Saturday, February 12, 2011

From Ethiopia - Post 5 - Sweet Children and Baboons

When we left Debre Libanos, our drive took us along the Jemma Gorge.  We snapped photo after photo out the window of the moving van, but could not successfully capture the beauty.  Think Grand Canyon in Africa.  A few times, the driver would slow down when there was a clearing along the road where he thought we could get a good view.  Beggars lined the sides of the road, as is common in Ethiopia.  But, at one particular area, several children started yelling to the van and waving their arms, attempting to point something out to us.  At first, it scared me because I thought they were trying to get us to stop and help them.  'What could have happened that would make these children flag down a van to get help?', I thought.  Isaias and Workineh seemed alarmed at first, but then they quickly understood what the children were saying and pointing it out to us -- baboons!


goats and baboons

Along the side of the road, in a big open field-like area, stood a bunch of baboons.  Isaias stopped and we all climbed out of the van with cameras in tow.  The children immediately began to "work it".  They separated into small groups of 1 to 3 kids per ferengi (you know, us white people).  They very intelligently (and cutely) acted as guides.  The older two boys went to Eric and Mike - one each.  The younger children seemed to know to back off and let them work.  A young girl started telling me everything she knew about the baboons.  She took my hand and led me down through the area to get closer to them.  Two small boys tagged along with us, but she was definitely in charge.  She told me her name and proudly declared, "I go school. I learn English."  I asked her questions.  She was in grade 2.  She lived close by, up over the hill.  I complimented her on the beautiful view she must have from her home.  I complimented her on her English.  She proudly smiled big, beautiful smiles.  She held my hand as we walked.  She tried to comfort me that it was ok, that it was ok to get close to the baboons.

My sweet guide

My guide's brother and friend

Another friend

Her knowledge was good - mostly about the baboons though.  She pointed out the "daddy".  She explained that there was only one "daddy" per group.  She told me where they slept, and that there were 3 groups that lived around there.  She showed me the baby on it's Momma's back.  She picked a flower and handed it to me.  "Flower", she said.  I talked to her about the flower.  I said, "In America, we call these dandelions.  What do you call them here?"  She replied, "a flower".  I laughed.  A large (and I mean, LARGE) bird swooped by and she pointed him out, too.  "Bird", she told me.  I asked if she knew what kind of bird it was.    "A BIG bird", she replied.  Again, I laughed.  OK, so her knowledge base was a little shallow, but she was trying hard (and was very cute!).  She picked another plant.  "Aloe" she said as she broke open a leaf and rubbed it on my hand.  She seemed impressed that I knew of aloe and that you put it on burns.  I told her that in America, our aloe is a little different.  It isn't yellow - especially when you rub it on your skin!  (I think that when all 4 of us piled back into the van, we had yellow smears on our hands or arms as we all got the aloe lesson.)

The older boys walked Eric and Mike and Workineh way down to the edge of the cliff to see the view.  It was spectacular.  I will ashamedly admit that there were a few times when I thought that they were all trying to lure us away from the van and that we were going to turn around and find it gone or something.  Isaias stayed closest to the road and he frequently looked back to check on the van (somewhat further fueling my paranoia).

Workineh, Eric, and Eric's "guide" walking to get a better view

The view WAS truly amazing.  The children were darling.  They weren't crooks trying to lure us away.  They were simply trying to make a living.  Truly.  They had found something that they knew and that they were good at.  A schtick if you will.  And, they were using it to get whatever they could.  Who can blame them?  And, really, is it so much different from what we all do?  No requests for money came, no offers to sell us anything, no begging for food....until we began to walk back to the van.  Then, they pulled their hand-carved marble crosses out.  They reminded us that they were students and begged for pens.  (again, with the pens!  Oh, how I could have kicked myself that I didn't bring a big bag of pens again this time!)  I had no money, but I did have a few lollipops in my jacket pocket.  I slyly handed my 3 guides lollipops because I didn't have enough for all the kids.  I think Eric might have bought another necklace or two.  I think Mike did too.  But, we all piled into the van with Workineh and Isaias beginning to scold the children and tell them that was enough.  Mike had snacks, so once he was in the van, he pulled out a pack of crackers and went to hand them out to the children, but the problem was that another group of children who hadn't "worked us" showed up and tried to get some of the food, too.  It was the first time that things got a little crazy, desperate, scary when we were handing things out.  Hands were grabbing in the window, kids were pushing, almost clawing over each other.  Mike ended up just sort of tossing the whole thing out the window and telling them to share.  It's hard to see such desperation over a pack of peanut butter crackers.  Over any food, for that matter.

