A couple of years ago, while living in Miami for a time, we had the pleasure of making a pretty regular habit of Cuban cuisine. One of the Cuban offerings that really became a habit during that time was the coffee. Specifically, a beverage called a Cortadito. In the spectrum of Cuban coffee drinks, a cortadito falls right in the middle between the potent dark black colada served in little thimbles, and a cafe con leche, a light milky brew in a regular-sized cup. I’ve often referred to a properly prepared cortadito as the finest coffee beverage crafted by the hand of man. Needless to say, when I was in Miami, I drank a lot of them. One cortadito in the morning became one or two, and none at lunch became one…. ok maybe two…. and just maybe something after work. The point that I realized this was a problem was when Martha and I took a long weekend trip to Puerto Rico from Miami. I really had no sense of the drinkable-heroin habit that had evolved in a matter of months, but it was immediately apparent on that trip. The place we stayed at served us breakfast and “coffee.” Basically, it was steamed and sweetened milk with a dash of instant coffee for color. Hours later, driving through the bright green tropical countryside on our way out to the rainforest, the morning sun glaring through windows, an angry pounding headache began to emerge. A headache that nearly whited out my vision like some washed out photo from a point and shoot camera. This was a caffeine emergency. We pulled off the highway at the first little town, and sure enough, there was a little mom and pop “coffee shop” amongst the storefronts. Martha speaks Spanish, so I was basically like… “tell them I need a cortadito STAT!” Well, there was a lot of Spanish dialogue that ensued, and the guy still looked confused. I never heard the word cortadito used, so I threw that in there, assuming, it being Spanish, surely this guy with several thousand dollars of coffee-brewing apparatus behind him would understand. Instead, I got a confused and slightly humored look from him. Anyhow, Martha explained a little more and before too long I had, I guess, a Puerto Rican “cortadito.” Meh. I’m gonna make a rather broad generalization from our time there: Puerto Rico is not a place where coffee is appreciated. They may brew it, sure. It may be on offering, yes. But sweetened hot milk with brown coloring is not coffee, no matter what language you speak. There is no love in Puerto Rican coffee. After that trip, I weaned off the Cuban black tar considerably….. only one cup per day…. ok maybe two. Really though, I realized you can’t expect things to be uniform in travel. It’s kind of the point. And no matter how delicious and refined a beverage, I don’t want to require it enough that I’m stuck in some foreign country desperately seeking out meager substitutions like some alcoholic hobo chugging mouthwash.
Before our trip, I made sure to take it easy on the coffee, and I wasn’t too disappointed when, country after country, we were mostly presented with really subpar instant coffee as the morning pick-me-up. Mexico, Russia, India, Thailand… all instant coffee unless we went out of our way to find a coffee shop. In Cambodia, there were hints of what was to come, but the offerings were called “Vietnamese coffee.” Then, in Vietnam, we entered a whole new world. Coffee Shangri-la. They utilize a little metal single cup apparatus that passively drips the brew into your mug. There is some technique to packing the grounds correctly into it, and done well the brew that results is potent and rich. Of course, the beans they use are pretty important as well, and they don’t skimp there at all. Vietnamese coffee, both ground and whole bean, is on offer at a great many of the tourist shops around Saigon for good reason. Our favorite was just simple “Ca Phe Sua” (hot coffee with milk). A big difference is sweetened condensed milk instead of regular milk. We loved it. A lot. And of course, in our little time there, we drank plenty. I even have to reluctantly admit that, after sampling a fair bit of Vietnamese coffee, I think that they surpass Cuban coffee for me. Coffee is serious business in Vietnam. It’s not some token offering to appease tourists. They love coffee in Vietnam, and it shows.
But now we’re in China. A land of tea drinkers. Nothing against tea, I like all kinds of that too. It’s just not coffee. And we just came from Vietnam, a country with a shared border, shared politics, and plenty of shared culture. Well, it’s safe to say that a love of coffee is not shared here in China. What you’ll find here are “coffee shops” that don’t even have coffee as the main offering. They’re restaurants. We walked into one and I’m like “where the hell is the expresso machine and all the other gadgets?” Instead, people are seated ordering full meals and stuff. And really, what kind of coffee shop even has “instant coffee” as an offering on the menu? And at around $2 for that? Shameful. Forget about finding real coffee at many grocery stores, what you’ll find are maybe a couple jars of instant coffee, covered in dust. Oh well. I guess we’ll need to get used to tea when we’re here.
So we started out our first full day here, sans coffee, with a cruise on the Li River. Another signature landscape around Guilin. The trip was about an hour bus ride to a pier where we hopped on little “bamboo” (PVC shaped like bamboo, leave it to the Chinese, every boat did have one authentic stick of bamboo on board though if you wanted to get technical) boats with gas outboard motors and rumbled down the Li River for about two hours. It was really stunning landscape. Karst mountains jutting out of the earth all around in all directions as far as the eye can see, fading from lush bright green up close to paler shades of blue in the distance. Really beautiful, I’ve never seen anything like it. Pictures only capture little flat slices of it all. After the boat ride, we ended up in a little town called Yangshuo. Yangshuo is also surrounded on all sides by Karst mountains in an incredibly beautiful natural landscape. Unfortunately, Yangshuo has the indelible stain of “tourist town.” Lots of tacky shops selling garbage, and lots of tourists to buy it. Apparently, even in quite recent years, Yangshuo didn’t have nearly the tourist numbers it has today. For some time, it was the town every backpacker thought they discovered. Well, a few too many “discovered” it, and now it’s not really a town you want to base yourself out of. I’d say it’s more of a day trip from Guilin. Interestingly though, the town remains quite crowded with Chinese and Asian tourists. I guess they don’t have the same hangups many westerners do about the stigma of “touristy” spots.
A couple pics from Yangshuo:
Anyhow, it was a nice day trip, and we’re back in Guilin tonight. Tomorrow it’s another day trip, although a little earlier in the morning. Apologies for all the coffee talk if that’s not your thing…. it was on my mind today, beautiful natural surroundings or not.