Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Ethiopia return trip #2 Part 4

Our next stop was Lalibela, a short and easy flight from Gondar. We stayed at Villa Lalibela, a small guesthouse that is an extension of a family home. The family was very welcoming; we shared coffee and a meal with them and watched Turkish soap operas together. Best of all, an English-speaking 13-year-old was visiting Grandma from Addis Ababa, and for a while the kids were convinced that we had come to Lalibela to play soccer with Nathi and that the 12th-century rock-hewn churches were secondary.

When I finally persuaded the kids to leave the guesthouse and walk around town, we got a bad first impression of the tourist facilities when two wannabe guides got into a shoving match in front of us and pushed both me and A. Back at the guesthouse A was consoled and the manager organized a soccer game with the neighborhood kids to take his mind off what happened. He was feeling better soon and a delicious meal at the Sora Lodge restaurant right on the edge of the cliff helped.

The next day we went to the churches, bringing our own guide organized by Villa Lalibela. At the main office the manager had heard what had happened, apologized, and gave A free admission. Those guides really were an aberration because everything else about the church tour was very organized and professional.

The churches were, of course, fantastic. It really boggled the mind to look at these majestic structures and think that they were hand carved out of the mountains.

Just as cool as the churches - and very fun for the kids - were the tunnels, trenches, and twisting staircases we walked through to get from one church to the next.

We visited the north group of churches before lunch and the south group after. When it started raining in the afternoon, we went back to the guesthouse to play with Nathi.

On the third day with the sun shining, we returned to Beit Giyorgis for pictures. Note that entrance tickets to the churches are good for five days.

We also went to the north side of town to have lunch at the very cool Ben Abeba snail sculpture/restaurant. We stopped at the Ethiopian Airlines office for tickets and then hung out with Nathi and at the Sora Lodge during the rainy afternoon.

Read Part 5

Ethiopia return trip #2 Part 3

Soon after we arrived in Addis Ababa, we heard about deadly clashes between protesters and soldiers in Gondar. It was difficult to get any information about the situation because during the following days the government shut off internet access. The government also tightly controls the media. The best we could do was ask a friend to call a friend in Gondar and get information from there. When we got to Bahir Dar, which is three hours south of Gondar, we got a little more information. Then a traveling family we had met called with a first-hand report. For an American who is used to instant access to multiple news perspectives on almost any event, this circuitous route to information felt very foreign.

Because of the continued uncertainty, I decided on a private car from Bahir Dar to Gondar rather than a public bus. First we decided to stop in Awra Amba. This is a small community notable for its efforts at gender equality and religious tolerance (more here). It was a little cultish but interesting, and the community is doing well, with a big weaving workshop, school, and home for the elderly. After Awra Amba we continued north on a gorgeous drive past green farmland - mostly corn and rice - and up into the mountains.

In Gondar we stayed at the Fasil Lodge. I'm not sure I'd recommend the location. On the one hand, we could walk right to the castle compound, which is the big tourist attraction in Gondar. On the other hand, the most visited part of town attracts a lot of hustlers and we got hassled A LOT. The southern part of Gondar might be a more attractive option on a future trip. Aside from a burned-out bus in the town center, there was no sign of the recent violence in Gondar.

The castle compound was great. We had a FANTASTIC guide named Nigusu whose contact information I'd be happy to share. The tour included six castles -

a bajaj ride to Debre Berhan Selassie church -

and another bajaj ride to Fasilidas Pool (only filled for Timkat in January).

We were lucky to have dry weather during the tour but Gondar gets more rain than other parts of Ethiopia. It started raining in the afternoon and continued all through the next morning. Our next destination was Kossoye, higher up in the mountains on the road to Amba Giorgis, and we departed in the rain. At the local bus station competing teenagers yelled at us to get into their minibuses until someone won by grabbing our bags, then we drove around town with the teenager hanging out the window yelling for passengers until we were full. Thirty minutes out of Gondar, the minibus dropped us off in what looked like the middle of nowhere - just a few shops on the side of the road. I asked a woman where the lodge was and she indicated that it was just off the road up ahead. A bunch of kids came running up so I asked for hulet 'tankara lijoch - two strong children - for the tiliq borsawoch - big bags - and we set off with our entourage to the lodge, which turned out to be close by.

