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Trip 11 -- Ethiopia and Dubai

Message 4: Abyssinia in all the old familiar places

From: "seth@sethweinstein.com" <seth@sethweinstein.com>
Date: Sun, 16 Mar 2008 06:23:52 -0400
Subject: Ethiopia update #4: Abyssinia in all the old familiar places

Here's how to wash a bus in Bahir Dar:

  1. Drive the bus to the source of the Nile, under the bridge near where the water exits Lake Tana.

  2. Drive the bus into the Nile a little bit, so that the front wheels are nearly submerged.

  3. Hurl bucketfuls of Nile water at the side of the bus.

  4. Open the door of the bus, and hurl bucketfuls of Nile water inside the bus.

  5. Repeat until dinnertime.

I returned to Addis Ababa via the little-visited, but still substantial (I got population estimates from the probable 60,000 to the unlikely half million) city of Motta, where a cousin of mine is close with a family. Ayaleow is in his last year of high school and will probably enter the medical field; he's the youngest of a large family (when I asked how many brothers he had, he said, "Around seven"), and his oldest brother, Sileshi, still lives in the house, as does their father and a servant (the mother died a couple of years ago). A few cousins pop in from time to time as well.

They were very accommodating - the servant made some excellent vegetarian meals - but they didn't really know what to do with me. So Ayaleow and I spent the afternoon buying my bus ticket back to Addis Ababa. This takes an afternoon in Motta. At 3 p.m. people line up to register their names. Then, when the bus from Addis Ababa happens to pull in (which was around 4:30), the conductor reads off the names of people who have registered. Someone tried to answer for Ayaleow, but he had also given his last name.

We also visited Ayaleow's high school, where a geography teacher approached me.

"You are causing a disturbance by being here."

"Really?" I said. "I promise you, I'm not very interesting."

"The students are distracted by you."

"Then they should be disciplined...right?"

But since I wasn't welcome, we left. The school had several buildings on sprawling, leafy grounds; there was even a basketball court with two backboards and one net. The classrooms looked pretty austere, though.

Late in the afternoon, we walked through a eucalyptus forest into tef fields to watch the sunset. The eucalyptus isn't native to Ethiopia; it was brought from Australia and grows quickly, so it is a reliable source of wood. Indeed, it's the introduction of the eucalyptus that enabled Addis Ababa to become the capital - the setting was otherwise perfect but there wasn't enough building material around. Now they're building a new church in Motta (Ayaleow's father is a priest at one of the old ones), so they're in need of some new timber.

There was not much to do in Motta after dark except watch American movies on satellite TV, with Ayaleow's nephew doing the channel-flipping.

I had five days left in Addis Ababa before leaving the country. This is rather too much time to stay in Addis Ababa, but not enough time to explore another region - with eight or nine days I might have headed south to visit some of the tribes in the Omo Valley, or gone to one of the national parks. This time I based myself at the sprawling, central Ras Hotel, where the receptionist put my proofreading skills to use. She had written out a sign - "From 17.3.2008 the restaurant will be renovated. Breakfast will be served in the bar" - and thought it a bit wordy. I changed it to "Breakfast will be served in the bar starting Monday, 17 March 2008, due to renovation of the restaurant" - which is just as long but sounded better to her; I pointed out that she didn't even need the date on there, since people would just see the sign and head back to the bar - but she wanted to get the sign up a day early.

I finished up sightseeing in the capital, visiting the Addis Ababa Museum, with its wonderful photographs of the old city; happening on an art opening (sheet-metal sculptures of Demissie Gurmu) at the Asni Gallery, which has lovely gardens and intriguing permanent outdoor metal sculptures, including a train made out of old containers and scrap metal; having an excellent Armenian dinner at the club of the Armenian Sporting Association; and seeing the Abyssinian lions at the zoo. The males seem to have disproportionately large heads in relation to their bodies, and thick, dark manes. There are around a dozen of them, kept in bare, but shady, cages. One had woken from a nap and wanted to play with his female companion; a few were gnawing on bloody, fatty carcasses; and one paced back and forth until it stopped and peed with deliberately careless aim. Guess who was in the line of fire....

And I took an overnight trip to Mount Ziquala. The mountain is an extinct volcano a couple of hours' drive from the capital. It's a handsome mountain, nearly symmetrical and very green, and it boasts a crater lake at the top.

Friday was one of two semiannual religious pilgrimages to Ziquala. There's a fourth-century monastery at the top, though the church is new. I hopped on a bus Thursday afternoon to join the thousands of white-shawled pilgrims who would climb the six miles up the mountain, spend the night, and spend the next day rejoicing and praying.

