A little over a month ago, Greg and I were lucky enough to venture into the depths of Venezuela to meet some of our farmers. Our goal was to make direct connections with farmers, complete the feedback loop, ensure the quality of the farm/workers, and give them some chocolate made from their beans for them to taste. With Patrick Pineda of Tisano as our guide, we visited 6 farms in five days, drove for over 48 hours, met amazing farmers, and didn’t get kidnapped.
And so the adventure begins…
Upon our arrival in Caracas, we had been informed that our adventure was starting immediately as a mini bus was coming at 1:30am and we would be driving 10+ hours south through the night to catch a ferry across the orinoco river to reach an indigenous group of Piaroans who grow cacao.
But not to worry, we had pillows!
Greg and I folded up into our tiny bench seat in the van and tried to catch a few winks. This wasn’t really in the cards. Between slowing down for the numerous speedbumps that herald the entrance and exit of every small town and a flash of the dome light every time we went over said speed bumps, our night of sleep was rather abbreviated or some might even say, nonexistent.
No matter. We arrived in Caicara safely, and quickly stocked up on provisions (coffee, sugar, tuna, and bullets). Yes, in Venezuela, one can never be too prepared. The highlight of Caicara was a visit to the Piaroan’s representative. He spoke both Spanish and Piaroan and was the one who organized the planting of their cacao trees twenty years ago believing it could be a good source of income for the village.
We met the representative at his home and the whole family turned out to greet us and look at the binder full of information about growing, harvesting, and processing cacao. He was overjoyed that his long ago investment was finally paying off.
Next, we piled into a Toyota Landcruiser that we were assured could fit 16 people. Greg and I looked skeptically in the back and began to realize that maybe they didn’t take into account that Americans are a bit bigger than even the tallest Piaroans (clocking in at about 5’2’’). I scored the front middle seat (nice and cozy with the gearshift) while Greg climbed in back with our 5 traveling companions plus an indigenous woman, her two-year-old daughter, and her twelve-day-old infant.
I was instructed to try to nap as the road was only paved for an hour and then it would be rough going. And off we went into the jungle!
The “road” quickly turned into a dirt trail filled with craters and with vegetation crowding in on either side. We drove through a river and began the first of our many stream crossings. We drove over 26 wooden “bridges” which consisted of two planks exactly the width of the tires on our vehicle. At each crossing, one of our indigenous hosts would jump out of the truck and direct the driver so that the tires would line up exactly with each log. As soon as we were aligned, the driver would gingerly drive forward until we were about half way and then he would gun the engine the rest of the way…as if the bridge might collapse underneath us. I could almost hear the Indiana Jones’ theme song…
Around bridge number 13, our luck ran out. The bridge was looking pretty sketchy and at every crossing our indigenous guide had regaled us with stories of how Uncle X went off this bridge on his moto, and Cousin Z broke through this bridge last year. So some of us decided to walk across, while others of us (*cough* *cough* Greg) remained in the vehicle. It looked like it was going to be an okay crossing. The tires were lined up, the headlights were on, the driver inched forward. And then disaster struck. The front wheel slipped off the log and all of the sudden, the 4×4 was balancing precariously on its axle.
Stay tuned for the next blog post to find out what happens to our fearless cocoa bean sourcers!