Amharic: A Language Apart from a Land Apart

Wednesday, February 24, 2010 | Ethiopia

A Ge'ez inscription at the Debre Libanos monastery
Though geographically landlocked, culturally speaking Ethiopia is an island, distinguished from its neighbors by its unique history, ethnicities, cuisine, calendar, and most of all by its language.

Amharic, the mother tongue of the Amhara (Ethiopia's dominant ethnic group) and official language of the country, is central Ethiopia's uniqueness. Though technically a Semitic language (and thus distantly related to Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew), Amharic seemed to me to share few roots or words in common with those languages.

After years of studying Arabic, and forcing my mouth to make some very unfamiliar noises, I still had great difficulty emulating the sounds of Amharic. (Is it even possible to combine a consonant and glottal stop? Apparently so, but my tongue can't manage it.) At times, the snippets of conversation floating along the streets reminded me fleetingly of Arabic—no wait, Hebrew—no wait,

The Moment You've Been Waiting For: Ethiopia Photos

Tuesday, February 23, 2010 | Ethiopia

A men-only morning prayer service in Lalibela (easily my best photo from Ethiopia, in my opinion)
Pictures are finally here! (and a few videos too!)

Now that Jacqueline and I are back home in the Land of Internet, I've been able to sort through and upload photos for all my previous entries on our Ethiopia trip.

Especially for those readers without a mental image of what Ethiopia looks like, the pictures can add some valuable context to each story—check them out from the beginning and proceed in sequence, or view entries individually:

Mulling It Over or: I Lost My Passport in Kombolcha

Sunday, February 21, 2010 | Addis Abeba, Ethiopia

There is little more than an occasional camel caravan on the road from Kombolcha. I was glad not to have to travel it twice.
Soon after our return to Addis Ababa and our subsequent decision to return to the US, I dug around for my passport so we could head to the airline offices. Not in that pocket, nor in that pouch, nor in that bag. Hmmm...

The passport, it turned out, was in a hotel room back in Kombolcha, a long day's drive northeast of Addis. Reached on the phone, the hotel manager there promised to hand it off to a driver who was heading this way, and told me to sit tight.

So I sat. I sat for a whole day in the lobby of our hostel on Mundy Street.

The wait—in a country with such abysmal internet connections—finally provided me with the pure, unhindered, mind-numbing state of boredom necessary to motivate me to read Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun, the reputedly excellent travelogue which I've carried around

A Great East African Odyssey, Abbreviated

Saturday, February 20, 2010 | Addis Abeba, Ethiopia

The trip from Lalibela to Ethiopia's capital took two days of driving rough roads through scenic countryside.
From Lalibela we drove a day to the town of Kombolcha, from where it took the better part of another full day to reach Addis Ababa. Our northern road trip was over, and it was time for Jacqueline and I to decide on our next move.

The plan, of course, was to continue south overland, to Kenya and beyond. But since our arrival in Ethiopia, Jacqueline's desire to travel had been rapidly waning, due to a perfect storm of factors.

First, Ethiopia had racked up quite a few strikes in her book: the fleas, the higher-than-expected costs, the unfamiliar and unvarying food, the shoddy hotels, and the long rides on rough roads.

In addition, its occasional resemblance to Morocco didn't sit well with her. The odd pestering tout was enough to remind us that we were foreign, that we couldn't just blend into the scenery. Perhaps my broader experience traveling in the developing world allowed me to focus on comparisons to

Lalibela: Sacred Spaces from Another World

Monday, February 15, 2010 | Lalibela, Ethiopia

Early morning worshipers overflow the dawn service at the Church of St. George, one of Lalibela's spectacular rock-hewn churches.
The Seven Olives Hotel rests on a hillside overlooking the town of Lalibela, in north-central Ethiopia. Jacqueline parked herself there for two days, relaxing and reading on the terrace beside our room, taking three meals a day at the restaurant, and generally trying to forget about her long ordeal with the fleas. Having sworn off all further visits to Ethiopian monasteries, churches, chapels, and cathedrals, she stayed behind each morning when I set out to explore Lalibela's main attraction: the famous rock-hewn churches.

