Journal scribblings: 24 Dec 2014. "In a cafe in Dubai waiting for my camera to charge. My flight left Seattle, 14.5 hours later I rolled across the Arabian Sea and into Dubai. The people sitting next to me were great, a guy of East Indian descent who lives in Lynnwood going to India to pick up his surrogate child which a woman in India bore for he and his wife with their sperm and egg when they couldn't conceive.
The reason his wife wasn't with him to pick up the baby, amazingly, right after the surrogate child was conceived, his wife in Lynnwood got pregnant naturally. So, they will be brothers, incredible. He was so happy. Also on my flight, an East Indian woman who lives in Vancouver BC, going with her 4 month old baby to her sister's wedding in Hyderabad. She was so happy, excited to see family, cute baby. Next to me, there was a sweet Saudi Arabian guy who goes to university in Portland Oregon happily going home for the holidays. And then, my favorite, great talk with a most excellent Bahranian guy named Mo, returning from intense pilates teacher training certification course in Boulder, Colorado
and very excited about his studies.
His passion and intensity were great. I love the vibe in Dubai, people from all over the world, vibrant, very cool architecture. I had a nice sleep on my flight, maybe 4 hours. I have an overnight here before going on to Ethiopia, figured why not see Dubai? Met some nice travelers in my hotel, hopped on a bus tour 10P with some wine I smuggled from the plane. We toured the city of Dubai with a guide, dipped my toes in the Arabian Sea and saw the only 7 star hotel in the world. Passed by the Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world). I lay down on my back and marveled at all 162 floors of it.
Slept a bit although really really excited about my trip, like a little boy. Last night's dinner was tasty, but everything is when you are on holiday. Olives, baklava, pita, hummus, fava beans, mutton curry. Nice workout this morning in my room, 100 pushups, 150 situps, 500 pliometric stepups on chair. Tasty breaky with Zimbabwean guy who goes to university in Boston going home for break (his Dad is founder of telecommunications company,
was actaully just named best CEO in Africa) interesting to talk about current state of affairs in Zimbabwe and the eventual transition of the Robert Mugabe government).
So, I feel pretty good. I'm going to Ethiopia today, WOW! Okay, easy bus ride to Dubai airport. Visited with really sweet Kenyan Muslim family who live in Seattle and going home to see relatives for break. Great transition through airport and to gate for Ethiopia flight. I'm now surrounded by Ethiopian people and one other Westerner. Many of these people are Canadians, Americans, going back to their home country for break. There is something precious about that, imagining the journeys they have taken and how much it must mean to come back.
I get into Addis Ababa Ethiopia today at 1:30P, have no fixed plans, totally open about where I'm going and what I am doing today. I'm on my flight now, jetting over Saudi Arabia and then Yemen. The flight crew on Emirates airlines is quite international, very welcoming. A Korean flight attendant is charging my phone for me, the food is surprisingly good and Emirates feeds you a lot. The Ethiopian people on my plane, as I know
from Seattle, are kind, a bit shy, they have a grace, confidence and beauty about them that you sense instantly. They are also pretty calm as a people, though later I would find out they dance like crazy.
There is a younger flight attendant who works for Ethiopian Airlines flying back from Dubai sitting next to me. I asked her about a few domestic flight possibilities for later today and got some great info. As soon as I get to a new country, I like to get out of the big city right away and save it for later in the trip. It looks like there might be a flight to the north of Ethiopia (a town called Mekele) later today. This might be brilliant. Passed through customs in Addis Ababa easily, the visa on arrival process was quite smooth, met an anglo guy with an Ethiopian wife who lives in Wallingford, Seattle.
I'm here, wow, grabbed my bag and walked out into the Ethiopian sun, past a few touts, got some great tips from some friendly policemen. Walked with my heavy pack 1 km over to the domestic terminal, funny through a construction site. At a little
desk in the corner of terminal, found outthere was one ticket left for a 6PM flight to Mekele. I bought it and feel great. This will put me within striking distance of ancient churches in Tigrai and the mythical Danakil Depression salt flats, volcano and hottest place on earth. Cold beer, yummy food, good internet in little domestic lounge, strong coffee too. No other westerners in sight.
Magic! 5:30P, hopped on the flight and we took off, lovely flight up over the clouds. Sitting next to a young 25ish woman from the capitol who has been working for 2 years in Kuwait and is coming home to see her father who lives in North Ethiopia. She looked shocked that I had just arrived 3 hours earlier and was on this flight. She had a bit more of a city girl vibe about her so was less shy than other people on the flight. She was doubly shocked when we arrived, she saw me at baggage throw on my big pack and walk outside at this little airstrip. She said "you have no ride, no plans, you are crazy, come with me".
So, I walked with her, two of
her cousins picked us up in a old truck and together we drove to her father's and extended family's home on the outskirts of Mekele, a chilly town in the mountains of about 150,000. When we got there, her aunties and uncles rushed out with huge smiles, hugs, yelps, whooping with emotion, they hadn't seen her in 2 years. I was hugged too, as an extension of her visit, invited in immediately for a coffee ceremony, yummy food. They thought is was quite funny when I tried on a words of their Tigrai dialect I had learned.
After a great visit, my new friend and her cousins insisted that they take me into town and get me settled at my place, which was a sweet little $15 room in an old castle build in the mid 1800s for a local nobleman. They all insisted that they wait while I showered, they said "we have a surprise for you, you are coming with us". They took me to a nice hotel in town called the Axum Hotel, slipped me into a private party of about 300 people in the conference hall. It was filled with local dignitaries, musicians, government officials.
I was treated as an honored guest, all kinds of people came over to say hello. Delicious spicy meat, enjera, veggies, cold beer, whiskey. There was all kinds of laughter, this amazing "shoulder shake" dance that Ethiopians do that I would see much more of on trip. Just brilliant, I threw in the towel about 1AM and crashed on my cozy little bed at the castle. I'm sure the party lasted all night.
Dec 25th, 2014. Up this morning after vivid dreams and good sleep in my tiny room in this not so fancy but classic castle in Mekele. Merry Christmas day in the western world (though not here in Ethiopia-they follow the ancient Julian calendar so it is Jan 7th).
