Pot of Gold

Joseph Brodsky has a nose for great coffee. It led him all the way to Ethiopia, in search of the Geisha.

Everyone knows Addisu is not just being polite. There's an unspoken understanding here that Ethiopia's coffee farmers are getting the very short end of the stick. While coffee geeks like to compare java's potential to wine, the two drinks differ in one fundamental way: Turning a good grape into a bottle of fine wine is usually under the purview of a single vineyard, but a great coffee bean must pass through numerous hands -- farmers, millers, co-op owners, exporters, importers, roasters, baristas. For a coffee entrepreneur like Brodsky, this means there are innumerable nerve-racking ways that the precious, fickle beans may be ruined before they reach consumers. For the 1.2 million subsistence coffee farmers in Ethiopia and the millions more like them worldwide, the situation is far more calamitous.

While Novo may charge a hefty $2.25 for a no-frills twenty-ounce cup of Ethiopian, by the time that money filters through the supply chain to the coffee farmers, just a few cents are left. Most Ethiopian farmers get by on less than a dollar a day, tending some of the world's finest beans in meager gardens around their one-room shacks while their barefoot children beg for change on the side of the road. And even that paltry livelihood cannot be guaranteed. Ethiopia's coffee industry, like that of essentially every java-producing nation, is inexorably tied to the boom-and-bust variability of the commodity-coffee market. In 2002, when an international java glut sank world coffee prices to a thirty-year low, Ethiopian coffee cooperatives went bankrupt. Coffee fields were torn up to make room for chat. People could no longer afford clothes, medicine or food.

It was a stark reminder that in this country, a tiny bean lies at the heart of everything: the economy, the culture, the society itself. When coffee prices fail, Ethiopia collapses from within.

Joseph Brodsky has a taste for adventure -- and Ethiopian coffee cherries.
Joseph Brodsky has a taste for adventure -- and Ethiopian coffee cherries.

"Coffee is a product that people feel passionately about, and yet it is a horrible product in so many ways," says Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds, a comprehensive history of coffee. "Coffee provides a sort of a metaphor for the inequality built into our capitalism system."

The Geisha is another metaphor: All beans are not created equal, and this mythic bean could represent salvation for Ethiopian farmers. Now the team has learned the bean could be almost within reach, but there's no practical way to get there. "You have to be realistic. You cannot take an eleven-hour walking journey without any specific equipment," Boot says to Brodsky as they leave Addisu's office. "That sucks."

It's not the only thing that will suck today. The plan is to spend the night at a thinly veiled bordello, a place where the "bar girls" gyrate to Tupac while waiting for customers, a shabby but tolerable choice. But while the faranjis stand outside this establishment in the rain, the proprietors confess that there's been a scheduling mixup, and no rooms are available. Everyone will have to stay down the road...at the bad hotel.

The bad hotel is heroic in its depravity, a stark cement hulk rising from a moat of foul-smelling mud. Bedrooms are dingy cells populated by spiders the size of human hands; bathrooms are feces-smeared holes in the floor. A flickering orange luminescence illuminates the scene, courtesy of the piles of burning trash smoldering just beyond the hotel's razor-wired gate.

De Jong leans over the hotel's rusty balcony, watching the pyrotechnics. She takes a swig of Black Label and chuckles, her face illuminated in an Apocalypse Now-like hue. "Nothing in coffee is ever quick and simple," she says. "That's the truth."

Roasted coffee beans go bad in two weeks. Their structure deteriorates, their essences turn sour. Ground coffee is even more unstable, a half-hour time bomb ticking away to total flavor disintegration. In comparison, it takes roughly five days for the Geisha expedition to fall apart.

Everywhere the group ventures, the Geisha seems just out of reach. In the remote village of Gecha, hundreds of wide-eyed children flock to the rarely seen faranjis while officials glare at them warily and say no one is going near their buna without proper documentation. Elsewhere, locals tell them of additional obstacles in their path: murderous forest tribes and bloodthirsty lions leaping from the trees.

To Getinet Kelkle, a longstanding Ethiopian coffee expert accompanying the expedition, these reports, though probably apocryphal, make poetic sense. "I am sure a lion will be guarding Geisha," he laughs. "Why else is it so secret?"

In the town of Bonga, Boot finally loses his titanium-hulled temper. He's just learned from chat-chewing truck drivers that the last two Geisha towns are at least a mud-splattered day trip away -- an extra day the adventurers don't have. "I don't understand why it takes me only two minutes to find out about this, while you had at least two months to discover the information," he thunders to his Ethiopian escorts. As the camera rolls, the Ethiopians say nothing. Only later, away from Boot, do they insist that no one bothered to tell them anything about the Geisha hunt until two days before the expedition started.

After that, back in the Land Cruisers, the grumbling begins. Why wasn't this trip better organized? What have we learned about the Geisha, about Ethiopian coffee? Is this just some sort of faranji field trip? And why the hell are we spending so much time in the trucks?

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