Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Field Trip Recap: Day 4...July 14th?

I have been a slacker about continuing the description of my field trip experience so here is my remembrance of the last day of our trip. I didn't finish the description of the 3rd day but if you want to know about it I'll tell you later. Anyway, here you go...last day of the long van ride.

Wake up and say goodbye to the Hotel San Juan. Sad to see it go but we must trek onward to Santiago Xanica. At this juncture in the field trip my nerves are starting to fray but surprisingly it hasn’t been as bad as I imagined being stuck in a van with 15 other people.

The trip to Santiago Xanica takes the better part of the day. We travel along the coast of Oaxaca and look longingly at the ocean, wanting to stay and play in the surf. Instead we turn inland and head up into the mountains. The road to Santiago is a very narrow winding dirt road. Looking out the van windows was a bit scary as frequently the view was not of the road but straight down the mountainside. We passed several large trucks which forced us to slow way down or stop the van, inch over to the side of the road and let them pass. It was also important for us to reach our destination before the rain began due to the risk of landslides, a common phenomenon on that road. The landscape was so green and steep, fields dotted several mountain sides and you have to wonder how the farmers manage to cultivate on what seems a vertical slope.

We arrive in Santiago just before a rain storm hits the town. Climbing out of the van it was so lovely and cool, being at altitude was a welcome relief from the humidity and heat of the Isthmus. We walked with our luggage through the town to the coffee warehouse that would be our home for the night. The path to the building took us past the elementary school and all the kids crowded at the window and shouted at us, I’m sure a big group of luggage-toting gringos is quite the rarity in their town. Just beyond the school we arrived at our lodgings which consisted of a cement building containing some coffee roasting equipment and piles of big burlap sacks all atop a cement floor. I of course immediately had to find the bathroom which was located just outside the entrance to the building. It was a dark little room with lots and lots of spider webs (no roaches!), no light and the flushing mechanism was a bucket of water. Not only was I glad I had packed my headlamp (hands free peeing!) but I was also surprised and delighted that we had a toilet! I was imagining peeing in the woods. In fact being under a roof and indoors was a nice surprise as well!

After dropping off our luggage we headed to comida at the home of one of our hosts, a very nice family who managed to fit all of us on their patio for dinner. As we ate a black and white spotted chicken crawled around under the table weaving in between our dangling feet.

Well fed, we went back to the coffee warehouse where we were treated to a discussion by several men in the town who spoke about organic coffee production in Xanica. This town has about 800 people I believe and the main industry is coffee and has been for years. The production of organic and fair trade coffee is a complex process and to hear the producers speak about their experiences was quite eye opening. The requirements of certification take a large toll on these communities, the time and effort necessary to verify that your coffee is indeed organic is a bit crazy. These producers were essentially growing organic coffee before it was fashionable to be organic and now they must document that their fields conform to the organic standards. Terracing, no pesticides, composting, shade trees pruned just right etc. In addition to all these requirements they must send someone from their village, unpaid, to multi-day training classes so that they have a local individual able to certify their fields. This local certification is not enough however and the coffee producers also have to pay for an outside inspector to come to Xanica and document the purity of their fields. This takes an enormous amount of time, money and manpower for those in Santiago Xanica as well as other coffee producing communities. In theory, organic is supposed to fetch a higher price and it does but as you might imagine the extra work makes this a difficult balance. Additionally,these producers do reap a higher price but those that really benefit are the corporations like Starbucks who charge you an arm and a leg for this stuff. In one cup of coffee there is probably only two cents worth of the stuff and you are paying almost 2 dollars. Obviously someone is getting rich and it isn’t the producers who are paid about 19 bucks for a huge sack of coffee.

Cement floors and wasps
We wrap up the discussion and an hour or so later head to the town plaza to watch the first graduation ceremony for the new high school. The plaza was filled, kids were running everywhere, dogs were playing in the center square and the graduates were dressed in their finest. After a lot of traveling I was pretty tired and couldn’t stay for too long so my roomie and I went back to the coffee warehouse to hit the hay, or the burlap sacks rather, and get a choice spot on the floor.

One of our hosts and Oliver walked us back to open the door and the host recommended we sleep in a little room in the back of the building as it was warmer. Roomie and I set down a woven straw mat and on top of that started to layer burlap sacks to add some cushioning and warmth between the sleeping back and the cement floor. Halfway through the process, my roomie says, “Um, Marissa, there is something in the corner”. Great, I’m imagining large roaches of course, so I check it out and there is a wasp nest with lots of big ass wasps crawling on it in the corner of the room. Not sleeping in there! We moved to a small room across the hall which after inspection proved to be wasp free. I didn’t see any roaches at all in Xanica and even killed a spider for someone else! I share this just to prove I’m not a total scaredy-cat. We slept in our sleeping bags on top of the sacks and it was actually not too bad, many in our group didn’t have sleeping bags and their night was a bit longer than ours. It was a bit tough tip toeing through 13 or so sleeping bodies on the floor to get to the bathroom but again, I was glad I had my headlamp for hands free peeing!

Jungle hike
The next morning after breakfast we started our hike down the mountain to the coffee fields. We were accompanied by 6 or 7 men, local growers, with very large machetes. For some reason every time I see a man wielding a machete I find it a bit unsettling, not sure why. We head down the mountain and our guides, the ones with the machetes, are talking back and forth to one another in Zapotec. This is one of the many indigenous languages in Oaxaca and the sounds of the language are really foreign to us romance language speakers, I kept attempting to hear familiar words but of course I don’t know Zapotec so this was a bit silly.


The coffee fields were just as Oliver said they would be, totally unidentifiable to the untrained eye. The plants are scattered throughout the jungle and if you don’t know what you are looking for they appear to be just another part of the forest. Harvesting coffee plants seems like it would be ridiculously difficult. The plants, as I mentioned, are scattered in amongst all the other jungle flora (machetes come in handy for whacking this stuff away), reside on very steep hillsides and the amount of beans you need to collect to make it profitable seems infinite! I will never look at another cup of coffee in the same way.

We continued to hike through the jungle, several in the group were bit by ants and other jungle bugs as we hiked up and down some wide, well used paths and some barely discernable ones in thick underbrush. Banana trees were everywhere and our guides had chopped down a bunch of them for a mid-hike snack. These bananas were gigantic! They are not like anything you find in the grocery store. I think you can get years worth of potassium simply by consuming half of one of these monsters.

After several hours tramping through the jungle and sweating (it is humid in the valleys with the coffee plants) we pile in the van, machete men and all, for the ride back to Xanica. Eat (again) and then drive back down to the coast on the windy dirt road, drop everyone but me and another woman off at the beach and drive back to Oaxaca. I arrived back at my seƱora’s house around 1:30am. So that was the field trip! Minus the end of the third day which I still haven’t written about because I’m a slacker.

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