The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Northern Ethiopia

Most people on short visits to Ethiopia usually decide to visit the north and/or south of the country. The west is considered pretty but unspectacular; the jewel of the east is the walled city of Harar - the fourth most important site in Islam but far to reach. We decided that a week of predominantly cultural attractions in the north followed by nature hot spots in the south would provide the right balance for a first visit to the country. The remote and famous tribal region of Omo in the south west would have to wait, along with Harar, for a return trip to the country.
Lada taxi
On arrival we spent a day in Addis visiting churches and the national museum, and enjoying the omnipresence of that great Soviet relic the Lada car which, heavily imported at the time of Mengistu's communist dictatorship, is still the standard taxi in the capital. The urban poor seemed to prefer lying on the verges of the roundabouts and groups of blind beggars chanted for their dues on busy streets. I was called Kenny Rogers two or three times which slightly disturbs me musically, although I can't think of a single song he's sung. (On the physical front, isn't he a chap who likes his food?)
View from plane
Flying north to Gondar, the 17th century capital of Ethiopia, it is astonishing to look out on such a heavily cultivated landscape, even on steep slopes and high plateaux. Every parcel of land seems to be neatly carved into tidy shapes for the growing of barley, wheat and tef, the indigenous grass whose tiny grains are made into injera the staple cereal of the Ethiopian diet. I'm not a huge fan but the accompanying dishes and sauces presented in a large, circular, basket - on top of injera as a base - are simply delicious.
One of the injera base dishes - my veggie only favourite
According to the airport clock and Kiprom's watch, the flight had left at 1.30 in the morning instead of the 7.30 on my timepiece and on the ticket. They were operating on Ethiopian time which, like Swahili time, begins with daybreak at 6 o'clock. This can work quite well in countries near the Equator with virtually 12 hours of night and day all year long. Somehow I don't think that Ethiopian or Swahili time would work so well near the Poles where there would be no time at all during the dark mid-winter or for that matter in the perpetual light of summer! Ethiopians also have their own calendar. It became 2006 on 1st September so they're not too far behind although it's depressing to think that George Bush might still be in power. Another source of national pride is Amharic, the uniting Ethiopian language, which has a funky, complex script and alphabet - and I have the T-shirt to prove it.
Amharic script
After our exploration of the castle city of Gondar, its expansive market and that famous night listening to the dreary guy with a lot to get off his chest (see the last episode), we drove to the town of Debark at the base of the Simien Mountains. Even that dusty, little place was not immune from English Premier League mania and, in our restaurant bar, an excited crowd of what looked mostly like sheep herders were rooting for a Fulham come back against Spurs on a wide screen TV. The game was a cracker but two St George beers on a cold night had done the trick and a waiter offered to show me to the loo. After a lengthy hike he pointed me to a dark and dangerous den - smell and appearance wise that is - and thrust what looked like a token into my hand. I could just make out the face of a woman. I wasn't quite sure what this had to do with the toilet dungeon. The door was wide open and I didn't see a slot to drop the coin. I was looking around for a tree, wall, ditch anything rather than go into that dire dunny. "Mother Theresa", he muttered. "Excuse me". "You want Mother Theresa". I was perplexed. Was there some kind of Mother Theresa cult in the remote Simien Mountains? I declined his offer of the token and braved the dunny.
Street scene in Debark
On raising this strange matter with Kiprom back in the safety of Premier League land, he told me that a lot of Ethiopians have coins of Maria Theresa, the only female ruler of the Hapsburg Empire (40 years long in the 18th century), Grand Duchess of Tuscany and Holy Roman Empress to boot. She also found time to have 16 children, one of them Marie Antoinette! Turns out that one of the Menelik Emperors at the end of the 19th century was a big fan and minted a pile of coins with her mug shot as Ethiopian currency. Lots of local squirrels secreted their coins in the back bunker of their homes for a rainy day or until a bunch of rich tourists turned up to flog them to. I was one such and it makes me feel kind of sorry that I didn't spend more time - admittedly difficult in the dark outside a smelly lavvy - to check the coin out thoroughly. I might even have been tempted to buy it, as I love the story so much, although I'm not sure about the ethics of buying up Ethiopian heritage. I wouldn't sell the Queen Betty 1953 silver coronation crown - five pre-decimal shillings to the uninitiated - given to me by my mum for all the proverbial tea but then I am not dirt poor. See, sentiment overcomes my royalist antipathy!