I filtered water for the day with my travel filter, found out the adapter I brought works, had a tasty meal of quanta firfir (enjera with berbere sauce and little chunks of meat), coffee and milk, fresh papaya juice too. I had last night sent an email to a company that has treks to the Danakil area and am hoping to hear back from them. It is kind of a shot in the dark on short
notice. If not, will just relax and wander town today.
Just had a sweet talk while eating with an Ethiopian man who lives in Atlanta, back to see his homeland after 35 years, he actually has been a couple times and has homes in Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar. He had a rental truck and was touring more remote places from his youth. He had a very nostalgic look in his eyes when he walked up to this place and where I was eating. I guess he was last here with his late father when he was 13, he is 52 now.
Wow, in the middle of my little chat with the guy, a person from the trekking company showed up at my hotel, said he had a spot on the Danakil tour and that I had to be ready to go in one hour. Amazing, surreal landscapes, the hottest place on earth, I'm going. I said goodbye to my friend from Atlanta, wolfed down my food, ran back to the room, packed my bag, paid my bill. Another guy came back after an hour or so, said I was too late and missed trip. I told him
that was unacceptable, that they promised and I must go today. I told them that I might write a book someday and include info on this tour and they better get me on it as promised.
Within 30 minutes, a great guy and my guide for the journey (Henok) came to pick me up. I guess there was miscommunication, the group of travelers had left without me and were about an hour ahead. Henok had been called by the company, told to pick me up and catch the others later at lunch. It pays to be clear, I guess. We zoomed off, stopped at the company office in downtown Mekele to register me. Security and protocol for this tour is taken very seriously by the company and the Ethiopian government after a few Westerners were killed 4 years earlier by rogue bandits from Eritrea. There is a large Ethiopian military force in the area now and it is one of the safest parts of the country.
I grabbed some sunglasses on the street, am a little worried that the group of people I'm joining might be irked that they have to wait for me. We stopped to change
a car battery, I got a box of liquor and wine, thinking that would smooth any possible hard feelings with the group I was going to join. We sped off up into the hills above Mekele, it was quite arid and seemed to turn even more so quickly. I also had an idea to stop and cut down a little tree we could use as a Christmas tree later. My driver/guide thought that was funny and helped me find a good one. We actually found one that looked a bit like an evergreen.
We drove hard, skipped lunch to catch the group. Today was a long drive to get to where we were going. We missed the group at one stop, they were in two more trucks farther on. We finally caught them at a place they had stopped for tea. They were visiting with some local people in a little village, my driver talked to the other one, changed batteries again to help ours charge better. I had the chance to meet the people I would be with and instantly liked them.
There were 3 Japanese people, two of them a couple here doing aid work and
another solo Japanese traveler. There was a Spanish couple here doing some roller skating with orphans, another Swiss woman from Bern here working in a hospital for two months, a couple Czech professional photographers, a terminal traveler from England, a British guy with his American girlfriend living in Cologne, Germany, a couple young women from Geneva and Lausanne, a crazy guy from Moscow and a great Aussie guy who just became a physician.
We all piled in our 4x4 trucks and headed out the long road, past seemingly all civilization. Things became quite barren, we passed a massive Canadian owned potash mining operation. It was hot, we were headed for the hottest place on earth, a bit cooler this time of year. I think they had planned for us to get closer this time of day, as things cooled in the late afternoon.
We rolled on for a long time, I was in a truck with my driver/guide, a cook and a security guard with a big gun. There were road projects, would later find out that many of them in this country are run by the Chinese. In fact, there are some places very remote in the
country where westerners are rarely seen. When you come to a little village, the kids yell out "china" as that is sometimes the only white person they have ever seen.
We were headed for the Dallol area, more specifically Lake Asale. We started seeing camel caravans loaded heavily with big chunks of salt. We learned that the Afar tribal people who live in this extreme heat travel 5 days by camel caravan to get their salt to market, making very little money but eeking out a living. We would see the salt flats later, there is an endless supply and endless caravans.
Eventually, after many barren bumpy roads, we reached to little village where we would sleep for the night. There were Afar tribal people there, also a sizable military presence. We dropped off our bags, chose beds outside where we all would sleep (traditional Afar beds). We picked up more heavily armed guards (they take no chances after that incident), left the cook in camp who would have food ready when we returned. We headed out a long straight road to the salt flats, started to see salt all around us and many camel caravans.
stopped for quite a few camel photos, I joked later in the trip that I saw so many that they weren't any more special than horses. They sure were the first day, though. We got up close to the camels, gave the caravan leaders a little money to let us take photos. Getting up close to the camels, they are kind of ornery creatures, they spit when you get too close to them.
It was remarkable how much weight in salt blocks they carry. The Afar tribal people have done this for many years, they trudge slowly next to the camels with head wraps to protect them from the sun. They are moderate Muslim by religion and seem to live peacefully with the Orthodox Christians who live and work sometimes close to them.
Finally, we made it out to the salt flats, absolutely amazing. The sun was starting to go down, dry mountains in the distance with camels far out there on the horizon. The salt flats were endless and white, a thin layer of water on top that we stood in, incredible reflective quality with the sunset that was starting to come. We parked our trucks out there,
probably about 5 trucks in a convoy. It was truly one of the most mesmerizing beautiful things I have ever seen.
I pulled out the Christmas tree that many of the others weren't aware of yet. A few of the drivers worked with one of the armed guards to knock a hole in the salt blocks and put the tree in place. I pulled out some liquor I had brought and we all shared it, passing the bottle around. As the sunset became more intense, it felt like one of those lifetime moments. Good people around, adventure had begun, surrounded by the shocking beauty of the salt flats and sunset.
Back to our camp where we would spend the night, underwhelming dinner of soup and bread. We all walked over the the army guard camp where they actually had beer to sell. Our guide had actually some great music on his I pod. I was exhausted with jetlag starting to catch up to me, went back and went to sleep about 10PM on the Afar bed. I had a really tough night of sleep, specifically being bothered by a really loud goat that sounded like a whining human.
26 Dec 2014. "To Hell and Back: Bubbling Sulphur, Moon-Like Landscape". Thanks to the horrid goats, I was up at 5AM this morning before the sun, eggs, bread, shitty Nescafe for breaky. I said a grumpy hello to my bright eyed camp mates, we piled in our 4x4s quickly to beat the rising sun and oncoming heat. We sped across the salt flats to the north end of Lake Asale, truly the hottest place on earth (at times 155F). In the early morning, temps had risen to about 95 but were bearable. We had 4 heavily armed guards again, close to here is where the travelers were murdered 4 years earlier. There is no current threat but no chances taken.
