Café notes: Coffee, the Congo, and Lynn Nottage’s play, “Ruined”

I had a great cup of single origin Congo Ituri coffee at the mall last week.

NZ restaurant espresso - 1This is remarkable for several reasons:

  • First, I was at the mall.*
  • Second, I got a great cup of specialty coffee therein.
  • Third, my beautiful pour over arrived with a side order of coincidence.

I simply haven’t the foodie palate or terminology to give you a better explanation for why my cup of coffee was so great, but the barista on duty that day was particularly knowledgeable. He probably prepared my cup with great skill. Certainly the flavor profile of the beans and the roast landed right in the sweet spot for my tastes.

What struck me as I sat down in the café with my cup and opened my library book was the coincidence. Here’s the top of the first page of Lynn Nottage’s play, Ruined, setting the scene:

“ACT ONE, Scene 1: A small mining town. The sounds of the tropical Ituri rain forest. Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The tropical Ituri rain forest? It rang a bell. I went back up to the café counter and read the menu board once more.

That day, the Nordstrom Espresso Bar was offering a Congo Ituri microlot coffee in the light roast** I prefer. Probably why I’d chosen it from amongst several offerings, including a light roast Kona I’ve enjoyed before.

I drink Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pretty often, and regularly select it preferentially, but I haven’t hit upon another African region for beans that’s become a steady favorite. I’ll certainly seek out more Congolese coffees moving forward, however, on the strength of this one notably wonderful cup.

But here are a few painful questions that I can’t answer, all stimulated by the tough subject matter of Nottage’s play that I read while sipping said cup.

  • How sustainable is coffee cultivation in DR Congo?
  • Does coffee cultivation there typically help the Congolese people, and especially the vulnerable women of Congo whose plight is underscored in Ruined? Is it a path helping average people rise above the legacy of the nation’s bloody civil wars?
  • Are major brands like Nordstrom and Starbucks doing enough to support the individual coffee farmer in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Or are these rich corporations paying less than they should for their beans because they’ve got the might to get away with it?

Honestly, I can’t answer any of these questions after a few days of searching.

Coffee is a delight to me. It is one of my daily pleasures, and, yes, a minor addiction. Coffee is also one the world’s most valuable legal commodities, like petroleum or precious metals. It’s big business on the order of tens of billions of dollars per year, and the needs of the coffee plant itself dictate that it be grown in what are often unstable, developing regions.

It can be hard to evaluate for oneself whether a coffee purchase meets one’s personal standards for ethical sales, environmental sustainability, etc.

Thanksgiving Coffee bean package of Ethiopia YirgacheffeThanksgiving Coffee, an artisan roaster I’ve patronized many times, encapsulates best what a consumer like me seeks with their motto: Not Just a Cup, but a Just Cup. I want to drink great coffee, but I’d prefer not to do so on the backs of modern day slaves.

Nottage’s Ruined is not, I should add, a play about coffee. Its setting is a bar/brothel, and beer, whiskey, and Fanta are the beverages I recall from the script. The subject matter is intense, and should be painful to anyone with an interest in social justice. Or to anyone with a heart.

Like other works I’ve read/seen by this playwright, Ruined is a story about women getting by in a world where someone else wields most of the power. It’s a tale of making do with one’s terrible circumstances, and coming to terms with it all as best as one can.

One needn’t look as far as the Congo to find such injustice and resilience, either. We’ve got plenty of it here at home in America. One of the best plays I’ve seen performed this decade was Nottage’s Sweat*** at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Aside from being a masterful work in and of itself, Sweat also inspired an “immersive transmedia” art project This is Reading in Reading, PA, the Rust Belt setting for that tale of struggle.

It can be hard to unravel the threads of thoughtful consumption in an era of broad scale multinational trade. You could give up completely, or simply begin where you can: by asking questions, and by sharing what you learn. My quick research into coffee farming in the Congo led me to more new questions than answers. Yours may yield better fruit.

Where we all benefit is by calling attention to those with less power than ourselves, and making even small efforts to do them good. Our strength increases with numbers; so, too, does our ability to enact positive change.

*The mall is not my natural habitat.

**As I understand it, it is easier to identify the flavorful nuances of a particular bean when the roast is lighter. I think I’m looking for extra complexity in my cup.