Befiker Kossoye Lodge is right on the edge of a cliff at 3,000 meters but we couldn't see anything because we were in the clouds. It was really cold and a fire was built for us; it felt like a ski lodge. We were the only guests there, which felt a little weird. But once again we got super lucky with the weather because the next day was clear. The views were incredible. We were told that on a very clear day you can see all the way to Eritrea in the north and Sudan in the west.

We went on a guided hike in the morning and I took approximately a million pictures. In the afternoon we attended a reception for one of the workers at the lodge who had just gotten married. Here's a view of the sunset, walking back from the village -

The next day we took the Amba Giorgis bus back to Gondar. We visited Empress Mentewab's palace where we peered at the empress's bones by torchlight (the power was temporarily out; though it came back on, the kids asked the guide to continue with the more atmospheric torch). The rest of the day it rained and we were stuck inside.

It seems perverse that we were being tourists in a time of violence, but life appeared to be continuing normally all around us.

A few days after we left Gondar, there was a huge demonstration that was met with violence. A few weeks later, at least 26 people were reported killed in Amba Giorgis.

Read Part 4

Monday, February 27, 2017

Ethiopia return trip #2 Part 2

Bahir Dar was green, clean, and friendly, and there was lots to do there. The kids and I agree it was our favorite city in Ethiopia. We stayed at The Annex, a small guesthouse with a beautiful garden full of birds that was a short walk from the lake. I can't say enough good things about this place. The people were very welcoming, were great with the boys, arranged activities for us.

On the first day we just hung out at the guesthouse for a while, then walked the lake path along Lake Tana, and took a bajaj out to dinner. A bajaj is a little three-wheeled cloth-sided taxi that putters along at 20mph. Riding in bajajes was one of the kids' favorite things about Ethiopia.

On the second day we joined a tour to the Nile Falls with a van full of Ethiopian tourists. It was a beautiful green drive out to the Nile gorge and then a nice walk first to an overlook -

then across a suspension bridge -

and then to the falls themselves.

After the falls we continued on a loop back to the van and it began to rain. It was pouring by the time we reached the bank of the Nile upstream from the falls and took a tiny boat across. For a while we took shelter with some kids cooking corn and then we took a very muddy shortcut through the kids' village. When we got back to town, we changed out of our muddy clothes, and took a bajaj out to dinner at the Desset Lodge, right on Lake Tana.

On the third day, the bajaj adventures continued. Gashaw, the guesthouse guide, arranged a private bajaj tour for us. First we went to a viewpoint overlooking the city, near Haile Selasie's palace (we could only do a drive-by of the palace itself, as the guards didn't let us stop).

Then on a quiet road, the driver let the kids take turns driving the bajaj, which was a HUGE hit.

After that we went to the extravagant Amhara Martyrs Museum, with its sculpture gardens, towering monument, and enormous (but mostly dry) fountain.

Then we walked across the Nile Bridge (the one in town) and looked at the hippos. Finally the driver dropped us off at the Tana Hotel at the far end of the lake path, where we had a late lunch with a lovely view of the lake, surrounded by beautiful yellow birds that jumped all over our food when we stepped away from the table.

On the fourth day in Bahir Dar we did a private boat tour of Lake Tana. First we docked on the Zege Peninsula where a guide took us to the 14th century Ura Kidane Mihret monastery. Gorgeous colorful, sometimes violent paintings, also a nice museum.

Back on the lake, the boat captain let the kids drive the boat, another huge hit. Then we took the boat to the outlet of the Nile, where we saw hippos, birds, and some kind of swimming lizard.

We had a late lunch at the Desset Lodge and then walked around town some more and found the beautiful public gardens.

In the late afternoon we went back to the guesthouse and the boys had a great time playing soccer in the street with kids from the neighborhood. No common language needed.

On the fifth day, the kids played soccer all morning. In the late morning we got day passes to the Kuriftu Lodge and spent the rest of the day at the pool. There were other kids there and the lifeguard spent hours organizing races and games. In the evening we hung out with an Ethio-British family who was in the country for a development project. They were driving to Gondar the next day. We'd heard about unrest in Gondar and I wasn't sure if we should go so they said they would call with an update.

The next day A felt sick so we took it easy all day - reading, games, laundry, hair braiding. We heard from the Ethio-Brits that everything was calm in Gondar, so we decided we would go there next.

Two weeks after we left Bahir Dar, security forces killed at least 30 people there.

