TCS Daily


The Small Pleasures of Trade

By Michael Totten - March 30, 2004 12:00 AM

Starbucks just opened its first café in Lima, Peru. And in August 2003 it debuted in Santiago de Chile.

Some people are not going to like this.

In a new book called Globalization, Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Desirée Baolian Qin-Hilliard ask the following question in Chapter One:

Will the next generation of youth become global citizens eating MacDonald's hamburgers, drinking Starbucks coffee, and using a globalized English to communicate with each other online? If that is the case, then the diversity in the cultures and experiences of youth may disappear.

Cultural identity is defined by a lot more than the local selection of lunch stands and breakfast beverages. Britain and India are hardly the same place just because English is spoken in both. Globalization may cause people from different cultures to become superficially more alike than they were before. At the same time, it breaks up some of the already-existing conformity within countries. It makes provincial cultures more worldly, including our own.

A Lap Dance with Your Coffee?

Just over a year ago my wife Shelly and I flew to South America and took a road trip along the coast of Chile. We rented a little French car in the capital Santiago, halfway down the country, and drove 1,000 miles north into the Atacama desert and up the highlands into Bolivia.

We live in the Pacific Northwest where coffee is the fifth basic food group. South America produces a lot of it, so we should have been in good shape. It didn't take long to learn that Chileans don't give the proverbial rat's behind about the stuff.

Next-door Argentina has a sophisticated café scene, presumably brought to its shores from the old world of Italy. But the Andes are a formidable barrier. Coffeehouse culture never made it over the mountains.

We scoured sprawling Santiago for a decent café with good coffee. Ask for it in the fanciest restaurants in the most cosmopolitan neighborhoods and you'll get a nice little cup, an elegant china saucer, a dainty spoon, and a packet of instant crystals with a pitcher of water. Though Chile's food is the best I've had outside France, the place never felt so provincial as after a meal.

In the old part of the city near the Plaza de Armas we found a café that oddly enough had tinted windows. Inside we found out why. Half-naked women in leather strutted on a platform above the bar. Sober middle-aged men in suits and ties shyly ordered coffee from scantily clad baristas. There are no strip bars in Chile. It's a conservative country, and you won't find both boobs and booze in the same place. Ogling patrons aren't allowed to get hammered, but at least they aren't insulted with instant coffee. Turns out the place does have espresso.

Shelly and I desperately tried to find an American chain. Any one would do -- Starbucks, Peet's, Seattle's Best, it didn't make any difference. But we couldn't find anything of the kind. Globalization seemed suddenly like a Very Good Thing, something even a well-developed country like Chile didn't have quite enough of.

One of the few places we found that served a real cup of coffee was the local Copec gas station chain. Cruising up the Pan-American highway, we found one every couple of hundred kilometers. Whenever we saw one on the side of the road Shelly said "Yay, there's a Copec!" We felt ridiculous getting excited about a gas station. I mean, come on, it's a gas station. But when you're in Instant Coffee Land, any place with espresso is your friend.

Starbucks isn't the greatest. There are plenty of little boutique coffeehouses that brew a better pot in a cozier atmosphere. It's not a bad place, even so. At least it sets a minimum standard. Any country where the best café is a strip joint or a gas station desperately needs something like it.

Chile has a java deficit, but still it's a real joy to travel in. The landscape is heartbreakingly lovely, the people embarrassingly warm and open and friendly. And it has some real treats of its own. One is an Andean liqueur called pisco squeezed from grapes in the Elqui Valley. Chileans (as well as Peruvians) mix it with lemon juice, egg whites, and sugar to make a Pisco Sour. Every waiter assumed that I'd want one. It's the national drink, and they serve it to tourists with pride. Since it's a liqueur from the ends of the earth, American bars rarely have it. Chile really needs coffee. And we could do with some pisco.

Latin American restaurants are opening up all over my own city of Portland. The best is upscale Andina from Peru, the same country that only months after Chile just got its first Starbucks.

Andina brings all manner of exotic cuisine from the Andes to Portland. (It is not at all like Mexican food.) And as our coffee heads south, pisco comes north. Peru got pisco from Chile. Now Peru brings pisco to Portland.

No one I know fears that foreign restaurants will wipe out our own. We're all glad to have them. Portland was once a bit of a West Coast backwater, but these days it's more like a little San Francisco thanks to immigrants and imports from abroad.

More and Better Options

Globalization isn't all about America. It's not about making every restaurant, coffee shop, and retail outlet the same. It's about exchanging goods and ideas. That exchange goes both ways. Countries that trade may grow more alike over time, but they also become more internally varied.

I do wish Starbucks made it to Chile before I did. It's not like every café would have been a part of the franchise. Plenty of locals are now discovering what they've been missing. Some of them will never tolerate instant coffee again. Starbucks is almost sure to inspire local competitors. They'll take a North American idea (which actually first came from Europe) and then they will make it Chilean. Local cafés won't be displaced. They will be born.

With the spread of global trade Peruvians and Chileans, like Americans and everyone else, will have more options, not fewer. And they will be better options.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his Web log at http://michaeltotten.com


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