South to Sicily: Part Two – Maratea to the Toe of the Boot

Normally in November we’d head to warmer climes south of the equator, but it was payback time for an extended stay in Africa, and the Italian homeland of Donna’s ancestors was calling.  We’d realized for awhile that Italy was going to be the most expensive part of our two-year journey.  Even with a very favorable exchange rate, traveling through Italy in the off-season was the best way for us to afford this portion of the trip. We’d keep our fingers crossed about Italy’s rainy season. Grey clouds hung low and were as thick as tiramisu as we neared Paestum.  Known for its ancient Greek temples dating from 550 BC, we had planned to stop there, but the day was just too damp and dreary. We drove on to Maratea.

The weather improved, with the sun occasionally making an appearance as we turned off the E45 and headed west, through a rural hilly landscape covered with trees and olive orchards, to the Tyrrhenian coast. Here again most hotels and restaurants were closed for the season, but we found a very nice, four-room Bed & Breakfast in Acquafredda, just above Maratea.  This part of Basilicata resembled the Amalfi Coast with its narrow cliff-hugging road and rocky coves.  It’s one of the regions where Italian families head to escape the crush of foreign tourists that descends on Italy during the summer months. It also makes Basilicata one of the few Italian provinces that borders two seas. The road narrowed to a single lane as we entered the old village.

Fortunately, Donna spotted the traffic light that dictated the direction of traffic flow through the narrow passage before an oncoming bus would have forced us to back down the lane.  We had a little difficulty finding La Giara until we realized it was down at the end of a rutted farm lane more suitable for a tractor than a sedan.  Run by a gracious older couple who patiently dealt with our rudimentary Italian, the inn was wonderful, with our upstairs room having a view of the distant sea. We were the only guests. The turquoise waters and the pebbly, black sand beach of Spiaggia Acquafredda were a short walk away from the inn. We had the shoreline to ourselves one crisp morning as we walked along its frothy surf.

The sun’s golden rays were now shining on the sea as we drove along the serpentine road into Maratea for dinner. We’ve found that even though many tourist establishments are closed in the off-season there is always someone who stays open year-round to cook for his friends and neighbors.  And with their reputations online with a discerning community we’ve found that these very local places are inexpensive and great.  Ristorante Pizzeria Sapore Di Mare did not disappoint us with its variety of fresh seafood and pasta dishes, and we ended up having three meals there over two days.  Blame it on the off-season.   There were not any streetlights or shoulders along this cliff hugging road. Fortunately, there was a solid stone guardrail and no oncoming traffic when we rounded a curve and our car’s headlights lit up a man and woman raking hedge cuttings into the middle of our right lane.  A quick zig zag avoided catastrophe as screams filled the night air inside and outside of the car. Our hearts were pounding after such a close call!

Breakfast the next morning was delicious though a little strained by our lack of Italian until the husband’s eyes widened when we expressed interest in the olive oil that was served with the homemade bread. Pridefully he brought us small tastings of different olive pressings. A large olive orchard was their true livelihood, and this time of year they were busy harvesting the first olives of the season and pressing them for this coveted golden liquid.

We hadn’t done much research on this part of our trip, only knowing that we would encounter some stunning coastline, so we were pleasantly surprised when we found ourselves in the picturesque, man-made harbor of Marina di Maratea.  A small port, with an assortment of pleasure craft and fishing boats, it embraces the coast under a towering 2113-foot-high Monte San Biagio. The mountain is topped with a statue of Christ the Redeemer that is visible for miles along the Tyrrhenian coast.

The day was brilliant and with café on the quay at the aptly named Bar Del Porto we planned our ascent of Monte San Biagio. We were relieved to find we could drive to the top of the mountain, a revered pilgrimage site that celebrates the fourth century martyr San Biagio who is credited with several miracles in Maratea, the most important of which was shielding the town from Charles VIII’s French cannon fire during an attempted invasion in the 1400s. As proof of his intervention, next to the altar in the basilica there is a cannonball with a mysterious fingerprint pressed into the iron; it is believed to be San Biagio’s, left there when he deflected the shot with his hands. Legend states that his relics arrived in Maratea in 723 when a ship carrying them from Turkey to Rome for safety was mysteriously stopped by a bright beam of light from the sky; the vessel was unable to sail forward until the relics of the saint were removed from the ship and brought to the mountaintop. A church was then built over the ruins of an ancient Greek temple dedicated to the pagan goddess Athena.  Maratea celebrates San Biagio’s feast day every May by carrying his silver statue from the basilica in a processional, on the shoulders of teams of men, down the steep mountainside trail. It is a journey of 4-5 hours into the center of town, through streets filled with the faithful, to Maratea’s oldest church, Saint Vitus, built in the 9th century. 

During the high season you are not permitted to drive all the way to the basilica. Instead, for a small fee, a shuttle bus delivers you to the church. In November luck was with us and we were able to zoom up the elevated switchbacks that seemed to float ethereally above the steep slope to the parking lot.  The only other vehicle in the lot was a truck belonging to workers repairing the church roof. Regrettably, mid-week, the church was closed.

A gentle sloped walkway led to the summit past the stone ruins of old Maratea. Founded by Greeks over two-thousand years ago, they occupied the hilltop for centuries before the lower village was built in the 11th century to accommodate an expanding populace.  The landscape around the ruins was dotted with fragrant wild fennel for which Maratea got its name (from the Greek word marathus, wild fennel.) In the mountains behind the church the clouds were almost low enough to cover the tiny Hermitage of Our Lady of the Olive Trees that sits isolated in the rugged terrain.

In 1963, Italian sculptor Bruno Innocenti was commissioned to create a statue of Christ to crown the summit.  His youthful portrayal of Jesus without a beard, made from poured concrete mixed with crushed marble from the famous quarries in Carrara, faces East, inland toward the rugged mountains and the church that holds San Biagio’s relics.  Standing 70ft high with an arm span 62ft wide, it is the fifth tallest statue of Christ in the world.

The views up and down the rugged coastline and inland were spectacular. Maratea is also known as “the Holy City of Southern Italy,” so named because the small town has 44 churches. We were excited when we spotted several tiny bell towers in the distant village from the overlook.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the newer village which lines the slope of a valley that leads to the sea. Archeological evidence found in local caves reveals that the area has been inhabited since the Stone Age.

Far below the Statue of Christ the Redeemer, steep cobbled alleys branched off the main road and wove their way up the lower slope of the hill, past centuries-old homes worn by the elements.

Occasionally trees and vines sprouted through the cracked sidewalks and clutched the walls. It felt like the village was deserted. Nearing the end of the day we found a wonderful vantage point to capture the silhouette of the village and the valley against a colorful sunset.

Only a two-hour train ride from Naples, Maratea, Basilicata’s “pearl of the Tyrrhenian Sea” has stayed off the radar of foreign tourists and remains “the Amalfi without the crowds,” and one of “Italy’s best kept secrets.” It’s definitely an area worth exploring in greater depth.

The next morning, we contemplated driving 2.5 hours along the scenic coast to Lamezia Terme, where we would connect to route E45 and continue south through the Calabria region to the ferry port in Villa San Giovanni, on the toe of the boot, across from Sicily. 

Fearing I would insist on stopping too many times along the coastal route to take pictures, we opted to head inland for the drive instead.  The day got warmer as we proceeded further south through a verdant landscape of rolling hills covered with olive trees or freshly tilled fields.

Spotting the seaside town of Scilla from the highway, we decided to detour for awhile since we were making good time. Famous in Greek mythology for its legendary sea monster, Scylla, the town is set dramatically high on the cliffs that front the sea. Castello Ruffo commands a hooked promontory below the town.

Its defenses that once protected the village from invasion are now just a historic backdrop for a wide crystalline beach that sparkled brilliantly in the afternoon sun.

Back on the highway we stopped to refuel and have lunch before boarding the ferry in Villa San Giovanni to cross to Messina, Sicily.  Back in the states we would only eat at a highway rest stop if we were desperate. In Italy, we eagerly searched for them, since there we found them to be gourmet havens for travelers. They serve delicious plain or grilled panini, pizza, and of course good espresso.  They also usually have an interesting assortment of snacks for later, as well as the usual assortment of souvenirs. Yes, magnets and coffee mugs. But also a candy known as Pocket Espresso! After making our purchases, we picnicked under a tree on the edge of the parking lot which overlooked the Strait of Messina.

