Friday, June 6, 2008

Friday Friend or Family Feature: Guest Blogger Edition- AJ

Today's Featured Guest Blogger is...


AJ is a friend of the family. She's traveled to more than fifteen African countries for both work and play. She loves a good story, but spends more time writing curricula than writing stories.

Here are her reflections on her time in Ethiopia...

My time in Ethiopia was memorable. It was 2005 in the United States; in Ethiopia it was 1998. The countryside was crazy beautiful, but when I think of myself in Ethiopia, I think of myself crying. My tears were partly due to the beauty of countryside and the fact that I was traveling with a boy who had just broken my heart. A few weeks prior to my arrival I called to wish him happy birthday; he followed up with an email informing me that he was dating someone else. I already had a round trip ticket to Ethiopia.

Addis to Lalibela

My most vivid memory of Ethiopia: I am sitting on a packed bus that is almost the size of a Greyhound bus, but nowhere near as comfortable. The seats are close together and more like benches with a slight cushion. They had to have been made in China because the leg room was insufficient for a person of 5 feet 6 inches. The bus is dusty, there is no bathroom on board, and people seem cramped to the point that it looks like we're all sitting on top of one another. This bus left Addis and is destined for Lalibela, a grueling 24 hour journey up north with an overnight stay somewhere along the road. The road to Lalibela is steep and goes up and down one mountain after another at a roller coaster speed showcasing breathtaking views.

The bus driver had a supply of vomit bags for the passengers and they were used frequently. But the nausea, the cramped legs, the smell of vomit---none of that was the difficult part of that bus ride. The difficulty was sitting so close to someone I thought I knew, someone I thought knew me, and feeling as if, all of a sudden, I knew nothing at all. My most vivid memory of Ethiopia is of me sitting on a bus heading north, looking out at a landscape that made my heart constrict, trying to hold back tears and not succeeding.

I spent most of the bus ride in tears and the boy sitting next to me was oblivious most of the time. I did a pretty good job of catching the tears before they streamed down my cheeks, but one escaped and he chose that moment not to be oblivious. He caught my arm first, then my face and then used his thumb to gently wipe away that stray tear. It was a gesture that rang of such intimacy and tenderness between two people--an intimacy no longer present.


A trip to the African continent would not be complete if a few typical things did not occur. Typical thing #1: your form of transportation will break down. On the return trip from Lalibela heading back to Addis, the bus did, indeed, break down. When this happens there is nothing to do, but wait. I couldn't go for a walk or go exploring because if the mechanic managed to repair the bus while I was exploring, I would be left behind. So I waited and while waiting I was approached by a young Ethiopian couple who came over to try to guess what country I was from. They guessed Kenya, then Tanzania. They were friendly, beautiful, and on vacation for a week without the kids. We started talking and my waiting for the bus saga turned into me making friends with Yennenah and Kidist. Kidist means saint in Amharic which leads me to typical thing #2: in Africa, you will have some type of religious moment and Kidist was mine. They truly befriended me and were on a mission to ensure that I had good memories of my time in Ethiopia and I felt like they literally saved me from a million things. My tears stopped around them, they made me smile, they made me trust complete strangers, they reminded me that love can exist between two people; they made me stop thinking about myself, they made my senses come more alive and brought me back to the present moment. Their presence centered me and I believe that it was more than mere coincidence that kidist means saint.


Kidist and Yennenah invited me to dinner and then on a hike around a lake connected to a monastery. This brings me to typical thing #3: there will be a detour. So halfway between Lalibela and Addis we abandoned the bus and followed my new friends to the lake.

It was lovely, quiet, relaxing and an ideal place for meditation. I walked around engrossed in my thoughts trying to think about nothing. I stared at the lake, went on a hike and watched nuns weave blankets, tablecloths and shirts. I ended up buying a shirt, which I love and wear often in the summer months.

Losing Faith

Kidist and I went together to see the nuns weaving because we, being women, were not allowed to enter the actual monastery. When we came out of the weaving room into the open air, we met a priest who wanted to know if we were sisters. This leads me to typical thing #4: there will be a moment when you lose faith in God or religion.

