Traveling the World with Beans and Bikes – I suppose the first part of that title is misleading. I can tell you about New York, a little café in Glasgow, Scotland that warmed my spirit on walks through the crisp Scottish fog. I can talk about Kaffitar, Iceland’s smooth roast that you can find in grocery stores, or grab a cup from their café in the Icelandic airport. But the addition of the bikes has been more recent and more local. Perhaps a more truthful title would be Traveling the US Southwest with Beans and Bikes, or, in all honesty, Arizona and Southern California with Beans and Bikes.
Why the obsession with coffee and cycling? I like both. Again, to be honest, I am addicted to one and enjoy the other. Forgive my little self-corrections, Steve Clark, on the first page of his Travel Writing and Empire: Postcolonial Theory in Transit points out that travel writing is notorious for being filled with lies – if you are the only one who lived it, who can fact-check? In other words, if you tell me the fish was “this” big and no one but you was there to see it, I have to believe that the fish was “this” big. I promise in this blog to stick to the truth – at least as I remember it.
My chosen foci of beans and bikes goes deeper than mere enjoyment. James Clifford, in Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century suggests that if we focus our field of study too narrowly, we may miss the wider cultural intersections that give a proper understanding of place and time. I’m not sure how broad a focus one blog can contain, so I’ve chosen two themes that, although seemingly narrow, carry with them a number of rewarding lines of thought.
Let’s talk coffee first. Joan Paul Rubies traces one of the diverse roots of travel writing back to early merchant diaries. Men traveling to the island of Java for coffee trade described the world around them, often in detail, if only looking for a way to make the trade more lucrative.
Flash forward 400 years or so. I am not a merchant; I am not male. I am angry at the thought of underpaid, ill-treated families picking small cherries so that I can get a smooth-tasting morning caffeine fix. The local roasters I buy from, and the local roasters I plan my trips around, sell fair-trade coffees. Often, the roaster has a strong working relationship with the farms from which they buy their beans. People are treated more like people, and less like beasts of burden.
When I stand in a café and peruse the names of coffee lining the shelves: Brazil, Sumatra, Yrigacheffe… I visit those places in my mind, celebrating the wonders of creation. Coffee provides an interesting cultural/historical intersection that can be explored in each cup.
Cafes also provide a nexus for modern ethnology – otherwise known as, for the less scientifically-minded – people-watching. The aforementioned James Clifford offers the hotel as one metaphorical placeholder for travel-writing. But a café could serve the purpose just as well. It’s become a public living room. Here people work on laptops, play card games, hold Bible Studies, or just chat.
And what about the cycling? Steve Clark, mentioned above, lists “the heroic qualities of the traveler – reliance, physical courage, intrepidity.” These qualities might be left over from a dark, imperialistic time, but they give modern travel writing some of its appeal. Thus, the bike.
The first time we tried the “cycling on a trip” approach was in Flagstaff, Arizona. We rented two beach cruisers from Absolute Bikes in downtown and pedaled off. We traveled through town, tooled around Northern Arizona University, and took off down Highway 180, past a Shell gas station to a newish looking subdivision. My husband’s rear tire went flat. It was only then we noticed the bikes did not come with a replacement tube or travel pump. This being in the days before we had cell phones, I pedaled back to the Shell and called the bike store. The owner apologized for the missing tube and offered to bring us one.
I could hear the incredulity in his voice.
“People don’t usually ride that far on cruisers.”
The Shell station is less than ten miles from the shop – I know because I just google mapped it.
At that very moment I determined to bring our own bikes as often as possible so that we could ride without getting caught without a spare inner tube, and we’d never have someone look at us weird for riding their bike 10 miles. Intrepid… reliable… that’s me.
Bike riding is the perfect pace to take in a new town. It’s slow and open, so you notice more detail, but it allows you to go faster and farther than on foot. James Clifford notes that travel writing often pays little attention to the vehicle of transport, so I’d like to use the bike as a vehicle to explore how our cycling experiences enrich our trips and the way we view a city.
I look forward to exploring a bit with beans and bikes. I do hope you’ll join me for a breezy ride and a nice conversation over latte to follow.
Clark, S. (1999). Introduction. In S. Clark (Ed.), Travel Writing and Empire: Postcolonial Theory Transit. New York, NY: Zed Books.
Clifford, J. (1997). Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rubies, J. P. (2002). Travel Writing and Ethnography. In P. Hulme and T. Youngs (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing (pp. 242 – 260). Cambridge University Press.