When Louise Hamilton tried picking ripe red coffee cherries in Nicaragua, it felt something like picking blueberries on an Ontario farm.
Coffee cherries grow thick on their branches so, like a heavy bunch of blueberries, Hamilton said it’s tempting to strip them off by the handful.
But even now, in Nicaragua’s harvest season, too many cherries are an unripe green.
“It’s really labour intensive,” she said, and not only because the cherries get picked one by one.
Chris Schryer, another of the dozen members of St. Aidan’s church who went on a learning trip to Nicaragua last month, said it’s also because coffee grows best in the mountains.
“These trees are spaced four feet apart, some on 70-degree hills full of snakes and scorpions and spiders,” Schryer said.
“Then you fill a bag that weighs 150 pounds and have to carry it off the bloody volcano.”
After an afternoon of picking, the entire St. Aidan’s group bagged about $5 worth of coffee. That night, they met workers who in a day pick three to four times as much by themselves.
For most of their 10-day visit, the St. Aidan’s group was busy renovating a one-room school on a coffee farm.
The volunteers prepped the building for new paint, tiles and windows, but left the skilled work to local tradespeople.
“It was a good mix of willing, unskilled labour and paid, very skilled labour,” said Schryer.
Organized by Compañeros, a private social enterprise registered in Canada and Nicaragua, the trip brought more than willing workers – besides $12,000 for airfare, the group fundraised about $24,000 for the school project and to pay for local drivers, host families, a translator, guards, and other service workers. The group is already selling coffee from the region to fundraise for the next St. Aidan’s trip with Compañeros , in 2017.
“A few people said to us, ‘You can go to an all-inclusive in Cuba for a lot less than that,’” said Reverend Lucy Reid, who went on the trip.
“The whole point is all-inclusives don’t pay fair wages.”
For its part, Compañeros says it is not an “exotic selfie” company. They recently linked to a story on the satirical news site The Onion that had the headline, “6-Day Visit to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture.”
Schryer said Compañeros is well aware what a problem it is to have “wealthy white people show up, do work, and then leave.”
The trip was designed to give the group a meaningful look at coffee-growing in Nicaragua, while also funding a long-term project initiated by local people.
Spencer Leefe, a Queen’s University student and one of the seven youth on the trip, said it was his second time volunteering in Nicaragua, and well worth doing.
“We’re in a bubble here in North America,” said Leefe, noting how little press coverage Central America gets in Canadian news.
“It made me more aware, not just of Canada, but the world.”
After Haiti, Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Americas.
Before they flew to the capital, Managua, Louise Hamilton said people told her to watch for deep holes in the sidewalks. When she got there, she learned why – people had stolen sewer drains and other utility covers for scrap metal.
Chris Schryer said the income disparity is just as stark.
On the coffee plantation, the group stayed in a simple dorm with bunk beds – a temporary home for the 200 itinerant workers who come and harvest coffee before moving elsewhere for the sugar cane, cocoa, and produce seasons.
On the other hand, in the city, they stayed with host families who had private rooms, live-in servants, and armed guards.
Grace Rockett said she got a sense of the wealth divide when sharing songs with some of the kids at the school.
While she sang ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and ‘Peace like a River,’ the kids sang one song with lyrics about working to help their families and being unable to go to school.
Besides drinking it black, her friend Olivia Fraser Barsby said she thinks differently about coffee after seeing how it’s planted, tended, picked, cleaned, raked, split, dried, roasted, bagged and sold.
“You don’t realize how much work goes into one cup of coffee,” she said.