East African Travels – Ethiopia Journal 1998
A cancelled consultancy job in Mekelle gave me the idea to do the tourist thing instead. So I booked my flight and one night in an hotel in Addis Ababa, and packed a rucksack. My original plan to travel around by bus was replaced by internal flights to Gonder, Barhar dar and Lalibela with a driver/guide at each place. A fascinating country with a very missable capital
Monday 20 July The flight from LGW to Sana’a of 9 hours journey time, 6.00 am Sunday to 5.00 am Monday, was unremarkable other than I flew in a nearly new Yemenia airbus 310 – 300 and that only c.25% full on its first leg to Rome. From Rome onwards the plane was full, and with the other passengers moving around and talking loundly all through the night, it made a very tiring journey. The immigration process for the c.25 transit passengers with free hotel accommodation was relatively quick, entirely painless, and conducted by particularly pleasant and helpful airport staff. The journey to the hotel, in an extremely decrepit Peugeot taxi, was remarkably trouble free considering the mechanical condition of the taxi and the appalling lack of skill by the driver, who would have clearly been more at home driving a camel. He totally ignored the very positive advice given by the red traffic lights The outskirts of Sana’a with hundreds of partially built houses and undeveloped plots is indicative that this is a developing country, and the centre of the town confirmed that view. With less than a dozen buildings above 3 stories, no prestigious offices or hotels (there is a Sheraton somewhere), and the absence of that other symbol of poverty, the dark glassed, shiny Mercedes, it is the least developed capital city I have seen. There are virtually no large trucks or buses and I would estimate that less than 5% of all vehicles are newer than 5 years old. The slow moving traffic is dominated by ageing Peugeot and Toyota taxis and even more ageing overladen Mitsubishe mini-buses. The town is built on a high plain surrounded by mountains, and this allows the pollution, mainly from traffic, to hang as a blue mist over the town. The other pollution comes from people whistling for no obvious reason (to me that is) and from the incessant, and again for no obvious purpose, beeping of vehicle horns. The airline has housed all the transit passengers in the largest hotel, and almost the tallest building (5 stories) in town. It is incongruously called Sam city hotel. The standard is quite reasonable, with clean, large en-suite rooms, somewhat threadbare carpets, a lift that works, but no air-conditioning or ceiling fans. The latter are not problems as the temperature is a pleasant 25-30 degrees. The two vultures which have been ominously hovering above my window for the last 15 minutes have now thankfully disappeared – I think they must have been eyeing the rabbits and chickens on the rooftop of a house across the road). In transit with me are a Sudanese family (Eltourabi’s) from Khartoum, and a Somali mother with her 3 daughters. All the children have strong Yorkshire accents (from Leeds and Sheffield respectively). It’s quite like home! I spent most of the afternoon in the old city that appears to be one huge market. I had to take the Somali mother and family to translate, as I couldn’t find an English-speaking quite. The market was not a lot different from other African Souks, but non the less fascinating to see the range of fruit, vegetables, cakes, spices, cloth and clothing, shoes, jewellery and daggers. Nearly all Yemeni men have a murderous looking curved dagger in a decorated scabbard, tucked into the middle of their waistband. At one point a fight started in front of us, and these daggers were flashing about at some speed. I expected to see limbs severed at the very least, but no serious damage appeared to have been done. The other noticeable characteristic of male Yemeni’s is their propensity for chewing qat (pronounced ‘chat’) shown by a huge bulge in one cheek. The number chewing had noticeably increased by the evening, and the stimulant effect (no alcohol here) was reflected in the noise level of their conversation. Qat is a leaf from a shrub which, due to demand, is now so widely grown, that it has replaced cash crops such as cotton, fruit and vegetables. I would have said that ALL Yemeni women are fully covered in black with a narrow eye slit, sometimes covered in black gauze, but on my route back to the hotel I saw my first two female Yemeni faces. I could hardly stand the excitement! On reflection I am truly amazed at the politeness and friendliness of everyone you meet. There is no hassle from beggars and there are plenty of them), children, traders, taxi drivers…. I had better make the most of it – it will all change tomorrow. I have just enjoyed an evening meal in the hotel restaurant, of Humous (slightly sour oatmealy cream with olive oil) and Kufta (spicey sausages and raw onion). It’s now down to work, to study my Bradt guide to Ethiopia, as I need to have Addis Ababa hotel options to hand as soon as I land tomorrow. I have not yet got into the spirit of this challenging holiday.
