Harvesting Coffee

The rains hadn’t stopped for over 2 weeks, as if the water from the sky had no limit. Short 1 hour intervals of cloudy sun were the only breath. But as we stayed warm and dry inside the leaf roofed house, the community members were happy.


Deep periods of rain signaled a good return on harvest day. And this current seasonal cycle is coffee. From bush to berry to bean to brew, these native farmers have been producing and selling their coffee for several generations.

As the berries turn from green to orange to red, the moment for harvest ripen. With a good season of rain, the mature coffee trees all ripen simultaneously.. Meaning a plentiful return for the investors.

The first day the sky dries, we load the 15 foot weathered wooden boat with baskets and empty rice sacks. We mount the 15 horsepower yamaha motor, pour in two gallons of gasoline and set off for the farm up river.

dsc01909Not having the family farm within walking distance has its pros and cons. The pros include not having to carry laden packs on your back for several miles.. But a con is having your food source a full day trip away by boat.


There are four of us sitting low in the hand carved boat heading to harvest coffee. The farm owner and family patriarch Johnny Bonilla, his two teenage granddaughters and myself are present.

The old tree trunk boat cruises upriver under the watchful eye of Senor Bonilla while I gaze up into the trees along side the river. Parrots, sloths, monkeys, and snakes are all visible to the trained eye but I catch only a few.


When we get to the farm it looks like any other untouched riverbank. But as we unload from the boat and climb up the bank past the first tree line, the jungle opens up. Lines of banana trees as far as the eye can see form a grid sprouting from the orange soil.


Beside the several species of bananas there are fruit trees bearing lemon, orange, coconut, and palm fruit. In one area are potato like vegetables growing in large patches. All this food serves to nourish the Bonilla family throughout the year.


Dividing the baskets and bags among ourselves, myself and the young women begin to work. With the basket tied around our waists to catch the berries, we go branch to branch dragging our hands down the slender limbs to knock off all the ripe berries.


Slowly but surely, the basket fills up. And once full, we dump its contents into the rice sacks. The sacks then grow in size and number as the morning passes into early afternoon. By 3pm we have filled 15 sacks to the seams with ripe coffee berries. Around one thousand pounds of raw coffee berries.

With this harvest the family looks to make around $500..20% of their annual income. They will also have their daily coffee for free for the next 4 months.

Organic and free!


Learn more about the processing practices by reading an amazing photo essay by a current Peace Corps Volunteer in the Comarca region.


Palm Leaf Roof

The cold dense jungle rain is melting into a fine mist as the sun begins to pierce through the blanket of clouds over head. The moist air begins to heat and expand into a thick blanket of standing vapor. I follow the sound of a swinging machete to find my companion twelve feet up standing in the heart of a large palm tree. We are harvesting panca, a broad jungle leaf used to make all natural house roofs.

I watch him nimbly move about up in the head of the tree expertly avoiding the large thorns and ant piles. With a metallic swing, a thud, and a loud crack comes the 20 foot palm frond falling to the jungle floor. Through the clouds of buzzing mosquitoes I move to collect the downed fronds and cut them to length. Three arm lengths long measured by the length of the machete.


As a small group we work deep into the green jungle through the late morning in search of the panca tree and its precious fronds. The sun passes directly over head now and the clouds have fully broken to show a rich blue sky leaking through the tree canopy 40 feet above. The standing water vapor begins to heat and expand and each breath is thick and wet.

After several hours cutting fronds we have 250…enough to cover a small house of 12 by 12 feet. With hunger gnawing at our bellies we take a short break to eat a humble lunch of white rice and watered down coffee.


Now that the fronds are cut and stacked on the jungle floor, we’ll have to haul them back to the river’s edge where we left the boat. My companions stack 16 fronds and lay them over their backs to haul. I can manage only 10 without danger of slipping. In the rain forest, a 500 meter walk feels like 5 miles. My heart is pounding in my chest when I get to the boat and throw down the fronds in exhaustion. Just 10 more trips to go.


When all the fronds are accounted for we recount to make sure we cut enough. Returning for a few missing fronds is the ultimate punishment for lack of attention to detail. Sure enough, 250. We load the long wooden boat. Stacking fronds 10 at a time in opposite directions in order to balance the boat and count easily.


We climb in on top and get comfortable as one companion pull starts the 15 horsepower motor. I’m completely drenched with sweat and water and muddy from the face down but couldn’t care less. We just finished some of the toughest labor of the land and we did it for my house.


My own house in the community.

So I can live as the Ngabe do.  

The Arrival

I arrive in Boca Guariviara on a misty gray day in mid-September.

The weathered fiberglass boat slows to a stop at a long wooden dock against the shore of a wide chocolate painted river. The muck from the shoreline lets off a distinct smell of rotting plant material that forces my nose into a cringe.


Looking towards my local guide he indicates this is our destination and I begin fumbling to collect my various bags. I am 1 hour from the nearest road, some thousands of miles from home, and into the largest Indian reservation in Panama. The Comarca Ngabe-Bugle.

Once I’d gotten my bags out of the boat and onto the narrow wooden planked walkway of a dock, I turn up to look at the adjacent house. A half dozen round blank faces with deep almond eyes observe my every breath and gesture. Instinctual as the animals of the jungle they gauge my position of body, direction of gaze, and edge of voice. Not a word is spoken while they fluently communicate between themselves.

Unsure of what to do next, I gather my life’s possessions up and into the large palm roofed wooden house following my guide. The house is tall and airy, with only half walls around the outside forming a railing. Inside there are various wooden tables where fellow water taxi riders may sit and refresh themselves with a cold soda and plate of freshly prepared catch-of-the-day.

I take a seat at an empty table and await further instructions. After several minutes the boat taxi pulls off, heading farther upriver to other more remote and unpaved communities. Left alone at the table in silence the time crawls and the loneliness pricks my side. I pull out my phone to check cell coverage..Nothing. The humidity is rising as the clouds desperately wish to bust.

Word of my recent arrival has spread like wildfire but as silently as a candle. Several young boys some 6 years old hanging from the outside of the house eye me suspiciously. They’ve never seen someone with blue eyes before, and much less a fully grown white human in their house. They’re shy to talk aloud and giggle between themselves.


A young woman walks out from the kitchen area of the house with a plate of food and sets it in front of me. Eat, she instructs me while gesturing at the plate. The fare is simple but filling. A portion of rice, a pair of boiled unripened bananas, and a small hunk of fried fish. I clear the plate and feel better almost immediately.

The grey sky has broken and a fine misting rain falls, cutting the humidity to a bearable level. I start to look around and familiarize myself with the mysterious new place I will call home for the next two years. I don’t yet realize how much the place will reshape my mind and open up my heart, but I feel it coming.


I feel a great challenge and transformation brushing on the tips of my psyche.

This is real.