Belize – When Iguanas Fall from Trees, Head South

“Welcome aboard, folks. Our flight time to Belize is two hours and ten minutes. The weather is expected to be a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit today when we land,” the pilot announced as we were buckling in. Then continued with “As you know the National Weather Service has issued the very rare ‘Beware of Falling Iguanas Weather Alert’ for Miami and South Florida this morning.”  As funny as this sounds, it actually happens when the temperature dips into the thirties in Florida.  Cold blooded animals, the iguanas slowly stiffen as the temperature drops and eventually lose their grip on the tree branches they have been sleeping on and fall to the ground, stunned, where they lay immobile until the temperature rises.  Iguanas can grow quite large and may cause serious injury or death if you are unlucky enough to get struck by one of the falling frozen reptiles. It sounds like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie – be careful out there. We were delighted to be heading south again to a warmer climate after a cold and rainy November and December in Italy, which was followed by a warm-hearted, but very frigid Christmas with our kids in New Jersey.

On our final approach for landing the wing of the plane dipped to reveal a beautiful azure sea outlined with dense green jungle and brilliantly white sand beaches – and not much else – as far as the eye could see.  It was still much like it was several millennium ago when a prosperous Mayan civilization flourished, supporting an estimated population of 500,000 – 1,000,000 in the region. Columbus sailed by without stopping and landed in Honduras during his last voyage to the Americas in 1502.  Navigator Juan Diaz de Solis did not mention a landfall or discovery during his expedition in 1507 sailing from Panama to the Yucatan. Several theories suggest that the 190-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef, the largest in the northern hemisphere, was too difficult to navigate through so the Spanish fleets sailed past. We witnessed this difficulty once from the deck of a cruise ship as the captain left a snaking wake as he steered a serpentine route through the underwater obstacle course.

The first European to arrive in Corozal literally washed ashore as a survivor of a 1511 Spanish shipwreck. To stay alive, conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero offered his skills as a soldier to Mayan Chief Na Chan Kan at Chactemal, (now Santa-Rita, Corozal Town). He proved his skill as a warrior and married the chief’s daughter, Princess Zazil Há. The children from their union are recognized as the first Mestizos of Central America; theirs was the first Mayan liaison recorded by Bernal Diaz de Castillo in his memoir “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain,” written in 1568.

Guerrero defended his adopted homeland against conquest in 1531 when he helped Chief Na Chan Kan defeat the Spanish army in a battle near the Rio Hondo. Today the river is still Belize’s northern border with Mexico.  Spain never established any permanent settlements in Belize.  Gold and silver were discovered next door in Guatemala and Honduras. Belize was absorbed into the Spanish empire of Central America by its proximity to its larger neighbors, but was never colonized until the British subversively entered the territory.

The riches of the new world didn’t go unnoticed for long, but by the time English and Scottish pirates arrived on the scene in the mid-1600s, the treasure-laden flotillas destined for the Spanish crown from central America had been replaced by shipments of logwood.  Native to northern Central America, logwood or bloodwood was used by the indigenous tribes of the region to produce a vibrant red-orange dye. Mixed with other ingredients, a full spectrum of colors was possible. It grew abundantly and was exported to Spain where the cheap natural resource revolutionized the textile industry and afforded commoners a chance to have colorful wardrobes, which before was only afforded by the nobility. Gone were the days of fabrics dyed gray with soot. 

Gold or wood – it didn’t matter. Pirates were pirates and willing to steal your cargo regardless of its content, as long as there was a profit to be made, and the English textile mills were demanding logwood.  After plundering large Spanish merchant ships that sailed across the Gulf of Honduras, the pirates found safe refuge for their smaller vessels in the shallow waters behind the Belize Barrier Reef amidst its 450 cays and atolls, where they could hunt for food, get fresh water, and repair their boats.  In 1670 England and Spain signed a treaty banning piracy in the Caribbean.  The days of the infamous pirates of Belize, Edward Lowe, Captain Charles Johnson, Bartholomew Sharp, Captain Henry Morgan, and Blackbeard, were waning.  By this time English pirates had discovered Belize was full of logwood and many ex-privateers became legitimate and wealthy logwood cutters and exporters after buying African slaves to work in the miserable conditions of the mosquito-infested jungles.  Though Spain considered all of Central America as part of their empire and occasionally harassed the British logwood camps trying to evict them, the Spanish crown never established any settlements in Belize. 

In 1763 Spain signed another treaty allowing English subjects the “privilege of wood-cutting,” but still retained sovereignty over the region. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and Belize finally became the English colony of British Honduras in 1862. Mahogany had replaced logwood as the major export. Conflict with the Mayans escalated as settlers moved farther into the interior exploiting the regions mahogany forests, and forced the indigenous population from their lands by burning their villages and crops. The giant cut logs were floated down the country’s rivers to the coast and where rivers didn’t exist, small logging railroads were built to satisfy the European demand for this beautiful hardwood that was favored for fine cabinetry, furniture and shipbuilding.

Disenfranchised and oppressed, the Mayan revolted in what is called the Caste War against their colonizers. Led by Marcus Canul, a Mayan chief,  his people demanded the British pay for the crops they burnt and for the land they occupied.  In northern Belize, Canul’s freedom fighters attacked and occupied the garrison town of Corozal. The movement lost its momentum when Canul was killed during an unsuccessful assault on Orange Walk in 1872.  Long considered a rebel and criminal, he is now regarded as a Belizean hero who fought against ethnic cleansing. The deforested jungles were replaced by sugar cane, ranching and agriculture plantations.

Belize finally became independent in 1981, though The British Army still maintains a jungle warfare training facility in the country to help deter Guatemalan aggression in an unresolved border issue. Aldous Huxley once wrote, “If the world had any ends, British Honduras (Belize) would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value. It is all but uninhabited.”

Today the tiny country of 400,000 supports a diverse culture descended from Mayans, Mestizos, African slaves, Garifunas, Europeans and more recently immigrants from Lebanon, Germany, the East Indies, Asia and North America with an economy centered on tourism and agriculture.  English is the official language of Belize, but it is not the first language of many with Spanish, Belizean Creole and Q’eqchi’ Maya primarily spoken, depending on what part of the country you are in.

The barrier Islands and cays where pirates might have hidden treasure now sport popular resorts on their white sand beaches. Scuba divers can explore shipwrecks, the Great Blue Hole (a marine sinkhole that is visible from space,) and the exceptional marine life found along the Belize Barrier Reef which is now a marine reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site.  Ashore the jungles and mountains continue to reveal the extent of the Mayan civilization in Belize with over 600 known archeological sites discovered so far, ranging from ceremonial caves to towering stone pyramids.

We are on the other end of the tourist spectrum and wanted something very lowkey, inexpensive and relaxing for a month. We headed to Corozal! Located on Chetumal Bay, it is the northern most city in Belize and only 16 miles from Chetumal, Mexico. It was founded in 1848 by Mestizo refugees from Mexico fleeing Mayan retribution from the Caste Wars there. It prospered exporting mahogany logs when there were still enough trees to support the timber industry. Sugarcane now fuels the economy. 

In 1955 Hurricane Janet, a category 5 storm with winds of 175mph, flattened ninety-five percent of Corozal and left 8,000 people homeless.  Surprisingly one of the few buildings left standing on the waterfront, fully intact, was the home of lumber baron John Carmichael.  It was built in the 1880’s using only mahogany.  The house is still used today as a Catholic mission. The pre-1955 wooden structures have been replaced with concrete block houses now, mostly two stories high, except the four-story Mirador Hotel, the tallest building in town.

