Oman Adventures: Wadi Muayideen, Ras al Jinz, and Wahiba Sands

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They say confession is good for the soul, so here goes:  as green as we try to be, we really don’t know much about the outdoors.  Much like armchair revolutionaries, we’re treehuggers in theory more so than practice.  Growing up in New York City, my idea of a survival skill was having a talent ready for making a living on the streets.  For this, my tap shoes were poised and ready.  There is value in this type of urban survivalism but it is unlike going out into the woods, backpacking, camping, starting a fire and the like.  Beyond finding the prayer direction without a compass and pitching mosquito net tents, we’re pretty clueless about surviving in nature.    We’ve met plenty of outdoorsy folks here in Oman and we’re slowly trying to push our boundaries and expose Lil’ Z to life “in the wild”, unjaded by our city-kid phobias.

In November 2012, one of our outdoorsy friends had a birthday campfire in Wadi Muayideen.  We attended early, hoping to leave by sunset because being in the middle of an unlit valley afterhours wasn’t exactly our idea of a good time.  We swatted at flies and wasps, while munching on potato chips but just as the sun set, the camp fire was lit, the bugs disappeared, and there we all were chatting by the glimmer of the camp fire.  The night ended with candle lanterns being sent upwards until their lights faded in the darkness of the clear night sky.  It was serene and pleasant to sit on the plastic mat, laughing and enjoying the night outside.  We could have easily pitched a tent (or not) and called it a night but we have to leave something to aspire to, right?  😉

In the same month, we had an unexpected three-day weekend for the Islamic New Year and visited Ras al Jinz, Oman’s popular nesting site for green sea turtles.  We drove into Muscat and continued south towards Sur, ending at Ras al Hadd, just 20 minutes from Ras al Jinz.  By far, the most appropriate accommodation is on site at the Ras al Jinz Visitor Center.  Guests have priority access to both the early morning and night guided tours, both of which are included in the cost of your room.  The next best option is to stay at the Turtle Beach Resorts in Ras al Hadd.

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For 44 OMR, around $114 USD, we stayed in a quaint palm-leaf bungalow with shared restroom facilities.  The price seems like a lot for a night in a glorified hut but the cost included buffet dinner and breakfast, and options in the area are scarce .  We enjoyed spending the evening on the beach and were pleased to find both meals vegan-friendly.

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Our first night “camping” was not nearly as uncomfortable as we anticipated.  Everyone slept well except for me.  I was too anxious to make the 4am morning turtle tour.  Urbndervish was under the weather and I planned to leave Lil’ Z behind to rest with him but she heard my 3:30am alarm signal, asked to use the restroom, and was bright and chipper ready to go turtle hunting with me.  It was a little absurd but I figured that we came so far to see turtles, so that’s what we better go do.  Lil’ Z was tucked in the sling and after a long walk on the nature reserve, we finally encountered a mother turtle making the slow and steady return to sea.  The night before our tour, the staff counted more than 80 hatched baby turtles.  Our morning tour saw no such luck but just to humor us, the staff showed us a handful of the previous day’s hatchlings just before delivering them to sea.

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The odds are statistically against our little finned friends.  They have to face predators on both land and sea and survive the manmade traps of pollution and debris.  For the chosen few who succeed, they return to the very same beach where they were born nearly three decades later to lay eggs once again.  Subhan’Allah (Glory be to God), that’s pretty amazing!  We also learned that male sea turtles never come to shore. Only the females do–to lay eggs.  She tries for three days to find a suitable spot that appears safe, otherwise she releases her eggs at sea.  After burrowing nearly a meter deep into the sand, she covers her eggs, and goes on to make another decoy nest, to thwart predators.  The distance of the nest to the shore determines the temperature of the nest and thus the gender of the hatchlings.  Female turtles emerge further inland while males are closer to the shore.  The ladies have it rough, huh?

At the very end of November, our beloved aunt came to visit us all the way from Alabama.  We were so glad to have her and were eager to rip and run all over Oman but had to limit our outings.  One opportunity we absolutely did not want to miss during her stay was visiting Wahiba Sands.  We drove down to Bidiya via Bidbid and met a driver who drove us nearly an hour to reach 1000 Nights Camp.  Our driver was a true Bedouin, weaving through sand dunes and valleys as if there were signs and pathways.  We were warmly received and escorted to our burlap tent with shared restroom facilities.

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Urbndervish and I took the opportunity to climb a steep sand dune and watch the sun set while Lil’ Z and our aunt had a play date in the sandbox.  We raced each other barefoot in the sand, revelled in the serenity, and prayed on the endless rolling sands.

