Nov 242014

The Very Best Cup in the World

Coffee is the social glue of Ethiopian culture. You don’t just pop in for a quick cup at a friend’s house. The coffee ceremony is to these people what the tea ceremony is the Japanese.

Wild coffee is still gathered in the highland forests: Ethiopia is where coffee originates and wild coffee is the very best, I promise you that. First the beans have to be roasted over a charcoal fire in a metal urn. That takes about half an hour. All the while into another pot with coals frankincense is thrown and the smoke from that fills the room.

When the beans start to toast they have to be tended carefully, because that is when you determine whether you want a light, medium or dark roast. Dark is the only way here. When the beans are all blackened the roasting pan is taken off the fire. A tall clay coffee pot filled with water is put on the fire while the beans are spooned into a stone mortar and pounded extremely finely using a metal, crow-bar looking pestle.

This takes up to 10 minutes, all the while the frankincense is replenished. Personally I thought the smell of roasting coffee beans was adequate, but you cannot change a culture that is at least 4,000 years old. Frankincense, myrrh as well as coffee was exported from here to Egypt and Persia as far back as 2,000 BC, it is written.

The finely ground coffee is then spooned into the coffee pot and left to brew for a few minutes. It’s nearly time. However, you cannot serve coffee on its own. A platter of chachabessa – chapatti like flat bread – is passed around. It in turn is served with a spicy barberry sauce.

While we were staying at the Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela (we went there with Vast Ethiopian Tours), hotel manager Moges Fentaw invited us to participate in the coffee ceremony in the dining room, before the other noisy guests filled the room and proceeded to gulp down the day’s brew.

The best cup of coffee we have ever had - a Coffee Ceremony at Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela. Ethiopia.

The best cup of coffee we have ever had – a Coffee Ceremony at Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela. Ethiopia.

We were also treated to the special, first brew – there would be a second and a third fill for the punters, but that first one is the piece de resistance of the coffee world. It was not bitter at all, as we had expected it to be, with a hint of dark chocolate.

This is how it’s bean done for thousands of years, and no upstart cup served in Milan, Seattle or Cape Town comes close.

Nov 242014

From Out of the Strength Came Forth Sweetness

Honey plays a central role in the food of all pre-industrial societies. The Western World’s oldest text, the Old Testament or Talmud, tells of much about honey. For the Bushmen of the Kalahari it is edible gold. You could kill a person for raiding one of your hives. Even today in Ethiopia wild honey is a basic food group.

Could we have some butter for out breakfast toast, we asked waiter Habtamu Getachew in the Mountain View Hotel. (There are no surnames as we know them. Getachew is his father’s name; children, boys at any rate, take their father’s name as their surname.)
No butter.
Could we then have some margarine (yuk)?
No margarine.
What could we have then?
Honey. Wild honey.
Okay fine. Lovely. And why are you looking so tired.

Our waiter Habtamu Getachew at the Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Our waiter Habtamu Getachew at the Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Turns out Habtamu had been up all night at church, at a service to which we had been invited but ducked out of. We’d been up at around 4:30 am each day to get to the stone churches to get the photography done before the noisy tourists arrived at 9 am sharp each day. Which is when we’d retire back to the hotel for breakfast.

Habtamu told us whenever he has a day off he walks about five hours to his family home down the valley, not far from where King Lalibela was born at Kudues Harbe. There he goes and collects wild honey. Honey in this place is much than just sweet food. Honey is the only food that never spoils, it has a mild antibiotic action and can be used to cover burns, among its many wondrous properties. It is quite simply nature’s wonder food.

When a young minor prince was born, nearly 1,000 years ago in the north of the ancient kingdom of Axum, a swarm of bees surrounded the crib. “Lalibela” cried his royal mother, “the bees recognise his sovereignty!” There was a belief that animals could foretell important events.

The child was named Lalibela. He did eventually become king and it was he who, apparently, directed by God, built the 11 stone churches here that are now a World Heritage Site and one of the man-made wonders of the world. They are hewn from the volcanic rock mountainside. But what is most amazing about them is how they were constructed.

Actually they were deconstructed – the rock had to be tunnelled into and then, instead of building from the ground up, all the negative spaces inside the subterranean churches had to be chiseled away. Conceptually, it was a feat of extraordinary genius. From the strength of solid rock, was wrought fantastical architectural sweetness.

Nov 172014

Chef Solomon Getachew

Chef Solomon Getachew

Beating The Heat in the Kitchen

When the Levernes were looking for a chef to work at their new lodge in Bale Mountain National Park, their foodie friend in Addis Ababa Guy Fenton knew just the man for the job.

