Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ode to Internal Flights

Oh, internal flights of Ethiopia, how I miss you.  You were so cheap, largely punctual, relatively fast, surprisingly efficient, and quite comfortable.  It has been but a week without you, but to my arse and back and peace of mind, it feels like an eternity.  Oh, internal flights of Ethiopia, I wish you were just as cheap in Uganda, but alas, you are not.

As a profession of my love for you, let me enlighten you with some of my woes since we have been parted.  On our last day together we flew from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, an easy two hour flight but it was a late one and by the time we arrived in our hotel room it was 2:30 AM and we were exhausted.

The next day Anne had an interview at 10:00 AM Alaska time but as you know this was 10:00 PM Kenya time so we got to bed past 11.  The next morning we awoke at 5:45 AM to be at the bus stand at 6:30, half an hour before our expected departure.  Alas, Akamba Bus Lines completely lacks your punctuality, speed, and efficiency.  The latest you ever were was one hour, but Akamba had the audacity to depart our station three hours late.  Anne and several other customers tried in vain to get our money back or at the very least some information from the employees as to when the bus would actually show up, but their customer service more than pales in comparison to your customer service.  You were always friendly and helpful whether it was purchasing flights or giving us free passes to your Sheba Miles Lounge.  They just taunted us by saying our bus would be here shortly only for us to all move outside into the rain for an hour and a half.  One employee said the bus was still at the shop, another it was on the way, and yet another that it was picking up passengers in a different part of town.  They didn’t have a computer to track information, nor did anyone seem willing to give accurate information over the phone.  Oh, internal flights, how we missed you this day.  We missed you in those three hours we waited for the bus to actually arrive.  We missed you when we stopped for some inexplicable road block for an hour and a half.  We missed you when each 10 minute break turned into a 45 minute stop.  And we really missed you when we arrived in Kampala, Uganda at 2:45 AM, almost eight hours past our original ETA.  That was the last time we dared take an Akamba bus, unlike you, who we recommend to everyone.

The next day without you was even worse.  We slept as long as we could but checkout was at 10 AM so we groggily made our way to the Uganda Wildlife Authority to purchase gorilla tracking permits while they were on sale.  That part went smoothly, but as the park we were headed  to was pretty far south, we thought it best to leave this day to ensure we got there in time.  We boarded a bus to Kabale around 1:30 PM and it actually left the bus stand only an hour later.  However, it seemed to take 20 minutes to inch our way to the end of the bus stand before finally crawling through the crowded city streets.  Within minutes we heard what sounded like a gunshot, but of course it was only our bus blowing a tire, so we headed to a petrol station and 45 minutes later we were on our way.  We didn’t get very far.  Alas, internal flights of Ethiopia, we had some major engine problems.  We sat on the side of the road for an hour and a half while some of the bus employees tinkered for a while, then while they called a mechanic from Kampala, then while we waited for the mechanic to arrive, then while the mechanic tried to fix the bus.  We finally piled back in and headed on our way.  We only made it about seven more minutes before the bus broke down again.  At this point it was 7 PM and we were probably less than 50 kilometers from Kampala.  Anne and I lost all faith in the bus actually making it any further this evening so we decided to just eat the cost of this bus ticket and flag down a minibus taxi to take us to the next town where we could try a different bus in the morning.  We asked to get our backpacks out of the boot and were promptly ignored.  Then some nice Ugandans helped us ask the bus employees and they were also ignored.  Then we were told they lost the key to the boot.  Seriously.  Or that the driver left with it.  Then the police arrived and everyone was demanding their money back.  At the very least, we just wanted our luggage.  We helped search for the key but it was the lowest priority for the bus workers who were intent on banging heavy tools around under the engine.  Finally, over an hour later the key to the boot was located.  We grabbed our bags and ran.  Within minutes we flagged down a minibus, tied our bags to the roof, and were off.  We made it two major cities away, to Mbarara around midnight and got dropped off at a guest house near the bus stand.  There must have been a Christian revival going on next door because gospel music was blaring into our room and they said they didn’t have any other rooms further away from the noise. Luckily it stopped around 12:30 AM just as we were ready to sleep. Ethiopia Airlines, you never played such music late at night. And you fed us.

The following morning we forced ourselves to wake relatively early since we had only made it halfway to our destination.  We bought some chapati for breakfast and made our way to the taxi stand.  As per usual, we were swarmed upon entry and directed (forcibly pushed) to a minibus.  We were lucky enough to snag the front seats but really it wasn’t a very good minibus.  While it never broke down, it just kind of puttered its way to Kabale for what seemed like hours beyond what it should have taken.  At one point they stuck another person up front with us so there were four people in the front seat.  This did not go over well, but luckily the other guy was only up there for 15 or so minutes and they didn’t try it again.  Now we had just one more leg of the journey to complete, the ride from here to Kisoro.  As we pulled into the station we were accosted with “mzungu, mzungu” and quickly found a ride to Kisoro.  It was a station wagon shared taxi.  We had to wait a while for it to fill up, then we drove around town slowly for no good reason, then we stopped so the driver could buy an energy drink, and then finally, this seven-seat station wagon left town with 11 adults and 2 children.  The engine was not designed for the extra weight so we putt, putt, puttered our way up and down the mountains to Kisoro, eventually arriving at 5:12 PM, a mere 12 minutes past when the Uganda Wildlife Authority office closed.  This was disappointing as we needed information on getting to the park the next day. If we didn’t show up on time our permits would be worthless and no money would be refunded.  File this away, it will be important later.  We asked someone at our hotel if he knew a taxi driver that would take us there and to our (seemingly) good fortune he did.  He called a friend who came over to discuss the price.  We knew he was grossly overcharging us, but at this point we were exhausted, hungry, and just wanted to not have to think anymore.  We showed him the permits and said “do you know where we need to go?” and he responded “Yes”.  We said, “how long will it take?” and he said “the roads are bad.  It may take 3-4 hours.”  “Wow”, we gasped, “the guidebook says it’s only an hour and a half.”  “Yes”, he said, “but it’s the rainy season and the roads are bad.”  “Okay” we said, “we’ll be ready at 4:30 AM.”  And he said, “better make it 4:25.”  And we said “okay, see you tomorrow at 4:25 AM”.

