Ethiopian Intro W2.12.20

in the 

Simien mountains
Children in the Simien mountains

(A Weekly email from Addis Ababa)
Wed, 17 Apr 2002 08:21:03 -0700 (PDT)

Dear Mom and Dad,

I really need to remind myself, "I'm not going to get angry or upset in Africa." I've been in Ethiopia since yesterday morning. Yesterday was like nothing because after arriving by plane from Ghana in the morning, I got a taxi to my hotel, then slept all day.

The flight was unremarkable except that they served dinner at 4:45 am. I slept a little, but the flight was too short, with a stop in Nigeria. With time difference, I needed to take a nap.

I walked around my hotel for an hour before dusk. Addis Ababa reminds me of Kathmandu. It is surrounded by mountains, itself at over 8000 feet elevation. I think it's the mountain air and the sun through storm clouds that makes it look the way it does.

I went back to my hotel to pick up the tourist I met earlier. She's from Holland, Louse, a tour guide but this is her first time in Ethiopia. We went to a recommended restaurant. Wow. Very cheap food and very good and way too much of it. Do you all know what Ethiopian food is like? It's injera (a sour pancake bread) dipped into the vegetables or spicy meat or bean curries. We each paid less than a dollar for as much as we could possibly eat. I ate the rest of Louse's assortment, and my own two meat soups/curries. I didn't want the food to go to waste. Like, it's Ethiopia.

Louse at Ethiopian 

There was good food in Ethiopia

But I ate too much. I have diarrhea. Today I was tired, but I accomplished many things. In West Africa they say if you can do one thing on your list a day, that's good.

Today I went to the US Embassy to get extra-extra pages for my passport. 44 pages filled, 28 to go. It's really kind of exciting. Makes me want to travel even more. But I only have two years left on my passport.

Anyway, it was the first time I've ever been inside the compounds of an American Embassy. I guess I expected a welcome reception, maybe even a 'What brings you to Ethiopia?' They put the extra pages in for free, but otherwise I had to stand in line with all the Ethiopians applying for visas, and getting the key for the toilet (no toilet paper, but I have my own of course) was a hassle. Lots of security. I hope I never have to go back. Oh yeah, the welcoming bits were portrait pictures of Colin Powell, George Bush with a stupid fake smile, and Dick Cheney with a seriously evil smirk. They are the worst official photos I've ever seen. I didn't once see an American flag. No newspapers. Just loads of Ethiopians applying for visas.

Then I went to the Ethnographic Museum. I saw lots of Ethiopian crosses and ugly icon paintings, plus some traditional musical instruments, and the bedroom of the former Emperor Haile Selassie.

I could write heaps about Ethiopia. It's an incredible country. They had a line of over 230 kings/emperors all recorded back to the first King Menelik, reputed to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. And the last guy, as a prince in the 1920s his name was Ras Tafar. When he became king it fulfilled some Biblical prophecy according to some dudes in Jamaica. They became the Rastafarians.

So then I went to the National Museum. I was tired and wanted yogurt, but I'm leaving for Lake Tana in the north tomorrow and I want to see all the Addis sights before I leave.

The National Museum, downstairs part was excellent. The first room was "What is a paleontologist? and How are fossils made?" Next rooms were different fossils of extinct animals and their modern day contemporaries. I learned all about elephant teeth. Did you know that an elephant's teeth grows horizontally. The front edges get worn out, but new teeth get pushed in, but only four big teeth in its lifetime. Old elephants often die of starvation because they wore out all their teeth.

Some elephant ancestor had teeth that grow like ours: baby teeth get pushed out from underneath by the more mature teeth.

Anyway, after learning lots of stuff about animal fossils I got to the last room: Australopithicus Aferensis. Lucy. There she was, the most famous human ancestor skeleton in the world. I wanted to take a photo, but I couldn't since it wasn't allowed and I told the people I didn't have a camera.

Upstairs had some archaeological things and some paintings and royal robes and village jewelry and stuff.

After that I really wanted to just take a nap, but as I walked to where to get the minibus transport (you don't need to take taxis in Addis, that's a positive) I found a store with yogurt. And another place had bad postcards, but at least they had some.

So back to near my hotel I wanted to sleep but I was right in front of a bank. The standard full-body search upon entering a building. "What's that?" "My camera." "You have to leave it with the guard." "But I'm not going to take any photos." "I'm sorry, it's impossible."

I'd heard about this, how cameras were like dangerous weapons in Ethiopia. I was warned not to leave my camera with the guards because they don't care if someone steals it. They don't even guard it, just place the priceless apparatus on the table, or maybe in a cupboard. This time though I just wanted to check the bank's rates. I wasn't going to exchange money because I didn't think I had my traveler's checks with me.

Right, I used the Jedi Mind trick again and it worked! The guard said it was impossible for me to keep my camera, but then he said I could try. And I happened to be carrying enough checks, so I got money.

I wanted more yogurt, so I walked a little bit. One of those guys who follows you and 'wants to practice my English' followed me and sort of told me where I could buy yogurt. He had no idea. He needs to practice his English more, but not with me. I talked to two of them yesterday. No more. "I don't want to talk today." "No conversation?" "No."

The point is, I was already on my way to the bus station, so I might as well get my ticket for Bahir Dar tomorrow. I think they ripped me off. And timing is very complicated.

Ethiopia uses the Georgian calendar, or is it the Julian? I'll check on it. Whichever calendar they use has 13 months (the last month has five or six days). They also have their own time. Our 6 AM is their 12 something. Call it 12 day. Our 3 PM is their 9 day. 10 AM is 4 day. 8 PM is 2 night.

My bus tomorrow leaves at 12 Ethiopian. I drew pictures of clocks and talked about the sun rising and setting, to no avail. I'm not positive, but I think my bus leaves at 6 AM. It takes one and a half days.

I'm going to be in Ethiopia for three weeks. That's enough time to do almost all the stuff I want to, if I hurry. So I have to hurry.

After my bus ticket I made it back to my hotel for a nap. But up too soon because I have to do internet. The charges are outrageous. It doesn't make sense. I tried to use the computers at the British Council. Big mistake. No cameras allowed. Jedi mind trick didn't work with that guard. Then I wasn't allowed to use them because I wasn't a member and I wasn't allowed to become a member. There were no British people anywhere inside.

Internet prices here are extortionary, but at least it's only available in Addis Ababa. In other ways Ethiopia is very civilized, (like good public transport) and good restaurants catering for local people (meaning cheap as).

So it's time to send,
Eric Vance

Ethiopia for Easter M4.12.20

Priest at a 
church built inside a cave

(My Ethiopian monthly email, written in Addis Ababa and Nairobi, Kenya)
Tue, 7 May 2002 23:13:16 -0700 (PDT)

[If you have asked to be on a specific list (monthly, weekly, daily) you are on it and will not be dropped. If you get this message without asking for it, it's probably just a one-time thing. If you would like to be on a list (daily list gets the messages with the D in front of the numbers. I've written 20 of them in Africa, 12 weeklies. This is my 4th monthly), tell me which one. Usually my monthly emails are recaps of previous emails. But this one is different since I didn't write anything outside of Addis Ababa because email is non-existant or really, really, really expensive (the daily wage of a non-skilled Ethiopian worker, for one minute of internet?)]

[If you have received this message in error, don't bother reading it because it's very long and just me bitching.]

[I am now in Nairobi, Kenya. I have to hurry and finish this thing before I go on safari later this morning.]

