Architecture in Tbilisi, Georgia

A Little Charm… 6 Things to Do That Will Make You Fall in Love with Tbilisi, Georgia

Maybe it was the wine. Or perhaps it was the latticed balconies? The unfettered hospitality played a part. And the idyllic scenery was persuasive. For the life of me, I can’t pin down precisely what made Tbilisi, Georgia so charming.

Since I left the country in late October, I took on the mantle of fangirl for the Republic of Georgia after uncovering a bevy of memorable things to do, experiences to embrace, and sceneries to spark wonder. I gush about it to any willing ear. I returned home late last year to holiday dinners and nights spent playing cards with friends. Between these engagements, I edited photos from my fall travels. Each night, with a swipe of the keyboard, a new image flashed on the screen. Like a slide projector warming up, memories flickered into my consciousness. Each cropped and straightened photo rekindled my crush on this beautiful little city in the far east of Europe.

[caption id="attachment_11985" align="alignright" width="500"]Map of Georgia and Caucasus Region Most international governments recognize that Georgia includes the two areas in blue and purple, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These are Russian occupied areas of the country and travelers should research current political issues if traveling around those areas.[/caption]

Like any good crushee, I immediately wanted to know my crush’s backstory and history. Before I left for Georgia and Turkey, I showed my dad my route. His eyebrows shot to the sky and he released a single, skeptical “hmm.” Now into my eighth year of travel, my parents have long accepted my decision. They don’t always love the places I visit solo, but they trust my judgement. From his face, however, I could tell my dad was wavering. In the absence of context, it’s hard to imagine what Georgia’s like, what sort of things could possibly entertain a traveler. On the edge of the Caucasus Mountains, the country is neighbored by cultures as varied as its topography. Once a stop on the Silk Road, the city became a confluence of the civilizations over the millennia. This peculiar positioning means Georgia is considered a part of Europe or Asia, depending on who you ask. And you would be forgiven for wondering if it’s a part of the Middle East. But the actual vibe: It’s European.

Today’s Georgia is Eastern Orthodox—to the tune of 84%. Monasteries and churches stand proud on mountain peaks around the country. This religious history is important to modern Georgia. That said, despite the overwhelming presence of Christianity, other cultures and religions also found perch in Georgia over the centuries. My wanders through Tbilisi uncovered mosques, synagogues, and even a Zoroastrian temple.

And while a country’s ancient history plays a part in any trip, so too does recent history. Georgia was a part of the former Soviet Union. The country also dealt with political and social unrest throughout the 90s and early aughts. I’ll confess to forgetting the bulk of my World History course in 9th grade. Before I landed, I took to the internets and online readings to flesh out my understanding. I read up on not only the Soviet Union, but the also country’s complex present-day relationship with Russia. Important to understand is the history of the two Russian occupied areas of Georgia that are depicted on the map—South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

For countries with recently attained peace, understanding a foundational history is paramount. It shapes the experience with compassion and empathy. It invites the visitor deeper into the psyche of the culture and people. Only by understanding the past could I so enjoy what makes traveling the Republic of Georgia unique. It’s the resilience of the Georgian that spirit shapes my favorite aspects of traveling there, that shaped the best things to do and see. My memories float to the surface, begging to be shared. Like the delicate smile of a new courtship, the city flirts with visitors. Tbilisi won me over with subtle charms and gentle nudges. Let’s look at the aspects of Tbilisi, Georgia that stand out most prominently in my memories.

The Gorgeous Patchwork Architecture

Beautiful doors and balconies The patchwork architecture in Old Tbilisi is reason enough to visit this pretty capital city. Intricate balconies sigh from tired buildings. Cobbled streets ramble through historic neighborhoods. Sweet, shady trees along Rustaveli Avenue belong as much in Paris as in this tiny Eastern European city. Each day I leapt from bed, energized by the idea of wandering adrift on the streets of Tbilisi, camera in hand.

Quiet courtyards and ephemeral smiles form the bedrock of my memories. Centuries of Persian, German, and Russian architectural influence is visible. But it’s not just the historic aspects that fascinates. Tbilisi’s more recent stability has it screaming into a disorienting modernity. Controversial space-age architecture takes up residence alongside the historic buildings. A gamut of architectural possibilities sit in the shadow of the 4th century Narikala Fortress. Time passes, that’s what the fortress seems to say. Tbilisi has a complicated history that has continued into the present. The aesthetic of the city bears testament.

And yet, the gorgeous laced balconies point to a concerning lack of infrastructure. It’s a similar problem facing places like Havana, Cuba. Decades of little money spent on redevelopment left gorgeous historic buildings in disrepair. There’s conflict in recognizing it needs to change while still loving the beauty it creates. But perhaps there’s a middle ground. Something between shimmering glass bridges and the city’s enchanting old-world charm. Either way, the city has an eclectic mix of styles that keeps things interesting.

 

Mowing Down on Delicious Food & Wine

Real talk: The food culture is wonderful. There’s a reason I started with an overview of Georgian history. History plays a pivotal role in Georgia’s current designation as an upcoming food destination. Cultures brushing against each other over the centuries resulted in a range of delicious dishes. In addition to meat in large supply, the country offers Mediterranean fares like salads, bean soups, cheese, and Georgian pizza. Let’s just say that as a vegetarian, I didn’t starve.

Then there’s the wine. It’s divine. Georgia’s clay vessel wine-making process, Qvevri, made UNESCO’s list for the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. During my stay in Tbilisi, I took part in the city’s beautiful café culture, which is reminiscent of so much of Europe. Sprinkled throughout the boutiques and sidewalk cafés are dozens of wine shops and tasting rooms. Wine is the icebreaker with new Georgian friends. Each time I befriended a local, they shared their favorite variety. Even more often, they boasted of their tasty homemade wines. The country has hundreds of indigenous varieties of grapes. Locals maintained their winemaking traditions throughout disparate governments and in the face of deep economic hardships. Georgians love nothing more than to spend a night (or many) sipping wine with friends. Evening shadows grow deep as friends toast to all manner of health, life, happiness, and family.

The Country’s Deeply Entrenched Culture of Hospitality

Kartlis Deda watches over Tbilisi from Sololaki Hill. Her looming aluminum figure is a touch point visible from nearly anywhere in the city. Better known as Mother Georgia, her figure so perfectly typifies the spirit and welcome I encountered in the country. For Georgians, this statue represents the dual priorities of hospitality and freedom. Erected in the 50s, Mother Georgia carries a bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in the other. The wine is for friends, the sword for enemies.

In practice, hospitality infuses every aspect of traveling Georgia. As I left, it was the feeling of complete welcome that stuck with me. Conversations with new friends swim to the forefront of my memories. Welcoming visitors is entrenched in the culture. After I posted a photo of Tbilisi on my Instagram, a local woman found the photo and welcomed me to her city. Teo and I clicked immediately. She’s a Georgian woman with a serious case of wanderlust. Now that’s something that I understand. When I admitted to her that I hadn’t yet sampled Georgian wine (I prefer drinking with friends), in quick order we arranged to meet. Across many hours—and many glasses of wine—we swapped travel stories. She shared what it’s like to live, work, and travel as a Georgian. Though I often meet kind travel friends in each new city, there is a palpable quality of joy to Georgian hospitality. If you visit Georgia as a friend, like their statue bids, you leave warm with wine and hospitality.

 

The Landscape is Beautiful & Endlessly Explorable

Tbilisi is a pocket-sized city. Even more, Georgia is small too. Combined, it’s all endlessly explorable. Situated smack between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains, there’s a varied landscape packed into this small country. Lowland lakeside towns on the Black Sea vie for attention alongside snow-capped ski slopes. I didn’t bring clothes suitable for visiting the mountains in near-winter. Instead, I spent my trip based from the capital, exploring on day-trips from Tbilisi.

History and nature collide outside the city. I hired my Airbnb host, Bacho, to show me around. He took to the task with ease and helped me pick which sites I’d like best. One day, we hiked around the David Gareja monastery to the painted caves. The monastery is a few hours outside of the city and our car hummed along lonely, winding roads, through a muted, lunar-like landscape. The monastery is beautiful. One of my favorite moments occurred as we crested the mountain behind David Gareja. Bristling in the cold air, I jerked to a stop as we faced Azerbaijan—a huge flatland plain spanned below, awash in dull greens and browns far into the horizon. As I took in the look of this new land, two eagles soared into the sky, emerging from the mountainside, their massive wingspan casting shadows on the land below. They glided on the breeze, free of the borders holding me to my perch. It was a beautiful moment. Over the following hour, we climbed among the caves carved into the rock mountain.

