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Magic Land of Ethiopia

Ethiopia – a world apart, an ancient land, the birthplace of the human race. We have just returned from a 6-week journey so amazing that the English language is inadequate to describe. Ethiopia is a land of many faces, holy traditions and indescribably beautiful landscapes.

Steven & Cathi House

We traveled south first into the Lower Omo Valley where many distinct tribes live in small groups far from each other, each with their own unique language, dress, customs, architecture and physical characteristics. They raise goats, chickens, cows and sheep and farm just enough to feed themselves. We visited the Mursi people with their huge lip and ear plates, the Karo people who decorate their bodies with ash, mineral colors and plants, the Hamer people who twirl their hair with butter and red powdered stone into a long fringe of tiny dreadlocks and wear goatskins tanned to a ruffled shape, both hair and skins dancing with their every move – and other tribes including the Ari, Dorze, Arbore, Dassanech, Konso and Banna. We explored their villages, homes, countryside and markets. We went to the singing wells of the Borena people see their famous manner of getting water for their cattle. In a dry, barren landscape they have dug long wide ramps down about 30 feet below the surrounding earth, then have dug another 50 feet deep to create deep pools of water for their animals. Herds of cows wait impatiently to go down the ramp to a trough where, inside the 20-foot diameter well, there are ledges on which men stand, lifting water from below in buckets, each man handing up a full bucket to the man above until the water can be deposited into the trough. This activity can go on for hours as the herds are enormous and this is their only water source. To keep their rhythm and a smooth flow of this exhausting work, the men sing in a deep, low chant – which echoes against the walls of the well and to us, at the level of the cattle, sounded like moans coming from the bowels of the earth. I won’t mention what you have to walk through to get to a narrow place where thousands of cows have walked for hundreds of years. We had to have our shoes scrubbed and disinfected regularly.

The Ethiopian people are open and welcoming, smiles abound and a pride in their country, their history, and their traditions shows in every exchange. They don’t hesitate to touch each other or us – always a strong, respectful handshake, often a powerful shoulder press, and regular kissing of hands and cheeks. People in the streets and markets look up in surprise when they see us and immediately open their hearts to us. We are enchanted by their kindness and hospitality. Many wear little or nothing at all, their skin the color of rich chocolate, the texture of fine silk. Babies nurse openly, wrapped in goatskin swaddles. The children are so curious and sweet – tiny hands slip into ours, soft and unafraid to wander the village as our shadow. Everything the tribal people own adorns their bodies and they live with a lack of connection so complete that there is little knowledge beyond the boundaries of a day’s walk.

Homes all over Ethiopia are made of twigs and mud, with earth floor, grass or corrugated tin roofs and little or no furniture, no rugs or anything that could bring comfort – only 3 stones that create a place for fire used for cooking. People sleep on the earthen floor and animals sleep inside the homes with the people to share body warmth on cold desert nights. Food is hard work to acquire. All of the animals must be walked to graze, walked to get water and walked home every day. Teff, barley, corn and wheat must be laboriously planted, harvested, threshed, ground and made into the most simple bread or gruel. Enset grows everywhere and its fibrous pulp must be scraped and hacked from the leaves and core, buried for 6 months to ferment and break down the fibers, then chopped and mixed with water to make flat rounds of sour bread. Grains are also fermented into a thick grey ‘beer’ that too many people drink in excess each afternoon. There’s also the chat – beautiful green bushes that grow everywhere and whose leaves are chewed to achieve a kind of cocaine high and sedative low at the same time. In a very poor country where too many people don’t have work and there are no social programs for the sick or elderly, chat is a way to escape the misery.

There is very little infrastructure in all the country, especially in the south. What little electricity there is fails regularly, sometimes for days at a time, meaning no internet, phone or place to recharge our batteries, no light or hot water. Whole swaths of the country have no power. This is the most disconnected we have ever been. Some of the beautiful places we stayed are secure compound lodges where they generate their own power – provided conveniently for 3 to 4 hours morning and night. Even that doesn’t help the internet when that service goes out from the source and leaves half the country disconnected. We have seen washed out bridges and terribly under structured high-rises under construction. Huge rivers lay dry without rain and people wash clothes, dishes and their bodies in any small mud hole they can find. Too many women spend 5 to 6 hours just getting water – every day – hauling on their backs yellow plastic cans filled at the trickle of a river, the remnants of last year’s rain – shared of course by all the animals in the area. Life is very difficult for the vast majority of the populace and we felt honored to see first hand what this kind of underdevelopment looks like – and inspired to help those organizations that are trying so hard to get clean water to each village and to bring education to the precious children.

