Borders Are For Maps: Part 2

It’s not what you’re thinking. Although Part 1’s ending made for a great cliffhanger the gunman turned out to be nothing more than a security guard, however intimidating that might be. It did get me thinking though, as he escorted me up the rest of the trail towards the top of the mesa, about why an armed escort was necessary at all. A remote mountaintop monastery doesn’t exactly scream out security threat. Plus, the wall I had just scaled was the only way in. I mean come on; the place couldn’t have been more secure if it had a moat. Was I supposed to believe that he had to be armed to the teeth to protect me from rock climbing brigands? I started to wonder just exactly how close I was to the border of Eritrea, which I had intended to avoid. Before travelling to Ethiopia I had consulted with the U.S. State Department’s website for travel warnings and alerts, which is always a good idea for international travel. Front and center on the page is an advisory that in no uncertain terms warns U.S. citizens to avoid any and all travel to the border zone.


Excerpt From State Department Website

While the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia officially ended over a decade ago, skirmishes and troop deployments along the border continue to threaten stability in the region. Tourists who venture too close have recently been the targeted for kidnappings and murder. An attraction known as the Danakil Depression, not far from Axum, is especially volatile. The area hosts volcanic activity that creates surreal geographic features comparable to Yellowstone. It was always a must see destination, but has decreased in popularity in recent years due to the upswing in violence. Along my journey I have met some fellow travelers reckless enough to ignore the warnings just to see the Danakil Depression, but I had no intention of going anywhere near there myself. However incredible the Depression may be, it’s simply not worth risking my life to see. Despite my best intentions to steer clear of the conflict zone, as I studied the gruff features of the gunmen walking ahead of me somehow I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had been duped.


View From The Top

All of these thoughts were wiped from my mind quicker than an Etch A Sketch as we rounded the bend and arrived at the foot of the monastery’s outer walls. Upon reaching the mountain’s pinnacle upon which it’s poised I was suddenly faced with a sweeping expanse of views. A most welcome gust of wind swept across the summit, stopping the perspiration that had been set in motion by the relentless desert heat so fast that it left salt on my skin. I surveyed the panoramic view as if from the vantage of an eagle’s perch. The spectacular scenery alone would have been worth the effort of coming all that way, but the view was only one piece of my destination’s allure. On top of that were layers of historic and philosophical discovery.

What could have compelled those that commissioned the monastery to undertake such a feat? Was their motivation purely religious? When western religion came on the scene in Ethiopia, the local people must have had to reconcile their traditional animist beliefs with Christian values. I wondered if Christianity augmented those beliefs or completely displaced them. Could the mountaintops have been a spiritual center in the ages before Christianity took hold? Maybe the choice of location expresses a devotion to more than just Christianity. While I stood, reflecting on all of that, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the breathtaking natural beauty. My surroundings were equally as impressive as the monastery I had come so far to see. The Ethiopian peoples’ age-old devotion to the Christian faith, as it was poignantly expressed where I stood, and the epic wilderness surrounding the monument were perfect companions. They have more in common than I would have realized. Both withstood the march of time so completely that to stand at their gates, as I had, one might think them immortal. The all-consuming advance of development and globalism and consumerism appeared to have had no effect on them whatsoever. These two giants, one physical and the other spiritual in nature, dominating my surroundings. These were elemental forces, pervasive and undeniable.


En Route to the Border

My ruminations may not beget definitive answers, but I trust they are productive in other ways. As I stood, all of those thoughts and more spun around my head faster than the birds dancing and darting through the air all around me. The path that spirituality takes through the hearts and minds of the local people was laid out before me. I never felt so connected to another culture as I did while following in the footsteps of a pilgrimage that has endured through the ages. I traced the history of every step with my mind’s eye as I went. My arduous journey to reach those doors was certainly the easiest it had been for literally ages.


The Bell Tower

After all of that pondering, it was time to take the next step and actually walk through the front gate. The courtyard of the monastery was as peaceful as a Zen garden. The wind that had so graciously cooled me moments before was relegated by high walls to the upper levels of the structure, where it gently whistled past rooftops. The noises that the wind elicited from the structure were the only sounds to be heard. Flags flapped and chimes jingled, doorways creaked and bells swung. The armed guard called upon a boy, who was the monastery’s lone watchmen, to go and fetch a monk to unlock the church.


Monk Reading Ge’ez Bible

With the boy gone it was just the two of us. We had whole place to ourselves. While waiting for the monk, the guard gestured silently for me to follow him. We walked back toward the outer wall, in the direction of a bell tower overlooking the entrance. It was all very medieval. We entered the base of the tower and climbed the stone steps in a spiral stairwell, that despite the ample daylight would have been pitch black if not for the occasional “window” that resembled an arrowslit in a castle turret. The top of the tower denoted the true high point of the mountain. It gave me a view of not only of the canyon below but also of the monastery itself and the surrounding ruins. The construction was fairly simple, with stone walls and a metal roof that had likely replaced less durable thatching. This upgrade was no doubt intended to carry the building into the next century, as preserved as past generations of Ethiopians have always kept it. I peered down from my post beside the swinging bells at the village surrounding the compound’s walls. It appeared to be abandoned on first glance, until the motion of a door swinging open caught my eye and I realized that monks still inhabit the low stone structures, whose crumbling facades looked like they could have been on display somewhere as relics from a long extinct culture.


Inscriptions on the Ceiling

Once the monk finally arrived to unlock the temple at the heart of the monastery, I practically sprinted over from the bell tower, overcome with curiosity. Entering the temple itself was like stepping back in time. I took off my shoes and stepped over the threshold into what resembled a cavern. The ancient etchings, inscriptions, and paintings all around the small chamber came into focus as my eyes adjusted to the light. My surroundings seemed impervious to the passage of time, like prehistoric specimens trapped in amber. Watching the monk pray in the Ge’ez language of his ancestors upon a simple wooden platform was one final reminder of the implications of what I was seeing. People continue to reside at that humble monastery  in isolated simplicity just as they did for hundreds upon hundreds of years. I was witnessing a contemporary link in an unbroken chain of countless monks who renounced their ties to society to pray at that very pulpit.


On the way back to Axum there were still more thoughts buzzing through my head about what I had just seen, more than would fit on this page. Through it all there was one nagging question that was left unanswered. “How far are we from the border?” I asked the driver. “Hmm… I think we are maybe 30 miles from there,” he answered in his best English. “What about the Danakil Depression? How far is that?” I pried. “Maybe 50 miles or more,” was his response. This was a mortifying thought. I was way too close for comfort to a dangerous and potentially lethal security situation.


The Cliff-Side Monastery Entrance Taken Shortly After Rappelling Down

It wasn’t until I got back to my hotel and talked it over with Shushay later that night that I learned the truth. “30 miles? Hah. More like 5 miles. That’s how close you were to the border. You can see all the way into Eritrea from where you came from. You even passed the site of the first battle with Italy after they invaded from that place,” Shushay said with amusement. “How can he tell you 30 miles? This is not right,” he added.

We were back at the same restaurant as the night before, only this time since it was a Friday night we expected some dancing. We were all drinking honey wine. I held the flask the way Simen taught me, which I was sure would impress them. “If you have all been friends for so long, then you must have embarrassing stories about each other. Let’s hear some stories,” I said, to spice things up. We all laughed as Shushay launched into an account of some recent dating mishaps. Then I noticed something. “Why the long face, Rasta? You don’t look happy,” I said. “Why is it that Shushay get all the girls? I just want one of them. Always he has too many girls. Maybe I can take one of his,” he stated sardonically. It turned out that Rasta was a virgin. Although in Ethiopia that isn’t so unusual for a 22 year old, he clearly wasn’t thrilled about it. “You see, my father was a soldier,” said Rasta. “We are strong in my family, but for the people in Axum it does not matter that we fight to protect them. They think we are low class. Soldiers have low status in our country. Maybe this is why it is so hard for me. Because I am the son of a soldier,” he said with a little more seriousness to his tone.


Axum Basket Market

From what I have read, Ethiopia is unique in Africa in that in ancient times it had a hierarchic, caste-like structure that resembled medieval Europe much more than it did other African civilizations. Farmers, soldiers, and clerics functioned in separate and rigidly defined roles, with specific expectations of each. The divisions between classes were reinforced by the conception of morality at that time, so much so that it even seeped into the Amharic language. To this day some words used to describe farmers have negative connotations that are synonymous with words like uncouth. During times of war, soldiers traditionally lived off of what they could take by force from farmers. Those sorts of actions came to define their reputation as a class, and their moral standing in ancient Ethiopian society. I can’t be certain how much bearing that history has on modern times, but it seems that there is still somewhat of a stigma against soldiers.


Tourists at Basket Market (Camel Crossing Behind)

“What about you, Ziggy? You’ve been awfully quiet about all this.” I prodded. “Ziggy don’t  have our kind of problems,” Rasta answered for him. “He has family in America. His family take care of everything. All of his clothes are original. Look at his new t shirt. When we are out working every morning he is at home resting. But it’s okay. We love him anyway. It doesn’t matter to us that he has money. He is still one of us,” Shushay chimed in. Ziggy, who was a little on the shy side, didn’t have anything to add to that assessment. “Who wants to dance?” I said, and with that we were on our feet shoulder shrugging and chicken bobbing all over the dance floor.


Brahma Cattle With Hump Like a Camel for Water Storage

As we were leaving the restaurant Shushay asked how many more days I would be travelling in Ethiopia. “Tonight is your last night?!” he exclaimed. “We have to celebrate.” With that began a raucous night on the town. Shushay seemed to know people at every bar and club that we went to. Rasta put on his army jacket and tried his best to impress the ladies, while Ziggy seemed more concerned with looking in the mirror than anything else. Contrary to what other travelers seem to expect at African clubs, I didn’t see a single prostitute anywhere. We danced and joked around worry free, and had a blast. When Shushay had too much to drink he let me drive his Bajaj home. We zigzagged through the streets with Shushay and I in the front, plus Ziggy and Rasta in the back squeezed in with two girls they had picked up at the bar.


Livestock Market Outside Axum

The next day we headed back to the meeting tree to scope out a craft market. The whole place was teeming with busloads of tourists. After a while the crew hopped back in the Bajaj and took me to a local animal market just outside of town to check out the cows and bulls up for auction. This time I was the only faranji in sight, and would’ve been the whitest thing around if not for the sheep. Before taking me to the airport we all went out to a local pizza place, which was the best in town although not in the guidebook at all. The mood was a little somber, partly because I was leaving and also because we were still a little tired from the night before. As we were eating, the topic of conversation took a turn for the political, which was unusual considering that I wasn’t the one steering it. Rasta brought up the war with Eritrea. “Our country fights for what is right. Always we try to do the right thing,” he said patriotically, “but when there is war; Axum is not a safe place. You can hear the gun shots and the bombs from right where we are sitting. What we need now is peace. It is the bad governments that are doing this, not us. The people in Eritrea, they are family. We are all family,” he said. And deep down, I know that he meant it.


From Left to Right- Ziggy, Me (David), Shushay, Rasta


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Borders Are For Maps: Part 1

The night before my flight I said farewell to my new friend Simen. If you have been following my blog then you already know him as the sparker of many stories. His final advice for me was to keep my guard up in Axum. “Over there it is a much bigger city. Not everyone knows one another. People can do bad things and nobody knows who they are” warned Simen. “If you meet someone like me on the street that is very friendly, you must not trust them,” he added earnestly. It was touching that he was showing so much concern from my safety. “You don’t have to worry,” I said, “I can take care of myself.” It was hard to say goodbye. After so many adventures together, we had delved way below surface level and really gotten to know each other. “I will come back here again to visit you as soon as I can. Maybe by that time you will be a tour guide already, and I will be a teacher. Don’t worry, I’ll make it happen,” and as quickly as that I turned my back on Lalibela.

Early the next morning I walked onto the runway towards the small jet waiting to whisk me off to Axum, another ancient city in the mind boggling succession of Ethiopia’s wondrous historic sites. My first impression of Axum was that Simen was right to warn me not to trust it. The whole feel of the city was different. I could tell right away that it had a more dangerous edge to it. Even the touts seemed like they were a little slicker in their hustles. This time the talk of tour packages began before I set foot off the plane. As we were walking down the steps onto the runway of Axum a passenger that had been sitting a few rows behind me recognized me from the bar in Lalibela, the night I went dancing, and we struck up a conversation. He told me that he’s a tour guide and gave me his number, promising a discount off the normal faranji price.

Before leaving Lalibela I had called ahead to reserve a hotel in Axum, yet when I double-checked the guidebook on the plane I realized that the price I’d been quoted was $5 more than what it said in the book. ‘Hell no,’ I said to myself, ‘I’m not getting pushed around again by these guys.’ After arguing with the shuttle driver from the hotel I had called, who kept insisting that my online reservation was as binding as if it were written in stone, I took off with a different driver towards a more reasonable hotel. As soon as the portly driver I had taken off with opened his mouth he was already trying to hustle me. “I saw you talking with that man in the airport, ”he said, referring to the guide I had walked onto the runway with, “I want you to know, he is crazy. All the time he is trying to steal the tourists, but he is very bad guide. Completely crazy. Better that you stay away from this man,” he warned me. He glanced at me out of the corner of his eyes as he drove, with a look that spelled greed. Nothing about his statement was convincing. “My company is much bigger. We take good care of the tourists. Have many services. I will tell you about them…” he went on. I did my best to appear disinterested without being too rude, hoping he’d get the hint. Eventually I tuned him out entirely, and instead focused my attention out the bus window onto the curious new land I had arrived in.


Skulls in Cave Beside Underground Church- Lalibela Region

Whereas Lalibela only had one main street in the downtown area, this city was laid out like a grid, with broad avenues left over from the Italian occupation. The streets were lined with all sorts of shops and restaurants that showed a level of sophistication well above the street peddlers I had become accustomed to dealing with. For all its grandeur, Axum was still far from what I would consider affluent. The wide, accommodating streets were home to little more than typical blue and white Bajaj, pedestrians, and the occasional mule train. Just when I was beginning to think of Axum as fairly similar to the other northern cities I’d been travelling in, we rounded the corner onto the block of my hotel just in time to see a camel waltzing down the street.


Church Inside of Cave


One of Axum’s Obelisks


Another Axum Stele

The same tout from the bus actually followed me into the hotel. As soon as I emerged from my room after putting down my bags he was there waiting in ambush, and immediately tried to pressure me into booking a trip with his company. I stoutly refused, and spent a good deal of time that day speaking with all the major tour companies trying to determine which tour would be most suitable and at the best rate. Following many of their recommendations, I decided that the following day I would take a day trip out of town to see an unusual monastery. It’s several hours away from Axum, known to be remote and difficult to access. Rooting out obscure monasteries had become a bit of an infatuation of mine by that point. Ever since my first Indiana Jones hidden temple experience in Lalibela I was hooked. On that trip, we entered the mouth of a vine-covered cave to explore an underground temple by headlamp, only to find the mummified remains of hundreds if not thousands of dead pilgrims stuffed into the recesses of the cave. They were so well preserved from the elements that some of them still had hair on their skulls. Feeling ready for anything, I toured the iconic obelisks at the heart of the city within walking distance of my budget hotel, in search of the next adventure.

