Ethiopia….. well I feel a bit stupid saying (again) ‘well what a surprise and revelation’…maybe I’m just surprised too easily, but it has for me, certainly proven to be one of the most curious and unexpected countries we have visited so far. After the barren horizons of Sudan and the unbearable 46 degrees (that now seems light years away) the small and rather typical boarder town of Metema offered a stark contrast. I was immediately struck by the sheer number of people on the road, the wheeling and dealing, the noise the movement, the attraction and overexcited attention aroused by our presence. I wasn’t expecting it, and at first coiled up in my traveller’s shell. Then the next shock, after months of desert the green, green, greenery, cool air, muddy dwellings and ornately dressed women, animals and small children everywhere. It wasn’t going to be easy to find a quiet spot to stop for the night, but we eventually found a quiet field (that is, as quiet as a not so small group of little shepard boys can be, whispering and giggling around the truck.) Waking up was early as the little shepards were impatient for us to get up…to both Lusira and Giulios’ surprise and amusement the truck was surrounded. They played theatre through our little windows to an eager and excited crowd. Giulio tried strange faces, which got him several laughs, and Lusira more boldly put her hand out of the window with a peg for the children to reach only to be withdrawn at the last moment. They had made contact and could safely go out and explore. A scene to be repeated frequently during our stay. The rainy season dreaded by many travellers hasn’t been a problem so far. The small pistes are surprisingly well maintained and only occasionally do you have to wait for overflowing rivers to subside. Our first stop at Lake Tana in a beautiful campsite on the northern shore, gave us the chance to unwind and catch up on normal living matters (washing, reading, drawing, walking…etc) Lusira much to her dismay, got her hair platted by a little over-zealous village girl (lots of hair pulling and unknotting) but then very courageously encouraged by her new little friend, washed in the rather cold lake, and decided that from now on she was going to do her own washing ‘like the Africans’ a promise she has diligently kept.
Our travels north have been characterised by chance encounters, spontaneous whims and generally letting events guide us. We stubbornly pursued a tiny little piste through the majestic Simian Mountains, only to find it slowly but surely petering out into a donkey trail, but the experience was gratifying and turning back after 3 days was of no consequence. In these ancient landscapes where all is done manually, from ploughing the fields to grinding flour and making butter, there is a tangible feeling of being in another era….as we drive through tiny meticulously tidy villages made of stone and mud, I study the faces that are studying me and wonder if I can possibly imagine what is passing through their mind in that moment, yes we have common desires and emotions (love, hate, passion, boredom etc) but I feel the very fibre of our being is separated not by a different culture but by centuries…. As I try to sleep in my super- technological truck, I can hear the mosquitoes and bugs through the nets on the windows, the hyenas make their strange noise and the rain pounds down drenching all that are returning from their fields…. I have warmth, dry clothes, a soft mattress, no bugs in the night, running water, gas at a touch, not to mention fridge, gps, ipod, computers, satellite phone etc….The old man who sold us a perfectly plucked chicken last night is patiently waiting outside and when we descend after breakfast utters a shocked scream when he sees Lusiras’ little black Fransisca doll, he thought it was a real baby and after had a delighted half hour shocking his friends with the mysterious object. We spend the morning in simple communications and jokes, and finally get to see the inside of one of the walled dwellings, we receive a gourd of fresh milk and in return give a little amulet for a small baby, I feel honoured to be able to get this small glimpse into their so different life.
At Axum we have a very different experience and get to know some university professors coming for student graduations here. They invite us to see their University at Mekele and after not too much thought we again changed our plans…travelling is about people, not just monuments. We spent four happy days parked inside Mekele University. Goitom explained some of Ethiopia’s technological developments and introduced us to his poet, songwriter and journalist friend Ghrmai . A friendship was immediately born as he interviewed us for his radio (VOA!)
We spent the afternoon together exchanging music tastes, philosophy and anecdotal stories. Later we invited him and his striking fiancée Feven to have an Italian coffee in our truck. The invitation was enthusiastically returned the next day and we lunched together at his house where we were also honoured with the traditional coffee ceremony, so typical of this country (amongst other things, grass and popcorn are scattered around the room, and Luca not realising, diligently picked them all up and put them back in the bowl only for them to be merrily scattered around the room again.)
It was with some trepidation that we headed towards Lalibela, perhaps the most visited town in Ethiopia. After so much time away from the hustle and bustle of the main tourist track we weren’t really in the mood. We needn’t have been worried; Lalibela is so unique that its potent atmosphere transpires no matter what. At almost 3000m it has that same festive high mountain town atmosphere similar to say Namche bazaar in Nepal. The low clouds envelop the streets only to reveal spectacular valleys below when a spark of sun fights its way through. The famous rock-hewn churches are stunning and left me wondering for weeks after. The idea that all is carved out of solid rock, from the vision of one man in such a short time (26 years) is inconceivable. The churches themselves are entirely functional and this adds greatly to their appeal. Early in the morning it is possible to witness exorcisms and other rituals foreign to our idea of Christianity. The symbolism of each church and its surroundings makes walking around the whole complex a truly unique experience, for me greater than any sight I have seen so far.
We are now sitting in Addis Ababa doing various burocratic tasks and feeling unusually at home. We will be heading south in a week’s time to the tribal areas around Lake Turkana…Sorry if my ramblings have gone on a little too long this time, but enthusiasm fired me on!