Oh, internal flights of Ethiopia, the next morning was by far our worst.  We really missed you then.  I think more than anything we missed your honesty.  If you said you were flying from Gonder to Axum, we trusted that you knew how to get there, even if you went via Lalibela.  Sadly, this was not the case with Eric, our taxi driver.  When he still hadn’t arrived by 4:35 AM we called him and he said we would be there shortly.  When we called back at 4:45 he didn’t pick up the phone and we walked to the main street to see if we could hastily find another taxi, but he showed up just then.  There were no cars on the road anyway.  We chastised him for being 20 minutes late because our permits were nonrefundable.  Then he asked us where exactly we were going.  Then he said he needed to get petrol.  Needless to say we were furious.  While he woke up the guy at the petrol station we lambasted him for not knowing where we were going because we specifically showed him the permit last night and he said he knew.  He told us to give the petrol guy 50,000 shillings and we refused to pay until we got to the park.  We insisted Eric call people he knew to ask where to go despite the early hour.  He starting dialing numbers and driving on the tarred road back to Kabale.  He said it was the right way but we didn’t believe him.  We were so angry with him and frantic that we would not get there in time and lose our permits.  Finally he called two guys, Ernest and Emma, who work for a safari company and they spoke with Anne.  They said it was only an hour and a half away, they knew exactly where to go, and if we went back to Kisoro they would draw us a map.  And that’s what we did.  Ernest and Emma were waiting out front of their guest house for us, reassured us we would get there in time and that the roads weren’t too bad, and they drew us a map.  Finally, at 5:40 AM over an hour after we were originally supposed to leave Kisoro we were finally on our way.  We spent most of the ride in the back fuming but it actually didn’t take too long, the roads were fine, and we got there early.  The gorilla tracking was incredible but we will post a separate blog on that.

When we got back to our hotel that evening we handed the driver 50,000 shillings less than we agreed on the evening before and told him he didn’t deserve the full amount because he broke our verbal agreement.  We did, however, pay him the standard amount. He didn’t say anything, and we walked to our room saying, “wow, he didn’t fight that at all.  He must know how much he screwed up.”  Of course we were wrong.  He just didn’t listen to a word we said as we paid him, and it took him a moment to count the money and then he was in the hotel complaining.  His friend who originally recommended him fell into the role of mediator and listened to both arguments.  We were firm and unbending in our decision and explained repeatedly that he broke his contract with us by 1) being 20 minutes late when we had an important deadline, 2) lying about knowing how to get there, and 3) lying about the amount of time it would take.  Anne and I both felt we were extremely reasonable with how much we paid him as what he got was the amount recommended to us by the UWA office when we bought the permits.  He certainly didn’t deserve the overinflated price we agreed on the night before.   He finally left in a flurry and that was the end of him.

And that, dear internal flights of Ethiopia, is why we miss you so much.  Your customer service was excellent.  You were reliable.  The one time you had a mechanical problem with me on board it was quickly remedied and you even apologized for it.  You never lost the key to the plane.  You were fast.  You were comfortable.  You are sorely missed.

Chimp Sanctuary

The day before Anne’s mom arrived here we met a woman working with the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary and when we got to chatting she said there was a tour going out the next day with space for three people so we planned to go.  Unfortunately the boat broke down and the replacement one only had room for one of us.  After a brief discussion we decided that I would go while Anne and her mom went to the Botanical Gardens to do some birding.  This, of course, worked well for me.
It’s a shame we couldn’t all fit on the boat because it was awesome.  The island is a 45 minute boat ride away on Lake Victoria, and it is only about 1 km2 in size.  The chimps roam freely in the forest, but they would destroy it if they didn’t have a supplemental food source, so they get fed four times a day.   All of the chimps there were rescued from one bad situation or another.  Many were orphaned or found in illegal captivity.
 I got to be there for lunch as the chimps came one by one out of the forest and waited for their fruits and veggies.  The alpha male came out of the forest with a testosterone laden swagger and ran around charging the other chimps.  They were all extremely vocal.  I was up on a platform and aside from a barbed wire fence my view was completely unobstructed.  I got to see them close up, sitting down eating, reaching for more food, walking around on all fours, and twice I got to see them doing some brief bipedal walking.  With my good vantage point I was able to get a good look at the faces of several individuals and it surprised me how different they all looked.  Their facial features were just as distinct as ours.  We share 98.7% of our DNA with chimpanzees.  Their social structure was obviously very complex and fascinating to watch.  Lunch was over all too fast though, and one by one they headed back to the forest.

The big, bad alpha male.

Those are hordes of bugs in front of the chimp.

I know it looks like he's laying there reading a book but evolutionarily that's a bit further off.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest

Note: Anyone on the email list who got 17 notifications that we updated the blog, it's because the computer was acting funny and would only let me post one photo at a time.  This is the final version.

There are roughly 700 mountain gorillas in the world, and they only live in two areas.  One is an ecosystem spanning parts of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The other is Bwindi Impentrable National Park where about half of the gorilla population is found.  Permits are ridiculously expensive but that’s a good thing because it’s such a valuable source of revenue for the country that it helps ensure protection for the gorillas.  However, we lucked out with discounted permits for the slow season, so that was nice.
After our ordeal with the incompetent taxi driver we were happy to arrive at the park with plenty of time to spare.  About 20 tourists showed up for the briefing which included a list of do’s and don’ts when with the gorillas.  The ranger also said another survey was done this year and while all of the numbers are not in, preliminary thoughts are that the population has increased some.  In this part of the park there are three different groups of gorillas habituated to humans, so we all split up into our respective tracking groups and headed off.  Park rules limit eight permit holders per day to spend one hour with the gorillas if/when they are located.  Scouts head out early in the morning to track the gorillas from where they were encountered the previous day, and they communicate via radio with the guides.
Our group of seven piled into a safari vehicle for a 20-minute drive to another village then we started to “track”.  We were warned that there is no guarantee of even seeing the gorillas or that you could hike all day in the mud and rain.  We hiked steeply uphill for about an hour with views of the forest on our right and all other directions consisted of limited forest views with copious amounts of human encroachment.  There were huts and farms and pastures creeping right up to the forest.  Amidst this setting, Anne overhears on the radio in Swahili that the gorillas are just ahead.  Seriously?  It was so easy.  We then hiked over and down for another half hour before getting our first glimpse of the gorillas.
 I am not sure how many in total we saw because the forest was so thick with vegetation we could usually only see one, maybe two, gorillas at a time.  We did get to see one silverback that was pretty phenomenal to encounter.  He was huge and at one point he gave one heck of an aggressive warning noise to us, at which point all of the tourists gasped and stepped back in surprise and the guide and scouts said “picture, picture, picture”. 
The Silverback.

