tirsdag 19. juni 2012

Bean there, done that. My day as a coffee miller

View of the sorting machine. At the end of the tray there are three bags, one for each grade. The tray is constantly shaking, and Ernie adjusts the angel and speed so that the best beans end at the right side (from here). Here he makes sure that the bag contains exactly 50 kg.
For a man whose guidebooks can become dogeared already before the trip has started, this feels a bit strange, but: The best experiences can come as a result that you did not check your Lonely Planet (or Rough Guides, Moon, Bradt, or whatever you prefer).

This time it came because I rather trusted local advice. The locals were wrong. Lonely Planet were right, but that I only found out later.

Thankfully. Because this mistake resulted in one of the highlights of my trip to Costa Rica.

The info papers at the language school Montaña Linda (the same papers that told about the waterfall at the property of the excentric coffee farmer Nano) also recommended a coffee plantation that does guided tours, Finca Cristina in the next village, Paraíso.

Coffee plantations are everywhere in the Orosi valley. The sketch meticulous rows of green in the hillsides, or can be seen in the deep behind bushes, banana trees and shadow trees.

But that's all you get to see. Therefore I decided to take the 07.15 bus towards  Cartago, and hailed a taxi for the last kilometers.
The beans at Finca Cristina are shadegrown. Juan prunes the trees.

The gate was closed. Three or fore dogs came running and started to bark. I could see no one else. I was on a gravel road quite far outside of town, the taxi had left, and other cars would be rare out here. Luckily, after a few minutes a woman came out.

- Do you have a tour today? I asked.

- No, she replied.

- But come in, she added, to my great relief.

Then I was introduced to Ernie Carman, an american with white Hemingway beard, cap, and as much as seven adopted street dogs constantly around. He stood by the sorting-machine, in a clamor that would have made factory workers strike.

Machines do almost everything in a modern coffee mill. One machine squeeze the pulp from the recently harvested beans and another one rinses the slime before they are washed and dried. 

When they are dry, and the farmer decide that the time and price is right, they are sorted. That's a fully automatic phase - a phase where no human hand needs to touch the beans on their way to the bag. They are sucked from the storehouse to a peeler, and from there to another machine that cleans the last remains of the shells, before they wiggle their way over the sorting machine and into one of the three bags at the end: 1. grade, 2. grade (that is run back into the machine for another sorting) and 3. grade.

Even later, and yet again when the farmer finds the time and/or the price right, the beans are burned and - sometimes, if they aren't sold whole - grinded.
"The washing board" sorts coffee by the same principle as the gold washing of old.

Ernie made sure the bags were replaced before they filled ut, put an empty one in place, and took time to show me around the factory.

Few coffee plantations have the hardware to do the full prosess like Finca Cristina does. It makes Ernie and his wife Linda get a better price for their crop. But the farm is really too small to make the investment pay.

- I bought this as a total wreck and repaired it myself, he said of the gigantic, two story sorting machine. 

- New it would cost 30.000 dollars. That's way too much. I would have to produce 50.000 bags of coffee for it to pay back. It would have taken me 50 years, he said. 

After a while, he started asking me to help with small favors. I was sent up on the planks, high under the ceiling, to shuffle beans into the sorting machine, and when the last bean had been sorted into its bag, he asked me to climb up and turn if off.

- There is a small teddy by the button, he guided.

After each bag had been filled and found to be at least 50 kilos, he stitched them. And together we piled them on the floor.
- Bring your camera and follow me, said Ernie. Then he showed me the new guest in the shed: a porcupine. - It sleeps here, he said. - And your dogs? - I think they have learned by now.

Ernie sighed.

- The first six bags, he said. The order was 150.

