras.

The Lenca and the Maya were the two biggest indigenous groups and you can

still see Mayan ruins at Copan. Comayagua – capital of Honduras for nearly three

centuries -- is a colonial town, with buildings dating from the Spanish conquest

when the Spanish mostly used slaves to mine silver. Escaped African slaves

intermarried with indigenous people on the north-west coast and became the

Garifuna people, complete with their own language and culture.

Honduras won complete independence in 1838 and struggled to form a stable,

democratic government. Nicaraguan Contras used Honduras as a base for years,

which resulted in US military bases in Honduras, and, I now learn, Honduras had

its own left wing militias which tangled with the Honduran army and led to CIA

intervention. The CIA trained members of the Honduran army who organized death

squads to kill suspected leftists in the 1970s and 1890s. In 1995, information

came out linking the CIA to human rights violations in Honduras and the release of

declassified CIA documents in 1997 confirmed that the CIA not only had ignored

the torture, assassinations and other violations but had given the army a training

manual that outlined “interrogation techniques” that human rights groups say

amounts to torture (The Center for Justice and Accountability). And I heard nothing

about this. Why? In any case, the chickens are coming home to roost.

A number of factors have contributed to the political and economic instability

now making life difficult for Hondurans. CAFTA allowed maquilladoras to open in

Central American countries, providing very low wage jobs and horrible working

conditions for some people, but it also made Honduran farmers compete with the

big US companies. The end result was a weakening of the Honduran economy.

Hurricane Mitch destroyed the vast majority of the crops and transportation

infrastructure in 1998. Thousands of people were killed in floods and landslides

while tens of thousands more were injured and/or lost their homes. In 2009 a

coup shook up the government, and many neighboring countries (though not, of

course, Republicans in the US) refused to recognize the new government. In most

government departments, over 90% of the budget goes to bureaucracy.

So, this is the sum total of what I know, what I have learned, and I am surprised,

not by how similar Honduras’s history is to that of its Central American neighbors,

but by the fact that I never heard about it. Somehow Nicaragua and Guatemala and

El Salvador held the attention of liberals in the US through the 1980s, so I learned

about them. But now we are reaping what we have sown. The US is responsible for

widespread unemployment and poverty in Honduras. We have transplanted our

gang culture into Honduran cities, and our appetite for illegal drugs finances these

gangs, creating a culture of extreme violence. Is it any wonder these people risk

their lives to cross our border in search of a better life? What do we owe them?

DAY ONE – Wednesday, July 23, 2014

I’m excited, nervous, rattled. I went shopping at REI and Ikea, picking out presents

for my Honduran family, without really being certain who would like what –

stabbing in the dark and hoping for the best. Nothing cost very much since I’m likely

to run out of money in mid-July and I’d like to be able to pay the August mortgage –

which I’ll have to do somehow with my expert sales skills, selling knives. But I need

to bring something to these sisters and nieces I’ve never met. I’ve got my backpack,

a carry-on suitcase and another suitcase to go under the plane. Most of the space

is taken up with gifts and items Raul has requested. I figure I don’t need a lot of

clothes – we can do laundry after all.

Of course my plane to Houston is late, eating up the hour and fifteen minutes

transfer time and – of course – the gate for my connecting flight is about as far

away as possible. My plane to Honduras is boarding as I wait for the ground crew

to fork over my carry-on bag. (It was a tiny plane so they grabbed much of the

carry-on baggage.) So I run through three terminals, take a tram, and arrive at the

appropriate terminal to find that they have some cock-a-mamie numbering system

that put Gate 19 farther than both Gate 14 and Gate 24.

Turns out I didn’t need to run since there are other connecting flights even later

I sit next to a Guatemalan woman and her daughter. They live in New Orleans and

are going to visit relatives in Guatemala. We speak a combination of English and

Spanish – and she is charmed at the idea that I am traveling to Honduras to visit my

husband. When we land in San Pedro Sula, she stands in the customs line with me

and smiles in commiseration as I fret about the slow line, about the inattentiveness

of our fellow travelers ahead of us in line. I stand on tiptoe and peek around, hoping

Through customs, get my checked bag, put everything though the x-ray machine

(which seemed pointless since they’d come off a plane from the US and therefore

unlikely to hold any kind of contraband). Out through another door and I see a

shadowy figure, waving both arms over its head. I run, my bags clattering after me,

drop everything and hurl myself into Raul’s arms and he’s crying and I’m crying and

we’re holding on to each other tight, tight, tight and his head is buried in my neck

and I can feel his tears on my skin.

At last we let go long enough to look at each other, to smile and kiss and kiss some

more. And finally I meet Roberto, our niece, Fanny’s, boyfriend – the one who has a

car, isn’t afraid to drive it on the International, and can take time off work to drive

us. I meet Julia, Raul’s oldest sister, short, worn, distracted, and Karla, another

sister, a striking woman despite the fact that she’s as round as she is tall. She has

dark bronze skin, friendly eyes and a beautifully molded mouth. Fanny stands to the

Outside, I take in distant mountains, indistinct in the haze, scattered palms and

banana trees. The city itself seems far away and I wonder a little about the advice

I’d gotten – to make sure to land and take off from San Pedro Sula during the

daytime because it is, after all, the most dangerous city in the world. As we load the

car, a tiny old woman comes to me, her words incomprehensible due to her lack of

teeth. But the hand she holds out makes her meaning perfectly clear. Raul pulls

bills from his pocket and hands them to her. He has always been like this – he has

always given money to panhandlers. He is nicer and more generous than I am.

As we drive, I hold Raul’s hand and gape out the window. It’s a lot like Baja or the

Yucatan. Concrete buildings painted in bright colors and chipping at the corners.

Trash, dirt, the smell of burning wood, burning trash, burning tires. Roadside stands

made of simple poles and covered with a colorful but faded tarp and hay or palm

Haze hangs about the mountains. Raul says it’s the heat, but it has to be all this

burning too. Some of the mountains are thickly jungled and others have been

cleared – for planting pineapple or bananas on impossibly steep hillsides. Raul says

they clear the land with only a hoe and a machete. An arduous task even if it weren’t

so hot and humid, the slopes so steep. We pass huge fields of sugar cane, corn,

pineapple, as well as groves of limes, oranges, coconut, palm oil, bananas, plantains.

The driving here is crazy. There are six of us stuffed into a vehicle designed for

four. Only the front has seat belts at all. There are few stop signs or stop lights and

the rules of the road consist of playing chicken. Whoever is going fastest and is in

the intersection soonest has right of way. You use your horn a lot and squeeze past

cars, motorcycles, bicycles and the occasional ox cart or donkey. On the winding

mountain roads, there are lines painted to designate lanes and passing rules, but

these seem to be suggestions that people take – or not. The uphill lane is doubled

so you can pass the slow trucks as they puff uphill, but you use it as a sort of passing

lane when you’re going downhill too, apparently, even on sharp curves. In fact, you

pass all the time, nipping in and out, barely missing the cars ahead or beside you. I

am sure I am going to die before I reach Comayagua and I look out the side windows

or at Raul so that I won’t know until it happens.

