An Ethiopian Christmas…(yes Geldof, they know…)

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2 Irishmen, a Scot, a Brit and an Aussie went hiking in Ethiopia…you would be forgiven for thinking it was the opening line of a terrible joke.

I have often said that travelling is the closest you can come to time travel. Living in Vietnam for two years, felt like I had front row seats to the industrial revolution. In parts of Outback Australia, you get the impression not much has changed for millennia. Until that is, you pull into a town with a publican and a police officer- sometimes the same person- and you think it could be closer to circa 1930. Switzerland at times reminds me uncannily of the 1980’s, with its conservative fashion and food, at least if fondue and the big hair, big fur and all-in-one ski suits of St. Moritz are anything to go by. Perhaps no other continent on earth though compares to Africa, in its ability to offer the full spectrum of time stood still. In some ways, the 21st Century is more evident than ever, with its mobile phone revolution, heaving cities and modern buildings. Yet, I have found myself in rural villages where witchdoctors, ancient superstitions, tribal customs and rudimentary tools, make a plausible backdrop to the Middle Ages.  In Ethiopia however, time travel is literal. The Julian calendar with its 13 months instead of 12 has never been replaced by the Gregorian version that we run our own time by, as we discovered when we left Europe in 2015 and 12 hours later found ourselves in Ethiopia in the year 2007. An unrivalled novelty for those of us willing to suspend our logic just long enough to entertain the possibility that this meant we were in fact 8 years younger.

Most of us have images of a country plagued by drought when we hear of Ethiopia. Bob Geldof and his mates, certainly put Ethiopia on the map when they set out to raise much-needed funds with the “Do they know it’s Christmas”, Band-Aid appeal for the famine in 1984. More than 30 years on and it is clear that it may have been the best PR campaign the country has ever known, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons and it never inspired tourism. The upside of travelling to a country where your expectations are so low is that you can only ever be impressed. When that country happens to be spectacularly beautiful as we found Ethiopia to be, the result is unforgettable. A bucket list destination you never knew existed.

Steeped in a history too overwhelming to take in all at once, we eased ourselves into the country the best way we knew how- on foot. Originally started by an Irish NGO, (a fact which entitled our Irish companions to a great deal to be proud of when greeted by villagers who thanked them for their country’s contributions, and presumably they weren’t referring to Geldof) TESFA TOURS is now a privately owned company which coordinates remote hiking trips in the Ethiopian Highlands. It is also the best example of sustainable community-based tourism I have seen. Hikers are guided between strategically located and stunningly positioned, purpose- built stone huts, which members of the local community are responsible for managing. In addition to the employment created for those who guide, cook and staff the locations, more than half of the tour fees are paid directly into the communities to be shared by all members.

We hiked 5 to 7 hours each day, along rocky escarpments, through farmlands and remote villages, with scenery as varied as it was spectacular. Welcomed by locals, entertained by children and greeted by largely disinterested livestock, we learned first-hand the beauty of the country. Unplugged from the rest of the world, and removed from the distractions of modern living. Our days were punctuated by physical exercise, good conversation, supreme natural beauty, wonderful people, great food, beautiful sunsets and excellent coffee.  Those of you who know me well will understand that I live for little else. Ethiopia had won me over, without ever really needing to even try.

Evenings were typically comprised of dinners by firelight, stargazing sessions followed by an early night falling asleep by candlelight in our bungalows. If you managed to avoid a midnight visit to the bathroom where yoga contortions and a headlamp were often required, it made for the perfect end to a perfect day.

With appetites as expansive as the views, the Ethiopian food did not disappoint. Communally enjoyed, spice-laden and devoured with fingers encased in what looks like an edible hand towel (injera), we looked forward to every meal. Lunch would usually take place upon a picturesque escarpment. The donkeys who had laboured with our packs were as happy as we were to take a rest; while various items indicating an impending lunch would begin to appear from seemingly nowhere.  A small table carried from across a field of wheat, a few assorted bottles of warm beer and soft drink, and the less obvious addition to a lunch stop perhaps, but ever ubiquitous in Africa, a visitor’s book. A woman with a large injera-covered basket, containing steaming hot portions of colourful stew-like concoctions of chicken, lentils, and vegetables would present us with our lunch; as interesting as a painter’s pallet, but considerably more appetising. Then, as no meal in Ethiopia is complete without the customary coffee ceremony, the rich aroma of roasting coffee beans wafting toward us would stir the senses, with a promise of the strong, thick dark coffee, which is typically enjoyed in varying degrees of strength over 3 servings.

