Climbing Mt. Rainier – My 8 year journey to the top – Part II

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Rainier – taken at sunset from Camp Schurman

In January of this year, I had been made an offer to join a wealth management practice in the bay area and assumed I would be moving to Oakland around May or June.  As such, I decided I had to have another go at Rainier before I officially had been away so long that Seattle didn’t feel like home anymore.

I signed up for the Peaks of Life All Women’s climb of Rainier via the Emmons route, July 21-22, 2018.

I spent the first 3 months of this year traveling around West Africa and I certainly didn’t get much exercise.  I started training for this climb in April, but more seriously starting in June – getting in at least one or two 3-4000 feet of gain hikes each week as well as cross-training at the gym.  The opportunity in Northern California fell through, and I was struggling to decide what to do next with my career.  As such, training was hard and the stress of looking for work made me question whether I had the physical and mental stamina to go through with the climb, and whether I was going to be able to fundraise enough $$ to hit my goal (especially since things were financially tough not working.)

All this stress began to take its toll, but I pressed on and managed to get close to reaching my target fundraising goal and felt relatively and adequately physically prepared for the climb.

The “before” picture of our Peaks of Life All Women’s climb (including honorary woman, Forrest, replete in his dress)

What about mentally?  For me, time spent in the mountains can be very contemplative and almost meditative.  But it can also be additionally difficult to concentrate and focus when there are lots of emotional obstacles in life to contend with at the same time.

It was during this difficult time of transition in my life that the week of the climb began to approach, and along with my trepidation about being ready or not came the anxiety fed by memories of three previously unsuccessful summit attempts.

If that weren’t enough, the climbing rangers put out reports the week of the 17th of July that suggested the route was getting broken up, that navigation had become far more difficult, that running belays might be necessary through a re-route that would make the journey through the Emmons much steeper and more of an intermediate climb for teams.  I distinctly remember feeling quite alarmed when I read that the route presented the potential for “team-eating snow bridge collapse”.

That didn’t sound good.

The 3 climbers and the 2 leads from Peaks of Life – Forrest Barker (Brooke was unfortunately, taken sick) and Eve Jakubowski gathered over dinner at the Himalayan restaurant on the Thursday before the climb to discuss options.  Personally, I wanted to delay the climb by a day and do the DC route on Sunday through Monday when we might have a shot of getting a walk-up permit.  Kara was able to follow through with that plan, but Christina couldn’t take the day off.

Forrest rocking his dress and signature helicopter hat

Forrest assured us that the weather forecast looked really good and that simply put, if we still wanted to do the Emmons together, he felt confident that he would be able to guide us through it and set protection along the way where necessary.  You could see the gleam in his eye that always lights up at the thought of guiding newbies through somewhat hazardous, challenging terrain.  He thrives on that and I knew he wanted us to go for the Emmons.  Eve was on board too – and the plan would allow all 3 of us to see our fundraising goal through to its potential fruition.

We all agreed we would stick to the original plan.

That night I had horrible dreams about crevasses, climbing on steep snow and falling into a dark void.  I felt very uneasy about the weekend, but I set about packing my gear in any case – I had volunteered to drive down Friday afternoon and obtain our climbing permit before 5pm so that we could hit the trail at sun up.

That Friday I hit the most horrendous traffic that Google Maps failed to anticipate and I missed the permit office being open by over an hour.  I felt additionally despondent when I realized that I had forgotten my annual park pass and was charged $30 to get into the park, and I was informed that no camp spots were open.

Me heading up Steamboat Prow – PC Eve Jakubowski

Things turned around when a couple at the very first campground I drove past were kind enough to let me pitch my tent on their site which had plenty of room.  I was so grateful, and managed to sort out my gear and re-pack it, since in order to leave the house by 2 I had literally thrown a bunch of gear in my back seat and then realized all the stuff I’d forgotten as I drove south (Diamox, an extra Nalgene, AAA batteries, caffeine gel shots – shout out to Eve who was kind enough to grab those items for me and bring them down Saturday!)

The campsite was by a lovely stream and I settled happily in my sleeping bag after enjoying a cold beer and managed to get one of the earliest nights before a climb ever.

I broke camp early and met with the rest of the team at the Ranger Station at 7am the next morning to pick up our walk-up permits.  I had freshly baked banana bread for each member of the team as we stood in line and Forrest made coffee.  We managed to secure our permits and were given the harsh warning about the state of the route before we headed on up to the trailhead parking lot.

We finally headed on out up the trail around 9am.  As usual, my main concern was being a slower hiker than everyone else.  No matter what I do in terms of training, I usually find myself to have a slower pace than most which makes me extremely anxious doing group climbs such as this one.  Whenever the group made a stop, I would press on because I knew they would catch up sooner or later and I didn’t want to hold everyone up.

Me and Kara getting ready to rope up

Despite the weight of my pack, I felt that I was progressing along the trail much better than I had almost 11 months ago.  The extra time and energy I’d put into training and gaining elevation was paying off – even if I was still slower than everyone else on the team.

By the time we hit the interglacier, I was hitting my stride and only suffering from the sweltering heat of the day.  We put on crampons and headed up in a much more direct route than we’d taken a year ago – luckily there was more of a boot made staircase this time around, which makes steep ascents on snow much smoother.

Steamboat Prow crept closer, the last 30 minutes or so of that long steep trudge was a challenge, and I was very thankful to finally sit and take a break and eat some food.  We were making good progress time-wise, we were just now going to need to rope up for the final hour’s glacier crossing up to camp.

The crevasses were wide and open and Eve (with whom I was on a two-person rope team) applied her climbing experience to route finding our way up, over and around the gaping holes in the snow.  By the end of this climb, I was getting used to stepping over these wide cracks that led to deep dark blue ice of unknown depth.

We arrived into camp six hours after starting out.  That was an entire 2 hours faster than it had taken us the previous year and I was feeling good about it.  Even more lucky – we managed to secure two tent sites from folks who were just leaving – meaning the amount of snow shoveling and leveling out the ground for our tents was minimal.

Our Campsite at Camp Schurman

After setting up our base camp, we set about melting snow for water and dinner.  That was when our first disaster struck – we ran out of camping gas.  One of the canisters brought up was thought to be full but later we determined it to be near empty.  We were in trouble – and Forrest thankfully traded some gear for another used canister from a bunch of climbers heading out.  In any case, we were going to be limited in how much snow we could melt for the summit push, and to make matters worse – Forrest had forgotten his water bottle and ended up getting quite dehydrated in the process.

I had my 3 liters which was recommended for the summit, but by the time I drank some that night and with “breakfast” – I only carried two bottles for the summit.  We all became quite dehydrated during the following day – which turned into an epic, almost 22-hour day of physical effort.

After dinner, where I had very little appetite, I took a hit on my vape pen to try and calm my nerves and relax myself enough that I might catch an hour or so of sleep before we had to get up again.   I was having a lot of anxiety – especially knowing that we were going to be getting up at 9pm to leave by 10p.  This was it.  The big moment.  A large part of me knew the pain that I was walking into and I wanted to pull the plug and just stay in camp.

I buried those feelings and tried to settle in Forrest’s circus-like tent for what amounted to about 90 minutes of sleep.

My favorite part of alpine climbs – the first glow of the sky as the sun rises – I’m the first climber in this photo – PC Eve Jakubowski

All too soon the alarm was sounding, and adrenaline took over.  I packed my gel shots loaded with caffeine that I knew I’d need (thank you Eve!) warm layers including my summit jacket that only gets used on climbs like this.  Gaiters, crampons, ice axe, helmet and headlight on.

Ok…deep breath…here we go.

The next few hours were kind of a blur.  We were keeping a quite brisk pace up solid snow that had a steep incline to it such that you often had to duck or French step with the points of your crampons to ascend.  We would stop every 90 minutes or so to drink fluid and take in snacks.  Christina would take a power nap.  I would just keep the thought patterns in my head spinning in a positive direction as best I could.  I felt strong, but the mental fears of needing to turn around perhaps, again, kept creeping into my consciousness.

We deliberately slowed our pace when we realized we would top out before sunrise if we kept going the way we were.  The trail edged up, relentlessly.  I was breathing hard, wondering just how much longer this steep gradient was going to last.

That’s when Forrest announced that things were “about to get steep” as we hit the section of the trail that was the ranger re-route.  “What?! Steeper than it’s already been?” It involved a far left traverse followed by a far right traverse to reconnect with where the original trail goes to the summit more directly.

This section was so steep it really hurt one’s ankles.  I was so glad it was still dark because if I shone my headlamp down mountain, I could see just how steep the run out under us really was and I tried to suppress the thought that a single misstep could have me hurling down that icy slope, yanking Eve off of it with me.

Climbing up steep snow as sun rises – PC Eve Jakubowski

No, don’t think about it.  Just one foot in front of the other.

It was so cold that I put my summit jacket on and found that I could still climb with it on and not get too warm.  The wind was pretty calm and Eve said this was the best weather she’d ever experienced on Rainier.  It certainly was the best I’d experienced!

These moments are both the best and worst of alpine climbing.  You are so totally alone out there on a rope with the next person 30 feet or so in front of you just putting one foot in front of the other.   All you can hear is the sound of your own breath, and the crunch, crunch, crunch, of your crampons and ice axe hitting the snow.  And then there are your thoughts: nagging at you.  Willing you to quit.  Asking questions like “what if someone on my team gets AMS?  They didn’t take any Diamox like you did.  Both of them haven’t been above 12,000 feet before! What if one of us bonks out?  Will we all have to turn around?” – and fear sets in which you have to actively ignore and go back to your breath and each step.

Just keep climbing.  Just keep breathing.

Every time we got to a section of the re-route that a stumble/fall could produce a team pulled off the mountain scenario, Forrest would place a picket and a running belay as we moved through.  One section was quite a vertical climb of snow with steps kicked in nicely.  This sort of turned a corner and it felt like we were finally within an hour or so of the summit.

More sun glow PC – Kara Hedges

I started to get excited.  The sky was glowing amber as the sun rose and there is that wonderful and albeit surreal visual of the stream of people with headlamps in front of you getting ever lighter with each passing minute – and it is just so beautiful it takes one’s breath away.  I had a feeling that we were going to make it!

The final push to the summit presented a challenge to me that I could not have imagined.  Penitentes.  These are extremely sharp snow formations that stick up like thousands of ice picks and form in the same way as sun cups, from rapid thawing and re-freezing.  That last section required us to walk on top of these Penitentes and it was by far, the toughest physical and mental challenge of the ascent so far.  Each step, your body weight was only distributed through about 10% of your foot as you had to balance precariously with your crampons, all the while trying not to fall over because these things were sharp and painful.

I cursed those penitentes of death under my breath (and out loud) the whole rest of the way which seemed like the longest hour of my life.  We finally got to a rocky scree slope that Forrest told me lead all the way to the summit.   This was where we could remove our crampons and head up without packs.

What he and none of us realized was that the rocky scree led to even more penitentes!  And this time I didn’t have crampons on that helped grip each step as I precariously balanced on each one.  I was falling, stumbling every which way and my feet were being pummeled.  I have morton’s neuroma in both feet and this enlarged nerve was flaring up from the pressure of these nasty ice formations.  Oh, how I hated them!

Penintentes of DEATH

Then the summit of Columbia crest was in sight!  The air was thin, my heart was beating out of my chest.  I was the last one to clamber up and when I finally stood on the summit, I became overwhelmed with emotion.

Disbelief, pride, exhaustion, accomplishment, a sense of “Finally!  I have made it!” 8 years after my first attempt – I was finally atop Rainier.

Most of all – I had this overwhelming relief that I would never have to put myself through this again.  Ever!!!!

I had made it!

We took our obligatory summit photos and posed with the Peaks of Life Banner.  I cried tears of joy and took a video expressing my gratitude to Forrest and Eve for their help getting to the top of this monster of a mountain, unfortunately, the playback is almost inaudible due to the wind howling.  All you can see is my facial expression and tears – and that will be enough when I look back on it in years to come.   We were the only ones out on Columbia Crest at that time – 8 and a ½ hours from when we had left camp the night before.  We later learned that the DC route was out and that was why we were lucky enough not to have to share our photo spot with a large group of other climbers.

Thank goodness we had stuck to our original plan of climbing the Emmons!

By 8am we began our descent and I continued my cursing of the Penitentes of death once again and willed for that section to end.

Obligatory group summit shot for Peaks of Life

Then it was the long, long, long, slog down the steep snow back to camp – this time, however, we could actually see what we had walked up during that long cold night.  About an hour into our return, we realized that we must have taken a wrong turn and we were on the original route instead of the re-route.  Forrest and Eve decided that if we moved quickly we could minimize any hazards and so that’s what we did – basically eliminating probably over an hour of extra walking since the original route is much more direct.

The downside to this fact was that it put us about 1500 vertical feet below where Forrest had placed his protection in some of the sketchiest parts of the route.  Being the mountain goat that he is, he took off back up the mountain to retrieve his pickets and we thankfully took the opportunity for an extended break.

The sun was so strong at this point and those who haven’t climbed a glaciated mountain cannot fully appreciate just how much glare and UV are constantly reflected back on any of your unsuspecting skin that you haven’t doused in sunscreen- even the insides of your ears and nostrils.  We kept adding snow to our almost empty Nalgene bottles, hoping the sun would melt them enough that we’d have some more to drink on our descent.

Me – happy as a clam at the top of the world.

Forrest finally caught up and now we were fully plunge stepping through soft snow all the way to camp.  At this point, my quads were totally fried and I was physically quite useless.  Every few minutes I would fall backwards, unable to stay upright, sitting in the snow and cursing my legs.  Eve was so patient with me.  She would pull on the rope telling me that we just “had to get moving!” and each time I would explain that I going as fast as my broken body could carry me.  I was doing my best!

Getting into camp I desperately wanted to just lay horizontally for a while – but I soon found that it was way too hot inside the tent to get any sort of rest.  Taking off my boots and letting my feet breathe provided a measure of relief.  Every single cell in my body did not want to have to walk back to our cars that evening.  I wished we had enough camp fuel and food that we could simply rest and recover that day.

I would recommend to anyone attempting the Emmons to turn the climb into a 3-day trip rather than 2.  The hike out proved to be painful for me.

We used up the very last of the gas to melt about 400mls of water for each person – we vowed to re-hydrate at the river that crosses the trail at the base of the interglacier.

And so, with heavy heart and even heavier feeling legs, we packed up camp and re-roped up to head down the Emmons over to Steamboat Prow.  Everyone got off the rope at this point and it was each man for himself.

Forrest, Eve and Christina rest on the ascent

This is when my self-pity kicked into high gear as I watched the rest of the team tearing down the face of the interglacier and I struggled to keep pace – my legs and feet were screaming.  I decided to try glissading when the glissade chute seemed to offer a viable and faster alternative to kick stepping – however, I did a terrible job of fixing my crampons to the back of my pack and ended up losing them and a bunch of other gear on my first attempt.

Taking time to reassemble my pack and put on gloves – I re-entered the glissade chute and used my ice axe to brake strongly as I wasn’t a big fan of speed on steep slopes like this one.  I could see everyone else on my team already drinking water at the river – Forrest appeared to be waiting for me to get down the chute.

Starting the long ass descent – PC Eve Jakubowski

After refilling my water bottle, waiting for a chlorine tablet to sterilize it first, I decided to keep walking down the trail ahead of everyone because of how slow I was moving.  Forrest had hidden his approach shoes among the rocks and marked the GPS on his phone but was having a hard time locating them.  I didn’t want to hold everyone up (again!) so off I set down the trail…wishing and wishing that I had trail runners to change into as well.

