Monday, February 3, 2014

Places and People.


Timket Sunday Mass, Gondar.

What make this trip so special for me were both the places that I traveled to and the people I traveled with. This posting is dedicated to the places and people that I will forever have fond memories of.



St. George's Cathedral, Addis.

Let's start with the places.  So, what about Ethiopia?  Addis I could live without going to again.  It's a city but to be honest, compared to the rest of the country, not very interesting.  I did enjoy going to two places though - one was the Ethnographic Museum and St. George's Cathedral.  The museum gave context to the life and culture of the indigenous people whom we would be visiting in the south.  St. George's Cathedral was lovely and after having already been to a number of churches by the time I went there, I had a better appreciation for what I saw.

Stelae Field, Aksum.

Our first stop outside Addis was the historic city of Aksum.  There, I really enjoyed spending time visiting the stelae field.  To this day, I puzzle over how the people quarried, hauled and erected the gigantic monoliths.

Bet Gabriel-Rafael, Lalibela.

Then, it was onto Lalibela where the highlight for me was the visit to the famed rock hewn churches.  Every minute of my time there I was just in absolute awe thinking of how people actually hand chiseled their way down into the rock to create the exterior of each of the 11 churches and then hand chisel out the interior with all the details.  Somewhere, I read that it took 44,000 people 25 years to create the site.  Simply stunning!

The mountain views of Lalibela.

The landscape around the city of Lalibela was also stunning - arid land with tall craggy mountains surrounding deep valleys.

Clergy leading the Timket procession of the Arks, Gondar.

Gondar and the Timket Festival was next.  My favorite moments were watching the processions of the Arks of the Convenant and attending Sunday Mass which ends with dozens of half dressed men diving into a pool -you have to read about the Timket celebrations in my postings as it's too long to explain here.  Another of my favorite moments was watching the church choirs performing on the streets of Addis - watch the snippet of video on the posting.

Debre Birhan Selassie Church, Gondar.

In Gondar, my favorite sightseeing experience was visiting Debre Birhan Selassie Church.  I had seen so many Google images of the famous ceiling before leaving for Ethiopia, I was thrilled to actually be able to see it in person.  It's a small church but the interior is spectacular!

Posing with the women I met in the village of Gondar Kossoye Kebre.

From Gondar, we did a day trip to Simien National Park.  Along the way, we happened upon a small village conducting their own Timket celebration.  We stopped to take a look and for me, the time I spent there with a small group of women was truly one of my most memorable experiences of the entire trip.  With our guide translating, I was able to have a brief conversation with them.  Before leaving them, I got two invitations from women to go to their homes and have injera and milk.  How friendly and hospitable - I was truly touched!

Gelada Baboons, Simen National Park.

Inside Simien National Park, we did a short hike but the Pièce de résistance for me was spotting the famed gelada baboons which can only be found in Ethiopia and only in this region.  We were so lucky to have found a group to observe!

Ura Kidhane Mihret, Zege Peninsula, Lake Tana.

Next it was on to the town of Bahir Dar which is located on the shores of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River which is the largest tributary of the Nile River.  It was in Bahir Dar that I fell in love with the Ura Kidhane Mihret Monastery, a small monastery located on a peninsula that juts out in to the lake.  It took an hour long boat ride followed by a short hike through forests dotted with coffee plants to get there.  Once there, the place was so small, we were done in less than 15 minutes.  The gorgeous painted interior of the tiny monastery was worth every minute spent getting to the monastery and back!

Arbore Family.

Our visit to Bahir Dar completed what is commonly known as the North Circuit which highlights cultural landmarks.  Our trip to the South Circuit was like going to another country.  No ruins or churches to visit or festivals to attend.  What we got instead were some of the most memorable sights for me.  First, there were the indigenous tribes.  I don't know what the total number of tribes is but I think we only touched the tip of iceberg.  With that, we visited the following tribes - Halaba, Dorze, Konso,  Arbore,  Hamar,  Dessanech, Karo, Mursi, Ari, Borana, Benna, and, Sidama.  Though some shared common cultural traits with other tribes, for the most part, they were all so distinct starting with their looks.  Even with the short time that I spent there, I can now just look at the women's dress and tell what tribe they're from with the exception of the Hamar and the Benna who truly are like siblings.

