Sunday, April 20, 2008

Café Finca de Santa Anita

This past weekend I went with some friends to southwestern Guatemala for a tour of an organic, Fair Trade coffee finca (plantation) which is run by a community of ex-guerillas.

The eco-tour was hosted by the NGO, Cafe Conciencia - I can´t say enough about how great this tour was. Not only did we enjoy the beautiful nature in the tropical forest and learn how coffee is grown and processed, we heard the stories of some of the community members.
After the civil war, many of the guerrillas were displaced, left without any money or option for survival. These community members banned together and, because of the peace accord, were able to get a loan to purchase this land (about 1000 acres?) in 1998. The coffee finca had been abandoned for eight years prior to the purchase so it took a full year just to wack the weeds away and initiate an infrastructure with which to live. They had no electricity or water. Actually, to date they are still without adequate water.
This is Anna from Café Conciencias, and Teresa, who guided us on the hike. During the war, Teresa´s father was killed by the government based on a false accusation. She and her mother were living in a refugee camp in Honduras when she decided to join the guerrillas at age 14, staying eight years until the end of the war.
She now has her own family and she, along with 32 other families, run this cooperative. They all come from different backgrounds and areas, speaking five different languages.

Have you ever...? It was all I could do not to pick him up and put him in my pocket. So cute.

We came across this hard-working niño with mom (carrying a baby on her back) and brothers, happily hauling wood up a hill.

There´s a primary school on the property and they all go, but help out with the finca in the afternoons. In reality, the chance for these children to actually complete high-school is only 4%.
At roughly 1000 feet, the location has the ideal climate and fertility for bountiful crops. However, without the technical knowledge and various other factors, it isn´t producing to it´s potential and they´re falling short each year.

There is daily, intensive labour, even though harvest is only in September through December, due to constant weeding, pruning, etc... all by hand and with machetes. The coffee plants need just the right amount of shade so there are numerous plant varieties throughout the finca, including bananas, sold locally, and other kinds for wood (fuel) and wood (construction), amoung others I can´t remember at this point. Mucho mas información.

One can almost see the active volcano, Santa Anita through the mist. We were lucky not to get caught in the daily rainfall, but it was certaily hot and humid while we hiked. But, aaaah, the clean air was refreshing after breathing all the exhaust fumes of Xela the past month.
We got the chance to cool off a bit in the waterfall.

Luis, a mild-mannered and gracious community member, gave us the low down on their history and current struggles. He joined the rebels when he was 20 and, since he had left his family without any contact, after the war he was too embarrassed to return to them with nothing to offer.

He gave us an account of how they got to where they are today. None of them had any expertise, only a great desire to survive. With some help from the Red Cross, initially, and other organizations, they feel fortunate as they are better off than most like communites. However, the grace period for the loan is up and they are supposed to start repaying, with 12% annual interest, on the property which seems to have been over-valued at about US $270,000. They´re currently in negotiations with the government over it.

They have a long road ahead. Costs for organic certification and Fair Trade are extremely great and the Fair Trade price, although still slightly above market value, has not not increased for the past seven years. One way they are trying to get past some barriers is to roast and sell the coffee themselves via the NGO´s website, I recommend it. Because the Fair Trade standards are high, only the good beans are selected, it´s organic, etc. I saw it. I tried it. It´s delicious. Anyway, it´s $10, half of the cost goes toward shipping and the rest for them.

As you can tell, I was really impressed with this tour. They were so forth-coming when answering our questions and, in an under-stated way, were gracious hosts. I admire all the avenues they are taking to keep their cooperative going and their appreciation for all they´ve managed to achieve so far. This day will stay with me for many years to come.

Later that night, with what little energy I had left after a week of salsa dancing, spanish lessons, and a long hike, we took in a ´futbol´ (soccer) match.

Rams = Chivas español.
The Xelaju (shay-la-who) team was playing a Guatemala city team, their biggest rivals.

We chose to not sit in the hooligan (cheap) seats, but found our expensive $6-seat section rather subdued. There was a wind band, and vaious call outs ike ´punta´, ´vamos Super Chivas´, `aye aye aye`, not to mention the palabras malo (bad words) which the lady in front of us pointed out when we were trying to imitate them.

Unfortunately, the Super Chivas, lost. We could see the rival fans dressed in white, cheering all they could, from a distance. They were enclosed behind fences in a small section to prevent riots.

For me, the best part of the game for was watching the vendors. We saw everything from pots of piña (pineapple) to large boxes of Domino´s pizza. My favorite were the guys selling little bags of nuts. They were carrying massive tongs and holding out one little nut with them for sampling purposes. Ya never get to sample Planters.

And have you ever seen a vendor carrying confectionary items on her head?

Finca tours and futbol games, Ilsa recommends!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Español and Guatemaltecos

So here I am still in Guatemala... not yet able to say much in Español, but having an adventure of a lifetime.

I love the colours and simplicity of the markets. I`m not wild about seeing (and smelling) the dead chickens and meat, but the fruit is a real treat. It`s super cheap and delicious. The other day I bought a watermelon for less than a dollar and two canteloup for 50 cents.

Other than fruit and veggies, the food overall isn`t great, especially compared to Mexican food. The tortillas and dishes in restaurants are kind of bland. However, I manage to eat avocados, corn on the cob, and beans pretty much everyday. Yummy!

