Saturday, January 5, 2013

Day Four - Dona Cyrila, Coffee and Microturbiines

Cloudforest - make sense?
The rooster crows woke me up. I thought it must be morning so I checked my clock: 1:30am. I've never heard a rooster crow in the middle of the night, but now I have. All night long the guys went back and forth. One sounded just like Stewie, a barnyard cross rooster I'm friends with at my parents place back home. So every time I heard that rooster crow, I woke up and thought of home. And I didn't really sleep between the roosters, dogs and rain pelting the exposed metal roof above me.

An Eco-hut that others stayed in.
No matter. When it was time to get out of bed, I was excited. Last night we crawled up the mountain in the dark, so I really didn't know where I was. I was in paradise. The vista, varied vegetation, blue skies and the clouds merging into the mountains around me were truly spectacular. I was immediately greeted by "Don Max" and his wife, the 85+ year old parents of Avilio that allowed Alex and I to stay in their spare bedroom, and was handed a cup of hot, sweet coffee and a chunk of bread for dipping. They have a beautiful, well appointed house connected to a microturbine on site that provides them with enough electricity to have a modest refrigerator and lights. A gas stove was in one corner, and a traditional wood stove in the other. Outside they had a coffee depulping area, coffee drying racks, a nice pond, cows, chickens, flowers... simply beautiful and abundant.
Who are you?

The village is very small, just a dirt road with houses scattered and hidden among the trees and hillsides. Don Max lives just a few hundred meters from his son Avilio, where the group gathers for meals and conversations. I could hear the laughter as I approached Avilio's, and upon arrival was handed a full plate of food, another great cup of coffee, and sat down on the back porch at a long table with friends new and old. We laughed at stories about our trip up the mountain yesterday, and retold jokes from last night. Then we grabbed our bags, packed them with ingredients for lunch and started down the rugged singletrack trail to Dona Cyrilas seven acre farm.

Hector lugs the new motor
down the trail
I've never had the opportunity to visit homes so remote, so far from a road or simple transportation. The trail was slippery from the rain last night and I really cannot fathom how the family of 15 (about 15, we can't really identify an exact number of people living there) makes the trek to and from their house, let alone how they might carry thousands of pounds of coffee with nothing but their human bodies. We descended on the trail for at least 30 minutes, passing a few trail offshoots and homes along the way. Upon arrival we were greeted by gaggles of young children and a clean simple homestead consisting of their main house, an outhouse, two outdoor kitchens, a coffee depulping tank and coffee drying hut. People who had visited Dona Cyrila on previous trips remarked on the improvements to their farm as well as an improved standard of living for the family. More evidence that the work of Farmer to Farmer, and the people who drink our brand of coffee, truly are making a difference in the lives of farmers down here.

Adalid from IHCAFE
Alex depulps coffee
A man from the Honduran Government agency  (IHCAFE) responsible for coffee development named Adalid gave us a presentation on many issues facing coffee farmers, and one of Dona Cyrila's sons picked a bag of coffee cherries so that we could demonstrate the use of her hand cranked depulping machine - hopefully for the last time, since one of our missions today was to install the small electric motor that Andy had brought down from Wisconsin and hook it up to the microturbine and generator installed in previous years and funded by Farmer to Farmer members.

Coffee grows in a bush or tree-like fashion, and the coffee we drink is picked from the bush when it has formed deep red bunches of cherries. They are similar to cherries in that they have a fruity, moist outer fruit meat with a hard seed (bean) inside. They are totally opposite from cherries because it isn't the fruit we want but the hard seed inside. Farmers need to have their own depulping machines out here because they are so remote, and once picked, the cherry starts to degrade rapidly in the heat. So depulping, fermenting and drying are necessary on each farm on a regular basis as the thousands of plants offer mature berries over the course of weeks and months. These processes require specialized equipment that does not come cheap, and it all has to be lugged down that rugged single track trail, so each farmer really has to invest in coffee if they want to have good quality product for us.

The intake pipe for the turbine
We then ventured off upstream to where the intake for the microturbine was installed. It was really quite ingenious how Hector, Adalid and others had previously temporarily redirected the stream so that they could construct a very natural looking channel that would provide the shielded intake for the 3" water pipe that feed the turbine downstream. The area was a jungle of vegetation, with birds flying around and a variety of beautiful butterflies. Next we went downstream to the actual turbine where folks were working to install a new generator to hopefully power the new motor for the depulper. I played in the stream with Peggy and some children. We saw some other things Dona Cyrila grows like bananas, avocados and mangoes. Soon enough, they had the generator hooked up and power was flowing up to the house again, just in time for lunch.
The butterfly named 88 - see the 88?