We saw a few females and blackbacks, a few of whom also gave us a warning sound accompanied by a really intimidating stance.  We saw two baby gorillas, one of whom the guide worried was sick because he was acting more lethargic than usual.  He called this in to their veterinarian immediately.  The other baby was fairly active at one point and crawled up a tree to check us out briefly.


Just hanging out people watching.

"Do you really want to come any closer than that?"
Baby gorilla

He was so cute I included two photos.

Our hour went by quickly and I could have easily spent the entire day following the gorillas around and watching them with awe.  It’s no wonder Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall took to the primates.   They are fun to watch and given our surprisingly similar DNA it makes them that much more interesting.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sheba Miles!!!

I understand rich people now. I understand why they seem to have this glow about them. This “something” that’s so desirable and unachievable. It’s because they belong to the airline clubs. In fact, they probably belong to the really high-end ones. That sort of pleasure seems inconceivable, but today, Jeanette and I touched the rim of it. We spent the day in the Addis Ababa airport. Though we could have paid $20 each to get visas and wander around the city again, we chose to save our money and hang out in no man’s land. In return, we got a free lunch coupon. Then, the exceedingly generous airline lady granted our request for a free day pass to the Sheba Miles lounge.  The room was nothing compared to the super high-end Cloud Nine lounge, but we figured it was still equipped with comfy chairs. Then we found out it comes with free drinks (of all kinds) and free food. Luxury. We saved $40 on visas and got to live in luxury. I love that Ethiopia is giving back. And now, back to east Africa. Uganda here we come! 

Monday, November 21, 2011


Djibouti is a tiny little desert country with a giant U.S. military base bordered by Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somaliland, and the Red Sea. It’s bloomin’ expensive but boasts random geological formations and whale sharks. We decided that the likelihood of us returning to the Horn of Africa was fairly low, so if we wanted to see Djibouti, we’d best do it now. Unfortunately the country started out with three strikes against it:

1)      Lack of communication. We emailed a number of tour companies about visiting the two famous lakes and only two ever responded. Finding out information and booking a trip with one was like pulling a tooth by tying a string to a doorknob.
2)      When we got into the country they almost didn’t let us in because I was at one point a journalist.
3)      When we got to the hotel, they wouldn’t let us stay because two women, even “cousins,” aren’t allowed to share a bed.

Luckily, the attractions of the country outweighed the negatives.

Day One: Whale Sharks
Whale sharks are neither whales nor sharks, but they are big fish. Really, really big fish. We joined an excursion of military folks to go and snorkel with the behemoths. After a two hour cruise on the Red Sea past a stark desert landscape we piled into skiffs to go look for the fish. As soon as we saw one, everyon jumped out of the boats in snorkel gear and swam after them. Jeanette was a super pro at this. She just zipped away with the whale sharks. In fact, if she was about 10 times her current size and covered in brown scales with white dots, she could be a whale shark. I, on the other hand, hopped into the water wearing my oversized lifejacket and saw them from fairly close up only twice. Then I frantically had the skiff driver pull me back into the boat. I do a fantastic impersonation of a walrus.

Day Two: Lac Assal
All of our dysfunctional communication with the tour company finally paid off and an amiable British guy joined us, and shared the costs, for our expensive excursion to the funky lakes. On our way to Lac Assal we stopped to watch the tectonic plates move apart. It was very slow. Only 2 cm per year. But the gorge was nice, as was the nearby salt pond. Our rather unnecessary guide paced about as our British companion took hundreds of photos. Eventually he muttered, this isn’t Lac Assal, you know, and ushered us back into the car.
Lac Assal is a massive salt lake filled with bright blue water. Jeanette and I slipped into our swimsuits and crunched over the salt pan to float in the lovely liquid. The high salt concentration does wonders for one’s complexion, and it’s pretty funny not being able to sink. The hot sun instantly dried the salt on our skin and we got a good idea of what we’ll look like when our body hair turns white. The salt accumulates so quickly that the area is mined for salt by the Afar. They make tourist trinkets by putting things like goat skulls into the lake until they are densely coated with salt. We washed off in a nearby pool of fresh water, pathetically trying to hide behind a rock to change our clothes as other tourists came to check out the hot springs.

Not sure what kind of baboon this is.

Lac Assal

It made our skin nice and soft, but left tons of salt on our bodies.
Our goal was to get to Lac Abh by sunset but a variety of unexplained delays, including a stop for our driver to buy a local, hugely-popular narcotic leaf, put us there just after the sun went down. As the light died we saw random rocks rising up around us. They remained a mystery as we slept that evening in traditional grass mat covered huts.

Day Three: Lac Abh
We awoke for sunrise and were driven back to the rocks. It’s still unclear to us what formed the giant, craggy forms. The surface was white and looked like tiny bubbles all melted together and hardened. The guide said it was ancient bacteria… Either way, the sun rising over the chimney and castle-like forms was splendid. Steam vents dotted the landscape making it seem even more unearthly. The herds of sheep only slightly detracted from the effect. After a lingering breakfast we went to see the flocks of flamingos that live in the salt lake then climbed a rock pile for a view of the plains of strangeness.

This is where they filmed the original Planet of the Apes.

There were random boiling hot springs in a few areas that added to the  place.

On our way back to Djibouti city we asked our driver and guide to take us to the rock painting that was mentioned in our printed itinerary. They had no idea that we had an itinerary, but eventually the driver figured out what rock painting was mentioned. We drove over dried mud flats to a pile of volcanic rock. On one large flat stone were crude drawings of camels. They did not look prehistoric. Nor did the numbers written by them. When the guide and I climbed up the rock hill we encountered small enclosures made of stacked rocks, much like the Afar currently build for their livestock. The guide said that people were washed ashore and stranded on the hill in ancient times when the mud flats were actually ocean. They carried their camels in their tiny sailboats and when they grounded, they built pens on the hill to make sure the camels didn’t wander off. The small hill was about the size of half a city block…

When the tour ended we walked around Djibouti city with our British companion. We both expected the city to be clean and European, given how much things in Djibouti cost and how many expats live there. It was actually fairly disgusting. The sight of the crow picking out the innards of a rat in the bus station was outdone by the sight of the bloated dead cat in a puddle on one of the main streets. The markets offered a great variety of colorful underwear, however, and the restaurants had great juice.

