23 September 2015

Coffee Fields (Not) Forever

(In which I introduce the child who will become the esposo, a trap is laid, and cherries are not cherries at all.) 

I saw this while taking Tonka on his constitutional, and it literally stopped me in my tracks.
Yes, we have cloudy days here, too.  But only during the rainy season. And only later in the day. (Score!)

One of the coffee fields around the corner is for sale. See the terracotta building peeking out from behind the sign? That's my apartment. There's an empty lot behind us, then this little coffee field (cafetál) to the east of the empty lot. Makes for a nice view out the back windows.

So one more farmer bites the dust. Whoever buys it will surely put up apartments or cookie-cutter houses. Or worse. They already built a childcare center on the other side of the lot behind us. The teachers are either hard of hearing or sadistic, because they recently added microphones to the fun. Now the whole neighborhood can sing along to jolly songs. All morning long. They also painted the wall facing us a lurid neon blue that screams at me from across the empty lot. Along with the kids.

Anyway, this is my view of the soon-to-be-razed coffee field. The mountains are hiding.

My current view to the east from my back windows. Little coffee field rocks some verdant green.

On a clear day, you can see the mountains, too. Somehow, them basically being a parade of volcanoes isn't scary. Volcán Poás is the only active one within view, anyway. True, the world's second-most acidic sulfur lake sits up in the crater, but hey, the geysers can't reach this far, and the lake is such a tranquil, milky aqua-green that it lulls you into believing it's gentle. Okay, those three tourists were just struck by lightning there this week, but you can hardly blame the acid lake for that. Volcán Turrialba, which occasionally belches ash when it's feeling petulant, is southeast of us, out of sight, but it's the one that will coat the floors with a fine grit that's slicker than goose shit and makes you cough. It's the wind pattern, not the proximity.

Cafetál by the empty corn field. 
Volcán Barva (inactive) is to the left.
I know the farmer who owns some of the coffee fields that run the length of the opposite side of the road, aka Tonka's Poop Path. He's an older gentleman with one of those really old, classic trucks. He plants corn in the one field that's not a cafetál. He has chickens and two grouchy little dogs that are Tonka's friends. I hope he doesn't follow suit. I sure would hate to see him sell.

Transporting coffee by ox cart, 1920s
La Nación - Manuel Gómez
More and more independent coffee growers are selling. The big coffee corporations keep picking up more and more of the market. It's sad. Back in the early 1800s, Costa Rica gave land grants and free plants to anyone willing to grow coffee. Coffee became the country's most profitable export until bananas surpassed it more than a century later. (Tourism now out-earns them both, despite the occasional stray lightning bolt.) Yes, an elite class of coffee barons rose up, but there were a lot of independent growers, too, and those small-farm coffee growers made a huge contribution to the development of the country.

When my esposo was growing up, coffee was important, and not just for waking up in the morning. He grew up poor. His parents raised eight children and buried two more who had died in infancy. His father drove construction equipment, and his mother had the harder job of raising seven boys and a girl. She made tortillas by hand and washed clothes by hand. No family car. The kids didn't just share bedrooms, they shared beds.  They watched TV through a neighbor's window. And every year, the boys picked coffee so they could buy clothes, shoes, and supplies for school. My esposo says they "weren't really poor". Because they only had to pick coffee before school started, not all the time. They didn't have to work during the school year. Perspective, people.

I never had to work as a child, so my perspective on what "poor" means has shifted.

Of course, you laugh about it later. Like childbirth. Or basic training. At family gatherings, once the beer and guaro* are flowing, the childhood stories start, and someone invariably brings up the coffee fields. I learned that picking coffee is no easy task. You're paid by volume, by the bag, but you can't just fly through there willy-willy. Only the ripe, red cherries (or berries) go on to become those brown, addictive, magical beans that breathe life into us every morning. You have to pick them individually, and carefully: you can't pick the green ones yet, the dried up purple ones are no good, and if you strip the branches or pick the stem from the plant along with the cherry, the flowers won't bloom in those places and next year's crop won't grow.

It takes some skill to pick coffee. To do it quickly, even more.

So one of the boys -- the name changes, depending on who's telling the story, but I'm pretty sure it was my esposo -- spied a big bunch of the reddest, ripest cherries, lying on the ground. One of his brothers must've dropped them! He must've been going too fast and missed his bag. What a prize! A good-sized pile, just there for the taking among the leaves. He snatched them up ... along with a big, steaming handful of dog shit. His trap-laying brothers se cagaron de risa, as the phrase goes in Spanish. In Costa Rica, you don't laugh your ass off, you shit yourself laughing. Appropriate.

Growing up in Ohio, we learned to watch out for yellow snow.  My esposo learned to watch out for pretty, red coffee cherries on the ground.

Picking coffee here in Costa Rica is kind of like picking strawberries or grapes in the US. It's a job nobody really wants to do, a job people do to survive. A lot of Nicaraguan immigrants pick coffee here. There's a lot of prejudice and discrimination here against nicaragüenses. Some ticos complain about nicas "taking their jobs", but picking coffee is like working on the pineapple plantations; it's the last job people want. Everyone likes having that hot cup of yodo on the table, though.

