Maybe there is something in this bajareque that rolls over the mountains of Boquete from the steamy Caribbean. Maybe there is more than water vapor in the mist that crawls in and out of the trees and coffee planted high in the skirtfolds of Volcan Barú. Maybe there’s a little something inexplicable in the mystery of mountains meeting clouds that makes Panama’s prized coffee region not just special for its specialty coffee, but special.
Coffee with a Side of Scorpions and Christmas: A postmodern mini coffee odyssey within an odyssey
The taxi drops us at the edge of Baru National Park, and I shiver looking up the dusty road into the mountains, remembering the time I did the 12 hour hike up and down the dormant volcano, feeling older than I’ve ever felt as my hips screamed with every step of the 6 hour descent.
To my left Katie shivers in her tank top and running shorts; the sun of Boquete proper down in the valley is traded for a slowly settling mist that blots out the warmth and the view. It almost looks like the ground is spewing cloud; the mist seems to be drifting up as much as it is settling down.
Chino points, “adelante,” and we walk into the cloud.
Between the wisps of curling mist we can see baked brown grass; fallow onion and potato fields, Chino tells us, waiting for the first rain for planting to begin. It feels like we’re in a bald spot on the mountain’s shoulder blade, exposed and vulnerable. But I’m also not sure if I should want to rush into the forest in the distance, or want to sink into a hole in case something rushes out of it.
After a curve in the road Noble is waiting for us at his gate, with a growling dog at his side. He opens the gate, shakes our hands, tells the dog we’re friendly, and leads us up into his farm. We round a small canyon’s edge, shaded by a massive avocado tree, and arrive at a building that I can’t quite identify. The backseat of a van is propped under the shade of a typical tin roof, supported by three thick columns, decorated by pieces of tile. This sort of porch backs into a dark room that looks like a mechanic’s shop. It could be house, workshop, storage hut, mountain refuge.
We walk to the van seat and more dogs emerge. We sit and talk about the weather as Chino pours orange soda into dirty glasses. On further assessment it seems the building is “all of the above.”
Noble is ready to show us part of his farm. He wants to show us the goats first, but there’s an alligator skin hanging next to the goat pen. Chino puts it on and disappears behind the plastic skin. I wonder how and why do they make purses out of this stuff; the next time I need a bullet proof vest I want it out of this stuff.
We extract Chino and walk in slow single file onto the open scapula.
Pause for breath. Silence where you can hear things that other places you just can’t. In the middle of dry, crunchy low expired weeds is suddenly a perennial oasis, trees with a few end of harvest clinging berries. Coffee island. Refuge of the cafetal shaded by stretch armed laurel and other reaching trees I can’t name. I venture in. Take pictures. Suck the sticky honey off the beans to see if I can identify the variety by taste. Leaves munch underfoot. Chino tries to sneak up on me but I can always hear him coming.
Noble talks about a boy who came once, who stood on the scapula with an empty fertilizer sack and shouted, “I want to catch a piece of cloud!” Running around the scored onion grass until his sack was full, shouting victoriously, “I’m stepping on the sky!”
Tired. Cold the feathers of the cloud. The girl complains of a sore knee, and Noble disappears into the building, emerging with a flask of scorpions. He grins a toothless grin that every story book I ever read tried to get right but never could. “Mountain lion fat, pure alcohol and scorpions from all over Panama,” he grumbles from behind the clear glass flask that probably first held Vokda, face distorted by the cured scorpions, legs smashed into faces, backs on backs, scorpion mouths gaping for something and swallowing only drunken mountain lion fat, like the missing fourth panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.
He pours some of the liquid onto his hand, and all the scorpions flop to the mouth of the flask. None get out. Noble rubs the liquid on the girl’s knee. He doesn’t even have to ask if it worked. She just nods.
Four fat men arrive in a fat truck. We sit in the grass and stare up at them as they talk about things I don’t remember. We move to the porch, where Noble opens up a drum and shows us handfuls of gold, dried corn kernels. The fog rolls out, the mist cooks off, and we threaten to burn in the sun.
The fat men talk of avocados, and send Chino up the tree to get them. We stare, craned necks watching his disappearing boots. He tosses 3 down and the boy that came with the girl tries to juggle them. We load an empty water tank encased in metal bars into the back of the fat Hi Lux truck. Then we climb in around it as the colud fills in all the gaps around us.
