From container to cup

Loading coffee in El Alto

Loading coffee in El Alto

Green Bean Coffee Imports received a very special delivery a couple of weeks ago.  With much anticipation, the container of organic and fair trade certified coffee negotiated back in November finally ended its long journey from Bolivia.

Back in early January, I headed up to COAINE`s coffee processing plant in El Alto to observe the coffee being loaded.  The truck arrived with typical Bolivian punctuality (7 hours late) and after much manoeuvring to park, the loading finally began.  This was the height of the rainy season and several of the cooperative`s workers had been held up in Caranavi due to mudslides, leaving the team depleted.  The container consisted of 260 bags at 60kg (132lbs) each.  I noticed a distinct lack of dollies or other loading equipment and soon discovered why.

The loading of the coffee was an impressive show of teamwork.  Five women, with their billowing cholita skirts and identical two long plaits, stood in a circle and together hoisted each bag onto the shoulders of one of five men, who in turn, strode along a narrow plank of wood into the truck, where another two men carefully stacked the sacks.  The entire process took a couple of hours, after which many clinking crates of beer appeared.

From El Alto, the coffee travelled to Chile`s Port of Arica, set sail northwards to Montreal and finally arrived by train at its destination in Clandeboye, Manitoba, where it was unloaded (by an altogether different method) in sub-zero temperatures.

To sample this wonderful coffee, please visit Green Bean Coffee Imports.  They boast a selection of roasts as well as green (non-roasted) beans for sale.  Their website even has handy tips such as how to home-roast coffee beans.  Who knew you could roast your own coffee in a popcorn maker?!  Not I.

Green Bean also wholesale and deliver across Canada.  If delivery is not your thing, don`t despair!  If all goes to plan, this fair trade, organic Bolivian coffee will one day be available from a micro-roaster near you…

Some of the 260 bags, ready for the road

Some of the 260 bags, ready for the road

60lbs of fair trade and organic coffee

60lbs of fair trade and organic coffee

With Green Bean`s logo, to boot

With Green Bean`s logo, to boot

Loading up in El Alto

Loading up in El Alto

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Walking the plank (is it just me or does the guy in the truck look worried?)

Walking the plank (is it just me or does the guy in the truck look worried?)

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Mario Condori of COAINE

Mario Condori of COAINE

The ladies, post-heavy-lifting

The ladies, post-heavy-lifting

Leaving El Alto

Leaving El Alto

Unloading in Manitoba, two months later

Unloading in Manitoba, two months later

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Unloading in the snow (with a distinct lack of ladies)

Unloading in the snow (with a distinct lack of ladies)

260 bags later

260 bags later

Alix Reid,working her magic in the Green Bean roastery

Alix Reid,working her magic in the Green Bean roastery

Roasted, packaged and ready for sale

Roasted, packaged and ready for sale

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Melting glaciers, llama love and hanging effigies

PampalaramaA little while ago I took a hike up to Glacial Khuno Tinkuta, which is situated in Pampalarama, an hour and a half`s drive from La Paz.  Sitting at 5000m above sea level, the glacier was a short hike but a strenuous one nonetheless due to the altitude.  Almost immediately I was out of breath (which I initially attributed to over-consumption of potatoes) and developed a persistent headache, which meant for a slow climb. The landscape was fairly barren and except for a lone shepherd, my friend and I did not encounter a single person on the trails.  Herds of llama and alpaca grazed in the lower slopes, generously obliging my frenzy of photo-taking.

According to recent studies, Andean glaciers have shrunk by as much as 50% since the 1970s.  The nearby peak of Chacaltaya used to be home to the world`s highest ski resort, before its glacier rapidly melted over the years, disappearing entirely in 2009.  Glaciers act as a vital source of water for thousands of Bolivia`s inhabitants in El Alto and the Altiplano, as well as supplying hydro-power.  As a poor, landlocked country, the impact of climate change is felt more than ever and sadly the future looks bleak with Bolivia`s few remaining glaciers receding fast.

