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Utopia

Living & working in the uae means we get to celebrate the many Muslim holidays. I enjoy learning what each holiday signifies and how it is traditionally celebrated or recognized. The most recent Muslim holiday was Eid. There are two Eids in the Muslim calendar – the first is Eid al-Fitr, followed by Edi al-Adha. Eid al-Fitr is usually celebrated to mark the end of Ramadan, with Eid Al-Adha being celebrated in the eleventh Islamic month. Literally everything in Islam is based on the moon – the calendar, the holidays & celebrations, the new year, etc. – holidays and celebrations are not on set dates as those of us from the west are accustomed to. It has been a great adjustment for me to understand that I may not know of an upcoming day (or week!) off from work until 3 or 4 days prior when the right person reads the phase of the moon. Often during this time of year one will hear locals saying to each other “Eid Mubarak!” – this is a lovely celebratory greeting that literally translates to “blessed feast”. I love this. Eid al-Adha is a major celebration in the Islamic religion – it is the festival (or feast) of sacrifice. This festival honors Abraham’s (Ibrahim) willingness to sacrifice his first born son, Ishmael (Ismail) as an act of submission to God. Fortunately for Abraham, as the story goes, God intervened and allowed him to sacrifice a lamb rather than his child. In the Islamic calendar, Eid al-Adha falls on the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah. This is the 12th and final month of the Islamic calendar – it literally translates to “possessor of the pilgrimage”. This is a sacred time for Muslims in that it is during this month that the Hajj takes place. Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca that each Muslim is to take at least once in his or her lifetime.

Knowing this about the moon and the calendar, I knew that we would not know the exact dates we would have off for Eid until just before we were to break. But, I decided to take a chance and book a solid week – fingers crossed I would actually be off work! Several friends and I decided we wanted to go somewhere close by but inexpensive and rich with culture. This criterion led us to Ethiopia. I could not be more thankful or appreciative of an experience.

Before we landed, as I viewed Ethiopia from above, I knew my preconceptions of this land were incorrect. I always pictured Ethiopia as a vast dry land with little greenery and very few trees … much like the “Save the Children” campaign commercials of the late 1980s …. you know the ones “for just a dollar a day you can feed a hungry child”. However, what I viewed from my window seat was quite different – green rolling hills, mountains, and a lot of waterways. We landed in addis ababa on a rainy afternoon to be greeted by our guide Tofari and two drivers. We decided to go with a full tour while on this trip … Ethiopia’s national language is Amharic – which has no roots that I could recognize – and English is spoken very little (if any) outside of addis ababa. We opted for a tour of southern Ethiopia – this is where our research told us we would find adventure and the most connection with tribal peoples little touched by the modern world.

Immediately in the car and heading south, our first views were of rolling hills, green pastures, roadsides lined with wildflowers, goats, sheep, & cattle grazing, donkey powered carts, fences made of cacti, and hazy distant mountain ranges. People waved as we rode by, children jumped up & down in excitement, and the sun sank low on the horizon. We stopped along the way to take in vistas of the Great Rift Valley, lake systems throughout, and just general beautiful scenery. All the while, Tofari is giving us a detailed account of Ethiopia’s history. Ethiopia is the only African nation to have never been “colonized”. A small portion of the country was occupied for a short time by the Italians, but it was never fully colonized by any European nation – a fact that seems to bring great pride to the men showing us their country.

We arrive, late in the evening, at the town of Awassa, which is the capital of this region. Our hotel is situated beautifully overlooking a lake and is ripe with flowers and tropical plants. In the morning I wake to the sounds of birds calling, frogs croaking, and monkeys chattering. Heading to the fish market on the lake, we learn that Awassa is a town that thrives on agriculture and fishing. Watching the local men bring in nets overfilling with fish, we are surrounded by smells of mud, fresh lake water, the distinct odor of fish guts, and the amazing aroma of fish being cooked over open fire. The bird life is amazing, the lake is full of white pelicans and the shores are lined with marabou storks. Monkeys scavenge the ground for bits left by the children cleaning the fish, retreating to the nearest thatched rooftop with their prize.

