ኢትዮጵያ (Part One)

In keeping with our yearly tradition (two years in a row thus far) of traveling to obscure corners of our globe with Mr. Elkins, providing support where we can for his upcoming documentary, I now present to you the first (of four, maybe five) blogg'd reports on the trip that we took to Ethiopia back in May of fifteen. This trip was to be mostly to the far north of the country, spending most of the time in Tigray, but also down to Lalibela. We aimed for those parts of Ethiopia because of the wealth of ancient rock hewn monasteries present there, but we will get to that soon enough. On the day of our departure, Melissa received a call from Turkish Airlines saying that we would not make our connecting flight to Addis Ababa in Istanbul. Because there is only one flight leaving from Istanbul to Addis per day, we would therefore be marooned in Istanbul for 24 hours. We were bummed because of the time that was being cut into for our opportunity to experience Addis, but excited to add on a last minute side trip to somewhere we have wanted to see for a long time. A few hours before we were to leave LA, Melissa received another call letting her know that we would actually have time to make our connecting flight. Below you will find half of our eventual Ethio group (we met Jan in Addis Ababa later) at LAX, awaiting our twelve hour jaunt to Istanbul, somewhat confident that the next time our heads hit a pillow, it would be in Addis Ababa.
We boarded the first leg of our journey to Eastern Africa a bit thrown off by the Turkish Airlines emotional roller coaster we rode earlier that day, but happy to know that we would get to Addis according to our original plan, thus leaving us more time to explore that capital city. We hovered above the earth with a bunch of other people in a metal tube for the next twelve hours. I burned through a lot of movies, including the masterwork below. Think of this as a public service announcement to listen to both seasons of this podcast, paying special attention to the first season.
When we landed in Istanbul, we had about twenty minutes to find and then board our flight to Addis. We encountered at that airport some of the least friendly and not interested airport employees we have ever encountered thus far in our travels and so, when we were finally, lackadaisically directed to where our flight to Addis was leaving from, we had missed that once a day flight by about thirty minutes. After more reconnoitering with the only friendly (in a hilariously, mischeviously odd way) airport employee we could find, we were given a ride from the airport to a hotel with a bunch of other passengers that had missed their connections (Turkish Air seems quite adept at creating those situations), below you will find us reflecting on our unexpected travel pattern thus far, in the mirror elevator patterns on the way to our room.
What are Muslim Giddeons called?
Istanbul vision the following morning: Tourists! We opted for a bus tour of the city (well, the tourist clustered center of the city at least) because it seemed the most efficient use of our limited time there
Portal into th'ancient crossroads
Scene from a bus
Straight into the heart of the city/tourist hivemind
Happiness is a trilingual tour guide. We were in the English/Spanish group (he also spoke Turkish, duh). Steve seems displeased. Maybe just sleep deprived. Too much to see and do for such things.
 Melissa quite happy about this ancient sacrifice holding device: one twisty phal
On the way to the Blue Mosque, places to get clean before encountering gawd herself
One of many minarets of the Blue Mosque
Melissa and her loaned hijab, on their way to the interior of the Mosque
Although incredible jammed with other gawking tourists, encountering the massive tiled majesty of that mosque was overwhelming, in the best way
Pictures failed (duh)
Tragers onna Istanbul joy ride fluke, richer for it
Miles of carpet to go before I sleep
Lil Prince in the teeming throngs!
Street cats: everywhere
Quite near the Blue Mosque, another site I was sure I wouldn't see on this trip

Hagia Sofia!
A street cat made her way inside and flopped a lizard to death in front of us as we made our way down an ancient stairway to take in the cathedral-mosque from the bottom floor.
Byzanitine golds and deities that somehow made it through the iconoclast scourge waves that have beset that stunning religious center in years past
Ms Sofia from the groundfloor, warm and cool color clash
Coexistence a bit more meaningful than the bumper sticker
Fascinating angelic forms watching over us
Huge golden people carrying churches to Mary and her baby boy
Symbols pre-dating our current notions of lines intersecting one another
Tragers in Turkish sun, Hagia sittin pretty behind us
Turning around, on our way out, to digitally affix the Blue Mosque in her entirety to digital memory 
Apple tea and rug salesmen before we made our way back to Ataturk to catch our flight to Momma Africa. Quite a surreal and unexpected detour to somewhere I did not think I would get to this early in my life. It only whetted our appetite to return to Turkey and explore it more deeply in the future
We had much better luck catching our flight from Istanbul to Ethiopia that time around and at long last, we were deposited into Addis Ababa. Pictured below you will find the first Amharic script that I spotted. Beautiful, fascinating script system you will get a lot more of in this post and more to come.
