Coffee. The word means different things to different kinds of people. For a few, it means the luxury of enjoying exotic flavors from around the world. To some, it means the chance of pretending to afford and enjoy this luxury. To others, it means daily fare to keep them awake and alert for their daily labor. Finally, for a steadily growing number of Filipinos, it equates with their very survival. Coffee is more than a mere beverage consisting of alkali, sugar and other compounds. It is a symbol of social and economic status, of prestige, and of power. In every stir and sip, and in every drop is the story not only of the person drinking it, but of the society as well.
Drop by a classy café or restaurant. Chances are, you would see at least one person drinking coffee at any given time of the day. The coffee there comes in many different flavors, with a variety of syrups, flavoring, toppings, cream and other add-ons to create a vast combination for drinking pleasure in different sizes. Imagine that you’re modestly well-to-do, if not filthy rich. Take your pick. Order your cup. Read a book and enjoy the comforts of a relaxed lounge atmosphere. Pay your bill: use either cash or credit card for your purchase. Then drive off, feeling better with that one dose of sheer pleasure to make your day.
Now imagine you’re not really rich or well-to-do. Remember: You had to save for this trip to the café, so make it count. You approach the counter and give your order with enough élan and sophistication to shame any high-browed socialite. You find a seat closest to the door where everyone can see you sipping an expensive cup. A friend comes in, and you feign surprise. You invite her to order a cup and join you. Three hours pass, and amazingly, your cups aren’t even half empty. The coffee’s cold, but you don’t mind, as you wave to your acquaintances passing by outside. Yes, that was good, wasn’t it?
It’s midnight, and you have to beat a deadline. Hours pass without much productivity, so you cram. Finding the nearest cup of warm water and a sachet of instant 3-in-1 coffee, you pour everything in and stir. Satisfied with that brownish tinge, you chug it down in one gulp. Now, that ought to perk you up, for the fourth time in two hours. Minutes tick by and your deadline comes closer. God, the stress is killing you. But hey, there’s still one more sachet left to calm you down. You finish a few minutes before deadline, you prepare that last cup and drink it. You feel like passing out, but you’re wide awake. Your head hurts, and it’s driving you mad.
You have a family of seven. You have a job, thank God, but it’s not enough to cover the costs of daily living. At least you have enough to buy rice. Cooped up in the four walls of your flimsy shanty, you prepare another mix of rice and instant coffee powder. That would be enough to keep your children’s stomachs from grumbling, at least for another day. They ate batchoy yesterday anyway, so a little sacrifice today wouldn’t hurt. You mix a little condensed milk for extra flavor, with some water to spread it. You don’t complain – better to eat once than not eat at all. Dinner is served.
In the simplest of things, like coffee, we can see the grim realities of Filipino society. It’s appalling how some could casually spend for their luxuries, while others are at the brink of starvation. A friend once told me how guilty he felt when a street kid asked him for alms when he left a Starbucks. Whether he gave the poor thing anything, I don’t really remember. What’s sad is that many of us don’t really care. I don’t know if apathy and indifference are side effects of caffeine overconsumption. To some extent, there is blood in your coffee. I guess what’s important is that even when we enjoy coffee as a creature comfort, we do not forget those among us whose very survival hangs on a thread. Every time we perk up, our social consciousness should also get a jolt.
Smell the coffee and wake up.