Monday, July 20, 2009

So I guess I don't Blog anymore.

or something.

It is called GoNunziGo. And now I stopped.

so I guess is makes sense that I haven't been moved to write. Actually, in Guatemala, I averaged ten pages a day in my journal. I've been back from Guatemala for . . . about three and a half months, and I think I haven't written ten full pages in that whole time.

That includes a month at home in Vermont, then three weeks on my motorcycle, and the returning to Portland, getting settled in and reconnecting with this place and these friends. And I haven't written anything on here since, where was I, Wyoming? I've had photos of the motorcycle ride through yellowstone just chilling but haven't uploaded them to any computers yet. And the rest of the ride through into
- Montana (for about 20 miles),
- Idaho (where I met the fiercest wind I've ever felt on my motorcycle. on my way into the wind, I struggled to                       stay on the highway and had to wrestle my bike up to 60mph. Heading with the wind, my bike sailed                         up to 90 without my even trying.)
- And Oregon. the final state line, around some of the best roads of the whole trip, through the gorge, around                       some waterfalls and into Portland. 

3 weeks from origin to destination, 12 days actually on the road.

now I'm here.

I spent a frantic two weeks looking for a job full time and giving my resume to every coffee related establishment in Portland. My passion is for roasting and working with green coffee but I harbored a secret wish for the opportunity to work as a barista for once. Coffee culture out in Portland is amazing. There's thousands of people here who are way into it, tons of fantastic cafes and small micro-roasters popping up. In Brattleboro I managed the only roastery in town, pretty much had the bitchinest coffee job possible. But out here I feel like a drop in an ocean of dedicated coffee professionals. Many of the people I've met compete in regional and national barista competitions. The dedication to the craft of preparing coffee is astounding. 

So now I'm learning how to pull the best shots of espresso possible and getting my first experience behind the counter at a cafe thanks to Blend Coffee Lounge on N. Killingsworth. You think being a good barista is easy and that there's nothin' to making good espresso? holy crap. During the process of preparing an extraction the variables that you need to control which ultimately effect the quality of the shot include Grind, settling, leveling and distribution of the grounds, tamping, tapping, whether you flush the group head and how long, the temperature of the portafilter, how long since the last shot was pulled, how long this shot is pulled (which depends on things like grind and tamp...), how old is the coffee you're using... and the results in the cup vary significantly with even the slightest change or inconsistency.  I'm getting it, I think. Thanks to the good folks at Blend for giving me the chance.

Also, drums, bikes, friends, shows, coffees, beers, epic heatwaves and ... the river.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Black Hills, Iron Mountain, Big Horns, Chaos

I woke up at the foothills inn in Rapid City, strapped on all my raingear expecting the worst and started heading down route 16 into the Black Hills. I was excited to go be a tourist and see Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument. My idea was to zip around some roads in the hills, see the sights, then zoom way out into Wyoming to Ranger Creek Ranch outside Shell where my friend Mel is working for the summer.

The roads into the hills are amazing! Although, they are loaded with RVs and you can't look anywhere without seeing billboards for INCREDIBLE! DON'T MISS IT! COSMOS MYSTERY AREA! REPTILE GARDENS! VISIT HISTORIC KEYSTONE! CLOSEST HOTEL TO RUSHMORE! ONLY 5 MILES AHEAD! NEXT LEFT TURN! seriously obnoxious. The first view of rushmore was pretty impressive. Some folks say it's smaller than it seems in pictures and on TV but i don't know, I thought they were some pretty damn big carvings.

Then I took Iron Mountain Road. I saw it on the map and thought "oh, that looks nice and zigzaggy, I'll take that road on my bike." There's goddamm corkscrews in it! And tunnels! and the lanes split and it becomes single track through the forest!! The pigtail bridges are unlike anything I've ever seen before. This road, this single stretch of rt. 16A made the whooole trip from Vermont entirely worth it. Iron Mountain Road in the Black Hills south of Mt. Rushmore, I will ride you again.

Then I saw a bunch of these guys. Just chilling, grazing on the grasses on the side of the road. Tons of bison.

Crazy Horse Monument just outside Custer, SD.

This was a long day of riding. I took 16 out of South Dakota after three lovely days in that beautiful state, headed toward Newcastle, Wyoming. Here, it started to rain. Wet weather 50 miles up to Moorcroft, then wet weather another 140 miles out I-90 past Sheridan to 14west. Then wet weather out 14 toward Shell. I was riding through an open valley straight toward invisible mountains. I knew that if it were clear they'd be beautiful but the clouds hung so low that they were severed just above the valley. I reached the foot of the hills and began winding up and up and up. Up into the fog, Up around the switchbacks, Up until...

My front cylinder cut out. I lost half the power on my bike, Zero accelaration, barely able to climb. Then the power came back and my bike JERked back to life. on and off like that. This happened in a downpour in Ohio too, and some guys at a shop told me exactly what I needed to do but I didn't have a can of compressed air with me. The sparkplug gets wet, the drain hole fills with dirt and grime, the plug hole floods and it doesn't fire. You just need to blow it out and you're a-okay.

By this time I'm up into the mountains. Visibility is at about twenty feet, the clouds become full of stinging ice crystals. My winter gloves are soaked all the way through. up and uP and UP. There is snow on the pines and at the roadsides, my sick bike wheezing and coughing as I approach a mountain pass at 8,437 feet. I'm close to Burgess Junction. I'm freezing cold and soaking wet and I can tell that my bike wants power in that front cylinder just as much as I do. If I put my faceshield down I can't see through it, if I flip it up my face and eyes get stabbed by sleet, so I compromise and close it all but just a crack, and tilt my head back to see through the crack and scrunch my face up so the sleet gets my cheeks but not my eyes. I stop at the Burgess Junction station. Nobody is there but the door is open and it's warm inside. I check the map to see that i'm farther than I thought to the pull out for ranger creek ranch. Now I'm starting to wonder if it's going to get dark soon. I'm in the middle of nowhere at the top of a mountain in the Big Horn national forest, my bike is ill and I'm soaked to the bone, my heated handgrips all that's keeping my hands from freezing.

I get that feeling. I have to just get through this weather, my bike has to get to the ranch. I'm either going to make it, or I'm not.

At Burgess Junction I turn left, head downhill a bit into a valley and it clears. Fifteen slow, sputtering miles ahead I finally get to the road that turns off toward the ranch. It's four miles, uphill, and impossibly muddy. With one cylinder out I have to rev it slowly up to about 3 or 4,000 RPMs before I can get it to move in first gear on flat pavement. Up a muddy hill with slick tires, stalling out when I tried to take off, for four miles, I don't know how I did it. Slipping all over the place, I managed to keep my bike upright wishing all the while I was on a dual sport with knobbly tires. Here's to taking inadequate equipment into unsuitable conditions!

I finally got to within view of the ranch. I approached the archway over the road with the Ranger Creek Ranch sign, I was about 5 ft from passing under it. I tried accelarating out of a mud slick and the tire spun and the engine cut out. I fired it up and tried again. Nothing. Again. Nothing. Doc and JP heard the dogs barking and came out of the lodge. As they approached the bike offering to help push I asked.... "does this count as 'making it?'"

I didn't just "make it" to Ranger Creek. I didn't just "Finish my ride" over the Big Horns. I f#&k!n survived it.

Inside the lodge, there was a fire going, and a full bar.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Made it to Rapid City, SD. Speedometer blew again.

Had a great time in Iowa City hanging with Kevin. Rode a long long day to Parkston, SD, 460 miles on beautiful long straight wide flat fast secondary roads. South Dakota has officially overtaken western PA for the nicest rides of the trip.

MY #$%!NG SPEEDOMETER BLEW AGAIN!!!! I'll have to do the whole rest of the ride without knowing how far or how fast because I'll wait for a part in pittsburgh but, forgive me fine residents of Rapid City, South Dakota, not here. I'm upset that I waited in PGH for a whole week to make sure I wouldn't have to do this ride without my speedo and odometer and here I am with over 1,000 miles to go and they crapped out again.

