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post Trekking the North 2

June 27th, 2008

Filed under: Tourists on Ethiopia — Lissan Magazine @ 11:53

Morning in Filakit
Travel journal by Nancy Chuang

As I headed toward the outhouse, a young cleaning woman motioned for me to wait. She filled a bucket with water, indiscriminately sloshed it into the tiny room, and with a proud smile deemed it ready for use. Combined with last night’s disbursement of plastic chamberpots, Filakit was getting surreal.

north4.jpg
© Nancy Chuang

Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustained Future Alternatives is a program run almost entirely between the office in Lalibela and the community of Meket Woreda, a district in the highlands. Additional support comes from the TESFA office in Addis, where British founder Mark and his Ethiopian co-worker Hanna work on the website, answer requests for information and schedule bookings. Save the Children UK was also affiliated, and had an office in Filakit.

Through numerous questions to Hanna and her patient replies, I’d arranged to join a solo trekker named Jodie to save us both money, but needed help meeting this schedule with my limited time. A couple weeks before I left, Hanna informed me their contracted driver Habtamu would already be in Gondar, so I’d get the ride for half-price. Once Jochen joined up, the private ride—merciless as it was—cost less than flying to the usual starting point of Lalibela.

We expected our trekking partners to show at 10AM, and had little to do other than watch the blanket-wrapped drivers negotiate the gas pump in front of the hotel. We moved down the road a bit to watch students heading off to school, a sea of forest-green uniforms whispering ferengi, ferengi. After exhausting Filakit’s possibilities, Jochen and I headed back for coffee. With Habte already on the road back to Lalibela, we were stuck trying to communicate on our own in a town devoid of English speakers.

Our initial request for 2 cups of coffee (hulet buna, my mangled attempt at Amharic) was met with gales of laughter. We lingered over the strong brew but when conversation began to fail us, we tried to flag down the happy waitress again. She was in full-on “ignore” mode, yet she kept throwing quizzical glances our way. Was she wondering why we were still there?

We watched Amarigna-speaking families enter, eat, and leave while we continued wondering about coffee. Eventually a waiter we recognized from the previous night came over. We tried asking for “hulet buna” again. He told us the price. We nodded OK. He waited a while, then left with questions still hanging in the air. We didn’t get any coffee.

Perhaps he thought we had simply wanted to confirm the price. More than an hour later we eventually convinced someone to pour us a second cup. My guidebook was sparse on Amharic restaurant directives, and Jochen’s phrasebook of course only translated from German, but I figured if I stared at it long enough it would all make sense.

What a relief when Jodie and Nina finally arrived after 11! With a warm smile, our trekking guide Mulugeta asked us to call him Mulay and insisted we eat lunch before starting off. The five of us easily shared a big vegetarian plate similar to the one Jochen had ordered for himself the previous day. We regaled our new companions with stories of the drive and of Filakit, most especially of the various toilet experiences. We had five days together, so we might as well get friendly.

———————–

Introduction

We piled into the car that brought Jodie and Nina from Lalibela and drove to the meeting point, where grinning teenaged boys gathered shyly. Not a single word was exchanged, only fascinated stares. The spell was broken when our local guide and porters arrived, and began to strategically load four people’s luggage plus a large amount of bedding onto two small, patient donkeys.

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© Nancy Chuang

Finally on our way, one small boy suddenly piped up for money. Mulugeta reminded him gently that this community welcomed tourists and wanted to show them the best side of Ethiopia, away from the harassment in other parts of the country. The boy sweetly promised to never ask again.

Jodie taught high-school psychology and—like every other Australian I’ve ever met on the road—was from Melbourne. She was meeting her boyfriend for a group tour through East Africa later so she’d jumped on the chance to trek in Ethiopia first. Nina was a blustery physical therapist, an English gal of the “jolly” variety. Nina was in Ethiopia only for trekking as well—although the best-known sites are near enough to the historical circuit for quick visits—and immediately after this trek was headed to the Simien Mountains.

I’d originally only known about Jodie but TESFA had managed to locate three other solo travelers who were willing to adjust their schedules. Our fifth, Jess, would come later.

The first bit of climbing from the stream to the escarpment was steep, but after that the trek was as easygoing as we’d expected. TESFA did not involve physically challenging hikes, but rather an opportunity to interact with people and observe life in the rural northern highlands. Maximum distance was about twenty-five kilometers and no more than six hours per day, although we often finished in five.

