Sunday, 31 May 2009

A better weekend

Martha is out of hospital, her leg is in plaster (again) and its still very sore, but at least shes home. My dad is feeling a bit better, Douglas is slowly improving (got sound in that ear for the first time, fleetingly this afternoon) and my cold is on its way out.


On Saturday Douglas and I got the tram to the Childrens Hospital, and I sat with Martha for about an hour showing her how to do some Quilling, whilst Douglas went into town in search of a new wallet. Martha did quite well with her first attempt.. it wasnt until later I looked on my box (quilling kit) and it said suitable for 14 years +.. Martha is 10 :-)

I had an afternoon nap, in preparation for visiting our best man and his wife, Stu and Janet who live in Leeds. I offered to drive as I drink very little, and Douglas hasnt been too well. We had a lovely evening with them, and a really super BBQ. We were all stuffed after the meal, for which Douglas had made bombay potatoes. YUM!!

On Sunday, I got up about 7am and went into the garden. I really wanted to do some things to it before it got too hot. I find the heat quite difficult to cope with, and also I burn very easily.

I trimmed some plants back from the side of the path making access up and down the garden possible, then was doing some weeding as my parents arrived. They brought some nice large tomato plants for our tiny lean-to green house, some little purple sprouting broc plants, three butternut squash plants and some leeks. We spent about 3 hours weeding and planting, and it all looks very nice. See photos below!

This is the first poppy so far this year. I love these but would love one that is much darker red if I could get hold of one.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Everything apart from House maids knee

A week of illnesses...

Its been a lovely week weather-wise.. sunny and warm, not much rain.. garden is looking verdant, rhubarb tastes great, but sadly our family hasnt been doing quite as well!

Firstly I hear that my dad, whilst out running with his club, tripped over a hidden metal object in the path and landed (at some speed) flat on his face. He has cut the bridge of his nose and damaged his shin, and also cracked or at least bruised his ribs quite badly!

My parents went back along the path, and have found the object that tripped him up so badly - I hope the council will take action and remove this metal bar before anyone else gets damaged! Poor dad.

Next on the list is Douglas. He has got an ear infection in his left ear that has been incredibly painful. The GP gave him a spray, but as the pain got much worse, we went to the out of hours Dr service on Tuesday evening. The Dr we saw there gave him some oral antibiotics and lots of sympathy, both of which have helped. The Dr had had this type of ear infection herself, so knew how painful it was.

I'm glad to say that today, Friday, Douglas is feeling much better, and although he gets painful twinges now and then, hes going back to work today :-)

Sorry but the list keeps growing..

I have got a head cold (where else would you expect to have a cold?) its the stuffy sort not the type that requires half a tree worth of tissues, so there is very little to show for it. As a result of not being able to breathe properly, for the last three nights Ive woken up with a very dry mouth and a sore throat. Tuesday and Wednesday night were the worst.. I slept very badly and nearly fell asleep in a team meeting at work. I felt really grotty yesterday, but survived until about 2pm, when after an hour of being on the phones I felt ghastly.. I had a headache, felt too hot, very bunged up and very tired, so I went home (my team leader didnt look very impressed) and slept like a log for a few hours. I didnt even hear the phone when my mum rang!!!

I slept a lot better last night, and feel more human than I have for a day or so. Back to work again today, as I love my job, and really dont want to be off sick... I just couldnt cope yesterday afternoon. Poor me!!

Ok.. last bit of this tale of woe is my neice, Martha. She and her family are down in London visiting my Sister in laws mum for a few days. Marth has a poorly leg that she broke in December, and ended up in a plaster cast for about 6 weeks. Yep.. you guessed it.. she was monkeying around as usual, but fell awkwardly on some steps and twisted this very same leg. According to the hospital she is currently in, its not broken again (phew) but they are not sure why its so painful for her. She will be transported, along with her dad, to her local hospital in the next day or so when there is a space for her.

I had a chat to Martha on the phone yesterday.. shes reading Harry Potter for the umpteenth time, partly as its the only book she took with her. She is a little bookworm, like Douglas, so I have ordered two books from the internet for her that have had very good reviews. I hope she and Leo will enjoy them!!

The quote at the top, by the way, refers to a book called Three Men in a Boat, where one of them looks through an encyclopedia of ailments, and decides he has everything, apart from House maids knee :-)

I will end on a more cheerful note.. when we were up in Scotland, d's step mum took me to a craft group she attends, and she took all her quilling stuff with her for me to have a play with. Quilling is the art of turning thin strips of coloured paper round a small tool to make tight round circles or looser ones with the paper spiralling in towards the middle. Ive now got some of my own, and Im having fun making a card for my youngest nephew Carlo (I think he will be 5 on the 2nd June!!)

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Bank Holiday Weekend

Having got back from Scotland, I worked Friday, Douglas had a peaceful day at home, then it was the weekend and we had 3 days together before work started again :-)

We didnt do anything very exciting.. we went shopping on Saturday, and had lunch with my parents which was nice. Later, Ds friend Dangerous came round, so whilst the boys played Crib and chatted, I left them to it, and played Runescape.

Over the weekend, I went up an agility level, a hitpoints level and as a result went up two combat levels!!! I have also made about 3 million gold which I wish were real. Ok.. enough geek speak.. onto Sunday :-)

Sunday I spent a few hours making our bedroom look tidy, putting clothes away and sorting Ds tablets, then Douglas went up with the vacuum and removed the layer of black fur from the carpet that has been gathering for far too long ........cant THINK how it got there lol... Billy and Lilly have CATegorically denied leaving any fur anywhere in the house ;-) Not sure I believe them lol.

