Monday, February 3, 2014

Ethiopia and Yemen 2005

Roof of Bet Giorgis
First chance I've had to write, every town I've been in has had an internet
cafe, but all were "not working".
I'm now in Adigrat, in the far north of Ethiopia, on the main road into Eritrea, so here's hoping war doesn't break out in the next week or so. It doesn't seem likely, from here anyway.
Ethiopia has been fantastic so far. Lalibela is one of those rare places that lives up to its considerable hype. Thirteen churches, nearly a thousand years old, which are carved into the volcanic bedrock and connected by a series of tunnels. And they aren't sterile archeological sites, rather they are central to the current Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and especially when you get there early in the morning, the place is chock full of monks, nuns, priests and pilgrims who are chanting, swaying, and praying.

Bet Giorgis

I also spent four days trekking in the Wolo Highlands with a community based tourism organization, TESFA. I've got to say that while clearly the experience will rank as a highlight of my trip to Ethiopia, really it was a highlight of all my travels. The scenery was outstanding, walking mostly along the edge of the cliff, and even the wildlife was satisfyingly wacky (I got some great pictures of the local Gelada baboons munching on wheat) but it was the way TESFA manages to bridge the gap with the local rural people that was really unusual. People know that your money is being plowed back into the community. So, for instance, when you come across an elaborate funeral procession for a recently deceased elderly woman, you're invited in, because everybody knows about you and your guide. Quite something.

Trekking Wolo Highlands country
Harvest time in the Wolo Highlands

Wolo Women

Funeral Procession

I sent dozens of portraits back to these folks via TESFA, for many it's the only picture they have of themselves

Gelada Baboons
The rustic little TESFA guest houses are also comfortable enough to attract some high profile guests, I signed the guest book a few entries below Brad Pitt. I asked Macadam, my guide and one of the founders of the organization, if the local people had heard of Pitt. He laughed and said that none of them had heard of America, much less its' movie stars.
Tomorrow I'm off to Debre Damo, the cliff-top monastery only accessible via a fifty foot rope. You climb it with the assistance of another rope, attached to your waist at one end, and a scrawny monk at the other. I may ask for two monks.
After that I head south a bit, to Wukro, to poke around the various churches that are carved into the southern-Utah-style landscape, mostly in cliff faces and at the tips of pinnacles.
Then it's back to Addis, and an overnight flight to Yemen.


If the thought of me dangling from a rope 30 feet in the air gives you pleasure, then feel pleased.
Debre Damo was something else. A 1500-year-old monastery on the top of
a table-plateau, reached only via that monk-attached rope I wrote of earlier, only it's more like sixty feet. Of course while I was struggling up with the assistance of two ropes, an elderly monk scrambled up the cliff next to me, rope free and chuckling at my awkward ascent.
I did end up giving an extra tip to procure two monks for my descent. They were awfully scrawny.

Monastery sits on top

Rope Ascent
I've come to the conclusion that I don't really have a very good head for heights. Bad time to realize that, when tomorrow I'm scheduled to visit a rock-hewn church that has the diciest approach of any I'll be visiting in Ethiopia: up a cliff, but this time without the monk and rope. Yohannes, my stalwart guide, has assured me that he will personally see me to the top. Isn't that the same promise that mountaineer from Seattle made on Everest in 1996? The one who's grave I passed in Nepal two years later? Problem is, this church is one of the reasons I first wanted to visit Ethiopia. Think of the spires of Monument Valley (Tigray very much reminds me of the four-corners area) only with a trail/climbing-route winding to the top, where a small two-room church has been carved into the very tip, and it's packed full of 900 year-old murals. It's fired my imagination for a number of years now, but I would still like to think I will have the sense to back out if it seems more than I can handle. Even with the monk and the rope, I was pretty freaked.
After two more days here in Tigray, I fly back to Addis on Monday, then on to Sana'a early Wednesday morning. That means that I will be away from the Eritrean border, so free and clear of any hostilities if they do break out. I haven't been to worried though, Ethiopia pretty much destroyed Eritrea's air force the last time around. I'm pretty sure I'm out of artillery shell range by now, but certainly by Monday.
Overall, this is turning out to be about the best trip yet, but also one of the most expensive. Everything is cheap except transport (if you don't have loads of time), but that is so expensive as to heavily skew the average.
Hope you're all well,

Abuna Yemata Guh, carved into that center pinnacle.