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After returning to ground level, we walked the lit paths to the dining hall where hot soup and a dinner buffet awaited us.  After some night stargazing, we settled into our tents and rested in the cool, quiet night.  Once the buzzing mopeds quieted in the distance, there was absolute silence and stillness.  The only disturbance to the serenity was Lil’ Z chucking up her dinner.  Poor thing had an upset tummy and would wake every few hours to call “Mama” and then hurl.  The hurling continued through the night and until we returned home but that didn’t keep us from enjoying our buffet breakfast, riding a camel, and enjoying the playground before departure.

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Though usually 45 OMR for double occupancy, we paid an additional 20 OMR for the extra accommodation.  Our tent was comfortably fitted with three twin beds, the facilities were well-maintained, and the food was vegan-friendly for both meals.  Our first night sleeping in the desert was a success!  So, slowly we’re getting over our hang-ups and braving it in nature.  Before you know it, we’ll be pitching tents, tending campfires, and roasting tofu under the moonlit sky.

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Greenfist Award 2012 for Best Vegan Accommodations in Ethiopia

One of the keys to a successful family travel experience is figuring out where you plan to rest your head at night.  A cozy bed to ensure restful and peaceful sleep can temper the stress of your day’s adventure and rejuvenate you to tackle what’s ahead.  Thankfully, we had the time and insight to scour reviews and plan our accommodations before arriving in Ethiopia.  Even when some of our preferred guesthouses or hotels couldn’t be reserved online, we still had their names and phone numbers ready which saved us a lot of hassle and headache.  Each guesthouse and hotel was unique and finding vegan dining options wasn’t always easy but, in the end, we found a few places good enough to recommend and one to coronate with this year’s Raggamuslim Greenfist Award 2012.

La Source Guest House, Addis Ababa

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Our first warm reception in Ethiopia was courtesy of the La Source Guest House shuttle service.  The warm chocolate face that met us at the airport was one of their receptionists.  Even though we arrived much earlier than the scheduled check-in time, we were ushered to our room and invited to the buffet breakfast.

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After settling into our modest room with tasteful decor, we feasted on the vestiges of the morning buffet:  hot tea, fried vegetable sambusas, and rolls.  While lacking in vegan variety, the sambusas were so delightful that we ignored the rest.  We stayed at La Source for a total of three nights and paid $30 USD per night for a double occupancy room with buffet breakfast and complementary airport shuttle service.

Rewda Guesthouse, Harar

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The heart of Harar is within the walled city and Rewda is the only pulsing accommodation within.  Granted, there are finer accommodations beyond the walls but staying at Rewda’s is like staying at a distant relative’s home.

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Our bedroom was nestled on the main floor of the home, adjacent to the shared bathroom.  The wooden bed frame cradled a soft mattress with piled blankets soft from wear. The short door frames were secured with a wooden door and padlock.  Just outside of our room was a cove for another bed alongside the aisleway which led to a common room where backpackers can crash.   I’m sure a full house would feel very…cozy.

Just after sunrise, we were served hot tea with freshly prepared fried Harari bread and local honey.  Being Muslim-owned, we were offered prayer rugs and the guest house owners conversed with us in short Arabic clauses.  Accommodations can only be made by phone to one of the tour guides affiliated with guesthouse.  For 350 birr, almost $20 USD, we enjoyed a double occupancy room with a shared bathroom and breakfast.  A guide escorted us to and from the bus stations by foot.

African Village Hotel, Dire Dawa

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This part-Swiss, part-Ethiopian establishment has character.  Each room is designed as a free-standing hut with a bamboo ceiling and thatch roof.

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A talkative, caged cockatoo resides outside between the restaurant/reception area and a conference hall that hosts services and events.  The hotel feels secure with a round-the-clock guard and gated entry.  What we loved most about African Village was the serenity of the grounds and the availability of vegan fare for every meal, every day. For 400 birr, a little more than $20 USD, we had a double occupancy room with a private bathroom and one complimentary breakfast meal and beverage.

Milano Hotel, Mekele

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The Milano Hotel entrance is gaudy and imposing.  The guards and staff wear bright uniforms with twined rope and shiny medallions.  They have a reputation for being pushy but we didn’t mind.  What was shocking to us was to see our room behind the grand facade.  Between the windowless opening in the bathroom wall, the leaking toilet, and retired carpet, we weren’t sure how they mustered up the courage to call themself a four-star accommodation.  The only vegan breakfast options were toast, orange juice and tea but for lunch they offered us shiro wat, a steaming pea flour stew, with injera and an assortment of steamed vegetables.

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The meal was a bit overpriced but the low-budget room compensated.  We paid 193 birr, a little over $10 USD, for a double occupancy room, with a private bathroom, that we hope to forget.