We also went to see the new Star Trek Film, and apart from a from a few inconsistencies, it was a jolly good film, and quite exciting in parts!!

I made a lovely stir fry with Coconut Rundown Sauce from a local company, and Douglas did himself a roast chicken, which the cats eyed up. I'm glad to say they don't like my veggie food (unless cream or yogurt is available) and they have not yet learned to open the fridge!

Friday, 22 May 2009

Simon wending his way South

Well, it had to finally happen. Yes, evil has entered Eden. I heard Bob Marley in Mekele. I thought I was in a paradise where the Red, Green & Gold had no Trustifarian conotations, merely national pride, and any Reggae I'd heard was Ethiopian. But Mekele, keen to display
its sophistication, felt it necessary to drop some Marley in the mix along with (of course) Celine Deone.

Needless to say, I moved swiftly on. Next stop was Maychew (pronounced Macho), after a startlingly beautiful journey where the Tigrain plains were left behind. Rain, greenery, wattle & daub, round tukuls & churches instead of rectangular ones, very uppy & downy geographically - it was a different world. I'm running out of hyperbole to describe the Ethiopian landscape, and I sense that it could quickly become boring to continuously remind you that this is, yes, the most beautiful country on the planet. However, the jagged ridges around Maychew, as they tumbled spastically from the huge mountain peaks and gathered in soft bowls, showed an organic chaos
like some vorticist's nightmare, and the area deserves special mention.

Perhaps most amazing of all, I went on a 4 hour walk and not one person asked me for money. In fact, some kids ran away screaming when they saw me, and another woman grabbed herself in fright. It's some indication of what rural Tigrai can be like that this came as a great relief rather than a worrying sign. And the scenary was spectacular too, like a romantic version of Scotland mixed with Pakistan. Truly magnificent.

The next day it was on to Koreme, itself rather rubbish but within walking distance of a wonderful saphire coloured lake, next to a great green alpine plateau filled with more oxen than have ever actually existed. It's like Switzerland on Steroids, especially the oxen; those fuckers are BIG. When they grunt (impossible to call it a moo) it's like turbo wookie flatulence crossed with an earthquake - the first time I heard it close quarters I started to run away before I
realised what it was. Unfortunately, this arcadia was spoiled somewhat by two giggling, stumbling teenagers who followed me for an hour and a half, occasionally chucking stones and constantly asking for money. Or my glasses. Or money & my glasses. When I asked what
possible reason there was for me to give them money when all they'd done was annoy me, they mumbled "But we've followed you for so far!"

I then descended to another hot and dusty plain; the home of the Afar. The Afar used to be greatly feared for their habits of filing their teeth down to points and lopping the testicles off any strangers who visited their territory, so it was with some trepidation that I crossed their terrain. Nowadays, however, the only real difference between them and most mainstream Ethiopians is that the men wear sarong-like skirts, like that other feared warrior race I am more intimately aware of.

Safely across, I ascended to Woldia. Everyone hates Woldia; I did too at first. A dusty, loud mess of a place, a kind of frontier atmosphere. Yet that evening, when I climbed the sheer surrounding slopes and made it above the poo line (the line which is as far up the mountain someone is willing to climb to take a shit), I realised just how superlatively it was set, all interlocking valleys and chains of imposing mountains. It started to seem a bit Deadwood - there is a real Wild West feel to a lot of Ethiopia.

It turned out that people were all so vocally idiotic because they were mostly chewing Chat. It doesn't make you an idiot, but it does make you loud and vivacious, and it also takes up all your time, so only people who don't have jobs chew it, and most of them are idiots. Hence, loud, but friendly, idiocy.

And there was another reason to like it. Being firmly back in Amhara land, they did good cake. Unfortunately I had yet to realise the impossibility of ordering two things at the same time in Ethiopia. If you order some food and a drink, they'll just bring you the drink, thinking you've cancelled the food. This led to some long, fruitless waits, and given I hadn't had good cake in weeks I was practically pleading with the guy who came over to demonstrate his (awesome)
English language skills:

"How do I order cake?"
"I want cake."
"When do you want cake?"
"So how do I ask for it?"
"I asked for cake, but I'm not getting cake. How do I get cake?"
"When do you want the cake?"
"That doesn't matter, I just need to be able to say 'Can I have some
cake?' in Amharigna."
"I don't understand."
"'Cake, please'?"
"You want cake?"
"When do you want the cake?"

Eventually someone else intervened, I got the cake and it was good. But for some reason I had built up cake in my mind - I'm just not that into it. And Amharas don't make good bread like the Tigrains do. If Bread & Cake fought, bread would totally win (at least they would if they were fighting in my head, which they frequently do), so the victory of being in a land of good cake seems rather Phyrric.

The odd atmosphere of Woldia rolled over into the bars in the evenings, when truckers would gather. Some of these middle-aged stout denim wearers would dance themselves into a frenzy, one guy galloping on the spot whilst jerking his shoulders spasmodically and gazing at himself longingly in a mirrored pillar. With his buddies thrusting body parts in a circle behind him, the whole scene resembled some kind of Dads' Secret Gay Away Day.

I stayed an extra day, and went for a relaxing smoke up one of the sides of the mountains. As I set off, some friendly youths spotted me and told me it wasn't a good path:

"Why not?"
[A pause, some conferring] "There are bad dogs & Hyenas!"

