Chasing Coffee in Ethiopia: Part Three
On our coffee-sourcing journey through the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia, we visited a series of coffee washing stations to collect samples for cupping and roasting. But on our way there, we had a brush with death that changed the course of our...
Photo by Ashton Goggans
Welcome back to our installment of features from Ashton Goggans of Sightglass Coffee, an independent roastery in San Francisco, about the company's ongoing sourcing trips around Africa. There's a lot of crazy shit that happens in order to get high-quality beans back into the States, so the next time you start bitching about your overpriced cup of java, check back in on this ongoing series to get an insider's perspective about what it takes to source some of the best coffee in the world.
We set up our tents while the men butchered the goat with their machetes, cleaning the meat in the grass. They started a fire.
My nausea from all of the medicine had eased overnight, but nine hours lurching slowly down dirt roads had caused it to return with a vengeance. And here we were, the guests of honor at a meal of fresh goat.
We were instructed to sit at a makeshift table. In the darkness of evening, the men placed a massive flashlight on the table pointed directly at us to illuminate our food.
The more desirable (fatty) bits of goat were placed in a cast iron pot over the fire and heavily spiced. The smell was overwhelming. A woman performed the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony for us—cooking dried coffee beans in a cast iron skillet, pulverizing them in a makeshift mortar and pestle and dissolving the powder in water. The result was a very rich, muddy, thick elixir. I drank a few sips and felt my stomach turn, setting my nausea into full-throttle.
They dumped the meat onto a metal tray in front of the flashlight. We reached into the pile with our hands. Sweat poured down my face and neck. I took small bites of the rich meat, chewing slowly. The twenty or so men graciously stood around the fire and sat around in the grass, their faces thin and shiny in the firelight's glow. They wouldn't eat until we were finished. We felt honored and humbled at the activity of the goat sacrifice because it was a rare occasion practiced once a harvest.
"Eat!" a voice said from behind the light told me.
"Why no eat?" he asked. It felt interrogatory, a voice in the dark, just out of sight.
I took a small piece of meat and put it in my mouth, a particularly gelatinous, fatty bite. It tasted fresh and gamey. I was so nauseated that I didn't know how to tell him that I was sick.
The Brothers Morrison could see the struggle in my face as I took small bites, chewing them slowly, choking them down. They picked up my slack, and finished the tray's contents. The rest of the men took seats on the ground and proceeded to eat every last piece of the remaining goat, cleaning the bottom of the cast iron pot with injera bread, laughing and carrying on.
I took a walk out into the field beyond the firelight's reach and felt the tsunami of illness wash over me. I spent the next ten hours in and out of fever dreams, crawling as far from my tent as I could before each episode of retching.
The men were kind enough to have two young boys keep a lookout and watch over us. The boys sat together by the fire speaking quietly and laughing late into the night, watching me come and go from my tent, pale and shivering. The Brothers Morrison spoke to me through their tents. They brought me water. There was nothing to do but sweat and be sick.
I awoke the next morning to a cool and calm sunrise. My clothes and sleeping bag were soaked with sweat. I spread them on the empty drying beds to air them out. They undulated gently in the morning breeze.
Thankfully, my strength came back slowly over the next two days as we made our way through the southwestern highlands. We walked to a handful of washing stations that looked very promising, and collected coffee samples to roast and cup for when we returned home to San Francisco. We score coffees on a 100-point scale; coffees that score 80 or above receive a "specialty coffee" grade, while the ones that score lower are sold on the commodities market, their fate sealed in mass-market tins like Folgers or a seasonal blend from a major coffee chain, perhaps in those little plastic one-cup pods.
At 10 AM two days later, we found ourselves cruising down a smoothly paved road. The Brothers Morrison and May sat in the back seat, listening to music. Our driver—at that point in the trip—had become a source of true frustration. With cirrhotic eyes and sunken cheeks, he wore a greasy leather jacket and a dozen gold bangles on his wrists, incessantly chewing on a toothpick. He answered one of his two cellphones or pager (it was hard to tell) while careening down some seriously rough roads. In the more dense towns and cities he played frogger with pedestrians and dogs and donkeys, nearly clipping women and children while wearing a face of mild disinterest.
But on this morning, I suddenly got the sensation of riding in an unguided vehicle, as the truck drifted lightly into the oncoming lane. A faded blue bus was approaching quickly, heading the other way. I looked at our driver. His eyes were closed. His head moved side-to-side with the car's jostling.
For some reason, the only thing I could think to do was whistle. The driver suddenly woke himself and jerked the wheel straight. The truck swerved violently. We missed the oncoming bus by a few feet. The bus never honked. I looked into the back seat. Everyone's eyes were wide, fear-stricken.
"Are you alright?" I asked the driver.
He didn't say a word. Later on, Justin took me aside and hugged me.
"I can't believe you whistled," he said.