STEPPING BACK IN TIME: LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA

LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA ~ JANUARY 7, 2014

DSC06192I am in an underground tunnel connecting two of the 11 medieval, monolithic churches here in Lalibela. The tunnel is pitch black and light is prohibited in here. I am pinned between two people. My left hand is on the front person’s left shoulder and my right is on the wall to guide me through the dark. The tunnel is packed with pilgrims. There is no room to escape or turn around, you have no choice but to move with the crowd. This is not for people who are uncomfortable in small spaces. Time stands still in here and I feel trapped. The line is moving slowly, scuffling ahead a couple of feet, every couple of minutes and the tunnel is about 20m in length. Then the mood suddenly changes…Men and women start to chant and pray, little children start to sing, I can feel them smiling through their voices and it helps me carry through the rest of the way. When light becomes visible at the end of the tunnel, everyone in unison yell what would seem like a high-pitched war cry ”La,la,la,la,la,la,la,la,la!!!” The ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and the chant symbolizes reaching the heavens. Aaaand I’m covered in goosebumps. Ethiopia is casting a spell on me…

It’s Julian Calender Christmas Day (Leddet) in Ethiopia and I’m spending it in ‘Africa’s Jerusalem’; Lalibela. The town is 1116199_10151796700066150_1868722195_oknown for their Medieval, rock-hewn churches built in-ground, dating as far back as the 12th century. Ethiopia is predominately of Orthodox faith, following the old calendar. Thousands of people from all over Ethiopia and surrounding villages have made the pilgrimage to be apart of this celebration (some walk for many miles and/or days barefoot!). Many of the pilgrims have never been here before. Some from very remote villages have never even seen a ‘faranji’ (white man). I had a lot of curious but shy children approach me, touching my hair or the skin on my arms. Everyone is dressed in white for Christmas, the women’s heads covered in a white scarf known as a netela. I decided to wear one as well out of respect.

1504274_10151796680791150_1967700842_oI attended mass on Christmas Eve standing on top of one of the cliffs overlooking one of the in-ground churches. Every inch of the place is occupied by white-clad pilgrims. Many staked out for much of the day to get a ‘good spot’. What surprised me is that many were sleeping during mass. Although understandable as this ceremony is over a 24 hour period. I carefully tip toe through the bodies, trying to find a good spot to see everything and it leads me to the top, where thousands of people are sleeping dangerously close to the edge. Everywhere I look I see white. Thousands of pilgrims who could not fit inside, stand in the dusty streets, sit in nearby fields and adjoining churches, listening to the sermon from the speakers.

The chanting, warm light from lit candles, smell of Frankincense and a sea of white bodies is permanently etched in 1486097_10151796676286150_1469247050_omy mind from that evening. Candles are lit after midnight and we make our way back through the chaos to the hotel to catch a couple of hours of sleep. We’re back again by 6 a.m and are overwhelmed by the crowds trying to get back in. The tiny, frail looking old women are the worst, aggressively pushing their way through, feeling a sense of entitlement perhaps, because of their old age. Security has their hands full. Elisabeth and I, separated by a few people in between us, look across at each other hopelessly. Then this young Ethiopian girl pops up out of the crowd and says “Come! Come! Follow me! I show you!” She grabs Elisabeth’s hand and I grab Elisabeth’s other hand and we begin to snake our way through the chaos. Miraculously she manages to get us to the very front. Two Polish men join us, catching on that this crafty little girl had a knack of working through the crowd.

We get to the stone carved steps leading down into the courtyard and it’s packed with people heading the opposite direction. A young American man is standing there too trying to discourage us from trying to get through. “You may 1497927_10151796688541150_1691376110_oas well just hang out here and wait. These crowds are insane! There’s no way to get through right now.” Humouring the guy, I look at the young girl who just led us through the seemingly impossible crowds and say “there’s always a way”. And in a matter of minutes one of our Polish accomplices has the idea to jump across a nearby boulder about 4 feet from the edge. He claims he’s a rock climber and I’m convinced as I watch him effortlessly leap over and scale his way down to the ground. The young girl is next, then it’s my turn and it gets a little tricky from there. The only one wearing sandals, I go barefoot on the jagged rock and carefully let myself down almost crushing the young girl in the process, who over eagerly decided to guide my foot onto her shoulder not realizing the amount of weight behind that foot and lets out a squeal when she loses her balance, and I quickly move it over to the intended foothold on the boulder and ungraciously scramble my way down. Much to the amusement of our local spectators chuckling at the crazy faranjis.1491424_10151796670506150_77147443_o

