29 October 2012

Lalibela Pt. 2 - Ben Abeba for dinner

Ben Ababa  © Rob Augusta
Susanne, the owner of the restaurant

Afework Seifu - Rob and Syndey's guide

Ben Ababa © Rob Augusta
Ben Ababa by night © Rob Augusta
I was so excited to check out Ben Abeba for dinner. We met up with Richard at his hotel 7 Olives, which has a beautiful garden, and walked over. Richard was amazed that we were attracting the attention of many of the locals on the road. He kept saying he was tired of being so interesting. This only really happens to you if you are nice and open in Ethiopia.

Ben Ababa deserves more explanation. We met Susanne, the owner, at the entrance. She is a Scott and Richard being a Scott, they got on immediately. She was so amazingly out of place, yet right in place with what she is doing - the restaurant only being open one year. She came to Ethiopia as a teacher and decided to stay on and invest in her retirement. She has a young Ethiopian man as a partner and she started this restaurant. She is training her staff (something very valuable in Ethiopia), still teaching voluntarily on Saturdays, and promoting local artists. She has big plans to expand - is currently building showers and bathrooms for her staff, plans to build a small hotel, and plans for a store in which to sell local handicrafts.

The design of the restaurant came from two local boys. It is one of the coolest constructions I have been in or on, since there isn't much 'in'. The place consists of these platforms where there are tables and chairs, each one with an amazing view of the open landscape in all directions around. You are perched on a mountainside. She brought us to an area lower to eat because of the wind. She built us a big ole bonfire, gave us gabis (warm Ethiopian blankets) and we enjoyed Ethiopian cuisine and proper chips. I did return back there on my own the following week and tried a shephard's pie which was delicious as well. Our guides joined us. We enjoyed an amazing night there with good conversation and laughter, under a blanket of stars. One of the most romantic spots in the world.

Stars at night put on a show for free

Trip north Part 1: Lalibela

Reunion at the churches!

After spending some days processing my interviews, I left Addis again, this time to the north. I was very excited as my good friend Rob and Syndey had come to Ethiopia on honeymoon. They invited me to join them for a day or two, a meal, a conversation, and I agreed to meet them in Lalibela. It makes me extremely happy to see friends, especially in different towns/cities/countries, and definitely after so much time passes, as it tends to do as we get older. I had not seen this pair in two years. I lived with them years ago while I was finishing up my Master's degree in Connecticut.

I met a man named Richard on the shuttle bus to the plane in Addis. He had just come in from 2 month work in Kenya. He works for the BBC. Immediately I could tell he was a lovely man and our conversation continued as our shuttle bus pulled up to the plane, did not let us out, returned to the terminal, shuffled us up one flight of stairs to our original gate, then down the hall and back down the stairs of another gate, back onto the shuttle bus, and the second time they let us off at the plane. Why? We never found out.

View from Mountain View Hotel of Valley
As we discussed Africa and life we decided to meet for dinner at a restaurant I had heard of from Lori Blumenthal, who works at Powell's bookstore in Portland, OR. I was in buying books on Ethiopia and she pulled me over to her computer to show me photos of this place. It is called Ben Abeba, quite new, owned and run by a Scottish woman and her Ethiopian partner. She made me promise to go there if I made it to Ethiopia. I did. We agreed for a time and I gave him my digits.
We pulled in for a landing in Lalibela and I strained to see any sign of a town. It was just mountains, terraced, agriculture, some forest, more mountains. The landscape is incredible. This is the Ethiopian highlands defined. Tabletop mesas and steep eroded valleys. It is breathtaking. We disembarked on the tarmac, not more than 25 people on the plane, and picked up our luggage from a cart on the tarmac. Richard met with his guide, said goodbye, and I waited for my friend's flight in from another town. It wasn't long in coming. And there they were - so surreal!
View of Ben Ababa from Mountain View Hotel
We all took off to their hotel - a beautiful place situated on the edge of a tabletop, overlooking the entire valley below. The town has a weird sprawl - it is in the mountains above the airport, but there are like three huddled concentrations and the entire place spans a fairly large area, for such a small population (maybe 20,000?). I had booked at a cheap guest house, but their guide, Afework, asked if I could stay for a reasonable price at the place he was staying, just up the road from Syndey and Rob's hotel. He said for logistics it would be easier if I stayed close to the rest of them. I was thankful for his begging and found myself in a lovely room that even had a bathtub. I was in heaven.

