Week 9: Rwanda

I read We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch when I was still in college. I’m not exactly sure what brought me to the book (certainly not any of my classes), but I do remember reading it and the haunting stories it told. Gourevitch details the atrocities of the 1994 genocide, the lack of intervention from the international communities, and the disgraceful way the European powers did intervene, which ended up mainly helping the génocidaires.

For those of you who need a refresher: During the Belgian colonial era, the colonial administrators split the country into three ethnic groups: Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa. However, Rwanda traditionally didn’t have ethnic groups; they shared the same language, culture, and religion. This distinction was made entirely on a class basis, with people designated as Tutsi having more cattle and Hutus with less. (From my understanding, the Twa were designated as having in-between amounts of cattle, but also have a more distinct cultural identity as well. During the genocide, there were Twa on both sides.)

The Belgians put the Tutsis in power, serving as the in-between administrator role between the Europeans at the top and the Hutus at the bottom. Of course, this bred resentment and some Hutus attacked small populations of Tutsis. These ongoing divisions and attacks continued after independence and a group of people started advocating for “Hutu Power.” Many people in the group held positions high up in the military and were being trained by the French. Eventually in April 1994, the president’s plane was shot down and Hutus began slaughtering the Tutsis with guns and machetes. Over the course of 3 months, an estimated 100,000 people were killed.

Over the last twenty-five years, the country has turned around. When I first got here, I said the country reminded me of Singapore. There are sidewalks everywhere and even some bike lanes. The country is the cleanest I’ve ever been in. It’s completely safe. I can walk around at night alone with no issues. When I get on a moto-taxi, the driver gives me a mandatory helmet to put on. Plastic bags are banned. Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s benevolent dictator since the genocide ended, has revolutionized how business is done. He has prioritized technology, infrastructure, and, perhaps most notably, transparency in government business. This transformation, however, lacks many democratic freedoms and allegations of Kagame’s roles in assassinations of political opponents are rife.

Kigali

I don’t have a lot of photos of Kigali. I suppose I could have attached photos of the clean and beautiful sidewalks. Many of the sights I visited were about the genocide, and for this reason, I didn’t take a lot of photos. I think the most moving part of the Kigali Genocide Memorial is the room that contains all the photos of people who were killed. Black and white photos with young folks sporting beautiful afros and bellbottoms, color photos with straighter hair and young babies, kids on their first bicycles. There are just so, so many people and it’s not even a fraction of the total number that were murdered.

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Kigali Genocide Memorial, plaque on memorial wall, actual Hotel Rwanda

At the Murambi Genocide Memorial in the south, they have exhumed mummified bodies on display. This may seem a bit gruesome, but the country is committed to making sure that people remember the genocide and that there will never be people saying that it didn’t happen.

Muhanga

I stopped in this town to have an experience making imigongo, traditional art made from cow dung. 🙂 This almost died out during the genocide, but some people continue to practice it. Mostly it is women, but my teacher learned from his grandmother and really enjoys making his paintings. The process is pretty straightforward. First make a design, then apply cow dung, paint, and smile when complete. I went with Azizi Life and really enjoyed the whole experience, which included hanging out with a women’s cooperative and ended with singing and dancing.

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top : design and pile of cow dung, applying the design, almost done
bottom: painting, painting, smiling

Lake Kivu

Kibuye is just one town on this beautiful lake. I stopped by since I was looking for a relaxing couple of nights. The lake, however, is prone to limnic eruptions because of the high quantity of carbon dioxide and methane found at the bottom of the lake. When an eruption happens, that gas is released and almost all of the living things in the area are killed. Scientists can see this has happened in the past in the archeological record, so although the lake is beautiful, it’s also quite deadly.

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view of Lake Kivu

Volcanoes National Park

The endangered golden monkeys only live in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mostly their habitat has been destroyed and the ongoing conflicts in the DRC haven’t helped their plight. There’s a few thousand of them left, but they still need to be protected.

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chameleon, one of the volcanoes, bamboo forest

They live in huge crowds and as we were walking through the bamboo forest, we had to be careful to watch out for the golden monkeys scampering around over our heads and potentially peeing on us. they are really cute and friendly and these habituated troops aren’t scared of humans at all. Unlike with gorillas, the women control everything in these troops.

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golden monkeys posing!

