Thursday, August 27, 2015

The People of Lalibela

The Children of Lalibela
We've been gone from Lalibela more than 2 months, and we were only there for 24 hours, but this town and the people have been with me every day since then.  I've heard other people say the same thing.  There's something unique about this mountain top UNESCO Heritage site and the people who live here.  It's a sort of Brigadoon, in that very little has changed for them in the past hundred years. It's the kind of place that once you've seen it, it can't be unseen. I'd have to say the most memorable time we spent in Africa was the safari at Maasai Mara and our day here.  Though totally different experiences, it's the raw natural state of things that stay with you.

We arrived in the morning on a flight from Axum.  We had a guide waiting for us- someone our guide from Axum had called in advance.  It's a great way to travel.  You can ask your current guide for a recommendation and he sets it up in advance, if you're doing a multi city tour.  Or you can just choose someone at the airport.  There are always people waiting for the incoming flight to suggest a hotel or transportation services.  It's a long drive from the airport to Lalibela.  We had not made any reservations at a hotel, but had one in mind- The Top 12 Hotel.  The proprietor from that hotel was at the airport, so it was an easy decision.  We paid for transportation to his hotel and it turned out to be the best hotel stay of our entire trip through Africa.  It was modern, clean, had spectacular views, and a distinctly Ethiopian feel to it as all the decorating had been done by his wife. Since it was on top of a mountain, there was an extra bonus- NO MOSQUITOES!!!  Like most places in Ethiopia, breakfast was included in the price.
Our room at Top 12 Hotel
It wasn't that I didn't want to see the historic churches, because they are amazing and I had seen a few photos so I knew they would be interesting.  I was really more interested in getting to learn about Ethiopia- its food, culture, way of life, etc.  Our guide was happy to oblige by spending the entire first day walking through the village.  He knew the people and could tell us about anything we saw.  We started with an authentic Ethiopian lunch of injeera and a variety of vegetarian sides like lentils, at the Seven Olives Hotel Restaurant.  Everything was very tasty and a bit spicy.  Remember to tell them if you don't like spicy, because they have a higher tolerance for heat in food. Someone said kids are raised on chili peppers there. I should mention that the restaurant has wifi, which is a rarity in this area.
The vegetarian platter
After lunch Omar found an impromptu soccer game with a handmade ball of cloth, and then an outdoor foosball table.  The locals let him join in the fun.  Kids were happy to shake hands with him. He learned the Ethiopian way of greeting- shake and then come in for a shoulder bump.  We met many school kids.  The kids go to school in 3 shifts of just a few hours a day.  The schools would otherwise be crowded and the kids often have to walk long distances or work to earn money for the rest of the day.  The surrounding area is full of farmers growing teff and raising some animals.  During the season we were there, the fields were being tilled using a couple of oxen attached to a wood harness with a stick dragging behind.  Most of the oxen were being led by barefoot young men.  Children led goats. Young girls carried enormous loads of sticks on their backs to be used as firewood.  The firewood issue is problematic.  Most homes still cook with wood fires and few have electricity in this region.  Trees are cut which leaves nothing to hold the soil during drought.  Nearly this entire part of the country has been deforested and there are few efforts to replant at this time.
Outdoor foosball

Soccer with a makeshift ball

Omar loved meeting the kids

A young man working in the fields

Girls carrying firewood

It started to rain, so we stopped in at a place where teff is ground to make the flour used for cooking injeeera. It was a small place with an overhang and there were many people crowding in to stay dry.  Even a few goats and chickens joined us.  The process was pretty simple and no safety equipment was in use.  Dust from the grinding was everywhere.  Mostly women sifted the grain in large baskets in preparation.  Babies rode along with older sisters or moms, worn on the back in a harness with leather fringe that made a comforting sound as the women walked.
Preparing the teff for grinding

The grinding room was very dusty

There's a cute happy baby in there

Goats sharing the shelter

We saw road construction happening using local labor.  Each block was hand cut from local stone and placed in a pattern to form streets.  Rocks were glued together with concrete to form bridges.  Some men were making steel tools over an open fire using rocks to sharpen and hone edges.
All labor done without machinery

Making tools in the fire

Road construction

Homes were a very simple construction using sticks, mud and manure.  I'm sure there were plenty of homes with puddles inside during the rainy season.  Without running water and toilets, a pit toilet constructed of sticks was at the end of one roadway for public use.  In some cases animals shared living spaces at a room attached to the main house.  A separate cooking house was often the case where you could cook over an open fire and smoke escaped through the roof.

