A Travellerspoint blog

January 2011

The most important thing is the human being

Rachel - Awramba

I'm generalising of course, and we have been here over a period of special religious activity, but I think it's safe to say that Ethiopia is country with a deep seated religious faith. Be that their own unique branch of Christianity or Islam. So we were pretty surprised to hear of a community, an hour or so from Bahir Dar, which professes to be without religion.

The village of Awramba was founded by a man who claims not to be a prophet or a leader but simply a man with an ideal,and that ideal is that the most important thing is to treat fellow human beings with kindness. But furthermore that the problems of poverty will not be alleviated by prayer but by hard work in an equal society. In this village there is no "men's work" (traditionally weaving, fishing) or "women's work" (traditionally spinning cotton, cooking) and older members of society are not discarded once they are too old to contribute,but instead there is education forall ages who want it, care of the elderly and the weaving workshops (which is the main way they generate income for the village) are occupied by both sexes performing all jobs.

The village itself has a very welcoming and peaceful feel. We were greeted by a community member who showedus round the dormitories for the elderly,inside a home with their innovative energy saving stove,the school room, library and the weaving workshops. All the while explaining that the founder doesnt not believe in God but that there is no need for a church or building becuase he doent want to give that creator a name, or designate a place where They are to be "found". It is also fine to have noreligion at all because "the most important thing is how you treat the human being". She also explained about how a member of the community has to adhere to the rules of kindness and respect and hard work, and how conflict is resolved, support is given,developments and improvements made and generally how the community functions under this system. At the end of the talk we were introduced to the founder who could answer any of our questions about his ideas and the community. he was a softly spoken man who stressed that he just had an idea, that was all - he wasnt in charge and he hoped it was a good idea that would be shared by others.

I thought they made a lot of sense and in a place where people often seem to use religion to excuse terrible personal conditions it was also something special to see people using their own skills and resources to improve their own lives. Maybe in some years time they'll have a tent at Glastonbury....

(ps. also of note was amusing a group of schoolgirls on the walk back with only the few Amharic words we had in the back of our guidebook inc. a staged argument using only the word for "cow" and the word for "donkey")

Posted by rachndave 08:53 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (1)

Christmas mark 2 (and a journey)

Rachel - journey to Bahir Dar and Bahir Dar

Whereas Malawi is red, Uganda is green, Ethiopia is yellow.

We are back in the land of the 5.30am bus journey. Yeuch. But the advantage of such an early start at least is being able to watch the sunrise over the countryside. We’d not seen any of the country yet and it is stunning.

The earth is a dusty light brown with short pale yellow grass. Every now and again are smart stick-fenced, or sometimes dry stone walled compounds containing a few rectangle houses and circular huts made of stick and mud with conical thatched roofs on the circular huts and usually a cluster of frosty looking eucalyptus trees being grown for firewood. Lots of these compounds, particularly those with stick-fenced pens for animals, put me in mind of Australian farms. The land we passed through was fairly flat and open but interestingly uneven, slashed by metre deep wriggly gashes revealing the brown earth at the bottom of which would be a stream or a dry bed and small clusters of trees. As the sun rose and people appeared we saw older children, wrapped in blankets, taking out and shaking rugs. Women in blankets standing in doorways watching the day start. Young boys lead donkeys away from the roads across the fields and men driving small herds of cattle with sticks. Young girls walking by the road wrapped in scarves carrying water cans. Horses grazing in fields of recently harvested cultivated lands scattered with small angular rocks. As the houses woke up wood smoke would be rising from the conical roofs. Sometimes in small towns we’d pass rows of corrugated iron shops in bright colours which would remind me of brighton beach huts. And as the sun was rising it was piercing the clouds and the rays would give everything a warm pale yellow glow.

Later we drove along one edge of the Nile river gorge – on one side of the bus I had a view of the huge “crystalline” looking rocks and scrubby slopes, and on the other was a wide open bowl of yellow and green peppered with the silver roves of the town in the far bottom. On the far side of the bowl was the Nile, wide and grey, snaking through the land and mirroring the road on this side of the basin.

