Sunday, September 27, 2015

Serving God; serving Mammon

I was recently flying back from San Salvador to Miami.  As the plane was descending over the Floridian city's airspace, I saw a giant golf course.  In large yellow letters written high above the giant white estate building were the letters Trump.

I  proudly gave it the finger.

To my look of disgust and consternation after being silent the entirety of the flight, the Salvadorean passengers next to me gave me a quizzical look.  I explained in venomous Spanish that it was the property of Senior Donald Trump, the worst person on the planet and probably the devil.

I touched down to news of Pope Francis' visit playing in the airport bar.  If ever there was a contrast in coverage, especially among conservatives.

I find it beyond astounding that so-called "values voters" could ever support the likes of Trump, while disregarding and even criticizing the words of the Pope.

If ever there was a contrast in serving Mammon versus serving God, it was truly on display,

I think the rising candidacy of the sulfurous Trump is the final nail for ever believing a word of Conservatives' so-called morality.  Radical conservative values have brought this country to a stand-still amid stunning hypocrisy.  Even the soon-to-be ex-House Speaker Boehner railed against these "false prophets." Perhaps Boehner is more effective as a martyr than speaker, but his words are tell-tale.

If you hold the symbol of greed itself, the intolerant Trump up as the standard-bearer for your party, you have become the epitome of morally bankrupt.

If you disregard the Pope's moral authority on vital matters facing the 21st century like climate change and the migration of refugees while ascribing to the values of the Donald, you have no base to stand on and lecture America about values.

The mantle of values does not belong to conservative ideology, and never was that more apparent that the juxtaposition of the fortunes and favor of these two emblematic men.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

On Fortune

"Behind every great fortune is a great crime."
-Honore de Balzac

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

On Happiness

Happiness is a hammock, a cat purring in my lap and a tropical storm pitterpattering on a tin roof.

Pacific Kippur

They say the Pacific has no memory. As such, this Yom Kippur I'm set to cast my sins into the surf of El Tunco, my favorite beach in El Salvador--nestled between the Pacific waves and the mangrove swamps.

Yom Kippur is a great time to take stock in the time passed.

The last time I was in El Tunco was for my 30th birthday, in the midst of a journey from Los Angeles to Panama. 

"Vanity plays lurid tricks with our memory." Joseph Conrad, "Lord Jim"

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Mother of All Questions

"Questions about happiness generally assume that we know what a happy life looks like. Happiness is understood to be a matter of having a great many ducks lined up in a row — spouse, offspring, private property, erotic experiences — even though a millisecond of reflection will bring to mind countless people who have all those things and are still miserable. 

We are constantly given one-size-fits-all recipes, but those recipes fail, often and hard. Nevertheless, we are given them again. And again and again. They become prisons and punishments; the prison of the imagination traps many in the prison of a life that is correctly aligned with the recipes and yet is entirely miserable."
-Rebecca Solnit, "The Mother of all Questions"

Monday, September 14, 2015

Rosh Hashana meditations

New years meditations from the new prayer book Mishkan haNefesh

I Was Never Able To Pray
Wheel me down to the shore
where the lighthouse was abandoned
and the moon tolls in the rafters.

Let me hear the wind paging through the trees
and seethe stars flaring out, one by one,
like the forgotten faces of the dead.

I was never able to pray,
but let me inscribe my name
in the book of waves

and then stare into the dome
of a sky that never ends
and see my voice sail into the night.
-Edward Hirsch

  Illuminate the welders in the shipyards with the brilliance of
their torches.
  Let the crane operator lift up his arm for joy.
  Let the elevators creak and speak, ascending and descending in
  Let the mercy of the flower's direction beckon in the eye.
  Let the straight flower bespeak its purpose in straightness--
to seek the light.
  Let the crooked flower bespeak its purpose in crookedness--
to seek the light.
  Let the crookedness and straightness bespeak the light.
-Allen Ginsberg

The Morning Wind forever blows,
the poem of creation is uninterrupted;
but few are the ears
that hear it.
-Henry David Thoreau

I am the blossom
I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years. . . .

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper....

When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me. . . .

I am food on the prisoner's plate. . . .

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden. . . .

I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge. . . .

I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .
the longest hair, white
before the rest. . . .

I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow. . . .

I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .

I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name. . . .
-Jane Kenyon

Migrating Birds
That same spring morning
the sky sprouted wings.
And in its wandering westward 
the breathing sky spoke
the Traveler's Prayer:
"O God,
bring us safely
across the ocean
across the deep waters,
and in autumn return us
to this little country 
which has heard all our songs."
-Lea Goldberg

Love God with your mind:
stay curious, open to questions;
marvel at the wonder of what is.

Love God with your heart:
stay alive to suffering and joy;
yearn for the world that could be.

Love God with your strength:
open your hands and give;
work for the sake of what ought to be.

