Saturday, June 09, 2007

Ashetan Maryam

(March 19, 2007: Ashetan Maryam, Lalibela.)

A true traveler expects to find quirks and differences in hospitality wherever one finds oneself. When you travel around Ethiopia, the difficulty of providing what a western tourist might expect becomes understandable when you start to grasp the enormity of overcoming the geographical barriers alone, never mind the lack of infrastructures that make a completely different level of construction projects relatively easy in the more developed west. I mean, most entrepreneurs attempting such projects in Ethiopia are not Vanderbilt, who built himself a railroad to bring just the right kind of stone from Wisconsin or Michigan or wherever it was, didn't he, for the construction of Biltmore in North Carolina, dismantling the whole railroad when he was done.

However, if you can adapt to some inconsistencies (eg. funny plumbing that exhaled noxious fumes from the bathroom and a warped bathroom door which did not allow me to keep the noxious fumes contained in the bathroom), hospitality in Ethiopia has definite charms. After all, I did not go to Ethiopia to find a McDonald's experience and I've had worse service and accommodations in the U.S. and Europe. Here, I found the handmade furniture and bed covers in my room in Lalibela (photo below) just made me silly-happy.

Meeting in front of the open-air dining room of our hotel in Lalibela, we are heading out at the crack of dawn this morning to climb to an altitude of 3150 m. Ashetan Maryam, the monastery we are visiting this morning sits on a mountain overlooking Lalibela and there are fabulous views from the top. We could, conceivably, take a bus ride on a road that skirts around the back to nearly the top. But we are also testing our abilities today, in preparation for the demanding hiking to come later, in the Simien Mountains.

The morning Lent services have been broadcast over Lalibela over loudspeakers for a while now, the willful wind snatching the chanting away, then flinging back to us fragments of the songs of the dabtara or choir.

Bits of the services that I remember from seeing in childhood always seem to include the dabtara or lay cantors who intone the complex liturgy of the Ethiopian church, swaying in time to the music or even taking ritual steps called aqwaqwam. As the services are incredibly long, often lasting all night, particularly at Timqat (the feast of Epiphany, celebrating Christ's baptism, January 19), the dabtara often lean on maqwamia or prayer sticks. The maqwamia look somewhat like crutches often having a metal head with a double volute and are used to lean upon during long services, or to mark the rhythm of the chant.

During Lent, the sistras and drums which accompany the chanting during other times, are silent.

Unfortunately, my parents probably displayed some European ethnocentric disapproval when they first encountered the Ethiopian style of worship (dancing!!) those many years ago, still lingering particularly in my father, gentled somewhat however, as they saw more of the world and learned more in the years to come. Now my mother often laughs at the Finnish stoicism in many public events where she always points out the lack of smiles, or the way a religious choir appears to make no effort to engage the audience. Ah, cultural divides! Are they any less vast today than they were 50 years ago?

In the chill morning air we head eastward out of Lalibela, accompanied as always by a crowd of young boys, trying out their English:
"Hello. How are you?"
"What is your name? I am student."
"Where are you from?"
Some appear quite happy to trek with us all day, and out of nowhere, touts leading mules that have been saddled up in colourful style also appear to offer the option of riding up the mountain, for a price, of course. But firm, curt words from our guide send them away and we are left in peace to travel up the track. But we are not alone. There is traffic, other people travelling up and down the mountain, walking, riding on a mule, guiding heavily loaded donkeys. We are not the only ones on the move.

The red volcanic rock, into which the churches of Lalibela were so mysteriously carved, appear below as we round a bend in the path.

A construction crew is already at work, making improvements to the path. The division of labour seems to be that the men work the pick axes and shovels, the women carry rocks and dirt from one spot to another in sacks.

We meet wood-carrier women bringing firewood for sale in Lalibela. As removed as we are in North America from most of the things we consume without doing much more than punching "continue" on our computer screens to complete the transaction, seeing the back-breaking labour of the wood-carrier women and their children, invites us to contemplate the actual cost of our life-styles.

Lalibela recedes behind us, people on the path becoming mere specs. I am out of breath, but I'm determined to get to the top and back.

