Far From Home. But Not Alone.

They say, when you lose one of your senses, the remaining become more acute. Truer words have never been uttered as I sit here with large Tibetan prayer wheels spinning lazily behind me and an almost medieval scene playing out before me - complete with wandering chickens, stray wild dogs, lumbering yaks and women in long, dresses & aprons and wearing colourful head coverings.

In fact, the only luxury in this remote Western Sichuan village, which sits at a headache inducing 14,500 feet, is my treasured Northern Lights coffee which was sent to me from Muskoka Roastery before departing Canada. In China it is easy to find hot water. Every home, shop, restaurant and even gas stations have clusters of huge thermoses filled with boiling water for tea. But tea is not what I crave each morning. I have lost all sense of time (if this could be thought of as a sense) so my sense of smell & taste have become even stronger, and the Roastery coffee, treasured even more. A fine wire coffee sieve holds the fresh grounds while I pour the steaming water from one of the thermoses. This daily ritual is marveled at by villagers & passersby. Not at all shy, they gather in closely and "ooh" and "aah" as the smell of the fresh Northern Lights coffee is released into the air.

China is still not a coffee-drinking nation. But you wouldn't know this in the back country. Often, the crowd of people watching me make my morning 'joe' take the stainless steel mug and sip, then pass it along to another and another. The wide-eyed looks tell so many stories as they taste coffee for the first time! To my surprise, most take to it immediately – no need to add milk or sugar! Some screw up their faces but end in a smile. Some sip and swill like a seasoned wine connoisseur and give the ubiquitous approval signal: an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Still, others sip, swallow, and then go for more.
This is my sixth trip to China to write and photograph. I have been to large cities, remote desert oasis towns and snowy mountain villages. One thing these places all lack is good coffee! Well, any kind of coffee actually! So to take the Muskoka Roastery coffee into the small villages is akin to bringing in electricity for the first time! The coffee is welcomed and highly appreciated. I smile at the thought of this as another yak wanders by and a small girl approaches to see what I am doing, sitting on my haunches sipping something. Her red cheeks and dark skin give her away as a child of the high plateau. Speaking in Tibetan, she greets me with a cheerful "Tashi Delek" (traditional Tibetan greeting meaning, May Everything Be Well). Stooping to smell my morning 'joe', she stands proudly and utters a new English word… "Coffee!"

Spencer Wynn is the Deputy Art Director at the Toronto Star, and a travel writer and photographer.

Posted on 1 March 2011, @ 1:12pm

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