An ‘honorary Ethiopian’ journeys into the heart of the country that promises 13 months of sunshine
From surreal volcanic rift valleys to 12th century rock-cut churches, Ethiopia is a country that time forgot
My husband and I squabbled in Aksum. I cannot remember why. Travel fatigue. The heat, flies. Carlo did not want to spend another hour in an embroidered clothing shop. I did not want to walk around a dilapidated museum or the remains of Queen Sheba’s Palace, which lay on the side of a highway in a haze of rubble. After determining that there was nothing more to see besides the rubble, we climbed into the car—him in the back, me in the front, so we could take a break from one another. On the other side of the road, the driver pointed out a cemetery filled with stelae—lean obelisk markers of burial chambers of middle-class Aksumites from second or third century BC. “Cool," I said, and continued stewing.
The drive north from Aksum to Megab in the Gheralta mountains took 3 hours. When I think about Ethiopia now, this is the road I see—winding between cliffs and valleys, as if in one of those video games, the scenery on LSD. Harsh, golden scrubby land from which the most unlikely outcrop of pink sandstone mountains rises. The driver pointed to the scraggy towers of rock every once in a while: “There’s a church on top of that one, and that one!" It was inconceivable that anyone in the 12th century could excavate a church so unreasonably high, that pilgrims still risk their lives getting to it, that this was precisely what our plan was.
Along the way, we passed zebu bulls with majestic horns, women in white walking under umbrellas, stout little donkeys with their backs loaded high, and then suddenly, as if in a mirage, a caravan of camels sauntered by, roped together mouth to tail, led by a shepherd in a magnificent orange turban. The driver chatted peaceably, telling us that Ethiopians love their donkeys because they are their 4x4s, and that they do not like the fact that the Chinese, who are building so many roads in the country, eat donkey meat and export its skin for medicine. He showed us the battlefield of Adwa, where the Italians suffered a massive defeat in 1896. Carlo’s grandfather had been in Ethiopia during the second Italian invasion in 1935. He had wanted to stay and open a pharmacy, but it did not work out that way.
By the time we drove through the candelabra cacti driveway of Korkor Lodge, our mood had improved. We had an instinct about this place and it was gold. Our room was beautiful. Instead of a wall, there was a window through which we could see the mountains. The bathroom was the size of Queen Sheba’s throne room. We were doing internal pirouettes. Truce.
I fell in love with Ethiopia long before I visited it. As an undergraduate student, I lived with five Ethiopians in a place called Doral Apartments in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a rough American neighbourhood but we left the front door unlocked because we could never keep track of the house keys and someone was always expected to drop by. My friend, Yemisrach, whose name means “good news" in Amharic, was more like ecstatic news for me. She rescued me from an unhappy living situation, let me sleep on a spare mattress in her room for two years, drove me to classes and back, and life-coached the hell out of me. She was a couple of years older than me and she lived life with the incandescence of an LED light source.
For those years, I was an honorary Ethiopian. I went to parties and weddings, tore into injera and firfir, listened to Aster and Gigi, made road trips to Washington, DC, where we would sleep on the couches of other Ethiopians. I was so used to hearing Amharic spoken around me that even today, when I hear it, I think of Charlotte and Doral Apartments.
In the early 2000s, when I first visited the country, I stayed with Yemi’s family in Addis Ababa. Later, we made a road trip to Shashamene, home of a large Rastafarian community, and the Bale mountains, where we walked for four magical days with a guide and ponies, spending the night in small wooden cabins in villages along the way. I remember being struck by the diversity of green—grassland, woodland, forest, Afro-alpine meadows. We would go hours without seeing anyone, and then come across a horseman or three, looking like they had been plucked straight from the Bible, the Three Magi.
This time, Yemi and I met after 15 years. In the interim, she and her husband had moved to Dalian, China, and had two children. I had got married and moved to a village by the sea with an army of dogs. But it felt normal for us all to sit together once again in the living room of her family home, one sister lighting frankincense and roasting coffee beans, bringing them over to ritually swish the smoke in our face. Another sister talking about the state of news and journalism. Father, uncle, neighbour. This was always how Doral was. Filled with people talking about politics and life. Here the big news was their charismatic prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. We heard contradictory reports about him, depending on where we were geographically. In Addis and Lalibela, he was a great man. In Tigray and Dallol, less so.
