Ethiopia – Part I (Some thoughts, Addis and Lalibela)

This was going to be such an epically long post, that I had to break it into three.

We just got back from Ethiopia. Yeah, I know, I would have said the same thing if someone told me they were going. We got reactions like “Seriously?” Or “What? Why?” And to be quite honest, C did nearly all the planning for the trip, so even I had a hard time answering that. I had sort of an idea, lots of history, mountains, UNESCO World Heritage sites…but not much more than that. Which is why, after being there for ten days, I am so looking forward to writing about it.

Let me begin by saying this is NOT a trip for luxury travelers. It is not a culinary mecca – though eating injera, the Ethiopian staple fermented pancake made of teff flour, is a very worthwhile experience – nor the next up and coming wine region. In the “nicest and newest” hotels,  you find things like ducktaped framework around elevators, a rather abysmal level of service, showers that go drippy-drip, and even the occasional flea issue (yeah, that was a fun one). To get from one place to another, you are often on unpaved and very rocky and bumpy roads – so much so that they call it the African massage – and riding in rather rickety vans that are clearly not built for the beating they take, and that you are nearly 100% sure are going to start dropping parts along the way (in our time there, in different vehicles, we got two flat tires and on one occasion almost lost the axle and hub from the wheel – which the driver promptly tried to fix by jerry-rigging a piece of canvas strap that he cut from the top of the van and nailing holes through it – and no, that didn’t even come close to working). Oh, and did I mention the speed they drive is as if they are riding on paved highway? Our driver even got a ticket once – talk about bizzareville, in the middle of nothing there was a guy with a radar! Go figure.

Having said all that…if you travel because you are interested in history, in seeing excavated ruins from 3,000 BC, massive rock churches carved from one piece of stone, mountains with spectacular scenery and cool wildlife, in observing a farming culture that still uses oxen, wooden plows and good ole human effort, in seeing a way of life so vastly different from your own…in other words, if you want to step into the pages of a feature article in National Geographic? Ehthiopia. Is. Amazing.

There is a LOAD of history to be read about the country – and interesting history at that, especially because of its recency. But because it is so easy to read about, I’ll stick to writing about my experience and suggest reading something like this or this. And if/when you do, or based on what you remember from the news, it’s easy to see how all this and the accompanying media coverage from that time has shaped people’s impression – they think Ethiopia and think famine, death and skinny cows. Not the case.

Because of the layout of the country, and accessibility of travel and roads, normally people choose to either do north or south Ethiopia. We did north.

Addis Abbaba. Our first stop, after a fun layover day in Istanbul (what a cool city, definitely must go back there!), was Addis. It is the capital of Ethiopia with a population of about 4,000,000 people…who appear to ALL be on the same street at the same time as you are no matter where you go. In one word? CHAOS. There is construction EVERYwhere, big cement buildings with hopes of being hotels or apartments (we were told by our guide that there is a huge housing shortage in the city), covered in scaffolding made of what appears to be very long and skinny tree trunks (OSHA would have a HEYday here). And at the same time, in front of those buildings, are lines of tin shack or mud and straw stores and houses, wandering goats, throngs and throngs of people going I don’t know where, and people washing themselves out of buckets. Traffic is INSANE. There are big traffic circles, but with no circles. Cars coming in from five or six different ways crossing haphazardly to exit on the other side somewhere. But yet, it’s all sort of controlled chaos – I imagine from above it might look like a beehive.

Addis was the only city we navigated on our own (at least for a day – in the rest of the cities we visited we had local guides), we simply hired a taxi to take us to the places we wanted to see. We visited some interesting museums – including the requisite stop to see Lucy at the National Museum, the Red Terror Museum, and the St. George Cathedral.

Pardon me for a minute while I channel my inner Ricky Ricardo. "LUUUUUUUUUUUUCYYYYYYYYYYY!" Snicker.

Pardon me for a minute while I channel my inner Ricky Ricardo. “LUUUUUUUUUUUUCYYYYYYYYYYY!” Snicker.

I will state strongly and firmly at this point that one day is Addis is PLENTY. It is crowded and overwhelming, and not the kind of city you can stroll around on your own. Thanks to a cancelled flight the following day, we were forced to extend our time in Addis but headed out of the city to see Tiya.

The stellae at Tiya, a World Heritage site, mark the graves of individuals who died 700 years ago.

The stellae at Tiya, a World Heritage site, mark the graves of individuals who died 700 years ago. The carvings represented number of killings – of animals, robbers, what have you – and therefore were an indication of status.

Advisory: 80’s flashback. Remember the fine words of Notorious B.I.G? “Goin back to Cali…I don’t think so.” Yeah, well, we changed that to “Goin back to Addis….I don’t want to.” So there’s that.

Lalibela. The next day – thank heavens – we hopped a flight through Gonder to Lalibela. The primary draw to Lalibela is its famous rock hewn churches. Dating from around 1181 – 1221, these magnificent churches (and you will rarely find me using “magnificent” and “churches” so close together in the same sentence unless I am saying it was magnificent to get a break from seeing so many of them…which was NOT the case here) are carved out of stone and each one is like it’s own piece of art. Legend says the construction was completed in 23 years because of a nighttime “angelic workforce” lending a hand to the daytime workers.

Walking down to see the first church - a good shot to see the massiveness of it. The rooves on several were built for protection, you can imagine the stone takes a beating from the weather.

Walking down to see the first church – a good shot to see the massiveness of it. The roofs on several were built for protection, you can imagine the stone takes a beating from the weather.

A priest reading prayer next to another church. You might notice the swastika looking symbol - hard to believe that before it represented something evil, it had religious representation instead.

A priest reading prayer next to another church. You might notice the swastika looking symbol – hard to believe that before it represented something evil, it had religious meaning instead.

One of the coolest churches in the group - again, note the size. Really amazing.

One of the coolest churches in the group – again, note the size. Really amazing.

A village nearby.

A village nearby.

After seeing the churches, we had some time so we found someone to take us up to see the Asheton Maryam monastery, high atop a hill with spectacular views.

The monastery, C in the distance, our guide on the right, and a fantastic view.

The monastery, C in the distance, our guide on the right, and a fantastic view.

One of the resident monks showing us a collection of crosses.

One of the resident monks showing us a collection of crosses.

We got up early the next morning (before sunrise) to go to see a daily worship service at one of the churches. We were basically the only whiteys (also known as “farangi” to the locals) in there for most of the time, so it was sort of a lovely and very local and natural experience. It was so interesting to watch the prayer rituals, and see the people come and go as a very basic part of their daily life.

The town waking up at dusk - such a great time to see everything come to life in any city.

The town waking up at dusk – such a great time to see everything come to life in any city.

The following day we headed to Aksum. On to Part II.

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