Jay at Work

23 Oct

Although this blog has largely focused on my early gastronomic and recreational experiences, I’ve also been hard at work these past few weeks in my capacity as an adviser to aspiring entrepreneurs in the region.  One aspect of my work I’ve particularly enjoyed is that my days aren’t all that typical.

I might spend a morning wandering through one of the local markets, studying the prices and packaging used by potential competitors to one of my clients.  An afternoon could be spent at the factory of a major coconut exporter, chatting with the owner while drinking straight out of a coconut that a machete-wielding laborer just opened for me.  On another day, I may be at a construction site to guide a client through the creation of a project plan, or touring the laboratory of a herbal medicines manufacturer to study their processes.

Randy Farmer Women

Then there was this past Friday, when I traveled a few hours south to meet with a group of a couple dozen cacao farmers.  The cool thing about them is that they are all women, and they have banded together collectively to sell chocolates and other cacao-related products.  On the day I visited them it happened to be the birthday of one of the women, and so I was invited to join in their celebration.

One of my more unforgettable experiences is seeing the birthday lady (who, like many of the others, is even older than my mom) unwrap her presents from the group.  The first was a musical stuffed animal — cute, innocuous.  The other?  A ridiculously tiny and bright blue thong, and a condom.  As soon as she opened it, this group of elderly women surrounded her, one of them taking the thong and stretching it over the birthday lady’s head.  Then, as the birthday lady mimed certain unprintable actions with the condom, the women all made several lewd and ribald jokes for which my own Spanish was too meager to completely understand.

Jay and the Chocolate Factory

At the Feria MocamboLast weekend there was a three-day-long fair held at the outskirts of town to celebrate local food and drinks.  Vendors from throughout the area set up stalls and sold items to the general public.  In many ways, this was just like being at “Taste of DC” back home — if the vendors’ selections included skewers of cow heart and shots of aphrodisiac liquors.

I was there to lend support to another of my entrepreneurs, a young woman aspiring to sell her homemade artisanal chocolates filled with nuts and fruits.  She hopes to establish a successful business selling her chocolates in stores and catering orders to private businesses and for special events.

Obviously, since my head and heart are ruled by my stomach, I’m rooting for her.  And I was excited to have the chance to accompany her a few days ago on a tour of the La Orquieda chocolate factory.  La Orquieda is the dominant player in the area, selling on a regional and national level, and even exporting their chocolates to foreign markets.  (From personal experience, I can verify that it’s possible to devour an entire slab of their amazingly rich dark chocolate in one sitting.)

La Orquieda chocolate factory

Although I was humming the “Oompa Lompa” song as I was walking around, the workers there were not, in fact, extremely short and brightly colored.  (That said, since the average height in Peru is ~5’4″ for men and under 5′ for women, you’d be hard pressed to find much shorter…)  I did appreciate the huge plate a worker brought out to us which was loaded with chocolate samples.  I can’t say I’m proud of my ensuing actions, but they felt right at the time — in order to stuff my face with as many of those morsels of deliciousness as possible, I stooped to asking the guide as many questions as I could (ridiculous questions about export markets and the like), hoping he would then be too distracted to notice that I was basically grabbing fistfulls of chocolate.  Well, he probably noticed, and my friends Melissa and Yun definitely did, making sure to call me out on this immediately afterward.  Whatever, totally worth it.

Vacations for Work

Another fun experience I had came courtesy of another one of my clients, an entrepreneur aspiring to develop a guided tour package centered on exploration of commercial coffee cultivation and processing in a traditional native community.  Earlier this week, this guy invited me and fellow consultant Maike to scope out his proposed route with him.

And so I got to accompany him on a visit to the village of a Quechua-speaking native community that in many ways still lives like their ancestors did centuries ago.  Seeing the mud houses, dirt floors, and mostly barefoot people there was certainly an antidote to my morning displeasure that my wi-fi at home has been broken for a week.  (That said, even here the encroachment of technological progress is undeniable — I saw several cell phones here, and even a couple satellite dishes poking out of thatched roofs!)

We met up with a local NGO worker who took us on a hike in the surrounding hills to see coffee plantations and fields of banana trees, orange trees (getting to eat oranges straight off a tree was awesome), and many other products.  Back in the village, she also introduced us to several people, many of whom invited us into their homes to chat.

The latter turned into a bit of a misadventure for me.  We were invited into the home of a family who immediately brought out a huge cup of chicha (a fermented corn beverage).  It was offered to my client, who took a few sips before passing it on to my friend Maike.  She took one sip, made a face like she had just tasted warm goat urine, and handed off to me.  Since Client had at this point gotten up to walk around with our host, I thought with a sinking feeling that the responsibility to avoid having us appear rude was on me to finish the cup.  And so I chugged an entire mug of this sour, dank liquid.  I had almost struggled my way toward the bottom of the glass when Client returned and looked surprised at how much I had consumed.  Turns out that was just his glass.  Right behind him was our hostess, who looked pleased at how much I apparently liked the chicha, and was carrying another huge mug of the stuff topped to the brim, just for me.  Yes, I had to chug that too.

When we finally left the house, Client dissolved into fits of laughter when I explained my misconception about the chicha to him.  Marveling at the amount I had consumed, he warned me that my immediate future was bound to involve several instances of clutching my stomach and running to the toilet.  If only the story ended there.  Later in that afternoon, at another house where the host offered us chicha, Client specifically explained I was full and so did not need any.  I thought I was safe — until a few minutes later, the host nonetheless offered me a huge bowl of the stuff.  Which I also managed to choke down, and, perhaps it was my imagination, but it tasted better this time.  Still, with a belly practically distended from drinking this fermented drink of questionable sanitation, you can imagine my chagrin at noting a few minutes later upon our exit that Client himself just tossed his unfinished chicha out the front door!  So much for me trying to exhibit good manners…

But at least karma rewarded me for my intentions — contrary to expectations, I didn’t wind up with any stomach issues that day!


One Response to “Jay at Work”

  1. nj October 23, 2011 at 7:23 pm #

    summary of my last seven minutes:
    8:15-8:18: read blog
    8:18-8:20: read wikipedia article on human height, marvel at the dinaric alps
    8:20-8:22: read blog

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