BOWLED OVER BY ETHIOPIA

In Ethiopia, shop­ping for sou­venirs delivers much more than mem­o­ra­bilia.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY PAMELA WRIGHT

In Ethiopia, shop­ping for sou­venirs delivers much more than mem­o­ra­bilia.

The word sou­venir means ‘a thing that is kept as a re­minder of a per­son, place or event’ or to ‘take as a me­mento’. These days I don’t col­lect sou­venirs like I used to. For years I’d buy what were of­ten use­less items that would ul­ti­mately end up in op shops.

But on this trip through Ethiopia in the north­east of Africa, buy­ing local arte­facts becomes com­pul­sory. Not only is the mer­chan­dise ir­re­sistible but the in­ter­ac­tion with the local shop­keep­ers makes it an ab­so­lute plea­sure, adding ten­fold to the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Known as the ‘A Land of a Thou­sand Smiles’, Ethiopia lives up to its name. While driv­ing along the His­toric Route through an­cient cities like Ak­sum with the Ark of the Covenant, Gon­dar with ma­jes­tic palaces and Lal­i­bela with re­mark­able rock-hewn churches built in the 12th Cen­tury, we meet and chat to peo­ple who are friendly be­yond be­lief, espe­cially con­sid­er­ing the hard­ship they’ve en­dured.

The cap­i­tal, Ad­dis Ababa, al­though full of con­struc­tion, has first-class ho­tels, ex­cel­lent restau­rants and great shop­ping, par­tic­u­larly at Merkato, one of Africa’s largest and best mar­kets. Our visit co­in­cides with Timkat, one of the many fes­ti­vals held in the ear­li­est known home of hu­mankind, and, at the cel­e­bra­tion on the out­skirts of Ad­dis, priests carry or­nately dec­o­rated and em­broi­dered um­brel­las. As I see one gor­geous um­brella after an­other, I en­vis­age a sam­ple on my apart­ment bal­cony in Syd­ney. Our es­cort, Mercey, as­sures me that repli­cas are for sale in the street stalls of Ak­sum.

We cross the road from the fab­u­lous city mu­seum, which con­tains gold crowns laden with ru­bies, be­jew­elled thrones, em­per­ors’ robes and sil­ver Ethiopian crosses, all worth tens of mil­lions of dol­lars. At the store, the shop­keeper smiles as we stop out­side what ap­pears to be head­quar­ters for piles of yel­low water bot­tles. Mercey asks for um­brel­las like the ones at Timkat and, hid­ing among stacks of bot­tles and other house­hold items he, with the help of his wife, pulls out a mas­sive va­ri­ety of colours, shapes and sizes. The bright red and gold one with tassles is per­fect. After he wraps it in umpteen sheets of old news­pa­per and plas­tic to pro­tect the han­dle, it’s ready to take home.

Get­ting around in many of the towns is easy, cheap and fun if you use the com­mon form of trans­port, the ba­jaj which looks exactly like the tuk tuks used in Thai­land – blue and white with skimpy side flaps. So for a few birr, the local cur­rency, we flag down a young chap to drive us from shop to shop along the main shop­ping street in Ak­sum.

Al­though Ethiopia has suf­fered from poverty, the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion is im­prov­ing. Many of the 100 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion also have sub­sidised mo­bile phones, which is how they con­trol the to-ing and fro-ing at the mar­ket­places found through­out the country. It’s not un­usual to see a stall­holder hol­ler­ing in­struc­tions on his mo­bile to truck driv­ers or lo­cals lead­ing don­keys laden with fruit and veg­eta­bles. At such a mar­ket­place, behind the ru­ins of the Palace of the Queen of Sheba walls, we see a beau­ti­ful girl sell­ing straw place mats and bowls so colour­ful we can’t miss them. And we can’t re­sist her smile. So, I have to have one and so does ev­ery­one else in the group.

In a vil­lage on the way to Gon­dar, hand-wo­ven car­pets hang on the mud-brick walls out­side houses where the kids hap­pily help me choose the one that would best suit my lounge room. With much as­sis­tance and all sorts of ad­vice, I choose a three-me­tre brown and beige carpet run­ner that now lies proudly on my floor.

