Most mornings, the knowledge that I will soon be drinking a cup of coffee is what gets me out of bed: I’m a coffee devotee attached to both the flavor and the jolt. But when I spent three months of 1999 living in Costa Rica near a huge coffee finca (farm), my relationship with coffee moved from a morning drinker’s devotion to a more complex fascination.
The 30-minute bus ride to the radio station where I volunteered wound through coffee-covered hills, and over the course of those months I saw the plants mature and the harvest begin. Watching workers plucking red berries from rows of coffee trees, I realized I knew little about this substance that plays a leading role in my daily life: How does a little red fruit become a stimulating beverage? I also realized I knew nothing about the lives of the people who pick the coffee I drink.
The working conditions of those who make athletic shoes and trendy clothing in overseas factories has been well publicized, and many consumers have used that information in making purchase decisions. However, issues related to the fair trade of coffee and respect for its workers had at that time received hardly a nod of public attention. It occurred to me that a first-hand experience — a chance to see the harvesting process and meet the producers — might impart the enlightenment I was looking for.
I must also confess a romantic idea of farming that I developed as a teenager when a book I read convinced me I could travel through Europe as a migrant worker.
However naive, my interest grew to a bit of an obsession. After winding up my volunteer stint, I decided to spend my last two weeks in Central America traveling in Nicaragua, and it was on a volcanic island in the middle of one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes that I stumbled upon an opportunity to explore my coffee-flavored fascination.
Lake Nicaragua’s Ometepe Island is formed by two volcanoes that eventually united as their lava flows created a narrow land bridge. The still-active Volcán Concepción forms the northern half of this figure eight-shaped island while dormant Volcán Maderas is in the south. At about 100 square miles, Ometepe is the lake’s largest island. It’s a popular stop for travelers, most of whom come to hike the volcanoes or visit the petroglyphs — carvings on the faces of volcanic rocks created perhaps more than a thousand years ago by the island’s early inhabitants.
My first day on the island, my travel companions and I took a guided tour of these petroglyphs. As we hiked along the rolling farmland, we discovered rocks carved with the images of monkeys, ants, two-headed men and dancing women bearing children. We marched through fields of rice, corn and plantains, always stopping to chat with people we passed, and it seemed every view was framed by the backdrop of blue Lake Nicaragua and the gently smoking Volcán Concepción.
It was impossible to avoid being charmed by the peacefulness of this place. At the end of our tour, we stopped for lunch at Hacienda Magdalena, an organic coffee farm on the slopes of Volcán Maderas. At this rambling 1800s farmhouse with peeling Sandinista murals on its walls, I was welcomed by a rich, earthy smell that captivated me and told me I had to find a way to extend my visit. I later learned it was the odor of fermenting coffee berries. As my friends waited for our lunch to arrive, I followed my nose to the back of the house, where a man named Francisco introduced himself and, without prompting, gave me an introduction to the coffee process. He showed me a two story-high machine into which the just-picked coffee berries are dumped. This machine removes the red fruit and separates it from the bean. We then walked behind the house onto a sunny terraced patio covered with beans in varying shades of dryness. After the fruit is removed, the beans are rinsed and carried by the bucketful onto these four huge patios, where they are spread out and sun dried to remove an outer husk. Once dry, Francisco said, they are run through another machine that removes a final husk, freeing each little ready-to-be-roasted bean.
My interest piqued, I discovered further information about the farm itself. Hacienda Magdalena is owned and operated by Cooperativa Carlos Diaz Cajina, a producer cooperative of about 30 families. The co-op has run the farm since 1979, when the Sandinista revolution allowed the families, most of whom were already working there, to take control of the land from the farm’s absentee owners.
The farm’s coffee is shade grown, which protects the forest habitat of native animals and birds, and it is certified organic, grown without artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. The farm also raises fruit, honey and cattle.
Ometepe has two sister islands: the Bainbridge-Ometepe Sister Islands Association (BOSIA) in Washington State, and the Ometepe-Gulf Islands Friendship Association (OGIFA) in British Columbia. These associations have developed a unique system to enable the co-op and the community to profit from the coffee grown there.
The farm ships its green coffee up to Bainbridge Island, where the coffee is roasted and BOSIA volunteers bag, sell and ship it. OGIFA also roasts and sells the coffee. All of the associations’ income from the sale of the coffee is returned to Ometepe, where it is used to fund education and public-works projects. Most notably, these funds enabled the purchase of materials and engineering to bring the first clean drinking-water system to thousands of island residents. The hacienda also serves as a base camp for visitors who want to climb Volcán Maderas, providing lodging, meals and guides.
Over lunch on the front porch, I met a woman who told me she was finishing up a week of work on the farm. Truly shocked by this serendipitous discovery, I asked how she managed to arrange such an opportunity. She said it was easy as speaking with Juan, the hacienda’s manager, to set up a work exchange. Sure enough, after a quick chat with Juan, everything was set: I would spend a few days on the farm, working in the fields or on the drying patios, in return for my meals and a simple place to sleep.
The next morning I collected my belongings from the hostel where I’d been staying, said goodbye to my friends and hitched a ride in a truck over to Magdalena.
I spent my first day of work on the patios.
With a huge wooden hoe, I drew parallel lines across the patio full of beans, and waited while the sun did its work. After 15-30 minutes, I would return to draw fresh lines, an action that turned the beans and exposed others to the sun. I felt like a Zen gardener. I repeated this process throughout the day, moving among the four patios.
