My friends Kat and Chris call me Badger. This name does not stem (I hope anyway) from my badger-like build, but rather my charming personality, which needs a coffee jump-start before it submits to the taming influences of civilization.
Other than folding dirty tarps and crossing international borders, my least favorite thing about traveling is my eternal morning dilemma: How to acquire my coffee? When we camp or stay in a motel, I have a kitchen set-up that can be laboriously assembled. This means I blearily haul the “table” (a piece of plywood and metal sawhorses) down from the roof rack of the van, assemble said table, lower our giant cast iron stove from the roof rack, hook up the propane, locate the kettle, and find drinking water. It’s still better than the alternative: showering, dressing myself, walking to find a coffee shop, and, far worse yet, actually having a conversation with another human before I’ve had even a drop of revitalizing caffeine.
When we stay in an urban hotel, I have no choice but to confront this awful fate. Of course, it used to be much worse. Back in the day, Nescafe reigned supreme. These days finding a coffee shop in a Mexican city is fairly easy. Worst case scenario: You walk 3 k to discover a coffee shop that is still closed, you wait an hour or two for it to open, and you pay 45 pesos for a cappuccino that tastes like warmed bilge water. Best case scenario: The hotel serves decent coffee. (This scenario should be retitled “fanciful daydream”.) Typical scenario: You wait in a state of anxious irritation for coffee shops to open (given my habit of waking at dawn, this is usually two hours), walk half a kilometer to the nearest shop, and pay 40 pesos for a sub-par but acceptable espresso drink. This is doable, but expensive and annoying.
At one point while traveling by bus in Nicaragua, I got so annoyed with the routine that I set out to buy an electric kettle. I couldn’t find one, and ended up with a weird (possibly Soviet) coffee maker with an udder-like appendage that would drip into two tiny cups. Mission accomplished, but the device took up a lot of precious suitcase space.
Which brings me to the subject of my new prized possession and the best invention in the world…
While staying at the Oaxaca trailer park, we met an older southern gentleman named Gene, who was traveling on foot with a tiny tent and a nifty hammock with a pull-over top to keep bugs out. He was the only other guest in the park, and I invited him over for coffee. Gene had the fiery blue eyes of a zealot, an impression that was contradicted entirely by his actual personality. In a lovely drawl, he told me he’d been traveling around Mexico every year for 50 years. He must have been in his eighties, but liked to walk four or five miles a day. He said he could afford to stay in nice hotels, but he felt uncomfortable with the sort of people he met in places like that. He had impeccable manners. In short, Gene was a gem, and I’m not just saying that because he led me to the greatest invention of all time.
I first spotted the magical heating element when I saw Gene warming a cup of noodles. I inquired, and he demonstrated how you put the electric element in the cup of liquid you want to heat, plug in the device, and wait a minute. Pretty soon you have a cup of simmering water. I was amazed to discover that he had he bought this amazing device for 25 pesos (2 USD) at a fereterria (hardware store). I instantly saw the implications. When I began to blather about my obsession with making coffee, Gene smiled and handed the wand over. He assured me that he had another one on standby.
I certainly had not expected Gene to give me the element–the mere knowledge of its existance was enough to put me into rhapsodies.
“This is the best gift anyone has ever given me!” I exclaimed later to Rich, who looked somewhat disgruntled (no doubt thinking of my sapphire and diamond engagement ring and my laptop).
Now when we stay in hotels, I have the perfect coffee set: a small burlap bag filled with a metal decanter, a porcelain coffee cone, coffee filters, an electric grinder, mugs, my heating element, and, of course, a decent bag of coffee beans. Badger subdued.
Note: If you have the great luck to find one of these elements, remember the one simple rule that Gene taught me: Put the device in the water before you plug it in.