Other days we visited 4th-century churches—many still in use. These ancient buildings watch in silence as this beautiful nation shifts and changes. The country is making quick strides toward peace and development. In tandem, it also grips the pieces of its unique history and preserves them for future generations.

David Gareja Monastery

David Gareja Monastery

Absorbing Centuries of Music & Dance

Never before have I experienced a culture so taken with song. Rich harmonies drifted from family compounds. Sometimes for mere moments I caught a deep melody floating on the breeze. And they sing not for a coin, but instead for a love of the music. Polyphonic singing is another UNESCO recognized piece of intangible heritage, and is stunning to hear.

I visited Georgia during Tbilisoba, their annual cultural festival. I was taken with the country’s incredible history of song and dance. The festival allowed me to watch, mesmerized, a sampling of regional dances. The men leapt impossibly high, the women twirled and swayed. Each dance told stories of courtship, stories from history, and stories of joy. I was lucky to watch one long performance next to a local woman. She passed me chunks of churchkhela—a local sweet—and translated the introduction for each dance. Her kindness afforded me my sole opportunity for questions during Tbilisoba. With her explanations, I better understood how each region used the arts to preserve its history and maintain a legacy for future generations.

 

***

There’s no way to encapsulate why I am so taken with the Republic of Georgia. The sum total of Georgia won me over. Georgians have formed a deep resilience over the years. Even more, their complex history hasn’t curdled their love of life.

In addition to the many things I loved about the aesthetics, food, and culture, it goes beyond that. The same government and police presence that brought stability to Georgia in the wake of the Rose Revolution has kept the city safe today. The president overhauled the police force in 2005. This ushered in an era of safety for Georgians, according to my Airbnb host. As a new arrival, poor street lighting and rundown sidewalks gave the city an eerie feel. At first, I was uncertain about the assertions of safety. Familiarity with the pace of the city, however, assuaged my concerns. Women teetered home at all hours of the night on skyscraper heels. New friends echoed my host’s sentiments about safety. While caution goes far in any place, the city is at peace. As a solo traveler, I felt comfortable in my skin as I wandered. The relative safety of the city added a welcomed layer to the travel experience since I was weary from recent travels through Turkey.

And my gushing aside, there are a couple of downsides. Every place has them. I’d be remiss to overlook it. The Georgians have a high rate of smoking. As a non-smoker, the clouds wafting into my face during dinner was tough. I picked restaurants based on the availability of a corner where I could wedge myself away from the currents of smoke. I found the smoking even worse, however, in Istanbul. As with all things, it’s relative. The city’s air quality is declining, but again, didn’t even come close to huffing through the streets of Kathmandu.

When you aggregate the kindness, food, and history from my weeks in Georgia, it won me over. I am a lifelong fan. And it’s this same feeling that friends and A Little Adrift readers expressed when I announced my travel plans. Everyone gushed about the Georgian-ness of it all. Never able to quite pin down what they love about it, readers and friends echoed one sentiment: Just go.

I’d have to agree. Sometimes a city just sticks with you. It wins you over with a spirit and subtlety unmatched by previous experiences. For Tbilisi, I found the city as charming as the people who live there. Two weeks is too little time to claim I understand the culture, city, or people, but it’s long enough to admit I’ll be back to try.

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Heading to The Republic of Georgia? Check out my Georgia Travel Guide: I aggregated my experiences in Georgia, plus all the tips from A Little Adrift readers. This is a free, comprehensive guide of history, sights, things to do, responsible tourism, and recommended readings.  [/box]

massai

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: Grassroots Tourism Edition

My mornings in Uganda are a noisy affair as the town wakes up, birds and roosters too. But oh, the views.  The small town of Jinja is home to the point where the Nile River branches off from Lake Victoria, also known as the Source of the Nile. I found a shady spot and watched the boats criss-cross the waters for hours. This was a needed a break from catching up on work after traveling through remote regions of Kenya these past few weeks.

And speaking of those remote regions, I uncovered some wonderful community based initiatives. Good stuff, can’t wait to share more.

[caption id="attachment_10634" align="aligncenter" width="700"]Source of the Nile River The Source of the Nile River in Uganda flows from Lake Victoria. The river exits the lake in the lower left of the photo and flows to Egypt and empties into the Mediterranean Sea.[/caption]

Time with the Maasai

Picture the statuesque figure of a Maasai warrior standing tall over the vast plains of East Africa. This iconic image is relatable to most of us who grew up on a steady diet of watching the National Geographic channel. Like anyone planning East Africa travels, I wanted to learn more about their culture. Ethically undertaking the task though, was harder.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]Maasai women Women from Maji Moto’s widow’s village welcome us to their compound with a lively traditional song and dance.[/caption]

[divider_flat]And the problem is, there are lots of opportunities, but not all are positive tourism initiatives.

My safari trip last month in Tanzania included a short visit to a Maasai camp on the path between the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. The cultural experience set me back a mere $10 and the Maasai performed a spirited welcome dance and offered back story on the Maasai people. On the surface it was fascinating, here was the intricate and beautiful beadwork adorning the necks of the women. Warriors carried their sharp spears, a reminder of their fierce capabilities. And yet, 30 mins later, as we left the small circling of manyattasmud hutsthe experience felt hallow. It was a canned tourist experience repeated many times a day, week in, week out as safari tourists flood into the region.

Fast forward a few weeks and I found myself searching the markets of Narok, Kenya for Salaton, a charismatic Maasai chief running a cultural camp near Maasai Mara National Park.  A camp representative contacted me over the holidays, and from pre-trip research, the Maji Moto Cultural Camp looked like the perfect execution of a community-driven social enterprise. , I love supporting these types of businesses on the road (like in Panama and Thailand). At the core, this form of tourism puts the solution to a social issue directly into the hands of a local community. Social enterprises allow them to develop a sustainable solution on their own terms. (And it’s this exact tourism model that GV supports and it’s also the reason for my NatGeo honor.)

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]Maasai woman I took a sunset hike to a nearby rock outcropping to learn more of the Maasai culture and stories. The view of the Loita Plains was stunning and vast.[/caption] [divider_flat] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]Meeting the Maasai at Maji Moto Decked out in traditional jewelry I borrowed so I could attend a nearby ceremony with Meri and Salaton, our two primary guides for my week in the African bush living at their cultural camp.[/caption] [divider_flat] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]Sunrise over the Loita Plains in Kenya Sunrise is a bold affair over the Loita Plains of Kenya. I bolted awake each morning just before 6am to the sounds of bird song and morning quiet and rushed from my manyatta so I could catch that day’s sunrise.[/caption]

[divider_flat]Salaton’s camp is a reversal from the idea of assembly line tourism. Rather than push tourists through the camp to increase revenue and appease snap-happy, camera-toting tourists, the Maasai at Maji Moto guide visitors into respectful interactions and welcome them to immerse in the traditional village life.

I joined a small group of touring medical volunteers to learn more about Salaton’s business model and the camp. Funds from the cultural camp support a nearby school, a health clinic, and a widows village he started to provide a safe-haven for girls escaping early marriage or genital circumcision.

My experiences over the five days I spent at Maji Moto are among my favorite from my Africa travels. I have thousands of photos to edit, more thoughts to process, and stories brimming to come to the surface from that week!

Learning about Rural Health Issues

Just after leaving Maji Moto, I met with Dan Ogola, the founder of a large health initiative in one of the poorest provinces in Kenya. Dan founded the Matibabu Foundation in 2001 to address the pervasive health issues in Ugenya, Kenya. What started as a single clinic for maternal and child health is now a hospital, a girl’s school, a nursing school, and much more.

[caption id="attachment_10633" align="aligncenter" width="640"]matibabu, kenya Visiting the Matibabu Health Clinic in Kenya. Right now we’re debating if I need another baby on my lap… the verdict? One will do. :-)[/caption]

Dan asked me to visit his projects with the hope that through GV I can access long-term teaching, agricultural, and medical volunteers for his projects. After days of kind hospitality in this rural community, I am committed to supporting his projects. I also agreed to take on the title of Goodwill Ambassador for maternal child health; this role will allow me to continue working with Matibabu and supporting their efforts.

Weeks of low internet access means I still have hundreds of photos to process before I write more about my time in this rural region of Kenya. Realistically, this will happen in June when I return stateside.

What’s Next?

