Thursday, April 19, 2012

That's a Wrap Ethiopia!

My final day in Ethiopia. It has been two weeks since I arrived here and have had a wonderful

time. Now the winds have shifted and it is time for me to move on, back to New York, back to an unplanned reality. In these past 2 weeks, I have taken some time to reflect on my situation and what I plan to do. I’m pretty sure this opportunity has opened up as a sign for me to finish my book, and finish it I will. Since I have subletted my apartment starting in May, it is best that I find a quiet place somewhere in order to finish the story I have already begun to tell. That is what I shall do.
Denis and Bob have been very gracious hosts and I’m so glad they allowed me to stay for this long in their big house. We already have plans to make a trip to Djibouti in October after my next camp. These past few days have been quite remarkable, visiting Aksum, Gonder, and Lalibela and they will stay with me forever, especially Easter in Lalibela. I can say I really enjoy Ethiopia, its people and places. There is something quite special about this country. It has a different feel from other African countries I’ve visited. Maybe becaue it is the only African contry that wasn’t affected heavily by European colonization, and it has its own unique history. In any case, it is a fabulous country that I will definitely visit again. Denis and I really want to take the train up to Djibouti next time and explore that tiny country that was cut out of Ethiopia. That should be a fun, if not long, trip.
So tonight I head off to New York via Dubai and Frankfurt. Back to my other reality, back to
homeowner responsibility and cat owner as well. I miss Lulu and look forward to spending some QT with her before I head off again to wherever it may be that I am going. Already there is a list of things on my Brooklyn To Do list and it seems to keep growing. Gardening, redoing Liz’s bathroom, selling t-shirts, basement purging, finishing my mural outside my house, and so on. It’ll be nice to unpack, unwind, recharge and plan out the next phases of my life. There’s a travel list also being made but I won’t reveal that to you until tickets are booked and plans solidified. So you’ll just have to wait and find out.

