Opening of More than a Cacao Fruit

Posted: October 18, 2012

Name: Ry Prothro
School: Colby-Sawyer College
Major: Environmental Sciences
Program: Tropical Island Biodiversity & Conservation Studies, Panama

On October 4th , the fall 2012 crew of SFS Panama ventured into the rainforests of Rio Oeste to tour Oreba cacao plantation, an organic and locally-run small scale success story tucked within a community of the indigenous Ngobe peoples; this is the story as I saw it:

As our Ngobe guide led us up and through the agro-forested hills of their community, he pointed out a variety of plants along the way, almost all of which are used either for food, medicines, fibers, tinctures and dyes.  Though most of their agricultural focus is on the cacao tree, what chocolate is made from and the community’s main source of income, it was great to learn about and see what goes into life in their small community.  Along the way we also spotted sloths, birds, poison dart frogs of at least three colors, and other native wildlife.

Our tour guide Mauricio led us up into the hills where all the cacao trees were planted interspersed with other forest and tropical trees.  He stopped to enthusiastically offer his experience of the entire cacao process, which culminated at a scenic overview of the lush mountains.  In the small pavilion we found Ngobe women, bent over a firewood stove in the midst of roasting and grinding up the seeds of the cacao plant until it became a soft, creamy texture. They then added a little bit of milk fresh from one of cows, stirred it in to the ground beans, and we got to taste the most delicious, freshest chocolate anyone could ever hope to place on their tongue. I savored each small spoonful and tried to let the sweetness of nature etch a little of its taste permanently on my tongue.

After exerting ourselves over steep terrain under the misty rains of the Bocas del Toro forests, we were all served a traditional Ngobe spread for lunch: chicken, boiled Dachin plant (like a bitter spinach which grows like rhubarb) and the boiled tuber of the Dachin, one of the local plants we learned along the way.  While savoring new foods that Panama has to offer, Ngobe children shyly looked in on us and how we foreigners would react to their food, chocolate, and smiles.

Writing this makes me realize how incredibly limited words are. How does one describe taste? You can’t. How does one explain the hillside and the forest, the cacao trees, the sounds, the sensations? You can’t; not truly. I can create analogies all day long, and I can try to describe to you the way I felt with pretty words to try to help you understand. What it comes down to, really, is going to have that experience for yourself. Maybe you’ll see different things than I did, see things I missed, come to conclusions I didn’t; and all of that would be valid. All of it would be an expansion of the world you live in.