I got cheap flight on Egypt Air that involves an 11 hour layover during the day, having read that the airline offers free a free 5 star hotel for travlers with long layovers. They take us in a van to the hotel in the nearby neighborhood of Heliopolis, a rich area which in the 50s, before the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism, was a hip international melting pot of musicians and dancers. I’m delighted to take a bath in the 5-star bathroom and lay on the luxuriously soft sheets. I even watch some Egyptian music videos on TV. The flight to Ethiopia is short and we arrive at 3 AM. The hotel I booked had said they would meet me at the airport. At that hour none of the ATMs work and the currency booths won’t take Israeli shekels or Egyptian pounds. Finally they lead me to another ATM somewhere else and I’m able to get some currency and pay for the visa on arrival. There is no where to get a sim card.
The hotel had said to ask someone to call them to come get me if no one was there. There’s a cute young guy with a phone who offers to help; he calls the hotel but gets no answer. I negotiate a taxi. The driver has no GPS; we have only address. We drive around the neighborhood, dark and foreboding. There are no lights anywhere. None of the souls wandering the dark streets know this hotel. Finally we give up and stop at the only hotel around that looks lit and open. It’s expensive but I have no choice to stay there, and I have to pay the taxi driver extra for wandering around so long. I pass out.
Even by day the neighborhood is a bleak place with potholed dirt roads and no shops. I walk a ways to the ATM. There are pelts and sheep heads lying in the streets. I would later realize that the streets were deserted because it was their Christmas day, which falls on January 7th on their calendar, as it did for the traditional Christians in the Appalachians who used to be on the lunar calendar too. I had imagined some sort of festive antique celebration the streets, but it turns out they all just quietly celebrate at home. A lot of sheep were killed as part of the festivities the night before, which is why there are so many sheep parts around.
I take a taxi to the backpackers that the French guy I had met in Luxor recommended. On the way there I see no shops or cafes or restaurants. The backpacker place though is quite nice. The room is $20 and has a surprisingly comfortable bed. There’s wifi that works some of the time.
The shop to buy a SIM card is closed for Christmas and I’m starving so I walk the dirt roads around there but there’s no restaurants so I take a tuk tuk to a neighborhood I saw online to find something. I finally find a hotel and get an Ethiopian dish. I love Ethiopian food in the states. If you haven’t had it before, it involves injera, a fermented spongy bread made of teff flour which is spread out in a circle with different meats and vegetables laid on top. You tear off pieces of injera rolls to grab the food and then at the end you eat the stuff that has soaked up all the juices. In Ethiopia, I was to find, it is so poor that you can rarely find all different dishes you find in the States. All there is is shiro, a runny bean paste, and tagamimo, a thicker bean stuff, and then tibs, little morsels of meat.
Food is cheap, but taxis and hotels aren’t. When I get out of the taxi in front of the backpackers, a guy tries to grab my bag out of my hand. I shove him away. I want to get out of Addis Ababa immediately. I sit down on the couch and catch up on some writing. Then I meet a pair of Swiss guys, a very young one and a very old one who met somewhere in Ethiopia and have just returned from the south.
They've just come from Omo Valley, an area in the south known for its tribal groups. Most people do it through a tour, which is very expensive, $1000 bucks for 5 days. In Ethiopia nowadays, apparently, independent travel is discouraged; you need to hire guides. The two Swiss guys had attempted to do the Omo Valley independently and had suffered through a long local bus ride and managed to see one tribe but were threatened by a guy from another tribe because they turned down his guide services. “If you come to my village, I will kill you,” the guy told them. The tribe they saw, though, was pretty interesting, as they witnessed a bull-jumping ceremony where the boys jump on the backs of bulls to impress the single girls.
There’s a lot of talk of the awkwardness of this ‘human safari’. The older Swiss man, an interesting character with lots of stories to tell of his travels, shows me an article about human safaris. The Western person watching the tribal person who is turn turning watching them, is a strange feedback loop of awkwardness. Both may feel insecure at being seen from outside, seeing their own culture through the eyes of the other. Luan, the young Swiss guy, felt disappointed that there wasn’t any mutual cultural exchange. The tribal people were entirely disinterested in them. Each photo cost a dollar, and some less photogenic individuals followed them around demanding to be photographed.