Axum’s attractions are incredible in their own right, yet for me they were slightly overshadowed by the brilliance of Lalibela. It was as if I had never driven before, and was suddenly put behind the wheel of a race-car. Then, after racing the track, being given a luxury car to drive immediately after. Who can complain about driving a luxury car? It’s an extraordinary thing. When compared with a race-car, however, it loses some of the excitement of its appeal. Despite my ambivalence, I have to acknowledge that the obelisks of Axum are an unparalleled national treasure for Ethiopia with symbolic resonance. The stelae (obelisks) of Axum are regarded as the world’s highest monoliths. They memorialize a period of time when Africa was home to some of the most advanced and sophisticated civilizations in the world. I view the sites as a benchmark in African history that indicates past and future greatness. What’s more, The Kingdom of Aksum was able to complete this astounding feat of engineering in the 1st century, way ahead of their time. Touring the area is like walking through an ancient sculpture park of surreal dimensions. I walked around the obelisks with my head on a swivel, craning my neck to gaze up at the massive stone blocks balanced impossibly overhead. My stroll was interrupted only by the occasional jaunt through some of the subterranean crypts that dotted the site, where tombs were long ago discovered and relocated.


Crypt Entrance


Underground Tomb Entrance

After an exhausting first day I started to head home. I took my time, stopping every now and again to soak it all in. Along the way I bought some bananas and sat on a bench at the confluence of what could have been a major roadway, but for lack of traffic. In the middle of the rotary, where I sat, was a gigantic tree giving shade to the peaceful scene beneath it. I had been told by a guide that the species of tree I was looking at is known locally as the meeting tree for its broad leaves and outstretched branches that give shade from the desert sun. That particular tree in the traffic circle certainly lived up to its name. There were kids playing table soccer, women selling baskets and bananas and drinks, and others chatting idly beneath its branches. The tree was so expansive that it seemed to reach even further than the roads whose spokes radiated outward from the circle’s center The plaza was a creation of the Italians during their brief occupation of Ethiopia. Their invasion had begun at the border not far from Axum, and so there was more residual evidence of their historic presence than in most other parts of the country. I sat for a moment and pondered what it would have looked like where I sat at the time of the occupation, as I ate my banana. I decided to get my boots shined for no particular reason, and sat down quietly in the shoeshine’s stall hoping that another camel would pass by so I could snag a picture.




Stele (Obelisk)

I plopped down wearily in the seat, and almost immediately a local in his early twenties sat down at my side and introduced himself. “My name is Shushay” he said, extending a hand. He looked more stylishly urban then the people in Lalibela had, with an image-conscious tuft of curly hair protruding from the top of his head in a twist, and a little bit of hip hop style to his tight jeans and black hoodie. Despite these differences, there were no red flags to give credence to Simen’s warnings. While I was far from trusting of him, he came across as honest. “David, nice to meet you,” I replied, shaking his outstretched hand. I noticed a scar that bisected one of his bushy eyebrows. I wondered what the story was behind that, and yet my intuition still saw no reason to overreact. A boy quickly got to work on my trail worn boots. I sat immobilized as he began to chip away the dirt of many trails.  Shushay had a captive audience. “What brings you to Axum? Where are you from?” he asked confidently. Still trying to size him up I replied, “Oh I’m just a tourist. I’ll be here for a couple of days to see the sights, that’s all. I’m from New York. What about you, where are you from?” I asked, not wanting to make any assumptions. “I am from a small village outside of Axum. I work here as Bajaj driver. If you want, maybe later I can take you to see the local sites. Here, take my number,” he said. That confirmed my suspicions. I didn’t think Shushay was dangerous, but I wasn’t so naïve as to suppose that he didn’t have an ulterior motive. I took his number and told him that I’d think about it, because there actually were some attractions that I didn’t get a chance to see that day with all the haggling in the morning to distract me. “I’ll be out of town tomorrow,” I said, “but there is one place in my guidebook that I couldn’t reach. You speak English well, so maybe you could do a better job finding this place than the last guy. I told that driver to take me to an address straight from the book, but he dropped me off outside a café instead.” We both laughed. “Don’t worry, I can take you anywhere in this city. I know where everything is. Just call me and I will come,” he boasted. I told him the name of the place I wanted to go and he assured me that it would be open late. I took his number and then stood up to leave. The shoeshine boy started demanding more money than I knew his service to be worth. Shushay said a few words to him in an unfamiliar language and he promptly lowered the price.


Inscribed Tablet Outside Cafe

Later that evening, when I was back at my hotel, I meant to call to a local tour agency to make some final arrangements for the next day’s tour but I ended up dialing Shushay by mistake. True to his word he was outside the hotel’s door practically by the time I hung up the phone. “Can you still take me to see some of the historic sites, or is it too late?” I asked. “Don’t worry, it is not too late. I will show you,” he replied. A short time later we arrived at the same café I had been dropped off at earlier by the other driver. I was puzzled. Both drivers read the address to the monument right out of the guidebook, so why did they keep taking me to the wrong place? “I think you don’t understand. Here, follow me,” said Shushay as he escorted me into the café. “Let me see your book,” he said while taking the guidebook from my hands, “I will be your guide.” As it turns out the ruins are actually located inside the café’s courtyard. Talk about living history. There must be so many ruins around the city that if the government tried to make them all off limits there’d be no room for anyone else. The main attraction of the café’s exhibition was a stone tablet protected by an enclosed shed behind the seating area. Each surface of the rectangular, tombstone-shaped tablet jutting mysteriously from the earth was inscribed with writing from different alphabets. Several biblical languages were represented such as ancient Greek and Latin, alongside the Ge’ez language from the Abyssinian civilization that preceded modern Ethiopia. It was astonishing to see such a pristine relic in the back of a café that didn’t even look particularly popular. The artifact clearly belonged in a museum. As we walked further along down the café’s property, there was another much taller obelisk that had been wrapped inexpertly with cheap Christmas lights as decoration. I shook my head in bemused disbelief.


Ancient Monument Spruced Up by Cafe

I was willing to give Shushay the benefit of the doubt that the whole thing was a bit of a confusion rather than a deliberate attempt by him to drum up business. “Look, if you want to go back I understand. I can take you no extra charge,” he said apologetically. He went on, “Or we can go to another place. I know one more place like this.” I didn’t come to Ethiopia to retreat back to my hotel at the first sign that things weren’t going my way. I decided to press on to the next site. By that time it was getting late, and I wasn’t sure if the next place would even be open. When we arrived to the small archaeological park the gate was locked and the guard had gone home. Shushay asked around, and it turned out that the guard’s young son, who was busy playing soccer with his friends nearby, had the key after all.

The boy let us in, and I insisted that he join us on the pretext that he might be able to point out something interesting. I also brought him along because I didn’t want to be alone with Shushay in the park. I didn’t feel threatened by him, but it seemed like a wise precaution to take since the whole thing was a little risky to begin with. We scoped out a few crypts, and ended up on a little knoll overlooking the city center. I asked Shushay to take a picture of me with my smartphone, confident that I could chase him down if he tried to pull anything. Handing a stranger my phone while alone in a park at dusk might not have been my finest judgment, but that small gesture was an instant turning point for us. I think we both felt the tacit trust implied by the action. The pictures saved on that phone alone were worth more to me than the phone itself, but it could easily be worth a month’s wages to him or more. He looked me in the eyes as he took the phone from my hand, and then snapped a few photos. Soon we were on our way.


Tombs Inside Axum’s Crypts- Mummies Have Been Removed

Later that night I had dinner plans with an American of Ethiopian descent and her brother. I had met them on the plane from Lalibela as well. In the airport we had agreed to meet that evening at a restaurant that was suggested by the so-called “crazy guide” who had been part of the conversation on that flight. He said that the restaurants in the guidebook were no good, and told us about what they call a culture house where traditional food is accompanied by live music and folk dancing. The only problem is that the number that the girl from the plane had given me to reach them wasn’t working. Since my phone couldn’t make calls I was using one that I borrowed from a hotel attendant. It’s possible that just as I couldn’t call a local number, maybe the local phones I was using couldn’t dial an American number. In any case, a little disheartened, I decided to go to the restaurant to see if I might run into them. When I walked outside who was waiting outside my hotel but Shushay, who’s Bajaj was parked on the corner right out front, possibly by coincidence.

When I arrived to the restaurant the place was packed with a lively mix of locals and tourists, mostly in large groups. It was an interesting venue. Both the walls and high ceilings were decorated with all sorts of cultural symbols. There were flags and colorful baskets adorning each wall, and musical instruments of varying sizes dangling by strings overhead. The room was as broad as a dance hall with ample space between the giant circular baskets which dotted the venue in place of tables. I walked around slowly, scanning for familiar faces. I didn’t spot them inside, so I moved out to the patio just to be sure. Still no luck. Sitting alone without so much as a book to keep me company amidst such a festive crowd was a grim prospect. I started looking for seats in secluded corners. As I walked back into the building I internally debated calling another taxi to eat somewhere quieter. To my surprise as I came in from the patio I ran right into Shushay sitting down to dinner at one of the baskets with two friends. We spotted each other at the same time, and he waved me over with an easygoing smile. “David! Come and sit with us, don’t worry we will share our food with you,” he said generously. It was the fourth time I had run into him that day. I graciously agreed. He introduced me to his friends, “This is Arre and Zerabruck.” We shook hands. I didn’t think I would ever get their names. “Arre is said like Taf-ari in Rastafari,” said Arre. “I always listen to reggae music, and some time ago I even had long hair. Maybe that will help you remember,” he added, sensing my confusion. Eventually I would come to call them Rasta and Ziggy.

Everything about that night was impressive to me. Even the basket we were eating out of was incredible, not to mention the food. Once I got a closer look I realized that even though it was large enough to replace a table it was obviously hand made. The dish that was eventually placed on top of it was larger than a pizza pie and entirely covered by a thin flat piece of injera bread. The top of the basket was the same size as the large plate we were served on, which was much lower than a table, allowing us to gather in close right over the food.  Over the injera was placed small portions of stewed meat, vegetables, and bean dishes all uniquely spiced in a variety of colors. The presentation was so well orchestrated that it looked to me like edible art. We literally tore into the dish, ripping pieces of injera off of whatever part of the circular bread was closest to us and using it to scoop up bite size pieces to sample each little mound of food in turn.

As we ate I asked them as many questions as I could between bites. “So how long have you guys been friends?” I asked. “For a very long time,” answered Shushay, “I am from the village, but as long as I have been living here I have known them. It has been maybe seven years now.” I learned a lot from them that night. For instance, the people of Axum speak a totally different language from the rest of the people I’d met. While Amharic is still spoken, Axum is in the northern region of Tigrai and so the people there speak Tigrinya, which sounds a lot more like Arabic due to the regional influence of Yemen and the Sudan. That was disappointing news. I had just begun to get a grasp of Amharic, learning the numbers one through ten and a few words of vocabulary. Now I’d have to start all over with Tigrinya.

The most unexpected thing I learned was that the people of Axum have a lot more in common with the Eritreans than I would have thought, considering that the nearby border has been the site of rampant violence in recent years. Eritrea and Ethiopia first started fighting over control of territory in a war that lasted from 1998-2000. What started as border skirmishes soon degenerated into what must have been one of the most unnecessary wars of the 21st century. Most battles were fought over territory on a more ideological level than practical. The land wasn’t economically significant or of notable strategic value. According to Wikipedia: “While Eritrea and Ethiopia, two of the world’s poorest countries, spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the war and suffered tens of thousands of casualties as a direct consequence of the conflict, only minor border changes resulted.”

Yet somehow, despite tension between the two nations which continues to this day, I had just met three Ethiopians from the region hardest hit by the conflict that all seemed sympathetic to the Eritreans. Judging from the tone of our conversation, none of my new acquaintances seem to harbor any ill will towards Eritrea. It turns out that all three of them have family there, mostly distant cousins. This is apparently not unusual in Axum. For Tigraians, families that have been separated by a few miles, an artificial line, and endless propaganda have much more in common than what stands between them. In fact for a long time both countries were unified under the same flag. Many people that currently live in Axum are originally from Eritrea. They came seeking work and then were unable to return due to the war. After an enthralling conversation, the three amigos insisted on paying for my dinner despite my protests. We made plans to meet again when I was to return from the next day’s tour. It was a great night.


Taken From Van Window

The following morning I was up at the crack of dawn and ready to begin my journey. After such arduous negotiations over the trip, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that the “4×4” I had been promised was actually a dilapidated death trap that looked to be significantly older than me and with the scars to prove it. The windshield was badly cracked and one of the brake lights had been shattered. I should’ve known better than to trust those touts. After some heated discussion to get me going that morning, I eventually persuaded them to send a van instead. I found it to be in passable condition, so off I went into the unknown.


Monastery Visible as White Speck Near Top Left of Mesa

This was going to be the tour that all of the guides had been raving about. We had a road trip of several hours ahead of us as we made our way towards a monastery. The driver didn’t speak much English, so it was up to me to figure out what exactly I would be looking at. At least nobody would try to sell me anything. The ride was relaxing, and before I knew it we had reached our destination. The driver parked in a sandy unpaved lot at the far end of a small village, facing a mountainous canyon. The terrain had become more and more desolate as the drive went on. Now that we had stopped it was clear that we had entered a full-fledged desert. All around us the canyon was painted in hues of orange and red. With no trees in the way there was an unobstructed view straight to the top of the mesa that the driver was pointing to. Off in the distance, following the driver’s upward gestures, I could spot a white speck that I assumed to be my destination. I was looking forward to the challenging hike up to the monastery, although it was a little puzzling that for such a highly recommended attraction we were the only people around.


Shade of the Cactus Tree


Some of the Many Steps

Once I started walking I caught sight of a series of weathered old stone steps. They looked to be so old that I’m sure people had been climbing them long before America was even “discovered”. I climbed and climbed, past another small village and occasionally shaded from the brutal sun by huge cacti of a species I had never seen before. Just when I thought the steps would never end the trail came to a halt abruptly. I stood at the base of a sheer 30 foot cliff towering overhead, scratching my head. ‘Well that’s odd’ I thought, ‘How am I supposed to get around this?’ As I approached the foot of the cliff, a monk who had been sitting by the wayside rose to greet me. He didn’t speak a word of English, but in his hand was a piece of rawhide leather that he kept holding out for me to take. The leather strap formed a sort of crude rope. He was holding the loose end while the rest dangled above from the top of the cliff. Confused, I followed the makeshift rope up with my eyes and at that moment another monk popped his head out from a nook near the top holding another piece of leather rope formed into a loop. Understanding dawned on me. ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ I said to myself. Other than the three of us there was nobody within sight, and from that vantage point I could see quite a lot. ‘Well, I’ve come this far, so here it goes,’ I concluded. The monk at the top lowered the loop of leather down to me. I slung it over my head and fastened it around my waste. I let go of the “harness” and then grabbed the other piece of leather with both hands in a white-knuckled grip. It was thicker than a regular rope would be. I couldn’t fully close my fingers around it when I tried to grip it. Also, it was disturbingly oily, and had a pungent smell to it of whatever animal it had come from. I noticed all of this and decided to press forward, fearing that if I hesitated too long I might change my mind.

