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Voyaging to La Suiza. Part 2: La Suiza

Posted by Shane Sullivan (DLG Intern)

Did you miss part one? Read it here.

Continued: In the glare of the mid-day sun, my eyes darted around, exploring the unfamiliar scene: to our right stood the largest building, part of the old beneficio, with children perched on the lengthy porch watching us with stilled eyes; to our left was the church, colorful and silent, with its steeple reaching high above the town; directly in front of the church was the community building, with the look of an old farm-style storage shed and empty inside, save for four beds where a few of us would pass our nights; and if we steadied our eyes and stared straight ahead, we found the concrete soccer pitch where a few kids scurried to and fro, chasing a yellow ball. Behind the whole scene sat a monolith reaching into the clouds, swaddled in hues of green so rich and deep that, for a moment, I lost myself. It wasn’t until the bodies around me began to dismount that I came back to myself and automatically began to help unload the backpacks stuffed inside the truck.

As we mused at the central square, greeted on each side by one road pitching up into the hills, Maximo descended the road to our right and greeted us warmly. All were introduced, housing arrangements were made, bags were taken up, and a time was set to reconvene in the central square before we trekked off to our respective lodgings. Quickly, we dropped off our bags and made our way back to the center of town, eager to drink in the surroundings until our tour of the area, set to be led by Maximo. As we walked slowly through the central square, walking one of those walks that goes nowhere but takes in everything, the first children hesitantly approached us. Relying on nothing but a crude mélange of Spanish, English, and hand-gestures, we joined them in kicking the soccer ball around the concrete pitch. Slowly but surely, as everyone silently sensed out the other, we began to transcend language and speak the lingua franca of sport. The children giggled with delight as various Coffeebar members took turns tending the goal or taking up the ball and challenging the kids to defend – the children were markedly better. Forty-five minutes into our merriment, we were called away for the grand tour of the community. Promising the kids that we would play later, we followed Maximo up the hill behind the concrete patch and entered the skeleton of the community’s old beneficio.

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Two massive drying patios foreground the towering structure of the beneficio and serve as the only remnants of the building still in use. Before 2014, the beneficio was still running, processing all of the community’s coffee efficiently and effectively, requiring only the supervision and maintenance of the cooperative members. However, in 2012, La Suiza was plagued by the roya crisis which swept across the region, destroying nearly the entirety of the year’s harvest, killing plants, and severely impacting the volume of coffee produced in the years to come. Due to the devastating effects of the roya fungus, La Suiza was forced to abandon the beneficio and return to processing coffee in their homes. In lieu of an industrial-sized, state of the art beneficio, farmers fell back on sorting coffee fruit by hand, depulping coffee for hours on hand-crank depulpers, and fermenting, washing, drying—all steps of the labor-intensive process—without the benefit of the specialized machinery. How maddening to be hand processing hundreds of pounds of coffee in the shadow of machinery that could do it with cold, un-thinking efficiency. If only nature had not permitted such a curse to afflict the region. –

And yet, Maximo is hopeful that one day the machines will again run throughout the harvest season. Everything is still in working order, he tell us. Perhaps a new belt is needed here, and bit of maintenance there, but it will again digest hundreds of pounds of coffee and save the farmers hours of exhausting work after a full day of harvesting in the fields. Through the beneficio, we walk slowly, again the walk of the awestruck newcomer. Intermittently, stopping to admire the scale and dormant power of the grand machines; Maximo explains each of them in turn, detailing the machine’s function, efficacy, and unforgotten benefit to a community built upon coffee.

In 2000, the community living in these beautiful, unadorned hills banded together and bought La Suiza, then uninhabited. In mass, they made the journey up the solitary road and established themselves in this unmapped patch of land. Equally distributing land—each member was given thirty-two cuerdas of earth—houses were constructed, and the community settled into their milieu to commence a newfangled life. La Suiza, meaning Switzerland in Spanish, is said to have gotten its name from its original owner, a Swiss man, who hired locals to grow and harvest coffee while he ran the beneficio and business on his own. It is told that he used to store his profits under a cement tank near his house on top of the hill, which was guarded by a ten-foot snake. Apparently, a woman, now living in the next town over, had been in La Suiza during that time and passed on the story. For this section of the world, no histories are written—only a few ancient souls hold the keys to the mystery of what was. Oral histories trickle down through lineages like water from the hills, each generation being exposed but never listening with too serious an ear. Part of La Suiza’s beauty is there situation in time and space; forever living in presence, happily.

