Tourists killed in Afar Region, Ethiopia

tourists killed, AfarFive tourists have been shot dead in Ethiopia’s northern Afar region, the BBC reports.

Ethiopian State TV announced that the tourists were killed late on Monday by gunmen who had crossed over the border from Eritrea. It said they were part of an Afar rebel group trained by Eritrea.

The names and nationalities of the tourists were not released. Two other tourists were injured and are now in hospital. Another tourist escaped unharmed. The attack occurred near the active volcano Erta Ale, shown below in a photo courtesy Jean Filippo.

Details of the incident are still unclear. Al-Jazeera reports the attack happened at 5am Tuesday and that in addition to those killed, four people, including two tourists, were taken captive. Eritrea rejects the claim that they sponsored the gunmen.

Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a war from 1998 to 2000 and have never formally declared peace. Ethiopia says Eritrea backs numerous Ethiopian rebel groups in an attempt to destabilize Ethiopia. In 2009, the UN imposed sanctions on Eritrea for supporting Islamist rebels in Somalia and Ethiopia’s Somali region. Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea is heavily guarded, as I myself saw when I was there. The border region is also home to numerous large camps filled with Eritrean refugees fleeing what they say is an oppressive regime back home.

The Afar region attracts a steady stream of adventure travelers because of its rugged landscape and the reputation of being one of the hottest places on the planet. It has always been considered a lawless region and some Ethiopian tour operators I know refuse to go there.

This sad incident may have an adverse effect on Ethiopia’s growing tourist industry. This industry is bringing much-needed hard currency and foreign investment into the country and employs an increasing number of people. I have spent four months in the country, doing a road trip through northern Ethiopia and living in Harar, and never experienced any problems. Adventure travelers need to remember, however, that the level of safety in some nations varies widely depending on the region.

Map courtesy Dr. Blofeld.

tourists killed, Afar

Eating in the Horn of Africa: camel, goat and. . .spaghetti?

Horn of Africa, Somaliland
When my wife and I went to the Horn of Africa last year for our Ethiopia road trip, we were eagerly looking forward to a culinary journey. We weren’t disappointed. Ethiopian food is one of our favorites and of course they make it better there than anywhere else!

While it came as no surprise that the food and coffee were wonderful, the cuisine in the Horn of Africa turned out to be more varied and nuanced that we expected. The two countries I’ve been to in the region, Ethiopia and Somaliland, have been connected to the global trade routes for millennia. Their national cuisines have absorbed influences from India, the Arab world, and most recently Italy.

Ethiopians love meat, especially beef and chicken. One popular dish is kitfo–raw, freshly slaughtered beef served up with various fiery sauces. I have to admit I was worried about eating this but I came through OK. Chicken is considered a luxury meat and is more expensive than beef. One Ethiopian friend was surprised to hear that in the West chicken is generally cheaper than beef.

Ethiopian booze is pretty good too. Tej is a delicious honey wine and tella is a barley beer. They also make several brands of lager and one of stout.

I’ve also spent time in the Somali region of Ethiopia and Somaliland. Living in arid lowlands rather than green and mountainous highlands, the Somalis have a very different cuisine than the Ethiopians. A surprising staple of Somali cooking is pasta. Actually on second thought it isn’t so surprising. The former Somalia was an Italian colony for a few decades. Italian food is popular in Eritrea and Ethiopia as well and makes for a refreshing change from local cuisine. Some Somalis are still pastoral nomads, moving through the arid countryside with their herds of camels and goats much like their ancestors did centuries ago. Pasta is a perfect food for nomads–compact, lightweight, nutritious, and easy to prepare.

The only downside to eating pasta in the Somali region is that Somalis, like most Africans, eat with their hand. I made quite a fool of myself trying to eat spaghetti with my hand!

%Gallery-136247%Goat is a popular meat in the Somali region and is served in a variety of ways. I love a good goat and have eaten it in a dozen countries. It’s tricky to cook, though, and can easily be overdone and end up stringy and flavorless. Good goat, however, is one of the best meats around. For some expert opinion, check out Laurel Miller’s fun post on the cultural aspects of eating goat.

While goat is the main meat for Somalis, what they really like is camel. These ships of the desert are expensive, so camel meat is usually reserved for special occasions like weddings. Wealthy, urban professionals eat it fairly regularly, though. At the Hadhwanaag Restaurant and Hotel in Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland, expert chefs slow-cook goat and camel in clay ovens that look much like tandoori ovens. The meat comes out deliciously tender and fragrant. Lunch at the Hadhwanaag was easily one of my top five meals in Africa.

