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Monday, November 30, 2015

Ethiopian Adventure Day 7 (Gonder/Bahir Dar)

Traveled by van from Gonder to Bahir Dar, on the shores of Lake Tana, and checked in the the Blue Nile Hotel. Sailed across lake to Zege Peninsula and visited monastery and church there; spotted two hippopatami on return trip. Drove to Blue Nile Falls in the afternoon (shown below). 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Ethiopian Adventure Day 6 (Lalibela/Gonder)

Woke up c. 4 a.m. but did not get up until 6, and coffee was still not available when I walked to the hotel dining room so I worked an hour or so. When I went back three groups were there, all western Europeans with demeanor somewhere between cool and rude; no one would acknowledge my greetings and avoiding eye contact and so I enjoyed my firfir and coffee alone. 

Finished packing out and my guide Daniel Shewalem picked me up at 9 and, as it was Saturday, took me to see the local agricultural market ahead of taking me to the airport for my flight to Gonder. 

Might as well have spent some more time at the market, as flight was delayed at least two hours! Met some other travelers, however  including two who had not managed to fly out the day before  and we enjoyed a coffee ceremony together and swapped stories while waiting for our plane to get in. 

Making the best of the situation with Daniel, Adriana, and Suman at the airport in Lalibela!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Ethiopian Adventure Day 5 (Lalibela)

Today my guide Daniel Shewalem and I made a 15-mile roundtrip pilgrimage to a monastery hidden within a mountaintop above the Ethiopian holy city of Lalibela. We started with a strenuous ascent to the ridge east of the city and then proceeded through highland forests of eucalyptus, agricultural fields, and little farming hamlets. We presented ourselves to the guardian monk and were honored to have him show us the relics kept within the place. Then, before descending, we repaired to a nearby workshed and enjoyed cups of freshly brewed sorghum beer! On the way down we further fortified ourselves at a mountainside coffee hut.

Back in Lalibela we had lunch at 7 OIives.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Ethiopian Adventure Day 4 (Axum/Lalibela)

Packed out of Sabean International Hotel in Axum and was taken by my driver to airport at 9 for flight to Lalibela. Got there ahead of the crowds going out on same and other flights because security conducted the most thorough search of my possessions I have ever experienced. My Bulgarian friends Kras and Jivko showed up about half an hour later, we went through security together, and then we chatted while waiting for our flight, which came in about an hour late. 

My friends did not have a place to stay in Lalibela and so I suggested they try the Mountainview Hotel, where I was staying, and they took the hotel shuttle there and were able to get a room. I met with my local guide, Daniel Shewalem, and our driver took us to the hotel so that I could check in. 

We then spent the afternoon visiting the first seven of the 11 rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Then, in the evening, Kras, Jivko, and I sat out on the upper terrace of the hotel, drank the local St. George beer, and watched the sun set over the Amharic highlands of Ethiopia. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Ethiopian Adventure Day 3 (Addis Ababa/Axum)

Flew from Addis Ababa to the ancient city of Axum. Checked into Sabean International Hotel and then headed out with my guide, Sisay, to explore sites around the city, including the Stelae Fields (shown below), location of numerous royal graves and monuments; a pool associated with the Queen of Sheba; a three-language proclamation stone declaring the victories of King Eksana; the local antiquities museum; the ruins of an Axumite palace and the tombs beneath it; the church complex containing, among other things, the Temple of the Ark of the Covenant; and the subterranean tomb of King Balthazar, one of the three Magi who visited Jesus at the time of his birth. 

* St. George lager, a very decent Ethiopian brew, is the thing to drink here. In provincial Axum a bottle cost just 15 birr (75 cents), and in Addis Ababa and some other locations the price is a steeper 30-60 birr ($1-3). 

* Have smelled marijuana twice since getting to Axum, first while approaching the tomb of Balthazar and now the stuff that is giving me the contact high while writing this in my hotel room. Know it is illegal here but have read a few sources that say it is readily available and it would appear enforcement is lax in Axum. 