Our ah-ha moment happened after the two-hour, inland drive from the airport, when we entered Corozal and saw the enticing turquoise waters of Corozal Bay on our way to our Airbnb rental. We drove a mile along a still bay bordered by a low battered seawall and numerous public parks dotted with palm trees.

Turning onto 2nd St. North our driver stopped in front of a flowering bougainvillea-covered wall, less than 200ft from the water, that hid the Villa Imperial Loft Apartment, our home for the next four weeks.  Our host Oscar wasn’t home at the time, but had made arrangements with Sue, another guest, who graciously led us through the flowering garden, complete with a resident mama cat and her kitten, and up the back stairs to our studio apartment. She enthusiastically answered our first questions about Corozal.

The large room was brightly painted and pleasantly decorated with an eclectic mix of antiques, reminiscent of visiting our grandparents.  A wall of windows facing east offered a glimpse of the bay, and any storms approaching, through the neighbor’s tree. Best was the kitchen across the landing at the top of the stairs. It was enclosed on three sides with just screened windows, covered with louvered shutters. In stark contrast to the apartment, it was very rustic with the feel of an old lake cabin. But we soon realized it was the perfect spot to observe the wide varieties of birds that visited the trees in the backyard, and we thoroughly enjoyed cooking and eating there.  Birding over the next month while walking along the waterfront was one of the highlights of our stay in Corozal. Spotting just a few of the 590 bird species in Belize, we saw sandpipers, great kiskadee, white-collared manakin, yellow-throated euphonia, tricolored heron, kingfisher, lineated woodpecker, great egrets, couch’s kingbird, crimson-collared tanager, black and white warbler, and the outrageously raucous plain chachalaca, which you’ll hear well before seeing them.

For many travelers visiting northern Belize, Corozal is just a brief stop on their way to or from Mexico or Guatemala, or a transfer point to catch the two-hour Thunderbolt Ferry or a flight on Tropic Air from the Corozal Airport (CZH) to San Pedro, on the barrier island, Ambergris Caye.  The town doesn’t have a beach, which has probably helped keep it off the beaten path for most tourists that visit Belize. Access to the shallow water is from stairs in the 1.5 mile long stone seawall that has not fared well against the surges of the ocean. We had read that the district has a sizeable expat community, that likes to avail themselves of all the big city options, mainly a Walmart and Sam’s Club that are across the border in Chetumal, Mexico.  But from our experiences we only encountered a handful of North Americans, surely not surging numbers that would indicate it was a sizzling hot spot for vacationing or retirement that would change the character of the town. And that’s a good thing. The joy of Corozal for us was its tranquility; there really was not much to do there aside from chilling and the occasional dip in the gentle waves of the bay.  The serenity of the seascapes compensated for the lack of activities.

We were enjoying the tropical 80-degree weather of Corozal and re-embracing our slow travel philosophy by immersing ourselves in the daily flow of life in this small coastal town. It was wonderful to see parents accompanying their uniform clad children to school every morning. Some parents drove, others walked along or bicycled with their kids. Routinely at the end of the school day an older couple pedaling a three-wheeler sold homemade popcorn to the kids or the youngsters lined up for ice cream on the porch of a home that doubled as an ice cream parlor. The kids waved to us if they noticed us bobbing in the bay across the street.

Our daily walks led to discoveries all across town, mostly culinary in nature. We were eager to find the best places to buy groceries, interesting places to eat and quench our thirst.  Most importantly, our craving for good coffee was easily satisfied directly across the street at the top of a colorful flight of tiled stairs. Here Oscar’s nephew Rudi runs the LVDM Coffee Stop on the porch of his home and makes what are easily the best cappuccinos in Corozal. He also rents two rustic villitas in his backyard. 

In town there were any number of Asian-owned grocery stores that all offered the same staples. We tended to prefer a shop called the Central Supermarket, because they were the closest place to carry our recyclable beer bottles. Diagonally across the street the city’s daily market had numerous fruit and vegetable stands, an open-air butcher, and clothing vendors. A twice weekly farmers market was held outside of town, across from the cemetery.  Fortunately, this location did not reflect negatively upon the quality of produce sold there. At a much greater walking distance, it didn’t offer any real advantage over the produce sold for the same price at the daily market. Shopping there was an early morning event and the atmosphere was very vibrant. It was here we got the first glimpse of the country’s Mennonite farming community, easily identifiable by their conservative dress and spoken Pennsylvania German. Since 1958 when they were invited to settle in Belize by the first Premiere of the country, George C. Price, the community has grown to 10,000, and they have contributed immensely to Belize’s agriculture self-reliance.

Surprisingly, even though Corozal is located right on the bay, we could not find fresh fish and had to purchase locally caught frozen fish, conch and lobster from Frank’s, a great butcher shop that makes their own sausage and offers a wide assortment of fresh beef, pork and poultry.  Directly across from Frank’s on the other side of the civic center field we found Vivi’s for wonderful meat pies.

On one of our walks, we did meet a young brother and sister team carrying a five-gallon bucket on the handlebar of their bicycle. It was full of lobster and conch, caught by their father earlier that morning.  They were going door to door in the neighborhood, selling it so they could buy their school uniforms.  Of course, we purchased some, and it was delicious.

The town does not have a marina for boats, but there are spots along the bay where fishermen pull out their ancient mahogany boats for repairs.  Called sandlighters, many of these traditional sailing vessels were built across the bay in the fishing community of Sarteneja and are over eighty years old.

There were several small bakeries in town, each offering different specialties.  The Y Not Bakery, to the detriment of our waistlines, was the closest and created the best temptations. Another favorite was Caramelo Bakery across from the high school and down the street from Belcuisine, a spice factory that produces flavorful Belizean Recados mixes.

Corozal really was a rewarding foodie’s destination with numerous small taquerias and enterprising folks offering roadside barbeque. Many businesses were operated from the windows of homes, like Ruby’s, who prepared delicous ceviche then sold it through her living room window for take-away.

The only option for eating out was casual dining. We found June’s Kitchen and Mar’s Caribbean Garden for homecooked meals.  Directly across from the bay, Scotty’s Crocodile Cove was a relaxing spot with thatched roofs; it was an enjoyable place for a refreshing Belizean brewed Belikin beer and large burritos that could easily feed three people.  The Tortuga Grill, across from the waterfront Rainbow Park, and the Wood House Restaurant, adjacent to Miami Beach, both offered good food and views of the bay.

Corozal enthusiastically supports its art community and one Saturday a month, in the town’s Central Park, holds the Art in the Park event where local artists and craftspeople display and sell their work. It was a fun time, with live music and delicous Belizean food. It’s held between 5pm – 9pm to avoid the heat of the day.  If City Hall is open make sure to check out the fantastic wall mural depicting the history of Corozal, painted by Belizean-Mexican artist Manual Villamor.

The blank concrete block walls of homes and businesses across from Miami Beach were the canvases for street artists invited to participate in the Corozal Graffiti Festival. In 2020 street mural artists from Belize, Cuba, El Salvador and Mexico were invited to enliven the walls with an “Ancient Chactemal” theme. It was a lively event with a music stage, art and crafts for sale, body painting and food vendors. On the beach, the Corozal sailing club was offering catamaran rides on the gentle waters of the bay.

There is an abundance of civic pride displayed in this small, well-kept community on Corozal Bay that is endearing. We barely scratched the surface of places to explore in Belize and were perfectly content “Snow Birds” with our choice of Corozal for a month’s worth of lazy rest and relaxation.  We’d definitely return to explore the surrounding area more fully.

