On the shores of the great lake

January 27, 2014
12:30 a.m. Ethiopia time
Ethiopian Airlines flight 500
36,000 feet over Egypt

To get to the source of the Nile, go south from Cairo, which is, of course, upstream. When you go far enough south, you are in Upper Egypt. Keep going south, and you will eventually come to Khartoum. At Khartoum, two great streams combine to form the Nile. Coming from the east, the greater volume of water flows down from the Ethiopian highlands. This is the Blue Nile, which empties a large lake near Gondar.

Coming from the south into Khartoum, the lesser volume of water is the White Nile. And if you keep going upstream, you come to the the great trackless swamp of South Sudan, the Sudd. Keep going further south, and you eventually come to Uganda, where this portion of the river is called the Albert Nile. And then you come to Lake Albert, one of the great lakes of the Rift Valley.

The inlet into Lake Albert is at its northeast corner, quite close to its outlet, and the name of the river that flows into it is the Victoria Nile. Keep ascending and you will pass the the eight-car ferry in Murchison Falls National Park, and then you’ll pass the spot where Hemingway once crashed a plane. And then, finally, the falls. Keep going on and on, and eventually you’ll arrive at Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, and the second-largest freshwater lake in the world, after Superior. Victoria is so large that you can’t see the far shore. Three countries share its shoreline — Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. And the town where the Nile flows out of Lake Victoria is Jinja. They say it’s four thousand miles by river from Jinja to Alexandria.

Six months ago, Kitty took a weeklong holiday in Jinja. She needed to have a break from South Sudan, where life is very bleak and hard. And Jinja is a pleasant place to pass some time. There’s a little guesthouse there, with decent food and a swimming pool and affordable rates for missionaries. It’s run by an Indian, Surjio, who’s married to a Brit. They have adorable little kids who run around the yard and play in the swimming pool under their parents’ watchful eyes.

Surjio has long roots in Jinja, I hear. In fact, long ago, Indians helped to build the railroad from Mombassa, on the Indian Ocean, to Nairobi and on to Kampala. Many of them stayed in Uganda and established businesses. But then, in 1971, Idi Amin decided to punish the Indians for their lack of support for his regime, and he gave all Indians 90 days to leave the country. They lost everything, from what I understand — businesses, homes, connections.

Surjio’s parents were among the exiles, but Surjio came back. And now he has this guesthouse, which seems to be doing very well. It’s like an oasis. Like all valuable property in Uganda, it’s surrounded by a high wall, and there are 24-hour guards. A German shepherd roams the grounds at night.

Coming into Jinja on Saturday, January 18, I had noticed a church just one block away from Surjio’s, and I had seen that its name was St. Matthew’s. The next morning, I was determined to find out more about this church, which I suspected was Anglican, and attend if possible. So, just before 8 a.m. I waved at the guard and slipped out the front door of Surjio’s, and walked over to the church. As I walked, I heard a congregation singing “Joy to the World.” Hmm.

I read the signboard, which indicated that Sunday services were in English and were held at the following times: 7 to 8:30, 8:30 to 10, and 10:15 to 11:45. I figured that Kitty and I would attend the 10:15.

After breakfast, at 10:05, Kitty and I were walking over to the church. I didn’t want to be late. But I shouldn’t have worried — time is pretty flexible in Africa, and the second service hadn’t finished yet. A group of children were sitting in plastic chairs on the lawn, their teacher instructing them in a Bible lesson. But people were driving into the parking area, and others were arriving on foot, and by 10:30, a couple hundred had gathered. The earlier service led out, and people strolled to their cars or out into the road on their way home. This being Africa, the women were dressed exquisitely — mostly in long, colorful dresses. Even little girls wore dresses — I don’t believe I ever saw a small girl in trousers the whole time I was in Africa. The men, both young and old, were mostly in dress slacks and dress shirts. A few of both sexes — mostly teens and young adults  — were more casual.

An older white man strolled over to us, and we chatted. HIs name was John, and he was British, the executive director of a charity that works with Ugandan orphans. He lived in JInja and was a member of the parish. I asked him what we could expect at Saint Matthew’s. “I don’t know why there was Christmas music today,” he said. “I told the vicar that at home in England, we sing Christmas carols on the Sunday afternoon before Christmas Day. And that’s it.”

The music had started, and we excused ourselves and walked into the church.

Like many churches in the tropics, Saint Matthew’s was ingeniously designed for cooling without air conditioning. It was whitewashed masonry, and the side walls of the church were entirely louvered glass doors that were left standing open throughout the service, allowing cross ventilation. As I sat in my pew, if I turned to the right, I could look through the open side wall, down the hillside, and out at the blue waters of Lake Victoria, perhaps a half mile away at most.

Saint Matthew’s is a parish of the Church of Uganda, which is part of the Anglican Communion, and two books were in the pews: The liturgical book of the Church of Uganda, which is called Common Worship (but which is not the same as the Common Worship used in England), and a standard English hymnal, printed in the British style with just lyrics and no musical notation.

We soon learned that this was a special Sunday. First, there was the baptism of a toddler, which was great fun. Relatives and friends of the family had come from out of town, and it was very festive — the baptism seemed to follow the rubric from the Common Worship book fairly closely. But other than that, this church was not following the parameters of liturgical worship. Instead, the whole service consisted of special Christmas music sung by congregation and choir.

We sang Christmas carols. The choir sang selections from Handel’s Messiah. We sang more Christmas carols. In fact, there were three sets of “special music” by the choir, consisting of three pieces in each section, for a total of nine choir anthems, in addition to congregational singing. There was no sermon.

Between these numbers, we did other things like intercessions and saying the Apostle’s Creed. And when it came time for the welcome of visitors, I knew we would be asked to stand. After all, there were literally no other white people present.

The vicar asked all visitors to stand, and someone brought a microphone and handed it to me. I had been thinking about what I would say. “My name is Jay Blossom, and I am from Philadelphia in the U.S.A.,” I started. “I bring you greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ from Saint Mark’s Church, where I am part of the lay leadership. I have come to Africa to visit my friend Kitty Moyer, who is a nurse at a clinic in South Sudan. Please pray for her as she returns to that war-torn country, as she is doing important work there.”

They applauded, and later the vicar prayed specifically for “our sister in South Sudan,” that she would be protected and blessed.

The service lasted an hour and a half, and if we had been smart, we would have slipped out as soon as the final hymn was sung. But the vicar announced that this was parish election Sunday, and they would be holding elections for the parochial church council as well as some other special offices. I thought, “OK, how long can this take? Fifteen minutes?”

What followed was, in my mind, completely chaotic. The vicar took nominations from the floor, and people started calling out names. For each name, there had to be a second, and if the vicar didn’t approve of the name, he simply didn’t recognize the second, saying, “That has not been seconded,” which he (and everyone) pronounced as “se-CON-ded.” In some cases, nominations were accompanied by cheering. A few nominees asked to have their names removed from consideration. The vicar kept the floor open for nominations as long as he cared to, saying, “Are there any more nominations?” I’m not sure if some people had been coached to nominate certain people, but it didn’t appear to be so.

Eventually, there seemed to be consensus around four names, and those four people were sent out of the church. Next, the vicar announced that they needed two people to count votes, and they would choose the tellers from anong the visitors. I was petrified that he planned to call on Kitty and me to count the votes! Fortunately, he chose the godmother of the child who had been baptized, plus another visitor from Kenya. Each name was called, and the members raised their hands to vote. Two nominees — one man, one woman — won by a landslide.

I thought that would be the end of the voting, but no. There were four or five other offices to fill, including assistant secretary of the council. There was animated discussion about whether the assistant secretary of the Mother’s Union could also be the parish assistant secretary. People shouted names, the vicar batted some of them down, and there was a lot of calling out, cheering, and even cries of “no, no.” The young man sitting in front of Kitty and me, whose wife was an officer of the Mothers’ Union, was having the time of his life — he laughed, he made snide comments to his buddy (sitting next to him), he rocked in his seat, and when his wife lost the vote for one parish-wide office, he smiled and laughed some more. His wife looked disgusted with the whole process. I thought to myself, “She’s the serious one in that family — the responsible one — but he’s the one you’d want to hang out with. He seems like a lot of fun.”

