Story and photos by Bruce Northam
Video by Bruce Northam & Oktane Media
The land where civilization and coffee launched is history…still in full stride.
Perhaps Ethiopia’s status as the birthplace (origin) of the energy drink has had some impact on their mobility/wandering nature. Yielding humanity’s oldest traces provided ample time to concoct a few fads, including one that hasn’t faded. Sometime after the sacking of Rome and before Europe slipped into the darkest of its Dark Ages, coffee was discovered in Ethiopia.
Caffeinated storytellers say it goes something like this: A wise herder named Kaldi noted that his goats became hyped up after chewing specific plant leaves and berries, so he munched on some and caught a buzz. After sharing this discovery with a nearby monastery, Kaldi was scolded “for partaking in the fruit of the devil.” That is until the monks whiffed the splendid aroma emanating from the fire from where they’d pitched the devil’s brew. Monks then began drying coffee beans and shipping them to other Ethiopian monasteries. Upon receipt, they rehydrated the beans in water, ate the fruit and drank the brew, which they discovered helped them stay chipper for nocturnal prayers. Soon after, Arabs began importing beans and the coffee business launched. Fifteenth century Turks invented the modern style of brewing and stamped an adaptation of the Kaffa province’s name on it: “kahve”.
Whereas American coffee joints prey on creamy consumerism and wirelessness, Ethiopia’s coffee houses are about socializing. Coffee (buna) is also vital at home and honored with its own ritual. The coffee ceremony showcases Ethiopia’s welcoming nature. An invite extends a hand of friendship, requiring about as much time as it takes to enjoy an American barbeque. The ceremony begins with freshly cut grass scattered on the floor to share nature’s bouquet (and conjure up memories of cutting the lawn to earn your allowance). An incense burner smokes with an aromatic gum while the hosting brewmaster sits on a low stool before a mini charcoal stove. As coffee beans roast in a pan, everyone is invited to draw the smoke their way, inhale, and then rejoice with an aroma exclaim, either borrowing a fancy wine connoisseur idiom or simply “mmm.”
The roasted beans are then ground with a pestle and mortar, brewed, and served in petite china cups—heavy on the sugar. Traditionally, three cups are served; the third bestowing a blessing. Popcorn usually makes a showing at this core of Ethiopian sociology where organic conversation trumps all modern communication mediums—high time for the sort of womanly conversing that’s typical in salons.
Enjoying another energy drink, ferengi (white people) like to tie one on by drinking honey wine in the country’s numerous tej bars. We can’t survive on beverages alone. The national staple is teff, the main grain ingredient in a nutritious, moist–spongy pancake–like bread that doubles as both utensil and plate—menu items parked atop this old world pizza are clutched and consumed with torn off pieces. During these traditional, earthbound mealtimes I kept peeking around for the beanbag chairs.
Ethiopians are caffeinated without the agitation—I didn’t spot one Homo Coffee–addictus in the land that produced the first energy drink. Ethiopians define mellow and gracious in a land of heavenly visions. Churches, markets, smiles, and biological anthropology reveal a dateline of pioneering while Ethiopia tutors us on simply enjoying a moment. The allure of many African countries is game preserves. Ethiopia’s not a place to behold the “big five animals,” yet it boasts eight World Heritage Sites. Their ancient sense of style means that accidental models stroll along every bend in the road.
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Story and photos by Bruce Northam
Video by Bruce Northam & Oktane Media
The land where civilization and coffee launched is history…still in full stride.
Ethiopia is the birthplace of the traveler…among other things. Africa’s oldest royal dynasty is the turf from where humans first began moseying to other continents; the first road trippers. Most paleo–archeologists boil it down to something like this: Africans, from what is now Ethiopia, started wandering toward the Middle East. Once there, the nomads who hung a right evolved into Asians, while the drifters swerving left developed white skin; a rainbow of complexions was born in that midst. If this simplified scenario is fact, Ethiopia bore our first true itinerants; the origin of foot travel.