We make it just in time to watch 100 priests make their annual procession up the rock carved steps onto the cliffs surrounding the church. 2 dozen priests remain below ground in the courtyard playing instruments and chanting. Then it begins. A sea of robes, in unison begin this ancient ritual of transe-like dancing and chanting. The courtyard priests symbolizing the world’s people and the priests above on the cliffs symbolizing the angels in heaven. This continues for a few hours until about mid morning when the sun’s rays begin to shine down into the pit…

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I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been a part of something so spiritually charged, so sacred and virtually untouched for many centuries. And a rare glimpse into what Christmas might have been like for some of our ancestors a few hundred years ago. Lalibela is special. It’s raw and it’s real and will happily embrace you, if you are ready to embrace the experience.

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TREKKING INDEPENDENTLY ~ THE SIMIEN MOUNTAINS, ETHIOPIA

TIPS ON TREKKING INDEPENDENTLY IN THE SIMIEN MOUNTAINS                                                                                   (Information current as of January 2014)

Hello, 

Thought I would give you all some useful info on trekking the Simien Mountains without having to join a tour group. (About $98 for a solo traveller for 3 days!) Everything can easily be arranged at the park office in Debark. The park office is located on your left just as your coming into town. You can get the mini bus to drop you off there on your way in from Gonder.

The most popular route to take is to get transportation to Sankaber Campsite (alternatively you should be able to start in Buyit Ras) and start your trek from there. In this case your equipment will be weighed at Sankaber and mules, handlers and porters arranged from there. Unless you have extra days to spare, I don’t recommend trekking from Debark. Not much for scenery, a good portion will be hiked on a dusty, gravel road. 

From Sankaber you would trek to the Geech Campsite for the night (4-5hrs). There is a lovely village about 30min before arriving at Geech, reminded me of the Shire from Lord of the Rings. 🙂 The next day you will trek to Chenek camp via Imet Gogo (breathtaking scenery!) along the escarpment which is longer than the alternative of following the dirt road but very worthwhile as this will be the most scenic part of your trek (7-8hrs). On the third day you can summit Mt. Bwahit (best chance of spotting the Ibex on this route) 5-6hrs and stay at Chenek for another night or head back to Debark. The fourth day could be spent trekking back to Sankaber along a dusty gravel road (7-8hrs) although I would recommend just getting a ride back.

The itiniery I mentioned above is set. If you plan to combine these routes to cut time be aware that they will charge you park fees accordingly. For example if you combine 2 days into one you will still be charged for 2 days. Again, you can easily contact the office by phone to clarify everything. They are quite helpful.

The scouts, porters and mule handlers are responsible for bringing their own meals but you’ll notice that many only eat once a day to cut costs so we collectively as a group would give them dinner to keep morale up for them as well as for ourselves. You could bring some instant noodle packets for them for example or snacks but you are not obligated. They did not charge extra for lodging for the scout, they sleep on the floor in the common area. And the scouts self-admittedly prefer people who stay in lodges because it’s warmer for them. If you are camping though, they have to stay near you so they sleep in the eating shacks at the campsite and might ask you to pay for some wood to keep them warm on cold nights.

PRICES: 
Prices have increased as of Jan 9th 2014 so be aware. All prices are on a PER DAY basis, unless otherwise noted. On a typical 3 day trek most people get a ride back to Debark from Chenek camp. So if you spend 3 days trekking and ride back the park WILL CHARGE YOU AN ADDITIONAL DAY for Admission, Mules and Handlers, Porters and Scout, their reasoning being that it would take them an extra day to walk back home (even though the scout gets a ride back with you because he’s required to stay with you till you exit the park). 

