Thank you, AIDS Lifecycle, for transforming my relationship with sweat.
Once upon a time, I regarded sweat as dirty, icky, and generally to be avoided. Then I signed up for the AIDS Ride, and started training. 2,000 miles of cycling later, I finished up in LA, weary, windburned, and triumphant–and with a rock-solid understanding of sweat. You get damp for awhile. That’s all.
And may I say, it has been VERY damp lately.
I got in this morning at 7am, having escaped the Mayan village (very boring), and turned up at the Toledo Cacao Growers’ Association at the crack of 8am. There I met my guide, Greg (a Qeq’chi Mayan), who was an agricultural extension agent and would take me along on his rounds. I hopped into his green Ford Ranger, and we were off.
Cacao is a relatively new crop in the area. It wasn’t grown at all until maybe twenty years ago, when Hershey set up shop in the region. They didn’t offer a whole lot more than farmers could make planting corn and beans, so not many farmers planted it. Then, out of nowhere, Hershey’s pulled out–shut down their processing plant–and the farmers had nowhere to sell their crop. So they formed a growers’ association, and, with the help of a few Peace Corps volunteers, found Green & Black. In exchange for a promise to grow organic, Green & Black guarantees to buy all the cacao they produce for 85 cents a pound. At roughly 900 pounds per acre, this comes out to just over $750 an acre, a much much better return than either corn or beans. Many farmers are now switching to cacao.
(By the way, you can read more about Green & Black on their website, http://www.greenandblacks.com/
We drove first to Greg’s cacao plantation. We drove through a freshly tilled field, which would grow rice later, then walked through a second field and along a narrow, winding jungle path to reach his cacao plantation. It was a blazing hot day, and I was sweating buckets before we’d gone 100 yards.
(People here assure me that this is as hot as it gets in Belize, and that it will cool down in a week or two. Unfortunately this doesn’t do me much good, but I’m glad they don’t have to live in this year-round.)
Finally we arrived at the farm, and I got my first glimpse of a real live cacao tree! They are small trees with enormous leaves, pointed ovals maybe a foot long, and stand maybe fifteen feet in height–the perfect understory tree. I spotted the cacao pods immediately–like elongated acorn squash, they were deeply ribbed and football-shaped, and hung directly from the trunk (no branches)–this is true for many other jungle trees, e.g. the calabash tree. (For the pedantic, this is called cauliflory.) I rushed right up and examined the trunks and branches–inconspicuous, delicate, cream-colored flowers presaged greater harvests to come.
(I was so thrilled I nearly did a little happy dance on the spot. The only other cacao trees I’ve seen were two tiny little ones in Hawaii, fifteen feet away through a fence–highly unsatisfying.)
We tromped through more of the farm, fallen cacao leaves crunching underfoot, as Greg pointed out tree after tree and gave me a running monologue on cacao management. He showed me how to prune them, how to tell if the pods are ripe, and how to identify the major cacao pests. He pointed out criollo and trinitario pods for me–criollo round and smooth, trinitario deeply ribbed.
(There are two main kinds of cacao: criollo, which has delicate flavor overtones but not much “body”, and forastero, which has lots of chocolate impact, produces more than criollo, and has good disease-resistance. Good-quality chocolates will contain some criollo beans for the subtle flavors, but one wouldn’t want to make a chocolate with only criollo beans, because you need the stronger flavors of forastero. Trinitario, which Greg also showed me, is a hybrid between criollo and forastero.)
Finally, we stopped in front of another tree, and Greg asked me if I wanted to try some. Of course!! So he twisted a ripe pod off the trunk, and smashed it against the trunk. It cracked open to reveal a grapelike cluster of soft white drupes, big seeds surrounded by pulpy, slippery, cream-colored flesh. I popped a few in my mouth: tangy, sweet, exotic–much like fresh lychee. The seeds were big, like giant fava beans, and the flesh clung tenaciously to them, so one could only suck at the slippery seeds. Nonetheless, it was delicious. Greg gave me another pod to take home.
As we were passing through the trees on the way back, I suddenly pointed and said, “Hey! Is that a vanilla orchid??” And, sure enough, there one was! I ran up and took a good look–a rather nondescript vine with fleshy oval leaves. It didn’t appear to run all the way down the trunk, but I couldn’t tell for sure. I’d love to know if it’s a ground orchid, or an epiphytic (tree-dwelling) one. No beans on this one, unfortunately. Greg said they weren’t grown around here commercially, but wild ones weren’t uncommon, and promised to look out for other vines.
