For instance, Google some images of Ethiopia's main language, Amharic. Doesn't it look an awful lot like Elvish?
Also, in addition to the omnipresent, crepe-like injera bread, southern Ethiopia also has a very dense bread called qocho (made of the pounded starch of the "false banana plant"--don't ask me what that is, I don't know). A few bites of this bread could fill your stomach for a day...not unlike Tolkien's magical Elvish bread, lembas!
Finally, take a look at this image, which we found carved into one of the amazing rock-hewn churches (more about them later) in Lalibela, Ethiopia (which, btw, used to be called Roha--that's only one letter away from Rohan!). Anyway, is this not the very image of the EYE OF SAURON??
I could go on all day (Simien Mountains--sounds kind of like Silmarillion!), but I'll spare you. Instead, let's jump back into the story where Andy left off. I believe that our hero and heroine were boarding the bus to Shire, scratching at their innumerable flea bites.
Oh, wait, he didn't mention that part? Yes, well, in the town outside of Simien Mountains National Park, we finally encountered the infamous, bed-plaguing fleas of Ethiopia. We had been warned by other tourists that Ethiopia had a flea problem, but we'd been lucky up until that point. It turns out that a lot of hotel beds have jumping, biting fleas living inside (our advice: avoid the Simien Park Hotel--or at least its older, cheaper section--next time you are in Debark)...but so do carpets at many churches, and you have to take off your shoes to enter a church in Ethiopia. So even if you stay at super-clean places, you may well get some bites while touristing. Ugh. I itched for many, many days after our stay in that hotel.
Anyway, on the very long, very sweaty bus ride north, I was befriended by 7-year-old Aden, who spoke an impressive amount of English for someone so tiny. Lord knows why she wanted to sit in my lap (I smelled terrible), but quickly she was teaching me and Andy the names of barnyard animals we passed in Amharic and drilling us on numbers. Thanks to her, we can now count from 1 to 10 in Amharic! She will make a great teacher someday.
We finally arrived in Shire after dark and, horrified by the thought of more fleas, shelled out $15 for a room at the swankiest hotel in town (usually we paid closer to $5 a night). Well-rested, we arrived the next day in Axum, the historically important city in Ethiopia's far north, near the Eritrea border.
One of Axum's main attractions is its collection of tombs and stellae, which date back to the time of Christ. Here we are inside one of the ancient kings' tombs.
Unlike the storytelling or god-glorifying stellae you find at, say, old Mayan sites in the Americas, the stellae in Axum are more like enormous gravestones. This collapsed one would have been the biggest ever erected there, but it didn't stay upright long and has been lying in pieces for centuries in the main stellae field.
Here's one that fared better. The patterns are just for decoration, and only the most important people in town were allowed to have a carved stella.
At the edge of town is this mouth of a tunnel which, legend has it, leads all the way to Eritrea. It hasn't been excavated yet, though. We suggest that archeologists hurry up on that one, since the official border with Eritrea is currently closed (stupid political problems!), so they'd be opening up a great possible new route...
The churches are surrounded by more walls of the same rock they were cut from, so you can imagine the people digging them out (with the tools of 1,000 years ago, no less!) and then carving their facades from the in-between space.
By standing up on the walls, you can be level with the church's roof. You can also see in this picture an example of the huge protective roofs Unesco has put over many of the churches to help shield them from the elements.
Lalibela's masterpiece, and the final church to be built, is St. George's. In addition to being Ethiopia's finest beer, St. George is also the country's patron saint. Anyway, this incredible church was, obviously, designed in the shape of a cross. It looks cool from the top...
...and just keeps getting better.
In its surrounding wall, St. Georges has a crypt-like hole with the clearly visible remains of three dead monks from some indeterminate long time ago. The story is that these monks had traveled the world seeing all its beautiful churches, but when their eyes finally fell upon St. Georges, they said that they had seen the most beautiful one of all and were now ready to die. Then they curled up in their hobbit-hole to go to sleep, and the Lord took them that very night. So their remains were never moved away from the church.
We saw half the churches one day and the other half the following day...which happened to be a Saint's Day for one of the ones we hadn't seen yet. Lucky us! There was a lot of singing and dancing all morning in that church. We even got a bit of video, which we will try to post one day.
If you can pull yourself away from the churches in Lalibela, you'll notice that the town has a beautiful setting, too. Some friends we made in town took a hike up a mountain to a monastery and said that the views were even better up there.