The powerful currents that race through this narrow strait have been legendary since the time of Homer, when Greek sailors first started to explore the unknown waters around southern Italy.  The dangerous opposing currents on either side of the strait personified in the Odyssey as the mythical sirens Scylla and Charybdis who lured unwary mariners to their deaths in their turbulent waters.  The phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis,” refers to being stuck in a difficult situation with poor options, similar to the common expression, between a rock and a hard place.

After stopping to get our ticket stamped, we drove aboard the Giuseppe Franza, operated by Caronte & Tourist, and parked on the car deck amidst a variety of large commercial and private vehicles. We stood outside on the passenger deck as the ship’s powerful engines easily pushed the 308ft ferry, capable of carrying 600 passengers and 120 cars, off the dock for the forty-minute crossing to Messina.  So different from the ancient Greek bireme that Odysseus’s men would have rowed on their journey.

Our destination was the coastal town Taormina. Fortunately, we didn’t have to row there.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Dubrovnik: Dragons and Castles

Our first glimpse of Dubrovnik caught us by surprise as we rounded a curve on Croatia’s RT 8. Its thick limestone walls and brilliant red tile roofs, saturated with color, reflected brilliantly on cobalt blue Adriatic Sea.  Its nickname “pearl of the Adriatic” rightly earned.

Fortunately, mid-October was considered off-season and we were able to find a wonderful apartment, Old Town Sunrise Apartments just steps away from the Babic’ Bakery and the 14th century Vrata od Ploča or East Gate with its ancient drawbridge.  The agony of lugging our bags up three flights of stairs was rewarded with gorgeous views from our roof windows, since the studio apartment was directly across the harbor from Fort St. Ivana. 

We couldn’t have asked for a better location. The sunrises and sunsets were spectacular over the Adriatic and the citadel.  A brilliant Hunters’ Moon one night was an added bonus, as was watching a group of elderly friends take an early morning swim, their daily ritual.

Fort St. Ivana today houses an interesting maritime museum and aquarium, but when it was built in the 16th century its canons protected the city-state’s merchant fleet from the Venetians and Ottomans.  Over the centuries Dubrovnik’s maritime merchants rivaled Venice’s with trade representatives in Goa, India and the Cape Verde Islands off Africa’s Atlantic coast.  Its merchant fleet even traded during the Middle Ages with the English court of Elizabeth the First.

Blame it on Drogon! Since the medieval fantasy Game of Thrones was filmed in Dubrovnik the city has lost its previous reputation as an under-visited and affordable destination on the sunny shores of the Adriatic.  Ever since the TV show’s premiere in 2011 the city has become a mecca, big time, for fans eager to visit the show’s filming locations.  Thankfully, it hasn’t risen to placards of “Jon Snow slept here” or “Rhaegal roasted a nobleman on our roof” level yet.

We had been on our journey fifteen months now and aside from a brief stay in London, Dubrovnik was by far the most expensive destination.  I think this explains why we saw so many people walking down Stradun, the city’s main pedestrian boulevard, eating slices of pizza.  The impact of these high prices was especially acute since the affordability of Kotor, Montenegro (only a short drive away) was still fresh in our minds.  It was actually easier to find an affordable restaurant in London.  It was captive pricing for sure within the fortress walls that encircle Old Town and the only reprieve was to eat in the new town portion of Dubrovnik, outside the citadel. 

Stradum, aka Placa (Stradone or Corso) is the city’s pedestrian-only main boulevard, running 300 yards east to west, connecting both ancient gates and harbors on either side of town.  For us it was too pristine.  An unfair comment, as this resulted when Dubrovnik was rebuilt after the 1991 Balkans War, when the city was shelled for seven months from the top of the mountain above town. Two hundred eighty civilians and soldiers were killed during that prolonged bombardment. Today an aerial tram takes you there for panoramic views. Shrapnel scars, signs of the conflict, remain etched into the stone walls on some buildings.  But the newness of the polished limestone boulevard running past upscale shopping reminded us of an amusement park.

We were drawn into the narrow, arched alleys with steep stairs that climbed the hills and weaved through older neighborhoods on either side of Stradum. The farther away from Stradum we got, the more the crowds diminished. 

Our other alternative was to walk along the fortress walls that encircle the city for slightly over a mile.  Thirteen to twenty feet thick and towering eighty feet high in some sections, the walls once held 120 cannons to protect the city from land or sea attack.  This walk is a popular activity with fast moving tour groups, but we found if we just let them pass there would be a tranquil void until the next group which allowed us to linger in one spot for a while. 

Standing above the West Gate and looking down the Stradum was a prime view that included the circular Large Onofrio’s Fountain built in 1438 and which still supplies fresh spring water, from mountains miles away, to carved faces that spurt water. Farther down the Franciscan Church and Monastery houses the oldest continuously operating pharmacy in the world dating to 1317 in its muraled cloister. Farther along the wall there were several small cafes and stairs that lead to roped off swimming areas at the sea’s edge.

At the far end of Stradum the city’s 100 ft tall clock and belltower zooms skyward over an area that was once the city market in the 1400s. Famously the belltower has two bronze figures named Maro and Baro, zelenci (green) twins that strike the bell on the quarter, half and full hour.  Interestingly, several generations of the same family have maintained the clockworks for over 100 years. Next door the 14th-century Gothic-Renaissance style Rector’s Palace exhibits vestiges of Dubrovnik’s history. Especially noteworthy were the intricately carved exterior columns.

Across the street the statue of golden statue of Saint Blaise cradling a model Dubrovnik on his arm crowns his church.

The city’s 16th century granary and mill has undergone a beautiful and innovative renovation and now houses the Etnografic Museum Rupe. It has a prominent collection of Croatian Cultural items, particularly traditional attire from the regions surrounding Dubrovnik.

Weddings are a boisterous affair in Dubrovnik, with the bride and groom following a flag waving entourage parading through the pedestrian-only streets on the way to their church ceremony.

Walking east one morning away from the city, along Ul Frana Supila, a quiet road that hugs the water, a small village ambiance prevailed with colorful homes, flowering plants and wild pomegranate trees set into the hillside. 

Villas for the well to do, many built on the ruins of previous civilizations, line the road, beautiful none the less. Bored? There was a rainbow-colored selection of wheels for rent at the exotic car dealer to satisfy that zoom, zoom craving. 

Eventually the road narrowed and a chain across it prevented cars from going farther along a treacherous, serpentine stretch that hugs the cliff face.  The road used to connect back to the highway near one of the scenic overlooks.  But it was determined to be too dangerous when its guardrails tumbled down the cliff into the sea.  Now only walkers and bicyclists use it to traverse a dramatic section of the coast. 

A memorial, Spomen ploča žrtvama komunističkog terora, to victims of the communist terror, stands on a curve in the road. It commemorates the lives of five young Yugoslavian partisans thrown from the cliff to their deaths by communist “liberation forces” loyal to Marshal Tito at the end of WWII.

Across from Dubrovnik’s West Gate and harbor, the 11th century Fort Lovrijenac, the “Gibraltar of the Adriatic,” sits atop a towering rock monolith 121 feet above the sea. Climbing to the top of the citadel along well-worn footpaths and stairs satisfied us with great views back across the harbor of walled Dubrovnik and kayakers paddling along in the cove below.

Many kayaking tours leave from West Harbor. Today Lovrijenac’s walls, some reaching a thickness of 39 feet, support theater and music productions during the summer months.  The dramatic setting is also the backdrop for Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series and Knightfall, a historical fiction TV drama about the Knights Templar. 


Behind the fortress, wandering the narrow lanes along the water’s edge felt like we were in a quaint seaside village.

We thought the Three-Day Dubrovnik Card was a good value for us, since it offered free entrance to six museums, two galleries and the city walls, as well as six free rides on the local buses. Staying just outside the fortress walls permitted us to avoid a premium room rate yet allowed us easy entry into the citadel early in the mornings and to find those quiet vignettes and ancient architectural details hidden amidst dramatic shadows.

