Final thoughts

January 17, 2012

According to our seatback monitors, we’ve just crossed the border into Northern Sudan. My feelings on leaving Ethiopia are mixed. We didn’t have a chance to see many things that probably would have been great: the castles of Gondor and churches hewn into the rocky cliffs of Tigray; the ancient stellae of Axum. Other travelers spoke highly of Awassa in the south and the little-visited western provinces.  And the Afar Depression, lowest and hottest place on earth, where great camel caravans still carry salt and a spectacular volcano simmers, is something I’m truly sorry to have missed.

Still, we saw so many amazing things, it felt like we were journeying via time-travel machine, rather than planes and Land Cruisers. In the south, prepubescent shepherd boys would ignore their flocks to race down and perform weird tribal welcome dances, in the hopes of our stopping to exchange the photo op for a handful of birr. One day we passed a gruesome sight — a dead horse on the shoulder being feasted upon by a host of condor-sized vultures, hopping up and down with excitement about the feast (or so it appeared.) Ubiquitous were the donkeys and people laden with yellow plastic 6-gallon jerrycans. The cans hold the water that must be gathered at wells or tanks. It seems so ironic that Ethiopia, the “water tower of Africa,” source of a big portion of the water that flows to the Nile, would be so stingy with it’s own parched residents. But getting the water to the hands of workaday Ethiopians (or the random tourist passing through) requires big investments in pumping and purification stations, pipes, and the like. Lacking that, staying healthy is a constant challenge.

Endalk (Michael) Bezawork
Belay Hailemariam

Apart from the strange and marvelous sights, what impressed me most were the Ethiopian people we got to know. If our time with the Omo Valley tribesmen was short and constrained, other encounters were just the opposite. We spent 8 long days with Endalk and Sharom in the south, and over the course of that time, we developed deep affection for the intelligence and impish charm of the former and profound respect for Sharom’s careful driving skills. We had only three days with Belay, our highlands trekking guide, but conversations with him ranged even farther; we discussed everything from Robert Mugabe’s mental health to US foreign policy to how Belay should use Internet marketing to build his guiding business. In Addis, we stayed at the guest house on four separate occasions, the last one for the better part of two days. Each time we returned, we developed a keener sense of what made the cast of characters there tick.

I had trouble falling asleep last night, thinking about one of the waitresses in the guesthouse restaurant (where we ate hamburgers on three separate nights). She spoke perfect idiomatic English, and last night we heard a tiny bit of what’s likely a long and complicated story. When she was little, her mother and stepfather got visas for America. So she lived in various parts of Southern California: Orange County, Pomona, even San Diego for a while.  But her mother had died, and her stepfather had “become a bad guy.” She’d returned to Ethiopia to live with her grandmother, but the grandmother had died too.  She’d gone from living high to struggling for survival, she said, matter-of-fact but wistful. “Could you fit me into one of your suitcases?” she’d asked.

This woman was so astute, so competent, I could easily imagine her running an emergency room in an American hospital or doing something equally demanding. But twists of fate had brought her to waitressing at a budget hotel in Addis Ababa. If my suitcase had been big enough, I would have been honored to transport her. Instead all I can do is give her a few sentences here.

Addis Ababan Airs

January 16, 2012

Ethiopia has an awful lot going against it. While long and colorful, its history has had several hideous chapters, and even today little protects the rights of ordinary citizens. Many of its 80-plus million residents live in dismal poverty, and the deformed beggars are appalling. The pickpockets are wily and skillful (Steve has now added Addis to his growing collection of Places Where His Pocket Has Been Picked). To me, though, the worst thing about Ethiopia is the abysmal quality of the air.

In the country, riding through hour after hour of powdery road dust and breathing the smoke of indoor wood fires at night gave both of us coughs that still are plaguing us. Here in Addis (elevation 7,500 feet), the already thin air reeks of diesel and gasoline fumes churned up along with road dust, construction dust, cooking fires, and all the unburned hydrocarbons, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and other substances that modern air-pollution-control devices mostly have purged from the developed world’s air. Walking home this afternoon, both of us felt a tightness in our chests. For the first time since our arrival, I yearned to leave.

In the Merkato

 Otherwise, our stay in the capital has been satisfying. Although plain, the Addis Guest House has dazzled us with its amenities: transport to and from the airport (only 5 minutes away), good breakfasts, laundry service, ubiquitous wi-fi, and an amazingly friendly staff managed by a guy who literally grew up in San Diego before returning to Ethiopia at 22. All this for $55 a night. This morning Jonas also helped us secure a driver/guide who took us to the enormous Merkato district, where we walked among the wholesalers of everything from mustard seeds to mattresses. Then we drove to the main campus of the university, to visit the Ethnographic Museum housed in a former palace of Emperor Haile Selassie. While it was okay, we felt like our Omo Valley trip had already exposed us to much of the content, and more vividly.

 After lunch, Steve and I decided to forego a stop at the National Museum in lieu of visiting a much newer facility next to Meskel Square about which we’d heard from a fellow traveler in Harar. The “Red Terror” Martyrs Memorial Museum describes the horrors that unfolded after Haile Selassie was assassinated in 1974 and Ethiopian Stalinists unleashed their barbarities. The docent who was there when we visited had spent 8 years in one of their prisons. The suffering he recounted moved me deeply; I was glad to be able to bear witness to what he endured.

 We walked home along Bole Road, the artery feeding the homes of some of this country’s wealthiest families. We passed one weird embassy after another (Cameroon! Ukraine! North Korea! Angola! Congo!) The multiplex at the Edna Mall was showing War Horse, along with J. Edgar (neither one of which we’ve seen yet). In a nearby gourmet cupcake shop, we broke down and bought “double choc” and red-velvet goodies — the first true desserts we’ve eaten since Christmas in San Diego.