Three days turned out to be the perfect amount of time in Djibouti, a sweeping, desolate desert with a few little hidden gems.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Happiness Update

Our moods and opinions of Ethiopia have vastly improved lately. The country really does boast some of the most beautiful landscapes we’ve seen on the continent and the most interesting historic sites. We’ve also been in places with much less begging and far fewer things expected of us. Being on an organized tour of the Danakil Depression might have helped, too. Everything was out of our hands. Though I would still recommend visiting Ethiopia when you aren’t travel weary and for only a few weeks, I would actually now say it’s worthwhile to come. Just be prepared.

I was very surprised at the amount of livestock in Ethiopia.  They were everywhere  - donkeys, goats, sheep, camels, etc.  This unfortunately led to a dramatic increase in the number of flies all over the place.  The food was very meat-heavy, and we often ended up getting the same vegetarian dish over and over.  It was surprising how different shiro, a spicy pureed lentil dish, tasted in each restaurant.  Livestock freely roam all highways, gravel roads, and even downtown streets, and the herders make surprisingly little attempt to move them out of the way for vehicles.  This is probably because it is completely the driver’s responsibility to pay for the animal if it is hit, and dead donkeys bring in lots more money than live ones.

There were also a fair number of fleas in Ethiopia.  They infested the beds in several hotels and attacked us from the mats we rented when camping. Anne got it the worst on the hike she did in Lalibela.  She came back with her entire back covered in bites.  I think they get onto your pajamas then into your pack and then all over your other clothes.  We haven’t opened our sleeping bags in a while and they will get a proper washing before being allowed in anyone’s house.  However, I am writing this a week out of Ethiopia and am happy to report that we are flea-free.  (And thus will not infect your houses. At least not with fleas. Other parasites, though…).
The begging didn’t get a whole lot better and as much as we were grumbling about the situation we had this uncanny moment in Lalibela at dinner one night that was reality slapping us in the face.  There we were in a small hotel restaurant that had a giant screen satellite television.  It was the two of us and about five local men.  That evening the television was tuned to MTV, which as we all know, hasn’t played music videos in about 20 years.  Instead the programming included a two-segment episode of Teen Cribs followed by an episode of Super Sweet Sixteen.  It is my hope that none of you have ever heard of these programs or at least have never had to suffer through viewing them.  They were horrible.  Teen Cribs consisted of a teenager walking you through a tour of the super-sized, super-supped up McMansion she lived in and how cool it was and how all her friends loved hanging out there, etc.  These houses were worth more than our current federal deficit.  In Super Sweet Sixteen a really popular girl at school was using daddy’s money to throw herself the best sweet sixteen ever.  Having never been one of those girls, not only could I in no way relate to her, but I can’t even remember my sixteenth birthday.  The teenager gifted herself with a $165,000 necklace and earring set because the army-themed party alone didn’t have enough “wow” factor.  Given the available programming on life in the States, it’s no wonder Ethiopians think we have diamonds falling out of our pockets.

An example of this can be found in the following story.  While in Addis when we first entered Ethiopia I was chatting with one of the docents at a museum.  She was a university student doing an internship there, and she invited Anne and me to coffee ceremony when we came back through town.  We exchanged phone numbers, and she checked in with us throughout our time in Ethiopia.  We were in Lalibela when she texted again to say her mother invited us to her house for the coffee ceremony.  While on a tour of the churches I explained this situation to our guide and asked what an appropriate gift for us to bring would be.  As he gave me a quizzical look I explained that in the States if someone invited you to dinner you’d likely show up with a bottle of wine or maybe some flowers.  He said wine isn’t typically consumed at a coffee ceremony.  I said I understood that, it was just an example of what we would do culturally and then I asked again for his opinion on what would be a nice gift for us to bring.  The he said “Oh, you can just give her something like an old laptop or camera.”  I almost choked on my gasp as I said we don’t just have that kind of thing on us.  He then said it would be okay if I got her address and mailed it once I got home.  Anne and I just shared a look of astonishment.  How to explain that laptops and camera were expensive and that we didn’t actually have a stockpile of them at home?  I was off the hook anyway because the coffee ceremony never worked out as we stayed that whole day in the airport to avoid paying visa fees again.

Eventually, we just started laughing off instances like these, even the fleas, and overall our moods toward Ethiopia vastly improved.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Churches of Lalibela

Some Ethiopians believe that the 11 rock-hewn churches in Lalibela were created entirely by God, others that King Lalibela was empowered by God to carve them on his own in only 23 years, and then there are the historians who believe that they took close to a century and 40,000 workers to complete.  Any way you look at it, the churches are absolutely remarkable. 

These churches have many similarities to the ones we saw in Tigray, especially the inside design.  All have the typical Axumite arches with supporting pillars, but these churches lacked the paintings on the inside that were very common in Tigray.  However, the churches in Lalibela were much more striking to me, as you could stand on a giant granite precipice and look down at a church that was carved where there used to be only mountain.  Our guide said the churches were carved from the top down on the outside and then from the bottom up on the insides, which makes sense.  The outsides of the churches were smoothed down in most places but on some of the inside walls the marks from hammer and chisel were quite visible and added to how impressive these structures really were.

There are two clusters of churches in close proximity to one another and then St. George’s Church stood by itself nearby.  There were tunnels and passageways connecting the churches within the clusters, the longest one being 27 m long.  We had a guide the first day which was instrumental to finding all of the passageways.  He was very informative and gave an enjoyable tour.

This shows the top of the columns and arches typical of the Axumite style seen in all the churches.

I forget the name of this one, but you can see the rock wall on the front left where the church was originally carved out of.  The scaffolding on top is from UNESCO to protect the church from erosion.

St. George Church.  Visually my favorite.  It's an eye-catching cross shape and you can clearly see how it was carved out of the mountain.

St. George Church

Example of one of the tunnels or carved passageways.

I also forget the name of this one, but it was one of the more visually stunning.

Lalibela was a good stop overall.  We had heard warnings from other travelers about being followed for blocks by begging kids, but it wasn’t that bad for us.  It was actually much easier and had fewer hassles than seeing the churches in Tigray, which was a welcome change.

