I was rather apprehensive about this trip to Ethiopia – I felt an outsider
joining a group of people who all knew each other, but they soon became
my friends. The other thing that worried me was the 4-day high altitude
trek – how would I shape up against my expectations and the rest of the
group who had been to the base camp of Everest, been trekking in Nepal
and other places. When we were at Timna a few weeks ago, Moran took Dani,
our granddaughter, climbing in a narrow slit in the rock. Afterwards she
told me that she had been afraid but she believed in herself and did it;
that kept me going.
The flight on Ethiopian Airlines was a surprise – the service good and
the food tasty.
At the Addis Ababa airport Firew Ayele, our tour guide and operator, met us with flowers and drove us into town. We were surprised by the 14-lane highway, a relic of Ethiopia's socialist past, and that is before we saw how sparse is the movement of vehicles. Although Addis has a population of 3.6 million people, it seems more like a village. It is quiet and no one seems in a rush. The Gihon Hotel was large and basic, reminiscent of some hotels we saw in Lithuania. It was situated next to a carefully tended park where the only people I saw were men washing their feet under a tap.
After lunch a very tired group visited the National Museum where we saw the 3.5-million year old skeleton of Lucy. We were not allowed to photograph nor were there any postcards of Lucy. There is still much to be done on the tourism front.
We perked up at the mercato – a huge open market. The market was divided
into areas on the basis of goods offered. The baskets were varied and beautiful.
It was only later that we realized that woven baskets functioned as tables,
food containers and purses, replacing stainless steel, Tupperware and porcelain
we use back home.
Many people still use coal-burning fires even in the towns, using eucalyptus wood for fuel.(later, we saw men splitting eucalyptus trees for firewood.at Debark)
The broom makers market was most picturesque, although the only brooms we saw used were the fresh leafy branches of eucalyptus trees. Fast growing eucalyptus trees are extensively planted, with trees close to each other so that they will quickly grow straight and tall. They are used as fuel, house building – wattle and daub – and fences. Their bark is used as rope to tie the woody bundles together, which are later used for tanning hides and papermaking. They were first imported in the late 1880’s when the people had cut down their native trees and and were faced with a serious fuel shortage. Addis Ababa means ‘beautiful flower’, supposedly referring to the flowering gum tree.
Animals hides are used as mats and covers for sleeping, strips of hide
make slats for beds and hides covered baskets that were made to hold ceramic
cooking pots. They are also fashioned into bags to hold books.
Enset or false banana is a staple crop in Ethiopia. Drought resistant, its underground rhizomes are rich in starch and are an important food source especially during the dry season. After the pulp is fermented for about 10 days it is either steam baked to make kocho, a flat bread that was not to my taste, bulla porridge or flour.
We had our first taste of Ethiopian coffee and found it good. Coffee is Ethiopia's main export. Ethiopians were the first to cultivate coffee for drinking. Possibly influenced by Italian occupation during WWII, good coffee was available even in the simplest of coffee shops and most also served cappuccino. While enjoying our coffee we placed our dinner orders from Romina Miky, the restaurant next door.
On our second day we flew to Lalibela, capital of Ethiopia in the 12th Century. The hotel was bungalow style, with running water and no fleas – my room at least – and a great view if you overlooked what was happening just below your nose in the hotel compound. We, of course, drank only bottled water and carefully doled out the empty plastic bottles, highly prized items.
Visiting the local markets was a high priority. All of Ethiopia walks; on market days our bus was often the only vehicle on dusty gravel roads crowded with villagers walking to and from the regional market. The Lalibela market was fascinating. Umbrellas are important in Ethiopia. When crosses and holy books are taken out of the church they are always covered by a ceremonial umbrella. Many people used them in towns and on the roads. In our culture who would care about a broken umbrella. Note the patch on this man's umbrella. He posed happily enough but was cross when I had no local money to give him in exchange for allowing me to take his photo. Most people wanted money for being photographed.
Although sugarcane seemed to be popular, we never saw refined sugar being sold. Here the calabash and sack contain honey. A straw construction is positioned in a (eucalyptus) tree and when the container is full the bees are either smoked out or washed out. The comb is broken and then wax, bees, plant material and honey are collected. The honey in jars that we later had for breakfast was good, not so sweet but also not clear, containing the stuff mentioned above.
Although most people, adults and children, wore some form of footwear,
we did see a lot of peasants walking barefoot. We saw one young man running
along the road who was not only barefoot but also naked with his clothes
on his shoulders. Each time we got off our minibus, a string
of children and young adults attached themselves to each one of us, asking
our names, where we come from and generally explaining things that we passed.
After giving a few birr (the local currency) to ‘my’ young guide, his friend
asked for shoes. When I asked how much a new pair would cost all the little
urchins showed me that they also had torn plastic shoes.
Our guide Firew <firstname.lastname@example.org> proved excellent. He was punctual, well organized, knowledgeable about everything we asked him, and a delightful person to boot. Here he is showing me the sign for the local pubs. Inside the locals are drinking Tej, the local brew.
At a market restaurant a woman is preparing injera. The thin pancake is made from teff, a local millet-like grain that is fermented 3 days and then cooked one side only on a ceramic plate and kept warm in a woven basket. It tastes like buckwheat blini. It is either served open like a plate with with meat or vegetarian stew piled on, or rolled tightly to sop up sauce and bits of food. We visited Ethiopia during Lent and the vast majority of Christians ate only 'fasting foods', i.e. they ate no meat nor any other animal products. At the markets we saw a wide variety of lentils as well as peas, beans, wheat, barley, spices, red onions, lots of garlic and tomatoes. It was the dry season and fresh vegetables were severely lacking. For more information about teff: http://ethnomed.org/ethnomed/cultures/ethiop/teff.html
Mules are the transport vehicles of rural Ethiopians. These small animals are fast and we often saw them seemingly making their own way around the market or alongside their owners on the gravel roads, laden with sacks of food..
