Northern route: Addis Ababa, Gonder, Axum, Lalibela,
Southern route: Addis Ababa, Chencha, Arba Minch, Jinka, Mago National Park, Mursi village, Karo villages, Turmi,
Omorate, Hamer village, Arba Minch, Addis Ababa
ETHIOPIA August 2005
OUR FAVORITE AFRICAN COUNTRY
When planning the trip, we were annoyed to find it would cost an arm and a leg to fly directly from South Africa to West Africa, but would cost only an arm ($600 cheaper) if we made a wide swing and went via Ethiopia. Groaning, we bought air tickets to Ghana via Addis Ababa, planning to hunker down in the airport for three hours when changing planes in the middle of the night. Just before leaving South Africa, we realized that 1) we were a week ahead of our itinerary, and 2) Ethiopia has a very ancient civilization and maybe we should spend the extra week there. One week became two and Ethiopia became our favorite country in Africa.
Fellow travelers recommended a tour company in Addis Ababa; we corresponded by e-mail, were picked up at the airport and sent on a private whirlwind tour of the historic northern part of the country. We flew from town to town, where we were met by a van, driver and English-speaking guide and taken to a hotel. The next day the guide would show us the main sites and explain them. Then it was off to the next town. We visited the 17th century castles of Gonder, the 2,000-year-old carved granite obelisks of Axum, and - most wonderful of all - the haunting, rock-hewn Ethiopian Orthodox Christian churches of Lalibela.
Slender, darkly handsome Joseph met us at the airport in Lalibela. The grandson of a famous Orthodox priest, Joseph was trained in the church as well as in Ethiopian history, and his English is excellent. We were captivated by his graceful ways and interesting explanations. It rained hard both nights we were there, and the red clay around the churches and in the tunnels connecting them was extremely slippery. We gingerly picked our way around mud puddles and clambered up and down mossy stone steps. (Joseph is on the left, with Joan)
The Lalibela churches are awesome. They were carved out of solid granite in the 12th and 13th centuries - several of them were cut out of a single rock. First a 3-story cube of rock was created by cutting a "moat" around it, then the interior was hollowed out - leaving impressive stone pillars, niches, sanctuaries, windows and doorways. The most extraordinary church, the cross-shaped St. George's, (both photos below) has to be one of the world's architectural masterpieces!
We took off our shoes and quietly entered each ancient church onto floors strewn haphazardly with faded Oriental carpets. As the odor of frankincense swirled past naive paintings of Jesus and his disciples, bearded, gowned priests showed us church artifacts - including wooden staffs topped with intricate brass crosses and a 1000-year-old illustrated goatskin Bible.
We were fortunate to be in Ethiopia during one of the Orthodox fasting periods, as the churches were alive with chanting, drumming, praying worshipers. (Actually, it wasn't surprising that our visit coincided with a fasting period, since 240 days each year are fasting days, when the faithful don't eat meat or dairy products - and eat nothing at all until after the four-hour morning church service, during which they remain standing!) Below, a monk crouches in front of the cave where he sleeps when on pilgrimage.
We had such a good time in northern Ethiopia that we returned to Addis Ababa and asked the same tour company to arrange a private, week-long "cultural safari" to the remote tribal villages of the Lower Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia.
Other photos of northern Ethiopia
OMO VALLEY SAFARI
Our dapper driver/guide Birhan and shy cook Haimanu picked us up in a Toyota Land Cruiser loaded with food, water, camping gear and 150 gallons of petrol - some of it strapped to the roof in four big plastic containers. (Birhan is standing below.) We wedged in, along with our two smallest backpacks, and bounced south for a day-and-a-half to the remotest part of Ethiopia - near the Kenya and Sudan borders. As we rode along, we munched on roasted barley sprinkled with red pepper.
The last few hours were over THE ROUGHEST, WORST DIRT ROAD WE HAVE EVER BEEN ON. The journey culminated in several hours of wallowing in 12 inches of fine dust through uninhabited brush. We were wearing bullet-proof mosquito repellent topped by an armor of sun-block, and the dust clung to us like plastic wrap. Our car arrived at one campsite by sliding down an almost vertical 15-foot "dustfall," We staggered stiffly out of the vehicle and headed to the campground’s makeshift tin shower to rinse off the dust coating. (Just in case you think travel is glamorous!)
Joan was surprised by a birthday party while we were camping. Haimi (below, right) baked a cake in a Dutch oven over the campfire and surrounded it - incongruously - with slices of grapefruit and lemons. Birhan (below, left) decorated the table with flowers, made a birthday card, served paper napkin-wrapped red wine and led the singing on his harmonica! (Lou: Joan obviously had too much of the wine. Joan: Not so - that's heat exhaustion.)
Over the next few days we visited several tribal villages, where the people’s lives are much the same as over the past millennium. They live in round, mud-and-wattle thatched huts, wear traditional clothing and follow traditional animist customs - give or take a few rubber thongs, plastic pails and a lot of Russian Kalashnikov automatic rifles.
The first village visit was scary. On the way there, we were bouncing along in the brush in the middle of nothing when we were stopped and the car was surrounded by young men - several of them buck-naked except for bead necklaces and rifles. Animated conversation ensued between them and Birhan while we waited nervously to be raped, mutilated, shot or whatever. Finally a fierce-looking guy wearing a Mohawk and carrying a loaded rifle crammed himself into the front next to Haimanu and we drove away in silence. Had we been kidnapped? About fifteen minutes down the road Birhan casually mentioned that this guy was a park ranger he'd hired to protect us! Wheeewww....
We needed his protection from the fierce people at that village. The Mursi men, like the pair in the photo (below, left), are armed to the teeth and show little mercy for the tribes around them. Over many years there's been frequent cattle-rustling and land-grabbing, followed by fighting and retributive killing. In another village we saw a young man (below, right) covered front and back in neat rows of freshly raised scars to "celebrate" his recent killing of two men from a neighboring tribe.