At the main mar­ket­place in the town of Shiro Meda, the chief sales­man drapes linen and flax scarves around our shoul­ders. He’s an ex­pert in demon­strat­ing the pre­ci­sion of scarf place­ment and even more of an ex­pert in con­vinc­ing me that blue is my colour. I sim­ply have to have one.

As we sip on de­li­cious Ethiopian cof­fee at Mount Simien Lodge, girls mod­el­ling jew­ellery around their slen­der necks make them too pretty to re­sist, so one neck­lace please.

The Simien Moun­tains Na­tional Park, reg­is­tered by UNESCO as a World Her­itage site, is home to the Ge­lada ba­boon, of­ten re­ferred to as the bleed­ing-heart mon­key. As we walk among a large group of about 50, in­clud­ing ba­bies, they barely bother to look up as they graze fran­ti­cally on both the blades and the seeds of the grass, which provides 90 per cent of their diet. But at the lodge res­tau­rant, a group of young ones brazenly at­tempt to steal food and, if we’re not care­ful, our re­cent pur­chases.

Bahir Dar is lo­cated on the south­ern shores of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile and the country’s largest lake, cov­er­ing 3,600 square kilo­me­tres. On the penin­sula op­po­site our water­front hotel is one of many monas­ter­ies, in­clud­ing

Ura Ki­dane Mehret, fa­mous for its paint­ings. A mod­ern small launch drops us at the be­gin­ning of a 400-me­tre-track that leads up to the monastery and guess what? The track’s adorned with sou­venirs from the water’s edge to the monastery en­trance so there’s no es­cap­ing. But by now we don’t mind one bit as the shop­keep­ers are so happy that it’s a plea­sure do­ing business – or not – with them. Here, as we walk past stalls of brightly coloured blan­kets, hand-carved wooden bowls, sil­ver crosses, leather bags and all sorts of local knick­knacks, we’re in­vited to a traditional cof­fee cer­e­mony.

In case you didn’t know, Ethiopia is the birth­place of the essential liq­uid gold that be­gins the day for many peo­ple around the world. Cof­fee orig­i­nated in a place called ‘Kaffa’, dis­cov­ered by Kaldi, an Abyssinian goatherder, and

“Ethiopia is the birth­place of the essential liq­uid gold that be­gins the day for many peo­ple around the world”

ev­ery­where you go cof­fee cer­e­monies are on the agenda. As an in­te­gral part of so­cial and cul­tural life here, it’s considered a mark of friend­ship or re­spect and is an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of Ethiopian hos­pi­tal­ity.

To be­gin with, a young fe­male roasts the cof­fee beans on a sim­ple, flat cop­per plate over a tiny char­coal stove with hot coals ar­ranged on a bed of long scented palm grasses. The beans are poked and prod­ded un­til they turn black and shiny, then ground in a long, han­dled mor­tar and pes­tle and placed in a jebena, a round-bot­tomed jar with a straw lid. This long pro­ce­dure (about half an hour) is fas­ci­nat­ing to watch as roughly ground cof­fee is passed through a fine sieve sev­eral times. A child an­nounces that it’s about to be served and it’s then poured grace­fully into tiny, china cups from a height of 30 cen­time­tres or so with­out spilling a drop. As we hap­pily sip away, we feel priv­i­leged at hav­ing been in­cluded in such an important cul­tural cer­e­mony.

It’s mu­sic to their ears to hear the words ‘hol­i­day and scenery’ and with con­struc­tion un­der­way ev­ery­where, the plan is to be in the top five African coun­tries to visit by 2025. If they keep up the smiles, the first-rate sou­venirs, happy mar­ket­places and freshly brewed cof­fee at air­ports, Ethiopia is bound to make its tar­get.

Un­til I re­turn again, I love the lit­tle pieces of Ethiopia in my apart­ment, and I can’t help but smile ev­ery time I see them. •

Open­ing im­age: Ura Ki­dane Mihret Monastery wall. Above: Sou­venirs for sale on road­side above Ad­dis Ababa.

Right, from top: Geleda ba­boons at Simien Na­tional Park; Eat­ing the na­tional dish, in­jera with hands – al­ways shared; Wo­ven trays near Queen of Sheba Palace.

From top: Um­brel­las at Timkat fes­ti­val;

Cof­fee cer­e­mony on the track to the monastery at Ba­har Dir.

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