Rebar and barbed wire keep the pipe in line
Getting the generator hooked to the turbine
Lunch was wonderful. The kids hooked up a stereo system and we held an impromptu dance party to 80's music in their living room. This was a happy time for all. Frustration ensued as we found ourselves unable to get the motor Andy brought to run on the power. Lot's of creative minds went to work troubleshooting the situation, and it was great to see their ingenuity in action. For instance, they had to cut some metal rebar. We didn't have a cutting tool, so Adalid took a whack at it with his machete. He glanced at me with a mischevious smile, and we both laughed. He had to cut the rebar, and that's what we had, so he got a hammer and pounded the machete against the rebar and it did nothing. So Adalid started bending the rebar back and forth, requiring great strength, and he bent it back and forth and hacked at it until the darn thing was finally cleaved in half. Had we been in the US, someone would have driven to the hardware store to buy all the parts we needed. But we are far from civilization, "MacGuyver" is our only hope.

The truth is, most of us were just sitting around, playing chess, coloring with crayons Peggy brought and sharing stories. I got out my pictures from home and was immediately surrounded by kids who wanted to peek at what I had. I held a huge smile as I leafed through the 75 photos I brought, and went through the pile a few times, with me using what little spanish I know to interact with the kids. Eventually they functioned as flash cards - a photo of my son Ira with some ducklings became a chorus of "pato", Sy with a chicken "gallina", Olive in the snow "Nieve" and so on. I'm really glad I brought the pictures, as it made a real connection with the kids and my travel companions, and relieved some of my homesickness.
Andy helps Alex interview Dona Cyrila

Eventually, the men admitted defeat. We weren't going to get the motor hooked up today. So we gathered our bags, said our goodbyes, and made the trek back up to Avilio's. As we walked up the trail it was utterly clear - Coffee is HARD WORK. Not only are each of the plants cared for, but each cherry is picked by hand. Every cherry is depulped by hand. The beans are dried in small batches, turned by hand, then packed into bags. Finally, someone, ultimately Dona Cyrila's children, will have to lug those heavy precious beans up this dogged trail just to get to the road. Well, road here, 4 wheel drive trail back home.

Now would be a good time to discuss child labor. I think we can all agree that kids belong in school, and should not be forced into hard labor or exploited in any way. In Honduras, exactly like Wisconsin, kids have a few months off in school. In Wisconsin, it is my understanding that "summer vacation" was actually arranged to coincide with the seasonal labor required on our farms. That is, the kids were at home on the farm helping with chores - planting and harvesting and caring for animals at the time it was needed most by their parents. It's the same in Honduras, it's just that kids are out of school now (December, January) during coffee harvest time, to help out at home too. These kids were smiling and laughing and playing with one another, and as thew grew older they took on more responsibility with cooking, plant care, picking, depulping and drying coffee. And carrying it up the mountain. Kids were a functional, healthy part of the family farm operation, just like many farm kids are back home in Wisconsin. I did not observe any exploitation, much the contrary. These kids were polite, well behaved and learning alongside family. I ask my kids to do much the same at home, help planting and harvesting, operate machinery, care for animals, etc.

As some darker clouds rolled through, we had to say "adios" to their family and hike back to Avilio's. And what can I say, another amazing home cooked meal awaited us. It has been the tradition that the meal is plated in the kitchen - portions of vegetables, beans, mantequilla (sweet thick creamy dairy) and tonight some delicious carne. And tortillas. Lot's of fresh warm tortillas. And coffee. Sweet fresh dark coffee. We sit down together at a long table and eat and talk and laugh for an hour or two. A heavy, deep "fog" rolls in. This is the cloudforest afterall, and so it is that we feel enveloped in the clouds in a foglike daze.

Andy has some nasty itchy chigger/tick bites. I have a swollen hand and finger from bee stings. Rick has ant bites from the coffee nursery. We laugh and share remedies. Souvenirs from our trip.This is not a vacation, it is an adventure, and it is changing my life and worldview one day at a time. I will be back. Rio Negro has captured my heart. Tomorrow we take advantage of the little ecotourism industry they have here and will hike up to the waterfalls before we head back down to Comayagua. Yes, some folks here want to be in the "big city" to catch the Packers game Saturday night...


  1. Great writing Aaron. It sounds like an amazing adventure. Wow-Jeff missed the packer game! that is true sacrifice.
    Keep the words and photos coming.

  2. WHOA, to be clear, Jeff DID NOT miss the Packadores - we watched the game in our hotel restaurant until we were kicked into the lobby.