After a tour of the other half of the beneficio, housed in the porch-clad building at the center of town, we were led to the house of Efrain. With Efrain, we had already been acquainted, as he had met us that morning in Nuevo Progreso with a second truck to ensure our safe passage up to La Suiza. In the dimly lit kitchen of his house, powered by the hydro-electric generators which are switched on when the sun goes down, and permit houses inundated by darkness a faint light for living, we enjoyed a delicious meal over coffee and conversation. As the food settled in our stomachs, the fatigue of the day descended upon us, casting a sleepy silence through the room. Slowly we rose from our chairs, thanked the family for such a replete meal and shuffled our way down the steep street to our respective beds. In the morning we were to head to the fields to help one of the cooperative’s farmers pick the first cherries of the harvest. Tired and heavy with the knowledge of the next day’s work, I collapsed on one of the beds in the community building at the center of town and fell asleep with my shoes on.

At seven the next morning, we were roused by the incessant squawking of roosters, beckoning the late-riser to the day. Groggily, I stumbled out into the iridescent light and joined the group slowly assembling in the center of town. As we waited for the whole group, the community of La Suiza swirled around us: groups of kids walked to school, farmers armed with machetes and harvesting baskets arrowed towards the fields, and a few men shuffled by carrying a basket of coffee mugs and a stack of plastic chairs on their backs. It wasn’t until we reached Ismael’s house that we realized the supplies had been for us. As the largest group to have ever visited La Suiza, our gracious hosts, between each meal—which was in a different house three times a day—hauled chairs and mugs up and down the steep streets in order to accommodate our numbers. At breakfast, this realization, as well as the sweet bread, coffee, and classic Guatemalan breakfast, invigorated us for the day’s work.

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Across the street from our delicious breakfast, we met Norma, a member of La Suiza’s cooperative and our boss for the day. As we made introductions, she handed each of us a basket with a shoulder strap—a repository for ripened coffee cherries. After a bit of fidgeting with the strap, I had it adjusted to perfection: wrapping around my hips, across the lower back, and the basket perched expectantly on my belt-buckle. Wrangling straps and shimmying baskets, we walked up the road towards Norma’s field. For fifteen minutes, we trudged up the dirt road, passing houses and morning commuters before we arrived at the sloping field of well-endowed coffee plants.

As Danilo gave us a run down of the proper harvesting methods—which cherries to pick, how to gently coax each cherry off the plant—I gazed up at the looming field, situated on the steep slopes stretching high above our heads… it wasn’t the idealistic picture of tightly lined coffee plants on flat, pristinely groomed soil that I had imagined. No, this is coffee of cunning and vitality, I thought. Coffee where coffee is needed, coffee without the glamour of the industry—wild coffee… And before I finished the thought, we were off: scurrying up towards the horizon, scavenging every crimson cherry we could find. Gentle. It’s important not to yank, the cherry must be deftly finagled off the branch. Pinch it between your fingers, twist, and flick—as if you are spinning a top. Stems must be cleaved off without tearing the delicate fruit, and make sure to perform this precise function at the speed of light. All the ripe beans must be discovered and harvested by the day’s end, if not, in the next pass the cherries will be garnet red, soggy with maturation, and useless.

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For two hours we crisscrossed the sharp slopes, searching out every perfect cherry we could find. Methodically, we combed through each plant, brushing aside its shimmering leaves, peering at every branch, shoving our arms into its depths… but suddenly, there were no more cherries to be found. We checked our winnings: a partially filled bag—hardly enough for our planned afternoon of processing… In La Suiza, due to their lower elevation, the harvest generally begins in late September or early October and stretches until the end of December. However, this year the harvest was shy, furnishing the plants with only a few ripened cherries good for the picking. We were a few weeks too early. In vain, we continued to search high and low for any feasibly ripe cherries before conceding to the elements and trekking back into town.