There's way more to report than I have energy to type right now. Forgive the slack upkeep of this page.

Look at pictures.


These roads. They just keep going and going and going and going. When I ride out to the horizon and crest a hill, another scene just like this unfolds again before me. over and over and over again. Red Bull + Saves The Day = my friends.

Taking pictures while stopped in the middle of the road for a construction zone. This one turned out neat.

Trick Photography

All tucked under the eaves anticipating a storm that never came.

Parkston, SD

They don't call them the Badlands for nothin'.

This guy.

Every ride report needs the bike-with-scenic-backdrop photo.


Yes, I actually took this photo today.

Tomorrow I join the throngs of tourists in the Black Hills and take pictures of Mount Rushmore.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Back on the Road: Two Days Ride to Iowa City

Alright!! Thanks to Jason and the good folks at Bentley's in Murraysville, PA, my bike got fixed up with a new speedometer rotor and back tire (albeit a week into my two-day stay in Pittsburgh) and I got back on the road as far out of Western Pennsylvania as I could stand to make it. Of course, that first day back on the road I hit crazy rain, got soaked to the bone and one of my cylinders went out on a highway! That means no power, no acceleration, struggling to top out at about 50 mph with the throttle all the way open. I pulled off at a gas station, soaking wet and cold at about 5:00pm, figuring I'd probably be getting a hotel room in this middle of nowhere town in Ohio. I asked at the gas station if there was a motorcycle repair shop in town, thinking it was a long shot they'd be open. Well. I was 1.2 miles away from a Suzuki dealership who was totally wide open with the lights on and the garage door up. They got me in immediately, blew some air through a little drain hole, thus freeing my spark plug from drowning and getting the engine back running and I was back on the road in less than a half hour. I guess the motorcycle repair gods had their laugh at me in Pittsburgh and decided to help me out this day.

This is why there are no other landscape/road shots from Western PA pretty much all the way to Iowa. because this is what they would all look like. No disrespect meant to Ohio, Indiana or Illinois, of course.

A sad motorcycle with no back tire.

A happy motorcycle that just crossed the Mighty Mississippi River for the first time.

Tomorrow it's on to South Dakota, then through the Badlands to Wyoming, Then through Yellowstone, into Idaho, through to Oregon. I'm almost there, only two-thousand-five-hundred miles to go. Is all.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

At this rate, I'll retire in Pittsburgh

On the first day of my trip, the speedometer started acting up, on the second day, it died entirely. not wanting to go all the way across the country without being able to see how fast I'm going or how far I'm going, a safety consideration and not-getting-stranded-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-with-an-empty-tank consideration, I decided to see if I could get it fixed up quick. A shop in Pittsburgh full of awesome guys got me up on a lift the day I called them, found what the problem was, ordered a part overnight and also cut me a hell of a deal on a new back tire, which I need, and the labor charge.

The part didn't arrive the next day. Friday. And wouldn't get here until Tuesday. Thanks, memorial day observed. jerk. So I made a tough decision to wait for it, totally putting my trip schedule way way off.

So Tuesday rolls around, after being in pittsburgh for five nights instead of the scheduled 2. And the part I'd been waiting for arrived at the shop. right on time, just as we'd expected. but. BUT. . . it had been destroyed during shipping. crushed to bits, the guy told me.

And they're closed on wednesdays.

SO they overnighted a replacement, hopefully with special instructions to pack it with extra care, and I'm going to get it put in tomorrow, unless something else happens, and after a week in Pennsylvania, I ride as far west as I can in a day.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Three days in: Pittsburgh, PA

Day 1:

I met Scott and Mike at the Chelsea Royal Diner for my last breakfast in Brattleboro. Couldn't decide between eggs and a Belgian waffle, so I got both.

We started out route 9 toward Bennington, and stopped at one of my favorite spots, Hogback Mountain.

Then on to NY 7, to 87, to rt. 20 West. 20 is a beautiful, wide, long, straight empty old divided 4 lane highway that should have a 90mph speed limit. We stopped here in Skaneateles, NY, where I was told the Clintons lived while Hillary was Senator. how exciting.

We stopped because my speedometer and odometer stopped working. we gave it a few whacks and when we started up again it worked a-ok. Alright.

We stayed the first night in mecklenburg, NY, in the finger lakes region near Ithaca. It was pretty.

I'd been sick the past couple days and after this ride I was a total zombie. My throat was killing me, my head hurt, I was disoriented and exhausted. which was weird because on the ride I felt pretty focused but as soon as I was off the bike, bam, dude, you're sick, remember?

Day 2:

Felt much better waking up, went to breakfast with Mike and Scott and then continued onward solo as they both had to turn back toward Vermont today. Took some very scenic roads toward route 17 west. The speedometer/odometer started acting up again, coming on and off. Very frustrating, as I'm a total geek about logging trip data on road trips. Miles and hours and gallons and MPGs and such. Also, it's nice to know how fast you're going on the highway. Also, the odometer helps keep track of when to fill the gas tank. Also, I had just paid a bunch of money to get the bike checked out. Then the speedometer died entirely.

On these roads, though, it was hard to care about anything. 949 S from Ridgeway, PA toward pittsburgh was by far the best road I've ever ridden. Boy howdy. long sweeping curves around river bends under a forest canopy? Then opening up into enormous farmlands with barns and silos off into the horizons? then back into the woods? I'll take it.

I pulled into Pittsburgh after ten hours of riding, including stops for lunch and messing with the speedometer.

Day 3: Pittsburgh.

I like this town, and my friends in it. There's lots of fun things to do here, so I guess it's not all bad that I'm stuck here for four days.

I brought my bike into a shop. These guys are awesome, and if you're ever in the Pittsburgh area and need some help with your motorcycle, go to Bentleys in muraysville. for real. they got me in on no notice and checked the speedometer out. At the front hub there's a unit called the wheel speed sensor that has something in it called a speedometer rotor. The speedometer rotor is like a little cylinder that latches onto a part inside the hub by a couple grooved teethy type things, spins around, and measures your speed and distance. The guy showed me what was wrong by pulling the speedometer rotor out and it pretty much crumbled to pieces in his hand. They ordered me a part, had it shipped overnight and I was supposed to get fixed up and on the road today, but the whole overnight shipping thing apparently means "it'll be there on tuesday" to the people at the parts distributor.

So, with a choice to hang with friends in Pittsburgh for the weekend or continue my trip without knowing how fast or far I'm going, I decided to hang around, get the bike all buttoned up and continue on early next week. Sure, it definitely throws a wrench into my timing and trip planning, but I'll make it out to portland in time, no sweat.

Until next time....

Monday, May 18, 2009

Leaving Brattleboro. Again.

The Idea is that this 2002 Suzuki SV 650 with clip-on handlebars will get me from Brattleboro, Vermont to Portland, Oregon. I've added an Airhawk seat cushion and something called the Crampbuster Cruise Assist to help make the ride more comfortable. A pair of saddle bags, my camping backpack and a new magnetic tank bag will carry everything that I'll have with me for the trip of more than 3,000 miles in just over three weeks.

Phase one of the trip takes me to Ithaca, NY tomorrow with two friends riding along. Then one friend turns back to Vermont and two of us continue on to Pittsburgh, then Ohio. Then he starts heading back toward home and from Ohio onward, all the way to Oregon, it'll be me, my bike, and the road.

I'll do my best to keep updates here as regularly as possible. Wish me luck.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Adios, Guatemala

Soooo... been a while.