My Lord is not a shepherd
and I am not His sheep.
No monarch greedy for my prais
is worthy of my prayers.
Oneness that exploded into cosmos,
spun the double helix
over eons of evolution,
made all things beautiful in their time
gave me intellect and initiative
to envision Oneness:
a single chain of life
a single human family
and myself in one part--
responsible and responsive,
member of a people
who dreamed of Oneness,
worked and suffered for its sake,
and still lives in service to that Unity:
This I honor.  This I hold sacred.
-Made All Things Beautiful In Their Time, based on Ecclesiastes 3:11

Saturday, September 12, 2015

T.I.A. (This is Africa)

My journeys over the last year in Africa are finished.

Throughout that period, I visited 9 countries across the continent--from West to South to East Africa. 

Dakar. Harare. Cape Town. Kampala. Pretoria. Bulawayo. Victoria Falls. Johannesburg. Dar es-Salaam. Zanzibar. Kigale. Goma. Addis Ababa. Gonder. Aksum. Lalibela. Just some of the cities I passed through in my African adventures.

 This is a little taste of the Africa I saw.

Of Interest

-A well written piece on why we should fear the corporate taming of the university.  H/T Harry.

-NovaKane on pledging his allegiance to the X Chromosome

From Harper's Index:

-Number of people fatally shot by British police in the past three years: 2

-Average number of people fatally shot by U.S. police each day so far this year: 2.6

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

The Impossible Dream

The End of the Ethiopian Adventure

After touring Lalibela, I spent the next day in the city just hanging out.  I woke up early to go to the pre-dawn mass, but couldn't really be bothered and just took it slow for the morning.  I went to the immaculate Mountain View Hotel for lunch and to take in the spectacular views.

And I got to have coffee in the afternoon at the house of my guide Hailu, who was kind enough to invite me over.  After coffee at his home, I rushed over to Ben Abeba to get some pics of the sun setting but was too late and a storm was coming.

On my last morning on Lalibela, I did catch a bit of the morning mass, and it was lovely.

Not wanting to be on the bus for two days, I opted to fly back from Lalibela to Addis for the 1.5 hour flight by way of Gonder.  I met a nice fellow on the trip, who was a DJ in Dallas and split the cab back with me from the airport to Piazza.  He had been complaining about the prices for expats were just barely lower than that of faranji.

It was nice to return to the Taitu Hotel, where many of the staff recognized and remembered me.  I connected with a friend of my friend Phillip--a nice Jewish man named Izak who was living at the Taitu.  He had been traveling the world for years and years, and we got to chat a lot about the Road.  We also had a nice dinner with some Spaniard friends and I got to work on getting my Spanish back up to snuff ahead of my upcoming adventures in Central America.

I also had an amazing meal of fatira- a fried dough pancake with egg and honey inside.  Yum.  Also a glorious Swedish massage on my last day to make up for the rigors of the road and upcoming trek.

I left Addis in the wee hours of the morning for an unenviable trip home. I flew from Addis to Jo-Burg, some 6 hours and then had a 6 hour layover so I was met by an old friend Ryan whom I knew from the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship I did in Uruguay in 2007.  We caught up and he took me for a kosher burger in Jo-Burg.  He took me back to his house so I could relax ahead of my flight back on the longest direct route in the world.  

I took the Jo-Burg-Atlanta flight back, which is seemingly endless.  But end it did after almost 16 hours.  I arrived back to 'Murica and greeted myself with a welcome home breakfast of Chickfila.  Nothing could be finer.

After 35 hours of transit, I arrived home yesterday.  I spent the day trying to stay awake long enough over the game Ticket to Ride before I could finally passed out.  Back for a week or so before I head out again!

