[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. I will be adding images in upcoming weeks, but the bandwidth here in Ethiopia is just insufficient.]
After a fitful rest at the luxurious Jupiter Hotel, I had a quick breakfast that eerily resembled dinner and met my traveling companions for the first time. This group includes many of the key opinion leaders in specialty coffee, and I must confess to being just slightly star-struck. I pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, and thanked my lucky stars that that I was invited, for reasons still not completely obvious to me. As the bus pulled up to take us to points east, I discretely eyed the luggage and was secretly relieved to note that my bag was not the largest among the group. In places like this, it’s never good to be the fifth passenger in some Japanese SUV, with luggage half the size of the car, and while I didn’t think that particular scenario would pop up, you just never know. Gotta travel light.
And for the next 11 hours we sat on that bus for the 300-mile trip from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa in the east of Ethiopia. Much of that journey was made with my trusty gen3 iPod supplying an eclectic mix of music from the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin to Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, and my cushy Brookstone eyeshades mercifully blocking all light to my tired eyes. I needed the music to drown out the DVDs showing on the bus for mandatory viewing (and listening) – who knew there was an African version of Bollywood?
But there was surely no better way to experience Ethiopia than to drive through it. Imagine a scene from a movie, with the hero (or heroine) driving through, poor, foreign, dusty town, streets crammed with people and roads full of goats and cattle. In between, there were long stretches of hilly, high desert… with roads full of goats and cattle. Did I mention all the goats and cattle? Seriously, the drive through eastern Ethiopia is classic high desert – parched and sparsely vegetated, complete with cactus. The further east you proceed, the more mountainous the terrain becomes, to the point where the views are breathtaking; imagine the Appalachian Mountains with no trees, just thatched huts and terraced gardens as far as the eye can see. It would be amazing to me later in the trip that coffee grows in Harar, but the climate, along with other aspects of coffee cultivation unique to Ethiopia, provides insight into Harar’s (and Ethiopia’s) unique flavor profiles.
It was a fantastic ride, despite the pervasive poverty. Ethiopia is a country of rugged, natural beauty, fertile land and proud, resourceful people. It’s amazing to experience such an enormous, rural countryside; it is amazing to see people truly live off the land, especially a land as apparently difficult as this. Despite a lack of material goods, images of starvation were not among those we saw anywhere in Ethiopia, but the extent of the poverty is sad. Imagine an all day drive, through some places where a home of manure-coated sticks is upscale living. Makes you realize just how good we have it in the USA, despite all of the current handwringing; in a place where clean water and electricity are luxuries, Americans seem like a bunch of whiners.
We arrived into Dire Dawa just as dark approached. The next couple days are the event we all came for, a roundtable discussion and cupping of Harar coffees, where we will judge the current offerings and discuss the numerous issues facing the Ethiopian coffee industry. Our local hosts seem open-minded and inquisitive about our attitudes and coffee purchasing behaviors, so I’m optimistic that the conference will be beneficial to all. Stay tuned.