Sachahuares

Matt Berman

     
   

            Ten years ago, Sabine traveled from her native home in Belgium to visit Peru; it was only meant to be a vacation, to see Machu Picchu and the jungle, but she fell in love with Roberto, an actor, poet, and native of Cuzco, and stayed.  As a couple they traveled to Europe and also to the Philippines, where they lived for three years, before they eventually returned to settle down in the lush Urubamba valley, below and to the east of the abandoned Inca city Machu Picchu, to raise a family on Roberto’s father’s land.  Sabine decided to live her life as a farmer, despite its difficulties.  She loved to work with her hands and wanted to be an example of organic farming in the local community.  She felt she could easily do without television and most modern conveniences in exchange for the opportunity to live off the land and farm in a way that works with the jungle instead of against it.

            I first hear about Sabine and Roberto’s farm online, on a website called wwoof.org that connects willing volunteers with family-run organic farms around the world and I agree to work for their farm, Sachahuares, between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  They explain I can help them grow tropical fruits in exchange for the opportunity to live, learn, and work with their family, share in their culture, and escape the normal tourist route.  For my labor, Sabine and Roberto agree to provide me with a place to stay and something to eat.  When I ask if there is anything I can bring, they just say, “Panetón,” which I’ve never heard of, but I discover is a holiday bread filled with candied fruits.  I pick one up before leaving town.  With our loose verbal contract, their directions, and a loaf of Panetón, I navigate the Peruvian outback.  If nothing else, I have friends to greet me when I arrive.

            I find my way to the outpost town of Quillabamba and, through word of mouth, to the street corner that serves as an unmarked bus stop for people like me who are departing eastward into the jungle. My station wagon taxi driver disobeys all traffic rules and regard for human life as he swerves and accelerates up the dangerously narrow dirt road.  The steep, winding drive climaxes when we stop to talk to a group of mourners assembled at the rim of a tall cliff.  From our vantage point, high above the chocolate brown river, I see the hull of a bus straight below us, its windows broken out and its body filled with pulsing river water.  This is the same vehicle I saw the day before on the evening news, though at the time I could barely understand the Spanish-speaking newscasters.

            My driver manages to stay on the high, twisting road and out of that death trap of a river for the rest of the trip until we reach a seemingly random place along the way marked only with a green banner strung up high with just one word written on it: Sachahuares.

            From there I march up a ten minute trail through thick green vegetation and small trees covered in brightly colored fruit, orange, yellow, and green.  I easily recognize coffee plants with beans, growing in tight clusters along the stems.  Only one in a hundred of the shiny berries are dark red; the rest are still leaf green and unripe.  I pluck a red berry from the branch.  The outer flesh of the ripe bean tastes fruity and sweet.

            A lanky tree grows above the coffee bush.   Heavy green and yellow fruits hang from that tree’s branches and trunks; they look like spiraled Nerf footballs or harvest time gourds from North America.  The tiny intricate flowers of the tree also hang directly from the tree’s trunk.  A yellow toucan flies overhead and I know that I’ve arrived in the jungle.  The whole place smells of rotting fruit.  Fallen mangos turn from yellow to black as they’re eaten by fuzzy all-black bees and giant orange wasps.

            After five hard days of traveling from Northern California to Sachahuares, I find Sabine and her two-year old son Mirko standing in the open courtyard of their organic farm.  They wait at the base of a mango tree that bows toward the ground under the weight of its ripe fruit.  After introductions, Sabine leads me on an enthusiastic tour of the property.

            “We can show you your house first, so you can put down your things.”

            On the way to my hut, I ask Sabine, “What do you grow here?”

            “The hill’s mostly planted with cacao, but we’ve also got coffee, pineapple, banana, mango, avocado.” She counts the fruits on her fingers as she talks.  Mirko walks by her side, smiling widely as he stomps his rubber boots into the fertile soil.  “We have a lot of trees to plant this week,” she says as she looks down at her son’s knee-high mop of curly hair and his two perpetual dimples.  He seems anxious to help.

