After two years of limited travel (two weeks in Madrid and Portugal, a crazy drive across Northern Canada to pick up a puppy and six weeks in Florida), I’m finally on an extended trip, starting in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. I’ve joined a tour offered by Adventures Abroad of the Caucasus; Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.
Let’s start with the geography. The Caucasus is a mountain range bordered by Russia to the North and Iran and Turkey to the south. In the west is Georgia and the Black Sea; to the east is Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. Its neither in Asia or Europe or in both, depending who you ask. And despite its name, the Caspian Sea is not a sea, but the largest lake in the world.
I could give a long dissertation on the history of the region, but there are great documentaries on YouTube if you’re interested. Suffice to say, the region has been fought over by Persians, Christians, Muslims, Mongols, Ottoman Turks and Orthodox Russians for centuries. The countries first declared independence in the 1920’s, but Russia brutally annexed them after 23 months and made them each republics of the USSR. The Soviets displaced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijani and created artificial borders, resulting in the tension and war between the countries that still exists today. Independence from the USSR occurred in 1991, despite a bloody crackdown by the USSR in Azerbaijan in 1990 resulting in massive fatalities.
I would like to tell you that Azerbaijan is filled with fascinating architectural and archeological sites dating from time immemorial but that wouldn’t be correct. Invading armies, earthquakes and Soviet policy left little intact. Instead, the current regime has embarked on a massive reconstruction of past buildings in an effort to create a glorious Azerbaijani past. Thus, we visited reconstructed fire temples, mosques and palaces, all dating from 2000 or later. To erase the Soviet Realism style of high rise buildings, many of the facades have been refaced in a more Azerbaijani style, like government house:
Now about the government. Two year after independence, in 1993, Heydar Aliyev, former KGB and former Communist Party member became president. He was succeeded by his son, the current president, whose wife is vice-president and his son is the heir apparent. There are “elections” which the opposition alleges are fraudulent, a dictatorship disguised as a democracy. Freedom of expression is not allowed; opponents to the regime are either jailed or living in exile. We were warned not to discuss politics with locals.
However, the government is wealthy, owning the expansive oil & gas reserves that make the country rich. Ostensibly, it spends its money on public works; the streets are broad and well cared for, cranes dot the city skyline erecting modern high rises, water, power and internet are reliable. Education and health care are free.
But it’s somewhat of an illusion. The vast amounts spent on public works do little to benefit the majority of the population who struggle to survive on meagre wages. Preparations for a Formula 1 car race inconvenience the entire city for six weeks prior to the race. Corruption is rife. Ill paid doctors, teachers and police officers demand bribes to do their jobs. As if to prove the point, our tour bus was stopped by a police officer “ seeking dinner money” before allowing us to resume our journey.
We visited some of the main sights in Baku, like the Maiden Tower, one of the few non-reconstructed towers, which no one can accurately date and whose purpose is unknown:
And walked through the attractive but mostly reconstructed Old Town:
Wonderful new buildings line the Caspian Sea waterfront, including the Flame Towers, so named because in the night, their lights resemble flames:
Our tour travelled to the old capital of Shaki, stopping along the way at more reconstructed buildings – a mosque, a Zoroastrian fire temple, a palace- all rebuilt in the last few decades following destruction by Mongols, earthquakes or the Soviets, take your pick.
The single original sight is the petroglyphs in the Gobustan National Park, where a large number of cave art paintings dating back to Palaeolithic times (10,000 BC) are visible, including the dancing women:
I spent a pleasant 5 days in Azerbaijan. The country is clean, safe, with modern roads and good food, but lacks the eye-catching historical sights that I love. What it does have is an interesting political history with Russia and Turkey fighting a proxy war in the area for territorial supremacy and Caspian Sea access. Azerbaijani people we met were divided over the current war in Ukraine. While some expressed displeasure at the Russian invasion and decried Russian aggression, we also saw signs supporting the Russian fighters.
I was happy to have visited Azerbaijan but was equally happy to move on to a new country. Next up, Georgia.
On Saturday, I waved the white flag and booked a flight from Ponta Delgada, in the Azores, Portugal, to my home town of Toronto for Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Despite all my attempts to continue travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is becoming more and more difficult. I like to think I know when to quit and, so, I am trying to.
But let’s back up a bit. I had booked a 6 week holiday in Spain back in December to begin March 31, when I was to meet up with a friend in Madrid. Over the last few months, hotels and Airbnbs had been booked, a rental car reserved, advance payments made when requested. I’d also arranged to meet my son here in Ponta Delgada for a week of sun and hiking during the second week of March, a well deserved holiday for him as he left one job and was about to start a new one.
In January, new reports started filtering out of China about a novel virus and a city under quarantine and ships getting turned away from ports in the Far East, but it was a distant thing, of little concern to me. In February, I flew to Accra in Ghana and, after a week there, went to Senegal.
It became time to start booking plans between Senegal and Spain. Everywhere was safe except China and maybe South Korea. I booked 10 days in Lagos, Portugal on the Algarve coast before I was to head to the Azures. After a week in the Azures, I would visit a new country for me, Malta, before going to Milan, Italy, where I planned to visit the iconic opera house, La Scala, and take a train to walk the five towns that make up the Cinque Terres before flying to Madrid.
At the time the plans were made, in late February, the virus had barely hit Europe and was traceable only to persons who had been to China. But once I got to Lagos, events started happening quickly. Italy, mostly Venice and Milan, started reporting outbreaks. My flight from Malta to Milan was cancelled by the airline. A few days later, the flight from Milan to Madrid, on Ryanair, was cancelled. To its credit, Ryanair offered the best, most simple refund mechanism imaginable. Just a few clicks on the link it sent me and the money was back on the my credit card.
Then my son sent me an email from his new job indicating all employees who had travelled to China or been in contact with anyone who had been would not be allowed to enter the building for 2 weeks. He was nervous ( it turned out rightly so) they would expand the ban to anyone who had travelled internationally. He told me he wouldn’t be joining me in the Azures.
Lagos seemed to be operating normally; there were plenty of tourists and no obvious precautions. Nonetheless, I started watching YouTube videos on how to properly wash my hands, managed to buy 3 small bottles of Purell for the usurious price of $26.00 and realized, to my chagrin, how often I touched my face. Twelve days later I left, via Lisbon where I spent 4 hours in the airport. Again, nothing out of the ordinary was observed.
On Thursday, my 3rd day in the Azores, Trump gave his disastrous pep talk from the White House and, all of a sudden, things started going a little crazy.
A digression and a bit of history. The Azores is a group of 9 islands in the mid-Atlantic, about 1500 kilometers from mainland Portugal. Portugal explorers discovered them in 1427 and started settling them soon after. They’re volcanic, with the last major eruption in 1563-4. Today, on the island of San Miguel where I am, are a number of calderas filled with lakes and hiking trails.
On Friday, I noticed a cruise ship outside the harbor. It had been denied entry and was sailing away to parts unknown.
I had booked a tour of San Miguel Island, the largest and most populous island in the Azores, which went to two of the crater lakes: Lake Green/Blue which, as its name suggest, has both a green and blue portion and Lake Fugo
The tour was scheduled to visit Caldeira Velha, a national park with hot springs and sulfur steam spraying from cracks in the ground. But alas, that morning, the Portuguese government had ordered a shut-down of all parks. I contented myself with the beautiful views of the Blue/Green Lake.
More bad news when I checked GoogleNews during lunch. Malta would impose a mandatory 14 day quarantine on all non-Maltese newcomers who landed on the island. After the tour ended, I went to cancel my flight and hotel reservation there. After being on hold for 3 hours with Expedia, Air Malta cancelled my ticket and refunded it all, despite it being non-refundable. Not so the Grand Excelsior in Floriana, Malta, who didn’t seem to care that its government was telling tourists to stay away, and refused to refund any of my money. So please, if you go to Malta, boycott this hotel.
As I already had a flight booked to Lisbon on my way to Malta, I decided I would go there for a week and managed to book a Lisbon./London/Toronto flight for March 24th. But that night, the authorities ordered nightclubs and museums to close all over Portugal. On Saturday morning came the news that 5 flights from the UK to Spain had been turned around mid-air since they wouldn’t be allowed to land in Spain.
Enough was enough. There is a non-stop flight from Ponta Delgada to Toronto on Tuesday, March 17th. I booked a seat. The timing was lucky. Later in the day, Trudeau told all Canadians to come home as quickly as possible. My flight sold out soon after.
So it is Monday now and I wait for the flight, hoping it will go. The island is quieter than when I arrived. The Tourist Office and half the restaurants are closed. Packets of sanitary wipes began appearing on the tables at the hotel breakfast yesterday and today the entire staff is wearing gloves. Only 2 people are being allowed into pharmacies at a time, so crowds are mingling on the street as they wait their turn.