In The Cradle of Ethiopian Orthodoxy

Lalibela is the heart of Ethiopian Orthodoxy. It lies up north sort of smack dab in the middle
of mountains, 1/3 of the northern loop that is the required course for tourists visiting Ethiopia. After Aksum and Gonder, my next stop was Lalibela, where I met up with Bob and Denis on Good Friday for the weekend. This was one of the most special times to be here given it was Orthodox Easter weekend and there was not only a lot to see, but to witness the rituals of this high holy weekend.
Known for its 11 churches dug out from stone, Lalibela is amazing. Centuries ago, King Lalibela began this Herculean task of digging out of the rock sided hills 11 magnificent churches, all made out of one entire piece of stone. Legend has it that Lalibela’s brother poisoned him and while in a coma, the king went up to heaven where God told him to make the
churches and create a second Jerusalem. The legend also says that God sent down angels to help King Lalibela build the churches. His subjects worked all day, the angels working all night. Whether true or not, these churches are a miracle of engineering, planning and artistry.
Our guide for the 2 days we were in Lalibela, Mulule, took us around to all the churches and
explained in detail the history and special features of each church. It was rather tricky on Good Friday since each church was packed with worshippers and we had to squeeze our way through the crowds and over people going up and down furtively in prayer. We stayed at St. Georgiyos church for
the procession around the church to symbolize Christ’s walk up to Calvary Hill where he was crucified. With bright coloured, glittery umbrellas, censers wafting aromatic frankincense, and big gold crosses on staffs, the priests led everyone around this ancient church. It was a beautiful ritual, and
as was we walked around the church I reflected on how many times this procession has been done. It felt like something that harked back to the time of the first Christians and it felt so real. We are just mere people taking part in an ancient ritual—many have done this befire us, and many will do it after us. Humanity expressing their respect for their religion and their God. It wasn’t just another tourist experience but a chance to take part in an ancient Ethiopian
religious tradition.
Saturday was a better day to see the churches for no one, and I mean no one, was there. The Good Friday crowd was down at the town market buying their goats, chickens, sheep and ther food
for their Easter feast. Ethiopians fast for 55 days, denying themselves all animal products, and the final day before Easter, they have no food or water. From the churches we could see the mass of people at the market place down below St. Georgiyos church, and as we made our way through town, the locals would pass us with upsidedown chickens and sheep or goats on a small leash. The churches
we visited on Saturday morning were amazing as well, especially Bet Emmanuel, one of the largest churches carved out of the rock. What’s interesting is that most of the churches are not painted inside with frescoes or intricately carved. Maybe because after carving these monolithic churches out of rock, they were too tired to spend the time making the inside look nice. I bought a white cotton wrap that everyone was wearing over the weekend, the required white wrap that one must
wear when going to the church on the holy days. It was a little short, but I was able to wrap myself up in it sufficiently. Mulule had a longer one on that he wore the entire time he was with us.
After lunch at a fabulous new restaurant in town Ben Abeba, co owned by an Ethiopian and a
Scottish woman. This new place has made its mark on Lalibela with its very unique architecture—a structure that resembles some organic plant life sprouting flowers. Overlooking the valley, it is the perfect place to watch the sunset, and also look up at the towering moutain above the town. If you ever
get to Lalibela, put this place on your dining itinerary for it is worth it. Not only is the ambience wonderful, the food is delicious. Mulule met up with us at the restaurant and we piled into a van and drove off to see Yemrahana Kristos—another ancient church set in a cave up in the hills 45 kms
outside of Lalibela. The road is not too long, but it is not the best road so it takes about 1.5 hours to get there. It’s definitely worth the drive, for it is a beautiful wood and stone church that is
almost as old as the ones in Lalibela. My favorite part was the skeletons scattered in the back in a large recess in the rock. Over the years pilgrims have come here to die and their mummified remains are all that are left of them. They’ve fallen apart with time so now one can see piles of femurs, skulls, rib cages, and such just lying there. Creepy, but fascinating.
The highlight of our trip was definitely Easter service on Saturday night. People start gathering at the churches from 9pm and the priests sit outside the church, chanting, praying and reading from the Bible. Worshippers lay on the ground around the church in their white cloths and it looks like a sea of white glowing in the darkness. We had a perch up top on the edge, overlooking the priests and Bet Maryam (the church of Mary) and with a glorious view of the stars. As it got
later, more and more people came, locals and tourists, and the chanting and drums and singing could be heard from all the other churches. At 11:30 or so, there was a candle light procession around the church with more chanting and drumming, which was just magical. The soft glow of the hundreds of candles, reflecting off the white shawls, the drummers, the big velvet and gold umbrellas,
the frankincense, the chanting made this a wonderfully spiritual experience. Afterwards, everyone layed down and there was a quietness that fell over the town. The tradition is that you lay down until the priest announces that Christ has risen. Only then do you arise, just like Christ. This rising symbolizes rebirth and is marked by yelling and rejoicing loudly. Beautiful, is all I can say.
Eggs are not part of the Ethiopian tradition, but reeds are. On Saturday, everyone gets a piece of reed that they split and tie around their heads. Like the egg, the reed symbolizes new
life and rebirth. We got our reeds from a priest in one of the churches and wore them around our heads all day and night. Interesting to see the different Easter traditions around the world. I missed making Easter eggs this year, but was happy donning my reed around my head all day.
Easter morning came with the sounds of chickens cackling and sheeps and goats baaing their
last sounds before becoming a family’s Easter dinner. Around 9, the cacophony ceased and it seemed like the dreaded end came to those animals I could hear from my hotel room. Sad to know that the animals ended their lives this way, but such is life. I was talking to an American gentleman at breakfast who is working on a USAID agricultural project here, and he was telling me about the impact that fasting has on agriculture, especially all the cow’s milk and eggs that go to waste
because no one is eating them for 55 days. Interesting thought, there should be alternatives to this food use so as not to waste so much.
At 1pm Bob, Denis and I were aboard a Bombadier plane full of other tourists heading back to the capital after an exciting 5 days in northern Ethiopian. Just two more days and I’ll be on a bigger plane, heading back to my home base, New York City! I’ll have to enjoy the rest of my trip as much as possible!

