Sometime in the last few months I picked up a new personal meal-prompted ritual. And it only slightly (and admittedly irrationally) bothers me that onlookers might presume I’m Christian (which I, although a fan of Jesus “the pilgrim,” am not) when I bow my head, close my eyes, and whisper down the inner halls of awareness my gratitude for and debt (in some currency divine) to all the people, events and natural elements that conspired in order to provide the offering at my table.
However this exercise is often a stretch of the imagination for me (as well as others raised in “developed” countries) where the distance that my food has travelled is so far that it often leaves me an equal number of emotional miles distant from knowing anything of the source of my sustenance. This fact evidenced by the fruit in the photo above, which, contrary to many 1st-world-first-guesses is not a cranberry, but the colorful coat of the very same coffee bean (coming in equally flamboyant shades of yellow as well) that fuels the entire of the developed worlds’ digestive fire; moving along board meetings, news readings, exam studying and, in general, the full flush of the other bowel movements of (at least) the American social, political, work and educational systems.
So in an effort to follow the umbilical cord of our addiction to “happy-ccinos” (as my co-leader likes to call cappuccinos) back to the pachamama (“mother earth”) source, we (me and my students) wrapped palm-thatched baskets around our waists and took to the fields of a local Guatemalan coffee finca (“farm”) for an exercise that those of us working in “experiential education” like to call, “A Day In The Life”; which is essentially our own little “life-swapping” reality TV series — minus the cameras, crew, cast and lack of credibility.
In order to combat reverse discrimination by the bugs (which consider the blood under our lighter skin of a tastier blend) we slather ourselves in mosquito and sun repellents. As I smear the cream across my neck and face I feel quite like I’m preparing for the frontline of a war. And why not? With statistics like the fact that the Guatemalans that I will be working alongside will spend a full day filling a single 100-pound sack, for which they will receive a daily wage of 25 Quetzales (or $3.33 USD) which will, in turn, need to be spread thin enough to feed an (average) family with five or more children — well warring countries might not be involved, but a daily and frontline fight for survival certainly is.
But as is usually the case with all my assumptions about the lives of those living in “undeveloped countries,” instead of the bugs and sun, I should have come better prepared for my personal battle against the stuck-up and self-centered nature of statistics and stereotypes. Thinking back, I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but as soon as the camion (“carrier truck”) drops us off on the most beautiful sloping hillside with panoramic views of looming volcanoes and lush valleys, I immediately begin to question if we could really call the boring synthetic box of an office cubicle a more “civilized” or “healthy” working environment. Breathing in the tropical forest is like drinking water and the breathtaking views inspire such heavy inhalations of an air so sweet, rich and refreshing that even the thought of an air-conditioned office closes my throat on a choke.
One of the Guatemalans with us suddenly yodels into a valley of the rainforest. And to my dismay and delight, a dozen yodels, from all sides of the hills and in all tones of the human vocal rainbow, sing echoing yodels of geographic location and greeting right back. Based on the information relayed in the secret yodel code (of which we are hardly privy to comprehending), our group tromps to our destination with the ungraceful and shuffling step of those foreign to the jungle and ignorant of the language it, too, speaks.
When I finally I arrive at my first coffee bush, a sweet woman, with wrinkles appropriately placed in proof that she spends more time smiling than not, quickly explains to me the dynamics and detail of a full and efficient pick. Her hands move with expert quickness as she demonstrates the art of defining that which is ripe and that which is not; “See? More red than green. This one, yes. This one, yes. The black ones, yes. This green one, no.” Her hands move like a wand over each branch, turning a heavy red mass to a thin and trim green one. With each swipe of her magic hands limbs bounce up and lift with new lightness and life. My imagination is (ever) active and I fancy myself hearing the branches, when they spring, sighing with appreciative unburdened relief.
The woman’s magic-wand hands stop and it takes me awhile for my fascination to wear and my imagination to wander back to reality before I realize that she’s looking at me expectedly and offering me my turn at a try. I move my hand to the bush but I’m slow and I stumble; “This one, yes. This one, um, no. This one is equal in green and red, yes or no?” The woman is immensely patient; a virtue, I fathom, in which she’s a practiced expert given the amount of time she studies in the shade of her guru, Mother Nature.
