October 19, 2012

In the Land of the Lion of Judah.

The King of Kings, the Power of the Trinity, the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Elected One of God, the Defender of the Faith - these were the titles of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.  He was also the 225th descendant of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.

Ethiopia is old beyond imagination.  According to official Ethiopian history, the Queen of Sheba had heard King Solomon praised many times and went to Jerusalem to visit him. Solomon greeted her in splendid style, she admired him and was converted to the true God.  But a few months later, when she announced her departure, Solomon, who was as lusty as he was wise, was stirred with desire. He invited the queen to feast with him all day long and served her only with thirst-making dishes: salt-fish, hot spices. In the evening she asked his permission to go to bed and made him promise that he would respect her virtue. "I swear to you that I shall not take you by force," said the king, "but swear to me in return that you will take nothing from my palace." She promised, but could not sleep. Tortured by thirst, she drank a cup of water, and the king - who slept with one eye open - pointed out that she had broken her oath. Nine months later, back in Ethiopia, she gave birth to a son, Menelek.

It is a charming story, but the dividing line between reality and legend in Ethiopia is very hazy. Historians maintain that the Queen of Sheba ruled over the Yemen and not Ethiopia, and claim that her son Menelek was invented by a thirteenth-century monk, in a book called The Glory of the Kings, in order to legitimize a Solomonite dynasty which wanted to seize the throne. One thing, however, is certain: while more and more Europeans and North Americans followed the sun in winter to Kenya or North Africa, the mountainous kingdom of Ethiopia remained virtually untouched by tourism.

Yet it offers a stunning range of natural beauty: mountains like impregnable for tresses-the mean altitude in Ethiopia is over 6,000 feet; mysterious gorges; silver lakes which are the haunt of ibis, flamingos and marabous; marvelous churches built in the rocks; and timeless villages hidden in eucalyptus forests. A country of living legends which merge into the history of this 2,500-year-old African empire.

The first time you meet an Ethiopian, you begin to understand how it is that these people have had so much success in the Olympic marathon. Tall and incredibly lean, they walk tirelessly, barefoot, head erect, their hands gripping the ends of a pole they carry across their shoulders.

They are very proud of their beauty and explain obligingly:  "When God decided to create man, he made a clay model and baked it in the oven. But he took it out too soon; it was pale and he threw it away to the North where it gave birth to the white race. At the second attempt, the statuette was overdone: he cast it to the South where the black race sprang up. The third time, everything went perfectly: the figure came out golden. God put it in Ethiopia and the Ethiopians were born."

Aksum, the site of the ancient capital, is a good place to begin to get to know Ethiopia.  At Aksum is the church of Our Lady of Sion, which women are not allowed to enter. When Queen Elizabeth visited Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie took her to Aksum but the priests would not let her into the church. The monasteries are also forbidden to both women and female animals. The most beautiful of them, Debre Damo, is situated forty-five miles from Aksum. The home of 150 monks, it is lodged high in a cliff face, and in the flanks of the cliff are small caves where hermit monks live and meditate, receiving their supplies of bread, water, and sometimes meat from the end of a rope.

To gain access to Debre Damo, one must negotiate with the porter monk-negotiate meaning in Ethiopian to pay up. After he has satisfied himself that the visitor is male (a few women have attempted to get in wearing trousers), the monk will throw down a leather rope and haul one up the steep fifteen yards of rock face to the entrance.

Aksum abounds in gigantic necropolises, monolithic steles sixty-five feet high. Once the capital of a great empire, in the 4th century the city was converted to Christianity, today the official state religion. From top to bottom the steles are decorated with carvings representing the facades of the palaces of Aksum.

An hour away by plane from Aksum is Lalibela, the most spectacular site in Ethiopia. In the 13th century, when King Lalibela learned that Jerusalem had fallen into the hands of the infidels, he decided to build a "New Jerusalem" in a spot so inaccessible that "no Muslim would be able to sully it." What remains of this second Jerusalem-10,000 feet up in the mountains - is a group of eleven monolithic churches carved out of one great block of pink sandstone, a stream called the Jordan and a few olive trees.

The churches comprise a fabulous subterranean city, rich in vaulted passageways and tiny courtyards illuminated by shafts of light. At the end of a tunnel stands a green bowl where the faithful are baptized in the Feast of the Epiphany. The passages wind up and down, past wells, altars, sculptures, paintings, colonnades and the skeletons of a monk and a nun who three centuries ago lived together in one of the cavities that were dug out of the rock.

Less than an hour's flight from Lalibela is Gonder, a city of fortified castles and splendid churches, which was the capital of Ethiopia in the 16th century when the Christians, with the help of the Portuguese, defeated the Muslims who for eight centuries had cut them off from the Christian world. 

