The sun scorches my shoulders as I sit perched atop a cliff, overlooking the rocky layers of earth below. At such great heights, there is no amount of sunscreen that can protect my freckled skin from the intensity of the unfiltered Ethiopian highlands sun. Even in this great heat, I’ll soon be invited to indulge in one of the country’s oldest traditions: an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
The land below me is sectioned into plots of farmland, where sorghum, wheat and barley grow tall. Beyond the farms, a winding road leads to the small town of Lalibela, where a smattering of single-story homes and tukul huts rise above the red earth amidst juniper and olive trees. A market intersects the town, providing a center for trade of goods from across the region: spices, coffee, incense, woven blanket, grains hauled in on the backs of donkeys.
I had arrived in Lalibela a few days prior and hopped in a shared taxi to town, my stopping point before heading up into the mountains to my home for the next week. I had no idea how to reach this village, only accessible by foot and donkey. Luckily, within a second of stepping out of the taxi, I was greeted by a welcome committee of local men eager to be my guide for the week. Eventually, it was Rasta — aptly nicknamed after his following of the Rastafarian religion, which has a major following in Ethiopia — whose big-toothed smile and adamant passion for Ethiopia won me over.
An ancient town steeped with history dating back to medieval times, Lalibela is something of a Mecca for Orthodox Ethiopians, a religion with roots as far back as the 4th century. Thousands of Ethiopians walk for months each year to reach the town in time for Ethiopian Christmas and Easter celebrations. Rock-hewn churches, built as long ago as the 7th century, have been carved from rock formations. Today, the churches are flooded with a sea of worshipers dressed in white, crowding within the carved, stone walls, partaking in sermons, chanting, and drumming led by Orthodox priests adorned in elaborate red and gold robes.
And yet, sitting far above the town, perched on the cradle of the world, I am surrounded by nothing but the open expanse of mountains for miles. My only other companions are a family of gelada monkeys, who lurk through the tall grass, oblivious to my presence. Native to the northern Ethiopian highlands, the gelada baboon is distinguished by its red chest and long, silky chestnut-colored hair. The king of the tribe, baring his fangs, has an impressive mane and an incessant desire to mate approximately every ten minutes. Before long, the baboon family descends down the cliff, leaving me entirely alone.
I’m not sure when I first was struck by the desire to make my way into these remote highlands of Amhara. With a resentment towards the ever-growing tourist industry detracting from a place’s authentic experience, the more remote and off-the beaten path a place is, the more I am drawn to it. And so here I found myself, sitting among the grassy brush of a place I could hardly place on a map.
Few places in this world feel so uninterrupted by the urges of the modern age. Life in the plateaus of Amhara has remained essentially unchanged over the past two thousand years. Culture, religion, language, infrastructure, food… a continuity of tradition from generations gone by. I am at peace in this preserved slice of the world and take comfort in its simplicity and unabashed honesty. A place so free provokes a simultaneous sense of stillness and movement. I’m content to simply sit among the embrace of nature, to feel the warmth of the sun soften across my face, to listen to the wind rustle through the grass, and to watch goats and sheep grazing in the dips of the valley, their cries echoing across the open gorge.
Yet, among a land so sweeping and uninhibited, my curiosity always takes the lead sooner or later. And so, we continue to walk, Rasta with his thick dreads bouncing along his back in front, leading the way. There is a tangible meditation in the motions of walking through fields and up crumbling escarpment devoid of any clear path. As we saunter on, a fresh, mesmerizing aroma fills the air. We are walking through a field of thyme.
An hour or two has passed when a handful of straw-roofed tukul huts rise from the emptiness. The round, mud structures with cone-shaped thatched roofs, have a million-dollar view over the endless green mountains. As we climb up the hill, tall, slender figures appear, curious to see the lone farangi in their village. Rasta stops to greet an older woman with mocha-colored skin dressed in a long, blue-flowered skirt. “Salam!” she grabs my hand in hers, a smile reflecting in her eyes. “Mariam,” she announces, touching her chest, and welcomes us into her home.
I stoop down to enter the tukul. My eyes work to adjust to the dark, smoky room. The hut is windowless and the only opening aside from the door is a hole at the top of the roof for smoke to escape. The family’s cows and goats are sleeping in their divided side of the home. The rest of the hut is sectioned off for storage and stacks of simple beds and cotton blankets for the three generations that live there.
A fire blazes in a pit in the center of the home. The mother, father, their two daughters, and their grandsons are gathered around the fire. Introductions are made with a mix of hand gestures, Rasta’s translations, and me stumbling over a few Amharic words. No more than a minute passes before Mariam motions to a coffee pot, inviting me to partake in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
Legend has it that a goat herder named Kaldi discovered coffee in Ethiopia in the 9th century after his goats sampled the energizing bean. The truth in that story is up to one’s imagination but Ethiopians take deep pride in claiming that their country is the birthplace of coffee. Unlike many other coffee-producing nations that export their best beans for profit, Ethiopia holds on to their top coffee. The tradition of drinking coffee is almost as old as the mountains here and continues to be a central part of the day in Ethiopia. From street-side stands in bustling Addis Ababa, to the humble abode of a tukul in Amhara’s mountains, coffee is rarely a scarcity.
Mariam’s younger daughter first lights a small plate of what appears to be woodchips. “First, we light incense,” Rasta explains. “And then we roast the beans.” In Ethiopia, coffee is not simply consumed but rather prepared ceremoniously. The velvety, aromatic plumes of smoke linger in the air, cutting through the sharp odor of manure and farm animals.
Next, Mariam pours tan-colored beans onto a wide, shallow metal pan over the fire. I am entrusted with the job of roasting the beans. I turn them over the blazing fire while the heat gradually darkens their skins and awakens the rich, chocolaty scent of coffee. I attempt to grind the beans in a mortar and pestle until Mariam takes over and quickly grinds them into a fine powder. The ground beans are mixed with water into an elegant silver coffee pot, that is placed back on the fire to heat. Mariam pours the coffee out of and back into the coffee pot and back on the fire three times over as a filtering process.
There is an intricacy that goes into each step of the process, a care that is lost in the era of instant coffee and efficiency. At long last, the coffee is poured in a long stream into tiny cups, with a dash of salt added in — a specialty in Northern Ethiopia — and passed around the room.
I tentatively sip the smooth, earthy liquid, hesitant to drink too much. I have a caffeine intolerance likened to some bizarre psychoactive reaction. However, when offered coffee in the Northern highlands of Ethiopia, accept the coffee. All eyes are on the farangi drinking her coffee, eager to see how she likes it. I am simply content with being here, in the most unexpected slice of the world. Once more, I relish in the stillness of life in these mountains and revel in the simple act of making and sharing coffee with new friends.
What cultural rituals have you been invited to share in during your travels? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!