Boozing it up in Ethiopia

My first impression of Ethiopia was that the Ethiopians are a lot like us, and by us I mean Mediterranean Europeans. One of the ways they’re similar to us is they like to have a drink every now and then, but don’t make a habit of drinking to excess.

For the cross-cultural drinker, Ethiopia has a lot to offer.

The best and most unique drink is tej, a honey wine like European mead. As any mead drinker knows, the taste can be very different depending on the region, because bees collect pollen from very different flowers. Mead made in Germany tastes different than that made in England. Since the plants in Ethiopia are so unlike those in Europe or North America, even experienced mead drinkers trying tej for the first time will be tasting something quite new to them.

And it tastes wonderful–sweet, but not overly so, and wonderfully smooth. The best place to sample tej is at a tejbet, a bar that specializes in the drink. It generally comes in strengths of mild, medium, and strong. Mild has very little alcohol and is essentially honey water. Strong is very strong, and while it does the job I found the taste of the alcohol interfered with the pleasant taste of the honey. Medium is the way to go for a good balance between flavor and effect.

Tej is usually served in bottles like the one pictured here and should be held the way our excellent driver/translator/fixer, Sntayehu Mekonen, is demonstrating. For the record he drank very little, because he was driving! It’s best to flick a bit out on the floor to get rid of the congealed honey on top. Then pour into a glass and enjoy.

Another unusual Ethiopian drink is tella, a beer made from various cereal grains. If you want to visit a tellabet and sample some, you won’t have far to look. Every village has at least one, and the highways are lined with them. They are almost always in regular homes and the only sign that it isn’t just another house is a plastic bag or cup put upside down on a stick out front. Guests sit in the living room, gossip about local events, and watch the family television. The tella I tried was made from barley and was fairly weak. Imagine Scottish barley water and you have a fair approximation. While I was not impressed by the drink, I did get to watch Sntayehu try to placate the local crazy man, who insisted he knew Sntayehu’s father in between ordering drinks and pouring them on the floor! Sntayehu was as polite as ever, but for some reason didn’t want to stay for another round.

%Gallery-90852%Ethiopia also makes arak, a local brand of fire water I didn’t try. Every country has its variation–ouzo, raki, orujo, etc.–and I can’t stand any of them. They’re good for cleaning the teeth, but bad for the internal organs. You’ll just have to try Ethiopian arak for yourself and report back to me.

Beer and wine drinkers aren’t left out either. Ethiopian beer is mostly lager and there are many regional brands. St. George is the oldest and one of the best, but strangely it is now owned by a French firm. Why one country not known for beer owns a brewery in another country not known for beer is a bit of a mystery, but there it is. There’s also a brand of stout made in a brewery in Harar. The wine comes in both red and white and tends to be very young and sweet. I suspect the large Armenian community that has lived in Ethiopia for many generations has something to do with this. The only other non-dessert wine I’ve tried that comes close to the sweetness of Ethiopian wine is from Armenia.

So if you like to drink, you can have some interesting times in Ethiopia. The tejbet often feature live traditional music, and going to a tellabet is a good way to see the inside of a village home. You’ll get a friendly reception. When we left the tellabet, the whole family came out onto the street to wave goodbye!

Next time: Lalibela: Ethiopia’s ancient jewel. (Yes, I know I said in my article on observations about Ethiopia that I’d write up Lalibela next, but it’s such a stunning, otherworldly place I’m having trouble finding the words)

Click here to read the rest of my articles on Ethiopia.

Twelve random observations about Ethiopia

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been posting a series of articles about travel in Ethiopia. I’m about halfway through but I have some observations that don’t fit into anywhere but would be of interest to people considering a trip there. So here are a dozen facts about one of Africa’s most interesting countries.

1. When kids see you they’ll often shout out “Farenj!” (Foreigner!) It’s not meant in a bad way, and they’ll break into peals of laughter if you respond with “Habasha!” (Ethiopian!) This usually leads to a schoolbook conversation in English and much shaking of sticky hands.

