Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

by Steven Brenner

Thanks to the invasion of Starbucks, the worldwide thirst for coffee is higher than it’s ever been, despite the fact that their coffee sucks and is totally overpriced.  Coffee consumption and cafe culture has been around Europe for centuries, around North America for decades, and is now spreading into Asia.  It’s an enormous industry, over 2 billion cups of the stuff consumed PER DAY worldwide,  yet the division of these billions of dollars is completely screwed, with huge wealth being created at the sale and immense poverty forced on those at the origin.

I’m not an expert on economics or world history or agriculture, but what I’ve seen with my own eyes makes me question why these growers, who control this powerful commodity, are so poor?  And when you start to really examine the politics behind it, and just how artificial the whole thing seems, I have to wonder why poverty exists at all and how is it all connected.

I know, heavy stuff, but that’s the way we roll in the MB house!  We travel, we try to see things and form opinions about them from direct experience.  We take tours with people who are passionate and informative about their life’s work, and try to make the world a classroom for us and for our kids.

We were in Boquete, Panama, the mountainous interior part of the country, home to some of the world’s most valuable and prestigious coffee – the Geisha.  When grown at the right elevation, a few growers get such high rankings for this coffee that it is only sold at auction to the highest bidder.  We’d signed up for a tour at the Finca Dos Jefes coffee plantation, an organic coffee farm owned and run by an American expat named Richard Lipner and were amazed at what we saw and heard – eye opening, heart breaking injustices – hard not to think about every morning when you sit down, open your computer, and take a sip of a cappuccino.

Some basics:  coffee is an ancient drink with almost magical properties.  It’s made from little cherries that only grow between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, in 70 countries.   There’s an organization that was set up in the last century to protect the prices, probably helping to stabilize some countries by putting a floor on what other, more desperate countries can charge.  That was when there was a possibility of a coffee abundance.  Now, if anything, there’s a shortage.  And yet, despite the high demand, the farmers are barely able to stay afloat.

The cherries are grown, picked when ripe, usually by hand, then they are either dried outside on mesh beds, or a load of water is wasted and contaminated to remove the sticky “mucilage” around the bean.  There’s a fermentation process and a roasting process – which can be an art form itself, and a variety of ways to brew it (in my opinion, the moka is the best).

If you want to learn all about how coffee is grown and roasted, you can take a tour with Rich in Boquete.  But I don’t want to dwell on the details of coffee itself.  I want to dwell on poverty – because coffee and poverty, at least in Panama, seem to go together.

Around Boquete, cherry pickers make about 5-7 USD a day when it’s cherry picking season.  This is the lowest of lowly work, and almost entirely delegated to the indigenous people who were displaced in the early 1900′s when the French came to build the canal. Eventually, after having their land taken and getting pushed up almost into Costa Rica, they were then given a batch of wild land as an Indian reservation where they currently live.  They have no infrastructure, and thus, no way to get an education (unless you walk 10-20 miles to school in the rain) and lift themselves out of poverty.  Between the poor Panamanian (which by North American standards is quite poor already), and this lower caste of Indian who picks coffee cherries, you go so far down the ladder of “wealth” that there’s about zero chance of any of these people making it on to the ladder, let along climbing up it.

Here’s an example of living quarters for a family of 10.

Note the absence of windows and no ventilation.

Cooking on a concrete slab and dealing with the smoke.   These people actually aren’t the worse off.

Here’s a make-shift home where about 30 people live.  When it rains (which is often) their home is continually destroyed.

Like I said, I’m no expert and I don’t claim to know why the world is the way it is, but I do have to try to string some basics together, to understand what I’m seeing, and to respond to my kids who ask innocently why these people can’t build a bigger house; why they can’t get better jobs; why they can’t just leave.

As I travel more, and especially as I travel with my kids, I find that the more I learn about the world and our interconnectedness, the more I can’t untangle it all.

I don’t know if capitalism can work without cheap labor, or whether an alternative to capitalism could be an improvement.  I don’t know why rich countries can’t coordinate with impoverished ones more fairly, nor am I naive enough to think that simply paying people more will truly solve their problems – it can help, at times, but money, after all, isn’t the same as wealth.  The problem is political, economical, and the power play between them.

What I do know is that it’s 3:45 pm and I’ve just had an espresso, a fair-trade coffee from Nicaragua.  I know that, like it or not, I’m connected to those farmers, even as I leave to go get my youngest daughter from school.

 

Thief-spotting

by Steven Brenner

We get asked a lot about safety and whether any areas in our cities should be avoided.  We generally give one of two standard answers (there’s a short one and a long one), both of which try to make one important point – that there is not the same degree or level of malicious, violent crime in Europe as in other parts of the world.

