Thursday, June 7, 2012

Photos now available online

Either on facebook, or if you're not on facebook then here:

There's plenty more where that came from, but I figured only a very few people would be interested in seeing more than that. But feel free to drop me a line if you're one of those very few.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Back in England

I'm now in Oxford, staying with my aunt and uncle (and joined by my parents!). I slept two hours on the night of the 3rd before heading out to the airport for a middle-of-the-night flight that took me via Cairo to Heathrow. I felt wretched all day, couldn't keep my eyes open by 9pm, and zonked out only to open my eyes and look at the clock and see it was already 10am. I clearly needed a bit of sleep.

Being in England isn't as strange as I thought it might be. There have been a few moments of surprised recognition over the past 24 hours--just how green the landscape is, the fact that highways have multiple lanes, the absence of trash and livestock everywhere, the fact that I can eat fresh fruit and vegetables without worrying about the water it's been washed in, etc.--but nothing like the disorientation I remember feeling upon returning from India or Russia. I suppose those trips lasted longer, and I was younger. It's nice to be able to switch worlds without too much shock, although that shock also represented a greater readiness to find my ordinary world strange. I wouldn't want to think that I'm now so set in my ways that nothing surprises me.

Oh, and a month in Ethiopia's also done something to my lungs. I visited my grandmother this afternoon and decided to run some of the way back. After a month where I was more than 2000m above sea level for a good chunk of the time, I found I caught my breath after just one or two pants. I should have signed up for a marathon for when I got back down to sea level.

I don't have a whole lot to recount from my last few days in Ethiopia. I last updated the blog in Harar on the evening of the 1st. On the 2nd, I had an early start to take a 12-hour Selam Bus journey from Harar back to Addis Ababa, which was mostly uneventful. I had a brief and interesting conversation with a guy sitting opposite from me who does research in agricultural economics and was on his way to a conference in Arba Minch, the town that would have been next on my list of places to visit if I'd had a few more days in Ethiopia. He worked on the economics of rose nurseries, and showed me a copy of his print-on-demand (at €70 a pop!) book outlining his research on rose horticulture in southern and eastern Ethiopia. It was one of those interesting conversations where I learned all sorts of things on a topic it had never occurred to me to think about before. For instance, the world's three largest producers of roses are Kenya, Colombia, and Ecuador, where they're grown and then shipped in massive quantities via airplane (roses wither too fast to be shipped slowly) mostly to Europe. The Netherlands has the world's largest horticultural market, and roses there are sold at auction to the various florists of the West. The growers in Africa and South America (and Israel, which is another major rose producer, and a great innovator when it comes to efficiency with water use) have agents in the Netherlands who do the selling for them, and they only find out what their roses have fetched after the auction. Ethiopia has the right climate for roses, and has certain advantages over European rose-growers in not needing expensive greenhouse technology and having cheap labour, so there's good reason to hope that roses will be a growing export industry for Ethiopia in the future.

I effectively had one day in Addis, and decided to take it pretty easy. There was nothing I was itching to see or do (with one exception, which I'll get to shortly), so I decided to spend the day relaxing, reading, and writing at the Taitu Hotel, which has a pleasant and quiet patio space. As it happened, being a solitary traveller in a hotel that sees a lot of tourist traffic, I did far less reading and writing than I'd planned. I was approached early in the day by Toby and Rory, two-thirds of a set of public-school-educated British triplets (I didn't ask which, but they'd mentioned Berkshire, so it could well have been Eton--Toby and I also overlapped for a year at Oxford) who'd just arrived in Ethiopia for a two-week visit where the main priority was a trek in the Simiens. Toby first approached me as I finished breakfast, looking for some tips on what to see in Addis, but we got on well enough that we spent a good chunk of the day chatting. I also wound up having lunch with a group of UN interns that I'd met briefly in Harar. And I also did a bit of reading and writing.

When I last saw Samuel, I told him I wanted to have a proper Ethiopian meal on my last night in Ethiopia, and he more than delivered on that request. Joined by his brother Getachew, the three of us went to 2000 Habesha, a "cultural restaurant," which is one of Addis's hot spots. The place feels a bit kitschy, done up with every cliché in the Ethiopian book, although the Ethiopians in the crowd far outnumbered the non-Ethiopians. It was certainly a different class of Ethiopian than I was used to, all very dressed-up, well-to-do, and self-important, and Samuel explained that a significant number were probably expatriates back in Addis for a visit. What made 2000 Habesha particularly special was the stage show they had to entertain us (this was the "cultural" part of the "cultural restaurant"). Musicians, singers, and dancers gave a string of performances from various parts of Ethiopia, ranging from the Gurage in the south to the Tigraians in the north. Most impressive was that the band--and the singers and dancers to some extent--was the same throughout the show, meaning that they'd achieved a high level of competence (I'm obviously in no position to judge just how high) in a wide range of performance styles. One thing that Ethiopians repeatedly emphasize, and with justifiable pride, is that Ethiopia is home to over 80 distinct ethnic groups--not to mention sizeable numbers of Christians and Muslims--and that they all live peacefully side by side. Compare that with Somalia/Puntland/Somaliland, which is/are the only country/ies in Africa to be linguistically and ethnically homogenous, and yet where people notoriously do not live peacefully side by side a lot of the time.

Anyway, the performances were great. All very lively, and with a great sense of humour: at one point they staged a Gurage wedding where a Swedish woman was dragged on to the stage and interviewed about her husband, while being fed answers in a language she clearly didn't understand (fortunately I had Samuel on hand to translate for me). And I can reiterate what I first learned at the Asmari Bet in Bahir Dar toward the beginning of my travels: Amharic dancing is incredibly sexy. Sexy, but, unlike Turkish belly-dancing or Latin American dance or what passes for dancing in Western clubs, not overtly sexual or seductive. Don't get me wrong, this wasn't morris dancing: I was watching sexual beings, not anthropomorphic shrubbery. But what made the woman sexy wasn't the jiggling of luscious body parts, but rather the vigorous way in which her whole body was alive in the dance. It was as if this person came alive to dance, and that while she danced she was more alive than I ever am. And she looked damn good doing it.

Also, the food was great. Alongside the sublime Habesha Kitfo in Gonder, it was probably the best food I've had in Ethiopia (that both restaurants have "Habesha" in their name becomes less of a coincidence when you bear in mind that "Habesha" is Amharic for "Ethiopian"). And this seems a good moment to say a few words in praise of Ethiopian food. The mainstay of Ethiopian cuisine is injera, a spongy flatbread laid out pancake-style, upon which are dumped various curried meats, stewed vegetables, and sauces. The diner then tears off bits of injera and uses them to pick up the toppings and eat them together. First of all, injera itself is very tasty, even if a bit sour, and highly nutritious: it's made from a grain called tef, which grows only in the Ethiopian highlands, and is unusually high in protein and minerals (it's also fine for the gluten intolerant in case that applies to you). Second of all, the sauces that come with the injera are super tasty. My favourite was shiro, a red chick pea paste that's perfectly spiced and has a wonderfully creamy consistency. Which brings up the third point, which is that Ethiopian cuisine is very vegetarian friendly. I had to pass on some Ethiopian dishes that are apparently very nice, but I was hardly wanting for tasty meals. Not only are there great dishes like shiro tegabino and fata, but also Christian Ethiopia observes fasting days every Wednesday and Friday, where the whole country (or at least the Christian part) goes vegan, and you can order delicious fasting plates, which include shiro as well as a variety of stewed vegetables and roots on top of injera.

The one thing I'd say against injera is that it's very heavy, and I don't think I could happily consume more than one injera meal in a day. But fortunately that's just the beginning of the culinary story. Perhaps the one upside of Ethiopia's brief experience of Italian colonial administration (I couldn't help but wonder whether Somaliland's stability compared to the rest of Somalia was connected to the fact that Somaliland had formerly been under British colonial administration while the rest of Somalia was governed by the Italians) is that the main alternative to injera is pasta. And if Italian food isn't enough, there's also juice. "Juice" in Ethiopia is consumed with a spoon as often as not. It's a thick purée of various fruits (the lack of added water is a good thing, since tap water would have made me sick), such as mango, papaya, banana, and avocado, which is surprisingly good in juice form. You can also have some combination of various fruits: my favourite was a mango-avocado mix.

