Monday, May 17, 2010


Disclaimer: Ethiopia is more full of history than I know what to do with. My apologies if I get carried away and get about as exciting as a text book. :)

My first exposure to Ethiopia was the roughly nine restaurants located on the same street in Washington DC, blocks from my old house. The food was good, which is of itself enough to convince me that I need to visit a place. But the food was representative of every other element of Ethiopian culture—it’s so unique. Ethiopia is Africa’s only country to have avoided colonization, and the language, religion, and traditions of the people have thrived in ways unlike in other African countries.

So when my friend and former co-worker from MCC, Stacy, told me she’d gotten her Peace Corps assignment there, I was quick to propose that I be her first visitor :) I debated leaving Cameroon for such a long vacation so near the end of my service. But while sitting comfortably boarded on the Ethiopian Airlines jet, leaving Cameroon for the first time in almost two years, a handsome Ethiopian flight attendant handed me my single-serving bottle of red wine with a warm smile, and I felt confident in my decision.

Upon arriving, I almost immediately noticed what seemed a striking similarity with Haiti—the patriotism and pride of being a one-of-a-kind country, with its own language, and a history of the underdog winning, battling off the colonial powers. Cameroon of course has its history, but it, like about 15 other West African countries, uses French as an official language. Yet as exciting as Ethiopia’s singularity makes it, I realized in talking to Ethiopia PCVs just what a struggle the language barrier is. The main language is Amharic. That’s like what Jesus spoke. I can hardly imagine. The script has over 200 characters, in an array of attractive squiggles and loops that sometimes remind me of dancing people. Attractive squiggles aside, you basically arrive in country and are immediately and totally reduced to illiteracy. In the case of Ethiopia, that pride and patriotism in being a one-of-a-kind country comes at the price of very difficult communications.

And so the tour begins! (For your viewing enjoyment )

My three weeks in Ethiopia began at Lake Tana. It’s the source of the Blue Nile River, and home to several centuries-old monasteries, dotting its shores and islands. Almost half of Ethiopians practice Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. Ethiopia was the second nation in the world, after only Armenia, to declare Christianity as its official state religion. The Ethiopians I observed were incredibly devout, kissing crosses or church walls they passed. They celebrate a slew of Saints, even more than the Catholics, I think, and adhere strictly to several dietary rules and periods of fasting. One 15th-century Ethiopian king, Zara Yacob, actually required his subjects to tattoo “I renounce the accursed, I am the slave of Mary, mother of the Creator of the universe,” on their left arms, “I deny the devil,” on their right arms, and a crucifix onto their foreheads. That was the 15th century, but I still saw some crucifix forehead tattoos during my trip!

It took almost three hours to reach the monastery of Narga Selassie, on an island in the middle of Lake Tana. Several of the most remote monasteries are “too holy” for women to even enter. This also includes female animals. Keep the hens, pigs, and girl goats away!

Orthodox churches are often round. In the center of each church is “the holy of holies,” a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, built to house the Ten Commandments God gave to Moses. The Orthodox church believes that the original Ark is in the historic city of Axum. I believe Indiana Jones thinks otherwise.

I was on a puttery motorboat on Lake Tana, but the locals typically use canoes made out of papyrus reeds. (That’s the same stuff Egyptians used to use to make paper!) The canoes are so strong they sometimes carry oxen from one village to another. In many ways, life there seems to have remained unchanged throughout centuries of planting and harvesting.

From Lake Tana I traipsed further north to Gonder, a city oozing history, but also comfort and charm. I also drank so many macchiatos in Gonder as to ooze caffeine from my every pore. No wonder I liked that city so much.

The history quickie:
Several Ethiopian Emperors lived in Gonder, starting with King Fasilades in the 1600s. While Gonder served as Ethiopia’s capital, the Emperors built several castles, influenced by a mix of Indian, Portuguese and Moorish styles. The castles sustained heavy damages when the British bombed the Italians who had taken up residence there in the 1930’s, but are still fascinating and largely well-preserved. History complete.

Fasilades’ castle

Gonder is known as “Africa’s Camelot!”