Ethiopians love Facebook. At any one time at least half of the people in Internet cafes are using it.

Male friends will often hold hands or walk with their arms around each other’s shoulders, but homosexuality is frowned upon.

English-language newspapers are easy to find in the capital Addis Ababa, and virtually impossible to find anywhere else.

5. Some hotel restaurants will give foreigners menus listing only imitations of Western dishes, assuming they’re not interested in “National Food”. I recommend the “Papered Steak”.

Obama is incredibly popular here and everywhere else in Africa. There are Obama hotels, Obama electronics shops, even a brand of Obama ballpoint pens.

7. Harar Elephant Sanctuary has only one road, and the elephants avoid it.

8. Western charities bring over huge shipments of secondhand t-shirts from the West, so you’ll see Ethiopians wearing shirts advertising the Lake Champlain Monster, “Canada, Eh!”, and “John Kerry for President of France”.

9. Unattractive, poor, old, and handicapped characters are much more common on Ethiopian television than Western TV. Apparently Ethiopian drama isn’t afraid of reflecting reality.

Ethiopians generally don’t eat dessert with their meals, but don’t despair. There are lots of Italian-style pastry shops.

11. Amesaygenalo is the Amharic word for “thank you.” At six syllables it’s the longest word for thank you I’ve ever come across. I like a culture that doesn’t rush its thank yous.

. Ethiopia has a different calendar. Right now it’s the year 2002. The calendar has thirteen months and the day starts at six in the morning. The Ethiopian Tourism Ministry’s motto is, “Thirteen months of Sunshine” and one tour operator has the motto, “Come to Ethiopia and feel eight years younger!”

Next time: Lalibela, Ethiopia’s ancient jewel!

Climbing Ethiopia’s clifftop monastery

While visiting the ancient capital of Axum is one of the highlights of any trip to Ethiopia, you can’t see its most famous relic–the Ark of the Covenant, reputed to be kept in a special building behind the Cathedral of Tsion Maryam. Only a lone caretaker is allowed entry into this sacred building. Every Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a replica of the Ark, called the tabot, but only members of the clergy are allowed to see it.

Even though the holiest artifact of Ethiopian Christianity is strictly off-limits, outsiders can still see places that look like something straight out of the histories of the early Christian Fathers.

After Axum, the main highway loops southwards through the border province of Tigray and passes Debre Damo, built in the 6th century and one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Perched high atop a sheer mesa (amba in Tigrayana), it has survived wars, invasions, forced conversions, and the relentless pressures of time. Women are forbidden to enter the monastery and even female animals are kept away. The only way to enter is by climbing a thick leather rope up a sheer cliff. The priests have cut many footholds over the years, but this didn’t help my fear of heights.

Four years of rock climbing in college made me able to control my fear, but never took it away. Still, I wasn’t about to pass up a lifelong dream. You see, back when I was about ten I read a National Geographic article on Debre Damo and thought the idea of monks living all their lives on top of a cliff was really cool. It was my first impression of Ethiopia, and the image stuck with me through all the reports of famine and war in the 1980s and 90s. I knew there was a different Ethiopia to the one I saw on television and I was determined to see it .

Seeing it was turning out to be tough going.

The high altitude has both me and Sntayehu, my Ethiopian driver/translator/fixer, out of breath before we even get to the bottom of the cliff. Once there, a local guide ties me to the “security rope”, a thick leather strap that snakes up the cliff and disappears out of sight. Tying me in isn’t done with any sort of proper climbing harness, but a loose knot around my waist fastened with a long pin. I have to climb up the main leather rope hand over hand as some unseen assistant keeps the safety rope firm in case I fall. Travel is all about trust, but I’m determined not to test his belaying skill.