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

 

 

 

 

Ethiopian Adventure Part 1 – Elephant Huts and Singing Wells

Background:

Why Ethiopia?  After 14 months of continuous, slow travel, spent mostly exploring cities, we were ready for a change of pace and a more raw or “authentic” experience, for lack of a better phrase. We had planned to visit Ethiopia originally just to see the hand-hewn rock churches of Lalibela.  But, with a tough spousal negotiation, we reached détente: three months in the land of her people, Italy, and for me, 12 days bouncing on backroads and possibly camping a night or two in a tribal village, and a cross country adventure through the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region which includes the Omo Valley. An exciting itinerary with Ephrem Girmachew of Southern Ethiopia Tours fit the bill and our budget.  I’m not sure who got the better deal, but somewhere along our journey we coined the phrase “shaken tourist syndrome” to reflect the road conditions we encountered for hours each day.  IMG_8498 The area in the northern part of the Greater Rift Valley, known today as the Omo Valley region of Ethiopia, has been at the crossroads of humankind for many millennia. In 1967 Dr. Leaky discovered fossil bone evidence, recently re-dated by scientists to be 195,000 years old, of early Homo sapiens near Kibish, Ethiopia, several miles west of the Omo River near where the borders of Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia meet.  The first migrations of early man out of Africa occurred 60,000 years ago as they followed the Omo River north through the Great Rift Valley to the Red Sea. At its narrowest point, where it meets the Gulf of Aden, they crossed to continue their migration through Arabia and eventually into Europe and Asia.  The region was once rich with African wildlife, and Arab towns along the northern East African coast of Somalia and Kenyan were sending hunting parties into the interior for elephant ivory, rhino horn and unfortunately slaves since around AD 1000.

It is thought that the Mursi and Suri tribes developed lip plates and scarification as a way to discourage Arab slavers from taking their women. The first European contact with the region is credited to Antonio Fernandes, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary, who was sent by Ethiopian Emperor Susenyos in 1613 to find an inland route, that avoided all Islamic territories, to Malindi, a Portuguese port at the time, on the Indian Ocean.  The next reported western explorers to the region were Antonio Cecchi in the 1870’s and Vittorio Bottego in 1897. Bottego was the first European to follow the Omo River all the way to Lake Turkana, at a time when Italy was trying to become a colonial power and expand its Italian Eritrea territory into Ethiopia.  By the early 1900’s teams of cultural anthropologists from various Europeans countries were viewing the area as the “last frontier” and beginning to study the “cultural crossroads” aspect of the tribes of the Omo Valley.

A harsh, vast territory, the semi-arid Omo Valley is home to 13 indigenous groups that are seminomadic pastoralist. These tribes also practice flood retreat cultivation along the banks of the Omo River, to produce crops mostly for subsistence or occasional trading in the local markets.  Very remote and undeveloped, the area resisted Ethiopian Orthodox influence from the north of the country for centuries.  It wasn’t until the 1990’s, when a fledgling tourist industry began to emerge, and violent cross-border conflicts with various nomadic tribes looking for better grazing or to rustle cattle, that the government began to exert influence over the area.  Some nomadic tribes along the border were encouraged to settle down and farm and fish along the Omo River for their livelihood. Government interest in the area was intensified again when the decision to build two dams on the Gibe River, a tributary of the Omo River, were built to supply hydroelectric power to Ethiopia.  Later, the massisve Gibe lll dam, completed in 2016, was built to supply irrigation water to foreign owned sugar cane and cotton plantations on lands that were seized by the Ethiopian government from the indigenous tribes of the Omo Valley. Consequently, as the natural cycle of the river flooding was stopped, the centuries old practice of flood retreat farming is failing as there is not enough rainfall in the area to support crops. This has increased tensions amongst tribes already competing for limited grazing and fertile farming lands due to climate change. IMG_6730Things change, but the proud peoples that live in the Omo Valley are trying to retain their way of life amidst external influences they can’t control, as tourists and construction crews course across their territory.  Tempers flare when trucks and buses carrying supplies and workers to the agricultural plantations strike and kill cattle.  Drivers are required to stop and immediately pay the herder for his loss, but many never do.  Consequently, the local tribe will block the road and demand payment until the issue is resolved.

The Beginning:

It was immediately apparent as we were landing that Ethiopia was different. Addis Ababa is a thriving city of almost 5 million people, with gleaming skyscrapers, a new sprawling economic development zone, and high-speed rail line connecting the city to Djibouti. With no suburban transitional zone, the city was an island surrounded by an ocean of farmland. IMG_8308A good night’s sleep at the Jupiter International Hotel Bole (they have the best front desk staff we’ve encountered) made an early start bearable. Meeting us punctually, an amiable Ephrem introduced us to Gee and his trusty Toyota Landcruiser.  We could tell from the beginning that they were friends and had worked together for years.  Even before leaving the city limits, we met our first of the ubiquitous cattle herds, donkey carts and tuk-tuks slowing our passage.

Our first day would be the longest with over eight hours of driving to Arba Minch, that included a stop at the archaeological site of Tiya Stelae. Here a large field of stelae were adorned with carvings of spears; the number of spear heads on a stone is thought to represent the number of enemy killed. Other stones that dotted the landscape contained symbols that were more difficult to interpret. Nothing is really known about the people that created these monuments and there are no other sites in the area to help archeologists explain their mystery.

Further along, we stopped at an explosion of color and activity that represents an Ethiopian local market, our first of many. Coming from our last stop in parched Zimbabwe, this landscape was unexpectantly and refreshingly green.  We passed farmers plowing theirs fields with oxen, the way it has been done for centuries.IMG_6410 The 2019 rainy season was good; unfortunately, this is often not the case. There was no water infrastructure in most of the small towns and villages we passed through, forcing folks to gather water from local streams and rivers.IMG_8299 It was a constant sight: women carrying yellow water jugs along the side of the road back to their homes, or if they could afford it, having it delivered by donkey cart.  The terrain varied tremendously, with full rivers on one side of a mountain range and dry on the other side. These conditions forced people to dig into the riverbed in search of water.

Closer to Arba Minch workers piled just-cut bananas onto trucks, from plantations that lined the road.IMG_8266Since Ethiopia is close to the equator, the daylight hours do not vary seasonally.  The sun rises quickly in the morning and seems to drop from the sky at the end of the day.  By the time we reached the Paradise Lodge  in Arba Minch darkness was falling.  It was a long walk to our room, and signs along the path warned of baboons and warthogs.  A mosquito netted bed welcomed us under a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling.  A dramatic dawn the next morning through clearing storm clouds revealed the hotel’s placement on a cliff edge above a lush, dense forest that was part of Národní Park Nechisar that surrounds the perpetually brown Abaya Lake and Chamo Lake off in the distance below. IMG_9584At breakfast we watched thick-billed ravens in aerial combat as they rode the thermals just off the restaurant’s terrace.  Nearby a staff member stood ready to chase away baboons if they got too close to the customers’ tables.

