RATS, ROACHES, HUNGER, SICKNESS – Our lovely time working on a coffee farm in Peru
One of our most exciting adventures:
Volunteering on a coffee farm
Sitting here in hot Bangkok I sometimes enjoy to lean back and to think about the different places we have been to on this long trip. I always remember something different but today it is our crazy ride from Ecuador to Peru and our time on a coffee farm in Peru; it was packed with ups and downs and it was the first time we got really sick. Those two weeks in the mountains became one of our most exciting adventures during 18 months in Central and South America. Okay, probably Lars’s story about our horror boat trip from Panama to Colombia was the most shocking experience we ever had because we thought we would die. But also our trip to this coffee farm turned into an unforgettable adventure…
We had always dreamed of traveling through Central and South America, to get to know new people, other cultures, and to do things which we would/could never do at home. From the beginning on BoB, Lars and I wanted to pick coffee beans some day. Yes, we wanted to get dirty and wanted to walk between the endless rows of a coffee plantation. And we wanted to finally see where all the coffee in our supermarket at home comes from. How much work is it to produce one of those hundreds packages in the shelf? Where is the plantation where the beans grow?
Little BoB surrounded by coffee beans
Colombia is the world’s best-known producer of coffee. We visited one of its most important coffee regions and even took part in a coffee tour where we learned a lot about coffee processing. But it was not Colombia where we experienced our real coffee adventure. Instead, it was Peru. We had no clue that coffee is also in Peru one of the most important agricultural export products.
To find a job on a coffee farm was easier than expected. On the website Workaway.info we found Paki. Her profile sounded very nice and we liked what we got to see in her photos: A nice lady in her fifties surrounded by her workers. Just a few days later we received Paki’s Okay. “It’s so cool; we will work on a real coffee farm in the Peruvian mountains! That’s exactly what we wanted. And we can stay at least for one month!” Yes, our expectations were very euphoric and idealistic back then.
After a long, shaky, muddy, and steep ride from Ecuador to Peru we finally arrived at the farm. Oh man, I should write a separate post about this crazy trip. Maybe I’ll do it someday. It’s not that easy to get to a farm in the Peruvian mountains. After many bus changes we asked our last driver to stop at the first juice street vendor in Tamborapa. The lady who sells the juice would help us to find a lift to Paki’s farm. These were the directions we received from Paki. And it actually worked!
Me waiting for a lift to the farm at the juice shop in Tamporapa
After another 40 minutes, while sharing the front passenger seat with Lars and feeling how my legs fell asleep due to the limited blood supply, we finally arrived in La Manga; Paki’s home.
Coffee as far as the eyes could see
Coffee beans everywhere on the farm; ready to be dried by the sun
La Manga. One church, one farm. As soon as we entered the farm we saw coffee beans spread everywhere on the ground. And, we three were very surprised. Actually we expected to be the only volunteers on the farm before three other volunteers were smiling at us. Sam from the UK, Wang from the U.S. and a German girl that left the farm on that day.
La Manga’s little church
All of them were busy getting the coffee beans from the ground into sacks before the rain would start. After a quick “Bienvenidos“ we held the first sacks in our hands and it was exactly like we expected it to be; to work and to help on a farm somewhere in the mountains.
Sleeping side by side with rats and cockroaches
Our sleeping place next to the kitchen
Being on a farm means adventure and usually basic living standards. We did not expect a lot but when we realized that we should put our tent up in a basic wooden house at the street in front of the farm; which was actually nothing more than a shelter without any toilet close by; we were pretty surprised. I guess Wang could read our minds and offered us his bed next to the kitchen. We had a bad feeling because it meant that he would have to sleep on the sofa in the living room but we were also very happy to have a bed in the main house. Thanks Wang!
A few days passed and suddenly I felt Lars waking me up in the middle of the night. “Can you hear that? Do you also hear that sound?”, Lars whispered. It was obvious that we were not the only ones who lived in this part of the house. It sounded like rats or mice that were searching for food. But where were they? It sounded so close. Lars wanted to be sure that they cannot get into his bed and put things around it to weigh down the ends of our net that should keep away the farm’s thousands mosquitoes. On the next morning we saw what our visitors from last night had discovered: our draw full of yummy cookies that was located right next to Lars head.
