Coffeeland Honduras: Where Going?

In the last two posts, we have looked at where Linares has come from and why we are involved there. Now a little more about where we are going from here and how we’ll all get there.

So where do we go from here? This first trip was a lot like a first date – kind of seeing where we stand and finding out more about each other. Well, I wish I could say with some certainty what happens next but I’ve lived too long to still delude myself into thinking I know what will happen tomorrow. However, there are great things in motion.

I see our role on this trip as having been facilitators. Our friend Vaughn puts it like this:

“Our work here in Honduras is like a man standing on the side of the road when a truck comes by and a bunch of bananas falls off the truck and into the street. I go over and pick up the bananas and set them on the sidewalk. A few minutes later a hungry man walks by and asks, ‘Do you know where I can find some bananas?’ And I say, ‘Will these bananas help?'”

We went to Honduras to learn about the culture – the people and find out what kind of help would be most beneficial. In the village of Linares, this is taking many different forms. Returning the kindergarten to operation is one and a teacher from the village has volunteered to take on the task. There is also a teenage boy who goes to highschool in a nearby town – the first of the village to go to highschool. His grades are good and we are working a couple different avenues to procure a scholarship for him so he can go to university after he graduates. Next February, we will be building pilas for the few houses that do not have them yet and pouring concrete around them to deter the fungus and mosquitoes that proliferate in standing water that tends to gather. We hope to take medicine to treat the fungal skin infections in those who have been infected by the stagnate water as well. All of these efforts are to curtail the continuing decline in the quality of life in Linares but there is another effort at hand – one that has the potential to upgrade the trajectory of the villagers’ lives in an ongoing and sustainable way – the main reason those of us at Safehouse Coffee signed on for this project.

During the last couple of days that we were in Olancho, we were being pursued to take a meeting with a gentleman that represented a German international development organization. Apparently, he wanted to talk about some agricultural resources that might be available for Linares. I’m not sure how he knew of us or that we were there. Understandably, we had some security concerns about the whole thing since this meeting was not on our agenda and we could not find a connection that linked him to us but we rolled the dice and took the meeting.

We met in a large unfinished room of the home where we had been taking our meals while in Gualaco. I was unusually wary as we waited for the man to fix some technical difficulties with his laptop and projector and I felt overwhelmingly protective of the families in Linares. I had my poker face on (also happens to be my haggling face, used when at swap meets), paper and pen at the ready. The gentleman finally got his technical issues ironed out and began his presentation. Joaquin translated. Over the course of the next hour, he showed us the program he represents and I grilled him with as many questions as I could come up with – trying to sift any inconsistencies to the surface that may exist. At the end of our meeting, I had come to two conclusions: 1) This is an incredibly effective and comprehensive agricultural program that has been operating in Honduras for many years and 2) it is being operated by Hondurans that are deeply tied to the communities that they serve.

The program is multifaceted and has components that deal systemically with water safety, food security, ecological sustainability, deforestation, crop management, coffee production training, public health and on and on. It was simply amazing what was being done. We asked him if he would meet us out at the village the next day to meet with Blas, Adalid and any other farmers that wanted to hear what he had to say and he agreed. We were  worried whether the villagers would trust him seeing how they don’t know each other. You just don’t do business with people you don’t know down there.

The next day, we are all hanging out on Adalid’s porch watching the children play some crazy games they made up. It should have been peaceful and satisfying but I had a fist in my stomach waiting to see how this much-needed program would be received. After a while, the man pulled up in his truck and he and his two small children got out. “This is good,” I thought, “bringing his children is a great sign of trust and openness.” But as soon as we came into his line of sight, he got a look of consternation on his face and locked his eyes on Adalid. Walking straight up to him, he asked, “Don’t I know you?” Adalid answered that he wasn’t sure. “Yes, yes, you worked for my father in (some town I didn’t catch the name of) when I was a boy. He trusted you. Adalid said, “Is your father (name I didn’t catch)? Yes, he was a good man.” They both smiled and shook hands warmly.