And they certainly still like to mosey. Outside the capital city Addis Ababa, where cars are a rare luxury, walking is a way of life. The weary catch rides with donkey–cart pilots while children as young as four years–old herd cattle, camels and sheep.
The country that invented wandering was never colonized and isn’t remotely displeased with foreigners. Translation: xenophobia is not in their vocabulary. The Ethiopian love for travel is sustained by nationals making both in–country spiritual pilgrimages and outbound quests to holy sites around the world. Intrinsically religious, they celebrate 150 saints’ days a year. The self–customized Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s fourth century origins means Ethiopia was Christian long before Europe. No need for TV evangelists to show the way.
Even atheists will be astounded by the sacred, musical dedication here—an epoch soundtrack loop fills the air in every church. In Aksum’s enormous yet intimate St. Marry Church, men and women clad from head to toe in white shawls sang “The Promise” while bowing repetitively in the glimmer from epic stained glass. Words can’t describe this incredible harmony.
Ethiopia remains Biblically exotic. Occupying a large part of the Horn of Africa, it is a land of geographic extremes. Ethiopia is cool, climatically and literally. Its centerpiece sits on a high plateau with grand mountain vistas saddled by green farmlands where Gondar’s castle campus dates to 1632. The walled royal enclosure reflects successive influences from India, Arabia, and a
There were Ethiopian Muslims during the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammed. Epitomizing religious coexistence, Muslims and Christians marry and are often seen holding hands. Today, there’s also no shortage of inbound international travelers undertaking every variety of quest while enjoying ancient–bred respect. Ethiopians quietly epitomize hospitality.
Ethiopian men and women have also mastered running. Ethiopian track stars own 31 world records, specializing in middle distances. Marathon man Abebe Bikila won his second Olympic gold medal in Rome, running barefoot!
“Every time an old person passes away, it’s as if a whole library were lost” – Ethiopian saying
Story and Photos by Bruce Northam
Video by Bruce Northam & Oktane Media
We’ve all said never say never—and surely, certain hedonistic performances needn’t be rescheduled. Though visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras in 1986 was a personal classic, when I ended up staying in the Big Easy for an additional three feral months, I figured that one Fat Tuesday per lifetime was aplenty. Sometimes, it’s best to peer over your shoulder at memories, but not turn back.
However, 23 years later, Burlington Vermont’s 14th annual February adaptation of Mardi Gras towed me back into its parade splendor…with cooler climes, tastier beer, and a more humane mission. Patriotism, from my perspective, means improving your country. In chorus with that belief, I strive to be a frontline worker in the battle against bad news and boredom. Perfect timing for a weekend of charitable decadence.
Burlington’s wintry spectacle is the Magic Hat Mardi Gras. Created and run by the regional craft brewery, this party with a conscience attracts cabin–feverish locals as well as Magic Hat beer devotees from across America. The undulating train of 30 imaginative floats winds along downtown streets, each one blaring their own upbeat soundtracks. Bead, bauble, and treat–flinging costumed revelers ride upon the floats ranging from “junk monster” to “giant pumpkins” and “bumblebees” to rockin’ live bands or DJs. There’s no shortage of chilly flamboyance. My favorite rig was the stumbling ghoul guy with a worm growing out of his face who towed the “Nightmare on Church Street”.
The Bayou City’s Mardi Gras, the archetypal celebration starting on Ash Wednesday and continuing up to Lent, is synonymous with indulgent excess…they clean the post–parade garbage–strewn streets with bulldozers and have to spray down the streets with a kind of industrial–strength air freshener.
Don’t get me wrong, the Magic Hat Mardi Gras is wild too, but people are bundled up, nobody flashes breasts, the parade’s proceeds help support the Burlington Women’s Rape Crisis Center, and littering is rare. The impromptu 1995 debut version of their parade surprisingly attracted 1,500 people. In 2009, there were over 25,000 witnesses ranging from age 3 to 90; producing enough body heat to melt snow.