From that day on we woke up almost every night when we heard pots and plates moving in the kitchen. One night we tiptoed to the kitchen, switched on the light and spotted the reason for all the noise: two big rats with long tails. Even though we knew that it’s absolutely normal to have rats and mice on a farm it was disgusting to imagine that those big rats were running around our beds every night. Arrrrgghhh…. But what should we do? We wanted adventure – we got adventure.
Paki’s farm with the hills of the coffee plantations in the background
The farm consisted of three main houses and Paki and her brother inherited the property from their parents. Their family also used to own a lot of land around the farm and was one of the wealthiest families in the area. However, in 1969, the military regime of Juan Velasco Alvarado implemented a land reform and expropriated everything the family had owned to spread parts of the land amongst different small farmers. In the end Paki’s family had to leave the farm, the house, everything they owned.
But Paki is a tough and a powerful woman. She is not only a farmer but also a politician in Lima, Peru’s capital. Paki fought for her and her family’s rights and got back a part of their property; the farm and some land. She renovated one of the run-down buildings and moved back to the farm where she rented out a small part of the house to a family with two kids. Paki, who just speaks a few words of English, explained us in Spanish that all the land that we pass on the way to the next village used to belong to her family. That was deeply impressive because the next village, La Coipa, was three kilometers away from our farm.
Picking coffee cherries – A dream came true
Lars and I are looking forward to our first working day on the coffee farm
On our second day on the farm it started: the great coffee picking adventure! After a quick breakfast we prepared ourselves for the first working day. That means we had to cover every centimeter of our skin because mosquitoes love the coffee plantations. Especially on a rainy day followed by a blue sky; the warm humid air is mosquito heaven.
Lars and I gathered all useful clothes together and to protect our necks we even put a shirt around our heads to cover our necks and shoulders. We did not look sexy but we thought “as long as it helps…!” Did you know that mosquitoes love dark colors? Never wear anything black when you want to avoid mosquito bites. But all those clothes were not enough; we sprayed insect repellent on our face and hands – the only parts of our bodies which we could not cover – and even on our clothes.
Equipped with a small metal bucket in front of our bellies and a sack in one hand we followed one of Paki’s workers who showed us the way to the coffee plantations.
Lars in his special, super sexy outfit picking coffee cherries
I always thought of coffee plantations as flat and endless rows of coffee plants. And it looked exactly like it, however with one exception: the coffee plants grew on a steep mountain. Now you might think “What did she expect when the farm is only surrounded by mountains?” Yes, you are totally right! But I had never expected coffee plantations to be THAT steep. On our way up I held on branches and roots to get my butt up there. After a few minutes I was short of breath while Lars with his long legs seemed to walk easily up the hillside. But on the top I could see that it was not only me who gasped for breath. And somehow I was even looking forward to this short and intense workout every morning.
The steep coffee plantations that look more like a forest than a plantation
Our group split, everybody chose one row of coffee plants, put headphones in the ears and the working day started: row by row, branch by branch, cherry by cherry we picked everything that was red and ripe.
Just after a few hours we had learned: People at home have to appreciate their cups of coffee a lot more! This is a hard job. A very hard job. It’s not the process of picking cherries because it is not difficult to get the cherry from the branch. It is more the amount of cherries you have in your sack after a working day. To get 500gr of coffee beans you need to pick 2.5kg coffee cherries. And that takes a while.
BoB with his own bucket and his first picked coffee cherries
We volunteers tried our best and with every single day Lars and I got faster. While I was picking the coffee beans I listened to my audio book and Lars enjoyed his crazy heavy metal stuff. Every now and then I turned my back around because the most beautiful part about all this was behind us; the views of the valley and the surrounding mountains. Standing there, in the middle of the coffee plantation with dirt under my fingernails, a shirt around my head and neck that makes me look pretty stupid, and surrounded by a cloud of mosquito repellent, I realized that we fulfilled one more of our dreams, and that nobody and nothing could ever take those memories away.
The amazing views of the valley from the coffee plantation
After 4 to 5 hours in the plantation our stomachs began to rumble and it was time for a lunch break. Everybody got its sack where we put the cherries from our buckets before we went back down to the farmhouse. Our hunger was big and every day we hoped for enough food. I guess it was difficult for Paki to decide how much food tall men would need and therefore she usually did not cook enough food. But every one of us had its little treasure full of cookies somewhere and was still happy afterwards.