After spending two days seeing the churches we actually parted company for a few days for the first time on the trip.  Anne wanted to go on an overnight hike to the top of the escarpment, but I wasn’t feeling well and wanted some downtime. However, as lovely as Lalibela, was I didn’t want it there.  I ended up changing my flight to Addis Ababa and left two days early where I hung out in the city enjoying good food and good company (Marie, the French woman we befriended was also there), and good internet access where I started looking for jobs in earnest.  I will let Anne talk about her hike:

Looming above Lalibela is a farm-covered escarpment. And by farm-covered I mean they plowed and harvested areas that could almost be called cliffs. It was insane. The hike up to the lovely round huts of the community camp was easy and straight forward until the very end. The guides think that white folk are crazy and enjoy scrambling up near-vertical rock beds in a crack in the cliff. I’m pleased to report that even though the area fell profoundly into the “steep slippery things” category, I wasn’t scared and just climbed up. The extraneous city boy guide I was required to take was freaked out. The next day we took the easy route down.

It was nice to be out walking after days in the car. It was nice to sit and enjoy views while just listening to music and reading. And it was nice to try to burst a conceited Ethiopian guy’s bubble about how easy his life will be if he wins the green card lottery for the States. I know, it sounds cruel, but he just had no idea about how good he had it as a wealthy Ethiopian (who looked down on the “peasants” he worked with everyday as a guide) compared to what it would be like as a poor immigrant in the U.S. who would likely be the victim of the same discrimination he tended to dish out. Seriously, the U.S. needs to start an ad campaign that basically says “We aren’t all movie stars.” and shows people being denied medical care or living on the streets.
But I digress. Hike was nice. Lalibela is pretty. Ethiopia definitely grew on me.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Danakillers

 For the umpteenth time that day one of the four-wheel drive cars in our caravan was bogged down in the mud and sand. Our vehicle was forced to stop behind it and was soon stuck as well. Night had fallen and we stayed in our car as it started to rain, bright bolts of lightning piercing the vast openness that surrounded us. Our journey through one of the hottest, driest deserts on Earth was thrown off course by rain storms. Go figure.

In northeastern Ethiopia lies the Danakil Depression, a baking hot desert where temperatures frequently go above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s the home of the aggressive and resourceful Afar people, ancient salt mines, and amazing geological formations. To visit the area you have to join a caravan of cars. Going alone would be suicide. Not only do cars frequently encounter problems on the rough tracks that serve as roads leaving them stranded in the oppressive heat, the area is close to Eritrea. Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 but fighters still sometimes cross the border and four years ago kidnapped a group of tourists. We joined a massive budget tour group of 23 travelers going in seven cars.

The tour company was recommended on the Lonely Planet website so a Belgian couple organized the trip, and we decided to join up with them. We exchanged a few emails and short phone calls with the company before arriving in Mekele but didn’t know much about them. At about 9 pm our first night in the departure town, a skinny young Ethiopian woman knocked on our door. Clad in tight jeans and a sparkling t-shirt, she looked like she had just come from a celebration. Abeba was our company representative. The very friendly woman hung out in our room, told us the itinerary, and then sleepily wandered off. She had returned from a different excursion to the Depression earlier that day.

After our brief interactions with Abeba and two ten-minute phone calls with the tour operator we never actually met, they decided they liked us and assigned us to the best car in the caravan. We were joined by Marie, a lovely French woman we met in the Simen Mountains and convinced to join us, and Peter, a biker from Australia. With his deeply tanned, weathered skin and his messy white hair and beard, Peter exuded “traveler.” Within a day of meeting him we had heard his favorite travel stories multiple times, were convinced of the quality of his BMW motorcycle, and knew that after almost three years on the road, he needed to head home. What he kept hidden for at least the first day was his innate ability to lead a group and solve a problem all with good humor and precision.

The first day of our excursion went without much trouble. We left almost two hours late, which means “on time” for most of this continent, and arrived at our lunch spot around 4 pm. The road was good quality gravel, and we got to the campsite shortly after dark. It was unclear where our band of 34 people would sleep until villagers started walking up carrying bed frames made of wooden poles and woven mesh. The beds were lined up outside next to the array of dilapidated stick and mat huts that served as the village. Sleeping inside would have been too hot. Only the strong breeze made the temperature bearable. For toilets we were sent to the ditch next to the site. In the wide open desert, privacy was impossible as we contributed to a public health nightmare. No one in the village had pit toilets and piles of excrement dotted the landscape. It’s still unclear to me if we helped  the community by paying exorbitant amounts to rent their bed, or led to their ultimate downfall by introducing more diseases to the area.

On our second day we piled into the cars to head to Irta’ale, an active volcano. It was supposed to take about six hours to reach the base of the volcano. An hour into the drive over dried mud and sand we came across some wet patches. Six of the seven cars drove around the mud. The seventh, after watching the others circumvent the area, drove through and was immediately stuck. We waited in the 100 degree heat for half an hour while they pulled him out and were off again. Twenty minutes later we turned around. Communication not being the strong suit of any of our intrepid tour leaders or drivers, we can only assume the way was deemed impassable. As were the next three routes we tried. Finally, about mid-day, the drivers and the local Afar guide decided that driving the normal route on the rain-soaked mudflats wasn’t going to work. Instead, we drove through a sandy plain dotted with shrubs and camels.

We thought we were safely on our way until we reached the first river. In this case I use the term river loosely. It was a thin, shallow trickle of water through mud. Instead of getting out of the car to see the best route through, the first car plunged ahead and was stuck in foot deep mud. The next car drove easily around the beleaguered behemoth and tried to pull it from the mud. It got stuck in the process, as did the third car. Peter, who was used to driving around the Outback of Australia, tried to communicate via our driver, who spoke a bit of English, different ways of getting the vehicle out. He was largely ignored, and it took over two hours to move on.

The afternoon was riddled with small incidents. One car was stuck, then the next, then another. It was nearing dark when we decided to drive on a mining company road instead of plowing through the nothingness. It was pitch black when we finally extracted the cars from unexpected sand dunes and dramatically changed course. First we were told that we were lost and had taken the wrong turn. Most of the tourists were flabbergasted by the incompetency. Didn’t we ask for directions an hour before? Didn’t we have a local guide with us to prevent this from happening? Then, the story changed. According to Abeba, the Afar police man we were required to have accompany us had changed his mind. Originally he said we could skip the village where we had to buy another permit to visit the volcano and just return to pay in the morning. Now we had to backtrack to the village.