Kevin, the French guy I met in Luxor, shows up with the other guys he’s been traveling with overland through Sudan: some interesting Aussies, a Suede and a French Canadian. We all get dinner at the restaurant downstairs, which has opened for dinner, fortunately, as it seems to be the only restaurant around for miles. Luan and I decide to travel together the following day. Since the roads are terrible and distances are large, we decide to fly. Ethiopian Air charges an extortionate amount for their domestic flights unless you have arrived or will depart the country on one of their international flights. So Luan books a refundable flight out of the country for a few weeks in the future . Because it’s refundable it’s really expensive, 600 dollars, and, knowing how easy it is to miss the fine print on those deals, I decide to wait until I get to the airport to see if they ask me for proof of the flight. Some other travelers tell me that no one asked to see their international tickets when they booked domestic flights. Ethiopian Air only takes cash, so you can't buy tickets through a website.
The next morning I am so excited to leave Addis. I read somewhere that even in the capital, 85% of toilets are just pit toilets. I mean I’m no fan of flush toilets, compost toilets are the only sensible solution, but pit toilets are stinky and unsanitary. There are bad smells everywhere. I feel so sorry for people there. The best thing about Addis, and it’s a big thing I think, is that there are a lot of trees around.
We get to the little airport with the taciturn taxi driver. The ATM works. They do ask me for proof of the international flight so I use Luan’s hotspot to book one on the spot. I'm start to sweat (it's hot and there's no A/C in the airport) when my credit card refuses the transaction. I call my credit card company to remove the fraud alert, and manage to book the flight. I wonder if I’ll regret it, if I will really manage to get a refund. But we’re off to Bahir Dan.
When we land, I feel better immediately. For the first time, I feel like I’m in Africa, with the iconic acacia trees everywhere. I like the town; it’s pretty quiet with shaded lanes for walking, and some flowering trees. The back streets are nice dirt roads, and the buildings are mostly clay with metal roofs.
A bunch of kids mob us shouting “Gimme! Gimme! Luan brought some pens along to give children, A brawl ensues as the children fight over the pens. One kid limps off crying.
The attraction of the town is the large lake and the old monasteries around it. We walk down a road mentioned in the guidebook as a path to the lake. It ends up being the highlight of Ethiopia for me as we seem to be the only tourists that ever come down this way and it’s a beautiful area.
It’s a dirt lane through villages of mud houses and friendly people with large spreading trees in the distance. People smile sweetly and have nothing to sell us. One mother and little boy walk for a ways with us holding our hands. We’re charmed.
We reach the pretty lake and there’s a little boat that can take us the short distance across. We pay a few bucks round trip and he drops us on the other side. The monastery, which we’ve paid 4 bucks for, is a tall, round, simple building now clad in corrugated metal. We peer through the windows and there’s not much to see. There’s also a dusty wooden little museum with some books which claim great antiquity. A guy approaches us offering to be our tour guide, We tell him that we don't need a guide but he insists on doing it for free. He shows us some trees, then asks for money. When we get back to the boat dock, the boat that we'd paid for a round trip isn’t waiting for us. We wait for half an hour.
Finally they show up and ferry us and try to extort more money. I tell them no, man, we waited for you forever. “Don’t ever come back here,” threatens one guy. “Don’t worry, I won’t,” I say.
We hop on a bus back to the town, and meet a bunch of other backpackers at the guest house. A large group of us goes out for dinner for the usual — injera, runny beans, thick beans, and spicy beans.
There is a more intelligent and interesting crop of travelers in Ethiopia than in Egypt and Jordan. The next morning I go early to the SIM card place and get a local number. The 3G connection is slow. From Bahar Dan we take a bus to Gondar, a noisy city where the backpackers hostel is nearly impossible to find. After much driving around, we call the Israeli owner who directs us. She’s married to a local guy; both are really nice. She arranges a trek for us in the Simien mountains, the main reason most people come to Gondar.
I decide to hike for only one night because the temperatures are below freezing at the camps, and anyway, it’s not cheap. It’s $150 for a one night hike, which includes camping equipment, one dinner and two lunches, transport, and a guide. The guide is nice. The mountains are spectacular, with views that look a little like the Grand Canyon. The bioregion really reminds me of California, with yellow grasses and moss-covered trees that look like oaks.