Me having a short nap in the hammock after lunch
When lunch was finished we relaxed for some minutes before it was time to head back to the coffee plantation to spend to more hours in the mountains. At the end of the working day the content of our sacks was measured in 10l buckets. The number of buckets determined the salary of the workers. We volunteers usually had 2 to 2.5 fill buckets while the local worker had at least double the amount; 4 to 6 buckets. Pretty impressive! As we were volunteers we got board and lodging for free.
Although we were so well protected and prepared the mosquitoes found a way to my back
The walk to the village that became a walk to hell
Sol, the boss of the farm
I have not introduced one of the most important souls of the farm yet: Sol, the boss of the farm. Sol was a white/grey dog, a mixture of some kind of fighting dog and something else. Sorry, but I have no clue about dog breeds. Sol was grown up on the farm and showed every person that approached the farm that this is his territory.
Every two/three days Lars, BoB and I walked to the next bigger village, La Coipa, to buy more cookies for our draw and a few other things. Paki’s volunteers were the only gringos in this area and with our white skin we were always a magnet for the village people’s eyes. One day we started our walk and left the farm when suddenly Sol stood behind us. We tried to get him back to the farm but there was no way, he wanted to come with us. “Why not? He can protect us!” were our thoughts before we realized that this would be a BIG mistake.
The road to La Coipa
Sol was hated by all other dogs. We should have known that before. As soon as we passed the first wooden houses other dogs started barking and growling. First we didn’t care about it so much because it’s normal that dogs protect their territory but when we entered La Coipa and followed the main street, we started to realize that something bad was going to happen. All dogs around us got nervous and excited and followed Sol with their eyes. The atmosphere changed and the strong and self-confident Sol became quiet. Within a few minutes five other dogs surrounded him, growled at him and got very angry. And then the big hunt started… it all happened so quickly…
The biggest of the other dogs started chasing Sol. Sol tried to flee and both dogs ran along the concrete street. All eyes around us were directed towards us and the two dogs. The dogs were so excited that they did not realize that they were directly approaching my legs. Also I was surprised and could not react until it was too late and they knocked me over; I fell on the ground.
In the same moment a motorcycle passed me, totally ignoring the chasing dogs. Suddenly Sol changed his direction and ran directly in front of the motorcycle. The front wheel hit Sol, the biker lost control of his motorcycle, slid on the concrete street and sparks appeared when the metal pedal touched the concrete. It was like in a movie. We could not believe what just happened and were shocked. Everybody looked instinctively at the biker and tried to figure out if he is okay. A quick “thumbs up” signaled that he was fine and BoB, Lars and I took a deep breath.
The whole situation was so embarrassing. The white gringos did not know how to handle a dog.
The concrete streets of La Coipa
By then the two dogs stopped chasing each other. And although Sol only understood Spanish and our Spanish dog vocabulary was very limited, Lars somehow managed to convince him to follow us and to leave the village. Lars and Sol walked back to the village entrance while BoB and I bought a few things from the shop. When we were finished we also walked to the end of the village to join the two. I could hardly trust my eyes when I saw the Lars and Sol sitting on the street waiting for us. Sol was totally relaxed and absolutely trusted Lars. It was obvious that he felt safe by Lars’s side.
On our way back to the farm we just hoped to have a relaxed walk without any more fights. But just a few meters later the next dog attacked Sol. The dog was much smaller than Sol but very self-confident and both started to bite each other. Also the locals that lived at the road heard the noise and tried to separate the two dogs. Lars and I do not know how we could do it without being harmed as well. But the locals took some pretty big stones from the ground and threw them on the dogs. As we learned this was a very common way to punish dogs in those countries. At some point the stones must hurt so much that the dogs separated and stooped the fight. The result was: The smaller dog slowly walked way on only three of his four legs and Sol looked like nothing had happened. He was ready to go back home. There were no scratches, no injuries. Nothing. How did he do it?
Back on the farm and happy to be on Sol’s territory again, we told Paki about all the happenings in the village. She was excited but not surprised and told us that we should never take Sol to the village. It always helps when people tell you things AFTER they had happened ;). We were exhausted and just very happy to see a healthy Sol sitting at his favorite spot again.
Dirty tap water, food poisoning, super sweet puppies and the end of our adventure
Lars with one of our super cute puppies
One week had passed since our arrival on the coffee farm when Paki decided to go to Lima. We volunteers were not surprised because she told us about her office in Lima before and we also expected her to be back after a few days.