Each area we visited is remote and the journey to them rough and exhausting – and Ethiopia is a very big country – so many of our drives were between 8 to 12 hours, most of them at least 4 hours. Many of the travelers we met flew from region to region, but we traveled the breadth of the country by road. Most roads are dirt, rutted, strewn with boulders and sliced by wildly eroded chasms – all of which were negotiated in our enormous Nissan 4-wheel drive Patrol – the rugged movement often flinging our bodies in several directions at once while we held onto well placed handles trying to keep our necks from snapping or our heads from smashing into the windows – and that’s at a speed too slow to even measure. Between these obstacles, when a little stretch of road seemed less treacherous, the vehicle would vibrate as though it would shake to pieces. Very few roads are paved, those few with asphalt are often poorly constructed so that it has heaved and dipped and is sometimes more difficult than the dirt roads. There is, however, massive road construction going on everywhere – in some patchwork order that only the Chinese, who are building everywhere in Ethiopia, can understand. That means mountains of sand and rocks and oversized construction equipment forcing vehicles off onto an even rougher shoulder to get around it all, and the red earth is so finely powdered that it stirs into opaque clouds with any movement, coating all the vegetation and buildings and getting into every part of our vehicle, our luggage, our clothing, our ears, nose, and mouths.

The Lower Omo Valley is wide and long, edged by layer after layer of mountains fading to the horizon. We traveled south almost to Kenya and Sudan, crossing through numerous wildlife preserves where we saw antelope, ibex, and enormous crocodiles – even a leopard, which is rare – and an incredible variety of birds from tiny to gigantic in iridescent colors, fantastic markings – herons, pelicans, eagles, hawks, falcons, and vultures with a 10-foot wingspan. Termites are plentiful and very industrious, building towering cities of the red earth, pinnacles rising to 20 feet or more, dotting the whole south – and spiders of impressive size and speed. Baboons abound, moving in large family groups along the mountain roads, curious and watchful of our every move.

There are many other animals too – goats, sheep, donkeys, cows, camels, horses, mules – in small groups and in massive herds – all crisscrossing the road in chaotic movement, wandering the streets of the villages, appearing suddenly at every turn. Some are being herded but many seem to know their agenda and where they are going. Some donkeys are laden so heavily that you can barely see them, looking often like a monstrous haystack ambling down the road – others pull carts and wagons. Camels wander freely in the fields or move en masse, sometimes carrying heavy loads of lumber or blocks of salt in caravans that may take weeks to transport. The animals are not the only beasts of burden here – people also carry huge loads of everything from water to lumber to grains, food, huge bundles of grass and hay, and items to sell in the markets. Throngs of people fill the streets, sitting on the edge of the pavement, children playing, guiding their animals, waiting, visiting, walking – forcing traffic to dodge and swerve, horns blaring to avoid fatal collision at every step.

Weaving among the animals and people is a skill – knowing which animal will swerve which way, which will bolt across and which will stop – there is a whole language between the animals and the vehicles. Older cows don’t care and hold their ground, as do camels, so you just have to stop and wait until they move. Young goats are the most difficult to second guess as they have yet to learn about traffic and bounce about playfully not understanding about getting out of the way. All the other vehicles – trucks and vans and tuc-tucs and bicycles, horse carts and donkey carts and cars – each have their own unpredictable movement. Some trucks are loaded high and lean precariously at every turn, others barrel along at high speed, swerving wildly through the chaos; vans built for 6 passengers carry 20 or more as local taxis, the top brimming with every manner of items all strapped on and flapping in the breeze – including goats who are piled together into a tangled mass and tied down – serenely napping or watching the scenery fly by. Everything moving casts clouds of thick red dust into the air – a passing vehicle can reduce visibility to nothing, everyone zigzagging more than usual to get some kind of view around the cloud.

Traveling with us for the whole 6 weeks was Terefe, our guide and driver, whose instincts and focus while negotiating the chaos that are the streets of Ethiopia are unmatched. He is a pleasant, sweet young man who speaks English and Amharic as well as enough of the tribal languages to get us through, and he understands the language of the roads and the animals, choosing well at each obstacle. He was devoted to our goals and handled each issue with grace, working hard to make our time as comfortable as possible. Traveling with another person can have its challenges, but he is interesting and such a pleasure to be with that we thoroughly enjoyed our time together. Ethiopia is, perhaps, the furthest we have traveled off the beaten path – and not only were we off the beaten path for much of this trip – we went to places where a path has never existed – and we felt safe and calm in Terefe’s care.

After our sweep through the south we headed east to the ancient city of Harar – a twisted maze of medieval streets lined with colorful houses and colorful people selling all things colorful. After the natural tones of the south, all this color was a wondrous surprise. We stayed in a traditional Harari home where the owners live and rent out 3 rooms, everyone sharing a bath (generous description of that wet, primitive room). They served us the most delicious local honey and flat fried bread made piece by piece for breakfast each morning. Although Ethiopia is predominately Christian, Harar is one of Islam’s most holy cities. Our days began before sunrise with the morning call to prayer from the nearby mosque waking us. Quiet time for their prayers invited moments of calm to start our full days, especially beautiful as we watched the brilliant shroud of stars fade and the sky begin to glow with luminous color and a new day.