Mountaineering boots are wonderful as torture implements.  Something about the stiffness of their soles and wearing them for 22 hours straight make them so painful that you’re swearing under your breath at them, just waiting for the moment when you can take them off and throw them into your car.  Those last few miles of trail were the hardest for me – especially once we made it back into the easy forest trail that skirts the river.

Beautiful summit crater – under this is a large ice cave system and a lake

It seemed to continue for hours and all four of the others passed me.  I told them in no uncertain terms to please not wait for me at the car – to please go ahead and find food and text me the restaurant they were at and I’d meet them there.  I didn’t want anyone waiting for my sorry ass.

The pain on the underside of my forefeet had taken on a whole other level.  They felt so swollen and my nerves so inflamed that each step felt like I was stepping onto the head of a nail.  My pace slowed to a crawl, and by the last 2 miles, tears were rolling down my cheeks and I seriously wondered if I could somehow get rescued?  Every step just shot up my legs and into my eye sockets.  I needed the parking lot to appear.  Now.  And then there would be another turn and another – still no campground or parking lot in sight.

Me about to cross another dicey looking snow bridge that I’m not happy about – PC Eve Jakubowski

Finally, around 7:30pm I emerged at the trail head.  I was suffering so much though, that I couldn’t initially remember which direction we had parked in.  I knew if I made a mistake and turned right instead of left I might be forced to make hundreds of sharply painful steps in the wrong direction.  I opted for walking straight ahead and then found some people who took pity on my face and pointed me in the right direction – offering their congratulations as I miserably trudged away.

When I finally saw my car, I was alarmed to see that everyone except Christina was still there!  I angrily asked them what the hell were they doing there and why had they waited for me?  I was being super irrational because of the pain.  Forrest claimed they’d only gotten back ten minutes before me and apologized for telling me that we were close to the trailhead when he and Eve had passed me.

Hmpf!

Lies!  Hahahaha.  I got my pack off and feet into my flip flops – and I was alarmed that the pain actually intensified rather than feeling that typical relief as the blood starts to flow back in and around one’s foot.  Hunger and exhaustion were equally tugging at my brain – and I knew that I was also going to be forced to drive another 2 ½ hours home at this point as I’d brought my own car.  We elected on a burger/brewery in Enumclaw and headed over.

I stopped on the way to get gas and realized I also hadn’t stretched and so took the time to work out my hamstrings and quads, calves and hips while waiting for my tank to fill.  I got some strange looks – but I couldn’t care less.   My body was a mess.

Crossing on the original trail

On arrival we asked for water, right away – but our waitress was overworked and distracted so I got up and let her know why we were all so dehydrated and she immediately gave me a pitcher to take back to the table.  No matter how much we drank – we didn’t feel it quite satiate our thirst.  The physical push of the day, the lack of fluids and the extreme heat was taking a toll.   Turned out we weren’t all that hungry either and after eating half of our plates, the desire to crash set in with such fervency that we bid good night and raced to get home before falling asleep at the wheel.

That was a pretty tough drive home.  I had the windows open and my music blaring – even still, it took all my strength to keep my eyes open.  Leaving all my gear in my car, I walked into my house and almost directly into the shower where I let the water wash the day away.

We had done it.  We had gotten to the summit of Mt Rainier.  Though I still couldn’t feel my feet, I fell asleep with a big grin on my face.

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Climbing Mt. Rainier – My 8 year journey to the top – Part I

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My IMG team heads up to Muir from Paradise for my 1st attempt, Summer of 2011

I have been wanting to climb to the summit of Washington’s highest mountain, Mt. Rainier since I moved to Seattle in December of 2004.  I can remember the first time I saw the mountain, majestic and mocking in her sheer size and prominence – like she was looking down over the city, a clear winner in the contest of who’s bigger and badder.  My first attempt at climbing Mt. Rainier was with International Mountain Guides in 2011.  Like most guided first-time climbs – we went up the DC route but were unfortunately turned around due to high winds and very low temperatures about 500 vertical feet above the top of the cleaver.

That first experience on the mountain was a great lesson in how the mountain has its own weather and how unpredictable she can be.  I can remember thinking to myself that I had never in my life felt that degree of physical cold.  It was terrifying.  I remember desperately needing to drink some water from my Nalgene which had partially frozen despite being in my backpack and weighing my aching thirst with my fear of taking my hand out of my glove to unscrew the cap which was stuck.  I remember the disappointment at having to turn around coupled with the sheer sense of relief that the team wasn’t planning on pressing on into the night while that weather raged because it would have brought untold suffering.

“Team Eurotrash”, with our guide Andreas Polloczek in a white out right before turning around

Being so stubborn about attaining goals I set for myself, however, I know that had the guides deemed it safe, I would have continued no matter how much it hurt.  In other words, I was glad that in that instance, it wasn’t my decision to make.

The following summer, a dear friend of mine, Karsten Delap, was in Washington State training for his American Mountain Guides Association certification, and offered to help lead my boyfriend and I up the DC for our second attempt.  Once again, we experienced very shitty weather: not quite as cold, but definitely very high winds.  Additionally, we were faced with what has become another hazard on the ever-popular DC route – especially in the high season for climbing that is July – and that is the human traffic jam that lines the route all the way from Camp Muir to the summit.

Our team heading out from Paradise for my second summit attempt

In crossing a section after the Cleaver that was notorious for rockfall, I watched as a football sized rock fell from overhead without warning – narrowly missing my friend Karsten.  He looked at me, shaken, urging us to press on through that section much faster.  Later, as we came to what I remember as the endless switchbacks of snow about a 1,000 feet higher than our first attempt had gotten us, we caught up with the crowds of people on the mountain who had now come to a grinding and painfully slow stop-and-go line.  A long queue had formed heading to the summit.

Heading out by the light of one’s headlamp – one of my favorite things about alpine climbing

Karsten became agitated, and as the wind picked up, he started cursing as he noticed the number of inexperienced climbers doing stupid shit like sitting near an open crevasse eating snacks unclipped from their team’s rope.  This, combined with the worsening weather and the fact that we were unable to push on at a pace that would result in us getting to the summit with a reasonable safety margin to return before the snow/ice had softened to a dangerous level led him to pull the plug on our ascent.

That being our second attempt, I felt crushed.  As we descended to Muir, we realized the wisdom in Karsten’s decision as the wind had now picked up to the point where you would see these bursts of color flying by as tents below us at Camp Muir were being ripped off the mountain, one by one.  I remember him picking up the pace and managing to secure his yellow Black Diamond tent which had had 3 of its 6 stakes yanked out by the time we got to it.

Picture of Karsten looking back from above the cleaver

To add insult to injury, we experienced what so many climbers must face on their descent to the Paradise area and parking lot:  day trippers asking dumb questions/comments when they see you descending in mountaineering gear.

“Wow!  Did you climb all the way to the top?”

“What’s it like up there?”

“Oh…you didn’t make the summit?  Did you get too tired?”

“How long does it take to walk up there?”

“My sister did it last year and said it was super easy.”

Our Team for attempt Number 2 heading out around midnight from Muir

You get the idea.  Mostly you just grit your teeth and smile, but it eats away at you as you watch them smiling back in their jeans and toddler on their shoulders laughing because they can’t believe there’s snow up there “in the middle of summer!”

My boyfriend was super miserable after that climb and declared he was done with the mountain and wouldn’t attempt it again.  Conversations with friends about our experience were also not helpful and anytime someone would point out that they had had a successful summit climb on their first attempt, it made it worse.

Karsten arriving at Muir

What people don’t understand is that it takes just as much physical effort to get within a 1000 vertical feet of the summit as it does to summit.  It also takes, by order of magnitude, a hell of a lot more effort to get close to the summit in really bad weather, than it takes to make the summit on a calm, bluebird day.

For several years, I tried to forget about Rainier.

But then she’d always just be there.  Staring at me as I drove across the bridge.  Taunting me.  Reminding me of how I hadn’t succeeded at something.  Somehow, she became a metaphor for lack of accomplishment in my life.

Taken from Mt. Si. Pointing out the goal as I started training for my first Rainier Climb

In 2014, I decided to take a course in climbing with the Mountaineers.  I thought it would be a great way to learn the skills I needed to have another go at the mountain by myself with a team of friends I’d make in the class.  What I didn’t realize was that the other 500 students who’d signed up had the same idea…and Rainier climbs got filled, literally, within seconds of them posting to the website.  You’d be lucky to get “Waitlisted number 14”.   That issue, coupled with the fact that I lost my job that May and decided to spend the majority of the summer hiking and climbing in Peru (on 18,000 foot peaks that didn’t count at all toward my Mountaineers climbing badge) meant I didn’t really make the kind of connections I needed to form my own climbing team, nor did I get a chance to go with any of the basic climb leaders that year.

2014 became 2015 and then 2016 – each of those years posed serious career challenges and climbing took a bit of a backseat as I struggled financially.

First time to Muir – training hike

Last year, however, I became more involved with a non-profit here in Seattle called Peaks of Life.  I’d met the founders – a couple called Brooke and Forrest (I know, it’s the cutest pairing of names for a nature loving couple ever) at a prior Washington Hikers and Climbers event up at Mount Baker – but we didn’t connect until I joined them on one of their “Adventure Series” hikes to Lake Serene in June.  This Adventure Series was designed to raise awareness of their non-profit which seeks to bring groups of mountaineers together to climb local peaks and raise money for uncompensated care at Seattle Children’s Hospital.  So…I could find a group of people who loved to climb AND raise money for charity at the same time?  Seemed like a winning combination to me!

Peaks of Life had a Rainier climb scheduled for the summer of 2017, however it was already full.  I joined them on climbs of Mt. Adams and I also summitted The Brothers independently with a good friend of mine.  I was in great shape from hiking and climbing all summer – and I was finding my joy in it again.  When a member of the All-Women’s team had to turn around near the summit due to AMS – Forrest offered her the chance to have another go via the Emmons route in August – and he was kind enough to offer me the chance to be 3rd on the rope team.

Peaks of Life gave me a whole other incentive to climb again

This would be my 3rd attempt at Rainier and 5 years since my last attempt.  Plus – this was a new and exciting route.  I didn’t have to climb to Muir – a huge bonus in my mind alone (I’ve hiked to Muir so many times and I really don’t enjoy it.)  I was excited to go with Forrest – he is genuinely a climbing savant and an all-around wondrously talented, funny, and generous human being.

So, one Saturday very late into the climbing season, we ignored the warnings of how broken up the route had gotten (relying on Forrests’ navigation skills to get us through the maze of crevasses) and heartened by a decent weather outlook, the 3 of us set out to Camp Schurman on the Emmons route which starts at White River.

Gorgeous sunset at Camp Schurman, August 2017

Pyramid shadow of the mountain at sunset from Schurman

My first recollection of that day was putting on my fully loaded pack and thinking “Hmmm…this is so heavy, I’m not sure I can make it out of the parking lot!”

I managed.  But it was a long, slow, and difficult trudge for me up to camp.  It took us 8 hours, though we were delayed for about an hour while Forrest set off after some rather expensive looking gear that a hapless climber must have lost in a gust of wind.

When we got to camp – we were the only group there!  Forrest told us that during the height of the season, there could be 50 groups heading up the Emmons.  I felt lucky.  It was a gorgeous evening and sunset…with only a very light breeze in our faces as we fired up dinner and good conversation.

The plan was to head out around 2am so we tried to get to sleep as early as we could – around nightfall.

The hole ripped into my tent by wind

I was anxious, but really vibing off of the positive energy and outlook of my two teammates.  I was finally gonna get my Rainier Summit!!

I woke up around 2am, but not to the sound of my alarm clock.  I woke up to Christine’s face literally on mine, her body rolled on top of me like she was trying to smother me.  I remember saying something like “what the hell is going on?” and she replied with “Look up!”.

I did.  It soon became obvious that a storm had rolled in and brought high winds with it that had torn several holes right through my rainfly which was now flapping helplessly.  The poles keeping the tent up were being bent almost in two, causing the tent to collapse on Christine’s side, hence her having to roll up and on to me, flattened by the bending structure of the tent itself.

Expressing our feelings about the weather

I couldn’t help but laugh.  It was a hysterical moment.  I remember how loud the wind was.  I really needed to pee, but I had no idea how I was going to get outside the tent, let alone manage to stand up once I was outside.

We heard Forrest call out to us.  He said something about wanting to come talk to us, but not being able to, and that we would give it another hour or so and see if the wind abated a bit.

It didn’t.

In fact, after managing somehow to pee (with the spray going in every which direction let me tell you) – back in our tent, Christine and I were forced to dig out our goggles because the dust was being blown into the tent with such ferocity that we couldn’t open our eyes. We tried to get more sleep – but being pressed into each other like that was just not amenable to shut eye and we ended up chatting and giggling into the morning hours when it calmed enough to get some sleep.

Goggles and dust

Unfortunately, it was now too late to attempt the summit as we wouldn’t make it back in time for the glacier to be safe to traverse.

Christine and Forrest had a great attitude about it, and I tried as best I could to bottle my emotion and disappointment as we headed back to the car.  Carrot cake and beer cooled in the river certainly helped…as did my new life-long friends.

Shenanigans at Schurman with Forrest

Did I mention that climbing forges the best of friendships?  Going through experiences like this with people you dig is priceless.  Knowing Christine and remembering her on me like that in my slashed tent will always make me laugh.  It was a wonderful start to our friendship.

The real reason we climb is the bonds formed between friends – made stronger with post-ordeal beers!!!!

And so…this brings me to 2018 and my decision in January to sign up for the Emmons All-Women’s climb of Mt. Rainier and finally bag this bitch of a mountain once and for all.

Part II will tell that story…

Ethiopia Part VII: Bahir Dar – The Ethiopian Riviera

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Hiking the Blue Nile Falls in Bahir Dar

After the cold, high altitude hills of Lalibela, I was glad to find myself in the palm-fringed tourist destination of Bahir Dar, beautifully located alongside the shores of Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia.

As I mentioned in my prior post, Mike and I had considered beginning our Northern circuit in this city, but we opted to fly to Gonder instead because of the long distance we would have had to cover by road between the two places.  As it turned out, going to Bahir Dar as our last stop before Addis turned it into a truly pleasant last stop on the clockwise circuit we had covered.

Our flight was only 35 minutes long and very convenient, especially considering it cost less than road transport would have.  We hopped into a van offering free rides to the Palm Palace Hotel – since the “free” van to the hotel we had chosen on the plane had already left by the time we’d gotten our bags, and somehow paying for a cab to a destination that offers free transport just didn’t make sense.

We were bombarded, as usual, with a small crowd of screaming dudes who all claimed to represent the best hotels Bahir Dar had to offer and it was an all too familiar sales pitch that immediately irked me.  One particularly aggressive guy who would not leave us alone kept yelling and yelling that we should go with him, and only shut up when I point blank cursed him out to his face.  He cursed back at me and gave me the middle finger as we drove away in his competitors’ vehicle.  It somehow gave me a strange sense of satisfaction.

I know, I was getting to the end of my psychological rope in Ethiopia and I was starting to feel ready to leave.

Palm Fringed streets of Bahir Dar

The Palm Palace seemed nice enough of a hotel, and I immediately tried to take a nap as I had been unable to sleep the night before.  I was growing increasingly frustrated as well, waiting on a text message that just wouldn’t come that would inform me whether or not a friend of mine in Accra was going to be available to see me – so I could spend my last few days in Africa somewhere that I really enjoyed instead of here.