The caravan plunged ahead into the darkness. As we swerved around clumps of bushes and piles of sand, the wind started picking up. Soon, it was impossible to see around the vehicle and the other cars became vague lights in the distance. We were caught in a sandstorm. In truth, we felt lucky. The air conditioning worked in our car and all of the windows closed. One of the other cars didn’t have such luck. As we attempted to drive through the storm, unable to see out of the car, we envisioned their car filling with dirt. Our pity subsided when the most of the cars were far ahead, we were stuck in the sand behind one of the less competent drivers, and it started to rain. The lightning bolts were so bright and seemed so close, I was certain that our metal car sticking out in the empty desert would be like a lightning rod.

In our exhausted frenzy we started to devise a plan – who would sleep where, what food and water we had available in case the others didn’t come back for us. When the rain started, the wind died down, and we could see a ways into the distance. A single blue light was moving toward us. At this point our driver piped up. “I don’t want to scare you, but the Afar people say that devils appear in the desert at night carrying lights to confuse you. Not that I’m trying to scare you.” Thinking that a devil was better than nothing, we took out a headlamp and tried to flash S.O.S. into the distance. It was unclear if the other light flashed back, but by that point the rain had slowed and we decided to assess the situation on our own, or so we thought. We were quickly reminded of one of the cardinal traits of rural Africa: people materialize out of nothingness.
With the help of random village men and children, we quickly extracted our car only for the other car to be mired in an easily avoidable puddle for about an hour. The “devil” in the distance turned out to be the nice French man coming back to rescue us and to tell us that we had reached our destination for the night. After 14 hours of driving we were to hole up in another tiny village with mats laid out under random structures. One of the cars was now inoperable and our car of five became a cheery car for eight.
In the morning, we tried once more to head to the volcano. We followed a suggested route only to reach another river. As we got out of the cars to consider where to cross, water began surging down the river bed. All of the rain from the night before both in the depression and in the mountains was creating a flash flood. We quickly moved the cars and headed back to the village. Then the arguments began.

Some drivers wanted to stop trying to get to the volcano. Word filtered out that we also couldn’t get back to the original camp because of the floods. Our crowd of tourists began to panic. What if we ran out of water? They didn’t pack enough water, one group cried. Some went to count the number of water bottles in each car. Jeanette rolled her eyes. They were panicking about water when we were surrounded by rivers and had plenty of water treatment drops between us. They were worried about food when, if we got to dire straits, we could easily kill one of the innumerable camels. It was all a bit silly, really. People probably wouldn’t have panicked as much, though, if the communication was better. None of us understood the heated conversations in Amharic between Abeba, the guides, and the locals. All we knew was that after about an hour, we decided to try a different route.

This time, it worked. Smooth sailing. Okay, smooth sailing until the typical problem car was stuck in the mud again only an hour from the volcano base camp. After about an hour, we decided to eat lunch. More time passed. The Ethiopians gave up; they had tried nearly everything to pull the car out. Finally, Peter stepped up to the plate again. He directed all of us to start grabbing the innumerable volcanic rocks that littered the landscape. He and a few others started digging the mud out from under the tires and shoving rocks into their place. In twenty minutes we had a mini-rock highway and the car chugged, chugged, and was out. An hour later after a bumpy pumice road, we were there.

The hike up took about three hours. Even after dark the air was so hot that we all dripped sweat. We arrived at the peak and looked beyond the small, empty rock huts to a red glow in the distance. Under the light of the full moon we descended into a rock crater and within minutes were standing above a roiling, exploding, ever-changing pool of magma. About 60 meters below us was liquid rock – the mantel of the earth exposed. Depending on the wind direction, we were blasted with heat and sulfur, but it was hard to look away. The lava quickly cooled on the surface turning black and shiny. Red cracks cut through the surface exposing the lava below. Slowly, bits would sink under, red pools would form, and the lava would spurt into the air. Some bits would land like rocks on the fluctuating black surface and skitter across, others would ooze over and pull the blackness back down into the red. It constantly changed, constantly kept us interested. On the far side of the rim on which we stood, bits of rock fell into the pool below. We quickly stepped back, conscious of the cracks on our side of the rim as well. It was one of the most exhilarating and spectacular moments of my life. We watched for hours and celebrated the start of 11.11.11 with the small group who remained into the night.
When we finally decided to go to sleep, we walked back to the group of huts on the ridge. We weren’t allowed to put our mats in the huts or even the flattened walled off areas near the huts. The guide said that someone lived there, but, given that the place was deserted, we figure that the company would have had to pay someone if we were seen there. We bedded down on a rocky patch between a small pile of rubbish and an old animal pen. At dawn, we woke up the guide and returned to the pool. The lava had calmed down, but the morning light made it seem like the lava pool was much closer than the night before. We headed down the volcano and had a rather uneventful trip back to the original sleeping spot. It was a nice change.

Our final day in the Danakil included a visit to Dallol, the second lowest spot on the continent.  At first it seemed like nothing more than a flooded salt pan. After a few kilometers of driving we started climbing up a pile of oddly textured brown salt rocks. Then, the salt began transforming. It became strange, round coffee tables that looked like sawed off logs. Then the white tables shrank into toadstools. We were bemused by the formations until we turned a corner and were dazzled. The salt formed fountains of neon yellow sulfur. The surreal formations glowed with the sulfur. Mounds spitting boiling water were yellow, pools were lime green, and plains of bumpy salt were brick red. The small lake felt Martian-like.

After visiting the lake we went to see the salt caravans. Dozens of camels waited to be loaded with salt bricks. The Afar men chopped large, flat chunks of salt from the salt plain, just as they had for centuries. Salt formed so quickly on the plain that even camel droppings were quickly covered. Using angled chisels the Afar chopped the salt into perfect rectangular bricks. Each camel carried four stacks of six bricks for six days to Mekele. Each brick sold for 25 birr each, or about $1.50. Rumor has it a company is trying to build a conveyor belt to transport the salt and put it into trucks. It would destroy a way of life that predates most modern cultures.

