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Cemento y Sol - Centro, Day 3

Thursday provided the second all-day experience of the week for the team from Centro. And the theme? Construction! Specifically, we would be helping two farmers from the cooperative, Timo and Filiberto, prepare an old cancha (playground) into a new, bigger site for them to sort and dry their coffee beans, but more importantly, a place to house their new trilla, a machine that separated the papery husks of the dried coffee fruits from the green bean inside. While some work had been done already, Timo and Filiberto took full advantage of having a team of 15 people there to help them out (this included some additional DLG volunteers in town this week, who joined the Centro group). There were two main tasks to be accomplished: 1) clearing the area near the entrance to the property in order to continue building the exterior wall of concrete blocks; 2) clearing and leveling the area near the back, so that a structure could be built to house the trilla.

Actions speak louder than words, so I'll let today's video do most of the talking. But in short, it was a backbreaking day of hard work in the sun, with sunburns a plenty; two pairs of ripped pants/shorts; clothing and faces covered with splatters of fresh cement; another home-cooked and home-eaten lunch of estofado (a chicken dish with rice, vegetables and a signature sauce) and horchata; and a group of exhausted and fulfilled people.

The day was capped off with a festive meal at Sobremesa, an Antiguan restaurant with plenty of flair - from a blackberry chipotle steak to fig wasabi ice cream. All in all, it was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding days of the trip.

View our video here

Pepian in the Morning - Centro, Day 2

The Centro group heads to the De La Gente office to begin the day.

It was another busy and exciting day with our group from Centro. For the first time in days, the weather was clear and bright in the morning and the tops of the volcanoes were finally visible. We all rushed to the roof to check out the incredible view. As someone who's spent plenty of time in Guatemala, the view of el Volcán Agua looking over the streets of Antigua never gets old! We headed to the office first, and the group checked out the display of various items on display and on sale that were produced by the artisans affiliated with De La Gente. Tea, handbags, lip balm and peanut butter all made their way into people's belongings.

The artisan crafts were a perfect segue into the day's activities. We started out together, heading into another part of San Miguel Escobar into the home of Rosie and Manuel. Manuel is a coffee farmer with DLG and Rosie is a culinary genius! For our morning, Rosie would be taking the entire group through the steps of making pepián. This delicious, traditional Guatemalan stew is made from a variety of fresh vegetables and spices.

Graham helps some of the women cooks in the family prepare ingredients.

It also typically features chicken, and getting the chicken prepared was the first surprise of the day. Because, as you may guess, when we arrived the chicken was alive (albeit it hanging upside down in the back) and within minutes of our arrival, it was not. Some members of the group had no interest in seeing this part of the process, and some couldn't help but watch. (You can check out a very brief - and non-graphic - snippet of this in today's video montage below.)

Over the next few hours, everyone was put to work on this elaborate dish. In addition to preparing the chicken (pulling out the feathers, removing the insides, and cutting it into pieces for cooking), there were green beans to cut, carrots and potatoes to peel and dice. And when I say there were potatoes to dice, I am not referring to seven or eight, but more like a typical laundry basket's worth!

Our group and our hosts, after preparing pepian, the traditional Guatemalan stew.

Doña Rosie, a daughter and her mother were bustling around and guiding everyone as they worked. Squeezed into the small nook containing the stove, we watched as Rosie maintained a conductor's deftness on the stove. Not only was she cooking the chicken and making the rice for the pepián, she was also in the middle of making hilachas (another traditional dish) and chiles rellenos for the next day. She makes the food not only for her family (and us), but also sells her fine cuisine at the comedor (dining hall, sort of) down the street.

The final step of preparing our lunch was perhaps the most entertaining. Why? Because it was the seemingly easy, but realistically not, task of making flat, round, perfect tortillas. Rosie's hands worked swiftly through the corn flour and water dough, and we all laughed as our initial attempts fell a bit short of expectations. As people lined up to enter the kitchen and put our creations on the comal for cooking, we waited for Rosie's comment of "bien" or even the rare "wow".

Claudia and Pam enjoy helado from the local truck.

With a bit more practice, everyone got better and better and we had some pretty professional-looking tortillas on the grill by the end. Once we had made enough, the group set the table, poured the horchata (a rice drink with sugar and cinnamon), and dove in to the savory, slightly spicy and excellent meal.

