Wednesday, July 4, 2012

African Adventure Day 8: Our Last Day--The Mercato and The Sheraton

Friday, June 8, 2012

Friday was our last day in Ethiopia; our plane left that night at 1:00am. We woke up and ordered pizza delivery for breakfast, which ended up being closer to lunch. My friend went off to work and we prepared to spend our last day visiting the Mercato, which is the biggest market in Africa, and shopping for souvenirs. My Friend (and most of her friends) had never been to the Mercato, though it is famous for pickpockets and purse snatchers. We decided to take a taxi there so her car would be safe, and had ourselves a little adventure into the poverty stricken region of Addis. The Mercato is definitely not the tourist destination of the city, and isn’t even a place to really buy souvenirs. Instead, it’s a market for the poor of the city to buy everyday things, like clothing, mattresses, even linoleum flooring. We walked up and down the streets, getting a feel for the area and protecting our belongings. People were definitely staring shamelessly at us, and shouting at us as we passed. There were no other white people that we saw, and the streets were overrun with overflowing garbage bins and even dead cats and chickens in the middle of the street, creating an overall stench that I imagine is similar to rotting corpses. It was not the most pleasant experience, and we quickly left after walking down a few streets.

View down one of the streets in the Mercato

Instead of shopping at the Mercato, we decided to hit up some high end shopping malls to find souvenirs. We were fairly successful, finding a little something for almost everyone in a string of shops located in the top floor of the mall all owned by the same person. However, we needed to buy one or two more things, so we continued the shopping hunt. While we were at the mall, my Friend got a call from work and had to visit her workshops, so we left to see some of the places where she worked throughout the city. The company villa was near one of the workshops, and my Friend took us to see it. Fabulously large and, of course, gated, we took a tour through the massive, empty maze of a building. Some of the highlights include these wonderful light fixtures that spun like disco balls, a sauna room, multiple balconies, and a shower in the master bathroom that looked like a machine from the future with multiple jets and knobs and buttons! I kept saying, "Oh my gosh, there's MORE?!" because the house just kept going on and on...if you look at the photo below, the villa extends back about 5 times the width you see here. HUGE!!!

The front of the villa was too big to get in one photo!

View from the third story

This was an amazing disco light of awesome!

Todd checking out the front of the villa 

In the afternoon, we headed back to the apartment to pack up all our things and put them in the car since we would spend the rest of the evening out and then head straight to the airport by 11:00pm. We decided to finish souvenir shopping at the Hilton, and after some success, I still hadn’t gotten any souvenirs for myself! The last place to check was the Sheraton, and we would be meeting the Godfather and his Henchmen there for the evening anyways, so it was worth a shot.

The Sheraton in Addis Ababa is basically a glorious palace. It is absolutely nothing like the Sheratons you find in the US. I’m mad that I didn’t take any photos! The inside was all polished with fountains, sweeping staircases, columns, and balconies. The epitome of a 5 star establishment! We headed to the row of boutique gift shops, where I found a beautiful silk scarf that has images of the windows I liked so much at Lalibela, designed by a well-known Ethiopian designer. The scarf was exorbitantly priced, but this was my last chance to buy a souvenir!

After shopping, we went down to the bar to order some finger food and drinks. The Godfather and his Henchmen were there, and it was a happy reunion. I was still feeling ill, so I drank 7up and nibbled on some mild eggrolls. A live band from Atlanta was there performing covers of popular American songs like Michael Jackson and Rihanna, and it was another occasion I would have definitely enjoyed immensely had I not been so sick.

The Sheraton, photo courtesy of ESDP

The Sheraton, photo courtesy of Addis Ababa Online

Pool bar at the Sheraton, photo courtesy of

Inside the Sheraton, photo courtesy of Five Star Alliance

At the Sheraton

I like how I'm making a funny face, and the girl behind me is totally posing. 
No idea who she is.