That is also among the best things about travelling. You can see, sometimes maybe even participate and gain an even better insight in the local culture. But at the same time you can move on, long before the new and exiting has become a daily struggle and the hard life begins.
50 kilos, a little more and never less. Ernie fills the last grams to be on the safe side.
PS! In Lonely Planet they get it right: Finca Cristina is only open on reservation. So that's the truth. It's only that sometimes it pays off to be wrong.
A deserved break. Some of the seven street dogs are around.

torsdag 24. mai 2012

The mist-ery of Tatev


Armenia is a country of spectacularly situated houses of worship. And the Tatev Monastery might just be the most spectacular of them all. 

The pictures on the web leave no doubt:

Creative commons-bilde av Alexander Naumov
Tatev on a clear day. Wikimedia Commons: Alexander Naumov
The monastery complex, that was built as early as 895-906 AD, has been put so dramatically in nature - balancing right above a vertical cliff - that the myth about how it got its name, gets an extra potency.

It says that the architect could not manage to climb down after he completed the cupola of the main church, and that in his desperation he shouted: "Togh astvats indz ta-tev" meaning "may God give me wings".

As a tourist in Armenia you can easily overdose on churces. But the photos left me without doubt. I was going to see Tatev.

That made the town Goris only 35 kilometers away a natural base. Bradt Guides describes it as "the most attractive town of southern Armenia", but everything is relative. At least when the fog and drizzle lay thicker than the smoke from old Soviet lorries in a long uphill.

That makes Goris a dirty, dismal town of Poor Armenia, with packs of skinny street dogs and wheel tracks as dirt stains on the asphalt. At night things gets even gloomier. Deserted streets with dreary apartment blocks, barely any street lights, and mud, gravel and pot-holed asphalt. At least, one of the restaurants was open. It looked like a class room decorated for a graduation ceremony. Then it was goodnight. That comes early on a foggy autumn day in Goris. Luckily.

An almost clear moment in the city park of Goris.
So what do you do, when the fog is as tight as a sausage also next morning? There can be no views from Tatev in such conditions.

I went nonetheless. What else could i do? Stay in Goris? 

The taxi driver did not hesitate. He was stearing past loose rocks and landslides, rolling down windy hills without railings with switch for the the gas engine on "off". I was crossing my fingers for two things: That we would stay on the road, and that the sky would clear.

One of my wishes came true. But at we reached Tatev, the clouds laid just as low as ever, if not lower.

Before long I was not so sure if it really mattered. Because the atmosphere was just as tight.

Tatev in fog. The main church's cupola is just visible.

An empty monastery, now almost invisible. Empty stone halls with no lights. Moist khachkars lying on the ground or leaning to the walls.

And the church had a mass. Red candles burning in a bin, two priests with deep voices and the same number of choir boys answering in high-pitched voices. .The smell of incence. And outside the fog was so thick that grey balls of it drift in every time someone opens the door. As incence too.

And the chanting. Clear. For the priests I guess that's more important that what the panoramic views look like.

You should also read my blog about Armenia's traditional memorial stones, khachkars

The market in Goris. Ladas are still the most popular car...
One of the lovely side streets of Goris.

onsdag 23. mai 2012

Orosi Valley: Real Nano tourism

High above the Orosi valley lives Nano, the hospitality himself.
God must have been in a rabid mood when he created Orosi. Here, there are almost no such thing as a level space; the landscape is like a green mural painted on the steep walls of the valley. The only way to get some overview of the dirt roads, coffee plantations and minor settlements, is actually to view it from great height on the other side of the walley.

That way you can point out most places in the vicinity. But not the house of the man that this post is about. Even then his house escapes from view.
The coffee farmer Nano lives in a house he has built himself, high up one of the  side valleys that wind steeply up from the centre of Orosi. Even the canyon's only almost-sight (except Nano himself), a 30 meter high waterfall, drops down from its edge almost a hundred meters below the two story house.

At Nano's place bold hillsides quiet the sounds of cars, dogs and the bustle from town. It is not a place where the average car tourist in the Orosi valley stops by.
Landscape near the Orosi valley. Steep, as everywhere in the area.

If you stay one week at the Montaña Linda language school, priorities becomes different. Then you most likely have no rental car and seven mornings or afternoons to kill. You have time for the small sights, those spots that never make it into the guidebooks.