Next we head to lake chamo. Lake chamo and lake abaya are part of the lake system of the extensive great rift valley. These two lakes are separated by “god’s bridge” – a beautiful land bridge that splits the lake in two. Lake abaya has an extremely high iron content, and is aptly named – as ‘abaya’ means red. Being that we are here during the rainy season, lake chamo is a murky brown color. We all pile in a small boat that is captained by a kind local man who must be 110. As our captain does not speak a word of English, I am very grateful to have tofari with us to tell us the local lore and names of the vast variety of birds and other wildlife we see. On this beautiful boat ride, we are able to spot several hippos grazing in the shallows, crocodiles lounging amongst the reeds, and birds, birds, birds! The lake is surrounded by lush, green mountains and there is a feeling of enchantment while out on the quiet waters that smell of earth and salt.

As we leave the lake, we get a beautiful vista of some of the waterfalls that feed into lake chamo. The falls are red with mud washing down from the mountain tops as signs of deforestation as farmers search for new fertile land.

We take lunch in a local café where I try Ethiopian beer and local-style goat. Both are delicious. It is banana season in Ethiopia – I am not a huge fan of bananas, but I am a believer in eating locally and what is in season … and boy am I glad it did! These are the best bananas I have ever eaten – they are sweet with the perfect texture …. Oh, in season eating is the way to go!

Next we head up the mountain to see the dorze people. Like most of the tribes we see in southern Ethiopia, these people rely completely on local resources for survival. The dorze people are famous for their weaving with natural fibers and dyes. Their homes are also something to behold – beehive shaped huts made of banana leaves that have doors and windows that resemble an elephant. The dorze homes are built in about three months and last upwards of 80 years. They have termite problems in the mountains. Their brilliant solution is to build their homes extra high, as the termites eat the layer nearest the ground, they simply cut it away and live termite free until the next layer is eaten … working with the termites this way, they are able to transform the uses of their homes over the 80+ years – from full family home, to newly married couple (childless) home, to children’s home, to kitchen – before the home is finally too short for use. Brilliant! Home recycling! I was not able to resist the weaving skills of this mountain tribe. The vibrant colors and intricate patterns create stunning results! The dorze people are ingenious farmers. Farming on a mountain side can be quite difficult considering the soil erosion due to deforestation and natural rainy seasons. However, this tribe has overcome this problem by terracing the lands of their mountains. The results are beautiful gardens along the mountainsides. A main food staple for this tribe is enset (also called ‘false banana’) – enset looks like a banana tree, but bears no fruit. The dorze have discovered that the bulb of the tree has fibers great for many uses. They use these fibers to make bread (a staple food) and an amazing ‘wine’. While I really enjoyed the enset bread with the delicious spices for dipping, the wine was more like moonshine – as it left my stomach on fire! Here we also had beer brewed of honey, which was thick, sweet, and delicious.

We visited the tribe of the mursi people. A beauty practice for the women of this tribe is to stretch the lower lip. Girls begin the practice at the onset of puberty by inserting a small ceramic disc into their lower lip. They slowly stretch the lip by routinely increasing the size of the disc. Soon the ladies have a lower lip that is stretched to the size of a small dinner plate! The mursi people live in the lowlands of southern Ethiopia, are an agricultural society, and practice animalist religions. They were the most curious of the tribes I met. While with the mursi people, I spent a great deal of time talking to two young men who knew a few words of English and were eager to learn more. We took time trading Amharic and English words, communicating through miming … complete with a great deal of laughter. as the entire tribe was mostly completely nude, I had hide my western shock when one of the young men took my breast in his hand to find the English word for this body part!

We went to the rive omo on the Kenyan border. Here we watched a herd of oxen cross the deep river with an intense current by swimming, while we crossed in a boat made of a hollowed out tree and powered by a man with a pole. We met the omo people, who are also cattle herders and farmers. Most of the men were out with their cattle while we were there, so we spent our time talking to women and small children. Apparently this tribe recently had good fortune with their goat herd, as there were baby goats everywhere! And I was in heaven. Here I met a young boy named Christian who knew a fair amount of English. When I asked how he learned, he told me “at school” – with the implication in his voice that I was quite dense for not guessing this. he showed me his school with great sadness, as they do not now have a teacher and don’t know when a new one will come. He said all of the children are sad and miss going to school. Being animalists, I couldn’t help but wonder what god they pray to when asking for a new teacher to come to their village.