I can do little more than walk around or cycle on the 4 kilometer bike path along the sea wall. It is a beautiful town, its architecture a mixture of Portuguese and colonial. Most prominent are the white buildings framed in black, basalt stone, a nod to the volcanic nature of the island.
If for some reason I do not get home tomorrow, I keep telling myself it is no big deal. My hotel, with a balcony overlooking the harbor, is very inexpensive and has lots of toilet paper. The restaurants which are open serve great fish and meat dishes. Before the islands turned to tourism, their main source of revenue came from cows, a breed brought over hundreds of years ago from The Netherlands. They are grain fed and apparently their milk, cheese and meat are highly prized. The steak I had was delicious.
The weather is also wonderful. Semi-tropical, the temperature rarely goes below 15 or above 25. A warm breeze keeps the air humid and, even though the temperature was only 17 the week I was here, it was warm enough for just a t-shirt and shorts.
But I get the message. Now is not the time to be travelling. Much as I would like to take advantage of the near empty, normally crowded tourist hotspots, I don’t want to be disrespectful. Governments don’t want foreigners on their soil, potentially spreading the virus and imposing on all ready over-burdened health care systems.
Besides, it is not fun anymore. I am inundated with hourly emails from back home from concerned friends and family reporting the latest WHO figures or the newest closures. Emails from lists I have long since unsubscribed from all start with their concern over my well-being and safety. The news reports nothing but the COVID-19 virus. My plans, and the back-up and the back-up to the back-up, have all been thwarted. I hate the uncertainty.
So I will be responsible. I will return home if my flight leaves here tomorrow, armed with a few cans of tuna, a bag of rice, lots of hand sanitizer and 12 rolls of toilet paper.
I had just spent two weeks in Western Africa, where the main tourist sights related to slavery; the ugly capture and transport of millions of Africans to the Americas between the 16th and 19th century, so I thought Portugal would be a welcome relief from the saddening tales of the Ghanian and Senegalese slaves.
The Slave Trade:
My landing point was Lagos, a city of 30,000 on the south coast of Portugal, in the famed Algarve region. A friend had stayed here last year and highly recommended it as an inexpensive but warm vacation spot with lots of good food, plenty of sunshine and decent wine. I booked a place for 12 days and arrived after an all night flight from Dakar (only red eyes fly from Senegal to Europe) to Lisbon, a quick hop to Faro and an hour mini-van ride from the airport to the hotel. Situated right on the marina, my one bedroom offered a large balcony, reliable hot water and decent wifi, all welcome contrasts to my prior hotel in downtown Dakar. As an added bonus, there was no daily 6AM call to prayer to wake me.
But my belief that I had left the slave trade behind was completely erroneous. In fact, Lagos had been the capital of European slavery for centuries, beginning as early as 1450. Fifty years before the Portuguese claimed Brazil and 42 years before Columbus discovered America, Europeans were importing slaves from North Africa and selling them in the main market square in Lagos. A small Slave Museum, located in a former Customs House, details the slave trade to Portugal. Slaves, allegedly mostly prisoners of war sold by Arab traders, were sold in Europe where they were used in construction and heavy labour jobs. Somewhat incomprehensible to this explanation in the museum is an extract from a contemporaneous manuscript describing a slave auction, where a mother tried desperately to stay with her child. How mothers and children became prisoners of war is never explained.
I took a walking tour with a history fanatic through the center of Lagos. In addition to the slave history above, we were handed a sheet with a timeline of significant events in Lagos, which went something like this: original inhabitants were Celtics, followed by the Romans whose main legacy is the road system.. When their empire disintegrated and the dark ages reigned, the Visigoth tribes moved in. In the 8th century, Arabs conquered the area and created cities using Arab building techniques still evident today. Between the 11th and 13th century, tribes who eventually became the Portuguese from Astoria in the north battled the Moors for supremacy, eventually driving the Arabs out of Portugal in 1249.
Lagos reached its heyday in the Middle Ages, when ships bound for Africa and America called it home. Fleets moored in Lagos during the Spanish/ British wars were attacked by Sir Francis Drake (Portugal was under Spanish rule at the time), along with various pirates who regularly plundered the city.
In 1755, a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed the city along with most of coastal Portugal. Lagos slowly rebuilt itself.
Portugal remained a monarchy through the Napoleonic invasions and the industrial revolution. A few 19th century civil wars reduced the monarch’s power to that of one of a constitutional monarchy but in 1910, the king was deposed and sent into exile. The Republic was born.
Over the next 65 years, Portuguese politics was plagued by military coups, dictatorships, fascism and communist parties. It remained neutral during WWII, assisting both sides as the wind blew. But in 1975, the country adopted a democratic government which has ruled ever since.
Henry the Navigator:
Lagos’ most famous citizen was Henry the Navigator, a Portuguese prince born in 1394 , died in 1460, and who, while he was a prince was not much of a navigator. Rather, his claims to fame are his contributions to navigation; he is rumored (but disputed) to have started a school of navigation in nearby Sagres, where two significant discoveries were made. First, the caravel, a lighter, more maneuverable ship was developed under his tutelage. Second, cartographers mapped more of the world, including the Canary Islands and the Azores in the Atlantic and the coastal areas of Africa below Bojador in the Western Sahara. They learned how to navigate using the stars, permitting the Portuguese to sail beyond the coastline, something the Vikings had figured out some 400 years before but that’s neither here nor there.
Of course, most people don’t come to Lagos for its history or its architectural marvels. Rather, its primary attraction is as a well-deserved, relaxing tourist destination. Prices are inexpensive, with good Portuguese wine costing only a few dollars a glass, rotisserie chickens in the supermarket the equivalent of $5.00 and bus fares costing just $2.00. Hotels with all the modern conveniences abound, there’s a pretty pedestrian way with restaurants offering lots of fish dishes. Along the main road, pretty white low-rise buildings evoke pictures of traditional Portuguese houses and palm trees sway in the breeze.
The area has at least 13 golf courses and lots of water sports, including fishing. For those that prefer to walk, the streets are lined with sidewalks, zebra crossings are everywhere and cars most diligent about stopping to let pedestrians cross the street.
Tourists walk along the canal, up the shopping streets, towards the fort or beside the churches. It’s a bit of a walker’s paradise, with oodles of hiking trails. My favourite was a 45 minute walk from the marina, up a hill, to Ponta de Piedade, where wooden walkways criss-cross fields and run alongside cliffs overlooking limestone formations in the Atlantic Ocean below. Along some of the the walkway, a bevy of yellow flowers were in bloom, making for a lovely sight, but naturally, not in the pictures below:
Large numbers of Europeans – Brits, Germans and French – come here every winter to enjoy the mild (average about 20 degrees) weather and sunshine and Canadians have started coming here also. One sign read “We speak francais and quebecois.” Bars catering to foreigners line the marina where British football matches play continuously, menus advertise Roast Dinnersevery Sunday and the singer, a guitarist, played mostly Tom Jones songs, but the loudest singalong was reserved for Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline.
Thirty kilometers away is the town of Sagres. Reputedly home to Henry the Navigator’s sailing school, at its end is Cape St. Vincent, the most southwestern point in Europe and regarded as the end of the earth in ancient times. A lighthouse marks the end of the Atlantic Ocean where ships enter the Mediterranean Sea.
Today the lighthouse still stands and, in clear weather, its light can be seen for 60 kilometers. People, myself included, flock here for the nightly sunset, watching the sun drop into the ocean.
The waves have carved beautiful grottos into the limestone cliffs; most are accessible only by boat. Kayak and stand-up paddle boat tours take intrepid travellers into them, but I, being less fit and much lazier, opted for the speedboat. Little did I know the driver considered terrifying the passengers with sharp turns and dizzying speeds over high waves part of the experience, so I gamely held on to my chair for the 25 minute terror ride to the grottos. The views were my reward; I will let some pictures speak for themselves.
Lagos wasn’t the most fascinating place I’ve been to, historically, architecturally or culturally, but what it lacks in those areas, it certainly makes up for in great weather, easy travelling and nice, welcoming people. After 12 days here, I understand Portugal’s attraction for tourists escaping winter.
My trip to Senegal started oddly. The best available flight between Accra, Ghana and Dakar, Senegal was on the national carrier, Air Senegal. The only other options were a 40 hour bus ride or ridiculous and expensive flights to hubs like Istanbul or Paris or Addis Ababa. The flight on Air Senegal was direct and cheap, so I booked it without a second thought.
Boarding the airplane, a Boeing 737-500, I noticed that of the 50 or so passengers, only 4 were not white, and 2 of those were part of a 30 person basketball team from South Africa. Then I noticed the flight crew were all white, speaking English with odd accents and wearing tags attached to necklaces with Blue written all over it. They were Romanian, and the plane had been leased from the Romanian company Blue Air, which explained the accents.
