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Trip 11 -- Ethiopia and Dubai

Message 2: How to get to Axum and buy an ox

From: "seth@sethweinstein.com" <seth@sethweinstein.com>
Date: Mon, 3 Mar 2008 11:24:24 -0500
Subject: Ethiopia update #2: How to get to Axum and buy an ox

In Lalibela, I met a local resident calling himself Ben. This may or may not have been a good thing. He found me as I got off the bus and showed me a shortcut through town to my desired hotel, which had good views and rooms that look like traditional cottages. He had a habit of showing up when I least expected him to, and he was able to get things done more easily than I could, though sometimes I wished he'd left me alone to figure things out myself. Sometimes I'd finish dinner and he'd pop into view, telling me that a friend was heading back toward my hotel and could give me a ride. I'm sure I paid more going through him than I would have otherwise, but it was more interesting going through him, and he could make happen practically whatever I needed.

He was probably 19 or 20, and he aspired to be a doctor, though his parents wouldn't hear of it - of what use is scientific medicine when there are traditional beliefs? So for now, he works at an orphanage, though I gather he doesn't get paid much, if at all. He oversees about two dozen children, and as a result, he sometimes has them run favors for him, which teaches them responsibility. He also works as an unofficial guide. Ben said blatantly that sometimes he does good things and sometimes he does bad things, though never for personal gain. For instance, he once collected church donations and then diverted them to install a toilet at the orphanage.

Ben didn't hook me up with my last major excursion in Lalibela - to the monastery of Yemrehanna Kristos, about 25 miles outside the city; I found some other travelers who had a car and were willing to take me with them. This was unlike any of the Lalibela churches. It's known as the "marble church" due to its layers of dark wood and white granite, and it's reached by a long, steep walk. The main church building lies within a cave, and in back are the bones - quite well-preserved - of some of the 10,000 pilgrims who died after reaching the church.

Ben did do his best to find me a ride from Lalibela up toward the ancient capital of Axum. The shortest route from Lalibela to Axum - via a 250-mile road north through the cities of Sekota and Abi Aday - isn't used by tourists much, mostly because there are no regular buses between Lalibela and Sekota, though the rest of the trip is supposedly easily covered. Well, I sure as heck wasn't going back through Woldia - that was the trip with all the carsick people on it! There were flights from Lalibela to Axum every morning at 10, but I try to avoid flying - apart from the cost, it makes the trip seem disjointed.

And so I finished dinner after visiting Yemrehanna Kristos, and Ben popped out of nowhere. He said a car was leaving the next morning for Sekota and I could possibly get a ride. I should be at the northbound bus station - basically a dirt square flanked by a couple of hotels, stores, and cafes - at 6:00 in the morning.

Well, I got there at six sharp. Because of Ben's connections with the orphanage kids, everyone knew there was a foreigner wanting to head to Sekota, and any time a car went by the kids would run after it. But of course no car came that was heading to Sekota. There were a few trucks, but they were only going about 20 miles north.

I didn't mind the wait. It wasn't a touristy part of town, and it was nice to hang out in the square, getting to know some of the local kids. I played with a paper airplane with a five-year-old, played a little soccer with a makeshift ball of yarn, and rode a bike around the square. I started to recognize the people coming and going - most notably a guy with five mules, who returned about once an hour with a load of heavy stones.

Ben wasn't available that day, but someone else took over the main responsibility of finding me a ride: a man in his mid-20s whose name I can best spell as Hiot (pronounced "hee-oat"). I told Hiot I'd pay 200 birr (around $21.50) for a ride - a bit more than Ethiopians pay, I think, but it would be worth it. If he found a ride for less than 200 birr, he could keep the rest as a commission.

I was told that a car would be coming around 10, then sometime between 10:30 and 12, then around 2 in the afternoon. I had lunch and continued to wait. Hiot said a car had left for Sekota that morning around 5:30, no doubt the one Ben had tantalized me with - I'd missed it by half an hour!

By 5 p.m. it was clear a car was not coming that day, but Hiot said he knew a driver who was headed to Sekota the following morning. He said I should spend the night at a hotel on that square, and he would wait for the car and let me know when it came. I looked at rooms at two of the hotels, both charging an overpriced $5.35 a night - they were far dingier than the Fasika in Hayk! At one hotel the rooms were barely bigger than the beds, and the light was barely good enough to illuminate the flies around the light bulbs.