Sunday, September 06, 2015

What the World Costs-Ethiopia

Free: entrance to the Red Terror Museum
1 birr (5 cents): money given to roving groups of singing girls in Aksum to make them go away
2 Birrr (10 cents): chai at cafe on Lake Tana; chai at internet cafe in Aksum; banana
3 Birr (15 cents): entrance to boat restaurant on Lake Tana
5 Birr (25 cents): traditional coffee at Addis Abbaba University cafe; traditional Aksum coffee
6 Birr (30 cents): locally-made chocolate bar; 30 min of internet
10 Birr (50 cents): entrance to Ethiopian National Museum; 30 minute minibus Wokro to Dinglet; 30 minute minibus Aksum to Adwa
11 Birr (55 cents): bambolino (donut); Macchiatto at Cafe Oslo
12 Birr (60 cents): St. George Beer at local bar in Bahir Dar
15 Bir (75 cents): 10 minute bajaji ride in Gonder
17 Birr (85 cents): St. George Beer at local restaurant in Addis; 1 hr minibus Wokro to Mekele
20 Birr ($1): pasta in injera in Debark; omelet; 2 hour minibus ride Alamata to Woldiya
21 Birr ($1.05): St. George Beer at Teitu Hotel
22 Birr ($1.10): toothpaste; special ful breakfast of fava bean paste, eggs and yogurt
24 Birr ($1.20): 1.5 hour mini bus from Shire to Aksum
29 Birr ($1.45): Fata breakfast of crusty bread broken up into little pieces, then covered in spicy sauce, yogurt, onions tomatoes and peppers
30 Birr ($1.50): double Teachers whiskey at Africa Hotel Aksum
35 Birr ($1.75): pasta with meat at Hotel Zenawi
37 Birr ($1.85): plate of “fasting” (ie veggie) food
40 Birr ($2): 10 pill packet of paracetemol
45 Birr: tibs (sauteed beef, peppers and onions) at butcher shop/restaurant
50 Birr ($2.50): 15 min taxi from Piazza to Addis Abbaba University; entrance to sites of Aksum
60 Birr ($3): tibs at bar/restaurant; 1 night stay at Hotel Zenawi, w/cold shower, no bathroom
65 Birr ($3.25): vegan buffet at Taitu Hotel
70 Birr ($3.50): 4 hour minibus ride Mekele to Alamata; 7.5 hour public bus ride from Woldiya to Lalibela
71 Birr ($3.55): Doro watt (chicken stew) at Taitu Hotel
73 Birr ($3.65): Kitfo (Ethiopian steak tartar) at Desset Resort on Lake Tana
90 Birr ($4.50): Large Alla Tuna Pizza at L-Shape Hotel; Ethiopian Shepherd's Pie at Ben Abeba Lalibela
100 Birr ($5): foreigner entrance to Ethnological museum; entrance to Holy Trinity Cathedral; entrance to Lake Tana monasteries
123 Birr ($6.15): 2nd level public bus from Gonder to Shire
150 Birr ($7.50): 25 minute taxi ride from Bole Rd to Piazza; entrance to each rock-hewn church in Tigray
200 Birr ($10): 1 hour full body Swedish massage at Dib Anbess Hotel; 1 night stay at L-Shape Hotel Gonder w/ hot shower, no breakfast; Ditto at the Africa Hotel Aksum; entrance into St. Mary's Church in Aksum (which holds the Ark of the Covenant)
250 Birr ($12.50): Shitty double room w/ bathroom and shower at the shitty Yordanos Hotel in the shitty city of Woldiya; Single room at Hotel Asheten w/hot shower, no breakfast
297 Birr ($14.85): One night stay at Taitu Hotel (Addis) with hot shower, no breakfast
300 Birr ($15): half-day trip on Lake Tana to visit monasteries (discount from 350 Birr—don't tell other people on the tour, the tour group leader said); Tour guide for a day to Aksum's site; bottle of Rift Valley Ethiopian Syrah
340 Birr ($17): 10 hour bus ride from Addis to Bahar Dir on air con bus
350 Birr ($17.50): One night stay at Dib Anbess Hotel (Bahir Dar) w/ hot shower, breakfast
600 Birr ($30): Guide for a day around Lalibela's churches (split with an Aussie)
1000 Birr ($50): visa on arrival at Bole International Airport; Entrance to the 11 rock-hewn churches in Lalibela
1300 Birr ($65): One night stay at Trinity Hotel near airport with hot shower & breakfast; 2 hr flight on Ethiopian Air from Lalibela to Addis via Gonder
2900 Birr ($145): multi-entry 3-year visa bought prior (I wanted the option of coming up through Kenya, and they don't issue visas at the border—I didn't come that way in the end)

Abyssinia gone

Ancient and eternal Ethiopia, I bid thee farewell. A truly blessed land--you are.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Jerusalem of Ethiopia

I am weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more…but swear I by God in Whose power I am, that all that is written is the truth, and there is much more than what I have written, and I have left it that they may not tax me with its being falsehood. 
-Francisco Alvares (early 16th-century Portuguese writer) from Ho Preste Joam das Indias: Verdadera informa-cam das terras do Preste Joam (1540) 

I awoke early in Lalibela and as I was walking out of room, I met a fellow guest at the hotel, an Aussie named Adeline.  We got to chatting over coffee--she was an environmentalist who had quit her job and was traveling in Africa for a year.  She had just recently arrived from Addis, and was doing the loop I just completed, but in reverse.

Adeline was also interested in touring Lalibela, so I mentioned I was being met by a guide named Hailu who had been recommended by my friend DJ Juan Gomez.  Worked out that we could split the cost of the guide, so she joined.

We were met by Hailu, and headed down to the entrance of the rock-hewn churches.  Hailu explained that King Lalibela had built these rock-hewn churches in the city of Roha over 23 years to create a "Jerusalem" for Ethiopia.  This was because many Ethiopians were dying on the long pilgrimage trek to Jerusalem.  The churches were built directly from chipping away at the sandstone and building down.  Ethiopians believe that angels assisted in the construction effort, and would chip away at the rock at night when the work day was finished.  For his creations, the city was renamed Lalibela after the king.

It was also an auspicious day to visit  because it was a festival day for some festival I never quite caught the name for.