Long friendships have a quality of timelessness about them. You may not see or talk to one another for years, but all linearity collapses when you meet. Your earlier selves emerge, and you are almost as startled to encounter them as you are to see your old friend.
Carlo and I didn’t get to visit The Red Terror Museum or any of the cathedrals in that high capital city of Addis. Instead, we ate meals with Yemi’s family and friends. We went to Fendika café to watch live music and dance performances, and sat on the rooftop of a trendy bar drinking Walia beer and Rift Valley wine. Our husbands, as though infected by our friendship, talked as if they had known each other for years too, so Yemi and I could happily spiral into reminiscing.
Remember the time we got flooded? Remember the time we got burgled by the disgruntled boyfriend of our flatmate M? Remember when G pretended to be Somali to get political asylum in Canada? Remember when we used to drive around posh neighbourhoods just to stare at the big houses? Remember? Remember?
Dinner at the Korkor Lodge: The young French-speaking couple are talking about how they had taken a walk through the village and had stones thrown at them. We all titter, thinking children must have been playing with them. As they continue, though, we realize it was more like being trapped in an awful Shirley Jackson story filled with menace. It wasn’t just children, it was adults, hiding behind bushes, throwing rocks at them. They hadn’t been hit, but they had walked back quickly to the lodge for safety. The man tried to be nonchalant, saying they were only trying to rattle them, but the woman was pale, shaken.
Carlo and I had been in Ethiopia for over a week and hadn’t experienced anything like this. We had made comparisons to India of course, about traffic and infrastructure, how they said faranji and we said firangi. And we had compared the food—injera was the dosa’s cousin after all, even though an English friend had referred to it as “shoulder pad". The most striking difference was the people. Ethiopians were proud, assured of their culture. If they said angels came down to build the rock-cut churches of Lalibela and St George helped them win battles, then so be it, goddamnit.
Ethiopia is one of two African countries that resisted European colonization, so they haven’t been marked by postcolonial scars. The Italians stayed six years before they were booted out, and, in a stroke of genius and a rare instance of postcolonial triumph of socking it to the invaders, Ethiopians now eat pasta on a generous plate of injera nicknamed talian yet abatu, or to hell with the Italians.
Coming from India, this defiance and subversion was a kind of marvel. I loved the punchiness of the Ethiopians, but didn’t want to get stoned by them. The lodge owner—an Italian man who had been there 30 years—admitted there had been problems with the locals. They weren’t so open to tourism, he said. There was an essential conflict between technology and culture. People were happy to use the plough. If you gave them an electrical appliance, they were not interested. “They don’t need anything from you."
Later, Yemi told us that stones had been used in recent student protests, and that conflict was brewing again between ethnic groups, particularly the Oromo and Amhara, in various parts of the country. I remembered our discussions in Charlotte, when we would talk about our backhomes. I always knew I could go back to India, but for Yemi, at the time, it was less of an option. Ethiopia had not had a decade without war and upheaval. Every family had lost fathers, brothers, uncles. Things are different now, hopeful. The country is Africa’s fastest-growing economy, their prime minister brokered a historic (but fragile) peace treaty with Eritrea last year, but ethnic agitations are still a concern.
“You know," Carlo joked, “Fascism seems to be making a comeback in Italy these days. Who knows? Before you know it, we might be back here." To which Yemi said, “Perfect, that’s exactly what we need to unify the different ethnic groups and kick you out again. Ethiopia could really use a common enemy right now."
The consensus at the Lodge was that if we could muster the energy, we should make a day trip to Dallol in the Danakil desert, on the border of Djibouti, Ethiopia and Eritrea—one of the lowest, driest, hottest place on the planet. I had read about the Danakil in Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands. Thesiger, who was born in a mud hut in Addis Ababa, had loved the hostility and wildness of the Danakil. He had travelled there after emperor Haile Selassie’s coronation in 1930 and wrote about the starkness of that landscape and the ferocity of the Afar people who lived there and sometimes lopped off testicles for trophies and snuff pouches. Things are less volatile now, but you still need to organize permits and travel with a driver, guide, pathfinder and local policeman armed with a gun.