Tres Stelles Guest House, Addis Ababa

We kinda got tricked into staying here.  The fast-talking cab drivers on a late arrival into Addis Ababa somehow hoodwinked us into testing out a guest house closer to the airport, instead of our original desire to loyally return to LaSource.  Tres Stelles was hard to find, on a poorly lit back road.  The attendant was eager to receive us and excitedly showed us the available rooms throughout the new building.  Wooden floors with modern textiles and fixtures left a stunning impression but communicating with the attendant was a challenge.  He spoke no English and had to feverishly call the owner to translate our basic inquiries.  We changed rooms twice; the first room, with its jacuzzi tub, was overpriced and the second room had no hot water in the shared bathroom.  Our final room selection had a private bathroom and fluffy white duvet bedding at a cost of 350 birr, nearly $20 USD.  The included breakfast was nothing more than hot tea, white bread with jam, and cold fruit.

Our vegan buddy, Mesfin, rescued us in time to return to LaSource before the breakfast buffet ended.  When the owner at LaSource saw us, she asked with concern “Where were you?”  We tried to explain that the taxis were overpriced, to which she replied, “You should’ve called us!  We would’ve picked you up!” Her concern was genuine and we happily ended our stay at LaSource.

So, out of the five candidates, this year’s Raggamuslim Greenfist Award goes to… African Village Hotel of Dire Dawa.

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At African Village, we were more than pleased with the vegan offerings.  Each meal was freshly prepared, served piping hot, and memorably delicious.  The earthy interior decor and attentive landscaping made our stay homely and alive.  The smiley staff were attentive and exceptionally helpful in directing us around town and securing our ride to the airport at the local cost.  Though our stay at African Village was brief, it was relaxing and rejuvenating.

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If you’re planning on visiting Bahir Dar, do consider B&B The Annex.  We didn’t make it to Bahir Dar but the owner of the property was helpful and hospitable in the accommodation she arranged for us. Even when we had to cancel our stay, she was still just as kind and we really appreciated that.

Ethiopia: Last Days in Addis Ababa

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In case you missed out on how the journey began, we flew into Addis Ababa, spend Eid there, made our way to Harar, and then to Negash via Makale.

Day 7

The original plan on this day was to head to Meskel Square for another early morning, long distance bus. Destination?  Bahir Dar.  Our main interest in visiting this city in Western Ethiopia was the scenery- the scenic ride passing the Blue Nile Gorge, sighting hippos at Lake Tana, and hiking to the Blue Nile Falls.  But with Lil’ Z at the onset of a cold, we didn’t think another ten-hour bus ride would be therapeutic.  Instead, we returned to a  guesthouse in Addis Ababa to rest up before returning on a red-eye flight to Muscat.

Our vegan buddy could be no more delighted to hear of our return and eagerly offered to meet us.  He and Urbndervish went to collect refunds for our cancelled bus tickets to Bahir Dar and flight tickets from Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa.  They successfully returned just after Lil’ Z and I took a nap and we hit the pavement again to savor some Ethiopian deliciousness before our eventual return home.

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“Sprees”: Layered fruit drink of guava, avocado, and papaya (or whatever seasonal fruits are available)

Day 8

The Lonely Planet guide speaks highly of the Ethnological Museum at Addis Ababa University, so we weaved through Piazza to check it out.  The inviting campus is orderly with manicured lawns and lively college students.  We made our way to the heart of the campus to enter Haile Selassie’s former palace which currently houses the Institute for Ethiopian Studies.

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Ethiopians can enjoy the galleries for free but if you’re a faraanji (foreigner), you’ve got to pay!  The visit was well worth the admission fee and we learned quite a bit about Coptic sainthood, the presence of Islam in Ethiopia, and various traditional customs.

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On a Thursday, we knew that vegan fare would be hard to find, so we retreated to Taitu Hotel for our final meal in Ethiopia.  Lil’ Z slept on my lap through the buffet and we sat for long, soaking up the taste and tempo of Addis.  Watching people come and go, local and foreigner, fed and hungry, we knew there was much more to see and know of her beauty but had to part, nonetheless.  We graciously thanked our host and friend, Mesfin, who gave us insight and access to a city we could not have gained on our own (and we pinned him down for a forthcoming interview!).

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As the sun set and the day came to a close, we packed our bags and headed to the pandemonium, which was the airport.  Baby privilege, once again, shuttled us through long lines and left us waiting at the departure gate.  Slowly, all of the tribes reconvened and we met our colleagues from Oman once again.  Each one spoke of different adventures, challenges, and stories, but interestingly, everyone seemed to be filled by Ethiopia in one way or another.  While the tagline for Ethiopia is “13 Months of Sunshine”, I would humbly add “Something for Everyone”.  So much of our shared history can be found there, both in flesh and faith, and her heart and arms are wide open to embrace us all.

