by John and Gail Murphy

We have set about meeting our neighbours…Tanzania, Uganda, and most recently Ethiopia. Ethiopia is far different from anything we have experienced so far in Africa.

It certainly stands outside the core of East Africa in many ways.

First of all even arriving in the dead of night about 3 hours late due to an aborted takeoff at on the end of the Nairobi runway, we were aware that Ethiopians keep to the right like Canadians…which now feels weird to us.

Then, wanting to charge the phone up during our 3 hour stay in Addis Ababa before going back to the airport to begin our tour, we noticed that Ethiopia uses European style round plugs rather than the big ones used everywhere else we have been in Africa.

The people look different…dark yet more finely featured and slender. Most of them speak Amharic. Many tribal groups live in the non-electric world, no phones, no running water, traditional clothing that hasn’t changed in centuries….maybe even millennia as some women still wear goatskins.

Their food is different, all based on injera, their spongy thin pancakes about 60 cm in diameter. Ugali, the staple of East Africa, is an unknown.

gelada baboonGelada baboons are truly beautiful. I’ve never said that about baboons, but these ones are magnificent.

They are also known as the “bleeding heart baboons” because instead of enflamed rumps, their sexual display patches are on their chests.

The males have luxurious manes that flow behind them as they move and make them decidedly leonine in appearance.

They are endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia.

Time is different in Ethiopia. They work from a different calendar, the Ethiopian orthodox, which is running about 10 days later than ours. But time on the clocks is different too. Not only do they call 7:00 am the first hour after dawn (which is similar to the Swahili translation) but they actually set the hands to 1:00.

Ethiopia has a history as we know it marked by the carbon dated bones of Lucy, palace ruins of the Queen of Sheba, huge Aksumite stele marking graves in a pharonic style, the painted parchment bibles, Christian churches in continuous use since the 2nd century, books, paintings.

Indeed Ethiopia boasts that it is not only the cradle of African Christianity and but the veritable cradle of human life.

We felt that we were frequent flyers on Ethiopian Airlines by the end of the first week. After our slightly hair-raising flight into Addis Ababa (means “new flower”), we left early the next morning on a flight to Barhir Dar to visit Lake Tana and the headwaters of the Blue Nile.

We took a boat cruise out to an island monastery where a funeral was in progress. Christian churches are usually round structures, illustrated inside and out with stories from the bible. They have a veranda-like first area, then an inner area, and then the holy area where the copy of the Ark of the Covenant is kept.

This copy is taken out of safe-keeping on the festival day for the saint of that particular church and displayed to the faithful. These special days attract pilgrims from afar.

Pilgrimages attract beggars and hawkers selling formal ceremonial velvet umbrellas trimmed with gold braid, elaborate crosses of metal or wood to wear around your neck.

The beggars flaunt their afflictions…sores, amputations, leprosy, birth defects, blindness, sickly children etc. in hopes of bigger tips.

We checked out the Nile Falls which are a mere trickle since the hydro diversion was put in place but they must have been spectacular from the length of the escarpment where they fell, and still do in the height of rainy season.

In Barhir Dar our guide took us to a private home for the first of many traditional coffee ceremonies. Coffee is like a religion in Ethiopia. Not only do they produce very high quality shade grown coffee, but they love coffee (unlike Kenyans who grow it but prefer to drink tea.)

The equipment is laid out on the floor on a bed of fresh leaves or green grasses for a proper coffee ceremony although in the airport the plant material was artificial.

Incense is burned while the woman of the house washes a couple of handfuls of green coffee beans.

Then the beans are put on a flat plate and roasted over hot coals until they are well-blacked. Then the plate is passed by each guest and the fumes are wafted towards the guest to be savoured. Then the beans are crushed into a fine powder in a mortar and spooned into the clay coffee pot which sits to boil on the coals.

Coffee is served a few minutes later in tiny cups with lots of sugar, but generally not with milk. After the first round, the grounds are boiled again to make a second round and then a third round, which is still a pretty dark and potent brew.

This procedure is followed 3 times a day in many homes and takes 45 minutes to an hour each time.

The next day we drove to Gondar to visit a family castle compound dating back to the 6th century and belonging to Fasiladas.  Ethiopians refer to as their “Camelot”. Haile Selassie’s lions lived here most recently until it became incorrect to keep animals confined in such iron prisons.

Fasiladas bath, an enormous swimming pool still filled once a year for a mass baptism , is not too far away.

Into the air for a quick flight to Aksum, dating 4 centuries  BC. Huge stele mark the graves of the rich and famous of the day. Grave robbers have had their way although it is reckoned that there are many tombs completely undiscovered making this place a tourist gold mine to rival Cairo one day in the next millennium.

The Queen of Sheba is thought to have lived here and people still bathe in her pool and draw water there. Her palace ruins are immense, although it is not clear today why anyone would find the particular site attractive.

Aksum was at the centre of several trade routes and may have been a buzzing metropolis long ago instead of the quiet little town it appears today. It is still the heart of Ethiopian Christianity as the actual Ark of the Covenant is said to be safely kept in the holiest spot in the old church.

Back on the plane to Lalibela where King Lalibela (the Honey eater) commissioned the carving of churches right into the rock of the mountainside in the 12th century. They are amazing!  Carved down, down, down, then hollowed out and windows, niches and all the decorations carved out of one massive monolith.

From Laibela we took a 3-night trek in the highlands just a little ways down the road to Addis some 20 hours rough driving away.

There were six people in our group, well seven…a couple from Quebec with their 14 month old, and two women from New York City.

John and Gail will continue sharing their amazing Ethiopian adventure 1n the second part of this article.

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