[For those joining our program in progress, Jim is traveling in Ethiopia from Feb 16 through March 1st in search of great coffees and lasting relationships with the people who produce it. These notes are brief insights into the success of the trip.]
What a long, strange trip it’s been. And while I’m now in-country, I’m not even close to coffee yet.
If I sound like I’m complaining… I am, but just a little. After the 26-hour plane journey, the shuttle to the Jupiter hotel was uneventful. The short drive through Addis in the dark provided few clues as to what would be revealed in the light. I would learn later, somewhat to my surprise, that the Jupiter actually amounts to luxury accommodations for foreign travelers. But on that night, arriving late, it sure didn’t seem that way. The good news was that I could still get food from the hotel bar.
My first meal in country was quintessential Ethiopian – injera wat. Injera is a kind of bread, but nothing like anything I’ve ever encountered elsewhere in the world. Made from tef, a grain unique to Ethiopia, the result is a spongy, stretchy and tangy sheet of bread-like substance not entirely unlike an ACE Bandage in appearance. In fact, it is served rolled just like that bandage. It’s kind of tasty, but I did ultimately tire of it. Wat is a stew-like bowl of meat, which might be chicken (doro wat, the official national dish of Ethiopia, ironic considering the almost complete absence of chicken in the countryside, as I would later note), goat (figel), beef (bure), or fish (asa), but my meal that night was bege, or lamb. Wat is traditionally accompanied by a dipping sauce. In theory, these sauces are available in a mild form known as alicha, but the locals eat it with kai (kai means red, deriving its color from beriberi, or peppers). Which way do you think I went? After a rather extended and sometimes heated conversation with the bar tender, where he took pains to try to convince me I didn’t know what I wanted, but finally understood that I knew *exactly* what I wanted, my order was placed precisely as specified: Injera Bege Kai Wat. He gave a knowing little snicker of the type I’ve gotten used to hearing in bars all over the world, the kind that goes with the thought, “stupid American”.
While I waited for my food, I ordered the regional St. George beer (think Rolling Rock) and thought I would catch some CNN, where the plunge of the Dow was being noted half a world away to people who understood little of it and cared even less. But there were a couple lovely ladies at the bar who had other ideas, if you know what I mean. I was polite enough to buy them a round of drinks; hey, they’re just trying to make a living, and I have to admit to being flattered even though I knew better. In return, they taught me the first phrase I strive to learn in every new place I visit. My best phonetic reproduction of the Ethiopian version is “La Tay Na Chin”, otherwise known as Salud in Spanish speaking places, or Kam-pai in Japanese, or La heim in Hebrew, or “To health!” in English. Another round of drinks (and a few new local phrases I can’t repeat) later, it was clear I would have no peace at the bar, so I said adieu to my new friends and instructed the barkeep to have my food sent up to the room.
I took advantage of what would turn out to be one of the few [relatively] high speed internet connections in the country to Skype home. Remember me telling you how great Skype is? Well, that’s still true, but Ethiopia doesn’t have the same kind of bandwidth as the USA. The video feed was choppy, but effective, so I got to say hello to the family for what would turn out to be the last time in quite a while.
After checking the peep hole to be sure the barkeep didn’t let the ladies bring up the food, I settled in for my first bite in a new land. My reaction to the injera was “hmm, kinda like sourdough”. The thought about the wat was, “oh my… I can imagine what this animal looked like, and it’s not good”. And while I had great expectations for the kai, my finding was much the same as it’s been to other over-hyped foods from around the world… “you call that hot?”. I came to learn later in the trip that Ethiopians tend to fancy themselves as some kind of fire devils, the only ones who really know or can tolerate spicy foods. Come with me to Mexico, I say. I was hungry enough to mop up all the kai-covered wat, and finish my beer before the need to sleep overwhelmed me. I drifted off to a TV replaying bad 80’s movies on the Fox Movie Channel (the 80’s being another theme I would find is popular with Ethiopians), wondering what tomorrow would bring. A decent cup of coffee, I hoped.