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Episode 33: El Milagro del Café (The Coffee Miracle)

By Duolingo on Thu 27 June 2019

Since he was a kid, Tito Vargas has dreamt of having his own coffee plantation. It’s a dream his parents tried very hard to dissuade him from pursuing because they knew first-hand the uncertainty and hardship of the coffee trade. But Tito persisted, and he too would learn of the ups and downs of life as a coffee farmer, until he found a solution that had been right under his nose that whole time.

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Transcript

Martina: I, like many people, wake up to a very specific routine: brewing my cup of coffee.

Martina: You might actually be drinking some right now! But, have you ever stopped to think about where that coffee comes from? The path that coffee took to get to your cup, arguably starts with a man like Tito Vargas.

Tito: Amo estar entre árboles de café. Cuando florecen, el campo tiene un perfume con olor a jazmín.

Martina: The coffee trees on Tito’s farm flower once a year for three days. Dozens of tiny white flowers burst open on every coffee branch and it’s as if the farm is covered in snow.

Tito: Y, durante la cosecha, las ramas están llenas de cerezas de café verdes, amarillas y rojas.

Martina: Tito grew up in Boquete, a town about 1000 meters high on the side of the Barú volcano — the tallest mountain in Panamá. His parents worked on coffee plantations, and Tito’s dream since he was a kid, was to have one of his own. His parents figured this was just a childish fantasy.

Tito: Pero yo nunca abandoné mi sueño. Yo admiraba a mi padre y pensaba en la agricultura de una forma romántica. No sabía que podía ser tan difícil.

Martina: Tito’s path wasn’t only difficult, it was torturous. Each step forward would result in two steps back. To succeed at his dream, Tito was going to need persistence and something of a miracle.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast — I’m Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories to help you improve your Spanish listening and gain new perspectives on the world. The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I will be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again – and we also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Tito: Mi pueblo es un lugar excelente para cultivar café porque es muy alto y sus tierras son muy fértiles. Aquí se ha cultivado café desde inicios del siglo XIX.

Martina: In the grand scheme of things, Panamanian coffee is tiny. It’s less than 1% of Panamanian exports and less than a percent of global coffee production. But coffee often tastes better when it’s grown at high altitudes, so Boquete has always had a good reputation for its beans.

Tito: Yo vengo de una familia humilde. Mis padres nunca tuvieron tierra y siempre trabajaron para otras personas. Eran estrictos, pero muy afectuosos. Trabajaban muy duro para darnos una mejor vida a mí, a mis tres hermanos y a mis dos hermanas.

Martina: Tito’s mother, Rosa, looked after the house, cooking and cleaning. Occasionally, she sold homemade food in town and washed clothes to earn some extra money. She also worked in coffee plantations during harvest time, or la cosecha.

Tito: Mi padre, Alfredo, trabajaba muy duro en las plantaciones de café, seis días a la semana. Él me enseñó la importancia de trabajar y ser responsable. Yo admiraba bastante a mis padres y los quería muchísimo.

Martina: Tito’s father wasn’t paid much to work at the coffee plantation — about $25 a week, back in the 70s. But it was enough to live on and send their children to school. They even were able to save a bit of money.

Tito: Cuando yo tenía seis años, mis padres pudieron comprar su propia casa en el centro del pueblo, cerca de una buena escuela. Ellos querían a toda costa una buena educación para sus hijos. Querían hacer de nosotros unos profesionales y evitarnos la vida y el trabajo en la finca.

Martina: When Tito was a teenager − in the 70s − he found ways to get money working on farms. Saturdays, Sundays, after school. When he was 16 or 17, he worked as a taxi driver, a welder, an electrician. With the money he made, he managed to buy two trucks.

Tito: Cuando terminé la escuela, me di cuenta de algo: si sumaba todo mi dinero ahorrado y vendía uno de mis camiones, podía llegar a tener unos 15 mil dólares. ¡Era demasiado dinero para dejarlo en la universidad! Pero podía usarlo para cumplir mi sueño.

Martina: When he spoke to his dad about using that savings to buy a farm, Tito told him it could be a great place for him to retire. But his dad said, “This money should be for your education! Don’t spend it on an old man like me. Your future is more important.”

Tito: Yo hice todo lo contrario y, a principio de los años 80, compré una finca. Originalmente, eran tres hectáreas para criar vacas. Me gustó porque tenía un río pequeñito. Pero no me gustan las vacas, ¡me dan miedo! Así que las vendí rápidamente.