BOOSH!! This was fantastic! What a turn of events that started twenty years ago summiting a pinnacle of need at this place and time! An hour of talking and it was done. Linares in the newest village on the program’s books – a program that comprehensively supplies what this village needs to truly get back to their coffee farms and wellness.

In the months until our February trip, we will be keeping tabs on the progress of the program’s paperwork and internal organization in Linares. They are set up to succeed and we will be supporting them in every way necessary.

Coffeeland Honduras: Why Here?

Why is the project focused on the small remote village of Linares and what work is to be done?

one of the passages into Linares

Why Linares? Because we had contacts there and we became aware of their need. Isn’t that how people get involved with anything? We have wanted to get connected at coffee origin in a meaningful way for years and this was the first legitimate opportunity to do so that we felt good about.

In this life, I have come to grips with the reality that there is often a marked difference between what I think needs to be done and what actually needs to be done. This most certainly holds true in our endeavors in Linares. Here are a few cases in which my perception of how we can help clashed with what would be truly beneficial to the sweet families of the village. I will list them as “SM”: Stateside Mindset and “HM”: Honduras Mindset. The Stateside Mindset is not bad or without value but when the reality of the ground in Honduras is observed with an open mind and a desire to do real good, one should end up with an augmented perspective, ergo, the Honduras Mindset. Hopefully, this will bring some clarity to our work there in a few different categories.

WATER

SM: The water in Linares will make you sick. It is ‘clean’ by most Honduran standards but could be cleaner, therefore, they need our help in getting the water purified to US standards. After all, if can be done better, it should, right?

HM: The water coming into Linares is from a system that is fed by mountain stream headwaters and is not contaminated with any parasites. Some bacteria and algae build up in the holding tank over time but the villagers have learned how to clean it with natural items they have at hand in order to keep the water potable for them. North Americans would likely have some gastro problems if we were to drink it but Linarens’ bodies are conditioned to it so they do not get sick. In reality, if we were to install a purification system, it would of course be very clean but the villagers would then get sick from any other community’s water. In effect, we would be creating a solution in search of a problem – what’s more, this could easily produce further isolation for them since they would not be able to spend much time in another village or town: exactly the opposite of what they need.

FOOD SECURITY

SM: We could purchase seeds on this trip and introduce several high-yield food crops that can be grown in small plots for each home, ensuring both a wider, more nutritious diet and greater stability in the food supply.

HM: Many vegetables and foods that we think of as indispensable staples have never even been seen or heard of in Linares before. Consider for a second this:

a slightly under-ripe lychee fruit - my favorite

This is a common fruit throughout Honduras. It looks and feels like some kind of alien food out of Deep Space Nine. When you crack through the rind, it’s fruit is like a slimy whited-out eyeball. No kidding. However, it is mild and sweet (the red ones are fully ripe and sweeter, the yellow ones tangy) with a wonderfully appetizing texture and these little guys are basically one of nature’s multi-vitamins. Faced with this “food” having never encountered it before, one would not be very likely to eat it – most would be dubious even after having it explained to them. This is a food that Linarens eat regularly. Amaranth, on the other hand is a highly productive grain that is grown in tall bush-like stalks – packed with dietary goodness and easy to grow, but they have never seen it before. How is it helpful to introduce foods that no one is likely to eat or even be able to sell at this point? Nothing is more culturally ingrained than an indigenous diet, so no, we did not foist a bunch of new crops on them so we could put a tally mark in the good deed column. Introducing new crops will have to be systemic and built up to over time. In the meantime, some simple agricultural techniques for growing yucca better fits the bill. More info on the implementation of an agriculture program in Linares will be in the next post.

COFFEE

SM: The villagers have not been tending or harvesting their coffee farms since Hurricane Mitch flattened them in 1998. We are a specialty coffee company so in light of our “knowledge base” it makes sense to help them start over from scratch with varietals of coffee that are suited to specialty grade quality. It will make them more money than they’ve ever made from a harvest before and help elevate awareness of their efforts and product.

