Sunday, January 10, 2010

Vanilla beans and coffee flowers

It's the end of the rainy season here, and the beginning of the hot, dry season.  At least, it is supposed to be.  All of the farmers I work with are a little worried about the local climate, as droughts have been abnormally strong in the last couple of years,   and the current rain didn't end as it was supposed to in December.  Right now it is hot with the occasional rainstorm making it over the heights of Mount Elgon - Mbale is in a sort of rain shadow in respect to the storm systems that come from that direction, but it also gets rain that sneaks around the mountain and comes from the north.  The point is that it should be hot and dry here, it seems that the weather is in limbo, and everyone who depends on agriculture is feeling a bit uncertain.
The good thing is that the coffee is flowering wonderfully, as it should this time of year.  East African coffee is unique in that it actually flowers, and thus harvests, twice per year due to the region's bimodal rainy season; Latin American coffee, by contrast, only has one flowering season, and thus harvests once per year.  Driving down the road through Namanyonyi Subcounty where I work, the air is filled with the scent of the coffee flowers, which closely resembles the perfume of honeysuckle, and the coffee trees are blushing white, full of blossoms.  It is beautiful, and should result in a great "fly" harvest, which is what the smaller second harvest in March-April is called.

At the same time, Peace Kawomera Cooperative has been collecting vanilla beans from its members for the last three weeks, and processing is in full progress.  Vanilla is an incredibly delicate and complex crop to process.  The fresh green beans must be boiled, and then put through a drying process that involves the beans laying in the sun every day and then resting folded up in wool blankets every afternoon and night, for as many days as it takes for the the beans reach the proper stage of dryness for export.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A true retreat

Tom and I had planned our three-night trip to Hairy Lemon Island, on the Nile River about an hour and a half from Jinja (or about three and a half hours from Mbale) with the idea that we needed to get away from work, and from the madness that Mbale was during Christmas. We wanted to truly get away from everything, but we packed our laptops so that we could catch up on our own little projects.
After arriving to the bank of the river in a taxi, we banged on the old tire rim hanging from a tree to summon the boat to bring us across to the island. Stepping out of the long wooden canoe onto the island, we saw a small island complete with an outdoor shaded common area, and a few small bandas, or cabins, set around a grassy hill in the middle of the island, dotted with tents and a small veranda where campers could hang out.  We settled into our banda and were quite pleased with the prospect of the next few days.  Our banda was set on the far edge of the island, off the path, and facing the water.  A large veranda with two wicker chairs held the promise of mornings spent reading in the shade, observing the large prehistoric-looking birds, the lizards, and the three-foot monitor lizards that would occasionally stop to feast or rest in the trees or the river's edge three feet from our veranda.  
That first afternoon we discovered that neither our phones nor our modems got service on the island.  So we put them all away, and did not pull the them out again until we left.  I realized two days into our stay at Hairy Lemon that I had not gone more than half a day without checking my email or Facebook for a very long time.  I reflected on my usual habits and realized that the first thing I do every morning - before even making coffee - is open my laptop and open my email accounts.  I remembered, vaguely, a time when I didn't do that.  I think it must have been a year or two ago when I began opening my laptop with the same regularity as visiting the toilet in the morning.  I remembered even when I wouldn't check my email for days on end, when I didn't depend on email, chat, or social networking sites to keep up on every detail of everything going on.  
So Tom and I embraced the absence of those tools wholeheartedly.  We spent the entire three days pretty much doing nothing.  We walked around the island, watched the myriad varieties of birds that were constantly on the water and in the trees, hunted for more monitor lizards, moved the extra cot outside to the veranda and slept or read the day away.  While using the outdoor shower on our last afternoon there, we heard rustling above us and looked up in the trees, only to see half a dozen red-tailed lemurs jumping from branch to branch, munching on leaves, and carousing in general.  We stood there for a good fifteen minutes with our heads tilted up watching, laughing, and snapping photos, until we realized that we were both naked and should probably shower and get out before someone else walked in looking to bathe.  The beauty of the place is not only in its natural spaces, but also in the level of privacy - the staff do not visit your banda or do anything to interact with you besides serve you meals at the standard group mealtimes.  Since we were pretty much the only non-kayakers on the entire island, out of around fifteen people who were staying there, we were the outsiders of the group since we couldn't participate in the kayaking conversations.  So besides not having communication tools, we were also physically isolated for the most part from the other humans on the island, resulting in a true retreat.  Neither of us felt to any serious extent the absence or lack of any of that; instead we felt profoundly the need, or necessity, to be without those things periodically, and to focus on ourselves and what is physically in front of and around us, real, not virtual.  I can't wait to do it again.