Monday, May 18, 2015

Addis Ababa to Frankfurt

I arrived in Frankfurt from Addis Ababa and had a brief layover - 7 hours or so - but it was long enough to leave the airport and go for a walk in the city. Frankfurt was kind of a perfect place to have such a layover. I have never been interested in going there and it lacks 'must-see' sights, so i could wander without feeling any pressure to do or see anything in particular.  I did do some planning and determined ahead of time where the best/most scenic places would be to go (the less time in a place, the more planning required).

I passed by the disinterested customs/immigration officials and caught the easy and efficient train to central Frankfurt.
train station
After my weeks in Ethiopia, and most recently Addis, the air felt so cool and fresh. I arrived early in the morning and it was a monday so the streets were mostly quiet and then filled with suits off to work and a few buses of tourists, waving a plethora of selfie sticks.

The city was...nice. Attractive and clean, with some pretty, historic and very German buildings, some public art, waterways and bicycles. It wasn't remarkable or amazing, but it was nice. Sort of like a German version of Vancouver.

I had a great coffee and bread and cheese for breakfast from a cafe on a pretty square. My first non-Ethiopian food in a while, which made it especially delicious.
The best thing about my hours in Frankfurt was that no one spoke to me unless i spoke to them first. No one said hello or smiled. No one asked me where i was from or what my name was, how old i was, if i had children, etc. I think i dealt fine with the constant barrage of attention from locals on the street in Ethiopia, and it is nice, i suppose, to have connections and interactions with strangers, but at my heart i like to walk down the street and have no one care or pretend to care.  That urban, western disinterest felt so welcome and comfortable on that morning and was probably my favourite thing about Frankfurt.

Back to the airport, i flew to Vancouver, another trip concluded.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Back to Addis Ababa

I left Lalibela the morning after the day of my mule trek. I awoke that day feeling like i might die. Fever, vomiting, and excruciating soreness all over. Thankfully my sightseeing was complete or it would have spoiled the day, but as it was the day was mostly travel: Waiting around for a bus to get to the airport, waiting at the airport, flying to Addis, and then waiting for a shuttle to my hotel. By the time i arrived and settled, all i wanted to do was have a cigar and a bath and go to bed. A word about my hotel, i figured that by the end of my trip i would be worn down, tired, dirty - all of which are true - so i had booked my last two nights in Addis at the Hilton, which is super fancy. I felt like a hick walking in in the same outfit i've been wearing for the past 2+ weeks, smelling of sweat, mule, and probably vomit, but it was the perfect place to actually relax for a change and get some rest. And, as it turns out, there are lots of great places here to curl up with a cigar and enjoy some overpriced coffee.
Thankfully, my sickness turned out to be a 24 hour thing and i awoke the next morning read to take on the city.
I walked north of the hotel through a bit of a park like area and came upon a big church with a wedding procession outside. It was lovely, with people singing and clapping and drums being played as the couple paraded around the church.
I didn't get to go inside the church but all around it were giant tortoises, like the kind that may easily be 100 years old. That was neat.

From there i walked up to the National Museum, which houses a small but satisfying array of Ethiopian historical artifacts and artwork, in addition to the remains of "Lucy" the oldest or most famous found skeletal remains of an australopithecus, a precursor to homo sapiens, dating back about 3.2 million years, which is pretty amazing. (Look, i'm not a scientist. If you want some detailed info on Lucy, google her.) People all throughout my trip have been encouraging me to go see my "great grandmother Lucy" and they are understandably proud that we can presently locate the ancestors of all mankind to Ethiopia.
After that i walked further north past various traffic circles and busy street scenes, enjoying the walk and stopping for fresh mango juice or coffee.
I walked up to the university and wandered ariund a before checking out the Ethnographic Museum, which had a good art gallery as well as very interesting displays on cultural practices of people in different parts of the country. 
It was all very enjoyable abpnd quite walkable, though by the end of it i was content to stay in and enjoy a cigar on the hotel patio, by the palms.

Today i resolved to walk to the Mercato (yes, they use the Italian word for market). This was quite a walk from the hotel, made more difficult by the fact that i didn't have a maqp, but i knew it was in the north east and near a really big mosque and i was delighted that i was able to find it without havign to haggle for a taxi fare. I was less delighted that, being Sunday, the market was rather quiet and most of the surrounding businesses closed. It still made for a satisfying walk though, and one which i followed up by walking to Meskel Square and down Bole Road and back. Trust me, this was a long walk. Nothing of any great interest occurred, but it gave me my final glimpses of Addis before i head to the airport this evening.

