Farm work at our workaway farm in Nicaragua starts at 6:30 a.m. so by the time that we get there around mid-morning, Maria, Angelo, and the others have already put in a half-day of work consisting of making a fire to warm breakfast – which is likely yesterday’s beans and rice – using the pit toilet, and making sure the fire stays on fire so it can cook lunch.
Our trend has been to get a late start on the day because even though we wake early – around 8:00 – we all have our screen addictions. It would actually serve us better to get out of bed and do stuff early and look at our screens later rather than try to do the reverse because it gets really hot from around mid-morning to sunset and when we finally put down our electronics around mid-morning because they need to recharge, we all agree it is too hot to do anything.
There are chores, and there are chores
There is not a lot of farming in the traditional sense of the word going on at this farm. There are no people in straw hats weeding between the rows of crops and cows don’t moo because there are no crops or cows. As an example, today – Wednesday, February 24 – the work consisted of Lionel, Maria’s partner, climbing barefoot into a tall cedar tree with a machete and hacking off five or six large branches which crashed to the ground where we chopped them into smaller pieces to dry before they could be used in six months as fuel for the cooking fire. This was done to allow more sunlight to a patch of land about the size of a pitchers’ mound where Maria hopes to plant herbs.
A lot of time is spent in obtaining and preparing food – I think it is what you would call subsistence living. There are an abundance of bananas because Lionel’s mother owns a finca that has banana trees, but beans and rice are purchased or bartered from neighbors and stones and bad seeds need to be culled by hand from the piles. Maria uses sorghum as flour and it needs to be washed, dried, toasted, and milled before it can become a tortilla or a pancake. When R and Coconut were cooking lunch they mentioned that not only did they need to make sure that the food was cooking properly, but that the fire was tended so that the food could cook properly.
More time is spent doing daily chores that we take for granted at home. You can’t throw your dirty clothes into a washer because there is no electricity at the farm so laundry is washed by hand with a soapstone and a bucket of water on a large rock – this takes all of a morning and may be a one reason why people wear the same clothes more than once or twice. One time saver, though it seems weird to promote this, is that we don’t have to search out a garbage can – we just throw our fruit rinds anywhere because if the chickens wandering the property don’t eat it first, it will decompose back to the earth.
The primary source of income for the family, and by that I mean the only source of income, is from the sale of chocolate that they make. To be fair, making a batch of chocolate takes most of a week, so there isn’t a lot of time to plant, weed, harvest, and make other improvements around the place.
Making the Chocolate
The way Maria has explained the process to us is this; On the first day, because they don’t have a car, they bus to the farm where they buy the cacao beans and then bus home to roast, peel, and mill the beans; On the second day, they bus to market to buy the cane sugar which they will boil and rehydrate; On the third day, they bike to the farm where they buy the coconuts then they bike home to grate them by hand; On the fourth day, they boil the cane sugar, add the coconut, and then add the milled cacao and spend an hour stirring it all together over a fire, which needs to be tended, until it looks like chocolate. Then they spread it on a table and cut it into squares the size of brownies. Sale of all the chocolate, which is mostly done by walking from hotel to restaurant or up and down the beach, will net $55 USD. Sometimes they will leave a batch at a hotel reception for sale to the guests, but no hotel pays up front so sometimes they get shortchanged or not paid at all. They try to make two batches of chocolate a week.
Recently, Maria was visiting her parents in the States and ran into a high school classmate. She commented to her mother that the woman looked so young, and her mother said back, “Well, you’ve chosen the hard life.”
There’s irony in that – that what we think of as the simple life of living on a farm can be so hard.