New Internationalist Issue 271
The plan was to follow the trail of the coffee bean from the plant to the pot. But a bean cannot speak. So we decided to try and find a coffee farmer who would agree to make the long journey with me. If the bean, the farmer and I travelled the same route we'd be crossing the gulf that separates producers from consumers and perhaps stand a better chance of finding fresh insights into how the coffee trade works.
That, at any rate, was the plan. Nothing, of course, went as we intended. We chose Peru at the last minute because this was where the beans were being harvested at this time of year. Darran Rees, a photographer, joined me at the last minute. And it was not until I arrived in Peru that I learned that the farmer who was due to come back with me to Britain couldn't make it after all.
The picture you see here shows Darran at work with his camera under the white cloth on the right. Some of his remarkable photographs appear in this magazine. I am on the left at the end of the road and - like the mules - near the end of my tether after hours of travelling up and down steep mountains. In the centre is Gregorio Gomez, vice-president of the coffee co-op CECOVASA, who took us round. When this photo was taken, by Abdon 'Maestro' Martinez, I thought that Gregorio and I would be parting company for good shortly afterwards.
But, back in Oxford, my co-editors thought we should not abandon the original plan entirely. So I telephoned CECOVASA's office in Lima and a message was sent on by short-wave radio to Gregorio. Within a couple of days the reply came back. Gregorio would come to England because I was now his friend - and when a friend asks a favour you must respond - although his parents would worry and he was in the middle of the coffee harvest on his farm.
When he turned up in London a few days later I'd had no time to arrange anything for his stay. Having translated for Darran in Peru from Spanish to English, I was now translating for Gregorio from English to Spanish. An unfamiliar form of 'culture shock' began to afflict me, an occasional uncertainty as to quite where I was or what I was supposed to be doing. In the end this seemed to matter less than the fact that I was with Gregorio almost all the time.
We got to know each other pretty well during the two weeks that followed. On a couple of occasions we sat down and recorded a formal conversation or interview. But for the most part we simply chatted about this and that, tried not to talk about coffee, or travelled in silence.
Gregorio is now back in Peru. I have no idea when we shall meet again. And yet this magazine feels to me as if it belongs to him. Almost everything I experienced was in some way mediated through him, and although I would not claim to have seen things through his eyes, sometimes I felt as if that was what was happening. I think of him now on his farm in the Tambopata Valley, and wonder how far the distance between us has closed.
for the New Internationalist Co-operative
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995