Tuesday 21 July After a 7.15 breakfast of hard boiled eggs and coffee, and a relatively sedate return ride to the airport, I caught the 10.00 am flight to Addis Ababa. The rather well work Boeing 727 200 was only c.25% full, with no seat allocation or any apparent restriction on cabin luggage. A friendly Yemeni/Ethipian business man (Agmed Serhan, a “shop” owner in Addis) gave me some survival tactics for Ethiopia in general and Addis in particular. In short, trust no one and beware of pickpockets. Not reassuring information, but no news either. The 1.5-hour flight passed quickly, with arguably the smoothest landing at Addis that I have ever experienced. Airport procedures were almost painless. Customs could have been a problem – they were emptying every item of luggage, which for some people meant 2 or 3 very very large suitcases. They didn’t even look at my backpack!! Ahmed advised me to stay in the Axum hotel (don’t trust anyone!!0, but I was comfortable in taking his advice, as I knew it was a “safe”, if not more expensive, starting point. He was going to get a taxi for me, but when his brother-in-law and Uncle appeared in the family limo ( small much battered nondescript car with a seriously cracked windscreen) they took me the couple of miles to the hotel. The Axum is a new hotel, just like anywhere in the UK,, complete with telephone and satellite TV – in total contrast to the tin shacks underneath my balcony. I took a taxi (20 Bir) to Meskel square and started my exploration of Addis. I soon cam in contact with trouble – 3 lads crowded round me as I walked, and one went for my shirt pocket. They were easily dismissed with the some positive works and actions. A very serious reminder to be on one’s guard at all times. Shortly afterwards, about halfway along Churchill Avenue, a suited and respectable looking middle aged Ethiopian, started up a conversation, and advised me to hire a taxi for 1 or 2 hours, for a tour of Addis. Surprise surprise, he offered to go with me. He was certainly no threat, his English was very good, and with the ominous black clouds creeping ever closer, I took a chance and accepted. It turned out to be a very good move, at least in the short term. We hired a taxi for 2 hours for 50 Bir, which included a tour of the city with stops at any point and the return to the Axum. The law enforced the first stop – he went through a red traffic light. A lengthy, but polite discussion took place between the driver my guide and the policeman. The end result, apparently influenced by my presence as a guest in the country, was a caution rather than the 150 bir normal on-the-spot fine. I then had a 2 hour tour in torrential rain seeing little but generally getting my bearings. We did however inspect a number of hotels, the only two of note being the Tahitu and the Wutma. The Tahitu at $18 for a large room and balcony in a very fading “colonial” style did not appear to be as good value as 53 Bir for the cleaner Wutma with restaurant and bar. The taxi returned me to the Axum as agreed and I paid my guide! With 40 Bir. He wanted more, having said initially that he wanted nothing for his services. But it did me a favour. I retired to be early after a Nile perch (and chips), dominated by MTV in the Axum restaurant.
Wednesday 22nd July I checked out of the Axum, paying 297 Bir for the room and evening meal, and as arranged the taxi driver from yesterday, collected me at 10.00 o’clock, and took me to the Watmu hotel in the Piazza area of Addis. The room was being cleaned as I arrived and I was able to oversee a thorough job being done. I called in a nearby travel agent in De Gaulle Square, to initiate an investigation into touring the country. They were not able to offer any positive information other than direct me to the National Tourist Office (NTO), next to the Ghion hotel at the other end of town. A hotly negotiated fare of 8 Bir for a taxi took me to the NTO. The NTO staff were most helpful, and after a lengthy discussion I settled on considering a $283 4 day tour of the West and North of Ethiopia, with me finding my own accommodation at an estimated $10 per night. The deal included all flights, airport to accommodation transfers and guide. This seemed the best alternative, as it included an option to stay in each of the three centres for extra days if I wished. I agreed to return on Friday to propose my own itinerary and make a positive booking. I returned to the toel by taxi as it was threatening rain, which it did during my lunch of scraggy chicken in the hotel restaurant. But it only cost 12 Bir! In the afternoon I walked through a truly shantytown of decrepit tin sheds, to, rather incongruously, the Hilton hotel to enquire about a Rotary meeting. Not much luck other than being given an office telephone number to ring. On my return walk back to my hotel, I called in “ Travel Ethiopia” to check on tours. They could only offer me a $650 4 wheel drive, guided tour to the southern rift valley. Back to the drawing board on that one.
Thursday 23rd July Uneventfully changed $200 at a nearby bank at a rate of 7.10 Bir to the dollar to the dollar. In mid morning I visited British Council HQ, about 5 minutes walk from my hotel, and met their education officer, Tsega Mintesnot. He was able to offer little with respect to student recruitment other in rural development and distance learning (neither being strong areas with UWA. He did however very kindly contact a travel agent ( a friend of his) and then drove me down to meet hi. The agent, Emiru Woldeyes, manager of Sterling Travel, gave me a rough quote of $500 for 7 days around Bahar dar, Gonder and Lalibela, including flights, transfers, guides and good quality hotel accomodation. Looks at this stage to be better value and a lot less hassle than the NTO offer. Addis is smaller than I thought – on my walk back to the hotel, who should be waiting in a queue at traffic lights, but Ahmed who I met on the flight from Sana’a! I lunched in the hotel on Capretto al forno (lean goat meat on the bone). The initial 50% of the substantial portion of meat was delicious, but it was downhill all the way for the rest. Even so not bad value for a quid (10 Bir) I have decided I need to go a little bit upmarket with my accommodation with respect to facilities and area. On my way to a Rotary meeting in the Hilton, I called, inspected and reserved a room in the Hawihotel, Debre Zeyit road, for 100 Bir per night. The Rotary meeting was not a great success, as there was no welcome feeling, no real provision for guests, no food served to me and no word from the President. Members wandered in any time up to an hour late and Sat at 3 round tables with c.8 per table 0 the tables were too large to converse across, but nobody wanted too anyway. I was fortunate to find myself seated next to a friendly member – a Liberian (town) planner, Bill Appleton, who works in the German embassy and whose great grandfather was a Scottish evangelist bent on converting the Liberians to the Presbyterianism. Bill complained, from obvious international Rotary experience, that Addis club did not embody Rotary ideals of community service and fellowship. It is not easy to translate those ideals in a community with such an enormous gulf between these few jet setting, well paid Rotarians, and the occupants of the thousands of tin shacks that literally surrounded the Hilton meeting place. Bill gave me lift back to De Gaulle Square in his Mercedes – I got him to drop me off around the corner from my hotel!