At long last, our trip to the Danakil Depression was over. Many different versions of “what went wrong” floated about the group, but in the end it was a success. We saw the volcano, we saw the salt flats, and, in the end, we even had a couple extra bottles of water.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Ethiopia - The Good Stuff

(Long with lots of photos. Enjoy!)

The food: it’s cheap and delicious.  Plus there are huge portions so we can usually split a meal and both eat for less than $2.  The only downside is that Ethiopian food seems to give me horrendous gas so we have to limit our consumption of injera and lentils or chickpeas to one meal a day.  Many menus in tourist areas have a pasta or pizza option and tend to be fairly tasty, thanks to a large Italian influence even though they tried to occupy the country several times in the past.

Coffee: Readily available macchiatos for less than 50 cents that don’t upset Anne’s stomach. I often opt for the 60 cent cappuccinos. 

National Pride: it’s huge.  Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was not colonized and people are very proud of their unique heritage.  There were some rough times and really awful battles against Italian occupation attempts, but Ethiopians prevailed.

Internal flights: they’re cheap!  Ethiopian Airlines has some fantastically cheap internal flights and some really bad roads so we splurged and have saved ourselves days of travel and countless frustrations.  Plus, the guy who worked at the airlines office in Addis Ababa and helped us arrange everything is one of the nicest, most helpful, and patient employees of any company that I have ever encountered.

Lodging: it’s not bad.  Although prices have at least doubled since the printing of our 2009 guidebook, we can still usually find a place for less than $15 a night.  We have splurged a few nights and spent around $30, which was nice.  I have only woken up twice with flea bites and one of those was from the rented sleeping pads from the Simen Mountains.   Our huge splurge was two nights ago where we spent one night in a rustic, beautiful, and very comfortable Italian lodge at $60 per night PLUS $8 each for dinner.  It was quite extravagant but our sanity needed it to get rid of some of our traveling frustrations.

Old stuff: there is lots of it.  Temples and rock-hewn churches and castles galore from as early as 6th century BC.
Some of the information we have learned from our guides is contradictory to what we’ve learned from other guides or our guidebook, and history here is often deeply infused with legend so it’s hard to know what is real versus what is myth.  Plus, we’ve often picked up on times when our guides just sort of make-up answers to our questions rather than admitting that they don’t know, so the history below is a mix of information from our guidebook and what we’ve heard from guides and should be taken with a grain of salt.

National Museum in Addis Ababa: We saw Lucy! Okay, we saw a really good replica of Lucy as the original is currently on display in New York.  This infamous Australopithecus afarensis skeleton was, at the time of discovery in 1974, the oldest and most complete hominid ever found and showed that A. afarensis was bipedal as far back as 3.2 million years ago.  This floor of the museum had a really good display of tooth fragments, skulls, and bones found all over Ethiopia showing the evolutionary changes leading up to Homo sapiens.  It was even more impressive when I thought about how all of these bones were found RIGHT HERE in Ethiopia, many from the Afar region which we will visit later in this trip. In addition to the excellent display on human evolution, the museum boasted a modest but beautiful collection of modern Ethiopian paintings.

Gonder: Although this former capital city has many different spellings, it is not actually pronounced “Gone-door” like in the Lord of the Rings, as I had been saying.  Emperor Fasiladas established Gonder as his capital in 1636 and built a huge castle and palace for himself.  His son and grandson followed him to power and even Empress Mentewab who married into the royal family ruled for 25 years.  They all built more additions inside this Royal Enclosure (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) which includes palaces, castles, a sauna, a library, a banquet hall, horse stables, lion cages (seriously, it proved that they even had domination over the king of the jungle), archives, and a kitchen. Some of the buildings were in pretty good shape although many were damaged by Sudanese Dervishes, invading Muslims, in the 19th century, and British bombings from early World War II against the Italian occupation.  Considering most of these were built in the 15th and 16th centuries they were in remarkable shape.
Main Palace at Gondor

Ceiling in different palace -- each king built one to they'd have an everlasting 

Old chapel in Empress' compound
Paintings in the oldest surviving church in Gondor

Simen Mountains: When you talk about steep cliffs, towering views, and undulating plateaus it is hard to rival the Grand Canyon, but I have to admit that views from the Simen Mountains did just this.  We did a 4-day hike with a scout who spoke very little English, a mule, and a muleteer who spoke virtually no English.  The scout was required and he came armed with a rifle although I’m still unsure as to why.  He was good at warding off the begging children and two really, really mean dogs.  The office recommended a mule and muleteer due to the elevation and since we were renting gear (tent, sleeping pads, and cooking gear) we thought it wise to get the mule as they did not provide quality, lightweight backpacking equipment.  The climax of the hike was out to Imet Gogo, a precarious cliff surrounded by absolutely stunning views at 3926m/12881ft.  We had no problems with the elevation, likely due to our recent Kili hike and the fact that a mule was carrying most of our gear.  It was cold at night but perfect hiking weather during the day.  Our visit here followed a few rainy months so it was incredibly green and lush.  One thing that struck us both was how covered the landscape was with farm plots.  It was astonishing to see crops growing on plateaus at the tops of vertical cliffs in every direction.  Despite the annoying kids on the way here, this view was worth every ounce of frustration.

Farmland covered everything

This doesn't come close to capturing it

Our rock star scout, Tafil

Gich village

Barely adequate photo from Imet Gogo

Cool plant
Sunrise -- we had to wake early to hike 23 km to get the bus to Gondor that day. We went super slow because Anne was sick. Icky.

Along the way we also stopped at a local woman’s house to see how traditional coffee is prepared. Using an old USA food aid can she washed unroasted coffee beans then roasted them on a flattened metal plate over the fire. She crushed the beans with a heavy mortar and pestle then brewed the coffee. The subtle flavor lacked the bitter aftertaste of coffee that we’re used to and for once didn’t even need sugar. 
Fatima pounding coffee

Fatima's house where she slept on a loft above the livestock

Gelda Baboon, not actually related to other baboons and much friendlier

Aksum: The two biggest tourist attractions here are the giant stelae erected over several tombs and the Ark of the Covenant.  A stelae is a massive, narrow rock planted upright in the ground. Some are carved, others are just rock, depending on whose grave they represented. Aksum was a very important center for trade beginning around 1 AD and flourished for four or five centuries and was presumably the home of the Queen of Sheba in the 10th century BC.