That journey was some of the most beautiful landscape and light I’ve ever experienced.

We arrived in Bahir Dar, city of the lake, in the late afternoon and after a frustrating muddle with a hotel who bent the truth about their having space for us we ended up in a super budget place but super friendly too. They loved Dave’s passport photo and liked to touch my hair, giggling all the time. But nevertheless we had wanted to stay in a hotel on the lake so we went that night to negotiate a price and ended up being invited in for drinks by the eccentric manager Bisrat. He had his large double bed in his office which he’d occasionally jump onto to lounge amongst the newspapers, was always on his mobile phone or checking emails and his subject of conversation would jump around every 2 minutes. It took over an hour, and between side discussions about politics and personal desires *and* it turns out he organizes affordable trips to the danakil which we also signed up to, we finally agreed a deal and would come back the next day.

Next day we checked in and signed up to the boat trip running to the monasteries that are found on the islands in the middle of the big lake although we were a little late to visit one of them and one of them didn’t let in women so actually I only saw one. I think they’re all pretty similar though. The focus of the site is the classic Ethiopian style round church with a conical stick roof – inside and at the centre of the church is a room containing a replica of the arc of the covenant which noone but priests can enter, on the outside of which though are almost cartoon like paintings of the life of jesus, mary and the saints and the ring of space that is left is for praying and chanting in with a few drums dotted around. The monks themselves live in the round huts as found everywhere else. So really it doesn’t feel like a monastery so much as a village.

On the boat trip we made friends with an Ethiopian couple who now live in London. They were over here for Christmas to visit family and were more tourists than we were with flashy clothes and sunnies, cameras and video cameras. In the evening we met them in a traditional music bar like the one we went to in Addis and they were snapping and filming away the whole time :) In these bars the customers sit around the edge of the room and the performers dance and sing in the middle and every now and again the singers will pick people out in the room and sing nice but cheeky songs about them while dancing in front of them, after which you’re supposed to stick money (notes) to their foreheads. The dancing is the Ethiopian style which instead of being all about the hips is all about the shoulders. While stamping your feet, with your hands on your hips, you rotate or shimmy your shoulders around energetically. This isn’t just a traditional style either, it’s the same moves in pubs and clubs too. It’s really tricky to get the hang of and tiring to keep going but it feels quite slinky for the 30 seconds when it all comes together.

Bahir Dar is a lazy feeling town with wide streets and lots of cafes and hotels. The fascinating market in the centre of town sells all sorts: frankincense (used in the coffee ceremony) and spices, chickens, coffee pots, all sorts of grains, chat (for chewing), injera stoves (for the sour pancakes) and second hand clothes. We were adopted by a young man and his friend to show us round the market, meet his mother selling coffee pots, and bargain on our behalf for a couple of warm jumpers we’d need for the Simien Mountains. After that we all shared some dinner and drinks to say thank you and then parted because today was Ethiopian Christmas eve and there was a nighttime mass in the church we were curious to see.

For any church or holy event, even regular Sundays, everyone wears white with a large white scarf covering the head – for both men and women. On this day the church was packed. The priest would chant/sing sermons and excerpts from the bible and this was piped outside the church over speakers to where we were stood amongst the sparse crowd of white clad worshipers surrounding the church. Every now and again, in unison, with no signal, the people inside and outside the church would mutter or sing something back or bow to the floor in a way you would expect to see in a mosque, or read quietly from their own pocketsized copies of the bible. At some point the replica of the arc of the covenant is brought out under the shade of a glitzy umbrella and paraded around, and at various points the priests would disappear behind a curtain although the singing/chanting would go on. We were able to move freely around the outside of the church, move amongst the corwds and peer in the windows. It was extremely atmospheric and somber mood and a little spooky moving amongst all the white robes. We left about 3am and they we could still hear them chanting at 5am when we got up to go to the loo, the hotel not being far from the church.

