I am developing a love-hate complex with this country. There are things that you see here that break your heart and that make you feel downright hopeless at times. From the poverty to the unsolved problems people are burdened with day in and day out. If you are reliant on anything to do with technology and expect a constant source of electricity you won't get far. At times you get so frustrated with language barriers, scheduling conflicts and antsy children it brings you close to tears… but then you are always left in awe to marvel at the magnificence of the country’s landscape and you never met any friendlier people who are so accepting in your life. Today was a much needed break from the daily teaching routine. It was exhausting none the less but well worth it. We were out romping the country side from six in the morning and didn’t get back till after six at night.
The event was planned for the top students in the school as a reward for doing so well in their classes. We all were crammed into a heavily ornamented bus full of religious and pop culture icons; our first stop was to the supermarket to pick up lunch for that afternoon. Men with huge wicker baskets on their head filled with Injera were waiting for us as we pulled up. The drive was about three hours so we had to stop at neighboring towns to take a break. In a small town my aunt needed to use the restroom and judging from the look of the town I figured I wouldn’t be using the bathroom for a long time, I was okay with that. My aunt insisted we look for a bathroom anyway so guided by two of the teachers; we set in search of a rest room to use.
We stopped at a relatively clean looking shop and they said we could use their restrooms. We were lead into this back ally with blue doored stalls that lined the walls. I did not have a good feeling about the public restrooms in these remote villages…One of the teachers opened up the stalls for my aunt. I will never forget that sight and smell that was ingrained in my memory when the door swung open to reveal a hole in the middle of the floor with a black cloud of flies swarming around it, dark stains lined the outer walls and to top it off there was a fresh, steaming pile of shit just outside the hole. The stench was so foul with fragrant, spicy waste I had to cover my mouth and nose to keep from gagging. I look at my aunt and she is doing the same thing. The teachers start laughing at us and asking us what's wrong, my aunt just replied. “Never mind, I’ll just go on a rock…” and back to the bus we go.
After a long drive we get to a massive, rocky mountain and I forget the name of what it is called. Up at the top there is an Ethiopian Orthodox church which is dated back before the “birth of Christ” but the exact date of its completion is unknown. The church is literally carved by hand into the mountain. As we start to make our way up the rocky path twists and turns and as we get to even higher elevation my lungs are giving me grief, it had been forever since I had gone on my last hike. I am proud and surprised at myself though, I made it to the top only stopping for brief moments to capture the landscape in a photograph, I didn’t take my sweater off, nor take a drink of water or eat a fasting cake and was hauling my camera around my neck which meant I only had one hand free. There were times it was an adrenaline rush because the paths were narrow and rocky and one slip was a sure plummet to your death. The view got only more breath taking as we traveled higher to the top and finally when we made it there all was a perfect vision of tranquility with the entrance to the church beckoning weary travelers to come into the save haven of its walls with a tree in the middle of its courtyard. We had to wait half and hour for the priests blessing so we could enter. The resting time was welcomed by all so everyone got a chance to catch their breath and cool off under the shade.
When the time came to enter into this sacred and primeval place, we were required to take our shoes off and enter in the cathedral barefoot. The gravity of how old this place really was hit me as soon as I entered its chiseled grotto. The inner caves were sculpted into cathedral arches, the rays of light that shined in revealed ancient paintings that covered all the walls. Intricate designs were engraved on every base and corner. It was so amazing to be standing in such a place so old and untouched. People were treating it with the utmost respect and it did have a very sacred and sobering presence about it. The students that were with me got an explanation and history about the place but it was all in Tigrinya so I couldn’t understand it unfortunately. We were shone the tabernacle for a moment but no one was allowed to enter in (I have plenty of pictures and can’t wait to show them to you all!) Then it was time to leave and head back down the mountain.
