A Travellerspoint blog

July 2010

Harar – Now we're talking dirty

sunny 24 °C
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“Faranjo, money!” is probably the phrase you will hear most when visiting Harar. It means “Foreigner, money!” And it seems everyone wants something from you.

Harar is one of the most sacred Muslim cities in the world. But you'd be hard-pressed to call it a city. This ancient trading-post in East Ethiopia, not far from the Somaliland border, seems barely bigger than a sprawled-out market. It's main drawing card is the old town with over 90 mosques, and the colorful people doing business within its walls.

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Merchants, peasants and nomads all gather in Harar to sell whatever they can – mangoes, tomatoes, beans, spices, bread, textiles, used clothes, counterfeit items. Anything. Covered-up women in kaleidoscopic patterns walk for miles to reach the city, carrying their merchandise in woven bowls on their heads. Each tribe with their own style and hues . Men and children load donkeys and slowly make their way to one of the many markets.

It's also one of the dirtiest places I've ever been to. Everything is covered in dust. A “water-program” limits water access to a couple of hours in the early morning and a couple of hours at night. The houses in the old town have neither electricity or running water. Stoned men lay on the street, green froth bubbling around their mouths from chewing the narcotic chat-leaves, oblivious to their own poverty. And children play in garbage containers.

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Opportunists abound, all children, men and women want your cash. Eduardo almost got into a fight with a guy who took him to “his” antique store, which wasn't his at all, and then wanted a commission. The true owner of the store knew us from our previous visit, and refused the commission. Outside, I stepped in between the Eduardo and the false owner to break up the fight, while a one-eyed old lady stood right in front of me and begged me for money.

The poverty of this country finally hit me in Harar. Complaining about the cock-roaches in our dirty hotel, when the inhabitants of this town most likely have never slept in clean sheets or in creepy-crawly-free spaces. Realizing that most of these people have never had a hot shower in their lives. Seeing a woman wearing just one shoe, because one shoe is better than none at all.

It's a dirty old town, for sure. But a great reminder of how blessed I am. And how rich I am. And how clean I am (most of the time). And I think I will never complain about anything again in my life.

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Posted by Kristi D 13:54 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Lalibela's Rock-Hewn Churches Made by Angels

semi-overcast 19 °C
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Imagine walking across a hill, and suddenly noticing a huge church in a crevice below you. Not a small church. Not a church constructed by wood, bricks or cement. But a church dug and carved straight out of the mountain.

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Legend has it King Lalibela, in the late 1100s, was poisoned by his brother and went into a coma for three days. During that time he had a vision of angels bringing him to heaven and showing him the churches he was to construct. When the king awoke, he set out to carve out eleven churches out of the ground below the Lalibela village. He finished this task in just over forty years, in the beginning of the last millennium, without any dynamite, drills or other modern tools. A miracle? The Ethiopians sure think so.

The Lalibela churches are sometimes called the eight wonder of the world, and they should be, even though we had never heard of them before. The sheer size and complexity of them is mind-blowing. Five of the churches are as big as normal churches, 15 meters high (or deep), but they are made in one single piece.

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If only the Ethiopian government would do a better job of promoting Lalibela and the other villages on the Ethiopian Historic Route, perhaps this would bring in money to support the suffering population. There is nothing else quite like this anywhere in the world.

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Putting our imagination to work, the construction must have went something like this: Measure out the size on top of the hill. Start digging into the mountain. Carve out a several feet wide valley around the church. Start carving your way into the church. Measure, measure, measure, to make sure the walls are of equal height, width and depth. Make sure all the details, like crosses in the ceilings and ornaments around the windows are of exactly equal size, shape and position. When done, dig another valley around the church to lead off the rain water and protect the church, and add tunnels for easy access to and between the churches. Repeat ten times.

Only a crazy person would attempt to do this.

They say it would have taken 40,000 men to finish the task. Perhaps they brought in workers or slaves from other countries. Or perhaps, as the Ethiopians believe, angels helped build these churches.

Posted by Kristi D 13:51 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Lalibela – Rock-Hewn Churches and Dirty Poor Children

semi-overcast 26 °C
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“We're lucky, it's raining today! It's the third day in a row it has rained. We are thankful to God!”

Mikael's attitude to the rain differed drastically from ours. We prefer sunshine and heat on our travels. But being in Northern Ethiopia where hardly anything grows, we, too, were thankful for the drops that fell that day.

Lalibela lies high up in the Northern Ethiopian mountains – in the middle of nowhere, really. The village is surrounded by agricultural lands where the locals still use mules for transport, herd sheep and work their lands with hook-ploughs. There's a constant, somewhat sour, smell of burning eucalyptus wood everywhere, as they use it to cook and to heat their homes. In the mornings, the women carry large, yellow plastic containers on their heads to fetch water for the day. Not much has changed in the last five hundred years.