 For moments we felt like we had this beautiful medieval city all to ourselves.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Kotor Part 4: The Ladder of Kotor, Camel Tracks and Pirates

The water barely ripples on the inner reaches of Boka Bay when a storm rages across the Adriatic Sea. The steep walls of the fjord created the perfect harbor to shelter ancient fleets of merchant sailing vessels. Three-thousand years ago starting with Greek triremes and later Roman galleys, the vessels carrying goods through the Adriatic to ports along the Mediterranean were mainly rowed.  The ancient Greeks mostly relied on free men as paid rowers while the Romans used slave labor to expand their empire and propel their merchant fleets.

The city of Kotor was essentially a land locked island until an ancient foot path was widened by the Romans in the 1st century into a cobbled road, six to eight feet wide in many places, with stone retaining walls that zigzagged up the mountain four miles and climbed 3100 ft in altitude, about a five- hour trek.  Going downhill was much faster and more difficult for the camel trains. The danger here was if the camels were going too fast and couldn’t round the tight switchbacks, lost their balance and fell off the trail to their deaths.  The camel wranglers definitely had a difficult task on this route. The caravan trail remained the only land route into Kotor until 1897, when the Austrians built the road that now leads from Kotor to Cetinje.

This early example of infrastructure improvement resulted from Rome’s war against the Illyrian Kingdom after it refused to stop their piracy of Roman merchant ships. The empire determined that an overland trade route connecting to Constantinople/Istanbul and the Silk Road from China was needed as a safe alternative.  Eventually a spiderweb of caravan trails and Roman roads spread across the Balkans. Cilician pirates in the eastern Mediterranean were also creating havoc, at one point kidnapping a young Julius Caesar on a voyage to Rhodes. Piracy continued to be a problem for the Venetians with Omis pirates in the 11th to 13th centuries and later Uskok buccaneers from Croatia pillaged along the Adriatic until the 1600s.  Barbarossa, the notorious Ottoman pirate, commanded a fleet of swashbucklers that were the scourge of the Mediterranean at this time, raiding Spanish and Venetians merchant vessels and selling Christians into slavery. European empires also tolerated and endorsed pirates as long as they were “our pirates.”  Piracy persisted on the waters of the Adriatic and Mediterranean for so long because the rugged coastline had many small islands and hidden inlets to shelter the pirates.

Romanticized views of pirates persist today with the popular adventure movie franchise Pirates of the Caribbean, featuring a beguiling Captain Jack Sparrow, and the TV series Black Sails.  Interestingly there is a Japanese anime film about fictitious air piracy on the Adriatic Sea called Porco Rosso which is based on a 1992 short graphic novel called Hikōtei Jidai (飛行艇時代, The Age of the Flying Boat). It’s entertaining and worth checking the Porco Rosso film trailer.

The afternoons in mid-October were still quite hot so we planned for an early start from our apartment in the center the historic district.  This coincided with the young parents of old town escorting their children through the still shadowed alleys to the Vrata od Škurde, the River Gate, which was constructed in 1539 to celebrate a naval victory over Barbarossa, now an Ottoman admiral. We found ourselves behind an orthodox priest holding the hand of his daughter as we crossed the first and then second bridge that spanned the Scurda.  The Scurda is a wide, shallow stream that bubbles to the surface from beneath the tall rock escarpment that the Ladder of Kotor climbs and flows into Boka Bay. This area on the far side of the bridge was for centuries the market for all the goods brought down the trail from afar or from farms in the mountains to be sold or bartered for.

The old caravan trail starts behind the waterworks where the underground spring emerges and zigzags often in the tight confining space at the bottom of the gorge. The trail continued in the shadow of once towering fortress walls now humbled by earthquakes before the ravine widened out and the distance between the switchbacks increased.  There are seventy switchbacks in total if you chose to trek all the way to Krstac pass where the trail ends near Restaurant Nevjesta Jadrana. Here you can zipline over part of the trail you just hiked up, or catch a taxi or local bus back to Kotor or onto Cetinje.  Hiking back to Kotor is also an option for the hardy.

Our plans were more modest, just wanting to hike to a vantage point above the Castle of San Giovanni, Kotor Fortress, for views over the bay.  The cobbled road and retaining walls have seen better days having been damaged in the 1979 earthquake.  While the fortress has been repaired, maintenance of the caravan trail has been forgotten.  Though many sections of it are in better shape than the stairs to the Castle of San Giovanni and not as bad as some city sidewalks across Europe. Still you need to be aware of your footing and wear sturdy shoes.

It was a gentle hike through a rock-strewn hillside dotted with grasses, small shrubs, occasional pomegranate trees and wild thyme.  Off in the distance unseen donkeys could be heard braying. The pomegranates were just ripening, but were all teasingly just inches out of reach, too far from the trail’s edge.  The views were fantastic from many spots and there were two rustic taverns to stop at along the way to rest.  The lower one was closed for the season, but the higher one referred to as the Cheese Shop, on Google maps, is located where the trail veers off towards the deserted village of Spiljari, which is located under the back ramparts of San Giovanni Fortress. 

I think we were the innkeeper’s first customers of the day, and we ordered two espressos while we rested on the shaded porch.  After serving us he crossed to a refrigerator on the other side of the room to get himself a shot of chilled rakija. Being a good host, he offered us some. It was ten in the morning.  We politely declined. Though I’m sure it would have had wonderful medicinal qualities in case of any mishaps.

The village of Spiljari is over 1,000 years old and was abandoned when its water source went dry. Now trees grow between the half walls of a dozen buildings and the ruins of the Church of St John remain standing.  The ruins of the church alone are worth the detour. 

Slowly decaying, colorful remnants of what one only could imagine were beautiful frescoes remain on walls open to the weather. 

From here you can see a ladder to a small portal in the side wall of the fortress. The Ladder of Kotor? We are not sure if the name refers specifically to this or to the climb in general.  Years ago, this was an alternative entrance into the fortress.  Now it is strictly an exit point for those who have paid the €8 entrance fee to the fortress and walked up the stairs from old town and wish to return to Kotor by the caravan trail.  Though you might be able to purchase a cold drink from an ice cooler manned by the ladder attendant.  

The sun was high in the sky when we made it above the castle and the view was spectacular. We sat for a while and imagined the history of the trail: how it conveyed ideas, merchandise, pilgrims and invaders over the centuries. 

Notably in the 1830s a team of fifty men carried an Italian billiard table up this track to the rightfully named Biljarda House, home to the beloved prince bishop and poet Petar II Petrovic. (Just imagine the amount of cursing involved in that endeavor.)  Years later when Petar II Petrovic was on his deathbed a procession carried him up this same track to the historic old capital, Cetinje.  A few months later Montenegrins would carry his successor and nephew Danilo II Petrović-Njegoš to Cetinje to rule.

And although we took many photographs on the trek up, we took even more of the ever changing view as we descended back into town.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Omo Valley Part 5: The Devil’s Doorstep and Whipping Scars

Below us, down an extremely steep embankment, a dugout canoe waited to take us across the Omo River to visit the Dassanech tribe.  “If we trip, we are going for a swim,” I mentioned to our guide. “Don’t worry, the crocodiles are further downstream, closer to the delta,” he replied with his dry sense of humor, as several people helped us down to the water. 

Sitting low in the water, the dugout canoe was stable like a kayak and large enough for three of us. Standing on the stern, a tribesman poled us upstream for a distance before letting the current take us across the river to the equally steep, opposite bank. 

At the top of the riverbank freshly tilled fields, bordered with narrow irrigation canals, gave way to a flat dry landscape that extended to the horizon. The Dassanech are the southernmost tribe in the Omo valley, and their territory extends south to the Kenyan border at Lake Turkana and west to South Sudan.  Even with the river and lake nearby it’s a dry inhospitable terrain that has suffered from years of extended drought and climate change.  The temperature often exceeds 110°F. Consequently, as cross border tensions over diminishing grazing lands have increased, the Ethiopian government has discouraged the nomadic ways of the Dassanech.  In exchange for reducing the size of their cattle herds the government is helping them farm along the banks of the Omo River by providing resources and irrigation pumps.

We entered the village through an opening in the corral that encircled it. Roughly made of tree branches, it serves to keep cattle in and hyenas out at night. Low dome-shaped huts called miede constructed from foraged branches, twigs, river reeds and leaves used to be covered in cowhide for protection from dust storms and infrequent rains.  Now corrugated tin is used instead as there are fewer cattle to slaughter.

The huts must be roasting hot inside! Children hoop rolled an old bicycle tire along the irrigation canal while others played with empty water bottles tied to sticks as tribeswomen sat in the meager shade provided by huts.