After breakfast we headed into the highlands northwest of Arba Minch to visit the Gamo tribe in the Dorze village.  The Dorze, Doko and Ochello are the three clans that comprise the Gamo people. Rising slowly to an elevation of 8200ft, we traveled through heavily forested slopes that opened to patches of verdant farmland, and occasionally passed small groups of children dancing to earn spending money from passing tourists.IMG_9440 As we entered the village, compounds ringed with woven rattan walls held back tall Enset plants, better known as false banana, also called the “tree against hunger.” This plant is an important staple that is drought resistant and can be harvested year-round. Starch from the plant is scraped from its fibers and fermented in the ground for three months or longer and used to make kocho, a type of flat bread. IMG_9478Fibers from the plant are used to make rope or coffee bean bags, and the leaves are fed to farm animals.  We arrived on market day, and an entire hillside about the size of three football fields was covered with activity. From a distance it looked like an animated impressionistic painting, with undulating dots of color dancing under a blue sky. IMG_8996Sellers of charcoal, sugarcane, vegetables, and a multitude of other goods all had their wares spread out on cloths covering the ground.  Men played foosball or ping-pong under the few shade trees that ringed the field.

The Dorze are known for the family structures they build, called elephant huts, and the fine weavings that they create from the cotton they grow.  Constructed of hardwood poles, bamboo, thatch and enset, the huts get their name from the symmetrical vents at the top create a silhouette that resembles an elephant’s head. These towering huts can last eighty years, and when the bottom of the main poles become termite-infested they are cut off and the hut is then lifted up and moved to a different spot in the family compound.IMG_9211Men of the Dorze tribe traditionally do the weaving, while the women are responsible for spinning the cotton that the family grows and uses.   The colorful textiles they create are highly prized all over the country.IMG_9504-2Back in Arba Minch we stopped at the Lemlem restaurant for a lunch of local lake fish before checking out the crocodiles on Chamo Lake.  The lightly fried fish were served whole, while the sides were scored into squares which we picked off with our fingers. It was delicious.  Another side of the restaurant served freshly butchered, grilled meat.

The road south of Arba Minch cut through farmland.  Stately fish eagles and traditional Ethiopian honeybee hives dotted some of the trees along the road.  The elongated beehives are made from hollowed out logs and wrapped with woven bamboo strips, and then suspended in the trees.

It’s a dangerous livelihood, fishing the muddy waters of Chamo Lake, as attested to by the size of the Nile crocodile that swam alongside our tour boat.  He was frightfully as large as our 18ft vessel.  Crocodile hunting hasn’t been allowed in the lake since 1973, so there are many big old crocs in its waters. Every year fishermen are killed while standing in the lake casting their nets.  Those who can afford to, buy boats to fish.  Full immersion baptisms are performed by some churches in Chamo and Abaya Lakes, and tragically, in 2018 a Protestant pastor was snatched by a crocodile and killed in front of his congregation during a baptismal celebration.

“Tomorrow we drive to Kenya,” Ephrem offered. Really? That wasn’t expected! “We will stop before we actually get to the border to see a Singing Well of the Borena tribe, and then head to Chew Bet, an extinct volcanic crater lake where the tribe takes black salt from its water.”IMG_8449“Sorry for the late pick-up, but the road was full of tuk-tuks carrying families to the university stadium up the street for a graduation ceremony,” Ephrem offered as he bundled us into the Land Cruiser and handed us large bottles of water. “It’s hot where we are going today.”

Crossing a small mountain range as we headed south from Arba Minch, we left the green landscape behind us and descended into a semi-arid savanna of acacia trees and thorn scrub that held ostrich and huge termite mounds. Soon we encountered our first herd of camels being prodded along by young herders. In Yebelo we stopped to pick-up a local Borena guide who accompanied us for the rest of the day.  Now speeding toward the border, we passed isolated huts and folks seemingly in the middle of nowhere walking to unseen destinations.  We abruptly u-turned when our guide spotted the dirt track we needed to follow to the tula, a centuries-old deep well that continues to be dug deeper into the ground as the water table drops.IMG_0474We trailed a young Borena girl herding a small group of cattle down a slowly inclined, dusty trench deeper into the earth. It was impossible to avoid cow patties as we steered clear of an exiting herd.  Thirty feet below the surface, the trench ended in a bowl shape with a water trough where cattle were drinking.  Rhythmic voices emerged from a shallow cave behind the trough.  Climbing worn stone steps, we came to a narrow landing above the trough, where below us men sang to set a pace to their work. (Click the preceding link to see the video.) They lifted heavy buckets of water over their heads to others above them who then dumped the water into the trough for the cattle to drink.  The acoustics of the cave increased the sound of their songs.

This was the wide, higher part of the well. At the back of the cave there was a hole, only as wide as a man with a bucket, that descended straight down another sixty feet into the earth where more tribesmen worked in unison to lift water up from the bottom of the shaft.  Every day for centuries, teams of men have worked in thirteen tulas spread across the Borena territory to keep the tribe’s cattle alive in a harsh land where there is very little surface water.IMG_0884Imagine one of the most inhospitable places on earth and you might envision the village of Soda, located on the rim of the mile wide El Sod crater.  Aside from raising cattle, goats and camels, some Borena tribesmen have given up their pastoral life to dive into the depths of the El Sod Crater Lake to collect salt, which is then dried and traded or sold across southern Ethiopia from Somalia to Sudan and down into Kenya. It takes the salt divers an hour to descend the narrow track to the lake surface, 1100 ft below the crater’s rim. After scraping 50lbs of wet salt from the lake bottom, they bag it and load it on donkeys for the 1.5 hour walk out of the crater, only to turn around and do it again as many times a day as they can. Black and white salt along with crystals are gathered in the lake. Crystal salt is the most valuable, and black salt, used for animals, is the least.

Each diver works for himself and it is a tragically difficult livelihood. Many of the divers suffering from loss of hearing and sense of smell, tooth decay, eczema and blindness from spending years in the highly concentrated, corrosive salt water.  No eye protection is worn and nose and ear plugs are rudimentarily, made from plastic bags stuffed with dirt. At the crater rim the salt is sold to middlemen who dry it in slatted wooden shacks before reselling it. Trucks have now replaced legendary camel caravans which once crisscrossed the savanna to remote villages.

After lunch and our first Ethiopian coffee ceremony, we headed to the Yabelo Wildlife Sanctuary, a 1600 square mile grassland preserve that is mostly home to Grevy’s and Burchell’s zebra.  Walking with our local scout, we were able to slowly approach a small herd of zebra.  Some of the females were heavy with calves soon to be born.IMG_1161A short drive away, our last stop of the day was a well-kept Borena village surrounded by an ochre landscape under a perfect blue sky.  Women do the heavy lifting in the villages, building the huts, tending children and crops, and spending a substantial amount of time foraging for firewood and gathering water from far off sources. While the men spend their days moving their cattle across different grazing lands.IMG_1234Women rule their homes and determine who can enter, even prohibiting spouses.  “If her husband comes back and finds another man’s spear stuck into the ground outside her house, he cannot go in,” our guide conveyed.

Away from the village as we headed back to Arba Minch we spotted both Grant’s and giraffe-necked Gerenuk gazelles.  The latter rises on its hind legs to feed on higher vegetation.