Oh, and don’t forget Somali tea! A mixture of black tea, spices, and camel’s milk, it’s almost identical to Indian chai. The perfect pick-me-up after a long day seeing Somaliland’s painted caves or looking for your next edible ride at the camel market.

The Horn of Africa has an unfair reputation for warfare and famine. This is because it only gets on the news when something bad happens there. It makes a great adventure travel destination, though, and the determined traveler will find fascinating sights, friendly people, and great food. With any luck I’ll be back there in 2012!

Ancient port discovered in Egypt

Egypt
Archaeologists working in Egypt have discovered a harbor on the Red Sea that was used for international trade.

The excavation at Mersa Gawasis has revealed traces of an ancient harbor. It’s long been known that the Egyptians traded down the coast of Africa, but the location of their embarkation was unknown. A famous carving at Deir el-Bahari, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, shows an ocean-going vessel like the one pictured above and scenes a land with thatched huts and exotic items for sale such as ivory and giraffes. Inscriptions identify the land as Punt but don’t mention where it is. Archaeologists have speculated that it was in the Horn of Africa, either in Eritrea or Djibouti, or where the modern unrecognized states of Somaliland or Puntland are today.

The first recorded voyages to Punt started in the reign of the Pharaoh Sahure, who ruled from 2487-2475 BC. Regular trading missions were sent out for centuries to buy exotic items for Egypt’s elite. Queen Hatshepsut’s famous engravings of Punt date to around 1490-1460 BC.

Scholars have traditionally been doubtful of the Egyptians’ ability to make long sea voyages. Further excavation at Mersa Gawasis may change this view and open up new possibilities for Egyptian influence on other ancient cultures. While the excavations at Mersa Gawasis are not yet open to public view, Deir el-Bahari is a popular attraction and you can wonder at the scenes depicting the mysterious land of Punt for yourself.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Ethiopia’s northern borderlands: Tigray and its ancient civilization

Driving north out of Ethiopia’s Amhara region into the borderland province of Tigray, the landscape becomes rockier and drier. The mountains rise higher and are more frequent, and at times sheer cliffs loom above the road. This is a harsh land with a harsh history. The bloody Ethiopian civil war and the war with neighboring Eritrea destroyed villages and crops and killed hundreds of thousands. Burnt-out tanks sit rusting by the side of the highway and huge refugee camps, cities really, house entire populations that have fled hunger and oppression in Eritrea for a better life in Ethiopia.

But there’s another side to Tigray. There’s peace in the land now and the children are just as friendly as in the rest of Ethiopia. The adults are friendly and hospitable too. And there’s a proud history to this region. It was here, in the fourth century BC, that the great civilization of Axum was founded. Its reach extended across what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea and even to the other shore of the Red Sea in what is now Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It brought Christianity to east Africa in 325 AD, making Ethiopia the second oldest Christian nation in the world after Armenia, which converted in 301. An important trading center controlling the Red Sea and exporting African goods to the rest of the world, the ancient Greeks recognized Axum as one of the great civilizations of the world. Axumite coins have been found as far away as China.

The remains of Axum are as imposing as the land itself. There are several important archaeological sites in the area and a proper visit will take at least a couple of days. The Dongar palace, reputed home of the Queen of Sheba of Biblical fame, has large central rooms, a complicated system for moving water, and a warren of smaller quarters for servants and supplies. Nearby is a desolate field with hundreds of standing stones, the graves of royalty. Some are small and have fallen over after centuries of weathering, while others tower overhead, monuments to great kings and queens who are now forgotten.

%Gallery-90136%Another impressive palace is that of Ezana, the first Christian king of Axum. Beneath its floors lies the tomb of Basen, known in the West at Balthazar, the wise man from Africa who came Bethlehem to honor the infant Jesus. Nearby is an equally evocative sight, a simple slab of stone covered in writing. A closer look reveals there are three different languages on it: Sabaean, an ancient Yemeni script; Ge’ez, the traditional language of Ethiopia that still survives in the Christian liturgy; and Greek. This Rosetta Stone of Ethiopia was discovered by two local farmers just a few years ago.

By far the most impressive and famous part of Axum is the main field of stelae. One is that of King Ezana, rising 23 meters into the clear blue sky. On the day we went the crescent moon hovered just above it. An even larger stela lies shattered where it fell nearby. Another stela, measuring 26 meters, was stolen by the Italians when they briefly occupied Ethiopia from 1936-41. Mussolini set it up in Rome as a monument to his power, but within a few years Communist partisans had shot him and hung him up by a meat hook as an object of public scorn. Fascism in Italy was destroyed, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the stela finally returned to its rightful place.