Bread in Ethiopia was surprising – so many different recipes, grains and manners of making it. Actually, the food was part of the adventure. The traditional enjira, made from a grain called teff, served with meat and vegetables, is eaten with the hands. There were many places we stayed between destinations or that were very primitive, with no refrigeration or clean water – so we explored the wide variety of pastas available – something that must be freshly boiled, topped with a sauce that must be well cooked and served piping hot. The animals there work pretty hard to get what they can to eat in their rugged environment, so their meat is mostly tough and stringy – until you get to the best restaurants where the seasonings and delicacy of every morsel is a taste of heaven.

Coffee was one of the great pleasures – in fact, coffee was first grown in Ethiopia and every coffee plant in the world can trace its ancestors to there. It is thick and strong, like nothing we have ever tasted. No filtering out the grounds – raw beans are carefully washed and roasted for each and every cup, pounded into the finest powder and boiled over an open fire. It is served thick and hot in very small cups, usually with lots of sugar – fresh sugar harvested locally.

We spent several weeks negotiating the Great Rift Valley with its series of serene lakes, volcanoes, wide valleys, narrow canyons, towering mountains and monumental rocky peaks – a geologically magnificent area where the earth’s crust is tearing apart. We saw bleak deserts, arid savannah that stretched to the horizon, rich farmlands and some of the most inhospitable regions where everything is thorny and poisonous with no space for any living creature to pass. It was the dry season but broad, deep chasms speak of the powerful rivers that thunder over the landscape when the rains come. The landscape changed dramatically every day, each more breathtaking than the last. Some of the most dramatic landscapes look like the Grand Canyon, Bryce canyon, Monuments Valley and Yellowstone – the same scale, colors, and geologic formations. On part of our journey we followed the origins of the great Nile River, called the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.

From Harar in the east we traveled back towards the center of the country and then north – our first stops being the enormous Senbete and Bati Markets. Markets are like nothing in the US – they are chaotic and dusty and crowded. They are colorful in every way. Items you don’t generally find for sale in the US include vast herds of camels, goats, sheep, donkeys and cows – all meandering around stirring up clouds of dust – and you have to be on constant guard about where you step. The animals are mostly docile and it is interesting to wander among them – although there are always the crazy donkeys who decide they have had it and will not cooperate any more, kicking and running wildly. Something we hadn’t known about camels is that they pee to the back so you have to watch out for those toxic sprays. And there is the occasional amorous bonding – Steven saw 2 camels in an unusual reclined sideways position, oblivious to their owners trying desperately to pull them apart. Our trip was carefully planned to be in the right place on the right day for as many markets as possible.

Lalibela is where we celebrated Christmas. Lalibela was established as a second Jerusalem, a safe alternative for Christian pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land in dangerous times. It is one of the holiest places in Ethiopia and the center of the many churches carved from living rock. In Ethiopia Christmas is celebrated on January the 7th. We went to a midnight mass in their most holy church – something that sounds pretty straightforward – but nothing is that simple in Ethiopia. Thousands of pilgrims had traveled by foot for weeks to be there for this holy celebration and to say it was crowded is an understatement – the church was full, as was the deep excavation around the church, the grounds surrounding the church – actually tens of thousands of people, all swathed in hand-woven white fabric, standing, sitting, laying, everywhere, holding candles, chanting the prayers along with the priest, a full moon glowing like the face of God illuminating it all… We slowly picked our way through them, careful not to step on anyone or on the ankle twisting rocks that cover that country, awed by their spirit and devotion.

Ethiopia is on its own calendar, even its own clock – and it has nothing to do with the rest of the world. January 7th, 2015 by our calendar is approximately April 29th, 2007 by theirs. Their calendar derives from an ancient manner of measuring the years. They also have their own way of telling time – since they are so close to the equator with an equal number of daylight and night time hours, they have simply divided the hours into day time and night time – each 12 hours long and starting at 1am for day (6am sunrise), 1pm for night (6pm sunset).

From Lalibela we traveled north through ancient and holy lands, to Aksum and Gondar, to the palace of the queen of Sheba, to the home of the Arc of the Covenant, where the stones of the Ten Commandments are protected, through towering mountains and fertile fields. We were worlds and eons away from everything, immersed in blinding light and crystalline skies, surrounded by smiling faces and rich aromas. Our last days were spent in Addis Ababa celebrating Timkat, the baptism of Jesus – along with hundreds of thousands of devoted pilgrims.

We could go on about how magical our time was, but there is no end to the descriptions or the stories – so we have each selected 30 of our favorite photographs from the more than 20,000 images we took, to share a small part of our experience – Cathi’s are black and white, Steven’s are in color.


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