Ethiopia: Journey to Negash

Day 4

Our departure from Harar was abrupt.  Our guided tour had just ended and the options to stay in more expensive hotels outside of the walled city didn’t seem appetizing.  On top of that, it was a Sunday- a long way from the vegan feasts of Wednesday and Friday, so we boarded a minibus bound for Dire Dawa.  The bumpy ride was intimate at maximum capacity.  Lil’ Z fell asleep in my arms and we bounced our way through the countryside.  The checkpoints along the way were curious.  Some passengers paid their fare in chat or qat, the leafy “crack” that’s chewing up the time, energy, and resources of East Africa and Yemen.  There were pre-checkpoint shuffles where bags of chat were tucked in inconspicuous pockets in our caravan.  Between the bags of green and Bob Marley jammin’ on the radio, the trip was starting to feel a little shady.  But, in Bob’s own words, “we’re the survivors” and we found ourselves in Dire Dawa an hour later.

Our vegan friend suggested that we spend some time in Dire Dawa where it boasts wide, clean streets with proper sidewalks.  When researching places to stay, I found a guesthouse that was highly praised in its reviews.  Maybe what intrigued me most about the accommodation was there unofficial “no fornication” policy.  They ask that unmarried couples not share the same room to honor God, as they strive to.  While many may gasp at the thought, Urbndervish and I give them props for having principles and trying to uphold them.  Whether you agree or disagree, it takes guts to adhere to your values in the modern, secular, nothing-is-sacred climate of the day.  Fortunately, they had a cozy room available, vegan food on the menu, and we didn’t have to produce our marriage certificate.  😉

After eating well, checking our email, and strolling through town, we rested and relaxed in preparation for the next day’s flight to…Mekele.

Day 5

We started the day early, filled by the Ethiopian version of foul mudammas and layered fruit smoothies.  Our chariot to the airport was a three-wheeled bajaaj, which is like a covered motorbike with an attached carriage.  The ride was colorful as we were traveling on Flag Day (October 29).  Even foreigners were flyin’ the red, gold, and green but our backpack wardrobes were out of compliance.

While movement through the airport was stop-and-go, the flight to Mekele was smooth.  We had no idea where to stay, so we hitched a ride with another hotel’s airport shuttle.  Unfortunately, that hotel was booked, so we were taken to another one.  Its sign said “four stars” but the room lacked the glimmer of a twinkle.  It was cheap in cost and central in location, so we walked with curled toes on the old carpeted floors but were content for one night’s stay.

Before nightfall, we flexed our Amharic muscles once again, asking for itsomm (fasting food) and shiro wat (pea flour stew).  We finally found an empty diner to oblige us but the meal was abruptly interrupted when a herd of goats decided to come through.  It was surreal and disturbing to see the owners trying to toss the goats out of the restaurant.  They were grabbing them by the horn, the tail, and the leg, trying to fling them back into the street but they were outnumbered.  Lil’ Z couldn’t take the animal cruelty and started to cry with the goats.  Once the drama subsided, we returned to our room to rest up for the next day’s adventure.

Day 6

After a modest breakfast of toast and tea, we walked up the road to the bus station, asking for Negash.  While waiting to depart, we saw the distinct style and dress of the Tigray women.  Cornrows pulled back tight with one braid parted down the middle and joining into a taut braid headband below the hairline.  As our minibus climbed into the mountains, we were joined by Afar herders who travel with warm cloaks and walking sticks.  We passed the town of Wukro but climbed even further up the mountain.

A friendly woman sitting beside us confirmed when we reached Negash.  We were wondering how to find Ethiopia’s first mosque and the resting place of an-Najaashi but there it was towering over an open market below.  We carefully tiptoed through the livestock and produce laid out on sheets to find an open gate and beautiful mosque.  We were greeted by a man who led us to the prayer room and met Imam Muhammad, a humble man fluent in Arabic, who graciously gave us a tour with two elders.

Visiting the tomb of an-Najaashi was respectful and sober, no hype, hoopla, or hustle; just a simple opportunity to pay respects to an upright man who vowed to protect the early Muslim community and later embraced Islam.  According to Islamic sources, an-Najaashi sent a letter to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them both) to inform him that he accepted the faith.  Upon hearing the news of his death, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) prayed Salaatu’l Janaza ‘ala al-Gha’ibin (The Funeral Prayer in absentia) on his behalf.  Before leaving, we prayed, ate dates, and left a donation for the mosque.