Next to this hotel was a place called the Martelo Bar. Hiot said there were rooms in back and boy, was I lucky to end up here. My room wasn't much better than the others in the square, but the family that ran the place couldn't have been friendlier, and they really made me feel at home. They set up a chat-chewing area in my room, even though I wasn't planning to chew chat. It wasn't so much as a hotel as a family compound with a couple of rooms to let - there were chickens, sheep, goats, and dogs running around, including an adorable puppy. They were always cooking out back, they were always bringing me a chair when I stopped to gaze at something interesting, and there were sweeping views of the valley behind Lalibela.

And they fed me. As I left to go take a walk, the aunt - or possibly great-aunt - popped a giant wad of food in my mouth. And then she did it again, to the laughter of the rest of the family.

This may have stemmed from an old tradition. My Bradt guidebook mentions an 18th-century account of a royal banquet. Around the table, people sat man, woman, man, woman, and so on. The women on each side of a man would alternately pop giant pieces of raw beef into his mouth - the bigger, the better for the man's machismo, and the more noisily the man ate, the more polite he was deemed. The women kept feeding the man until he was full, and then he returned the favor, popping food in the women's mouths, and then the women finished eating, and then everyone drank.

After that, so the story goes, couples around the table would take turns having sex right there at the table, with nearby men holding up their shirts as sheilds, "and, if we may judge by sound, they seem to think it as great a shame to make love in silence as to eat....All this passes without remark or scandal, not a licentious word is uttered, nor the most distant joke made upon the transaction."

I walked out of town a bit to watch the sunset. As often happens, I attracted children, who seem to follow foreigners around whenever they can. Out near the ridge, I was invited to a house for a coffee ceremony. As is the tradition, they made me drink three cups, and the grandmother kept shoving roasted corn into my hands as a snack. The kids were happy to practice their English - everywhere around Ethiopia they seem to learn it well.

I had dinner and then went back to the square. I found Hiot at a tej house, and then we went back to the Martelo Bar and had a few drinks with the matron of the house, Yewagnesh. She was always very animated and nurturing, and she wore a white robe traditionally decorated with a couple of colorful stripes. She didn't speak a word of English, but somehow she could usually get her point across to me. Hiot said Yewagnesh was happy to have me there, and that she'd like me to join them for a meal the next day. I said that was very nice, but I gently reminded him that the point was for me to get to Sekota, and he had said the car would be leaving early.

Then Hiot got angry, and he was a bit drunk as well. He said Yewagnesh had been waiting for me to have coffee that afternoon, and then she wanted to serve me dinner; where had I been? I apologized and said I hadn't realized it; certainly I'd meant no harm. Yewagnesh seemed to understand, but Hiot seemed more upset, and the two of them had words until they straightened everything out and Hiot prepared to leave.

"So I will see you early tomorrow morning?" I tried to confirm.

"You don't trust me? I've spent all day waiting for you, trying to help you. Bye."

Yewagnesh and the family could see how taken aback I was by Hiot's behavior; they invited me into the main house to watch television. They even said I could sleep with them in the main house, but I said my room would be fine.

I was up at 5:30, just in case. Hiot came in around 6; he was back to being amicable, and he said the car hadn't come by yet but he would let me know as soon as it did. I dozed off again. At 8:00 he knocked on my door.

"The car is ready?" I asked.

"No. The driver got another job taking some passengers to the airport, but then he'll be coming back and will take you to Sekota."

I went outside. The family was having breakfast, and they invited me to join them. Friends came over, and we went through the customary three-cups-of-coffee ritual.

Suddenly I heard moaning in back. One of the boys had tied up a goat and had prepared to slaughter it. He did so by taking a very blunt-looking axe to the goat's throat, and within a few minutes the goat lay motionless, the puppy drinking up the blood. The two brothers cut off part of the goat's skin and broke the leg joints, and then they hung the goat up on a tree, the leg bones dangling like marionettes. They finished cutting off the skin, which was immediately sold as leather. Then the guts came out: stomach, intestines, heart. It amazed me how cleanly everything was removed - it wasn't messy at all - except for the orange guts, which were dumped out on the ground to be examined by the crows. The meat was taken inside, and all at once there was no trace of the goat I'd been staring at earlier that morning.

Still no sign of the car. The family let me help cut up the goat meat with some prehistoric-looking knives, and we had lunch. I took a nap. I woke up; it was 4:00. The Ethiopian Airlines office would close at five. I was tired of waiting. I found Hiot and said I was going to see if there was room on the following morning's flight to Axum. I walked into town slowly.