More detail to come but as of this writing I am getting ready to head out for my flight to Lalibela! 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Ethiopian Adventure Day 2 (Addis Ababa)

Woke up within an hour or so of falling asleep and could not pass out again, something that was not helped by prolific street noise: vehicles on the main road a block away, a man talking on a cell phone who sounded like he was right outside my window, barking dogs (which might have either been pets or part of feral packs), hooting owls, a few sirens, and, most intrusively, prayers broadcast over a speaker from a nearby Ethiopian Orthodox church. On top of all that was pounding of the pulse in my ears, possibly caused by jet lag, the altitude, my malaria medication, or none, some, or all of those. 

Eventually just got up and my brother and I headed out for the U.S. Embassy about 10 a.m. Traffic was uncharacteristically good according to him and I had the opportunity to get a look at several other parts of the city. At the embassy we had a 1-hour block of Amharic language instruction, enjoyed my first Ethiopian meal at the cafeteria, and did shopping for Thanksgiving dinner (which I will be missing). We then drove back via a different route so that I could see even more of the city. 

After dinner (my brother grilled hamburgers and bratwurst on their patio), I made final preparations for my six-day excursion to the northern half of the country, took a shower, and turned in  hopefully to sleep better than I did last night! 

Above left, people struggling to fix broken down cars are a common sight on the streets of Addis Ababa. Above right, the capitol is undergoing a period of great growth and construction, albeit amidst fears that the bubble might burst in the next year or so and leave many projects unfinished. 

Above left, one of the bigger Muslim mosques in Ethiopian Orthodox Addis Ababa. Above right and below, sprawling, dusty, and chaotic though it is, an astute visitor will pick up that Addis Ababa was clearly planned as a visually impressive monumental city, with many traffic circles designed to showcase monuments of various sorts. 

Last thing for today is going through my kit and repacking about half of it for the excursion up north that I am jumping out on tomorrow! 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Ethiopian Adventure Day 1 (Addis Ababa)

Low key first day here in Ethiopia! Landed in the capital city of Addis Ababa about 12:55 a.m. and very quickly cleared immigration and then customs (the procedure for the latter consisting of running my suitcase through a machine on a belt and not being sure if any of the other people in the vicinity were officials or all just other passengers). My brother Chris was waiting for me in the terminal and we had a quick, 15-minute drive to his house through streets that he said were only so empty because it was late on a Sunday night and that during the day it would have taken an hour. 

After giving me a brief orientation my brother went to bed. As I was not at all tired at that point, however, I washed and then stayed up reading Cutting for Stone, a 2008 novel about a surgeon in Ethiopia, and finally turned in about 5 a.m. 

Got up late and spent early afternoon unpacking, reading source material related to my trip, and chatting with my brother. Then, later in the afternoon, visited and had a tour of the international school my niece Madeleine and nephew Conrad attend. All four of us then took a short walk and stopped for coffee (buna), something I had been looking forward to doing, it seeming especially appropriate to enjoy this favorite beverage in the country where it was first discovered. In the course of all this my seven-year-old niece regaled me with useful tips for my stay in Ethiopia (e.g., "Always carry your own toilet paper," "Always cut the first 2 inches/5 centimeters off the end of a banana" to avoid some horrible parasite that lives in them, "Always carry bug spray" when visiting historic sites because of fleas in the carpeting). 

In the evening we had dinner with my sister-in-law Laura and she and my brother briefed me on things I needed to expect on my upcoming excursions to sites in the northern half of the country (all useful but none more so than the things Madeleine had already told me). Then, after everyone else went to bed, I did some more background reading, worked on the outline for a story about my trip I am doing for the New Braunfels Herald Zeitung, and started doing research into Ethiopian folklore for an article for Gygax magazine. 


Above left, people of means in Addis Ababa tend to live in walled and gated compounds — and the decorative variety among gates is interesting to note. Because people do not want pictures of their houses posted for security concerns, however, I photographed an unfinished one as an example. Above right, Aba Guben, a cafe on South Africa Street favored by my brother and his family. Left, many of the signs in Addis Ababa are dual-language, with script in both English and the local Amharic. Below, a view from the "Old Airport" neighborhood of Addis Ababa of the Entoto Mountains, which run along the northern edge of the capitol.