Guatemala Head Bleed: Some More Tips on Being a Coffee Traveler

By Craig Holt, Founder, Atlas Coffee Importers

The first installment of this series about being a good coffee traveler touched on cultural issues. I explored the value of teaching yourself about more than just the coffee culture of the places you visit, and discussed the importance of not greeting people with your stink fist. I also stressed the absolute necessity of avoiding safari pants with zip-off legs. These were invented by one of Satan’s imps for the sole and express purpose of making American travelers laughable to locals, and invisible to search and rescue planes.

It is important to take good care of yourself when your coffee work leads you to foreign countries. To give you an example of how badly things can go for travelers who are cavalier about their health, I would point out that during a single year as a coffee traveler I enjoyed several thrilling and educational experiences, including rupturing an eardrum in Guatemala, going blind in one eye in Northern Thailand, and enjoying a charming case of ecoli in Zambia. That last one was particularly fun. When I left the hospital against doctor’s orders they told me there was a pretty good chance I would die on the trip home. The low point came when I stood at a urinal in the Johannesburg airport, weeping as I pissed blood. Yippee!

I want all of you to avoid these kinds of shenanigans.

For the record, I do not head out of the country with the intention of falling ill. I’m much more interested in the people and places I will visit, and the coffees I might find there. It turns out, however, that if you aren’t careful about your health, you don’t get to enjoy any of that other stuff. Instead, you spend your journey locked in a grim battle with your rebellious body and the multifarious parasites therein. I don’t want to make it sound like your life is in constant jeopardy when you go abroad, but you should definitely take a few simple precautions to keep body and soul together. To wit…

Try the food, but don’t be a complete idiot. No one is going to sell you coffee cheaper, or respect you more, because you poisoned yourself eating their famous raw goat sphincters in fish grease. Clearly there are times when it is simply impossible to turn down someone’s hospitality. But take it from me, there are certain things that are best avoided. I’m thinking of raw meat or fish, anything with mayonnaise, and those chicken sandwiches lurking in box lunches at the end of a long drive.

I know that lots of us take pride in jacking food stall meat pies down our slobber hole at every rest stop along the way, but try to balance your urge to be brave and cool against the very real possibility that you will drop a load in your pants in front of thirty five producers who’ve spent the entire afternoon at the mill, waiting to meet you.

Speaking of trouser stains and public humiliation, even if the hotel operator swears to you the water in your room is potable, DO NOT DRINK IT. For her, I’m sure the stuff is fine. For delicate foreign blossoms like you and me, that agua is bad news. I had that very experience in Latin America once (I can’t name the country, but it rhymes with gotta holla) and I spent my homeward journey locked in airplane bathrooms.

If you are spending time in a region known for malaria, take the prophylaxis. Importantly, take the full course rather than quitting when you get home. A friend of mine quit taking his malaria meds when we were backpacking around East Africa years ago. Dude said it was making his hair fall out. He came down with malaria while we were on a camel safari near Lake Turkana, and spent several very, very bad days with a fever over 105 degrees. Who knows where it would’ve ended if we hadn’t tracked down a quinine-packing nun doing missionary work in the bush.  So. When it comes to malaria meds the rule is Don’t be like Steve. (Or maybe the rule is: Always travel with a nun. I don’t know. You make the call.)

Speaking of Steve’s bonehead mistakes; he was already coming down with malaria before we left Nairobi. He had every single symptom of the disease when we read them from the Pocket Doctor, but none very severely. “Headache?” we asked. “Yeah,” Steve said, “But not very bad.”

“Yeah, but not very bad.”
“Yeah, but not very bad.”

And so it went. He had every single symptom of malaria, plus a perfect score for malaria risk factors, and he still went on the safari. Why? Because we were young and stupid. But also, he didn’t want to miss out on anything. When you are traveling, though, a little caution is a good thing. Don’t run screaming to the ER every time you get the sniffles in San Salvador, but make sure you track your symptoms, and avoid going out into the campo if you are clearly on the decline. My experience has been that the body does a good job of telling you when you are screwed. Listen to it, and react accordingly.

