Guatemala – A personal journey of discovery

Coffee CherriesDean Morgan is a Sydney-based coffee roaster and owner of Morgan’s Handcrafted Coffee. In late 2003 he and his wife Michelle travelled to Guatemala, to track the beans that he roasts, to their source and also to witness first-hand the life of a small coffee farmer trying to make ends meet in a coffee-producing country. We asked Dean to relate some of their experiences to us – he talks first about his motivation for going to Guatemala, followed by some of his impressions once he got there…

As a specialty roaster, I felt it was important to put a face to an actual product. Every day I roast coffee from different parts of the world, but I wanted to make some sort of connection between the coffee I buy and the people behind it – to me, that’s the difference between specialty and bulk producers. Another motivation was to find out more about fair trade…I support the concept of fair trade, but wanted to see how it actually works in context.

I chose Guatemala because these are beans I particularly love. However, it was a bit of a shock when we finally got there! My first thought was – oh, my God – where am I? We took a taxi to the bus station, which was situated in the worst part of Guatemala City. It was bedlam – it seemed nothing more than a big shantytown. The bus itself felt like the sort of ‘chicken bus’ you would see in a movie, except the smell was real – the seats were soaked in urine.

Our destination was the mountain village of Huehuetenango, the main trading town that supplies one of the coffees that I roast. We were sitting next to a Mayan woman who crossed herself and began praying – as the bus set off, we found out why. The highway had no lines marked and the drivers were absolutely crazy; we felt lucky that we made it in one piece! The bus took us up through volcanoes towards Antigua (Guatemala’s original capital, up in the hills). We found a little concrete guest-house to sleep in; it had showers with electric wires running through them to provide the hot water – the only hitch was that there wasn’t any hot water. Thankfully, Huehuetenango itself was only a stopping off point – it’s a trading town – dirty and dusty. Our over-riding impression was one of shock at the bareness of streets – there were no trees and everything was very dry.

Next morning, we headed off to Todos Santos – where the coffee itself is grown – and the ultimate destination of our trip. Todos Santos is very high up – at an altitude of about 2400 metres and very cold. The countryside was picturesque, with massive cliffs rising on each side of a valley covered with pine trees. Each afternoon, thick fog rolled in and the air became heavy with smoke from all the fires burnt for warmth.

The town itself was dry; bare, rocky and primitive; unlike in Huehuetenango, people were wearing traje – traditional dress (each village has its own distinct dress). Despite their poverty, the kids were laughing and happy. We visited coffee plantations which were often nothing more than little plots of land between plots of corn and other vegetables.  In fact, we were amazed that they could even grow coffee there! The average size of a plot was probably no more than a couple of hundred square metres, but it’s the livelihood of many of these people…they probably earn a maximum of only A$200 per year and with that, they must support a family of seven or eight.

What struck us about Guatemala was the contradiction between detritus of western society and the exquisite beauty of the natural surroundings – a unique mixture of chaos and beauty side by side. And despite the sparseness, there was a real appreciation of tradition and a strong sense of community.

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