The more plentiful shade of the few large, ancient trees still standing by the river is reserved for the men of the village and is off-limits to women and children.

This unforgiving environment created the atmosphere of a desolate refugee camp whose tribespeople were awaiting an unknown future.  To borrow a phrase, it felt like “the doorstep to hell.” I don’t say this to be derogatory, but to describe the intensely harsh environment. It’s remarkable that roughly 20,000 Dassanech can survive in such brutal, extreme conditions.  In such an environment, people wear very little clothing except when going to town. 

Visiting the Dassanech gave us a new understanding of the effects of climate change and the desire to migrate as a consequence of it. As we left the village, some of the tribeswomen had gathered to display their crafts. There is a social contract that, aside from paying for photos, tourists should purchase handcrafts from the villagers. It’s an additional way to help.

Back across the river, we stopped for a late lunch at a small place along the road, before heading to a Hamar village near Turmi. Outside the restaurant was a small collection box for the local church. 

Just a little aside: we had no intestinal issues with the food during our time in Ethiopia. The pit toilets, on the other hand, were truly frightening and we are convinced that they could only be mastered if you grew up with them. The privacy of a “bush toilet” behind a large termite mound was the more sanitary alternative.  And bring hand sanitizer!  (Surprisingly, after a year on the road, we only succumbed to food poisoning when we were back in Europe.)

A brief torrential rain dampened the dust and cleaned the air as we headed for the afternoon’s destination.

The golden hour was quickly descending when we arrived in the Hamar village and we only had a short time to work our way around the village before the sun disappeared behind a cloud bank. 

We were supposed to camp overnight in the village, an activity my adventuresome, good sport of a wife reluctantly agreed to when we planned this portion of our tour. “It will be fun!” I reassured her at the time. But seeing our pup tent set up in a small corral surrounded by dried cow dung and imagining how we would deal with a bush toilet in the darkness of the savanna, I had my doubts. I had imagined more of a glamping experience. Thinking of our aching backs in the morning from sleeping on the ground without any kind of padding, we asked our guide for plan B. 

Since the guides would have been participating in this camping adventure with us, they didn’t put up much argument about changing plans. This brought us to a comfortable room at the Buska Lodge, an eco-inn isolated in the thorn tree-studded savanna outside Turmi.  It was an oasis after a long and hot day. By the time we arrived the generator and water had been turned on.  At dinner we discussed returning to the Hamar village the next day, but early enough in the afternoon to give us enough time to enjoy the tribe and their village.

Early the next afternoon, before we entered Turmi, we crossed a dry riverbed where several teams of men were digging deep into the sand to find water. Towns without any water infrastructure rely on these hardworking and enterprising men to fill the ubiquitous yellow jerry cans with water and deliver them by donkey cart to people’s homes. It was another sign of climate change that reinforced its dire consequences.

The men of the village were still out with the cattle herds, but we were greeted by a throng of women and children.  The Hamar are known for their tradition of “bull jumping” or “bullah,” a purification and rite of passage ceremony for young tribesmen to prove their worthiness for marriage. It’s a complex ritual that culminates with the young man jumping over the backs of 10 bulls, which are smeared with dung to be slippery, four times without falling. If he falls he will have to wait a year until he’s allowed to try again.

We did not witness a bullah; what we did see were the results of the whipping ceremonies that precede the bull jumping. Displayed on the bare backs of the women of the village were large raised scars, which were inflicted by the men; the women receive the beatings as a show of loyalty.  Before the bull jumping, the sisters and other female relatives of the initiates from the surrounding villages gather, and with sorghum beer brewed for the occasion dance, sing and blow horns.  As the dancing intensifies the women are said to ask, beg, or provoke the maza, young men who bull jumped but haven’t married yet, to whip them with long birch branches called miceres.  This act of scarification is a visual reminder of the women’s loyalty to the young man about to bull jump and earns them the right to his help in the future should they ever need it.  “If your sisters, female cousins, or aunties need your assistance in the future your debt to them is sealed. You can’t ignore their requests, period. After all, they nearly died for you!” 

By western morals this is a brutal practice, but with the Hamar it’s an ancient ritual that has been performed for centuries. They have a saying, “Women with scars are as strong as lions!”

The Hamar tribeswomen are also very distinctive with their dress, wearing long goatskin garments adorned with cowry shells and beads.  The first wife of a tribesman wears an iron neck ring with a protruding knob on the front, called a binyere, that visually distinguishes her status as the first wife, above two esente, simple iron collars, that she has worn since her engagement.  The collars are permanently placed on the woman by the village blacksmith and only removed by her husband upon her death. Additional wives only wear simple metal necklaces to indicate their lower status.

We stayed late into the day, wandering through the village watching children play atop the cattle corrals while waiting for the herds to return and the sky slowly deepen to darkness.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Lalibela Part 3: Sacred Bees and Holy Beer

IMG_3424Walking, walking, walking! The countryside is full of folks out and about on their feet. There is a rural minibus network connecting larger villages once a day, and Lalibela has tuk-tuks, of course. But mostly, whether it’s due to lack of affordability or availability, people walk to and from everywhere. Sometimes it is necessary to travel great distances to accomplish simple, everyday tasks like gathering water, heading out to tend a remote field, going to market, or even farther to visit a doctor. IMG_5294In the rugged agrarian highlands surrounding Lalibela, all the fields are tilled by farmers walking behind teams of oxen, as it has been done for centuries, on farmland passed down through a communal hereditary system called rist.  IMG_5277

The land does not belong to an individual but to the descendants who can never sell, keeping the land in the family for perpetuity.  Without mechanization, planting, weeding and harvesting are done communally.  If the rains are good excess crops make it to a local market; if not, it’s subsistence farming until the drought ends.  Some NGOs are having an impact by drilling community wells for fresh water and remote irrigation.

We passed many individuals and groups walking as we made our way into the beautiful highlands surrounding Lalibela to visit St. Yemrehana Krestos Church, named for the king that commissioned its construction around 1100 AD.

It’s only 12 miles from Lalibela as the crow flies, and until the road was put in not too long ago, a two-day trek from town.  Now, twenty-six miles of dirt road and an hour and half later we were there, a world away from Lalibela.

The path to the church took us across a footbridge spanning a boulder-strewn stream where women were washing clothes in the rushing water below. They agilely jumped from rock to rock as they spread their laundry out to dry.  As we headed uphill, we stopped at the bottom of a set of stairs to wait for a group of church elders to cautiously descend.

Situated at 8500 ft above sea level, the altitude was catching up to us and we were glad to sit for a while in front of the church to admire its setting. St. Yemrehana Krestos is not a legendary rock church, but a cave church built at the mouth of a deep cavern, behind a tall slender waterfall.

It’s constructed in a distinctive pattern of horizontal stone block, followed by a recessed layer of timber in an architectural style copied from the Aksumite Kingdom that flourished from 400 BC until the 10th century AD. 

The cave is very spacious and actually contains two buildings. The second directly across from the church is thought to have been the king’s humble palace or treasury, according to our guide.  The door to it was open, but it appeared to be used mostly for storage now. The floor between the buildings is covered with reed mats that hide a substructure of large olive wood beams built over a shallow spring-fed pool that can be reached by a trapdoor in front of the church.

Behind the church are two tombs draped in fine cloth, to indicate their royal significance.  The larger tomb is thought to be the grave of King Yemrehana Krestos and the smaller one that of his slave, Ebna. Deeper into the cave there is a mass grave of several hundred now mummified bodies, which have been piled on top of each other for centuries, the corpses of pilgrims and monks who could go no further. 

It took our eyes awhile to adjust to the dim interior of the church as we worked our way through a columned interior, the tops crowned with wood and stone carved capitals.  Never restored, centuries of accumulated candle soot partially obscured an inlaid wooden ceiling with geometric designs and, on the walls, what are thought to be the oldest examples of mural paintings in Ethiopia.

Outside a local teenager was selling small clay figurines of animals. His rendering of a Walia ibex, native to the Ethiopian Semien Mountains, caught our eye and we made his day with a purchase.

Heading back, we passed Bilbala St. George Church, a rock church built in the 5th or 6th century AD by King Kaleb. It is legendary for its sacred bees that have lived in hives in the courtyard since its founding. Their honey is renowned for its healing properties, especially for the treatment of skin problems and psychological disorders.  We were crazy not to stop; in retrospect, we regret our decision.

