Monday, December 17, 2007

Ethiopia: 13 Months of Sunshine

-So I’m presuming that it’s bright and sunny most of the year but what exactly do you mean by  thirteen months? I asked the receptionist at the Itegue Taitu Hotel in Addis Ababa. I had already seen several tourism posters at the airport with that same slogan and now, in the lobby of the hotel, there were a few more.
-In Ethiopia, we go by the Orthodox Christian calendar. There are 12 months of 30 days and one month of 7 days, he said in a soft spoken voice.
- I see... It turns out that I had also become 7 years younger as Ethiopia was celebrating it’s millennium and where it is presently the year 2000.
-Should make me endure the jet lag a little easier, I hoped.

This was but the first of several aspects that seem to proudly show that this country marches to the beat of its own drum. It is also 6 hours behind all other countries in the same time zone. The logic goes like this: instead of the day beginning at midnight with a 24 hour cycle, it begins when the sun comes up, and 12 hours later, ends when the sun goes down. Night time begins with another 12 hour cycle at 12 (our 18:00). In other words, when it’s 7:00am our time, it’s actually 1:00am here. This is not a problem in a country close to the equator where the sun travels across the sky at the same time all year long. To avoid confusion when dealing with “farenjis”, locals would usually say European time or Ethiopian time or just tell you both.

It was with my friend Erik Lyon that I came to the land once called Abyssinia. We were originally planning on going to Mozambique via South Africa. However, the cheap stand-by flights that I get as a perk from my job did not look good. All flights to Jo’berg and Capetown were oversold. Change of plan 2 weeks before my holidays and we ended up in Ethiopia, a country that had also always been high on my list of places to see.

The Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Addis via Khartoum went over smoothly. It was interesting landing in Sudan’s capital, where the Blue and White Nile join to make up the Nile proper. It is a sort of desert grid with one story buildings, punctuated by the minarets of mosques. We stayed in the airplane, at the gate for about an hour.  At the airport, there were a few old Russian planes and some even older military jets. I couldn’t help but think of this place as being the control center where their oppressive government would dispatch flights to bomb the 'infidel' black villages in the south or now to the desperate region of Darfur. I had also just started reading Dave Eggers’ What is the What about the lost boys of Sudan and their ordeal of survival and refuge in war torn southern Sudan. No shortage of chaotic, corrupt and despotic regimes in the region what with Somalia and Eritrea on the other side. That is not to say that Ethiopia is a shining star. They have their problems too, but at least there is peace and some sort of stability.

We arrived in Addis Ababa late that evening. There was a cool, almost cold breeze thanks to the high elevation. First impressions of the first few days... a sprawling city over a series of hills, lots of corrugated sheet metal shacks. Loopy script of Amharic signs. Old blue Lada taxis. The quivering electronic enhanced voices of their pop music. Old women carrying massive bundles of branches on their backs. Runners exercising on the empty main thoroughfares at 6:00am. The smell of roasting coffee beans and frankincense.

As a coffee drinker, this is paradise. It is after all the place where the bean was domesticated. Legend has it that sometime around the 5th century, a shephard noticed his goats acting erratically after having chewed the berries of a shrub. The goat herder gave it a go and also noticed an effect. A local monk thought of it as the Devil’s plant until he threw into the fire and the out came the aroma. Buna, as it’s called, is drunk in a variety of ways. The traditional style, which involves roasting the beans, grinding by hand, then brewing in a earthen pot over charcoal and drunk with sugar in small cups (a little like Turkish coffee but less finely ground and not as strong).  Thanks to a brief occupation by the Italians in the early 1900s, there are espresso machines everywhere, even in the most remote hole-in-the-wall and you can get a machiatto for 20 cents. Some locals even mix it with tea.

Already, I noticed the variety in the people. Some dressed smartly, modern. Others had head scarves, bright shawls. Some men, (whom we later called “stick men”) had really short shorts, with sticks for legs, wearing plastic sandals and blankets folded on top of their heads. They all had long sticks for their cattle and goats. Some women had tattooed crosses on their foreheads and lower jaws. The variety in the braids in women’s hair is as surprising as it is beautiful.