And that, is pretty much that for Ethiopia. It has been a wonderful trip which has exceeded my expectations and has been a far easier trip than i expected. Terrific sights, cities, people, food, a d experiences. I only regret that i do not have time to see the many other parts of the country, which look so appealing. But it is back to work for me, with just a bit of a visit to Frankfurt en route.
Flying soon.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Travels With My Mule

The day before yesterday i was sitting in a pleasant cafe near the centre of Lalibela when a local guy showed up and started talking to me. I politely if a bit tersely went though my rote answers to the usual questions: Canada. Vancouver. Just about 3 weeks. Ethiopia is very beautiful and the people are very friendly. (All of which is true.) but this guy persisted and i actually gave him the time to talk. I had been planning on going on an excursion by car the next day to see some pf the countryside and outlying chuches, but this guy had a better idea-to go into the mountains by mule and visita monastery and a village. This sounded like a way better idea, so i agred to meet him early the next morning.

When i pictured a journey by mule i imagined leisurely strolls down wide forrest paths on my trusty...mule. 
It certainly started out that way but when we started to really as end the mountain the mules were climbing up very steep inclines over not so much paths but trails of jagged, large broken rock. At times the trail was comfortably wide but in many places it narrowed to about 3 feet with a mountain face on one side and a sharp drop off on the other. As i have little or no experience riding beasts of burden, at times this was nerve wracking, but also exciting. 

Finally we reached a place where the path became too narrow for the mules so we continued on foot on narrow path hugging the cliff face until we reached a short, daylit tunnel, climbed up a scramble of rocks and reached a monastery where the on duty monk or priest showed us many religious texts and items by candlelight.

After that there was more hiking; the sort that requires one's focus not to pick the wrong rock to step on and slide to one's doom. It was good though. 

When we reached the next flat bit we rode the mules again to a village where we went to a local  traditional house where a family of four lives. The house, made of mud and straw with a peaked wooden roof, is about 8 feet in diameter and contipains one rrom on top (where the family lives) and one room on the bottom (where the livestock live). It was pretty cozy, but it's hard not to think about 4 people living in this tiny mud room with no electricity or water and the fact that it is about an hour's hike down a tricky mountain to the nearest town.

The two girls and mother did not speak English, but the boy did and he told me about their village and his school which his sister handled the coffee ceremony. They also provided injera and some spicy wat, as well as spiced wheat berries for snacks. They were very hospitable and it was a great experience.

The rest of the way down was a combo of mule riding and hiking when the decline was too steep.
It was a fantastic day, but left me thoroughly exhausted, with only enough energy for dinner and tea.

This morning i fly back to Addis Ababa, and just in time as i have come down with a most unfortunate and unpleasant case of what i hope is food poisining. (It was inevitable, i suppose.)
There are still some things in Addis i had hoped to see, but if i have to spent the next day in bed, i'm ok with that too.

Aimless Walking in Lalibela

Having spent the previous day exploring the churches of Lalibela, i devoted my second day to just checking out the town. After breakfast, i did pop into a couple of the churches I had seen the day before, but this time i was without a guide and felt i could linger in silence and snap a few photos (because the 200 hundred i took the day before wasn't enough).

As i walked away from the churches i heard a group murmuring and saw robed men and women ascending a boulder. I climbed up after them and saw a group of people sitting beneath the trees, including many priests and nuns, chanting. It was not in unison, though inheard many of the same recurring phrases. There seemed to be no leader. It was certainly religious in nature. I sat and watched for a while, restign under a juniper tree, enjoying the shade and peacefulness.

After that, i headed to the market. Everyone said Saturday was the bug market day, but i had tosettle for a Wednesday. The market was onviously half its usual size but was still very interesting. A very limited amount of root vegetables were for sale as were unroasted coffee beans, barley, rice, lentils, spices, and sorghum. Women picked through the grains and beans, discarding the reject specimens, while livestock grazed in the dirt.
After climbing back up out of the market and wandering uphill in the blazing heat (it doesn't seem to matter which direction i head i Lalibela, it is always sharply uphill) i settled in at a couple of different coffee shops for coffee and fresh mango papaya juice.
Everyone is so friendly and so eager to chat. The kids follow me down the street wanting to know where i am from and telling me about their school. They all know the capital of Canada and all of the countries of Europe and were eager that i quiz them. Others just say hello and run away giggling when i respond. One little boy and i played kick the empty water bottle up a hill until i, in all my uncoordinated glory, kicked the bottle off a cliff. I felt awful and would have gladly bought the boy a ball or at least a bottle of water had there been any sign of commerce in sight.

I browsed a few gift shops (for the first time on this trip) but didn't do any buying. There were so many wonderful things to look at and the proprietors didn't pressure me to buy, which was nice.
I basically lazed awY the rest of the day, just reading, smoking, and drinking endless thimbles of coffee fresh from the fire. Finally it was time for dinner and i decided to check out this restaurant everyone had been telling me about: Ben Abeba. It is owed by an Ethiopian man and Scotting women and is perched on a mountain top housed in a crazy specimen of Ethiopian architectural whimsy.
It is all outdoors on various levels connected by ramps and spiral staircases. The food, service, and prives were all excellent and the view...
I ate and watched the sun settle into a glorious sunset before the sky and landscape turned jet black and the sky filled with incredible constellations.
For a day without any specific sights alr planning, it was terrific and i took a tuk tuk back though the twisting mountain roads back to my hotel and to bed.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Churches of Lalibela

I arrived in Lalibela earlythis morning where i was greeted by hot, sunny weather and a landscape that looked both appealing and inhospitable.

