I’m in Mexico—the Yucatan peninsula. But this is not without a few glitches. The first night, my brand new hotel was—well—shut down for mysterious reasons. I spent a few hours finding new lodging. Then, fraud protection on my card kept me from getting pesos. I had dollars. But we had arrived so late, that it was hard to change any dollars.
Still, that is neither here nor there. We were just spending one night in Cancun owing to a late arrival. And by the next morning, we were en route to another city—the grand colonial capital of Merida–looking for the one thing that keeps me going: coffee. And this mishap brought me to the subject of this blog, because it actually got me to thinking about how coffee can be one of those lenses by which to look at the world. Detective fiction is always interested in looking at the tell-tale object and finding within it the source of deep violence and disturbing realities: the bobby pin left on a counter with a lock of silver hair dangling from its clip.
You see, the story of coffee is one of deep violence. Latin American countries like Mexico are major producers of coffee and should have it coming out their ears. But the irony is that, of course, they don’t. They don’t have access to their very own natural resource. You see, to make their money, they have to send the very best of the production abroad. And only then, after satisfying their responsibilities to the international market, can countries like Mexico get the crumbs—the cruddy second grade product, the left-over-unwanted-ugly-stepchild coffee beans. They can’t come up short on their obligations. This means they get the sweepings off the floor.
I had to learn this the hard way when I traveled through South America for a year after grad school. I naively thought that coffee would be everywhere—plentiful. But what coffee that was available was not well processed. Neither was it well brewed. If you were lucky enough to come by it, the fragrant black bean was over-the-top expensive. And the only travelers who knew this as a fact were the Israeli’s—seasoned, long term travelers who spent at least a year, often more, after their time in the army, working through their PTSD. They always carried their own coffee, along with the apparatus to brew themselves a cup just the way they like it.
I almost didn’t bring my French Press this time. I was obsessed with the idea of “traveling light”—that neo-Puritanism of the backpacker that elevates carrying nothing to a state of moral righteousness. But at the last minute hullabaloo of departure, I threw the French Press into my luggage and quickly ground a small Ziploc bag of French Roast. And this turned out to be the best decision of the trip.
Our new hotel didn’t have coffee, nor a coffee maker, nor hot water. And only later as I tried to find coffee on the way to the ancient Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza did I realize how crappy the selection is; it took me over two hours to get on the road; the search to find good coffee landed us at McDonald’s. An utter disappointment.
My last trip to Mexico City fooled me. I was surprised to find that you could get coffee in the capital and this lulled me into a false sense of security in my preparations for the current trip. I actually came across amazing coffee from the famous growing region, Chiapas where the green hills provide an ideal growing climate. Chiapas is only one state away, I reasoned. “The coffee must make its way to the Yucatan,” I told my wife.
But the Yucatan Peninsula is one of the poorest regions in the country, filled with the dispossessed Mayans. The coffee goes to the richest and the most cosmopolitan in the country—the city slickers from the capital. These are people who not only have the money but also have the tastes to consume coffee. The native Mayans have no taste for the coffee in this region, even though it is a product that comes from the land that was once occupied by their vast kingdom.
It is only the truly wealthy Mexicans—the professional class that has been abroad, the class that drives black European cars and surfs on silver American computers—that have developed a taste for a product like coffee. The host of my AirBNB is an architect whose house is a wonder of modern construction. “There is no good coffee in this region,” he says. “I love coffee, too, but it is not here.” So he goes to the Walmart and gets his lackluster beans and he keeps one of those machines with the single-use canisters in his kitchen.
Mexicans have to import their coffee from abroad. They don’t have the technology to process the bean well. And in any case, all the best beans are gone—gone abroad. So, rich professionals like the architect pay a premium for a middling bean that returns with the imprint of Nestle—a boomerang that smacks them in the head and becomes deprived of its feeling of being an indigenous product. Coffee—once you get it, after a brief hiatus, following an interlude in another man’s hands—has all the scent of a strange fruit from a far-away mountain, a place of wild and monstrous beauty that is almost as unimaginable as pyramids rising from a dense green jungle.