Our last couple days before going to Addis were spent in the beautiful city of Bahir Dar, which is also home to the Amhara people’s capitol, the head of the Blue Nile, and Bahir Dar University.
We met with university faculty, visited one of their project sites, and discussed future collaborations between our universities. We even met with the president of the university who gave us some sweet BU coffee mugs. Dr. Mamo even gave a full-length presentation to faculty and students on UNL’s current initiatives in research. For dinner, we dined on the lake with some of the faculty and discussed the future of collaboration.
We also got the chance to visit the Amhara Region Martyrs memorial monument and museum and learned more about the recent political history of Ethiopia. One thing I’ve learned a lot about on this trip is the intricate history of Ethiopia, and how current Ethiopia has grown from it.
We even hiked up to the Blue Nile Falls. Unfortunately, due the dam, drought, and the fact we were not there directly after rainy season, the falls are now just a bit more than a trickle. Good news however! The government, with the help of international support, is building a dam over twice the size of the current one in a whole other location, so the Blue Nile Falls will be replenished in a few years. Even so, the falls are still so beautiful to look at and go down to to feel the mists from.
Leaving Bahir Dar was hard. The city is nice, the university faculty are very enthusiastic, and the sites were amazing. I definitely hope our two universities work together in the future.
A full day today (January 3rd). We started off in the morning heading to the St. George church museum. This was a church built by Emperor Menelik II after defeating the Italians at Adwa. Both Empress Zewditu and Emperor Haile Selassie were crowned here. This tour was informative but also slightly interactive. The guide quizzed us on the old language of the Ethiopia which is the current language of the church (Ge’ez), what Addis Ababa means (new flower) and other stuff like that. While a fairly short tour, as tourists cannot go inside the church, it was good information and interesting.
We piled back into the car and headed to the main market place in the city, Mercato, which is Italian for market. Three guesses who built it. Anyway this place was incredibly crowded. Tens of thousands of people packed into such a small area. We were driving through it and it was very slow. The area is also a little more volatile than other districts in Addis. Lots of protests, demonstrations and other things could take place in this neighborhood. Luckily we didn’t see any of those. Apparently today was only a medium sized crowed. If we had gone tomorrow, Monday it would have been impossible to drive anywhere near it. I honestly have never seen that many people on the streets before. It was a little scary, and I was relieved as we left.
Off to Dr. Mamo’s family’s house again! Her older sister and her husband invited us for lunch, and of course we accepted. It turned into a big family gathering with all the in-laws, children, cousins, everybody. We had met most of them a few times before and they really made us feel a part of things, even though were are just simple American students. Again the hospitality of Ethiopians, especially Dr. Mamo’s family is unmatched. They made sure to feed us incredibly well and wouldn’t take no for an answer when asked if I wanted another beer. Another coffee ceremony and we headed out to the Red Terror Museum.
I had been to the Holocaust museum in D.C. before, so I thought I was prepared. This museum hit me just as hard if not a little harder than that. The museum is completely privately funded so it has no allegiance to the current government but they also don’t charge anyone to enter. Our guide was absolutely phenomenal. As we started out he explained the background of the initial revolution, on Haile Selassie’s 80th birthday there was a huge, elegant cake and feast while millions were starving and dying in the north. The people were upset and began protesting. Eventually this weakened his power, but instead of a democracy, the military took control. The next 17 or so years were horrible, detailed by the incredible photos and museum exhibits. As we went deeper into the history and the atrocities committed by the Derg government we also learned more about our guide. He would point out people he knew that were on the kill lists, or how he shared a cell with someone who was shot three times and survived, donating his bullet ridden clothes to the museum. He showed us the methods of torture the Derg would use, and described how it felt as he had been tortured himself. This guy witnessed a massacre of protesters in an Addis square, just a few hundred meters from the museum. It was a difficult experience to see that much death, destruction, and senseless violence, mostly targeted at young educated people. But to have our guide, Dr. Mamo, and Miriam give their perspectives of all of this after being so close to these events, it really made it that much harder. If I had to pick one museum to visit in Addis it would be this one. It gives so much perspective to westerners and teaches important information about Ethiopian history.
After that sobering experience we rested for a few minutes at the hotel and headed off to Dr. Beyene’s house for dinner. Another great dinner, with plenty of food, tej, and coffee. Plus we had some great conversations about crazy dictators, Rastafarians, dreams, and drunk people. Dr. Beyene also gave his perspective on the Derg as he lived through that time as well. A fantastic evening to cap off our second to last day in the country.
