Sunday, September 27, 2009

Back to work

When the daylight curfew was lifted, it was time to get back to work. A bit backed up, we had a long day planned visiting existing and potential clients in the Santa Barabara region. This was not without its own excitement.

After twisting for 60km on a mountainous dirt road for a couple of hours, we reached a bridge, spanning an expansve and beautiful river. Put bluntly, the bridge was terrible. It was constructed from old cables and capped with metal plates. Indeed, there were several metal plates missing in key parts. The suspension bridge swayed in the breeze.

Here I am, scoping out the crossing.

Here is the trusty 4x4 and the warning sign: max. 5 quintales. Do you know how much a quintal is? If you do not know, I suggest you do not look into it. The math doesn't quite add up.

The speed limit was 5km/hr. My colleague wanted no part in sitting in the pickup during crossing. He got out and walked across the bridge, as you can see in the distance of the photo. He video taped the crossing, and I suspect he was secretly scared of the potential consequences and excited to capture it on video! Suffice it to say, we made the crossing with little difficulty.

Above a Xoco client's farm, this is a rocky peak veiled in the fog.

Surveying a potential growing site.
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Since Zelaya's return on Monday, September 21, the government has imposed curfews for varying hours throughout the day. The longest stretch was from Monday at 4pm to Wednesday at 10am (a total of 42 hours). There was an eerie silence about the city, and roughly half of the vehicles I saw drive by the hotel were official (police, military, red cross).

I have been staying at Hotel Casa del Rio in a very pleasant neighborhood of San Pedro. The owners, Jose and Jenny have been fantastic as contacts, tour guides, and as friends. During this period of political uncertainty, they have gone far out of their way to make sure that I am feeling safe, well-fed (staying well-fed during a curfew, by the way, can be a logistical challenge!), and up-to-date on the political developments.

Since last Wednesday, we have not had a daylight curfew, which has allowed Sanpedranos to go back to work and live normal lives, at least during the day. On Thursday, all flights - domestic and international - were reopened for service. For example, the most recent curfew was from Saturday 6pm (yesterday) - Sunday 6am (today).

From many angles, this week has been a fascinating experience, and I have felt comfortable and safe.

I can say that this week marks the first time in my life I have had a curfew imposed on me. Throughout my teenage years, my liberal and trusting parents sheltered me from the knowledge of what it would be like to have a curfew restriction. Thanks to the Honduran government, I now know!

The eve of Zelaya's return

On the return trip from La Ceiba to San Pedro Sula, we paused in the coastal town of Tela. It was Sunday, September 20. As I would later discover, my return from La Ceiba coincided with ousted president Manuel Zelaya's overland journey from El Salvador to Tegucialpa, la capital de Honduras. I'm afraid our two journeys didn't have too much in common, with the exception of enjoying the spectacular Honduran landscape.

An abandoned railroad pier extends a quarter mile out into the Caribbean from the beachside, sleepy town of Tela. At the end of the pier, a half dozen fishers tested their luck. All along the pier, scores of little kids catapulted themselves off of the pier into the warm sea.

I like this shot of a fisherman's bicycle on the pier, looking west down the coast.

Preparing for a backflip with a twist.

In Tela, we enjoyed banana-pineapple smoothies and the local delicacy, pan de coco (coconut bread).
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At Pico Bonito, we stayed at a little eco-hostel called Jungle River Lodge. The pull-out from the river rafting excursion was literally at the lodge itself.

The lodge is about 7km up the Cangrejal canyon from the city of La Ceiba (which is the jumping off point for ferries to the Honduran Bay Islands). From the open air veranda of the hostel, this is the morning light meeting the trough of the valley. The water was the perfect temperature for a morning swim and the gentle breeze coming up the valley provided therapy for the bustling daily commute in San Pedro.
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Rio Cangrejal: aventuras

Last weekend involved an escape of the blistering heat of San Pedro Sula. Accompanied by a couple friends, I drove to La Ceiba, which sits on the Caribbean roughly 200km east of San Pedro. Our objective was to enjoy the wilderness area of Parque Nacional Pico Bonito and the Rio Cangrejal, which flows along the eastern fringe of the park. We had arrived to a jungle paradise.

Due to abnormally low rains in the past several months, the river level was low, but still navigable by raft. The lower water level was more favorable for jumping off of rocks into the water. Thus, our afternoon consisted of a "river spelunking" session and a 5km paddle down a very technical section of the river.

Rock #1

Rock #2

I believe this rapid was called the Chile Pepper.

While I have rafted rivers in Alaska, Washington, and Arizona, I have never had to respond to a command on a techincal river in Spanish. I think this was a good step in the right direction towards fluency.

