20 Jan 97 - Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Ethiopia is a land I have wanted to explore for a long time. The name Ethiopia comes from the Greek word for "sunburned faces". They have 13 months in their calendar and 26 active volcanoes. The good places aren't easy though, and I have been trying for several months to obtain my flight clearance to come here. The greatest danger for me on this trip is when a country thinks I am a spy, and Ethiopia is one of these places. Bob Poole invites me to help with a film on the Tekeze river. Things get a little tricky in a former communist country that has had years of civil war when you ask for permission to fly a small plane around making films. This is the part that I usually call "dancing on ice". If you ask the wrong question, you get a "No", and in a place like this, it can be difficult to then turn a "No" into a "Yes".
I think one of the most important skills in life is learned in high school when you haven't done your homework. You look your teacher in the eye and talk your way out of trouble. However, to get a flight clearance, I can only use a fax machine and wait. I enjoy making films with Bob. He has a wild side to him that likes to strap a camera on a plane and see what you can get. Perhaps, he doesn't really know all the things that can go wrong, but naiveté can be a wonderful thing. It can make you bold, and as Goethe said, 'Boldness has great genius, power and magic in it.' Bob's sister, Joyce, is an elephant researcher in Kenya. She is an attractive woman, and I ask her what make-up a woman uses in the bush. My only experience traveling with a woman in Africa was with one who showed up with 9 pairs of shoes and 3 bags of make-up. I learned about base, cover-up, blush, powder and other things, but in that case, naiveté was not a wonderful thing. It took two days to get down to 2 pairs of shoes and one bag of make-up, and a lot of tears were shed in the process. Joyce tells me that experienced bush girls only need lip ice, powder, mascara, and a good perfume to look elegant in the bush, and I file this information away for future use.
Addis Ababa means "new flower", and as I touch down in Ethiopia's capital, I come the closest to ground-looping that I ever have. One of my brakes is weak, I am over-weight with fuel, and landing at 7,700 feet altitude is fast enough without having been cleared to land downwind with a 10 knot tailwind. I am reminded of what someone once told me. 'It is never just one thing that gets you, it is a combination of several things.' I report to the flight office to practice my "talk your way out of trouble" skills, and to get a feel for the people and the systems in this new place.
These are not Africans. Their minds work differently here. They are polite and the smiles are nice, but this is hard work. There is something inside of them that has seen too much. I inquire about the fees, which seem reasonable, and then I wonder what would have happened if I had arrived without my long-awaited flight clearance. "You would have gone to jail," I am told. I wait, and then I smile, because I know they are telling me the truth. I park my plane on the far side of the ramp near some exotic turbine Beavers and other Cessna taildraggers, and I am greeted by a mission pilot named Vern. I must look pretty ragged and out of place, because he invites me back to stay with him and his family.
After 3,000 years, Ethiopia had the oldest existing direct-descent monarchy in the world. Emperor Haile Selassie was the 265th Monarch, and "the Derg" killed him. The Derg was a communist reign of red terror that took hold of Ethiopia in 1975. I can still see it in people's eyes. They are suspicious, and there seems to be a deep quality of envy inside of them. I am told that the Ethiopians don't like to see another Ethiopian get ahead; they will talk him down or hurt him. I find this very hard to believe, but then I am told a joke that they tell here about themselves. 'One day, God came to earth and said to an Ethiopian, "I will give you anything you ask for, but I will give your neighbor double." God gave the Ethiopian a day to think about his reply. The next day, the Ethiopian said to God, "I want you to take one of my eyes."' I am shocked by this. I don't understand it. If everyone wants to hold everyone back, no one will go anywhere. Every time I drive to the airport, I pass a sign on the side of the road that reads "Hard Luck Cafe". The longer I stay here, the more I understand this sign.
My German friend, Achim, asks if I can take him to see the control tower. I have been up there several times, and I am about to tell him, "Of course," but then I stop. It is just now that I realize the fear that exists here. In any other country, it would be very easy, but here I find that I am already thinking ahead of the suspicions and difficulties that this could bring on me. "Why does he want to see the tower? How do you know him?" There is no such thing as fun here. This is the ?Derg? of this country; you never know when they will come to get you. It crushes your spirit, and you live life looking behind you, rather that looking ahead.