The afternoon featured the group split in two. One half went with DLG's Joe to visit Carlos, an affiliated iron worker. (Hopefully a Centro member will chime in with their take on this experience.) The other half headed to the carpentry taller (workshop) of Roberto, another affiliated artisan. There, Jorge led the group through the production of decorative serving trays. The wood for the trays had already been cut and pieced together, but there was still plenty of work left to do!

Over the following hours, Claudia, Michelle, Graham, Shira and Pam sanded down the wood with three varying grades of sandpaper. It was always dependent on Jorge's vote of approval before they could proceed. After sanding, a snack of bananas and water was next, and then the choices of textiles. Jorge explained how most villages in Guatemala have their own historic and traditional colors and designs for their native clothing. He explained the months-long production process for one item, and showed off various examples.

The previously-used clothing was there to be cut up and placed in the base of each person's tray. It would then be secured under a piece of glass as the final piece of the puzzle. As it turned out, we ran out of time before the final step (and the iron group had the same issue), but the artisans were going to be finishing up and delivering the completed items to the group before they depart.

After a run to the cookie store and banana bread bakery, the group rested and relaxed before a lively dinner and open mic night at the Rainbow Cafe. Check out the video below to see two members of Centro bring down the house with their version of The Fugees' "Killing Me Softly."

View our video here

Reflections on DLG

This blog post was written by one of the Centro's team members, Heidi!

First things first (because we all know how I feel about food): Guatemalan breakfast is amazing!! I get eggs, meat, coffee, AND sweet plantains first thing in the morning?! Jackpot. (And it's Paleo!) What a way to start our first big day with De La Gente.

And another thing before I get to the REAL stuff (I promise it's coming): chicken busses are terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time. I've survived many tuk tuk rides (and honestly I never thought they were especially dangerous), so really this was just the next thing in line. And as a bonus, there's really nothing more effective at waking you up in the morning than a roller-coaster bus ride blaring Latin music. It was pretty much the BEST THING EVER. CTA, take notes. Rider safety be damned!

So onto the good stuff... Day One was essentially Coffee 101, from start to finish. Despite the few times I've read about the coffee production process, I never could have imagined how time-intensive and hands-on the process really is. I won't go into all the steps in detail because, like I said, there's no amount of reading that can compare to meeting the farmers and their families, trudging up the volcano lugging tools, and getting involved in a part of the process. I won't even lie and say that the work in which we partook was back-breaking or very physically taxing; I actually thought it was quite meditative to find and pick the coffee fruits. But, that's absolutely not to say the rest of the process is the same. It's extremely meticulous and hands-on, from patiently growing new plants, to picking the fruits (by hand), to extracting the seeds (by bicycle), to fermenting and drying the beans in the sun (turning every few hours by hand), to sorting out the "bad" beans (by hand), to roasting (by hand), to grinding (by hand). Seeing a pattern here? And to think: 100 pounds of picked coffee fruit only yields 12 pounds of roasted coffee beans!

So where have I netted out after this experience? I have so much more appreciation for the ladies and gents whose livelihoods depend on these coffee plants and the often testy mood swings of Mother Nature. I also vow to never take my daily cup(s) of caffeine gold for granted. And as someone who advocates eating REAL food from sustainable sources whenever possible, I love that I will know where my coffee is grown and how it's harvested since I intend on supporting organizations like De La Gente for my caffeine fix moving forward.

But more impressive than the coffee production process was the human element of this experience. The farmers that we met from the cooperative -- Gregorio, Freddy, his sons, and his lovely wife (whose names escape me now) -- welcomed us with open arms and huge smiles. The work they put in day in and day out is tough, and it doesn't bring in much money at all. They make enough to take care of their family unit, and they don't have much when you compare their material possessions to ours back home. But they were extraordinarily warm and hospitable, and eager to share a bit of their lives with us. The whole "mi casa es su casa" thing is no joke around here.

Welcome to Centro!

The group starts the day with breakfast.

Despite a long Monday that found our group from Centro waking up at 4 am for a day at Tikal and not arriving in Antigua until 9:30 at night, all ten members of the team were ready to go for our 7 am breakfast on Tuesday. Lottie and I greeted them and began the day, as all good days do, with a shared meal. We then headed up to the hotel's terrace to take in the view and go over the day and week together.