We parked in caravan, surreal lunar landscape in front of us. We walked up a slow slope of volcanic stone, very bizarre and beautiful rock formations, salt formed mushroom looking shapes almost playful to look at, and walk on. There were also a variety of stone pillars, smooth in shape and begging to be climbed. Then, up over a rise we saw the absolutely incredible hues of the sulphur springs, hard to put into words. Greens, yellows, striking
colors, noxious fumes, Afar people in their traditional dress. I was tired but wandered alone around the crazy landscape and got a few photos. In the distance, mountains could be seen. It was getting hot, this was a place of exceptional and hostile beauty. To experience this completely underslept and jetlagged added to the unbelievable quality. Mindblowing.
We traversed the springs, made our way back to the trucks as the heat got too much. I picked up some little pieces of obsidian and volcanic stone on the way back. We drove a few miles, made our way to an area with large rock outcroppings. It was almost reminiscent of the desert southwest in the states. The rocks were spiky, crystally looking and their height provided shade from the intense sun. I was trying to remember to drink lots of water, it is a friend indeed in such temperatures. I think it was about 115F by now but dry heat.
We climbed many rocks, explored, went through a neat cave with a sulphur pool. The entrance to the cave was tight. I whacked my head pretty well going in, then reacted by arching my back up and whacking that.
I was quite tired. When we finally got back to the truck, I collapsed in the back seat. We headed back to camp, gathered our things and headed back the road, up higher in altitude and quickly out of this increasing heat. Amazing place.
After a couple hours, the temps had become somewhat bearable, we climbed higher and actually to a place where we started seeing a bit of vegetation. We rolled into the village where I originally met the group when I was late, for some reason that seemed like so long ago. That's how it goes on journeys, so much happens everyday, time bends and flexes in mind.
This village, quite friendly, was a like a few others we saw. It was a place where Afar Muslim and Tigray Orthodox Christians seem to live in relative harmony. As a group, we parked and went into a darker hut, a bit cooler inside. We were served some strong coffee, thank God. Then came a mediocre pasta dish with veggies, not too bad but not exciting. My stomach was a bit queasy, I had a cold Coke which seemed to help a bit and sure was tasty.
We said goodbye to the crazy Russian guy Oleg and two of the Swiss women who were peripherally part of our group (they were traveling this journey the other direction and were done, started two days ahead of us). We hopped back in our vehicles, passed many camels and little huts. The roads were better, seems like this country is one big construction project.
They say that even 10 years ago, it would have taken many days to do this same journey. The Ethiopians seem to have a love hate relationship with the Chinese. They tell me that without them, they wouldn't have had paved roads or many of the products that are available. There also seems to be a common refrain that their projects and products are lacking in quality. The Chinese are involved in nearly every project in this country, very influential connections in the government and business. I would see supervisors of projects in quite remote locations.
We rolled on and about 3PM rolled into the little village where we would stay for the night, a slightly larger and a bit more developed Afar-Tigray mixed village. We all settled in a big guesthouse, we would
all throw down mattresses and sleep in the same big room. We were welcomed warmly by the owner, there was a pretty little courtyard with papaya trees with little stools for eating. The place was impeccably clean, felt good to be home for the night.
By the way, it is 3AM the next day after a full day of activity. Roosters are squawking a bit, I went to sleep quite early last night, about 8PM. I'm outside now sitting at a little table, writing with the help up my headlamp. There are a few bugs flying about, crickets chirping and cool air as we are at a bit of altitude. I think I missed a nice gathering last night of my fellow traveler, but was just too tired, left them a bottle of the wine I had brought and crashed hard.
So, back to the afternoon before. While our things were being offloaded by our cook and guide, I took a run across the little town and fields nearby. A few kids ran towards me, asking me for a pen (which is common). I kept running, and running and running, people all over the village waving to me,
as running is known and respected in Ethiopia, some of the very best distance runners in the world have come from this country.
A few of the pack of kids dropped off with exhaustion, but I eventually accumulated about 10 young kids who stayed with me running for about 20 minutes, poking at me and laughing, amused to be with this strange white guy running through their village. I ran on, they were gasping for air, I stopped a few times to shake hands and embrace an elder who came by. By the way, this is lovely in this country. Men (and women for that matter) clasp hands, come close in with their heads, almost nuzzling. Then they bump shoulders 3-4 times, depending how well they know each other, sometimes even lay their heads on each others shoulders.
When I got back to our little guesthouse, I was quite sweaty and needed a shower. We were
given a couple cans of water each, not promising as I hadn't showered in 2 days and really needed one. It seemed mostly arid and dusty here, I imagine water was in short supply. One of our guides said "let's go shower
in the waterfall". A couple of the other travelers and I looked at each other surprised, doubting whether anything like that existed. Nevertheless, I grabbed my soap and towel, we followed our guy, across town, across the road and up toward the hills, making jokes all the way that the "waterfall" was going to be a trickle coming out of pipe, which would be fine.
We started following a small dirt road, up into a cool canyon in the distance. We walked a mile or so, were encouraged when we saw some water flowing down a little drainage system on the side of the road. If nothing else, we were gaining altitude and it was really pretty. We walked between the sheer walls of the canyon, the wind shifting the temperature we had left to something that was rather chilly. We walked on for awhile, around a bend and INDEED did see a waterfall, not too much volume as it wasn't rainy season but clearly spring fed as it had some permanence. We met another guide we knew, up here washing one of the trucks in our caravan in a somewhat substantial pool of water beneath the first falls.
We climbed some rocks (me, the Aussie, 3 Japanese people, 2 Czechs and the Spanish dude and the British American couple) and got to a prettier falls, water coming down rocks just perfect for a shower. It was like a dream, cold and refreshing. After a hot dusty couple of days, what an amazing treat! Lathered up and had a great shower, washed some of my clothes in the pools too. By the way, as I sit here at 3 AM, stars are out everywhere, I hear some jackals in the distance.
So, after the waterfall, the other guys had walked back. I stayed with my guide, helped him wash the truck and caught a ride with him. We drove the very bumpy trail back to town, picked up our fellow travelers as we reached the main road. We all rode on the roof rack through the little village. We were aggressively stopped by the local Afar police, gesturing wildly for us to get down for safety. He was right in one sense, but we were just on a little village road. It turned out that he was using his "shock" to try to get some money out
of our guide, poking his finger almost in my peaceful guy's face.