Friday 24th July I checked out of the Wutma and took a taxi to the Hawi hotel, registered, and returned to Sterling travel to confirm the 7-day tour. I returned to my hotel to check into a room and sort out my belongings, as I did not have access to a room of my liking when I called earlier. I also made arrangements to leave some of my things in the hotel, and to reserve a room for my return to Addis on August 1st. In late morning I took a taxi to the National Museum. Apart from seeing the remains of Lucy, our earliest known ancestor, it was a pretty boring visit – typical African. Which is all that could be said bout the Lion House just up the road – eight lions in totally bare unimaginative cages desultorily toying with the chunks of raw meat. I then walked c.2 miles, mainly downhill (sustained by two coffee stops, to sterling Travel, to pick up my tour vouchers, and receive full instructions and itinerary details. Yet another taxi back to the hotel, which is situated, on the Debre Zeyit road c. 1 mile south of the town centre. I had Beg Tibs (sheep) in the hotel restaurant for my evening meal; it was a plateful of small chunks of sheep (not lamb!) with a side dish of frightenly fiery sauce. On my return to the hotel, and to some extent during the day, I felt very, very depressed, with the prospect of another week in Addis overshadowing my immediate trip. I must find time in the next few days to record my reflections on why I am doing this, and do I fee the way I do, when I had a fair idea what to expect.
Saturday 25th july Today has been a busier and altogether most interesting and rewarding day. I got up and “showered” in very cold water at 5.15, and took a previously arranged taxi to the airport to catch the 8.00 o’clock flight to Baher dar. A 2-hour check in time before departure for an internal flight is ridiculous. During the waiting period I was informed by an American who was working in the National museum, that the Lucy I had seen, was in fact, a plaster cast copy. The original was in a cellar and my be put on display when the new museum opens next year, Enshalla. I was surprised to find the twin prop., c.80 seater plane was full, considering I only bought my ticket yesterday without any suggestion of a problem. We landed at the smart small airport at Bahar dar at 9.15 and after initially being dropped off at the wrong hotel, I checked into the Government owned Tana hotel. I was surprised to find the twin prop. c.80 seater plane was full, considering I only bought my ticket yesterday without any suggesting of a problem. We landed at the smart small airport at Bahar dar at 9.15 and after initially being dropped off at the wrong hotal, I checked into the Government owned Tana hotel. It is a very ugly modernish concrete building in attractive grounds in an idyllic location at the edge of Lake Tana. My large en-suite room pleasantly overlooks the lake. There is a spacious restaurant opening out onto concrete terracing, a disused/empty swimming pool and a grassy area leading down to the lake. Allegedly the foundations and design were for a Hilton hotel, but Mengistu nationalised it along with everything else in Ethiopia, including all land. Compared with my previous accommodation, how could I possibly be critical? I met my guide, Yarid, and arranged to have my town tour at 4.00 o’clock this afternoon and a guided visit to the Blue Bile falls tomorrow morning. Up to lunchtime I enjoyed a cup of strong black Arabian coffee on the terrace and wandered around the grounds making insignificant inroads into ornithological photographic posterity. I enjoyed a very pleasant lunch in the hotel restaurant of soup, fish (tlapia from lake Tana, which also contains barbas and cut fish), fresh honeydew melon, a beer and coffee, all for what in reality is an exorbitant sum of 28 Bir. (c.£2.50). After lunch I wrote 19 postcards – writing to other people reinforced my view that, things were looking up. At 4.00 o’clock I met my guide for a tour of the town. We drove into Barhar dar down a dual carriageway with a constant stream of barefooted farmers and their families walking home, contraflow, from the local market. They were so typical with shawls and a long stick, carrying bags and bundles balanced on their heads or on the end of their stick, Mules were also much in evidence casing my guide to make regular rapid manoeuvres to avoid them. Our first port of call was the aforementioned market, somewhere I was not particularly interested in as I considered I had seen it all before. What I found was a much less sophisticated market, with virtually no “stalls”, just individuals selling their own extremely modest pile of home produce. I was also struck by the lack of hassle, from children and adults, partially only influenced by the presence of my Ethiopian guide. After Addis I find it difficult to adjust and realise I must respect, if not, go along with their demands. I later found my guide was 50% Eritrean – not good news as they appear to be rounding them up in Addis and deporting them. We drove to the lakeside to see the papyrus boats used by the fisherman, and admire a small flock of not very pink flamingos. Large areas of the edges of the lake are very shallow and slow moving and are therefore infested with Bilharzia. As the infestation can only be killed at the expense of the fish, the locals just have to live with it. We then drove over a bridge where the Blue Nile exits Lake Tana, and, literally, up Jacaranda Alley to one of Haile Selasie’s abandoned regional palaces (not allowed near for some reason) to a viewing point overlookingas going to get a taxi for me, My guide was very conscious of the political importance of a river, which is 80% used by Sudan and Egypt. The Brits decided/imposed the allocation of water between the various users years ago, and nobody has had the temerity to change it. Another solution with a problem waiting to happen. An unimaginative repeat of lunch was presented as the evening meal, and a session on this diary completed my day. Away to the Blue Nile falls at 8.00 o’clock. This promises to be spectacular and an opportunity to improve on the picture post cards I will send when I can locate some stamps. For some reason I cannot hear the cicadas on my side of the hotel – who’s complaining anyway.
