My journey to Ethiopia, on my 57th birthday, began at just after midnight on October 25, with a drive from Nizwa to Muscat, Oman. I dressed in an outfit appropriate to Africa, in coral and brown and olive-green: “safari clothes” with a pop of color. No safari was planned, but, oh well. The corduroy of the olive-green jacket would hopefully keep me warm in the cool land of Ethiopia, a land where temperatures hover around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 Celsius) every day of the year.
Other colleagues from the University of Nizwa were on this trip, though we were traveling separately. Gail was looking for Armenian connections in Addis Ababa. Talib and Chantal had planned an ambitious trip to far-fetched places in the country. Their itinerary included ten-hour bus rides with their daughter in tow! Chantal’s Jamaican origins led her on a quest to discover the Jamaica-Ethiopia connection based on Emperor Haile Selassie (previously Prince Ras Tafari) and the Rastafarians of Jamaica. Being Muslims, they were both especially interested in Harar, an important center of Islamic scholarship in the 17th and 18th centuries. Here Islam penetrated the Horn of Africa.
We took off at 4:50 a.m., flying for 3 1/2 hours, arriving over Ethiopia in the morning light. The landscape from the air was like a rumpled patchwork quilt of golds and greens: mountains, valleys, plateaus and grids of farmland. I wasn’t expecting this of Ethiopia. Stunning.
First day in Addis Ababa
At the airport, my friend Ed, who was on his second year of duty at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, was waiting for me. I left my colleagues to follow their own itineraries. It was around 8 a.m. I had a whole day ahead of me in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia that means “New Flower.”
Ed thought I would be tired, so he didn’t plan to do much on this first day. He suggested I sleep while he went to work. Taking his advice, I slept until about 1:00. Then I puttered around, read my guidebook, drank tea at the patio table, and killed time taking pictures of what was probably a typical Embassy house.
I took a walk in the neighborhood past an Ethiopian school as it was letting out. Dark skinned children in sky blue sweaters swarmed out of the school. I walked through them to a German bakery, where I ordered a cappuccino and a chocolate croissant and sat on the patio.
Once Ed returned from work, we went out to Yod Abyssinia, an authentic Ethiopian restaurant that served foods from the various ethnic groups in the country. The night was cool and crisp, and the neighborhood’s middle class houses stood silently around us, bounded by concrete walls topped with curled barbed wire. Many houses had round-the-clock guards sitting in little guard houses within the gates.
The restaurant was packed with people of every nationality. Especially evident were the Chinese, who apparently had numerous building projects in Ethiopia, including a ring road around Addis Ababa.
We arrived at the restaurant in the middle of song and dance performances. The Oromo, the Tigrigna, Gurage, the Amhara and other Ethiopian ethnic groups’ dances and music were included in the nightly live performance. The performance was energetic and lively and the music had a fun African beat. Some of the dancers moved so fast, their arms and legs looked like a blur.
Yod Abyssinia served more than 35 varieties of local dishes comprising fasting food (made of an array of vegetables) and non-fasting foods (meats). Various type of wat, or stew, from beef and lamb, doro wot (spicy chicken stew, a rare delicacy in Ethiopia), and tibs, roasted meat, were on the menu. All of the stews and sauces were served on injera, a spongy pancake made of a local grain called tef. We ordered a sample of all of the above, as well as messer, a lentil curry made with onions, chilies and various spices, and a kale dish. In addition, we were served up neat rolls of injera that looked like napkin rolls. We tore the injera into pieces and used the bread as a kind of utensil to pick up bites of the various dishes. They were delicious!
It was such a fun evening for my birthday! It made up for my long day of waiting around and doing nothing. The meal was Ed’s treat and when we returned to his house, he served up a piece of banana bread with a candle on it. Luckily I didn’t have trouble blowing out the one candle, which would have been quite pathetic! He gave me a sweet gift of a delicate monkey necklace made of coconut shell that he picked up on a recent trip to Rodrigues Island in Mauritius.
Happy birthday to me in the land of Abyssinia. 🙂
Here is a clip of the live performance if you’d like to watch the Ethiopian dancers in action!
