As I sit on the balcony overlooking the chaotic streets of Cairo, I sip on the hot coffee, mentally preparing myself for the day. Without this touch of normalcy, one more day trekking through the Middle East alone would seem a lot more daunting. The pungent liquid gives me a few minutes of peace and grounds me — pun intended. All I need is these few moments every morning with my drink and journal in hand, and I feel like I can even make it through the ‘hardest’ of destinations, where being the only tourist draws a lot of unwanted attention to me.
Every sip I am reminded of the coffee in other Middle Eastern countries I’ve traveled through. Like many of Egypt’s neighboring countries, Turkish coffee is the default here. It is typically dark and rich, with a twist of cardamom. Sludgy and sweet, it would leave the grinds all over your teeth if you drank it before they settled at the bottom of the cup.
It is now many moon cycles past this trip, but I still drink Turkish coffee at home in the United States because I just can’t get enough.
Coffee culture in Vietnam taught me the virtue of patience like bible school never could. I was a visitor there before the pour-over style drink was the hippest choice in overpriced café’s in the West, and had never previously seen such a contraption.
The first time I ordered a coffee when arriving in that part of the world went something like this…
Wait several minutes before acknowledged by waiter.
Finally order standard coffee called ‘phin’, and wait.
Coffee arrives to table but contraption required to make it is not assembled.
After a few minutes of trying to tetris it together, give up and try to find waiter again.
Waiter appears and begrudgingly shows dumb tourist how to assemble the coffee filter.
Stare at slow dripping coffee for 10 minutes, and then realize it’s too hot to drink.
By the time you get to drink your coffee, it will be bedtime and you won’t even need it.
I don’t have 6+ months to wait for coffee.
As the long, humid days went on in Vietnam, the coffee got even better and took even longer to make.
I discovered weasel poop coffee, or ‘kopi luwak’, and the taste did not fall short of the promise of the best coffee in the world.
The weasel eats the coffee berries, poops them out, and then the poopy beans are fermented for 6 months before the drink is even made.
I don’t have 6+ months to wait for coffee. But while I was roaming around Vietnam with no real destination or job, maybe I did?
I ran away to live in Morocco when dealing with the grief of a loved one’s suicide. I was broken when I got there, shattered in millions of pieces. Every cup of coffee glued one single piece back together, slowly, but securely.
It wasn’t always coffee though, that was the amazing part. It was whatever you wanted it to be; whoever you felt like being that day. You could order the traditional Moroccan mint tea, café au lait, Turkish coffee, or whatever else you wanted. This illusion of choice was significant in a place where I felt like I didn’t have control over anything else.
My male friends would constantly be asked: “How much for when you are done with her?”
I enjoyed partaking in the café culture of sipping on hot beverages with friends while smoking hookah and watching the rivalry fútbal games between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Those games seem like life and death when you’re in the cafe with everyone screaming at the TV.
My friend group was a mix between the group of American guys I went to school with there and the brothers in their host families. I refused to miss out on the outings with my friends, even though I was always the only woman in the café. As a foreigner, I was allowed to be there but always assumed to be a prostitute. My male friends would constantly be asked: “How much for when you are done with her?
Morocco is an assault on your senses, which was medicinal during a time when I previously felt numb. A mosaic of many different cultural influences, that reality was felt through the choices of coffee. Even the dialect of Arabic spoken there has French influences. When I was frustrated with trying to communicate in Arabic, I could throw French words in to get my message across.
While studying abroad in Morocco I learned I could be anything I wanted to be through many steaming cups of courage. The things I drank in that country taught me that life goes on, no matter how debilitating my grief was. The hands that made them taught me that I was lucky enough to be a free woman able to decide my future.
It used to amaze me that the ritual of drinking a cup of coffee could be so drastically different, depending on where in the world you were. Many sips later, and I see that it’s not.
Coffee brings people together. In a room full of strangers, it introduces people. It says: “Hey, you two may be totally different in every possible way, but you have this one thing in common.”
It reminds us that despite everything else going on in our world, we’re all human and have the same wants and desires. Even if it’s just gathering around the stained coffee pot in the break room.