The other two people in the group are an interesting Estonian couple in their 30s, . I chat with Marija and get a feeling that she is a fellow empath. She’s a scientist, like I used to be before I became disillusioned with it. She agrees that science is a belief system and that the truth is mediated by politics and egos. As we’re hiking she shows us her swollen leg from an injury and I tell her I’ll massage it when we get to the camp.
It’s a nice hike. There are lusher areas where springs create little oases. The camp is beautiful. I walk off into the bush to meditate by myself before dinner. They cook the dinner in a hut over a fire and the cute cook, wearing a white chef outfit and hat, brings it to our table and uncovers it like we’re in a fancy French restaurant.
Marija starts talking about a trauma release practice she has done. It’s an expensive weekend workshop where people get together in pairs and do some movements to release trauma, and then talk about their family dynamics and other authentic shares. By the end of it, everyone is bonded deeply. I have an intuition that she is out of touch with her feminine energy due to an emotionally unavailable mother. When she mentions that both of her injuries are on her left side, I point out that the left side is her feminine side and ask whether her feminine energy is out of balance. Her partner says, “Yes, that is true.”
That night I create a cozy space in my tent for her and start massaging her swollen leg but it’s too painful. She’s extremely tall and her legs seem impossibly far away from her, cold and cut off from her energy flow. I encourage her to walk barefoot on the earth whenever possible. Now I concentrate on bringing energy from the earth and up her legs. Then I ask if I can massage her belly. The moment I put my hands on her belly, I see that it’s extremely tight, one of the tightest bellies I have felt, out of the dozens of abdominal massage sessions I have done.
As soon as I lay my hands on her belly, she starts to shake uncontrollably, and enters trance immediately. After a while of shaking, her legs start to warm up and loosen up, so I’m able to gently rock them and massage them. It’s gotten very cold, so I try to keep her feet warm with a sweater. After a while her belly softens enough to get my fingers in there a little bit and find the biggest block. I have a feeling I won’t be able to unblock it in just one session, so my goal is to soften everything else around it.
She continues to shake and after about an hour I check in with her and she finds it hard to speak English, she’s in such a trance. She says the cold is okay and wants to continue, now that we’ve begun. We go on for a long time until her belly is much softer and her legs much warmer. I can barely sleep that night as it’s so cold.
The next day we hike an hour before the point where I leave to go back to town while the others continue on. I have to wait 3 hours for more people who are getting a ride in our van, with the driver, who speaks limited English. He asks my religion. Sometimes when people ask that, I say Jewish, my father's lineage, and sometimes I tell them that I worship the Goddess. When I tell him Jewish he’s never heard of the religion. I tell him that Jesus was a Jew and he’s adamant this isn’t true. I guess it’s never occurred to him that if Jesus invented the religion, he must have started out as something else. Next come the inevitable questions about marriage so I tell him I like being alone. “But you so beautiful,” he says. I shrug. “This is nothing. What is important is to be good.”
It’s a very long and bumpy and crowded ride back on the rough dirt road. After this long ride, I feel that in the end it wasn’t worth it, spending that much money to do this trek, when I can hike equally beautiful places at home for free. I have heard, however, that the deeper into the mountains you go it gets more interesting, with mobs of baboons, and Ethiopian red wolves. But it’s just too cold for me in the winter.
I get to a guest house that was recommended by trekking guide, which is quite nice. The shower works well. I like the town actually, it has a simple village vibe with cows in the road. When I go to the ATMs, none of them will give me cash. I start to kind of freak out. I go back to the guest house and ask the other guest there if I can Paypal him $20 and he coldly says, “I don’t do that.”
I walk back to town and try again, this time I try entering “savings” instead of “Checking” and try getting less cash and it works! ATMs are always stressful in Ethiopia. The next day I get an all day local bus to Axum, the only place in sub-Saharan Africa that was connected with the Mediterranean Bronze Age civilizations.
