Racing Horses, Like Jane Austin…& a Dream Come True

Melodic Spanish of friends and family, shuffling back and forth from kitchen and chores, wakes me up. Bright, white sunshine peaks through the cracks in the slabs of wood.  I finger through the filmy, blue, mosquito nets and grip my phone; 5AM. I don’t think we got to sleep until well after midnight.

I turn over and try to find more sleep. But the hard bed and my anxious thoughts prevent it. I look back over, Martina’s up. Laughter and Spanish float through the air like sunshine for my tired self. She’s back with a cup of hot coffee for me. For the hundredth time I feel spoiled. There’s nothing like traveling with someone else when you’ve been traveling alone for so long.

Before breakfast my hiking boot is fitted with a spur. A real spur. Leather wrapped around my ankle and held in place with a simple buckle. It clinks when I walk. So I don’t stop walking all morning. I’m a cowgirl.

We walk to the horses. In the early morning they wait patiently, rope halters and dusty saddles. I try to feign confidence, but I’m not sure how this will go. I rode horses a few times when I was nine or ten, walking old horses down a worn trail. There wasn’t much to it. But I think this could be very, very different, but I’m game…and I have no idea how we’ll get around today, if I’m not.

Our guide for the day, Nelson, holds the horse. I grip the mane (whisper an apology if it hurts), a foot in a stirrup, then swing the other over. And just like that, I’m sitting on a Nicaraguan pony, towering above the rocks and kids and dogs. Spencer is next. We sit as Martina gives me a quick tutorial.

It sounds easy enough. And, the way she rides, back straight with a smile, it looked easy enough.

We go from a walk to a trot. I bounce madly in the seat clutching to anything. And then it’s all out. We run together into a full, surreal, maddening gallop, as we barrel down the rocky dirt road.  I hear a beat of the clip clop of horses bearing down on us, makes my horse only run faster. Martina rushes up beside me and yells an instruction to stop the locomotive.

And we stop. The world stops spinning, butterflies flit and the swirling sea of green slows to individual blades again as we sit up feet above the quiet world, laughing.

Martina doles out more advise and tips. She’s genuinely impressed we’ve managed a gallop within our first seconds on a horse, with laughter, and without fear.

So thankful to not be the only newbie, we walk through the Nicaraguan sunshine.  When I ask his secret, he tells me, “I’m just trying to channel the manliest move, Gladiator horse racing.” He puffs up his chest and we roll over with laughter.

I search for the female role model, when do women ever ride roughshod across the countryside?! I’m slowed to sedate walking, thinking.

Then I remember. A bit of a memory reading some Jane Austin novel. A shard of some girl-hood day-dream.  Being that young woman breaking free from the shackles of society, conformity, her family’s strict interpretation of her life, a life not fully lived…until that single moment when she takes her life in her hands and…

Before I can complete the thought, my heart has already bounced back into the game. I laugh and call out my muse: I will now play the role of a Jane Austin heroine. (And as I look at lovely, British Martina, trotting beside me, I actually believe it) Horse and I trot. I bounce up and down with new ease. This time, I know what’s coming. And when he starts to break the trot to stretch his legs, I find new familiarity in the daredevil pace that breaks everything, anything I thought I’d ever be able to do.

And then horse and I fly. We’re literally leaping through the sunshine. Gripping rough rope in one hand, racing through trees, ducking low-hanging branches, dust kicked up behind us, whooping and laughing, like kids on holiday. I laugh harder realizing I’d never imagined this possible, even a year ago.

And then my hand flies from the saddle it’d gripped and I’m doing it, I’m galloping, fearlessly, madly ahead, with my hands wide-0pen, reaching for the sky.

And onward we go. Prancing around fences, picking down steep paths, walking, breaking into trots, then full-on gallops.

The repetition grows more and more comfortable. As is the feeling of absolute wonder (and little goosebumps of realization) that, purely by accident, my childhood dream, that one that I’d forgotten until I was actually doing it: actually racing a horse through the countryside, was strangely, and beautifully, fulfilled on this gorgeous day on a chance trip to Nicaragua.

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.

Meskel Morning and a Choir of Hundreds

I wake up coughing. My room is filled with acrid smoke, wafting lazy circles around the ceiling. Panic.

Then recognition. Meskel.

I fling back the covers and race to my balcony. Outside, the sky is a haze, as if the world was on fire, as plumes of smoke rise from between buildings and street corners further off. Crowds of people walk by.

Then the 15 foot cross, built the day before, begins to burn. Orange flames lick at the green grass, piled at the base, angrily exhaling sheets of gray smoke into the air. A block further another, smaller, cross has sprung up and burns.