We left at 4.30 in the morning, leaving behind the cool mountain air, descending into canyons. The Afar are Muslim, and in the ramshackle towns we passed, we saw men in sarongs and caps, women in hijabs, roadside food stalls where you could get coffee and breakfast. By the time we reached the salt flats it was already past 9, the temperature was 46 degrees Celsius and we were at 125m below sea level. Men toil in this sun for salt blocks that they wrap in straw and load on their camels’ backs. In centuries past, salt was bartered for gold. Some still transport these blocks along ancient trade routes all the way to Mekele. Others stop after three days to load them on to trucks, spending their money on booze and women before going back to the flats.
We drove into this otherworldly landscape, passing dried clumps of earth that had risen like giant mushrooms or rotting teeth. Acres and acres of it. Not a tree in sight. Everything horizontal and spread out except for the salt towers, mesas, that rose haphazardly from the ground, their throats cut by abrasions from the desert wind. When we arrived in Dallol, the northernmost point of the Rift Valley, an area of intense tectonic and volcanic activity, it was like stepping on to another planet. A giant mosaic of calderas, geysers, hot springs, sulphur jets—pungent, bubbling and oozing like sores, the air sour and tangy. In the distance, remnants of potash factories. Everywhere, this molten landscape. We walked slowly, breathing as lightly as possible. This is where the fossil of Lucy, one of our oldest hominid ancestors, had been found. This is where millions of years from now, an ocean will once again be made.
“How bored are you of all this, Haile?" we asked our guide, who visits twice a week in the high tourist season. We were leaning over a small lake cut into the salt flat. The water is like a miracle. He laughed: “Not boring at all. It is different every time."
Visitors to Ethiopia often remark on its quality of timelessness. Part of it has to do with the way it was isolated for so long, how steeped it is in tradition. But the real reason time is different here is because in 1582, when the most of the world switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian, Ethiopia decided not to. And so sunrise starts at 1 o’clock, Christmas falls in January, and it can successfully advertise 13 months of sunshine in the year. When we landed there last month, it was 2011.
On our last day in Gheralta, we visited the church of Abuna Yemata Guh, which sits at 2,580m. Many of the legends of the about 120 monolithic churches that were cut out from these mountains involve a rooster, a voice from above whispering the location of the secret path. We walked with our guide and a group of scouts navigating us through the crags. Pre-cambrian pink rock gleamed from crevices. At one point, we removed our shoes and had to scale a 30m vertical rock. I told myself that women carrying babies in shawls on their backs do this, so surely I can too.
Further up, there was another test of faith. The final narrow stone bridge that leads to the mouth of the church has no railing to hold on to and a 300m drop. There is no way to do this but to face the mountain, place your hands on its stone and move slowly sideways till you reach the end. You cannot, must not, look down.
Inside the church, it is like Ali Baba’s cave of wonders. The frescoes on the ceilings and pillars date from the fifth century. The guide tells us stories about the nine Syrian priests who are supposed to have brought Christianity to Ethiopia. By this point, I had been told so many origin stories they had all merged in my head.
It doesn’t really matter, because what happens is you sit on the floor and watch the kaleidoscopic parade of history around you. Men on horses decorated with strings of cowrie shells, apostles with chic striped vestments and turbans, a lion, a dog with a sickle, a luminous Madonna and child.
I think of all the frescoes we have seen in the churches of Lalibela and Gheralta, how all the characters have been Coptic, with large black eyes, nothing like the blond version of Jesus in European churches. I think of the many pilgrims swathed in white, walking up the hill to prayer; of the young priests singing matins in Ge’ez, the liturgical language of the church. I think about returning here with Yemi, of how we once jumped out of an aeroplane and skydived into a North Carolina field, of the adventures we may still have.
I think of everything but climbing back on to that terrifying ledge to make the journey down—sometimes, for the faithless, being in the presence of other people’s faith is a kind of faith.
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