We headed straight from the Sheraton to the airport, riding in the Godfather’s brand new Porsche SUV with a glass ceiling and sound system that is better than most nightclubs’. If we were scared for our lives driving regularly in Addis, driving with the Godfather was terrifying! He drove so fast! But it was actually quite fun, and I never felt unsafe. We got dropped off, and checked in, having numerous lines to wait in at the airport: the initial security line, check in line, immigration line, another security line, a line to have our tickets stickered at the gate. Then we learned (around midnight or 1:00am) that our gate was being changed. We had to head to a new floor, all moving in a mass exodus of exhausted travelers, and had to wait in another line to get on a bus shuttle, and another line to get on the actual plane.

The plane ride was uneventful, though I did note that even on a flight from 1:00-7:00am when you would expect to be sleeping, Ethiopian Airlines insists on feeding you as if it were a regular day—oh look! It’s 3:00am! Must be time for dinner! Our layover in London was short this time, but I was feeling just as bad from my stomach bug. We stayed in the airport, eating a lunch provided by various airport retailers, and we even saw some people who are in a band that Todd likes. The plane ride from London to San Francisco was elongated by my illness and anxiousness to be home, but was otherwise uneventful and we landed in the afternoon on Saturday, June 9th.

View of England from our plane!

My stomach bug lasted until Monday, but I had plenty of time to rest and recuperate. Life is now back to normal, and I hope you have enjoyed reading about our African Adventures!

Monday, July 2, 2012

African Adventure Day 7: The Prince

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Our guide had been kind enough to arrange our taxi ride the Thursday morning back to the airport from our hotel in Lalibela, and we woke up early to get ready. During the night, we had awoken to some scratching sounds in the bathroom…it sounded like a mouse was eating our bathmat. When Todd got up to check, the light scared away whatever it was. For me, this is basically the equivalent of camping.

After sleeping for a few more hours in a surprisingly comfortable bed, I tried to use the shower but, despite the careful instructions from the hotel staff, the water never got warm. This resulted in a freezing half-bath where I stood outside of the shower and splashed water on myself to try and get clean from the blanket of dust that had coated itself on me over the past 24 hours. We then returned to the restaurant for breakfast, where I decided to try Ethiopian coffee for the first time since our arrival. Big mistake! Whether it was the coffee itself or it just triggered an illness that began the night before, I developed some kind of food poisoning or stomach bug that I fought all the way back to the airport and the entire length of the plane ride back to Addis.

Ethiopian coffee

Todd enjoying "Ethiopian dessert" aka a toothpick

Right before the illness hit

Back in Addis, my Friend picked us up at the airport and dropped us off at the Godfather’s apartment. Feeling terrible with my stomach bug in full swing, I crawled into bed and laid around for the majority of the day in various states of delirium. We had plans to go horseback riding that evening with a friend, and I hoped that I would feel better by that time. After all, this was our last night in Ethiopia! So I sucked it up, grabbed a plastic bag for barfing emergencies and some top ramen to soothe my stomach, and jumped in the car to have one last adventure.

It was late when we arrived at a magnificent home, which belonged to (who we like to call) the Prince, a friend of my Friend with a fabulous British accent who is somehow related to Haile Selassie and has an affinity for playing polo and collecting Range Rovers or something of the sort. Though he lives alone, his driveway is packed with all of his fabulous vehicles and he has a beautiful stable full of awesome horses who apparently have these exciting haircuts that make them look more like Paris supermodels than horses. The house was palatial and we sat by the fire sharing stories and making new friends, with everyone drinking top shelf cocktails except me, who feasted on ramen noodles prepared by the staff (but you have to say "staff" in a British accent so it sounds more like "stoff"). It was one of those nights that would have been perfect if it wasn’t for my illness. 

Below are some photos from the Prince's house that Todd took:

View of the Prince's living room from the second floor

We are seated around the fire, to the right of that classic vehicle

Todd put up a valiant fight at pool...but lost by one point

One of the halls is all decked out in fabulous polo gear

Eating some ramen to calm my angry tummy.
I'm wearing a hat inside because I look totally haggard.

Hilarious because I'm totally creeping and my Friend has no idea!

Trying out some holistic pressure point magic to cure my illness!