I’m not a quick learner. In fact, I pride myself on being a slow one. And so at the expense of swiftness and with deliberate concentration to detail, I diligently begin to clean my first bush of berries. And as I do so I realize that, contrary to all my petty presumptions, this is surprisingly pleasant work! My SPF 35 war paint was hardly necessary for, had I asked instead of assuming, I would have learned that this is shade-grown coffee — and thus the sun pleasantly trickles down its warmth between the tall macadamia nut trees planted and placed specifically for the purpose. Work songs, location yodels and laughter bounce and banter with the songbirds of the valley. Children too work alongside us but against all my “big bad” notions of “child labor laws,” these kids are talking, laughing and playing with their parents and neighbors, and I question if the children in neighboring continents could really be better off putting an equal amount of finger power into navigating a gameboy or television remote control. This being one of the very few organic farms in the country, no masks or gloves or worries over future birth weights and cancers are necessary. (Although at this thought, I do look up and envision for a minute, an American plane flying overhead and, without warning, darkening my sky with billowing clouds of poisonous powder. This “plan” as part of some covert and corrupt “aid” package devised — in misguided aim to eliminate the naturally thriving coca plants that grow innocently in lands Latin American — by the upturned and addicted noses of Northern neighbors wrongfully projecting blame.) But back to the berries — they are beautiful! And compared to their red fruit cousins of the forest and field they are (thankfully) thorn-free and come off the bush with incredible ease. And yes, it might be true that I have a touch of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) that’s being tickled with a curious feather of fancy by each green and lean branch picked (so obviously!) clean. But recognizing the satisfaction as not so different from that which I feel after sorting a full email inbox, I muse that productivity and organization perhaps are universally innate human inclinations met by many, and/or any, repetitive motion.
But I am only a silly American girl worthy a place to observe, but none to judge. And so I turn to the woman working beside me and ask her instead, “Do you like working here?”
Her mouth slips back into the smile that fits her face so well and she responds, “Of course! I love it here. But it wasn’t always this way. The owner of this finca did not pay us for two years and during those years it was very, very hard. But we organized ourselves and brought him to trial, and the banks, they didn’t get him to give us our money, but they did decide to hand over the land to us, the workers. And we still owe so much money to the bank. But this land is ours. And all the work we put into it comes back to us. And I am so happy to work my own land — with my own people — that it doesn’t matter if I only make 25 Q per day. Because I know that it is fair and that I am investing in the future of this land for my children and for our community.”
I mentally pinch myself a reminder that this story is unique, special and single; that the majority of coffee pickers in Guatemala are discriminated against for being indigenous and work in dire conditions under corrupt and manipulative ladino management for far under the (un-enforced) national minimum wage.
And then I revisit a memory of myself in high school; skipping sixth period for a jaunt to the Starbucks down the street, where I place an order for a non-fat, extra-froth, tall vanilla latte…and slap down an amount of cash that easily surpasses this woman’s entire daily wage. And it suddenly occurs to me to wonder under what corrupt and manipulative management the ladino finca owners succumb. I wander up the chain of responsibility, above the ladino owners, above the slick-talking multilingual middlemen, above the multi-national and mega-corporations, and there, on top of my pyramid, I find myself — the ignorant consumer. I hang my head in shame with the realization that slavery in America wasn’t outlawed; it was simply exported. And with this new consciousness, I can no longer hide my culpability in either ignorance or distance.
“Do you like picking coffee?” the woman wakes me from my shame with this question rooted in piercingly pure curiosity.
“Yes I do,” I eagerly and honestly respond, “especially because I’ll never drink another cup of coffee again without, first, a pause and prayer of respect, responsibility, awareness and appreciation.”
In response to my pledge, the warm smile of the woman spreads, and with this wave of expressed emotion, her magic wand goes again into action to relieve me too of my shame and guilt burden. Wordlessly forgiven, I gratefully sigh and then spring up light with renewed right intention.