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Travels in a land of tranquility and dirty money

The church of St. George is one of the complex of 11 churches in Lalibela which, in the 12th century, was carved below-ground in the volcanic rock

Mike Porter in Ethiopia

"What better way of celebrating your birthday than by flying to Ethiopia?" she said. "Okay," I replied cautiously, "but we have to relax afterwards." The upshot was: two weeks in Ethiopia, and a week in the Seychelles. Here are my impressions from that memorable trip to Ethiopia.

Addis Ababa

November 16, 2013 we arrive at Addis Ababa Airport early in the morning. The building is ultra-modern, but in one corner we see unclaimed baggage piled up to the ceiling. It's a nice airport, in good grounds, but it's not a good idea to leave the building until you're sure you don't have to come back in – the security check is at the main entrance, and each time I want to come in I have to take off my belt and shoes.

It is a short drive into Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital city. The narrow roads wind up and down and around hills flanked on all sides by miserable-looking shacks, tin shanties, and run-down and neglected areas. The occasional nice building looks quite out of place.

Crowds of people stream along the streets and pavements. They have to navigate around a young man who is fast sleep on his back on the ground. Elsewhere a boy of about 12 lies, face down, on the ground. The crowd walks around him.

This is the first place I'd ever been to where the money (especially the 1- and 5-birr notes) is so dirty that you have to wash the smell off your hands afterwards. Many of the notes have holes and tears in them.

Later we find that Addis has islands of tranquility: spacious grounds around churches, museums, the better-class hotels and other tourist attractions, all with guards at the entrance.

Using a map, we walk from our lodgings to St. George church, on a hill – a tremendous hexagonal building set on spacious grounds. People come in after taking off their shoes, kneel, kiss the stones, and cross themselves, kiss the statues and small shrines outside, even kiss the flagstones. Trees, lawns and benches packed with people surround the building. The beggars sleeping under the trees look like corpses.

Just behind the church is a large hall. Preparations are going on for a wedding. Everybody is dressed smartly, including a small boy standing at the door, dressed in a suit and bow tie. Several women outside are preparing the food, and from the amount of dishes I guess that about a hundred people are invited.

We visit the museum and the converted "palace" of the old ruler of Ethiopia, adjacent to each other. Next to them is a good restaurant full of smartly dressed tourists.

As we know the way, we take the hour's walk back to our lodgings. And – this happens all the time in Ethiopia – we are joined by a young man, dressed casually but cleanly, who offers to show us some place or help us in some way. It's hard to shake off these young people, who are polite but persistent. In the main they are very helpful, and in some places it's just as well they stay with us.

North to Lake Tana: Flights are full to our next stop, so I spend my birthday, November 18, sitting for 11 hours in the back of a large tourist bus. We start off from Addis in the dark, but it soon becomes light and we see a lot of countryside. Northern Ethiopia seems to be mainly high plateaus (much of it is more than 2,000 meters above sea level), divided by tremendous mountains and the occasional valley.

We pass open spaces stretching to the horizon. Men plow fields with small, hand-held ploughs, drawn by one or two oxen. In some places men are cutting wheat. People lead cattle along the road (mostly donkeys, goats and cows, and an occasional bull with tremendous curving horns). Cattle take precedence – buses and cars stop and wait until the lines of cattle get back to the side of the road. Nobody gives a hoot. 

INJERA – a super-sour ‘pancake’ – is made from teff, an Ethiopian cereal which has a great reputation as a health food. Among others, it does not contain gluten, is high in proteins and calcium, and contains twice as much easily-absorbed iron as wheat or grain. By the way, writes Mike Porter, this so-called ‘flatbread’ also tastes pretty horrible!

We pass countless small villages, with tukuls, traditional round houses made of slender wooden palings planted in the ground, with thatched roofs. These palings seem to be eucalyptus trees cut down in their "infancy" and used for tukul walls (there are even ancient churches made in this way) and primarily for scaffolding.

Bahar Dar is our next stop. We get off at the city center, which has large, straight boulevards lined with good buildings. There is a freshness about this place, perhaps because it is situated on one side of Lake Tana, a body of water 84 kilometers long and 66 kilometers wide. It's so big it looks like an inland sea.

Here we find the best hotel – and the best value – we have on all our holiday. Lake Tana Hotel is a short walk from the town and in its own grounds, on the green, tree - and papyrus-crowded shores of the lake. Wonderful service, wonderful design, wonderful situation.

The next day, we take a boat trip to several island monasteries (after negotiating with different young men who all have "a brother" with his own boat).

The monk I speak to at one monastery is very friendly. He tells me that the monastery has its own fields on the mainland, and he occasionally goes out with a group of men to farm the crop.

The monks let nature take its course, and the islands are luxuriant and wild. One side of this island is given over to a "spider city". The webs stretch from one tree to another and it's impossible to pass through. Each web has large bulbous spiders sitting in it, daring you to try.

We are doing a fair amount of bus traveling. We take a local minibus for more than a hour, to a small village next to which is a waterfall which drops out of the high Lake Tana (1788 meters up) and forms the beginning of the Blue Nile (not very impressive until it meets up with its sister, the White Nile, far away in Khartoum).

Off to Gondar

A few days later, we take a -four-hour overcrowded bus ride to Gondar.