Close up

Sunday, July 1, 2012

African Adventure Day 6: Lalibela

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

After a mere 4 hours of sleep, we woke up at 4:00am to get ready to our early morning flight to Lalibela. I felt so guilty dragging my poor Friend out of bed so she could cart us off to the airport. Armed only with light backpacks, for some reason I thought the whole check in/security process would be easy and quick, but they have you go through SO many scanners and xray machines…one when you first enter the building, one to get to the terminal, one to get to your gate! I see why they recommend you arrive 3 hours before your flight leaves. Most of the shops weren’t open yet, but we found our gate and dug into our dwindling stash of snacks for a breakfast of granola bars and beef jerky.

When we were ready to board, we had to walk down a few flights of stairs to go outside and jump on a shuttle bus (the kind everyone stands seats) to be taken to a tiny little plane. I’d say that about half of us traveling were tourists, and the other half were Africans. Todd and I were very tired and happened to have the misfortune of an Indian businessman seated directly behind us, grilling an American PhD student about her life and travels at an increasingly loud volume the entire flight.

After about an hour, we landed in Gonder, which is a city I had really wanted to visit because of its medieval castle and rich history. Even the small airport was built with battlements to look like a little castle! But it was just a pit stop on the way, and we didn’t even get off the plane. We’d have to save Gonder for another trip. A few passengers disembarked, and new ones got on to fill in the gaps (almost like a bus, I thought) and we flew on to Lalibela, where the plane would stop again and then make the final leg of the trip on to Axum. Axum is another destination I would love to visit...looks like we are going back to Ethiopia in the future!

View of Gonder's Airport from the plane

When we arrived in Lalibela, the airport was tiny, with just one room for arrivals and one for departures. The arrivals room was lined with fold-out tables that had different hotel representatives seated with hand-written signs. Our Bradt guide had given us some great and affordable recommendations for traveling to Lalibela, and my Friend had arranged for our guide to pick us up at the airport, since it’s about a half hour drive to the actual town of Lalibela…and there he was with a sign for Todd Sipes (though he and the hotel employees kept calling him Tobb Spice). We jumped into a community van, and made our way through twisting, dry countryside viewing the local life and animals along the way. Some of the coolest animals I saw on our trip were during this drive: there was one pure white ox or bull that reminded me of an episode of True Blood, and one that was white with small black spots like a Dalmatian. I tried to get a photo but wasn’t speedy enough.

Tiny Lalibela Airport 

The town of Lalibela is sort of sprawling outwards, with people moving outside of the town proper and into the surrounding areas to leave more space for the churches and developing tourism. The huts here are more made out of sticks than mud, or rocks with straw or wood roofs. I think the drier climate might have something to do with this?? The main part of town (the old part) slopes down a big hill, and the streets are built with large, uneven cobblestones that you really have to focus on to navigate. The life here is extremely rural, and you can see villagers at work all around you, carrying jugs of water, leading donkeys loaded with grains or hay, preparing tef for injera, washing dishes or clothes in large bins of dirty water. People would frequently wave or say hello, and were all very friendly but we were thankful we had a guide with us!

Our hotel, The Seven Olives, is the oldest hotel in Lalibela and is situated at the top of a big hill in the old part of town, in a grove of beautiful trees and flowers. Our guide, whose name was Teddy (or Toddy, or maybe Taddy) let us check in and would wait for us to drop our things off in the room before we began our tour. The hotel was painted brightly in a great shade of Tiffany blue (my favorite!) and our small room had bright blue painted walls, with a metal door that only stayed closed if you lock it, and a dirty floor I was afraid to walk on without shoes. In the bathroom, we had a water heater that we had to work ourselves and turn on 30 minutes before we wanted to shower if we hoped for hot water. In front of our room, there was a beautiful garden setting with tables and chairs available for outdoor dining or enjoying coffee.

The Seven Olives

The Seven Olives' garden patio

Our room...the bed was actually super comfy 

Tiffany blue hotel! Standing outside our room, looking towards the restaurant.

The view of Lalibela from outside our room.

Our hotel's garden patio.

After dropping off our bags in our room, we headed with Teddy down to begin our tour of the churches. He is a deacon in one of the churches we would visit in the afternoon and was very knowledgeable, but had a thick accent that was difficult to decipher. I was glad that I had studied Lalibela in advance so thoroughly because it helped me understand what he was saying. As we were getting to know each other, he explained that he went to school to become a deacon with the hopes of becoming a priest, but to become a priest you must first get married and he was definitely not. 