What dispatch would be complete without an update on what’s next?! I arrived in Uganda a few days ago and have reveled in lots of connectivity (during my time in the rural regions I mostly just had 3G on my phone… on a good day).

Next week I meet up with my favorite traveling and blogging couple, Dan and Audrey. They are finishing up a tour of the region and we plan on some hiking funnies together here and in Rwanda.

If you know of any projects I should check out in either of these two countries, please let me know!

Many thanks,

~Shannon

dala-dala

A Little Story… This One’s for Africa

I stare owl-eyed into the waiting dala dala as 27 faces stared back. The minivan—for though it has extra rows of seats compared to the soccer-mom-mobiles of the US, it’s still just a minivan—is bursting full and a chorus of mzungu echoes though the car as a flurry of shifting takes place. An older Tanzanian woman, the grandmother type, pats the space beside her—all three inches of it—and gestures for me to sit. And though I’m thin, three inches just isn’t going to cut it.  With a confused gesture to my backside and those three inches, I try to tactfully indicate I will crouch-stand instead.

dala-dala

A hearty laugh erupts from her, echoed around the van as she exclaims in a thick East African accent: “You will fit. This is Africa”

The conductor nudges me toward the seat, his sharp rap on the side of the car signaling to the driver to continue driving. Indecision hits for a second and the old woman pulls my hips into the space, but really onto her lap, and we bump and jostle down the road.

A bubble of laughter forms as I adjust my wedged limbs to drape my arm around the old woman, settling into a comfortable position for the 45 minute ride.

Full dark settles and a parade of small, street-side cook fires pass below the lower third of the window, the only view I have from my high perch in the minivan.

Slowly the dala dala empties a bit, and as I gain a full window view I realize I have no idea if we passed my stop—the nondescript facades blend in the night.

I tap the handler and give him the only landmark I know near my hostel: “Arusha City Bar?”

I point, gesturing with a “which way” look on my face, trying to ascertain if the bar is behind or ahead of us. Baffled, the handler let’s out a steam of Swahili. Seeing my confusion, the women in the dala dala take to my cause and I hear mzungu, the name for travelers of European descent, bounce around the van once again as they discuss my predicament.

Finally, they incredulously decide I mean the dive bar another two minutes up the road and they all clamor for my attention asking me why on earth I am going to a bar miles outside of the touristy city center. At  least, that’s the gist of what I assume they asked me since it was all in Swahili and my only response was huge grin and affirmation that, yes, indeed I want to stop at Arusha City Bar.

At the bar, they enthusiastically eject from the van, the women giving spirited waves and huge guffaws as I turn away from the bar and walk down the narrow side road to my hostel. Just before I walk out of sight, I turn around once more to glance back at the minivan. They are still stopped, still waving, and all still riveted by the prospect of where in the world this crazy, friendly mzungu is going at this time of night. With a final thumbs up in their direction, I enter our compound. I can’t wipe the smile off my face.

It wasn’t a huge adventure. In fact, I just went into town to pay back the kind Canadian who lent me $50 at the border. But moments like these send bubbles of contentment to the surface to remind me why I travel. This wasn’t a moment on which many stake their travel dreams, but it was real.

As the kind woman told me at the beginning of the ride, this, this is Africa.

A Little Story… The Origins of Chocolate and Effects of Responsible Tourism in Panama

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="334"]A cacao fruit hanging from a tree at Silico Creek, Panama. A cacao fruit hanging from a tree at Silico Creek, Panama.[/caption]

Rain pelted darts of moisture into my skin as we stumbled off the bus into a huddle of quizzical faces. Their complete bafflement signaled a slice of doubt in my mind as the bus handler hurled our luggage under the shelter and sped down the road, leaving Ana, my dad, and me at mile marker 25: Silico Creek.

Barely on the maps, Silico Creek is a blip on the tourist radar between Bocas del Toro and Boquete, but my dad discovered this indigenous community in his research and decided we three would kick off our Panama adventure learning about the origins of chocolate through Urari, a small rural tourism organization at Silico Creek, which lies within the Ngöbe Buglé Conmarca, a demarcated area similar in function to the Native American reservations in the US.

From the start, our adventure echoed of the coffee journey Ana and I visited in rural Thailand to learn about fair-trade, sustainable coffee production. If there is one thing I love more than coffee, it’d be chocolate, so this journey with my dad and Ana would round out my understanding of two of the world’s biggest food commodities. Like coffee, eco-tourism circles bandy about buzz-ish words like “local,” “organic,” and “fair-trade.” A trip to the designer chocolate aisle at the grocery store is a veritable test of each company’s ability to find marketable synonyms of these words. But I wanted to know the human story behind the chocolate and Urari’s small tourism organization, self-started and run entirely by the community, seemed like the perfect place to delve into my two great loves: supporting social enterprises and consuming chocolate.

In short, our weekend held promise and we were all intrigued by the chance to live within the community … but first, I had to find the place.

I hesitantly questioned the group in Spanish, and big smiles bloomed on their faces as they gave encouraging gestures toward the gravel path behind us, nodding as we set off into the drizzling rain.

Two hours later, we had settled into our modest wooden hilltop bungalows, consumed hot chocolate, and found ourselves surrounded by members of the community—everyone asking and answering questions in tandem.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1050"]Sunrise from Urari's bungalows at Silico Creek, Panama. The rain cleared for part of our stay and our first sunrise welcomed a gorgeous, crisp day of blue skies and chirping birds.[/caption]

About the Silico Creek Community

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="368"]A gorgeous and bright morning for our waterfall hike from Silico Creek, Panama. Modest wooden houses line the hilltops with gorgeous views all the way to the Caribbean Sea.[/caption]

Right away, our biggest hurdle was language … only a few members of the community speak basic English, so as the guides and members of the community learned that each of us had varying levels of Spanish, mine being passable to communicate, we defaulted to Spanish and spent three days in full immersion, with me acting as translator for Ana and my dad.

Immediately digging into the immersion, we learned of the community’s history. Silico Creek is a settlement of indigenous people who moved to a fertile northeastern region of the Ngöbe Buglé Conmarca in the 1960s—that first family expanded and the 500-person village now includes all the children, grandchildren, and extended relatives.

Urari, I learned, is primarily set up to become the community’s home-grown solution to tourism and income. Much like reservations in the United States, the indigenous population is given land and the right to operate freely, but in contrast to reservations in the US, demarcated regions of Panama are given almost full autonomy and therefore lack government support. This was not always the case though, and after years (decades … centuries) of politics and land issues, modern tourism and the development of a thriving economy is tough for rural communities. Many indigenous peoples operate on a barter system and internal economy within the community, but the world encroaches on the edges of the reservation land, and land within the demarcation has become a commodity for the Ngöbe Buglé.

As we learned more, I related it back to my time in Thailand studying coffee. Many issues I found in coffee production Thailand are similarly present in Silico Creek’s cacao plantations. Cacao is the primary crop grown by nearly every family, but they sell their beans to a cooperative nearby that, while paying “fairly,”  does not generate enough income to support the community. In short, the current avenue for selling their cacao outside of the reservation isn’t livable wages even within their communal living system.

Hence their focus on tourism.

And in this case, it’s home-grown tourism that Ana, my dad, and I were taking part in as Silico Creek formed Urari, which operates the several tours and overnight stays for foreigners interested in learning more about the Ngöbe culture as well as organic agriculture and cacao production.


Responsible Grassroots Tourism in Panama

The largest initiative at Silico Creek of interest to outsiders is organic farming and the production of cacao—the plant at the beginning of all the world’s delicious chocolate.

We spent our first afternoon at Urari learning about the culture and people within the settlement, but as dark settled over the hilltop bungalows we were given a cheery wave as the community descended to their homes just below, navigating with cell phones as flashlights since the community does not have electricity.

And then it was an hour of the small pleasures—my dad and I talked on the our dark balcony, looking out of the moon-washed treetops and discussed the day. Ana hunkered under the mosquito net and read a book inside, at least, she read until I ousted her at top speed to see the flickering tapestry of fireflies breaking up the dark near our bungalows. Until traveling I had never seen a firefly, so I knew that was Ana’s fate as well. She and I did a lively rendition of Owl City’s “Firefly” before we all turned in for an early nights sleep.

Gorgeous rolling hills and land we trekked over for our waterfall hike from Silico Creek, Panama.

Our group making our way through the mud to the waterfalls near Silico Creek, Panama. Hiking through the mud to the waterfall near Silico Creek, Panama. Ana and me enjoying the cold waterfalls near Silico Creek after a very long and hard hike.