Martina: The night Tito signed the deed on his new plot of land, it was time to tell his parents what he had done. Two of his younger siblings and his parents were sitting around the table. The TV in the corner was humming with the news. They were eating red beans, meat and rice, a typical dinner.

Tito: La verdad, yo tenía mucho miedo. Estaba nervioso, las manos me sudaban y mi corazón corría a mil por hora. No sabía cómo iban a reaccionar. Cuando se los dije, puse el contrato firmado sobre la mesa para demostrar que todo era verdad.

Martina: Tito’s parents just continued eating in silence until they were done. They didn’t have to say anything. Tito knew they were disappointed. But what was done, was done.

Tito: Durante casi dos años, mi padre no conoció la finca. Ellos pensaban que era algo temporal, pero yo les iba a demostrar que mi decisión era mejor que ir a la universidad.

Martina: Tito began by planting vegetables. He bought some orange trees and his friends gifted him banana trees. He didn’t plant much coffee initially, because it was expensive. But his goal was to eventually cover the farm in coffee trees.

Tito: Los árboles de café son pequeños. Algunos crecen algo más de dos metros y otros mucho menos. Tienen troncos y ramas delgadas, con hojas tan largas como la palma de una mano.

Martina: Coffee is similar in some ways to cherries. They even call them ”cerezas de café”. There’s a pip, a seed on the inside of a sweet fruit the size of a little cherry. Then you take out the seed, roast and grind it to make coffee.

Tito: Plantar café iba a tomar tiempo y dinero, pero más importante que eso: yo necesitaba la experiencia de mi papá. Él sabía cómo cultivar el café y yo no realmente.

Martina: As the years wore on, his parents began to realise that the farm wasn’t a passing phase. Tito was serious about making a living off of it. So, one day his father finally agreed to help him. It was a Sunday and he was dressed in his church clothes: nice shoes, a clean shirt.

Tito: Salimos muy temprano por la mañana, junto con el sol, y caminamos montaña arriba durante 90 minutos. Mi papá vio la granja y le gustó. Fue una mañana fantástica, caminamos e hicimos planes juntos.

Martina: At 10 a.m., they opened a bottle of scotch and raised their glasses to their new venture.

Tito: Mi padre era mi mejor amigo y mi maestro. Yo estaba muy feliz porque él iba a poder retirarse en esa finca y estar más tiempo conmigo. Por fin, íbamos a ver los frutos de su trabajo en una tierra de nuestra familia.

Martina: Tito’s father wasn’t sure what variety of coffee would work on a farm as high in the mountains as Tito’s. The same variety of coffee will perform quite differently depending on where it's grown.

Tito: Mi padre me recomendó plantar diferentes variedades de café para tener más posibilidades.

Martina: And so, Tito and his father began planting different varieties of coffee. Geisha, Caturra, and others. Each has its pros and cons. Caturra, for example, produces more coffee overall, but it’s susceptible to many diseases. Geisha − which has no relation to the geishas of Japan − resists certain strains of disease, but overall produces less coffee.

Tito: Pasaron alrededor de 15 años antes de poder llenar la finca de árboles de café porque los plantamos poco a poco.

Martina: Tito couldn’t make money from the farm immediately. Each new coffee tree takes three years before it begins producing enough beans. That’s why during the day he worked on the farm and at night he worked as a taxi driver.

Tito: Ocho años después de comprar la finca, por fin tuvimos algo de producción. Me sentía muy contento al llenar canastas y canastas con cerezas de café cultivadas en mi tierra y la de mi familia.

Martina: But Tito couldn’t celebrate, because by that time, the price of coffee had collapsed. That’s because for many years, there was an international coffee agreement − a cartel − that would limit coffee output as soon as prices dipped too low.

Tito: Pero, en el año 1989, los países no pudieron llegar a un acuerdo.

Martina: The cartel had stopped working. The price of coffee fell lower and lower with no end in sight.

Tito: En los buenos tiempos, podías ganar entre 20 y 40 centavos de dólar por una libra de cerezas de café. Pero, ¡yo recibía menos de 10 centavos por libra! Fueron épocas muy duras.

Martina: Tito’s friends were graduating and they were doing fine, but Tito felt he wasn’t.

