While in a Combi Van swerving down the world’s most dangerous road in opaque fog, destined for Apasionado Coffee's property in Coroico, I began to question my decision. Was I cut out for the backbreaking labor? I had met the owner of the estate the day prior at Roasters Boutique, a high-end coffee shop in south La Paz. As we sampled freshly roasted Bolivian beans and my hands started shaking from too much caffeine, Yehuda Lilo stressed the hard work, the long hours and seemed to doubt my ability as a manual laborer. After affirming my assent he told me I could back out at any time if the going got too tough.
The job set out for me was to spread fertilizer at the base of each plant and I was confident it would be a breeze.
The job set out for me was to spread fertilizer at the base of each plant and I was confident it would be a breeze. Sprinkling some pellets here and there, I was sure the three days would pass without incident. Arriving on a misty morning, the foreman was waiting with 50lb bags of fertilizer and after sizing me up he divided the bag up into three five gallon buckets and left without a word. Quickly snatching mine up I scurried after him trying to keep up as he nearly ran down the slick and muddy goat path. Winding in and out of the tall coffee plants, I kept an eye on the bag of fertilizer hefted upon his shoulder so as to not lose him in the forest of green.
We reached a small plateau above the steep emerald slopes that stretched towards the bottom of the valley. Standing like Mufasa and Simba over the pride lands, he outlined my territory and I began getting acquainted with my workspace for the next three days. Ancient terracing was still evident on the many of 45 degree slopes and I began to understand the difficulties in store. The rows were narrow, there was barely enough room to skirt the large plants in some areas and with an ever-present mist keeping the leaf covered earth moist, steady footing was hard to find.
Looking around at the pellets mimicking the confetti we had spread earlier that week, I buried my face in gloved hands and cried.
Day two passed with all of us lost in separate parts of the valley, and with nothing more than bugs to keep me company I reflected on the process of growing coffee. This plantation was just over three years old but since coffee plants don't begin to produce berries until after their second year, they had only one harvest so far. Utilizing the best practices possible for their region, the bushes are shade grown. This enables local animals to thrive and provides natural predators to some of the known 900 pests that attacks coffee plants.
These fleeting moments of experiencing life as someone else does, so foreign from my own experiences have led me to appreciate where I come from and the daily luxuries afforded to me that are easily overlooked.
On the third day, I reached my limit. It was especially wet and muddy, drizzle kept pulling us out of the depths to hide under a tarp, protecting the fertilizer so it wouldn't melt. I fell once, twice, and then a third time—each time spilling the entire contents of my bucket onto the slopes around me. Looking around at the pellets mimicking the confetti we had spread earlier that week, I buried my face in gloved hands and cried. It was in that moment that I realized how difficult it is to make each cup of coffee happen, no matter where in the world it comes from. These fleeting moments of experiencing life as someone else does, so foreign from my own experiences have led me to appreciate where I come from and the daily luxuries afforded to me that are easily overlooked.
Luckily, it seems that the tides are starting to change, and the coffee culture we might recognize is beginning to bloom here as well.