• Travelling with the cosmic travel agency

    - a visit to Switzerland, the Congo and Kerala
    from Gregor Sieböck

    Somehow the cosmic travel agency has a sense of humour - oh, I just realised that maybe I should explain to all those who don't know this travel agency yet how I came to trust its services. It all started many, many years ago. Back then, I sat on a plane to my friend Toki in Philadelphia. Printed on the back of the ticket was a quote by John Lennon: "Life happens to you while you are busy making other plans." I got annoyed when I read those words because the phrase very much applied to me. At that time, I was already in my fourth semester of my economic studies and learned to go through life strategically and plan-oriented. But is life really following a plan?

    On my three-year-long trip around the world I finally learned to trust my intuition, my inner voice, more and more and when I came home, even more years of being on the road followed. This time together with Martin Weber, Austria's star energetics coach and awareness therapist (www.openspirit.at). We learned to wander without aim, to commit to the journey itself, to look out for signs and to feel protected, accompanied and guided in a wondrous way. Soon we started calling this the cosmic travel agency that pulled the strings for us and made sure that everything worked out.

    Well, everyone can travel with the cosmic travel agency and what's also great is that it works entirely commission-free. It oversees absolutely all coherencies and can thus perfectly direct everything into the right channels. Whoever wants to travel with this travel agency just has to discard the victim attitude (if you whine about a delayed train, you don't travel cosmically but earthly!), trust his or her inner voice and get away from detailed planning to arrive in the moment. It is an intense life in the here and now! Well, I have been travelling with the aforementioned cosmic travel agency for years and I keep being amazed at how wonderfully it works.

    So I was travelling on the night train from Austria to Switzerland because the nice lady from the Congolese embassy in Bern - where I had to apply for the visa I needed for my forthcoming Congo trip to the cocoa farmers in the mountains of the moon - gave me an appointment on Monday at 10.30. I had reserved a bed in a six-bed couchette coach to travel like royalty. The train was supposed to arrive in Zurich at 7:20 and I would be in Bern as early as 8:30. There I would have to wait for two hours... but oh well. The train travelled leisurely through the Austrian mountains to Switzerland and when I woke up in the morning, thinking we would soon be in Zurich, I was informed by the conductor that we were running 90 minutes late. So I kept on slumbering blissfully, enjoyed a delicious breakfast in bed and arrived in Zurich at shortly before 9 o'clock. The connecting train left less than minutes later but with just enough time for me to change trains without having to run. I finally arrived in Bern at 10:00 and avoided waiting around for two cold winter morning hours thanks to the cosmic travel agency. Now I was walking to the embassy. I had memorised the route I had to take from a map but soon got lost because of the many, winding roads. I just wanted to ask someone when, right at that moment, a young boy approached me and asked me (!) for directions. Well, the good thing was that he had a city map with him. With it, I could easily explain to him where he had to go - and also find out where I was currently located. I had to laugh because the cosmic travel agency really has a sense of humour: sending someone with a city map my way just when I get lost.

    The embassy was in the mansion district of Bern and I showed up at the secretary's with a stack of documents. Apparently, the Congolese government doesn't really want tourists to travel to their country and so one has to jump through several hoops: one has to bring everything from a yellow fever vaccination certificate to a bank guarantee and many other forms, as well as pay 120 Euros in order to declare one's wish to travel to the Congo (even though everyone currently advises against it because the safety situation is not exactly ideal - which should make them even happier that someone actually wants to come visit). Well, the lady from the embassy was very businesslike, accepted my documents and those of Simone, who will accompany me to Africa, and went to her desk. Fate took its course: something was amiss, she phoned a field office, gave them our information and I began to worry about our trip to Africa. But what good was worrying, so I kept my faith and thought: "If we are meant to take this trip, then everything will work out." But then I might have to go back home to Austria again to fix the document, and then travel back to Bern... well, we would see. I sat quietly in the waiting room and concentrated very hard on thinking that everything would happen exactly that way that was best for us - and what happened? Simone and I got our visa, after a few phone consultations the problem was solved. To celebrate the moment, I got out a bar of Zotter chocolate, "Mountains of the Moon with Congo Vanilla" and gave it to the lady from the embassy... she smiled and was clearly happy about her present... and I left with my visa. All done! Thank you, you cosmic helpers - you are incredible!