I had picked up my (expensive) ticket for entry the day prior (1,000 Birr, $50, or triple what it used to be a few years ago; good for 5 days), so after Adeline got hers, we headed in to the northwestern cluster of churches.

Immediately, it was an impressive site.  Pilgrims cloaked in white were sitting above the intricate granite church, praying softly above the churches carved into the granite earth.  We walked down to the first church Bet Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World), which is claimed to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world.  Immediately, I thought of Jerusalem as I saw pilgrims cloaked in white shawls, rocking slightly before stone walls.

We doffed our shoes and entered into the stone church, amid a procession of holy fire.  Priests were chanting and shaking holy "groggers."  Light spilled in through windows shaped in the stone like Greek crosses and Aksumite obelisks.  It was, in a word, incredible.

Under barrel vaulted nave, and amid the stone columns, we took in the procession.  After watching the service, Hailu explained the intricacies of the church--like the three empty graves in the corner for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

In another corner, pilgrims waited to be blessed by a priest with the Lalibela Cross--a 15 pound cross made of gold, which was believed to heal.

After making our way around the church, we passed through a rock tunnel to the enclosure holding Bet Maryam.  Bet Maryam is believed to be the first church carved.  There was a beautiful bass-relief carving of St. George conquering the dragon.  Inside the church were ancient frescoes.  At the corner of pillars, there were eyes carved to represent the seeing eyes of angels.

We visited the other two chapels carved directly into the rock, and a third with a tombstone for Adam and elaborately carved stone statues of Archangels Gabriel and Michael.

After climbing to the top of the enclosure to see the churches from above, and the valley below, we headed back into Bet Medhane Alem.

Inside the first church, the crowds had thinned out, but the priests were still chanting and shaking their holy music makers.  Adeline went to get blessed by the Lalibela cross, while I sat against the cold stone, meditating with my eyes closed as I listened to the chants echo off the rock ceilings and walls.

After a while of listening to the chants, we split from Hailu to meet him later in the afternoon.  We headed back to the hotel, grabbing lunch at the delicious Unique Restaurant ("Bad house, good food") with an excellent fasting fair.

After resting a bit, we met back up with Hailu, who toured us around the remaining churches in the Southeastern cluster.

We had to first descend through hell--a dark, unlit tunnel, where we grasped around in the dark for 100 meters, until we ended up on the other side at Bet Merkorios.  This one had been the second largest, but an earthquake had destroyed large portions of it--since rebuilt.

Then on down, we visited the large Bet Ammanuel, the finest carved church of the whole crew.  Inside, it was made to look like wood carved between the stone.  This one was believed to have been the royal family's private chapel.

We continued on to another one that reminded me a bit of Petra,

 We finished in the Southeastern cluster, and wandered over a hill top to the piece de-resistance, Bet Giyorgis.  Bet Gyorgis was a freestanding church shaped like a Greek Orthodox cross.  It was meant to symbolize Noah and the flood.  The bottom windows were faux windows to keep the animals dry.  There was a flood line carved into the rocks, and a rock hill to symbolize Mt. Ararat.

 It was all pretty impressive, and worth the long trip.  Lalibela, the Jerusalem of Ethiopia, exceeded my expectations and was rather incredible.  Very much an under-rated wonder of the world.
(not my pic)
We hiked our way back up, and later Adeline and I grabbed dinner at the incredible Ben Abeba restaurant.  The place was designed like something out of a Dali or Escher dream.  Built on the mountain cliff, it had stunning views 360 views around the landscape.  It had pathways that didn't quite connect around a circular center.  The place was funky and cool.

Meanwhile, the food was excellent.  I had an Ethiopian Shepherd's Pie, which was spiced ground beef covered with mashed potatoes and shiro (chick pea stew).  We drank good Ethiopian syrah as the bats fluttered through the purple night after their own insect dinner.

Friday, September 04, 2015

The Road to Lalibela

I woke up around 5:30am, ready to get out of Woldiya and on to the last stop in Lalibela. The water in the hotel still was not running, so I grabbed my stuff and left. I walked down to the bus depot, and braved the chaos.

The first bus I tried to get on to Lalibela at 6:15am was full, so I was moved to a second bus that was practically full. A woman who spoke some Arabic was kind enough to help me navigate. First I was sitting in the back of the bus, and I sat in my seat for about 30 minutes. Then amid some confusion, apparently I was in someone's saved seat and so I was moved up next to an old woman in the front. And I sat. And I sat. And I sat some more. I bought some bananas for breakfast, and paid a kid to go buy me a bottle of water. A bit of confusion with the luggage, but eventually my bag made it on the roof. Around 7:30am, the bus driver came on the bus, and I hoped we would be leaving. We didn't depart for another 45 minutes.

But eventually we did leave Woldiya and head on to Lalibela. Along the way, we picked up more passengers for the already-full bus, and people were sitting in the aisles or standing.

