Going Back (page 5)
Going Back
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Click on any of the photos shown here to go to a site where there are more than 40 photos from the trip. The password is "lalibela."
Each photo can be clicked on to see a larger version
There are also many photos taken by John during his Peace Corps service in Ethiopia from 1963 to 1965.

Aduwa Victory Day
Our last Sunday and second last day in Ethiopia was the anniversary of the 1896 victory of Ethiopia over the invading Italian army, which resulted in Ethiopia being the only country in Africa to successfully resist European colonialism. Already the day before the holiday military and police seemed to be everywhere, as if to guard against some terrorist attack to mar the celebration.

I wanted to see how the event would be observed. I went alone to Menelik II Square — he was the emperor at the time. The taxi could not go all the way because the police had closed the approaches to the square, so I joined the hundreds if not thousands making their way towards the square. I was the only white person in the dense crowd surrounding the square. People of course noted my presence but generally did not bother me. Eventually, police cars with sirens came, apparently accompanying dignitaries of state to the statute of Menelik II in the center of the square. I could not really see more than a band leader conducting the band and moving with the music — even jumping up and down at a couple of points. The band — a traditional "western" marching band — played what was apparently the national anthem to which people around me sang the words.

After a short ceremony the dignitaries left, and the crowd poured into the square. I went up to the statute and stood in another dense crowd around some military veterans in uniform. One with flowing white hair, an unusual sight in Ethiopia, with a spear in hand was enthusiastically telling the crowd of his exploits-presumably in resisting the Italian occupation 1936–41 rather than the battle of Aduwa! But after all it was the same enemy.

I then went up to St. George's Church, which overlooks the square. St. George, who slew the dragon to save the maiden as portrayed in icons all over Ethiopia, is one of the patron saints of the country, an appropriately "military" figure for a country proud of its military exploits. There was again a dense crowd of people making their way up to the church. Beggars were having a field day — it was difficult for the crowd not to walk over them. When I got up to the top, where the church is situated, I saw a crowd encircling a group of people joyously singing and dancing to a drum beat. People in the crowd joined in the singing and irregular rhythmic clapping, never missing a beat. I joined the crowd and stayed for quite a while, enjoying the music. I recognized the tall man beating the drum as the same one leading the Pentecostals whom I had seen on that first Sunday in AA! The strange thing was that they were singing and dancing on the grounds of the Orthodox Church while an Orthodox service was going on, with the chanting, prayers and sermon being broadcast over a loudspeaker in competition with the singing Pentecostals who ignored the Orthodox service. When I circled the church, I found people standing and sitting on the ground attending the Orthodox service, which in the Ethiopian tradition is often done on the outside of the church — in any case not all of the crowd would fit inside. On the side of the church opposite where the Pentecostals were, I could see a priest, who was perhaps the Ethiopian Patriarch preaching a sermon. Only as I left the church grounds did I see a couple of other "ferengis." Yet, during these couple of hours that I was there in this dense crowd of Ethiopians, I was allowed for most of the time to enjoy the illusion of being one with them.

Except in AA, where there is a Hilton and the obscenely extravagant Sheraton (built by Ethiopia's sole millionaire we were told), we stayed at the best hotels available, which were government owned. Several were beautifully located: in Bahir Dar on the shore of Lake Tana, in Gondar and Axum on a high hill overlooking the town. For the most part, they were quite acceptable, though we all thought the Ghion in AA looked better each time we came back from the provinces, whereas initially it looked worn down — very much like the old pre-war hotel I stay at in Warsaw. In Lalibela the main problem was that water was not available except at certain times in the morning and the evening, and even then it was not always available. Each room was given a large bucket of water for use in the meanwhile for toilet flushing, washing, etc. This was not really the fault of the hotel since the whole town was apparently suffering from a water shortage. After an evening when the promised water did not come down the pipes, I set the empty bucket under the tub faucet with the faucet open. What joy to be awakened at 5 am by the sound of rushing water!

The real pit of pits was the Ras Hotel in Harar. Not only was there the same problem of water, but the toilets in the rooms we were initially given were filthy and smelled quite bad. Also, things were more primitive — the shower had no tub or curtain, just a drain in the floor. The room itself was so small that we had to take turns to walk around the bed, which took up most of the room. Eventually, we were given better rooms — Regina and I even took a suite. To add injury to insult, only on the last day did we learn from the management that we could actually get hot water.