[divider_flat]
We woke to the chatter of birds the next morning and the smiling faces of Eduardo and his family as they laid out a full breakfast spread—traditional bread, eggs, and fruit—a meal hearty enough to get us through the strenuous waterfall hike on the docket for the day.

And boy did we earn that breakfast; the hike was muddy and fun and gave us the chance to grill Arnoldo—our guide and brother to Eduardo—about the backstory of the Ngöbe Buglé people, the community’s ultimate goal for Urari, and the impact of Panama’s varied political past.

Oh yes, and there was gorgeous untouched forest, small villages, rushing rivers, and a waterfall too.  :)

Our second day with the Silico Creek community ended as had the previous day, many members of the community came to our hilltop bungalows to visit and answer questions (and to look at us, Ana was a minor celebrity with some of the children). Urari’s emphasis is on fostering a connection between the tourists and the local community and we found friends and faces always nearby to talk with us throughout the day.

A gorgeous day for the waterfall hike at Silico Creek, Panama.


The Humble Origins of Chocolate

[quote float="right"]Cocoa has a relevant importance in our people, it is used to make traditional medicines and when used during spiritual evening ceremonies it serves to purify our soul. Special consumption overnight is an ancestral practice Silico Creek.[/quote] A steady rain drummed on our wooden bungalows our last morning at Silico Creek, and the wet earth created a deep mud through which we would trek to learn about Silico Creek’s primary cash crop: cacao.

Throughout our visit, our meals included two traditional concoctions of this delicious bean—hot chocolate and chocolate coffee—and I was eager to visit the plantation and learn more about the cultural significance of cacao in the Ngöbe Buglé culture.

The plight facing Urari again reminded me of the days I spent in the Akha Ama coffee collective in Northern Thailand … it’s a tale of farming, but also one of continually striving to meet international standards, keep the crops healthy, and find a fair outlet for the commodity. And while Akha Ama created a collective to directly connect their coffee to consumers, Urari sells the cacao to a cooperative, taking a small cut of the deep profits made from the global chocolate trade. Instead of relying on selling their chocolate solely through the cooperative, which they have done since the 1950s, the families of Silico Creek plan to grow their tourism project and create a direct connection to tourists.

Ripening cacao hulked from the tree branches on one of the cacao plantations at Silico Creek, Panama.

We slogged through the dense overgrowth in our borrowed rain boots and dodged the heavy cacao fruit hanging low from the trees. Arnoldo was our guide again, as well as the local farmer whose farm we were visiting. Between the two men, we learned the history of the crop and the core processes and challenges of growing cacao; we even tasted the ripe cacao fruit—syrupy sweet like candy.

From there we walked back to the village and found shelter in the home of a woman who processes chocolate throughout the day. Most of the community’s adults, children, and artisans collectively run Urari, and 75 percent of the Silico Creek families are directly involved in producing and processing chocolate.

Our guides led us through the roasting process, grinding the beans, and finally a taste of the freshly pressed cacao—nose-flinchingly bitter. That liquid is then packed into bars and sold to tourists; anything not sold directly to visitors is instead sold to the nearby cooperative. This is Urari’s long-term goal, to diversify their chocolate products for direct sale to tourists while maintaining their high-quality organic chocolate. (We bought two bars and I hope to make a raw cacao dessert in the next few weeks!)

Raw cacao seeds

pressing cacao into chocolate

Tasting raw cacao

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The Realities of Sustainable Tourism

I often talk about the benefits of local-level tourism, of supporting the communities working to support themselves and this is one of the clearest illustrations I have of the concept. And for that, I love Urari. But my threshold for basic is different from the average tourist because of my years on the road. Those three days at Urari were really my dad’s first venture into rural tourism, so I looked to his reactions with interest. Silico Creek hopes to continue expanding their initiative, and they are in the early stages. Right now school groups come en masse several times a year to study agriculture and farming, but the casual tourism from guidebooks and word of mouth is still in the early stages.

The basic wooden bungalows provided by Urari at Silico Creek, Panama. A delicious lunch of coconut rice, fresh avocado, and hearts of palm (and chicken for the meat eaters).

[divider_flat] And to an extent, you can tell. Western amenities are on the basic end. The outdoor bathrooms are spotless, but there is no electricity, mosquito nets adorn the beds, and you basically drop off the face of the earth while you’re staying at Urari—meals and activities are all arranged through the community and there is no easy access to the nearby towns.

Full immersion.

And it was great. My dad loved the three days. Although he was very glad for the hot shower in Boquete once we left, he loved having such direct access to the locals—a clear venue to ask questions and investigate his curiosity. This is what I have long loved about local-level travel and it was a success with all three generations of us on this trip—my niece (12 years old), me (29), and my dad (late 50s).

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="500"]Our group takes a photo all together. The three of us and our guides for the three days![/caption]

In stepping off the path a bit, comes the insights, stories and interactions that shape my most prominent travel memories. In addition to meeting locals at the markets, and striking up conversations with strangers in parks, it’s often by finding sustainable enterprises that I am able to meet people and learn their story. I travel with a specific interest in social enterprise and non-profit work, and by seeking out these conversations I find the other side of the tourist track.

And for those with just a week or two in a region, grassroots initiatives run by locals allow locals to invite tourists into their communities on their terms and share their cultural, language, and customs. Sometimes travel to indigenous communities borders on zoo-like experiences (notably the Karen in Northern Thailand), but the face of modern tourism does not have to look like that. In fact, helping it not look like that is one of my missions throughout my travels and I strongly believe the interactions from grassroots, local-level travel had the strongest effect on shaping my own ethics and perspective.

I asked the community the best way they would like support; Arcadio, one of the brothers noted:

[quote]Come meet Ngobe Bugle, our culture, and see the importance of growing cacao organically. Visit the surrounding nature and tranquility to enjoy the company of a large family in rural area.[/quote]

Through three days of full immersion I found new friendships, connected on a personal level with a culture so different from my own, and I did it on terms set by the people directly affected by my tourism—the families that make up Silico Creek, Panama. And that, well, that’s the heart of why I love social enterprise.

A thanks to Mariane from AIME, a French organization working with Silico Creek to amplify and support their grassroots projects; she clarified many of the smaller details about the community, culture, and organization that I lost in translation. And a fond thanks and warm thoughts to all the members of the Aguilar family who opened their homes and allowed us a glimpse into their lives and their culture. 

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Quick Tips: How to Visit Silico Creek

Where: On the road between David and Changinola at kilometer 25. Full directions on their site; they would be best visited in conjunction with a Bocas del Toro trip as they are in that region, within the Ngöbe Buglé conmarca.

How: Their website is pretty basic and great for research, but for the smoothest experience book the a bungalow on Booking.com (ALA readers get a discount if it’s your first time using the site!), then reach out to the Urari community directly to pre-arrange tours and such during your stay.

When: Urari is open to tourism throughout the year, though they have limited capacity to house tourists if a school group is in residence. We were there in June, which is off-season because of the rains, but that did not ruin the adventure by any means. Book via email ahead of time and they will arrange your stay, prepare for the activities you want (waterfall hike, cacao tour, cultural dance, farm-stay, etc).  We arrived five hours before they expected us, so of note is that they will try to meet you at the bus stop if you tell them of your arrival time.

Why: Urari represents Silico Creek’s self-started initiative to create opportunities and revenue to sustain their community. Grassroots, sustainable projects are a passion of mine and all three of us loved the chance to immerse in the culture, ask questions, and learn more about the people while funneling money directly to the people.

Tips: The accommodations are basic but very clean wooden bungalows, the bulk of the reservation does not have electricity (there is a small solar-powered station I heard about but never saw, so don’t count on using it). Bring flashlights, mosquito repellant, warm clothes, rain gear in the off-season, and a sense of adventure. Only a bit of English is spoken at Silico Creek (the man on the other side of the email address speaks fluent English), so you should have at least basic Spanish language skills.

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A Little Oasis … Fun, Mud, and Friends on Beach in Mexico

I found a slice of paradise last week. I rarely use terms like “paradise” because it feels overdone to claim each new place is better than the next. But in terms of where I was personally, this place was a slice of perfection for what I needed at that moment. From my town, the hike to this secluded mud beach is two hours; we cheated and a friend drove us to the top of the trail leading down to the beach, which meant we had to hike for about 45 minutes through the jungle before sighting patch of beach we would call home for the day.