Traveling with your own emergency medical supplies is a good idea. That way you don’t have to suffer for no reason. My med kit always contains the following: Cipro (gut parasites); Augmentin (a bazooka of an antibiotic, good for upper respiratory and sinus infections); Pepto Bismol; Benadryl; Eye drops; Ibuprofen; Neosporin; Hydrocortisone cream; Alcohol wipes; Hand sanitizer; Bandages; Gauze pads; A yo-yo; A melon spoon; Twelve mils of chicken blood (in case you need to perform a ritual calling upon the protection of the dark lord Ulgoth).

I’m kidding about the last three, but the rest of it is worth bringing. Overkill? Maybe. But I’ve had plenty of occasions where I’ve needed all those things – sometimes all at once. What is worse, carrying a big bag of medical supplies you don’t need, or having a suppurating leg wound and no antibiotics?

Also, you should consider bringing an epi pen. If you have any major allergies – hell, even if you don’t – an epi pen can be the difference between life and lying face down in a plate of Honduran shrimp. An epi pen is also a great way of spicing up those interminable rides out to the coffee farms. Just pop your napping buddy in the thigh with forty cc’s of pure epinephrine and let the zany hijinks begin! (I’m completely kidding. Never ever do that. It really pisses people off, and there’s a chance your pal’s heart will explode.)

Having discussed what you do (and don’t) put in your face, let’s consider what you do and don’t stick your face in.

There are lots of origin adventures that are best avoided. This, admittedly, is where I often slip up. When people say things like “Wanna ride a motorcycle through Central Colombia?” I tend to say, “Hell yes.” When asked if I’d like to watch a game of elephant soccer in Pondok Baru, I say “Only if I get to ride the elephant.”

The approach I’ve taken to travel is unacceptable. It is childish and potentially deadly. Just because I’ve been lucky doesn’t mean you should be stupid. Whenever your pals at origin offer you the opportunity to do something crazy, take a second to consider the very real possibility of having your shattered corpse rot in the equatorial sun. It’s your call. Have fun!

Remember, too, that a lot of places we visit don’t suffer the same wildly litigious culture we have here in the U.S.. In other words, other countries tend to be a bit cavalier about personal safety by our standards, and there are very few rules and restrictions in place to keep you from being a jackass. I’ve been in numerous situations at origin where I looked around and thought. “Wow. Lots of ways to die here.” As an example, I remember showing up late for our zip line adventure in Quindio. Night was falling, and we balked at the idea of flying through the forest canopy in the dark. “Don’t worry!” the bake head zip guides said. My friends and I spent the next hour or so climbing rickety ladders in the dark, and zinging through total blackness. They guided us into the landings by yelling and flicking their lighters. The lighters didn’t illuminate much, and it was really hard to hear their shouts over our own screams of raw terror. The point is, when you are traveling, no one but you really cares whether you live or die. Don’t put your health and well-being in the hands of a couple of stoned zip line guides, or anyone else.

Speaking of losing bladder control; we should talk a bit about the age-old custom of getting drunk with your pals at origin. Most folks in the coffee business enjoy having a drink or twelve when on the road. It is great to spend some time getting to know your hosts and fellow travelers over a beer, a bit of Xacapa Centenario, or (god help you) a big cup of Rwandan banana beer. But for crying out loud, control yourself. Know when it is time to stop. Don’t drink until you are insensible, because while you might be fine passing out on your own front lawn, it is another thing entirely to go face down on the sidewalk in Nairobi. You might also end up like a friend of mine who went out to commune with the locals over beers in Antigua, and got too drunk to remember the name of the little hotel where we were staying. He spent most of the night stumbling around the charming byways of Antigua wondering which colonial façade stood between him and his room. The bottom line: when we drink too much we lose our inhibitions and our common sense. We were given both of those to help us avoid humiliation, injury, and early death.

On that happy note, I think my work here is done. The moral of the story? Have fun, be adventurous, but take responsibility for your own health and safety. A little common sense and preparation go a long way.

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