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Journeying back into La Paz, we wove our way along steeply sloping cobbled streets in the outskirts of the city.  Several Guy Fawkes-like effigies were strung up on telegraph poles, a sight I was curious about, having noticed them often in El Alto.  As it turns out, these hanging dummies are warnings for rateros (thieves) and potential criminals, in areas where crime is rife.  Often they are hung with accompanying signs, macabre messages professing that captured thieves will be lynched and/or burned alive.  It is perhaps indicative of a lack of faith in the judicial system and local police force (considered to be somewhat corrupt and inefficient), that residents claim to resort to `community justice`, prepared to take matters into their own hands.

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Stay tuned for an upcoming coffee-related post, before I head to Buenos Aires on holiday next week!

Carnaval celebrations in Oruro

Feb 107Carnaval is celebrated throughout Latin America, the most renowned being Rio de Janeiro`s Mardi Gras.  In Bolivia, Carnaval is a lavish affair with the biggest festivities taking place in Oruro, a sleepy mining town that bursts into life every February to host thousands of dancers and spectators.

On the Friday preceding Carnaval, a ch`alla (blessing) is offered to Pachamama (Mother Earth) in the workplace to bring about good luck.  At FONCRESOL, this involved draping colourful streamers around the office and showering the floors with alcohol and confetti.  Similar ch`allas take place in homes on Shrove Tuesday, when the celebrations come to a close.

Upon many recommendations, I headed to Oruro with a friend for the renowned Saturday entrada, a day-long procession of indigenous dances in elaborate costumes.  I left La Paz at dawn, joining the masses of Carnaval-bound paceños and tourists.  The 4am bus was packed and the bus station overflowing.  Arriving bleary-eyed at 8am, the dancing in Oruro was already in full swing.  We picked our way through the crowds, dodging drunken revellers stumbling about, presumably still going strong from the previous night.  The streets were lined with rafters, sectioned off with seats for sale, and after negotiating a price we settled in for the day.

Each folk dance, with its own distinct music and costume, represents a specific aspect of Bolivia`s history.  Dances include La Diablada (Dance of the Devils), Morenadas, Llameradas, Caporales and Tinkus.  Every costume tells a story, with the predominant theme being good triumphing over evil.  Somewhat disturbing was the black body paint and chains used in dances depicting the tribulations of African slaves, whom the Spaniards brought over to work in the silver mines.  I honestly could not tell whether one of the dancers dressed up as a slave was a tremendous actor or genuinely lurching about looking distressed because he was heavily inebriated.  Either way, it struck me as one of the more disconcerting dances.

The costumes are incredibly ornate, adorned with jewels, feathers, mirrors, bells and spurs.  Some weigh up to 80 lbs, which makes the energetic jumping that some of the dances entail even more impressive.  The Diablada costumes are particularly elaborate, their devil masks works of art with curved horns and bulging eyes.  Live bands accompany the thousands of dancers, many exuberantly dancing as well as marching, crashing cymbals as they leap.

Rain ponchos are worn by most onlookers, since water balloons and spray cans of foam feature heavily in the festivities.  People hurl water bombs across the processions into the facing crowds and douse each other with foam, tourists being the main target for both (my sneaky attempt to blend in with the locals worked remarkably well).  Although the celebrations continue for several days in Oruro, it is generally understood that the first day of Carnaval is the best, since the event descends into increasing rowdiness and mayhem.  Dancers and onlookers consume huge quantities of beer and chicha (a very potent drink made from fermented corn), the dancing deteriorates with the debauchery and it is not uncommon to find people sleeping in doorways or the middle of the street.

After a full day of spectating, I set off on another bumpy bus ride back to La Paz.  Having had my fill of Carnaval, I chose to forgo the remaining festivities in order to explore Chile during my days off.

Energetic musicians

Energetic musicians

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A condor, Bolivia`s national bird

A condor, Bolivia`s national bird

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Before I sign off, a special shout out to my dad on his 60th birthday –
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAD!  xx

As requested, here is a photo of me in a typical Aymará bowler hat.  Petro, the housekeeper, took great pleasure in dressing me up in her cholita attire, though she lamented my hair was not in the traditional two plaits (maybe next time).

Happy 60th Birthday dad! This should make you laugh... x

Happy 60th Birthday, dad!     This should make you laugh… x