Dessanech Girl.

I love the way the Arbore women wear their jewelry - they pile on so much, it almost becomes a top for them.   I admire the Dessanech women for their creativity - making headdresses out of bottle caps and whatever small metal objects they can string up.  The Mursi women really challenge my ideals of beauty, even Omo Valley beauty, with their pottery lip plates - they are scary pretty to me.  The one sign of beauty that several of the tribes practice and which I found difficult to accept at first is the scarification.  I guess if you equate it to something like a tattoo, it's easier to digest as something that one would consider as being a sign of beauty.

Mursi Family.

Of all the tribal women, I loved the dress and accessories of the Hamar women the most - beautiful goatskin trimmed with beads with amazing armbands and neckbands to complete the look.   They also had the most beautiful hairdo's - short dreadlocks with bangs, all caked in a red mud/oil paste.

Hamar Mother and Child.

It was also in the south that we got to experience a Hamar rite of passage celebration that included a whipping (of women by men) ritual and a bull jumping ritual.  That was truly and eye opening experience and in the case of the whipping ritual, an experience that challenged my moral beliefs to the core - I had to keep reminding myself to respect the cultural practice even though I cannot and do not condone it.

Hamar men waiting for the bull jumping ritual to begin.

We also got to see some pretty amazing wildlife in the south on our roadtrips on a boat ride on Lake Chamo and in Abijatta-Shalla National Park.  I did not expect to see the variety of wildlife that I did in Ethiopia.  In addition to baboons, we also saw wildebeest, hippos, crocodiles, pelicans, egrets, storks (both pretty and ugly....say, Marabou), ostriches, gazelles, guinea fowl and flock of pink flamingos.

Pink Flamingos, Abijatta-Shalla National Park.

There was time to take in a few markets - in Aksum and tribal markets for the Halaba, Dorze, Hamar, and Benna.  Everything and anything that is needed for life in a village is available here - food, medicine, booze, firewood, clothing, implements for cooking, and last but not least, livestock.

For me, these places were a good place to see what sustains the diets of the people who live in the region.  As I had expected the variety of fruits and vegetables is not much here; meat and grains make up a large portion of the diet - especially in the south with tribes who survive as pastoralists.  What was interesting to see what that there are a lot of sellers but few buyers - I don't know if it was because of the time of day or because trading is still practiced here.

Market, Aksum.

Of course, coffee and the Ethiopian coffee brewing process factored in to our days here.  As with any coffee establishment, how much you enjoy the cup all depends on how much you enjoy the product from the coffee maker.  Ethiopian is dark and bitter and served in small cups. I have to add a ton of sugar to the brew to make it palatable for me but I can still taste the flavor of the brew.  My favorite cup was the one I had in the museum in Aksum - full bodied and not too bitter from the roasting.  As far as the brewing process goes, the one thing that I could do without was the incense - I'm just not a fan of the smoke of whatever wood it is that they burn here.

Coffee, Aksum

Livestock.  Cows, goats, sheep, donkeys, and even camels.  Everywhere.  Fields, hills, watering holes, roads.  Everywhere.  In fact, I think there are more animals in Ethiopia than people!  I swear there was not a day, not even when we were in Addis, that our drivers did not have to negotiate around a herd or flock walking down the middle of the road or too close to the middle of the road.  Collectively, I nicknamed the roadblockers the Ethiopian Speedbump because no matter how fast you're driving before you come up to one, you have to slow down to pass it!  The road hogging herds made such an impression on me that I used a photo that I took of them as the banner for this blog!  And, if you think I'm crazy about the road hogging hers, you should walk into the lobby of the Haile Resort in Awassa - a long rectangular painting of a road herd will greet you!