I´m Leaving San Pedro La Laguna today for the capital, then flying out tomorrow for NYC. My head is spinning and my heart is heavy about leaving. The past few weeks have been wonderful, hanging out with friends, going back to the pacific beach, kayaking, picking, processing, roasting and drinking coffee, having dinners and bonfires, speaking spanish a ton, spinning poi with some incredibly inspiring people. I injured my foot a bit about two weeks ago but it´s getting better, didn´t stop me from climbing a mountain called the Indian´s Nose a few days ago. Such fun, such good people and I´ll miss them all like crazy. All the folks I mentioned in the last post and then a few more good ones since then, too. sigh.

A journal entry about all the reasons I have to be happy about going home begins:

Hot showers with good pressure. Taps you can drink from. Big fluffy comforters. Lost.

It goes on to mention my family, sweetheart, motorcycle, drumset, South Pond, music....all the usual. I´m trying to convince myself once and for all that I´m ready to be back, we´ll see how it works in the end...

And Guatemalan coffee is fantastic and all, but I´ve been missing the yirgacheffe somethin´fierce.

Goodbye Guatemala friends. Vermont friends I´m on my way.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Security, Friends, Coffee and Motorcycles...

The meeting on Thursday, that I mention in the post below (which I´d love for you to read), was about security for the town. I tried watching it on TV for a bit but my Spanish wasn´t sharp enough to make up for the poor sound quality. What I´ve since heard of its aftermath is that nothing got done, lots of talking but no solutions. Early today my friend said he overheard people talking about the idea to require tourists to register, I guess you could call it, with information about where they´re from and how long they´ll be here and what they´re doing. Which sounds ridiculous because a) how are you going to keep track of a bunch of wandering hippies and travelers in a town like this where nobody really seems to know what they´re doing and when? and b) the incident that led to the meeting didn´t have anything to do with tourists, except in the obvious ways that it indirectly did. I don´t know, it´s all hearsay at this point, and I might be leaving town before I hear anything more substantial. I did, however, for the first time in two weeks, see a police presence on the main drag here last night.

In other news, I´ve been having a pretty incredible time mobbing about town with a great crew of kids. England, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Canada, Guatemala (of course), and Japan are represented among the entire group. Oh yeah and the U.S. too. But there´s a core of about eight that hangs in a way that feels tighter than anything I had even in Brattleboro. Incredible people with Incredible stories all overlapping temporarily and I hope very very much to see these kids again somewhere along the Thanks to you Phil, Eric, Andrew, Cody, Jai, Alexandra, Olivia, Bridget, Andres, and Dysheinka. And Pedro, Pablo, Juan Elisio, Phillipe, Pedro, Andres, Carlos, Chano, Ventura, Felix, Israel and all the rest. This is fun.

Lately, in addition to the learning about coffee that I´ve been doing at the beneficios (hopefully at the farms too now that I´m done with my spanish classes in the daytime...) I´ve found some opportunities to teach about coffee too. I didn´t really expect it but it´s been an amazing opportunity. I´ve said in the past that maybe what I´d like to do eventually in the coffee industry is work with farmers and processors at origin to help improve quality and, believe it or not, I´ve done a bit of it here. Of course, I don´t believe that I know enough yet to consult on agricultural topics or anything, but I´ve roasted and consulted on packing coffee with one of the beneficios in town. At the same place I also helped to adjust a milling machine so that it doesn´t break the grains anymore when the parchment is being milled off. At some commercial beneficios I´ve seen fermentation practices that I think definitely compromise the quality of the coffee but I don´t feel anywhere near a position to suggest that they try to alter the procedures they have well in place.

Also, two new friends Andrew and Cody, who happen to be from the town in Cape Cod where I´ve vacationed almost every summer since I was young (the world is still thisbig) , have recently, as of this week, taken control of the Italian bistro they´ve just bought in the middle of town, Fata Morgana. And here, they happen to roast their own coffee. I taught Andrew and the Italian former owners and roaster how to cup coffees, and given some informal seminars, usually over drinks in the palapa, on coffee process, quality, roasting science and green bean selection. Next week I plan to assist in adjusting parameters of the roast that I believe will take the coffee that the Lonely Planet guide calls the best in San Pedro and make it potentially way, way better. We´ll see. But having the chance to share what I know at a country of origin is a little bit like a dream come true. Maybe someday I´ll get paid for it instead of draining my savings to do it. Anyone? Anyone?

And finally, Motorcycles are awesome. The end.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tremors and Aftershocks

If I haven´t mentioned it yet, San Pedro is a weird town...and right now happens to be a particularly special time to be here.

I´ve heard a number of stories about how San Pedro La Laguna came to be this way. One is that it all started with only one hotel owned by a foreigner, and this first installation was followed by a flood of hippies and travellers from all over the world. As they started taking over the shoreline around the lake, the locals made an effort to contain them to only one part of town. Another story is that this part of town by the lake was underwater until 30 or 40 years ago and the foreigners party paradise has been built up on the new dry land since then. To me that sounded like a creation myth that conveniently required no displacement of indigenous communities, but I´ve since heard there´s some truth to it. So anyway, now you have a street and a trail on the water full of white people, restaurants, hotels, massage parlors, drugs, yoga, bookstores with literature in english, bars, coffee shops, and mayan vendors selling bread and orange juice next to the rainbow children in tie dye and birkenstocks selling their hand-braided cord jewelry. Two blocks up the hill you find yourself in a typical conservative evangelical mayan community and you could be the only white person in the center. Two cultures reluctantly overlapping in a tense sociological venn diagram.

Friday night some friends and I were walking up the hill to find a traditional mayan religious procession we´d heard happens every other week. We found it in the center of town, a parade of hundreds of people, most in traditional dress, praying and singing and chanting, carrying a neon cross and a life size effigy of jesus carrying his own. The sight and the sound of it raised the hair on my arms and left me speechless. How I wished I´d had an audio recorder! As we were walking up the hill toward the procession, a local teenager in a group we walked past discreetly asked us... "Cocaine?" I said..."Really?" and kept walking, saddened, considering everything, that the tourist economy has made drug dealers of Tzutujil Mayan kids.

I heard that it used to be even crazier here. No laws, no police, coke lines on bars, needles in the street, total anarchy, name your vice and SPLL was the place to come to indulge or OD. One person described it to me as a whole lot of little kids with an enormous cake all right in front of them, and they couldn´t just take one little piece at a time. I´ve heard from other foreigners and some locals that yeah, it used to be nuts here but things have quieted down a lot. Where in other parts of Guatemala you have to worry about violence and theft. San Pedro is a little haven, a tranquil community where people respect each other and, my friend Pedro was telling me earlier that very friday, you never, ever have to worry about violence in the village. Nunca, nada.

Later that night, maybe around 2am or so, I´m lying in bed in my hotel on the main drag and I heard a sound right outside on the street. A pop. Like one firecracker. Or a gunshot. I didn´t think much of it because there´s noises all the time. And if it was a shot, I´m not running out into the dark street after it. So I finished writing in my journal, fell asleep, and then woke up in the morning, stepped outside and the first thing that Israel, in the room across the courtyard, says to me is "did you hear what happened last night?!"

I...maybe...was afraid of that. The thing that never happens in San Pedro happened in San Pedro. And I heard the sound of the gun in the night time.

Israel and two girls he was walking with on the way back to the hotel came across the body, still warm. It was drug related, between two people, between two families. The victim was the son of the owner of Casa Elena. What you didn´t know? Casa Elena is where all the coke in this town moves. Don Juan?! Yeah, the family´s deep in it, lots of money. They got busted a couple months ago and the cops didn´t find the drugs until they searched the tourists rooms. Casa Elena is where I stayed my first three days through San Pedro! I asked my friend Felix, he didn´t know anything. I asked the Juan who runs the hotel I was in when it happened. He sort of shrugged it off. Yeah, there was a murder, but he was mixed up in all kinds of stuff, lost his mind a while ago, sort of had it coming.

Sooo... it´s okay then? I guess just forget about it? But...what about the guy that did it? Could a town of 13,000 people really not even hiccup after a murder on main street?

