“If every once in a while you don’t think ‘What have I gotten myself into?’,
then you are not doing it right.” – Roland Gau
At the recommendation go one of my professors, I decided to visit an organic farm that cultivates hundreds of varietals of tropical fruits in rural Ecuador! The farm is located in a secluded part of the rainforest about five hours away from Quito, so it was time for more buses. I embarked on the journey with two classmates who had participated in the study abroad course in tropical plant diversity (earlier post), as we apparently had not yet had our fill of adventure. We could tell how far away we we traveling from the city when the bus passengers stopped carrying MP3 players and started getting on with chickens. When talking with other backpackers you will hear them use the term chicken buses, and this is why. A true backpacker delves into the far reaches of a country, where carrying chickens onto public transport is deemed appropriate! A little over half way through our journey we arrived at a small town where we needed to change over to another bus. The trick was finding the new bus stop, as it was not obviously marked. Instead of standing there with a bewildered look plastered on our faces, we decided to sit down at a table for lunch. Better to be confused sitting down with food in your mouth rather than making it obvious you are a lost little gringo. After finishing a delicious lunch of rice and chicken, our hostess was kind enough to lead us to a remote bench down the street which apparently was our point of departure. Eventually, a rickety bus tumbled along that would take us to our final destination: Reserva Rio Guaycuyacu.
Our tumultuous transport dropped us off at the end of a dirt road, and pointed in the direction we should head. We walked about ten minutes up a forested path to the small cabin where we would stay the next few nights. The last light of the setting sun was dying out, so the open air terrace with several candles glowed brightly from within the dark forest canopy, and the sounds of chopping and dinner preparations greeted us before anything else. Jim, our host, came out on the portch and gave us a big smile saying, “You finally made it!” Behind him popped out three other faces. Mary Jo, one of our trip companions who went ahead of us, and two French students who were completing a biological landscape internship with Jim as a part of their university requirements. Our first night was spent dining on interestingly prepared fruits, and getting acclimated to our new, very small living space. There was a separate dorm with bunk beds, but I wasn’t having any of that after one of the French students told me they had found a tarantula in their sheets earlier that day. NO WAY. I was quite jubilant that had I brought a hammock (Tarantulas supposedly can’t climb! Mwahahaha!).
The next morning was an introduction to the farm. Jim owns about twenty hectares in total, which has been cordoned off into separate plots used for either distinct varietals of fruit or testing different agricultural techniques. For example, in one plot he uses kudzu (not the evil Chinese kind back home that could grow on death itself unscathed) to keep other nutrient stealing undergrowth to a minimum, while in another plot he was allowing all of the natural herbs and grasses to grow unhindered. We spent most of the morning getting the lay of the reserve, learning the different types of varietals, and harvesting ripe fruit. We also were shown the building site where Jim’s new house was being built at a bit higher elevation due to impending flooding caused by a new hydroelectric dam a few miles up river. The funny thing is, if I lived in the same place for over 25 years there would be tons of improvements I would like to make to the layout, but not Jim. The house under construction was a replica of the old one. In the afternoon we were given free time to laze in hammocks and read something from Jim’s extensive library. While my pile of reading materials initially consisted of old national geographic magazines and a tattered copy of Lord of the Rings, Jim came out with a small book that he said might interest us. It was a short autobiography written by his daughter about her childhood, growing up in the middle of the rainforest away from the complications of the modern world. As a lay in the hammock reading about the small everyday adventures of a child in the lush, green world around me, my surroundings began to take on a new light.
A few days later we had some new visitors. Their names were Augustina and Vale, and they had apparently come to retrieve us. Instead of spending an extended stay at the cabin with Jim, we were instead to be transferred over to a nearby chocolate farm where we would complete the rest of our stay. Augustine is from Costa Rica, her husband Alejandro from Ecuador, and Vale from Germany. The three of them came together started this small production organic chocolate farm in the middle of the rainforest. We were at first a bit unsettled, as we hadn’t yet actually delved into the work of the fruit farm, but were not at all disappointed once we reached the chocolate producing château. I say château because the farm was huge by Ecuadorean standards, and not enclosed by ever-growing foliage. The first day we arrived just in time for lunch, which consisted of stir fried vegetables, rice, and beans. I love fruit, but my diet sorely missed the greens! We also got to meet the other members of thee family; the illustrious black feline named Sibu after the Costa Rican god of cacao, the hyperactive black lab named Mamba, and an adorable piglet named Chocolatia! After which we received a tour of the farm and the chocolate making facilities, we had a swim in the nearby river, and basically spent the day as our leisure. The easy goings of the first day left us unprepared for the work that was to come the next.