It’s a common misconception that dark roast coffee is “stronger” in every way than light. Roasting destroys some of the caffeine in the beans, so breakfast blends are usually a medium roast to maintain their power to perk!

Dark roast coffee has a deeper color, but it isn’t stronger in every sense of the word.

A few days later, I found two distinct Reserve varietals from different regions of the Congo at a local Starbucks with a Clover machine (used for making specialty single brews and not offered at most locations.) I enjoyed a cup of Idjwi Island Reserve, but not quite as much as the Nordstrom Congo Ituri.

But NOT the world’s second most valuable commodity, as you’ll see misstated all over the internet. My brief bit of research suggests that was true back in the 1970’s or so, but hasn’t been factual for quite some time. If you want to read more, try this article.

***And, in what has been my favorite performance in years, I must draw attention to the quiet dignity of actor Carlo Albán who traveled with Sweat from its world premiere at OSF to New York City. He played an often nearly invisible busboy in the play, usually reacting to the “bigger” characters swirling around him, and did it with such a beautiful, aching intensity that I was frankly honored to spend a few hours with him at an OSF dinner later on. I’m not the only one who was similarly affected by Mr. Albán!

Windows, culture & great comforts: how do we learn to share what we take for granted?

The world has gotten so much more interconnected. My tiny blog has been viewed by readers from all over the world. Yet, still, we miss opportunities to share our best ideas about life’s most basic conveniences.

My thoughts today are prompted by windows. Specifically, what I’ve thought of as “German windows” since my first visit to that country in the late 1990’s. A recent internet search tells me they are referred to as “Tilt and Turn” or simply “Tilt Turn” windows in English-speaking markets.

Do Germans even have a special name for this type of window, or is it just “a window” because the technology is expected?

The details of why I love these windows are a little off topic for this post, but they are uniquely functional fenestrations. I was reminded of that fact during a recent stay in a “passive house” (i.e., energy saving construction built using European “green” concepts.) Tilt & Turn windows might solve a challenge in my home, so I went looking for sources in the USA.

My specific home improvement aside, I was left with a renewed frustration about the difficulty of implementing well-tested, obviously useful technology that’s ubiquitous in another country here in my home.

Having traveled, I have some idea of the scope of great ideas for making comfortable homes that have developed around the globe. I’d love to bring some of these innovations back with me. Talk about the ultimate souvenir! But, to do so is almost impossible on a middle class budget.

I learned that this problem exists years ago as a first time homeowner with old steam radiators. An 80 year old unit needed to be replaced, ideally with something much narrower and taller. The existing unit stuck out ten inches past an adjacent doorjamb and into the hall! The plumber swore no such radiator existed for sale in the USA. I wasn’t knowledgeable enough then to realize how limited the repertoire of a standard contractor was (and is.)

I now have a plumber who enjoys learning about cutting edge technologies in his field. He’s taught me a lot about what can be had, domestically, and at what (high!) price. Thanks to him, at least I have options to evaluate for myself.

Scottish castle - 1

Scottish castle that had some fine modern radiators

Way back in 2002, I could have purchased the tall, slim, wall-mounted radiator I’d seen in Scotland, contrary to the old plumber’s thoughts. I couldn’t have afforded the system upgrades necessary to use it in my old house, however.

Our tradespeople frequently learn through mentoring relationships and apprenticeships—a tried and true method, undoubtedly—but it appears that the process precludes much exposure to innovation.

Couldn’t a better job be done in sharing building products and processes, at least between regions with similar climates?

Conservative behavior does make sense when we are talking about a home. For so many, it represents the bulk of his financial resources; the ultimate “investment.” No one wants to spend foolishly when it comes to her nest egg.

The flip side to this, however, is a failure to adopt even simple improvements that save resources over the mid- to long-term. The eventual costs end up staggeringly large. Also, right now, we enjoy less comfort at home.

Until you’ve traveled away from home and experienced life as another culture lives it, it is hard to even identify your own most mundane expectations and prejudices as such. Wearing shoes indoors or not? Various household appliances as luxuries vs. necessities? Local swimming pool, recreation center, or library as nice perk, or indispensable locus of community life?