The cupcakes were good, though I expect we’ll get better in Frankfurt tonight. What Frankfurt (or San Diego) can’t match is the chaos of Addis Ababa. Most Germans and Americans would probably be revolted by it, and God knows I wouldn’t want to live here. But the grace with which the Ethiopians cope with it provides me with endless amusement — and admiration.

Here’s one example: when we went out for dinner Sunday night, we found a taxi whose driver sounded like he might know where the restaurant was. We bargained with him over the price, struck a deal, then piled in. Only when I took my seat in the back did I notice the 3-year-old girl strapped in next to me. She was impeccably dressed, wearing shiny zebra-striped shoes and other finery. She sat silent; drowsy but conscious. The driver (her dad)  made it clear that he adored her; indeed her name in Amharic meant “love.” Then, apologetically, he asked if we would mind if he dropped her off at his home. We told him to go ahead, and he turned off the main street, driving down unpaved roads illuminated only by our headlights and the occasional cooking fire. After a couple of minutes, he pulled up to a gate, scooped up the now-nodding toddler, and tenderly deposited her in the arms of a waiting woman.

We sped off, and not long after, we approached the street where our restaurant was located (our taxi driver in fact hadn’t known it, but he called a friend who did.) But there had been an accident, and cars from every direction were stalled, while the driver of one of the injured cars made chalk marks in the street to record what had happened. It seemed a colossal mess, the sort of thing that would halt everyone’s progress for hours, were it in San Diego or New York. But within minutes, the damaged car limped off, and our taxi driver moved centimeter by centimeter into the automotive mosh pit. Somehow he made the turn and deposited us at the Jewel of India only minutes after our 7 p.m. reservation. The food was spicy but delicious.


January 15, 2012 

I’m sitting In our bed in the cloistered upstairs room of a 300-year-old Harari house, listening to the distant drone of chanted prayers. To me they sound like Ethiopian Orthodox incantations, but they also well might be Muslim. Once exclusively Muslim, the city of Harar now includes a substantial minority of other religious believers (although elsewhere in Ethiopia, the number of Muslims reportedly is climbing.) Whatever its religious character, this place is distinctive.

For centuries, it was a commercial center, a crossroads for traders from Africa, India, and the Middle East. Because of a war with some of their neighbors, Hararis in the 1500s built a wall to completely encircle themselves. Today the 100,000 residents sprawl well beyond the single square kilometer defined by the still-intact wall, but we’re staying in the old city.

Securing our room here felt like a huge victory for me. I’d read that all the regular hotels in Harar are dreary, while Rowda’s guest house sounded like it had character. She and her husband reportedly decided to turn it into a guest house after their children were grown. But Rowda speaks little English, and I fretted for weeks about whether our tortured phone exchange had actually gotten us a reservation.

It did. Steve and I are sleeping in the only second-story room on the premises, a spotless sanctuary with a comfortable queen-size bed and views of the central patio and neighboring houses. A large wooden grill also allows us views of the most spectacular space within the compound, a multilevel (indoor) salon blanketed in Oriental carpets and satiny pillows. Almost every inch of the walls is covered with traditional Harari baskets, pots, plates, trays, bowls, and the occasional photo. Deep-set niches also hold china cups and saucers, stacked glasses, and other dishware. In essence, the living room doubles as a china cabinet, and the effect is exotic and beautiful.

The downside of Rowda’s is that the only two bathrooms are located outdoors, off the central courtyard. Competing for them are seven of us guests, squeezed into every spare sleeping space on the premises. Although there are only three real guest rooms, upon our arrival we found two dumpy French women camped out in the courtyard, pouting and complaining loudly. They claimed that they had made their reservation back in September, and they were outraged that Rowda didn’t have rooms for them. (Later, we heard from our guide that some intermediary had screwed up. Whatever he’d told the French women, this guy had only tried to make their reservation the day before, when all the rooms were booked.) More than once, the women exclaimed, “c’est l’Afrique!” (“that’s Africa for you!”) in contemptuous tones. Despite this rudeness, Rowda apparently agreed to accommodate them by setting up a bed for one in the central salon, while stashing the other in a bed in the hallway that was once reserved for newlyweds.


It’s now the end of our second afternoon here. I’m done with playing tourist in Harar. We started yesterday under the tutelage of a guide that Steve and I shared with a Kansas neurosurgeon who’s also staying here at Rowda’s. Abdul led us on foot and hired a tuk-tuk to help us demystify the town’s convoluted layout. He also took us to three of the main tourist attractions: a pathetic private city museum; another building dedicated to Arthur Rimbaud (the young French poet/genius who went into exile in Harar, trading coffee and running arms before he developed a cancer that killed him at 37); and a heavenly scented coffee-roasting house.

The comprehensiveness of our outing with Abdul meant there was almost nothing left to do today except wander the chaotic main streets and the warren of secondary pathways. This Steve and I did for several hours. We noted (and photographed) a few properties whose walls were plastered and painted in bold, colorful designs. But most looked little different from those captured in the 100-year-old photos we saw displayed at the Rimbaud museum. We thought of the words of Richard Burton, the first European to venture here: “The streets are narrow lanes, up hill and down dale, strewed with gigantic rubbish heaps, upon which reside packs of mangy one-eyed dogs…Among the men, I did not see a handsome face: their features are coarse and debauched; many of them squint; others have lost an eye by smallpox, and they are disfigured by scrofula and other diseases…” Like Burton, I’ve been appalled by the human grotesqueries on display: missing fingers, hideously twisted limbs, bilious-green discharges.

On the plus side, the streets team with able-bodied women wearing skirts and robes and scarves the color of jewels. They bustle with more commerce than we’ve seen in most of the other places we’ve visited in Ethiopia: sprawling open-air markets offering everything from packets of salt and spices to fruits and vegetables to chat — the leaves chewed obsessively in Ethiopia and throughout the Middle East to extract what’s reported to be an amphetamine-like buzz. But tiny stores also sell paint, Peugeot parts, fabric, hair tonics, Coke, stationery, jewelry, meat, shoes, baskets, and more.