We keep taking little detours into different town and cities. Julia’s grandson,

Fanny’s son, has a birthday coming up and they are looking, they tell me, for some

kind of special tortilla that even the store owners seem to know nothing about. I

learn later that it was pita bread she was looking for – and I don’t know where she

eventually found it, but it wasn’t on the way home from the airport anyhow. But we

keep stopping and hopping out and inquiring at various supermarkets. I am hot and

sweaty and super hungry – when did I last eat? I’m not sure. But it is one o’clock

The roadside stands change as we pass from mountain to lowland. Different areas

seem to have different specialties – people sell bananas, plantains, pineapples,

coconuts in one place, bread or something in plastic baggies in another. They sell

mosaic stepping stones, honey, large clay pots, and in the mountains closer to

Comayagua they are breaking up rock, pounding it into dust, shoveling it into bags

to sell. I think it might be lime? Plaster?

We stop at one stand where an old man fishes coconuts out of a battered ice chest,

hacks off the very tops with a machete and sticks straws inside. We each get one,

and when we are finished with the milk, we hand it back to the old man, who

whacks at it with the machete again so we can scoop out the meat. Later we stop at

a pineapple stand. The pineapple is warm and fragrant and juicy-sweet. The best

We stop, finally, at Lago de Yojoa. It’s around 3 PM, I’ve been up since 2:30 AM and I

had a breakfast sandwich at 4:30 AM. It’s way past time for lunch and I’m exhausted

and past being hungry. They settle me into a colorful hammock slung, with others,

around the periphery of the palapa. They sit at the table nearby and we enjoy the

cool breeze off the lake. The sun glints off the water, brightens the mist shrouding

the surrounding mountains. A wetland leads up to the lake – mud and short grasses

with a variety of birds – herons, waders. I know none of them. A couple of types of

mockingbird-like things strut around the tables, asking for scraps. We eat chicken

soup and whole, crispy fried fish with fried plantains, lime, rice and beans with

encurditas (pickled vegetables). We wash it down with beer. After eating, Raul

and I walk down the long, rickety dock to the water, exclaiming about the birds, the

large, twinkling lake and the mountains rising out of it.

We drive on, stopping sometimes to look for the elusive special tortillas. We pass

little 3-wheeled taxis, old men on bicycles with a huge load of wood on the back.

Sometimes we pass a horse and cart or a wagon drawn by two steers. A semi in

front of us burns its breaks as it screams down the mountain, flames shooting out

Nearing Comayagua, we pass a dump where, Raul says, someone dumped his

brother’s body. An old man found it. The family heard about it on the radio and

knew it was their brother from the description: tattoos, hair style, height and

weight. Which means he must have been in a gang because Raul is vehemently

opposed to tattoos, saying only gang members wear them. I’ve heard of this brother

before. Ines told me the police took him away because someone with friends in the

department thought he’d stolen a watch. The blindfolded him, handcuffed him and

shot him in the head. His name was Angel.

The earth here is sandy and rocky in some places, pink or red or red/brown in

others. Raul says it’s very rich and good for growing fruit. This confuses me

because I’ve heard Honduran soil is not that great and, in general, tropical soils are

poor since the nutrients tend to be stored in the canopy.

Finally we get to Raul’s mama’s house in Comayagua. It’s on a dusty street – pot-
holed concrete covered with gravel and dirt. Much better, Raul says, than the dirt

road that was here before he left. Bedraggled dogs wander listlessly. Tops of walls

have coils of barbed wire. The house is opposite what is, apparently, a church – a

Pentecostal church, low and unassuming.

The house is built on a slope, with the oldest structure on the road – made of sticks,

clay, plaster – a sort of wattle and daub. The roof is of old ceramic tiles. It has three

small rooms – a long, thin kitchen, with a bed at one end, a little table in the middle

and a hot plate and small fridge at the other end. It leads into a small living room,

which has a couch and an armchair. The couch is not large but is a little too big

for the room, making it difficult to get in the front door or into the small bedroom

beyond. This is where Raul’s younger brother, Andres, lives with his girlfriend and

The courtyard is sloped, with pipes and holes to deal with water runoff. Access

to the street is blocked by a corrugated iron piece painted the same turquoise as

the house. It’s attached to a post by a chain that they lock with a padlock when

they leave. The new structure is a little bigger than the original house. Ines, Raul’s

sister, paid Andres to build two rooms – a bedroom for the daughters she had to

leave behind when she came to the States, and a kitchen. Now, her youngest, Tania,

shares the bedroom with Raul, and the older, Yamalih, has blocked off part of the

kitchen to make a bedroom for herself, her boyfriend and their four year old son,

Justín. The addition is made of cement bricks, plastered over and painted, roofed

with corrugated metal. It has high ceilings to help deal with the heat.

Building the new structure meant cutting down some of the fruit trees, but there is

still a soursop tree and a couple of almond trees. Part of the remaining courtyard

is fenced off for the chickens, an elderly rooster, a hen and a gangly, half-grown

chick. Apparently, when Raul’s mother was alive, she kept rabbits, chickens, ducks

and a pig. Even though the patio was bigger then, it seems like it would have been

pretty crowded, especially since the cement stove with its chimney, its large, built-in

comal, and a stack of firewood sits in the corner. Clotheslines web this area.

Outside, next to each other, are a shower (the water – when it’s running – is cold!

) and a flush toilet. Next to those are a large cement sink or pool – roughly the size

of a dining room table, and as deep – and a cement washboard and drain. This is

where water is stored, so that when the water isn’t running, you can still brush your

teeth and wash the dishes. You can fill a big bucket and carry it into the shower

to give yourself a sponge bath or dump it in the toilet to flush. There is a washing

machine next to the big sink, but Raul says it doesn’t work very well.

We have time for some chicken soup with rice and tortillas, a little sleepy talk, and


Raul’s mattress is ancient. It’s basically a V shape, and you can feel springs in the

middle. Sometimes you get stuck between the sets of springs. When I have some

money, I’ll send some so he can buy a new mattress. This is ridiculous.

Wake up to all the roosters in Comayagua, crowing. I like roosters and I like hearing

them crow in the morning, but this is overkill. Everyone in the city seems to have

a rooster and they all seem to want to crow their heads off, starting at 4 AM (which

seems a bit too early, really).

Raul makes me breakfast: choco-krispies with milk and banana followed by fried

plantains and Honduran cream – crispy on the outside and creamy sweet on the

We go shopping – Karla, Tania, Gabi (Karla’s daughter), Maite (Gabi’s daughter

– about 3 years old), Justín and Yamalih plus Raul and me. All of us squished

into Karla’s small and dilapidated car. No car seats, no seat belts. We go to the

supermarket first, buy eggs at the roadside, then to the Mercado – narrow streets

lined with vendors selling shoes, beans, spices, fruit – you name it. And you can

go inside the large, warehouse-type buildings too where more vendors hawk their

goods. I wish I had a good camera and could just putter around here, taking photos.

