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post Trekking the North 3

June 28th, 2008

Filed under: Tourists on Ethiopia — Lissan Magazine @ 12:12

Community-based TESFA offers trekking around Lalibela for a revealing glimpse into the life of Ethiopia’s rural people, which make up the majority of the population

The TESFA Routine
Travel journal by Nancy Chuang

Mulay warned us he’d be waking us at 7:30 sharp. Due to our early bedtime, I was up long before he was. We were invited to sign a guest book at each camp, and were thrilled to see Brad Pitt had visited in 2004 when Mequat Mariam was the sole location—pre-Angelina and baby Zahara.

north6.jpg
© Nancy Chuang

The staff set up our lovely breakfast table outside on the sunny cliff edge, serving tasty scrambled eggs and rather dense pancakes with a locally-produced crystallized honey. Every night they asked our breakfast preference but with a large group, we always opted to share both dishes. Smiling staffers wished us good morning. Tea or coffee appeared before we even asked.

While I trusted the praise I’d heard for TESFA, a small part of me had worried of finding locals gussied-up in pseudo bush gear obsequiously bringing us cocktails on a platter. Instead, the well-trained Mequat Mariam community treated us as family, happy to teach us Amharic and share the differences in our lives.

The walk was rockier than the previous day’s. Hanna from the Addis TESFA office had described the paths as “boulder-strewn,” which sounded rather more romantic than it was. It was hard to find a flat spot at times and my feet frequently rolled out from under me. Of course, I was the only one klutzy enough to fall down.

By the second day, I still hadn’t gotten used to the kids. I’d noticed their apparent love of tourists and complete lack of guile, yet after Gondar and Harar it didn’t seem possible they could really be sincere. But the more kids that approached with warm smiles, hands outstretched only to touch and not to beg, imploring to be photographed, just to see a shot of themselves, the more enraptured I was of the experience.

Due to the crowd growing every time Jodie raised her camera, she eventually began arranging a posed group photo, creating a roar of children running from all corners to be included.

Each child needed to say “hello” and hear it back. Each child needed to say “chao” and hear it back. It was almost unbearably cute, and was definitely a theme of the trek.

I’d misunderstood what supplies would be available where, and had been under the impression that we would be wandering in and out of villages prepped for trekking groups throughout this hike. Unprepared, I ran out of water early in the day and relied on sweet Jodie to share a bit of her extra.

I was completely parched by lunchtime and disappointed to see lunch was injera and shiro wat…I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed that anyway but having only soda to wash it down with and no prospect for water for another few hours, I had to abstain. Even less appealing, the injera had been folded up into itself to fit into the container and looked like a big brain. With mild distaste, I watched Mulay’s hand thrust into the thick center and retreat coated with shiro.

At each lunchtime we received “fresh” donkeys (as the literature described) and a new local guide. I loved our grinning guides from Mequat Mariam but welcomed the new ones from Wajela. After a pleasant rest in the shade, while no one but Mulay touched the injera, we pressed on.

Mulay was quite fond of British English, and charmingly told Nina that her countrymen were “custodians of the language.” It was sweet, if not just a little misguided. A clipped “press on!” quickly became one of the group’s phrases. Quite unfortunate that Mulay so dearly loved Nina’s English but Nina couldn’t be bothered to correctly pronounce any Amharic names and words. Her pronunciation of Lalibela as “lollyBEE-la” grated on my nerves and I doubted she ever properly thanked anyone with ameseganalehu.

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Wajela

The second half of the hike was somewhat less interesting. Mulugeta asked if we wanted to continue along the escarpment or cut across the fields. Unclear on the difference but hoping this meant more interaction with people, perhaps visiting a home (not realizing that a home visit was a separately scheduled event), we voted for cutting across. It turned out it was nothing more than flat grasslands, actually containing fewer people than before.

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© Nancy Chuang

Later when we carefully mentioned that the previous day’s walk had been more beautiful, Mulay smiled sweetly and said well…he’d asked our opinion. Of course, we hadn’t known the difference between options when asked.

Getting to Wajela camp involved a brief rocky descent. I envied people who never worried about tripping but as someone who’d twisted her ankles numerous times, I walked unsteadily while staring at the ground. I still stumbled.

Wajela was colder than Mequat Mariam so we opted out of showering, although the fenced-in shower itself was picturesque against the moonrise. Our snack of crispy potato sticks wrapped in pieces of “Meket pizza” was so appetizing we easily polished off the heaving platter…although avoiding the injera at lunch undoubtedly increased our appetites. As we watched the sun go down, the camp manager noticed Jodie’s binoculars and asked to take a look. Fascinated, he spent a good thirty minutes searching the valley, locating the nearest church, the schools, and various small mammals.

Bundled in our warm clothes and drinking chilled beers, we huddled on a tukul’s porch and chatted until a random dip into nostalgia brought up an unfortunately racist childhood rhyme of Jodie’s. In horror and embarrassment, we couldn’t stop laughing while Mulugeta in all seriousness insisted, “Jhodee…Jhodee…say the word again. Say the word again.”

Throughout the trek we would find ourselves constantly imitating Mulay’s adorable pronuciation “Jhodee. Jhodee. Jhodee.”

TESFA prided itself on its “eco-toilets with a view,” which were similar across camps. A tiny tukul at the cliff’s edge featured a seat placed over a drop toilet and a window facing the valley on the inaccessible side where no one could peek in. The toilet collected both kinds of waste for fertilizer. As there was no flush, users put down ash to diminish the smell. The accommodating camps provided toilet paper when available, although most trekkers probably came prepared.

Wajela’s innovation was large water jugs with spigots for washing. At other camps, the staff patiently held a bowl of water and soap and rinsed our hands with a pitcher, but it was nice being able to handle that ourselves.

The surprisingly delicious dinner was perfectly al dente spaghetti, which turned out to be the best rendition I had in the country. Sadly, the “shoulder-dancing” Mulugeta promised us never materialized due to the “expert dancer” of Wajela being unavailable.

I dearly love community projects, especially ones as well-run as TESFA. 60% of each tourist’s fee goes to the Meket Woreda communities, for camp supplies, staff salaries, and reinvestment into the camp’s structures. The remainder is used in a manner voted on by the community, with one vote per household. The other 40% goes to the office support in Addis and Lalibela, and the Lalibela-based guides, who trek continuously with very little rest. Mulay’s doctor even told him he was too thin to eat fasting food twice a week, with his trekking schedule.

As much as I love natural beauty or historical sights, my main focus while traveling is always the chance to interact with local people. TESFA provided exactly what I’d hoped for.

source: nancychuang.com

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