I recently started barista training at a coffee shop in the old Guatemalan town of Antigua. Which means that for the past three weeks I have spent a lot of physical and mental energy on practicing and being obsessed with latte art. Why latte art? Because after an hour of pouring drink after drink, and drinking drink after drink, the act of pouring a rosetta with silky steamed milk into the crema of a freshly pulled espresso combines with the overdose of caffeine in my veins and ends in a twitch kind-of-thing that starts in my right hand and eventually takes over my entire body and mind. There is no escaping latte art once you have started. The pleasure of a beautiful pour is on the brink of an existence that you experienced once but your over caffeinated hands won’t let you into again. At least for this latte. Drink the 8oz with the uneven heart. Pull another double shot. Steam the milk. Feel the calm as your mind momentarily forgets how many espresso drinks you have had in the last hour. Tap. Swirl. Breath. Pour.

Barista training is both a war and a dance. And so much fun.

But why make a latte into art? The pragmatist wins this argument with an appeal to science and an oh so out of fashion quip about certainty. If science says the drink is exactly the same whether it has a shapeless cloud or a vivid white tulip in the middle of the caramel colored crema who is our sensory self to say anything different? The idealist replies with an out of context T.S. Eliot quote and continues to care less and less about arguments as his nose and mouth get closer to the drink which his eyes are already devouring.

As I was reading up on the subject of being a good barista I was inspired by one writers perspective on serving an artful latte to a customer. Their reason for serving drinks with art is the possibility that when someone experiences something as regular as their daily caffeine fix transformed into a small work of art that person could for a moment forget their worldly cares and maybe just for that moment be open to the idea of beauty. And who knows where the idea of beauty can lead the unsuspecting human?

As someone who believes in the ever new love of a creator for his creation, I think beauty can lead to something very important.  If a person with the troubles of the world looks at something as simple as a latte with a rosetta and wonders why something as silly as that can make them feel the slightest tinge of joy they may have taken the first step towards finding an eternal truth which will set them free. Maybe latte art is an important subject that has more eternal significance than we are willing to give it. Or maybe it’s pointless, I don’t know. Much of art seems to be lost in the question, what is it about? So for a second I want to have an open mind to this heavenly beverage sitting in front of me and allow beauty to lead me to its source.

.

I spent last Thursday on a lovely visit to Guatemala City.  The purpose of the visit was to get a medical exam for tuberculosis to complete the health card which I need to work in a coffee shop in Antigua.  My boss Jim told me that if I get there in the morning I should be able to get the results by that night, thus saving me a return trip to the city.  On Wednesday I booked a ride into the city with a shuttle that usually just takes people to the airport, I had to pay a little extra for them to take me to the medical clinic.  My two options for returning were 6:00pm or 8:30pm, I choose 8:30 just to be certain I would have enough time to get the results from my exam.  The shuttle is going to pick me up at 7:00am Thursday morning outside of the Bagel Barn in Antigua.

Thursday morning, I go to the Bagel Barn early for some breakfast.  The usual, of course, a cheddar jalapeno bagel with bacon cream cheese. Amazing.  But I am feeling like I will need some extra breakfast energy today so I have them throw in a plain bagel with chocolate chip cream cheese also.  My breakfast cost me Q35, not too shab

A 7:00am I get on the shuttle and we drive towards the city. We drop other passengers off at the airport, and from here it is just me and the driver.  As we near the location of the medical clinic the driver starts telling me about how dangerous this part of the city is.  “My niece was robbed here yesterday.”  “Really? That’s terrible.”  “Yep, it’s a dangerous city.  Be careful out there.”  “Gotcha.”  He pulls up in front of the clinic and drops me off.  “Alright, we’ll pick you up at 8:30 tonight.”  “I’ll be waiting here.”

I tell the people at the clinic that I need to get the exam that I need to get the medical card that need to work in a coffee shop in Antigua, all in very terrible Spanish.  So first I have to pay Q15 for the exam, next the waiting room, next I am in a small room and a nurse starts to draw my blood and I can’t think of how to say “I just had my blood tested earlier this week, I came here for the other exam” fasts enough in Spanish.  Whatever.  It’s over quickly and I go back to the front to ask them about the x-ray TB exam.  It just costs Q25 and is supposed to be very quick.  But when I go to pay for the exam I find out that I only have Q21 and they don’t take credit cards.  “I’ll go find an ATM then come back, OK?”

