Excuses and Highlights from Puerto Viejo
I would have liked to have been blogging more these past few days, but I haven’t for a couple of reasons. I’m in Puerto Viejo in Talamanca on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, it is very much influenced by Caribbean island culture (very slow, easy-going people, lots of Bob Marley and dreadlocks). I’ve been here five days now and there hasn’t been one post about it because, a) I left the battery for my camera charging at my host’s place in San Jose, so I haven’t been able to take any photos, b) the first place I stayed here didn’t have internet, and c) it’s not easy to write a blog post from an itouch. So here I am, writing to you on my last night in Puerto Viejo, with no photos to show you, but with a couple of stories you might enjoy reading! Don’t worry, I’m going back to San Jose tomorrow morning to buy a netbook, those mini laptops, to better blog with!
Stories from my visit to Puerto Viejo…I know they are long, but they were unforgettable experiences that I want to record and remember.
MY VISIT TO APPTA
APPTA (translates to the association for small-scale farmers in Talamanca), is the organic, fair trade cocoa and banana coop in Costa Rica. It is located just 30 minutes away from Puerto Viejo by bus in a small town called Bribri. I was told to come at 7am and ask for Chong; not a latin name and not a time many people start work on this Caribbean side of Costa Rica. Oh well! I’ll do anything to get on a cocoa farm that supplies cocoa for Theo Chocolate!
So there I was, at 6:45am, waiting for someone to show up. Chong appeared at 7:20 and asked me to wait. So I did. For two hours. At 9:15 Chong appears and asks if I’m ready…yes! I hop into an old white truck with him, one other woman and two young guys in the back. We start driving on a paved road that promptly turns into a narrow, dirty, rocky, pothole-filled path. No one has bothered to really introduce themselves to me or ask who the heck I am, but I figure out along the way that Chong is the cocoa buyer for the coop, which means that every Tuesday and Thursday during the peak harvest he drives to pick up bags of cocoa from the small producers and pay them.
Picking up cocoa means driving to the banks of rivers, most cocoa farms in this area are on the other side of rivers (a delta) that cuts through the farmland. On the side I was staying on are banana plantations, it’s just my luck that the cocoa farms are all across the river. I can’t get over there because you must wait for a long canoe-looking boat with a motor to drive up, you pay a toll, cross, then wait for a bus to hopefully come by to take you farther. Chong has the boys weigh the bags of cocoa that are sitting there alone, noted who the producer is and how much money is owed and loads the bags onto the truck. OR, picking up cocoa means driving along that bumpy road and stopping abruptly to pick up what until then to me only looked like a lump on the side of the road, but in reality is a small burlap sack just sitting there alone. The girl next to me shouts “cacao!” if Chong doesn’t see the bag. We honk to alert producers who might have been waiting in the shade since morning for Chong to come by and pay them.
The cocoa is fresh!! That means the farmer may have picked the fruit that morning or a day or two ago and just cracked the fruit open and tossed all the beans and pulp into a burlap sack. They stink like the cocoa bags back at the chocolate factory, that strong, sour, vinegar smell. They have started fermenting in the bag, but they will be taken to “The Plant” to be fermented and dried all together. When we stop for lunch at the side of a river (there is a small restaurant that serves whatever they have cooked up that day, we ate chicken, rice and beans), in a half hour the cocoa bags have attracted a whole swarm of bees! The back of the truck is humming and vibrating with them. The two boys have the get back on and sit near the end of the truck as bees come shooting off like bullets as we drive away.
In terms of pay, today hardly anyone was paid because Chong wasn’t given any money to pay the farmers with from APPTA. Some of the farmers are really upset and complain that they need to be alerted ahead of time when APPTA is running late on a payment (this isn’t the first time this has ever happened, but it is the first time this season). Other farmers at the end of our 6 hour ride get paid a few thousand colones for their one or two bags of cocoa, that’s about $5. I ask why they were paid and not the other farmers, Chong responds, “we have very little to pay everyone right now, but we can pay some of these very small producers who have so little, they need anything we have.”
I returned a little disappointed that I was’t able to cross the rivers to actually see any cocoa farms. One of the farmers offered for me to come at the end of the month to visit his farm and even stay with him, but I won’t be in Puerto Viejo that long. I hope to come back in a few weeks anyway, or visit other farms more inland.
THE ABANDONED COCOA FARM
The next day I was very homesick and felt silly to have assumed I could just waltz onto a cocoa farm and try a farmer’s crop. That’s all they have in some cases, every pod counts. I went for a run to clear my head and instead of returning home, I wandered up the path where I was staying only to find….an abandoned cocoa farm!!! At first I was upset that I couldn’t show you any photos, but now I think it’s meant to be; it fits the whole nature of the spontaneous discovery. I’m happy to describe the moment, live:
The trees are very tall and overgrown, the whole area is overgrown. There is a plant that is shooting up from the ground everywhere, it has two broad, bright green leaves that reach my knees. I have to push them aside to walk around. I sink about three inches with every step because of the amount of organic matter scattered on the floor. Mostly decaying cocoa leaves, which when they are fresh on the tree feel like wax paper; they can be crinkled up into a ball and will pop back to normal. It’s completely shaded but the trees are pretty far apart from each other. There are long, spindly vines draping down from the branches of every tree. The trunks are their own ecosystem!! There are little tiny vines creeping up them, short, fuzzy moth, and sprouting every few inches are little bunches of whitish pink flowers the size of the tip of your pinky finger. The second you touch them they fall to the ground. The ground is speckled with them. None of the pods are ripe. They are pink with an undertone of green, smooth, most are small, the size of a large lemon, some are much larger and fit perfectly into my open hand.
I made it! I did it! I found my way to a cocoa farm in Costa Rica! Albeit an abandoned one. It’s hard to describe how I felt at that moment. I don’t know if it was the endorphins from the run or the emotional state I was already in, but I was overcome with tears. For three years working at Theo I dreamt of that moment, the moment I would get to walk through a cocoa farm, and there I was. It was beautiful.
That night I was staying with a pair of German guys, a pair of Argentine brothers (curiously with the same names as my dad and his brother) and a pair of ticos. The Argentines cooked a nice, simple spaghetti with tomato and cream sauce and the rest of us provided drinks. After, we all went in to town to listen to some live music at a neighborhood bar, dance and chat some more. Before we know it it’s 2 and the bars start to slow down. I suddenly get the urge to go to the beach and go for a swim! So we all head down to the beach and the ticos and I jump in to the water. The warmth of the Caribbean water envelops us, it’s gorgeous. The Germans won’t come in. Then one of the ticos yells “oh my god, oh my god, look!” He’s waving his hands around under water and bright blue sparks are shooting off of them! We all start mimicking him and create an underwater firework display! It was magic. We were actually just startling a bunch of bioluminescent plankton, but it felt more like magic. You’ve probably heard about fluorescent plankton, but being in the water with them is something else entirely. The Germans eventually joined us in the water and we all returned home that night at 4am, beaming.
My visit to Puerto Viejo without a camera has taught me to use my perception, my observations to capture a moment in time. It has been hard, and not having much access to internet made me homesick, but soon I hope to be able to blog anywhere with a netbook! Time to go back to the big city!