Green-Gold Beans

We pull off the two-lane highway, onto cobbled-dirt roads, weaving through simple cement-block houses, until we stop in front of a large gate, brick walls baking in the sunshine. Massive corrugated metal warehouses shimmer and stretch against the immense blue sky. He walks over to the car, tanned face, a camouflage baseball cap, a full black beard that frames smiling eyes and mouth, the most relaxed demeanor that nearly (but not quite) disguises a completely inquisitive mind. His Spanish is good, much better than mine. His knowledge of coffee and literature much better. His sense of humor stellar. Immediately our dynamic duo expands to three coffee explorers, as the adventure begins in earnest.

While Gustav waits with the truck, hiding in a single pool of shadow on a ridiculously hot day, Martina introduces our party to the manager of the beneficio, the production facility for coffee after the berries have been harvested from various farmers. He’s a kind, well-spoken man who has all the time in the world to show us every facet of coffee production. And the scale is tremendous. Two warehouses store pallet upon pallet of bags of beans. Behind the warehouses sit four Olympic pool sized slabs of of gray concrete bake with rows of coffee beans, in various stages of drying. Beyond that, on top of dry grass, stretch rolls of black plastic and more tan-gold beans, tended to by scarved workers.

Spencer, the Los Angeles kid who is living in Australia roasting coffee with his sister and brother-in-law but taking a break for a self-guided coffees of Central America backpacking tour, tells me the size of this operations is unheard of elsewhere. As Martina interviews our tour guide like a BBC pro, Spencer lifts a handful of beans to his face. “Buttered popcorn”.  I scoop a handful of warm, sundried beans. A deep inhale. I laugh, it is! Just like buttered popcorn. Earthy and sweet. It’s nothing close to the rich intensity of the black-brown beans that make my latte.

As we stand amongst acres of drying, golden beans, Spencer picks a single bean from a row and bites.

“We have fancy equipment back home that helps roasters determine the moisture content of a single bean, within 5 of 10%. When coffee reaches about 30 – 25% moisture it’s ready to be shelled. Earlier or later and you ruin the coffee.”

I sluff off the parchment like paper of a single bean and snap the hard center open, letting the golden husk fall. I bite into the green-gold bean.

It’s moist and tastes like a woodier, raw legume–it’s not horrible. But it’s not my beloved coffee either.

Spencer tells me that in coffee-growing economies, farmers and producers bite into a bean and in that bite can taste the moisture content within 1 or 2 percent. I bite into another bean. It’s impossible to imagine. I toss a handful of beans back into the beach-like expanse. How far does one little bean travel, to finally make my morning a bit brighter.

Meskel Morning and a Choir of Hundreds

I wake up coughing. My room is filled with acrid smoke, wafting lazy circles around the ceiling. Panic.

Then recognition. Meskel.

I fling back the covers and race to my balcony. Outside, the sky is a haze, as if the world was on fire, as plumes of smoke rise from between buildings and street corners further off. Crowds of people walk by.

Then the 15 foot cross, built the day before, begins to burn. Orange flames lick at the green grass, piled at the base, angrily exhaling sheets of gray smoke into the air. A block further another, smaller, cross has sprung up and burns.

I hurry through my morning routine, then set off to find my way to the coffee house (which is harder than it sounds, when the front desk replies to my question “how do I get to “The Coffee House”?” with “Which one?”…”THE Coffee House” until finally, a gasp and nod, “Yes, there is one coffee house that is called “The Coffee House”!” “Geubez!”), to meet the rest of the group.

I walk down the stairs and through the entrance I’d fled last night. In the warm sunlight, the world glows with friendly faces. It’s a new day. Wrapped in white netalahs, thousands wander through the street, men, women, children. I consult my napkin map, to navigate roads choked with people, as they walk from the countryside, to the center of town, to celebrate.

Just as I spot The Coffee House and familiar faces. Before I reach my group, there is a moment of unusual silence, only the whispering rustle of hundreds of clothes, the swish of long dresses.

And rising up the hill, as if out of nowhere, an army of people, a shout from the leader and then a brilliant, bright chorus begins.

I am frozen in complete and utter and complete awe, overwhelming gratitude to be here, at this very moment. I feel heart singing along with them, as it trills and falls, and hits lows and so very high notes.

It is the most beautiful sight. Hundreds moving and singing, together. I feel my eyes filling with water, as I clasp my hands to my heart.

Words I don’t understand, but their jubilation is universal, as men, women and children clap and sing and jump, steadily closing the gap between me and them.

Then them and I are feet, then only inches apart. Then their voices are swirling around me, they float past me. Thousands of beautiful voices, glowing faces, wrapped in gauzy, brilliant white. Laughing and smiling. The sun shining on us all. They carry armfuls of gold flowers, and crosses of all sorts (cardboard, tubing, charcoal sticks) and hoist them into the air.

A human wave of utter beauty. However traumatic the night-before, that fear, and that uncertainty, completely dissolves in the sunshine. Washed away by the song of the day. And I drink in the chorus, I’ve never hear before, as something familiar to my soul. It feels as if I’m seeing human-life for the very first time. Perhaps I was that scared the night before, so close to the end — or perhaps, sometimes, life is really and truly this rich, exotic, and beautiful beyond words, just at the precise moment you need it.

And then I dive in, and join the river of people, past street corners, where smaller crosses burn, where our little stream of hundreds will join the colorful ocean of hundreds of thousands. All against the backdrop of the massive, ancient Fasilides castle.

I breath deep. This is really happening.