We were mobbed by the Mursi, who demanded money for each photo Lou took - fair enough, but the way they did it was intimidating. They pushed, shoved, yelled at us and were generally threatening. The situation was volatile because the afternoon was hot and the heavily-armed men were semi-drunk on local brew. We were glad to escape after half-an-hour of negotiating and photo-taking. The belligerent Mursi women are right out of the pages of National Geographic. They wear six-inch diameter clay lip plugs to be more attractive to prospective suitors. Two of the three women in this photo have removed their plugs.
One woman pulled her own plug and offered to sell it to us - spittle and all. Her loopy lower lip was grotesque. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. We bought one (spittle-less) plug to show its unbelievable size. The woman shown below with a cow-lick is wearing her lip-plug. (This is Lou's favorite photo!)
BEAUTY & IDENTITY
We stopped in villages of the Karo, Galeb and other tribes where they wowed us with their innovative body decoration. The Karo man (below, left) has decorated his body with white chalk paint; his short uncolored hair signifies that he's not married. On the right is a Galeb man with a clay cap on his hair, indicating that he is married.
The women, not to be outdone, arrange their hair in glossy, gloopy ringlets or finely twisted beads dripping in animal fat, resin and red ochre mud. The woman on the left has a protruding "handle" on her neck ring signifying she's someone's first wife; the woman on the right wears a double ring around her neck - she's a second wife.
Women's adornments are particularly imaginative. They use shells, seed pods, feathers, gourds, nuts, stones plus recycled plastic and metal objects such as watchbands and cartridge shells. The woman on the left is into beads, arm rings and hides; the young girls on the right supplement their beads with nails, plastic pen caps and metal keys. Note the metal spikes embedded under their lips. Trendy teenagers!
Body scarification, teeth extraction and other bodily disfiguration are used by Omo tribes to show status, tribal membership or ownership. (But who are we to find them bizarre - when Western trend-setters spike their purple hair, get tattoos, breast implants and lip injections, wear nipple rings and four-inch heels?)
Just when we thought we'd seen everything, we met the Hamer - who are just as exotic as the Mursi.
We were fortunate to arrive at a Hamer village on a day when they were having a bull-jumping ceremony, which must be performed successfully by a young man before he is allowed to marry. This particular ceremony was witnessed by a couple hundred Hamer and a couple dozen travelers - most of the latter African tourists from Addis Ababa. Although we travelers had to pay to watch, this was an authentic tribal event and not one staged for our benefit.
Everyone gathered in a dry river bed and waited for the arrival of the whippers. Groups of young Hamer women, heavily-scarred backs proudly bared, jumped and chanted in groups - steeling their courage for the coming ordeal. Finally two young men arrived carrying five-foot-long switches cut from trees. The women ran to them and loudly demanded to be whipped. Lash! Lash! The blood gushed from the cruel splits on their backs. Often a woman would pick up another switch after one had been broken on her back and demand to be whipped some more. The women were relatives of the young man who would bull-jump that day, and were "supporting" him by being whipped before his ceremony. The more scars (huge, permanent welts) a Hamer woman has on her back, the higher her status.
Of all our travel experiences, this had to be the most disturbing. We felt like voyeurs. We try to be open-minded travelers - indeed, learning about the planet's many different ways of living is one of the reasons we travel. But it was hard not to be upset by this traditional practice - especially since these same women also had undergone female circumcision - a polite term for what the Lonely Planet guidebook calls "female genital mutilation" - a gruesome and potentially lethal practice to preserve virginity in young women and repress the sexuality of adult women. Such mutilation is widespread in the traditional (rural) areas of Africa.
Well, enough of that. Now for the fun.
After the whipping ceremony, we all trudged a half-mile into the brush to where about 40 Brahma bulls were clustered. The charismatic young bull-jumper with long hair and a goatskin tunic over one shoulder Tarzan-style disappeared into a group of Hamer elders and took part in a secret ceremony witnessed only by tribal men. (A few of the African tourists tried to videotape this, until an angry villager ran at them threateningly with a long switch. They scattered fast!)
Meanwhile, the young man's friends struggled mightily to line ten bulls up and keep them tightly together. The bulls were upset and confused, and had to be dragged repeatedly into place. Finally, the young man - now totally naked - ran out of the circle of elders, jumped on the back of the first bull and ran nimbly across the backs of all ten. He jumped off and repeated this "jump" the requisite four times. Success! Now he can buy wife number one - chosen by his father from twelve-year-old girls in the next village. Hooray! (Hooray?)
We walked back to our campsite talking about rituals, marriage, women's roles and the social pressure to conform to the beliefs and traditions of the particular spot on earth where one happened to be born.
If the two of us had been born Hamer, we would have gone through these procedures. Or, if we had been born Jews in Russia we'd have adhered to another set of rituals. If we'd been born Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, we'd fast 240 days a year. And if we were "born-again" in Texas, we'd have a different set of very firmly-held beliefs about how the world should properly function.
Other photos of southern Ethiopia
From Ethiopia, we flew over the central jungles to West Africa. See BENIN & BURKINA FASO
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
GUIDEBOOK: Ethiopia (Lonely Planet)
BACKGROUND READING: AFRICA BOOK LIST
ETHIOPIA TOUR COMPANY: We took two one-week tours in Ethiopia - the northern circuit of monuments and rock-hewn churches, and a safari into the Omo Valley of southern Ethiopia – both with Grant Express Travel and Tours. These tours were reasonably priced and well-run. Yared Belete is the friendly, English-speaking owner/manager: http://www.getts.com.et/
Joan and Lou Rose email@example.com