Santiago de Compostela is full of the walking wounded – but they are the happiest, most joyous band of walking wounded you will ever see in peacetime. Under the watchful gaze of the statue of St James flanked either side by the two soaring lichen and moss-covered spires of the cathedral (okay, one was covered in a facsimile of its real self as it received a facelift but I do hope they leave the lichen where it is), the vast expanse of the Plaza de Obradoiro is the perfect place to sit and watch the extraordinary scene of pilgrims enter the concourse in pure celebration and sheer relief that their arduous journey has reached a momentous conclusion.
With knees bound or ankles in supports, some cast their hiking sticks or staffs to the ground to walk the last few steps of their pilgrimage unaided. Many hug each other to congratulate one another for their achievement, whilst others burst into gleeful song. Others sit or lie down deep in thought; occasionally shedding a tear and to savour the emotional crescendo of a defining moment in their lives. I have no doubt that the universality of emotions touches everyone who arrives in the plaza having completed a journey of many hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres but I do wonder what the scene was like centuries ago. Unlike the pilgrim of today – commonly dressed in breathable, waterproof walking attire and the latest technology in sports apparel – the tide of medieval pilgrims who actually made it to the plaza must have been a very different looking band of individuals. The spectacular Hostal dos Reis Catolicos, founded in 1492 and now an exclusive parador, once served as a hospice for pilgrims stands testament to the fact that El Camino de Santiago was literally a journey of life and death.
All the theatricality of a Catholic service is bestowed to pilgrims in the cathedral for Pilgrim’s Mass, which takes place at noon everyday. On the Sunday that I attended, the cathedral was packed to the rafters with the faithful and those that were there to soak up the charged atmosphere. The service concludes with the ceremonial swinging of a huge, ornate incensor that is first hoisted up by five clergymen and swung from the central knave across the east and west transept. The burning of the incense was a fragrant and dramatic end to the service but I couldn’t help but think how it must have originally served to mask the bodily odours rising from the great sea of unwashed pilgrim’s gathered in the congregation below.
After patiently waiting in the long queue to collect my certificate of accomplishment, or Compostela, from the Peregrino Office – which confirms I had completed my pilgrimage from the monastery at Roncesvalles along El Camino Francés to Santiago – I turned my wheels west until there was no more land left to cycle. Joining the many pilgrims who continue their journey to the rock-bound peninsula of Cape Finisterre which literally means ‘Land’s End’ (not to be confused with its counterpart in Cornwall, England) and was believed to be the edge of the world during Pax Romana, I had only 90km-or-so to complete my journey across the entire breadth of the Iberian Peninsula. The following day, fuelled by the previous night’s delicious wild camp chorizo pasta cooked on the stove whilst the mosquitoes dined out on me during a wild camp under the eucalyptus trees outside the sleepy town of Pereira, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief as I first made sight of the Atlantic Ocean. It was as if the poignant, heavy atmosphere of Santiago de Compostela was lifted and evaporated into the perpetual sea frets that make landfall.
In order to complete as circuitous a route as I could around the tip of Galicia, I headed northwest in the direction of the battered and scarred rocky promontory of Muxia to see the Faro (lighthouse) that still guides fishermen into its safe harbour to this day. The changeable Galician weather didn’t fail to disappoint and the blue skies quickly became concealed behind a fine mist that coated the bright yellow roadside gorse in a fresh dew. The Costa del Morte (Death Coast) is a wild, and still dangerous coastline for mariners to chart, with charming white sand beaches framed by high cliffs. It is a diverse landscape of mountains, shaded valleys, wildflower meadows and little villages dotted with old hórreos (stone granaries) and weather-worn cruceros’s (stone crosses). It is also easy to appreciate why humans for millennia have chosen to settle here and there are a number of megalithic sites, stone-age dolmens and celtic burial grounds to visit. There are many legends of saints arriving by boat; Cristo de Fisterra, Virgen de la Boca, Virgen del Monte de Camariñas amongst others, and even the myth of the forgotten city of Duium that disappeared under the sea many moons ago.
As it happens, it seemed like myth and reality actually did collide when I cycled through the popular seaside town of Fisterre enveloped in a dense fog. As I reached the end of terra firma on the Capo de Finisterre; there was no horizon, sea or sky to behold but only the sound of the ocean waves crashing against the rocks below. Sitting at the ‘edge of the flat world’ to the acrid smell of smouldering walking boots (it is a recent custom to burn your boots or item of clothing when you reach the point – I did neither), I cracked open a beer to celebrate and looked out into the unfathomable nothingness as thick cloud swirled all around me. Maybe the Romans were onto something after all.
Returning to the Office of the Concello de Fisterra to collect a piece of paper which certifies that I had officially reached the end of the ‘flat world’, I was, well, flatly refused. It seems that the paucity of stamps from Santiago de Compostela in my Credencial del Peregrino was enough to turn me away. A small price to pay I suppose for the free wild camps that I had enjoyed along the way. As I smiled at the futility of how I had succumbed to collecting immaterial souvenirs that get either framed or filed away as a sentimental token of certain occasions in life, a chap from Germany approached and introduced himself as Dennis. With a wild glint in his eye, it turns out that he had arrived ten months earlier and was so drawn to the place that he feels no desire to return to Germany. He now lives quite happily in his tarpaulin-constructed refuge on the western tip of the peninsula. We chatted about El Camino, the absurdity of ‘stamp’ collecting, and he suggested that head up to the Monte Facho to check out the white ‘moving stones’ and spend the night up there. And that’s exactly what I proceeded to do. “If you find the moving stones, you must make a wish!” Dennis vouched as he bade me a fond farewell.
As if the fog couldn’t get thicker, it surely did as I eventually gave up pedalling and pushed the Sherpa slowly up the steep climb to the highest point on the peninsula. Despite the fact that visibility was down to five metres, by a stroke of luck I managed to spot the two radio masts that Dennis had excitedly pointed out on the map, and struck camp nestled amongst a distinctive group of distinctive eroded rocks nearby. Whether it was close to the fabled seat of the Celtic crone-goddess Orcabellam, I have no idea, but it was a spectacular wild camp spot that was secluded and out of sight from another breed of officious ‘stamp’ collectors who prefer that wandering pilgrims keep to one side of the blue line.
My efforts were rewarded beyond belief as a change of wind cleared the fog almost immediately to reveal the ‘path of milk’ as the Romans referred to it – otherwise known as the Milky Way – stretching over the Atlantic. It was the best wild camp of the journey by far as I awoke early in the morning to watch the sun rise over the Galician mountains that I had cycled across from Santiago de Compostela in the distance. And yes, I did find the moving stones; and yes, I did make a wish. All I can say is that whilst Capo Finisterre may not be the end of the known Earth, it is certainly a very special place indeed.
Wanderer, your footsteps are the road
and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
By walking on makes the road,
and upon glancing behind one sees the path that will never be trodden again.
Wanderer, there is no road.
Only wakes upon the sea.