The park doesn’t advertise this but it is possible to get a porter which is much cheaper and useful for solo travellers on a budget. Porters can carry up to 20kg. A handler is required for each mule which is a total money grab as you will notice on your trip that 1 person can easily handle a half a dozen mules on their own. Mules can carry up to 40kg. Most people aren’t aware of what their bags weigh and this is another way tour companies get extra money from you. An average bag should weight between 10-15kg with food for 3-4 days (bringing only what you need for the trip) I shared the costs of 2 mules between 8 people (including cooking equipment) just to give you an idea. 

Admission: 90 Birr
Vehicle Admission: 20 Birr 
Camping Fee: 10 Birr / per campsite
Scout (Mandatory): 150 Birr 
Guide: 300 Birr (up to 5 people) 350 Birr 6+people
Cook: 300 Birr (1-3people) 450 Birr (4-10 people) 
Mule Handler: 120 Birr
Mule: 120 Birr
Porter: 120 Birr
Cooking Equipment: 90 Birr 
Tents: 90 Birr
Mattress: 40 Birr 
Sleeping Bag: 80 Birr 
Lodge: 80 Birr

TRANSPORTATION: 
This will be the most expensive part of your trek. It is a total monopoly as they leave you with no other options and charge ridiculous prices to get in and out of the park. I was lucky and joined a group of 8 and shared the cost of getting in but they were on a 4 day trek and I was on a 3 day so I had to find my own transportation back. I couldn’t afford to pay the 2200 Birr they were asking from Chenek to Debark so opted to try and hitch a ride. The park really frowns upon this so I told them that I had made previous arrangements to have a friend’s tour company pick me up on their way out from another trek. The Isuzu trucks you will see on the road is illegal for foreigners to catch a ride but money talks and I was able to hop on one for 200 Birr which covered me and my scout. They put a blanket over me and told me to stay low so as not to get caught. Another alternative would be to ask other tour groups for a ride back if they have room. This will save you a bundle! Another option to get a ride into the park is to make all your arrangements the day prior at the park office and catch a ride in on the local bus at 6 a.m. (100 Birr) it will drop you off at any of the points mentioned above. The park doesn’t advertise this but it is another alternative. Catching the local bus back the other way may be difficult as it’s usually full. You can easily take a minibus between Gondor and Debark for about 40 Birr one way. 

Transportation from/to Buyit Ras: 1000 Birr (4 people)                                                                                                                                                                     Transportation from/to Sankaber: 1400 Birr (4 people) 1800 Birr (4-8 people)                                                                                                    Transportation from /to Ayenameda: 1800 Birr (4 people)                                                                                                                                     Transportation from/to Chenek to Debark: 2200 Birr (4 people) 

Plus the additional 20 Birr vehicle admission for each ride!

WAYS TO CUT COSTS: 

For those on a budget, unless you have your own camping gear, it would be much cheaper to stay in the lodges than rent everything. It will also be more comfortable, warmer and less weight for your mule or porter to carry. 

eg. Tent, sleeping bag, mattress and camping fee: 220 Birr / Day vs 80 Birr per night at lodge

For lodge availability just ask the park office. 

Simple meals can be purchased at the lodges as a much cheaper alternative than purchasing and carrying in your own food which is quite expensive at the supermarkets in Gondor. Not to mention saving money not renting cooking equipment and the added weight for mules / porters. Just bring enough food for lunches and snacks and let the lodge take care of breakfast and dinner or have them cook food that you bring in for you for a fee. Water is available at every campsite but will have to be boiled or treated. The only thing about the lodges is that I did get fleas at the Chenek Lodge which was horrible. I would advise you to bring a can of bug spray to give your bed a once over before jumping in or putting your bag on it. If you have a sleeping bag, bring it with you even for the lodge. It can get very cold at night (was close to freezing at Geech camp) even for the lodges. If you are planning to camp and are renting a sleeping bag, I would recommend getting 2. They are not warm enough and the people who had them couldn’t sleep because it was so cold for them.

A guide is not mandatory so we did not use one to cut costs. A scout is though and will show you the way but they don’t speak any english which can be frustrating to try and communicate simple things to and plan to tip them as they don’t get much pay from the park.