This girl showed us the animals beside their home


The public latrine
Inside the cooking house

The further we walked, the longer the parade of children and teens became who wanted to walk with us to practice English.  They were very curious about our thoughts of their village and asked intelligent questions about where we came from.  Some of the boys asked for email addresses so they could correspond in future and practice their English, but to be honest, nearly every one of those requests eventually turned out to be requests for sponsorship to help their families, continue their education, get material goods.  Because we are American they assumed we could afford up to $350 per month for the next 5 years to "help them out".  Now obviously poor in America and poor in Ethiopia are totally different, but we felt it impossible to honor all the requests from these village boys, and once we said we couldn't help them, the e-mails to "practice English" stopped. It is a tough life where kids come to Lalibela from the surrounding farm villages for first grade and sometimes live with a family member or friend until they are older.  The boys I chatted with lived alone and they were in 7th and 11th grade.  They shined shoes and carried bags from the bus station to earn money to support themselves and lived on just a couple of meals a day which were no more than injeera or bread. Everyone is thin in Ethiopia.  Even the animals.  You will naturally want to help them create a better life and that is what has haunted me most about this visit.

After an entire afternoon of walking up and down through the town, Omar was exhausted, so we caught a ride back to the hotel with a tuktuk, which is a taxi of the simplest kind. It was a day full of learning and fun.
Riding in the tuktuk taxi

Monday, August 24, 2015

Takwa Ruins near Lamu, Kenya


Takwa was a thriving Swahili trading town during the 15th and 16th centuries but was abandoned during the 17th century when the drinking water became salty.  Without fresh water, they had no choice but to leave, and the remains are preserved pretty well, considering how long ago that was.  It's located on Manda island near Lamu, so if you're in the area, it's worth a visit.

Getting to Takwa is half the adventure.  We came by boat, and had to be sure there was a high tide to make it through the mangroves.  We passed ancient looking sailboats called dhows. We saw coral bricks being cut and transported. There were acacia trees.  If it had not been raining, it would have been picturesque.
boating through the mangroves

a dhow is a pretty sight

houses on stilts at water's edge

coral being loaded on the dhow

We were told this village is called Obama, but he has never visited

When you dock, there's a long elevated walkway to the site where you'll hear barking dogs and bleating goats, which tells the caretaker he has visitors! There's a fee of 500 shillings for foreigners.  We learned that there are only a few visitors a day.  Sadly tourists stay away from this part of Kenya due to terrorist threats of Al Shabab.  You can view the site on your own, but we enjoyed the caretaker's company and stories for no additional charge.  He had great stories to tell about elephants making their way here or even lions. It must get lonely.
You have to walk through the mangrove

We came through this waterway to the dock

I liked how the goats had taken over the front porch- even one in the window!
There was a complete village here at one time- homes, a mosque, burial places, maybe a market, and a place to meet ships coming from the mainland.  Carved into the buildings is a form of graffiti.  The mosque is maybe the best preserved.  You can tell where the imam might have delivered his weekly message and could see where the foot washing was done.  It was incredible to think that these buildings were built in the 1400s!  I wonder if they knew how long their legacy would be around.  We saw huge banyan trees growing- the first I'd ever encountered.  Such an amazing giant of a plant.
graffiti carved in the coral wall- a dhow


a dagger- can you see it?

An alcove probably used by the imam

The archways are still intact

a huge banyan tree
After making our way through the fields and looking for ruins, we hiked to the top of a sand dune where we could get a nice view of the ocean.  On a nicer day you could probably see ships and maybe even the mainland of Kenya.  It was an interesting place full of history.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Daily Life in Kenya


Living in Kenya was a different experience for me.  I tried to read books ahead of time to prepare but there were just some things I found so interesting and different.  I'll try to quickly give you a tour of the daily life we had there.