Honestly, I kept thinking that I wished my own rector had been present, and Judge Dalzell, our accounting warden, just so that they could see how parish elections are done in Uganda. Both of them would have been appalled.

It was almost 1:30 in the afternoon by the time Kitty and I walked out of Saint Matthew’s. I was starving, so we headed back to Surjio’s. Kitty ordered a calzone and I ordered a pizza. It was a lovely, warm afternoon, and soon I was ready for a nap. Kitty sat by the pool and swam a bit while Surjio’s son splashed in the pool. There was also a young American man with a red “soul patch” who was playing in the pool with his two little kids. When Kitty struck up a conversation with him, she learned that he and his family were also South Sudan missionaries who had departed when the fighting broke out in December. Their station was north of Juba, in the danger zone, so they were just waiting for everything to calm down so that they could return.

It was a pleasant, relaxing afternoon. After my nap, I sat on the verandah of the guest house, where I could get a halfway decent wifi signal. I chatted with an elderly Canadian couple who were in Jinja, resting, after having done mission work in northern Uganda. The wife, who was the chatty one, said, “My husband always accuses me of talking to strange young men!” And she laughed a twinkly laugh while her husband looked on, indulgently. I thought to myself, “This is my parents — the introverted husband, happy to have his wife make friends enough for both of them. And the wife who knows no strangers.” Kitty thought the husband might even have Parkinson’s.

Sunday night, Kitty and I decided to try a fancy restaurant that was in a western-style hotel near our guest house. The hotel was called “Gateley on the Lake,” and we had seen signs for it, but we didn’t know exactly where it was. We set out before dark, walking down the road toward the lakeshore, and soon we found it. The restaurant was in an outdoor garden setting, which was lost on us since it was dusk by the time we arrived. And we were the only people there!

The food at Gateley was delicious, and so expensive for Uganda — I think we paid more than 100,000 shillings for the two of us. When it was time for us to leave, the staff did NOT want us to walk back to Surjio’s. This was something I found throughout my time in Uganda. Africans have constantly been telling me that I must not walk here or there — I haven’t always been able to tell whether they are concerned for my stamina or my safety. But in any case, over the last couple of weeks I have found myself saying, over and over, “No, I am walking.” I brought two pairs of shoes and one pair of Crocs — all are now covered with red African dirt. Perhaps that is the best souvenir.


Thoughts on departure from Africa

January 26, 2014
8:20 p.m. local time
Terminal 2, Bole Airport
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I’m on my way out of Africa. Do I think that I’m a changed person?

I think I was ready to be changed. I was ready to have an epiphany. I don’t know that this has happened. But I do think that as I reflect on this trip, I’ll have a few revelations down the road.

You’d expect someone returning from Africa to have a great disdain for superficial American materialism. And it’s true, American culture, and its emphases on celebrities and politics and sports and even on “ideas,” seems rather lame when you’ve been in another country. Over here, being an aficionado of American culture, or even being an intellectual, is a niche interest, like birding. For most people, it’s not relevant.

I’ve been called “Mzungu” or “Kawaja” countless times over the last two and a half weeks. Those words don’t mean “American”; they mean “foreigner.” They’re anonymous, dehumanizing words. They mean, “rich stranger who might give me money or buy something from me.”

Today, at church, a courtly Ugandan man asked if I knew what the word “Mzungu” means.

I said, “Of course. It’s been shouted at me many times over the last two weeks.” Usually it’s children who’ve shouted it, like this: “Mzungu! How are you? Mzungu! How are you? Mzungu! How are you? Mzungu! How are you?”

The courtly Ugandan looked pained. “That is not right,” he said. “That is not a polite word.” I smiled in reply, and he repeated, “That is not right.” He shook his head, sadly.

It’s an unusual experience being a foreigner in Africa. Today at church, my new friend Rev. Cindy and I were the only white people present in a crowd of hundreds. And it was a worship service, so it wasn’t focused on us at all. And there was singing and dancing and preaching and praying, and we were pretty anonymous.

But you can’t forget that people see you as a rich foreigner. Throughout the service, people stole sly glances. Some people, especially well-dressed elders, were exceedingly polite. Children stared. After the service was over, an old man chased me out to the car and asked me for money.

So there’s a feeling of being a minority, but not an oppressed minority. Rather, you find yourself feeling suspicious, as if people’s friendliness may only be a disguise for wanting something from you.

Maybe that’s why it’s hard traveling in countries where most people are much poorer than you, the traveler. It’s hard to make genuine connections with locals, so you end up making connections with people like yourself. And it’s true that the most satisfying conversations I’ve had over the last two and a half weeks have been with white people, not Africans — the Mad Scotswoman of Lalibella, the Brit who heads a charity for orphans in Jinja, the missionaries in Yei, and Rev. Cindy, an American theological educator in Uganda. It makes me sad that my encounters with Africans seem to have been more superficial than my encounters with westerners, but maybe that’s just how it has to be. I don’t know.

I’ve been thinking about materialism. Do I think that Americans are materialistic? Do I feel like I’m ready to embrace a simpler life, now that I see how Africans live? This is a very complicated question.

By far, I think the hardest thing about visiting Africa is dealing with lack — the lack that you see all around you, but also your own lack as a traveler. In Africa, you think about water constantly — you need to keep a bottle with you all the time, or you need to know where to buy it, because you never assume that any water anywhere is drinkable.

You think about food constantly — is it safe to eat? How was it prepared? You think about transportation constantly — train service is almost nonexistent, roads are poor, traffic in the cities is horrendous.

So when I get home, I look forward to NOT thinking about water, transportation, or food. I look forward to taking these things for granted.

On the other hand, in Africa the expectations are low, which can be refreshing. You don’t know if there will be a flush toilet anywhere you go, so you use pit toilets. You don’t know if your bath or shower will be hot or cold, so you get used cold showers. You don’t know what the food will be like, so you eat whatever’s offered. You don’t know how long it will take to get anywhere, so you allow lots of time, and you wait. You don’t know when any scheduled event will start or end, so you just show up and sit around and talk until the event starts. Everything seems highly inefficient. And that’s perfectly fine.

My normal life in America is highly scheduled, and I live in an uptight city, but I feel refreshingly laid back in Africa. I think I’m better at waiting in lines now.

I don’t feel very hopeful about Africa’s prospects for future prosperity. This is an enormous continent with exceedingly vast natural resources, but there are also hundreds of millions of people, most of whom are undereducated and underemployed. From what I’ve seen, the infrastructure is abysmal — you can’t rely on the roads or the power grid, you may or may not have running water, and construction standards are basic, to be charitable. Almost everything you see is broken in some way, or incomplete.

So I’m tempted to say that life in Africa is more “real” than life in America. But I also resist this. Life everywhere is real — Africans, who struggle more for basic necessities than Americans do, are not more “real” than my neighbors at home. Some are strivers, some are laid back. Some are vain, some are humble, some are reliable, some are unpredictable. People are people.

And yet, I think it’s hard to have been in the spotlight for two and a half weeks — hard to be the rich foreign tourist everywhere — the person who might give a handout, buy a gift, offer a tip, speak a word that must be listened to.

On an unrelated note, everywhere I have gone, I have run into missionaries and western aid workers. To be sure, I’m like a bloodhound when it comes to church people — I sniff them out, figure out their connections, drop a few names, exchange business cards. But a few years ago I read a critique of western aid written by an African woman, and I think I want to go back and read that again. Is it possible that there are too many westerners trying to help the Africans? So much so that they are hindered in helping themselves? I’m not coming down on one side of this question or another — I just don’t know enough. But I’m curious.

I’ll let you know if I have any future epiphanies.

Elephant and hippo sightings on the Nile

January 24, 2014
9:20 p.m.
Harvesters Reaching the Nations compound
Yei, South Sudan

I’m still describing what happened a week ago, on Friday, January 17.