I´ve heard a number of things since. The first story I heard is that nobody is talking about it because it´s between two families and not anyone elses business. It was a planned assassination and everyone saw it coming. The cops aren´t going to do anything about it, this is how disputes get resolved here. The act was itself the justice being done. So it´s over, end of story. Don´t ask more questions and definitely don´t get in the way. Then I heard that people in town are completely freaked out and concerned that there will be retaliation and it could be the beginning of a spiral of violence. Thursday at 3pm, which happens to be today, there is going to be a meeting in the center to determine the best way to handle it. They will be discussing accountability and prevention, making sure that San Pedro stays the little peublo that minds its own business and doesn´t bother anyone. Then my spanish teacher told me about how, in the late 70´s and early 80´s during the civil war, this town experienced more than its share of assassinations, disappearances, silence and terror. Many people remember it all too vividly, and the echo of a gunshot off the volcano has re-opened a deep trauma that might never stay closed.

So whatever indeed ends up coming of this situation remains to be seen. The hushed whispers behind trembling hands are full of questions but no answerss. For the time being, the only visible indication that anything happened, except for the funeral last sunday, is the dark brown stain and dirty jar filled with wilting flowers on the street outside of Casa Elena that hundreds of people walk past every single day without noticing.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

La vida diario

It feels nice to be in one place for a little while. Instead of bouncing around and taking chicken buses across the country every couple days I´ve planned to settle down in San Pedro for at least another week and a half or so. This gives me a chance to buy food at the market and prepare it at my little hotel in town, get to know the people of this place and make some friends here while I´m at it. It´s a weird little town, full of hippies and druggies and foreigners and tourists. I know I´m one of them, really, but I´ve been trying my hardest to ignore the stupidity and focus on the coffee. I´ve been putting in hours working at a couple beneficios here in town, getting to know the work that people do here with coffee daily. As I´m heaving around hundreds of pounds of coffee cherry at a time, cleaning the roasting machine at the FEDEPMA association, helping to scoop dried pergamino into bags and carrying them on my back into the warehouse, I´m often wondering exactly what I´m learning about coffee and how I can use the experience in the future to inform my approach to work that I might do in the states. I am managing to communicate with people well enough to discuss the effects of the market price on farmers´ lives and how the changing climate may be effecting the yield this crop year. But most of the time has been spent with damn hard labor. My muscles are sore and I´ve torn the skin off the knuckles of my middle fingers by carrying bags full of coffee cherry around. I´ll be here for another week, at least, working, studying and figuring out how to ask the questions that come up. If nothing else, I´m getting a pretty clear picture of how incredibly hard people work for 12 hours a day, six days a week to make their humble living with this stuff.

One more thing I don´t want to forget...While I was in Monterrico I met some pretty rad people. One of them was Annette, who is currently on a motorcycle trip from northern Alaska to the southern tip of South America to raise money for a children´s charity in the UK. It´s a pretty awesome thing and you should check out her blog at

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sunrise to Sunset in Monterrico


This will probably be the last post of the trip with new photos, so I´ll try to make it worth it. The battery charger for my camera hit a wormhole in my backpack and disintegrated somehow.

Rudy Salvador Florian

I chose to get stuck for a few extra days in the tranquil beachside village of Monterrico, and I´m very glad I did. It was all about the fresh seafood, hammock relaxation time, and playing in the waves. On Monday morning I took the opportunity to take a boat ride through the mangrove lagoons with Rudy Florian. He was the second person we met in Monterrico as he approached us to ask if we´d be interested in the 5:30am tour the next morning. I liked him immediately. He spoke slangy english with an accent from the street and said he liked the dodgers. I noticed the tattoos hidden on his face - one on his eyelid and another barely sneaking out from behind his mustache. Laurel noticed the spiderweb on his elbow but I didn´t catch it. He seemed nice and mellow. I had only this first impression of him but it led me to presume that he´d spent some time in gangs in the US, probably LA, and then came back and chilled out and now is making an honest living in his hometown, getting by on the tourist economy here and hanging out on the beach. He said that 5:30 is the best time to float around the lagoons because all the birds are waking up and they´re most active then, and the sunset. It took five days but I finally took him up on it. It was a little bizarre, waking up in the dark and meeting Rudy outside the hotel, walking up deserted Calle Principal, half asleep. I was glad to be going out on a boat, through the lagoons full of unfamiliar wildlife and some incredible looking trees. I was also glad for a chance to kick it and get to know Rudy a bit.

Volcáns Agua, Fuego and Pacaya

I was curious to hear about his time in the states, and to know whether my suspicions about his tattoos and streettalk were on target. We started talking on our walk to the boat launch about language and how he learned english. He got to LA in the early 80´s during the height of Guatemala´s civil war, when he was 13, and was the only kid in his class who didn´t speak any english. None of the other kids could help him because they were usy enough with their own work and the teacher, though she tried, didn´t have the time or resoures to bring him up to speed. After a couple months of struggling and getting lost every day he stopped going to school and ended up meeting some spanish speaking kids on the street who helped him learn a little english. I was curious to carefully ask about what the rest of his experience on the street was like but thought it might not be too smooth to come out and ask if he was in gangs. Then, he just started talking about it.

When his mom was killed (there were no more details than that,) he and his little brother had nowhere to go and nothing to do, so naturally found support and resources through their peers on the street and became involved in a gang homebased in central america. There were rules to live by that helped them survive. He told a story about having his face and ribs broken by a rival gang with baseball bats, and of getting shot four times at once. These were highlighted as we floated around under the rising sun by stories of being a little kid and fishing these very same waters with his father. The best of those stories being the one where a piece of wood fell from the net into the boat amidst the pile of fish and, at the end of the outing when he grabbed it to throw it out, it turned out to be a baby crocodile, rigid and still until that moment, suddenly began thrashing about when he grabbed it by the tail, launching all their fish back into the water and scaring them both half to death.

As we floated around through the mangroves, the sun rose and the birds were everywhere. Rudy, who comes out here every morning whether he has a tour or not, knew all the best spots to see the sunrise, the egrets and countless other water birds, and the fish that gets around by skipping across the surface of the water. The volcanoes Agua, Fuego and Pacaya rose from the horizon in the distance and the morning was tranquil. I thought, as we drifted, of all the ways and all the times in my life that I´d been taught to be fearful and intimidated by the idea of a Latin American gang member in LA.

Sunset over the pacific

The following day I started my trip back to San Pedro La Laguna by catching a ride on a raft along with an enormous diesel flatbed truck with over 9 tons of water and shrimp larvae. And when we landed on the other side, it seemed like my quickest way to the bus in Taxisco would be to catch a ride the rest of the way there on the back, holding onto the ropes securing the tanks on the flatbed. Sure wish I had a camera for that. I´m now back in San Pedro, killing time, working in a coffee processing plant in the afternoons and eagerly awaiting my spanish lessons that start next week.
Just after sunset

Friday, February 27, 2009

San Pedro to Monterrico

As I answer one question that burns within me about the culture of coffee trade here, three more arise in its place. That wasn´t the idea.

Two days ago Laurel (whose Guatemalan travels can be kept track of at and I left San Pedro La Laguna en route to Monterrico. *sigh*

Monterrico is a little beachside paradise. Expectations here are very manageable. Recreation of choice is mostly playing in the strong waves and warm water of the Pacific, and Hammock-Swinging. The beach is of black sand, the sun is strong, the roofs are grass and the livin´is eeeassyyyy. I may get stuck for a while, but coffee is calling me back.

In San Pedro, the livin´is pretty easy too. But much about the place did make me slightly uneasy as well. It is a little hippie enclave on lake atitlan, where gringos outnumber locals in multiples in some parts of town, owners and workers at bars and restaurants are white european expats, you can do yoga, get bagels with cream cheese, and buy crafts or bread from local folks without much else for a way to get by. The scene and industry and culture is very accomodating. almost...too easy. I´d heard a lot about how there is tension between the hipster whiteness and the native communities and it is evident. That said, I want to go back.