After a brief stop at the De La Gente office, where we made some introductions and picked up Joe, our interpreter for the day, we headed to the plaza in the town of San Miguel Escobar. Waiting for us were coffee farmers Gregorio and Freddy, and two of Freddy's sons. They gave us a brief history of the town, and then we were on our high up the volcano named Agua, to see Freddy's coffee cuerdas. The hike up the volcano was a little strenuous in the heat but we made it to some of Freddy's territory on the lower slopes of the mountain. He has even more coffee plants higher up, but spared us the 90-minute one-way hike.

Settled into place, the group's introduction to the coffee process began. Freddy and Gregorio explained everything about the coffee planting and harvesting process: the growth and care of new coffee plants; the time it takes for new plants to produce coffee fruits/ beans; when the beans are harvested; how to spot the fruits ready to pick; and more. The team from Centro asked many questions, and everyone seemed amazed at the intricacies and dedication that goes into producing the cup of joe many of us take for granted.

The whole team and farmers, from the slopes of Agua.

The group then got to work, filling two large baskets with the bright red fruits over the next hour. Once our work on the volcano slope was completed, we headed down (much easier and faster than the climb up!) and were rewarded with a delicious lunch of chicken, rice, tortillas and lemonade at Freddy's house.

Following our meal, we continued our coffee education with a look at what happens after the coffee fruits are harvested. First, they are sorted in buckets of water and any floaters are removed, as they will not produce good coffee. They are then run through the pulpador, a bicycle-driven machine that removes the husks and exposes the beans inside. The beans are then laid out to dry for 24-36 hours. Next, the papery outer shell gets removed, and the green coffee bean inside is exposed. Freddy's wife showed us how these beans are then sorted, roasted, ground and consumed!

One of Freddy's sons, with a basket of ripe coffee fruits.

The reward at the end of the day's learning experience was fresh coffee from the beans we had sorted, roasted and ground themselves. I don't think there was a single person who didn't enjoy a refill! Everyone then chose a pound of Freddy's coffee to take home, and many people bought or ordered additional bags of this excellent coffee to share to their friends and family. (Or perhaps keep all for themselves. I wouldn't blame them.)

With some downtime after the day of coffee education, the group was able to take care of some errands in Antigua - stopping at banks and ATMs for Quetzals (the Guatemalan currency), shopping for snacks and drinks at the La Bodegona supermarket, and then relaxing on the rooftop of the hotel in the late afternoon sun. A pre-dinner stop at local bakery La Cenicienta, for slices of cakes and pies, was followed by some conversation at the hotel. The long day was wrapped up with a festive and delicious meal of savory crepes at Luna de Miel ("honeymoon"). Did a few people have a second dessert? Yes. Did some of the people who'd had a first dessert, and didn't order a second one, enjoy sharing the second desserts of their friends? You bet!

This is a great, energetic and fun group to have with us, and we can't wait for another exciting day tomorrow! Check out the video below to see and hear more from our day.

View our video here

Preparing for a group

One of the best parts of our work here at De La Gente is when groups come down to work with us, and meet our farmers and artisans. Being able to share what we are doing with fresh eyes always invigorates our efforts. Each group that comes down - whether high school or college students, corporations, or individual families - has a different goal for their experience, and we work hard to tailor their time to their desired outcomes. David works on the itinerary

For this coming week, we have a group coming down from the U.S. The company is called Centro, and they are one of our first big groups from a corporation. The ten employees are spread throughout the company's offices. We will have people from Chicago, New York and more. For them, we are planning an overview of all of our operations. They'll meet some of our coffee farmers, and spend a day with them - seeing much of the process unfold. The group will also spend a morning cooking the traditional Guatemalan dish, known as pepian; construct a house; meet carpenters and iron workers; and more.

All of this requires planning, as you can imagine. Over the past few days, we've been getting all the final pieces in place. Joe has arranged for the interpreters that will accompany the group each day and help bridge the language barrier. Lottie has built out the itinerary framework, and made sure to confirm times and schedules with all of the local people who will be putting the Centro group to work. There are hotel rooms to confirm, dinner reservations to make, airport transfers to arrange and more.

Over the coming days, check in to this blog to see photos and videos as the Centro group's week unfolds. It will all come together to provide a unique and exciting experience - for our guests, as well as us!