I’m reading a book called “How coffee saved my life” by a missionary to Uruguay. In the book she talks about mate (mah-tay), which is a tea that they drink in many parts of Latin America, including here in Ecuador. One of the things about mate is that it serves as an appetite suppressant, which is essential when you don’t have enough food to eat to begin with. The author talks about the social part of mate. You don’t drink it alone. It’s a part of a very social culture.
I started thinking about coffee, and how coffee “works” here in Ecuador. I am an avid coffee drinker. I take my travel mug with me to work every day-Starbucks, of course. I collect Starbucks travel mugs, much to the frustration of my loving hubby. When we were packing to come to the field, before I had started my travel mug collection, I had a bunch of $.25 mugs that I had picked up at Goodwill along the way. I decided that I didn’t need to bring them, since they surely would be available here. Or not. When we came in 2004, travel mugs were almost unheard of. In fact, the regular coffee cups were miniature-made for Lilliputians. I was quickly initiated into the “coffee culture” of Ecuador…and it may have been the most culture shock that I went through.
Coffee here is a social event. It’s not about the coffee itself. Which is good, because “good” coffee here-at least to my Ecuadorian friends-consists of Nescafe (instant) poured into hot water with copious amounts of hot milk and sugar added. It tastes like what I would imagine motor oil sweetened with sugar would taste like. When we first came, and after I made it clear to my sweet hubby that I DON’T drink instant coffee, and that in the interest of marital harmony and staying on the field for longer than three days, we needed to find a coffee maker and real coffee, we discovered that “real” coffee was just as bad. Prior to about 2006, Ecuador exported all of the good coffee and left the dregs to those of us who lived here. Fortunately for all involved, the country has seen the error of it’s ways, and we now actually have really GOOD coffee. Although most of my Ecuadorian friends still prefer motor oil.
I mentioned that coffee is a social event. You don’t really see people here carrying travel mugs, or driving around with a mug of coffee in their car. Coffee is meant to be shared. Every day around 10:00 in the morning, most places have “cafecito”, or “little coffee”. For about half an hour, they share their coffee and their lives, juntos (together). When people get together socially outside of work, it involves coffee. We have Juan Valdez and Sweet and Coffee, both of which are coffee spots. You almost never see people get a coffee to go. It involves sitting down at a table and being a part of the world around you, even for just a few minutes. At Starbucks, in the US, you see people sitting in a corner with their coffee and their computer. Here that doesn’t happen as frequently. In this culture you don’t “disengage” yourself from the world.
This has been quite a challenge for me. I am painfully shy, and very introverted. I need to be able to disengage on a regular basis in order to be able to engage. Coffee for me represents solitude, tranquility and peace. I love the way that it smells-the aroma itself is refreshing. I have learned however, to appreciate the social part of coffee. I can go to cafecito and enjoy the company of others. I usually take my own mug and it’s often filled with my own coffee. (OK fine. I’ll admit it. I’m a coffee snob. No motor oil, no Lilliputian cups, no styrofoam (NO STYROFOAM) cups, no artificial creamer. And no percolated coffee. I’m a snob. Admitting it is the first step to healing, although I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.) I’m still not likely to contribute too much to the conversation-I’ll just listen, Thank You. But I’m learning. After 7+ years here, it is amazing how much I still have to learn. I’m glad learning involves coffee. It makes the journey that much sweeter.