In the United States, what crosses many people’s minds when they think of South and Central America is that it’s home to drug lords: visions of great big haciendas with enormous spreads of land perfectly manicured, guards dotting the landscape, armed to the teeth with machine guns, waiting for an armed encounter with the Federales or with the US DEA.
Of course, like many of stereotypes, the truth is far different from what we imagine. Instead of luxurious haciendas dotting the landscape, paid for and fueled by cocaine, the landscape is instead dotted by subsistence farmers who have very little in the way of resources, education, or the things that most of us westerners hold in great esteem. While poor, these farmers are often rich in family, friends, and sense of community. In fact, they are truly rich in the things that matter and the very bonds that we seem to forget in our busy day-to-day lives.
While in Venezuela, I had the opportunity to visit a very good friend of mine and to see his plantations. He is an eighth-generation cocoa farmer. Truly his heritage is cocoa; he cares deeply for what his trees, his workers, and the quality of the cocoa he produces.
After a long day visiting his various plantations, we drove to the nearest town with a hotel. It was a long drive. We followed along a very narrow, very windy road. It was all jungle on both sides of the car, so as we drove, I could not help but think what an adventure it would be to get out of the car and with nothing but a machete in hand and a leather wide-brimmed hat to disappear in the jungle like the explorers of old. (And who knows, in a pinch a giant bullwhip might even prove useful?)
One of my traveling companions was having a hard time as we drove, however. The road was way too windy, and it was causing him to become carsick. I was not feeling particularly well myself, but as we weaved through the jungle, it felt like we were on a never-ending roller coaster at Disneyland, going up, down, around, back, and then up and down, only to weave back and forth once again. This wild ride continued for what must have been over an hour.
After our heads were all spinning from the ups, downs, and arounds, we finally reached the little village where we were going to be staying. We were relieved. That is, relieved for only a moment.
The entire town was deserted. There were no cars, there were no people, there were no animals. All was deathly silent. I imagined the music from a Sergio Leone spaghetti western playing in the background as we drove through town with nobody in sight.
Every once in a while, we would see a solitary person walking in the middle of the street. They walked aimlessly, almost zombie like. We all had the same thought at once: “This town must be controlled by the drug lords.” We talked about it, and we were, I have to admit, a bit afraid.
We were really afraid as we reached our hotel. There were all the people from the entire town standing aimlessly in front of our hotel, all packed together, and it wasn’t readily apparent why they were there or what they were doing. They were in fact doing absolutely nothing.
It looked just like a scene from a movie where a mob is building, getting ready to take out the embassy. And just like a scene from a movie, as we drove up to the crowd, the sea of people slowly parted. We couldn’t see where we were going, since all we could see in front, on the sides, and behind were people. We were blind. I half expected to see bricks start flying through the windows and for the mob to descend on us, tearing us limb from limb.
Then in an instant, we were through.
We left the crowd behind us and pulled into the hotel’s parking lot. The hotel was beautiful, for being in such an out-of-the way location. It was right on the ocean shore, painted white, a bit reminiscent of a white Greek island villa but not as elegant.
As far as I could tell, we were the hotel’s only guests. We checked in and put our things in our rooms.
Once we were all checked in, we asked the question that was burning in our minds: “What is going on?”
When we found out, we laughed. As it turned out, the entire town was having a street party. The deserted streets, the few wandering aimlessly, the mob just outside our hotel—it all made perfect sense. We had it wrong: the town wasn’t run by drug lords, we simply showed up when the entire town was standing around and waiting for the street party to begin.
It was just getting dark, and I had promised my wife that I would give her a call as often as I could. As you might expect, there was no cell phone service. We made some inquiries and were told to go up to the church and stand on the rock.
We drove to the church, and sure enough, there was a rock right next to it. We discovered that if you stood on the rock, you could get just the faintest cell phone signal. If you stepped off the rock, the signal would disappear. If you stood on your tip-toes, the signal strength would get stronger. So I called home standing on my tip-toes, stretching high as best I could and trying not to fall off.
After we had each made our calls home, we went back to the hotel, chatted until all hours, and called it a night. At 4:30 the next morning, my ride came to pick me up. I gathered my gear, and off we went back to the plantations on the same crazy, windy road that we had arrived on. Of course it was different this time. It was dark and we could not see any farther than the headlights could throw a beam, which, given the windy road, was not far at all. This time I knew what to expect. Even so, winding through the narrow road in the dark was a bit of an experience.