The Camelot of Africa

The sun rises early here in Gonder over the mountains to the east of the Gohar hotel my glamorous lodgings perched high on a hill overlooking this medieval town. The Gonder town
musicians were my wake-up call again—a cacophony of roosters, dogs and a donkey bray now and then to add to the animal chorus. All that was missing was the meows of a cat, but I’m sure it was uttered just left unheard by all the rest. The rhythm of life in a small, historic city on the northern loop.
Gonder is most famous for its medieval castles set in the center of town. The Royal Enclosure, as it is called, surrounded by walls is an amazing ensemble of old castles built by
various emperors and empresses of yore. These old structures have held up impressively well over the 400-500 years since they were built. I fended off the offers from tour guides politely and enjoyed imagining how life was like way back when, when the gorunds were teeming with royalty and their minions running to and fro. Those out of favor hung from the trees outside the palace walls,
probably as a reminder to stay in good standing with the emperor.
I had about three hours to explore the main sites of Gonder upon my arrival from Aksum: The Royal Enclosure, Fasilade’s Bath and Debre Selaissie church. I hit all three, the church being
closed for a service, so instead went to Kuskuam, another palace up on a hill outside of town. Built by Empress Mewatib after her husband died, she decided to live outside the court (and away from gossip, for she loved her young boys) not much is left of the place. The Sudanese dervishes, the Brits and Italians trashed the place as they went through Gonder at various times throughout history.
Most impressing at Kuskuam was the singing coming from the church in the palace complex. Women furtively crossed themselves and bowed on the ground outside the church. The prayer ritual here reminded me a lot of the way Muslims pray; bent knees and head to the floor. Similar yet different, yet same goal—worshipping God.
After touring the town, had a little nap and enjoyed some G&T’s on the terrace as the sun set
over the mountains to the west. Met Richard and Nina, two vactioners while watching the sun go down over Gonder. He works for Medicines Sans Frontieres in Somalia, and she’s a social worker in DC. We enjoyed the view over dirnks and then went down the hill to town for dinner. Richard was craving a
steak, so they went to a hotel for din din, and I to the Four Sisters restaurant, which came highly recommended by Bob and Denis. It was an off night for Four Sisters, as I was one of two tables that were busy. Usually the place ishopping, but it’s off season I guess. Still, I got a guy singing traditional songs just for me as I sipped my honey wine and had a very delicious meal of lamb tibs and veggies. Got to meet the four sisters too who were all very pleasant and hospitable. At first it seemed sad that such an exotic Ethiopian restaurant, so fabulously decorated would
be empty, but by the end, I was quite content by the individual service they provided. I even got to play the masenqo-a one-stringed instrument while two of the sisters danced for me. At the end of the
evening, the sisters called me a tuk tuk and off I went into the night, speeding up the winding road back to my hotel. A full half day but oh so enjoyable. This morning I’m going to make the trek to Debre Selaissie church to see if I can take a peak inside before Goof Friday service begin and
before I have to fly to Lalibela. Wish me luck!