These stelae are carved with depictions of windows and doors like houses. Clambering around these monumental remains I wondered about the symbolism. Did it represent palaces built by the kings when they were alive, or a house of the spirit like in Egyptian tombs? Perhaps it had a different meaning now lost to time. There’s also the mystery of how these monuments were erected in the first place, and why this incredible civilization declined and was eventually overcome by its enemies. I’ve been to some of the greatest archaeological ruins in the world and they all have one thing in common–they’re all ruins now. We shouldn’t assume our own civilization is eternal. If we do, we’ll be making the same mistake as the Incas, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Axumites, and dozens of others.

Not far from Axum is the pagan temple of Yeha, dating to about the 8th century BC, although nobody is really sure. The temple, which still stands 12 meters high, is related to the Sabaean culture, which once dominated the southern Saudi peninsula, and it looks like its cousins in Yemen. The place later became a church and monastery, and a cross-shaped window casts a bright yellow light on the interior.

Heading out of Axum, we skirt close to the Eritrean border, still technically a war zone because the two countries haven’t signed a peace agreement since the cease fire took effect in 2000. A pair of soldiers, country kids who couldn’t be more than eighteen, hitch a ride and tell us how bored they are and how much they miss home. One of them eases an arm around my wife’s seat back and gives his friend a proud grin. I look at him to show I’ve noticed, and he blushes and pulls his arm away. We get to their stop, a bare stretch of road, and they shoulder their Kalashnikovs, waving goodbye and wishing us a pleasant journey.

Next time: climbing to a clifftop monastery and exploring the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela!

You can read the rest of the Ethiopia series here.

Immigrants’ perspectives on life in the U.S.

One question I like to ask people who have come to live in the U.S. is in regards to what surprised them the most about living here. Something they did not expect to find– or something they didn’t think about before moving here. The surprises could be sensory based, as in, what sights did you not expect? Sounds? I leave the question open just to see the variety of responses.

The question comes from my own quick impressions from my experiences living overseas. Often, as been my impression when one passes though a country quickly, certain nuances are missed, or we have one or two experiences that are hard to make a definite comment about–unless one is paying close attention as Neil did with his series on North Korea. Because Matthew is living in Japan, there are things that he picks up on that many folks in Japan for just a week, as I was when I traveled there, would not find out about as easily.

The results of my question are as diverse as the people who gave the answers. Although this is about the U.S., the question “What has surprised you the most?” can work in whatever country you happen to be living in. Let’s call it a conversation starter.

Here is a sampling of what was said one morning this week. Keep in mind this is from immigrants who are living in Columbus, Ohio, a city with large populations of people from a variety of places. Recently Somalians are tipping the immigrant scale.

Two or three students talked about how people in the U.S. always have time to help. If you ask people for help, you’ll get it. This came from one Somalian man and also from one man from Ghana. The man from Ghana said that in his country, that’s not the case. (Again, remember this is his experience and his impression.) I asked him if, as an American, or at least as a foreigner, if I were in Ghana, would people help me? He thought they would.

His sister, also from Ghana, talked about the school system here. How everyone can get educated and how education is free. She also talked about how girls in her country don’t have much of a chance to go to school.

The person from Morocco lamented that she can’t find clothes she likes here. She is a lovely dresser and quite sweet and pretty. I told her that I bet if she were living in NYC she could find such clothes. I have a hard time finding clothes in Columbus that get me all excited. Let’s just say this is not an in fashion hot spot.

A man from Eritrea mentioned how much people work here. He said the work culture has been an adjustment. Let’s just say that his impression of work in Eritrea is “laid back.” He used another word, but I rephrased it.

One woman from Guinea thought the health care system is better. She said in Guinea you had to pay before you get treated at the hospital, even if you have a stab wound. This detail is from a story she recounted where she paid for someone else’s care since it looked like the guy would bleed to death if she didn’t help.

Other Somalian man commented about the interstate highway system–you can go from state to state easily and this is simply marvelous.

A man from Mauritania said that in the U.S. you can get business done by going to a place once with papers filled out and not have to keep going back to talk with several different people over several days. He did not find this to be the case in his country.

In the past another person was surprised to see wooden houses. In this person’s mind, wooden houses look awful.

Almost all of them talked about how much more expensive life is in the U.S. and how complex day to day life is. None of this was said in a whiny way, but matter of fact. Being able to save money is a real problem. If you listen to the news, they have company.

In general, all felt that moving to Columbus, Ohio was a good move. Some were living elsewhere before coming here. The move to Columbus came because they heard it was safer, cheaper, an easy place to get around, and had good schools. Now, if they say this when they are in their own home, I don’t know. An interesting study, I would think, is feelings of well-being of people who are enrolled in English classes compared to people who are not.