Spec view in Simien Mts with fields everywhere
The Simien Mountains are just outstanding. The scenery is spectacular as is the wildlife of Gelada baboons (which are apparently monkeys), Walia Ibex and Lammergeier vultures (they are the raptors that pick up bones and drop them over rocks to get at the marrow). We had to have a 'scout' and his rifle with us although there is no threat from ferocious animals, nor are there any dangerous bandits. His main purpose appeared to be to chase away children selling trinkets, fortunately without shooting at them. It was about 3300 metres high and cold, yet most of the children had no shoes. We asked one why he wasn't at school and he said that he'd sent his brother instead!
Our scout lived where the far mountains are - 3 days' walk
It's certainly a different concept of a national park to the western idea. All human and farm animal life and activity was there; large community meetings on bleak hillslopes, bric-a-brac for the tourists - grass woven ear flap hats, little cups and baskets - and the copious flerds (flocks and herds) of sheep, goats, cattle, horses and donkeys often driven by children barely off their mothers' backs. The one thing that might define Simien as a national park - apart from collecting significant income from the tourist trade - is not being allowed to kill the fauna although judging by the stories many would dearly love to. Geladas are blamed for virtually everything that goes wrong in the park - the disappearance of a goat, the theft of a treasured item, even the rape of a woman! The males are horny dudes but they do tend to stick to their own missus. Gelada live in groups of up to 400 and the sexes form regular partnerships spending their lives grazing on herbs and grass on the mountain plateau, grooming each other especially after sex and occasionally having male hissy fits where they chase each other and bare the massive teeth that seem to serve no other useful function. The males look like mini-lions as they move purposefully forward on all fours shaking their shaggy manes. As the day draws to a close, Geladas retreat down the edge of the escarpment to shelter from predators that may include Spotted Hyena and Jackal.
Mr Gelada bares his teeth
Walia Ibex are delicious but denied tucker for the locals. They are endangered with a population of about 250 in this the only place they are found although numbers are slowly increasing from the lows of previous years. We were very lucky to get as close to them as we did, helped no doubt by the overhanging mist that may have deprived them of their normally acute and fearful senses. Heading back from the high plateau which the ibex frequent, we asked if we could pick up some of the shepherds who were hitchhiking. One even had a hand out while holding a donkey with the other! Maybe he thought we could put it on the roof. Apparently there was no point because, according to Kiprom, all they wanted was to ride in a car and then walk back to their animals! Our scout had walked three days from a distant mountain village to reach Debark for the two and a half days' work that we provided for him (he had a wife and six children). Work is given to scouts on a rota basis and he would walk back to his village only to return to Debark when his next work opportunity came round in maybe six weeks' time. We tipped him liberally for protecting us from the children and herbivorous lions.
Misty Ibex (using contrast- see picasaweb for others)
On the way back to Gondar we stopped at a Falasha village. The term means stranger, foreigner or exile; they are the original black Jews of Africa who trace their descent from the so-called Son of Solomon, Menelik 1, back in 950 BC. (See previous post) They survive nowadays, mostly, by selling souvenirs to passing tourists. Readers may remember the Israeli rescue operations (Moses 1984, Sheba 1985, Solomon 1991) during the Mengistu dictatorship when large numbers of Falasha were airlifted to become Israeli citizens under that country's Jewish right of entry policy.
Persistent Falasha children selling souvenirs
At 2800 metres in Lalibela, we ate at the brand new, open air, space age restaurant of a 75 year old Scotswoman from Motherwell who wants to keep busy in her old age and provide hospitality work for disadvantaged girls. Shepherd's pie, pancakes and that other great Scottish stand by, fresh guava juice were on the menu along with local injera dishes. When the rain came down on some omelette eating French she channelled my mother, "Och, it's just a wee spit". Maybe I'm biased but I think the architecture works well in the grand Ethiopian landscape.
The restaurant
We wrapped up our northern week with flagons of honey wine in, you guessed it, a honey wine bar. Cheers!
Honey wine flagons with Kiprom

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