After our noon meal in the Red Chilli rest camp, our whole safari group, including all the nurses from Vermont, piled into our vans and returned to the ferry landing on the Victoria Nile. This time, however, we didn’t cross the river. Instead, we boarded a pleasure craft floating at a dock on the south bank. It was completely open on the sides, but there were both lower and upper decks. The upper deck had a cloth awning to shield it from the sun. Kitty and I climbed to the top.

Our group was not the only group on the boat. There were also a group of Calvary Chapel missionaries from the eastern Washington state. I chatted briefly with one of their members — he told me they were in Africa to “share the love of Jesus” with the Ugandan people, which seemed a little odd to me since almost the whole country is already Christian, and surely those who have resisted the Christian message so far would be better evangelized by a fellow Ugandan rather than an American in a T-shirt and short pants. But he also told me that they were helping to support well-drilling in small villages in northern Uganda. This is something that I fully support.

Kitty and I have walked through numerous tukel villages, and of course none have running water. In virtually every case I’ve seen, women get water for their families by walking to the nearest public pump and then carrying five-gallon jugs home, often on their heads. Naturally, the more wells, the shorter the distance between your house and the nearest pump. I hear that many pumps are broken — few people know how to repair them. The smartest groups teach people how to repair wells — a marketable skill with which a man can actually earn a living for his family.

Our boat set out from the dock and started moving up the Nile under diesel power. And we were rewarded almost immediately with sightings of hippos, elephants, and crocodiles, all on the north bank. For a couple hours, the whole boatload was entranced. We saw an entire elephant family grazing next to the river. We saw more monkeys and a few baboons. There were so many hippos that I stopped counting. We saw marvelous birds, some at close range. It was grand.

Eventually we made it all the way to the base of Murchison Falls, and a few people from our boat disembarked so that they could walk up to the top. Someone said that they would be driving back to the place where we had begun the voyage.

Then, for the next hour, we motored back downstream to where we had started. It seemed long. We had been out in the sun, for the whole afternoon, and many people dozed in their chairs, including me. I wished I was back in my banda, napping on a real bed. But still — a lazy afternoon on the Nile, watching wild animals come down to the water to drink and eat. It was very, very cool.

That night we again ate in the Red Chilli rest camp restaurant — there no other options — and we went to bed early, worn out.

The next morning our whole group checked out of the rest camp and gathered our takeaway breakfasts and lunches, preparing for a long ride back to Kampala. The Vermont nursing students were fool of indignity this morning — a new group had come in late the previous evening, and they had taken up several tents on the edge of the property. Indeed, we had seen them in the restaurant the night before, and I had tried to figure out where they might be from. They were white, and they spoke English among themselves, but with an accent that was hard to place. Finally I decided that they might be South Africans or maybe British-Zimbabweans. But in any case, they had partied late into the night, keeping awake all the other people who had been sleeping in tents. Furthermore, a hippo had lumbered through the camp in the night, grazing the edge of one of the tents occupied by the nurses, and the new people had foolishly shined a flashlight on the hippos.

They had warned us: If a hippo comes into the camp, do not shine a light on it! Back away slowly!

I was terribly disappointed that I had not witnessed the bold hippo, but on the other hand I was glad for our fan and my earplugs — I had slept right through the drunken commotion.

We left the camp and drove down to the ferry landing once again, but this time, there were about 10 cars, vans, trucks, and jeeps in front of us — and, as you will recall, the ferry has a capacity of eight vehicles. So we had to wait while the ferry crossed and then returned, and finally we crossed with the second group.

This time, we were headed north or northeast toward the northern edge of the national park. And this time, I was pretty excited because we saw more elephants, more giraffes, and some amazingly huge birds. After about an hour, we got to the edge of the national park, passed through a manned gate, and drove out onto tarmac.

The rest of the day seemed interminable to me. For a long time, we drove eastward along the northern edge of the national park, finally stopping at a smaller waterfall upstream from Murchison Falls. It was great to stop and stretch our legs — the hike to the falls and back took about 45 minutes or so. But then we had to get back in the van and drive on and on and on, southward, back to Kampala.

The roads in Uganda proved to be of mixed quality. Some were decently paved in asphalt. A few were under construction, and we drove for miles and miles on gravel, but at least we could see that there would eventually be a good road in place of the gravel. Other roads were paved but full of potholes the size of bowling balls or even bigger. Rarely did we see any roads that had a painted center line, and I don’t think there are any shoulder lines in the whole country. So our driver, and all the other drivers, tend to drive down the center of the road, weaving in and out among the potholes at great speed. Of course, they can’t avoid all of them, so the weaving motion is accompanied by great crashes as one wheel or another hits the bottom of a gaping hole. Furthermore, Ugandans never run their air conditioning, if their cars are even equipped with it, so the windows must be kept down. But as you pass other cars or dirt or gravel roads, the other cars kick up vast clouds of billowing dust, so you shut your window temporarily — for 10 seconds or so — as you speed by. Within an hour, your clothes and your face and arms are covered with red dust.

As a result, driving in Uganda is the opposite of relaxing. Even as a passenger, you have to stay alert, shutting and opening your window repeatedly as you pass other vehicles. And the driver is constantly swerving left and right across the road, honking at motorcycles, beeping a friendly warning at the pedestrians that are always, always walking along the sides of any road.

Two notable things happened on the way back to Kampala:

First, we saw some interesting snippets of village life. There were a lot of tukels under construction along the road in northern Uganda, and I was interested to see how solidly they were built. But there also seemed to be a lot of charcoal being made. I only wish I’d been able to snap a picture of the fires along the road where people were bringing wood to be burned into charcoal. And even more, I wish I had a picture of the immense loads that women carry on their heads. Some had tree branches that were 25 or 30 feet long, balanced perfectly on their heads as they walked along. In some cases, a man walked alongside, carrying literally nothing.

Second, we were stopped by a traffic cop. Ugandan traffic police wear uniforms of sparkling white trousers and shirts — honestly, considering the dust, I have no idea how you could keep a uniform so dazzling. But when we were pulled over, our driver was angry. What had he done? We had no idea. It’s hard to believe he was speeding.

The driver jumped out and spoke to the officer. They walked back to the rear of the van, where one of the van windows had broken two days before, and had been replaced with some plastic sheeting. The traffic officer seem to be displeased by the repair job, but it had just happened. What were we to do?

My first thought was that this officer was looking for a bribe from the white people, but I couldn’t be sure. He poked his head into the side door of the van and spoke to me. “Where are you coming from?” he asked.

“Um, America?” I responded.

“No, no,” he scolded. “Where are you coming from TODAY?”

“Oh,” I said. “The national park.” Where else would a vanload of westerners speeding south toward Kampala be coming from? It’s not like northern Uganda is chock-full of tourist attractions.

He turned away and wrote up an elaborate ticket, which he gave to Isaiah, the driver. When the officer finally shooed us away, Isaiah got behind the wheel, slammed shut his door, and took off without a word. I think all of us were afraid to ask him any questions — he looked too peeved.

We made it to the Red Chilli hostel at about 5 p.m., and I was exhausted by the drive, but Kitty and I had no time to rest just yet. Moses, the young man who had driven us from the airport to Kampala on the night we had landed in Uganda, was back, and he was ready to take us on the final leg of our day’s journey — to Jinja.

Jinja is the town sited at the point where the White Nile flows out of Lake Victoria on its 4,000-mile journey to the sea. It’s been a resort since British colonial times, but it’s also been a manufacturing center ever since the first hydroelectric plants were built at the head of the Nile, taking advantage of the year-round flow out the world’s second-largest freshwater lake. Kitty, who spent a week in Jinja last year, wanted me to experience this relaxing town, where she had discovered a modestly priced and quiet resort — one that offered pizza, ice cream, and a swimming pool. That’s where we were headed.

It was about two more hours in the car from the Red Chilli hostel to Surjio’s Pizzeria and Guest House in Jinja. When we got there, we had one of their signature dishes — a really good chicken tandoori pizza, and we were done. Fortunately, our rooms looked right out on the pool, and the grounds were landscaped beautifully. I was ready for a couple of days NOT in a car.