Mike, Stephanie, Eric and I with our "guides"

Eric and I at the Jemma Gorge

Looking down over the edge

We are very blessed.  Oh how guilty I feel that I need to lose a few pounds.  Fat, rich Americans.  Poor, starving Africans.  This world just isn't right.  Praying that I will at least do my little part in setting things a little more right whenever I am able.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

From Ethiopia - Post 4 - Debre Libanos

As we got closer and closer to the monastery, the number of beggars lining the streets increased.  I don't know if it was because of the monastery and possible charity coming from it, or if it was because the roads got more and more windy and hilly the closer we got.  It seemed that all along the way, the worse parts of the roads, the places where vehicles would be forced to slow down, were the places where the beggars tended to gather.  There were also a lot of people out -- carrying sticks to sell, selling hand-carved marble crosses, displaying marble candle holders and crosses on small tables along the road.

The monastery was gated with a small, simple stone marking the place.  After we parked and entered the gated area, we were asked to "read the rules" that were posted outside a tiny little shack-like building.  We all wanted to take a picture of the rules but refrained for fear that it would be considered too irreverent.  But, we did laugh about them later.  I can't remember the exact wording now, but basically, the rules that caught our attention were:
1) No woman who is currently menstruating is allowed to enter the sanctuary or the prayer cave.
2) No man or woman who has had intercourse within the last 48 hours is allowed to enter the sanctuary or the prayer cave.
3) No shoes will be worn in the monastery or the prayer cave.
I can't remember the rest, but Eric about had me in stitches joking about how he wanted to start counting out hours on his fingers....."hmmm...let's is Thursday....45, 46, 47, 48...oh, yay.  We're good, honey!"  At the time, I was more focused on rule #1 and thinking how embarrassing it would have been if Stephanie and/or I weren't in the clear!  Regardless, I am glad that I worship in the post-Jesus era and in a church where sacrifices and "cleanliness" are no longer issues and I can "come as I am to worship".

Another interesting thing was after we all read and agreed to the rules, we were ushered into this tiny little room, the door was closed, and there was a priest sitting behind a desk.  It was there that we had to pay our admittance fee.  And, we still don't know for certain, but we think he actually offered to "exchange money" for us.  We were really confused because from all that we had been told, it is illegal in Ethiopia to exchange money anywhere but at the banks.  Another thing we chuckled know, keeping money changers out of the church and all that.... we're guessing that's why we were closed into a tiny room that wasn't attached to the church.

Debre Libanos Monastery
Tile art over the doors to the monastery

After removing our shoes, we all entered the main sanctuary.  On each side, there were large stained glass windows.  The windows on the right were pictures from Old Testament Bible stories.  Those on the left were pictures of the Apostles.  There were only 10 though.  Judas wasn't there, but we never did figure out who else was missing.  It was hard to understand at times due to the priest's English (as a second language). 

Old Testament windows

Old Testament windows
As you moved forward toward the front of the sanctuary, there were separate areas in the sanctuary.  There was a completely off-limits area in the front -- the Holy of Holies where no one is allowed; a curtained off area in the center for the priests where the altar sits; and then on each side of the curtained off area, there was a woman's area on one side and a man's area on the other side for singing and worship.  There were more stained glass windows to the sides of these areas and a beautiful stained glass window above the Holy of Holies of Jesus on the cross.

I was a little surprised that they allowed Stephanie and I on the men's side and they allowed Eric and Mike on the women's side.  I was also surprised that they not only allowed us to take pictures, but the priest kept actually encouraging us to, "take picture".  They also allowed us to go down to the basement area where the chanters were chanting.  We stood down there and listened for a while.  I felt a bit intrusive being there, definitely felt strange snapping flash photos, but again, the priest kept insisting. 

front of the sanctuary

Chanters in the basement
After we toured the sanctuary, we toured the museum next door.  It was interesting.  It was a strange mix of politics and religion there.  Displays of past Emperors' clothing, Bibles, portraits, chairs, etc. were plenty.  There was a case of swords that the priest proudly told us how the various owners of the swords killed the Italians when they invaded Ethiopia and reportedly massacred inhabitants at the monastery.  The surviving parchment paper Bibles and prayer books were amazing to me - that they have survived for so long.  There were loads of hand crosses and even a "fly swatter".  It looked like a bunch of hair tied onto the end of a stick.