All of which is to say, I ate well in Ethiopia, especially on my last night. However, I'm also not sorry to be introducing a little more variety and fresh vegetables to my diet now that I'm back in England.

After the 2000 Habesha outing, I had a fond farewell with Samuel, with mutual and sincere expressions of hope that we'd cross paths again, and then headed back to my hotel for two hours of sleep before getting up at 1:30am for a 4:30am flight (I'd been told to leave for the airport three hours before my flight, but predictably spent about half of those three hours sitting bleary-eyed in a departure lounge). And now here I am in England.

Clouds had been getting thicker during my last week in Ethiopia, and on the last two days the heavens opened for the first time since my trek in the Simiens. Ethiopia's wet season has arrived. High time for me to get back to England. It never rains there.

Hopefully tomorrow I'll get a digest version of my photos up on facebook (I doubt many of you want to see all 600). I'm not sure if anyone reading this isn't on facebook, but I'll try to get an album up on Picasa as well just in case, and will post the link here when I do.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A birthday in Somaliland

I celebrated my 34th birthday in a country that doesn't exist. According to any official world map, I spent the last 48 hours in Somalia, arguably the most dangerous country in the world. In fact what I did was visit the de facto independent Republic of Somaliland in the northwest of what maps tell you is Somalia. And, unlike the pirate haven of Puntland to its east and the catastrophe that is Somalia proper to its south, Somaliland has been stable and peaceful since it unilaterally declared its independence back in 1991. Before you freak out, let me remind you that no one has ever misattributed impulsive daring to me. There's no reason to start now: I'd been thinking about this trip almost as long as I'd been thinking about Ethiopia, I researched the security situation thoroughly, and I only decided for sure to go after asking around in Harar and hearing from everyone I asked that Somaliland, and the roads to Somaliland, were totally safe. Still, I knew that the first six letters of "Somaliland" plus its location might cause unnecessary worry, so I didn't tell anyone I was going, with one exception, just in case anything went wrong. As it happens, by far the most dangerous thing I encountered in Somaliland was my driver on my birthday outing (more on which in a bit), who drove at ludicrous speeds, spent half the time texting away on his mobile phone, and had the courtesy to turn and look me in the eye when talking to me--except I was sitting in the back seat (I tried to keep conversation to a minimum). Actually, I've found that in general the roads east of Addis Ababa are prone to madness. Quite in contrast with the north of the country, where people drive with admirable caution.

The outing started on the afternoon of the 29th. I left my big backpack with my super-friendly hotel manager in Harar, and carried just a daypack with the things I'd need with me to Jijiga, two hours down the road and the last major town before the Somaliland border. Jijiga is the capital of Ethiopia's eastern Somali province. The urban planner who designed the place must feel the kind of disappointment a parent feels in a delinquent and annoying child. A lot of paved roads--including a main strip that even has a meridian--and all laid out neatly in a grid, but the town that's grown up around this aspirational design could be generously described as a shithole. I suppose that's what happens when you try to impose an administrative capital on a people to whom the concept of administration is alien. Nothing frightening or dangerous about the place, it's just drab and ugly, and the hotel I managed to find was awful. There was so much dust on the floor I could see my footprints. Good thing I stayed there barely more than 12 hours, and spent most of that time sleeping.

The next morning it was an hour or so by minibus from Jijiga to the border town of Wajaale. Scruffy and dusty, as one might expect, but here there was the thrill of adventure: across that border was a place that's unmarked on maps. How often does one have a chance to visit such a place in the modern world?

Everything at the border went smoothly. I was stamped out of Ethiopia and stamped into Somaliland (one of my errands in Addis had been to visit Somaliland's "liaison office"--unrecognized countries don't get embassies--and get a visa) by friendly border officials. Everyone on the Somaliland side was very excited to have me visit the country. A youth hanging around outside the Somaliland border office shook my hand warmly and welcomed me to Somaliland: "It is a beautiful country." If he'd said it with any more emotion, he would have burst into tears.

That welcome pretty much set the tone for my stay in Somaliland. Unused to tourism, Somalilanders seemed for the most part fascinated and pleased that a foreigner should be visiting their country. Like in Ethiopia, many people approached me in the street, but unlike in Ethiopia, none of these people approached me to try to squeeze money out of me in one way or another. They just wanted to shake my hand, welcome me, and ask me where I was from. The whole atmosphere of the place made it hard to remember that I was doing anything that anyone would think of as remotely unsafe.

The capital city of Hargeisa is dusty and a bit ragged, but what struck me most is that it seemed wealthier than any town I'd visited in Ethiopia. There was far less destitution and far more private vehicles on the roads (in Ethiopia it's almost entirely taxis and minibuses). As I understand it, Somaliland's economy is almost entirely dependent on expatriates sending money home from abroad (many of whom live in Canada, which made me popular, as if I had anything to do with their being able to make decent lives for themselves in Canada), and I suppose, with a population of 3.5 million as compared to Ethiopia's 82 million, you're far more likely to know someone who can send you money from abroad if you're a Somalilander, and the Somali clan structure ensures that this wealth gets distributed to people without immediate relations abroad. Also, I imagine Somaliland's history has pushed a far greater proportion of its population to seek its fortunes abroad.

There's no financial transaction in Somaliland that the US dollar can't perform, but for souvenir's sake if for nothing else I traded $20 into Somaliland shillings. The shilling comes only in bank notes, and in denominations ranging from 100 to 5000. The US dollar trades at about 6500 Somaliland shillings. When I traded my $20 at Wajaale, I was given two-and-a-half bricks of one hundred 500 shilling notes wrapped in rubber bands. Downtown Hargeisa is full of money changers sitting with stacks of rubber banded cash. I've seen photos of this sort of thing from places like Zimbabwe and 1920's Germany, but I'd never seen it in person.

Hargeisa itself is rather devoid of tourism sights--the only thing that could fit the bill is the war memorial, where a MiG jet is mounted atop a stone block set with alarmingly graphic friezes depicting the destruction of the war that preceded Somaliland's independence--but it was fun to wander about for a couple of hours. The market is colourful and sprawling, the central mosque is massive (it was prayer time when I went by it so I decided it would be better not to try entering), and the whole place buzzes with activity.

And, as it turns out, Somaliland also gets its share of tourists. I stayed at the Oriental Hotel, which was by far the nicest hotel I've stayed at on my trip, although, at $15 a night, it was also the most expensive, but by not quite as far. At the same hotel was Daniel, a German I'd met in Lalibela, Pascal from Montreal, another German called Nawid, and two Italians, a journalist and photographer. The added company was a good thing because joining forces and finances with Nawid made my birthday outing cheaper (although still the single most expensive day of my trip) and allowed me to do more than I'd originally planned.

The original plan was to visit the rock paintings at Las Geel. Visiting Somaliland for my birthday wasn't simply a stunt (although I admit it was partly that) and it wasn't simply because I was curious what it would be like to step outside the nation-state system (although I admit it was definitely also that)--it was also that I'd read that Las Geel was spectacular. And indeed it is: if it were located anywhere other than in a geopolitical black hole I'm sure its name would be as famous as... actually, when I consider most people haven't heard of Lalibela, which doesn't lie in a geopolitical black hole, I wonder how many wonders this world contains that I know nothing about. Anyway, the Las Geel site consists of a series of remarkably well-preserved prehistoric rock paintings. (Actually, I was disappointed to learn that they're less than 5000 years old, but I guess while the Egyptians were building pyramids the Somalis were still in the Stone Age. On the bright side, they're better preserved than they would be if they were tens of thousands of years old.) On a rocky bulge in the mostly flat landscape, ancient Somalians painted red and yellow ochres with bits of black all over the rock faces and small caves. Judging from the paintings, camels hadn't yet reached the Horn of Africa (present-day Somalis are more obsessed with camels than Russians are with booze), and the big thing was cattle: big-uddered cattle, cattle humping, little people standing on the backs of cattle, little people standing beneath cattle, and more cattle. And all of it, in its primitive way, strikingly beautiful. I could have stayed much longer than I did, and kind of regret that I allowed Nawid's faster pace and the impatience of my guard to hurry me along a bit.