On our way to the office where we could buy our tickets, we learned that the villagers we were passing would all be relocated by next year so the section of town with the churches would have more space to build a large garden. We also saw traditional houses, different from any others in Ethiopia, that are made from rock with straw roofs, built in 2 storeys--the first for cooking and the second for sleeping. These old traditional buildings can not be demolished because of their historical significance, but instead are used to house pilgrims who travel here for festivals, especially Christmas.

After buying our tickets, we began our tour of the rock-hewn churches. And even after studying them so fairly in depth beforehand, I was not prepared for the massive size! Most of the churches are protected by modern overhangs that help shield from the elements, which is necessary but distracting. We visited the Northwestern cluster in the morning, beginning with Bet Medhane Alem, which is the biggest of all the churches. The church is enormous, a monolith carved out of a giant rock; they carved the outside from the top down, and carved the inside from the bottom up. We learned about the holes in the rock wall outside of the church used to be graves, but have since been emptied and are now used by hermits. When we went inside the church, we had to remove our shoes (our socks were SO dirty at the end of the day) and the floors are uneven rock covered with worn carpets. The inside of Bet Medhane Alem was very like a cathedral, with supporting columns and sweeping arches, and ceremonial drums on the floor. Each church has a Holy of Holies, curtained off and containing a tabot, which is a replica of the stone tablets contained in the Ark of the Covenant, which is said to be held in the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum.  In front of the Holy of Holies in each church, there are large modern paintings of different religious figures and events propped up sort of haphazardly.

The churches are protected with large overhangs

Double cross windows

Todd on the right gives some size comparison

The window on top, with the half circle above the rectangle, is the traditional Axumite style

These holes used to be graves, and are now used by hermits

Ceremonial drums

Inside the church. Behind the curtain is the Holy of Holies.

The entire church, including arches and pillars, is carved out of just one giant rock.

We took a short tunnel to three more churches, the next of which was Bet Maryam, a church dedicated to St. Mary and thought to be the first church built in Lalibela. Outside there is a pool, green with algae and plant life, where once a year at Christmas they lower infertile women on a rope down to the water and dip them 3 times, claiming that it will bring reproductive miracles. I was struck by the windows of the church, featuring traditional Axumite style (see above photo) as well as crosses and even swastikas. The interior of this church is elaborately carved and painted, with crosses, Stars of David, and religious scenes. It is the only church in Lalibela that is decorated like this. The second storey of the church has seven rooms, which hold the treasures of the church and which only the priests may enter. There is also a veiled pillar which is said to have the stories of how the churches were built, the journey of the Ark of the Covenant, and the beginning and the end of the world written in both ancient Greek and the ancient Ethiopian language Ge’ez. However, this pillar is never uncovered; the local priests say that it is too sacred and that it glowed brightly until the 16th century, and it is too dangerous to lift the veil and show to researchers.

Bet Maryam

Swastika windows 

Some of the priests

Decorative ceilings and arches

Beautiful carvings

Star of David with a cross inside

Fertility pool

The next churches we visited were Bet Mikael and Bet Golgotha. They are semi-monolithic, meaning instead of free standing from the surrounding rock, they are built into the rock face and are still attached. Traveling between churches was an adventure, since we had to make our way through tunnels, across narrow walkways, and over uneven stairways. After climbing our way into Bet Mikael, we were greeted with the smoke of incense and sounds of chanting and drums from a ceremony that was being held in the church. Through the church you could access Bet Golgotha, but it is unfortunately off-limits to women, so Todd went inside without me to see the carving of saints while I watched the ceremony continue. Ethiopian legend says that King Lalibela, for with the town is named, is buried underneath Bet Golgotha, and so the soil is sacred.