The church of Debra Berhan Selassie is entirely covered with paintings, executed with such a sense of wonder and such simple candor that they delight the most blase of visitors: the angel Gabriel is shown with immense black eyes, ogres with drumsticks between their teeth, the saints offering their tears for the birds to drink. In all these paintings, the good are painted full face and the bad in profile. This is because it was believed that painting full face might help the figure depicted to appear in real life and the painter wanted to deny that chance to the wicked.

Four miles from Gonder is the village of Falasha. It seems at first sight like many other Ethiopian villages: round huts with thatched roofs, the smell of burning eucalyptus at mealtimes, black women with their hair arranged in a mass of tiny plaits. Yet they have stars of David embroidered on their dresses. The Falashas are Jews. When they were first discovered and told of the existence of other, white Jews, they laughed in disbelief, for they thought themselves to be the only survivors of Israel, and maintained that they had come to Ethiopia 3,000 years ago with the inevitable Queen of Sheba. Historians today believe that they were driven out of Egypt by the armies of Alexander the Great. They practise an archaic form of Judaism, knowing the first five books of Moses, but not the Talmud. There are about 20,000 of them and they live by making pottery.

The countryside around Gonder is breathtakingly beautiful, more beautiful than the famous Blue Nile 'and its waterfalls; but the source of the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, is a miracle of light and purity.

Exotically colored birds follow the papyrus boats which go out to the islands in the lake, where monasteries and churches took refuge in the 15th century. There you will find trees with fantastic tentacle-like branches, chattering monkeys, unknown flowers and little wooden churches.

Two hours' flight from' Lake Tana is Addis Ababa, with its Hilton Hotel and undulating panorama of tile roofs. The most interesting place in Addis Ababa is the "Mercato," the biggest market in Africa, where there is a roaring trade in silver crosses of every period and style. Before leaving Ethiopia, it is worth visiting Harer, in the east of the country, where Rimbaud lived several years as a trader. Harer is a Muslim stronghold, built between the 7th and the 9th centuries, and only discovered by Europeans in the 1880's. Set on a hilltop surrounded by orchards, it is a jumble of rough-paved alleys with wooden forts, ancient gateways and hidden market stalls crammed with every kind of spice. The women, their foreheads adorned with African marigolds, wear silk Turkish-style trousers. The men chew tchat green leaves which induce euphoria. Apart and proud, the Hassi, Somali nomads, put bunches of herbs in their hair, which they smear with red mud. They wear rings round their necks and never venture out without a spear.

Homer wrote of Ethiopia' that it stood at the edge of the world, and in the splendid isolation of the magnificent mountain landscapes and the unchanging rhythm of life of its remote, hidden villages, one might say the same today and hope for it’s future.

October 14, 2012

Restoring the Lion of Judah…

Sometimes I feel like David wrestling with Goliath when traveling by rail in some parts of the globe.  Perhaps it was divine intervention because many famous routes have been upgraded or restored, and new lines installed, as countless visitors rediscover the romance of the rails. Like me, these folks savor the fact that getting there is the fun.

If I had Aladdin's three wishes, or Queen Sheba’s treasure, I would restore Emperor Haile Sellasie's 'Lion of Judah' railway engine, hook it up to the prized set of French and British coaches, and operate luxury excursion tours on the Franco-Ethiopian Railway line. Built in the 1930s, the 482 mile route stretched from Addis Ababa to Djibouti.  

The railway connection between Djibouti port and Addis Ababa was built by the Imperial Railway Company of Ethiopia, founded in 1894, and was opened in 1917. France owned the Djibouti part of the line, but transferred this ownership to the Djiboutian government after independence in 1977. Later, ownership of the entire railway went to the Ethio-Djibouti Railways Company. Since the 1970s, the railway's quality has been deteriorating and its importance cut down as more and more of transported goods and passengers took the new improved roads. Djibouti's harbor also had to face the competition of the port of Massawa. With the independence of Eritrea in 1993, Ethiopia became landlocked, and because of deteriorating relations between the two countries, the Eritrean port of Massawa was no longer accessible to Ethiopia and the access to Djibouti's once again became strategic and vital for Ethiopia .

In 2003 the European Commission prepared a grant of 40 millions euros for the rehabilitation of the railway and raised it to 50 millions in 2006. In November 2006 an agreement was signed with the Italian consortium Costra, and work began in 2007 on sections of the line.

Ethiopia has also forged two deals with Turkish and Chinese companies.  Turkish company Yapi Merkezi will construct 447 kilometres (277 miles) while China Communications Construction Company will build 268 kilometres (166 miles) of the railway.

Railway construction is a central component of Ethiopia's five-year plan to boost economic growth, with has planned to construct 1,200 kilometers of railway between 2010 and 2015.

The Ethiopian people who work in the stations speak french, and it is a pleasure to talk with them. They just wait, wait, and wait for a rebirth of their legendary train...

