Happy Easter From Ethiopia

Posted on April 22, 2019

I'm in Lalibela, Ethiopia where  it's only Palm Sunday, the Ethiopian Orthodox church holidays fall at different times than ours. Also interesting is that Ethiopia does not follow the Gregorian calendar, and the Ethiopian calendar is 7.5 years
behind ours, and the guides love telling guests they are 7.5 years younger here. I do feel young. And I do feel fortunate, this country while beautiful and friendly is very poor, so fortunate in the sense I was born middle class in USA. People are extremely religious here and since early dawn I've heard chanting coming from many of the nearby churches, the churches about a mile from hotel, but the number of parishioners so many that the sound has been soft yet beautiful to hear, and all the more special knowing it comes from so many devout people. Unlike Mexico (where I spend lots of time), churches do not have bells, and also unlike Mexico firecrackers do not announce the dawn of holy days, so it's serene, whereas Mexico can appear just the opposite.

While poor, and not to diminish this at all, there is not the desperation and squalor of many developing (and even some developed) nations. Many people live as they have for generations, in small houses made from stone, sticks or mud, without electricity or running water, their fields around the houses, tilled by their animals. Woman carry water from nearby stream in clay pot balanced on their heads. Many places one can take a photo that looks biblical, unchanged for centuries. The main part of the cities and towns are unmistakably new, though not attractive for the most part, there are no old colonial cities, (never having been a colony this of course not reasonable to expect), but also it seems as though there is not a single architect or design minded person to have influenced modern buildings (there are some exceptions). Many countries have incredibly ugly towns and cities, though often one finds some pretty urban areas, I'm sorry to say that this is not the case in Ethiopia. Some of the the modern Ethiopian towns have their areas of charm, and all exude a pleasant vibe, but no town in Ethiopia is ever going to win a prize for beauty or aesthetics. None the less, some of the towns here have a feel that is pleasant (despite lack of aesthetics), and then many of them are full of churches that are a thousand years old, and these are among some of the most beautiful and unique churches anywhere. And the countryside, mostly arid, some desert, and some forested is everywhere beautiful and seems to change every 30-60 minutes as we drive through the country, causing everyone to gawk at the beauty of the country.

And the people, named by Rough Guide travel series as the worlds most welcoming are indeed very friendly, these surveys have named San Miguel de Allende the world's best city, which seems hard (for me) to comprehend when the world has Paris, Prague, Boston, NY, etc. but this still gets something right about San Miguel de Allende, in that it is indeed a great place, just I don't agree it's the best city in the world. I'd easily add Bhutan and Laos to the list of the world's most welcoming countries, and certainly in Mexico too one feels very welcome. As the country is poor, they do not print school books in the local language, Amharic after grade 6, so anyone who has more than 6 grade education (and there are schools everywhere) is educated in English, which leaves most people with anywhere from a reasonable to excellent command of English.

We're traveling by plane and vehicle, and have great guide named Tesfaw who I
have worked with a few times now. I feel really fortunate and think he must be one of the best guides in Ethiopia, as he has everything, knowledge, personality, sense of humor, ability to read group and know what they want. He grew up in tiny village, no electricity or running water, came to live in Lalibela for schooling, and when he was 16 years old (he's now 30) met a German couple who asked him to help locate the internet cafe. They later asked him to join them for dinner, then began corresponding with him, and eventually offered to send him to university in the capital, paid all his expenses and changed his life. His family still lives in the countryside as farmers (his father a priest, priests here marry though also have day jobs, so his dad also a farmer). His life now, ferrying tourists around Ethiopia is far removed from what he ever thought it would be as a child, all thanks to this German couple who he still sees (they travel to Ethiopia) and considers his second set of parents.

The few small problems we've had he has immediately ironed out, and in all hotels has managed to get the upgrade rooms for us (I think this largely as he has relationship with hotels). Also the hotel staff/managers all remember me and (not to sound immodest) I think I have made positive impression on them, so think we are getting better treatment than the other guests. In other countries I give extra gratuities to staff so they'll remember my groups and treat us well.

The food here is great, full of flavors and variety and (if this important) seems incredibly healthy, all sorts of whole grains, vegetables, tasty meat and spices that are full of flavor and heat, and the cooks always able to tone down the heat for our mostly tender foreign palates. Everything is eaten with injera a sort of spongy giant pancake, made from teff flour, teff an indigenous grain. Injera is very much to my taste, though have noted that it's soury tang (the batter is fermented) not a universal taste. Tesfaw the guide is fond of telling each group that it is gluten free, and when I
asked him why he mentions this, his reply, accompanied with a smile was "I know you white people love hearing food is gluten free." There is great beer here, and in restaurants a bottle cost $1.50. And local honey wine, always made at home and drunk in the evening before, with or after dinner. I think it's great, though it's too sweet for some. And then there are 2 local vineyards, that make excellent wine, so we usually have a bottle (or 2) or Rift Valley Chardonnay to go with meals. The reds and the rose also fine. In restaurants a bottle cost $15, though in the shops only $5. This is a no dessert country, so the infrequent attempts at dessert are stodgy cakes, or pancakes served with bananas, or just bananas. Coffee is everywhere, this is the birthplace of coffee. Traditionally served with salt and herbs, but also available
black or with milk and sugar. The coffee story is I am sure apocryphal, but cute enough to be repeated by guides to visitors, it goes like this: thousand years ago a shepherd noted his goats eating the berries of a shrub that made them super energetic and his goats danced around, so he tried the berries and found the same effect, lots of buzzy energy and wide awake. Impressed he took them to the priests in the church to sample. The priests found this increased energy, inability to sleep and speedy feeling to be unholy and declared this the fruit of the devil, and
tossed them into the fire so as to destroy the evil fruit. The heat of the fire provoked a most amazing smell, so the priests raked the now beans (the fruit having burned away) out of the fire and then smashed them up, mixed them with water, and voila, coffee was discovered. It's called the dancing goat story here, and Ethiopians will ask "have you heard the dancing goat story?' and if not, then recount their version. So next time you enjoy a cup of coffee, either thank the dancing goats and their shepherd, or the priests who raked coffee beans out of the fire. Or just recognize this as bit of cute fiction.

Today I mostly rested, let Tesfaw take the group on outing. Soon we are about to head to dinner, to more delicious Ethiopian food. And of course a bottle (or 2 of wine). To celebrate Easter/Palm Sunday.

Happy Easter/Palm Sunday