It was at this village that I handed some of the children my camera and told them to take a picture of me. After several minutes of miming to teach them how to use it, they were able to get a few pictures. The excitement and joy these children exhibited at this (what we may consider small) act is indescribable. To say ‘I wanted to stay there with those children’ would be quite the understatement.

My favorite tribe – if I were forced to pick – may be the hamer people. The hammer people are deep in the south of Ethiopia in the lowlands … the “bush”. They are stunningly beautiful in appearance – with creamy skin, prominent cheek bones, long, lean bodies, and intense eyes. However, more than their physical beauty, it was their presence that touched me. They felt calm, at peace. The feeling I got in the village was of a gentle and loving life. The hamer are agricultural cattle herders who practice animalists religions. They have intense family bonds that are demonstrated in ways that one from the west may judge as harsh or even abusive. They practice fertility ceremonies and festivals that are reminiscent of the pagan religions of ancient times. In this village, the children are happy and joyful, the adults are curiously friendly and kind. it is difficult to describe just what I enjoyed so much about this group of people, but I know I would have liked to spend more time with them. Unfortunately, the fertility practices of the hamer people are causing a quick and thorough spread of HIV that is taking its toll on their population. Tofari said the Ethiopian government estimates that if practices don’t change quickly, this tribe will be lost forever.

One day, while we were trekking through the bush in our 4×4 jeeps, we saw a crowd of several locals stopped in the road. When we inquired, we found that a heard of elephants had just crossed the road. We quickly scrambled to climb onto the roof of the jeep so we could see the elephants lumber away through the thick brush. Hunting is not illegal in Ethiopia, so elephants are an uncommon sight. We were told several times that we were very lucky for this sight.

We visited the alduba street market the southern town of dimeka. This is a market where all of the tribes bring their wears for trading. You can find anything here – clothing, shoes, arts, weapons, and protective gear, food, honey, hair products, jewelry, fabric works, etc…. this market was simply beautiful. After an amazing lunch under a mango tree, we headed back to addis ababa to catch our flight. Along the way we stopped one of the ancient burial grounds of southern Ethiopia. It is estimated that there are over 10,000 of these grounds spread throughout the region and they date back to the 700s. this particular site is now a UNESCO world heritage sight – it is located in the middle of a field at the base the mountains. The unpretentious entrance of a small shaded hut selling baskets gives you no clue for what you are about to see …. Ethiopia’s answer to Stonehenge. It is simply beautiful.

Fortunately we had enough time to eat at a local restaurant famous for its ‘injeria’. Injeria is a food made of barely – it is a spongy, almost bitter bread-like substance. The locals use injeria as a utensil to spoon the main dish into their mouths. Injeria was served at every meal, lucky for me, I loved it! Our final meal was amazing – injeria served with cabbage, cheeses, goat, beef, and plenty of sauces. The perfect way to end our trip!

This trip touched my soul. Somewhere deep within me, I needed this. i was not touched by the “I feel at home” as Senegal and Haiti have both touched me; nor was this a deep spiritual calmness that I felt, as I did in Cambodia & Vietnam. More, a feeling of connectedness …. Feeling like we are all connected … feeling the power of being in the cradle of humanity and realizing that we are all … people. Nothing more, nothing less. We want the same things – good food, good company, happy families and friends, we all want our children to be nourished and happy, we all simply want to survive the best we can while enjoying the ride. This trip made me think a great deal about a video I saw years ago, “The Story of Stuff”, and about how the commercialist society from which I come relies on “stuff” and the constant need for more and more … when the stuff we have is just fine…. and the feeling of emptiness this ‘stuff’ tends to leave me with. Meeting these people, who are touched so little by ‘modern’ society, made me think about what it is that we – humans as a collective – truly need. And what we value.


COUNTRY


Profile photo of Keitsa Brisson

originally from the southern united states, i am currently living in the united arab emirates ~ or what i like to call 'midtown'. here i have returned to my lifelong career as an educator, with a twist. i teach english to bedouins in the empty quarter desert between abu dhabi and saudi arabia. i have a deep love for people; i love to hear their stories and learn about ways of life different from my own. living in this area of the world is full of incredible opportunities for a travel & culture junkie such as myself. it is rich in culture and full of amazing stories - a land where past & present are constantly juxtaposed. it is also an excellent jumping off point to see the world ... to travel and learn about new places & peoples.



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