Walking, walking, walking. Coming or going, people carrying umbrellas for shade traveling along with goats or chickens, for sale or for dinner – the road was crowded with activity as we drove through the village of Bilibala on its market day.

With no semblance of trying to attract tourists, we had a better chance of coming home with a donkey from the pre-owned animal auction lot than a souvenir.

Outside the village at the turn to our next stop, a magnificent ancient fig tree provided shade under its graceful canopy.

After walking briefly through a shady forest and crossing a narrow stream rock to rock we could see a large, what was once a turtle-shaped, monolithic rock rising from the ground before us, its front curve altered a millennium ago. The façade was chiseled smooth to be a high flat wall with an entry door centered in it.  This was the wall to the courtyard that surrounded the church; from the outside only a small section of the upper part of Bilbala Kirkos Church peaked above the wall.

Hearing us approach, the caretaker emerged from behind his home, swishing away pests with a cow tail fly-swatter as he approached, and told us that the church was locked because the priest was away in another village to attend a funeral, but we could go into the courtyard.

Shoes off, we crossed through an ancient threshold hewn in the 6th century AD into a spongy moss-lined trench that encircled the church on three sides and served as its courtyard. The eastern wall or back of the church was still attached to the living rock.  High arched windows were piled with stones to keep out birds and other critters.

Worn entry steps testified to centuries of use.  As we were getting ready to leave, the caretaker offered us tella, an Ethiopian home-brewed beer made from teff and sorghum grain and fermented with buckthorn. Out of concern for maintaining our good health, we passed on the offer, but our guide enjoyed it and shared that “tella is used for religious purposes when holy wine is not available.” Sacred bees and holy beer – we’re on to something here.

Cheers. Till next time, Craig & Donna

Lalibela Part 2: Holy Water and Thumbprints

There is not a definitive count, but it’s thought that there are nearly two hundred rock churches scattered about the remote northern highlands of Ethiopia. The highest concentration of eleven in one locale, collectively known as the “Rock Churches of Lalibela,” is the most famous. In the immediate rural area surrounding Lalibela there are several additional rock churches and ancient monasteries worth seeking out.  Asheten Mariam Monastery is perched at 11,500 ft on a lower ridge of Mount Abuna Yosef, (at 14,000 ft Ethiopia’s sixth highest mountain) and St. Na’akuto La’ab Monastery behind a waterfall, both located southeast of Lalibela. Farther afield, to the north of Lalibela, St. Yemrehana Krestos and Bilba Kirkos Church lie in remote farmlands.  All four required a little more physical effort to get to, but were well worth the effort.IMG_5573We started our day listening to bird calls and watching the morning clouds burn off from the valley below our hotel as the sun rose higher into the sky. The Mountain View Hotel Lalibela was the perfect spot on the outskirts of town, with extensive views and a wonderful variety of birdlife in the trees outside our room.  Farther along the ridgeline was an odd, futuristic structure that looked like it was a tower for a water ride in an amusement park.

The day before after touring the Lalibela churches, our guide suggested we hire a driver with an SUV to take us into the mountains. “We can drive to the end of the dirt track, but then it’s another forty-minute hike to the monastery,” Girma explained. “How difficult is the trek?” “It’s a gradual climb until the end and then there is a short steep section,” he replied. IMG_4869The shops were busy, and the roadside Ping-Pong games were in full swing as we departed Lalibela. The road into the mountains rose quickly from Lalibela into a semi-forested landscape. Too steep for crops, the land was used for cattle, which grazed on clumps of wild grasses on the hillside.  We stopped at one clearing for the view and noticed a herder gently nudging his cows away from recently planted tree seedlings.  “This is part of our government’s commitment to reverse deforestation and help mitigate climate change. It’s called the Green Legacy Initiative,” Girma shared. IMG_4923“On July 29th Ethiopians planted 350 million trees in a single day, a world record!” he proudly shared.  “The farmers know how important this is and help shoo the cattle away, but the government has also chosen a tree seedling that doesn’t taste good.” This annual Ethiopian project is part of the African Union’s Great Green Wall initiative to reclaim arid lands that border the Sahara Desert with a living wall of trees.  This belt of greenery will stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Aden. IMG_5198The road deteriorated after this, with deep mudded ruts tossing us from side to side regardless of how slowly we navigated through, over or around them. Our “rattled tourist syndrome” is the most appropriate way to describe the ride, while optimists might refer to it as an an “African deep tissue massage.” We were the only truck to park at the trailhead to the Asheten Mariam Monastery and were greeted with children selling handicrafts, and young men renting walking sticks and offering to accompany us on the hike.IMG_4883 Confident in our abilities we declined, but they tagged along anyway. This was a good thing. What our guide had forgotten to mention was that there was a short steep section at the beginning of the hike, before it leveled off. Within minutes, between the altitude and the terrain, our hearts were pumping and my wife, who struggles with asthma, was gasping for breath. We are unfortunately not the 7 second 0-60mph vroom, vroom of a 1964 Corvette anymore, but more like the putt-putt of a classic Citroën 2CV. We get there, eventually. So, our guide, forgetting his youth and our age, led the way from a distance, as if he was channeling Shambel Abebe Bikila, Ethiopia’s famous marathon runner. IMG_4983It was at this point that my wife spoke up. “Girma, you must think of me as the same age as your mother.” Instantly, his attitude became very solicitous, and he smilingly offered her a hand or other assistance at every opportunity. We marveled at the agility of the local kids. They nimbly scampered up and down the trail, easily outdistancing us, in order to set up their little trailside displays of carvings and beadednecklaces. When we didn’t purchase at first, they simply packed up and reappeared further up the trail. We had to reward such perseverance with a couple of purchases.IMG_4987Meanwhile, we regained our pace as the trail leveled off and tracked along the base of a cliff face that fell away to terraced farmland far below.  The incline of the trail continued to rise; the walking sticks were now invaluable in helping us steady our footing on the rough path.  Around a curve the trail abruptly narrowed at a sheer rock wall broken by a vertical chasm, slightly wider than our shoulders.

Occasionally we had to plaster ourselves to the rock wall to make room for descending parishioners to pass. It took a moment for our eyes to readjust to the brilliant sunlight after emerging from the darkness of the tunnel as we exited onto a plateau above the highlands. 

A young priest answered our knock, greeted us and led us into a small chamber lit only by the light of the open door. The priest proceeded to show us the treasures of the church: a large ebony cross, 900-year-old parchment manuscripts, elegant processional crosses and illuminated Bibles, as well as iconography. IMG_5069Imprinted at the bottom of a page in one ancient text were the thumbprints of the ten scribes who helped copy the book. Legend has it that it was the first church ordered built by King Lalibela during his reign in the twelfth century and that his successor, Na’akueto La’ab, who only ruled for a short time, is buried there.

The way the church is cut from the mountain made it difficult to get an overview as part of it is obscured by protective roofing. The real rewards of this endurance trek were the fantastic panoramic views over the Lalibela highlands.  Awareness of your surroundings are vital here as there are not any safety railings at the cliff edge. The walk back was slightly less difficult, but the young men who tagged along and assisted truly earned their payment. Back at the trailhead, parked next to our truck was a tiny blue, Fiat Panda, a sub-compact car with extremely low road clearance. How it managed to traverse the same rutted road we drove hours earlier remains a mystery to us.

Our guide suggested we lunch at Ben Abeba, a curious lunch spot that turned out to be that futuristic building visible from our hotel.  Its spiral ramps led to various dining platforms from which we watched raptors soaring along the updrafts of the ridge.  The food was exceptionally good. But there was a quirky feature of the restaurant that we found very amusing. The restrooms were something out of a science fiction movie, with cylindrical stalls that resembled cryogenic tubes. It was definitely a Lalibela oddity.

St. Na’akuto La’ab Monastery was closer to town. As with many rural communities, Lalibela included, the cluster of development ended abruptly, and we were instantly in the countryside. Villagers in robes walked purposefully to church along the road that bordered their fields, as we made our way to the hermitage. IMG_4722 Coming to the end of the road, we could see the monastery dramatically situated behind a small waterfall, in a long shallow cave at the bottom of a cliff.