Steve walks by the power of fear mongering (Ebola screening device, even though there had been zero cases of it in that part of Africa. In fact, it all flowed out of Western Africa, thousands of miles away from where the poor dood below had to sit behind a computer screen for hours on end, not catching any errant cases of the disease. I think he was actually scrolling his iphone, actually)
The hostel that we had booked for that first night came with the promise of a shuttle from the airport. When that promised shuttle did not arrive, we searched for a while for a taxi to cram all of our stuff within to take us to the hostel, 'round midnight or one am. Because our hostel that night shared the same exact name of a more established hostel, we struggled for a few hours to find our home for the night and our long awaited reunion with Jan, who had got into Addis the day before from New York (via Germany, and had spent the day that we were in Turkey in Addis generally Jan-ing about). We did indeed find the hostel at last, surprising Jan, who had made the fair assumption that we had not made it in that night either and had retired to bed for the night. We talked excitedly in the hallway of the hostel of our adventures thus far until someone came out to tell us to shut up. Anyhow, here are some views of Addis as we saw them that first day we arrived. First, an impressive blue plastic pile
UFC spreading its tentacles far and wide, man
DIY barbed wire, Amharic labeling
Fence decorations galore
Curious signage in the sky
Some loosened copyright laws
of Judah
We return to this fascinating, completely impenetrable (way more so than Cyrillic), but absolutely beautiful script again.
Part three

Tree house scaffolding as building technique. It seemed large parts of Addis were under construction and we saw this sketchy building technique often in the city and well outside of it.
We did plan this trip skirting the edge of the rainy season and got a smallish taste of it in Addis that day. Here we find Melissa in search of Coffee, trying to not soak our Lonely Planet and its imprecise maps of a city not too keen on road signs
These guys...
We were led to this beautiful compound, where we were to meet up with a friend of a friend to spend the rest of that day with. In the courtyard, they had an outdoor exhibit of this guy's work.
We had a preview of things to come (Abuna Yemata Guh)
And a review of things past (Lake Baikal)
At last, we arrived at this place
Tomoca Coffee House has been slinging espressos since 1953
Where the goods funnel in from
Cafe innards and coffee mavens
Melissa, Steve and Jan (shown shortly) all enjoyed their cups of Java (at this late point in my life, I still refuse to bow before the great god Java. However, seeing the looks of joy on three fourths of our group's faces once they began ingesting the strong brown liquid, I felt nothing but joy. This coffee experience began, according to Melissa, a streak of perfect coffee experiences lasting the duration of our month in Ethiopia).
As promised, Jan. Here he is conversing with his countrymen (Polish doods who were in Ethiopia working on the establishment of a tractor factory, if my memory serves me correctly).
We snagged a Tomoca tote bag, no luck on the lab coats though
Spoiler alert, this was the only Ibex we saw the whole trip
More Amharic! 
That evening we met up with that friend of a friend (Christina) and her amazing inner circle of friends. We sprung for the big pile of Ethio foodstuffs (first of many perfect injera platted feasts we enjoyed during our time in Ethiopia).
Here they all are, a few St. Georges deep. Christina is on the far right. It was incredible witnessing her and her ladyfriend conversing in Amharic, English and French. Made me feel like the pathetic uni-lingual 'Merican that I am. All four of these individuals were engaged in meaningful work throughout the city, mostly in the arts, and they all had an admirable sense of responsibility for their mother country (all had left at a certain point to live in various parts of Europe and America, but were drawn back to try and help how they could. Inspiring crew)
Friendship zone, quite late into the night. Great conversation and culture jamming and jams emanating from the wedding band next door.
We woke up early the next day to board our flight to Axum, from which we would then take a car ride a few more hours north for our first ancient rock hewn monastery tour. We took a few flights within Ethiopia while there, and at every one of the airports we flew out of the very specific frankincense based incense so familiar to us from time that we have logged in Ethio restaurants billowed all around us. Such a better airport experience. Anyhow, below you will find Steve aboard Ethiopian airlines, setting Swann's Way to the side to really dig into the history of the incredible important, kingdom that had its capital rooted where we were then heading.
A golden Yohannes IV in the front of his eponymous airport in Axum. Shortly after our arrival in Axum, we were spotted (quite easily, it seemed. Not too many other non-Ethiopians on that flight) and whisked away in a neck destroying (for Jan, at least) van, heading for the very upper reaches of Ethiopia, mere miles from the Eritrean border.
After a four hour (or so) drive, we arrived at the base of our destination for that day, Debre Damo
Atop that plateau, around 100 monks live out their lives on the most meager means, in a city state of sorts only accessible via climbing a braided goatskin rope 50 feet up a sheer rock face
We had to first make our way up to the base of that fifty foot climb, however
This one, pictured below and sans-penis, was not allowed to climb all the way to the top. Thankfully we knew this a few months before we left for the trip and so could ready ourselves for that inequality
Ancient modernist architecture on the way to the base of the monastery
We arrived at that last, fifty foot hurdle before we could see the monastery
Our guide (in a blue t shirt) that picked us up at the Axum airport scaled up before us to confer with the monks at the top.
