Ethiopia follows a different calendar than the rest of the world (Ge'ez calendar) so if you want to go back in time, there it is 2002! Their new year is September 11th each year.
Since, travel is primarily just an excuse for eating out, I should say something about Ethiopian food. There are two things you need to know about eating in Ethiopia: Number 1: there's no silverware -- you eat with your hands (actually, you right hand -- using your left hand is considered a major faux pax, as toilet paper is not widely used). Number 2: You eat everything by wrapping it in this spongy pancake called Injera. Love it (like most of us -- especially Mae) or tolerate it (like Wendy and Aidan). Either way, you're going to eat a lot of it.
Ethiopians don't eat much fish, and no pork, but they eat a lot of beef, goat and lamb. Meat is typically cooked into a spicy stew or "wat". On Wednesdays and Fridays Orthodox Christians eat "fasting food" like mashed beans, lentils, potatoes and cabbage (with injera).
Something else that you may already know but we did not is that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia, thank you so much! An observant goatherd named Kaldi noticed how excited and energetic his goats became after eating some interesting looking red berries. After a little experimenting... coffee!. And the coffee in Ethiopia is wonderful. There is a whole ceremony around the drinking of coffee that most Ethiopians perform up to three times a day. Incense is burned and the beans are roasted grinded with a mortar and pestle as part of the ceremony. After the coffee is ready, good and amazingly strong, it is served. Three cups of coffee are offered to each person, each time being diluted a bit more by additional water. Children may be offered the third round of coffee. We found, much to our dismay, that our children loved coffee in Ethiopia- Most likely because, even though it's black, it is served with lots of sugar).
We divided our trip into two parts: 8 days in the South and 8 days in the North -- somewhat at breakneck speed.
Traveling to the South was like stepping into the pages of National Geographic. We had an excellent guide named Mila. We flew from the capital to Arba Minch, the largest city in the South and from there we explored some amazing places and visited six different tribes near the Kenyan and Sudanese boarders. Though the pictures look like they can't be real, they are authentic. The tribes people we saw -- visited with, played patt-a-cake with, danced with -- they really dress and look like they do in these pictures in their everyday life. It wasn't a tourist thing. There is too much to say about each tribe, but we will try to hit on the highlights. A brief summary of most of the tribes we saw...
Their cattle are their most important possession. The number of cattle shows their wealth. They also grow corn and sorghum.
In order for a man to be able to marry, he must kill a dangerous animal. To propose, the man sends four elder relatives to the woman's village/hut, carrying the intestines of four goats with them.
After the proposal of marriage is made and if the woman's family accepts the proposal, they indicate their approval by draping the intestines, one over each of the visitors. The man's family also offers about 100 goat and sheep and 30 cows to the woman's family. Marriages take place in the mornings and in this tribe, women are circumsized the afternoon of their wedding! Great wedding gift.
They are mostly animists.
Before a man can marry here, he needs to successfully perform a Bull Jumping Ceremony. Thirty or so bulls are lined up and kept in a line, side by side. Naked and with his body painted, the young man has to run down the backs of the bulls without falling. If his succeeds, he needs to complete the task three more times. Then he will be considered a man and able to marry. If he doesn't succeed, he is mocked by the women of the village and needs to perform the ceremony another time. While the man is running down the backs of the bulls, his female relatives are whipped- the deeper the gashes, the more love they show for their young man.
The more earrings a man wears shows the number of wives he has. If a man kills a dangerous animal or an enemy (there is tribal fighting), he can decorate his hair with special red clay and an ostrich feather to show his special status in the community. A special pillow is used so he can keep this hair decoration (up to a year). We saw a Hamer man at a village market adorned this way.
Hamer women are known for their hair styles- making ringlets of ochre clay, water and resin in their hair to show status and health. First wives wear a special neck decoration and their clothes are pretty much goat, cow, sheep skin adorned with beads and shells. They also wear bracelets up and down their arms that have been made from old bullets.
This tribe is one of a couple that sadly believes in Mingi, the practice of abandoning babies and child seen as "unpure". This may be due to being born out of wedlock, being born to parents but before a special preparatory ceremony was performed, being born a twin or being born with small baby teeth. These children are drowned or left in the bush to die.