The lease issue aside, the flight was uneventful and 3 hours later we landed at the very modern airport where Immigration, Customs and bag retrieval took less than 15 minutes. The ATM dispensed Senegalese currency (the CFA) and the taxi driver only charged me 50% more than the official posted rate. The road to Dakar, a modern highway with toll booths, lanes, a basketball stadium at one end and neither people nor animals venturing onto the road, was a pleasure to drive for the 45 minutes it took.
My hotel is in the center of Dakar, in an area known as The Plateau. The streets are straight, traffic lights abound, but are routinely ignored, high rises of up to 10 stories were on all sides and there must be regular garbage collection as I saw no rubbish lining the roads like in Ghana or Ethiopia. I walked around frequently, finding a 40 minute circular route taking me past the Presidential Palace, beside the major market street and along the main avenue named after the first president, Leopoldo Seder Senghor, which is now lined with banks.
Walking felt safe in this area of Dakar. I’m not sure if this is due to the large contingent of police officers, many directing traffic, private security guards at every second building or the good-nature of the Senegalese, but I never felt threatened. Certainly vendors tried to sell me everything under the sun – fruit, made-to-measure clothes and sunglasses seemed their favourites- and beggars asked me for money, but none were persistent. Finding a safe path presented more of a challenge. The sidewalks served as makeshift parking spots, perches for beggars and temporary stalls for artists, shoe salesmen and mannequins, everything except pedestrian walkways. For that, I and most others, walked on the streets, but the cars were quite tolerant of this, with gentle toots on the horn to warn us they were coming from behind. Not what I was used to, but it worked.
Now for a little history and, as I’ve just come from Ghana, its easiest by comparison. Like Ghana, little was written down before the Europeans showed up in the 15th century and, like Ghana, it shares an ugly history as a slave trading center by the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English. The land was finally obtained by France in 1895 during the great African land grab by Europe in the late 19th century. The French administered it, built railways, mined its minerals, taught the locals to make baguettes (there’s a lot of good bakeries here) and imported decent French wine. The slave trade was abolished in 1848, but the French stuck around until 1960 when the country was, peacefully, granted independence.
It has remained a democracy, more or less, since. No civil war or invasion has occurred on its soil, although the 2012 elections caused riots when the President tried to run (illegally) for a 3rd term. But he was ousted and accepted the election results. Senegal is one of the few African countries where incumbent Presidents have been voted out of office without the eruption of violence. The press is free and human rights are more or less respected, as long as one isn’t homosexual.
It is also largely Muslim and completely French speaking, except for the uneducated who tend to be mostly rural women. Of a total population of 16 million, about 2.4 million live in Dakar and more and more are flocking to the large cities. Fishing and farming were the traditional livelihoods; both are alive and well today along with some gold mining. Unemployment stands around 15%, education is free but health care is not once you are over 6. Since extremest Islamic incursions in neighboring Mali, civil war in nearby Ivory Coast and the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone a few years ago, refugees have flooded in. Historical tribes – 14 of them – including the Wolof, Bamara and Fulani, live in peace. A large ex-pat community from France, between 25,000 and 50,000, live in Senegal, mostly involved in small business enterprises, although the largest mobile network (Orange) and bank, along with the mobile money system are French operated.
A 20 minute ferry ride from Dakar is Goree Island, a former slave trading post, current tourist hot spot and a Provence lookalike. The houses are painted in pinks and oranges and burnt yellows, the alleys (there are no cars and no streets) are cobblestone and bougainvillea grows along stone fences.
It’s quite beautiful and would be peaceful but somewhere, sometime long ago someone decided tourists must love musical instruments, specifically the kashaka, which Wikipedia describes as two small gourds filled with beans connected by a string carried by young salesmen “clacking” (that’s the sound they make) them together ad nauseum. See a tourist, “CLACK, CLACK, CLACK.” Another ones comes by and “CLACK, CLACK, CLACK” again. Really annoying.
On to the tourist sites and foremost is the former slave trading center. Having just visited Ghana and seen the horrendous conditions slaves were kept in awaiting transport, I was struck by how much better the slaves in Senegal had it. Their rooms were ventilated, well lit and the slaves were allowed into the courtyard for an hour each day. Food was generously distributed so the slaves could achieve the minimum weight of 60 kilos. A male slave was worth a gun, a female a bottle of wine and a child, but a meal. Of course, I recognize comparing slave hovels is like debating which is the more humane method of conducting an execution, but the slaves here seemed to receive better treatment than those in Ghana.
Pretty views were the reward for climbing to the highest point on the island, where 2 USA built cannons stood. The movie, The Guns of Navarone, was filmed here (don’t ask me why an island in the Atlantic substituted for one in the Agean, but it did), artists show off their wares and the port area is ringed by restaurants offering meals much cheaper than in Dakar, But a few hours on the island were enough for me.
On my return ferry ride, I sat on an outside bench and was surrounded a few minutes later by a class of 10 years, all wearing their school uniforms, navy blue jumpers for the girls and sweaters for the boys, all with light blue shirts underneath. To my delight, and that of most of the other passengers, they began singing. They were obviously a well practiced choir and serenaded us with their favourite songs. I understood only the French version of I’ve Been Working on the Railroad. After 20 minutes, the singing ceased and the kids started playing Rock, Paper Scissors. Probably the most authentic moment I had in Senegal.
I spent 7 days in Dakar, mostly in the Plateau region, seeing the major sights. Quite frankly, there weren’t that many. A presidential palace, a Catholic Cathedral, a dodgy (for Westerners) market and the Chamber of Commerce building. The French constructed a railroad from Dakar to Bamako in Mali, some 1300 kilometers away. Back when I visited Mali in 2006, a train left the Art Deco station in Dakar and usually arrived in Bamako about 3 days later.
Today, a bus says it does the run in 2 days, but a week is more likely. The train hasn’t run since 2007, but a new high speed line will link Dakar centre with the airport, inexplicably built 45 kilometers away. The trains have been purchased but sit idly by while construction on the track continues.
A day trip to the Pink Lake:
I seem to be landing in countries with pink lakes; Senegal is my third after Australia and Bonaire. The two I have seen were beautiful and the one in Senegal is considered a must see highlight. Thus, I booked a full day tour to the Pink Lake, with stops at a Fulani village, a ride on the sand dunes and lunch in a resort. I was the only one going, as February is not high tourist season in this country.
The temperatures had been glorious so far; sunny and between 25 and 30, so I was unpleasantly surprised when I awoke the morning of my tour to a haze. I checked my weather app, which showed “dust” for the next few hours, the first time I’d ever encountered that indicator on the weather network.
I met up with my guide, who explained it was a sandstorm, blowing in from the Sahara and out to the Atlantic When I mentioned the forecast was for it to blow over (pardon the pun) in a few hours, he shook his head “no, it is probably here for a couple of days.” He was right, of course, and for remainder of the day, and the following, Dakar was subjected to a continual barrage of wind and sand.
Needless to say, the view of the lake was less than spectacular. Wooded boats moored to the beaches refused to go out in the wind and the salt workers were mostly enjoying the unexpected day off. On sunny, hot days, the algae in the lake turn it a pretty pink, but today it was little more than a browny mess. I stood by the lake for the obligatory photograph, unsmiling lest more sand grit got between my teeth. It was clear my inner Lawrence of Arabia is deeply buried; the blowing sand was uncomfortable to say the least and we still had an exciting dune ride in an open jeep beside the Atlantic Ocean to get through.
It turned out to be about 15 minutes of pure discomfort. Yes, I jumped out at the ocean and snapped a photo, then told our guide and driver I had seen enough and could we go to our next, indoor attraction, please.
Well, sort of…it was the Fulani village where we were greeted by the chief, his two wives and a bunch of their children. He walked me around the village – to the community area where disputes were settled by the male elders (women could not be elders), to the new water wells, inside the children’s sleeping hut and to a kitchen where only a few pots and piles of millet indicated its purpose. The village tour ended at the inevitable souvenir store with the promise that all proceeds went to the school, but as my tour had already included a contribution to the village, I declined to purchase anything more.
The day was a bust, unless I add “surviving a sandstorm” as one of my bucket list items that could now be checked off. As our restful 2 hours by a resort swimming pool was not going to happen, we instead stopped in at the Tortoise Sanctuary, where dozens of giant tortoises live well into their hundreds. Although not as big as the Galapagos ones, they were still a lovely sight and the sand storm was quickly forgotten.
The Museum of Black Civilization:
I thought I would save the best for last – the Museum of Black Civilization. Opened in 2018, paid for by the Chinese and housed in an impressive looking building, I was looking forward to a telling of black culture and contributions from an African perspective, not the usual (for me) European one.