The familiar greeting of “Buen Camino!” (literally meaning ‘good road’) amongst fellow pilgrims personifies the friendliness and camaraderie amongst the wayfarers who travel along the Way of St James. Often carrying a scallop shell and occasionally a gourd to signify their pilgrim status – and to ward off thieves or those with less than honourable intentions – the vast majority of pilgrims walk whilst a minority, including myself, cycle the route. I’ve already met a Dutch couple who are travelling with their young son on brightly coloured recumbents festooned with flags; gangs of lycra-clad mountain bikers in search of the next adrenalin rush; cycle-tourers on tandem bikes; and even a group of German farmers that have driven their lovingly restored tractors all the way from Kesslingen, Germany. Whilst the mode of locomotion may be different, the sentiments in the shared goodwill of the expression, ‘Buen Camino’, amongst walkers, cyclists, and tractor-enthusiasts alike remains exactly the same.
The ride from Roncesvalles into the Basque stronghold of Pamplona, the first main city along the Camino de Santiago, was an exhilarating one. I chose to take the road so that I could enjoy the twists and turns as it unravelled through the Valle de Erro. Woefully lost trying to navigate the spaghetti junctions of dual-carriage ways that orbit the city, charitable locals clearly saw my increasing desperation with the map and pointed me in the direction of my refuge for the night. Thankfully, I soon found the Albergue de Peregrinos de Jesús y Maria close to the cathedral nestled unassumingly in one of the many narrow cobbled streets of the beautiful medieval quarter. It is here that I was first introduced to the chorus of snores that have become the nigh-time soundtrack to the handful of Albergues that I have stayed in along the way.
Often run by volunteers, an Albergue is basically a hostel for pilgrims that charge anything between 5-10 Euros or simply ask for a donation for the luxury – and I do mean luxury – of a shower and bunk bed for the night. This privilege is only afforded to pilgrims and the Credencial del Peregrino must be presented on arrival for refuge to be granted. In return, a distinctive stamp confirms that the pilgrim has stopped for the night before continuing their pilgrimage the following day. It also represents a record of the way-points that pilgrims have journeyed along the road towards Santiago de Compostela.
Having been used to starting my day at a leisurely pace which first involves firing up the stove for an invigorating brew before packing up the tent to avoid unwanted attention from a local farmer or the Guardia Civil, I was surprised to see pilgrims at the Albergue set out to begin their day’s walk before the sun had even risen. We all travel at our own pace and rhythm but, personally, coffee always comes before cycling if the day is to get off to a good start. Without doubt, Albergues are exceptionally social places and a great opportunity to meet fellow pilgrims even if the symphony of snores at night keeps slumber a distant prospect – even for even the heaviest of sleepers.
Following a day’s rest to explore the lively city – mindful to stay well clear of any charging bulls – and with only a few hours’ wakeful kip under the belt, I pushed on to enjoy a succession of wild camps that took me though the fertile grape-growing plains of Navarra and La Rioja. The first green shoots heralding this year’s harvest for wine-production on an industrial scale were beginning to emerge. Spring had indeed finally sprung and the roadside verges that fence off the few fields left to fallow were sprinkled with bright yellow dandelions and buttercups.
Stopping off in the historic town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada situated on the banks of the Oja River for a typical lunch of cheese and fresh bread, I got chatting to a local woman, Maria, who was sharing quality time with her baby daughter in the shade of the town square. As we talked, I beckoned her towards me with an encouraging ‘hola!’ and to her mother’s astonishment, Eva began to take her very first steps: It’s the small but extraordinary experiences on the road that take on the greatest poignancy. As in life, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, but is it really the destination or the journey itself that truly matters?
One of the many striking features of the El Camino is the wonderful mix of natural landscapes, flora and fauna that it takes you through. From flat, wide-open agricultural plains that stretch out from Burgos as far as the eye can see to the fresh pine forests and carpets of ferns and wild herbs that cling to the mountain range of the snow-capped Montes de León; or the lush green rolling hills of Galicia that is so reminiscent of Wales or Ireland that I have had to continually remind myself that I am in Spain. The route takes you through small rural hamlets with crumbling centuries-old farmhouses covered in moss and creeping ivy, over ancient cobbled Roman bridges, alongside gurgling brooks and into quiet, peaceful town squares complete with ornate water fonts offering thirst-quenching respite for the travel-weary pilgrim. The journey has so far been undeniably a kaleidoscope of colour, sights and smells that lift the spirit, nourish the mind and rejuvenate the soul.
The rich experiences that camping affords along this geographical fused-storyboard of Christian and Celtic landmarks has been nothing short of awe-inspiring. I’ve camped under stars framed by the lofty arches of the 12th century ruins of the Convento de San Anton – that once served as a hospital to treat the sick and ailments of passing pilgrims during the medieval ages – and have taken refuge from the howling wind and rain in the shelter of small chapels that overlook the Atapuerca Sierra that was first inhabited by some of the earliest human settlers in Europe.
Nature always plays its inevitable hand too. I’ve been woken up more than once by the bad-tempered barks of what I can only imagine are from Wild Boar and have shared my breakfast with a curious Stoat. In so far as the elements are concerned, I’ve been frozen into my tent after being forced to strike camp close to the Cruz de Ferro on the ridge of the Montes de León in a freak snow storm. The next morning – after a freezing night of fitful sleep above 1500m where I discovered that a hastily prepared hot chocolate on the stove in the early hours can make the difference between cocoa heaven and the onset of hypothermia – I watched the sun rise above the clouds and was treated to a warm hug and coffee shortly after breaking camp by an angel from Normandy. As the feeling to my hands returned, she told me that her name was Anneline, who had been so touched by travelling the northern coastal route of El Camino the previous year that she had decided to give up her philosophy studies at university and practice a philosophy of life that revolves around living off the land and offering coffee and cake to pilgrim’s as they reach the highest point of the route across the Iberian peninsula.
Like Anneline, there are many people who live on – and from – El Camino. Take Sergio from France, who said ‘au revoir’ to his Parisian life and has for nearly the past three decades lived on various sections of The Way of St James, picking litter as he goes. Soon to embark on his 24th pilgrimage to date. He told me that it is to mark the anniversary of St Francis of Assisi who made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela 800 years-ago this year. When I enquired how long it would take him to walk the route from the Italian spiritual centre of Assisi to Santiago, Sergio replied matter-of-factly: “Three months, give or take a few.” Or there is David from Barcelona, who renounced his life in the Catalan capital six years ago to live a life of simplicity offering service to pilgrims who should pass by and stop at his humble makeshift home outside the historic-walled city of Astorga. “Life is process,” he mused as he broke up some wood to fuel the flames so I could enjoy a coffee brewed on the fire, whilst he drank herbal tea.