Right, so my guard: the main foreign relations priority of Somaliland is to have foreign relations. They've been struggling for twenty-one years now to get the outside world to recognize them--a key step in having an economy based on something other than expatriate remittances--and they're well aware that the worst setback to that campaign would be if bad things happened to foreigners within their borders (in case you're wondering or still worried, the last terrorist attack in Hargeisa was 2008, which was the first one in five years: all of this from neighbours trying to destabilize the country). As a result, they're obsessive about security. Foreigners aren't allowed to leave Hargeisa without police permission or an armed escort (the latter being easier to organize when you're on a short visit), and every town has a military checkpoint. It was all very relaxed and friendly, but it meant that Nawid and I sat in the back seat behind a driver and a soldier riding shotgun--or more accurately, riding Kalashnikov.

From Las Geel we drove on to the port town of Berbera (this is the part that I couldn't have afforded on my own). Jijiga lies at the foot of the eastern spur of the Ethiopian highlands, and the Somali homeland beyond (or at least what I saw of it) is a mostly flat and arid landscape of dirt and scrub. Driving through this expanse of nothing, I couldn't help but wonder what could possibly possess people to kill one another over it. Somaliland has its desert-like beauty, but it's also damn hot, and gets hotter the closer you get to the sea. We drove out to Berbera with the windows rolled down, and the wind in our faces felt like a furnace blast. Berbera itself was a balmy 38 degrees (that's a touch over 100 Fahrenheit for the Americans in the audience), but it was such a dry heat that I barely sweated: any moisture that rose to the surface of my skin evaporated immediately. This was a mild day by Berbera standards: the town often records temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) and it receives less than 5cm of rain annually.

The town was a bit of a disappointment. The port had a certain lazy charm to it, but the main event of dipping my feet in the Gulf of Aden was marred by the fact that as soon as we reached the shore ("we" being me, Nawid, and Pascal, who'd come down to Berbera the evening before) a gang of tough-talking youths approached who were clearly looking for an excuse to start a fight, so we decided it would be better to retreat.

I drove back to Hargeisa without Nawid. In case there was any danger of my thinking I was doing anything remotely hardcore by visiting Somaliland, he one-upped me: tomorrow he's flying from Hargeisa to Mogadishu. This sounds insane, and in a way it is, but Nawid's prepared for the whole thing with impressive sanity. He's been fascinated with Somalia for a long time, has read all about Mogadishu, and has spent ages planning his two-day visit. $1000 per day buys him a fixer--referred to him by a German war correspondent as the best one money can buy--a driver, and seven armed guards, who will escort him to all the bullet-riddled sights of the world's most dangerous city. Nawid's visited 106 countries in his time, and has decided to end his world travels with a bang--hopefully not literally. I wish him well and look forward to seeing the photos when he gets back safely.

So all in all, it was a fun birthday outing. The only thing missing was a celebratory drink at the end of the day. Strictly no alcohol in Somaliland, though in Berbera we met a group of Russians who service the airplanes at Hargeisa airport and I'd be very surprised if they hadn't smuggled a stash into the country. On the bright side, whereas Ethiopia specializes in coffee, which I don't drink (though everyone raves about Ethiopian coffee), the hot drink of choice in Somaliland is tea with camel's milk, which is a big step up from the warm-cup-of-water-plus-cheap-teabag that I normally get in Ethiopia. I'll make up for the absence of alcohol by having a beer tonight now that I'm back in Harar. Tomorrow it's an early bus back to the capital, giving me a little over 24 hours to rest up before flying to England. All told it's been a really nice trip. This is probably the penultimate post.

All over Ethiopia, and Somaliland, I see knock-offs of designer labels. To judge from the last month, you'd think the world's two top designers are Galvin Klein and Adibos. Today on the minibus from Jijiga back to Harar I saw my favourite yet: a guy wearing an athletic jacket with Adidas stripes and font, but instead of "Adidas" is just said "Addis."

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In the footsteps of Rambo

I've spent the past couple days in and around Harar, whose walled old city dates back to the 16th century, when it was the launching point for Muslim warlord Ahmed Gragn's destructive assaults on the Christian empire to the west (actually, the old city is five centuries or more older than that, but the walls and its rise to prominence come thanks to Ahmed Gragn). To this day, old Harar is said to hold more mosques per square kilometre than anywhere else in the world--some of them tiny little one-room buildings that you'd scarcely notice if it weren't for the little crescent moon above the whitewashed stone wall--and is considered by some (mostly African and certainly not Shi'a) Muslims to be the fourth holiest city of Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Islam entered sub-Saharan Africa from Arabia via the Horn of Africa, and Harar is one of Islam's earliest footholds on the African continent. For all that, it's a wonderfully open and relaxed city, where major churches and a significant Christian population live alongside their Muslim neighbours, and for the most part you wouldn't guess which were which. I'm told that, in a spirit of solidarity, many Christians fast during Ramadan and many Muslims fast during Lent.

But really, Harar is the opposite of a sacred city. It's long been a major trading post, and to this day maintains strong trade links with the Somali region in eastern Ethiopia, as well as the breakaway state of Somaliland with its strategic (by virtue of slipping under the customs radar) seaport in Berbera. This means that a lot of contraband passes both ways through Harar, and its thronging markets have a harmless but scruffy black market feel to them. Adding to the port city feel, Harar is ethnically mixed: indigenous Harari mingle with Amharic Ethiopians from the west, Somali from the east, and Oromo from the south. The Oromo are much more stereotypically African in their appearance, with darker skin, rounder faces, and broader, flatter noses.

Even though Harar is one of Ethiopia's main centres of coffee production, its main cash crop is chat, the mild narcotic leaf that's eagerly imported by lowland Djibouti and Somalia to the north and east. Chat is absolutely everywhere in Harar, and by midday it seems half the city is stoned on the stuff. So, applying the "when in Rome" principle, I hired a young guide called Sisay who'd come recommended from a couple sources to chew some chat with me yesterday afternoon. Best job he's ever had, I'm sure.

Sisay and I picked up 20 birr worth of chat at the market and then took a tuk-tuk out to his place. The whole thing had a delightfully college dorm seedy feel to it. I entered Sisay's cheap digs, where we were joined by his girlfriend and a couple guys who didn't bother to introduce themselves. Everyone reclining on cushions, we chewed chat, smoked apple-flavoured tobacco from a shisha, and sipped water and chewed peanuts. Canada's travel advisory warns me that chat is illegal in Canada and mustn't be imported, but as far as I can tell, its main danger to public health and order is that it would induce general idleness in the population. A couple hours of chewing gave me nothing more than a mild buzz and a very pleasant lethargy. My mind was perfectly alert--it has a similar effect to caffeine, and I had trouble getting to sleep last night--but I just didn't much feel like getting up or doing anything. Which might explain the general disposition of most people in Harar. And much of Ethiopia, I suppose. I don't know the unemployment figures here, but I'm sure they're pretty awful. And if you've got nothing else to do all day, you might as well enjoy not having anything to do.

Sisay was a curious figure. Unlike all the other guides in Harar, he wasn't pushy or eager to please, and had a very serious demeanour despite being quite young. Our conversation didn't go very deep, but I got the impression that he was unusually intelligent. It occurred to me that it must be tough being very intelligent when that intelligence--as distinct from business savvy--is of pretty much no value. All Sisay can hope for is some work as a guide entertaining cheerfully wealthy Westerners or maybe getting a driver's license and driving a minibus, and his outsize intellect only makes him smart enough not to be content with this lot. It made me profoundly grateful to be from a part of the world where intelligence in itself--if I may arrogate so far--can open doors rather than just make one more aware of their shutness.

The most famous trader ever to set up shop in Harar (Richard Burton also passed through here in 1855--the first European to enter the walled city--but he wasn't a trader) was the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, known in these parts, it seems, as "Rambo." Using the free wi-fi at the Ghion Hotel in Bahir Dar a week ago, I downloaded onto my Kindle the Penguin edition of Rimbaud's selected poems and letters, and blazed through the book in a week. It's always a bit tricky judging poetry in a language that isn't my own, even with facing text translation (facing text translation isn't the Kindle's strong suit), but the poetry of this adolescent genius struck me as a bit, well, adolescent. Rimbaud seems to have shared that assessment: having revolutionized French poetry by the time he turned 20, he abandoned his art altogether and sought out work in various commercial endeavours in various corners of the world. He spent the 1880's moving between Aden in Yemen and Harar, trading in hides, ivory, coffee, and arms. By 37, in 1891, he was dead of a cancer that started in his right leg.