Old ways are changing as the Ethiopian government shows more interest in the south, and while Animism is still practiced, Christianity and Islam are making inroads into the region.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

 

 

 

Cape Town Part 5: Celebrating Bastille Day & A Whale of a Good Time

Relatively low car rental fees in South Africa encouraged us to travel farther afield. There is so much to do in the area around Cape Town, driving along a spectacular coast or heading inland into the western cape’s vast winelands, with about 300 vineyards, that starts near Stellenbosch, just 31 miles away via the N2.IMG_5808We planned a long weekend to celebrate Bastille Day in Franschhoek, a wine making community founded by French Huguenots in the 17th century.  French roots aside, the village is full of Cape Dutch architecture and set in a valley surrounded by the Drakenstein and Groot Drakenstein mountain ranges.  The lower slopes provide the vineyards in the valley with unique terroirs.  Afterwards we ventured down to Hermanus on the coast to look for whales.IMG_5799But first we had to get there.  Just before our exit off the N2, the silhouettes of several tall sailing ships broke the horizon as if they were crossing an inland sea.  Imagining a pirate swinging from a yardarm, we did a quick double take and followed a side road down to the entrance of Cape Town Film Studios, where a guard waved us away when we stopped to take pictures. They’ve hosted many international productions that include Doctor Who, Tomb Raider, Outlander and Mad Max Fury Road.IMG_5953-2Across the street from the movie studio, our wine tasting started at Vergenoegd Löw The Wine Estate. The vineyard is known for its biodiversity, sustainability and conservation efforts.  It uses a flock of 1200 Indian Runner Ducks to cruise the undergrowth of the grape vines and devour snails and other pests that can destroy the harvest.   Three times a day, wranglers gather the flock and parade it through the beautiful estate for the amusement of visitors.  Of course, there are wine tastings and food available to encourage you to linger and enjoy the setting.  It was our first of several visits; the place was just delightful.

Our travel mantra is usually “walk a little, then café, walk a little more, then café.”  This changes to “drive a little, café, pitstop” when it’s a road trip.  And staying true to our philosophy, we stopped at the Root 44 Market just before Stellenbosch, for a quick look.  This is one of the weekend markets with live music, food and craft vendors that have become so popular in the region.  We had the most sinful donuts from Desire Donuts.  These truly would have become addictive if they were closer to home.

Driving through Stellenbosch we came across a large bronze sculpture of a giant octopus outside the studio/gallery of Stephen Rautenbach.  It’s a nice gallery space filled with pieces that capture the spirit of the South African animals he’s sculpted.

Around the corner we enjoyed some homemade Turkish delight and Turkish coffee before continuing our drive to our B&B for two nights, Val d’Or Estate in Franschhoek. A long dirt driveway led to a pretty, naturally landscaped property with a large pond and swimming pool overlooked by the guesthouse.IMG_6113 Our room was spacious and comfortable, bigger than several studio apartments we have rented.  We spent a little time walking around the pond, watching the weaver birds dart in and out of their hanging nests, before the sunset.

The next morning, we passed an enormous amount of red, white and blue bunting festooning every building on either side of the street as we headed to the festival grounds at the Huguenot Monument on the far end of the village. IMG_6236We followed  the queue of beret wearing Francophiles draped in colors of the flag, past a vintage car show and a very competitive barrel rolling contest, to the Food & Wine Marquee, where our tickets included a live concert by South African rocker Karen Zoid, two very nice wine glasses, tasting coupons and R20 vouchers to use towards the purchase of food or bottles of wine.

Thirty vineyards poured generous samples of their white, red, and rose wines along with champagne.  The crowd sang along when Karen Zoid took the stage and performed a collection of her South African hits and La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, for a nostalgic audience.  She also paid tribute to rocker Johnny Clegg, who passed away earlier in July.  He was the first Afrikaner singer during the apartheid era to form a band with a black man, Sipho Mchunu, called Juluka. They were hugely successful and beloved by many. It was a lot of fun sampling the wines and purchasing bottles of our favorites to enjoy in Cape Town later.

We had planned to follow R45 east through the rugged terrain of Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve to Bot River and continue on the R43 south into Hermanus, but a winter rock slide had indefinitely blocked the road and forced us to backtrack through Stellenbosch.IMG_8081Luck was with us when we pulled into the Sir Lowry’s Pass View Point, in time to see several paragliders launch from the steep slope of the overlook.  The view toward the town of Strand, on False Bay, with its long sandy crescent of beach, was incredible. Further on fruit orchards lined both sides of the road for as far as we could see. The valley’s unique climate, cooler and wetter than the surrounding region, is perfect for the local orchards to blossom.  Today the Elgin region produces 65% of South Africa’s export crop of deciduous fruits.IMG_8211We were working our way to the Elgin Railway Market, another beloved Saturday/Sunday venue for Cape families, in the “Valley of Apples.” Appropriately it’s housed in a renovated railway warehouse where the region’s famous fruits were stored before being loaded onto trains and sent to Cape Town or Port Elizabeth for export.  It’s a huge, two story space, with wine, food and craft vendors, a performance stage and rock-climbing wall.  IMG_7397Located directly across the street from the ocean, the Windsor Hotel would be our base for the next two nights.  It’s a modest old hotel, built originally as a sanatorium in 1896, then converted to a hotel in 1931.  It still retains much of its original character with fireplaces in the wood paneled common areas, arched doorways and wide staircases.  The breakfast room was outstanding with large picture windows facing the sea.IMG_8278Walker Bay’s thunderous waves crashing against the rocky coastline were spectacular with their large sprays as we walked along the Hermanus’ Cliffside Path to Gearing’s Point, a scenic overlook, hoping to spot whales.  Our Cape Town friends had mentioned that it’s often possible to sight Southern Right Whales from the shore here during their June to November calving season, after which they head back to the waters of Antarctica.IMG_8496 It’s a well-defined trail, with cement, dirt and boardwalk sections, that starts at the village’s New Harbor and hugs the coast for 7.5 miles, ending at the Klein River Estuary. Five miles of the path are wheelchair accessible.  In some places it passes under trees twisted to grow almost parallel to the ground, by the fierce South Atlantic winds that blow in from Antarctica.

In the off-season not everything is open and we had to search awhile before finding Oskars Bakery, two blocks in from the ocean on High Street, for coffee.  But with one glance at the pastry case we were hooked.  We both agree it had to be one of the best bakeries in the western cape.  IMG_7587The seascapes from the cliffside path were beautiful, but we hadn’t spotted any whales and the village’s whale crier wasn’t sounding his kelp horn.  Yep, what started as a publicity stunt has become tradition and Hermanus has had an official, and the world’s only, whale crier since 1992.  IMG_7474In 2016 the movie The Whale Caller was adapted from South African author Zake Mda’s 2005 novel, of the same name, which has the whale crier as the central character.

Hoping for better luck, we booked a whale watching excursion operating out of the village’s new harbor.  There are a number of tour operators that run excursions out of this port, but we liked the look of the Unathi, a 50ft catamaran, that Hermanus Whale Watchers uses.  IMG_6899With skipper Emile at the helm, the first mate tossed the mooring lines to the dock and we departed onto a gently rolling sea.  Phillip, a registered naturalist with a delightful wry sense of humor shared his love of the sea with us.  “There’s a good chance we’ll see Southern Rights today. We spot them by their distinctive V-shaped blow and the callosities (clusters of barnacle like growths) on their heads.  We may also see Africa Penguins, Fur Seals, Dolphins, migrating Humpback Whales and resident Bryde’s Whales.”  Psyched now, all eyes scanned the horizon for any telltale signs of these gigantic, yet elusive creatures.

Blows were spotted, yet the whales had dived to a greater depth before we got closer.  We eventually encountered a small pod just off-shore at Die Plaat beach, a ten mile stretch of wild, rocky and sandy beach, backed by tall dunes. The captain skillfully maneuvered us as close to the beach as possible as we followed the pod of Southern Rights, that sometimes surfaced close enough to hear the puff of their blows.  We were thrilled, but a little disappointed also, that there wasn’t any tail slapping or breaching.  Back ashore we had a wonderful lunch of fried calamari and fresh oysters at a little place on the wharf, the Quayside Cabin.IMG_7976Heading back to Cape Town late the next day, we followed the scenic R44 coastal road through the seaside villages of Kleinmond, Betty’s Bay, Pringle Bay and Rooi-Els as the golden hour was approaching.  IMG_7703Each turn of the road offered a dramatic view of the coast and we stopped many times for photos.  We merged back onto the R2 at Gordons Bay just after sunset for the ride the rest of the way back to the city.IMG_7762

So many regions of the Western Cape are stunningly beautiful!

