The cradle of everything

Trip Start Apr 19, 2009
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24
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Trip End Dec 20, 2009


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Where I stayed
Wim's Holland House

Flag of Ethiopia  ,
Thursday, September 17, 2009

The smell of fresh, wild mint is strong in our noses, we breathe deeply – not only because of the lovely scent but also because of our pounding hearts after walking up this hill in the high altitude. Below us, the beautiful Lake Tana, the source of the Nile, stretches out like an ocean. As we come around a corner three young children, collecting firewood, stop to look at us….'Salam’ we greet them, smiling at the kids. Shyly they lift their heads, smile, wave and run away. Our walk continues up the steep hill, suddenly we come across an orthodox Ethiopian church. These octagonal structures dot both cities and the countryside in abundant numbers. From a nearby mud hut we glimpse the priest’s simple robes. He beckons us to come closer 'Selam, please come into our house and have some food’.

‘Ameseghinalehu, thank you’ we reply but decline the kind offer this time.

‘Ishee, ok’ he replies, smiles and waves us goodbye. There have been many such invitations in the past few days. Ranging from a few cups of the fantastically aromatic Ethiopian coffee to a chat with injera (kind of foamy pancake made from tef) and kai wait (spicy curry type sauce). As we continue down the hill towards our Dutch run camp at ‘Kim and Tim’s Village’, only smiles and friendly waves follow us….

Looking back onto the many countries we have visited thus far, Ethiopia is definitely the hardest, and most fascinating to try and put into words. How do you describe the totally foreign smell, look, feel and sound of this country? It is just so very different. Wonderfully different. Perhaps I should start by stating that many of the travellers we met coming out of he country had had less than pleasurable experiences. To put it bluntly, had we only listenend to heir advice (and had their been an alternative route – which there is not) we would have skipped Ethiopia all together….at what a shame that would have been. Other travellers complained of the many people (Ethiopia has one of the greatest populations in Africa with 70 million people counted in 2005!), the constant begging, the crowding and the lacking infrastructure. So we crossed the border with no expectations and heart heavy with apprehension. It would take us roughly five days to cross the country if we took the shortest route to Sudan….anybody can survive five day!!! Well….we ended up staying nearly three weeks, here is why.

Our first day in Ethiopia took us from the arid, desolated and corrugated roads of northern Kenya into the green, lush, cultivated and beautifully tarred roads of the Ethiopian highlands. Driving through the small villages dotting the hills felt a little like a celebrity procession. Kids, as well as adults, rushed out of their neat and clean houses to wave and greet us with huge smiles. When we waved backs, the smiles seemed, nearly impossibly, to become even wider. After a couple of hours, we stopped to buy some bread. Somewhat jaded from Kenya, where hard bargaining for becomes horrible second nature, I started haggling with the small kid selling the bread. He seemed flustered, I was relentless…Finally, wee agreed on Br4 (equivalent or R3) for a really big loaf of bread. I waited for my change (trying to look tough) surrounded by a crowd of curious, but very polite onlookers. When my change returned, still distrusting all these friendly smiles, I made an act of carefully counting my money. The small boy had given me back a thick wad of notes. Still unfamiliar with the denominations at this stage, I decided that even if they had cheated me, I seemed to have plenty of cash in hand. I said goodbye and jumped onto the Landy. On the road again I looked closer at the notes I had received and started counting my change. I had to recount…It could not be. I had more than before! Plus two beautiful, large loafs of bread!

