Before I start this blog, a message to Dad. You might want to remove Mum from the computer, read it and then edit as you see fit.
After Danakil twelve of us walked into the ETT office (the tour company who we had done the tour with) and asked them how much it would be to charter a minibus to Lalibela. A full days travel with a change on the worst of local transport made the option of a smooth tourist transfer appealing. Two hundred dollars they quoted us. Shocked we pointed out what the price should be and how we had already paid a lot for the tour we had done and didn’t appreciate being overcharged. The lady stuck to her price, until after a while deciding to phone the manager. Thirty seconds later we had haggled her down to…nothing. Yes, ETT decided to give us three four by fours complete with driver for nothing. It’s a business model that cannot continue. But anyway, we were happy and the drive was great getting us to Lalibela just before dark.
I have mixed feelings about Lalibela. First the good things. The rock churches are great. They date from the twelfth and thirteenth century and are not just cut from rock but separated from it. Garth, Bill, Benny and I took a guide who added to the experience. We spent a day walking through the maze of paths in and out of tunnels of rock, visiting various churches. Each one is unique as the below pictures show:
Lalibela also has a fascinating restaurant. An unlikely partnership between a young Ethiopian man and a Scottish pensioner has brought about a fascinating piece of architecture. It provided a great place to play cards. We’ve been pretty addicted to the Russian game Durak over the past week, although the game almost stuttered to a halt when we lost the king of diamonds off the top. The following day we were told by the bemused owner that it had been found in the toilets!
Unfortunately, whilst in many ways we chose a good time to be in Lalibela, as the Christmas crowds had gone and the Timket ones yet to arrive, it was also one of the ugliest. There were far to many youths with nothing to do but count the money they had made over Christmas due to the huge tourist mark ups and spend it on drugs and alcohol. As a result the streets were full of fights. It was not a particularly pleasant place to walk.
After a couple of days, Benny and I took a shared jeep to Addis Ababa. Now Addis will be remembered for two reasons. The first is pick pockets. I’ve never been to a place like it. After meeting up with Bill again we went for a walk to the museums. At the start we were followed, but saw that one off and then a guy walking alongside us did something quite incredible. Unlike in South America where one of the tricks is to spill a Starbucks coffee on you and then offer to clean it up, in Addis they spit. Yep, the lovely gentleman spat on Bill and then quickly pulled out a hanky to clean it up. Fortunately, despite both being quite stunned, we remembered hearing about it and kept on walking whilst showing his partner in crime, who was approaching from behind, that we had noticed him.
Fast forward a few hours, and this time with Garth and Bill we had an even more audacious attempt as a man ran across the road bumping into me and then promptly apologising. Now we were switched on and carried on walking. He tried the same thing to Garth but the attempt was over as we sped away. It was both funny and pretty shocking. For Bill it was his fifth pickpocketing attempt in three days.
The next day was Timket – The Ethiopian epiphany celebrating the baptism of Christ. Before going out in search of the celebrations we stuffed money in our socks, left our keys, phones and cameras in the hotel and loaded our pockets with leaves. We walked up to a church where we had seen plenty of people in white milling about the previous evening, but whilst there were lots of people they seemed to be walking in every direction. One of Ethiopia’s many problems is that no one ever seems to have a clue when or where something is happening. In fact several people had told us that little happened for Timket. But the amount of people told us otherwise. We sat down for a coffee and soon spotted a tourist group with a guide heading up the road. Quickly, we paid the bill and sprinted off after them.
It was a good plan. Half an hour later we were in a huge field with anything from fifty to one hundred thousand people all dressed in white being baptised by water hoses. Priests led chanting and various processions went by. At the bottom of the field young men set up various gambling games including throwing money through two bottles and a matchstick, piñata and various football activities. It was a very strange mix.
Exiting we watched another procession down a red carpet as the most important priests made their way into the church. Onlookers fell to the ground to kiss the path which they walked on. It was a fascinating watch and fortunately no more pick pocket attempts. Poor Bill would have another attempt later in the evening, but the plan worked brilliantly and all they got was a handful of leaves!