A Walk Through Aksum

Morning comes to Aksum. A chorus of roosters awakes this small city with their cock-a-doddle-
doos 100+ strong. Other birds chirp in to add to the avian chorus. A donkey brays loudly nearby, not to be outdone by the birds. Soon Aksum will be humming along in its daily routine as it has for thousands of years.
I really love this town. In many ways it reminds me of a Mexican colonial town; orderly
streets, bright coloured houses of green, blue, and ochre. Wide boulevards lined with beautiful flowering trees, little street cafes where locals sip coffee and watch people go by while catching up in the latest news. My most favorite of places to visit is the giant tree growing in the middle of
town, encircled by a three-tiered cement platform where people sit, talk, and check out the scene. This is where
real Aksum life happens; the old men sit and talk, ladies rest a spell with their loads before heading on, young
guys wait for friends, others playing Foosball. This is what I love to experience, not all the historical and touristy stuff that I supposedly need to see. Tourists get shuttled from one
place to the next on their buses, but I just want to sit and watch present-day Aksum go by, chatting with whomever
comes and sits next to me.
Aksum is an ancient capital of Ethiopia, and is known for its amazing steles (giant,
monolithic, edifices) that have been standing around town for centuries. Also there’s the Ark of the Covenant that apparently lies in a small church between the old and new St. Mary of Zion churches. I say apparently because only one man is able to see it—a blind monk who holds the
key. Lastly, this is where the legendary Queen of Sheba ruled Ethiopia. Legend has it that she went tovisit King Solomon in Jerusalem, wound up having a baby by him and her son, Menelik I, was the one who
brought the Ark back to Ethiopia when he went ot visit his father. Ethiopia is a place of many fantastic stories and with enough evidence to make them more or less believable.
Yesterday I flew up here from Addis and spent the day roaming the historical sites and streets by foot. The only thing that takes away from the magic of Aksum are all the people that glom on to you along the way. They follow you, trying to get something out of you, take you to a shop,
offer a guided tour, etc. It’s as if we (farenji) are only a source of income for them, and yes technically we are, but I don’t enjoy being hustled every step I take in this town. “Hello, Hello, Hello” they yeall at you or follow quietly beside you and then pop a cross necklace or a geode at you. By the end of the day, it’s hard to be civil with them and you don’t want to buy anything at all from them. There’s also the myriad of guides who want to show you things, most of them are unofficial guides. I have to be honest, I HATE guides. It goes back to my Russia days where you were forced to have a guide in every museum or historical place. I enjoy reading about thing, then going to see them. I don’t like to be told what I am looking at, thus I’m sure that
I am the bane of many a guide here. I fended them off as best I could, politely saying NO and complementing them of their wonderful city. Aksum does need to diversify itself. Tourism is big business but it can’t be the only game in town.
In a few hours I will be off to Gonder, another ancient capital of Ethiopia. Less churches,
more castles. It’s called the African Camelot, so I look forward to a break from churches for a day, and see some old castles. On Friday, Good Friday here in Ethiopia, I’ll be meeting up with Bob and Denis in Lalibela, the holiest of places here. That should be an amazing place, given we will be there Easter weekend and it’ll be packed with pilgrims. Can’t wait for that! If you want to know what happens, keep reading.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

You Gotta Have Faith

Easter Sunday all over the Christian world, but Palm Sunday here in Orthodox Ethiopia. The
priest’s prayers resonate over Piazza, the area of Addis Ababa where my friends live. We have one more week of fasting and such before the big Easter day. I will be spending it in Lalibela, one of the oldest Christian sites in all of Ethiopia. Famous for its churches dug out of rock, there will many a pilgrim there next week. Looking forward to that.
It’s amazing to find out that Ethiopia is the second country in the world to adopt
Christianity (Armenia being the first) way back in 300 AD. To think that here people have been worshipping for more centuries than almost anyone else is amazing. When I reflect upon that, I think of the Catholics and other Christians who think they are so high and mighty and that they are superior
to any other Christians, but you know what? The Ethiopians have been doing it longer, and they are devout and not prideful in their worship. There is serenity, a calm when entering a church here and something special watching people pray. It is welcoming and yet distant in some way. Still the centuries-old faith that is practiced by the majority of the population never ceases to put me in awe. The frescoes and
icons in the churches are just spectacular, as are the churches themselves. I’ve only been in two, yet in each one I feel such peace, as if I am at home.
Notwithstanding, Islam plays an important role in Ethiopia as well. It came along 300 years
after Christianity, and serves a decent proportion of the population. While churches dot the Addis skyline more than mosques, Christians and Muslims work and live side by side and seem to get on well with each other. Accoridng to my friend Bob, there doesn’t seem to be animosity between the two groups. I’m sure they have their scuffles but for the most part all is well.
Yesterday we visited the Trinity Church, also known as Haile Selassie’s church since he worshipped there and is buried there next to his wife Empress Menan. It’s such a beautiful
church and the time of day we visited, the lighting was just perfect to make it memorable. The stained glass windows, the altar, the large tombs of the last emperor and empress of Ethiopia, the quiet of
the place, it definitely was wonderful. They were gearing up for the Palm Sunday celebrations outside by hanging bunting in Ethiopian flag colours, assembling canopies and putting up palm fronds everywhere. This is only the second church I’ve been in here, but this coming week I will be churched out when I head up to Aksum, Gondar, and Lalibela—that’s the heart of Ethiopian Christianity.
Faith, it’s something everyone needs—it brings us together and breaks us apart. The more I
travel around the world, the more I know that all religions are right, not one is better than the other, and that God is one. It doesn’t matter if we pray 5 times a day, go to church once a week, visit a temple daily, as long as it makes sense to us as individuals, it’s all good. The roads are different, the destination is the same. Such are my thoughts on Palm Sunday here in Addis. Now I must see to breakfast.