Specialty pioneers broke new ground when they began traveling to origin. What once was a nameless and faceless commodity came alive with stories, photos, and relationships. Our sense of taste changed. Places, faces, pride, and familiarity now contribute to our definition of great coffee. Travel was a component of the value proposition—we know this is special because we’ve seen it.
But as great ideas develop and are copied, they morph and even distort a little. We see a romanticized version of our notions. For example, Indiana Jones has emerged as a coffee buyer archetype. I don’t want to deny personality or exposure nor suggest that there is a right or wrong way to travel, but I do worry about losing the spirit of those original pioneers. Coffee travel was never about landing a TV show or winning the “travel hardship competition”, it was about intercultural exchange. Not north-south, white-brown, developed-undeveloped, but partnerships built on principles of respect and shared value. Coffee travel has always held great significance.
Travel presents opportunities for personal growth, cultural exchange, and for building understanding in a world that is becoming desperately polarized.
Each trip is an opportunity to connect. As travel author Rick Steves describes, “We travel to have enlightening experiences, to meet inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow.” With that view, travel takes on a different significance. It is less about the traveler’s personal experience and more about citizenship.
Some people seem naturally adept at immersing themselves in new cultures, jumping in with sensitivity and inquisitiveness, taking advantage of all that travel affords. But for most of us, it involves at least some level of discomfort. It’s unrealistic to expect that landing in a foreign country will automatically lead to enriching life lessons and meaningful exchanges. Seasoned or not, it usually takes an investment of effort. While there can be great rewards, there are also many obstacles, and achieving intercultural effectiveness is actually quite complicated. It requires motivation, knowledge, and some skill. There is a science, or at least a number of theories, that support the assertion that it takes work, but travel experiences can improve dramatically through awareness of culture, relentless openness, and active engagement.
Know Your Culture
Culture is learned and it is taught by constant reinforcement beginning at an early age. Because culture is engrained from the beginning, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish culture from ideas like real, right, and truth. The more we recognize ideas and traits as cultural, the less positioned we are in interactions. We all start with a degree of ethnocentrism that will begin to transfer into awareness and understanding with an active study of culture.
In the broadest sense, cultures differ by both their level of individualism or collectivism and by their high context versus low context. American culture is highly oriented toward individualism and generally lower in context—less tradition, more rules, more things written down, etc. Most coffee producing countries tend to be the opposite—more collectivist (family first) and higher in context, where an unwritten but strong system of tradition guides behavior.
These basic differences can affect everything from how decisions are made, to how problems are confronted, to how relationships are developed and how people interact, and to how time is considered. It is a distinctly American cultural trait that “time is money”. Travel will quickly teach that the value of time differs widely. Cultural understanding may not relieve the frustrations of painfully long queues, but at least there will be some context.
If you know your own culture, it is far easier to stay open and really understand other cultures. Most of our knee-jerk assumptions aren’t really based in fact or on a proven right way to do something, but rather in cultural tendency and comfort. Language, of course, is also a barrier, but there are many other subtle obstacles. Assumed similarity is a big one, particularly when traveling to countries where English is spoken. I often encounter people who were educated or lived in the United States, and we immediately start focusing on ways we are similar. That is okay to a point, but it can also promote a degree of laziness. You have to keep asking questions about their culture.
Do Something With What You Learned
Cultural exchange can happen at any moment and at any level, but as a defining point of our industry there is an opportunity to actively engage and maintain the travel experience. In other words, hunt not for adventure but for what is special and do something with what you find. Take the knowledge you acquired and share it. Figure out how what you learned lines up with or against commonly accepted beliefs or issues being dealt with in the industry. To quote Rick Steves once again, “Share lessons, expect more from your friends, and don’t be afraid to ruin dinners by bringing up uncomfortable realities.” Travel with humility, travel as an ambassador, travel with the purpose of inter-cultural exchange, and more value will be discovered. It will be special, because you saw it.