By Neeta Lal
In the beginning, the question was: Why Ethiopia? Why hotfoot to a remote, unsung African nation when the oomph of the Serengeti plains in Tanzania or the lure of Kenya’s Big Five lurked in the neighbourhood? However, within a day or two of landing in this charming land of genteel people, that query was turned on its head: Why didn’t I visit this place before?
This East African nation, locked deep within the Horn of Africa, is so low-profile that it rarely, if ever, makes it to a traveller’s bucket list. A pity really, because Ethiopia is an Aladdin’s cave of surprises and wonders. It hosts the ancient ruins of Aksum; the 11th century rock-hewn churches of Lalibela known as the Second Jerusalem; the historic castles of Gondar; and Harar, known as the City of Love. Add to this the Bale Mountains, where it snows, savannah teeming with game, giant waterfalls, lush jungles, Afro-Alpine highlands, deserts cradling salt flats and yellow sulphur — and the mind boggles.
The story goes that the French poet Arthur Rimbaud was so smitten by the country that he crossed the Gulf of Aden in a wooden dhow in 1880, and then rode three weeks on horseback through the Somali Desert’s catatonic heat to get to the walled city of Harar, now a Unesco World Heritage Site. American filmmaker Oliver Stone and designers Calvin Klein and Donna Karan have been similarly enchanted, though they preferred taking the airplane.
History and legend are so entwined in Ethiopia that they are almost indistinguishable. A phalanx of saints, kings, queens, hermits, spirits and monsters seem to materialise out of thin air everywhere you go. “Thousands of myths and legends swirl around our ancient monuments and sights,” guide Assfer tells me as we negotiate the treacherous highlands of the Lalibela churches.
The sacred Ark of the Covenant — the goldleafed wooden box containing what is believed to be the original stone tablets delivered by God to Moses on Mount Sinai — rests in a chapel in the millennia-old city of Aksum, adds Assfer. “It is believed,” he explains, “that Ethiopian emperor Menelik I, the offspring of King Solomon and the cloven-footed Queen of Sheba, stole the ark from the First Temple in Jerusalem and brought it to Aksum a thousand years before the birth of Christ.”
With such glorious antiquity to showcase, Ethiopians are finally waking up to leverage their heritage to attract tourist footfalls. There’s a new exuberance and extroversion in Ethiopia towards tourism, a sector which contributed 4.1% to the country’s GDP in 2015. Tourism is also the government’s new tool for poverty eradication and economic empowerment, acting as a force multiplier to generate a million jobs and $2 billion in revenue, according to World Bank. Visitors’ numbers have surged 12% annually in the past decade to reach 600,000 in 2014. The icing on the cake: Ethiopia was named the World’s Best Tourism Destination for 2015 by the European Council on Tourism and Trade.
“We are hoping to challenge the dominance of our regional rivals on Africa’s eastern seaboard, such as Kenya and Tanzania. Being landlocked, our USP is our imperial past and mountainous vistas rather than beach holidays or safaris,” says Solomon Tadesse, CEO of the Ethiopian Tourism Board in Addis Ababa.
Be that as it may, accommodation remains basic and the service erratic. Even in the luxury segment — double rooms at `10,000-plus a night — no hotel has got it right. Some have great food and bad rooms, others vice
versa. At the Ambassador Hotel in Addis, its all-day dining takes 35 minutes to serve me a salad in an empty restaurant. And then gets the order wrong. At the spiffy Kuriftu Lodge and Spa in Lalibela, the rooms come unequipped with basics like hand showers, moisturisers or toothbrush. The last is supplied for an extra charge.
###The Dance of Addis
But the country’s natural charms and culture make up for all that. Up in the northern highlands, I cruise on the glutinous Lake Tana, a source of the River Nile, its shores speckled with forested islands hiding 16th century monasteries. Lalibela gobsmacks one with its storied churches built top down from pink volcanic rock.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s 8,000-ft-high capital city, is a thriving metropolis peppered with historic churches, fine museums, chic new cafes, global hotel chains and eateries. It bears no visible scars of the starvation years or the Red Terror purges of the 1970s and '80s. Construction is booming and a metro railway cuts through the sprawling city, the only such network in sub-Saharan Africa. Addis is also Ethiopia’s commercial nerve centre, its wining and dining playground, home to the headquarters of the African Union. For a local immersive experience, one starspangled night I head to a “cultural restaurant”, many of which dot the city. These vibrant hotspots offer authentic Ethiopian cuisine as well as performances by local folk artists. As I enter the al fresco eatery, men and women in tribal dresses are twisting and gyrating to highly choreographed numbers on stage. The audience too is joining in the fun.
It’s is not about shaking one’s hips and body; the real star in Ethiopian dance are the shoulders and the upper body in a style called eskista. I give the dance a shot but fail spectacularly in moving just my shoulders to the exclusion of other body parts. Before long, I’m back to dancing “normally”.
For dinner, we sit on short, polished wooden stools arrayed around a mesop, the hourglass-shaped basket that serves as the Ethiopian dinner table. A waitress, her hair in tight braids and wearing habesha kemis —the diaphanous, traditional, Ethiopian ankle-length, white dress with intricate embroidery — serves us tej, the honey-hued mead wine, out of a contoured glass bottle. To put it politely, tej is an acquired taste. The closest approximation I can think of would be a dry Riesling.
Dinner is celebratory with buffet tables groaning under the weight of fiery curries (wot), himbasha, shiro, kifto, fitfit, ga’at and more. Dishes nuanced with fruit, cinnamon, cloves and herbs (berbere, mitmita) transport me to a place I had never been. The star of the meal is, of course, injera, a deliciously tangy and spongy bread. I nearly ignored it at first, mistaking it for rolled up hand towels.
There’s nothing delicate about eating injera. It is a sensory feast. One rips off sections of the bread and dunks them in accompanying stews. Made from fermented teff, a gluten-free grain indigenous to Ethiopia, the bread is fast amassing a global fan-following, I’m told. Celebrity chefs and Hollywood Alisters (Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckham) are all endorsing the nutritive powers of this humble grain.
Ethiopian food is fast emerging as one of the world’s great standalone cuisines. Millennia of trade with the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean, and blending of influences and experiments, have resulted in a diversity of flavours and textures. Even so, food plays only a primal role in Ethiopia. Eschewing populist trends like macro/organic/vegan/locavore, chefs focus unwaveringly on nutrition and flavour. “There are no appetisers or desserts in Ethiopia,” a local chef tells me. “We do not do chic menus embellished with amuse bouche, tarters and appetisers. For us, taste is king.”
###Full of Beans
The Ethiopian homage to coffee is both ornate and ceremonial. Coffee ceremonies are conducted by young women in hebesha kemis, the beans roasted in a small pan over a charcoal stove. Once the air is redolent, the hostess asks each participant to smell the aromatic smoke by wafting it towards them. The beans are then ground to a fine powder in a wooden mortar and pestle and slowly stirred into a black clay coffee pot. The dark brew is then poured into small, handle-less cups and quaffed sans milk or sugar.
Traditionally, a full coffee ceremony involves three rounds of coffee that proceed from strong (abol) to medium (tona) to weak (baraka), with the final one considered as bestowing a blessing on the coffee drinker.
French novelist Gustave Flaubert once said: “Travelling makes one modest — you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” I experienced this diminution time and again while travelling across Ethiopia, a land with its soul seeped in history and its heart in the right place.