I am not allowed to fly my plane around the country, but this doesn't surprise me. It is actually much cheaper to fly with Ethiopian Airlines. I am searched three times before boarding the aircraft. They take all my AA batteries and my two inch pocket knife. There seems to be an unusually high level of security around the plane. One of the passengers tells me that Ethiopian Airlines has had 17 hijacks in the past 12 months. I knew one of the passengers who was killed on the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 757 that was recently hijacked. The plane ran out of fuel near the Comoros Islands and crashed in the sea. One of the pilots survived, and that was his third hijacking. This is a land with many guns, and these are people who know how to live by the gun.
There are two sources to the Nile. Ptolemy had said the source was "the Mountains of the Moon". He was half right. The White Nile begins in Uganda, but the Blue Nile begins in Ethiopia; they meet in Khartoum. One the flight from Addis to Bahir Dar, the deep gorges and yellow-green relief of the Ethiopian Highlands is truly spectacular. This is a land of mountainous vistas. On the south edge of Lake Tana, I watch the Blue Nile spill down what the Ethiopians call Tisisat (smoke of fire). It is so easy to see a rainbow at a waterfall like this. You just place yourself so the sun is behind you as you look at the falls, then you look 30 degrees away from the shadow of your head in any direction where there is water, and you will see a rainbow. If there is enough mist, you can see two rainbows. The red is on the outside of the first and on the inside of the second as the light is refracted by the drops of water. One of the most memorable experiences I have ever had was looking down into the Victoria Falls gorge in Zimbabwe at night during a full moon. There I saw a "moonbow". It was exactly the same, only the colors were grayer and more mysterious.
The town of Gondar was the royal capital for Emperor Fasiladas in the 17th century. The palaces here were based on the old palaces of Arabia. They are three story rectangular blocks with round turrets on the corners. The taxis from the airport are overpriced, so I flag down a horse cart and hire a lift into town for $1. I am in no rush. Several other people follow suit, and the taxi drivers begin to lower their prices before they lose everyone to the horses. Gondar is the gateway to the Simien Massif and to Ras Deshen (king of rubble) - the fourth highest mountain in Africa. According to Homer, the Greek Gods used to spend their vacations amidst the Simien mountains playing chess. This entire massif is like climbing through a chessboard.
In the village of Debarek, I find a young Tigraian man named Zewdu Gabra Kidan Woldu to guide me into the Simiens. He tells me that he saw a Simien Fox 10 days ago near a village in the Ambaras valley. The Simien Fox is very rare. I am wary of guides who are too keen to guide me, but this man loves wildlife, and I like him. Zewdu is 19 years old. He is the eldest son of 6 boys and one girl. He watched the Derg shoot his father in September 1990. They suspected he was giving sugar to the TPLF (Tigraian Army), so they killed him and left his body in the street near the Debarek bus station. I am paying Zewdu about $8 a day to guide me, and this he gives to his mother to support his brothers and sister.
This is still a rough enough place to get to that you find odd people here. A German named Thomas wants to come with me. He carries divining rods with him and is interested in finding earth meridians. Along the road to Sankaber Camp there are thousands of Gelada Baboons. These are also called "bleeding heart baboons", and they are a combination between baboon and lion in appearance with their tremendous flowing manes about their necks and a red fleshy blaze upon their breast. Some of the troops are over 500 in number, and their numbers cover the yellow grassy slopes along the cliffs. From the cliff's edge, looking north, the Simiens fall away to what the Ethiopians call imet gogo. I recognize this from the picture on my Ethiopian Airlines ticket, and this is one of the most impressive "gigantic chessboard" sights in the Simiens.
