It's a humid 90 degrees in the jungles of Guatemala above the little village of Yepocapa, and Volcan De Fuego has been rumbling all night keeping me awake. Sweltering sun punctuated by an afternoon shower or two define the mountain climate around here. I've been following Papa Leon for the past hour and a half up a near vertical volcanic slope and I'm starting to question if we're going to his terrano (farm) as I was told or if he's just trying to determine if I have the makings of a campesino (FYI I don't). We left his house in the village early in the morning, full of enthusiasm to see where this man has spent his entire life, learning from his father and from his grandfather the art of growing coffee. That enthusiasm is starting to diminish with each upward step and machete swing. I keep telling myself that surely if this 75 year old man can do this every day, then my 27 year old legs should be up to the task. I'm learning the hard way that the campesinos that live and work around Yepocapa are a hearty bunch.
Papa Leon is full of stories to keep us occupied as we tackle the next slope and in between dodging his constantly whirling machete, I'm treated to a little coffee education. Some campesinos live in the village like Papa Leon, but the majority live on their terranos (farms) above Yepocapa, where the cooler mountain air and volcanic soil makes for hearty and flavorful coffees. Most of the campesinos are third or even fourth generation coffee growers and as we progress up the mountain I can't help but notice the faces of sons and grandsons following in their footsteps.
We've been trekking for a while now and I'm regretting the extra tripod I thought I had to bring "just in case" but at least we are finally standing on Papa Leon's family terrano. The hike up got me thinking and gave me an opportunity to flex my mental math skills. If Papa Leon is seventy-five and he's a third generation coffee grower, assuming he has worked his terrano five days a week (more often seven) since he was twelve (most boys work their fathers' terranos younger) for eight hours a day He has about 131,544 hours of coffee growing experience. Apply this to his father, his grandfather, his son, and his grandson and I am standing on the soil and tasting the coffee cherries of 789,264 hours or nearly a century's worth of blood, sweat and tears.
Follow these campesinos around for long enough and you will surely start to appreciate the word "quintal". This is the standard unit of measure for coffee and is about 100lbs. On the way down we pass by campesinos, their families and workers with quintals of coffee balanced on their backs and strapped around their heads. My carbon fiber tripod suddenly doesn't seem so heavy and Papa Leon tells me that they carry their coffee this way because of the rugged terrain that the coffee is grown on. His grandson elbows him and reminds him that it was the worst part of his childhood as we saunter back into village and to the coop where the coffee is being taken for processing.
Watching the coffee float by as its sorted, I'm a little troubled by my earlier mental math. In this world of instant everything (including coffee) can it be true that there is a group of people this dedicated to their craft? Malcolm Gladwell said that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. I wonder if they will ever be able to measure the mastery that is created when a simple farmer devotes his life, and ten times that, to growing a simple cherry on the slopes of a volcano?