Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hanging in Harrar

Wow. If I hadn't taken that side trip to Harrar, I would've missed out on such a different taste of Africa. I was only able to spend one day there, and at the expense of 2 full days of travel (ugh) but it was totally worth it. I left Wednesday night around 6:30, and the mini-bus drove all night and got us there around 7 a.m. Thursday. It was a crazy ride. Harar is known for its "chat" culture. Chat is a plant that everyone chews and gets a mild stimulant affect from it. The bus driver and most of the people on the bus were chewing chat the entire night, so it was quite the buzzing ride. The lady next to me was from the Afari tribe, and we somehow managed to bond without being able to communicate. She shared her banana bread (at least, that's my guess...) with me and we cackled together about...well, something, I'm not really sure what, but she laughed and I laughed and it was all good. Her only English word is "OK", so she said that to me a lot.

THe guest house I stayed at, Rewda Guesthouse, was AMAZING. A beautiful little courtyard with pomegrante trees and flowers, a lovely room with the traditional chat setup, and the main house was a showplace for the traditional Harari home. It was probably the most expensive guesthouse in the city, at about $25 US, but it was well worth it.

I spent the day just wandering around the old city markets, seeing all the gates into the city, and participated in the chat ceremony (it's perfectly legal here, so don't give me any grief). It's really weird - the entire city shuts down from 1-3 and everyone retreats inside and chews chat and just hang out and talk. Like siesta time, but it's spent in casual conversation instead of sleeping. After a few hours of that, the markets open back up, the museums throw open their doors, and everyone gets back to work. With a full buzz on, of course. Strange.

I toured the Arthur Ribeauld house, which is such a strange anomaly in the middle of this old old arabian/ethiopian style city. Lots of nice pictures and poetry and a good photo exhibit of Harar at the turn of the century.

Oh, and I forgot to mention I did have a guide for the day, so it was all really easy, not stressful. He is from Harar, so was able to explain all the background of things and I got the nice inside scoop. After dinner, we went out and had some drinks with his cousin and friend and went dancing - and BOY is it fun to go out dancing in Harar!! The music is absolutely fantastic dance music ("African beat" is what they called most of it, with some traditional cultural music and some Bob Marley thrown in for good measure), and the scene is not at all like US clubs - no sleaziness or meat market quality. Just joyful, happy, wild dancing. We were out for hours and I had such a great time! I hope to get some of my favorite songs to bring back with me to the US.

However, that also meant I was up until 2 am and had to catch the public bus back at 5:30 am. UGH. I made it though, and the trip back in the daylight was beautiful. It was the first countryside I'd seen that really felt like what I thought Africa would look like. Herds of camels wandering on the side of the road, more desolate and dry, with the flat broad trees that I've seen in photos. At one stop (ugh, and there were many random stops along the way that made the trip 12 hours long!!), some of the local tribal people wandered onto the bus and spent a good 10 minutes staring at me. I didn't stare back, but they did have butter in their hair so it would've been fair to...

Anyways, I made it back to Addis and just spent the morning trying to buy gifts for family & friends at the Merkado (Addis Ababa's market is the biggest in all of Africa, they say) - bargaining! Fun!! I'd forgotten how much I like the exercise of bargaining. I have only 36 hours left, then I leave for America. I better get off the computer and go experience more stuff. Later, friends!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Harar and Hyenas

I had about given up on a side trip, as everything moves so slowly here and I've been pretty lazy about pre-planning. But I got up early today, walked to the Ethiopian Airlines office near our guest house in Addis Ababa, the New Flower Guest House, and booked a return ticket from Dire Dawa on Friday at noon (only $40!!). That means I'm motivated to figure out the rest of it, working backwards. I'm thinking I'll take a mini-bus from Addis to Harar (anywhere from 6-12 hours, depending on who you're talking to). That should give me a good feeling for the countryside between. Or, I might spring for a private car rental and guide, which would mean that I could stop off along the way at interesting villages and at Awash National Park. I still need to find a place to stay in Harar, but I'm sure it'll work out fine once I get there.