For the most part the "western" food served at the hotels was not good, and at times simply awful. Again, the Ras Hotel in Harar seemed at the top of the list in this regard. In three days there, for six meals, the limited menu never changed. By that point, near the end of our three weeks, a couple of us had some minor gastro-intestinal difficulties. I think I may have had vegetable soup as my main dish for 6 lunches and dinners. In most cases the meat — beef, lamb, and chicken — was very tough; the couple of times that I ordered chicken at the Ghion restaurant in AA, it was so scrawny as to be inedible. Also, these "western" meals came with few vegetables, mostly just carrots — mainly just meat and potatoes, and in any case poorly prepared.

We soon found that we often fared better by asking for Ethiopian food. Here, too, one got mainly meat. On fasting days we were sometimes able to get the vegetarian meals served on those days observed by Orthodox Christians — every Wednesday and Friday and all days during Lent, which lasts for 60 days and began just as we left Ethiopia. In AA, Bahir Dar, and Gondar we ate at what we were told were the best Ethiopian restaurants in town, and they were good. The best was perhaps a vegetarian meal of 15 different dishes in AA. But except for Scott, we could not eat this spicy food more than once a day — he ate it three times a day and thrived on it.

We also drank "tej," the Ethiopian "wine" made from honey. In Gondar and Axum we had a bit of an adventure trying to track down some tej for consumption at our hotels from places that sold home-made tej, which is not commercially produced. We also got some "tella," the home-made beer, which I refused even to try remembering its taste from 40 years ago. Even Scott had to admit it was undrinkable. But Ethiopian regular beer is very good, especially Harar and St. George. We also enjoyed "kolo," made from roasted wheat grain as a great snack food.

Ethiopia claims to be the country of origin of coffee, but the coffee at the Ghion in AA was often simply awful. In Axum it was, however, excellent. In Harar we were told that more and more farmers have switched from growing coffee, whose prices on the world market have fallen drastically, to growing "chat," a plant whose leaves are chewed for a mild narcotic effect. Chat chewing is common in Harar, and it is a big export item to Yemen and Somalia. On the way to Dire Dawa, we were stopped twice by the police to check if we were not smuggling "chat" without having paid a tax on the product. At the Dire Dawa airport we saw quite a few people who were flying to Djibouti with a bag of "chat." But we did bring home some Harar coffee, which is quite good. Other than coffee we drank lots of bottled water and tea, which was not bad. I thought the Ethiopian wine (not tej, but wine) was not bad, but the others did not agree. Imported wine and other alcohol was of course very expensive. In our travels we saw Coca-Cola signs everywhere, even in the smallest villages, with slogans written in Amharic.

Final thoughts
Although I had visited all of these places previously — 40 years ago — I learned a lot that I did not know before or had forgotten. Having guides for part of our time in each place proved to be very helpful and instructive.

There are many more things about our trip I could mention:

  • Ethiopia is a great destination for bird-watchers. We saw many very beautiful birds without much effort along the way, that is, without really going birding.
  • In Gondar while visiting the 17th century castles, Regina spotted a lizard with blue feet and a blue tail!
  • The mountain scenery, including what we saw from our plane trips, was also remarkable as were the plateaus and hillsides with every inch a patchwork of plowed fields.
  • Then there were the billboards we saw in every town warning about the dangers of AIDS and encouraging smaller families in a country with serious problems of overpopulation.

A Westerner cannot ignore the many inefficiencies. When we first arrived in AA at 2 am, we had to get a visa. It meant filling out a form, going to a bank window (on the other side of customs and passport personnel — it could have been a "Catch-22," but here inefficiency helped) and then submit our form and payment to one person, who looked it over and passed them on to another person, who entered it into a large book by hand, and then passed them on to be stamped by a third person, who then passed it on to be approved by another person, etc. But from the very beginning we found that inefficiency was linked to friendliness, and maybe there is some essential link.

We could all relate more anecdotes of our interaction with the people, which is the most memorable part of the trip. We left with a great sadness, partly because we knew that we are unlikely to see this country and its people again, but also because of the poverty and the overwhelming problems faced by a people who have a rich cultural heritage, a people whom we found warm, friendly, and hospitable. They deserve better.

As we arrived in Chicago, some 22 hours after we left our hotel in AA, the city was experiencing its heaviest snowfall of the year. We took a taxi home: the driver turned out to be an Ethiopian!

John Kulczycki has retired, and is professor emeritus of European history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. You can email him at kul@uic.edu
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