On the day that we visited they were on alert. The men of the village were staying up at night as look outs because another tribe had accused them of stealing 1000 cattle. (They fight with the Hamer tribe among others.) While walking to the village through tall grass a small child surprised us by jumping out of the grass (he wanted to see the strange white kids). He got into big trouble with the elders who were not quite as impressed with surprise ambushes as we were. As these tribes are cut off from the world, we had no way of knowing that they were in the midst of troubles with other tribes that day. I was so happy to get out of the head-tall grass!
Women scar themselves for beauty in this tribe. Women also wear up to 40 pounds of beads on their necks. Men scarify also, but need to kill a dangerous animal or enemy first. The scars show the status of his new position in the community.
The women in this tribe danced and sang for us and eventually pulled Chris into their dance. He did a great job! (I even have a short video of it.) Sam and Charlie were great sports and allowed themselves to be pulled into the dance too.
Dasanech (Geleb) Tribe
Visiting the Bumi with the dancing and this tribe were my favorites. This tribe lives on the banks of the Omo River. When we got there we saw that sacks of something from USAID had just arrived. We saw that often in Ethiopia and not in India or any other country. It seemed strange because Ethiopia is a poor country but a proud, dignified country and it didn't feel poor, like India or Nepal did.
The Dasanech Tribe is animist but Christianity had been introduced. They read goat intestines to predict when rain will come and other events.
For a boy to enter manhood, he must kill an animal. That night, he needs to sleep away from the village and while he sleeps his father blesses him, sprinkling milk on him. After this the young man can do the special scarring on his chest and then he is considered a man and able to marry- Yet, to marry, the man also needs cattle and goats to give the brides family. Livestock shows wealth.
Both boys and girls are circumsized between 10-13.
I really enjoyed our time here because Mae and I, while waiting for our boat back across the Omo River, played Pat-a-Cake with the girls. It was so fun, so adorable. They really wanted to learn it and tried so hard. Mae was an awesome sport as they stroked her face, touched her hair. It was all very gentle and Mae was patient and kind and even enjoyed herself. When the boat came, the girls carried her away to the boat.
Man getting his head painted with red clay
Mursi are amazing body decorators. We saw some watchbands, bottle caps, old keys hanging off the decorated heads of the men and women- even corn cobs on a young girls head. In this tribe, the young girls have a slit in their bottom lip when they're young. Eventually, their bottom two front teeth are removed (how I don't know, scary) and a small clay disk is inserted. As the young woman grows, bigger and bigger lip plates are put in the lip, stretching the bottom lip. The plates can be as big as 8 inches. We were told it is done for beauty and wealth. Our guide also said that some believe that it was orginally done to mark the women so slave traders, looking for unblemished slaves, would pass them over.
This tribe and the Konzo Tribe see more travelers and it made me wonder about the continued practice of the lip plates. We were told that they tended to be aggressive and that we should hide anything shiny as they love to adorn themselves. Even our driver said that he had to watch the 4x4 and its hood ornament. I thought they were mellow- probably due to the fact that we found them much sooner than we thought, waking them up pretty much.
This Tribe lives closer to mainstream Ethiopia, is easy to get to and has seen lots of travelers and missionaries. Thus, they are mostly Christian and wear Western clothes. Whereas many of the other tribes move around watching cattle or growing different crops, the Konzo seemed more stationary and established in one place. Their village looked like a Hobbit village. They have an initiation rock that young men must pick up and throw over their shoulders in order to be called a man and be able to be married. Chris gave it a shot -- I don't know whether our marriage is valid now...
Low blow. In my own defense, the rock was really heavy, and I was worried that I might hit some of the small children standing 20 feet behind me.
Our last day in the South was kind of interesting, as we drove for 10 hours to get back to Addis Ababa. It had rained the night before, and the road was flooded in several places. We stopped at one place for about an hour while a big tractor tried to remove a big truck that had gotten stuck in a river that flowed across the road. We eventually made it to our hotel, in time to go to bed, and leave at 8:00 the next morning to drive North!