Rwandan Food

I did a terrible job of collecting photos of Rwandan food. Typical food in the village was boiled cassava, cooked bananas, beans, and huge slices of avocado for one big lunch meal a day.  I ate beans, rice, and tomato sauce more than once. Rwandans like their Akabanga, a hot chili oil they drizzle with an eyedropper on anything needing some extra spiciness. I drank a lot of African tea (chai!) while I was here, which I love. Fanta also comes in three flavors here: orange, lemon (citron) and fiesta (black current, which is purple colored and definitely my favorite).

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speculoos with tree tomato jam, soft-serve honey ice cream, mashed potatoes and peanut sauce

 

 

 

Week 8: Kampala, Jinja, & Lake Bunyoni

Kampala

The capital of Uganda is crazy, colorful chaos and I loved it. There are lots of people and terrible traffic everywhere, but the city has a vibrancy and energy that is difficult to describe. Who cares that they’ve had a dictator for 32 years? Many Ugandans reflected a similar sentiment to me: “This is something I cannot control, I have to live my life.”

I visited both the Baha’i Temple and the National Mosque. If you’ve never heard of the Baha’i faith, its basic tenets are that all of the teachings of the major world religions were revelations from one God. Their faith is based on cultivating a personal connection to God through self-understanding. As you might imagine for a faith who centers their work on meditation and contemplation, Their temple was beautiful and calm. The National Mosque is huge and although envisioned by Idi Amin, it wasn’t completed until years later with help from Muammar Gaddafi. It was fun to find out that many of the fixtures and writings on the wall were done by Moroccan craftsmen. I did have to wear a scarf and piece of fabric wrapped over my pants to enter, which in the Kampala heat was hot, hot, hot.  The minaret was worth the climb for the beautiful views of the city.

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Baha’i Temple, stained glass windows in the National Mosque, me appropriately covered to enter
dome and light fixture, decorated with Arabic script, view up to the top of the minaret

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view from minaret over Kampala city

Before Uganda fell under the influence of European colonial powers, a good portion of what is now Uganda belonged to the Bugandan empire (this is how Uganda got its name). The former palace of the Bugandan king has been updated, but the current king only keeps an office here and doesn’t stay here overnight. This is because when Idi Amin was in power, he used a concrete structure on the property to torture people. There were five rooms and the area that connected them below was filled with water and then electrified so that anyone who entered the water would be electrocuted.

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Bugandan king’s palace, shield on front gate, Idi Amin’s torture chambers

Jinja

Jinja is famous for claiming to be the source of the White Nile. (I went and saw the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana in Ethiopia). Sources are a tricky thing to claim. What is the ultimate source for the Mississippi River? Some tiny little stream in Montana? Wikipedia gives claiming rights to Rwanda and Burundi. Nevertheless, the Nile spews forth from Lake Victoria at this point so it’s one of the main reservoirs for the White Nile as it flows north.

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Nile River

The “Source of the Nile” spot wasn’t as interesting for me as the tiny Nile Reptile Park nearby. There weren’t that many animals inside, but they did have a gaboon viper, which is my favorite snake of all time. When I told the keeper this, he got a wire hook and took the snake out of its cage so I could see it up close. Gaboon vipers have the biggest fangs of any snake. They also have the most venom, although it is not the most poisonous. Their skin also has a tinge of purple to it in some locations. I first heard about them in Zimbabwe, but they’re not native to that area. The park also had some cobras, some monkeys that we fed bananas to, and some turtles. I can imagine that this is probably not all that exciting for most people, but it was one of my highlights of my trip to Jinja.

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supposed Source of the Nile, gaboon viper, lesser spot-nosed monkey

The other thing Jinja is known for is Class V whitewater rafting. The only other place I’ve been on rapids that big is on the Zambezi River below Victoria Falls. Due to the hydroelectric dam they recently built in the area, there aren’t as many rapids now (only 5 big ones), but we still had a lot of fun and we definitely got flipped over.

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our crew headed into our first rapid, me trying to boogie board a wave on the river (not successful), last rapid of the day

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Watch the paddle!

I also jumped off this structure that was only a few meters tall and this, for me, was way scarier than flying out of raft. I used to jump off high dives when I was a kid, so I’m not sure when this became an issue for me. Nevertheless, after a bit of coaxing, I jumped in and was so proud of myself afterwards. It may have been a small fear, but conquering it felt grand!

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I bent my knees to get a little closer to the water.