Ancient looking men with donkeys, shepherds tending to their flocks, women clad in shawls. It wasn’t difficult to remember it was Christmas, a few notable additions and we would have found ourselves in our very own nativity scene; all that was missing was a manger. Ethiopia is after all the land of Balthazar. He of 3 Wise Men fame who travelled from Ethiopia bringing the gift of myrrh for the baby Jesus. As much as we loved stargazing, 2015 years later I am not sure a motley crew of smelly, sunburnt English-speaking hikers would have anything to offer to that story, we were better off continuing with our own.

Each day the views defied our expectations. “This has to be a highlight” we exclaimed, as we walked precariously close to a 300-metre sheer escarpment, the impressive red-chested Gelada Baboons, careering over the edge as if to mock our inability to follow them. ”It can’t get better than this” we declared on day 2, during a lazy afternoon basking in the setting sun with a family whose 3 generations farmed a patch of land which must constitute one of the most spectacular places to call home. And yet it did. Time and time again we would make such claims, only to repeat ourselves the very next day. Canyons, rocky outcrops, sheer cliff faces and plateaus reaching out from The Great Rift Valley to inspire awe and command respect.  Little wonder it seemed biblical, we were hiking in the cradle of humanity. No matter what your creed, creationism or Christianity, Ethiopia is on a magnitude to put any sense of self-importance to shame.

It was not just the scenery which was epic in proportions. Ethiopia is the stuff of legends. The Queen of Sheba and her enigmatic love of King Solomon is enough to make modern day Tinder account holders shake their heads in dismay at the trials of 21st Century dating. Although sadly, if the truth be known I understand that he was a bit of a player. The birthplace of coffee and our ancient ancestor LUCY, a giant of history in the spectre of time and anthropology at least, but who I was disappointed to discover was about as statuesque as an 8-year old.  The reputed location of the Ark of the Covenant, otherwise known as The Ten Commandments, although given the numerous controversies surrounding this claim, it would seem not including THOU MUST PRACTICE INTEGRITY in the final top ten, was a real oversight on God’s part. Speaking of whom, let’s not forget the original Rastafarian himself, Haile Selassie, single- handedly inspiring a movement, a religion and a generation of dreadlocked followers. You would be forgiven for not being able to keep up with Ethiopia’s past.

The only country in Africa never to have been colonised- although the Italians occupied it just long enough to leave a lasting legacy and arguably the best macchiatos on the continent- it is a country rich in cultural traditions and beliefs and has a national language, Amharic, which I credit as having the most difficult to remember word on the planet for thank you. AMASEGANALEHU (Am-a-se-ga-na-le-hu….got it? Good! Now try saying it again in 3 minutes).

An expat lifestyle

One of the things I miss so dearly about living in off-the-beaten-path locations is that you always meet the most fascinating of people. Some of the conversations I have had while living and travelling in Africa have rarely ever been surpassed anywhere else in the world. It is of course on account of the people you meet, and I guess the type of people that end up living and loving these locations in the first place.

Ethiopia had another attraction for me, a friend and former colleague from Tanzania, who had moved to the country a few years prior. It was Theresa and her charismatic 5-year old daughter Naanyuni, who I looked forward to spending Christmas with. Theresa met me at our hotel in downtown Addis Ababa on my first morning in the country. We had arrived in the early hours of the same morning, excited to be back in Africa, notwithstanding the usual dramas of visa processing queues – 3 officials, a plane load of passengers, a convoluted system involving numerous pieces of paperwork, no credit card machines or ATM’s which worked, 6 officials absorbed by their mobile phones and variously agitated tourists who clearly had never encountered African bureaucracy at its finest at 1am. It was a memorable ride from the airport to the hotel squeezed inside the back seat of a Russian Lada which looked like it hadn’t been road worthy since 1973. My incongruous and oversized Samsonite hard case (…never buy one!), had been thrown on the steel roof rack on account of it being almost as large as the interior of the car and very nearly as heavy as it. Meanwhile, my 6-foot something friend Christi had the honour of riding shotgun in the front, but without any obvious advantages and reminiscent of Mr. Bean in his Minnie. He would have been more comfortable accompanying my luggage.

