Everyone has a story

ripening coffee cherries

To ask someone to share stories of their life is a lot to ask, and it takes some semblance of trust. I mentioned that respect often takes years to cultivate (like a healthy coffee plant perhaps?), and trust often just as long. Because this investigative year abroad is aiming for breadth as much as depth, I don’t have years to cultivate respect and trust everywhere I go; I have a month at best.

One of the best ways to accelerate the process of gaining the trust and respect of others is by showing you’re willing to embarrass yourself utterly and completely. Luckily, I’m quite adept at that. (I gained the trust and respect of classrooms full of high school students by running around reading aloud in a southern accent). On Thursday, I gained the respect and trust of the farm men by hauling my self (quite literally) over the river and through the woods.

On Friday, Marcos the farm manager corroborated this respect and trust and essentially initiated me into the inner finca circle by inviting me for a beer. As we watched Paraguay loose to Argentina at his favorite neighborhood bar (the one where they know him well enough to hold his bags of groceries while he runs errands-and drinks), I was able to ask him about his life. Like everyone in the environs of Turrialba, he grew up here, which means he grew up with coffee. I’m quickly learning that no one in the rural areas (of at least this part) of the country is more than one degree of separation away from coffee. The farm Marcos manages now (where I’m working) has cows, cow grass, and a smattering of other things, so for Marcos coffee is his past; a past that started when he was 8 years old, picking coffee with a child sized basket tied around his waist. He told me how his family used to pick coffee for Rojas Cortés, “fueron como lose reyes. Pero no sé, no sé que pasó…” “They were like the kings. But… I don’t know what happened to them.” “Hay…hay tantas historias.” “There are….there are so many stories ,” he sighed with that weight of memory on his brow. As he told me this something in his face changed, and there was something in the look in his eyes that told me that he knew coffee in a way that I as a first world consumer never could.

But our beers were empty, the cheese in the grocery bags was warm, and the green laser lights started flashing to accompany the blaring karaoke MC, so it was no moment for delving into stories. But I started to see the edge of the fabric I’m trying to unravel; I could begin to see discrete, unique threads that weave the pattern.

Today, I tugged at another thread. I first gained the respect of Torrido the horse trainer by gnawing on the raw sugarcane he hacked down and subsequently spitting out the husks like a veritable cowgirl as we rode along; I then gained his trust by switching horses and successfully riding the flighty stallion (versus the fat old mare) back to the farm.

As we trotted along, our small talk lead me to learn that Torrido had held the tropical trifecta of part time jobs: he’d harvested coffee, sugarcane, and bananas- all before finally settling on his current career of traveling horse trainer (training including everything from herding cattle to looking pretty for competitions. I thought my resume was bizarre and varied, but Torrido has me beat by a long shot).

Maybe I am easily impressed and fascinated, but I find it utterly incredible how one person can embody all the major export crops of a region. I’ve been bolstering my agrarian Spanish over the past week and a half, but once I started asking about his previous jobs, he launched into technical descriptions I could barely follow (to harvest bananas you need two people, a long wire cable, and a donkey- I think. Just don’t drop your bananas or they won’t pass inspection and you won’t get paid for collecting them).

Think about all the part time jobs you’ve ever had. How many of them involved harvesting raw materials for consumption? How many of them paid you by how much you did versus how long you worked? For a middle class American I’ve held a variety of part time jobs- some odder than others- but I’ve also done the typical babysitting, dog walking, and ice cream scooping. They all paid by the hour and none of them involved any harvesting.

But the ice cream shop I worked in would have ceased to exist without sugar, and bananas and coffee made pretty significant appearances there too. Has your kitchen ever been without coffee, sugar or bananas? What is it like to be part of the force that delivers these “staples” to the demanding hands of consumers? Even Costa Ricans would think their house incomplete without all three. What is it like to spend your day harvesting raw coffee cherries and sugarcane stalks and then have to buy Maxwell House and Domino at the store? (I guess I could ask the same question of bankers. What is it like to gamble with the major capital investments of international lending institutions and then have to charge your latte to your credit card?)

Some people live their lives as coffee farmers, but for those here who do not devote their lives to coffee, it is still just below the surface, somehow intertwined in their own lives or the lives of their families. Saying you worked harvesting coffee at some point is as normal as me saying that I’ve worked doling out scoops of mint chocolate chip. No one seems to think it warrants any explanation or elaboration, just like you would probably be bored by me going into detail about what it was like behind the counter of the Dairy Freeze.

I keep explaining that North Americans drink coffee with sugar daily, and yet none of us has ever seen a sugarcane stalk or a coffee bush (unless you’ve taken tropical agrotourism vacations). Now that is surprising. They raise their eyebrows and ask really? You don’t have any cafetales or cañales in New York? For them, harvesting coffee is normal. Not having any coffee trees or waving sugarcane fronds extending in all directions, not that’s strange.

The variable definitions of “normal” are tricky to comprehend, and I’m daily piecing together the one that fits here.

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