“Breaking the crust” is a term used in coffee cupping to describe the action of using a spoon to release the true aroma and quality of coffee that has been steeping in a glass beneath a layer of frothy grounds. Reflecting back on my experience with an Equal Exchange/Presbyterian Hunger Program delegation trip to a coffee co-op in Nicaragua in early January, “breaking the crust” was exactly what the journey felt like for me. It was my first “real” travel away from my insulated life in the United States and I had the unique opportunity to reveal something that was authentic and powerful regarding the human connection between the work that I do every day at Equal Exchange and the farmers who are growing and harvesting the coffee we sell.
My sensory experiences throughout the trip were intense and meaningful at the small coffee farm we visited for three days in Dipilto, high in the mountains near the northwestern border of Nicaragua, close to Honduras. These experiences will stay with me and have opened my eyes wide to what is really inside a cup of coffee.
Scents linger – like the ever-present and comforting smell of burning wood in kitchen cooking fires, and the warm corn tortillas made by the loving hands of my homestay host mother, Doña Raina, at 4 a.m. I hear the giggles of shy children whispering about the pale strangers who had come to visit them and didn’t know many Spanish words. I hear the sound of heavy rain pelting the house as I sleep nestled in my sleeping bag – rain that doesn’t stop the work of the farmers picking and washing coffee outside all day.
I won’t easily forget the comforting flavor of savory gallo pinto, a traditional rice and beans dish in Nicaragua. the sugary squash dessert served in its hollowed out shell. The sour oranges plucked right from high in the mountains while we filled our baskets with bright red coffee cherries.
I can still see the majestic and lush mountaintops under a blanket of early morning fog. The steep mountainside with tiny coffee plants reaching up tall toward the sunlight. The variety in colors of gorgeous ripening coffee cherries that resembled grapes as I tried to pick them off of the trees the right way, without any stems. I see the expression on Doña Raina’s face while she showed me her bandaged finger, cut while slicing a tomato to make us a fresh salsa. And I see the coffee plant leaves with yellowish-brown, rust-like spots, the roya disease threatening to destroy the livelihood of the co-op farmers across Central America and into South America.
The tactile feelings are still present on my fingertips, too. The texture of the slimy mucus inside coffee cherries. The smooth, warm hands of my travel companions linked in prayer before meals.
And emotions play back in my mind. The feeling of fighting off my quickness to label something as unpleasant just because it wasn’t easy. My challenge to see the dirt under my fingernails as earth and life instead of grime. Feelings of frustration with my lack of ability to communicate with limited Spanish but also pride that I was finally able to struggle through expressing my immense gratitude to my host family.
I am still experiencing the distinct feeling in my heart that tells me I have broken the crust.
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