Mike and I headed out that afternoon to explore and found a rather pretty walking path which lead around the southern edge of the lake.  We ended up grabbing an early dinner at a place called Desset – which had really attractive lakeside seating on benches overlooking the water.  In need of some comfort food – I ordered Spaghetti Bolognese which I scoffed with cold beer.  Mike was not feeling too well and that combined with my admitted grumpiness resulted in us having another sibling tiff such as we’d had in Lalibela.  I absolutely adore Mike and I think he is a fantastic person and amazing traveling companion – these things inevitably happen sometimes when you’ve been traveling with the same individual for six straight weeks – especially in a country where I was literally dependent on Mike to go anywhere because of how much hassle I would get if I went anywhere alone as a female (a state I didn’t, unfortunately, have much control over).

Wanting to be alone, I took my leave and headed back to the hotel on foot.  I told myself that since it wasn’t quite dusk yet, that I should be fine taking the same pathway along the water as we had taken to dinner.  About 20 minutes into my walk, I got grabbed by the arm and waist by a random man who opened with some version of “Hey baby…where you heading so fast?  Slow down and talk to me.”  I tried to wriggle free as a slew of verbal profanity came out of my mouth.  He resisted and then said “Come on baby.  I just want to bite your ass.”

Somehow, even amidst the fear and desperation to get out of his grasp, I remember thinking how absurd his suggestion was, and how much he must have been convinced that it would serve to seduce rather than repulse me.  He couldn’t have been more wrong and eventually he let go as I spun around and kicked him in the shin and screamed at the top of my lungs.

This was in daylight with about 30 or so people walking along or milling in the park.  Nobody flinched or moved to help or intervene.  My pulse was racing and I moved away, not looking back at a faster pace than before, cursing my stupidity at leaving Mike and walking alone.

Our lovely, if noisy and mosquito infested room at the Palm Palace Hotel

I got back to my hotel physically unscathed but had a really good cry to let it all out.  Unable to go anywhere else and not really feeling like it anyway – I ended up watching a movie on Mike’s laptop and drinking whisky that I’d bought in Lalibela.  Since it was a Friday night (Feb 23) – the sounds from various clubs in the streets below our room made it very hard to sleep.  Without a fan, we had left the windows open only to have to close them as we were getting eaten alive by mosquitoes.  At around 2am, I went downstairs and got a standing fan which helped a little.

In addition, we were awoken at 0500 to what sounded like the call to prayer, but after it hadn’t let up for over an hour – we realized it was an Orthodox church ceremony which are often broadcast from speakers set up all around the church.  In this case, it was coming from St George’s church which was literally a block away from our hotel.  The ceremony was a cacophony of wailing and singing, much the same in style as what we’d endured in Lalibela.  It went on for three hours and both Mike and I resolved that this was going to be our only night at this property.

St. George’s Church in Bahir Dar – with masses loudly broadcast to one and all unfortunate enough to be sleeping nearby

We wandered off in the opposite direction around the lake to check out a few other hotels that were on the eastern part of town.  None of them were too appealing but we did manage to locate and negotiate a decent rate for a private van to take us to visit the Blue Nile Falls which were about an hour’s drive south out of the city.  We decided to put all of our luggage into the van so that we could be dropped off at a new hotel on the way back.  Alternatively, there was a small chance my friend in Accra was going to get confirmation of his return to Ghana, in which case, I would head straight to the airport on an Air miles ticket and get out of Ethiopia.

The whole trip to the Blue Nile I was on pins and needles, trying to tell myself that no matter what transpired, it was all going to work out for the best.  Not having any 3G and being entirely reliant on totally unreliable Wifi was also taking a toll.  Not being able to make arrangements for any type of travel and having communication with anyone not physically with you be logistically challenging is a frustration I will not soon forget.  We take instant, fast, internet service for granted.  You don’t realize the extent to which it permeates every aspect of our daily lives until you find yourself in Ethiopia without it.

Crossing a bridge on the loop hike to the Blue Nile Falls

We elected to be dropped off on the trail towards Portuguese Bridge and then ended up walking the entire circular circuit which drops you back at the river where you can take a boat across the water.  Luckily we had taken our driver’s phone number and so could call him to arrange our pick up.  Getting out in nature and getting a nice workout on this trail was exactly what I needed.  After dealing with hundreds of requests to “show us the way” we steadfastly made our way along the trail entirely guided by the app maps.me (which is a revelatory help, incidentally, for any traveler who is offline and needs GPS) and managed to self-navigate for the entire trail.

We managed to get quite close to the falls themselves that we’d been told would be a mere sprinkle in comparison to its full rainy season glory.  For me, they weren’t disappointing in the least and we happily navigated the muddy ground to stand in the invigorating spray that formed a beautiful rainbow where the sun hit.

Getting up close and personal with the Blue Nile Falls

The only disappointing aspect of the hike was that little kids were trying to sell us wooden flutes along the way, and one particular girl decided to hit me with hers when I kindly declined purchasing one from her.  That had never happened to me before and I was quite shocked.

Overall, the falls didn’t disappoint and we arrived back to the van muddy, sweaty but smiling.  Driving back I couldn’t help feeling the stress of the minutes ticking by and considering whether or not I would make the last flight to Addis this evening if a text arrived indicating that my friend in Accra was available for a visit.  As it turned out, that text didn’t arrive and so Mike and I decided to check into the Jacoranda hotel and I immediately ordered a double gin and tonic.  This was the last chance I had to fly out and for the trip to be worth the four-hour flight since I would be returning to fly to London on March 1st.  We elected to eat dinner at our hotel, which we were delighted with – it had a lovely fire pit out front and was really modern and excellent value for money.

It helped restore my disappointed spirits.

The food was also great – I ordered a delicious chicken in mushroom sauce with mashed potatoes and spinach.  I felt re-energized, and after a shower, Mike and I headed out to the Checheho Cultural restaurant which was absolutely wonderful and featured a large and rather crowded audience drinking beers and watching/participating in a traditional dance performance.  This was still the strangely intriguing but somewhat perplexing “shoulder” dancing that we had seen in other parts of Northern Ethiopia, but since there were at least some women on stage, it was somewhat less weird.  Here is a link to some video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1xBbg_vNRI The crowd really got into it and it was a very pleasant way to spend the evening.

The following day we decided to rent a boat across the lake to visit some of the monasteries and churches that were considered the main tourist attractions of Bahir Dar.  We elected to take the “medium speed” boat which still afforded a nice 90-minute lake journey in the blazing sun.  We were told that the boat trip would cost us 1500 Birr (about $50) and would include visits to Azwa Maryam, Ura Kidane, Kibran, and the Blue Nile Outlet.  The first two monasteries were interesting and unique in that their design was circular – something we’d not come across in religious architecture here thus far.  Inside each building were hundreds of paintings of religious and biblical scenes which included the famous depiction of the torture of St. George.

Our boat on Lake Tana

The setting of these churches, close to the beaches of the pretty peninsula also added to their appeal, which was slightly marred by the row upon row of trinket-selling stalls which lined the paths from the boat dock to the churches.

On our way back from Ura Kidane, Mike and I opted to take a coffee before pressing on with our afternoon’s itinerary.  Upon getting our coffee, our boat captain indicated that it was perhaps time to “get back”?  We were confused as we believed the tour to be only half way done and asked him why we weren’t going to Kibran or the Blue Nile?  His face got sullen and he started saying how much farther that was to drive his boat, that it was late, etc. etc. to which we responded – yeah, ok, but we are not paying you the 1500 Birr we promised you for only ½ the tour.

The outside of Ura Kidane

Ura Kidane

This made our tour guide mad and he immediately contacted the agent we had used to arrange the trip.  He put the agent on the phone and the agent explained in broken English how “everything was fine now” because he had “talked with the boat owner and told him he MUST take us to Kibran and then to Blue Nile Outlet…and that there was no problem.”  We tried, several times, to explain that yes, there was a problem in that our driver shouldn’t need “convincing” to give us the services that we had already negotiated and that we were fine with going back now since he obviously didn’t want to elongate his afternoon and was in a foul mood.  The agent and our boat driver immediately started cursing one another and began a screaming match – all while we tried to sip our coffee in this idyllic lakeside forest-fringed location.  The tranquility was gone, and our fun quotient along with it.  The cell phone was thrust into our faces several more times which was making us ever more exasperated.  In the end, we insisted on being taken straight back to town, and we paid 1200 Birr on arrival and walked away, shaking our heads.

The artwork inside the monasteries…I was convinced this depicts a man pooping…but couldn’t get a confirmation either way!

In need of a cold Habesha, we checked out the floating barge “bar” at Mango Park and became instant celebrities to the locals hanging out on this hot Sunday afternoon.  Families were out and some folks were swimming in the lake.  It was a pleasant place to recover from our tourism-by-yelling experience of the afternoon.

We took a long stroll back to the Jacaranda Hotel and opted to order dinner in again since we’d had such a wonderful meal the night before.  Cue my hilarious Chicken Leg story that I wrote about in my first Ethiopian Blog post here.  After a few beers, I opted for an early night of writing and reading.

Sipping beer on the jetty

Mango park with the bar “jetty” in the distance

On our last morning in Bahir Dar – we decided to rent bicycles and head out to the famous viewpoint next to the Palace of Emperor Haile Selassie.  We had booked a shuttle to the airport for 2pm, our flight being at 4pm.  I would be spending 2 nights and 3 days in Addis before boarding my Ethiopian Airlines flight to London.  It was hard to believe that my time in Africa was coming to an end…though I wasn’t that disappointed to be leaving Ethiopia, I must admit.

We had only ridden bikes one other time on this trip and that was in Burkina Fasso during our visit to the Royal Court of Tiabele.  I do wish bikes were more readily available to tourists to rent – they offer such a unique way to see a city and get around – with a far superior vantage point than a bus or a car.

Island on Lake Tana

Initially we headed out on bikes that had been arranged for us by the same agent we’d used to arrange the boat.  However, it became obvious pretty quickly that these bikes would need to be traded in – Mike’s brakes barely worked and my bike frame was made for someone over 6 ft tall.  So, we found our way to the rental store and tried out other bikes.  I managed to give myself a frightful injury akin to a guy getting slammed in the nuts when I tried out a bike whose gears jammed and had me falling with my full body weight onto the “male framed” central bike spoke right between my legs.  Despite my pain and hurt pride, we found two more suitable bikes and headed off out of town on our mini adventure.

Luckily, the rest of the morning went smoothly except for some nasty school boys who decided it would be fun to try and hit me as I rode past them.  Never have I met a country of more violent children before!  Having survived this onslaught – we weren’t disappointed after our efforts to climb several steep hills gave us the reward of a sweeping view over the city and Lake Tana.  As an added bonus, there was a wedding party getting official photos there – so it was fun to witness that.

Mike, at the viewpoint over the city

After a sweaty ride back, I was happy I’d packed a change of clothes and that the hotel was kind enough to let me shower before we headed to the airport.  Despite it being largely unplanned, I had enjoyed our time in Bahir Dar – mostly!

Ethiopia Part VI: Lalibela and its Churches built by Angels

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At St George’s Church – the most famous Lalibela site

Our rest day in Mekele was pretty epic for me.  I luxuriated in our semi-suite, taking the longest of hot showers, sleeping in, writing from our couch, getting a massage and a haircut!  It was a glorious day of what I like to refer to as re-humanization, and I didn’t even feel bad about not having left the hotel once during the day.  Mike went out for a wander around the city and did manage to convince me to head out that evening promising me he’d found a really good pizza joint.  He was not wrong.

Lalibela and its plethora of UNESCO world heritage sites were our next destination of choice and we initially thought we were going to be able to fly there until we realized that any flight from Mekele to Lalibela stopped over in Addis for the night first.  So, we reluctantly booked a shared car with ETT Travel for $30 each for the 9-hour drive over very hilly and sometime rough roads and terrain.  In the am when we left, we discovered that our co-passengers had re-booked for the following day and we ended up getting a car to ourselves.  I happily laid out in the back seat and spent much of the drive nose deep in my kindle.  Knowing how to spend long hours in vehicles without getting antsy was getting to be a vital talent on this trip.

We made a stop for lunch at a very non-descript hotel along the way and I tried, unsuccessfully to connect to Wi-Fi and get some messages from friends.  I swore I would never complain about the speed of Wi-Fi in the States ever again!  This lunch also afforded me yet another example of pure, willful arrogance on the part of an Ethiopian.  Our waitress, when giving us the Wi-Fi password told us that it was all lower case hotal”whateverthenameofthehotelwas”.  When I inquired, due to the strange spelling, whether she meant “hotel” rather than “hotal?” – she confidently asserted it was the latter.  Upon unsuccessfully connecting using “hotal”, but successfully connecting with “hotel” – I let her know, for the benefit of future guests who asked, that it was, indeed, “hotel” and not “hotal” that worked as the correct password.  I was trying to be helpful.  Instead, she got super argumentative and insisted that it was “hotal” – essentially calling my poor, unbiased, unthinking iPhone a liar.

I give up.  Ethiopians cannot, under any circumstances, stand corrected about anything – chicken bone or Wi-Fi password – it matters not.

Men chanting and singing during a church ceremony in Lalibela

By the time the car had started climbing up and up to the altitude of Lalibela (8,202 feet), the heavens had opened and a downpour turned the roads to a muddy torrent.  It gave the winding roads an ever more otherworldly feel since we had so rarely encountered rain on this voyage of discovery.  Once arrived, we had the car drop us at the generically named hotel Lalibela where we were happy to find a very reasonably priced ($20) room available and not so happy to feel the brisk chill in the air.

Deciding to walk into town to find dinner, we soon discovered that Lalibela itself is extremely steep and we certainly walked off our tired car-bound butts as we found ourselves making our way through the southern church complex to our chosen restaurant.

Against my better judgment, I decided I was going to try and order steak one more time, convincing myself, momentarily, that if I just explained in enough detail how not to overcook the meat, that maybe, just maybe I wouldn’t be forced to chew on shoe leather for dinner.

I was mistaken.  And paid for it.

Witnessing an infant baptism ceremony

Mike and I got into a sibling-like quarrel over dinner and he left early taking a tuk tuk back to the room without me.  I found myself in quite the foulest of moods after my disappointing meal, and the realization that I was already over-churched by this country and I wasn’t all that excited about what awaited me the next day.  I kept reminding myself that the guidebooks all claimed that Lalibela was the one place in the country that was “unmissable”.

We would see.

I took the 3rd tuk tuk I found back to the hotel, having just turned and walked away from the first two who tried to quote me a rate that was 3 times the going rate for a 10 minute journey – despite their post-quote protestations that since I’d found them out, they’d be more than happy to take me for the fair price I wanted.  How would they ever learn not to cheat the Faranji if they didn’t lose business as a consequence?

Mike and I didn’t settle our squabble till the morning, but doing so over fried eggs and decent coffee certainly helped.  We set off to the Northern complex of churches and spent the first frustrating 20 minutes trying to find a good English speaking guide.

Walkways between the churches of the northern cluster with our guide

Several claimed to speak English but couldn’t coherently answer any questions.  Some just wanted way too much money.  Finally, we settled on a guy called Mike, ignoring the fact that we only had an hour left before they closed for lunch and he wandered off for fifteen minutes saying he needed five minutes to bid goodbye to his previous group.

I took a deep breath.  It was becoming clear to me that my impatience and tolerance for the hassles of independent travel were growing.  I had one week to go before I’d be on a plane to London.  I tried to keep that in mind and stay present.

When Mike got back he immediately launched into a verbal description of the churches here in Lalibela which were built between the 7th and 13th centuries, and how each complex had been carved out of essentially one large rock.  King Lalibela’s intention with building these churches was to recreate Jerusalem.   Thinking that was, indeed, quite an impressive engineering feat, I wasn’t prepared for his straight faced explanation that the churches, therefore, had been built by the angels and not people.