The Team, led by our fearless guide Darwin*

* Shoutout to Betsy for recommending this man of many talents, ranging from paddling to mixing a mean Cuba Libre
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Monday, September 14, 2009

Lunch spots

Lunch can dictate the quality of life. How quickly do you eat lunch? With whom do you eat lunch? Are you looking at your computer while trying to wolf down "lunch"? Is lunch just food? Or, should it include some non-caloric nourishment as well?

Here are several Honduran lunch spots:

Restaurant on the Caribbean coast, just north of Puerto Cortes. Whole fried fish and lime.

Tropical fruit on the farm, Copan region. Freshly harvested pineapple (picked ripe out of the ground, warm and unbelievable), oranges tossed down from the tree, other tropical vegetable stalks.

Roadside bodega. Carnitas, fresh squeezed pineapple juice. On the right, a sugar cane press is visible. In the center is a big stack of coconuts, which were unloaded as we ate.
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Post harvest production

Cacao must be fermented in wooden boxes for 5-7 days post harvest in order to bring out the complexity and quality of the beans. This image shows a 3 tier fermantation system, where the beans (which ferment in their own pulp at roughly 125 degrees F) are cascaded down 1 tier every couple of days until they are ready. The leakage on the lower-left corner of the image shows the gases released during fermenation. Xoco plans to capture this energy in order to generate power for its post-harvest production benefit centers.

The next step is drying. Beans are traditionally dried for several days under the sun on an expansive area of stone (or concrete). Removing all of the liquid finishes the bean's journey before entering the "chocolate factory."

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Exploring Honduras

I have spent the last week in Northern Honduras visiting cacao producers and continuing to familiarize myself with Xoco's operations. Honduras is beautiful and mountainous. I am staying in San Pedro Sula, which has a steamy Caribbean climate. The day after I arrived, Honduras faced off against Mexico in the World Cup qualifier. The game was in Mexico, but this did not do much to dilute the good-natured fanaticism of the Honduran people. Soccer jerseys abound, everyone assured me that if Honduras won, the next day would be a public holiday. Mexico was positively favored to win, especially with homefield advantage. With my coworkers, I went to a large outdoor public mall surrounded by bars and restaurants. The game was projected on several big screens around the courtyard. What energy! Honduras hung in there, and only gave up one goal on a penalty kick. Back to work...

Work involved visiting an old fine cacao farm northeast of San Pedro. After our analysis of the trees and operations, we enjoyed fresh lychee, trying to stay in the shade. Temperatures have been consistently 100+ degrees with intense humidity.

After enjoying a snack and cooling off in a nearby river, we moved a bunch of mattresses! (Seems logical, right?)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

At the origin of cacao

Cacao pods glisten in the tropical sun.
Finca Amores, La Dalia, Nicaragua

Understanding the genetics of cacao

A central part of Xoco's mission is to educate the consumer that Fine Cocoa is dependent on Fine Genetics. Just as with tomatoes and wine, you cannot expect to harvest a fine product without a fine plant. We now understand how an heirloom tomato has changed the landscape of tomatoes. Over time, the tomato seed was modified to amplify production. Quality suffered. Similarly, the fine winemaker will not accept grapes from just any old source, trusting that the production process will cure any fault intrinsic to the fruit. The fine winemaker depends on the best plant grown in best environment.

The world of cacao is no different. Most consumers do not yet understand the difference between a fine criollo or trinitario tree and the run-of-the-mill forastero tree. To the fine chocolatier, this means a world of difference. It means the difference between using process (refined winnowing, roasting, and conching) to embrace and uplift the flavor of the criollo/trinitario cacao bean OR using process (over-roasting and manipulating fats and sugars) to conceal the lack of flavor inherent to the inferior forastero bean.

This is the basic introduction to the world of cacao genetics, which is the religion of Xoco Gourmet: isolate and clone the oldest and finest species of cacao in order to produce large quantities of the best beans in the world.

After sucking the mango-flavored pulp from the exterior of the seeds, slicing them in half reveals their coloration and genetics. [Banana leaf is for effect only.]

The interior of the seeds ranges from white to dark purple, with many shades of pink in between. The pods with a higher proportion of lighter shaded seeds are genetically superior and offer a sweeter, more complex aroma and flavor. On the other hand, the purple seeds are astringent and acidic and are less likely to create the complex flavors craved by the chocolate connoisseur.

The exterior of the pods can range in color, but this will not validate the genetics of the interior.

Matagalpa: (tiny) room with a (decent) view

The view from my little hotel room in Matagalpa, a 2 block walk from the Xoco office.

Matagalpa is 2 hours north of Managua (on relatively good roads).

It is the coffee-growing capital of Nicaragua (la region cafetalera).

In the countryside

Northeast of Matagalpa, some 3 hours on an unmaintained dirt road, Finca Amores is a beautiful farm with platanos, cafe, cacao, livestock and much more...