Solomon Getachew had trained at some of the larger hotels in Addis Ababa, including The Hilton, and then worked for a mining company in the dreaded Danakil region. It is not so much the heat in the kitchen that will get you, as the heat in the Depression: the Danakil Depression is one of the hottest places on Earth.

From there Solomon joined a catering company back in Addis run by former Gordon Ramsay trained chef, Guy Fenton. The nature of the work, however, was sporadic doing parties and embassy functions, so when Guy Fenton (so as not to be confused with Guy Leverne) heard there was a permanent job on offer he recommended Solomon.

“After working in Danakil, Bale did not seem so remote,” chuckles Guy Leverne. Apparently the idea of working there does not appeal to all, or apparently any other, urban-trained chef in the country. Trying to track down a relief chef for Solomon over the Christmas period was proving problematic for Guy (Leverne) on the day we arrived there.

Because of the connection, some guests assume they will be treated to haute cuisine a L’Ecosse, which is not the case. Guy (Fenton) helped set up the kitchen and design the menus for the lodge, but by the time you get there the Ramsay connection is three degrees of separation distant. What you will get at Bale is a lot of fresh local produce, including salads, vegetables and fruit.

The historical political and cultural isolation of the country has led to it developing entirely its own cuisine. The staple is injera, a spongy bread-type of food made from fermented teff (a cereal with a small black seed). You use it to mop up the spicy lentil, chickpea and vegetable sauces, as well as tibs, or roasted meat.

Every so often Solomon will produce a traditional injera bayoyanet, or platter. But for the most part it is more Ethiopian-Western fusion food (a style I just created). The desserts, though, are entirely Western and decadent and we’re sure Mr Ramsay would approve.

# ends

Nov 172014

God's Roof

God’s Roof

Not-so God’s Roof

By David Bristow

There is much to admire and be amazed by in Lalibela. But apart from the Euro-trash and Canadian camel-driving tourists (see post here), there is one other aspect to the place that begs comment. It is the roofs over the central complex of stone churches, namely Betemedhanialam (House of the Saviour), Debre Michael, Debre Sinai incorporating Debre Mariam, and Golgotha, wherein lies buried the great King Lalibela.

After 1,000 years out sun and rain the churches were in need of some TLC. In 1954 the Ethiopians covered them with hideous wood and tin roofs. Then it was declared a World Heritage Site and the UNESCO problem solvers stepped up.

They replaced the old ones in a super modern style that vaults the churches and reduces them to also-players. There is nothing subtle about those roofs. They pay no homage to history or the inherent spirituality of the place. The new ones exhibit high-tech solutions that would gladden the heart of any engineer, but not so much that of an architect or historian.

The huge flying slabs are supported on great steel pylons that rest on the surrounding stone. Where they need more weight on the footings, instead of using – oh, I don’t know, how about stone? – they have placed metre-high cubes of stainless steel. I know this from the horse’s mouth, so to say: engineers believe they have a contract from God to pave our entire planet. Which is exactly why we also have environmental scientists to try to keep them in check.

You would think, given the nature of the site, the rocket scientists at UNESCO might have commissioned an architect as inspirational as an IM Pei, or a Frank Gehry. Maybe a gentle curve, or a wave, supported from outside the main hewn-out area. Maybe it would have included some iconography and other historical references other than the super-modernist, angular edifices that now dominate this ancient site.

It looks to me like a solution arrived at by a committee of bureaucrats (or, to quote another astute observer of modern society, a confederacy of dunces). Certainly not inspired by God, or the angels that apparently helped carve out the churches.

It looks like UNESCO has gone and built an airport when all that was needed was a carport.

# ends

Nov 172014

Tourists in Heaven, from Hell

Tourists in Heaven, from Hell. Wish they were all as respectful as this one…

The Tourism Blight in Lalibela

Roger, Pat and I were discussing the Canadian tourists at the breakfast table at Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela. The town is the spiritual heart of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Normally such nice and restrained people, this group was loud and, quite frankly, offensive. The men dressed mostly in shorts, T-shirts and sandals, most of the women in tight, half-mast leggings with the camel toes and panty lines clearly showing.

They had absolutely no sense that they were in a very conservative and most holy place. To them it was just another Disney experience: Ooooooh, ancient stone churches and poor devoted people, how cute! If they were Christians would they go to mass in a cathedral at home dressed like that? I doubt it.