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

We erupted onto the beach (or at least I did since I slid and tripped on the trail more times than I’d like to cop to) as the trail’s steep slope abruptly ended on a quarter-mile stretch of sand bracketed on both ends by rocky outcroppings. The beach’s one drawback is a lack of shade, but beach-goers before us constructed a sturdy lean-to (a juxtaposition of terms but apt) from palm fronds and twine. With shade and a fire-pit we had the makings for a full day on our isolated beach, which we nicknamed Pandora since we were about to act out scenes from Avatar.

The beach’s strongest selling point is the blue therapeutic mud hidden in the walls lining the beach. Our ragtag group of eight embraced the prospect of slathering ourselves in mud with thorough enthusiasm and over the course of an hour we each became a unified shade of pale milky blue.

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

And once coated, it was playtime while the clay soaked its healthful benefits into our skin.

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

What day is complete without a jumping shot!

And when the mud so dry and caked into our skin that we could no longer move, we rinsed off in the ocean.

The rocks bracketing the beach were my favorite part of the day. These were rocks the universe planted at just the right height for me to crawl all over them to explore the nooks and crannies of life living in the pools of water. My friend’s puppy, Loki, joined me for the exploration and we hunted crabs, snails, and fish in the tiny tidal pools created from the force of the water cresting against the rocks.

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

The boys in our group caught these (I am not fast enough and am always afraid I will squish them when I am trying to capture them!):

crab

hermit crab

shells

She looks all cute, but she’s a scaredy-cat and made me climb up on the high rocks to rescue her!

dog

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexicoa mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

It was a day of laughter, play, and friends in a setting most would call idyllic. :)

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

beautiful grey cat

A Little Musing… On Beach-Vibes in Mexico and How the U.S. Has Lost It’s Sense of Community

Our home culture shapes the fabric of our understanding of the world. If we are raised in one country, we have one leading culture creating the schema for how we interpret everything from love to family to community. I grew up in the US, and no amount of travel will change that single fact. The views I bring to my travels were nurtured in an environment very different from many of the places I visit.

From this perspective, however, I can look at those differences and see them as that — more than chalking it up to a novelty and moving on, during my travels I look for the cultural patterns beneath the surface to understand and how they shape our lives. My life, of course, but also the everyday lives of people all over the world. There are niggling differences in some cases, and sweeping, deep differences in others. Many times this goes beyond location, religion, and race. It comes down to community.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]pretty cat The prettiest cat I’ve seen in ages gave me a cautious welcome as I wandered the streets of San Pancho, Mexico.[/caption]

[divider_flat]By and large the over-arching themes among cultures are similar. We all eat, we want education for the next generation, and research shows that even in the poorest of countries we crave a job that offers dignity and fulfillment. The nuances of getting there however — and how we achieve these things inside of societies — differ. Sometimes the differences do rest within religion, and many are often due to natural resources and wealth disparities too; things outside of the control of many people. There’s a lot that can be attributed to the developing aspect of these countries. But some differences are cultural and deep within the nature of how people choose to live and create the foundation of their lives.

To this end, once I left home for the first time, I began to find many economies built around a different foundation than what I had always known. Although mega stores exist all over the world now, in many places the towns operate under what I like to call single-purpose economies. That’s the best I can come up with to describe the fact that in many places I have visited, including my current home in San Pancho, Mexico, a single, weekly shopping trip to Target is not only unheard of, but it’s not desired either.

Stereotypes and generalizations are misleading, and so I don’t mean to paint too broad of a brush stroke here by intimating that no one likes the culture of multi-purpose mega-stores that expanded outward from the U.S. These stores play a needed role back home, and a similar role in other communities all over the world. Here in my tiny beach town, however, specialized shops and services continue to flourish far past their counterparts in most of the U.S., where corporations and chain stores have mostly beat the mom-and-pop shops into oblivion.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]The tortilla shop in San Pancho, Mexico. The one-stop shop for fresh, hand-made tortillas in San Pancho.[/caption] [divider_flat]

Now in some parts of small-town America still, and even the huge urban centers, there are micro-economies built around shops, businesses, and people with very niche jobs. Here in Mexico though, and it is not isolated to my small town, the single-purpose shops have stood out these past weeks in stark relief to the life I joined when I was back home last year. While Walmart is a monthly run for many Mexican families (and expats too!), life here is still mostly fueled by a network of niche shops that sell (and excel in) something.

Still not quite sure what I mean? Well, an average week sees me heading to the tortillería for freshly cooked tortillas — any variety imaginable on offer and I tend to purchase a stack of fresh tortillas, as well as a bag of deep-fried corn chips for my guacamole. Tortillas is all they sell; nothing else. Just tortillas.

Then the lavandería is a short bike ride away and returns freshly washed and pressed clothing. I don’t visit the carnicería, but the carnivores in town alternate the general meat-aria with the pollería — home of fresh chicken cut to order in any way shape or size you could desire for your dinner.

speacialty shops in mexico

Each shop serves a purpose, and through that specialization they serve this tiny town in a way the large super stores 40 minutes away never could. Back home I walk into a Target and walk out with my weekly groceries, prescriptions, and a new outfit if I choose. It’s convenient, to be sure. But what is lost in the convenience? I ask myself if I am, perhaps, romanticizing this notion. In the states, I am well and pleased to head to a single super market, conduct my business, and head home — as an American I tend to accept the bubbles we have created.

But here, romantic or not, I like it. And the locals perpetuate this system perhaps for the very same reason I love it too: It fosters community, connectedness, and a sense of independence mostly lost in the States. Even in the most connected of neighborhoods, with friendly faces and that aspect of community, I see us often operating as little islands in our commerce. This behavior has removed us not only from relating to each other, but often with the building blocks of life, our food.

I can rarely pinpoint why precisely I so resonate with life outside the United States, but this idea here — of interdependence — holds a piece of the reason. Mexico is but one of the countries where the niche shops and the single-purpose economy creates a system of communicating and interacting with others. Throughout Asia, India, and Europe even, there are more opportunities for connecting to a single person — their story and history — as you go about your own life.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]churro vendor The churro vendor sets up shop in preparation for the late afternoon snackers wandering around Sayulita.[/caption]

[divider_flat]In shopping for fruits and veggies from the produce trucks weaving through town, I meet the sons of farmers nearby. Weekly markets bring in vegetables from a bit farther afield, more variety but still a friendly face to share their story. I have lived in this small Mexican town for six weeks and already the fried chicken vendor (who I never eat from because we have already established she doesn’t offer vegetarian food) smiles and waves as my bicycle zips along the road.

The root of this idea began years ago because this type of economy is present in most places I visit, including many areas of Europe. But it struck me this past week because I see the way it fosters friendships and community in a way I often miss when I go home.  I have friends back home, just as I have them here in town, but those more grounded friendships are simply the foundation of enjoying this community. I equally love the network of friendly faces and shop owners who make up this town —and that is not something I have back home.

This economy of specialized skills and shops, if nothing else, allows me to integrate more immediately into each placed I visit, it opens the world up a bit because people live their lives more openly. I’ve talked about my love for the sidewalk cafe culture in Bosnia and community spaces in Cuba, and this plays into that same idea.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Love your world in tile relief in San Pancho, Mexico. “Love your world” in colorful tiles lines the outside wall of a primary school in San Pancho, Mexico.[/caption]

[divider_flat]The desire to create a community where you know your neighbors enough to leave your front door wide open, or you pass by you actually stop for a chat. Arriving in a new city over-and-over again — as I have done these past few years — sounds adventure-filled, but it can be a lonely business as you settle in, look around and spread the tentative web of friendships. Within two weeks of arriving here, however, the shop owners pegged me as a regular face, and with that status has come a familiarity that breeds idle chit-chat, lazy conversations, and a refreshing friendliness.

This same thing was often the case in Chiang Mai, Thailand, although the language barrier often prevented anything more than recognition and smiles in many cases. Here however, with Spanish easily on hand, I have people who ask after my day, children chase me down to say hello, and shop owners wave as I pedal past.