The chilly outdoor party rollicked from sublime to silly, with my preferred ilk of beer connoisseurs proudly nosing their brews like wine snobs—minus the extended pinky. The parade is preceded by street bands and people immortalizing the memory in the Magic Hat photo booth…and followed up by after–parties in the dozens of downtown bar bashes, house parties serving Jambalaya, and random on–the–street bonding. There’s live music all over town and many bars within walking distance of each other. Some folks start partying before the 3pm parade, so by midnight, a few attendees didn’t feel the chill, and convinced themselves they were in Louisiana.
How do you define “largest”?
No other state has a largest city as small as Burlington’s 40,000 people. Vermont’s total population of 610,000 ranks it 49th of all 50 states—edging out only Wyoming. Burlington’s climate classification is similar to Fargo, Minsk, and Stockholm…but its groovy ranking is tied with Austin. Members of the seminal jam–band, Phish, which originated at Burlington’s University of Vermont circa 1983, still live in town.
“If Jerry [Garcia] Were Here, I’d Buy Him a Beer” —further bottle cap wisdom
You don’t have to travel south for hospitality, there’s abundant warmth 50 miles south of the Canadian border. Human–wise, a 19th century mix of French Explorers and chatty New Yorkers bursting at the seams with cash has now melded with intellectuals, lithe Yoga types, snowboard bums, and guys wearing miniature wool hats—outside and inside. Are those permanently overgrown–beanie–wearing dudes hiding perennial bad hair, or always cold? I correlate long–term indoor hat wearing with scalp itchiness, not magic. Any hat that doesn’t completely cover your ears is only a fashion statement. Then again, I’m still waiting for Led Zeppelin to tour again.
The billboard–free state’s state mammal is the Morgan horse, which has a compact and muscular build, just like those hearty woodsmen who don’t get shaving. The state bird is the hermit thrush, whose breeding habitat is coniferous or mixed woods, which means that depending upon her mood, couples do it amongst pine cones—or sugar maples. Breeding hermit thrushes make a cup nest on the ground or relatively low in a tree. Rumor has it that consuming a few Circus Boy beers can inspire similar romantic
The Left Coast of New England hugs Lake Champlain, which almost became a Great Lake. The 120–mile long lake is home to prehistoric–looking Sturgeon fish—weighing as much as 200 pounds and living up to 100 years—and possibly swimming alongside another intimidating lake creature, the mythical “Champ” lake monster, a stiff competitor to Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster. Pure local water is also a distinctive ingredient in Magic Hat beer.
Local magnificence experts claim that the sun setting behind New York’s Adirondacks Mountains, with eight miles of the lake’s width as forefront, is one of the world’s grandest sunsets. The lake region’s original inhabitants, Abenaki and Iroquois Native Americans, would likely agree; in their story of creation god turned himself into an island in Lake Champlain. These same Indians would probably disagree that the lake was “discovered” 400 years ago.
The Green Mountain State really is green in countless ways, and Magic Hat helps lead the charge by using 100% natural corn–starch–based biodegradable cups for all of their fairs, music festivals and events—including Mardi Gras. Once in the ground, the corny cups compost in two months. [P.S., Beer in corn is much preferred over corn in beer].
Magic Hatfuls of Indulgence
Although Magic Hat’s hand–crafted Lucky Kat can spawn a nuclear buzz, it has nothing to do with Vermont having the highest percentage of nuclear generated power in the nation—74%. One result of this makes Vermont one of only two states without any coal–fired power plants. In a comparable vein, you get the sense that recycling was invented here. Proof positive that progressive energy and true environmentalism can coexist.Alan Newman, Magic Hat’s founder—and parade leader—carries the fanciful (though official) title of Conductor of Cosmic Symphonies. Interviewing him reminded me that it’s easiest to bounce ideas off of flexible surfaces. He’s a quirky, interesting guy; a serial entrepreneur who describes himself as an “unemployable insubordinate.” He wears round, bright yellow glasses, a bushy gray beard, and a shaved head. A character partly defined, even before he gets chatty. He’s started and sold several successful businesses, including Seventh Generation and Gardner’s Supply Company. More telling, he prefers to remains shoeless, year–round.The Magic Hat Brewery tour starts with an information super–hallway with relics from the past, and a cardboard sign brought in by an actual hitchhiker pleading, “Going to Magic Hat Brewing Company, Please Help.” Dimly lit inside to save energy and create ambiance, you can enjoy limited release beer samples while theatrical tour guides won’t bore you with the standard “here’s dah mash tun” run–of–the–mill blather. Welcome to one of the world’s epicenters for craft beer—inside a building that’s a continuous energy efficiency experiment, including “free air” refrigeration, which cools beer naturally all winter long using nothing more than air from the big, natural freezer called Vermont.