The previous day we had been invited by Bisrat the manager to his family’s house for Christmas dinner which was very nice of him. There were several other hotel guests invited as well and we all went by minibus to be greeted by his mother in a very modern 2 up 2 down house in the town. Bisrat The Distracted disappeared and left us to drink beers brought by the maid and get to know each other and then he came back later for dinner. Christmas dinner was just like normal dinner – with various tasty, spicy stews and injira pancakes. Bisrat disappeared again and while he was out some itinerant praise singers paid a visit and sang us all songs (which unfortunately we couldn’t understand) and stopped for some coffee. Just like carol singers really :) We left in the mid afternoon and ended up hooking up with a group of Ethiopian, Swedish and German people we’d crossed paths with the night before round the fire. They’d all been up all night and we still drinking so we went for a birthday dinner for it was one of the Ethiopian lady’s birthday, and ended up back at the fire for a night of deep and strange conversations – for she was quite philosophical and had many opinions which made for a thought provoking evening. A typical Christmas I suppose – boozy conversations round an open fire.

A lovely, interesting day, but Christmas wasn’t the festivity we thought it might have been. Religiously significant and family oriented certainly but without the celebration you might have expected. But wait, Epiphany celebration is just around the corner and that one’s supposed to be a big’un.

Posted by rachndave 09:01 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged landscapes parties markets religion Comments (0)

New Year New Country

Rachel - Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa is one of those of those satisfying-to-say places - like Ougadougou and almost anywhere in australia. It always seems a shame to shorten it to Addis as everyone seems to do.

When we drove from the airport we were struck by how modern the city seemed, with wide asphalt roads with proper traffic lights, international hotels and business parks. Now we know that this stretch of road is a recent addition to the city. The centre itself though is a strange mix of both modern-ish shops and rickety stalls all next to each other, a feature that has apparently stretched back right to the birth of the city when palaces and traditional mud and thatch houses were interspersed.

We arrived at our hotel a little weary but decided to check out the lobby of our hotel which despite having budget rooms is the oldest hotel in Addis Ababa and had a man playing piano in the large foyer as we arrived. So we enjoyed some new beers with a young woman, Annabelle, from Berlin but originally from Ethiopia, who was looking to return to her roots and live in Addis for a while.

The first day in a new country is always the same, try and sort out maps and phones and in this case try and buy some second hand warm clothes in the crowded and pungent mercarto (market) but today we had a total fail because everything was closed or too far away to organize after we were lost in the market for too long, which only sold new things and mostly wholesale. An experience nonetheless and we were adopted by a stall owner who tried to show us all the jumper stalls that might sell single prices and seemed baffled why we weren’t really interested in the available floral or neon articles.

To try and salvage the day we did manage to squeeze in a visit to a church and it’s attached museum. Ethiopians take their church seriously it seems – even the building itself. While we were in the courtyard we noticed many people coming up just to kiss the door or steps without it even being open. The day somewhat rescued we headed off for our first taste of Ethiopian food, on the way we passed a small darkened entrance with assorted men just in view sitting inside which caught Dave’s eye. It turned out to be a tejabet or “house of tej” which is the local honey wine, only really sold in these speciallity houses. We were made to sit down and to everyone’s great interest and encouragement try our first tej which is served in a special bulbous glass with a tall thin spout which looks something like a distillation bottle from chemistry class…we weren’t too impressed (although we have found out since that we hadn’t tried a very good one). But the owner took a shine to us and showed us to the restaurant, and spent the next hour or so with us teaching us some words, describing the food and generally being a nice introduction to the country.

We had been looking forward to the food here having been to Ethiopian restaurants in London. In case you’ve not tried it yourself it’s invariably some kind of spicy stew served on a sourish spongey pancake plate which you eat with your hands by breaking off some of the pancake and scooping up some of the stew before popping it all in your mouth. It takes some practice, and apparently it’s not allowed to lick your fingers.

