Don’t Wave Your Stink Fist: Some Tips on Being a Coffee Traveler

By Craig Holt, Founder, Atlas Coffee Importers

Coffee is such a great gig. It allows many of us the opportunity to visit a broad variety of cultures in some of the world’s most beautiful places. Having been given such an opportunity, I think we as coffee travelers need to go out of our way to make the most of the experience, and be respectful of the places and people we visit.

Travel has been an important part of my work for the last twenty-five years, and it has taken me to six continents and more than sixty countries. It hasn’t always been pretty. I have made a lot of mistakes along the way that compromised my safety, damaged my health, and seriously diminished the image of Americans abroad. I’ve been asked to share some tips for how to be a good coffee traveler, but in reading through my notes I see I’m really presenting more of a don’t be a clueless dork like me article. There are three major areas I would like to cover: Culture, Coffee, and Safety. This installment will look at cultural matters.

To start with, I think it’s important to learn as much as you can about the place before you go. And don’t just focus on the coffee culture. We are lucky that we get to visit so many wonderful places. We should make the most of that opportunity by learning what we can about the history, the culture, and the natural environments where we will be working. Also, I’ve seen over the years that people respond very, very well to “gringos” who have at least the beginning of a clue about the place they are visiting. It makes us look…y’know…less stupid.

Whatever you do, though, do not let the State Department website keep you from visiting a country. I don’t know what happened to those people to make them so afraid of the world, but reading their reports on other countries will make you believe that stepping off the plane in a foreign nation—any foreign nation—will immediately result in you being shot, raped, robbed, and infected with Ebola. (Though not necessarily in that order.)

I’m not telling you to be cavalier about safety, but get your information from the country’s tourism board, travel blog sites, other coffee travelers, and the local friends you are presumably visiting. Scan the State Department website for basic logistical information, then leave those wing nuts to nurture their persecution fantasies on their own time.

Knowing a bit of the language goes a long way, as well. It is very helpful to know how to produce a few basic expressions like hello, goodbye, thank you, and I apologize for what I said about your mother. I was very drunk at the time. (Hopefully you won’t have to use that last one. I’m just throwing it out there because, well, it worked for me.)

Language extends to gestures. On a recent trip to Northern Sumatra, I traveled with a gentleman who just couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that the local folks consider it rude to use your left hand for things like passing food or waving hello. The reasoning behind the taboo was that the left hand is generally used for… uhm… hygiene. To pass people food with that hand was unsanitary. To wave with it was to say, “Look! Dooky hand!” He just didn’t think it was a big deal, and spent the whole trip waving to folks with his left hand. They rarely waved back. After a week in Bener Meriah I learned that throughout the villages we’d visited, my friend was known by a Gayonese nickname that translated roughly as Crap Hand. Don’t be a Crap Hand.

Even if you can’t speak the language, go out of your way to interact with people. Just because you aren’t able to regale people with charming tales of your misspent youth doesn’t mean you need to stand there drooling on yourself like some meat-knuckled troll. Smile. Say hello. Use body language and hand gestures to indicate that you find the coffee farm beautiful, and that the horrible smell in the air is just the vaporous vestige of last night’s goat stew. And that, really, you are very ashamed of your digestive misfires. When necessary, ask your English-speaking friends for help translating.

Having learned what you can about your destination, try to limit your expectations about how the place “should” be. The quickest route to disappointment when you are traveling is having a preconceived idea about what a town/region/country will be like. Soak it all in rather than trying to paint the experience with your own expectations.

Don’t expect everything to be “exotic” and “totally different than it is here.” That is naïve. With the amount of information exchange available in even the most remote corners of the world now, exoticism is a thing of the past. Absurdity and jarring juxtaposition of the foreign and the familiar are alive and well, however. Embrace the daffiness of the information age, and don’t waste energy lamenting how things have been tainted by “all the tourists”. You are part of that same process of cultural interface. You are the taint.

When it comes to how you dress, always remember that you are an ambassador for the coffee trade. Try to show a little respect. I’m not saying you need to prance around Tanzania in a freshly pressed Oxford shirt and pleated Dockers (though that would look awfully snazzy) but remember that most cultures we work in are more formal than our own. Keep in mind, too, that any coffee buyer in a remote village is—to quote Ron Burgundy—“kind of a big deal.” Flip flops, knee length denim shorts and a mesh muscle shirt might be business formal in your world, but at origin it makes you look like a homeless person. Growers do not want to trust their financial future to a person who looks like they just crawled out from under a truck.

Women in coffee have a particular issue to look out for when traveling in Muslim countries. There are several places in the coffee world where keeping your head covered is expected, and lots of coverage is appreciated. Even though you may not agree with the restriction, it is ultimately a very small effort to make. And, Hell, you’ve traveled halfway around the world to establish a business relationship with these folks—why short circuit negotiations?

Do not wear the safari pants with zip off legs. You are not on a safari. You are on a business trip. Finally, a note on time. Travel at origin can be an exercise in patience, because a lot of the cultures we deal with just don’t have the same relationship with time that we do. I myself have always been something of a freak about meetings starting at the scheduled hour; or, say, planes taking off less than a day late. (I’m looking at you, Air Malawi.) And call me crazy, but I was not comfortable the night my driver in Bogota made an unscheduled forty- five-minute detour to a bad part of town to drop off a mysterious parcel in filthy alley. I’m pretty sure I didn’t cry as we meandered down increasingly sketchy side streets, but I might have whimpered a little bit. “Excuse me,” I said in Spanish, “but where are we, man?”  The driver waved me off, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry.” People at origin give me that advice a lot. I try to take it to heart, even when I’m a bit skeeved out. After all, the guy did get me back to the hotel safe and sound, and no shots were fired.

The point is, if you throw a hissy fit every time your ride is late or the meeting doesn’t start on time, you will do exactly nothing to help get everyone back on schedule. It will just make people think you are kind of a jerk. And that, I learned the hard way, does not help.

When you are traveling the world as a coffee professional, you can make the most of the opportunity by learning a bit about the culture, respecting their way of doing things, and remaining flexible. Go into the experience open to the differences between your hometown and the place you are visiting. When schedules get wonky and the whim of some drunk driver or an uppity rebel group nukes plans, just go with it. And for goodness sake, save your matching khaki safari ensemble for Halloween.

In my next installment, Guatemala Head Bleed, I’ll be talking about health and safety for the coffee traveler.

Craig Holt is the founder of Atlas Coffee Importers. He is deeply offended by the smell of certain cheeses.