Countries Visited

Svalbard Spain United States of America Antarctica South Georgia Falkland Islands Bolivia Peru Ecuador Colombia Venezuela Guyana Suriname French Guiana Brazil Paraguay Uruguay Argentina Chile Greenland Canada United States of America United States of America Israel Jordan Cyprus Qatar United Arab Emirates Oman Yemen Saudia Arabia Iraq Afghanistan Turkmenistan Iran Syria Singapore China Mongolia Papua New Guinea Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Malaysia Tiawan Philippines Vietnam Cambodia Laos Thailand Myanmar Bangladesh Sri Lanka India Bhutan Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan Turkmenistan Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Japan North Korea South Korea Russia Kazakhstan Russia Montenegro Portugal Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia Ukraine Moldova Belarus Romania Bulgaria Macedonia Serbia Bosonia & Herzegovina Turkey Greece Albania Croatia Hungary Slovakia Slovenia Malta Spain Portugal Spain France Italy Italy Austria Switzerland Belgium France Ireland United Kingdom Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania Russia Poland Czech Republic Germany Denmark The Netherlands Iceland El Salvador Guatemala Panama Costa Rica Nicaragua Honduras Belize Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Puerto Rico Dominican Republic Haiti Jamaica The Bahamas Cuba Vanuatu Australia Solomon Islands Fiji New Caledonia New Zealand Eritrea Ethiopia Djibouti Somalia Kenya Uganda Tanzania Rwanda Burundi Madagascar Namibia Botswana South Africa Lesotho Swaziland Zimbabwe Mozambique Malawi Zambia Angola Democratic Repbulic of Congo Republic of Congo Gabon Equatorial Guinea Central African Republic Cameroon Nigeria Togo Ghana Burkina Fasso Cote d'Ivoire Liberia Sierra Leone Guinea Guinea Bissau The Gambia Senegal Mali Mauritania Niger Western Sahara Sudan Chad Egypt Libya Tunisia Morocco Algeria
Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Is Ethiopia Middle Earth?

As Andy hinted in the last post, Ethiopia has some uncanny similarities to J.R.R. Tolkien's magical land of Middle Earth. And it's not just that you can get a bus from a castle-filled place called Gonder to another called Shire! (Yes, we took that bus). There are more clues...

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.

After its collapse, the engineers figured out that they needed a big underground base if they wanted such a large structure to stay upright.
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.

Lesser citizens got plainer stellae, like these.

Axum has its own Rosetta-like stone, with a story about a king's military exploits inscribed in Ge'ez (the predecessor of Amharic), Greek, and...uh, somethin' else. It was found a few years ago by farmers plowing up a field in the area.

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...

Near the tunnel is another huge king's tomb. I can't remember the king's name, but he became a monk in his later years and was buried at the monastery, so his big fancy tomb is empty, right down to the stone coffins still stored inside.

Axum's other big attraction is the St. Mary of Zion church complex, which has the ruins of the holiest church in Ethiopia...and, according to Ethiopians, at least, also houses the Ark of the Covenant! Also known as the Ten Commandments--purportedly shipped off to Ethiopia for safekeeping during some sacking of Israel or other way back in the day.

They charge you a lot to enter the church complex, then don't let you even get near the building where the ark is supposedly being held. Apparently it is guarded by a single monk for life (when he's about to die, he has a dream that tells him which monk should take over for him) and no one else is allowed to go inside to see it. Not even the kings of old. So, is it really the ark of the covenant? We were skeptical, but I guess we won't rule it out. Anyway, here's the building where it supposedly lives.

Here's the interior of the new St. Mary of Zion church, built the 1950s or 60s (note the psychedellic stained-glass windows) next to the ruins of the old one.

The coolest thing in the church is this brilliantly illustrated, nearly-1,000-year-old Christian book. The people in charge there swear that it's going to be put under glass next year for preservation (as it should be!!), but in the meantime were happy to thumb through and show us the cool pictures.

There is a monastery on site that women aren't allowed into, so Andy went in alone. He got to pose with a mural and a prayer stick, which he says the old men use in some way while they are praying, though he hasn't quite explained how...