Back home, in our rush for convenience, I fear we are missing the whole point. I have been taking the advice of everyone who commented on my post about life and uncertainty earlier this month, and I am relaxing. Sunsets on the beach, whale watching with friends, and days spent exploring and photographing my town, meeting people, talking, and sometimes just letting the tiny shops and smiling locals pull me deeper into this charming beachside community in Mexico.

akha ama coffee

A Little Story… A Journey to Find What Sustainable Coffee Really Means

There is a textbook definition of the word “journey”: an act or instance of traveling from one place to another. Within the framework of our collective consciousness as people, however,  the true meaning of a journey lies within ourselves. The word can imply the growth of very specific ideas and understanding within a set time frame; or perhaps a long and hard-earned internal challenge, met through overcoming emotional obstacles and hurdles. There is always a change on a journey. More than the simple act of moving from one place to another, the journey morphs the journeyer throughout that move into a different place—either mental or physical, and occasionally both.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1070"]Mountains around Chiang Rai, Thailand Panoramic views from the back of the bumpy pickup truck as we headed to Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Rai, Thailand.[/caption]

[divider_flat]Two years ago I met Lee, a coffee shop owner living in Chiang Mai, Thailand but originally from a small hill-tribe village about four hours away. Lee is on a long journey, but it’s not a voyage of distance. He runs Akha Ama Coffee, a fair trade coffee shop. It wasn’t until I met Lee, and went on a Coffee Journey with him that I came to a deeper understanding of  what it means when something is sustainably produced with a mind toward fair prices paid to the people producing the coffee, ie., fair trade.

[quote style="boxed" float="right"]Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world.[/quote] Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy today, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people tend to feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world. That’s the assumption, right? I use these words in my blogging and with regards to my volunteering, and have heretofore felt confident in my apt usage and understanding of the concepts.  During my travels I looked for ways to support social enterprises, or rather for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission: businesses like Lee’s. On the trade winds of my physical journey, I gained a deeper, more profound understanding of what these catchphrases mean—both literally and to the people affected by the “fair” part of “fair trade.”

Through my friendship with Lee over the past two years, I began to look more closely at how Westerners perceive the impact of our actions when we consume something innocuously labeled as sustainable and fair trade. What does that mean? As a writer who has ever emphasized the need for each traveler to begin understanding how intrinsically linked we are on this planet, I found myself humbled by where I myself was apparently situated on that continuum.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="448"]coffee From organically grown coffee plants to a hand-brewed cup of coffee, Akha Ama Coffee takes the beans on a sustainable journey the entire way. That’s the Akha Ama logo replicated in latte art![/caption]

In 2011, I first came to Chiang Mai, Thailand and took up residence as a nomadic expat—I lived there, but for just five months. I landed in Chiang Mai knowing other travelers and expats living in the city, but I was acquainted with few locals. After finding a place to live and dispensing with other practical matters, my first order of business in any new place is tracking down a decent coffee shop—not only because locating caffeine and fast wi-fi are integral parts of me feathering my nest, but because I’ve found with experience that this is the best way to meet new people.

This is how I initially found myself at Lee’s Akha Ama coffee shop. His name is known in the local expat community, and with good reason: he is young, charming, and the kind of character who seems to attract a bevy of fast friends. To no surprise, I bonded quickly with Lee. Getting to know him better, and experiencing that gradual break with sonder that tends to happen in new acquaintanceship, however, was how I discovered that Lee’s story—the unspoken history underpinning his actions—is what really makes his personal journey stand out.

Lee is the face of Akha Ama Coffee, and organizes a biannual trip that takes a dozen people to his family’s remote village, where the coffee Lee sells and markets at his shop is grown. Lee calls these trips a “coffee journey.” That’s not hubris, either—the technical basics of making coffee are rather simple and can be covered with a quick overview (such as the two-hour trip through the Finca Filidefia plantation in Guatemala I took a few years ago). Lee’s trip, on the other hand, is a three-day journey toward understanding just what goes into a cup of sustainably grown coffee. It’s about the journey his village is taking toward operating as a sustainable, fair trade farming cooperative, and the human story and struggles behind each cup of coffee.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1069"]Lee Akha Ama Lee explained how the high-quality Arabica coffee beans are grown, and how crop rotation promotes higher crop yields without the use of pesticides.[/caption]

[divider_flat]I took my first Coffee Journey with Lee during those initial five months I lived in Chiang Mai. Having cherished the experience and come to call Lee a friend, I returned with my niece Ana in tow to again make the journey over New Year’s weekend as we welcomed 2012. Ana knew Lee only as the nice guy from the coffee shop at that point. I shared with her his powerful story, and by the time we departed, she knew that Lee not only sold coffee, but was the front-end funnel for a community coffee production collective.

The Akha Ama Coffee Collective represents 14 families from the Maejantai village area that have joined together under one brand to increase their ability to control, market, and command fair prices for the coffee they grow. They formed the collective so each family could bring in more money and thus assure themselves fair wages with which to obtain education for their children and modern conveniences.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="628"]akha coffee beans Lee’s mother spread the recently husked, wet coffee beans in the sunlight so the beans were thoroughly dry before villagers bagged them and trucked the beans to Chiang Mai for roasting.[/caption]

The coffee journey to Maejantai village is not a cushy, high-end tour, nor is it intended to be. Participants sleep in homes graciously offered by one of the 14 families,  and they eat family-style meals replete with hand-picked greens grown on the surrounding farms. For Ana, I knew this trip would be unlike anything else she’s experienced. Going into it, I hoped her existing friendship with Lee would give her a unique window through which she could view and understand the paths and choices people make to change their lives when they are given far different circumstances than the ones Ana experienced in her suburban American life.

Our journey began in Chiang Mai, early on a Friday morning during coffee harvesting season. Participants arrived at the coffee shop with enough gear for a weekend, and piled into the back of the yellow songthaews (covered pickup trucks). With our thighs squished tight and shoulders wedged against one another, sheer proximity made a surprisingly effective safety harness against the bumpy ride outside of town and eventually into the mountains surrounding Chiang Rai. Hours later, with just a quarter-mile of jolting progress up the mountain remaining, children from Lee’s village began chasing after our truck. Seeing Ana’s young(er) face among the coffee journey participants excited and fascinated the kids, and their huge smiles and waves were our first welcome to Maejantai.

Shaking the pervasive red dust from my hair, face, teeth and eyes, I trooped upstairs with Ana to introduce Lee’s mother, the business’s namesake. (Lee belongs to the Akha people. In the Akha language, “ama” means mother.) Lee’s mother reserved a special hug for me, one of the few participants making a repeat journey. It touched me that she remembered my face from last year.

Woman returning from a day at work, Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Mai, Thailand. The sweet faces of children in the Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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Lee’s Back Story

[quote style="boxed" float="right"] Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture.[/quote] As his mother welcomed us and prepared tea for the group, Lee launched into his back story: the tale of  how Akha Ama came into existence. The Akha people, who share a common language, have nonetheless been scattered throughout Thailand, China, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar) over the past several hundred years as the result of civil wars and demarcation disagreements. These hill-tribe groups have largely been separated from rapid Westernization, owing to both the isolation of the regions in which they’ve settled and the fact that they generally don’t speak the main language of the countries in which they live.

When Lee grew up, his mother urged him to leave his village and gain a formal education in nearby Chiang Rai. He became the first and, to date, only villager to obtain higher education. Lee studied Thai and learned English from passing tourists. Gradually, as he discovered the value in community-sourced projects, he began plotting a way to help the Akha farmers and villages in his region. Lee’s mother supported his idea and was the catalyst in bringing together the 14 families that today make up the Akha Ama collective.

There is always strength in numbers, but the collective succeeds also because the 14 families are working together toward sustainable agriculture that not only produces an organic crop, but avoids the use of expensive, harmful pesticides as well. New methods of crop rotation are the key to sustaining these eco-friendly products in the long-term, and the collective has implemented processes that will take years to fully bear out. This is the foundation on which the families formed Akha Ama, and out of necessity, it is a gross simplification of Lee’s story.

Before the farmers in Maejantai village formed the collective, they had only one means of making money—sell their coffee beans at the going rate to whomever was buying. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture, however, and at that point Lee and his family saw an opportunity to see the beans completely through the process. Consequently, farmers could see more monetary returns on their time and effort. Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap.

Lee’s village may be remote, but the influence of Western culture and advancement has taken root even in Maejantai. Villagers must pay for their children to attend a nearby school, and the demand for conveniences like cell phones have necessitated a move toward a more monetary-based system in the villages. Akha Ama’s goals are both social and economic: to not only grant villagers control over what they produce, but to funnel the money back into the community as well.