Ethiopia for Easter:

Historical overview--Addis

Bus story

Lake Tana

Boat story

Gondar and Simiens

Truck story plus Nuredin


Plane story

Lalibela Easter

Taxi story


Dear Friends and Family,

Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, and Senegal was my first month. Then Mali for Dogon Country and Timbuktu; Burkina Faso for Easter; Ghana for rainforests and slave forts.

For the past three weeks I’ve been in Ethiopia. Tomorrow I fly to Kenya. Uganda and Tanzania will follow. Then I’ll do something in Zimbabwe and definitely South Africa, and hopefully I’ll have time for Namibia before I fly back to California sometime in early August. I will start the Ph.D. program in statistics at Duke University in Durham, NC in mid-August.

Internet in Ethiopia is not just expensive, it’s extortionary. I strongly suspect they charge foreigners 3-8 times more than locals. I cannot afford internet in Ethiopia. How possibly could students and the others afford it? It’s just part of the Ethiopian conspiracy (made worse with the side effects of my malaria medication) to make me hate travel here.

Historical Overview—Addis Ababa

I read somewhere that Ethiopia had the longest continuous archaeological record of any country in the world. The last emperor claimed direct descendency from the Biblical King Solomon. He was overthrown thirty years ago, and a socialist totalitarian regime took his place. Then rebels overthrew that government ten years ago. I know this little bit, not from the Ethiopian Historical Museum in Addis Ababa, but because I read it some place before I came to this country. I learned virtually nothing at the Historical Museum (which doesn’t exist—I just made it up) or at any of the other historical sites. There is no such thing as history when life hasn’t changed for over 1000 years. If your life is no different 800 years after the reign of King Lalibela, his time is just legend. Without change there is no historical perspective, so no history. Ethiopia is a land without history.

The National Museum in Addis Ababa really exists and has a great downstairs exhibit about paleontology, culminating with an exhibit of Lucy’s bones, found 25 years ago in a valley in Ethiopia. That’s history, a skeleton of a human ancestor. Things have definitely changed in 3.5 million years here. Anyway, I found out later that the bones are just a copy. The real ones are safely stored in the basement. And nothing else happened in Addis.

Bus story:
At the bus station by 6 AM, found my bus, loaded my backpack, grabbed a good seat—right by the back door for lots of leg room, and only one person squished beside me instead of two on the three-seaters across the aisle. It was a two-day bus ride, so I wanted to be comfortable.

An old man’s cane (everybody over 40 is old, and all male villagers have a cane or staff) was poking me from the seat behind, so I made him move it. When I’m on a bus I own it, mostly. I couldn’t really do anything about the doorman standing in front of me. His job was to use his tool to open the back door for entrances and exits. I think he is called an assistant driver or driver’s auxilary. Each bus or truck has at least two assistant drivers.

The road out of Addis was good, but we went really slowly uphill. Even slowly downhill. Farther out of the city I saw a fascinating/disgusting sight: fat-tailed sheep. At first I thought I was imagining things. Then more sheep, with beaver tails. Sheep with flaps as wide as their rumps. Big, thick German shepherd dog tails. It was revolting, but I couldn’t help looking. Even the little lambs had them.

The road got progressively worse, and then horrible. And the bus was older than the driver, barely making the uphills. We stopped once in the morning, and then again at lunchtime. Then the young man next to me said, “This is a lunch stop. Come with me, I’ll take care of you.” I was shocked as he hadn’t said a word to me in the previous six hours. He had even been talking about me with the door man.

Back on the bus he didn’t say anything to me. I didn’t talk to him. I mostly read my book and looked out the window. I was very impressed with what I saw. Thousands of farmers working their fields, plowing behind two oxes. I thought that if Ethiopia just improved its roads, full development would follow. Farmers wouldn’t have to spend half their time driving their donkeys to market. Tractors could come in and replace half the workforce. Farmers could leave their fields for other types of work, even with total increased production.

But the bus ride in general was not nice. My seat may have been the worst in the entire bus. Over the back wheel it was as bumpy as possible. And dust came in through cracks in the door. And my knee was directly against the protruding bolt from the door handle. The noise was super-loud, even through earplugs. But the worst was the doorman himself. He looked normal, but he had seriously problems opening the door, every time. It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to use his tool, it was that he didn’t know when to. The bus would stop, we’d both be able to see outside that people were waiting. He’d do nothing. Then the first front assistant driver would yell at him, he’d push my legs away, push his tool into the lock, twist it into my knee, and open the door. Other times the bus would slow down, he’d push my legs away, open the door—for nobody—close the door. The bus would stop. People would wait, then he’d open the door again. But the worst worst was that he mostly stood between my legs. Thirteen hours the first day, six hours the second, I sat with an idiot standing between my legs.

Two day bus ride 
to Bahir 

Dar (video)
Loud, bumpy, dusty, and unfriendly for two days (click for video)

Adding to it was that he never looked at me. Never any jokes or smiles. Never any eye contact, moments of understanding. But he would talk about me to the man sitting on my side.

I didn’t look at my watch very often because I didn’t have to. We consistently went 30 km/hour. And we really didn’t stop very often. Maybe once an hour. I only remember it because of all the jabs in my legs I took, and how many times the man opened the door at the wrong time.

In Addis I had some carryover diarrhea from Ghana, and I was worried about the bus trip. But no problems. I didn’t eat anything or drink anything (besides at lunch). And nobody else did either. I found it strange, though maybe appropriate, that Ethiopians never ate anything. Nobody eating on the street. Not on the bus. No street food besides the occasional bananna. No way any bissap or ginger juice.

As it got dark we let two armed guards board. I think they were for our protection. Buses never travel at night, we were just especially slow in arriving at the night stop. Before we got into town the armed guards left.

At the night stop, my friend next to me (who rarely spoke to me while the bus was moving) said I should just wait by the bus and he would arrange a hotel. That was good since just off the bus I was besieged, “You! You! You! Where are you’d go?” I didn’t ever respond because I thought it was pretty obvious.

The guy, Thomas (24 year-old student) led me to the hotel, to the room next to his. He told me to pay 10 Birr ($1.25). I thought that was a good price.

I invited him for dinner (since he paid for my lunch). No shower or running water in the village, but decent eggs with injera.

Up at 5:15 AM. Second day on the bus. It was worse than the first. The doorman still stood right at my knees or between my legs, always messing up when to open the door. Again, we hardly stopped at all. Villagers would flag the bus down as we passed, but we left full, and nearly everybody was going all the way to Bahir Dar. The roadside people would have to walk or find other transport.

Blue Nile 

Crossing the Blue Nile gorge, first day on bus

The smell during the second day was much worse than the first. Ethiopians have a problem with motion sickness, so the entire bus smelled like vomit. And the dying man two rows in front was definitely worse than the day before. He looked like a human skeleton, but functioned normally. The second day he had to be carried on board by his two friends. And he was throwing up too. It was weird to share a bus with a 25 year-old dead man.

Also the old man behind me kept spitting. I didn't look back, like to accuse him of spitting, because I realize not everyone is as well-traveled as I. So he could spit without any judgment from me. But then once I looked back and noticed his window was not open. He spit a whole bunch of times more, and I looked back. His window was definitely shut and had been the whole time! Where was he spitting? The man had no handkerchief.

I think the second day I was dehydrated too. Ethiopians didn’t eat or drink anything, so I wouldn’t either. Food wasn’t a problem, but I should have drunk something.

