Wednesday, 13 November 2019

The Churches of Lalibella

When I booked my Ethiopian trip I didn’t know anything about Lalibella until someone told me I must go so I juggled a few things and managed to fit in a couple of days. I had done my reading and knew I was going to see some rock hewn churches.  Cool I thought. I’m not religious but churches fascinate me so it should be interesting.  Oh how naive I am. 

The hotel had arranged a guide for me and Thomas was ready and waiting at 8:00am as planned.   It was a short uphill climb to the first of the churches in the southern group. They are split into two geographical locations, north and south and one standing out on its own, Bete Giorgios (Bete meaning house/home). 

I was shattered by the climb but recovered enough to gasp when I saw Bete Aba Libanos close up. I expected small places but before me was a huge structure intricately carved surrounded by parishioners praying in the amphitheatre.  I don’t know whether it was because it was the first one or because there was a service going on at the time but I liked this one the best and did not want to leave.  The moment I passed into the confines of the walls, through the carved hole in the wall, an overwhelming sense of peace and calmness came over me. 

I wont go into the fine details of all the churches but each detail in each of the 11 represents some part of either the new or old testament. The churches were inspired by King Lalibela (and word has it the he physically helped to build them, along with about 40,000 men and women) after a pilgrimage of Ethiopians were murdered by Moslems on the way to pray in Jerusalem. He decided to build this mini Jerusalem right here and set about carving them into the solid rock. Some are freestanding and only attached to the rock at the bottom, but others are totally encased by rock. There is a series of tunnels linking many of them together. 

Thomas was so full of knowledge and relayed all the fine details of each, at the same time teaching me more about his religion. Today is Wednesday, a fast day. He will not eat or drink until 3pm. He does this every week on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Over Christmas and Easter and for forty days prior to each he fasts every day until 3pm. 

The detail both inside and out of the churches was quite amazing, some preserved much better than others. Some have some remedial work done, in a sympathetic way, but the majority of each building is remarkably well preserved. As a UNESCO World Heritage site Unesco have constructed roofs over some of the structures to help preserve them. They look rather ugly but of they provide protection from the elements then so be it. I believe the locals are trying to get them removed as they believe the pressure of the wind and subsequent movement of the structures is weakening the foundations of the churches.  

Over the space of about an hour we visited the remaining three churches of this group ( Bete Emanuel, Bete Merkoryos, Bete Gebriel and Rufael) which represents the part of Jerusalem sitting east of the Jordan River. Each church was completely different, mostly smaller than Bete Aba Libanos, with some carved into the rock and others freestanding. Without a doubt each one was amazing. 

The northern group was nearby and our walk was through hand carved walkways with interesting little sights along the way. At one point were two carved ravines. One narrow and dark, the other wider. The narrow one depicting the walkway to heaven. Hard to get to and inky fits a few people at a time. It seems going to hell is much easier as there is lots of room for lots of us.  The northern group represents Earthly Jerusalem and consists of Bete Medhane, Bete Maryam, Bete Meskell, Bete Denagil and Bete Golgotha and Debre Sina. The last two churches are joined together with access to Bete Golgotha through an internal door. Bete Golgotha is off limits to women (for some convoluted reason - which bore no substance at all) but Thomas went in and got some great pictures for me. 

Another short walk away we saw Bete Giorgios in the distance, carved down into a massive rock with an intricately designed roof depicting 3 greek crosses. The roof of most of the free standing churches were slightly sloping to enable water run off, but this one was intricate in design but clever in the way it was sloped to allow that water to flow down through the drains on three sides. 

Access to the church was via a short narrow channel built along the side and then a narrow tunnel into the courtyard. In the courtyard was an open tomb where you can see the remains of mumified bodies. A tad yuk, but thats life.   The church inside was just as impressive as the outside and showed why this was considered the jewel in the crown. It supposedly symbolises Noah’s Ark.

This site has some good information and far more accurate and detailed than I can give:

Hello Lalibela

After a quick coffee and banana cake in Addis I set off to the airport with Anna who had been on the tour with us. Anna is a photogrpaher working for Intrepid on this trip and is on my flight. The rest of the team set off at 6:00am on the rest of the trip to Northern Ethiopia, something I had thought of doing but chose to go to Senegal instead. I miss them already. 

The flight was unremarkable and we arrived at Lalibela on time with no dramas. I was lucky enough to score a ride into town with Anna’s driver and guide and they dropped me at my hotel the Bete Sierke. Still being built and lovely, but also a bit quirky.
I was asked which room I wanted! I chose the one in the lower floor on the extreme left and thought I was the only one here, but I’m not. The restaurant is in a state of madness as it is still being completed and the rooms dont have glasses or drinking water. So glad I bought my own. But I have a huge room and I can watch the action on the street below.  Of course the room has no useful info in it other than a wifi password so that is a plus; Wifi in my room. 