One hand clinging to the metal tank case bars, one waving to Noble and the barking dogs. I watch the hanging alligator skin out of the corner of one eye to make sure it doesn’t try to follow us. We barrel down the mountain face first into the mist. Coffee fields and lettuce and indigenous huts and rivers and jungle racing past us on both sides. We cling to the wobbling tank around curves and hairpin turns; we race headfirst into the rain, drops stinging our faces- where is the alligator skin?- and burning our eyes. When we eventually stop and hop out of the truck, even though it’s clear and just looks like water, I can see the scorpion juice dripping off the girl’s knee and pooling around her sock. It’s time to walk home.
That was Sunday. On Tuesday, a girl, speaking perfect Panamanian but dressed in perfect Queens Muslim woman (black leggings, black skirt, black sweatshirt, black head scarf covered with black and silver head scarf, lots of sparkly bracelets, even a sparkly barrette, she should have been on the E train), comes to pick me up. She leads me out to her gold Hi Lux and I wonder if I’ll finally be in a music video.
She drives up and up, and pulls into the gates of a farm as silent as Noble’s shoulder blade. The first thing I notice are the bird houses; they look like old bird hotels, cumbersome and rickety on their poles. Melisa, the Panamanian who married a Muslim and converted, leads me into the front porch of the house and goes inside to get Milvia. I stare at the wooden cutouts of birdhouses and treehouses hanging on the walls.
Melisa and Milvia lead me out to behind the house, where the arbolitos are planted. Coffee prices fluctuate, and so do those for oranges- even grafted ones- but people always celebrate Christmas. “Last year they sold really, really well. If only we could sell arbolitos all year long,” Melisa thought out loud.
There they are. Nestled in a bed of tallgrass and in front of a pond of fire engine lilies. “But they’re not real Christmas trees! No wonder you can grow them here; I knew it was too warm for firs!” I want to say when I see them, but I don’t. Because I instantly love the arbolitos just as much as they do.
Milvia leads us through arboiltos of varying ages and across a small stream with brilliant, waxy calla lilies growing on the edges. “We sell them for weddings at the Panamonte Hotel,” she says.
We weave our way through coffee plants and other scattered trees to the workers’ row houses. “They’re all Ngöbe Indians,” Milivia tells me, “and our permanent workers have lived here for generations.” “I’ve watched kids- and their kids- grow up,” Melisa adds. We walk passed the smartly painted blue with yellow trim buildings, wooden not concrete, I notice. A baby cries, alone in mostly dark room, tied to the bedframe with a piece of plastic string. She sounds sick. Miliva and Melisa look for someone to ask where the mother is; the one girl we pass darts behind the corner of the latrines. We approach a woman and her daughter seated in a doorway, in the dark room behind them the grandmother twists pita grass into strands to weave into the colorful, and incredibly durable, chakara mochila bags.
They ask about the mother of the crying child and get only blank stares and soft, “I don’t knows.” How do they talk without moving their lips? Or blinking? The woman introduces herself, “Milvia.” All three are dressed in bright nagua dresses, decorated with intricate diente patterns. More hang in the mild sun on the line above the doorway. The grass in front of the row houses is cut short on both sides of the concrete path. There is no mud.
We pass piles of felled coffee tree trunks to be used for firewood on our way back to the driveway.
“Show her the old beneficio!” Milivia explains. Melisa leads me to the large red wooden barn looking building on the other side of the driveway. “These used to beds used for drying coffee, but since Alberto died and we started selling our coffee instead of processing it in the mill here, they’ve become a home for the doves.” I peer in between the wooden slats and see hundreds of pigeons crowded together. “This is where they have their nests and lay their eggs,” says Melisa, watching me watch the pigeons land in lines on top of the covered former coffee drying beds.
“And here,” she continues, leading me over to the basins usually used to wash and ferment coffee, “we have turtles!” I crouch down to watch the turtles slide over the rocks, slimy with algae.
“Let’s go inside,” Melisa turns and leads the way, pointing out the rusting padlock on the door. “Alberto build this himself, in 1915, when he came here after he was done working on the Canal,” Milvia tells me. Somehow the old mill still smells like fresh wood. The floorboards and walls are flush and straight, not one is warped or bowing. I wonder who put what force field around the beneficio to keep it removed from the effects of time. The women lead me upstairs and show me stacks of idle picking buckets and bags of fertilizer. On the way out, tossed on top of a pile of boxes, we pass a wooden cross marked with Alberto’s name.
As I climb into the gold Hi Lux, Milvia extends her hands to me offering two perfect orange globes. “Grafted,” she says with a smile.