So I made a send-up coffee travel video that was supposed to parody the potential silliness of a coffee travel video, and the responses to it range a wide gamut. I am sure many people get a small chuckle from something in it and move on. A few think it is hilarious, others don’t realize it’s an attempt at humor, and a handful are a bit offended. Because some comments were a little “out there”, a couple downright mean, I actually turned on “moderate comments” for the first time ever, and I culled a few. I kinda regret that now, because the responses are far more interesting than the video. So let me earnestly respond to this, because I think the points it raises are interesting.
The fact that coffee buyers travel at all has recently been examined in posts by Kevin Knox and Ken Davids. Aleco Chigounis wrote a great little piece a while back on the same topic. Wish I could find the link to it. Kevin in particular has raised some points I feel are sentient, that traveling to origin and doing a direct trade deal is not any guarantee of getting the best coffee. It’s dead on true, but its also mildly annoying to me personally because here I am spending a wad of money, precious time (away from Maria and Ben and my important tasks in the cupping lab, not to mention missing possibly good surfing days at OB!) to make sure each trip is relevant, and absolutely does result in better coffee than I can get by trolling the brokers list. And the last thing I want is to ruin my good carbon-neutral standing. LOL.
But there is something potentially ridiculous about this kind of trip; if you take some of what I do and nudge it a few degrees further, becomes laughable. I thought I would just have a little fun with that, because when viewed form a certain angle, the way I (and other buyers/companies) represent what we do is silly. We go to a place for 3 or 5 or 10 days and pretend we know it? We take pictures of coffee cherry in 1:1 Macro, and that means we know more about coffee? We know the name of the farmer, his wife and kids and his dog, so we understand them? Really? An intern spending a summer in the area might find some humor observing this. A doctoral Anthro candidate living in the area for 16 months would chuckle, and probably an NGO worker who has been worked in the zone for 12 years would guffaw. So what does the farmer who has spent a lifetime there think to witnesses our hit-and-run wisdom?
After all, I come to a place to buy coffee, and if I make videos and photographs to use on our site, isn’t there the possibility that I am just hawking something with these materials, that it is all part of a shtick? Pushed to the levels I attempt to make humorous (I say attempt) in the video, whats the difference between this and Cal Worthington and his Dog Spot?
So the earnest criticisms and parodies of coffee buyers do land some deserved punches, and I think there is good reason to assume the position of the skeptic, and have a dialogue about the logic of coffee buyer travel. Is it to create Direct Trade marketing? To seem more authentic on a web site? To sell a product with more flair? Or is it to understand the source of a product you sell, to get access to a good reliable coffee source. Are these things all intertwined in a way, the noble aims and the not-so-noble benefits of the coffee trip?
In fact, my experience is that the way different buyers travel, what they achieve, the visual materials and stories they come back with, the way the represent themselves and what they do … there is really quite a range of players out there in both style and substance. (And style and substance seem not unrelated). I have traveled with people that are incredibly focused and skilled, who understand the hard job at hand, and who know how to have the difficult conversations with coffee producers that ultimately form the basis for a mutually beneficial business relationship. I travel with others who are “coffee tourists” (we all are a little bit, I would say), who just want pictures of red cherry, video of themselves with the locals, or just to drink a lotta beer and whoop it up. Fine, but that get’s old really fast. And it’s a big waste of money, time and a very finite amount of energy I possess. Frankly, it’s the reason I usually travel with one or two people I know well, or alone.
Let me say that I absolutely DO try to amuse myself and others when I travel, usually as a way to bear with my jetlag, and the anxiety of being in a new place and missing home. And I do find humor in what I do. But when it comes down to it, I am there to use any observational and intellectual ability I have to make those 3 days, 5 days or 10 days the most meaningful, most informative, and most valuable in terms of sourcing better coffee. I am amazed at the courage some other travelers have, the stories they spin, but I don’t feel like some hero out there, some Indiana Jones pushing through the jungle, all alone (or pretending to be), on a quest, and in the typical Hollywood denouement, “winning” by slinging a sack of fine coffee over my back and coming home.
No, it’s frustrating to deal with language barriers, I am anxiety-ridden to take on the huge risks of a more direct purchase, it’s exhausting to have so little time and try to do so much, and it’s a big bummer to lose so much sleep. Oh, and and I hate missing good surf in OB.