    At the Congolese embassy
    At the Congolese embassy

    I took the train back to Zurich, because that's where I meant to visit Tobias Joos from Pakkatrade. Pakka delivers cashew nuts and coconut flakes to Zotter. Right outside the office, which is located in an old, romantic house, is a large sailing ship and reminds me of the great wide world. I immediately felt at ease, which remained the case even after I had entered the homey office of Pakka. I shared a bar of delicious Zotter chocolate with the employees, told them about the wonders of my Zotter world trip, about my love for life and about my far wanderings into the world.

    Pakka's office in Zurich
    Pakka's office in Zurich
    Tobias Joos of Pakka
    Tobias Joos of Pakka

    Tobias Joos has been working for Pakka for four years. He spent his first year in the federal state Kerala, in India, where he established the coconut project and further developed the cashew project. The Zotter chocolate factory has been purchasing cashew nuts and coconut flakes from Pakka for several years, whereby the former are delivered from Kerala and the coconut flakes from Sri Lanka. In Kerela, only coconut oil has so far been produced for Pakka. Pakka, with its six employees, deals with everything - from project development to the sale of the products. With its own nut snack line, it delivers to bars and restaurants in Switzerland, the organic retail industry and the raw materials also go to processing businesses such as chocolate producers or confectionery shops. When it comes to the form and the expansion of their supplier relationships, Pakka not only carries on a trade with the products, they also help out energetically and on-site to create the necessary structures. This reaches from the quality management, to the organic and fair-trade certification of often thousands of small farmers, to the advance financing of technical facilities and local distribution channels. On average, it takes two to three years until the project structures are sufficiently formed and initial difficulties have been overcome, but by then, Pakka has built up a very special connection to their suppliers. The distinct supplier relationship also leads to Pakka having a very good quality control because they are included in the cultivation, the processing and the delivery of the products. Also, the Pakka employees have maintained a friendly contact to the farmers in the countries of the South due to many years of visiting them in the field. This is a significant difference to the retailers who simply distribute fair-trade products. They often only care about buying the certified goods as cheaply as possible and thus the whole back and forth between the wholesale trade and the farmers begins again - certified, of course, but still with a low appreciation for the farmers and simply with a "fair" exploitation!

    Pakka doesn't leave its farmers in the lurch. This shows, for example, in their support to not only sell whole cashew nuts but also cashew fragments. All processing of cashew nuts causes fragments to splinter off, whereby the mechanical processing in Brazil causes the most fragmentation. Pakka not only buys the whole nuts from the farmers, it also buys the fragments and so Zotter, for example, uses cashew fragments for their cashew nougat; because the nuts have to be chopped anyway - and on top of that, Pakka pays the farmers a good price, which is higher than that for African nuts - because the quality of the Indian cashews is the best in the world!

    The cashews
    The cashews
    The end product... the cashew nuts
    The end product... the cashew nuts

    Pakka also helped the small farmers to establish the Fairtrade Alliance Keralla. Since then, the thousand small farmers in Kerala work together and make decisions together. For example, many decades ago, the British colonial rulers decreed that the Indian farmers should mainly deliver gum elastic, spices and agricultural products for exporting. Rice, a basic food, has been mainly imported since then. The profit is made by the wholesalers, because the farmers sell their spices for low prices and buy their rice for high ones. Within the scope of the Fairtrade Alliance Kerala, the farmers of the region decided, for the first time in a long time, to once again grow their own rice - and thus support themselves. This leads to a local food safety and also adds to more biodiversity! Also, the farmers frequently encountered problems with elephants that trampled their harvest. To counteract this, they often used to injure the elephants in their desperation to keep them away, by covering the ground with glass splinters or sometimes even using guns. Now they decided, as a group, to purchase solar-powered electronic fences, which have been keeping the elephants away since then - without hurting them! These two examples show that fair trade á la Pakka really works here: the farmers take matters into their own hands. They discuss the issues that are important to them and then act together - without influence from the outside, which not only strengthens their autonomy but also their independence and freedom! Together they are also strong and don't become easy prey to the temptations of multinational chemical concerns and seed farms, which have not only led to many Indian small farmers being ruined over the last few years but also contributed to a widespread environmental pollution - be it through the massive use of chemicals or through genetically manipulated hybrid seeds. The farmers of the Fairtrade Alliance Kerala cultivate organically and entirely refrain from using pesticides, chemical fertilisers or GM technology!

