It has been almost exactly a month since I left Africa, flying first from Johannesburg back to Dar for one last round of goodbyes, and then onwards from there.
It already feels like a dream. The first time I saw a giraffe. The way Lake Malawi glimmers as the sun sets. Touring Kigali on the back of a motorbike. Watching the world spin below me from the top of Kilimanjaro. Shivering next to a pool of boiling lava in the Congo. Drinking red wine and eating pizza and talking books at Saverios Restaurant in Dar. An afternoon with a family of mountain gorillas in Rwanda. The dusty red roads of Kampala. Kissing a giraffe in Nairobi. The Tanzanian line dance on my 30th birthday. Christmas in Ethiopia. Swimming in a waterfall in Madagascar. Laughing until I cried in Maputo.
These things that I know to be true. The sunset is most spectacular in Zimbabwe, the sky most beautiful in Madagascar, the water most blue off the coast of Tanzania. Maputo has the best egg tarts, Dar the best Indian food, Ethiopia the best coffee. On a good day, it takes 24 hours to drive 400 kilometres in Madagascar, 15 hours to cover the same distance in Malawi, 12 hours in Tanzania, anybody’s guess in Mozambique.
There are good people everywhere, more parts happiness than sadness. One day, a child in Goma smiled at me and gave me a piece of lava, from the volcanic eruption that destroyed his family home. I carry it in my purse. Another day, a woman sitting beside me on a long bus ride bought me some bananas, a piece of manioc, and a bag of peanuts. She didn’t speak English but she smiled at me when I thanked her. I carry this with me too.
When the picture accompanying this post was taken, I was sitting on the beach with four people I had met a day earlier, eating crabs we had marinated in garlic and tomatoes, drinking a 2M beer, and talking about tides and wind patterns and 3 am departure times. A picnic spread out on the canvas sails we had removed from the boat to use as a tablecloth. Happiness in the form of a poem.
I carry all of it with me.
I counted the stars in Madagascar. I know I am very lucky, both for the adventures and the people I have met along the way.
These are the things I have learned.
Lalibela is notoriously inaccessible.
It used to take travellers four days by mule to reach the small town, which is perched at an altitude of nearly 3000 metres in the Ethiopian Highlands. As recently as the late nineties, Lalibela was only accessible by way of a winding dirt road which was frequently impassable in the rainy season. Today, however, a better gravel road has been constructed and Ethiopian Airlines runs daily flights to Lalibela. Domestic flights in Ethiopia are relatively inexpensive – approximately $40 for a one hour flight – and this is now how most travellers arrive in the remote town.
Although the daily flights have taken some of the romance out of travel to Lalibela, the journey does not have to be without thrill, narrow escape, and adventure.
The guesthouse I was staying at in Gonder arranged for a taxi to pick me up and take me to the airport to catch my flight to Lalibela. The taxi was late. Very very late. I waited on the street while the owner of the guesthouse made a few frantic calls, the pitch of his voice raising higher and higher while he spoke to the taxi driver, all the while reassuring me that I still had plenty of time to get to the airport.
A small rusty blue taxi finally pulled up to the guesthouse. It was on its last legs. We made it about two minutes down a small hill to the main road when the taxi sputtered to a stop. The taxi driver began searching for another car that could make it all the way to the airport.
There were several more frantic phone calls and finally another rusty blue taxi pulled up in front of me. By this time I was running seriously late and someone at the airport called my taxi driver to ask where we were. There was an error in translation, and tension mounted when the taxi driver mistakenly told me that the plane had already left.
We drove the rest of the way to the airport at breakneck speed, dodging donkeys, herds of children, and people on their way to work.
As I got out of the car and walked to the entrance of the airport, I could hear the taxi driver behind me shouting “faster, faster, walk faster”. When I arrived to check in, the worker behind the desk looked up and said, “you must be Megan, you are the last to check in, where have you been?”
Lalibela was worth the frantic ride to the airport. It would also be worth four days’ travel by mule.
The small village is home to the unofficial eighth wonder of the world, thirteen churches which are approximately 800 years old and which have been carved out of the mountainside. The churches have been constructed below ground level, and form an underground mountain village complete with moats, secret passageways, windows, stairs, and hidden rooms where the priests live and sleep.
