Early Morning Race to the Airport

I’m up at 5am, power goes out. Then back on.

Still, for some unknown reason, they can’t charge it. I’m reading the instructions as we all give it a try. But no luck. I have a 300 birr bill, a flight leaving at 7am to Addis, and less than 50 birr in pocket (which I know I need in Addis for a taxi to the hotel)

With a gulp, upon my request, they call the manager at the unreasonably early hour. Not in the best of moods, he arrives in twenty minutes (as my airport shuttle leaves with the others from the hotel) and he will hardly talk to me, except to tell ask for my passport (to take a copy) and to not to worry about my flight.

I feel ridiculous and guilty and have to remind myself repeatedly that I’d done all I could do (stalked the ATM days before, confirmed twice that they could charge my credit card only days before) and staying in Gondar (airfare and hotel fees aside) but with no access to funds was not an option. I had to get to Addis. And I nervously insist that I make my flight, despite this hiccup.

The manager listens with a stern face. Then silently writes down the bank account number and wire instructions. And I try to show my sincerity when I promise to wire the money as soon as possible upon my return to Addis. (That is assuming I can actually find a working ATM and get more money upon my return to Addis…)

He picks up my bag and tosses it in the car, his car. It’s then that I realize he’s driving me. Oh great. This is going to be pleasant. 

Still without a word, we race through sleeping Gondar, my stomach full of nervous knots.

Early morning sun peeks between the hills to warm the terra-cotta and mud storefronts, the trees, the earth with gold-rose hues.

Still speeding widely, so that I’m clutching the arms of my seat, but dare not interrupt my intense driver, I realize I’ve been sleeping in too late. This is beautiful. Liquid gold pouring over burnt-gold and chartreuse green of meskel-in-bloom covered hillsides.

The city breaks into a spread of green field shadowed with pale-silver, slender eucalyptus trees. And between the intense-green sea, walk men and women, shrouded from head to toe in ethereal white netalahs, so that they almost float through the field towards the church. Singing, ancient hymns, quietly. It is like nothing else.

We pass the waking outskirts of town then, between the masses of moving people, donkeys and goats, the couple standing still, shoeless in the dirt, catch my eye. His arms around her.

How beautiful is this morning,

In my calm, I’m jerked to reality when I look up to see the flock of goats and villagers walking on the sides of the road that we’re hurtling towards, as the driver (instead of slamming on the brakes) slams on the gas to pass the military truck in the tiniest gap between an oncoming truck.

To the waitresses delight, I help myself to a pile of firfir and cups of buna at the airport.

When it’s nearing time to leave, I feel a tug at my sleeve: an airport worker. He personally informs me that my flight is getting ready to depart.We chit chat the rest of the way and I’m surprised how the mood has changed, from one of ultimate discomfort to friendship. (Perhaps he’d thought I was the angry one all the while I thought he hated me!)I suck in my breath in a deep gasp. As we miss smashing into theoncoming truck by mere feet. And I break into surprised laughter. My driver looks at me. Smiles in approval, as I continue laughing, until his laughter fills the car.

I reach for my totally blank boarding pass, which I know will get me to Addis one way or the other, and smile. I love this place.

Flying over patchwork of fields in all shades of green, and Axum rock, my thoughts to turn to this trip. To my surprise, it’s taught me about myself than anything in my life, thus far. What I’m capable of. Learning good and bad that I never knew.

Feel like after chaos of last couple years, suddenly, in the chaos, I’ve found comfort, I feel my life is my own again. Not a reaction to someone else.  This, my life, it is my own.

Gondar Hospital

The moment I step outside the hotel, there is a choir of children’s voices. Asking me to buy a packet of gum or tissue or merely pointing out “ferangi, ferangi!” (To which I sometimes respond in alarm, “where!? where?!”).

I shake my head. Aznalo, mon ami, aznalo.

One astute child points out, Hey! All you say is aznalo. 

I look at him. Shrug my shoulders, aznalo.