The main crime to look out for is getting robbed, which happens not at gunpoint or knifepoint, but by pickpockets who roam around and look for people they can catch unaware (which is relatively easy when you’re staring up at a famous, historic monument). This is more of a nuisance than a danger – in that, personally, you won’t be threatened. But if you get targeted, and they get you – it can ruin your day, your whole trip, or maybe more.

The two defenses against this crime are:

1.  Don’t carry around anything valuable.  Or at least, don’t have it anywhere accessible.

2.  Know what the thieves look like, and avoid them.  If necessary, even shoo or give them a shove.  Often they are children (sad, but easy to defend yourself against).

The following picture was taken in Rome, near the central train station Termini.  When I first came to Rome, I was used to seeing many ethnic groups in large cities, and I was surprised at how the Romans considered anyone who was not Italian, or a tourist, to be a thief.  Very racist, and hopefully that viewpoint has changed over the years.  But what was more odd was that they could tell, by looking at someone, that they weren’t Italian.  Now, after more than a decade, I too can see it immediately, but for the tourist, this will be a hard distinction to make.  I don’t believe that anyone foreign and not a tourist is a thief, but recognizing who “doesn’t belong” is part of recognizing who is up to no good.

For example, look at this picture.  What do you see?

Two women standing on the sidewalk, right?

Look again.  See the cardboard?  That’s the thief’s prop of choice.  They use it to distract their partner’s hands that are going in your pocket.

Check out the look on backup girl’s face.

She’s scanning, searching, for a target.  If you know what to look for, you can see it a block away.

And these dudes?  You think they’re just standing around, letting the belly get some fresh air?

Actually, yeah.  No idea what’s up with that.  Probably best to stay away from them too.

Below is an amazing video by Bob Arno, a pickpocket expert who goes undercover to the pickpocket capital of the world – Naples – getting footage of how these thieves operate.

Interview with Paul Bennett – founder of Context Travel

I was so impressed by two Context Travel walks I did recently (the Oltrano Artisans walk in Florence, and the Haussman and the Making of Modern Paris) that I asked Paul Bennett, the founder and close friend, if he’d answer a few questions that came to mind about his company, his walks, and his views on travel in general.

First, I’ve done a few of your walks and I often find myself using the term “tour” when describing them to others, and not feeling like it’s appropriate in conveying the experience.  Do you think “tour” is the best way to describe what you do, and if not, what sort of vocabulary do you think expresses it better?

To be honest, I’m not a tour person. I hate following someone around in a large group (or, worse, on a bus) listening to bad jokes and Wikipedia-level, soup-to-nuts facts. I lose interest, can’t pay attention, and find it a waste of time. Context was founded on this idea. We’re sort of the “untour” tour company. Small groups, experts, and an interactive give-and-take. So, we coined the term “walking seminar” to describe them, taking inspiration from Oxford or St. John’s College (in Annapolis/Santa Fe). The idea is that the docent is curating an exploration of a topic or a site or a theme. We use “walks” for short.

As a rather large network where people have autonomy over their subject matter, how do you achieve quality control?  What sort of guidelines do you insist all docents follow so you can ensure a similarly high quality across all your tours?

We spend a lot of time on this. Quality is a core value, and we have to get this right or we’re sunk. First, we spend a lot of time recruiting and talking with docents up front. You have to possess a high level of social intelligence in order to lead a Context walk. We have a series of questions to gauge this. We also check references, and usually ask questions around teaching ability and communication. We’re looking for academics who can make a topic come alive. Each docent goes through some training, which includes shadowing another docent for a while and going through a probationary period. We also follow up with clients immediately and share their feedback in a transparent manner. I would estimate that about a quarter of our time is spent just on quality assurance and taking what we hear from clients and using it to improve in some way. It’s a challenge.

To be a bit of a devil’s advocate here: sometimes it’s hard to justify the value of your walks to someone who doesn’t have absolute certainty of what they will get out of the experience — in other words, the value is unknown in advance and hard to know for sure if it’ll be worth it.  What would you say to a friend, for example, in convincing them that it is indeed worth it? 

It’s unlike any tour you’ve ever tried. It’s like going back to college for 3 hours, at a fraction of the cost.

One issue I can imagine is when traveling with children.  Their involvement and interest is paramount to having it be a good experience for the parents, and can ultimately be a huge waste of money if they hate it.  What do you do to try and buffer this possibility?

