Wednesday, April 23, 2008

April 23, 2008

Sometimes the way real life comes together is much more phenomenal and inspiring than anything that could be made up in a book or movie. And strangely enough, sometimes less believable.

A few years ago I read an article in The Atlantic Monthly about Winton Marsalis. It said in a time when jazz was about to roll over and die (the early ‘80s), up rose this young talent who revived and resuscitated the music. The son of a New Orleans jazz pianist, Marsalis played trumpet with Art Blakey – one of last of the old guard of musicians from the ‘50s and ‘60s heyday. And then young Marsalis just took off from there. It’s amazing to think about: a brilliant young African American born to a family of musicians, raised in the birthplace of jazz, played the signature instrument of the music’s formative years, and was taught by one of the most respected teachers of his day. The article’s author said that if this were a movie script, the producers would’ve handed it back to the writers. Try again. A little too perfect.

But, of course, it’s a true story.

Most all of you know I grew up in Indiana. And when I was 27 I moved to Portland, Oregon, after spending a rough year and half riding a steep learning curve at a newspaper. In Portland I learned a new trade and much more about life in general. Blah, blah, blah.

Ten years later… I ended up moving to Indonesia to start a new career in teaching. Those of you keeping up know it has been pretty crazy year of trying to figure out which side is up for us. Just when we were getting a feel for Indonesia (kind of), Sarah and I have already done the job search for next year. And Radom, Poland will be the next home for this couple beginning in September. We will be teaching English there and pursuing a masters in education through a commuter program. The prospect of Europe is more exciting than we can put in a blog entry.

So. I’ve thought about this.

Starting points for me: Indiana and Indonesia. Next stops: Portland and Poland. Hm. It’s also interesting to note the countries’ flags. Both are half red and half white. Indonesia has the red stripe on top, Poland has white on top. (On a strange almost unrelated note, I’ve been listening to a lot of The White Stripes lately, a duo whose gimmick is to dress in red and white.) This all is cheesy in the Shakespearian or Greek theatrical coincidences. If this were a story, I’d never write anything so transparently “poetic.”

Now please don’t think I’m making a comparison between Mr. Marsalis and me. That’s not my intention at all. I’m saying it’s just funny how life can sometimes come together so neatly.

The characters I work with here in Makassar could not be found in any (good) book or movie either. Their racism, chauvinism, alcoholism, and psychological projections are just too obvious – too straight out of Psych 101 textbooks and AA literature. But as I know all too well, they’re waiting for me at work today. They’re real. And I’ll have to listen to them order Ballentine’s whiskey by the case (sometimes two at a time), listen to why things were better for Africa in the old colonial days, listen to patriotic recollections of the Faukland Islands conflict, and joke about how their Indonesian girlfriends will have to be quarantined with their pet Dalmation upon returning to Europe.

Yeah. It’s been a rough ride. But I can’t wait to find out what’s next.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

April 13, 2008

After working in the coffee business for 11 years, I now have the unique and somewhat surreal opportunity to teach a unit whose theme is coffee to a class of advanced students on the island of Sulawesi. It’s pretty weird.

In case you don’t drink coffee, Indonesia and Sulawesi in particular produce some of the best coffee in the world. Years ago, I discovered that Sulawesi and Sumatra were my favorite coffee origins. And there’s really not much that can beat Arabian Mocha Java (the world’s first coffee blend) brewed as a shot of espresso. Now, these things aren’t why we chose to work in Makassar, Sulawesi. It was just coincidence that the teaching positions presented themselves to a guy who used to sell coffee from here and his wife.

Anyway, the curriculum of this English unit revolves around using contrasting and comparing terms, discussing supply and demand, and charts and graphs vocabulary for analyzing trends.

I asked my class of seven students who had been up north where most coffee is grown on Sulawesi. Two had. I asked who had seen a coffee tree and unpicked coffee berries. “Tree?” they asked. “Yeah,” I said. “Coffee grows on little trees. The beans start as little red berries.” I thought about one of these trees in a cafĂ© I had worked in – right next to the merchandise. Then I described how coffee was picked, processed and roasted. They had no idea. It was new to them. Five of the seven drank coffee (the other two preferred tea), and of those who drank it, drank instant coffee. Instant coffee: I usually refer to this as an abomination in the eyes of God. Unbelievable. It’s the Mountain Dew of the coffee world. Only one had ever been to a Starbucks. (This fact seemed so quaint to someone from the Pacific Northwest.)

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Since coming here I‘ve learned that all the superior coffee is exported. All of Sulawesi’s best resources are shipped away. Not long ago, I got a pound of Sulawesi beans from my nephew who works for Starbucks in the mail. This irony was even more profound when I tasted it, and it was better than the beans I actually bought up north in Toraja – coffee growing country. This would be like getting better corn on the cob from Germany instead of Indiana or better apples from China instead of the State of Washington. It’s difficult for an American to grasp.

I did a little research for the class. I not only wanted to give them an English lesson, I wanted to present them with information about an industry so important to their country. As many of you know, the coffee industry is a nasty, nasty business. While over the past few years coffee production has increased 1-1½%, the demand has increased by 2%. And as farmers try to meet the demand, they’re producing inferior quality, and about 8% of all beans go unused. Producing countries exporting profits have dropped by billions of dollars in just a few years as well while their buyers try to increase company profits. (Admittedly, I got some of this from the Internet, so give me some slack on these figures.) I introduced the idea of the Fair Trade consortium and of those smaller roasters (as opposed to the gargantuan buyers: Nestle, Sara Lee, Proctor & Gamble, and Kraft) who pay enough for farmers to live. Some had at least heard of Fair Trade, but they didn’t really understand it.

This was a moment I could certainly tell that I was working within a young democracy. This information had never really been presented to these students before. It makes me appreciate my rights of freedom of press and speech all the more. Indonesia observes these rights now but only since 1997, and this concept takes a while to reach an archipelago that’s also the fourth most populous nation in the world. Information is so important to the prosperity of a country. This seems so obvious, but now I have seen why first-hand.

Such a strange full-circle of events.