The Danakil Depression holds several attractions. In fact, it’s a geological treasure trove, and a mecca for scientists.

One of these attractions is a place called, by the locals, “Dalol,” which means “colorful place.”  The range of colors one sees there varies over time. I’m told that it’s more interesting in the rainy season, but that it’s also less accessible then. All things considered, I think my visit was well-timed, and here are a few images for your enjoyment, both of Dalol proper and the nearby salt cave and mineral springs:

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I once wrote about a lone Bedouin I happened across in the Judean desert. I was impressed by the simplicity of his existence. His lonely days in the desert had rendered him free of the personality pollutants that afflict the rest of us. It’s no accident that our major religions have their origins in the desert, a place whose emptiness forces our minds inward. That they later became burdened with ritual and dogma is another issue.

It was a long drive from the ancient city of Axum to the Simien highlands, and we passed through many villages whose names probably don’t even appear on maps. Places with names like Indaabaguna, Adigebru and Indamadri. The poverty in these villages is unfathomable for most of us. It was in one of these villages that I first saw real hunger in Ethiopia. We had stopped in one of them for something to eat, but my driver was ill and could only eat a portion of his plate. A couple of passing kids motioned that they were hungry, and I told my driver that he might as well give them his leftovers. Within about two seconds the food was completely gone, and the kids were extremely grateful. It’s one thing to theorize, and pontificate, about hunger in the third world from the comfort of one’s home – but seeing it up close arouses all kinds of emotions. I think if it doesn’t, then there’s something wrong with you.

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We stopped at another such village for some coffee and to stretch out. This was Amhara territory, and the vast majority of these people are Christian. At the coffee shop sat a young man with a fez. Apparently, he was a priest and he had no problem with my taking his photo. After I took his photo, he asked to see it, and wondered if I could send him a copy. Unfortunately, his town had no postal service or internet provider, so I didn’t think this was possible. When I showed him the zoom function of my camera, he was filled with wonder. In a way, this man reminded me of the Bedouin in the desert.

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The people of this town were clearly not accustomed to having “farenjis” (white people/tourists) stop by, and all eyes were upon me. There was no hostility, just curiosity – especially from one little girl, who stood nearby and couldn’t take her eyes off me. She partially hid herself behind a tank, and had clearly never been this close to a farenji. I snapped a couple of photos of her and then motioned to her to come look at them. Cautiously, as if I might bite, she approached and saw her photos. Giggling, she flitted away and resumed her post behind the tank.

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In other parts of Ethiopia, where tourists are common, the natives demand money to have their photos taken. Sometimes, if they feel they’re owed money and it’s not forthcoming, they’ll throw rocks. In some places, they’ll distort their own traditions in order to attract more attention from tourists, which translates into more photos and more money. But these Amhara villages of the high country are as yet unspoiled.

I hope these rural Amhara can improve their lot in life, and I hope they don’t lose their traditions and humanity in the process.

I normally do; I don’t much care what it looks like. As long as it doesn’t affect my job, or grow so long that it gets in the way, it’s a low priority for me. So I cut it myself whenever I feel like it.

Except that my daughter’s getting married in a couple of weeks, and I owe it to her to look presentable. So off to the nearest Greatclips I went, and this is what greeted me opposite the entrance:

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My last propaganda post attracted some ridicule from the unenlightened. As expected, they view each instance of micro-propaganda in isolation, and make comments such as:

In that picture, it just looks like they put in a token black guy. But in the mind of a racist, putting a black man anywhere in an ad is idolizing them and furthering the “black agenda,” whatever that is.

If black women were featured with white/Asian men just as often as black men are shown with white women, then it might not be propaganda. But when we see the same pattern over and over again, we cannot view each instance in isolation. Intelligent people will ask, “Why is this pattern being presented to us so consistently? What are the motives of the powerful people who make such decisions?”

These are not unreasonable questions to ask. What is unreasonable is to willfully blind oneself to a phenomenon as ubiquitous as the one in question.

“Abuna Yemata Guh.” The name probably doesn’t ring a bell for most of y’all. Your city probably has no streets with this name, or schools… or churches.

I had just spent 3 days in the second lowest place on Earth: Danakil. My body had acclimated to this low elevation, so in hindsight, it’s no wonder that when I found myself at higher elevations, the very next day, I woke up extremely tired, unsteady, lethargic, lacking an appetite and suffering from general malaise. My legs still ached from the 9 KM hike up to the volcano, and the description of my next activity (based on my tour company’s schedule) led me to believe this would be a leisurely day of sightseeing. The description read: “Tigray churches.”

We entered the town of Hausen, and set about finding my local guide. I was relieved when I found out it wasn’t going to be this guy:

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I was given a choice: Visit two so-so churches or visit one spectacular church. Naturally, I chose the latter. My “leisurely day” turned out to involve a steep hike up this mountain:

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It was hot and I was thirsty, and I’d only brought a small amount of water. In my condition, the hike was a real challenge. I had to stop every 5 minutes or so to catch my breath. But there was shade, and there were cool rocks to rest my body against, so I soldiered on. On the way up, a descending Scottish tourist gave me what he had left in his water bottle. I was grateful for that, and it did rejuvenate me. After an hour or so of this, we got to the “hard part.” It was about then that I recognized this place from a Youtube video. I had seen an elderly monk do this climb with ease. If he could do it, so could I. What presented itself before me was a sheer vertical edifice, described pretty well in this article. Perhaps my altitude sickness had clouded my judgment, but at this point I was feeling well physically, so, with several helpful hands guiding me (after removing my shoes, as required), I started up:

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It was the scariest thing I did in Ethiopia. A fall from there meant certain death, and at one point, my only support was a dead tree branch lodged in the rock. After the initial steep ascent, there’s another, less frightening stretch. After that, I reached a plateau, which consisted of a boulder perched between the rock spire that contained the church and the mountain below. This is where people were brought for burial in ages past:

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After crossing over the boulder, there’s a narrow path around the rock spire:

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It’s about a thousand foot drop off the ledge, but a few feet away was the entrance to the church. Accounts vary as to when it was built, but there is no dispute that it’s a very special place:

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Here’s the view out from the entrance:

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Lonely Planet sent a photographer to Abuna Yemata Guh, and he put together a nice Youtube video about it.

