Ghost-hunting in the land of origins
Text and images by Aa Patawaran
What I can’t wrap my head around—and this occurred to me while, at the stroke of midnight, I found myself walking down the hallway of Roha, the old ‘70s government building-turned-mountain resort—is that there are no ghosts in Ethiopia, not even in Lalibela where I was and where time, despite a constant stream of tourists, has stood still since before the 12th century.
BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL
Now Lalibela, sprawled over the highlands roughly 2,500 meters above sea level in the Amhara region in northern Ethiopia, is a holy city, UNESCO World Heritage Site of 11 rock-cut Christian Orthodox churches dating back to the 13th century, the holiest of cities in Ethiopia, which is believed to have adopted Christianity since the time of the apostles or, formally, since the first half of the fourth century. But you know how it is in Hollywood horror, in which the devil lurks exactly where God dwells to spit in the face of the believer, to taunt and challenge the faithful, to wage the eternal war between good and evil.
But there are no ghosts in Ethiopia. So says my friend and tour guide Henok Tsegaye. So, on a separate occasion, say Teshagar, 17, and Martha, 15, whom I met on the trek to the Blue Nile Falls in Bahir Dar, about seven hours west of Lalibela. Or at least all three of them agree there are no such things—even if I try to enumerate all things synonymous to ghosts—banshees, monsters, imps, elves, ghouls, imps, fairies, enchanted animals…zombies?—and, in response, without any doubt, they say, “We only believe in Jesus.”
I should have said “Amen,” but on a cliff overlooking the Blue Nile Falls cascading down a deep ravine, I could only utter “Oh my God!” Faced with such beauty, there is no room in the heart for anything other than awe and gratitude for God’s creative generosity. At its widest, especially during the rainy season, such as when I was there, the waterfall, Tis Abay in Amharic, meaning “great smoke,” one of Ethiopia’s best known attractions, can go as wide as 400 meters. If I had champagne and a picnic mat, I’d stay there all night. Who’s afraid of the woods?
LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS
At the National Museum of Ethiopia in the capital Addis Ababa, located right smack in the middle of this country of 1,104,300 square kilometers, I came up close and personal with Lucy, the remains of a woman from 3.2 million years ago or 40 percent of her skeleton, part of her skull that suggested a protruding mouth, a pelvic bone that proved she was female, most of her ribcage, and evidence that she walked on two feet. So far hers is the oldest fossil remains of upright humans ever found and that’s why, since she was excavated in 1974, while The Beatles’ 1967 controversial hit “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was playing in the expedition camp near the village Hadar by the Awash River that runs its course within the borders of Ethiopia, many of us who subscribe to Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution have believed her to be the mother of us all. The Ethiopians call her Dinkinesh, which means “you are marvelous,” although we know very little of her, except that she died young but fully mature.
It’s easy to imagine that the world in which Lucy lived might have been no different from Ethiopia today, but only because, even in the town centers, especially in Lalibela, not much seems to have changed. It’s a sweeping, rolling terrain of undulating hills and plains with an occasional tree to interrupt the endless vista, over which starlings, hornbills, swallows, and many other birds soar, and on which farm animals like cows, sheep, horses and donkeys, and goats thrive. There were no more dinosaurs in Lucy’s time, just before the Stone Age, and there was no hint that a predator killed her. If there were ghosts in Ethiopia, it might serve us well to call on her from millennia past. Even the most nebulous image of Lucy is sure to reveal much about our true origins.
But there are no ghosts in Ethiopia, not even in Lalibela, not in any of its centuries-old churches, such as the House of the Holy Savior and the House of Saint Mary, carved out of living rock, even if there, in complete reverence, almost in utter silence, save for their whispered prayers, Christian Orthodox pilgrims appear ghost-like covered from head to ankle in netela, a cotton shawl that is almost sheer, worn for worship and for all occasions, such as weddings and funerals.
CUTTING FROM STONE
In both churches, the interiors are dark, lit only by a few candles, so the frescoes and the paintings blackened by the smoke of the candles and representing scenes from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, are only glimpsed in the shadows. At the Church of Saint George, the best known and the last to be built of the 11 rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, I knelt before a bishop and kissed the symbols of the corsier in his hand while he gave me his blessings, after which I sat before an image of Saint George and, with only my Catholic faith to draw from, prayed seven Our Father’s, seven Hail Mary’s, and seven Glory Be’s. I didn’t think the bishop would condemn me for praying differently. The Ethiopians, in my experience, are countless times more religious than we are in the Philippines, but they do not seem to be as judgmental or as intolerant or as fault-finding. If I were a ghost, I would surely be annoyed that I could do nothing to make the Ethiopians curious about–let alone feel even slightly bothered by–my presence.