Sunday 26th July I started out at 8.0’clock with Yarid in the Galaxy minibus for the 35-km drive to the Blue Nile falls. We travelled down a reasonably maintained dirt road, for about one hour, to the village of Tis Abay which is the most primitive setting I have seen to date. It is a collection of the most basic structures, made of branches, grasses, bamboo or papyrus, mud and the occasional tin roof. When I realised the guidebook I was using referred to two suitable hotels here, it finally convinced me I had been seriously misled by the book’s optimism. My impression of this village was not helped by my visit being during the Big smell I ask myself? We left the minibus half a kilometre beyond the village and walked for about another half kilometre to the falls. On the way we crossed over a small stone bridge over the Nile, built by the Portuguese. The river below was reasonably fast flowing, and only about 3 metres wide, but I was assured by my guide, as was the case, that all the Nile water was passing through what must have been an extremely deep cutting. The falls themselves were truly spectacular. Initially I just sat and watched and tried to digest the scene as a permanent imprint on my memory. I took a lot of photographs in the hope that a few decent ones will provide me with a suitable memory. On my return I had a relaxing afternoon in the sum with a few beers in the Tana garden overlooking the lake, and finished off the day with a meal of local fish, again, in the hotel restaurant.
Monday 27th July Having decided to go wild and hire a bike for the morning, I was “offered” a place on a boat trip to a monastery. I had originally not contemplated visiting a monastery because as a single traveller I would have had to hire a boat just for myself. As it now transpired my tour guide found a couple to share the cost. Meeting my travelling companions, in particular, the black Italian momma who was clearly off her trolley, did not dispel my initial lack of enthusiasm. However, I cam occasionally be wrong, and I thoroughly enjoyed the visit despite the company. We had an hour journey across a totally calm lake, in a 15 horsepower 20-foot boat, to the Zeghe peninsula, followed by a 15-minute walk through a forest of coffee shrubs/trees. My initial reaction to the monastery of Ura Kidna Neherad was one of considerable disappointment – 3 wooden circular buildings, varying from 15 to 30 metres in diameter, with corrugated iron roofs. Admittedly the larger building (the “temple” was in the process of being thatched on top of the metal, to a very high standard). However, once inside the monastery and barefoot, an English speaking trainee priest gave me an excellent tour. Inside the circular bamboo and mud shell of the temple is a square inner room allegedly containi9ng the Art of the Covenant!! Ordinary mortals like me are not allowed to view this unique relic – only the “chief” monk is allowed in. the four walls of the square inner room, each c. 8m by 8m, are covered i8n 16 century paintings on canvass stuck to mud. They are in remarkably good condition, helped by being covered in curtains when not being viewed by tourists. My guide gave an explanation for all the individual murals, about 20 to 30 on each wall. The stories are variations based on Christian biblical stories. Each wall had a theme. The north wall on martyrs, the east wall on miracles, the south wall on Mary’s birthday, and the west wall on doomsday. Following this spiritual uplifting I was shown the museum which contained 4 crowns given by Ethiopian Kings, and little else. The final “tour” was of the monk’s dining room, the third circular building, which apart from a bench table with c.40 filthy plastic mugs (one for each monk), housed two large hollowed out tree trunks used for holding beer.. Was offered, in a very positive way, a piece of particularly revolting injera from the bench next to the plastic mugs. I declined as politely and as humbly as possible (Uriah Heap style), in the full knowledge that I was offending their code of conduct. The return journey was notable only for the obvious and almost hostile reaction from about 20 unsuccessful local begging youths on the waterside, and for origin of the plastic canopy of the boat which protected us from the rain – UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). The afternoon was consumed by waiting at the airport for my 3.30 pm flight to Gonder, which was delayed until 5.00 pm. The 20-minute flight to Gonder airport was followed by a 17’km drive to the town of Gonder, in another Galaxy minibus, taking nearly one hour due to the appalling state of the road. I was assured that this would all be rectified when a new international airport, currently under construction, opens next year. One can only presume that it is being built for strategic military purposes, as the civilian demand would never justify the outlay. My guide, Tsinu, dropped me at the hotel and arranged to meet me at 8.30 am tomorrow morning, to do the tourist thing. The Gogera hotel is somewhat below that which I would normally go for. In fact on a scale of 1-10, it isn’t on the scale. My chalet style room did not have any curtains or carpets, the loo didn’t work, the room smelt of damp, which was confirmed after a short period in the bed. A complaint to the manager resulted in me being given a more spacious room in the main hotel building. I enjoyed a meal of soup and lamb, in the hotel. I must say my digestive system is functioning quite well considering the battering it must be taking, even so, breaking wind is not on my agenda at this time!