Next we set out to look at one of his farmers’ nurseries. Cacao trees are planted in little black bags of rice hull compost; it takes two weeks for the seeds to sprout, rising up out of the compost like a giant, soil-encrusted bean atop a sturdy green stem. The crinkly beans split open to reveal the first soft, tiny leaves, and in six or seven weeks the trees are about a foot tall, with a profusion of little branches. At the age of one year, they’re transplanted into the fields. At the age of three, they bear their first crop, and at five, they’re in full production.
As we tromped on through a young cacao plantation, I smelled smoke nearby. Greg and I went over to investigate, and through a thin screen of jungle I spotted a plain of ash! It was still smoking in places, and Greg warned me to be careful of hidden embers, since I was wearing sandals. I stepped out, onto the moonscape.
It was like a scene out of nightmare: half-burned palm fronds and blackened branches stuck up from the white ashes of scorched earth, and plumes of smoke still rose from several areas. Heat waves rose from the ground, and the scent of woodsmoke clung to my clothes and hair. For several hundred yards in every direction, the soil was covered in white ash, and only burnt-out shells punctuated the landscape. I nervously examined my Tevas, to make sure they weren’t melting.
This was slash-and-burn agriculture.
In slash-and-burn, the jungle is first cut down, with machete and axe, and left to dry for several weeks. Then, fires are set, and the brush burns down to the ground, leaving only ash. The ash is tilled into the ground to enrich it, and the cleared land is planted–for several years, until it is exhausted. Then the farmer slashes and burns another plot of land, and leaves the first piece to recover.
This particular piece of land was being cleared for a cacao plantation, and I suppose the slash-and-burn method does make a great deal of sense for clearing jungle. It doesn’t pay to haul the brush away, and burning the area is quicker than composting and waiting several years for the greenery to rot: you get the same nutrients a lot faster. Nonetheless, it was startling to step, in one instant, from full, vibrantly healthy jungle to lifeless moonscape.
After this field, we went to several other nurseries and farms, and Greg inspected the young trees for disease and non-organic practices. He told me that some farmers get impatient with using rice-hull compost (which needs to be hauled laboriously into the fields) and try to sneak in chemical fertilizers, but that one could easily spot it by examining the leaves on the trees. Green & Black is a certified organic chocolate, so one of his jobs as an agricultural extension agent is to make sure that the farmers are complying. He also teaches workshops several times a week, and warns farmers about pests and disease. He’s been growing cacao himself for fifteen years.
As we were passing through yet another jungle path, Greg stopped abruptly and said, “Vanilla! Can you smell it?” We stopped on the path, and sure enough, a sweet, floral smell drifted through the branches. We tromped through the jungle for awhile looking for it (Greg cutting away branches and vines with his pruning shears), but couldn’t find it. We did, however, find a cohune, which is a big palm tree with incredibly long fronds (used in roof thatching). The cohune bears long, datelike clusters of tiny coconuts, and Greg twisted down a few of them. Later, one of the farmers would split one open for me, and I ate the nut inside–it tasted like a cross between coconut and Brazil nut, and was very good. (I still have a couple more, and am trying to figure out how to get into them. I may have to buy a machete. Mmmm…machetes.)
After that and a trip to a rosewood-carver, we finished up for the day, and I came back to the Cacao Growers’ Association, where I bought two and a half pounds of fermented, but unshelled and unroasted, beans. They don’t taste like chocolate; they have a slightly chocolatey, slightly winey flavor from the fermentation. I plan to take them home, roast them, and grind them up with cloves, orange peel, and other spices, Mayan-style, for my own teas and chocolates. (They’ve already been inspected for export, and I plan to roast them anyway, so I’m not especially worried about bringing in pests. I do plan to be careful, though.)
Still considering what to do tomorrow morning, but think I may take the 3pm express bus from Punta Gorda to Belize City. It’s either that or fly. (The traveling tigress is not even considering 6 hours in a rickety ancient schoolbus stopping every few miles–twelve hours on one in Vietnam, stuck next to a snorting pig, has convinced me to avoid such travel for the rest of my life.) The owner of this cybercafe has recommended a good, friendly, not-too-expensive guesthouse in Belize City, and I plan to stay there tomorrow night before striking out to Crooked Tree (and the Cashew Festival) in the morning.
I think my strategy after the Cashew Festival will be to go down to Dangriga and do several days’ diving, then come back to Belize City and do several day-trips around the area. I’m trying very hard to stay away from the tourist traps of San Pedro and Placencia–I find heavily touristed areas to be more or less identical the world over (think Cancun), and I’d really like someplace quieter. I’ve been very happy with Punta Gorda. I’m hoping Dangriga will be less touristy than some of the other places.