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?”

The Finding of the True Cross (Or the Story of Meskel)

In the middle of it all stands the largest cross yet. Like a giant telephone pole, multiple stories high. Roving bands of singing boys and men collide and clash, then circle around the cross. A massive mosh pit, punctuated by the sticks (whole and charcoal), swirls.

 

At its edges stand groups of holymen, priests draped in all white, shaded by rich, velvet-red and gold-flecked umbrellas. A gurgled microphoned chant rises above it all.

It is absolute chaos. Yet absolute calm. Everywhere, beauty.

I grow antsy, feeling cut off from the action. And sling my camera around my shoulders and stuff some money in my pocket. Then venture back down to the ground. Weaving my way to a far corner, higher on a hill to watch, throwing my small birr onto the tarps of various religious groups.

I stand close to various families, pretending to “belong”. But I’m the only ferengi in sight, and I hear the whispers. Then I turn, over my shoulder to no one, or maybe the closest person, I sing “Meskel betam conjo!” to everyone’s delight and choruses of surprised “Guebez!”

“Yes? You speak Amharic? This is your first Meskel?”

They tell me the story of Meskel, dating back to the 4th century. It is the finding of the true cross, and the word Meskel means “cross”. Queen Helena was told in a dream to build a massive bonfire and the smoke of that fire would lead her in the direction of the true cross.

I ask them the word for smoke (tiss), for bonfire (demera), and for holy, as the 40 foot cross (Meskel. “Oh, right! Meskel! Guebez!) begins to burn as blankets of thick, gray-green smoke erupt from the base, to a thundering roar as the circle around the cross, the buildings, the streets clogged with people erupt with cheers.

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.