Two Typhoons in Korea

My next destination is Seoul, Korea – to visit my mother and meet up with our coffee estate partners. However, my trip’s been delayed 3 days so far due to typhoons Bolaven and Tembin. Flights haven’t been canceled but there are delays. I guess I’m a scaredy cat, I just want to fly when there’s absolutely no threat of an impending typhoon. I checked in yesterday knowing that my flight was delayed 6 hours but when I heard about the second one approaching, I opted to leave 2 days later. I realize now that living in California has made me a weather-wuss…oh, I mean, delicate.

Donettes intended for my mother never stood a chance when I changed my flight.

Kauai Coffee

The end of April is a great time to visit Kauai, although not so much for coffee production. On the third day on the island, I joined the guided tour in the morning at the Kauai Coffee Company. Harvest usually ends by the beginning of the year and the flowers had already bloomed and withered. The flowering apparently happens in 3 days. The fragrance and look are often described as jasmine-like. The cherries were green, needing their time to mature for the next few months.

Kauai Coffee Company gift shop entrance
The Kauai Coffee Company

The tours are at 10 AM and 3 PM every day. You can also go on a self-guided tour any time during business hours. The path is about 1/8 of a mile and is marked with detailed information (as seen above) about the coffee farming process. This part was particularly of interest to me since I haven’t had access to large-scale, highly automated farming. Brazil is known for this type of automation. I’ve read that the Kauai Coffee Company is the largest producer on the Hawaiian islands.

Close up photo of unripe green coffee cherries
Cherries not quite ripe for picking.
Photo of a sign listing coffee varietal at The Kauai Coffee Company
The Kauai Coffee Company: Varietals

They grow several varietals including yellow and red Catuai, Typica, Kauai Blue Mountain, Mondo Nuovo, and a sample Robusta for kicks. Robustas are hardier plants grown mostly in Southeast Asia and West and Central Africa. They have more caffeine but are not know to have great flavor.

The Nursery
The Nursery
The automated harvesting machine.

It was particularly interesting to me to see the automated cherry picker. It looks like a moving car wash with spinning “bristles.” It straddles the row of plants while the flexible spinning rods shake the cherries loose. Indiscriminately. Ready or not, the cherries are all harvested. This is why the more time-consuming hand-picked beans usually have more flavor.

The following wet process plant and the drying areas are not used anymore. I think they have much larger structures in the actual processing area and they have switched over to mechanical drying.

Miniature wet mill. Used for washing, sorting pulping, and cleaning.

Drying area.

Roasting takes place on-site on a Dietrich roaster. They have several roasts you can sample and a retail store for all your shopping needs. To be honest, I didn’t LOVE the coffee but it was a great way to spend the morning in Kauai. I’d recommend a visit if you have plenty of time.

The roastmaster and the Dietrich roaster.
If the samples don’t cut it, you can also order drinks and snacks.

Around Town with Asfa

February 28, 2012 – I proposed going to the Ethnographic Museum of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at the Addis Ababa University on one of our last days. Yes, I’m nerdy like that. Reviews online pointed to this place as being the most worthwhile. I’d definitely recommend it too. It starts on the second floor of one of Haile Selassie’s former palaces (now part of the university). They’ve preserved bedroom suites of Selassie and his wife. Walking around, I couldn’t shake the eeriness I felt from being hyper-aware of time – at once standing still but unstoppably sweeping us forward to our mortality. Maybe it’s the larger than life legacy of Haile Selassie (I’m old enough to remember him) or maybe it was the way displays weren’t immaculately restored, preserved and presented or…maybe I didn’t have enough coffee that morning. Who knows.

The rest of the exhibit gives you an overview of the diverse ethnic, tribal and religious populations of Ethiopia and the country’s long and impressive history. I learned that the area we passed through to get to Bishangari is, in fact, predominately Muslim. There is, of course, a section on coffee ceremonies and all the regional paraphernalia as well.

My favorites were the multi-paneled paintings (like comic books on parchment or hide) that usually illustrate religious or historic tales. There are so many little vignettes within a painting. If you’d like to know more, here’s an example I found of the Queen of Sheeba from the Spurlock Museum at the University of Illinois. They’re very graphic in style and so charming!

The 2 Korean women I went with thoroughly enjoyed the museum too. I translated some of the display notes to them and we got a kick out of the names of various schools that produced massive amounts of religious paintings: Masters of Sagging Cheeks, Masters of the Mustache, Masters of Eyelashes, and Masters of the Small Chin.

Of course most Korean outings must end with a meal so we opted for another traditional Ethiopian lunch. Our regular taxi driver, Asfa, always has a recommendation and is super-diligent about keeping our digestive tracts safe so he took us to Hotel Ghion.

