In 2009 I took Sandy, Jennifer, Matt and Geoffrey to my birth country right after my 60th birthday. Jason and Emily were unable to go as Jason was a new father for the third time and Emily was in school. I have promised Emily that I would take her to Ethiopia someday. Jason has a large family and is not really interested in a long trip to a developing country. Since I am now turning 70 on November 1 I coaxed Emily into taking the trip this November even though I am in Melbourne which is further from Ethiopia than Boston. I invited my brother Claude to accompany us as he also lived in Ethiopia from 1947-1959 and then again in 1980-84 when he lived and worked there. He is also quite good at speaking Amharic which is the dominant dialect of Ethiopia. Our cousin Jeanne Artress was also born in Ethiopia and has not been back since she left at the age of three. She was very keen to accompany us on this trip and the timing worked for her as she goes to Tanzania every December to work with her brother Frank Artress at FAME Africa in Karatu. I also invited Claude’s sons Jonathon and Peter. Peter was born in Kenya while Claude and Donna were in Ethiopia. There was no real solid planning for this trip as I stay so busy with just enjoying life, planning our next adventure, booking apartments and flights, taking care of business at home, etc. The trip slowly came together and the final travelers ended up being Emily, Jeanne, Claude, Peter and myself. We came up with dates and flights in and out of the country but no in country itinerary. I made a last minute Airbnb booking for our first night in Addis Ababa and we all met up early morning on the 3rd of November at Bole International Airport to start our adventure.
Emily and Jeanne were on the same Ethiopian Airlines flight from Chicago to Addis. They had never met before but met up in Chicago. They arrived in Addis about 30 minutes after I did. Claude and Peter had a rental car and met us at the airport driving us to our accommodations in Addis. We spent the day just wandering the local markets and having two meals of wat and injera which is Ethiopian food.
We booked flights online the first day in Addis but were unable to purchase them due to a website glitch. We have to rebook and purchase the tickets with cash at the airport. It was a very early morning flight which gets us into Gondar before 10am. We have no plan once we arrive there so Emily researches accommodations on my phone and calls Lodge du Chateau. The owner, Simon, answers and confirms that he does have available rooms and he will pick us up at the airport in 30 minutes.
Our host, Simon, accompanied us on a walk around Gondar. He took us to markets for shopping and treated us to a horse drawn Garry ride. I remember these Garrys from when I lived here 1949-1959. Don’t remember if I have ever taken a ride in one though.
After wandering the markets of Gondar with Simon we returned to our Lodge du Chateau and just hung out on the front stoop enjoying the local culture flowing by.
Simien Mountain Trek
Our host at the lodge, Simon, was able to arrange a van and guides for a one day trek in the Simien mountains. We had an early breakfast on the terrace of wonderful scrambled eggs with onions and peppers or omelettes or teff pancakes before getting in our van for a 1.5 hour drive to the Simien mountains.
Last morning in Gondar Emily and I went for an early morning walk and came upon a special early morning prayer. There is some ongoing unrest and demonstrations in scattered areas of the country and the rest of the population is having a special time of prayers. It was quite moving to see all of these people taking time out of their lives to come together to pray for peace in their country. This is a very remarkable country with exceptional people. I am so proud to be able to call myself an Ethiopian.
Gondar to Lalibela.
This is about a 7 hour drive and we are in a very comfortable van with a good safe driver. Driving in Ethiopia is always interesting as the roadways are filled with people, animals and all sorts of motor vehicles. I compare it to a river which is constantly flowing. Vehicles, people and animals going both directions and also crossing the bidirectional flow with relative ease. No one runs, they just move in a natural manner and they all intermingle with only rare collisions in my experience. That being said, road traffic accidents account for a significant amount of morbidity and mortality in this country.
During our drive to Labilela Emily researched cooking schools there as she was bummed that we had not done a cooking class in Gondar. She found one on Trip Advisor and called them asking availability for that evening. She spoke with Ambachew who assured her that we were welcome this very evening at 6:00. He then proceeded to text us confirmation details and said that he would pick us up at our hotel at 5:40 with two tuktuks.
We arrived at our overnight lodgings about 5pm and checked in making arrangements for an early morning tour of the underground churches and a ride to the airport at 9:30am as we again were unable to book our flight to Axum online.
Ambachew asked if we wanted to cook injera the old way over a fire in the back yard or on their new electric griddle in the kitchen. We opted for the back yard over the fire. His wife quickly built a fire and then proceeded to show us how they winnow the teff to remove the chaff. Emily and Peter both gave it a try.
When the outdoor griddle did not do so well we moved inside where they showed us how to mix ground teff with water into a runny batter which they will then let set for 2-3 days of fermentation before it is ready for making injera. All who wanted got to try their hands on pouring the batter onto the griddle. It is definitely a learned art as none of us did very well on our first try.
The girl in their home is not a daughter but a relative that they have taken in. She was very cute but shy. She joined right in though helping with everything.
Churches of Lalibela
There are 11 medieval monolithic cave churches which were all hand carved using hammers and chisels. They excavated trenches surrounding the monolithic and semi-monolithic structures as well as a system of interconnecting tunnels before carving out the churches from the scoriaceous basalt. They were envisioned by King Lalibela, who commissioned their construction, to recreate the holy city of Jerusalem in his own kingdom. The site remains in use by the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church to this day, and it remains an important place of pilgrimage for Ethiopian Orthodox worshipers. I was here with other family members in 2009 but no one else in our group has seen it before. It was not very high on Emily’s must-see list so we compromised and did a very quick early morning tour before moving on to Axum and the churches of Tigray.
Axum now mainly known for its stelae and supposedly housing the sacred Ark of the Covenant, but only the caretaker priest has ever seen it. It is another holy city and pilgrimage site for Ethiopians. We are here as a starting point for a tour of the rock-hewn churches of Tigray. We land here with no plans and no contacts but Emily again comes through and selects a tour coordinator from the many available at the airport. We are driven to our hotel which is very simple but adequate. We spend the afternoon wandering the town and briefly stopping at the stelae park but not paying to go in.
Highlights of the first five days have been Gondar, Simien Mountain Trek and The cooking class in Lalibela. Still some highlights to come though.