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My 2nd trip to the B’laan

Challenging Experience in Mt. Matutum

I have just come back from a research trip to one of the rural tribal villages that we buy coffee from. This trip turned out to be a mentally challenging experience that I did not expect.
I went to the B’laan tribe to research the process of preparation and planting they use for planting Arabica coffee. I will be using this information to adapt the process with my experience planting trees in northern British Columbia. Using all this experience, I will design a seminar about planting coffee in high production for local tribal groups in Mindanao and other parts of the Philippines.
The research went well. A local agriculturalist, who has been helping the B’laan for the last twenty years, took me into the jungle where the coffee is and showed me the process. We talked about pricing, land quality, ideal climate and future partnership. This took about 2 hours out of our second day of a 2 day trip; the rest of the trip was free time for me while the other member of my team ran a seminar on the principals of fair trade.
I spent some time observing the seminar, but it felt useless since it was in the local language. I did not have a strong enough grasp of the language to participate so I spent much of my time near the hut that the locals had built for visitors. The children played nearby while watching me read or watching me just look around and they were laughing among themselves.
Finally, I initiated a conversation. Once I started a conversation I was able to talk with them about their name and family, but that was all. That was frustrating for me, especially because these children were the least intimidating to approach. Now I would have to approach some teenagers.
So I did. I spent some time talking with a group of guys in their early twenties. This went much better because of their larger vocabulary and because we were talking in the middle of the village and many people gathered around to teach me their language. This was a positive connecting experience because we could laugh together as I tried to sound out some very difficult words. I could feel our bond really growing during this experience and it turned out to be the highlight of my trip.
Aside from my research and teaching fair trade principals our goal was to build relationships. When I reflected on the events of the trip I think that the B’laan people and I connected where we could. But I left feeling tension within myself because I wanted more. I wanted to be able to chat with people about their lives in the mountains and their personal stories the way I would have been able to had they spoken English (I should say, “Had I spoken Visayan”). Unfortunately this will never happen and I need to accept it.
This trip and my reflection have been an exercise in letting go of expectations and becoming more flexible with my personal goals. It is not realistic for me to expect to connect with people the same way I would if we had the same language. I did not meet my standard for connecting with someone that I just met, but I can see that this standard must change. I’m not in Kansas anymore. And if I keep thinking like I am I will encounter this kind of emotional tension in many other areas as well.