            “What’s the cacao look like?” I ask as we walked the narrow path.

            “This is cacao,” she says, pointing at the mysterious tree full of football-shaped gourds and tiny flowers I noticed on my hike up.  Her son shouts in his loudest two-year-old voice, “Cacao, cacao, cacao.”

            “Mirko really likes cacao,” Sabine says as she breaks open a yellow pod.  “It was his first word.”  She pulls the outer shell away, revealing segments of pure white fruit flesh, each surrounding a large, hard seed.  The taste, almost like that of mango, surprises me, but not little Mirko, whose eyes widen with each slimy bite.   I’ve been eating chocolate my whole life but never imagined it beginning as a seed pod with the smooth skin of an acorn squash, and I never could have predicted the refreshing melon-like fruit hidden between the pod and the seed.

            Sabine shows me my thatch-roof hut up the hill from the main house.  I take off my backpack and settle in.  Skinny trees tied together with rope make up the skeleton of my dwelling and create a tall, vaulted ceiling that helps to push away the heat.  A bed in the center of the room is covered in a blue mosquito net.  After a quick break, I rejoin her to do some work around the farm.

            Sabine grows Chunchu cacao beans, which are native to this region of Peru.  Most people growing cacao in this valley today, however, grow hybrids that bear more fruit and are more resistant to disease.   Sabine says the hybrid’s beans have a blander taste and that they need to be mixed with small amounts of good chocolate to make them palatable.  Besides that, Sabine tells me, they aren’t natural here.  Still most people grow them because they give more fruit.  Growing the right tree is a tough choice to make, given the sacrifice in production, but Sabine thinks it’s important.  She’s made a hard decision, but she wants to be a model for the community and run her farm the natural way.

            “Are there a lot of big cacao farms here?” I ask.

            “Well, not really.” Sabine says. “Cacao grows best under the shade of the taller trees, so it doesn’t do well on big plantations.  Most cacao farms are about this size.”

            Like many tropical plants, cacao flowers throughout the year.  The pods ripen according to their own personal time schedules and they don’t drop to the ground after ripening.  Sabine has to search the canopies every week or two for those hard to reach seed pods.  Otherwise they rot and become insect houses instead of bars of chocolate.

            We walk through a layer of long dead cacao leaves and overripe, slippery mangos, scaring off tiny black honey bees and wasps as long as my pinky finger as we harvest cacao pods using thin metal hooks attached to ten-foot-long sticks.  The tool we’re carrying hasn’t changed in centuries.  “Be careful, though,” Sabine warns.  “There have been lots of accidents.”

            We reach overhead with our sticks and set a sharp blade between the pod and its nearest branch, trying not to hit each other in the process.  Sabine places hers and with a quick jerk and a tug, sends the fruit into free fall.  Mirko won’t be doing this part of the harvest for a few more years.  In the mean-time, he can twist off the pods that sprout from the tree’s trunk and low branches.  We carry the yellow cacao fruits in satchels on our backs to the stone courtyard and pile them under Sabine’s mango tree.

            At the end of the work day I sit at the edge of my thatch roof hut to take off my boots and notice leaf cutter ants marching in formation just below the adobe steps.  All I need is a light sheet for warmth through the night.  The windows have no screen or glass; they’re just open holes looking out into the dark.  The net over the bed keeps away night creepers, not just mosquitoes, Sabine tells me: bats and giant brown moths the size of dinner plates-like to fly through those windows.  An iridescent blue mosquito buzzes by my doorway.

            For breakfast Sabine, Roberto, their three boys, and I eat Panetón, the traditional holiday sweetbread stuffed with candied fruit that I brought with me to the farm.  We drink hot chocolate.  After the meal, Sabine begins triangulating her plot of jungle with a three-meter stick to prepare the hillside for planting.  She makes sure each cacao tree will have enough space to thrive in the shade of its neighbors. The baby trees look ready to grow; they bulge from within restricting bags.  They extend handfuls of long oval leaves toward the sky and roots out drainage holes in the bottom of their tiny bags.  Sabine places them according to the dimensions of the stick, careful to not step on the uncucha (a native tuber like a potato) she’s already planted in between.