At the top of the hill, the way back to Mekele seemed long and buses were few.  Each bus was mobbed upon arrival and the chances of checking out of our hotel by noon looked slim.  The wait got so long that the same elder brought us metal chairs from his home to sit on.  Convinced that we had to get proactive about getting out of town, we waited by the roadside.  A young boy with piecemeal Arabic came to our rescue.  He offered to do the footwork for us, inquiring about each bus’ destination and later securing our seats on the first bus to Mekele.  The kind soul didn’t ask for thing which was a welcomed relief.

An hour after check-out time, we grabbed our bags and checked out of our hotel.  In gratitude for not being charged for late check-out, we ate lunch there and rode another rickety bajaaj up the steep hill to the airport.  At a snail’s pace, we arrived at the airport with two hours to spare, which became four after the delayed arrival of the plane.

By this time, the Raggamuslim train was losing steam.  Bed bugs and mosquitoes, wet weather, and being constantly overcharged left me itchy, Lil’ Z sniffly, and Urbndervish exhausted.  On the late flight to Addis Ababa, we made a last minute decision to cancel our tightly packed travels for the last two days.  A taxi driver took us from the airport to a nearby guesthouse so new that they didn’t know what to do with us or where to put us.  An hour later, all the confusion settled and we slept sound.

To be continued…

Ethiopia: Hunger and Holiness in Harar

Day 3

The pilgrimage to Harar started just before dawn at Meskel Square, where Ethiopia’s athletes and aspirants train every morning.  Trying to balance time, money, and the planet, we opted to travel to Harar by Selam Bus.  There are other minibuses for long-distance journeys but they don’t offer what Selam’s luxury buses promise:  air conditioning, reclining seats, refreshments, and a restroom onboard.  The restroom was the biggest draw for us, since Lil’ Z is now a regular potty-goer and we wanted the freedom to take her at will.  I convinced Urbndervish that the seven-hour ride would be like an airplane on wheels and a great opportunity to see the scenic countryside.  The latter proved to be true, the former was a myth.

On our special bus, the bathroom was “prohibited” as per the bus-version of a flight attendant but he told us that we would be stopping soon.  Great!  Nearly two hours later, after passing the lovely town of Awash, our rest stop was on the side of the road with a herd of cattle passing by.  No lie!  Lil’ Z shook her head saying “No potty” but her little bladder could not resist.  Another Selam Bus promise is that 15-minute rest stops would be made at sights of interest along the journey.  We had the aforementioned “rest stop” and a 30-minute lunch break in Hirna.  Maybe the more celebrated routes to Lalibela or Gondor offer the stated luxuries but I think the Ethiopian to foreigner ratio on our modest caravan was too high to comply.

The route leaving Addis Ababa was varied and intriguing- savannah, mountains, lakes, towns, and lots of livestock.  Housing ranged from traditional huts, to tin-roofed shacks, to apartment buildings.  While Awash and Hirna were exceptions, the remaining towns were small with unpaved roads and green cathedrals and/or mosques overshadowing the single-story structures.  The contrast to the capital city was glaring.

Ten hours and an overdose of Ethiopian cinema later, we finally arrived in the walled city of Harar, Jugol.  Amidst all of the taxi and guide offers, one guy asked us where were we staying.  We were hesitant to reply because he was probably the fifth person who asked but then he replied “I think I’m the one you’re looking for.”  Really?  “Yes! See, I have your name written here”.  According to pen ink scribbled on the man’s forearm, Urbndervish’s name is “PALITO”.  He assured us that he was sent to pick us up, so we followed his swift steps down cobblestone roads in the rain.

After winding through the narrow alleyways, we found ourselves in the courtyard of a traditional Harari home that served as our guesthouse.  The owner herself was unassuming.  Another woman working with her was more engaging and expressive.  They seemed surprised to see Muslim guests but eager to assist us, using whatever Arabic they knew.  We actually found a lot of Arabic speakers sprinkled throughout Ethiopia which surprised us at every turn.

After settling in and praying, we realized we were ravenous after the long day’s journey and were eager to find a hearty meal before nightfall.  We didn’t want to risk getting lost, as the paths were poorly lit and lacking signage, so we ventured out to the nearest hotel but, on a Saturday (especially after Eid!), “fasting” food was scarce.  The sun was starting to set, so we scanned a local shop and found jars of local, natural peanut butter, and bought whole wheat bread from a lady in the souq (market).  Hunger resolved, we settled into our cozy room and rested.

