Ethiopia: The Rock-hewn Churches of Tigrai

Our first venture in northern Ethiopia had us taking a 14-hour bus ride into Mekele, the base city for trips to both the churches of Tigrai and excursions to the Danakil Depression. We found that Mekele itself doesn’t have much to offer, other than clean streets, some subpar restaurants, amazing juices and some seriously delicious honey covered pancakes. Honestly, the pancakes alone were worth the 14-hour journey. Well done, Green Valley Café (but your service is terrible).

We had a few days free before we departed for the Danakil, so we signed up for a last minute (as usual) trip to the churches. I’m glad we did. We headed to the tour agency at 7am and to our surprise, found a new Landcruiser, cushy seats at all, waiting for us. Two hours later we were in Megab, a small village at the base of the Gheralta Mountains, starting our ascent up the mountain. Our guide lead is through small crevasses and had us scampering up sandstone cliff faces, occasionally stopping to let us catch our breath or explore an old hermit cave. After an hours hike, we found ourselves at the church known as Debre Maryam Korkor. The priest unlocked the door and lead us into the church. We sat and listened as our guide spoke of its history and importance. Dating back to the 6th century, priests had lived on this distant plateau, dedicating their lives to their gods and a peaceful lifestyle. Only a few people lived on the plateau, but each Sunday and special service, dozens would make the hours hike to the church in order to pray and be closer to god. The journey is difficult, especially for those of an older age, so a new, much less remote church, was being built. We took our time to enjoy the stunning views in front of us. With a cloudless sky, it was as if we could see all the way across Ethiopia.

IMG_7885 IMG_7888 IMG_7876

IMG_7892 IMG_7894

IMG_7933 IMG_7913 IMG_7961

The second church on our list was Abuna Yemata Guh, considered the most beautiful of all of Tigrai’s churches, mainly because of it’s location. The church was carved into the top of a giant rock pillar, and the only way to reach it is an hour’s hike that included scaling 20 feet of a sheer sandstone face using only uneven hand and foot holes, as well as crossing a narrow walkway with a 660 foot drop on one side. Loes and I both overcame whatever nerves we had and made it through unscathed. The same couldn’t be said for our traveling partners, who had a bit of trouble and fright when attempting to come back down. Luckily the guides and local worshippers were there to give us step-by-step instructions.

Blessed with breath-taking views, Abuna Yemata Guh lived up to its reputation. In addition to its surroundings, the interior of the church was eye opening as well. When discussing the church locations with our guide, he mentioned three reasons for their placement. First, with the churches being built so high up on the mountains, it allowed for the priests and monks to be closer to god. Second, with the churches being so far away from the towns and other people, it meant the priests and monks were that much farther from temptation. Lastly, with the churches being so far away from their enemies, it meant the priests and monks were that much safer from harm. Subsequently, no harm has befallen this church. While other churches had been set fire to or razed, this one had been left in tact. This allowed us to observe untouched ancient paintings and gaze upon books from the 6th century. It was as if we were in a time capsule, insulated from all that has happened since the church was first built.

IMG_7969 IMG_8011 IMG_8019 IMG_7982 IMG_7993 IMG_8003

IMG_7979

The churches of Tigrai are a truly impressive experience, one that should be on the top of everyone’s list if they plan on visiting Ethiopia.

Advertisements

Ethiopia: A bustling capital, tribes lost in time and hungry hyenas

The idea of traveling to Ethiopia was never in the original plans. The idea was to head south of Tanzania to the oft-praised country of Malawi. Plans changes though, and with me and travel, plans change rather easily (should I really even call them “plans”? More like rough ideas, really). 10 minutes of conversation with a stranger during our layover back in October was all it took. The seed was planted, and Loes and I bought a travel guide, spoke with friends and soon our imagination ran wild. It was a different kind of Africa, they said. A unique and friendly place, rich with culture and landscapes like you’ve never seen. After those rave reviews, how could we not go?

We arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and economic hub, and made our way to Itegue Taitu, the oldest hotel in the country. Taitu was a welcomed splash of luxury. Large rooms with hardwood floors, raised ceilings and plenty of character. Big and comfy beds with no need for mosquito nets. Working showers that didn’t occasionally burst into flames (Loes had a shower in Nairobi that ended in a fireball shooting out from some pipes and wiring. She hasn’t complained about cold showers since then.) We explored Addis’ busy streets and shops, walked through the grounds of the ancient St. George church, and found ourselves eagerly downing large glasses of fresh squeezed mango and banana juice. We weren’t in town for more than 24 hours before we signed up for a tour of the Omo Valley, an area in southwest Ethiopia known for numerous tribes and market places.

The next morning we woke early and met up with our travel partners for the next six days, Erik and Jun. Erik, a 36 year old Dutch man, was a welcome sight for Loes. Any chance Loes gets to speak Dutch, she jumps at. I’ve tried learning some of the language, but there are only so many times Loes can listen to me count to 20 until she gets a bit bored. Jun, a 65 year old Japanese man who had visit over 190 countries, was our self appointed leader. Full of knowledge but a little set in his ways, he mostly kept to himself unless we spoke of travel, after which he willingly shared many of his travel tales.

The car rolled up and was met with our crinkled faces of disbelief. It was a ratty old Landcruiser, with no door handles and a roof so low Erik and I would end up with a concussion after each bump in the road.  They must have pulled this thing straight from a wreck yard. We complained a little, but after a guarantee this car wouldn’t break down, we hit the road. I guess guarantees aren’t worth much these days because two hours later the interior of the car smelled of gas and we found ourselves stuck for three hours waiting for a new car.

After getting a new car (with door handles!) and a new driver (he spoke English!), the tour could finally, truly, get started. Over those six days we visited four markets, two remote villages and experienced cultures we’d only previously glimpsed on the cover of a National Geographic. The Mursi village was more of a visual treat than cultural experience. It was a lot to take in, from the women with their lip and ear plates, to the painted faces and bodies of the gun toting young men. The long drive into a remote, barren landscape further fortified the idea that these people were removed from modern civilization. However, the sight of a young villager in Rayban sunglasses confirmed that the slow creep of technology into these societies could not be stopped. As unique of an experience as it was, the Mursi village trip did not feel genuine. It was too short, too forced. We were pestered for photos wherever we went, with demands of money after every click. I don’t fault them for their actions, but it did cheapen the moment. Overall it was a great experience, as long as you know what to expect.

IMG_1473

(Above: Mursi woman)

IMG_1426

(Above: Afar man)

IMG_1471IMG_1468

(Above: Mursi women and an awkward American)

IMG_1452

DSC06329

(Above: Loes helping me with my fear of heights. I’m all man, baby!)

DSC06355

(Above: Why did the land tortoise cross the road? Because I helped it, otherwise it would be dead. Eat your vegan hearts out, PETA)

We also spent time in the small village of Kolsho. Here, we were greeted by the village and effectively left alone. We explored the area and played with children, eventually meeting a man by the name of Nokia who eagerly welcomed us into his hut. We felt no pressure and simply enjoyed the experience as we spoke of his life, his family and his village. There were no “wow” moments, no “I’ve never seen that before” type events, but it felt real, which was something everyone was thankful for. Looking back on our few hours in Kolsho, I can only help but smile.

IMG_1551 DSC06252 IMG_1589 IMG_1628 IMG_1649 IMG_1685 IMG_1689

After Omo we found ourselves resting up in Addis then heading east to Harar, a town considered to be the 4th holiest city in the Islamic culture. We spent most of our time within the ancient city walls of old town getting lost amongst the narrow stone streets or in the vast Muslim cemetery on the outskirts of town. The rest of our time was spent in the hotel room hunting cockroaches and flies or praying the water would finally work for once.

IMG_7797 IMG_7814 IMG_7807

The highlight of our time in Harar was the feeding of the hyenas. In years past there was a famine in the region, during which the hyenas began to attack villagers and livestock. Without many other options, the villagers began leaving out bowls of porridge for the hyenas, hoping that would satisfy their appetites. It worked, and since then there has been an annual ceremony in which a bowl of porridge is left out for the hyenas. The daily feeding of the hyenas has it’s roots in this tradition, but is now more of a tourist draw then a cultural ritual.