There are huge baskets filled with small, dried fish, big bags standing open, holding

beans, corn, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, rows of plastic bags with spices, racks of

shoes, baskets of various tropical fruits, big tubs of horchata waiting for the vendor

to dip a gourd and fill a plastic baggie, stick a straw in and tie up the neck. The

butchers hang cuts of meat and pile plastic bags full of – ulp – fat? I think? Colorful

hammocks are tied to the rafters and various t-shirts with slogans and sayings in

English hang on the walls. We wander through, buying a little bit here and a little bit

We stop by Raul’s friend’s restaurant. I meet Elwin (nicknamed Pive) and his wife,

Annie. Maria is scooping fried green bananas out of the deep fryer. They smile and

joke with us. They offer us cold drinks. The specialty is fried chicken with the green

bananas (all topped by a salsa) and a little coleslaw-type salad. Business seems

brisk but not crazy. The young men working at the Tigo store next door come by to

hang out and chat a lot. Tigo is a cell phone company, selling internet access and

We stop by Raul’s favorite chop suey restaurant and buy chop suey and fried rice for

lunch – which we eat with fresh, hot tortillas, of course. Why wouldn’t you?

I take a lovely nap after lunch. I play with Justín who, when not watching TV, plays

with an ancient metal police car and a plastic dump truck in the patio. I make him

a little house out of twigs and leaves. Raul has bought us maimones in the market

and I feed some to Justín. They look a little like grapes, but they have a peel and you

have to suck the fruit off the large seed. Justín puts a bunch in the bed of his dump

truck and makes deliveries. I think we are friends.

In the afternoon we drive to Julia’s house, and Julia, Gabi, Karla, Raul and I walk

through Barrio Ariba to the cemetery. Raul brings his machete and I think it is for

cutting weeds on the grave but later learn it is for protection. The cemetery is a

tangle of weeds, tropical plants and wrought iron. Some graves are decorated with

decaying wreaths and bundles of sticks. There are mausoleums and simple mounds

with crosses. Graves are higgledy-piggledy, falling down, some with wrought iron

fences surrounding them, others with parts of fences. Trash and dead weeds lie

scattered about. Nobody seems to take care of the graves. Raul says that people

wanting money for drugs sometimes come in and steal the iron.

Raul’s mama’s grave is surrounded by a wrought iron fence. There was a gate, but

it was stolen. Mounds of dirt, topped by simple crosses. One for the man he thought

was his father, the other for his mother, planted right in front of it. Presumably they

really are buried together – not side by side.

The poverty makes me sad, but none of it has been surprising and none of it has

shocked me, except for the cemetery. I suppose I expected it to be nicer because

the Mexicans take care of theirs and because Raul always wanted to put flowers, to

plant flowers, on Oma’s grave. I know Raul cares a lot about his mama and I know

he’d want her grave to be beautiful. I used to think about how Raul wants to be

buried in the US and wonder that he doesn’t want to be in his home country, but

now it makes total sense. The contrast between the cool, green, tidy graveyard in

Minnesota, with its mown grass and fancy headstones, and the weed-choked, trash-
filled cemetery here, with the graves jammed close together and missing pieces

stolen by thieves and druggies...

After the cemetery, we go to Julia’s house. It is large and relatively luxurious. She

has photos of her children and grandchildren, as well as their grade-school diplomas

framed and hanging on the tiny living room wall. All the houses here have no clear

delineation between outside and inside. Partial walls and missing doors means you

always kind of feel like you’re outside.

Julia has 4 or 5 dogs -- only one is allowed to roam freely around the house. The

rest are chained up in the back of the patio. Jacob, the free dog, is scruffy, old, and,

according to the family, smelly. I’d love to give him a good bath. In the courtyard

hang two cages with a total of 6 parrots squabbling, shrieking and climbing about.

The set up in Julia’s patio is not so different from Raul’s mama’s, but much bigger. I

wonder if this isn’t what the old patio used to look like, in its heyday – lots of plants,

I meet Raul’s Tia Anna-Luisa and his oldest brother, Antonio, with his partner, Iris.

We sit and talk and laugh. They tease Raul and Antonio, beaming delightedly when

I tell them in my horrendous Spanish that Raul is a goof and I have to beat him up

at least every day. Anna-Luisa has 10 children and some are in the US. She tells

me that all her children turned out badly. They drink. They do drugs. They never

help their mother. She has traveled to Texas and Florida a number of times, but

now can’t because of her bad knees. Tia Anna-Luisa had a son who had problems

with his temper. He got in an argument with her one day and, frightened, she called

the police. Surprisingly, they actually showed up. The son went to prison and the

prison burned down a couple of years ago. The prisoners banged on the doors,

begging to be let out. When that didn’t help, they climbed up to the roof and some

of them managed to force their way out between the corrugated iron roof and the

cement walls. Those that got out were shot by the police. The rest died in the fire,

Anna-Luisa’s son among them. She blames herself. She tells me this, matter-of-
factly, as she cuts up tomatoes by the sink. We tell her she couldn’t have known the

prison would burn down. She is making estouffado – mixing onion, meat and spices

in a bowl, cutting holes in large chunks of beef and stuffing the mixture inside. She

tells me that everyone comes to Julia’s house to eat, but not many help her.

I hear more and more about the family. In Honduras, you need to be 21 years old to

marry. Of course, you can have a child any time you want. So Gabi – who is maybe

17 – has Maite, a three year old, and her boyfriend is in the States. They want to get

married but have to wait until Gabi is old enough. At least he’s still in the picture.

Raul reminds me that it is Independence Day and he is sad because he is missing

the fireworks in Crosby. I’m not sad at all. I have never felt less patriotic. Ines

sends us a video of the fireworks at Valley Fair and Yamalih, Raul and Justín ooh

and aah. Christmas is the time for fireworks in Comayagua, and Raul is already

telling everyone that I’m coming back for my winter break, to spend Christmas with

everyone. I would sure like to, but it will depend a lot on the financial situation. I’d

like it even better if we got a visa in December, so that I would come down and bring

Raul back with me. I can only hope.

I spend the morning playing with Justín. We bonded over the trucks and the

maimones and he’s not afraid of me anymore. The chickens apparently knocked

down the little house I made him of sticks and leaves, and he wants me to re-build

it. We “drive” his trucks all over the patio, and he loves it when I make truck sounds.

His mother has given up reminding him to stay clean and I feel a little guilty about

that. We put more maimones in his dump truck. We eat them. I count the ones in

Raul comes to watch us, and Yamalih also. I’m amused to hear Raul lecture Yamalih

about not letting Justín watch so much TV, about the benefits of reading books (this

from the TV addict who at one point said that all my books were a fire hazard!).

He tells Yamalih about Stella and Georgia, “the little girls next door”. He goes on

and on about how smart and well educated they are, about how they never watch

TV and how they read all the time. They are really good and smart girls, he says. I

never know what he’s picked up on, what he absorbs from his life with my American

friends and family. He seems to think that avoiding TV and reading a lot is typically

American, which tickles me no end.

As Raul watches us play, he asks me if maybe we could gather up some old toys our

American friends don’t use anymore, and send them to the kids here. I agree this is

a good idea, and add that we should find him some picture books and coloring books

Early afternoon, Karla comes with Gabi and Maite to pick us up. We go to the store

to buy supplies for our trip to the mountains. I suggest taking some of the food we

bought yesterday and Raul looks at me like I’m crazy. “That’s for here,” he says. So

we go shopping. We also go to Pive’s restaurant where, apparently, Raul can take

whatever he wants. He gets some green bananas, some chicken, some meat on

skewers. Pive and Maria give me a coke and some fried chicken and green bananas.

