The air is cold when my alarm goes off at 5:30 in the morning on my first day of coffee cutting. By six, I’m dressed in a long-sleeved t-shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, and a fleece, thinking I am ready for anything. With a stomach full of orange juice, I begin my coffee adventure.
Fifteen-year-old Yessenia invited us to go cutting the night before. She lives across the street from my guide, Luke. I don’t know whose farm we are going to, or where it is, so I just follow her lead. We walk up the street to a main road and wait.Yessenia leaves periodically to get more people, including her friends Jadira, 15, and the gemelas or twins—Daniella and Paola, 13. By 6:30, a red pickup truck arrives for us. There are already a few people piled in the bed, so we climb in and squeeze into our spots. Under normal circumstances I would have been a bit nervous to ride this way, with my body precariously balancing on the edge, my hands gripping hard on the plastic lip and my legs attempting to hold me in place, while not imposing on another person’s footing. But these weren’t ‘normal’ circumstances—there are no paved roads, or flat terrain. You know those courses they design for testing vehicles ‘off-road’? Ford Motors couldn’t make a course this tough. At some points on the 45-minute ride to the coffee farm in Coloal, I close my eyes as we drive up what feels like 75 degree inclines. We keep picking up more people along the way, until there are about 14 people in the truck bed with us. So much for any of my safety concerns. Once at the farm, everyone climbs out of the truck and hangs their bags on nearby trees. It is an overcast day, and, up in the mountain, a cool mist covers everything. Luke and I are given a ‘line’ to cut, and it takes us a few minutes to figure out where we actually begin. I quickly realized I should have brought a raincoat instead of the fleece. Coffee plants grow close together in lines like corn or soybeans, and almost all the coffee farms in this area of Honduras are shade-grown. This means that not only do you have to trudge in between coffee plants, but also banana trees, cypress and other vegetation. It is a world of green where the mist sits perfectly on all the leaves, just waiting for me to walk by and soak it up through my sweatshirt.
The line we are assigned must have been picked, I’m assuming, by a kid with limited reach. The bottom of the coffee plants are pretty well plucked of their red cherries, but the tops are a different story. I start working straightaway, pulling down the branches to my reach and collecting the ripe coffee cherries. You don’t technically ‘cut’ anything, but pick off the coffee cherries. Everyone carries woven baskets called canastes tied around their waists to hold the pickings. I’m a bit too choosy about what ends up in my basket. I make sure to avoid the green cherries, as those aren’t ripe yet. But apparently, my coffee cutting technique is all wrong. Instead of picking each individual red cherry off the branches, you just angle the branch towards your basket, place your hand around the base of the branch and pull down, stripping off everything from leaves to green and red cherries into the canaste.
I learn the ‘correct’ method from the girls we rode in with. Our lines are right next to each other, and as we all work our way through them, the girls chatter and laugh, just like my own 15-year-old sister does. They talk about boyfriends, mostly whether or not it was anybody’s business if they had one. Yessenia and Jadira ask me about music and share with me their own favorites, Spanish and English singers alike. Coffee cutting isn’t just work time, but it is also time to socialize.
We head back up the hill to our bags for lunch. A fire is ready, and as we stand there warming up and drying off, Yessenia starts wringing out her sweatshirt and laughing at all the water that drips out. We are all soaked to the bone in only 60 degree weather. I huddle close to the fire as everyone pulls out their lunches and starts toasting their tortillas on the coals. I eat quietly on the sidelines with Luke, and eventually the rest of the people out cutting coffee find their way towards the fire.
After lunch the girls go down to a creek towards the bottom of the farm, and invite Luke and me to tag along. They are on a mission to find crabs to bring home and eat, mostly in soups I’m told. They search under rocks and in the pools at the creek, and whenever one of the gemelas—as everyone calls them—finds a crab, they scream for Jadira to come pull it out. She bravely sticks her hand in the murky water and grabs the dime-to-quarter-sized crabs. To render them harmless, Jadira pulls off their claws. The girls collect about 15 of these crabs. Yessenia holds them all in her hands, until Luke points out an empty plastic bag to secure them.
Walking back up the hill through the coffee farm is completely disorienting. I have no idea where we are, or where we are going, but sure enough the girls lead us right back to where we had left our canastes before lunch. I take pictures and talk with Yessenia and Jadira as we work our way down the line. I absentmindedly move from one tree to the next, getting in the rhythm of this coffee life. Cutting coffee isn’t incredibly physically demanding, but my fingers quickly grow numb in the cold. The repetitive motion hour after hour wears you out. I am about to start picking on the next plant in my line, when I notice a large, bright green lizard on a branch. It is the first evidence of wildlife I have seen all day, and I call to Luke, not knowing what to do. He yells to the other people on the farm, and soon enough a few boys come to check it out. The gemelas see it and scream, just as with the crabs—while Yessenia and Jadira just watch it from a distance. A teenage boy whom I don’t know comes and pushes it away with a stick, while Oscar, a 10-year-old out cutting with his mom, gazes on. The lizard is definitely the highlight of the day, and my introduction to the fact that seeing ‘wildlife’ in Honduras is pretty rare.
Luke and I throw in the towel at around 3 after finishing the last line we are assigned. We make our way up the hill, carrying the spoils of our work. Luke lugs the full, almost 100-lb. bag of coffee up the steep hill, while I take the mostly-empty 30-lb. one. A group of teenage boys has finished too, and, having already counted their coffee and gotten paid, they leave the farm to find a ride home.
Over the next hour, the rest of the cutters make their way up the hill as well. The brothers measure each person’s coffee by pouring it into a 5-gallon bucket, which they called galones. Luke and I combine our coffee, and have 3 galones—75 lempiras or about $4.00 worth. Yessenia has 3 as well, Jadira picked 2 and a half and the gemelas have 5 combined. One man in his early 20’s picked about 10 galones worth, which is still only $13.50.
We leave the farm at about 4:15, and the ride down, while still bumpy, feels a lot safer with four fewer people in truck bed. Having learned my lesson on the way up, I make sure to be one of the first in the truck and get a prime spot with lots of options to hang on to. We stop to let people off periodically and make it home by 5p.m. I feel exhausted, less because cutting coffee has been so strenuous and more because of being soaking wet and cold. The bucket shower I take doesn’t provide quite the relief I was hoping for. Without a constant stream of steaming hot water, my body just stays cold. I rest well that night under a heap of blankets and think about what it would be like if I had to repeat the day the next morning.
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