Friday, October 26: For the second day in a row, I was up early to catch a 7:40 a.m. flight. We left Addis Ababa for Lalibela in the north of Ethiopia. Locals had told us the drive to Lalibela took several days because the roads were not good. Lucky for us, our flight was only an hour.
After getting off the plane, we drove through the countryside to reach Lalibela, passing fields of tef, the grain used to make the spongy Ethiopian bread called injera. We saw the Mesket Escarpment, where multi-day trekking tours could be arranged. Children herded a menagerie of sheep, goats, donkeys and cows along the dusty road, amidst agricultural fields and tukuls, Ethiopian traditional cylindrical huts with cone-shaped roofs. Men, boys, and children carried crops on their heads.
After settling in briefly at the Mountain View Hotel Lalibela, we went out to explore the rock-hewn churches of the town. These churches are important in the history of rock-cut architecture. Though the exact dates they were carved are not certain, most are thought to have been built during the reign of King Lalibela, a member of the Zagwe Dynasty, during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Lalibela was an important place of Ethiopian Christianity, still a place of pilgrimage and devotion. The churches were a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO had built rather unsightly scaffolding and roofing over many of the churches to protect their interior frescoes from water seepage, a necessary evil.
According to UNESCO, the churches were hewn from the living rock of monolithic blocks. These blocks were further chiseled out, forming doors, windows, columns, various floors, roofs etc. This gigantic work was further completed with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs.
Four of the churches were finished as completely free-standing structures, attached to their mother rock only at their bases. The remaining churches ranged from semi-detached to ones whose facades were the only features that had been ‘liberated’ from the rock.
Our guide was Masala, a young Ethiopian man who grew up in the village. He was kind and conveyed so many tidbits of knowledge that I was happy we had him along.
Every time we entered a church, we had to leave our shoes outside. We had a shoe minder who followed us to each of the churches, where he sat outside and “minded” our shoes. He glowed with love and each time, as I struggled with untying and tying my tennis shoes, he helped me put them back on my feet.
We first visited the northern group of churches. Bet Medhane Alem (Savior of the World), was said to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world. Our guide showed us three empty graves in one corner, prepared for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Cross-shaped panels pierced the walls. This church held the legendary 7kg gold Lalibela cross, but we weren’t afforded a glimpse of it.
After putting our shoes back on, we proceeded through a passageway cut into solid rock to Bet Maryam, possibly the oldest of the Lalibela churches. Bet Maryam was small, but decorated to the hilt with paintings, frescoes, and intricate carvings on the walls and ceilings. The church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who was particularly respected in Ethiopia, and was the most popular church among pilgrims.
On the northern wall, we saw what looked like a Nazi swastika, but our guide Masala assured us this symbol went in the opposite direction of the swastika and was in reality an ancient Christian symbol showing that Christ’s love goes out in every direction, to all corners of the earth.
Bet Meskel and Bet Danaghel, a semi-chapel and chapel, sat on either side of Bet Maryam like two dwarf sentinels.
We walked through another passageway cut into solid rock to Bet Mikael, where we came upon a group of men dressed in white, chanting, beating on drums, and burning incense. They were in the midst of a church service which was beyond my understanding. The men seemed suspended in some mystical, ethereal world, dressed as they were and enveloped in a haze of incense smoke and streaming sunlight. We stood, enraptured by them for quite some time, amazed that we happened upon this holy ceremony.
We left the northern group of Lalibela churches and headed through the preserved tukul village known as Hadish Adi. The site was protected so that visitors could see the round thatch-roofed homes inside and out.
As we walked through the village, we caught sight of a column of white-clad worshipers traipsing through the tukul village, probably after attending the chanting service we witnessed at Bet Mikael.
According to a 2010 Mission Report by UNESCO, the traditional housing of Lalibela is characterized by two main types of buildings: the circular one-story tukul houses (ground and one floor), with external staircases leading to the upper level and the rectangular one-story residences (ground and one floor). The walls are built of stone laid in mud mortar. The interior surfaces of the walls are often plastered with a rich mix of earth, straw and cow dung. The earth is mixed with straw from the teff plant (Eragrostis tef) and the mixture is applied to the wall after undergoing necessary processing.
