Right now I’m sitting in an old Spanish colonial home converted to a cheap hostel in Colombia’s prettiest Caribbean city, Cartagena. Street noises are drifting in with the breeze: whirring moto motors, the occasional shout, a little salsa from one car radio, some bachata from another, and bumping reggaeton floating from the bar across the street.
Tomorrow (but ‘today’ when this is posted and you’ll be reading it) is my last day of this 9 month odyssey. I always have a running list of blog topics, and all the sudden I realized that I should probably abandon it just this once in favor of taking a minute and take a deep breath, to both reflect back and look (less frantically) ahead to what comes next.
Just over a week ago I was in Pitalito in Colombia’s Huila province, which borders Ecuador. In less than a week I took two overnight bus rides- the first 14 hours and the second 13- to get from the country’s southwest corner- filled with jungle, deserts, mountains and plateaus- to it’s northeast corner, which is an “Afro-Colombian” sancocho pot bubbling over with sweat, strange accents, shaking hips, dizy hats, flowery vines dripping over cracked Colonial architecture, and more sun than anyone can handle.
Coffee is the last thing that would ever grow here (I doubt even some robust Robusta would make it). But there is quite a lot of coffee in Cartagena; you’d just never pick it out of a crowd because it’s crowded into shipping containers that are stacked below the stretched arms of the blue cranes reaching above the port.
Most people who visit Cartagena arrive by plane, because it’s pretty far from anything else “worth doing” by tourist standards. But I elected to take the bus not only because it was cheaper (you don’t pay for a hotel when you’re on a bus all night!), but because I wanted to make the same journey coffee makes. Even though I wasn’t riding along in a flatbed filled with sacks of beans, I was in a vehicle all the way from Pitalito, which is at least a 25 hour trip at its straightest shot.
In Huila I picked coffee on the farm I visited. Picking coffee is something I always try to do at every farm I visit that has even a few cherries on the trees and will let me (or at least not stop me when I grab a bucket and head out to the cafetal). Since picking coffee is seen as the most menial coffee related job (other than shoveling the sickly sweet pulp perpetually blanked in flies. I played the “delicate American woman” and never volunteered for that one), volunteering to pick coffee is like hiking up the jungle mountain to hang signs; it shows people that I’m not afraid to get as dirty as they get, that they can trust me just a little bit more because I’m willing to try to really learn to do what they do by actually doing what they do.
I also wanted to pick coffee because there is no better way to get a feel for the farm than to be inside the branch tangled rows of its cafetales. I came on this odyssey to not just see where coffee comes from but to really understand what it is and how it grows. And you never feel more entrenched in the process of making coffee happen than when you’re teetering on the top of a steep mountain slope, your boots covered in mud and your hands covered in the sticky slime of ripe coffee cherries and the dirt that glues to it, reaching for the ripest cherries at the top of the tree, squinting because the sun’s in your eyes and hoping not to accidentally knock off a bunch of green cherries or fall over backwards and spill everything you’ve picked to so far.
When you sit down to a cup of coffee after a morning of doing that, you really get what’s in your cup because you know firsthand what it will take for the next cup to be there too.
But all the other farms where I picked coffee were tiny family farms, where the family members do all the picking themselves and go out together and joke and talk and take long lunches and go home early if it’s really raining. At Finca La Esperanza in San Isidro, Acedvedo, Huila- the last farm I visited on this coffee odyssey- I fulfilled an important goal: I picked as part of a crew.
This time of year is only the first ‘peak’ of the harvest, called the traviesa, (the “tricky one”), and the farm is just barely big enough to need a crew in the first place, so this was no where like what it would be picking as part of a crew on a massive Nicaraguan Hacienda at the height of harvest season, but still.
I spent a full 8 hours out in the cafetal, hiked all the way up to the highest lot on the property with the other 3 pickers, and was assigned my rows just like them. The foreman (who’s only held that title for 2 months and seemed to kind of not quite know what to do with a crew, let alone a gringa) also picked a little bit and would sometimes come over and help me bend down a particularly tall, tough tree so that I could reach the top. Every 30 minutes he asked me if I wanted to go back to the house.
I politely refused every time, and spent 8 hours gazing out at the breathtaking coffee mountain landscapes below. (The reward for having to hike up to the highest lot is that you get the best view).
Maybe I spent too much time gazing, because I only picked 38 kilos while the others picked 65, 72, and 85. (The foreman told me, “I think that after a week you could learn how to really pick coffee!”) The inherent punishment for having to pick on the highest lot is that you have to carry all those kilos down a steep footpath.
That I did not do because I can’t even drag a full sack a foot, let alone pick it up and carry it down a vertical slope. Even though I picked for 8 hours I’m still a delicate American woman.
After posing next to the scale to ‘weigh in’ my day’s work (which would have earned me 12, 160 Colombian pesos, or $6.60, because this farm is only paying 320 per kilo),
I watched the sputtering old depulper strip the skin off the picked cherries and spew out slimy grey beans. I watched the men haul the beans to one of the plastic roofed drying beds and spread them out to wait for the next day’s sun.
Then I showered, ate dinner, and got on an overnight bus to Chinchina, leaving my coffee behind.
But there’s a 50/50 chance that my coffee will follow me. The two Colombian coffee export ports are Buenaventura on the Pacific and Cartagena on the Caribbean. Either way, my coffee has just as many hours on a bus ahead of it as I did. It could be that it follows the exact same route I took because there is only one highway between Huila and Cartagena. It passes through Medellin, where I spent a few days running errands (like preparing these samples!) and continues to wind through the mountains until it finally reaches the sea.
No matter whether you spend a few days resting on a piece of black fabric under a plastic greenhouse-style, heat-inducing roof (coffee) or on a bunkbed in Medellin eating street fruit (me), you have to make it to the sea.
I originally wanted to follow coffee through all the waves of its odyssey and join it on a container ship back to New York. But they don’t call shipping “logistics” for nothing, so that will have to be its own voyage.
But I made it to port. And I’m here, waiting to depart. There is coffee stacked in shipping containers, snug in its jute sacks or granel liners, just a few miles away, also waiting to depart. I’m departing on a plane, so maybe we can pretend I’m a really special micro lot, vacuum-sealed and air freighted for speedy, secure delivery.
What ever I am, this is my last post from origin.
All future posts will be reflections, like those of roasted coffee gazing out from the plastic bin thing with the little shovel in the Bulk Aisle at Whole Foods, thinking back on its former life when it felt the sun on its face and gazed at down at the mountains.
Some of the next things you read here will be from New York roasters and baristas, diligently transforming the coffee I tracked to its roots. Coffee drinkers not at origin have a tendency to look at the cups in their hands and ask, “Where does this come from?” (Just as I asked when I started this whole thing). But that’s not a question coffee would ever ask itself.
When coffee speaks it only asks, “where am I going?”
Some of the other things you’ll see here next will translated excerpts of my conversations with coffeepeople who have only ever lived and worked at origin. Some of them do ask where their coffee goes; others ask other things.
Just because I’ll be docked at my original port of call within 48 hours of writing this doesn’t mean the odyssey is over.
Now begins an odyssey of pages, one which I’ll navigate with as much care as people here transplant their coffee seedlings; one which I’ll share with you as soon as possible, in the form of the completed book When Coffee Speaks, for you to navigate yourselves.