21/04/2024

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Paradise Lost – Ethiopia

5 min read
Paradise Lost – Ethiopia

Travel to an African country that borders Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and Eritrea can be dangerous to your health in more ways than one. But, if you’re a skydiving, snowboarding, tomb raiding Indiana Jones kind’ a trekker, you might find Ethiopia just your cup of strong coffee.

Since the murder in 1975 of the emperor, strangled in the basement of his palace, Ethiopia has seesawed from absolute rule by a God-King, to Marxist/Military totalitarianism to the present Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia with a Constitution. Though tribal blood feuds do exist in parts of the country, the U.S. has an embassy in Addis Ababa, and you can check the State Department’s travel alerts.

The Last Emperor

Now that you’ve packed and done your homework, you’re ready to go. You’ve read that Ethiopia’s history goes back to the dawn of man. Archaeologists have unearthed human remains that carbon-date 3.2 million years ago. I worked in the capital, Addis Ababa during the reign of Ethiopia’s last emperor. A tiny man with a title larger than himself, “Emperor Haile Selassi I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings of Ethiopia” proclaimed himself the direct descendant of Menilek I, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Each Christmas Day, the emperor opened his palace to foreign embassy bigwigs for tea and sweets while his pet lions strolled around the gardens. I got to go only because I was taking photos for an official brochure. Can you imagine tea with Haile Selassi? I lived near the palace and went to bed each night to the screech of peacocks and the roar of those noisy cats.

To experience the geological diversity of the land you only have to fly into the 8,000-foot high capital. The mountains and plateaus seem to rise up to meet you. Eucalyptus forests, high canyons, steep gorges, scrub desert and ice-cold lakes are secret untamed places for hikers, climbers and campers. You’ll find yourself eating Injera and Wat with your fingers. Injera is baked from a sourdough batter and placed on your tabletop like a gigantic pancake. Wat is the fiery stew that’s served in the middle of the Injera. You tear off a piece of Injera and use it to scoop up the stew (chicken, meat or vegetables). But you don’t want to find yourself at the other end of a meal. On the Sudanese border, the Baro River teems with crocodiles. Sadly, I lost a Peace Corps friend there. See http://www.peacecorpswriters.org/pages/2001/0101/101cllook.html

Hyena Man

Addis is home to Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, U.N. Economic Commission For Africa, museums and some modern hotels that did not exist when I rubbed elbows with the little king! Back then there were no street lamps. After dark, hyenas skulked into the city scavenging for anything they could get their jaws around, garbage or human. There was a man, a prowler of shadows himself, who had a way with the nasty predators. Wandering the back alleys, he mysteriously lured the beasts to him and then out of town, kind of like a Pied Piper. We called him “the hyena man,” and that is all we knew about him. Present day “entrepreneurs” have made the former event into a thriving business performed for tourists.

The Blue Nile Falls

We took off in a single engine Cessna T-210 from the ancient capital of Gondar heading for Bahir Dar and Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile. In Ethiopia, everything was ancient, including the Cessna. A former Korean War Ace, Walt had been spraying malaria-infected areas for years. The Blue Nile, as opposed to the brownish White Nile in Egypt, gets its name from the waters of Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia, from whence the river flows to Khartoum and on into Egypt. Walt didn’t fly over the falls; he practically flew into them. Swooping low on the first run, I nearly lost my breakfast, but I asked him to do it again for a closer shot. Staring up at me through the tree branches of the surrounding rain forest was the white-fringed face of a silky black and white long-tailed monkey. Hunted to near extinction for its beautiful coat, the Colobus Monkey, the only kind of its species without a thumb, is an endangered acrobatic marvel of grace and elegance.

Mist from the thundering waters creates a rainbow bridge over the falls. I was snapping photos when bullets tore through the fuselage, hitting Walt in his bottom. We couldn’t see the shooters but we knew they wanted the Cessna. Despite terrible pain, the seasoned pilot wasn’t going to let them have it. Shouting obscenities over my prayers, he managed to hold on to the faltering plane while the floorboards soaked up his blood. We arrived in Bahir Dar with Walt’s pride as wounded as his anatomy. After medical attention and a few belts of Jack Daniels, the bush pilot was on cloud nine.

Rock Churches of Lalibela

Ethiopian Airways’ hotshot pilots take off and land on postage stamp plateaus. A short flight from Addis is the tiny town of Lalibela whose airport terminal, in my time, was a tin roofed hut. Never mind. Hidden under ground are eleven monolithic churches carved from rock. Built in the thirteenth century, the churches are holy places of Ethiopian Christian pilgrimage. I had to crawl down into the subterranean spaces on my hands and knees. Once inside, I was in the Middle Ages. A priest with a torch stood in the darkness guarding an altar and religious wall paintings. He looked like he’d been standing there for 500 years! Monks tell you the Ark of the Covenant is similarly hidden in a monastery in the ancient city of Axum, where Queen Sheba stayed in the 10th century B.C. Someone should tell Steven Spielberg.

“Simplicity-Courage-Humor-Soul”®

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