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A coffee break in upcountry Guatemala


Raggedy edged, holey and an awkward oblong shape: it wasn’t much of a tortilla. Beside me Brenda continued to ‘tortillar’ at speed, her dexterous hands rapidly slapping and clapping the dough into one smooth, flat, perfect circle after another. Eyeing my latest effort she smiled, “despacito” – slowly does it – “va a apprender” – you’ll learn. I appreciated her encouragement but by this stage – several days into our impromptu cookery sessions -I suspected that we both knew the truth. As our pile built she began to transfer the raw tortillas to a metal skillet heating on the wood fire that she had built up in her makeshift kitchen area outside the door of the house. They cooked in seconds turning a golden brown and filling the air with the smell of toasted corn.

As she came to the end of the pile she ushered me into the house. Seating myself at the table on my small plastic stool I greeted her husband Gilberto and their small sons with our mealtime ritual, “Buen provecho” – bon appetite. We would repeat the phrase at least two or three times more on finishing the meal along with numerous thanks. At times table manners in this remote corner of Guatemala could rival the finest of Parisian dining.  As we ate, washing down the tortillas with a thin broth of ‘guischile’ – a local squash – it was time to review my progress. Working through the pile there was little doubt as to which tortillas were ‘Senorita Laura’s, much to everyone’s gentle amusement.

Conversation turned to the topics of the afternoon. It was going to rain. Indeed. Gilberto was off to plant corn with the rest of the men. Was there going to be an English class for the children up in the big house today? I thought that there was. Did I think it was going to rain? There was something reassuring about this familiar litany of the mundane and domestic. In a different world I could have been sat in my own home or office chatting about what I’d be making for tea and what had been on telly last night.

Instead I was a guest to a rather different scene of family life as a visitor to a blossoming eco-tourism project on a Guatemalan coffee plantation. La Florida is a co-operatively owned coffee farm – or finca – situated in remote countryside in the Colombo district of the Quetzaltenango department between steep chilly mountains and the tropical coastal lowlands. It’s one of a growing number of fincas now owned and managed by former plantation workers and opening up to ecotourism in a bid to build both funds and support from the international community for this new model of socialist working practice.

It is more however than a political or economic experiment. In Guatemala – in keeping with the entire region – the disparity of wealth is a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the landowning elite and the itinerant workers and subsistence farmers that form the majority of the population. Historically ‘campesino’ – peasant – families have eked out a living from seasonal work on the coastal plantations, tending their own small crops in their highland homes or migrating to the city in search of better paid urban employment. Conditions on the fincas are tough, as depicted by the Nobel prize winner Rigoberta Menchu – an indigenous Mayan – in her autobiography, with poor or frequently no wages forthcoming and scant regard for health or safety.

In this context the story of La Florida is an amazing one: at once uplifting and harrowing. It began with a group of campesino families who – tiring of the conditions on the fincas – decided to seize their own destiny, envisaging a future where they would work for themselves and each other as a community with no rich ‘dueño’ seizing the profits. They formed a union and began to look for the land to achieve their dream.

After many false starts they learnt of La Florida: a large plantation whose owner had gone bankrupt leaving the land in the hands of the bank. They decided to occupy the land until they could convince the government to offer them a loan to buy it. For two years families camped out in the open in makeshift tarpaulin shelters without electricity or sanitation, living in constant fear of arrest or violent eviction. On April 28th 2005 the incredible happened and they were granted their loan, at last taking legal possession of their own land.

A year on and 92 families live there in an area that takes more than a day to walk. They work the land co-operatively, working on the communal crops in the morning and individually on the smaller plots of land that each family has in the afternoon. The children go to school in classrooms put up in the now crumbling house of the former master. The eco-tourism project is in its infancy, bringing extra income to the community. Each visitor is assigned a family with whom they eat three times a day. The majority of their modest contribution of around $6 a day goes straight to the family, the remainder to a community fund. Almost as importantly in the eyes of many in the community they bring ‘apoyo’ –support – from the outside world.

Visitors can pick their activities: indeed whilst they are welcomed with open arms, when it comes to wanting to help guidance can be limited and there is an element of using your own initiative. There is plenty of work to be done however and once visitors have identified an opportunity to join in or set up a project of their own the offer will most certainly be taken up. In addition to helping out with tasks and chores visitors are encouraged to participate in family life and to learn more about the crops grown on the farm. During my two week stay I helped to dig out a dirt road with a hoe, learnt to make smoky, toasted almond scented hot chocolate from cacao seeds we had harvested fresh from the tree, collected macadamias and mangoes, milked a cow and weeded and tended the baby coffee saplings.

A year into their project the community of La Florida remain deeply proud of their achievement and optimistic about the future: believing that with hard work and the help of God their children will grow up to know a better life. However, a heavy cloud looms over that future: their loan of almost $800,000 dollars must be repaid within eight years. For workers formerly used to earning as little as $3 a day this sum is a fortune.

