“Gentlemen, Slight Change of Plans”

“Gentlemen, Slight Change of Plans”

June 13, 2006

Steve and I just returned from a 2 week coffee sourcing trip to the Eastern Highlands region of Papua New Guinea, and what a trip it was.  (This will be a struggle to shrink the adventure of a lifetime into a reasonably concise article, but I will try.)  Steve, as you know, has extensive experience in PNG – I was a rookie there, having desired to visit since I was a young boy.  Let’s start the story from the town of Goroka in the Eastern Highlands. From there, we helicoptered for 27 minutes, farther into the rainforest and mountains into the Purosa Valley at about 5,500′ elevation.  Along the way, I saw firsthand how “far away” we were actually going – no powerlines, no roads, no infrastucture of ANY kind – just jungle, mountains and trees as far as you can see.  When we touched down at the village of Purosa we met with and visited the wonderful, hard-working people who compromise the Highlands Organic Agriculture Cooperative (HOAC) and who make the PNG Purosa Organic coffee happen exclusively for us at Vournas Coffee Trading.  In fact, “making it happen,” as I would learn, is quite the understatement…

Imagine, if you will, a fantastic and lush rainforest teaming with an infinite number of shade trees, rushing waterfalls, thatched hut villages, smoky fires, fresh cut vegetables of amazing shapes and colors sold on the side of the road, machettes and barefeet everywhere, and arguably the most photogenic people in the world. (I should know, I took 19 rolls of film…)  Now, sprinkle in some wonderful DRY weather and lots and lots and lots of wonderfully shade grown coffee trees with their bounty of cherries ready to be picked.  And it was all in full swing.  We found HEAVEN!

Our great exporter and “road building” friend, Craig from Coffee Connections, along with the HOAC crew, guided us by 4×4 vehicles through many villages and sights and sounds along our 4 full day expedition back to Goroka.  Now, let me repeat that for you in case you missed it.  We helicoptered in for 27 minutes and it took 4 days to get back by 4×4 vehicle.  No sidetracking, no expeditionary hikes, no fooling around, no golf, no distractions, no hangovers, no lazy mornings spent mulling the day over a cup of coffee.  What the hell took so long you ask?  Well, in two words, “the road.”  No, my error, make that one word and capitalize it: “MUD.”  And this was the dry season…?

I have NEVER IN MY LIFE IMAGINED, LET ALONE SEEN, mud so formidable.  Weirdly, it seemed to be only located on the road!?! I am sitting in my office right now typing this, some two weeks after my return, and I think I still feel dried mud in my hair.  Thankfully we had a good supply of “SP” to clean our throats nightly… If I had a nickel for every time one of our caravan vehicles became stuck in the mud and needed to be unloaded and unstuck and then reloaded, I could have flown home Business Class.  If Craig and the HOAC crew had a nickel for each time, they would own the jet by now…Says Craig, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep going…”  I say amen to that.

Our trip back to Goroka involved visits to the villages of Purosa, Ivingoi, Waisa, and Okapa, as well as stops in numerous other villages and small groupings of huts.  Along the way, everywhere we went, people waved and smiled.  I heard kids yell, “White Man! White Man!” and watched their friends come running to see.   At each of these villages we held meetings, led by Craig, with local growers and members of HOAC in regards to the correct organic coffee processing techniques with information on ideal wet processing and drying techniques.  We stressed that QUALITY was the most important aspect of their coffee.  All of these meetings took place in Pidgin English (the commonly used language in PNG) and were fascinating to hear.  We also picked up coffee in parchment from various storage huts and added it in to our ever-growing caravan of trucks for transport to Coffee Connections’ dry mill in Goroka.  You see, this coffee is independently grown by HOAC members who then pick, wet process and dry the coffee into parchment on their own.  The coffee is purchased from HOAC by Coffee Connections, and exported from deep in the Purosa Valley.   Several villages held a “mumu,” or celebratory feast, of numerous types of vegetables [sweet potatoes, fresh ginger, cacao, plantains, pendanas, pitpit (picture a huge long green onion that you peel the sprout to eat- tastes just like a wonderful artichoke), taro, and lamb cheeks/mutton] cooked in the traditional manner: wrapped in leaves and buried with dirt over hot rocks.  We drank bamboo water, brought to us from high up mountain springs as an honor – it was completely refreshing.

While in transit in the Highlands, members of HOAC stopped at several villages to deliver mattresses to healthcare centers serving the surrounding villages.  These under-equipped healthcare centers are the only healthcare facilities serving a valley of over 80,000 people.  HOAC, as a Fair Trade Certified co-op, provided these supplies with funds received from participating in Fair Trade.  I saw once again and first hand that these small world-wide efforts have a huge local impact.

In Goroka we visited with the people who work the dry mill at Coffee Connections and hand sort, grade, bag and prepare the various grades for transportation to Lae and shipment to America.  Later, we made that long trip via the “Highlands Highway,” and met with the freight forwarder who containerizes the coffee and places it on freighters for trans-ocean shipment to America.  It was a “tree to freighter” coffee sourcing trip.

On our last night in the Highlands, we attended a beautiful Mumu in the village of Kefamo, headed by village Chief and “Big Man”, Henry Ame, also of Coffee Connections.  There we were given gifts of ceremonial arrows as a symbol of long friendship, billums (woven bags) with the Vournas Coffee name woven into the bag, and a beautiful copper wall hanging with the Vournas Coffee Trading logo hammered by hand.  These are now proudly displayed in our office.

My sincere and heartfelt thanks go out to: Craig, Henry, and George at Coffee Connections; The HOAC Crew, including Daniel, James, Ricky, Robert, George, Kennedy (our expert 4×4 driver), Jonas (aka Dirty Harry) for keeping us all safe, Eno, and the many others; and the people of all the villages we visited who made us feel honored and welcomed throughout our stay.  You are truly wonderful people – How small the world can be!

If there is one more thing I can say about PNG, it is that their motto, “Land of the Unexpected,” certainly rings true.  Everything seems to be a surprise or requires some quick adaptation and continuous flexibility.  The frequent announcement made to us by Craig was just destined to become the title of this article.

I left PNG with a learned acknowledgement that it is TRULY a miracle that anyone in the world actually gets to appreciate the wonderfully complex coffee from Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands.  I know that without the never ending toil and heart-breaking work of the HOAC members, Craig, Henry and their Coffee Connections crew, no one ever would!  My proverbial hat is off to them, I bow to them with respect, and will forever greatly appreciate them for every single Purosa bean they produce and for the wonderful friendships we made on our journey.

P.S. If anyone out there has any spare road grading equipment that you wouldn’t mind donating, could you drive them to Craig’s office in Goroka?  I know he would be most appreciative!