Our next stop was Bahir Dar, which was only a 9-hour bus ride away. That felt positively short to us! I took this picture at a cafe there to document the Ethiopian phenomenon of spreading fresh grass inside and out of your home, restaurant, etc. This seems to happen most after it rains, maybe to soak up the mud and water from people's shoes and make it easier to sweep outside? Pretty clever, if so. And it smells good.
We took a boat out on Lake Tana to visit a few of its famous island monasteries. If you ever go, note that they all charge the same admission (about $3), but some are definitely more worth seeing than others. Luckily, we'd had some good advice from other travelers and headed straight to the best-decorated monastery, which I think was Ura Kidane Meret.
Better than the monasteries was our trip to Blue Nile Falls, in a village outside of Bahir Dar. They are quite impressive, and at the admission rate of $1 per person, 1/30th the price of Victoria Falls.
Finally, we returned to Addis Ababa for a last hurrah before our flight to Egypt. Here we were extremely lucky to have the chance to meet up with Bisrat and Nega, two close friends of Andy's cousin, Michael. Michael has spent long stretches of time in Ethiopia over the past few years, most recently co-setting-up an amazing NGO that helps street kids and orphans. More about that in a second.
Next, Bisrat took us to visit the Onesimus Children Development Association, which is where we met Michael's other friend, Nega, and a whole lot of awesome kids. Bisrat used to work there, and Nega runs the OCDA, which Michael helped set up. For an organization that is only three years old, it is amazingly well-run and functions as both a home for a handful of orphaned or homeless boys and girls and as a drop-in-center for hundreds of street kids and very poor kids "on the verge of street-ism." They can get a meal, play sports, read books, do art projects, talk with the wonderful full-time social worker...the list goes on.
And if you met these kids and saw how smart and vivacious they were, how much they are accomplishing at school and what their plans are for the future, you would just never believe that they were street children. You would not believe that some of them had been taken into the city and abandoned to fend for themselves because their parents couldn't afford to keep them in the village anymore. Or that the parent they were sleeping next to under a plastic sheet out on the pavement died one morning, leaving them orphaned. But somehow, they have survived, and the OCDA is doing crucial work supporting them and working with the community to keep more kids from turning to the streets. Amazingly, there are 60,000-100,000 children living on the streets of Addis Ababa alone...a staggering number.
You can read more about this organization, and make a donation online or find out how to by mail at www.theforsakenchildren.org/projects/childrens-home-ethiopia.org. The organization already has some income-generating projects (like a chicken farm!) in place and has plans to become financially independent within the next few years, but for now I am sure that they would appreciate any donation to keep things running. It does have a slight religious bent, but so do many such organizations in such a religious country as Ethiopia. Anyway, I really hope that you might decide to join me and Andy in supporting their work.
Here are some pics of us with the kids! This is at the drop-in center and girls' halfway house. The tall girl all the way on the right lives there--she 14 and top of her class in English. She is really obsessed with India and wants to go to university there...she spent most of our time talking to us about India and asking where we plan to go when we get there. We had to tell her that she surely knows more about destinations in India than we do!
I love a dance show, and this one was no exception. We got to watch many impressive dances from up and down Ethiopia. My favorite may have been this dance in which the woman wears a hat that looks like the lid that goes on the basket-like eating tables (see picture above) when they're not in use.
Nega kindly drove well out of his way to drop us at our hotel, where we soon met Bisrat again for a farewell Fanta before heading to the airport for our 4AM (gah!) flight. Bisrat is an incredibly popular man and his phone is always ringing, so we didn't think much of it when he got on the horn at the cafe. Soon enough, though, we realized that he had arranged for his friend to come take us all to the airport together! Bisrat is the best. We realized we didn't have a picture with him, so here's one of us all in the airport parking lot at 10PM.
We will miss you, Bisrat! And we'll miss Ethiopia. Sure, there were some insects, some long and painful bus rides, and many incredibly poor people who are suffering while their government wastes time doing things like blocking Blogger for the whole country so the opposition party can't use it to communicate. (Yeah, our new Ethiopian friends can't even access this blog.) But it is also a beautiful, fascinating place filled with unforgettably kind people...and amazing food. We didn't get around to exploring the south of the country this time, there just weren't enough days, but I'm pretty confident that we'll be back. Maybe you will join us?