            Mirko picks up digging tools and machetes; he’s slowly becoming a farmer.  I follow behind with him.  We grind our knees into the moist soil and start the holes with a wooden-handled mattock, then extend the hole deeper with an iron rod, digging away the dirt by hand until we’ve created a shaft just deep enough to hold one thin cacao root ball.  Sabine’s determined to plant 150 baby trees this rainy season, each during the waning moon.  “The way people have always done it.”

            Sabine will have to wait five or six years before her new trees begin to produce seed pods.  It’s a long time to wait, but once they mature, this group of trees can fruit for decades, just like an apple orchard.  Each one will eventually produce a few pounds of dried, fermented cacao beans annually, enough to create a few bars of dark chocolate and make Sabine less than a dollar.

            The sun shines brightly all day.  The heat and humidity combine with the toucans and black flies to make this place really feel like the tropics.  Farming here, like in most places, means hard work for little pay.  There is no holiday vacation.

            On Christmas Eve the family stays up late and builds a nativity scene depicting a whole town.  Patches of moss represent farms.  Tiny plastic figurines of animals and people are spread across the family’s open-air living space under a thatch roof.  We shoot bottle rockets into the air and listen to Christmas carols until midnight when we eat a whipped casserole of chicken, peppers, celery, onion, and potatoes called causa.  Kyram, the oldest son, takes me outside by headlamp to pick limes from a small tree to make limeade.  The peel of the limes smell intensely floral and almost as good as the limeade tastes.

            The work at Sachuahuares changes from day to day, depending on what needs to be done.  Today we’re preparing our harvest of cacao to be fermented.  “Mirko.  Bring me that machete,” Sabine says. Maybe it’s just how they raise children in Peru but I’m surprised to see a two-year-old carrying around a sharp machete.  Sabine takes the knife and goes to work, swinging her two-foot blade.

            “If you chop straight around the pod, you can break it easier.”

            “Oh.  Am I too slow?” I ask, though I already know the answer.

            Sabine laughs before showing me what she means. She rotates a cacao pod with one graceful hand and hits it three times with the machete, moving her free hand aside between swings.  She tosses aside the empty half and tears apart the cone of gelatinous beans with her first two fingers, dumping them into a tall rice bag.  “And watch out for splinters, cause they can get under your fingernail from the shell.”  She grabs another pod from her perch atop a tiny wooden seat and cuts it open before I have a chance to grab for one for myself.  “Just cut the skin; don’t cut into any of the beans.”  Just as with apples; one bad bean can spoil the whole batch.

            As I watch Sabine sit close to the ground, hunched over, swinging a machete, I realize the chocolate I’ve been eating my whole life comes at a laborious price. I had no idea harvesting chocolate could be so complicated or time-consuming.  We talk as we load rice bags with slimy beans, heavy as almonds.  Strong smelling acidic juices already seep through the porous bottom of the bag.  Fermenting beans properly requires patience and knowledge; it allows cacao to retain more of its natural antioxidants and minerals.  Poor fermentation or none at all can destroy those healthy benefits.  We follow tradition by allowing the beans to sit in the well-used rice bag for a few days.  Only a farmer’s instinct can tell exactly how many days the process takes.  Sabine, Mirko, and I use bacteria and yeast to transform our crop and harness the power of chocolate.

            At dark we watch fireflies light up green and relax with a game of Sorry.  We eat more causa and drink more freshly squeezed limeade.  The family cooks their meal over an open fire in an adobe stove.  The food they make tastes wonderful and smoky.  The potatoes are wild.  The shower is gravity fed cold water from a channeled stream, which is just perfect after a hard day’s work in a place this hot and humid.