Tito: Muchos me decían que estaba loco porque insistía en seguir con mi plantación de café.

Martina: His father suggested Tito keep the farm and treat it as a hobby. “Don't invest much time or money, just let it be,” he said. Abandoned or under-managed farms are very common across Central America during hard economic times.

Tito: Una vez más, hice todo lo contrario. Ya habían pasado varios años de sacrificio sin obtener ningún beneficio. Empecé a pensar que el error había sido comprar la finca; justo como mi padre me lo había dicho. Así que decidí venderla.

Martina: But after a year of being on sale, there was not a single buyer. Which was understandable, really. Who would want to buy an unprofitable coffee farm?

Tito: Durante todo ese año, yo pensé en otras formas de salir de mi complicada situación, pero no era fácil.

Martina: So Tito started reconsidering an idea he had ruled out years before, because it was just so crazy: to process his own coffee.

Martina: We’ll get right back to the story in just a moment, but first we want to tell you about a great way to support this podcast and continue practicing your Spanish. If you haven’t already tried duolingo, you can download it today and learn over 30 languages completely free. For even more convenience, like offline lessons and an add-free learning experience, upgrade to Duolingo Plus.

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Tito: Yo le vendía mis cerezas de café a unos molinos, pero pensé que podía ganar más dinero si copiaba lo que ellos hacían ahí.

Martina: Instead of selling his coffee cherries to the molinos, or mills, that then sell to the roasters, Tito wanted to cut out the middlemen and go straight to roasting his own coffee.

Tito: Cuando se lo dije a mi padre, él respondió: “Ahora sí estás loco de verdad, será demasiado caro. Solo las grandes fincas tienen esos equipos”. Sin embargo, yo decidí hacerlo. El problema fue que el banco no quiso darme un crédito, pero eso no me iba a parar.

Martina: Once he was denied the loans he needed to buy machines, Tito decided he would build each machine on his own. He didn’t have any money or blueprints. He had to figure it out by himself with whatever scrap parts he could find. For example, one of the many machines he needed was a coffee roaster.

Tito: Yo encontré un tambor de una lavadora vieja y desmonté el motor de un camión. Pasé meses tratando de hacer funcionar esa máquina.

Martina: The first time he used it, he put it behind a wall for protection.

Tito: ¡No sabía si iba a explotar! Por suerte, funcionó, pero esa era solo una de muchas máquinas.

Martina: It was a long process of trial and error. To get roasted coffee from freshly picked cherries, you need so many machines: a wet mill with washing tanks and depulpers, a dry mill to husk the coffee out of its dry parchment, a sample roaster, a full-sized roaster, industrial coffee grinder, label printers, bag sealers…

Tito: Durante ese largo proceso, mi padre se enfermó de cáncer. Tuvo que quedarse en casa y dejar de trabajar en la finca. Mi madre y uno de mis hermanos lo cuidaban. Yo vivía con ellos, pero tenía que seguir trabajando.

Martina: Now it was just Tito and his bizarre handmade machines. The depulper, for example, was a stream of water hurling coffee down inverted pyramids, through a giant corkscrew, into a 3-foot hamster wheel, with scrubbed coffee eventually splashing into a tub of water.

Tito: Cerca del año 2000, yo ya producía café verde y tostado. Pero tenía otro problema: producía más café del que podía vender en el mercado local, que era muy pequeño.

Martina: Tito’s friends were making fun of him because of this: finally he was producing coffee, but now he couldn’t sell it! To make them stop, he had another crazy idea: he was going to sell his coffee in Japan.

Tito: Era la idea más increíble que pasó por mi cabeza. Lo dije para que dejaran de molestarme.

Martina: But it wasn’t entirely a joke. Japan is a big export market for coffee, much like Europe, and the US. Tito thought he needed to export his coffee somewhere, so he realized he needed an export license.

Tito: Estaba en el proceso de pedir el permiso, cuando mi papá murió. Fue un momento muy triste para mí. Él era una parte muy importante de mi vida y ya no estaba. Mi mejor terapia fue seguir trabajando.

Martina: Soon after, his mother also passed away. All this time, Tito was living in his parents' home and seeing them everyday. Now they were gone.

Tito: Fue un período muy traumático para mí. El trabajo fue mi refugio y la forma de honrar a mis padres.

Martina: And he was almost ready to export his coffee. The coffee farm his father helped him create, was finally about to be profitable... But, just as he was getting his export papers in order, the price of coffee collapsed, again.