Alas, it was not to be. Aside from the exhibits being mostly in French, they were limited to posters explaining the migration of people out of Africa, and African contributions to medicine and mathematics. Upstairs, in one of the few rooms with anything in it, was a collection of Senegalese art recently re-acquired from a Frenchman. Most of the rooms were sadly empty. What a missed opportunity to highlight ancient African civilizations in Zimbabwe and Timbuctu or Ethiopia’s unique architecture or Benin’s bronze statues or lots of other African achievements. It’s as if all the funds were spent on the building, with nothing left for the interior. It was not the ending I was seeking for my time in Africa.
Tunisia has some great tourist attractions, fabulous Mediterranean beaches, Star Wars filming locations, well-preserved Roman ruins and a tolerant, Islamic culture where alcohol is freely sold and bikini clad westerners romp on the sand beside fully covered Muslim ladies. But for me, Tunisia has a single attraction: Carthage, the ancient city empire which challenged Rome for global supremacy before being virtually wiped out following its defeat at the third Punic war.
Legend has it that the city of Carthage was founded by Queen Alyssa or Elissa, a Phoenician princess escaping from inter-family warfare and assassinations in her home town of Tyre, in modern day Lebanon, in 814 BC. She brought with her the alphabet, the Phoenician mastery of shipbuilding and sailing and skill at trading. Carthage grew into a significant settlement, taking advantage of its bountiful farms and location in the Mediterranean, some 325 kilometers south of Sicily and conveniently located between Tyre and the Phoenician settlements in Iberia (Spain). After Alexander the Great sacked Tyre in 322BC, Carthage assumed leadership of the Phoenician empire.
Inevitably, Carthage and the new power on the block, Rome, began clashing over trading rights in the Mediterranean, with the prize being supremacy over the world’s most lucrative trading route. The resulting 3 Punic Wars lasted about 120 years, before Rome finally emerged victorious in 146BC. The war’s most famous image is that of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, not the psychopath from Silence of the Lambs, crossing the Alps on elephants, surprising the Romans, defeating them in key battles but ultimately unable to conquer Rome.
Rome prevailed, thanks to its superior army, and, in a fit of pique, totally burned Carthage to the ground, salted the earth to ensure no crops could grow there again and destroyed every book in Carthage’s great library, obliterating Carthage’s literary and scientific culture and leaving it, as so often happens, to the victors to write Carthage’s history.
Ironically, Carthage would rise again not as a Phoenician power, but as the pre-eminent Roman city in Africa. The surrounding soil was too rich to lie dormant or let a little salt ruin it, so Carthage became one of two Roman bread baskets; the other is the Nile delta. A large, typical Roman city rose from the ashes, with the requisite baths still visible.
The remains of the temple of Jupiter also can be visited:
Rome didn’t last forever, The Goths sacked Rome in 410AD and their fellow barbarians, the Vandals, captured Carthage in 439AD and made it their capital. By this time, the Vandals had converted to Christianity and Carthage became a center of Christian thought; holding numerous councils and even hosting St. Augustine whose mother lived there. Battles with Byzantium were inevitable and the Vandals eventually succumbed, but in the 7th century, the Arabs came, ousted the lot and destroyed the Roman city. Since then, the areas has remained more or less under Arab control and Tunis has become the capital city, with Carthage just one of many suburbs.
The sites of ancient Carthage are best toured using a guide who can explain the different sites and who built them, which is what I did. On a sunny Sunday morning, my guide (from Trip Advisor) and his taxi driver drove the 15 minutes from central Tunis to Carthage. We stopped at the temple complex above, the aqueduct which carried water to the city, the old Punic military port cleverly hidden from prying Roman eyes by the commercial port and the Roman baths.
The only significant Punic remnants not burned by the Romans are the cemetery and sacrificial altar, where every first born Carthaginian son was sacrificed and buried. This is what the Romans wanted people to remember about Carthage:
There’s supposed to be an excellent museum devoted to Phoenician Carthage, but it closed abruptly a few months prior to my visit. A sign at the entrance said it was closed due to renovations, but my guide said rumours were there had been significant thefts from the collection prompting the closure. Whatever the truth, I couldn’t go in.
One part of Phoenician Carthage still exists, the Punic District at the archeological site. Not a royal palace or a temple, it’s just a bunch of pillars and the foundations of some houses.
Fortunately for me, Tunisia’s excellent Bardo Museum was open. Famous for some of the most spectacular mosaics anywhere in the world, it did not disappoint. Mosaics on the floors, the walls, everywhere, fairly well laid out and beautifully presented. In fact, the entire museum was labelled in English, French and Arabic and proceeded in a chronological order, except for the starting point, which was so obscured I went about the entire place backwards.
It was slightly unnerving walking around. On March 18, 2015, 3 terrorists stormed the place, took hostages and killed 22 people, mostly European tourists. I saw no reference to the massacre at the Bardo, but I couldn’t help thinking how vulnerable I would be if there was a repeat attack. There had been another terrorist attack in Tunisia, in June 2015, when a lone gunman opened fire at tourists staying in a nearby beach resort, killing 38 tourists. Since then, there have not been any attacks on tourists, but the damage was done and the tourism industry in the country suffered hugely. It is still not back to pre-2015 levels, but the recovery is happening.
Other Tunis sights:
I did make it to another famous Tunis sight, its Medina or marketplace, where I walked around for half an hour before deciding I had had enough of stalls hawking tourist souvenirs and invitations to “come in, just look.” I walked to the famous mosque and the modern shopping district, but I think I was suffering from a bad case of “been there, done that” and was less than overwhelmed. Thus, I treated myself to the opulence of the Four Seasons hotel, right on the Mediterranean, with prices drastically reduced for the off-season, where I luxuriated in its gigantic spa, indoor swimming pool and hotel room nearly as large as my condo. It left a positive, final impression of my time in Tunisia.
Senegal. For those following my journey, you’ll know Tunisia is out of order. I visited Tunisia in January, then returned to Toronto/Ottawa for a month before returning to Africa and Ghana. From Ghana, I flew to Senegal, where I am now.
Some tourists research their destinations extensively, planning every detail, reading massive volumes of history about a country beforehand, creating precise agendas with print-outs of maps and admission prices to museums. On my Five Stans trips, one of my fellow travellers, a retired librarian which explains a lot, prepared beforehand day-to-day descriptions of every single item on the itinerary, along with introductions to each country. She said this made it easier to travel because then all she had to do was take the necessary photo at the appointed place and put printed copies in her already assembled scrapbook.
Whatever tendency I may previously have had to travel this way, it is long gone. Today, my destinations are principally determined based on a lack of snow, convenient flight connections or someone, somewhere, telling me that such and such a place was interesting. My pre-arrival investigations are similarly erratic, having adopted a “surprise me” attitude when I travel to new places.
Thus I arrived in Accra, Ghana with low expectations and little knowledge, but the promise of much needed hot weather after suffering through a month of freezing cold in Toronto and Ottawa and a 6 hour non-stop flight from London. But I knew Ghana had a fascinating history, with a powerful tribal kingdom, gruesome connections to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and one of the most democratic, safest and richest sub-Saharan African countries. I arranged a private tour to take me around to 3 highlights, the capital city, Accra, Kumasi where the Assante tribe and kingdom is centered and Elmina, the slave-trade castle on the Atlantic coast, but beyond these facts, I knew nothing about the country.
My weather app promised 6 days of glorious weather, with temperatures ranging from 29 to 34, sunny and 0 percent chance of rain. So it was a disappointment when I stepped outside on my first day with my guide Emmanuel, to complete haze, a white wall of fug making visibility beyond the street impossible. I asked if it would clear by noon, but Emmanuel shook his head and said:
“No, it will be here for a while I think.”
“What? Is it pollution?
“No, it is the Harmattan. It is a dry, sandy wind blowing across the Sahara. It comes every year and stays for a week or so”
With that, my hopes of bright sunny days were dashed. The haze remained throughout my visit, the air in Accra dry and dusty. Photos of clear skies were impossible, so apologies in advance about their quality. Perhaps the librarian on my prior tour would have researched it and known better than to book a trip to Ghana in February, but I didn’t.
Back to Accra. I asked Emmanuel where we would stop first and he replied “the William Du Bois’ centre.” Pardon my ignorance, but I had never heard of Mr. Du Bois . Fortunately, the situation was quickly remedied by the tour guide at his former house. Mr. Du Bois was an American scholar and historian and the first black recipient of a doctorate from Harvard. His focus was on empowering blacks. In 1945, he met the future President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, at a Pan-African conference in Manchester, who invited him to Ghana. Disillusioned with the US after being targeted for his pro-communist leanings (he believed capitalism was the major cause of racism), he moved to Accra where he continued to lobby for Pan-Africanism (to some the idea of a unified Africa) and wrote the Encyclopedia Africa, one of the first and still foremost tomes on Africa’s history. All new information to me.