Despite occasionally striking passages, and a staggering precociousness, I found the person more intriguing than the poems. What kind of self-confidence do you need to wander around France, Belgium, and Britain as a teenager, drinking yourself into oblivion, insulting everyone you know, and justifiably proclaiming that you're going to transform poetry? And what kind of a tortured soul abandons this self entirely and becomes a hard-nosed trader in some of the most remote places European commerce had touched at that time? Reading the letters were fascinating, not only to see this Wunderkind transform into a practical businessman, but also because it provided an intimate view of a place and time that I find interesting in its own right. Rimbaud was in Harar around the time that King Menelik of Showa expanded into the area, and shortly before he became emperor of all Ethiopia. Rimbaud's letters discuss various frustrations in his dealings with Menelik, as well as Menelik's governor of Harar, Ras Mekonnen, father of the future emperor Haile Selassie.

Rimbaud's time in Harar is commemorated by a small museum in a beautiful old house, which I visited this morning (having only finished reading the letters last night). Along with a bunch of information about Rimbaud's life, both before and during his Harar years (all only in French, and clearly put together by someone who has some experience with European standards of curation), the museum also collected a number of fascinating photographs of late nineteenth century Harar. Rimbaud was the first, but by no means the only, person to bring a camera to Harar.

I hired a guide called Girma to wander the streets of the old city with me. Strictly speaking, I didn't need a guide, but Girma was great in that he's the kind of guy who knows everything and everyone. I didn't learn a whole lot about Harar that I couldn't have learned on my own, but wandering the narrow streets, I was made to feel a part of the place as we stopped and greeted various friends and acquaintances. Unlike the dusty dirt roads and corrugated metal roofs that blight most Ethiopian towns, old Harar is paved in cobblestones and the buildings are walled with thick whitewashed (and occasionally colourfully painted) stone.

As well as wandering the streets of the old city with Girma, I also had an outing with him yesterday to Babile's camel market and the slightly overbilled "Valley of Marvels." The valley is full of bizarre rock formations, not unlike--but not as spectacular as--Capadoccia in Turkey. The camel market was great fun. Never have I seen so many camels in one place (although I suppose that's not saying much). The whole place had a terrific bustle about it, with Somali and Oromo women in their colourful clothing squatting and gossiping in groups, while the menfolk bartered and haggled over camels. I decided not to make a purchase when I learned that a good-sized camel can fetch upward of $1000.

The strangest sight in Harar, if not in Ethiopia as a whole, is the hyena man. For no one quite knows how many years, there's been a hyena man who posts himself just outside the old city walls every evening (this guy is the son of the previous guy who may well be the son of the previous guy and so on back), and feeds the hyenas who skulk out of the shadows at his summons. For 50 birr (the best 50 birr I've spent in Ethiopia) you can watch, or join in the action. It truly is amazing to behold. With a series of whistles and gestures he signals to these animals, and even calls each one forward by name. He'll hold a stick of maybe a foot in length between his teeth, and suspend a piece of fresh meat from the end. A hyena will stalk forward, snatch the meat, and then retreat quickly. For show, he'll even toy with the hyenas, lifting the meat away so that the hyena will be reaching over his lap almost like a pet dog. Truly, in my list of bizarre tourist attractions, this ranks up with the Hair Museum in Avanos in Cappadocia, where a deranged Turk has collected locks of thousands of women's (and only women's) hair and attached them to the ceiling of his cave, each one indexed with name, nationality, and harvesting date. The whole cave looks like those medical pictures of the throat with its thousands of cilia.

But hyenas are emphatically not pet dogs. First of all, these are wild animals, and they're no more tame than the bears back home that have become dangerously habituated to human settlements and food scraps. Second, they're big. Much bigger than I'd imagined. After lions and ahead of leopards, spotted hyenas are Africa's second largest land predator (although this anthropocentric count naturally excludes the world's most deadly predator). Much bigger than all but the biggest dogs, and very heavy-set with powerful haunches. I was also interested to see that they're much more cat-like than dog-like (and apparently more closely related to cats than to dogs): they have round heads and short muzzles, and move about with a feline slinkiness.

But you might still be wondering what I meant in the paragraph before this last one when I said "join in the action." I meant join in the action. I was invited to hold a foot-long stick between my teeth, the hyena man suspended a bit of meat from it, and I got a from-twenty-centimetres-away close-up view of a spotted hyena grabbing a piece of meat. Strangely, this wasn't particularly frightening. The thing is, despite their habituation, the hyenas were clearly more uneasy about this whole operation than we were. They'd pace back and forth nervously, and when it came to snatching the meat, they'd approach quickly and retreat even more quickly. I can understand them not being aggressive toward their feeders, but I was genuinely surprised by their clear nerviness surrounding a nightly activity. All to the good, though: I'm not sure how comfortable I'd feel feeding a hyena who was more comfortable about the procedure than I was.

Last night as I tried to drown my chat-induced sleeplessness with beer at my hotel, I was joined by Nebil, who I'd briefly met twice the previous day, once when he was urging me to buy his brother's wares, and once at the hyena feeding place. I don't know what possessed him to sit down with me, but he was utterly distraught: two close friends had died on the same day. One had been ill for a while, but the other had died quite suddenly, and neither of them was much over 40. I did my best to listen and ask the right questions and say the right things, quickly learning that compassion doesn't require linguistic complexity. Much as this whole country is exotic to me, I suppose I'm exotic to everyone in this country. Maybe sometimes the person you need to speak to in your grief is the one who's furthest removed from you.

Later that night, in bed, I was treated to the howling of hyenas. I was told they laugh. Maybe they do that as well, but what I heard were bullhorn-loud deep-throated moans, as if the nearby football pitch was haunted by hungry ghosts.

Friday, May 25, 2012

What's your status? I be in Addis.

For some reason, a line from an early hip hop track has been running through my head the last few days: "What's your status? I be the baddest." It somehow seemed appropriate since I'm in the hustle and bustle of Ethiopia's capital.

I've never been much of a big city person, and places like New York and London are only tolerable because their big-city-ness comes with a vast range of cultural and other offerings. I've been in Addis Ababa long enough only to find out that the National Theatre is infuriatingly hard to contact and the football season is over, which leaves me with a very big city of rather recent historical vintage. Like Berlin, Addis only became the centre of a major empire in the late 19th century, and unlike Berlin, Addis didn't have the sort of twentieth century that turned it into one of the most fascinating cities in the world (not that Ethiopian history's been dull, mind you, just that it hasn't been Berlin). I'm staying at the Itegue Taitu Hotel, built in 1898 and billed as the oldest hotel in the city. It certainly has a rickety old-world charm to it (although it would be nice if the leaky toilets had seats), but it really isn't that old. Founded in 1887 by the Emperor Menelik II, Addis Ababa is one year younger than Vancouver.

I arrived in Addis mid-afternoon on the 23rd after a long bus ride from Bahir Dar. That gave me enough time to take a quick walk around the city to orient myself before the sun set. The city gave decidedly mixed first impressions. I was braced for big scary urbanity, and I never felt uncomfortable strolling about. On the other hand, by the end of my two-hour walk, I was coughing from all the exhaust fumes, and I'd been approached by three "students" and one child who wanted to accompany me on my walk, and one urchin had had a try at my pockets. Fortunately, I'd made sure to keep all my valuables out of easy reach, and three weeks in Ethiopia has given me plenty of practice at being polite but firm in telling my companions that actually, thank you, I prefer to walk alone (the alternative is a conversation that grows boring as it slowly turns to the question of how best to extract money from me). Still, it was enough to think I might leave for Harar a day early. I'm going to aim to get back to Addis a day before my flight out anyway, and I've now seen all the sights I wanted to see.

Those sights included: the Addis Sheraton Hotel, the Mercato, the National Museum, and the museum at the university. There are a few other things I could investigate on the day before my flight, but nothing I'll be wringing my hands about if I miss.