Sometimes, those are the very places that result in the fondest memories. At least, that's the case with Nano.

I doubt that he has a lot of education. Rich he is not. That puts no limit to the hospitality he shows visiting gringos.

Already in the cross of two paths at the opposite side of the brook, Nano comes out to meet us, together with two of the three dogs that share his forest paradise (like "all" Costaricans he have found them on the street).

He invites us to sit around one of the tables on the terrasse, offers bananas (from bunches hanging from hooks under the roof) and coffee, before he begins his routine.

He talks like a rapid while gesticulating with two hands that clearly show that he is a man of the earth. He tells about bananas (- There are 500 types of them in the world. On my farm alone I have 10.), animals, nature and history, and browses through a pile of coffee bags informing us which ones are good and which ones are not, but in dire need of milk, sugar or whisky before consumption.

- Export, says Nano about coffee made from first grade beans.

- Pffhhssss, he whistles to the worst bags, pointing thumbs down.

Peasants like him drink only fourth grade coffee - made from beans that were harvested while still green (finally they have to be picked, and laid in the sun in a last attempt to mature them) - and that has a sour taste. Therefore sugar is added to the coffee already in the bag.

- I drink Rey. It's fourth grade, but OK. We should have had whisky, that makes it better, but I am out of it, he smiles.

After that deeply personal introduction to coffee he show us around his house. It is huge, with two bedrooms downstairs and three upstairs, all of the top rooms complete with bunk beds with matresses.

- That was to little use. The cats have slept in them, he laughs.

Kitchen, the only place with running water.
His plan is to open a hostel. He just have to finish building the house. Complete with all the cons that tourists need although he himself can manage perfectly well without. Like tap water in the bathroom, not only in the washing-up area in the kitchen. And electric power. That he will get from solar panels or a mini power station in the creek, as it will be way to expensive to lay cables all the way from the valley floor.

- For me it's not necessary. But for the tourists it is, he explains.

It has become too late for any work this afternoon. Instead Nano finds cues and we move the protection from his billiard table.

We are deep in the woods, inside imprenetable native forest and bold plantations. A chicken sits in the tree outside. We play billiard on a table that is almost level.

- Feliz navidad, Nano says every time one of us miss spectacularly. When it is time for the black ball, he lets me win.

I have my doubts regarding his hostel, so far away from and above roads and civilization. The same goes with his business skills. But one thing is clear: It would be hard to find a kinder host.

Nano makes a fire in the kitchen, to make coffee.

This could very well be Orosi's only billiard hall.

A clearing in the hills where he intend to plant coffee.

mandag 6. februar 2012

Italy at its friendliest: Pietrapertosa

Pietrapertosa west and Pietrapertosa east. The castle is on the clifftop, centre.

Your Italy and our Italia is not the same thing, writes Beppe Severgnini in his "insider's guide" to Italians, "La Bella Figura". I am not the one to argue. But I think that there is at least one point where gli italiani and the Italians of our preconseptions meet, at least the way I read Severgnini: The Italians thrive making exceptions. Sometimes this will lead to frustration, but more often than not their exceptions tend to manifest themselves through generosity and helpfulness. 

Americans - and Englishmen, Swedes, Germans, Norwegians, Danish, Dutch and whatever - seem to dream about meeting this contagious warmth among the rolling hills, vines and cypresses of Tuscany. I'm sure they can, too. From time to time. But a welcome has a tendency of becoming less effusive when it is repeated, repeated and repeated, for Americans, Englishmen, Swedes, Norwegians... After a while the tourist stop being an exception.

That makes the Italian south a better prospect. Not better as in gentler scenery, richer art and more elegant towns. If cypresses in the pastel light of morning mist is what you seek, you'd better go to your Tuscany.

What I mean by better, is more hearty. With more time to make all those exceptions that Italy is made of. (And less money; the formula time=money should be re-written: time≠money - the more money, the less time.)