In the late twelfth century, present-day Lalibela was known as Roha, and was ruled by a king named Lalibela, who commissioned the construction of 11 very unusual churches. Speculation surrounds his motivations. Some say he was inspired by a command from on high, or a desire to give Ethiopian pilgrims an alternative destination while the Crusades menaced Jerusalem, or to create worship

Decisions, Decisions

Sunday, February 14, 2010 | Gondar, Ethiopia

Coca-Cola, Ethiopian style, at a roadside truck stop
Making snap decisions in a foreign environment is challenging, especially early on, when one is unaccustomed to the rules and particularities of a new destination. For our first two weeks in Ethiopia, Jacqueline and I kept looking back at decisions we had just made, and wondering "How could we be so stupid?" At every turn—whether with hotels, transport, meals, or anything else—we seemed to choose wrong. Our misadventures in the Simien Mountains were the icing on the cake, and in the aftermath, our spirits were low.

Recognizing that Jacqueline was near the end of her rope, I finally made a good decision: I proposed we take a day in Gondar to recuperate (and to coat everything Jacqueline owns in flea powder, which we finally found at a local pesticide store). After the flea treatment, a shower, a night's rest, and several nice meals, I was able to coax Jacqueline into continuing to the final destination on our northern Ethiopian road trip—Lalibela.

It proved, against all odds, to be another great decision. The full story on Lalibela is coming up next!

An Ill-Fated Walk in the Simien Mountains, Part III

Thursday, February 11, 2010 | Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia

Hard as I tried, I failed to take a photo that really captured the stunning scope of the Simien Mountains' valleys and jagged cliffs.
The next day we woke early and broke camp to begin the 20 km (12.4 mile) long hike to the village of Geech. On this day, the muleteer obligingly strapped my backpack to the top of the mule, significantly lightening my load.

As we progressed deeper into the park, the views grew even more stunning, and the wildlife more plentiful. We saw a pair of klipspringer in a wooded thicket, passed springs and waterfalls, and by the time we stopped for lunch on the bank of a small river, had seen so many Gelada baboons that we no longer bothered to turn our heads to watch them.

But all was not well in paradise.

The scout, who insisted on leading, thereby leaving us to walk in a trail of his choking odor, set an ambitious pace. He also insisted at several points on blazing his own path through stands of thorn

An Ill-Fated Walk in the Simien Mountains, Part II

Wednesday, February 10, 2010 | Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia

An alpha male Gelada baboon patrols the perimeter of his troop's grazing area.
The ridiculous packing process was soon bested by a yet more absurd scene: the two clients carrying bags (Jacqueline had our daypack with lunch and water, and I my trekking backpack) and traipsing off down the road, accompanied by a small army of locals who, despite ostensibly being paid to help us, walked empty-handed.

We soon turned off the road, following a path along a massive vertical escarpment.

For the next several hours, the sheer dropoff loomed to our left. Behind it, a dramatic view of the mountains floated in the midday haze.

For Jacqueline and I, the uphill sections—even small ones—proved brutal; the altitude was definitely a factor on this trek. Short of breath, our mouths dry, we guzzled water like parched dogs, and eagerly seized every opportunity for a break.

An Ill-Fated Walk in the Simien Mountains, Part I

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 | Debark, Ethiopia

Nobody ever called Scout anything but "Scout."  But even in the absence of a name, he proved himself quite a character.
Gondar, the northern town that was Ethiopia's capital in medieval times, still boasts a series of imperial castles that look like they were lifted straight out of old Europe. But Jacqueline and I weren't here for sightseeing—Gondar was our jumping off point for a multi-day hike in the Simien Mountains, several hours' drive north along a rough gravel road.