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

 

The Garden Route Part 2: Great Waves, Crocodiles and Ronnie’s

We hadn’t planned our return itinerary to Cape Town and were open to suggestions.  Over the past two days, during the down time between game drives at Schotia Private Game Reserve our guide, Edward, shared his love of South Africa with us.  “Did you stop at Stormsriver?” “No.” “It’s a breathtaking stretch of coast. They have cabins you can rent, right on the water, and there’s a spectacular trail with suspension bridges across the gorge.”  “And the Karoo, don’t forget the Karoo and Ronnie’s.” IMG_0095During the morning “golden hour” we watched a family of giraffe walk gracefully through the forest, nibbling thorns from the acacia trees, before saying our goodbyes.  Stormsriver, it was!  Backtracking through Port Elizabeth we retraced our drive past Jeffreys Bay and continued west on the N2 until we stopped to photograph the steep chasm that the Stormsriver Bridge spanned, just before the village of the same name. Mostly folks mean the Tsitsikamma National Park when they mention Stormsriver; they are synonymous with each other, the difference being the village is located far inland, just off the highway, and the park is on the coast. IMG_2188We thought the entrance fee of $17.00 per person for international tourists was steep and we did see some cars turning away, but we had heard such tremendous recommendations we would regret it if we didn’t check it out.  There was a long winding road down from the entrance gate and when we finally rounded a sharp corner, the view of the rugged coastline with crashing waves sending up large white sprays was spectacular! IMG_2176We enjoyed lunch watching and listening to thunderous waves explode against rocks only a short distance away from our table at the Cattle Baron.  It’s the only restaurant in the park and was excellent, along with being very affordable.  A nice surprise after the park entrance fee. IMG_1809After lunch we followed an easy section of the Otter Trail to the three suspension bridges that cross Stormsriver where it meets the sea.  Reservations and a permit are required to trek the full length of this popular and strenuous 28 mile trail that follows the edge of the coastal plateau through evergreen forests, traverses boulder strewn beaches and tidal river crossings. IMG_1977Staying in designated cabins each night, it takes five days to cover the route that stretches from Stormsriver in the Eastern Cape to Nature’s Valley in the Western Cape.  The reverse hike is referred to as the Tsitsikamma Trail.

We were greeted warmly by Bev and Marco, owners of At The Woods Guest House Tsitsikamma in the village.  Their place is a lovingly envisioned and restored eight room B&B in what had been a carpentry workshop.  At check-in Bev noticed that the clasp to the shoulder strap on Donna’s camera bag was broken and offered to repair it.  A huge help, the repair has lasted eight months so far.  We greatly appreciated it.  We walked around the corner to Darnell Street, the village’s restaurant row, with six eateries, and sat down at Marilyn’s 60’s Diner. The place is shrine to Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe with movie posters, classic cars, motorcycles, juke boxes, checkered floor and chrome, lots of chrome as décor.  Happy Days meets Northern Exposure, it seemed to be a clash of cultures in the woods.

The next morning we enjoyed coffee on our balcony while listening to new bird calls and hoping to spot Narina Trogan, Knysna Turaco (Loerie) and Victorin’s Warblers which inhabit this heavily forested area. IMG_2247After breakfast, on our way to Nature’s Valley, we crossed over the Bloukans River Bridge, which claims to be the world’s highest bungee jump at 710ft and divides the western cape from eastern cape region.  The small resort village is right on the Indian Ocean and borders the Grootrivier lagoon, which is blocked from reaching the ocean by a wide sandbar.  The two waters only merge when a hide tide washes over the sand, or when heavy rains raise the level of the river and it cuts a channel through the sand to the sea.IMG_2289On the way back to the highway we stopped at Nature’s Way Farm Stall for coffee and a snack before continuing or drive to Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo.  Located on a working dairy farm, the stand had a wonderful selection of homemade cheeses, breads, jams and chutneys – we stocked up. They also have cottages available for rent.

Passing through Plettenberg Bay we stopped at the Old Nick Village to check out their mid-week farmers market and the homeware textiles created on site at Mungo Mill, a local South African company that reinvests 1% of its profit back into community projects.  There was also an interesting plant nursery and pottery shop with vervet monkeys scampering across their roofs.  IMG_2356Our steep ascent away from the coast began in George as we headed north on the N9/N12 twisting our way uphill through the Outeniqua Pass to Oudtshoorn. This is a challenging stretch of highway with continuous s-turns that required my constant attention.  Passengers can enjoy spectacular views on sunny days that stretch for miles.  If possible, drive the route towards the coast, it’s easier to stop at the scenic lookouts this way.

One thing about traveling in the off-season, things are quieter, especially on the late Sunday afternoon when entered Oudtshoorn, looking for dinner before we checked into our B&B for the night.  It wouldn’t have surprised us to see tumbleweed blowing down the streets.  It was too cold outside to sit by the open firepit in the courtyard of La Dolce Vita, one of the few places we found open. But the staff was friendly, the food was good, and the bartender had a sweet dog to help him keep the conversations going with the ladies. IMG_7085We’ve heard of gold booms, where fortunes were made.  But it was the ostrich booms in 1865 -1885 and 1902-1913 when ostrich feathers were the ultimate fashion accessory in Europe that enriched local farmers here.  At one point 314,000 ostriches were being raised and their feathers were a valuable South African export, only surpassed by gold, diamonds and wool.

Today Oudtshoorn attracts outdoor enthusiasts, with the Cango Marathon endurance race and the “To Hell and Back” mountain bike race. Wine and cultural events like the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) a visual and performing arts festival also dot the high season calendar. The region is on the R62 Wine Route and becoming increasingly known for its port style fortified wines and brandies produced from grapes that thrive in the arid conditions of the karoo.  Ostriches are still raised in the area for their meat and leather.  IMG_2417Die Fonteine, our B&B for the night, was a few miles north of Oudtshoorn, outside the small village of Schoemanshoek.  After a delicous breakfast the next morning we enjoyed exploring the manicured grounds of this beautiful farmette. Caged song birds, chickens and sheep provided our morning entertainment. Anzue, our hostess, gave us a jar of homemade guava jam for our journey back to Cape Town, after we raved about it at breakfast.  “How are you headed back? “Through Montagu.” “It’s a long stretch through the karoo, not much between towns, just Ronnie’s.”

Leaving town, we hammed it up with a jaws of death photo at the Cango Wildlife Ranch. It’s South Africa’s version of a petting zoo, where you can go cage diving with crocodiles for an adrenaline rush, if that’s your thing.IMG_2423The word karoo comes from the Khoisan language meaning “land of thirst” and it precisely describes the terrain along R62 which we followed.  Parched, rock encrusted rolling hills and mountains covered with a fynbos of low heather-like shrubs and proteas occasionally accentuated by taller, lone trees and dry riverbeds crisscrossed the landscape. During the South African spring, in October, it bursts with flowers, but it was July, still winter.  The area endures extreme heat during the summer.  Fortunately for us recent winter rains had spurred some greenery to burst forth and aloe plants to bloom. IMG_2540We stopped in Ladismith, a rural farming community where Vincent, Donna’s friend from seminary, first pastored a church, and enjoyed its colonial Dutch architecture.