We next drove to Jamestown, a former British enclave with a colonial style Post Office, a red and white lighthouse and a shantytown with a population of 17,000. Located on the Atlantic coast, most of the residents earn their living from the ocean. Long wooden boats set out every morning, returning with their catch nightly. The women smoke the fish (herring, cassava, barracuda) and shell crabs.
The shanties are single room wood plank structures with corrugated metal roofs. Everyone has electricity, but water is pumped from a communal well.
A large swath of land has recently been cleared; its inhabitants removed and resettled far away with a pittance for compensation. The Chinese have agreed to construct a port on the land, lending the government funds to construct the port which would be built by imported, Chinese labourers and likely forever indebting the Ghanian government to China.
Our next stop was the mausoleum of Kwame Nkrumah. Born during the British colonial period, he was a teacher, educated both in the Gold Coast as it was then called, and the US. He was arrested and imprisoned by the British for his anti-colonial/pro-independence activities. Released in 1948, he formed a political party acceptable to the British, who eventually, peacefully, turned over power to him and granted Ghana independence in 1957. A communist and a Pan-Africanist, he ruled until 1966, when the military overthrew him in a coup d’état. He lived the rest of his life in nearby Guinea. He is revered in Ghana as a liberator, for bringing mass education to the country and for building the dam on the Volta River, which still today supplies all of Ghana and a fair bit of Nigeria with electricity.
Christiansborg Castle was our final stop in Accra. Built by the Danes during their 17th century foray here as colonial masters (at various times, the Portuguese, French and British also laid claim to Ghana), the castle played host to numerous dignitaries over the years, including Queen Elizabeth (Ghana is still part of the Commonwealth), but is more infamous for its converted storerooms where dozens of future slaves were held until they could be put on ships a couple of miles offshore. Positioning the ships off-shore was deliberate. Any slave considered disruptive or infirm was shot before boarding and their body dumped into the sea. To this day, fisherman refuse to fish in the area where the slave ships moored, out of respect for all those who were killed there.
After an informative first day, the second was a bit of a letdown. A botanical garden stocked with non-native plants, a factory where beads were made from recycled glass and a boat ride down the Volta River to the Volta dam, all completely ensconced in the Harmattan haze. Not much more to say about the day.
On our third day, we drove to Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city and home to the Assante people. Mid-way, we stopped at the Akaa Waterfalls on the Volta River. A 15 minute hike took us to the cusp of the waterfalls, where I was greeted by the following:
No, this isn’t a mistake. The waterfalls were missing water. It is the dry season after all and the Harmattan is blowing.
I resolve to try and embrace the Harmattan. It brings with it lots of pluses – the haze blocks the sun, reducing the temperature from a mind-boggling 40 to a comfortable 30. I don’t need sunglasses, sunscreen or a hat most of the time. As long as I have chapstick and a bottle of water, all is good. But not great for pictures or airplanes. In nearby Lagos, the runway has no instrument landing system, so all the flights were diverted to Accra, leading to long line ups at Immigration when I arrived and lots of angry passengers who have been stranded in Accra for 3 days. But I digress…
The Assante tribe ruled a mighty empire stretching across Ghana to Burkina Faso in the north and Nigeria to the east in the 17th century. Their wealth came from gold (Ghana is rich in gold mines), spices and the slave trade. Oral history has preserved the exploits of 14 kings, a descendant rules today. Each of Ghana’s regions has a king or chief who rule over their people although they are not officially allowed to take part in government. Assante succession is matriarchal; the king is chosen by the Queen Mother (a woman who must be past menopause) from her family and never the son of the king.
Much of the Assante architecture has disappeared; a major disadvantage of building with mud. Nonetheless, an Assante museum located in the king’s former palace showcases their culture and heritage. I learn about the legend of the golden stool, given to a famous Assante priest by the Gods whose current location is known only to the current king. When the British tried to remove it in an effort to thwart Assante power, they were given a fake one. When they discovered the treachery, they exiled the king in 1897 to the Seychelles. He was allowed to return 24 years later, but only in a ceremonial role.
It was Sunday when we toured Kumasi. Ghanaians are fairly religious; about 75% are Christians with the remainder Muslims. Churches are typically the largest, most ornate buildings in town and seem to be on every corner, While some follow mainstream lines: Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, most are “charismatic” where the founder/pastor decides the agenda, the sermons and the rituals to be followed. Most businesses close on Sunday, a day of worship and funerals.
However, the open air markets were operating normally and I walked through one. Colourful and noisy, everything one could want is for sale, although the clothes were mostly secondhand and the electronics outdated. Cellphones are ubiquitous, payment is made with Mobile Money but wares are carried the old-fashioned way, on giant baskets balanced atop a cloth on the head:
Pineapples, bananas, oranges and avocados were the fruits and vegetables of choice. Ghanaians follow a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, chicken and fish, all cooked in palm oil and heavily spiced. Dairy products- milk, cheese and butter – are not common, nor are beef, pork, lamb or coffee. The drinks of choice are tea and a cocoa mixture.
We ended our tour of the Assante heritage on hospital grounds, where the Okomkye Anokye sword lays firmly in the ground. Like Excalibur, legend has it that it was cemented into the earth not to chose a ruler but as a symbol of the unity of the Akan tribes against the aggressors. The only way to defeat them was by banding together, which they did under the Assante king.
Our fourth day saw us driving west, and toward the coast. The enslavement of an estimated 60 million Africans and their migration to the new worlds would dominate the next few days. Ghana was the centre of the slave trade and an estimated 40 forts were built to accommodate the Europeans, house the slaves awaiting transport and serving as slave markets.
A bit of history. Europeans first became interested in Africa in the mid-13th century, inspired by a desire to break the Arab monopoly in the Mediterranean and their trade in gold, salt and spices from Africa. Henry the Navigator, a Portuguese prince, was the first European to circumnavigate Africa, followed in short order by the Dutch, the Danes, the English and French. When the new world started to be populated by Europeans, a labour shortage developed there. American indigenous people were considered poor slaves, too prone to European diseases, so Africans, more tolerant of disease and hot weather, were imported to work as slaves.
How much local Africans assisted in the slave trade is somewhat controversial. Three of 4 guides I had explained that slavery had long been a part of African history, with prisoners of war routinely enslaved. In the early years, most of the Africans shipped to the new world were prisoners of war or other undesirables in the communities- criminals etc. It was hundreds of years later, when the European appetite became voracious that non- prisoners were captured and enslaved. My 4th guide insisted no blacks were involved in the slave trade, but this seems at odds with the majority view. In 1996, the national house of Ghanaian tribes apologized for their role in the slave trade.
About 30 forts remain, 2 of which are UNESCO world heritage sites. The Gold Coast Castle, on the Gold Coast, was built originally by the Portuguese and, at times, occupied by the Portuguese, Swedes, Danes and British. A tour guide led us, about 15 tourists, around. We began with the European quarters, well ventilated, light and airy, comprised of bedrooms, a kitchen, meeting halls and a church.
Below the church and scattered underground were the slave dungeons, separate ones for men and women. They were dark, lacked ventilation and sewers; just big black dark holes where the slaves were held for up to 3 months, chained together, before being led out through cave-like tunnels to the beach, where they were put aboard ships bound for the new world. These tunnels were known as the gates of no return; but now returnees refer to them as the gates of the return.
Most of the Africans didn’t make it to the beach. Millions died on marches of hundreds of miles to the forts, others died when they were branded with red-hot irons. Those who rebelled in the dungeons were chained, 20-30 together, and placed in tiny, blackened cells called the Condemned Room, without food or water and left to die.
The women were routinely raped as the Europeans were discouraged from bringing wives to West Africa. But the mulatto children borne from this violence were generally well cared for. Given European names and educated in European type schools, they became some of the first West Africans to read and write.
Over the course of 6 days, I visited 2 additional European castle/forts, including Elmina, The living conditions were the same – whites above ground in relative luxury while below the Africans lived in dark, squalid dungeons.
Most of my the people on my tour groups were black, either Americans on a Year of Return pilgrimage (a large tourist promotion in 2019) or visitors from neighboring Ivory Coast and Nigeria. I felt slightly out of place; while the North Americans were reliving the horrors their ancestors endured, I could only shake my head sadly at the in humane conditions the Africans lived in and the fate that awaited them.
Even though I was often the only white person in the hotel or market or on the street, I never felt threatened or uncomfortable in Ghana. As African countries go, it is one of the safest. I walked around without hassles, everyone spole English (it is the lingua franca and the language used in universities) and all were welcoming. As governments go, it is democratic, relatively uncorrupt and allows freedom of speech. The country has never been invaded (except by the Europeans) or suffered a civil war and compared to other African nations visited, like Ethiopia or Mali, wealthy with universal health care, education and pensions. It is not without problems, high unemployment, lack of manufacturing, Chinese investment and overfishing, but it seems to cope well.