And then I’m hopping in the nearest tuk tuk to the hospital, kicking myself for touring castles when I could have had a guided tour. Now I’m alone, wandering the compound of low-lying buildings. Stepping aside as an emaciated woman is wheeled through rutted walkways, on a bed, a staff member holds an IV bag of fluid, a family member shades her body from the blinding afternoon sun with an umbrella as they walk. Suited residents and with crisp white coats walk with purpose from one building to the next. I skirt groups of people, families crouching under any pool of shade the buildings or few massive trees can offer, boney faces wrapped in gauzy white netalah. Old and very young. They have traveled from the countryside, bringing their sick one for treatment, then spending their days literally camped outside, steps from the hospital sick wards. Unable or unwilling to move to a hotel in the middle of town.

I feel a hundred eyes on me. Yet no one talks to me. Feeling every bit the painful outsider, the gawking tourist, I stick out like nothing else. And it’s impossible to lift my camera to shoot photos, when I have not context, no possible understanding of the grim, blank look that shrouds the faces here, I have no way to know the host of stories here. I’m kicking myself for not finding some way, in my Meskal-and-40-hour-work schedule to have meet up with Anteneh.

Further down the complex, construction on a new building is taking place. Sweating men labor over rusted saws, scraping steadily away at cutting through 2″ wire cables while others chip at massive rocks with sledgehammers. Frail women with stick-thin arms haul rocks, one by one, on improvised gurneys of canvas and tree limbs. There are no power tools. Only human powered.

A man follows me. Then poses with cross and points to my camera. He wants a picture. I take it and show him. He smiles, bows. Blesses me with the cross. Leaves. What strikes me is that he never asks for money. It’s as if I’ve stepped into a whole different world, within Ethiopia. The hospital.

Then a kind face. Asnake wears the white lab coat of a resident, walking from pediatrics to a laboratory. He would be happy to show me around.

At first I refuse, nervous to impose on a stranger. Then realize I’m getting nowhere on my own. I make my way to the lab and the tour begins. Around the hospital, talking to people, practicing Amharic, posing for photos. At Asnake’s insistence, I agree to a cup of coffee at the hospital cafe. I share how I got to Ethiopia, Asnake tells me how he followed his father’s footsteps to medicine, the hospital.


Fasilides Bath & the Ethiopian Slow-Bird

The British boys and I walk a couple miles out of town, down winding country roads, lined with fragrant eucalyptus trees and rows of laughing school children in pepto-pink polo shirts, towards the also massive separate bath also built by Emperor Fasilides (now used as a baptismal pool during Timket, the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of the epiphany). Pictures I’ve seen of the event are beyond beautiful.

Empty, sans holy water, and entrance to the actual stone bathhouse barred from passage due to construction in progress (compliments of Norwegian donations), the ancient structure is beautiful but somewhat less exciting and mysterious than we’d hoped.

While the women workers break for lunch, and eye us curiously as they finger delicate firfir lunch after a very laborious morning–we smile and walk the outside perimeter.

A bit of a magical garden or holy oasis, with ancient trees spread low branches towards the heavens, and everywhere luscious green grass.

At the edge, centuries-old mangrove trees with waists the diameter of a small home, lounge and rest heavy, tentacle-like arm-roots along a stone wall in various stages of disrepair.

As we wander, I help the guys with some of my favorite, and most useful Amharic: tenastali, aznalo, amasagnallo, menden no you.

The guys point to the large, dark-gray-brown colored bird, perched on the wood scaffolding, and we burst out with laughter. (From the Goha Hotel, when I’d wondered out loud about the lazily soaring creatures filling the air in the evenings, the guys had, without pause, informed me this was “THE Ethiopian slow-bird”. I was appropriately impressed with their ornithological prowess when they chuckled, Well, what else could it be? It flies so f__ slow?) So I point to the slow-bird and say the words I learned at Lalibela, which sound like Menden no you (And means “what’s that?”).

The women workers gasp with approval. Weuf! Bird. When we leave there are smiles all around and I have my new favorite word for the day.


The Hottest Breakfast Ever and Fasilides Castle

The next morning starts like the last night ended: at The Coffee House with the British boys.