[caption id="attachment_7739" align="alignnone" width="1070"]akha ama coffee Lee’s sister displayed traditional Akha clothing in the coffee fields nearby.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1071"]The small Akha Ama coffee village in the mountains near Chiang Mai, Thailand. A beautiful sunset over Maejantai village high in the mountains north of Chiang Rai, Thailand.[/caption] [hr]

The Coffee Process

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="603"] The fields are about a 45 minute walk from the village at a slow pace. On the last turn, the path opens up to this beautiful valley filled with coffee and tea plants.[/caption]

Understanding the political side of Akha Ama is just one part of the Coffee Journey. Hands-on participation in the labor-intensive process of making coffee is just as much a component of the experience, and was no small part of why I wanted to bring Ana along. Throughout the three days, Lee took us through each stage of the coffee process—from picking the beans out in the fields all day, to drying, husking, processing, bagging, storing, and transporting them. Once Lee is back in Chiang Mai, he roasts the beans, packages them, and sells them through Akha Ama and a handful of other coffee shops in Thailand.

On the second day of our Coffee Journey, Ana and I walked for 45 minutes to Lee’s family’s coffee fields, where he explained how the plants are grown and harvested. Then he handed us each baskets and instructed us on how to properly twist and pluck the ripe coffee cherries. Ana enthusiastically joined in the picking, and by lunchtime our baskets were filled with shining red and yellow cherries.

At lunchtime, we ate a plentiful lunch on huge banana leaves. Right after, we headed back into fields for round two. It’s hard to say at which point, for Ana, that the fun of plucking and twisting gave way to an understanding and appreciation of the work that it really is. As our baskets filled, Lee and other villagers eagerly replaced them and encouraged us to continue picking. After several hours, my hands and arms cramped with the small, repetitive tasks. Ana continued to work respectfully, but it was clear that the “game” aspect of this all was gone.

Ripe red and yellow coffee cherries.  Serving up rice for the coffee journey participants. A family-style lunch with delicious vegetables and rice.

Ana listens closely as only a child can as Lee explains our task. Maejantai village, Thailand.  Picking coffee ripe coffee cherries.  How cute is she?! Ana is pretty proud of her basket of bright red coffee cherries from the Akha Ama coffee fields.

[divider_flat]Mind you, none of this was exactly miserable—far from it, since the weather was a perfect mix of cool breeze and warm sunshine. The reality of the task, however, of picking all day for your survival and livelihood, had sunk in for our rag-tag group of 20 or so participants. While we worked, Lee’s family gathered vegetables and prepared dinner for our group. Feeding twenty ravenous people is no small task, either!

And as it happened, on this second Coffee Journey, at the end of our long day in the fields, Ana and I joined the group around a large bonfire under a sky filled with more stars than Ana had ever seen in her life and welcomed in the New Year with new friends, new realizations, and perspective shifts on what it takes to live and enjoy life.

The realities of processing coffee continued unabated the next day as we watched Lee’s sister sort through the coffee berries, discarding the under-ripe berries we unknowingly plucked. A machine then separated the beans from the husks, after which the families took these wet coffee beans to huge tarp-covered pallets so to dry out in the cool mountain air.

Dry beans are then bagged and stored until they are ready for the journey to Chiang Mai, where Lee roasts the beans, bags them, and either sells them or grinds them for coffee.

Lee's sister sorts the coffee cherries.  The machine used to remove the soft outer layer from the coffee beans.  Lee processing coffee cherries.

coffee beans drying

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The Realities of Sustainable Crops

[quote style="boxed" float="right"]At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process — the community growing your coffee, chocolate, cotton — have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay.[/quote] Lee’s village is beautiful. The people and smiles were open and welcoming from the moment our feet hit the compact, dusty red earth. Our welcome was genuine and each villager we met was willing to open up to a group of strangers in the hopes that we would take away an understanding of all that lies behind the Akha Ama brand.

There are people behind that logo. A community of children, mothers, and fathers exist behind each package of coffee Lee sells in his shop. The money from each sale is a tangible investment in a remote community living on a faraway hill-side. Ana watched the young children in Maejantai play games around her, using their imaginations to fuel epic staged battles between good and evil that echoed the games her little brother regularly plays back home. I didn’t have to point out the similarities. Anyone can see that they exist—our common humanity is as clear as day.

Our Coffee Journey lasted three days; Lee’s coffee journey is ongoing.  As the face and front-end of Akha Ama, Lee is actively working to promote the brand as a sustainable, fair trade, organic coffee brand. Only through talking with Lee and then visiting his village’s collective did I realize the lengthy and expensive process that goes into legally using many of these buzzwords. When he conceived of Akha Ama, Lee embarked on a process that could secure the future of his village for generations. Beyond farming, there are few viable economic opportunities for such a remote community. In recent years, the lure of modernization has taken much of the youth out of the village and into the big cities. But with money, an operation, and something to back and believe in, Akha Ama is changing opportunities for each family of the Maejantai collective.

Over the years, news stories have indicted the idea of fair trade as flawed and unable to substantiate on a large-scale. We hear discouraging stories like the scandal that came out of Victoria’s Secret in late 2011 when one of their suppliers of certified fair trade cotton in Burkina Faso used child labor to pick and plant, contravening established fair trade rules. It’s easy to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and give up on the whole idea, given the negative press.

Through meeting Lee, and visiting Akha Ama, however, I was able to put a face and an experience on the entire process. At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process—the community growing your coffee/chocolate/cotton—have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay. Too often, that means selling below costs just for the sake of having some money in pocket.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1070"] Maejantai village; the children and their families work towards a lasting future for their community.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1071"] Motorcycles ferry the heavy bags of coffee cherries back to the village.[/caption]

[divider_flat]This is not to say that the process is without flaws; far from it, actually. At the end of the line, we consumers remain completely removed from the true back story and from the people and lives involved in the products we buy and use. But Akha Ama’s story, with Lee as the charismatic and affable face of this operation, is but one example of social enterprises and fair businesses operating around the world so communities can better themselves—create a future for their children. It may not be perfect, but it’s a whole lot better than the alternative.

What does Fair Trade Coffee really mean?Further, Lee’s story opened my eyes to the human effect our purchasing habits have on the entire global community. By lifting the common consciousness, by seeking out the simple ways to support and give back in everyday life, we will be able begin lifting up the global community. It’s usually a small thing to tweak our buying habits. For myself, a habitual purchaser of coffee and chocolate, my new-found awareness has led me to seek the chance to support companies making an extra effort. I will spend more to ensure that the root communities behind our goods are treated with respect. Stemming from my physical journey to understand coffee came a new journey to match my actions to my belief in our shared humanity and the common good.

To Lee, thank you. The Akha Ama Coffee shop was my refuge in Chiang Mai, and the community of expats and locals you have assembled in the coffee shop are a testament to the goodness and possibilities that are out there if you look for them.

This post blends time and space and represents the sum of the two Coffee Journeys I took with Akha Ama; the photos from each journey are interspersed. For more photos, enjoy the additional photo gallery and Quick Tips information.

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Quick Tips for Visiting Akha Ama Coffee

Where: 9/1 Mata Apartment, Hassadhisawee Rd, Soi 3. The coffee shop is in the Santitham are, just off the Northwest corner of the moat in Chiang Mai, Thailand: directions.

When: The Coffee Journeys take place twice annually and sell out months in advance. Lee is open with his story, however, and you can support Akha Ama Coffee by visiting the shop, buying coffee as souvenirs for family,  and supporting their efforts to grow the Akha Ama brand.

Why:  Because Akha Ama is a social enterprise (a for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission) worth supporting–it’s a community grown initiative and empowers the Akha villagers to support themselves and their families for years to come.[/box]

rice paddies and caves hpa-an burma

A Little Musing… On Small Towns and Small Adventures in Hpa-An, Burma

Ana and I planned out much of our travels in Burma around the ability to meet up with friends in the country and based on timing issues, we had four extra days and needed to stick  close to Yangon, Burma’s capital city. Based on the recommendation of fellow travelers, Ana and I pointed our noses toward Hpa-an, a small and sleepy town about seven hours southwest of Yangon (Rangoon for those who prefer the alternate spelling).

Hpa-An hit on each of my anticipations: small, rural, markets, people and countryside hikes. I wish I could write this post with a sentiment that shouts out “wow, look at this place, it’s amazing, it’s wonderful, awe-inspiring you’ll be jealous I’m here!” That would sell people on the town and probably convince a few people to steer their backpacks and wheelie suitcases in that direction.

monk alms hpa-an burma
A monk takes alms in the early morning sunshine at the market in Hpa-An, Burma.

And I do often visit places with the “wow-factor.” Saying adieu to the temples of Bagan at sunset, sitting on a soft green lawn as the Taj Mahal changed colors in the sunlight, breathing deeply the scent of dense forest around Tikal’s Mayan ruins…these are all such locations. My hike through the Annapurna range in Nepal was feat I had long dreamed about and if I had a bucket-list,that would have been high on it.