My guy took it for awhile and then put the cop in his place by telling him that his histrionics weren't authentic, reminding him forcefully that we are the ones who should be treated well with the economics we bring to this town. So, we got back, settled in and had a very good meal of enjera, lentils, veggies and a goat (sorry, Bethany) that he had purchased earlier, slaughtered while we were away and made into tibs with berbere sauce. Good coffee, too.
So, here I am. Everyone is asleep and I'm up at 3AM. I'll go back to bed in a bit and try to sleep some more. I plan to take some pics around the village this morning, have brought some rubber bouncy balls which kids love. I guess we leave around 9AM this morning and drive a long way to where we pick up camels and begin our crazy volcano/lava lake trek.
27 Dec 2014. "Camel Trekking, Erta Ale Lava Lake and More Goats for Dinner". It is not often that you have your mind blown twice in one week. It
was still early, I'm up about 5AM, great sunrise photos of villagers and nearby fields to the east with perfect hazy morning light. My fellow travelers started to arise, great to see them. In a matter of days, we had become a fun, connected group, maybe more than any group of travelers I've ever been part of.
Breakfast was good with eggs, fresh bread with nutella, fresh papaya I bought from our host and peeled and more bad Nescafe. I'm not sure why we were being served this nastiness in the land of great coffee, ugh. We packed up to go, finally our hostess brought out some good coffee, actually had a little coffee ceremony for us. It was much appreciated, we hit the road.
After about two hours of driving, stopped at a town run by Afar people for permits for our journey. I ran off with Goshi, one of the Japanese guys, and had another strong coffee. We had discovered that more mediocre pasta was planned for tonight and resolved to do something about it. We walked around the town, found a woman who was willing to sell us a bunch of injera she had just
made (got 25 big circular pieces).
We planned to buy some meat later and all pitch in money to pay for it. We met up with another group of travelers who were going to the volcano and sped in a caravan of about 6 trucks across the land on good roads, studded everywhere with volcanic rock and quite barren, with conical volcanic shapes on many of the mountains nearby.
The trek description says that this is the day we travel on some of the worst roads on earth. It was okay for awhile and I thought they were exaggerating. We went across a little bit of bumpy lava rock then sped out across hard packed sand dunes, racing the other trucks like some kind of desert rally. We saw a large chicken like bird a number of times, interestingly called a name that sounds like "bastard". We reached the end of the sand and the road turned very brutal very fast.
We passed Afar tribal settlements set among massive piles of lava rocks. The road was incredibly bumpy, almost seemed impassable at times. The tribal outposts were mostly just two or three nomadic huts made with mud
and scraps of cloth and metal, providing a shelter from the intense heat. Many of the homes were actually made with stacked up lava rock, I guess a very solid and reliable product. There is very little agriculture due to the climate (though we did see and hear optimistically about some sorghum planted and doing well. Goats and camels, being incredibly hearty creatures, are the main beasts of burden and food source for these people. Camel milk is also commonly drunk by the Afar people.
In one settlement, our guide/driver bought a goat from the tribal people. In a later village, he bought a sheep. These were lashed to the top of the roof of the 4x4 and we carried on. If you are a person who chooses to eat meat, this is as basic as it gets. You see the animal, get the animal, bless it, see it slaughtered and then eat it. That's how many people do it around the world, we are able to pretend in the western world by keeping a distance with packaging.
So, we got to the end of the road, a larger Afar settlement where we would walk from. We got
some more permits, went into a tent for some lunch. There were a number of other traveler groups around, we seemed to have all merged in this place. My little fantasy of my group being all alone wasn't going to happen, more people around during the holidays.
After the goat and sheep were killed and prepared, we actually fashioned a pretty decent meal with the injera, pasta, veggies and some cookies we had brought. We got in a little bit of a disagreement with some other groups who wanted some of our meat, we shared some of our injera at least. We rested for a couple hours, loaded up two camels with our mattresses and at about 8PM with a sky full of stars started our trek up to the volcano.
It was a pretty easy trek for awhile, we had our group and another walking close to us. The trail became tough to follow, very rocky and rugged. One guy in our group slipped and fell directly on his face, thankfully had a headlamp on which helped him a bit even though he had glass shards in his hand and was bleeding quite a bit. He split
his head open pretty well, we all pulled out our aid kits, butterfly bandages and got him on the go again. There was no stopping us. He pulled out of it like a champ, we were on our way.
It was warm even though it was 9PM. We burned through our water pretty fast, had been told that the camels had packed in some more. The hike was rugged toward the end, we got up to a place close to the volcano where would sleep in some little makeshift campsites under the stars. We dropped our sleeping bags, we had each carried one up. We walked from the campsite down into the old caldera, across a moonlit crunchy old lava field, at times slipping into old dry lava tubes. I actually scratched myself on some lava and it didn't heal for a week.
And then, up one more rise and there it was. Right in front of us, Erta Ale volcano lava lake, lava bubbling and shooting into the air, albeit in a controlled way. I guess this is the longest running active lava lake that you can walk up to in the world. You have to stay
about 10 feet back from the edge as it is very hot. It had a very primal quality, power of nature, mesmerizing. We had all done this together not without challenges. It was an absolutely amazing place that I never will forget, the lava spurting up in endless displays, bubbling, gurgling, little fireworks displays. It was hard to leave but finally we headed back to our camp and slept soundly with the glow of the lava in the background. Imagine those dreams.
We were to sleep at midnight, woken again at 5AM to get down to the lava lake for sunrise. I was exhausted but it was so worth it, watched the lava again for awhile. I climbed a massive rock, avoiding noxious gasses, overlooking the lava lake with a vantage point of the beautifully rising African sun in the east. It came up above us and flooded the crater and land around with daylight. Finally about 7AM, our guide ripped us away from this most amazing place.
We packed up, headed back down the mountain, me trail running the last half of the journey over lava rocks and surprising people up ahead of me. It was a
nice workout. We gathered at the Afar village where we had started, had breakfast of eggs, injera and fresh fruit. We looked at each other in awe of what we had seen and did the past couple days. It was time to return.
We headed back the long bumpy volcanic rock road, our driver let me drive rally style in the sand for awhile.