This being the usual excuse when they want you to come with them to their house for a 'coffee ceremony' or whatever I told them I had no worries on this regard, and set off. The path narrowed to a tight gorge, and then I realised what I'd stumbled into. First some shit,
then more, then a big pile of crap. I should have turned back when I realised I was in the local toilet valley, but I kept thinking it couldn't go much further, and I couldn't face what I'd narrowly
avoided stepping in so far, surely, dear God, It Must End Soon! Eventually it did end, I got, once more, safely above the poo line, relaxed, and thigns didn't seem too bad. I was left with a healthy fear of bad dogs & Hyenas, though.

In a way it was good though, as it set me up for Lalibella. Everyone who visits Ethiopia visits Lalibella. Indeed, it is perhaps one of the most incredible places on the planet, like visiting Petra and finding out that it was still in use. However, the locals don't really like the idea of using indoor toilets. NGOs have built all kinds of public toilets, there's big signs up saying "Please poo in the toilet and not just wherever you fancy.", but it's taking a while for the message to get through. I was wandering down through a cemetary which had an amazing view from it, when I saw someone beside a grave and decided to give them a respectful distance. Then I noticed they were SHITTING ON THAT PERSON'S GRAVE. Surely in ALL cultures that's a bit of a faux pas. That's not just my Western sensibilities. I think if a Maori/Pygmy/Amazonian Indian came and found someone crapping on grandma they'd be a bit upset, and I'd be inclined to back them up on that.

Whenever you're not walking on the road (mercifully pretty shite free) the odor of feces is never far from your nose, and you have to watch your feet more than the astounding views. Hopefully the rainy season should wash it away before I next have to return.

Perhaps not entirely unconnected to the above is the abundance of flies. Mostly Ethiopia isn't bad with insects but in Lalibella the flys are getting their revenge. It can be pretty disconcerting when you're chatting to a local and OH GOD IT'S CRAWLING ON YOUR FUCKING EYEBALL! Never have I been so glad for my glasses.

I am, however, concerned that I have used up my ration of capitalisation for this e-mail on the bad things about Lalibella and therefore have none left for the good. Suffice to say they have
carved vast Cathedrals out of the pink rock, not by going in, but by going down. So you're walking up to what looks like a trench in the ground and gaze down at a huge, cross shaped buiding they've dug into the ground, immaculately sculpted. You follow the twisting trenches
round, through tunnels and across bridges, whilst priests nap in doorways and people come for blessings on their way back from market. On Sunday, at too early o'clock, you can hear the trumpets blowing from within and priestly chanting. It's beautiful, ancient, and alive.

Apparently it took 40,000 people to dig them out - I'm sure this is a highly accurate number. Coming across the desolate plains to this hilltop site you wonder how it could ever have supported that many people, especially 9 centuries ago when apparently a lot of the work
was done.

But you do see the mass appeal of religion even now, when I was visiting a monastery nearby and came across a funeral. Hundreds of white toga'd people trickled down the mountain steps, whilst great
groups of them sat round under umbrellas, and some colourful horse-riders bore the Ethiopian flag. I'm guessing it must have been some village headman who died for so many to turn out. People were pleased to welcome me, and scattered some holy water on me as well - result.

And amazingly, I received almost zero hassle in Lalibella. Everyone was friendly but no-one tried to scam me or guide me. The kids were calm, with only occasional hellos! It would seem that greater exposure to Faranjis makes Ethiopians more tolerant.

Still, I finally moved on, knowing well that when anyone came out to visit we'd inevitably be back - this is somewhere that no-one should miss in their lives.

I had to get the 5 o'clock bus, something I'd been avoiding by taking short hops. Unfortunately, the day I picked to leave was market day and all the buses were crowded out the windows. There's a law that no-one's allowed to stand on Ethiopian buses but it only applies on those routes which have police checks, naturally. Generally the buses aren't too bad for short amounts of time, bedecked as they are like 70s boudoirs, all tassles, beige swirls & paisely, but with the
obligatory Jesus posters (or occasionally cute babies). However, I raidcally misjudged this journey, as it took 11 hours on an unsurfaced road. For the last 9 hours of this the person behind me was a Protestant Jesus freak, who kept passing me notes saying 'God loves you', and telling me every 5 or 10 minutes to relax. After about 3 hours this started to get me quite tense.

For some reason its the Protestants in Ethiopia who are well mental - perhaps because they've got so few like minded people to talk to. One guy grabbed me and wouldn't let go whilst he raved things like "God of servants, happiness of apples - understand?" The guy on this journey was chewing Chat, and eventually I had to pretend through his 'social phase' until he hit the 'dreamy phase'. Even then, he'd lean forward every quarter of an hour:

"Judah, Judah [he decided I looked like Judah from the Bible], you
need to relax."

Still, I did finally reach Bahir Dar and can, indeed, relax. It's on the shores of a lake and is like the capital of a tiny caribbean island, all stout palm trees and balmy, tropical goodness. It's
almost a shock to meet rural Ethiopians wandering around barefoot with their togas and sticks. The internet is relatively fast and cheap (though I found to my chagrin that the big sign for Broadband Internet was only the name of the decidedly dial-up Cafe), there's a great market and a well stocked public library. And a cinema! I watched Slumdog Millionaire yesterday and it was very surreal to walk out of the film and onto the streets of Bahir Dar. I might even come back and live here if Addis isn't up to it.

