Easing into a 10 hour bus ride to Cartagena, I let my body nestle into the musky coach bus seats. Air blowing from the vents above was keeping me afloat; my head ascending into the cloud waves that were my dreams.
I was awaken by a whisper next to me, telling me it was 11 p.m. and time to call our friend. I rubbed by eyes and groggily checked my phone. Our friend, a Cacao contact, had connected us with a cacao farmer in Monteria - some small town along the 10 hours between Medellin and Cartagena. He was awaiting our call. After several tries and a choppy phone call with him, we were able to secure our farm visit with local producers the day after tomorrow. I slumbered back into my groggy state, knowing that it would be another 5 hours till we get to Cartagena.
Another whisper, "How about we get off early?"
Josh, It's 4 am.
"Yea but, we're so much closer to the farm now! This is the best time to get off. We can't reach Cartagena only to take another 5 hours bus back here."
Ok, if you think it's possible...
My brain felt incoherent in the dim light of the middle of the night. I mumbled back into my reclined seat, somewhere between dreaming and reality.
If you think it's possible...
I murmured through my yawning brain.
"Ok, we're getting off!"
10 minutes later, we convince our bus driver to let us trample off into the night in a new town, half asleep and half shocked by the coastal heat.
So here's the deal. We're going to see some Cacao farmers whose names we don't know, whose meeting was arranged by a guy we've never met, whose contact we were given by someone on Instagram - also whom we've never met. It's all seeming a little silly as we step off the bus at 4AM to a town I've never heard of.
I send a message to my parents and tell them where and what hotel I am at "just in case..."
--the first meeting.
"So, what do you want to know?"
After several buses and motorcycle rides, we're here, and Divier is the man of the house. All the women, men, children, and even abuelo Sr. Perez follow his lead. He's friendlier than the first cacao farmer we met. Yet still, his words fall with weight and his eyes are expectant. He's the head farmer here.
The tireless expression on his face says, "Speak, and we let's see what you have to say," worn like a lack of surprise which he puts on when we later crack open Cacao pods. As if all the years of living has given him license to test us. An expression that says he's seen keen extranjeros like us before.
When I am done talking - it's clear we've passed his exams, and he has decided enough to receive us. Minutes later a full (and much needed) lunch comes to the table - typical Colombian food with just a bit more personal touch than typically tasted in the "Menu del día" of the cities. Delicious gallina, rice, salad, and a soup with carne and yuca. We wash it down with iced cups of Toronja-Naranja - a large citrus fruit literally translated "grapefruit-orange," with a flavour spectacularly in between both. He tells us to relax, "Esta es tu casa."
After finishing our two large portions of rice, chicken and soup with yuca and papas, I sat back on my plastic lawn chair to take in the sights:
An open room built up halfway with concrete and the rest with a park fence. Propped on top was the most beautifully leaf-constructed roof with a large ceiling fan hung from the peak. It wasn't elegant, yet it was perfect in its execution. To my right was an opening to another room in the house built with giant dark red bricks and blue filling. Divier excused himself to cut wooden fences with another worker. Farm chickens were running between our legs.
We were passed cold drinkable water in two plastic bags and small shears.
Jesus, my moto driver and business partner to Divier, brought a wheelbarrow, a machete, a wooden stick (about an inch thick) and a black bucket ready to go.
We trampled into the rows and rows of cacao trees, our feet rustling with a satisfying crunch on the fallen and dried cacao leaves. It was a carpet of ants, leaves and decay. All around were cacao pods and trees of all types, interluded by the occasional coconut tree, plantain or fruit tree.
Red, orange, brown, light green and dark yellows-- the Cacao pods shone in every corner; football-sized to the size of my palm. Divier explained which ones were mature and ready to harvest, which ones were sick or disease-ridden and to be cut. We got to work.
Jesus with the barrel: You both are very excited? "Si, mucho!" I said as I watched Josh clamour around each tree asking which one was mature or ready to pick.