We finally got back to the paved road which felt so good. As we hit the main road, I slept hard for a couple hours. We got to a place where we were going to have lunch, a village with a bit more size. We all ate pasta and had delicious cold beers, including another group of travelers who had joined us. It turned out Rory, a really nice British guy in our group, was having a birthday this day. I slipped out, talked with the kitchen about buying this big loaf of bread that looked like a cake and having her put candles in it so we could sing to Rory. She just smiled and said "go sit down, I'll take care of it".
A few minutes later, the woman emerged with her
3 year old son (who's birthday it also was) dressed for a party, she had decided to merge the two birthdays. She had a huge stack a 4 circular loaves of bread (looked like a huge cake), a big bowl of popcorn, oranges, cookies, a big Happy 3rd birthday sign and sparklers to boot. We all celebrated and sang, Rory beaming ear to ear. It was utterly fantastic. We got back to Mekele, had big hugs and said goodbye. All in all, cool trip dynamics, great adventure and sights. What a trip start!
29 Dec 2014. Sitting alone on the lovely patio at Abrega Castle Hotel in Mekele, Ethiopia. There are birds flitting by everywhere, I'm surrounded by flowers. I feel like I am in the middle of a dream, that's what good travel in the middle of nowhere does. My breakfast is tasty: veggie omelette, quite good toast (they bring large platters of it to you here) and marmalade, fresh papaya juice and amazingly good coffee and warm milk, ever more so after the Nescafe on trek.
I had explored the idea of heading off on another three day trek, didn't quite work out. I'm not sure
I wanted it to anyway, was still buzzing from where I just had been. So, let's go get to know this country and it's people. This is the Tigray region, I decided to head even deeper into it, to a town called Adigrat very close to the Eritrea border. Said goodbye to Mekele and the nice people at my hotel, what a charming throwback place it had been. Walked to the bus station, caught a little bus headed north.
I'm now going across arid landscape, there is a sweet older woman on my bus. She keeps stealing shy glances at me, then turning her head and giggling. She was poor, was taking some veggies to market. She caught my eye and gave me the one thing she could, some delicious carrots she was carrying. I ate them, they were so good. I let her know that my my smile and my eyes. I hugged her and gave her a pair of magnifying glasses for reading (one of the gifts I bring). She tried them on, was giddy and reached her hands to the sky to thank God, beside herself.
Another young man just came back on the bus
to sit by me, then on purpose leaned on me. He didn't know any English, just wanted to show his affection this way, precious. he actually went to sleep on my shoulder. We rolled into an area north of Wukro, it started getting much prettier outside with big mesas and large rock outcroppings. It was interesting as there was much fertile ground around too, some rivers running through.
After another hour or so, I rolled into the town of Adigrat, rather cool at some elevation. I liked this place immediately, hardly any tourists in sight. The guide book said this town was "rather dull, used mostly as a stopover by people heading onto the rock churches". I couldn't disagree more. I found it to be incredibly welcoming, filled beautiful people who wanted to have their photos taken, often with me. I got a really sweet room overlooking the mountains and all of town for only $12. It actually was a 2 bedroom suite and that costs included a good breakfast.
Meals were very cheap here with excellent food. $3 dinners, huge plates of roasted lamb shank and spinach. $2 lunches for large enjera platter. There is a drink
here in town they call "sprice", I am quickly getting addicted to it, a big glass filled with smoothie, one half mango, the other avocado. Don't knock it till you try it, refreshing and filling. I wandered town, had coffee and a doughnut, walked up to the local Orthodox church, very old. I met a senior priest in bright purple robes. Often when I travel, I stumble into a place no one has talked about, a place I feel like is all my own. This place quickly felt like that. I resolved to cool my jets, chill out, just stay for a few days and enjoy it. So, I did and I am so thankful for that.
30 Dec 2014. I gloriously slept in and awoke on this chilly morning, sunny though in this little gem of Adigrat. Breakfast was eggs, great bread, local honey, tomatoes, delicious coffee with warm milk. I walked out to the market area, met on a side street by a young man who showed me a 600 year old Orthodox church with no one else around, amazing. For the next couple hours, wandered through a photo rich environment, women sifting grain, bright colors, lots
of produce in the streets. Although there were a few antiques, this was not a market for tourists, there were in fact none there but me. It was plain and simple a working market.
Most people here were wearing Orthodox crosses. Although I had seen a visible Muslim minority in Mekele, this town seemed overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian. People seem to have crosses carved into their foreheads. I was just ushered into a grain sifting factory, mostly the ancient grain tef used to make enjera. The women who work in the facility pulled me over, they were having a break, all sitting around a traditional coffee pot for coffee break. They seem to have at least a small ceremony every time they drink it, real reverence for the act. This is my third cup today, everywhere I go it comes out.
I walked around town, learned the word "barberi" for hair cutting place, had a great time tracking one down and slipping in to get a head shave. I wandered down many lanes, was going down a small one, followed a group of talkative schoolkids. After a couple blocks, ran into a few senior Orthodox priests in bright robes
walking together. They greeted me with big smiles and hugs and urged me to come with them. They invited me into a building next to the church, it turned out to be a small amazing baptism ceremony for two new babies.
What happened next was totally unplanned but one of the most amazing parts of my trip. The building was filled with people, incense and smoky air. There were chants and prayers that went on for an hour at least. I was given a staff to lean on and asked to come up near the front. The two babies were dunked in water, it was a combo of serious ritual and fun celebration. We all went over to the main church, again I was brought to the front and encouraged to take as many photos as I wanted.
Everyone was dressed in white robes, except for the priests in bright colors, light streaming through, colorful umbrellas in the front, people taking communion. Afterwards, I walked out in procession with all the people, was invited to sit and eat enjera and veggies with a large group of people. I was hungry. There was then another place I was herded
to, now expected to follow the group as a I had become part of it. The men separated from the women,
I joined a group of guys and was given more enjera, lots of shiro (pureed beans) and a soury alcoholic drink they seemed to have a lot of. What a day, finally back to my room for a quick rest. Later, strolled town (people are starting to recognize me) and had delicious meal of meatballs, veggies (kale) bread, cold beer and more of the mango avocado smoothie. It had been pretty intense, made arrangements for a journey the next day and fell hard to sleep.