IMG_7850 IMG_7842

That said, it’s a surreal and unforgettable experience to be surrounded by eight lurking beasts as a meat-covered stick is placed in your mouth and soon greedily removed by the powerful jaws of an eager hyena. My heart skipped a beat when an overly excited hyena missed his attempt to grab the meat and instead grazed my forehead. I can still feel his slobber on my skin and hair. Maybe that just means I need a shower.

Tanzania: From Mountains To Coastlines

After a quick four day stop over in Nairobi, which included petting baby elephants, kissing giraffes (What? Like you’ve never experimented before!), hospital visits for malaria (This time it was for me. Came up negative. Cha-ching.), gaining respect in the street markets for our bargaining prowess, me eating meat for the first time in five weeks (It was glorious) and Loes spending the day shopping with two locals she met on the bus, Loes and I made our way by shuttle to Moshi, Tanzania.

Moshi is situated at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, which is the reason most visitors find themselves in town. Given our budget (Since when did walking up a mountain cost $1,000?), we ended up relaxing there for a few days, enjoyed reading and meals in hidden gardens, meeting new friends over dinner, and not going swimming in the YMCA pool because they found a dead man floating in it the day before we got to town.

Through various conversations with strangers and friends alike, we decided that the town of Lushoto, a village in the Usambara Mountains in Northeast Tanzania, was worth checking out. It was a rough travel day. Our bus was late, crowded, uncomfortable and slow. I don’t remember bus rides being such an ordeal. Either I’m getting old or my memory of smooth bus rides in Asia are just a coping mechanism to deal with now forgotten pains.

Lushoto is a beautiful village known for a wide array of hiking options. As our bus snaked up the narrow roads, we soaked in sights of terraced hills, waterfalls, villagers washing clothes by the river and a beautiful mixture of orange-red soil and bright, thick greenery. Soon enough we found a comfortable bed and explored the city. The locals were kind and welcoming, though we did have an angry exchange with a waitress that left us fuming. First, please don’t wait 25 minutes after we ordered to tell us there are no avocados (We ordered guacamole. Pretty sure avocados are important.) Second, I can see a lady across the street selling avocados, please go buy some. Seriously, she’s just right there, selling them. I think she’s looking at us. Yep, she just waved.

The next morning we ended up going on a four hour hike to Irente Point, followed by a lunch of cheese, fresh bread, jam and fruit. Loes was in heaven. This was followed by our first glimpse of the chameleons that can be found throughout the region. It cautiously looked at us as it walked across our arms and hands, even being kind enough to come in for a close up. We spent the remainder of the hike with our eyes darting from tree to tree, eager to find more of these beautiful creatures. We found roughly 10 in all, but each new find was as exciting as the first.

IMG_0996

IMG_1035

IMG_1119

IMG_1099

IMG_1087

IMG_1063

We ended the night making dinner and sharing beers with new friends. Sharing stories of travel and adventure always brings a smile to my face, but listening to Loes is something special. Rarely have I met someone so animated and excited when it comes to sharing. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first time I’ve heard the story or the 50th, there is always a reason to pay attention.

The next morning found us on another bus, then a smaller city bus, then a boat, then, finally, in Stonetown Zanzibar. We struck gold when the hotel we were staying at upgraded us for free, and we lived a pampered life, even for just one night. We walked around old town, the narrow streets sheltered from the sun by aged coral brick buildings, exploring back alleys and unused walkways. Our dinner was BBQ’ed for us on the waterfront in a large outdoor food market, and the chorus of calls and sales pitches from the chefs filled our ears while we cleaned our plate of every morsel.

Eventually the pull of white sands and calm waters were too strong for us and we hoped on a city bus and found our way to the east coast of Zanzibar. Our hostel truly was away from it all. Save for the lapping of waves during high tide and the soft sounds of reggae in the distance, silence overwhelmed us. The warm waters of the Indian Ocean were a surprise to me. It was nothing like the cold bite of the Pacific Ocean. In fact, it was warmer than most showers I’ve had over the past two months. Not that I’m complaining.

IMG_1139 IMG_1142 IMG_1147

IMG_1212 IMG_1191

We spent a night with the staff from a local upmarket hotel (350 euro a night!) celebrating a birthday. Beers and shots were passed around in between jokes and laughter. Five of us went out for a swim under a night’s sky of a thousand stars. It was magical (though the fish that kept nipping our toes did their best to keep us on edge).

