Ethiopia: A Haiku

dedicated to Brendan Starr

Beautiful People
North, South. The landscapes are vast.
Injera all day

Brian being a "BA" (his words, not mine)

Today is Wednesday, September 7th. I'm currently writing this post as I sit on a beautiful king size bed under a thatched roof gazing out onto the calm Mwaleshi Rvier, watching an elephant take refuge from the relentless sun. It is our last afternoon of our seven day safari with Remote Africa, and its the first time I've pulled out any electronics (with the exception of my kindle). I won't go into any details on safari just yet as I owe you a blog post on our last couple of days in Ethiopia, all of Tanzania, the Tazara train, and oh yeah, Zambia too. Clearly, we are behind. Nobody said this was easy!

**I wrote this post on Sept. 7th and we just published it on Sept. 26th. Yikes!**


Our time spent in Ethiopia was actually during the low, rainy season. I had read something on a travel blog that said if you can avoid traveling there in August you should do so at all costs. Perhaps Brian and I were really lucky because I couldn't disagree more with that statement. We rarely saw other tourists and the landscape was beautifully dramatic with its lush green rolling hills and comforting morning mist. It rained twice during our ten days, neither of which were an inconvenience.

Overlooking the valley

As we gazed out the window on our twenty minute flight to the holy land of Lalibela, second to Axum (where it is believed the Arc of the Covenant is held), everything looked alive. It was also a celebratory time as we finally had our first smooth airport transfer! Sadly, we had to leave Milli behind due to the protests, but he set us up with Achenef Engdaw, a retired deacon, our guide for the next three days. The drive from the airport to the hotel was breathtaking. While I've never been to Scotland (and Brian has, a fact he reminds of every time we watch Braveheart, which is a lot), the landscape was very similar. The name, Lalibela, comes from King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, who was surrounded by a swarm of bees, at birth. “Lalibela” translates to, “the bees recognize his sovereignty.” A place of pilgrimage and Christian devotion even today, it sits high in the mountains at 8,500 feet overlooking a picturesque blanket of green hills (at least during the rainy season) and caves. From one vantage point, you can see miles and miles of rifts and valleys, very similar to America's Grand Canyon, minus the desert-ness of it.

Achenef Engdaw, the best guide in Lalibela!

Dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries, Lalibela was constructed by King Gebre to replicate the holy land, earning its current day nickname of “Africa’s Jerusalem."  Christians at the time were unable to complete the pilgrimage to Jerusalem due to Muslim persecution, so the churches at Lalibela were constructed within the rock so as not to be seen. While the exact time it took to build the churches is unknown (some say up to 24 years), the story goes that the people built the churches during the day and the angels worked on them at night.

The Church of Saint George (most recognized)

Lalibela is home to eleven monolithic rock-cut churches, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, attracting tourists from all over the world to visit this remote area every year. When Achenef told us we would be touring eleven churches, Brian and I both slumped down a little on the excitement level. We couldn't have been more wrong. The rock-hewn churches, all of Orthodox Christian orientation, are carved out of a single piece of “living” stone, and if that wasn't impressive enough, they are all underground. Before restoration funding was provided (mostly by Italians and even some by the US! Woohoo!) for these larger than life structures, they were completely hidden to the human eye if walking on foot unless you knew where to look. It reminded us a lot of the underground cities throughout Cappadocia, Turkey, with tunnels reaching over fifty feet in length without a single ray of light, blindly guiding you to a church. Currently, they are easily spotted by the massive protective tarps suspended over them to protect their now cracked roofs from the rain.

A "hidden" view of the church of Saint George

The front of the church of Saint George

As with the monasteries in Bahir Dar, they have three rooms dedicated to prayer, chanting, and the holy of holy; however, in Lalibela, they are often rectangular in shape rather than circular. They also, similarly, tell stories through paintings draped over the dark hallways, but also through the buildings themselves. You can see this in various ways from the placement of the windows symbolizing the three crucifixes to the shapes representing Noah's Arc and many others.

The doors, all original, were larger than life

Some of the windows telling a story

Afternoon light

Afternoon light

Inside Ashetan Maryam

When we weren't visiting churches, Brian managed to watch all the Premier league games, and as luck would have it, Ethiopia has a rather large Arsenal following (oh joy!). Everyone from the front desk to the kitchen staff was watching with clenched faces and fists as Arsenal lost to Liverpool in the hotel lobby (Peter, Brian didn't want to talk about it!) on opening day. It was a night of disappointments for Ethiopia as the match followed the amazing efforts by Mare Dibaba, and the other Ethiopian women olympic marathon runners. While it was the most TV we had watched since we left The States, it felt special watching and rooting for Ethiopia with everyone.

