I’ve been thinking about travel a lot lately – specifically travel to origin. A few months back while in Guatemala, I got to looking at some old photos from past trips, and found a photo I took in Costa Rica last year. It was a photograph of my signature in the guest book of Finca La Minita, from my first trip to origin (how meta of me). I was struck by the date next to the signature: November 14th, 2005, which puts me just a few months short of having been doing this sort of travel for a decade. Being a still (relatively) young 31 years old, that means that I’ve been traveling for coffee for most of my adult life.
As you can imagine, such a realization sent my mind in several different directions, including a short bout of contemplating my own mortality. After quickly getting over that, I started to reflect on my time visiting farms, and the reality of the situation, being that I’ve been impossibly lucky with the opportunities coffee has presented me. I have quite literally seen the world thanks to coffee and met some incredibly interesting people along the way.
But after a long and fruitful week in Guatemala, visiting some long time farming partners and a few potential new ones, I got home feeling tired. Not just the usual travel-tired, it was something different… for the first time, I felt tired of travel in general. If I spent the time to calculate exactly the number of days I’ve spent away from home in the past ten years, it would be many, many hundreds, and in fact, just thinking about it makes me want to take a nap. And for the first time, I’ve actually been thinking about slowing down (in my old age?) and being away less.
So that thought has been with me for the past couple of months and I’ve been reminiscing about all of my trips and how much I’ve changed over the years, and how much the company has changed along with me. When I started traveling, the idea of direct trade was still in its infancy. Companies like Intelligentsia, Stumptown, Counter Culture, and George Howell were pioneering the idea and giving it credibility. I remember a lot of scepticism back then: “Why do you need to see the farms? Why can’t you buy coffee like everyone else? What can you teach a farmer about farming?” And I suppose I remember being quite sceptical about it myself, and worried that it was dangerous, that there would be diminishing returns with each trip, that I was wasting company money. But I kept going for a few reasons: I learned a lot very quickly, what would my hero (Indiana Jones) think if he (was real and) knew that I was scared, and most importantly, that I had a gut feeling that direct trade/relationship coffee/whatever you want to call it and working closer with our farming partners, would be more valuable than I could have conceived at that point.
Thankfully I was right, and I had a lot of fantastic people to lean on in those early days, and still.
The vast majority of coffee, and even very specifically specialty coffee, is still not bought in any form of direct trade model, and most companies out there still don’t travel to visit the farms they work with. That may not sound right, because those that do the travel are a very vocal, Instagram-happy minority. But it’s true; and it’s a shame. Because anyone that takes the plunge and goes on that first origin trip is sure to get addicted, and want to do it over and over and over again. Some don’t have the resources, others don’t have the will, and I am not here to say that they are wrong for not doing it.
Anyone who has travelled for coffee though, knows exactly why it’s so important. While it certainly is an unparalleled educational experience, it also affects us all on a deeper level. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about why the people of the specialty coffee world are such a disproportionately kind and empathetic group of people. And the conclusion I keep coming back to, is that it is a result of the travel and seeing what we see; really understanding the work ad hardship that goes into producing those beans that we all rely on.
So after a month-solid of time spent in this city that I love so much, and for the first time in years, not having a flight booked for the foreseeable future, I realize that I am, in no way, shape, or form, ready to give up the travel. It has become to important to me and my sensibility to let it go. The more I think about it, taking a few less trips a year is probably a more reasonable solution for me anyways…
P.S. To everyone I know in coffee that does this kind of travel, you are all my heroes and you inspire me more than I could ever express… You know who you are.