My travel companions (role models as I like to call them) Ann, Christi, Andy and Liam set out for a day of sightseeing which included an enthusiastically orchestrated plan on the part of the boys to attend a local football match. They may have been the spectators, but as the only white blokes in a packed stadium, they attracted their own fair share of supporters. Meanwhile, Theresa had arranged to meet friends for brunch and I was pleased to join them. Another Lada adventure the highlight of which this time was negotiating a passenger door that did not close while searching for a seatbelt that did not exist. With one hand holding the door shut, and the other clutching the seat, I managed not to fall out at every corner. It was my first encounter with Addis in daylight and I was impressed to discover that it was much more developed than I had expected.  Freeways, shopping malls and high-rise buildings made regular appearances, before, as is so often the case in many developing regions of the world, we turned a corner onto a dirt track, almost hit a goat and 2 people, managed to avoid the inexplicable bomb-crater sized hole in the middle of the road by driving on the opposite side and arrived at our destination. Up a driveway and through a gate and we found ourselves entering another incarnation of the city, a cafe which was an oasis of calm amid breezy jazz tunes, a delicious assortment of food and Theresa’s wonderfully welcoming friends. It was fine company. Theresa’s friend Saba is a leading leprosy expert. Ethiopian by birth, Italian by descent and having spent a great deal of time abroad as part of the diaspora during the communist years, the conversation took many turns- Italy, Zimbabwe, politics, health, history, development. Without even realising it I was sitting on the edge of my seat inspired by the discussion, a reminder of how devoid my life generally is of conversation of such novel calibre in the humdrum existence of the so-called real world. Notwithstanding the part where she told me how she had kept her son’s placenta frozen for 2 years in her freezer until she could visit her favourite location in Ethiopia and plant a pepper tree on it. Upon hearing I was to visit the location, she asked if I could check on her tree and take a picture for her.  Which is how a few days later, I came to find myself enquiring of hotel staff at the luxurious Gheralta Lodge, if they could please direct me to the placenta tree. There are few places in the world, where a question of this nature could be seriously entertained, but they were eager to oblige. As I was to find out during my stay, Theresa kept inspiring company. On Christmas day, she opened her home up to colleagues and friends, all of whom had interesting stories to recount of their lives living in far flung places and working on the International School circuit. The tipping point though, was when my friend Andy and I took a break from our 6th night in a row of reliving “A White Christmas” with a 5-year old who could sing every line more passionately than Rosemary Clooney, and instead watched an Attenborough documentary about an Australian man who had lived with baboons in the remote East of the country. A fascinating bloke, who it transpired, traded in his baboon observations and Attenborough documentary features, for a biology teaching position at Theresa’s school. Some might argue, that baboons to teenagers, is an obvious career transition, and I am certain his students love biology.

Going to Church in Ethiopia: Finding your feet and your faith

We had read the unassuming details on our itinerary “visit one or two churches” without too much enthusiasm or interest.  A cultural and historical insertion none of us was particularly excited by.  As we waited for our guide to collect us and take us to church, we anticipated a leisurely stroll. The reality was a religious experience like no other. Perched on the top of a 200-metre rocky cliff rising up out of the plains, the Abuna Yemata Guh Church is not for the faint-hearted.  To start with, you should love heights and not suffer from vertigo. With guides to help us, our shoes removed for better grip and ropes to assist in the vertiginous ascent, we clambered up awkwardly, humbled by the knowledge that locals-including babies and the elderly- make the same journey to church each week without half as much fear or fuss.

As we approached the top, cavernous holes filled with clearly visible skeletons belonging to priests from the Middle Ages, greeted us, an ominous welcome after an already terrifying jaunt during which the fear of death did at numerous points cross my mind. Going to church has never been so perilous (dare I say exciting?). It was enough to make anyone find their faith and their feet.