We arrived at noon at Bahir Dar. Off the bus besieged by little kids offering to carry my backpack. One guy about my age spoke good English and offered me some expensive hotels. My friend Thomas said not to trust him, that he was a thief. So I ignored him. Thomas accompanied me to my hotel, led there by the thief/tout. And once I was all settled Thomas left. He was very friendly, but only off the bus.

Lake Tana Monasteries (Bahir Dar):

One of the reasons I came to Ethiopia was to visit the ancient monasteries on Lake Tana. I had heard that the boats were expensive, but I was hoping to meet other travelers to split costs. The thief guy was really a boat tout. And he wasn’t a thief, but a guide. And when he said the monastery trip, for five hours, cost 500 Birr (way, way too much money), I was shocked, saddened, and afraid.

I immediately rejected his price. Yes I wanted to see the monasteries, but 500 was not in my budget. We talked and talked and his price didn’t really come down. In my schedule (I didn’t have many free days, like every day I had to do something and then get to the next town) I wanted to see the Blue Nile Falls the afternoon after I arrived from Addis, but the buses to the village were already gone, only leaving in the morning. So I had to do the monasteries that afternoon.

My plan was to meet other travelers on the bus, or at least at the hotel (listed first in the Lonely Planet guidebook), and book a boat trip with them. At the hotel, in the registry, I was the ninth tourist since September. And still the price for the boat was 500 Birr, with room for negotiation.

Okay, here the narrative stops. Sorry. I didn’t ever mean to start it. I only write emails in Addis, so I wasn’t able to write daily or weekly emails. But now just episodes or something.

After hard, hard bargaining I got the boat for 280 Birr. That’s $33. Not really so much for a motorboat, driver, and guide for five hours, but incredibly expensive when you realize the boat driver would make no more than 20 Birr for the trip.

The thief/tout/guide Peter was very good. Like the only good guide in a non-Western country I’ve ever had. We went to three monasteries (two on the peninsula across the lake and one on an island). And the monasteries are fascinating. Ethiopia as a country is fascinating. They’ve been a Christian country for 1500 years. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, well who has ever heard anything about it? A Christian kingdom in Africa? They have the Old Testament, New Testament, and 15 extra Ethiopian books. At the monasteries one can see 500 year-old illuminated manuscripts written in the ancient writing of Ge’ez. That was the forerunner of Amharic which is spoken now, and is the only African language with it’s own script (looks like Hindi or Hebrew).

Lake Tana 

priest with ancient icon
Lake Tana monastery priest with ancient icon

So the monasteries were covered with paintings telling Ethiopian Bible stories. I’ll tell one now.

The story of Simon:

He was a really religious guy, very devout, always praying and stuff. One day three travelers came to his house, so he slaughtered his ox for a feast. But the travelers didn’t like ox. They wanted to eat human flesh. They asked Simon to kill his son for them. As a good host, Simon did. And when he tasted some of the flesh himself he immediately went crazy. He went around killing six or seven other people to eat their flesh.

Then one day Simon came across a leper who asked him for water to wash his stubby hands. Simon gave the water in the name of Mary, and when he did he remembered his past life when he really prayed a lot to her. So suddenly he remembered how he was supposed to act.

For some reason the leper wanted more water but Simon had given all he had. Then something and Simon died. The next part of the painting shows one of the angels (maybe Gabriel) holding a balance. One side has seven or eight balls, representing the souls of the people Simon ate. The other side is filled with the amount of water Simon gave to the leper in the name of St. Mary. She’s right beside it, casting her shadow onto the water, making it weigh more, tipping the scale so Simon could enter Heaven.

Boat Story:

The next day I went to the Blue Nile Falls. That’s right, the Nile is not just a river in Egypt. 85% of its water comes from the Blue Nile which originates at Lake Tana (my monastery trip also included a look at the source of the Nile).

Foreigners have to pay five or more times the locals' price to see the falls, and a map is supposed to be included, but the maps were finished. That means that the aid organization which gave the Blue Nile Falls tourist office their original supply of maps only gave them so many, and once they’re gone they’re gone, they won’t make any photocopies even though the entrance fee should cover it.

And the tourist info people didn’t speak English. He sort of did, but his directions were horrible. I was getting both angry and upset. First give me a map. If not at least be able to give me directions. “So after the church do I turn right or left?” “Yes.”

Oh! Aggh! And he doesn’t say Yes. The Ethiopian word for Yes is ‘Owo’ but it’s pronounced with a gasp. In Amharic, ‘Yes’ is the sound of surprise or shock, but only the sound, not like full eyebrow movements. It’s a very quick and violent inhalation. In conversation with Ethiopians, I’ll be talking about normal things and then !!!. ‘What? Have you just seen a ghost?’

My feeling towards the Ethiopian ‘Yes’ is irrational. I have a hard time, like a mini heart attack, whenever an Ethiopian says ‘Yes’ “!!!” Even understanding that it’s not a gasp of surprise, just a normal word in their vocabulary doesn’t help. Anytime I hear anybody say ‘Yes’ I get nervous. Maybe you would too if you’re sitting at dinner and the couple at the table next to you says, ‘Cha, mweash cha?’ ‘!!! (I’ve just seen a ghost!) Deyhna blah chaw mah.’ ‘!!! (I just saw the ghost too!) Blah, blalh-clha.’

So I just went in the direction I thought the falls would be. “You! You! Hello! Where are you’d go?” “Umm, I’m like going to the waterfall (would I be going anywhere else?)” “I’ll be your guide.” “No thanks. I don’t want a guide.”

I didn’t want a guide. I wanted a peaceful, relaxing walk through nature to see a beautiful waterfalls, maybe have a swim in the Nile, unwind, not spend any money. I didn’t want to follow anyone or have someone jabbering at me.

“Hello! You! Good morning.”
“Good morning.”
“Where are you go?”
“To the waterfalls, it’s this way right?”
“You want guide.”
“No thank you.”
“I can be your guide.”
“I don’t want a guide.”
“Where are you from?”
“You’re not going to follow me all day are you?”
And the small boys leave after that.

And new ones appear. The path to the falls is full of people. Villagers, boys, girls, some Ethiopian tourists way in front who were on my bus.

Okay I got a small guide because he gave me a bananna and I was hungry (Ethiopians really don’t eat anything).

The falls were a disappointment. I wasn’t expecting the South American Iguacu, but since my peaceful morning walk wasn’t, the falls were the only thing happening and they were rather small. It is the end of the dry season, so I shouldn’t have expected much.

Blue Nile 

Blue Nile falls

Saw the falls. Glad to have a guide because the path might have been confusing (the directions were intended for someone who would eventually have to hire a guide). I did the round trip which meant I could take the boat across (10 Birr) back to the village.

At the river I saw all the villagers crossing in papyrus boat. Yes. That’s what I wanted to do as well.

“No. This boat not safe.”
“Oh, it’s safe. I don’t want to take the motorboat. Look, everybody else is crossing on this boat.”
“No, for you it’s better to take the motorboat.”
I rejected the motorboat out of hand. “I’m not taking the motorboat. I want to go by papyrus boat, like everyone else.”
“But you get wet. Much better to take the other.”
“Listen kid. There’s no possibility of me taking the motorboat. I will swim across the river first. (My camera was in a waterproof case. My money and passport are in plastic bags. My shoes would dry.)” He didn’t say anything. Meanwhile one papyrus boat (looking exactly the same as the papyrus boats on Lake Titicaca in South America) left with four or five villagers every couple of minutes. Heavy traffic.


the Nile in papyrus boats
Villagers crossing the Nile in papyrus boats

To the papyrus boat pushers (two boatmen, each with a bamboo pole) I waved my 10 Birr (double the daily salary of a manual laborer who brings his own shovel to work). “I’ll pay 10 Birr to cross this river.”

