When I woke up, I really had to think hard about where I was. Years ago when the only hotels outside of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia were government hotels, they all had exactly the same design. So you could wake up in Lake Tana or Gondar or Lalibela and the room design and shape, the furnishings and the art were all identical. The views were different (and amazingly they did all have incredible views) but when you first wake up you don’t see the views. Add attending an incredible religious ceremony the night before, and jetlag, into the equation, and literally, I had to think about where I was for a few minutes.
This was my first visit to Ethiopia – it was well over twenty years ago – and I was traveling with my husband and my nine-month old daughter. We had just spent time in Addis with Richard and Rita Pankhurst, two powerful figures in Ethiopian life. Richard’s famous mother was the great British suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, a supporter of Ethiopia’s cause during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. Richard was a notable historian who for 70 years helped shape Ethiopian historiography with publications and articles on almost every aspect of Ethiopia’s past. Rita came to Ethiopia in 1956 and married Richard Pankhurst a year later. A formidable scholar and activist in her own right, Rita became Director of the University Library of the then Haile Selassie I University. I met them in their garden and spent an extraordinary afternoon being given a crash course in Ethiopian history which was interrupted from time to time with cups of tea and an amazing Victorian sponge cake that Rita had made. The afternoon is etched in my memory.
On their advice we headed up to Gondar where I was first exposed to Ethiopian art at the small Debre Berhan Selassie Church, perhaps the country’s most famous church. The winged heads of eighty Ethiopian cherubs cover the ceiling – all with slightly different expressions. No less impressive are the paintings on the wall attributed to the same artist. Full of all the color, life, wit and the whole humanity of Ethiopian art, they provide an excellent overview of Ethiopian saints and martyrs. It is one thing to visit an Ethiopian church during the day, but it is an entirely different experience to visit them at night during one of the frequent religious ceremonies that occur all over the country. There is no published calendar of these ceremonies so it’s serendipitous to be part of one but I don’t think I have ever been in Ethiopia and not had the deeply touching experience of attending one.
I found myself, three days into my first trip to Ethiopia invited to attend such a ceremony. I honestly had no idea what to expect but my guide, Asu, came to pick me up at midnight and we ventured out into the cool night air with our flashlights and a great deal of determination. For the next few hours, I truly felt I was in some kind of medieval play. As we got close to the church, I could just make out the flickering lights of candles and then suddenly hundreds of people all dressed in white. I think what struck me the most was the silence. No one was talking but they smiled as they saw us. Asu and I quickly fell into their step padding noiselessly towards the church. Those around me were of all ages, young children and older folks, fathers and mothers carrying babies. I have always been moved by Ethiopia’s children. They seem to have an understanding of when they need to be quiet. Unlike here, there were no parents shushing their children. The children just knew. As we edged our way into the interior, I could dimly make out a number of priests carrying large engraved metal crosses leaning against pillars and quietly reading from old leathery, hand-size bibles. Occasionally they would let out an unearthly, mumbled chant that reverberated around the ancient space and those around me would respond with chants of their own. Some people sat on the floor but most people were standing – there seemed no order to what was happening – silent for the most part, and motionless in unchanged positions for hours. It is remarkable how intimate a part religion plays in the life and thought of Ethiopians.
The next morning after we had gathered ourselves, and I had worked out where we were, and we loaded up in a vehicle that looked like it could barely travel into town let alone the two hour ride to the Simien Mountains, I tried to find out what the ceremony had been about. Asu was unable to really give me an explanation. I have come to learn that often they are to celebrate a death or a full moon or some local event. There is no answer it seems, to the riddle of their existence. Looking out the window the landscape soon became breath taking. My favorite description of the Simien Mountains is that of Rosita Forbes who described the scenery in 1925 as, “The most marvelous of all Abyssinian landscapes opened before us, as we looked across a gorge that was clouded amethyst to the peaks of Simien. A thousand, thousand years ago, when the old gods reigned in Ethiopia, they must have played chess with those stupendous crags, for we saw bishops miters cut in lapis lazuli, castles with the ruby of approaching sunset on their turrets, an emerald knight where the forest crept up on to the rock, and, far away, a king, crowned with sapphire, and guarded by a row of pawns.” I had a client ask me very recently was it worth going to the Simien Mountains. Sure, it’s hard to get to – two hours on a bumpy road but worth it – unequivocally “yes” – it’s worth it.
As we left the park, we asked Asu about some food. Remember this was more than twenty years ago and there were hardly any tourists in the entire country, let alone a family looking for a decent place to have a snack in the Simiens. I was a bit peeved that Asu had not prepared a packed lunch for us but I took the blame –I should have asked before we left in the morning. Not far from the park is the town of Debark where we had stopped to buy our park tickets. Across the street from the park office, I saw what looked like some kind of food outlet and several trucks outside.
I asked Asu to investigate and he came back saying that they had pasta or injera. We had had our fill of injera and some pasta seemed fine. We managed to convince them to serve us plain pasta and asked for the sauce on the side. I wanted to stay healthy if we could and so far we had been doing great. We must have looked a sight. A family of three, sitting at a table in a room, close to the door, with a dirt floor and the smoke of the fire providing an aroma, not necessarily pleasant, that filled the room. The place was a dump – no two ways about it. The room was packed with Ethiopian truckers and cats looking for scraps. I tried not to look at too much else. I have the image of the room perfectly imprinted in my mind because when the pasta arrived we were ravenous and I was completely unprepared for what was set before us. What I had forgotten was that this was Ethiopia and the Italians had occupied Ethiopia for five years and had left, I have to assume, a tradition of pasta. The pasta put before us was truly extraordinary. I am not a fan of tomato sauce and know that most Italian restaurants in the US smother canned tomatoes over pasta with maybe a bit of seasoning. But this sauce was made with fresh tomatoes, chopped medium fine. I could taste olive oil – yes olive oil in this truck stop in this tiny town of Debark. I could taste freshly chopped garlic and salt and pepper. On top were tiny, freshly picked basil leaves. There was no fanfare. This was not being done especially for us. This was, pure and simple, a bowl of pasta in a truck stop. I so wish I had taken a photo so that my description could be believed. I understand it’s not believable. We were in the middle of nowhere in Ethiopia and we were literally served the best bowl of pasta I had ever had, then and now.
I have gone back and it has never been the same but the memory reminds me of how quick we are to judge a place when we travel. Sometimes those moments, when you take a risk, leave you bathed in the essence of a country that won’t be repeated externally, but internally fuels you and reminds you, as Pico Iyer says, of “why we travel”.