Dec. 22, 2015
Here's some Instagram posts capturing a few slices from Tom's recent trip to Ethiopia. We wrangled them together onto one page so you don't have to sort through our Instagrams of home roasting machines, dogs, macro coffee photos and album covers in order to check out his mini-travelogue. If you are interested in looking at photos of home roasting machines, dogs, macro coffee photos and album covers, click here and prepare to be entertained by our Instagram page.
Mosquito net. Jimma Ethiopia 6am. I was reminded by a friend of an old idea I had conceived several years ago. I love photography (heck, it's my mfa technically) but I'm tired with the underlying narrative of coffee based travel. You really don't have to go as far as Dangerous Grounds to see the underside of exoticizing the faraway. Perhaps inescapable since heck, places like Jimma are faraway, but there has been such proliferation of coffee travel images without a lot of discussion about the framework they exist in. Maybe that's because social media image sharing doesn't really support that kind of meaning. Maybe it's because that discussion undercuts the base reason for all these pictures by coffee businesses (such as my SM account) which is to add value to a product, no matter how tangential the connection. (It's brand marketing, no?) But when I travel to the faraway, I am aware of being in someone's backyard, their everyday places, the mundane. So @cervonec , this trip of mine will be themed for the everyday of the travel experience. And that doesn't mean sucky and dull. Unless that's how you find this photo... -T
"This is where I work. My job is accountant. The office is small but we have meetings here. I trained at Jimma University." I was talking to Muhammad at Yukro Cooperative about his work during the coffee seasons and the rest of the year. When we visited his office, which is in an earth-walked building with a sheet metal roof, I thought about how I just bought myself a electric foot warmer pad for under my desk at SM. It made me laugh really. I was also thinking about the mechanics of getting to a pace that is far away. It's easy to get here. You can book tickets on Kayak.com using major airlines in 10 minutes. You can go to EthiopiaAir and book your ticket to Jimma from the capital of Addis. Maybe the last leg is hardest. You kind of have to be in the coffee business or a journalist or NGO worker to have some reason to visit a coop like this. But access to the rural areas is easy. So why is this really "faraway"?
The fuzzy pink headliner in the Bajaj taxi this morning in Jimma. The way it undulated as we drive was almost hypnotic, like some outrageous reef plant moving in the tide. These kind of details are so unlikely in my daily life, they form a measure of difference, between home and away. To appreciate them is simply to be aware and alive while traveling, but I'm aware of a point where his goes from appreciation to gawking, or worse.
So let's complicate things a bit. From the universal to the specific, there's a lot of different ways to approach coffee. Even in the more straightforward aspects, like processing, what's ideal in one place may not be a good practice somewhere else. There is no one "best practice" in coffee, no single metric you can apply that results in quality. I always feel like a student when I travel, learning the various approaches to coffee, often in such a condensed amount of time, in passing really. I just can't take the time to embed myself at a wet mill for a week to truly observe and participate in their work. One thing I have learned, given that I have 18 years of SM experience, is not to be too quick to judge. Here I was at Camp cooperative yesterday and there was this rank ferment coffee in the machine. No, in no scheme is this a good thing. But after asking questions j found out the motor had broken when they were running a test batch a few days before. They were just flushing it out. I'm glad I asked, and it is a problem when you don't speak Oromifa! I will remember to keep asking those questions...
Hotel Betelham, Bedele town, Illubabor, 5:30 am. In the smaller towns across Ethiopia a room like this might represent top of the line accommodations. You may or may not have hot water. (That night we didn't have water at all). In the morning no electricity. The light on a phone comes in handy. But it's a one night stop, in bed at 9:30 pm and on the road at 6 am. When you consider the comfort of others in a town like this, those who live here, it provides some context and some gratitude to have a bed to sleep in, a door that closes, and a few mosquitos for company. I'm aware of how little tales of hardship enter into a lot of travel narratives, including my own. They are an ingredient in that "measure of difference", what you're not accustomed to. It's part of creating the sense of being faraway. But I've seen fairly minor hardships used to stir up drama, as a basis for bragging rights, or just plain old machismo. Yeah, I'm thinking of that "coffee buyer tv show" again. I guess everyone knows the reality tv formulas and can read through contrived situations. The problem is that stuff generates less understanding while it spins its narrative, rather than finding common ground between different people and distinct cultures. I'm out here to understand the coops and farmers we buy from. The non-tv show coffee buyers I know are doing the same. And sadly, very sadly, the real "dangerous grounds" seems to be back home now.
I am a passenger. I was thinking about how much time I spend on a coffee trip sitting and looking out a window (plane or car) vs. time on farms or at coffee mills interacting with producers. How is that represented in photos? It's similar to the distortion typical to IG and FB where people are (of course) snapping photos of the best and most fabulous moments, the sum total forming an image of a life they really don't live. Same here. Hours and hours of drudgery on the road. I'm often racing through landscapes with little comprehension of what I see on the other side of the glass. I guess I can't afford to travel that slow to understand. Coffee travel is 80% blurred to me, 20% in focus, when I reach the destination, stop, exchange greetings, make notes, take pictures, learn. But the way the travelogues come out makes it seem like that 20% is the sum total. It comes through in the language on the site too. And all over the Internet. How many times have I read ( and written) that I am "working" with a group of farmers. Really? Is buying their coffee working with them? Is visiting a couple times a year working with them? For me, I have tried to be more conscious of these representations, but some of the distortions are built into the medium, into social media in particular. Ok, off to visit a coop we have been working with, er, buying from... Lol