India / Delightful / Appalling

This essay is from a trip to India Tom took in 2008 

Intro. As usual, the arrival at an origin country is disappointing …a whimper, not a bang.

I was both looking forward to my first trip to see Indian coffee production, and dreading it. I have sworn off groups, I don’t do groups; you just never know who your going to be penned in with, and it’s frustrating to travel to the other side of the globe and, rather than focusing on this fantastically new locale, you are distracted by personalities. Sometimes it’s very nice and thoughtful people who end being the “bad to travel with” sort. It’s like alcohol.

Anticipation, excitement, and fear can make people act very odd, myself included. (Specifically, my fear concerns who I travel with, as well as fear of new surroundings). So I like to know who I am going with, one or two known people, no blind dates, I just don’t have the courage.

In this case, I was invited along with 6 other folks I don’t know, and I am anxious about that. So I have done some mental preparation and also will rely on technology. I brought the ipod, the iphone (with the ipod), the little canon sd-850, the big canon 40d, the Panasonic video camera, and even the laptop too … in other words i can plug into one device or other at any given time, a neat way to hide. I also have my books, my Kikuro and Slitherlink puzzles. I brought everything. As it turns out, the group will be surprisingly varied, roasters from different parts of the trade, and I am sure I terrorized them as much as they did me.

The fact the flight is a fairly straight shot (SFO to JFK to Mumbai) doesn’t make it less brutal. Sundown in New York to Sunrise over the Atlantic was short order. That day, whichever one it was (Saturday I think) came and went during one long, hard sleep on the plane. Oddly, we seem to be 13.5 hours ahead here … is that possible? So it’s 4:54 AM and I can’t sleep anymore. Outside the honking horns from the vespas, micro-cars, ambassador taxis (looks like a ’60s fiat), and 3 wheel scooters has not stopped all night.

It’s ceaseless roar has just ebbed slightly. The Hotel Bawa is trying to be fancy but the windows are so dirty I can’t make out much outside. But I see enough to know that this neighborhood has no shops and looks dull – too dull to warrant a walk. Maybe I will go anyway. I am not complaining, the water is hot and lasted long enough for a good 10 minute shower last night, although the electricity cycles off around every half hour. So I took that walk, and I learned a lot, superficially. In case you haven’t heard (joke) there are some levels of destitution here that make a street person in San Francisco look like King Midas. I walked in a 10 block radius around this hotel. At first I was a little surprised by all the ambassador taxis and 3-wheeler taxis lining all the streets, enjoying their motifs and pet names (one was labeled “sweety”across the windshield, cute.” Then I noticed that either a. everyone is hauling around dead bodies in the back seat or b. every single cab has the owner sleeping in it.

Going with the later, it made me realize the extent people go to to sacrifice for their source of income. Then I came across areas where the homeless lined the sidewalks, whether in the most basic plastic-sheet tents our just rolled up in a blanket. My sadness was greater when I saw a woman with her young child there, a dog curled up at their feet. Granted, some of the “homes” I walked past were no more than found debris nailed together, but there is still some dignity in that, even as a place to accumulate some scavenged materials for a makeshift bed, a bucket to wash with …a blanket and a sidewalk is nothing. So I return to the hotel a millionaire, sitting here on my throne in this gilted room which just an hour ago was just adequate. Traveling offers perspective, and extra perspective when (at least for the first 3 days) I kept waking up at 4:30 am and taking long walks.

India is delightful / India is appalling:

I thought I would actually list the things I found some pleasant and those I found so disturbing.


  • The amazing generosity of the coffee planter’s and their family was my first delight. They invited us into their homes, serves us fantastic home-cooked food, and as their tradition dictates, showered us with small gifts to commemorate the visit. I am glad I brought a large suitcase.
  • In general, the food was fantastic. In California, we probably eat Indian food once a week; it’s Maria’s favorite! Even on the 1.5 hour flights we took within India, we were served a full meal with real silverware and the food was better than many Indian restaurants in the United States. (But I know 3 in our area that are on par with the best).
  • Art and craft is everywhere in India, from the spectacularly adorned lorries (trucks) to posters and billboards. I love this about traveling. Be it from a talented or inept hand (the later are most often my favorite), the product of real people is everywhere, not genericized, disguised or masked by higher levels of “professionalism” and technology.
  • The coffee farms are amazing, some of the most heavily shaded coffee I have seen. There are 2 to 3 tiers of shade trees, with teh oldest being 60-80 years old. They are filled with bird and animal life. In fact, as we drove in and out of some coffee tracts, it seemed that the coffee farms were all that preserved the forests. Adjacent tracks in the same terrain were totally denuded of all trees. And there does seem to be lands set aside by the government, at least in Chikmagalur, abutting coffee farms, for preservation of natural forest. The shade trees produce an abundance of raw materials and organic mulch. There is so much organic material on the ground at these farms it is amazing. Water is properly cleaned at the mills, and coffee pulp is composted for use on the farm. Besides some use of foliar pesticide (copper spray) I saw, these farms appear to be fine environments.
  • I was very impressed by the intelligent and educated people we met. Those who traveled with us who had advanced degrees in chemistry and botany were truly brilliant. Dr. Asok and Renade would be great as lecturers at an SCAA conference, especially in contrasting their views on proper micro-nutrient fertilization versus urea-heavy overloading of plants, and in contrast to organic-only farms.
  • Of the little amount of tasting we did, the best arabicas had slight floral hints, and were just some very nice balanced coffees. Others were good blend base coffees, a good choice for espresso. The good estate robustas were impressive, with no taints associated with that species. They had sweetness! I already knew all this, since we buy the Mandelkahn from a special tract, which is one of the higher-grown arabicas, and the Sethuraman robustas. The pulp-natural screen dry was especially interesting


