A friend mentioned she might be going to Ethiopia soon….and at breakfast this morning a topic related to this story came up….I don’t want to ruin the surprise and tell you what it was…all I can say is read on…

Just a Touch of Cream and Sugar

Perched anxiously on the edge of a cracked, plastic garden chair, book in hand, in the courtyard of my “hotel” which I was quite certain doubled as a brothel. I waited patiently for the drink that had consumed my early morning thoughts throughout a three-month instant-coffee-athon while studying and traveling in Eastern Africa. Unlike its coffee-producing neighbours, who appease disgruntled Western tourists with a cup of instant Nestle, there is an ancient and very vital coffee drinking culture in Ethiopia. The importance of coffee to Ethiopian society is reflected in the infamous coffee ceremony, performed daily, which provides Ethiopians the opportunity to catch-up, exchange news, gossip or debate, perhaps paving the way for the success of Starbucks. Combine Ethiopia’s coffee-drinking culture with Mussolini’s short-lived occupation in the thirties and rumour had it that the world’s best cappuccino would cost 10 cents – a regular cuppa-joe, only a few pennies.

The journey by road from Nairobi to Addis Adaba is not for the faint of heart, nor for the weak of strength. From Isiolo where the tarmac ends, north to Marsabit and the border town of Moyale, there is no road, simply a weathered track frequented by lorry drivers high on qat and coca-cola, shiftas (bandits) and cattle rustlers. To say it is in a rough neighbourhood is an understatement. Conflicts and AK-47s spill over porous borders shared with Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia and converge in this semi-arid, inhospitable desert. Scarce resources are made more so by unwelcome guests.

I had spent two days and two nights hanging on for dear life on top of a lorry, where Joseph Conrad’s “never get off the boat” took on a whole new meaning, and another two days and nights suffocating in a bus in Ethiopia (Ethiopians do not, as a rule, like traveling with open windows, and few are habituated to driving the mountainous roads posing the double challenge of stale vomit and a lack of fresh air). To top things off, I had made friends with a charming man as he carefully placed his baggage under and around my seat.  When I asked what he did for a living, he informed me proudly that he was a smuggler making his monthly run of contraband goods from Kenya.  After cruising through several police check points, I was relieved to be in my “hotel”, even if it was only a slight step up from the Ethiopian jail cell which could have easily been my fate.

Freshly showered, but far from clean, having to wash with a bucket of cold dirty water and reveling in the fact that I had survived the past four days, I felt surprisingly good.  Despite my conservative travel budget, I splurged and waited patiently for my cappuccino, a 10 Birr note held greedily between my fingers.

At last my elixir arrived. The waiter carefully placed the cup filled to its brim in front of me as though it were some kind of offering.  A glance revealed a perfect amount of foam. I held the cup before me with both hands, like some kind of hard-won prize.  I took my first sip, a layer of foam resting unattractively on my upper-lip. The much-anticipated nectar of the gods burned my tongue, warmed my throat and flowed through my veins like the long awaited kiss of a returning love. I sat back in my flimsy chair, ignored the pestering flies, and forgot about the trials and tribulations of the past days.

Another sip.

I closed my eyes and sighed.

Truly this is what heaven tastes like, I thought. Suddenly, my curious tongue was attracted to something a bit out of the ordinary that had, apparently, slipped past my sunburned lips.

Mmm, a perfectly roasted coffee bean, I deducted. What a splendid touch. My tongue continued to explore this foreign, but still welcome object as my teeth prepared to bite down into the bean, and my taste buds readied to welcome the bitter delight that was certainly to ensue.   A little larger than a normal coffee bean, I thought as my tongue discovered something a little less bean-esque, and more like a wire.  I could no longer leave it to my oral senses to divulge the identity of the mysterious object.

Sticking my fingers into my mouth, I plucked “it” out.

“Bean” first, “wire” second, the object emerged, and the mystery of the extraordinary coffee bean revealed itself.   There, between my fingers, was a perfectly steamed, coffee infused, cockroach.

A wave of disappointment flooded over me. I felt as though that same returning love, whose kiss had been anticipated and wholly perfect, had just told me that he had been cheating. At least it was dead, I told my self, trying to look on the bright side as I shrouded the beast discreetly in the folds of my napkin.

In Ethiopia there is a well-known saying: “those who have no one to have coffee with, have no friends.”  Already drinking alone, I wondered what  they would say about someone who discovers a cockroach in their cup.   With a quick swirl, and a careful investigation of the remaining contents, I did what any sensible girl would do.  Sat back, relaxed and took another sip of that long awaited cappuccino.