And no bad spirit can tempt an Ethiopian, at least not Henok, my tour guide from Celebrity Tours, who claims he isn’t as religious as he ought to be. But in the eight days we were together, in observance of the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (Aug. 7-21), he stayed away from any animal meat, ordering what every restaurant menu, from Addis Abba to Gondar to Bahir Dar, calls a fasting dish or a bayenetu, a collection of meat-free dishes, such as beans, lentils, chick peas, beets, potatoes, carrots, and caramelized onions served on a spongy sourdough flatbread called injera. It’s good, too, not quite a sacrifice, though I ate mine with a spiced lamb dish. He also stayed away from the honey wine and from Dashen, Wallia, and St. George, some of the best of Ethiopian beer .
Apparently, Henok is no exception. I asked my other friend Teshagar, the 17-year-old who helped me on the climb to Blue Nile Falls, what he would eat for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner and he said one word–injera. It’s organic, it’s vegan, it’s healthy and needs only something hot to spice it up, like a jalapeño pepper. No wonder, there is no fast food yet anywhere in Ethiopia. You give them a bag of chips and they’ll read the label carefully, checking for animal oil or any foul ingredient. At one of our dinners, our host claimed that in this pure, soulful country that produced its own food, planting and harvesting its own grains, coffee, fruits, and vegetables and raising its own livestock, there is no need yet for sleeping pills, anti-depressants, or Viagra. If there are any ghosts in Ethiopia, may they scare the impending invasion of hotdogs, instant coffee, and artificial flavors away!
A READING FROM A COFFEE CUP
But Ethiopia is not without its stresses. The 1984 famine, which gave it world attention, not only for its dire circumstances but also because of USA for Africa’s 1985 charity single “We Are the World,” is far behind it now, although the seasonal drought is still constantly addressed, such as last year, with technology and vigilance. To the traveler, it’s a whole new world, both refreshing and consuming. In Addis Ababa, the Mercato, a huge complex divided into sections that are each devoted to a particular kind of merchandise, from fabrics and spices to baskets, appliances, gadgets, jewelry, metalware, construction materials, anything and everything, can be overwhelming and intimidating, but it takes only a large room with a large bed and fluffy pillows at the Radisson Blue Addis Ababa to block out everything. Or a short flight to Bahir Dar, where Kuriftu Hotel and Spa awaits, whose cottages by the Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake, 84 kilometers long, 66 kilometers wide, and 15 meters at its deepest, boasts of interiors that look like the inside of a castle replete with canopy beds. On the lake float 37 islands, of which 21 each houses a monastery. As if in search of the treasures that some explorers claimed Ethiopian emperors kept on these isolated islands, I took a cruise with my friends to visit one, but all the treasure we found was a mass being held at the Azewa Mariam Monastery, a mass that was a pure ritual, not a congregation, not a song-and-dance gathering, not a Sunday routine, but a quiet, sacred communion with the creator of all this beauty.
Back in Kuriftu for a session at the spa, my Ethiopian masseuse Etel with the softest hands kneaded all the stresses out of every worn tissue, every aching muscle, every tight nerve of my body. I slept the sleep of babes, no nightmare, no dreams of being trapped with the ghosts of centuries past in any of the remains of the royal castles in Gondar, the “Camelot of Africa,’ in northwest Ethiopia, where Emperor Fasilides (1632-1667) built a foretress city in the 17th and 18th centuries. To think that I drank cup after cup of Ethiopian coffee every chance I got from breakfast to bed every day I was in Africa.
There are no ghosts in Ethiopia, but now that I’m home, now that I’m here, I can’t deny I am deeply haunted.
DISCOVER ETHIOPIA NOW
For a minimum spend of $787 for economy class and $1,787 for business class on Ethiopian Airlines, travelers from Manila are given roundtrip travel opportunities to over 90 international destinations all over the world. From Manila to Addis Ababa, you can fly onward to any destination of your choice, from Kilimanjaro to Johannesburg or LosAngeles or SaoPaulo or Dublin or London or Milan or Paris or Stockholm or many other cities in the world. If you must stop in Addis Ababa for a city tour or make Addis Ababa your final destination to explore the many attractions and destinations in and out of the city, make sure you bring pens and books to give away to the children of Ethiopia. To them, even a dictionary is a treasure. To book a trip, call (632) 8480978/79, (632) 5222095, or (632) 5224869. www.ethiopianairlines.com.
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