My final surprise in Ghana came from driving on the highways where we were frequently stopped by police in check stops. Police are paid a decent wage here, but they would always ask the driver for money. My driver always said “no” and with that, the policemen waved us along and wished us a “good day and safe drive.” I asked my driver why police kept stopping cars if it was so easy to say “no.” He told me that not everyone says “no.” If they had a good day at work or are celebrating an important event, drivers give policemen money. It’s just the way it is in this country.
My previous experience with Gulf countries had been somewhat negative. While I loved the wealth and modernity offered in Qatar and the UAE, I quickly became disenchanted with their social stratification based mostly on nationality and race, their imported labour kept in slave-like conditions and what I perceived to be a lack of responsibility to anyone or anything outside of their borders. I was expecting Oman to be the same, but after spending time in the poverty and dirt of Ethiopia, I was in need of some first world pampering, no matter the uglier sides that might accompany it, so I booked a flight to nearby Oman.
I was thus quite surprised when my first 2 encounters with Omani citizens, in the visa and immigration booths at the airport at the ridiculous hour of 4:00AM, were so congenial. They were smiling, nice, the immigration officer even joking with me. When I mentioned I was heading to Salalah, in the south to which he said “it will be cold”, but when I pointed out I was from Canada, he retorted “for you it will be warm. Welcome to Oman.”
In Qatar and the UAE, one of the irksome things had been my encounters with locals were limited to government officials and, in Qatar, museum personnel and shopkeepers in the local bazaar. All others were from somewhere else; cab drivers from Pakistan, hotel clerks from India, hotel managers from Eastern Europe, restaurant servers from the Philippines. Not so in Oman. Although my cab driver was from Pakistan, the hotel clerk was Omani, my tour drivers were Omani and my tour guide was Omani. They spoke English and were happy to talk to me about Oman.
And friendly. Deciding to take advantage of the good weather (about 25 degrees each day) and sidewalks (the latter sorely lacking in Ethiopia), my hotel shuttle dropped me at the main beach in Muscat, Qurum Beach, and I walked the 10 kilometres back to the hotel. All along the way, people, mostly men dressed in traditional white flowing robes called dishdasha, nodded or said “hello,” not in an harassing manner, just an amiable “welcome to my country” kind of way. They were all Omani – I learned to recognize them by the shorter tassels on the dishdashas. Emirates tassels are longer; Saudi Arabian dishdashas do not have them. Their use? Dabbed in perfume, after passing something malodorous, the tassel is brought to the nose to neutralize the stench.
Along the walk, I also enjoyed the Muscat architecture. Unlike other Gulf states, Oman has eschewed the skyscraper, preferring buildings reflecting traditional architecture – low rise, domes, white paint – but mud bricks have given way to concrete blocks. Its Royal Opera House is representative of the Omani style of building:
Muscat, of course, contains mosques, seemingly on every other corner. The largest, the Sultan Qabos Mosque, is open to properly attired visitors (females must cover their hair, knees and wrists) in the morning;
Muttrah souk is a typical middle eastern bazaar containing the usual souvenir offerings: leather works, brass, pottery, spices. Across the road, the fish market sells the daily catch. Above is one of many forts guarding the water. A city tour also took me to a museum and the Sultan’s Palace; again pretty but fairly restrained:
Nizwa and the Desert:
Oman is all about geography. Muscat lies on the Indian Ocean, in the Arabian Sea/Persian Gulf/Gulf of Oman, a marine city enjoying rain, fishing and beaches, but it is flanked by the Hagar mountains, which provide a natural barrier to the Omani desert. It is a true desert but also a “wet desert” with monsoonal rains, plenty of oases and underground water rivers which the Omanis have cleverly exploited with a series of forts for centuries.
Numerous wadis, or desert swimming holes, are reachable from Muscat. Pretty though they looked, as my hotels all had heated swimming pools, I really didn’t see the point. More interesting to me were all the date tree groves sprouting everywhere. Our guide explained the importance of the trees: the tall date trees provide shade, both to people and to the lower banana and mango trees which, in turn, shelter wheat and barley crops. Dates have long provided Omanis with a sweetener, but was also a formidable weapon in times of war, when the date paste was boiled and dumped on attackers, immediately burning them.
Nizwa, the ancient capital in the desert, is today a modern city with a souk offering the usual goods and an ancient fort we didn’t visit on our day trip:
We did, however, visit the Jabreen Castle, a few kilometers away. Built by the local Sultan made rich through trade, especially frankincense, in 1650, it was more a palace than a defensive structure. Today, it remains a beautiful example of 15th century Omani architecture:
After a few days of sightseeing, I felt in need of some rest and relaxation, so I boarded a flight for the resort town of Salalah. The town was lovely, not that I saw much of it beyond the airport and the resort. Aside from the stunning beach, its main attraction is its closeness to The Empty Quarter, a vast, desolate desert infamous for swallowing up ill-prepared travellers. These days, 4-wheel drive vehicles offer exciting forays across the sand dunes culminating in sundowners and beautiful sunsets. However, the cost starts at about US$500 for a day tour, I’m not into crazy rides on sand and I had seen great views of the Empty Quarter on the flight in, so I passed.
Oman was tipped to be one of the best places to see the final solar eclipse of the decade and I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I mistakenly thought it was happening at 7:00 PM, which I thought odd since sunset was usually about 6:00PM. When I finally realized it was happening at 7:00AM, it was over and I had missed it.
Thus I spent most of my time in Salalah enjoying my resort’s lazy river, floating about in a giant tube reading and listening to podcasts.
Oman has all the wealth and modern amenities of its neighbors, but is more egalitarian and less dependent on foreign labour. Its buildings were a delight, blending desert architecture with Mediterranean whitewash and not a glass tower in sight. It has a long history, including ruling Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzinia for a while, and lots of forts from a variety of centuries. But mostly its people were kind and approachable, a welcome change from the other Gulf states I have visited.
It would be wrong to describe Ethiopia only in terms of its history or topography as my last two posts did; rather its people and its culture are what make it one of the most unique countries in the world. My two week tour did its best to introduce us to these aspects in this fascinating country.
Estimates of Ethiopia’s population generally settle around the 100 million mark, but no one is really sure as no census has been done, ever. Everyone belongs to a tribe; there are about 80 in total, each with their own language, customs and territory. Our guide claimed she could identify some of the tribes by their physical features, flatter lips, higher cheekbones, height, etc. The Amhara are the largest and Amharic is the lingua franca of Ethiopia, with all government administration done in it, along with it being the second language learned in school. English is also studied at a young age and many youngsters joined me on the street, eager to practice English with a native speaker.
It is also very poor, usually ranking in the poorest 20 countries in the world. Signs of poverty were evident everywhere: beggars, lack of indoor plumbing, constant power outages, bumpy, unpaved roads and rampant petty crime in Addis Ababa. Shanty towns are visible from the air flying into Addis Ababa and in the countryside, shops are mostly made from corrugated metal roofs and plastics siding. Houses are constructed the traditional way with mud and straw walls and thatched roofs. But every child attends daily free public school proudly wearing uniforms, no one went barefoot and little evidence of the drought or famine that plagued Ethiopian in the 1970’s was apparent.
Mostly unreliable figures exist for the breakdown between Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and Muslims, but the best guess is 62% of the populace belong to the mainstream church, 35% Muslim and 3% others, including a dwindling Jewish population. Until recently, Muslims and Christians lived side by side, intermarried and displayed a heartening absence of enmity towards each other. Unfortunately, this has changed in the last few years, but I’ll expand later when I discuss politics.
Ethiopians are very conservative and their church is often the most important aspect of their lives. It was the first country to adopt Christianity in Africa. On our tour, we visited numerous churches dating from the 12th century, including a circular one, one of 20 churches/monasteries on Lake Tana. It contains the 3 elements common to all Ethiopian Orthodox churches – the outer chamber, an interior one where communion is done and the inner chamber or holy of holies, where a replica of the Ark of the Covenant is kept.
Ethiopian Orthodoxy still uses the Gregorian calendar (Ethiopia does in general, thus it is 2012 there) so X-Mas is on January 7. It is preceded by 55 days of Lent, which includes fasting (no meat or fish), no alcohol, no sex and lots of praying. Annoyingly to me, much of the praying is done at strange hours over loud speakers, so I was awoken more than once at 3:30AM to monotone chanting that went on for hours. In the morning, thousands of adherents, the women always dressed in white, would return to their home from church, making the roads impassable.
