Posted on June 25th, 2012
The boy who gave us bananas carried a machete casually slung over his shoulder. He seemed confused when I broke one open and began to eat it, and talked very fast in Swahili to my guide. It seems I had made yet another cultural gaffe. These were cooking bananas, my guide explained; no one in their right mind would eat one raw. The boy, shooting me looks that clearly said he was worried about this tall white girl, nimbly climbed a nearby tree and brought me down a petite, deep golden, and oddly heavy replacement. Its peel was thin and fibrous and the three bites that it afforded me were rich and sweet. The boy took the first banana – a fruit that might be found in any perfectly respectable American grocery store – out of my hand and quietly tossed it into the forest. We thanked him, “asante sana,” and continued our hike around the villages of the Chagga tribe nestled on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, stepping over giant avocados that speckled the path like so many acorns would back home. They had dropped from the forest overhead, overripe and crawling with ants where the peels had burst and the deep green flesh spilled out and turned rusty brown with oxygen and dust.
When we reached our destination, a coffee farm at the end of a high dirt road, the man who met us carried an even larger machete. Later on, he would take us on a terrifying climb along an aqueduct to a waterfall “good for jumping” and then carve a fish out of driftwood with the machete while we swam. For now, however, the man, proprietor of this farm, swung the oversized blade into a tree stump and led us to the coffee trees.
I’d been drinking coffee every day for a decade yet, ironically, I was blindsided by the evolution of this particular cup. Things like bananas, avocados, the huge chunks of papaya we got with our scrambled eggs every morning – these things I was prepared for, delighted by. I knew instinctively that these bright, soft fruits were foreigners back home. They reeked of sunshine and warm rain; they would clearly never make it in the rocks and ice of New England and thus, I could only love them in the way one loves things that may be snatched away at any moment. But coffee – coffee fit, and the startling realization that it too came wrapped in a bright red berry and flourished under leaves as big as my torso, that hurt.
From the damp shade of the coffee grove, our host took us to his backyard where he’d left a pile of small green beans to dry. He showed us the large mortar and pestle that had been passed down in his family for generations, the wood nearly as hard as stone after several hundred years of pounding. He taught us how to alternate the downward motion of tall wooden staffs to shake the husk from the dried beans. In the roasting hut, thatched in the traditional Chagga style with overlapping banana fronds, chickens wandered around us in the smoky dusk as we stirred the beans around a stone bowl over the open fire. Our host pulled the bowl off with a potholder of folded leaves and dumped the roasted beans into a wide, shallow basket. Stepping from the mystery of the hut into the equatorial sun, I was confronted with coffee as I had known it my whole life. The beans shimmered oily in the basket, a shifting puddle of soft browns, deep chocolates, and smooth blacks as dark as our host’s skin. Back at the mortar, I locked eyes with the Canadian woman across from me, our arms echoing each other’s methodical up-down as I imagine our own ancestors’ did, churning butter on the great prairies of another continent.
It was hard to recognize this coffee farmer as well-off. He wore an old button up shirt, ripped shorts, and rubber boots with no socks. Though he had a relatively large house with a wall around his property, the yard was packed dust and dirty dishes lay piled outside the back door. As he led us to a small gazebo he’d built in the garden, he told us how he was trying to increase his tourist draw by making a sitting area for afternoon tea. He pointed proudly to the small pond he’d dug, debris floating amongst the small orange fish, and took the plastic thermos of hot water his wife had brought out on a tray. The coffee we’d roasted and ground sat in an unassuming Tupperware bottom, the smell of it wafting over us in distracting waves. Our host spooned it into a bright yellow plastic strainer and poured hot water over the top, making us individual servings of strong, black coffee in mismatched china teacups. A large amount of the grounds drained through the wide mesh to settle at the bottom of my cup, while the swirl of oil on top attested to the freshness of beans that hadn’t even cooled fully before they’d been leached of their flavor and ended up between my hands.
Two weeks later I would pick fresh nutmeg and accidentally trip over a vanilla bean vine. A week after that I would utter the words, “oh, it’s just another giraffe.” The feeling would be the same: a sense of the abstract becoming suddenly tangible, as if someone had handed me an object and said, “that thing that you’re holding, that’s God,” and it was. A sucker punch to my reality. I’m not saying I found religion on the eastern coast of Africa, but what I did find seems far more intimate. I tried to bring it all back with me; pounds of coffee in bright fabric bags, a sack of turmeric so yellow it looks like treasure, earrings made from the bones of cows unlucky enough to wander across the path of a lion. Maybe it’s the intensity of the light or a change in the magnetic pull of the earth, but none of it is quite the same. Apples and asparagus and the call of geese overhead in October still have a place in my inside heart, but things are awkward with coffee now. We still see each other, we’re still close, but no cup has ever been quite as good.