Having said that, I met a guy who lives in Addis in Lalibella and he's put me on an e-mail list for all the young people who live there - I've already had some offers for beers when I arrive. It's all
looking good. I'm just working out whether to sail round the lake first or head down, but I should be there in a week or two at the most.

All very exciting.

But I must leave you now. Please, please, please keep sending me your updates, no matter how prosaic you may consider them to be. I do so love reading them.

Ciao for now,


Thursday, 21 May 2009

More from Simon! (sent to us 11th May)

Heaven and Hell

Still revelling in Tigrai, the northernmost province of Ethiopia. It's the one that sometimes features on the news, as every ten years or so the rains fail and they have a (whisper it) famine. It's fairly dry and dusty compared to the rest of the country which is pretty lush, but then it is the end of the dry season. Everyone's just waiting for the rain, when the great plains will gush forth in fertile abundance.

Yet it has a great majesty, with soaring peaks and sandstone bluffs dominating the plains dotted with giant Euphorbia Candelabra cacti/trees. The Gheralta plain, which I spent a few days wandering round, looks suitably Death Valley - I even saw tumbleweed. I've been thinking of making an Ethiopian Western - "Tigrai Cowboy: Nothing's just black or white." The difference is that in each of the sandstone fingers bursting through the parched earth some enterprising little
blighter has carved out a church and decorated it with startling paintings. No, not at the bottom. In one case I was climbing up toeholds and fingergrips in the wake of a 60-odd year old priest,
before edging along a long but narrow ledge 200 metres above nothing at all. It certainly tested my newfound contempt of vertigo, especially when I found that the same metre wide ledge was now a perch for several of the hangers on I'd generated, whom I had to squeze past on the outside track.

That is one of the problems with Tigrai. It being a little off the tourist circuit, there are less professional 'friends' who want to sort things out for you at a vastly ridiculous mark-up ("You could get the bus there for 25 Birr return, or I could ddrive you for 1,000 Birr"), but the children & youths can be a bit overwhelming,
especially as you get further into the countryside. Ethiopia has a huge number of children, and should they ever rise up against the adults will surely triumph through sheer weight of numbers.

They also have little to do (the only two toys I've seen are hoop & sticks and the occasional inner-tube), can even be totally uneducated if you're really far out, and have been taught to see Faranjis at the very least as sources of amusement, but more often as infinite funds of money or pens. City kids will rush to shake your hand and may drop in a cheeky "Give me?" Unfortunately as you penetrate further into the hinterland the wave almost always moves in a fluid motion into the begging motion, despite the fact almost all the kids I've seen are well-fed and healthy looking.

Country kids can often be seen running for about a kilometre to get close to the Faranji they've spied. Sometimes this is benign, but still a bit much, as when 50 children surround you and follow your every move, occasionally chucking out an English question and giggling in response. They can watch you sit for half an hour with deep fascination. This has occasionally made me stay in my hotel rather than face being the focus of all the tiny consciousnesses, which can
get very wearying.

Sometimes it's not so nice though. On two separate occasions children have thrown rocks at me when I've refused to give them money. I explain I don't want a guide, that I like walking on my own, and that I have no money to give them. They still decide to follow me, until we reach a significant uphill where they decide enough is enough and start demanding money. When I've told local men about the rock throwing, they've gone and thrown soem rocks back, then appointed themselves as my guides, and demanded money.

There really is no need for guides out here; the paths are always worn by centuries of passage, and guides just babble nonsense in your ear instead of letting you enjoy the peace and extreme beauty of the area. The days I've avoided attracting hangers on have been some of my best
ever, reaching lonely peaks and gazing down at the birds of prey tussling. Still, anyone I come across follows up their puzzled "Where's your car?" with a "Where's your guide?", and an attempt to introduce themselves as a suitable candidate. There's very little for youths to do whilst they're waiting for the rains, and everyone knows that Faranjis have unlimited funds of money.

This assumption has been quite comical sometimes. At one hotel without water I was offered a room with private shower for twice the price of a room using the common ones: "But given that there's no water, why would I take the en-suite room?" "Because you're rich!"

It is interesting becuase we have such different concepts of greed. A lot of westerners come away from Ethiopia feeling that the locals are greedy and love money, because they always seem to be trying to wheedle some out of you for ridiculous reasons. But conversely, a lot
of Ethiopians think that Faranjis are greedy and love money because they don't just share it with the locals. An Ethiopian with money would just give it out to anyone who asked, and even push it on a few who didn't. Needless to say, this has adverse results on Ethiopia's investment climate. People don't save money for the future, they just hope if they share what they have now then others will share with them in the future if they fall on hard times.

Some tourists get a bit weird with all this. I met an Italian in his 40s walking round Gheralta who said he'd chosen not to go actually into any of the churches, because it was a rip off. They range in price from 1 pound 25 to just under 4 pounds - averaging 3 quid. They were carved out of the rock hundreds of years ago and have astonishing murals from a unique artistic tradition. I refuse to pay people for making my day worse, but I feel it's fair enough to pay an old priest
(you should see some of these guys, more weathered than the rock sanctuaries they tend) to climb for half an hour to let me see a sacred treasure. And if you're friendly and respectful they'll share their disgusting Tella with you and have a wee sing song of one of their interminable hymns, which I swear they make up as they go along.

And I should emphasize, apart from a few bad experiences noted above, generally things have been really great. The countryside is beautiful, the curches real world treasures, and on the days I was a subject of some stone throwing, I spent a good hour playing with one of the sweetest children I've ever met. She would do her 'floppy-woppy jumping bunny dance' (may not be exact translation) and then laugh hysterically when I replied with the 'shakey-wakey head dance'.