I don't like baboons, but I respect them. A friend who was in Central African Republic tells me about two French soldiers who were hunting baboons northwest of Bangui near the French Military base of Bouar in 1989. They didn't like baboons either, and the entire troop turned on them and killed them. The road winds down a cliff and across a dramatic knife edge to Sankaber Camp. We find Hussein Makonan and his AK-47 here. He is our zabanya (guard) from the mountain village of Geech, and we also find Asrat Mulat, the mule driver. Every mountain has its own particular way of doing things, and in the Simiens, everything moves by mules. We end up with two horses and one mule. I like doing things the local way, and my horse is called Dalch - which I am told means "like white". I soon learn that if you know horses in other places, this doesn't mean you know horses in Ethiopia. The first thing is that you mount and dismount from the right side. The next thing is that it doesn't do any good to kick them; you have to speak Amharic. The two most important words are che (go) and tosh (stop), and they respond better to a stick tapping them on the neck than they do to a tug on the reins. The other really useful word is conjo (beautiful), but this is for Asrat and Hussein to keep them informed that I am enjoying the mountains.
Between Sankaber and Chenek, there is a 1,100 meter waterfall called kabal on the jinbar wenz river. It drifts down a far away cliff face like a bridal veil. I don't like the road we are on though. A few years ago, this was just a mule track. I fear that where the road goes, the vehicle will follow, then a place can become too accessible and it will be forever changed. In the late evening before reaching Chenek camp, we come to a place which Zewdu calls corvat matea. This is a hole in the wall - a gap - which is like a window above a sheer drop and a vast beautiful sight below. Zewdu tells me to approach cautiously, because this is a very good place to see the Walia Ibex. The Walia is a type of wild goat with large knobbed scimitar-shaped horns that is only found in the Simiens. It lives on the nearly vertical cliff faces and narrow ledges and is rarely seen below 8,000 feet. Zewdu tells me that due to poaching and loss of their habitat there are perhaps only 350 Walia left in the Simiens today.
When we arrive at Chenek we are greeted by an old man. He wears a mass of cloth wrapped around his head, and he greets Zewdu and Hussein by touching his head from one side to the other with theirs four times. I also approach him to do this, but he starts laughing at me. It is a pleasant way of greeting as you grab the shoulders of the other and tap your heads together. This Simien Mountains National Park is unique because there are villages within the park, and the inhabitants of these villages cultivate within the park. It is beautiful to see these Amhara people living so traditionally in such a beautiful place, but I wonder how long it can last. Chenek camp is on the far eastern edge of the park, from here, we will need Hussein and his gun. It is more of a deterrent against bandits than an actual tool of defense, but the journey on to Ras Deshen continues out of the park to the east. I watch Asrat bind the horses together for the night. Their forelegs are bound by a rope to their necks, so that they have to hop in order to move, and each is secured to the other by a short rope between their necks. In the end, they are happily grazing three abreast, then shuffling in unison with short hops to a new location to graze. They are going nowhere quickly and are a pretty sight all standing together on the top of the hill silhouetted in the moonlight.
Some of the gradients are too steep to use the horses, and Asrat takes them up a different route, yet I am amazed at the very rugged terrain they are able to carry us across. There is no wasted fat on these animals. They are bony, but muscular and sturdy. They have a quiet and steady disposition, and they know that the side of a mountain is no place to be difficult. After crossing one ridge, we descend far down to the Tekeze river before beginning to climb again up the far side. The villagers are harvesting barley on the steep mountain slopes. The barley is placed in a flat area and threshed by driving cattle and mules around and around on top of it. The grain is ground and mixed with water and allowed to ferment for three days before being cooked lightly like a pancake. The resulting creation is a damp sour-tasting doughy substance called njera which has the textured look of the inside of a sheep's stomach. Barley and a similar grain called teff are the staple food in Ethiopia. The grain is also used to brew a local beer called talla. In a little village called Mizma on the side of a mountain, I settle myself in a large bundle of straw, exhausted and look across the steep valley to another mountain slope. As the sun sets, the mountain becomes a dark face in the night punctuated with the tiny scattered fires of farmers guarding their grain from bushbuck through the night. It is Christmas Eve, and the entire mountain sparkles like a Christmas tree.