Shepherd and his herd, Aksum.

In addition to memories of some pretty amazing sights, sounds, and experiences,  I also returned with fond memories of the people I traveled with.

My tour mates.  What can I say.   They gave me great conversation, they made me laugh and they gave me hugs, and they were my travel family.

Pat.  My sidekick.  We were two peas in a pod.  I hope that I am as active and as interested in life as she is when I get to her age!

Pat and a the gelada baboons in Simien National Park.

The two peas, Abijatta-Shalla National Park.

Jean.  Determined and feisty.  She kept me entertained with dry sense of humor and stories of her 8 llamas.

Only Jean can rock white in the arid landscape of the Omo Valley.

Sam and Judy.  Softhearted, kind, open minded and full of love for each other and people around them.  They were my huggers.

Sam and Judy at the Blue Nile Falls, Bahir Dar.

Gale.  The perennial enthusiast.  Full of energy.  If there is anyone who lives by the adage that the glass is half full, it would be Gale.

Gale on a boat on Lake Chamo.

Carol.  She was our Ethiopian Swarm magnet.  The kids just flocked to her like bees to honey and no matter how annoying they might have seem to someone else, she never turned them away!

Carol getting her hair braided, Ari style, near Jinka.

Marianne. Surprisingly, I don't have many photos of Marianne.  She always eager to go places, especially the markets so it seems fitting that I have a photo her at one.

Marianne at the Dorze market, Arba Minch.

Last but not least, there was Robert.  He was only with us on the North circuit which was half the trip.  He was the philosophical one in the group, always had questions that I could not answer.

Robert at Lalibela.

It took a small village to take care of a group of tourists and I'd like to recognize a few of them for their time and efforts - they are the unsung heroes of this trip. In the North, we had several guides and drivers.  For the guides, Jeremiah took care of us in Addis, Achenef (Achey) in Lalibela and Haile in Gondar and Bahir Dar.  There was a contingent of local guides as well.  Unfortunately, I don't remember the names of our drivers - we spent so little time with them. 
Haile was extremely well versed when it came to information about Timket and the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church which made him the perfect guide for our time in Gondar.  Haile  went above board to get us our seats at the Sunday Timket Mass and I will be forever grateful that he went to that extent.

Haile

In the South, we had one guide and three drivers who took care of us - Netsanet was our guide and Masai, Danny, and Negatu our drivers.  I think we all bonded with the foursome - the guys did an amazing job of driving over a hell of a lot of bumpy roads.....not to mention having to change flat tires four times!  

Masai, Danny, and Negatu.  Their smiles made us smile!

Netsanet was truly a conscientious guide plus he was very knowledgeable as well, often filling in the blanks left by the local guides, which we also had a small contingent of.  Netsanet had his serious moments but there was a lot of good laughs with him as well - some very memorable conversations that I know made him blush!  He also rearranged our itinerary so we could experience the Hamar whipping and bull jumping rituals and also added filled our daily itineraries so we always out and about doing something.

Netsanet.  Serious on the surface, giggler at heart!

We also had park rangers and in the case of Simien National Park, two armed guards, often accompanying us. 

Oh....and one village Chief who gave of his time to educate us on life as the leader of a Konso village.

Last but not least, I came back from Ethiopia with a few more friends.  It's hard not to bond with people you spend three weeks with but I really bonded well with several of the women on this trip, all of whom are adventure travelers and all of whom have shown me that love of adventure does not have to die as you get older.  They are all inspire me to continue to globetrot.  We had a lot of fun moments together - lively conversation and great laughs!  Since my return, we have been keeping in email contact with each other and I hope to visit a couple of them in the near future.  And the men held up their end as well keeping me entertained!

If it's not already obvious by now, I had a great time on this trip!