The Coffee Cermony

On our last afternoon, Brian and I got to experience our first, full coffee ceremony. As we mentioned before, this isn't your every day afternoon coffee. Well, it is for the locals. It's almost like watching a play with different acts:

  • Act I: Clean and roast the coffee beans
  • Act II: Hand grind the roasted beans (with a cameo by ours truly!)
  • Intermission: While coffee is steeping enjoy a selection of snacks, typically popcorn (no idea why)
  • Act III: Burn incense while delicately and precisely distributing coffee into tiny cups
  • Act IV (The Finale): Sip and enjoy one of the smoothest cups of coffee you'll ever have! Usually you have three cups, the first being the strongest and the last the weakest

The best coffee grinder in all of Ethiopia :)

While locals don't do the whole production on a daily basis, the preparation and consumption of the coffee is part of their normal schedules. This is a tradition we would love to bring back to The States!

I know visiting old churches doesn't make for an exciting blog post or even sound like the ideal way to spend vacation, but I promise it was worth it. Lalibela is a special place, layered with history (literally) and filled with beautiful people. And remember, you always have the food and coffee. :)

Dinner at Ben Abeba

Ben Abeba, the spaceship

During our church tours, we kept running into a fellow American named Garry. He was traveling from Oregon (or was it Washington?) on a project researching biblical Ethiopian manuscripts. He even understood Amharic which was super impressive! After several run ins we decided to meet up for dinner on our last night and with limited WiFi it was close to a miracle that it all worked out. We dined at Ben Abeba, a restaurant situated high in the clouds overlooking the entire valley. While the restaurant looks like something from Star Wars, the view was un-beatable. We wined and dined while discussing goals and happiness, including a chart that Garry likes to refer to which we loved! Unfortunately the clouds started rolling in so the staff moved us to an inside table, but even without the beautiful view, the company and conversation were wonderful. Garry, it was such a pleasure meeting you! Wishing you all the best!

Insane view from Ben Abeba

Our new friend, Garry

Discussing life and Garry's chart

Back to Addis and the "In and Out" Burger Experience

We returned to Addis, arriving forty-five minutes after Milli finally made it home. Addis wasn't part of our original itinerary but since we had to cut out Gondar we added it to the end of our trip. Our time spent there was really special and one of a kind as Milli invited us to his house for a traditional lunch and to meet his family. We ate incredible homemade food, drank coffee, and talked about life with Milli and his brother-in-law. I basically stole Anaael, their nine month old, for the day, and we got to spend the afternoon with four out of five of Milli's adopted kids. We even surprised them with an early New Years gift of a mini refrigerator! They asked for something that would be useful for the whole family rather than something for themselves. We were thrilled to be able to do that for them.

The laptop provided by Amy and Shane was being put to good use by the oldest, who is studying accounting, and they were all full of excitement and appreciation for the refrigerator and all the clothes we had brought over. We talked about school, played frisbee, and even managed a couple embarrassing moments when we asked about boyfriends and girlfriends, always a touchy subject with adolescents 😉. The afternoon was so special we never stopped to take out the camera! Milli is trying to send us a picture, but sadly, with the protest only becoming more widespread, they don't have access to any internet right now. Milli, we think about you and your family every day!

There was one last highlight during our time spent in Addis. One afternoon, Brian and I went for a long walk into town. We of course ended up at a shopping mall (something you will find out tends to be a magnet for us in Africa) and decided we wanted to take a break from the local cuisine. I love injera, but I needed a break. We saw the Ethiopian version of "In and Out" burger with outdoor seating plus a line out the door! Score! It must be good. I devoured the first half so quickly (sadly a trait that isn't so rare for me) that I needed to give myself a break before picking up the second half.

As I brought it up to my mouth, I noticed something strange. As I took a closer look, I realized that scattered all throughout the meat and subsequently the cheese and bread, were tiny black hairs. To be specific, they were tiny straight hairs, and they were everywhere. My gag reflex was now hyper active as I was trying to show Brian what I found. His burger, of course, was clean and he continued to inhale it as I was dry heaving over the railing. Usually finding a hair in my food doesn't bother me. I remove it and power through, but this was nothing like that. Also, Brian tends to find my actions a bit over-exaggerated (to say the least) but not in this case. His smile quickly turned to disgust as he looked at the burger and declared that he believed it was COW HAIR. I don't know what's worse, what I originally thought it could have been (which will remain unmentioned) or cow hair. Either way, I didn't keep a lot of it down, and left for our walk home hungry and disgusted, shivering every now and then when I would remember what had just happened. I'll leave you with one piece of advice if you find yourself traveling through Ethiopia (and I hope that you do): stick with the injera.

Next stop, Tanzania!