Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

After spending the whole New Year's holiday relaxing and traveling back from Lake Atitlan to Antigua, it was back to business on Wednesday with a day of physical labor.

After our meeting with Technoserve adjourned, we hopped in our vans and jostled over the cobblestone streets to the outskirts of Antigua and Ciudad Vieja (that's right, the "old city") for our visit with As Green as it Gets where we planned to really capitalize the "service" in our "Service Learning Trip."

As Green As It Gets is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting a group of small, independent producers and artisans in Guatemala. It is largely run by a single person, Franklin Voorhes, out of his house in Ciudad Vieja. The organization provides access to credit (through microloans), marketing, roasting, exporting, and distribution to affiliated individual farmers in the Antigua region. The goal is to help them capture greater value from their coffee than what they might get if they sold it to coyotes or directly to larger farms for processing. The farmers receive the entire retail price of the coffee less the costs of production and distribution. This is on the order of double to triple the fair-trade price for green coffee.

Franklin gave us a brief overview of the organization when we arrived, but there was work to be done, so the group split up into teams to tackle our project - the extension of a concrete patio, which would be used to dry the local farmers' coffee (and as a soccer pitch for the local kids).

A handful of our group set to work on building a cinder block-and-mortar retaining wall for the cement patio. The rest of us began the task of hauling, mixing, dumping, and smoothing concrete onto an section of patio that was leveled out and ready for its concrete finish.

It was an entertaining morning that involved hauling 96-pound bags of dry cement mix, filling wheelbarrows full of rocks and sand, dumping it all in a pile in the correct proportions, pouring buckets of water on top, and mixing it all together with with hoes and shovels. By the end, we had a far greater appreciation for the work that a cement truck does. In Guatemala, though, as Franklin pointed out to us, labor is cheaper than gasoline.

After quite a bit of grunting, sweating, swearing, and cement-splattering, we poured and smoothed the first half of the section of patio, and we took a lunch break. (I would be remiss to point out that throughout the day we had considerable help from the As Green As It Gets farmers whose patio it would be. They instructed us at every step of the way.)

Over a delicious homemade lunch (which may have been our best in Guatemala), we chatted with Franklin about his operation and what else we had seen of the coffee industry in Guatemala.

After lunch, we split up into two groups. Each of the groups got a small tour of a couple of the producers' homes and some of the coffee operations, while the other worked on finishing the patio. On the tour we experienced a more basic way of preparing coffee--roasting it over an open flame and grinding it over a stone block with a stone rolling pin. Filiberto and his wife Thelma welcomed us into their home and we were served a tasty cup of coffee that had been prepared this way. Then we proceeded to see most aspects of the As Green As It Gets coffee operation -- the pulper (a stationary bike attached to a contraption that took the red husk off the coffee cherries, the dry mill (a small machine that whined like a snowblower and took the parchment off the coffee beans), and the small roasting operation.

In what was maybe the most interesting moment of the day, we got to see a great entrepreneurial business that had grown as a complement to the coffee operations (and with the help of As Green As It Gets microloans). Daniel Gonzalez's daughter Angelica had started a business selling stylish tote bags made from the burlap sacks used for transporting coffee beans, and after impressive sales of the bags in Antigua shops and online, she had established an impressive sewing operation on a patio in the backyard of her family's home.

After the finishing the tour and completing the patio, we said goodbye and headed back in our vans to Antigua. Unfortunately, before most of our group could shower and wash off the layer of grime and cement we had accumulated from our work, the power in Antigua went out. A freak winter storm had blown into the area and kicked up the winds, which apparently blew down power lines somewhere.

Even the power outage had its silver lining, though. We had a particularly cozy meeting tonight over candlelight and a glass of wine to talk about the day's highlights and our insights from the trip thus far.

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