The safari begins

January 23, 2014
10 p.m.
Harvesters Reaching the Nations compound
Yei, South Sudan

We’re still back at Thursday, January 16. Kitty and I were driving north toward Murchison Falls National Park with our driver Isaiah (or Isaac) and our companions Francesca, Eliane, and Thierry.

Isaiah kept stopping at various towns to buy supplies. At one point he bought a half-dozen pineapples, which the vendor placed right on the roof rack without tying them down or bagging them. At another point, he bought a case of bottled water. And at a third stop, a vendor handed him a brown paper bag.

I asked, “What have you purchased this time?’

He laughed nervously. “Mzungu food is not enough for me,” he said.

Now I was curious. “Well, what is it that you like so much?”

“Pork ribs!” he said, with gusto. I don’t know what he thinks white people eat — salads? — but I said, “I love pork ribs.” He laughed.

After the final stop, we left the asphalt road and lurched onto a dusty red-dirt track that continued almost due north. After a few miles, we stopped at a gate in the wilderness. We were at the edge of Murchison Falls National Park. Isaiah paid our fees and we continued.

Almost immediately after we entered the park, we saw our first monkeys. I think that Eliane first spotted them, high in the trees. Fortunately, Isaiah was a good guide and was able to identify all the animals that we saw over the next two days. He stopped so we could take a picture of the monkeys, and then he stopped again to show us an enormous spider hanging over the road, and then we drove on and he stopped again from time to time to show us various antelope-like creatures — a Ugandan kob, a hartebeest.

But there were not a lot of animals at first. Murchison Falls National Park is divided across the middle, from east to west, by the flowing White Nile, which is known here as the Victoria Nile. South of the river, there are relatively few animals, because poachers in decades past hunted almost all of them for food. Most of the animals are in the northern part of the park, across the river, which is carefully managed by Uganda Wildlife Authority officials wearing uniforms and carrying military weaponry. They keep the poachers at bay and the tourists slightly awed too.

So on that Thursday, we were entirely south of the river. We did see some old water buffalo resting in a wetland, and some warthogs, and quite a few birds, but no big game animals. We finally made it to the namesake waterfall, where we stopped to eat our bag lunches and hike to the view point of the falls.

At Murchison Falls National Park, you are never really alone — at least, we weren’t. We were with our guide, but when we were ready to walk along the trail to the foot and then to the top of the falls, a young female ranger accompanied us. She told us that a British explorer named Baker had discovered the falls as he searched for the source of the Nile back in the 1860s. After he left Lake Albert, one of the African Great Lakes, he paddled upstream for several more miles until he discovered this great cataract — a cut in hard rock through which the river plunges dramatically. He named it Murchison after the president of the Royal Geographical Society in London.

We walked to the foot of the falls and took pictures, and then up to the top for more. I wanted to put my toes or fingers in the water, but the force of the falls is so great that I was actually worried that I would lose my balance or slip.

We returned to the van and continued on.

After another hour or so, we finally made it to the Red Chilli rest camp, just a few miles downstream from Murchison Falls on the south bank of the river. The Red Chilli camp consists of a couple dozen tents and a dozen or so “bandas,” those round, one-room cabins that I described in an earlier post. The bandas are the hight of luxury in the national park, because they have solar-heated water for hot showers, and they have fans with electricity until midnight. That means going to sleep with a fan blowing — a real treat. And the showers were well appreciated. I was absolutely covered with red dust. When I wiped my face with my handkerchief, it looked like I was wearing my mom’s foundation.

Red Chilli also has a “restaurant” of sorts — think “tiki bar” decor with three entrees on the menu. We ordered our takeaway breakfast for the next day, enjoyed a hot dinner with our safari companions, and retreated to our banda. Just outside the door, a warthog was snuffling, moving quietly through the brush. I tried to take a picture, but it was too dark.

The next morning, we were up early. The Red Chilli rest camp is a quarter-mile from an eight-car ferry, run by the national park, that crosses the Nile at a broad and shallow point. The first ferry is at 7 a.m., and if you are looking for animals on a safari, you need to be out early. The big animals hide when the sun comes out.

So we were in our van at 6:30 or so, and we were down to the river to await the first ferry. We ate our takeaway breakfast — ham and cheese sandwiches, plus sliced pineapple — and watched the sun rise over the river. It was beautiful.

And on our way across the river on the ferry, we had our first sightings — right there, near the north landing of the ferry, were half a dozen hippos soaking in the shallow water. It was thrilling!

As soon as we landed on the north bank, we took off over rutted, dirty tracks on the lookout for animals. I didn’t know what to expect, but I guess I wasn’t thinking we would see much. We had been joined at the ferry by an employee of the Uganda Wildlife Authority — a pudgy man named Emmanuel, whom I liked very much. I told him that I wanted to see a giraffe, and that’s all I was asking for. He said we would see a giraffe.

But meanwhile, he kept pointing out boring animals like kobs and little Bambi-like deer and more water buffaloes. And warthogs — we saw so many warthogs over a three-day period that they completely lost their wonder. And then, suddenly, we saw one of the other vans had swerved off the road, directly past a sign that said, “Stay on the road. Penalty for going of the road: $150.”

We pulled up next to the other van, and there we saw him — the prize sighting — a full-grown male lion, sitting lazily in the shade of a great bush. Deep inside the bush, we could see another lion, who was undoubtedly his mate. I snapped away, taking several pictures. It was thrilling. But soon our driver reversed and returned to the dirt road.

Emmanuel later told me that two of the other vans had been caught off road and had been fined $150 each. I said with a straight face, “It’s a good thing that we did not do that.”

“Yes,” he replied. “A good thing.”

But I was befuddled. Wasn’t Emmanuel an employee of the wildlife authority? Why had he sanctioned us going off road? Who ratted out the other vans but not us?

After the lion sighting, we saw some giraffes loping across the savannah in the distance, and I was so happy. And then, as the sun was starting to get hot, we made it to a place along the north shore of the Nile where the river forms a shallow bay. In the bay were dozens of hippos, and there was a whole herd of water buffalo coming down to cool off in the water, and the scene was something out of Wild Kingdom. It was peaceful and beautiful.

We got out of the vans. The nursing students asked me to take their pictures on their iPhones. Thierry and Eliane wandered off to see some animals a couple of hundred yards away. I chatted with Emmanuel, who carried his gun just in case the hippos or water buffalos decided to charge us. “You don’t shoot AT the animals,” he said. “If they charge, you shoot above their heads. That will scare them off.”

From Emmanuel, I learned so much about wildlife management — how the Uganda Wildlife Authority works with neighboring tribes to reduce poaching, how they use controlled burns to clear brush and create the savannah environment that many animals prefer. I guess I had thought that large animals in Africa were wild and free, but that’s not really the case. I thought again and again of our American national parks — Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite. In America and in Africa alike, the key to the survival of large mammals is twofold: Preserve and enhance the environment, and convince the citizenry that live animals roaming free are more valuable to them than are dead animals.

After stretching our legs, we continued our drive, slowing making our way back to the ferry landing. After a while, I was getting very uncomfortable. It was hot in the car, and we hadn’t seen any elephants, and there were dozens and scores of these Uganda kobs everywhere, which excited the driver no end because the kob is Uganda’s national animal. But to me — meh, it’s a little deer.

We made it back to the ferry and returned to the rest camp. And I had a little nap before lunch. Our river cruise was scheduled for the afternoon.

Driving north from Kampala

January 21, 2014
9:45 p.m.
Harvesters Reaching the Nations compound
Yei, South Sudan

I’m terribly behind with my account of my African adventure. Anyone who knows my work habits is not surprised by this. Today Kitty and I flew from Uganda to South Sudan, landing at a dirt airstrip at the town of Yei. I’m writing this from a little room, part of a three-room “guest suite” on the Harvesters compound, and my chamber has a single bed with mosquito netting, a toilet and shower behind a curtain, and one chair. There is also a shower with hot water two hours per day. Kitty is in the big house with her co-worker, Katherine.

But I want to go back to Thursday, January 16. Kitty and I had arrived at the hostel operated by the Red Chilli safari company at 3 a.m., and our alarms went off at 6 a.m. so that we could get ready for the safari. It was an early morning! Rooms at the hostel don’t have private baths, so I walked down to the men’s shower and toilet room and took a cold shower. I had no towel, so I drip-dried before dressing. Perhaps not an auspicious start.