My second day there I stumbled across a coffee mill in the middle of town and watched people loading bags of freshly picked cherry until I was invited to help out. for a couple hours I heaved hundred-fifty-plus pound sacs of coffee out of a pickup truck and onto a scale, off from the scale and dumped into a pit where from there they fell into the depulper, and i asked all the questions my spanish would allow me to. Where is this coffee coming from? Who is buying it here? what´s the price like now? do you guys do the picking? how much do you get paid per quintale? Where is the coffee ending up? how does it get there? the answers to these questions at times surprised me, for some I knew the answers before i asked. Ultimately, I gathered that this was a pretty conventional operation. Coyotes involved, no certifications, not the highest quality processing, water running from the mill to the lake with no treatment...but the kids (late teens... I call everyone kids...) were excited that I was working with them and I was invited to the fields to harvest with them, unfortunately later in the week than I´d be around. and surprisingly, I had a good conversation about coffee markets with the person buying the coffee there at the mill and overseeing the operation. I was also shocked to hear that the price they said the pickers get was over three times more than the price I´d heard was typical elsewhere. This is one reason I need to get back. to clarify.

The next day I heard about another mill just outside of town, so i went there. I gathered with my first visit that it´s a Fair trade and organic association of indigenous maya coffee farmers from around the area, and I was invited back later by Pedro, the agrarian technician of the association, to see the processing. he was inviting, generous, knowledgable, passionate and glad for my visit, it was an altogether different feeling from the mill in town. When I returned later that night (on a motorcycle borrowed from my new friend Phil. Dreamy. Riding a motorbike around lake atitlan to visit a coffee mill? thanks phil!) I caught the first bit of processing the days harvest before being introduced to the president of the organization. All I said was "hello, My name is Marcos, I´m from the United States" and the man´s face lit up and I was eagerly escorted into his office. From here we spoke, strictly spanish, for almost an hour about the organization, the communities it serves, the challenges they face, the assistance they need, the projects they want to start, and the hospitality I would be shown if I were to return. And so I feel I must. I made it clear to him that I came to learn but alone don´t have the resources to offer the assistance they need. I am, after all, only me. But I think that the prospect of having their story heard in the states is enough.

So in San Pedro I have one operation in the middle of town where I have been eagerly invited back by the workers and the buyer to learn more, though the social responsibility of it is questionable. There is much more for me to find out. I have been invited to return and stay with a fair trade and organic certified association of indigenous coffee farmers in the same town. to do both would be tricky. but I think I´ll have to chance it.

one last note:

- President of association, when asked if the coffee in town was produced with just practices and social responsibility.

- Buyer of coffee at the mill in town, when asked where the coffee would ultimately end up.

So there.

Monday, February 23, 2009

¿Really? ¡No Way!

I rented this?

And rode it here?

This is my life? nuh-uhhh.

¡Xela! ¡Chichi! ¡Lago de Atitlan!

Arriving via bus in Quetzaltenango, aka Xela, the trip took a sudden turn. The first couple weeks of this adventure had an agenda. I was running around getting to places that were expecting me, going to meetings, touring beneficios, meeting farmers, and frequently being the only white person or english speaker around (I know, we love that, don´t we. how adventurous...) In Xela, all of a sudden, I was surrounded by extranjeros, mobbing in bands around the city babbling in a foriegn language wearing hawaiian shirts with shorts and sun-hats and cameras around our necks. okay. so not really, but I started feeling a bit more like a tourist than a traveller when I left the coffee farms and got to the very gringo-friendly city with cafés that advertised vegan donuts and whatnot.

As well, it became a vacation. Nobody is expecting me, I don´t have any work to do, there is no itinerary. It is sunny and beautiful, the weather is warm, and I am at the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen. El Lago de Atitlan. Damn. The lake, rung by volcanic mountains, is itself the crater of an ancient volcano. You gotta check this place out. As luck would have it, we wound our way through coffee fields to get here and our hotel is next door to a wet-mill. Eduard, the teenage kid we walked a half hour around the lake with on our way here, told me he´s worked as a picker before and we spoke briefly of his experience. It is here that my spanish skills frustrate me, I have so many questions that I don´t know exactly how to ask and if I did the response would likely be too complicated to fully understand. Nonetheless, I imagine that, among motorcycle and kayak rentals, boat rides, volcano-hikes and the like, I´ll have more opportunities to interface with farmers and pickers and workers while I´m at the lake. Next, the coast. BEEAACCHH!!

(p.s. I´m awfully sorry to hear about all the snow new england is getting...)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

El Injerto

Hacienda El Injerto

Beans in pergamino, drying in the sun on the patio.

The deep red clusters of the Bourbón varietal.

Its amazing what a person will do for a good cup of coffee.

On Tuesday the 17th, I began waiting at a bus stop in San Pedro Carchá near Cobán, Department of Alta Verapaz, at 3:00am. Three busses, one taxi, a pick-up truck, hundreds of kilometers and 16...and a half... HOURS... LATER, I arrived at Finca El Injerto. And the moment I did, I immediately knew that every minute on the bus and every kilometre was worth it. Let me try to explain...

Six Km from the border between Huehuetenango, Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico, there is a barely noticeable left hand turn onto a dirt road between a hotel and a hardware store. 8km of climbing up the road, around tight turns, over rocky mounds, between mountains in a narrow ravine, takes about 45 minutes and gains at least two thousand feet in altitude. I was let out of the back of the truck I hitched a ride in at an empty market plaza and followed the directions to the finca. "over the bridge," I was told, and was amused to find that this was a bouncy, rocking suspension bridge strung with cord and planks high above a river below, wide gaps between the boards and all. On the other side I climbed a rocky trail through branches of Bourbón and Catuaí coffee trees that reached eagerly into my path. On the branches were clustered the healthiest and most voluptuous bunches of coffee cherries that I have ever seen in my life. This, already, to me, is heaven. At the top of the trail, I finally meet Arturo Aguirre, son of the finca´s owner, Arturo Aguirre.

El Injerto was begun in 1874 by the great grandfather of the younger Arturo, and taken over by the third generation in 1956, at which time the farm produced only 300 Quintales of parchment coffee, or about 3,000 lbs. Today, nearly 500 acres of coffee surrounded by virgin rainforest produce over 6 containers of coffee per year at roughly 37,500 lbs each. El Injerto coffee is widely regarded as one of, if not the best coffee in all of Guatemala. The finca is the only one in the world to ever place first in two Cup of Excellence competitions, with two separate varietals no less. On site there is a significantly advanced wet-mill with a number of unique innovations in coffee processing, an 8,000 sq. meter drying patio and five enormous drying drums, a fully operational dry-mill for final processing and sorting, a roasting and cupping facility, vermiculture and composting, hydroelectric, water treatment, a tortilleria with a machine that cranks out 3,000 tortillas per hour to feed the 4-600 seasonal pickers, all of whom recieve higher than usual payment for their strict attention to detail in harvesting.

Me with the little babies. To replace trees that have outgrown their productive years, between 15,000 and 20,000 new ones are planted every year.

Only the reddest of the red cherries, the best ones at the peak of ripeness, are harvested.