And most people you meet are friendly, and after nothing other than a chance to practice their English (or show off to their friends what they know) or a chance to meet a real life Faranji and welcome them to their country (though walking against the traffic on market day can be
bruising as everyone will want to shake your hand which includes a shoulder clash or two). In the more urban situaions the children can be lovely, and the people friendly without any expectations at all - although you do tend to miss the breathtaking scenery. For every bad
apple, an orchard of friendliness blooms .

I really enjoyed Wukro, particularly because of the hotel I was staying in; one which a passing Tourist official ran and told me not to stay at as it was 'unfit for foreigners'. It was lovely and ran by a really welcoming family, who aside from a room for 1 pound 25 threw in as many coffee ceremonies as I could manage, as well as fruit from trees growing in the courtyard (Papaya and a delicious but mysterious Kazmierz fruit - green with white flesh, sweet but odd flavour), and
bread and milk in the morning. I had to force money on them for washing my clothes, and looking after my big pack when I went deep into the country to visit the further off churches. The only bad things about Wukro was their unforgivable lack of fruit juice joints, and the fact that restaurants wouldn't serve me anything apart from Tibs (fried meat, very nice, but plain after a while) or omelette. I would even point to what someone else was eating after all else had
failed, and they'd nod and bring back an omelette. "Faranjis can't handle our (not actually That) spicy food."

I'm now in Mekele - the capital of Tigrai. It's got more than one paved street! And traffic lights! Luckily it doesn't have the attendent evil of traffic, though you do have to look before you cross
the road. Juice runs freely (but, thankfully, spoon-standing-up-in-it thickly). It has a street where every building is high rise, but also has lots of back streets with the typically Tigraien handsome stone houses, which come straight from Italian hill villages (if they had universally decided that corrugated iron roofs were the way forward). Plus I had a hot shower this morning! The trappings of development have sent me a bit giddy, but I'm heading back to the wilderness as I trek south to reach the fabled Lalibella, before heading on to the wonderful Lake Tana with its island monasteries. I should reach Addis in the next couple of weeks.

Keep being good boys and girls - Santa always knows,


Back Home

We came back home from Scotland today - Ds brother Mike kindly drove us to Edinburgh Station where we got a direct train home.

The journey went well - I slept for a big part of it, and Douglas read, or lost himself in his thoughts and the scenery.

It was lovely seeing all the family - but would have been even better under more cheerful circumstances, as Elaine will be missed by all of us.

When we got back Douglas went to the supermarket - partly out of need, and partly to distract himself, so I unpacked and sorted out our many bags.

Our cats were very pleased to see us back, so pleased that Billy got up onto the sofa, walked over me and snuggled down beside me for about ten mins :-)

We go back to work tomorrow, then we have a long bank holiday to rest and recover. Our only plan at the moment is to invite our friend Dangerous around - Douglas and he enjoy playing Cribb, and its nice for Douglas to have some company for a bit. I will probably see my mum and dad on Saturday.. possibly D too.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Sad sad news..

Yesterday, after battling with failing health for years, my mum in law Elaine passed away peacefully in hospital with many of her family at her side.

She was a feisty interesting lady with a great sense of humour who will be very much missed by me, and of course her family.

Douglas and I are going up to Scotland soon to be with the rest of the family, so the blog will go quiet for a while.


Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Trip to Bruges

Last week Douglas and I went on a "mini cruise" from Hull to Bruges to celebrate our 10th Wedding Anniversaries :-)

We set off on Bank Holiday Monday (4th May) and went to the Port, gave them our tickets feeling pleased we had got there with plenty of time to spare.

What we didnt realise was we had got there with about 25 hours to spare!! (the earliest we have ever been for the start of a holiday) We were due to sail on the 5th May, not the 4th.. ooppsss.. luckily the P&O ferry people were happy to move our booking forward.

We spent the night on the boat, taking in a film in their tiny cinema (with very uncomfortable seats) and eating in their buffet - they had a few nice veggie dishes, so I was happy.

After breakfast the next day, the boat docked and we piled into a bus that dumped us somewhere on the outskirts of the city. Although we had a map telling us where we had been dumped, we had no idea where the hotel was, and there was no one around to help. We teamed up with another couple heading for the same hotel, and got a taxi, so problem solved!

Our hotel were happy to sell us an extra days stay, and we went straight to our room - a decent size with a comfy bed, tv and en suite facilities. We sorted out our stuff and collapsed for a while, catching up on a poor nights sleep on the boat.

Later, we set out on our first explore of the city and found some sandwiches for lunch.

During our stay we explored museums, a few churches, had a boat trip on the canals, and a couple of meals in rather expensive restaurants. On Wednesday, we went to the food and flower market, and purchased bread rolls, cheese, tomatoes, and some strawberries, and having emptied the contents of our rooms mini bar, we used it for our carpet picnic for the rest of our stay!

We headed back for the ferry on Friday, and after a much better nights sleep (we upgraded our cabin, and worked out how to adjust the temperature of the room) we were back in England again, and soon heading home.

Monday, 11 May 2009

The Pied Piper of Abyssinia...

Another long buy amazing email from Simon.

Hey there,

Kassala had been lovely, as I reported in the last mail. I was a little sun-burnt from walking in the mountains with my top off (it was the only way to keep cool - I did cover up though when I ran into the screaming & yelping goat herds who live at high altitude and carry axes, but my muslim pale body wasn't used to the blasting it got), but otherwise a diet of Sudanese hospitality with beautiful views (you can see the mountains of Eritrea in the very distance from the right
places) had given me a good feeling and was a welcome way to finish my time there.