Amazing architecture – must have been built by Angels

I guffawed into automatic laughter – only to see Mike reprimanding me with his ever-uber-polite face as he nodded in agreement with our guides’ utterly preposterous nonsense.  His look silenced me as I uneasily squished the slew of mockery that wanted to burst out of me and be unleashed on the head of this guide whom I was paying to teach me historically sound facts – not fill my brain with hair-brained ridiculous notions steeped in myth and blind faith.

Sigh.

Steep winding staircases

It didn’t end there.  In roaming around the first set of churches I had to listen to our guide explain:

  1. How I wasn’t going to be allowed entry into the Church of Golgotha because Jesus had told Mary Magdalene not to touch him after he was resurrected, supposedly because she might have been menstruating. Cue my epic eye-roll.
  2. Why science is wrong. Yes- you read that right.  He wanted to have a discussion about how science had lead people astray and that faith in Jesus and the Orthodox church was the only path to enlightenment.
  3. Why a pool of putrid green bacteria-laden filthy water had miraculous properties that cured infertility if the woman agreed to being lowered into it, naked. Of course I wanted to know WHO and HOW she was lowered naked…but I was again, shushed by you-know-who.  (Mike – if you’re reading this, know that I love you.)
  4. How there must be something fundamentally wrong with me if I had chosen not to have babies and how I absolutely should still try to find a husband who could give me some as that was the purpose of a woman.

The green “fertility-cure” pool

I tried to focus on the architecture of these quite magnificent ancient buildings instead, also trying not to think about the all-too-familiar filthy carpet that hadn’t been changed in several decades that we were forced to walk upon shoe-less.

Toward the end of our morning tour, we were told that we would be “lucky enough” to witness a live church ceremony taking place as part of the festivities of Lent.  We entered a church that was jam-packed with old and young tiny turbaned men all draped in massive lengths of white cotton happily clanging away on their little crosses with bells on them as they took it in turns to sing (I use this term very loosely as it connotes with it the sense that there might be melody or musicality of some sort accompanying said “singing”.  In actuality, the sound this group made was reminiscent of a group of urology patients who were simultaneously and unceremoniously having their catheters removed against their will and without the assistance of anesthesia or pain meds.)

St. Georges from the side

The cacophony these discordant laments produced was extremely uncomfortable for me to listen to.  Now, I came across a variety of tourists over the course of our two-day stay in Lalibela who remarked that they enjoyed these dirge-like choruses (Dirge, not to be confused with Derg which was the name given to the ruling communist party in Ethiopia from 1975 for 13 years which resulted in the “Red Terror” and the genocide of over 750,000 citizens.  Mike kept warning me not to say “Dirge” out loud as I might offend people, until I pointed out that the words Derg and Dirge only sound alike and don’t mean the same.)  I can’t say I was one of them.  I had to get away as quickly as possible.

Additionally, I had to get away when I learned how women are not allowed to participate in the actual church ceremonies.

Ugh.

I include a video here so that you can judge for yourselves.  And, as a nice comparative, I also include a tiny excerpt from the choral singing of the York Minster that I visited a few weeks later in the UK – you can be the judge of which style of worship is more musical.

As a comparison, here is a short excerpt from a choir singing during mass at York’s Minster.

Mike and I made our way back to our hotel via St. George’s church – the most famous of the Lalibela landmarks.  I had this notion that perhaps, in the last few moments before closing for lunch, we might find it devoid of crowds and therefore more photo worthy.

I was right – and we happily spent a solid 20 minutes taking an array of pictures of the very thing that adorns countless travel magazines and brochures beckoning folks to experience Ethiopia.

After much needed fruit smoothies and a quick rest, we returned to the Southern circuit of churches, stopping momentarily to take in the museum at the site’s entrance.  There were no signs or explanations, unfortunately, in English – so we spent most of the time there trying to make sense of the numerous pictorial depictions of torture (we were later informed these paintings all signified the 7 deaths by torture and subsequent miraculous return to life of St. George) that involved all manner of horrific ways that humans can produce pain and death in another human.

The afternoon’s complex of churches was actually very interesting – and made further enjoyable by the fact that they are all connected via subterranean dark tunnels that the guide assured us were symbols of the “passages of hell.”  I wondered if, perhaps they just made it easier to get from one underground church to another without needing to climb up and around, but I had learned to keep my mouth shut by this point.

Entering one of the passageways between churches

It is quite difficult for me to comprehend the massive commitment of time, labor and resources that must have gone in to create this many churches and to have made so many, underground, so close to one another and carved out of solid pieces of rock.  It is quite a wonder and a marvel to see.

I hope that the tone of my post doesn’t fail to express how impressive the site itself is.  It certainly earns its reputation as the 8th wonder of the world.  It was beautiful and certainly a historian or archaeologist’s dream to visit.  I simply found I was unable to connect to the place on an emotional level.  I think you need to be a person of faith for that.  And I’m not.

That evening, Mike and I ventured out to the “best restaurant in Ethiopia” and found a restaurant that had an incredible view, and a pretty decent menu.  A storm was brewing and we enjoyed watching the thunderclouds gather and listened to the rumbles as we ate.

Views as the thunderclouds gathered at Mountain View Restaurant

As we walked back up a set of hills in order to find a tuk tuk back to our accommodation, we were passed by a group of kids around 5 or 6 years of age who asked us where we were from.  Upon hearing our response, they all chanted “We Hate Trump!”

We feel you, I thought.  Even here, in the remote holy city of Lalibela, tiny humans knew all about the International disgrace that our President has brought upon our nation.  For that I continue to lament.

On arrival, we got into a discussion with the guy at the front desk about our travel options for getting to our next stop – Bahir Dar.  It turned out that we would pay about $50 USD each for the 6-7 hour drive.  However, he pointed out that there were two flights per week that only cost $40 USD, and it just so happened that there was a flight that next morning.  After a brief chat about the pros and cons of leaving Lalibela sooner than originally planned (we were considering another 2-3 day trek amongst the surrounding villages) Mike and I decided to book 2 seats on the flight leaving the next morning.

Boarding our little plane for the short 40 minute flight from Lalibela to Bahir Dar

I was happy that we were going to essentially end our Northern Historical tour of Ethiopia in a city that we had reluctantly excluded from the start of our journey because of the driving distance from Bahir Dar to Gonder, our first stop.  Adding this city to the end of our clockwise journey solved that problem and eliminated the need to make that connection overland since we’d simply be flying back to Addis in a few days in any case.

My next post will be from this lakeside, palm-fringed tourist destination.

Ethiopia Part V: Journey to the Center of the Earth – The Danakil Depression

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Camel train in the Danakil

Our four day/three-night trip to one of the most inhospitable areas of the globe was very weird.   And not necessarily for the reasons that I was expecting.

I was expecting it to be really hot and dusty.  I was expecting to see weird rock formations, bubbling pools of sulphuric acid and geysers.  I was expecting to sleep out rough under the stars and smell really bad by the end of the trip.  I was expecting long hours of driving in the car observing tiny villages of the Afar people who somehow manage to live a nomadic existence drifting from place to place in this arid, harsh, landscape.

Cool Rock formations in the Danakil

But those weren’t really the weirder aspects of the trip for me.

The weirdest part of the trip was the large group that we were traveling in – and the group dynamics that arose as a result.  It impacted my impression of almost every activity we participated in – and made a jaunt into the rock pools to see multi-colored geological phenomenon feel more like a trip to the mall in Shanghai than an expedition to one of the lowest points on the planet.

Our group consisted of about 40 persons, of which about 30 were a large group of Chinese tourists, who seemed to all know one another, though I never actually ascertained for sure whether or not this was true.

Quatchi poses on the salt flats

Mike walks through the salt lakes

I would like to think of myself as a very open and unbiased person.  I certainly do not consider myself to be racist.  I do not wish to offend any of my readers by stating this – so I will reserve my observations to be solely about the individual group of people that I spent this time in the Ethiopian desert with.  But I came to truly dislike the behaviors of these individuals, and it proved difficult by the end to separate my feelings about the Danakil and the sites we were witnessing with my feelings at how this group would act in the space.

First, other than the lovely two individuals from Shanghai that Mike and I shared our 4X4 with – the group of Chinese pretty much kept to themselves and didn’t engage in conversation with any of us “outsiders”.  They were obsessed with taking selfies and spent hours and hours getting the perfect photos of themselves at each and every site of interest.  Boyfriends would patiently acquiesce to their woman’s request for hundreds of pictures at different angles, with and without sunglasses, with and without certain expressions, standing facing to the right or to the left, with and without a flash, and any and all possible variations in between.

Since we had armed security with us (there is a real threat of Eritrean terrorism as the Danakil is very close to the border that is still disputed, and tourists have been targets in the past) – some of the Chinese would “borrow” their guns and spend hours taking photos holding the guns in a mind numbing array of different poses and set ups.

Chillin’ on the roof of our 4×4 with Mike

I found it both entertaining and nauseating to watch.

Then came the photo editing and the obligatory “whitening” of pictures by the women who are obsessed with being as pale as humanly possible – to the point where some of the girls looked like ghosts – and would not consider spending any time out in this inhospitable environment without perfect makeup which including lots of whitening foundation and powder.  To avoid the horrific possibility of sun ever touching their skin – they would all be dressed in multiple layers including down vests – even when the temperature hovered around 40 degrees centigrade.

Many of their group smoked and they never failed to drop their cigarette butts wherever it suited them.  On our hike to the summit of the Erta Ale volcano – which happened in the dark, late evening in the eeriest and most atmospheric of times – the Chinese group were selfish enough to be BLASTING music from their phones as loud as possible spoiling any of the 40 or so of us hiking from the possibility of enjoying a quiet moment of peace while hiking the mountain.

Sunset at the Salt Lakes

Aside from the fascinating human observation opportunities this provided – the geography of the region we were visiting was quite vivid – I still think it paled slightly in comparison to Yellowstone, Death Valley, and the Bolivian Salar de Uyuni,  though it was interestingly a cool combination of all 3.

I enjoyed the chance to walk through the salt laden lakes and see my feet crunching on the beautiful crystallized salt as the sun was setting on our first evening.  That kind of vast emptiness has a haunting quality unique unto itself.  Seeing our 8 4×4’s driving side by side on this highway-less terrain was crazy and quite unnerving whenever our driver pointed out that he wasn’t quite sure of the direction we were supposed to be heading in (with an endless horizon, it is super easy to get turned around and navigation skills are crucial.)

Folks in our group pose for pics

Our car was the lucky one to get stuck in the salt mud and had to get help as our spinning tires were just sinking us ever further into the mire.  Eventually, the large group of arguing Ethiopian guides and drivers figured out how to secure a wench to the back of our car and pulled it free – leaving it to us to scream at the Chinese group taking photos that they might wanna take 30 or so steps back to avoid getting their heads knocked clean off if anything were to go wrong and the cable snapped during the dangerous operation.

My vision of sleeping in a desert wilderness sans tent with just the stars for light was not to be.  The camp in Hamedela was slapped right next to a Potash factory that had massive artificial spotlights that kept the entire camp illuminated throughout the night, much to my disappointment.  The guides set out our hammock-like “cots” in rows, somehow wrongly believing that we must all want to sleep in tight proximity with one another rather than to spread out and experience the wilderness.

Getting stuck

Food was served en masse and it was a free for all and you had to take what you could or end up hungry – especially since there were no chances to obtain snacks and we’d sometimes go six or seven hours between meals.

Our guides left much to be desired also and I found myself completely switched off most of the time they were talking anyways.  The first one barely spoke English, though I really loved his reference to how the following day we would be driving 15 minutes between one site and the next “water bubbly.”   Everything we stopped to see we did as a large group which gave one the feeling of being part of a herd of cattle.  During our time at the geysers, rock pools, and multi-colored acidic rock – we were often led walking directly over the highly toxic and dangerous ground and I got yelled at for taking a safer more indirect route – by the guards with the guns!  I couldn’t believe that they would let tourists trample all over this fragile and geologically thin/exposed/volcanic and potentially explosive/corrosive ground without regard to its preservation or to our safety.

It was infuriating, even though the natural wonders themselves were incredible.

Our camp beds

In the middle of Day two, we visited a working salt mine that was complete with hundreds of workers hacking away at the ground to produce rectangular shapes of rock salt that they would then affix to hundreds of camels who would carry it over hundreds of miles to and from market.  It really was quite a sight to see and it looked like incredibly arduous work done over long stretches of time in the blaring sun and heat.

Ironically, everywhere we went, we would see salt in its many forms, but there was never salt served with our meals.  I’d point this out – but I think as I mentioned before – irony and sarcasm is somewhat lost on Africans.

Remains of a not so lucky donkey that drank salt water

We had a very long drive to our mid-way point on day two – which was going to take us back on the road to Mekele to a town that was on the way to our destination for day three – the Erta Ale Volcano where we might hopefully see molten red lava at night while we camped on its summit.

Though our itinerary stated we’d be camping for 3 nights – we apparently were going to be staying on mattresses in three rooms in a private house that had been arranged for us in the small town of Abala.  When our car arrived, our guide explained that there really wasn’t room for us in the assigned rooms and that we could either sleep on the floor of our hosts’ living room – or we could drive back to Mekele for the night and they would cover the cost of a hotel room.  It was altogether very confusing – it appeared that they’d overbooked the place by several individuals, and the idea of sharing one bathroom and one shower with 39 individuals was not in the least appealing.

Multi colored pools on day 2

Colorful volcanic rock

Mini Geyser

Mike suggested that perhaps they might cover the cost of a room in a local hotel in town – and we were happy when they agreed to this suggestion.  Strangely, our two car companions opted to stay with the group while Mike and I got our own room about half a kilometer up the road with our own private shower.  We high-fived; feeling that we had definitely scored.

It rained that night for the second time during our whole trip and Mike and I made our way back to our room after a rather yummy fasting meal with the soft patter of raindrops and the exhortations of kids begging for candy all the way to our room where we thankfully fell asleep, grateful for our luxurious privacy.

Highway to nowhere

One of the other main issues on this trip that spoiled my enjoyment of it was the lack of hygiene and basic sanitation.  On our first and last camps – despite the fact that hundreds of tourists stay here every single week during the visiting season – there were no pit toilets or facilities of any kind.  Not being given any sort of instruction – folks would just take a shit anywhere they took a fancy, very often just strewing their toilet paper along with it.  It was absolutely disgusting.  Peeing in the bush is one thing – but having human excrement building up over years and years right next to where Afar villages were trying to live life and raise their herds of animals is unacceptably gross.   Not only that, but no water was provided for us to wash our hands prior to mealtimes.  Luckily, we had a very kind and thoughtful driver who would bring us a gerry can and soap for our car when Mike and I would insist on washing our hands.

On the third day we drove over seven long hours to reach the volcano.  Much of this was over very rocky and non-paved terrain that was as good an African massage as any we’d experienced on this trip.  We spent long hours waiting for everything that day – to leave Abala in the am, to get lunch, to leave on the climb for the summit.  Then, as we were climbing to the summit of Erta Ale along with many many other groups of a similar size to ours, all of a sudden they decided to march us at such a pace that it was impossible to pee or rest along the way.  It took all of four hours to get to the summit and we were only given 3-5 minutes breaks ever hour and a half.  It was crazy to be herded at that kind of pace when we had been waiting and waiting all day long.  I didn’t understand the reason for it – but I can only assume that ETT is given a certain “window” in which to climb and have a time for “viewing” of the lava before they have to clear out and make room for other groups.