Lake Bunyonyi

This lake is one of the deepest in the world and it is free of both crocodiles and bilharzia (unlike the Nile River). I came here to relax for a few days and that is exactly what I did. I swam every day, did some yoga, and read three books. I’m gradually learning the value of taking a vacation from my vacation. 🙂

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view from my room, geodesic dome ceiling, view from restaurant

Ugandan Food

For the foodies in the crowd, typical Ugandan food is matoke (pronounced ma-toe-kay), which is basically mashed green banana, served with some kind of meat stew. Ugandans are also very fond of their rolexes. No, not fancy watches. A rolex is an omelette wrapped up in a chapati and they’re sold everywhere as a snack. My favorite find in Uganda was masala chips, French fries doused in spicy curry. I found them at a bougie café / restaurant and they were so incredibly delicious. Some enterprising food truck in San Francisco needs to get on this trend because they would make a fortune.

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beans and collards with matoke, rolex, masala fries

Even though I’ve had it before, I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about jackfruit. It’s sold already peeled (thankfully) on the side of the road and in supermarkets. African tea is quite popular, but it’s really just a variation on chai, harkening back to the Indian presence in Uganda. By far, my favorite beverage in Uganda is Stoney Tangawizi, Coca Cola’s version of ginger beer. Yum!

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jackfruit, African tea, my beloved Stoney

 

Week 7: Rwenzori Mountains & Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Rwenzori Mountains

I’d seen the “Mountains of the Moon” mentioned in the guidebook, but dismissed it because I don’t have that much gear with me. Then I stumbled on a National Geographic site listing some of the world’s best hikes and with that second mention in a few days, I found myself signing up for a 5-day trek to the top of Mt. Luigi di Savoia, also known as Weismann’s Peak. The Rwenzoris are home to Mt. Stanley, the fourth highest mountain in Africa, but the peak is technical and I’m still not a fan of climbing where it’s difficult to breathe. I did a different route up the mountains then mentioned on the website, and it was both beautiful and very tough. Weismann’s Peak is 15,157 ft (4,620 m) high and the hike involves hiking up over 10,000 ft of elevation in four days. I passed through tropical rainforests, bamboo forests, fields of lobelia and other afro-alpine plants, and the rocky, snowy summit. We had fantastic weather for the whole trip until the last hour walking into town, where the sky opened up and dumped gobs of rain.

Day 1: Kilembe Town to Sine Camp

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Day 2: Sine Camp to Mutinda Camp

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Day 3: Mutinda Camp to Bugata Camp

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Day 4: Bugata Camp to Kiharo Camp

Long day so double photos!

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Day 5: Kiharo Camp to Kilembe Town
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Bonus Panoramas
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slug 🙂

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view from Weismann’s Peak

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view of Nyamwamba Valley

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view of mountains

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lunch spot on the last day

 

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Everyone goes to Bwindi for one thing, to see the mountain gorillas! It’s not cheap (a permit alone costs $600), but this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation and it was amazing. The park is in the southwestern corner of Uganda and everywhere I looked, everything was green, green, green. The park rangers have actually planted a large amount of tea on the surrounding lands because gorillas don’t eat tea leaves. It provides a potential boredom deterrent so the gorilla don’t enter the nearby villages. The idea is that they’ll give up when they see only rows and rows of tea ahead of them and turn back to the forest for better tasting food.

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view of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

The rangers start tracking the gorillas from the place they left them the night before. They start at 7 am and they usually they find them by 10:30 am. They watch them all day until about 5 pm when they go home from work. We tracked the Nkuringo gorilla family and it only took us a couple hours of walking to get to them, most of which was just walking down to the forest itself from the headquarters.

The rangers actually hack down nearby vines so that tourists can get a good view of the gorillas. The silverback moved a few times, but eventually we were standing a few meters away. However, I have to say, this silverback spent almost the entire hour while we were there just eating tons and tons of leaves. They may look fat, but it is mostly muscle and larger intestines used to process all the cellulose in their vegetarian diet.

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top (l to r): various views of the silverback (which it acquires at 14 years old)
bottom (l to r): baby gorilla (awww!), silverback gorilla, mama gorilla

Just like pandas, gorillas spend almost their whole day just eating.

I’m definitely feeling incredibly blessed to have seen these gentle giants in person.