31 Dec 2014. Had met some local university students who only wanted to take me to very special places today. They located a local guy with a car and said to come with them for the day. It became clear that they didn't want any money, just wanted to practice their English, share their culture from their heart. There were so many people like this, it was hard to accept sometimes that their was so little guile, most notably in this town of Adigrat during my trip. I'll never forget it. So,
we left after breakfast, drove an hour even closer to the Eritrea border, I heard old stories about the Italian invasion many many years ago and more recently how intensely this area had been affected by the Ethiopia-Eritrea brutal war.
Headed out a road headed west and stopped at very old church called St Marys. This place was founded about 430AD, beautiful setting up in mountains with huge rock outcroppings nearby. I got to sit with the head priest of this little church, he brought out shockingly old manuscripts printed and preserved on goatskin. In fact, that seems common. the waxy quality of the goat skin preserves things surprisingly well, still there were edges a bit tattered. I would like to see them better preserved, although these things seem to be part of their daily life. The priest then showed me some very very old tomb sites, said they date back to the time of Christ's birth. Apparently these people dug their own tombs before dying, knowing that they wanted to be buried here.
One pretty amazing experience after another, I was starting to get almost used to it. We carried on to very well known Debre Damo monastery, 1600 years old. I had a pretty epic wall climb to get there, a goatskin harness around me with a monk down below on belay and a priest up top helping hoist me up. My fitness felt pretty good, their were good holds, the wall i climbed was about 80 feet high, pretty vertical. There were a few other Western travelers about, this place is gorgeous and attracts visitors.
It was well worth it. Up top, after a short hike, things level into a huge plateau. There were ancient buildings, monks homes, water holes, all of this actively used today, as so much is in Ethiopia. Living history, everywhere. There were 450 monks living up top. walked a lot, visited with monks. The main monastery structure had beams that were brought from Jerusalem in the year 500 or 600. The Ethiopians seems to have much connection with Israel. There were 150 water holes up here, lots of cows, everything has to be brought up by harness and rope, even the cows. There was a place where old coffins and bones were in a cave.
My two university student buddies were beside themselves with happiness to share this place with me, they also just feel so holy and connected when they are here. Ethiopiand don't have to pay to visit, i think that is nice. I got back to the climbing wall, got down okay. . We rolled out, walked through a little rural village and up to huge cliff face, accumulated about 15 village kids along the way. Hopped back in the truck, went and had lunch in another town on the road back to Adigrat. Very tasty beans, meat, salad, coffee. My buddies had also brought some food, made by his mother. I have to admit, his was better than the restaurant.
The drive back to Adigrat was beautiful but a little dicey, very curvy roads, steep drops and an older driver who wasn't exactly on his game or paying attention. Finally made it back to town, said goodbye to my buddies, great day, oh so good. Walked over to a pretty Catholic church, invited by the bishop to climb the stairs of the bell tower, quite winded after 14 floors but amazing view over town at sunset.
As the daylight waned, saw a secret little garden restaurant area tucked in the trees. They were playing loud music, it looked fun. I got another one of the "sprice" drinks, the mango/avocado. Back to my hotel after a chilly walk around town. People are so nice here, going to be hard to leave, can't believe this will be my third night here. I really loved it, felt like I got to know a real Ethiopian town that doesn't function just for tourists. In fact, it hardly seems set up for tourists at all.
I met a really cool Seattle Ethiopian guy in the lobby of my place. He insisted on buying me a few drinks and hearing about my journey so far, quite curious how I was in this out of the way place. We shared some Seattle stories. He was visiting here after living in the states for many years. He gets exhausted when he comes back, so many relatives to visit, all of who perceive him to be the rich guy that should bring them presents and money.
So we had a few minty gin drinks, a big plate of roasted lamb together. He invited me to go meet his family the next day, I had to sadly make the decision to rip myself away from this special place or I wouldn't go anywhere else. Thanks Adigrat, loved you.
Jan 1, 2015 Ethiopia journal entry. Left Adigrat, bus full, ready to roll. Pretty ride across the striking landscapes of Tigray, North Ethiopia. Passed Yeha, dating back to 9th century BC. This is indeed an ancient land. I feel like I am really getting into the flow of this country, learning to move at its pace. It is making sense, though never in a way that I might expect. Unusual and splendid, again and again. So much has happened already and I still have 3 weeks on this journey.
Stopped in Adwa on the way to Axum. Milled about the bus station for about an hour, sharing these little peas in a pod with a father and son I met on the street. Adwa is steeped in history and legend, it was indeed where the Ethiopians stopped the Italian invasion, the only time that an African force soundly defeated a colonial power. The Italians came back a number of years later under Mussolini and exacted a heavy retribution from the Ethiopians, killing many monks in Tigray. It is, however, the bravery and victory in this initial battle that is most fondly remembered.
Slept a little and finally rolled into the ancient town of Axum, rather nondescript looking and spread out at first. This is the kind of place that very much allows itself to be uncovered in layers, more so by a traveler who doesn't rush past it. I had started to see some package tourists in this town for the first time of my trip and learned that there are companies that bring groups from Europe, primarily to see the historical and religious sites in this marvelous country.
I met a young man (about 25 years old) on the street, right near the entrance to the ancient stellae (monolith) park. He is finishing his university degree in ancient archaeology and ask me if he could show me around, pretty great luck. So, I wandered with him for the rest of the afternoon around the amazing ruins of Axum. Historicically, I learned that the Axumite culture existed from the 2nd century to the 10th century AD. At its height, in the 3rd century AD, is was one of the four most prosperous places in the world, along with Rome, Ceylon and Persia. There were many trade connections with Rome, architectural styles were traded.
There were huge connections with Israel during this time, most specifically Jerusalem. It is viewed as fact that the alluring Ethiopian Queen of Sheba stole the heart of King Solomon when she visited Jerusalem and the child they had was named Menelik. It is also viewed as accepted fact that the original Ark of the Covenant was brought to Ethiopia during this time and still lives in a church in Axum. No one is allowed to see it of course but it is a source of immense pride.
So, during the 3rd century AD, Axumites were rich and powerful. Pre Christian for a couple hundred years, they minted their own coins and erected massive monoliths, carved out of single blocks of stone. They symbols on the earlier to the middle period ones are pagan in nature, crescent moon, sun, ibex (antelope). The stellae (monoliths) seemed to be phallic in nature, each kind competing to raise a larger one. It was a massive undertaking, years ago this area would have been populated with many elephants. it is believed that they were essential in the process.
