Week one of my Latin American coffee odyssey: this is what it looks like on the ground.
Sunday, I was on a beach in Bridgehampton. Friday night, I was standing in the pitch black at the intersection of two dirt roads in the middle of sugarcane fields…
When you’re as close to the equator as Costa Rica is, the sun rises and sets at approximately the same time all year long, which makes sense. The country’s near-equatorial position also means that there are approximately 12 hours of daylight. I knew that the sun had come up at around 5am that morning (even though the over-zealous rooster started crowing at 4:15…), but I didn’t quite put it all together to glean that this meant the sun would start to set at 5pm.
From the tiny cluster of houses where I’m staying (a pueblo called Esperanza, the end of the line for electricity and running water) as I volunteer on a mountain farm, I went into the main town, Turrialba, yesterday in search of internet at around 2:30. The farm manager’s son dropped his father, me, and two other volunteers at the bus stop at the bottom of the mountain, where we caught the bus into town. The other volunteers were spending the night in the town at a hotel, but I was planning to take the 5:30 bus back with the farm manager and get a ride back up the mountain with his son.
At 5:30 I dutifully got on the bus just as it started to rain, but didn’t see the farm manager anywhere. I figured it wasn’t a big deal; I ‘d just walk from the stop back up to Esperanza. As the bus wound through coffee fields, expanses of sugar cane and past farms (it’s kind of incredible that all the ingredients for cup of coffee, light and sweet, stare at each other in their raw states across the hillsides), the sky became blacker and blacker. I figured it was due to the now fairly heavy rain, but it got continually darker and darker, and when all the passing cars had their headlights illuminated, I knew that it was not the rain; it was night.
As I realized this, all I could think of was that moment in The Hunger Games when the Gamemakers turn the sun off during the Games. But this was no fictional arena; this was just me, steeling myself to trek flashlightless up the mountain to Esperanza. I’ve never seen 6pm be as pitch black as midnight, but the cloudy sky let no moonlight through and in a matter of half an hour it had gone from afternoon to blackout.
The rain had stopped by the time I weaseled my way off the crowded bus, the sole passenger to disembark at the stop, No sooner had I stepped onto the side road when two tiny headlights appeared, headed towards me. They stopped 50 ft short and went off. Either I die, or I get a ride, I thought. I approached the vehicle, and admittedly felt an awful lot like at tribute as I stood at the intersection of two dirt roads in the pitch black, blindly facing a campesino on his four wheeler.
After a tentative exchange, I figured out it was Freddy, another farm worker, who had come to collect Marcos, the (absentee) farm manager. A few cell phone calls later (service is spotty at best), Freddy figured out that Marcos was getting a ride to the stop in a friend’s car and would be there “in a little while.”
What was I thinking about as I stood in the thick, silent night? 1) How much I wanted to wash my hair. 2) How I would kill for the leftover salmon empanada sitting in the fridge.
After we’d been there at least half an hour, chatting intermittently, Freddy’s wife called to ask where he was (dinner’s ready!), and he responded, “estoy esperando en la cruce, en medio de las cañales.” He was right, we are in fact smack dab in the middle of the cañales, the sugarcane fields. Coffee cherries are a stealable commodity, so the rows of cafetales (coffee bushes) are always guarded behind barbed wire, but the seas of sugarcane fields extend unguarded in all directions, threatening to swallow buildings, vehicles, and unsuspecting gringa volunteers with their waving green leaves.
An hour later Marcos rolled up, all smiles. He hopped onto the four-wheeler and motioned for me to get on the back, which left Freddy clinging to the grill on the front. We bounced over rocks and across streams, the tiny headlights slicing a path through the blackness. After a few minutes I realized that Marcos couldn’t actually see where he was going; Freddy was blocking view, but somehow he still managed to drive quite expertly. The two of them chattered on about the mutual acquaintances Marcos saw in town, and after about 10 minutes the lights of Esperanza’s 13 houses and 4 streetlights emerged from the distance. Even though Esperanza is the end of the line for utilities, the volunteer house where I’m staying boasts two bathrooms, a living room, an ample kitchen, and a washer and dryer! There certainly is more space in the jungle than in Brooklyn.
There is also infinitely more darkness. When you have fields of crops and expanses of jungle forest or cattle pasture, you don’t have buildings and streets and their accompanying lights. Living as a tropical farmer means residing quietly in a corner carved out for human habitation and ceding the rest of the seemingly endless moutainsides to the reign of your animals and crops.