I could never drink coffee again and our trip to Guatemala would still remain on my mind for the rest of my life. The connections we made with farmers, both professionally and personally, the sights we saw, and the overall humbling experience is something I’ll never forget. What’s even cooler is that I will continue to drink coffee, and to roast it, and to serve it. This trip to origin has given my coffee career a whole new level of meaning. The respect and insight I gained into the entire coffee process, and the admiration I acquired for the hard work each and every coffee farmer does every single day is something that I hope I can translate into the work I do in our stores. 
— Spencer

As a salve for our disappointing morning harvest—Greg had hoped to harvest nine-hundred pounds, enough for a completely Coffeebar-harvested sack of coffee—we stopped by a gorgeous waterfall for a quick spritz. As we bathed in the icy mountain-spring gush, intermittently, farmers returning from their un-ripened fields would walk by and be greeted by a chorus of “buenas tardes” as we splashed around and chirped in delight. The frigid waters put everyone in a tremendous mood, preparing us for an afternoon of coffee processing.

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Since we hadn’t exactly harvested stifling amounts of coffee, the processing of our loot was rather brief. Back at Ismael’s house—Norma, not owning a depulper, borrowed Ismael’s for her processing—we got a firsthand look at the difficulties of processing coffee cherries without the benefit of the beneficio’s specialized machinery. First, a plastic tarp had to be spread across the ground for sorting; in waves, cherries were dumped onto the tarp as we crowded around the edges hand-separating the good and ripe from the bad and the over-eagerly-harvested. There are no tricks in this process, no shortcuts, you simply dig your hands into the pile and get to work: keep the crimson, discard of the soggy, overripe cherries, receive the next wave, and repeat—tedious work that stains your fingers black with sticky grime. Then comes the depulping: pour the basket of approved cherries into the top-loading hopper, crank with all your vigor, and watch the machine spit out the fruit-pulp-shell as it safely deposits pale, honey-glazed coffee beans into a sack attached at to the front. Crank and crank and crank… switch arms—one arm wasn’t enough, I needed to alternate—and crank and crank until the next brave soul steps up to the task. A group of eleven, we had the luxury of alternating—and we didn’t even have much to process! For us it was all novelty, all learning—a toe dipped into the daily reality of an entire community; what execrable shape does the process take on when it is an evening ritual?

Finished with the processing of our morning harvest—it had hardly taken an hour to sort and depulp –, we wanted more…. when down the street came a man with a sack of coffee hoisted over his shoulder: “We should ask him if we can process his coffee,” suggested Ola—a quick glance at each other and Danilo and Ola ran down the street after him. After a brief explanation as to why this large group was offering to process his coffee, the man agreed, and we followed him to his house in the center of town.

Our trip to Guatemala was so full of eye-opening moments that it’s hard to pick just a few to talk about. One of my favorite moments was sitting on Manuel Gomez’s front porch with his family and our Coffeebar crew, drinking beers and laughing over Manuel’s wife, Rosi’s delicious dinners. The experience that stands out the most, though, was when we processed coffee with Maximo in La Suiza. We had all spent three and a half hours harvesting coffee and another couple hours processing. The 220 pounds of cherries that we harvested turned into about 45 pounds of beans, before the process was even finished and more weight lost. We took a minute to do the math and discovered that Maximo would make about $30 for the beans we had spent five hours processing. It challenged our views on the coffee industry and put things into perspective for us in a massive way. 
— Shelby

After another hour of much the same process, we retired for the day. Tomorrow, the Coffeebar team would follow Maximo out to some sliver of the fields that the harvest had blessed—mañana, they would get a real taste of work… And the children, they must have had an eye on us the whole time, for once we began to wander away from our processing, they descended upon us like hawks. I felt the ground shiver and saw the stampede descending from the hills—hyperbole, but when the frisbee emerged, the torrential flow began. News circulates fast in La Suiza and when this foreign flying disk made its appearance it became the object of desire for every child in town. At first it was just a few brave youngsters determined to learn the novel game of ultimate frisbee, but soon there were hoards of kids, kids of every age, scrambling over each other in hopes of stealing one tentative throw. Never have I seen such pure joy in the face of a frisbee, nor did I realize how many children lived in La Suiza until that late afternoon. Flocks of them circulated across the drying patios of the beneficio, the concrete pitch, and at every moment, a new wave trickled in from the hills. Interspersed amongst this merry gaggle were the towering figures of the Coffeebar team. Ola broke out a box of chalk and activity groups formed across the center of town: chalk and frisbee on the drying patios, soccer on the pitch, and photographs for any group of kids bold enough to approach and ask.

