Her hands are a blur as she works. Next to her on the distressed wooden table is a small, neatly stacked pile of little rectangular papers. She doesn’t glance once at her handiwork; she grabs a single wrapper every few seconds with the precision of an automaton. It’s as if she’s been doing this all her life. The truth is, she’s only been employed here for about 8 months but her fingertips are already calloused and stained brown with cacao powder.
Louisa is one of the women who has come to work at a cacao plantation in the foothills of Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano where she makes some of the world’s finest chocolate candy. The actual plantation where she has done everything, from harvesting the big, colourful cacao pods, to working in the onsite processing facility, is nestled deep in a jungle thicket far from the visitor centre that on its best days attracts a few curious tourists, mostly Americans looking for ‘authentic’ experiences and Instagrammable photo ops. Louisa never interacts with the tourists; in fact, she rarely goes anywhere near the visitor centre. It sits too close to the main road and it makes her feel vulnerable. She prefers the cover of the canopy of trees and the squawking of native birds, but sometimes even that is too much. She says the macaws’ agitated screeching “reminds [her] of home”—a home that she had to escape.
No one — save for one family member — knows where she works, and she can’t risk anyone finding out. She found her way to the plantation’s dirt and gravel driveway during the country’s infamous monsoon season after fleeing her husband Jorge, an unemployed former coffee plantation labourer with a penchant for cheap beer and fistfights. Louisa, her right eye blackened and face swollen, arrived at the plantation with nothing but the kind of burning hope that a woman in her precarious position often buries deep in her heart.