On the second day, we awoke at about 7 am for a short breakfast of eggs on toast and were then handed baskets and shears. Today was harvest day. Every fifteen days there was a harvest day, and we just happened to show up at the opportune moment. The farm contained four plots, each plot housing approximately 100 cacao trees, and our job was to harvest the ripe cacao fruit of three of these plots. This consisted of walking line by line, slightly peeling the outermost layer of fruits to determine viability, clipping the fruit and collecting them into the baskets on our backs. On average we got 3-4 fruits ready for harvest per tree. Augustina and one of the farm hands stayed at the center of the plot, where they would await us to bring them our harvested fruits. They would proceed to open the shells with a machete and dig out the seeds inside. The seeds were all covered in this fleshy, sweet outer coating that you could eat as well! In the end, to harvest all three plots took about 4 hours, but we weren’t done just yet. Next we had to transfer all of the seeds to collecting bags so we could drain out the cacao juice (super duper delicious!), and the transfer what had to be about 200lbs of seeds to the wooden fermentation barrel. They would stay in the fermentation barrel for about three days, being turned twice a day while having the temperature recorded. Without any additional heating, the fermentation process reached 55°C! Other than occasionally turning the sun drying cacao seeds from previous batch to prevent molds from forming, we were done for the day. Our afternoon was free for swimming and lounging in hammocks. However, it was during the lounging that we discovered the dangers of mosquitoes, for by the end of the day our ankles were absolutely covered in bites!
If we thought that the hard work was over after harvesting day, we were sorely mistaken, as the next day was primarily machete and caretaking work. We headed out once again to the fields, this time with Alejandro. The cacao trees are planted in straight lines, with every other row transitioning from eucalyptus trees to cacao trees. Our job was to cut down the relatively large branches of eucalyptus and use them as natural fertilizer around the bottoms of the cacao. As hard as the work was, it was somehow satisfying actually. I grew up in farm country, so I was used to this kind of work from childhood. But apparently four years of city living at the university had mad my once calloused hands grow soft. Within five minutes I had huge blisters showing up! Luckily I came to South America with a full med kit! We worked for about four hours before lunch, and then another two after that. Even then we only managed to finish one plot!
Day three was a bit easier, as it was Sunday and our hosts were firm believers in the day of rest! So today only two hours of work in the plots! Instead of working with the cacao today, we instead took to tending to the neighboring plot of banana trees! Again, more machete work. These trees grow in clusters, so we had to go clump by clump and cut down any decaying leaves from the trees, as well as the trees themselves when more than three were found in a single cluster. This was all to make sure the proper nutrients we being diverted to fruit production. Since bannana trees are very watery with soft bark, the work was easy and went quickly. The downside was that the water that leaked out of cut leaves smelled super rancid, and you couldn’t help getting it on you. Plus, tiny red insects living in the trees would fall down on you and cause red rashes on your skin. But all was good, as for lunch we were in for a special treat! A Peruvian family potluck! Augustina’s parents and cousins divided to pay us a visit, and brought us the gift of meat! I tried to help out in the kitchen a bit, but the ladies chased me away, so instead I sat in a hammock and watched as they boiled chicken in a broth made of the miel of the cacao were had harvested earlier. Needless to say, it was delicious!
My last day at the farm turned out to be a real treat! I was enlisted to work inside the chocolateria! The very air-conditioned chocolatería. Because this was still a small production facility, most of the work had to be done by hand. That meant grating huge blocks of cacao into fine powder to later be turned into workable chocolate, slicing dried fruit by hand into fine pieces to be put inside some of the flavored chocolate, and separating the dried cacao beans from their shells using a high-speed air machine (which didn’t actually work so you had to do it by hand in the end). We were even tasked with the packaging of the chocolate. So, in the end, we experienced the entire process, from picking the cacao from the tree to packaging for shipment! I also got some insight as to the difficulties organic farms face with acquiring the accreditation to be able to write the word [ORGANIC] on their label. It’s an involved process that can take years of inspections and paperwork! Overall, this experience was invaluable to lean about the rural lives of farm workers in South America, and what goes one before we receive food on our plates back in the states!
Keep on eating!