During the breaks while I waited for the beans to dry, Francisco told stories of the farm’s history. He said in the early `90s, the bank demanded that the collective pay off its loan on the farm. I realized this time period was when the socialist Sandinistas were losing political power and the country was succumbing to a capitalist influence. He said the co-op didn’t have the money to pay the bank and was facing the prospect of selling all its cattle in order to raise the money.
Luckily, a Canadian man visited the farm and heard of their plight. He offered to pay off the bank and allow the collective to pay him annually until their debt was clear. At the end of that year, they were due to pay off the rest. I wasn’t sure if this was a story Francisco reserved for romantic-minded foreign visitors, but I loved his tale of evil bankers and last-minute rescues.
Three other volunteers worked on the farm that week as well. We slept on basic cots in a large upstairs room of the house. There was an attached balcony where I could lay in a hammock overlooking the lake and island. Our meals were simple and delicious, and I enjoyed them even more knowing that everything I ate was raised on the farm: rice and beans, beef, chicken, eggs, plantains, fresh orange and pineapple juice, and of course, coffee. Amazing coffee.
On day two, I again worked on the patios. During the breaks, my co-volunteer Seth and I poked around the house and farm, visiting the cows and horses. Francisco dressed us up in protective suits and showed us the apiary. We also hung around the kitchen, watching Juan’s wife Blanca roast coffee beans over a wood-fire stove and grind them in an old-fashioned hand grinder. The area around the farm was full of exotic plant life and animals galore — green parrots, lizards, monkeys — making it a perfect place for short hikes. A nice spot for swimming in the lake was only a 30-minute walk away.
The next morning I was up at 6 o’clock: I was going up to the fields for my introduction to coffee picking. It was a 15-minute hike up to the shady fields of coffee trees, and as we approached our destination, we were greeted by the cries of howler monkeys. Francisco gave us wide wicker baskets, which we strapped around our waists, and a quick picking lesson.
Coffee berries grow in clusters along their branches, and are easily popped off by running a fisted hand down the branch. Reaching the upper branches proved at times to be a challenge, but I discovered that over all, coffee picking is relaxing work. Like other repetitive activities, it pulls you into a rhythm and allows your mind wander. Surrounded by tropical lushness and the sounds of monkeys and twittering birds, I reached a comfortable meditative state and the hours passed quickly. Around mid-day, a man on a horse brought us our lunch: steaming rice, beans and plantain wrapped in a banana leaf; we ate greedily with grubby hands. By the end of the day, the four of us were proud of the big bag we’d filled, until we heard our work was only a third of an experienced picker’s product!
I realized that, as novices, we’d been given a bit of slack: we had our own area in which to work, where we could go at our own pace, and we were sent home earlier than the real workers. Although I was disappointed that we’d been set apart and given special treatment, I knew it was foolish to think I could be an instant picking professional.
On our walk back to the house, we watched the men leading mules saddled with bags full of the day’s harvest. I was surprised to see the “Juan Valdez” image popularized in ads for Colombian coffee played out in real life.
My last day at the hacienda, I worked back on the patios. It was a fun, sunny day spent with Gerald, Juan and Blanca’s son. He decided to “work” with Seth and I, but the work quickly devolved into pure play. Pushing our hoes in front of us, Gerald and I raced the span of the coffee-strewn patio, scattering beans along the way. Along with Gerald’s little sister, we played baseball, using our hoes as bats to hit a round, unripe fruit that I couldn’t identify. Later, Seth worked with the guys in the coffee machine, shoveling berries into the hopper and rinsing them once the fruit was removed, while I emptied buckets of wet beans and spread them over the patios.
The next morning I prepared to leave the farm. I woke up early and sat on the balcony to watch the sun rise over the lake. Looking back on my week, I realized I’d found exactly the experience I’d been looking for. I lived a few days as a farm girl. I became familiar with every stage in the life of a coffee bean, from a berry on a tree to a roasted bean in the grinder. I heard stories of farm life and of the revolution. I discovered an organization of coffee farmers that are able to care for their families and improve their community through a remarkable partnership with a pair of sister islands. And I learned I could continue both to support this organization and to enjoy the coffee by purchasing Ometepe coffee online from BOSIA.
Before I left the farm, I bought two pounds of coffee to bring home. While Blanca measured out the coffee and ground it, I imagined those were beans I’d picked and dried. Perhaps my perception was altered by the lingering thrill of my stumbled-upon adventure, but the coffee I brewed upon my return home was the most delicious I’ve ever tasted.
More about Ometepe coffee: BOSIA purchases yearly 100% of Hacienda Magdalena’s coffee crop at fair trade prices. It then sells a portion of its shipment to OGIFA and a few other distributors. Its annual profits are used to purchase the next year’s shipment, and the remainder — last year, $4 from every pound of coffee sold — is used to fund community improvement projects on the island.
To purchase Ometepe coffee, you can phone BOSIA at 206/842-0774 or order from their website http://www.bosia.org/. A pound of coffee costs $10.
To visit Ometepe Island and Hacienda Magdalena: Ometepe can be reached by taking a ferry from San Jorge to Moyagalpa, on the northwest shore of the island, or from Granada to Altagracia, on the island’s northeast shore. Ferries run several times a day from San Jorge, and three times a week from Granada (check locally: days and times may vary). From Moyagalpa or Altagracia, take a bus to Balgüe and ask to be dropped off at Hacienda Magdalena. Follow the signs up a dirt road to the farm; it’s about a 15-minute hike. The hacienda offers both communal and private rooms costing $2-$4, and meals for around $2. From there you can also hire a guide for a hike up Volcán Maderas or a petroglyph tour. And of course, you’re also welcome to stay and work.