Thursday, January 17, 2013

Day Sixteen - Up to Huehuetenango

Our hotel in Panajachel.
There were five roosters near the hotel. I know it was five because I listened carefully to each of their voices. All. Night. Long. No dogs barking, though!

We rose early, packed our bags, and found a place for breakfast. Panajachel is on the north eastern part of Lake Atitlan, and is well shaded to the east by mountains, so the sun doesn't peak through until later in the morning. I have a theory that this late-rising feature is one of the reasons Gringos flock to this town more than others, but it probably has more to do with road access. Either way, not much was happening at 7 and only one spot was open for breakfast. I actually don't think they were "open" per se, rather their restaurant doubled as their living room, so when we walked up, they were there and welcomed us and our money.

Another dark blue diesel Toyota.
I want to drive one.
Being in the center of one of the world's premier coffee growing areas, I have expectations that the coffee is good. This morning we had dirty water with our simple "tipico" breakfast of eggs, beans, fried plantain and tortillas. Shortly our van arrived with three friends from As Green as it Gets, a "sister" organization that will head up the mountain with us today. Together we rented a van and driver for the next few days, and I was pleased to see our van was the exact same Toyota HiAce diesel D-4D in dark blue. I called shotgun, which should help with my carsickness.

Our route takes us on the Pan-American Highway, Route #1, and it is amazing. Much of the road is four lanes of smooth concrete. Occasionally it drops down to two lanes, or even just one lane, when we encounter a landslide area. The road is consistently and constantly curving around mountains and reminds me of I-70 though the Rockies in Colorado. The surrounding mountains, however, are all green, all the time. Not much exposed rock or earth. And even the steepest of slopes can have signs of agriculture, the most obvious crop being corn which is dry and brown at this time of year.

Layers of mountains provide for a twisty ride.
We continue curving around the mountainsides, up into the pine forests, then back into the temperate zone, then back up again. Our driver is safe and conservative. At one point, Jody asked if he could drive faster! His reply - No! I can't! Instead of stopping for lunch, our group engages in a snack potluck of granolas, nuts, energy bars and chocolate. Four hours into the trip, we enter the Department (State) of Huehuetenango. One more hour of curvy mountainous terrain and we finally arrive in the town of La Democracia, only 17km from the border with Mexico.

The UPC office and
storage facility. 
Our first stop is to the offices of UPC, the coffee cooperative that Farmer to Farmer works with. We meet Rolando, the accountant for the organization, who gives us a brief tour of their office and storage space and introduces the organization and a few other UPC members to our group. Then he offers to take us up the mountain to visit with one of the farmers. We pile into the van along with a few UPC members, then pause along the PanAmerican while someone locks the door. We're startled by a big bottled water truck barreling down the road which suddenly swerves to avoid hitting a car that pulls out, then rips into the open door of a pickup truck in front of us. The driver barely survived, the door completely trashed. The water truck doesn't even slow down, gone within seconds. The truck owner checks out his door and eventually hops in, holding it closed, and heads down the road. No police, no insurance, no accountability.
In some steep parts there might be strips of concrete.

We head down highway 1 and soon hang a right onto a tiny one lane gravel road that soon turns to rock and dirt. I can see our driver getting a bit nervous, this is 4wd territory, not a road for tourist vans. As we pass people they have a look of surprise - I'm sure they don't see a vanload of gringos on this path often, if ever.

Up some impossible inclines, occasionally skidding out on the rocks, we crawl up and up the mountain. From about 900m to over 1500m in a matter of minutes. Eventually we arrive at Jacinto and Amanda's homestead. It's incredible, and I'm hit with the overwhelming scent of fermenting coffee and the associated decaying discarded fruit. The vistas of nearby mountainsides were incredible, shrouded in puffs of clouds. This is where you want your coffee to come from, believe me!

