Ethiopia; A Pacific Science Center Experience.

070_70I had wanted to travel to Ethiopia ever since my earliest childhood.  A friend of our family was one of the financial advisors of Emperor Haile Selassie and, every time he came back from Ethiopia, he would tell all these wonderful stories which only increased my curiosity about this exotic country. I vowed I would one day travel there myself. This proved to be a difficult proposition. Decades passed and despite my husband’s and my travels all over the world, visiting Ethiopia continued to be as elusive as ever. It seemed that I might never get to see the country that has held such fascination for me for so many years — until last month!

The Pacific Science Center in Seattle had for some time featured an exhibit entitled  “Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia”. As a grand finale to the exhibit, PSC offered a trip to Ethiopia in order to explore Lucy’s ancestral home and cultural heritage firsthand.  A small intrepid group of travelers thus embarked on a two-week tour of the country. I had the pleasure of traveling with them as tour manager.

046_46Ethiopia was everything I expected and more. It is an extraordinary, mysterious and beautiful country with lovely hospitable people. We were able to see its diverse landscape, fauna and flora many of which are endemic. For example, one thing that surprised us all was the abundance and richness of bird life. Ethiopia boasts 862 species of birds (of which 17 are endemic to the country and another 13 semi endemic) and we were lucky enough to see 38 of them during the course of this trip and without really trying! Bird watchers take note!

One of our first excursions was to Melka Kunture, an important Stone Age archeological site in Ethiopia. Here we saw many examples of beautiful two-edged hand axes, obsidian scrapers (obsidian is still laying around everywhere) and sets of round stones used in nets to throw at animals in order to catch them.  We also visited the rock-hewn church of Adadi Mariam. Dating back to the 12th century, it has beautiful murals.  But what made this day even more special and unusual was the lunch prepared for us at the site of Melka Kunture.  Our Ethiopian partner had arranged for a cook – the best in Ethiopia we were told – to bring his staff  and prepare lunch for us. When we arrived, a festive table was set up under acacia trees and a blue awning.  On another table, a buffet with injera and a delicious looking array of dishes was beckoning to us. To add to the festive atmosphere a traditionally dressed lady was seated on one side ready to host the traditional Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony for us. The Coffee Ceremony — central to the Ethiopian lifestyle — is accompanied by an elaborate ritual. The hostess was seated on a low wooden stool before a tiny charcoal stove. First, she spread fresh grass and flowers on the ground around the brazier where the beans were going to be roasted. After lighting some incense in order to perfume the air, she first washed the beans, then roasted them in a pan. The beans were then ground manually with a pestle and mortar; then brewed with water in a pot until it started to bubble. The aroma of the roasting beans and warming coffee filled the air and we all anxiously waited for the coffee to be ready.  When it was, we were served in tiny ceramic handle-less cups.  It was so good that we lingered for a long while and many of us went for second and third cups!

133_133The next day we left Addis Ababa and set forth on the northern historical and cultural route. During our journey we saw five out of eight UNESCO Heritage Sites. Our program was varied and full and yet flexible enough to fit in an extra stop at a village for a demonstration of how injera was made or see a weaver at work or take in a colorful local market.

Our first stop was at Bahir Dar on Lake Tana which is dotted with island monasteries and churches. Upon arrival we were whisked off by boat to visit two of them featuring beautiful murals and 12th century manuscripts. In the afternoon we explored the Blue Nile Falls. They are perhaps not as spectacular as they once were — water has been diverted upstream for a dam – but many of our members enjoyed the excursion anyway.

We flew to Gondar and visited the royal enclosure with its six castles. One of the group’s favorite stops was the village of AwraAmba where the founder has a philosophy that men and women are equal and therefore everyone has to perform the daily tasks. There are no set tasks that are just for women or just for men. Here the residents support each other from birth to death.  We met with the founder who has dedicated his whole life to this philosophy of moving people beyond society’s accepted roles and thus making life better for everyone. It was an inspirational experience.

The next day we drove through dramatic mountain scenery to the Simien National Park. The park is known for its distinct ecology, animals and vegetation. We were lucky to get a glimpse of the bleeding heart baboon – endemic to this region.

Our next stop was in Axum where, the Ethiopians believe, the original Ark of the Covenant was brought from Jerusalem by Emperor Menelik 1, the son of Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel. Axum is also known for its huge monolithic stelae made of granite with identical decorations.  The biggest of them, now fallen, was 33 meters high and weighs 500 tons, making it the largest monolith in the world.