    The roughly 4,000 small farmers of the Fairtrade Alliance Kerala each usually cultivate an area of one or just one half hectare. Because they receive a secure income for their extended family, they make sure to maintain a good soil quality. They grow cashews in strip cultivation with gum elastic, ginger and spices such as pepper, turmeric, nutmeg and cinnamon. In addition to that, they cultivate fruits and vegetables to slowly build up a local market for organic foods - though it will take several years still before these will be able to carry themselves financially - but the seeds have been sowed. In any case, due to the strip cultivation the biodiversity is being supported and the small-structured agriculture adds to many families, and not just a few large landowners, having an income.

    For the processing of the cashew nuts, the farmers have established their own drying place. There, the nuts are dried in the sun for about a week, so they become non-perishable within their shells. Because there is a natural toxin between the shell and the cashew nut, which protects the cashews from insect infestation, they can be kept for up to a year. The harvest takes place in April and throughout the rest of the year, the nuts are being processed, which is a very elaborate production process. At first, the nuts are steamed, then each nut has to be cracked by hand. This is hard work: on the one hand, it requires full concentration and on the other, the workers have to work with gloves because otherwise, the natural toxin within the cashew shell would burn their hands. Every two to three hours the workers need to take a break to relax their eyes.

    There are well-organised trade unions in Kerala, which make sure that humane working conditions in processing factories are obtained. This is the reason why many foreign companies don't want their cashews processed in Kerala because elsewhere, the workers can be exploited and have to work for up to 70 hours a week. Pakka, on the other hand, is happy about the strict standards, because they make sure that the rigorous fair-trade standards are being met. As soon as the cashews have been released from their shell, the nuts are vulnerable to insects; this is why a strict quality control is especially important. After the outer, hard shell has been removed, the inner, finer shell is peeled by hand. After that, the nuts are being sorted into 27 different sizes, also by hand, and are subsequently immediately packaged in a closed room! A small manufacture in Switzerland with a 100-year-old drying oven then receives these bulk packages. During roasting and seasoning the quality is once again checked by eye, then the nuts are filled into the Pakka snack bags.

    Cashews are one of the most traded nuts in the world. They grow mostly in West Africa, are then shipped to Vietnam where they are cracked and then delivered from there. Pakka works differently: the added value is created locally and on the best terms - that's how they produce perhaps one of the highest-quality cashew nuts one can buy in the world! Yes, I took several bags of nuts with me from Switzerland and can only confirm this - I have never before eaten such delicious cashew nuts and they taste even better when knowing that they have been produced in harmony with the Earth and under humane conditions! The Zotter chocolate factory has been purchasing the cashews from Pakka for the past three years or so, because Sepp Zotter is also convinced that these are simply the best nuts in the world - and what else would one use for the best chocolate in the world?

    Aside from cashews, Pakka also delivers coconut flakes to Zotter. So far, only cold-pressed coconut oil has been produced in Kerala, because it sells well and means that no coconuts are left over and also, there is no suitable drying oven on-site. The coconut flakes for Pakka are thus produced in Sri Lanka. The coconut trees grow amidst other plants such as cashews and spices. The harvest of the coconuts takes place throughout the whole year, whereas the time before and after the monsoon is the main harvest season, so June, October and November. After the harvest, the outer shell is removed, which leaves only the white coconut, the so-called snowball. This is then smashed and then the fruit pulp is dried. And the coconut flakes are ready!

    To conclude my visit at Pakka, I bought a box full of delicious cashews and Brazil nuts and then walked to the train. When I arrived at the main station in Zurich this time, my Railjet to Austria had just left 2 minutes earlier and I had to wait for two hours. So I used the time to also visit the shop of Farfalla - you remember, the company that delivers incense tincture to Zotter. Farfalla has a wonderful shop in Zurich and so I bought essential oils and organic alcohol to use as mosquito repellent in Congo: loaded with citronella, lavender and cedar oil I walked happily back to the train station. The cosmic travel agency had helped me get some wonderful essences. On the train I read a text message from Simone, who wrote that she had also done some online research about essential oils and asked me to buy a few essences - I had to smile! Everything's connected in a wondrous way...

    Zurich
    Zurich

    Yes, it's quite exciting where the river of life leads you if you let it and anyway, the most wondrous things happen in connection with the cosmic travel agency. Hallelujah, life is good...

    More information online: www.pakka.ch