The ride was supposed to be four hours, but it kept going and going. We switched from asphalt to gravel, and I had a bumpy chuckle that there was not really a real road to Ethiopia's most holy site and number one tourist destination.

We chugged along on the gravel road for an endless amount of time, until we reached a muddy pass. Afraid that we would get stuck in the mud, the bus driver stopped the bus and got out to survey the landscape. To make the bus lighter, all the men and boys got off the bus. I climbed out, and watched from around the muddy bend. Sure enough, the bus got stuck. I was having flashbacks to Peru.

We tried to push the bus back out of the mud, but there was not enough traction. I tried to find anyone who spoke enough English to suggest that all the women and children go to the back of the bus while we push, and also to put drier stones under the tires to help give traction—as what once helped me prior, but no one was listening to the faranji. I was wondering if I would be walking to Lalibela.

But we were able to clear out enough of the mud from the tires, and the driver was able to get out of the rut. He was able to flank the mud puddles and offroad the bus a bit and got back going. As I got back on the bus, I realized that in the aisle near me was an old, old woman. I tried to give her my seat. First she and her husband refused, but I was finally able to convince her and she took my spot while I sat in the middle of the aisle on a wooden and goat-skin stool.

Surprisingly, I couldn't have been more happy. I found myself chuckling at where I was—ever the only, sitting on the floor of the bus rumbling through the middle of Africa. Strangely, this seemed like the fulfillment of a dream.

Anyway, the bus stopped in about 30 minutes and dropped a number of the passengers off—letting me return to my seat. We chugged along until we reached Lalibela around 3pm in the afternoon. A ride that was supposed to be 4 hours took almost 7. But this was my last bus in Ethiopia, as I planned to fly back to Addis rather than take a 2 day bus. And I had reached the last stop on my journey through Ethiopia's historical circuit—so I was pleased.

I caught a bajaji and negotiated for a ride to the Hotel Asheton, which the guidebook mentioned as a decent, reasonable spot. I bargained down from 300 bir to 250 ($12.50) for the room with a hot shower.

I settled in with some lunch after a long day, and finished my Star Wars trilogy before passing out early.

Rock-Hewn Churches of Tigray (II)

Since I fell asleep at 7:30pm the night before, I was up at dawn.   I made my way over to the already-bustling bus yard, and caught a minibus to Dinglet--the village closest to the Takatisfi cluster.  I climbed into the nearly-full minibus to the back left corner of the tiny, cramped van.  Men and women in white muslin cloth filled the vehicle.  The soft banter of Tigray filled the vehicle, as soft stares and gentle smiles met this faranji who didn't fit in the scene.  Ever the only.

We were off past rock cliffs and old stone houses.  The subtle mournful voice of a singer broke the stillness of the ride, accompanied by a single-string lute.

Fingers of cacti littered the road, and pointed up to the heavens like hands in prayer.

The little bus whipped through the hills of the countryside, until we reached a sign in the road that said Petros we Paulos.  I had arrived.

I hopped out, and began my walk down the red clay road, as the morning mist hung in the valley.  And I remembered adventures in the fertile riverlands of Guatemala as I trekked in the morning through villages.  I am always traveling forward to remember the past.

I walked past mud and stone houses.  I had read that the priest for the rock-hewn church of Petros we Paulos lived closer to the road than the church so I was keep an eye out.  In my walk, I was met by two teens.  One spoke decent English, and they led me on to the church carved on the hilltop.  I realized I would need a guide to get me from church to church so I made an arrangement with one of the kids to show me around.

We walked over to the Petros we Paulos church above, and he ran out to fetch the priest while I played with the local kids and bounced a baby on my knee.

 After a little bit, the priest and guide came back, and we all scaled the rockface and ladder that led up to the church heights.  The wood ladder was not too perilous and I reached the top and the priest let me in to the church.  From the top, I took in the spectacular view of the valley below.

I walked inside the outer church and into the rock-hewn chapel.  One of the teen guides explained all of the centuries-old murals, and their connections to Ethiopian religious beliefs and doctrines.

After examining the murals, I made my way back out of the church and back down from the heights.  The guide and I trekked across fields and ravines to the next church.  I sat outside, while he went to fetch the priest and I played rock games with the little village kids.  The guide returned but said the priest was away in the market today.

We made our way on to the third church of the cluster. We walked through the landscape dotted with cacti, aloe and mud-stone houses.  We climbed up the rockface to reach the Medhane Alem Kesho church--one of Tigray's oldest and best.  I crossed the mural-designed rock entrance, and paid the priest for entry.  The priest opened the door with a fascinating locking mechanism that I couldn't begin to describe.  He took me in through the cave, and into the church itself.

In the darkness, the priest lit a long tapered candle to show me the designs on carved into the stone walls and ceilings.