Apart from those that have decided to make a life from El Camino, there are of course the pilgrims themselves. Just like myself, all make the journey for uniquely personal reasons. I’ve met so many amazing people along the way, it’s not possible to accurately recount or do justice to the conversations I’ve shared but the common theme has been a desire to slow the pace of life down and reconnect with themselves, and others: There is Klaus, an art therapist from Munich, who says he is in need of some therapy himself. Or Bruno, from Lake Garda in northern Italy, who is cycling a furious 100km plus a day to carry a banner of get well wishes in his backpack for his ex-wife who is battling for her life after a heart-bypass. Then there is Miquel from Logroño, who wants to give up his addiction to alcohol and television. Or Tina and Marchant from Australia and Poland respectively, who have decided to spend their honeymoon walking El Camino before they get married just make sure they are truly compatible in wedlock. Meanwhile, Zoe from South Korea is looking for love along the way. And then there is Ben, a happy-go-lucky horticulturist student who is walking the route before he starts his internship simply because it is “fun”! And it sure is fun.
For me, the penny truly dropped as I was talking to an Italian pilgrim, Mau, who had a monastic air about him and had met his partner, Nia, on the Way of St James six years-ago. He says they never reached Santiago but ended up settling in the peaceful town of Castrojeriz, in the central municipality of Castilla y León, just a few kilometres down the road from the Convento de San Anton. Aptly called the Hospital de Alma (Hospital of the Soul), they have spent the last couple of years restoring an old Castilian barn into a place of contemplation to remind pilgrims that the Camino is not completed by two feet or, indeed, two wheels; rather – the journey takes place within.
A striking photographic exhibition situated in the entrance to the building, Chasing the Shadows, takes an interesting perspective into the notion of pilgrimage and why increasingly more people each year are compelled to embark on one. The central message is universal. Just like the first steps that Eva took in the square in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, we walk because it is both a naturally innate human desire to do so but also an external expression of our own inner state. It is in this sense that the repetition of walking – or turning of the pedals – becomes not just an act of simply getting from A to B, but a means of processing the habitual nature of life so that we can gain a deeper understand of ourselves. In short, we become the Camino.
Without any ceremony, I doggedly pushed the Sherpa into the Plaza del Obradoiro overlooked by the soaring spires of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela exactly on the count of ten; totally exhausted but elated. I was exhausted because I was recovering from a marathon night ride with only the brilliant beam of my headlight to light the way down empty lanes as bats swirled above, rabbits darted left and right, and owls hooted from the shadows of the trees in their familiar but haunting call and response. Jolted by the deeply sad news of the departure of my grandfather from this life – a kind, gentle Yorkshireman with a big heart and who always had a twinkle in his eyes – I could not stop until I had finally reached Santiago fuelled only by impromptu coffee stops brewed on the stove with lashings of sweet honey in the still of night.
I felt elated because I was entering a revered space that for centuries, countless pilgrims have risked life and limb to journey there. It is hard to explain, but is was as if the collective memory of emotions resonating in those worn granite stones embraced my heart in one singular moment, and I became overwhelmed with joy and sadness as I lit a candle for the loss of a dearly loved family relative. After more than 1200km on the road since arriving in Bilbao one month earlier, I had finally made it to Santiago de Compostela – almost to the day. Next stop… to the ‘end of the flat world’ at Cape Finisterre on the Atlantic Coast.
My original intention has been to update the blog as I go; to write about the exhilarating highs and occasional lows of cycle touring, or the elemental experience of wild camping across the diverse patchwork of regions that make up northern Spain. Yet, I’ve not been able to commit the words to the page until now. It’s partly because I’ve wanted to resist the compulsion to write and be in search of the next available wi-fi zone to publish another update. But more than that, I’ve wanted to allow the gentle rhythms of nature to take over so that the need to be in, or have access to, instant communication day or night via digital means becomes merely a possibility, rather than a necessity. And it is this desire to, well, coin the old cliché – to ‘turn off’ and ‘tune in’ – that has helped to shape the journey along the Camino de Santiago so far. The only dropping out, however, is the chain on the trusty Sherpa from time-to-time.
Arriving in Bilbao after an unusually smooth crossing by ferry across the Bay of Biscay from Portsmouth, England, I decide to get the leg muscles back into shape by tracking the coastline along the Costa Verde towards France. This was with a view to joining the Camino on the French side of the border at the popular starting point of Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port and then back into Spain across the hinterlands of the Pyrenees to ‘officially’ start my pilgrimage from the monastery at Roncesvalles. Although I appreciate it may seem counter-intuitive to head completely in the opposite direction of Santiago de Compostela, it turned out be a good decision. The legs, as expected, were painstakingly out of shape and despite the forgiving ride of the steel-framed Sherpa, a serious amount of necessary weight needed to be jettisoned before the fully laden bike felt more like its sprightly former self than I had been accustomed to on my last cycle tour to the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia.
Punctuated by some cracking wild camp spots en-route, the crimson sunsets along the Costa Verde as the sun plunged into the deep blue waters each evening was the perfect reward for the succession of punishing hills that I encountered each day. In fact, I was actually reluctant to leave the undulating coastline to head inland from the combed white sands of St-Jean-de-Luz; but the Camino was calling and I needed to reply. Thankfully, the legs responded too and I soon got into my stride on the Sherpa, stopping off for the occasional refreshing natural cider poured at a height – to achieve that perfect effervescence that is so characteristic of the Basque outlook on life – as I cycled through the verdant rolling farmland that straddles each side of the western Spanish/French frontier.
I met my first pilgrim, Maria from Austria, on the winding climb up from Arnéguy before the swift descent into Roncesvalles. We stopped for a chat under the baking hot midday sun. It turns out that she was a tour guide who decided to take some time out from the demands of her work and be on the other side of the tourist fence for once. She was the first of many Maria’s and Mary’s that I would meet on the road. Fortunately, I was allowed to camp in the monastery grounds of free of charge with the helpful advice that I should present my newly acquired Credencial del Peregrino (Pilgrim’s Passport) to the officer of the Guardia Civil if they turn up to enquire why I had chosen to sleep in a tent rather than take advantage of the accommodation provided by good folk at the monastery.
I appreciate that to some folk it seems an odd choice to decline the offer of the warm bed for the night for the confines of a cosy tent. But my decision to wild camp my way along the Camino has been not only born out of reasons of self-imposed financial austerity but for the very fact that it’s the sheer joy of getting off the beaten track and being as self-sufficient as possible. The mitigating factor is that if I am going to carry a nylon home and all the associated paraphernalia that goes with it; I might as well use it. That night, the weather changed dramatically and the familiar brilliance of the milky way and waxing moon became shrouded in a swirl of storm clouds. The thunder and lightning display that ensued was a dramatic start to my journey along this ancient pilgrimage route that has experienced a huge resurgence in popularity in recent years.
El Camino de Santiago – also known as Camino Francés across the border – is essentially a collection of established walking routes that fan across Europe and converge on the shrine of the Apostle of St James in the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Legend has it that the apostle journeyed to the Iberian Peninsula after Jesus’ death on a mission to spread Christianity amongst the Pagans. On his return to the Holy Land, he met an unfortunate end and was martyred by the sword of King Herod in Jerusalem. His decapitated body was said to have been taken by his followers to Jaffa where a stone boat was commissioned. Miraculously, the boat floated and after seven days at sea, the boat was washed up in a great storm, undamaged and covered in scallop shells, at Padrón. After some deliberation with the local chiefs, his body was allowed to go to the earth in Spanish soil in a tomb 20km inland from the Galician coast. For more than 800 years, his resting place was undisturbed until a shepherd called Pelayo was led to a bright star shining in a field where the body of James the Apostle and his followers were discovered. It is from the field (campos) of the stars (stella) of Saint James (Sant Iago), that the name Santiago de Compostela is derived.
