Travel Diary: Costa Rica (6)

Down a long, winding, picturesque country road… past a few tiny towns and brilliant green hills spotted with cows, banana trees, coffee plants, and jungle we found our little home for the week…

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Home of Oldemar and Elsie (and their lovely daughters), and far, far away from all the hustle and bustle of city life, it is striking to me almost immediately that this humble little place contributes coffee to our vastly metropolitan life. That the origin of the lovely bean that many of us rely upon for our morning mojo is a most tranquil, relaxed, and peaceful place. A paradox to be sure.

To answer a few most obvious questions about our week away right out of the gate…

1. The food was FANTASTIC. Elsie is a tremendously good cook and prepared for us a great variety of delicious dishes – stews, fried chicken, pasta, home-made corn flour tortillas, picadillo, and of course beans and rice 18 different ways (all yummy!)… all that accompanied with fresh fruit and coffee… oh the coffee!! We were surprised that we were not offered coffee breakfast, lunch, and dinner though ;). We sort of thought that since the place was swimming in the stuff, we should basically be given the option to bathe in it if we could ;)!! We weren’t. And we didn’t… maybe next time. ;)-

2. Our bunk house was modest (wood frame with corrugated tin roof), but comfortable. We had plenty of electricity and there is wifi… On that note, can someone please explain to me why I can get an excellent wifi signal and good cell phone reception in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle but lose calls regularly driving down Hwy #2 between Calgary and Red Deer?! Seriously?!

The view from our bunk house door... tarzan vines and all.
The view from our bunk house door… Tarzan vines and all.

The showers are typical to Costa Rica with a small heating system in the shower head. So, once you figure out exactly how much water pressure equals a steady stream of warm water, you have about an 85% chance of a warm shower as far as I can tell ;).

3. The owners of La Bella Tica Organic Coffee Farm (Oldemar and Elsie) are just absolutely lovely human beings. We felt terribly blessed and humbled to be allowed to share in a tiny bit of their business, which they are very proud of and work hard to maintain. They earn a living income from their farm and are able to sell all of their coffee locally, mainly to tourists who participate in tours of the farm, or those who visit for extended periods of time such as ourselves. They have a small cafe-style shop area in the kitchen of their home where they display their coffee (in environmentally friendly locally produced bamboo packaging and biodegradable plastic). Many other farmers in the area sell their coffee to the local fair-trade coffee co-op, which is then sold in larger quantities to buyers around the world. Many local farmers do not have the equipment to process and roast their own beans, so Oldemar also processes and roasts coffee for neighbors and friends (for use in their own homes) for a small fee.

So… now to the nitty-gritty… what were the Irvine’s and Cameron’s up to during their time on the farm?! Well… let me tell you…

Did you ever wonder about that little bean you spin around in your grinder before brewing that delicious nectar each day? Well… here’s the low down from bean to cup.

These are coffee cherries.

Coffee cherries high up on the mountin
Coffee cherries high up on the mountain

Our motley little crew picked 5 sacks (about 100 lbs per sack) full of them in two days (4 sacks day one… relatively flat picking ground and bushes that were quite full; 1 sack day two… EXTREMELY steep picking ground (some war-wounds in our group to show for it) and more sparse cherries on each bush).

Heading to work.
Heading to work.
My basket full of cherries!
My basket full of cherries!
Paul and Maureen hard at work!
Paul and Maureen hard at work!
Cole working hard on the steep mountain slope - billy goat style!
Cole working hard on the steep mountain slope – billy-goat style!

A good day's work!

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Cole and Jake watching the beans being carried down the mountain
Cole and Jake watching the beans being carried down the mountain (very steep) on Oldemar’s strong shoulders.

Of course, picking the beans (although the most difficult among the jobs involved in coffee production), is only one step in the process of producing finished coffee beans.

We were very lucky during our stay at the farm, to also participate in drying, roasting, and packaging the finished beans.

