Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Caffeinated in the Caribbean

It never ends. After returning to the Purple Valley in January, I thought it would be a while before I would have any adventures to talk about. But apparently, there's always an expedition lurking around the corner. I recently returned from a week in the Dominican Republic: now sunburnt and satisfied, I recount to you the spoils from my wanderings...

Few people know, but I write for Gusto!, the campus gastromic society. For spring break, the gastronomes decided it was time that we really understood our food. Food is, of course, incredible... we can continue to talk about how delicious the black truffle oil is on this quiche or in that pasta, or how to make the perfect hoisin glaze for your pork this evening, but there is a growing consciousness that our food doesn't just grow on supermarket shelves: it comes from living, breathing, working communities. So, in hopes of exploring the process of farming and the ways it effects the people involved in it, Gusto! organized a trip to Finca Alta Gracia: a small-scale, fair-trade, organic coffee farm in the mountains of the Dominican Republic. The farm is owned my famous novelist Julia Alvarez and her husband. It is about an hour and a half away from the nearest big city (Santiago) and forty minutes away from the closest town (Jarabacoa), up in the tiny village of Los Marranitos (The Little Piglets), population 400.

10 foodies from all different walks of life converged on this rural farm last Saturday, huddled in a cold cabin in the mountains. Who said the Caribbean was warm? Headed by Deanna, a Middlebury graduate working as a volunteer in the community, we started a five day-long exploration of a community whose labors and lives can be found in our mugs every morning. Through our crazy experiences, not only did we get to have one of the most informative breaks ever, but I got to make 9 friends for life :)

Surrounded on all sides by glorious vegetation and idyllic mountainscapes, we were in nothing short of paradise. But even in this land up in the clouds, the workings of global capitalism has made its marks with the good, the bad and the ugly. Expecting a micro-farm handled by loving owners, we were instead met with one that had been incorporated into a large network of Dominican coffee farms owned by the Ramirez company. Turns out Bill and Julia just couldn't keep up with the maintenance sitting at home in the US.
The farm has maybe one full-time employee: all others are hired on a day-to-day basis. Workers show up at the farm's gate and if there's work, they get paid by the pound of coffee cherries. Preference goes to Haitian immigrants, since they will work at a lower wage. (So much for fair trade, huh?) Hardly any of the processing takes place on the farm -- after the beans are picked, they are taken to Jarabacoa for most of the processing. Beans from Finca Alta Gracia mainly go to Vermont to be packaged under the Cafe Alta Gracia label, certified organic and fair trade. Very little of the coffee actually stays inside the country.

With most of the work contractual and going to Haitians, the rate of unemployment among Dominican men reaches almost 100%. The community is supported entirely by the women, who work in cabanas: elegant country homes for Santo Domingo's rich elite. Rates of alcoholism among the jobless men are high. If theirs is a difficult plight, the Haitian men (many refugees from the earthquake) have it rough, too. Haitian workers live in a slum-like setting - a wooden dorm, built by the Ramirez, houses 80 of them, who all use one latrine.

The schooling in Los Marranitos only goes to third grade, with older kids having to walk to the high school in Los Dajaos over an hour away. School gets out at 12, leaving kids with nothing to do all afternoon. None of these towns have much electricity (what there is is solar-powered) and there is no running hot water for miles.

We spent three out of our five afternoons playing with the kids after school, singing songs, reading to them and teaching them about basic sanitation and the need to keep their community clean (with more back-and-forth taking place between Haiti and the DR, there is a real worry of a cholera outbreak). They really gave my Spanish and my stamina a run for their money. We played infinite games of Duck-Duck-Goose and cooked S'Mores on a gas stove. WTF is S'more in Spanish?

The first morning we were there, we attended a community meeting with Haitians that taught cholera prevention. Another morning, we attended a ceramics workshop with a Spanish woman who teaches the forgotten art of Taino pottery. (The Taino people were the indigenous people of the Dominican Republic who were almost completely wiped out by Columbus' men). She believes that art can be an invaluable tool for women: by taking ownership of an art form, women can derive empowerment through a creative outlet. The women we talked to, however, felt like they didn't have the time for it. They had a whole community to support.

When we were not learning about the wonderful community of Los Marranitos, we were off scurrying around the central DR. We went sit on rocks by a secluded river, trekked down to a waterfall that was featured in Jurassic Park, learned Bachata Merengue in the dark, got stuck in the back of our pickup truck in the pouring rain, hiked all the way to an old stone Taino settlement, explored the nearby town of Jarabacoa, sunbathed on the farm and took a starlit ride out to Manabao (I have never seen so many stars in my life -- the Big and Little Dippers were all up in my grill).

It was a five-day intense experience and it was life-changing. Coming out of IHP, I really felt like I was following up on some of the critical lessons I learned about community organization and local needs assessment. It also brought an incredible depth to an otherwise hedonistic interest in gastronomy. Our food comes from places where people live, fight and suffer. And it is important to know that. Think twice about labels like fair trade -- what does it actually mean? Very little can be done in five days, but most importantly, we learned and I for one am going to work hard to spread the message.

To Prim, Christine, Zara, Fiona, Brooke, Omer, Lily, April, Kim and Deanna: you guys are the best. I cannot remember having felt so refreshed in my life. MORE COFFEE, MORE GREEN BANANAS! For some awesome photos, check out the Williams Expedition Blog.

I left the group on Thursday to go to the beach on the Northern coast. What's a Spring Break in the Caribbean without A SPRING BREAK IN THE CARIBBEAN? I journeyed solo to the seaside surf town of Cabarete, where I checked into a hostel and parked my butt on the beach for two days getting my tan on, listening to music, eating Haagen-Dasz out of the carton and reading. I met a whole host of people: a PhD student at Georgia Tech who put the 'blond' in blond, two crazy Cornell kids on Spring Break, a beautiful Belgian girl who had been island-hopping for two months and a Norwegian girl who had been going kite-surfing every day for three weeks. In the course of the three days, I switched from English with the Americans, to Spanish with the Dominicans, to French with the Belgian girl to Portuguese with this dude who had spent time in Brazil. My brain was one crazy linguistic blur. A couple of mojitos cured that, though.

Before flying back to New York, I spent an afternoon walking around Santo Domingo, the capital of the DR and the oldest colonial city in the Americas. The colonial quarter is a little slice of Spain in the Caribbean: walking around the old buildings felt like I had been transported back to the 1600s when Columbus was running around the country with his men killing all the locals and instituting Spanish iron law everywhere he went... aaah, colonial history: why does it have to be so pretty?

I was welcomed back to the country with a romp through Manhattan with my boys Sam F and Malik!! Delicious breakfast sandwiches at No.7 Sub Shop, an escapade through the Museum of Sex and a whole lotta Chipotle in my tummy. Best morning ever? You betcha.