And while we say the words “not too spicy” to the waiter, as the senior Habesha men within hearing distance grin, my breakfast is one of the hottest on record (which is saying a lot, since I started my days in Addis with a tomato and pepper salad, drizzled with red-chili dressing). Served in a silver bowl too hot to touch (so they give me a clothespin to hold it steady while eating), the unkalal (egg) and quinche (bulgar wheat type food) soaked in chili-red berbere has my usually spice-resilient mouth on fire. I wash it down with hot coffee, and nod to the (now laughing) Ethiopian men, as I feel my forehead breaking into a vigorous, hilarious morning sweat.

We walk to the the massive wall in the center of town, where lies, in various stages of romantic ruin, Fasilides Castle.

The initial building built in 1630’s by the emperor Fasilides, then expanded (building by building) by subsequent rulers…while progress was freely interspersed with brutal sacking and destruction of various marauders…Today it covers and impressive 70K square meter complex. Carefully carved sandstone-colored walls radiate warmth, history and certain mystery of a colorful history. Given it’s colorful past, climbing the giant stairs (a generous foot in height) through half-destroyed courtyards, halls with grass stubble for floor and a blue sky as ceiling, it feels strangely quiet, sitting ghostly still in the bright morning sun, as busy Gondar bustles about its day beyond one of the castle’s 12 gates.

As if hoping I could somehow soak up the history and stories of this place through osmosis, I trace with my fingers, lovingly, along the old stone lining of half-underground walkways between compounds.

Then turn the corner where I can easily eavesdrop on the group of old, gray German tourists, as they wait for the Ethiopian tour guide recount stories of the castles previous glory, of rulers past (when Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia…) in English, for a German tour guide to them translate the Ethiopian’s English into German.

A handful of Ethiopian tourists pass by me. I see them look deplorably at the ferangis lounging in the ruins, disinterestedly fanning themselves in the hot morning as the tour rolls on. In particular, a middle-aged woman, hair in the half-braid half-wild curls of a traditional Tigrayan hairstyle, shakes her head in disapproval to her husband. With only six feet to spare in the narrow passageway, there’s no avoiding her disapproval which will undoubtedly be passed to me and my pale skin.

I find my best smile, and nod to her and her husband, Tenastali. (the traditional greeting of highest respect) Then, playfully, just to show that it was no accident, I finish with a good afternoon Deuna walu (with the special tense for greetings to one or more person).

Her shock takes the form of an audible gasp. As I turn the corner, I hear her debate with her husband in Amharic. I can’t tell if it’s good or bad. And continue my self-guided tour.

I see them at the next corner and she stops me. “You speak to me in my own language. Where did you learn? I have never heard anything like this from a ferangi. I would like to thank you for making my day more beautiful.”

She asks then for a picture, I think she wants me to take their picture. But no, she wants a picture with me. I gladly oblige on the condition she takes a picture with me. She’s too pleased.

Spanish, Sunset and Beer at the Goha Hotel

I head downstairs, when I spot the guard who bravely defended me from the crazy guy at the hotel gate two nights prior. I can only understand bits of his Amharic (“how are you” “friend” “it was no problem”) and I can only find bits of my Amharic suitable for the strange situation (“I’m am well, thanks to you my friend” and then just “thank you, thank you, thank you…”). Without a thought to gender roles, in my appreciation, I reach out and hug him. His gold-capped teeth gleam with a smile.

When I turn around, a man is listening to us. He stumbles through English. Stopping often. Frustrated. Then apologetic.

I cheer him on, “You’re doing great! English is not easy. Espanol?”

And then, while it’s not perfect, a summer of learning French-Turkish-Amharic has gotten me over my shyness of just trying. To my surprise and his delight, we’re somewhat conversing in Spanish, in Ethiopia. He’s had his camera stolen, he’s had a hard time getting around, he cannot believe I’ve made it this long unscathed and adds his compliments to the growing stack. You’re amazing to do this alone, as a woman. He admires it, and continues, I have only met one other woman, alone, here. But she, she was crazy.

I’m hearing the fear-mixed-with-admiration so often now, I do wonder about my sanity in undertaking the solo trip. I shrug my shoulders and laugh. It’s always possible?

He insists I am not crazy. Just brave.