Tuesday 28th July The morning started badly, with no water at all in my bathroom. After many assurances, a feeble supply was effected in time for me to wash before my morning trips. My first priority was to post my postcards at Gonder post office. Gonder was the capital of Ehtiopia for 200 years until the late 18th century. Thje Italians made it a regional administrative centre, and left its mark as they erected virtually all the permanent buildings in the town centre in the 1930’s. The town has a population of c.120,000. We then first visited the late 17-century church of Debre Birhan Selasie. There were original ecclesiastical paintings, very similar to those in the monastery, and with a similar spin, this time provided very eloquently by Tsinu. Rain delayed further sightseeing until after lunch, when Tsinu gave me a guided tour of the Royal Enclosure, a group 17th and 18th century mainly dilapidated palaces, situated in the centre of Gonder. Their dilapidation was given considerable assistance by the RAF in the 2nd world war, bombing the resident Italians. The sights were of interest to me as I had read about them in my pre visit preparations. We then drove about a km south of the town centre, to King Fasils pool. The pool was built partially as recreation for the King, but principally to baptise the majority of the population back into orthodox Christianity, who, under the previous regime, had been persuaded to turn Catholic. My tour finished with a visit to the village, about 2 km along the Axum road, where the Falasha (Ethiopian Jews) used to live before they were ethnically cleansed in 1990, and all but one woman (whom I met), were airlifted to Israel. En route back to the hotel, we called at the Ethiopian airline office and rescheduled my return flights. It was clear to me that a further 9 days in Addis, with limited prospects of fulfilling my original plan to spend 4 to 5 days south in the rift valley, would be a total waste of time. I took a walk around the town in the evening, principally to get out of the grotty Fogera hotel, and to find somewhere to have my evening meal. The few “restaurants” I saw were small one room places which did not seem particularly inviting as I was not ready for an injera based meal. I settled for a Fillet Goulash, complete with rice and vegetables, in the Nile Gonder hotel restaurant. As a fitting tribute to the Fogera, on my return, there was no electricity, allowing me an even earlier time to go to bed of 8.30.!
Wednesday 29th July And just to finish a wonderful stay, I got up to a waterless, electricityless and coffeeless hotel. My 8.30 departure was not soon enough. Regrettably my troubles were not over yet. The plane for the 10.0’clock flight to Lalibela had not yet left Addis, 1.5 hours away. The waiting time was not entirely wasted as I had a long conversation with Tsinu about Eritrea, during a number of cups of coffee and a walk around the airport perimeter. It appeared that the Eritreans are the harder workers, and more skilled than the Ethiopians, resulting in them owning many businesses and holding many influential (including civil servant) posts. Their expulsion is clearly having an effect, an example being a shortage of pilots with International qualifications and experience. I also met a travelling Dutch couple, who had lived in Ethiopia for 4 years (he worked as a school teacher) some 20 years ago, and for the first time they were doing the historic tour. The plane eventually arrived from Addis, and we left Gonder airport at 2.15 pm, arriving at Lalibela “airport” (a proper runway and a small tin “garden” shed terminal) 30 minutes later. The scenery changed from flat cultivated green land to almost uniformly pointed green ridges and valleys, and as we approached Lalibela, the ridges changing shape to now have cultivated flat tops. It was strange to see the cultivated land on the flat tops of the ridges rather than in the flat valley bottoms. Everyone that left the plane at this point, 9 people, travelled the 7-km to Lalibela for a boneshaking ride in a clapped out Fiat minibus. The airport road, which was the only road, was rough, steep, mountainous, rocky, narrow and slippery. It took us about 30 minutes to rise up to the village which is 2600 metres above sea level. It was a great relief to find the Lal hotel was up to standard. I was, after some persuasion, given a room on the outer edge of the compound, with a superb view south over the mountains. I had a beer with the Dutch couple who had chosen to stay in the Lal hotel, and later had an evening meal with them. We shared a Key Wot together which was served on a 2 foot diameter enamel plate covered in a double layer of injera, and with individual dishes of goats meat in a very hot sauce. We were all required by the waitress to wash our hands as she poured water over them both before and after the meal.