Kitty and I had decided to leave our big suitcases at the hostel and take only our day packs on the safari, although we’d be away two nights. So I packed clean underwear, socks, shirts, and shorts, along with my camera and my little Chromebook, and we put everything else into our suitcases and stowed them at the hostel’s front desk.

There was an opportunity to buy breakfast from the kitchen, but their system was highly inefficient. First you had to place your order with the cook. Then you took the order slip to the bar to pay. Then you had to return with the order slip to the kitchen, and then they would start making the breakfast. The line was long — there were at least a dozen young people with matching black polo shirts, plus random other people. The line didn’t seem to be moving at all, and we needed to be on our van, departing, in 15 minutes.

I joined the line and started talking to one of the kids in the black polo shirts. He and his companions were all vocational college students from Sweden, staying in Uganda for a month and working. They were staying at the Red Chilli hostel, but not going on a safari. This one particular kid was working at DHL, the delivery company. I thought it was rather cool that they could get some work experience in a developing company. The kid told me that language was a problem. English is the second language for the Swedes, and English is also a second, or third, language for the Ugandans. Cue the miscommunication.

Because he was Swedish, and so friendly, I had to take the opportunity to tell this kid that my grandmother was born near Malmo. He seemed mildly interested. And then I had to tell him about lutefisk — how we ate it every Christmas because it was a family tradition and a way to remember our heritage. He smiled and said yes, it was a traditional food. He was very indulgent.

However, the line was not moving — the cook was moving at a snail’s place — and Kitty and I abandoned the line and found our van. The safari was about to start.

Our entire group consisted of three vans — two of them were filled with nursing students from the University of Vermont who had been working in Uganda for the last month, earning credit to learn about public health in an African context. Among the nursing students, two were boys and about a dozen were girls — almost all of them skinny, cute, and completely inappropriately dressed. Throughout the entire trip, they wore tiny running shorts and tank tops, as if they were about to compete in a track meet.

By contrast, you hardly ever seen African women even in trousers, much less in shorts. Almost all African women wear skirts or dresses, often down to the ankle. The men tend to wear dress shirts and pressed trousers. I can’t remember seeing a single African man or woman in short pants on this entire trip.

Funny aside: While we were in Lalibella, we had seen an African woman in jeans standing by the side of the road in town. Something about her looked just a little bit suggestive. I asked our guide, “Is that a decent woman?” He raised his eyebrows just slightly. “I do not judge,” he replied, primly.

All the nursing students were in two vans, and Kitty and I were in a third van with the old folks. Our companions included our driver, whose name was either Isaac or Isaiah, who was a young Ugandan of about 30 who was tall and skinny and wore a T-shirt that read “Mzungu” on it. That means “white person.” As his shirt indicated, he had a good sense of humor.

Also in our van was a young German from Bonn named Francesca, whose English was passable, although she was much more comfortable in French and (of course) German. I couldn’t tell exactly why she was on this trip, except that she seemed to have a week to kill in Uganda and had decided at the last minute to book the safari.

Finally, the last two people in our van were a Swiss woman, Eliane, and her husband, a Belgian, Thierry. Eliane was a nurse who was probably in her late 50s; Thierry seemed to be retired and was in his 60s. And they were the most adventurous people I’ve ever met. About five years ago, they rode their bicycles from Europe all the way across Russia to China. Then they rode across China to Southeast Asia. Somehow they got their bikes to the north coast of Australia, so they rode all the way across the Australian desert to the south coast of that country.

Eliane and Thierry were just chock-full of interesting stories about their adventures, including how they basically taught themselves Russian and got invited into people’s homes while cycling across Siberia, which took them a whole year because they had to stop for several months. I loved talking to them, which was good, because we were in the van a lot together.

We left the Red Chilli hostel at about 7:15 a.m. and drove into the horrible Kampala traffic. Since the van needed petrol, we stopped at a service station and I learned my first lesson about what separates Uganda from Ethiopia: In Uganda, they have minimarts attached to their gas stations — just like at home. I bought myself Coke Zero, some muffins, a strange drink that combines milk and apple juice, and then, for good measure, some mango juice, cashews, and cookies. This had to cover Kitty and me for breakfast and lunch, since we had neglected to pre-order a lunch.

The real location of the safari was Murchison Falls National Park, which begins about four or five hours north of Kampala. So we had a lot of driving to do. We headed due north, eventually getting out of the choked metropolitan traffic, and finally making it into open countryside.

And the rural parts of Uganda are beautiful — rolling hills covered with scrub, coconut palms, and even some pine trees. We were in the middle of the dry season, but it felt like Southern California dry, not Arizona dry. There were jacarandas.

Driving along, we passed many small towns that consisted of a row of storefronts on either side of the road — humble, cinderblock structures, set well back from the road as if governed by setback ordinances. Most of these storefronts were painted with advertisements in English from cell phone companies. Sometimes, in front of the stores, there would be people with fruit stands or other kinds of informal businesses.

At one point, Kitty asked the driver to stop so that she could order a couple of “rolexes” from a vendor. A rolex, I learned, is a mix of scrambled egg, tomato, and onion, all put into a round, flat piece of bread that looks exactly like a flour tortilla. The whole thing is made right in front of you, and it’s absolutely delicious. I have no idea what my travel nurse would say — a rolex is not exactly prepared in the most hygienic of conditions. But, on the other hand, it’s cooked and served hot. I certainly didn’t get sick.

Also, as we traveled north, we saw more and more tukels, those little round houses with thatched roofs. Mostly the tukels were clustered into villages of five to ten, but sometimes there were even more. Many of them were made of cinder block or adobe brick, then stuccoed over. All of them had grass roofs. They’re actually very attractive, and those we saw were built solidly.

We also drove by many, many churches and schools. Uganda is a highly Christian country, with almost 90 percent of the population claiming Christianity as their faith. Of these, the largest group is Roman Catholic and the second largest is Church of Uganda, which is the national branch of the Anglican communion. But along the road north, we saw loads of churches — not just Catholic and Anglican, but also Mormon, Seventh-day Adventist, Jehovah’s Witness, and independent churches with creative names.

Furthermore, many businesses have faith-based names, like “Blessing Taxi” or “Hosana Market,” and many signs have Bible verses painted on them.

The schools we passed on our drive north were almost universally neat — well set back from the road, behind fences, with mown lawns and carefully painted buildings. Some of these schools were district (or public) schools, while others were church-affiliated, but all of them looked well cared for. How surprised I was, then, to find out later how poorly teachers are paid, with some earning as little as US$100 per month or even less.

I am a millionaire (in Uganda shillings)

January 17, 2014
7:40 p.m.
Red Chilli Rest Camp
Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

As the clock struck midnight and Wednesday, January 15, became Thursday, January 16, Kitty and I were on an Ethiopian Airlines flight between Addis Ababa and Entebbe, the only international airport in Uganda. I really hadn’t felt good all the previous day. I don’t know if it was the sunstroke, the antimalaria medication, or a virus, but I was not at my best. And en route, I had a little bout of stomach sickness that sent me scurrying for the airplane toilet. Once we landed in Entebbe at 1:30 a.m. and I passed through immigration, I had to rush to the airport men’s room again. I remembered the words of my travel nurse: “I you get traveler’s diarrhea, take your Lomotil. Don’t wonder if you should take it. Don’t think about taking it. Just take it.” So I took the pill.

Kitty and I gathered our suitcases and stopped at the ATM. Now, Uganda’s currency is more confusing even than Ethiopia’s. In Ethiopia, the exchange rate is about 20 birr to the dollar, which means that a single birr is worth about five cents. The banknote seen all over the place is the 100-birr note, which is worth about five dollars. Pretty simple, really.

In Uganda, the exchange rate is about 2,500 shillings to the dollar. If you think very hard, you realize that the numbers become astronomical at rapid rates. For example, I just paid more than 20,000 shillings for my dinner. A bottle of water costs 3,000 shillings. It’s very hard to wrap your head around these kinds of numbers.

