A little over an hour's drive down from Santa Rosa, on a nice new highway, you arrive at San Juan, Intibuca. An exit to the right heads back up into the hills towards Erandique, famous not just for its opals, but also for its coffee. It's a dusty drive, reminiscent of the logging roads I remember back home, the brush along the sides of the road blanketed in greyish-brown. I wonder to myself as a lady hangs laundry to dry....it'll dry, but it won't be clean anymore, I think. Erandique seems to have a disproportionate number of Catholic Churches considering its small size; the odd paved road; and one block of a boulevard complete with trees in the middle. This is the area where the legend of Lempira, the native who led a rebellion against the conquistadores, etenerally etched himself onto Honduran currency. I take a picture in front of a monument to him, horribly undignified compared to his legacy as a hero in this country, but proof enough I've been here. Of course, it wasn't my goal just to see this town and the famous local immortalized in the park: I'm here to buy coffee.
Let's face it, obviously I'm not buying coffee, I'm along for the ride. Since Shelagh and I are working in a coffee processing plant teaching English to the employees, I'm getting a bit of an education on how this business runs. Not just for my benefit, but it helps the employees too if I can understand the kind of jargon they will need to know. Not that there are many anglophone farmers out this way, but it helps them overall if they can explain their job in what has been described as the language of coffee, English.
Before, I talked about the important role of the cupper in the coffee process and the nuances of the job I did not expect. This time around, I'll talk about whom I'll call "the purchaser" and some of the oddities that go with this part of the job that I likewise did not expect.
Here's the basic process: the purchaser visits the producers, collects samples, the cupper tests the samples, the purchaser reports back to the producer either buying or rejecting their coffee. The second time around the purchaser comes with a driver and loaders and send the coffee back to the processing plant.
The first producer we met had a bad batch. We took two of his lots, but the bad one we left behind to his obvious dismay. Nevertheless, Esau, the purchaser, assured me that other exporters don't care about the quality, they'll buy it, sometimes for a better price even! Some places are skilled at hiding the damaged coffee in amongst good ones so that it's hardly noticed, he explained. These producers are truly family farms: the sacks of coffee are sometimes sitting in their front porch, so we can easily meet the family while we're there. Sometimes they even offer us coffee to drink....fitting.
The second place we visited was less fortunate with its coffee. Esau found something he wasn't willing to risk buying, so we just took an extra sample to assess the risk with the cuppers before proceeding. Unfortunately for us, the good sacks were way in the back, so there was some maze-like navigation to get them out. (Suddenly I realize "corn maze" is a bit of a pun....🤔)
Now as you can imagine, family farms here don't typically have pallet jacks, let alone forklifts. The trucks are unfortunately not equipped with lift gates. There are no dollies, moving ramps....but there are strong backs, and whatever boards of wood that can be found. And these sacks aren't the kind of sacks of coffee I'm used to picking up...I max out at 1 kilogram...these sacks are over a hundred pounds in weight and roughly the size of the average Honduran! But the way these little guys flip them up and onto their shoulders is pretty impressive! Actually, if there's one thing that Hondurans do really well, and there's not JUST one, they lift well. They carry heavy loads in all kinds of weather, on all kinds of surfaces, with nary a complaint. And they all wear the belts that help your back. However, seat belts.... anyways, the point is, it's arduous work to load a truck here, but they do it surprisingly quickly.
After Erandique, we trek higher into the sky via a highway smoother than the one to the big city, yet of dirt. It's amazing how up here the dirt changes colour so drastically in places. Everyone we pass it seems is headed in the opposite direction, and in large groups. Often standing room only in the backs of pickup trucks. And the temperature is dropping. Now people have on tuques, scarves, sweatshirts. I'm told we're nearly 2 kilometres in the sky, so I don't blame them. In fact, by nightfall we'll drop to nearly 10 degrees Celsius! I admit, to my Canadian readers that's like a rich man crying to a beggar that he lost his wallet, but when your ill-prepared for cold, it's that much colder.
I use the bathroom where we first pick up sacks of coffee. I'm impressed how unclean a place can be surrounded by crisp, serene beauty, but that's the unfortunate truth about us humans. There's discussion which way the truck will have to exit, but turns out to be the least of the driver's concerns because we end up on a road (maybe it was a driveway) much narrower and trickier to navigate. It's the house of one of the producers, and it's at the top of a hill, so the wind is bitterly cold! Esau keeps with him a funny instrument, resembling a large, hollow tent peg. It's jabbed into the sacks of coffee to pull out a sample from each one. That sample in turn represents the batch. It's kinda funny to watch him jab each one, grab a handful of beans then toss them into a little bucket.
In reality, the coffee business this side of processing, and this side of the border, is a lot less pretty than we expect when we walk into a Starbucks, or better yet, a smaller shop that caters to specialty coffees. We like to think we're a cut above when we order our lattes wearing our fanciest pants, but the humble and unpretentious origins of these little beans put us to shame. I often laugh to myself as I drive along the highway in Santa Rosa, coffee beans spread out in the sun to dry, inches from where my tires pass, breathing the same air my Diesel engine is polluting, and I think to myself, "There's your organic coffee, Mateo!"
(Pictures above: drying coffee on a roof, the other place has its own large dryer.)
As evening turns to night, our day has yet to finish. Thankfully someone picks up my Open English shift I've dropped as it's becoming clearer I won't be home in time. There's still coffee to pick up, and treacherous drives to lead the 5-ton. These workers are good sports though. The farmers are kind too, warming us up with coffee. At the moment though, I'm in the truck, waiting, writing, warming up. After all, I'm Mr Fancy-Pants here and I'm still waiting for my latte.