It wasn’t long before we were approached by a few ‘touts’, basically hustlers who want to show you around for either free drinks and/or a tip later. This is a simple fact of life for all farenjis traveling in Ethiopia, a very poor country, and we didn’t mind going along with it. The first dude we met was Yonathan. Although I sent him packing when he first tried tagging along, he bumped into us later (more like he stalked us) and we warmed up to his charm fairly quickly. He was extremely funny and spoke good English (as do most Ethiopians from cities) and even better French. He brought us to a few bars and we were quickly reminded of the wise words from my well-traveled friend Brahm, who had been here 15 years earlier. “Every hotel has a restaurant. Every restaurant has a bar. Every bar has prostitutes.” Sure enough, the women, skimpily dressed in what is essentially a conservative society, were indeed gorgeous and gyrating to their hypnotic music. The place we enjoyed the most however was the local ‘araki’ bar, a bare bones room with a single light bulb where men sit on a bench to have some local barley moonshine. These were the typical local places that really give you a feel for what it’s like for the average Joe (or Solomon).

After a few days in Addis, we flew to Gondor (one of several Abyssinian place names, we were to realize, that J.R.R Tolkien ‘borrowed’ liberally for his Lord of the Rings). It was once a medievel capital city complete with stone castles and palaces. Walking around early in the morning felt like you could easily have stepped back in time a few hundred years with everyone wearing white shawls over their heads, sticks in hand, goats, sheep and cattle all around. Beggars and lepers near the churches and mosques. However, the chanting prayers on the scratchy loudspeakers as well as Indian-made auto-rickshaws and the odd white UN 4x4 Land-cruiser reminded us we were indeed in the 21st century.

A day trip brought us to the edge of the famous Simean mountains. Along with a guide and several goat herder kids, we hiked up on some mountains and saw the large, furry Gelada baboons. There were the odd patches of natural forest in a steep ravines but for the most part, we were amazed at how much the countryside has been plowed and used for agriculture. Often for as far as the eye could see and on insanely steep mountain sides, the land is used, and there are villages and huts everywhere even though there may be no roads.

Ethiopia is one of the larger countries in Africa in terms of population, with about 80 million inhabitants in an area a little larger than the province of British Columbia. No wonder that where once elephants and lions roamed, there are now only a small number of big game in some of the remote parks in the south of the country.

Next stop, Axum. We soon discovered the mayhem of taking a local bus. All buses leave at 6:00 am. You must get there though around 5:00am and wait until they open the gate to the terminal, where a mob of people then rush to whatever bus (and there are many of them) going to wherever, depending on the destination that is screamed out by the drivers. Think crammed seats of an old school bus. Marvel at how many people can squeeze onto a bench. I managed to get a window seat and the 12 hours it took us to get to Axum, we passed some spectacular scenery. Up a winding, pot-holed mountain road, then back down into a a deep valley, then back up again... The average distance covered is about 40 km for every hour. The scenery changed several times and up in Tigray province, it was a lot drier with arid mountains here and there on a flat plateau.

Axum was also a capital city but of a much more ancient and important empire that 

flourished around 400BC. We did a marathon sight-seeing excursion the first morning, seeing the massive fallen down stelae or obelisks, a few underground tombs and a monastery at the top of a mountain. A donation is made to the monk and to the tour guide kid who explained the history and some of the classic Ethiopian orthodox religious paintings in the church. Turns out the Brandt guide book has the exact same photo of the same priest, with his same expression, with the same crosses and robes.

We were content just hanging out after that, having machiattos at some cafes and enjoying the local food, “tibs” (lamb) with injera, their crepe-like bread made from tef, a local grain. Through the help of another ‘guide’ we drank some local brew made from sorghum called ‘tella’ (or ‘suwa’ in the local Tigrinya language). Another hole-in-the-wall with one light bulb, this time drinking copious amounts of brew in gourds. The alcohol content is quite weak therefore it would take liters of the stuff to actually get you drunk. It was sort of an earthy taste. A few more regular brewskies later at a bar and we noticed a pattern. The guys tend to all sit together and dance, their shoulders shaking, still sitting in their chairs while the women would stick together and dance, standing in front of mirrors. Perhaps it was because we never had stayed too late at these bars and did not see it getting more animated in the wee hours. The music of Tigray had a cool 1-2 beat and in the singing, it sounds more guttural, almost like Arabic compared to the softer Amharic.


Across the northern part of the country going east, we then went to Mekele,  capital of Tigray, a thriving city with a laid back feel. Large palm trees, white walls, vibrant storefronts. We met a few farenjis, two Americans and one Canadian woman who had just come back from an organized excursion to the Danakil desert. Sounded very interesting, particularly the salt trade with camels done by hand by the fiercely independent Afar people. As well, an active volcanic lake. It was quite expensive though to rent 4x4s with armed scouts and guides. There are so many places to see in this country that even with our six weeks time frame, we could not do it all and, even what we did, was just scratching the surface. We decided to continue on back south toward one of the greatest religious historical sites in the Christian world; Lalibela.

