COCK A DOODLE DOOO! is how the day started again. Alex got up early and took a shower in the nearby waterfall. I laid in bed and failed to extend my sleep. When Alex returned from bathing, I got up, packed my bag, and we left the room. Don Max and Dona Natalia, as I mentioned, in their eighties, are caring for a few young children in their house. I didn't realize this before, since kids are kind of wandering in and out of every situation we've found ourselves in. I assumed they were grandchildren, but they very well could have been great grandchildren, or the children of one of the coffee pickers they hire. Either way, the kids were well cared for, polite and of course cute as all get out.
Like yesterday, when we got up, they were in the kitchen and it was warm with the fire built for making coffee. We greeted them, did our best to thank them for the room, and made our way over to Avilio's ranch for breakfast. Much of the group was already gathered, and we were shortly presented with breakfast as usual. Vegetables, eggs, tortillas, and - wait - no beans! In their place was a dark colored root grown in ponds on the farm called malanga. And coffee. And fresh pineapple juice.
Our connection to Rio Negro is rooted in Andy's time spent in the Peace Corps years ago. At that time he was involved in the development of national park facilities in the area. The village continues to develop ecotourism opportunities despite many challenges and setbacks, and we supported this development by hiring the official guide from the are to take us to a waterfall. Our guide, Javier, wore a uniform and carried brochures and made good presentations about the area as we climbed the mountain with him. The path appeared rugged and unused. They only give one or two tours a month since the coup and violence spread through the country a few years ago. It used to be more.
The forest was relatively quiet and we didn't see any wildlife to speak of, save for one bird, but plenty of butterflies. Folks around here used to kill anything that moves. The local schoolteacher started to offer paper to kids who would turn in their slingshots (they shot birds), and slowly wildlife is returning as they climb out of poverty (animals are food) and they realize the importance of all creatures. The path was moist and slippery with vegetation, and the bridges that were put in just a few years ago looked ancient. In the cloudforest, things grow quickly. As we ascended the mountain through secondary forest we saw only a few old growth trees that remained from past agricultural activity. As I looked through the thick, diverse vegetation I really couldn't imagine the land ever being clearcut and burned to grow corn and beans, but I'm assured that it was once bare. It was somehow comforting to me to know that the forest could recover so quickly and completely. The lack of animals is concerning, but with time and care, they should return as well.
The climax of the trail was a grand waterfall, which we paused to enjoy together before heading back down the mountain. When we arrived back at Avilio's we were handed our plates of food and we enjoyed our last meal together on the mountain. Goodbyes are special here. You don't just say "bye" and head out the door. You look people in the eye, shake (hold, really) their hand, and exchange meaningful greetings. "Mucho Gusto" "Gracias" "You're coming again next year, right?"
It was great to see the views that we missed when we came up in the dark. From a distance the mountains look fully forested and in a natural state. Up close, we see that coffee is grown extensively, hidden under the shade. Unfortunately, much of the coffee we saw was devastated by a fungal disease called the "roya". According to Javier, our guide, nearly 100% of the coffee susceptible to the roya has it in the Rio Negro area. The plants lose their leaves, the fruits are incomplete, and the coffee is a total loss. Those that have plants resistant to the roya are having trouble with another fungus called rooster eye. It is a tough year up here. We saw thousands of bare plants, heartbreaking. Some think that climate change is creating the perfect environment for these diseases.
The trip down the mountain took about half the time as our trip up. We passed through San Geronimo and caught the main road (an actual road, two lanes, smooth cement) for a few miles before heading up the mountain again. Jeff and Ana are helping a high school student attend Apu Pram, an excellent boarding school in Comayagua. They have visited the student at school, but we had an opportunity today to visit her at her home in the mountains. Even though their home in Plan de la Rosa is a mere 3km from Rio Negro, we had to come all the way down the mountain, then go all the way back up the other side of the valley.
It was another great visit. I can't believe how hospitable and welcoming these people are. Imagine 20 people showing up at your doorstep out of the blue! While Ana and Jeff visited, we played soccer and had a rest. Adalid climbed an orange tree and started tossing down oranges. We cleared the tree and filled a bushel bag. I though we were just helping out, but they were a gift for us. Proof again that even the poorest of poor want to give and share whatever they have. It was interesting to see another rural home and observe their plants, animals and living conditions.
Even though it was getting late, I wasn't too worried about getting down the mountain before dark. The packers were on at 7, and I knew the hardcore fans in the group would not let us be late. We did find ourselves traveling in the dark again, but it was a ride filled with conversation and laughter which kept the nervousness at bay. As we approached town, I asked Andy if it was still an issue for us to have more than 4 in the back of the truck. Yeah, I suppose it is he replied. On the way up, we had an extra car take people to the edge of town, just beyond the police checkpoint. We didn't have that luxury on the return. So half of us ducked down in the back as we passed the checkpoint, and made it through without incident. Back in Comayagua, we cruised through town and made it to the hotel just in time for the diehards to watch the game.