Just as the sun began to turn the sky a beautiful pink and illuminate the clouds overhead, we arrived at my friend’s cocoa plantation. One of his workers greeted us, and he and I headed out into the cocoa plantations so that I could inspect the trees and make an assessment of what varieties were there and the potential for using the beans from these plantations.
My friend’s worker was armed with a shotgun. Clearly, being out on the plantations being generally safe was not completely the case. As we walked around the plantations, he carried the gun with the casual ease that only comes from practice.
Carrying firearms as a matter of course is common in many Central and South American countries—no matter what the laws may specify. Much of the population (and especially the farmers in cocoa growing areas) live in remote areas, and reliance on the police to solve problems is fraught with difficulties, especially when getting a police officer may take anywhere from hours to a good portion of a day. As you can imagine, by the time the officers arrive, the problem will have likely resolved itself—and not always in the farmers’ or their family’s favor.
Cocoa plantations are always a magical and beautiful place in the early mornings. They are especially peaceful and serene before the morning sun rises. In the tropics, the morning birds greet the morning with even more exuberance than they do elsewhere. This particular morning was no exception.
As I’m on the cocoa plantations, I try to always look at things with a fresh eye. It is amazing what you can see if you don’t take this incredible experience for granted.
There was a tree with an amazing set of cocoa flowers. Cocoa flowers are very small (only about the size of a penny), yet they are beautiful. I always wish there were some way to grow cocoa flowers the size of a regular flower. If so, perhaps people could appreciate the beauty as I do.
A little farther on in the plantation, a swarm of enormous ants was attacking one tree’s cocoa pod. They love the juices that flow out of an injured cocoa pod. As they eat their way across the pod, they create a track that, once healed, leaves a scar. Many mature pods have track marks that testify to earlier attacks during their development. I managed to get an excellent photo of this particular attack and have often wondered if this particular pod managed to survive until the harvest season.
Later, once the sun was fully out, I walked back to my friend’s greenhouses, where he grows baby cocoa trees. These he uses for his own plantations, as well as providing them to other farmers who will grow the cocoa for my friend to buy later. While there, I managed to grab a few black and white photos shot in infrared.
Infrared photographs are made by using a filter that blocks all visible light and only lets infrared light through. Infrared light cannot be seen by the human eye but can be felt as it is the infrared we feel as the sun’s heat on a beautiful summer day. With infrared, plants turn white and the sky turns black, making each and every infrared photograph an adventure, since the camera in this case sees the world quite a bit differently than does the human eye.
These were my very first infrared photographs, and they introduced me to a new area of photography that I have enjoyed pursuing ever since.
Later that day, I hooked up with my friends who came to the plantation to meet me. They chose to sleep in, and while I’m sure they were able to enjoy a wonderful rest, they also missed out on a truly magical morning.
As it turns out, I learned later that our initial impressions were actually correct. The town where we had been staying was in fact in control of the local drug lords. Our fears, however, were misguided. Because of the drug lords, we were in fact perfectly safe, perhaps more safe than just about anywhere else we could be.
Why? The reason is surprising. What it comes down to is this: The last thing the drug lords need or want is government attention. In this town (and presumably similar towns), there is no crime. Crime brings attention, and attention brings the Federales (national police). As you may imagine, Federales create a host of problems for the drug lords’ trade.
When a crime is committed, it is typically handled quietly and efficiently. The criminal (not the drug lord) is taken into the jungle and the problem dealt with. The problem disappears. Not surprisingly, people stay on their best behavior.
The last thing they needed was for a few Gringos to turn up missing, or other problems that would cause the Federales to come and start asking questions.
I will never forget this crazy experience. A wild rollercoaster ride, a ride through a town that was somewhere between a Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood spaghetti western and Night of the Living Dead, balancing precariously on tip-toe on top of a rock to call home while stretching skyward, one of the most beautiful mornings I have ever experienced on a cocoa plantation, and finally the discovery that we had been the unwitting guests of the local drug lords. What more could one ask for on a cocoa-hunting expedition?
When I started Amano, I knew it was going to be one wild ride and the opportunity to meet some wonderful people and have some amazing experiences. Since then, there has been no shortage of such experiences, no way that I would have had it otherwise. Even so, some days stand out more than others, and these wild twenty-four hours were certainly some of the most memorable hours ever.