Through school, I found some gringo friends to tour with. They`re all younger and fitter than I am so keeping my wind is a constant stuggle.

We came across this guy on the way down from one such grueling hike. These people are so little and cute I can`t stand it!!

Lago Chicabal was formed however many thousand years ago by a volcano. The nearby volcano is still active and, according to another tour group, we just missed seeing it erupt when we got to the view point. By that time the fog had rolled in, but it burned off later so that we could see the holy lake (while catching my wind). There are several prayer points around it and the Mayans consider it to be sacred. Going in it is completely forbidden. Every so often we came across flowers, that I assume were used in prayer service. (The guides here aren`t very good so none of us know for sure).
It looked a little like places I`ve seen near the rocky mountains of Canada, but there was a certain mystism here. I tried not to think of the hike back up the hill while taking in the peace and serenty of the lake.

A school tour of the cemetary proved to be very colourful. From a distance, it looks like some type of amusement park, but up close one can see the affection given the multi-coloured tombs with a lot of hand-writing and flowers.

One famoso tomb is said to provide wishes of those who write their ideal marriage partner´s name on it. I didn`t have a name, but took a jab at writing on it anyway. God (and spanish-speakers) only knows who is inside.

In this part of the world, the Mayan dress is more common than western dress, particularly for women. Some of the weaving is absolutely beautiful. And they truly do walk with loads of stuff on their heads or within blankets on their backs. I`m still in awe everytime I see them, which is every five minutes of so. Especially so when they carry huge loads of wood on their backs, along with a machete, coming up a steep hill that I can barely hike empty-handed. They must have the strongest legs in the world.

Now this is farming. I have yet to see a tractor in any of these fields. Apparently the soil is quite fertile and one can always see the farmers labouring away with hand-tools or bare hands. It reminds me of being back home in Saskatchewan. Mom always had a big garden, however, the children weren`t working quite as hard as these ones seem to be. In fact, these people could even give MOM a run for her money!

Chicken buses and pickup trucks are the main methods of transportation in this area. I can`t say they`re very comfortable, but it`s certainly an authentic experience to be squished up against a local with her baby in a blanket on her back. I haven`t actually seen any `chickens`on the bus, but there is a lot of everything else.

The upbeat latin music is always going strong and it`s impossible not to have fun. Today, I watched the ticket collector exit the front door, while we were in full motion, and come in through the back exit so as to let some of us out at the next stop. Very efficient.

We built another partial stove a couple weekends ago. The family was lovely and greeted us with buns and a rice tea (can`t remember the name of it...uti?) and later provided a delicious meal of soup, squash, carrots, potatoes, corn, and fruit juice. They seemed to go all out for us, which makes me wish I could do much more for them. Education and doctors would be nice.

After our less-than-three-hours of work was completed, seven of us `gringos` took 54 kids and parents in two microbuses (10 seater vans) to a ´hotsprings` an hour away. Some of the kids didn`t even get in the water, and most appeared to not be able to swim. The place actually seemed to be used more for bathing than for swimming. People there were all scrubbing eachother and watching us out of the corner of their eyes. It`s possible that it was where they go to bathe once per week.

I find most of these Guatemalans quite reserved, particularly compared to other latin americans I`ve met. They are kind, but not overly friendly. However, the niños seemed to really appreciate the cheetos we passed around while heading home.
To the market we go. Zunil was actually just a stop to catch a pickup after we were dropped off by the chicken bus on the way to beautiful Fuentes Georginas. The ride was mystical and I seriously can`t remember the last time I`ve been in the back of one... probably at my ´Parnitsky´ cousins´ farm in Saskatchewan, but with more hills and a less crazy driver.

My buddy, Sara (who also skipped out on her host family and joined me on the hostel) enjoying the idyllic springs Fuentes Georginas. This is a really nice spot and hard to believe it`s only half an hour from Quetzaltenango with the lush jungle-like setting.
A partial view of Xela (Quetzaltenango) with other gringos from my school. The deforestation makes it always seem overcast, but it was actually a pretty nice day. At the top of the hill we came across a park where locals were having barbeques, walks in the woods, and a children`s party with a piñata.

My real purpose for being here is to learn Spanish. It`s pretty challenging. Other phrases from different languages I`m familiar with kept popping out at first... like ´da` and ´excusez-moi´, but I`m starting to get the hang of it and, despite the headaches, it`s quite enjoyable.

My maestro, Mario, in the back of the pickup. He truly rocks. He`s the only person that I can converse with in Spanish, so far. It`s really fun, at least for me. Mario says his second name is `paciencia´ and I`ve witnessed that to be true.

Quetzaltenango, although rugged, certainly knows how to cater to tourists. There are at least 50 spanish schools here and numerous places to eat and sleep. I got really lucky with a beautiful hostel for $10 per night. They even provide robes and change the sheets. There`s a room with gorgeous, big plants and birds where I can do my homework.

This city is highly elevated so it doesn`t seem to get too hot during the day and cools off quite a lot at night, keeping me pretty comfortable. There are frequent earth tremors, I think I heard 4.6 of one that woke me up one morning. Kind of freaky, but cool. I`m told they don`t do much damage and the locals don`t seem to be concerned. Better than civil war, I guess.
Will finish off lessons at the end of this week and do some more exploring of Guatemala. I`m off to a salsa lesson now. Hasta luego!