Hola amigos!

For those of you who don’t know, I’m in Santa Maria de Dota, in the Los Santos coffee growing region of Costa Rica working on the Estufa Finca – Santos project. Coffee harvest is going to be starting soon so we’re busy getting ready to install clean cook stoves in the homes of indigenous Ngobe migrant coffee pickers.

I’ve had a very full weekend since I arrived in Santa Maria on Friday. I took the bus from San Jose, arriving around 3PM and checked into the lovely Hotel Dota. Jose has raised his price from $14/night to $20/night but I managed to talk him down 500 Colones to $19/night. Arturo drove me to San Marcos where we met up with Carolina and Candelario and had a very nice dinner with Candelario’s mentor and sponsor, a local Costa Rican businessman who is very kindly helping the Ngobe cause. I only wish my Spanish was better so I could have understood all the conversations.

After enduring the usual night of karaoke from the Taberna Dota below my room and the compression brakes of the trucks on the highway outside my window I had a nice breakfast at Soda Kike–the usual beans and rice with eggs and cafe con leche. With the coffee harvest approaching, the activity level in Santa Maria is much higher than when I was here in August helping with the stove building–a lot more cars in the streets and many more Ngobe women in their colorful dresses walking around town.

Arturo met me around noon and we drove to the auto shop and picked up the ‘little white car’ which will be my transportation for the next several months. It’s in much better shape than when we drove the piss out of it during the pilot project Art and Susan!

We spent the afternoon visiting 3 of the farms where we’ll be installing 24 of the stoves. They’re within a kilometer of each other and are only 2.5 km from the center of Santa Maria. I met the three farmers and they’re all very enthusiastic about the project. They assured me they would help in any way they can.

Touring through the coffee pickers’ homes, they appeared to be very similar to the homes we encountered during last year’s pilot project. Very dismal and simple, but surrounded by million dollar views of the Dota valley all the way to San Marcos. Seriously, a home in Seattle with a view like these coffee pickers’ homes would be worth $250,000 more than a house next door without the view. Attached are a couple photos of some of the Ngobe families who live on the farm all year round. One of them will be a promoter on the farm, teaching the other Ngobes how to use the stoves as they arrive for the coffee harvest and helping us collect the biochar produced from the stoves.

One of the farmers, Elandio Guitérrez Monge, invited us into his beautiful but rustic home and reviewed the Farmer’s Stakeholder Agreement with us. He checked ‘yes’ in almost all the boxes, signed the agreement and invited us to share some coffee. We learned from the pilot project last year that getting buy-in from the farmers is crucial. Again, I wish my Spanish was better, because I would have learned a lot about the intricacies of coffee farming and the business of selling coffee that he and Arturo discussed intently for about an hour. Elandio took us on a tour of the land around his house, absolutely covered with gorgeous flowers, exotic plants, fruits, vegetables and, of course, coffee. As we meandered through his farm I could only think how truly lucky I am to have the opportunity to see a real slice of Costa Rican life that tourists will never get to see.

After dropping off Arturo I stopped by an apartment, above the home of Gerardo’s brother, Olger. After touring it, I immediately agreed to the $200/mo price and told him I’d move in on Sunday. I’ll need to buy a few pieces of furniture but it’s quite nice. I’m especially going to enjoy sitting on the back patio looking up at those gorgeous green hills that surround Santa Maria. Maybe not a $250,000 view, but at least $75,000! The only drawback, and this is a big one, is the damn barking dogs directly below my bedroom window. Their purpose in life appears to be to alert Olger to any footsteps on the sidewalk out front, cat that wanders through the yard or leaf that falls from a tree. And they’re quite good at it!

After another long night of karaoke and traffic, early this morning I said a thankful “Adios!” to the Hotel Dota and dropped my bag off at my new home, to the accompaniment of a chorus of angry dog barking, which undoubtedly woke Olger and any other living being within 500m.

I drove to San Marcos and picked up Candelario and two of the Ngobe stove promoters and brought them to Arturo’s farm for our first stove training workshop, while Arturo picked up Ngobe promoters from the Santa Maria farms. Next, I picked up Marcela, the sociologist who will be helping us develop our training and follow-up protocols. In all there were 15 of us. Besides Arturo and Carolina and Marcell and me, we had our 5 stove promoters from each of the farms, plus Candelario and his female counterpart, Miriam, who helps organize the Ngobe women. And one of the promoter’s wives, Layda and 3 children.

Kate, we didn’t follow the Farmer Field School protocol exactly, but fairly close. We used the masking tape for name labels and Arturo did a great job of breaking the ice. You can imagine, he’s a great “MC” asking each of them to talk about how long they’ve been away from Panama, what foods they like to cook, what kind of stoves they use, what kind of fuels they use, etc. After just a few minutes everyone was very comfortable.

We looked at this session to be mostly a social gathering, not a real training session, so Carolina and Candelario did most of the work chopping the coffee wood, loading and lighting the stove and cooking. We started with coffee, then had beans, chicken, rice, potatoes and eggs. I’m sure all the workshop attendees will agree with me that the food was excellent! Arturo worked the crowd again, asking if everyone was still interested in the stove and being a stove promoter and everyone readily agreed to attend next Sunday’s session. I was surprised that the main reason they gave for using the stove was that it eliminated smoke, not that we would be paying them for the biochar. I think that’s a very positive sign.

The intent is to have the next session be a more structured training session, following the FFS protocols. We’ll also have to decide on our payment scheme for paying for the biochar and paying the promoters. That’s a major issue we need to agree on.

Driving the Ngobes home turned out to be a bit of an experience. I took the first group up the hill in Santa Maria and was stopped at one of the standard highway police checks. After being told I need to have my passport with me when I drive and that Layda’s little boy couldn’t sit on her lap in the car, I was let go with a warning. On the second trip with 4 more Ngobes, I was asked to pull over and get out of the car. I think they thought I was smuggling immigrants because they drilled me pretty thoroughly about what a gringo was doing hauling all these migrants around!

I’m back in my new home now hoping the dogs will stop barking before I head off to bed. All in all, it’s been a great couple of days. LOTS of work ahead of us, but we’re off to a great start.

Muchas gracias to everyone who’s helped us get to this point!

Tom