It was an easy short walk, from where we parked, down a trail with noisy birdlife. The buildings behind the entrance wall to the cave are not particularly unique; it’s their location that’s inspiring. The oneness with the natural environment.IMG_4325Stone bowls smoothed from centuries of use sat in various places on the rough floor to collect the water seeping from the cave’s ceiling one drip at a time. It gets blessed by the priest and used as Holy water, continuing a tradition from the 12th century when King La’ab ordered the monastery’s creation.

“Miraculously the water has never stopped flowing since the monastery was built,” the priest shared as our guide interpreted. Outside doors to the monks’ cells lined the exterior wall as it narrowed into the cliff face.  IMG_4369In the learning area, layers of carpet attempted to smooth an uneven, rocky floor where the novitiates sit to learn the ways of the orthodox church. In the corner rested several large ceremonial drums used during worship services. Picking one up our guide beat out a rhythm that would normally accompany liturgical chanting, or Zema, by the young monks. We’ve noticed that the treasures of the Ethiopian churches are not determined by their monetary value and locked securely away, only to be used on religious holidays, but by their spiritual connection.  Precious, irreplaceable, ancient bibles and manuscripts, lovingly worn and torn as they are, continue to be used every day, as they have been for the last nine-hundred-years.IMG_4560 It is well worth the effort to visit these remote churches and monasteries. The physical strength required and hardships endured to build these remote churches as a testament of faith continues to be inspiring.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Lalibela Part 1: A Twisting Tale of Time, Pilgrims and Shoe Guards

IMG_1969Often overshadowed in recent decades by its East African neighbors recognized for their safaris, Ethiopia has been known to Western culture for millennia. It was first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, around 1000 BC (3,000 years ago!), when the Queen of Sheba, hearing of “Solomon’s great wisdom and the glory of his kingdom,” journeyed from Ethiopia with a caravan of treasure as tribute.  Unbeknownst to Solomon their union produced a son, Menilek, (meaning son of the wise man).  Years later, wearing a signet ring given to him by his mother, Menilek visited Jerusalem to meet Solomon and stayed for several years to study Hebrew. When his son desired to return home, Solomon gifted the Ark of the Covenant to Menilek for safe keeping in Ethiopia, and to this day it is said to reside in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in Aksum, where only a select few of the Ethiopian Orthodox church can see it.IMG_1662The story of the lost tribe of Israel or the Beta Israel (meaning House of Israel) begins with the 12,000 Israelites that Solomon sent to Ethiopia to help Menilek rule following biblical laws. According to legend, Menelik I founded the Solomonic dynasty that ruled Ethiopia with few interruptions for close to three thousand years. This ended 225 generations later, with the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.IMG_1754 Blasphemy, I know, but let’s not forget the Hollywood legend with Indiana Jones rescuing the arc from the Nazis, only to have it unceremoniously stored in an underground warehouse in the Nevada desert. That is an aside, but as the writer I’m allowed to digress.IMG_2177Around the same time that Ethiopia appears in the Hebrew Bible, the Greek writer Homer mentioned “Aethiopia” five times in the The Iliad and The Odyssey.  In the Histories written by Herodotus (440 BC,) the author describes traveling up the Nile River to the territory of “Aethiopia” which began at Elephantine, modern Aswan.

Ethiopian tradition credits the introduction of Christianity to an Ethiopian eunuch in 34 AD, who was baptized by Philip the Apostle. (Acts 8:26-39) He then preached near the palace in Aksum after returning from Israel.

Ethiopian ports on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden were important stops along the trade route that brought spices from India, along with ivory and exotic animals from Africa to the Roman Empire. In the 4th century AD, Ethiopia’s first Christian king, Ezana of Aksum, sent ambassadors to Constantinople, a newly Christian Byzantine Empire, setting the stage for debates about which country – Armenia, Ethiopia (330AD) or Byzantium – was the first Christian state. Archaeologists point to Ethiopian coins minted in the 4th century bearing a cross and Ezana’s profile as solid proof.

After Ezana’s declaration of Ethiopia as a Christian country, civil war broke out between the Christian and Jewish populations, resulting in the creation of a separate Beta Israel kingdom in the Semien Mountains around Gondar that lasted from the 4th century to 1632. IMG_1657 With the Ethiopian Orthodox Church having a site in Jerusalem since the sixth century, Ethiopian pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which took six months, were common until the route was blocked by Muslim conquests in 1100s and the journey became too hazardous. As it became surrounded further by Muslim territories, the country sank into isolation from Europe.  Ethiopia’s early history and its connection to Judaism and Christianity is a twisting tale, like caravan tracks across the desert, meeting then disappearing behind sand dunes, the story buried by the blowing sands of time.IMG_4066Distraught by this, King Lalibela commissioned eleven architecturally perfect churches, to be hewn from solid rock, to serve as a New Jerusalem complete with a River Jordan for pilgrims to visit. He based the designs on memories of holy sites from his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a young man.IMG_4015Considering the limited availability of tools in the 1100s, I can’t imagine what a daunting task this must have been. I’m sure the chief architect said, “you have to be kidding.”  It’s believed that 40,000 men, assisted by angels at night, labored for 24 years to create this testament to their faith.  Masons outlined the shape of these churches on top of monolithic rocks, then excavated straight down forty feet to create a courtyard around this solid block.  Doors would then be chiseled into the block and the creation of the church would continue from the inside, often in near total darkness.

European contact with Ethiopia was sporadic over these centuries, until the Portuguese circumnavigated the African continent in the late 1400s and began to establish trading ports along the East African coast.  Early in the 1500s the first European to visit the churches of Lalibela was Francisco Alvares, a Portuguese priest assigned to the Ethiopian court as an emissary.  He declared them a “wonder of the world,” penning “I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more… I swear by God, in Whose power I am, that all I have written is the truth.” It would be almost four hundred years before the next European, Gerhard Rohlfs, a German cartographer, laid eyes on them in the late 1860s.

The magnificence of this accomplishment didn’t reveal itself subtly, like a vision slowly rising from the horizon, but smacked us in the face with a WOW! as we emerged single file from a deep and narrow moss-covered trench dug from the reddish volcanic rock.

“The setting was intentionally designed to give the pilgrims a ‘spiritual journey’ of ascending to heaven as the sky and the 40 ft tall façade of Bete Medhane Alem (Church of the Savior of the World), burst forth before them after exiting the darkness,” our guide explained.  The largest rock church in Lalibela and in the world is also significant because it’s believed “The hand of God touched one of its columns in a dream King Lalibela had,” our guide Girma Derbi shared as he explained the church’s columned façade that looks like it was inspired by the Parthenon.

Pilgrims in long white robes made their way through three doors that in all Ethiopian Orthodox churches face west, north and south. The nave is always on the east side of the building.  “All visitors must remove their shoes before entering the church and leave them outside.  You don’t have to, but it’s good if you hire a shoe guard to watch them. Unattended shoes have been known to disappear,” our guide advised.

Fatima, an official shoe guard registered with the historic site, accompanied us for the next two days as we explored the churches and passages. This kind woman helped us numerous times as we navigated treacherous footing and steep steps.  Our wisdom in hiring her was reinforced when we encountered a tourist sitting shoeless, outside a church, contemplating an uncomfortable walk ahead.IMG_1535-2Women worshippers traditionally enter through a separate door and pray apart from the men. Inside, thirty-eight stone columns form four aisles and support a stone ceiling that soars overhead. After walking for days or weeks to reach Lalibela, often fasting the entire time, the journey ends here for many pilgrims, in hopes of receiving a blessing or cure from touching the Lalibela Cross and offering prayers.

We spent the rest of the day following Orthodox nuns in yellow robes, and pilgrims carrying prayer staffs along narrow interconnecting passages, through tunnels and then portals to the other Northern Churches (churches located north of a stream renamed the Jordan River.) In many churches there are stacks of prayer staffs by the entrance.  These are for congregants to lean on, as there are no chairs in the churches and everyone must stand during the long worship services.