The road to Pietrapertosa. View towards Castelmezzano.
As in Pietrapertosa, a town of 1342 inhabitants at 1088 meters above sea level in Basilicata, one of the poorest regions in Italy. 

From the autostrada all I can see is the peaks of Dolomiti Lucane, in the distance they look like a bewitched bar graph. As soon as I have turned around the last hairpin curve, I find that those steep dolomites is Pietrapertosa. The village in clinging so tightly to the rock that the cliffs almost form the forth wall of the houses.

Not many tourists come here. And maybe that's why the welcome is so warm. 

Street view in Pietrapertosa.
It feels like I have already said hello to half the village when I'm finally in my room - not at the albergo diffuso, Le Costellazioni, as planned, but that's too long a story.

I'll just say that at that point I had been sitting on a plastic chair at the tobacconist while he had called Alberto, the postman who manage Le Costellazioni in cooperative with the rest of the house owners, but Alberto could not help because the hotel was closed, the houses cold, and this is in March at more than 1000 above sea level; but nevertheless: Alberto had in his turn called the teacher Teresa, because Teresa has a house. And ten minutes later she arrives to the small kiosk where we are waiting, and leads us to a house with five beds, two living rooms, a bath, kitchen and Chopin in the CD player. The rent is 30 euro for one night.

Later Alberto drives me around town in his car to show me where to find what. Then I have dinner.

On my way home I pass Zamby's Bar. It is remarkably crowded for a Sunday in a town of 1300 people. I enter.

- In the north the work, here we drink. There are no work anyway, says Domenico, one of the men I meet in the bar. We have walked outside, because his friend Aldo has brought his dog, a gigantic 18 months old German shephard.

- Tomorrow you are not going to any restaurant. Tomorrow you will have lunch at my place, Aldo invites.

Facade in Pietrapertosa.
He is a mason, but this Monday he will take the day off.

- Long weekend, he jokes.

Next morning, white snow has sprinkled the mountains to the west and south. I stroll around town, criss-crossing the maze of stairs and portals. Many houses are abandoned, other places I can hear chickens clucking from inside almost hidden nettings. The place smells of wood and coal, the winter smell of the Italian south.

Not much is happening in Pietrapertosa. The Norman castle has been closed for repair for years, the abbey is locked, but on a point to the north of town at least someone has made Volo dell' Angelo: a zip line to the next village (!) Castelmezzano, another cluster of houses almost as dramatically situated - and just as Pietrapertosa a member of the organization The most beautiful villages of Italy.

The zip lin is closed for winter (In 2012 it opens 29 April), but Pietrapertosa will do for me. The village and the mountains. The cliffs look like molars in grandpa's mouth, a jaw full of holes, and the holes are filled with buildings. Three places the village break through the rock walls, and the stairs meet small roads on the other side.

Zamby's Bar is a meeting place both day and night.

My shoes are wet and my feet are cold when I enter Zamby's Bar. Aldo is sitting by a table playing cards. I talk to a man and his old father while I'm drinking coffee.

Then Aldo comes up to me. He buys prosecco, refusing to let me pay.

- In the south we are hospitable, he says pouring us another round.

After three or four glasses we go home to his house. He lives with his parents just by the piazza. He is 37 and has ten siblings. Some live abroad, one of his sisters lives in Switzerland after marrying last August. We flicker through the photo book from their wedding, it shows a well-built woman and a flimsy Swiss. Aldo's mother (72) is in charge at the kitchen, his 83 year old father is sitting by the window.

- What do you want to eat? Pasta? Aldo enquires.

I don't know what to answer. This is no à la carte-restaurant, I say. But oh no. Yes it is.

Aldo and his mother put salami, cheese, squares of bacon, dried blacks olives, two types of sausage, salted spicy bacon, pizza margherita and pizza bianco (thick, that thin pizza in the restaurants is nothing, claims Aldo) and bread on the table. Aldo pops the plastic cap off a bottle of homemade wine, while his mother puts sausages packed into aluminum in the embers in front of the owen, and puts pecorino cheese on a rack over the fire.