Day 4

In the wee hours, we could hear chanting from the cathedral, just outside of Harar’s walls.  Lil’ Z joined the cacophony at around 6am, so we sat under the rising sun in the courtyard.  We expected warm weather but the morning was cool following yesterday’s rainfall.  The same women who received us the night before were the same women who swept the courtyard and prepared our breakfast.  In the meantime, I sat to meet the curious older woman who briefly greeted us the night before.  Wrapped in head scarves and adorned with the hand of Fatimah, she sat beside me with two knitting needles and a small bag of yarn.  Her words were warm and few, as if she was afraid to share a secret.  I continued to open myself to her and seek out common points of reference until her cautious clues unveiled that she, too, is a sojourner, searching for holiness in hidden places.  She has lived in places we lived and places we’ve yet to go but there we were, two Americans, different races, at least 30 years between us, on a common path, in a common place, many, many miles from “home”.  Ten years ago, she lived in Harar, so her insights were useful but you could tell that she kept a few gems safeguarded.  We parted for breakfast but planned to reunite later that afternoon.  Unfortunately, there was no such reunion.

Our breakfast was modest- fried bread, hot tea, with local honey.  Sitting in that old home, once filled with a family but now a meeting point for strangers, we enjoyed the serenity of the early morning and chatted with a pair of German backpackers who work for environmental organizations in Addis Ababa.  We phoned our guide from the previous day and asked to start our tour early.  He happily obliged but brought the not-so-happy news that we couldn’t stay another night.  Our room was double-booked, so we got the boot.  A 2pm check-out time, quickly became a 10am check-out time, so we did what we do best and packed our bags once again.  No frowns though; it was our big day in Harar and we were eager to explore.

After exiting Bab an-Nasr (The Victory Gate), one of Harrar’s six gates, our first stop was the Sherif Harar City Museum.  The famed home where Haile Selassie honeymooned now hosts a modest collection of all things Harari- artifacts, books, photos, and art.  The coin collection evidenced the role Harar played in commerce and trade and included coins from as far as Europe and the Ottoman empire!  There were also many coins minted locally many centuries ago.

Our second stop was the Rimbaud Museum where the poet Arthur Rimbaud supposedly lived.  At some point, he renounced his privileged French existence and set off to see the world, ending up in Harar for an extended period of time.  The museum has his poetry painted on the walls, contemporary art in the halls, and lots of vintage photography from Harar’s past.

Our third and last stop was the grave of Amir Nur, one of Harar’s esteemed leaders, responsible for the infamous wall that surrounds the city. This wall still stands till this day.  During the tumultuous past, the gates of the walled city were closed at night.  Somehow, within about one square kilometer, the secured town managed to fit nearly 100 mosques and nearly 400 graves!  There are other nuances about Harar like particular alleyways were argumentation is not allowed, the hyenas that “protect” the town from evil, and late night gatherings of song and religious poetry. However, a much longer stay is required for that kind of immersion.

There was so much more to see but with our shift in accommodations and frustration with hidden costs at every turn, we decided to make a swift move.  It was apparent that our congenial guide was helpful but not the kind of guide who would or could take us to the heart of Harar.  Instead of another night’s meal of peanut butter and bread, we decided to grab our bags and keep trekking.  Our hosts were apologetic about the misunderstanding but maybe we’ll return to Harar; preferably by the invitation of a kind soul keen on sharing Harar with us.

To be continued…

Ethiopia: Eid in Addis Ababa

Day 2

After sound sleep, we arose early enough to hear the call to prayer in the distance.  We prayed and prepped for our special day- Eid al-Adha!  We woke Lil’ Z at about 6 am, fed her, and began our long walk to the prayer.  In Oman, there are gatherings for the outdoor prayer in every region but in Addis Ababa, all of the attendees converge at the National Stadium.  We weren’t sure where we were going but we were assured that we would see others walking, so follow them.

Like a small snowball gaining momentum at a snail’s pace, we were just a handful on the street.  We were vigilant, watching our “guides” bend and turn down streets.  The morning air was cool but our quick pace kept us warm.  The said “20-minute walk” felt more like 40 minutes and we were certain that we were late.  At around the 20-minute mark, we were comforted by the sound of the takbeeraat, “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar!” (God is the Greatest, God is the Greatest).  We were getting closer.  We also started to see police officers joining our stream too.  Then, a row of police officers were standing at the entrance of the main road frisking folks.  This was a first for us because Eid is usual a peaceful, joyous occasion but this year in Addis Ababa, the Eid prayer has become a platform for the stifled Muslim community to voice their grievances and demand that their voices be heard.  Muslims in Ethiopia want less government influence in their religious governance.  The Ethiopian government is keen on promoting and supporting a particular expression of Islam, for fear that more “extremist” expressions will take root.  The Muslim community wants to decide these matters for themselves, so this is the current clash of the day.

