‘Direct Trade’

I recently embarked on my fourth trip to Nicaragua, and returned safely, affected, besieged by feelings of underachievement, reminded of tougher times in life.

Thankful for political progress and the resumption of flights into Managua from U.S. airlines, I booked out of Tulsa and jetted through Houston to the lowland, lakefront property of MGA. It was all smooth sailing into the doldrums of passport control where lines of families and couples stretched to the walls and windows, bending impatiently around stanchions and pillars as each visitor waited with ten dollars cash in hand, the entry fee.

My new October friends, Samuel and Sergio and his wife Maria Cristina, found me wide-eyed, searching through a crowd of bystanders for familiar faces. After a few Spanish pleasantries, greetings and handshakes, we piled into Sergio’s new Toyota Hilux pickup for a long and winding drive across the nation, like driving across Georgia in the 1800s. The Easter holidays drifted down around us in traffic and hammocks, bathing-suited youth in dammed-up rivers, Semana Santa looked more like Semana Piscina to me.

Samuel (pronounced sam-WELL) sat beside me conversing in his best English, and I with my Spanish, trading native tongues for foreign utterances. On our way to the city of Ocotal, capital of the Nueva Segovia district, we stopped for a bite to eat. My first Nicaraguan meal of the trip was representative of all the rest: beans and rice, protein (pork with pineapple), plantains, plenty of carbs to pack on some LB’s. Five hours, or was it six? And the stretch of road finally led into Ocotal where we met up with my old friend Luis for dinner. Same same, this time thin, chewy steak.

Luis drove us home to the neighboring village of Mosonte where he lives in the late-model equivalent of traditional dwellings. A two-bedroom affair, if you count the coffee storage room where Luis slept as a bedroom. The side door led out into a fenced-in yard with hens and roosters, a coffee nursery and seedlings, mango and avocado trees, a good place to brush your teeth and make water before bed. Bed, not sleep. Dogs barking at all hours of the night just on the other side of an uninsulated, sheet-thin wall; something growling just outside my windowless room; the raking of tree limbs across the corrugated roof in the night wind; cats chasing each other just overhead; and the confused rooster crowing mid-night to mid-day. The constant gush of running water cascading from busted pipes tapered off after ten, when the city shuts off the water every night until four. I lay restlessly prostrate, because my own home is “too quiet,” Luis says. Morning coffee brought me to life and the bathroom situation aided in my awakening, with an outdoor-type washbasin sink and bucket, a modern toilet you manually fill, a barrel of water and a bowl for bathing. The cold water I poured overhead flowed down my back and took my breath away. Took me back to the early years of DoubleShot, when I lived without utilities but where water actually flowed from a showerhead, fifty degrees in summer and winter. Deep breath, exhale into the flow. And in those three nights I adjusted back to that simpler way of living and bathing, and tired enough on night three to sleep through most of the clatter in the chaos of darkness.

The following day, Juan Ramon, my third farmer friend from October’s hasty visit, hosted us at the cupping lab behind his house. The deep sadness in his eyes felt familiar. His family stood stoically along the wall, welcoming me into their home. And we cupped coffees. Coffees these young farmers agreed to produce upon my request, trial and trust, hoping in the future of relationship coffee, specialty coffee in the states, direct trade. After months of careful planning, picking and processing, the proof was in the pudding, so to speak. Nothing left to do but taste and see. Because this new endeavor comes with no guarantees. But that’s not why Juan Ramon was hurting.

I finished one round of cupping and took a walk outside to cool off and get away from the tension in the room. A walk across the sprawling concrete patio that lay bare after many weeks burdened with striated blankets of yellowing parchment coffee drying in the Nicaraguan sun. I found Juan Ramon standing under a shaded terrace furnished with raised drying beds covered in future lots of the very coffees I’d been cupping. His hands fondled the dry coffee cherries like sand on a beach, like dice on a casino table. He faced the mountains beyond the opaque cloth curtain billowing in the morning breeze. He gazed off into eternity, because Juan Ramon’s father died unexpectedly the day before I arrived in Nicaragua. We talked about it. I told him about my father dying, and how I had to scramble to pick up the pieces. How he’d been such a good friend and someone I relied on to help me because he seemed to know how to do everything. And how his death threw me into a place where I had no one to lean on. And that, after the shock wore off, I learned that my dad didn’t actually know how to do everything; he just knew how to figure out how to do everything. And that he’d passed that on to me, a gift that I wouldn’t fully receive until he wasn’t there any more, because all the things he would’ve figured out for me were left for me to figure out on my own. That’s the inheritance my father left me. So, in a sense, his passing made me a better, more capable man. Juan Ramon understood, his father being the same as mine, and we spent a few moments across burgeoning specialty coffee tables in solemn, raw humanity, as brothers.

Nueva Segovia is the original stronghold of General Sandino. Statues of the general stand along roadsides and in town squares. Nearly every power pole in Ocotal and beyond are painted with the red and black stripes of the Sandinista political party, reminders of who’s in charge. Sandino was a feisty proponent of Nicaraguan independence who rattled the U.S. Marines regularly in the 1920s and 30s with a civilian army carrying machetes and antique rifles. That spirit of independence and a scrappy ability to cobble together solutions is still evident throughout the mountains and villages of Nueva Segovia. As we ascended the road through Finca Volcancitos, I could see not only the beauty but the ingenuity displayed throughout the land. An area unlike other farms I’ve been to, these mountains are covered in pine trees. Tall, straight, fast-growing pines. As my friend Sergio dismounted from the cab of his Hilux, he cracked open cans of Nicaraguan cerveza and led me down a path between coffee trees into an amphitheater looking back onto the city named for these Ocote pines. Sergio talked about the 25-year-old tree anchoring the hillside, and how his father had started a lumber mill to harvest these pines, replanting each year for the next decade’s saw. How he started driving a lumber truck at age 13, asking not for money but for a piece of the action. He outlined his own foray into the trucking business two years later when he purchased his own trucks and hired his own drivers to move the wood. Sergio’s father bought a coffee farm and failed to make a profit, so the son took over management and won an award in his first harvest for the quality of his coffee. I’d already seen firsthand the coffee shop and auto repair shop Sergio and his wife Maria Cristina had built. As I stood beneath this monstrous pine about the same age as Sergio, I felt overshadowed by both. His quick wit and smile, straightforward decision making, charisma and intelligence have helped Sergio grow into an amazing businessman, a loving family man, and just an all around good guy. I’ll admit, it’s easy to stand in awe under the canopy of tropical mountains, but my mind raced to try and grasp where I’d gone wrong in my own life as I watched Sergio, humble but confident, walk back to the truck for another beer. Inspired, I vowed to dive back in and try to be more like my younger self, more like Sergio. To shit or get off the pot. To figure it out, like my dad taught me.

Deep breath, exhale into the flow.