Also, it is interesting. They believe that unlike the pyramids of Egypt, which were erected by slaves, the people who worked on the stellae were craftsman and volunteers brought from all over the country and some say the world. In the 4th century AD, Orthodox Christianity spread like wildfire and was adopted by the King as the official religion. The Jews who lived here faced repression and resettled in an area near Gondar, south and west of here.
The stellae erected during this time started to have much more evidence of crosses on them, although they were increasingly seem as pagan of origin. The most massive one fell soon after being erected, scientists blame an insufficient foundation though others suggest that it was intentionally knocked down by hardline Christian proponents, who then promoted the event as a sign from God.
Been feeling a little queasy today, have been getting a little too frisky eating any street food I can get my hands on. In particular, I think some fresh fruit I ate today may have sat out a little too long before I got to it. It was chilly in the evening, what a lovely night though in this magical place. I wandered out across the town, found a fun place with loud fun music and a cracking fire pit to take the edge off. I took a break from spiced meat, had some roast chicken, rice and stir fried greens. I chatted with a number of NGO and Peace corps people here on holiday for the weekend, a little break from wherever they are volunteering in Ethiopia. Great day, back to my room at great little place called Hotel Africa, slept well.
Up early, going to take it easy today, poached eggs and dry toast for my tender tummy. My little place has a cool backpackers vibe, travelers from around the world coming and going. I love that. Well, my "taking it easy" lasted until about, met a sweet young man named Shushayon the street outside my place, a student and part time tuk tuk driver (they call them bhajajs here). He ran me down to the Ethiopian Airlines office, very hard to get flights this time of year but I got one! I'm out of here tomorrow with flight back to Addis Ababa and connecting on another flight all the way to Gambela near South Sudan.
Great news. Shushay was so sweet and encouraging. I rested a bit more, he said "I know you aren't feeling so well, come with me on a ride, we wil take a small hike, an easy one to a beautiful place and it will help you feel better. This kid was just so easy to love. I listened to him, hopped in his tuk tuk and headed out of Axum past the Queen of Sheba palace ruins
and past an old quarry field where the stellae used to be carved. It actually got rural very quickly out of Axum, beautiful farm fields. We parked by the side of the road, a place called Gobo Dura mountain. He told me he had a special place to show me that not many travelers getto see.
We walked across tef grain fields, up a mellow trail only made more difficult as I had flip flops on. There were interesting flowering cacti all over, a big cliff in the distance, I was a bit worried he wanted to hike to the top. There were great views over the town of Axum, hard to believe we were only 5km out of town. We hiked just a bit more up and saw pretty unreal unfinished stellae, carved many many centuries ago but never finished or moved. We also saw a "lion of judah" carving in a rock. These were ancient things, again right in front of me. Some of thestellae were still attached to giant rocks, made me wonder if the arrival of Christianity stopped the carving almost in its tracks. Just a lovely spot.
So, Shushay and I rolled back to town, stopped by King Esana Park in the middle of Axum, a little place with pleasant tables, people having beers and sodas. Also, there were small pagan stellae from the year 200 right in the park, with Sabean Pre-christian writing on them, written right to left like Hebrew with greek letters. It was quite warm outside, the cold Pepsi we had together was great. Back to my hotel.
Met a fun group of backpackers sitting outside my place: Spanish, Japanese and Israelis. We had beers, more of the same, many of them aid workers or NGO people on break for the
weekend. We were all lounging about, looked at each other and realized it was Friday night. "Let's go celebrate", someone said. There were 6 or7 of us, we ended up in a little traditional food place called Lucy, had lamb, roast chicken, veggies and some local tipple, a whiskey of
some kind. We met some local people out for dinner, basically merged with their party and all had a great time. They said "you come with us", the next thing you know we were in an underground club called "Zebra".
It was hilarious, how fast this evening had evolved. So, of course we went. Zebra Club was great, loaded with locals of all ages, very friendly. The DJ was excellent, spinning some traditional music which produced the frenetic shoulder shaking dances Ethiopians are know
for. He then would move right into western music, seamlessly spinning tunes with reggaetown and deep bass grooves that wouldn't be out of place at hip electronica clubs in London, Paris or New York. The locals pulled all of us up to dance, the lights were dim and cold beer flowing.
I couldn't buy a thing for myself, the local people and bar owner wouldn't hear of it. The Ethiopians cracked up when we very poorly imitated their dancing, I called it a night about midnight. What a day.Up the next morning, after a couple good cups of coffee said goodbye to
Axum. My buddy Shushay zipped me out to the little local airport in his tuk tuk. I had grown fond of this kid over the last two days. I hugged him and headed into the terminal.
"He Goes to the Wild West" Journal Entry. Ethiopia. 4 January, 2015. Just that that, I was on a small jet and flew away from Axum, connected easily through Addis Ababa and onto my flight to Gambela. As I boarded the plane, I noticed many very tall, very dark people, some with distinct Sudanese features. There were a number of NGO and aid organization people on my flight, as well as a huge food aid cargo plane on the tarmac when I landed in sweltering Gambela, one of the main refuge camp for the new humanitarian crisis in South Sudan is about 70 miles from Gambela, Ethiopia and this airport is used as the main supply point. Reading my guide book many months before my trip, the place had caught my eye as very interesting, authentic and a good place to launch a trip to the far west of Ethiopia.
I walked out of the little airport with no plans, hopped in the back of a pickup truck with some local guys and rode a dusty, very bumpy road, coated with dirt. It was barren, lots of burned out vegetation, perhaps done for agricultural reasons. After about 15km, we came into a settlement that proved to be the outskirts of Gambela. The dust subsided, the roads were better and I saw in the distance the wonderful Baro River. After being in fairly arid areas for the first part of my trip, it was a lovely sight to behold. Wide, soft flowing, a breeze across it to break the intense heat.
Without getting into a big history lesson, I'll tell you that this river connects to the Nile River, navigable to Khartoum, Sudan and all the way to the Mediterranean. Gambela was a British holding for years, used as a port to move resources out of fertile Western Ethiopia. Nowadays, the battle is that corrupt government officials are selling off land of the nearby tribal people to multinational agricultural companies, forcing people off of their ancestral lands and "resettling" them.
