Follow Us:

Coffee and Cocaine

Manish Nandy |

When gracious hosts say, “Tea or coffee,” I have a hard time deciding, for I love them both. I never believed Shakespeare that love is not love if it alters when it finds some alteration, and confess to a mild preference for coffee when I wake and for tea when I return from work. Please do not read partiality in the following words that are limited to coffee.

I was recently in Colombia and spent some time in Manizales, a university town in the coffee growing area. In the morning I would buy three local newspapers and walk into a roadside café and say, “Un café, por favor.” The next moment, for a price that would scandalize Starbucks or Panera, I would be served a large helping of aromatic brew to which those establishments could not hold a candle.

So, while returning, my large suitcase emptied of the gifts for Colombian friends, I decided to fill it with choice Colombian coffee. Manizales is in heart of the coffee belt that produces the biggest chunk of the Colombian harvest. It receives prime quality coffee from the three major provinces of Caldas, Quindío and Risaralda. I bought a large number of packets, choosing a great variety of blends, from mild to strong to espresso.

At the departure point of the airport, the security official asked me to open the suitcase for examination. Her eyes popped at the sight of the array of coffee packets.

“What are these?” she asked.

“Coffee,” I stated what I thought was obvious.

“Why so much?”

“I like coffee,” then added, hoping to appeal to her patriotic pride, “Colombian coffee.”

Clearly it did not melt her heart. In a second she came up with a Swiss knife and cut open a couple of packets. She looked, she sniffed and, then, as she was about to put in a finger to check the content, I could not bear to watch. I offered a plastic spoon from my briefcase and insisted she use it instead. Finally, she called her superior and after another bout of sniffing and spooning, they taped the open packets closed and let me go.

As I was leaving, relieved that the inspection was over, I heard the superior disgustedly mutter something to his team and I just caught the word “demasiado” (too much). I wondered what he considered excessive: my love of coffee or the amount I had purchased.

When I arrived at Dulles airport hours later and went home, another surprise waited for me. I opened the suitcase to find a letter from security authorities telling me that my suitcase was examined “for special reasons.” I found all the coffee packets systematically opened and taped back again. I had to drop the idea of giving some of the mutilated packets to my friends as gifts.

I have been subsisting on Colombian coffee for over four months now. It tastes as good in Washington as it did in Manizales. To be honest, it tastes a little better for it brings back cherished memories of a congenial town, bright mornings in friendly roadside bistros and pleasant Hispanic chatter in the background. The lurking thought of a couple of diligent security sleuths cutting open a large number of coffee packets in search of drugs and, then, no doubt frustrated, taping them close one by one, adds a little spice to those memories.

The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]