At the entrance to Gondar is a tremendous complex of ancient buildings surrounded by a thick, high stone wall, nearly a kilometer long. In the complex are palaces, castles, multi-level stone buildings, large churches, and at least one monastery, all built of stone (great slabs of it) in the 16th and 17th centuries. We settle in at a hotel not far away, with a view of the town built in a valley below us.

Gondar is 2,200 meters above sea level, and as we walk we feel the thinness of the air.

A few hours' drive away are the highest peaks of the Simien Mountains (4,300 meters). We are taken for a short walk in the mountains (not to the highest, and we haven't got enough time for the national park) by one of that army of enterprising young men who inhabit Ethiopia. 

he new cathedral of St. Mary in Axum, built in the 1950s by Emperor Haile Selassie, was one of the country’s first churches allowing men and women to worship together. On the wall is a gigantic mural of an ‘Ethiopian’ King David playing the harp

On the way there we pass large "squads" of cattle along the road, being herded by men and women from the surrounding villages. "It's market day", our guide tells us, and the cattle drive begins before dawn. On the way back we meet the men and women returning, some with a few cattle.

I have seen the Grand Canyon, but I am more impressed with the deep valleys and countless peaks (so many that they vanish across the horizon) of the Simien. After the walk we are taken for the "coffee ceremony" in a hut made of thin poles with large gaps between them. We all sit in a circle, while the mistress of ceremonies brews up coffee over the coals and pours it into small cups for us.

On the way back from the Simien we stop at Walaka, once a village of Ethiopian Jews. Now it seems a rather poor-looking collection of huts, one of which has the drawing of a Magen David and some clumsy drawings in white of figures carrying work tools.

Our next stop is Axum, a small, orderly town. At the far end of the town is a national park with 1st century remains of what was once the capital of an ancient civilization. Not far away is St. Mary's church, an immense dome-shaped structure with colored glass squares in the windows and wall and ceiling paintings and murals on Biblical themes.

Close by is a smaller church building which, we learn, contains the original ark of the Israelites. It is said the ark was brought here in Biblical days. However, no one is allowed into this church.

We go for a five-hour walk through Axum, passing through the national park, which contains the world's biggest steles. I am not sufficiently impressed, and we don't stop there long, but continue walking through the park, pass two large natural pools (the Queen of Sheba pool is the largest) and wander past a village, before returning.

In the evening it begins to rain, and we duck into a hotel restaurant full of men sitting in large comfortable chairs and watching a football match on the television screen in one corner of the room. Excitement runs high, and the rain patters down outside, unnoticed.

Ethiopia's oldest ruin

The next day we go to Ethiopia's oldest ruin, the 7th century BCE Yeha. To get there we take several minibuses, the last of which travels over a dusty, bumpy country road, and passes a mountain top in the shape of a lion's head. The bus lets us off at its last stop, a dusty village full of tiny children running after you asking for money or sweets. The bus driver leaves us and promises to return in an hour.

The great temple of Yeha is in amazingly good condition, thanks to teams of archeologists.. We meet an old, bearded Ethiopian priest who, after we have wandered through the building, takes us to the church next door. On the first floor is a museum, with old books, photographs, stone carvings with strange signs on them, and old paintings on a sort of cloth. I notice that the people in the paintings have features which are neither European nor exactly Ethiopian.

Our next stop is Lalibela, the main point of our trip. It is here that you find 11 great churches cut into the rock below you. They were built when Jerusalem was being overrun by the Muslims, somewhere around the 13th century, so King Lalibela decided to build a second "Jerusalem."

However, the $10 entrance fee mentioned in a guide book from just a few years ago has now gone up to $100 – each. Ruti, my wife, is furious and at first walks away, but then we both come back – after all, this is what we most want to see in Ethiopia. 

On the road from Lalibela to Addis, a 13-hour journey by jeep, these village women are seen washing clothing in the river

The churches are fairly near to each other. One stands on the rocky ground and looks down (about the height of a six-story building). The tourists below look like ants. There are steps cut into the rocks, and down we go.

Each church, situated in a large, open area, is beautifully shaped, with a high oblong entrance. The windows are cut in different styles, some dome-shaped, others with crosses, some showing Muslim influence. One outside wall has large carvings of men on horseback. The work is meticulous.

We go inside. The sun shines brightly through the windows and door openings, into the church. There are carvings on some of the inner walls – among them I make out a Magen David.

The churches have carpets and colorful drapes inside, and most interiors are covered with paintings, on and off the walls. The last supper, St. George slaying the dragon, Madonna and child, most of them with distinctive Ethiopian features and large startled eyes. In one church are two Madonna and child pictures, close to each other. In one picture they have Ethiopian features, in the other European. Pictures of Jesus however, give him a long European face, with a distinctive long, thin nose.

One rock church was never completed, and I see there is a tremendous crack in the rock, so I suppose it was too dangerous to continue.

We continue our downward journey through a long tunnel so dark that I cannot see my hand in front of my eyes. After 20 minutes, we emerge at the bottom of the mountain and find that we have to get back to our nice hotel, the Seven Olives, which is on a hilltop. An exhausting day!

Goodbye to Ethiopia

We are due to leave Ethiopia, but first we have to get back to Addis, and all flights are full. Ruti asks around, and the army of young entrepreneurs gets busy. One of them finds a guide who has brought a group from Addis to Lalibela and is now returning. He has two people with him, but can easily fit in another two, so we take a 13-hour ride in a jeep, back to the capital. As we go, we take another long look at the countryside. 



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