Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 28, 2021
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Ancient Ethiopia

Sacred spaces and surprising sights await visitors in the mountain city of Lalibela

We couldn't believe our luck. We had dealt with airplane malfunctions, flat tires and rocky roads. A trip that was supposed to take two hours ended up taking well over eight. But as we travelled the half-hour from the

airport to our hotel in Lalibela, Ethiopia, gazing awestruck at a sunset too beautiful to be believed, chatting with new friends we'd met on the way, those minor setbacks just melted away.

Our guide Abraham was patiently waiting to welcome us to his town in the mountains of Northern Ethiopia, a spectacular location that is only eclipsed by its even-more-spectacular, rock-hewn churches.

Reaching out to shake hands, Abraham pulled me in towards him to knock shoulders and kiss cheeks not once or twice, but three times, saying "Enkwan dehna metash!" -- the Amharic greeting that means both "welcome" and "I hope you had a good trip." It is this friendliness and generosity that has drawn me back to the country repeatedly, working as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.

After a few years of raving about Ethiopia, I convinced a fellow Canadian to join me and watched her discover the beauty of a country so often associated with strife.

We couldn't have picked a better time to travel there. Using an ancient Coptic calendar has left Ethiopia seven years behind the West. And an extravaganza of music, dancing and fireworks rang in the new millennium on September 12, 2007. The party continues all year, and, during the last week of May, 2008, the capital of Addis Ababa which is home to the African Union, will host a celebration featuring artists, musicians, and performers from across Africa.

Of Coffee and Kings
Ethiopia is not only the cradle of civilization, but it is the nation that introduced us to coffee. It's still home to the world's best brew and, in August, a Coffee Museum will open in Bonga, in the southwest of the country.

Plans are also in place to increase the size and scope of colourful religious festivals and to hold a music festival that would celebrate Ethiopia's incredible cultural diversity -- the country is home to over 80 different ethnic groups speaking as many languages.

There is hope that these events and attractions will increase tourism, and the government has set up a millennium council to promote Ethiopia and develop even more to offer visitors in the future. Tourism is growing, and it would seem that, as an industry, it could really benefit the country. For the moment, however, travelling in Ethiopia does take a little bit of patience, but it's well worth it.

Our main destination for the trip was the northern town of Lalibela, perhaps the most important and spectacular stop along what is referred to by the few available tour guides as the "historical route." The reason to visit this town of 15,000 in the Amhara region is also one of the main reasons to visit the country: to see the famous rock-hewn Ethiopian Orthodox churches, which, if more people knew about them, would most certainly be recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Lalibela is unique in the world and must be seen to be believed. Carved out of the mountains, these incredible examples of stone architecture were built from the top down by chipping directly into ground. They are called "monolithic" because each was crafted from a single rock. Built in accordance with King Lalibela's decree over a 20-year period at the dawn of the 13th century, the cluster of churches was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.

Many travellers throughout history have been awestruck by these buildings that seem to burst from the ground -- it's not surprising that theories abound about their construction. From a belief that the Knights Templar lent a hand to tales that angels came and helped, the common suggestion seems to be that Ethiopians just wouldn't be capable of this incredible feat. But that seems like a colonial attitude, and Ethiopia has never been much for colonialism.

Breaking Bread
Ethiopians are intensely proud of their long history as an independent nation. People want to introduce you to their culture and are happy to fill you in on such essential information as how to eat when all you have to use as cutlery are chunks of the pancake-like national bread called injera.

The bread is made from teff, a tiny grain (less than one millimetre in diameter) that is not common in North America, yet widely available in Ethiopia. Though small, it packs a nutritious punch: not only is it both high in iron and fibre, it also offers both calcium and protein. No wonder injera is the staple in households across Ethiopia and Eritrea.

And it's injera we had at our lodging: the simple, clean, comfortable Lal Hotel, which lies near the end of a twisting cobblestone road. Having arrived late, we immediately tucked into a range of delicious food alongside a couple from Vancouver, sisters from London and a fellow from Madrid.

It's often said that the only difference between catastrophe and adventure is attitude -- it seems that most travellers to Ethiopia share this perspective. Not only are the locals friendly but, given that foreigners aren't the most common sight, there's an instant bond. It's as if we're all sharing a glorious secret that the rest of the world has yet to discover.

As we began our meal, those who had yet to be introduced to the delights of Ethiopian cuisine watched as those of us in the know tore pieces of injera and scooped up a range of spicy wats. Wat means sauce, and there are enough varieties to suit just about anyone. Kaiy wat gets its red shade and deep, warm spice from berbere, an Ethiopian chili powder. This type of stew normally contains beef or lamb, but there is also doro wat, the bebere-heavy national dish of stewed chicken and eggs, served at celebratory occasions.

If heat isn't your thing, there are other options. Alicha means "soft," and food described this way is equally flavourful, without the spicy kick. There's also tibs, fried meat served with berbere sauce on the side, so you can decide how much heat you can take!