After a long day in the fields, the pickers bring the cherries to the wet mill to begin processing the same day.
You can read books and cup coffees and peruse websites in the states, for sure. But I learned early on that the best way to learn about coffee is to go down and hang out with it. One of the things that I hoped to learn more about during my time in Guatemala is one of the more complex and specialized elements of specialty coffee: Varietals. I left the workshop over a week ago with a much better idea of the importance that varietals of coffee have on cultivation practices and cup qualities. Different sub-species and hybrids take to different altitudes, have different levels of productivity, are more or less disease resistant, and so on, and it is important for a farmer to know what he or she is working with. Here at El Injerto, I finally had the chance to walk the hillside with a knowledgable farmworker and be taught "That´s Catuaí," shorter plants, denser foliage, slightly smaller fruits packed closely together along the whole branch; very good productivity, and in the cup a nice acidity but less sweet, balanced and refined than Bourbon. "That´s Bourbon," Taller plants, lighter foliage on horizontal branches, deep red berries wrapped in seperate clusters around the branch, more disease prone and less productive but absolutely prized in the cup for sweetness, cleanliness, balance and complexity. "That´s Pacamara," broad leaves, large berries, mid-sized plants and one of the most notoriously amazing qualities of coffee in cultivation. "That´s Maragogype." woah. Trees more than twice my height with very sparse foliage and eNORmous cherries so few and far between it´s a wonder to me why anyone would bother farming a plant with such low yield - until I taste it, that is.

One last note before I move on. It´t interesting to me to find how refind cupping, or the systematic, methodical tasting of coffee, can get. You can start by cupping coffees from different countries. A sumatra and a kenya and a guatemala will all be remarkably different even to a first time cupper. Then you can cup different coffees from the same country. Ten Guatemalans, though all Guatemalans, will taste different depending on the farm where they were grown and the processing, altitude, etc...this I´ve known for some time but was reinforced earlier this week at a cupping I did with the master cupper at the regional office of ANAcafe, twelve different Guatemalan coffees, all from the same region of Guatemala, and twelve remarkably different coffees on the table. Now here, at El Injerto, I cupped seven coffees, all grown here at the same finca, within the same 400 or so acre area, and all distinct from one another in some way. Catuaí from Bourbón, well rested Bourbón from too fresh of a picking Bourbón, first quality Catuaí/Bourbón blend from beans of the same harvest that were sorted out as floaters. And so on. We get pretty geeky.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It´s incredible how different this trip has been compared to my first excursion to the coffeelands. There, in Mexico, I learned about worker´s struggles and indigenous resistance, stayed with a Maya family, slept on a dirt floor. Here, I have slept in the guest quarters of the Casa Patronál and shared the dinner-table with the landowning family while struggling through self-consciousness about this (and my spanish speaking abilities) to strike up conversations with the indigenous workers. While my research and reading about Guatemala has focused on the lives and the rights and struggles of peasant farmers in a strikingly segregated society, I can´t help but concern myself with the inevitable distinction of class in the patronal system of landownership. Before this, I have only spent time with indigenous campesinos who cultivate their own plots hundreds of times smaller than this property and operate as members of co-ops and farmers associations. At El Injerto, I walked the land with workers, had conversations with them at the wet-mill and learned of the ways that the Aguirre family re-invests the quality premiums their specialty coffee receives into the farm and community. While many questions go unanswered having had only two days to explore, I leave the farm with confidence that the owners of El Injerto truly concern themselves with the well-being of the people who work so hard there. They´ve invested in a tortilla factory to help feed every worker for free and distribute masa for making at home. There is a clinic on-site where workers can get medical assistance and prescriptions for free. Pickers are payed more here per quintale than any other farm in the area. Workers are continually educated in the art and craft of producing high quality coffee. Two months ago, they received the comprehensive social responsibility certification given after careful inspection by the Rainforest Alliance. While the complexities of such a worker-owner relationship certainly remain, It is clear that within this system, few if any fincas maintain such a high commitment to their workers as El Injerto. I will end these thoughts with the words I left in the guest book:

"Bummer for everywhere else that it will be difficult for me not to judge other coffee farms by El Injerto´s standards of quality, dedication, responsibility and hospitality. I wish I had the words - Spanish or English - to express the extent of my awe and gratitude."

Monday, February 16, 2009

Week 2 in Guatemala, Part 2

Part 2, 2/16/09 journal excerpt

Until last night, I hadn´t written anything in my journal for the past three days or so. But not for a lack of things to write about, Oh no. I´ve been too busy recording memories in my brain and my camera, collecting more experience in the past two days than any other two days in recent memory. Holy crap. And to really do it all any justice here would take days and days and pages and pages. So since it´s late and I´m tired I´ll have to settle for more of a list than a narrative, and maybe have more time to write tomorrow, but it doesn´t look like tomorrow´s shaping up that way, either. Wake up, meet Marvin, the manager of the APODIP coffee farmers´ association, do a cupping at ANACAFE, the Guatemalan national coffee association, tour finca santa margarita, consider renting a motorcycle, finalize travel plans to huehuetenango and pack to get ready to start making my way there around 3am Tuesday. Oh yeah, And finish Silence on the Mountain in time to donate it to the language school EcoCabaña. And write in my journal. sure.

So. Since Friday. This weekend. Toured a beneficio, got surrounded by coffee plants, met Romeo, who I´ve heard is one of the best cuppers in the business, cupped three coffeest from the association and community I visited last week, passed Romeo´s informal oral exam, went to a finca of friends of my hosts Sal and LIbby, hung by a river, climbed barefoot over moss covered rocks in the middle of a river to the mouth of a cave, explored in the cave, stalagtites and all, stuck my hand in some vampire bat guano climbing down, met two incredible people that I want to get to know much better, got harassed and nearly assaulted by a belligerent drunk at a beautiful restaurant, went clubbing and bar-crawled around downtown Cobán and slept in a hostel. Saturday. Sunday woke up, had brunch, walked around Cobán, did more research on the near impossibility of getting to Huehuetenango in one day without having a motorcycle or sprouting wings, stumbled upon the minutes-recent aftermath of a broad daylight downtown drive by murder, played a game of soccer with a 6 or 7 year old Guatemalan kid who totally rips it up, went to the farm, said bye to my friends, spent a couple hours talking around the kitchen table back at the house, wrote some epic emails, explored my route to Huehue on google earth and came upstairs to read, write and crash. Many single elements of my weekend could easily, with little more effort than the ability to stay awake, take up many pages alone. The experienes and imagery has been so dense that I feel like I am bursting at the fingernails to release the pressure of the words it would take to describe them. But alas, if I want to finish the book I´m reading about Guatemala´s culture, history and political violence in time to donate it, I need to make some progress tonight.

Allow me to at least try to finish this page by saying that I needed this trip and I´m thrilled that I took the steps to get myself here. Guatemala ain´t Brattleboro and winding around mountains at the edges of cliffs ain´t another day at the office. I can´t really thank myself until I´m back safely in the states but when I am, I will definitely treat myself to a beer. That is, if I have three dollars and fifty cents left to spend on one.

Week 2 in Guatemala, Part 1

Part 1You´ve never smelled coffee quite like this before. Pulp and skin from the cherries, used as organic fertilizer, smells ....pretty rich.

Coffee cherries in Paraiso Privado. It´s late in the harvest season here so the trees are a little bare.

Coffee drying in parchment On the ridge of the Sierra Las Minas mountain range, Paraiso Privado.

On Wednesday the 11th, I woke up at 4:30am in order to be ready for the three and a half hour drive on winding, bumpy dirt roads east to the municipality of La Tinta. At just after 5:10 I said farewell to my host, Sal, and climbed into what I would later come to understand is one of the toughest little pick-up trucks out there. I was making the ride with Glenda, assistant manager at the APODIP coffee farmers association in Cobán. As we pulled away from the curb I knew that would be my last chance for nearly three days to hear or be understood in my native language. With Glenda, who knew to speak slowly and clearly, I could communicate surprisingly well, holding a steady conversations the whole trip down. I realized as soon as we turned on the road to La Tinta that there would be no sleeping on this drive. When we arrived I was exhausted from waking so early, but soon felt ridiculous when we met Mario, who walked five hours beginning at 4am to attend the meeting we´d just drived to get to. The next day I would meet Miguel, who walked four hours beginning long before sunrise to attend another meeting. And prejudiced ladinos call indigenous people lazy? guess they haven´t met Americans.