After a steep climb, the land flattens out again for a long hike through farmland, the typical circular homes called tukuls in yards that are often surrounded by plantings of eucalyptus. It is spring. Everywhere, the land is awaiting plowing or being plowed for the spring plantings of barley, tef and beans. Where it is not being plowed, shepherd boys tend sheep, goats and cattle. Here and there a hobbled horse grazes. Livestock in Ethiopia probably outnumbers people 5 to 1. There is evidence of overgrazing everywhere, trees are scarce and erosion must occur in a massive way during rainy season.

These adorable munchkins were shooed out to the side of the path to intercept the ferengi when their mother spied us on our way up to Ashetan Maryam. I'm sure she is instructing them to look as cute as possible. The children are timidly calling out to us, "hello, hello, hello, birr, birr, birr, photo, photo, photo..."

Impossible to imagine the massive farm machinery I am accustomed to seeing at back home in the Kawartha Highlands manoeuvring this job in the challenging slopes of the highlands of Ethiopia, agricultural practices seem to be of another age. However, it is argued that the famines of the recent past have for the most part been exacerbated by politics. Traditional ways of saving part of the yearly harvest for the lean years fed the population well for centuries, a precaution that would have continued to serve well but for the depredations of the farmers' stores by warring tribes and unscrupulous dictators. The years of the Derg under Mengistu were a brutal example of using food for political advantage.

The beauty of the landscape is everywhere. The sharp sound of the crack of his whip rolls out in the thin mountain air and the man calls directions to his oxen.

Green! The first bit of rare green I saw in the countryside aside from the eucalyptus trees. I was told this is barley. I was later to encounter a delicious barley snack. Barley is usually ground into flour in Ethiopia. Combined with other grain flours it is used to make soup and drink. It is also used to brew an Ethiopian home made beer called tella.

Buna, anyone?

Tukul perched on the steep side of the amba (the flat-topped mountains that are so often a part of the northern landscape in Ethiopia). Here again, the colourfully saddled mules were offered to the flagging. Nope, I was still determined.

Here in the shadow of the cliffs, you can see the trail going up to a cleft in the rock through which one climbs to the top and Ashetan Maryam. All along the way, the plant life invites me to stop and look. I'll post about them later.

Not yet noon but the sun is getting hot. At the base of the cleft in the cliff, a spring looks cool and inviting, ferns enjoying the moisture. But we have to climb on. And suddenly we are there:

The monastery of Ashetan Maryam atop the mountain is surely not impressive for its architecture when compared with some of the churches of Lalibela. However, its quiet aerie does give the impression of the peaceful and contemplative life the monks are said to enjoy here 'closer to heaven and to God'.

Construction is said to have been started during King Lalibela's reign and was finished between 1207 and 1247 during the reign of King Na'akuto La'ab. Church treasures are brought out for us to see, icons and priceless parchments. It is also said that a tunnel connects Ashetan Maryam with the churches of Lalibela miles below, but nobody has traversed that tunnel for unknown numbers of years.

The sunshine after the dim interiors is blinding!

The views from atop the cliffs near Ashetan Maryam are truly breathtaking. I wonder with great anticipation what the Simien Mountains will be like!

We opt to go back down the way we came, to give us time to see the eastern group of churches in Lalibela in the afternoon remaining to us before we leave for Axum in the morning.

The construction work continues and we meet people going home from the Lent services in the churches of Lalibela below.

On the way down we meet a couple of very handsome young men on their way home from morning classes at the high school in Lalibela. They live up beyond Ashetan Maryam and make this trip at least a couple of times a day to attend school. They smile gently at our fatigue.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this very informative posting.

Recently, I read a similar story at the Ethiopian Portal website,

Please keep it up!


11:58 a.m.  
Blogger Ki said...

What a wonderful trip. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about it and your photos which illustrated the climb. What made you pick such an out of the way place to visit? Not the usual tourist haunt but a memorable one nonetheless. Maybe more so?

11:21 a.m.  
Blogger Kati said...

Thanks, anonymous, for stopping by and you kind comments. I'll check out the EthioPortal site you mention, because I'm insatiable regarding Ethiopia.

Ki, I didn't pick Ethiopia, rather it picked me because my parents lived there briefly in my earliest childhood years. First impressions are difficult to shake off, I guess. So the country calls me, still!

12:35 p.m.  

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