I began scaling the wall slowly and carefully, walking each foot up with baby steps before reaching for more rope with my hands. The monk at the top assisted me by pulling at the rope I was wearing as a harness. I tried to encourage myself by imagining how the monastery was built. If workers could somehow hoist themselves and all the materials up the cliff reliably enough to build an entire structure up there, then surely I could climb the wall too. Despite my efforts to talk myself up it was a nerve wracking experience, but after a few tense minutes I made it to the top without issue. The nook that I had reached was just below the top, and although I couldn’t see it from the bottom I noticed right away that the trail continued around the side of the mountain at a gradual slope like one long switchback. Another thing that I noticed immediately, which couldn’t be seen from the bottom, was a man holding an AK-47 assault rifle standing just behind the monk that had been hidden from view.


Entrance to Monastery With Man Climbing for Scale

To be continued…



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Motivation Takes Many Forms: Part 3

What Simen Says

As Simen and I made our way out of the village, I took a good look around. Out of all the mud huts, his aunt’s was far from the finest on the block. The fanciest among them had holes punched in the walls of about the thickness of a broomstick. They looked a little like a pancake that’s ready to flip. I asked Simen about the holes and he said it is purely for decoration, to make the houses stand out from their neighbor’s. Between the hole-riddled houses and facial tattoos, I was beginning to think that there might be a slight difference in taste between the locals and myself. When we reached the main road we had some time to kill while waiting for our rickshaw to arrive. To kill time I showed Simen a defense against straight punches from Krav Maga up on a little elevated mound of dirt by the roadside. We started striking at each other playfully to practice our blocking technique. A few onlookers in the small village watched us with amusement as they passed by. When the Bajaj finally arrived we piled in and were immediately peppered with questions from Richard. He was curious to know how it went, what kind of meal we had eaten, etc. We made our way from the outskirts of town back to my hotel.

As we neared the hotel Simen turned to me. “It looks like this is it. Enjoy your last night in Lalibela,” said Simen with a tinge of sadness. “I really don’t have anything planned…” I responded. He cut in, “You said that for you it is not good to drink too much coffee late in the day. You drank my aunt’s coffee anyway, so much,” I thought it over. “I didn’t want to be rude and refuse the coffee, but yeah it will be hard to go to sleep early tonight. I was planning to get up very early and see the churches in the morning before I go to the airport. I wanted to be the first tourist there. I don’t think that is going to happen now,” I said, with a little disappointment. “They say that if you have too much coffee that you can fix it by drinking honey wine. Have you tried the honey wine here?” he asked. “No, what is that?” I answered naively. “It is a kind of wine made with honey. They make it the best here in all of Ethiopia. Even the name Lalibela means ‘honey eater’. Now is season to harvest honey, so the time is perfect. Let us go to the bar tonight so you can try,” said Simen with the beginning of that mischievous grin beginning to form on his face. He talked with Richard who redirected the Bajaj to Lalibela’s one and only downtown street. When we arrived at the bar it was still a little too early, so we roamed around searching for an opening at one of the city’s strangely prevalent pool halls. We played a few games and were pretty evenly matched. We weren’t the only ones in there, but no one gave me second glance. It was nice to blend in and not have to feel like an outsider for once.

After we finished playing we took the long way through town and walked back to the bar. When we got there we ordered flasks of the wine sweet, yellow-tinted wine. Simen showed me how to hold the oddly shaped, vase-like bottle the way the locals do. I knew he must really trust me when we started talking about girls. At his age I would imagine that would be a subject he’d try to avoid unless he knew someone well and considered them a good friend. I tried to give him some brotherly relationship advice, and couldn’t resist the urge to make sure he knew about safe sex. I told him that several of the hotels I had stayed at in Ethiopia had condoms in the top drawer that they give out for free, but that I had checked the expiration date and some of them were expired. I was relieved that he was willing to open up about such sensitive subjects. After all the time we had spent together over the previous days I had grown to really like Simen. I thought that bringing those things up could help him in the long run, especially without the guidance of his family and hometown friends. As the night wore on a troupe of professional dancers and performers showed up on the scene. They started playing traditional music on stringed box shaped instruments that I had never seen before. The dancers kept pulling people from the audience to do a popular local folk dance with them, which involved a lot of terse shoulder shrugging and made the dancers look a little like chickens. I eventually took a turn dancing in the middle, which somehow impressed Simen even though I was convinced I was making a fool of myself.

As things were winding down, Simen confessed something personal, “I am in school to be a tour guide, but that is not all I want to do. One day I will be a lawyer. In my country the politics is very dangerous. I have an uncle, he worked in local government. He didn’t want to be part of the corruption anymore, so they killed him. He died because of corruption. This is why I have to do it. If I can stop just one wrong thing like this from happening, even just one small thing, then I will be happy. I will finish school and work as a tour guide. I will work very hard, and some day when I have the money I will go to Addis Ababa to study the law. It will be very difficult because what I will do takes a lot of money and right now I don’t have any. I don’t care, because one day I will do it no matter what.” Simen had a look on his face like he had never told anyone before. He looked determined, with a resolve that I could tell went beyond just dreaming about it. I did my best to validate him. Simen may be young, but he is not too young to find success. His experiences had already made him mature beyond his years. He had picked a good person to confide in, because I truly believe in him.

“Here, I want you to have this,” he held out his hand and in it was a small wooden cross carved inexpertly from a piece of  wood, with a black string looped around it. The wood looked as though it had been boiled in oil to add color to the finish. It was graced with the type of beauty that only comes with simplicity. “This is from my aunt. She made it herself. It will bring you luck,” he said as helped me tie it around my neck. “Thank you.” I said, stunned. Another selfless act from a woman with scant few material possessions.  It was a truly precious gift.

That night I lay in bed and stared up at the hotel ceiling. What was my own motivation? What driving force compelled me to travel halfway around the world and seek out these kind of experiences? No American I’ve ever met, including myself, has had to sacrifice so much just to get a basic education. Coming from a background of privilege, did I have the same degree of motivation as this seventeen year old? Am I as compelled to leave the world a better place for future generations? I couldn’t get these thoughts out of my head. Simen was much younger than me. He was about the same age as the students I intend to teach. He has a lot of catching up to do to reach my own level of schooling let alone pass something like the bar exam, and was never given access to the types of resources that had allowed me to take full advantage of my own education beginning in early childhood. It seems like these circumstances have only strengthened his determination and amplified his willpower. The two of us are walking different paths, but they are parallel in many ways. Simen may never become a teacher, but he has already taught me more than he knows.


Beautiful Cross Given to Me By Simon, Made by His Aunt

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Motivation Takes Many Forms: Part 2

A Higher Calling

As it so happens, Simen’s aunt lives practically around the corner from the school. We dropped in, and yet again I got the feeling that they weren’t expecting us. It didn’t seem to matter much as Simen’s aunt stopped what she was doing the moment we arrived and came over to give each of us a big hug. She was fairly short and slender, with a white shawl across her slightly hunched shoulders, and a tan countenance creased with wrinkles. As she approached us I could see kindness written all over her face. She had a maternal air about her, like a doting grandmother. She greeted me with a smile, but had many more words with Simen in Amharic, who she was excited to see. Simen turned to me, obviously pleased to be there. He simply said, “Come in.”

The building she lives in is shaped like the letter L, so that where we were standing formed a bit of a courtyard. Simen ushered me through the door, and the first thing I noticed was that the building seemed lower than a regular one story house. Her room was at the elbow of the L‘s longer side. It was a little smaller than the dimensions that I’d imagine a prison cell to have. As soon as I hunched over and stepped through the doorway I took a quick look around. To my right was a long row of hay bales covered with blankets. The floor had straw strewn about to cover the earth underneath where a floor would be. To the left was a shorter row of hay bales and a second doorway with no door attached. It led straight into a pool hall. There was one small light bulb in that doorway meant to illuminate both the pool hall and the room. There were several people in the other room drinking and playing pool, with music loud enough to spread through the whole mud structure. “Take a seat,” said Simen. I tried to sit on the edge of one of the beds that doubled as a bench, but the surface was so uneven and lumpy that it eventually started hurting my back just to sit on it. “Is it okay to sit on the floor and use this as a backrest?” I asked, hoping the question wasn’t in any way offensive. “Yes. It is fine,” was his reply.

While we waited for the coffee, which was being prepared in a small shed along the small side of the L shape, I began looking around to see if I could observe any additional details that would give me insight into the lifestyle or personality of Simen’s aunt. The only decorations adorning the tight quarters were a couple of small, brightly decorated baskets placed in the wall’s upper corners positioned like those convex mirrors inside of convenience stores. I pointed them out to Simen who immediately sprung to his feet and retrieved one of the baskets. Upon closer inspection it wasn’t hand woven with artisanal craftsmanship like the ones in the market. It was little more than a flimsy bowl-shaped piece of plastic with yarn woven in and out of the cheaply molded material. Simen, who simultaneously observed the same thing, didn’t seem to be disappointed by the lack of craftsmanship or embarrassed as I worried he might be. He said, “If you like it you can pay to her whatever you like and keep it for your own room. It is not very fancy. If you want it she can make another very easy.” I didn’t want Simen to think that I would empty my wallet at the slightest provocation, but then again he hadn’t asked for some exorbitant sum either, and I didn’t think Simen was motivated by money or I wouldn’t have spent so much time with him already. I had half expected that every basket in the village would be woven as finely as the ones sold to tourists at the market, but the reality was that while the basket in her house would never be seen on the walls of a craft stall, it was realistically the only type available and was being offered to me as a gift for whatever price I chose to name.

At that moment Simen’s aunt entered along with another relative who looked to be somewhere between his aunt’s advanced age and our own. With them was another helper, a neighbor who was there to assist with the coffee ceremony and partake in it with us. I was starting to get the sense that the ceremony had the latent function of bringing together members of the community to volunteer a small bit of their own labor free of charge and also share in ceremonies to which they are invited. It was a social event and ritualized custom that I had the privilege of being invited to, not just some gimmick to draw in tourists like the ones I’d seen at some hotels and restaurants. I was a little jealous that they had such a rich cultural tradition. At home in the U.S. I don’t even know my neighbors at all. I’d gladly build them a fire from time to time and make coffee from scratch if it meant getting to know them a little better, but as it stands at the moment I can hardly even see their houses over my landlord’s tall wooden fence.


Coffee Ceremony Set-Up

“Salaamne,” I said to this new relative of Simen’s that entered the room. I didn’t have enough Amharic down to properly greet her beyond that, but something about her presence intrigued me. I wanted to greet her partly so that I could take a good look at her. Her features were clear as she stood in the portal, the only one in the room under the glow of the evening sun. What captured my attention was what looked like henna on first glance on the lower half of her face. When I got a closer look I realized that it was actually a permanent facial tattoo. This was a new one for me. I hadn’t come to Ethiopia to gawk at tribal people like I was visiting an open air zoo, and so had completely avoided the Oromo tribes of the south whose ornate piercings had given them more space in National Geographic magazines than they had in their own country under the rule of the racially biased Amharic central government. I had never seen anything like this in the north. The design was simple, with solid black lines in bold outlining her jaw and jutting out under her chin. So much about it was a mystery to me. I had to find a way to engage her in conversation so I could give her my full attention.


Coffee being prepared in the small shed. The coffee beans shown here are not yet roasted

“Simen, is it considered rude to ask a woman her age here?” I asked inquired. “What do you mean, rude?” he replied. “Well, for example, in America it is sometimes rude to eat with your hands, but here no. In Ethiopia it is rude to use your left hand to touch people, hand them things, or shake hands, but in America that’s not rude. Do you understand?” I asked, hoping he would get the picture. “Yes, I understand. No, it is not rude. You can ask this,” he said.  I responded, “Well then can you ask that woman how old she is? I’m just curious.” Simen posed the question to her. She smiled, and answered him. “She is 31,” he said, turning to face me. I was shocked. If I had to guess I would’ve assumed she was around 40. A life of manual labor must really take its toll, even more than I realized. The Ethiopian life expectancy of an average of 63 years was suddenly starting to make sense. It was as if people were aging more rapidly. Once I started looking at us as peers that put things in a whole new perspective. We were almost the same age. In a different world we would’ve almost been close enough in age to be married. I tried to imagine what life would be like under those circumstances, but it was impossible to fathom. “Simen, how old is your aunt?” was my next question. “She is around 50,” he replied. Again, I was shocked. If I had to guess I would have assumed her to be in her 70’s.


The Neighbor of Simen’s Aunt Preparing Coffee

With the coffee finished roasting my musings were interrupted by a steaming hot teacup of fresh coffee being passed my way. I accepted it with my right hand, and smiled at the family’s young neighbor who served it shyly as she squatted by the fire in silence. I would’ve guessed that she was a little younger than me, but after my other guesses I suddenly wasn’t so sure. I didn’t want to ask about this other woman because I didn’t want it to be taken the wrong way. After a minute of sipping our coffee contently, Simen’s aunt said a few words to him that I could tell pertained to me in some way. She smiled her kind smile at me again. “Would you like to stay for dinner?” Simen asked me. I was a little relieved because I assumed that if she was willing to offer that meant I must be doing something right. I had been worried that my silent inability to communicate might be perceived as rude. “That would be great.” I said enthusiastically.

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As Fresh as It Gets

Simen’s aunt began the process of cooking, and I took advantage of the opportunity to question Simen further. “Why does she have tattoos on her face? What does it mean?” I asked tentatively. “They are for decoration. It is a tradition here in the farm villages. They don’t do it so much in the city,” he answered matter-of-factly. “How are they made?”I wondered aloud. “They are homemade. They use a needle and ink. I don’t know too much about it because it is only for women. Makes them more attractive when they are old enough to marry,” he said. “Does anyone in your family have them?” I asked. “Yes, both of my sisters do,” he replied. “Did you see them get it?” I asked. “My sisters are older, but I remember the younger one getting hers when I was very young. She was also young. I remember her screaming and crying. It look very painful,” I shuddered at the thought. Simen’s aunt began serving the food. As we ate another older woman came by to share the meal with us. I couldn’t tell if she was friend, relative, neighbor, or some combination of the 3. She, too, smiled at me with a broad welcoming smile. It was comforting to see so much friendliness in such an unfamiliar environment. In the middle of eating, however, she pulled out her breast and began breastfeeding an infant. Occasionally she would put the baby down and let her breast hang there exposed. It was a little unnerving. Not that there was anything wrong with it, I just wasn’t used to that kind of behavior. As soon as I began to feel comfortable and attain a sense of belonging, I got a jolting reminder that I was in a land as foreign to me as it could be familiar.