Also in Gonder, I visited the church of Debre Birhan Selassie, built by one of the Emperors in the late 1600’s. Ethiopians LOVE St. George. He is killing his dragon in every church in that country.

You can also find St. George here, with dead dragon:

But back to Debre Birhan Selassie. The artwork covers every possible inch of space, depicting scenes from the old and new testaments, along with other legends of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. I don’t know this legend, but in case you were thinking of misbehaving, think again:

From the ceiling, hundreds of little angels peer down.

The typical cross that adorns the exterior of Ethiopian churches

And now, a modern charm?

My favorite restaurant in Gonder. Satisfaction guaranteed every time.

And randomly, I caught a political parade in Gonder! Presidential elections are later this month. I could hardly cross the street for an hour.

From Gonder, it was northwest into the Simien Mountains. I teamed up with a lovely German girl to split the costs of the hike. We were joined by the noble Mohamed, our rifle-toting scout (park’s requirement!) who guided and protected us. He did a fabulous job, especially given that during our three challenging days and nights together we had but three words in a common language to rely on. He looked at least 60 years old and had legs about as skinny as my arms. In the mountains at night it was so brutally cold. I wore a sweatshirt and jacket borrowed from another PCV, the only sweater I own in Cameroon, a blanket draped around me, and my scarf tied around my head like a babushka. Wearing all the aforementioned clothes, I slept in a ball at the bottom of my sleeping bag, about as close to the German girl as you can get away with for having just met someone earlier that week. After cooking the last night Mohamed could tell how cold I was and took my hands to warm them up in a kind, grandfatherly gesture. (It was not creepy, there were 18 other people around!)

The mountains:

Does Mohamed know he is my favorite mountain man model?

The Gelada Baboons are indigenous to Ethiopia. When Mohamed would see them, he’d cry out excitedly “Baboosh! Baboosh!!” and point in their direction. Incidentally, this is also the French word for flip-flops.

My favorite view, like a dramatic curtain of rock.

Last looks at the mountains. I’m really motivated to see the Grand Canyon now and see how it compares!

I climbed to a new personal height, 13,350 feet! You feel so far removed at such heights, and I’m always surprised to see any one else there, although usually only small herder boys. You really feel like you’re on the top edge of the earth—the only direction you can see is down. You’re above the tree-line too so you see vast, bare space. The ride just to get out to the Simiens had been so long I’d already felt like I was at the end of the earth…

From the remote Simiens north to Axum, an even more remote, dusty town in the far north of the country. It once served as a major crossroads for traders on their way to the Red Sea and farther yet to the Arabian Peninsula. It was one of the most powerful cities of the region in the 4th century, and its kingdom stretched into what is now Saudi Arabia. The location that once made the town great now seems a plague. The border with Eritrea to the north—and access to the Red Sea—has been closed for ten years due to these countries’ conflict. Arriving in Axum now, you’re at the end of the road, discovering what feels like a lost secret.

Before the arrival of Christianity in the 4th century, rulers of Axum were buried with huge granite stele as grave markers. No one really knows how they were erected—the largest one still standing is 78 feet high! Many are carved to look like multi-story houses, complete with little doors. (As demonstrated by my guide!)

The largest stele, at almost 110 feet, is believed to have fallen while being erected. It’s been left for some 1500 years, lying undisturbed where it crashed into pieces.

The Italians swiped one of Axum’s biggest stele in the 1930’s, to erect it in a main piazza in Rome. It was restored to Ethiopia in 2005 but this sign was a consolation prize while Ethiopia was still waiting to get the stele back…

I liked the bright artwork of this church near the stele field.

And then Christianity arrived in Axum. No more stele, but the here comes the Ark of the Covenant! Legend says that it was King Menelik, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who brought the Ark to Ethiopia. The Ark is legendarily an oracle, helps the Ethiopians to win battles, and causes anyone who sees it to burst into flame. It’s kept here, in the chapel of St. Maryum of Zion, in Axum. The chapel is a major site of pilgrimage for the Ethiopian Orthodox.