We begin our final climb at 4 o'clock in the morning. It is cold and the stars are brilliant. It is not easy to see where we are going, but Zewdu is confident. By 8 o'clock, we are standing at 15,157 feet on the summit of Ras Deshen. Hussein's fingers are freezing from the cold steel of his AK-47, and for a moment we pause to soak up the light of the rising sun. Christmas Day is a 15 hour day of up and down and up again as we begin to retrace our journey off the mountain. I listen to Thomas explain his art of divining. Thomas is a brilliant man who speaks five languages. He tells me about the 5 Chinese elements: fire, earth, metal, water, wood. Each one gives creation to the other in a continuous circle, and in the opposite direction, each can destroy the other. Thomas also tells me about the 5 Chinese seasons: spring, summer, Indian summer, fall, winter. I am fascinated by all this, but too exhausted to comprehend some of it. One of Thomas' passions is Feng Shui. It is the ancient Chinese art of placement. It means "wind water", and it the study of the key of nature - where to build a house, where to put your bed, and how to live with the forces of nature. I try to write and hike at the same time, because I want to learn more about these things when I get to Asia. Thomas then skips to Italy and begins to tell me about the medieval mathematician Fibonacci. He was the first to discover that 1 divided by 1.618 equals 0.618. "No other number will do this," Thomas says; "This is the number that makes everything special." Stradivarius knew that this was what enhances the vibrational power. It is also the basis for the architectural spiral principle; it is very balancing to the eye. It is like looking at the spiral of a rose bud from above. Thomas begins telling me the way DNA combines with 3 variables and 64 combinations, and I am not sure if I am on the side of a mountain or in a physics classroom, but I am exhausted. In the evening, I am prostrate on the floor of a thatched stone hut. Thomas pulls out his homeopathic medicines that he always carries with him. I am taking globules of coca from the coca leaves for mountain sickness. Each of these is placed under my tongue and allowed to dissolve slowly. "The saliva takes the message," Thomas tells me. Similis similibus curantur (the same will cure the same), so if something makes you sick, the same thing can make you better. Thomas tells me that if an onion makes me sneeze, then you take the alluim cepa - the base - out of the onion. You then "dynamize" this by shaking one drop of this with 100 drops of solvent and it is put on a milk sugar tablet. When you first sneeze, you take this, and with time, you will stop sneezing. "It was Hahneman who invented Homeopathic medicine," Thomas continues. "It is based on quantum vibrations." I am amazed that I have to learn about all these things exhausted on Christmas day in the Simien mountains, but there is an old Buddhist proverb which says, 'The teacher appears when the student is willing.'
There are 50,000 churches for 50 million people in Ethiopia, and in the foothills of the Lasta mountains southeast of Ras Deshen is one of the most intriguing sights I have ever seen - the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. As a child, I remember creating an underground tunnel network in deep snow. Lalibela is a paradise of underground tunnels and churches of solid rock. I remember when I was in Bahir Dar, I was surrounded by a swarm of bees, so it must not be that uncommon here. When it happened to the younger brother of the Zagwe king of Roha in the 11th century, they called him Lalibela because the bees had prophesied his greatness. The king was jealous and tried to poison him. Instead of dying, Lalibela was in a death-like sleep for 3 days. In his sleep, an angel showed him the churches that he was to build. When he awoke, he went in to the wilderness and then later returned to claim the thrown of what then became Lalibela. It is said that it took 24 years to build the churches here, and it is said that angels worked side by side with the stone masons. The rock is a pinkish volcanic tuff and the churches are very powerful. The first time I go to them is at 6 o'clock in the morning. I take my shoes off and enter the larger Bet Medhane Alem and sit on the cold wavy time-polished rock floor listening to the priests chant in ge'ez. The church measures 34 meters by 24 meters and is 12 meters high. The priests are wrapped in a white gabe carry sticks with a metal bar across the top. I see these sticks being used to lean against during the long hours they stand in prayer or read from the Dawit they all carry. It is amazing for me to imagine how they made these structures so long ago. They are beautifully designed and finished. Some of them have secret staircases that lead up to little rooms with a window that looks out into the hollow between the church and the surrounding rock it is carved from. I can imagine that a box could have been drawn on the ground, then the rock removed from around it, but how then do you enter the building and begin carving from the inside out. Someone mentioned to me that they probably created an upper level window and entered through that and began carving from the inside top down, but I am still staggered by the delicate columns, pilasters, beams and arches that were retained in stone. It is obvious that the architects had a very high level of technical knowledge, and one of the theories of the "angels" is that these were Knights of the Templar who came here from Europe to oversee the construction.