Week 6: Murchison Falls, Kalinzu Forest & Queen Elizabeth

When I lived in Zimbabwe almost twenty years ago, several people told me that if I liked it there, I should see Uganda. There’s a lot of similarities: everything is lush and verdant, people are overwhelmingly friendly, tea with milk (aka British style) is available everywhere, driving is on the left side of the road, and ginger beer is plentiful. I spent my first week here living the safari life. Although I’ve been a few times before, nature continues to awe and inspire me.

Murchison Falls

The remnants of British colonization are everywhere in Uganda, including in the name of this epic waterfall. A couple of British explorers dedicated the site to the then President of the Royal Geographic Society, Sir Roderick Murchison. It is the most powerful waterfall in the world, mostly because of the narrow entrance at the top that is only 7 metres (23 ft) wide. Over 300 cubic meters of water flow every second (11,000 ft³/s) through that gap. Basically, it’s a lot of water moving through a very small space. Murchison Falls is part of the bigger Nile river system. It’s on a tributary of the White Nile that eventually joins with the Blue Nile (coming from Ethiopia) in Khartoum, Sudan to form the Nile River that empties into the Mediterranean Sea in Cairo.

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Murchison Falls: view from front, looking into the gorge, me at the top

Murchison Falls National Park is one of the bigger parks in Uganda and has one of the largest assortment of animals because of its size. Although members of the antelope family tend to get old after you see them many times, I really enjoyed seeing the Ugandan kob for the first time and oribis may be the cutest antelope of all time.

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top (l to r): red-headed Agama lizard, spotted hyena, Abyssinian ground hornbill
middle (l to r): Ugandan kob, warthog family, oribi
bottom (l to r): African buffalo, Rothchild’s giraffes, olive baboon mama with baby

We were also able to take a boat trip up the Nile to see the animals that live along the river. Watching the huge elephant walk along the edge of the hill was quite impressive. Due to continued threats of poaching, all of the rhinoceroses in Uganda live in the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary which continues to guard and protect the animals as they reproduce so there are enough to repopulate the national parks. The Ankole cow we saw on the side of the road, and this one has some of the craziest horns I’ve ever seen.

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top (l to r): Nile crocodile, African elephant, common hippopotami
bottom (l to r): saddle-billed stork, white rhinoceros, Ankole cow

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large group of elephants congregating along the river

Kalinzu National Forest

On the way to Queen Elizabeth National Park, we stopped a few times to enjoy some sights along the way, including an equator marker (flashbacks to Ecuador). We also saw some zebras along the road before we stopped to track chimpanzees in Kalinzu National Forest. This is the first time I have ever seen chimpanzees in the wild. We were only able to see a mama chimpanzee and her baby up in the tree, but it was still pretty exhilarating. After about an hour of staring up at an odd angle, we took a walk through the forest and I found all kinds of interesting things growing on the ground.

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top (l to r): equator marker, zebras near Lake Mburo, mama chimpanzee
bottom: various finds on the forest floor

Queen Elizabeth National Park

More animals! Notice the two Nile crocodiles in the photo, the lighter colored one is a juvenile and the darker gray one is an adult. The solitary hippo in the mud has probably gotten kicked out of the main group in the river from losing a fight with the dominant male. Since it can’t be in the river anymore, it has to find another way to cool off its massive body.

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top (l to r): Nile crocodile (female and male), hippo wallowing in mud, hippos 
middle (l to r): group of elephants, lions hanging out, symmetrical elephants
bottom (l to r): Uganda kob, banded mongoose, waterbuck

The Kazinga Channel is a 32-km long waterway that connects two giant lakes, Lake Edward and Lake George (named after British princes from back in the day). Colonialism strikes once again. The channel is full of birds, crocodiles, and hippos that are drawn to its shallow waters. There is one local community that is still allowed to fish in the area that mostly catches tilapia and catfish. The boat ride included a huge array of birds birds and more birds.

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top (l to r): African spoonbill, saddle-billed stork, yellow-billed stork with Nile crocodile
middle (l to r): sacred ibis, African fish eagle, heron
bottom (l to r): great egret, yellow-billed stork, ?

Katwe

On the way through the park, we also stopped at a salt production spot in Katwe. The harvest the salt in two ways. The first way is to create salt ponds with irrigation channels connected to Lake Katwe that is the source of the salt. From there, the water evaporates and women (only women) scrape away the salt that has accumulated at the bottom of the pond. This is tough, physical work made even tougher by the fact that the constant exposure to salt can cause skin issues and dehydration. They are paid very little, but this is one way that single women in rural areas can support themselves. Men do work outside of the ponds once the women have removed it to create large piles of salt.