Camels at the salt digging site

With this herd mentality and the blaring of music along the way, I can’t say I enjoyed this mountain experience since it was anything but.  In addition, there was trash all along the way – thousands of discarded plastic bottles along with toilet paper and cigarette butts lining the path all the way to the summit.  Which, unfortunately, was obscured with high winds and steam – so you could see a really eerie red glow – but not any lava.

We were finally getting into our sleeping bags around midnight, and were expected to get up to have another viewing opportunity at 4:30am.  Clearly this segment of the trip was badly organized as I need more sleep than that to function properly – not to mention it was 11 kms each way to ascend and descend.  I skipped the ass-raping crack of dawn call and tried to get another hour of sleep before we were forced to march down the mountain single file following our brave gun-toting military scouts.

Bleh.

Red glow from Erta Ale

I could easily have skipped this part of the trip.  Seeing the lava would have been just amazing – but I felt like I was hiking a large garbage dump on a poorly organized multi-school trip where you had an uncomfortable sleepless night and had to take a shit where thousands had before you, out in the open for all to see in a massive area covered in human excrement for the past 17 years.

By the time we arrived back in Mekele, I was falling down from exhaustion and beyond ready for a shower, a decent meal, and clean sheets.  I was also waiting to hear from a friend in Accra who was potentially going to be available for me to hang out with for my last week in Africa.  After the Danakil, I really had seen all I wanted to see in Ethiopia and I was so done with the people here and their attitudes (as I described in my first article about this country).  Unfortunately, my friend was not going to be able to have me visit – so Mike joined me as I drank 3 Gin and Tonics before we ordered a rather delicious pizza and righteously passed out.

The next day was going to be a day of rest, no doubt about it!

Ethiopia Part IV: Tigray – where Churches are the Cherry not the Cake

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Views over Tigray

We had only driven out of Axum for about 90 minutes – I was laying spread out across one of the bench seats, taking advantage of our massive luxurious van for just the two of us – when Mike told me to get up and look out of the window.  This is what I saw.

Scenery right out of Axum

The geography in this area of Ethiopia is astounding.  A huge pink and orange rock escarpment with towering sandstone cliffs and mountains that are reminiscent of Utah, Arizona’s Monument Valley, North Western Australia and Namibia to mention a few similar places.  This is all just wonderful – BUT!  They sold me this trip to see CHURCHES??????!!!!

It blows my mind that the tour company who markets this particular route only focuses on the historic churches that we would get to see.  No mention is made of the views, or the trekking opportunities.  All that was said was that a few of the churches on day two required a little bit of clambering to get to.  This was a huge understatement, both in scope and in practical terms.

Mike ascending the vertical wall at Debre Damo

I had agreed to make our first stop the monastery of Debre Damo – which only allowed for male visitors.  In fact, the monks only allowed male cows, chickens, donkeys and any other livestock they needed for their purposes to be provided for their day to day needs.  I’m guessing female cows would be just too much of a powerful temptation for them, living all alone at the top of a monolithic mountain?

The fun part of visiting this monastery is that it involved a near vertical 15 m rock climb where the priest assists the person climbing via a rope around the waist.  Mike is a little afraid of heights, so I was super proud of him for wanting to give this a go.  Plus, I wanted everything documented on camera in case something funny or super embarrassing happened to him on the way up or down.

Fortunately for me, I got both.

Enjoy this wonderful video footage of Mike being aided down the rock, and toward the end, not even being allowed to place his feet to steady himself: https://youtu.be/xWNVzRtlYG8

After a nice lunch, our next stop was located at the end of another stunning drive through the magnificent countryside, and according to the guidebook, one of the most scenic roads in the country.  There was a complex of 3 churches called the Teka Tesray cluster, but we’d been advised to just visit the most beautiful – Medhane Alem.  As we approached the trailhead (because, yes, you have to hike to each of these churches as they’ve been built literally into the rock/mountain) we were swarmed by a bunch of kids wanting to make some quick birr to show us the way.  We chose one competent looking enough chap and we made our way through the late afternoon sun up the steep sandstone cliffs to the church – which was about 30 minutes away.

Beautiful Medhane Alem

What made this particular location a little unique was that we were surrounded by a beautiful variety of cacti, eucalyptus trees, and green, rolling hills.  It reminded me of a fragrant late afternoon in Tuscany – except without the olive trees.  We entered the gated entrance with its standard issue crowd of elderly shawled folk who seemed to “live” at the church and beg for money.  We were told to remove our shoes and make our way through the dirty and rocky garden area leading to the white rock-hewn church – and I just couldn’t understand why they didn’t just let us remove our shoes at the doorway – thereby ensuring we didn’t bring the dirt and dust inside the church with us.  I asked this of our guide and was informed that the rocky path was already “holy land” which appeared to be more important than whether or not it was clean.

Artwork inside Medhane Alem

The inside of this 6th century church was very cool and carved out in one giant piece, consisting of 4 inter connected rooms containing mosaics, remnants of religious artwork depicting the angels and the apostles, and of course, the holy of holies that contained a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, in line with Ethiopian Orthodox teachings.

As usual, the outside and surrounding scenery was more fascinating to me than the inside of the church, where it was hard for me to not be preoccupied with how old the carpet was and how many thousands of dirty feet had walked here since it was last replaced.

Having said that, the feat of work this represented and the age of the church itself was pretty staggering.  I think when you’re dealing with architecture this ancient, it is really hard for a layman to determine the actual talent that may or may not be involved in its creation, based purely on its age.

As with many of these very very old churches – the guides often claimed that the only explanation for their creation at a time when technology was so limited was that they were made with the assistance of the angels.  These explanations are given entirely with a straight face, I might add.

Making our way back to the van as the sun was setting was rather magical and I managed to get some nice sunset shots.  Why is it we never tire of a beautiful sunset?

Pretty sunset as we descend from Medhane Alem

That night we stayed in a small town called Hawzen.  It took visiting four hotels before Mike and I found one with an available room that had hot water in the bathroom – the Habesha Hotel.  We soon headed out in search of a restaurant our driver had recommended, and when we did finally find it – it turned out it was only serving fasting food.  It’s funny to me how excited the restaurant staff are to tell us that their menu doesn’t contain any dairy, meat or animal fat of any kind – but it’s clearly because they don’t realize that hearing such news is an instant disappointment for me.

I settled on ordering some vegetable soup and beer.  And eating some rice off of Mike’s plate, of course.

Our second day in Tigray was definitely the highlight.  This is in spite of the horrendous hassle we had to overcome in locating a scout for each of the two churches we hiked to – you can read about the first instant in my former post here.  Despite this, it was easily my favorite day of the entire trip – perhaps since the scenery, degree of difficulty, and the steep ledges we had to scramble over to reach these churches built on top of mountains was altogether unexpected.

Stunning landscapes and beauty of Ethiopia

Our first visit was to a church called Abuna Yemal, which, funnily enough – was featured in a BBC article about the priest having what was claimed the “most difficult commute in the world.”  The route was a tough scramble, possibly a technical enough route that a harness and rope would be called for were it in the States – but I certainly enjoyed the adrenaline rush that came from trying to find foot and hand holds (and doing so in the midst of yelling at the bunch of super annoying men, dressed in SUITS I might add, to shut the hell up as they threw out constant muttered directives of how and where I should climb, assuming I was a complete idiot who’d never scrambled before.)

Me, ascending sans rope to the Rock Hewn church of Abuna Yemal

I was, however, filled with more than adrenaline when one of these douche bags (who expect tips even though you never asked for help, in fact, when you had actively told them to go away multiple times) actually down climbed right over the top of me and stood on my hand.  I screamed at him, in a terrified rage, for committing the ultimate rock climbing faux pas – though I’m not sure he really gave a shit.

It did end up being totally worth it – and the views from the teeny tiny ledge that led to the church were stupendous.  Hopefully you can get some idea from these pictures.

Sitting on a ledge near the church

Again, the church was a nice cherry to find at the top of this climb, but the journey was reward enough in itself.

This first church was about 3 hours return, and it was well past lunchtime by the time we got back to the van.  I cursed not having known about the number of hours we’d be hiking today, and I cursed our guides/drivers for not telling us to pack a lunch with us to help fuel us for the afternoon’s venture out to Maryam Kokor – which was going to take us another 3 arduous hours to climb and return from.  Luckily, Mike had some chocolate in his pack and Sneetchi gave us some bananas…so we managed fairly well despite our outputs.  It’s just that this was clearly not the first time this company had brought tourists to these places – so why can’t they advise this ahead of time?  SMH.

Not so happy priest at Abuna Yemal with ancient text inscribed on goat skin

The approach to Maryam Kokor was very different, as was our lovely and QUIET scout whom our driver had been kind enough to arrange for us to have after the nightmare we’d experienced at Abuna Yemal.  There were sections of tunnel-like through paths of rocks with giant sandstone walls rising up either side of us.  Then there were sections where we had to clamber on hands and feet on well-trodden and eroded “steps” up the pink cliffs.

Views were out of this world and I include some pictures here.

There were two small churches to visit at the top of the mountain, and the first had separate entrances for men and women.  It looked rather like Medhane Alem inside, though the artwork was far better preserved.  The second much smaller church had just one room with a mural going in a circle across all four walls – but we had to navigate a narrow ledge where the wind threatened to pick us up and throw us up and over the edge where we’d fall several thousand feet to the valley below.  I include some pictures and videos of this exhilarating hike here.

Hanging out on ledges

I felt extremely satisfied and physically spent by the time we made it back to the van.  Here is a link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4EGFHA4FemY  Not just that – I was rather hungry, but we opted to grab avocado smoothies and make our way to Mekele since it was already 4:30pm in the afternoon – and we would be leaving for our 4 day/3-night trip to the Danakil Depression the very next day – and probably at early o’clock.

Maryam Kokor

We visited our tour agency on arrival in Mekele to pay for our trip – but alas, the credit card machine wasn’t working (shocking, I know.)  So Sneetchi dropped us at a nice hotel (which was a little expensive, but well worth the little bit of luxury we felt we deserved) where we got a SEMI-SUITE, which was essentially a room with an adjoining living area.  More importantly, the restaurant served burgers and fries which we joyfully washed down with large beers and toasted our incredible two day adventure visiting historical churches…I mean, trekking through some of the best scenery I’ve experienced yet on the Dark Continent.

Ethiopia Part III: Visiting the Ancient Axumite Kingdom

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The most “Totes Adorbs” sheep you’ve ever seen napping anywhere

The night in Debark turned out rather badly.  Though I was pretty much recovered from the shit-barfs, my cough was back with a vengeance and I awoke around midnight to feeling utterly parched, with a hacking cough.  I looked over and saw that my water bottle was empty – so I got up to refill it and was going to steripen it and drink a whole liter ( I was very dehydrated from the prior day’s exertions) – when I discovered, to my horror, that there was no water coming out of the tap.  I looked over at Mike’s stuff – he was out of water too.  None of us had refilled prior to going out the night before and we’d only drank beer with dinner.

Long winding roads to Axum

I tried to go back to sleep, but found that I wasn’t able to and started getting a headache from the dehydration.  Around 630 am, I decided that maybe someone might be up downstairs and could point me towards a functioning tap.  I dressed and walked down the four flights of stairs only to find that it seemed like the whole hotel and/or block had the water turned off.  I begged for hot water from the kitchen, since they were undoubtedly going to make an entire cauldron of coffee for the buffet breakfast that was due to be ready by 7.  No one understood me.  I went out into the street and walked along for a few blocks when I saw a security guard dozing in a garden of a building that appeared to have a hose attached to a tap.  I walked over and showed him my empty bottles and he kindly turned the tap and miraculously – water came out!

As I hurried back to our room to treat the water so we could drink – I was stopped by a man in the lobby who told me that Tadele (our asshole tour operator) had told him to come and get Mike and me to go to the bus station.  I thanked him, but explained that we were planning to eat first and head over to the station around 8 o’ clock.  That’s when he said we would need to leave by 7:15 because sometimes the bus showed up at 07:30 am – early from Gonder.

A random dude puts our luggage on the roof of the bus

Frustrated and panicked, I rushed up the stairs, woke Michael up and told him we had 15 minutes to get up, pack and be heading to the station.  It was not the morning I had envisioned but we made it to the station by 0730 and anxiously waited for the bus to arrive, where presumably, someone was sitting in our seat from Gonder to ensure someone else didn’t take it.  It’s a strange system.

New Church of St. Mary of Zion, Axum

Our guide who’d brought us disappeared and the minutes ticked on by with no sign of him or the bus.  Eventually, around 0815, I went and found someone who spoke English and he told me that the bus from Gonder usually showed up around 9am, or later.

All that rushing for no reason.

Additionally – the “guide” eventually showed back up and I asked him why he’d told us to come for 0730?  He repeated that sometimes the bus showed up that early.  Then I asked whether he knew the guy who was actually on the bus reserving our seats.  Turns out that he did.  I asked whether he had that guy’s cell phone number?  He said he did.  So, logically, I asked him “Why on earth didn’t you just tell the guy to give you a call when the bus was 15 minutes away from Debark?”

He stared at me, and then responded “Thank you.  That is a very good idea.”

I’m still not sure if he was being genuine or if he was the first African I’d met who understood the concept of sarcasm.

NOT happy on this bus ride

In any case, the bus eventually showed up on the street at around 9:15am and there was total pandemonium.  Some guy grabbed our suitcases and hauled them up to the roof, and then started demanding money.  People were yelling and squeezing to get on board which had standing room only.  Our guide literally pushed us on board where we played squeezing musical chairs to get into our seats for the journey.

Finally, we were on our way.  Despite the fact that the journey first to Shire was only 180 kms or 100 miles, it took over 9 hours to arrive.  The bus literally struggled to keep moving forward on the bending mountainous roads we covered.  It was incredibly hot, and since Ethiopians just hate direct sunlight or a breeze, most of the windows either stayed shut, or if by the grace of God they were open, the curtain was pulled all the way across preventing precious fresh air from getting in.  It was an exhausting and claustrophobic journey – and we were lucky enough to be seated!  Many people stood this entire way.

Legends abound in Axum

We stopped a couple of times to pee in the bush, but I definitely arrived in Shire dehydrated and tired.  Mike had the smart idea to gather all the faranji folks from the bus (there were about 7 of us) and we each paid for 2 seats on a minibus for the final hours’ drive to Axum and subsequently, we were able to leave straight away.  The room and open windows in the van were an incredible relief – even more so to the few passengers who’d begun their journey that morning at 5am from Gonder!

We finally arrived at our chosen hotel for the night – aptly and generically named Africa Hotel.  Mike and I wandered off to an international hotel for dinner and ordered some delicious tomato soup and then we shared a burger (my appetite had still not fully returned.)

Mike checks out the funeral procession

Group of churchgoing white-robed ladies

We chose to rest the following day as we were both spent from the Simiens and what was an even more arduous day of sitting on the bus the day before.  I did laundry and tried to edit photos – though I was having some major technology issues that was taking hours to work around and in the end I gave up and went for a walk and had beers with Mike at a lovely little restaurant he’d found called Kuda Juice and Burger that had this delightful outdoor green space.  I felt a little better after having a good cry with Mike (I don’t quite remember what was upsetting me at the time) – he is certainly a good listener and I appreciate him for that very much.

It was time to pack and head out again – this time we would be traveling through the region known as Tigray which had some famous 5th and 6th century rock-hewn churches to visit and would be a nice way to kill time as we made our way to Mekele from where we would join a tour with Ethio Travel Tours to the Danakil Depression.

