The Death Of A Good Travel Companion

travel, travel companion, HararThis week I learned the sad news that a friend and coworker in Harar, Ethiopia, had died. Mohammed Jami Guleid helped me out countless times while I explored the Horn of Africa. If you enjoyed my series on Somaliland or Harar, you have him to thank.

I first met “Dake,” as everyone called him, on my first visit to Harar in eastern Ethiopia as I was searching for a way to get to Somaliland, the breakaway northern region of Somalia. Everyone told me to meet with Dake. He was a Somali who had made Harar his home and had many contacts on both sides of the border. Within days I was riding through the desert with a couple of his relatives on my way to Somaliland. It was one of the best adventures of my life.

From that point our working relationship grew. Dake was an expert on Somali and Harari culture. He even wrote a book titled “Harar: A Cultural Guide.” My signed edition sits next to me as I write.

We meet lots of people on our travels. Most of them soon fade into the past, remembered only in old photographs and journal entries. Others last through a few emails and postcards before they, too, become memories. Only a few become lasting friends.

That was easy with Dake. He had an open, relaxed manner and was always quick with a joke. His deep interest in Harar’s history and architecture was infectious. Once he woke me up at five in the morning so we could photograph the town’s winding medieval alleys as the sun rose. I didn’t mind, even when his insistence on getting “one more shot” kept me from my morning coffee for far longer than I liked.travel companion, travel, HararHere he is in the narrowest of Harar’s alleys, called Megera Wa Wiger Uga, “The Street of Peace and Quarrel.” In local tradition you have to speak to anyone you pass here, even if you’re angry with them and aren’t otherwise talking with them. Since it connects two busy areas, a lot of people pass through this alley and a lot of arguments get resolved.

Dake had been an outsider to Harar once himself, so he sympathized with my efforts to adjust to the local culture. He was always ready to help out with advice at a moment’s notice and saved me from more than one cultural blunder. Having an insider who knows what it’s like to be an outsider is invaluable when studying a new place.

We also explored Ethiopia’s Somali region. Dake had big hopes of developing the region’s tourism potential as a way to expand his own tourism business while helping his people.

When we weren’t working at documenting eastern Ethiopia’s heritage, we spent many relaxed hours at birtchas or spinning tales in local cafes. Friendships can be fleeting when you’re traveling, but Dake and I became good friends and kept up a regular correspondence when I was back in Europe.

When you make a real friendship on the road, treasure it. Keep in contact and head on back to see them. I wish I had made it back to Harar at least one more time while he was still alive. As the list of my friends who have died relentlessly lengthens, I find myself more appreciative of those I still have, and more determined to pack as much life into the years left to me before my own inevitable end.

Authors note: my pay for this post will be donated to Glimmer of Hope, an NGO working to help Ethiopia’s children. Dake had a son about the same age as mine so I think he’d appreciate it.

Amazing 3-D Laser Scan Of Lalibela Rock-Hewn Churches In Ethiopia


Of all the incredible monuments in Ethiopia, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are by far the most impressive. Starting in the 12th century A.D., Ethiopian rulers dug a series of churches out of the solid bedrock.

This architecture-in-reverse creates a bizarre and otherworldly scene. As you walk along the exposed rock, you come across giant holes in the stone filled with churches. Narrow steps take you down into the pits, where you’ll find some welcome shade from the powerful African sun. Enter the churches and you’ll come upon pilgrims and priests studying the Kebra Nagast and Bible by the dim light steaming in through stone grills high in the walls. Further in the gloom, you’ll spot the gleam of elaborate gold and silver crosses as incense wafts through the air.

Now the churches have been scanned using 3-D laser technology. The World Monuments Fund sponsored the scan along with University of Cape Town in order to better understand the layout and look for any potential problems in its preservation.

Interested in reading more about Ethiopia? It makes a great adventure travel destination. Check out my series on my Ethiopian road trip and my two months living in Harar.

How To Put On A Travel Photography Exhibition

travel photography
You got back from an amazing adventure travel vacation a few weeks ago. Your friends and family have heard all your stories and seen all your photos. Now what? Instead of tucking your photos away in an album or hard drive, why not show off your travel photography to a wider audience?

I’ve run two photography exhibitions and been in several more. My first exhibition was on the painted caves of Laas Geel in Somaliland. Right now my wife and I have an exhibition up about Ethiopia. We are by no means experts but we have learned a few things from the experience. The main thing is that putting on a successful photography exhibition isn’t as hard as you might think, although it does take a fair amount of organization. Here are some things to keep in mind.

You don’t need to be a pro
Here’s the secret to getting good photos: take lots of pictures of interesting subjects and some will turn out well. Look through your collection with a critical eye and have someone who hasn’t been to these places look with you. They’ll be looking at the shots with fresh eyes like your audience will. Take your photos at the highest resolution possible, 300dpi minimum, so they will be publication quality. A good photo shop will be able to turn your hi-resolution photos into lovely prints. This won’t cost much and you can get decent frames cheaply too.

Decide on a theme and purpose
It helps to have a coherent theme: wildlife, a certain historic site, etc. We’ve focused on Ethiopia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and children, Ethiopia’s past and future. Our show benefits A Glimmer of Hope, an NGO working on rural education. Having a coherent theme helps people grasp your subject better and a charity benefit tends to attract more attention.

Pick an appropriate venue
Not being superstar photographers, we picked a local bar here in Santander, Spain, that’s a popular hangout for artists, musicians and generally liberal-minded people who would be interested in photography about Africa. Our themes fit in with the general vibe. Bar Rubicón is a Santander institution and word gets around when they host an event. Putting your prize photos up in a bar may not seem very glamorous, but over a month-long exhibition they’ll get seen by lots of people.Think out size and spacing
How many photos do you want to exhibit? What’s the lighting like in your venue? Which are the most visible walls? Think all these things through ahead of time. It helps to bring a print in the size you want to display and take a look at it within the space. In my first exhibition, I made the mistake of printing the photos too small and they looked a bit lonely hanging on a big wall.

Make a snappy poster
I’m lucky that my brother-in-law, Andrès Alonso-Herrero, is an artist. He whipped up this poster in no time. Even if you don’t have access to someone with talent, it’s not too hard to make a poster with Photoshop or PowerPoint that highlights one of your photos and gives all the necessary information.

Send out a press release
Having worked for two small newspapers, I can tell you that editors are starved for interesting local content. The regional paper El Diario Montañés gave us a nice write-up and we made it onto several “What’s On” style websites as well. Be sure to write a clear press release with all the information and attach a couple of high-resolution photos they can publish. Try to write the press release like a newspaper article. Journalists are overworked, underpaid, and many of them are quite lazy. You’ll find that much of their coverage will be simply cut and pasted from your press release. Sad to say, much of the news you read is written this way. If governments and corporations benefit from it, why shouldn’t you?

Tell everyone
Email your friends, hang up posters, do a social media blitz. Get your friends to spread the word too. Don’t be shy; you want people to see your work!

While you have their attention …
You might as well mention any other projects you have going. In the press release I mentioned I had just come out with a novel and that made it into the newspaper coverage.

Host an opening party
On opening night, be there to meet and greet. It helps to have some sort of presentation. Since people will be coming and going it’s best not to have a formal speech at a set time. I’ve found that a slideshow running on a TV hooked to your photo archive works well. It goes on a continuous loop and shows everyone the photos that didn’t make it into the exhibition.
On our opening night, many people gathered around the slideshow and I gave them a running commentary of the places shown in the pictures. It also helps to have some music. There’s no local Ethiopian band that I know of (although there’s a West African band in Santander) so the bartender compensated by putting Ethiopian music on the sound system.

Don’t expect to make much money
Unless you’re a pro showing your photos at a major gallery, you’re not going to make much. If you break even you’re doing well. The point of showing off your photos isn’t the cash but the exposure. You’ll meet plenty of cool people and have the satisfaction of knowing your photos are hanging in people’s homes. Being relative newcomers in northern Spain, our opening night made us lots of new, interesting acquaintances. We’ll take any photos left over at the end of the month and give them away as gifts or hang them in our own apartment.

Most important of all … have fun!!!

Queen of Sheba’s gold mine discovered in Ethiopia

Queen of Sheba
The gold mine of the Queen of Sheba has been discovered in Ethiopia, the Guardian reports.

A local prospector led British archaeologist Dr. Louise Schofield to a mysterious mine in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Schofield believes that this was the source of the Queen of Sheba’s fabulous gold, a large pile of which she gave to King Solomon when she visited the Holy Land, as is reported in the Old Testament, the Koran, and the Kebra Nagast, one of the holy books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Sheba was probably the Sabaean Kingdom, a wealthy kingdom that included what is now northern Ethiopia and Yemen. It rose to power 3,000 years ago and controlled trade along the Red Sea, especially the profitable spice trade.

Inside the extensive mine, Schofeld found an inscription in Sabaean and a stele bearing a carved sun and crescent moon, the symbol of the Sabaean Kingdom. The remains of a temple and battlefield were found nearby. Schofield is planning to start a major excavation at the site.

This can only be good news for Ethiopia’s growing tourist industry. During a road trip around Ethiopia two years ago, I was stunned by the desolate grandeur of Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The main attractions are Axum, the ancient capital of a kingdom dating from 100–940 AD and considered by many to be a successor state to the Sabaean Kingdom, and Debre Damo, an amazing clifftop monastery that I had to climb up a leather rope to visit.

When I returned to Ethiopia a year later to live in Harar, I found that tourism had increased. Most of the visitors I spoke with said that Ethiopia’s history was one of the main reasons they came to visit, and the Queen of Sheba was often mentioned. While Ethiopia can be dangerous just like any other adventure travel destination, most regions are safe and I’ve had no trouble in the more than four months I’ve spent in the country. Going back is my number one travel priority this year.

Hopefully this latest discovery will help inspire more people to discover Ethiopia’s long history, friendly people, great food, and of course the world’s best coffee.

Photo of an Ethiopian painting of the Queen of Sheba on her way to meet King Solomon courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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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