Oh I forgot to mention – today was New Years eve (for us) and Annabelle had invited us to a party near to our hotel so after a delicious dinner we went back to meet her and some of her friends. The street next to our hotel is full of small bars playing very loud music so we spent the hours leading up to midnight (for us) doing a tour of most of them, ending up in a great little place playing Ethiopian pop music and full of people dancing (I’ll describe the dancing in another entry because it’s pretty unique). At the stroke of midnight we were ushered outside because for the first time they had put on fireworks for “European” new year. Ethiopia has a different calendar, the Julian calendar, because they rejected the Pope and the pope’s Gregorian calendar. (note for the geeks, so *now* we know why we have all those different Calendar classes – it’s for Ethiopia). So the Ethiopian new year is actually in September and Christmas is on January 7th. The time here is even different too – midnight is 6 o’clock because they start counting from zero at 6am, which does actually make a kind of sense – start counting when you wake up. But anyway it seems like they like an excuse to party so just for us they pulled one out the bag. Dave and I tried to get everyone to join in a bouncing circle of Auld Langs Eyne which took two attempts but I think it’ll catch on.

Unfortunately almost exactly this time Dave realized that he’d been pickpocketed in the bar and they’d taken our hotel key which had the name of the hotel and the room number on it so we dashed back to find that they’d already ransacked the room and taken a few electricals that were out in sight. Fortunately they must have been in a rush so they hadn’t found our well hidden passports and cash, or Dave’s not so well hidden camera or iPod luckily, so we decided to deal with it later and headed back to meet everyone. The rest of the night was brilliant fun too – we visited a bar with traditional music and praise singing (will describe that properly later too) and later a cheesy nightclub with more Ethiopian pop. Finally at 5am the four of us staggered home happy.

Next day we reported the theft to the police, purely for the insurance report. But because we hadn’t reported the incident immediately they didn’t want to take our report until a few days later than we’d planned to move on, so the lady in the hotel reception – without telling us – told the policeman that we had a flight to catch so we couldn’t come back later which made for some very uncomfortable moments during the eventual interview when he was asking about our flight details and how come we could come back to Addis to collect the head-office-signed report. I’m not sure the insurance company will even accept the report because it’s written in Amharic script on the back of a piece of already-written-on rough paper which was all he could get his hands on at the time. It looks like I just wrote it myself! And another awkward moment was when we, via our translators who we’d to scrounge in the hotel bar by the way, had to decline to pay him a “small fee” to “start the investigation”. Our translators afterwards even tried to get us to go back to pay the bribe and then asked us for money themselves. A weird evening that was, although not unpleasant. The policeman was polite and concerned about doing a thorough job and he was clearly busy because people would come in and out of his office all the time to ask something.

On our final day we ran about town talking to tour agencies about trips to the Danakil depression (i.e. THE HOT-TEST PLACE ON EEEARTH) and then putting up posters in backpacker frequented places trying to find people to join with us, otherwise it will be a very expensive trip. But after we missed out on the volcano in the Congo we have a second chance because there’s another active lava lake in the Danakil so we *have* to go this time. Have to.

After several days in the city we didn’t really get to see much of Addis Ababa, not on the tourist trail anyway and there are some interesting looking museums here too. But we’ll be back again in a few weeks at least, and it’s the sign of a good city at least that you need to come back. Au reviour Addis Ababa(bababa).

Posted by rachndave 08:21 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged parties food cities Comments (0)

Alive in Ethiopia

We've just been trekking in the Simien mountains for over a week and then straight back into Epiphany celebrations. Both alive and well

Posted by rachndave 23:28 Comments (1)

Making waves

Rachel - Jinja, Kampala (and my birthday!)

Just about recovered from our hangovers we decided to leave the cosy compound and nile view of the backpackers and head into Jinja town for a look around. We needed some exercise after our hog roasts and boozey nights so we chose to walk the 8km or so into town, much to the bemusement of all the taxi drivers. As we were walking we could hear drums and as we got closer saw some people wearing ash and feathers and waving branches in the air. We thought maybe it was a wedding so Dave breached the crowd to ask what was happening. It turns out some young boys were about to havetheir ritual circumsision and the man dancing in feathers was going to perform the operation. The boy and the boy's mothers were the ones in ash and they were touring the village to raise some pennies to pay the "doctor". Two young men described their memories of their own circumsicion which is performed standing up, without anaesthetic...in public. Poor boy. Someone told me that there were supposed to be two boys but one had run away...i wish him godspeed.