On my second day in Ethiopia, we stopped in the city of Shashamane. In 1948, emperor Haile Selassie allowed a number of Jamaican Rastafarians to settle in Shashamane, and since then it has had a small community of these people.

hawa103Our main point of interest was the Banana Museum/art gallery. It was founded, and features the art, of one individual: Ras Hailu Tafari, formerly known as Bany Payne.

hawa104The museum features works of art, mainly portraits of the late Emperor Haile Selassie, made out of banana leaves. It also contains a wide variety of medals given by the late emperor, and various books.

hawa112There were some questions I’ve always wanted to ask Rastafarians. The owner wasn’t particularly busy when we found him, so I posed a couple of questions to him.

hawa122I asked him how people who claim to follow the Bible, can also worship a human being: Haile Selassie. His answer was that the emperor was more perfect than you or I. I wanted to ask him if he believed Haile Selassie was more perfect than Moses, whose burial place was kept secret lest people worship him. But he continued to the related topic of how black people are God’s chosen people. At this point, I pointed out that Haile Selassie wasn’t really black. One glance at him will tell you that he was primarily of Caucasian stock. Tafari dismissed this by claiming, in so many words, that dark skin was all that really mattered.

I asked him for biblical sources to back up his claim that Ethiopia was of special significance. He brought out a book of Psalms and showed me a verse or two that listed, among other places, Ethiopia.

He wears a marijuana emblem on his shirt. So I asked him what religious significance marijuana has for Rastafarians. His answer was that it holds no religious significance. Rather, they are herbalists, and they respect the medicinal properties of marijuana. I was told, by an Ethiopian I’d met at the airport, that it was the Rastafarians who introduced “ganja” to the local Ethiopians.

This man was very agreeable, and pleasant, to be with. His artwork is impressive; it’s amazing what one can do with banana leaves. But from a theological point of view, I’d say that his ideas are crazy.

I took many videos of Erta Ale, and I would have spent all day watching it if I could have; it’s that mesmerizing for me. Here’s my favorite video, which I just uploaded today:

 

I’m back in Addis Ababa, and have regular electricity and internet access. It’ll be nice to get back to the U.S., where I can speak English and people understand me… well, at least most of the time. Today, I wanted to get to a specific place, and the taxi driver had no clue where he was going. He might have tried to clarify the destination before heading out. But no. Instead, he took me to one incorrect destination after another, each time asking directions.

It’s just one example of the inefficencies I’ve seen in Ethiopia. While in Harar, I noticed the cleaning lady sweeping the floor, and then mopping it, by stooping down and scrubbing it by hand. I asked why she doesn’t just attach a stick to the rag and use it as a mop; it would be much easier on her back and it would be more efficient. I was told: “That’s just the way it’s done here.”

While in Lalibela, I noticed that the multitude of flies caused misery for everyone, including myself. The soldiers were constantly shooing them away, and pilgrims suffered as well. This was around the church complexes. There were several small pools of stagnant water near the churches, which were full of maggots. I asked why they don’t just spray the water, drain it or find some other way to prevent flies from using these pools as hatcheries. I got no good answer. Apparently, nobody made the connection between the maggots in the water and the swarms of flies that afflicted us all.

At a hotel somewhere in the south, I had requested a knife and spoon to eat the fresh papaya I’d purchased on the street. I understand that there is a language problem; few people, even at hotels, speak English well. But when the employee brought me two knives, I had to ask myself, “what in the world was he thinking? What was I going to do with two knives?”

I’ve met some very intelligent people here in Ethiopia. Some of them have great insights, and I’d like to keep in touch with them. For the most part, staff at the nicer hotels are comparable to what you’d find in the U.S. But now and then I’m reminded of the studies that show Ethiopia’s average I.Q. as 70 or so.

The last leg of my journey was Harar, a medieval city whose old city features narrow winding streets. The old city is surrounded by a wall. My guide told me that in the old days, the surrounding Oromo tribe used to raid Harar in order to abduct women for forced marriages. The Oromo were apparently more negro than the people of Harar, so they therefore coveted Harari women, who were more beautiful than their own. Both groups were mainly Muslim.

Today, Harar is a cosmopolitan city, at the crossroads between the Middle East and Africa. Its culture and traditional dress show strong Yemenite and Somali influences. It’s famous for its “chat” (or “gat”/”qat” as it’s known in the Arab world), and exports it to Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen. As in other parts of Ethiopia, Christians and Muslims live in peace. There seems to be no friction between the two groups, and they even sometimes marry each other.

Harar is also famous for the hyena feeding. This tradition, in its present form, was started by a man named Yousef around 30-35 years ago. He was featured on National Geographic. Here’s my own modest little video of this event, showing Yousef at work. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. It’s quite an experience to be face to face with these beasts.

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