HM: When we finally arrived in Linares, we found that having taken so long (over a year and a half) to get there since it was first proposed, two of the families had gotten to work on their own. One of the men had walked to several coffee farms in the region until he found someone that would give him a sack of coffee seeds in parchment. He then built two nursery beds out of bamboo, discarded irrigation hose and banana leaves and propagated 10,000 – yes, that’s ten thousand –  coffee seedlings, all of them a local catimor varietal called Lempira (of the same name as their money, a department of the country, and an indigenous hero).

shooting a segment for the documentary next to one of Adalid's coffee nurseries

Catimor has a portion of robusta in its genetics, the rest being arabica (the genetic lineage is a bit tedious – another time perhaps), which makes it more disease and pest resistant than many other varietals. It is also an overbearing varietal, meaning that it pumps out coffee cherries in copious amounts for 5 to 10 years and then slows down in production. This is the coffee that they are accustomed to growing (from years ago) and they already know how to handle it fairly well. Another aspect of this is that educational resources for specialty coffee in Honduras are still in development and can be hard to come by, especially so far in the back country of the Olancho department. In the case of Linares and at this point in time, practicality wins. We have garnered resources for the farmers that will boost their production of Lempira greatly but will also progress into specialty coffee a few years down the road. Again, more on the implementation of this in the next post. It is important to note that another aspect of “coming up” in Honduras is that becoming known as a small remote village that has suddenly sling-shotted into money is guaranteed to bring the kind of attention that they do not need right now – and we’ll leave it at that.

HEALTH CARE

SM: We expect to find some serious problems with the water supply (refer above on that) that need to be addressed and perhaps a resurgence of intestinal worms, especially in the children. We will assess the situation and put together a medical group for the next trip.

HM: We’ve covered how the water is not a problem for them at all. There has been no resurgence of worms or parasites of any kind. What we did find was a fungal infection in the skin of the feet of some of the children stemming from water that stands stagnate around the pilas (large sink-like structures that serve as the bathing, washing and kitchen sink station for a family) or washing rocks of many homes.

a washing rock in Linares - we will be replacing the few that are left with pilas on the next trip

Treating the fungal infection makes no difference unless that standing water is taken care of so on the next trip we will be installing concrete around those areas and digging drainage ditches and then treat the medical need (hopefully all in one trip). This standing water also plays a role in another health concern: dengue fever. They have not had a problem with this mosquito-borne virus also known as breakbone fever in a long time but here it is. The mosquitoes pupate in standing water and emerge on the wing to spread this feverish and stiff jointed illness. In some cases, it can also lead to its life-threatening forms: dengue hemorrhagic fever and dengue shock syndrome in which the blood platelets are progressively shredded, ending in death. There is no vaccine for Dengue and removing the mosquitoes’ breeding areas of stagnate water is the only course of action.

So why are we here in Linares? Well, there are a lot of answers to that but the only one that remains the same both pre- and post-trip is that relationship is a force for good and the only way that any of us change and grow.

talking with friends on Adalid's porch - I can't wait to go back

the bonding experience of 8 hours on foot, 1600 meters and 14 river crossings to see the farms

taking five at their coffee farm base camp - elevation 1250 meters asl

Relationship – the basis for everything.

Coffeeland Honduras – Where From?

Since being home, I have been like a computer straining against its CPU to process data beyond its capacity. The frequency of updating this blog has suffered for it but I would much rather  gain perspective and write something that is profitable to someone else than just spit out information as it tumbles out of my head. Given some time for decompression, I feel a greater grasp of what I just witnessed. Approaching it from the beginning seems best.

What is the Idea of Coffeeland Honduras and Where Did it Come From?

As a coffee professional, I have always wanted to “get to origin” and see how coffee is grown, processed and shipped. As a perpetual student this occurred to me as the natural progression of study for the purpose of understanding. I never did very well in school and found its structure counter-productive in both public and private institutions. My personal learning style is a process of interest leading to study, study leading to deeper research, research leading to people that are more advanced then myself and finally to personal experience with the subject. As a man of faith, this carries over naturally into my spiritual path – essentially, all true growth occurring beyond the intellectual plane and in experiential proof in relationship with people. For me, what I do and who I am (spiritually) is inseparable and exists simultaneously in daily life. Therefore, every time I learn a new concept and it matures into a new skill with my hands, what I can do and who I am expands.

