The chanting of the two boys sitting under the tree reminded me of my Bar Mitzvah class over 60 years ago. The language was different – Amharic, not Hebrew – as was the religion – Ethiopian Orthodox, not Jewish — and the boys bore little resemblance to the pudgy, pasty pre-adolescent friends of my youth. But the sounds were eerily similiar.
Well, maybe not so eerie. As the crossroads between Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, all kinds of people passed through the region thousands of years ago, depositing customs, practices and ceremonies along the way. In Ethiopia these cultural artifacts have been blended together into a tapestry of rich stews not unlike the array of food on a disk of injera, the fermented bread that is the staple of the Ethiopian diet.History lives in Ethiopia, especially religious history. Just stand in a cavern in a church hewed into the rock in Lalibela, one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities, with chants and incense swirling around you. While the practices, dress and decorations evoke the historical and religious roots of the western world, the totality is about as weird as it gets.This isn’t history as an abstract academic discipline. Its one thing to read history, it’s another thing to experience it. And experience it I did in in my recent two week visit to Ethiopia.
The first week was spent in the historic north where ancient trade routes shaped the cultural and religious traditions of the country. This exotic heritage can be seen in the dress, artifacts and practices of the region, but especially in the faces of the people, in the delicate beauty of the women and the rugged visages of the men.The landscape is as beautiful as the people, though like the canyon country and deserts of southern Utah and northern New Mexico, the beauty is as parched as it is dramatic.We also spent a week in the south, which was a very different kind of experience. The scenery is lush with many lakes and the wildlife is more abundant (mostly hippos, crocs and birds). But the main draw is the indigenous people in the various tribes that live much as they have for centuries. It is definitely authentic, including a Medieval-like village in the hills dating back over a thousand years.
But be warned, authentic can mean mud, flies, intermittent water and electricity, long drives on rough roads, and troublesome cultural practices (e.g., forced marriage). Plus some of the tribes can be very aggressive in soliciting guests to take posed photos and then just as aggressively demand payment. Taking candid photos is almost impossible with some tribes. But if you are into authentic experiences with diverse indigenous people, this is the place for you. Just realize that the comforts and conveniences we tend to take for granted may be in short supply.
One last feature of the south are the open air markets scheduled on fixed days of the week in different areas.Yes, that is cayenne pepper, which I consumed in impressive, if at times unsettling quantities.
If you are planning a trip to Ethiopia, I strongly recommend booking the trip through a reputable tour operator, like Jacaranda Tours, the company that organized, conducted and hosted our trip. They did an excellent job, and our guide, Abye, was one of the most interesting and informative guides I’ve encountered in my many years of travel to exotic destinations.(Note — The woman standing next to Abye is Jane Behrend, the owner of the destination marketing organization that represents Jacaranda Tours.)
If you want to do the trip on your own, I have a few recommendations — the Kuriftu Resort in Bahir Dar on Lake Tana (Kofi Anan was staying at the hotel when we were there) and the Gheralta Lodge in the far north near Axum. Most of the other places we stayed were OK, but not great (no AC, but ceiling fans in some places; no screens on the windows, etc.). Jacaranda is building a few hotels in the north which should soon upgrade the tourism infrastructure considerably. We ate most of our breakfasts and dinners at our hotels and lodges and the quality was generally good or better. Lunches at Lucy’s in Addis Ababa, the Four Sisters in Gondar, the Seven Olives Hotel in Lalibela, and Besha Gojo Resturant in Jinka were excellent.
The bottom line is if you want an immersive, authentic and evocative experience in the origins of western civilization go to Ethiopia. Just realize that the tourism infrastructure still needs some work. It is an adventure destination, not the site for an easy, luxury holiday.