Not long afterwards, Alfonso II – the King of Asturias – declared St James the patron saint of Spain after there were reported visions of him leading the charge in shining armour on a white horse against the Moorish invaders, earning him the title ‘Santiago Matamoros’ – or St James the Moor Slayer. A church and monastery were built over the tomb in recognition of his decisive interventions that turned the tide in battle against the advancing Islamic army, and so the illustrious history of Santiago de Compostela began. Steeped in myth and the mists of time, the Crusades and reconquesta of Catholic Spain had finally found a patron; the Golden Legend was born, and the pilgrimage routes that we know today across Europe have been a magnet for pilgrims far and wide.
Legend, historical and religious complexities aside, the question concerning why people embark on a pilgrimage of their own is a fascinating one. My own personal motivations for cycling along one of the major sections of the Camino that follows an ancient Roman trading route to the Atlantic is not for religious reasons – but neither do I discount the fact that, for many, it is a journey of great religious importance. I suppose it is partly down to a desire to slow down and reconnect with nature; to be ‘still’ again and to fully appreciate the moment, away from the perpetual distractions of modern-day life. Another dimension has been to allow the soul, body, and mind to experience the freedom of the open road again; unheeded, unhurried and most of all, to be at peace in an increasingly chaotic and conflicted world. I’ve also keen to discover the myriad of reasons why others have decided to make time to make their own pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and how, the experience has, if at all, profoundly changed them.
Of all the insights that I have gained into coffee culture on the trail to Ethiopia before returning back to the whirlpool of London life, there is one softly spoken truth that endures. It is a universal truth that runs through the coffee trade and culture like a golden thread, connecting every stage of its complex supply chain from field to cup. It is a philosophy that cannot be fully expressed in books, research papers or from the good intentions of policy-makers.
Its application cannot be taught out of a school textbook. Neither can it be bottled, packaged or commoditised in the interest of profit. It transcends all these things; yet it continues to be a unifying force that touches the hearts of everyone who has a respect for our fellow human being. It is the spirit of Ubuntu. Or to put it another way, it is the celebration of our shared humanity grounded in the common space that is community. By very definition, it means different things to different people but Ubuntu represents a maxim for life that is authentically African: “I relate, therefore I am”.
It is this deep, genuine, sense of human connection that binds the many linkages in the coffee value chain together. Just as the raw green beans are the farmer’s gift to the roaster, the roaster’s gift to the barista is, at the most fundamental level, an alchemy of a kind that completes the circle from soil to sip. Rooted both in a sense of place and time spent in the sharing of company with others, coffee creates long-term connections that live long after the annual harvest or momentary enjoyment of a cup of black gold. The spirit of Ubuntu is expressed in practical terms through the model of direct trade that allows mutually beneficial and respectful trading relationships to form. In essence, coffee communities along the supply chain are brought closer together to ensure better traceability, working and environmental conditions, a fairer price for the producer, and ultimately better quality coffee for the consumer.
The annual London Coffee Festival based in the beating heart of London’s East End is testament to a renaissance of fruitful connections that are flourishing in the enjoyment of coffee and coffee-based culture. Home to the UK Barista Championship (UKBC), it is a forum for coffee-lovers and those in the industry to come together to appreciate new single origins and blends, trends in brewing techniques and technologies, and to learn more about the provenance behind the wonderful drop of black gold in your cup at home, work or in the local coffee house. It is the brainchild of Jeffrey Young and his team at the Allegra Foundation, who have been researching the coffee market in the UK for fifteen years and helped to predict the ‘third-wave’ boom in small independent coffee shops and roasters trading on artisan-based values in the past decade. He says that the industry has a collective responsibility to promote sustainability at the production-level and for consumers to give something back at the counter. When asked about what coffee means to him, he adds, “I fundamentally believe that café culture and coffee houses are not just there for the product; coffee is a great connector of the human spirit.”
The profound effect of Ubuntu in coffee culture and how it has the potential to change lives as a real force for social and economic change is central to the story behind the flourishing of the Manchester-based Oromo Coffee Company (OCC). Based on social enterprise principles that ploughs its profits back into creating employment and training opportunities for the Oromo community in the UK, the OCC works to support coffee growers by sourcing beans directly from the smallholder farmer through the Oromia Coffee Farmer’s Cooperative Union in Ethiopia. Aspiring human rights lawyer and director of the social enterprise, Abiyot Shiferaw, explains: “Coffee in our society brings people together; it is important socially, culturally and economically. In Oromo culture, people come together under the Odaa tree to make the coffee ceremony and share stories so that we can teach other and manage our lives better. We are trading and working together so that we can increase the capacity of smallholder farmer. This means he can get a fair price so that he can send his children to school and get an education. That’s why coffee and trade has the power to change lives for the better”.
The challenges, of course, are many. Increasing unpredictability in extreme weather patterns caused by climate change threatens the sustainability of global coffee production at a time when demand is outstripping supply. But new innovative approaches to diversifying income streams through bee-keeping and inter-cropping, micro finance, less reliance on pesticides and fertilisers, better water management and improved training in agronomic practices are already providing answers to long-term, sustainable solutions that are locally owned. To compound matters, coffee farmers are still unjustly exposed to the volatility of financial markets. In an increasingly interconnected globalised world, however, we can all play our part in raising levels of social capital along the coffee value chain by demanding a fair price for the producer. This is the essence of relationship coffee. If coffee is a connector of the human spirit then it is also a leveller of human the condition; no matter who you are are or where you come from, the enjoyment of coffee transcends geography, cultures or creed. Ever since the reputed discovery of coffee by the Abyssinian goat herder, Kaldi, and his legendary herd of goats, coffee has been coveted by the communities it has touched through the centuries.
Revered for its potential to seduce the senses and invigorate the mind, the transformative power of coffee is a potential change-maker in a cup by aiding the exchange of ideas in a social setting. Throughout history, the consumption of coffee promotes the strengthening of humans bonds that sustain communities. Economically, it is a catalyst for commerce and fuels an industry that is worth more than $100bn a year on which millions depend for their livelihoods globally. Culturally, we only have to look to the rise of the coffee house in 17th century England and the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment to see that it has the potential to change the course of history. It will be interesting to see how the ‘third wave’ boom in coffee culture today will give rise to new sparks of creativity and innovation that will shape the world of tomorrow.
