Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.
When you live far away from home, it’s natural to miss family. Every missed cook-out, graduation, and card party creates just a little twinge of home-sickness that I try to mask with my own play dates and soirees. But I never imagined what it would feel like to lose someone while living in another country.
My mother’s sister passed just three days ago at the young age of 50. Her smile and outrageous laugh always lit up the room. Being all the way in Ethiopia, I had to deal with her passing without the physical support of my mother, cousins, aunts, etc. The first night was rough. No amount of wine, television, or internet could take my mind off of the fact that my aunt is no longer here and I will not be celebrating her life at her funeral. I’m also sad I am not there to support my family while replaying the stories about all the good times. It was so rough that I considered skipping my pre-planned trip to Awash National Park to be alone at home.
Grieving alone, however, is not entirely bad. It forced me to sit with that pain and to try to work through the source of that bucket of tears. I realized that taking the trip is exactly what I needed to do. Had I stayed inside, I might have missed that beautiful rainbow that appeared over the savannah just two days after her passing.
Being in nature reminded me of my connection to every termite hill, animal, field of volcanic pumice, waterfall, and dry river bed –all which has always existed– just in another form. I was reminded that we must all return back to the Earth. I thank my husband for capturing these moments on camera. So I have dedicated this video to my aunt, who I know, does not want me to spend another minute crying.
A couple of weeks ago we spent 5 days exploring the towns of Bahir Dar, Gondar, and Lalibela located in Northern Ethiopia. Having checked several sights off my to-do list so far, it seems that each new place I visit is that much better than the last place. These three towns, however, are so unique in their own right, that it’s really comparing apples to oranges to even try. So instead, I’ll just try to explain to you the best things I enjoyed about these places.
Five Things I Love About Gondar
Restaurant and Bar Signage. Although most restaurants and bars in town had formal signage, there were many mom and pops that notified the public that injera and tej awaits, simply by hanging a mug from a long pole on the side of the road (a bar) or by hanging a nicely decorated plate at the restaurant’s entrance.
Lottery Tickets. The kids in Addis have tried to sell us a lot of stuff – sunglasses, sun visors for the car, CDs, airtime for the cell phone. But no one has ever tried to sell us lottery tickets. So when four boys came up to us in the roadside cafe offering a chance to win 20,000 birr for just 2 birr, we had to buy some. We spent 6 birr, won 4 birr, bought more lottery tickets, and lost the 4 birr we won. Lesson learned. Loosing on a scratch off sucks the same wherever you play.
Coffee & Donuts. On our 3-hour drive from Bahir Dar to Gondar we stopped in a local coffee shop where the coffee is prepared slowly by roasting fresh beans in the style of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. We learned that the reason they call it a ceremony is because coffee prepared from fresh coffee beans takes at least an hour and a half to prepare. Just as we pulled off, having finished our cups of sugar with a little bit of coffee, we spotted a donut shop a few doors down. Of course, passing by the donut guy without stopping was not an option. Now, why the coffee shop doesn’t just merge with the donut shop to make Habesha Dunkin Donuts, we will never know. Clearly our eyes were bigger than our stomachs that day. We bought 6 donuts straight out of the oil. I’m sure that 2 are still hanging out in our suitcase.
The Castles & Fasilides’ Bath. The main attraction in Gondar are the ruins of the six historical royal castles leftover from the days that Gondar was the Imperial capital of Ethiopia.Gondar was founded by Emperor Fasilides around 1635, fell to the hands of Sudanese invaders and then the Italians (for only 5 years) in 1936. As a result, much of the complex remains in ruins, awaiting a proper restoration. As we made our way through the castles (belonging to 6 kings and 1 queen), former libraries, stables, lion quarters, and banquet halls, the kids explored every hole and secret passageway left standing. After leaving the castles we were whisked away to Fasilides’ Bath, which is home to an annual ceremony where it is filled witih water about 1.5 meters, blessed and then opened for bathing during Timkat.