I thanked the guys for the ride dropped off at a roundabout in the middle of town that was humming with activity. At first glance, the tribal and South Sudanese people of this region were a bit terrifying. Tall, dark, scarification on their faces. It was dusty, oppressively hot, I was in a strange new place, this town of about 300,000. I through on my heavy pack, wiped the dust off my face and smiled. I love this.
The tall dark people instantly turned out to be some of the sweetest I had met on my trip, surrounding me and asking if they could help. After quite a few hugs (I guess besides the aid workers, they get almost no travelers here) and an obligatory sit down coffee, I decided I'd like to get settled. I was worried that finding a room might be difficult as I had heard the aid agencies often take them. In particular, there seemed to be a lot of Doctors without Borders presence, a charity I personally donate to and have immense respect for.
So, I hopped in a bhajaj (tuk-tuk) and explored a few places to stay with my nice driver. I found a great little room at a little place called the Baro Gambela, not right on the river but within striking distance of it. The place had pleasant lawns and vegetation, nice people, a great patio restaurant and best of all, a $25 room (I'm splurging) with breakfast included and air conditioning. Yes, AC, wow! I was in paradise, dropped my bags, took a delicious cold shower and a short nap.
I had some fresh papaya juice, felt energized, walked down to the Baro River, about 5 minutes away. It was strange, where I had been the tallest person on much of my trip so far, many of these people towered over me. I met a sweet family sitting under trees to avoid the afternoon heat, they beckoned me over for coffee and chunks of break slathered with local honey. I was learning not to buy my own coffee in this country, knowing that I would be pummeled with it throughout the day.
I reached the Baro river, it was late afternoon. It was humming with activity, people washing, bathing, playing, laughing and cooling off. I hung out with some local kids, gave them some of the bouncy balls I had brought. It was truly cooler down by the river and a real center for activity in this town for obvious reasons. I had been told to stay in the part of the river that is faster flowing, in the calmer areas only about 200 meters away, people are eaten by giant crocodiles on a semi-regular basis.
I walked under the bridge, lots of guys happily washing their cars and selves in the river. This seemed to be a real family affair, people down here with their laundry, bars of soap. I kept being invited to come and sit and visit, finally had to just walk on purposely or I wouldn't get anywhere. I made my way up the embankment on the far side of the bridge, snapping a few good photos even though I had heard that the local authorities are pretty strict about people photographing the bridge.
I came up to a sit called Ginina Recreation Site, loads of people sitting under huge banyan (rubber) trees that provided great shade in the tropical heat. This place was fun, adults sitting around sipping tea and coffee, kids playing outdoor foosball and billiards. Besides the tribal looking and South Sudanese faces, there seemed to be lots of people from other parts of Ethiopia (even Tigray) living and working here. It is a big country and many of them were far from their roots. When I asked them why they had moved here, some of them said "opportunity and work", some said "climate and laid-back feeling".
I chilled out for the rest of the afternoon, walked around quite a bit as the sum dipped and it cooled a touch. Got back to my room and had a really nice dinner on the patio of my guesthouse, eating with a local guy who had been working for 6 months in another part of the country and had returned to see his family. The meal was really tasty, river fish (the first fish of trip), rice, veggies, chili paste and a couple ice cold beers. For some reason, there seemed to be desserts in this part of the country, I happily obliged and had cake after dinner.
Another shower as it is easy to start sweating in the tropics. Some of the waiters in the restaurant were mystified that I wasn't an aid worker or missionary, and on top of that that I was traveling alone. I really thought I would like to take it easy but clearly, they had other plans for me. After nudging me a number of time during my meal, the grabbed me, piled me in a bhajaj and took me a to a local place called "Buylamoos", I think a variation of "bailamos" (or "we dance" in spanish).
And dance they did. This place was about a mile from my guesthouse. We dropped off, walked down a little land, went in a hidden gate, down a path. Out of nowhere, I heard music: hip hop, local music, reggaetown. The place turned out to be packed with locals and some aid workers there to let some steam off. My friends danced, doing the shoulder shake dance and progressing to wild dancing that could only be described and "rooster-like", but quite fluid, if you can imagine a fluid rooster. They pulled me onto the floor, guys dance with guys here and I damn well had to.
At some point, the power in the place went out, it was an hour until it went back on. The music wasn't playing but the beer was still cold. People cleverly kept the party going by drumming, chanting in groups, dancing and playing music on their I pods. Again, there were people of all ages. I finally told the guys I couldn't take it anymore, we strolled all the way home, across the atmospheric bridge over the Baro River, quite pleasant this time of night. Back to me room and slept hard.
The next day, I did a whole lot of nothing. I woke feeling great, excellent breaky of porridge, local honey, enjera with little chunks of meat, eggs, coffee. I walked all over town, did some errands as this is the last town of size I will see for awhile. I have decided to head up into the lush west of Ethiopia tomorrow. I spent lots of time by the river, waded over to large river island, got some more nice photos. Had a simple but tasty lunch of enjera and shiro (beans) at a little hut of some people I met while I was walking down a little path on the far side of the river. Made arrangements to be picked up at my guesthouse at 4:30AM tomorrow to catch an early bus. I thought I made a reservation for a seat but you never know. Gambela, thanks for a couple sweet days. Wish I could stay longer but the lushness of the hills, bus rides and adventure are calling.
5th January, 2015. Gonna be a fun day, got roused early by a security guard who had arranged to have a tuk-tuk waiting for me just outside my hotel complex. I guess the police have an official curfew in place during the night due to sometimes uncertain border issues. What that meant was that I had to pay a bit more for the ride and someone who was willing to break it it. It was pretty dark, I tossed my big pack in the back, it was misty and a bit cool this time of day. For sure it had a surreal quality, added to the fact that I was off on adventure.
I got to the bustling bus station, was supposed to connect with a guy I met the day before, actually one of the guys I went to the music place with. He had told me to meet him at a prearranged place and he would have a reserved seat for me on a bus. This is a huge thing to have and usually not available, generally first come, first serve. So, he was nowhere in sight, neither was a bus that I thought was leaving soon to the highland town of Tepi. My prearranged ticket was going to be $3. Sometimes, you pay a little more (which feels a bit against traveler's honor) to solve a problem. I met a driver of a minivan filling up with passengers, paid $6 for seat up to the town of Gore. Just like that, we were full and rolled on out.
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