Scorching hot sausages.

Thin pizza is for sissies!

We munch scorching spicy sausage and melted goat cheese, swallowing it with bread, pizza and wine. Delicious! 

- You can't eat like this in a restaurant, Aldo grins.

When Vito comes we are chock full. Vito is a teacher, but in summers and weekends he manages the Volo dell' Angelo. We drink grappa and coffee, then we go out.

The fog has set, but we go on with our plan. Vito and Aldo want to show me the castle. Truth be told, it is closed, but who cares? When you have guests... We clamber over the fences, climb up the scaffoldings and balance up the stone stairs that the Normans cut into the rock. Sometimes I can glimpse the ochre tiles 200 meters below. The grappa, redwine and prosecco musserende make my legs sway, but I manage. We all manage. No one falls. We don't see much either, but that doesn't matter much. 

For I am going back, right? Hopefully, I will be a very welcome exception also the second time around. 

Pietrapertosa just after sunset.
View towards Castelmezzano.

onsdag 7. desember 2011

About the reasons to travel: The baobab


A baobab tree in the Sine-Saloum delta region of Senegal.

A recent blog post about "inspirational travel quotes" lured the grumpy old man inside me to come forward. Because who needs wise and witty one liners to remember the joys of travelling?

Not this grumpy Norwegian. I don't find inspiration in reading that John A. Shedd once wrote or said or mumbled “a ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for” or that Britain's imperialistic politician Benjamin Disraeli once claimed that "travel teaches toleration".

Between Joal-Fadiout and Sine-Saloum is
Senegal's biggest baobab tree. And yes,
you can step inside of it.

I prefer other sources of inspiration. Like the world itself. It's deeply fascinating, with all its wildly diverse habits and customs.

A very good example - that I learned from my friend Yacine in Senegal in 2006 and was reminded of today, reading up before a trip to Benin in January - is the baobab tree. This African tree can be, and is, used for almost every purpose.

To quote the guidebook Visage du Bénin by Colette Tshaou Hodonou:

* Its leaves make an excellent vegetable rich in calories, iron, proteins, cellulose, ascorbic acid and calcium.
The trunk of Senegal's No. 1 baobab.
* They are used in medicinal preparations against fever, malaria, stomacj pains, asthma, Guinea worm, diarrhea, dysentery, urinary affections, intestinal inflammations and excessive perspirations.
* Fibers of the trunk make resistant stringings, mats, nets and baskets.
* The infused bark heals inflammations, fever, and fight rachitis.
* The pulp of its fruit is very rich in vitamin C, dissolved in water gives an efficient beverage to fight children's diarrhea. This beverage also cures intestine and liver inflammations and malaria.
* The crushed shell of the fruit gives an excellent disinfectant.
* The powdered wood is used as fertilizer in fields.
* The trunk is a great reservoir of water. Its natural or dug cavity seves as a barn, a water tank and receives the corpse of great warriors for the eternal rest.

Now if all those uses of a strange looking tree don't tempt you more to go see for yourself than a meagre quote by someone, you are very different from me. Which in itself could be a proof of how fascinating a place this world really is.
Me in the entrance/exit of Senegal's biggest baobab.

torsdag 1. desember 2011

Maids in Hong Kong: Homeless every Sunday

The space under the HSBC building is popular.

Every Sunday, year-round, Chater Road in the center of Hong Kong Island is closed to traffic. The space under the HSBC building is cleared and the escalators are stopped. Instead the space is dominated by maids. Every place near the metro station Central where there is a few square metres of available floorspace, a maid will have rolled out her carpet and put up camp.

About 300.000 foreign housekeepers are working in Hong Kong. Most of them are so called «resident maids» – living in their employer's house. Sundays are their day off. That means they are not allowed to stay at home. They are thrown out. Therefore they spend the day outside – in every weather and season.