The orientation of the church is such that "holy of holies" faces the east and the main entrance faces west. The most important feature of the church is the tabot which rests on the altar. This is made of wood or stone and contains the law of God. The legend says that the son of King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, Menelik I, brought the Ark of the Covenant with the tabot from Jerusalem to Ethiopia. This is currently being kept in Our Lady of Zion Cathedral in Axum. All of the tabots in these churches are copies of that tabot. They are never shown to the public, but during Timkat (epiphany) and certain processions, the priests will carry the tabot on their head covered with embroidered cloth.
Far north in the town of Axum, I walk up to Our Lady of Zion Cathedral and sit on the steps before the door. I wonder about the magic and mystery of a story. So what if the Ark of the Covenant is in there. If we knew that and photographed it and studied it, the magic would be gone. For me, the power lies with the priest dressed in black who isn't about to let me go in. I am surprised that if the Ark is in there why someone hasn't blown the church up and stolen it during the many past wars with Italians or Eritreans. I prefer the mystery.
On a hill overlooking Axum a small boy takes me to see a tank. He hops in it and begins cranking a lever to rotate the turret towards me. I can't help but notice the contrast of this small boy with this weapon of war. There are other contrasts here too. Women in Ethiopia keep their last names when they get married, just as they do in Iceland, but about 85% of the women in Ethiopia are still circumcised. This is a Pharaonic custom that has been carried down from Egypt to Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, parts of Kenya and other places. In the highlands it involves only the removal of the female clitoris, but in Somalia and Harar, other parts of the genitalia are removed and infibrulated. The idea is to keep the teenage woman from being promiscuous. It is now against the law in Ethiopia, but an educated woman tells me that it is still happening just as much as it did before, and it is perpetuated by the older women. Another person tells me, "If it wasn't important, it would have died out. You can't say it is wrong."
I track down an old acquaintance in Addis Ababa. Alistair Graham has been
working with the National Parks Rehabilitation in Southern Ethiopia Project. The
last time I saw him was in Bangui, Central African Republic when I was working
on a film called "Ivory Wars" about elephant poaching. Alistair tells me he has
seen the Chadian horsemen poaching wildlife with spears from horseback. It is a
dramatic image and has been captured in paintings by a Frenchman named Jean-Luc
in a book called "La Chasse Oublier" (the forgotten hunt). Here life has
not been so exciting for Alistair. In 1960, 46% of Ethiopia was forest, now only
3.8% is forest. "This land in the south has never been managed," Alistair says.
If they get cooperation from the government, they hope to save 5,000 sq. km. of
the 7,000 sq. km. parks. "Half of the Omo has been lost to settlement," he says.
Every man down there over the age of 18 has an AK-47. The government encourages
this because it doesn't feel it can maintain security. "This is not an area of
lawlessness; the guns are just a deterrent to trouble," Alistair believes. The
biggest problem in Ethiopia is that the government has an ancient inefficient
beaurocracy. It used to be a dictatorship of Kings, then the Derg increased the
beaurocracy, now they realize this and are trying to change it. The real hope is
that Ethiopians love to visit their parks. They walk from surrounding villages
and pay the entrance fees in the southern parks, and Addis is surrounded by
National Parks which are visited by thousands of people. There is tremendous
interest here and very little abuse by internal staff, which is quite the
opposite of the rest of Africa; they just need to get it organized. There is a
well-known Amharic saying in Ethiopia - kas ikas nkulal bagir ihedal -
which means, "step by step you will see an egg walking."