Sunday, January 11, 2015

Ethiopia: Debre Libanos and the Portuguese Bridge

“You think I’m a bad driver, don’t you?” Eitan asked me as we came to a stop on the side of the highway.

“Of course not,” I answered. “There were just a few blind passes that gave me some concern.”

Slightly incensed, Eitan assured me that he hadn’t put us in any danger.  I didn’t disagree with that, but I also think it’s easier to be confident when one is sitting in the driver’s seat.

Our drive from Addis Ababa to Debre Libanos had taken the better part of two hours, and while the rural landscape had been a refreshing change of pace from the grit of the city, the driving conditions left much to be desired.  Winding through the central Ethiopian foothills, the road was a tangle of hairpin turns, dips, and climbs.  The surface of the road, while generally smooth, was at times abraded and cratered.  There were animals and people walking beside, and as well as in, the lanes of traffic.  The biggest annoyances on this journey, however, were the lumbering trucks hauling freight.  While most of these trucks could hold their own on level and downhill terrain, they crept along at a snail’s pace once the road began to rise.  When a truck did undertake climbing a hill, it didn’t take long for a row of cars to assemble behind it like the tail on a kite, and it was in this situation that many a-driver opted to pass under less than ideal conditions.  The urge to escape the truck’s inertia was too great to suppress.  The road was two lanes, and the truck obstacle was naturally a factor in both lanes.  We found ourselves on several occasions facing down a speeding car head-on in our lane, the driver of the oncoming car trying desperately to overtake a truck and merge back in line.  There's really nothing to do when this happens short of swerving and cursing, and we managed to do both in good measure.

The main reason for our excursion was to show some friends of Eitan’s – Cody and Kaitlin – something more of Ethiopia than its capital.  They were only in country for about 36 hours, so there wasn’t time for anything more elaborate than a modest day trip.  We decided on Debre Libanos and the Portuguese Bridge.

Just short of our destination, we stopped at a scenic overlook by the side of the road.  Simultaneously, a Landcruiser with South Korean diplomatic plates also stopped.

Before Eitan even had time to kill the engine, a gaggle of vendors had materialized outside the car.  There were several young children, a few teenagers, and two middle-aged men, and they were all vying for our attention.  As much as I like having baskets, beads, straw hats, and cross necklaces shoved in my face, I wasn’t inclined to buy anything.  Luckily for us, however, the Koreans were.

One woman in particular opened her purse almost as soon as she alighted and this attracted the bulk of the souvenir sellers like moths to a flame.

A few children remained with my group which was unfortunate for them because my three companions were no more inclined to buy than I was.

One little girl decided that Kaitlin was going to be her next customer.

“Sir, sir!” she called out.

Obviously she was experiencing some gender confusion, but at least she was using a polite form of address.

“Is that normal here – to call a woman ‘sir’?” Kaitlin asked.

It wasn’t something I had encountered before and I admitted as much.  We had a chuckle about the incident.

From the overlook, it was only about a five-minute drive to the Debre Libanos monastery.  As Eitan, our resident Amharic speaker, explained to us, Debre Libanos translates to Mount Lebanon.  Holy men from Lebanon (who were later canonized) are credited with introducing Christianity to Ethiopia, so therein lies the connection.

As we drove through the town, a young man was yelling and flapping his arms by the side of the road, trying to get our attention.

“Bah-boons, bah-boons!” he shouted.

It took us a moment to comprehend what he was telling us, but then we understood.  Sure enough, there were several gelada baboons grazing by the side of the road.  The gelada is unique to Ethiopia and is the only baboon that subsists solely on grass.

Kaitlin had mentioned earlier her strong dislike of baboons; Eitan isn’t much of an animal person himself, and Cody seemed indifferent to the whole affair.  I had seen geladas a few times before, so stopping wasn’t crucial for me either.  We cruised on by and admired the geladas through the car windows.

When we reached the monastery, we got a parking space right up front.  There were a few tour vans and some other diplomatic cars, including the Koreans who arrived just behind us, but the place was pretty empty.