            Roberto is always excited to tell me about his native country.  While Sabine speaks English, along with Flemish, French, and Spanish, her husband only speaks very fast Spanish.  It proves difficult to understand his warnings about the thieves in Cusco, the water in Puno, and the front seats on the double-decker bus (a very scenic yet dangerous way to travel, as a thin plate of glass is the only thing separating those seats from the road six feet down).  He tells me there are a minimum of two accidents each day between Cusco and Puno, on the shore of Lake Titicaca.

            Roberto says that when I leave the farm, I have to go to Santa Maria, then take a bus to Santa Teresa.  From there I go to Aguas Calientes–known today as Maccu Picchu Pueblo.  I plan to be there for New Years’ Eve.  I understand about half of all his quickly spoken Spanish instructions.

            In the morning we lay out a thin layer of beans to dry in the heat.  From now on, each afternoon, we scoop up our crop and put it in the house to shield it from the nightly downpours.  This process is already imprinted on little Mirko.  He mimics everything we do.  Sabine explains to me that slowly drying the beans helps to retain cacao’s nutritious properties and allows them to last longer, and that drying them too quickly can leave fermentation incomplete and invite mold, which can kill the beans.  As with the other steps in the harvesting of cacao, this one is nearly impossible to do with machines; it needs time and it needs to be watched by a knowledgeable eye and attended to by hand.

            It’s the hottest day in the jungle yet.  The sun shines so strongly I feel like I’m about to pass out.  I’ve already adapted to the idea of an afternoon siesta; it’s essential to rest in the heat of the day this close to the equator.  An afternoon nap sets me straight and gives me energy to push through the second half of the day, even if that extends well beyond a traditional northern workday’s end of five pm.  This is the true work advantage to the siesta system.  The people actually return to work with vigor in the evening and it is not unusual to see even state workers getting things done well into twilight.  On the farm, we dig holes long after the sun has set behind the hill.

            The choice to grow cacao is a difficult one; it commits that farmer (and potentially her entire family) to constant labor for little pay.  The vast majority of the world’s chocolate is grown in struggling economies where per capita incomes are one tenth of those in Europe or the US.  To me, it means we should always savor the chocolate we eat.  After all, that candy bar has been through a lot.  The beans it came from led a hard life.  They were harvested by hand and tediously worked through time-consuming steps with attention and care.

            Worldwide chocolate sales total nearly fifty billion dollars annually.  Overwhelmingly the flow begins in the jungles of Africa and Indonesia (the plant only grows between twenty degrees north and twenty degrees south of the Equator) and ends in Europe and North America.  Europe alone consumes forty percent of all chocolate, coincidentally the exact same 1.4 million tons that is the average yearly export for the African nation of Ivory Coast.

            Though the price of a good chocolate bar is about three dollars, Sabine says she makes just one hundred soles, or thirty-five dollars, for one hundred kilograms of fermented Chunchu beans, enough to make hundreds of chocolate bars.  With the two of us harvesting for six hours, splitting pods for six hours, and laying out the beans to dry, I figure it takes thirty-six hours of labor for a reward of thirty-five dollars.  The average yearly cacao harvest brings $175 dollars to a farm with about 800 trees, or more than double what Sabine has.  But she also grows a variety of other crops on her land and offers jungle stays to tourists who aren’t interested in working through their vacation.

            Cacao farms commonly sell their refined product to middlemen who combine the community’s beans until they have enough to sell to local cooperatives.  In turn, those cacao cooperatives sell massive amounts of beans to the international organizations that make most of our candy.  Sabine’s chocolate greases the money machine but very little of that money ever trickles back down to the farm where it started. With each step toward the consumer and away from the farmer, the value of cacao multiplies, but the beneficiaries are corporations and business people who’ve never knelt in the dirt to dig a hole.  They’ve never waited five years for a tree to outgrow its pests and bear fruit.  Before cacao beans leave the farm, hundreds of hours have gone into their harvest.  If cacao was able to grow in North America, the production costs would make chocolate as expensive as gold.

            “Could you sell your beans as organic?  Fair Trade?” I ask.

