Days sick: 0 (physically)
Days danced: 0
I had a great start to the month, work- and productivity-wise. The night before the month started, we were actually told that we basically needed to find a new apartment by April 1st. Thus began a scramble of Internet searches and phone calls to rental agencies and homeowners throughout our neighborhood. I’m not sure how much that added stress attributed to it, but I had tons of emotional ups and downs this month, too.
I decided to focus more on this site + a niche site I’ve been developing, as I tend to spread myself too thin and this was not the month in which to do that. So I centered myself as often as I could, and tried to keep sane. Also I learned that I can rock climb now, since the climbing gym opened back up!! April is looking like it will be a good month, once the physical moving of our lives is all is over!
The following is a better glimpse into how we got to this exact month note you’re reading. It’s what I often refer to as my own “origin story,” also discussed in this podcast episode. The text was originally written as my personal statement for my NatGeo Fulbright Application (which I decided not to turn in) in 2015, and then updated once I moved to Korea. Even six years later these words feel so familiar, as I basically ended up self-funding the sort of work I’d planned to propose.
Though certainly most of my childhood was spent eating dessert, when I was eight, someone told me to try eating grass “because it tasted good.” Regrets were had. Again when I was sixteen, someone told me to try eating craft chocolate because it felt good. I never looked back.
The woman who gave me some of the best advice of my life was Sunita de Tourreil, founder of The Chocolate Garage, and still someone I respect and look up to today. Every Saturday she had open tasting hours, and really, who can resist free chocolate? She explained the difference between the chocolate-flavored sweets of my youth, and the “Happy Chocolate” she was selling out of an actual garage in California. I was hooked.
Her chocolate was made from cacao purchased at a fair price, and then handled with the utmost care by small-scale chocolate makers around the world. Utterly enlightened by the humanizing lens under which she showed chocolate, I spent the rest of my months in California pulled towards her store. One weekend, when a couple walked in, they saw me first and asked, “so what is all this about?” Looking to Sunita for assurance, I received a nod in return.
With one look she gave me the confidence to delve into a complex world with complete strangers, a world that I already advocated heavily for, despite not even having realized it existed until a few weeks before. Our focus during those open tastings was to explain not only the flavor nuances in each bar, but to tell the story of the chocolate, from bean to bar. As innovators in the then-small field of chocolate, one of The Chocolate Garage’s distinguishing characteristics was their desire to lead by example.
By going further back in the process than simply the chocolate maker, you give the taster insight into the memories of the bean as it was cared for by the farmer in its own territory. Each bar has a story that starts with the bean and its farmer, a tale which I first learned how to tell that summer. Although to many a straightforward product, I have found it to be a complex and temperamental creature with immeasurable potential impact; it changed how I look at the world, and I sought to share that view with others.
These impromptu tastings are still my main way of explaining the global reaches of chocolate and initiating discussions with others regarding their part in the global commodity chain. They remain a popular pastime among friends, and often people will bring me back interesting bars in their travels; a few years ago a friend was even in Palo Alto and brought me some bars from Sunita.
I built a collection over those few months, of chocolate makers and cacao cultivating regions, stories of growing closer to the earth through the cacao trees. I became versed in how chocolate is made, each step with its own quirks and perils, either realizing or ruining the potential of the beans. I became interested in the $10 chocolate bar both for its merits as a delicious representative of such cacao’s possibilities, and the realities behind its pricing. I realize that most people pay extra for quality, chocolate makers included, but do the cacao farmers actually make 10X more money on that particular cacao?
Subsequent contact with the little-known chocolate community continued with a focus on the processing and creation of $10 a bar chocolate.
I have interacted with and taught chocolate consumers throughout the western hemisphere about the product they love, but don’t usually know. Interning on a small-scale cacao farm in Ecuador under the Burch Fellowship, I continued this educative pursuit with the other volunteers who worked on the plantation. Through my obsessive reading, it seems I have established an understanding of cacao that also rivaled that of the cacao farmers, especially when it came to chocolate making.
None of the Ecuadorians I worked with had tasted imported chocolate, usually choosing to just eat plain beans if craving the flavor. The differences they exclaimed over when trying the processed chocolate were remarkable; they asked me impossible questions that only a farmer would think of, like “How much shade did the trees get?” Or “What kind of boxes did they use in fermentation?”
While I have found that farmers question the chocolate as if it were a crop, westerners look at it as a relic from home and childhood, ubiquitous only in the places to which it’s not indigenous. Such cultural differences of what is important about a food item are usually so unexpected that people have to travel thousands of miles to discover that their world is comparably both huge and very accessible.
In fact, it was not until college that I learned that the study of geography is more than just where something is on a map in relation to other things, but a combination of history and culture, politics and trade. It is an exploration of the unknown, starting somewhere amongst the known. Stared at throughout Latin America and now Asia, I am constantly reminded of my early exposure to people different from me, and a lack thereof for most others.
My goal in interactions with others is to expose them to different cultures through a medium that always draws a crowd: chocolate. To capture and relay both past and present is difficult, as each is preserved in the minds of people usually too far away— mentally, physically, culturally— for people try to understand. But like that in-between space created in The Chocolate Garage, neither didactic nor fictional, I want to create a space of understanding for people. To teach that chocolate is the stuff of dreams and developmental success, but cacao is the reality for millions.
One of my goals in communicating to others the potential of cacao at each point on the spectrum is to promote conscious future cacao growth, as the world seeks more palatable paths of conservation. I see digital storytelling as a medium to be utilized to create such practices in understanding, contrasting or flowing each human’s story into those of others. Unbeknownst to most, cacao is one of the world’s most decidedly global products, with the number of consumers and producers growing faster in Asia than anywhere else.
Many governments and non-profits are actively trying to increase production there as it becomes more common for Asian consumers to partake of all aspects of production. As I say to anyone who asks me about the future of chocolate, I believe that increasing demand for cacao could be interpreted as a chance for improved education and land conservation. The most effective way I have found to communicate this importance is through educating consumers on the importance of buying chocolate made from sustainable cacao bought for a reasonable price.