After work that night, I meet the British boys, Rob and Jerome, on leave from university to teach a three month business class in the local school. We walk up a winding road out of town to the quiet, secluded Goha hotel. I’m more than a little relieved to find the guys (the epitome of youth and fitness) are winded by our ascent to the hotel, at 8K feet elevation.

The low-lying, single-story hotel buildings are perched on the highest hill, overlooking Gondar and some of the most spectacular views of the green, treed hillsides and higher plateaus that are all shades of pink-purple-gray-green with the distance and the  remains of a thrilling sunset.

Buzzing electric “Goha” sign to our back, we sit in plastic chairs at the edge of the cliff. The camaraderie and dry sarcasm of the UK guys is a welcomed break from my own internal dialogue. We talk about the idea of a “gap year” (generally lost on Americans) and what is “meaningful”. We trade stories of our “reasons for being here”: theirs (educating and interacting with children in need, while scraping by on a such a limited pension that they’re plotting ways to save money by saving up for a hotplate to cook at home, and substitute bread for a meal as much as possible) is altruistic and grand. Mine (analyzing data so companies in the US can sell more of something while traveling in relatively luxury with all my camera, laptop and kindle, yoga pants and a US income) feels ridiculously self-indulgent and removed from reality. At least, the reality here.

But to my surprise, while I’m stifling my jealousy for their life–they’re complimentary about mine. It’s brilliant what you’re able to do, to travel and see the world, while working. Instead of being trapped somewhere. People would kill for that.

I laugh more that night than I had in a long time. And I have to insist, multiple times, before the guys let me pay for our “fancy hotel” beers. They only accept my tiny token of friendship when I tell them to let me do this so they pay it forward (they can get me back in the years to come, when they’re “my age” and then run into cool kids going cool things and foot the beer bill).

On the walk home, we’re picked up by a man in older-model Range Rover who insists he’ll give us a free ride down. But only when we’re seated and halfway down the road that he changes his mind and threatens the stiffest rate. It’s a scam. And it takes the boys arguing and me nudging the door open as we move to change his mind back to our original deal of “free”. And while awkward, it’s a good reminder that scams and outrage happen to boys too. It’s not the result of me being female, or having done something wrong. It’s just how travel, life goes sometimes.

We end on a good note: at The Coffee House, for pasta and burgers. It’s a good way to end the day.

The Most Unbelievable Moment of My Life

I catch my breath, as I stand with my little tour-guide/self-appointed guardian, in the shadows of the stone walls of the Castle, well away from the chaos of the inner circle. Where the burning cross had once stood, is now a pile of coal, spewing smoke and tissue-paper ashes onto the dark heads and bodies smeared with charcoal streaks, that seem to tirelessly dance (like one might breath) raising sticks and deep shouts, as more and more men and boys join in.

I think to myself that I should probably stand still and stay, safe, on the sidelines. And I watch for a few more minutes as like an outsider, with the other handful of white people in attendance, in khaki-travel attire and sunhats, and cool smiles. But I can’t take my eyes off the circle, teaming with chaos, celebration, abandon, life.  It’s a ceremony that I’ve never seen before. It’s beautiful and raw. I’m not sure what may happen, but if I wanted to play it safe, I would have stayed in Seattle. To stand still, when the entire world before me celebrates, feels like a death-sentence.

I sling my NikonD90 across my chest, bandolero style, so the expensive body hugs my frame, and I can move freely. Not sure what will happen next, I take 30 maddeningly giddy steps descending  into the fray. My little tour-guide runs to try to catch up with me, asking me to stop. Energy ripples through the crowd. The shouting gets thunderously loud, “Abeba, Abeba!”

And I add my own to voice to the chorus, ” Abeba! Abeba!” and shake my fist in time with a couple men next to me. They’re smiling with surprise. (I’m smiling wide because we’re all screaming “Flower! Flower!”)

Another, insanely tall ferengi, floats heads and shoulders above the crowd. Dirty-blond, curled hair flops in his face, as he raises his even longer arms above the pandemonium to snap shots of the inner circle. I look on jealously. And finally, craving some memory of the moment, I reach up and try to snap a few nervous shots. (But even my 5’10” height is no real advantage today, as men are packed around me, and I get a series of shots of the backs of heads.) The move attracts even more attention. Feeling suddenly self-conscious, I start to hide the camera from sight. A man turns to me, “You want pictures?” Then says something I can’t understand. I try to laugh it off. Whatever it is.