Ladies leaving Church
Ethiopia is the most mountainous country in Africa and much of the north is above 2500 meters, causing minor symptoms of altitude sickness and shortness of breath doing anything strenuous. The most beautiful chain is the Semien Mountains, which some people trek in up to 10 days. Being far less ambitious, I enjoyed an hour and a half hike, especially the entertainment provided by hundreds of Gelada monkeys, who climb to the streams at the top every morning and retreat to the caves down below at nightfall:
Traditionally, the source of the Blue Nile had been placed in Ethiopia, near Lake Tana, until the well known TV personality, Joanna Lumley, did a program in the UK about it and placed the source in Uganda. Fortunately, she didn’t move the Blue Nile Waterfalls, which were still a splendid sight even in the dry season:
Equally impressive was Lake Tana, the third largest lake in Africa and home to island monasteries, pretty sunrises (except when the clouds are about as on my cruise), birds galore and hippopotamus. We saw sleeping hippos and were entertained by a large flock of pelicans jockeying for fish thrown out by a boatman sailing a traditional papyrus boat:
Few would suggest Ethiopia is a food lover’s paradise, especially during the fasting season when vegetarian menus are the norm and chickens and cows are unavailable, being fattened up for the post-fasting feast, and thus leaving limited options for carnivores like me. Near Lake Tana, there was excellent fresh fish. Luckily, my favourite Ethiopian dish is injera, a thin pancake-like sour grain served cold with a variety of dishes atop like a spicy stew, a chickpea broth or vegetables. Made from teff which is grown only in Ethiopia, it is considered a superfood. However, the export of it is banned as the government is fearful of creating a shortage of local food if export prices increase.
One thing Ethiopia is famous for is coffee; it claims to have been the first place to cultivate and brew coffee. All over the country, in even the tiniest of villages, coffee shops/stalls exist where women perform the coffee ceremony designed to get the tastiest cup of coffee. We attended a few ceremonies. After the beans are ground, the woman (always a woman in Ethiopia) spend at least an hour transferring the beans from water pot to water pot to ensure maximum potency. I watched and revelled in the scent of fresh ground roasted coffee beans, but as a non-coffee drinker, cannot tell what the taste is like:
I should mention the wine. Wine growing is in its infancy in Ethiopia, but a few home grown labels are available, including the Rift Valley Chardonnay and Syrah, both of which I found to be perfectly acceptable.
The towns and villages:
Addis Ababa, a city of 10 million, is big, crowded and polluted. Yes, it is the capital, but as a metropolis, it is hardly representative of this country in which 85% of the population are subsistence farmers. Unlike in North America, they don’t live on their farms, but instead live in small villages and walk to their farms every day.
We drove through many small villages; the road options are limited and highways seem to have been built to connect villages, not move traffic along quickly. Life happens along the roads, where people live, work and walk. Animals have the right of way, so highly valued are the livestock, and we frequently waited while cows, goats, donkeys or camels crossed the highway. Tractors or other mechanized farm machines were never seen, but plenty of donkeys pulling carts and camels carrying large loads were visible. Everywhere seemed to have electricity and internet, however unreliable, and most towns had sewers and running water, at least those we stayed in.
The tour company I used, Explore, always tries to incorporate “a small, local town” experience and the tour in Ethiopia was no different. Our “town” was Debark, gateway to the Semien Mountains and a newish university. Its large market encompassed 4 “streets”, but 3 were of the dirt variety and nothing tempted me. Stalls sold fruits and vegetables, spices, clothes, footwear, and jerry cans used for carrying water. The goods were basic to say the least, but all the essentials were on offer.
I’ll end on a bit of a sad note. For centuries, the tribes and religions in Ethiopia had co-existed peacefully. In a nutshell, the emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by the Communists in 1974 who ruled until 1991 when they were overthrown by a Tigray tribe party. It subsequently entered a coalition, the EPRDF, with parties representing the Oromo and Amhara tribes, which ruled, more of less, until 2018. During this period, the EPRDF always managed to win the elections by a landslide, causing allegations of widespread vote rigging etc. Until 2018, the government could be described as a somewhat benign dictatorship, although disappearances, censorship and imprisonment of journalists and political opponents was not uncommon.
Problems became more prominent in the last decade. Muslim rebels from Somalia and Eritrea had been launching frequent incursions into the country and encouraging religious intolerance. Long festering disputes between tribes also blew up in 2015 with the perceived better-off Tigray people of the north being the subject of violent protests in the south.
In April, 2018, Abiy Ahmed, from both the Amhara and Oromo tribes, became prime-minister, vowing to clean up Ethiopian politics. He freed thousands of political prisoners, flirted with a completely free press and generally relaxed the grip the government held on its people. The trouble is everyone took advantage of their new found freedoms to rally against the government. Militant factions, be they tribal or religious based, are stoking ancient or imaginary hatreds in an effort to gain power. The night before I left Ethiopia, 3 Muslim mosques were burned by Christian mobs, angry after a church caught fire.
Much hope accompanied Abiy’s victory. He was the first non-Tigray to hold power. But aside from entering into the peace treaty with Eritrea (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize), he has done nothing to quell the protests and vehement expressions of hatred that have been gripping Ethiopia for the last few years. People are fearful the violence will continue, or escalate, while the prime-minister dithers as to what to do. Already, our tour was rerouted away from the Muslim city of Harar, where Muslims were marking the houses of Christians, and Tigray are fleeing the south for friendlier territories in the north.
Even to my foreign eyes, it was easy to see that Ethiopia has all the trappings of a powder keg, waiting to explode, another Rwanda or Somalia. I hope I am wrong and this wonderful country finds away to stop the unrest and live, like it has done for thousands of years, in peace.
Ethiopia has a long and proud history, an ancient civilization once amongst the most powerful in the world, and a religious heritage going back to the time of Solomon. My tour of the country highlighted its historical legacy and dispelled me of any notions of Africa being a dark, savage continent. But a word of caution: Ethiopians are believers, and some of what I repeat here was learned from local guides/believers and may not necessarily be borne out by archeological or other historical data.
The Cradle of Civilization:
The bones of the first humanoid, a half man-half ape who walked upright on two feet, was discovered close to Harar in eastern Ethiopia in 1974. The anthropologists who discovered it went back to their camp that evening, where Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was playing on the loudspeaker. After determining the skeleton was female from the pelvis, she was named Lucy. She is estimated to be 3.2 million years old, about 12 at her death and possesses both human and chimpanzee features. Scientists have recreated her image, which rests in the National Museum of Ethiopia, along with replicas of her bones. The real bones are protected in a non-accessible laboratory.
The Sabeens, the Queen of Sheba and Axum:
Fast forward 3 million years, to Biblical times. Some Ethiopians believe the flood in Noah’s story destroyed the original Punt civilization and buried Atlantis, which was located in Ethiopia. Others believe the Egyptian civilization originated in Ethiopia and there are similarities between the peoples, including sun worship and pyramid building. I’m not sure if the Egyptians would agree.
More scientifically acceptable are the Punt’s successors, the Sabeens, who occupied the lands comprising Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen beginning in the second millennium. Their most famous monarch was the Queen of Sheba, who ruled in the 10th century BC. Although she was born in Yemen and her main palace was there, her bathing place is said to be in Axum:
The Queen journeyed to Israel to meet Solomon, to acquire his wisdom and to open up trade routes between her kingdom and the Israelites. Frankincense, gold and ivory were in high demand in Israel. Once there, she and Solomon shared a romp, resulting in her becoming pregnant. She returned to Ethiopia, converted to Judaism and gave birth to a son, Menalik. At age 22, Menalik returned to Israel to visit his father. He came back to Ethiopia with the Ark of the Covenant, the tablets God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments and the box containing them. Menalik also brought 12,000 Jews with him, thus (maybe) beginning the long history of the Jews in Ethiopia. Others believe the Jews were one of the lost tribes on Israel who disappeared after the Assyrian invasion of Israel in the 7th century BC. Still others suggest most Jews arrived in the 1st to 4th century AD, as traders who settled in the area.
Meanwhile, the great Axumite or Aksumite kingdom was establishing its capital at Axum. Its emperors, like all former and subsequent emperors, claim to be descended from Solomon and Menalik. The Axumites bear similarities to the nearby Egyptian dynasties; its kings built tombs and stellae to aid in their ascension to the afterworld. They worshipped the sun and the moon and such symbols, along with doors and windows, decorate the stellae:
The Ethiopian Rosetta Stone, with text in Greek, Sabeen and Ge’ez (the local semitic language and predecessor to today’s Amharic), is on display in Axum:
The Axumites were great travelers and traders, considered one of the 4 most powerful kingdoms in the first century, along with the Romans, Greeks and Chinese. Their most famous is King Balthasar, one of the 3 wise men who visited Israel during the birth of Christ. The King abdicated after his journey to Jerusalem, so his tomb was never used. His bones were initially buried in Constantinople, but Crusaders carried them back to Cologne, Germany in 1164, where they rest today.