Kidist explained to the priest that she was Ethiopian and that I was a tourist from the United States. The priest looked me up and down and began speaking in Amharic while Kidist translated for me. The priest began by saying that he was happy to see me in Ethiopia and that black people from all over the world are the same. I was touched and started anticipating his next words. I thought he was going to say that I was his long lost sister, that slavery had divided us or some speech about all black people being united, but he said nothing along those lines. He proceeded to tell us a Biblical story about black people, the descendants of Ham. Apparently after the flood Noah cultivated grapes and drank a little too much one day. According to this priest, Noah was so drunk that he ended up naked in a tree. One of his sons, Ham, discovered him and immediately went in search of his two brothers. He pointed to their father in the tree and began laughing. His two brothers, being dutiful and respectful, did not laugh and proceeded to retrieve their father from the tree and cover him with a blanket. When Noah fully awakened from his inebriated state and realized what happened, he ended up cursing all the descendants of Ham--black people. So, the priest tells Kidist who translates for me, "We are all one people, black people." I'm sure something was probably lost in the translation and that is not the exact Biblical story, but it was enough to make me lose faith in religion for a while. I'm not sure what other reaction I could have had in discovering that I am a member of a cursed tribe. There it is in a nutshell, an explanation for the history of racism and the oppression of black people.

But I must admit that I LOVED seeing the priests in Ethiopia. They really seemed more like supermodels to me. Visiting one of the stone churches in Lalibela, I asked a priest if I could take a picture. He said yes and proceeded to arrange his robe, grab a big cross, and put on a pair of sunglasses to pose for the camera.


I don't know how to describe the Lalibela churches except to say that they are stunning. They are another one of those wonders that no one really knows how they were built. Legend has it that God told the King Lalibela to build the churches and gave him the plans for the churches. They were built in record time because the angels apparently worked at night in order to complete them. If I am remembering correctly, I think historians and architects guess that it would have taken a work force of 40,000 people to complete the churches. But since I am a little cynical after the story of Ham, I might take a guess that the word "slave" could be substituted for "work force of 40,000" or “angels." But when I was in Lalibela, I was not so cynical. It was a bit of a religious experience of such awe and beauty to leave me breathless.

Burger Queen

So although my trip to Ethiopia began with tears, it did not end that way. There is something distinctive about Ethiopia and it probably has to do with all of the things that make up Ethiopia and Ethiopian identity. It is the heart of civilization. It is one of two African countries to have never been colonized; the country that first cultivated coffee--home of the coffee bean; the direct descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; Shashamani, the Rastafarian homeland.

My trip ended with me missing my flight. I arrived at the airport for a 3pm flight only to discover that my flight left at 3am. So I was stuck in Ethiopia for a few more days because there were no daily flights to where I was heading. Two days before I was scheduled to leave (the second time); I was invited to dine with a group of Americans. I declined, feeling a little sad and wanting to be alone. I decided to eat alone and had every intention of eating traditional Ethiopian food. As I was walking I had a craving for a hamburger and I never have cravings for hamburgers. So instead of walking into the traditional restaurant, I walked into a restaurant called Burger Queen. As I was about to order, I heard someone call my name. I turned around to see Yennenah and Kidist, my friends from the Lalibela bus trip. They were sitting in a car eating with two gorgeous, chubby kids. They treated me to dinner and it seemed perfect. I found myself thinking of every event that needed to happen in order for me to run into them again. As I was leaving, Kidist hugged me and told me this Amharic proverb:

People who love each other will meet without any appointment.


  1. Too awesome. I loved reading that. The ending was amazing. Mind if I link to this in a soon post?


  2. Link away my brainy friend Cindy!

  3. I messed up. That read shirt is from India! She is just too global that one.

  4. Thank you Featured Guest Blogger AJ! I'm sorry you got your heart broken and I hope it's fixed. Reading about experiences in Ethiopia is so great for us who can't wait to go. Your photos and writing are really wonderful.

  5. I loved this. thanks for guest blogging. wonderful story in spite of the sadness. boys are so dumb sometimes.

  6. This is a beautiful post.

    I just found your blog through the BU forum and I am loving it!! I hope you don't mind if I add you to my blogroll. :)

  7. This was a great post and really gets me excited to travel. The pictures, people and insights were great. Thanks!

  8. Sure version :)