Axum is the most pleasant place I have seen in Ethiopia, with its wide, tree-lined main boulevard. The people from this region, the Tigray region, speak Tigrain, which is similar to Amharic but is more appealing to my ears. It has guttural sounds to Arabic, which is not surprising, as both are Semitic languages. The people seem gentler here. The Tigray music I hear on the streets appeals to my taste in a way that the music in the other areas of Ethiopia did not. Ethiopian music is unique in the world.
I meet a student and walk around chatting with him for a bit. There are no backpacker hostels so I find a nice modern room with a balcony for only $15 a night. The toilet only flushes occasionally, and only when I run the faucet.
I spend the morning trying to book a flight. The Ethiopian Air website doesn’t work and the local office is not where the map says it is. In the afternoon I visit the ancient ruins of the Axumite kingdom. There is a “tomb” up on the hill, two chambers you descend into, with very precise stonework and straight angles. From there I walk through quite deserted countryside except for two boys who follow me saying “Gimme! Gimme!” On the way I pass a famous stone stele with the inscription in both ancient Axumite and in Greek that allowed them to read Axumite.
I pass a beautiful souvenir shop.
Then I arrive at the stelae field, a nice grassy park area that's nearly deserted. Through a gate I can glimpse a church, now closed, with gorgeous paintings on it.
There are about 11 stelae that litter the fields, all lying on their sides, massive things carved from single pieces of granite. Some are rounded, obviously having eroded with age, but others retain their impossibly precise right angles, and are carved with perfectly precise indentations. Some have the “false doors”, nested portals with no opening, that you find in Petra, Egypt, and — more surprisingly, Puma Punku in Peru. Check out how perfectly straight these things are. You also find the same perfectly spaced little holes you see at Puma Punku, perhaps made by some type of machine manufacturing process.
Only one of the larger, more precise ones is still standing, not as large and solid as the ones toppled over, but still impressive.
Here's another perspective of one of them that toppled over and cracked. You can see how massive it is in comparison with the guy leaning on it to the right.
To the side of the stelae field, I stumble upon some more city remains with some rather large and precise blocks; not quite megalithic, but larger than the blocks used in Bronze Age building. There are no signs letting us know it's there. Note another false door.
Then I learn about the ancient Axumite civilization at the museum near the stelae. The Tigray region of now-Ethiopia, along with eastern Sudan and Eritrea, were what the ancients called the land of Punt, which was on the trading route with Egypt, Nubia, the Sabean kingdom (Arabia and Yemen), and with Rome and the Mediterranean. They worshiped local and Arabian gods. The state of Axum that arose in the 1st millennium BC controlled the trade routes between the Indian Ocean, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Mediterranean.
Christianity was introduced by missionaries in the 5th century. Sudden it hits me why I don't resonate so much with Ethiopian culture; the Byzantine period not my favorite era. It was at this time that Christianity became all about patriarchal control, when the Council of Nicene decreed that the two Mary’s were not divine. If Ethiopia had been Christianized earlier, when gnostic sects revered the feminine along with the masculine, it might be more appealing to me. That being said, I'm sure there are magical places and mystical experiences in Ethiopia when you know someone or get good advice on where to go, which I did not. Some countries are just not a good match for some people.
The museum features a female statuette which dates to the 5th century A.D., similar to the Goddess figurines found all over Eurasia from the Neolithic, Even after millennia of patriarchy, the old religion that revered the feminine obviously still survived, like in Middle Egypt, where I saw female figurines which date to well after the introduction of Islam.
I sit meditating in the stelae field when I start to hear mesmerizing music coming from the church, which, like all churches in Ethiopia, has a round domed roof. It’s slow religious music whose with voice ornamentation reminds me of Indian music.
It's coming from the church, which is having a Sunday night service. Everyone is dressed in white and the women — who make up most of the pilgrims — cover their hair with white scarves.
I wander over to the church where the priest is intoning something in Geze, the religious language of the Ethiopian church, an antique Semitic language. Geze is the Ethiopian equivalent of medieval Arabic or Latin, no longer spoken but still used to pray. The pilgrims bob their heads slowly along with the prayers, a little bit like Jews who daven-- bob their heads to the rhythm of the prayers -- but the Jews do it a lot faster than these Christians. Jewish davening was a way of reaching a state of trance using rhythmic movement. Maybe by the Byzantine times, when Abrahamic religion reached Ethiopia, it had lost some of the original intention and become less effective for trance, with the slower pace. Later Christians would do away with the movement entirely and just bow their heads.