The agency we booked with was located in our hotel and we were given the choice of a one day drive-thru to Mekele visiting a couple of churches, or a two-day private tour where we could visit four or five churches.  Not being an avid history aficionado, and certainly not someone to whom visiting churches, however historical, is that appealing –  I told Mike I wasn’t really bothered about which tour we did and could do whatever he felt made the most sense.  Mike opted for the two-day tour as it would include a visit to Debre Damo – a monastery atop a mountain that was only accessible by men and involved a 15 meter climb with rope and a priest helping to haul you up the vertical cliff.  He liked the idea of the challenge since he has a fear of heights.  I wanted to support him in that brave quest.

Stelae Field in Axum

The next morning we met our driver who said his name was “Sneetchie” – I have no idea if I’ve spelled his name correctly or not.  He was 22 years old and played some awesome music for us in the minivan that we had all to ourselves.  We arranged first of all to visit some of the historic sites of Axum including the Stelae field (which date from 300 to 500 A.D) which most likely served as funeral monuments and pre-date the arrival of Christianity to Ethiopia (Ethiopia was the second country after Armenia to implement the practice of Christianity) The tallest one still standing is 24 meters, and the Great Stele probably fell down during construction – was 33 meters in length.  When Italy occupied Ethiopia under Mussolini’s regime in 1937 – the five broken pieces were taken by truck and ship to Rome as ‘war booty’ and put back together, not getting repatriated back until 1947!

The five-piece stelae that was returned to Ethiopia in 1947

These Stelae marked the center of what at the time was one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world – the Royal Kingdom of Axum, and they are still quite an impressive sight.  There are tunnels and burial sites that you can walk through – and though they were once filled with incredible treasures – they have since all been looted and robbed.

Some of the Stelae had modern reinforcements now

One of the burial sites

We spent a few hours walking around and then when it was time to leave – we couldn’t seem to locate our private van anywhere.  Worse yet, Axum has some of the pushiest cab/tuk-tuk drivers anywhere and we were asked every two minutes whether we needed a taxi.  Getting hungry, I started eating a dry sweet roll I’d bought earlier that morning and some guy walked over and told me to stop eating in public because other people were fasting that day.  I told him that I wasn’t fasting or a Christian.   So, not a very comfortable place to sit around waiting.  Though we did get to watch and photograph these gorgeously cute sheep who were napping on each other on the side of the road.

After wandering around a while longer, we came across a funeral procession and a few of the modern churches that were dotted around the Stelae field and the Queen of Sheba’s baths (though they looked like disintegrating rock walls to me.)  The official Ark of the Covenant was supposedly also housed in some museum in Axum – but our guidebooks stated that there was no credible evidence that it was actually here – so my Indiana Jones’ notions were crushed.

Eventually, Sneetchie showed up and we headed in the direction of Tigray.

Ethiopia Part II: No Pain, No Gain in the Simiens

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The beautiful Simien Mountains

Our flight and arrival in Addis went without a hitch and the visa process was pretty straightforward also.  We chose to stay the night at Lobelia Hotel as it was close to the airport and we’d have to leave at an ungodly hour to catch our domestic flight in the morning to Gonder – where we would begin our Historical Northern Tour of Ethiopia.

After checking in and getting some soup for our tummies, I was ready for an early night when I noticed that the hotel had a sauna and a steam room! I later discovered that this is a trend in moderate to nicer hotels in Ethiopia – and it was one I took advantage of at any given opportunity.  This was my first and it helped with my cough immensely.  In the end, I had that cough for about six weeks on and off…it has finally cleared up, as of about a week ago.  I can’t tell you how relieved I am not to have to take antibiotics and be able to sleep through the night without waking Mike up with a coughing fit.

The next morning began rather badly.  As we arrived at the domestic terminal, Mike put his iPhone in another person’s “security box” as his had already gone through and he’d just that moment realized it was still in his pocket as he needed to pass through the body scanner.  Once through, he waited for it to “reappear” on the other side.

It never did.

I was, meanwhile, trying to check both our bags onto the flight and save time.  When Mike wasn’t showing up I went back to find him distressed and searching for his phone.  I cursed myself for not having been there at that moment, as doubtless someone had grabbed it and it might have been possible to spot them if it was done soon enough.  Security was useless, assuring us that they would check the CCTV cameras etc.  I kept asking “how on earth is that going to help?  You won’t know the identity of the person who you see took the phone!”  Besides, I’m pretty sure that it was a member of the x-ray machine team that took it.  We put a message on his phone to indicate it was lost and to contact my number, but unfortunately, Mike hadn’t connected it to the wifi of the domestic terminal yet – so whomever had taken it, wouldn’t see the message.  Moreover, a stolen iPhone might as well be a stolen brick – without the password, there’s no way to get into it.

What a waste.  It was Mike’s baby too – so I felt super bad for him.

Shopping in Gonder

Our flight was only about 45 minutes and we landed in Gonder, taking a hotel shuttle to the AG – chosen because it had my initials!  Mike then discovered that his camera viewing screen was broken and his day had just gotten worse, poor guy.  The hotel was actually quite nice and we soon passed out since we’d barely slept the night before.

Gonder and the day and a half we spent there turned out to be rather arduous.  Other than being the former capital of the country and full of amazing history such as the palace of Emperor Fasilades who founded the city in 1636 – it is already at an elevation of 2133 m and being quite hilly, was a physical test just to walk around and get errands ran before starting our 4 day trek to the Simien mountains.

We had to find a tour company that we could trust and was leaving in the next day or two (NOT an easy task), buy warm jackets as the temperatures at night would be below freezing, find warm hats/gloves, buy some Acetazolamide (altitude medication), buy hiking boots, buy more malaria pills for me as I was almost out, get SIM cards for our phones, and other odds and ends.  It ended up taking us almost all of our free time to accomplish these tasks, and at almost one hour prior to closing – we finally got in a cab to go visit the Royal Palace – feeling it would be too awful to not visit this UNESCO world heritage site before leaving in the am for Debark.

The Royal Palace was quite impressive, especially the castle that was actually intact.  Since we were so late, we failed to find a guide, and had to satisfy our historical curiosities by reading about each building on Lonely Planet – promising ourselves we would do more earnest research later.  Getting back to our room, we had to pack our overnight bags and combine what we were leaving into my suitcase and try to get an early night.

Fasilada’s Palace, Gonder

The next morning, we were picked up nice and early and informed that we would be getting a private tour as the Korean couple they had paired us with had never actually trekked before and our tour operator was concerned that we would leave them in the dust.  Poor Mike just looked at me and I told him that I was sorry he’d had no one else to talk to for the next 3 nights.

On arrival at park headquarters, however, we came across a lovely Polish girl, Kamila, who was looking to hire a scout and share transportation with someone to the trailhead and back from Chennek.  I told her that I’d be happy to let her share our scout and transport – but she’d have to arrange it with Tedele – our “charming” tour operator.  In the end, she paid him $50 for transport and the use of our scout – and as it turned out, she ended up having the exact same trip that we did, except for the fact that she’d brought her own tent.  We didn’t mind, per se, but she sure lucked out with getting fed at every meal – our cooks even baked her a cake on the last day of the hike for her birthday!  I was glad that Mike would have someone new to talk to – and goodness, did they ever hit it off!  They talked a lot on the trail, which was fine with me, because as many of you know, hiking in the mountains is about the only time that I’m relatively quiet – it’s my form of church.

Our first sighting of a group of Gelada monkeys – walking from Buyit Ras to Sankaber

That day the hike was short and relatively easy, though the temperatures were much higher than I had expected.  Since they were only going to feed us plain bread and bananas for lunch, I asked to stop at the Simien Lodge where I managed to finagle some ham and cheese for our rolls – which made them greatly improved.

That evening, we set up tents and got on a few layers before heading out to a viewing point to watch the sunset.  Everything about camp reminded me of Kilimanjaro – especially the little bowl of hot water they’d put out to do washing before dinner.  Already, many of the hikers at camp were feeling sick and had symptoms of AMS.  Thankfully I felt ok – at least, I did at that moment.

Dinner was very abundant, and just like on Kili, they had already fed us with popcorn and cookies so I wasn’t exactly hungry, but that didn’t stop me from pigging out.  It was lovely and warm in the cook tent, especially when they lit a nice wooden fire which we sat around with tea after dinner.

Start of Day 2 – heading to Geech

I was feeling a bit too full but fine right after dinner and was soon snugly wrapped up in my sleeping bag within a sleeping bag.  I found that I just couldn’t get comfortable and my stomach was rumbling a bit, but I put it down to having overeaten.  Around 11:30 at night, I suddenly felt bile rise in my mouth and I knew I had seconds before I was going to barf over everything in the tent, including Mike.  In those few seconds, I managed to locate my headlamp, unzip my sleeping bags, unzip the tent and stick my head out far enough that when the contents of my stomach emptied out, it was just inches from the tarp under our tent.  Feeling somewhat relieved, I crawled back inside, thinking that I would immediately feel better and be able to fall asleep.

Not so.

I started feeling nauseous and the pain in my stomach was only getting worse.  The hours crawled by slowly and I was soon writhing in agony.  Soon enough, I realized I needed the bathroom and I struggled to walk down to the outhouse because I was also starting to feel feverish and weak.  I won’t go into too much detail about what happened next – but my travel partner Mike the next day best described it as my body mandating a total body evacuation.  I sipped some water on return to my tent, believing that by now, at 3am, the worst had to be over.

I was wrong.  The next thing that happened was one of the most embarrassing and dehumanizing moments of my life.  I shat my pants, and I realized that I was too sick to be able to walk back to the outhouse without help.  I lay there crying and woke up Mike telling him what had happened through gulped tears.  God bless him, he got up and helped me walk back down the hill to the nasty nasty hole in the ground that was the outhouse.

I’m not sure how I still had that much still left inside me, and furthermore I don’t know from where I found the strength to also change my clothes while having to balance on alternating feet in my shoes.  But Mike stayed the whole time and got me some mango juice to sip on once we were back in the tent.

It was 5am and feeling horrifically weak and sorry for myself, I managed to fall asleep.

After only a few hours’ of rest, it was time for us to awaken and head out for our 5-6 hour hike to the next camp.  I didn’t think I’d be able to make it – I felt so lousy.  Problem was, Mike was insisting on accompanying me if I decided to head back to Debark and wait my illness out.   I kept telling him that I wanted him to go on and enjoy the trip without me.  He refused.

Riding the horse after being sick all night

So, – I made a decision to try and walk for the first 90 minutes at which point our guide, Gashaw, informed me that we would be crossing the main road, and if I was still too sick to continue, I would be able to arrange transport from there.

And so, in pain, nauseated and very weak – I started to put one foot in front of the other.  It was pretty bad and required all my concentration.  After the first hour, the pain eased a little bit, and in another 30 mins I found out why – my period had just started.  Oh great – exactly what I needed on top of my nasty bug, I had horrible cramps that I’d mistaken for aftermath of the night before.

At least I was feeling a little stronger, but that didn’t stop me from taking advantage of an offer of a horse ride the rest of the way to camp when we came across a boy with a horse offering rides to presumably feeble tourists who didn’t want to go uphill.  Though it really went against the grain for me to “give up” like that – I reasoned that if I took it easier that day, I just might have the strength to finish the rest of the hike that was two more days and lots more elevation gain – up to Mt Bwahit which was at 4437 M.

Our beautiful campsite at Geech

The views on arrival at our campsite that afternoon were so welcome.  It was a beautiful high altitude plain of grass, open and flat but surrounded by cliffs in all directions.   Thought it was only 4pm, I was feeling utterly spent and happily crawled into my sleeping bag and slept for three hours before I was told dinner was ready.  I also learned that the others had gone on a short hike from camp to watch the sunset and had been stampeded by a larger group of gorgeous gelada monkeys (granted we had seen them several times during the day – but this was a very up, close and personal encounter) as they tried to get past the humans to the cliffs where they would rest for the night inside caves.  I was glad I had chosen to rest and regain strength, but disappointed not to have witnessed this spectacle first hand.

Luckily, Mike was able to capture the event on video and I include it here for your viewing pleasure.

That night in Geech was particularly cold.  I got up around 10pm to take a pee, and for the second night, I noticed our 64-year old scout – a delightfully cheerful though non-English speaking man – sitting out in the open air wearing nothing more than his shirt, thin jacket and a tarp for warmth.  I literally feared for his life and was so worried that I ended up taking the extra jacket that I’d bought in Gonder and went over to where he was keeping watch and offered it to him.  At first he motioned with his hand, “Anita…no, no, it ok!” but then I forcibly unwrapped him from his tarp and put his arms inside the jacket, the hood up over his head and zipped him all the way up.  To my delight, it fit him perfectly (it is very disturbing that the men I come into contact with here seem to all have a body shape and size that would mean I could share my wardrobe with them!)  From that point on, he wore my jacket most of the day, removing it only in the heat of midday – and even then, leaving the detachable hood on his head like the coolest dude ever.  I loved Nursie…he said almost nothing, but was always smiling, saying my name, and saying “Good, good Anita! Strong!”

I gave him the jacket to keep on the last day of the trip.

Nursie – our fearless but chilled scout who kept watch over us

The altitude and remnants of my illness had destroyed my appetite and I forced myself to have a little soup and bread most nights, got porridge in me for the morning and snacked lightly during the day.   As such, I found myself having lost much of the weight I’d gained during my time in West Africa – so being sick and this high up did have some positive consequences.

The third day’s hike was pretty tough – about 8 hours of walking, and I was proud that I managed it – despite still vacating most of what I was eating along the way.  One time I went to pee and found that I peed out of my butt instead without warning.  I felt bad because one is supposed to dig a deep hole to avoid the almost extinct Ethiopian wolves from accidentally ingesting your feces and suffering fatal consequences.  Incidentally, the beetroots I’d managed to eat the night before had turned my product a violent pink color.  I looked for a giant rock to, at the very least, cover up the evidence that I’d failed to “leave no trace”, only to accidentally drop it from a height that caused everything to spatter raspberry colored shit over the entire surrounding area, including my shoes and trekking poles.  I had to use up some of my precious drinking water to rectify the situation, and be on my way – now precariously behind the rest of the group and getting slower as the afternoon wore on.

Looking back, it is still quite a funny story – and I am so proud of myself for not giving up and for pressing on.

More Geladas

As a sidenote to all this talk of excrement (my apologies, dear readers) – the scenery we were passing through was pretty immense and spectacular, despite the fact that it was rather brown given the time of year and it being the dry season.  Much of the wide expanse of ridges below us reminded me of a lighter colored south rim of the Grand Canyon.  Once we’d made it to Imet Gogo – all the suffering was made worthwhile by the incredible views we got to enjoy from this high point.  Unfortunately, this is the typical turnaround point for all the folks who choose to do the 2 night/3 day itinerary.  I found, however, that it was the scenery and the ability to walk along a long ridgeline the rest of the afternoon before descending to Chennek and our 3rd camp night – to be the highlight of the whole trek.

On the descent to Chennek, Mike and I spotted our one far away Ibex, which made us happy – though we were hoping to spot more the next day.  On arrival at camp, we were happy to note that there was a cold water well with a pump where we could take an ice-cold bucket shower.  We took it in turns to pump water for one another, hastily, as the sun was setting and it would soon be cold both by water and air temperature.

3rd day on the way to Chennek

At Imet Gogo

I took another early night as I was very spent, forcing myself to eat a little food.  The group had quite a rowdy dance/singalong by the fire that night, and I tried so hard to enjoy it for as long as I could, then grabbing my hot water bottle and bidding all a good night.