A man named Zenaye was on the bus with me, and he befriended me just the teeniest bit too quickly and enthusiastically - as a result I never quite fully trusted him, though he was always friendly, never seemed to have any ulterior motives, and never asked for money for his "friendship," something that had happened to me a few times throughout my stay in Ethiopia and had made me wary of accepting people's kindness. Zenaye was a painter and sculptor - he had heard of the opening at the Asni Gallery and almost attended - and his English was very good. He was a widower and had an 11-year-old son, and he was with a group of about six people.

The bus took us to the base of the mountain, a village called Hamus Geber, which simply means "Thursday market." We arrived a little after nightfall. Zenaye said we would walk one hour up the mountain, spend the night at the Wember Maryam church, and then resume the trip in the early morning.

The going was steep and Zenaye's pace was fast. A man sold flaming torches to light our way; these burned out in about two minutes due to the wind, and I relied on my flashlight to see the rocky slope. Many of the pilgrims carried flashlights as well, so it wasn't a totally wussy thing to do - though the stars and half-moon cast a surprising amount of light on the path, and the flashlights weren't always necessary.

We reached the church in 20 minutes, and Zenaye suggested we go all the way to the top that night. It was a beautiful walk, fairly warm, a little windy, and with great views in the night - the lights of the little city of Bishoftu were visible around 20 miles away, and even Addis could be seen, 40 miles away. The path became less steep but it was tough going, with all the rocks and the sheer endlessness of it all. It took two hours to reach the top.

A distant relative of Zenaye's lived at the top, in a house with a couple of bedrooms, a prayer room adorned with religious paintings and pictures, and a kitchen. There was a small patio in front, dominated by a large water tank; they grew cabbage in this area.

When we arrived, someone I later learned was "a female monk" treated us to the most unpleasant ritual I've ever endured: foot-washing. Zenaye seemed pleased and honored to take part in the ritual, but the thought of plunking my feet in a pail of water and having some stranger clean them vigorously was about the last thing I wanted after climbing a mountain. Still, I succumbed. It was exceedingly uncomfortable and I grunted and twitched through the whole ordeal.

Then we were fed - a basic sauce surrounded by torn injera infused with spices. I wasn't particularly hungry, but I ate a bit - though Zenaye thought I should have eaten more. We also had some tella (homemade beer) and tea.

Straw was laid out on the patio, and that's where Zenaye and I slept, along with about a dozen other friends and relatives. Zenaye lent me his jacket and they wrapped me in a shawl. It was chilly and a bit windy, but beautiful, and I slept most of the night.

The morning's festivities began with another water ritual. Everyone went over near the crater lake, where there was a hut into which masses of people were racing to bathe in holy water from the lake. This time I declined - the foot-washing ritual was bad enough, but in the crisp morning air the last thing I wanted was to take off all my clothes along with a thousand other people and get wet, and then not have anything to dry off with. Zenaye seemed a bit insulted that I refused to bathe, but he understood.

Then the tradition, so Zenaye said, would be to walk around the lake five times. This was eventually shortened to three times, and in the end it only happened once. It was a most inspiring procession, with all the pilgrims singing spiritual songs, the men clapping along in rhythm and the women answering with a high-pitched "lalalalalalala." Protected from the sun by umbrellas, people carried an ark draped in velvet or something similar (not the ark I was preparing to steal in Axum).

Then the processional went up to the circular church, where people sat outside on the grass or on mats. Four large crosses were brought out, as was the ark. A priest spoke, sometimes chanted, through a microphone, and sometimes there were cheers in response. This went on for a few hours, during which I followed Zenaye's example and dozed off.

Zenaye would have spent a second night on top of the mountain, but I wanted to get back to a proper bed. I told him I didn't need to be accompanied, but he escorted me back down the mountain - again quite briskly - and we found a bus back to the capital. To thank him for his generosity, I took him to dinner for my last night in Ethiopia. I had one last kitfo; he was fasting (Ethiopian Orthodox Christians have 250 fasting days per year, on which they eat no meat or dairy) and had the vegetarian platter; and we shared a fried fish. It was a seemingly new restaurant called Enset (which is the name of the false-banana plant whose rubbery stem accompanies kitfo), with great furnishings and lots of paintings featuring musical instruments (though Zenaye the painter was quick to point out their shortcomings). The place was nearly empty, even on a Saturday night - Zenaye said that in Ethiopia people were more likely to go dancing than dine out on the weekend. I pointed out that in New York we quite capably do both!

This is the end of my time in Ethiopia, but it's not the end of the trip. Thanks to the good folks at Emirates Airlines I get a free stopover in Dubai - well, free as far as the airfare is concerned. Culturally, gastronomically, and financially it will be quite a culture shock - my room at the Ras was about $16 a night and I'll struggle to find anything for less than six times that in Dubai, but boy, do I expect to eat well for the next six days. My Time Out guide to Dubai lauds the availability of Ethiopian food, but this time I think I'll give it a miss!


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