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Although the tourist office charges almost $30/person to view the rock-hewn churches, Ethiopia's main tourist attraction, nothing seems to go back to the village. The villagers live in shacks just feet away from the churches. Many children don't have shoes – some don't even have pants! – and they play football with a ball made of rolled-up socks.

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We watched the semi-final between Spain and Germany in a run down, filthy, miniscule bar, filled to the brim with chairs and people, on one of the few TVs in the village. There was an strong odor of stale beer and unwashed bodies. But everyone cheered for Spain, which was great, and of course Spain won!

But despite the destitution, the children in Lalibela dream of a brighter future. They dream of becoming water engineers, pilots, doctors, even the president of Ethiopia. But here's the hook – they all want you to buy them a school book so they can advance to the next level. Everyone's father has died and their mother works in a village far away, so they are all alone. How much of their stories were true, and how much was just tear-jerking stories is hard to tell.

Posted by Kristi D 13:49 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Hanging in Addis Ababa

rain 21 °C
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“It's Christmas 1984. There are seven million people starving in one country. Doesn't that make you think?”

That was the intro on the B-side of Band Aid's “Feed the World” single. Together with Bob Geldof, the reporters of the world first introduced me to Ethiopia in the early eighties. Images of stick thin children with bellies swollen with malnutrition, flies squatting their eyes, and desperate mothers staring into the cameras, begging to please help! Please let my child live.

Little did I know that 26 years later I would find myself in Addis Ababa. The humidity and lushness of the rainy season makes it difficult to believe that there can be severe droughts in this country. And while you see plenty of beggars on the streets, Addis has a certain Cairo-like flair with its Parisian cafes and bakeries, high-end hotels and shopping centers along the muddy roads.

It has a relaxed vibe, for sure. It also feels totally safe to walk down a dark alley at night without a single doubt about arriving safely.

But if you glance just a tiny bit behind the facade, the real face of Addis shines through. Children with ankles shaped like a Z because a broken leg was not tended to. Tin-roofed shacks just steps away from gold and jewelery stores. Malnourished, flea-bitten dogs lying on the roads. Construction sites with scaffolding as stable as a house of cards. Ancient Soviet-made cars gushing out black fumes, making the air almost unbreathable. And a clinic so dirty that Eduardo told me not to touch anything, lest I catch some virus.

I like Addis Ababa, I really do. But would I live here? Never.

Posted by Kristi D 13:46 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Anastasia – The Perfect Child

sunny 26 °C

The definition of happiness for Stacey, a five-year old South African girl, is to go to bed with a full stomach. Nothing more, nothing less.

This is a story about an amazing girl, Anastasia, called Stacey for short. Stacey grew up on the streets of Durban with her parents and brother, but lost her mother to AIDS two years ago. Her daddy took care of Stacey and her brother as best as he could, but without a job or a place to live, life was not easy. The small family slept in parks, pilfered garbage cans for anything edible and begged strangers for any coins they were willing to spare.

One stormy night, Nancy, a middle-class lady, saw the family sleeping under a tree in torrential rain. The sight was heart-breaking. The little girl with the big innocent eyes was drenched, dirty and malnourished. Not even a dog should live like that. Nancy gave the father money for the local shelter so that at least they could spend one night in a warm, dry place. And, half-seriously, Nancy told the father that if he ever needed help, she could take care of his children.

Early the next morning, Nancy's doorbell rang, and the father handed over his daughter.

Eduardo and I fell head over heels in love with Stacey from the moment we met her. We can't believe Nancy was so lucky to find her, we wish we had found Stacey first. She's perfect, in every sense.

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How could a girl growing up on the streets be so well mannered, intelligent and polite? She acts as she would have grown up in a strict boarding school. When we visited a restaurant, Stacey, on her own initiative, cleared the table. She speaks in a soft voice and always asks for permission before taking your plate, or reaching to look at anything, like your camera.

And you couldn't find a happier child. Everything amazes her, and she is thankful for any gifts, however small. A balloon, bubbles, chewing gum, clothes. I'm sure she would even have been delighted to receive a pair of socks. At the Durban Fan Fest, watching the Ghana-Uruguay quarter finals, Stacey cheered and screamed, danced with some young English boys, and blew her vuvuzela a lot better than either Eduardo or I. She sings, when allowed, and dances as soon as she hears a tune. Eduardo and I would have a blast with her, as we would never stop dancing and singing and checking out new music.

Stacey is absolutely gorgeous. She has a glowing career ahead of her as a super-model, or any other career she would wish to pursue. She is warm and loving. She's quiet, but not timid. She has an amazing sense of humor with quite complex jokes. And she cares and worries about everyone around her. At only five, she's as mature as a woman, and as full of life and excitement as a child.

Stacey would be the perfect child for Eduardo and me to adopt. Unfortunately this will not be possible, but we will definitely always keep in touch with her to make sure she is given the opportunities she deserves so well.

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Posted by Kristi D 13:44 Archived in South Africa Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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