Tue, Aug 31, 2010
Gorgeous traditions offer a snapshot of a proud country.
I like cream in my coffee, and I like a lot of it. However, my preferred shade of au lait will not be possible this evening at a traditional coffee ceremony in Lalibela, one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities, with 13 rock-hewn churches carved straight into dusty red volcanic rock during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Islam are the religions here, and injera, spongy flatbread made from teff flour, is the national staple. My guide, Addis Engida, tells me he misses it if he doesn’t have it every day. Coffee falls somewhere in between. It’s Ethiopia’s largest export, and the ritual of preparing and drinking it is one of the most important times of the day for Ethiopians, occurring up to three times a day in some villages.
This isn’t just a cup of joe in the morning to prop open your eyes or a quick break to make it through to bedtime. It’s a time for families to gather, to share the news of the day, and after the third cup (three rounds every time), it’s believed that one’s spirit is transformed.
It’s also rude not to drink all three rounds, and I’m concerned over imbibing three shots of caffeine this late in the day. But I certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on a spirit transformation. Atop a low cowhide stool set on the floor painted a bright turquoise, I watch Wubit Alemnew, our hostess for the coffee ceremony (dubbed that evening “the coffee lady”), swathed in a traditional coffee dress, habesha qemis, with a shash (a head wrap with a scarf) wound neatly around her head, begin preparations.
The coffee prep zone looks more than just a little like an ancient chemistry experiment with the assemblage of fine china alongside rustic clay pots that could very well be artifacts from an archaeological dig. Wubit is the smiling scientist surrounded in billowing frankincense as she washes the beans slowly, purposefully, religiously.
All in a Day of Brew
Making coffee is not a means to an end in Ethiopia. The preparation is just as important as the community it drums up while it’s consumed, and it’s a process that starts from scratch. The Ethiopian coffee way is a full lifecycle and starts with the raw deal, literally. Addisu, who can rattle off every date in Ethiopian history back 3.2 million years to Lucy whilst jury-rigging a broken flip flop with a bottle cap and a twig, informs me most coffee ceremonies take 28 minutes.
Ours would take two hours. But that’s just how time goes here. And much like the effect of “island time” when you’re in the Caribbean, there’s the sense of life unfolding without urgency. It’s literally slower: Ethiopians follow the Ge’ez 13-month calendar and are behind the Gregorian calendar by seven years. (It will turn 2003 on Sept. 11, 2010.)
Technology and industry are moving in and hastening life, but they’re still tangled with the old way—oil trucks tumble down a sparing number of paved roads, whisking by farmers majestically cracking whips over oxen-drawn plows tilling earth barely shaded by the flat-top canopies of acacia trees. One thing is certain: Save the spontaneous dust tornado that whips up a frenzy across the fields and then settles just as quickly as it started, nothing is instantaneous here, especially not the coffee.
Wubit simmers the clean beans over an open charcoal fire to husk the outer shell. The aromatic smoke crosses streams with the incense, and the room is downright cloudy. She smiles a grin full of teeth, the apple of her cheeks shining, and sets the glistening beans aside. She retreats to a back room and emerges with a tray of moonshine and St. George beer to tide over her weary guests.
Perhaps these are necessary libations to offset the effect of consuming caffeine past dusk, though after our morning sojourn to the mountaintop monastery Ashetan Maryam with views of the valley, any concern over being kept awake is preposterous.
A Mule’s Journey
Earlier in the day, I embarked on a three-hour journey under a relentless sun on the back of a mule with a death wish. (Thank goodness for the 6-inch brimmed hat I’d bought several days earlier from a savvy saleswoman who promised that her mother had woven the coffia, which looked comically like a sombrero.)
While all the other pack animals forged on in steady formation passing thatched-roof mud huts, grazing goats, eucalyptus forests and more green than I’d ever expected to see in this country, my four-legged friend veered off to the road’s edge when my guide so much as blinked in another direction, which was approximately every two minutes on our hour-long push. Shouted commands in Amharic, “Miche! Miche!” which means something like “Go!” pushed us back on course.
Down the mountain and three more carved churches later, including the cross-shaped Church of Saint George, considered by some to be the eighth wonder of the world, and two other stone churches that were linked by a dark tunnel, Addis announced that we’d be making two special stops on the way back to our hotel just outside of town.
One was a drop-in at Torpedo, a vividly decorated bar serving tej, Ethiopian honey wine brewed in alcoholic and very alcoholic varieties and sipped from a berele, which looks like a clear glass vase with a skinny spout and bulbous base. The second was to Wubit’s, where I’d surprised our hostess with a customary triple-cheek kiss (everything in threes in Ethiopia), and she showed me around her apartment located at the back of her shop, which is not unlike my studio with space enough for a bed, TV and remote control. Then she smiled her endless grin and made coffee.
Grounds for Happiness
Back at the coffee ceremony, popcorn percolates over an open flame, and while Wubit takes a mortar and pestle to grind the beans by hand, her friend (dressed in a black top, jeans and flip flops) demonstrates on me the different methods women use to tie a shash.
Since I’m a game participant, an Ethiopian makeover commences that includes wrapping me in a netela (a gauzy shawl) and jewelry, followed by a lesson in traditional Ethiopian dance—up-and-down shoulder jerks reminiscent of the “pop and lock,” a breakdance move that gives the illusion of stop motion in film.
Wubit passes the mortar and pestle on to me, and I try my hand at manual coffee grinding. The grounds make their way into the jebena, a clay pot in which the coffee is boiled, and once ready, Wubit expertly pours a languid stream of black into the neat rows of delicate teacups for the first round (abol).
I take two lumps of sugar and stir the elixir with an even more delicate silver spoon. I sip. I gulp. The flavor is rich and soothing. It fills up my palate more than a dollop of cream could ever hope to. I happily consume a second (tona) and third (baraka) round.
Did my spirit transform? Who’s to say it didn’t? One thing is certain: I was blessed.
Daily nonstop flights on Ethiopian Airlines to Addis Ababa from Washington Dulles International.
Where to Stay
Yemereha Hotel, Lalibela
Just outside of town, Yemereha is a comfortable stay with modest furnishings and rooms overlooking villager backyards, meaning you will wake to the murmur of farmers feeding oxen and the occasional bleating of goats. There’s a dining pavilion with a bar, where you can take your meals and relax. Plan to see Wubit, the coffee master, while you’re in town. To register: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wenney Eco-Lodge, Lake Langano
Down 18 kilometers of back roads and through one impossibly narrow covered bridge lies Wenney Eco-Lodge on the shores of Lake Langano, where the treetops are a playground for more than 400 species of birds and black-and-white colobus monkeys. There’s a good chance you’ll see hippos stalking the shoreline at dusk, too. Take a jaunt over to a nearby fishing village for an authentic Ethiopian fish fry, and visit Abijatta-Shalla Lakes National Park to hand-feed peanuts to the monkeys.
Kuriftu Spa and Resort, Bahir Dar
Kuriftu is a new resort surrounded in purple blooms of jacaranda trees on Lake Tana and has some seriously gorgeous bungalows. Each room is outfitted with an enormous four-poster bed, tile shower and a flat-screen TV—though the lake views from the sleeping porch with fireplace are much more enticing than catching “Point Break,” and so is the spa staffed by attendants with viselike grips to ease sore muscles.