Our snowball continued rolling towards the stadium and after one swift turn, we clearly have become an avalanche, flooding the thoroughfare.  As far as the eyes can see, there were Muslims walking and proclaiming “Allahu akbar!”  At some point, the mass crowd became two, with women diverted to one field while the men continued to the next.  Surprised that we didn’t miss the prayer, Lil’ Z and I sat amongst a sea of colourful scarves and gowns enrobing beautiful women of every shade, size, and form.  The women continued to file in neatly, marking their place of prayer with prayer mats, scarves, and recycled office paper reams.  Still waiting, I heard a piercing cry and looked up to find a tearless woman asking the congregants for monetary grace.  Stepping gingerly through the rows with an outstretched hand, she bore a bandaged abdominal wound, while her baby was strapped firmly to her back.  Moments later, she was joined by other women, holding children, photos, x-rays, prescription medications, and whatever else would testify to their destitution.  Their audience seemed unaffected but convinced enough to drop fragile funds into their plastic bags and even reach in for change.

Still waiting for the prayer to begin, the morning sun fully aroused us, and Lil’ Z needed to potty.  Embedded in a tightly woven blanket of women with no bathroom in sight, I turned to my neighbors for assistance.  They directed me to an open field of grass, beyond the immediate sight of others.  After she was relieved, we wiped our hands with the dew of the morning grass and stood back to behold the sight.  Suddenly we heard a loud shout from the congregants “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar!”, the women echoed the men and held their right index finger skywards.  Did I miss something?  This happened a few times and after about an hour of waiting, the Eid prayer was to begin.  As we prayed, the imam (i.e. the Muslim prayer leader) recited the prayer and the precious verses of Qur’an that remain as consistent as the day they were revealed.  Whether its Eid in North America, Asia, or Africa, the same tradition binds us.  As the prayer is concluded in Arabic, the imam usually returns to the local language to address the crowd but on this day, our imam’s sermon was interrupted by protest.  Everyone complied for the prayer but now the people wanted to be heard.  Yellow banners raised, men and women took to the street while a minority lingered behind to hear the imam’s address.

We were expecting protest but had no interest in participating in it.  For the previous Eid, earlier this year, the protests were peaceful and this was the precedent that we expected.  We reconvened after the prayer with a disgruntled Urbndervish, frustrated by the disrespect shown to the imam.  He informed me that the spontaneous outbursts of “Allahu akbar” were in response to protesters being removed from the stadium.  We didn’t like the idea of the prayer or the praise of Allah being co-opted as a political platform, so we wiggled our way through the crowd and bounced.

After breakfast at our guesthouse, we met our virtual vegan buddy face-to-face and we ventured around town via foot and minibus.  He took us to the National Museum, where all kinds of artifacts, ranging from imperial thrones to a replica of Lucy’s bones can be found.  We later made our way to Merkato, Africa’s largest outdoor market which was fortunately closed for the Eid holiday.  We heard that the market crowds are a ripe opportunity for pick-pocketing and we didn’t want to be bothered.  Nearby, we found Addis Ababa’s prominent mosque, Al Anouar Mosque.

The mosque was serene but the streets were slummy.  Piled goat skins laid aside the road to the mosque after the morning’s slaughter.  We thought it would be an uncomfortable sight for our vegan friend but he assured us that the sight was paltry in comparison to the more popular Christian holidays.

Onward to find a hearty vegan meal on a Friday, a fasting day, we were surprised to be offered pasta and pizza instead.  Finally, a dimly lit bar restaurant assuaged our hunger and offered us beyayentu, a varied fasting meal consisting of whatever vegan offerings they can scrounge up.

That day’s selection had a variety of lentil and pea entrees, with beets, cabbage, salad, and rice, layered on a large round slab of injera, Ethiopia’s deliciously distinct pancake-like bread made from fermented teff.  Our friend later explained to us that if we want to ask for vegan food, it would be described as Itsomm, which means fasting for Christians, unlike the saum or fasting for Muslims.  He also wrote out some dietary instructions for us in Amharic, because the next day we would be traveling alone to our next destination…Harrar.