My favorite moment hands down was playing Frisbee with the kids. When we First got to the village in La Suiza the kids were really shy and didn’t say much to us. Even when we first took out the Frisbee to play the kids were hesitant but slowly more and more of them joined and it was as blast. Some kids caught on super quick and it was really cool to see them teaching the ones that didn’t quite have the hang of it. After that the kids could hardly leave us alone.
— Joel
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Ah, the photograph is a work of magic in La Suiza—one of the seven wonders of the world. Throughout the trip, groups of children—dragging their friends, parents, or siblings in tow—would hesitantly ask anyone with a camera to take their picture. Timidly, they would arrange themselves—throw an arm around a friend or hold their mother’s hand—and smile for the eternally suspended moment. Of course, we had no way of immediately giving them the photographs, but the action was enough. On a previous trip, Ola had brought a stack of printed photographs and distributed them appropriately, thus the future promise of a tangible image was enough to buoy their excitement. It was only later, once we had left La Suiza, that the significance of photographs struck me. It was my reflection in the mirror that prompted me. For three days I hadn’t seen myself—only three days! And yet, as I became reacquainted with myself in the reflection, I realized the importance of a photograph in those isolated hills. There are no mirrors in La Suiza, none that I encountered, anyhow. Uqbar would be proud, but as a result, the photograph, the tangible image, has been elevated to a new level, or perhaps never lost its mystique. For us, images are manifold, infinite, they permeate our minds… they have lost their ancient power of freezing the instant, however, in La Suiza they remain a remnant of a higher order: permitting this beautiful community of presence one relic on which they may reflect and be nostalgic.

My favorite moment of the trip by far was sitting by myself amongst 40 kids in La Suiza. Everyone was teaching the other kids how to play ultimate frisbee so I took the camera and stood back to take photos. As I’m sitting there kids just kept inching forward with curiosity and peering eyes. I took so many shy and beautiful photos of the boys and girls. I was so enamored by them and they by me. Such an amazing feeling. 
— Mackenzie
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Yes, photographs were being made everywhere, as we passed the entire afternoon galloping around the center of town. It was an electric time, and everyone could feel it. An unnamable element drifted through the air that afternoon and, despite the heavy clouds and light touch of rain, an infectious spirit kept everyone energized until it was time for dinner.

It was to be the final dinner as a collective; the next morning, Ola, Danilo, and myself were set to journey back to San Miguel Escobar—the Coffeebar team would follow us a day later. Thus, sitting around the table, dimly lit by the light dying over La Suiza, there was a heavy air of reflection. Although the Coffeebar team would return to the fields tomorrow for a full day’s work, our shared experience was coming to an end. Over a delicious dinner of chicken, rice, and vegetables, we shared our nascent impressions about the trip. Obviously, to process the experience would necessitate time and distance, but we went around the table and made an attempt to sum it up in one word. To bend one word into a signification for the entire trip felt inadequate. Naturally we chose those vague, over-arching, polymorphous words that communicate nothing and everything at the same time: humbling, challenging, inspiring… words that sound vacuous divorced from their particulars, their support.

And here we are now… 2957 words into my lengthy reflection—have I managed to communicate even a fraction?

It’s one thing to look toward these communities from afar, to imagine what life is like, to say to ourselves, “We want to help!” But to actually be there, to be welcomed into peoples’ homes with incredible warmth and generosity, to play frisbee with their kids, to go up into the fields and see how much time, and skill, and care it takes to produce the coffee we so often and so easily take for granted… It takes that feeling of wanting to help out of the abstract and places it very firmly in reality.

And most importantly, those experiences shift the root of that wanting to help feeling away from pity and toward respect. It’s incredible to see how much people like Timo and Manuel and the entire community of La Suiza have accomplished, and inspiring to hear them talk about not only their journey so far, but their goals for the future. And getting to know each of these farmers and families as actual people begins to shift the conversation from “What can I do for them?” to “What can we do together?” 
— Becky

After dinner, the effervescence of reflection followed us into the center of town, where we sprawled across the ground and watched the stars fight through the darkness. Apart from the pitter-patter of evening walkers, silence pervaded La Suiza. Swallowed in darkness, save for the faint light of the cosmos, we spoke in hushed tones and upon returning to my bed I sat and wrote: “it is hard to believe that these souls—most of them—have been here for eighteen-years.”