After struggling to stay awake through a meeting held mostly in the native language of Q´eqchí (yes, I know how it´s spelled now), We wound up into the mountains on the most incredible and frightening road I´ve ever had the adventure of experiencing. Narrow, washed out, tucked against cliffsides like the road itself was pressing against the mountainside for fear of falling off, dried mud tracks, deep holes, huge rocks, hairpin switchbacks requiring five point turns reversing toward cliff edges, up and up and up. It´s strange to be so in remote a place and pass by cell towers and soft drink ads. when we finally arrived after an hour and a half of not looking down, we stepped out of the truck (resisting the urge to kneel and kiss the ground) in the community of Paraiso Privado - "Private Paradise."

Here I saw my first coffee plants of the trip, and toured the Beneficio, or processing plant. They had a set-up unlike anything I´ve seen before, with a ten foot tall drum drier that can handle 6,000 lbs of coffee beans in parchment and a dual-hopper, diesel powered depulping machine bigger than the living room of my last apartment. Here 40 indigenous farmers cultivate the mountainsides and process their coffee, hard bean and strictly hard bean qualities (SHB being the top of the top) of the varietals Bourbon, Typica, Catuaí and Maragogype. Four days later I would be surprised by the opportunity to cup these very coffees from this very community. I was pleased to find that the SHB Catuaí/Bourbón blend and the Margogype are both fantastic, scoring in the mid to high 80´s according to my pallete and that of Roméo, the cupper at a Beneficio in Coban and one of the best in the business.

The next day, down in the valley, I attended a day long workshop in four parts. One was on the importance of and methods toward increasing productivity, the second was on the characteristics of different varietals, sub-species and hybrids of Coffea Arabica each with unique growth habits, bean sizes and shapes, tendencies toward microclimates, altitudes and humidity levels, leaf shapes, fruit colors, plant sizes and flavor qualities in the cup. The third part of the day was spent discussing the method for selecting the best cherries for re-seeding and how to process them effectively to produce the healthiest plants possible. Part four was on early cultivation, replanting, soil care, seedling maintenance and nursery-level coffee plant health. I have 12 pages of notes from this day, all in spanish. I was disappointed that the following day, Friday, instead of following the agrarian technician from ANACAFE, Guatemala´s national coffee association, and the many indigenous farmers I´d met at the workshop up into the fields to dig in the dirt and practice what we´d learned via powerpoint on Thursday, Glenda and I along with the president of APODIP left that area, drove another hour and half into the mountains to attend a symbolic meeting of farmers, co-op representatives and NGO´s that, unlike the day before, I didn´t understand a single word of. Having not slept much at all the night before, I spent the first two hours of the meeting lost and exhausted, wishing I was out in the fields, and the last hour and a half asleep in the truck.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Guatemala: week One

It´s farther down than it looks. The road you see is the one I walked up to get here.

Monja Blanca - Guatemala´s national flower

Spanish isn´t a language for me yet. It´s still a code, a collection of words and sounds that it is my job to decipher, to change into my familiar english meanings before they are understood. Quiero means ´I want´, it doesn´t yet mean ´Quiero,´ itself, alone. But I am close. when I am having a conversation in Spanish my brain has to work twice as hard and fast. Hear the word or sentence, Decipher it into english, Formulate my english response, Change it into spanish, Speak it, Repeat. Somehow I manage to keep up. Mostly I feel like a semi-literate child when I speak in slow, broken half-spanish, asking at least once per sentence by way of raised inflection followed by a pause if the word I´m in the middle of guessing is actually correct . Sometimes I imagine what I would sound like to myself if I were just learning english and trying to make my way in the states. Earlier this week I was having a conversation with Doña Lila about the weather. I wanted to say that when the clouds are there, it gets really cold, but when they go away it gets very suddenly very hot. Unfortunately, I didn´t know the word for clouds so I found myself looking quizzically while pointing up and asking what is the word for the white things in the sky that make cold. heh. They are Nuves. Another student, Anna, and I were bouncing around the back seat of a little SUV on the rocky, washed out road through the mountains up to the school trying to think of the phrase for '4-wheel drive' and the best we could come up with was the equivelant of '4-tire-go.' Speaking with my teacher, Maria, and her husband, Alex, about my motorcycle I remarked that all the motorbikes I´ve seen here have only one cylinder. When I told them I once had a bike with 4 cylinders Alex remarked that it must be very big and strong. I wasn´t sure how to communicate that although the engine was 6 times the size most of those I´ve seen here, that it wasn´t the stongest bike out there. the conversation ended in laughs when I referred to the bike and communicated through body language that it wasn´t so strong. I hit my chest a couple times with my fist and made some rasping coughs before pantomiming death, lolling tongue and all. They understood. ¨your motorcyle had bronchitis?" asked Alex, laughing. Yeah, you could say that.....if you knew how.

The mornings at the farm are full of activity I miss most of it because it´s damn near impossible to drag myself out of bed before 7:40 for my 8am class. I get myself together, have a breath of fresh air on the balcony and am ready to face the morning already bustling noisily beneath me. Doña Lila is hurrying away at some essential task or another, Libby is entertaining and hosting whoever is awake at that point, by now Anna has been conscious for an hor at least and our teachers are sitting quietly patiently waiting in the living room for the gringos to shake the sleep out of their eyes and be ready for the class they travelled a half hour over barely existent roads to get to. Then we fan out. Maria and I at a whiteboard in the living room, Alex and Anna at a counter by the kitchen and Joé, the new guy, with his teacher Loreni at a table upstairs. For the next 4 hours it´s intently focused Spanish instruction in every room in the house, Señora Libby milling about some way, entertaining guests or preparing to leave, and Doña Lila preparing lunch, keeping the fire stoked, cleaning up from breakfast, sweeping and mopping all at the same time.

Anna, Joe and I have fallen pretty easily into a groove. After all, here we three are. Anna has been in the country for a few months and has much better spanish than the other two of us. Joe came just recently and is starting from scratch here. Left to our own around the house we share beers, spanish notes, cooking, cleaning, tea-water-heating, fire-stoking and daily life like we´ve been doing it seamlessly for years.

It´s very safe here. almost like a compound. I think that nobody here is fond of the idea of sleeping on just mats or, worse, earthen floors. Here we have outlets in the wall, two flush toilets, a fridge, gas stove and microwave. There is a gate at the end of the driveway, from the house you pass a citrus orchard to get to it. On the other side is a road that is necessary to have a car of 4-tire-go to traverse and a small collection of modest huts and humble indigenous folks and very many earthen floors and not another microwave within miles. It´s been amazing here but I´m looking forward to getting more experience outside the compound, staying with coffee farmers, digging in the dirt and, with pleasure, sleeping on some.

So this is what´s next. Sadly, tomorrow is my last class with Maria. Following class I´m going to head to Coban for a coffee cupping at the offices of APODIP with one of my wonderful hosts, Sal. I´m excited to finally cup coffee at origin again, it´s been more than two years. Then on wednesday morning I´ll head out around 5am to trek for a few hours into the mountains toward a small community of indigenous Kek'chi maya coffee farmers. I will be present at a meeting between the campesinos and a group of Belgian financiers as they discuss terms of pre-financing, I imagine, next years crop. This is a really important part of the fair trade coffee system and I hope I can learn, through the translations from kek'chi to spanish and back, a little bit about how it works. Then on Thursday and Friday, and this is really the good stuff I´ve been hoping for, I´ll be attending a two-day workshop with the farmers about early cultivation and planting seedlings in the fields and nurseries. YESS!!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Bienvenidos a Guatemala!