This trend continued for us. At the hotel we camped at (in the garden) a young group of students celebrating the end of Ramadan invited us to share in their party…and their freshly slaughtered goat prepared on the fire. We accepted the kind offer, bringing our last chocolate to the feast. A lovely and interesting evening of sharing ideas and views followed. On another occasion we were invited to coffee in one of the simple mud huts in Lalibela. Thinking this might be a trick to get money out of us (we had been warned about the coffee ceremony ploy) Marvin and I apprehensively sipped the lovely dark liquid…secretly waiting for the massive bill. In Ethiopia (the home of coffee by the way – it was used as a stimulant by the monks to stop falling asleep whilst praying) drinking coffee is a ritual – ‘The coffee ceremony’. First the coffee beans are roasted on the fire, some incense (Weihrauch) is then thrown on the hot coals, this lovely smell mixes with that of the roasted beans, creating a wonderfully smoky aroma that fills the room and prepares the drinker for his first sip. The coffee is then ground by hand and placed in an earthenware pot. The boiling water is poured over grounds and the coffee is served in little cups with plenty of sugar. The ritual is repeated three times, each round having a different name, and it is considered rude to leave before the third cup. It all takes about two hours – no espresso here! I now also understand why Ethiopia is such a deeply spiritual and prayerful country! After the third cup we stood up to leave and wanted to pay our host for the wonderful experience. The first dark cloud came over his face – he refused flatly. We were his guest, in his house and very welcome. I should add that this was a very poor and rather desperate family. Welcome to Ethiopia. Countless other events have painted the very bright and colourful picture of our stay here. This, despite the many negative stories we have heard of other travellers.

To be sure, children will often beg for bier (the local currency…on our first day, I thought there was a very serious alcoholic-child-abuse situation prevalent here) and shout ‘you, you, you’. I guess this is one of the few words in English that they know. Coming from SA, we just replied, with ‘jo, jo, jo’ (the equivalent, of ‘hey, how you doing’) waved and smiled as we droved off. Very seldom did the kids return anything else than a big grin.

The cultural loop

Given our positive welcome in this country, we decided against the shortest route to Sudan. Instead we opted for the +/-1800km ‘cultural loop’ through Lalibela, Axum and the Semien mountains. It is astounding how little is known about the old and rich history of Ethiopia. Some of the churches, tombs and palaces we saw date to Queen Sheba and King Solomon’s times, 3000BC. The Axumite kingdom was massive and hugely influential, rivalling that of Rome and even Egypt. Lalibela and its 11 rock-hews churches was just breathtaking. Imagine a huge piece of granite rock. Then imagine a beautiful church. Ok, Lalibela’s churches are a series of really, really big granite rocks that have been carved out to create beautiful churches. The churches are carved out of solid rock, complete with wonderfully decorated ceilings, pillars and in some cases even a first floor. Perhaps even more amazing than this, as yet, unexplained work of structural engineering, is the fact that along with the churches (dating from the 12th century) the spiritual life of Lalibela has stayed in tact. Robed priests bless passers-by with their big, ornamented crosses as they walk the streets or pray in the church. Believers pilgrim to the churches to stand at the door in references, kiss its frame and then lie or kneel before a picture of a saint. Hundreds of nuns and monks spend their entire day in a spiritual reverie praying and chanting…as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. The entire little village rests in a cloud of ancient, quiet worship.

Still in awe we continued our travels to Axum. There is no describing how beautiful the Ethiopian landscape is. The roads wind up and down the mountains, ascending from an altitude of 1500m to 3500m and back down again to 1000m. Whilst you are going up or coming down again, a green and lush land unfolds below you as far as the eye can see. Every patch of soil is cultivated with tef (a type of wheat). Cows, sheep, goats and small, neat villages dot the country side….anybody familiar with ‘the Lord of the Rings’, should only think of the ‘Shire’ (das Auenland) to get a good idea of the landscape. Men carry wooden ploughs to their waiting oxen on the field, women lug round-bellied earthenware pots to the nearest well and children herd the goats off the street. It would seem that little has changed since Lucy’s time. …Everything is so very different here. People speak and write Amharic an ancient language, the food is unique and spicy – eaten off a big pancake that also serves as your plate (very eco friendly), the traditional dress is white and made out of cotton that is grown and woven here - making the busy market place look a bit like a large wedding procession, the religion is ancient orthodox Christian, unlike anywhere else in the world, there is a different time and calendar measurement – it has just turned 2002 in Ethiopia on the 11th September (their New Year) and if you want to meet somebody for lunch you will arrange to rendez-vous at around 06:00 (the day starting at 6am with the first hour……etc. etc…. very different, and very interesting. We loved it and thank the Ethiopians for their welcoming and sharing nature.

What will the vast deserts of Sudan bring?
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Comments

d.hemmer
d.hemmer on

Ethiopia - the cradly of everything
Absolutly stunning,takes my breath away,new for us all,thanks for sharing.Your explanations and pictures seems to me, like a real dream. To see and read your comments, from another kind of world.
Take care, God bless Dorli

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