CARIBBEAN PROPERTY MAGAZINE
Living, Working and Investing in the Caribbean
S P E C I A L F E A T U R E S
Bean There, Done That, Bought the Coffee -Life after Berkeley
by A Gray Thompson
“Eighty years old. Retired.”
“For how long?”
“No fishing. No hiking. No golf.”
“Growing, processing, roasting, bagging and selling quality arabica coffee for the past decade in the, ‘Land of Eternal Springtime’.”
Before Guatemala I’d been a teacher in California, a principal, earned a doctorate at Berkeley with four kids and one in the oven. Then to Marquette University in Milwaukee. Eventually a Fulbright to Mexico for a year’s teaching and finally as Senior Fulbright Scholar to Guatemala in 1985-6.
That year in Guatemala answered the question, “Where to retire?”
During that year very conservative wife Carolyn bought a house in La Antigua before we returned to the U.S. to complete my final three years as full professor.
And so, in late December of 1988, I taught my last class at Marquette. Carolyn met me in the university parking lot. We got into an overloaded once silver Toyota wagon and headed due south to a U.N. designated International Heritage Site, Antigua, Guatemala.
During that first three years in the state of retirement, an unusual excess of ants got into my pants, and I was ready to find some satisfaction. The hustle and bustle added with the rumble of buses of cosmopolitan but very tiny Antigua was wearing thin.
“Hey Carolyn, why not find a piece of property out in the country?”
“For the grandkids”, I sputtered. Lucky response. The search was on.
An acre and a quarter was uncovered some two miles from our Antigua house, an hour’s drive to the golden sands of the Pacific and a tad more than two hours to exotic Caribbean.
The property’s surface was sheathed in aged plastic waste, busted bottles, rotted shoes and whatever assorted trash could be transported by a storm-bred river which roared through the property during the yearly rainy season lasting six months.
That’s why it was affordable!
The property was sheltered by a canopy of tree branches from up to down and left to right. Spiders plied their art with sticky tangled webs which defied passage when attempts were made to pace off the property.
I was reminded of the little boy confined to a psychiatric observation room sporting a five foot pile of horse manure. As the boy child tossed the manure high into the air with uncontrolled glee, an M.D. asked, “Little boy! What are you doing?” “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere”, responded the imp.
Huh? A pony in my wasteland? Maybe a fool’s paradise?
No, in 1991 I never did ask, “What lies within or beneath that mass of garbage? Yes, no street water in a town which bragged that its electric service was only a month old. What might one do with such a dump graced with several thousand very old, ignored and shabby coffee bushes?”
We bought it. Couldn’t afford not to. We bought it. Now, to fix it.
A lovely slab of pine was had and a sign was painted to hang between two trees on a dusty road traveled by barefoot neighbors, followed by a cow or a horse but always a dozen dogs, headed to work their plots of corn, beans, and weeds.
The sign proclaimed, “Finca Los Nietos”… (The Grandchildren’s Farm). The neighbors chuckled for months as they passed the make-shift entry to Los Nietos. It seems that the property served as the town’s “Lovers’ Lane” (of sorts) .
MANY A GRANDCHILD WAS SPAWNED AMID VERY TALL TREES AND RESTLESS SHADOWS OF THAT PLACE
Many a grandchild was spawned amid very tall trees and restless shadows of that place. Young men who helped with the Finca’s construction appeared bashful upon entering the property.
After some inquiry it was admitted those boys became men at that place. “Yes, Don Alberto, under that tree!”
After years of puttzing, dreaming and doing. After trading English lessons for the sweat and good will of neighbors…. after becoming once again a learner who well knew that failing is often preliminary to succeeding, and that re-doing a job for the third time can be a charm…. Finca Los Nietos did became a reality.
We not only learned the “in’s and out’s” of doing coffee from blossom to brew, we learned how to coat precious espresso coffee beans with pure succulent Guatemalan chocolate. We sold the coffee in tipica cloth bags as well as chocolates to tourists from ’round the world.
From South Africa to Iceland over 8,000 folks have left Los Nietos all the wiser about how coffee gets to the cup. To our pleasure the guest books reveal that the most used term referring to Los Nietos is: “PARADISE”.
Too, we turned juicy red pulp stripped from ripe coffee “cherries” into organic fertilizer by feeding the pulp to “red wigglers”. We made botanical gardens where once was, “What are we gonna do with that?”
We discovered water.
We built a Finca House, a “Rock House”, and several bodegas. Shazam! A business bloomed in the land of garbage. Now we run tours. We sell stuff. We employ four full time workers and dozens of other neighbors also benefit from Los Nietos.