Dirt and rubble litter the cobble stones, and we also stepped around big piles of human excrement but remarkably little donkey shit. Finally we noticed that the donkeys all wear colorful little diapers under their tails. Dust and engine exhaust and cooking smoke and sewage-y smells taint the air, and there’s lots of noise pollution too: loudspeakers blaring Ethiopian pop and mosques (dozens upon dozens of them within the old city walls) caterwauling prayers throughout the day. Everywhere we’ve walked, children (and sometimes adults) have assailed us with cries of “Farenjo! Farenjo!” (which I think is best translated as “Foreigner! Foreigner!”) I’ve taken to retorting, “Habesha!” (“Ethiopian!”) Often that cracks people up, my goal.

It’s pretty intense, tiring, if riveting. Still I’m glad we journeyed here. Rowda’s clean, quiet domicile is a delight, and the breakfasts of coffee, fried pastry dough, and honey are delicious. (The tab for all this is $21 a night.) I also loved our outing to visit the hyena man last night.

One of our guidebooks says the practice of feeding Harar’s hyenas dates back to the 1950s. I first heard about it in Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux’s wonderful account of his overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town. Frankly, it’s what drew me most powerfully to Harar.

For this spectacle, Abdul picked us up just after 7 and loaded us into a tuk-tuk which drove us to a spot just outside the walls. Although dark, several other tuk-tuks were parked, with their headlights on. In that light, a dozen of so tourists and guides gathered, staring at a small dark man who sat on the ground. Eight hyenas paced, restless, around him, and he called first one, then another, by name, inviting them to take strips of meat that he extracted from a bucket.

I found it thrilling, if a little comic. The hyenas aren’t much bigger than mastiffs, but somehow they look far more powerful. Their legs and leonine tails seem too short for their massive necks and jaws, and their perky round ears complicate the picture further. They seemed well-behaved, even tame, circling around and coming when called to snatch the meat scraps proffered by the hyena master, by other tourists, and finally, by me. Only two or three times did the protocol break down and they become angry at one another. The yowling and growling sounded like noises concocted by Hollywood. But if staged, the scene was pure Harar.

Bahir Dar

Sometimes you get lucky when you travel. Our stay in Bahir Dar was one of those times.

It wasn’t much of a stay. We arrived (in the car that transported us from the end of our trek) around 2 pm Wednesday, and we were supposed to be at the airport for our flight back to Addis by 3 pm Thursday.  In advance I had reserved space for us at a little B&B run by a French woman married to an Ethiopian. Laure had sent me detailed directions, but it felt lucky that we gave a lift to a TESFA employee who spoke good English.  He helped our driver find Laure’s place, which was hidden down an unpaved side street with no real signage. Once there, I felt happy with my choice. Laure welcomed us like old friends into the compound, which consisted of two long wings surrounding a flowering garden and outdoor dining area. While we showered away the caked-on dirt of the trek, she had spicy tilapia and rice brought in for us from a nearby restaurant, and it turned out to be one of our best meals of the trip. With 2 beers and a sparkling water, it came to 78 birr — about $4.

Our guidebook says many Ethiopians consider Bahir Dar to be their Riviera. If true, this is hyperbolic.  The town IS set at the base of Lake Tana, the largest body of water in the country. And someone has created long pathways along the waterfront. Steve and I set out on one of them Wednesday as the sun was low in the sky, and I was reminded more of, say, New Orleans right after the Civil War than Cannes. A tangle of plants pressed into the walkway; we noted 20-foot tall poinsettias and hibiscus. We passed derelict buildings that looked abandoned, as well as beautifully tended vegetable gardens next to the swampy shoreline. It looked like prime breeding grounds for the malarial mosquitoes that are said to infest the town; but never did we feel we were being attacked, even as the sun set.

Before our walk, we’d had a coffee at the Ghion Hotel, where we were ecstatic to find free wi-fi. There, I also had signed us up for a boat ride on the lake Thursday morning, over Steve’s strong objections. (He fretted that if something happened to the boat, we would miss our plane.)

Locals transporting goods in some of the reed boats that ply Lake Tana.

But the boat ride turned out to be wonderful!  Ten of us — Steve and I, a Dubliner and his Ghanaian girlfriend, an Argentine, two Italians, and a couple of other indeterminate young Europeans — piled into the launch and cruised north for an hour.  First stop was a jungly peninsula where we hiked for a while through thick groves of wild coffee trees, heavy with ripe red beans.  At the entrance to the monastery of Bet Maryam, vervet monkeys leapt through the trees. We only glanced at them, then entered the richly painted 14th-century monastery church and visited the dark and creepy museum, home to centuries-old bibles hand-copied on parchment. We returned to the boat and stopped at two other monasteries of the couple of dozen or so scattered around the lake.

Before returning, the boat also motored to the spot where the Blue Nile flows out of the lake, to start its long journey to the Mediterranean. Having cruised on the river starting in Aswan (after it joins the White Nile in Khartoum) and seen its estuary near Alexandria, I felt thrilled to visit its humble start.  A couple of massive hippo heads popped up to inspect us, adding to our pleasure in being there.

Everything else went without a snag. We grabbed some fruit salad and pastry at a Bahir Dar cafe, returned to the B&B, chatted for a while with Laure, then took a three-wheeled “tuk-tuk” to the nearby airport. Although most of the terminal looked only half-built, a plane was waiting, and it got us into Addis early.

Now we’re back in the airport, barely 12 hours after arriving. We’re waiting to board a plane that will bear us eastward to Dire Dawa, gateway to Harar, one of the holiest cities in Islam. Inshallah that our good travel karma persists.

Trekking in Ethiopia

January 9, 2011

What an amazing series of contrasts this trip is providing us with! We’re halfway through the next installment, our four-day trek through the Ethiopian highlands. We’re using the services of a non-profit organization called TESFA which is dedicated to organizing touristic experiences that will benefit the local populations. The idea is to hike through the countryside, moving from one to another of ten camps in rural villages. The camps contain little huts (tukuls) made of rocks and a mixture of brown mud and straw (an African version of adobe) like those in which the locals live. So it’s an opportunity to meet people, while savoring the magnificent landscapes.

