The Maartens from South Africa

The Maartens  from South Africa 

Before leaving for Ethiopia , we had the feeling that something out of the ordinary was awaiting us. We are somewhat addicted to unusual and adventurous undertakings, but this time we intuitively knew that we would also encounter some sobering and thought-provoking things.

Most people think of Ethiopia as a place of famine, poverty and hardship. We were no exception to the rule. We knew that we would not be able transfer our personal comfort zones to Ethiopia . Nevertheless we left South Africa for Ethiopia in a state of excitement and eagerness.

I wanted to do some research for a stage play and a novel on Ethiopia . During the weeks preceding our trip, we had read and studied everything on Ethiopia we could lay our hands on. This, by the way, is an approach that we would like to recommend to everybody who plans to visit Ethiopia . We would have liked to spend a month in Ethiopia , but we had but a week to savour the historical route. We needed the guidance and know-how of people who knew Ethiopia from the inside out: its history, the best sites for the research we had in mind, bookstores and books, the kind of accommodation that makes for a good night’s sleep. We needed a tour company run by Ethiopians who knew the pitfalls, the risks, the food, the culture and the magic of their own country.

We surfed the Internet and came upon the glowing testimonials of tourists who had chosen Fest Ethiopia Travel and Tours as their tour operator in Ethiopia . Without exception those who had been there and done some of the things we intended doing, focused on the expertise, integrity and professionalism of this company.

That was it. Via e-mail we made contact with Fest Ethiopia Travel and Tours . We told them what our interests were, and what we needed. We informed Fest Ethiopia that we were two old troopers who wanted to experience the real Ethiopia instead of sundowners on the patio.

Every letter was answered. We knew that we were in good hands. So, then, after an unforeseen delay at Johannesburg International and an unscheduled landing at Nairobi, we arrived at Bole International Airport, Addis Abeba more or less in the middle of the night. Mr. Gizachew, Managing Director of the company, was there to welcome us: a dignified, soft-spoken and utterly professional gentleman who, who in the early hours of the first day of our trip, handed us a big brown envelope containing instructions to every single guide, as well as vouchers and booking receipts for the admission clerk at every hotel en route.

We took that brown envelope from this kindly and uncompromising perfectionist and we knew: the time-consuming hassles and unpleasant uncertainties which plague so many tourists during their travels in African countries, were not to be part of our itinerary.

From Bahir Dar and a jungle stroll to some monasteries on Zege Peninsula on Lake Tana to an after hours visit to the palace compound at Gonder, our Ethiopian trip was immaculately organized.

The mystery and the wonder of the rock-hewn churches at Lalibela will stay with us for long, long time. We will never forget the faces of the faithful in their creamy white shammas: frail old people in deep meditation, waiting for Mass. Lalibela felt like a deeply spiritual homecoming. But it also felt like home – a place of good food, family, company, laughter and bottomless coffee.

Never ever miss coffee in Ethiopia ! As far as we are concerned, the Roha Hotel at Lalibela isEthiopia ’s number one hotel. We did spent one night in a five star hotel in Addis Abeba, but the hotel we remember most fondly and which we can recommend unconditionally, is the Roha at Lalibela

It did not bother us in the least. This delay was a bonus to us: we now had the opportunity to experience the music, the open-air worship and the joy of the huge gathering of pilgrims who were in Lalibela for the Ethiopian Christmas and Timkat. Despite the fact that the first class tourist hotel at Axum was without running water most of the time, despite the fact that in this hotel my hubby had exactly 125ml (half a cup) of water for his morning ablutions, Axum was the absolute climax of the historical route. Every day now I wear a string of handcrafted beads from the six century. I bought them in Axum . To me it is a humbling experience to touch these ancient beads. Here, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, I wonder who they were – these men and women of old; these artists whose precious handiwork will now once more be passed on from generation to generation. How deeply I love this continent; how marvelous to be able to feel these stone and clay beads — the pride and joy of these people of old– against my heart!

Time and again we relive our visit tot the tomb of king Kaleb near Axum . In our mind’s eye we still see the ruins of the palace of the Queen of Sheba, the obelisk fields and the Queen’s pool before us. But above all we remember that Sunday at the fence behind the Tsion MiryamChurch when we grasped the hand of Gebre Tekle Haimanot, the solitary monk who has now been guarding the Ark of the Covenant for nine years and who will do so till his death.

As for Addis Abeba: Ethiopia’s famous injera and wat , the spectacular dances and lively music at a first class restaurant with Fest Ethiopia Staff as our kind , generous and considerate host , was the best – and the most heart–rending –way to end our tour of  Ethiopia. We had no desire to board Air Ethiopia ’s home-bound plane. We did not want to leave.

(By the way: The atmosphere inside Ethiopian Airlines long range passenger carriers is like a hors d’oevre: anyone flying Ethiopia Airlines is in for some pleasant surprises. )

Ethiopia is..

•Most unusual destination we have ever visited.

We were pampered in unexpected ways. We had outstanding guides in every place we visited; we had freedom and security;

•Magic and mystery. It is a mystic place, full of stories, profoundly spiritual, warm and joyous;

•Different. One does indeed witness and encounter heartbreaking poverty. Tourists to Ethiopiamust be prepared to accept the obligation to tip, reward, care and donate as part of the culture.

And, yes: after sunset any tourist does look like a mobile blood bar to the millions of mosquitoes at Laka Tana. At this malaria hotspot no chances should be taken. To invest in a mosquito net and then to use it, to take along some prestik and a cloth or two to improvise stick-on- keep-‘em-out cotton blinds in front of any suspicious-looking hole in any wall, to apply repellent and to invest in white sock (mosquitoes favour black) is something we really recommend.

We had expected poverty; we went home inspired, awe-struck and blessed. We have fallen in love with Ethiopia ’s archeological and art treasures, its ancient religious ceremonies, spirituality, warmth… and the best coffee on the globe. We were on our own; we did not travel with a tour group. So in every place we had a personal guide whom we could drive round the bend with all our questions. We went to Ethiopia to broaden our horizons. We did and Fest Ethiopia Travel and Tours gets the full credit for it. This company’s service is comparable to the best we have met with in any other part of the world. Count us in: we are this company’s life-long customers!

Epilogue: We have a new dream now: to experiment with the ancient Ethiopian building techniques on our piece of land near Bloemfontein .

Hennie & Maretha Maartens, Bloemfontein , South Africa .