Thursday, September 25, 2014

Returning to Ethiopia

A sudden crash of thunder woke me around 2 am the first night of our stay in Lalibela. The storm that followed was impressive, to say the least, but the next 24 hours continued to amaze. After listening for a while to the rain pound the glass door of our room at a steep angle, I put ear plugs in to maximize my last few hours of quality dozing time. They fell out at some point in the wee-hours, as I found myself slowly waking to the dream-like reality that is Lalibela: a young girl singing while, I imagine, prepping the kitchen in pre-dawn hours, the priests chanting in Ge'ez as the faithful gather for the sunrise services, a goat bleats, a raptor calls out overhead.

Six years ago, my first visit to Lalibela changed something deep inside the inner-workings of my traveler's soul. The light, the smokey air at dawn, frankincense burning - eyes stinging, throat tight, priests chanting in a language completely unique and secret, a small village clinging to cliffs overlooking a wide and massive valley. I loved it. I hoped Lalibela wouldn't disappoint this time around. And it didn't. I saw things that I overlooked last time as an eager and impatient traveler. I heard sounds and really paid attention to the stone under my feet. Felt the moss growing on those ancient, subterranean churches. We rode in a tuk-tuk to dinner and the young man driving it laughed when we stopped to by textiles in the dark, grabbed a local beer and continued on. Smiles shining at us through the night.

Lalibela is a beautiful place. It has a permanence and relevance that most historical sites lack. It's living. The churches are ancient, dating back to the 1200s, but they are still in use: pilgrims gather, nuns and priests scurry, tourists remove their shoes and witness one of the most intact and timeless cultures in the world. Living.

This blog post was meant to highlight my top experiences in Ethiopia for our newsletter. I started getting lost in my thoughts when I thought about the power of the thunderstorm that morning and how it set the stage for two full and intense days in one of the most special places on the planet. What else stuck with me?

1) Sitting on my bum on soft, mossy tundra at 12,000 feet in the Simien Mountains as geleda baboons surrounded me foraging in the tall grass. Occasionally they'd look up at us, make eye contact in an understanding, albeit pitying way, and go back to their methods. Add this to my top game-viewing experiences (along with Namibia's desert-adapted elephant, Madikwe's wild dog, Mahale's chimps: no permits, no crowds, no complications).

2) New Year's Day 2007. Where were you? I was in Ethiopia eating pizza and drinking local Dashen beer. I remember it like yesterday (or at least last month). Wait. It was last month. Welcome to the Julian calendar. It's 7 years behind. This was a highlight. September is Meskel, the Ethiopian New Year, and is a lovely time to visit this country. The skies are filled with stunning clouds, yellow daisies quilt the hills - it's essentially spring-time - and locals are giddy with the prospects of the New Year. Wish one of them "Happy New Year" (even in English) and they break into a wide grin, cheeks glowing, and say the same back...the most pious among them cross themselves and quietly bow, knowing that anything could lie ahead in the coming 13 months (another surprise of the Julian calendar, 13 months!)

3) The moment that I forgot who I was and where I fit into all of this? A deacon (in priesthood training) quietly and deliberately guided us through a maze of monolithic, subterranean churches all while priests in robes chant, solid silver crosses touched our foreheads in a secret blessing...we ducked through pitch-black tunnels - "the passage to Hell" - and came out in clear light greeted by unassuming smiles.

4) Oddly, a lunch of hand-made spinach pasta in Addis was one of the more memorable moments on this trip. It seems that getting lost is a theme here. During that lunch, I forgot where I was (could have been New York, Copenhagen, Tokyo) and what lay ahead (the Bale Mountains and the mysterious Ethiopian wolf). The pasta was wide, thick and flavorful, laced with Italian mushrooms, a thick cream sauce and peppered with chile flakes. It was amazing.

5) One would think that the Ethiopian wolf and Simien Mountains themselves would be listed as a highlight of my trip - and it certainly was - but what took the cake was that view from the Bale Mountain Lodge at dawn. Tendrils of misty fog rising around peaks that look like old mens' beards on end. Smokey air, again. Damp, thick and cool. That morning at dawn was unforgettable.

Learn more about Travel Ethiopia and how to share an experience like this with your travelers.

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