Debre Libanos

As we entered the monastery compound, we all started snapping photos and were promptly chastised.

“No photos allowed!” a man shouted.  “Go buy a ticket.”

We dutifully reported to the ticket booth, and the turbaned ticket seller surprised us all.

“Are you from New York… or is it Chicago?” he asked Eitan.  “I remember you came before, mostly with women.”

It had been over a year since Eitan had visited, but the ticket man seemed to remember him.

Admission was 100 birr (about $5), and we all coughed up the cash.

The ticket man invited us to start our tour in the small museum, but I had something else on my mind.

“Is there a bathroom?” I asked in Amharic.

This simple question demonstrated the full extent of my rudimentary language skills, but the ticket man thought I was clever nonetheless.  I’m sure he reconsidered his assessment, though, when I proved unable to say anything more in the local lingua.

From where we were all standing, there was a bathroom visible inside the museum.  There was a metal bucket sitting on top of the closed toilet seat, however, and it looked like this bathroom might not be in use.

That turned out to be the case because the ticket man led us outside to another bathroom.

We had all announced our desire to make use of the facilities, so the ticket man chivalrously announced, “ladies first!” and pointed the way for Kaitlin.

 After she had left the group, the man explained the origin of this phrase, “ladies first”.

According to him, it came about in Germany during WWII, and it was anything but chivalrous.  At that time, he explained, ladies were sent first into buildings to see if there was toxic gas inside.

We all had a laugh about this, including Kaitlin who could hear this dubious explanation from the loo.

After sharing this bit of history, the ticket man went on to guess our heritages.

He started by correctly identifying Cody’s Japanese ancestry.

Then it was my turn.  The man pegged me as Mexican.  This wasn’t fully correct, but since I do have some Latino blood, I had to give him partial credit.

For Kaitlin, he guessed Irish.  Again, this was a minor branch of her family tree, but it was a branch all the same.  Our friend scored more partial credit.

Eitan was the toughest nut to crack, and the old man was stumped.

By the time the guessing game had finished, everyone had taken a turn in the bathroom and we migrated back to the museum.

As we left the museum heading for the church, the old man had a strange question.

“Do you have the key?” he asked us.

The bathroom to which he had taken us barely had a door, much less a key, and we had no clue what he was talking about.

We all denied having any key; the old man nodded, and we continued to the church.

Unsure of how to access the building, for all of the doors were padlocked, we started circumnavigating the church.  There were a few random people who seemed to be homeless lounging in the grass, but they paid us no attention.

Not long after we started walking the church grounds, a door opened and a man affiliated with the church led a group of tourists out.  I wasn’t sure if this man was a priest or a monk, or if he was simply a caretaker.

After we made eye contact with the man, we all converged at a locked gate.

“Where’s your receipt?” the man asked.

Although we had paid, we had not been issued a receipt, so it was not our fault that we were empty-handed.  Eitan began to protest, but I decided it would be easier to go get the receipt.

I walked back to the ticket booth and sought the old man’s assistance.

As he wrote out the receipt, he whispered to himself as if he had to speak aloud every word he put to paper.  The receipt was quite detailed, so the whole process took a few minutes.

When at last he was finished, he handed me the receipt.

“Here’s your key!” he told me.

Realizing that he called the receipt a key, I now understood the mix-up that had happened earlier.

When we had come from the bathroom and he had asked if we had the key, he was really inquiring as to if he had given us a receipt.  Not understanding his meaning, we had given him some quizzical looks, which I’m sure left him a puzzled as well.

With my “key” in hand, I rejoined the group, and the man at the church granted us access.

While a church has been present at Debre Libanos for quite some time, the current structure only dates back to 1961.  It was at this time that Emperor Haile Selassie had the older church replaced with a bigger one to accommodate more worshipers.