The other way that salt is harvested is directly from the lake itself. Men (only men) go into the lake and using tools break up the bottom of the lake which has a crust of salt on it. From there, they float the pieces of salt back to the shore where they are collected in piles of 100 kg to be sold. The men have to wear condoms to protect their genitals while they are working in the salty lake.

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salt pond, salt from the bottom of the lake, floats used to bring salt to the shore

Bonus Panoramas from Queen Elizabeth

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herd of elephants (look for the babies!)

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hippos cooling off in the Nile

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African buffaloes (note the cattle egret hanging out on top of one of them)

Bonus Post: Ethiopian Food

Since there has been a request for more food commentary, I’m trying to appease my audience with this post. While I was in Ethiopia, I was lucky enough to get a couple of lessons in Ethiopian cooking.

Home Cooking

The first lesson came unexpectedly near the end of my first couple weeks in the country. I was staying with Tselate at her uncle’s house when we realized that I needed food for my 13-hour train journey to Djibouti. After some ridiculous discussions, it was decided that Ejigayehu (her uncle’s exquisite chef and maid) and I would make some lentil sambusas. Basically, this means making misir wot and sticking them inside some dough and frying them. The filling is quite a bit different than Indian samosas, but the process is almost exactly the same.

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Ejigayehu and I making lentil sambusas

Cooking School

After my friends departed early from Lalibela, I had a day to myself in the beautiful city. I signed up for Lalibela Cooking School at Sisko’s Unique Restaurant on the other side of town. Sisko is an absolute gem of a human being and she has her daughter and nieces helping her run her cooking classes.

Before we started, they had to do a special repair of the injera stove. The solid metal plate doesn’t really need any fixing up, but the structure holding it does. They use a mixture of cow poop and ashes to smooth out any part that is crumbling. This apparently doesn’t have to be done all that often, but I happened to show up on stove repair day.

Anyways, for the class, I was supposed to learn how to make a yetsom beyaynetu, basically the veggie combination plate you get at any Ethiopian restaurant in the states. Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which means eating only vegan food. As you can imagine, fasting beyaynetu is particularly popular on these two days of the week. We made seven different dishes and I got to try my hand at making one injera on the stove.

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Sisko and our yetsom beyanetu, my first injera, the stove with her niece

Injera is made out of teff flour. It’s basically teff combined with water and then has a fermented starter added to it. Injera has a sour taste and is full of holes from the fermentation process. Some say it’s an acquired taste, but I think it’s delicious. It’s allowed to rise for 3 days and then that batter is pour into a small container. From there, it is poured in circles (from the outside in) until the entire pan is covered in batter and then the lid is placed on top. After 4-5 minutes of cooking it’s ready. You can see from my photo that there are lots of bumps on mine. That means I didn’t pour too evenly and those bulges are places where I poured too much batter on the stove.

We were cooking over two fires that were constantly being fed by small logs. The room was smoky, so please forgive my not so brilliant photos.

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top: qey kik wot, key sir alicha, kik alicha
bottom: tikel gomen, shiro, gomen

Most of these dishes aren’t very involved and you can make them easily if you can get your hands on the ingredients. Here’s a brief overview of what we made:

  • qey kik wot – split peas and berbere
  • key sir alicha – beets and carrots
  • kik alicha – split peas, onions, and garlic
  • tikel gomen – cabbage and carrots
  • shiro – chickpea powder and berbere
  • gomen – spinach (can also refer to a dish made of collard greens)
  • misir wot – lentils and berbere (the brownish green dish pictured only in the photo with Sisko above)

Tigrayan Food

One area of the country where the food is substantially different is in the north. The Tigrays share a lot in common with their Eritrean neighbors to the north, including language and some food traditions. I have a good Eritrean friend who has made some delicious food for me, so I was looking forward to food in this region.

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all from Aksum: tegamino shiro, special ful, fata

Tigrayan shiro is just better than shiro everywhere else in the country. That’s because they add tomatoes and it just makes the whole thing delicious. Sometimes shiro is watery or has a terrible aftertaste, but the photo above shows the best shiro I ate during my entire time in Ethiopia. Tegamino shiro is a special kind of shiro that has been cooked for longer, so it’s thicker. Yum!