The next music we heard on our journey was a version of "My heart will go on" (the titanic song), like a very loud mobile phone tone, played from a the front of a motorcycle on the back of which was an ice box. We had stumbled across the African version of the icecream man! I guess they abandoned greensleves after independence.

We made it to Jinja which is a very nice town - wide, tree lined avenues with indian influenced architecture and a few futuristic looking hindu temples on the skyline. We just pottered about and then decided to try and cut across the waterfront, through what looked like the grounds of a hotel but was actually the sailing club (which bizarrely featured a 8ft stone tyrannasaurus rex). We were just tip toeing past the end of the gardens when we heard a shout behind us...rumbled by a security guard. The guard was a young man who refused to accept our story that we were merely trying to take a short cut and with some affectated moralistic pride he told us we were trespassing and he'd have to hold us in detention until his boss returned...unless we wanted to negotiate. We feigned ignorance about what that might mean and over the next two hours, while we sat on a rock watching and enjoying the sunset over the lake and the hundreds of bats circling above us, tried to get him to call the police, wait for the boss, become his friend, use logic about the legality of detaining us without an arrest, and in the end after we'd waited long enough to show we werent going to pay a bribe we apologised once more so he gave us a lecture about how we should have just apologised earlier and magnanimously decided to let us go. After that he was overtly nice to us, even giving me a hug when dave's back was turned and asking to be my friend, he made sure we were safe in a taxi and promised to visit us the next day for some drinks. A very strange evening.

Just before we went to bed we toyed with the idea of using our half price re-run voucher for the rafting because it was so much fun the first time. With the voucher you got a free nights accommodation, breakfast and evening meal, two free drinks *and* a free transfer to Kampala so really it was silly not to! So we went again on my birthday this time. This time we were paired with a romanian orthodox religious lawyer and holy relic expert and his Tanzanian companion who he was sponsoring through college after meeting him on a previous trip. A seriously nice and holy man who amused us with jokes and stories on the way. Neither of them could swim but they were both up for the hard lines through the rapids, not realising that you are very likely to end up in the water - So we spent most of the training kilometres trying to convince them to get into the water and trusting their life jackets. By the end though they were jumping in at any opportunity and having a whale of a time. I really enjoyed helping these two to get over their fears and watching them at the end with new confidence.

After the rafting we headed straight back to Kampala to meet up with Jonquil and Seb who we'd made friends with over Christmas. They were cycling around lake Victoria and had left a few days before to cycle to Kampala to meet us at the national theatre for a night of spoken word and hip hop i'd wanted to go to. Our transfer was stuck in traffic so we were nearly two hours late but thank heavens (despite thinking we'd stood them up) they'd gone in so we managed to meet them, still bedraggled from the rafting but happy to see them. After the poetry thing (which degenerated into shouty gangster hip hop just as the orthodox christian rejoined us, of course) we went to a few bars, chatted lots, drank lots till our cash ran out. We even found a shisha bar and made easy friends with some ugandans at the end of the night. On the way back we stopped at the "Obama chapati stall" and watched the staff throwing chapati dough back and forth between each other and amused them with our muzungu ways with not a word of english spoken but much chuckling. A great end to a great night out.

When we got back to our hotel there was a man tied up on the floor of the ground floor restaurant, snoring. Apparently he'd been caught trying to break in so they were waiting to decide what to do with him. *shrug*, what can you say to that eh? There's always something intriguing going on. Tomorrow we fly to Ethiopia. I wonder if it'll have the quirks of Uganda. Can't wait to find out.

Posted by rachndave 05:42 Archived in Uganda Tagged parties rivers companions Comments (1)

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