160_160No trip would be complete without a visit to the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. There we spent two nights and visited all 13 churches in the two complexes. The churches are attributed to King Lalibela – around 1200 AD. Built underground, with a network of interconnected subterranean passageways, lighting systems and water works, they are generally considered to be very sophisticated architectural and engineering feats. These churches have remained of outmost importance to the Orthodox Christian religion to this day.

All this combined with frequent interactions with local population at markets and in villages made this a trip of a lifetime.  And, to seal the experience for me personally, our daughter is adopting an Ethiopian a baby girl whom I was able to visit at the orphanage.  It just does not get any better than that.

Izabella Van Raalte
Tour Manager

Academic Travel Abroad website

Pacific Science Center website 



ATA Staff Out in the Community


Tourism Cares Event in Gettysburg, PA

Tourism Cares Event in Gettysburg, PA

Times are tight, and our business is asking us to do more with less. Being smart with every penny is the message of the day, both at home and at the office.  When stress is high, where do we turn to for a much needed break?

Despite the gloomy economic news, Academic Travel Abroad’s staff has found ways to kick back while giving back, and creating the “feel good” sensation along the way. 

Within the last few weeks, ATA staff has participated in several exciting community activities that provide a much-needed break in these demanding times. 

On April 17th, several staff members participated with Tourism Cares in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to help renovate and clean up historic Spangler Farm. Used as a Union field hospital, it is the location where General Lewis Addison Armistead died after being mortally wounded in Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg. ATA staff joined 300 other volunteers in clearing out underbrush on the fields and removing invasive, tangled vines across the property. As day’s end, everyone departed with a sense of community and sharing. 

On April 22nd, Earth Day, several more members of the ATA staff joined the Nature Conservancy on the Washington and Old Dominion Trail for some trail clean-up.  They spent the afternoon clearing out more of the invasive vines that harm the ecosystem of woodland areas. With a little sweat and determination, they made a “green” dent in a small section of the trail.

Just yesterday, several more of our staff ventured out in the afternoon for a special tour of the National Gallery of Arts Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age led by Eric Denker, Senior Lecturer at the museum, and ATA’s Venice study leader.  The paintings were magnificent and rave reviews came back regarding Eric’s insight and knowledge of the artwork.

Participating in community events, volunteering time, and simply enjoying some of the amazing local museums – whether individually or with staff members – can be a terrific way to recharge our batteries!

Academic Travel Abroad website

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Academic Travel Abroad: Connecting to Cuba – Again!

Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana

Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana

Yesterday’s announcement by the Obama Administration easing travel restrictions to Cuba from the United States for Cuban Americans has sent a ripple throughout the travel community. It is ATA’s hope that educational and cultural travel to Cuba will also soon be restored. Airline companies are suddenly rushing to find small planes and potential carriers to fulfill the undoubtedly large upcoming demand for travel to the Caribbean island nation.

Here are just a few of the reasons why Cuba is a compelling destination for the intellectually curious traveler:

Cuba’s art and music beautifully reflect the Spanish and African influence on the island throughout its history. From native to contemporary art, galleries have become a popular venue for Cubans to display emerging styles.

Below are some recent articles related to Cuban art;

Cuba’s dynamic musical heritage ranges from Latin jazz to salsa to bolero, where dancing is virtually a Cuban pastime. Cuba is also home to a unique Spanish-influenced architecture ranging from the more urban and contemporary Havana to the colonial town of Trinidad, with cobblestone streets and red-tiled roofs. Read more about Cuban architecture here.

Between towns you’ll find the rolling hillsides of the Vinales Valley, the Valley of the Sugar Mills, and the historical tobacco farms for which Cuba has become famous.

Cuba’s history is portrayed throughout its cities and landscapes with Spanish fortresses, several UNESCO World Heritage sites, Ernest Hemingway’s home, 19th-century French settlements and local horticultural treasures like the Cienfuegos Botanical Gardens.

As soon as political conditions permit, Academic Travel looks forward to re-entering the educational travel market in Cuba. From 2000-2002, ATA operated successful programs in Cuba for several organizations, including National Geographic Expeditions, The Bayly Art Museum, The Florence-Griswold Museum, The University of Maryland, and Vanderbilt University.

Academic Travel Abroad

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Local travel renders unexpected results.

Some days we all envision traveling far and wide to unknown reaches of the globe to find that elusive hidden treasure of the like we’ve never encountered before.  Well today was was one of those days.