October 5, 2012

Spice Routed or it’s a long way to Djibouti.

My dear fellow travelers,

Charts, radar, eyes and ears - if they all agree, you may proceed with caution.

Mombasa to Djibouti - it's like a safari, only better. Safari, Swahili for adventure is just what is in store for you.

B.y.o. weapons! If you don't have weapons, you may rent them. Don't miss the boat, departures are prompt. 

Their guarantee - Adventure.

The captain guarantees at least two hijacking attempts by pirates or they will refund our money. How can they guarantee that you will experience a hijacking? We sail at 5 knots within 12 miles of the coast of Somalia. If an attempted hijacking does not occur they promise to turn the boat around and cruise at 4 knots the entire length of Somalia. 

Crew members can double as spotters for $30.00 per hour (spotting scope included) and everyone gets use of free complimentary night vision equipment.

Your captain, Anja (t.i.c.)

The New Spice Route is an homage to the medieval trade network that connected Europe, Africa, and Asia, even if today's route has nothing to do with cinnamon, cloves, or silk.  Instead, it's a way on which trucks and ships shuttle fuel, and food, through a maritime and ground transportation infrastructure to a network of supply depots, tiny camps, and airfields part of the US AFRICOM Surface Distribution Network.
There's some good news. A pirate ship in the Gulf of Aden made the mistake of firing on an Indian naval vessel. The warship quickly returned fire and sank the pirate vessel, then pursued the survivors when they tried to escape in speedboats.
The world was stunned by this development. Who even knew India had a navy?

by air (Branko Airways)


and land (meet Brumhilde)

until we meet again, j'espère.

October 3, 2012

The Round and the Square.

“OH, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet . . .
~Rudyard  Kipling

In early Chinese thought, heaven was considered round and earth square.  We have been taught, from St. Anselm to Kant, that round and square are opposites.  Round and square; east and west—never the twain shall meet.

Except when it does . . .

“It’s in your eyes. If you are not smiling then you look as though you are mad at the world.”  I have heard every single variation of those two sentences more times then I can count since those long ago years when it was first brought to my attention by a class mate. I have been told that my eyes, when not backed by a smile, make me look: angry, frustrated, standoffish, irritated, conceited, and unapproachable.

Today, when we said our farewells, our guide looked into my face and said; “I think genuine smiles are much more interesting than forced ones. You can tell. You can always tell.  I know no one that looks happy and smiles every moment of their existence. It is not human.”  Asante Sana!

Dear friends and readers, if we should meet next time, or one day, please do not judge me by my unsmiling eyes.  Jambo!

October 1, 2012

From a Railway Carriage.

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle;
All of the sights of the hill and the plain,
Fly as thick as the driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.

~Robert Louis Stevenson

"Inside Nairobi station, it is like stepping into a time warp. The arrivals and departures board looks as though it hasn't been updated since I first did the journey 28 years ago...As we pull slowly out of the station shortly after 7pm, the sun is setting behind the shacks that have sprung up all along the track...The ticket collector tells me to close the windows and lock the doors before going to sleep. But the window doesn't shut properly, the fan doesn't work, and the lights keep going on and off...The road to the coast runs parallel with the railway for much of the route, and heavily laden trucks churn up the pot-holed tarmac, taking goods to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Congo and beyond." ~

It goes by several names:  The Iron Snake, the Lunatic Line, the Jambo Kenya Deluxe. Winston Churchill shot zebras sitting next to its great engines and man-eating lions stalked its trains' carriages, devouring men at night. Over the years, hundreds have perished in its iron body from faulty brakes, exploding gas tanks, and powerful floods that washed away bridges. 

The mysteries and horror stories attached to the African railway are legendary. But, the system -stretching through Kenya and Uganda - is about to get a 21st century facelift thanks to a nearly $40 million loan from the African Development Bank. 

A new transportation plan is in the works for East Africa. Kenya Railways will build 12 commuter train stations to connect the Nairobi metropolitan area. The rail between the coastal city of Mombasa in Kenya, and Kampala, Uganda is to be re-vamped by 2017. There is also talk of railway lines connecting Lamu, Kenya to Juba, South Sudan, as well as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The last rail stations in Kenya were built in 1935.

The trains, which can run at a sloth-like pace, are to be replaced with high speed trains. A once 15 hour ride from Nairobi to Mombasa will only take two or three hours. The new rail system won't just benefit commuters and tourists. It will also create a trade network for goods like coffee, cotton and gold. Kenya Railways is currently managed by Rift Valley Railways - a mix of Kenyan, Ugandan, Brazilian and Egyptian companies. But the railway is plagued by great debt and a region battling high levels of corruption, not to mention the worst famine in decades. East Africa's perhaps grandiose rail endeavor will either be a boom or a bust.