Singalong around the campfire

The next day was an optional day hike to the summit of Bwahit – the second highest mountain in Ethiopia.  Though I had told myself I didn’t really have to summit – I don’t easily give up, and despite having another bout of diarrhea, I proudly made the summit – albeit much more slowly than the rest of the team.  I felt an amazing sense of accomplishment, especially after noting several of the members of other groups on the mountain turning around, tired or deterred by the extreme altitude.

I made it!

Celebrating the summit of Mt. Bwahit

After some celebratory summit shots, I was happy to point my feet downhill for the last time.  We loaded back into 4 x 4’s and were treated to a nice sunny field picnic lunch on the way back where Kamila was presented with a birthday cake made for her by our cook, Messy.

I was relieved when we got to Debark, and though very pissed off at having another drama just getting our bags back (which I talked about in the last article) – was so happy to finally find ourselves in a room at the Hotel Sona resting a bit before going out for dinner.  Unfortunately, the room we found (that Kamila shared since it was a family room with four beds and adjoining rooms) was on the 4th floor of the hotel that didn’t have an elevator – so you can imagine how it felt going up and down those stairs with luggage after the day we’d had.  To add insult to injury, the water was shut off for a few hours but we finally were able to take a restorative lukewarm shower.

Men getting it on, I mean “dancing”, on the dancefloor in Debark

We had agreed to meet up with Messy and Gashaw for dinner, and they took us to a bar where we started with beer.  Everyone was up and dancing (shoulder dancing, that is – my first introduction into this uniqe and rather strange custom of dance that doesn’t include much in the way of hip or lower body movement.)   Funny thing is – it took 30 minutes after we’d ordered food for the waiter to come over and tell us that they were out of food!

Turns out this was the last night before lent and 55 days of fasting for Ethiopians.  So finding food was going to be difficult.  We finally left and went to another bar where more guys were dancing (only with other guys and in an alarmingly intense manner) and I was able to order some injera with veggies and minced meat.  I ate a little and then made my apologies and headed back to our hotel.

It was only a few blocks, but I still managed to get harassed multiple times on the way back.  I was so not in the mood and needed my bed.

What a memory-filled trek it had been.  Proud and happy that I finished what I had started.  It really reminded me how much physical suffering is and can be mind-over-matter.  I pushed myself, hard.  And I had made it!

Ethiopia Part I: Impressions from Ethiopia

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Men chanting and singing during a church ceremony in Lalibela

I’ve now spent about three weeks in Ethiopia and one thing is for sure.  This is unlike any country I have been to in Africa.  It is a confounding place – it is both claimed to be more purely African than any other nation – since it is the only country on the dark continent that managed to escape the atrocities and impacts of European colonization.  On the other hand, it doesn’t feel like Africa at all – at least, to me.  So, I must state as my opening caveat to this post – these are merely my opinions and my impressions of this – my 21st African country.  Other tourists here may have totally different experiences, in fact, I hope they do.  These are just my own personal experiences, and I grant you – they might have felt different if this were the only country I was visiting on this trip.  Since we came here after having spent almost two months in West Africa, it was far easier to compare the people with those we had just had experience with.

Ethiopia is a staggeringly beautiful country – the geography is interesting and diverse and the history is rich and there is so much to learn and see for a history lover. It is an archaeologist’s paradise – ancient civilizations that have only just started to be excavated.  The potential for tourism, therefore, is immense and from what I can tell – there is an established tourist circuit in the north, and wherever we traveled – we met a lot of tourists.

Having said all of that – I would recommend to anyone wanting to visit Ethiopia to consider coming here on a package tour that is organized and paid for by a western company – OR – be prepared to need nerves of steel.  In order to fully appreciate each and every day, it is important to have a “separation” from needing to deal with local tour operators, guides, and almost any type of service staff.  The reason for this is there is more hassle, difficulties, price-gouging, unfair treatment, lying and horrible service here than anywhere else I have traveled.  Some of it, of course, can be attributed to the language barrier – but this does not explain all of it.

Stunning landscapes and beauty of Ethiopia

Before I launch into descriptions of the struggles Mike and I have faced, I would like to point out that we did have a handful of positive local interactions.  Our driver in Tigray was a 22 – year old called Sneetchie (spelling?) and though he didn’t speak English, he was always cheerful and helpful.  In the Danakil, our driver was the exact opposite of everything I’m going to describe here – but to the extreme.  Sisay, constantly asked if we were okay, did we want the windows down or AC?  Did we want to stop for a photo?  When we responded, he would verify our answer by re-asking the same question 3 or 4 times.  It was overkill – but at the very least, he was extremely caring.  I will give him a great review on Trip Advisor – because these two individuals were absolutely the exceptions to the general rule.

Just last night, at our hotel in Bahir Dar, I decided to order the same dinner I’d had the night before because it had been so delicious.  It was a chicken breast with a mushroom sauce and mashed potatoes.  The meal arrived but it was a chicken thigh and leg served with rice.  Looking at the menu, it was a totally different meal.  The waiter came over and I asked if it would be possible for him to bring me some mashed potato?  He said “of course” and went away.  Fifteen minutes later, a woman arrived (who I presumed is the restaurant manager) and asked me “what is the problem?”  I said, “there is no problem, it’s just that I got a different dish to what I ordered and could I have some potato?”  She pointed at the menu and told me that I had the dish I ordered.  I said, “no” – this isn’t a chicken breast.  To which, she responded “Yes, this is chicken breast – it has just been flattened out.”  I laughed because I thought she must be joking.  “No, this can’t be a chicken breast because there are bones.”  “No bones, madam.” “Yes, bones…look!” I said, holding the chicken leg up for her to see, “…this is a chicken leg, right?”

“No,” she replied, “this is not a chicken leg. It is breast.”

This went on for a few hilarious minutes while she continued to deny that what I had on my plate was a chicken’s thigh and leg.  I told her I didn’t care about the chicken (I had only wanted some mashed potatoes instead of rice) but what I did care about was her lying to my face that the chicken leg was breast meat.

She simply didn’t care, and walked away.  The waiter also just walked away.

I sighed and ate my meal.  Then, without being told anything, 20 minutes later a fresh plate of food arrives – and it is the dish I had ordered and the one I’d eaten the night before.  Of course, now, I wasn’t hungry – just exasperated.  I thanked the waiter and told him that next time, it might be a good idea to TELL the customer that you are planning to replace a dish.

Traditional Ethiopian coffee being served street-side

This is an extreme example, but Mike and I experience hassle and trouble here with logistics and site-seeing on a daily basis.  Vendors pester us with a persistence that is mind-numbing – you can say “no” 15 times and they still come after you to buy whatever it is that they’re selling – even super strange things like, in Axum, a round rock split in two filled with purple-looking gemstones.  Or wooden flutes.  Or strange-looking hats with a giant pointy bobble on top that we are told are “traditional Ethiopian hats” – yet we haven’t seen a single person wearing them other than the vendor pressuring us to buy them.

Even with the kids.  We have come across kids selling items and/or begging all across West Africa.  Here, they follow you, not taking no for an answer.  It goes like this: “Sir, you buy?  I give you good price?  Please.  Sir, you buy?  You want this?  Sir?  Madam?  Where you from?  You have pen?  Give me pen.  Pen. Pen.  I want pen.  Money.  Give me money.  Hey, money!  You.  You.  You give me pen?  Money. Pen. Pen. Pen.  Sweets?  You have sweets?  Madam, Madam, Madam….” This entire time, you’ve been walking away, fast, and they keep up with you, not tiring out.  I have had to take to stopping, looking them in the eye, and yelling “NO!!!!!” to get them to stop.  The other day, while visiting the Blue Nile Falls, a young girl no older than six, actually hit me in the legs with her bag of wooden flutes when I told her “sorry” but that I didn’t want to buy one.  Mike had rocks thrown at him.  Today, a school boy hit me in the small of my back as I rode past him on a bicycle.  It is really, really sad situation – that I’m actually afraid of groups of children here.

Thank God for Mike – he saved me from most of the hassle and dangers I would have faced if traveling here solo

As for issues with money and pricing for all things needed to see this country – I don’t even know where to begin.  As a foreigner, we are called “Faranji” (or even more hilariously, “China”) and everywhere you go, service providers will name a sky-high price that is sometimes 3 or 4 times what the standard price for a service should be, just on the off-chance that you don’t know this and you’re a stupid tourist who will fall for the quote.  In Lalibela, I was quoted 100 Birr for a tuk-tuk ride that I knew to be 30.  In Gonder, we wanted to buy a beanie hat for the mountains, and they asked us for 700 Birr.  That’s over $25!   We laughed and walked away.

While visiting the Rock-Hewn churches of Tigray, we negotiated with a scout who told us we needed his services to get up the steep trail to the church Abuna Yemal.  Our driver had told us we should pay no more than 100-150 birr in total.  This scout tried to charge us 300, but we managed to negotiate him down to 200 birr, with him explaining that entrance to the church was separate at 150 Birr each.  After carefully repeating this back and confirming that there would be no additional fees or costs, we agreed to head on up the trail.  At which point he asked us if we wanted him to bring a rope?

“A rope?  What for?  Do we need it?” we asked.

“If you want, I can bring” his response.

“But will we need it?”

“It’s up to you.”

“But we haven’t seen the trail – do most tourists use the rope?”

“Some do, some do not.”

“Ok, well, then, let’s bring it and then we will have it if we need it.”

“Then that is extra 100 Birr.”

“Oh. Isn’t it your rope?”

“No, you have to rent the rope.  It’s 100 Birr.”

Mike and I look at each other, exasperated.

“Ok, but if we pay you another 100 Birr, that is EVERYTHING, right?”

“Yes. Everything”

So.  We pay him the 100 Birr for the rope and move to get going.  He then stops and says:

“No, it’s 100 Birr EACH to use the rope.”

“What on earth?  Why would it be 100 each?  It’s one rope!  You said we have to rent a rope. You can’t charge per person for a rented rope! That’s just ridiculous.”

“You pay each…”

Me, ascending sans rope to the Rock Hewn church of Abuna Yemal

And so it went on.  Mike walked away, his energy for talking to this guy having evaporated.  I told the guy, we’d pay for the rope, and I would see if I needed to use it.  In the end, I climbed without the rope and Mike used it, however, the whole “rope rental” cost was a total fabrication because our scout LEFT the rope up there for other tourists to use who came by.  Other clients who shared our car in the Danakil told us they were charged 150 birr each for the rope going to this church.  It feels like those who work with tourists simply pull prices out of the sky whenever it suits them – depending on just how much they think they might get away with charging.

So, you can see, it is quite tiring having to negotiate for each and every little thing.  Everything is a discussion.  Everything.  Nothing is simple.  Nobody ever apologizes.  Ever.

We have had some very shady/incompetent/mendacious tour guides during our time here.  The owner of the tour operator we booked with to go to the Simiens got into an argument with me when he claimed that almost no-one ever suffered symptoms of altitude sickness while hiking to 4500 meters – I told him that not only was he wrong, but that saying that to less experienced hikers could actually be dangerous.  On our first night – over half of our camp had symptoms of AMS.  The same guy who promised our main luggage would be stored safely for us and returned to us, at no additional cost per his website (our trip cost us $300 each) – had the audacity to yell at me on the phone and tell me that he had never claimed our bag storage would be free and that we would have to pay 120 birr to the hotel manager to get them back.  He had never mentioned this additional cost and we were lucky that we had spare cash on hand at the end of our 4 day trek – but seriously?  Why would you argue with a client who’s just paid you $600 for a four-day tour over $4?  On the last day when we were scorched, dirty and exhausted?

On our boat trip to the Zege Peninsula in Bahir Dar – we negotiated to pay 1500 birr to visit two monasteries on the peninsula, then visit one of the islands, and the outlet to the Blue Nile on the way back.  After we’d finished the second monastery- our boat captain informed us we were “going back to hotel now” – and when we pointed out that we’d only covered ½ of our promised itinerary, he rolled his eyes and started getting pissy.  We called our hotel, who had arranged the trip, and explained that if we were going to be taken directly back, we wanted a discount (thank goodness I had refused to pay the full 1500 Birr before the trip, stating that a tourist typically pays for a day trip at the end.  They finally agreed to letting me pay 1000 up front and I would owe 500 at the end.)

Me and our lovely driver, Sissay, in the Danakil Depression

At this point, the trip was ruined anyways and we didn’t want to visit any more places with a boat captain in a foul mood.  The guy from our hotel asked to speak to the boat captain who proceeded to start yelling into the phone for a good five minutes while we tried to calmly enjoy a coffee at a tranquil lakeside location.  After giving us the phone back, our hotel person said that there was “no problem, and he would take us to all the promised places now, no problem” to which we explained that “yes, there was a problem in that we didn’t sign up to have to listen to him arguing about giving us the service we’d agreed upon.”  There was more yelling and calls back and forth, and we had to insist he just take the boat directly back to the hotel, whereupon we got out giving him 300 Birr less for the hassle we’d suffered.

In the Danakil, we stayed for one night in a hotel, and after several days in the hot dusty desert, I was eager to take a shower.  I didn’t have a towel with me as we’d been told we’d be camping for each of the 3 nights.  But the hotel gave us a double room, which, unfortunately, only had one towel on the bed.  I took the towel to the manager, and asked if I could possibly get another towel?  He said he would go get one for me.

Half hour later, I still didn’t have a towel.  I went out of the room looking for the manager.  I spoke to five housekeepers, showed them the towel, and asked for another towel.  “You want water?”  “No, just a towel.  A TOWEL.”

Five women commence a long and loud conversation in Amharic.  It goes on and on and on and on.  Eventually, they point me to the restaurant where I see the manager sitting and eating a meal and having a beer.  All five women follow me into the restaurant.  I ask the manager for a towel, again.  He just stares at me.

Then, his phone rings.  He leans back in his chair and takes the call, completely ignoring me.  I look at the women, who start to laugh.  I ask them again, pleading, “Please?  May I have a towel?”  One of them says “Office is closed.”

Oh, God.

I’m about to lose it, when a GUEST of the hotel who has observed this whole fiasco, gets up from his meal, apologizes to me, says something to the douchebag still on his phone, then something to the five housekeepers still standing there gawking at me and laughing, and proceeds to go behind the counter of the reception, grabs a key hanging from a hook, saying “Come with me.”

We walk down the hall to another hotel room, he unlocks the door, grabs the towel from the bed and hands it to me.  I thank him profusely.

Guys being guys in Ethiopia – Friday night cuddles in the bar

These situations – unfortunately, have become very common interactions for us as independent travelers.  The bigger downside, is, however, that I feel I have my back up, and I’m already on the defensive whenever someone approaches us, or offers us a good price for something we are actually interested in doing.  When most of your experiences with vendors is bad, one can’t help tensing up, anticipating getting lied to or ripped off.  The problem then becomes that I can inadvertently come across as hostile or nasty to someone who genuinely wants to help.  I admit that – the effect of this daily hassle has been cumulative and I’ve almost reached my breaking point.

It is a real shame, because as I said earlier, this is a stunning country with so much that is worthwhile to see and visit.

That covers what it feels like to be here in Ethiopia as a tourist. Let me tell you a little bit about how it feels to be here as a woman.  First, I have been hassled, ogled, stared at, whistled at, called after, yelled at, and grabbed (once) during my three weeks here.  It has been the worst in terms of unwanted male attention compared with anywhere else in Africa.  I get this attention even when I am out with Mike walking along the street together.  If I am separated from him, it gets much worse – to the point that I would probably advise any white woman thinking of traveling to Ethiopia alone – to not.  I even got hassled when riding a bike today.  Almost every 20 meters, a guy or group of guys would call out, ask me where I was from, tell me I was beautiful, stare and say “hey, Baby!”, and the funniest of all…every tuk tuk would pull over next to my bike, even on a crowded bridge where driving close to a bike could be dangerous, and the driver would try and get my attention in any way possible.