Along that route, we passed the village of Wolleka—the former home of Ethiopia's once sizeable Jewish community (known as the Falasha)—and then mile after mile of the same Ethiopian farmland that we've been driving through for several days now.

In Debark, the dusty one-horse town at the base of the mountain range, we split up to prepare for the hike. Our driver Yoseph made repairs to the vehicle to ensure it could carry us up the formidable road to our starting point the next morning. Jacqueline dumped out her backpack in our

Awuramba: An Experiment in Village Life

Thursday, February 4, 2010 | Awuramba, Ethiopia

One of Awuramba's residents weaves a blanket on a traditional loom.
One of the more interesting points of our road trip so far was a trip Jacqueline and I made on a whim to the peculiar little village of Awuramba.

Back in Bahir Dar, a friendly Australian lady urged us to make an extra stop on our drive northward, at a small village that produced excellent woven products, but whose name she couldn't recall. We communicatd her directions and description to our driver, Yoseph, who knew the place immediately: "Ahh, you mean Awuramba." We arrived a few hours later, and found much more than a mere weaving village.

Yoseph parked our Land Cruiser in the center of the village, under a large tree surrounded by simple huts, with goats and chickens picking over the grounds. A tour guide quickly materialized and, in very rough English, set about explaining the village's history and organizing principles.

Bahir Dar: the Riviera of Ethiopia

Wednesday, February 3, 2010 | Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Murals in the Ura Kidane Meret monastery depict scenes from both the Western and Ethiopian Orthodox Bibles.
Our northward drive continued Monday to the city of Bahir Dar, which we reached in time for lunch. Bahir Dar sits on the edge of Lake Tana, and is generously characterized as "Ethiopia's Riviera", though it seemed a bit more rough around the edges than some other rivieras I've seen.

We pitched our tent on the grounds of the Ghion Hotel, beside the lakeshore, and spent the afternoon relaxing and watching the birds (an eclectic mix of parakeets, vultures, pelicans, hornbills, seagulls, fish eagles, pigeons, and plume-tailed songbirds) clatter through the treetops.

A rumbling four-wheel-drive, all-terrain tour bus pulled up as we were arranging our tent, and dumped out a few dozen British, Australian, and American tourists (including a fellow Baltimore native—against all odds, it somehow happens everywhere). They were traveling from Cairo to Capetown with Dragoman Tours, and having been cooped up with each other for many days, were

The Long Road Northward Begins

Tuesday, February 2, 2010 | West Gonjam, Ethiopia

Just north of Addis, cyclists and Ethiopia's famous long distance runners trained along the road's edge.
The Abeba Tours manager and driver picked Jacqueline and I up at our guest house in Addis early Sunday morning for the start of our two-week northern road trip.

As the churches emptied out from their all-night services, white-veiled figures filled the otherwise deserted streets. We left the city's northern limits, cruising along a well-paved road that brought us abruptly from the metropolis to rolling farmland. Runners and pods of bikers chugged along the roadside; our driver, Yoseph, told us that Ethiopia's most famous athletes, including the internationally renowned marathoners, train along this stretch of road.

In mid-morning we reached Debre Libanos, site of one of Ethiopia's most holy monasteries. For a considerable fee, a monk showed us around the church's interior, explaining symbols, painted scenes, and Ethiopian Orthodox traditions. We hiked up to the cave that overlooks the monastery,

Page Loading... Page Loading...

Monday, February 1, 2010 | Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

At least this internet cafe in Bahir Dar had some nice flowers outside, which I could look at while waiting for my email to load.
Remember the dial-up noise computers used to make? Here in Ethiopia, they still do:
"... Connections in Ethiopia are among the worst on the continent. It can easily take an hour to download one simple, two line e-mail. And that's in Addis! To avoid frustration it's better to assume that while in Ethiopia you will not be able to get online." -Lonely Planet: Ethiopia, page 250
Truer words were never spoken. Just wish I'd read them before I arrived!