 After taking it all in, I headed back down the mountain, and trekked across the fields with the young guide back to the highway.  I hailed a minibus back into town.  I realized it was early enough to check out of the hotel and get moving on to Woldiya where I would have to overnight before making the final leg to Lalibela.  I packed up my things, paid the hotel for my stay and headed over to the bus station. I caught a minibus to Mekele, a city an hour away that was much larger and had more transit options.

We drove through the dessert, and I chatted with agricultural engineer who worked on water irrigation projects.  He mentioned how much progress had been made in Tigray to deal with droughts.  We arrived to Mekele, and I had to catch a bajaji from one bus station to another.  At the Mekele bus station, I ran into the ticket tout who had screwed me over the day prior.  We laughed when we saw each other.  Perhaps because he felt bad for screwing me the day before, he helped me get going to the bus station I needed for a fair price in the bajaji.

I got over to the dusty bus station in Mekele and caught a minibus to Alamata, where there would be more minibuses to Woldiya.  Yet despite the minibus in Mekele being basically full, we still sat around the hot bus yard for an hour before departing.  We drove 4 hours along dusty roads and past camels and other livestock.  We crossed from Tigray into Amhara, and arrived earlier than I expected to Alamata.

From Alamata, I hopped on the next minibus to Woldiya, where I would stop for the night.  If the trip to Alamata was quicker than expected, the ride to Woldiya took longer than expected.  And into the darkness, we drove.

When I arrived to Ethiopia, I scoffed at the early departures for the buses--leaving at 5:30am, because it was illegal to drive at night; driving at night, I could see why.  Roads filled with cows, sheep, camels and people crossing with nary a street light to be found.  We almost hit a cow, a few sheep and a camel.  It was actually a rather scary ride that seemed to never end.

But end it did, in Woldiya.  One of the shittiest places I have even passed through.  Woldiya is the transit point for many, many buses going to Lalibela.  Yet there are really only two hotels, the Lal and the Yordanos.  Meanwhile, the city was just a clusterfuck of bajaji, trucks and whores in the road.

The Lal was the "luxury" hotel, and since I had been trekking all day, I thought I would treat myself.  But they wanted 500 birr ($25) for a room that was utterly lackluster and no better than any room I had been paying 200 birr ($10).

So I decided to check out the Yordanos.  I asked a fellow standing at the gate of the Lal where the other hotel was.  He said he would show me since it was close; since it was close, I said just tell me.  But he followed me anyway.  It was right next door.

I was trying to talk to the hotel manager, but the fellow was right up in my space.  I kept telling him to back off, and go away.  But he said he worked there.  I figured he was a tout, and told him to go away.  He kept saying something to the manager, and  was getting annoyed--telling him to leave me alone.  But turns out he actually did work there, and was just using the internet at the hotel next door where I met hi,.

The rooms were shitty and overpriced even for $10 but much cheaper then the only other hotel.  Once I put my stuff down, I explained to the fellow that I was sorry I was being short with him, but I was tired and he was in my space.  We made peace, and let it go,

But the room had no water.  Not just a lack of hot water, but a lack of water.  The annoying fellow said he would turn on the taps and I would have water in 30 min.  But it never came on.

I grabbed some dinner at the Lal, which was actually pretty good.

I turned in early with the intention of getting out as soon as possible.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The road to Tigray's rock-hewn churches

I awoke early, around 6am and began my long trek to the rock-hewn churches of Tigray.  I grabbed some special fata at the cafe next door as I began my trek.  It was seemingly taking forever, and I couldn't figure out why they couldn't just bring me out a bowl and some bread to break up, when they came out with it already fully prepared and my bread broken in-house.  I laughed and thanked them for the extra care.  The fata proved a hearty breakfast for a long day of travel.

I was walking down to the bus station, but realized it was easier to simply take a bajaji so I coughed up 5 birr (25 cents) and caught a tuk-tuk to the bus yard.  I needed to go to Adigrat and on to Wokro but knew that there were not many buses or minibuses in Aksum.  There was a minibus going to Wokro (semi-)directly, but it was completely empty.  I knew I would be waiting a long time for this minibus to depart so I caught a minibus departing to Adwa at the moment.  In Adwa, there would be more transport options.

We drove the 30 minutes to Adwa--home of the famous battle, and not much else these days.  I got to the more-bustling Adwa bus yard.  I had figured I would need to take a minibus to Adigrat and then another on to Wokro, but I got beckoned over for a public bus to Wokro.  There were already a few people on the bus, so I figured it was a good sign.  I bought my ticket for 70 birr ($3.50), and started waiting.  Then I scanned the bus more clearly and realized that there were really only 4 other people on the bus, and it would not depart till it was full, which would probably be at-least 2-3 hours.  Then the 4 other people also surveyed the empty bus landscape and got off, and it was just me.

I got off as well, and started looking for the bus ticket tout, when another ticket tout called me over for a bus to Wokro.  I showed him my ticket to Wokro and he beckoned me on and said it was fine.  The bus took off, and we were on our way.