Because I’ve traveled—and indulged a personal hobby of reading and occasionally obsessing about foreign cultures—I enjoy my daily life more.

I use a Japanese deep soaking tub for arthritis relief. I can’t imagine life anymore without an electric kettle (a habit I picked up in the UK) for preparing my tea. My husband and I share sleep more soundly with bed linens arranged in the German tradition—two separate twin duvets of wildly different warmth/weight on our king sized bed.

Most of these are inexpensive objects easily blended into a typical American home. My tub, for example, is a portable model that fits in my shower stall, something like an overgrown version of child’s wading pool, but it provides more comfort than any Western bath I’ve tried. I’d love to remodel my outdated bathroom someday and include a beautiful, high quality, built-in tub of this type, but that may never be economically feasible.

Also, the most intriguing aspect of the Japanese tub—an integrated heater that keeps a bath at a ready temperature—is not allowed in the USA. I think it is the cultural disconnect between people who wash before they get in to soak (Japanese) vs. the idea that the tub is the bath in which you soap and scrub. Only chemically disinfected hot tubs can be kept hot in America.

All of the previous paragraph is assuming I’ve got a handle on the actual code issues with these heaters, which I may well be misunderstanding. I have no background in the building trades, nor am I a particularly handy homeowner. Here’s more about using an ofuro in the Japanese tradition.

There are real technical reasons these are the hard innovations to incorporate. Building codes are different. Electrical requirements are different. Standards are different.

But, if we don’t know the technology exists to improve our lives, how can we ask for it?Boy Harnessed the Wind book cover photo

Another influence on these thoughts. A book I’m reading about how a boy growing up in Malawi experienced, and learned to work with, technology.

How do we, as interconnected citizens of the world, in constant contact with each other, share the best, most comforting aspects of our lives?

Can we do a better job of getting the word out?

Can we share our greatest comforts?

Fly or drive? Mode of travel and its impact on planet, wallet & joy

Are you a road tripper or a frequent flier?

I chose to drive from New England to northern Minnesota last month. Five of us were scheduled to attend summer camp there, so the endpoints were set: home, and Bemidji, MN.

I elected driving over flying for many reasons, but a consideration for my summer vacation’s environmental impact was on the list.

RoadTrip round trip mapYou can read the more conventional road trip story by clicking Part I or Part II if you want to know more about why and how we made this journey. You could also read about my carefully thought out wardrobe for the trip!

I live within reasonable driving distance of a major airport, so convenient flights abound. Minneapolis-Saint Paul (MSP) is four hours south of Bemidji, which also hosts a regional airport of its own (BJI.) The camp offers a fairly priced shuttle from BJI, and a costlier, less convenient bus all the way to MSP.

The particulars of this trip were not decided by availability of choices. We had our pick of several decent options, if we were willing to pay for them.

Environmental impact of flying vs. driving

Here’s an article from Yale Climate Connections that presents a pretty balanced picture of the complex question: is flying or driving better for the planet?

Similar discussions on the New York Times and at ThoughtCo draw similar conclusions: it depends, a lot, on how many bodies are in which type of car.

Calculators like those mentioned in the articles shine some light on how I assessed this aspect of my choice to drive, not fly.

For my van, with four to five average travelers on board, it’s pretty clear even before running the specific numbers that we opted a reasonably environmentally friendly mode of transport.

Passenger count varied from five (5) during the home to camp phase; four to six (4-6) headed from Minnesota to Ohio; and just my two kids and myself (3) for the final 750 miles from Ohio to New England.

Using the BeFrugal Fly or Drive Calculator for the first, best documented leg of my trip, I can estimate that I saved 4318 lbs of CO2, or, stated differently, that I generated only about 25% as much CO2.

A difference that great is likely to hold up in spite of the controversy about how some of the underlying statistics are generated.

Financial cost to drive vs. fly

As for cost in the traditional sense (dollars and cents!), it also appears probable that I made a better financial choice. That scenario could be very different for a trip involving only major airports where competition keeps prices down.

Bemidji (BJI) is by far the most convenient option when this camp is in session, especially for flights arriving the day of, or the day before, camp sessions begin. Availability is also quite limited for those popular flights.

I used airline miles to buy a rewards ticket the last time I visited Bemidji. The cash price was not one I would willingly pay to suffer in economy class.