We filled a quarter of a barrel till the sweat dripped like a storm down our necks and backs, and stood there under the cacao canopies, cracking the pods open. It was better than Kinder Surprise.
Wonderfully sweet, acidic, citrusy, fruity, all of the above. You suck the pulp around the seeds, each Cacao variety tasting distinctly unique. One tastes of lemon & lime, one earthy, floral notes and honey, some of red fruits and berries.
We machete open pods (with supervision), prune diseased trees, and suck greedily at dozens of Cacao varieties with galactic sounding alphanumeric names like ICS-79 or CCN-51. Each pod is filled with a little village of seeds waiting to join their brothers and sisters in wooden boxes, ready for our friends to come and play: yeasts, and ambient air bacteria who are especially good at fermentation.
We trample back towards the house, sticky with sweat and labour, but wholly satisfied in mind and body. Jesus asked if we were "hermanos" as he wheelbarrow-ed our treasure loot of cacao seeds back to the farmstead.
"Somos novios" we tell him over laughter.
Jesus had a lightheartedness about him that made his smiles radiate, like they came from an endless store of light. I appreciated his softness and trust. He had an air of a man on his own mission; somewhere between having adventurous circumstances with a comfort for the daily little things in life. He was a pretty good motorcycle driver, too.
We sat in the cool shade under the perfectly thatched plantain leaf roof, sucking on plastic bags of chilled water. Divier was on a chair next to the hammock.
So, ask me anything. What do you want to know about Cacao?
We did our best, we got to the nitty-gritty of Cacao prices and managing clients as I scribbled notes, translating between my ears and hands from Spanish to English. We learned of "convencional, extrafino and premio" cacao prices and yield per year. We studied the lab notes from quality control; a chart full of numerical scent and taste data. After we went through the factual and objective business numbers and thoughts, I struggled with asking the last few questions.
Josh, how do I say this in Spanish? A pause.
To Divier (in spanish), "We were wondering what is better for you and your family? Having a tree-to-bar partnership? Or selling to a middleman or broker?"
He sits back, rests his arms on the wooden chair, and tells us he prefers bean-to-bar or tree-to-bar both in price and relationship. The farmers in his co-op and NGO also agree. It requires both parties to care about the product but also to understand and respect the work it takes. Economically, he makes a long-term commitment and thus receives money directly from the Chocolate Makers he works with. He also appreciates that he gets to meet these people who care enough to come to his remote farm.
We nod along in agreement from the same conclusions observed from two different types of lives. I felt strongly at that moment that humanity and humility were necessary pursuits; I was comforted that we shared heartstrings even from city to farm.
At that moment, we felt like bridges; laden with the truth of what Willa Wonka's factory really looks like beyond the chocolate waterfall.
Finally, I shuffled around my brain for a final question. Looking at Divier and Jesus with new respect and awe, I asked: What is it that you want those in Canada or North America to know about cacao?
With a tone of seriousness and gentleness, Divier replied: We really just want people to know about our story. The story of this land, of our people, of the violence interlaced with agricultural crops and exploitation. We are part of an NGO formed in Tierra Alta as an initiative to counteract the effects of illicit crops and drug-trafficking.
Divier has been on this finca (farm) for over 8 years cultivating cacao where once, many farms in the area grew blood-soaked coca.
We could see the orange sunlight settling through the cacao leaves as we say indefinite goodbyes. We depart, as friends? as future clients?
Tomorrow, they tell us we can visit another farmer who will show us his post-harvest facilities and tell us more about his process. We felt elated by this blessed earth.
-- the return.
We hop back on the motos towards town. Rising on the dusty road, I close my eyes to dust clouds that run over me. The greenery of the passing campos is lit through a warm, tawny sand air, and we join the main road as the golden hour arrives. To the left, blinking through thin trees is a blood orange sun, bathing the fincas and campos in light.
We accelerate into the trickling Sunday evening traffic, between families and couples heading into town. Beautiful people, with faces frozen to a stun as they notice these foreign yellow-skinned passengers zipping along next to them.
My face comes to the kind of smile that lasts nearly the whole journey home.