On the plane down to Colombia yesterday, I reviewed notes from my first research trip several months ago. I was surprised to find that every day I diligently wrote a reflection. My exhaustion both during and after the trip had entirely erased this exercise from my memory. I didn’t write on the technical bits of data collection (there was plenty of that already documented), but I wrote a human account of conducting research. Here is a redacted version of those notes, spanning eight days of research.
Research Notes (Redacted) from January, 2018: Risaralda, Colombia
I was hot, sweaty and tired. My thick sweater and bulky shawl were jumbled up in my arms and my heavy backpack settled tightly across my shoulders. The line for customs was winding its way along slowly. Paper flyers were plastered along the columns, one announcing the importance of vaccinating against yellow fever, the other cautioning any potential drug dealers that in many countries this carries a penalty of death, so think twice before carrying drugs abroad.
Some 17 hours of nonstop travel had passed since my alarm sounded at 6 am, jerking me out of a deep sleep into a cold, cold Indiana morning in January. Stumbling out of bed, I thrust the last items I needed into my suitcase – my toiletries – and headed out the car, slipping and sliding on black ice.
It was hard to believe that it was still the same day. Black ice to balmy tropical air, with only 17 hours of exhausting travel in between.
A drug dog sniffed the suitcases. A mother ruffled her son’s hair. Everyone was calm, their soft Colombian Spanish gentle and refined, their skin glowing golden brown in the light and the women’s hair falling in long, dark and shiny waves, with perfectly applied lipstick on their lips and fancy earrings on their ears. I felt like a tall, sweaty beanpole.
By 7 am, the university was already in full swing. Professors strolled across the open quad, greeting each other with smiles. Cleaning staff pushed their carts along the walkway. Birds chirped in the palm trees that rustled gently in the wind.
John Mario and I climbed out of his car and walked toward his building. He had picked me up from my hotel that morning at 6:30 am, entering the breakfast area to greet me, looking fresh in a white dress shirt and exactly the same as I remembered him. As if no time had passed, we reminisced on the drive to campus, our interactions as easy and peaceful as I remembered.
On the open stairs up to this office space, a young student greeted us. Of average height and thin, with a lean soccer player’s build, he had a calm, centered demeanor and an unflappable countenance. His voice was steady and confident.
“Jessica, this is Sebastian, he is the student who will be working with us,” explained John Mario. I gave Sebastian a warm smile and shook his hand and gave him the customary kiss on the cheek.
Moments later, Diana came walking down the open hallway, shouting greetings and blowing kisses to literally every person she passed. We all walked up to the third floor, where we sat at an open meeting space. A light breeze carries in fresh air through the open window. Waving palm branches set upon a beautiful, clear blue sky mark the view. Natural light shone down on our table.
“Shall we go through our interview protocol?” I asked the research team. A chorus of agreement rang around the table.
“So where are you from?” he asked. His tall, lanky form was folded up in the chair. Ruffled grey hair settled over his brow.
“I’m from Indiana. It’s an agricultural state like your region as well. Only we mostly grow corn,” I responded. The tweets of chirping birds and morning traffic sounded softly in the background. Fresh air blew in through the open doors and windows. We were all settled around a table waiting for our last interviewee to arrive.
“You also grow a lot of soy,” said the coffee producer, his voice perfectly deadpan. “And soon, lots of marijuana, too.”
My eyes widened, and I laughed in surprise. He was perfectly imperturbable, as was everyone else in the room. My chuckle rang out awkwardly. Three thoughts crossed my mind. First, this was one well-informed coffee producer on international agriculture. Second, we needed a hearty dose of their practicality up north. Third, I better stop laughing because I looked like a moron who doesn’t know how to take a serious topic seriously.
“Once it’s all legalized, it’s going to be a big part of the economy,” he responded with a shrug. And began to opine on the many practicalities of marijuana.
“I heard the leaf fiber is pretty useful,” I added clumsily.
Confidant footsteps approached from the hallway. A thin, older woman of average height entered the room, her carriage erect and eyes alert. Our final coffee producer interviewee had arrived. A shawl swept elegantly around her neck and her graying hair was cut in a conservative, short and well-styled do.
“What were you discussing.” She announced, rather than asked, as she walked past the table to classily seat herself on a chair.
“Marijuana,” shrugged the other producer.
With her face perfectly grave, her countenance unperturbed in the slightest, she commented, “Ah yes, a crop like any other.” Upon which she proceeded to give us a brilliant and well-crafted lecture on why legalizing marijuana made perfect sense from an economic and security perspective. It would be an ideal crop for rotation. It would be better if it could be regulated appropriately. It would be safer for the farmers to deal with secure purchasers rather than drug dealers. There are tax benefits. There are multiple uses for the plant.
I sat silent in the presence of superior acumen. These two Colombian coffee farmers knew more about US and global agricultural economy than the vast majority of US citizens themselves.