Tito: Ese fue el peor colapso en el precio del café en 30 años.

Martina: In the early 90s, Vietnam’s government promoted intense growth in coffee farming and within a matter of years the world was full of less expensive Vietnamese coffees. By the end of the 1990s, this oversupply caused the price to plummet.

Tito: Muchos amigos me dijeron: “Deja de ser esclavo de esta locura”. Por segunda vez, yo pensé vender la finca. Ya habían pasado casi dos décadas desde que la compré.

Martina: People made offers, but Tito had second thoughts. Now this farm stood for something much more valuable — his connection with his dad.

Tito: Él me ayudó a plantar los árboles. Todo lo que sé sobre el café viene de mi padre, y entonces, yo entendí algo: tenía que seguir.

Martina: Around this time, tourism was booming in Panamá so Tito started offering coffee farm tours. After one of the tours, one of his guests, a man from Japan, introduced himself as a coffee buyer.

Tito: Me pareció que él estaba muy interesado en los árboles de café Geisha.

Martina: Geisha is the varietal that Tito’s dad suggested they plant to hedge their bets. But Tito had heard so many people say they were interested in buying and not end up buying anything, that he didn’t expect much from this visitor.

Tito: Pero, un día, recibí una carta por correo. Era del comprador japonés y quería un primer envío de café a Japón. Me quería pagar un dólar 90 la libra. ¡Era un milagro, no podía creerlo!

Martina: It turns out that the Geisha variety had just smashed world records. Growers had figured out that when it’s grown at high altitudes, like Boquete’s volcanic soils, it explodes with flavor — it’s like putting your nose into a freshly picked bouquet of flowers.

Tito: Fue la mejor herencia que podía recibir de mi padre. ¡Yo sé que él estaría muy orgulloso de mi persistencia!

Martina: Nowadays, Geisha regularly smashes auction records and world barista champions will often choose Geisha to pull the best tasting espressos in the world.

Tito: Es casi seguro que, originalmente, la variedad Geisha viene de Etiopía. Hoy se cultiva a lo largo de Latinoamérica y se toma, principalmente, en lugares como Japón, China, Taiwán y Corea del Sur.

Martina: The farm that Tito struggled to maintain and at points even to sell, is now some of the most highly prized coffee growing land in the world. He has joined an incredibly small group of coffee farmers who sell their entire harvest, even before the coffee beans are picked.

Tito: Yo también he tenido éxito en las competencias de los mejores cafés de Panamá. Ahora tengo un grupo de cuatro personas que trabajan conmigo y, en 2018, pude viajar por primera vez a los Estados Unidos de vacaciones.

Martina: It was the first time he had ever bought a plane ticket, for pleasure.

Tito: Le di a mi café el nombre de “Royal”, usando las iniciales de mis padres: Rosa y Alfredo. Estoy lejos de ser rico, pero tengo un negocio sustentable y ese siempre fue el sueño de mi vida. Sigo trabajando entre los árboles de café que, cuando florecen, dejan un perfume a jazmín.

Martina: Hector “Tito” Vargas is a coffee farmer in Panamá. His farm is called La Milagrosa, or The Miraculous. This story was produced by James Harper, the host and producer of Filter Stories — a storytelling podcast about coffee. You can find a link to it at podcast.duolingo.com.

This is our last story of this season, but we’ll be back with more new episodes soon! In the meantime, we’d love to know what you thought of the stories we’ve brought to you so far! You can send us an email with your feedback at podcast@duolingo.com.

You can also subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app, so you never miss an episode. This podcast, like everything Duolingo does, was made possible by the ongoing support of Duolingo Plus subscribers. With Duolingo Plus, you can learn Spanish and over 30 other languages, as well as access amazing features like offline lessons for when you travel. You can get a 7-day free trial of Duolingo Plus right now by going to duolingo.com/getplus to sign up. Again, that’s duolingo.com/getplus.

The Duolingo Spanish podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I’m the executive producer, Martina Castro – gracias por escuchar.

Credits

This episode includes recordings from caquet, HerbertBoland, and stiffman under the Creative Commons Attribution License. This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Author: James Harper
Narrator: Héctor “Tito” Vargas
Script Editor: Catalina May
Sound Designer: Ana Lucía Murillo
Mixing & Mastering Engineer: Martín Cruz
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro