March 22, 2015

How to Be a Gringo on a Nicaraguan Coffee Farm


Planning an extended trip to origin? During our recent trip to origin, we caught up with Z. Latimor, a US coffee lover who ditched the daily grind and headed to origin. He spent three months working and living at the Gold Mountain Coffee Growers  Finca Idealista and micro mill near Matagalpa, Nicaragua during the coffee harvest.

Adjusting to life off the beaten track and being the only gringo for kilometers had its rewards and its challenges, so Zach has compiled a list of tips and observations in case you’re considering spending extended time in coffee country…

Young man smiling next to a coffee plant

Zach. Young and green, just like this coffee plant.

A quick note on Gold Mountain coffee growers:

Gold Mountain  is a direct trade social enterprise connecting coffee farmers and their single origin microlots  directly with roasters to improve coffee quality & economic sustainability. Perfect Daily Grind witnessed first hand Gold Mountain’s impact on their partner producers at a 90% female computing class, which is provided free to the coffee community youth – an initiative which tackles both rural poverty and gender inequalities. Other Gold Mountain sustainable development initiatives include, (but  are not limited to), providing running water and educational necessities to local schools, providing farmers access to credit and producing free coffee leaf rust educational guides.

Look Out-Everyone Can Teach You About Coffee

If you have an interest in coffee, you might think farmers are the best source of information on the subject. But you’re in coffee country; everyone has a bit of coffee growing somewhere and everyone is a coffee farmer.

Man with a beard sitting with young child

In a way, I wasn’t all that surprised to learn about selecting defects from older women or how to identify coffee varieties from kids my age or younger. There was a moment, however, when one of the day workers told me about how different amounts of water during the depulping process affect the fermentation, which is a critical part of processing green coffee. By no means had I ever thought of him as unintelligent, but I was surprised that he was so savvy about what I had thought was outside his area of expertise. That’s when it crystallized for me – in coffee country, there are no specializations. Everyone knows how to do everything they need to do to get by, and since coffee is everything in that area, there is a vast wealth of knowledge that is as part of life as navigating shopping malls or dollar menus is for me.

Tree frog on a leaf

Tree frog, the locals probably know if it’s poisonous or not… InstaPhoto: @goldmtncoffee

Prepare Yourself, No One Actually Drinks Coffee

All that being said, there is one thing that coffee growers don’t know about coffee, it’s how to drink it. Many Nicaraguans don’t drink coffee regularly, and when they do, it is cheap powdered instant coffee mixed with ludicrously high doses of sugar. It may be the single most fascinating aspect of coffee culture – that, through long, historical patterns of trade, farmers who have literally spent their entire lives growing coffee have never tasted their own product (and of course, millions of people who drink coffee every day in the developed world have no idea about its origins). What do Nicaraguans drink, then? Soda. Sugary sodas from multi-national corporations, like Pepsi or the charmingly named Big Cola. But if you’re going to ponder that absurdity while sipping a cup of coffee and watch the early-morning clouds roll through the valley, you’re going to be doing it alone, because even the idea of a morning cup of Joe is as foreign as your gringo accent.

Donkey in the front, a group of men in the back

No coffee to drink at this educational meeting about cherry picking. InstaPhoto: @goldmtncoffee

Prepare to Change Your Water Habits

It’s one of the basic things you need to survive, so it’ll be one of the first things you notice is viewed very differently up in the mountains. First of all, heated water is only used for boiling beans or yucca, so you’ll be saying adios to those thirty-five minute showers and mucho gusto to the in-and-out quickie routine. The zen-like focus required to keep yourself under a freezing cold stream of water long enough to rinse a day’s worth of muck and sweat off of you is good exercise in self-discipline, although I have to admit even after three months I was only marginally better at enduring the cold. My hair had never been shinier though.

Besides showering, the other change in your water habits will be with the water you drink. The water you shower and wash dishes with is toxic to consume, so you’ll be drinking from giant 5-gallon plastic barrels called bidones. While purposely drinking too little water is of course never healthy, I did drink a lot less when I could see the water levels in the bidón falling before my eyes instead of just drawing water from an anonymous seemingly infinite tap. I especially drank a lot less water when the bidón was closer to being empty in order to avoid having to refill it. And surprisingly, I was fine. One Nicaraguan told me that in the mountain you didn’t need to drink as much water as when you were down below in the city. Perhaps it was this, or maybe something else, but in any case it was a poignant reminder that our habits of consumption are sometimes far removed from what our bodies actually need.


Master the Vocab

While you can expect to have plenty of great conversations with locals, don’t bother bringing your Diccionario Real Academia Española with you; it’s not going to help much. To communicate effectively you just need to get comfortable only understanding about 50% of the rapid-fire, slurred, and grammatically questionable speech common to the area, and be sure you study the following popular slang terms:

Tuáni: Really great, excellent, cool. A versatile descriptor of things that are in good shape. “-Cómo estás? –Tuáni-” ;“¡Ay pero este café es tuáni!”

Cachimbazo/Cachimba: A cachimbazo denotatively means a really hard strike or punch. Connotatively it is used to mean “a whole lot of something” and its adjective form, cachimba, means “a whole of.” “¡Hay una cachimba de café maduro!”

El/la maje: Dude/ lady dude. An especially useful term if you’re bad with names. Just plug in maje instead! “Algún maje vino a vender café.- ¿Quién era?- No sé, algún maje.”

Collage of woman sorting coffee beans, a traveller and a group of men on a truck

It’s all about “maje”. InstaPhoto: @goldmtncoffee

Dale pues: Okay then/Sounds good. Perhaps not exclusive to the region, dale pues is nevertheless the go-to phrase for ending in-person or telephone conversations. It’s great for when you want to agree with the person at the conclusion of the chat but without sounding too excited, like you’re too cool for it.“-Voy al mercado, vuelvo pronto.- Dale pues.”

¡Vuelve!: Literally: “Come back!” ¡Vuelve! seems to have become the national in-joke of Nicaragua. The idea is to say it sharply and suddenly to a person who has spaced out or in some way isn’t “present.” For example, let’s say it’s been a long hard day of harvesting coffee and the team is sorting out the defects of dried coffee. One member of the group has drifted off into a metaphysical contemplation of the rigorous demands of the coffee harvest and, more broadly, how it enables or prohibits their long-term dreams and ambitions. This is a perfect time to hit them with a quick “¡Vuelve!” to snap them back to reality. Always good for a laugh!

Landscape with a sunset

The micro-mill (beneficio). A beautiful spot.

In Conclusion

The most important thing to remember is that no matter what you do, you’ll never truly be able to bridge that cultural gap that separates you as a gringo from the locals. However, with a good attitude and a willingness to work hard you’ll be making friends in no time. From the endless scenic vistas to the hundreds of wild-looking critters, it is truly a beautiful place.

Perfect Daily Grind.