As Dr. Mamo was working to get a tour of the United Nations in Addis she contacted a person who invited us to concert for a musical school for the blind. Of course we accepted. So this morning we headed out to Yod Abyssinia, a restaurant with a nice meeting/concert room. As we arrived we were placed in the front row, with cameras and other “honored guests”. Right after us two Chinese dignitaries from their embassy came in a sat down right next to me. We got talking a little bit and they were very excited to meet someone from the States. They were asking about what research we were doing and why Ethiopia. After explaining that we were students at UNL I had to show them were Nebraska was on a map. I don’t think I have met a person in Ethiopia who knew where it was, but that is just fine with me. We can just fly under the radar.
As the concert and ceremonies began I was already very impressed. These students who were completely blind learned all the traditional Ethiopian instruments and played in sync with each other very well, heck better than a lot of the professional bands we have seen. The first concert was with the traditional instruments and the second was with modern ones. They had an electric guitarist, bassist, two keyboardists and a drummer. I enjoyed this part a little bit more and was even more impressed by their skills. I play the guitar and still have to look at my fingers a lot to see where I am, but these guys would feel their instruments perfectly and play better than most non-blind people ever could.
Being in the front row had its advantages and disadvantages. We got a great view of the event and the sound was mostly good. However we were the prime targets for videos and pictures. They had professional photographers that would keep their camera on us for a very long time. Being in the front row, plus being introduced to everyone, plus all the media/camera attention, plus being seated next to Chinese ambassadors really made us feel like honored guests. We are just here to study, research and see sights, but everyone makes us feel special and appreciated, even if we don’t really deserve it. I have to say I might miss it when going back to my apartment and having to cook for myself.
For lunch we headed to Miriam’s house and were well taken care of. Great food and atmosphere plus the traditional coffee ceremony to top it off. That evening we went back to Yod Abyssinia for dinner. This place is also a traditional music and dance restaurant but quite a bit bigger and more popular than the last one. Us four got decent seats and at a mixed platter that was only meant for two people, but filled everyone up. I think I enjoyed this dancing and music a bit more than the other because of the lack of excruciatingly high sound level and the dances were slightly more impressive. I cannot get how these dancers move their shoulders and necks. I would cramp up just trying it. It was a great evening to cap off a day of feeling special.
Funny story of the day: As we were heading into Yod Abyssinia we went through the metal detector, making sure we didn’t have any knives, guns, grenades or anything. I handed the guard my wallet and phone, then passed through. My belt set the machine off. The guard then turned to me with a puzzled face and asked, “You have gun?” I quickly shook my head and said no, making sure he wasn’t going to tackle me or something. He shrugged his shoulders and waved me through without a pat down or anything.
Happy New Year! It has been a while since I have updated this blog. Very busy, sorta hectic days this last week. Lots of travel. Today, January 1st was a pretty relaxing day back in Addis. By the way it is not actually the new year in Ethiopia. They celebrate their new year in September. Oh and they are also in the year 2008, not 2016. Apparently this is because they heard of the birth of Christ 8 years after everyone else. Anyway it gets a little confusing trying to figure out if they are saying 1992 Ethiopian calendar or European calendar. I digress.
Today, the first thing we did was travel with Miriam, Dr. Mamo’s sister, to the Addis Ababa University to see the museum that was once Emperor Haile Selassie’s palace. This museum was very well decorated and preserved. It gave a good history of all the people’s of Ethiopia and their traditions. We also got a good idea of what this palace has been through with the Emperor, the communist Derg, and then the current government. It was a very informative tour.
After the museum we got croissant’s from a Parisian bakery on the way back to the hotel. Definitely the best croissant I have ever had, not that I have had many experiences with legitimate Parisian pastries. We rested up a little and headed out for a traditional restaurant that was about 50 meters away from our hotel. This place had traditional musical instruments and dances while serving food and drinks. The only bad part of the night was that we were directly in front of the amplifier and it got incredibly loud. Other than that the dances were incredible. Just watching them move their shoulders and necks so quickly and in sync made my body hurt as if I tried it. After a few hours of enjoying the atmosphere we retired to the hotel to sleep. A more relaxed day to help us catch our breath after all the travel was very nice and definitely needed.
On Saturday we traveled from Lalibela to Gonder (not the Middle Earth kingdom of Gondor). The first 100km or so of road was rough, dirt roads, but after that it turned into a very nice smooth drive. Lunch was at a Debre Tabor hotel and it was very nice and cheap, but the place itself was quite disorganized and a little messy. The rest of the drive went smoothly and we arrived in Gonder around 5:30 or 6 PM.
