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Fleas: small, brown and vicious creatures devised by Mother Nature probably as a practical joke on human kind and all things that want to live in peace and harmony. Unfortunately they were to become my bane during my stay in Ethiopia; I was eaten alive by them quicker than an American eats a Big Mac with extra fries.
The attack of the fleas was one of my abiding memories from my tour of Lalibella, known as the location of the world-renowned rock-hewn churches. How anyone came upon the idea to sculpt monasteries directly out of solid rock below the ground remains a complete mystery to me, but some of the locals "assured" me that some churches had been built in one day by divine angels.
Even more rubbish was walking around such magnificent monuments and realising that they probably hadn't been cleaned for centuries, thus resulting in the mass infestation of fleas. I was lucky, however, to be here during the Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas on January 7th, when there was more chance the fleas would eat other people.
Millions of pilgrims travel to Lalibella, the most holy of holy sites in the country, some travelling for weeks on end to be here for the special day. So when I was arriving on Christmas Eve the big problem was finding a hotel that had rooms and hadn't upped their prices by 400%. My saviour came by the name of Teddy, who I met on the bus over there. He said that I could stay with his family for the night and find alternative accommodation the following day, when prices would go down again. I gladly accepted his offer and was greeted warmly by his entire family, who had come from all over the country for a gathering in Teddy's tiny 2 room mud hut.
It was indeed humbling to be greeted so warmly by such a poor family. And what's more I felt Indian again after being shown the nice bed (despite my insistence that I would sleep on the floor) and then 2 other men getting under the covers with me (I would like to point out that everyone had their clothes on.)
I went out with Teddy in the evening for a drink of the local famous honey wine and in the process was accosted by several locals to go into the middle of the bar and shake my ass in the local traditional dance. I looked like a muppet and am happy that no pictures were taken of my looking like the aforementioned muppet but it was great fun.
Later on I went down to the church before sunrise and thousands of pilgrims were singing hymns jovially, single wax candles dancing amongst the crowd. I had goose bumps, not just because of the spiritual atmosphere, but because it was so damn cold. I sat there huddled with my own flaming wax candle wishing I had brought my jacket with me.
The rest of the time spent in Lalibella was great. I met up with a few other travellers I had met earlier on the trip and went on a hike to some more monasteries in the mountains. It was lucky that I knew people in nicer hotels with nice sit down toilets because I was scared of the toilet/hole in the ground at my adopted host family's house (which I'll get to soon).
After the first night I had offered to move to a hotel nearby, but would come back for meals and to spend time with the great kids. But they were having none of it. I was their guest and they insisted I stay. So I did. And it was a great experience. The youngest son could play the harmonica and taught me how to dance like a local. The dad plied me with home made beer, which tasted more like fruit juice. And the 2 girls taught me how to make Ethiopian food in their small mud kitchen in the garden, just next to the goat shed (of which they slaughtered one for the Christmas meal).
As for the toilets I was petrified. It was a hole in the ground. Usually that would be no problem for me. However, the toilet area was totally open. Anyone, even people in the street, could see what you were doing. I woke up one morning and walked into the garden to see the father crouched down doing his business. I said sorry and backed away into the house. Then the kids told me not to be embarrassed and to just go into the garden. Out of politeness I did. Walking back out again I said good morning with a little wave and then tried my best to pretend this wasn't unusual. The father waved back at me smiling and carried on crapping.
I only braved the toilet twice, both times at night when people couldn't see me. The first time one of the kids (who I had bought a drink earlier - his first fanta!) insisted on standing next to me to repay my kindness. I managed to make him go inside the house.
Other than the "toilet" and the fleas Lalibella was great. It was sad to leave but another 2 day bus journey back to the quiet capital Addis Ababa beckoned. It was a great place to do nothing, which is what I had done earlier as I waited for the British Consulate to open after the "British" New Year period. The Consulate, however, were rubbish at helping me out and so I had to speed up my journey to get to Kenya to apply for a new passport.
So the next day I rushed to Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. I took a boat trip out on the lake and was lucky to meet two rich guys who took me for lunch and then drove me to the Blue Nile Falls later on. Nice walk and nice falls. The next day one of the rich guys, a local Ethiopian, and I met up again and chilled for the morning, drinking by the lake and playing table tennis by the road. In the afternoon I rented a bicycle and went wandering. Got in trouble with the police for taking a picture, but a random visa in my passport (not the Ethiopian one!) gave me permission to move on. I chanced upon a young farmer boy who spoke no English but sat with me on a hill as I watched the sun go down over Lake Tana. He enjoyed playing my harmonica and surprisingly, asked for no money when he said goodbye. Lake Tana, especially at sunset, and its people were fantastic.
The final highlight to mention from Ethiopia was the pilgrimage and hyenas in Harar. I had taken the 24 hour, 300km train from Djibouti to Dire Dawa, a fantastic ride on an uncomfortable train. In Harar I decided to take part in a 70km pilgrimage. It was boring at first. I was expecting a multitude of people but was walking by myself for the first few hours, accompanied only by my mp3 player. But as the hike went on I met more and more people. School kids, eager to talk about Manchester United, walked with me and brought me sugar cane from the fields to eat. Young kids would shout out their blessings for us to go safely and with peace. Muslim women asked me and my small entourage of 3 locals, who I had met on the way, to take money to the Christian church. The walk took 17 hours in total because one of the 3 people was walking without shoes and another had injured himself. But we had a crazy time making our own shortcut through the forested mountains on that moonless night. When we finally arrived at the church shortly before midnight we were exhausted and we sat down with my newly acquired friends' parents, who had taken the bus the day before. Fresh raw ox, slaughtered earlier that day as a sacrifice, was passed around, and eaten by all. One of the mothers made several cups of tea to help warm us up in the night chill.
In the church itself it was too crowded to get close to the Ark of the Covenant (one of those things from Raiders of the Lost Ark, which blinds people with bright light when they open it up.) But with people sleeping in every possible gap and several people singing and clapping all night it was a sight to behold.
The whole pilgrimage was exhausting and arriving was a just reward. On finally returning to Harar I caught up with the crazy hyena men, nutters who have been feeding the local hyenas every day at sunset for years. We had to pay to see them and it was definitely worth it, especially so since I even had a go at feeding them myself and one decided to brush his face on mine.
So after nearly a month in Ethiopia I had to make a move. There was still more to see but I had no time. I needed a new passport and I needed to get it in Nairobi, Kenya. 3 days to the border at Moyale, the easiest going border crossing I've been to, and I was on my way in a cattle truck to my next capital.