%Gallery-90292%So up I go, while Sntayehu stays at the bottom to take photographs of my squashed remains wondrous feat of climbing. The “assistant” at the top of the cliff yanks on the rope, and keeps yanking so hard he nearly pulls me free of the cliff. The security harness burns my skin and almost comes off as I puff up the cliff hand over hand as fast as I can for fear of getting assisted to death. In less time than I think possible I’m up, one hand on a rock crevasse, the other on a wooden threshold worn smooth by centuries of desperate grabs for dear life. Another pull up and this forty-year-old writer sees what he had been waiting three decades to see–the interior of one of Ethiopia’s most remote monasteries.

My view is suddenly blocked by the guy who had been so helpful on the climb up, a young deacon who promptly asks for the entrance fee. At 100 birr ($7.50) this is twice as much as most places, but an entire community of monks lives up here and this is one of their only means of support. Sntayehu told me a story of a group of Israeli backpackers who got to the top, complained about the price, and refused to pay. The deacon pulled up the rope and said they could climb down on their own. They paid. The monks may live in a different world, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid!

Once that formality is finished, I chat with a couple of monks sitting on a narrow staircase leading up to the top of the mesa. My Amharic is limited, their English nonexistent, but I communicate how happy I am to finally be here and they communicate how welcome I am. Ethiopians are good at communicating that. Up the stairs I go and pass through a gate and onto the bare, flat top of the mesa. It’s large, large enough to house a couple of churches, a couple of hundred monks, and lots of open space in which to be alone. The monks only go down to buy food or perform church services, and when they get too old to climb down, they stay up here for the rest of their lives. Simple stone houses shelter them from the sun, and small herds of animals wander around grazing on the few shoots of grass poking up through cracks in the rock. The place looks abandoned as nearly everyone is at a church service.

With the main church closed for services there aren’t many “sights” to see up here, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the atmosphere I came to feel. The quiet is almost palpable, with only the wind blowing across bare rock and the occasional swoosh of an eagle riding the currents of air. A deacon tells me there are hermits living over the lip of the cliff, sitting in caves out of sight and accessible only by tiny finger- and toeholds. The oldest one has lived in a cave for sixty years. Unlike at the monasteries of Lake Tana, they aren’t given a holy book or icon to study, but simply sit thinking and looking out on the vast landscape. At night the monks can hear them singing.

I try to imagine what it would be like sitting alone in a cave and staring out at the rough, dry countryside. The terrain reminds me of the Holy Land, or the desert of Egypt where the world’s oldest Christian monastery still stands. I wonder what it is about deserts that draws mystics of all cultures. Is it the remoteness? The harshness? The proximity to death? Whatever it is, this is how monasteries started. At first hermits went out seeking solitude, then they were followed by more religious seekers until entire communities took root.

I also wonder what it’s like to live the life of a monk up here, but there’s nobody with enough English to ask. The deacon says he’s going to become a priest, the life of a monk being too hard. So I climb back down the rope little wiser than I went up it, except for seeing what life was like for the earliest Christians, and what it is still like for some. I’ve glimpsed a lifestyle I didn’t know still existed. And I learned that the hermits sing at night.

That’s enough.

To see earlier posts in this series, click here.

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.

A Glimmer of Hope for Children in Ethiopia

One thing you notice right away in Ethiopia is the children.

Everywhere you drive they’re by the side of the road, smiling and waving. Whether you’re on a newly paved highway or a rutted, back country dirt track, the kids love seeing foreigners and wave at each one. One day I counted 110 waves and it felt like a slow day.

It’s impossible not to feel good when children are smiling at you all the time, but beyond those smiles there’s a story that’s not so happy. Many Ethiopian live in poverty and lack clean drinking water, adequate health care, and access to a good school. Many have to work to help support their family.

The government is making a serious effort to change that, especially in the field of education. School is free, as are textbooks. Even university is free for students who pass a tough entrance exam. The problem is, many families can’t afford to send their children to school because they need them to work in the fields or at home. Plus the quality of education varies widely. While some schools are excellent and the university students can be downright intimidating with the extent of their knowledge, rural schools often lag behind.