”Do You Have What It Takes To Work For Beer? … That means people who not only think outside the box, but have taken the box out behind the barn, pounded it to splinters with a blunt yard implement, doused what’s left in gasoline, and torched the whole thing in an incendiary blaze of non–conformist glory. That means people who will dance to their own drummer while grooving to our company’s own unique communal beat … Send resume and cover letter to: Zookeeper.”
I’m betting that those employment qualifications are a bit different from the ones required to join the Army.
Roaming out of bounds isn’t always a bad thing. Magic Hat’s influence on local culture inspires social causes, including working closely with the music and arts scene. It’s about maintaining an eternal fountain of youth …(remember?) having as much fun as when two elementary school buses pulled alongside each other at a red light. Older and wiser, my Mardi Gras 2.0 foray blended decadence with activism, and tapped both brain lobes.Magic Hat is known for including thought–provoking short phrases on the underside of their bottle caps and on their website. The subject matter of these mini billboards range from humorous to insightful to nonsensical. There are even caps with a phone number that, when called, wins the drinker merchandise. As a Lower East Side New Yorker with severe allergies to horn honking and elitism, the bottle cap suggesting “Find a Solution to Mind Pollution” struck a chord. More evidence that you can fit a lot into a small space.
If I were chosen to invent Burlington’s official tourism slogan, an option would be:
If you don’t fit inside the box, climb on top of it and have a good look around.
But that’s not fitting underneath a bottle cap, so I’m not applying for a job here. Instead, I’m heading 30 minutes east to ski at Bolton Valley. Old–style Led Zeppelin fans don’t snowboard.
“Those who Share are Free of Care.” —bottle cap wisdom
A Mother and Son Return to Ireland for a Walk Down Memory Lane—and the Road Not Taken
Story and Photos by Bruce Northam
The first gift I gave my mom was a dandelion bouquet. When she turned 80, I brought her to Ireland. It was a gift with a hidden agenda. Born Johanna O’Sullivan, she was one of seven raised by Irish-born immigrants in New York City and later Long Island. There, she was groomed for the convent. With her bags packed for the holy life, she balked and chose a career that eventually led her to Manhattan and to date a Hollywood rogue, Steve McQueen. Mom didn’t know it, but part of our Irish quest was discovering what might have been if she had taken the oath.
We began our journey with family in County Limerick. Our Irish kin own a hilly cattle farm in Loughill, near the village of Athea, where my grandparents met as kids. With a walk down memory lane, we celebrated my mom’s dedication to keeping in touch the old school way, via letters. Our cousins’ songlike brogues made it real.
After bidding them farewell, our search for Ireland’s convent lifestyle took an unconventional turn with stays in two five-star castles. The first was County Mayo’s fantastical Ashford Castle, dating back to 1228. It has since evolved into a country estate and an 83-room hotel. Greeted by the gatekeeper and self-proclaimed fountain of knowledge, we drove along the curving driveway through a golf course that foretold of the storybook majesty as the one-lane bridge introduced the lakeside castle. Coining a phrase that would be lost on most nuns, mom exclaimed, “Luxe of the Irish.” An intimidating bastion with soaring turrets, this palace features a celebrity photo hall of fame that’s a who’s who of former guests. Ronald Reagan’s picture triggered mom’s buried annoyance because, as she pointed out, “He removed the solar panels installed on the White House roof by Jimmy Carter.”