Furthermore there are virtually no profits coming in. After years of abandonment nature has taken over the finca and it is a slow, back breaking process is clear the coffee fields of vegetation, hacking away by hand with machetes. The machinery to process the coffee no longer works and with no capital to repair it the community are forced to sell what little they can harvest for processing elsewhere – missing out on the only real money to be made in a market where prices are currently alarmingly low. More help is needed but there is no money either to house more families or provide resources for them. The current families live in the dilapidated remains of the old out houses, patched with plastic sheeting and tin – sometimes four or five families per one room house.

One Saturday I accompanied Brenda and Gilberto and the children to their own plot of land to plant corn. It was a hot, hard, back breaking day’s labour, tripping and stumbling under a blazing sun through a plot of land still choked with the roots and charred trunks of trees. As we walked the forty-five minute journey to the plot Brenda told me a little of her life story. Aged 24 she grew up on coffee fincas, the eldest of nine children, two of whom died. At 14 she left home alone to work in the city as a domestic servant, cooking, cleaning and looking after children. Having spent just three years in school she could barely read or write.

After leaving the city her life on the finca was like all campesino women, getting up at 4am to take corn to the mill in preparation for making the first of the day’s tortillas before her husband went to work. It is no coincidence that Spanish contains a verb ‘tortillar’ in this world that sometimes seems to be ruled by ‘maíz’ – corn. The rest of the day would pass in a round of domestic activities: taking her family’s clothes to wash with the other women, fetching and carrying buckets of water to and fro on her head, sweeping the dirt floors, making the fire, tending the children and preparing more tortillas.

This life of physical hardship contrasted with an in many ways idyllic image of the finca.  An hour and half from the nearest town – a bumpy ride in the back of a pick up truck followed by a brisk hike on foot through the forest – the community can seem a rural paradise. The landscape is verdant and lush: bursting with fruits, seeds and flowers and the twittering of bird song. The children run around barefoot, swimming in natural pools, climbing trees for fruit and weaving in and out of grazing chickens, goats and cows in exuberant games of tag. I swiftly abandoned the dripping, cold shower in the volunteers’ bathroom and joined the teenage girls, washing in crisp cold spring water at the old stone sink or ‘pila’ tucked away among the trees.

I found that life proceeded at a gentle pace in the community. Everyone had a smile, a greeting and the time to stop and chat. Joining a work group of single and widowed women one day to root out enormous quantities of weeds I found myself working hard but at a leisurely pace, chides of “Despacito” urging me to take it easy whenever I seemed to be upping the pace.

Even the speech was different, slower: a languid stretched vowel Spanish in which we were directed ‘alla arriiiiiba’ – up there – and our enquiries met with a benign ‘pueeeees….’ – let’s see. The visitors’ book revealed a useful guide to the intricate, at times baffling, system of hand gestures, in which a flick of the palm could signify the difference between describing the height of a child, a plant or a chicken.

At times there was a sense of otherworldliness to the life of the community. One afternoon, sitting on the veranda of the volunteers’ house practising the Spanish conditional, I asked a young girl some ‘what if’ questions. If she were rich what would she buy? A house, a plot of land and a stove. If she could go anywhere in the world where would she go? To the capital and to San Marcos – an hour or two away. And if she could eat one food for the rest of her life what would it be? Gleefully and most decidedly: meat – ‘pura carne’ – and only the breast. It seemed a far cry from the Playstations, Disneyland and chocolate of her western peers.

Later that evening we gathered in the flickering candlelight in the ‘big house’ to examine an atlas brought by volunteers. The audience watched with rapt attention as we pointed out the home countries of the disparate group of international volunteers. At last we came to Guatemala and peering in to see their nation in print a surprised murmur broke out, “es chiquitita” – it’s tiny. Their disappointment was tangible.

Disappointment came to me too realising that my stay was due to end just days before the community would celebrate their first anniversary. Excited preparation had been building for days and by all accounts the festivities would be legendary, why couldn’t I stay? Why not indeed, suddenly there didn’t seem to be anywhere I’d rather be.

As the great day dawned we were woken at 4am by the raucous Latino beat of reggaeton music blaring from loudspeakers, specially borrowed for the occasion. The men had begun early, slaughtering a cow for the feast that was to be prepared and decided to accompany their labours with a little light music.

When we blearily emerged a few hours later preparations were in full swing. Teams of men and children prepared paper decorations. Preening teenage girls tried on costumes for the ‘Señorita La Florida’ competition that would take place that evening. The smallest children accompanied me to pick wild flowers to decorate the house for the visitors who would be coming.

Meanwhile the entire female population was to be found in the kitchen of the big house, preparing enormous vats of beef stew, rice and noodles for a hundred. In honour of the occasion tortillas were replaced with ‘tamales’: leaf wrapped, steamed dumplings of corn dough – the party version of maíz. As I prepared hundreds after hundreds of doughy parcels I thought my lessons might finally have paid off but disappointingly mine had unwrapped long before they reached the steamer.

However, as I stood back watching the industrious pride of this community that I had come to feel such a part of as they prepared for one of the proudest days of their lives I felt that I had learnt some much more valuable lessons from La Florida.

For more information about la Florida and other similar communities in the area visit:
www.websamba.com/laflorida
www.cafeconsciencia.org

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