Cairo... Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
20.12.2013 - 25.12.2013
Ever since we first encountered photos the Mars-like landscape of the Danakil Depression, an awe-inspiring natural wonder on the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea, we knew we had to see it with our own eyes. So great was our excitement to travel to Ethiopia in December of 2013, that we booked our flights unprecendently far in advance (8 months, to be exact), no doubt patting ourselves on the back for our superb organization skills. Our Egypt Air flight included an added bonus – a two-day stopover in Cairo – giving us just enough time to check the Pyramids of Giza, Egyptian Museum, and Tahrir Square off our list. It appeared, however, that booking a stopover in Egypt turned out to be the Archduke Franz Ferdinand moment that ignited serious political turmoil in Egypt, which included mass civil unrest, martial law, 7pm-7am curfew, and even revolution that erupted in the summer of 2013. In light of this instability, we did contemplate canceling our trip to Egypt. But then again, when have we ever shunned danger, chaos, and a bit of adventure?
It turned out that our adventure began even before we left the United States. Upon a routine call to Egypt Air to select seats, Marina discovered that only her name appeared on the passenger manifest and the second passenger (i. e. me) was not on the reservation. A few conversations with Vayama, which progressed from disbelief to denial to anger to exasperation, left us resigned to the fact that we had to buy a brand new ticket for me from New York to Ethiopia (now, some 2 weeks before travel) at a vastly inflated price. There's nothing like a last minute panic. We certainly have learned our lesson about being too organized and trying to book 8 months in advance.
After enduring an uncomfortable, red-eye flight on the dry Egypt Air flight, with minimal legroom and even less alcohol, our luck seemed to change when we landed in Africa’s second largest city. Cairo was awesome. Our hotel was situated just a couple hundred meters from the infamous Tahrir Square, the scene of many of the worst protests and clashes of the past couple of years. As a result of the troubles, it seemed we were some of the only tourists in the city. The curfew had recently been lifted and the pavements were awash with the city’s nine million residents. The streets represented one large stream of stagnant traffic. We navigated our way through the hustle and bustle of the city to Islamic Cairo. Meandering our way through the back alleys, we stopped at the well-known El-Fishawi Coffee Shop where we enjoyed a coffee so strong it would keep a mere mortal awake for a week.
The early morning wake-up call the following day was a blessed relief from staring at the ceiling in my jet-lagged/ caffeine-infused state. We had arranged a personal driver for the day to take us around the pyramids. Talking to him it quickly became apparent how hard the lack of tourists had hit the local economy. Our driver told us that he used to drive tourists to the pyramids daily, but now had one customer a month. He took us to Giza, Sakkara, and Dashur and waited at each location while we wondered around the desolate wonders of the world and took photos. On the way back, he dropped us off at the Egyptian Museum. We walked past the army personnel and tanks situated outside and walked inside the world-famous museum. The stark lack of tourists was pronounced. I’m not even sure there were 10 people in the museum besides us during the couple of hours we spent there. The museum was badly in need of refurbishment and looked more like an IKEA warehouse than one of the world’s great museums. The contents were fascinating, especially Tutankhamun’s treasures and the incredible Mummy Room containing pharaohs in open caskets, perfectly preserved over the past 4500+ years.
Our layover in Cairo was short and sweet, and we were soon moving on to Ethiopia. We arrived at Addis Ababa at day-break, having flown on separate flights from Cairo (due to our mishap with my ticket). We immediately caught a taxi to the Taitu Hotel, the oldest hotel in the country that was reminiscent of the colonial days. The hotel’s owner was a friend of a friend and showed us amazing hospitality. He desperately wanted to pay for lunch and even offered to lend us a substantial amount of money ($500 USD!) as we had trouble with the ATM machine. We declined his extremely generous offer but took him up on a free hotel shuttle to the airport for our flight to Lalibela that same day.
In order to fly to Lalibela we had to stop overnight in a town in southwestern Ethiopia called Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana. It was our first night in Ethiopia and could hardly have been further away from home. It’s almost preposterous to eat dinner in New York before 9pm. In true New York spirit, we left our hotel at 9.30pm only to discover the entire town had closed for the night. It appeared the only ones getting a good feed that night were the plentiful mosquitoes in our hotel room.
As the propeller plane landed at the Lalibela Airport, we were immediately struck by the natural beauty of our surroundings. Lalibela’s highlights were the awe-inspiring rock-hewn churches (carved out of single blocks of stone), dating back to the 12th century. We spent the majority of the next day exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After satiating ourselves in rock-hewn churches, we strolled about a mile along a dusty dirt track to the edge of town, where we discovered a newly opened restaurant that had a greater architectural resemblance to a scene from a Mad Max movie than anything from during King Lalibela’s reign in medieval times. The restaurant was the design brainchild of a Scottish schoolteacher and her Ethiopian husband. When she invited us to a Christmas celebration at the restaurant the following night, it appeared to be the perfect venue to enjoy mince pies followed by roast turkey with all the trimmings. Unfortunately, we never got to sip mulled wine while looking out over the stunning Lalibelan valley on Christmas Day, because we opened our email that evening to discover that our pre-arranged trip to the Danakil Depression had been spontaneously rescheduled for a day earlier. So we had to cut our time in Lalibela by one day and depart for Mekele.
As it turned out, we spent Christmas Day slumped in the back of an old uncomfortable minibus for about 9 hours on unpaved Ethiopian roads. Our painfully slow and bumpy drive to the northern city of Mekele was made only more tedious by having to listen to the most boring middle-aged Belgian guy I’ve ever met. His conversation sent me to sleep like several pints of 9% Blue Label Chimay at lunchtime. But neither enduring the man who gave me temporary narcolepsy nor missing out on an Ethiopian Christmas dinner could detract from what lay ahead of us in Mekele…