We couldn’t get our eyes off a particular small boy on the same route, perhaps no more than 5 years old, who took his self-appointed task of harshly whipping cows with a stick quite seriously. However, it wasn’t our place to correct this behavior. Other children seemed to have little to do other than scamper after us, welcome us with outstretched hands and solemnly ask,”what is your name?” They never had any follow-up once we told them.

We’d been wondering where all the adults were when we came upon a church in the typical rural style: round with a cross squarely at the center of its thatched roof. It was St. Maryam’s Day, and a large group of men gathered first to watch us enjoying the view from the cliff, then went back in the churchyard to drink a strangely sweet and foamy home-brewed barley beer.

We agreed to try some, not expecting to receive a quart-sized metal cup to pass around. Mulay assured us most of these men would put away several large cups on any given Saint’s day. It wasn’t pleasant. Neither was the bread made in the church, nutty but dry and extremely filling.

This was our first true taste of the Meket Woreda community, other than the children wandering in and out of our paths and our limited interaction with the local guide. The guide taught me to say konjo, or beautiful, and particularly applied it to the Ecuadorian woven purse I used as a camera bag. Other than that we could only exchange smiles.

At the church we were able to see how far-flung neighbors came together and how much they enjoyed the growing tourist attention to their rural area—especially seeing photos of themselves. Not for the last time I wondered if I should have carried my point-and-shoot digital camera in addition to film, as I never had anything to show.

———————–

 Sundown in Mequat Mariam

Mequat Mariam camp emerged on the horizon after a mere three hours’ walk. The circular thatched huts called tukuls were modeled after traditional homes in the region, using materials donated by Save the Children UK and other charities. Inside however, we found clean, comfortable mattresses set into concrete hollows. The pretty bed covers were embroidered with traditional designs reminiscent of Lalibela’s crosses. Candles and matches were provided to deal with the nighttime dark, although we were all prepared with flashlights.

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© Nancy Chuang

Lining up to greet us, the polite staff welcomed us in English with great effort. I had misunderstood how the lodgings would work—I thought we’d be quartered in community homes but instead each community built these remarkable camps.

Mequat Mariam was the original TESFA site, and currently the smallest. The single large tukul was divided into two spacious rooms. Jochen and I shared one side, while Nina and Jodie—who were rapidly bonding—took the other. Mulay was relegated to a tent, but the bedding we had carried with us from Lalibela would go into the new tukuls the community had nearly completed.

We’d been told to expect a “snack” upon arrival at each camp, but while in the awkward process of pulling off our dirty boots and stinky socks, the courteous manager materialized with an overflowing plate of “Meket pizza”—wheat-based injera spread with a tasty tomato-onion chutney. With unlimited servings of coffee or tea and not a hint of the sourness of tef-based injera, it was hard to avoid making a meal of it.

After a dusty couple of days, with hair still refusing to lay flat since the drive from Gondar, I ached for a shower. Striking a balance between the rural lack of running water and the foreigner’s need for private upright bathing, a stall of wooden sticks with a door that didn’t quite close was set some distance from the tukuls. The staff filled the canvas waterproof bladder large enough to wash two people with conservative usage. Water dripped rapidly upon turning the knob, so ideally, bathers would turn it off while soaping up. Rather chilly despite TESFA’s romantic description of sun-warmed water, especially in the cooler air temperatures of December. But with the sun shining and views of the valley below through the spaces in the stall, it was a beautiful way to get clean.

Mulay decided we were ready for beer. The “rock bar” was an outcrop at the edge of the escarpment where we could drink and watch the sunset. The rock was very uneven in spots, so while I’d been relieved to change into flip-flops after the trek, I would have been more secure clambering over that last boulder in my boots.

Our candlelit dinner was served in the dining tukul around 7:30, while we were still quite full of Meket pizza. At 3000 meters, the night was so cool we arrived at dinner wrapped in our jackets, gloves, hats and scarves, but the campfire inside the room had the desired effect. To our delight the meal was injera-free: a scrumptious vegetable soup, a potato-based sauce with chicken and a spinach wat with rice.

Everything was tasty and hot, prepared in a separate cooking tukul. I’ve always been disinclined toward safari-type hyper-luxury accommodations in the African bush, but our first night at Mequat Mariam proved that TESFA’s organizers understood how to provide its paying clients with relative indulgences in an appropriate way.

source: nancychuang.com

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