At the airport ATM, I withdrew 400,000 Uganda shillings, and we headed for the exit.

There was a friendly young man named Moses waiting for us at the door, holding a sign that said “Katherine and Jay.” What a welcome sight. He ushered us out to his modern Toyota Corona — also a welcome sight. No Soviet Lada, no shared van — just a simple newish Toyota. We got in, and Moses took off. I seriously wanted to ask him if he was taking us to the Promised Land, but I thought better of it — he’s probably heard that all his life.

Back in Ethiopia, billboards, advertisements, storefronts, and any other writing you could see from a car window — all was in the distinct Amharic alphabet, which has many dozens of characters that represent syllables, not individual letter sounds. In Uganda, all the billboards, advertisements, storefronts, and writing that we saw speeding by at 2 a.m. — all were in English. That makes a huge difference, I must confess. We actually knew what we were looking at.

The trip from Entebbe to our guest house took an hour, and although it was late, it was actually a relief to make the trip in the midnight darkness. There was no traffic to speak of. However, dozens of bars were still open along the Entebbe-Kampala road, and some intoxicated customers stumbled around outside. Employees of the highway department were literally sweeping the streets with brooms at that hour as well.

Moses took us straight to the Red Chilli guest houses, where we arrived just before 3 a.m. And we were told to be up at 6 a.m. and ready to depart at 6:45 — our safari was about to begin. I ran to the bathroom one more time.

Feeling sick

January 17, 2014
7:20 p.m.
Red Chilli Rest Camp
Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

On Tuesday, we ended our day with a little shopping trip in one of Lalibella’s tiny stores. There’s no big shopping arcade in this town. In fact, the town has a very basic infrastructure — I doubt we saw more than 25 modern buildings (built to professional building standards) in the whole community. On the other hand, thanks to UNESCO, there is 24-hour power and a modern water supply, so that puts Lalibella ahead of many other Ethiopian communities.

A taxi returned us to our hotel, and I had to lie down. I took a shower and crawled under the covers of my bed. I had the chills — I think I had some sunstroke. It had been a long, long day on our feet — from 9 until 6 — outdoors all the while, in a high altitude on a sunny day. I’d been wearing long pants and a hat, but still, my face was hot, my arms were hot, my head was hot. And then all of them were suddenly cold. Not good.

We went back to the Mad Scotswoman’s restaurant — Ben Abeba — for dinner, and on the way over there, I felt two or three raindrops on my head. So far, that’s the only precipitation I’ve felt in Africa. We had a good meal, and then cake and cookies for dessert — so far, the only true dessert I’ve had in Africa. And then we returned home. I was beat.

The next morning, Wednesday, we had to leave for the airport at 9 a.m. While eating breakfast, I took my malaria medicine for the first time — the higher elevations of Ethiopia are malaria-free, so I only needed to start taking the oral medication two days before entering a malarial zone. And then we got back into the waiting minibus to take us down the curvy mountain road to the Lalibella airport.

If the trip up the mountain was exciting, the trip back was — well, it was awful. This time, I was stuffed into the back of a 13-passenger van that was holding 15. I still felt flu-ish because of the heat. The malaria medicine was making me feel nauseous. The trip was just interminable. And once we got to the airport, we had to stand in line out in the sun — just to get into the terminal. When we went through security, the my suitcase kept setting off alarms — it turns out that my flashlight and my water filter were both problematic.

Our flight back to Addis Ababa retraced the route we took two days before — we stopped first in Gondar and then continued on to the Addis airport. Once there, we had about eight hours to wait.

Now, there are many places where I would welcome an eight-hour layover. In Philly or Chicago or dozens of other cities, that’s plenty of time to head into town for a good dinner and a little site-seeing. But we didn’t know where to go in Addis, and we were unsure about traffic and getting back to the airport in time, and nothing in my Ethiopia guidebook jumped out at me and said, “Visit here during your layover!”

So we elected to stay in the airport, and basically that was a good thing. I was able to check my mail, repack my suitcase, upload a photo or two to Facebook. We had some dinner — typically for airport food, it was both expensive and dreadful. We rested on the comfortable chaises longues that we found distributed throughout the terminal.  We looked at the scores of U.N. Peacekeepers from several countries who were waiting for their onward flight to some war-torn land. We found the separate men’s and women’s prayer rooms that were overcrowded at Muslim prayer times.

And finally, it was time for our flight to Uganda.

Encountering God in the rock-hewn churches

January 16, 2014
8:07 p.m. local time
Red Chilli Rest Camp
Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

I’m sitting here inside a “banda,” which is round one-room cabin with a thatched roof. Kitty’s and my banda is a luxury model, with an enclosed bathroom, a solar-heated hot shower, and two comfy beds, each with mosquito netting. A stray cockroach here and there is not a big deal. We just were watching a warthog grazing 10 yards from our banda door in the gathering gloom. The full moon is bright orange, discolored by the controlled burns taking place around us in the national park. We just had a lovely dinner with our safari companions — roast chicken and mashed potatoes.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t yet written about what’s happened over the last couple of days, so I”m going to jump back to Tuesday, January 14.

On Tuesday we were high up in the northern Ethiopian mountains in the town of Lalibella. As I’ve said before, Lalibella only has one claim to fame to the outside world — it’s the home of a unique collection of 11 churches cut out of solid rock. The churches include three types — a few are built into the side of cliffs. Several more are partially freestanding — two or three walls are freestanding and finished and decorated, but one or more walls are attached to the cliffs. But the most remarkable of all are the completely freestanding churches. At these four churches, 12th century workers dug a hole out of hard volcanic rock — a square hole of 100 feet by 100 feet or more — leaving a monolithic square of rock undug in the center. Then these workers, or others, literally excavated a church out of that square.

Just as Michelangelo said that the unworked slab of marble already contained David, and the sculptor’s work was simply to release him from his tomb, so the medieval Lalibela masons released entire churches from the rock, carving elaborate interiors, including vaulting, columns, and numerous classical decorative elements. I’ll add photos to these blog posts once I get back home, but they’re almost unbelievable. I have seen what master masons did at Wells Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. But European cathedrals were built up from the ground. At Lalibella, the churches were carved down into the ground, hollowed out, and decorated inside and out, all without room for error. On a difficulty scale, this is another order of magnitude.

On Tuesday morning, Kitty and I were met at our hotel at 9 a.m. by an unprepossessing forty-something-year-old man named Getaye Mengistie. Our innkeeper had hired him on our behalf; we had agreed to pay him US$30 for a daylong walking tour of the churches.

We started by walking up the hill toward the center of town and then down again toward the churches, which are below the town square on the hillside, and which are grouped in two clusters. The most impressive church of all, St. George’s, stands apart from both clusters.

Since the Lalibella airport was improved in the late 1990s, UNESCO has been pouring money and expertise into preserving and saving the Lalibella churches. One of the results of this is that sleek modern roofs hover high over most of them, shading them from sun and rain while still leaving them open to the air. Another result is that there’s now a steep entrance fee for visitors. You cannot visit any of the churches without paying a US$50 entrance charge, which is valid at all the churches for several days. I objected at first, because my guidebook hadn’t mentioned such a high price.

But the price was legit, and I received a recept as proof. Ethiopians are huge on recepts and always give an elaborately detailed handwritten receipt for even the most mundane of transactions. Receipts are written in triplicate; this country must be keep the worldwide carbon paper industry in business.

Over the course of the next few hours, Getaye took us through the first cluster of churches. On the exterior, they are impressive the way that Petra is impressive. But step inside and you immediately realize that the Lalibella churches are living houses of worship. A monk or priest occupies each one all day long — usually sitting in front of four- to six-foot paintings of the Madonna and Child, or St. George and the Dragon, which lean against the interior pillars of the church. The paintings usually stand adjacent to a floor-length curtain, hanging from the rocky ceiling, that marks off the public place of the church — the chanting area — from the Holy of Holies, which includes the Ark of the Covenant. (Aside from one church in Aksum that claims to protect the real Ark — the one that Harrison Ford was looking for — Ethiopian Christians understand that the Arks in their churches are symbolic of the one that formerly resided in the Jerusalem temple, and the tablets that the Arks shelter are symbolic of the tablets of the law that Moses brought down from Sinai.)

