Saturday, March 31, 2012

Ethiopia - part two. Camels, hyenas and monkeys, oh my!

Next, it was off to Harar. Harar is east of Addis – bordering the desert region and primarily a Muslim town (whereas Lalibela is 99% Orthodox Christian.) I hadn’t ever been to Harar, but heard it was an amazing town. It did not disappoint. (Zavion, however, on hearing we were going to Harar had his hopes up that we were actually returning to Harare, Zimbabwe, and was a little disappointed that he didn’t get to see his cousins.) We had a quick flight from Addis to Dire Dawa (after our connection from Lalibela) which was uneventful – in a good way. The flight was continuing on to Djibouti and Z wanted to go on – he said he just wants to visit a place called Jabooty (I wonder how many 5 year olds even know that there IS a country called Djibouti…)  Landing in Dire Dawa, we were greeted by a troop of monkeys running on the Tarmac and trying to get into the terminal. Dire is in the middle of the desert. True desert of the cactus, camels and chat chewing variety (even our taxi driver was chewing the chat – a mild hallucinogen – is that good?) No trees to be seen (‘Mom, how do people breathe in the desert if there are no trees to give out oxygen?’) The drive from Dire Dawa to Harar was nice – up, up, up out of the desert and into the green hills of olive groves and jacaranda– on the eastern edge of the Great Rift Valley. The temperature returned to bearable and we had trees to give us O2 J.

Harar is a 1000 year old walled town just oozing with character. Like Stone Town on steroids – an Arab town with Oriental flare. In addition to Stone Town, it reminded me of  Jerusalem, Istanbul or the towns of Rajahstan- with the narrow walkways, whitewashed buildings, etc., but, fortunately, not touristy at all.  There are no souvenir shops or tourist centers, but busy daily local markets selling spices, meats and produce. Streets dedicated to tailors with their old fashioned sewing machines in the alleys. No cars, but tons of brightly clad locals milling about.  Donkeys, goats (apparently stoned on chat leaves,) cows, chickens and cats sharing the tiny streets.  No other Farangis (White people.) True sensory overload. We spent a day just wandering this fascinating place. Meandered through the spice market- enjoying the smells, sights, sounds and tastes.  Zavi stayed interested and was asking our guide, Bin, about the different spices. We spent hours just exploring the whole town – getting lost in the feel and atmosphere of the place. We soaked it up until we were atmospherically saturated. Z did really well and lasted the whole morning of walking – with several water breaks, of course - and with his stuffed animals in tow. He also enjoyed the short Tuktuk rides from our hotel to the old town/walls. In Harar, there is a real mix of local Harari, Arab/Somalis, Christians, Oromo, Amharic, etc. So many groups live here peacefully and without incident that Harar is an official UNESCO City of Peace- making it one of only a handful of cities in the world to be honored as a City of Peace AND World Heritage Site. By the way, Ethiopia has nine world heritage sites- the most in Africa. Zavi warmed up to Bin right away (must be the hair. And the shoulder rides he gave him.) “You have the same name as my baby cousin AND Ben Ten!! So, bin, Were you born here? In a hospital? So, you and me were both born in hospitals in Ethiopia. Mommy was born in a hospital in Colorado. Poor mommy…”

In the tuktuk with his buddies

Here, again, the locals were quite confused by Zavion. Everyone immediately started talking to him in Amharic. When that didn’t work, they’d try Oromo, Harari, Somali (most locals speak at LEAST four languages) and were surprised when he’d answer them in English. He, of course, looks just like the kids here… ‘He is YOUR baby? But he is from here?’ At one point, I caught him and a little girl just standing and staring at each other – they looked like twins! ‘Mom, she looks just like me! Maybe she’s from Ethiopia, too!’ (ya think?) He garnered lots of stares and comments, but all were good natured. “Bin, let's compare features. We both have brown skin and curly, brown hair and black eyes, but you're bigger. Mommy has pink skin, straight yellow hair and blue eyes. And she’s the only one like that here. It's ok, though, Mommy, you're still pretty and you're still my mommy!!”
That night, we went to watch the feeding of the hyenas!! These are wild hyenas and this is not a tourist thing- they have been feeding hyenas here for over 70 years. It started as a cultural/religious ceremony- if the hyenas eat from you, it’s a good omen. After they started the practice, they noticed that the nightly feedings kept the hyenas from causing trouble and kept the livestock and crops safe. So now, on the outskirts of town, the hyenas come every evening from the surrounding bush and there is always someone to feed them. We arrived to the site and there were about seven spotted hyenas (and a few local cats as well) waiting for their daily allotment of fresh camel meat. They were beautiful. Powerful. Wild.  Zavi was so brave - he jumped right in and asked if he could feed them, too. He was able to hand-feed them (with the help of a stick.) I did it, too. Zavi then fed them from my shoulders to watch how high they can jump (cats they are NOT.) “Mom, this is so cool! This is the awesomest thing ever!! I want to email my cousins right now and tell them! I'm so brave. I must be the bravest cousin. But Eliza would probably be ok. Bassie and Miles might be a tiny afraid, though.”  As a mom- watching my kid feed wild, strong animals- I was, admittedly, a little nervous. Was this really the best decision? He sure loved it, though.