I’m starving. It’s almost 2 PM and breakfast seems eons away. (When I first got here

and we were talking about the shopping, Raul said to me, “You no need a lot of food,

honey, yes?” Of course I don’t!)

I forgot to mention that yesterday we went to look at the cathedral. Travel websites

warned about the cathedral area in Comayagua, how there are scammers and

pickpockets there so you have to be careful. I’m surprised because actually, the area

is very quiet, tranquil in fact. There’s hardly anyone there to be careful of. Raul

says it’s very old but doesn’t know when it was built. (I later discovered that the

cathedral was begun in the late 1500s and finally finished in 1711. The cathedral

has the oldest clock in the Americas. Some say the clock was built around 1100 CE,

but other sources say it was built in 1374. The clock was shipped from Spain as

a gift to the bishop who first put it in Iglesia La Merced in 1586 and moved to the

cathedral of Comayagua in 1711.) It is a lovely church – very Baroque, with lots of

gold leaf and intricate ornamentation. Raul insisted on walking through the Stations

of the Cross, explaining them to me as we went (as though I didn’t know – cracked

me up!). Inside the cathedral, praying in one of the pews, we find Dimas, Pive’s

father and the person who allows us to go to the mountains. Raul arranges for us to

So I’m hanging out in the restaurant and beginning to understand the way

friendship works here – the economics of it. It seems people don’t keep tabs.

Everyone just helps. If you have more, you help more. If you have less, you help

less. Raul helps in the restaurant in return for lunch – formally. But informally, he

has another family that supports him, gives him food, brings him to the mountains.

Various family members help out in the restaurant – a few of them on a regular

basis while others just stop by and decide to peel a few potatoes since they are there

Finally we are ready to go to the mountains. We’ve packed a few clothes into our

day packs, loaded up a big back with various food items, and packed it into Karla’s

car. Dimas sits in the front, and his wife, Maria, joins Raul and me in the back. It’s a

short trip out of the city – maybe 15 minutes. Once out of the city, we pass pastures,

isolated houses. A child riding a donkey. Two men on horseback. Cows. A couple

of horses tethered by the side of the road. Soon there are no more houses and the

concrete roads turn to dirt. We go up some steep slopes I’m not sure the car will be

At last, Karla drives through a stream bed, comes upon a larger river and turns

around. Mariano is there with his dog, Whiskey, to meet us. Whiskey is that same

Mexican-type dog – medium sized, short hair, looking vaguely German Shepherd/

coyote-like. He seems to have a skin disease, but he’s delighted to be with Mariano

and frolics about, sticking his nose into our bags and grabbing Mariano’s arm in his

mouth. Mariano has a bicycle and he takes two big sacks of our food, balances them

on his handlebars and pushes the bike along the trail.

At first the trail is easy, a gentle slope with a double track. We cross and re-cross

the little river (more a stream, really), hopping across on stones. Locusts line the

sides – yellow with red wings like stained glass. Jungle on both sides, mango trees

and banana trees. Cicadas whirr. As we walk, Maria pulls leaves and points out

various plants, naming them, holding them up for us to smell or taste, describing the

medicinal uses: this is for the kidneys, this for strong bones, make tea from this one

if you are vomiting. She’s 66 years old and acts like this walk is nothing, hopping

across the stream on little stones like a frisky goat. Mangoes litter parts of the path,

in various states of decay. It’s a bummer – loving mangoes, being allergic and so

unable to eat them, and to be surrounded by wild ones. It’s hot and I’m sweating.

We pass coffee bushes and some partially cleared places where coffee seedlings

have been planted. There are signs saying the land is protected and I’m confused.

It’s ok to clear the understory and plant coffee here? Or not? Partway up, we meet

two men who have just felled a large tree. They talk about clearing the land for their

coffee plants, with just a hoe and a machete. They laugh at Raul when he asks if they

use a chainsaw. A chainsaw makes too much noise and the police would come and

there would be trouble. I’m even more confused. Do Dimas and Maria own the land

their casita is on? Does anyone own the land? Are they supposed to be clearing it

and planting coffee? The two men know Hector, Andy’s friend. He’s a neighbor and

grows coffee on the other side of this mountain.

The track gets steeper and steeper. We pass epazote trees, lime trees, chayote vines,

mangos, bananas, coffee in various stages of growth. It’s almost straight up now,

and rotting mangoes make the track slippery. We pass some sugar cane.

We can see the house now – a grey cement building with a verandah three-fourths

of the way around it, windows made of wrought iron so that the breeze blows

through. The center of the roof is a concrete slab so that you can walk up on top

of the house to look at the stars at night. The verandah roof is corrugated metal.

Halfway up the hill to the house, we stop to check on the fish – and to catch our

breath. They are baby tilapia, raised to be eaten, but most of them are pretty tiny,

swimming in their concrete pool. Water trickles from a pipe into the pool and then

over the top and down the mountain. Raul explains that all the water here is from a

One last pull and we are there, to be greeted by two more dogs: Nine and Pacho.

They look like Whiskey’s siblings. Mariano is already there. The caretakers, Juan

and his wife, Julia. Juan looks like he’s half Julia’s age. His hair might be dyed but

it’s jet black and he has few wrinkles. He seems strong and vigorous. Julia has white

hair pulled back in a bun. Her lined face makes her look older than Doña Maria, and

she has hardly any teeth. Julia greets us, then stoops over the outside stove -- the

hornilla o fogón – feeding more sticks into its mouth. Apparently, she’s afraid of the

propane stove that’s in the indoor kitchen and prefers to cook as she always has.

Doña Maria shows me around – the bedroom we’ll sleep in, the verandah, the

flowers and herbs surrounding the house. Just beyond the herbs, corn, squash,

beans and chayote are growing. Plus the odd banana tree. I’m so hot and sweaty

that the sight of a pool – painted turquoise with a little yellow bridge built over it –

makes my heart sing. Doña Maria tells me that they built it for Raul and me, hardly

likely, but I appreciate the sentiment. A pipe goes straight from the spring into the

pool and keeps running, the excess slipping out over the far corner to run down the

mountain. You can stand under the pipe and drink the water if you want.

I’m hot and sweaty, but also hungry, so when I come back to the verandah, I put

aside thoughts of the pool and concentrate on Tia Anna Luisa’s food we’ve brought

with us. After we’ve eaten, Raul insists that we can’t swim now because we’ve

just eaten and might throw up. I’ve learned that it’s useless to reason with him

regarding his bogus scientific facts, so I settle myself in the hammock and let the

cool mountain mist envelop me. And as I drift off to sleep, the lilt of conversation

laps against my ears – laughter, jokes, voices weaving in and out of each other. I

think of the butterflies I saw on the walk up – little black and white ones, yellow

ones as big as my hand. The sway of the hammock, the smell of mango and wood-

smoke, the sound of cicadas. Dimas’s deeper tones, Doña Maria’s animated chatter,

And when I wake up, I go swimming – without Raul who says we should have

gone swimming earlier, when it was warmer. The water is cool and fresh. I’m

surrounded by coffee plants and banana trees. I float on my back and look up at the

clouds swirling about the mountains.