The door on the right goes into Bet Mikael

Traveling between churches

Next we crossed a small bridge and walked past the Tomb of Adam, which is a symbolic tomb and not an actual one. We made our way out of the main entrance to the churches (pausing for a photo!) and began a short walk to the most famous of the churches, Bet Giyorgis, dedicated to St. George and shaped like a cross. This monolith is excavated below ground level, sunken into a large rock, with a deep courtyard surrounding it. You have to walk in a long, narrow tunnel to get to the entrance of the church. Our guide informed us that it was built as a symbol of Noah’s Ark, which is why the windows on the first level are fake and look like they are closed up (to keep out water), and the top windows are open to let in light. The top layer of the building above the windows is solid rock, and the roof slants because it was the natural slanting of the rock it was carved from. Taking some photos around the church, we were able to see some wild monkeys that sort of looked like lemurs.

Entrance to the church cluster

Walking between the churches

Bet Giyorgis

View from Bet Giyorgis

Note the bottom windows are not functional

Wild monkeys!!

Bet Giyorgis

After visiting Bet Giyorgis, we went back to our hotel for lunch since the churches closed for 2 hours. We rested in our room since it was fiercely hot and dusty outside, and then enjoyed lunch in the hotel restaurant—I had a “cheeseburger” and Todd had a “Philly cheesesteak sandwich,” which were actually pretty good and came with these potatoes that were a cross between French fries and potato chips. Before our food was served, we had this excellent sweet bread that looked like a thicker version of injera but was very different in taste. I could probably eat that forever! At this time, we learned that electricity and water were kind of optional in our room, and if you flushed the toilet, the sink wouldn’t work. And periodically, the electricity would just go out. We bought large bottles of water in the restaurant to use in our room in lieu of a functioning faucet.

After lunch we met back up with Teddy to continue our tour with the southeast cluster of churches. We took a long walk down to the cluster, enjoying the village life hard at work around us, and approached our first church of the afternoon, Bet Gebriel-Rafael. This church is considered by many researchers to have originally been built as the residence of King Lalibela, and has a fortress-like appearance and a slanting wall above a green river that is said to be the “Road to Heaven” that pilgrims used to attempt to climb up (that practice is now forbidden). Passing through a low-hanging cave, we crossed a new bridge that used to be a very rickety wooden walkway extending across a deep trench to enter the church. Going through the church, we were able to climb out onto a ledge right above the trench with no guardrails or anything to prevent you from falling down!

That bridge crosses over the green river

The flat sloping wall above the river is the Road to Heaven

After going through the church, we were able to stand on that ledge.

Standing on the new bridge

View from the ledge

Our next journey was to travel through a completely pitch black tunnel (aka the Tunnel to Hell) where you have to feel along above you and to the right to navigate. You literally can’t see even an inch in front of your face! It was so scary! But climbing out of the tunnel, it was like emerging into a whole new world! Like in a movie, where they travel underground and suddenly come up into the center of the earth to find a tropical paradise, except with a giant rock church instead of a jungle. It was pretty exciting! This church was Bet Emanuel, the only monolith in the southeast cluster. In the courtyard, priests were rolling up a variety of blankets on the ground. Because the interior of this church is small, the ceremonies must be held outdoors.

Coming up out of the tunnel

Bet Emmanuel

The Lion King?!

Emerging from a hole in the wall leading from this church to the next path, we made our way through a narrow walkway, up a few staircases, and found another church with the roof still connected to the rock, and tunnels surrounding the church (Bet Abba Libanos?). We visited a few more churches, some of the highlights including some amazing wall paintings from the 15th century done in traditional Ethiopian style with large eyes and round faces, which I particularly liked (inside Bet Mercurios?). During the day, we also saw some great 12th century paintings on cotton, and were surprised by nuns curled up in little balls on the floor and so motionless we didn’t even realize they were people until our guide pointed them out.

15th Century Ethiopian painting on one of the walls

One of the great views

We climbed out of this hole in the wall!

The last church we visited

Tunnel behind the church

When our tour was over, we headed back to The Seven Olives, and I had originally planned on going shopping at the various souvenir stands lining the streets of the town. I wasn’t feeling well though, so I decided to take a nap, which ended up last 4 hours! Todd woke me up for dinner, but I really wasn’t feeling well at this point and ate only about half a plate of spaghetti and went right back to sleep. Little did I know this was the beginnings of a horrible stomach illness I picked up that would plague me for the rest of the trip!