I headed down to Gedaref, the closest town to the Ethiopian border, planning to spend the night there, prepare myself, and cross over the next day, as I'd been warned that there was no-where to stay at the border. However, on arriving, and finding that the cheap hotel was full, that the main street called 'A Million Fools' was called that for a reason (the folks of Gedaref were rude, grasping and generally unpleasant), I decided that spending lots of money for the priviledge
of being jeered at and grabbed by these most unSudanese of people was ridiculous, so decided to risk crossing over even though it was getting on in the afternoon.

I was concerned though, was this a foretaste of things to come? I'd heard that Ethiopia was hard work, that people were rude and unfriendly. Was Gedaref like this because of its proximity to
Ethiopia? Thoughts like this were going through my head as the bus conductor yelled "MONEY, MONEY, MONEY!" in my face then went off swearing when I showed him my ticket proving I'd paid already.

The journey towards the border was beautiful, made even more so by the setting sun. The rolling agricultural land, yellowed with harvested wheat, was interrupted by increasing varieties of trees - my first Baobabs! - villages of conical, thatched huts (or Tukuls) and shepherds leading their great herds of long-horned, humped cattle to drink at watering holes. It seemed incredibly African, and was refreshing after long periods of flat desert.

I arrived on the border just after the sun had disappeared, my last call to prayer ringing in my ears. Procedings were remarkably easy, especially as some self appointed guides decided to help me out for some small change. Suddenly I was in Ethiopia, unprepared, not knowing a word of Amharic, and in a town not described in any guidebooks. I looked round the few corrugated iron shacks around me in a state of some bemusement.

Two guys walking past noticed my lost state, and after some gesturing and pidgeon communication, took me to a hotel. I took them out for a meal to say thankyou - food and drinks for 3 came to 2 pounds, and was delicious and totally different to what I've been eating for the last 5 months. It's Lent currently which means everyone in the country becomes Vegan (they abstain from food completely from the Thursday before Good Friday till the morning of Easter Sunday - traditionally when Ethiopia's enemies have inflicted heavy casualties on their
armies!), but the vegetarian food is lovely here.

After bidding them goodbye (I'd picked up a few Amharic words by this time), I had a few beers to break the drought, and headed back. I had been told in no uncertain terms to be at the bus station by 5 in the morning, or miss the only bus out. I'd only seen Metemma, this border
town, in darkness, and I liked it that way. It had a vibe not unlike a festival, a street of lights and music, which the light of day could only show to be a easily dispersed sham.

The trip up into the highlands was spectacular, though I kept drifting off for a lot of it. The landscape is incredible here - vaguely reminicent of the Guatemalan highlands. Its beauty surpassed my expectations, and I hadn't even been to the Simien Mountains yet. In
fact, I spent a full week after arriving in Gondar, the old 17th & 18th century capital.

Whilst the city is full of castles and buildings of the sort you don't normally associate with Africa (it's frequently called Africa's Camelot), I've been spending most of the week just chilling out and
getting used to being here. After a month of pretty constant travel in the Sudan, it's been nice to chill out and spend a few days reading and drinking the incredible coffee, as well as getting over what I can only presume was culture shock.

Through no real choice of mine I seem to have spent almost all my travelling time in Muslim countries, and despite their very obvious diffirences I guess there's a bedrock of similarities which I'd always coasted on. Ethiopia is very different...

Superficially it's conservative, and indeed, most of the people I've heard complaining about rude locals have been wearing shorts. You do see a lot of people walking around in smart clothes, white shawls, and carrying bright umbrellas as parasols. You also see a lot of prostitutes dressed somewhat differently, but they are considered to be doing an honorable trade, and it's seen as a good way for young women to make money to get themselves an education. Luckily they're
not too forward, and retain a lot of dignity even in the face of some pissed-up locals.

The place of women is quite unusual - in the cities (and apparnetly especially Addis) they are almost considered equals; very unusual for Africa. I have detected a kind of 50s condecension towards them though, and in the country they are expected to do the heavy lifting,
and, well, work, whilst the men do the important stuff like standin around chatting.

A lot of the young people are very fashionably dressed in the towns, looking pretty London (and pretty pretty - the Ethiopians not falling short of their reputation for gorgeousness). On the other hand, a lot of women are coverd in tattooes of crosses and evil-eye repelling swirls on foreheads, cheekbones, chins and necks, and a couple of Gondar guys were naked (crazy, not tribal, I believe, unless there's a "we're all fucking mental" tribe). Also, no-one seems to have any compunctions about pissing or shitting in the street, which doesn't make for splendiferous odours on the hotter days.

If I was worried about missing the call to prayer then they certainly eased me out of it, as all through Lent the priests seemed to love getting on the mic and doing their strangely hypnotic chants which last for hours, and echo from their round, hilltop churches. The churchyards swarm with white swathed pilgrims, kissing the steps, the gaily painted walls, the doors, the ground, being passed holy water to keep them refreshed, or cheekily nipping back the homebrew Tella (which looks like lumpy puddlewater) with pissed priests, who sway a little more than usual when giving their post tipple benediction. Everyone crosses themselves when passing churches (including ruined ones), as do bus drivers, which can be a little trying on the nerves.