Later I hang out with Doña Maria. She chatters away, me understanding parts, but

always smiling and agreeing, trying not to let my eyes glaze over. At one point when

she asks me if I like the mountains, I say yes, that I want to live here forever and

ever. This tickles her no end. And I hug Doña Maria and say she is my mama, which

makes her grin and squeeze me back.

Doña Maria cooks dinner for me – beans, eggs, cheese and deep-fried green bananas

with a little salt. She makes me lemon-grass tea, saying it will be good for me, and

then has me drink verbena tea so the lemon-grass won’t keep me up all night. Then

we sit on the roof, watching the clouds move across the moon, the passing light and

shadows falling over our faces.

We see a toucan flying past at breakfast – just a quick glimpse. Breakfast is platanos

and crema with orange juice. Raul is attentive and sweet. Maria chatters. She

would be a good preacher – talking about God winds her up. She gesticulates and

finally stands up in her passionate explanation of how important God is.

Raul and I decide to go visit his friend, Pastor, and his family who live a little ways

away. Dimas and Doña Maria say that Pastor is very poor. He has four girls and

a boy but he can’t make enough money to take care of them. They have no soap,

so they wash their clothes with water and hang them up to dry. They eat rice and

beans and whatever they find in the jungle. When the rice and beans run out, they

find green bananas, skewer them on sticks and roast them over the fire. I ask why

Pastor and his family can’t have some chickens and grow corn and beans like Dimas

and Maria, but Raul explains that Pastor has no land.

We’re about to go and I ask if I shouldn’t wear my tennis shoes. Raul has his flip-
flops and assures me mine will do. We haven’t gone far before I realize it’s a

mistake. I thought we’d be walking on a track like yesterday’s – steep, but wide.

Instead, we cut across the mountain, between rows of corn and coffee. It’s steep,

I’m sliding around, my feet are sliding in my flip-flops. Raul notices that one of my

chanklas is broken. He hands me the machete and tells me to wait. He’ll go get my

We walk through the jungle on a tiny footpath just wide enough for our feet. We

crawl up steep slopes – Raul hacks away vines and digs foot-holes in the mountain

with the tip of the machete, sometimes giving me a hand up. I grab trunks of trees

as I climb. We make a little detour to the spring and then go up another steep slope

toward the sound of dogs, barking.

The usual scrawny mutts greet us. Pastor is not at home, but a friend who protects

the city’s drinking water is here, talking with Pastor’s wife. Two little girls hide

behind Pastor’s wife – one about eight years old and the other maybe two or three.

Pastor’s wife brings us plastic chairs and we sit while Raul chatters. I grin at the

older girl and a smile of pure delight totally transforms her face. I wish I’d brought

something for the kids. A cat dozes in the kitchen doorway near a single flip-flop

The older girl goes inside the house and brings out her baby brother – nine months

old – slung on her hip. She shows him off, then goes, towing him on a baby seat with

A scrawny, moth-eaten kitten staggers up to me and doesn’t protest when I lift her

onto my lap. She crouches on my knee, purring and occasionally rubbing her cheek

on my hand. I ask the older girl what the kitten’s name is: Mariposa. I’m thinking

Mariposa could do with some solid food, a bath, and probably de-worming. Pastor’s

wife brings us all bunches of bananas and I eat one, giving a little to Mariposa, who

eats it, though what she thinks I cannot guess. What the little girls and their mother

think of a gringa come to the mountains I wonder as well.

Raul and I continue on – down a steep slope – and since the path is overgrown and

the foliage is wet, I slip a few times, landing on my butt. We get down to the river

and walk along that until we reach the path leading up to Dimas and Maria’s house.

We sit and chat with Doña Maria and Julia. Somehow it comes out that Julia and

her husband don’t shower together or sleep together. Raul is dumbfounded. “We

shower together all the time!” he says. Good thing I’m not easily embarrassed. We

talk about Maria’s relationship with Dimas. They’ve been together a long time but

didn’t marry until more recently. He’s apparently a poker player and a womanizer;

Doña Maria looks on the verge of tears, talking about it, but soon she’s talking about

Raul is affectionate and solicitous with me, and I’ve noticed the women here notice

this. They smile approvingly and pat Raul or me on the back. They say he is a good

man and loves me very much. They assure me that he doesn’t see other women

and I tell them that’s good. It means I only have to beat him up once a day. They

laugh and laugh, but then they look a little wistful. Listening to them talk about their

boyfriends and husbands, I get the idea that relationships are fleeting or, if they are

long-term, they pretty much expect the man to be unfaithful.

I take a little nap in the hammock before lunch. The roosters started crowing at

their usual time – 4 AM – and everyone is pretty much up by 5:30, Julia cooking,

Juan and Mariano talking about the plans for the day. I stuck it out in bed until 6:30;

sleep is so lovely here. So a nap seems like the perfect solution and the hammock is

Later on, Raul and I go to get yucca and malanga, two different kinds of roots that

are good in soup. Raul uses his machete and a sharp hoe to chop the earth around

the plants. The yucca isn’t at all like the yucca I know from California at all. It’s a

spindly tree with round, flat leaves. Raul uses the machete to hack away part of the

root and then carefully spreads the soil back over the remaining root so the tree can

keep growing. Raul can somehow navigate the hill in his chanklas (flip-flops) but I

slip and slide all over in my tennis shoes. Yet again, Raul chops foot-holds for me

and I start laughing and can’t stop. He must think my legs are six feet long – there’s

no way I can go from one foot-hold to the next, so it’s a scramble, with a little ledge

We go down by the river for the malanga. It grows in the swampy area near the

river, long stems – maybe three feet – and broad, banana-like leaves. Raul uses the

machete to hack away some leaves so he can see better, then scrapes the mud away

with the hoe, using it as a lever to lift the roots up. There’s a bulbous root – rather

small, according to Raul – and he hacks it off with the machete, again careful to settle

the plant back in the muck so it can continue to grow. He says, with disapproval,

that some people pull out the whole plant and just throw it aside.

Sitting on the verandah is so pleasant with the breeze blowing through, the little

transistor radio broadcasting the Costa Rica/Netherlands World Cup game. It’s

hooked to the centerpiece, the glory of the table: a car battery. Everyone uses the

battery to charge their cell phones, and sometimes Dimas hooks it up to two light

bulbs. That’s the extent of the electricity. The dogs snooze outside and the chickens

wander in and out, half-grown chicks cheeping. Juan, Julia’s husband, sits with a bag

of plastic parts and pieces of pipe, poking through it. He’s been fixing the irrigation

system. The noise and trash and stress of the city are far away.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Farmer Profile: Don Chico

"Brrrrrmmmm" "Brrrrrmmm" "Brrrrrmmmm"

On the way up the mountain to Don Chico's organic plot

As we hike along the road to Don Chico's organic coffee plot, his grandsons Federico and Sergio (estimated ages 8 and 6) are running circles around us while making motorcycle sounds. They are our guides for the hike and have also brought along a piece of black rope to play with. They uncoil the rope and stretch it between them, slingshotting each other around. One boy slides off the road and the other boy throws him the rope and pulls him up the embankment. Soon they are pulling the rope to stretch across the road and attempting to envelop the gringos who are walking along at our own pace. Alex is briefly imprisoned and he then escapes with a run to the delight of the children. The boys are guiding us up and up and up to the top of the hill that serves as the visual edge of the valley that is El Sute. It is a steep climb and the boys keep running back and forth in their rubber boots, getting twice the hike we do. It is fitting that Federico and Sergio are guiding us to Don Chico's plot because everything he does as a farmer seems to be for their benefit.