After the Christmas morning services in Lalibela, we ate breakfast and met our TESFA guide, Belay, and two fellow trekkers: a San Francisco photographer named David Page and his buddy Steve Maltby. We all loaded into a minivan for the two-hour drive to Gashena, breathing in more of the devilish dust and diesel fumes. Lunch, when we finally stopped, was injera and shiro — a bubbling pot of spiced garbanzo beans. Three ragged guys tied our bags onto a couple of doughty little donkeys.  Then we were off!

It felt splendid to be walking in the quiet countryside, where the air was clean. For an hour or so, we hiked down rocky lanes past fields of newly sheared wheat, the grain-bearing stalks piled into huge stacks, awaiting threshing. Blue-gray eucalyptus has been planted extensively, replacing the stately junipers that once covered this land. Farmers plant the cuttings in a grid, as if they were broccoli seedlings, to be harvested later for firewood and building materials. They may not be native, but the eucs do contrast nicely with the ambers and browns of the farms. Parts of the rolling landscape made me think of a dryer version of southern France.

There’s nothing in France, however, to my knowledge, that resembles the landscape at the edge of the escarpment where our first camp was located. Just a few yards from the tukuls, the ground dropped away, revealing an enormous panorama that reminded us more than anything of the Grand Canyon, though the colors may have been a bit more muted. Another difference was the complex terracing cut into many hillsides and the grid of tiny farms lining much of the bottomland. But the scale was fantastic. Just as the rock churches would give Egypt’s tombs a run for the tourist traffic, if only more people knew about them, so these sights could compete with the canyonlands of the American West.


Two more days have passed; I’m writing this from our tukul in our third and last campsite: Mequat Mariam.  If anything, the vistas outside this one are more magnificent than the previous two, even vaster and wilder. To reach this site, we hiked for some 12 miles.  As on the previous two days, the going has been more or less flat, though lots of it has required stepping carefully in boulder-strewn creekbeds. Altitudes have ranged between 8,500 and 9,000 feet. 

A typical lunch: injera topped with lentils and garbanzo glop.
In Brad's bed...

At the rest stops along the way and in the camps at night, the food we’ve been served has been edible, if plain and vegetarian, and everywhere we’ve been offered good beer and excellent coffee (roasted on a tin griddle, ground with a mortar and pestle, and boiled in a pot, right before we’ve drunk it). No electric lines reach these villages, nor do any generators provide light in exchange for diesel. So when the sun has set, our world has been illuminated only by moonlight and candles and wood fires built by the camp staff.  The women who cook do so squatting on the ground, while we’ve gathered around a larger fire, to drink our beers and swap our stories. The smoke from these indoor fires makes them a lot less pleasant than they would be outdoors. But on the whole, I’ve found this more pleasant than actual camping. The beds in our tukuls are comfortable (foam on concrete platforms), and I learned in the last camp that I was sleeping in the same bed that Brad Pitt occupied, when he visited here in 2004.

During the days, Steve and I both have savored the pleasant monotony of trekking. You get into a comfortable rhythm, at times taking in your surroundings, at times chatting with your guide or fellow trekkers, at times simply concentrating on putting one foot carefully in front of the other, taking care not to twist an ankle. Interruptions in this simple routine stand out: coming upon tribes of gelada baboons raiding farmers’ fields (to munch the tasty grass roots) and being chased away by stone-throwing kids. Or watching, transfixed by the sight of men and boys threshing the wheat that we saw that first afternoon.  They toss a bunch of it on the ground, then drive teams of 4 or 6 or 8 donkeys or horses or cows, tied together, over it in a circle, so that their hooves will separate the wheat from the chaff.


January 11, 2012

Now the trek’s behind us. Our final hike this morning lasted about two and a half hours and took us from Mequat Marian to a field where a mini-bus awaited us, as pre-arranged. At one point, we passed men tooting horns made from goats and striking drums, and our guide explained that this was a new scheme: calling together the whole community (of men and boys, at least) to work on a communal project, one day per month. I thought I detected a festive air in some of the villagers, as they gathered. There might be work in store, but at least it was a break from the routine drudgery.

Piling into the vehicle, I couldn’t help thinking of the story we’d heard on our first full day from a young family from the Boston area: mom, dad, and two cute little girls, who’d hiked from the opposite direction. They described something that had happened to them on their way to Lalibela. The minivan in front of them hit and killed a 70-year-old man, a tragedy that could carry a sentence of up to 15 years for the guilty driver. The owner of van, who’d only had his driver’s license for two weeks, came to take over the driving, but he’d quickly developed a flat tire that he didn’t know how to fix.  So, the couple told us, their driver had helped out and offered him their spare tire. A little further down the road, however, the van owner had lost control of his vehicle on a curve, going over the embankment and rolling it several times. Wearing the only seatbelt, the driver had walked away unscathed. But 4 of the 12 or so passengers died — one on the scene, another in the van, and at least a couple of others in the hospital in Lalibela.

Clearly, the Ethiopian roads hold many hazards, but we’ve dodged them all so far.  Now we’re in the small city of Bahir Dar, looking forward to our boat ride to a monastery tomorrow.

Merry Christmas (or is it Christmas Eve?)

January 8, 2012

Both the Lonely Planet and Bradt guides to Ethiopia agree: if there is one thing no visitor to Ethiopia should miss, it’s Lalibela. Now that we’ve spent the last two days here, I have to concur: this place is amazing. It is the town where, sometime in the 1100s, a Christian Ethiopian king conceived of creating a “new Jerusalem” in the rugged, dry highlands.  To that end, he assembled a crew of master stone carvers and other artisans and had them chisel 11 churches out of the basalt, underfoot.  In essence, they sculpted these large and richly ornamented structures out of the rocky ground.