Many Ethiopians follow the decree of the Ethiopian Orthodox church to fast (that is, not to eat animal products) every Wednesday and Friday, as well as during a number of prescribed fasting periods. This means that locals are more than familiar with vegetarian and vegan foods.

Delicious shurro wat is made with spiced chick-pea flour and can be made with or without butter. A range of lentil, bean and vegetable dishes is always available. For those who might feel some pangs of homesickness, various pastas are available in most restaurants. The Italian occupation of Ethiopia may have lasted for only five years (from 1936 to 1941), but the country's food still claims a place on menus.

After dinner we were treated to a coffee ceremony. The beans are roasted, ground and boiled in a process that is pure performance. Frankincense is burned and grass is tossed on the ground in front of a woman, dressed in traditional white Amhara clothing, who ensures the perfect cup of coffee.

As we passed around the small cups of strong, sweet coffee and breathed in the exotic aroma of roasted beans and incense, someone mentioned that they couldn't think of a nicer way to end the day.

Altar Perceptions
The next morning after a breakfast, we drove into the centre of town to the ticket office. Guides -- both official and unofficial -- were all jockeying for work.

It's a must to have a guide, but it's just as important to ensure that you hire one who is certified. The latter all wear a uniform of dark green and sport a name tag that indicates their qualifications; also, each guide comes with a partner, who takes care of footwear since the churches must be entered with bare or stocking feet only.

Abraham was kitted out in his greens and fought through the crowds to buy our tickets, so we could get started quickly. The first church, the largest monolithic church in the world, is Bete Medhane Alem. The protective scaffolding surrounding the church didn't lessen its majesty.

Entering the church, seeing the huge columns and perfectly carved edging, it was difficult to understand just how something like this came into existence.

"I'm starting to agree with the angel hypothesis," whispered my friend, as we walked towards the altar. A priest in elaborate robes emerged from the Holy of Holies, the restricted area that contains a replica of the Ark of the Covenant (the chest said to hold the stone tablets given to Moses and inscribed with the 10 commandments). The original is supposedly safe in Axum, Ethiopia, guarded by a monk whose sole responsibility is its safety, every hour of the day and night.

We made our way to the back of the church and, while slipping our shoes back on, could hardly contain our amazement, which only increased as we walked through narrow, moss-covered walkways and entered churches where robed priests chanted, near oblivious to our presence. Some produced gorgeous crosses and posed for photos -- after putting on sunglasses, an anachronistic touch.

Each church had something new, some additional element, and we listened to Abraham's explanations, hanging on his every word. Feeling privileged to have even the opportunity to enter, it was the least we could do to place a few birr (worth about $0.50 to $1) in each church's donation box.

Marketable Skills
We had spent the morning visiting the so-called Northern cluster of churches. Since it was Saturday, we decided to take a walk through the market before lunch. Donkeys were everywhere; people bought and sold teff; women carefully chose spices; an old man oversaw the sale of shoes made from old tires. Everything was both overwhelming and inviting; the ancient past touching the present. It was easy to feel like we had not only travelled across the world, but travelled in time also.

My friend saw a traditional scarf she was interested in and I suggested that we go and take a look. My elementary Amharic allowed me to understand the market vendor's conversation with another customer. She was saying that the scarves were 30 birr ($4). I picked one up and pointed at it, saying "Yehegnow, solassa birr?" ("This one, is it 30 birr?"). In return, I received a look of shock at my language skill, and a resigned, "Ow" ("Yes"). A few spectators chuckled, and we paid for the scarf -- a traditional white with beautiful embroidered edging characteristic of the Amhara.

Then, after lunch, just when we thought the sights couldn't get more incredible, we visited the famous Bete Giorgis. Seen from above, it looks like a giant cross carved into the ground. You can imagine the flat land before the church was built, but it's an altogether different thing to imagine how it was possible to chip and sculpt this incredible building into the side of a mountain. Again, my friend and I couldn't help but think that celestial help was involved!

As we walked through the impressive churches of the Eastern cluster, it was difficult to say which of the buildings was the most impressive. The majesty of Bete Giorgis took our breath away, but there was still something special about each of the others.

That night, after dinner, Abraham took us and our ever-growing group of friends out to a tej bet. Tej is a traditional alcoholic drink -- honey wine that tastes like a very sweet alcoholic orange juice and bets are the establishments that serve it. We sat listening to the azmari -- a local musician/comedian who, alongside a female partner, entertains the locals by singing songs, mostly full of insults, much to the delight of the crowd.

The forengeuch (foreigners) were all convinced to get up and try askista, the traditional Amhara dance that involves jerky shoulder movements. Everyone in the bar was laughing and having fun. This was the Ethiopia I had wanted my friend to see. As I turned and watched her giggling and shaking her shoulders as best she could, the locals cheering her on, I knew she had.

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