Born in the Oromia town of Warra Jarso, 175kms north of the capital Addis Ababa, Abiyot Shiferaw was brought up with his two sisters and four brothers in a happy family environment. Like all Ethiopians, they celebrated special occasions by holding a traditional coffee ceremony. From an early age, Abiyot had a strong sense of fairness but saw injustice all around him. He saw how his fellow countrymen and women did not have access to clean water or could not pay for basic medical treatment. He observed how children were denied an education because their parents couldn’t afford to send them to school. He witnessed state-sponsored corruption at the hands of government officials and the police.
And his struggle for human rights, fairness and justice nearly cost him his life.
‘There were political problems in the school’, he says, ‘thirty-seven students including myself were arrested one day for being members of the Maccaa-Tulama Association, a civil society group in the Kuyyu Distinct banned by the Ethiopian government in 2002. The organisation was seen as a threat to the government’s political wishes. We were arrested without any reason or proof that we had done anything wrong’.
Abiyot was imprisoned for three months during which time his family were prevented from visiting him. He was eventually accused of being affiliated to the Oromia Liberation Front (OLF), a rebel group who are still fighting for self-determination.
‘We were investigated but there was no evidence,’ he adds.
After being released, Abiyot studied law in Addis Ababa and was later employed by an Oromo law firm. He says he found it almost impossible to act in the interests of his clients as a result of excessive police pressure or government administrators to exact a favourable verdict: ‘It was very difficult to apply the law independently. In the end, I realised that I couldn’t undertake my duties to represent the people fairly and decided that I could no longer continue’.
But the bloody aftermath of the 2005 national elections where hundreds of people lost their lives in protest was a turning point for Abiyot. He successfully ran as a candidate for the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) and was elected to represent his home town constituency in the federal parliament. The sweet taste of success soon turned sour when the national election results were called early by the incumbent alliance, the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front, and a state of emergency was declared.
In response to the public unrest that followed, public gatherings were outlawed and Prime Minister, Meles Zanawi, assumed direct command of the security forces, replacing the capital city police with Special Forces drawn from elite army units. Reports of massive human rights’ violations across the country were reported by international observers. ‘The election was stolen’, says Abiyot, with the zeal of a political activist; ‘the government was defeated. They did not win one seat in the capital but described themselves as the outright winner. The government should listen to the people’s voice’.
Shortly after the election, plain-clothed security police arrived at Abiyot and his friend’s residence in the dead of night. They were forced into a car and blindfolded. Abioyt tried to stop them by showing his parliamentary identification card, stating that (Article 54) stipulates that no member of the parliament shall be arrested or prosecuted unless his or her immunity is revoked by the legislature. ‘They trashed my identity card and told me to use it as toilet paper’ he recalls. They were driven to an unknown church cemetery out of Addis and told that their graves were already reserved for them. Severely beaten and threatened that they would be executed and buried unless they confessed that they were inciting students in Oromia to rise up against the government, Abiyot says he will never forget the terrifying moment when ‘one of them put the muzzle of his rifle into my mouth while another one poked my stomach with his gun’.
Determined to continue his struggle, he contacted the international media, NGOs and the British embassy to inform them of what had happened. Knowing that his life was in danger, a petition was presented to the federal parliament in a bid to stop the police intimidation; it was rejected. Abiyot could not go anywhere without being followed by the authorities. He could not visit his friends or family because he did not want to put them at risk. He realised that he had no choice but to flee.
It took six months for Abiyot to reach Kenya. He and a friend travelled on foot through the remote forests of the rural highlands in southern Ethiopia to evade the regular police checkpoints on the main highway. ‘Even in Nairobi, we weren’t safe. We were arrested by the security forces, tortured and imprisoned’ he says. With no one else to turn to, he contacted the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and European Parliamentarian, Ana Gomes MEP, for help.
In April 2008, Abiyot arrived safely in Greater Manchester after being granted refugee status. His first few months adjusting to life in the UK came as a shock to him: ‘When you come to a new country, it is the same as being like a new born child again. The impact of a new culture, different language, and different system of employment was a challenge. My qualifications were not accepted in this country’. However, Abiyot did not want to be reliant on welfare benefits and with the support of the pioneering Lorna Young Foundation, his local MP, James Purnell, and assistance from Refugee Action, he established the Oromo Coffee Company (OCC) with other members of the Oromo community in the Northwest.
Based on social enterprise principles that ploughs its profits back into creating employment and training opportunities, OCC works towards direct trade between Oromos in Ethiopia and the UK. All its coffee is sourced through the Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union is organic, Fairtrade certified, and expertly roasted in Huddersfield by Bolling Coffee. From spicy Harar, to floral Yirgacheffe and the darkly roasted after-dinner Limu, the OCC has some of the finest Ethiopian coffees covered:
“The Oromo Coffee Company brings a great concept to the world of Fairtrade and we are proud to be working with them. The coffee tastes great, originating from the birthplace of coffee itself in Ethiopia and the mission of the company is taking Fairtrade to the next level”.
Herriet Lamb, Executive Director the Fairtrade Foundation
Due to graduate in law from Huddersfield University in June this year, the aspiring human rights’ lawyer’s struggle is far from over. He says: ‘Coffee in our society brings people together; it is important socially, culturally and economically. In Oromo culture, people come together under the Odaa tree to make the coffee ceremony and share stories so that we can teach other and manage our lives better. It makes you feel positive and strong. Through the Oromo Coffee Company, we are trading and working together so that we can increase the capacity of the smallholder farmer. This means he can get a fair price so that he can send his children to school and get an education’.
Abiyot passionately believes coffee has the power to change the dire political situation in Ethiopia. More than a commodity, it holds the key to unlocking the vast potential of his country men and women by promoting skills and education through community-to-community trade: ‘If there are no skills or education, we are blind’ he says, ‘only through education can the people know their civic duty to protect and exercise their rights. That’s why coffee and trade has the power to change lives for the better’.
You can be part of that change by supporting the Oromo Coffee Company to help smallholder farmers in Ethiopia earn a decent living here.
It was a watershed moment in the rise of corporate coffee in the UK when Starbucks’ global Chief Financial Officer, Troy Alstead, got a roasting at the hands of the Public Accounts Committee in Parliament last week.
The scale of the coffee giant’s fleet-footed accounting arrangements that were laid bare during the hearing is staggering. Starbucks has made a profit of £3bn in the UK since it opened its first outlet in 1998. Since 2009, it has paid no corporation tax on its revenue generated in the UK at all. Not a single bean. Despite benefiting from a labour market where the minimum hourly wage will barely cover the cost of a couple of cappuccinos, that equates to less than one percent of corporate tax paid on its earnings in this country.
Starbucks insist they have done nothing illegal. This may be true. But the question over whether it is ethical to run a business with a UK market share of 31 percent and avoid paying its fair share of tax lingers like the whiff of an Eggnog Latte during festive season.
Last year, the Seattle-based firm filed a loss of £33m to HM Treasury on revenues of nearly £400m. So why was Starbucks telling investors in the US that it is ‘highly profitable’ in Britain when it has consistently reported a loss (with the exception of 2006) to the taxman?