The not so good is that they are still finishing the building and there was a guy out the back finely pounding some red clay to mix with concrete to make it red. Thump, thump, thump put paid to any thoughts of a nap.

After a quick rest I set off in search of food and found a lovely looking hotel where I enjoyed a delicious spagetti with tomato and the standard coke. 90 bir ( less than 5NZD) was the cheapest and tastiest yet. 

Tummy filled I did a bit of a wander, met some cute kids on the way then climbed a somewhat steep hill to find the ‘ticket office’ to buy my ticket for my visits to the churches tomorrow. They are still filling out bits of paper and have a cashier who only handles money (USD50 for a four day permit) and I guess he is called a stamper who only stamps the little bit of paper.
The hoardes of guys waiting outside the ‘ticket office’ were offering their services as a guide but since I had already arranged one through the hotel I said “no thanks” and was met by some grubby little scowls. Get over yourselves boys. 

Grabbing some biscuits and juice from a ‘supermarket’ ( it was smaller than my bathroom and not very super) I headed back to the hotel with the intention of heading out later but as soon as the sun went down it was pitch black. Street lights are obviously not a big thing here.

Lalibela is one of the main tourist spots in Ethiopia where people come to see the rock hewn churches. Its permanent population stands at about 35,000 so it is a reasonably large town. It is still very basic. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Tribes of Ethiopia’s Omo Valley

Over the last five days we have visited a number of tribes in the Omo Valley, each with own culture but there are also many aspects that they share. The valley is home to some 600,000 people spread over roughly 25,000 sq kilometres at altitudes between 360 to 3,300 metres. There are at least 16 distinct tribes living in the valley speaking at least three different languages across the region. 

Each of the groups has their own distinct language and most have people within the clan that also speak Amharic. The groups can be split into their linguistic derivation: Nilo-Saharan, Omotic or Cushitic. 

The majority of groups participate in practices that we shun, and rightly so, and many of those practices have been used since time immemorial. In our terms their way of life is primitive. In their terms its ‘normal’ and although they work had physically they must surely be happier without the material rubbish we accumulate. Their mudbrick houses have no ‘rooms’, floor boards, windows or appliances. They sleep on the bare ground, they cook over an open fire in the the same room as they sleep and wash wherever they find water. Their homes and surroundings were generally spotless. The little kids were generally snotty nosed and some of the adults not the cleanest but they smelt cleaner than many of the city folk. In one of the villages the girls kept asking us for soap but noticed they all had beautiful skin so whatever they wash with seems to work. Some of their practices we consider totally barbaric; scarring, beating, marriage by abduction and female circumcision to name a few. Moves are in place to abolish the female circumcision across Africa but it is so deeply entrenched here in the remote regions that it will take a lot of education and many years for it to make a difference. 
The Omo Valley tribes are some of the few remaining tribes worldwide who still live the way they have always done without adopting western ways. 

Here is a summary of some of the groups:

The Ari people boast the largest population in the valley with around 300,000 people across an area of about 2,500sq km. They are predominantly agriculturalists and live in permanent villages. Animal husbandry is their second form of income. 
As mentioned in previous blogs Ari land is separated into 9 groups, each with their own chief and often with variations of culture amongst them. 
Ari men are allowed to marry as many wives as they want as long as they can afford the bride wealth (dowry) and other expenses of married life.  Ari do not allow marriage by abduction like some of the other tribes. 
Compared with other tribes the Ari people consume a more varied diet than other tribes due to the fact that they are permanently based in the same place. They speak variations of the Omotic language.

The Hamar people predominantly live off livestock but the girls and women also raise sorghum, maize and pumpkin. The women also maintain the house, collect water and cook. The men mind the animals, plough the fields and raise bees. 
The land is not owned by the individuals but is free for use by any members of the tribe. Once the land is exhausted they move on. 
Their diet is predominantly vegetarian supplemented by milk and honey. 
The Hamar are the tribe that participate in bull jumping, where the ‘of age’ boys run naked over the backs of a between 8 and 20 cows and castrated male cattle to prove that they are worthy of marriage.  As part of the ritual the boys female relatives join the festivities by demanding to be whipped and encouraging the men to keep going. Its not a gentle whipping either as demonstrated by some of the scars we saw on some of the young girls.   Like many of the tribes the Hamar have different ways of marriage including consensual marriage, marriage by inheritance, replacement marriage and marriage through abduction!!!!The women sport elaborate hairstyles created by curling the hair into narrow coils and smothering it with butter and clay. They also wear necklaces to indicate their marital status. Married women wear two metal bands round their neck. The first wife also wears a necklace with a protruding metal section out the front. Unmarried women wear colourful beads and elaborately decroated goatskins cover the lower part of their bodies. As with the Ari people their language fits into the Omotic group but is quite different to what the Ari people speak.

