Photograph by Jane Ng
From the February/March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler
“It’s been perfect … well, almost perfect, except for one thing.” In fact, I’m having an excellent time. I’m on a white—no, pink!—sand beach in the Bahamas. The view from my ashram-basic room (futon on the floor, portrait of guru on the wall) is a soothing stripe of aquamarine. Twice each day I practice yoga for two hours.
I feel terrific. Yet one essential thing is missing. It begins with the letter c. I take a deep yogic breath and spill all to the swami.
“I understand why you don’t allow alcohol, tobacco, or meat at the ashram. But I wish you didn’t prohibit caffeinated beverages, specifically, uh, coffee.”
“Ah. Coffee.” The swami smiles at me enigmatically and lets the word hang in the air. I twitch uncomfortably and try to think of a way to change the subject from my very nonyogic craving.
In my daily life, coffee is something I can take or leave. I never drink it after 11 a.m. or I will be up past midnight. But travel is another story. There is something about being away from home and on the road that transforms coffee from a mere drink into a magic elixir. For starters, I have tried every jet lag remedy imaginable—melatonin, jumping jacks on arrival—and found no better time zone assist than the mighty C. (My method: Drink only water on the flight. Always land during daylight. Use coffee to keep yourself alert and moving until the local bedtime, then crash.)
Coffee helps me over the bumps of travel—not just the time zone switches but airport layovers and all-night train rides. How wonderful to stagger groggily off an overnight sleeper coach in Madrid’s Atocha Station and immediately enjoy a steaming café con leche.
If coffee were a mere physical stimulant, I doubt I would have made it such a travel fetish. For me, traveling without the possibility of drinking coffee is as nightmarish as traveling without the prospect of conversing with strangers. Could this be because the common enjoyment of coffee plays a big role in starting those conversations?
I sit at a banquette table in a café on a tony avenue in Berlin. Every element of this situation—the upper-class vibe of the neighborhood, the tendency of city people to keep to themselves, the natural reserve of Germans—conspires to inhibit spontaneous interactions. Then the coffee arrives, dark and deeply aromatic. Another cup of the rich brew is served to the young man next to me. The magic of coffee: Within two minutes the young man has set aside his iPhone and is giving me shopping tips and directions.
When I make my mental list of my favorite places on the planet, I’m embarrassed at how many of them are in what I call the “coffee zone.” I don’t mean places that produce coffee. Indeed, one of the dismaying things I’ve discovered is that some of the least drinkable brews are served in places where coffee is grown, such as Colombia and Brazil (where top-quality beans are exported). Rather, my coffee zones are places in which the drink is part of life’s rhythm.
Hello, Italy! Can there be a more quintessential Italian experience than elbowing your way to the stand-up bar of a café and ordering a cappuccino? And hello, United States of America, which is a cup of watery Maxwell House brew at the counter in a roadside diner, with your waitress asking sweetly, “Can I warm that up for you, dear?” In Thailand, takeout iced coffee comes in a transparent plastic bag that swings from your wrist as you carry it. In coffee-obsessed Tokyo, the coffee attendant brews my cup with a timer and a set of expensive glass flasks and tubes on a special table. I feel as if I’m back in eighth-grade science lab.
The rituals around coffee are almost as intricate as those surrounding that other famous caffeinated beverage, tea. In China, India, and Great Britain it’s the beverage of choice; there is nothing more restorative during a dank London day than afternoon tea. In Japan, tea ceremonies approach the sublime, especially when you drink the foamy matcha green brew on the grounds of an old Japanese temple. In Muslim Senegal, gunpowder-tea drinking bouts with my Senegalese friends soon had me flying higher than I would on whiskey.
But tea, culturally rich as it is, isn’t the same as coffee. Tea relaxes, soothes, informs. It’s a drink of introspection and reflection, not of action. My eager traveler’s heart will always consider tea an also-ran.
Tea, noncaffeinated herbal tea, is what they’re serving here in my Bahamas ashram—and I’m now expecting the swami to lecture me about its meditative benefits. Instead, he motions me into his office and shuts the door.
Opening his top desk drawer, he reaches inside and pulls out five sachet packets of Nescafé.
“Here, take these. Don’t tell anybody,” he says. Then he adds, shrugging, “I’m German,” as if that is sufficient explanation for his secret stash. Of course it is. I slip his contraband gift into my pocket and head back to my personal coffee zone, and my vacation—which now is perfect indeed.