After about 20 minutes, another bus ticket saleman on the bus asked me for 70 birr.  I showed him my ticket.  He said it wasn't good.  I pointed to the ticket tout behind him, and tried to explain that he saw my ticket and beckoned me on.  The chaos ensued.  We were fighting in broken English back-and-forth--I was trying to explain that this guy lured me on the bus after he saw my ticket and said it was fine.  I just held up my ticket, and pointed at the tout--saying get your money from him because he told me it was fine.

The English conversation wasn't working, but the ticket seller and the fellow next to me spoke Arabic, so we tried that.  It was probably not the best idea, because now they could communicate better than me.  But I held my ground, calling the tout a big liar in Arabic, and maintaining that I had a ticket already purchased.

This went on for a long while.  Finally I negotiated that I would simply pay 30 birr for the ride to Adigrat, and would get off and take a minibus in disgust.

Thankfully, the scenery got beautiful to sooth my road rage.

 And we finally reached Adigrat.  The fellow next to me, who I had been conversing with in Arabic felt badly about the whole incident and treated me to lunch.

I was planning on grabbing my stuff and grabbing a minibus, but the ticket salesman said it would be cheaper if I just gave him another 20 birr ($1) and he would let me ride to Wokro.  Since lunch had been covered, I was really only out an extra 30 birr for the ride to Adigrat, and it made more sense than having to fight the gauntlet and wait for a minibus to fill.  So I gave up, coughed up an extra buck and was off on the same bus.

We drove through the desiccated Tigrayan landscape, past rock huts and sloping valleys.  I made peace with the journey as I spied some windmills in the distance to let me know that my journey was just.

I finally reached the dusty one-horse town of Wokro.  I had chosen Wokro as my base to explore the rock-hewn churches of Tigray because the guide book said it was the best jump-off point for independent travelers to visit the sites.  Other spots required guides and 4wd vehicles, but in Wokro there was a rock-hewn church on the outskirts of town, and 3 more churches about 30 minutes away by minibus.  Also, in Gheralta, the bigger cluster of rock-hewn churches, there had been problems in the past with little kids hurling rocks at faranji who wouldn't give them money, pens or sweets.  I didn't feel like having to toss rocks back at kids, so Wokro would be it.

I found a cheap place called Hotel Zemenawi, and negotiated a 60 birr room  ($3) down to 100 birr for 2 nights ($5) with the nice owner.  The place was spartan but fine.  There was a cold shower in the room, and bathroom down the hall.

I dropped my stuff and started walking down to the local rock-hewn church but the skies started getting black.  I turned around and headed back to the hotel when I established there was no internet cafes in the city where I could camp out while the storm passed--this really was a one-horse town. Just as I was about to turn into my hotel, I horse standing in the middle of the road as bajaji tuk-tuks passed it.

I took a nap as the storm rained down, and woke up around 4pm with enough time to trek back to the close rock-hewn church in Wokro named Wokro Cherkos.  I followed the main road out to the edge of town, and found my way up a village road, past cacti, aloe, donkey and chickens until I reached the rock-hewn church.

 I paid my 150 birr ($7.50) fee to the office, and an old priest led me to the church.  It was rather amazing.  Inside this old sandstone boulder, a church had been carved out.  There were old murals on the barrel-vaulted sandstone ceiling.  The sandstone pillars had swirls of colors.  Alas, it was really too dark inside to show the real beauty of the church, but it was quite marvelous.

I left the church in awe, and started heading back to the hotel ahead of again-darkening skies.  The dark skies were closing in fast, so I ran back alongside some women who were also dodging the storm.  I made my way back to a bajaji and headed back to my hotel.  I got in just before the deluge.

I continued my Star Wars viewing, watching The Empire Strikes Back until I fell asleep at 7:30pm--it had been a long day.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Aksum around

I woke up early in Aksum, and went walking around the city.  I was looking for a place recommended in the Lonely Planet as a good breakfast spot, but was having no luck finding it.  There was an interesting place next to my hotel serving fata, which I had read about.  I saw people breaking up round bread into a large metal bowl, so I pointed for one.

The place brought me out a round metal bowl, and two round crusty loaves of Tigrayan himbasha bread--and I got to work breaking it up into little pieces.  When I was done breaking it up, they took the bowl, and performed their magic.  The metal bowl came back with the bread soaked in a special spicy sauce.  They also brought out a small cup of yogurt and a small plate of slivers of tomatoes, red onions and hot peppers.  I mixed the yogurt and veggies into the metal bowl, and had a fata feast, which was absolutely delicious.

After breakfast, I had a little more coffee in the bunna coffee roasting ceremony on the street.  I watched a girl grind up the fresh roasted beans, then put it in the traditional pot and heat it over coals.  I chatted with two local college students, who informed me that it was a special holiday in Aksum.  Apparently, it was a festival day for women and girls where they dress up in traditional clothing and go out in packs around the city accosting men with singing and music and demand money.  I had been warned.