The monastery's museum
After the tour of the museum, the priest asked if we had time to "walk to the prayer cave".  We said "sure" (little did we know!).  He explained that the monastery was founded by the 13th century mystic, Saint Teklehaimanotsome.  He had reportedly stood in the cave and prayed for 7 years.  At that point, his other leg wasted away and fell off.  He then stood on the remaining leg for some number of years until he died in the cave.  There is a natural spring in the cave and people think that the water has healing powers so they collect it and use it for healing.

The trek up to the cave was quite a hike!!  A little warning might have been nice.  Although, when the priest said, "I will get you a guide to go with you to the top." and said guide happened to be a man with a machine gun strapped on his shoulder, we probably should have wondered.  The path was rocky, with not nice little rocks, but BIG, uneven, unstable rocks.  Also, some of the steps that you had to take were NOT small for someone like me with little short legs!  (Seriously, my thighs hurt like I had done a stair stepper for hours the next day!)  We finally reached the cave and were able to enter.  The priest who was at the cave would not allow any pictures inside, but you're not missing much.  It was a cave.  A large cave with water dripping all over the place and large plastic drums sitting around catching the water.  We were required to remove our shoes to enter the cave. Eric and a few others stepped in water in their socks.  Again, Eric irreverantly joked about his "blessed wet socks" and his "Holy socks" for the rest of the day.  Of course, he also surmised that IF the saint stood in the cave praying with the healing water dripping on him and his leg fell off and then he died, then maybe it wasn't so Holy & healing after all.  ;-)

Looking out from the monastery courtyard towards the Prayer Cave

The entrance to the path leading up to the Prayer Cave (notice sweet Workineh carrying Stephanie's backpack & our guide with the automatic weapon leading the way)

Eric on one of the more easily navigable parts of the path

I didn't really want a picture, I just needed to catch my breath!  ;-)

"Thank God!  We made it!" That was my prayer at the Prayer Cave

The priest unlocking the door to the cave

Oh joy, now we get to go back down the path.

My sweet hubby helping me with a big step.  (BTW, one way to keep the sweet men in ET from insisting on carrying your bag is to carry a large purse instead of a backpack. Next time, I'm taking a backpack!)  ;-)
This would normally have been the time to celebrate the fact that we made it back to the monastery, except that, unfortunately, it was about where the location of the outhouse was and it was truly one of the most horrendous smells that I have EVER smelled.  We all had to pee, but decided that we could hold it for another hour or so if we had to.
It was an interesting place.  It was a beautiful place.  It was neat to hear the history and see the artifacts.  We enjoyed it.  We laughed....possibly more than we should have, but YOU climb to that cave in the extremely high altitude and see what it does to you!

Monday, February 7, 2011

From Ethiopia - Post 3 - Traveling North

Prior to traveling to Ethiopia for our second trip, we had been in contact with Workineh, one of the guest house employees whom we had become friends during our first trip.  We had asked him to plan out a few suggestions of day trips that we could take from Addis Ababa in order to see more of Ethiopia.  So, on Thursday morning, Mike & Stephanie and Eric & I  met up in the lobby, ready for our trip North.  Workineh had lined up a driver to take the 5 of us for the day; however, after what sounded like a tense conversation on the phone, he informed us that it would be a few minutes, that the driver had canceled but that he had arranged for Isaias, the guest house driver, to take us.

The roads and the landscape changed dramatically the second we left the city of Addis Ababa.  One of the seats in the van faces backwards, and at first, we discussed who would not get car sick riding backwards.  Not too long into the trip, however, we realized that sometimes it's much better NOT to be able to see out the front of the van.  The random herds of cattle and other animals crossing in front of the van were not nearly as frightening  as the driver passing a large truck or bus on a blind-curve, on a steep hill, going really fast, with no guard rails to prevent you from plummeting off the side of the road.

The views were amazing.  Beautiful countryside, traditional huts, lots of green foliage.  We tried to take a lot of pictures.  We each had certain things that we were looking for.  Mike was trying to capture the perfect pictures of children shepherding.  I was looking for wells and people carrying water jugs.  We all wanted pictures of the beautiful children.  None were hard to find.  We saw them all along the trip.

The problem was trying to actually get the shot out the rapidly moving windows of the van.  We had quite a few laughs at the pictures that we managed to capture -- a donkeys back leg or rear-end, a child's leg or arm, empty roadside where we completely missed the image we were trying to capture.  Then, about 90% of the time when we actually managed to get the image in the camera field, it was totally blurry.  But, that's the beauty of digital cameras, right?!  As Eric used to tease me when I would brag about getting a great picture before the digital era, "well, if you take enough pictures, you're bound to get at least one good one!"  It was frustrating though because I so wanted to share with you the 'pictures' that we saw, that we still see with our mind's eye.  But alas, you'll just have to go to Ethiopia sometime to see them. 

