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.

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.