I hurry through my morning routine, then set off to find my way to the coffee house (which is harder than it sounds, when the front desk replies to my question “how do I get to “The Coffee House”?” with “Which one?”…”THE Coffee House” until finally, a gasp and nod, “Yes, there is one coffee house that is called “The Coffee House”!” “Geubez!”), to meet the rest of the group.

I walk down the stairs and through the entrance I’d fled last night. In the warm sunlight, the world glows with friendly faces. It’s a new day. Wrapped in white netalahs, thousands wander through the street, men, women, children. I consult my napkin map, to navigate roads choked with people, as they walk from the countryside, to the center of town, to celebrate.

Just as I spot The Coffee House and familiar faces. Before I reach my group, there is a moment of unusual silence, only the whispering rustle of hundreds of clothes, the swish of long dresses.

And rising up the hill, as if out of nowhere, an army of people, a shout from the leader and then a brilliant, bright chorus begins.

I am frozen in complete and utter and complete awe, overwhelming gratitude to be here, at this very moment. I feel heart singing along with them, as it trills and falls, and hits lows and so very high notes.

It is the most beautiful sight. Hundreds moving and singing, together. I feel my eyes filling with water, as I clasp my hands to my heart.

Words I don’t understand, but their jubilation is universal, as men, women and children clap and sing and jump, steadily closing the gap between me and them.

Then them and I are feet, then only inches apart. Then their voices are swirling around me, they float past me. Thousands of beautiful voices, glowing faces, wrapped in gauzy, brilliant white. Laughing and smiling. The sun shining on us all. They carry armfuls of gold flowers, and crosses of all sorts (cardboard, tubing, charcoal sticks) and hoist them into the air.

A human wave of utter beauty. However traumatic the night-before, that fear, and that uncertainty, completely dissolves in the sunshine. Washed away by the song of the day. And I drink in the chorus, I’ve never hear before, as something familiar to my soul. It feels as if I’m seeing human-life for the very first time. Perhaps I was that scared the night before, so close to the end — or perhaps, sometimes, life is really and truly this rich, exotic, and beautiful beyond words, just at the precise moment you need it.

And then I dive in, and join the river of people, past street corners, where smaller crosses burn, where our little stream of hundreds will join the colorful ocean of hundreds of thousands. All against the backdrop of the massive, ancient Fasilides castle.

I breath deep. This is really happening.

Wandering the Rock Churches of Lalibela

Under a massive blue sky, kids sit in the shade of a thatched hut, reciting Amharic chants (or maybe it’s the language’s predecessor, Ge’ez, because I can’t recognize any words) in imperfect, and playful, unison. They paint gilded halos around round, angelic faces, in unique Ethiopian style. They sneak a wave to me when the priest-like instructor looks away.

My tour guide pauses to point out biblical landmarks, like the Mount of Olives, where stands a pile of red-rock and wispy shrubs, under one of the centuries old olive trees that dot the mountain village. And while it’s not the real thing (we’re not actually crossing the Jerusalem river or within miles of Jesus’ last supper) my tour guide (a rougish man in his twenties) treats these replicas as the real thing.

He explains the history, that Lalibela was built by King Lalibela, who was instructed by God, in a dream, to build the new Jerusalem (to save the lives of Ethiopians, heading to Jerusalem as a pilgrimage, from being slaughtered by Muslim armies), in Ethiopia. So in the 11th century, Lalibela constructs the most magnificent labyrinth of churches, hewn from solid rock. (A feat that still baffles modern day scientists — with the tools and known technologies of his era, they estimate it would have taken Lalibela nowhere less than 2,500 years to do what he did.)Which is why, my tour guide tells me, seriously, an army of angels helped Lalibela complete the churches in a mere lifetime.

I look around me. Breathing in the ancient land and feeling the red-gray stone walls, worn smooth from centuries of believers, I nod in agreement.

And, however it was accomplished, the churches of Lalibela are truly unbelievable. Thoughtful solid-rock channels lead to three-storied, massive buildings. A splash of faded, but grim, red paint, a reminder when the Italians once tried to “beautify” the church. Otherwise, it’s pristine. Ornate columns (the width of a small car) hold up the interior and give way to arches and decorated ceilings. Dim light peeks into these ancient temples, illuminating massive paintings of colorful saints and the gently dappled surface of rugged rock smoothed to a rocky-silk over the passing of centuries. Massive doors and rusted trappings.

Music & Dancing, at 7,546 Feet

Addis Ababa sits 7,500 feet above sea level. When it’s sunny, it’s deliciously warm and it takes only a few steps to work up a sultry sweat. Then the heavy, surreal-blue afternoon storm clouds, with monsoon-style gusts of cold rain, roll in and minutes later I’m shivering, reaching for a jacket or blanket. At night temperatures shift 30 degrees from a 70 degree afternoon is a cool 40 degree evening. Considering I packed (e.g. threw what was left of my closet back into the orange pack) for Africa at 2AM in the morning a mere 3 hours before hopping a plane, I’m repeatedly thankful I somehow grabbed long-johns and woolly warm socks for the chilly nights.

This afternoon, I run the power cord from my room to the massive balcony—working from a small picnic table. I work. I count the minutes until I can take another break and stand at the edges of the balcony and watch the life below, tired cars wobling over car-sized potholes, children playing and women wrapped in wispy scarves, walking through the corrugated-metal-lined roads, nudging the other and waving with wide smiles when they look up and catch a glimpse of me. (I find I stand out. Even hiding on a balcony, two stories up, I stand out.) I wave back. I sneak peeks between rough concrete slabs of the unfinished, wall-less skeleton of a building next door where a small fire heats a blackened kettle that she stoops over to stir as he add water, and more water to the steaming broth.

I’m not sure what to do with it. I sit back down, subdued, and back to work. Working until dark to the sounds of traditional, earthy, gargling chants of Orthadox priests microphoned across the valley.

Getu’s white van ambles down the road to pick me up. A rare treat, a night out with the American couples that are staying in Tsbay’s other guest house.They’re here to adopt. And over new years coffee and injera, where we traded the “ how I got here” stories, vivacious and charming Buffy and her character father, insist I join their group heading to Yod Abyssinia, the much acclaimed Ethiopian cultural restaurant. A boy brings a silver kettle of warm water and pours it over our hands as dinner is set before us: spongy sheets of injeera, piles of wat and vegetables. It’s all amazing, savory and that reverse comforting-feel of my familiar “Seattle” food here in Africa. The restaurant fills with Ethiopians, well dressed, beautiful, smiling. Families and groups of friends.

We’re joined by a group of gray-robed monks, friends of Buffy. To my surprise, they’re freaking hilarious. They ham it up for the camera, they tease each other and us. They make funny prayers, they freely punctuate sentences with a joking “Amen!” until we’re all cheering each other on with heartfelt “Amens!” And yet they speak with sincerity about their journey here and I admire their openness, their fraternity, their dedication and compassion, as they speak of the lives they’ve left (coming from France, Ivory Coast, and even exotic Kentucky!) and the places they will visit and the people and struggles of this time and place. I think to myself that this is the “good” kind of religion. I’m inspired by their infectious joy and sacrifice. They tell me of secret rock churches, and the map they’ll draw when I tell them I’ll be visiting Lalibela later.

Then the show starts.

Men play traditional instruments, as they take turns singing songs from the vastly different areas that make up Ethiopia (there are over 80 regions and over 80 languages). It’s fast, crisp and so rich.

Then the women, adorned in layers of light white cloth and wide smiles begin dancing. They shake and shift effortlessly, wildly, proudly. (I remember sitting in Tsbay’s red-gold living room on my first day in Gerji, watching the New Year’s TV programs with Nati—How the women and men jerked like whiplash, turning, hopping, shaking in happy seizures across backdrops of gilded living rooms or muddy fields where others cut wood or tend cattle…Unlikely setting for a music video to me. Fascinating but strange. I can’t find a way to understand it, appreciate it. It feels foreign. Unfamiliar, in context, sound, story and look.) And then I get it. Before me, right now–the traditional and the new colliding in a joyful celebration that is this evening–it’s infectious and just beautiful. I can’t take my eyes off their movements, and that sound of a new kind of song. I feel myself relaxing into the pulsing, earthy rhythms, as a woman in spiked 5 inch heels and a gorgeous white party dress belts Amharic words into a brilliant song – so unlike anything I’ve ever heard, her velvet voice shrills and falls, and seems to dance across the surprising pastoral melody in the background, like singing sideways, like a harmony but more, like she’s put all those beautiful, black flat notes on a piano we only rarely play in American music into a single song. It’s earthy, ancient and intoxicating.

In the midst of it, Ethiopian families out for a night on the town clap and call, they sing along and sway. This isn’t a tourist attraction (well, it is–we’re here afterall–but it’s more) They hop on stage as the music grabs them. It’s just another weeknight back home, and here, it’s a celebration. By the end of the night the room is on its feet. I watch a muscled father dance with his tiny daughter, he laughs and claps as she shakes and sways, in that controlled-out-of-control way they all do, arms outstretched.

Vibrant and alive.

Long after everyone’s gone to bed, I stay up and re-watch the bits of video from the evening.