A heart-stopping, fear-inciting final ascent and we had arrived at the baptismal cave. A small platform leading to the entrance provided an excellent vantage point for sensational views, although, with a 200-metre sheer drop just a few feet in either direction, it was difficult to fully appreciate this. If that wasn’t enough to reinvigorate my religious faith then I don’t know what could. From the baptismal cave, it was another exhilarating clamber over an overhanging rock which linked the cave to a higher platform another 20 metres away. I couldn’t make the final ascent; fear had ground me to a halt. I could hardly watch let alone participate, as the others continued along the narrow ledge which skirted the cliff face and disappeared into the ancient church. Happily, I kept company with the skeletal remains and tried to enjoy the vista without looking over the edge or thinking about how we would get down.

Lalibela: The Jerusalem of Ethiopia

From heavenly ascents to the wondrous underground churches of Lalibela. Ethiopia made going to church somewhat akin to a miraculous experience for our largely non-churchgoing crowd. Now UNESCO protected, and as impressive as any ancient site I have visited, the Lalibela rock-hewn churches live up to their international fame. Constructed in the 12th century, by means no one is really quite certain of, one legend purports that the monolithic structures were carved from the rocky ground by angels, and in the absence of any other humanly plausible feat I can imagine, I am almost prepared to believe it.

Borgi: A role model among role models

We met Borgi during a chance encounter at our hotel in Lalibela. I had been complaining to the lads and Ann that as a young woman living at large in the world, it had come to my attention, that I rarely meet as many impressive male role models as I do females worthy of such a title. The boys as you might imagine, took offence to this and set out to prove themselves worthy of role model status. Energetic and passionate, Borgi sets a high standard for role model material. An Austrian woman, who has chosen to spend her retirement supporting some of the poorest children in the Lalibela region by single-handedly raising funds to sponsor their education. It was a sobering and inspiring afternoon, spent in her company as she introduced just a few of the more than 70 children she has been responsible for educating. Many of them  orphaned or living alone in the city slums, having left their families on the farms for hope of a better education and life in the town. An unsung hero who reminded us of the fact that education in so many parts of the world is still a basic right denied to many.

Brad Pitt was here….so was Bush but he came in a helicopter

I had heard that Brad Pitt had hiked with TESFA Tours a few years earlier and thanks to the visitor’s book at our final location, we saw that this was the case. As we ate pancakes and drank our morning coffee on the edge of a cliff which offered views to rival those of the Grand Canyon, I was not so much surprised by his typically Hollywood comment “Many thanks, much love” as I was annoyed by the entry made by his travel buddy. Should I ever run into Brad Pitt’s travel companion David Lindsay, I should like to know how it came to be, that while sitting atop what must be one of the most inspiring and grandiose vistas on the planet, the only thought he could possibly think to conjure and write next to his name was simply the word  “nice”. I can only hope he was lost for words.  To their credit, at least, they hiked. George Bush we were told arrived by helicopter and presumably didn’t bother with signing the visitor’s book.

Do they know it’s Christmas?

43% Ethiopian Orthodox and 19% Catholic or Protestant, not only did they know it was Christmas, but technically, if you subscribe to both the Gregorian and Julian Calendars, you get to celebrate it twice.

On our final flight from Axum to Addis, the mobile phone behind us buzzed as we touched down on the runway. It was the 23rd of December and aptly the tune which rang out from the gentleman’s phone behind us was ”We wish you a merry Christmas”. Christi leaned over and whispered with an assertive nod, “They know”. Can someone please tell Geldof?  This year, at least, they certainly did know that it was Christmas.



Tesfa Tours:

Gheralta Lodge:

Addis Eats:  (An excellent walking and food tour in Addis Ababa)

Borgi’s sponsorship program: For information on how you could sponsor a child’s education in Lalibela, please contact me and I will forward you Borgi’s contact details.

Cutting For Stone by  Abraham Verghese

2 Responses to “An Ethiopian Christmas…(yes Geldof, they know…)”
  1. Yvonne Warren says:

    Thank you so much….nobody can share their experiences as beautifully as you do again and again xxxxx Ethiopia is definitely on my list.

  2. Megan says:

    WOW Natalie, what an enriching life you are leading, such interesting observations so wonderfully shared with us back here ‘in the real world’. You are truly an inspiration.

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