Beta Maryam (Church of Mary), Beta Masqal (Church of the Cross), Beta Danagel (Church of the Virgins), Beta Mika’el (Church of Michael), and Beta Golgotha (Church of Golgotha) all share common elements, yet they are all fascinatingly different in their various carved windows, uneven floors covered with carpets, decorated columns, frescoed walls and religious paintings. The high-banked courtyards around the churches contain caves where monks and hermits slept, or became the final resting spot of pilgrims who could go no further, their mummified remains still visible in certain places. The footpaths between churches double as drainage canals in the rainy season to whisk away water to the Jordan River.Karta_LalibelaWe ended our day at Beta Giyorgis (Church of St. George). This stunning cross-shaped church was excavated over thirty feet deep into the top of a hill. It is the most widely recognized of the eleven rock churches and was easily viewed from a small bluff adjacent to it, its beautiful orange patina glowing in the afternoon sun.

It has weathered the centuries better than many of the other churches which have had protective coverings suspended above them, to shield the stone structures from deterioration caused by the effects of weather and climate change.IMG_1696The next morning, we completed our tour of the cluster of the southern of the rock churches: Beta Emmanuel (Church of Emmanuel), Beta Abba Libanos (Church of Father Libanos), Beta Merkurios (Church of Mercurius) and Beta Gabriel and Beta Rafa’el (the twin churches of Gabriel and Raphael.)

We arrived at Beta Gabriel and Beta Rafa’el after passing through a wide tunnel that lead to a slender bridge across a deep chasm.  It was silent outside, but as we opened the door to enter, the sound of chanting male voices filled the air. We were graciously welcomed into a cavernous room filled with men leaning on prayer staffs or raising them in rhythm, as they sang a liturgical chant, or Zema, accompanied by a drumbeat and the clatter of sistrum rattles. This form of worship has been a tradition in the Ethiopian church since the sixth century.  To hear their Zema, click here.IMG_3889It’s important to remember that this is not a museum with ancient artifacts and manuscripts in glass cases, but an active holy site where the ancient manuscripts are still used daily, and it is home to a large community of priests and nuns. It has been a destination for Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims in the northern highlands (elevation 8,200’) for the last 900 years and continues to be visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims annually.IMG_3852Leaving the churches behind, we walked through an area of ancient two story, round houses called Lasta Tukuls, or bee huts, built from local, quarried red stone.  Abandoned now for preservation, they looked sturdy, their stone construction distinctive from the other homes in the area that use an adobe method.IMG_1802Today roughly 100,000 foreign tourists, in addition to Ethiopian pilgrims, visit Lalibela annually, a far cry from its near obscurity 140 years ago. Located four hundred miles from Addis Ababa, it is still far enough off the usual tourist circuits to make it a unique and inspiring destination.

Our visit to Lalibela was the fulfillment of a long-held wish to see these incredible churches, which are an amazing testament to the faith of the Ethiopian people. The altitude challenged us, and it wasn’t always easy to reach the churches themselves, navigating narrow alleys with uneven footing and eroded steps, but we are so glad we persevered. It was a once in a lifetime experience that we will never forget.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

 

 

Omo Valley Part 3: Ancient Ways and Roadblocks

Our guide rousted us early for our drive to visit the agro-pastoralist Mursi tribe, in Mago National Park, only to have our trip delayed at the border to the region by a chain across the road.  There were only a few vehicles in front us, but two lines soon formed: tourist transports on the left, and on the right, trucks and buses hauling supplies and people to the cotton and sugar cane plantations.  “This hasn’t happened in a while. It means there is some sort of incident with the tribes that police need to resolve before we can go further,” Ephrem explained as he killed the engine.  As time wore on impatient drivers, guides, (ours included) and passengers began to walk through the lines of stalled traffic, searching for information.  Rumors of “soon,” floated by several times. Some groups turned around so they wouldn’t miss their flights to Addis Abba. IMG_3308 We would have been terribly dissappointed if this had happened to us and we missed visiting the Mursi tribe. (Note to self – don’t leave important events to the last day.) Curious children made their way amidst the tourist vehicles, looking through the windows and asking for soap, shampoo, pens, pencils, caramels, and empty water bottles. The kids would have been happy with anything anyone gave them. Some pointed to the clothes we were wearing, hoping we would donate them.  Folks make do with very little here and wear things until they are threadbare, out of necessity.  Often, we saw older children wearing infant onesies with the feet of the garment cut off.  We are not criticizing; it’s all they had.  It saddened us and we wished we had brought an extra suitcase of clothes along to donate to a village.  Eventually there was a burst of activity with rumbling engines at the front of the line and folks running back to their rides. IMG_2607We were the third car in a group of five that was being led by a pickup truck full of armed paramilitary policemen.  Many of the incidents that have occurred are related to the increase in truck and bus traffic roaring through Mursi territory on the way to new cotton and sugarcane plantations along the banks of the Omo River. IMG_3207 Cattle are very often herded down the roads and sometimes are struck and killed, along with their herders.  Often drivers do not stop to take responsibility.  In the eyes of the villagers, the local authorities have not resolved the situation.  As a result, tribespeople will set roadblocks to rob buses carrying plantation workers and extract revenge on truckers.  A while later we stopped and were assigned an armed escort, with an AK-47, who accompanied us for the duration of our visit. He was euphemistically called a scout.IMG_3060Turning off the dirt road, branches scratched against the side of the truck as we followed a narrow dirt track through the savanna to a clearing where a small group of thatched huts stood. Soon the women of the village stopped what they were doing to greet us.

Nowadays regarded as a sign of beauty and self-esteem, the tradition of lip-plates, debhinya, and ear-plugs with which the Mursi tribeswomen adorn themselves is thought by some anthropologists to have begun centuries ago to discourage slave traders from taking them captive. The Mursi have no oral history, however, to support this theory. It most likely signifies that a woman has reached puberty. Both men and women also practice scarification, which is accomplished when a wound, made with a thorn, is rubbed with ash and dirt so that it heals into a thick, raised scar. Today some of the young women of the tribe are choosing not to stretch their lower lips, instead keeping only the ear-plug. It’s a woman’s choice, though the older generation believes “the lip-plate serves to remind people of a woman’s commitment to her culture.”

Tourists have been coming in larger numbers every year to the Omo Valley since the 1970’s and income from posing for photos has become increasingly important in a drought-prone environment that necessitates visiting the local markets more frequently for supplies to survive.

As unique and interesting as the experience truly was and not to be cynical, there was an element of “dressing up for the tourists” revealed when we realized some of the tribeswomen were exchanging items among themselves or going into their huts for a wardrobe change, to create a different look in pursuit of more tourist dollars for additional photos.

We did admire their business acumen and thoroughly enjoyed visiting them. At the end of the day they still struggle to survive in a harsh environment. It was a win-win for everyone.

Leaving the Mursi, we headed to an Ari village closer to Jinka and were pleasantly startled when a dik-dik darted from the bush ahead of us. Chance encounters are the only way to see the smallest and consequently the most elusive antelope in Africa. Further along our guide spotted an Arabian bustard in the tall grass along the road.IMG_3491It was a steep walk up a trail through a forest of false banana, enset, to a well-kept sturdy hut with a medicinal herb garden. IMG_3710Outside two women were pinching clay into bowls and teapots that would later be sold at a weekly market.

Downhill from the hut a toolmaker was using a makeshift hand bellows to add oxygen to his fire.  Heating metal to a glow, he would hammer it out on a rock in front of him. As we sat watching him a small group of children gathered around us.  Intrigued by Donna’s short and straight black hair, the oldest girl of the group started to braid it into cornrows.  Silently communicating, they each enjoyed the experience. “That little girl had really strong fingers! I don’t know how she managed to braid such short hair,” Donna happily shared later.

Agriculturalists and craftspeople, the Ari people are the largest tribe in the Omo region and live in permanent villages across the vast highlands around Jinka.  Coffee and cardamom are grown as cash crops while subsistence crops of teff, wheat, barley, sorghum, maize, and a variety of root vegetables and false banana are grown for local markets and family use.  Working our way through the village we passed a basket maker who was creating a large woven reed granary.  Standing in the partially finished vessel, most of his body was obscured by its size. IMG_3879With sunlight shining through a canopy of giant enset leaves above her, a tribeswoman prepared kocho, a traditional Ethiopian flatbread, over an open smoky fire as we sat and watched. Behind us children giggled as they playfully rolled an old bicycle rim down the path.