After lunch we began touring the churches. The first time I saw images of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela was in a restaurant of the same name in New Haven, Connecticut. I was a teenager. The images captured my imagination and I wished someday to visit this distant land of Ethiopia, these astounding churches in the rocks. I had dreamed of arriving at the churches, walking along a plateau to suddenly be confronted with a deep opening in the ground, a church in the center. I was not prepared for the beauty and mystery we found there. The experience moved me and I felt something shift in my heart. The first day we visited one half of the churches, learned about the history, the architecture, the mystery. One King, King Lalibela, was responsible for most of the church construction. It is said that due to the speed of construction that angels took the nightshift. UNESCO has put absolutely ugly structures over the churches to protect them. They have been damaged by the elements, by earthquakes, but still they stand. Only one having completely collapsed. At one point we journeyed under the ground, through a tunnel that connected the churches. It is said that this experience is like going through the dark night of hell, to emerge in the light and sacredness of heaven (on the other side). It was so dark we had to hold hands - nothing could be seen.
You must remove your shoes to enter the churches
It is said anyone that can pick up this rounded piece of wood is without sin.
Lalibela is a sacred place and I cannot pretend to have retained all of the information our guides provided us. There is a link at the top to read more about what the history of the place is about. But, just to be there, with all these relics, paintings, stone carved with simple tools from the bedrock, gives pause. All the churches are in continuous use from the 14th century. You can attend mass any day of the week - the Sunday mass is meant to be most impressive, though I wasn't there to make it. The images in the architecture are the same images you find in Axum, the former capital town in the north. Axum has a very ambiguous history. Each window, each carved image, has meaning. Faded paintings on wooden doors, on rock ceilings, on mud walls speak of something mysterious. I wish I understood more about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They have many different saints and stories from the Catholic church. The stories are fascinating about saints who live with wild animals, cannibals who are saved from their ways by Mary, so much dedication to Mary stories in general. Someday I will pay more attention and write these things down...

My favorite saint - an Egyptian monk who lived with wild animals and was covered completely in hair himself so he didn't need clothes.

28 October 2012

Addis NGO Fair and driving instruction

Today in Addis Ababa there was an event called the NGO fair. This is something held once per month at a location in Addis - a rather large evangelical christian compound. The place is packed with more Westerners than I have seen since I first came and spent the night at the Sheraton. And everyone is pushing and jostling to consume, consume, consume. I forgot about this very intense culture of ours. I was bargaining for a handmade leather bag, although you aren't meant to bargain at this fair, and this older woman just barged in with a crisp $50 USD bill, doubling the price that I had just bargained down to. I looked at the seller who was reluctant - as custom says we were bargaining - but I encouraged the seller to take the $50 and we laughed afterwards.

A grad student cannot compete with Embassy employees and development community salaries. 

It is encouraging to learn about how many different groups there are in Ethiopia working to help people. Ethiopian, European, Catholic, American based groups targeting different specific needs or subcultures. Each booth represented a different organization; one to get street kids off the street by making leather wallets and bags, another to help with polio victims to make hot plates out of false banana, a quilting collective for HIV/AIDS women, another making wooden and fabric toys for people with eye afflictions, women's cooperative for widows. I bought some present for Christmas.

Efyie - new sandwich place

Driving across Addis (PM Meles looks on)
I also gave Catherine a driving lesson. We drove her Vokswagon across Addis - which for an experienced driver can be terrifying! Catherine took it slow and we survived. We went to the NGO fair, then walked to a new place for sandwiches, went to this very successful Ethiopian eco-friendly shoe store (yes Laura, I went to the store, and yes I can get some ordered for you if you are interested), and had some street coffee (the best kind). We also went to Suzanne's shop, a local artist I met when I first arrived and lived in the house of the Ethiopian family, to look at her overpriced jewelry and clothes. We stopped at the Radisson on the way home (more for the exercise of parking, starting the car again, backing out) for a juice and coffee.

Catherine with her duck
We discussed the NGO fair. My friend Catherine pointed out, just the common people on the street need the business too, why don't these same people go to the regular markets? I am sure that some of them do, but I am sure that some of them never would. The markets here are for negotiating. It is expected, as in many other cultures, but not in the western culture. This makes the Westerners uncomfortable and tired. They would rather just have the stated price and believe it is the market value. Get in, get out. No interest really in engaging the sellers. In the west we are less interested in the social aspects of daily life. Our modern society has us choosing to interact more with our devices and computers than with each other. So, my cynicism says to Catherine, but these people live in gated compounds and then they go in their SUV with their driver to another gated compound to eat, drink coffee, and then to another gated compound to shop, and then to retreat behind their gates again. This is very controlled, predictable, and safe. This makes them feel comfortable. We do this too. But we also go on foot outside the gate, drive ourselves when the car works, take coffee at a street-side traditional coffee spot, shop at the local markets and bargain. Why do we want this experience? We are perhaps looking for something else - not necessarily better or worse, just different. Something outside the walls of a compound...just beyond the gate.