The same BeFrugal calculations I showed above reflect as many of my actual costs as I could input into the tool—like actual airfare to BJI researched months ago during the planning process and my preference for a higher class of hotel than the calculator assumes—though some numbers were not user adjustable.

Once again, I’m confident that my actual cost savings were at least as good as the tool predicted. We made a few more frugal choices:

Coffee cup travel mug - 1

  • We carried healthy food with us and avoided overpriced “convenience” snacks.
  • We refilled our reusable water bottles (and my coffee cup!) at the hotel each morning.
  • Aside from one nice steak dinner, the kids actually voted for affordable stops like Subway for sandwiches.
  • I used Gas Buddy to plan fuel stops in the less expensive state when there was a choice, and I knew what a ballpark “good” price was for a given area.

Minivan as economical people mover

I checked the average MPG (as calculated by the van itself) after each of the three major stages of the trip. We averaged 26 MPG from New England to Bemidji, 28 MPG from Bemidji to Ohio, and 27 MPG from Ohio back home.

That’s spot on with published numbers for my van, and really admirable performance for a large vehicle that comfortably seats a crowd.

My typical MPG around town in the van is 18-19, but that’s driving in crowded suburb of a major city.

We needed to stop for gas about 1.5 times per day with that fuel economy. The human passengers required vastly more frequent stops to empty their “tanks” than the minivan required filling up with gasoline.

Gas prices ranged from a low of $1.98 per gallon to a high of around $2.50 per gallon at a toll road service plaza.

I didn’t leave my planned route to seek out the cheapest gas, but I did stop at Costco stations whenever they were well located. I prioritized convenient stops over price, but didn’t find any prices particularly onerous. They almost all hovered just above the $2 mark.

But, have I mentioned comfort?

Minivans are more comfortable than modern planes

We carried a full load of luggage in the back (up to the headrests, which you can read more about here), and each of us had at least a mid-sized “carry on” up front. We had a small cooler stocked with cold drinks and produce and a dry snack bag of equivalent size.

The kids were annoyed by my insistence that all electronics be invisibly stowed for every (shockingly frequent) rest break, but they didn’t have to struggle to climb out of the van due to cargo in the passenger area. Space in the vehicle was well utilized, not overstuffed.

No passenger was forced to sit with his body touching anyone else. Leg room could have been an issue with a similar load of tall adults, but it wasn’t a problem for a group composed of children and young teens.

Being kids, they often did touch each other, or sit with heads together, but that was voluntary.

All of this descriptive information is provided to make clear: all of us were seated more comfortably than we would be in a modern, coach class airline seat. Most of us had significantly more legroom and personal space than one gets in a domestic first class seat.

Convenience is another factor

I don’t want to give the impression that this was my only consideration when planning this trip. Modern life is complicated, and we all make trade offs between convenience, cost, and conscience.

In my case, every point I’ve made in this post up to now has been predicated on one simple reality: I had time to take this trip.

My primary work these days is caring for and educating my children. That means most of my time can be planned according to my own wants, needs, and preferences. Most of what I do, I can choose where I want to do it.

Even so, time was our biggest constraint for this road trip.

We couldn’t leave any earlier due to school schedules for some of the participants. We had to arrive at camp by the scheduled date and time. Without another driver in our crew, my health risked becoming a factor by limiting the number of hours in the day that could safely be spent on the road.

Family fun factor & reasons for sharing

Every time I write a post on Really Wonderful Things describing how I did something, it’s because I hope that information proves useful for a reader somewhere.

If I made a mistake, perhaps you can learn from it. If I came up with a clever idea, I hope it works for you, too.

This post is my attempt to break down how I decided to drive instead of fly to Minnesota with a group of four kids destined for summer camp. It also details why I think this was a good choice, environmentally, and economically.

The trip was also a lot of fun, almost all of the time, which is something about which I haven’t written much yet. That’s a factor—the family fun factor!—that really matters to me.

My kids are going to remember this trip. My temporary charges are now much better friends of mine as well as to my boys. We worked together and accomplished a goal. All of us learned something. We saw corners of America that were new to each and every one of us.

It’s hard to run the calculations for the value of the fun factor, but let’s just agree that it’s high.