If you’re not churched out, one site outdid them all: the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. What the heck is rock-hewn? Instead of building churches from the ground up, the Ethiopians of the 12th and 13th centuries decided to dig the churches out of rock, and starting from the top down, they carved into solid stone.

I could feel through my socks the cool uneven rock floors of the sanctuaries. I asked our guide why all the walls and ceilings were so perfectly smooth but the floors were so bumpy. The guide answered erosion. I could only imagine the centuries of priests and pilgrims, solemnly shuffling through there before me, as we each leave a little mark for the others’ feet to feel.

Because the churches are carved into the ground, they are surrounded by deep trenches, allowing only a little sunlight in, and making them feel that much further removed from reality. Our guide took my camera into one room where we were not allowed as women, where larger-than-life-sized saints were carved into the rock walls—cool! Me, Stacy, and Saint.

And we meet our friend St. George (or Giyorgis) again!

The view from the top of St. George’s church…

the side…

and below… all one enormous piece of stone.

And there are eleven such churches in Lalibela!

The priests also seemed as though from another time, displaying the centuries-old processional crosses. The colorful umbrellas? A more modern touch.

The priest of St. Georges’ church rests. To the right, George is on his horse.

After seeing more churches in a week than I’ve seen in two years of Peace Corps, I headed south towards the Rift Valley lakes, where a ton of PCVs planned to compete in a 7k run. It was great fun to be surrounded and supported by so many others and to compete—I forgot how much I love and hate competition at the same time! (Mostly hating how terrible I felt during the last mile of the run...) There was actually an “elite” category for the Ethiopians, maybe to help us foreigners maintain a morsel of our dignity. Watching them run was beautiful. They were all a least a head shorter than me, tiny in every aspect, and they make running look so easy. I felt like I was watching an Olympic event.

So running alone that day would have been enough to do me in. Drinking the amount of tej I choose to drink that day would also have made for a rough day-after. Alas, being the champion that I am, I did both. Tej is the local honey wine. In a moment that felt entirely Peace Corps, about ten of us PCVs went to the local tej shack to fill up our empty water bottles. An eight year old filled our waiting bottles with the thick golden colored elixir, as old Ethiopian men drank and looked on curiously. Two liters of wine cost less than a dollar. I got my money’s worth. Nothing like boozing with the locals to make you feel integrated!

A few other Ethiopian observations/highlights:
I don’t know if it is a national trait, but holy geez I have never seen so many people lose their lunch in one day as I saw in Ethiopia. It wasn’t just lunch: add breakfast and dinner. Stacy and I counted 6 pukers for a total of 18 pukes in about 10 hours. (Now I know you want to come to Ethiopia!! That is one puke every 33 minutes of traveling bliss.) I have many theories: the injera, or fermented pancake that is the national staple, might not sit so easily on the belly. The strong, rank odor of goat meat also doesn’t inspire digestion. Add to those the windy mountain roads leading south towards Addis Ababa. Seriously, the busses even keep little plastic baggies so you can puke in those, tie it up and give it to a friend! We hadn’t been driving for fifteen minutes, in the pre-dawn haze I could hardly see what was going on, when the guy sitting directly next to me just unabashedly lost it all over. Then he wiped his mouth on the bus’s window curtain. Ewww. I got really cozy close to Stacy on that ride! I will praise Cameroon’s straight northern roads until I leave this country!!