The answer lies at the heart of its complex operating business model where coffee is bought through its sister trading company in Switzerland. It is here that a tax efficient 20 percent mark up is applied before it arrives at its vast roasting operation in another low-tax regime country; the Netherlands. A further six percent patent fee is charged in royalties with a proportion funnelled back to its US headquarters. When pressed by committee member, Austin Mitchell MP, about why it charges a royalty fee off-shore, Alstead replied that it ‘compensates for the development of the brand.’ An interesting disclosure in that it suggests Starbicks’ tax-efficient supply chain is designed to extract the value of the coffee long before it reaches its franchise outlets on the high street.
At a time when Starbucks is aggressively intensifying its operations in new markets such as China, Asia and the Pacific region – where it saw a healthy rise of ten percent in sales last year against a decline of one percent in Europe – it would appear that this breakneck expansion is being subsidised through sheer economy of scale and tax evasion in the countries that it operates. This, of course, comes as no surprise. In an age of globalisation where international trade transcends geographical borders, tax-loopholes become irresistibly attractive for corporations with only one eye on the bottom line to maximise shareholder return. Even since the economic downturn Starbucks has bucked the trend; enjoying a spike of 130 percent in share value since the economic crash of 2008. No wonder, then, that the company can boldly state that its menu of premium priced coffee-based products remain an ‘affordable luxury’.
But there is another side to this story. It’s the story of millions of struggling coffee farmers worldwide whose livelihoods depend on growing and processing this precious commodity (second only to oil) that has enabled companies like Starbucks to build such a profitable global business empire.
Whilst corporations can insulate themselves from, and even speculate on, the wild fluctuations in the global price in coffee, smallholder farmers continue to be left vulnerable to this volatility. During my time living and working in coffee growing regions in the central and western highlands of Ethiopia last year, I heard repeatedly at first hand how communities (and crops) were laid to waste by dramatic changes in coffee price, as happened with the catastrophic coffee crash of the nineties. When farmers are currently being paid in the region of 10 Ethiopian Birr (35 pence) for a kilo of organic Arabica coffee cherry in countries like Ethiopia, the level of trade injustice between rich consumer countries in the north at the expense of producers in the global south is nothing short of a scandal.
As news of the Reuters investigation broke, Starbucks’ CEO, Howard Schultz, (who is said to be worth £980m) issued a statement on the company website. He said: ‘We must strike a balance between profitability and social responsibility… and strive to meet our own high ethical standards for how we care for our people, source our coffee, serve communities and operate in the countries where we do business’.
I suspect that for the many independent coffee shop owners and roasters who pay their fair share of tax in this country, Schultz’s lofty words ring hollow.
Meanwhile, the backlash is gathering momentum. Pressure group UK Uncut have announced a day of action on 8th December to turn Starbucks’ stores into refuges, crèches and homeless shelters in a move to highlight the impact of the government’s austerity-driven spending cuts affecting frontline welfare services.
Corporate coffee has never tasted so bitter.
Inside the cavernous London Newcastle Project Space at 28 Redchurch Street, Shoreditch, entrepreneurial duo Rob Dunne and Victor Frankowski demonstrated their charismatic charm for doing things differently. The proprietors of the Protein coffee shop on Hewett Street – HQ of their creative coffee consultancy DunneFrankowski – had set the stage for two-days of captivating competition. Their trademark collaborative approach resulted in a purpose-built gallery space that was just as much a salute to the explosive growth of speciality café culture in the capital as it was about the event’s main attraction; the professional Barista.
Articulating their vision for the space, they said: ‘By building partitions within the gallery we wanted to create a unique environment for the competition and wider audiences to give them an insight into the speciality coffee industry and the craft which barista’s try to master. Collaborating with Monorex to design unique pieces for the partitions, our aim was to link different sub-genres in the art world which otherwise would no be seen together’.
I arrived early on a cold January morning to meet Vic and Rob carefully arranging a series of panels that detailed the rise of the London coffeehouse ever since the first establishment opened its doors to the public on St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, in 1652.
Meanwhile, the good folk at Union Hand Roasted Coffee were setting up their brew bar. As they arranged their siphons, aeropresses, Hario V60 pour-over’s and adventurous single-origin coffee menu, a huddle of competition judges deliberated in hushed, well-intentioned tones.
One wall featured the playful but perceptive work of artist and cross-county runner, Sarah Peterson, who had been commissioned to create a stylised set of illustrations satirically entitled – Top Ten Tips for Overcoming Coffee Addiction. Brilliant.
Two San Remo Veronas occupied opposing tables in the competition area and a third flagship Roma TCS model was being lovingly set up in pride-of-place to greet visitors at the entrance to the gallery. A cosy café space to accommodate the coffee-loving public partitioned with coffee sacks sewn together provided the final understated flourish to the welcoming atmosphere.
The stage was set. Over two days, twelve Barista’s were to put their craft to the test under the watchful eyes of six UKBC (United Kingdom Barista Championship) judges and a packed out room for a coveted place in the semi-finals due to take place at the London Coffee Festival at the OId Truman Brewery on 28th April, 2012. The following day is the climax of the UK championship and an opportunity to compete in the World Barista Championships in Vienna later this year. Take it through to its most logical conclusion and you have the equivalent of a Saturn V rocket strapped to your reputation in the coffee stratosphere. In short, it’s high stakes stuff.
Organised by the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe, the UKBC rules stipulate that each Barista gets 15 minutes to prep their work area and then 15 minutes to make four of their best espresso’s, cappuccino’s and espresso-based ‘signature’ offerings. It’s a chance for the Barista to showcase their knowledge of coffee, creative flair and split second judgement. Aside from the critical aspects of taste and technicality, the competition is just as much about presentation as it is for the business of pulling a great shot. Their performance is judged under the close scrutiny of two technical and four sensory judges.
Okay, I am no expert but I thought all the competitors set the bar extremely high. The competition is a true testament to the Barista’s creativeness when it comes to approaching hand-crafted signature drinks.
The award for theatricality had to go to Dennis Tutbury, Head Barista at the Canary Wharf branch of Taylor St Baristas, who invited the judges to an Alice in Wonderland-inspired tea party: `Because of the tea notes in the coffee, we thought it would be cool to serve them in vintage tea cups. I wanted do something really interesting – something that I would like to watch as part of the audience. You create the experience, and the environment you set up makes all the difference’, he said.
Prepared in quintessential Mad Hatter attire, Dennis’ signature drink was an ice cube infused with Earl Grey tea added to a single shot espresso. He added: ‘As the coffee is so light and delicate, I thought it would be nice to strip it all back to enhance the flavour with the ice cube cooling down the espresso – I really liked the taste. Serving it in small tea pots just added a really nice touch to it.’
Another stroke of genius was at the experienced hands of Rummy Keshet, who selected an award-winning coffee grown at 900m in Araku Valley, Southern India; a London début? He chose the bean for its savoury flavours, full body, delicate acidity and spicy notes. Shortly before the news of winning third place in the competition, he said this of his signature drink:
‘A Scottish food scientist called Harold McGee wrote twenty years ago that coffee is the most similar flavour profile to corn. I thought that sounds like fun. So I made popcorn, cooked it with milk, filtered it out and there you have it – popcorn-flavoured milk! When I poured it over the coffee, to my surprise, they integrated amazingly well.’