Most of the boatmen ignored me, but one made eye-contact with me. I got onto a different man’s boat. He wanted 30 Birr.

I think I laughed. “I’ll pay 10 Birr.” “30 Birr.” So I got back off.

I made eye-contact a second time with one boatman, so stepped onto his boat. (Papyrus boats are pretty much boat-shaped rafts made out of papyrus which is like bendable, soggy bamboo.) He asked me for 20 Birr. I ignored him, showing him my 10 Birr. My guide told me it would cost 20 Birr. ‘Look kid,’ I thought. ‘ It doesn’t cost 20 Birr to cross this river in a reed boat. I am willing to pay 10 Birr. Duh.’

Joining the two of us was another kid who had been following me trying to sell Coca-Cola.

“20 Birr.”
“No. 10 Birr.” And we pushed off.

The boats cross around an island, then the boatmen jump ashore to pull the boat upstream, then set off poling to the other side.

At the island the motorboat cut us off at a 45 degree angle, blocking any further movement upriver along the shore of the island. The two motorboatmen talked to the papyrus guys, and the papyrus driver asked me for my money.

“Here’s 10 Birr.”
“No. 20 Birr.”
“No. 10 Birr,” and I put the bill back into my pocket, just sitting, livid.

The motorboatmen said something again to my papyrus driver. “Okay, give money.”
I gave him the 10 Birr and he immediated handed it to the motorboatman who immediated put his motor in reverse and was off. They continued pulling the papyrus boat upriver, and poled across to the other side.

I could not believe what had just happened. I was the victim of piracy. There’s a boat mafia on the Blue Nile Falls, and the tourist info office was in on it. The papyrus boaters were part of it too, and the little kids. I didn’t want to get angry or upset in Africa. In Ethiopia I wanted to firebomb the boat company. I wanted to scratch the stupid motorboat with my hotel key. Mostly I thought about arson, but it wasn’t practical. I just wanted to get back to Bahir Dar, maybe take a nap. Too many pre-6 AM wakeups in a row (three, next day would make four).

Back in the village I waited for the bus to fill up. Got overcharged on water. Ethiopians made fun of me and my bargaining skills as I drank the water inside the mud grass cafe. A woman was doing the coffee ceremony (starting with washing the beans, then roasting, then grinding, then brewing, excellent, excellent coffee, plus francincense burning while it’s happening) and gave everyone in the room coffee, except me, the one foreigner.


The coffee ceremony

Just before the bus left I gave my boy guide 5 Birr (the wage for a worker who even has to bring his own shovel). He didn’t accept it. “I have never guided anyone for that little.” Whatever. It was a good fee for a couple hours of service I didn’t really want and never asked for. So I offered him again. He refused. Really, whatever. You can’t shame me. At the end of the day they always take it, and he did just before the bus left. Very bad taste in the mouth after a very bad day. Arson, arson, arson. Another kid was arguing with me because he said he had been saving a seat on the bus for me and I didn’t give him a tip. He spoke good English and I lectured him. “If you want more tourists to come, to spend their money, you will have to fix things. I will tell all my friends and family not to come to Ethiopia until you fix things. You have to treat tourists better.” I wasn’t angry with him, and my voice was calm as I explained my reasons, but inside I was angry and upset, with the whole country.

Friends and family, do not come to Ethiopia. It’s a horrible, horrible country. Man, I still want to firebomb the boat company.

Gondar and Simien Mountains:

I took the bus to Gondar with an English woman Andrea. Also on the bus was Matt from Scotland, a volunteer chemistry teacher in Gondar. He’d been there two years and was a wealth of information. I learn much more about the country from foreigners living in Ethiopia than from the locals. Just like I learned about West Africa from the volunteers working there.

Because I was with people (other foreigners, faranjis in Amharic), the bus ride was enjoyable. Still slow and bumpy, but I could even sleep, and when not sleeping (too many pre-6 AM wakeups) I got cultural lessons from Mister Matt.

Because I was with people in Gondar, I didn’t get overly upset at the castle ruins (they call Gondar “Africa’s Camelot”). Hefty entrance fee. Main attraction closed for renovation (nobody working). Free guides (whose tip is negotiable) never appeared. No information about anything. Still, climbing on the ruins of the ancient emperors was nice.

Gondar ruins

My main goal was to meet other people to hike with in the Simien Mountains. I didn’t. Bought five days worth of food for me and the scout and the mule driver. You have to take those people, but you’re not technically required to feed them. But this is Ethiopia. Half their food comes in aid packages. When a rich tourist like me goes hiking, it’s expected I feed all my attendants.

I planned to hike for five days. How to describe, quickly. Homer called the Simien Mountains the playground of the Greek gods. Maybe, but not until after the rainy season. The mountains were nice, but everything was brown and dead and the views were hazy. I imagine after the rains the place would be paradise with all the wildflowers and the incredible views. The mountains are all eroded, sort of like the Grand Canyon, but more like Canyonlands National Park in Utah. And they are very high, like over 10,000 feet.

Simien Mountains

Really hard to describe. I didn’t enjoy the trek. Everyone is required to have a game scout (the guy with the gun, there to protect the park from me!). And I thought a mule and mule driver was required as well. They’re not, but it was nice not to have to carry all that food and heavy cooking gear and even my pack. I didn’t really have the time or the resources to dehydrate all my food beforehand.

My hired game scout whose job was to protect the NP from me

So I wanted desperately to meet another traveler to split all the costs and for someone to talk to on the walk and in camps. I spoke more Amharic than the guy with the gun and the mule driver spoke English. Renting a tent, not too expensive. The metal can stove and beat up pots cost way too much. Damn the tent and equipment mafia. The people at the park office tried to get me to hire a cook. “Why don’t you hire a cook?” “It’s too expensive.” “It’s not expensive.” Five days of a cook costs one quarter of the per capita GDP in Ethiopia, plus I’d have to pay extra for the food. “No thanks. It really is too expensive. I didn’t just win the lottery. I can cook for myself (and the gunman, only, as the mule driver was fasting. My gunman was Muslim, the mule driver Orthodox Christian.)

So the secret’s out. Ethiopians do eat, just not during the 55 days before Easter. At least, they’re not supposed to eat or drink anything before 3 PM, not including Saturdays and Sundays. And on none of the 55 days of Lent can they eat animal products. Does this make sense? So, 55 days of fasting, minus the Saturdays and Sundays, equals 40 days they don’t eat until the afternoon. And for almost two months before Easter they have no meat, fish, eggs, that kind of stuff.

Still confused? Ethiopia uses the Julian calendar (or Gregorian, like toilets flush clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere, or counterclockwise, whichever is opposite from N. America) which means 13 months. Also the year is 1994. Maybe something to do with leap years or I don't know. Whatever the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian calendar system is, it means that Easter is in May and meat is very hard to come by so all I ate was fasting food--sour injera pancake with scoops of vegetables or beans, usually cold, and usually pretty good--and by the end of my three weeks I lost 10 pounds (same pharmacy scale, same clothes and stuff in my pockets--I do things exact.)

The Good Things About the Simien Mountains:

The Gelada baboons were very cool. They aren’t really baboons, they’re their own family and found only in Ethiopia, only in the Simiens and maybe another mountain chain. They eat grass and move about in troops of up to 400. I saw one of these big troops the second day, up very close. They make great sounds, but tended to ignore me, like they’d turn their backs while they picked at the ground.