            “To be Fair Trade or Organic–never mind both–a farm needs to buy their yearly certification.  It’s something like a thousand dollars a year to be organic.  Fair Trade is even more.  We just can’t do it.  For some people, a thousand dollars isn’t much, I know, but spending that money would cancel my profits from everything we make here at the farm.”

            Today is the rainiest day of the week.  The storm starts around midnight, like normal, but this time it continues straight until noon, so I huddle inside with Sabine, Mirko, Roberto, Kyram, and the baby.  We roast cacao beans in a ceramic pot over the fire.  The beans need the perfect amount of heat, so as to release as much moisture as possible, too much of a scorching, and they can burn.  We stir the roasting beans constantly.  The earthy smell of shell and wood smoke fill the room.  “Enough?” I ask

            “Nope.”  Sabine picks up a pod tries to separate the shell.  “The shells need to peel off easier.”  She tosses the bean back in the pot and continues stirring, carefully watching each one.  Amazing how she maintains enough patience to deal with such a high-maintenance bean; fascinating that so many people have done this for so many generations.  I guess humans have collectively decided that whatever the cost in labor, we must have our chocolate.  Like all other steps in the cacao process, this one proves mildly difficult to do right, and it is another step I would not want to trust to young Mirko.

            We shell our roasted seeds over the kitchen table, hurrying to get it done before they cool.  Warmth makes the husk easier to get off.  The almond-like seeds reveal an inner core like a shriveled pistachio made of chocolate. Industrially, this step is done by huge winnowing machines that rough up the roasted beans and suck off their tattered coverings.

            Sabine and I grind the beans through a small hand-crank coffee grinder, pouring only a few dozen capsules of flavor into the funnel at a time.  Out of the bottom of that grinding machine oozes shiny brown chocolate liquor, greasy and coarse–a far cry from the yellow fruit we picked a few days ago, yet still several processes away from a chocolate bar.  Finally, that undeniable, rich odor of pure chocolate hits my nose.  Sabine gifts me a bar of the pure cacao liquor, pressed into a solid square.  No sugar or milk here, just cacao.  For the rest of my trip, my backpack emits the thick smell of cacao beans–fermented, dried, roasted, and ground.

            Saying goodbye to my new family proves difficult and returning to the heavily trafficked Peruvian tourist route from remote Sachahuares ends up being as interesting and complicated as getting there had been.  As I wait at the bottom of Sabine’s narrow footpath along a dirt road in the jungle, rain starts to fall.  A van pulls over to pick me up; apparently, they pick everyone up.  Over the next few hours we grow into a group of twenty-three people compacted into a fifteen passenger van. 

            I’m excited to be back on the road and I’m ready for another grand adventure, but I’m sitting unevenly over the wheel well and my hip hurts with every rock and rut that sends the van’s tires bouncing.  After two more hour-long drives in over-stuffed cars and vans, I miss the day’s final train to Machu Picchu Pueblo, and so I have to walk three hours with all of my gear on my back.  Lots of fortunate tourists walk the Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu, but that is not the path I’m walking.  I’m walking in the tracks of the train I missed, so I’m at least afforded the same view I would have had from my seat on the train and there’s no traffic.  Regardless, I’ll be at Machu Picchu tomorrow for the first day of the year.  The hike is beautiful, surrounded by avocado trees and towering green peaks dotted with ruined Inca terraces.  As I explore Peru over the next three weeks, the musky aroma of chocolate emanates from my backpack.

     
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Matt Berman has written short stories about travel, work, and the world for the last ten years, bringing far-away readers into engaging natural world settings and real-life drama.  Since earning his bachelor’s degree studying Media Communications at the University of New Hampshire, he has worked seasonally on trail crews in America’s National Parks, from the Grand Canyon to the Grand Tetons.  His experience working outdoors in these natural cathedrals drives him to write.  He writes about the physical interactions people make with the planet and how those bonds create meaning.  Matt is currently enrolled in Spalding University’s MFA in Creative Non-Fiction in Louisville, Kentucky.