Last month I went on a whirlwind three-country tour of Ethiopia, Tanzania, and South Africa. Carrie Bradshaw once told Big, “We’re so over, we need a new word for over.” On this vacation I repeatedly told myself, “This is so amazing, I need a new word for amazing.”
This post is devoted to my Ethiopian amazement…
After flying ten hours across Africa (I had no idea this continent is so vast from West to East), I was reunited in the Addis airport with my friend Anna, who is British but lives in New York. We stayed the night at an unremarkable hotel before flying to Axum the next morning. Thus began our “northern loop,” a route that includes all the important sites of the ancient Abyssinian Empire, as well as striking natural phenomenon.
The night we arrived, we went to a “cultural restaurant” for the first of many delicious Ethiopian meals.
Three culinary things I learned on my trip: 1. The vegetarian sampler plate that I always order in the United States is a special “fasting” food. Luckily for me, it was some sort of holiday in which fasting was happening more than usual, so we could get my favorite dish nearly everywhere we went.
2. For breakfast, an injera “hash” – ripped up pieces of injera mixed with berbere and other spicy stuff – is quite common.
3. In addition to stewy sauces served on injera, Ethiopians are also big fans of barbequed meat, consisting of bite-size pieces chopped up with bones and gristle intact, and cooked over little individual charcoal griller thingies. (I do not have a future as a food writer.)
In Axum, we saw memorial obelisks known as stelae, that date to around the 4th century AD.
The one in the middle was stolen by Italy during its occupation in World War Two, and it was only recently returned.
(Fun fact: Ethiopia is the sole African country that was never colonized by a Western power, unless you consider Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves and supported by the West, to not have been colonized per se.)
We also saw a church built under the reign of Haile Selassie…
…outside of which is a little building where the Ark of the Covenant is kept (supposedly), after being brought to Ethiopia some 3,000 years ago by Queen Sheba’s illegitimate son with King Solomon (again, supposedly).
One solitary monk watches over it, never leaving the building and never allowing anyone else access to it during his lifetime.
Inside Haile’s church, the priest showed us an old prayer book that he said was 1,500 years old, but I just don’t see how the inks could have held up that well. Whatever its actual age, it was impressive in its gorgeousness.
These are the palace ruins of the Queen of Sheba, or maybe it was Queen Judith?
We heard so many dates and names and so much mythologized history, that everything sort of ran together by the end…
And to my discredit, I spent more time obsessing over the beautiful colorful baskets sold all over Axum than listening to our tour guide as he provided historical background. I suppose it’s a good thing I don’t have a home right now, because if I did I might have bought eighteen of those baskets instead of just two.
Near the end of our two days in Axum, Anna and I finally started to catch on to the upheaval wracking huge parts of the country since right after our arrival. We had been sheltered from it because Axum went unscathed, and because the Internet was down. (We learned only later that it had been intentionally cut.) All our news thus came through word of mouth, and much of it was contradictory due to differing allegiances and motivations. We ended up changing our plans day by day and sometimes even hour by hour to avoid getting stuck at roadblocks or in potential violence. [I’m not going to get into my personal feelings about the situation on this blog. Nor can I provide an accurate rendition of events, but here is some news coverage if you’d like to learn more.]
Our driver had gotten word that Lalibela was safe-ish at the moment, so we headed there as planned.
On the way, we stopped at an old church and the priest showed us the neighboring museum’s collection of relics.
I knew that we were visiting at the height of rainy season and that the northern highlands are the greenest part of the country, but still I was surprised by how lush the scenery was.
Lalibela is famous for its rock-hewn churches, which were built in the 13th century by King Lalibela as a “new Jerusalem,” so that Christians would not have to continue making long and dangerous pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
The picture above is the top of the church below.
These structures were mind-blowing. They were carved out of soft rock from the earth downward, rather than being built from the ground up.
They are still in use and because of the holiday (whose name I learned and promptly forgot), there were more churchgoers than usual. Every day at around 2:30pm they came streaming out of mass in worship whites. Generous women who hadn’t attended that particular mass would wait outside with food for the hungry worshippers to break their morning fast.
Also, in the rock surrounding the churches there were tiny dug-out caves for the hermitted monks to live in. They reminded me of the Fraggles’ bedroom. As a kid, I wanted so badly to have a Fraggle-like cave-bed. (I also wanted to live in the Muppets’ Port Authority lockers. I guess claustrophia came late for me.) Sadly, these little alcoves were not quite as appealing.
When our Lalibela tour guide, whose name was Addis, found out that we wanted to do a coffee ceremony, he invited us into his own home, where his wife cooked us a delicious lunch and caffeinated us to a rather dangerous level.
“Ceremony” seems a misnomer, since the time-consuming process – burning frankincense and myrrh, munching popcorn (Sprinkle berbere on popcorn some time – you will thank me for it.), roasting coffee beans in a pan, grinding them with a mortar and pestle, boiling the grounds with water, drinking a cup of the freshly brewed coffee, and making two more rounds of diminishing weakness with the same grounds and new water – is a daily routine that, almost like siesta except way more invigorating, provides a pause in the work day for people to rest and relax.