Their house roof, on right, and their coffee drying
patio, middle. Coffee grading on the roof.
The family was in the process of washing a batch of recently depulped coffee. Once picked, the coffee has the meaty fruit torn off, then the beans are rinsed in a large concrete tub on the ground. They stirred the mucousy beans with a giant wooden spatula before draining them into a trough to ferment. They will ferment in their own juices for 12 to 24 hours before being spread out on their nice clean concrete patio to dry in the sun. It was great to see the family working together, four generations turned out to meet us. They also work closely with their neighbors, who were helping with the process today. It was interesting to talk with them about how much coffee they grow, where it grows and how they process. Curiously, the couple keeps their land separate, that is husband and wife each have their own plots of land. Farmer to Farmer sells coffee specifically from woman farmers here in Guatemala, so it is important for Jacinto and Amanda to keep their crops separate.

The big coffee cherries are sent through the green metal hopper of the depulper, which separates the red fruit (top left) and the coffee bean (tan, in cement tub). The beans are rinsed with clean water and stirred with the wooden stick. Although it looks like I climbed a tree to take this picture, I'm actually just above them on the hill. This is very steep terrain. 
Their depulper was operated by hand, and they had plenty of help from nearby family and neighbors. This kid was helping too, here overseeing the rinsing with his feet in the discarded fruit soon to be composted and returned to the fields as fertilizer. 
After the beans are rinsed, they flow through a drain in the bottom of the cement tub into this trough where the water can run off (into the field, more nutrients back to the plants). Once the water is gone, the moist beans are spread out on the large, clean cement patio.
These beans are drying. If you look closely, you can see the papery husk cracking open on some of the beans. As the beans dry, this husk is loosened. While on the patio, it is a great time to sort beans and pick out any foreign material. 
Will the woman who grew this coffee please stand up? Amanda!

Their farm was surrounded by barbed wire like this, and had amazing views of the mountain forests.

I grabbed this picture of the dump truck before
I knew what was coming...
After visiting with the farmers for awhile, we pack back into the van for the exciting trip back down the mountain. As we crawled around a corner, we met with a big dumptruck coming up the mountain. It feels like the chicken game - who will pull off first? Neither, it turns out. Each vehicle pulls over just a tad. and when we are right next to each other, both stop. I reach out the window and wipe some dust off of the dumptruck. It appears hopeless, and my stomach sinks for the driver. His van is about to be scratched at the least, but probably ruined. Our driver inches forward. "NO! Stop" the passengers call out, literally 1/2 centimeter from losing paint. Our van cannot go forward. Suddenly the dump truck revvs its enormous engine and without falling back one bit pulls away and the situation is resolved. Deep breath. We make it back to our hotel without incident.

It's a surprise to find a hotel so big in this tiny town, and learn it is a stopover for businessmen in the area. It appears we're the only ones here. Two of our As Green as it Gets companions need to extend their visas, so they ask the driver to take them to the border with Mexico. I decide to hop in for the ride. Thirty minutes later we arrive to the border town, and almost a half mile of tents and vendors selling all manner of goods line the streets. We crawl past, barely enough room to pass.

It's hard to believe this is the Pan American Highway. Eventually we see the "Bienvenidos" sign welcoming us to Mexico. We pull off the highway to park and walk to the Guatemalan border office. While they get their visas worked out, I stand outside and people watch. There are a lot of people to watch. I stand next to two guys standing with dollies selling tank tops. People walk back and forth, most of them carrying bags of goods. I'm offered money changing services several times by the guys with fanny packs and calculators. I consider entering the office to have my passport stamped, another country officially marked in my book. But I get a little nervous and decide not to. The guys leave the office and head for the border, and ask me to come with. "No, I think I'll stay here and wait" I say. "You don't have to do anything, you just walk over. It's an open border!" they reply. Hmmm. We walk under the arch and enter Mexico. Wow. We wander through the other border town, which is much less busy than the Guatemalan side, then just walk back over into Guatemala.

We rejoin the group in La Democracia and pick them up to go to dinner at Hotel Texas. It's a fun meal and we celebrate Jody's birthday by laughing with her sister who makes some pretty hilarious mistakes with the spanish language. Empty when we arrive, the restaurant fills with travelers. When we return to our hotel, the lot is full and the hotel seems quite busy. The rest of the group gathers for cards and wine, I head to the room and collapse into deep sleep around 9:30.

No comments:

Post a Comment