I found my way towards the Aksum Tourism Office to buy my ticket for the obelisk stelae sites for the city but the office was confusingly closed.  A young tourguide named Merhat got off his bike and started walking with me towards the stelae site, explaining that I could get my ticket at the office at the monuments.  He offered his services to be my guide, so I peppered him with questions of why he would be a good guide, and whether he would be able to sneak me into see the Ark of the Covenant. We agreed on a price for his services, and I bought my ticket into the Aksumite Stelae area.

We wandered through the obelisk field that marked the burial place for the rulers of the mighty--the historical capital of the Aksumite Empire that ruled much of the Horn of Africa. These pics are mostly from the stelae (obelisk) fields and mausoleum tombs that the Aksumite rulers built in the 3rd century AD.

 The mighty Aksumite Empire ruled the Red Sea trade routes that linked India to southern Arabia, eastern Africa and the Roman Empire--trading ivory, incense, gold and slaves across the southern Spice Routes.

I learned about the different styles of obelisks, ranging from the carved varieties to the blank obelisks.

The Rome Obelisk was the second-largest, and had been stolen by Rome on Mussolini's orders, and was razed and re-assembled in Rome.  It stayed in Rome until 2005, when Italy finally returned it.  It was re-raised in 2007.

I also visited the different tombs, and learned about how, much like the Egyptian pharaohs, the dead rulers had their entire households and household staff buried with them.

I stopped in the fascinating Archaeological Museum that chronicled the rise and fall of the Aksum Empire.  There were all sorts of items like lamps, incense burners and jewelry.  I marveled at the reach of the Aksum Empire, and the sophistication of the once-mighty empire.

We continued through the ages, stopping at the Queen of Sheba's Bath.  The large reservoir, despite local legends, was not actually the Queen of Sheba's bath, but still makes a good story for a watering hole that is a few thousand years old.

And I got to see King Ezana's Inscription, which was like an Ethiopian Rosetta Stone.  The stone was unearthed in 1988, and had alternating inscriptions in Ge'ez, Sabaean and Greek, dating back to the mid-4th century.

We continued on past villagers herding goats, cows and sheep, and past people digging ditches and on to the tombs of Kings Kaleb and Gebre Meskel on top of the hill.  I went tomb-raiding in the darkness, then went on. 

We walked back to the city, and I bade my guide goodbye when it was clear he could not sneak me in to see the Ark of the Covenant.

I walked back into town, and started getting harassed by the bands of little girls singing and demanding money.  It was actually a bit annoying because these bands of girls would come up and demand money for their shitty singing, and wouldn't go away.  I was joking around with one band, but was getting annoyed that they wouldn't go away. I was walking backwards, telling them to go away and that I wouldn't give them money, when I almost fell in a manhole.  I stepped back into a grate, and fell down.  Thankfully there were enough bars on the manhole that it braced my fall, but was a bit scary.  Literally the whole street stopped with my crash.  Some other Ethiopians yelled at the girls to leave me alone,

I re-grouped for some lunch at Cafe Ezana--the breakfast spot I had been searching for.  I had some special ful--fava bean paste with scrambled eggs and yogurt, eaten with the crusty himbasaha bread.  Yum.

I took a little nap, then realized that the roving bands of girls offered a great photographic opportunity.  Instead of balking at giving them money, I realized I could buy them off for 1 birr (5 cents) and they would both stop and I could get some great photos.  And I did.

I wandered back through town to visit the St. Mary's Church.  The St. Mary's Church is supposedly home to the Ark of the Covenant, which I fully intended to steal back.

I first visited the new church, constructed by Emperor Haile Selassie.  This particular wing was (not-exclusively) for women, who are not allowed to visit the other section.

I also visited an pretty amazing museum, that hosted the crowns and robes of various Ethiopian emperors like Menelik II and Haile Selassie, as well as a number of phenomenal gold-encrusted Orthodox bibles and chalices.  

I ventured past the shrine holding the Ark of the Covenant.  No one is allowed in, save for one monk who spends all his days inside the shrine--praying and lighting incense. Foreigners are not allowed with 20 feet of the fence because some foreigners tried to scale the fence some years back.  In vain, I tried to convince my tour guide that he should help me sneak in.

I made my way into the last church--the original St. Mary's to take in some of the fine murals.

I made my way back home to the Africa Hotel, with only accosting and bribery, and chilled out a bit.  I went back out in the streets later, but it was only getting more frenetic, so I hopped a tuk-tuk up to the Yeha Hotel, which was supposed to have the best menu outside Addis.  It really did, and I had some delicious pan-fried fish with lemon, rice and collard greens.  I sat out sipping St. George Amber, reading Kate Chopin in my pocket classics.  I would recommend her short stories if you have never heard of her/read her-- she was a famous writer at the turn of the 20th century who has a solid twist in her tales and turns a phrase well (the best compliment I can offer).

I walked my way back down through the quiet street to get some rest ahead of a long travel day awaiting me.