During this past decade several international tour guide books have touted our handiwork. Los Nietos has been the subject of several professional videos. The Finca is referred to as a boutique coffee plantation, and has been written about from as far away as Germany, Denmark, Canada and elsewhere.
Fifteen years ago what did Carolyn and I know about doing coffee? Not one damn thing!
What does one do with several thousand coffee bushes/trees when finding that the green fruit is turning red? Is that ripe?
No, we did not run to books before getting our hands dirty. If we had we would have given up before starting because the process is so complicated, even mysterious.
Besides, we couldn’t find a, “How To Do Coffee Book For Dummies”.
Tourists marvel with, “How did anyone ever discover how to turn ripe red coffee cherries into a cup of coffee?” My stock answer is: “The rational animal will try anything with anything having flowers or seeds to find out what happens when…”. Berkeley did serve its purpose!
The first task after buying the property was to determine if there was water beneath the layers of garbage. “Layers”? Yes, layers!
For decades every rainy season a rushing river was created delivering other layers of plastic, allied garbage, silt and sand which was welcomed and snagged by out-spread, low lying, coffee bush branches. Digging out old roots or while planting new trees one encountered another layer of trash. It was like an archeological dig. One could readily identify a stratum created by a greater than normal rainy season. An excess of garbage. Generally such was lying about a foot below the previous stratum.
Water? Dennis enjoys the reputation of working miracles in the natural order. He has the gift of being a master douser. An art in which he has no faith but he nervously giggles with a, “Ha, ha, it seems to work for me!”
One morning he showed up at Los Nietos with two coat hangers. After applying a wire cutter Dennis straightened out the coat hangers and made each into a pistol shape.
WITH A COAT HANGER IN EACH, STRAIGHT OUT AND AWAY FROM HIS BODY, DENNIS WALKED THE PROPERTY
With one in each hand, straight out and away from his body, Dennis walked the property. After a couple of hours he reported that two places were possible sources for water but he’d select the one where the wires crossed each other with a greater force. Yipes? The magic spot was centered amid a tangled mass of visible tree roots.
The search was on for well diggers. Two were found. The team of two showed up at Los Nietos with 2 buckets, a sawed off hoe, a short shovel and a rope. “X marks the spot!” insisted Dennis. “Neither to the right nor left, not forward nor back!” The dig was on. A hole a meter in diameter was begun. Straight down. No side supports! No hard hats. No OSHA.
Fifty feet down the team hit a mammoth rock. That team quit, saying, “We‘re finished!”.
Another team was hired from 15 miles away. I became the well diggers’ taxi service. (Thankfully the head man wore sun glasses. Why thankfully? When he removed them his eyes looked like Little Orphan Annie’s!)
After much arguing, yelling and slapping, the 400 pound stone was successfully removed from the well-in-progress. A sawed-off ten pound sledge did the trick. After six hours of slamming, the rock was vibrated up on top of the sand.
The rock was wrapped with rope and hauled to the surface by papa, son, and daughter.
That finished the second week of my watching, supervising, taxiing, and wondering why my palms sweat so.
At 70 feet water began a slow seep into the black volcanic sand. Pants, shoes and shirts were discarded. The diggers took turns making togas out of plastic sheeting. One filled the bucket. The other winched the bucket topside.
One fine morning, half way through the dig, an acquaintance visited the work-in-progress. He looked around clucking his tongue. He growled about what in hell did I know about wells, let alone coffee, “and, out in this God forsaken place?”
He left Los Nietos with hands deep in his pockets mumbling. His message to all ears in Antigua was, “Thompson? The professor! He’ll never do it. Never!”
AN ASIDE TO ME BY ME: (Ignorance is bliss. Learn to do by doing. Never say die. What do I know? I’m only a teacher. Yea, and I taught teachers. I can do it even if it kills me. After 5 teenagers I can move mountains!)
My education in the art of well digging progressed nicely. I ordered cement tubes (meter x meter) which would line the well insuring that sand would not fill the well bottom as water flowed. Holes were popped in the two bottom tubes allowing water to flow but to keep the sand out and serve to clean the water. At 75 feet the well held 9 feet of lovely liquid. We were now ready for a submersible pump and holding tank. The submersible created increasing decibels of consternation. “YOU CAN’T PUT AN ELECTRIC PUMP UNDER THE WATER!!” Gather around the teacher.
Bringing in that well came close to experiencing the births of our five kids.
Not quite. But close! Each tube was carefully lowered after being harnessed to a rope and pulley. By hand!