Thursday 30th July I had anticipated waking up to a magnificent mountain scenery view from my bed, out fo the window. No such luck. It was raining hard, and the mist reduced visibility down to c.5 metres. It was also quite cold – enough to need a sweater as well as a waterproof. At 9 o’clock, with the Dutch couple and a guide, Moges, we started, in the rain, on a tour of the rock hewn churches in Lalibela. I had read about how they were carved from solid rock, and therefore did expect to see something quite unique. Even so, I was not prepared for such an amazing spectacle, and found it virtually impossible to comprehend, how, particularly in the 12th century, such a feat could ever have been conceived and constructed, in such a remote place, and in the lifetime of one person, namely, King Lalibela.. The churches are literally hacked from solid red volcanic rock (possibly Trachyte or Andesite according to my consultant geologist), either horizontally chuinto an existing vertical rock face, or cut downwards creating a trench around 3 or 4 sides of a huge chunk of rock. This chunk of rock is then carved into a church. The churches are very similar to a normal church, with pillars, doorways, carved ceilings, decorated windows (various crosses including a swastika, all from solid rock), stairways and occasionally, 2 to 3 floors. They are all active Christian shrines, each with a priest and all the religious paraphernalia associated with worship. Some had wall paintings, many had pictures l on canvass, and a few had hand written books on goatskin pages (in the ancient Ge’ez language). These books must have been priceless, and obviously irreplaceable, but you were allowed, even encouraged to handle them and brose through the pages. Ge’ez is quite boring reading!! The priests were alquite keen, just for our benefit, to put on their ceremonial robes and show us their churches’ particular crosses and prayer sticks, and pose for a photograph. All (or most) of the brass and sometimes gold crosses were allegedly brought from Jerusalem by King Lalibela. We visited the eastern cluster of six churches in the morning; these are of the type that carved downwards. They are described as either monolithic (freestanding and completely surrounded by a trench) or three quarter monolithic (one side integral with the rock). They were up to 14 metres high, but quite small inside, apart from Bet (house) Medhane Alem, which measured c.40 by 20 metres and included 36 pillars on the outside and 36 pillars on the inside. Can you imagine the chiselling and material handling associated with just this one church, in a “hole” which must have been 12 metres deep, 50 metres long and 30 metres wide. The true explanation for how all this work was done is not known, other than guessing it was by c.40,000 slaves. Other explanations include an overnight job by angels. The whole thing looks so awesome and unbelievably achievable in its time, that I am inclined to go for the angels. The final visit in the morning, was to Saint George’s (of the dragon) church, and as it was Saint George’s day today in Ethiopial, wer were able to witness a group of priests and trainee priests celebrating the event in “musical” Ge’ez. As a musical and linguistic philistine I am not in an authoritative position to comment on the quality of their performance. Lunch break was preceded by a visit to a village house ( circular mud hut with a thatched roof) where the Ethiopian coffee ceremony was performed for our benefit. Dried coffee beans were roasted on a shallow metal dish, over paraffin stove, for about 10 minutes. The beans were ground with a crude metal pestle in a hollowed out wooden bowl, with boiling water added to the very finely ground coffee, from a pot of water that had fortuitously been boiling on a charcoal fire for some time. To add to the atmosphere in this small – unventilated hut, full of paraffin fumes, carbon monoxide from the charcoal and steam from the pot, someone thoughtfully threw some incense on to the charcoal to coincide with serving the very strong coffee. In the afternoon we visited the Western cluster of five churches, separated incidentally from the eastern cluster, by the river Jordan *(an insignificant dirty ditch). All but one of this cluster was hewn from the rock face, aided in most cases by starting from existing caves. These churches were linked by a series of tunnels, one of which contained bats, and another that we were required to walk through without any light, by feeling our way, touching the roof and the sides. The purpose of this un-nerving experience was for us to appreciate what it would be like in hell, where we were assured, it is seven times darker! Slipping on a wet rock, after leaving the last church and falling full length on to mud and stones marred my afternoon. No serious damage done other than a scuffed nose, but I did cause some amusement to the locals, walking back to the hotel with a face covered in a mixtures of blood and red mud! For tomorrow, I have decided to take a trek to a monastery c. 7 km away. My guide could only offer me the trip for 300 Bir including a mule. I have settled with a local lad for 50 Bir, 7.00 am start, weather permitting. I finished off the day with a couple of beers and a Lal steak in the company of Walter and Olga (the Dutch couple) and Martin, a Scottish medical student on work experience in Ethiopia. It has been raining and misty all day and this has closed Lalibela airport. Passengers are being accommodated at Ethiopian airlines expense in the nearby Roha hotel. Am I going to be here for some time?