We lucked out and got a ride from two ‘abeshas’ (Ethiopian or African) who were working for Unesco and were going there as well. Apart from the crowded buses, all other vehicles are 4x4s. You can appreciate why as most roads in Ethiopia resemble logging roads in BC. The landscape of mountains, high plateaus and eroded valleys apparently looked a lot like Arizona, Erik kept telling me. Except that there were no ATVs and Hummers tearing up the landscape and instead of shopping malls and people with baseball caps, there were village huts made of stone and mud with people carrying water jugs on their heads.

Often called “Africa’s Petra,” the rock hewn churches of Lalibela are indeed remarkable because they are not only carved into the rock but they are blocks entirely freed from it. There are dozens, all within a small area. Most were built during King Lalibela’s reign in the 12th and 13th centuries. There is no consensus between scholars and local legend as to who actually built the churches and in how many years. Apparently divine intervention helped erect the monuments in a very short time span of 20 years. Regardless, it was impressive and seeing the monks preaching and the pilgrims praying within the stone walls and candle lit vaults was yet another flashback to another era.

We scored again with another 4x4 ride back to Addis, paying only a fraction more than the bus would have cost. It was hilarious because we kept on bumping into the ‘girls’ (the two Americans and one Canadian) who were traveling the same route. One time, there they were having lunch at a roadside restaurant where their bus stopped, and we pulled up, stepping out of the brand new (and comfortable) Land-cruiser. Needless to say, we would always arrive to the next destination several hours ahead of them.

The following week was spent in the capital to extend our visas and this took several days to do. We checked out a few museums and art galleries, ate at fabulous restaurants (Indian and European... a nice break from the local injera and spaghetti). We met the ‘boys’ again, who brought us to a chat bar, charging us way too much (we later learned) for the bundles of leaves we chewed and the tea that we drank.

About chat... it’s an evergreen shrub in which the leaves are chewed to give a mildly intoxicating and stimulating effect. It’s grown in and exported from Ethiopia and has been chewed for centuries by peoples of eastern Africa and the Arabian peninsula. It’s somewhat bitter and you are supposed to stuff it in your cheek as you chew. Eating peanuts helps with the taste. Once we got the hang of if, we quite enjoyed it. Locals are always impressed and happy when farenjis join them for chewing chat. You usually drink tea with it, sometimes the traditional coffee. Often, people smoke shisha as well while chewing chat, all activities that revolve around the great social pastime of Ethiopians, that is talking.

As we waited for our passports, we were trying to organize a trip down south (i.e. hiring a 4x4 with driver/guide from a tour operator) with two other farenjis to share the cost. We had the impression that it was better to do this from Addis. We could have and would have preferred going by local buses. However, the roads and access to remote tribal villages would have required quite a bit more time than we had. We had a hard time finding two other travelers and we even enlisted the hustler boys to help us out. Finally, when we were about to go just the two of us, we found a Spanish couple from Majorca, Miquel and Marga, who came along.

Our driver was Mesfin, an Amhara from Addis, who had been doing this gig with tourists for already ten years. Our new home on the road was an older Toyota land-cruiser. Miquel is an avid birder and also does graphic design for work so he had brought a sketch book with some impressive watercolours. So with Erik, the resident artist and my own dabbling with a sketchbook, we made a good team.

We drove south along the main highway that heads down toward Kenya and the road was paved for the first day. Nice. We passed several lakes of the Rift Valley and stopped at lake Awasa for the night. The bird life was plentiful with huge storks, pelicans, horn-bills, kingfishers, herons, crakes, kites and plovers. Several species are endemic to Ethiopia. Onward to Arba Minch (great place names) we ate some tasty tilapia from lake Chamo. After a night in a hotel there we got on a boat for a few hours to see some “hiphops” and “cocodriles” (the former version was Mesfin’s, the latter Miquel’s). It was good to be on the water.

On the road to Jinka, the gateway town to explore the Omo valley, the scenery became much greener with classic African acacia trees everywhere. There was also more untouched land and less agriculture than in the more populated north. Along theroadside, we started seeing kids from various tribes that would run up to the car asking for ‘Highland’, the name brand of plastic water bottles that they re-use for holding water. Before leaving Addis, the tour operator had thrown in a few dozen empties in the back for precisely that reason. The weather got warmer and the locals wore less clothing.