This monastery mural (complete with cartoon captioning!) tells the story of a lion who ate a man's donkey, but then felt so bad that he agreed to do all the donkey's work for the man for the rest of his life, so he did farm work and got ridden around for penance.

On our second day in Axum, we visited a farther-away stellae field (which also appeared to now be a wheat field). Here is Andy standing near one for size comparison.

We don't know what kind of bird this is, but it looks cool, no?

Across the road from the stelae were the ruins of the palace of the Queen of Sheba, except that they aren't really because they were built many years after her reign. Still, there was a shady overlook where we were able to relax for a while and enjoy the views.
Our next stop was Lalibela, a city that was either a three-day bus ride or a 45-minute flight away. Guess who broke down and sprung for the flight? If you guessed us, you'd be correct. Travel by road takes such a long time in Ethiopia.

Lalibela is famous for its 13 rock-hewn churches--whole churches literally carved out of enourmous rocks--from around the year 1100. They are really incredible and have to be seen to be believed. Despite the shockingly-high-for-Ethiopia admission fee (over $20 per person), and, you know, the religious factor, this was Andy's favorite thing in Ethiopia (mine is still the food).

Each church has its own name, fun features, and cool story, most of which I'll surely forget. But the basic idea is that this was all the brainchild of King Lalibela (for whom the city is named now), who designed most of the churches and somehow got armies of thousands of people (and, according to legend, angels as well) to chip them out of the rock during his reign.
I believe that this one is St. Mary's, the second church to be built and one of the monolithic ones, which means it was carved out of one giant single hunk of rock. Is that incredible, or what?
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.
The insides of many of the churches were no less impressive than the outsides.--and still made of the same hunk of rock! The usual method for doing the inside would be to carve a window into the outside of the church, then start hollowing it out from there. Amazing to stand under a beautifully carved arch like this and think that the space you occupy was once solid stone.
The rock walls surrounding some of the churches had these little hobbit-holes (more Middle Earth!!) in them. OK, they weren't for hobbits, but actually were lived in by monks...and during festivals, when the town is overflowing with pilgrims, apparently people still set up house inside! You should see how small these spaces are in person.
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.
Its many vibrant paintings told stories, some Biblical, some traditional Ethiopian. We especially liked the ones with the devil and his minions crouching along the bottom somewhere.We also liked the ones where someone was taking a poop.
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.
Bisrat, who is a translator and one of the nicest people we have ever met in our lives, took half a day off work to take us around Addis. Together we went up to a hill village north of the city for some views...but actually, the most interesting thing we saw was women carrying unbelievably large loads of wood down 10 kilometers to town to sell. (No men carrying this stuff, just women and sometimes some donkeys.) Then, once it's sold, they turn around and walk the 10k back, uphill. If this isn't a bit of insight into how hard some people's lives are in Africa, I don't know what is.
A donkey with its load, near the bottom of the hill.
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 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!
This one is at the boys' halfway house across town. The woman on the far left is the energetic young social worker who works full-time with all the kids, and the woman next to her is the boys' "house mom," who looks after them, cooks for them, and apparently taught them to make their beds the neatest I've ever seen from a bunch of boys. The boy in the front in the green shirt is Andy's Aunt Susan's (Michael's mom's) sponsored child--Aunt Susan, if you're reading this, now it's your turn to go meet him! These boys were such a hoot, they taught us traditional dance moves and hand-slappy games and we had a wonderful time hanging out with them. After our visit to the halfway houses, we went out for dinner with Nega and his lovely wife at a restaurant that also has traditional music and dance. It was about as touristy as Addis gets, but that means that food cost around $4 a plate instead of $1 a plate and was still delicious. Here are the four of us together.
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?


  1. Sounds fantastic! I will definitely add Ethiopia to my list.

    Those churches in Lalibela sound like an inside-out version of the Ajanta and Ellora caves in India (near Aurangabad) - a must-see if you're in the area. But I'm sure the India enthusiast at the girls' home already told you that!

  2. Very cool post. Overall, Ethiopia looks like a real highlight of the trip.

  3. I will go with you as long as you promise we can stay in the $15 dollar a night hotels.

  4. I would just like to point out that you are fortunate not to have seen the Ark of the Covenant. Everyone knows from Indiana Jones that when you look inside it, your face melts off!