St. George's church (one of Lalibela's 11 stone marvels)
The view of St. George's from near the bottom

What I can only imagine is what it must be like to visit Lalibela under normal circumstances. The town’s population is somewhere around 30,000 people. Almost inaccessible for most of its history, it still isn’t easy to get to. One or two flights come in per day, but none of the roads here is paved, and the drive to or from Addis takes two long, hard days.

Every Christmas (which comes about two weeks later than our Western one), however, something like 200,000 religious pilgrims make the town their destination. This year Steve and I were among them. Being here to witness their celebrations transformed the experience, making the stunning otherworldly stone churches merely the setting for the spectacle unfolding in and around them.

The bus that took us from the airport to our hotel nosed its way through a dense throng of men, women, and children heading to the market. Lalibela’s weekly market always takes place on Saturday, but this one was special, because of the holiday. Most people carried their sales goods tied up in cloth bundles, but some drove goats or sheep or cattle or donkeys; some bore crates of potatoes on their heads. If we had traveled back in time to the stone age in the Omo Valley, here we had moved up to a medieval world.

From our hotel room, the Alief Paradise, floor-to-ceiling windows and a little balcony offered us views of the market teaming in the distance. But the churches called us, and we quickly found a guide who also happened to be a deacon for the monolithic church known as the House of Mary.  Daniel lacked Endalk’s charm and command of English, but he knew his churches. He hired us a shoe man, who for the stratospherically high holiday price of 100 birr ($6) would guard our shoes every time we entered a church and help us quickly get back into them. Then Daniel led us through the churches as best as possible, explaining the complex symbolism of the paintings and architectural elements and helping us to thread our way through the crowds of pilgrims who jammed every corridor and every chamber. Neither Steve nor I are particularly claustrophobic; only at the underground passage known to the faithful as Purgatory, did we demur. It looked to be little more than shoulder wide, and jammed solid with human bodies.

I’m writing this now on Sunday morning, and having spent almost two days among the pilgrims, I’ve come to admire their astounding strength. Most have walked for days or weeks to be here, surviving on scraps of food and questionable water. They wear long white robes, and I’m mystified by how clean they look, since they’re sleeping in the open air on mats spread over the rocky ground, peeing in bushes and against fences, and defecating God knows where. For all these trials, for all the staggering crowds here, most seem patient and good-humored and even solicitous of the oddball ferengis among them. We’ve seen countless clusters of them singing, dancing, clapping, ululating; they believe that having made it to Lalibela, they’ve secured themselves eternal happiness after death.

The priests and deacons — hundreds of them — look successful too. Older ones wear sumptuous robes and, sometimes bejeweled headpieces. The oldest could be African incarnations of Santa — fat black men with huge black beards, wearing huge gold crosses and hats shaped like monstrous mushrooms. We’d heard there would be a procession of priests through the town, but we could find no sign of it Friday night (the night Endalk and other folks had told us was Christmas Eve). But that was wrong; almost everyone was confused, according to Daniel, the deacon. Because this was a leap year in the Ethiopian calendar, Christmas eve was really Saturday night, and Christmas morning on Sunday.

Happily we figured this all out by Sunday morning, when we rose before dawn.  We made our way to the church where, on Saturday, a young man told us 10,000 people would be camping out. We’d scouted out a back entrance to it but were prepared to be blocked by impenetrable crowds. To our amazement, we not only slipped in but also squeezed our way to an excellent viewing spot, as generous pilgrims stepped aside to let us through.

I’d like to report that the service built to a rousing African version of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Hallelujah chorus, but it wasn’t anything at all like that. Hundreds of priests and deacons were assembled at one end of the church courtyard, and from their midst, amplified prayers droned on and on. Finally they began to file through the church to a stairway that took them up to the edge of the pit in which the church is situated. White-robed deacons and priests and bishops eventually lined the whole perimeter and began slowly shaking their metal noisemakers and swaying in unison to a dirge-like drum beat and singing — melodies that sounded like a mixture of Gregorian chants and something you’d hear issuing from a mosque. To me, it sounded nothing at all like a ticket to heaven. But it was a Christmas to remember.

Our best meal in Ethiopia?

Thursday, January 5

Today, for the first time since our arrival in Ethiopia 8 days ago, we had almost no fun at all. All we did was drive, starting a little before 8 a.m. and slogging our way north for almost 11 hours. Whereas the ride south had seemed novel and interesting, the return trip quickly grew tedious. We’d chosen a different route for the northern half of it, one that went past the celebrated Rift Valley lakes and through the creepy town of Shashamene (home to what’s left of Ethiopia’s Rastafarian community). But by the time we got to both, we felt so road-weary, we didn’t want to do any sightseeing. Steve and I concluded that we probably should have at least inquired about the possibility of flying home from Arba Minch. But the flights go only a few times a week, and somehow we never got around to looking into it.

On the other hand, we had such a wonderful time last night, it rather compensates for the dull day that followed. After visiting the Earbore tribe and leaving the Omo Valley, we’d arrived back in Arba Minch shortly before 4 p.m., made a quick stop in town for money and a coffee at the one hotel with wi-fi, then piled back in the Land Cruiser to drive for another 45 minutes or so, most of it a steep climb up a rutted dirt road. We’d slogged up that same road on the second day of our expedition, the morning we’d visited the elephant houses of the Dorze people and tasted their weird bread baked from the fermented false-banana (enset) pulp. This time, we didn’t go all the way into the village, but rather turned into the lodge that was created by a Dorze tribesman 4-5 years ago. It was splendid.

