E melhor comer chocolate (It’s Better to Eat Chocolate)

We harvest the cacao over the course of three days. The first day we cut them off the trees and let them fall onto the forest floor, like these. The next day we gathered them into piles. The last day we split them open on site and haul off the beans to be fermented, dried, and finally briefly roasted to remove the skin (not like coffee where it gives it the flavor – the characteristic flavor for chocolate is achieved in the fermentation – the raw fruit is DELICIOUS but nothing like chocolate).

Yesterday we cut cacao. Today we piled it in designated spots. I think tomorrow we may cut them open. It’s hard work – lugging around a sack with 30 or more fruits and lifting each fruit (weighing at least a pound) up by stabbing it with the back of the machete.

I began to get very tired after a few hours yet I tried desperately to hide it, lest I be another city boy who can’t take a day’s real work. When I thought no one was looking, I walked over to one of the spots where we were piling cacao and rested for a second before lifting up the sack to dump the fruits out. Just then, one of the cacao workers, Neto (32) comes by with his over-the-shoulder basket and dumps out twice as many fruits as are in my measly sack. As he turns to go back to work, he grins at me and says:

“E melhor comer chocolate, nao?” (It’s better to eat chocolate, isn’t it?)

He read my thoughts so well that I could barely manage to respond with a nervous laugh and “e verdade” (it’s true). I was stunned by the piercing truth of his offhand remark.

He was just so right. For me, it is better to eat chocolate and not to think about – let alone experience – the backbreaking labor that goes into each bar.I am humbled and ashamed to admit I could not do this every day – trudge through the mud with a machete hacking at cacao. I cannot get over the drudgery in my upper-middle class intellectual petit bourgeoisie mind. As unbelievably beautiful as it is here, I just want to go back to the city.

Is this why many people in the nearby village are excited that the government wants to dam their beautiful river? Because it will bring them a road across – instead of their elegant wood canoes – and electricity to the other side (where I stay)?

Perhaps this is what it feels like to be on the other side of “development” – to feel its allure, once you’ve had a taste – even knowing its dirty underbelly? What is it about “modernity” that has so captivated our collective imagination?

Yet it hasn’t gotten all of us – when I asked Antonio (30) and Tiago (23), both cacao workers, whether they wanted to stay here or go to the city, they both smiled and – without a second thought – said they’d stay here. This is quite a different tune than those I usually meet who would give a limb to get to the U.S. or even a big city in their country. Neto said something telling yesterday: one of the things he loved about being out here is that he never has to buy fruit – he just asks a neighbor.

And perhaps that’s really it. The neighbors. Maybe we’re not so different, Neto and I. We love home. We love our families and neighbors. For him, he looks down the river and sees friends and memories, not trees and strangers. My home happens to be incredibly different (and probably exploiting his), but what makes me long to leave here is perhaps to feel at home again. Even in the broadest sense, I would feel more at home in a city like Sao Paulo, with city people who understand me, if not home to Seattle with people who love me.

Maybe he’d feel the same way I do about the crawly bugs and the unshakable mud here about the choking pollution and cold concrete of my home. It’s hard to imagine – since such comparisons are never made without values-tinted glasses which say bugs and mud are “backwards” and concrete and pollution are part of “developed” society. And I too can’t quite take off these glasses, even if I’m straining to imagine what world lies beyond them.

And I still can’t shake the self-doubt of someone who proclaims the need for alternative development and yet can barely stand a week working in the mud without electricity. (I had much the same humbling experience – without the ‘critical’ lens – in Bolivia way back in 2008 working with Engineers Without Borders.)

Picking out the beans. We suck on the particularly ripe ones and then spit them back into the box. After all, it’s all going to be fermented and dried in the sun. Hope that doesn’t ruin your chocolate bar!

Harold and his girlfriend helping cut and gather the beans.

Offloading the cacao from the donkey.

The roof where the cacao is dried.

A particularly beautiful ripe cacao fruit.

Tired at the end of the day. Time to rest and drink sweet, strong coffee Boca has cooked over the wood fire. My feet on the left, Harold’s on the right.

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