A cute aside: Addis’s kids were jumping around like hyper-energetic monkeys, which made me wonder what would happen if they wanted to drink coffee with the adults. Addis told us that in Ethiopian culture you can’t deny anyone who requests coffee. So you give it to them with no sugar and they never ask for it again. 🙂
We ended up staying in Lalibela one more night than planned because our next stop, Bahir Dar, was still too iffy. But that gave us time to go on a misty hike up a mountain and to visit a 12th century church built inside a cave.
The entrance to the cave, above. The priest unlocking the church door, below. Not shown: the pile of skeletons in the corner of the cave.
It also gave us time to go out on the town, to the only place that seemed to be open.
At Torpido (sic), we drank honey wine and were pulled into the space between the tables by four performers who attempted (very, very unsuccessfully) to teach us the traditional Ethiopian dance, which consists of lots of impossibly fast shoulder shimmying.
The next day, we drove to Bahir Dar after being told it had returned to relative calm and quiet. En route beauty:
Because of the dearth of tourists (due to low season and most people having fled at the first sign of trouble), we were able to cut a deal to stay rather cheaply at this over-the-top-lovely resort.
The first night, we had the place all to ourselves. It was pretty fabulous, and I’d highly recommend it if you want to treat yourself.
We shared a boat trip to the middle of Lake Tana with two Brits we had met in Lalibela. (What transpired during our time with these guys is probably my best travel story ever, but you’ll have to ask me about it in person since I am not free to divulge here.) 🙂 On an island three hours from shore, we visited a monastic church with some eeenteresting paintings…
And a priest showed us relics including lots of precious metal crosses, Bibles, and swords.
On the way back to dry land, we went on a successful hippo-spotting mission.
Our new British friends left one day ahead of us to Gondar and assured us that the coast seemed clear, so we drove there the next morning, only to realize that they had been dead wrong. While still in relative ignorance, we made a quick stop at a church with beautiful floor-to-ceiling paintings and then headed deeper into town.
After a few minutes driving through the very tense streets our driver informed us, “This is too much adventure for me,” and we decided to head back to Bahir Dar. This would mean we’d never get to Blue Nile Falls or the epic Simien Mountains, but what can you do. Before leaving town, though, we ran (literally) through the Gondar Castle complex to see the ruins of three European-influenced castles built in the 17th and 18th centuries.
We were in and out in under fifteen minutes and breathed a lot easier once we were back in what now seemed positively tranquil Bahir Dar.
Having done as much of the northern loop as we could safely do, we changed our flights to return to Addis one day earlier than originally planned. That meant we had enough time to head south through the Great Rift Valley to Hawassa, a town popular with Ethiopians for weekend getaways.
On the way there, we stopped in the fascinating town of Shashamane. Haile Selassie donated a bunch of land here so that Afro-Caribbeans, mostly Rastafarians, could return to their African roots and settle in Ethiopia.
We visited the Rastafarian Center and met some friendly people who had moved to this little town from all over the Caribbean and United Kingdom. August 17 was an auspicious day to visit since they were getting ready to celebrate the birthdays of both Haile Selassie’s grandson and Marcus Garvey. The only problem was that a bunch of young guys pretending to be Rastafarians wouldn’t leave us alone the whole time we were in town and attempted various schemes to rip us off.
Which meant we didn’t stay for long. We moved on to the hot springs about 30 kilometers down the road. I expected some sort of bubbling geyser but actually they were spring-fed swimming pools.
We spent an hour there and then continued on to Hawassa. Which was beautiful.
And then we returned to Addis for our final leg of the trip. We ate at a really fun restaurant with more shoulder dancing and copious amounts of food.
The next morning we found ourselves crowded into the very worst seats of a shared-ride van suitable for nine people but filled with perhaps 20, and we fought off aforementioned claustrophobia during the rainy ride downtown.
We stopped at the awesome and unchanged-since-the-50s Cafe Tomoka and drank the strongest espressos either of us had ever had. That’s Anna below, playing it cool even though she’s already got a serious case of the coffee shakes.
We then went on a self-guided walking tour of Addis, the highlight of which, for me at least, was this abandoned train station that reminds me of the one I love so much in Dakar.
But the true high point of Addis – and along with the coffee ceremony in Lalibela, the high point of the trip in general – was the next day, when we went to our driver Antene’s house for lunch and a lesson on how to make injera. Here’s Antene’s wife’s sister, showing us how it’s done.
Let’s just say it is much harder than you’d think. I laughed to the point of tears at Anna’s ridiculous attempt…
…only to fail much, much more miserably at mine.
Antene also showed us how to ground coffee and that went much more smoothly…
It was so nice to be welcomed into the home of a once-stranger-now-friend, and to be afforded a deeper experience and understanding of a foreign culture through someone who’s grown up in it. (And to be treated like part of the family by Antene’s snuggly kids.) That’s my favorite part of traveling, but of course it doesn’t always happen, and it’s such a joy and privilege when it does.
I saw and learned a million new and interesting things on this trip, albeit much of which I have already forgotten. But what won’t ever leave me is the sense that Ethiopia is a bottomless well of history and culture and beautiful places and people. And I’d love to return someday.
PS Please note that I did not use the word “amazing” once in my descriptions. It was difficult.
PPS I forgot to mention anything about Lucy, who you should visit if you go!