We stayed at a complex with furnished 2 bedroom apartments on the outskirts of Nairobi for about $100 a night.  Nairobi is a large traffic filled city, supposedly with thieves and crimes...but we never experienced anything like that.  We lived over a fitness studio which started pounding out the tunes at 6 am...the kind of music that shakes your bed so you have no choice but to be an early riser.  There was a swimming pool right outside our door a couple levels below.  My son, Omar, was usually the only one using it because temperatures were in the 60-70s (considered their coldest season).  There was still a nice lady who handed out towels all day next to the pool.  Most of the business she got was from those visiting the fitness center.  We also had a Chinese restaurant in the complex.  The food was really good in spite of them rarely having customers. Every afternoon one of the guys who worked there would get high on marijuana in the alcove beneath our patio so we had the sweet scent wafting in our kitchen window. There was a washing machine in the bathroom, along with a toilet that was kind of a slot machine.  Usually by the third attempt you'd get a full flush.  To dry clothes, we hung them out on the clothesline at the end of the building.  That fresh smell you get with laundry hung on the line varied by how often the marijuana using guy visited the porch area.
Our kitchen had the basics
Everyone shared the clothesline, even the housekeepers

There was a mall within walking distance if you didn't mind walking on the dirt path next to the drainage ditch.  It wasn't bad during the day, but I tried it once at night and found out all the street lamps were burned out and it was pitch black.  My mind was filled with ideas about either being run over by a car or twisting an ankle and falling into the ditch before hoodlums came and stole all my possessions.  Neither actually happened, though my heart raced a bit the whole way.  During daylight hours you could stop and buy a Coke at a snack stand for about 50 cents. For lunch, several workers in the area would sit on tree stumps around a charcoal fire where a woman cooked beans and corn.  She also had fresh picked bananas. The price was right but there were no takeaways because she used real plates and washed them in a bucket for the next person. You could buy a gorgeous bouquet of flowers, locally grown, for just a buck or two at the flower vendor.  He had an assistant who seemed to sleep a lot on top of a cardboard box. When you got to the mall, if you arrived by car, you would be approached by a young man with a bucket of soapy water.  You could pay him about a dollar to wash your car.  I was told people should not refuse this service or something might happen to your car.  Since we didn't have a car, we just talked to the boys and Omar enjoyed shaking hands with them. When you entered a mall or a larger store, you had to go through security where they put you through a metal detector and checked all your bags.
The snack stand
Lunch and fresh bananas
Beautiful bouquets that were inexpensive
Car washing done in the parking lot
Driving anywhere took time...sometimes a lot of time.  As you waited in traffic, you could expect a barrage of people to come by selling goods.  Some of it seemed quite useful like nuts, crackers or bananas.  Other stuff just seemed weird- like it fell off the back of a truck somewhere and they needed to move the goods.  We saw jumper cables, end tables, laundry bins, dish towels, Disney posters, and even educational posters of body parts.  Beside the street, wherever there seemed to be pedestrian traffic, you could usually find some kind of vendors.  You could shout out to the vendors and they would bring over what you desired.  The strangest purchase I saw was eggs.  They just hand them to you, so you need a bag or box or something- no cartons.  You could even find clothing.  It was like a walmart on the streets as you drove through some neighborhoods.
This guy was selling sugar cane. I never tried it but it's apparently sweet and tasty.