Carolyn prepared house plans just in case Dennis’ X paid off. The location for the house was selected with a perfect view of the dormant, Volcano Agua. Due south.
To the west one would see Volcano Acatenango as well as witness the puffs and feel vibrations of an erupting Volcano Fuego. Fuego itself was hidden from our view.
Due south? That’s funny. Once we discovered significant questions about “doing coffee” and searching books for answers, we found that the best place to grow arabica coffee is on the south side of a slope with an altitude of over three thousand feet, and with volcanic soil and very good drainage.
That’s Los Nietos… in spades. Yes Virginia, there IS a god of coffee!
With Carolyn’s house plans in hand, we found a person who was employed as a building supervisor for the reconstruction of the Antigua cathedral which was brought to its knees in the 1773 and the 1976 earthquakes.
While the house was in construction we began playing with making gardens. The ambition was to have reasonably completed gardens upon the completion of the house.
That goal was met. I could not suffer the thought of having the house finished and then attacking whatever mess might have been made by Mother Nature during 2 ½ years of construction.
While all this was going on we tried to find out about coffee. That proved more difficult than doing the well or building the Finca House. Nobody within shouting distance had experience with doing coffee from A to Z, from bloom to brew.
We got a snippet here and a snippet there.
We picked the red cherries that first year and sold them to someone who would depulp them, extract the coffee bean encased in a slime and wrapped in an outer skin called “pergamino” or parchment. (Normally there are two slimy beans inside every red cherry.)
That guy or someone else ferments those slimy beans to get rid of the sticky gunk. They then are dried. The parchment starts to peel off in the sunshine.
A machine will remove the rest of the parchment and you have greenish-bluish-gray coffee beans ready for roasting.
Tourists about wonder when the beans get brown! My stock response is: “How do you get toast?” OHHHhhhh!! By the way, the question is a good one.
The above process is called the “wet method”. For more detail about this method and what’s called the “dry method” order “ Coffee from Seed to Brew” from the publishers of Caribbean Property Magazine.
The second year Carolyn bought me a “despulpador” which removes the red pulp from the slippery slimy parchment covered bean. Too, she got me a mini-“triadora”. That machine removes the parchment after the slimy beans have been fermented and are now nice and dry.
She also bought me a mini-roaster. The Finca now boasts professional models of everything.
As a 23 year old beginning teacher who knew he knew less than many of his students, I found that to be effective I must first really learn what I am expecting to teach, inside out!
How do you know you really know? Mere telling is not teaching. Nor is correcting papers and giving grades.
So, my first task was to find out how to use each machine. The second task was to figure out how to take each machine apart and put each back together. Calling the factory for help with a problem occurred only once.
Never more! It was like phoning an emergency room or your child’s school. “If you want the principal press 1, the surgeon press 6, the elephant keeper press 4. etc.”
One Sunday morning, Joe, a fabulous wood carver and my best English student helper spoke,
“Don Alberto my seeeester needs a job”.
“SIS.. ISSS…. like pissss…. SISSSS ter, Joe!”
“Yes, Don Alberto, but she still needs a job.”
That encounter occurred while we were loading the Toyota for another trip to the “formal dump”. I said, “Send your sisssssterr over.”
Ten years have passed since first interviewing Ana. As in many interviews, I did most of the talking. Positive self-image. Ambition. Responsibility. Confidence. Ability. All were concepts foreign to Ana. I could have asked her to slice her wrists and she would have complied.
Ana, who previously only did toilets, now in 2007 prepares espresso and medium roast coffee beans. She chocolate covers espresso beans, peanuts and pretzels for sale. Ana bags coffee and chocolates. She makes tour reservations. Ana and brother Joe now give tours. Ana is responsible.
Her children are being educated. She has saved money, and has purchased property in that town, San Lorenzo El Cubo. After all, the good Guatemalan parent provides land for one’s sons.
Joe is now married with two children. Since sister Ana provides additional income for the extended family, he too can provide education for his children. Ought I mention that Joe speaks better English than I do Spanish.
Ana exudes pride as tourists learn about her work, and make purchases of coffee she has roasted and chocolates she has dipped. Leading tours Joe’s head is held high as he makes known the wonders of coffee grown, processed and roasted in HIS country at Los Nietos which is just across the street from his very home in “third world” Guatemala.
Ten years ago their home was of thatch and corn stalks. Now it is re-bar, concrete, and block. The stipend he earns for giving a tour prompts a conquerer’s smile.
