Coffee with Myrrh, and Going it Alone as a Woman

White and gold light peeks through the cheesecloth-like tatters that make for curtains, and it glitters against the butter-yellow walls and traditional Ethiopian bedspread, with a brown cross woven across the center, and I stretch out and doze a little longer, in the warm luxurious pool of light.

I realize I’ve slept straight through my alarm, and miss a chance to have a morning without my guide at the churches.

But he’s lounging on the patio when I arrive in the restaurant for coffee and toast (dabo!) Fortunately the British sisters wave me down before he can. Unfortunately, while I wait for my coffee, they are in the middle of a stern conversation with the adorable young waitress of the day before. They’re informing her of the things she must do to make the hotel “decent”. Starting with some real curtains. “They’re old and deplorable really…” They look to me, for support.

I feel my cheeks flush and I shrug my shoulders. “Actually I thought the rooms were quaint! I loved the way they let the light in.” I smile to the equally embarrassed waitress.

The woman starts, “They hardly keep anything or anyone out…”

Abakesh, buna sitchin I ask and she seems eager to for an excuse to exit.

The sisters turn to me, and my Amharic, which draws instant attention from Ethiopians and tourists. It’s amazing you’ve picked up so much.

It’s the least I can do, I’m a visitor in this lovely place.

My coffee arrives and we practice more Amharic. A group of Ethiopians pull the waitress aside and I hear them talking about me.

Seconds later one of the men introduces himself, as the owner of the hotel who lives part time in the US. His wife is in Beacon Hill now.

As the shuttle van arrives, honks impatiently, and I gather up my belongings, he hands me his card, should I need anything here or in Seattle.

Before I sit down or have a minute to be sad about leaving my little paradise, I hear a familiar voice. Hello there It’s my Australian friend from the drive out.

He’s leaving today too. We compare pictures and stories, and laughter. (The rest of the van is silent.)

The driver picks his way through the steep streets, crammed with thousands of men, women, goats, sheep, and donkeys headed up the mountainside for the Lalibela Market.

30,000 plus people make the trek each Sunday to the top of the mountains, to the market. A kaleidoscope of country life, against a blossoming Ethiopian mountainside of chartreuse, fields of feathery tej, and deeper green contrasting against ruddy hills and jagged cliffs.

Against the fresh green and gold of the mountainside, the result of a 10 year record rainfall, the people that stream by (we’re the only car on the road) seem strangely muted, gaunt, gray.

Most are wrapped in thin, dreary, dirty dish-water colored fabrics, with the hollowed features and spindly limbs. An endless procession of people. I try to focus on a face or individual. I try to really see them, but we’re driving to fast.

As we speed by, it feels all wrong. Leaving today. What was I thinking. It takes all I have to resist the urge not to shout “stop the car!” so I can climb out and walk with them.

The driver and his assistant remember me from the other day. You speak good Amharic, you are very smart!

The compliments repeat, and the Australian chimes in. The spell is broken and I resign myself to going with the mechanical flow of things today. I smile and start today’s lesson. I ask and learn the words for sheep, goat and donkey.

We practice over and over, until even the Australian has a new word or two. And then we’re at the airport, holding completely blank boarding passes with two hours to kill.

The Australian, a loveably-surly diplomat whose goal is to visit every country (and is impressively near completion!), and I retreat upstairs.  I order buna.

They lay down fresh cut meskel on our table, then serve strong, black coffee steaming hot in a traditional black urn with a dab of myrrh on the coals, its seductive smoke curling around our heads and noses. We agree, it beats any airport coffee we’ve ever witnessed.

It’s unbelievable; you would love it he tells me of adventures and of Petra, the middle east, South Asia. He’s seen it all. But somehow he’s impressed with me. What he considers a bold move, to travel to Africa for the first time alone, learning the language and daring to embrace it.

“I’ve been to quite a few places, you know. But you’re brave to go it alone, as a woman, here…I admire that.” I brush it off in the moment.  It was a simple choice:  follow a dream…or not. I chose to at least try.  But after we say goodbye (he stays on the plane continuing back to Addis while I depart at Gondar) and I walk, alone again, across the shimmering tarmac, surrounded by these green and ruddy hills. Ethiopian hills.

I’m really doing this. I made it to Africa, finally. It wasn’t how I thought I’d do it. But now that I’m here, I couldn’t imagine it any other way. And I smile (silently sending a heartfelt and belated thanks for the hurtles of the previous year, the catalyst for so many changes, so many good things.)

I sling my little orange backpack on my shoulder to the beat of my flip flops slapping the pavement.

Finally, Reaching Bet Georgis

Then tall mountains give way to a deep valley. On an orange-gold rocky ledge sits, a massive rock skyscraper, sitting three stories down into the rock. One majestic side basks in the sun, where the ledge tapers into the valley below. My heart is pounding. I’d seen the photo almost a year before, when I walked into Zeitgeist in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, looking for ideas on how to put together my first photography show and found myself lost in a series of black and white photos from a photographers travels in Ethiopia. It was the child, wrapped in a white netela, looking over his shoulder, while hundreds of adults, wrapped in white, descended into the depths of the most holy church.

Bet Georgis. The cross church.

It’s like nothing else. Massive and strong. Peaceful and intricate. A symbol of a colorful past, sitting silently in the dry mountain wind and sun. We walk down into the church and climb the massive stairs, to the door.

Inside a priest, wrapped in dusty purple and crimson robes, sits amongst tapestries and paintings. His weathered face the same smoothed rippled look of the walls around him. I bow and quietly whisper, tenastali.

He nods slowly, without a smile. He watches my every move.

My tour guide guides me through the church. I point, repeatedly, using the words my tour guide taught me earlier in the day “menden no you” (what’s that?) “menden no you” (what’s that?)

The face of the grim priest softens to an amused smile. Like one would smile at a four year old whose words are not quite right…

He speaks to the tour guide in great detail. Smiles at my attempts, watery eyes are pleased. I smile. I find out he’s invited me to stay 4 months, in his town, and study Amharic.

How I would love to stay. To know this place, and people. I bow and thank him.

My tour guide asks me to reconsider. It is a rare and generous invitation.

I run my fingers along the smoothed, red walls, and silently wish my tour-guide would leave me so I could have a moment at Bet Georgis. But he’s not willing to leave me alone and introduces me to friends and family as he walks me back to my hotel.

I turn down the invitation to go shoulder dancing with my guide. Settling for a more mellow dinner at the restaurant. I immediately run into the Scottish photographer, his Brazilan friend, who offer dinner as the British sisters walk by and join us, followed by their Canadian-turned-British friend.

That night I have the most amazing shiro (an spicy, thick gravy, with chickpeas, I think — eaten in scoops with a flat bread.) It’s delicious. We share the worst travel stories and laughs, before calling it a night.

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.

Seven Olives

I have no hotel. But it’s no problem – chigreyellum — the tiny airport reception/baggage/departures room is lined with men with hotels.

I find the Seven Olives representative, and I’m herded into a packed van with the others, including an Australian consulate who’s returning to his post in South Africa, but had to see Lalibela first and two elderly British sisters.

We trade travel stories, of Uganda and gorillas, India, Petra, and lost luggage and Turkey over the duration of a long and gloriously bumpy car ride, on a road that winds past fields of corn and wispy chartreuse tef (use to make injeera). Shadowy figures in gray-brown rags tend to goats gardens. Tokuls, the traditional round stone house with a thatched roof, speed by.

We climb steadily. Higher and higher, until we’re flying along a plateau. Breathtaking views of the lush green valley, the result of record rains, then deposited at Seven Olives. A modest single row of simple rooms. The summer palace of Haile Sailasi’s.

It’s vintage 1950’s. Turquoise walls and yellow interior. I pull the cheesecloth curtains that hang limply over the window. I check my new internet modem. No signal. 1000 birr total fail. But this is the one thing I wanted to see in Ethiopia. Lalibela, the rock churches of the 13th century, carved out of solid stone, so I’m determined not to stress about work today.

Instead, I have the most amazing lunch–a delicate pasta with veggies, cooked to perfection by the European trained chef. Then, I take a nap.

Then meet the English sisters for bread and coffee on the veranda, after dropping off a pile of laundry for 14 birr. As I drink the strong brew, emerald birds land in swirls on the patio, feeding from home-made stands, as bouquets of roses twirl  in the wind, drying in the sunshine.

Airport, Yichallal

Gray-blue light of very early morning for the girl who lives in Africa, works on American deadlines and stays up until 2am local time (but not REALLY local time—for Ethiopians, 1am starts at sunrise of that day a delightfully moving target and guaranteed to cause confusion as you meet at 7 for lunch), working, more often than not.

A change of pace will be good, I tell myself.  So I lug my orange backpack up the road. Quiet. People staring. Not a blue car moving. Not a single opportunity to get to the airport on time. I shiver in the mountain cold air, not yet Ethiopia warmed.

A movement. A man moves in a blue car. I ask for a lift (expecting excitement at a lovely fair with zero competition), he looks at me indifferently. If it will start.

Yichallal I whisper. If it’s possible.

He cracks a smile. Yes, if it’s possible. We sit for five minutes, me crossing my fingers, him revving the engine until we’re sputtering to the airport. Single slow line. Canadian yogis with stuffed backpacks and bike helmets take photos in front of me as they laugh.

I’m handed a boarding pass. It’s completely empty. No gate, no boarding time, no seat selection. So I follow everyone else to a terminal.

The man across from me encourages me to guess which country he’s from.  I rattle off names (I did a report on Africa in the seventh grade which included a puzzle map of countries. My mom found it while cleaning out an old closet and thought it was my other sister’s but she didn’t recognize it, so they pass it to me three weeks before I fly out. I flip through carefully typed pages and it rushes back: the weeks I spent charting out make believe stories of a trip to Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Chad, by boat, bike, and solar-powered pogo stick, eventually making my way to South Africa where I end apartheid with the help of the magic kumkwat of honesty and a convincing apartheid is “mean” and “dumb” argument that couldn’t be ignored by even the most hardline Afrikaaners). But it takes a few tries before I nail his “most populous country, 1 in 50 people are Nigerian in world, 1 in 10 in Africa” tip. They mistake me for European, they wouldn’t think of an American girl traveling alone in Ethiopia and he hands me his most-populous government-issued card in case I ever in Nigeria.

A blond woman, from Vancouver, sits next to me. I loan her dictionary and paper as she thanks me for sharing Amharic words.  We bump and drop, then a gut-dropping down, our tiny plane skids to a stop on a tiny strip surrounded by steep, terraced green hills.

The only tiny plane in sight.