All that culminates in a compulsion, more than just a desire, to get to origin and expand. Honduras became the focus of this first experience because a dear friend and regular customer at the shop has worked in rural Honduras for almost 14 years and asked if we could help in the area of coffee.

our dear friend, Vaughn Drawdy

 

We here at Safehouse started working furiously to put together a plan that would be highly educational and highly profitable to the small village in which we would be working. Educational, not just for us but for as many other people as possible, whether that be through our pages online or actually coming along with us on future trips. With this in mind, we decided that a documentary series would be the highest impact medium to transfer the experience and content to others. We have made some videos in the past with very positive response from our friends and colleagues. Those videos ranged from the mildly educational to the outlandish but they were fun to make and served as a great creative outlet. They also happened to elevate awareness of our company in the specialty coffee industry, so that doesn’t hurt either and we have made a LOT of friends from it all. Nevertheless there is a chasm of difference between making tongue-in-cheek product reviews and shooting a documentary. We are not documentarians but we have yet to meet a subject we could not master. Documentaries are a particularly difficult format of film to achieve at a high level, as we are now learning. In the purpose of the series, one does not want to imbue the doc with dogmatism or make the story about one’s self (blogs are a much better venue for that). Sounds simple, but in the States we have all grown up in a society that relates everything in first person, making this project even more of a learning experience – but that leads us into the next post:

Coffeeland Honduras: Why Here?

shooting video in the electricity-free village of Linares

Gualaco, Olancho: Basecamp

The mountain roads of Olancho are torturous. Like a washboard carved by the rivulets of a hundred rains, these passages are a challenge for both the body and the mind. Shadows falling across the road sometimes hide crevasses a foot deep and potholes you could hide a VW in. Vaughn took the roads to task and came out on top, finally bringing us safely to the small city of Gualaco, just ten minutes away from our target – the village of Linares.

a freshly repaired mudslide across the road that goes to Gualaco

If you are ever in Gualaco, there is but one hotel that should be on your agenda – the Hotel Mi Palacio. I believe the proprietor’s name is Berta but I do know that she is a hairdresser and barber whose shop is just a couple doors down the block from the hotel. She maintains a clean hotel with gated parking and 24-hour security on staff. It is not what we as North Americans would call posh but it is the Hilton-level accommodations of Gualaco, to be sure.

our friends in Gualaco - Mary, Digna, Miguel and Claudia (l to r)

We would be taking our meals at the home of Digna and Santiago. Digna is a carer educator in Honduras and previously ran a restaurant on the main road that runs through Gualaco. They closed the eatery some time back and now they are “open” only for family and close friends when in town. Their home is beautiful and their hospitality even more so – it was like having momma cook for you three times a day. The kids in Gualaco have learned how to make homemade fireworks and as soon as the sun goes down (about 5:30pm) you hear them going off all over town. They have recently upgraded these makeshift noisemakers to fly up with a load whistle, much like a bottle rocket. The first night we witnessed this, my mind was drawn to the juxtaposition of how Disney would celebrate the day every evening at sundown with several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of fireworks (when we were in Anaheim, California for the SCAA convention a couple years ago). It seemed to be the same celebration of life to me there in that small mountain town.

sunset from the balcony of Mi Palacio room #6 in Gualaco

Gualaco would be our basecamp, our HQ of operations for the next several days as we traveled back and forth to Linares and it served very well for these purposes. More than that though, Gualaco was an opportunity to experience and hopefully better understand life in Honduras in a small town (a small city by Honduran standards). As our presence and faces became more familiar around the place, it seemed to open itself up to us – by “it”, I mean its people – the reality of any community. A town is not buildings and streets. A town is a convergence of lives, a confluence of people that meld to make a qualitatively new flavor – not a patchwork but rather a tapestry.