Friday 31st July At 7.00 am it was doing what iit has been doing all night – raining heavily. And with the mist, still no early morning view out of chalet 16! After an 8.30 breakfast of scrambled eggs, coffee and toast, I spent the rest of the morning catching up on my diary and rereading my guidebook on rock hewn churches. Walter and Olga left for the airport at 9.00 am, expecting to spend a wasted and boring day in the airport “terminal”, only to be returned to the luxury of the Roha hotel tonight. I discovered that I had broken the 28-80mm lens of my camera, in yesterday’s fall. By 2.30 pm the rain stopped and the mist had lifted, and Martin and I went for a walk along the Axum road towards a monastery we knew to be about a distance of 7 km. We had a very pleasant walk, with no significant hassle, but turned round after about an hour due to combination of tiredness (we were climbing above 2500 metres) and increasing mist. On our return journey we met Walter and Olga, who, as predicted had their flight cancelled. After a pleasant evening meal of Lal steak, Martin and I joined Walter and Olga in the Roha hotel for a thankfully short demonstration of Ethiopian music and dancing. The wailing singing accompanied by either a simple recorder or an even simpler (crude) single stringed “violin” did not appear to me to be in any way musical. The dancing, which despite some serious persuasion, I did not join in with, had no particular style of movement other than the ‘Egyptian’ head action and the dislocating jerking of the shoulders. The Roha is the ‘government’ hotel in Lalibela where the airline accommodates stranded passengers. It has identical rooms to the Tana, and similarly imposing reception, lounge and dining areas but the quality of service according to Walter and Olga, is not up to Lal standards. The weather has settled down and it is a little warmer – hopeful signs for tomorrow’s flight. Today is the second day there have been no flights and there are over 20 delayed passengers for tomorrow, plus the normal contingent – and the plane only takes 48?
Saturday 1st August I woke up to a clear but cloudy day, and after a showerless start (with a hot water tank in my room at 60 degrees but not able to extract it) and hearty breakfast of eggy fried bread, we set off hopefully at 9.00 a.m. For the airport. We got as far as the Roha hotel, half a km away, only to find after a half hour wait, that our aircraft had not left Addis due to poor visibility. And the weather here was no problem!! We eventually left the Roha at 12 noon, and after a repeat hair raising ride to the airport (only out of 1st hear about 3 times), and even more hanging around, we took off at 3 o’clock. My time at the airport was not entirely waster, as I had my limited knowledge of Australian farming, with rice growing in particular, brought up to speed by a fellow traveller. With a touch down in Baher dar, we arrived in a rainy Addis at 5 o’clock, and with bargaining skills almost honed to perfection, quickly organised a cheap taxi to the Hawi Hotel (where I had left my unnecessary belongings). I was given the same room as before, and after a beer, a luxuriously hot shower I ‘treated’ myself to Ethiopial’s national dish, Doro Wat (peppers, onions and garlic sauce plust one chicken drumstick) and injera in the hotel restaurant. Fortunately, the injera was not as sour as the Lal version and I was able to eat it all, as the restaurant staff and fellow diners watched the Farangi (me) with some interest and amusement. The condition of my face after my fall was undoubtedly a contributory factor. I rang Ahmed and arranged to meet him in the hotel tomorrow at 12.30 to discuss possible activities during my 2 days in the Yemen on my return journey.
Sunday 2nd August I woke up to a fine but dull morning, and entertained myself with cups of good strong coffee, reading, updating my diary and a short wander up and down Debre Zeyit road, prior to Agmed’s arrival. I priced a replacement Canon 28-80mm lens at 999 Bir, but did not buy it as I am not aware of its UK price. Agmed duly called and after giving me a contact name and address in Sana’a, gave me a tour of Addis including a walk inside the magnificent new SM110 Sheraton Hotel built by Sheikh Amoudi. He is part Yemeni, Saudi and Ethiopian, is a drunk (according to the Islamic Agmed) and is very wealthy (according to everybody). He is reputed to be buying a company enery month, and considering all the places Agmed pointed out that are already owned by Amoudi, there can’t be many left to buy! During the tour Agmed took me to see his office and his shop in the Mercato area. They import and sell canvasses for tents, shop awnings, truck covers, etc. They also have a water drilling business in the Yemen run by his tow brothers. Agmed took me back to the Hawi hotel, refused my offer of lunch (on religious grounds), and went home to do what most people do in Addis on Sunday afternoon, chew qat. I spent the remainder of the day reading and rather aimlessly wandering along Debre Zeyit road.
Monday 3rd August I took a taxi ride to Meskel Square, picked up a booklet on Lalibela at the Ethiopian Tourist Commission office, and walked about a kilometre to the Yemeni airline office. On the way I was pestered by a youth in his early twenties, who eventually did a rugby tackle on my ankles whilst his two mates went for my pockets. I was not taken unaware s and easily fended them off without loss – in any case, all my pockets containing anything important were zipped up. I re-confirmed my return ticket with the airline, and managed to bring forward the London leg from Friday to Wednesday, despite being told earlier that there was no routing between Sana’a and London on that day. Undeterred by my recent street fracas, I walked about 2 kilometres, up hill, to the University museum, just beyond Siddit Kilo, only to find that it did not open on a Monday. I observed that whilst I walked about half the distance through a very poor shantytown area, I received no hassle whatsoever, in fact everybody was very friendly. With no more sights worth seeing in Addis, I took a taxi back to the hotel, where I holed up for the rest of the day and evening.
