The following blog describes my personal journal as I "take the leap" in the lands of cacao, volunteering my time with Maya Mountain Cacao (MMC) in Belize and Cacao Verapaz (CV) in Guatemala, conduct interviews and homestays with cacao farming families, and indulge in my creative side to unveil the hidden nature of cacao.
February 1, 2016
Punta Gorda, Belize
"So I hear you're into medicinal herbs." Wink.
" I study cacao, not coca."
The absurdity of the situation continued. Here I was, my first night in Belize, getting my Tarot fortune read by the quasi-chiropractic quasi-manioc hostel owner. I could smell weed wafting through the window as I watched a man with a pirate bandana give a massage to a young Belizean girl with a stutter. I had not originally planned to stay overnight in Belize City. Then the opportunity came to volunteer my seat for a later flight and a voucher that would cover my flight back home. I viewed it as a small and worthwhile delay.
Plus, the Tarot reading may have been the right sign. My keyword "Creativity" accurately describes the skill I’ll need to employ, both to absorb and describe the experiences of chasing this crazy dream of mine.
"Anything can be creative – you bring that quality to the activity. Activity itself is neither creative nor uncreative. You can paint in an uncreative way. You can sing in an uncreative way. You can clean the floor in a creative way. You can cook in a creative way.
"Creativity is the quality that you bring to the activity you are doing. It is an attitude, an inner approach – how you look at things." (Osho Zen Taro)
February 2, 2016
Belize City to Punta Gorda
Things work out for the better. It would have been a long trip without the overnight in Belize City. The following morning I took the six-hour James bus down to Punta Gorda. My stream of good luck (or nine lives) continues. First, the bus nearly left without me at one of the rest stops. I went chasing after it—and my luggage—just as it was pulling out of the driveway. Second, I avoided having to hitch-hike my way to Punta Gorda. The bus driver dropped me off at the Maya Mountain Cacao drying station about 15 miles along the highway away from the actual office downtown. There I was, waiting at the side of the road, until the next bus could passed. One day and an hour late, I finally made it to the Maya Mountain Cacao office in Punta Gorda.
For the next couple days I shadowed the MMC team to learn about everything, from the history of the chocolate industry in Belize, the chocolate production process, and the dynamics of buying and selling cacao across different levels of intermediaries. There are layers upon layers of politics and cultural nuances that I can only begin to describe (and these will be written up as guest posts in the future). Every conversation, every moment of observation, had something to do with cacao.
3 February 2016
San Antonio, Toledo
The interior of a typical cacao farm house in Santa Elena, Toledo, Belize
Back in the field. The countryside lifestyle feels like familiar territory in this foreign land. It’s been over a year since I lived out on the farm, the last time goes back my Fulbright of living with the coffee farmers in Mexico. Actually there’s a lot in common when it comes to traversing a coffee and a cacao farm: steep slopes, leaves and organic compost on the ground, shade trees, and the background melody of insects and birds. The lifestyle too has similarities: the staple foods are beans and tortillas (here, both made of corn and flour), which are supplemented by chickens, bananas, oranges and anything else the household produces.
I did a five-night home stay with Mr. Antonio Coc and his son Daniel who live in two adjacent houses. It’s more like a mini village of fifteen family members all living together. During the first two nights I slept on a hammock above a basket of drying cacao beans. The image is romantic. The sleeping quality is, however, not exactly restful. Though I have tolerance for small spaces, the tight quarters of a single room shared by six people to cook, eat, and sleep together lost its charm by the second day. I no longer take for granted the luxury of personal space and a bedroom of one’s own.
4 February, 2016
San Antonio and San Jose, Toledo
Wet cacao (the seeds with the pulp directly removed from the pod)
The day begins early, usually around 5:30 am when the sun rises. Miss Delfin served a hearty breakfast of eggs, chicken stew, and flour tortillas. The children ate first so that they could get ready for school. There is no kitchen table, only a small stool for two people to crouch beside the fire, so by necessity meals are served in rounds.
Daniel and I headed out on his motorbike to visit a handful of the cacao farmers. Daniel is a “buyer” for MMC, meaning that he is responsible for purchasing the cacao from farmers in different buying zones. Today we visited the largest buying zone, the community of San Jose, which has an estimated 500 families, or roughly 3,500 people given that the average family size is seven. One hundred of these families sell to MMC. Before cacao, this village was mostly subsistence based off corn and rice. Today, households still grow beans, corn, and rice for their own consumption and more recently pumpkin seeds for export to Guatemala. Only a small percentage of the families have electricity made possible through a solar panel project a few years ago. For the most part, families do not have electricity or refrigerators and a large portion of their food is subsistence-based.
We were invited to lunch at one of the households. They fed us a big plate of rice with black beans, chicken, and lettuce on the side. Sweet tea—not cacao—is the beverage of choice. We were joined by a teacher who is also a part-time cacao grower. He told me that life in this village is simple but the people enjoy an overall good quality of life. “Do you see starving children?” he asked. No. “Do you see people with sickness and disease?” No. People may not have much income but their land and culture are fertile. The literacy rate is around 60-70% and most people speak at least two languages: English and Mopan Maya or Q’echi.
Yet, there are still discrepancies when it comes to access to basic resources. Cacao is enabling families to gradually advance, though progress is not just about the economics. Sometimes it’s the chit-chat that matters most when it comes to success in the chocolate industry. Done right, buying cacao is a multi-step process to build relationships over time even if that means going against the economic logic of efficiency. Business can be brutal. But that does not mean it can cut corners or shortchange the people who make chocolate real.
8 February 2016
Punta Gorda (back from the farm)
I could not feel more grateful to have water running over my body. While on the farm I had bathed in a wooden hut using a plastic cup and bucket of cold water to rinse off the sweat and dirt. Nothing felt so good as the small luxury of hot water.
. That is the next gift. The miracle of light past sunset seems so much more precious after having spent the past few nights without electricity.
The smallest big indulgence to start the day. Ironically, since arriving here in Belize I have missed out on both morning coffee and chocolate. I cracked today and bought a cup of cheap stuff off the street.
I have an obsession with fresh fruit and vegetables, which are not usually part of the farm diet. At the Punta Gorda seaside market I bought a whole papaya and started eating it right then and there. Some American tourist passed by and I heard the wife whisper “Poor girl, she must not have a lot of money.” Damn who cares. I am happy looking like a fool with the papaya in my face.
Taking a break to enjoy fruits of the farm