a roadside market on the way to Gualaco - initiative in physical form

What we now know as the Republic of Honduras has endured centuries of colonization and external influence by many different cultures. Honduras has seven indigenous peoples as well as Afro Hondurans (as in the Garifuna), but the largest group of the population is called “mestizo”: people whose lineage is indigenous mixed with European. On top of that, there are also substantial pockets of Middle Easterners, Chinese, German and many other peoples. In a way ( and I reserve the right to amend this opinion at a any time as I learn more), Honduras is a melting pot much like the US in some respects, woven into an often cohesive but sometimes partitioned whole. It all makes for an immense spread of cultures to learn about in order to have a good launching point for understanding the complex social and cultural structures of this amazing country. Gualaco was like a case study in this diversity, an aliquot portion of the whole.

 

Brain Drain Mainly to Blame

I have always been an adventurous sort. As a teenager I traveled the country, getting around by whatever means I could find. Coast to coast and very nearly border to border, I have tromped all over our purple mountain majesties. The United States is unimaginably large and even with as many miles as I racked up between toe and heel there is still so much of my beautiful country that I have not experienced.

Having said that, I can not possibly overstate how ‘other’ than what you have seen in the States lies beyond the boundaries of our fine republic. Not better or worse, just ‘other’ – different. Like how different mathematics is from philosophy. Like how different Mac is from PC. They may seem similar because they can fall under a common listing (courses of study and types of computers, respectively, for example), but if you have enjoyed the diversity of experiencing various cultures and social structures within the U.S., then you may be a good candidate for traveling abroad.

However, there are certain unknowns that bear consideration. Do you get travelers’ stomach? Are you resourceful enough to communicate in a place where you don’t speak the language? Are you tolerant of people who have a loose relationship with personal hygiene? Do you freak out at insects, bats, snakes, fungi or wild dogs? Does the thought of being served an odd-smelling fruit that you have never seen and eating it anyway because it would be a grave insult to refuse such hospitality make you a bit queasy? Do you know the difference in pitch between homemade fireworks and live gunfire or the lid of a dumpster and a concussion grenade, for that matter? Can you deal with varying firmnesses of bedding from hammock to the ground? Or do you have unlimited funds with which to stay in fine hotels and if so, how much local culture would one experience through taking dinner poolside?

Whatever your answers to this only partially tongue-in-cheek questionnaire, suffice it to say that after two weeks in Honduras, I am completely drained and yearning for some amber waves of grain. We accomplished our intended work here on this trip and I have learned much to better future trips. In fact, we are already setting plans to return late February, 2012, but today was our last full day here and I have turned my face towards Atlanta. I am leaving behind dozens of new and dear friends here in Honduras but this Georgia boy needs some peaches and boiled peanuts – you know what I’m sayin’? Okay, maybe you don’t but I think a little longing is good for the soul.

I wish I had the words,energy and stamina to write all that has transpired here right now. I still have so many stories and families to share and those posts will be going up as next week goes along. For now, I am accepting that I am fatigued, going to sleep and catching a plane tomorrow. Here are some fun pictures. See you Stateside!

Joaquin, Digna, Mary, Claudia, Vaughn, Miguel and Hunt (l to r)

our buddy, Ozmani and his mother, Kenia, in Linares

the girls of Linares playing in the churchyard

Vaughn, Adali, Ozmani and Hunt (l to r) another day at the office

Post-Apocalyptic L.A. in the Clouds

Tegucigalpa, Honduras – population 3million+. It is not a safe town if you do not have somewhere to be. Political and gang graffiti color many buildings and I am only just beginning to learn what it means. I don’t know hectic traffic and neither do you if you have not been outside the States. Sure, Atlanta can be tough sometimes, but in Teguc, road signs and centerlines are merely suggestions, to be disregarded as gap allows. Our doors are locked, our windows up. Once we enter the Hotel Honduras Maya, we do not leave again until we are ready to leave town. This is just a one night layover because the sun would meet the mountains before we arrived in Gualaco and we cannot let that happen. Not here.