– In the summer it can get horribly hot. There is no aircondition here. And winter days can get cold.
Lalit C. smiles. She has made herself quite comfortable under the HSBC building, with a pillow under her head and a thick blanket to sit on. She has been a foreign worker in Hong Kong for two years. Almost all her Sundays have been spent here. She is not allowed to return home until 8 PM.
Her friend Lorna has to stay out even longer. Her boss demands their appartement for himself for 13 hours, from 09 AM to 10 PM, even when it's raining like this Sunday. But that don't make them complain.
– This is better than our working days. This is our home every Sunday. You can call it a kind of picnic, Lalit says.

From the outside the maid's quarter seems quiet, a pocket that the buzzing sounds of the city can't reach. As soon as you step inside though, you discover that the place is not quiet. On the contrary.
The air is full of sounds, of voices, laughter, singing, dices being thrown, knitting needles, and music blasting out of radios.
The maid's Sunday is not just a picnic. The weekly day off is also a day to go shopping, to meet friends and relatives, play games and do your hobbies. On sunny days there is group dancing in the middle of Chater Road. Other women do crosswords, play Scrabble, bingo, cards, or flock around portable TVs.
Christina July, Lenta and Devina start their day singing in the church Life in Christ Fellowship. Afterwards they go to Chater Road to practice new songs for next weekend. The lyrics are handwritten in a sketchbook.
– Come rain or sunshine, we are here, Christina July says.

On rainy days you can find maids on most places with a roof.

Not all employers throw out their maid on her day off. They don't have to. Most of them will go out voluntarily. The more than 100.000 Filipinos go to Central, and the almost as many Indonesians go to Causeway Bay further east.
A glance into an apartment inside the new luxury skyscraper in 31 Robinson Road explains a lot about why. Even though the flat is priced at almost 2,2 milliond USD, the maid's room» is a sad sight. It's situated behind a sliding door on the kitchen: a closet of 1,80 x 1,20 meters and a tiny bathroom. That is not a place to relax.
The rules from Hong Kong Labor Department define a minimum standard for the income of those who will emply a maid, and the department has set a minimum wage for the maids of 3.740 Hong Kong Dollar (481 USD) a month.
The emplyer must also arrange and cover accommodation. But the rules do not specify what kind of accommodation it must be.

A few years ago a survey (sorry, I've lost the URL) showed that many maids lived in rooms reminding of storage sheds. Many host families refused them any privacy. One maid told that she was not allowed to read on her room. If she kept the lights on for more than 15 minutes, the wife in the house would enter the closet and turn it off.
The situation is not much better now. For Lalit C. «home» is a bunk bed in the same room as the grandmother of the house, who «snore both here and there», according to a giggling Lalit.

Most maids from The Philippines are relatively young when they come to Hong Kong. Many of them have husband and children back home. Still they choose to stay for years - it's been estimated that 120.000 foreign maids have been in Hong Kong for at least seven years - for the simple reason that the work allows them to send money home.
Marlene is a little luckier. She's not separated from her husband by a several hours long flight. She and Nael even share the same employer: she is maid in their house, he is caretaker in their summer house. Her boss even lets her stay at home on Sundays. Still, she goes to HSBC.
– As soon as I get home I will think about work. Here I can relax, she explains. This Sunday Nael is also off duty. That means they can see each other twice this week. Normally they only see each other on Thursdays.
Marlene and Nael have lived almost five years in Hong Kong. Their children of 12 and 13 remain in The Philippines.
– We talk to them on the phone, Marlene says. – It's hard. But we must make the sacrifice. Here we earn lots of money that we can send to the kids.


torsdag 17. november 2011

Budapest: Bagpipes in a box


What a great city Budapest is! And err... what a remarkable street musician I found near Matthias Church in Buda's Castle District.

As you have probably already guessed, the Scots are not the only ones who drive people insane with bagpipes. Also in Hungary, folk music used to consist of village bagpipers before Roma string bands took over.

So what better than a music box with bagpipe music? At least, it's something you won't find anywhere.