The Sheraton wasn't exactly a must-see, but I'd heard enough about it that I thought it deserved a look, so I included it on my first afternoon's stroll. It's thought to be one of the finest hotels in Africa, and certainly strolling around its spacious grounds gave me a sense of luxury that I've very rarely experienced even in North America or Europe (certainly not if I'm the one footing the bill). Coming off the dusty streets of Addis, it was intriguing to see not only how the other half (or the other 0.01%) lives, but also who that other half is. A range of well-groomed white folk, slick-as-oil Chinese, and a number of authoritative-looking Africans, some attired in business suits and some in the sort of traditional clothing that I associate with visiting dignitaries (Addis hosts both the African Union and a major UN headquarters). I had to pass through two security checkpoints to get in, but as with other security checks I've been through in Addis, my white face earned me the kid gloves treatment. Next time I hatch a plan to commit grand larceny or plant a bomb in an African capital, I'll make a point of being white. There's the flip side to my white face drawing would-be con artists and pickpockets out of the woodwork.

The Mercato is the major market area in Addis, and said to be one of the largest public markets in Africa. It might have been the time of day I came, or maybe I somehow by-passed the interesting bits, but it was a bit of a disappointment. Lots of stalls selling mostly clothing, but nothing like the bustle and chaos I'd anticipated. I went in high security mode as I'd been warned the Mercato was also a haven for pickpockets, but never felt even followed as I wandered about.

The day I visited the Mercato (yesterday) I also spent familiarizing myself with the minibus network. My initial walk through town the previous day had given me enough of a sense of where everything was that I didn't feel lost as the minibuses zipped me around, and it was a genuinely pleasant experience. There aren't bus stops in Addis the way there are in most cities I know, but there are areas where minibuses congregate before shooting off to various other corners of the city. Because I'm not yet familiar with which minibuses stop where, I constantly had to ask people to help me. And I think that's the secret to starting to like whatever potentially scary city you're in: in Addis--as I imagine almost everywhere in the world--99% of the people are genuinely decent and friendly and a good chunk of them are very eager to help if you ask them for help. (The ones to watch out for are the ones who seek me out before they know I need help and try to find ways that they can place me in their debt.) I got lots of friendly help, a few friendly conversations (I chatted with a guy wearing a Chelsea shirt about the soccer game the previous week), and occasional politeness on a scale I'd never see in the West. The last person on to one of the minibuses (they don't leave till they're chock-a-block full), I had a rather precarious seat, and one of my neighbours insisted on trading seats with me. I'm not sure I've ever seen people on Vancouver buses get up to help seat someone because he was an out-of-town tourist. Also, no one ever tried to charge me more than the very low standard price: the whole experience really made me feel like I was an honoured guest in the city.

And if there's kindness from strangers in Addis, imagine the hospitality from not-quite-strangers. My friend Renee has an Ethiopian friend Yabebal (they studied astrophysics together in Cape Town), and she put us in touch shortly before we left. Yabebal was massively helpful over e-mail, teaching me some basic Amharic words, pointing me toward Selam Bus, whose added comfort has been a life-saver on long-haul trips, and giving me the contact details of his brother Samuel, who still lives in Addis. Problems with Samuel's cell phone meant that we didn't meet up until after I'd been in the city for a full day, but we met up for dinner last night. Samuel is a big man full of smiles and laughter, and despite the fact that we'd never met before and don't have any obvious common interests, the conversation didn't flag for an instant. He even insisted on lending me a spare cell phone so that I could be in touch more easily, not to mention paying for my meal (Samuel used to work as a cook, so he also knows where to go for good food). He was going to join me on my museum outing today as well, but work got the better of him. Hopefully we'll get a chance to meet up again before I leave. Not least because I still have his cell phone.

The museum outings today were the most standardly tourist activity of my time in Addis, and were indeed quite satisfying. I started at the National Museum, which houses a replica of Lucy, as well as artifacts from Ethiopia's historical past, before moving on to the museum at the university. Both were very good museums, certainly several steps above the disappointments in Aksum and Lalibela. Besides the fascination of seeing several million years of hominid evolution at the National Museum (Lucy was the biggest find, but Ethiopia's Rift Valley has been the site of finds from pretty much every stage in the past five million years of hominid evolution), it was intriguing seeing the best collection I know of from Aksumite and pre-Aksumite civilizations. Aksum and Yeha are obviously the unmoveable sites of the monumental architecture, but I saw far more small-scale stuff from the millennia before and after Christ in the National Museum. It helped fill out my picture of these civilizations, especially in the case of Yeha, where what remains there doesn't tell you a whole lot about the people who lived there.

Addis Ababa University is a place worth visiting in itself, a leafy and inviting campus that certainly benefits from being situated on the grounds of a former palace of Emperor Haile Selassie. The Institute of Ethiopian Studies is the building that used to be the emperor's palace, and the museum includes a few rooms that preserve the emperor's and his wife's bedrooms and bathrooms, as well as featuring some of their garments. Being an emperor seems to be pretty good work if you can get it (although you also run the risk of being killed in the aftermath of a military coup). The museum also has a floor dedicated to ethnography, featuring various artifacts used by the dozens of different nationalities in Ethiopia (the far south in particular features a number of tribes that are quintessentially tribal African, with ritual scarification, lip plugs, and various fascinating coming-of-age rituals: I'm not visiting (a) because it would cost too much, (b) because it would require at least two weeks, and (c) because I'd feel a bit odd viewing human beings as if they were exotic wildlife). The upper floor collects an impressive range of musical instruments as well as Christian art and sacred crosses. These latter two were very well represented but not quite as eye-popping as they are when situated in their original contexts. And I've had the good fortune of seeing the original contexts already.

The Institute of Ethiopian Studies also houses a large library and reading room. I was a little too shy to wander around while people studied, but it was a nice feeling to suddenly find myself at the heart of a university after the best part of a month removing myself from such a familiar element. The library was really very attractive, with big wood tables and high ceilings more reminiscent of Oxford than a Canadian university.

And now I have the rest of an afternoon to myself before getting up super early for yet another very early Selam Bus out to Harar. I arrived in Addis a little apprehensive, but I feel I'll be leaving it having not exactly befriended the city, but at least made friendly acquaintance.

Monday, May 21, 2012

"Beneath this rock I will build my church"

I'm back in Bahir Dar after three days in Lalibela, where the internet is super slow and four times as expensive as it is in Bahir Dar, which is why I've waited till now to update the blog. It takes a minimum of two days to get from Lalibela to the capital of Addis Ababa by bus, so I decided to break up the journey by returning to Bahir Dar, where I plan to spend tomorrow relaxing on the beautiful lakefront patio of the Ghion Hotel, as well as making a trip out to see the Blue Nile Falls, which I missed on my last visit. As if to announce that I'd made a good choice in coming back, I stepped out of my room at the Ghion just after checking in and a sizeable tortoise ambled across my path.

The trip from Lalibela to Bahir Dar featured the worst and the best of travel in Ethiopia. Despite being Ethiopia's premier tourist destination, Lalibela is removed from any major roads, so I needed to take a two-hour minibus to the junction town of Gashena and then hope to find a free seat on a bus or minibus passing through Gashena in the direction of Bahir Dar. After getting bad information about when to catch the minibus, I finally found myself on one a bit late at 9:30am, having agreed on the standard 50 birr fare. I was squeezed next to two Japanese tourists, who'd been deceitfully told it would cost 100 birr, and so when the guy asked me to pay my fare and I gave him 50, he insisted on 100. (In general, I found Lalibela a rather difficult town in terms of children and adults trying to plead or scam or manipulate money out of me.) I told him that I'd been told 50 and he refused to carry me, and I refused to pay up, so I had to get out of the minibus and wait another half hour or so (and turn down a few other inflated-price offers) before finally a minibus was willing to take me at the standard rate. This isn't just thriftiness on my part: it's that I refuse to support the idea that it's acceptable to rip off foreigners. Even though this was the bad part of the trip, I should add that I was helped a lot by Jordi, a local guide who also helped me get the bus from Mekele to Lalibela four days earlier, and through all his help never got a commission nor asked for a tip (I gave him one at the end anyway).