The Dorze Lodge is almost 10,000 feet high, situated on a cliff top with commanding view of both Lake Abaya and Lake Chamo (the one filled with hippos and crocs where we earlier had our boat ride). A half dozen or so elephant houses serve as the guest quarters, each containing little more than two double beds; simple but snug. An outdoor bar constructed from native materials occupies the highest part of the promontory, and Steve and I watched the sunset there while sipping cold St. George beers.  Then we moved into a large communal room where the staff served us what may turn out to be our best Ethiopian meal. It started with a bright and flavorful tomato soup that I could have made a meal of. But then came rice flecked with carrots, and tasty bread, and two excellent vegetable mixtures and a platter full of what I can only describe as Ethiochips — potatoes thinly sliced and deep-fried and salted. (I couldn’t stop eating them either!).  Of course there was also injera — the sour, spongy, pancakey stuff made from the uniquely Ethiopian grain, called teff. Although Ethiopians eat it morning, noon, and night, we’re already turned off by its sickly color and texture (a bit reminiscent of rolled-up dead flesh, in our not-so-humble farengi opinion.)

Although we were the only guests staying at the lodge that night, Endalk said the villagers were willing to come over and entertain us. We could hear the drum and singing as we were finishing our meal. Outside, someone had built a huge bonfire and surrounded it with chairs made of cowhide stretched over lengths of wood. The night was frigid, but lodge staffers bundled us up with blankets. Watching the festivities, I grew so warm that I eventually shed first the blanket and then my jacket. With a single drum, and maybe 20 voices, and a lot of clapping, the villagers created music so infectious I couldn’t resist joining in the dancing. (Steve could. And sadly, the altitude took such a toll on me that I only lasted for one song.) The best part was what a great time everyone seemed to be having. It occurred to me that we Americans may have our campfires. Some of us may even sing around them. But we don’t dance like this. What a shame.

Farewell to the Omo Valley

Wednesday, January 4

Because it’s the dry season and the road was not too swampy, we were able to take a different route out of the Omo Valley. The advantage of this was that we got to visit yet another tribe, the Earbore. Like most of our other tribal encounters, we spent no more than 45 minutes in the village.  We photographed several people; visited a hut.

These young Earbore ladies resisted smiling on-camera, though they smiled a lot otherwise.

 Having realized that my camera could inconspicuously capture video images, Endalk cavorted with a pack of children, teasing them with candies, to provide us with lots of lively action. Then we took to the road again.

The four hard hours to climb out of the valley and labor over the bad roads back to Arba Minch gave me plenty of opportunity to reflect on the whole peculiar experience of visiting the South Omo tribes. As a tourist, your interactions with these people are so limited. To view it in the worst light (as I suggested in an earlier post), it resembles hunting for photographic big game — human rather than bestial. It feels like there’s no real way to connect with any of the villagers, other than the smile exchanges that sometimes feel genuine and warm. Maybe if we camped in the villages, as I’ve heard some people do, it would be different. Certainly it would if you lived in one for months, conducting anthropological research. Neither of those options appealed to me, and while the limitations of what we did see and do are obvious, I feel satisfied.

Plenty of exchanges in the Western world are superficial. Walk into a hardware store or a hair salon or a movie theatre, and how deep is your encounter with the people in any of them? If you’re in a different country, outside your own culture, it’s even harder to discern the person beneath the functionary. And few cultures are more different from ours than those of the Omo Valley peoples.

The fact that they’ve learned to charge for serving as photographic subjects can heighten the sense that we’re using one another. I’ve heard other tourists comment on how tourism has “ruined” the tribes, making them rapacious and corrupting once-innocent interactions. I see it differently. As Steve observed at one point, the Omo Valley tribespeople own almost nothing EXCEPT for their intellectual property: the fantastic ways in which they dress and ornament their bodies. They have the means to defend that property (by banishing or even punishing those who refuse to pay up.) If they sell access to their designs to get things they want (be that razor blades or bullets or candies or cell phones), who am I to criticize them? How does their behavior differ from that of Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber?

Another topic that surfaces among Omo Valley travelers is how long these cultures will survive. The powers-that-be are building a dam on the upper Omo, and it may affect some of the tribal agricultural practices. A new (paved!) road heading south to Kenya is also in the works.  Cell phone towers are sprouting throughout the Valley, and some folks, like that Bodi chief, already have phones too. As the contact with outsiders increases, as they see images of how everyone else in the world dresses and acts, for how much longer will they cling to their harsh prehistoric lifestyles? As do others, I hear the clock ticking, counting down the time that’s left for the way they’ve lived for so long. But while it still exists, I feel fortunate to have seen it.

Through the gap

January 3, 2012

Young Hamer women

After saying farewell to the Goh Hotel yesterday (Monday), the drive from Jinka to Turmi took just under four hours, which didn’t seem bad, in light of the previous day’s extended car time. Turmi (aka Turumi) sits in the midst of the extensive territory inhibited by the Hamer tribe, and en route, Endalk described the bull-jumping ceremony which the Hamers use to mark their boys’ transition to manhood. For it, Hamer men round up a dozen or so bulls and line them up nose to tail, wrestling them into position and almost magically calming them to a surreal stillness. Then the naked, wild-haired initiate climbs up onto and dances over the animals’ backs, moving from one end of the line to the other several times, while Hamer girls who’ve bolstered their courage with alcohol for days beg to be beaten with sticks, a form of cheerleading that traditionally could get quite bloody. Times are changing, and the beatings are becoming more moderate. Endalk seemed to approve of that. His eyes shone when he described the celebration that would follow the completion of the initiate’s performance. We would have to pay a fee to attend, Endalk said, but once admitted we could photograph incessantly, and no one would ask for as much as a hard candy.

This was the season for bull-jumping, Endalk added, and he would use his network of contacts to learn whether one would be taking place either this day or the next. But when we checked into the Tourist Hotel, we got bad news on two fronts. None of Endalk’s friends at the hotel had heard of any taurine spectacles in the offing. And because our itinerary had changed (due to our late start the first morning), the room he had reserved for us, which had a shower, was unavailable. We would have to sleep in one of the rooms with neither toilet nor shower. But we could switch rooms the next day.