In each church that we entered we took off our shoes and walked on indoor-outdoor carpeting that had been laid inside, protecting bare feet from uneven surfaces. And there, in the half-darkness, would be a priest praying in the ancient Ethiopian language of Geez, or reading the psalms, or chanting, or sitting silently. Picture-taking was allowed. We’ll see if any of mine come out.

The first cluster includes six churches, and by the time we had seen four, we heard some chanting start. Getaye led us over to the last two churches of the first cluster, where young and old men were entering one of them, having taken off their shoes. While we sat outside the church, with our backs to the church wall, he explained theological education in the Ethiopian tradition, the complicated liturgical calendar that features monthy (not just annual) celebrations of major saints, and the various forms of ministry, including nuns, deacons, monks, priests, and cantors.

Inside the church, behind our backs, the cantors were soon in ful voice. Two drummer would beat out a rhythm, and then each of the two dozen cantors and priests that stood around the drummers, leaning against pillars and walls, would chant in unison, all the while shaking unusual cymbals in unison. In no way was this chaotic or charismatic, but it also was far more energetic and loud than chant in the Western Christian tradition, and it varied in tempo. The drum would occasionally speed or slow, and then all the cymbals would also adjust their tempo, and sometimes the voices would get louders or softer.

Getaye said that it was time to enter the church. Of course, once we stepped inside a room made of carved rock, the volume of the chant grew much louder. We pushed through to the other side of the church to a small door that led to another chamber. Getaye said that women were not allowed through the door — in all of Lalibella, this was the only time that Kitty was excluded. She stayed behind while I passed through the door. And when I entered, I saw that the curtain in the next room — the one that protects the Holy of Holies — had been parted, and there were several priests behind the curtain hovering over a thurible or two. One of the priests soon emerged, holding one of the thuribles. He looked young — not more than 30 — and he was exceptionally tall. He strode back into the other room, where the chanting continued.

A few minutes later, after snapping some pictures, I followed back to the main church, and there was Kitty holding a staff — the kind that nearly all men hold during Ethiopian church services. I had been told that this was simply practical — you can lean on your staff during the two-hour Ethiopian Mass, since there are no chairs in the churches. But I think that the staff is also one of the musical instruments that enliven Ethiopian worship. The drum and the cymbal are indespensible, but so is the staff. Beat a rhythm on the floor, or hold it silently, or lean on it. But you need your staff.

Kitty said that while Getaye and I had slipped into the men-only section, one of the chanters had seen her standing alone and walked over to her and handed her the staff so that she could participate. She interpreted this — rightly I’m sure — as a warm and unusual gesture of hospitality. And so we stood and listend for 15 or 20 minutes more, enveloped in the strong, earthy chanting of these Ethiopian Orthodox worshipers. It was so foreign, yet it was elemental, ancient, profound. Deeply and unapologetically Christian, yet like nothing I’d ever seen or heard.

I think that being a part of the worship at Lalibella will stand out as one of the highlights of this trip.

The day was growing hot as we finally left the church. We walked over to the main road and Getaye called us for a taxi to take us to the Seven Olives Hotel for lunch. There, on a terrace shaded by the namesake trees, we saw our Aussie friends from the previous night, and we asked if we could sit with them. And then, after an hour, Getaye reappeared. We were ready for the second half of our day.

First we walked down the hill to the Church of St. George, which stands apart from the rest of the churches. It’s the most-photographed of all the Lalibella churches, the only one that’s completely cruciform, and the only one without a UNESCO shelter protecting it from the elements. You get to the church by walking down into a long trench that gets deeper and depper before it ends in a tunnel. And then, suddenly, there you are — in a courtyard 60 feet below the ground, and in front of you is the detailed carving of a church built without brick or mortar or wood or slate — it’s just carved rock.

After visiting St. George’s, we tackled the second cluster of churches, and here’s where the afternoon became a kind of slog. There were pitch-black tunnels to walk through — one of them 75 yards long — and there were more paintings of St. George and of the Madonna. And there were more priests guading the Holy of Holies in each church. But until we got to the final one, it seemed a little like were ticking off boxes.

Finally, at the last church, I noticed that Getaye walked over to the priest and spoke to him, and the priest took out a cross from the folds of his robe. Getaye kissed it twice, once at the top and once at the bottom, and the priest said a blessing. I asked, “Is this your own church — the one where you studied to be a deacon?”

He said, “Yes. I was baptized in this church, and I was married here, and two years ago my daughter was baptized here. When I was a boy, I ran around this church and climbed up into the second floor. I knew every tunnel here, from playing.”

I really liked that about Getaye — his piety was real. He really knew his stuff — he knew the history of the churches, the various theories about their ages, the construction techniques. He also had a good general understanding of Ethiopian Orthodoxy, and when I asked detailed questions about seminary training, he had detailed answers. But most of all, I liked that he had the warm heart — his faith was real.

The Mad Scotswoman of Lalibella

January 15, 2014
5:15 p.m. local time
Bole Airport
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The last couple of days have been so jam-packed with new experiences, I feel intimidated about starting. I haven’t had time to blog — I’ve collapsed into bed for the last two nights, exhausted and perhaps suffering from a little sunstroke. The landscape of northern Ethiopia does remind me of Northern Arizona, but when I’m visiting Mom in Prescott, I don’t typically stay outdoors all day long.

On Monday morning, two days ago, we were up very early at the Bethel Guest House, after which a taxi driver whisked us through the empty streets to get us to the Addis Ababa airport by 6 a.m. Not surprisingly, there were tremendously long lines at the airport, and if you think that the TSA is slow, well, Addis Ababa security is even slower. You have to go through the metal detector just to get into the terminal, and then you have to check your bags and go through security again to get to your gate.

The first leg of our flight from Addis Ababa was a 50-minute jaunt to Gondar — a previous capital of Ethiopia, it’s a major town in the north. But rather than disembarking, we stayed on the plane and flew 30 more minutes to Lalibella airport, which lies at 6,400 feet in the middle of a high-desert plain. There’s no town there at the airport — it’s a barren landscape with red dirt and few trees. At the airport, a person from our hotel met us and put us into a minivan. Foolishly, I had expected that this would be a “private” trip, with just Kitty and me in the van, or perhaps others going to our hotel.

But no. That’s not how it generally works. Our bags were put on the rooftop luggage rack and tied down with coarse rope, and then other people started piling in — all of them Ethiopians. The 11-passenger van was soon crowded with bodies. And then the driver took off like a bat out of hell.

The road from the airport to the town of Lalibella climbs about a thousand feet over 14 miles and takes about half an hour. While the landscape is barren, the elevation gives the air a freshness, and it wasn’t especially hot. Along the road, we passed many tukels — round houses made of mud and grass, perhaps 15 or 20 feet in diameter, topped with conical grass roofs. They’re beautiful, really — quintessentially African.

And as we climbed and climbed, the road formed dozens of sharp switchbacks, which the driver took at full speed except when he had to slow for a goatherd tending his flocks, a cowboy driving a bull or two, a group of children playing in the road, or a pair of women walking with loads on their heads. In fact, we passed hundreds of walkers, both human and animal, while we ascended the road to Lalibela. None of them were bothered by a minivan speeding by. But my knuckles whitened as we nearly rammed into a full-size longhorn cow. Kitty, who lives in Africa and has taken dozens of shared vans, was serene. She likes to people-watch.

Lalibella is a mountain town that has an official population of about 15,000. It’s situated beautifully on top of a ridge, and right at cliff’s edge, several western-style hotels have been built, including ours, called Top Twelve because of its dozen rooms and its site on the highest point of the escarpment. Each room at Top Twelve has a balcony that overlooks a stunning desert landscape. A fresh breeze blows up the hillside and right into each room, and there are no mosquitoes — and none of the diseases that accompany those pests.

We arrived at 11 a.m., but after just a few hours’ sleep the night before, both Kitty and I needed a nap. So I opened the sliding glass door onto the balcony and crawled under the covers while the breezes blew straight into the room.