The priests wander around in Renaissance style turbans and bright coloured shawls, and people bend to kiss their crosses and have them touched to their foreheads. Sometimes they bend double and the priest pretends to kiss them on each cheek 5 times. It's all very far away
from the CofE.

It is also significantly poorer than most countries I've been in, a fact attested to by the larger number of beggars than usual as well as the frequent power & water cuts.

It has its own food (deliciously spicy served on a sour bathmat), its own music (not quite as daring, distinct or funky as its 60s & 70s heydeys), its own script (231 characters), its own calander (with 13 months, and the fact we're in 2001) and its own time (which starts with 6 in the morning being 12, so you know that sunset will be at 1 o'clock in the evening, and the buses will invariably leave between 11 and 12 in the morning WHICH IS WRONG).

All of this contributed somewhat to the feeling of displacement, of not really being present, and of being somewhat at a loss after planning to come here for 8 years as to what to actually do once I'm here. It was a feeling a little akin to being in a bubble. Luckily, whilst up on a hill overlooking the magnificence of Gondar, surrounded by more swooping birds than I'd ever seen, a wind rose up and blew through me, and I was there.

And what a place to be! Ethiopia is incredibly beautiful, even now at the end of the dry season. The weather is perfect: almost always sunny, but with very occasional massive storms that blow over very quickly, and with the temperature regulated by altitude to a balmy 20 - 30 degrees, with a pleasing coolness in the evening which doesn't prevent short sleeves from being worn. Ethiopians always refer to the weather as 'their air conditioning', which I'm not sure is a witicism
which has long since lost its humorous side, or simply another Ethiopianism.

The people here are amazing as well, not at all like I expected. There's always a collection of 'professional friends' in the main tourist spots, but once you've assured them you don't want a
guide/some weed/a prostitute/anything at all they tend to leave you alone. In the more rural areas I've been astonished by peoples friendliness and generosity. People have kept buying me things when my back is turned, and I've had to lash out by buying people beers and food without asking them or they'd never accept it. They have a great concept of sharing out here, which seems entirely better than the Egyptian concept of 'taking other people's stuff because they won't mind, and could take my stuff if they really wanted'. My camera's still a bit dodgy after an Egyptian 'borrowed it' whilst I was asleep and took 40 pictures of himself with his shit-eating grin because he was bored and was sure I wouldn't mind.

The only real problem can be the kids. In the most these are fine, they run towards you and shake your hand, circle you chanting "Is beautiful!" in Amharic, or just follow you for h o u r s, especially in rural areas. That can make it especially difficult to get some alone time, as the fact that you can live and grow stuff pretty much anywhere means that there's not really anywhere where you're away from habitation. The kids sometimes follow you in shifts, or you just develop a huge human tail as you lead them into the mountains. Most of them will offer a timid "Money?" before they leave, just in case, like, but some of them will chase you screaming "MONEY PEN MONEY PEN MONEY PEN MONEY PEN" until you onder what the penalty for infanticide is out here. There's too many of the little blighters anyway...

Gonder was good - it was surreal walking around 400 year old castles under an African sun, especially as I met a Brazillian girl who had to leave the country the next day and unloaded a Henry on me. There were also some cool cluns where they have minsterals who are a cross
between a stand-up comic and a musician, and they improvise lyrics about how great you are whilst playing a zither and dancing around. Which is cool.

However, it was in the Simien mountains that I really found happiness. It's some of the most dramatic scenary on earth; you're basically walking along a kilometre high cliff (its good for curing vertigo -eventually you get bored of being scared) whilst old lava crags tumble down beneath you. All around team the hundreds of Gelada Baboons which seem pretty uninterested in you even as you crawl in amongst them. Klippspringer bound away after giving you a good
onceover. Amazingly I even saw a troop of 10 Walia Ibex - there's only about 300 left in the world. We also saw a leopard stalking them, but despite waiting for an hour or so it never attacked. Later on a huge Waliawith horns longer than my legs came down for a nibble
by our camp. I got within about 10 metres of him taking photos, when a 4 wheel drive came rumbling towards us, the Walia panicked and rushed towards me. It passed within an arms breadth of me which was all pretty exciting.

I decided that trying to rank the most beautiful places on Earth was a pointless task, but it really was astonishing here, and I met a lot of very cool people, not least my scout, Awooga. He was impeccably dressed in a green pin-striped lounge suit and carried his knock-off AK47 with ease. We actually forged quite a cool friendship despite him not speaking any English. He helped teach me Amarigna with the help of my phrasebook and a lot of miming and jokes. I was really
happy that he still really appreciated how beautiful it was, and the time we climbed a mountain he'd never been up before he was really stoked, as was he when we saw the leopard (which I suspect may have been a Hyeena, but he was so excited i thought I'd go along with him).

It was just incredible to sit looking out over miles of the beutiful scenary in the dying light, with little huts 5 days mule trek from a road a kilometre below you. I felt a real peace here. Unfortunately I once again forgot the suncream and suffered from some more sun damage despite my by now quite deep tan. Even the Ethiopians get ravaged by the sun if they spend too much time in it, their black skin no defense against the altitude.

After that it was onto Axum, the capital of an ancient Empire which in the middle of the first millenium was ranked with Rome, China & Persia as the 4 greatest of its day. It was a hefty journey north into the Tigrai area, on unmade roads that sprinkled pink dust everywhere,
coating the trees and roadsides. When you looked across to the opposite side of a valley you were crossing where the road tickled its way up the other side, it looked like someone had gone mental on a photo with a pink highlighter. Tigrai has a lot more flat plains inbetween the vertiginous mountains, but is nonetheless spectacular for that. It also seems more relaxed, partly because it's hotter and sunnier than further South, and because less tourists make it this far North.