Suddenly one of the kids came running up behind me. "That car is going to Sekota," he said.

I looked around; I didn't see a car. "What car?"

"The big one."

He pointed to a large dump truck overflowing with timber.

"The lorry?"


At least it was a ride. I had to make sure of one other thing, though:

"I do get to ride inside the lorry, right - not on top of the wood?"

"Yes, of course."

The driver wanted 200 birr, and I gave Hiot a 70-birr tip - he'd done an awful lot of waiting, and we parted on good terms.

It is 130 kilometers from Lalibela to Sekota - about 81 miles. Now, do you know how long it takes a giant truck overburdened with cargo to go 81 miles on a dirt road riddled with steep hills and sharp switchbacks? Well, I do. It takes seven hours and eleven minutes. That's somewhere between 11 and 12 miles an hour - less than three times my walking speed! Indeed, if I'd not been a slave to a large backpack, and if I could have been assured of drinking water and places to stay, I'd have considered walking the 81 miles myself.

We got into Sekota a little after midnight. Somebody ushered me to a hotel, where a little over $4 got me a very basic room. It was violently windy that night, and there was a noisy bar within earshot.

As with nearly all buses in Ethiopia, the buses out of Sekota left at 6 a.m. I was glad to get out at that early hour; only a couple more hops to go - one bus to Abi Aday, and another to Adwa, and then I'd catch a short minibus ride to Axum.

I followed someone out of the hotel; he, too, was going to the bus station, which was right around the corner. The gates weren't open yet and there were a couple hundred people outside, all waiting to burst through the gates and cram onto the few buses. When the gates were opened, it was quite a stampede - and I had to shout out my destination to try to find the right bus. "Abi Aday?"

"There is no bus to Abi Aday. Take this bus to Abegele, and from there get another bus to Yechilay."

Well, it was a start. Abegele, wherever it was, was a little under three hours away, on a good dirt road with pretty rock formations. When we arrived, Abegele was having its weekly market, but I didn't have time to look at it as I was quickly ushered onto the next bus.

I should have known we weren't going far when the fare was only 2 birr. We traveled 15 minutes and then the bus stopped at the somewhat drearier-looking town of Finarwa, only 5 miles away - though I suspect if it had been the day of Finarwa's market and not Abegele's, my opinions would have been switched around.

"When is the bus to Yechilay?" I asked.

"Six o'clock," I was told. That meant noon. Ethiopians measure time roughly from sunup to sundown - so everything is six hours off from "European time," and our noon is their six o'clock. While we're at it, it's still the year 2000 in Ethiopia - they never switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar along with the rest of the world back in 1582.

Noon was two hours away. There was nothing to do in Finarwa except listen to kids try to practice their English, but all they knew were the phrase "My name is" and parts of the body. So they went around saying, "My name is nose," "My name is mouth," and so on.

With so much time to kill, I took the Abegele-Finarwa shuttle back to Abegele to check out the market for a while. There were a lot of spices, onions, and tomatoes, and some rudimentary footwear and household items such as batteries.

When I came back to Finarwa, a pickup truck was heading to Yechilay. I climbed in back with two locals - at this time of day, I rather enjoyed the open air, and we sped along for 20 minutes before reaching Yechilay. It was an attractive, small town, with its main street divided in two by a median of trees and scruffy thorn-bushes.

A crowded minibus took me the next step, to Abi Aday - about 80 minutes. Then my luck seemed to run out. I was told a bus was going to Adwa, but there was no one on it yet. An Ethiopian bus never leaves until it is full.

I had some fruit juice and rushed back, just to make sure I didn't miss it. Well, I didn't. I waited on it alone for about an hour, and finally some more passengers came along. The driver took us through town in search of some more passengers, and then we went back to the bus station, and then back through town, for about 40 minutes. Finally we were on our way, but it was very slow going - we seemed to stop every mile or so to load or unload passengers or cargo. With all the stopping, I thought we had an extra hour to travel - but suddenly Adwa appeared below us, about two and a half hours into the trip.

One more ride to go! We arrived in Adwa and I immediately got a bus to Axum, about a half hour away. By this time I was so dirty I couldn't even tell when the flies were landing on me. All I wanted was a good shower at the Africa Hotel and a good meal around the corner at the Habesha restaurant.