But the tiny town of Hpa-An, Burma?

Well, I can’t sell you on it as an adventure junkie location, and this petite town may never find its way into a travel brochure. Instead, the town is sweet and light; it’s a place with friendly faces and days spent chatting with Ana on long hikes through rice paddies and painted caves.

rural hpa-an burma
A beautiful bridge through the rice paddies and karst rocks links several rural villages outside of Hpa-An.

Small towns are windows into a country’s soul; this is the case in every country I’ve ever visited, my own included. People are more accessible in small towns, it’s easy to walk through the tiny neighborhoods, the cadence of life slows down and locals have the time and inclination for a friendly wave, even a spot of conversation if they speak English.

Mornings are my personal time when I travel with my niece Ana. I spend time reflecting, writing, and planning, usually over a quiet coffee. In Hpa-An, with no internet in the hotel (sometimes that is a real blessing), and a hankering for fresh coffee (as opposed to the instant variety offered freely in the hotel), I headed out at sunrise to visit the busy morning market visible out the window of my guesthouse.

morning market hpa-an
These men loaded their truck from an even more densely packed truck, they stuffed it to the gills with veggies and they will now likely be transported to more rural areas for re-sale.

A trishaw driver fills his bike with lettuce cargo for transport in Hpa-An, Burma.

Early morning market stalls in Hpa-An, Burma.

Morning air is fresher than any other time in the day. The nighttime breezes clear out the scents and sounds. Sunrise wipes the slate clean and shoppers and vendors at the dawn market in Hpa-An buzzed with delighted chatter. Locals truck, bicycle, and walk in fresh vegetables from the countryside and by dawn the veggies and fruits are stacked and ready for purchase. Women wield their cleavers and freshly dice up the day’s meat supply for the town.

And being the lone tourist around, a grin split my face while juicy fresh watermelon dripped from my hand as I watched the locals in Hpa-An greet the morning with smiles, enthusiasm, and the rhythms of long-established routine that plays out like an exquisitely timed ballet.

Flower vendors line the streets in Hpa-An, Burma.
Flower vendors chit-chat amiably on the streets of the early morning market in Hpa-An, Burma.

hpa-an town and market
The town of Hpa-An, Burma from the balcony at the Soe Brothers Guesthouse, looking out toward the market.

Hours later, one of the helpful owners of the Soe Brothers Guesthouse dropped Ana and me off at a wooden hut plopped near a field deep in the countryside with a grinning old woman selling bits and bots of soda and snacks to anyone making a pilgrimage to the cave shrines. He gave us clear instructions on getting back to town, a good call on his part because for the rest of the day, the only clear English we spoke was to each other! With a jaunty wave and a “see ya later,” Ana and I were left with a hand-drawn map in our hands showing a path through rice paddies to various caves and temples awash with paintings and Buddha statues, and a nearby swimming hole popular with the locals.

I handed the reins over to Ana; at 11 she’s quite old enough to lead us around our map to the various spots and it’s more fun for her if she has some control, particularly on a day of exploring paths, caves, temples, nooks, and crannies.

Kawkathaung Cave near Hpa-An, Burma
Buddha statues in the Kawkathaung Cave near Hpa-An, Burma on a daytrip from the Soe Brothers guesthouse.

Buddha wrapped in saffron cloth in the Kaw Ka Taung Cave near Hpa-An, Burma.

Buddha face, one of many lining the Kaw Ka Taung Cave in Hpa-An, Burma.

A reclining Buddha near in Hpa-An, Burma.

Dozens and dozens of monk statues line the rocks outside the Kaw Ka Taung Cave in Hpa-An, Burma.
Dozens and dozens of monk statues line the rocks outside the Kaw Ka Taung Cave in Hpa-An, Burma.

We found the Kawkathaung and Ruby caves filled to overflowing with Buddhas. Paintings and signs carved into the rock. Small statues filled naturally formed rock crevices.

We found a small artificial pool of clear water diverted from the surrounding rice paddies, and floating restaurants popular with local teens who arrived three to a motor-bike and they flowed into the inlet with the giggling enthusiasm, jostling and joking common to just about any gathering of 16 to 20 year-olds the world over. We opted to dip our feet instead of swimming because we would have had to swim fully clothed… and not because I forgot to pack swimsuits, but rather because jumping around in a western-style bathing suit would have prompted jaws dropping, uncomfortable stares and basically would have been a great big taboo in modest Myanmar. Local women swim in their longyi skirts and maintain a lot of skin coverage!

And by sitting on the edge with some of the teens, they were able to pepper us with questions spoken in an enthusiastic version of English, augmented with charades, and the ensuing antics as we attempted to communicate left us all in giggles.

Local teenagers wave goodbye to us after some cheerful conversation at the swimming hole near the caves.

swimming hole hpa-an
Ana tests out the cool waters at the swimming hole near Hpa-An, Burma.

Beautiful expanses of bridges panned the flooded rice paddies, and huge grins split the faces of locals when as we got ourselves lost in the small dirt streets weaving through villages.

workers, myanmar
Hearty greetings as we wandered the very rural countryside in Hpa-An, Burma.

in Hpa-An, Burma.
These children made my day! They were so sweet and enthusiastic in pointing us onward through the path, while posing and hamming it up at the same time!

As the day ended, Ana spied a staircase near the wooden hut that began our adventures. Like modern-day explorers, she set off with enthusiasm and a breakneck pace up the winding stone staircase.

At the top, we looked out from a crumbling temple.

We sat and chatted about our day, our plans, and life as we watched late afternoon sunlight spill over the hills and valleys around Hpa-An. For Ana, I thought maybe she would be disappointed by the slow pace and small adventures. She surprised me though, because she felt the day was a win all around because she was able to 1) sleep in, 2) help plan/navigate throughout the day, 3) see some things without time pressures and rushing, and 4) she was back to the hotel early enough to read her book (she was reading the first Hunger Games book and, understandably, addicted). Some days, we’d wake up early, have a full day of sightseeing, other days of marathon 12 hour bus rides. So, I get it. She wanted a casual day, with some sightseeing but framed by downtime and sleep, and Hpa-An was the perfect spot for all of these things.

It looks like a camel in the rock near Hpa-An, Burma.
What animal do you see in the rock shape? Ana spotted this on our hike up the side of the rock and exclaimed that it is a camel! She has good eyes, because once she said it, it’s all I can see now. :)

Mount Zwegabin Hpa-An, Burma.
Looking toward Mount Zwegabin and the countryside around Hpa-An.

in Hpa-An, Burma.
Ana looks out over the rice paddies and villages we spent the day wandering.

So, without a lot of fanfare we walked back down those well-worn stone steps, followed the dirt path back to the main road, and hailed a passing truck willing to drop us in town.

It’s not the most remarkable of days. But it stands out in my memory for its simplicity. The company couldn’t have been better, and it’s one of those days I really only discovered once I slowed down and savored cadence of life in each new town.


Quick Travel Tips for Hpa-An

Where to stay: Hpa-An is about five hours south of Yangon, and budget travelers can’t go wrong with the Soe Brothers Guesthouse (it’s one of the few guesthouses in town, so it was easy to get dropped directly here!). If you’re looking for something budget but a bit nicer, opt for Thanlwin Pyar Guest House.

How to get to Hpa-An: Buses run to Hpa-An from Yangon (perhaps seven hours on a good day), to get to Kyaiktiyo, the Golden Rock, you ride in the back of a truck for a very optimistic five to seven hours. I’ve heard lovely things about the boat to and from Mawlamyine.

What to do: Book your tours through the Soe Brothers Guesthouse. They speak great English and can organize tours to Mount Zwegabin, any of the surrounding caves, and everything there is to do in town. Even if you stay at the mid-range hotel 10k outside of town, book your activities through Soe Brothers. The morning market is great and a great place to grab a street-food breakfast if you eat meat (vegetarians are better off at the restaurant/shop just near the Soe Brothers).

What to read: I used the Lonely Planet Myanmar throughout our month in the country and it was, at times, the only way I could figure out English language information on logistics. If you plan to explore off-the-path, having a guidebook is invaluable when figuring out whether a train, bus, or pickup truck is your best transport option. You should also bring one of the fascinating books about Myanmar to read as you travel there—it will lend you insight into the culture and people. I recommend The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma and Finding George Orwell in Burma—each on offers a different but needed perspective on such a contradictory country.