Read Part 3 

Ethiopia return trip #2 Part 1

The 17-hour flight from Newark to Addis was only half full, so we could stretch out and sleep. We stopped for about an hour in Lome, which looked beautiful from the air.

In Addis, we stayed at the Choice Guesthouse on the south side of the city, in Gotera. We knew we'd be flying in and out of Addis a few times so we wanted to be fairly close to the airport. The people at the front desk were very friendly, and although the room was small, there was a courtyard where the kids could play soccer. The guards, who didn't have a whole lot to do, were always willing to kick the ball around with the kids (we brought a One World soccer ball with us, which I highly recommend, as it lasted through our entire trip over all kinds of rough terrain). There was a small outdoor area for eating breakfast. We got most our meals from the "Depo St. George House" next door. Yes, there were drunk people there at 8:00AM, but their addictive fir-fir was the best we tasted in all of Ethiopia.

We mostly got around Addis by mini-bus. Every ride was a small adventure. Will we get on this one? Will we sit in a seat, or on the wheel well, or on top of each other? Who will we meet? On our first mini-bus ride - thunk! - an entire wheel fell off and we all got out in the middle of Bole Road. The kids still think that's hilarious.

Being in no rush, we spent a few days in Addis seeing the city and recovering from jet lag. On our first day, after switching mini-buses, we went to the Harmony Hotel (short walk from Bole Road), which has an indoor pool and a good restaurant across the street.

On the second day we took the new light rail train to the Stadium terminal, walked across Meskal Square, and from there took a bus to Amist Kilo (we figured out how to buy tickets and find the stops just by asking people, who were invariably helpful and kind). We coincidentally had lunch in the same restaurant where A and I had had our first meal on our last return trip. A funny little story - D ordered 'tibs and they kept bringing him chips until finally I was able to remember enough fidel to write down ጥብስ and impress the hell out of the kitchen staff. After lunch we went to the National Museum. The evolution exhibits there are great.Then we took a mini-bus back to Meskal Square, walked back to Stadium, and got on the rush hour train. Holy crap, that was CRAZY. At every stop we thought, there is just no possible way they can get more people in here, but somehow they did. When it was time to get off at our stop, A literally had to punch someone in the stomach to make a path. The kids still think that's hilarious. In the evening we visited with Arafat, brother of Dawitt, who was our guide on the first return trip, I delivered gifts from his family in the US, and he gave us a cell phone.

On the third day, we spent the day with friends who have kids the same age as my boys. Mostly the kids played on the PlayStation and watched TV. I actually think ordinary experiences like that are really important - they help the kids understand that living in Ethiopia doesn't have to feel that different from living in the US and gives them a sense of the range of "normal" life in Ethiopia. The same goes the Hilton Hotel pool, where we spent the fourth day. I had thought I would hate going to the Hilton - and it did feel weird to be in a place full of White people - but the kids met so many other kids with such a range of backgrounds - Ethiopian-Americans visiting from the US, Ethiopians who had previously lived in the US, Ethiopian-British, Ethiopian-Swedish - and I think it was really good for them to see such a spectrum of what it means to be Ethiopian.

On the fifth day we took a taxi to the airport and then a quick flight to Bahir Dar.

Read Part 2

Return Trip #2

It has been almost exactly six months since we returned from our six-week trip to Ethiopia. We arrived back in the U.S. as the already bad situation in Ethiopia was deteriorating. More and more protests against the government were leading to more and more mass arrests, burnings, and executions. I held off writing about our trip because I didn't want my description to be construed as encouragement to go to a potentially dangerous environment.

Things are outwardly calmer now. The declared state of emergency has worked in silencing opposition. Internet access has been tightly controlled, with some areas of the country just now being able to get back online, something almost unimaginable here in the U.S. but very effective in getting the world to forget what's happening in Ethiopia. To be clear, none of the problems that led to the protests have been solved. As this article says, a tight lid has been put on a boiling pot. It's keeping things stable at the moment. But it could erupt again at any time.

Nevertheless, things are calmer now. And Ethiopians who make their living from tourism are asking for people to visit. And visiting your adopted children's first families is so important. So I'm going to go ahead and describe our trip, and I'm OK for now with adoptive families who have carefully researched the security situation in places they plan to visit construing it as encouragement to go.

I had three goals for the trip:
  1. Give the kids a positive experience of Ethiopia.
  2. Do it as affordably as possible.
  3. Be a bottomless well of patience.
I'll write about our trip first and then about how well I met my goals. Read on...