When we got back down it was time to eat lunch, the wicker baskets were brought out and huge plates of injera filled with potatoes, onions, tomatoes and peppers were placed into the middle of four groups of adults and kids. They all eat from one plate; there is no separation of the food. To most this would be considered unhygienic but it’s actually quite a bonding experience for the people. Everyone assumed since my aunt and I were Americans that we would just sit inside the bus away from everyone else eating our plain eggs, bread and crackers. That was not at all what we intended to do. We left our food inside and sat down on the ground with the teachers and ate with our hands. The teachers were thrilled to have us join them, they hand fed my aunt and laughed and joked with us about being so foreign to their customs. One man scooped up a burger size handful of injera and in one bite ate the ENTIRE THING and did it over and over again. My aunt and I were shocked, I never new it was possible to stuff that much food down your throat without choking. Really this would be like if someone you knew stuffed an entire whopper down their throat in one bite. What was even more impressive was that a little boy came up and he scooped up the same massive amount of food and fed it to the boy, the boy ate it in one gulp. Quite amazing and vaguely disturbing but it was a wonderful time to bond with the teachers and students.
We visited another church very similar to the first that was made out of the mountain stone that dated back to the 4th century A.D. usually men are only allowed in these churches but today we were given permission to take in the presence of its ancient beauty. When outside we were given this special dirt that had a vivid red color to it was blessed from the priest of the church. People were taking it and storing it in paper cones, this dirt is held in such high esteem by the people they literally eat it because they believe it has healing powers and turns into medicine when ingested. It’s the equivalent to holy water for Catholics. I did not realize this but it had all been explained to my aunt and when she was offered some she took a pinch and placed it in her mouth! I was shocked and without realizing how indignant I sounded said “Did you just eat dirt!?” The people chuckled and explained to me why and then I was offered some. I looked at it; dirt really did not seem appetizing. My aunt convinced me just a tiny pinch out of respect because I was offered, it wouldn’t hurt. I took a pinch and literally ate dirt, it was tasteless but the sand left a lovely grainy feeling in between my teeth and gums. I was told to put it in my water and it would make the water “medicinal water” it was very interesting to say the least.
The ride back home had to be one of the most entertaining and nerve wrecking rides I have ever been on. The roads here are full off hills and steep turns with no lanes and no barriers so if the bus driver does not turn in time then you drive off a cliff, no joke. There are endless hills and you can’t see past the corners or over the top of the hills to tell if a car is coming strait at you or not. These people also drive really fast and take corners sharply and this is a bus packed with people. What makes this ride so entertaining is that my aunt has really bad vertigo and is terrified the whole drive home. When my aunt gets like this she screams and swears and is the worst backseat driver you could imagine.
Since she is in the presence of nuns and children she is trying to keep her composure and is not doing very well. As we are climbing higher and higher up these dirt mountain roads, squeaks, squawks of sheer terror emit from her mouth and shrill “OH MY GOD!” shouts escape. Her face twists and contorts in every effort not to swear loudly. Only half of the derogatory word comes out before she tries to recover such as: “Holy shiiieaaaawww!” She would then start talking madly under her breath about how crazy this driver is and how he is going to kill us all. Granted this driver was driving irresponsibly to U.S. driving standards and I was also nervous but because I was watching my panic stricken aunt right next to me gripping on to the handle bars for dear life with the funniest expressions fear on her face, hair blowing every which direction – I could not stop laughing. I was crying I was laughing so hard. I wasn’t the only one; the whole bus was practically rolling from watching this poor damsel in distress.
After three hours of that we finally made it back home in one peace, the teachers and kids did a little thanksgiving dance around the school yard that was really sweet to watch, despite the fact that most of these children and teachers have almost nothing at all they are some of the happiest and playful people I have ever met. My exhausted aunt collapsed on the bed and I took a much needed shower. The water turned a dark shade of brown because of how much dirt we collected on ourselves from hiking and having it blown in from the dirt roads we drove upon. I was tired, sweaty, and dirty and sun burnt but the happiest I have been in a long time. It was a truly an amazing experience I will hold dear to me for the rest of my life.