The upside to our scheduling changes was that it allowed us to arrive in Turmi on a Monday, the Hamers’ big market day. We strolled the few blocks over to that, and it was instantly clear why this weekly event gets glowing reviews from the guidebooks. The Hamers look fantastic. Men wear brightly colored miniskirts and special hair ornaments for recent braveries. But it’s the women who could step onto a runway in Paris and draw gasps of admiration. Most are either topless of they wear skimpy goatskins ornamented with shells, fur, and other beads. They soak their hair in ochre mixed with animal fat, and then work it into long thick strands (think of henna’d Raggedy Anns). The square teamed with people buying and selling tobacco, coffee beans and shells, pots, skins, produce, and grasses.

After the market, Steve and I consumed greasy pasta and tomato sauce in the Tourist’s shaded outdoor dining area, and Endalk continued scouting for bull-jumps.  But he returned in the late afternoon announcing defeat. He suggested we spend the rest of the day and evening resting, in preparation for our excursion to the Karo tribe in the morning.

For us, the best part of resting at the Turumi Tourist was spotting a tall young lonely- looking guy in the dining room whom I took to be Japanese.  We invited him to join us and found he was in fact Korean, with a sketchy command of English, a sweet personality, and an amazing itinerary: Seoul, Dubai, Cape Town, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Kenya, Ethiopia, Cairo, Jordan, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, and India. Once he got back to Seoul he would be starting his university studies as a fashion major, he told us.

One section of our hotel room's ceiling. Other panels had holes knocked in them.

Steve and I returned to our room, where the bed linens looked clean enough and the mosquito nets were intact.  But that’s about the only nice thing I can say about this decrepit hovel, with its wasp nests, huge holes in the window screens and drop-ceiling tiles (revealing the dark creepy crawl space above us). Hip-hop and Afropop blared outside at least to midnight. The most dismal part became clear the next morning, when we found the solitary toilet with a commode to be locked. S and I trooped out in back past a tree where some men were butchering a goat. We used the squat toilet then tried to wash our hands, first from a water jug (empty) and then from the tap next to the locked commode (dry).

It didn’t help when Endalk arrived and got us into our room-to-be; it was even worse than the old one: one double bed instead of two, still no toilet, and with it’s shower located right next to the bed.  Some of my thoughts on the ride to the Karo were glum.

That trip took two and a half hours over boulder-choked ravines, powder-fine sand washes, and bone-jarring gravel beds. It wasn’t all bad; the road cut through virginal looking savannah (populated by cows instead of lions and elephants). We passed sections studded with phallic termite towers for as far as we could see, and we admired flocks of beautiful storks.

Moreover, when we arrived at the Karo village, my doubts about whether the ride would be worth it vanished. Most endangered of all the OV tribes, the Karo have been ravaged by malaria and sleeping sickness.  But their sense of style remains intact. Some of the topless young women sported yellow flowers stuck into their lips and noses.  One beauty adorned her shaved head with a pair of corn ears. The Karo are famous for the elaborate designs they paint on their bodies, but we’d read nothing about the rifles carried by all the men. Endalk said a rite of passage for boys in this tribe was to make the 4-5 day trek to Southern Sudan, along with a couple of cows to be traded for a weapon. Maybe part of this is machismo but Endalk also pointed out a large number of animals watering in the grand winding Omo River at the base of the cliffs on which the Karo village sits. He said the shepherds routinely fire a couple of rounds into the water, to scare off any crocs with a taste for boeuf tartare.

A tall sturdy man led us past one half-naked woman sorting sorghum seeds from their chaff and another grinding them on the African version of a metate, past crowing roosters and growling dogs and children imploring us to take their pictures.  I wondered about the single lower central incisor that was missing from our village guide’s mouth; most of the rest of his teeth looked so white and strong, and clearly this was not the land of refined sugars. As if reading my thoughts, Endalk said that removing a lower front tooth was another rite of passage for young men. The Karo believed that whenever misfortune befell them, they could use that small passage to take water into their mouths. The act of savoring it, drop by drop, would help distract them from whatever bad thing had happened.

That image returned to me several times after we returned the way we’d come and Endalk dropped us off for lunch at the Turmi Lodge, by most reports one of the two best hotels  in town. The gardens were quiet and pretty, the patio cool, and as we tucked into chicken noodle soup and beef goulash, Steve and I had the same idea. He slipped off to reception and soon returned with a thumb’s up: they did indeed have a room for the night for us ($75, including a breakfast buffet). We called Endalk and Sharom, who returned with all our luggage. 

I took TWO hot showers over the next few hours in our spotless, newly constructed room. The night was deeply silent when we slipped between the crisp clean sheets. Several times I pointed out to Steve that I was sipping it all through a newly created conceptual gap in my teeth.

On safari

January 2, 2012

Yesterday in Mago National Park, Ethiopia’s 780-square-mile preserve near the Kenyan border, we saw several dik-diks and maybe a half dozen olive baboons. We didn’t spot any of the 200 elephants and lions, 400 buffalo, or countless monkeys, antelope, and other mammals who reside there. But we weren’t looking for them. Our goal was to visit the Mursi and Ari tribes who make their homes within this vast jungly wilderness.

As so often happens to me, I was shocked by the difference between reading and intellectually understanding that these tribal regions are remote, and actually experiencing the difficulty of visiting them. We’d spent the better part of two long hard days on the road just to get to Jinka, maybe 18 hours of driving in all. When Endalk told us it would take about two more hours to reach the Mursi village, I was a little startled and then dismayed by the brutality of the ride over rock and gravel roads. And then maybe two and a quarter hours into the journey, Endalk and our driver had an exchange with a couple of camo-clad, machine-gun-toting park rangers who delivered bad news: the government (god only knows which) was concerned about the fact that tourists were only visiting the Mursi village closest to Jinka. This meant all those Mursis were getting rich, while their further-flung brethren were seething. To rectify this injustice, we were being ordered to continue on to Hana in the adjoining Omo National Park, a hot, dusty bone-jolting additional hour further down the “road.” The worst part about this was that it turned out Hana wasn’t a classic Mursi village at all, but rather a settlement of Mursis who had intermarried with the Bodi people, and the government had installed a number of administrative buildings. It didn’t look like Scarsdale, but it wasn’t the return to the Stone Age for which we had traveled so far.