Sergio (left), Federico (right)

Alex and the boys (I don't recognize the neighbor boy in the blue)
Don Chico has a generosity of spirit and a persistence which has made him the principal farmer and chief promoter in the COFEACOMA organic coffee co-op. When the co-op president, Adalid, needed someone to help him move the coffee to the processing and bagging facility, Don Chico was there to help and wouldn't quit until the job was done. Later, when the coffee had to sit for a couple months before shipping, Don Chico went on his own accord to check that the quality was holding strong. Don Chico provided extra coffee to complete the partial bags that others had sent, and he even sent an extra 100 pounds of coffee to Farmer to Farmer on speculation that we would be able to sell it and pay him later. Don Chico's house serves as the unofficial center for the both the coffee co-op and for the rural lending group in El Sute. He insists on hosting us whenever we arrive in El Sute and will not accept payment for food or lodging. When we arrived in Honduras this year, Don Chico took half a day to ride his horse off the mountain and meet us. After our meeting we declared the intention to visit him first on our trip. His face went dark, and he explained that we would have to wait until later in the trip. His grandson Federico was at another family place in Yoro, halfway across Honduras, and Don Chico did not want him to miss our visit. He announced that he would travel to Yoro and retrieve Federico and he could host us in 5 days time.

We switched hats. They thought it was funny.
Spanish moss in the trees on the way up to Don Chico's organic plot.

Now Federico and Sergio are on the road, cresting the ridge with boundless energy, and we are wondering where they are taking us. Hector and I have been to Don Chico's organic plot before and this is not the way. We are wondering if the boys are playing a joke on us. "Just a little further!" they keep saying. And so it is, seemingly always; but soon we have turned off from the road and we are walking back towards the far side of the ridge along a narrow dirt path. We walk through someone's yard and keep walking right into a coffee patch. "Just a little further!" Finally we are where they wanted to show us. It is a newly planted plot of coffee of about an acre, all under scattered shade trees. Each plant looks like it was planted within the last couple months. The new growth is strong and green. The boys show us the remains of the nursery where the plants came from, and we can see that they must have watered the plants with water from a spring that is bubbling up on the edge of the plot. The shade trees are a mix of leguminous guama and towering pines. I can see why they brought us here. There is a lot of work present in this new plantation, and it is a hopeful vision for the future.

The view from the road up by the ridge near Don Chico's organic coffee plot.

The cleared area is the new plantation. Behind it is an established plantation that belongs to Federico and Sergio. Note the spring on the right.

The remains of the coffee nursery.

From this plot we can now see the other plot that Don Chico usually takes us to. All we have to do is hike up to the ridge a little ways. As we walk, we ask Federico if the coffee patch we are walking through now is also Don Chico's. He says no, it is "de nosostros," meaning "ours." At first we don't understand, but then Federico explains that Don Chico has given that patch of coffee to his two grandsons. Federico is proud of his coffee. When we get to Don Chico's original plot, we are initially worried. He clearly has the Roya, the dreaded coffee rust, and it seems that many of his plants are dying. But then as we crest the ridge, we see that most of his plants are resisting the Roya and are they loaded with green leaves and deep red coffee cherries. Don Chico has succeeded by planting a diversity of varieties and most of them are resistant to the Roya. When we return to Don Chico's house we have a good dinner and we try to teach the boys to play "Uno," which appears to be the first card game they have ever played. Of course, both boys win hands and seem to get all the "Draw Four Wild" cards (beginners luck!). Don Chico is curious to learn what we thought of his coffee plot. He values our opinion. We reassure him that things are not dire.

Don Chico's coffee

The view from Don Chico's

Don Chico is growing coffee under the shade of pine trees. Some believe it can't be done, but this patch looks very good.

Don Chico's full name is Francisco Alvarado Medina. He has a little over 4 acres in organic coffee and is in the process of converting more land into organic production. He has chickens, pigs, horses, and a few milk cows, and he collects manure to make prepared composts. His organic plot on the ridge is at high elevation at 1750 meters above sea level. Don Chico has completely embraced organic farming and even has posted a sign at the entrance to his farm describing it as a "Finca Organica," so I am surprised to learn that he has only been a co-op member for three years. Last year he grew 4000 pounds of coffee, 1500 of which he sent to Farmer to Farmer, the largest supplier of coffee for COFEACOMA. He grows the varieties Catuay, Lempira, and IHCAFE 90. His wife, Simona Vazquez Vazquez, and his daughter Berta manage the harvest, which involves family members and paid help. The coffee is de-pulped using a manual de-pulper and fermented and washed in a concrete water tank. The coffee is dried in greenhouses on metal screens, and he prefers not to store the dried coffee on-site, but rather brings it to the valley where it can be stored in a drier climate. In addition to coffee and the animals, Don Chico also grows corn, beans, vegetables, bananas, citrus, and hardwood shade trees.

Don Chico's farmstead

Sleeping in the drying shed.

The cutest kitty in the world at Don Chico's

The kitten was happiest on my foot.
In the past three years, we have seen striking improvements on his farm. He has built two coffee-drying greenhouses, a wooden storeroom, and a Toyota pick-up truck sits in the yard. When we ask about the pick-up, we learn that six farmers came together to purchase the pick-up. He is also a leader in the rural lending group, which guards members' capital in a bank account and lends it out within and outside of the group, functioning like a bank. Don Chico's lending group has started a little general store in the community, where each member takes a month-long turn staffing the store, and all members share in the earnings. Don Chico has helped bring a potable water system to the community, as well as new roads, and electricity is on the way. Where other farmers seem to be quite independent, the farmers in El Sute have many collective ventures, and Don Chico seems to be right in the center of each of them. He is a community leader, but he knows that all he does, he does for the future of his family. He is 66 years old and he has 2 daughters, Berta and Vilma, and 7 grandchildren. He wants Farmer to Farmer to know that he is very grateful for the opportunity to sell his coffee to us.

Don Chico's coffee was evaluated by our tester as somewhere between "very good" and "excellent," earning a 76.5 rating on the 100-point cupping scale. The comments are: "clean, mellow acidity, hints of wheatgrass, bit thin. But a good cup." I'll say: a very good cup.

Don Chico, Federico, Bertha (Daughter), and Sergio

The whole crew. The family on the right is Don Mario's (a curious neighbor - maybe next year will join the organic coffee co-op)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Farmer Profile: Alexis Lorenzo Gonzales

Don Alexis, with a load of of coffee ready to sell to the intermediary.