In 330 AD, the Axumite king Ezana embraced Christianity. He forcibly converted everyone, but the Jews who refused to convert left for the mountain region near Gondar, where they established their own kingdoms. Meanwhile back in Axum, an estimated 70,000 people lived in the city. The empire encompassed all of today’s Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen. Remnants of a 4th century palace, built upon the Queen of Sheba’s palace foundations, are still visible near Axum:
All good things must come to an end. Beginning in the 7th century, Muslims from across the Red Sea started invading Africa, eventually capturing the Axumite port of Adulis, leaving the Axumite empire a landlocked country. Trade deteriorated, the plague arrived, overgrazing and deforestation weakened the kingdom. Sensing weakness, nearby kingdoms attacked and captured land; some Muslims but most significantly the northern Jewish kingdom, led by Queen Yodit Gudit. She is blamed for the destruction of many early churches, but most of the guides admitted she was a scapegoat for all the woes of the 10th century Axumites.
Descendants of the Solomonic dynasty (the continued genealogy is debated) gradually moved their capital to the city of Roha, renamed it Lalibela after its king and set about creating a new Jerusalem between the 11th and 13th century, resulting in 11 rock hewn churches. The actual dating and length of time taken to build all the churches is also debated, but what is certain is the magnificence of the structures. Each was carved out of a single rock, and until UNESCO erected scaffold roofs over them in 2004, were not visible except close up. The most famous, and scaffold/ artificial roof free, is St. George:
Controversy surrounds the why and architecture of the churches. Historically, Ethiopia had not built into rocks and because some of the elements are suggestive of the Knights Templar, conjecture abounds that Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem provided the designs and techniques. In terms of why they were constructed in the rocks, some suggest it was a symbol of humility; others believe it was to hide the churches from invading Muslim armies.
Whatever the purpose, the churches are both a major tourist draw and a pilgrimage destination for the millions of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. The churches accommodate both; sermons are carried out in the morning when tourists are banned; foreigners are allowed in only between 2:00PM and 5:00 PM, following the payment of US$50. Divided into the north and south clusters, we reached the first church by walking about 20 metres down rough, rock cut steps. After taking our shoes and hats off and ensuring our shoulders and knees were covered, we entered our first church. Inside, carpets cover the uneven floors and windows in the shape of crosses or moons (the symbol of eternity) lit the interior. Most contain the three room construction common to Ethiopian Orthodox churches- the outer chamber for chanting and listening to the sermon, a second chamber with pictures from the Bible where communion is taken and the third chamber, the holy of holies, where the replica of the Ark of the Covenant is kept and only priests are permitted to enter.
After spending a few minutes inside, we proceeded to the next church. Each church contains a trench surrounding it, with tunnels or narrow passageways leading to the next church. Our guide led the way, with our shoe man (hired to watch our shoes outside each church) knowingly offering a steady hand to climb the tall steps and help us keep our balance on the rocky path. All the churches are dedicated to a particular person: St. George, St. Emmanuel, the Virgin Mary, our guide explaining the sometimes unique Ethiopian story attributable to each, all illustrated by the paintings inside.
In the 14th century, Muslims continued their invasion of Ethiopia, capturing large swaths of land along the Eastern coast and the highlands. To assist in stopping their march, Ethiopia invited the Portuguese to their country. The Portuguese ended the Muslim progression, but took to converting Ethiopians, including one of its emperors, to Catholicism. This led to civil war, the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Church eventually prevailing. They executed or expelled the Portuguese and Ethiopian Orthodoxy regained its predominant role.
In 1635, Emperor Fasilides, still from the Solomonic dynasty, founded the city of Gondar and made it the capital. He and his 6 successors embarked on a building scheme, each constructing their own palace, resulting in the remains of 7 palaces being open to the public. Fasilides’ is the best preserved, and the grandest:
The Emperors erected other buildings necessary for emperors, including loads of churches and a very ornate bath, which is used today during the Timkut ceremony:
Gondar is popular due to its cooler location in the mountains and near Lake Tana. So popular that the Italians, when they occupied the country between 1936 and 1941, designed buildings in what has been called the Fascist style, including a cinema and the Post Office:
Addis Ababa became the capital in 1886, following Ethiopia’s reunification after centuries of splinter. The Emperor Menalik II began the process of modernization, but is best known for defeating the Italians, who invaded in 1896 seeking to add another colony to its holdings. Italy was roundly defeated at the Battle of Adwa, enabling Ethiopia to avoid colonization. It was the only African nation to do so, as well as the only African nation to defeat an European power, facts of which the Ethiopians are very proud.
Another Solomonic descendant, Haile Selassie, was crowned emperor in 1930. In 1936 the Italians under the fascist Mussolini, still smarting from their earlier defeat, returned to occupy Ethiopia, a brutal affair lasting until 1941 when the British invaded and removed the Italians. Haile Selassie had fled to Bath, England, in 1936, but returned in 1941 and ruled until his overthrow in 1974. More about that in the next post.
Apologies for the somewhat long history recitation, but I’ll end this narrative with one final photo, that of Selassie’s bedroom in his palace in Addis Ababa:
Do not get the wrong impression. Ethiopia is wonderfully hospitable, full of friendly, welcoming people. But it is also home to the most inhospitable place on this planet. Some background…
I have been twice thwarted in my attempts to visit Ethiopia, first in 2006 due to a famine and again in 2017, when violence caused by tribal tensions forced my tour company to cancel the trip. Optimistically, I signed up for another tour in December, 2019, but when an e-mail arrived from the tour company 10 days before the start date, I feared the worst. I opened the email to read that violence had broken out in the medieval Islamic town of Harar (more about that in a later post), but rather than cancel the trip, the tour would now visit the Danakil Depression and the Dallol hydrothermal field. CNN had recently broadcast a story about it, titling it the most inhospitable place on earth. I couldn’t wait to visit.
The Depression is located in Northern Ethiopia close to the Eritrean border where 3 tectonic plates collide deep beneath the earth where Asia once met Africa. Above the plates, a depression forms one of the lowest places on earth, 100 metres below sea level, and a very dry desert with the world’s hottest average temperature of 35 degrees Celsius. The plates below are still moving, still separating the earth, still playing havoc with the ground above; geology at play, Mother Nature at her best and her most frightening.
In the Dallol, volcanic activity mostly deep below causes pools of sulfuric acid to spout, congregate in multicolour pools, then disappear after a few days. The landscape is ever changing. A sulfur pool there one day is gone the next.
Our visit started early from Mekele, 3:00 AM early, in land cruisers, along with a local tour guide, for a 3 hour drive on a newly paved road (thanks to the Chinese) to arrive at the Depression for sunrise. Our goal was not so much to see the sunrise but to beat the worst of the heat when we walked into the Depression.
We also picked up a local guard, complete with a rifle. The area was relatively safe; the British foreign office had rescinded its NO GO advice about a year ago when the current Ethiopian president signed a peace treaty with Eritrea, ending a war that had been raging since 1998. Raiding parties from Eritrea, just 100 kilometers away, had been common, including the killing of 2 foreigners, but the peace has held here. The guard was mostly a make-work project, offering employment and engaging the locals in the tourist trade.
After 3 hours and the sunrise, the road petered out but none was needed. We had reached the salt flats, miles and miles of white salt perfect for driving on to our destination. Although not quite as extensive as those in Bolivia, and lacking a salt hotel, they were still impressive:
We reached the start of the Depression and began the 20 minute walk to the sulfur fields, gingerly stepping on large, craggy stones rising out of the earth, punctuated by mini-rock toadstools and rounded dried up pools of salt, all very unworldly:
The stench of sulfuric acid greeted us as we neared the first pool, followed by puffs of smoke floating in the air. Our guide showed us the safest path, reminding us not to get too near to the springs and to stay away from anything damp – an indication the earth below was not stable.
The hot springs were all around, in the most vivid colours produced by nature – bright yellows, lime greens, rusty oranges- with blue indicating the newest pool, progressing to green, yellow and orange before finally turning brown and drying up. Pictures speak louder than words:
Scientists have recently begun studying the Dallol, seeking to determine if anything lives in it. Tiny little microbes have been found, leading to examinations as to how life might form in outer space. But I saw only an occasional fly blown in by the wind, buzzing haphazardly about before dropping dead in the dry heat.
Just a few kilometers away, back on the salt flats, men laboured in the blazing sun, carving out blocks of sand and placing them on camels, 7 blocks per camel. Thus laden, camel caravans will walk for days to the market, as they’ve done for time immemorial. The Depression rightly earns its moniker The Most Inhospitable Place on Earth but life teems all around it.
Next: Ethiopian Journey II: A trip through history