We spent maybe 5 minutes walking around the village (which Endalk himself had only visited once several years ago). But the ranger who had accompanied us in our Land Cruiser relented and bade us goodbye, freeing us to return any way we wanted. So we stopped first at a Bodi village that seemed only to consist of 3-4 huts. Bodis, according to Endalk, are the second most warlike tribe in the Omo Valley (the Mursi being number one), but the two elders, lounging in a shady spot, naked except for long strategically positioned shawls, greeted us affably. The tall thin wife of one of the elders looked peeved, though. She wore a sort of toga made of animal hides that half-exposed only one of her breasts.

A younger wife of the Bodi chief, Endalk, and the chief's senior wife

All the negotiations with Omo Valley tribespeople regarding photographs bewilder me. Years ago, they learned to charge for serving as photo subjects, and typically villages also charge a fee simply for receiving visitors. (The standard rate for the latter seems to vary from about 200-450 birr (about $11.75-$25). But it’s all quite fluid and complicated. In this case, Endalk refused to pay a village fee. And while the chief’s wife wanted 100 birr for a photo of herself, he got her husband to agree that just 50 (about $3) was acceptable. The per-photo price tends to be for one single image (and the villagers are sensitive to detecting the sound of extra camera clicks!)

The Bodi chief on his cell phone

For the 50 birr, we also entered the chief’s hut, a dim and smoky den where a couple of younger wives were steeping moringa leaves, valued for their antimalarial properties. Outside in the bright sunshine, a weird sound intruded, and we saw it was the chief’s cell phone (stashed somewhere on his naked person). He stood to take the call, and the sight made even Endalk laugh. We bagged a photo or two of this, and I’m sure it will rank among my most cherished images.

We drove on and on, and around 2:30 we came to a cluster of huts where we finally scored a definitive Mursi/tourist interaction. Probably there are anthropologists who have spent months living with the Mursi, but their culture seems so alien, I’m sure many mysteries remain. We had less than an hour there, but it was enough to boggle my mind.

Part of the bafflement comes from extricating one’s impressions of the Mursi themselves from those of the Mursi in the presence of foreigners. The Omo Valley isn’t Disneyland; the Mursi live and dress as they do year-round, even in the rainy season when no tourists come. They survive mainly on the corn and sorghum they grow, along with an occasional goat or cow for special occasions such as weddings. But only for the tourists do they prepare rolls of 10 one-birr notes to serve as change (as the going rate for routine photos tends to be around 2-3 birr — 12-18 cents). The Mursis have no stores or shops of any kind, so to spend those birr, someone has to make the two-day walk to Jinka (which means overnighting in the bush along with the lions). That’s why they most avidly crave trade goods of the sort Endalk had us buy. So it was that we had the odd experience of handing out razor blades not only to our grown-up photo subjects, but also to kids as young as 3.

Mursi women with lip plates
Mursi kids

Still, the photos are irresistible. Their headgear is fantastic, and they create patterns of bumpy scars on their bodies. Most photogenic and famous, if freakish, are the lip plates worn by Mursi women. Supposedly this practice dates back to the days when slavers menaced African natives. To make their women repugnant to the raiders, or so the story goes, the Mursi began mutilating their women’s lower lips so that a series of larger and larger disks could be inserted into the space created. Over time, the Mursi came to see the practice as intrinsic to their tribal identity, part of what makes them Mursi and their women beautiful. The plates are heavy (I bought a medium-sized one for 10 birr, and it’s reminiscent of a condiment dish). So the women mostly wear them on ceremonial occasions such as weddings and tribal festivals. And of course they pop them in when the tourists arrive (the dangling undisked lower lips, if anything, look more grotesque than the adorned ones.) The women and children clustered around us, plucking at our arms, pinching my nipples, tugging at Steve’s beard and arm hair, murmuring “photo? photo?”

Mursi woman without her lip plate

Somehow, none of this bothered us, it was all so surreal. And Endalk’s leadership was a big help. He finally urged us to be on our way; it wasn’t a great idea to be in a Mursi village much past 3, when all the men and women would start drinking the alcohol they brew from sorghum and upon which they daily get drunk (and more irascible, I took it.)

We made one more stop, at an Ari village maybe 45 minutes further down the road. I think Endalk likes to take people there right after seeing the Mursis, because the two tribes live so close to each other but boast such different cultures (and interact little, if at all). The Ari huts looked more sophisticated than the Mursis’ shaggy grass ones. The Aris also are master farmers, raising not only corn and sorghum, but also coffee, tobacco, oranges and other fruits, various vegetables, chicken and goats. They’re potters too, though the potter where we stopped was away (which gave Endalk an excuse to avoid paying the standard village fee.)

As our Land Cruiser labored up the switchbacks leading out of the park, I felt exhausted from our sleepless night and the hours upon hours of long, rough driving, as well as the welter of alien impressions. But I still noticed the splendor of the vistas around us, as rugged as the American West but so much greener, a dozen or more shades of green. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, this is the real Garden of Eden — the place on earth where humans almost certainly originated. We’ve read that the oldest remains of homo sapiens — an estimated 195,000 years old — were found in the Omo Valley. (The famous Lucy, vastly older but a humanoid precursor, were found elsewhere in Ethiopia.) We’ve also read that DNA research suggests that every human being on earth today descended from a single woman who once lived here, a small band of her offspring having then departed through the Arabian peninsula to spread out and populate the globe.

So in a sense, the Omo Valley is home. It may not feel like home, but it was our first one, and somehow visiting it made me feel closer, emotionally, to the whole vast extended clan of us.