Young man hauling water

A well out in the country

A mom with a baby on her back and 2 children walking, carrying water

Traditional huts

Beautiful countryside

As we drove around in Ethiopia on each trip, there were several things that stood out to me.  One was how often very young children are expected to work.  We frequently saw young children out carrying water, shepherding herds of various animals, driving donkey-pulled carts loaded with sticks or hay or water.  I tried hard to get a picture of a boy that I saw, completely alone, probably 7 or 8 years old, shepherding a herd of BULLS!!!  He was all by himself with a stick in his hand that had a piece of string tied to the end of it, with which he was hitting the bulls to get them to move.  The bulls towered over him and surrounded him, but he was not afraid.  I, on the other hand, was flabbergasted.  Seriously.  I would not even let my own children near ONE bull like that by themselves, let alone a whole bunch of them. 

Children helping Dad move hay
At some point when one of us expressed disappointment at missing yet another picture that we wanted to get, the driver caught on to what we were trying to do so he would occasionally slow down for us to get some pictures.  When we were stopped, we saw these children out working in the field with cattle.  When they saw that the van had stopped, they came running.  We had loads of snacks and treats to pass out and we were out in the middle of nowhere so we were happy for them to come.  There was also a group of older women, carrying large loads on their backs, who happened to be walking by.  They saw that we were giving the children something to eat so they came over and were thrilled when we gave them some crackers and snacks, too.

Children out shepherding cattle

Women bearing heavy loads

A sweet smile for our pictures

A little leery of us, but notice the happy women tearing into their treats in the background

Another memorable scene during our drive north was this father and his two children walking their donkey, loaded with an enormous bunch of straw.  The little girl was walking along with her shepherd's stick.  But, as they walked, the load began to slip.  We were all gasping as we watched the little girl struggle to try to push the load back up onto the donkey's back.  It seemed that she would surely be pinned beneath the falling load, but somehow the three of them managed to keep the donkey in control, and managed to keep the load on the donkey's back.
The 3 of them walking with the donkey

The little girl under the load trying to push it back up onto the donkey
Another thing that always struck me as so different from here was seeing unsupervised, tiny little kids out by themselves.  You'd be riding down the road and a little 3 year old would be standing right on the side of a busy road by themselves.  Or, a 7 year old would be out in the field with the animals by themselves. Or, children would be sitting on the side of the road all alone.  It's so different.  I couldn't help but frequently think things like, "ahhhh, don't go out into the road!" or "where are your parents?" or "what are you doing out all alone?".  But, then I'd remember where we were and that, not only might they not have parents, they might be serving AS the parent to their siblings.  It's so sad that children can't just be children.  That they don't get to go to school, that they don't get to just have fun and play all day.
Little boy out in the field all alone

We stopped along the way at a overlook for the Gorge.  Unfortunately, it was very hazy and overcast at that point in the day and the view of the gorge was not good.  When we stopped though, a big group of children and a few adults came from out of nowhere selling baskets and hand-carved marble cross necklaces.  This is how it is.  The people have their little areas, their little "businesses".  It is so hard to say no when this happens.  First, they're generally selling things SO CHEAPLY.  Second, you know they need the money SO BADLY.  Third, they literally beg and plead.  And yet, it's also hard to say yes because how do choose who you're going to buy from when 10 kids are all trying to get you to buy a similar basket from them?  How do you say yes to one and no to another?  I had left my bag in the car so I didn't have any money and therefore didn't have to make a decision.  Eric ended up buying a few more necklaces, I think. 
Locals selling their goods at the Gorge overlook
And lastly, another thing that always struck me as weird was how excited the children got when they saw us.  I realize that their belief is that the "ferengi" have money, but it's still strange to see the genuine smiles and excitement on the childrens' faces from just a wave or a "hello" from one of us.   I guess some might like the seeming feeling of 'superiority' - like being a rock star or something.  Frankly, it made me feel sick.  I smiled at them and waved and said hello, certainly not because I felt so grand, but because I just loved seeing their little faces light up.  I loved hearing their proud little English, "hello"; seeing them run alongside the van smiling and waving; watching them giggle and laugh with their friends when we'd answer them.  THEY are the special ones.