I got neither. The Africa had rooms, but the water supply had been cut off and wouldn't be fixed until the morning. All the other hotels nearby were full, so I took a room at the Africa. The Habesha had closed over a year ago, but someone near the hotel recommended another place, the Cottage. He insisted on walking me there, even though I just wanted some peace to myself. "You just came from Lalibela?" he asked.


"By bus?"

"Seven buses!" Well, it wasn't seven buses, but it was seven vehicles. The food at the Cottage was excellent - their mixed platter seemed to include some kind of innards on it - and I sat outside and ate, and had a kind of locally made semi-sweet wine.

I was particularly eager to be in Axum on a Saturday, because there are two excellent markets. One is an animal market in a fenced-in area on the outskirts of town. People walk their sheep, goats, cows, and oxen from far away in order to sell them, and then they walk back at night. It's quite a sight with all those animals wandering around - generally they are under control, but sometimes a wayward sheep needs to be dragged into compliance by its hind leg, or beaten with a stick. Sometimes the goats are tied in pairs or threes.

Animals are sold according to their size. Generally a goat goes for 120 to 280 birr ($13 to $30), a fat sheep for 320 birr ($35), an ox for 2000 birr ($220), and a cow from 1500 to 2200 birr ($165 to $240). The selling is done by the men; women come around and scoop up the cow dung, to be used as fertilizer.

Axum's other market is large but manageable - you can see from one end to the other, at least. Predictably, there are lots of spices, fruits, and vegetables, and this is where I first saw in its raw form the grain known as tef - the stuff the injera is made from. It's very tiny and a heap of it looks like sand. Indeed, the word "tef" comes from a word meaning "lost," since it's so small.

Also being sold - and demonstrated - were two kinds of stoves. One was an adjustable stove made of several pieces of pottery that could be combined or removed as necessary, to adhere to the size of whatever pot was on top. There were niches in the stove to allow for the insertion of coal. The other stove was a "Biomass-Saving Injera Stove." The stoves were being hawked by means of a recording played over a megaphone, and women were demonstrating the preparation of injera - mushing up tef and water (the result is very muddy) and pouring it over a hot pan, just as we would a pancake.

This market also had chickens and eggs in it, and around the sides were camels and donkeys, but they weren't for sale - these were the animals that had brought all the merchandise in that morning.

The Axumite Empire flourished from around the 1st to the 7th centuries, and Axum was a major world trade force during that time. There are, consequently, lots of historical structures floating around, though many have never been excavated. The Church of Saint Mary Zion reputedly holds the Ark of the Covenant, though no one ever gets to see it - it's housed in a building and the guards shoo away anyone who gets too close. ("We are afraid that Jews will try to steal the Ark of the Covenant.")

There are also numerous stelae, reminiscent of the obelisks in Egypt. They were erected by rulers as a show of power, and the largest lies shattered on the ground, having been destroyed by Queen Yodit, a legendary brutal figure who attempted to unite the Ethiopian Jews against the Axumite Empire in order to drive out Christianity. Many of the other stelae still stand, bizarre protrusions in a relatively confined area.

I then took a long walk around the city, visiting a few other points of interest. The Axumites really had their act together: In the museum there are seals and tallies of sorts indicating business practices, and way up a hill outside of town are the remains of a palace, including an underground bank - now it's the home of numerous bats. From the palace, I continued through the countryside to two monasteries - "for the scenery and the opportunity to escape the yelling kids," as my guidebook would have had it, but I instantly picked up a group of eight children who insisted on walking me from church to church.

I didn't mind. The kids were really smart and eager to practice their English, and they taught me the names of a few animals in Amharic and the local language of Tigrigna. They also showed me a few shortcuts through the hills and pointed out a few things along the way: a marker placed by the Italians, a kind of sweet and sticky edible fruit, a hearse and graveyard. And they were easily amused whenever our pace started dropping and I'd yell, "Go!"

Would that I could yell "Go!" on the buses. Today's drive to Gonder (no prizes for guessing what time the bus left) took 11 hours, but it was some of the most beautiful scenery. We climbed and climbed through the Simien Mountains, which contain Ethiopia's highest point. Every time it seemed we were at the highest mountain, we'd make a turn and continue the ascent. Never have I seen such a series of hairpin turns; they followed each other in quick succession. We saw baboons and monkeys, and the view at the top was fantastic - trees, animals, and houses so far down below they were barely distinguishable.

Gonder seems like a nice town; I can't wait to explore it tomorrow.


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