After our vigorous day hike and the martial arts workout of the night before, even the Scottish cheeseburger I had for lunch wasn’t enough to quench the fire of my metabolism. I couldn’t help but to dig into the bean dish zealously. Sensing my ravenous appetite, Simen’s aunt provided me with another piece of injera. I accepted it graciously, but halfway through my assault on the dish I realized that nobody else was taking extra portions of injera. In all of the restaurants I had eaten at they provided more injera than I could eat. It seemed like an attempt to ensure satisfaction, like when American restaurants provide free bread, except with a more nutritious substitute. Because of this I had become accustomed to making many more small sandwiches than I noticed the others making. Once I noticed this I started to slow down. Despite my hesitation, Simen’s aunt piled another rolled up portion of injera onto my plate. Then she gave me seconds of the bean dish. Before I knew it, I went from completely starving to not even sure I could finish the food. It seemed like she had loaded my plate with double the portion of anyone else. After polishing it off, I tactfully left a little food on my plate to signify that I was both satisfied and not in need of more. I thanked her profusely to the best of my abilities with the language barrier. It was starting to seem like we didn’t need a common language to communicate after all. Her eyes said it all. Here was a woman who had practically no material possessions and clearly lived from hand to mouth her whole life. I’m not even sure if she had been able to afford the coffee and dinner or if some of the other people in the room had helped out. She expected nothing in return. What’s more, she seemed genuinely happy. There was something that compelled her that I couldn’t fully understand. I sensed it in the room. It was almost tangible, as we all came together in that moment. It was something powerful, and whatever it is I’ll never forget it.


From Right to Left- Simen’s Aunt, Me (David), Unspecified Friend or Relative, Simen’s Neighbor, Woman with Facial Tattoos

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Motivation Takes Many Forms: Part 1

Self Imposed Exile

Simen didn’t particularly like trails. What he did like, I discovered, was springing things on me. With the high noon sun threatening to cook us as thoroughly as the treeless, sunbaked landscape all around us, Simen made an impatient dash downhill by the most direct route possible that wouldn’t involve any tumbling. This latest curveball of Simen’s manifested in softball sized rocks rolling past as we dislodged them from the sandy hillside. There was never a dull moment.


The View on the Way Down


Ahead of us, at the base of the mountain, we could see a patchwork quilt of small farms where villagers were hard at work threshing barley in the field. They have a curious habit of using any available animals for this particular job. Because of this the small farms resembled petting zoos put to work. Groups of horses, ponies, mules, donkeys, ox, and horses all worked together in unison to trample mounds of grain by walking a small circle and stomping as they went in order to separate the grain from the seeds. We made our way eagerly towards this scene, trekking through the parched, barren mountainside like we were attempting to walk into a beautiful landscape painting. We continued to delve into conversation as before, but the tempo was a little more muted as hunger and fatigue took root.


Threshing Grain


By the time we reached the city we were famished. Craving something familiar, I decided to treat Simen to what my guidebook hailed as the best cuisine in town. The restaurant is called Ben Abeba, meaning hill of flowers in a combination of Amharic and the Scottish dialect. It’s set inside an oddly shaped conical structure at the top of a small ridge overlooking the city. Ben Abeba is run by a Scottish woman, and mostly serves western style cuisine. I’m ashamed to admit, but even though I sought to understand the local culture to the best of my ability it wasn’t my first time heading there for a cheeseburger.

Lalibela, Ethiopia

Ben Ababa

Ben Abeba

The first time I climbed the restaurant’s asymmetrical spires, which are meant to resemble the shape of a mountain but look more like a wizard’s hat, was with the two New Zealanders from my tour group. The Scottish woman in charge came right over to our table, but she hadn’t wanted much to do with me. As an American I couldn’t tell a shepherd’s pie from a dora wat and she knew it. What brought her over were my New Zealand friends whom she honed in on as keenly as a Bajaj spotting faranji pedestrians. The Scottish woman had much more in common with the New Zealanders, starting with the quasi British accents.

The kiwis

The Kiwis

To my surprise, as she approached I saw that the owner is an older woman. Her face was reddened by the bright sun beating down on the many levels of her creation, but her eyes were bright and full of life. She chatted with the kiwis with the fervor of a castaway arriving to their homeland. The main topic was how and why she had chosen such an unconventional lifestyle. “Well, it was gettin’ towards retirement time and I knew that my pension was coming my way. All I had to do was figure out what to do with it. I thought to myself, ‘well this is it. I’d better take up watchin’ daytime television. Maybe I could start playin’ bridge or bingo, or else just lay about on the couch.’ I ne’er wanted that kinda life, and I dunno why retirement should be any different. So I come down here to do some volunteer work, and then I get this incredible opportunity. Between retirin’ in Scotland and startin’ this business, it was hardly a choice at all,” she said. At the time I had been impressed, despite the fact that as an American I wasn’t really included in this little reunion of kinship. I reflected on that exchange as Simen and I slogged on and made our way into town. We walked with renewed vigor. The thought of cheeseburgers propelled us as effectively as a carrot dangling from a stick. It wasn’t until I started talking with Simen about the restaurant that I began to question the notions of my first impression.

“I don’t know if that Scottish lady is a good woman,” said Simen. He added, “I have heard many things about how she treats her workers. I think that she is not fair with them. I have even heard this from one of the cooks.” I was taken aback. I couldn’t imagine how someone could go to such great lengths to open a business in a developing country without the welfare of its work force in mind. Then I thought back to another statement she had made, which had stuck with me. The New Zealanders had wanted to know how often Susan, the owner, makes it back to Scotland, and when the last time was. She had responded, “Well, I’ve finally reached the point where I’m comfortable going back and don’t expect things to fall apart the moment I turn around. I asked my crew before I left, ‘so who’s going to yell at you now to keep you all in line once I’ve gone away?’ I said, ‘if it helps keep everyone motivated I can Skype from time to time and yell for a bit, or maybe you can take turns yellin’ at each other until I get back.’ ” At the time I dismissed it as a joke, but looking back there was something about the exchange that irked me. From what I could tell, Ethiopians are generally more soft spoken than what I’m used to, which may reflect a cultural difference. Many times during my trip I would walk down the street and realize that there was a noticeable difference in volume from what I would expect. There was rarely shouting or loud conversation in the streets, and no honking whatsoever despite the hectic traffic conditions. While people tend to be friendly, they were also reserved in that sense. I couldn’t imagine how the locals would react to being yelled at by their boss, and found it equally difficult to imagine a local Ethiopian business owner treating his or her workers the way Susan was. Despite his doubts, Simen couldn’t pass up the rare opportunity to try some of the food in a restaurant that would otherwise be unaffordable.

Once we finally arrived, we got to relax on the top deck of the avant-garde cone building and sipped a popular local drink; avocado smoothie with papaya. It was sublime. We kicked up our feet and watched with amusement as birds skimmed past at eye level, sailing like kites in the wind. I would need the time to recuperate if I was to keep pace with a 17 year old brimming with energy. Simen and I reminisced about the Taekwondo class from the night before over lunch. I thought back to how desperate the club had been for resources. I wanted to do something to make good on my promise to help out in any way I could. I asked Simen if it would be possible to meet with the head instructor that afternoon, so that I could make a small donation while still in the area. He said he’d see what he could do to arrange it.

After we finished our burgers I started wondering what had become of our scones. They weren’t on the menu, but I had learned from observing the New Zealanders that they could be ordered direct from the owner. I had requested them as soon as we walked in, but they still hadn’t arrived. I went down the spiral staircase to speak with the Susan, and she let me know she would track them down for me. As I walked back up to our seats I could see her angrily burst into the kitchen, shouting almost before she knew who she was shouting at. While I had wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, it seems that Simen may have been right. Escape is a dubious motivation.

Finding Community

After an extraordinarily unusual lunch on the wizard hat, we hailed a Bajaj and set off in the direction of Simen’s part of town. We were off to meet his aunt, as we had discussed earlier in the day. I was pleasantly surprised that I had already met the Bajaj driver that picked us up and knew him by name. What a small town. I asked how he was doing as I hunched over to climb in. I also asked about the driver, Richard’s, cousin with whom I had shared a ride a couple of days before. We were chugging along down the dusty road when Simen received a phone call. He abruptly asked the driver to turn around. It seemed we would be heading in the direction of the Taekwondo master after all. Another last minute change of course by Simen. This made me a little nervous, because even after participating in a full class I had hardly addressed the master directly at all. He hadn’t come across as a very approachable figure.

The venerated Taekwondo instructor was waiting for us at, of course, a cafe. If we couldn’t do an official coffee ceremony then the modern version would have to do. He rose to shake my hand, after which I immediately ordered a macchiato. The historic invasion of Ethiopia by the Italians had lasted only a handful of years, but I was grateful that they had at least left behind the legacy of macchiato to indulge in on just such occasions.


Taekwondo Master Tesfaw Baye

The master, or as they are called in Korean Sah-bum-nin goes by the name of Tesfaw Baye. This explains why I had been referring to him simply as the master. Along with my penchant for eating cheeseburgers I also have a tendency to much more readily grasp familiar names like Simen and Richard. Tesfaw is 25 years old. That was my first surprise. The master is even younger than I am. Based on his calm demeanor, which radiates wisdom and experience, I had assumed him to be my senior. I was impressed. I couldn’t help but take this opportunity not just to make my donation but also to learn as much as I could about his life and find out what makes him tick.


Tesfaw is originally from a region of Ethiopia known as Somaliland. This province is on the border of Somalia and has many cultural and religious ties with that country. It is not among the safest places to live, with intermittent armed border clashes between the two nations being a fairly common occurrence.


Somaliland in Relation to Somalia

Tesfaw graduated from university in Somaliland after 3 years with a B.S. in Applied Biology; however he was unable to find work in that region. He moved to Lalibela seeking better opportunities. When he still was unable to find work in his career field he decided it was time to open up a Taekwondo dojo. He started with about 30 students out of an even smaller and less suitable gym space than what he uses now. His dojo has since grown to somewhere between 70 and 80 students. He has been teaching in Lalibela for the past 5 years.

I did my best to determine what motivated him to go into martial arts in the first place. I asked him more than once, posing the question in several ways when I felt he was glossing over it. I couldn’t weasel many details out of him on that subject. He took up martial arts for the first time in high school starting with a Karate class. One thing he did say is that he had some trouble in high school and needed the discipline and self-defense skills of his training. Maybe he had fallen in with a bad crowd, or was an ‘at risk’ youth in some way. It’s difficult to say for sure due to his vague responses.

One subject that he certainly didn’t shy away from is the impact that Taekwondo has had on himself and his students. While I couldn’t get him to say much about what got him into martial arts in the first place, I couldn’t keep my pen moving fast enough to record his praise for the national and international Taekwondo organizations, and what he has done for his students to bring them into the wider world of the sport’s community.

He boasted proudly not of his own accomplishments, but of his Sah-bum-nin’s. The name of Tesfaw’s own master is Burakat, who is also from Somaliland. Burakat’s grandest achievement is that he was a medalist at an international competition in India. For whatever reason, the first exposure that Ethiopians had to the sport of Taekwondo is from North Korea. Due to politics, many nations including the United States only affiliate with South Korean Taekwondo associations. There is virtually no difference in style between the North and the South. One is called World Taekwondo and the other is International Taekwondo. While the South Korean version is an Olympic sport, the highest level of competition among North Korean practitioners is limited to the international, but not Olympic level. For Tesfaw and his students the distinction has little meaning. It’s thrilling for them to compete on the national level, and the prospect of competition anywhere outside of Ethiopia is exhilarating enough without bringing the Olympics into the picture.

Tesfaw recalls with pride that his gym received silver and gold last year regionally. They also recently won a gold medal on the federal level, and even traveled to Addis Ababa to participate in the Pan Africa Championship. He said that due to his dojo’s association with the larger North Korean organization, one time every year there is the opportunity to meet with masters from Canada, the United Kingdom, and other international locations who come to Addis Ababa to exchange knowledge and techniques.

Tesfaw, who is ordinarily stone faced and tough, becomes animated with enthusiasm as he describes the workings of his network. When I first entered his dojo and formed my impressions of his club, I thought of it as an isolated pocket of talent that must stem from a particularly gifted master who could only have been trained in another location before bringing his knowledge to Lalibela. I pictured it as if his academy was one of the withered trees standing alone on the sun scorched earth in the desert that surrounded us, drawing as much sustenance as it could from a single wellspring. Now I see that his desert outpost shares a network of roots that extends throughout Africa, and even branches out into foreign lands. I don’t know what Tesfaw was searching for when he first began practicing martial arts on the streets of Somaliland, but if it was community, he found it.


I bade farewell to Master Tesfaw and was pleased to see that Richard was still in the parking lot waiting for us, his blue-white Bajaj idling expectantly. Together the 3 of us left the city center and began a slow ascent into what would normally be called the suburbs, just outside of town. As we passed a particularly large, fenced off parcel of land Simen gestured with his hand out the door-frame. “This is the place where master had his first dojo in Lalibela. Want to see?” he asked. Richard got the hint and began slowing down. “Also this is where I went to school. Come, I will show you,” he added. The rickshaw came to a stop on a grassy shoulder and we stepped out onto the side of the road. As we approached the gate I became apprehensive. The last thing I wanted was to be the arrogant faranji that drops in unexpectedly and disrupts the whole school. I imagined that all of the classes would grind to a sudden halt as students swiveled their heads around and stared at me out of every window. Worse yet, I could imagine a mob of them following at my heels during recess. Despite my misgivings the students were much more respectful than I anticipated; I’ll give them credit for that.


The Classroom Where Tesfaw Began Teaching in Lalibela


As soon as we walked through the gate I insisted on going to the school’s office to get permission to enter. Once I explained our objective, the headmaster was happy to let me roam free. I didn’t get so much as a “helloo!” from the kids like I normally would from just going down the street. These were very studious children. When Simen brought me to the room where Tesfaw had begun teaching I could hardly believe it. Being a martial arts instructor myself, I can appreciate the difficulties of working in such a confined space and the teaching talent necessary to overcome it. Eager to get out of the way before any kind of impending catastrophe between me and a hoard of students could actually come to pass, we saw ourselves out as quickly as we’d entered. “Wow,” I said. “Just wow.”

