Direct Trade: Origins
I’m a little uneasy but I’m not sure why. I’ve become obsessed with a drumbeat coming from the opposite corner of a town square in southern Mexico. It’s a beautiful Spanish colonial town and I’m sitting in front of a delicious-looking meal at a sidewalk café. I just flew in from Columbus, Ohio and should be hungry but I can’t divert my attention from the sound of the drum. Now the street performers have aroused my attention visually and I can’t wait to get out of my chair, abandon my meal, and explore. I feel as if prying myself out of this seat would permit the tension to subside and allow me to enjoy the city of Oaxaca in this, my first trip to origin.
I’m traveling with a great group of people from all over the map, and they are busy wiping their brows from a long day of travel, eating and toasting, making plans and observations as we dine together. In general the group is feeding on each other’s excitement, the excitement of being here and the anticipation of days ahead. Not me, though. My skin is starting to crawl and focusing on conversation is becoming more difficult. I want to join in. I’ve been crossing boxes off the calendar for this day, but I’m starting to struggle with my senses.
We will be leaving for the coffee farms after a night’s sleep. We will trek south across the isthmus of Mexico to San Miguel and join a co-op for their annual meeting. The co-op is comprised of 50 growers that have banded together with a common cause and the results are noteworthy. Together they have created a mercy fund to support each other in lean times. As an example, they once called an emergency meeting when a snake bit the daughter of one of the farmer’s. The nearest hospital is an eight-hour drive. The father didn’t own a car nor have the money for travel and medical expenses. As a group, however, they were in a position to save a life. Bound by coffee and community they were able provide the resources to spare her. This is the kind of story that has brought me to Mexico. Not to mention that they are producing some very nice coffee and I’m anxious to learn from them.
While that adventure starts tomorrow, I’m navigating my own adventure at the moment. We pay our tab and wander toward the street fair waiting to absorb us. I confide in Stephan, a friend and one of my travel companions, regarding my condition. He is German born and has spent most of his life living in Guatemala but now lives in Southern Cal. I say this because he is far better traveled than I and I need his advice. We talk only briefly. Bottom line: absolutely look into travel alerts, prepare yourself. Never take the “once-a-week” dose of anti-malaria medicine; it’s hardcore.
After 4-wheeling our way through a couple of rivers and harrowing mountain passes to San Miguel the next day, my state of mind couldn’t be better. I am loaded with questions but want to play it cool. All in time, I think. I’m here for four days. Upon arrival I immediately learn that the members of the co-op have never met a roaster from outside of Mexico. They have as many questions for me as I do for them, and the rapport is immediate. They want to understand coffee culture in America and what role I play.
I tell them how we evaluate coffee and learn that they have never cupped before. I have the opportunity to cup with growers whose families had been producing coffee for generations. We have a great time. Armed with coffee and camaraderie we fall into a place of peace with our surroundings. I am invited to visit many of the farms. I’m humbled by the hospitality I receive and inspired by the stories I hear. They are not wealthy, but generous and, in general, happy.
Sleeping in a tent, bathing in a river, the new surroundings, and stimulus offer the opportunity to get really tired. Once the keen edge of excitement is dulled, it is much easier to pick up on the vibe of San Miguel. It is in general, a happy and grateful place. Our group discusses this on our last night in Mexico. We term it “re-entry.” What will we bring home from this experience and how can we carry on the vibe? Of course we will all sink back into the familiar routines that make up our days and lives. Nothing wrong with that; I just hope to appreciate it more. Most of all I will always keep them in mind through my decisions as a coffee buyer.
That first trip to Mexico is now years in the past, and I’ve since made several other visits to origin. I’ve learned a few lessons along the way and consider myself a more weathered traveler. I also believe I’ve developed a better eye for what I see on trips to origin and it has certainly shaped my worldview. Often I am pitched on buying a coffee that is premised on the idea that it will help the farmer. It is so easy to find yourself in a coffee-growing region where the landscape is littered with good intentions. Buying someone out of poverty isn’t a long-term answer. Engaging in a supply chain of mutual benefit is a real answer for all involved. This begins through a process of mutual understanding. Direct trade is a popular phrase these days. But to me, the origin of direct trade means one thing – a direct connection. It’s my job to share that story with everyone else in the supply chain and complete the connection.