Abuna Yemata Guh

Abuna Yemata Guh's caretaker priest
Yohannes, my guide, at a tej bar
Mekele II
If the image of me dangling from a monk-pulled rope didn't give you enough pleasure, then maybe the image of me trembling in fear and crawling on my knees across a narrow wind-swept rock-shoulder 400 feet in the air will bring another smile to your face. I'm definitely not to proud to admit that I crawled in terror for the last few feet of the ascent to Abuna Yemata Guh, the church carved into the pillar of sandstone in Tigray. Thankfully I was able to put aside my petrifying fear of the coming descent long enough to appreciate that the church itself is one of the most extraordinary places I've ever been. A large two-room sanctuary laid out with rugs and mats, and covered in beautifully preserved 800-year-old murals. I was able to stay for an hour or so, in the company of the priest and Yohannes (my guide) just soaking it in, and letting my nerves calm down while I tried to put the reason they were shattered out of my mind.
In truth, I probably took more of a risk in the climb than was wise, but I guess that was predictable, given that I've never really demonstrated the level of maturity that it would have taken to back out at the last minute. It was the last little bit that was really kind of crazy. A twelve-foot climb, over the lip of that rock shoulder, which would have been relatively straight forward if it weren't for the fact that you had to land on a two-foot-wide ledge, with the 400-foot-chasm just to the side. As scared as I was, I was able to stop for a moment and laugh when Yohannes, who weighs 65 kilos, spread his arms and said from the small ledge "Don't worry, I'll catch you". Given my 125 kilos, the image had a humor that penetrated even my fear.
In hindsight, I have to say I'm glad I made it up there though, because the combination of the location and the church itself make it rank right up there with the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, Angkor, Petra, the Himalaya, and now also Lalibela, as a place that I'll be forever grateful I had an opportunity to see.
I'm now back in Addis, getting ready to catch my red-eye flight to Yemen, midway through a trip that seems overfull already.
My apologies for not responding to everybody's messages, the connections here are painfully slow. Yemen promises to be a big improvement in that regard. Given the troubles in Ethiopia last month, I'm getting on-line a bit more than normal to keep abreast of any developments.