Other than Timket and pickpockets I also took in a visit to the largest cinema in Ethiopia to watch The Revenant. It almost went badly wrong when I walked in five minutes before the start to see the end scenes of the film which was on its first run through. A patch of blood in the snow. I turned around to see three Ethiopian cinema workers running after me waving their hands in the air. Upon watching it I realised that a few seconds more and the whole film would have been ruined. As it was I reentered five minutes later, spoiler free, and enjoyed a great film set almost entirely in the snow with every character having strong American accents. With the absence of any subtitles, I don’t know what the Ethiopian crowd must have thought.
I was relieved to have escaped Addis and I took a bus to Harar with Benny where we also met Christian, Cyrill, and later at the hotel Arseny. One of the joys of traveling is that you meet some very interesting people. No more so than Arseny, who’s Russian and whose Dad had been the USSR ambassador to the United States of America during the Cold War and Minister for Foreign Affairs during the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Talking to him about his Dad’s experiences and his own views on the future of Russia was fascinating.
The journey was much better than previous trips due to being on a good bus with a good ticketing system. They do exist in Ethiopia! Unfortunately, not everything went smoothly. About two hours into the journey, a truck tried to overtake another and ploughed into a parked car (two cars away from us), taking it off the edge of the road and down a bank before stopping in the sand. All traffic instantly stopped. Trucks blocked the road and around a hundred people crowded around the scene. There was a clear distress as someone was trapped in the car. It made us appreciate the many benefits of Europe, where the police would have arrived along with ambulances and fire engines all properly trained in how to deal with the situation. Instead over the next hour the crowd formulated various plans and tried everything out until finally getting the lorry removed and freeing the man from the car. From what I could gather the man was remarkably alright, which from witnessing the crash is an absolute miracle. Ethiopian roads are full of overturned lorries, minibuses and cars. Buses are banned from the roads after 6pm in the evening for a reason. The same rules should apply to all transport until they can find a way to tackle the problem of drivers driving non-stop for uncountable amount of hours. Upon arriving in Harar, the atmosphere felt very different. Partially because it is principally a muslim town but there was just a real life to the city with people everywhere, wearing the most colourful of clothes, and mini markets clogging up the streets. The following day, we hired a tour guide who showed us around the ancient maze of the old town, which has 368 alleyways and over 90 mosques squeezed into one square kilometre. The whole place was fascinating and trapped in a time long ago. We ended up spending time in a traditional Harar house, where his friends family put on a coffee ceremony, which involves a long process of roasting coffee beans, burning silly amounts of incense and then drinking three or more cups of coffee, leaving you bouncing off of the walls. The houses are fascinating for their symbolism and far removed from any house I’ve ever been in before.
In the evening we drove a few kilometres to the other side of the old wall. There we found a man and a basket. After showing a bit of meat around fifteen wild hyenas began to emerge from the wilderness. One was pregnant, one had not long been born. It was incredible seeing their eyes in the distance and watching as their hierarchy played out. Of course I couldn’t resist not feeding them and had the privilege of feeding the top dog – none of the others came close whilst he was there!
Whilst now largely a tourist attraction for the handful of foreigners in town, it is a ancient tradition which was started so as to stop the hyenas targeting farm animals and indeed villagers. Now every night for the past forty years this man has been feeding the hyenas, which in turn has stopped the attacks. His son watched on knowing he will soon take on the role.
From Harar I journeyed back to Addis. Oh the joy! This time, however, with new knowledge, I stayed in the more upmarket area of town and what a difference. Only one pickpocket attempt! I spent a couple of days relaxing, taking in one more heavy American accented movie set in the snow before leaving for the airport.
Tickets in hand, I approached immigration. Now it’s hard to visualise an immigration officer on his first day but I found one. Queuing to get my exit stamp, he excitedly ran over to me and said for me to come over to his booth. After looking at my passport, he said:
“I’m sorry Sir but I need to speak to my manager. There is a problem.”
That’s never a good thing for ones health to hear.
“You see you already have a departure stamp.”
Confused I looked.
“No that’s an arrival stamp. See it says so,” I attempted to point out.
He shook his head. Suddenly, I was back at immigration for the Wadi Halfa ferry in Aswan.
“No that’s my stamp. That’s a departure stamp.” He then stamped a scrap piece of paper. “They are the same.”
Again I read it to him. “They do look the same, but this one says arrival and your one says departure.”
He paused and then started to smile. A light bulb switched on. “You’re right!” he declared and my heart beat returned to normal.