statue of Jesus the Christ above the city of Tegucigalpa

The hotel was palatial but oddly empty. A room at a place like this in Atlanta would cost $300 to $400 a night but here in Teguc, if you are on the right list you get it for $70. From the courtyard ringed with high walls and razor wire, it was cognitively dissonant to be faced with multiple pools and hot tubs and large patios set with heavy tables and chairs while gunfire echoed from the city. Sitting in the courtyard, this hotel could be in Beirut, Abu Dhabi, anywhere.

coffee tray at the Hotel Maya in Tegucigalpa

All this said, I know for certain that if we were to meet the people that inhabit this place, we would find the same hard-working and honest folks that we have come to know as Hondurans. Perhaps next time.

view of a neighborhood in Tegucigalpa

‘Hardcore’ is Relative

A little over a month ago scouring the internet for Honduras information, a stumbled across a website for a microfinance organization in La Union, Lempira. I read their site, then their blog, then stalked them across cyberspace until I found a stateside staff member on Facebook and finally crowbarred an email from him. I emailed one of the people working in Honduras and… two weeks passed. Finally I got an email back and we played phone tag for a while, etc, etc.

Fortunately, I kept La Union on the agenda. Patrick, Charlie (Litos) and Jeremy redefine the concept of hardcore. There are many more people involved with La Union Microfinanza, but I will get to them in a later more comprehensive post.

These are a bunch of guys from Michigan, many of them U of M grads, that moved to Honduras to make a difference. They do not have a car, so they hoof it or jump on the back of a truck to get around. Now I have to admit that I’ve done some complaining in the past about working the mission I believe in with long hours and little pay. After meeting these extraordinary individuals, I hope never to again. Any arrogant thought I have ever had about being hardcore-er than thou was obliterated after two hours with these fine men. They are simply exceptional.

Now it bears mentioning that we got well and truly lost in the mountainous back country of Honduras trying to find La Union, Lempira, but even that experience proved valuable… but that is for another post. When we finally found it, we met Patrick and Charlie in a field just outside of La Union breaking ground on a new beneficio – a wet mill. There were a few other local farmers working at the site and everyone was digging or setting framing posts and all by hand. The guys took us to the top of the gently sloping field and drew for us both the long and short-term plans for the site. I felt that I could see the buildings and work stations materializing before my eyes as they spoke and their passion made it as though it already existed.

Patrick Hughes relating the development plans for the La Union Microfinanza Beneficio

Over the course of the visit we had several discussions about how best to provide proper support in a culture to which one is not indigenous – again a heady topic for another post. The LUM men fed us generously and even housed us for the night but before all of that, they took us to the finca (farm) of a family they had been working with for over a year.

The coffee farm of Antonio was meticulously tended and  beautifully separated in lots by varietal. Tonito, as he is affectionately called, showed us much of his village (for which he serves as mayor as best I can tell). We must have seemed as though we had never seen this plant called coffee before because we got excited every time he showed us a different varietal or demonstrated an agricultural technique. Towards the end of the tour we ended up back in front of his house, his wife and children peering out at us curiously. Bidding us to come over to a raised table under a tin roof, Antonio removed the split bamboo laid on top and revealed a bed of compost about 10 inched deep. He dug his hands deep into the rich black substrate and pulled out a fistful of the stuff. Opening his hands, we saw dozens of wriggling inhabitants filling the soil. Proudly, he looked up at us and said with a half smile, “We call these worms.”

Antonio explaining his coffee pulp vermiculture practices

During our visit, I connected a lot with Jeremy as well. I had been away from my wife for a week already and was missing her something fierce. As some point, Jeremy told me his wife and kids were coming to visit that weekend. When I asked how long it had been, I was floored to find out it had been two and a half months since he’d seen them. That, my friends, is proof that no matter how far out there you may think you have gone, you should count your blessings because there is someone else whose mission has taken them even farther. There is good work being done in Honduras by amazing men and women, and I am proud to know so many that are counted among them.

Jeremy, Antonio and Patrick (l to r)