I love this picture; it gives the feeling of the crush the market.
My impromptu guide poses in front of a two-storey house made from stone and mortar with a thatched roof. At the top of the steps is an open cooking fire for the house.
As we walk to the cave church of Naakutoleab we are accompanied by a
group of Ethiopians with their ubiquitous dula sticks. We all adopted their
way of walking, finding it improved our posture noticeably.
Like all the other churches, the brick building contains the Holy
of Holies into which we were not allowed to enter. Their New Testament
books are written on parchment in Ghez and delightfully illustrated. Few
people outside of the priesthood understand Ghez – rather like Jews
of the Diaspora able to chant Hebrew without actually knowing what it really
A group of children sing and dance as we make our way back to the bus. On the last night I tried to rhythmically shake my shoulders as they do and it is hard work, almost impossible for more than 30 seconds at a time.
Before going back to our hotel we stopped off in town. There are table soccer machines by the roadside in most villages. It costs the equivalent of about 50 agorot (10 US cents) to play a game. In the background Ivan plays table tennis with the young man who runs the table while Dani learns the fine points of wearing the local dress he has bought.
Back at the hotel we were treated to coffee. Coffee preparation involves an elaborate ceremony that includes washing and roasting the beans and then blowing the smoke into our faces so we can appreciate the aroma, crushing the beans and making the coffee and finally drinking the robust coffee. In the foreground is popcorn, which was always served together with the coffee. It too was delicious.
Our next stop was at Gondar. Again the market congregates around subjects that include the metal market, wholesale and retail grains and the clothing stores. These colorful lengths of cloth are joined together to make wraps, but as they were about the only thing to buy we bought them with the idea of making curtains, tablecloths and of course using them as scarves.
In all the Ethiopian towns and cities there are traffic circles, piazza-like, heritage from the Italian occupation. Ethiopians are very proud that they were the only country to force a colonial power to leave.
The Gondar hotel, a Government enterprise, was similar to a South
African lodge in furnishings but didn’t have the same high standard of
Starting in the 17th Century, Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia for two hundred years. Emperor Fasilidas and his dynasty built a number of stunning castles from roughly hewn basalt stones and mortar. The design and workmanship shine through the centuries.
These women, who were unwilling to tell us how much they earn, break basalt stone into gravel to be used in restoration projects around the castles.
Here Yashuv walks in what was the bathing enclosure with a bathhouse in the middle. It is still used for mass baptisms today.
The Dabre Birhan Silase Church is beautifully constructed and decorated.
This is a picture of an Ethiopian saint and recurs in almost all the churches.
It is the dry season with no prospect of rain for a few months. Despite this with the change of seasons there were wild flowers and in one area many irises.
The second day of the trip was hard with many uphills (and downhills)
as we gained height, walking to our next campsite Geech situated at 3600m.
The wonderful scenery and great weather made it a satisfying if challenging
Each rest stop was thoroughly appreciated.
Geech is a small Muslim village situated on the slope of a hill. We arrived at an engagement ceremony of this young 16-year old girl (who looked more like 10). Her betrothed would be a man perhaps three times her senior. She was very tearful – we were not sure because she had to be presented to us or that the whole ceremony was frightening.
Seeing our pitched tents at the end of a very hard day was like coming home. Although the days were warm and even hot at times, the nights were extremely cold especially with a fresh wind ripping across the plain. Here we met people from South Africa, Poland, France, England and two Israeli boys.
One of the guards enjoys a quiet moment .
Still the general direction was up, causing shortness of breath. Reaching
Imitgogo brought a feeling of satisfaction. After 7 hours of trekking
at that altitude everybody enjoys a well-earned rest before the final descent
back to Geech.
We carried daypacks, while the mules carried everything else including tents, food, cooking utensils and water. The cleanliness was remarkable especially under very difficult conditions. That night the cooks prepared a traditional fried lamb meal while Dani organized a barbecue preparing the choice parts.
Before we broke camp for the last day of our trek Dani set up a clinic for the many people who came for medicine. The most common complaints were severe eye infections and abscesses a result of rotted teeth.
We had spent most of the last day climbing up and then had a treacherous
descent to our last camp Chenek at 3620m
Before the bus fetched us on the fifth day, the early risers braved the cold and went for a last look at the amazing scenery. To the right is our driver Yashua, a Falasha, who hopes to come to Israel.
Near Gondar we stopped at Wallaka, a Falasha village. The synagogue
was locked and the women demanded payment to open it up. In retrospect
we were unfair to offer her 10 birr, equivalent to 5 shekel, which she
refused. After all, Firew had to pay an entrance fee to every church we
visited. This is the village that our driver Yashua comes from. Everybody
I met was Christian.
Imagine our surprise when we arrived at Gorgora Hotel on Lake Tana that had been opened especially for our visit and walked into the rooms with lurid bedcovers. I thought I had been given the bridal suite.
The last church that we visited, Ura Kidane Mihret, was one church too many. We were tired and also tired of the endless stream of locals trying to sell us their wares.
One last stick of sugarcane to sweeten our way back to Bahir Dar. Even the beautiful goat’s skin covered baskets weren’t interesting any more as we prepared to fly back to Addis Ababa and home. But not before we had dinner and a party to celebrate a great visit to Ethiopia.
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