The Great Tourist
Twelve to thirteen minutes and they are popping and hissing, the oils have risen to the surface and the beans look shiny. It’s sweetness replaced by the rich chocolaty body and aroma of a dark roast.
My knees press against my chest as I sit like an awkward leggy grasshopper on a tiny plastic chair made for a person half my size. Sheets of rain have blocked out most of the natural light, emphasizing the soft red glow from a nearby homemade shrine. Buddha peaks his serene face through loop after loop of half burned shriveled incense. At his feet lie what looks like a small peppershaker and an old can of Heineken beer. Christmas tree lights strung above his head highlight the chips in his golden crown and the plastic veins in the eight-pronged leaves of a twisting vine used to frame this decadent scene. A hunched Vietnamese woman wearing a pink cotton áo dài pulls me out of the faux Mecca of this tiny Buddha’s shrine. She sets a steaming mug in front of me; the mixture of musty rain and rich acidity reaches my nostrils quickly in the humid heat.
This morning I was a tourist in Hà Nội, Vietnam. This afternoon, however, I am driven indoors like everyone else at the sudden onset of a tropical typhoon-like storm. The haunt I chose as the first drops pelted my nose was a tiny coffee shop, no doubt nestled under this woman’s permanent residence. The shop consists of three walls, with the entrance wide open to the pouring street. Along one wall are rows of coffee beans stored in glass canisters, some beans swollen and reflective, others dull and stunted. I turn my attention back to the hot cup of Robusta coffee in front of me. She watches as I take my first sip. The taste is otherworldly. I’m no stranger to coffee of course, but this, for some reason, is a whole new experience.
What makes someone a tourist? Is it the length of time you are in the country? Or is it the purpose of your visit? I have lived in and visited many different countries at different times during my life – Cameroon, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, India, Vietnam and New Zealand – not really knowing where I fit in. In Papua New Guinea I remember encountering my first coffee tree, rubbing its waxy leaves between my finger and thumb, and admiring the ruby red cherries. I wondered how it got there. Had I encountered another confused tourist along the way?
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People have gone to great lengths to have their coffee. In the Jewish community, there was a debate that the coffee bean, from the family Rubiaceae, was a legume, and therefore not acceptable during Passover. In 1923, Rabbi Bezalel Rosen put out a petition to classify coffee as a berry, which would allow coffee to be consumed over Passover. Christians also believed coffee to be the “devil’s drink” as it was widely consumed by Muslims. However, when Pope Vincent III tried the supposedly offensive beverage, he decided instead to baptize it, saying, “Coffee is so delicious it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it”.
The mythical beginnings of the coffee bean include a group of rambunctious goats and their Ethiopian herder, Kaldi. The legend is that Kaldi’s goats were seen gamboling from one coffee bush to the next, sampling the bright red berries while getting more and more excitable. Kaldi himself joined in on the fun and was soon frolicking along with his goats. A monk on his afternoon prayer walk was said to have spotted the exuberant creatures and stole a few berries away to his brothers in the monastery where they were used as a means to keep awake during late night prayers. From that moment on, coffee began a rather epic journey, which would eventually lead to its complete tour of the world when it crossed the Red Sea to Arabia – present day Yemen – where it became incredibly popular among the Muslim religion.
The rest of the story enlists much espionage and trickery as the Arabians rendered their coffee beans infertile to prevent others from stealing their precious commodity. It wasn’t until the 1600’s when Baba Budan, an Indian trader, smuggled fertile Arabian coffee seeds back to India by taping the coveted beans to his stomach. The Dutch soon acquired a desire for coffee and began gifting these plants to aristocrats in Europe, including Louis XIV. A young French naval officer, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, asked for a clipping from Louis XIV and was denied. This lead to a covert midnight theft where a small sprout was stolen. However, on the voyage back to France, water was severely rationed and de Clieu sacrificed half of his own water supply to keep the plant alive. It flourished in France and soon caught the attention of the Portuguese. Francisco de Mello Palheta, a colonel in the military, was sent to France to acquire the sought after and protected coffee plant. Upon arriving in France, Palheta forges a controversial relationship with the governor’s wife, who presents him with a bouquet laced with coffee sprouts. It was that sly act in 1727 that set Brazil at the number one coffee cultivator and exporter today, producing approximately 22.5 million 32-pound bags of coffee per year.
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I finish the mug, lick my lips and accept another sample she offers me from her selection of Arabica beans. The next hour passes like this until the downpour stops and I select a pound of “weasel coffee”, dubbed for the fact that the coffee fruit have been ingested by a Vietnamese weasel and the partially digested beans are collected in its excrement. Gross, yes, but a good novelty gift for those back home. She searches her pockets for change, and finding none, disturbs the peaceful little shrine to extract a few aged bills, which she presses into my hands, a huge smile on her face. I lock eyes with the peaceful Buddha one last time, wondering if a few coffee beans will find their way into his glowing shrine. That afternoon in Hà Nội, I shared a brief moment with a great tourist – a mug of steaming coffee. I don’t know if the beans I consumed had traveled the world like its brave predecessors, but I learned to appreciate its flavour as that of rich adventure and intrigue as I stepped out into the rain-washed streets to continue my journey.
Beyond the Buzz [Internet]. [Updated 1999]. National Geographic.; [cited 2012 March 22]. Available from: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/coffee/ax/frame.html
Coffea [Internet]. [Updated Feb. 1, 2012]. Wikipedia.; [cited 2012 March 21]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffee_plant
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