I finally find an ATM about five blocks away but it doesn’t work.  Darn ATM must be broken.  I find a bank but they don’t have an ATM there so they give me the address of a place where they think an ATM is located.

I find a taxi with a driver who looks like he only robs people if his family is in desperate need.  I hope his family is doing well today.  We agree on a price of Q20 before we leave; I figure that when I get to an ATM all will be well.

After buzzing through the streets we arrive at a central park like area where there is supposed to be a quality ATM.  Right when I am about to pay the driver an old man who was also a passenger in the taxi offers to pay for me.  “Señor, I have never actually met my guardian angel, mucho gusto.”

I find the first ATM, and either this one is also broken or my card is locked up or something.  After trying two other ATM’s and experiencing more failure I decide to give up. All ATM’s can die.  I did not want to take another taxi back to the medical clinic because now it looked like Q21 was all I had for the day.  I had the address of the clinic written down, so I begin asking random people where it is and walk in whatever direction they tell me.

Finally back at the clinic, I decide that my only option is to explain my situation to the guy I am supposed to pay for the exam and hope for mercy.  I really do not want this day to be a complete failure and have to come back to the city another day.  “Nope, the exam costs Q25, not Q21.”  At this point in the story I am completely dejected.  All I need is four stickin’ Quetzals.  Only four…

I would rather have Q4 (about 50 US cents) than my ipod earphones, so I am walking around the streets trying to sell my earphones to young people who look like they would possibly buy them.  “Hey, would you want to buy these earphones for Q4?  They are really nice, genuine Apple. C’mon, I just need Q4, you know you want these earphones!”  I am a terrible earphone salesman.

By now I have become probably one of the only American beggars Guatemala City has ever had.  I prefer the walking up to people and asking for money approach, it looks more desperate.  But, unfortunately, I think Guatemalans like their beggars to be kneeling before them on the streets with their heads down and hands raised.  I just can’t do it.  I end up getting Q1 from a guy that tried to give me a flyer for something I don’t care about, I tell him no but I need money.  At one point a Guatemalan dude who spoke English comes up to me to show off his English skills, “Hello, where are you from?”  “America. Do you want to buy these earphones? Do you have any money you can give me?”  “Sorry man, welcome to my country.”  I also meet some Mormon elders spreading the good news of Mormon who spoke English.  They say the only money they have is for a bus ride somewhere, and to prove it one holds out four Q’s from his pocket.  I am almost certain I can out-run them, it takes more self-control than I know l have to not grab the cash and take off.  Real beggars must have skills that I don’t possess.   Maybe it comes with practice.

I have given up begging on the streets and make my way into a McDonalds.  It’s about 1:30 and I am really hungry and I want to see if my card will work in here.  It does!  Three hamburgers later, I fall asleep at a McDonalds table.  I wake up with a slight headache and blurry vision.  Tables are not good pillows and McDonalds is not real food.  I leave the golden arches and head for the park, walk around, then lay on a bench for a while.

The idea comes to me on the park bench.  I go to a fast-food pizza place and ask them if I can get cash back with my debit card.  “Yeah, but it has to be more than Q3, the minimum is Q20.”  “I’ll take Q20 then. Halleluiah!”  But once again, my card refuses to give me money.  “Really?”  “I’ll run it again. Yep, won’t work.”  I try my hand at begging one last time.  “Um, all I need is Q3, it’s for medical reasons.”  “You want Q3?”  In slow motion he opens up the cash register, pulls out three Quetzal coins and hands them to me.  “Sure.”

Back at the clinic I pay for my exam, “Here’s the Q25, yeah, take that ya sucka!”  I have a simple x-ray taken of my chest and I am done.  It turns out that even if I had done the exam earlier that morning I would still not have gotten the results back until Monday.  I wait inside the clinic until they close then I wait on a bus stop bench outside.

The darkness is slowly starting to threaten me at around 6:00pm.  I remind myself that I have two and a half more hours out here and that doesn’t make me feel good.  A Guatemalan man comes up to me as he is walking by and asks me if I have somewhere to go because it is really dangerous out here for me. “Not really, but a shuttle is coming to pick me up at 8:30.”  He stands there looking as if he would like to help this poor American student. Then he shrugs and walks away.

