Monday, January 18, 2010

our Sister Nation -Haiti- is hurting

It is no secret how I feel about Haitians. I published my feelings in articles in my Harvest Journal column in Barista Magazine. When people ask me, "Why is Haiti so poor and the DR so much better off when they seem to have been given similar land?" I get that question a lot. If I had a good answer that I thought fit what I've seen and heard about I would state it here, but I don't have an answer. I love and respect Haitians.

I can only speak from my personal relationships with Haitians that live and work in the Dominican Republic, the few wonderful Haitians I met when I traveled to Haiti, and close Haitian friends here in the US. Americans are known for pronouncing the "R" with our entire mouth, we like hamburgers and pizza. Haiti is the first freed slave nation and they are exceptionally proud of that. When you ask them about how things are they respond, "Well". But the tone and body language tell much more. As a nation they have endured more than their share of abuse, corruption, and terrible luck.

Last harvest trip in the DR, I was sitting at a bus stop waiting for the bus to leave. Two Dominicans were talking about how bad things were economically. They brought up the two usual suspects: the US and Haitians. Because I didn't know the man who said the thing about Haitians and I was not having the best of days I told him what I thought. Using the non-verbal sign for dark skin, I repeated the question, "they are the problem?" " Yes, they are coming over here illegally and taking our jobs. They are dirty and uncivilized." I was in Neyba a town know for sugar production. "Stop," I said rather aggressively. "What would happen if all the Haitians left the only major industry here in this region? What would happen if the Haitians didn't harvest sugar cane, one of the largest exports from the DR? Would you pick up a machete and work like they do for their shitty pay?" He was silent. I continued, "They may come here illegally, but they work harder than you do and their for support a massive industry that this country wouldn't function without." He then nodded in agreement.

I have been able to communicate with most of my major contacts and closest friends in the DR. Antonio called me this morning at 7:15AM. He half way to his garlic farm. It was cold. I could hear in his voice he was near shivering. When the earth quake shook he was on his farm and surely felt the "twisting of the earth". He asked me if there was any damage done here in the US. No damage happened to my farm or anyone's property I talked to in the DR.

The sincere lament expressed by some of my Dominican friends as they said, "Our Sister Nation has been so damaged, our hearts go out to them," was a pleasure to hear. I feel that these two tiny and poor countries which have done so much wrong to each other are starting to forgive. You won't hear it in the streets, but I feel it below the surface in cultural currents. Just maybe this quake will help mend the wounds.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Port-au-Prince, Haiti 5 years ago. . . and today.

Many thoughtful friends have reached out to me to ask if my farm or friends were effected by the earthquake in Haiti. Thankfully I do not know of any damage done in the DR. I have been in communication with a friend in the Santo Domingo and she said she didn't even feel it.

One good thing about the really rural setting of my farm is that there are no second stories that could fall on any one. There are just wooden frames with tin roofs that flex under heavy winds. In a quake, the houses would probably just dance the same.

I was in Haiti five years ago. I spent a few days in Port-au-Prince. There were UN Peace Keeping Troops everywhere. Their blue helmets marked many street corners and they didn't care batons. They carried machine guns. There were tanks patrolling the streets. Port-au-Prince already looked like a war zone before I got there. It showed in peoples faces' from years of challenges and corrupt governments. People were obviously in self-preservation mode. And when people enter that mode, they will do anything for money. When I was there, it was becoming profitable to kidnap people for ransom, not just political figures, they took professors, they took aid workers, they took high-schoolers on service missions. The pot holes I saw could swallow a dump truck whole. The lack of trash pickup around the open air markets left piles that were 2 stories high. The week before I entered Haiti, a friend of mine bailed on the trip because he heard that there were three Haitian Police decapitated publicly in a poor ghetto of Port-au-Prince

Several friends have expressed the desire to go to Haiti and help. Well, I've been pretty honest in my response, "You don't have what Haiti needs". It isn't like a community trash clean up project with rubber gloves and bottled water. When I was there, the attitude was every-man-for-himself, which is common in capital cities of really poor countries. But now. . . Haiti is not for anyone who isn't protected.

When I left Port-au-Prince, I was able to relax. The fear of getting kidnapped dissipated and I was able to walk around without feeling like a target. I really loved the Norther Capital called Cap Haitian or O' Cap. Over all the Haitian culture, food and people that I met on my one week stay were amazing. The food was more flavorful than the food in the DR, the culture was totally different, and I found that the people were very . . . cool. It is hard to described but they had an understated vibe of wisdom taught through exceptionally hard times.

The loss of life in Haiti is horrific to think about. To lose 100,000 people in a country with only 9 million people is huge. I would imagine every Haitian has lost someone or knows someone who has lost a loved one. I am leaving for the DR in 4 days for a two week trip that I scheduled many months ago. I don't plan on visiting Haiti, I do plan to continuing to pray for them because that is the only service I can really provide. Given the chance to go there an serve the Haitian people that treated me so well when I was there would be an honor, but stepping into a war zone to help everyone with no tools, direction or protection is like stepping in front of a firing squad.

What Haiti needs is prayer or if that word doesn't resonate with you, then they need good thoughts.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

How do I pick out a good coffee?

Over the last few days I've had this conversation several times. Usually I don't know where to start when I attempt to answer this question. In the past, I would recommend a specific coffee or try to tell them an important and interesting fact of coffee that would help them find a good morning brew. Just this week I was at a funeral and a close friend asked me the same question, "I want to learn more about coffee and drink better coffee. Where do I start?"

1) Go to a coffee shop that serves coffee from a good roaster. Many baristas don't know who roasts their coffee, if they know the answer with out asking someone else, you are getting warmer.
2) My favorite answers to this question is: Counter Culture Coffee, Batdorf & Bronson, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown. There are tons of quality local roasters, way too many for me to list here. Google them to find you local roaster.
3) Or, go to a good grocer: Whole Foods, Fresh Market, your local grocer and find the above brands. You can also order them directly online.
4) Buy only Single Origin coffees. Single Origin refers to a coffee sourced from only one place usually one country and ideally only one farm.
5) Don't be afraid to spend money ($12-$23) on a pound of coffee. Brewed at home that should yield 25-45 cups of coffee! Furthermore, if you care about supporting quality driven farmers, then support them buy buying it.
5) Pay attention when you drink it.
6) Try to follow the coffee seasons. Green coffee doesn't parish but it does taste better when it is consumed before 9 months after picking has passed. For example, South American coffees are fresh off the boat right now. The Centrals are starting to age, I wouldn't recommend them past March. Enjoy the East African coffee right now as well because come late spring a good one will be harder to find. But again the above recommend roasters usually follow seasonality so most of what they offer is very tasty.

Below is a PDF that Counter Culture published to keep people in the loop of which coffees are in in season.

How to Brew a Good Cup of Coffee

This is a special little piece about how to brew a good cup of coffee. I deserve no credit in the editing, writing or anything else. I was just there to watch it happen. . .

How to Brew a Good Cup of Coffee from Ben Helfen on Vimeo.