Coffee cherries drying in the sun (Oldemar says this "natural" coffee has the best flavor and is far superior to machine-dried coffee). He has a dryer, but prefers not to use it unless absoloutely necessary due to a large order.
Coffee cherries drying in the sun (Oldemar says this “natural” coffee has the best flavor and is far superior to machine-dried coffee). He has a dryer, but prefers not to use it unless absolutely necessary due to a large order.
Shelling the beans (these ones have been dried and washed by machine, not the "natural" method, but natural beans are also shelled in the same way).
Shelling the beans (these ones have been dried and washed by machine, not the “natural” method, but natural beans are also shelled in the same way).
Sorting out the chaff... old school (Oldemar knows when the wind is just right)!
Sorting out the chaff… old school (Oldemar knows when the wind is just right)!
Raw coffee beans ready for roasting.
Raw coffee beans ready for roasting.
Oldemar roasting the beans (he is careful not to drop a single bean on the floor, so we weren't allowed to do this job ;)).
Oldemar roasting the beans (he is careful not to drop a single bean on the floor, so we weren’t allowed to do this job ;)).
Beans cool before they can be packaged or ground.
Beans cool before they can be packaged or ground.
Grinding the coffee.
Grinding the coffee (Oldemar sells coffee in 300 g bags as ground or whole bean, but the majority of his customers prefer whole bean).
Preparing the packaging for the finished product!
Preparing the packaging for the finished product!
Bagging "our" coffee... this is the batch we will be packing in our suitcase tomorrow!
Bagging “our” coffee… this is the batch we will be packing in our suitcase tomorrow!
Almost done!
Almost done! Bags are sealed and placed in labelled packaging according to roast and grind, and are ready for the sale shelf!

And voila… 6 Canadians, 3 of whom drink A LOT of coffee (you can decide for yourself which 3), are a whole lot more educated about where our food comes from. Of course, during our week we were able to ask lots of questions about coffee production on a larger scale – Who works for the big companies? Are they paid fairly for their labor? Are local farmers in Oldemar’s region paid well for their products etc. These are big questions and the answers are not simple. But, hearing answers from the horses mouth, so to speak, was encouraging, eye-opening, and educational to say the least.

Here’s what I now know for sure… we drink A LOT of coffee… most of the people I know drink A LOT of coffee. Most of this coffee comes from places most of us have not visited, produced by people most of us don’t know, in cultures most of us don’t fully understand or appreciate, sold on markets most of us don’t follow. Therefore, the very least we can do is to try to support those places and people in whatever way we can to allow them to continue to produce the coffee we love in a way that is beneficial to them also. Knowing that there are farms such as Oldemar’s where good coffee is being produced and purchased at a fair price and allowing families to live a lifestyle they find satisfying and rich, encourages our family to seek out that product and support that industry as much as we can.

In the end, this little group of farmers (well, at least two farmers, and a family of almost-farmers) quite easily slipped in to the routine around this farm. Rise early, work hard, tell some stories as the day goes by… do it all again tomorrow (although Oldemar and his family work full days, we were lucky as guests to only work until lunch time each day ;)). We shared meals with Oldemar and Elsie and found that farming, well, farming is farming. Oldemar also has a few beef cows which he keeps nearby on land that is owned by a family member. He does his best to produce the best quality coffee beans possible so that they can be sold at a premium price. He is careful with his livestock to be sure that they are in good health and can be sold at the best time for the best profit. He does all of this because he loves farming, he loves his family, and he loves providing food for people. It’s not such a foreign story at all, is it? In fact, it’s a story we know well in Alberta too. And for the zillionth time during my relatively few trips around the sun, I realize that we are all so much more the same than we are different. I am reminded of one of the “Habits” our kids learn at school… “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood…” and it seems all the more important when we consider differences between people far and wide.

I’m going to muse a little more about that while I drink my next cup of Joe.

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4 thoughts on “Travel Diary: Costa Rica (6)

  1. Sarah Creek

    Dear Irvine Family, what a treat to be reading about your adventures! It sure seems like it was a huge success! I can’t wait to catch up with you over coffee! Lots of love, and safe travels home xox

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