Members of the staff pulled their resources together and collected warm clothing and small gift cards to local stores and eateries to hand out to the local homeless in and around our immediate neighborhood.  We divvied up the goodies and headed out with the hopes that the loot would serve those less fortunate well in this bitter cold season of giving.

We traveled north and south, east and west and strangely had some difficulty finding those we had intentions of helping.  We searched for blocks and they were simply not to be found.  Eventually we found a few and offered them what we had.  We took the remaining bags to a nearby rectory  where we were told that our timing was perfect.  Tonight they were having a gathering for underprivileged families and the items would be a welcome addition to the event.  So we left knowing our small efforts just might have the warming effect we had originally intended.

Upon returning to the office from our trek, we discovered two remaining gift cards atop one of our desks.  So we decided that one of us would carry them with on their walk to the metro that evening and hope to give those away to someone along the way.

Well I did just that.  As I rounded a corner I noticed a homeless man sitting to the side of the walk.  As I approached him, I reached in my pocket and pulled out one of the eatery gift cards and kindly asked if he could use it.  He slowly looked up at me, smiled graciously and asked my name as he took the card.  I told him as he reached around behind him and grabbed a small ruffled bag.  He then pulled out his pen and a red envelope from the bag and carefully wrote my name on it without saying a word.  He then lifted the envelope up to me and again thanked me graciously for the gift card and wished me a “warm and happy holiday.”  I smiled and walked on, not wanting to open the envelope in front of him.  He was clearly a man of pride.

I walked a block and opened the envelope.  What I saw truly moved me.  It was a simple holiday greeting card that read;

With best wishes
for the holidays
and happiness
in the new year

It wasn’t the words themselves that moved me, but the gesture.  Here was a man who clearly had nothing but the clothes on his back, and yet he took some of his meager  daily collections and bought holiday cards to give to those who gave to him.

As I said, some days we all envision traveling far and wide to unknown reaches of the globe to find that elusive hidden treasure of the like we’ve never encountered before.  Well, during the holidays, sometimes we don’t have to  travel far to find such hidden treasures.

Our best wishes to you too… “John”

Academic Travel Abroad

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Academic Travel Abroad: Eggshells and Outreach

istock_000006390045smallThe yester-year era of solid pseudo-walls built around companies, big and small, where their inner workings were shielded from the very clients they catered to has come and gone.  The last few years have brought about a quantum shift in corporate thinking and new online outreach and networking tools have materialized in a way that could not have been foreseen. 

I walk from the metro to the office every day and witness a distinct majority of others pounding the sidewalks as they text, call and email their way into their work week before ever setting foot into their office via smartphones, laptops and PDA’s.  Online networking and communications are no longer corporate lingo, but rather a way of life and is growing exponentially every day.

Do you remember the vinegar and egg experiment from grade school?  Put an egg in a glass, submerge it in vinegar, and presto!  In a couple of days you have a see-through egg!  Without affecting the innate structure of the egg, the vinegar transforms the hard shell into a transparent form in which the “inner workings” can be seen.

As Academic Travel Abroad’s Creative Manager, I have been fortunate enough to have been given the task of pouring vinegar over ATA’s metaphorical shell.  As a company that prides itself on it’s luxury and educational travel experience and commitment to excellence in customer service and satisfaction, we have come to a fairly simple realization. In order to reach out to others who share our distinct passion for travel and a desire to learn about unique cultures around the world we need to become more “transparent” and reveal our “inner workings”.  We want to humanize our company in a way that helps others realize we really are a passionate group of travelers and not a “corporate” hard-shelled business.

By using online social networking tools such as this blog, our Facebook page, a Twitter feed, our presence on and we hope to develop a community of travelers who like sharing their experiences abroad with both our staff and others.  Frankly, if you were to visit all these tools we have, you would see ATA as a “transparent eggshell”.   Our staff often write blogs about their recent travels abroad, our President writes her own blog and we encourage Facebook visitors to post their own comments and photos of their travels to share with our community.  We love interacting with other travelers and sharing ideas, experiences and resources.  Think of it… you could tell your friends and colleagues that you Twitter, blog, Facebook and more – talk about moving up the tech-savvy ladder!  You’ll be the envy of your peers.

So if you’re a world traveler and, out of sheer unbridled enthusiasm, simply can’t stop sharing your experiences abroad with others, we hope to see you “pour your own vinegar” and join in. 

Safe travels!

Steve Muth
Creative Manager

Academic Travel Abroad

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