Geladas grazing in 

Simien mountains (video) Geladas 
grazing in the 

Simien mountains
Geladas grazing in the Simien mountains

Also, Walia Ibex, long-horned mountain goats with striped feet, found only on the steep escarpment of the Simiens. I spotted a couple on my own, pretty close range. I think I heard that the ibex was the origin of the unicorn myth. That would make sense if a unicorn was a one-horned goat, because at the right angle the ibex maybe looked as if it had just one horn.

The escarpements went down from the mountains thousands of feet, stunning views except all hazy. The stars (after the moon set) were very nice. I had enough after four days. So the last day I walked 10 miles in the morning, then flagged a passing minivan for the ride down the rest of the way. He wanted an extortionary fee, but I talked him down to reasonable rate, then got upset when he wouldn’t take my price and started running. I could run faster than he could go uphill, my angry point exactly. Also, the driver was driving down the mountain with or without me. Running full speed for 300 meters (at high elevation) made him accept my price. But then I had to pay for my scout. Yeah whatever. I just wanted to get down the mountain to Debark. I was worried about further transport up to Axum.

At Debark I got very angry (my face showed it though my voice was still calm) with the equipment mafia boys who didn’t want to refund my money, and with the park officials who also were extremely reluctant to rightfully refund my money for the day I didn’t use.

Truck story:

The first main problem with travel in Ethiopia is the people. I hate them. Not all, just the ones who lie and cheat me.

The second main problem is the transportation. The roads are horrible, just leftovers of the roads the Italians constructed 65 years ago during their occupation of Ethiopia (to be kicked out in 1941 by the British). And the buses are bad too. But the system might be the most unnerving. Buses leave only when full, and only very early in the morning. So from Debark I could hope to catch the bus up to Shire (near Axum) coming from Gondar. One or two buses pass daily, but they are Shire buses, filled up to the max in Gondar. People who are on that bus will go to Shire. People who want to get off in Debark (leaving a free seat for me) will take the early morning Gondar-Debark bus. Any bus coming to Debark and continuing to Shire will be full.

So I could have waited until the morning for the Debark-Gondar bus. Stayed the whole day in Gondar. Next morning early get the bus to Shire. Next morning early continue to Axum.

I had hiked at least 65 kilometers (40 miles) in four days with no one to talk to but a gunman I had to cook for and a mule and his driver. No showers. Some washing of face and hands and feet in the stagnant streams (my cooking water). I was tired. I wanted to get to Axum, not wait a day to backtrack to Gondar to wait a day to take a bus back to Debark and on to Shire, only partway to where I wanted to be.

So I inquired about trucks. Sure, sure, there are trucks going straight to Axum. One of the equipment mafia boys was also a truck-fixer. He spoke good English. I didn’t like him, but I had to make nice, so I offered him some dates. Anyway, waited for some passing vehicle. Waited, waited. The National Park people didn’t like me because I demanded my rightful refund. The equipment boys didn’t like me for the same reason. The guides in town didn’t like me because I didn’t take a guide. “Why you not take a guide?” “(Ethiopian guides are horrible) Too expensive.” “They’re not expensive.” “They are expensive.” Four days of a guide is one-third of the average Ethiopian’s entire yearly domestic economic contribution.

One guide was nice. He had a friend or relative in the States (they all know someone in the US) and spoke good English too. He also was friendly helping me get a truck.

The bastard drove the price up 67%, but I still trusted him. He said it was my best option. Oh man, anyway, I didn’t want to take that truck. I went into the restaurant where the driver and his two assistants were breaking their fast. It was 4:30 PM. I’d been hiking, sweaty since 7:30 AM. The drivers wouldn’t look at me. I just went in to show my face and smile and be friendly and maybe negotiate a student budget traveler price, but they didn’t even say Hello.

Still, the guides said that truck was my best option and I got in despite my intuition. I wanted to get out of Debark away from all my enemies (National Park people and equipment boys and unemployed guides), leave the Simien Mountains, get on my way to Axum.

Top speed 8 mph

Once inside the truck I spoke some Amharic, like grettings and then numbers up to ten. They smiled a bit and recited English numbers. That was the end of the communication. We went for two and a half hours that evening to our overnight stop, small town no running water.

I went to the hotel with the driver (the assistant drivers, just like on the bus, never drive.) He told me to pay 12 Birr for the room. It seemed a little much for just a bed in a cell no electricity no running water. Then the hotel boy said, “No, it’s 6 Birr.” Driver just continued smiling, then said he would wake me up at 3:10 AM.

I wanted to eat dinner with my truck people, like make friends, but they had deserted me, so I ate alone, the sour injera pancake with one scoop of cold bean stuff, pretty spicy, not bad but not good.

Yes, up at 3:10 AM, fortunately fleas and bed bugs don’t bother me. And mosquitoes in Ethiopia are not a problem. Three more hours in the truck, in the cab squished with the two assistants. I got the worst seat that morning. No Hello or Good Morning, just “You! (Poke, poke scoot over, yeah all the way over, yes contort your body like that).” In those five and a half hours we did 46 kilometres.

The driver wouldn’t go beyond second gear. Yes the road was horrible and very steep, but. But. 5.5 hours into 46 km is FIVE MILES AN HOUR.

When I realized how far we had come and how much farther to go, I demanded the driver stop so I could ride on top with the sacks of onions. ‘No, you ride in the cab.’ ‘No. I ride on top, seriously.’

On top of the onion truck, relatively happy

On top it was just getting light and it was infinitely more pleasurable. I do not believe in suffering, so at the point of suffering in the cab I demanded a change. Another thing. The first assistant driver picked his nose all the time. It got really annoying, like irrationally so. But I know tricks, so I started counting how many times he’d pick his nose. I wanted him to pick it, so he didn’t. I only counted to one. Good trick to know.

On the onions (we’re driving so far, so slow, for onions?!!) I enjoyed life again. Mountain air, sunrise/moonset, not squished between antagonistic Ethiopians. Maybe travel is a nice thing to do once in a while.

KA-POW! Tire exploded.

No worries. Ethiopians don’t eat anything, but us Faranjis can, so canned fish and bread for me while they changed the tire.

An hour later, KA-POW! No more spares. Oh, bother. Am I ever going to get to Axum? Am I ever going to get even to Shire?

Second blown tire

A truck passed but didn’t even slow down. Half hour later another truck stopped. I and the driver and the first assistant got in. We moved at a decent speed, like maybe in third gear on the straightaway downhills or the flats.

It was a Saturday, so market day in every town, and villagers were out walking everywhere. And they were waving. As I sat on the top of the truck cab I felt like a celebrity, everyone pointing and waving hello. “You! You! You!” I didn’t even mind. “Faranji!” didn’t even mind. Entering town I developed the beauty-queen wave, circular pivot at the elbow, this side of the road then the other. Smile. A little bit faked.

Cries of “Faranji (foreigner) Faranji!” preceded me into town. Once off the truck, “You! You! You! Where are you’d go?” “Shire. Axum.”

By miracle? there was a minibus going to Shire. It was only 10:30 AM. I’d only been traveling with the trucks for seven hours. It had only been five days since my last shower. The minibus was going in only half an hour.

The truck driver actually paid for my ticket, backpack loaded on top. “What time will it leave?” “11 o’clock.”