To be continued…

Ethiopia: Arriving in Addis Ababa

We finally took a long-awaited trip that was literally seven years in the making!  Even prior to marriage, Urbndervish and I daydreamed about visiting Ethiopia- a combination of our post-Rasta, pan-African, and Muslim consciousness heralded a need to see and witness Abyssinia firsthand.  Over the years, we told ourselves that we could not make this trip alone- we needed a friend, a guide, or someone to take us by the hand and show us Ethiopia.  But after so many years of waiting and the constant nudges- direct flights to Addis Ababa from Muscat, the encouragement and advice from friends who have lived in or visited Ethiopia, a helpful Lonely Planet guidebook, AND the fact that Lil’ Z is on the eve of turning two (which means a third plane ticket), we felt the time had come.  It was one of those “we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for” moments, so we prayed Salaatu’l Istikharah (Prayer for Seeking Guidance) and bought two round-trip tickets on my birthday.

Eid holidays in Oman are usually announced just a few days prior to their start, so it’s technically a bit of a gamble to make travel arrangements so far in advance but we were bolstered by the confidence of other expats who confidently booked, planned, and reserved their week-long getaways.  Most expats in Oman use Eid holidays as a golden opportunity to explore a new destination- whether east, west, north or south.  On the first day of the Eid holiday, the airport was spinning and we converged with travelers heading to Greece, Portugal, South Africa, Kenya, and a select few who beckoned the call to Ethiopia.  At the departure gate, we shared our itineraries, chatted on the plane, but after receiving our tourist visas at Bole International Airport, we scattered like the twelve tribes of Judah.

Our mission in Ethiopia was focused and less popular than the heavily promoted tours and itineraries.  Tourism in Ethiopia primarily revolves around relics of ancient civilization, major Christian historical sites and monasteries, and immersion in the natural world.  While the former and latter may appeal to us, our primary intention was to visit Ethiopia’s first mosque in Negash, where the Ethiopian ruler who protected and embraced the early community of Muslims is buried.  In the same burial place are many early Muslim migrants.  Our second intention was to visit Harrar, a walled city of learning and former emirate in Islamic history.  Our third intention was to see what life is like in Addis Ababa and with the days in between, we hoped to squeeze in as much nature and Ethiopian food as possible.  Thankfully, most of our objectives were met, with no conflicts, a mystical climax and a twist ending.

Day 1

Arriving in Bole International Airport was a straight-forward process.  A little office with a huge sign bearing “Visa on Arrival” was our first stop.  While the line was long and winding, the $20 per passport process was seamless.  Generously, the single-entry visa allows you to stay for three months.  Fully exhausting “baby advantage”, we were advanced though customs with pleasant smiles and warm inquiries about our accommodations.  After grabbing our bags, we stepped pass passengers cutting open their tightly bound packages and baggage for customs investigation and proceeded to the exit.  I was nervous upon exiting, expecting to be flanked by incessant invitations for taxis, accommodations, and “assistance” but at a few meters distance, we saw a warm chocolate face, holding a paper sign bearing Urbndervish’s name.  She welcomed us and escorted us to our shuttle.  We made reservations at a modest guesthouse and while the shuttle was blazoned with the guesthouse’s name and contact info, it too was modest.  We squeezed in with our bags, the driver, and three other companions- all seven (and a half) of us in the five seater van.  One companion was dropped off along the way, so we sat cozily with little to no conversation along the way.

Our room was neat and clean.  We had no time to waste as Lil’ Z was ripe and ready to run the streets after a brief nap on our walk through the airport.  We called a virtual vegan friend after eating the last traces of breakfast to find out that he was ill but would send someone in his place to help us get around town.  Our first day was to be spent sorting out the domestic travel plans for the rest of the week–bus tickets that can be reserved online but must be purchased locally and flight tickets that can be bought online but are much cheaper when purchased locally.  With tickets in hand, we eased into the next adventure which was trying to buy traditional Ethiopian clothes for the next day’s Eid but everything was more expensive than we thought.  We left with a simple scarf for 220 birr ($12) and sought out a tasty meal.

We arrived on a Thursday, which meant that vegan food would be scarce.  Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.  Their unique fast entails no food or drink from one night to the next day at around 3pm.  When they do eat, the meal is free of meat, milk, dairy, and eggs i.e. it is vegan.  Some eat fish but some don’t.  On a Thursday, our saving grace was a vegan buffet at Ethiopia’s first hotel, Itegue Taitu Hotel.  Every single day, they offer a wholly vegan lunch buffet between 12pm and 2:30pm.  At more than $4 per person, we thought the buffet was a bit “boojie” and that we could easily find cheaper, local cuisine, but when we discovered that they source much of their produce from their permaculture garden and that they are supporters of the local Food not Bombs crew, we decided to support their efforts and give them the green fist.

The buffet was colorful, varied, and fresh.  We all ate well and returned to our guesthouse.  We were all exhausted and tried our best to stay up for sunset prayer, but instead decided to collapse that late afternoon and wake later to pray.

To be continued…