Other fun Tigrayan food specialties involves putting yogurt in breakfast foods. In the middle is ful (beans), mixed with eggs and yogurt. Other parts of the country have ful and it’s relatively common, but nobody else adds yogurt. The last photo is of a dish called fata which is bread fir-fir (bread soaked in berbere sauce) mixed with egg and yogurt. It may not look that appetizing, but it was delicious!

Week 5: Lalibela, Aksum, Tigray & Danakil

Lalibela

Lalibela is a former capital of Ethiopia and these churches were legendarily inspired by a trip that King Lalibela took to Jerusalem. Like many legends, there are some doubts to the truthfulness of this. There are many churches at Lalibela, and most of them are monolithic, carved out of one giant piece of rock. The workers started at the top and once they created windows, they removed all of the rock that had been inside through them until they made the doors. Archeologists say these churches date from the seventh to thirteenth centuries. King Lalibela is revered as a saint and there are all kinds of legends about him, including the story that he built one of these churches in less than a month with only the help of angels.

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windows of Biete Medhane Alem, bishops of Lalibela, pillars of Biete Medhane Alem

The details of these churches are really cool. Check out these windows and pillars.

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close ups of details in various Lalibela churches

I rerouted my trip to travel with Yun who came as a package deal along with Dan and Joey. All of us served in the Peace Corps at various points and it’s incredible how many things we had in common from that experience. I’m so grateful for the friendships that developed from traveling together.  The poster church of Lalibela is St. George’s Church because of its shape and fantastic preservation. Looking down on the church really shows the massive amount of carving required to create such a masterpiece.

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top of St. George’s; Joey, Yun & Dan; view down on the church from the edge

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Biete Gabriel-Rufael, Yun & my favorite photobomber of the trip, Biete Amanuel

Aksum

Aksum was the first capital of Ethiopia from about 100 AD-960 AD. During this time, stelae were most likely built as gravestones. They were all carved from one huge piece of rock. (Technical note: an obelisk, although similar in shape, is carved from multiple pieces and then assembled.) The Great Stele weighed over 520 tons and probably broke during construction. The Rome Stele had been split into three pieces and stolen by the Italians, but was returned in 2007. At the top of each of the steles, there probably would have been a metal plate, although their purpose is unknown. The one they have found has a face surrounded by an illegible inscription.

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Great Stele, Rome Stele, broken stele

Aksum also holds a lot of religious significance for Ethiopians. From the legends, Queen of Sheba supposedly had a son with King Solomon named Menelik I. (There is a rock palace in Aksum attributed to Queen of Sheba, but again, most historians are unclear if she actually existed.) Menelik I was raised by King Solomon and apparently when he left Jerusalem, he brought the Ark of the Covenant, which contains the original ten commandments with him back to Ethiopia for safekeeping. It has been housed in the Church of Mary of Zion ever since and only one guardian is ever allowed to see it. When Haile Selassie returned from exile, he built the largest church in all of Ethiopia in the 1950’s.

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Chapel of the Tablet at the old Church of Mary of Zion, church book written in Ge’ez, much newer Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion

Abuna Yemata Guh

Less than a year ago, a friend sent me this BBC video about a hardcore baptism. When I decided to come to Ethiopia, I immediately put in on my list of places to visit. It is definitely an intense climb, although it can be done with ropes for those more fearful of heights). There are over 120 rock churches in this area of the Tigray province, some on flat ground and some with significant hikes up hilltops.

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views of the climb, paintings from inside the church, beautiful views from the church entryway

Danakil Depression

This place is certainly one of the most unique places in the world. It is controlled by the Afar and after some violence a few years back, tourists are required to visit in giant convoys with varying amounts of military support along the way.  The first stop is the salt flats and the very shallow salty lake. Locals still harvest the salt (backbreaking work) and sell it in the bigger cities nearby. The roads in the area have recently been improved because potash is again being mined in the area.

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convoy of 4x4s, camel caravan carrying harvested salt, strange structures in Dallol

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sunset reflecting on the salt flats, salt patches, posing on the edge of the salt lake

Most people go to Danakil to see Erta Ale, a volcano that has been continuously erupting for years and at certain times looks like a giant lava lake. Unfortunately, it is mostly just smoking right now, so I opted instead to head only for Dallol, the site of some of the most surreal landscapes I have ever seen. The colors do not seem to belong to this world.