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Simen’s Story

This is Simen

This is Simen

By the second day in Lalibela, my manic dash to visit every major historic site that the city had to offer was complete. With such limited time remaining and the creeping sensation that I might never see anything like Lalibela again in my lifetime, I was loathe to even pause for breath. As soon as the tour was over I began pestering the guide to find out what other excursions I could squeeze into my time there.

Simen, after the previous night’s unexpected adventures, was sympathetic to my cause. Being the only student in his Taekwondo class who is going into the tourism industry, and thus the student with the best English language skills, he had been by my side the whole night translating my every word. With such a tremendous difference between the English and Amharic language, if it hadn’t been for Simen I might as well have been an orangutan up there trying to communicate with them because there’s no way they’d understand anything. I’d imagine there was a certain amount of prestige in it for Simen. Making a public appearance with a faranji, the local word for foreigner, was a spectacle that couldn’t have been bad for his social standing. Maybe he felt like he owed me something, or maybe that’s my own faranji cynicism and he was simply making a kind gesture. Whatever the reason, when Simen overheard me asking the guide about what was left to do in the small town after checking every box on my bucket list of holy sites, he quickly jumped in with his own input.

The tour group. Me, Simen, and our New Zealand friends

The tour group. Me, Simen, and our New Zealand friends

Simen pulled me aside and asked if I would like to go for a hike with him early the next morning. He said he knew of a monastery high up in the mountains that’s accessible from the city but would take the better part of a day to reach. I readily agreed. I knew that he was being generous, and that any other guide would charge a lot of money for such a trip.

Bound by a determination to see the most distinguished historic sites in Ethiopia, up until then I had been religiously adhering to the guidebook’s recommendations. I was travelling along a proverbial tourist superhighway of the country’s most trafficked northern cities. I leapt at the opportunity to venture off the beaten path straight into the mountainous wilderness I had been staring at longingly through the windows of buses for weeks.

The next morning I awoke before dawn with a smile on my face. Somehow Simen had managed to get up even earlier and traveled to meet me in the lobby of my hotel. We shared a hearty cup of black espresso and broke bread just as the sun began to peek over the mountaintops. Within minutes we were on our feet and ready to go. We wound our way upwards through the city’s narrow streets and alleys with the strength of Ethiopian coffee, half winded as we haltingly exchanged formalities, pausing occasionally to suck in breaths of the thin mountain air. Before we even began our ascent we were already at an elevation of 8,600 feet within the city limits. As we climbed the hilly streets, a group of young students in their uniforms passed us on their way to school. Some of them called out my name as we passed. They shouted out greetings in English and Amharic, “Salaamne, David. Are you fine?” They must have recognized me from the Taekwondo class the night before. I was thrilled.

Keeping a militant pace, we marched right out of the city and into the surrounding foothills. We didn’t so much as pause to catch our breath until we had climbed so high that we’d already reached a cliff’s edge  commanding views of the city below. Simen pointed out the schoolhouse where our class was held the night before, which was already surprisingly far off in the distance. From where we stood it looked about as small as the hawks flying high overhead. He also tried to show me his house, but each one was indistinguishable from the next and he eventually gave up. A soon as we caught our breath we soldiered on, but his comments from moments before had piqued my curiosity. Who did Simen live with? Did he live with his family, roommates, or alone? What about siblings? Feeling much more alert with the morning sun shining on my back, I began to warm up both literally and conversationally.

Lalibela from afar

Lalibela from afar

I asked Simen all of those questions and more. As new vistas unfolded the higher we trekked, so too did the story of Simen’s short 17 year old life unfurl as I plied him with questions. I learned that Simen was born and raised on his family’s farm about 50 miles outside of town. To be clear, the whole region is desert, semi-desert, or tundra higher up. Sagebrush and cacti dot the landscape as well as groves of Eucalyptus trees, a non-native species that was imported by Europeans centuries ago. While the region is mountainous, it isn’t as green as one might imagine mountains to be. In fact, we weren’t too many miles from South Sudan to the north or Somalia to the east. It surely isn’t an easy place to be a farmer. Simen told me that he’s the youngest of 4 siblings. He has two older sisters and a brother closer in age.

Once I got him talking, the story of his journey to find a new life in Lalibela moved faster than the landscape. Simen started working on the family farm when he was just 7 years old. At that time he would help out any way he could with small tasks and chores. As he got older and took on more responsibility, Simen and his older brother hatched a plot to break free of the backbreaking labor of the farm life. They couldn’t wait to leave it all behind. Their ambition was to continue their education and pursue it to the best of their abilities, which could only mean moving to Lalibela. Although to me, having grown up in New York, Lalibela is a tiny city that is really little more than a large town. For Simen and his brother, coming from the most rural of country backgrounds, Lalibela was as big a city as they had ever known. Relocating there was an intimidating prospect for them.

Simen recalled how it all went down. His parents weren’t completely thrilled at the idea of their sons leaving. They could have used the extra hands on the farm, but there was also hope that the boys would send money back for them so they weren’t completely against the move either. The fact that Simen and his brother couldn’t afford transportation to the city on their own was their first hurdle. His family’s farm is approximately the same distance from the city as the free shuttle my hotel had provided for me from the airport when I had first arrived there. That thought put things in perspective for me. As I imagined them stranded on the farm I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty.

After some time Simen and his brother were able to convince a local acquaintance with a vehicle to let them hitch a ride with him free of charge. Simen’s parents wanted to help their sons out, but they didn’t have any money to give them. Instead they gave their boys a bundle of tef to sell at the market. Tef is a type of grain found only in Ethiopia. It is used to make injera which is a spongy flat-bread found in practically every meal and used as a sort of substitute for utensils. People place the thin round injera over the top of the plate, covering it. The custom is to tear off small pieces of injera and scoop up bite sized portions of the food with their hands to make little sandwiches. Injera is filling, delicious, and extremely nutritious. It’s especially high in protein and iron. Simen and his brother bravely ventured out on their own with little more than a bundle of tef to their name. Somehow in their naive excitement they left the tef in the car after they were dropped off and it was lost to them.

As we trekked ever higher into the mountains Simen did his best to describe what life was like for him in such a new and unfamiliar environment. Needless to say losing their tef was a major setback. That was all they had brought to support themselves until they could establish some independence. Despite the loss, the country boys resolved not to give up their dream. When they first arrived they were out on the streets, strangers, nearly penniless. Since Simen’s brother was older and physically larger he was able to find work as a porter doing manual labor. Simen had no choice but to go into the shoe shining business. Eventually he earned enough money, one coin at a time, to afford his own shoeshine box. The two brothers have been steadily progressing ever since.

At times Simen didn’t have enough money to pay his school dues.  He was a diligent student and always maintained good grades, so when times were tough he was able to plead with the headmaster to make allowances for him. Simen also told me that he is grateful for the help of his aunt, his only relative in Lalibela. She is an elderly nun who lives in a spare room that her landlord charitably rents her at a discount. Simen used to occasionally pitch in to help her pay the rent when he could. I asked how much and he told me it’s about 320 birr a month, which equals about $15. When he stayed with her the two of them had to share the tight quarters which were barely adequate for one person alone. His bed was a few bales of hay lined up in a row covered by a blanket. Sometimes, when he was lucky and his aunt could afford it, she would also provide him with meals.

Now that the hard times are behind him, Simen shares a room with his brother at their own place. While they still have a long way to go to accomplish their dreams, Simen is optimistic that things will continue getting easier. I asked Simen how often he visits his parents and sisters on the farm, but he admitted that he doesn’t make the trip too often. Judging from Simen’s tone, he seems to resent them. He complained that his parents didn’t support him financially when he needed them, yet that didn’t stop them from pressuring him to take care of them. He also resents the fact that with their traditional, chauvinistic values his parents refused to allow his sisters to receive a formal education because they are female.

I knew we were nearing the top of our climb when I could see birds soaring below us instead of above. My legs burned with each of the final stone steps as my lungs labored to pull in the crisp morning air and absorb what little oxygen was available with each breath. Having already seen a myriad of monasteries over the course of my journey, I was expecting the hike to be more of a highlight than the destination itself. When we finally reached the monastery perched high above the city, it took my breath away like no hike ever could. Not only was the aesthetic of it astonishing, but it didn’t seem humanly possible. How could a civilization with such rudimentary technology ever construct such a thing in the remotest of places over such inhospitable terrain?


Mountains Surrounding Lalibela

Like the churches far below us, this monastery was carved much the same. The structure was chiseled from a single titanic boulder like the masterpiece of a gigantic sculptor. It was rendered from the earth itself, painstakingly excavated and crafted with a stubborn determination that must have consumed the life force of countless laborers. The monolithic structure is fused by all points to the ground below. While this particular monastery is significantly smaller than the main attractions of Lalibela and simpler in design, it is difficult to fathom how and why it is set in such a location.

Other than a few devout monks inhabiting the area, Simen and I had the place all to ourselves. We were greeted at the summit not only by the main attraction, but also by 360 degree views of mostly uninhabited wilderness all around us. Lalibela was but a colorful speck in the distance, as brilliant as a single point in a night’s sky filled with exotic constellations, as orienting as the Southern Cross. After soaking it all in for a long while I was ready to head back. Just as I started to turn around, Simen asked, “Would you like to continue to another monastery?” with a mischievous grin on his face. ‘What? Are you serious?’ I thought. “It’s only another half hour or so from here” he chimed in. If you have been following my other journal entries, then you would know that Simen loves springing these kinds of things on me. “Of course I would,” I replied with all the enthusiasm I could muster. After the previous night’s sparring match with a Taekwondo black belt I was more tired than I’d like to admit.

Just as I thought we had reached the zenith of our day we climbed even higher, seemingly seeking out the roof of Lalibela. As I struggled to follow at Simen’s heels, he suddenly veered off the trail and began to scramble upwards with his hands and feet, dodging cacti and loose rocks as he went. I had little choice but to follow him, although leaving the narrow trail made me a little uneasy. Towards the end we were trekking at such a steep pitch that we were practically bouldering, but without a safety net. I tried not to look down. At one point we reached a ridge so steep that someone had constructed a makeshift ladder to climb it. It was just a few flimsy branches of eucalyptus nailed together in a crisscross pattern. I let Simen go first.


This Eucalyptus Ladder Was Far From the Sketchiest Part of the Climb

Just when it seemed the view couldn’t get any better, we reached the top. The real top this time. Every other mountain in view was now beneath us. We had arrived at a wide plateau of a mountaintop as flat as a table. Somehow, compared to the rocky outcropping we had scaled or even the solid ground beneath that, this mesa was as lush as a spring meadow. It was almost surreal, like we had entered an enchanted forest. There was shin high grass blowing in a gentle breeze. Even though it was the dry season, all of the shrubs were flowering. They were dotted with yellow blossoms like out of some kind of fairy tale. At the far end of the meadow was a still more improbable monastery. This one was at least built of wood and metal or I would have been pinching myself.


Unexpectedly Verdant Mountaintop Fields


Mountains Below Us

As we approached we were greeted by a solitary nun who seemed uncharacteristically happy to see us. Simen and the nun began speaking in Amharic, which was incomprehensible to me. After a moment Simen grinned as he turned to face me. “She says that other than one tourist on Christmas you are the only faranji that has been here in many months. In a very long time,” he said proudly. Lalibela is famous for their Christmas celebration, and annually hosts up to 50,000 people each year at Christmastime. Taking that into account I felt that the nun’s statement was really saying something. What we had done that day was unforgettable for me, yet surprisingly it was even meaningful for the locals.


View From the Top

I asked the nun if she wouldn’t mind posing for a few photos, to which she graciously obliged but not before covering her entire body in a shawl. Simen reminded me that the nuns here lived a spartan lifestyle. They survived on meager rations and the kindness of others. The woman I was speaking with most likely stayed up there on the isolated mountaintop to maintain the monastery. She didn’t ask for anything, but I pulled out my wallet anyway and gave her a tip for being willing to pose for photos. “You have done a great thing,” was Simen’s response as we walked away. I felt that I was gaining his confidence. We began our descent in high spirits. It was a lot to accomplish in a day before lunch time. As we began our descent he said, “Would you like to visit my auntie?”


A Modest Nun

To be continued…

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Common Ground on the Mats

To pick up where my last story left off; I was wandering the dusty, time resistant passages of what I’d come to accept as the eighth wonder of the world.  As I walked I was deep in thought. I contemplated the complexities of Lalibela’s wondrous churches like a child seeing a big city skyline for the first time, trying to make sense of something larger than life. As we explored, my two travel companions from New Zealand and I clamored up centuries old steps etched in rock, scrambled over hills, passed under venerated archways and through tunnels so dark that in the middle there was no light ahead or behind.

In addition to my companions and guide, I became increasingly aware of the watchful presence of the young guide-in-training who had been shadowing our group at a respectful distance. He had a bright alertness to his gaze that seemed to indicated intelligence. He was skinny, tall, and pubescent. Both days of the tour he had dressed in the same worn out white t shirt with the seams ripping at the shoulder. I was especially conscious of the boy’s eager attentiveness as the guide began to shift the topic of conversation out of the realm of historic certainties and into mythology and his own religious lore. It was a little disappointing to hear our guide present only his own version of history as confidently as if it was common sense fact, as if he were stating something as simple and incontrovertible as declaring that Africa is a continent and not a country. In my mind the worst effect of his bias was that he was demonstrating this behavior in the presence of an impressionable young student that was hanging off his every word. One who would  lead tour groups of his own along those passages someday.

As we climbed another embankment of sun bleached steps and the group became more spread out, my sense of historical justice became so great that I couldn’t help but seize upon the opportunity to actually broach the subject with our quiet companion. I lingered at the back of the group and spoke to him as soon as we were no longer within earshot of the others. “A little feedback,” I said. “As a guide it is good to share your own beliefs, but if a subject is controversial then you might want to consider presenting alternative viewpoints and then letting your audience decide for themselves what to believe. Trust me, you’ll get better tips that way,” I advised. He was as receptive to my opinion as I could hope for.

With my crusade complete we began making small talk and moved on to other topics of conversation. I learned that his name is Simen. He is 17 and moved to Lalibela from the countryside where he was born. I was impressed with his English, which at such a young age was already superior to the guide’s. While we talked we were moving through a narrow chasm. It was at the same level as the church’s doorstep, but way below ground level. Suddenly Simen told me he told me he knew a shortcut. With an inexplicable urge to impress Simen, I rather unwisely followed him as he darted up the cliff like a mountain goat. I clambered up as quickly as I could using both hands and feet.  With some degree of satisfaction I then walked with him alongside the rest of the group who were well below us squeezing through the narrow trench we had climbed out of.