Our guide Masala told us that he grew up with his seven siblings in one of the tukuls; he led us to his childhood home. He happily posed for a photo in front of the house where he “spent the happiest years of his life.”
We found a little open air hut where an artist was painting scrolls in the Lalibela style. I couldn’t help but buy one. I loved the symbolic style and color of these painted scrolls.
While we browsed through the scrolls, a large group of boys surrounded us and asked if we would buy them a football (soccer ball to Americans) for 500 Ethiopian birr (about $28). They said they were a sports team called Team Obama and they really NEEDED a new ball. However, we had been warned not to give children any money in Ethiopia because it only enticed them to stay out of school. Apparently, a common ploy was to ask tourists for soccer balls or school books, which the children might even buy in the tourist’s presence. As soon as the generous victim’s back was turned, the children returned the books or balls to the shopkeeper for cash.
As we walked down the gravelly and dusty hill from the tukul village to the western group of churches, the gravel slipped out from under my feet and I crashed to the ground, my right knee collapsing under me like a jackknife. I couldn’t stop the barrage of unladylike words that sprang out of my mouth. Three years earlier, I had had a partial knee replacement in my right knee, and it seemed whenever I fell, that was the knee that snapped. When I fell today, it hurt like hell! I thought I had seriously damaged it.
Masala and Ed pulled me up. After dusting myself off and shaking it out, I found my limbs appeared to be intact. I was in pain but seemed to be okay. Ethiopia, and especially Lalibela, was not a place where I would want to have a medical emergency!
We continued down the hill to Bet Giyorgis, the most spectacular of all the Lalibela churches. For one, it was perfectly formed in the shape of a Greek cross. It was 15 meters (49 feet) high, carved out of a deep trench, and was the best preserved of the churches. Because it was well-preserved, it lacked the obtrusive and unsightly UNESCO roof and scaffolding that most of the other churches had.
Carved from solid red volcanic rock in the 12th century, it was the most well-known and last built of the eleven churches in the Lalibela area. Legend has it that Ethiopia’s patron saint, Saint George, unexpectedly came to visit King Lalibela on a white horse, just as the King was finishing off his churches. St. George was a little peeved that none of the churches were dedicated to him. King Lalibela immediately sought to make amends by building St. George the most beautiful church of all, Bet Giyorgis, which means Church of Saint George.
Inside were colorful paintings, a priest, and two 800-year-old olive-wood boxes: one was rumored to have been carved by King Lalibela himself and was said to contain a crucifix, made with gold brought from King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
Masala told me I could ask the priest to wave his cross over me for healing. I asked him to do so, and he waved the cross all around my knees, and then all over my body for healing. Ed had him wave the cross over him too, for general back pain. We tipped him several Ethiopian birr.
After lunch at the Mountain View Hotel, we headed out again with Masala to the southeastern group of Lalibela churches. On the way, Masala pointed out The River Jordan and Mount Tabor, named after Jerusalem’s holy sites.
We entered Bet Gabriel-Rufael from the top of the church, walking over a rock-carved bridge that crossed a deep trench. Scholars thought this church might have been a fortified palace for Aksumite royalty in the 7th and 8th centuries. The monumental facade was the most interesting thing about this church.
We made our way through a pitch-black tunnel, which Masala likened to the experience of descending into hell. We emerged into light (likened to heaven) into Bet Merkorios, which some say may have once been the town’s prison. This is because of ankle shackles found within the church. Inside was a fresco representing the three wise men, possibly created in the 15th century.
The freestanding Bet Amanuel was a finely-carved church and may have been the royal family’s private chapel.
Finally, we visited Bet Abba Libanos, a hypogeous church. This meant it was under the earth’s surface. In fact, the church was attached to rock at the top and bottom. Legend said it was built overnight by Lalibela’s wife with the help of a few angels. It seemed to grow sandwiched between slabs of rock.
