Tuesday, February 28, 2012

the travel day

(no, we have not been kidnapped, just didn't have a lot of internet access, the last few days. This is why I feel compelled to post multiple entries on one day - if it works. I have been critisized that this blog was not enough of a personal account, so I'll try to bring in more personal experiences, unfortunately I don't think the most personal of all, on video, will work with the limited connection in the hotel)

The various sites in the very north of Ethiopia are difficult to reach by public transport, so we decided to rent a vehicle, for two days. Monday morning early departure – well, not as early as most public busses leave, but still.
I woke up with a hangover, from the local gin & tonic and the subsequent bottle of Goudar Red, the local wine we had the evening before. Breakfast in the hotel is almost always omelet and coffee – there is just nothing else to eat that would appeal to a Western palette in the morning, so imagine the cholesterol levels after the kind of trips we make. Breakfast was slow. The highlight, or lowlight, was the cockroach floating in my coffee, which I almost swallowed. Not a good start of the day.
But, just after 7:30, we were on the way, with Mikael, our driver, and Cise (?), his young helper. Having our own wheels, even if we weren’t operating them ourselves, felt good. The road out of Aksum is being built by the Chinese, as every road is in this country. Four lanes, dual carriage way – at least close to town -, yet there seem to be very few cars to enjoy it. (A great moment in Philip Marsden’s book is when he asks someone living close to a new tarmac road whether it is busy, and the answer is, yes, nowadays there is a car almost every day.)
(1) the road outside Aksum, Chinese-built, four-lane, dual carriage way.... and no traffic
We passed Adwa, and the Adwa Mountains – a curious collection of irregular peaks -, where the Ethiopians famously defeated the Italian army is 1896. The country side around Aksum was relatively green – green for Ethiopian dry season standards -, but the further east we get, the dryer it becomes. At the moment, not much is growing here, but people go about their business, with donkeys and the occasional camel, transporting wood and fodder.
(2) the Adwa Mountains, series of peaks - phonolites, apparently, for those interested

The first target of the day is the Yeha temple, a pre-Axumite ruin. And ruin it is, three stone walls and a fourth with a big hole, the entrance. This thing has been standing here for perhaps 3000 years, but just when we visit, they have decided to put scaffolding around. In fact, the whole complex is rather underwhelming, although the precision of the construction, perfectly flat building blocks stacked together, is impressive. The local church is closed, and is not going to be opened, and the museum is the usual humble collection of old books, crowns and crosses, of which we have seen too many by now. We feel thoroughly ripped off. It needs more to make this day a success.

(3) the Yeha temple, 3.5 walls and a hole, and (4) a door to the local church, that was not going to be opened by any of the priests

After another two hours or so, through increasingly dry landscape, vegetation dominated by cactuses and aloe, we reach the Debre Damo monastery. Now we are talking business. Here is a 6th Century church, part of a larger monastic complex, perched on a 3000 meter high amba – a flat-topped mountain. The reason it still exists, I presume, is that it is not easily accessible: we climbed perhaps a 100-200 meters up from where we parked the car, and then there was this last 15 meters. The guide books were talking about getting in a basket, which would be hauled up by monks, but the reality is that you have to haul yourself up, with a rope, finding holes for your feet in the vertical wall in front of you. Half-way up, I had serious qualms about going on, but what choice do you have then? There is some form of harness, which hopefully catches you if you fall, but how reliable that is, I was not going to test. In the end I made it, and from that moment onwards I have been worrying about how I would be going down again! Lucky women: the monastery is, as so many others, men-only.
(5) the Debre Damo monastry, high up a cliff; how on earth do you get there?

(6) well, this is how.... the cliff is vertical, by the way, need to rotate the video 90o; my camara woman, down at the base of the cliff, was filming   (NB: I don't think I have a good enough connection to upload videos, will keep on trying - after all, it is quite funny...)
I have to say that the little church was worth the effort, quite beautiful indeed. Interestingly, in the corners the same type of masonry had been applied as seen in the Yeha temple; the rest of the construction, using wooden beams and flat stones, was also attractively executed. Several other buildings were housing the approximately 100 monks that live up here – of whom I saw very little. Needless to say, the views were spectacular.

(7, 8, 9) the 6th Century church on top of the hill. Pretty old, come to think about it - if it is true, of course. In any case, a pretty church

Somehow, I made it down again. The muscles of my arms are still sore.

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