The Northern Stelae Field is right on the outskirts of town.  I would have found it more impressive if not for the buildings surrounding it and the giant crane holding one of the stelae up. The modern setting really takes away from the aesthetic appeal of the ancient structures.  An enormous 10 room mausoleum is beneath a fallen 33-meter-long stelae.  Many other tombs were also accessible, built in a similar style with a room in the middle for the coffin and then surrounding rooms to hold numerous treasures.  Most of the tombs were robbed well before archeologists entered them.   The stelae are up to 33m high (the largest is lying in pieces as mentioned above) and were likely erected to commemorate the burial of someone important, however, due to the grave robbers, it is unknown who was buried in many of the tombs.  The stelae are one giant piece of granite taken from a quarry 5 km away likely with a combination of elephant power, giant wheels , and fierce determination.  They were quarried, carried, carved, and erected sometime between the 3rd and 5th centuries AD.

The largest stelae, which fell hundreds of years ago

Tomb underneath the Great Stelae

Rome Stelae, broken in three by the Italians to steal it and move it to Rome. They just got it back recently.

The One with the Crane

Ethiopians firmly believe that the Ark of the Covenant is held within a chapel no tourist can get near in the St. Mary of Zion Churches complex.  This chapel is guarded by one man who never leaves the building and is in his year of duty.  Our guide said he will pick his successor when he starts getting old, but if he dies suddenly a church council will choose the next guardian monk.  Legend has it than Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, went to visit his father in Jerusalem and absconded with the Ark back to Ethiopia.  It is rumored to have been housed in several places in Aksum, including the Queen of Sheba’s Palace, before finding its current home in a building where only one man every 20+ years sees it.  A skeptic could say this is somewhat dubious but Ethiopians firmly believe it and that is what counts.  Besides, the Indiana Jones-like curiously of this ancient relic was enough for me to pay the steep entry fee to see the building.
Chapel housing the Ark

Illustrated prayer book

We also saw the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s Palace, called Dungur. Most archaeologists actually think the ruins are from 10th century AD, well after Queen of Sheba’s reign. Most Ethiopians believe otherwise. A recent excavation showed that another building was built before the top layer of ruins and that could have been the Queen’s true palace. Regardless of the exact history, the ground floor of this massive palace was well preserved and interesting to walk through.  A platform was erected just outside the palace that affords visitors a bird’s eye view of the area.
Little stelae field near the Queen's Palace

The King of Ezana’s Inscription is a Rosetta stone-like giant monolith containing inscriptions in Greek, Ga’ez (an unspoken language that predates Amharic), and Sabaean from around 350 AD.  The inscription speaks of King Ezana’s military conquests and contains a curse upon he who dares to move it.  Our guide said this tablet was found by three farmers lying on its side and was re-erected exactly in that same spot.

Yeha: This giant sandstone structure is dated between the 5th to 8th centuries BC making it the oldest I have ever laid my eyes upon.  The masonry was absolutely impressive with giant “bricks” laid together so smoothly and without mortar that you still can’t slide anything between them.  Our guide said this was likely a temple built for the God of the Moon, the same god worshipped by the ancient kings of Axum before the incursion of Christianity.  There were archeologists at work here restoring the structure so unfortunately there was some hideous scaffolding all over the inside but was fascinating to see anyway.
Ancient Temple of Yeha

Adwa Mountains

Rock-Hewn Churches of Tigray: (It’s Anne writing now. Before it was Jeanette.) Tigray looks like a dusty area of land covered in grain fields with massive red cliffs sprouting up out of nowhere. The chunks of primarily sandstone mountains provided spectacular views and inspiring places to carve churches. Once again it’s unclear if the 120 churches were carved by saints and kings during the 4th century as all of the guides profess or by others between the 9th and 15th centuries. Either way, they were impressive. The architects carved away enough stone by hand to create free-standing pillars, geometric designs on the ceilings, and cavernous spaces for prayer and congregation. The churches are still used to this day and have portions curtained off to protect the Holy of Holies, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. Most of the churches are fitted up with small but ornate chandeliers that come straight out of the 1980s and have wires crisscrossing the ceiling along with other curtains.    

Many of the church walls had murals of varying ages and conditions depicting Jesus, Mary, a cadre of Ethiopian saints, and other orthodox imagery. My favorite was a picture of the Holy Trinity depicted as three different colored orbs with faces. Typically the Trinity is drawn as three old white men. Our guide said that many of the original murals were destroyed by an evil Jewish queen who tried to burn down all of the churches. Though the physical evidence doesn’t support this belief, as previously mentioned, legend is fact in Ethiopia.

Visiting the churches isn’t exactly straight forward. To get to Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor churches we climbed up a steep, rocky crevice in the cliff then over sandstone to the churches carved on the top of the mountain. It wasn’t very strenuous. But to get from those churches to Abuna Yemata Guh, the nicest church we saw, we got off the beaten path, if you will. By which I mean we followed our guide down six foot drops into rock crevices to a river bed. In the process of Jeanette and the guide patiently helping me into areas that I simply shouldn’t be going, my arm rubbed against some random plant and – you guessed it – I got a really itchy rash. Needless to say, despite the spectacular views, I was not in a good mood by the time we got to the base of the hike to the actual church, where most tourists start.

Despite this, I hauled myself up the mountain to the point where we had to take off our shoes and climb the sheer rock face barefoot. For any of you who have ever met me or even followed this blog, you know this falls into my category of Really Stupid Things That Only Crazy People Do So Don’t Make Me. So of course the guides, a contingent of scouts who had decided to join our trek, and Jeanette coaxed me up. The cliff had a series of hand and toeholds worn into it, but they still had to tell me exactly where to put each part of my body. Then, we climbed up not quite so sheer cliffs over massive drops and walked across a ledge over nothingness to the church. Actually, I’m over my fear of ledges, so that wasn’t so bad. Luckily, the church was actually worth it. The paintings were bold, simplified figures and the colors still shone magnificently. Our guide commandeered our camera and took about 100 photos. I made it back down the same route, too, in a slight drizzle. Still think it was stupid, though.       
View of Tigray

Rock-hewn pillars

Happy apostle in hard to get to church

Lots of sort of happy apostles

Not-so-scary ledge

Do you see why climbing that was so stupid? I mean seriously, who came up with that idea?

Geometric designs carved into ceiling

Paintings covered most surfaces of churches