I hope the fair trade cooperatives can get more of a foothold here so that small, independent growers and pickers here can have some security. If you guys have access to fair-trade coffee, please consider coughing up a little extra to support it.

café chorreado
A lot of ticos make coffee with a chorreador. This was my coffee maker for my first year or two here. If someone hadn't given us an electric one as a gift, I'd still be using it. Some of the more traditional sodas* make their coffee that way. Some of the fancier ones do it for the tourists who pay big bucks for "quaint" because they don't know enough to go to a regular soda.

Anyway, I'm sorry, little coffee field. I'm fervently hoping the bigger ones on the other side of the road don't follow you. I love our tranquilo little area. Selfishly, I don't want it to change. But more than that, this little cafetál is representative of a bigger change for small farms and for the country as a whole. I guess change is inevitable, but watching the coffee fields fall to housing developments -- or amped-up childcare centers -- is sad.

If McDonald's buys it, I'm out of here.

cafetál - coffee field
guaro - sort of like Costa Rican moonshine. Made from sugarcane. There's a national brand you can buy in stores.
cagarse de risa - shit one's self laughing. Laugh your ass off. Crack up.
tico - a Costa Rican person. 
nica - a Nicaraguan person.
yodo - Literally, it means "iodine", but in Costa Rica it's also slang for coffee. I guess because of the color.
chorreador - old school coffee maker. Basically a frame holding a sock-like, cotton coffee filter.
soda - a little restaurant that serves traditional, cheap, basic food.


  1. Super coooooool, the glossary at the end!! Love that so much. I can pop that into Google translate and get them to pronounce it for me. There. Did it. That was nice.

    Oh. Are you tempted to get ... involved? The ...'s were because is this even something someone gets involved IN?

    Anyway. Thanks for this whole excellent story. Maybe whoever bought it will take forever and ever and ever to make their 'improvements' and by then, you'll be living in some other, spectacular house. A villa. Yah. A villa would be nice.

    1. Half the time, I'm not sure if I'm learning "standard Spanish"or "tico Spanish", so my sentences are a crap shoot. The only way really to get involved would be maybe with some of the fair trade coops. I mean, people have the right to sell their land. Just makes me sad. And yeah, time is often not of the essence here, so maybe the changes will be on "tico time". That would be nice.

  2. Just found your blog from Mitchell is Moving. Am looking forward to exploring your previous posts. Cheers, Wilma in Belize.

    1. Thanks for coming by, Wilma. We're sort of neighbors. I mean, in a global kind of way.

  3. I sort of know how you feel....when we moved to Idaho (not Ohio or Iowa) we had zero neighbors....zero. We loved being alone out in the stix. Then, slowly they came.....the Californians, the New Yorkers, and others and now we are surrounded. Being surrounded is OK, but it is the changing of a life style that pisses me off......less room for the wildlife, idiots with 4 wheelers racing all around the perimeter of the property. Your view is magnificent. What a history your Jorge has....and his siblings. My dad used to make coffee sort of like that. He had the insert from an old time percolator... he'd put the grounds in it, put the insert over his huge mug and pour hot water. It smelled wonderful. We have several places here that sell fair trade coffee....I have to admit I have a Keurig....I'll have to see if they sell fair trade coffee. I may just have to visit CR someday before I croak....it looks beautiful (minus the large bugs/spiders/etc).

    1. Yeah, and since they paved the coffee road a couple of years ago, the motorcycles and ATVs go roaring down it -- grr. They paved it, but didn't put speed bumps like there are on most roads. (They call speed bumps "muertos", which means "dead ones". I thought it was a joke meaning if you go too fast, you'll hit someone, but no. It means a version of a cop who doesn't have to be alive to stop your ass.) If you and Steve ever come down, you've got a place to stay. The bugs aren't bad where we are. Now if you wait until after Jorge retires and we move to "el campo" (the country), then you're taking your chances.

  4. It makes so much more sense to shit yourself laughing, because if laughing one's ass off was possible I would no longer have one.

    Lovely new blog, but I'm very happy the Cowbell name will linger, because I don't think I can write that off easily.

    I also have a Keurig. It's a magnificent machine manufactured by complete bastards. As most magnificent machines probably are. But yeah, at least it's not McDonalds.

    1. Laughing one's ass off is clearly a big, fat lie, because I laugh a lot yet still have a big, fat ass.

      Life always needs a little more cowbell. Couldn't let that go. I've got to put the link for that skit up here somewhere, as a lot of folks from other countries are tragically unaware of the significance of needing more cowbell.

      I had to look up Keurigs when my mom got one. A magnificent machine, indeed. Unlike my semi-automatic washer, which is the most unmagnificent machine ever. But that's another story for another day.

  5. I wish I could buy that little coffee field.


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