Ambrocio is the gardener. Five years at Los Nietos. It shocks me when tourists from England, France, Belgium or Germany rave about the myriad of flowers and ornamentals grown at the Finca.
National Geographic had me believing the best of gardens are in Europe. Ambrocio grows hundreds of roses and scores of other plantings from slips for sale. He shares in the profits.
Ambrocio lives down the hill in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, a famous weaving center. He has a nursery at his home where he sells plants grown at Los Nietos. His son, Caesar, will graduate this year as a teacher and plans to attend university. Ambrocio’s home leaks no more during frequent down-pours. Caesar earned a dollop of spending money by cleaning the Finca on Saturdays. Mrs. Ambrocio sells plants in two communities. She earns extra. That fine family has been good for Los Nietos.
We employ a young man who is jack of all trades with a sense of humor to boot. Pablo drives, welds, does electrical and cement work. Trims shade trees.
HE TOO, LIKE ANA, AMBROCIO AND JOE IS LONG ON ABILITY WHILE SHORT ON SELF CONFIDENCE
Their unspoken motto is, “Excuse me for living, I just fell out of the hearse.” But, with the rest of our helpers/workers, pride is deep-rooted and the variety of tasks required at Los Nietos engenders self-motivation, creativity, risking, decision-making and responsibility while sharing abilities and expertise.
Pablo’s mother, Irma, also works at Los Nietos.
She maintains the coffee trees while keeping the Finca and its environs spic and span. She has taken a course in the management of red wigglers which consume the ripe red coffee cherry pulp. The resulting castings (poop) provides organic fertilizer for the gardens, the coffee bushes and the plants grown in the Finca nursery. Worm “tea” also serves us well!
Caring for over 150,000 worms is no mean task. Check out www.redwigglers.com for some insights.
Too, Irma also sews coffee bags made from tipica cloth which Carolyn buys from indigenous ladies living in San Antonio. (Several others of our neighbors are also employed making coffee bags in their homes.)
Several thousands bags of coffee are sold yearly. Irma and Pablo prepare insect traps using discarded plastic soda bottles. A small bottle containing an alcohol mix, which attracts the insects, sits inside the neck of the larger bottle. The insect is called “broca”. That insect can disfigure one or two of the coffee beans within each red cherry. The result does not make for pretty roasted coffee beans ready for grinding. Last year as in this, no broca. Everybody smiles.
The Peloponnesian War against the 'broca' is won!
Irma has seven children. The education of her children is a first priority.
The advantage to Los Nietos is that Irma is the epitome of the excellent worker! She thinks she’s lucky. Ha!
The acre and a quarter purchased and named Finca Los Nietos in 1991 is in 2007 a finished canvas. Blobs of paint have been splattered and dried. Its frame surrounds Los Nietos and beyond.
The Finca House became a home. The Finca has a reputation. The tours taught thousands.
The neighborhood, once corn stalk walls and roofs of thatch and tin, though a thing of beauty but less than healthy, are now block, re-bar, and concrete with running water, sewers, paved streets, electricity. More healthful.
CAROLYN ASSISTED A COMMITTEE OF WOMEN TO DEMAND SEWERS.
Carolyn assisted a committee of women to demand sewers. Their husbands failed in their effort. A school down the hill in San Antonio provides yearly scholarships for girls financed by friends of Carolyn. Yes, “the wife” also started the library and computer center in that school with help from her niece.
Enough is enough.
Like kicking the kids out of the nest we have put up the, “For Sale” sign. It’s time for someone else to do their thing at that place we called Los Nietos. The eight nietos are now in university, high school, and even one in first grade, “up north“. The word is out that the farmer’s markets in Cleveland, Chicago and Milwaukee do smell like the Finca!
Not a bad tribute.
HIM, the son-in-law said, “Sell it! Los Nietos is deep inside each of us. Can never be sold. Was it ever really a place or was it just a state of mind?”
Ana, Ambrocio, Pablo and Irma make the Finca work. They learned well and are still learning as am I. They do better than the teacher. We know their lives and those of our other helpers, as well as our own, are a bit better off because of a not too foolish question asked in 1991:
“Hey Carolyn, why not find a piece of property out in the country?”
“Because of the grandchildren.”
Finca Los Nietos is For Sale, Click here for more Information
Author : A. Gray Thompson To read more about Los Nietos see: “Detours: From Classrooms to a Guatemala Coffee Farm”, by A. Gray Thompson. Available thru Amazon.
Order Coffee from Seed to Brew by A. Gray Thompson, available thru Caribbean Property Magazine.
Email : Finca Los Nietos