Axum is full of amazingly cut granite stelae which are far taller than anything in Egypt, as well as lots of intricately finished tombs. Despite this, 98% of the site hasn't been excavated, a lot that has has never been published, and no-one really knows shit about shit. It was a really relaxed place to wander about in with a healthy sense of wonder. I particularly took to the free public library in an old Italian Palazzo, and spent much of my time alternating between there
and the Juice bar, with occasional walks round the sites and the surrounding country-side.

I was there for Fasika - their Easter - and after indulging myself of some Tudor Royalty wandered out into the streets after midnight when all the Church services start. People were wandering between churches in their white shawls, or leaning against the holy stones, whilst
chanting blared out over loudspeakers accompanied by occasional trumpets and drumming. People were really friendly, and everyone was excited about eating meat after abstaining for 60 days during Lent. One guy told me "You don't know how hard it us for us not to eat Livestock!"

I also went to an incredible live music night in a giant Tukul. It seemed all the musical talent in town was taking it in turn to get up and give some on stage, and all of Axum had turned up to dance the night away. Ethiopian dancing mostly involves shuddering the shoulders whilst keeping your head sassy, and kind of going round in a circle with your mates whilst you're at it. It's vaguely remeniscent of a slightly erotic children's party, or a robotic barn dance.
Joining in is fun, hugely encouraged, and really really hot. Who'd have thought making your shoulders vibrate would be so energetic.

It was then on to spending a night in Debre Damo, a monastery on top of an Amba - or plateau surrounded by cliffs. You have to scale this by climbing up an old leather rope - the monks are pretty nifty at it. No-one's quite sure how they got the rocks up to build the church a 1,000 years ago. The monks swear a flying snake carried the first priest up. No women are allowed, including female animals, except for hens so they can eat eggs and cats because "The Priests like cats." There was rather an unspoken word there about what the priests don't like but I let that pass.

I stayed with some priests in their house, and shared their Tella and taste in music. They were showing me lots of videos on their mobile phones - truly the 21st century has arrived. A lot showed Jesus doing miracles or being nailed to the cross cut with scenes of white shawled
Ethiopians swaying and clapping at various religious sites. One was a literal riot with Samson beating up the Romans and Lions and generally proving that he was well hard - the priests all agreed that with my long hair I should be very strong like him. The wierdest ones were
from the Derg era, lots of military hardware. One of the priests laughed heartily every time the big guns fired, which I found a bit disconcerting, as was the fact that the music was some of the most upbeat I've heard out here.

Since then I've been travelling around finding rock hewn churches, some of them huge, chiselled from the living rock hundreds upon hundreds of years ago and still used as the local place of worship. Some of them are huge, and the amount of rock that must have been removed by hand boggles the mind. Others are tiny but with exquisite paintings - including a very reggae Saint George. A lot of the time the walk around the astoundingly beautiful countryside is half the
pleasure, as well as meeting locals who seem flabbergasted to meet me. Most Ethiopians have no idea that these churches exist, or if they do they think of them just as where they go to pray, and not as a tourist attraction.

In all it's been surpassing my expectations, which is just as well after 8 years build up. I'm making my way down slowly to Addis - should be there in 3 weeks or so - before settling down for a bit. This e-mails already far too long so I'll stop there for now, but please keep sending me mails as it's great to hear from you and it's good to have mail on the days I wrestle with the poo connection long enough to get into my inbox.

Hope you're all doing the very best. Love and magic,


Sunday, 3 May 2009


May 1st represents the start of the growing season and the start of summer.. everything is bursting into life and our days are getting warmer :-) Sounds a very good reason to celebrate in my opinion!

Beltane is a traditional time of year for Pagans get "hand fasted" on "tie the knot" - particularly at dawn as a new day is born.

At Dawn, on May 1st, 1999 Douglas and I were at the top of Glastonbury Tor on a very cold Beltane morn, celebrating the turn of the season with many others, including King Arthur himself, who led the celebrations. When the call went out "Does anyone want to get married???" Douglas and I decided it would be a great idea, so that was the first of our three weddings that year ;-) (May 1st, hand fasting, May (about a week later, cant remember the date) registry office, June 19th, more formal hand fasting and wedding Ceilidh in Glastonbury itself.

Yesterday, I took Douglas for a mystery tour and picnic. We took the basics for lunch and set off from home at about 11am. It wasn't until we were quite a way past York that Douglas worked out where I was taking him. He enjoys surprises.. and oh boy.. did I have a surprise lined up for him!!

We headed to Sentry Circle, a modern day Stone Henge that many of our friends helped to create. I knew that many of our friends would be up there celebrating Beltane, and that Douglas would be delighted to spend the day there.

After we had enjoyed lunch, sitting on the grass, sharing our food with our good friend Dangerous, I wandered off to have a word with one of the Elders.. a lovely lady called Carol. I asked her if she could help - as we were hand fasted 10 years ago, I thought it would be lovely to renew our vows! Carol was delighted to help, so I took Douglas along to have a chat with her, and told him of my cunning plan!

At about 5pm, Douglas and I, followed by many of the people staying at Sentry for the weekend slowly walked up the hill to the Circle to renew our vows with Carol as our celebrant. It was a very simple, but moving ceremony, which caused more than a few misty eyes!

After walking round the grassy labyrinth, we said our farewells and headed back home, having had a truly wonderful day.