Coffee Wallahs and the Walking Dead: Notes from the Wild Rivers Cycling Tour

In the previous Andy’s Corner I mentioned that I was away on the Wild Rivers Cycling Tour.  Riding a bike through some of the most beautiful parts of California is exhilarating.  And completing seemingly endless climbs provides a sense of accomplishment.  But perhaps just as rewarding was my opportunity to be a coffee wallah.  Here are my notes:

Camp tents and mist

Early morning on the Wild Rivers Tour (photo courtesy of Craig Gaevert)

It’s 4:50 am when my iPhone alarm goes off.  The soft snoring from fellow cyclists in surrounding tents is gradually being replaced by the optimistic songs of the early morning birds.  It is still dark. I had slept in my cycling shorts and jersey, sort of like a fire fighter ready to hit the ground running.  Rather than running however, I struggle to extract myself from my cramped tent and stumble to the camp cooking area to meet Jim.  We start the propane burner under a large pot of water.  The Wild Rivers Cycling Tour coffee wallah morning has begun.

Walking dead for coffee

Pre-Coffee: the walking dead?

As the water heats up and the sun nears the horizon, the audible unzipping from the scattered tents begins, a sure sign that a stream of bodies will soon be staggering toward the coffee urn, mugs held out pathetically.  It is not unlike a scene from the Walking Dead.

All syclists ready

Post-coffee: ready to roll (Photo courtesy of Peter Verbiscur-Brown)

I am not sure when the “coffee wallah” label was first used, but I do recall my British friend, Chris, using that term when we were co-coffee makers on my first tour.  I looked it up; the term wallah evidently originated in India and refers to a person who carries out a specified manual task.  Some examples I found on Wikipedea include:

Dabbawallah, lunch box deliverer
Chaiwallah, a boy or young man who serves tea
Rickshawallah, a rickshaw driver
Kaan-saaf wallah, an ear cleaner (you don’t want to know what that involves). 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Jim and I at our coffee wallah station awaiting the walking dead (Photo courtesy of Peter Verbiscur-Brown).

Jim, who has way more cycling tour experience than I, is now my wallah partner. Together we minister to the caffeine needs of the 40 plus cyclists, a task not to be taken lightly.  Caffeine amongst awakening cyclists is serious business. 

st-black-coffee-.jpg

Not sure if this is the patron saint of coffee, but just in case, he was placed next to our coffee urn.  (Thanks to Hannah for the print).

The critical job of keeping the individual cups and the insulated coffee urn filled requires coordinated teamwork, precise timing, and a thick skin.  Because we are high-end gourmet wallahs, only French press coffee will do.   We strictly observe the 4-minute-before-plunging rule for our quart-sized pots, much to the frustration of those waiting in line.  Jim mastered the one-handed tri-plunge technique allowing him to simultaneously charge three pots at a time. Clearly, Jim and I have become a well-oiled coffee making machine.  I’m happy he isn’t a free agent wallah and eligible to be snapped up by an opposing cycling tour group looking for a power plunger.  

Coffee Presses 1

French press pots (plus pots for hot water to please the tea drinkers).  Two heaping  industrial sized spoons of Peet’s Major Dickason grounds go into the pots, hot water scooped from the large kettle is added, lids are attached with plungers up,  and the watch alarm set for 4 minutes.

Of course, coffee wallah-ing doesn’t always go smoothly (hence the “thick skin” criterion).  Take for example my very first experience with a French press on an earlier bike tour.  After the obligatory 4 minute wait before plunging I was somewhat surprised to discover how easily the handle depressed; I assumed that field-grade coffee presses worked that way.   I filled as many of the outstretched mugs as I could.  Only when I went to dump the used grounds and rinse the pot did I discover that the filter was missing on the plunger; nothing stood between the grounds and those cups.  I only heard a few muted comments about the “chewy” coffee; cyclist tend to be tactful (when off the bike anyway).

Coffee urn empty

Getting the last drops from the coffee urn.

A more recent example was on the second day of the Wild Rivers tour when we ran out of water for coffee prior to the end of breakfast.  Our campground had no potable water and we miscalculated how much to bring in.  There’s nothing more heart-wrenching  than to watch grown men and women desperately tilting and shaking a coffee urn to squeeze out the last drops. 

EarlyCoffeeDrinkers

Early arrivers.

Folks ask why we coffee wallahs willingly make such extraordinary sacrifices (well, at least one person asked that).  It is difficult to explain.  Perhaps it’s the simple pleasure of making others happy with something as basic as a cup of coffee (assuming it is not filled with grounds).  But it’s got to be more than just that.

Wallahs2.jpg

A well-oiled coffee making machine?

Phyllis Korkki’s NY Times article Coffee Rites, and the Stories They Tell  provides some insight.  Clearly, the significance of coffee consumption goes beyond the caffeine buzz.  Sharing coffee with others is a cultural ritual that creates and solidifies social bonds.  In addition, Korkki suggests that coffee consumption may have practical value.   According to her research,  “well-designed beverage areas in the workplace have actually been found to improve productivity.”

Could it be that our strategically planned camp-site coffee-making stations were the key to the success of the tour?  I’m way too modest to suggest that, but I suspect our coffee wallah-ing had something to do with it.

I have to add that I may have been a bit too coffee-centric in my notes.   There were, after all, those on the tour who preferred tea or hot chocolate.  We even allocated a little of our precious hot water for their use.  That’s what good coffee wallahs do.

 

 

8 Comments

  1. Charlene Warne says:

    Great article, Andy. Thank you and Jim for being our coffee wallahs!! On those cold mornings, a hot cup of coffee was much needed to get us going.

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    • theRaggedys says:

      Thanks Charlene. What about on the mornings that weren’t cold? Does that mean you didn’t appreciate the wallahs on those mornings? It was a pleasure to ride with you. I couldn’t have done it without your encouragement, coffee aside.

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  2. Jean Daskais says:

    Thanks, Andy, for the coffee-wallah-ing and writing about it, with great photos! As an unrepentant tea drinker, I commend you and Jim for the fine handling of the morning ritual. As tea drinkers know, a good coffee culture also, with a little effort, handsomely accommodates those of us who choose leaves over grounds, so we all may begin the day in camaraderie rather than with murderous intent to secure scarce resources of hot water. A shout-out to Camille for including decent teabags and a lovely, welcoming pot of tea on the table at dawn.

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    • theRaggedys says:

      Thanks for the comment. But “murderous intent to secure scarce resources of hot water” may be a bit exaggerated. Perhaps intent to do minor bodily harm would have been more appropriate. And, I have to admit, it was thoughtful of Camille to provide a welcoming pot of tea out at dawn. Evidently, she was well aware of the “murderous intent” of angry tea drinkers. See you soon I hope.

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  3. Andy–

    In fact, your co-wallah Jim was a free agent and has been snapped up by another tour: he has offered to be coffee-wallah on the Northwest Oregon Tour in late July. We wish you could be on that one as well.

    Bill Oetinger

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  4. Peter Verbiscar-Brown says:

    Andy, thanks for the fine write up and to you and Jim for the service to our traveling bicycle community. As a tea drinker and one who doesn’t get out of the tent until breakfast is being served, I am daily amazed at how efficient you and Jim are in the pre-dawn, and how happy the coffee drinkers. Organizing the rabble for the day’s ride is so much easier when all are appropriately caffeinated. The veil of ritual has now been lifted, the secrets revealed as to what goes on at the coffee making table, to create such happy camper bicyclists. It’s the details of the trip that make it special, and you and Jim have created a morning gem.
    Peter

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