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

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ATA heads to Morocco

Moroccan musician

Moroccan musician

I was standing on the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech in March when I “got” something about Morocco that had been eluding me.  The Djemaa is the sprawling square in the Medina where the sounds, the smells and the soul of Marrakech jump and dance and waft all day every day and far into the night. I was standing there as evening began to fall, watching a group of gnaoua musicians perform for an appreciative crowd of Moroccans. The audience surrounded them in a thick circle on the square, clapping, laughing, swaying their shoulders to the infectious beat. I didn’t understand the words of the song, but I could feel how completely involved the audience was with the performance. I could see it in their eyes, feel it in the movement of their bodies.

That’s when I understood this simple truth: despite the impossibly rich spectacle of Moroccan markets and the awe-provoking tableaux of deserts, mountains and farm villages that greet you as you travel through, the real richness of Morocco is in the people. This is a truly warm, friendly country where a sincere smile will melt a scowl like the spring sun on the Atlas snow. They are as complex and diverse as their long turbulent history, but their hospitality is sincere. Even when Moroccans are trying to sell you something (often), they will be happy just to talk, learn about you, offer you sweet tea and opinions. Yes, it helps if you speak Arabic or Berber or French, but they will find a way to communicate with you.

Street olive market

Street olive market

On the Djemaa that night, when the musicians had finished, a story teller came into the circle, dramatically took off several layers of clothing, then began to move around the group, making jokes about people and extracting a 5 dirham coin from each of them.  Again, I didn’t understand the words, but couldn’t help myself from joining in the infectious laughter of the crowd. I was enfolded into Morocco that evening, entranced, enticed. I am very glad indeed to be going back.

Andrew Simon
Tour Manager

MOROCCO TOURS:

National Geographic Expeditions: Moroccan Odyssey

American Museum of Natural History: Morocco

Academic Travel Abroad

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Ballooning over Egypt with Smithsonian Journeys

 

A view of where the desert meets the greens of the Nile basin.

A view of where the desert meets the greens of the Nile basin.

Last Sunday, I was on the Nile with the Smithsonian Journeys “Egyptian Odyssey” tour group. It had already been an exciting day since five of us started the morning with a hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings. Delightful. Then the whole group toured Karnak Temple together, led by our guide Jihan Hussein. Magnificent!  This was my fourth time through Karnak and I never cease to be dazzled by it. Then we spent the afternoon cruising upstream on the Nile on the M/S Tamr Henna toward the Esna lock.

The tour is over now and I am relaxing with friends in Cairo. This latest Egyptian Odyssey group was, I have to say, quite wonderful. Despite being focused on Pharaonic Egypt, they were very curious about contemporary culture.   In the short couple weeks in this country, they started to really “get” modern Egypt. During the

Aloft over the Valley of the Kings

Aloft over the Valley of the Kings

 last few days of the tour, many of them expressed surprise, satisfaction, even joy at realizing how rich and varied is the culture of this crazy, gritty, delightful place.

When you first get under the surface a new culture, there is always a little bit of that feeling Howard Carter must have had when he first looked into the tomb of Tutankhamun.  “Yes,” he is reported to have replied to Lord Carnavon’s eager queries, “I see wonderful things.”

Andrew Simon
Tour Manager
Smithsonian Journeys Egyptian Odyssey

Educational Travel Abroad Professionals Bring Unique Experiences.

At Academic Travel Abroad, the term “travel professionals” only skims the surface of the overseas experience of our staff. Overall, we’ve been fortunate enough to travel to over 99 different countries across the globe, spanning all seven continents. Our most-visited destination is France, with Italy running a close second. England, Germany, Greece and China are not far behind as some of the most frequented destinations. We’ve ventured to these far-away destinations for a multitude or reasons including business, studies, vacationing and places of periodic residence. The diverse travel experiences of our staff helps us ensure that the tours we offer are rewarding, culturally rich and travelers can have their questions answered by someone knowledgeable and experienced with respect to the destination.

Within the Travel Services Department, almost every member of our staff has studied abroad in a variety of countries including: England, Germany, Greece, India, Peru, and Spain. We also speak 3 languages: French, German and Spanish, which makes a walk through the office seem like a visit to the UN. This wealth of knowledge is put to good use as our department assists travelers in preparing for their chosen tours so that their experiences are that much more rewarding.

Hardly a day goes by without a staff member recounting a unique travel experience or having the opportunity to connect with a future traveler on the phone about a past or future adventure abroad. With so many of our staff having been to the countries that we travel to, there is almost always someone around to make a recommendation as to what to do, what to eat, and where to stay.

When these unique qualities and experience are matched with our valued partners like Smithsonian Journeys, National Geographic Expeditions, Yale Alumni Association, American Museum of Natural History, the International Monetary Fund, the Brookings Institute and so many more, the educational and cultural travel experiences we offer are unmatched.

To learn more about our staff and read their individual bios, click here.

Academic Travel Abroad

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Defying Expectations: My Ethiopian Discovery with Academic Travel Abroad

18-oct-simien-to-auxm-063As Senior Program Manager at Academic Travel Abroad (ATA), I have the responsibility of visiting international destinations and inspecting all aspects of the itineraries our groups will follow.  The past twelve years at ATA have given me countless opportunities to travel to and develop programs in far-flung destinations in the South Pacific, Latin America, the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, Scandinavia, and Cuba ,  However, my recent visit to Ethiopia profoundly impacted me in a way that rarely occurs to well-seasoned travelers.

My journey followed the highland route, just like the Pacific Science Center’s itinerary.  This encompasses Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, Gondar, the Simien Mountains, Axum, and Lalibela.  Each site I visited in these cities fascinated me and offered insight to distinct aspects of Ethiopia’s history, art, and lifestyles.

One of my favorite stops was Awaramba, a unique secular community where the people work hard to support their residents from cradle to grave.  Men and women are equal, the elderly are cared for, children are not responsible for chores beyond their ability, and daily tasks are designated according to an individual’s skill.

I also enjoyed a visit to Lalibela, where the numerous rock-hewn churches are Ethiopia’s most famous site.  These architectural and engineering feats are most impressive, but what also impacted me was how important these churches and the Orthodox Christian religion are to Ethiopians.

17-oct-simien-mts-091Another great surprise for me was the beautiful landscapes. The drives were never dull because there was always something new to see, whether it was extensive plains full of crops or the changing perspectives while driving through the mountains.  In addition, there were always people to observe as they engaged in their daily activities—children on their way to school, people walking miles to the local market, subsistence farmers clearing crops of sorghum with ancient tools, or young boys shepherding their animals.  I also kept quite busy waving back to all the people who waved to us as we drove by.

At the end of each day, I would think, “Wow, that was an amazing day.”  I always enjoy my travels to other countries, but I can’t think of a time where I would consistently describe each day with such superlatives.

Michelle
Academic Travel Abroad

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