Escorted by every stray kid, I looked around town for bottled water. No place had any. I was all set to have a 7-UP when a boy said I could find some Highland water down the street. The lady wanted first to overcharge me, then upon further inspection, I noticed floaters in the water. Um, no thanks, and you are a very bad person. I’d heard about those people who fill up bacteria-ized well-water (except there aren’t so many wells in Ethiopia, just pipes from who knows where and stagnant streams) into mineral water bottles and try to sell them to tourists, but until then I had never met one.

At the 7-UP hotel café a boy sat at my table to talk. Big sigh, okay, what do you want? He just wanted to talk, and his English was pretty good. I felt sorry for him because he was so nervous. I could see it in his face, in the way he acted, he was completely nervous, again hard to describe.

But I talked with him, even showed him my photos from home. His name was Nuredin. He was 18 years old and in the 6th grade. He had spent ten years in the Sudan in a refugee camp, at a Muslim school, then when back in Ethiopia started school at grade 1. I asked where he learned to speak English so well. “In school,” he was very proud. “My teacher says she’s never seen an elementary student speak as well as me.”

Oh boy, anybody know any jokes about 18 year-old sixth graders? I won’t say it. I felt sorry for him. His father was a weaver and didn’t make much money. I asked what Nuredin’s ambition was. He said there were no jobs in Ethiopia. He wanted to go to America or some other country. I explained visas were nearly impossible to obtain. “Yes, but maybe some tourist will take me back with him to his country.”

I asked what his skills were, what kind of job he would want. “I have no skills.” “Can you weave like your father?” “No.” I was talking to an 18 year-old sixth grader. “Can you take me with you to America?” he asked. “No.”

He said maybe he wanted to be a mechanic. He asked about jobs in America. Yes, they are available, but they are low jobs like dishwasher. “Like office boy?” “What’s an office boy?” “Someone who makes coffee or runs errands.” “No, there are no office servants in America.” “Maybe driver’s auxillary?” “No. In America there is one driver per truck.” He seemed really disappointed.

“Nuredin, what are the problems in Ethiopia?”
“No shelter, no food. No jobs.” He didn’t like that Ethiopian houses were just mud and stick huts.
“What can you do to improve your country?”
“I don’t know. I want to leave. Maybe some tourist will give me money.”
“You have to help yourself Nuredin.”

Basically I sat with a potential Muslim terrorist. Give him a gun and bread and tea and say shoot and he will.

Four hours later, the minibus starts going. But we’re only nine people, not the full 23. I don’t ask questions, I'm just happy to be moving. Then we stop for the driver to say goodbye to somebody. Then slowly slowly while the busboys (driver’s auxillaries) shout out, “Shire (Shi-ray) Shire.” Speed up to a hotel a little out of town where we pick up my bus driver friend and another person.

Then to an intersection where lots of people are waiting. “Shire, Shire.” 2:30 PM In transit over 11 hours. Left turn at the intersection, definitely not the way to Shire. To the market, “Shire, Shire.” We stopped at the animal market, maybe waiting for all the goats to be sold so we could get more passengers. Boys and young men staring at me, pointing, giggling. I really don’t mind the stares. When I travel I basically go around staring at new people in different countries. Giggles, I can laugh too. Shouts of “You! You! Give me something!” are annoying. I haven’t even mentioned, “Mister! Pen! Mister! Money! Hello! Money.” That was all over the Simien Mountains. Yes, I say mountains, and they were, and there were interesting wild animals, but also way, way too many people. Too many snot-nosed filthy children wanting to shake my hand.

Minibus, waiting for customers. None. We drove back through the market to the intersection, a couple more people, but still it’s only 12, not the maximum/minimum of 23. Are we ever going to get to Shire? Will I ever get to Axum? Yeah, I’m still writing the truck story. I still haven’t had a shower.

Then back into the market for a second drive around. This time we went to the chicken section, much better customers. We filled up the minibus, and spent half an hour tying the bundles of chickens to the minibus. It really is a sight, to see bundles of live chickens (tied together at their feet) like balanced on poles or motorcycles or just thrown over the shoulder like a continental soldier. We tied over 100 chickens to the top of the minibus. We had chickens hanging off the sides. I thought we would fly to Shire.

In Shire my bus driver friend (no more friendly than when he was mean to me in the truck and tried to overcharge me for the hotel, but a familiar face is still a friend) told the minibus driver to take me to the National Hotel, the best one in town, 7:30 PM, only 20 Birr. He figured I wanted a nice rest after over sixteen hours in transit (plus four days of hiking and all that). I asked a man in front of the hotel the price, 20 Birr. Very happy to be out of vehicles, not in Axum but at least a place with running water. The woman showed me the room, very nice, "40 Birr." “No, I was told 20 Birr.” “No. 40 Birr.” “Do you have a room for 20 Birr?” “No.” “They told me outside the price was 20 Birr.” “40 Birr.” “You will allow me to pay 20 Birr (hand wave).” “No. It’s 40 Birr.” “20 Birr is a good price (again trying the Jedi Mind Trick).” “40 Birr.” “20 Birr.” “40 Birr.”

The problem was in Ethiopia my energy reserves are all spent on the little things. All the beggars take energy. All the times Ethiopians say “Yes” with a quick gasp, it requires energy from me, makes me nervous. “Yes !!!” ‘What? What did I do? What’s happening?’ All the “You! You! You!” Being overcharged for everything, spending hours on horrible roads with mean people at a snail's pace. Aack, I have no energy. I don’t want to pay double price for this hotel. I don’t want to argue either, but what the heck. I’m already angry and upset all the time.

But I try to be nice. “I’ll pay 25 Birr.” “40 Birr.” “Well, then is there another hotel for 20 Birr.” “Yes (gasp!!!)” “Where?” She points somewhere in the dark. “Okay, please help me. Where can I get a hotel for 20 Birr.” Pointing, in the dark.

I walk away. Long day but it’s the principle. Everybody said it cost 20 Birr. That’s no way to treat a tourist. Seriously, please. Friends and Family. Do not come to Ethiopia.

The hotel woman (bitch) then took pity and sent a boy to show me the way to another hotel. We started for one, then changed to a dingy one behind the original nice one. The boy said it would cost 10 Birr. I was then joined by an older boy who chastised the younger one for saying 10 Birr. Saw the room, very basic, something that should cost 6 Birr. “Okay, I’ll pay 10 Birr.” “15 Birr.” “11 Birr.” “15 Birr.” “Here. Here is 11 Birr. I’m not paying any more.” “12 Birr.” “No really. I’ve had a long day, 11 Birr.” “12 Birr.” “I mean really, seriously. 11 Birr. I’m prepared to walk away. I won't pay 12 Birr.”

Gulp. I heard the words I had just uttered. “Fine. Here’s 12 Birr. Now show me the bucket shower.” The older boy wanted me to pay him a tip.

Hassles don’t stop just when you’ve arrived at your hotel. But I don’t want to go on.


I arrived in the morning, leaving very early morning on the bus from Shire. Even hassles for just a stupid two and a half hour bus ride. Like, I’m lining up with all the others for the bus station gates to open at 6 AM, gates open, mad rush. “Where are you go?” “Axum.” “Here, here.” First one on the bus, who-hoo! Took the very front single seat, I wouldn’t even have to look at any Ethiopians if I didn’t want to. People came in behind me. Bus half full, two-thirds full, half-full, quarter-full. It’s only 6:10 AM and I’m already pissed off, angry and upset. So I get off the bus, go to the other bus where the others have defected to. Yes, that bus too is going to Axum. Get a bad seat (but it’s only 150 minutes, who cares). Leave at 6:45 AM.