The 24 year-old Barista trainer for Darlington’s went on to describe how the combination of caramel and salted popcorn took him back to his childhood: ‘I added French sea salt to the bottom of the espresso, used a syringe to add the right amount of caramel followed by the steamed popcorn milk, served as a piccolo. The salt is really important because it creates a glue between the coffee and popcorn – it brings out the savoury flavours and mutes the coffee’s acidity. The caramel binds the milk and the coffee together. I like to make mainstream, quirky.’
But it was Sang Ho Park, from South Korea, who swept the board with a polished performance and superlative signature offering that would not be out-of-place in Heston Blumenthal’s kitchen. Despite being the last word in modesty regarding his own performance on the day, his efforts scooped him the number one spot.
The 22 year-old Tapped and Packed Barista commented: `My espresso predominantly has a lot of mango flavour, tropical fruits and honey sweetness – I wanted to accentuate those flavours. The fresh mango and acacia honey went really well together and the pomegranate gave it tropical notes. I experimented with salt to make the sweetness come out which complimented the brightness of my coffee. A small amount of diluted vinegar gave it that ting on the tongue and so I added natural fructose to mellow it out’. His skills clearly won the judges appreciation because Sang Ho went on to score a hat-trick by taking the prize for the best espresso, cappuccino and signature drink.
In spite of the enormous pressure, what struck me was the behind-the-scenes camaraderie amongst the competitors, crew and caffeine-heads who rocked up to support their star Barista. It summed up the friendly, collaborative spirit of the vibrant speciality coffee community perfectly. Over the course of two days, funds were also raised for international NGO Coffee Kids to improve the lives of farmers and their families through community-led initiatives. A worthy cause fit for a worthwhile competition.
If there’s one thing that braces you more than the culture shock of visiting an awe-inspiring country like Ethiopia, it’s the reverse culture shock of returning to the United Kingdom. In the winter. So, after arriving in Southampton dock by ferry from Normandy under the cloak of a moody blighty morning, I proceeded to do what seemed to be the most natural thing by now, and make a brew. A short ride to the pebble beach overlooking the straits separating the mainland from the Isle of White was all that was needed to find the perfect spot in which to prime the stove-top Bialetti. As the dim light of daybreak grew to bursting point over the horizon, I toasted my first British sunrise in ten months with a strong shot of Ethiopian Arabica Harar coffee. The familiar spicy aroma emanating from my camping mug was like the warm embrace of a long-lost friend. I felt at home once again.
Now, the only possible way to reverse the onset of early January culture shock blues is to start as I mean to go on and begin the next phase of this coffee-inspired adventure. Determined to engineer as best a soft landing as I could devise, my entry point into the stratosphere of the London coffee scene had to be no other than a visit to the London School of Coffee.
Under the expert guidance of one of the UK’s leading barista’s, coffee consultant and filmmaker, Daisy Rollo, six of us gathered in the comfortable surroundings of the well-equipped training room for a day of espresso-based discovery. Following a short introduction about the origin of coffee and methods of processing, Daisy moved on to one of the many crucial aspects in pulling the perfect shot for the trained – and uninitiated – barista: The grinder. ‘It’s all about the grind’, Daisy said as she took the Italian-made Mazzer Lugi apart to make sure the ceramic burrs were squeaky clean. Soon, fellow coffee enthusiast and Podiatrist student, Tanya Tunpraset, and I were experimenting with varying degrees of coarse-to-fine grind from a sample of Hove-based Small Batch Coffee’s own delectable espresso House Blend (Brazil/El Salvador/Guatemala) with warm orange and citrus notes. It quickly became apparent how much of an impact the slightest of adjustment to the dial made to the extraction time. `You’re never more than a nudge away from achieving the right grind`, Daisy added encouragingly as I tamped my ground coffee (approximately 9g for a single and 18g for a double) to achieve an even, smooth surface before getting to grips with the brushed stainless steel Rancilio Sylvia espresso machine – a work of art in its own right – to pull some test shots of my very own.
When you consider the extraordinary journey that coffee has gone through from its early days as a cherry on the mother tree just to reach the basket in a group head of an espresso machine, you really don’t want to mess things up in the final moment. An extraction time of less than fifteen seconds means that the coffee is effectively being ‘washed’ and results in a stringent, acidic taste at the front of the mouth. More than thirty seconds of extraction and there’s a serious danger of ‘burning’ the coffee as the machine forces hot water through the coffee at a temperature of between 87-91 degrees centigrade under nine bar pressure, Daisy warned. Over extract and the result is an espresso with a strong ‘bitter’ taste that lingers at the back of the mouth long afterwards. Sound familiar?
I was surprised to learn that even the humidity in the room can have a significant impact on the extraction time and thus the required level of grind. The more moisture in the air, the more resistance. All that remains is a small but critical window of opportunity where the practicalities of good agronomics, scientific endeavour, and the skilled roaster’s gift to the experienced barista conjoin to make the perfect shot of espresso. It is both an art and a science in equal measure. But what exactly does constitute the ‘God Shot’ where the pursuit of perfection becomes the Holy Grail for the dedicated barista? Well, apart from being a subjective question, the answer lies in achieving a good balance of acidity, body and sweetness; the product of the complex array of compound oils that give an espresso its distinctive crèma. `We’re looking for an espresso that is neither acidic, nor bitter; one where a balance of taste sensations should dance all over the tongue`, Daisy hinted yet still leaving much to the imagination. But before we could reach for our stopwatches, she went on to advise that time is only a guide and we should really be looking for visual clues in the changes to the colour and consistency of the coffee during extraction.
By early afternoon, my heart was racing. The copious amount of caffeine ingested throughout the morning’s experimentation was coursing through my veins like a raging bull and it was high time to take a break. A discussion over lunch revealed that some of the coffee disciples in the group were, unsurprisingly, looking to move into the coffee business; others wanted to hone their barista skills; another wanted to make better coffee in the kitchen. And why not? Good coffee surely begins at home.
After lunch, we turned our attention to the practice of mastering the art of making microfoam; minute pockets of air that give the milk its silky texture, shiny surface, deliciously smooth consistency and ever-so-sweet taste. Again, time becomes a key differentiating factor. A mere 3-4 second change to the initial texturising stage can mean the difference between pouring the perfect latte or cappuccino. Interestingly too, it is the protein content of the milk that helps to make the micro-foam, and not the fat. This means that – in theory at least – you should be able to get just as good foam from semi-skimmed or skimmed milk than you can with the full, calorific equivalent.
After Daisy gave us a skillful demonstration of her own latte art with ridiculous ease that I am sure belies years of training, the senses took the driving seat again and we all set out to have a go ourselves by experimenting with a small dairy’s worth of milk over the course of the afternoon. We were encouraged to listen to the subtle changes in sound as the milk was first texturised and heated up in the jug. Finishing up with a display of our own best attempts at producing a presentable (and drinkable) latte and cappuccino, my ticker was back in the outside lane again.