“You look strong” he said. Then he asked a pivotal question. “Do you do martial arts?” I thanked him for the compliment. “Actually, it’s funny you should ask,” I replied. “Back home I’m a martial arts instructor for a fighting style called Krav Maga,” I added, more than a little surprised that he would ask me something so specific. “Why do you ask? What do you know about martial arts?” was my follow up. I was expecting that maybe he’d seen something on TV or the internet. “I am part of a Taekwondo club at my school,” he answered, to my astonishment. He continued, “Maybe you can come to visit us. There is a class tomorrow night. It is right after our tour is finished.” And so a friendship was born.

The following day I wore my most presentable outfit on the tour. I scrounged together some loose fitting brown pants with a drawstring instead of a belt. It was the closest thing I had that resembled the type of uniform I always saw traditional martial artists wear in the movies. My ninja pants were accompanied by a fitted black wicking t shirt that I had intended to use for hiking, and black work boots from my time on a construction site earlier in the trip. I imagined my new look to project strength and show readiness for action. The dark colors were a bit sinister though, and I was a little worried that I might come across like a Cobra Kai member from the Karate Kid. When the time came Simen and I made our way to Lalibela’s one and only vocational college.

We approached the nondescript schoolhouse to the commotion of students of all ages entering and leaving. I took off my shoes at the entrance and bowed in deference as I entered the dojo. Simen secured a crucial spot for us at a rickety wooden school desk tucked away in the corner. The rest of the students had to sit on the floor, stuffed into the narrow space like uniformed sardines. The room was much too small for the fifty odd students crammed within its walls. Almost comically so, like the classic old black-and-white skit with the overstuffed clown car. If the room had a maximum capacity sign like an American school would, the group would’ve exceeded that fourfold. Luckily I’m not prone to claustrophobia, because not only was the room crowded but it was dimly lit as well and getting dimmer by the minute with the waning evening sun. Despite the inadequate quarters, the energy in the room was electric with anticipation.

The master wore no uniform, but I knew right away that he had arrived when the room suddenly fell silent. The reaction was so instantaneous that it was as if someone had pressed a mute button on the crowd.  I was awed by the level of respect and discipline that he commanded over an impossibly oversize club of widely varying ages and experience levels. I could see why he didn’t wear a uniform. He didn’t need one. His position was unmistakable. It crossed my mind that there may not be that type of uniform available in Lalibela, but that’s beside the point.

With the utterance of just a few words by him in a subdued tone, students began forming into a line and striking one by one at a target held at chest height with a flourish of round spinning kicks. Simen leaned toward me and whispered, “They are doing this for you as a demonstration.” I nodded that I understood, but couldn’t take my eyes off the action. The students hurled themselves determinedly at the hovering target. Just when I thought they were done showing off, the master began to raise the target even higher. Some of the senior students were kicking at the level of their own heads, while the elite black belts reached even above that, jumping nimbly off the ground as they spun like daring gymnasts performing acrobatic feats.

Once this was over, there was a pause in the action. Simen turned to me and said, “Now is your chance. Do you want to show something to the class?” I was startled. This was the first time that Simen had mentioned such a proposition. I wasn’t even sure if the master knew in advance that I was coming. A mental catalog of exercises and techniques flitted quickly through my head. I had only a fleeting moment to come up with some kind of demonstration that would be appropriate for such a challenging audience. More than anything I had  an overriding impulse that pushed away any anxiety. I absolutely had to take advantage of the experience, which was sure to be once in a lifetime. Like one of the black belts lurching towards his target, I resolved to seize the moment and react quickly. I nodded affirmatively to Simen, who immediately rose from his seat and began to exchange indecipherable words with the master in Amharic.

The next thing I knew I was standing in front of a fairly large group of Ethiopian youth, gesturing wildly as I attempted to orchestrate a warm up with Simen as my translator. At the time that I began teaching I didn’t have a fully formed plan in my head yet, and I needed to buy myself some time with a warm-up creative and versatile enough to hold their attention. I told everyone to pick a partner of roughly the same height and line up along the two far walls. It was some minutes, and much confusion, before even this small task could be accomplished. Then I told the people on the longer wall to have their partners get into a push up position and grab their ankles. From there I wanted them to wheelbarrow walk to the other side of the room. After they arrived there they were to pause and let their partners do some push-ups with their legs elevated before rejoining the group at the back of the line. This arrangement worked remarkably well at first, but began to deteriorate as the younger and more impatient students ignored my directive and started doing the push-ups all around the room where they pleased. This bit of anarchy disrupted the whole thing. Coming to terms with the crisis for space, I switched tactics and proceeded with stationary warm ups, such as planks performed side by side parallel to a partner. I added in my own variation. A more aggressive take on the normal plank that I’m sure they hadn’t seen before. In my Krav Maga version, as if holding a plank in the push-up position wasn’t hard enough they had to nudge and push each other to add instability while holding a plank at the same time.

With the ice-breaking warm ups (pun intended) out of the way, I began to introduce my martial arts style by way of extemporaneous speech and translator. I wasn’t sure how long I would have for this presentation. I wanted to at least communicate to my audience how the basic principles of the combat system I teach compare to Taekwondo, which is likely the only style they’ve ever known. I demonstrated several moves, and even went as far as to teach a few simple techniques to the group’s black belts while the rest of the class looked on. The students had a lot of questions for me as did the instructor. What I teach is purely for self-defense and was developed by the Israeli military. By contrast, Taekwondo is an Olympic sport with its roots in Korea. There was a lot of ground to cover. People wanted to know how to get out of this type of hold or that kind of attack. One student asked, “Using your self-defense system, how can you react if the attacker picks up a rock?” He was clearly trying to stump me. I responded, “Pick up a weapon.” I traded an irreverent question for an irreverent answer.

At one point the topic was raised as to what kind of patterns, or what I’ve heard called forms, we have in my martial art. “We don’t have any kind of forms,” I explained. “Krav Maga is modern, so there is very little ceremony or ritual. There aren’t even uniforms. The focus is on technique.” I didn’t mean for this statement to detract from the value of Taekwondo, despite the fact that the two styles have far more differences than what they have in common. In an attempt at reconciliation I added, “Taekwondo has a much longer history, and a rich tradition all its own.”

Following this statement the master asked me to have a seat with the hint of a smirk on his face. “They are going to demonstrate for you again,” said Simen. “For me this is one of the most beautiful things in Taekwondo,” he added. Since I had only ever set foot in traditional dojos on rare occasions, I had only ever heard of forms in passing. I might have caught occasional glimpses of them on TV in Kung Fu movies.  I was much more familiar with boxing rings and MMA clubs when venturing outside my own style. To me, forms seemed like nothing more than a macho, stylized attack on the air with a healthy dose of grunting and “Hiyaaas” for emphasis.

All I really knew was that forms were some kind of ritualized pattern of motion memorized by students of the East Asian styles such as Karate, Kung Fu, and Taekwondo. From my own background, I always dismissed these styles as the least useful for real world self-defense, and so I never understood why they placed so much emphasis on memorizing ostentatious patterns of movement that didn’t seem to serve any practical purpose. Even though I was admittedly a little biased against the Asian arts, I had never seen it in person, demonstrated live right in front of my face.

By this time the weak evening light outside the room’s few windows had long since faded into night. The students silently organized themselves into rows so many students deep that as my eyes scanned the room their individual features became less distinct the further back into the shadows I cast my gaze. I had to adjust to the faint fluorescence of a single yellow light bulb dangling by its wire overhead, affixed to an unpainted mud ceiling. The students weren’t exactly silhouetted, but by assembling in the artificial twilight they seemed to renounce their individuality and become part of a grander gesture of their discipline.

With such limited space, all of the students were well within arm’s reach of those around them. In fact they were practically shoulder to shoulder. By the master’s orchestration, despite every disadvantage of their makeshift dojo, the students moved in breathtaking unison. They spun and gesticulated energetically as one unit. In such close quarters, without practiced precision they would have been clobbering each other instead of striking the air. This was not the ancient ruins of hidden temples that I had become accustomed to gawking at over the past few days. It was a different type of marvel altogether, but I was blown away just the same. This display was unlike anything I had ever seen, and far more sophisticated than I had assumed the ragtag group capable of. Watching Taekwondo in the Olympics couldn’t have been more inspiring.

Eventually the form reached its conclusion and the majority of the students retreated back to the periphery of the room where they sat on the floor expectantly, practically on top of one another. Only a select few of the senior students were left standing in line, distinguished by their proud upright posture and their colored belts. Simon leaned in again and whispered, “Now they gonna fight” with palpable enthusiasm. At the master’s word they began unleashing a whirlwind of spinning kicks at their sparring partner’s heads and midsections. Even through the barrage of attacks it was clear to see that the students were exercising restraint. “What are the rules?” I asked Simen curiously. “Don’t punch to the face. Kick only to the body and head, but not the legs. Kick only with the foot, not the shin,” he told me. Considering the kind of full contact I’m used to from other combat sports these rules actually sounded quite tame. The type of attacks permitted were much more limited in scope. Nonetheless, the black belts putting on a show for us were going at it with intensity. The black belts used their aerial spinning style to aim for the head yet tempered their attacks with the discipline not to put their full force behind the kicks. Body shots were another story. I wouldn’t be a martial arts instructor if I wasn’t at least familiar with the feeling of taking a shot to the center of the chest that knocks the wind right out of you and brings you to your knees. There were no restrictions against this in their sparring session.

After sitting on the sidelines for so long, I couldn’t help myself. “Do you think I could join in?” I asked Simen tentatively. He gave me a funny look. “You want to challenge the master?” Simen seemed taken aback. “Oh no, no, no, that’s not exactly what I had in mind,” I responded quickly. The thought really hadn’t occurred to me, although if Kung Fu movies were anything to go by it could make for an interesting night. Then I remembered that I was in a country without the best medical care, and decided to restrain myself and proceed with caution. I said, “I just want to give it a whirl, that’s all.” Simen paused thoughtfully, and then posed some variation of my request to the master in Amharic. The room fell silent once again. This time the silence had a different quality. “I’ve never sparred in Taekwondo before, and I’m not familiar with these rules, so go easy on me,” I said, hoping that my plea came across as humility. I wanted to make it clear that I just wanted to have some fun and wasn’t asking for some kind of macho showdown, like ones I’ve seen all too often in seedy American gyms in this type of situation.

With that the master put what was clearly one of his best students in front of me. He was a formidable looking black belt, a little taller than me and solidly built. Earlier in my trip, while working as a volunteer on a construction project, I had challenged myself by seeking out the stone masons and spending the majority of my time on the site working with them. While some of the masons were on the skinny side and didn’t look too tough, that experience made me well aware of the nearly superhuman strength and endurance that could be packed into the frames of some of Ethiopia’s hardworking people. While I wasn’t sure of the quality of his training, I resolved not to underestimate him.

It seemed that from the moment the match began I was dodging feet right and left, whizzing past at eye level. I was unfamiliar with the range for such kicks, and while I was still sizing him up and judging the distance my opponent was already making a point of demonstrating his ability to perpetually aim kicks at my face. At first, I had no answer and could only dodge out of the way or occasionally check a kick using techniques from another form of kickboxing. Since round looping kicks like those in Taekwondo are mainly useful for competition and not recommended for self-defense for a variety of reasons, I have never even attempted half the kicks in his arsenal. Whenever I would throw a straight kick his way, which I invariably aimed at the body, he would skillfully shrink just out of reach. Clearly I was playing his game and on his home turf. Once I finally got my bearings I was able to unleash an arsenal of roundhouse kicks of my own, although still no spinning kicks because that’s literally not my style. My offensive was met by applause and even some cheering from the audience of about 50 onlookers, who occasionally had to scramble out of the way to make room for our intense bout.

As the match was drawing to a close, in my crowning move, just when my opponent had begun to expect only straight kicks from me I switched up my strategy. I feinted turning away after a botched kick in order to draw him in and then countered with a spinning back kick of my own. It’s the only spinning kick I know, and by that point I doubt he thought I was capable of it. It caught him square in the chest. Seeing a foreigner from a different style of martial art successfully use a Taekwondo move in their dojo was a big moment for the students. The crowd went wild with cheering and applause. Not to be outdone, at my opponent’s request the master asked if I would like to put on gloves and fight with punches and kicks as I am accustomed to. With safety in mind I decided to quit while I was ahead, and returned panting to my school desk in the corner. Before doing so I bowed to my partner to show my respect, which I sensed was customary. He returned the gesture with a broad and genuine smile.

At the conclusion of the class, the students sat down Indian style. For several minutes some of them took turns one by one standing and addressing me in the best English they could muster. Some of them simply thanked me for coming. Others wanted to know if I would be willing to help the club in any way when I got back, or even just keep in touch. Anything, they said, any form of assistance would be welcome. Online lessons, martial arts supplies such as pads and gloves, etc were some of their requests. One or two even went so far as to ask for money. The bluntest of the students informed me that he had to ask the master for leniency from time to time because it is too difficult for him to afford the monthly fee for the classes. He said many others are in the same position. If tonight seemed crowded, he said, I should know that there are so many other students who want to join that they take shifts. Some aren’t permitted to come on certain days and others come but can only sit on the sidelines. The 50 birr membership fee that he was referring to is the equivalent of $2.50 per month. It was heartbreaking. One boy stood up and wanted me to promise that I would help them in some way. I told them I would do the best I could.

Finally, at the end of the class the students lined up and faced the master. Not wanting to seem aloof I asked Simon if I could line up with them. Everyone turned to the instructor and bowed, then turned to the corner where I was standing and bowed again. Confused, I turned with them and bowed facing the same direction. After a moment I realized with slight embarrassment that they were bowing to face me. Over the six years I have been practicing martial arts I have been in many gyms, and often developed camaraderie. Of all places, in Ethiopia, I found the community I had always yearned for. The mats beneath our feet were a platform for far more than kicks.



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Two Days and a Tour Group

I arrived in Lalibela in high spirits, yet sick from the past few days. I had just spent a frigid night’s sleep in a tent high in the Simien Mountains without a proper sleeping bag, but that’s another story. I was a little tired, but more than anything, weary of the lies and tricks that I had learned were commonly employed by unscrupulous touts to separate travelers from their money. Sometimes, it seems, when things get a little extreme the pendulum begins to swing the other way.

As soon as I set foot in my hotel I was already being pressured to buy a tour package. Following some hard-ball negotiations with this new middleman, I was able to secure a guide and vehicle for two days of touring Lalibela’s wealth of historic sites. Little did they know that after all I’d been through I had hardened into a professional haggler. The tout I spoke with named his price in Ethiopian birr and I countered with half of what he asked, and then barely budged. I ended up booking the tour for $35 less than his first price. So it goes when traveling alone in Africa, day in and day out. You can always tell when a traveler has been in Africa for an extended period of time when you see  one of them haggling with an older woman on the street over a bushel of bananas. In a last ditch attempt to save more money, I struck a deal with a mother and daughter traveling pair from New Zealand who were waiting at the ticket booth of the park’s entrance.  I arranged for them to join my tour and split the expense with me, and then had to convince the guide not to charge them an exorbitant additional amount to cover “increased taxes and fees.”