Arriving in Axum. No, I don’t want a guide. No, please go away. “You! Faranji!” “You! Money!” "You! Where are you go?"

At the cheap hotel, basic room, “I’ll pay 15 Birr.” “25 Birr.” “I’ll pay 15.” “25.” “15.” “25.” “15.” The youth had the woman change the sheets, told me to put my pack down. It was Palm Sunday so I put my padlock on the door and went to the church for the festivities.

According to every Ethiopian Christian, the Ark of the Covenant, the acacia wood box which God told Moses to build to hold the tablets of the 10 Commandments, the ark which the Israelites led into battle to vanquish their enemies—-that ark resides in a chapel in Axum. According to the well-researched, fascinating pseudo-history book The Sign and the Seal by Graham Hancock, the Ark is indeed in Axum. Basically, that’s why I came to Ethiopia, not to see the Ark (forbidden) but just to be there.

Around the church were festivities with the colorful umbrellas and hundreds of years old crosses, and maybe even some of the fake arks, the replicas which every Ethiopian Orthodox church keeps in its Holy of Holies, were on parade. Chanting and ululations (high-pitched weird sounds from the women) and everybody dressed in white. It was pretty cool, but I didn’t get a really good view.

Palm Sunday in Axum

I went around the church compound and drank of the holy water of the St. Mary of Zion’s Chapel of the Holy Ark of the Covenant. I saw the priest who stays guarding it all the time. He poked his head out from behind the curtains and the door, still safe within the fenced compound.

Chapel wherein lies the Ark of the Covenant

Oh man, Ethiopia has been three very long weeks of constant agitation (even the fat-tailed sheep and the way Ethiopians say “Yes” irritated me).

Axum was very cool. 25 meter stellae, obelisks, standing for 1500 years. Ruins of an ancient Christian civilization. Queen of Sheba myths. All sorts of stuff.


And all sorts of aggravation. I hit a minibus boy after he kicked my boy guide after we (I) was overcharged for the minibus. Just a swing of my palm into his back. Just an eruption of two weeks of boiling blood. All over 1 Birr (12 cents) overcharge (and his haughty attitude). “Did you just kick my friend?” ‘Who are you, stupid faranji?’ body-language response. Swing, smack. I was twice his size so he didn’t try anything and I walked away. One hit was enough, I didn’t feel like firebombing anything.

Oh, and for the ruins. Overcharging foreigners. Saying there will be a free guide at the sights (tip negotiable), but no guides (I’m willing to pay for information) and no information. And a lot of the things were closed, couldn’t be bothered to work or something.

Ancient Axum stellae

Still, great sights, but it’s hard to appreciate them when the people are so mean. Really. Every morning I would wake up trying to be nice. Constant aggravation.

Plane story:

I had bought my bus ticket to Mekele, partway to Lalibela (two or three days on the bus), already the night before. They said the bus would leave at 5:30 AM. Yeah right! I asked, "At what time do the gates to the bus station open?" "6 AM." More like it.

Always at the bus stations people line up for the gates to open, there's a mad rush for the buses (never labeled), they fill up, and wait. Sometimes they'll allow the faranji to enter the gates early to get a good seat.

So I got to the bus station at 5:50 AM. The gate was already open, so I went in. "You! Where are you'd go?" "Mekele." "Here."

I realized that wasn't my bus and it wasn't going to Mekele (still less than halfway to my destination of Lalibela for Easter). "Here's my ticket. Where's my bus to Mekele?" The man took my ticket and refunded my money, "Your bus left at 5:30 AM." I didn't know whether to believe him or not, but anyway, my bus was not there. "Don't worry. Another bus comes in 10-15 minutes. It's just in town filling up petrol station."

One and half hours later a boy made an announcement and everyone rushed around the ticket man who took their tickets and refunded their money. It was 7:30 AM. I got my refund, walked back into town, went to the bank, to the Ethiopian Airlines office; and four hours later I was in Lalibela.

On the plane I fell asleep. I think the flight took 45 minutes.

Flight to Lalibela

Lalibela for Easter:

I was in Lalibela for five nights. So I saw all of the rock-hewn churches several times. They call Lalibela the "Eighth Wonder of the World." I've already been to so many of those "8ths". Yes, the churches are very nice. Okay, they're incredible. King Lalibela, in the 12th Century, constructed 11 churches in 21 years. The churches are dug out of the rock. They aren't built, just they started digging a trench down, then a door, then hollowed out a church from the inside. They say angels and God helped the king build the churches, and one of them was built in a single night.

The best one, the most stunning church, is St. George's. It's in the shape of a cross, just like the angels took a cookie cutter, stamped the rock, and left the church. I wish I could attach one of my 1000+ digital photos.

One day I went outside the town to visit far-away rock-hewn or cave churches. They are very cool, and they're not just buildings. That's why Lalibela is also called, "The Living Wonder." The 800 year-old churches are still used by ordinary priests and worshippers and tourists.

Good Friday:
Inside the Bet Medhane Alem (Savior of the World) church, the one with 72 columns (all hewn out of the same block of stone), was very crowded. I had to watch the happenings from the doorway. But then heck, I just stepped over people and found a spot on the ground to sit with the others in the back. Yeah, everybody looks and stares at the faranji and gossips about me, even during the service, but really I am the voyeur.

What I saw was super cool. The priests do a whole bunch of chanting and sometimes the people (wrapped up in their white sheets/blankets) chant back or sing and the women ululate (like Aiy-yi-yi-yi). The priests all had sticks of fire, and were dancing around a circle. Then they threw down their fire to the middle at the culmination of the dance trance.

The high priests came out with the multicolored umbrellas and 800 year-old crosses and and purple draped block of wood symbolizing the body of Christ. They paraded inside the church, then went outside. Everyone followed. Outside, the parade was really fun because everyone was chanting something atonal, and it was just a mass of moving singing whiteness, all around the 800 year-old stone block architecturally wonderful church, then back inside.

chanting in 

Lalibela (click for video)
Good Friday chanting in Lalibela (click for video)

Most of the people had left, so I got good views of the priests holding their fire and the main guy giving a sermon. It was good. He talked about angels Michael and Gabriel. That's all I understood of it, but he had a good rhythm, and I could mutter and bow my head with everyone else at the right times because I tuned in to the rhythm.

But I was also the tourist taking photos. It seemed that whenever I would take a picture, the women would "Tsst" sound. I'm no linguist, but maybe the sound is made similiar to clicking the tongue, but also sucking in. It's an easy sound to make, and very, very irritating. I took every "Tsst" personally, because it seemed that whenever I would stand close to someone in a crowded spot, a woman would "Tsst" me.

The sermon was over and I went up to be blessed by the priests with the (what's the word) leafy ends of branches. He smiled when I went up and I thanked him.

Then I partook of the holy water. Then left. It was a good Friday.

Good Friday sermon

Easter service was supposed to start Saturday evening and last until early Sunday morning.

I went to a different church in the late afternoon and sat as the Ethiopians drifted in. Of course they all looked and stared and talked about me, especially the young women. I would look over sometimes at them and they'd all gasp and talk about how I could understand a little Amharic, "Amarynia, tinish, tinish." Again, I don't mind the looks and giggles, and I smile at them. But I hate the "Tsst". It's the same sound, only softer, that West Africans use to get your attention. But when the old women do it to me in church. I just didn't like it. Even though I wasn't sure it really was directed at me. Maybe it was just something old women did to indicate, "Amen."

