La Barba en Colombia 2017 // Día Tres y Cuatro
Thursday we took a quick one-hour flight to Neiva and then it was a three-hour ride to Garzón where we’d be staying for the next two nights. Garzón was the biggest city near the main coffee producing region of Huíla, with a hotel near Coocentral—the co-op we’d be visiting in the morning.
As soon as got into Neiva, the clima, or climate, changed. We were hit with a burst of warm dry hair as we stepped off the plane. Whereas in Bogotá it was 60 degrees and cloudy, here, a ways south, it was 80 degrees, warm, balmy, and nearly tropical. We drove through the towns of Neiva, Hobo, and Gigante alongside the Magdalena river, passing crops of rice, tobacco, and cotton (and apparently, some hot springs). The mountains or, cordilleras, in the area and along the river were not quite what I was expecting. The hills were green, brown, and red, with a certain ruggedness to them, even some exposed rock.
As we drove, I spoke in Spanish with our driver, Jaime, who works for Coocentral, the second biggest co-op in all of Colombia. Jaime’s entire family was in the coffee business and she had grown up in Garzón and spent her entire life in the region besides going to the university for a degree in agriculture.
“Ha trabajado por Coocentral por seis años,” she told me. While we drove Jamie told me about the coffee cultura of Colombia and I asked her about the harvest, certifications, and other coffee related things, as her and I kept repeating to each other “Que?’ “Que?” “No entiendo.” I could actually speak with more ease to Jaime than the people in Bogotá. As is the case with most cities, the pace of life, including the rate of speech, was faster in the city, than here. Immediately everything in Huila, felt slower, more relaxed, tranquilo. As we drove further it began to rain and the road started to climb up a steep, twisting mountain pass over sketchy bridges, more what I had in mind for a coffee-producing region.
“What do you think about certification?” I asked Jaime, because it was one part of her job (I think) working on the certifications of various farms through Coocentral.
“I think they are good,” she said, “But sometimes it is difficult to get the farmers to implement the necessary steps. They don’t always understand why, which is why part of our job is to help with education.” (I am translating here from my very poor Spanish so forgive me if this is not 100% correct.)
“Hay es, muy, come se llama? Distancia de los tostadors y los cafeteras sí?”
(There is much distance between the roasters and the growers)
I spent some of the drive in silence pondering the coffee chain, thinking about how many steps we’ve taken to shorten and collapse this distance between growers and consumers, and yet the cynical side of me wondered if we rich Americans or Westerners or Japanese or Australians were still merely using this coffee grown by so many different humble hands, to win competitions and awards and make names for ourselves in buildings where our mere rent cost more than many of these people could fathom. It can be a sustainable, relational, productive system for all and yet unfortunately, business can also be exploitative if not downright indifferent.
I almost fell asleep but we soon arrived in Garzón, where we parked beneath the Kahvé Hotel. In the garage were bags of fertilizer, grain, and “chemicos” available for purchase—just one sign that we were now in the heart of Huíla and coffee country. We parked and grabbed our bags. Outside the hotel, tienditas hung with strips of meat and motos sped by alongside stray, unsprayed dogs, chickens, and vultures. Finally, I thought, I am back in the chaos of the developing world. Yet we then walked inside into a very modern hotel. A large photo of a white coffee blossom adorned one wall by the reception with various other coffee adornments scattered throughout the lobby. This was Kahvé Hotel, owned by Coocentral and apparently a very swanky place for coffee buyers and industry professionals to stay at while they explored or worked in the region. There was even a nice Kahvé café attached, equipped with a polished Simonelli Arduino on bar, and a chemex, siphon, French press, and Japanese cold brew machine on the counter. I was feeling very tired, but Jaime ordered us three Americanos and it began to wake my tired body up, but not quite enough, and so I once I finished my Americano I ordered a cappuccino as well.
I don’t know if I had travelled to more touristy places in the past, like in Mexico and Costa Rica, but here so far in Colombia, hardly anyone spoke English. I was used to coasting by in the past, only needing a few phrases and words to get me around ,“Donde esta el baño” and such (though I could understand and speak a little but more than that). But here I was left to do my best to speak and understand the language fluently with Jaime and the hotel operators. In the States I would have bragged to white people that I was almost fluent, here though, it was more like 50%. I was having trouble holding in-depth conversations with folks about coffee processing and Colombian culture. I also had to learn the certain linguistic phrases that are different from other Latin American countries. For instance, most Colombians will say “Ciao,” instead of the more Mexican, “Adios.” They also like the word chevre, which means cool. I also like the word chevre. I think I’m going to use word all the time now. Chevre?
I’m pretty sure we were the only white people in Garzón. We stuck out instantly as we walked down the street to find a place to grab some food—both of us with our white skin, Jeremy six-foot one, me with a beard and tattoos. One thing was for sure, there would be no sushi in Garzón, which was just fine with me. Here was traditional comida de Colombiana. We found a small place called “Don King” that served fried pollo y papas—six pieces of fried chicken with French fries along with a liter of coke, all for $18,000 Colombian Pesos, or around $7 USD.
Then we went back to our hotel where I went to bed early to prepare myself for a big day in the morning. Another picture of a coffee flower hung above my bed and I fell asleep to the sound of dogs barking on the street.