When I first meet Alexis Lorenzo he is wearing the brand new Farmer to Farmer t-shirt that we brought down for each of the farmers who sent coffee in 2013.  He sits and listens while we have a meeting with him and about 20 other farmers in El Sute. There is an agronomist named Arnoldo present for the meeting from IHCAFE, the Honduran technical institute that supports coffee farmers. Arnoldo is talking at length about quality issues, followed by other people who also talk at length, including me. If there is one thing coffee farmers can talk about for a long time, it is coffee. People are getting up and walking around to stretch every so often. Alexis is on the outside of the conversation and says nothing. He has come to the meeting with a couple purposes that have little to do with all the talking.

there's me in the blue jacket and Alexis behind me in the green shirt.

Near the end of the meeting, there is a request for participation from the audience. A young man stands up and makes an eloquent pitch for people to grow organic vegetables near their houses. As the visiting Gringo, I am asked what I think about organic vegetables, and of course I say I am in favor of people growing vegetables. After the meeting, Alexis introduces the young man to me as his son, Blas. Blas is attending university in Agronomy and he is looking to do practical project work in his village, supporting organic gardening. Alexis had encouraged Blas to come and see if Farmer to Farmer could support his son’s project. I promise to see if we can bring some seeds down with us next year.

In the little that we get to know Alexis, we get to see that he is doing everything to support the education of his children. All four of his children have received some advanced schooling. His daughter Johana has graduated and come home to be the nurse for the community, and Blas is finishing his degree and helping his father make organic fertilizers. The other two, Alex Geovani and Rudi Ariel are also in school. As we talk it becomes clear that the sale of the coffee is entirely necessary to pay for all the education expenses. In fact, later that evening, Alexis returns to where we are staying and he pulls me aside. He asks if I know anyone who might be interested in buying a couple acres of good farmland; he has a tuition payment due soon or a son will have to leave school. I encourage him to get some coffee ready to sell to Farmer to Farmer and that our down payment will help make the tuition payment. I hope he doesn’t have to sell off his land.

My experience with Alexis makes me even more committed to maintaining a good price for our farmers. The global commodity market fluctuates significantly from year to year. Two years ago the global price was twice what it is now, but the coffee farmers’ expenses have stayed the same or increased. So right now farmers who made financial commitments when the prices were high are having a hard time keeping up with those commitments, with half the income. Add to that that these same farmers have been hit hard by the Coffee Rust (Roya) and lost an average of half their crop. Times are tough. Our commitment to farmers hits reality when we can see that our consistent high price from year to year can allow the farmers to honor their own financial commitments, like tuition, and make long range plans. My only wish is that we could buy more of their crop. Right now we buy only a portion of what each of our farmers produce, and the rest they are forced to sell at much lower prices to the intermediaries who buy coffee in their village.

Alexis describes his farm for me because we don't have time to visit on this trip. He has about 4 acres of organic coffee. His farm is at 1550 meters above sea level and he has been organic for 4 years. His biggest problem right now is the Roya, which has affected almost all of his coffee. He grows mostly the susceptible varieties: Arabica, Paca, Caturra, and Burbon. His processing facility is simple. He has a manual de-pulper, ferments the coffee in sacks, dries the coffee in the drying shed of a friend, and transports the coffee in the truck of a friend. He grows his own corn and beans too. When he is asked for a message for Farmer to Farmer members, he says "Thanks to God, Life and Future Generations."

Don Alexis coffee was not cupped separately, because his coffee was sent mixed with Don Chico's coffee. Please see Don Chico's profile for comments on the cupping of that coffee.

Corrin with Alexis, sporting the same t-shirt

There goes a load of coffee


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Farmer Profile: Salvador Sanchez

Don Salvador, Dona Maria Angela and their family (there's the yellow motor)

When we walk up to the house of Salvador Sanchez, his family is concentrated around a yellow gas motor that is mounted on a post next to his concrete coffee fermentation tank. As we come closer, we notice that the pull-cord has snapped and his son is trying to thread a new rope in so they can get back to work. There are bags and bags of fresh-picked coffee cherries lined up and ready to be de-pulped. If they can get the little motor going, then they can run a belt to the de-pulping machine and make short work of a project that would take a manual de-pulper all day. The project draws our friend Hector in and soon he is adding his opinion and asking for specific tools. Don Salvador shows up and asks us to have a seat in the kitchen for coffee and sweet bread and so we can do the interview. I am grateful, because I was not able to add anything to the motor fix-it project.

Fresh picked coffee cherries

We first met Don Salvador 3 years ago when we visited the coffee farmers of El Sute for the first time. He showed us his organic plot and the towering sweetgum and guama trees that provide the shade. The plants were mostly the old variety known as "Indio," and they looked overgrown and not very productive. It was like being in a forest. There was another section of the the organic plot where he had renewed the plot through replanting and pruning, and that looked promising, with lush healthy young plants. This year though, when Hector visited Don Salvador's organic plot he declared that it had almost all been destroyed by the Roya (coffee rust). Although Salvador sent 1200 pounds in 2013, his organic production will drop significantly for 2014. He probably won't see a loss in income though, because Don Salvador has hedged his bets and grown some conventional coffee too. After our interview, he takes me to see the new plantation of conventional coffee.

Don Salvador's 3-year-old conventional coffee plants 

My heart sinks to see how good his conventional coffee looks. He took a corn and beans field right next to his house and has converted it into a coffee plot over the last three years. He is growing these Roya resistant varieties completely without shade trees on the steep slopes, but they look quite healthy and they are loaded with harvest after only three years. I tell Salvador how nice they look, and he smiles and asks us to take his photo amid the dark green coffee plants with the bright red cherries. I ask him about shade trees and he points to a mature plantation across the hill from us and says that the plants look healthy over there without shade. I have to agree. I know that organic agriculture is better for the soil, better for the shade trees and the diversity they support, and can result in a better tasting coffee. But it is hard to argue that Don Salvador wasn't smart to hedge his bets and keep some of his land in conventional coffee. This year his family will eat off of the profits from the conventional coffee.

A proud farmer

The Roya presents a special challenge for our friends in Honduras who want to grow organic coffee. In the past, many farmers were able to enter the coffee co-op because they have a plot of coffee that they have grown using "natural" methods. By this they mean that they have applied no fertilizer at all, chemical or organic. The old varieties are especially suited to this sort of "ignore-ganic" way of growing: have old coffee trees and old shade trees and give the coffee plot very little maintenance. This actually has worked quite well. The yields are lower, but the inputs are nil, and the old varieties of coffee taste great. But the Roya is devastating to the old, low-maintenance varieties. New varieties must be planted, and those new varieties are rumored to do better without as much shade. This could be a disaster for the mountain. If everyone cuts down their shade trees, then erosion and flooding could become much worse. And the dry season will become much drier as the micro-climates change. It is essential for our co-op members to find a middle path, one that uses the new varieties and maintains the shade trees. They will need to improve soil fertility practices in order to meet the demands of the new varieties. The price premium that we offer is enough to keep Don Salvador interested. He will keep his organic plot and keep improving his organic practices, even as he continues to improve his conventional plot. Without the price premium though, he might not join the co-op.