This is a photo of the small farm near San Juan Chamelco, outside of Coban, Guatemala where I have been taking spanish lessons for the past two days. My entry into Guatemala was almost too easy, getting picked up from the airport and brought to the guest house, then the next morning a taxi right to the bus to Coban where I was met immediately by my wonderful hosts from the EcoCabaña language school. my lessons are fast paced and the homework is intense. today I have to write about the entire process of coffee production, from the soil to the plant to the harvest to the processing to cupping and grading and roasting, packing and brewing. in spanish! today was my second day! oy. After this intensive week of schooling, I will be free to get up to the fields and stay with coffee farmers for a night or two, hopefully longer. The next step in the plan was to get to a finca where they produce some amazing coffee in Huehuetenango called El Injerto, but late rains have rendered the roads unpassable between Coban and huehue, so I´ll have to go through El Capital to get there, which will take days, and I foresee myself getting distracted in Xela or lago atitlan on the way from Guate to Huehue.

soon, it´ll be all about the coffee. right now it´s all about learning spanish.


Saturday, January 31, 2009

New York City!? ...get a rope

Please forgive the above reference to an old salsa commercial.

Whose idea was it to start this trip in New York City!? They were right about the whole not sleeping thing. Yeah, I'll spend a few days in the craziest city in North America before I fly down to spend time in the wilderness with indigenous coffee farmers. And then come back here after two months! Hello culture shock, I'm looking forward to getting smacked in the face by you any day now.

Connections are falling into place for Guatemala and I'm very relieved to feel like things are coming together. Thank you Mel for the contacts, and thank you rad people and friends of friends for already being in Guatemala. It's all very exciting.

I owe a remarkable debt of gratitude to the wonderful folks from Royal Coffee, NY who I had the pleasure of visiting with on Friday, roasting and cupping coffee, eating pizza and geeking out on Lost, sample roasters and Kenyan micro-lots. Heaven. To know they got my back while I'm in Central America, even if moral support is all it is, feels like a net underneath me. Thanks y'all!

Last night, my world changed. for the first time ever in my life, I danced all night at a club in New York City. It was amazing. Remember that one movie with the scene in that packed club where music was really loud and lights were crazy and people were dancing all over the whole place and there was an attendant in the bathroom and everything? It was like that. All my gratitude to the proprieter of the establishment for his hospitality. And speaking of hospitality, my buddy Rich is a remarkable human being. He moved to NYC only three months ago to start acting and is already well on his way to a pretty sweet career in it. Go Rich.

Sadly, I missed all the incredible huge art pieces that have already been moved out, but earlier today I assisted in the evacuation of Alex Grey's studio. Ever seen Alex Grey's work? I'm sure you have. look it up, that is an order. it's amazing. Actually, just go here to holy wow.

One last thought. In New York City, at least manhattan, there are almost no places to dip into to get a cup of coffee (disregarding bagel shops or deli's or whatever, I'm talking about an actual coffee centered coffee house with good coffee) that isn't a starbucks. I walked eight or so miles through the city yesterday and saw only one coffee shop that wasn't starbucks. entire neighborhoods with nothing at all. For shame, New York. It's almost tempting to consider opening a radical neighborhood specialty coffee shop up north on Broadway or something. Too bad about my three day limit in the City.

Stay tuned. next stop, a bookstore and then, Guatemala City!

Thursday, January 22, 2009


For those of you still tuning in, I've been back in Brattleboro for a bit over a week now, and will only be in town for another week. I've been spending nearly all my time on my own which is totally awesome 95% of the time and we won't be discussing the other 5 here. If you're a friend I haven't seen since I got back, don't take it personally, I'm in full-on recharge mode, just gimme a call.

Doing lots of art, stretching and exercising, reading about Guatemala, studying spanish, snowshoeing, XC skiing, listening to the radio and reading the paper, preparing for my next trip mentally and materially, hanging out with the family, playing my drums, writing in my journal...that's what's been filling most days lately.

And I've been giving lots of thought to where I'll be in a week and a half, something I haven't really said much of anything about here. Why am I going to Central America? I sometimes feel like I should have a mission, a thesis, a hypothesis, more of an Idea that would justify my being there, more of a purpose than the one I've got. Maybe I'm just nervous because it's coming up quick and may be, aside from organizing activist campaigns or teaching a college course or managing a company, one of the bigger things I've done.

In Mexico, January of 2007, I spent some time with an indigenous coffee farming community, an experience that was completely mind blowing, entirely humbling, and sort of made my brain explode. I was face to face for the first time in such an intensely direct way with colonialism, my white privilege, the real-time effects of neo-liberal globalization and the stories of people who were struggling to survive with dignity in spite of it all. And we were there with the farmers and families of Yunquin for only one full day. Too short. This made me want to go back to Central America and really spend some time on a farm, put in work, learn the language, hear the stories, experience the daily life for longer than a day. So I got back to the US, put in almost two years at a coffee roasting company, a great majority of that as the business manager, and decided after that tenure, having learned much about coffee from the perspective of a North American specialty roaster, that it was time I got back down to where it comes from. So I booked a two-month round trip to Guatemala, contacted a language school, a medium-sized independent high-end socially responsible coffee estate and a co-op of small scale organic, fair trade indigenous farming communities. I intend to keep my ear to the ground when I get there for more contacts, but so far I've got the first two and a half weeks booked. With the rest of the time I'll either find more coffee farms, farmers, communities, estates to explore, carry on to Nicaragua, Costa Rica or Panama to visit some places I've had in my sights, or hang out on a beach or up a volcano.

I'm going to Central America...

...Because it's important for people to know where the goods they consume originate and under what circumstances.

...Because particularly in the case of coffee, first hand experience at those places of origin is by far more educational and illuminating than any book, article or video could ever be.

...Because when I went to Mexico I could feel my perspective shifting and ideas about what I want to do with my life changing before my eyes. I was more inspired by that trip than anything else I can remember, and I need some more of that.

...Because I believe strongly that it's the responsibility of North American roasters to work side by side and in support of coffee growing communities to work for quality of life as well as quality of coffee, and the best way to do that is to spend time with those communities, listen to them and form relationships directly.

...Because I'm eager to to find out how coffee markets and programs such as Organic, Fair Trade, Cup of Excellence or Rainforest Alliance work and don't work for farmers, communities and co-ops of different types and sizes.

...Because my goal is to never stop learning about coffee and its consequences, and I figure this is a good way to keep up on it.

...Because I want to share with and enrich my community and work in support of coffee farming communities with whatever knowledge and experience I gain.

...Because it's high time I learned some Spanish.

...Because it's really really cold in Vermont right now. really really really cold.

If you've got any insights or advice, I'm all ears.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


The following pictures are of pieces of art that I've done in the past little while. All are done using nothing but paper and x-acto knives, some also have lightbulbs in the photos. Many are works in progress and in most cases I'm not happy with the photo quality. Click on the images for bigger pictures.

If I remember correctly, this is one of the very first I ever made. Musculature of the back and shoulders. The black is all one piece of paper, cut out the inside and pasted on the red, then cut out around it and pasted it on the beige.

This is a tree from a photo I took near the coffee roasting company where I used to work.

This evergreen was a new challenge, I finished it yesterday. It's from a photo I took at Snoqualmie Falls in Washington state.

These two pieces are for my, sadly, now inactive band, Nepantla.
Find our recordings to listen to by clicking here.
I'm way into the shapes of skulls with antlers and have a pile more pieces like this but unfortunately don't have any photos of them and they're really far away now.

Click on this one for a bigger image and better detail!! Actual size is about 9"x20"
It is of the human central nervous system, taken from a totally sweet anatomy book. It took a very very long time and spent a huge number of blades. I built a light box for it. This is the piece I'm most excited about and so the image quality I'm most disappointed by. Someday I'll have a nice camera again.

Detail of the brain and head.

The first tree I cut, and idiotically glued to an opaque piece of paper. no backlighting here. Also from a photo taken near the old roasting shop.

I love birds and trees and birds in trees. This was cut from a photo I took in Ohio. It's a work in progress. The sweet blue textured effect is from hanging it on a white fridge and taking a picture with the flash on a weird color balance setting. It will look much different when it's done.

I've got folder full of 'em, thanks to many late nights and a good portion of ISIS's discography.