Travelers put a lot of thought into the things they take traveling—whether they’re high-tech gadgets, fancy clothes, or other people. But the best, most affordable, useful and reliable travel companion? There’s only one.
The only thing worse than a hangover is a hangover in Southeast Asia. Thanks to soul-sucking heat, sweltering humidity and the unbridled commotion of daily life, all of the regular symptoms are made infinitely worse. Dehydration? Worse. Headache? Worse. Sensitivity to light? Worse. Anxiety? Don’t even mention it. The only good thing hangovers in Southeast Asia is that, by and large, they’re cheap.
And so it is as I awaken, gruesomely, in a hammock on a remote beach in the Philippines, moments from death, and with only 20 minutes to get myself together before I’m due to rejoin my crew (the instigators of this hangover) and sail on to our next destination.
Despite the urgency of my predicament, I rouse slowly, taking every care not to anger my rum-rinsed brain. I fumble my way out of my hammock as if I have never been a human before, and this is my first day on Earth. I cannot remember how to use my limbs.
Upon standing for what feels like the first time ever, I realize I am absolutely drenched. The shelter we built last night apparently lacked the architectural integrity to keep the elements at bay. And the elements weren’t messing about. “That was worst storm in a long time!” says the local man who kindly let us set up hammocks on his property yesterday afternoon. “You look sad!”
Now that I think about it, I do have a vague recollection of stirring in the night, realizing it was pouring with rain, and making a conscious decision to do absolutely nothing about it.
As I stumble through our makeshift camp, I find one of our crew members crouched next to a pot of near-boiling water. “Coffee?” he asks. “Yes please,” I reply, worried he may be a mirage. He empties a sachet of jet-black instant granules into a cup, pours in some water and lovingly thrusts it in my direction. I submerge a couple teaspoons of sugar into the blackness and wait for it to cool.
Instant coffee is there when all other coffee has left you to die a slow, decaffeinated death. You can grab a sachet or a pot of the stuff and take it anywhere, and almost every supermarket in the world sells it. It’s the people’s coffee.
I take my first sip. The sweetness makes my blood sugar spike. Sip. The intense flavor burns the taste of stale rum from my tongue. Sip. The caffeine helps me regain the gift of speech. Sip. The world returns to three dimensions. Each sip lands another left hook on my now-faltering hangover until, by the time we board our boat and push off the shore, it’s been almost completely and utterly knocked out. The crowd goes wild.
As a decidedly well-caffeinated individual (I worked as a barista in New Zealand and Australia for two years) I take great pleasure in sampling as much local java as possible when I travel. And not just in emergency situations. I’ve drunk lavender coffee in St. Petersburg, long blacks in Luang Prabang, kahvesi in Istanbul, espresso in Quito, filter coffee in Nashville, hungover coffee in St. Louis, boutique (whatever that means) coffee in Beijing.
Coffee is as important to me as tasting the local cuisine, getting a feel for the history of a place, or drinking the local beer (or, in the case of the Philippines, rum). Coffee is what people all over the world drink to start their days, which means it’s the only logical thing to reach for when you wake up in a foreign land.
Of course, all of these worldly coffee styles and traditions invariably lead to heated debates over which country can lay claim to the ‘world’s best coffee’. But all of that, in my humble opinion, is irrelevant. Because the best coffee is the one you have access to.
A good flat white in New Zealand might be as close as our mortal souls can get to supping from the bosom of the Java god, but they’re pretty useless when you’re rushing through Ho Chi Minh city. Conversely, the cooling, soothing, face-meltingly strong delights of a Vietnamese iced coffee are going to be tough to locate when you’re sweating your rocks off on a French beach. You get the idea.
To this end, there’s a lot to be said for the much-maligned majesty of—gasp—instant coffee. Don’t get me wrong—if I had access to a barista-made cup of Joe, I’d favor it every time. But the universe won’t always give you a barista-made cup of Joe.. The universe can be a bit of a dick, right? Especially when you’re traveling. This is where the gloriously convenient and dependably average-tasting wonder of instant coffee comes into its own.
And now, whenever I take a sip of the stuff, I’m immediately transported back to all of those awesome, instant coffee-fueled adventures.
Think about it. Instant coffee is there when all other coffee has left you to die a slow, decaffeinated death. You can grab a sachet or a pot of the stuff and take it anywhere, and almost every supermarket and corner store in the world sells the stuff. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Sri Lanka or Kansas City, Colombia or Zanzibar—you won’t have to go far to find instant coffee. It’s the people’s coffee. And I am the people. You are the people, too.
And that’s not all. While not every hotel, motel or hostel has an on-site café or barista, almost every hotel, motel or hostel room—wherever you are in the world—has a kettle and at least one little packet of coffee granules. Instant coffee doesn’t care where you are, who you are, or how much money you have, it’ll love you just the same. And room service will even give you more of it the next day, for free.
Instant coffee was there in my Cappadocia hotel room when I had to get up at 3.30am for the most incredible hot air balloon ride of my life. It was there when I spent three weeks on the Trans-Mongolian railway, with no discernible coffee shop in sight. It was there when I went camping in rural Sri Lanka, when I took an overnight bus through Vietnam, and the morning after I went bowling at 4am in St. Louis. It was just there; like a friend I didn’t know I needed, ready to pull me out of my slumber and into the world.
And now, whenever I take a sip of the stuff, I’m immediately transported back to all of those life-affirming, instant coffee-fueled adventures. It’s like a scrapbook in a cup. And whether you agree with me or not, I’m not alone in this. One 2014 study found that half the world prefers instant coffee, too. So there.