My pants.
This is a highlight of my time in Ethiopia because I’m sure that many of my friends and relatives would celebrate the passing of my famous brown pants. I was in the Ethiopian Ethnological museum with a fellow PCV I’d only recently met, and was reading about the Ethiopian Jews and Muslims and whatnot. My pants zipper has been faulty for some time, in that it self-descends… so I just calmly and hopefully subtly regularly zip it back up. As I was reading about the Ethiopian Jews, I become convinced that if I just give a firm enough tug, maybe my zipper will stay hoisted once and for all. Umph! And I am left holding my zipper in my hand... far from its home on my pants. That wouldn’t be a problem, except my pants will fall down cause this zipper does not stay zipped. Fortunately for me, I have been in Africa for nearly two years now and nearly everything I own is falling apart, so I borrow some safety pins from my also zipper-busted wallet, and secure my pants. Crises averted. At the end of our museum tour, my new friend announces he’ll swing by the restroom on our way out. Great idea! Oh wait. I can’t. I am a captive in my pants. Once I take those pins out and undo the zipper, there’s no refastening to be had. That zipper can’t go back up. (And it is a long zipper, that would show much scandal if left to flap open in the breeze like a proud Ethiopian flag.) We had a long and busy day planned for ourselves and so I wait… and wait… and wait, til I can gently retire my brown pants at the hotel, taking them off once and for all. (Actually, although I know you would all prefer to hear that Brown Pants will be resting in Peace, it is not so. They are at the tailor’s now, awaiting a new zipper, and a new lease on life!) Morale: always have an escape plan… from your pants.

Another highlight was seeing where the Jamaicans who find their way to Ethiopia to practice Rastafarianism go. I stopped at one of their churches with my new PCV friend from the Pants Incident, so we could ask a few questions. We tried one old Jamaican, but he was so stoned that absolutely no communication was passable. I think our man could have been a poster boy for 60 straight years of smoking pot: here’s what you get! In my quest to communicate, first I slowed my English down, given that we have different accents. Then I eliminated all non-essential articles and adjectives. Then I really break it down, “You… arrive… Ethiopia… when?” “Jamaaaaican…” he answers. This is going nowhere fast. Another more coherent Rastafarian comes along is more capable of answering our questions. In case you are wondering, they smoke pot because it better helps them commune with God. They wear dreadlocks because scissors are unnatural and back in the day, no one had scissors. I was required to wear a curtain on my head (a recurring theme in foreign churches?) for propriety’s sake. And Haile Selassie, former emperor of Ethiopia is God. Not a representation, but he is God, and the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy that says kings will come out of Africa. A tenant of the faith is that African descendants come home to Africa, namely Ethiopia, the birthplace of humanity.

The Rastafarian hub is a town called Shashemene. Oddly, although Haile Selassie is considered God, he practiced not the Rastafarianism that gave him his deity, but Ethiopian Orthodoxy (quelle surprise!) Selassie did, however, grant the Rastafarians 500 hectares of land so they could cultivate and live in peace in Shashemane. The modern day relations between the Rastafarians, and Ethiopian Orthodox don’t seem fantastic. Namely, why did the Rastafarians receive all this land when no Ethiopian is allowed to own land? (All property is government-owned.) It was all quite interesting for me, and now I’d love to head to Jamaica and see some of these ideas in practice. Also interestingly, I heard Bob Marley converted to Ethiopian Orthodoxy at the end of his life.

Crackdown on free speech:
I apologize for the long silence while I was there! At first I thought the internet connections were so terribly slow that I couldn’t open my blog. It wasn’t until later that the other PCVs informed me that the government has completely blocked access to blogspot. It was an eye-opening reminder that we don’t all get the same freedoms of the press. Ethiopia has presidential elections this month, and the PCVs expect that all phone services will be completely cut by the one government-run cellular provider, in an effort to control and keep people in the dark—yipes!!

A National Icon
Although free speech gets the crack down, Condom Man is on the loose. He is every where! Cafes, handbags, T-shirts, and hanging out in our hotel room here in Addis Ababa!

Sweet people
At a fancy bar in Addis, I spent my last night with a great group. Here are friends old and new, Stacy, Barack, and Haley. They made visiting Ethiopia awesome!!

So to wrap up, I’ve actually never been to a country where I knew so little of the language, or was completely on my own! (Stacy and I only met up 12 days in!) At the same time it was intimidating, I’m glad I did it—it was a little push outside my comfort zone that did a body good. Now it’s making me think of all the other places I’d like to go and maybe just hadn’t dared to venture into all alone (sorry Mom and Dad! :) Seeing Stacy was wonderfully refreshing to be able to talk about our former DC life, catch up on office gossip, and share tidbits and understand the current Peace Corps life, albeit in countries across the continent.

Alors, back to Cameroon!

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