I am forever on the lookout for new cafés. New city, new café. While I won’t shy away from a Starbucks, I know what I’m getting when I go, no matter where in the world. That is the beauty and also downfall of Starbucks. When I know I’ll need to work late with a bit of Wifi and perhaps even a tall iced caramel macchiato, Starbucks can’t be beat. But during the day? For me, a great café has a warm atmosphere, comfortable seats, art (or some other form of cultural knowledge – books, cds, etc.), a few sandwiches or interesting food choices, and most importantly knowledgeable people.
My first days in Colombia, as I explored my neighborhood of La Candelaria, I came across a coffee shop, café combo. Papaya Gourmet and Contraste Coffee Lab. Lleno de chorizo, papas y arepas, I craved greens and the nice crunch of a piece of celery. Thankfully, they had an all-vegetarian option. As I waited, I noticed the barista, whom I would soon know as Manuel, taste-testing different types/preparations of coffee with a friend. It was like an experiment. Like cacao, coffee has so many (more than cacao I would say) permutations based on a large number of variables. Here, he controlled for origin, roasting, weight and water, changing only the method of preparation. He had his friend waft and sip to taste the differences. I’m not normally a coffee fan, most likely never will be, but somehow I ended up working for a coffee roasting company. My interest lies more in the origin and agricultural production of specialty (and commodity) foods than the final product. Working at Taza and my final undergrad class on chocolate, however, gave me a deeper appreciation for understanding the whole process, so I enquired more to Manuel. He openly gave me brief overview of what he was doing and even offered to sit with me later and teach me himself!
Cafés present an opportunity to observe, learn, and poke out of our bubbles.I love to notice what other people order, traditional/cultural menu items, and how people interact with each other and the space. Not only can you hopefully learn from welcoming baristas or servers, but it also provides a safe environment for people watching! You can always claim it as inspiration for a book you’re writing. Couples huddled up together, the student pulling multiple books from their bag, the businessman/entrepreneur eagerly reassessing whatever is on his screen. The lone traveller looking to be in the presence of others. They all add to the stream of thought that in a café, you are safe. Alone in your own world, but also protected by the presence of others. You can hide behind the books on the shelf, the art that lines the wall, or out in the open you can claim your territory on the most comfortable chair. And every so often, you’ll be drawn together by circumstance. The café dog comes roaming through, coffee spills and strangers help you clean up, a curious stranger inquires on the sandwich you ordered. In our little haven, we sip, we study, we sit, merely a pause among the rest of our busy day.
What are places or things you like to look for when you travel?