The good part of the trip began about half an hour after I arrived in Gashena. Along with Taka and Masae, the lovely Japanese couple I'd been squeezed next to on the earlier overpriced minibus, I hitched a ride in a super-comfy 4x4, carrying four guys from Addis who work for an agricultural insurance firm that offers insurance for smallholder farmers using a system that's closely related to microfinance. They'd been assessing risk indexes in the farmland around Lalibela (and seeing Lalibela's churches for the first time in their lives), and were heading back to Bahir Dar for some more meetings. Not only did they do the reverse of gouge us on the price--I thought I'd agreed to a slightly-inflated-but-totally-fair-for-4x4-comfort 200 birr, but at the end of the trip the driver insisted I pay only 150 birr--but they also went out of their way to help Taka and Masae, who were trying to get to Gonder, which is in the opposite direction from Bahir Dar after the junction town of Werota. After dropping Taka and Masae at the Werota bus station, the Ethiopians refused to leave until they were sure that Taka and Masae were on a bus, they assisted in negotiations, and insisted on driving them to Bahir Dar when it was clear that they couldn't get a fair price in Werota. They also spoke excellent English and made for fascinating conversation. Not only did I have a long chat about Ethiopian politics, and the disappointment of the rigged 2005 election, but I also had the lyrics to a number of Teddy Afro songs explained to me. Teddy Afro is Ethiopia's most popular singer, and you hear his music absolutely everywhere, including our 4x4. A rather cheesy ballad took on rather touching significance when I learned that it was a love song where the singer mourns his separation from his Eritrean lover. With none-too-subtle political overtones, the song wishes for peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea so that the singer can be reunited with his lover. Teddy Afro has been imprisoned in the past on what are generally thought to be trumped-up charges for taking stances critical of the ruling political party.

But at this point you're probably thinking, "what about those three days in Lalibela? What was that about Lalibela being Ethiopia's premier tourist destination?" If you're like me before I read my Ethiopia travel book, you may never have even heard of Lalibela. If it were in Egypt or Jordan instead of Ethiopia, it would be (nearly) as famous as the Pyramids or Petra. But because it's in Ethiopia, it's largely escaped the notice of the wider world (although that said, it was the only place I've been in Ethiopia where you really did pass a white person every five minutes). But, to cut to the chase, Lalibela was Ethiopia's capital during the Zagwe dynasty from roughly the 10th to 13th centuries, and is named for its most famous king, who, during the 12th century (clear enough on dates, Eddie?), oversaw the construction of eleven churches dug out of the rock.

By "dug out of the rock," what I mean is that, over about 24 years, 40,000 labourers dug into the red volcanic rock and carved ornate monolithic and semi-monolithic churches whose roofs stand at ground level, and whose foundations lie ten or more metres down below. The sight is truly awesome to behold, even if all but one of the churches is now covered by hyper-modern white roofing supplied by the European Union to protect them from centuries of erosion. The roofing doesn't quite manage the ironic elegance of I. M. Pei's glass pyramid at the Louvre, but I suppose it's better than letting the churches crumble.

The churches stand in three clusters. The northwest cluster is the most impressive, featuring Bet Medhane Alem, which, at 11.5m in height and 800 square metres in area, is the largest monolithic rock-hewn church in the world, as well as the smaller Bet Maryam, with a breathtakingly elaborate interior. I had to keep reminding myself that these structures were dug straight out of the rock. Bet Medhane Alem has the dimensions of a sizeable church, and the only difference between its pillars and the ones in a normal stone church is that there are no fissures where stone slabs were placed on top of one another because the whole church is one single massive piece of rock. Especially because the white roofing prevents any distance shots, the whole thing has to be seen to be believed.

The southeast cluster is a little more scattered, with long tunnels and winding passages leading between churches, making me think that the eight-year-old me who thrilled at exploring the ruined castles of the Welsh border would have been in seventh heaven racing around between these churches. And even the adult me kind of wished he had nieces and nephews here with whom he could play the world's greatest game of hide-and-go-seek.

Separate from the two other clusters, Bet Giyorgis stands on its own, and is probably the picture you'll see if you do a google image search of Lalibela, because it's the only one of the churches that isn't covered in roofing (yup: just checked). It's also sublimely beautiful in its cruciform shape, even if the interior is a little disappointing.

I swear, the person who's missed out the most in not knowing more about Ethiopia is Steven Spielberg. This place would have been perfect for an Indiana Jones film. Wandering about the churches yesterday with a Dutch couple, we started plotting out the whole thing. Pre-WWII Ethiopia occupied by Italian fascists--who naturally need a few Nazi advisors to give Indy someone to clash wits with--the real location of the Ark of the Covenant at stake, not to mention an ancient Christian culture with its own mysterious rites and dark secrets: the film really just writes itself.

My first visit to the churches at Lalibela couldn't have been better. I'd arrived late afternoon from Mekele following a route that didn't go by the churches, so I hadn't seen them when I arrived. That evening I met an English couple halfway through a Cape-to-Cairo motorbike trip (I really like English people) who were getting a guided tour of the churches the following day and had been invited by their guide to drop in at a pre-dawn ceremony at Bet Meskel, one of the smaller churches in the northwest cluster. They offered to let me join their tour, starting with the ceremony.

Each one of the churches has particular associations that make different days sacred for different churches. Each church has a special ceremony about once a month, where the priests stay up all night chanting and praying, and last Thursday night was Bet Meskel's special night. So after getting up before 5 the previous day to catch an early bus from Mekele, I got up before 5 again on Friday morning so that I could catch the last hour of the ceremony before the priests went off to bed at dawn. When Anna, Kristian, and I arrived, it was still dark, so my first view of the churches was of these shadowy masses looming up from down below me. Without any proper orientation as to where I was, I descended into the rock, passed through a tunnel, and found myself in a smallish square on the outside of a circle of about twenty priests, all clad head to toe in white, swaying back and forth and chanting in Ge'ez, accompanied only by a drum and these metal rattle-like things that they'd shake for a kind of tambourine effect. I've never been so glad that my camera has a video function. Gradually, the dawn light seeped through the blackness, and the rocks around me changed from a shadowy grey to dark reddish brown to increasingly paler reddish brown. By a bit after 6, it was unmistakably day, and the drumming and chanting climaxed and calmed down, and people slowly filed into Bet Meskel or off to wherever they were going to sleep.

Not only are the churches of Lalibela astonishing monuments of a long-dead dynasty, they're also very much living temples of Christian worship. In case Spielberg needed further incentive.

After heading back to the hotel for breakfast, Kristian, Anna, and I rejoined our guide, Agiew, who gave us the official tour of the churches. To be frank, the tour was a bit disappointing, but the churches themselves weren't, and since I'd given myself three days in Lalibela (and since the $20 (!!!) admission ticket is good for five days), I was able to come back yesterday and tour around a bit by myself and a bit with the fun Dutch couple that was staying in my hotel and who I ran into halfway through my day at the churches.

The churches in Lalibela are definitely the town's highlight, but they aren't the only churches in the area. On Saturday, I spent the morning hiking up to Asheton Maryam, a church up a mountain overlooking the town. Lalibela itself is at a cool 2600m above sea level, and Asheton Maryam must have been at least another 500m higher. The church itself was nothing compared to the ones in town, but the hike was lovely--barring the fact that I was followed almost the entire way by prospective guides and pestering children ("Hello pen!" "Hello money!" I seriously worry about the future of a country where it seems 90% of the children grow up thinking it's normal and acceptable to ask foreigners to give them things for no reason at all.) A steep climb up beyond the church took me to a beautiful small plateau overlooking the town and much of the surrounding countryside. I could happily have spent an hour up there relaxing if I hadn't forgot to bring a hat to protect me from the midday sun and if I hadn't been joined by a young man who'd appeared from seemingly nowhere and was slowly working his way toward asking me to give him money.

On the way up to Asheton Maryam, I passed crowds of villagers coming down the same road, with donkeys loaded with goods. Saturday is Lalibela's market day, and the Lalibela market is deservedly famous, drawing in people from the surrounding villages, many of them making several hours' journey to buy, sell, and trade. It was great fun wandering about the stalls, which were selling everything from clothes to food (I finally got to see the tef grain from which injera is made) to (my personal highlight) flip-flops for farmers made out of used car tires.