Who then came down to talk some more
Peering north, into Eritrea, from our perch at the bottom of the cliff
The (seeming) two ropes are actually one that connect just below this photograph and the rope in the middle is for tourists to tie around their waists as a modicum of safety as they scale the wall
Steve logged quite a bit of footage of these two monks making their way up and down the rope
I then tied the rope around my waist and took my shoes off (per custom/recommendation) and entrusted myself to my upper body strength, what footholds I could find and the grip of the monk above me holding on to the rope tied to my waist.
Midway up the wall, I found a shelf to rest on before ascending the final ten or so feet to the top
Which was a lot more intense than it looks in this photo. Right after that shelf that I found to rest upon, there was a section of oververt to scale before reaching the top. That part was mostly just pulling myself up the rope, hand over hand, with my legs dangling
The final stretches before I ducked into the monastery compound itself (thanks, Melissa, for taking these photos. In that instance, I am sorry you didnt have male parts).
The monk who held me, then held Jan in the safety of his loving grip (via goat-rope)
He got some back up from some lurkers at the top (if you look closely, you can see a Kalashnikov atop the doorway structure)
We then pulled up the rest of our gear, with this lil monk's help
One more doorway and a few flights of stairs to the very top
Looking down at Steve and Melissa
Tour guide and monk, both necessities of visiting this extremely remote outpost of devotion
One (of a few, but we will get to the others soon enough) watering hole, on the climb up to the monastery 
Sky blues and monk hues, make their way to the monastery plateau
Looking back from whence we came
The beginnings of the monastery complex
Rock work up close, Goldsworthy like
To give the breadth of this holy place, the plateau extends as far as you can see in this photo
This is the two story building that the gentleman's father from the article I linked to previously had worked to repair back in the forties
Pleasingly Tudor-like construction
Ancient, beautiful
Trying to make sense of the trinity
More lines intersecting, patterns emerging
We returned to retrieve Steve, who had tried to scale the wall previously but had to return to the bottom to collect himself for a second try. He did shortly after Jan and I returned to yell encouragements down to him
A three pronged Elkins hoist up the rock face
Lil monk wasn't pulling his weight due to the pale Faranji behind him, making him laugh. Alas, Steve gave it a valiant effort, but could not get past the admittedly sketchy over-vert section. Jan and I were on our own up there to figure out what exactly Steve would want to film.
Back to the two storied chapel
Then we explored the rest of the monk city, only achievable through having a penis and scaling a sketchy rock face with even sketchier goaty safety precautions. I wonder how long it took to haul all of the bricks and lumber and plaster that made up all of the buildings and walls up there 
We came upon this crucial aspect of life at Debre Damo during our afternoon exploration. Hand dug cisterns that fill up with water during the rainy season and then provide enough water for the monks until the next rainy season comes. Considering we were there at the tail end of the dry season, the cisterns still had a decent amount of water in them. Impressive engineering
A greenish cover sat atop a lot of the cisterns, but the monks just brushed it aside to retrieve water from the pristine depths below it
Jan working on some angles inna cistern
Alleyways of Debre Damo in the dying light/golden hour. The absolute quiet and history baked stones and dwellings, gentle breezes passing us by, felt utterly sacred.
Working on some more angles, guessing at what Steve would find interesting
Our last stop atop DD, this colorful chapel perilously perched
The cave to the left of the chapel held many monk-remains that have gathered over time. I didn't feel right photographing that bone pile, so I will just leave it to your imagination.
Being Amharic (well, Tigrinya, to be more specific) illiterate, I just had to assume the gentlemen below found their final resting place within that cave.
These plastic sandals were omnipresent in Ethiopia. They are such a cultural touchstone that there is a monument built to them
Twilit views into Eritrea, Ethiopia's much troubled neighbor to the north. I knew of Eritrea the country by name and that some of the many people dying in the Mediterranean were from there, but actually being this close to the place and encountering people on a daily basis that share the same customs and language (at least in Tigray) as these people made that tragedy ache ever more vividly in my mind. Unimaginable brutality. Anyhow, we made our way back down to Steve and Melissa (via a down-climb that was considerably more sketchy than the climb up on account of having to climb down to and then shimmy across a ledge before we could grab our goat rope life line). We made our way back to Axum in the inky darkness of places unaffected by light pollution and were deposited into a lovely hotel for the nite, wherein I had the best pizza of my life. Colonialism works in mysterious ways. We arose the next morning ready to tour Axum and move on into further remote regions of the country, but that is all for another time/blog post.

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