A solo traveler on a 3 day trek from Sankaber to Chenek could essentially cost just under $100 plus food and tips and it only gets cheaper if you find more people to share costs with!

Admission: 360 Birr (4 days)
Lodge: 160 Birr (2 nights)
Scout: 600 Birr (4 days)
Porter (optional): 480 Birr (4 days)
Local Bus to Sankaber: 100 Birr
Hitchhike back on Isuzu: 200 Birr 
= 1,900 Birr ($98 USD) 

So it can be done on the cheap! Hope this helps! I have done a lot of trekking and the Simien Mountains have been one of the most scenic I’ve done to date and one of my biggest highlights in Ethiopia. I never expected that Ethiopia had that kind of terrain and surprised me with it’s breath taking scenery. I highly recommend it! For those short on time and money, 3 days is plenty to see the most scenic parts of the park. 

Safe travels,
H

ANOTHER SUCCESSFUL CLIMB ~ JEBEL TOUBKAL 4,167m

JEBEL TOUBKAL, MOROCCO ~ NOVEMBER 2013

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Another successful climb, climbing North Africa’s highest peak! Jebel Toubkal – 4167m, 2,200m elevation gained in 14km.

I made the decision to climb this mountain on my own without a guide to save a few $100. It was quite easy to arrange solo.  I took the local buses to Imlil and trekked out there alone to the lodge at the base of the mountain. It was a little confusing finding the initial trailhead but I met 3 young boys from a nearby village, who showed me the way. We could hardly communicate to each other because they didn’t know English and I didn’t know French or Berber but they were really sweet kids and they felt compelled to keep an eye on me taking the same route. They had a mule with them that was carrying propane for one of the lodges, each taking a turn riding the mule, often offering to have the mule carry my bag or myself. But I kindly refused thinking in my head that it was a form of cheating.

I made it to the base of the mountain for the night and met a lovely group of Moroccan women at the lodge that evening. In a muslim society, it is usually frowned upon women to be traveling unaccompanied by a man let alone attempting to climb North Africa’s highest peak! They were certainly not your typical Moroccan, muslim women. They were liberal, well-educated and proactive with women’s liberties and rights in the country. Some were actresses in live theatre and all had lived and worked in Paris and spoke French as if it was their native tongue. They had movie star looks and exuded class, even in their trekking boots and jackets. They were also very friendly and after chatting with them, they invited me to join them to summit the following day.

Sofia and Sarra were not feeling well and they stayed at the lodge so the three of us Imane and Insaf and myself, set out at about 2 a.m to1471122_10151687051996150_1170047732_n summit before sunrise. Insaf had climbed this mountain 4 times prior so she was the experienced one in our group and knew the route quite well. Imane had never climbed a mountain before so this was a huge undertaking for her. Half way up, Insaf was not feeling well at all. She was clearly suffering from altitude sickness but was adamant about pushing on. It was getting to the point where I had to step in and tell her we couldn’t continue. I convinced her that she was risking her life and as well as ours if something happened and we had to bring her down on the icy sections. She reluctantly agreed but refused to have us take her down, insisting that we continue climbing. We eventually did continue up but I regret doing so now because she could have been in danger. I was in awe of this little woman who epitomized Shakespeare’s words: “Though she be but little, she is fierce”. She was an adventurer and a risk taker, she sky dived solo many times! She was determined to prove to everyone and herself that she had the ability to do anything she put her mind to. And I respected her for that because she mirrored my character in so many ways. But altitude sickness strikes without prejudice. It can happen to anyone, even athletes or experienced climbers and Insaf made the right decision that day.

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So, it was just me and Imane, the girl who had never trekked before. It was not an easy climb, but I was determined to get her up there. Slowly, with a lot of encouragement and a few white lies (I would keep telling her that we were almost there, even though we weren’t evenclose to keep her motivated) And finally made it to the top! I was so proud of her!I was more excited about the fact that this girl who had never climbed a mountain before in her life, just conquered North Africa’s highest peak, than me reaching the summit!

Another life lesson: Happiness is more meaningful when shared with others…