This city is famous for its 17th century castles and other old buildings. It has a population of over 300,000 but it looks much smaller, especially from the restaurant on the tallest hill where we had lunch today. In the morning we took a very nice tour of all the castles, baths, and churches that were built by the dynasty from the 1600s to late 1700s. All the buildings were very impressive and a lot of them had the original floors, windows, and walkways. Unfortunately in WWII the British bombed this area because the Italians used the castles as military headquarters. While about half of the structures were hollowed out by bombardment, it gave them a nice ancient ruin feel.
The church that the first king built was also impressive, not because of the building itself, but because of the art that covered all the walls inside it. Everything in Ethiopian Orthodox churches has a meaning. If there is three of something, it represents the trinity, twelve represents the apostles, bulls, serpents, and mythological creatures represented the devil, and any painting that showed a person with only one eye (as if they had their head turned) represented that they were bad people.
Finally we went to the summer house of the kings. They had built an enormous pool that they could fill up in the rainy season via a pipe to the nearby river. Today this pool is still used during Epiphany. They fill the pool up, the priests bless the water, and then everyone jumps in. It looked like a very fun and colorful event.
If I had more time I could try to write out the incredibly brief, yet detailed history of Ethiopia from the 1600s to present that we were taught today, I wasn’t too sure how much I would like this place as it seemed like a very obvious (and possibly misleading) plea for tourism but it turned out to be very interesting and an important historical place for Ethiopia.
After our hike up Mount Tossa, we presented our research to university faculty and the school officials that helped us with our assessments. I was pretty nervous to go through my slides, and even though my presentation was supposed to last 20 minutes, I mumbled for only about 5 minutes before giving up and sitting back down.
After we presented and discussed our findings, we said goodbye to Dessie and hit the road to Lalibela. It was a full day of driving, but a beauuuuuuuuuuuutiful one. The landscape changes so quickly and so drastically when you traveling up and down and around the mountains.
Our time in Dessie is now over, and already looking back on it, I can say that I miss it there. Everyone, especially the farmers and the university helped us tremendously with our research, and were gracious the whole time. I can’t wait to get my assessments organized so I have something to give back to them to thank them for the collaboration.
And then we arrived to our hotel in Lalibela. Hotel Maribela. And Woweeeeee. The view is the most spectacular that I’ve ever witnessed I’m sure. The whole landscape is sprawled out beneath you (The hotel sits on the edge of the cliff), and for miles and miles you can see the land rising and falling, and the northern road snaking through it. Gosh. I can’t even describe it right, I guess you’re just going to have to come here and see it for yourself.
Today we toured the famous churches of Lalibela, 11 in all. These churches are carved from single chunk of rock in apparently a 23 years time period in the 1100s or 1200s. And dannngggggggg, they are impressive. The passages, the water drainage system, the windows, stairs, frescoes — everything is impressive.
We capped the day off with lovely Christmas dinner in which we talked about religion, society, and snakes eating people. This holiday was one for the books.
Today after lunch we climbed Tosa Mountain, the big old hunk of rock right next to Dessie. As we pulled up to the road to begin our ascent everyone was a little in shock of how rocky and rough the road was. The road didn’t get much better as we climbed. Despite the rough road (which I personally like, gives a sense of adventure) we saw some amazing views. We could see for 10s of miles in every direction.
As we were about half way to our eventual turn around point our driver, Tedesse, pointed out a figure about 100 meters away. Initially I thought it was a really furry goat or something but it turns out it was a baboon! As we got slightly closer it walked off. Tedesse urged me to get out and get a better view of it, so I did. Along with Solomon we jumped out of the car after they confirmed this type of baboon was “friendly”. Turns out it didn’t want to be photographed and the best picture I have of is just its head. As we got back in the car I learned a little more about this baboons “Friendly” nature. We had heard of the farmers we interviewed complaining about monkeys stealing their grain. These are the monkeys they referred to. To stop them from taking their grain they have people, mostly young kids or wives, that stand out in the field to deter them. The baboons however are smart and will assess the strength of the guard, fashion a stick, and attack the guard to get its food. That is what they consider “friendly”.
As we continued on I saw a pack of some animal in a field from a distance. As we got closer to this one we realized it was an entire pack of baboons. There was probably 15 in total, mostly mid sized but a few babies and two very strong big ones. This is where I got the best pictures of them.
Continuing on the road we started going downhill and the road became less and less passable. A few times we had to move boulders to the side of the road so the car could fit through, one of which I am convinced weighed more than 1/2 tons. After Solomon assessed the road further on we figured out we couldn’t continue through so we turned back. Needless to say this trip was quite an adventure, and felt like our own mini safari.