But he continues talking, offering, with friendly grin, “Climb on my shoulders, sister. You will get the best pictures.”

I burst out laughing, thinking it a joke. What would people think.

But he insists, then his friends chime in their support. Even my tour guide joins them, as they all promise to carefully watch over me and not let me fall.

I blush, and try to use my 5’10” height as an out. He assures me he’s lifted much heavier burdens, sizes me up and shakes his head, “You are like nothing.”

It would be amazing…Then two men bend and lock wrists to make a “step”. I laugh, then up I go, I’m suddenly soaring feet above the crowd. A swirl of faces. A sea of dancing in the center. The song “Abeba, Abeba” infinitely sweeter from such  heights, and I’m lost in the excitement. A photo, a video clip, and then I just sit on my human perch and drink it in. The experience of floating above the crowd, wildly chanting.

Slowly the people on the ground begin to nudge each other, I see them point to the ferengi on the man’s shoulders. I’m nervous. But they smile and wave. I wave back, and sing Amharic “Meskel. Betam Conjo. Amasagnalo!!” I must look like some babbling idiot-tourist. Hands on my heart, I wish there was some way to communicate my appreciation for this moment. For today, for Meskel, for the finding of the true cross. Suddenly inspired, with a laugh and grin, I shoot my fist into the air, and sing “Abeba! Abeba!”

To my utter astonishment, from the ground 10 feet below me, rises a chorus chanting a return, “Abeba! Abeba!”

Like a bullet to the brain, reality hits me so hard and fast. How did I get here?! How is any of this real?! How is this my life?!

I see my life zip before my eyes in fast forward: being 10 and climbing a tree in the backyard to hide and write in my journal about being a grown up, studying late and getting up early to serve hors d’oeuvres at another party, only to work my into a quiet coffin of a cubicle wondering if this is what it’s all about, heartbreak, then breaking, then freelancing, then learning Indonesian, terra-cotta rooftops in south France, standing in Istanbul’s glittering Hagia Sofia at sunset,and now in Africa, in a small town in Ethiopia,  smoke stingingmy nose, sitting on top of a stranger’s shoulders, celebrating the burning of a massive cross, with hundreds of thousands of people cheering at the sound of my single voice.

It makes no sense and, yet, all the sense in the world. But not in a million years could I have dreamed this moment, so amazing, bursting with life and surprise.  I’ve never felt so alone, I’ve also never felt so alive. A wave of gratitude so immense. Gratitude for everything that brought me here, everything around me, every person, creature, nation, tiny town, castle, golden hillside, angelic-white netalahs flying in the wind and smoke. I’m not sure where, or why. But I lift my arm in the air, smiling, and shout: “Abeba!”

And they love it. The air around me trembles. Every man and boy around me, jumps. From below there is a collective roar back: “Abeba! Abeba!”

“Abeba! Abeba!”

“Abeba! Abeba!”

“Abeba! Abeba!”

Getting Blessed (and Saved From a Beating) at Meskel

Already wedged between crowds of men, barely able to breath, I can’t imagine the promised fight after the massive burning cross falls. When the muscled army guards, in sand-green camo and guns on their shoulders, come racing down the line. With surprising vengeance, they whip back the line of men in front of me, away from the holy circle, where the priests stand.

As the men before me flinch, they stumble and then fall towards me. Like a human domino, I’m swept up off my feet, and right out of my flip flops (my only shoes!) carried on a sea of people. Barefoot on a day of red-hot falling crosses is not possible. I need my shoes!

The guard comes down the line again, soundly whipping the men before me. But I need my shoes (my only shoes!)! I figure I’ve seen worse superman-ing over handlebars onto slabs of rock while mountain biking and lunge my body forward.

Across the squirming pile of people. Fingers loop around their leather, just as I look up to see the dark arm of the gun-toting guard flying angrily down towards my face and back. I flinch and wait for the impact. (A quick breath, now you’ll know how it feels to be beaten.)