This is where another common sight in Ethiopia comes in–the NGO. Non-governmental organizations are everywhere, building health facilities or engaging in microfinance. Some do a good job while others are criticized for inefficiency and wasteful spending. I couldn’t help but notice the large number of NGO vehicles in the parking lots of the most expensive hotels, the same hotels my wife and I avoided as being too expensive.

While there’s a lot of justified criticism of how NGOs operate in Ethiopia, one organization that gets universal approval is A Glimmer of Hope. This Austin, Texas, based organization has a huge endowment that pays all its operating expenses, meaning any donations really do make it to those in need. Other than some projects in Austin, they focus entirely on Ethiopia, mainly in education, health, water, and microfinance. I got to visit four Glimmer of Hope projects and found them a step above the usual NGO efforts.

Our four-wheel drive bumped and lurched over a rough dirt road through patches of forest and farm fields. We were only a mile off the main highway and already a half century back in time. There were no shops, few villages, and electricity was a rarity. Strange to say, we were only a half hour’s drive from Gondar, a major tourist attraction. Our goal was the villages of Burbex and Girargie. Here Glimmer of Hope was building new schools, a rural health center, and a well. As soon as we pulled into the dirt schoolyard and got out of the car we got more than friendly waves; we were mobbed. All learning stopped as kids poured out of the classrooms to see the foreigners.

%Gallery-89843%The “I’ll teach you English if you teach me Amharic” game that we played at the source of the Nile started in earnest, and it was with difficulty that we waded through the crowd to meet the engineer in charge of the building project and the principal of the school. They showed us the old classrooms. A long building, made of wood, mud, and plaster, housed a few cramped rooms on which students sat on bare benches. There were no desks, no extra books besides the textbooks the government hands out, and few educational materials besides a blackboard. Across the yard the new schoolhouse was being built and it already promised a huge change. It was bigger, made of concrete, and would be furnished with educational materials and proper desks provided by Glimmer of Hope. Donations for another school project in Dali are being collected through an online purchasing system where you can buy individual bits of equipment, such as $45 blackboard, that go directly to the school.

Deeper into the countryside we visited a school that had even fewer facilities. It was housed in an abandoned home and the kids didn’t even have benches to sit on. Instead they sat on rocks. The only light came through the glassless window and the cracks in the walls, and the only equipment was a blackboard with a hole in it. Yet here, too, kids were learning, at least until we showed up and got mobbed again. These shoeless children dressed in tattered clothing proudly tried out their English vocabulary and showed us their government school books, which were well-written and stuffed with information. The government is serious about education and stretches its limited resources as far as possible. A dedicated student can do well. The government will even subsidize room and board for university students so they won’t be a burden on their families. While this country needs help, they are doing everything they can to help themselves.

A Glimmer of Hope recognizes this and does something few other NGOs do–it hires only Ethiopians for its in-country staff. This avoids a lot of embarrassing blunders where well-meaning but essentially clueless Westerners try to graft their own ideas of development onto a society they don’t understand. And it gives much-needed jobs to Ethiopians, from the people hauling concrete to educated professionals working in the head office. Once a school is built, the local government takes it over and A Glimmer of Hope moves on to the next project.

This cooperation has worked well at a school in Lege Tafo, near the capital Addis Ababa. A Glimmer of Hope is building an expansion, a science lab, and a library while the government is stocking the library with books, funding another expansion, and funding school operations. What was once a middling semi-rural school is fast becoming a science magnet school. The fact that most students walk several miles down from the surrounding mountains to go there is a testament to its reputation, and to how serious the kids are about education.

This is something you see all around the country–twelve year-old girls who want to be doctors, kids doing their homework by firelight, and university students who aren’t applying for foreign visas because they want to stay and build up their country.

With a new generation like this, it won’t be long before Ethiopia won’t need so many NGOs.

Next stop: Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region!

You can read the entire series of Ethiopia travel articles here.