The churches are, in a word, unbelievable. Their existence defies logic and it is difficult to imagine how they could have been built. Legend says that angels helped to build the churches in a single night. I don’t know about that, but there is definitely a magic in the air at Lalibela.
When I arrived, Lalibela was bustling with visitors. In Ethiopia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th and many pilgrims walk for over 500 kilometres and for several months through the mountains to celebrate the festival in Ethiopia’s holy land. These travellers were beginning to gather in the city, making frequent early morning visits to the churches, asking the priests for blessings, and camping under the stars in the town square.
In the warm blurry light of the early morning I sat with my back pressed up against rock outside of bet giyorgis, the most spectacular of the churches, watching streams of believers remove their shoes and bend down to kiss the threshold. Some visitors so young they had to be pulled along by their mothers, and some so old their legs were twisted and guided by canes. Some wearing fine white cloth and others in clothing that has been worn, stained, and repaired countless times. All united in common belief and eager to touch the exquisitely beautiful buildings constructed from mountain.
It is almost enough to make one believe in angels.
I had planned to spend a relaxing Christmas at Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee sanctuary in Northwestern Tanzania, but these plans came undone at the last minute by bad weather, washed out roads, and cancelled flights. Instead, on Christmas day I fought with a guide over the source of the Blue Nile, traveled for five hours in a bus crammed with sheep and goat herders, came face to face with a Kalishnikov rifle, sat in the shadows of a castle built four hundred years ago, and looked up to see a hundred angels floating above me.
I spent the week before Christmas on the phone with Precision Airlines and cursing a slow internet connection as I tried to plot out bus routes to Kigoma on flooded roads only to realize that the journey would be prohibitively expensive, time consuming, and frustrating. When a friend cancelled her plans to meet me in Kigoma for Christmas, I booked a last minute flight to Ethiopia.
On December 23, I set out for Addis Ababa with my backpack and my guidebook. It has been a few years since I last traveled by myself, and I had forgotten the joy of open horizons on my own schedule.
Early on Christmas Eve, I traveled to Bahir Dar in Northern Ethiopia, which is a wonderful city set on the shores of Lake Tana, with wide palm-tree lined roads, colourful back alleys, and fresh coffee beans roasting on nearly every corner. Shortly after I arrived, I made arrangements with a guide to ride by boat to the source of the Blue Nile the next day.
On Christmas morning, I waited for the guide in my hotel lobby. He walked in about an hour late, talking to five other tourists and trying desperately to sell them a more lucrative tour of the nearby monasteries for that morning. When he denied all knowledge of the planned boat ride to the Blue Nile, I decided to catch the next bus to Gondar and exact my revenge on Trip Advisor.
I was packed into a small bus that was already crammed full of sheep and goat herders dressed in long white robes. Chickens squawked under my feet and I held my backpack on my lap. All conversation ceased as soon as I climbed onto the bus, as the herders stared at me with thinly veiled curiosity and I stared back at them with the same. The countryside blurred through the open window, winding hills of vivid green and gold. The man next to me turned and said, “excuse me, but do you speak Amharric?” Although I don’t speak the language, we mimed a conversation. When he turned to leave, I glimpsed a kalishnikov rifle buried under his robes and noticed that a few of the men on the bus were armed, presumably to protect their cattle.
I arrived in Gonder in mid-afternoon, a town that has been made famous because it is home to the only castle in Africa. The castle is the focal point of the town, crumbling pink and brown stones surrounded by guides, storytellers, incense, and coffee shops.
As the afternoon stretched into evening, I walked away from the town, up the hills and into the sunset to stare at a spectacular church with a ceiling of a hundred angels. I stayed until the sun faded and I could see the lights of Gondar flicker below me.
It certainly wasn’t the Christmas day that I had planned. But the magic of traveling in Africa is that when plans come undone you can have a Christmas with twelve goat herders, a four hundred year old castle, a hundred angels, and a perfect sunset over the Ethiopian Highlands.
The town of Bahir Dar lies on the shores of Lake Tana in Northern Ethiopia. The region is home to hundreds of monasteries, many of which are located on small islands sprinkled across the lake.
I spent Christmas Eve rowing from one small island to the next, chatting with friendly monks, sipping on Ethiopian coffee, admiring the brightly coloured art that adorns the monasteries, and thumbing through 800 year-old texts written on goatskin.