Upon landing they took my temperature, as they have upon each arrival, and i bussed to my hotel, the Tukul Village. While my lodgings in Addis Ababa and Hararr were sketchy and charmless, those in Gondar and Lalibela are fantastic. Upon seeing where i would be staying for the next three days, i wished i would be here longer.

I have this wonderful, round little hut built in the traditional style but with the comforts of a nice hotel. (So far there is running water and electricity so i am hopeful anyway.)
Immediately after settling and swapping a book at the book exchange, i went to explore the churches.

Lalibela is famous for a few groups of churches that were built about 1000 years ago after King Lalibela decided to create a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia. But rather than building the churches, he decided that they must carve them into the sold rock ground, such that the roof of each church is level with the ground and the rest is sub terranian, with each church being carved from a single stone. Just think about this for a moment. It's madness and incredibly beautiful and confounding. What is even better is that these churches are still very much in use, with white robed priests and pilgrims attending for prayer and blessings. 

Some of the churches are plain inside, and others have lovely carvings and paintings.
As if all this wasn't cool enough, to get from church to church, you either walk through stunning pastoral settings or through underground tunnels. Now, a word about these tunnels. They are wide enough for one person and i had to stoop to walk through them. The ground is uneven and slippery from centuries of footsteps. That is fine, but they are also sufficating, pitch black. You can't see your own hand in front of your eyes. In one tunnel i was able to use a flashlight, which was a great blessing, although even then, i was terrified. I am not really afraid of anything - danger, death, loneliness, hyenas, heights...but i am completely freaked out by the dark. Even with the flashlight i was very uncomfortable. As it turned out, all the flashlight did was bring to my attention that the tunnel was full of bats - two of which flew directly into my head. Since bats have excellent abilities to find their way in the dark, i can only assume that they did this on purpose.
After surviving that experience and visiting another church, there was another tunnel, which my guide (yes, i hired a guide. I don't normally but i would have been quite lost without one in this experience) said was the tunnel of hell, or something like that. He said it is forbidden to use light or to speak in this tunnel. I suspect that he might have just been messing with me, but i obliged, with the light part anyway. This tunnel was equally dark and bat filled (i could hear them all around me), but longer. I really though i might die of fright as i felt my way slowiy along the twisting wall. I did not comply with the no speaking part and swore viciously the whole way. When i finally saw the light, i ran for it and then collapsed in laughter. I'm glad i did it.

One other thing worth mentioning is that in the walls of rock that surround the churches are many small tombs carved into the rock - basically timy caves wher people were laid to rest. Most of the bodies have been moved and reburied elsewhere, but in one spot, there were still two or maybe three bodies piled up at eye level, reduced to dusty bones and bits of cloth.
After that i walked around a bit but it had made for a long and tiring day, so i went out for dinner and am now sitting outside at my hotel with a cigar and pot of tea, listening to the tv on which the staff arewatching  "The Golden Child".
A fantastic day. From what i have seen Lalibela ranks up there with the wonders of the world and i feel very lucky to be here.

Final Day in Gondar

My final day in gondar was a relaxing one. After breakfast i went back to the matket to wander around and sat and drank coffees while watching the street scene. Two things i haven't mentioned: the macchiatos here are incredible, like tiny, perfect lattes. Also there are pool halls her everywhere. Typicaly just a one room place with a pool table and nothing else, but they seem to be very popular.

After that i visited Debre Birhan Selassie, a beautifully decorated church dating back to the late 1600s, found at the end of a lovely walk on a countryish road just off the piazza. It was wonderful, but my relaxation was interrupted by a fellow who wanted to talk to me about my life in Canada and was very intent on getting to the bottom of whether i was truly happy. By the end of the conversation, I just didn't know any more. But i did enjoy the church.

After that i enjoyed a lazy lunch and cigar and lengthy bit of reading at a restaurant near my hotel before catching a tuk tuk to Kuskuam, which is the ruins of the palace of the Empress Mentewab, from the early 1730s. It was in a peaceful, albeit somewhat eerie setting on top of a small mountain and was great for a visit, although the solitude was somewhat broken by a group of school children who were entertained by following me around and jumping out to say hello and then run away.

The evening brough thunder showers and another power outage, so i spent the evening at the hotel reading by candlelight and reflecting on the day. Gondar was wonderful - much better than i had expected based on the accounts of other travellers, who said the sights were swell but that the constant hassel for money was exhausting. This was not my experience. I found it to be an interesting and restful place and could have easily spent more time there, but i had a flight the next morning to Lalibela, where more exploration would await.