 The next day, we took a road trip to Babile and the Valley of Marvels.  Back down to hotter, drier territory.  In the short, wet season, the fields are full of maize, sorghum, peanuts, mangoes, avocados, bananas, papaya… Again, there were all manner of people and animals on the roads as this is the main road to Somaliliand. The road has been completely resurfaced by the Chinese – cutting the journey time in half. (Apparently, the Chinese are busy with infrastructure improvement  throughout eastern Africa– with the goal of moving 80 million Chinese to Africa by 2015. Local reaction is very mixed.) But I digress… The Valley of Marvels has wonderful landscapes, famous for its balancing rock formations, desert wildflowers and resident baboons and rock hyraxes. We took a short walk and then went on to Babile – which, on Thursdays, is home to a huge camel market. We took a long, hot walk around town -  Zavi catching a ride on Bin's shoulders for the most part. The town is dusty, poor, but full of character. It’s mostly Oromo and Somali living here. There are many nomadic structures (‘mom, they live in tiny tents here!!’) and  the people are outnumbered by the donkeys, goats, cattle and, on this day, hundreds of camels. Again, everyone was trying to figure us out. Bin was peppered with questions when Z didn't respond to the local languages. People probably thought Z was Bin’s son and I was some Farangi tagger-alonger.  We made it to the camel market and it was quite a sight.  There were, at least, hundreds of them. Along with brightly clad locals milling about bartering for the best deal. We spent some time sitting on the town wall, just taking it all in. Zavi loved it – especially the babies and the ongoing accompaniment of camel burps, spits and farts (camels have never been known for their impeccable manners.) I didn’t have the heart to tell him that they were being sold for their meat. We wandered around amongst the beasts – Z feeling much safer on Bin’s shoulders than at the belly level of the animals. All in all, it was a really cool experience and I’m glad our time lined up with it.

We returned to Harar and had our now requisite afternoon of relaxation/play time. We read books, played with Z’s stuffed animals, ate snacks, took a shower, did some coloring and played some cards. We also engaged in another extensive question/answer session - I don't even know where he comes up with all these questions, but they're always good!!

He really wanted to go back to the hyenas, so we returned for a second night. Zavion went straight to feeding them again and this time, he even fed them from his mouth. Mommy was having a minor heart attack. ‘Mom, I even got to feel his fur – it feels soft just like cat fur!’


Had a good talk with Bin about life here. He has lived here all his life and doesn't know anyone who has a car for personal use. It’s a very walkable city and cars aren’t even allowed within the walls of the old town. People live with their families and most don’t ever leave. Family is everyone’s number one priority and most live at home with their parents until they are married. He did say that people are marrying later these days. A few years ago, 15 was about the average marrying age, now, it’s mid to late 20s. He also said that most now marry out of choice/ love and arranged marriages are becoming less and less common. The average family has about four kids, which is lower than a generation ago. In the more rural areas, early and arranged marriages are more common than in the bigger towns/cities. (Note - these are not official numbers.) Always interesting to discuss culture and traditions. On our last morning in town, we took another short wander - suffice it to say, I loved this place!

Our next 'adventure' was unplanned and a little trying. We took a taxi back to Dire Dawa to catch our flight to Addis. The flight was originally delayed one hour due to a 'broken plane.' One hour turned to two... three... four. Finally, we boarded our plane and began to taxi - only to turn around again and head back to the terminal because, apparently, the plane still wasn't fixed. We waited another hour... two... three. Finally, we were told we wouldn't leave until the next day and they'd put us all in hotel rooms for the night. I should mention that the Dire Dawa airport has no snackbar, shop, restaurant or air conditioning. Everybody was hot, tired, cranky and starving - including us. We waited another hour or so for transport to the hotels - finally arriving at 10 pm. A mere 12 hours after getting to the airport... We had a quick dinner and a good night's sleep. The next morning, we returned to the airport where we were told that the plane still wasn't fixed, but they were working on it. We waited an hour. two. three. Finally, we boarded and left - none of us feeling too confident about the repairs. But, phew, we made it. Alive. Relatively unscathed. Just about 28 hours late. I feel bad for the folks who missed connecting flights... Oh, the joys of travel.

We had a few days back in Addis before heading home. We relaxed, packed, went swimming again at the Hilton and tried to wrap our heads around the fact that our trip was coming to an end.  We did do one more day trip – to Sodor Hotsprings. It was a longer drive than I expected and the pool was PACKED, but we did enjoy the watching the resident vervet monkeys and baboons and walking along the river.

On our last day in town, I got the pleasure of meeting a friend of a friend and hearing about the wonderful work they are doing with women here in Addis. The Ethiopian Women’s Empowerment Fund was started by another family who are also blessed with little ones from Ethiopia (we met while all picking up our children) and raises money to support a group of young ladies that have recently aged out of the orphanage system (when they turn 18, they can no longer live in the orphanage.) The program is helping by giving them a small home to live in, sending them to school and offering training in crafts, etc. so the girls can become self-sufficient. I loved meeting the girls – they were so friendly and bright. The fund also helps other young mothers make ends meet. If anyone is looking for a program to donate to, I’d highly recommend this one. Here’s the website for more information --  

About a week ago, Z and I embarked on our journey home. A four hour flight from Addis to Dubai, a nine hour layover (overnight – Z slept, me- not so much. I can not believe how busy that airport was at 1 am!!) and a 15 hour (no, that’s not a typo) flight from Dubai to Seattle. Zavi watched 15 hours of Tom and Jerry and then promptly fell asleep the minute we got through the immigration line in Seattle.

Jetlag took a few days to get over, but we’re back on track now, enjoying West Seattle (though not the current wet, cold weather,) and getting ready for school/work on Monday. Can’t believe this trip is over already. I still have a lot of debriefing to do, but that will have to wait… right now, I have a boy who is ready to go rollerskating….

I will say, though, that it was, all in all, a great trip. Zavi turned out to be a fantastic travel companion and we were both lucky enough to stay healthy (no illnesses - yay!) and happy. And, but for a couple of delayed flights, a pulled hamstring and a broken ipod screen, we completed the trip without incident. :):):) Thanks for joining us !!!