Ethiopia, a country I was always fascinated by but never thought I could travel to and yet here I was. As the Emirates flight touched down at the airport, with sand and dust getting kicked up by the engines outside, all I could think of was sleep. It was early January, and I was just coming in from South Asia having spent New Year’s there with good friends. Now I was all alone in Ethiopia as the country was about to celebrate its most holiest of days, orthodox Christmas.
The first surprise was the striking greenery everywhere, no matter what direction you looked at. Definitely not the bleak Ethiopia of famine infamy that is heavily featured in mainstream media.
My hotel in Addis Ababa had arranged for a driver to transfer me from the airport, which is always a welcome touch. I remember getting into the car, and then being woken up by the driver outside the hotel, with its ominously intriguing “Lion’s Den” sign over the entrance.
As I dragged my tired self in, the owner greeted me with a bright smile and got me sorted out quickly. And that’s when I was treated for the first time (and many times thereafter) to a treasure of this country – Ethiopian coffee. As I would come to learn, Ethiopians take their coffee very seriously, and devote great care and ceremony in preparing it. It is only fair then that I devote an entire post to it.
The next afternoon, Bubi, the hotel owner, invited me to a special coffee ceremony they were having in the small lobby of the Lion’s Den hotel. It was orthodox Christmas eve, and this is where I got to see my first coffee ceremony. The entire process of making coffee from roasting the beans to the final serving is done with meticulous and ritualized care.
After the coffee Bubi insisted that I join her family for Christmas lunch, taking in a solo traveler as one of their own. The food – simply delicious! The menu – Injera bread, homemade rice wine, goat curry, and healthy servings of richly flavored coffee in between. And when you add some spirited conversation about the West’s perception of Ethiopia, mid east politics, and the best bars to get wasted in Addis, you have the makings of a great afternoon, and a decidedly blurry evening.
After a few days in Addis, I flew north to Lalibela, a town in the rural mountainous region of the country where the famous rock hewn churches are. During orthodox Christmas, a lot of pilgrims come to this part of the country to pay homage and worship in the churches of their saints. One of my most memorable experiences here was a spur-of-moment decision with my driver to go exploring the villages and countryside of the north by foot. A future post will recount this trek in detail but I want to focus here on a specific encounter that occurred.
As my driver was leading me into a village, we saw a lady sweeping the front of her hut. With the driver acting as my translator, I asked her if I could photograph her. They talked for what seemed like a long time and then the next thing I knew, she was beckoning us to come inside the hut. I have to say my first instinct was to quickly capture her discretely with my small camera and move on, like I usually tend to do when shooting street life and in-the-moment scenes. Good thing I didn’t go with that instinct.
The driver told me that she was inviting us to come in for coffee. After my Lion’s Den experience, I definitely couldn’t pass this up. Before going in, she wanted us to wait for her son to bring something first. Her son then scurried into the hut with sheepskin, which had me puzzled. I later found out that they use the sheepskin to cover the mud benches in their huts when special guests arrive.
Once we were inside and seated, the lady started to roast some fresh coffee beans in a pan, the rich aromas mixing with the smoke to fill the air all around us. I busily started to photograph her in action as well as the hut and wondered if she minded me invading the privacy of her home. But she was all smiles, as was her son who seemed quite intrigued by my camera more than anything else.
After the roast, she began grinding the beans carefully with a determined pace, while my driver started to fill me in on the peaceful lives the villagers lead in this part of the country. There was something special, something idyllic, about sitting in the home of a villager while she lovingly prepared something for us to drink.. the sounds of chickens and goats outside, and of swaying trees in the crisp mountain breeze. As much as I had enjoyed the big city, Lalibela was turning out to be a place that would come to define Ethiopia for me. And this particular moment was just one of many across my travels that continue to highlight how contentment, what it means to be truly happy, is not necessarily tied to material wealth and the rat race of modern society.
After some time, she beckoned us to come outside to boil the coffee in a special clay pot.
I confess, at this point, I pulled a tourist move and asked her (through the driver) if we could use our bottled water for the coffee instead of the water from her well. I felt guilty and did not know how she would react. True to warm Ethiopian hospitality, she gave me a nod with a smile and gestured for me to empty my bottled water into the coffee pot. After much filtering and pouring back and forth, the coffee was finally ready and she started to pour it into the cups. Many, many cups.
Apparently, as a guest, one has to drink at least six cups before leaving the house. I was happy to oblige of course, and it was absolutely sublime. Drinking cup after cup, laughing and trying to carry on a conversation with a stranger who had welcomed me into their home in Ethiopia, all because I had decided on a whim to ask them to pose for a photograph. These are the sort of moments that define the essence of travel for me.
Before leaving, I finally did get what I initially set out to do – capture a portrait of her, beaming smile and all.