For a long time we just winged it with families. We had a group of family-friendly docents, and we matched them with families on private walks. About five years ago we realized that we were underserving this group. So, we hired a consultant who’d worked in museum education and created a separate Family Program. The core of this is recruiting and training. We’ve specifically recruited a group of docents with backgrounds in museum education or teachers who have some knowledge of Visual Thinking Strategies (VLS), which is an approach to object-based learning that we employ. We also meet with this group of family docents once a year, or more individually, and do a family training workshop. A lot of this involves training in VLS, but we also share experiences and strategies for dealing with tricky, crowded sites like the Vatican in Rome, with kids. Again, client feedback plays a role. Lastly, working with these clients we’ve developed a set of specific walks designed around kids and their interests, which include a lot of hands-on activities like treasure hunts for young kids or journaling and sketching for older ones.

Give me an idea of some things you personally do when you visit a new city for the first time?

Well, I’m usually in a city for the first time because we’re opening a branch there. As a result, I usually have a long list of people to meet. I try to meet people on site, for example in a museum where they might lead a walk for us, so that we can immerse ourselves in the culture of the place. I’m more of a landscape person than an object person, meaning that I like to walk a city and get a feel for its layout and pulse rather than move incrementally from place to place in order to just see that place. I like the spaces in-between.

Do you think new technologies such as “google goggles”, which can display information about almost anything of interest by pointing your phone at it, will change your business and the need or desire to have docents involved? In other words, like so many other things, will humans become obsolete and if so, how would you adapt to that?

In last year’s professional development meeting with docents one topic that came up multiple times was the instance of clients googling facts during the walk. Docents found this very off-putting, and it is gauche. Especially when it’s done to challenge the docent on some point. But, in some cases, we may have misinterpreted: some people were probably tweeting or checking in on FourSquare. We’ve talked for years about ways of re-packing what we do and selling it through some digital means—an audio guide or an app. Everyone was talking about audio guides four years ago. But, in the end, the market for those proved very small. Ditto with apps, which are limited by connectivity issues. I assume that will be ironed out, and at that point we’ll have to offer something. But it will be some value-added service. In the end, it’s impossible to replace the human who can read your facial expressions and ask you questions that get you thinking about a place in an entirely new way.

Who is your competition and how do you think Context is better?

We have two different types of competitors: global and local. Global competitors include Urban Adventures and Viator, each of which is in many more cities than us. The first is a franchise. The second is really a distributor. Neither own and operate their own tours. So, their ability to control quality or innovate is limited. The local competitors are the mom-and-pop walking tour companies in each of our cities. Most of these are focused on the lower end of the market: large groups led by actors or traditional guides at a low price-point. We’re different than both. We have a unique model that is scalable and has the potential to transform travel.

You have a foundation you started to help the artisans of Florence and you do a program to send inner city kids to Europe.  What else do you do on the social activism and what other things would you like to do in the future to make a difference?

This is big part of our mission. We also just became a certified B Corp, which is a new kind of company that considers social benefit as important as profits—or, a so-called double-bottomline or triple-bottomline business. The work of the Context Foundation for Sustainable Travel is growing. We’ll launch a project in Venice next month, and have several others in other cities on the horizon next year. We’d like to make these projects, which either give back to the local destination or try to improve travel in some way, more and more a part of our walks—integrated so that participants experience them without it feeling onerous. For example, in Venice we’re adopting and restoring a historic boat, and then will use this as part of our walks there. It will be amazing, and it’s good for the city.

Give me an example of experiences you think many people in your cities miss that you think are transformative in some way.

Wow, too many to count. I’ll just give you a recent one. Two weeks ago I went on our Gaudí in Context walk in Barcelona. It includes some big-name Gaudí sites like Casa Mila, that were amazing. But, we also spent half the walk looking at works by other architects practicing at the same time that, thus, provided the “context” for understanding Gaudí. I went into the walk thinking that Gaudí was this atypical genius who really didn’t fit into the story of architecture, but left understanding how he was, in part, a product of his city in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was wonderful.

We’ve talked about how accountability is a huge element of both our services — tell me a horror story and what you ultimately were able to do to help the client, to give me an idea of the Context experience?

Boy, this has been the year of disruptions. In the last few weeks we’ve had fire bombs in Rome, tear gas in Athens, and wildcat strikes in Paris. We’ve had to alter, re-schedule, or cancel walks. In some cases, we’ve had to map out emergency plans with safety in mind. It’s been kind of crazy. The biggest horror story, in this vein, was the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland last year, which stranded Context clients all across the globe. The phone was ringing off the hook with people stuck in Paris on their way to Istanbul, for example. We had to re-schedule or re-organize a lot of walks. We also gave a lot of refunds, kind of throwing our cancellation policy, which has a disclaimer about “acts of god” out the window; although, obviously, this was an act of a malevolent Viking god.

Context Travel is a network of scholars and specialists—in disciplines including archaeology, art history, cuisine, urban planning, history, environmental science, and classics—who, in addition to their normal work as professors and researchers, design and lead in-depth walking seminars for small groups of intellectually curious travelers.

by Steven Brenner