Lake Tana

Gonder Ceiling

The argument that women in Islamic countries are self-motivated to don the veil was undercut by my experience flying into Sana'a from Addis.
The passengers were overwhelmingly female, maybe a total of five men, but 120 women. At the airport, as we were waiting to board, there was not a shroud to be seen. The women were laughing, giggling, and even (possibly only in my imagination) flirting a bit. When we landed about two hours later, I looked around to see that the vast majority of them had put on their veils, covering everything but their eyes. Ah well...
At the airport in Addis, I befriended three sisters from a Yemeni family that has been living in Ethiopia for 40 years. Two of them had new babies that they were taking to visit their relatives in Yemen for the first time (the childless sister let it be known that she wasn't opposed to the idea of an American husband. Yikes!) When we arrived, I waited for the plane to clear so that I could again help them with their strollers and luggage. As I waited, the Yemeni man sitting across the aisle from me leaned over and asked "Russian?". I knew that he was an idiot, having seen him abuse the very sweet Yemeni woman who was working for the airline in Addis, and so should have ignored him, but I was groggy, so I responded "No, American". This elicited some surprise, but then he asked "You pray to god?". Having abandoned, at least for the duration of this trip, the burdensome task of informing the devout that there is no god, I responded by mumbling something unintelligible. He then asked "You come to Mecca with me to pray?". To this I could clearly respond, "No, I am not a Muslim". At this, his eyes narrowed, and he asked "Are you a Jew?". Without letting me respond, he then continued with "yes, I think you are a Jew, I think you have the face of a Jew".
Three years ago in Syria I met an English guy, himself Jewish, who had spent a year in Sana'a studying Arabic and absolutely loved it, but he said that a handful of times he had met this sort of ignorant anti-Semitism. Just my luck that I encountered it before I even got off the plane. Again, I probably should have just ignored him, but maybe because it was 4AM and I hadn't slept, or maybe because of the aforementioned maturity issue, or maybe because of the residual anger from watching him abuse the woman in Addis, or maybe all three, I couldn't contain myself. I leaned in and said "Really? Well I think you are a stupid man with an ugly dog's face. Maybe I should bend you in half and shove your head up your ass so I don't have to look at it. What do you think?". He had started to sputter in response when the un-married sister (who had overheard his last comments) swooped in screaming at him in Arabic. He scurried off the plane, satisfyingly in a bit of a panic.
Initially I was a bit worried about what this encounter implied for my general reception in Yemen, but thankfully the response from people over the last ten days has been overwhelmingly friendly and good-humored, particularly so when they hear that I'm from the US. Yemen is spectacularly beautiful, but it is the people who make it a really extraordinary place.
Of course, it may be that fact that they are all high as a kite that makes them all so congenial. Up to 90 percent of the population chews qat leaves, a mild stimulant, every day starting at about 1PM. By 3:30 or so they are all pleasantly stoned, with huge bulging cheeks full of bright green cud. The drug is very similar to coca leaves, in fact I've read that cocaine addicted monkeys in the labs will shift to the refined psycho-active chemical in qat, with no complaints
I learned one of the benefits of people's looped state-of-mind my second day here. I had spotted the mother-of-all-pinkie-rings on the finger of a man at an antique shop. When I asked him what he wanted for it at noon, he said $20, and wouldn't budge at all on the price. I happened to walk by the same shop at around six that evening, and found him with a happy smile and a big bulge in his cheek. This time we started off with a long conversation on the martial merits of various fighters: Van Damme vs. Bruce Lee vs. The Rock vs. Seagal vs. Jet Li vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin etc... We both agreed that while Arnold had big muscles, he had no credibility as a fighter, and while he admired the skill of my personal favorite, Jackie Chan, he didn't like the humor infused in his movies. All this, of course, with having no language in common at all. Anyway, after that, I again inquired about the ring. This time he smiled dreamily, and said $5. While the congeniality might have helped, I think it was mostly the qat.
I have to admit that, in picking up a daily habit myself, I understand the attraction and affection for the leaf. It has a very mellow and warm affect, but it is also very social. People tend to gather in special chewing rooms (diwans) and engage in conversation. Although all the service people, who can't take the afternoon off, also sport bulging cheeks as they work.
My most interesting experience with the drug was in Shibam, a little town west of Sana'a. I checked into my hotel carrying a bag of leaves, and inquired about the diwan. They directed me up six flights of stairs to a room with picture windows on all sides and low cushions lining all the walls. There were four men already present, one of whom turned out to be the governor of the local state. The other three were his body guard (with AK-47) and two assistants. The governor waved me over and seated me in the place of honor just next to him. We chewed and talked for awhile, as he took calls and explained that he moved his office to this room every afternoon while he took his qat. It was all very amicable as his assistant and I engaged in another conversation about martial arts stars (it seems to be a bit of a national obsession) only this time also veering off into a somewhat more ribald discussion of the attributes of various American actresses. We had some favorites in common.
After about an hour, various people started showing up to make their case before the governor. He quite clearly enjoyed the status of having an American guest, and would make asides to me in English as he talked to his visitors, all quite enjoyable. After a couple of hours of this, a man came in with his own entourage, although nobody armed, as far as I could see (EVERYBODY is armed in Yemen, I've seen ten-year-olds with automatic weapons). This man didn't have the same deferential attitude towards the governor as the others, and the two of them quickly launched into an intense discussion. Initially though, the governor still made his asides to me in English, this time clearly as a power play as the other man didn't speak a word. The discussion continued in a heated but restrained fashion for some time, and then the visitor sent his boy out for a document. When he returned with it, the governor looked at its signatures and seals, and was clearly taken aback, but the conversation continued. After a bit, the boy was sent out for more documents, and for the fifteen minutes while we waited, it was dead silent, and extremely uncomfortable.
When the boy returned with more signed and sealed documents, it was obvious that the power in the room had completely shifted to the visitor. The governor had been clearly out-played and out-trumped by his visitor in a very serious matter, although I had no idea what the issue was, and my presence had gone from being a source of status, to source of embarrassment as I witnessed his humiliation. I desperately wanted to leave, but doing so would have been to acknowledge his difficulties, and felt like it would increase his loss of face. Finally, the issue was settled, the man left, and the governor, trembling slightly, got up to wash his face in the bathroom next door. I got up, said my goodbyes to his assistants, shook his hand as he came out, and made my exit.
Slice of life.
I'm back in Sana'a (now on my short list of favorite cities, along with Damascus and Hanoi) after eight days of traveling around the country. I'll Fly back to Addis in two days, and then home (via 24 hours in London) a week later. I look forward to seeing many of you then.