I'm really looking forward to strolling the old town markets, Harar is supposed to dazzle your senses with color and character. It's one of the most strongly Muslim feeling towns in Ethiopia, I hear, which will be an interesting experience. I'm also hoping to feed hyenas with the Hyena man of Harar. Woo-hoo! I don't think I'll have time for internet, but will try to update again on Saturday after I return to Addis.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Gondor

Just got back to Addis from Gondor. What a strange place that was. Wandering around crumbling Italian palaces, drinking macciatto (sp?), surrounded by donkey carts and goats. I was glad to have Helen, our Ethiopian travel companion, with us for this city of confusion. My favorite scene in Gondor was Faisal's Bath (hmm, not sure about that name, my memory is going...). The stone walls surrounding the bath drip with fig tree roots, reminding me of Angkor Wat. Such a serene place, and a nice break from the craziness of the city itself. We took a donkey cart across town to get there, which for me and my bleeding heart for animal welfare was a little traumatic but at the same time was exhilerating (...wishing blogger had spell check...). My other favorite time in Gondor was walking down the hill from our hotel instead of taking a car, and ending up in a stone tossing contest with a few shepherd boys along the way. Sadly, I seem to have lost whatever throwing arm I had and was shamed. :)

I'm hoping for a 3 day side trip to either Harar or the Great Rift Valley next, but things are difficult to coordinate - I neglected to take "Ethipian time" into account when I thought I could plan this side trip. I'm beginning to feel very comfortable walking the streets in Addis and communicating, though I still hate brushing off the beggars and the kids selling packs of gum. I thnk farenji fatigue is setting in a little - my group gets extra stares because we're 3 tall pale women and 2 kids with dredlocks. Dredlocks are strongly associated with rastafarians here, so we're constantly pointed at with shouts of "Rasta! Rasta!".

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Ethiopia

I've been here for a week, and this is the first time I've had internet access. Sorry for the lack of updates! The rains came late this year and most electricity is hydroelectric, so we only have power half the time. The plane ride here was uneventful in a good way. I sat next to a lady with a 7 month old baby who was returning home to Ethiopia, so most of the 17 hours flew by with baby-sitting and cooing. My favorite part of the trip so far was our time in Bahir Dar. A quiet town on Lake Tana, a college town, and we had a peaceful quiet time there. We saw hippos in Lake Tana, visited monastaries, and visited the Blue Nile Falls. That was a great time - we followed a path for about 20 minutes, including a brief boat ride across the Blue Nile. We had to weave our way between cows and goats, waved and said "'allo" to every shepherd child we passed, and eventually had the standard entourage of kids walking along with us and staring/asking us where we're from. One guy decided to give us walking music, playing his flute almost the entire walk as accompaniment. It made for a rollicking walk! The Falls were...well, beyond words. Both because it was so beautiful and impressive, and also because I felt so in tune with the rhythm of the place. The entire Bahir Dar trip was made extra special by our fabulous guide, Kassahoun. He is from the town and lived there his entire life, and had great pride in everything we saw. He told stories from growing up there, as well as traditional Ethiopian fables and jokes, and generally made the entire stay personal, fun, and full of laughs. From Bahir Dar, we drove up to Gondor, where yesterday we visited the Royal Enclosure and the famous church (which name I can't remember without my guidebook, sorry). But the best part of the drive was stopping off on the side of the road unexpectedly and taking our coffee ceremony supplies with us to visit a family home. We walked a little path for maybe 10-15 minutes across the countryside (of course, we picked up an entourage along the way of kid shepherds) to our guides friends' house. There, we spent about an hour talking about their lives and ours. We sang "Row your boat" as a round for them, they sang their school opening song for us. We roasted coffee, ate bread, and talked (with translation) about how their lives are changing. The patriarch of the family is sad that it's harder to have good friends now - that people don't spend as much time building community and sharing coffee as they used to. Isn't that same story that we hear from past generations in the US, too? Seems like a universal constant. We fed the kitten bread, shoo'ed the chickens out of the coffee area, and laughed at the cow lowing in the next room over.