I wander away from the service and walk back along the long cobbled pathway, as hundreds of pilgrims in white pass on their way to the church. This is the first place in Ethiopia that feels old. I pass a traffic circle built around a huge beautiful fig tree. When I get back to town I meet up with a nice couple I had met on the Simien trek, an American guy and an Irish guy, and we share a meal.
The next day I decide for sure that Ethiopia is not a country I resonate with, that I should stop trying and just leave. I book a flight online for the following day from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, Kenya. Then I reserve a domestic flight to Addis but can’t pay for it because Ethiopian Air doesn’t take credit cards. For my last afternoon in Ethiopia I chill out at the pizza and juice place chatting with people. The food is great so all the travelers end up here. Two really cool women my age from Glastonbury England invite me to go with them to a ruin an hour or so outside of town, a temple that was dedicated to the moon gods. It is very expensive to get a car to there, like so many things in Ethiopia, and anyway I don’t have enough time. I feel grief that I have not been able to find the magic in Ethiopia that these women talk about. Every place is different for every person. It didn't flow for me, but you might fall in love with the country, like the Israeli girl I met who moved here and started a hostel. Ethiopians are such beautiful people. Some of the women have such amazing, unique hair do's that remind me of Star Trek.
I need to get money to pay for my domestic flight at the airport, so I walk the sweaty pavement, trying all 6 ATMs in town. None will give me money. I go back to the pizza place and ask the travelers there if they can get money: all of them say that today none of the ATMs have worked for them. The locals say they had no problems, which makes me wonder. Phone signal is also not working for any of us foreigners while it is for locals.
I really need to take the flight to Addis though because my flight to Kenya leaves early the next morning from there! I walk into a bank and beg them to make a cash advance on my card. They do it, for 5% interest, and I have to run to the hotel to get my passport to give them, and run back in the heat. I take the large pile of money (about $80 dollars worth, the cost of the flight to Addis) and get a tuk-tuk to the airport. It’s a really good thing I got the cash advance, since the airport has no ATM.
After the short flight, I take an Uber to the nice hostel where I stayed when I first arrived. The Uber is really expensive, about $15 for a 20 minute ride. I fend off the guys swarming to try to grab my bag and climb the steps to the hostel. In the 10 days since I was last there, they have raised their prices on single rooms from 15 dollars a night to 70! What the hell!? The dorm beds are all full. They say I can stay next door at a guest house. The guy arrives to take me there.
It’s a sad place, the room so tiny there is barely space to walk around the single, lumpy bed. The bathroom down the hall has a toilet with the seat broken off so you have to sit right on the rim or crouch. It’s 20 dollars for this place. I had wanted to meet my two friends from Axum at a highly-recommended cultural center for an Ethiopian music concert, but they’re staying at a different hotel, and it’s expensive and dangerous for me to get there alone. I don’t want to take any last-minute risks. I decide to just take a sleeping pill and crash early, to get up early for my flight.
The guy who owns the guest house keeps knocking on my door. He shakes my hand and holds it much too long. He invites me for “hospitality” in his room, which consists of a shirtless guy lounging in a bed, a filthy mattress, a TV, and a “local drink” — a bottle of booze.
“No, no thank you, I’m tired,” I say. He insists 3 more times. Then he invites me to go to an “authentic local music party”. He will drive me, it’s about 20 minutes by car. I don’t feel safe heading out into the pitch-dark city night with this dude, I don't get the best feeling from him. Finally I lock myself in my room. I don’t want to even wash my face in the dirty bathroom. I sleep in my warmest clothes, as it’s really cold there, and wake up early for the flight. I have to wait for them to open the gate to let me out. The taxi driver makes me wait 15 minutes for two guys from the hostel next door, even though I still have to pay the same amount.
Still, I make my flight easily. I look out the window as we fly over the Rift Valley, where humans evolved. When we descend from the clouds, I’m happy to see a green landscape. It’s been a while since I’ve seen green. Or clouds in the sky. Or felt slightly humid air. It feels really good.
Good bye Ethiopia, your people are lovely.