We set up a tent in Jinka for two nights. The first day, we drove to Mago National park. Up over some hills and down into the Omo valley below which was covered forest as far as the eye could see. That morning, we were to visit the Mursi tribe, famous for the lip plates that the women ‘wear’, if you could say that. We had heard that they were somewhat aggressive in asking tourists for one or two birr (the local currency which equals 10 - 20 cents) per photo. Tourists like us, have been coming to see these tribes for several years now and their economy has shifted somewhat from depending entirely on cattle and some agriculture, to include money from tourism. Fair enough.

Old AK-47s have replaced sprears. Here a mother is keeping one for her soon to be 'warrior' son. The times
are changing though in the Omo valley.  Once warring tribes are being forced to get along by the government. 

The image that stuck with me most was that of two elderly Europeans with their 4x4 tour guide. As they were driving past us in the opposite direction, just before we arrived at the village, they flashed us a thumbs down and shook their heads in disgust. I thought what exactly were they expecting? That they would drive up to some pristine, “untouched” village and that the tribe would do a dance for them for free? To be sure, it was a little strange when getting out of the truck, you were accosted by these lip plate wearing women all asking for “2 birr, 2 birr” and more 4x4s would arrive in the small clearing of a dozen huts. However, that’s often the reality of tourism. If this morally bothers you, there is always National Geographic.

We then drove to our next destination, the small village of Turmi, in the heart of Hamer country. This was to be our base for the next couple of days. On the way we stopped at a very colourful weekly market in the village of Kay Afar. Here there were mostly Hamer and Bana people, trading honey, goats, spices... the market being essentially a field in which people just set up mats on the ground to sell their products. Mesfin reminded us again to not take photos of people unless you asked them and I noticed that they are a proud people, especially the men, paying little attention to farenjis and their wads of birr notes for photos.  Many refused when asked.

The following two days brought us to yet another few villages. One was of the Dasanech, very close to Kenya and along the Omo river (which empties into lake Turkana across the border). It was cool getting shuttled across the river in a local dugout canoe. The water looked so inviting to jump in, especially when seeing all these kids swimming across. Unfortunately, after asking Marga, our resident traveling nurse, she pointed out to the mud banks and to the risk of getting Bilharzia, caused by a parasite carried by fresh water snails that seems to be in most bodies of water in Ethiopia.

Locals were always fascinated when we asked and  sketched them.

Returning to Turmi in the early afternoon was a welcomed break from constant driving. We met up with Guy Weir, this older, unabashed Brit artist who spends half the year in southern France and the the rest of his time traveling around the world painting local people. He was extremely entertaining with his anecdotes of adventures and characters he met on his journeys. His story of being hired by the French embassy in Bangladesh and covertly painting scenes from the bordellos of Dhaka from a dentists office across the street was indeed a good one. He’s a fine artist as well, often hiring local tribal people to pose for his large watercolour paintings.

In the evening, we had some tej (honey wine) in a clearing outside next to a few huts. There we were, at dusk, amongst twenty odd Hamer men, all sitting on their tiny wooden stools, in expressive conversation. They wore their traditional “mini-skirts” and had clay and feathers in their hair. Nobody paid attention to us. It was one of those awesome moments where it slowly sinks in, with every sense of awareness, that you really are in another world, another reality and yet people are just having a drink, like anywhere else, talking about the days events.

It was fun hanging out at night with the other locals at the hotel. Turmi had grown quite a bit in recent years, mostly because of tourism and this brought Ethiopians from other regions to the town. We had beers with Mesfin and his other tour guide-driver friends that meet up regularly. A joint of ganja was passed around and we sat at the bar laughing and singing to Bob Marley tunes as well as the current Ethiopian star Teddy Afro.

Mesfin had planned the itinerary so that we would be at the Saturday market in Dimaka, one of the more famous ones in the Omo region. There, he had heard that there would be a bull jumping ceremony in a village some 20km away. There were four or five other tourist 4x4’s and after the morning at the market, the convoy headed out on a dirt track for an hour drive to this village. A price per farenji head was agreed upon with the village elders and we spent the afternoon watching the spectacle.

Bana girl

This fascinating ceremony takes place when a young Hamer or Bana boy passes into manhood and is about to get married. Alot of singing, dancing and jumping takes place, not to mention drinking of local beer. Also young women beg to get whipped by other young men, to show their love for the boy in question. A lot of scars on their arms and backs from previous ceremonies, blood trickling down from this one. It all culminates with a lining up of a bulls in which the soon-to-be married boy must run naked three times over their backs. If he falls, he is whipped until he completes it.