Nairobi has several slums.  After being in Ethiopia, I was unfazed by the sights of garbage and mud, but for an average tourist, it was pretty interesting.  You could even book a tour through the slum to see the people up close and find out how they lived.  It's just a city within a city.  You can buy ANYTHING and there are hotels which have no running water- just beds.  It's about as primitive as it gets, but it exists because there is so much poverty.  We drove through Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, which houses about 1 million people. When seen from the air, it stretches for miles. The average mud shack can house 8 people and it's probably smaller than your living room. Who lives here?  Lots of people with jobs actually.  Most people with reliable income hire house helpers to do kitchen work, laundry, or watch children.  Some firms hire drivers.  These people live on about $210 per month and this is the life they can afford, in spite of being employed.  No one has a set work week either.  Most work when there is work, which can mean no weekend family plans or evenings spent around the television.
Children from the slum with the homes behind them
There were small canals or creeks along the roadways throughout the city and these enterprising entrepreneurs would start up garden centers using the water.  They would just use buckets to water the plants every day and everything looked very healthy.  The larger the piece of land near water, the larger the garden center.
Garden Center by a creek
People always ask about the food.  In Kenya it was good but nothing like what I ate in Ethiopia.  Because there's a food travel blogger, Dave Wiens,  who does it so much better than I can, I'll give you the link to his blog which includes full color photos of everything I ate.  We were lucky that we had a good friend who invited us into her home and she cooked for us several times.  In spite of all the differences, we enjoyed learning and seeing what life was like.  Every day was a new surprise. Some things seemed quite modern, like wifi in all the cafes.  Other things would be harder to live with like the lack of street lights and sidewalks. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Visiting a Maasai Village


We visited one of the Maasai villages during our stay at Governor's Camp at the Mara Reserve.  I thought in advance it would be like most other visits to a cultural sight, that they dress up in costumes and put on a historically correct show, but this was truly how they live.  We were told they rely on tourism to get funds that will send their children to school, so who knows how long the traditional lifestyle will remain.  Though there are some Maasai villages where you can stay overnight, we were only there about an hour.  After seeing how they live, I truly had no desire to sleep there, but there are adventurers out there who may want that experience.

The lifestyle is simpler than anything I had ever seen before.  They live in huts constructed with cow manure and grass on a skeleton of sticks.  The huts are protected by a fence of thorny bushes, which I'm told keep lions out at night. The Chief oversees all decisions and it was one of his sons who showed us around wearing the traditional lion's mane hat.  He explained that they no longer kill lions for this purpose, but the hat was in the family so he wears it.
Fencing of naturally thorny plants

simple homes constructed of manure and sticks

No door- just a doorway

We saw a demonstration of how a fire can be lit using just some simple tools and a pile of manure.  Amazing stuff.  These guys put modern boy scouts to shame.  It was only a matter of seconds and they had a fire going.
Put some grass down and add heat

Twirl the stick really fast

A little blow

There's fire!

Then there were questions about the jumping.  They laughed.  I had heard they are expert jumpers.  Yes, they said they could jump. They put on a show, or more of a challenge between them, to show us who could jump highest.  I gotta say for a bunch of skinny guys with rubber shoes made of tire retreads, they could get some air.  Maasai men can jump high!
This height done without shoes!


I asked about when they would marry and how it happened, which led to a tour of a house of the current Chief.  Men marry when they have the means (usually some cows).  Usually it means finding a wife from another village.  The woman will build a house for them to live in and take care of all the house duty like cooking, rearing kids, and making crafts to sell for money.  The men herd goats and cattle. The larger the herd, the more the wealth, so they rarely eat the cows.  They milk them and "bleed" them by making a small cut in the neck vein, which I'm told isn't dangerous.  They use the blood to eat either raw or add it to milk and possibly cook it with the milk.  We didn't see any crops growing or stored, but they can add to the diet with tubers and corn products. It's rare to see fruits and vegetables in the Maasai villages.  It isn't unusual for a wealthy man to have several wives.  This one had six wives, and each woman had their own house.
Though the men are tall, the homes are not

Closer look at the lion's mane hat

The cooking area under a hole in the wall- open fire used

The sleeping space is just sticks covered by a cowskin

Notice the shelves built into the wall to hold things

There were a few short stools to sit on inside

After touring the home, which was very simple and small, we headed out to a large circle of hand made products.  There were carvings, beadwork, leather crafts.  We selected three items and began the negotiations with the women who were in charge of sales for the day.  My husband said to have a price in mind, then he asked what they wanted.  They gave a fair price (which was lower than what I would have paid in a city shop), and he offered a price just a bit lower to make it a normal transaction.  We paid in cash and took our great stuff: a Maasai beaded necklace and walking stick for Omar.  A beaded belt for myself.  I would probably always remember these people, their homes, and their simple lifestyle, but now I had something to treasure, thanks to our Maasai visit.
Omar proudly displays his necklace and walking stick beside the ladies