At 1 p.m., we were hungry and ready for lunch. But where to eat? As we had driven into town on the minibus, retail offerings had not looked promising. The main square of Lalibella was a dusty crossroads with tiny metal shacks surrounding it, some selling water, some religious paraphernalia, some coffee — coffee is ubiquitous in Ethiopia, which is truly one of the best things about the country. We hadn’t seen any place in which I would order a meal.

But my guidebook had mentioned one restaurant that was not to be missed. When I mentioned to our hotelkeeper that we planned to visit this place for dinner, he suggested we go for lunch. During the day, he said, you can see the view. And this restaurant, Ben Abeba, was only a few minutes walk up the hill. Not far!

We took off up the hill, passing the Obama Souvenirs Shop and several other shops selling curios. The shops were tiny — the size of a pickup truck bed, made of corrugated metal, with an open window toward the dusty road.

Many kids approached. “Hello!” they called in musical tones. “Come in for a look?”

“Hello! How are you? What country you from? I know all the capitals. You name your country, I name the capital.”

“England,” I said. “Lund!” came the answer.

“France,” I said, “Pareece!” was the response.

These kids were proud of their capitals — and we were invited to quiz countless boys over the next couple of days.

“South Sudan,” said Kitty. Hmm. That stumped them. “Khartoum,” said one boy, which I thought was a pretty good answer. “No, Juba,” said Kitty. He hadn’t heard of Juba.

After a few minutes, we saw a sign for Ben Abeba, pointing down a quarter-mile dirt driveway. And what awaited us at the end of the road? It’s actually hard to describe — it was a building like none other that I’ve seen. The roofline looked exactly like a witch’s hat, and and there were various peaks and flying sidewalks. If Peter Jackson had seen this, he would have seethed with jealousy. I felt like I was walking up to Oz in a desert landscape.

There was no clear entrance, just a ramp that rose toward the center of the witch’s hat. As we ascended, a young woman appeared and asked if we were there for lunch. There were no other people around. The day was sunny, so the hostess seated us on a terrace that looked out over a steep drop down a cliff. In fact, the whole restaurant was terraces — there didn’t seem to be any “indoors” here — even the kitchen was open to the elements. And the view was stunning — like our hotel room, but instead of one balcony facing one direction, here the views swept around for about 300 degrees. On all sides, the escarpment dropped steeply. Lovely flowers were planted everywhere.

The waiter brought menus, and we saw that shepherd’s pie was on offer. In fact, my guidebook had recommended the shepherd’s pie, saying it was the particular specialty of the restaurant’s Scottish owner. So we both ordered that. He asked if we wanted a salad on the side.

My travel nurse back at Penn had warned me particularly about salads in Africa. Never eat a salad! You have no idea how the greens were grown, how they were transported, or in what they were washed. No salads!

So I hesitated. Boy did I want a salad. And then the waiter said, “You may eat our salads. We wash them in boiled water.” What the heck. I ordered a salad.

Our lunch was the most leisurely meal I’ve had in years. In Africa, service is almost always slow — even in restaurants owned by Scots. And soon she herself appeared — in her 70s, with a deeply lined face and twinkly eyes. She thanked us for coming briefly before excusing herself.

I don’t even like shepherd’s pie, but it was wonderful to have some familiar food, and the salad was outstanding — fresh greens and tomatoes that were out of this world. They must have been grown on site.

If you know me, you know I love-love-love spunky old ladies, and I had some questions for which I wanted a good answer. I asked our waiter if the owner was still present, and could he send her over?

And soon she reappeared. She sat at our table and told us her life story — a retired teacher, she had come to Lalibella to help train teachers. But when that work had finished, she considered what faced her back home in Scotland. “I realized that I could be a pensioner back home. Or I could do something different.” She talked to an Ethiopian friend about opening a restaurant, and she made it happen.

As this woman sat and talked to Kitty and me and, with the sun shining through her steel-gray hair and her eyes squinting and twinkling, I said, “I wish I were a television editor. I’d like to make a movie about your life.”

She laughed. “A movie about the Mad Scotswoman of Lalibella!”

I actually choked up. Here was a true original — a person who, facing the end of life, had decided to do something completely unexpected. She was beautiful.

It was almost 4 p.m. by the time Kitty and I left the restaurant, and we decided to walk from the cliff’s edge, where both our hotel and the restaurant were located, into the center of the town proper. We had only one purpose for being in Lalibella at all — to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses 11 churches carved straight out of the living rock. But we had hired a guide for the following day, so we weren’t going to start visiting the churches now.

We walked into the town. Boys accosted us, eager to share their knowledge of national capitals. One showed me a euro and asked if I could give him the local currency in exchange for it. Many offered to be our guide.

We were really looking for water. In Ethiopia, as in the rest of Africa, potable water is a valuable commodity. Back in Addis Ababa, my bathroom in the guest house had had only sporadic water. Here in Lalibella, the hotel bath had strong water pressure, and it looked clean, but I knew one thing: You must never ever drink the water, or even brush your teeth in it.

We had asked the Mad Scotswoman of Lalibella about getting water, and she had told us that any vendor on the street would be fine, but we should just make sure that the bottles were sealed. As we wandered, we looked at the outsides of various stores, but we were too intimidated to walk in.

We were spectacles. Children tagged along with us. Adults begged us to come into their shops to just to see. Teenagers offered to show us where we were going, and we knew that there would be a fee involved at the end of any help they might give. Both of us felt besieged.

Lalibella is both hilly and high — 7,500 feet — so after an hour or so we were winded. We found a tiny store, probably 10 feet by 5 feet, with sealed water bottles prominently displayed in front. I asked the price. Thanks to the Mad Scotswoman, we knew what the fair price was, and the shopkeeper seemed to be offering a fair price — about a dollar per bottle. We bought four and I started lugging them home, fending off helpful teens who wanted to help the white man with his load.

Back at the hotel, we sat on the balcony and watched the sun set behind the distant mountains. It was magical, and as were talking, we heard our neighbors sitting on the next balcony over. They had Australian accents, and soon we were shooting the breeze with a friendly young couple whom we couldn’t see — the balconies were separated by a seven-foot wall, but the sound carried clearly over the top.

Eventually, we invited them over, and the four of us chatted until 7:30 p.m. They were extremely pleasant. They’d been traveling in East Africa for several weeks — in Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia. They gave us tips about what to do in Uganda. Kitty told them about her work as a nurse in South Sudan. Meeting this couple was one of the joys that you find unexpectedly when traveling — united by almost nothing except the English language and the experience of travel, Kitty and I made a connection with a couple from the other side of the world. And it was good.

We told our new friends about Ben Abeba and they decided to go there for dinner. On the other hand, we had ordered dinner from our hotel — the traditional meal of injera, lentils, and sauces. After dinner, I was just dead. After almost no sleep the previous night, I had to sleep. And fortunately, the beds at Top Twelve were heavenly.

A taste of Lalibella

January 14, 2014
7:44 a.m. local time
Top Twelve Hotel
Lalibella, Ethiopa


Addis Ababa was a chaotic and sprawling city — I suppose, not so different from sprawling, chaotic third-world cities around the globe. But this morning I am sitting on a balcony of a surprisingly modern hotel high in the mountains of northern Ethiopia. The view is breathtaking, and the landscape that stretches before me could be in northern Arizona or New Mexico. The air is cool — I should really run into my room and grab my fleece, but sitting here typing and looking out over the landscape is too enticing. There are big crows flying around below me, and one insistent rooster, out of sight nearby, has been crowing for the last hour. I think I hear doves and, far down in the valley below, men are working, breaking up rocks.


We’re going to breakfast in a few minutes, so I’ll have to write more tonight about the remarkable day we had yesterday. It started before dawn with a 5:30 a.m. trip from the Bethel Guest House to the Addis Ababa airport. It included a hair-raising drive up curvy mountain roads from Lalibella airport to Lalibella town, passing trucks on hairpin turns, almost running into goats, donkeys, cows, and people, and it included lunch at the most unusual restaurant I’ve ever seen.

More later.