We headed back northward the following two days, our tour winding down. Long days driving, we would listen to Ethiopian pop music and got to know the different singers, chewing chat along the way. Driving along we spotted an elusive kudu, a beautiful animal Miquel was very keen on seeing.

We stopped several times along the road as Mesfin bought things for his family back in Addis. He was like a kid grinning at the low prices he bargained for things like coffee beans, pineapples or charcoal, half the price than in the capital.

Our last stop with the 4x4 was the city Nazreth, a couple hours south of Addis and the junction to the road going east to the town of Harar, where the four of us wanted to go. Our final goodbye to Mesfin was with a lunch of ‘tere sega’ raw steak with a mustard sauce that is cut in front of your eyes by the restaurant’s butcher from the carcass hanging at the front. It’s an Ethiopian favourite and a vegetarian’s nightmare. It tasted great.

The majority of dwellings in the countryside are simple huts made with wood, mud and stones. 

It was nice to be on our own again and although we had to go through the early morning madness for the 7 hour bus ride to Harar, it was good traveling with locals. The mountain scenery was once again spectacular. Harar, close to Djibouti and Somalia has a completely different feel than anywhere else in the country. 

Predominantly Muslim, it resembles more a town from North Africa or Yemen because it’s a centuries-old walled city with a maze of small alleyways and dozens of white mosques. It was an important site for muslim scholars and was a commercial crossroads of Africans, Arabs and Indians. This is also the capital of chat, where in the surrounding hills, it is cultivated and exported to the rest of the horn, Yemen and even London for the ex-pat communities.

We quickly got lost in the streets and were as quickly spotted by a few local ‘guides,’ a couple of teenage kids named Fahami and Ali that we were content letting them show us around for the next few days. The first evening we checked out the famous hyena feeders, one of several men who continue an old tradition of feeding scraps of goat meat to hyenas every night. It’s not really a tourist thing, although for a few dollars, you can be part of it and actually feed the beasts with the meat at the end of a stick. Their jaws are pretty impressive. We ended up seeing them every night out in the field behind our hotel. How I would have loved to see one take out some of the yappy mongrel dogs that kept barking at them all night.

As our trip was winding down, we decided we would spend the last 5 days in Harar, basically just hanging out. Apart from a morning going to a Somali camel market some 40kms away, that’s what we did.  Through the boys, we met a family in a small traditional house. At any given time, with the extended family and their neighbours, there were a dozen or so people in a room the size of the rug in my living room back in Vancouver. Shoes off, sitting on cushions, we chewed chat every afternoon, smoked shisha, drank the famous Harari coffee, watched DVDs of local pop stars with the odd football match from the English premier league. All Ethiopians will ask you which team you support. Manchester or Arsenal? They are fanatics. “Um... we don’t follow much football in Canada” we tell them, much to their disbelief. In this respect, I guess they realize that all farenjis are not the same.

Actually in Harar, there was a variation on the term “farenji”. It was always “farenjo”. Some travelers find it annoying or offensive, I found it quite humourous. Every time you walk by in the street, kids, even elders are always saying “farenjo” like as if they need to constantly remind you who you are, lest you forget as you stumble around with a backpack and a camera in hand. Sometimes we would reply “abesha” (African) back at them. Another favourite is the “you, you , you, YOU” kids will always scream at you. The Amharic word for ‘you’ is more a way to get someone’s attention and apparently not intended as rude or harsh as it can sound in English.

When it was time to return to Addis, we took an overnight mini-van. A bit of a mistake as it was so crowded and I had a bolt from the flip out seat near the sliding door rubbing into my lower back. That plus police check points looking for contra-band every 50 kms ensured that no sleep was had. We had gotten to know Addis quite well by then.

Back at the Olso cafe for their great machiattos or at a neighbourhood joint for breakfast of "ful" a typical dish of chickpea purée with bread. Although we wanted to do some shopping before leaving, it seemed that we were less excited about all the crafts and objects that can be had at a low price despite having some nice stuff. My biggest souvenir would be a few kilos of coffee beans.

As it often is, it was a little sad just before leaving a country and a culture that has made a profound impact on you. Sitting at the airport gate, I was reflecting on all the people we had met. And as you said your goodbyes throughout the time spent in their country, they would inevitably ask you if you would return someday, to which the answer could only be perhaps. Back in the tube, that is the fuselage of the airplane, already the reality of home had arrived.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Faces of Ethiopia

Fascinating country. Beautiful people.