And what does one do on a Saturday night in this holiest of Ethiopian cities? Why, one watches the Champions League Final, of course. Ethiopians are soccer-crazy, and it's all over TV screens, so the most important club-level match of the year was a must-see. I was also with Till and Wilma, who aren't great soccer fans, but felt they had to go out and support Bayern Munich, who were unlikely finalists against Chelsea. For my own part, and despite being almost entirely ignorant about soccer, I was on Bayern's side partly because Franck Ribery is sublime (and Robben and Schweinsteiger are pretty great too) and partly because I object in principle to teams like Chelsea and Manchester City that are effectively the playthings of billionaire owners.

Till, Wilma, and I found our way to a small cafe/bar that had been converted into a viewing area, with loads of chairs and a big-by-Ethiopian-standards screen set up at the far end. We were the only Westerners in a crowd of about 80 Ethiopians, and judging from the cheers, I'd say that they were at least 90% Chelsea partisans. This has mostly to do with the unhealthy respect Ethiopians seem to have for the English Premiership. Of the conversation-openers I meet with in my walks around Ethiopian cities, one of my favourites is "what is your favourite team in the English Premiership?" It's one of my favourites because it seems to me to be the one that most genuinely reaches out to try to form a friendship. Questions like "What is your country?" inevitably reinforce a sense of distance between the questioner and the answerer, but who your favourite football club is can genuinely create a sense of fellowship. More's the pity, then, that I know far too little about English club football to bond over this question. "I'm more into ice hockey" usually draws blank stares and only serves to reinforce whatever distance there already was between us (I was trying to guess where the nearest ice rink is, and figure it's probably in Dubai or Israel), but I really can't honestly claim to have a favourite club. The only clubs where I know the names of more than two players are clubs like Chelsea, which I object to for reasons mentioned above, or Manchester United, which is more a massively successful marketing phenomenon than a sports team. So, sadly, I end up struggling a bit in football conversations with Ethiopians, especially since they all seem to have encyclopedic knowledge of all things football-related.

A secondary reason for Chelsea's popularity on this occasion (it seems Manchester United is generally the runaway favourite) is that their star striker, Didier Drogba, is a fellow African. Seeing the delight in the crowd as Drogba scored the equalizing goal in the 88th minute and then the winning penalty in the shootout (a further injustice is that Bayern overwhelmingly outplayed Chelsea and didn't deserve to lose), it struck me how remarkable pan-African pride is. Ethiopia and Drogba's Ivory Coast have next to nothing--geographically, ethnically, historically, linguistically, culturally--in common, but because Drogba's African, he's still a hero. Imagine a Spaniard cheering on a Polish athlete because he's European. It just wouldn't happen.

And that pretty much brings me to the end of this rather long post. But since I'm heading back to the big bad city of Addis Ababa tomorrow, I should say a few quick words in praise of donkeys, who I'll probably be seeing less of in Addis. In the course I taught this spring, I required students to give group presentations on different animals of their choice, where they discuss the biology, human uses, cultural significance, etc., of an animal of their choice. One of the best of the bunch was a presentation on donkeys, which brought out their importance to third-world economies, as well as giving an insightful treatment of their symbolic role as humble beasts of burden (as well as stupid asses). Donkeys are everywhere in Ethiopia, and the respect that I first learned from my students has developed into a deep love. They're remarkably strong for their small size, incredibly hard working, and gentle creatures to boot. Jase described them as broken-spirited, which I suppose is true, but in them I see (what may amount to the same thing) a spirit of resignation. Resignation to one's fate, to the fact that life is hard but must be endured, is central to every religion, and I couldn't help but see in the gentle resignation of donkeys a truly spiritual genius. This might sound like the worst kind of anthropomorphism, but donkeys strike me as quintessentially religious animals. And thinking in that vein gives a new perspective on the significance of Christ's riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Certainly, being in a country that relies so heavily on their labour gives me a deeper understanding of the symbolic significance of donkeys in Western literature.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Travels in Tigrai

I'm taking it easy in Mekele, the capital of Ethiopia's northernmost province of Tigrai. It's a very pleasant place to take a day's rest. It's a laid-back city with a strong sense of self. And because the tourist industry barely brushes against Mekele--it's a useful transit hub but doesn't have a whole lot of its own to offer to tourists--it's a very relaxing place for a tourist to spend a day. Unlike every other place I've been, I'm not constantly chased down by screaming kids and would-be guides or middlemen. Also, the hotel I'm staying in is great: the afternoon's plan is to sit on its outdoor balcony above one of the town's central roundabouts and do some reading and writing.

This comparison is probably off in all sorts of ways, but Tigrai gives me the impression of being to Ethiopia what West Bengal is to India: somewhat on the fringes geographically and economically, and with more than its fair share of destitution, but also very proud and cultured, carrying a well-earned sense of being the most civilized part of the country it belongs to. The current president of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, is Tigraian, and Tigrai was a focal point of resistance to the Derg dictatorship that lasted from 1974 to 1991. A massive memorial on the outskirts of Mekele commemorates the sacrifices of the Tigraian People's Liberation Front.

The morning passed uneventfully enough. The only real tourist destination in town is the Yohannis IV Museum. Yohannis was one of a string of strong Ethiopian rulers in the late 19th century who managed to unify Ethiopia and keep it free of European colonial ambitions. The high point of this struggle for independence came in the 1896 Battle of Adwa, where Yohannis's successor Menelik II decisively beat the Italians and kept them from occupying Ethiopia for another forty years. Yohannis was Tigraian, and so Mekele was the country's capital during his 17-year reign, and while his palace is under restoration, his museum is temporarily housed next door. Being pretty much the only tourist in town, I got a detailed guided tour from the museum's curator, who also insisted on taking all my photos for me. In fairness, he did a good job of getting shots of things behind glass with minimal glare, but I'm not sure I needed quite as many photos as he took for me. But it was nice of him to let me take photos at all: the whole site is under government authority and so photos are strictly prohibited, but he told me as long as no other tourists were around it couldn't hurt. The museum itself housed a number of antiquities, as well as costumes worn by Yohannis and his successors (including two lion-skin battle costumes), and some really beautiful ecclesiastical artwork and ornate metal crosses. But since most of the rest of this post will be about ecclesiastical beauty, I won't belabour the museum visit.

I spent the past two days shuttling around various places between Aksum and Mekele in a hired minibus with Till and Wilma (they've now gone on to Lalibela as their time in Ethiopia is a little shorter than mine). I might as well just run through those various places in turn.

The first stop was at Yeha, site of an ancient, pre-Aksumite temple, which, built sometime in the millennium before Christ, is probably the oldest standing structure in sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, it was under restoration when we visited, so the ancient reddish stone walls were covered in scaffolding. Even more than the stelae at Aksum, this one required a bit of imagination to get into, but it was remarkably solid, with impressively tight masonry, for a structure built about two and a half thousand years ago.

The next stop required very little imagination to be enjoyed to its utmost: not far from the Eritrean border stands the clifftop monastery of Debre Damo. And I really mean "clifftop": the whole monastery complex, and its contingent of about 150 monks, lives on a small clifftop plateau, half a square kilometre in total, where the only way up or down is by scaling a 15-metre cliff--with the help of a rope, thankfully. The monks shoot up and down very nimbly, but for tourists they provide a not-entirely-up-to-North-American-safety-standards leather harness. It was just enough security to get me safely up and down with a bit of huffing and puffing but without my fear of heights sending me into a panic.

Once up the cliff and at the monastery, I encountered a place of remarkable serenity, especially in comparison with the noise and bustle of even Ethiopian villages. Everything was very quiet (I could hear chanting coming from somewhere but never located the source), and a gentle, friendly monk showed Till and me (men only, so Wilma had to stay at the bottom) around the church and up to the belltower, with two big copper bells adorned with inscriptions in Ge'ez. The church reminded me somewhat of the Tibetan monasteries I'd visited in the highlands of Nepal and in Sikkim: squat and square, with thick wooden beams and a rooftop adornment (obviously the Buddhist ones didn't feature a crucifix) with metal wind chimes that tinkled gently against one another in the stillness. Like the good-looking thing, I wonder if there's something about living at high altitudes that leads to similar religious buildings. Beyond the church lay a small village's worth of modest stone huts, and beyond that, stunning views over the rugged Tigraian landscape.