Night market, Sana'a

Wadi Hawdramat

Buying the afternoon's khat

Near Shibam

On the Yemeni-Saudi Border
Addis Ababa

It seems that the unmarried sister from my flight into Sana'a would more accurately be described as "determined" to find a western husband, rather than simply being open to the idea. Shortly after I took my window seat for today's flight back to Addis, "Emma" sat down across the aisle (the seat next to me was already taken) and immediately started to chat me up and make eyes at me. I was struck by how much more make-up she was wearing than the last time I had seen her. After take-off, she managed to switch seats with the guy next to me. Turns out she had changed her schedule so that she would be on the same flight as yours truly, for reasons that she never quite explained. Without her sisters there to monitor her behavior, she became EXTREMELY forward. Thankfully, without being overly rude, I was able to discourage her, and even managed to divert her attentions to the Italian guy sitting on her other side. He was much more receptive to her advances (a liason would not have been a simple thing), so I was off the hook. Truly something I never would have predicted, an aggressive come-on from an Arab woman in full hijab.
One note regarding my earlier run-in with the rude anti-Semite. I'm usually not nearly so verbally agile, but after the earlier incident with the woman at the airport, where he turned to see that I had witnessed his performance and hissed "stupid woman", I had been stumblingly unable to retort, and had then worked out in my mind what I would have liked to have said. His little interrogation on the plane gave me one of life's rare second chances.
Tomorrow I leave for the pilgrimage in Kalubi, and then on to Harar, where I can chew qat AND drink whiskey. A combination which seems ideal, but which was impossible in dry Northern Yemen.


The French reputation for sophistication took a bit of a hit today when
a middle-aged French woman sat down next to me at the airport here in
Gonder and let lose with a thunderous fart. I would have assumed it was not representative of the nation, but it turns out that she is in fact a representative of the nation: she's the wife of the French Ambassador to Ethiopia. This I discovered when those of us scheduled to fly to Addis got chummy after our flight was canceled. If things go south again tomorrow (they have slack in their schedule to accommodate one plane down for repairs, but currently there are two) I'll be late getting back home. That is, unless I'm able to hire a car to drive me the 12 hours to the city.
My plans have already been in flux after a nasty case of food poisoning forced me to cancel my trip to Kalubi. Instead I flew up to see the parts of the north I missed the first time around.
The sights have been interesting, but not outstanding, but what has been really fun is discovering a series of small bars that specialize in traditional Ethiopian dance. What that looks like is a small room packed with 50-60 people (me the only non-Ethiopian) while two performers (one man, one woman) get up in the middle of the room and compete with each other in shimmy moves, accompanied by drums, singing, and a rustic violin-like thing. They both get pretty athletic, but for the woman, at least fifty percent entails shaking her tatas at the crowd with a little shimmy-shake routine. That's the kind of traditional culture I can get behind! After a bit, people from the audience start joining in to challenge the dancers, and pretty soon there's a crowd up there working it in a provocative writhing mass. Old or young, male or female, big or small, plain or frankly stunning, it doesn't matter, everybody gets up and shakes their favorite bits at each other and the crowd. Overall, a really good time.

Try to forget that little story I told about the ambassador's wife. She and her husband both turned out to be so gracious that now I feel bad for telling tales. He called his staff at the embassy and had them do the footwork to confirm my London flight when he heard I hadn't been able to get through on the phone. And when he pulled strings to get a special Ethiopian Airlines plane sent up to Gonder (after two flights were canceled), they made sure that I got one of the difficult to obtain seats.
So, like I said, I feel bad.
I did make my flight to London, and should be home tomorrow, safe
and sound.

Wadi Hawdramat

Sana'a lunch

Camel working a sesame oil mill, Sana'a

Sana'a night scene

Full moon over Sana'a

Yemeni Kids

At Heathrow, in a mellow mood after a really good night's sleep, I asked the man at the gate if, given my height, it might be possible to shift to an aisle seat, as it would give me a little more room than the middle seat I'd been assigned. He scolded me a bit for having checked in so late, said that he wasn't optimistic (the flight was full), but that he would keep me in mind. Maybe it was because I was well rested, but somewhat out of character, I waited patiently until EVERYBODY had boarded the plane, and then asked again if there had been any luck. "No" he replied, "everybody showed up, but here, let me see your boarding pass...". He took it, scratched out my seat number, scrawled in another one, and gave it back to me saying "welcome to first class, have a nice flight."
Wow, the power of NOT being demanding!
Needless to say, I've arrived back home well rested. Coming through customs I got the extra attention I expected for having been to Yemen. For the first time ever, my bags were searched. I was a bit nervous, not because of anything from Ethiopia or Yemen, but because of the five bottles of (illegal here) absinthe I had picked up in London. Thankfully the fact that I had alcohol at all seemed to reassure them I wasn't a fundamentalist threat, so they didn't even open the wrappers to see what kind it was, or question the fact that I was over my two bottle booze limit. Should have gotten some Cuban rum!
Anyway, it's good to be home, I'll see some of you soon.

1 comment:

  1. love it. thank you. i love the windows in Sana'a badly.