Tuesday 4th August A rainy start to my last morning in Addis. I took a 20 Bir taxi ride to Bole airport for 10.30 am. And boarded at 12.20 pm. I noticed one of the tyres of the rather battered Yemenia B727-200 had a very large patch of canvass showing, no doubt compensating for another tyre which had some tread! About half the luggage being elevated into the hold was in cardboard boxes, many with the string coming off and disintegrating due to the rain. At least there didn’t seem to be too much luggage, and as the plane was only one third full, we had an easy take off and landing. In the airport in Sana’a I recognised someone who I had seen a few times in the Hawi hotel. Fortunately I was not reading my current book, ‘Lords of Poverty’ (Graham Hancock’s slagging off of aid organisations), as this very smartly suited Ethiopian worked for UNHCR. He was in transit to Baghdad (fly to Amman plus a 12 hour overland drive at temperatures of 55 degrees centigrade), where, as best as I could understand, he was going to use his resettlement skills amongst the Iraqqi and Turkish Kurds, in northern Iraq. After brief and pleasant formalities we were taken by taxi to the now familiar Sam City hotel. The much quicker pace of the traffic immediately struck me. This was however only a short term problem, as the taxi driver produced some qat for us all to chew, and the world quickly became a wonderful place to be in. My first venture into this habit was not without its drawbacks – my understanding is that you are supposed to spit it out after you have extracted all the drug, but |I had not developed the technique of keeping it all together in a ball, and mine inexorably, bit by bit disappeared down my throat. I waited with some trepidation for any repercussions. None came. Ahmed had given me a contact name in a Sana’a travel agent, so I decided, to see if there were any holiday opportunities in the Yemen. I felt so much as ease as I walked to the travel agent, and the character of the town was so familiar: nobody bothers you and if they do recognise you as a stranger, they smile, and that goes for the young children also. The builder’s barrow, with two additional wheels at the back, and a large platform welded on top is a very popular pavement seller’s mobile shop. The pavements were full of these barrows, plus many more people selling fruit, clothes, watches, belts etc off the floor. There were also a number of cobblers on the pavement, with shoe soles of different types and sizes ready to re-sole your shoes while you wait. It si also noticeable that shops are well stocked compared to Addis, albeit with very old models – e.g., SLT+R cameras, but not automatic. In addition to so many people chewing qat, I noticed a lot of men carrying a small plastic bag of qat leaves, and many qat leaves on the pavement. I had a very pleasant fish meal in the hotel restaurant, and was joined by the guy from UNHCR, who turns out to be a Somali.
Wednesday 5th August I responded to my 6 am alarm call by having a quick (hot) shower, a quick breakfast of bread, tomatoes, cucumber and excellent coffee, and then the hanging around started. First., we sat in the mini-coach at the hotel for half an hour, and then chaos for all the transit passengers at the airport, culminating in the loss of two passports, mine being one of them (all transit passenger passports are held at the airport as we do not have entry visas). Both passports were eventually located, and we managed to take off safely, at 9.20 am., only 20 minutes late, in another Airbus 310. Legend has it that Yemenia’s two Airbuses are the only decent planes they own, borne out by stories from other transit passengers. During take-off the covers fell off both emergency exit doors, and the main monitor screen did not, or ever, work. One of the crew did not seem to connect these malfunctions with lack of maintenance, only to the unreliability of the aircraft. The flight home was otherwise uneventful, with the food being particularly boring. Despite being only one of about 4 whites on the plane, I noticed the stew3ardess had great difficulty getting rid of immigration cards!! I was very pleasantly surprised to be met at Gatwick by Sally, and completed my trip with a ride in style and very convivial barbecue with Sally, Bud and their two friends. Pity about the damn lampshade!!! Wales, here I come.
Finale Now it’s all over, was it worth it, and in what way, if any, did I benefit from the experience. Despite the low spots, or maybe because of them I derived considerable pleasure from the overall experience. I enjoyed the tour week, both from seeing the sights and meeting different people. I also had time to relax on my own – sometimes too much time, which was not a good thing. I shouldn’t forget, also that this albeit ‘tourist’ contact with Ethiopia’s unique culture, must be of help to me, during my forthcoming work. I would be very content never ever to set foot in Addis Ababa again, and you can therefore imagine I was not pleased to hear that on my next trip (in mid September) I have to spend a night there on the outward and return journeys. I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised, not to have found it acceptable to travel by bus, as I had originally planned. The one hour flight from Addis to Baher dar, would have taken two days (6 am to 6 pm) in a packed bus, with the curtains drawn, accompanied by interminable Ethiopian music, on gravel roads, and unimaginable food and accommodation. The Australian farmer and his wife, who I met, rather significantly at Lalibela airport, found it to be a harrowing experience. And they looked pretty tough cookies to me! I also felt I was, along with many other fellow travellers, seriously mislead by the Bradt guidebook, into thinking that travelling by bus, and the rural accommodation that went with it, was satisfactory for most people, including single travellers.
Some of the sights, in particular the falls, the monastery and the rock hewn churches, were unmissable. Having excellent guides at Baher dar and Gonder, who were not only very well informed, but were very pleasant characters, very considerably helped me. They made a positive contribution to reducing my level of stress. On reflection, the expressions ‘nothing ventures, nothing gained’ and ‘no pain, no gain’ spring readily to mind. So what next???