  • I was sickened by the early morning “mist” in Bangalore was smoke from all the small fires lit at night, for cooking and warmth. It is so dense it forms a low-laying haze around the city. The cars are dirty, the motorbikes run dirty, and all the bicyclists and pedestrians, from infant to the old, breath it.
  • I was appalled by the terror of the roads, where might is right. The largest truck has the right of way. Might is right, and in this pecking order the woman carrying her child along the road, so close to cars whizzing by,. There’s no protection (and seemingly little sympathy) for the most powerless.
  • It was upsetting to see entire families on motorcycles, children protected only by their mother’s arms, the man driving, and the only one wearing a helmet.
  • There’s rats coming from the sewers, dog packs that can be pretty nasty too, near to where homeless sleep with only blankets, or perhaps a ratty tarp tent. As I walk by I see a little babies leg coming from under a blanket, sleeping atop her mother.
  • On one of the coffee farms, the beautiful, richest farms, I saw 3 small pantless children that were so dirty and small, outside a worker’s house. In general, what I saw of the workers housing, it seemed good. But it was an issue that we didn’t have time to interact with workers. I know this is probably due to the language barrier; the more educated speak English and the locals speak only the local Kannada language. We were on a tight schedule, but I like to rove on my own, see what I see, get a broader picture.
  • The farms we work with do not have any formal program or agreement about the pay to workers or providing for them. They leave it to an unwritten rule that farms aid the local public school and provide good housing as an incentive to keep workers. Public schooling in rural India is largely a false promise (if one is to believe the NYT article from this Jan.) Teachers assigned to schools take a job at a private school and still collect their public pay, sending unqualified teaching aids in their place. I was told that a coffee farm will incentivize the program by providing free housing to the teacher, class materials. I was told that the Group also funds a school for the disabled.
  • The government is clearly and probably highly corrupt. I think after a few days in rural India anyone can see it. All the IT company money coming in is not being reinvested in local infrastructure, in building safe roads, with a safe, separated area for peds and bikes. Small things like this would show that the welfare of all people is considered, that Indian people of all classes are valued. Distributing clean-burning, efficient ovens would aid immediately in the air quality. Obviously, overnight safe housing for the homeless, protected from vermin, would be good. When a hotel room in Bangalore now runs $500 plus because of the IT boom, that revenue must be there.

I am afraid that my hosts on this trip will be a bit “appalled and delighted” too when they read my mix of comments. But as Guru from Rasthemane estate told me, “be honest with us … tell us what you like and do not like.” I like any coffee farmer that says that, because we can’t have a real relationship, farmer and buyer, unless we’re honest. Nobody on either end of a relationship can simplyu wave a wand and fix some deeply entrenched problems. I can’t wave a wand and fix the reputation India robusta has in the United States, for example. But each party can say what they truly think, and have mutual respect.

I was a bit confused when I received the invitation for this trip, partly because I am not used to growers paying my airfare (!) and because I didn’t understand the organization of the company, Karnataka Coffee Plantations, but had bought some coffee from them. Basically, they feel it’s better to invite a handful of customers-roasters over to meet suppliers-growers, rather than invest in magazine ads. That makes sense, and I think they get genuine feedback from roasters, and grower get to learn more about where their coffees are going. This group of growers does indeed own shares in the company selling it in the US, as do the Ranade family. But the growers are united because they are all subscribers to the Ranade micronutrient fertilizer program.

And it that sounds a little like a cult, you should hear the coffee farmers describe their success in terms of plant health and yield. It’s would be like an infomercial, except they are sincere. Some of the farms were in very poor health when they were inherited.So there’s no doubt that plant health and yields increase, that micro-nutrient feedings based on soil and leaf analysis, customized for each locale, is nothing like the massive N-P-K fertilization methods that predominate. But I told the farmers, I don’t drink shiny coffee leaves, I cup of coffee and write down “boy, this tastes like it came from a farm with 800 kgs per acre yield!” In fact, there’s no reason to buy a coffee if the cup quality isn’t there.

And there are plenty of other origins to go to with excellent cup quality. So my hope it that they would tie in cupping to their yield management much more, and that they will do some test plots with the unpopular SLN 4 and with traditional Kents cultivars to find better cup potential. To be fair, Dr. Ranade talks about managing yield, not simply increasing it. He’s so good at it, he speaks of it like giving the car gas, or letting up: they brought a portion of Sethuraman up to 1500 kgs per acre this year, and will drop it down to 1200 kgs next year he says, because 1500 is just too much to result in good coffee.

So while I will not make any snap judgments, using unproven ideas that low yield equals better quality, I ask them not to assume that a pretty-looking healthy plant will make quality coffee either.So I spent a week in India, just a glimpse of a place so large and unfathomable, was treated so graciously, and enjoyed the culture and cuisine so much. Next stop was Amsterdam, an amazing city, and more enjoyable if you don’t eat something bad and get laid out for a couple days. What a reversal of fortunes: India is notorious for causing stomach ills for Westerners, but Amsterdam did me in. (Well, I did eat something that looked like a raw meat hamburger at the big Ajax soccer game I went to). I had a miserable flight out of Mumbai to Milan on Alitalia, a packed and chaotic . Leave it to the Italians to serve the worst coffee on the trip too, straight robusta. Folks, spend another 1 penny a cup and at least make it a clean arabica.