The fourth interviewee arrived late. I was unprepared, as I thought he was a no-show. He was a short, older fellow with a gentle smile and a thick, grey mustache. While attempting to properly greet him, make him feel at ease and explain the nature of the project, I was frantically pulling everything back out and trying to set myself up.
At last, I said, “I’m so sorry, do you mind if I just take two minutes to organize myself?”
“Claaaro,” he said, dragging out the word in that lovely way Colombians do, conveying sincerity and agreeableness. Of course. “La prisa sirve para nada.”
Literally translated: Rushing serves no purpose.
Remember that, Jessica, I thought. It would do you a world of good to keep that in mind not just now but when you return to your life back home.
We sat down on two plastic chairs outside on the back porch of the building, putting some space between ourselves and the other interviewees.
“How old are you?”
“What was the last grade of school you completed?”
We didn’t start asking questions about climate change until the 22ndquestion of the interview, so we wouldn’t lead any answers before then. As of yet, I hadn’t mentioned it, apart from when we gave the general overview of the project at the beginning.
I hovered my pencil next to question 17, ready to check it off, “What are the biggest challenges you confront as a farmer?”
He didn’t hesitate, not for a second.
“Climate change. It’s horrible.”
“What time do you all normally get up in the mornings?” I asked my three teammates. We were sitting in our rocking microbus, bouncing off to our first municipality of the morning.
“I would say about 5 am,” said John Mario.
“Same,” responded Diana.
Sebastian was only 21. Surely, he would answer differently.
“Just about 6 am, I would say. I like to get up early, so I don’t waste the day.”
There I was worrying that our early mornings were a massive inconvenience.
“I’m so glad to hear that,” I said. “I was concerned that our start times were disrupting your sleep schedules.”
“Not at all!” said Diana chirpily.
I stifled a yawn.
“That’s great,” I said. “I’m relieved.”
Bleary-eyed, I descended from our hired microbus onto the streets of our first stop of the day. For a few moments, I stood staring blankly at the view of the town in front of me. Sleep just wasn’t coming to me since arriving. Nervous I would miss my alarm and restless, I couldn’t get a good night’s rest.
A chubby young man walked from behind the car toward me, looking vaguely familiar.
“Hi,” I said. “I never introduced myself. I’m Jessica, thanks for…”
Diana jerked my arm, her eyes dancing with delight. The man looked at me nervously and edged past, walking briskly away. As it turned out, he wasn’t walking toward me at all.
“That’s not our driver?” I said.
Diana couldn’t answer for peals of laughter. Sebastian soon joined in.
“I thought he was our driver,” I repeated lamely. Man, was I tired.
“John Mario! John Mario!” Diana cried. “Guess what Jessica did? She’s scaring the locals!”
Our car bounced steadily along Colombian roads. First, we passed through rolling hills, lush with foliage and radiant under the early morning sun. Some twenty minutes later, we were in a plateau, where fields of sugarcane, their pointy leaves sprouting up toward the sky, waved gently in the breeze. Taking a left turn, we were heading back up again, climbing a mountain toward our next municipality.
The geography of Colombia is extraordinary, and within the Coffee Axis, the climates change from one breath to the next. Depending on the altitude, there can be more sun or more rain, and even in the same municipality there can be four different climates depending on the altitude. This creates incredible conditions for growing a wide variety of coffees.
Here in Risaralda, running against the global trend of farms growing bigger, the coffee farms largely remain small. As I tried to dig deeper, many reasons emerged, with no single cause seeming to explain it all. One interviewee mentioned the challenge of finding laborers. Before, when there were no strict labor laws, younger kids in their teens would work on the field, growing accustomed to waking up early and participating in the maintenance of the farm. But today, they can’t start until they’re 18, and at 18 they’re no longer interested and don’t want to anymore. With difficulty in finding labor, growing a farm doesn’t always make sense.
Inheritance was another. Once the farms were quite large, but as the large farm owners passed on their farms to their children, they separated it between them. This happened time and again until the farms grew smaller and smaller.
However, it seems like a major factor is the following; the topography is unique. There is no way that exists (yet) that coffee can be grown and gathered through any mechanized form in this region. Right now, it has to be done completely by hand. The coffee plants grow on steep mountainous slopes, clinging to what often appears to be impossibly steep planes. Given that this is the case, it’s much more difficult to expand and commercialize, because even if you had the money to invest in major machinery, it wouldn’t make that much of a difference.
“Coffee farming is just something in the blood,” he said, staring out over the railing of the balcony. His black cap was turned around backwards on his head, his gray hair peeking out from underneath. A long mournful face and curious eyes, brown rimmed with blue, stayed fixed on the gorgeous vista, rolling, verdant mountains with rows of coffee plants running down their steep sides.