Instead I feel my hand clasped within the massiveness of a much stronger hand. And I feel my entire five foot ten inch fame catapult from the crowd, upright, and onto my feet. The guard puts an arm on each of my shoulders. Waiting to be chastised, he stares into my eyes, “You are ok?”

“Yes. Yes, thankyou.” I see the crowd of men waving at me, giving me the thumbs up and smiling, as they continue waiting with the masses, behind the thin rope. “Amasagnalo, guardenia!” (Thank you, friend!)

His massive face breaks into a grin. “Have fun.” Then he returns to his post, pushing people back.

I stand in the empty space between the raging bonfire and the masses of people. I feel strange. Lost. Open. And then a shout, like nothing else rises from the crowd. The cross is falling. It’s a free for all. As smoke clouds the air, men and boys pull at burning charcoal, with wet rags, with bare hands. They drag 10 foot sections of burning wood through the thick crowds.

A young teen grabs my hand. He tells me, “It is very dangerous for you, you must listen to me.” And then he runs me through the crowd. Dodging burning timbers being waved and dropped, and fought over by frantic people. I gasp, and clench the hand of my little tour-guide. And we’re off again. Him, pushing me away from danger, as I pull his hand to dive back in. We dodge steaming wood, and people dragging them, yelling, dropping. Smoke is thick, like a war zone.

He tells me to pick up a piece of charcoal.

I hesitate. What will happen? Will I burn myself? But decide to trust him. I grab it. It’s reassuringly warm in my palm.

He takes it and smudges a cross on my forehead, then walks me to a group huddling around a young priest with a noble profile, deftly waving an ornate silver cross as he whispers blessings. The priest is crowded with admirers, but my tour guide pushes me forward. “Take your photo!” He tells me. So shyly pull the camera around, just as the priest stops and stares into my lens.

I feel embarrassed — how to let him know how meaningful this moment is. I lower the camera and bow my head with respect. I whisper: Tenastlni.

And when I lift my head, he’s staring curiously at my forehead. And I remember, the smudged charcoal cross. He nods at my tour-guide, at me, then cracks a smile, and lifts his silver cross as he blesses me, too.

It is my third blessing, from an Ethiopian priest, in so many weeks.

An Army of Men & Boys Shouting “Flower! Flower!” (& Finding My Place in This World…)

I ask what the men, dancing in the center around the cross, are shouting.

Abeba” they tell me. Or “flower” (Addis Ababa is really Addis Abeba, which means “new flower”).

Flowers. The past time I love above all others, since childhood.

Of course, I’m find my way here. Now. Of course the grown men, with savage, charcoal-smeared faces, sweat streaming down their faces, hoisting sticks as they dance madly in circles, are chant-singing at the tops of their lungs:

“Flower! Flower! Flower!”

I can’t stop smiling. Every moment seems bursting with validation that taking this trip, stepping out into a brand new world, all alone, and all the doubts and uncertainty — I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. With an army of men, shouting the creation and beauty I revere most:  “Flower!”

On top of my happiness, everyone I talk to tells me they are glad that I am here.  The day has become like no other I have ever known. I am near speechless with gratitude.

The mosh pit in the center has grown wilder. I can’t resist the urge to dig deeper, to see up close my first Meskel. I gradually work my way into center, to where excitement is whipped to a frenzy and women are few.

The only other tourist I’ve seen in hours sneaks by. I point, and shout gleefully, “Ferengi!”

Ethiopians and the pale stranger all turn and laugh, “Come on!” he yells.

Ferengi and I weave through the crowd, ducking between arms, as we creep towards the center. Until I lose him.

I am stuck behind a wall of Ethiopian men. Shoulder to shoulder. I can hardly breath. I’m alone and tiptoeing to see. The bodies packed against me are holding me up.

The burning cross is raging, and now leaning precariously. I realize I’m within a 20 foot radius of danger, I mean, it’s increasingly lean is heading our way. Surely, everyone will leave soon. I tap the man next to me. “What happens after the cross falls?”

“Oh.” A shrug,”Then there will be a fight.”

“A fight?” I panic.

“Yes. For the cross!” He smiles, as if at an innocent child, “This is your first Meskel? Yes?”