It’s almost fully dark out and my mind kicks into survival mode.  Shuttle ticket with the travel agency’s telephone number on it.  But I don’t have a phone.  A pay phone.  No money.  Remember that Pollo Compero about five blocks away?  Yes.  I’ll bet they have a phone.  And it would be way safer to wait in there.

Inside the Pollo Compero the waitress I try talking to in my fragmented Spanish goes to get her manager who speaks perfect English.  I explain the situation, he lets me use their phone to call the travel agency.  I explain that I need to be picked up at a different location, I have the manager explain where the Pollo Compero is located in the city.  They happened to have a van in the area just then about to leave for Antigua, “Yes, I would love to be picked up right now. Get me away from this awful place.”  The van arrives.  I am on my way back to Antigua.  Home.

That’s about it.  It was a very psychologically challenging day for me.  I have to go back this week sometime to pick up the test results, but that will just be a quick trip, there and back, really fast, nothing will go wrong and everything will be perfect.  I hope.

To kick off the blog I think I will share my love of and obsession with book lists by posting a list of the books I have encountered over the summer. Here you go:

1.  The Lessons of Saint Francis, by John Michael Talbot.

It turns out that John Michael Talbot is a better teacher than musician.  This handy, very easy to read, book offers much quality advice on living a surrendered, joyful, and at times crazy christian life as inspired by the man Francis.

2.  Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 

Simple wisdom. There are so many things about this book that make me want to read it over and over and over again. I will spare you the list and just give you the “you really just need to read it yourself” version.  One, he exposes so many selfish motives for christian community that I had in my own heart and have experienced in many churches. I am tempted to call it a deconstruction of christian community. He shows very simply from scripture that Christ is the foundation of the Church and our love for one another and how anything beyond Christ is a human effort at what we have already failed at. Two, he gives lots of practical advice about  living life in the word. He shows how a Christian is to live daily in the word with others and by themselves. He goes beyond vague terms like “quiet time” and suggests ways that Christians can really grow in their love and knowledge of God. Three, he provides an excellent example of how to approach scripture. With wisdom in simplicity and obedience. You have no excuse good enough for not reading this book for yourself. It’s very short and digestible.

3.  A Road More or Less Traveled , by Otis and Roberts.

Perhaps the funniest and most indescribable book I have ever read. It is subtitled “Madcap Adventures Along the Appalachian Trail“. I found it on the bookshelf in an REI store and was drawn in by the cover. Little did I know that I was about to be taken on transcendental, mosquito infested, waterlogged, psychedelic, dehydrated adventure that asked all sorts of impossible questions about life and God and ultimately pointed to Jesus Christ. What? Yeah. This book really questions the line between fiction and non-fiction, in a way that makes you wonder if the words are actually smelling weird and if that weird smell is actually the color yellow.

4. My First Summer in the Sierra, by John Muir.

Apparently this guy was out living in nature when Emerson and Thoreau were just talking about it.  And the more I read of this book, the more I think I know why. Muir can go on for five pages just describing a single leaf; if he was like that as a person he would have been very boring to be around. He writes very personally and it is a pleasure to read, but I can never read for more than a few pages at a time. His dedication to the most minuscule parts of creation is beautiful and inspiring but also maddening. I am about half way through the book and I hope to finish it by next year.

5.  The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

The Idiot is my latest read. I am currently on page 172 of 643 pages. My last attempt at classic Russian literature ended about half way through War and Peace when I realized I really didn’t care what royal Russian family was having a dinner party that night. But The Idiot is different. Maybe my taste in books has improved or maybe this is just a better book. I really am enjoying it. The Idiot, who is a prince, is supposed to be a christ figure. His innocence is really comical and really convicting at the same time. His character asks the question, what does living like Christ look like in the 19th century Russian world (which is scarily similar to the  21st century world)? Something I have come to appreciate about the book is its ability to be really wordy and take a long time to say anything but to never be self-congratulating about its clever wordiness. Every word seems to have a reason. I am really looking forward to finishing it, one, because it will show that I have at least a little bit of perseverance, but mostly because so far it has been a real pleasure to read.

So it goes.

I am very open to book suggestions if anyone reading this has some. Next, I think I want to dig into some classic dusty theological works.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.