It is exhausting and a little unnerving, even if it is flattering – which I’m not even sure about.

The shirt I should have worn every day in Ethiopia to ward off unwanted male attention

I was grabbed in a park a few nights ago in Bahir Dar and the guy said he wanted to spend the night with me and would I let him bite my butt?  I mean, what the hell? Luckily, I swiveled around kicking him and told him to “fuck off” sharply and loudly enough that he let go – but it was in a crowded place and no one even noticed.

From Gonder to Debark, from Axum to the Danakil – everywhere we went – whether in the cities or in rural areas (though it is worse in rural areas) – men are abundant in number, be it on the street, in restaurants, bars or cafes.  Men are everywhere.  Women ? – not so much.  Yes, there are a few, and definitely more in the markets selling goods.  But for the most part there are at least 10-15 men out to every 1 woman.  In Debark, we went out to the bars after our hike through the Simiens and got to witness the famous “shoulder dancing” of the north – but it felt super strange to me because all the men were only dancing with other men.  Some even “coupled up” and never once broke eye contact as they gyrated their shoulders and bodies in time with one another.  I asked our guide where all the women were – he remarked that since the next day marked the first day of their 55-day fasting schedule – the women were probably at home preparing food for the family and caring for the kids.  Whatever the reason, women simply are not out in public as much.

Men getting it on, I mean “dancing”, on the dancefloor in Debark

Incidentally, the shoulder dancing is really something to see.  It reminds me of “pop and lock” dance – which I’m sure was influenced by this very traditional form of dancing.  When it is just guys – like it was that night in Debark – I find it altogether very strange.  And, of course, it just looks so different to me as dancing is such a culturally below-the-waist activity (for me) – and in Northern Ethiopia, the movement is concentrated above the waist.  We did go see some traditional dancing in Bahir Dar and this was far more enjoyable to watch – the movements are so intricate and fast it almost defies belief.  I will try to upload some video to YouTube! so you can see what I’m talking about.

The country as a whole is predominantly Christian and very very religious at that.  Women, however, are even kept seated in a whole other section of the church during mass, many churches don’t allow women inside (because they might be menstruating – oh the horror!!!) and choirs that sing during mass are all made up of men only.  So, there’s discrimination even in the practicing of their faith.

In Mekele, after our trip to the Danakil, I went to get a haircut and met a group of six female students from the university there.  One of them spoke very good English and asked me what my general impression of Ethiopia had been.  When I mentioned this lack of women, and also how men had treated me here – she immediately sympathized and nodded with understanding.  She agreed that a female is still treated as a second class citizen in much of the country – but she was positive that change was coming.  She explained that a large portion of girls, especially those in the countryside, don’t get educated much past the age of 12 and often are married and starting a family by the time they are 14 or 15 years old.  She said that many women just accept what men expect of them – that they belong inside the house and nowhere else.  Again, she said she was happy to be getting her masters’ degree because it meant she at least had the chance of getting her own job so that she wouldn’t have to get married just to be supported.  We talked about how educating girls was the key to progress – and she assured me that even though it was difficult, women were starting to be able to compete for jobs.  Twenty years ago, she said there were almost no jobs available to women.

I hope she was right and that things are improving for women here.

Yummy traditional food

On a final note – I’d like to tell you about the food here.  For the most part, it has been quite delicious, though typically very hot & spicy – notably our first meal in Gonder at a restaurant called the Four Sisters – it was a vast array of traditional foods like Ndjera that was served with Lamb Tibs, lots of different sautéed vegetables and a variety of side dishes.  However, on the day after we completed our trek through the Simiens – Ethiopian Christians began their 55-day Fast for Easter/Lent – and this meant that many restaurants now would only serve “fasting food” – which is a paradise for vegans or vegetarians because all the dishes did not contain any animal products whatsoever.  So, no meat, no eggs, no dairy, no butter.  Meaning, rather bland vegetable based dishes only.  As a consequence, we have had to seek out non-fasting restaurants or stick to more touristy places where we can satisfy the unavoidable cravings for food from home, such as pizza or a burger.

Oh!  You can buy delicious juices everywhere here too – that has been a huge hit with Mike and I.  We love the avocado, guava, mango and banana combinations!

Coffee has a very long history here, and it is served everywhere on the street and at makeshift huts lined with grass on the floor and always a little stool where a woman boils the coffee in a traditional pot over hot charcoal before pouring out an espresso sized blackest of black liquids into a tray of waiting cups.  I’ve grown more accustomed to taking one of these strong black coffees in the afternoon, but in the morning, I still crave my coffee a little less strong (I just add hot water) and with some milk.

It has been quite a feat trying to get all 3 items in the morning when we aren’t at a hotel serving a breakfast buffet.  I bought packets of powdered milk which I use sometimes, but even in a 4-star international hotel, when I ask for one coffee, and some hot water on the side – the servers just stare at me and begin a debate with all of their co-workers that lasts at least 15 minutes.  Eventually someone brings me a coffee and then I pour it into my to-go bottle and ask again, with different hand gestures for more water?  They just stare at me and laugh.  What is this woman doing with her coffee? – they must be thinking.   Hahahaha…I guess it would be easier for me just to learn to take my coffee strong and espresso sized.

My remedy at the end of a day being a woman and a tourist in Northern Ethiopia

The language barrier has also been difficult – moreso with guides who claim they can speak “very good English” but, as it turns out, they can speak English but they cannot understand it spoken to them, and cannot answer the simplest of questions.  So, communication has been a little bit of a struggle.  My favorite exchange was in Bahir Dar with the aforementioned mean boat driver (before he got mean).  I asked him where he lived, and his response was simply:

“Hippo?”

Togo Part I: To Go or not Togo, that is the question

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City square in Lome

We got lucky again with our cab drive to the Togolese border with Benin.  The driver was willing to negotiate a very reasonable rate for us to continue driving on to Lomé.  We had opted not to visit Togoville after getting a warning from some of the truck members who’d visited previously – plus it was easily one of the hottest, most humid days we’d experienced on the southern coast of West Africa – probably 38 degrees centigrade.

We got through the border without any degree of difficulty except for our clothes being soaked through and clinging to us as we sweated profusely.  Arriving in Lomé, we did our typical last-minute search for a reasonable hotel and opted for a cheap option after we had been living it up in Benin.  Our cab dropped us off and we entered the rather ran down facility only to discover that the rooms did not have functioning showers.  Luckily, the manager was kind enough to point out that there was another hotel, Le Galion, that was walking distance away that might offer a slight upgrade in terms of standards.

She was certainly correct – Le Galion was exactly what we were looking for and had a rather English looking pub/bar attached to it with a number of “randoms” sitting and drinking beer –  it had a nice welcoming ambiance.  Plus, it was only a few blocks away from the ocean-facing main road and city beach that stretches along the length of the city.

Main road through Lome

After getting organized and taking a much needed cold shower, we walked to the beach to take in the sights and sounds of Togo’s capital.  The first thing we noticed was that unlike Accra or Freetown, there was less garbage strewn on this city beach, however, there was one element of garbage that we hadn’t observed anywhere else on West Africa’s coastline – dead puffer fish.  I know, bizarre, right?  There were probably over a hundred dead puffer fish that I counted on our hour-long stroll that afternoon and more than a few remnants of what was clearly human excrement (we had heard that many Lomé residents, unfortunately, use the beach as a toilet first thing in the morning)

On the plus side, there was a lot of activity – from crowds of young men playing soccer, to beach front bars and cafes with tables and chairs spilling out and filled with folks enjoying their Thursday afternoon sunset.

Despite the fact that we would only be in Togo for two days – we opted to purchase sim cards and some credit because it was so cheap – and since we didn’t know how fast or reliable our internet would be back at the hotel.  It was at one of these mobile phone kiosks that we noticed that we had walked almost far enough west that we were staring at the actual border crossing into Ghana.  People were buying things along the street in CFA and Cedis alike.  We realized that when it came time to cross the border the day after next – we could opt to do it on foot which would be a novel way to experience a land border.

We ate dinner at our hotel and the food was exceptionally good!  I had a Nicoise salad which I regretted because Mike got a fish Brochette that was absolutely delicious – a fish called Lotte, I believe.  He got it served with Creamed Spinach, which he generously shared with me.

After dinner, we watched “Ex Machina” in our room and fell asleep half way through. The heat was so exhausting and draining.

Cocktails at February 2nd Hotel

On our full day in Lomé, I’m sorry to report that we spent the vast majority of the early part of the day making arrangements for Ethiopia.  We booked flights to Addis from Accra using Mike’s airmiles (which he so generously gave to me as well!) I found super cheap one-way tickets from Addis to London, so I could visit family and have a slower re-introduction to the West (much like I did two years ago when returning from Kilimanjaro) and then, even more surprisingly, a one-way direct ticket for only $300 on Norwegian Airlines from London to Seattle!  In all, it only cost about $130 more to buy new tickets that allowed me to go to the UK first, compared to what it was going to cost to re-book my United flight back to the US straight from Addis.  So that made much more sense to me.

I also received a lovely letter from a former boss of mine that morning who’d been reading this blog – and he had a wonderful idea that could well result in a wonderful employment opportunity upon my return to the States.  I cried with joy and felt so grateful that I told Mike we would have to celebrate later that evening.

Lome Beach

After agreeing on a rough itinerary in Ethiopia – Mike set out to spend what was left of the daylight hours checking out the Fetish market and downtown.  We hopped on Mototaxis that took the beach road to the market.  On arriving, we realized that it was a tiny affair that was way too expensive to go inside.  We weren’t going to pay 3000 CFA each just to see a few horsetails and feathers for sale.  We had out moto drivers take us to the center of the city from where we could walk past the majority of the city monuments and then proceed back to Le Galion on foot.

There really wasn’t too much that was impressive about the city of Lomé.  However, Mike pointed out a beautiful new hotel across the main city plaza that was named “The Second of February”.  I looked, and remarked, “Wait.  Isn’t today the 2nd of February?!”

As it turned out, the road we were walking along was also called the 2nd of February and I began stopping random Lomé citizens and enquiring, in my best French, what the significance of this date might be to have a hotel and a street named after it?  Not surprising, nobody knew the answer, so I dragged Mike over to the new hotel, believing that surely someone who worked there would know the answer, and weren’t going to say it was named after the street it was built on.

As it turned out, a security guard told us that February 2nd was a day that the Togo President returned to power after getting involved in an accident during some civil conflict that had occurred a few decades back.  I haven’t as yet verified this information with a thorough internet search since internet in Africa doesn’t afford one the kind of speed to spend time searching for this kind of Wikipedia information.  But since we found ourselves at sunset in the lobby of this nice hotel – I suggested that we go to the rooftop bar for cocktails to celebrate my good news from the morning – on my tab.  We did, thankful that our nasty flip flop and t-shirt attire didn’t bar our entry from the fancy establishment where we gleefully ordered mojitos, pina coladas and…wait for it…actual fresh sushi!!!

It was so good and well worth the cost.

We walked back to Le Galion, determined to both get the same fish dish as Mike had enjoyed the prior evening.  As an added bonus, the hotel was showcasing live music that evening that we thoroughly enjoyed with our delicious meal.

The next day we had a lazy morning and got to the border around 1pm – timed for the purpose of our flight’s time leaving Addis on that Monday – since Mike’s transit visa would only be valid for a maximum of 48 hours.  Since we walked, we were drenched with sweat when we arrived at immigration, and because we had been hassled non-stop to get a cab to the border by at least twenty drivers – we were each in foul moods and snapping at the other.  Ahhh…the joys of traveling with a friend, 24/7.

The lighthouse in Jamestown, Accra

The border and negotiating Mike’s transit visa was a total nightmare.  They moved at a glacially slow pace, which is the opposite to the ambient air temperature we had to sit/stand in while we waited.  They demanded a printed copy of our flight reservation to Addis – of course we had been unable to find someone to print this information, especially since we had mobiles that allowed for online boarding passes.  Eventually, I was able to get an officer to let me email him our flight information and get him to print it himself.  This took time and determination.  By the time we were stamped and allowed on our way, we were too irritated to stop and eat before heading to Accra.

Getting in a four person-cab, we did get out at a gas station and buy 2 “yogurt-with-wheat in a bottle” to tie us over before getting to the city.  The journey wasn’t that long or uncomfortable, bar the grotesque body odor that emanated from the disgusting man on my right side in the back of the car.  Each time he lifted him arm I thought I would pass out.  It was so bad, I almost told him to keep his arm firmly pressed to his side, choosing instead to bury my face in my hair bandana each time he shifted in his seat.

Our last big night in Accra with the truck folks turned out to be quite epic, and well worth our return to Ghana.  It was actually the first time Mike and I had partied on a Saturday night since we started this West African adventure.  We began with amazing burgers/cocktails at Burger and Relish and followed it with large and rather high-alcohol content beers in the reception area of Niagara Hotel.  Mike, the Dragoman driver, was in rare form and making us laugh hysterically. The alcohol continued to flow and we ended up going dancing at the Shisha bar next door, where I continued drinking and found myself quite drunk by 1 in the morning.  I danced with a group of locals until around 2 – when I got invited to go to the beach with them the next day at Krokrobite and enjoy all-I-could-eat lobster and fish that they’d ordered.  Since a number of us were up for going – I gladly accepted the offer, excited to hang out with some locals on my last day in Ghana.

That night was a bit rough and I spent much of it puking and trying to re-hydrate.  The following morning was a bad hangover, but I managed to get enough coffee and pastry into my face to dampen the headache and nausea enough that I was ready for my pick-up to Krokrobite.  Mike and the others were too hungover to join me, so I said my goodbyes to Sinead and Mike and headed out.  Hanging out at the beach with some cool Ghanaians was about all I had energy for during the day, and it was a lovely and relaxing time.

Beach in Jamestown

On the way back to the city, my friend Chris was kind enough to drop me off in Jamestown where I’d be meeting back up with Mike and taking a walking tour with our “Fixer” Isaac.  It was really cool to finally see this historic part of Accra and we walked during the sunset amongst the fishing village down by the water and then later up in the actual neighborhoods that were literally bursting with life, music so loud it would damage your hearing within a few hours, and people everywhere – socializing, watching soccer crowded around shared TV’s, talking and drinking in the street.  The only thing that was missing from Jamestown, especially if you were a resident, would be peace or privacy.

Isaac also took us to the famous Black Star Square and past Kwame Nkrumah’s mausoleum before finishing off our night at a bar perched precipitously on a cliff overlooking the beach and the old slave fort known as Osu.  The location was truly magnificent, the only reason we were in a hurry to leave was, again, the music being played was at such a volume as to make it not only impossible to have a normal conversation without screaming, it really hurt your eardrums.

Heading back to our accommodation, Isaac invited us to his place for a final smoke goodbye and we couldn’t refuse – especially given the fact that this was to be our last night in West Africa.

In the morning, we got up and did a final pack of our bags before heading to the airport in an Uber.  I was proud of the fact that I finally did some souvenir shopping – buying a skirt on the way back from picking up coffee in under five minutes flat.

I had very mixed feelings about leaving Ghana and flying to Ethiopia.  As is so often the case, I longed for a few more days to enjoy Accra a little more.  To get a deeper sense of what it might be like to live here – because of all the places we had visited in West Africa – this would be by and far the easiest place for a westerner to move to. I didn’t want to go.  Not just yet.

And so, it was with a heavy heart that I boarded our Ethiopian Airlines flight bound for Addis, connecting to Gonder the next morning.