The next morning, we headed to a local market in Jinka.  The city with a population of nearly 33,000 people has three permanent markets that are open daily.  Shops as well as street vendors offer everything imaginable to shoppers who come into town for the occasion. IMG_4033-2 There was a lively commotion of activity by the buses as porters brought over bundles to be tossed up onto the roofs and tied down before heading back to outlying villages. IMG_4149 Goats, cows and children were left to wander about freely while small piles of detritus burned slowly in the streets as vendors cleaned up at the end of the day. The earthy smell of dung and smoke lightly scented the air. It was chaotic.

There are continuing issues with tribal lands being seized for the expansion of the plantations along the Omo River, primarily the diversion of irrigation water from the Gibe lll dam to the plantations, which consequently ruins the livelihoods of tribes that practice ancient flood retreat farming downstream.  The international community is not sure how this situation will affect future tourism into the Omo Valley if it continues, but it is thought if the Mursi are denied access to their traditional farming area along the Omo River, they will not be able to survive without food aide to replace failed crops.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Omo Valley Part 2: Generation Poles and Dry Faucets

After getting some up-close shots of warthogs feeding on the lawn in front of our room, we loaded our bags into the Landcruiser and headed south to the Konso region with our guide and our driver. IMG_9593The highlands area is home to the Konso people who are renowned for their ringed hilltop villages, fortified with stone walls. They have developed terraced farming techniques to survive in a semi-arid, rock strewn and hilly territory for almost seven-hundred years.IMG_0083As we entered the town of Konso, bundles of candles miraculously appeared from under our guide’s seat and we stopped to donate them to a young man collecting offerings in front of his Ethiopian church.  This was the guide’s ritual when we changed territories and it continued throughout our trip. It was a common sight to see small groups of parishioners walking along the road holding up a picture of a beloved saint and umbrellas for shade.

The main street through town was lined with bustling shops. Their services and merchandise almost spilled into the street.  A rutted dirt field served as the bus depot and on the day we passed, a large crowd danced in undulating rhythm to see off newlyweds.  As remote as southern Ethiopia is, it has a rural minibus system that connects distant villages. The buses are always jammed full of folks, while their belongings are haphazardly tied to the roof.

The creative hand of man was clearly evident in the sculpted terracing we could see from the road leading to the Gamule Konso Cultural Village, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Staple crops of barley and wheat are grown along with crops of maize, chickpeas, beans, yams, taro, turnips, coffee, tobacco and cotton.  The terracing tames a once inhospitable terrain into productive farmland.IMG_1769As we walked to the center of the village young children following us jumped from rock to rock, along the tops of the tall walls built to protect the village, as we made our way along the path below.

Set on a hilltop the village, called a paleta, is ringed with six concentric, high stone walls.  Each ring was added as the population of the village expanded downhill. Within these defensive walls are fenced family compounds with pens for a small number of animals and sturdy huts and granaries constructed of tree branches, adobe and thatch along with moringa trees, from which the foliage is an important and delicous food source. IMG_9817Each ring also has a community area called a mora; this is a large thatched roof structure with an open lower level and an enclosed upper platform where the married men and bachelors of the village sleep.IMG_9868 More importantly it provides a shaded meeting place where men play gebeta.  It’s considered the oldest board game in the world and is played simply with stones, beans or seeds being moved around holes in a board with the goal to capture as many of your opponent’s pieces as possible.  Each village is also divided into two zones and a man born in one zone must always have his homestead in that zone.IMG_9767The Konso also erect generation poles, called olahita, which are raised every eighteen years. The olahita are made of cedar trees taken from the kala, a sacred forest. Gamule village had eighteen olahita which dates the village to be nearly 400 hundred years old.  Sadly, the oldest central poles have succumbed to termite damage and rot over the centuries. The oldest village in the Konso region is Dokatu which has 43 olahita. Near the olahita was the village ceremonial daga, a large rock, that teenage boys lift over their heads to prove their manhood and eligibility for marriage.  The Konso also carve waka, grave makers, in rough likeness of the deceased.  These were originally placed at the grave sites in the sacred forest, but have now all been brought back into the village to deter looting.  Each village is surrounded by a dina, or grove of trees, which acts as a buffer between the village and agricultural terraces. This buffer of trees was meant to inhibit attack on the village and provide an area close to the settlement where folks could forage for firewood. There are 36 paletas, with populations ranging from 1,500 to 3,000 in each village, scattered across the Konso territory.

Nearby outside the Konso village of Gesergiyo there is a unique landscape nicknamed “New York.” It’s a dramatic red sandstone canyon, that looks like it was violently carved from the earth, with deeply scarred walls and tall pinnacles created from millennium of erosion. Legend says Waga the Konso Sky God created these as he searched for a buried sacred drum. IMG_9980We didn’t really see the NYC comparison, but the landscape was interesting in that it contrasted sharply from the surrounding terrain.  And the encompassing territory is beautiful with vistas of rolling hills.  Driving away a group of young men were perched on a lone boulder, just passing time.IMG_0064We arrived late in the afternoon to the Konso Korebta Lodge, situated high on a hill. It was a relatively new complex with attractive, circular stone huts topped with steep thatched roofs and beautiful plantings of bougainvillea.  Desperately needing showers, we were flummoxed when the tap was dry and headed to reception to see what was up. Unbeknownst to us it’s common practice at hotels throughout the countryside to only turn on the electricity and water between 6:00 – 9:00 in the morning and 6:30 – 10:00 in the evening to conserve resources.IMG_9245 Thankfully, the staff called the owner to get permission to start the generator early for us. Back seat driver that I am I thought our driver drove fast, safely but fast to cover the great distances we had to travel.  So, we were surprised the next afternoon when he was tootling along very slowly to get back to the hotel.  Evidently the hotel owner made it very clear to our guide that he would not turn on the generator early again.

Later we traced the aroma of barbeque to a small garden area where the staff was grilling goat skewered on small tree branches over a fire pit dug into the ground.  It was in preparation for a wedding party that was due to arrive.  With military timing it seemed, suddenly the parking area in front of the hotel’s restaurant was full of honking minibuses discharging joyous celebrants.  It was a short indoor-outdoor event that climaxed with song, dance and well wishes for the couple.IMG_2028Market days are huge events in the rural areas and folks from various tribes travel for miles to attend them. IMG_2314Not just to buy or trade supplies; it’s also a cherished opportunity for men and women to socialize with friends and extended family from other villages, often in raucous beer halls which could be in a makeshift shed or more often a spot under a large shade tree that serves a local brew.

Many folks look and dress their best as it’s also a chance to find a future husband or wife.  The Alduba market was exceptionally large, spanning both sides of the main road, and it attracted folks from the Ari, Bena, Hammer and Tsemay tribes. Recently the government constructed a bricked wall corral at the market to show tribespeople that the government was interested in their wellbeing and that local folks are actually part of a greater Ethiopia.  And at the same time it started to collect taxes on every head of cattle sold.IMG_1956We were able to take many candid photos as we followed our guide through the market to its various parts. Ceramic pots, handmade tools, ropes and leather goods produced by different tribespeople were available as were pots, pans, cloth and sandals produced in China.

One older woman shared with our guide that she was in her seventies and walked six miles to the market to replace a ceramic cooking bowl that had recently broken.  Often, we would stop and ask a person if we could take their picture.IMG_2117 Many folks were very receptive to this and our guide would negotiate a fee.  And even though we paid for the privilege to take their photo, they seemed pleased that we admired their style. A few, however, angrily waved us away.

Later in the day we headed to Jinka, the largest town in the region, slowly getting closer to the Omo Valley with every move.  Traveling through a xeric landscape, we had a long stretch of dirt road to ourselves.  IMG_1803Pulling over occasionally to take photos from scenic overlooks along this isolated track, we were always surprised when, in the middle of nowhere, a young man selling souvenirs would emerge from the shade. Later we would come across an enterprising group of young stilt walkers urging tourists to stop for photos – and of course we did.IMG_4431Entering Jinka, we noticed signage for the International Airport (BCO, though we are pretty sure you can only fly in from Addis Abba.) We might have arranged our trip differently if we had known this previously as it would have eliminated two eight-hour drives from and to the capital. Note: if you fly into Ethiopia on a ticketed Ethiopian Airways flight you are able to purchase discounted domestic flights .  Our guide booked this discount for our us on our Addis Abba to Lalibela flights.

The Orit Hotel offered very basic accommodation, but it had a wonderful garden restaurant, good food and cold beers.

The next day we would head into Mago National Park to visit the Mursi tribe.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna