I’ve come to expect irrelevant concerns from the US State Department about the safety issues that exist in Haiti. They haven’t updated their information since the Tonton Macoutes and for some reason just don’t want people to travel to Haiti at all. So they pretty much guarantee that any foreigner traveling there will get kidnapped, mugged, deathly ill, or killed. That’s just how it is and you just come to hope that people wanting to come won’t read that website and will draw their own conclusions based on their experience. However, I expected more from the Travel Channel.
Last week they debuted their new series entitled “Dangerous Grounds” which follows coffee tycoon Todd Carmichael as he travels to “some of the most dangerous places on the planet” to discover the best coffee on the planet. So of course, where do they have their season premier? In the most dangerous place of them all, Haiti.
First of all, what I like about this is that it gets the word out about Haiti’s incredible coffee. Haiti does have the best coffee on the planet and it has gone far too unrecognized for far too long. So, thanks Todd Carmichael for that. However, the host and producers of the show seem to think that it’s necessary to sacrifice cultural accuracy at the expense of the people’s dignity in order to get that message out about the delicious coffee. I understand that the premise of the show is to show the swashbuckling adventure that is the coffee business and in order to make the show as thrilling as possible they have to make the situations seem as threatening as possible. Otherwise they’d have to just title the show “Exotic Grounds” or “Tasty Grounds” or “Really Far Away Grounds”. Not quite as intriguing, I suppose.
In the show’s introduction you feel like Carmichael is actually reading straight from the State Department website about all of the dangers that lurk all around in the Haitian streets. In the first 5 minutes while riding in the back of a truck through Port-au-Prince he describes Haiti as a “category 5” country, the most dangerous. “This is Afghanistan. This is Somalia.” he says. “This is anarchy. It doesn’t get any worse than this.” Hectic, confused, crowded, I could accept. But anarchy? C’mon. And I’ve never been to Afghanistan or Somalia, but last I heard there was a war going on in Afghanistan, so just because there’s lots of people, noise, and trash around you doesn’t mean you’re in the middle of a war. Let’s search for a more accurate comparison if we’re going to broadcast this on television.
But then, he goes and talks to a wealthy Haitian friend of his who is involved in the coffee trade who warns him to wear a bulletproof vest because he actually is “going into war”. “So I’m gonna get shot at?” Carmichael asked nervously. And the camera shot leaves the implication that there is simply no way you can find good coffee in the country without getting shot at. Spoiler alert: He never gets shot at.
As they head off on their mission for the best coffee, they stop by a market in Port-au-Prince where Carmichael purchases 2 pounds of coffee which he pointed out was clearly rotten but bought because he didn’t want to offend the vendor. After he’s got the coffee, he and his one cameraman have to hightail it out of the market to escape an impending riot. The only evidence of this riot however is the words of Carmichael as they run out of the market and seek safety next to a UN vehicle. How did they know that a riot was going to break out? Because more and more Haitians were quickly crowding around them and their fancy equipment. It couldn’t possibly be because that markets in Haiti are just that busy and crowded? I can understand that they were uncomfortable, but probably not in danger. The biggest problem is that Carmichael and his crew didn’t have any local Haitians to guide and translate for them through their experience who would be able to interpret such situations in a cultural light to show the real level of danger or safety involved.
After that they head off into the mountains where the James Bond of Coffee claims the best stuff is found in the highest altitudes. Along the way Carmichael will stop along the road and pick coffee fruit off of trees right from his driver seat and go onto farmer’s property to taste the fruit right off the branch. Haiti is not, in general, a dangerous place, but I can tell you that one good way to put yourself in danger is by stealing and trespassing. But that’s true anywhere. When the crew winds up in the middle of nowhere one night they end up sleeping underneath their truck to prevent it from being stolen or stripped, which they claimed would be inevitable. Again, had they had a trustworthy guide who spoke the language and knew the culture, they could have easily found a decent place to sleep and park the vehicle overnight no matter where they were.
But part of what makes the show entertaining is actually watching Carmichael fumble through communication with the Haitian merchants and farmers and people walking through the streets with his very Frenchy-French. The type of French that only government employees, NGO representatives, and professors ever use in the country. They type of French that only brings blank looks to the faces of merchants, farmers, and people in the streets because it’s the language of the elite, not the language of the people. Towards the end of the hour-long show Carmichael does find the coffee that he’s looking for, but of course their lives are in danger when approaching the farmer about his coffee because he was holding a machete. And the only thing that machetes are ever used for is apparently killing people. Every farmer that I know in Haiti is carrying a machete with them 90% of the time. And they’re some of the least dangerous people on the planet, despite this show’s allegations. Least dangerous. They are in fact the ones growing some of the best coffee on the planet. And I think that the Travel Channel would do well to do its homework and portray the populations that they enter with more authenticity and accuracy, for the sake of the people there but also for travelers and coffee lovers everywhere.