A Warm Welcome in the Ethiopian Highlands

A Warm Welcome in the Ethiopian Highlands

The starting point was Addis Ababa, direction northbound: a stop in Mekele, a swaying bus ride to Wokru, and public transport to our destination Idaga Hamus, a small town in the northern expanse where my husband and I met our guide for the three day trek by foot into the Tigray Mountains.

From the moment we began our journey, roads, cars and towns were left behind. At times the walking pace was rapid, and at other times it was much slower as we traversed steep terrain and passed ancient, hidden Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries. At times we passed hours engrossed in our guide’s stories, and at other times we were muted by dust and sun-soaked. But we were always happy.

In the middle of the second day the sky darkened and drops started to fall. We were far from our destination, and as I skimmed the grandiose mountains that had been our companion for the past two days, I realized that I had not brought any essentials for rain. Our guide, always to the rescue, shepherded us up a steep incline. Cradled into the side of the mountain was a farmer’s house.

The women sat in front of me gazing shyly, giggling at the farenji who were dressed in funny clothes with large boots.

Quickly, my husband, our guide and I were passing through the doorway into the farmer’s compound, greeted by handshakes and smiles of at least ten family members. We were gestured to the back of the room and directed to sit on a bench, as the family gathered around us on stools. How strange it must have been to the family: rain soaked, disheveled, uninvited guests. The women sat in front of me gazing shyly, giggling at the farenji who were dressed in funny clothes with large boots. The women spoke among themselves about us, and through their laughter and hand gestures, we learned each others’ names.

The women offered tihlo, a food unique to a northern part of Ethiopia made of barley flour and water, and motioned us through the proper way to eat.

Later, hours of steps later, we reached the other side of the table-top mountain. Perched near the edge of a 90 degree drop was our community guesthouse for the evening. The guesthouse had a view of a dozen mountain ranges folding over each other as far as the eye could see. On the perimeter of the compound were enclosed rooms for sleeping and eating.

A sunset, so close, as though it were a child’s ball to play with; clouds scattered around the sun, which slid down the horizon.

Upon our arrival, community members emerged with bunna, Ethiopian coffee, and ushered us toward the aroma. Food was laid in a low table and pot after pot of thick sauces of food spiced with berbere was poured onto the injera, a flat bread made of teff flour. Chickpea paste, lamb, cabbage, lentils and more, decorated the injera.

After lunch we should have rested, but as daylight was quickly fading, we decided to walk along the table-top mountain, edging steep drops that went too far down for me to peer over; a sunset, so close, as though it were a child’s ball to play with; clouds scattered around the sun, which slid down the horizon; wind seeped right through my jacket and the dog that followed us would not stop barking.

After dinner all the occupants staying at the guesthouse sat in the communal room, and the community members decided that the best way to catch warmth on a cold evening was to dance. And that they did. In front of us, almost on top, as us visitors took in the shoulder dancing, the dramatist elder making joking moves, the single lady moving demurely and eloquently.

Around a circle the community members enchanted, to the beat of hand-made drums. My chest vibrated with the rich and pleasant sounds. To my right sat a group of ladies, too shy to dance, who heckled, giggled and were amused by their friends’ dancing. Each dance was preceded by an explanation from our guide about the lyrics: one offering us a hearty welcome to their abode, one about the pride of a group of men as another entered their ceremony uninvited, one about the lightness of laughter. The final dance was an offer, followed by outstretched arms, to join in the dancing circle. I happily obliged and found myself surrounded by the flowing scarves of the happy women dancing.

This wonderful journey was hosted by a community tourism company, Tesfa Tours.

About Michele Ostroski Merkel

Michele Ostroski MerkelMichele Ostroski Merkel is an avid traveler, adventure-seeker and life-long learner of different cultures. As a public health professional she enjoys making connections between people from various backgrounds. She has recently started documenting her travels and life while living in Kenya and Senegal.

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