A young priest started reading from the manuscripts (they still sometimes use the 800 year-old ones, yeah, all the old crosses, the old icons, it's the same today as during King Lalibela's reign except now nobody would have the technical skills to attempt to build such churches.) He was very bad, but just practicing. People would correct his pronounciation. I would mentally correct his pronounciation.

I left that church before it ever really got going.

At 9:30 PM I went back to the big church, Bet Medhane Alem with the columns. Just getting there was the best part. Everything was dark. I had no flashlight. Pitch black and slippery with rain. But I had my digital camera which I can make glow magically. So I gingerly made my way to the church and all the way around it (the doors were closed) with a glow eminating from my hand as I followed the soft chanting from inside the church.

There were fewer people this time, but it was more crowded. Everyone was lying on the floor, even sleeping as the priests chanted. It was impossible to go inside without waking people up or stepping on them. Just behind me came a group of 12 tourists with a guide. The guide knocked people with his flashlight, waking them up and making them clear a path for me and his tourists. Okay, it wasn't a path, but at least I had little islands of ground to hop between and not step on too many people.

I took a spot behind a column which gave me a good view of the priests chanting. Then they started drumming and dancing, ringing their bells, even somebody playing a trumpet like King David. The 12 tourists snapped their flash photographs. Flash! Whirr-wrinkshr. Flash! as the priests danced into a trance.

The other people, (I was sort of one of the normal ones, I took a few photos but no flash and no mechanical sounds) swayed in rhythm. After an hour I had to sit. Hot flashes, nausea, dizzyness. Squatting crammed on the stone floor made it better.

The priests brought out their umbrellas and crosses, dancing not quite a frenzy, not really a trance, but maybe that was the idea. Then it stopped and the mass began. That was like at 11:20 PM.

The main priest up front out of my line of sight read a prayer and everyone "AHem"ed. Read the same prayer, chanting a little. All bow our heads. Same prayer, from 800 years of memory, "Ahmmem" was the reply. Everyone would sing for ten seconds, then back to the same, monotonous prayer. I kept waiting for something to happen.

All of a sudden everyone bent down to the floor. I was slowish in reacting, so when I got to the floor there was none left. I had to squat precariously over old men and young women, like in a game of Twister. My knees ached, still the same prayers, 800 years of memory. "Amhemm" mutterings in unison from the crowd. Same monotonous prayer my feet hurt. Still crouched, same prayer, 800 years of memory, okay we've heard it enough. Nowhere to shift unless I touch the other people. Same prayers, through the ages, five ten fifteen minutes, still squatting, knees aching.

To the point of suffering, I decided if I wanted to I could be the only one standing. I wasn't going to suffer squatting through an Easter mass. Then some people stood up, but I stayed down. Just the option of standing up relieved the pain, same prayers, 800 years of memory.

We all stood up. There was something with candles. Nobody gave the foreigner a candle even though some women had three or four spares. Nice candlelight glow inside the 800 year-old rock-hewn church, pray-ers all draped in white, most tourists already gone. 'Give the faranji a candle' a man said to the woman next to me. She didn't. 'C'mon, give the foreigner one of your extras.' She didn't. Maybe she was the one who "Tsst" all the time. Then the man reached over and gave me a candle, burning at both ends. Even without the candle I still felt a part of the service. I sat when they sat, muttered when they sang. When they prayed I was very grateful for my health (no health problems except the first two days in Addis). Very grateful for my safety (no fear that Ethiopians would mug me or slash my throat). Grateful for the food which was just vegetables but still mostly good. Grateful for the opportunity to be traveling. Grateful for buying another plane ticket to Addis. Grateful I only had a couple more days in Ethiopia. Grateful I didn't have to take another bus for two more days. Grateful for the chance to see an Ethiopian Orthodox Easter Mass in an 800 year-old rock-hewn wondrous church.

But as the night progressed I was no longer grateful to be at Easter Mass. Same prayers, same ten seconds of singing, same chants, 800 years of memory. I thought at midnight the mood would change, become more festive. Same prayers, same chants, 800 years of memory. I thought I could make it until 1 AM, then something would change, something would happen. Same prayers--800 years of memory. No change. 800 years. No progress. 800 years. Famine. Country dependant on foreign aid. 800 years. 1500 years. Lalibela is a living wonder, same culture for 800 years. Same culture, same buildings, same grass-mud round two-story huts, same malnutrition, same culture, same prayers, 800 years of memory. No progress for 800 years. Continuous culture very interesting, but sad. There's no hope for development in Ethiopia.

At 1:20 AM I was at the point of suffering, same damn prayers, same uncomfortable postions, and I couldn't even see anything. So I left. I wished I could levitate so not have to traverse all the sleeping people. Come to church to sleep, like 800 years means nothing. I made my way, right foot here, left hand on his staff, left foot there, pivot, move again, out the door like Twister.

I got up early the next morning but nothing was happening at the churches. Everyone was at home slaughtering goats and sheep. I had a wonderful breakfast of chopped up sheep with garlic and the sour injera bread. For lunch I ordered injera chicken, then got injera sheep for dessert. It was good to eat meat again, or maybe I was just pretending to be celebrating like everyone else.

Goat for breakfast

Taxi story:

Every minute I thought of it, I was grateful I bought a plane ticket instead of two more days on an Ethiopian bus. A taxi driver came into my hotel to collect his Japanese passenger. "Are you going to the airport?" I asked. "Yes." "I and my friend are as well. We'll pay 40 Birr for the both of us." "It's 30 Birr each fixed price." "Yeah, but we can get anyone to take us for 60 Birr. You're already going to the airport." "No."

I thought it was strange. 40 Birr is much more than 0 Birr. Anyway, my French friend Carlos-Fernando had a taxi picking him up. And I was willing to pay 30 Birr, just 20 Birr sounds better.

His taxi didn't come so we walked to the main intersection (side note, Lalibela would be a fascinating town. It really is the same as 800 years ago, or almost the same. But all the "Mister! Pen! Mister! Money! You! Give me something. You! Where are you go?" was energy draining annoying. It's hard to appreciate the sights when you hate the people.) There was a taxi. He didn't want to take us for 60 Birr. Why not? Because we're supposed to return with the driver who drove us into town from the airport.

We called around looking for a taxi. Time was ticking. I wasn't worried because my friend was doing all the work. I was just talking with a missionary from Uganda. Then we went to the Ethiopian Airlines office. A man in there said he wouldn't take us for 60 Birr because I had offered him 40 Birr. He owned all the taxis and none of them were going to take us to the airport.

But. But.


The plane ticket guy called somebody else. For 100 Birr they would send a car. But, fixed price 60 Birr. No, I told them 40 Birr, that I could get anybody to take me for 60 Birr, so go ahead and try.

Carlos-Fernando was very upset. Thank goodness for him. Because he was angry I wasn't. Simple.

We were being late. We got the car for 100 Birr. Plane was delayed. Never be in a rush in Africa. I didn't really mind the taxi mafia because my friend felt my anger for me. But still, I don't like Ethiopia.


Back in Addis. "You! You! Faranji. Money! Where are you'd go?" "I am leaving Ethiopia very soon so you can say whatever you want, I don't care anymore."

I hate Ethiopia. If I had four months to travel with a friend, maybe I'd like it. Of if I had everything arranged by an expensive travel agency it would be better. They don't know what a budget traveler is. They think every white person has $100 bills in their pockets. They all think I just won the lottery, even my friends. That's galling, when people I trust rip me off.

Anyway, Friends and Family, Do not come to Ethiopia,
Eric Vance

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Last modified January 3, 2003.
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