How To Lose 10 pounds, The Unhealthy Way!

I have this new weight loss program everyone should try. It’s amazing. Ok, first, stop working out. That means you’ll lose muscle, and muscle is heavy. Plus women hate muscle. Bones are in. Everyone loves bones! Shoulder blades are the new biceps. Second, stop eating meat. You’ve always wanted to see what it was like to be vegetarian, right? You’ve always wanted to deny yourself the pleasure of delicious, mouth watering meat, just admit it. Well now is the time. Ok, still with me? Next, get food poisoning. That’s right. Order yourself some nice, not so fresh street food, preferably made one, maybe two days earlier. Who knows. It doesn’t matter. Just make sure that when you taste it the first time, you immediately question whether you should keep eating it, but because you are so stupid and hungry (no offense), you shove the entire thing in your face and hope for the best.

Boom, 5 weeks later you’ll see ribs you never even knew you had.

Uganda Might Be Number One, But To Loes, Kenya Is Number Two

 Loes and I jumped on the evening bus from Mbale to Nairobi, as the “itch” to start moving and exploring had overcome us both. We loaded up on our favorite foods, had our music, and said our prayers. Why prayers? Well the first thing they tell you about Kenya is to never travel at night. So obviously, the first thing we do in Kenya is travel at night. Well played, us!

The ride to the border went smoothly, but the walk to the immigration office was a bit questionable. They unloaded all of the passengers off on the main roadway, as traffic in our direction was at a standstill. Loes and I attached ourselves to some folks we *think* we on our bus, and follow them. The journey was a mixture of beauty and danger. Pitch black except for the lights of oncoming trucks, everything before us was just dusty silhouettes. Trucks sped by us as we walked along the side of the road, and we did our best to avoid hidden potholes and deep, muddy, puddles. The lights of the immigration office came into view, and we were soon surrounded by touts pushing peanuts, bananas, somosas and currency. We pushed and shoved our way through hordes of people (We aren’t being rude, that’s just how it works here. I swear.), made it through yet another immigration office, and eagerly open our passports to look at our new, shiny Kenya visas.

As we congratulated ourselves for a job well done, we noticed our bus slowly creeping away. No worries, we think, they are probably just parking. As the bus continued to creep away, confidence turned to doubt and our pace quickened. A few hundred meters later we flagged down the bus and it seems that the only people that were concerned were us. We shrugged, got back to our seats, and attempted to sleep away the next six hours of our ride to Nairobi.

Side note: Just a quick note on what a tough girl Loes is. This girl had malaria not even two days before this 12 hour bus ride. And what did she eat before this 12 hour bus ride? A big dish of Indian food. And what did she have on the streets, literally, right on the streets, in front of the Kenyan Immigration office? Horrible diarrhea. And what did she do it with? Class, nothing but class. However, this does make me wonder about those deep, muddy puddles we were avoiding earlier. I was walking directly behind her, you know.

Home, Sweet, Temporary Home

For the last 3 weeks or so, Loes and I did something that goes against both of our preferred traveling styles…we stayed in one place. That place was Mbale, Uganda, a city of roughly 100,000 (a good sized city for Uganda) on the Eastern border. Oddly enough, it was actually Mbale that brought us to Uganda in the first place. Back in August, we were looking for a volunteer opportunity and came across Mbale. We found a host who had several options for us (school, orphanage, farming, AIDS work, etc) and decided it seemed like a good fit. And we were right.

Loes found work at the mental health ward of the local hospital while I spent time helping with finances at a grassroots AIDS organization. Both of us also spent time with the children at Child of Hope, a school in the ghetto district of Namatala, where we were teachers aids and tutors. And human play toys. Not one day went by where I didn’t have at least five kids hanging on me at one time.

IMG_7204 IMG_7202 IMG_7225

(Above: Gloria, climbing a new swing structure. She was probably my favorite. She was also constantly causing trouble and would rarely listen to me. Sounds a lot like Loes, actually.)

