Monday, May 11, 2009

Ethiopian Travels Part II

After Addis Ababa, Bahar Dar and Gondar, I went on to Axum. And although I had been there some forty years before, I didn’t remember a thing. Not that the town is all that big, it’s quite small in fact – you can cover it on foot from one end to the other in about 30 minutes. It’s just that other than the Stelae field, a church or two, and a few tombs, there just isn’t that much that is memorable. At least not 40-years memorable.

But as elsewhere in Ethiopia, maybe even more so, the people were friendly and welcoming – lots of smiles and hellos and invitations to coffee. I even met a few older folks who still spoke some Italian and greeted me first in that language. Like the old gal stationed outside St Mary of Zion who seemed half blind but had a great sense of humor despite her apparent disability,

A Bill Cosby look alike who insisted on buying me coffee,

and Berhane, the gatekeeper at the Stelae field.

Axum is in the Ethiopian province of Tigray, which adjoins the Eritrean highlands and is most similar to that country, culturally, linguistically, geographically. So it was here in the far North of Ethiopia that I had the strongest sense of having returned. I felt a real connection, with the place, with the people.

I was met with friendliness, hospitality, and good humor at every turn. Even at my hotel, where I might have expected the help to be somewhat blasé about tourists, the wait staff in the bar always seemed ready for a laugh.

Later my first morning in Axum I met two sisters, Roza and Helen, whose mother Azeb ran a kind of coffee shop in their house near the Stelae field. They insisted on treating me to coffee.

That same morning I also met Aregay, owner of the Abyssinia Handcraft Shop, who invited me to his house for coffee and popcorn, where I met his wife and a friend.

And still later that day, while walking to lunch, I met a young student, Nestenet, on her way to her afternoon classes. After I snapped her picture, with her OK, I got the idea she wanted me to buy her a dictionary for her English studies. Now the Lonely Planet travel guide warns of a minor scam down in Lalibela, where the kids ask for school notebooks, and after the obliging tourist has moved on, they return the item for a refund. So I was somewhat suspicious, and definitely noncommittal. I ended up blowing it off and never did go back to where she said I could meet her.

Two days later, however, as I was heading out from my hotel, who should I encounter but my young student acquaintance. And, as it turned out, there was a bookstore just a few doors down, which had a nice Amharic-Tigrinya-English dictionary for about two dollars. When I heard the price, I figured even if I was being scammed, it wasn’t all that much, and I ended up springing for two different dictionaries. But she seemed so pleased by these books; it was hard for me to think she was going to return them for cash. Indeed, after our purchase, she invited me to her house to show them to her mother. By the time we arrived we had picked up a whole entourage of kids. Mom, however, wasn’t about to have a pack of curious children staring at the faranji in her house, and she drove them off with a cupful of water as they crowded around the doorway of the living room/coffee shop. Actually, it wasn’t a coffee shop – she made and sold sewa, the somewhat sour, homemade beer made from millet, corn or barley. The sewa wasn’t ready that day, however, and she rustled up coffee and popcorn.

In the course of drinking the traditional three cups of coffee, I was introduced to little brother, a young neighbor who sat politely on the threshold the whole time, grandfather, and an older couple who seemed to be visiting, but who I never did learn if they were friends, relatives or customers.

On my last day in Axum I stopped by Azeb’s for a tea and met Abraha, who cut an almost dashing figure with his natty (sans dreadlock) rasta look.

On the way back to the hotel I ran into several of Nestenet’s friends who seemed pleased to have their picture taken.

Text and Photographs by World Traveling Dave

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