Friday, May 08, 2009

Travels in Modern Day Ethiopia

After 40 years I was back in Ethiopia – it was 40 years to the month since I was discharged from the U.S. Army Security Agency in the highlands city of Asmara, now the capital of Eritrea. I had spent 37 months as an Italian translator at Kagnew Station in Asmara, one of the army’s best kept secrets (in more ways than one). Now, in late 2008, I was back for five weeks of travel and exploration, mostly to visit places I had never seen before.

Addis Ababa, the capital, was a disappointment – sprawling, unattractive, devoid of any charm whatsoever. I didn’t meet a single Westerner who liked the city. But the place did have some interesting attractions, and even though I had never been there, it invoked a vague sense of familiarity. One constant was the role of the church, and how simply touching the cathedral seemed so important to the devout. As was reading the bible on cathedral grounds.

Something else that hadn’t changed was how kids could so totally enjoy a game using just a few pebbles. Or seeing women carrying firewood. Though I did find that a bit surprising in a capital city of three million.

But where the sense of familiarity was particularly strong was in the countryside and smaller towns. I had taken an overnight minibus from Addis up to Bahar Dar, and as the sun came up it was as if nothing had changed – people streamed along the highway out to the fields, some carrying a wooden plow, others driving a herd of goats, men with their arms propped on the staff they carried across the shoulders, some barefoot . . . beneath the surface almost nothing had changed.

Bahar Dar is on the tourist trail for good reason – Tisisat Falls and the monasteries on Lake Tana’s islands are so very colorful. But one of the things I found most interesting was how the monks and priests seemed to genuinely relish showing the tourist their biblical manuscripts and processional crosses.

Another pleasant surprise was the genuine hospitality of so many people. So many times as I was walking down the street, someone would invite me in for coffee, for no apparent commercial purpose. As did these three women.

Across the street from my Bahar Dar Hotel (Taken from in front of my hotel, located to the right, and out of the picture) were a series of small shops. These were basically little rectangular stalls, from 6-10' wide, maybe 4' deep, along the side of the street. They were open only on one side, and only above the counter. A few had display cases under the counter. Some were made of corrugated tin, some of old boards, some a combination of materials. One shop that I passed daily was operated by two sisters (Their place is down toward the end on the left). Whenever I passed by, they would smile and say hello and wave me over. Despite their limited English, it was fun joking and talking with the two sisters in their little stall. Unlike a shop, that you have to enter, you're closer and much more connected to stall keepers as you walk along. In fact you're much more connected to other people in Ethiopia just about everywhere.

Unchanged, too, was the kids’ desire to be photographed - so many of them are hams. Like this bunch in Bahar Dar.

To be continued .......

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