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 



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.

Academic Travel Abroad

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