My admiration for the humble barista has taken a quantum leap. Within a matter of split-second timing, their approach can potentially make – or break – a good coffee. That’s a huge responsibility for one person to carry on their shoulders when you consider that it is estimated more than 400 hours of labour can go into the production of one pound of the good stuff before it even reaches the grinder. Daisy tells us that the secret of success is all about achieving consistency. A fitting mantra for the day. Pulling that illusive God Shot – or well-balanced espresso – might not be obtainable on every occasion, but it’s worth spending the time and effort trying. Judgement, I suspect, follows shortly afterwards…
Respect to the Barista.
You can understand why King Lalibela wanted to establish his ‘New Jerusulem’ in the back of beyond. Reaching the holy town is a journey in itself. Nearing the final leg of my ‘Tour de Ethiopique’, I set off at daybreak from the junction village of Gashana to get some kilometres behind me before reaching the fabled ‘pista’ that I knew lay in wait before me. Affectionately termed by Ethiopians as a road without tarmac, the ‘pista’ is by all intents and purposes a ‘road’ surface consisting of rubble, volcanic detritus and infinite quantities of dust. Riding it on two wheels is little like skiing without poles; it’s a controlled fall, even uphill. For the first few kilometres, the going was good until the inevitable ‘roughstuff’ kicked in with gusto. Zig-zagging my way through the scree, I went for a tumble a couple of times. The biggest effort of all was trying to keep my eyes on the road whilst the breathtaking table-top escarpments continually vie for your attention.
After an impromptu espresso stop (100% sun dried Harar Arabica) shared with a young shepherd and his two sisters on their way to school, I realised that I had run out of water. Never a good idea when you’re in the middle of nowhere and the oppressive midday sun is beating down on the rocks like a solar-charged anvil. So, I pressed on in the hope that I would reach a village with a water pump, that works. My map of Ethiopia that I had, by now, become so accustomed to its jaw-dropping inaccuracies (which has led me on wild goose chases in search of ‘ghost towns’ that did not exist on more than one occasion) pointed me in the direction of a river. For once, the map was right. And there was running water; a double bonus. Pulling up, three young shepherds and their father gathered to inspect the bike and proceeded to search for the absent engine as I unpacked the stove for a long-overdue brew.
I was in luck. The father’s fields bestriding the river were ripe with garlic, onion and capsicum peppers: Time for lunch. As I cooked up a slap up pasta over the MSR, the workmen that I had passed further back turned up in their rusting water tanker to refill, bathe and wash their clothes. ‘I’m the grading technician, how do you like the road?’ said one with beaming pride. ‘Smooth’, I replied, daring not to look up from stirring my spaghetti for fear that he would see a glint of untruth in my eyes. ‘In fact, the stretch of pista back there was surfaced with some of the best graded gravel I have experienced in a while’, I added, omitting the fact that my bum had turned completely numb for hours. Gobez! (great), he replied and stripped down to his birthday suit before plunging in to the cool, clear rushing water. As I ate, the three young shepherds came to watch. Not having the heart to continue my lunch, I offered them my concoction which they wolfed down with speed.
The next few moments proved to be surreal as I went on to brew an espresso with my trusty Bialetti for each of the gravel technicians. They lazed in the sun-kissed running waters enjoying their brew, without a thread between them; another of those priceless, unscripted, moments that occurs on the road.
Accounts of shiftas (bandits) started to creep into my mind as the sun banked low in the warm afternoon shimmer. I still had more than half way to go if I was to reach Lalibela by nightfall. Sure enough, the ascents got steadily steeper as I winded my way back up the twists and turns from the valley floor. This also meant that the descents got more treacherous. The gravel technicians clearly have a job on their hands if they’re going to grade this lot, I thought to myself, as the Sherpa bounced and shuddered from loose stone to stone of varying shape and size. The sun continued its inexorable course towards the horizon and by now, hung low in the deep spectrum of the African sky. Flat-topped acacias cast their long shadows across the naturally formed chimneys and minarets that had been carved out of the looming escarpment walls by nature’s hand. They grew with each minute as my leg muscles began to tire. Embracing the hopelessness of my situation, I stopped to watch the sun set in a last final burst of golden light before it sank behind the silhouetted teeth of a fold of mountains that faded into the growing darkness. Night began to close in and Lalibela seemed further away than ever.
One-by-one, pinpricks of starlight began to appear in the celestial firmament above and I was now being guided by the reassuring glow the Sherpa’s Schmidt front beam. Outlines of young shepherds returning their cattle to the safety of their home ducked and dived in and out of the roadside gloom as I kept my wheels steadfastly turning. Their enthusiastic greetings were an encouragement to redouble my efforts and keep on pedaling. The spectre of shiftas (bandits) which I had been informed by the local police ‘sometimes’ ply their unwelcome trade at night became however an ever-present, intimidating thought. Just as my exhaustion levels and paranoia reached an all time high, the ‘pista’ – by some stroke of luck – gave way to asphalt again, and, buoyed on by my change in fortunes, I pushed on. The distant flickering of fires could be seen burning high up on the escarpment as farmers retreated into the warmth and safety of their mud and straw Tukus for the night. The occasional haunting whoop of the Hyena call echoed across the vast, empty expanse.
Eventually, I reached another village and stopped to pour the last remaining drops of water that I had filtered from the river earlier in the day down the back of my dry, dusty throat. With one last steep climb to tackle, I set off again with one final surge of determination. No sooner had I negotiated my way round the last territorial dog when a voice cried salem! (peace) from behind a row of thorns. ‘Please come inside,’ said the welcoming voice. Too exhausted to enquire further, I took off my cycling mitts, rested the Sherpa against the hedge and followed the voice into the Tuku. In the middle of the candle-lit circular space covered with goat skins was a young woman and her broad-smiling husband who was coaxing their one year-old daughter to sleep. ‘Please, stay and eat’, Endalitch said, offering me a tray of injera and helva (staple Ethiopian food), and a glass full of tella (an alcoholic home-brewed drink made from teff and maize). She returned to the fire at the back of the hut and soon enough, the aromatic smell of roasting coffee emanated from the tray that was placed on the embers. Endalitch stirred the beans gently to the percussive sound of popping and crackling. As I ate, the beans received a forceful pounding into a coarse grind and were placed into the earthenware jabana (coffee pot) which was being licked by the open flames as it rested on the fire. Her husband, Desal, rocked his six-month old daughter lovingly who had now woken to observe the pale-faced visitor with a short wail followed by a long yawn, before falling back asleep. Finally, some etan (incense) was placed on the burning charcoal. The Tuku infused with a warm spicy fragrance as we chatted and drank coffee. After the beureuka (blessing) – or third cup – I could stay awake no longer and retired to my tent, counting my lucky stars. Traditional Ethiopian hospitality, the incredible generosity of the human spirit, and a yeu buna a feulal (coffee ceremony) had, yet again, saved the day.