The Dassanach people are the most southerly ethnic group living in the valley and live where the Omo river reaches the delta. The word Dassanach means ‘People of the Delta’ and the ethnic group has now absorbed peoples from other ethnic clans and each clan has its own responsibilities. 
They live primarily from the proceeds of cattle; meat, leather, milk all provide them with income.

We did not visit the Mursi or the Suri ethnic groups but we did see some of them at the markets.  The people are quite similar in appearance; tall and slim and their distinctive bottom lip plates for women are common to both groups. 
Both peoples rely on cattle for income and in both cases the cattle are tended by the young boys and men. Women tend to the house and the land. 
The exchange of cattle features in almost all relationships particularly marriage where around 30-40 cattle are givento the brides father by the grooms family. 
Their diet consists largely of a kind of porridge made from sorghum or maize and supplements by milk and blood taken directly from the neck of the cattle. 
The Mursi practice scarification where cuts are made in the skin and then dirt is rubbed into the cuts. The Suri practice the art of body painting where they use different coloured clays to paint the faces and bodies with intricate designs. 
Both Mursi and Suri speak variations of the Nilo-Saharan language. 

If you are interested to know more about the tribes the booklet “A guide to the ethnic groups Omo Valley Southern Ethiopia”, by Minalu Adem is great. 

Omo Valley (v)

5:00 am is just a tad early for me but with a long drive and shocking roads ahead we set off on the dot. 

No one was sure where we were going but we drove almost non stop till we had a brief lunch stop before heading to Neche Sar National park. The trip was quite uninspring and tainted by hundreds of kids running alongside the bus calling either “you, you, you” or “money, money, money”. In each case it was the only English word they had learned and by this stage we were beyond sympathising and thought of them as a bit of amusement or conversley a pain in the neck. 

Once at the lake we boarded a rather rickety boat thing and went for a putt putt round the lake taking in some hippos and aligators along the way. Been there done that but the others loved them.

Our overnight stay was at the Mora Resort. A gorgeous place with views out over the lake. Sadly we werent there early enough to enjoy the place  but had a great dinner, a few wines and many many laughs. Having had an early start today and knowing we had at least one early start to come we all tried to book flights back to Addis so we could spend more time in the lovely place and also take advantage of the amazing view. Sadly not a seat  to be had. 

For dinner I had a delicious tilapia sandwich without the bread which was super fresh, tasty ond oh so delicious. It was washed down with a few glasses of shiraz and lots of laughs. Two servings of fried bananas with a drizzle of chocolate was divine, finished off the meal perfectly and made me feel like a human again. 

Next day another early start drive to Addis, we had breakfast at somewhere round 5:30 and set off at six. Two days of sitting in a bus is just a bit much but oh well. 

We passed a few interesting villages along the way. Some lovely rondavels with mud brick on top of  woven bamboo with thatched rooves or square homes with small windows and similar type construction were a great contrast to the small huts we had seen in the villages in the Omo Valley. Many of the villages were inhabited by Moslems, something we hadn’t seen until now, and apart from the few Mosques along the way and the dress code of the women nothing looked too different.

As we got closer to Addis things looked more sophisticated than where we had been but it was still pretty basic. 

We stopped for lunch at a delightful place where we sat under a tree and enjoyed a rather yummy meal. My delicious minestrone soup, bread and best espresso with a hint of some spice (had the choice of espresso coffee only or with tea!!!) got a good tick from me. Those who had ethiopian coffee enjoyed some popcorn too. Guess who nabbed what was left?

They also bought us heaps of bread so I managed to wipe clean both the last of the meat sauce that one of the guys had to go on top of his spagetti. Oh yum.  Too good.  

Most of our group, with the exception of two of us, carry on to northern Ethiopia so tonight was the night where they farewell two of us and welcome the two new people. Us leavers are not usually included but because we are so cool (ha ha) we have been invited, as long as we pay our own way. Of course we would. 

It will be sad to say goodbye to the group as they have mainly been great to travel with. There’s always one tho but enough said. I always thought I had travelled quite a bit but am one of the least travelled of this group, so have learned lots from others. Because we have all travelled to some extent we have avoided any issues around cleanliness, food choices, unusual customs etc. Despite that it is great to watch the dynamics of some of the group.

Our dinner was fun, with lots of laughing, an ok meal and a bit of contrived entertainment. Not my thing but better than us all sitting round looking bored.
Goodbyes said we all retired for the night. I get a sleep in tomorrow before my flight to Lalibella. The others are not so lucky. They have another early start. 

Omo Valley (iv)

The 8:00 am start gave me just enough time for an excellent coffee and a quick check of my emails and we were off. 

We had a short drive on the dirt road and then, before our eyes tarmac, with a white centre line.  The first we had seen for a few days and very welcome. Bini our driver took the opportunity and planted his foot. Whooooppeee. 

A short stop to check out one of the many termite mounds was followed by termite 1.01 from Gaitor, so if nothing else I learned something today.

The drive was rather uninspiring, flat and smooth. The surrounding land also flat, dry but with mounds of greenery.  Sometimes the mounds of greenery were littered with white blobs: cotton. One of their main money earners in this region. 

We barely saw any people but in the two occasions we did stop someone miraculously appeared out of nowhere so obviously they are hanging out there but hidden in the bushes. The sheep and goats still think they own the road and Bini made sure he have them plenty of notice with constant beeps of the horn.

Soon we approached the Kenyan border in the region of Omorate. We had to register and get a guide to take us to our chosen village of the Dassanach tribe a short drive away. As we were waiting for our registration I see a guy with a big smile and dreadlocks approaching. He was the driver from my tour of Addis Ababa. Talk about a small world. 

This village was different than any of the others with homes (built by the women in less than a day) covered with roofing iron, however still in the dome shape that we have seen before.

The women were all in traditional dress (and not just for us), topless with a skirt and lots of jewellery. The type of jewellery depends on the marital status of the woman as does the hairstyles. Women with children also have tiny plaits coming from the crown of their heads, one for each child. Most of the men were wearing t. Shirts and sarong type skirts.

The village exists on agriculture; sheep, cows and goats plus some crops. They also raise money by allowing tourists to visit with a flat fee per person. Despite that we were plagued by little kids wanting to sell us bead jewellery or souvenirs and each of had a kid that attached himself to us wanting money at the end. Not as bad as some of the other villages we had been to but nevertheless it was annoying and quite daunting. 

We were treated to a display of dancing by a group of the women before we left which was quite cool. By the time that we had walked back to the bus we had been surrounded by dozens of villagers; lucky we had Bini ready waiting to open the bus door for us so we could escape.
A much needed ‘free time’ was enjoyed in the afternoon where I caught up on bits and bobs and washed my muddy shoes. NZ biosecurity would have a fit it they saw them. 

Just as I was headed out I got the sad news that a dear friend had lost her battle with pancreatic cancer. Two in one week. Rest in Peace Michelle  I’m glad you didnt have a prolonged illness and suffer for too long. 

The afternoon was spent with the Hamer tribe. This was quite different from most of the others. Their homes rondavels with thatched rooves where the family and some livestock slept, cooked and went about their lives. Around the edge was a raised piece to stop the young kids getting inside  when the fire was going. I guess too bad if it was raining. This was not a nomadic tribe and they stayed put for long periods of time and so were very clean and neat. It may have been mud floors but they were well tended with care.

The place was crawling with infants, everywhere you looked. In a village of 250 there must have been at least 50 under four or five and they were so very cute. We got to see some of the youth, who danced and sang for us, and also some of the wives. The first wife distinguishable from the protruding necklace she wore in addition to the two metal necklaces worn by second and third wives. 

Our guide only had one wife and one child and said he would not take another. Whether that was because he was still a newly wed, educated or for another reason but time will tell. The idea of multiple wives is to increase the probability of having sons to tend the land. Without sons there is no one to look after the land when Dad is unable to. 

We paid an ‘entry fee’ to visit this tribe. 100 bir per person which covered any photos we wanted to take but the kids were still asking for stuff and it was hard to say no. Its a real difficult situation. To give them money would not make a difference to us. It would help the tribe but it would  also teach the kids that they dont need to go to school and get educated, they can just stay home and get money from having their photo taken or beg. Tough call. 

Our time was up and we return to the lodge with time for a rest (or to download emails etc) before dinner at the lodge restaurant. A lovely buffet where I pretty much repeated last nights selection with addition of a tomato salad. I dont normally do salads but one of our team had the same divine  dish last night and loved it - she did not suffer any consequences. It was one of the tastiest tomato salads I have ever had. Easily on a par with a summer grown Greek tomato. I was ‘persuaded’ to share a drop of wine, not the Cab. Sav. of last night but just as good, then a drop of scotch drizzled down my throat as if it were nectar. Best drink of my trip. 

Back at the lodge wifi hotspot I sat and checked my emails when the driver from the Addis trip appeared. We chatted and then he suggested I go out with him for the night. Cheeky little sod. Anyway I was polite (not like me at all) and told him to sod off. 

A hilarious end to another great day.