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close-up view of the ground in Dallol

This entire area is incredibly hot, being over 100 meters below sea level and in the middle of the desert. It is also volcanically active, full of vents and fumaroles spewing toxic chemicals into the air. Some of these include ferrous chloride, iron hydroxide, and sulfuric compounds that create the stunning colors that blanket the area. In some places, those gases are still released in such high quantities that they choke off the oxygen, making it difficult to breathe. This place is definitely like nothing else I have ever seen.

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the surreal landscapes of Dallol

Bonus Panoramas from Dallol

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Week 4: Bahir Dar, Gonder & Simien Mountains

Bahir Dar

This town is known for being a beautiful, calm city sitting on the shores of Lake Tana. The lake itself is huge, covering over 832 square miles, and is full of tilapia and even a few hippos. The lake has two major claims to fame. The first is that it is the source of the Blue Nile which eventually joins the White Nile to become the much bigger Nile River that eventually empties out into the Mediterranean Sea. The second is the large number of monasteries and churches that are located on the peninsulas and islands in the lake. Monks and nuns live in these remote places and practice their spiritual beliefs, while greeting tourists from time to time. The only way to get to many of these monasteries is by boat.

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murals from inside the relatively modern Entos Eyesu, including St. George killing the dragon

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murals from inside the 14th century church Ura Kidane Meret

Gonder

Ethiopia has a few different historical periods and the city of Gonder was the center of the Solomonic dynasty (around 1632-1755). Before this time, the capital moved from place to place, but Emperor Fasiladas rooted the capital in Gonder. The emperor traced his family tree to Menelik I, the legendary offspring of an encounter between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. There is much discussion about who the Queen of Sheba was and whether or not she actually existed, but many Ethiopians take this story as fact. Regardless, the castle complex of Gonder holds six different royal buildings constructed by the Emperor and his descendants and is definitely deserving of its UNESCO world heritage site designation.

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Emperor Fasilidas’ castle, Yohannes I’s library (his son), me posing with several castles

Gonder is also home to Fasilidas’ baths which are beautiful to behold and are the center gathering spot for Epiphany (called Timkat in Amharic), which celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. Many people enter the baths fully clothed to commemorate the event.

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turret of Emperor Fasildas’ castle, baths of Fasilidas, Empress Mentaweb’s castle

Also in Gonder is the Debre Berhan Selassie church, which has one of the coolest painted ceilings I’ve ever seen. It is entirely covered in angelic cherubs and almost every square inch of the walls are blanketed with murals depicting events from the Bible including Daniel and the lions’ den, Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ crucifixion, and of course, St. George and the dragon.

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church, bell for starting service, closeup of roof

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cherub covered ceiling, the holy trinity above the alter, St. George killing the dragon

Simien Mountains

The Simien plateau is mostly composed of basalt that was then uplifted due to volcanic activity. There’s a strong haze that persists from sand and dust blowing in from the Sahara, but the views are still jaw-dropping. One of the best parts of my three-day hike was reuniting with my old friend Yun who I met during my second Peace Corps rotation in Morocco. She randomly got in touch after she saw that we were going to be in Ethiopia at the same time, so I moved my plans around so I could meet up with her and her crew (which coincidentally included a friend of a friend – small world).

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Yun & I, view out from the plateau, one of our scouts who carried an AK-47 the whole way

The Simiens are also a UNESCO world heritage site, partially designated such because it is the home to several endemic species. Gelada monkeys are the only members of their genus that are still alive today. They are endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia and don’t live anywhere else in the world. They are known for the red “bleeding-heart” shape on their chest. In females, this becomes enlarged when they are ready for mating. Geladas are vegetarians and they are the only primates that get almost all of their energy from just eating grass. Although Bale Mountains has a larger population of endangered, endemic Ethiopian wolves, we were also lucky enough to spot a few from a distance on this trip as well.

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Gelada monkey, Ethiopian wolf, thick-billed raven

This is certainly not the easiest trek I’ve ever walked, since altitude still tends to kick my butt if I’m not acclimatized. It was also colder than I expected at nights, and even after putting on all my clothes, I didn’t sleep well. However, the chance to see incredibly rare wildlife and the always spectacular Milky Way completely made up for any discomfort I may have felt. (Note to self: Next time bring more clothes and gloves.)

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view from the plateau on the last day, sunset behind a giant lobelia plant, our group hiking

Bonus Panoramas

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view from the first day

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view from the last day