The Church of Saint George

After we got started it became clear that our guide was exceptional. The tour turned out to be a great value after all. The guide had his work cut out for him. Lalibela speaks for itself. Its structures jutted unexpectedly from the ground like an ancient civilization rising from the dead. Each building was a massive monolith carved in reverse; from ground level down to bedrock. As we approached from the entrance all that was visible were the tops of the churches protruding slightly above ground level. In order to accomplish such a miraculous feat of engineering it is widely believed that a labor force of roughly 30,000 slaves was employed alongside trained elephants used as beasts of burden. Together they excavated millions of tons of stone and dirt to create a peripheral pit as deep as the hundred foot structures are tall. From there the builders would flesh out the interior by creating a window and entering through the top, excavating as they went

Considering that little more than chisels were used for this process, one would expect the buildings to be of crude construction. To the contrary, the design was executed with stunning architectural precision. Complex geometric shapes that were engraved in stone in the 12th century were built to such exacting specifications that you can take a tape measure to them and find perfect symmetry. Not to mention that they are created from singular pieces of solid stone connected entirely to the surrounding rock. The churches of Lalibela are not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but are also considered by many to be the unofficial eighth wonder of the world. Due in part to its remote location, the site receives a paltry 40,000 visitors a year including domestic tourists. By contrast, one of the women in my tour group works for a museum in New Zealand whose travelling whale exhibit can receive as many as 500,000 visitors in a matter of months at some locations.


Inside Saint George


In the U.S. only about 30% of Americans even own a passport. The only way I can make sense of this is through the expression that ‘ignorance is bliss’. If more people knew what was out there waiting to be explored and discovered and experienced there would be no way to keep them home. While there are many people who think that travel is too expensive or out of their reach, if they could see what I saw at Lalibela alone they would be selling their plasma if it meant getting a taste of it.


At the entrance to each looming church we removed our shoes and waited as our guide said a silent prayer. He is a devout Christian, as he proudly proclaimed right off the bat. Being able to escort tourists around the holy sites was a form of religious expression for him, not so different from being a preacher. He already came across to me as earnest, and I took his belief in a greater obligation as a sign that his work was guaranteed, in much the same way as I would prefer hiring a bonded tradesman.

On the other hand, while I was impressed with his work ethic, certain statements led me to question the reliability of his information. For example, when a member of the group asked how long it took King Lalibela to finish all of these literally massive rock-hewn churches he responded in all seriousness that since angels had aided in the construction,  the entire thing had been finished in less than 30 years. His estimate is an interesting testament to the dichotomous impact his beliefs have had on him.

So much had been revealed in a short time through simple, straightforward conversation. While there is something mysterious about a civilization such as the Zagwe Empire engineering advanced and uniquely constructed monuments out of the blue, all of the scientific and archaeological evidence indicates that there’s no way it could have been completed during the King’s lifetime. Not only does my tour guide’s belief in the miraculous nature of the churches glaringly conflict with the science, but one look at the site by the untrained eye would be enough to convince any non-believer that his assertion is implausible at best.

One of the many marvels of Lalibela is the vibrant living history. After hundreds of years the ruins are still home to droves of monks and priests. They hold regular services in the sites’ ancient churches in much the same way as their people have for nearly a millennium. Although tourists can be seen wandering about and sometimes even take pictures of the monks, this unbroken tradition is still as authentic as it gets. With a relatively small number of visitors, many of whom are Christian pilgrims, there isn’t the sensation that the locals are donning costumes or putting on a show to prop up the local economy as is sometimes the case in more heavily touristed sites.


Between my guide’s beyond-professional devotion and the time warped monks chanting in their ancestral Ge’ez language in doorframes and under chiseled archways, it was a glimpse of a history which is truly alive and well. By observing the site’s ongoing use I got a tangible reminder of how the region’s history continues to effect the present day. It’s an impression that I’ll never forget. Seeing the rock-hewn monoliths reach out of the earth was to me symbolic of the power of the past. The undeniable impact of our shared heritage on the present day. King Lalibela literally cast stones whose influence has reverberated through time. Like concentric ripples spreading outward, news of his accomplishments have spread to the shores of modern America and beckoned me across the world with their enchanting allure. Not even the skyscrapers that crown the New York City skyline, the ultimate monument to American capitalism, will endure as long as this one man’s expression of his faith.

Such insight comes from the drive to see such things for yourself. I pondered the staggering beauty of these marvels that had been crafted in the name of God. A seemingly impossible design conceived as an act of devotion and inspired by the Divine. As an outsider with only the most cursory understanding of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith, it struck me that if ever there was a place to ponder the impact of religion on culture and history it was that place. I explored each tunnel, pondered every catacomb and chamber with a sense of awe not at all diminished from that of the first Westerners to ever lay eyes on it. While touring the sites I noticed that there appeared to be some contradiction to the effects of religion on my guide’s thought processes. While he indicated with pride in many small ways that his faith provides him with a moral compass, with integrity, and with guiding values, other statements seemed to indicate that he is willing to ignore certain truths that contradict his religious beliefs.

Covering for the sacred Tabot, an artifact representing the Ark of the Covenant. There is one inside of every Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and these historic sites are no exception

Covering for the sacred Tabot, an artifact representing the Ark of the Covenant. There is one inside of every Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and these historic sites are no exception


Mummies Outside the Church of St George


A Closer Look At the Mummies

As my attention shifted focus between the guide’s words and the structures he was referencing, I couldn’t help but feel that the cultural attitudes that he expressed ran parallel to values espoused so long ago by the architects in the shadow of whose creation we were standing.   In my opinion one of the greatest legacies of the world’s religions is the wealth of artistic expression so often created in its name. Yet there is another side to this gift upon humanity, a side that my guide seemed intent on glossing over. I cannot bring myself to take the leap of faith in believing that while King Lalibela worked by day, the angels worked by night to craft the structures in miraculously few years, however pleasant the thought may be. I can’t overlook that whatever morality spurred on this grand innovation also condoned the use of around 30,000 slaves and brutal abuse of the region’s elephants, none of whom continue to roam wild anywhere near Lalibela. Death by forced labor was so common that many of the catacombs that we breezed past on the way to each temple without the slightest acknowledgment were dug as unmarked mass graves for the workers that didn’t make it. With the hearts and minds of so many modern Ethiopians still as affected by Orthodox religion as they were in the 12th century, the impact of religion on the Ethiopian culture is as clear as an equatorial day.

Attaining this kind of understanding was a self-induced process derived from a mix of factors. I had the drive to seek this sort of thing out and see it in person, even if it meant facing a myriad of trials and challenges to reach such a remote area. I could only fully appreciate it as an outsider. The same frustrations that I had with the language barrier and undecipherable alphabet were also what allowed me to get the most from my experience. Also, travelling alone was a plus. It afforded me a greater degree of immersion in the culture than if I had the buffer of traveling companions. Lastly, I paid as much attention to the people I met along the way as the history that surrounded me. The result was a profound convergence of culture and history that I am still processing, and will likely continue to process throughout my life.


The Church of St George- View from the Top (ground level looking down)


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Bridging the Gap

I careened through the narrow streets; zipping between cars, pedestrians, and animals. We passed through clouds of diesel smoke streaming from truck engines like chimney stacks, billowing up all around us. I could smell the pungent scent of hot pavement and dust as it mixed with the auto emissions, a smell I had become all too familiar with. Taking public transportation in Ethiopia’s cities can be unnerving at first, especially while doing so in a contraption like the one I was currently riding in. I felt as exposed to the chaos of the streets as if I was an egg in a carriage. Such is the journey of the Bajaj, a type of motorcycle hybrid commonly used as a taxi substitute across the country. Bajaj is an Indian brand name, but they are usually homemade, put together haphazardly by whoever gets their hands on one.

Picture the front end of a motorcycle with the back wheel sawed off and replaced with a little two-wheeled wagon. The result is an awkward looking tricycle carriage. The taxi driver rides on the motorcycle in the front and directs the handlebars while the covered metal frame behind him can seat two or three passengers.

When I took my first ride I was a little worried, but I knew that this was the only way to get around. Instead of a door, I pulled back a multi-colored curtain and stepped inside. My heart racing, I looked around at the bizarre decorations. There were all kinds of symbols of the driver’s identity plastered along the walls. Posters and pictures of family and friends. Inspirational quotes. The faces of movie stars and local celebrities. It was like a whole college dorm room squeezed into a tiny space. For reasons I can’t understand there was shaggy carpeting dangling upside down from the metal roof, forming patterns of long strands that jiggled whimsically with each bump in the road.

No urban landscape in Ethiopia would be complete without the Bajaj. They were everywhere, and there was no getting around that fact. I would have to get used to it, like so many other changes, to make it through my trip. On any given day they can be observed weaving boldly through traffic like a network of fish navigating a coral reef. I took a deep breath and did my best to let go of the urge to control my own destiny, because at that moment it very clearly was out of my hands.

Typical Bajaj

Typical Bajaj

It was in this turbulent sea of traffic that I made the acquaintance of Daniel. I caught a ride with him at the end of an exhausting day visiting the local market and a few historic sites. Since I was making slow progress with my Amharic I was glad that he was conversational in English. As we rode, we joked around a little along the way. I intuitively felt that he was trustworthy. Because of this, rather than hail a new Bajaj off the street the following day, I decided to take his number and contact him directly for the next day’s excursion.

Early the next morning Daniel and I set off down a dusty road to the sounds of the rumbling engine beneath our feet and the occasional calls of children excitedly shouting hello as we passed. We quickly broke loose of the small city, tearing through scenic countryside at the Bajaj’s top speed of about 10 miles an hour. We were heading towards a crafts market just outside of town. Some local acquaintances recommended the market due to its mission to provide a source of income to struggling single mothers.


Ancestral Home of Ethiopian Jews- Now Site of Craft Market

I began to make small talk with Daniel during the trip. It was then that I learned that the market was more than just a charitable initiative.  It was also intended to continue the legacy of Ethiopian Jews from that region that had mostly fled the country after generations of persecution. While there weren’t too many left in the area, the single mothers that lived nearby to the ancestral home of Ethiopia’s Jewish population continued to produce crafts with the religious symbolism of its former inhabitants. Being of Jewish descent myself, I find the history of this unlikely subculture fascinating

Almost on a whim, I decided to ask Daniel how he feels about the Jewish religion. After recently listening to a tour guide recount how the Jews killed Jesus while referencing a passion of the Christ painting inside a nearby monastery, I wanted to gauge his reaction cautiously. I was relieved to discover that Daniel appeared completely indifferent on the subject. Since I was merely testing the waters, I didn’t offer my own opinion. I noticed that his rickshaw didn’t have any religious icons adorning the windshield. The thought crossed my mind that he might be in the overwhelmingly Christian nation’s slim and silent minority of non-believers, or even a covert Muslim.

As we rolled past thatch-roofed villages to the sound of the rickshaw’s purring motor, I found myself reflecting on all the new information I had learned about Ethiopian Jewry over the course of my trip, mainly from reading about it and speaking with locals. Unbeknownst to much of the western world, the Ethiopian Orthodox version of biblical history tells a radically different version of events than what is taught to any other denomination of Christians. In the bible’s Old Testament, there is a passage that briefly describes an exchange between the Queen of Sheba in ancient Ethiopia and King Solomon of the Hebrews. The Ethiopian Orthodox Christian interpretation of that story builds on that encounter with some surprising details.

In the Ethiopian version King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba became lovers. She converted to Judaism at around the time of the Apostles. The Queen later relinquished the crown to her son, Emperor Menelik I, and for hundreds of years thereafter an unbroken lineage of Ethiopian Emperors proudly claimed to be descended from King Solomon of the Hebrews. This tradition continued into modern times, right up until Ethiopia’s last emperor, Halie Selassie I, whose reign ended in 1930. According to the legend, Emperor Menelik returned to Jerusalem and brought back the Arc of the Covenant, along with many Jewish followers. This is why there has been a Jewish community in Ethiopia since Biblical times.

There is also a much stronger influence of Jewish religious practices on the Ethiopian Church than what’s accepted by other Christians. This includes adhering to Jewish dietary law and keeping the Sabbath. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church also maintains that the original Ark of the Covenant is kept in a church in Addis Ababa to this day. The powerful significance of the Ark is central to Ethiopian Christian’s religious beliefs. Replicas of the Ark, called Tabots, are kept inside every church and monastery.

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The unusual similarity between Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and Judaism hasn’t stopped the insidious influence of anti-Semitism from seeping into the culture and uprooting the lives of much of the country’s historic Jewish population. Known locally as Beta Israel, the distinctly African group of Jews faced racism at many points in Ethiopian history. Notably during the fascist Italian invasion of World War II and the oppressive communist Derg government of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Beta Israel are commonly referred to by the derogatory Amharic word Felasha, which translates roughly to landless wanderer. Over time the hardships facing Ethiopian Jews became so serious that several schemes were launched by the Israeli government to airlift them to Israel and grant them citizenship. That initiative was largely successful, and there are now far more Ethiopian Jews living in Israel than in Ethiopia itself. Today all that remains of Beta Israel’s once vibrant culture is a handful of ruins, some Jewish icons sold at the market, and a small number of timid survivors scattered across the northern region.

With all of this rolling around in my head, I stepped out of Daniel’s Bajaj onto the gravel and smiled at the weathered face of a hunched over elderly woman. She was clutching a few pieces of pottery in her hands adorned with the Star of David. I began negotiating with her, and rather than stay in the rickshaw Daniel stood off to the side and observed. He must have noticed my unabashed sympathy for the woman and excitement at seeing the pottery.  I assume that he made the connection that my reaction was of a different quality than the average tourist’s response. While I was speaking with the woman Daniel came over to help me bargain. Whatever the reason, at that time he confided in me that his family is Jewish. I was blown away. I have read some estimates that put the population of Jews that remained in Ethiopia after the exodus to Israel as low as 0.015% of the total population.  I, in turn, revealed my Jewish heritage to Daniel who seemed happy to hear it. We had established rare common ground in an unlikely place.

Daniel said a few words to the pottery vendor in Amharic, and before long she was ushering me off the street and down into a mud hut. To my astonishment the room was filled to the brim with the religious imagery of Judaism in the form of pottery. I couldn’t resist going on a shopping spree to support their endeavor. It is likely that her group of single mothers is among the Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity over the centuries to avoid persecution. There were clay menorahs meant for the Hanukah celebration, Lion of Judah statuettes, clay vessels used for ritualistic hand washing on the Sabbath, and even jewelry boxes engraved with an image of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon lying side by side. My purchases were followed by a cheerful tour of the facilities. I got a behind-the-scenes look at the kiln, loom, and pottery barn used to make the crafts. Just when I thought my day couldn’t get any better, Daniel invited me to his house for a traditional coffee ceremony.  I readily agreed.



