Ethiopia, first five days

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.

This is it, leaving my best friend, lover, soul mate and rock of my life for 11 days.  We are both very fragile and don’t know how we are going to do this.
Business class, Air India to Delhi, 12.5 hours.
International Transfers in Delhi.  I had a nine hour layover here and planned on going out to see the city.  Oh no, you are stuck on this godforsaken bare chunk of airport from 5:45pm until after midnight when the Ethiopian Airlines personnel will come and pick you up.  One tiny coffee kiosk, bathrooms and a smoking room.
I can’t feel sorry for myself as Oduwarene Imasuen from Nigeria has been here longer than I have.  He is a film maker from Nigeria and was invited to a film festival in Nepal.  He was not allowed to enter Nepal as he was told he needed a visa even though the festival organizers had supposedly made all of the arrangements for entry.  He had been traveling for three days, finally bought this new shirt once they let us both through the International Transfer area into the main airport.  We were both on the same flight to Addis and then he had to fly on to Abuja.

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.

Peter and Emily are in shopping mode.


Peter purchased a belt here which gave us a free Ethiopian coffee ceremony for all.


We had this meal at least once every day for the whole trip.  Injera is the rolled up spongy somewhat sour bread made from teff which is Ethiopia’s staple food.  The injera is used to scoop up the wat which on this platter is cabbage & carrots, lentils, shiro(chickpeas & spices), beet root and chard.  You can also get chicken, goat, beef and lamb stews.  Jeanne had never had Ethiopian food before.  She is also a vegetarian and does not like spicy food but she was a real trooper and joined us in eating all of this strange food.  Almost everything is very spicy.


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.

Jeanne Artress and my daughter Emily arriving in Gondar Ethiopia.
We had to compete with livestock on our drive to the chateau.


Interior of the lodge.  Stairs at the end go up to the breakfast room/bar.
Claude, Emily and Jeanne in front of the lodge office.
Looking down at the lodge from the breakfast room.
The owner sent us up here to have bread and honey and discuss our plans.
View from the breakfast terrace.
Waiting for bread and honey.
I am very happy with my stoop at Lodge du Chateau.  A lot of street action to watch.
We head out to the markets and Emily immediately makes a new friend.

IMG_1228Our 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.B546B446-9EA1-4A3C-9BA1-A829599C8BE7IMG_9421 (1).jpeg

IMG_9477 (1)
Walking the streets of Gondar which are clogged with humans, animals, cars, trucks, buses and tuktuks.  Our host Simon is leading in the first green hat with Jeanne and I following behind.
Gondar castle, surrounded by a 900 meter long wall was the residence of the Ethiopian emperor in the 16th & 17th centuries.  We never went inside as we are more interested in the present day local culture.
Old city gates.

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.

Our lodge is on the right.
Directly across the street from our front door is the castle.


Peter, Emily, Jeanne and Claude hanging out on the front stoop.

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.


Our young guide and a gunman to keep us safe while hiking.


Claude never misses a chance to converse with the locals in Amharic.  They find it hilarious to have a ‘ferenge’, foreigner, speaking to them in their language.
We stopped at this trailside market and did our best to support the economy.


That takes confidence, balance, and agility.  It was a long way down just behind Peter.
I don’t remember any rest stops but here it is documented.


Waterfall rainbow.
This was lunch with a waterfall view, boiled potatoes, boiled eggs and bread.  Fortunately Jeanne had a lot of little salt packets in her bag.  Could have used mayo and butter also though.
Yes, we got stuck once and had one flat tire.
Baboons watching humans?


Obviously the alpha male of the group.
We stopped at a hotel overlooking Gondar for the sunset views and mostly to fix the flat tire.

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.

The men are all lining up on the left in front of us, The women are to the far right.
Simon arranged for a car to drive us to Lalibela.
Gondar townspeople all returning home from morning prayer.
Claude and Simon.  Simon is the owner of Lodge du Chateau.  He took very good care of us, showing us around his town of Gondar, arranging our hike in the Simien Mountains National Park and now arranging a car and driver to take us to Lalibela.  He also gave us a recommendation of where to stay in Lalibela and called ahead and booked our room there for one night.  He has one daughter in Medical School in Gondar and another much younger daughter around 10 years old who Claude and I met.

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.

IMG_1371During 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.IMG_1377


Anywhere one stops in this country you will soon be surrounded by kids wanting to interact with you and get money, pens or clothes from you.


Just a random roadside baboon.
Ethiopia is comprised of mostly subsistence farmers.  Every arable piece of this country is being used for raising food.  Most of those fields are growing teff which is used to make injera which is their daily food staple.  Teff is a very small grain, less than 1mm in size which cooks very quickly and provides high protein content.  The straw from the tef is used to feed livestock and is also mixed with mud in the building of their houses.
We stopped for coffee.