The neighbors harvesting mature shade-free coffee on very steep slopes

Don Salvador is a savvy farmer. It is clear that he has made improvements throughout his farm. There is a new greenhouse-style coffee drying shed and the aforementioned motorized de-pulper. He knows his coffee and he cares for the quality of the coffee throughout the process. His cupping results turned out quite well. He has a little solar panel which collects enough energy to power a small florescent light for use in the kitchen each night. He is a leader in the community, and to have him in the co-op gives the co-op a position of respect. Don Salvador is the sort of skeptical thinker that keeps any group honest. I am pleased when we are able to come through for him and continue to earn his trust. We have seen him move from stand-offish a few years ago, to warm and welcoming this year. It is the sort of relationship that can grow over time.

The fermentation tank

Don Salvador has about 2 acres of organic coffee and an additional 10 acres in conventional coffee. He is one of the founding members of the organic co-op COFEACOMA and has been with the co-op for 9 years. His farm is at 1500 meters above sea level. In addition to coffee, he grows corn, beans and bananas. He is 59 years old and has 7 children and 9 grandchildren, all living nearby. His wife, Maria Angela, greeted us in the kitchen. Later, we learned that she is suffering from asthma and needs care and medicine. This is all the more reason to maintain our relationship with this family - the extra money they get from Farmer to Farmer can translate directly into needed care. The quality of Don Salvador's coffee is exceptional, one of our best micro-lots. His coffee earned 78.25 on the 100-point cupping scale. The tasters comments were: "Sweet, chocolate, fruity, with medium body." We hope his organic plot recovers from the Roya and he sticks with the co-op.


Farmer Profile: Don Polo

Left to Right: Don Polo, Fredy Huben (Son), Nuvia (Granddaughter), Lester Francisco (Son), Alvaro (Son), Edwin (Grandson), Dona Graciela Aguilar
Arriving at Don Polo's in Hector's Truck

When we approach the house of Leopolo Euceda we know we are at the center of the village. There is a school and a new church right before we get to the house and a little soccer field right behind the house. Don Polo lives in the community of El Tamarindo on the southwest side of the Comayagua mountain in central Honduras. Everyone calls Leopolo by a nickname, "Polo," and inevitably they use the respectful elder term "Don" in front of his name. We are here to visit him and his family as part of our tour of the coffee farms that sent coffee to Farmer to Farmer for the 2013 Honduran crop. His family has panoramic views of the valley, but as we pull up the place is shrouded in an afternoon mist.

Polo's backyard, looking toward the mountain.
When he comes out to meet us, I recognize him instantly. He has a thin, sun-weathered face and broad smile. Last year as we traveled down the mountain, we were behind schedule and we did not have time to come up to his farm and meet him. So he and his son brewed some coffee and walked down to meet us at the turn-off for his house in El Tamarindo. That little pit stop was exactly what we needed and the coffee was good and strong. But this year we had decided to do an extended visit and stay the night.

Pine resin extraction in El Tamarindo

As we came in under the eaves of his house, I noticed instantly the huge bags full of beautiful white, yellow and blue corn. I picked up some cobs of the blue corn and felt an instant kinship because we have been growing a nearly identical looking variety on our farm for the last two years. Seeing the corn reminded me that El Tamarindo is an old community, with relatively recent conversion to coffee growing. Unlike some of the other communities, the coffee farmers here also grow their own basic foods of corn, beans and squash.  

Corn, patrimony of El Tmarindo
We had planned to camp, but with the wet weather, we were glad that Don Polo offered that we could stay in his son's house, which was right next door. His son Orlin is a testament to how coffee can help rural Hondurans gain an education. Orlin was able to attend high school in Comayagua, due mostly to the income from coffee. Orlin has served as a sort of assistant manager for the co-op, learning to fill out all of the necessary forms for organic certification and exporting. Orlin has built a new adobe house in El Tamarindo, but he is down in the valley working, so we are able to set up inside his house.

Orlin's brand new house.

The next morning I am up early and I enter Don Polo's kitchen. His wife, Graciela is working on the morning's tortillas. I have the obligatory coffee and then run to get my fellow Wisconsinites to see the whole tortilla process. There is a hand-crank grinder where the soaked corn kernels get ground into a wet paste. Then the paste is piled on a slightly depressed flat stone. Then in short quick motions the corn paste is further ground by hand using another rolling-pin shaped stone. The resulting dough is very fine and is quickly worked into little hockey-puck shapes and then these are pressed into a flattened tortilla which is quickly toasted on the wood-fired griddle. The dough inflates briefly on the hot griddle and then gets flipped over by hand. The finished hot tortillas are piled in a cloth-lined basket. When we ask, she says she makes 80 to 100 tortillas every morning, to feed the extended family for all three meals.

Graciela's stone with tortilla dough
After we make our own clumsy attempts at hand-grinding corn on the stone, Dona Graciela brings out a dusty old grinding stone and hand stone. At first I think I am looking at their old stone, but then she explains that they found the grinding stone buried in a field. These are archeological artifacts! They speculate that the people who lived in this area must have buried their grinding stone to protect it from being stolen and then something must have happened so they couldn't come back for it. There is no way of telling how old it is. I am reminded that the daily tortilla-making ritual which we have witnessed this morning has been happening in this place more-or-less identically for over a thousand years.

The buried stones and pot.

Don Polo has both organic and conventional coffee plots. He has been with the co-op for 6 years. His 2 acre organic plot is right next to the house and it is loaded with deep red coffee cherries. I am surprised that he has not yet harvested. He explains that they adhere to the old methods of harvesting based on the moon signs. When there is a new moon, you must wait 7 days before harvesting, in order to not have adverse effects on the coffee tree. He explains that they know how to use the moon signs for other things, like when to cut a pine tree for which uses. This is the first I have heard of using a moon sign to decide when to harvest coffee, but it fits right in with our archeological tour from this morning.

Polo, showing me how to pick coffee.

Don Polo has planted the Roya-resistent varieties of Catimor and Lempira, and the plants look great. But there is also about a 20% loss from the Roya in the other varieties he has planted: Typico, Burbon, and Catuay. There is an astonishing variety of shade trees nearby too. Since this is the home plot, they must enjoy having many types of fruit right at hand. There are bananas, avocados, mangoes, citrus, as well as some rangy vine-crops. El Tamarindo is relatively high elevation, and Don Polo's house sits at 1500 meters above sea level. They have a manual de-pulper, ferment in a concrete water tank, and dry the coffee on a concrete patio. They pay freight for a pick-up truck driver to move their coffee to Comayagua when it is time to export. Don Polo has benefited from Orlin's interest in organic agriculture, and he has brought prepared composting with micro-nutrients to Don Polo's farm. His coffee cupped very well, with a "medium acidity, medium body, and a clean and sweet taste." The rating for his coffee was 77 on the 100-point cupping scale.

The best tortillas I had during the trip were those that Dona Graciela prepared that morning. Hot off the griddle, with a little salt, or with a small bowl of creamy new, red beans, these tortillas were the sort that you can't get anymore in a big city like Comayagua. Don Polo and Dona Graciela are like their tortillas: authentic, warm and inviting. We were all glad we stayed with Don Polo and look forward to more visits in the future.