IMG_7230

IMG_7231

IMG_7241

(Above: Breakfast time. The school provides a morning meal for the children. Sometimes it’s the only guaranteed meal the kids will get that day.)

IMG_7252IMG_7244  IMG_7216 IMG_7214 IMG_7205

(Above: Kids singing during morning prayer. It’s hard not to join in.)

It was an interesting experience to settle down in one area, even for just 3 weeks. We moved into the unforgettably named “Casa Del Turista” where we quickly made friends with others who were volunteering, either on their own or through Peace Corps. In addition to our new friends, we had our favorite restaurants and hangouts, our favorite markets and our jobs. It was almost as if I was back home again, except with less stable electricity and much more chances of malaria. In our free time, we explored the local mountains on long hikes, played jump rope (using banana leaves) with village children, watched a break dancing competition, found a pool to relax by, watched a full solar eclipse and impressed all of our housemates with our cooking skills (Pumpkin soup, anyone?)

IMG_2434 IMG_2422 IMG_7187

A Dance, A Slim Chance, And A Misunderstood Circumstance

Loes and I spent a relaxing three days in the beautiful town of Fort Portal, surrounded by rolling green hills and the towering Rwenzori Mountains. The days were filled with crater lake hikes, monkey spotting, and pizza, lots of pizza. Let’s just say the waiter was on a first name basis with us by the time we left. And yes, if you are wondering, we ordered a pizza for the car ride back to Kampala. Don’t judge us!

Our time wasn’t entirely spent gorging ourselves on sweet, sweet pizza, though:

A Dance – It was 11:00pm and after Loes gently woke me from my sleep (read: poking me in the arm until I woke up), Loes and I decided we would go out dancing. We spoke to the gate guard earlier that day, and he assured us that he would be there all night. To no ones surprise, when we rolled up to the gate, there wasn’t a guard in sight. No worries. Operation Escape from Y.E.S. Hostel was in effect. We hopped gates, had our cover blown by barking dogs and eventually got busted by the gate guard after we “borrowed” his keys when we came back home (he was surprisingly okay with it all, actually). All so we could go out dancing with locals in Fort Portal. Totally worth it though, just to see a drunk woman try to kiss Loes. Calm down boys, I said try.

A Slim Chance: Earlier on our trip, Loes and I had the opportunity to do a slum outreach tour with Hearts Visions, and we met some amazing kids. There was one child, Maurice, that really had an impact on us. As we left him that day, he was in tears. Both Loes and I had wished we had done more for him, as he was a well spoken child who had yet to delve into the darker side of living on the streets. He had hope and a desire to get back to school, but most importantly, to get back to his mother who lived in a village hours away.

Fast forward about ten days. On our drive back to Kampala from Fort Portal, Loes and I decide to grab some food for the road (we already ate all the pizza. Sad face) at a random village. Up comes Maurice, who recognizes us immediately. Once we realize who it is, our eyes light up. We couldn’t believe it. What are the odds? He had some how made his way back home, back to his family. He had clean clothes and a pair of shoes. He looked good; he looked happy. We shared stories, showed him pictures, and Loes gave him her favorite football jersey. Driving off, we just couldn’t believe what had unfolded. All we could do was smile and shake our heads in disbelief.

A Misunderstood Circumstance: So we had this fantastic idea (or so we thought) that we would offer people walking on the main roadways a ride to wherever they were going. Some people have to walk a long way, so we figured we could be some help. We decided to call our car the Mazunga Express (Mazunga is slang for us pale folks), or M.E. for short. Well the idea of M.E. was better than the reality. Oddly enough, most people don’t want to get in the car of some strangers. Weird, right? Maybe there was something wrong with my sales pitch:

Me: “Hey, kid. Want to get in my car? And here, I have some peanuts too. Get in.”

Yeah, no one was interested. Most responses were either silence or fear. I don’t think my original slogan idea would have done any better, though (Muzanga Express: Come inside M.E.).

Truth be told, we did find some kids to give clothes and shoes to and we did get one passenger who was VERY thankful for a ride. A woman at our hostel broke her arm when she fell off a chair. She was using the chair to clean something out of reach. Pro tip: If something is so high you have to use a chair to clean it, chances are no one can see how dirty it is anyways.