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.

This is the view from our rooms.
Ambachew was there at 5:40 with two tuktuks to take us to his home.
Claude, Peter and Jeanne were in one tuktuk and Emily and I were in another with Ambachew.


Walking up a hill to Ambachew’s home.
Front entry to Ambachew’s home with his wife.

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.


Emily trying her hand at winnowing teff.


Getting the fire going in the back yard with some of the neighbors looking on.
A lot more of the neighbors have gathered to watch us ‘ferenges’ learn about Ethiopian cooking.

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.

Mixing up the batter for injera.
Full kitchen and yes she is pregnant.
Peter chopping onions.

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.

Dinner is served along with some home made beer.  This was such a memorable experience to enter someone’s home and spend an evening learning how their food is prepared and then sharing a meal with them.  Extraordinary!!!!

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.

6:15am and we are starting our early morning tour of the churches.  Going early avoids most tourists but not the early morning worshipers as these are active churches.
This is the largest church on the left and you can see all of the early morning worshipers filing in along the interconnecting trenches.
This shows how large it is.  UNESCO has put up some protective covering to try and preserve this church from the elements.
There are some open areas between the churches also.
Trenches between churches.
These churches are all carved out in underground monolithic rock formations.
The people facing the wall are all praying.
Selfie by the old man inside one of the churches.


This is a men only holy room.
Claude speaking Amharic to the local boys.  The old man on the right is saying “what the hell”.
The ground level crucifix shape is the top of Biete Giorgis or Church of St. George.


Biete Giorgis stands all alone and is not interconnected with any other churches.


Yes, that’s me standing on the edge.  I was taking a picture of the group above.
10:50am we are boarding a plane for Axum.


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.

11:50am we are arriving in Axum or Aksum, Ethiopian spelling in English is very loose.
This is the stelae park.  The central one was taken to Italy in 1937.  It was in pieces on the ground then.  They restored it and erected it in Rome.  They finally returned it to Axum in 2005.
The largest of the stelae lies broken on the ground.

Highlights of the first five days have been Gondar, Simien Mountain Trek and The cooking class in Lalibela.  Still some highlights to come though.

12 responses to “Ethiopia, first five days”

  1. I am awestruck…just blown away. What an INCREDIBLE experience you had. Thank you for takingme along vicariously, but I think I am going to have to actually go there and experience it for myself.

    1. It is very beautiful but traveling there is primitive, bad showers, not much hot water, language barriers and busy dirty streets. The people are wonderful and warm but always looking for baksheesh. Quite the experience though.

  2. I replied on my phone to this blog but not sure if it sent. Love, love this particular blog and the wonderful pictures. Absolutely delightful! So sorry that Dad didn’t insist on taking us to these locations when we were there. I know he went but I missed it. I remember a gari ride when I was 6ish down Churchill road, even have a picture of it. I didn’t realize the garis had survived in the countryside. The tuktuks are new for me too. So much fun seeing you as a family getting to enjoy this trip. Peter, in particular, seems to be enjoying himself immensely and Claude is such a trooper…As always the injera and wot look yummy
    Thanks again. I remain an avid reader of your blogs….
    Hugs, Anette

    1. Hi Anette, I did see your comment. Just wondering if you ever see my replies?

  3. Kathleen von Pohle Avatar
    Kathleen von Pohle

    Fantastic. Thankyou. What a tribute of your marriage, love, partnership! Deeply touching. I did not realize that Ethiopia was so mountainous. I love watching the community and cultures do by. Garry’s remind me oil f rickshaws of Hong Kong. I have used Teff before. Will research recipes. Why does it have to sit for several days? I enjoined the trek. Mountains so green. The colors of scarves, baskets, platters. Are the dyes from vegetables? So many questions!!
    The churches…easier to build digging down then building stones? Are the while shawl wraps a sacred covering? Can’t wait for the rest of the journey. I have traveled the far East and Europe, but missed Africa and Australia. So descriptive Jim.
    Thank you again

    1. Hi Kathleen, so glad that you enjoy reading. It was very rewarding writing about Ethiopia. It is such a beautiful country and such warm, loving beautiful people. When making injera, they let the teff batter ferment before using it which gives it a slightly sour taste, like sourdough bread. The white shawls and dresses are worn for religious events but also everyday. I am unsure about their dyes but their brightly colored paintings, baskets and clothes go way back in all of Africa.
      Thanks for enjoying and commenting.

  4. Victoria Kinnally Avatar
    Victoria Kinnally

    Very interesting, Jim!

    1. A great time was had by all.

  5. so interesting! thanks!

  6. Avatar

    Jim,All of your blogs are fantastic, but this one was extra special! Thanks for sharing!

    1. The next one is even better. Thanks for your comments Sandy.

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