Serenity aside, what's most astonishing about Debre Damo is that it exists at all. No one really knows how all the building materials made their way up the cliff, and it seems miraculous enough that tradition attributes it to miracles: the monastery's founder, Abba Aregawi, is said to have been carried to the top of the cliff by a flying serpent, and his disciple Tekle Haymonot is said to have sprouted wings to escape from the devil, and that he used them to make frequent visits to Jerusalem. The monastery is obviously reliant on supplies from down below, but has a modest supply of livestock (all male, of course, since this is an all-male monastery) and a number of wells dug out of the rock to supply water.

The only sour moment in the visit came at the end, when the kalashnikov-wielding rope guy refused to let us down unless we each gave him a 50 birr tip, which, at about $3 a head isn't really so much, but is outrageous by the standards of Ethiopian tipping. Strong-willed and unafraid of heights, Till decided just to go down on his own steam, and I provided the belay until the rope guy took it off me, resigned to the fact that he wasn't getting more than the standard 10 birr we'd already given him (although I have to say that my belaying technique is superior to his). I was ready to cough up the 50 birr since I don't think my fear of heights would have handled an unsupported descent, but just in the nick of time one of the monks showed up, who'd asked us if he could hitch a ride with us as far as Adigrat. Since we were doing him that favour, he very happily belayed me on my descent before nimbly hopping down himself without a harness.

The afternoon of the first day, and all of yesterday were given over to exploring the rock-hewn churches that dot the Tigraian landscape between the cities of Adigrat and Mekele. Photos sadly can't convey just how marvellous these structures are, and I fear my words will only offer a pale approximation. Between roughly the 10th and 16th centuries, over 200 hundred churches were carved into cliff faces across Tigrai. Small by the standards of Medieval European churches, these structures are still remarkably large when you consider that every breath of cavernous space was chipped out of the solid rock. (The largest I saw, Abreha we Atsbeha, is a roomy 16m wide, 13m deep, and 6m high, and could comfortably house a decent-sized congregation.) The interiors are adorned with frescoes, most in some state of centuries-old fading, but some of them remarkably bright (and recently touched-up), along with often ornately carved columns and ceilings.

Our first day took in Adi Kasho, just off the main north-south road through eastern Tigrai, and our second day took us into the Gheralta, a volcanically formed wonderland of towering cliffs and fairy chimneys made of malleable stone. I skipped out on the first church of the day, Abuna Yemata Guh, because it required a climb up a cliff face that I think my climbing skills could have handled but I suspect my fear of heights might have spoiled. But the second outing, to Debre Maryam Korkor, and nearby Abba Daniel Korkor, can count among the best three hours of hiking of my entire life. We hiked up toward twin cliff faces and then ascended a narrow passage between them that led us up behind the cliffs. Another thirty or forty minutes of hiking and scrambling up and around various billowing rock faces led us to a gentle plateau at least 500m above where we'd started. All of this while surrounded by far-as-the-eye-can-see views of the arid and rugged beauty of the Gheralta landscape. And all of it thrilling while never really testing my fear of heights (there was one moment where I leaped from one rock to another and only in mid-air noticed that the gap between the rocks dropped into a twenty-metre-deep crevasse!).

The church itself was moody and atmospheric, and, along with the soul-disencumbering climb, made it feel like one of the holiest spaces I'd ever entered. Up on a cliff, in the middle of spectacular nowhere, someone (or more likely someones) had carved out of sheer rock an awesome monument to God. It was almost enough to make me fall to my knees and convert to Ethiopian Orthodoxy.

On the opposite side of the pillar of rock into which Debre Maryam Korkor was carved, a ledge led round to the smaller (and now disused) Abba Daniel Korkor, with a tiny entrance just big enough for me to crawl through. Inside, the whitewashed walls sported frescoes of various Old Testament figures. I got a picture of me standing underneath King David with his harp.

Far easier to visit, but more impressive architecturally, was Abreha we Atsbeha (it was already 2pm at this stage and there aren't any restaurants in the Gheralta, so we weren't exactly sorry that this one was just a two-minute walk from our minivan and not an hour-long hike up a cliff), whose impressive size and brightly coloured frescoes make it the best hope of conveying photographically just how astonishing these churches are (although that will have to wait another three weeks and depend on an unstolen camera). Like almost all the other churches, this one is still very much in use. And here I have to object somewhat to the aesthetic blight of modernization. Many of the churches we visited in the last couple of days are fitted with ungainly electrical wires feeding loudspeakers and fluorescent light bulbs. Not to mention the fact that most non-rock-hewn churches I've seen in Ethiopia have foregone their original thatched roofing in favour of corrugated tin. I can see how these modernizing touches carry certain advantages for the priests and congregation, but at what I think is an unacceptable aesthetic cost. If the human voice and candles sufficed a century ago, do we really need loudspeakers and fluorescent lighting today? I also find myself scratching my head at the priests or whoever else it is who can't see what a blight all this wiring and technology is on their exquisite churches.

So those were two days well spent. Like the Simiens, the cost was over my budget, but I think I can make savings from here on in, especially since I'm planning to take things a bit slower.

At some point in this blog I should say a few words about poverty, and this seems as good a place as any. I'm sure it will surprise no one when I say that Ethiopia is a very poor country and that many people live in shocking states of destitution. I'm sure I'll hardly surprise anyone either when I say that almost all of the many other people here who live in reasonable levels of comfort still live on far less than even my modest-by-Western-standards expenditures (I am the 1%). By my calculations, I'm proportionately richer than the average Ethiopian as someone who brings in $1 or $2 million a year is proportionately richer than I am (although part of what shocked me in this calculation was that it brought home just how much richer the very rich in the West are). It would take two very deliberately blind eyes and a heart of stone not to be troubled by all this. Less obvious is how to respond to it all. In particular, this enormous disparity in wealth makes me a constant target for what I can't help but describe as hassles: children insisting that I give them money (as one scamp put it with great eloquence and irrefutable logic, "you rich, me poor"), sweets, my clothes, anything; half the people I have financial dealings with trying to overcharge me; and the general frustration that many of the people I have dealings of any kind with see me primarily as a source of money and only secondarily (if I'm lucky) as a person. (That said, I've been struck by just how many friendly people have gone out of their way to help me or show me kindness with no ulterior motive whatsoever: adopting a general attitude of suspicion would kill these genuine and uplifting interactions.) Part of me sympathizes deeply, and part of me objects to the chorus of "Give me! Give me! Give me!" that follows me around. I also think it does nobody any favours to create a culture of dependency, where it's simply expected that, since I have greater wealth, I'll voluntarily part with it for no good reason (I do make an exception for genuine adult beggars, but not for random children, even if they are a lot poorer than I am). It sort of helps me see how the super-rich in the West might look upon progressive taxation and other equalizing measures as annoying "Give me!" behaviour from those less fortunate than they are (and, in fairness, most of the super-rich have done more to earn their wealth than I have).

On the flip side, there's a tourist equivalent of the "Give me! Give me! Give me!" attitude: I've been occasionally struck by the way Westerners seem to treat Ethiopia as cheap goods that they've purchased, giving them the right to enjoy the country's riches however they seem fit. Which is to say, I've seen people behave with rudeness and feelings of entitlement that I'm sure they would never have the gall to exhibit back home.

On a further flip side (how many sides can you flip?), really what I'm confronted with is just the kind of neediness that prompts me to give far less than I should to various humanitarian causes. It's very comfortable to make a few mouse clicks with my credit card in front of me back home, and it's something else altogether to be confronted head-on with the need that I like to imagine myself as addressing in some small way, and to recognize that whatever I do to address it is impossibly far from enough.

My brother says the refrain of the responsible historian is "...but it's more complicated than that." I think that applies to the troubling aspects of travelling in a poor country as well. Too often, attempts to "explain" the situation or justify a certain way of dealing with this disparity in wealth strike me as ways to stop thinking about it, and hence to stop being troubled by it. Whatever thoughts I have about this situation, and however I try to respond responsibly to it, I have to bear in mind that it's more complicated than that. Whether or not my own attempts to enjoy my time here while also respecting the people I'm living amongst are decent, I think it would be cowardly for me to seek out a way to cease being troubled by it.

On a lighter note, my three favourite items of bad English in the past week or so are: a sign for the "Golden Get Trading Company"; a bank form (when changing money) that asked me to sign where it said "costumer signature"; and a bus company offering outstanding "public transpiration."