In accordance with local custom, we removed our shoes and entered the building.  The entire tour took maybe 10 minutes with our guide showing us the men’s and women’s worship areas, some impressive stained glass windows, the private worship perches used by the emperor and empress back in the day, and some paintings, both old and new.  He also told us the story of the founder of Debre Libanos, Saint Tekle Haymanot.  According to legend, this guy prayed for 29 years straight while standing on one leg.  The elevated leg eventually atrophied and fell off, so the paintings of him always depict a one-legged man.  While it’s a fun story to be sure, I never did understand the connection between standing on one foot and piety.

Debre Libanos is also said to house a piece of the True Cross (the cross on which Jesus was crucified), but our guide made no mention of this.

With our tour finished, we snapped a few pictures and drove back out the way we had come.  For a second time, we bypassed the baboon boys.

Eitan drove us to the Ethio-German Guesthouse, a few minutes away from the monastery, where we intended to have lunch.

The guesthouse had a proper restaurant, but we preferred to eat the picnic lunch we had packed.  Eitan checked with the staff, and they allowed us to eat our own food for a modest corkage

Sitting on the rim of the Great Rift Valley is a good time to begin with, but when you add in a few bottles of wine, a fine selection of cheeses, and some chips and hummus, it's even better.  Somehow everything's better with wine.

As we ate our sophisticated lunch, the other people who were eating the guesthouse lunch were clearly jealous.

Once we had eaten, we lingered a bit to enjoy the view and the birds of prey that were cruising by.

Then we set out for the famous Portuguese Bridge.  Just a kilometer or so from the Ethio-German Guesthouse, the Portuguese Bridge is an old bridge, dating back to either the 16th or 19th century depending on whom you ask, that may or may not have anything to do with Portugal.  In short, the particulars are a bit murky.

The hike from the guesthouse to the bridge didn't take long, and after 10 or 15 minutes, we came to a ticket booth.  Basically a few guys were demanding payment of a dollar or so to see the bridge, and it was hard to tell if this ramshackle operation was legitimate or if these guys were just entrepreneurs who had purchased a receipt book.

The Korean tourists were standing at the ticket booth when we arrived, and they were keen to explain the process to us.  This was a case of people trying too hard to be helpful as we could have easily managed the situation on our own.

Despite our skepticism, we paid the standard asking price.  It wasn't enough to quibble over.  We did, however, decline to hire a guide.

The fact that we didn't hire a guide apparently didn't matter, for one attached himself to our group all the same.  I suppose he was working for free in anticipation of a tip.

The bridge wasn't far from the ticket booth, and along the way, the guide explained some things.

The Portuguese Bridge

For example, the bridge was held together by a cement primarily derived from crushed ostrich eggs.

We admired the bridge from the top, sides, and bottom, and took some pictures.  Having come in the dry season, there wasn't any water flowing beneath it, but there were a few pools of stagnant water glistening in the sun.  Our guide explained that people sometimes swam in the pools, but to us, they all looked pretty uninviting.  We'd have to share the water with large algae blooms and a legion of insect larvae.

Noting our hesitation, the guide tried to help.

"Just 20 or 30 minutes further down," he told us, "there is a cave with a perfect swimming hole."

"There's even a waterfall!"

None of us had planned on swimming, however, and we weren't prepared.  We decided to forgo the hike to the cave.

A point of interest for more than human tourists, a troupe of baboons was also hanging around near the bridge.  As I mentioned earlier, though, not everyone in our group held the baboon in high esteem, and we gave them a wide berth.

So having seen the bridge and having seen the vista, we headed back to the car.

We gave the guide some money for his time, and 15 minutes later we were back on the road.

The journey back was more hair-raising than the outbound had been, but there was still plenty of time for levity.  We were listening to internet radio as coverage blinked in and out, and at one point, without warning, Kaitlin went from comatose to party time.  Apparently Becky G's "Shower" is her jam, and she sang along like no one was watching.

Eitan, Cody, and I definitely took note of the performance, and we all thought it was dandy.  For dodging trucks, careening through potholes, and nudging goats and cows, it was as good a soundtrack as any.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Dude - You missed your calling as a travel writer. Always fun to read your blogs. Take care. Aldo