After leaving the Lalibela churches, we headed back to our rooms, where I took a little nap. Then we went up to the terrace for a bottle of Ethiopian wine: Gonder, produced in Addis Ababa. We ran into some colleagues of Ed’s from the embassy and chatted with them a bit. We sat and enjoyed the sunset and the wine over the beautiful valley of Lalibela. Dinner followed at the Mountain View Hotel, which was not at all memorable.
Lalibela’s Saturday Market
Saturday, October 27: I woke up feeling sick, with severe cramps and a wicked headache, as well as general malaise. I blamed the malaria medication I was taking. At the advice of doctors in Nizwa, I was to begin one medication on Thursday, upon arrival in Ethiopia, which I did. However, on Friday, I was supposed to take another medication, and then switch back on Saturday to the first medication. Whatever they gave me for Friday obviously had some bad side effects, as I woke in the middle of the night feeling horrible.
I couldn’t eat breakfast. As Ed ate a delicious-looking omelet, I just sat and nibbled on some plain toast. He asked if I wanted to skip our visit to the Lalibela Saturday market, but how could I? I loved local markets and I couldn’t bear the thought of missing it. So I told him I wanted to go. We had a flight back to Addis Ababa at 12:45. I would just put one foot in front of the other and visit the market.
The market was spread out over a big dirt area in the middle of the town. The villagers had set up tarps or temporary stalls made of eucalyptus poles and textiles. Some just sat under umbrellas to hide from the sun. Some people spread out their grains, vegetables or textiles on tarps or blankets on the ground. It was hot, dusty and chaotic.
People were selling everything imaginable from firewood to salt blocks. Salt was a precious commodity for people and their animals, and was even used as a kind of currency, according to Lonely Planet Ethiopia & Eritrea. Nomads and their camels, even today, travel to the salt lakes in the Danakil Depression in eastern Ethiopia, where they cut by hand rectangular blocks of salt, known as amole, and then spend weeks traveling by caravan to market, where they barter using the bars.
We saw these salt blocks for sale, along with teff. The low quality teff was dark and course, while the more expensive, high-quality teff was pale and smooth.
Also for sale were dried peppers, cabbages, onions, peas and lentils, whole wheat, collard greens and numerous other grains and greens. We also found traditional clothing, colorful textiles and blankets, live chickens, and long eucalyptus poles used for construction.
People came from miles around, mostly on foot, to the Saturday market. The lucky ones had donkeys to carry their goods, but most people carried their goods on their backs or their heads. It was amazing even after we left the market how we passed hordes of people heading to the market from miles and miles away.
The rest of the day, I felt miserable. We caught our plane to Addis Ababa, but we had to endure an extra hour flight as the plane made a stop in Gonder. When we arrived back in Addis, I took a bath and a long nap. I decided to stop taking the malaria medication. I would take my chances. The next day, we would head to Lake Langano, about three hours south of Addis by car. I didn’t want to be sick for that trip!
Drive to Lake Langano
Sunday, October 28: We woke up early for our 3-hour drive to Lake Langano, south of Addis Ababa. I felt better, after being sick all day yesterday. I think it was because I discontinued that malaria medicine and it was finally clearing out of my system.
Once we escaped the crowds, dirt, and poverty that swarmed around us in Addis, we emerged into beautiful countryside full of acacia trees, tukul huts that rose naturally out of the land, and undulating hills in a patchwork of greens and golds. I fell in love with Africa.
“ON RETURNING HOME” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about returning home from one particular destination or, alternately, from a long journey encompassing many stops. How do you linger over your wanderings and create something from them? How have you changed? Did the place live up to its hype, or was it disappointing? Feel free to address any aspect of your journey and how it influences you upon your return. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments.
For some ideas on this, you can check out the original post about this subject: on returning home.
Include the link in the comments below by Sunday, August 2 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this challenge on Monday, August 3, I’ll include your links in that post.
This will be an ongoing invitation on the first Monday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time.
the ~ wander.essence ~ community
I invite you all to settle in and read a few posts from our wandering community. I promise, you’ll be inspired!
- Indra, of TravTrails, wrote about returning home from Cyprus in August of 2000:
Thanks to all of you who shared posts on the “returning home” invitation.