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Food by VICE

Chasing Coffee in Ethiopia: Hyenas Give the Best Goodbyes

At the end of our coffee-sourcing trip in Ethiopia, we drove through the capitol city that had transformed into a sea of saddened World Cup fans. Ethiopia had just lost to Nigeria. Luckily, before our flight home we were introduced to a pack of wild...

by Ashton Goggans
Jul 9 2014, 6:50pm

Photo by Chris Eason via Flickr

Welcome back to our final installment of features from Ashton Goggans of Sightglass Coffee, an independent roastery in San Francisco, about the company's ongoing sourcing trips around Africa. There's a lot of crazy shit that happens in order to get high-quality beans back into the States, so the next time you start bitching about your overpriced cup of java, check back in on this ongoing series to get an insider's perspective about what it takes to source some of the best coffee in the world.

We spent the next three days much the same way: staring at vast stretches of land through car windows. Packs of children threw fruit at our truck as we passed. They laughed hysterically, then shoved each other onto the ground. African wheat hung limp and heavy with morning dew all along the roadside. Droves of cattle clogged the streets and parted reluctantly. Men and women on the side of the road held bags of potatoes and corn out for sale. In rural villages, they wove wicker baskets and molded bricks out of clay. The sky threatened rain.

We visited a number of roadside washing stations. My appetite returned, though the smell of native spices brought on phantom waves of nausea. We visited a cooperative outside Shakiso, where one of our favorite coffees—a bright, luscious, vibrant coffee that tastes like honey and apricots, no joke—came from last year. We negotiated prices and worked with May to figure out how many different coffees we needed for the upcoming season, and which of the cooperatives we would be doing business for the next year.

The last morning in Ethiopia, we woke at a beautiful lodge outside Irgalem, where May had planned a surprise for us. She told us to go ask around for the man with the stick about taking a walk to see some hyenas.

The man took us into the neighboring forests, where we followed along a small river. He wore a long, blue trench coat and carried a large staff made of good hardwood, looking for tracks.

He raised his hands at the edge of a clearing. Two hyenas—which are very large and look more like small bears than large dogs—crossed twenty yards in front of us. They caught our scent, looked straight at us, and emitted a gutteral sound —a deep, low, raspy rumble—and disappeared into the thick bush. Nothing to see here, boys, was their attitude.

We drove into Addis on the afternoon of the World Cup qualifier. The roads were heavy with traffic. People hung out of cars, waving large Ethiopian flags. The air was dry and dusty. Parts of Addis looked bombed out. Uniformed men with machine guns walked the streets. Scaffolding made out of long, thin branches like childhood forts rose up around half-constructed concrete buildings.

Ethiopia lost to Nigeria 0-2 as we were finishing plates of fried chicken breasts and French fries. We drove through Addis, past crowds of sad, drunk people in Ethiopian soccer jerseys, young men wearing their flags like capes.

Our driver sat in the driver's seat while we piled our duffels on the terminal's sidewalk. May hugged us goodbye. Another group of coffee buyers were flying in that night, and she had to see about getting a new driver for them. Our driver was dead to her. I'd miss him and his single cassette tape he always carried with him, his greasy leather jacket and a half-dozen gold bangles that he wore on each wrist. But then I remembered his habit of driving on rural roads, advancing at a snail's pace, slamming the brakes for even the slightest bumps, or driving viciously in denser cities—honking and swerving, playing chicken with rickshaws and donkeys and dogs, getting red-faced angry when a pack of cows parted slowly, and almost clipping unsuspecting pedestrians.

He carried three cell phones and a pager at all times, answering calls while he drove us around. All of his phones were kept plugged into chargers and tucked in the center console. I wouldn't miss his habit of nervously pacing and yelling into his cellphone at pit stops, or that time he almost killed all of us by practically swerving off of the road. I was glad to be on steady ground again out of harms way.

Twenty hours later, the Brothers Morrisson dropped me at my house in San Francisco near Ocean Beach. It was early and bright, the morning sky blue and clear. My dogs greeted me at the door, tails wagging. They barked and jumped, smelled my dirty clothes. After my disappointing interaction with the wild hyenas, it was nice to see some friendly creatures.

My brother was in the kitchen making coffee from Ethiopia.