Watch for Stray Cattle and Wild Animal Crossing Ahead signs occasionally broke the rhythm of the terrain.  Every few miles now we would pass old battered signs for Ronnie’s.  Somewhere along the way they turned into signs for Ronnie’s Sex Shop! IMG_2683The heat can do strange things to the mind and sometime in the 1970’s Ronnie thought a farm stand on this desolate stretch of highway through the karoo would be a good idea.  Fortunately, his buddies realized it was destined for failure and would soon be another abandoned building along the road if something wasn’t done.  One night they painted SEX into the name of the shop and suggested he open a bar.  They saved his butt!  Famous now worldwide as a dive bar in the middle of nowhere, it draws in the curious.  It’s not the raunchy place the name implies, filled with frustrated farmers between ostrich roundups.  A grey bearded Ronnie, now a cause célèbre, still pours drinks at the bar. It has a tired, dusty bar area filled with foreign money plastered to the walls and lingerie hanging from the ceiling, but aside from that it’s a wholesome oasis with a covered patio where you can get a decent burger with fries, ice cream and coffee along with some hard stuff if that’s your drink.  It’s not worth a detour, but if you are on the R62 traveling between Barrydale and Ladismith, it’s worth the stop.  Actually, it’s the only place to stop.

For some R62 conjures up thoughts of Jack Kerouac and his road trip across America from Chicago to Los Angeles along Rt 66 through the heartland of the country.  Similarly, R62 connects Port Elizabeth, on the Indian Ocean, to Cape Town, on the South Atlantic, while passing through the beautiful karoo region, the core of South Africa.  An epic journey for many of the folks in camper vans and cross-country motorcyclists we passed along the way.  It’s an interesting, inland alternative to the N2.IMG_2516We zoomed past the small village of Barrydale on our way to Montagu, so we could explore the town a little before nightfall.  The farming community is in a valley surrounded by the Langeberg mountain range and has many examples of late 19th century Cape Dutch architecture scattered about town.   Ornate gables, thatched roofs, whitewashed walls and occasionally gingerbread trim define the style, but there are modern interpretations also.IMG_2889In a country not known for Art Deco we booked ourselves into the Montagu Country Hotel, the only original Art Deco hotel in South Africa. In the main building, lounges with fireplaces and guest rooms are filled with stylish Art Deco antiques.  Contrarily, we stayed in their African lodge – after all, this is Africa – which was situated nicely in a lush garden. It was circular structure with a 20ft high thatched roof that had all the conveniences of home.  The bathroom had the largest soaking tub we have ever seen that easily could have held a family of four. We wondered when the last time it was filled.  Guilt about wasting water, during a drought, prevented us from using it.IMG_6089The temperature drops quickly in the mountains once the sun sets so we enjoyed a local wine, in front of a fireplace, in one of the lounges before dinner.  We usually look for a less expensive alternative for dinner, but the hotels’ Wild Apricot Restaurant drew us in with elegant candlelit tables and live piano music.  It was the last night of our road trip – we could splurge.  With Smoked Ostrich Carpaccio and Springbok Tarta for appetizers followed by Cape Malay Bobotie and Karoo Lamb Pie as mains and a traditional Orange Malva Pudding for dessert, we were splendidly sated.

Cruising around the village before heading back to Cape Town, we found some interesting examples of colonial Cape Dutch architecture and a small suspension footbridge over the Kogsmankloofrivier. Water rushes over the road below it when the river runs high.  IMG_3126We followed R62 west through a small tunnel, locally referred to as the “Hole in the Wall,” that was dynamited out in the 1870’s. It’s a dramatic landmark that tells you of your arrival into or departure from the Karoo.  As we left our road trip behind, we looked forward to heading to a new apartment in Cape Town.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Cape Town Part 1: Vibrant, Complex & Beautiful

After spending a month in Bulgaria, we headed to South Africa at the end of May, to continue our pursuit of budget-friendly and interesting places with moderate weather to avoid the heat and humidity of a European summer.  The seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, so we stayed for three months to take advantage of their mid 60sF (16C) winter weather, which is extremely mild in comparison to the winters of the northeast United States.  So temperate in fact that most homes and apartments are not built with central heat, relying instead on small, portable electric heaters.  Mostly, folks just layered up, and on those gale force, windy days we were amused to see people in fur-trimmed hooded parkas, more suitable for the Alaskan wilderness, than walking around Cape Town. IMG_3489This would be Donna’s fourth trip to Cape Town and my first. Back in 1993 she visited friends she had made while attending Princeton Seminary, and a year later in 1994 she volunteered to be an International Observer for the first free and fair democratic elections in South Africa.  In 2016 she returned to a city humming with positive energy and a growing economy.  Unfortunately, this situation did not continue, and by 2019 the governance and economy of South Africa and its neighboring countries had stalled.  The city was still beautiful and growing as a tourist destination, an amazing coffee culture had been born, but shuttered construction projects and an increasing homeless population were evident, and across many different socioeconomic groups, people were feeling disenfranchised. A multi-year drought exasperated many infrastructure problems that were being neglected.  Fortunately, exceptional winter rains broke the severe drought and replenished the city’s nearly depleted reservoirs.IMG_4658We immersed ourselves quickly into the neighborhood  around our first apartment on Buitenkant Street, just a few blocks away from the District Six Museum, steam punk themed Truth Coffee and the Jason Bakery.  One block over we followed Harrington Street, past some great street art, to Bootleggers for more coffee and the best peri-per chicken livers in CPT.

A little further along, Nude Foods sold everything by weight and encouraged us to reuse our bags and refill our olive oil and balsamic vinegar bottles.  Around the corner Charly’s Bakery, an institution in CPT with an interesting creation story, would make our sweet tooth ache.  We had a memorable evening beginning with dinner at Dias Tavern, a Portuguese restaurant, followed by a performance of Kinky Boots at the Fugard Theatre across the street. IMG_7384On the edge of the City Bowl and Zonnebloem districts, formerly District Six, our high-rise apartment building had a rooftop gym with fantastic views of the city, a 24hr doorman, gated parking and balconies with beautiful views of Table and Lion’s Head mountains.  But the area immediately around us was in transition, without enough residential housing to call it a neighborhood.

After work everyone vanished and the streets were nearly deserted.  The multistory construction project adjacent to our balcony was abandoned.  While this offered privacy it had an unsettling, post-apocalyptic vibe that deterred our enjoyment of an otherwise sunny space.  First world whining, we know, but we felt the Airbnb host was deceptive for several reasons regarding the apartment and surrounding area.  Around the corner folks were sleeping rough on the street.  We made a habit of carrying our loose change in our coat pockets to easily give it to the unofficial “car guards” and panhandlers. We had a nice room to enjoy nightly, and plenty to eat. How could we just pass them by?   We walked all over the city, even at night, and never felt unsafe during our time in Cape Town, but using common sense is in order.  During the weeks that we didn’t have a rental car we utilized Uber, which was very affordable, to cover greater distances around town.

We liked to joke that “you know you’re a local when you sign-up for the supermarket discount card.”  Part of our weekly ritual was walking up Buitenkant Street towards Oranjezicht, an upscale neighborhood, with many fine examples of Cape Dutch architecture, to The Gardens, a multi-story shopping and residential complex with Pick-n-Pay and Woolworths grocery stores.  On Prince Street the Hurling Swaaipomp Pump House still stands.  Slaves pumped spring water for the surrounding homes here until the mid-1800s.

The cost of groceries and dining out in Cape Town was extremely favorable.  Grocery items generally cost half of what they would typically cost in the states. A dinner for two with wine, dessert and coffee would run less than $40.00.  Seafood was abundant, as you would expect in a coastal city, and inexpensive as well.  We took full advantage of this, enjoying grilled octopus, sword fish, mussels and the best oysters on multiple occassions. Sautéed ostrich filets were a tasty meal we prepared for ourselves.  Disappointingly, wild game was only available at restaurants. The Western Cape Winelands, around Stellenbosch, just outside Cape Town, covers a vast area and produces some exceptional vintages that are budget friendly.  Winery tours of the area are a must and with over 200 vineyards the possibilities are endless.IMG_4663We had to find a dentist also, as just before our flight into Cape Town one of my crowns broke.  Fortunately, South Africa is recognized for good medical and dental care and is slowly becoming a medical tourism destination.  I found Dr. Ramjee on Google Maps, checked his reviews and made an appointment at his office which was within walking distance of our apartment.  With his jovial and comforting manner, I instantly felt at ease.  Though only a one dental chair office he had a state-of-the-art digital x-ray machine, a dental assistant and a receptionist.  Besides the broken crown, I needed a root canal as well – what fun!  My experiences with Dr. Ramjee were excellent and I raved so much about him Donna decided to use his services when the need arose for an emergency root canal and crown also.  Unexpected expenses that in the states would be costly, even with insurance, were much more affordable and payable out of pocket here.  The savings were tremendous.

Avoiding the past is difficult in Cape Town, with remnants of slavery’s legacy scattered about the city, even on the way to the dentist’s office.  Just across from his door a concrete medallion marks the spot of the Old Slave Tree, where slaves were sold until their emancipation was declared in 1834.  Around the corner the second oldest building in Cape Town – the Slave Lodge, a euphemism for a small pox-plagued, prison like structure for 500 slaves, still stands.  It was built in 1679 to house the slaves owned by the Dutch East India Company that worked in the Company’s Garden, a farm.  Today its mission as a museum is to explore the history “Slaves at the Cape: Oppression, Life and Legacy.”

IMG_8198You just can’t walk enough miles along the coast or up and down Loin’s Head to keep the calories off in this foodie-oriented city. The Saturday- and Sunday-only food markets didn’t help, but they are a treasured tradition, throughout the region, that brings family, friends and tourists together to enjoy live music and good food.

Our favorite in Cape Town was the Oranjezicht City Farm Market down by the V&A waterfront.  There’s also The Neighbourgoods Market, located at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock.  The Bay Harbour Market in Hout Bay, Blue Bird Garage Food and Goods Market in Muizenberg, the Elgin Railway Market in Grabouw and the Root 44 Market in Stellenbosch. All were enjoyable destinations beyond the city.IMG_6238On the lower end of Buitenkant Street, the Castle of Good Hope, a 17th century pentagon-shaped stone bastion fortress, stands surrounded by city streets, its cannons now pointing toward skyscrapers instead of enemy ships.  It was originally built on the water’s edge of Table Bay by the Dutch to protect the harbor from the British.  After a massive waterfront reclamation project in the 1930s and 1940s reshaped Cape Town’s waterfront, the castle now stands far inland.

It houses a military and ceramic museum along with the William Fehr Collection.  This is a controversial exhibit today because the collection only depicts colonial history with no representation of the indigenous KhoiSan people who were the true first inhabitants of the western cape long before the Portuguese stepped ashore, followed later by the Dutch and British. It’s been 25 years since the first genuinely representative government of South Africa has been elected and only four statues of early indigenous leaders who fought colonization, and were imprisoned in the fortress, stand outside.  Yet the lopsided narrative of this collection has not been addressed and many wonder why.IMG_4534In early June the castle hosted the 2019 Cape Town Coffee Festival which celebrated all things caffeinated with growers from across the continent, barista workshops and pop-up coffee stands.  If you ever wanted to see thousands of folks ricocheting off the walls from too much free coffee, this was the place to be.

One of our favorites was a Senegalese coffee prepared by Khadim, a pleasant and engaging expat.  It’s a strong sweet coffee, served with a long dramatic pour.  We enjoyed it so much that we visited his shop, Khadim’s Coffee, repeatedly. So good was the java and food prepared by Khadim that his shop became our de facto rendezvous point for meeting friends in the city.IMG_6322The coffee festival coincided with the Red Bull Cape Town Circuit where their F1 Aston Martin Red Bull racing car roared down Darling Street at over 150mph, passing the spot where Nelson Mandela addressed the nation upon his release from Robben Island, and turning the stretch in front of city hall, lined with bleachers, into a high-speed drag strip.  At the intersections, souped-up street cars burned rubber and spun donuts while the Red Bull Air Force performed aerial acrobatics over the city.  It was a raucous day that we could hear from our apartment.

Closer to the city center the District Six Museum tells the story of an atrocity, an afront to dignity that should never be forgotten.  In 1867 the sixth district in Cape Town was formed as a neighborhood of immigrants, merchants, artisans, laborers and freed African and Asian slaves.  It was close to the port and provided the muscle Cape Town needed to grow.  It was home to ten percent of Cape Town’s population and thrived as a community for decades until 1966 when the apartheid government, seeing prime real estate under Table Mountain, declared it a whites only area.  The district’s 60,000 residents were forcibly relocated with superficial notice into segregated townships 15 miles away, or further, from central Cape Town. IMG_5735Families and neighbors were intentionally sent to different communities to break the spirit of the people.  The apartheid government was so vile it “regarded the district as both physically and morally tainted by miscegenation, wholly unfit for rehabilitation” and flattened every building except for Churches.  Even the original streets were destroyed, and new roadways were created so folks couldn’t find their homes, now vacant lots, that they legally owned.  Much of the area still remains abandoned. The District Six Museum commemorates this tragedy and the lasting heartbreak of this cruelty.

The Company’s Garden was only a few blocks away.  Originally a farm that supplied passing ships with food, it now is a wonderful urban park in the city center with old growth specimen trees, gardens, and café. Adjacent to the entrance of the park, Desmond Tutu used to preach from the pulpit of St. George’s Cathedral, an Anglican Church.  And across the street a section of the Berlin Wall stands in remembrance of the struggles people are willing to make for freedom around the world.

At the far end of the gardens two museums grace the grounds and are perfect for a rainy-day exploration.  The Iziko South African Museum is a natural history and science museum with a planetarium.  It has wonderful collection of early aboriginal tools and rock paintings along with a large compendium of pre-historic fossil remains.  There is something for everyone here and we found it to be fascinating.   Outside, various street performers entertained visitors to the park.

Across the way the South African National Gallery has an eclectic collection of contemporary and tribal art from South Africa and the rest of the continent.  The art scene is thriving in Cape Town with many galleries providing exhibit space to young, talented artists.  The museum’s collection reflects this vibrant art scene.IMG_3471Despite our apartment’s faults, we enjoyed our time on Buitenkant Street.  Watching the brilliant sunrises and the flat clouds – the tablecloth of Table Mountain – cover the summit and then spill down the side like a waterfall. The street life below spanned the gamut from groups of tutu-clad race walkers one day to noisily protesting sex workers or Fridays for Future demonstrators the next.

It would be superficial of us not to address the painful past of this relatively young democracy; apartheid and race are still underlying issues.  Despite this, Cape Town, South Africa, was a wonderful experience: at once contemporary and traditional; challenging, progressive, and hope-filled, it captivated us for three months.

Stay tuned for more as we work our way across the southern tip of the continent.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna