Suprised to find an Ethiopian Utopia

Posted: Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Alaska, I've been there three times!"

"Really? When?"

" ... in my dreams!"

Although dreary, red-eyed and exhausted, I still couldn't help but chuckle at the joke of my taxi driver, Ogbay. He was shuttling me from my 7 a.m. arrival flight to my hotel in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. The University of Djibouti had a wonderful 11-day "winter" holiday, which I decided to spend back-packing around the ancient world of Northern Ethiopia.

I had just come from the capital, Addis Ababa. Arriving in Addis from Djibouti was a culture shock unto itself: cool fresh air, lush greenery and a surprisingly modern city center.

Since the word "Ethiopia" usually evokes images of starvation and poverty, I was surprised to discover a rather cosmopolitan capital city. I spent the day exploring, which included dipping into the Merkato, the largest open-air market in Africa. I had intended to do it alone, but when you travel in Africa, a continent full of curious and social people, you can never truly be alone for long and soon I found myself being shown around by a young man named Amare; university student by day and amateur dancer by night.

Outside of the capital city, time has done remarkably very little to Ethiopia. Often referred to as "the cradle of mankind", Ethiopia is where some of the earliest evidence of humans can be found,and is widely thought to be from where man first evolved. It is also the site for some of the most ancient relics of Christian Orthodoxy, a religion prominent in the country ever since their King Ezana was converted in the year 330. It didn't take long for me to discover that this country has been in no hurry to change.

Touching down the following day in Bahir Dar, I was pleased to find a lovely palm tree-laden town draped along the shores of Lake Tana. I spent my days pedaling a rusty bike around the lush greenery of Bahir Dar's shores, gazing at the enormous Blue Nile Falls, and dodging hippos while exploring the mysteriously isolated monasteries of the Lake Tana Islands.

After a few relaxing days here, I trekked up north to the towns of Gondor and Axum, former capital cities of ancient Ethiopian dynasties, to explore ancient 17th century castles, tombs and even the rumored resting place of the Holy Grail. While all these artifacts were certainly impressive, it was my 13-hour ride on the "local" bus from Gondor to Axum that took me up, over and straight down the breathtaking Simien mountains that was the most memerable.

First, try to imagine a school bus crammed three to a seat and no suspension along a pot-holed, stony road. Then throw into the mix a bunch of dirt, flies and sweat, and sit tight like that for half a day, and then you'll have a pretty good idea of what my trip was like. I just had to let out a (nervous) laugh when our bus broke down on the middle of a tight turn right over a cliff, and while the mechanic was fixing the engine our bus's rear tires where merely inches from a 200-foot drop.

The last stop on my journey was Lalibela, a city seeming to have forgotten that the rest of the world had evolved since the first century. Perched at the top of one of many mountains sprawling out from the Simien Range, Lalibela was really more a large village of thatched-roof mud huts than a city. After teaming up with a Belgian traveler named Thibout who I met on the taxi ride to my hotel, we set out to explore the town.

Soon we were ushered into the home of one man to try his homemade beer, a substance that quite literally resembled mud, complete with chunks of "something" floating in it. Later a little girl took us by the hand into her family's hut, where her mother performed a coffee ceremony for us. Ever since its discovery in the Ethiopia mountains around 850 BC, coffee has always held an important place in Ethiopian life. Their ceremony involves cleaning, roasting, mashing, boiling, and finally serving the coffee right in front of you. Then you take three rounds of coffee, with the third round being the sacred one. By the time we drank our last delicious sip we had what seemed to be every child in the village outside the hut peering in at the peculiar white people crouched inside.

The true marvel of this town is the rock-hewn churches. Eleven churches carved straight out of the stony hillside. Crossing over stone bridges, navigating through underground passageways, and finally dipping into these mystical marvels, I felt like I had been transported back into a biblical era. With priests conducting thousand-year-old rituals and rag-clothed pilgrims performing ancient chants and dances, it was hard to believe that what I was seeing was still a spectacle of Christianity. I had never seen a modern day religion in such an ancient form. Not everything was so intense, however, as Thibout and I were also forced to do the "Ethiopian dance" in front of all the locals in the town bar that night for New Year's Eve.

Upon my return to Addis, I had difficulty finding a room in any of the nearby hotels. Defeated, I returned to the airport and resigned myself to spending an uncomfortable night on the airport floor (my flight to Djibouti was the next morning). It was there where I happened across two Ethiopian women who had helped translate for me to the taxi drivers earlier that day. Horrified that I would even think of sleeping on the filthy airport floors, they insisted that I come with them, and soon I found myself passing my last night in Ethiopia in the home of two Ethiopians I barely knew, eating injera, and all trying our best to recount stories despite not knowing more than two words in each other's languages.

Ethiopia is a clash of many slices of life. On one side it is a country of widespread poverty, and enormous social and health problems. However it would be unfair to overlook Ethiopia's many other extraordinary treasures: the creators of coffee, the land of Rastafarianism's Haile Selassie, site of ancient Christian Orthodoxy relics, and most importantly, home to some of the most generous, hospitable people you could ever meet.

• Philip Dierking is a Juneau resident currently working as an International Foundation for Education and Self-Help volunteer in the east African country of Djibouti, where he teaches English at the only university.

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