Ethiopia: Birthplace of the Traveler—and Then Some
Story and photos by Bruce Northam

The land where civilization and coffee launched is history…still in full stride.

Ethiopia donkey cart

Ethiopia is the birthplace of the traveler…among other things. Africa's oldest royal dynasty is the turf from where humans first began moseying to other continents; the first road trippers. Most paleo–archeologists boil it down to something like this: Africans, from what is now Ethiopia, started wandering toward the Middle East. Once there, the nomads who hung a right evolved into Asians, while the drifters swerving left developed white skin; a rainbow of complexions was born in that midst. If this simplified scenario is fact, Ethiopia bore our first true itinerants; the origin of foot travel.

And they certainly still like to mosey. Outside the capital city Addis Ababa, where cars are a rare luxury, walking is a way of life. The weary catch rides with donkey–cart pilots while children as young as four years–old herd cattle, camels and sheep.

The country that invented wandering was never colonized and isn't remotely displeased with foreigners. Translation: xenophobia is not in their vocabulary. The Ethiopian love for travel is sustained by nationals making both in–country spiritual pilgrimages and outbound quests to holy sites around the world. Intrinsically religious, they celebrate 150 saints' days a year. The self–customized Ethiopian Orthodox Church's fourth century origins means Ethiopia was Christian long before Europe. No need for TV evangelists to show the way.

Ethiopia prayer

Even atheists will be astounded by the sacred, musical dedication here—an epoch soundtrack loop fills the air in every church. In Aksum's enormous yet intimate St. Marry Church, men and women clad from head to toe in white shawls sang "The Promise" while bowing repetitively in the glimmer from epic stained glass. Words can't describe this incredible harmony.

Ethiopia remains Biblically exotic. Occupying a large part of the Horn of Africa, it is a land of geographic extremes. Ethiopia is cool, climatically and literally. Its centerpiece sits on a high plateau with grand mountain vistas saddled by green farmlands where Gondar's castle campus dates to 1632. The walled royal enclosure reflects successive influences from India, Arabia, and a Gondar's castleBaroque flair imported by Jesuit missionaries.

There were Ethiopian Muslims during the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammed. Epitomizing religious coexistence, Muslims and Christians marry and are often seen holding hands. Today, there's also no shortage of inbound international travelers undertaking every variety of quest while enjoying ancient–bred respect. Ethiopians quietly epitomize hospitality.

Ethiopian men and women have also mastered running. Ethiopian track stars own 31 world records, specializing in middle distances. Marathon man Abebe Bikila won his second Olympic gold medal in Rome, running barefoot!

Kaldi's Goat Gets Us Moving
Perhaps Ethiopia's status as the birthplace (origin) of the energy drink has had some impact on their mobility/wandering nature. Yielding humanity's oldest traces provided ample time to concoct a few fads, including one that hasn't faded. Sometime after the sacking of Rome and before Europe slipped into the darkest of its Dark Ages, coffee was discovered in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia priest

Caffeinated storytellers say it goes something like this: A wise herder named Kaldi noted that his goats became hyped up after chewing specific plant leaves and berries, so he munched on some and caught a buzz. After sharing this discovery with a nearby monastery, Kaldi was scolded "for partaking in the fruit of the devil." That is until the monks whiffed the splendid aroma emanating from the fire from where they'd pitched the devil's brew. Monks then began drying coffee beans and shipping them to other Ethiopian monasteries. Upon receipt, they rehydrated the beans in water, ate the fruit and drank the brew, which they discovered helped them stay chipper for nocturnal prayers. Soon after, Arabs began importing beans and the coffee business launched. Fifteenth century Turks invented the modern style of brewing and stamped an adaptation of the Kaffa province's name on it: "kahve".

Whereas American coffee joints prey on creamy consumerism and wirelessness, Ethiopia's coffee houses are about socializing. Coffee (buna) is also vital at home and honored with its own ritual. The coffee ceremony showcases Ethiopia's welcoming nature. An invite extends a hand of friendship, requiring about as much time as it takes to enjoy an American barbeque. The ceremony begins with freshly cut grass scattered on the floor to share nature's bouquet (and conjure up memories of cutting the lawn to earn your allowance). An incense burner smokes with an aromatic gum while the hosting brewmaster sits on a low stool before a mini charcoal stove. As coffee beans roast in a pan, everyone is invited to draw the smoke their way, inhale, and then rejoice with an aroma exclaim, either borrowing a fancy wine connoisseur idiom or simply "mmm."

The roasted beans are then ground with a pestle and mortar, brewed, and served in petite china cups—heavy on the sugar. Traditionally, three cups are served; the third bestowing a blessing. Popcorn usually makes a showing at this core of Ethiopian sociology where organic conversation trumps all modern communication mediums—high time for the sort of womanly conversing that's typical in salons.

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