We were conducting the morning’s set of interviews at someone’s coffee farm. The farmer had invited three others to join us there so we could get in our customary four. Overlooking the beautiful land below, it was hard to imagine what it might like to live in this paradise day in and day out. Stunning, but a lot of work, I thought, looking at his coffee trees, avocado trees, mandarin trees and chickens, turkeys and ducks. They gobbled and quacked and squawked in the background of our interview. I wondered what our three student transcribers would think when they got to this interview. I hoped they would chuckle.
The coffee growers and their associations had done nothing but greet us with open arms. They were excited to collaborate, eager to work together and keen to find ways to improve and create community ties. To their eyes, our project was an opportunity for improvement, a chance to work with scientists and scholars to gain a better understanding and to give a better understanding of their world.
It made me mad that they were underestimated and ignored.
“My father taught me how to be a coffee farmer,” he said, turning his mournful eyes to me.
“With whom do you speak to about climate change?” I asked.
“First and foremost, with my two employees,” he explained. “We discuss it every single day. Then there’s my son. We talk about it quite often. Lastly, I talk about climate change all the time with my friend who is the head of a chicken farm association. It impacts his operation too.”
“Do you actually use the words ‘climate change,’ or is that inferred?”
He chuckled in response. “Siempre decimos ‘este clima!’”
We always say, ‘this climate!” With a heavy emphasis placed on ‘this’ and a sigh of exasperation.
“Look at this,” he said, passing me his cell phone across the table. The café was bustling. Sounds of traffic rolled in from the front, motorbikes and cars sweeping past, and the noise of construction washed over us from the back. I’d grown accustomed at this point to the persistent, never-ending sounds that defined the villages and towns of Risaralda; traffic and construction. We were sitting in a café downstairs having finished our first interviews of the day. One of our interviewees had joined us.
I took the phone from his rough, wrinkled, battered and powerful brown hands. On the screen was a photo of a thin young man with neatly trimmed and a white shirt tucked into his pants. The photo looked old, perhaps from the 1980s or early 90s, and the young man was grinning next to a large trophy. He looked sweet and kind, the type of person you would trust.
“That’s my son,” he commented, looking at me. “He was 21 in that photo. He was a policeman. He was shot in a kidnapping. That’s the year he died.”
My heart wrenched and I looked the man in his eyes. “I’m so sorry,” I said.
He stared back at me with acceptance, pain and strength in his eyes. He didn’t expect anything from me. He just wanted a witness. Someone to see his son, even after all these years, to see who he was and to know what he did.
He left before us, and he paid our bill. This coffee grower who grew up in poverty as one of 14 children, who only made it to 6thgrade before he had to drop out to work to sustain the family, who suffered unimaginable tragedies over the course of his life, paid our bill without saying a word and we couldn’t even thank him, because we didn’t know until he was gone.
Time and again, I was struck by the fact that human beings are so much more than any journal article can capture. They’re more than any written word can contain. The greatness of the human spirit is so big at times, there’s simply nothing to be said, no words that will envelop a situation or moment or gesture appropriately.
Over the course of that trip, we would laugh sadly at John Mario, because for some reason, the stories of tragedy always struck him. Perhaps it was just coincidence, or there was something in his eyes that made people want to share. Time and again, he would leave an interview, sighing ai no, in that way he always does, wiping his hand over his brow, sharing yet another story of pain that had brought him to the brink of tears.
We laughed sadly because in those situations, in the face of so much hard reality, when you’ve stepped into someone’s shoes for brief moments and you do it again and again day after day, you have to laugh at something or you crumble to pieces.
That moment in the café, after the coffee grower left, seated on my plastic chair, the greasy wrapper of my Colombian donut crumpled up next to my cup of coffee, I thought about another story John Mario shared two days prior, while we sat in the car rattling off to our next stop.
“He had three children. One was murdered in the streets of Medellin when was going to college. The second committed suicide at 18 because he was schizophrenic. His daughter is his only one left. And you know what he told me? His son, the one who committed suicide? He didn’t kill himself. He killed his disease, which was a disease he could not live with, so it had to die. He wasn’t trying to kill himself but the disease.”
Conducting interviews in which you dive into another person’s life doesn’t just reveal tidy little facts that can be neatly bundled up into a graph for some academic journal article. Interviews with people are about people. They are us unexpected and messy as we are. As an interviewee, the stories can wash you away. Sometimes, people say something that jolts you like an electric shock.
In these moments, I’m always struck by the power of listening. What are people hiding under the surface, waiting to share, if we only gave them a moment to talk? As an interviewer, our job is to remain silent, but to ask questions. Our job is to listen profoundly, to try and hear what they have to say.
How come I only do that when I’m ‘on the job’? Given how impactful it is, how much I learn and how much people can share, why do I only listen profoundly when it’s my job to do so? Have we forgotten how?