Road trip: Ethiopia

Ethiopia is like the United States–it’s best seen on a long road trip. The easiest way to see Ethiopia’s beautiful landscape and ancient monuments is to hire a driver and vehicle in the capital Addis Ababa.

My wife and I picked Abey Roads based on a personal recommendation and decided to celebrate our tenth anniversary by doing the popular two-week “northern loop” encompassing the provinces of Amhara and Tigray and the most famous of Ethiopia’s ancient sites. Our driver Sntayehu Mekonen turned out to be a handy translator/guide/fixer, not to mention a fun travel companion. Many independent travelers prefer going it alone on public transport and while that is certainly cheaper, hiring a vehicle gives you more freedom of movement plus someone who is able to tell you about the country and show you out-of-the-way spots. So after some good first impressions of Ethiopia, we headed out.

The ride north out of Addis Ababa climbs up the steep slopes of the Entonto Hills through eucalyptus forest. This fast-growing Australian import was first planted by the Emperor Menelik more than a century ago. It provides a ready supply of construction material and the leaves are used for fuel. Women carry huge bundles of the leaves on their heads several miles downhill to sell in the market. Trucks speed past them with mountains of the stuff. Coming uphill we see one of Ethiopia’s famous runners, sprinting up a steep incline at 3,000 meters (9,000+ feet). Runners train in these hills so that when they race at lower elevations they can easily outpace the competition.

Up and over the hills and we’re speeding along the Oromo and Amhara uplands, a green and fertile region that looks nothing like the image most people have of Ethiopia. Acacia and eucalyptus dot the countryside and thatched roof huts are everywhere, their walls made of the thin trunks of eucalyptus. Children herding cows and goats wave at our car as their fathers thresh teff, a popular grain in Ethiopia. Teff is used to make injeera, the sour bread typical of Ethiopian cuisine, and it fetches a higher price than any other cereal crop. The tiny grains (the word derives from the Amharic term for “lost”) are separated from their husks by having cattle walk in circles over a heap of it until all the husks are crushed.

The first stop for most travelers on the northern historic loop is the monastery of Debre Libanos, 100 km north of Addis Ababa. A rough dirt road winds down a sheer 700 meter canyon to one of the holiest spots for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It was here in a cave in the cliff that the holy man Tekle Heymonot lived for many years praying and fasting. Deciding this wasn’t enough, he stood on one leg until the other one fell off. Some paintings of the saint show him ascending to heaven, his detached leg equipped with its own set of wings.

%Gallery-87468%Like holy places the world over, Debre Libanos is permeated with a sense of transcendent calm. The verdant cliffs overlooking it to one side and the sweeping views on the other make are beautiful, and the church’s bright dome shines in the sun, appearing smaller than it is in the imposing landscape.

Once inside the scene changes completely. The interior is dim, lit only by candles and colored light filtering through a row of stained glass windows. Men and women worship on separate sides, their prayers mingling with the chants of priests intoning ancient hymns in front of Tekla Heymonot’s tomb. The liturgical language is Ge’ez, an ancient tongue that uses the same alphabet as Amharic but is unintelligible to modern speakers, a bit like Latin.

Our guide is a former engineer who speaks flawless English. Many years ago he got sick and his parents brought him here to be healed. Miraculously he was, and he gave up his job to become a monk. He takes us to every corner of the compound, from the cellar where monks stand in a circle chanting for hours as they lean wearily on staffs, up to the cave of Tekla Heymonot, where holy water drips from the ceiling into blue plastic buckets. He takes us to every place but one–the holy of holies found in every Ethiopian Orthodox Church, where the tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, is hidden from the sight of all but the priests and monks. The true Ark is said to be in a special building in the northern city of Axum. Only a single caretaker is allowed to gaze upon it.

The best thing about travel by car is seeing the in-between places. Many visitors to Ethiopia bypass the country’s long and often rough roads by flying from city to city. That’s no way to learn about a country. After Debre Libanos the next popular stop on the overland route is the source of the Blue Nile. To be honest it’s nothing more than a geographical curiosity–a muddy little spring that’s considered so holy that visitors can’t photograph it. But getting there proved that the journey is not the destination. Bumping along a rocky back road we spot a horse race in a nearby field. Local farmers, decked out in red and gold costumes, are racing in pairs across a long stretch of pasture marked out with poles as a small crowd cheers them on. We randomly pick our favorites and cheer too.

This of, course, attracts everybody’s attention, and soon we’re encircled by curious kids practicing their schoolbook English. After we decide we’ve stolen enough of the horsemen’s thunder, we say goodbye and go to the source of the Blue Nile. The same thing happens again. Soon the Nile is forgotten and we’re trading English words for Amharic. “Butterfly,” we say, pointing at one flying past. “Birabiro!” shout a dozen kids. “Acacia?” “Graal!” “Pen?” “Esceribto!”

Some of the kids are in high school and have good enough English to carry on a conversation. My wife explains what her work as an astronomer is like and encourages the girls to study science. As I watch her surrounded by these girls, telling them can be anything they want in life, I’m reminded of one of the reasons I married her.

And that’s what a tenth anniversary trip is all about, isn’t it?