This past May I participated in one of the most amazing experiences of my life. For one week, I accompanied 12 undergraduate students on a service trip to Guatemala. There we would work side by side with coffee farmers, learning about their trade, culture, and way of life. Collected here are a series of reflections from this trip originally written for and posted to Instagram, and images that I had not previously shared with anyone outside of our service group.
To learn more about the organization we worked with, and sustainable and fair coffee practice, please visit De La Gente.
One part of the service trip that really stood out to me was the day that we learned a bit about the history, culture, and religion of Guatemala. Learning of the conquistadors’ conquest of the lands, the conversion of Mayan religion to Christianity, and even the U.S. influenced, 36 year Guatemalan Civil War, all gave me a better understanding of the country’s tension. Nothing I saw on the trip quite summed up the duality and conflict of Guatemala’s history quite like the sight of the city of Antigua sitting between Volcán de Agua and Cerro de la Cruz.
One of the most physically challenging aspects of our trip was hiking up to Gregorio’s coffee farm on the base of Volcán de Agua. Based on data from my Fitbit, the hike was about 2.5 miles up the equivalent of about 45 flights of stairs… The thin air and steep incline left me feeling like my lungs were going to explode. Needless to say, I pulled up the rear on our hike. Lagging behind the rest of our group gave me the opportunity to use my limited Spanish to talk to Gregorio about his life and working his farm. Combining this information with some questions I asked later at lunch, I found out that Gregorio wasn’t much of a fan of doing that hike every day or working the farm. Gregorio much preferred his first love, furniture making, over the more lucrative coffee farming.
Hard not to appreciate the work that the Guatemalan farmers do on their farms six days a week, and in some cases barefoot.
The day after our experience working up on the coffee farm, learning coffee processing and roasting, we had the opportunity to help the farmer Timoteo with the construction of a coffee processing facility. We moved dirt, cut rebar, mixed cement, and started to build some walls and fermentation tank. It was hard but interesting work and the whole team got really into it (before getting exhausted from the heat).
While they did have a few different tools to use for the various parts of construction, Timo favored one above almost all others. He used his machete to cut open bags of cement, smooth down concrete, and even to cut down cinder blocks into more manageable pieces for parts of the walls we were building. I hope I can be as good as Timo with a machete some day.
Following our first day of construction, we attended what’s known as a coffee cupping. Wikipedia has a great entry on what a cupping is, but the basics are that the coffee taster makes observations on the aroma and taste of coffee. For our cupping, we were presented with two different types of coffee, in sets of two. The reason each type was presented in a set of two was to account for irregularities that may exist in one of the batches.
The first type of coffee was processed and roasted normally. In a normal coffee process, beans are removed from the fruit that they grow inside before being bagged to ferment. The second variety of coffee we were exposed to was part of a process known as “honey,” which Timoteo was experimenting with. In this process, fermentation happens while the fruit still encapsulates the coffee bean, allow the been to absorb some flavor from the fruit. In order to help with the process of assessing the aroma and taste of the coffee, we were presented with a complex flavor wheel, which has possible comparisons for what we felt the coffee smelt and tasted like.
First, we smelled the coffee dry and made assessments. Pretty early on most of the group had a sense of which coffee process each set was, with the coffee having a somewhat more sweet aroma. Water was then added and we watched a “crust” form at the top of the cups of coffee. We were instructed to take large spoons and break this crust while taking a big whiff of the coffee to make a judgment of the aroma of the grounds when wet.
Finally, we took those same large spoons to collect some coffee that we slurped up in order to determine taste and mouth-feel. It was a very cool experience, and interesting to taste and smell how much processing can alter the flavor of coffee.
Taking a bit of a break from coffee and construction, we had the opportunity to work with some artisans in Guatemala. Part of our group work with textiles creating some beautiful handmade bags, another did metalwork and created an assortment of lizards, turtles, dragonflies, and crosses.
My group did woodwork, where we helped sand down and varnish what would become serving trays. After smoothing the wood, we picked out fabric, originally pieces of traditional clothing worn by Guatemalan women, to use as the decoration at the bottom of the tray, cutting it down and gluing it to a board cut to fit our tray’s frame. As pictured above, a piece of glass was then added to our frame before our fabric base was plugged in.
While we didn’t completely make the trays from scratch, getting plenty of help from the seasoned woodworking pros, it was a really fun experience and we all walked away with very beautiful pieces that I’m pretty sure we all have to our moms…
Following our morning with the artisans, we took the chicken bus (that’s a story for another time…) into Antigua, where we were tasked with exploring the market in order to buy ingredients for dinner and dessert. One team was in charge of collecting fruits that would be used to make smoothies, while one of our other groups collected the items needed to make guacamole.
The team I found myself on was tasked with collecting peppers, tomatoes, refried beans, queso fresco, and tortilla chips, which, if you haven’t figured it out, combine to form nachos. The market was both exciting and overwhelming, it was like running through a maze filled with food, clothes, toys, electronics, candles, and just about anything else you can imagine. (The nachos turned out great if you were wondering.)
On our last full day in Guatemala, before heading out for construction with Timo, Parth and I went for a walk around town. It was an exceptionally clear morning and we figured we could get some great photos of both the town of San Miguel Escobar and the volcanoes which surrounded us. We weren’t expecting to see much action, just to get some scenic shots, but we were treated to a few morning “poot poots” from Volcán de Fuego. It was definitely a beautiful way to start our last full day in such a vibrant country.
I probably have a million other stories I could tell from Guatemala, but for now, I will leave you with this: If you ever have a chance to do a service trip in Guatemala, don’t hesitate. It is a beautiful country with a rich history and culture, and some of the most interesting and hardest working people I have ever met. I hope I’ve been able to do this experience at least a little bit of justice, and that you all have enjoyed the images and stories.