Asfa is so interesting. He looks like Danny Glover and is probably around the same age. He’s very well-educated and speaks English very, very well. He studied Political Science in college and studied for a time in Russia so he speaks a bit of Russian too. He’s lived through the monarchy of Haile Selassie, came of age during the socialist revolution, and is now witnessing rapid capitalist expansion. He’s a cabbie, a tour guide, historian, philosopher, and probably a devoted family man since he is never available in the evenings.

Leaving Bishangari – Back to Addis Ababa

Feb 28, 2012 – We made plans to meet up at the tree house bar at 5:30 the next morning to observe the monkeys and baboons. This is a picture I took of it the day before:

Next time I’ll have to take a camera with a proper lens. Once again, you’ll have to imagine they were all around us feeding on fruit from the trees. We had to dodge the rejects and the pits falling from above us. Baboons had also taken over the coffee ceremony hut. I watched one toss the cushions around, only to be chased by a friendly wart hog. It looked just like Pumbaa! Oh, the frolic at dawn!

We left Bishangari after breakfast. I think we all were wishing we had one more day here. They’ve done a fabulous job of preserving the ecosystem and creating one of the most restful places on earth. They also support the locals by providing them with seeds to plant and by buying the produce back at city market prices.

It was nearly impossible to get any good shots during the bumpy car ride but here’s one to give you an idea of the kids that ran up to the car.

Oh, and I have sort of a happy ending…

A girl with a scarf started running next to us. She was not immediately recognizable but her determination and request were unmistakable. She was the girl who asked for a pen! I had been hoping all morning that she would try again. I yelled out that I had a pen to give her and the car screeched to a halt. Suddenly, others had whipped out their pens too and we left the growing group of kids with about 6 pens. Pen-girl snatched up 3 of them. Good for her. I’m rooting for her.

Next time I know what to bring. A small private donation of school supplies to the local schools could do so much. If you know of reliable charities that do this work already, please leave me a comment.

Lake Langano – Bishangari Lodge

I’m back home now with a backlog of posts that I started on the trip. Please ignore the date of the posts as I am still posting in sequence and trying to catch up. The best is yet to come (in my opinion)…

Feb. 27, 2012 – I just returned from a most magical trip to Bishangari Lodge on Lake Langano about five hours directly south of Addis Ababa. After 3 days in Addis, I was ready for a break from the diesel fumes, dust, and clamor of the city.

We rented a minivan with a driver named Sami (sp?) who skillfully weaved us through the chaos of the road. I was amazed at how many different species and vehicles share the a two-lane road with no traffic lights. That’s right. I said NO TRAFFIC LIGHTS!!! In the U.S., this would cause major panic, road blockages, and mass hysteria. Here, there is a different rhythm and harmony. People and animals co-exist and maneuver around each other without much ado. It takes respect. It takes a different temperament.

We took the main road south that eventually leads to Yirgachefe – home of some of the world’s finest and most fragrant coffees. Our turn off was about halfway down this route so I got a feel for what the journey to that region would be like. Unfortunately, I won’t have time to visit a farm on this trip but I plan to be back during harvest season.

The “dirt” road was actually a very dusty, dry, rocky road. As the city and towns melted into the distance, small villages with circular thatched roof huts replaced them. Children ran out to wave at us. Some would run up to us to ask for money. A couple even started running with the car. One boy ran for nearly 1/2 a mile while talking to our driver. Since our car was on the edge of the road, the boy would often disappear into the ditch and run back up next to the driver without missing a beat. Amazing runner.

Later on, a girl started running to the right of the car asking for what we thought was a penny. Our experience in Addis Ababa had taught us not to give in to panhandlers while in a car because you can easily get mobbed and create a dangerous traffic jam. So, on the way to Bishangari, we did not hand anything out the window.

After a very bumpy, dusty five hours, we finally arrived at Bishangari. Lunch was ready for us in the open-air restaurant. During lunch, I asked Sami what the girl was saying to us. He said she was asking for a pen. A pen? Yes, a pen for school. Talk about a heartache. Talk about regret. Had we only realized.

After lunch, we freshened up a little in our cabins and got ready for a trek to the waterfall. A guide took us through the forest of baboons and monkeys. They kept a certain distance from us but went about their business unfettered. We heard the distant grunts of wart hogs and avoided twisting our ankles in holes dug by anteaters.

Our guide is explaining the water source to us.

The trail lead us to a metal gate. Stepping through that gate was like stepping through the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ story. Magically before us was a vast, flat meadow. Imagine an idyllic scenery of cattle, donkeys, and goats grazing, and herders resting under a shade tree. Apparently this used to be swampland.

As we made our way across the expanse, we were joined by some local boys returning home from fishing. They accompanied us back into another patch of forest, excitedly posing for pictures and eagerly peering into our iPhones to see the results. The guide would point out some of the hundreds of species of birds in the area and some of the boys would repeat the names of the birds in English. A good time was had by all and when we came to a fork in the road, they bade us farewell and continued home.

