Beginnings

I landed in Belize in the afternoon, a half hour earlier than scheduled. I had plenty of time at the baggage claim and waltzed through customs with a bored nod from the officer who barely looked up from his smartphone.

On the curbside waiting for my ride, I checked Facebook and suddenly was struck by a gripping melancholy. My eyes blurred with a mixture of tears and sweat. It was 96 degrees and so humid it felt like swallowing the air was a source of hydration. Of course, that’s not how things work. When I finally got to my family’s house, I chugged two liters of water gasping for breath in between gulps.

It took two days of rest to recover from the sleepless nights of packing and farewell get-togethers that preceded my departure from Michigan. When I woke up on the second day, I lost no time stuffing my face with mangoes. No picked green and shipped halfway across the world business; just the elbow-dripping sweet-tart goodness you can only get in the tropics. Mango season hadn’t officially started but some trees (especially the hairy common mango) got an early start. Mangos are like tomatoes in that there are so many varieties, it’s hard to keep track.

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The next day I headed into downtown Belize City for a two-day QuickBooks training for my new job.

It was a Tuesday morning and I saw the city coming to life. Kids in their white, pressed school uniforms were shuffling to school; cars rocked in and out of potholes as they traversed the narrow streets, and a haphazard web of power lines zigzagged overhead. Some traditional Mennonite men were walking about in their signature straw hats and hand-sewn blue shirts and suspenders.

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I walked up and down Albert Street looking for my workshop like a kid lost on the first day of school. The new flats I’d bought a half size too small (it seemed like an ok idea at the time) began cutting into the back of my heel. I hadn’t gone far, but by the time I found the class I was limping.

In the following two days, I learned QuickBooks basics while inundated with a delicious variety of food—Belize’s famous Dario’s meat pies, boiled milk cake, Indian butter chicken (makhani)— all sorts of meals that, on the schedule, were listed as snacks.

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When I got home I told my family I wasn’t sure if I was there to learn QuickBooks, to be fattened up for the kill, or both. They assured me that food is a big part of Belizean professional culture especially in trainings and workshops. Until that day, my experience in Belize had been either as a youngster living isolated in the bush or as a visitor escaping the brutal Michigan winters.

By Thursday I found myself standing at the old cacao processing facility on Belize’s old Hershey cacao plantation, one of the sites that I would be managing soon. What was once as 1,200-acre cacao farm owned by Hershey in the early 80s is now in the rehab phase as a new owner acquired the space a few years ago.

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The structure of the old Hershey facility had the eerie feeling of a ghost town—a chocolate research lab abandoned in the 80s with computers to prove it.  An old basketball magazine from the late 90s further instated the time warp as it was the newest thing in the place. As for the farm, much of the cacao there was chopped down in the 90s to make way for the booming citrus industry.

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Today, just 400-acres of those Hershey-planted cacao trees remain on the estate. Even though they are being rehabbed after years of neglect, the acreage is still producing 150,000 pounds of wet cacao beans annually.

It took a while to soak it all in. I had just spent five years working on urban farms that were considered big if they were over an acre. Now, I was high in the mountains with my boss, an energetic and commanding woman who quickly earned my respect, an Agronomist who was so passionate about cacao you could see it in his retinas, the facility manager who was a soft-spoken man with long thick dreadlocks and a braided goatee, and a tall French intern with a blond man-bun from one of the world’s best known fine chocolate makers, Valrhona.

A lush green faded into a milky blue as the mountains rolled out around us on all sides. The familiar scent of fermenting cacao beans hit my nose. Huge drying decks fanned out in every direction, full of fermented beans drying out in the sun. I was led to the fermentation boxes where the company’s agronomist, facility manager and French intern all hovered over a large box of wet beans. The agronomist was deep in industry jargon—putrification, cut tests, surface mold, humidity, pod index, anaerobic—I did my best to keep up.

Like anything, cacao bean processing is a whole art form that determines the quality and flavor of the bean well before any chocolate maker sees the product. Remember, cacao is not chocolate. Chocolate is cacao processed (exquisitely roasted and pulverized) with sugar, or milk, or sometimes other additives.

I spent the day furiously taking notes on cacao processing. There’s a whole science to it that I still haven’t gotten down. But it wasn’t hard to grasp the basics; much of that I’d learned from growing cacao on my farm when I was a kid.

Cacao, which is the seeds of the cacao theobroma tree, is harvested by cutting the pods the from the trees, cracking them open, and extracting the white-filmy seeds. The seeds are them aggregated into fermentation boxes and set on a strict rotation schedule. After six or seven days (depending on the fermentation box size and post-harvest handling), the cacao is spread one layer deep on what are called drying decks (see photo). There they will stay for another one or two weeks depending on the weather, drying out. The drying process is tedious, and just like the fermentation process it determines the quality of the bean.   On rainy days, and with the high temperatures and humidity, the seeds sometime grow what is called surface mold, which is polished off with the friction of repetitive sweeps with a push broom.

After a rigorous lecture from the Agronomist, the Intern eventually sunk a thermometer into the box of wet beans and they covered the seeds with de-spined banana leaves and began the fermentation process for a new batch. Then we went and took a closer look at the drying decks.

The Agronomist performed a cut test to determine the quality of the beans being produced. The cut test is done by cutting 50 beans in half and inspecting the color inside and finding the percentage of good ferments. If they are a purple-ish hue, the beans are under fermented. If they are a dark brown or crumbly, they are over fermented. But if they are a chocolaty brown with deep furrows inside then they are just right. The Agronomist shook his head at the results and explained in many words why he believed that the beans were overall under fermented. So we decided to move from a 6-day fermentation cycle to a 7-8 day cycle.

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The next day we toured the farm and the Agronomist checked on trees marked for clonal selection, that is, trees with good production records that would be good candidates for use in grafting. I learned so much about grafting from the Agronomist, for instance, that grafting is a form of asexual propagation and a method of selecting the best genetic material for production. In grafting, contrary to my prior belief, the rootstock has nothing to do with the characteristics of the scion. The root stock only serves as an anchor for the clone. The clone is genetic material or “budwood” collected from select trees that outperform others. The Agronomist told me that all ruby red grapefruits are clones originating with one mother tree in Florida.

After we left the old Hershey’s plantation, we drove 3 hours south to the southernmost town in Belize, my hometown, Punta Gorda. It was the weekend of the Cacao Festival and my company invited me to probably one of the swankiest events of the year for the sleepy seaside town of PG. That night I had wine and chocolate for dinner.

The next morning at 4:30am, I made a dash to the bus terminal for a 6-hour ride up to the city to retrieve luggage that I had left at my family’s house while I had got an apartment. I returned to PG on Monday (memorial day in the U.S. and commonwealth day here in Belize). I secured an apartment in Punta Gorda at a lovely and quirky art gallery. Very fitting after coming from an artistic community in Detroit. One evening I sat with my landlords, (lifelong Belizeans that were friends with my dad), and we discussed the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. I knew I was home.

As I write this it’s 9PM and I am getting ready for bed. At 6:30am I will take a ride out into some remote Mayan villages to buy wet cacao beans from farmers. I’m enjoying the crickets outside, the banana leaves fluttering in the breeze. I can hear the sea crashing into the rocks at the shoreline. The sea has been rough for three weeks and there is no fish at the market. A well-known fisherman came into our office last week selling baked goods and offering to fix our printer. It took some restraint not to bow in respect for his hustle.

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