Bahir Dar and Lake Tana
We drove another 10 hours the next day to a small city called Bahir Dar. It is on a beautiful lake called Lake Tana, which is dotted with a number of small islands, each of which has a 1000+ year old church, convent or monastery. Unfortunately, we lost the better part of an hour at a local bank in Bahir Dar. I stopped to do a cash advance on my debit card (pretty much the only way to get cash). Unfortunately, the banker tried to withdraw $51,000 from my account, rather than $1,500, resulting in a "DECLINED" message. I don't think he had ever done a cash advance before, and my bank was offline (shame on you TDBank!), so it took a while to figure out what had happened. Between the delay and our guide renting the slowest boat on the lake, we only got to see a 50-year old convent, rather than one of the more historical sights.
So, enough about Bahir Dar! The next day we drove to Gondar, which we loved. The town is home to five or 6 16th and 17th century castles, and we spent a very pleasant morning touring the towers, passageways, saunas and lion cages! (Lions have always been a symbol of Ethiopia, so kings kept them in cages all the way up to the 20th century.)
There is also a really interesting (though small) castle called the Baths of Fasilides. King Fasilides essentially had a small castle built in the middle of a large swimming pool. Every year Gondarans gather for a festival called Timkat. Each of the 40 churches in town sends their replica of the Ark of the Covenant to the Baths, and the townspeople come to view them. Them the local bishop blesses the swimming pool. Preparing for this moment, children climb all the trees that overhang the pool, and once the water becomes holy water they jump from the trees and splash all the people from the town. It sounds like an amazing site.
When we left Gondar, we drove to stay at a lodge in the Simien Mountains. For most of the trip to the Simiens, I was underwhelmed. The landscape was not nearly as dramatic as I expected. However, as we rounded the corner to the lodge, the ground just sort of opened up beneath us -- it was beautiful. The star attraction, however, were the gelada baboons, which only live in the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia. They are also called "Bleeding Heart" baboons, and they're fascinating. They're vegetarian, ruled by women, and the males have a child-rearing role (once they're no longer the the strongest male in the family).
Axum is also know for its Stelae -- large stone monuments to dead important people. The most impressive one is about 100 feet long (I say long instead of "high", because it apparently fell over hundreds of years ago as its builders were trying to stand it upright.) However, the I can't say that I was tremendously impressed with the stelae. (More interesting were the tombs underneath the stelae. It was very Indiana-Jones-esq.)
Finally our driving was over! We hopped a short Ethiopian Airlines flight from Axum to Lalibela, saying goodbye to our guide. 40 minutes later we landed in Lalibela -- which was my favorite of Ethiopia's historical sites. Lalibela is famous for its "rock-hewn" churches. That might seem sort of unexceptional, since many churches are made of stone. The difference is that the 11 churches is Lalibela were mostly carved from one single stone! The architects started at ground level and carved the roof of the church. Then over the period of 22 years they began to carve their way down towards the eventual "floor" of the church.
Even more fun (for the kids) is that the churches are connected by passageways and secret tunnels carved from the rock. Actually, I think a fantastic movie or video game could be made with Lalibela as the setting.
We took a day trip to a cave church about 25 miles from Lalibela. The church was unique in that it was built inside a cave, rather than being carved from the rock. Creepily, this cave had the bones of thousands of pilgrims who had come for a pilgrimage, and then decided to die there.
Ethiopia was a whirlwind, but Wendy and I both kept saying how it was the most interesting place that we've ever traveled. I think when we go back, we'll try to go a bit more slowly, and spend some time in each of a couple of different cities.
Postscript: Ethiopia gave us one last gift: Wendy has now pulled four parasites out of her left foot.
These pictures are all candid -- people that we just saw coming out of the bush, walking down the road, being ostriches in a field, etc.
We have so many pictures of kids that we can't show you all of them. But children from 4 or 5 on are out all day on their own, herding the family livestock (goat and sheep for the littlest kids).
The firewood carriers are almost always women. They often walk 5-10 miles to collect firewood, and then they bring it home on their backs. The wood might almost weigh their weight.
The picture of the 3 men on the road was interesting, because they were sitting on the side of the road holding their guns, and they looked sort of scary. But when Wendy showed them their pictures these huge smiles broke out on their faces.
The two little sheep herders walking towards the camera could not understand that I was trying to take their picture. They had no concept of what I was doing, so I took their picture while slowly walking backwards, because they wouldn't stop!