Lost in Central America!

by Jill K. Alexander

Lost for words, that is…

I briefly considered apologizing for the dramatic, perhaps somewhat misleading, title. However, as someone who has worked in communications for a quarter of a century, including five years as an editor, being at a loss for words is both unusual (my husband will attest) and downright frightening.

My 10-day trek visiting farms within S&D’s Raíz Sustainability program in Costa Rica and Nicaragua marked a host of firsts – first time to Central America, first steps on a coffee farm – that, quite frankly, left me speechless. As I struggled to wrap my mind around the experience and find adequate words to answer the inevitable “How was your trip?” I found comfort in an unexpected place:  Spanish.

Vistas Asombrosas.  Awesome views, in the most literal definition of the word:  awe inspiring. Alone-in-the-world conversation-with-God kind of awe. Costa Rica features incredible diversity from a jagged backbone of mist-shrouded peaks and domes to stunning waterfalls. Nicaragua bills itself as the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes and did not disappoint, with sparkling bodies of water nestled amidst a never-ending carpet of lush greenery. The amazing views near Finca El Laurel across the Lipululo region of Jinotega, Nicaragua and from an 11,000 foot mountain overlook stretching across the Tarrazú region of Costa Rica are windows in my mind – just close my eyes to open the shades.

Gente Encantadora.  Enchanting people who completely captivated me with their passion and humility. As my first trip into a developing country, I wasn’t sure what to expect. There were wooden huts with dirt floors that might honestly have been mistaken for stables – yet every kitchen was neatly arranged, snacks and meals served with an abundance of pride. Teenagers were not glued to cell phones – most smiled in greeting; some brightly discussed future plans, others watched with universal indifference. Young children were conspicuously absent of bright plastic toys – grinning shyly in their clean Western clothes, some giggling at my clumsy Spanish. Two young Nicaraguan girls, ages 6 and 8, welcomed me to dance with them at La Curva and were fascinated watching themselves live on the GoPro connected to my iPhone, just like my daughter at that age.

Comida Sencilla.  Simple food that was simply satisfying. Eating rice and beans at my very first dinner in Costa Rica, I was frankly told, “Hope you like arroz y frijoles. You’ll be eating them for the next 10 days.” This proved to be entirely accurate. While not a usual fan of these staples, perfectly seasoned they proved to be quite tasty. Then there was the sweet and tangy naranjilla juice, the heavenly corn chorreada slathered with fresh natilla, the hearty breakfast pupusa, and my new favorite vegetable from the squash family (yuck, right?) called chayote, just to name a few. The majority of food that I consumed – and consume I did! – was fresh, unprocessed and (dare-I-say?) healthy. Despite my increase in volume (did I mention I tried everything?), I somehow managed to lose five pounds.

¡Silencio!  No translation required, right? The primary purpose of our trip was, in fact, filming, and the frequent refrain of “¡Silencio!” marked the need for quiet on the set. Over the past few years, S&D has dedicated tremendous resources to sustainable sourcing. The S&D platform, recently branded Raíz Sustainability, is accomplishing amazing things – and it is long overdue for us to educate both customers and consumers about the innovative work being done at origin. The footage from this trip will be used in a number of strategic educational and promotional videos. Coming soon to a theatre near you!

Café Café.  Real coffee. The S&D story is, after all, rooted in coffee. And there was coffee every step of the journey:  from each angarilla measure filled at the field receiving stations to El General wet mill processing coffee by the ton from across the Tarrazú and Tres Riós regions; from leaf rust (mild) on the 150 hectare Inversiones Bernina to the broca beatle (dead) on the 10 hectare El Recreo. And the many steaming mugs served proudly and shared fondly among farmers and agronomists, photographers and film crew, exporters and marketers; each of us advancing the coffee story in our own unique way.

Mi sueño.  My dream. As Don Ivan de Jesus Zamora greeted us on El Progreso in Yali, Nicaragua, like most farmers, he was proud to showcase the small farm’s many best practices – the corn husks laid down as organic matter between the neatly planted coffee rows, the preserved river banks protecting the natural water source and the uncommon dedication of a small area as a nursery for new coffee varietals. His pace quickened along with the cadence of his speech, however, as we approached the gleaming white concrete of his two-month-old wet processing mill. The new mill has reduced processing time from four hours to an hour and a half, a 62% time savings. Through the translator, I asked if he had any photos or remains of the old mill to help visually create a “before” picture. The question was met with a passionate flurry of Spanish and waving arms translated as, “No. Nothing. I destroyed everything to do with the old, the photos, the pieces, all of it. I don’t want to see it.” He turned, grinning widely, pointing to the new construction, his obvious delight needing no translation, “Este es mi sueño.”

Jill K. Alexander is a Senior Marketing Associate at S&D Coffee & Tea, as well as a member of the cross-functional team promoting sustainable sourcing.