Before she left we all enjoyed lunch together and she did a last short drive to La Coipa to get some things sorted. When she came back she brought a box with her with three super cute baby dogs that she found at the road. She put them into a cage on a farm, asked us to care of them and left the farm. Hehe! You should have seen our faces when these little hungry guys looked into our eyes, begging for food. Lars and I had no clue what little dogs eat and here was no supermarket where we could have bought special food for them. Also after asking the other volunteers we had no idea what to do. Luckily there is Dr. Google who explained us that milk and a bit of oats are good. So what did we do? We walked all the way to La Coipa, this time without Sol ;), and bought milk powder and oats. The three puppies were so happy when we returned and with their meal. Within a few minutes all pots where empty. They looked so lovely with the white beard of milk around their mouths.
Our puppies waiting for food
In the following night Lars started to feel very bad. His stomach ached, he felt nauseous, and he went to the toilet all the time. On the next morning he was feverish. He was not able to leave the bed except when he had to go to the toilet.
Surprisingly I felt fit and went working with the guys. When I came back and had a look at the little dogs we saw all those worms in their cage and decided to deworm them. I took the backpack and walked all the way to La Coipa to get some medicine for the dogs and few things for my sick Lars.
In the evening we volunteers bathed the little guys, cleaned the cage, gave them medicine and removed ticks from their ears and paws. After our wellness treatment the three puppies looked so gorgeous that we could not imagine leaving them one day. By then we did not know that this would happen much quicker than expected.
On the next morning Lars felt slightly better but now it was me who had the same symptoms and had to stay in bed. But it was not only the two of us who felt really bad. All six volunteers (by then other volunteers arrived at the farm) had stomach problems or were even feverish. It was clear; the reason must have been our last lunch with Paki. And believe me, six sick people that share one toilet is not funny. Luckily there was a brand-new second toilet on the other side of the farm but that was so basic that we had no lights there. Due to the fact that Lars and I slept in a separated part of the house we could not enter the proper bathroom at night and, with toilet paper in one hand and a flashlight in the other hand, we crawled to the other side of the farm, hoping that Sol wouldn’t confuse us with a stranger.
The basic toilet on the other side of the farm
Days passed but we all did not feel much better and could not work. Also, a very strong rainfall flooded everything around us causing a water outage. No water. Nothing. The Tubes were empty. You don’t want to imagine six sick people without functioning toilets. Something had to happen before it got dark. Luckily a few days after our arrival on the farm a volunteer from Argentina, Andres, had arrived and we were thankful for his mother tongue. Together with one of our neighbors Andres tried to fix the problem with the water. I still remember Andres face when he came back to our house. He was shocked and pale. “You are lucky that you haven’t seen where our tap water comes from”, Andres said. Afterwards he explained that our tap water was rain water that was collected in a huge basin in the forest. However this basin was only covered by a coarse grille that animals and other things could access.
The disgusting and dirty tap water
When we opened the tap the water was deep black. And it was disgusting to see worms, bugs, algae, mosquitoes, sand and a lot of other nasty things in the water that we used for cooking and showering. It took several hours until the water got clearer again. In this moment I remembered the green algae that I had seen a few days before in the kitchen’s cattle. I ignored it before but now I knew where it came from. I could not imagine using this water again; not for cooking and not for showering.
BoB, Lars and I knew what to do: It was about time to leave the farm. That was just too much! And we knew that our health conditions would never get any better with this water. We decided to leave the farm on the following day and also Andres started to pack his stuff. He also had enough adventure. The other three English guys had to stay on the farm as they asked Paki to bring something from Lima.
It was so sad to say goodbye to our three lovely puppies. They just arrived on the farm a few days before but we played with them all the time and they quickly won our hearts. After all we knew that the other guys would take good care of them.
A last pictures of all volunteers before saying goodbye
BoB, Lars and I hitchhiked to the next bigger city, Jaen, where we booked ourselves into a basic but clean double room and spoilt ourselves with good food. Thanks to some bottles of electrolytes we got better after a few days without seeing a doctor. And finally we were fit for the next adventure: A cargo boat ride in the Amazon.
Woooowww!!! You made it! Congratulations, this is the end of my long story and our exiting coffee farm adventure. I hope you enjoyed it and I am sure that everybody has those challenging moments on a long-term trip. Did you make similar experiences or what was your worst adventure during your travels? I am looking forward to your comments and stories; just leave a message below!