But they were not the worst. On our first day in Lalibela we attended an annual ceremony to honour King Lalibela’s successor, Nakotolab (four kings were responsible for building the amazing churches and each has his holy festival day). I noted Russian, German, Italian and French groups. Most were dressed similarly inappropriately and many thought it acceptable to barge through the ceremonies and point their cameras and mobile devices right into the faces of the high priests as they chanted holy incantations.

It is regrettable for the very many nice Europeans, but we could think of nothing kinder to call these barbarians from the so-called civilised world than Euro-trash. (You can tell the Germans from the Russians from a distance because the Russians wear much thicker socks with their sandals.) Funny in a way, but they were much better behaved, relatively, than the French or Italian speakers at the festival.

Lalibela is a very poor place, very devout and – it appears – very tolerant of outsiders; they need the money desperately. Walking in the streets every person seeing a priest will approach him; he then produces a cross, touches their head, they kiss it and sometimes his hand. There are around 900 priests so it’s a constant thing. Tourism money is helping keeping the place viable, but at what cultural and spiritual cost?

The Ethiopians have every reason to wish they could have retained their isolation from outside influence and moral decay as they were able for most of the previous 2,000 years. Someone needs to cast the first stone at the tourism delinquents who are ruining it for everyone else.


Nov 172014

Road Senseless

Road Senseless Ethiopia

Some Observations on Street Life, Past Life and Cycling

Ethiopians appear, after one week in the country, to have the street sense of what I refer to as “the headless chicken riders”: those 50,000 or so cyclists who bunch and barge, flail and force their way around my home town on one day in March each year. For all intents it’s a mindless, performance-enhanced, drug-crazed frenzy called the Cape Argus.

Driving long distance in Ethiopia is a thought-provoking experience. Most of those thoughts are of utter terror. The route from Addis Ababa to Bale is tarred all the way to the national park boundary. The journey usually takes six to seven hours, depending on things like the availability of fuel and the bravery of the driver.

 Ethiopians are very proud of their 2,000-year-old culture, but it seems this 40-year-old road construct is an all too new concept. It certainly is not a major transport route in the Western sense of the thing. For much of the way there are wide verges through the verdant countryside or substantial sidewalks in towns and villages. But they are seldom used for their intended purpose. Mostly they serve as extensions of farms or businesses. Everyone and everything else uses the road: vehicles, budgets (tuk tuks), horse carts, horsemen and horsewomen, cattle, horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, dogs and pedestrians.

In towns and villages (and goats do roam in villages), they will seldom make any effort whatsoever to give way to the traffic, whether budget, bus or truck. In towns pedestrians do not think for one second to look when venturing with great purpose into the street. Actually about half do, and half do not. But either way, none of them changes speed or direction in any event.

Pedestrians walking five or six abreast do not flinch for oncoming traffic. They appear to have as much right to use the road as anyone, or any animal. People standing in the middle of a lane chatting will not move out the way for any wheeled machine. “Excuse me! Can you see I’m standing here, talking?”

If a horse is straddling the middle line, vehicles whizzing past in both directions, the owner (who you can see standing on the far side of the road) will not expend any effort to move the animal. It’s not their problem; it is the drivers’.

The same goes for all animals. They appear to have every right to travel in the traffic lanes. People moving cattle, the herds spanning the road – abreast, never in line, they always move abreast – will make no attempt to move them to one side or part them for vehicles.

Animals, loaded or not, walk confidently towards oncoming traffic without so much as a blink, with no shepherding human supervision. The humans usually walk a ways behind: animal shields maybe. It’s all very interesting in a 2,000-year-old kind of way.

Ethiopian drivers seem to have worked out the behaviour of each animal species (as well as that of pedestrians), and adjust their speed and direction to just shave a horn, ear or arm. No one or thing gives an inch. It is only the dogs that seem to get nailed.

They are a somewhat shorter, stouter and fluffier version of a border collie. Maybe they are more smart than the other animals, or maybe they are less. When they find themselves trotting across a road and suddenly confronted by a speeding vehicle (truck and bus drivers here are called El Qaeda – they have no respect for life), they think “holy crap” and try to take evasive action. Not a good survival strategy around here, Darwin Dog!

We won’t say much more about the drivers, other than to observe that they also never (ever) look before pulling out or turning. The concept of lanes is still novel. If you are at all a nervy person, the best thing to do is close your eyes for the duration and ignore any sharp braking or swerving.

We also will not discuss night driving, other than to say, rather don’t. Ethiopia is one of those countries where driving with lights on after sunset is optional. But driving horse carts or moving large herds or cattle in the dark is customary.

A person standing, or walking, in the road with their back to the traffic will not respond to any amount of hooting. You can actually hear them thinking: “That could not possibly concern me. I have a right to be right here, and I am here exercising that right.

This possibly could have something to do with the history. Until the mid-1970s Ethiopia was a medieval-style society, governed by intrigue under the absolute rule of Emperor Haile Selassie . He was deposed in the revolution of the Derg, under the leadership of Sandhurst trained Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam and his blood-thirsty military cronies.

They were avowed communists in the Cambodian mode, who attempted to kill half the population and settle the remaining half on vast collective wheat farms. They were fairly successful on both counts. (To find more about this read ‘The Emperor’ by Ryszard Kapuściński, the best book by the best writer to ever write about Africa.)

Flying over the fertile highlands, from horizon to horizon the land is a finely quilted vegetable patchwork in golds and greens, with some blue-brown river wiggly worms appliqued over. This is not and never was a place without enough food. The starvation of Ethiopia was a purely political construct by one group to starve out their ethnic enemies.

The dreaded Derg were eventually overthrown by the Tigrean forces (remember the time of the starving Ethiopians, these were they), who instituted what is probably the most successful example of African socialism. Except that, as everyone who knows, much like Cape Town, the country is not really part of Africa.

So Ethiopian people today are agricultural, stoic and unyielding. About half the population is Orthodox Christian, their branch of the faith predating the Roman Catholic Church by around 200 years. The other half is Muslim, and it is enshrined in their culture that the two live side by side with total tolerance and harmony.

 It was on a 12-hour hell-bound ride back from Bale to Addis Ababa that I had an epiphany about, of all things, road cyclists back home in South Africa. Now I know where they all come from.

Nov 122014

The Birdman of Bale

By David Bristow

“The four top places in Africa to see birds are, in order, the DRC, Kenya, South Africa, and Bale,” James Ndung’u tells us over breakfast.

I note that while the first three are countries, the fourth is a 230,000-hectare national park in southeastern Ethiopia where we happen to be sitting, having just returned from an hour’s birding walk with James around Bale Mountain Lodge. In that short time we have notched up a list of 12 Bale endemics or near-endemics. All lifers for each of us.

Yesterday, driving over the Sanetti Plateau with lodge owner Guy Leverne, we counted about eight others. Some birders will pay thousands of dollars to go to see one such species, and we do not count ourselves among the world’s [serious] birders. We are here, like most visitors, to enjoy the amazing biodiversity of Bale and hope to get a glance of the Ethiopian wolves that live on the plateau.

As a pre-breakfast appetiser, Guy thought we might enjoy a short walk with James. Turns out we’d like a long walk with him. James is Kenyan, starting his working life with the Kenyan Wildlife Service. By and by that led to working as an ornithological research assistant in the Kenyan National Museum, and then on to bird guiding.

Bale Birdman James Ndung'u

Bale Birdman James Ndung’u

A stint at UNISA college in Pretoria (South Africa) was followed by study at the Percy Fitzpatrick Ornithological Institute at the University of Cape Town, where he rubbed shoulders with some of the continent’s top birders. “Boerewors,” he answers, when we press about what he liked best about his stay in South Africa.

As a certified bird ringer, and after spells teaching at Hawasa and Jima universities, he joined a multi-national project to map bird flyways in Ethiopia. He was minding his own business one day, at the public campsite in Bale, when these ferenjis turned up and told about their plans to build a lodge there. Guy offered him a job as the lodge naturalist virtually on the spot. That was about three years ago.

The old public campsite, now a glade in front of the lodge, remains one of James’s research (through the University of Utah) sites in his long-term project to determine the effects of climate change on bird populations.

We posed the question in a previous blog, about who were the best guides in Africa. At that stage we had not yet met James. Bale is one of out bucket-list icons: you want to visit there and stay in the lodge. And you very much want to go walkabout in the hauntingly beautiful hagenia (rosewood) forest with James.

For the serious birders among us, here is our list so far – Bale and regional endemics only:

Sanetti Plateau: blue-wing goose, slender-billed starling, spot-breasted lapwing, black-headed siskin, chestnut-naped francolin, wattled ibis, thick-billed raven.

Hagenia forest: white-cheeked turaco, blue-winged lovebird, streaky seedeater, black-faced citril, mountain thrush, Tukata sunbird, yellow-bellied waxbill, variable sunbird, African dusky flycatcher, tree pipit (a European migrant), Abyssinian oriole and Abyssinian white-eyed slaty flycatcher.