Enough clutter. Enough confusion. Enough complications.

17 July 2010

Café simple: negro y amargo

This is a story about coffee, a history of my relationship with the beverage, but it is also about cultural sensitivity and adaptation. To me, coffee is a wonderful beverage with many complexities and varied possibilities. From tree to cup, there are many things that can go wrong, but when it all comese together it is a beautiful thing. Cultural adaptation and sensitivity are similar.

My first experience with coffee came at a truck stop when the restaurant accidentily mixed it with my hot chocolate. I was ten. It was a Big Boys, and I believe my little brother Mark stuck his finger in a hollow cheese-stick and got burnt. Years later, I asked for my first cup of coffee voluntarily on a flight to italy. I only drank a few sips and thought it was disgusting. After the airline coffee debacle, my coffee history goes dark for another five years. Then, one fateful night in Fitzhugh 141 I looked up from the paper I was writing and declared, “Ali I need a break. Let's go for a walk; I want a cup of coffee.” it seemed to be the appropriate thing to do late on a thurs/fri. Night for a college student hard at work and in need of a break (regardless of how inappropriate the fact may be that we were writing papers at 10:00 pm on a thurs/fri. Thus, I bought my first cup of coffee from Cross-Roads in O-Hill dining hall at the University of Virginia. I've forgotten exactly what it was, but I know I put about an inch of milk in it, and that it was good. The rest is history. I've drunk a million cups since-- café cortado and café con leche in Peru, straight espresso and café au lait in France, but more than anything else, made in so many different ways I can't even count, my drink has become straight, black coffee.

When I found out I was coming to Nicaragua I was excited for some good coffee. My favorite coffee at home is a fresh brewed cup of Selva Negra Estates, a Nicaraguan coffee grown in Matagalpa, from Shenandoah Joe's in Charlottesville. I was excited because coffee is something I really enjoy, not simply as a beverage but as a cultural practice, as a social medium and as an economic topic. I thought it would be a point on which my new culture and I could mesh, over which we could sit and have a chat. The suprise was then on me when I arrived to find that the overwhelming preference in my pueblo was café instantaneo (instant coffee), and not just instant coffee, but sickeningly sweetened instant coffee. Sometimes they make it with milk instead of water. Having already claimed to love coffee, and being inundated with session after session preaching, “adapt, adapt, adapt!” I smiled and spent my first few weeks drinking maple syrup with my h-mom.

Before you judge this decision, let me go a bit deeper. When we go into a new culture and seek to adapt and be sensitive we are presented with a million and one questions, a million and one decisions to make. Their basic form is this, “What are you going to do here? What are you going to pick up of their ways? What are you going to put down of your own ways?” Changing the way you drink coffee seems to be a fairly innocuous change to make for your new culture. In the last statement, however, lies the mistaken assumption on which the problem of cultural adaptation is built.

Coffee can, in fact, be an innocuous cultural element. When I drank my airline coffee, or that first cup in college, there was a cultural component in my mind that was telling me it was the culturally appropriate thing to do. In one case it didn't stick; I didn't like it; it didn't fit in with me and who I was, so I dropped it. Years later, it did stick; it did fit; and it became a point of interest, comfort, and reliability. When someone offers me a cup of coffee, I always accept and don't turn up my nose because it is super sweetened Presto. It is still an innocuous cultural element, but for exactly that reason it makes no sense to drop my old preferences. Cultural adaptation is not the process of laying aside all you can of one culture to take up another. It is not avoiding sensitive topics or awkward discussions. It is the process of finding a happy, acceptable, sustainable “you” in a new place. Sure, you pick things up and put things down, but you don't put yourself down in the process. The coffee conundrum was easily solved. “I'm going to make coffee; I bought some beans at the store. Would you like some? How do you like your coffee? At home I usually drink mine without and sugar or mild, what would you call that here?”

“Café simple: negro y amargo”

01 July 2010

Chocolate Milk and Doughnuts

My mind has been on chocolate milk and doughnuts and on tractors working this week. I had chocolate milk the other day but I don't think they have my favorite cinnamon sugar doughnuts here.

Sometimes we come across things that transcend time and culture. Some events, some phenomena are more human than anything else. They do not belong to countries; they recognize no borders. At times they seem few and far between. At other times, nothing could be closer or more real.
One of these phenomena is this: If there are people working (with or without tractors), there will be other people— not working— standing around watching them work.

Some of you need no further description. You knew me when I was little and liked nothing more than to watch tractors working. You know others who are fascinated by any project in motion. But for the rest of you let me elaborate.

For the last two weeks Nandasmo has been abuzz. First they were replacing the water line, which happens to run right under the main (read: only) road. This involved a small army of men prying up the individual paving stones in the road and digging a massive ditch. It also involved a slightly larger army of towns-people, mostly older men, sitting on their porches all day watching the work progress.
Now, they are in the process of replacing the whole road. Even I have to stop and contemplate their progress everyday as they work to fit thousands of vaguely hexagonal blocks together on a gentle down-slope. It is especially remarkable when you take into consideration that they're positioning each block by hand and using tools like two 2x4's connected to a large cinder-block as a tamper.
The details, I guess, are different. But the details aren't what's important, what unites us. It is the idea that transcends so many differences... that no matter where we come from, no matter what our job is, what language we speak, how much money we make, whether we've ever driven a car or seen snow, we love to sit around and watch other people work on stuff.