26 October 2012

Sodo, kites, and visit with artisans

Meskel ox
I got to Sodo too late for the Meskel fires, but was happy to be back with Abba Ayele and the Franciscans again. I was introduced to an elderly Italian couple who work with the Franciscans to run an all-girls school. They helped construct new buildings and classrooms, a library (and stocked it with generous donations), landscaped, put in soccer fields, and guided the establishment of the technical school. Lina, the wife, works with the girls after school to make embroidered things that she then pays the girls directly for, sells the products in Europe, and invests the money back into the program. They are a lovely couple.

Abba Ayele
I spent my time in Sodo processing my data. I had a day in Mokenisa again, Meskel - a holiday where people slaughter fattened oxen and eat them raw. I handed out kites, hair ties, soap, and balls to the kids. Even as I watched the joy on their faces as they ran around the place with their rainbow colored kites and balls, I felt something like regret as I knew that some of these kids would not make it into adulthood. But, if I change my perspective to one that is realistic - I cannot inoculate these kids against all the potential diseases they could suffer, cannot make sure they are not malnourished during the dry season, cannot fund the village to educate the kids rather than send them on errands like fetching water, cannot change their lives in a big way, but I can in a small way. I can bring them a smile for an afternoon, or maybe a week, however long the toys last. I can acknowledge that they are kids, and kids like to play and laugh and feel love. And if every moment is now, no past or future, then this is alright for now...right?

All around, the adults were slaughtering and butchering oxen. Abba Ayele said that so many people would get ill because of eating the raw meat, but that it is a strong tradition. The bonfires were set up for the evening, but due to Meles' recent death, public demonstrations were cancelled. But, private celebrations were allowed. We went to the house of a local professor who started his own school for local poor kids. He invited us to eat some spicy shiro - it was so spicy it was hard to eat, but I love spice, much to the delight of his daughters.

Saturday, Lina and I went to the market and I purchased some souvenirs. We met with these people, the artisans community that Lina and her husband are working with in a nearby village. They are trying to establish a kindergarten and get a water supply to the community. These people are called the Shekila Seryee - something like the people who make pottery. But, they are also ostracized and feared. I am told this is because they use fire and there is this sense of a demonic undertone to their work. Blacksmiths, ceramicists, potters...so I decided I would like to go see this community. I purchased coffee pots from the family in the market. They cost the equivalent of $1.50. 

Abba Ayele took me to find a local boy from a compound where everyone was hunkering down for a chat session. The boy he said could take us to the artisans. So off we went down the track in the late part of the day when the sun makes every thing glow and the sky looks perfect. We found a place where some of the families live and had a chat with the woman who makes pottery there. The kids were all around us, wanting their photos taken. I brought them chalk and they were silent as I handed it out. These are some of the poorest people I have encountered - or at least the most unhealthy. All of the kids were sick and unclean. The women were in rags. I felt that it was unfair that they were making such beautiful work, which serves a direct purpose in the society, and an important purpose because coffee is the center of so much in Ethiopia, that they should be shunned and made to live in such abject poverty. I asked about the process, bought a piece of cookware and we left. I thought it would be nice if all the women could work together in one place, like a cooperative, and started having fantasies about raising money to build a facility like the one I would later see in Addis.

At the end of the day, I think everyday I am in Ethiopia, I find something I want to look deeper into. All manner of things capture my attention here: whether it be something in the culture that strikes me, music that I find fascinating, to learn how to dance the traditional dances, to help build a cooperative for a low caste group, to get prostitutes off the streets of Addis and help them get some training to do something else for just as much money, to learn to cook the traditional dishes, to teach English to eager students, to buy a pair of sneakers for a young man who walks around in dress shoes 5 sizes too big. I am here to focus on my research, but I appreciate times when I can focus on the humanity around me, focus on the culture and beauty of being in a place so far away from where I am from and still connect. The final thing I did in Sodo was to get my hair braided, Ethiopian style.

Abba Ayele with his mom eating false banana