On the way back to Gondar the previous serenity of our journey was replaced by excited anticipation. I served Daniel with a volley of questions about his faith. He was not reserved. I learned that Daniel’s mother had been Jewish, as well as his maternal grandmother. Although seemingly trivial, these are actually important details. Jews generally believe that the Jewish soul can only be inherited from the mother. This means that if a non-Jewish man marries a Jewish woman their offspring are still believed to be completely Jewish. On the other hand if the child is from a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman then this is not the case. Daniel confessed that although he is Jewish by birth, as an adult he hasn’t practiced the faith. He feels that he has to hide his identity because he said he wouldn’t feel safe if his heritage was widely known.

After chatting for the whole way back to the city we began to approach his house. The paved road became dirt and then the dirt road devolved into what is known as “African massage.” We arrived at his doorstep in what could be described as a shantytown. Just as I was beginning to feel sorry for Daniel, his one and a half year old son met us at the door. The tender look on their faces as they reunited eased some of my concern about his living conditions. Daniel was coming home to a loving family, and at the very least everyone appeared healthy and well fed. By my perception they seemed content, and to have at least a high enough standard of living to meet their basic needs.

I entered Daniel’s sparsely decorated , cluttered mud-walled house and was greeted warmly by his niece and their neighbor who happened to be inside. I would guess that the extra hands were needed to run the family general store or take care of Daniel’s mother-in-law, although it’s possible that they were expecting us. The cramped room I had just entered was dominated by a bed framed by hardened mud and covered with straw, which doubled as seating as we squeezed into the space. Directly across from the bed is a portal with no door that leads straight behind the counter of their compact general store. As my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit interior I noticed that in the house’s other room, further back, Daniel’s elderly mother-in-law reclined in a makeshift chair.


A Litter of Daniel’s Kittens Enjoying the Coffee Ceremony

The family exchanged hurried words in Amharic and Daniel’s niece rushed to prepare the coffee. At the same time Daniel’s toddler, clearly well on his way to the terrible twos, began a rampage of destruction around the room. He was ushered tenderly from one pair of arms to the next, in a careful attempt to keep him away from coffee ceremony’s trappings being deployed on the ground in the room’s center. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. It’s one of only a few locations where it’s a native species and it has grown wild long before being cultivated. Because of this, coffee has a long and venerated history as a cultural mainstay of the country and a source of profit through the ages. Coffee is not just drunk; it is imbibed in a traditional ceremony that’s a little more intricate than simply pushing the button on a Keurig.

In a matter of minutes, as I sat and watched, Daniel’s niece started a fire inside of a purpose-built piece of pottery, which ignited smoldering coals. To this she added a fragrant bark, which filled the room with the sweet smell of incense. She then took several handfuls of coffee beans, which looked as though they might have been freshly plucked from the field, and began roasting them by hand over the hot coals. As is customary, she went around the room with the sizzling pan so that everyone could smell the delicious aroma of the coffee as it was being prepared. It is also customary to serve food with the coffee, but in a quirky modern take on this practice many people have switched over to offering their guests popcorn, presumably because it is less of a financial burden and is easier to prepare. The coffee beans were then boiled in another embellished piece of pottery and were soon ready to serve.


As Daniel’s niece began pouring the espresso style delicacy into what resembled Chinese tea cups, her father dropped by to say hello. At that moment I picked up a knife with a blade like an arc that had been resting at the side of the bed. The handle looked like it had been welded by hand. I admired it aloud, and without hesitation Daniel offered it to me as a gift. It was a touching gesture, since from what I could see he didn’t have all that many material possessions. According to what I had read about the ceremony everyone is to be served three cups of coffee along with the popcorn. It is considered bad luck for a guest not to finish all three, and downright rude not to at least finish the first cup. This ceremony is often repeated two or three times a day even when there are no guests. To me this is sheer lunacy. By my estimation a single teacup of Ethiopian coffee is the equivalent of somewhere around two cups of American coffee in terms of potency. While that may be an exaggeration, I challenge any American to finish all three cups and maintain normalcy.

As I was sipping my way through my first cup Daniel slipped away wordlessly. He returned shortly thereafter with a copy of the Old Testament written in Hebrew and a few Yamakas. He proudly stated that these rarities were inherited from his mother. He handed me the Bible and asked if I would like to say a prayer. Like Daniel, I’m not an observant Jew, yet still consider myself Jewish due to my cultural and ethnic ties to the faith. I can’t read Hebrew and very rarely pray. Not wanting to disappoint, I made the appearance of carefully selecting a passage and then more or less picked a page at random and started reading the English translation aloud, hoping that Daniel would perceive this as prayer.


Daniel’s Old Testament Written in Hebrew

As I thumbed through the pages, I noticed that many passages had been underlined, and I tried to imagine by whom. I pictured Daniel’s mother hidden from view in a mud hut, sitting near a window and pouring over the words by candlelight, not daring to pray too loudly for fear of being discovered. For me it was a powerful visual representation of the faith that Daniel had inherited, whether he fully understood it or not. I asked him why he didn’t go to Israel when the other Ethiopian Jews fled. Daniel replied that he had wanted to very much, but at that time in order to get a visa he had to go through a rigorous process to verify his identity. Sadly Daniel’s mother passed away unexpectedly at a pivotal moment in the immigration process, which left him unable to complete it while most of the other Jews left the country. Daniel said that even now he would gladly go to Israel in search of better opportunities, knowing full well that he would have to leave his family behind. He said that as hard as it might be, earning money in Israel to send home to support them would be the best option.


Daniel With Inherited Yamaka and Bible

I continued to sip the potent coffee as I let all of these revelations sink in. We moved into the house’s only other room and continued to make small talk as Daniel cooked up a quick dinner on the dirt floor right in front of me. It wasn’t until I got a good look at Daniel’s elderly mother-in-law that I realized why she hadn’t risen to greet us. She was almost completely blind with cataracts. I still attempted to communicate with her even though she couldn’t see me or understand anything I said to her. In a stroke of inspiration I held the luminously glowing screen of my smartphone to her face to see if she could make out some pictures I had taken with Daniel earlier in the day. My phone was far brighter than the weak lighting of the windowless room’s interior. She held the phone so close to her wizened face that it nearly touched her nose. She bathed in the artificial light and soaked in what was surely the clearest image she had seen in a long time. We both reveled in the moment of shared satisfaction. She poured over paintings from nearby churches that depicted biblical scenes one after the other with the iconic uniformity of cartoon reels. She examined each with deliberate focus, like a jeweler appraising diamonds. She even learned how to scroll through the pictures on her own, without my assistance. This was a woman in her 90’s that had most likely spent a good deal of her life living without electricity. I doubt she had ever seen a smartphone before and she might not see another. It was a proud moment for me.

Afterwards, we gathered together in the center of Daniel’s cozy hut-like room in appreciative silence. We were preoccupied with the orange-colored meal that we were all sharing. It was a spicy, bean based dish that was easy for Daniel to whip up in minutes using pre-ground dried bean paste. We ate out of a communal bowl, tearing off pieces of the spongy flatbread-like injera that lined the plate with our hands. Often the food placed atop the round injera is so colorful that its like eating off a painter’s palette. With only the right hand, we used pieces of injera to form bite sized sandwiches so that by the end our hands weren’t even dirty.

This was not the Africa of the “save the children” television ads, or the war-torn wasteland you see in the media. While Daniel’s family lived without the luxuries and excesses of the western world, they weren’t wallowing in depraved poverty either. There was a feeling in that room which is not always present in my own culture. It was a warm feeling, as we huddled there sharing a meal together. It felt like good will, like the fraternal drive to help one another along. It felt like community.



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Sal’s Story

It was a scorching hot Saturday afternoon in Gondar. The trendy downtown Tele Café was doing a brisk business. One look at the crowd revealed that many of its patrons, like me, sought refuge from the oppressive heat of the city’s smog choked streets. It was as welcoming a place to take a break as an oasis. As I entered the café I scanned the crowd for familiar faces. Sal, who was sitting at a table with his friends, met my eyes and rose to shake my hand. With a broad grin on his face he greeted me and asked how I was doing.

Busy Street Outside Tele-Cafe

Busy Street Outside Tele-Cafe

Sal is the manager of an upscale hotel that I had visited for dinner one night in town. To ensure that I got home safe, he took it upon himself to call me a rickshaw rather than letting me hail one from the street. While waiting for it to arrive Sal and I struck up a lively conversation. He spoke English better than any other Ethiopian I’d met in Gondar, but beyond that he was also intelligent and spoke knowledgeably about the country’s history. It wasn’t until after we parted ways that I started wondering if there might be an opportunity for us to meet again. Since Sal had called the taxi driver to pick me up on his cell phone, I was intent on using my crude Amharic to ask my rickshaw driver for his number. At first the driver seemed a bit disappointed that I wasn’t asking for his own number, but once I got him to understand my request he quickly complied.

Fasil Ghebbi Ruins of Gondar

Fasil Ghebbi Ruins of Gondar

So it was that we had arranged a meeting on that particularly equatorial afternoon. After saying hello, we made our way to the table. He asked about my health, remembering that the night I had met him I was just getting over a cold and had ordered ginger tea with honey. While I was a little surprised by his thoughtfulness, there is a definite difference between my own culture and the more elaborate greetings of Ethiopians. He used this topic to segue into a funny story to break the ice. He said that his brother puts stock in an old superstition that the congestion of a head cold can be brought on by smelling a really awful smell. His brother is from the country, but he must be terrified to walk down the street in the city or he’ll catch a cold with every sewer drain he passes. We both had a laugh at that.


The first thing I asked Sal was whether he was comfortable with me jotting down notes about our conversation, and whether he would be comfortable with me posting any of this online. I wanted to make sure that he knew how I intended to use his ideas and stories, and to be forewarned about what he was getting himself into. Even though he consented to everything, I have still changed his name just to be on the safe side. Ethiopia does not have a free press or anything like the first amendment. The government has been known to monitor online communications, and they don’t take kindly to dissenting views. Judging by Sal’s reaction to my questions, he appeared completely unconcerned.

Simien Mountains Near to Sal's Hometown

Simien Mountains Near to Sal’s Hometown

I didn’t want to ask Sal anything that could get him into trouble, so I started out by asking innocuous questions about his age and how old he was when he first started studying English. Sal launched into his life’s story without any further prompting. His narration began with early childhood and continued into the present day. Sal is 26 years old, which makes us very close in age. He was born in a small village with no name, known only in relation to the nearby town of Debark about 3 hours away. Having passed through that region, I would already consider Debark to be a small, remote village in its own right. It’s hard to imagine growing up in a place where Debark is the biggest urban development around. What Debark lacks in population it makes up for in natural beauty and perfect tranquility. Not long beforehand I took an overnight backpacking trip into the Simien Mountains, a place I had previously known only in daydreams and almanacs. On the way there I passed through Debark at the mouth of the trail, the gateway to a vast and untamed wilderness. It is way up in the highlands connected to the rest of the world by a single strand of dirt road.


Trying to imagine what life was like for Sal growing up is a little bit like imagining what it would be like to take part in a lunar expedition. It’s an entirely different world. His whole village has less people than there were students in my hometown high school. Sal’s parents were farmers. As soon as they could they sent him off to the big city to find work. He moved to the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa, and became a waiter. He not only had to fend for himself in the city, but he was also expected to send money home to his parents and 3 siblings. Sal recalled being responsible for providing food, uniforms, books, and more for his brother and two sisters. His salary at that time was 1,800 Ethiopian Birr per month. That is equivalent to roughly $82 a month in USD. With a tinge of shame I realized that I would be spending roughly the same amount on my hotel for the night.

After a while the urgency with which Sal began his life story began to wind down. While he was describing his current position as hotel manager I was able to interject. Listening to the triumphant stories of Sal’s achievements and personal backgrounds was truly fascinating, but with limited time I wanted to steer the topic of conversation towards history. As I polished off my third macchiato (or as it says on the menu makeato) and Sal sipped his own drink, I asked him who the leader of Ethiopia was when he was very young, going as far back as he can remember. He replied that it was Mengetsu.


The Derg (Meaning Counsel), Lead by Mengitsu, Launched a Campaign Known as the Red Terror Against A Rival Political Faction

Mengetusu is an infamous figure in modern Ethiopian history. Currently memorialized in the “Red Terror” museum in Addis, the socialist revolution that brought him into power left a legacy of suffering for many Ethiopians. Knowing the controversial nature of this topic, I was taken aback by the degree of trust that Sal was showing in me by simply being willing to mention it. I immediately felt that I had hit on something big. Here was a sliver of Ethiopia’s turbulent history invoked by the words on someone who lived through it.

Right there in the café, the iconic setting of bourgeois revolution, Sal painted for me a grim picture of the cost of political unrest hidden between the lines of every history textbook. He recounted how as the fighting intensified, the losing armed forces fled into the countryside to escape the advancing army. As soldiers scattered afield and the victors advanced to hunt them down, the mountains became a battlefield. This put Sal’s family and entire community in jeopardy. Although he was young, he can vividly recall seeking shelter with family and friends inside a nearby cave, hoping and praying that the soldiers wouldn’t stumble upon it. He remembers seeing a grief stricken woman hide her newborn baby under a plastic barrel. While struggling to find the words to describe the scene, he turned over a plate on the table to demonstrate. I asked with apprehension if the baby was okay, fearing for the worst. To cover a baby with plastic of any kind strikes me as a terrible idea. He responded that the baby was fine. In fact, Sal knows the guy that the baby grew into and they still keep in touch.

I wondered what the reaction was in Sal’s village to the instatement of the Derg regime led by Mengetsu that marked the event. Was the mood festive? He responded that the village remained quiet and somber. There was no cheering, no fireworks, no celebration.

Perhaps afraid that he had revealed too much, Sal swiftly changed the subject and launched into a diatribe about the history of a nearby religious site. He wanted to take me there because a religious holiday would be coming up in a few days that centers on that site. During the course of Sal’s career in hospitality he had been trained as a tour guide, and was certainly well versed in local history and lore. Although I would have liked to expand on my previous inquiry I couldn’t help but be captivated by his description of the site, however off topic it might have been.


Sal and Me

As our discussion drew to an end, I found myself wishing that we had more time. When I called for the bill, it was nice to see that Sal had limited himself to one drink even though it was easy to anticipate that I was paying. After dealing with so many tour guides and local travel agencies, it was refreshing to meet with someone who was not at all motivated by money. I enjoyed talking with Sal and listening to his stories. It is the way of the traveler to form connections that are as enlightening as they are brief. While these connections can be broken as freely as they are formed, there is the sensation that you are getting the best of somebody under such circumstances and giving the same. A fleeting connection made traveling can feel as though it is the spirit of an entire friendship condensed down into a far shorter time span.


I Wish We Had More Time

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