It didn’t take long for us to feel at home in the lavish surroundings—breakfast underneath Waterford Crystal chandeliers, soaks in a spa hot tub, and a concierge quoting Yeats. It was a far cry from the spartan life mom would have led as a nun. We quickly fell into a routine that involved long walks on her new knee and reminders to tuck in my shirt. At Ashford Castle, tradition calls from every corner. A nightly singer and piano player perform in the midst of the palatial but living-room-cozy drawing room while an outdoor fountain contributes to the soundtrack. Later back in our suite, mom attempting medieval humor, teased, “Where did thee go in eighth grade when you hijacked that golf cart in the middle of the night?”
Paying penance for being a naughty teen, I entertained mom on a boat cruise, introduced her to on-campus falcons and horses, ate fruit scones in the sunny drawing room, and wandered a few of the 300 acres of gardens designed by the former-owning Guinness family. A stroll on an undulating path led us to the picturesque village of Cong, where we toured the ruins of a seventh century Augustine Abbey. Nearby, inside a monk’s fishing house—a stone hut built over a river with a casting hole in the floor—mom mused on marriage, “Your dad bought ice fishing gear and returned it after a frozen night on a lake.”
Through the Highland Barrens; Nun on the Run
Rolling across County Galway and sometimes harrowing, narrow roads made slicing between trucks and stone walls a test of nerves. Otherwise, the rolling green scenery, classical music on the radio, and mom as co-pilot was bulletproof leisure. Passing into Connemarra’s highland barrens—from woodsy green to stark mountains—we never exceeded 20mph and only saw three other vehicles in an hour. Although gorgeous stone churches are at the heart of most villages, Irish convents are rapidly closing, foretelling a fading way of life. It’s hard to find a nun in Ireland these days, but we were determined.
Our wish was granted by an unscheduled stop at Kylemore Abby, a legendary convent and boarding school. We encountered one nun in seven days, and she was stealthily driving along the abbey’s utility road in a beat-up minivan. Before she could get away, I knocked on her car window, and she emerged wearing a habit and knee-high Wellington boots. She and mom chatted about Catholic school teachers and outfits. Fast friends—so close yet so far—they held hands for a moment before saying goodbye. Right then it hit me, if mom had donned the habit, my dad would never been able to use his line, “You have great legs,” when they first met on Long Beach, New York in 1949.
On the Castle Trail
Out of the barrens and back into the woods, the grand entrance to Ballynahinch Castle crosses a one-lane stone bridge, and into another era. This sprawling landmark doubles as an art gallery, with old local photos and paintings lining a mile of walls. Defining quietude, enchanting riverside trails pass lakes, cross pedestrian bridges, and antique cottages. It’s Ireland’s Vermont. Rounded mountains loom over this lush river valley that’s a fly-fishing heaven for the fisherman we met on hikes, who were going after wild Atlantic salmon and brown trout. For some, this is the royal fishing lodge.
Built by one of the 14 original tribes of Galway who reigned during the 13th to 19th centuries, it has been a hotel for 65 years. The slow-roasted serenity followed us inside: peat fires warm the lobby and an old-style pub serves roast woodcock. Mom delivers an old book from the library along with a hand-pulled brew—a trusted formula in this benign beacon for poets, writers, and painters.
After reading The Irish Times and The Irish Independent cover to cover, mom looked up and asked, “Time for a hike?” En route, on a bridge over the untroubled Owenmore River, we met Noell, one of the castle’s historians. After his Gaelic-infused lecture on clan and tribe infighting, we continued our riverside hike, holding hands for safety like I did with my daughter before “kindergarten cool” set in. Hand holding, throughout our lives, says everything without words.
Back in our riverside suite, I watch mom sleep peacefully and feel at peace myself. It occurs to me that I’ve seldom seen her in dreamland and how much she must have enjoyed watching her toddlers sleep. The next morning she awoke first. When I opened my eyes, she asked, “Could it be possible that my watch is going slower here?”