At the waterfall, the organizer of our trip, J, got ready for his “massage”. He’s done it before. The force of the water is so strong that one needs to brace oneself with a hefty stick while standing in the stream. We saw him struggle to stay in place as the water pummeled his back. Some villagers had also gathered to observe the strange behavior of the faranjis.

We returned just in time for the 5 o’clock coffee ceremony in the coffee hut. A female “barista” roasts the green coffee, pounds it into a fine grind, and adds it to the pot of boiling water. At the very beginning she will light some frankincense and this is usually the predominating scent of a coffee ceremony.

Later that evening, we hung out in hammocks and recliners by the edge of the lake while watching the birds and the sunset. When the sun went down, they brought us wine. Needless to say, the quality of my sleep that night was superb. There are no power outlets in the cabins (although there is low-wattage overhead lights running on reserved solar power) so there was nothing to do but sleep, free of EMF.

Day 3 Addis Ababa Impressions

Street vendor on Bole Road (main road to the airport). Once in a while you’ll still see goats and donkeys on the main roads of the city.

Another view of the goat herd on Bole Road.

Boy cleaning a taxi cab. There are many children either pan handling, peddling, or cleaning taxis. Most taxis are Russian-made Ladas from the mid-80s. Ethiopia went through a socialist period for 17 years after the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Tomoca is a famous coffee shop opened during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. There are coffee trees on either side of the entrance.

Inside Tomoca.

The following photos are from an area called Piazza. This used to be an Italian neighborhood. Today, the street is lined with jewelry shops and shoe shine boys.

These kids were playing in the alley on the way to the silversmith. They are posing for someone’s camera.

Girls hanging out at the silversmith’s courtyard. My favorite picture. The girl on the left was shy and faced away from the camera until I coaxed her. They loved seeing the result on my screen.

There are dogs everywhere sleeping very, very heavily. They are the most relaxed dogs I’ve ever seen.

Neighborhood chicken.

Day 2 in Addis Ababa

Short post. Mostly cupping. Narrowing down the selections and putting them in categories. It’s so exciting to be tasting some of the best coffees from Ethiopia – amazingly fruity and complex. Listening to cupping notes from pros has really been educational and eye-opening.

Unfortunately, all the premium coffee is reserved for export. This means you can only find lower grade coffee for consumption in Ethiopia.


Shiro for lunch at Lime Tree Restaurant. You lay out one piece of injera and pour the buttery chickpea-based sauce on top. Rip off a piece of injera and attack.

Sunset in Addis Ababa:

For dinner we went to Serenade – a cute Mediterranean restaurant/gallery featuring work by local artists. To get there, we had to walk up a dark, creepy cobblestone hill. Once inside, the atmosphere was warm and cozy but the food was disappointing. This place has apparently lost some of its magic.

During the meal, they played a song which happened to be “the” song for a couple traveling with us. They got up and disappeared around the corner to dance with each other. Throughout the meal, the staff kept replaying the song until finally we got the idea. At the urging of the group, they got up for an encore, this time, in the middle of the dining area – tables suddenly clearing as if the staff had been on standby.

Cupping and Roasting in Ethiopia

After just a few hours of sleep, I met up with the coffee folks for a full day of cupping, roasting, and dining. We’ve been walking over to the exporter’s offices nearby and using their coffee lab.

In case you don’t know what cupping is, it’s a controlled way of evaluating and comparing the quality and flavor characteristics of different coffees. This group is here to pick and grade their offerings this season. You will undoubtedly find their coffees at top-notch specialty coffee roasteries.

The coffees are blind-tasted. A measured amount of coffee is ground into each cup. You start out by sniffing the grounds and making notes about the aroma. Next, water is poured and the coffee steeps. Sniff and jot down more notes. One person breaks the cap that forms on top while experiencing the aroma released at that moment. Yes, more notes. More sniffing. When the coffee is cool enough, you take a spoonful and slurp like hell to engage your retro-nasal olfactory. This way, as you are tasting, you are also smelling.

If you’re new at this (like I am), it’s extremely difficult to capture elusive sensory memories. What is that smell? I know I’ve tasted that somewhere…Ooo, that reminds me of the time I was in Bangkok and ate…

I later got to watch them roast batch after batch of samples. Here is a Probat sample roaster.

We caravanned to the Hilton for lunch since it’s safer to eat at places that cater to foreigners. We are staying away from raw vegetables and fruits that don’t have peels. Better safe than sorry.

Here is an Ethiopian coffee ceremony set up we saw at the Hilton:

Hard work was rewarded with a dinner and a show that night. We went to Yod Abyssinia which was a real treat. I really recommend this place even if it’s a bit of a tourist trap. Really worth it. The food, dancing, and ambiance were beyond expectation.