dragonfly painting

Photo by Dominic AZ Bonuccelli

While I sleep tranquilita on my floral sheets, a woman I have never met is making a five-hour midnight pilgrimage over a mountain through flora and fauna to find something special for me. I roll over and reach for the earplugs on my nightstand to stuff into my ears. At the same time, Dona Paolina takes the six dollars I sent to her and carefully tucks it into the front pocket of her blouse. She packs a basket with boiled yucca and eggs and plans out her journey. I venture deeper into dreamland, removed from the noise of merengue music and motorcycles.

She and her grandson, Marco, will take the mule and leave at dusk to travel over the mountain by moonlight. She will buy nearly five pounds of coffee beans in Galvan and return home by sunrise to begin toasting them. Though she has coffee trees growing on her own tiny plot of land, the beans are not quite ready to pick, nor are they as flavorful as those being harvested over the mountain. Galvan’s roasting beans have been filling the valley with their nutty aroma for weeks, and she knows they have a good crop this year. She will also haul a load of oranges and exchange them at dawn with a local farmer for some rice and fresh vegetables.

She wants only the finest coffee to give to Aaron, the intelligent Peace Corps Volunteer working in her community. Aaron shared some of her coffee with a fellow volunteer named Andrea while paying her a visit. Andrea claims the coffee had a powerful positive effect on her, and has sent money for more. Aaron explained that for most Americans, coffee that is home grown, toasted, and ground is something special.

Marco heaves the awkward bags of oranges onto the mule and straps them securely with a tug on the saddle strap. Though he is a small boy, his strength is as great as his love for his grandmother. Since his grandfather passed away two years ago, he was sent to live with the Dona to keep her company and help with the land and household chores. At age eleven, a midnight walk to town was something he takes very seriously. Therefore, he tucks his machete into his waistband in case he needs to cut into overgrown brush that may cover their path.

As they begin their five-hour walk, I have been asleep for nearly two. Dona Paolina feels the passing years slowing her steps as they make their way along the path. My breathing slows as I entered the REM state of dreaming. She keeps a gentle pace, and talks fondly of the days when her young body glided easily over the mountain. The two stop and take breaks along the way, and she notes all the changes in the path as it winds up and down through dense palm forests. The lush leaves are the size of elephant ears. She can make out the ridges and the bends in the trail just barely lit by the silver tint from the moon. She breathes deeply and listens to their footsteps.

My heart beats in rhythm to the walking. I am dreaming of waking up to a steaming cup of rich coffee. More hours will pass before they complete their trek and I hear distant whizzing motorcycles. Dona Paolina bends down to remove a rock from her sandal and decides they should eat a couple oranges before making the descent into the valley to get their errands done.

By sunrise they complete their business in Galvan and are heading back up over the loma. Mist has started to rise into the early dawn. My alarm clock reads five am. I lift the sheets to cover my shoulders; the morning air is chilling them. Sleepy and relaxed, Marco observes the light rays beaming through the trees. He balances on top of the mule with the sacks of rice, vegetables, and coffee beans. He daydreams about climbing into his bed after feeding the mule. They are all anxious to get home. Dona Paolina wants to get on with the toasting and grinding.

As they walk she thinks. It will be with much pride that she will give Aaron the coffee for his friend. He has taught them many useful things about growing new crops so their diet of rice and bananas has more variety. Their soil is good and there are many possibilities for planting cashew trees, carrots, and green peppers. She hopes he is feeling successful, as she knows her neighbors are apathetic about working. They want Aaron to do it all, or pay them for their work as other foreign volunteers have done. They don’t see the value in learning, but she understands clearly and is happy he has come into their lives. Marco especially admires him and follows him like a willing breeze. A gentle wind moves her skirt lightly and she feels time slip off her bones. After hours of walking, it seems she has found her youthful cadence. They will be home soon.

Yawning, I unroll the lip of the resealable coffee bag, shake some grounds into the pot, and light the gas stove. Meanwhile, Dona Paolina stokes the firewood underneath the furgon to heat a large blackened pot. She tosses a few handfuls of brown sugar onto the toasting beans inside. Turning them with a crude wooden stirring stick, she keeps them moving so they won’t burn. Air whirls in through the wooden slats of the kitchen walls and carries the fresh coffee essence out into the morning. After nearly an hour, she lets the fire burn down, puts a lid on the pot, and lays down to rest. Finishing the last drop from my cup, I greet my neighbors and hop on a motorcycle taxi to head out to work.

Thug! Thug! Thug! Echoes the gigantic wooden mortar and pestle. Her arms are still good and strong. She watches carefully as every bean is ground into a multitude of tiny bits. Aaron will be coming at dusk to collect the bag of coffee, so she stays focused. The lunch meal and dishes are done and Marco has gone to school. Though he was tired, he was eager to go to the afternoon session. Kids can’t attend school regularly because they don’t always have a teacher. This is something else Aaron is working on, along with building an outdoor toilet for the students. Clink! Whoosh! Chuck! Aaron’s shovel makes the hole inches deeper day by day. It will need to go ten feet down. He asks the fathers of every student to dig one foot, but so far none of them have shown up to help. The village women tell him to abandon the project, but Dona Paolina respects his commitment to getting it done.

When Aaron arrives, she is in the final stages of shuffling the grounds through a sieve. Those that are too big are pounded until every grain passes through with powdery grace. The coffee has turned out wonderfully! The fine heaping mound is deep chestnut in color and light enough for the slightest puff of breeze to carry away. She admires her work and pours it carefully into a sack that she tied with a blade of wheat grass.

“Dona Paolina, you have outdone yourself!” Aaron exclaims, surprised by the tremendous amount of coffee in the bag. He expresses his gratitude for her efforts, as he knows it was no easy task. His joy pleases her. Out of curiosity he inquires, “How much of the money did you have to spend for all this?” He assumed she would keep some money for herself as payment for her time and energy. She had spent all of it, keeping none for herself; not even a few grains of coffee. She hadn’t thought of it, nor would she hear of it from Aaron.

When I received the bag of coffee, he shared its creation story with me. It was difficult to believe that a simple cup of coffee could require such a mighty effort. Every ground had received incredible care and had traveled a great distance to get into my cup. Thinking about the energy required to bring the compact bundle into being, I cradled it in my arms like it was a baby. This coffee was alive; it had its own spirit that respirated purity and life.

Being a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic, I lived among people who were accustomed to receiving sustenance straight from the root of the earth. Their natural resources linked them directly to fresh fruit, vegetables, coffee, and medicinal plants. They took great pride in preparing and sharing the gifts growing around them. There were no processed meats in resealable pouches, cans of cooked veggies, or juice from concentrate. When I lived in US, I, like many Americans made convenience my top priority and overlooked the value of eating something fresh, which required effort to cook. Dona Paolina’s effort will never be forgotten.