Our Tour Guide Long Lost Cousin. Our tour guide in Gondar has a degree in history and spoke perfect English. He explained the monuments and historical sites with enough detail to pique our interests, but not so much as to put us to sleep. But the real reason I loved him is that his uncanny resemblance to my husband had me thinking that we must be related way down the line. And with this, you can understand just why we love this country.
Last December, we brought a nice sized bag of frankincense back from Oman. I intended to give the incense away to friends. But when I learned that Orthodox Ethiopians believe that frankincense should only be burned in the church, I felt bad about bringing it home in the first place, let alone, giving it away to anyone other than the church. I found it odd that burning frankincense in the home is frowned upon. After all, frankincense is burned during the Ethiopian coffee ceremony to call God. And coffee ceremony is practiced at home, in cafes, and even hotels (frankincense dominates the lobby of Addis Ababa’s Hilton Hotel, where guests can enjoy a cup of coffee). I later found out that the resin-type of frankincense is not burned in the home; only the variety reassembling dried leaves and twigs is allowed.
Tonight, absent judging eyes and noses, my mother-in-law suggested that we burn some frankincense — a good idea to me; It is Christmas Eve, after all. According to the gospel of Matthew 2:11, frankincense was one of the gifts the wise men offered baby Jesus.After heating the coal directly on the eye of stove, I placed the coal inside a burner and then put the frankincense on top of the hot coal. As the resin burned, the white, woody smoke filled the air and it reminded me of a live Christmas tree, which normally perfumes my mother’s house this time of year. This year, that smell of home has been replaced with the smell of Ethiopia and the Middle East. The frankincense reminds me of our first days in this country, good coffee, and the rainy season. It reminds me of shopping in Nizwa, pristine sand dunes, and nonchalant camels. I reflect on how fortunate I am to be with family this time of year. I give thanks that Christmas 2013 is a merry one, indeed.
Ethiopia’s Lake Langano was one of my favorite escapes from the crowds of Addis Ababa. Being in the countryside by the water is one of the most peaceful and relaxing times with the kids. The brown, mineral-rich water and black gravel beach is no deterrent to small hands determined to build castles, moats, and yes, water factories out of what was left-over from the volcanic activity in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley. View this video of our last trip there to understand why.
Fir fir, dried injera reconstituted in a spicy, garlicky, tomato sauce, should be on every Ethiopian restaurant’s menu – breakfast lunch and dinner. Despite rumors that fir fir served in restaurants is made by re-using the discarded injera from customers’ plates, this spicy staple has become one our family’s favorite. As expected, everyone’s fir fir tastes just a little bit different. Our cook, Meskerem’s take is the best I’ve had. It’s good on its own, with an extra side of injera, with fried eggs, or surprisingly, atop a pile of whole wheat pasta. Today I watched her make it and here’s exactly what she did.
1/3 cup oil
3 onions, diced small
1 head of garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
3 roma tomatoes, chopped
3 heaping tablespoons of berbere spice
1 1/2 cup water
more salt to taste (for us, about 1/4 tsp)
2 dried injera*
1. Heat the oil and add the onions, garlic and salt.
2. Cook on medium high heat until the onions begin to brown.
3. Add the chopped tomatoes and continue to cook, stirring frequently for about 3 minutes.
4. Turn the heat to medium low. Add the berbere and continue to cook. The tomatoes will start to cook down. Simmer while stirring for about 10 minutes.
5. Add the water. When the water comes to a boil, the fir fir is done.
6. Add more salt to taste.
7. Add the dried injera to re-constitute it — a little of a time, until you reach the desired consistency and the sauce is absorbed. Adding too much will make it dry. Add too little, and it will be watery.
Ready to Enjoy
*Note: Fresh injera can be dried out by placing it in a warm oven for 10 minutes. Heat the oven to 400 degrees and turn off the heat. Place roughly torn pieces of injera onto a sheet pan and into the oven.
Our attempt to make it out of Addis Ababa on Friday and to Atlanta by Saturday was foiled by mechanical problems. “It happens,” you say? Well, it sucks a whole lot more after you’ve been waiting with a sleeping kid on your lap for nearly 2 hours for a ticket agent to locate a booking she’s convinced doesn’t even exist, all while feeling criminal because the Ethiopian airlines employee guarding the only seats in the departure lobby keeps reminding you that his supervisor “will punish” him for allowing us to use the seating reserved only for ShebaMiles members.
We eventually boarded our 10:40pm flight at 2:00am.So much for making that connecting flight. And so much for sleeping on the plane. That same kid who fell asleep at 8:00p in the departure lobby is now wide awake. That said, there is probably no better time for this major inconvenience to occur than on Germany’s very capable watch. Over the next 2 days, I experienced for myself what people have been telling me for years about Germans. They’ve got a lot of things right — starting with the airplane food.
Best Airplane Food & Beverages. I’ve flown with a lot of airlines eaten a lot of airplane food. I continue to declare Lufthansa’s better than average. Even though they give you meals at intervals way too close together, I can never just say “no.” The table wine just as good as what is served at most restaurants. Another glass? Yes please.
Post-Flight Entertainment. Gone are the days of thinking a pair of wings will keep kids happy. Lufthansa’s selection featured puppets, colored pencils, a variety of full-color activity books, playing cards, a travel log, and more. Though the newly released Lego movie stayed in rotation during the flight, the new trinkets made the layover wait time fun.
Efficient Customer Service. The airline gave us 2 hotel rooms for the night where all meals were included and a voucher for 40 Euros to cover lunch at the airport. This is a pretty standard move. But I’ve never had the customer service be so quick to get the deal done. The agent pulled us out of the back of the line, asked us to take a seat, while she took our passports to the counter and arranged everything within 15 minutes. They even allowed me to make 2 calls to the U.S. from their phone to let someone know of our change of plans.
Above Average Airport Food. I would have never stuffed myself with the airplane baguettes had I known that a full artisinal bakery would bless my nose in Terminal 1. I’ve heard that it’s common for Germans to have fresh bread delivered to their homes daily. So clearly, it’s in high demand for a reason. We passed on the bread in favor of sushi, miso soup, and wakwame salad at Temaki Bar. Rarely does one get a chance to enjoy a healthy meal at an airport eatery where its business would thrive even without the captive audience. No trying to mask the flavor of aging fish with siracha and calling it “spicy tuna,” here. Temaki Bar is the real deal.
Lovely Botanical Gardens. Since we were in Frankfurt for just the day, we only had time to see one attraction. Germany is known for it’s beer; but taking the kids to a bar in pajamas seemed highly inappropriate. As would appearing with them in Moulin Rouge, which my daughter insisted we go to after picking up a brochure for the place in the hotel lobby. While a bar or a cabaret show would keep them more entertained than one of Frankfurt’s many many museums, we settled on the family friendly, Palmengarten. What’s not to enjoy when you have manicured gardens featuring 18,000 plant species, endless winding paths, bridges for crossing, conservatories filled with tropical gardens, deserts and roses, a playground, paddle boats, swans swimming among huge catfish, frankfurters, and Apfelwein?
Thoughtful Taxi Cabs. We chose a cab over the train to maximize our time sightseeing. As expected, the cab arrived clean and on time. As not expected, the cab had built in booster seats for the kids. I’ve never seen that before.
Unexpected Hotel Amenities. I looked forward to a shower after wearing the same clothes for 24 hours. I did not look forward to putting on those same clothes post-shower. Luckily the hotel had a self-serve laundry room and soap for its guests to use all complimentary. We passed the time wrapped in towels watching cartoons in German and surfing their free internet.
Well-Designed Hotel Rooms. We had a small room, but boy did they know how to pack in the essentials. Our bathroom was about 35 square feet. But with a shower head was adjustable for height (for the vertically-challenged) temperature, and water pressure. The wall mounted soap tripled as hand soap, face soap, and bath soap. So no environmentally unfriendly travel size bottles cluttered the sink and shower. The queen bed, which had two twin duvets, gave the illusion that you were not sharing a bed. With, bunk beds for the kids and a wardrobe that doubled as a mirror, it was tight, but amazingly comfortable.
Smart Airport Security. First of all, you’re allowed to keep on your shoes in this airport. Second of all, not only does Frankfurt have conveyor belts for the luggage bins (standard stuff), the bins themselves have a separate conveyor belt leading back to the front of the line. This allows the security personnel to focus on providing security rather than schlepping bins back to the front of the line. Work smarter, not harder.
Most of these “right things” are small things that made a difference in turning a travel experience that was going downhill fast into fond memories. Ich danke Ihnen!
A few neighborhood boys came to our friends gate on Sunday to sing Hoya Hoya in observance of Buhe. They were pretty good, too!
Buhe is a holiday in Ethiopia and Eritrea, held on August 19 (according to the Gregorian Calendar; Nähase 13 Ethiopian calendar). On this date, the church celebrates the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor (Debre Tabor). People of the neighborhood tie a bundle of sticks together to make a chibo, and set it on fire while singing songs.The main song is called “Hoya Hoye” with one singer singing while the others follow in a rhythmic way. It involves young boys singing songs of praise outside of people’s homes, in exchange for fresh dough (itself called buhe). Source: wikipedia.com.
How long would you drive to hike in the native forests of Ethiopia? When you live in Addis Ababa, where fresh air is becoming a commodity, a two hour drive seems like a fair tradeoff. I had been meaning to take the family to Menagesha National Forest, ever since my walking partner suggested it. We were in the habit of walking atop Mt. Entoto in the city every week and I wanted a change of scenery. So Menagesha has been on my “to do” list for over 6 months now. Saturday, we just decided to go — completely unplanned and unprepared. Luckily, my husband and skillful driver of Ethiopian terrain (and city traffic) agreed that it was, indeed, time to get to a slower pace. And thankfully, the gas station had a supply of gas to fill our almost empty tank. We were on our way by 10:15.
That 2-hour Saturday morning ride rewarded us with the magic of Menagesha (Suba) forest. Once to Sabeta town, we turned onto a bumpy road that took us past dozens of agricultural fields and tukuls (traditional thatch roofed homes), that made us forget that we were just 30 kilometers outside the bustling city. It was so rustic and beautiful. Kids pulled folks and supplies on horse drawn carriages. Cows meandered along the road. Most people walked where they needed to carrying their supplies in gabis and babies wrapped in netelas on their backs. It was a typical countryside scene. You could tell that in the villages around Sabeta, at the base of Mount Wechecha, people took the time to stay a while to drink coffee or chew chat at the invitation of friends. Children waved with smiling faces from their compounds on the side of the road. We also saw many people lining up with yellow plastic jerry cans, which means that fresh running water is a scarce commodity.
Once in the forest, the hiking opportunities were endless. The fresh air greeted us at the base of the mountain. After guessing our way to the main gate, we paid the entrance fee and were allowed to cross beyond the thin rope saddling the road (a.k.a “the park gate”).
From that point on, the kids had a ball. We let them ride in the front seat to get a front row view. After parking, we hiked along the miles of well-defined trails. Part of the fun was not really knowing (or caring) where the trails would lead to. The kids meandered along, veering off every once in a while to pick up sticks, to investigate new plants and vines, or to try to figure out which animals made the huge tracks along the trails.
The kids have been learning about fungi and were excited about the possibility of spotting some mushrooms growing along fallen logs beneath the forest canopy. But even though we spent 3 hours in the park, we didn’t see a single mushroom.
We did, however, spot 2 black and white colobus monkeys. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday.