Rocja Pomtila, la Chua, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala
Doña Olga is a rockstar. She wields a machete like a warrior in the field and attends evening church services dressed like a queen. She is a cacao farmer, community leader, and a mom to three teenagers.
The best way to describe her attitude is “¡vámanos!” (let´s go!). Do you want to go visit the cacao farm? ¡Vámonos! Nor the heat nor distance fazed her. We strolled through the corn field and I observed how she paused, keenly attuned to the natural surroundings with ears perked for the sound of howler monkeys.
We bonded out there on the farm. Usually that´s my chance to ask farmers about technical aspects of cacao farming, like how often they prune and whether they graft or plant from seeds. Visiting the farm with Doña Olga was different. We talked about the plants. We talked about people. We talked about relationships, personal journeys, and aspirations. “Do you remember the first time you tasted cacao?,” I asked her. Oh yes, she said. It was five years ago when she planted cacao to supplement the income from corn and cardamom. She remembers tasting the fruit for the first time and falling in love. I nodded in agreement. Cacao for both of us is a love story.
She pulled out a bag to collect the seeds that we had sucked. Her resourcefulness reminds me of my Chinese grandmother, a petite yet a mighty force of nature. Everything has a use. Doña Olga gathered cardamom pods, corn mazorcas, even the bird-picked cacao seeds on the ground. She walked—or more accurately glided—with wild instinctive grace over the slippery leaves, perfectly at ease through the shadows of the forest.
Her enchantment is the ability to transform. While not so uncommon for women to work alongside men on the farm, women are still in charge most household activities. Doña Olga cooks for the family, washes the clothing and dishes down by the river, and tends to the backyard chickens. Her work extends even beyond the household. For the past couple years she has served as a member of the Junta Directiva committee represent the cacao farmers’ association. She can be quite opinionated too, and I like that about her.
That evening we attended the Evangelical church service together. I had nothing to wear but soiled jeans and boots so she lent me her daughter´s corte and huipil, the traditional Maya skirt and loose tunic still worn by women in indigenous communities. Wearing the huipil can be a marker of both class and identity, according to my friend Callie who is studying Guatemala’s textile tradition. Both for everyday use and special occasions, the huipil is an example of the living and dynamic Maya heritage.
Doña Olga was the first woman I have met who identifies herself as a cacao farmer. Even among men this identity is rare; being a cacao farmer takes tenacity and dedication. It takes an attentive eye to subtle shifts in the balance of nature, a soft touch to pick the cacao pods when ripe, and the endurance to keep going when the weather turns sour. It’s not a matter of male or female capabilities. Rather, it’s about the core character strengths that make farmers like Doña Olga truly different.
Plus, she is adorably in love with cacao.
This is a traditional Q’eqchi’ huipil (top garment) and corte, with a characteristic waistband around the skirt.
Final interview question: What about cacao makes you happy?
Me gusta porque da frutos, es bueno el jugo, se siente uno sano.
I like that it gives fruit, the juice of the pulp is delicious, and it is good for the health.
“The bush” is what people in Belize refer to as the jungle, or what I more generally describe as living in “el campo” (the countryside) where modern amenities like flushing toilets and electricity are hard to come by. It is less comfortable. It feels raw.
My first shock was the darkness. When the sun sets around 7 pm the reality of no electricity really sinks in. At my first homestay in San Antonio the family relied on hand-held flashlights to illuminate their evening activities like cooking, washing up, and helping the kids with homework. We ate in almost complete darkness, taking turns on wooden stools and huddling by the fire. There was no feeling of needing to rush off to check email or phone because the only thing to do was enjoy each other’s company. Darkness is conducive to storytelling. We chatted about the Mayan rituals that, more common two generations ago, are fading over time.
Generations before cacao was sold as an export commodity in Belize (since 1986), it was more commonly a household drink and cultural emblem. Cacao was the beverage of nighttime ceremony. It could fuel worship during the pre-harvest dance or keep people awake during periods of vigilance. Sudden wealth could incur a jealous neighbor’s curse. A bushman would prescribe a three-day fast of sleep to watch for evil spirits. Others believed that before planting cacao it was necessary to sacrifice small animal like a chicken. These and other stories are part of the mystic that shroud the invisible value of cacao.
Imagination too takes hold in life sans electricidad. On the second night of the homestay, the kids and I stood outside under the stars telling stories of the bush. I told them the Slavic folklore of Baba Yaga, a version of Cinderella in which the beautiful heroine Vasilisa makes a journey through the woods to bring back oil for her evil step mother and step sisters who await in darkness. Vasilisa is condoned to visit the ferocious witch woman Baba Yaga lives in a hut with sticks that look like chicken feet. Cinderella makes it back home, bestowing the light so pure and bright that it blinds her evil step sisters and step mother. As I told this story the children while sitting under the stars in the cacao lands of Belize--where houses really do look like huts on stilts—the distant fairy tale of my childhood came alive.
Some families, whether through their own innovation or the fortune of external assistance, have light past dusk. At my third homestay in Santa Elena the family had a solar-powered battery that provided light and even powered a small television. This family was both modern and traditional. They had a gas stove but preferred to use firewood in preference for the smoky taste. For them, wealth was this freedom of choice.
Solar power meant that Mr. Choc could stay up later at night and help out his son with schoolwork. But it also meant that his son spent more time in front of the television watching movies. He told me this, shaking his head that sometimes he couldn’t stop when these movies exposed his son violence and profanity. He wanted to teach his son things that could only be taught on the farm, like how to maneuver the machete, how to forage for wild plants, and how to chop up sugar cane to suck when you run out of water.
Mr. Choc too was a storyteller. He told me the legend of the farmer who swapped places with a turkey vulture. This farmer was too lazy to weed the bush and sow his corn. He gazed up at the sky and saw a turkey vulture circling around, diving, and within a matter of seconds capturing prey to eat. The farmer made a wish that he could have an easy life and swap places with the turkey vulture. His wish was granted, but soon enough the farmer—now a vulture—realized that he did not know how to fly or hunt for food. Soon he became hungry and wished he were a farmer again.
Pausing so that I could contemplate the message of this story, Mr. Choc turned to me and said: “You’re not really here for the cacao, are you?” Somehow he knew. He could sense my interviews with the farmers are part of something bigger, part of a deeper personal journey. Farmers, too, are travelers and wandering spirits. We share a quiet anxiety and drive to go out and explore the natural world. At the same time, we hold a healthy respect for her capricious nature. We are painfully aware of our small position as human beings in the world.
At the same time, we are not afraid. Some farmers, like Mr. Choc, carry a special object like a secret stone or clove of garlic to protect them wherever they go. This stone protects them when they travel alone through the bush. It keeps them safe from harm´s way, be it a venomous snake or a biting insect. Should the farmers become lost they only need to take out their secret stone, turn their shirt inside out, and find re-direction from within.
Do good and good will come to you. That’s my secret stone. We were finishing up the farm tour when a hummingbird whizzed past us, so quickly that she stopped us in our tracks. “That is a sign of good luck, especially for females and travelers” said Mr. Choc. I nodded in silent agreement.
Aren’t you afraid of the darkness at night? No, I tell them. Being out there in the bush is part of finding the path.
Getting around the bush in Santa Elena, Toledo, Belize
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
"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.
Punta Gorda, Belize
"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
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
The interior of a typical cacao farm house in Santa Elena, Toledo, Belize
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)
Shower. 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.
Light. 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.
Morning coffee. 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.
Papaya. 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.
Wet cacao (the seeds with the pulp directly removed from the pod)
Taking a break to enjoy fruits of the farm
“Everything dark comes from within.
So perfect at times, and also so dam destructive.”
The Mast Brothers’ chocolate is seductive. It’s easy to fall in love with the exotic flair, perfect geometric forms, and the wallpaper-like packaging, that invite you to unwrap their bars. These Brooklyn hipsters have played their cards well, they’ve gotten called, and now they have gone bust. (more…)